The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the WarThis is another short book review as I catch up with writing about my reading. The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson is one of my TBR books. It is her second novel and I enjoyed it so much more than her first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. It’s the  summer of 1914, set in Rye in East Sussex when spinster Beatrice Nash arrived to teach Latin at the local grammar school. Her appointment was the result of Agatha Kent’s and Lady Emily Wheaton’s wish to have a female teacher as a Latin teacher.

This is really a book of two parts – the months before the outbreak of the First World War and then the events as the war got underway. It begins slowly with the first part describing the lazy, idyllic summer and in which all the characters are introduced. Although there is a clear distinction between the classes in society cracks are beginning to appear which will only widen as the century gets under way and the war acts as a catalyst for change..

But it really gets going in the second part when the young men sign up, including High and Daniel, Agatha’s nephews, and Snout one of Beatrice’s pupils. He was underage but his father, the local farrier, signed the papers agreeing he could enlist. Simonson doesn’t hold back on the horrific conditions under which the war took place and from a gentle beginning the book moves into a war novel, emotional and moving.

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into two of the categories, The word ‘the’ used twice and A season. For the time being I’m putting it into the ‘season‘ category but may change that later if I read one of the other ‘season‘ books on my list.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1770 KB
  • Print Length: 497 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; 1 edition (24 Mar. 2016)
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 4*

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

A quest for justice

The Midnight Line (Jack Reacher, #22)

Bantam Press| 7 Nov 2017|391 p|Hardcover|4*

I wasn’t sure when I began reading The Midnight Line that it was my sort of book. It’s the 22nd book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and I haven’t read any of the earlier books. See this post for the first paragraph – what struck me was Lee Child’s straight forward style of writing and the short, staccato sentences.

Jack Reacher, a former military policeman, is looking for the owner of a West Point class ring from 2005. It’s a small ring, a woman cadet’s graduation present to herself, engraved with the initials S.R.S and Reacher wonders what she went through to get it and why it ended up in a pawn shop. He tracks the ring back to its owner in a search that takes him to the deserted wilds of Wyoming.

After a slow start containing too much description of fighting for my liking and too many short sentences I began to find that Child’s writing grew on me. It’s not all short sentences, and I liked the way that every now and then Reacher recaps where the search is taking him. I began to feel it was a book about a quest – reminiscent of tales of heroes or knights of old on a mission to rescue a damsel in distress, or of a ring-bearer returning the ring to its rightful owner – in a very modern setting.

I like the characters, particularly Reacher, a huge guy variously described as Bigfoot or the Incredible Hulk and I like the description of the landscape of the West with its vast open spaces – at least 20 miles between neighbours – long straight and dusty roads, rocky tracks and unmarked trails. Reacher doesn’t drive, but hitch hikes, or takes a bus, walking when he has to. He’s a loner, with no home, no belongings, just buying new clothes as he needs them, always on the move, a tough guy who uses a whole bar of soap when he showers.

The hunt first takes Reacher to Rapid City, South Dakota to find Arthur Scorpio, a laundromat owner, who tells him the ring came in from a guy in Wyoming in a place called Mule Crossing, a ‘wide spot’ on the road to Laramie. Whilst in Rapid City he meets Detective Gloria Nakamura, keeping Scorpio under surveillance and Terry Bramhall, a private detective, also watching Scorpio and looking for the same woman as Reacher. Reacher and Bramhall meet again at Mule Crossing and join forces.

It turns out that this is more than a search for the owner of the ring. As Reacher gets nearer to finding her he comes across the trail of a drug smuggling circle and I learned a lot about the history of heroin and pain relief and the terrible issues facing US veterans. Reacher finds out exactly what did happen to S.R.S., the owner of the ring, and it’s not pretty! This book is dedicated to the nearly two million recipients of the Purple Hearts awards.

I finished the book delighted that it was so much better than I thought it would be and was just as pleased when I went to Barter Books yesterday (more about that visit soon) and found the first book introducing Jack Reacher – Killing Floor – so that after reading the 22nd book I can start at the beginning.

About Lee Child

Lee Child (James ‘Jim’ Grant, known by his pen name Lee Child) is not American (as I thought) but British, born in Coventry.   He went to law school in Sheffield, England, and after part-time work in the theatre he joined Granada Television in Manchester for what turned out to be an eighteen-year career as a presentation director during British TV’s “golden age.” During his tenure his company made Brideshead RevisitedThe Jewel in the CrownPrime Suspect, and Cracker. He now lives in New York.

He has received many awards. The most recent is the CWA’s Diamond Dagger for a writer of an outstanding body of crime fiction, the International Thriller Writers’ ThrillerMaster, and the Theakston Old Peculiar Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

Many thanks to my husband for buying me this book as a surprise Christmas present.

I’m choosing this book in this year’s What’s In A Name Challenge in the category of a book with a shape in the title.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

‘We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort 
because we ARE the bad sort . . .’

Publication date 1 February 2018, Hodder and Stoughton

Review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley

My rating:  3 stars 

The Wicked Cometh is Laura Carlin’s debut novel.

The title of this book comes from Proverbs XVIII, 3: When the wicked cometh, then cometh also contempt, and with ignominy reproach.

The opening chapter sets the scene as The Morning Herald reports on the growing numbers of missing people in London in September 1831. So, you know straight away that this is a tale of wickedness and evil. It begins well, setting the scene with detailed descriptive writing full of vivid imagery, evoking the sights, smells, and sounds of life in the darkest and foulest corners of London in the 1830s.

It’s narrated in the present tense by Hester White, a young woman of eighteen. She grew up in a parsonage in Lincolnshire but she was orphaned at the age of 12 and went to live in London with Jacob, formerly her father’s gardener, and his wife Meg in a slum dwelling, just one room with a brick and dirt floor. I liked Hester, who originally came from a reasonably well-off family and was educated. She lives in hope of leaving London and escaping from her miserable life.

A way out presents itself when she is knocked down and injured by Dr Calder Brock’s carriage and whisked away to stay at his family’s country house, Waterford Hall near Stratford. Calder intends to use her as an experiment, to build up her physical health, and to give her the chance of improving her life he persuades his sister Rebekah to educate her. He wishes to prove that even those from the gutter can be educated and Hester exaggerates her ignorance in order to escape being sent to the London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, a place of shame feared by the poor. Known as the ‘Dicity’ it was one step on the downward path either to transportation in the hulks or to the poorhouse.

So far, so good but the first part of the book moves very slowly and my attention began to wander as I thought the wicked were a long time in coming. But come they did in abundance in the latter part of the book and as the relationship between Hester and Rebekah develops they begin to uncover the sinister secrets of what is behind the mystery of the missing people. And it is a dark, gruesome and grim secret.

Overall, I’m rather torn about this book – parts of it I really enjoyed, even though it’s written in the present tense, which I don’t like. The characters are well-drawn and the settings are superb, but the slow pace failed to provide enough tension especially in the middle section. The suspense and drama increased rapidly towards the end, but the final twist seemed contrived and not very convincing. But I can see from Goodreads that other readers enjoyed this book far more than I did.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

Amazon UK link
Amazon US link

The Confession by Jo Spain

Publication date: 25 January 2018, Quercus Books

Review copy from the publishers, via NetGalley

My rating:  4 stars 

The Confession is the first book by Jo Spain that I’ve read, so I didn’t know what to expect. But the blurb interested me and I’m delighted to say that I enjoyed this book and as this is Jo Spain’s fifth book I’ll be able to read more of her work. She is the author of the Inspector Tom Reynolds Mystery books, police procedurals based on the investigations of a Dublin-based detective team. The Confession is a standalone book.

Set in Ireland, it begins as Harry McNamara, a banker, recently cleared of multiple accounts of fraud, is brutally attacked in his own home in front of his wife, Julie. The attacker, JP Carney immediately goes to the police and confesses that he had killed Harry.  JP insists he doesn’t know the identity of the man he attacked and that he didn’t know what had come over him – it was as though he’d been possessed.

It’s narrated from three different perspectives – that of Julie, JP and DS Alice Moody, leading the investigation. So, was JP telling the truth, did he really know who Harry was and why did he attack him so viciously that he died after being in a coma for several days? What did he whisper in Harry’s ear as he left him at the end of the attack? And why did Julie just sit there watching?

These questions form the focus of the book, as Julie and JP go back over their lives, leading up to that fatal attack. At first it isn’t at all clear what had actually led up to JP’s attack on Harry, but it is clear that he hadn’t had an easy life, growing up with a mother suffering from mental health issues who left him with his shiftless father. Julie and Harry’s marriage was in difficulties, despite his wealth – he was unfaithful and she resorted to alcohol to compensate for his neglect. They’re all flawed characters and not very likeable. Alice Moody is, however, a likeable character, astute and suspicious of JP’s account right from the start.

There are several twists and turns before I began to see the light, after changing my mind the truth of the matter, first leaning one way then another. But I hadn’t foreseen the final twist. The characters are well-drawn and the book is well paced. I didn’t find it thrilling or chilling after the opening chapter, but I was gripped by the story and I had to read it quickly to find out what really happened.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy via NetGalley.

What’s in a Name 2018

What's In A Name 2018 logo

Next year Charlie at The Worm Hole is hosting the eleventh annual What’s In A Name challenge, originally started by Annie, then handed to Beth Fish Reads and now continued by Charlie. For full details go to the sign up post. I’ve been doing this challenge since Annie started it in 2007, just missing the one in 2009! So, this is a must for me.

The basics

The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories. (Charlie’s examples of books you could choose are in brackets – translations and other languages most definitely count!):

  • The word ‘the’ used twice (The Secret By The Lake; The End Of The Day, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time)
  • A fruit or vegetable (The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society; The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake)
  • A shape (The Ninth Circle, The Square Root Of Summer, Circle Of Friends)
  • A title that begins with Z – can be after ‘The’ or ‘A’ (Zen In The Art Of Writing; The Zookeeper’s Wife, Zelda)
  • A nationality (Anna And The French Kiss; How To Be A Kosovan Bride; Norwegian Wood)
  • A season (White Truffles In Winter; The Spring Of Kasper Meier; The Summer Queen; Before I Fall; The Autumn Throne)

I’ll be choosing from the following books – or any others that I come across before the end of 2018:

The word ‘the’ used twice

  • The King in the North by Max Adams
  • The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Chapel in the Woods by Susan Louineau
  • The House by the Churchyard by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
  • The Riddle of the Third Mile by Colin Dexter
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

A fruit or vegetable 

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Gem Squash Tokoloshi by Rachel Zadok
  • The Olive Readers by Christina Aziz

A title which has a shape in it

  • Dead Men and Broken Hearts by Craig Russell
  • In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  • Heartstones by Kate Glanville

A title that begins with Z – can be after ‘The’ or ‘A’ 

  • Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Fowler
  • Zed Alley by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen (do short stories count?)

A nationality

  • The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
  • Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell

A season

  • Absent in the Spring by Agatha Christie
  • Summer by Edith Wharton
  • The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
  • The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

What’s In a Name 2017: Wrap Up Post

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I’ve now completed the What’s In a Name Challenge 2017, hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole. The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

These are the books I read, linked to my reviews.

A number in numbers

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts – Golden Age crime fiction

A building 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and also Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (joint post) – a classic and a contemporary take on Jane Austen’s novel

A title which has an ‘X’somewhere in it

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid – crime fiction

A compass direction

South Riding by Winifred Holtby – a modern classic

An item/items of cutlery

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – a modern classic

A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration!

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody – crime fiction

I enjoyed them all, especially A Place of Execution and South Riding. My thanks to Charlie for hosting this challenge.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

South Riding

Blurb:

The community of South Riding, like the rest of the country, lives in the long shadow of war. Blighted by recession and devastated by the loss, they must also come to terms with significant social change.Forward-thinking and ambitious, Sarah Burton is the embodiment of such change. After the death of her fiancé, she returns home to Yorkshire focused on her career as headmistress of the local school. But not everyone can embrace the new social order. Robert Carne, a force of conservatism, stands firmly against Sarah. A tormented man, he carries a heavy burden that locks him in the past.

As the villagers of South Riding adjust to Sarah’s arrival and face the changing world, emotions run high, prejudices are challenged and community spirit is tested. 

My View:

I bought Winifred Holtby’s sixth and last novel, South Riding, after watching the BBC television adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey, broadcast in February 2011. And I’ve  only just got round to reading it – it was well worth the wait. It’s one of those books that make you feel as though you are there taking part in the action – I was totally immersed in the story and I loved it.

The book was first published in 1936, six months after Winifred Holtby’s death, aged 37, from Bright’s disease. Set in the early 1930s in Yorkshire it paints a moving and vivid portrait of a rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.

South Riding is a fictional place – Yorkshire consists of a North, East and West Riding – there is no South Riding. The word Riding is derived from a Danish word ‘thridding’, meaning a third. The invading Danes called representatives from each Thridding to a thing, or parliament and established the Ridings System. South Riding is based on the East Riding where Winifred Holtby’s mother was a county alderman, but she explained in a prefatory letter to her mother that Alderman Mrs Beddows was not Alderman Mrs Holtby, that the characters were not her colleagues on the county council and that the incidents in the book were not derived from her mother’s experience.

Nevertheless,the main focus of the novel is centred on local politics and the work of the county council in dealing with a variety of issues  including social issues, education, unemployment, local building programmes, poor relief and the treatment of the insane. There is a large cast of characters and a list is given at the start of the book, which I found most helpful.

It is an intensely detailed story, involving many sub-plots as the lives of all the characters unfold. The main characters are Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls, a fiercely passionate and dedicated teacher; Councillor and farmer Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall and his struggles both personal and financial; Joe Astell, a socialist fighting poverty; and Mrs Beddows, the first woman alderman of the district, a strong older woman (age 72), a generous and charitable woman – my favourite character. This is how Winifred Holtby describes her:

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed  benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. (pages xxiv-xxv)

And here is one of the passages in which she describes Sarah Burton:

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened state for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their their bodies, and to inculcate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. (page 42)

I could go on – all the characters are clearly defined and well rounded people and the locations bring the area to life, showing the contrast in living conditions between the different sections of society.

In short South Riding is a wonderful book, portraying life in the 1930s. I would very much like to re-read and enjoy it again and again. I’m sure that I would find plenty in it that I’ve missed on this first reading.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: BBC Books (6 Jan. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1849902038
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849902038
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 5*

South Riding is my 18th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2017 challenge and my final book for Charlie’s What’s in a Name Challenge 2017.