30 January 2024

#Review - What Kind of Mother by Clay Macleod Chapman

What Kind of Mother
Clay McLeod Chapman
Titan Books, 31 January 2024
Available as: PB, 352pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803368269

I'm grateful to Titan Books for providing me with an advanced e-copy of What Kind of Mother via Netgalley to consider for review.

What Kind of Mother is set in the swamps of Virginia, to which local girl Madi Price has returned with her teenage daughter. Living in a closed down motel and making a marginal living as a palm reader, Madi's trying to support Kendra as the girl bonds with the achingly respectable father who showed no interest in her when she was younger. One thread of the story therefore examines the seventeen-year-old's growing interest in both her parents (did I sense that she might be playing one against the other?) and where that leaves Madi - both mother and daughter have led a drifting life since Madi's parents threw her out when she got pregnant, but perhaps it's now time to settle down?

That leads me to Henry McCabe, a local fisherman who Madi knew at school. Life hasn't been kind to him, his wife having killed herself after their son, Skyler, vanished: Skyler is still officially missing. Madi runs into Henry again at a farmer's market and he asks for her help. Madi, who's basically a charlatan (in a fraught scene, her vague, well-intentioned advice to a young woman leads to catastrophe) begins to feel she is in over her head and that, perhaps, something may actually be trying to speak through her.

For both Madi and Henry, here, then, are are interrupted relationships and friendships from the past resurfacing. This is a milieu where nothing is ever truly lost to the waters, although it may be transformed. It's not exactly a world where everyone knows everyone, but it is a close community, which contributes to the sense that and the past will never lie. The writing here is rich, organic, linking the lives of the local community to the greater life of the swamp which comes across almost as a single, breathing, brooding entity, one that can send its emissaries into the small lives of the human at will.

Given that, the creepiness of this book is perhaps not surprising, but it is impossible to overstate. The desolate, marshy setting, a littoral place neither sea, river or dry land, haunts the reader with a sense of the primordial, a sense that in that fertile, silt-rich basin, anything may brew. There are monsters here but perhaps they transcend a simple notion of good and evil, driven rather by the need for survival and the desperate hope of people who have lost everything and want something, anything, back.

So, a supernatural horror, but so much more than that - a book that explores parental love, but admits the dark side of that, the need to control, the thin line between love and obsession, protection and control and leaves the reader to answer some very uncomfortable questions.

Strongly recommended.

For more information about What Kind of Mother, see the publisher's website here.

19 January 2024

#Review - The Curious Affair of the Missing Mummies (Jesperson and Lane, 3)

The Curious Affair of the Missing Mummies (Jesperson and Lane 3) 
Lisa Tuttle
Jo Fletcher Books, 4 January 2024 (PB)
Available as: HB, PB, 432pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB/ PB): 9781529422757 

I'm grateful to Jo Fletcher Books for providing me with me an advance  e-copy of The Missing Mummies to consider for review.

I missed the chance to review The Missing Mummies when it appeared in hardback last summer, but by fortuitous blogging happenstance, that has simply made the timing better for a story focussing on thefts from the British Museum. And one might argue, on somewhat unethical collecting and conservation policies although I suppose to do might though be seen as anachronistic because of course these stories are set in the high 19th century when the British Empire had little regard for such niceties.

The story opens with the the duo of Jesperson and Lane engaged to investigate the theft of a few minor artifacts from the Museum. To begin with, their task seems fairly straightforward - one of recovering the missing pieces without tipping off Mr Budge, the chief curator, that anything has gone missing. But it seems these are not the first thefts. Given, though, that casual attitude to acquisitions - and the full blown market in looted antiquities which feeds it - it's soon clear that it can be hard to tell what has actually been stolen. Complications pile up affecting Museum politics, with more significant items found to have gone astray, a death, and the involvement of a collector who seems to have a link to Jesperson's childhood in Egypt...

I enjoy these books, which are told from the perspective of Miss Lane: at first sight a Doctor Watson to Jespersen's Sherlock Holmes, but in reality much more than that, since her unprivileged position (a woman! Not wealthy!) actually gives her many insights - and also reasons to check the impetuous Jesperson. Here, it aids her in befriending Matilda, a young heiress whose view of life, marriage and friendship Lane decides needs some amendment (beginning with her relationship with that collector, referred to as her "uncle", and proceeding to address the idea that marriage should be the peak of her expectations in life). What follows is the development of a complex relationship. You can't really conclude that the two women like each other that much, and there are story elements going on which it would be spoilery to reveal and which mean not everything is what it seems. But Lane acts - how can I put this? - she acts with a sense of responsibility towards a young and vulnerable person which is refreshing to see and the twists and turns of which are enjoyable to follow. (As is Jesperson's evident infatuation with the young and pretty Matilda - do a see a little jealousy from Miss Lane? Perhaps her motives are not completely unmixed...)

The book, like its predecessors, treads the line between a rational explanation of events (leading tom a to and fro business with the museum to track down what is missing, who had access to it and where it all went) and the possibility of an extra dimension to things, represented by Violet Dawes, a psychic who has appeared before in the series. Given Miss Lane's previous experience in this regard - her last employer was a bogus medium, but Jesperson and Lane have encountered the unexplained in previous adventures - I felt that things were perhaps a bit compartmentalised here with the earlier part of the book proceeding on the former lines but not entertaining the latter at all - until things realign. I felt perhaps our heroes, and especially Miss Lane, might have been slightly less sceptical at the start and more so more so later on: but that's a minor point really, perhaps reflecting that they are a little slow to recognise what's going on.

Once they do, however, the story really takes wings with a potent threat taking shape - a deadly threat to Matilda, and perhaps a wider one too. Plenty of action follows with a dash by train in the middle of the night and a combination of skills needed to address the danger - Jesperson's practicality, Lane's courage and empathy, Violet's esoteric abilities and the Egyptian learning of the redoubtable pagan Brown, a scholar who I hope we will see more of in future.

In all, a fun adventure.

For more information about The Missing Mummies, see the publisher's website here.

15 January 2024

#Blogtour #Review - The Guests by Agnes Ravatn

Cover for book "The Guests" by Agnes Ravtn
The Guests
Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger)
Orenda Books, 18 January
Available as: PB, 208pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781913193584

I'm grateful to Karen at Orenda Books for sending me a copy of The Guests to consider for review, and to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

The Guests is a magnificently twisty thriller, a tense, stressy piece but at the same time focussed on apparently mundane themes - a couple taking a few days' break from the kids to stay in a holiday cabin loaned by a wealthy acquaintance. I might be tempted to use the phrase "low stakes" as we aren't dealing here with murder, other crimes or desperate secrets from the past - except that, for the couple concerned, Karin and Kai, the stakes do turn out to be very high (though I won't say exactly how because, spoilers, sweetie).

Much of the joy of this story is in the central characters. Lawyer Karin is a middle aged woman, prone to worry and to self-recrimination - almost to a pathological extent as she's ready to admit to herself. She has some reason, as she slowly reveals, given earlier life events and in particular a bruising encounter in her teens with the mean girls at school. Whether this did actually impact the course of her life as much as she suggests, we can't know. Karin leaves out a lot so we are left to speculate on actions and consequences. To a degree Karin regards herself as an underachiever, and she puts much of the blame for that on her earlier life. To be thrust into the milieu of the super wealthy, people who it seems Karim frankly despises (though there may be envy here!) really narks her, tweaking all her insecurities.

What's clear as subsequent events then unfold is the importance of what happened before to Karin's own story of herself - and this book is all about the stories. Those we tell ourselves. Those we tell others close to us - partners, kids. Those we make up for strangers. Those we carefully construct for ourselves to make sense of the world around us and, in particular, of coincidences, chance events and unlikely overlaps.

Those last feature especially here and they're something that Karin - with her doom-laden sense of the past and its influence - is ill-equipped to cope with, so that at a key moment she's unable, literally unable, to be open and honest about something which then drives the narrative into a spiral of growing deception. This gives subsequent developments a darkly comic twist with Karin and her craftsman husband Kai pushed into an almost Wodehousian imbroglio in their attempt to sustain a charade. Alas, they aren't the only pretenders in this little coastal paradise and nothing is more certain than that lies will come back to bite their creators.

Agnes Ravatn
I hope that I'm not making The Guests sound over solemn - as well as exploring dark corners in a. relationship, it's also incredibly funny. Yes, Ravatn dissects the central relationship in an almost forensic style (appropriate given Karin's profession) but as well as sometimes making the reader squirm, that also brings to light the hilarious absurdities to be found in any life partnership. The reader will - well, I was - left both shaking my head at what was going on, almost begging Karin and Kai to extract themselves from the mess, and urging them on, eager to see just how messy things could get.

In summary this book - relatively short at just over 200 pages - packs in a great deal and shoes just how much can be done with apparently little (a restricted setting, few characters and, apparently, not a lot going on. Apparently). 

Rosie Hedger's translation is excellent, capturing Karin's somewhat brittle, always-close-panic internal monologue and the comings and goings of the other participants in this drama. All are vividly present in the reader's mind as the story unfolds.

For more information about The Guests, see the publisher's website here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Guests from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, Blackwell's, Foyle's, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

11 January 2024

#Review - Good Girls Don't Die by Christina Henry

Book "Good Girls Don't Die" by Christina Henry. In red, black and grey, a creepy shack seen through a tangle of angled lines - are they shadows, the walls of corridors or searchlights?
Good Girls Don't Die
Christina Henry
Titan Books, 21 November 2023
Available as: PB, 336pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781803364018

I'm grateful to Titan Books for providing me with an advance e-copy of  Good Girls Don't Die to consider for review.

In the first part of Good Girls Don't Die, Henry presents us with three narratives. Each features a woman being isolated and manipulated in a way that reflects her online activity - almost as if somebody was listening in all along...

In the first of these, Celia awakes in a small town with a husband and child whose identities she can't remember and a cosy restaurant she knows nothing about. At first, all this resembles one of those nightmares where you have to sit an exam with no preparation - Celia's trying to stay one step ahead and not let on that she's all at sea. But then a body turns up, and the deceased's son, the town policeman, has her in the frame for the killing. Her "husband" is creepy as hell and she has nowhere to turn for help.

In the second, Allie's been got up in the kind of short shorts she'd NEVER wear and seems to be on the way to a cabin in the woods with some boys from college - NOT what she set out to do at all. And then, again, the killings begin.

In the third scenario, rather more brazenly, Maggie and a group of other women have been kidnapped and are being forced to participate in a Hunger Games style death-off - a race against the clock through a grim killing maze.

The common factor behind all the scenarios is a cryptic social media conversation, suggesting some common purpose here - but what, and how could such a thing have been set up? It seems as though a single entity - a man? An intelligence of some sort? - is punishing all three women, and, as friends and allies die, their only resource will be their own courage, determination and empathy - needed to discern what is safe and what is a trap. From that perspective, despite the myriad practical hazards, the cruel traps and humiliations, this is a story of coming together and of making common cause against a pitiless enemy, against women being treated as mere toys or as objects for punishment or revenge.

While each story has its own logic and is absorbing in its own way, that overarching narrative is the most engaging and encouraging strand in Good Girls Don't Die, showing continuity with Henry's earlier stories in which women refuse to be treated as things. Fusing together the separate narratives, it puts a different spin on the three different tropes drawn on earlier and shows three women rising above the narratives that would ensnare them.

Strongly recommended! 

For more information about Good Girls Don't Die, see the publisher's website here.

8 January 2024

#Blogtour #Review - The Dancer by Óskar Guðmundsson

The Dancer
Óskar Guðmundsson (translated by Quentin Bates)
Corylus Books, 5 January 2024 (e), 1 February 2024(pb)
Available as: PB, pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781739298951

I'm grateful to Corylus Books for sending me a copy of The Dancer to consider for review, and for inviting me to join the book's blogtour.

My review

Óskar Guðmundsson's The Dancer is a police procedural set in Reykjavík in 1982, a departure from present-day Icelandic crime allowing the detectives to be out of touch and unable to email one another (they use faxes instead!)

In many respects it's less a mystery than an exploration of motives and psychology. In a grotesque opening scene, a man is killed. We soon develop a good idea of who carried out the deeply strange crime (and I can't emphasise enough how strange!) but not why, nor how it relates to another death that soon turns up.

The focus turns to a young man, Tony, whose housebound mother is seen in various flashbacks to have been abusive to him. It's not clear whether he's repaying her now, or how Tony's obsession with dancing fits in (I was struck by the way he's able to basically walk into the National Theatre and claim a part in a ballet that's being rehearsed - a nice degree of informality there!) Either way, the relationship between mother and son seems wrong somehow - why is Tony keeping her drugged?

The murders are being investigated by Ylfa, a young detective, and her more experienced boss Valdimar. These two are likeable, down to earth protagonists, but there is less focus on them than on Tony's spiralling problems - while something is made of Ylfa's domestic issues, and Valdimar's health, it felt to me more as though these two were more being set up for future books.  That is fine, because Tony is a complex and involving protagonist, a nuanced character who needs space for the reader to get to know him. I won't pretend I found him easy to like, but he does deserve some sympathy - he has a troubled background and, as we are shown, he's a man who feels something of an outsider. The narrative around him isn't always straightforward - I'm choosing my words with care because I don't want to spoil things, I'll just say that from the founding event that drives the narrative, themes of trust, fraud and self-delusion abound.

All in all a satisfying read, and a very dark one. Quentin Bates's translation does credit to the narrative - I think there must have been some tricky aspects to this (such as the dancing terminology, and the quick shifts from one point of view to another, which leave the reader, for a moment, unsure whether the next scene is a continuation or not) but these are all ably addressed and the English text is great to read.

About the book

Life was never going to be a bed of roses… 

Tony is a young man who has always been on the losing side in life. He was brought up by his troubled, alcoholic mother who had a past of her own as a talented ballerina, until a life-changing accident brought her dreams to a sudden end. As her own ambitions for fame and success were crushed, she used cruel and brutal methods to project them onto her young son – with devastating consequences.

There’s no doubt that a body found on Reykjavík’s Öskjuhlíð hillside has been there for a long time. The case is handed to veteran detective Valdimar, supported by Ylfa, who is taking her tentative first steps as a police officer with the city’s CID while coping with her own family difficulties.
It’s not long before it’s clear a vicious killer is on the loose - and very little about the case is what it appears to be at first glance.

The Dancer was originally published in 2023 as a Storytel Original Series 

About the author

With a unique voice and a style that doesn’t shy away from a sometime graphic take on shocking subject matter, Óskar Guðmundsson is one of the rising stars of the Icelandic crime fiction scene. His debut Hilma was awarded the Icelandic Crime Syndicate’s Drop of Blood award for the best crime novel of 2015, and the TV rights have been acquired by Sagafilm. This was followed by a sequel Blood Angels in 2018. The first of his books published in an English translation, The Commandments, was a standalone novel which appeared in Iceland in 2019. All of Óskar’s books have been bestsellers and rewarded with outstanding reviews. 

The first in a new series of novels The Dancer was published in Icelandic simultaneously as an eBook, audiobook, and paperback - accompanied by an original song in which Óskar’s words have been put to music featuring some of Iceland’s leading musicians - and was an immediate bestseller. Óskar’s talents don’t end there, as he is also an artist and has held a number of exhibitions of his work.

About the translator

Quentin Bates has personal and professional roots in Iceland that go very deep. He is an author of series of nine crime novels and novellas featuring the Reykjavik detective Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir. In addition to his own fiction, he has translated many works of Iceland’s coolest writers into English, including books by Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Guðlaugur Arason, Einar Kárason, Óskar Guðmundsson, Sólveig Pálsdóttir, Jónína Leosdottir and Ragnar Jónasson. Quentin was instrumental in launching Iceland Noir in 2013, the crime fiction festival in Reykjavik.

For more information about The Dancer, see the publisher's website here or their Facebook here - and of course the other stops on the blogtour which you can see listed on the poster below. 

You can buy The Dancer from your local high street bookshop or online from Bookshop UK, Hive Books, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

4 January 2024

#Review - Cover the Bones by Chris Hammer

Cover for book "Cover the Bones" by Chris Hammer.  On arid land, a barbed wire fence on which is caught a ragged red cloth garment.
Cover the Bones
Chris Hammer
Wildfire, 4 January 2024
Available as: HB, 512pp, audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(HB): 9781472295712

I'm grateful to Wildfire for allowing me access to an advance e-copy of Cover the Bones to consider for review.

Happy New Year! I hope that you enjoyed the festive season, power you choose to make and even if you don't. For my own part, while the rain and wind of a British Christmas lashed this damp island - just how many named storms did we get? - I was caught up in a drama unfolding in the heat of an Australian summer, where detectives Ivan Lucic and Nell Buchanan - Chris Hammer's dream team - were investigating the death off a young man found in an irrigation canal in the rural town of Yuwonderie. Local accountant Athol Hasluck has been tortured, stabbed and his body dumped. There are political sensitivities to the case - can Lucic and Buchanan find the killer before pressure begins to build on then - and before the Press take an interest?

Hammer unfolds his story across three timelines - the modern day investigation, set amidst a neat, prosperous town dominated by its Seven Families, the landowners who control the life-giving irrigation scheme; a 1990s segment focussing on the earlier lives of some of the same protagonists; and the early years of the 20th century, up to and into the First World War, this segment told in letters written by a young woman, Bessie, who's come to work as housekeeper on a local farm in the days before the ambitious irrigation scheme. At first it may seem a bit of a distraction but as you'll know if you're read Hammer's previous novels, the earlier sections are not just background, there is a complex story being explored in which the events of the present are built on the conflicts - and betrayals - of the past. In the course of constructing this narrative, Hammer creates an absorbing tapestry of Australian twentieth century history, dramatising conflicts over land - originally stolen, as one white landowner bluntly puts it, from the indigenous people - and water, the new source of wealth and power, one that's being wielded ruthlessly by those who control it. 

And money, of course - one can almost smell it around Yuwonderie, a pretty, planned town but with its ugly side, as farmers who can't air won't toe the line are denied the basic essentials of their calling. Yuwonderie is the short of place where awkward questions are seldom asked, and those who do ask them soon find themselves on the outside of things - or even disappearing altogether, as Davis, the designated heir of one of the Seven Families, discovers when he begins to look into the town's background. Money talks yes, but it can also command a profound silence.

All in all, a brilliant read, focussing on a complex and difficult investigation with both Ivan and Nell giving it all they've got (for the most part - Ivan has some family troubles which do destract him briefly, but almost catastrophically). Yuwonderie is a well realised and intriguing setting, helpfully illustrated by  another of Aleksander Ptočnik's maps (thought to call these gorgeous 3D realisations "maps" doesn't really convey their nature very well). 

If you're looking for something to distract you from a soggy British January, I'd strongly recommend "Cover the Bones".

For more information about Cover the Bones, see the publisher's website here.

2 January 2024

#Review - Murder Crossed Her Mind by Stephen Spotswood

Muder Crossed Her Mind (Pentecost and Parker, 4)
Stephen Spotswood
Headline, 7 December 2023
Available as: PB, 384pp audio, e   
Source: Advance copy
ISBN(PB): 9781035409495

I'm grateful to Headline for providing me with an advance e-copy of Murder Crossed Her Mind to consider for review.

I'm a bit behind with reviewing (the end of 2023 was pretty intense work-wise and we are in the middle of planning a house move) so only just catching up with the latest Pentecost and Parker mystery.

For those who haven't come across these books yet (and if you haven't, please go back and read them in order) Willowjean "Will" Parker and Lillian Pentecost solve crimes in postwar New York City. Will is a runaway who worked for a time in the circus: Lillian is the city's foremost private detective. 

In Murder Crossed Her Mind, the two investigate the disappearance of Vera Bodine, a retired legal secretary who has a preternatural memory but has become a "shut in" - a hoarder who refuses to leave her apartment and lives surrounded by years of clutter. Bodine's only friend, a slippery defence lawyer who gave Lillian a hard time on the witness stand in an earlier book, begs the women to look for Vera but at first they're not inclined to accommodate him. In a slick opening section to the book, Will, suffering after being assaulted and Lillian, struggling with her MS, spend a gruelling 24 hours establishing that there is something to investigate - all of this absolutely top-notch procedural work, a joy to read, really.

If Bodine has suffered harm, it soon becomes clear that there may be many motives - Vera's prodigious memory may mean that she retains information from her legal career, but it also seems she assisted the FBI in hunting Nazi spies. She's dropped a hint that she may want to report a crime. And then there are other suspects, closer to home, like the mysterious buyer who wants to take over the apartment building...

Pentecost and Parker navigate all of this with aplomb, also negotiating their own ongoing cases running on from previous novels, some of which seem to pose threats that I'm sure will come back to bite them in future books. Will's assurance and independence continue to increase (as I noted in reviewing the previous book, Secrets Typed in Blood) but here she's brought down a notch or two by Lillian - I love the relationship between the two women, both strong and complex personalities, both pointedly not saying a lot that they might. Indeed I'll go further and say that for all the genuinely intriguing detective stuff, it's that relationship which is at the heart of these books. Spotswood is taking his time showing it evolve, and I am in no rush for that: I want to enjoy what happens at a decent pace (so while it was great to get two instalments in 2023, I'd prefer these books to continue at one a year!)

For more information about Murder Crossed Her Mind, see the publisher's website here.