Good Books July-September 2019

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Here’s the latest roundup of books I’ve enjoyed reading lately, mostly crime and mystery novels and a few general titles. They are listed in alphabetical order.

A Keeper by Graham Norton: A gentle and somewhat old-fashioned mystery involving family secrets. Following her mother’s death, a woman returns to her childhood home in rural Ireland and explores her father’s identity. Graham Norton’s writing reveals a more thoughtful and sensitive aspect to his personality than is apparent from his TV show.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper: Five work colleagues,  all women, embark somewhat reluctantly on a “team-building” exercise in the Australian bush. They get lost, run out of food and water, and quarrel among themselves before one of them goes missing. The hostile environment is vividly described, making me feel very thankful not to be there.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe:  Classified on Amazon as “political fiction”, this long novel follows a group of middle-class characters over the years before and after the Brexit referendum. I chose it because I still follow the UK news since moving to New Zealand 20 years ago. Society has changed in many ways since I left, and Coe paints a witty if somewhat depressing picture of the current tensions, for example around the topic of immigration.

Mind to Matter by Dawson Church: Since attending a series of courses at the College of Healing in England, many years ago now, I have been trying to reconcile its teachings with my training in orthodox medicine. This book summarises numerous research studies that support the idea that energy creates matter and that “thoughts become things”. There is a lot of technical detail but not much about its clinical relevance, for example how the human energy field may relate to the auras and chakras or how the memory of water may relate to homeopathy, and the only therapies described are EFT (tapping) and meditation. The final message is the simple one of think positive.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: I was attracted to this one because the action takes place in an upmarket wellness retreat in Australia, not too dissimilar to the one where Brian and I stayed last year. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first part, with character development set against tongue-in-cheek descriptions of the regime, but found the later chapters protracted.

Passionate Spirit: The Life of Alma Mahler by Cate Haste: Growing up in Vienna at the turn of the century, Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel possessed outstanding musical talent, physical beauty and sexual allure. The conventions of the time prevented a woman from pursuing a professional career as a composer, and Alma’s first husband Gustav Mahler forbade her to express her musicality until towards the end of his life. Deeply frustrated by this sacrifice, she channeled her energies into a frenetic series of marriages and affairs with creative men.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman: A young London couple on honeymoon in a luxury tropical resort make a gruesome discovery. Thwarted in their cursory attempt to hand the matter over to the proper authorities, they decide to use it for their own financial gain and are soon drawn into a web of intrigue involving the criminal underworld and the undermining of their relationship. Despite some loose ends in the plot and an improbable ending, this is a gripping psychological thriller.

The End of the Line by Gillian Galbraith: During the 1980s, a number of patients with haemophilia were accidentally infected with the HIV virus through contaminated blood products. This intelligent medico-legal thriller is set many years later, when a retired Scottish haematologist is called to give evidence in a court case related to the scandal, and then dies in suspicious circumstances. The elderly bookseller dealing with his estate sets out to investigate. There are some rather gruelling descriptions of the decrepitude of old age.

The Holiday by TM Logan: Four 40-ish women friends, along with their husbands and children, spend a summer holiday in a villa in France. The surroundings are luxurious but, with suspicions of infidelity between the adults and disturbed behaviour among the teenagers, the atmosphere soon becomes strained. The escalating tensions culminate in the death of one member of the group.

What we Owe by Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde: An Iranian woman with a revolutionary past becomes a refugee in Sweden, is widowed, and then diagnosed with terminal cancer. The subject-matter of this short novel makes it sound like heavy going, but the dry humour and lack of sentimentality make it a worthwhile read.

And at the end of the alphabet my own book You Yet Shall Die, a story of family secrets and concealed crime set in southern England in the recent past, has a couple of good reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

Domestic Noir in Sussex and Kent

Most fiction is autobiographical to some extent. Both the theme and the setting of my new novel You Yet Shall Die reflect my personal experience.

Two years ago, I found out that I had a half-brother and a half-sister I knew nothing about, and this planted the seed of the story. The novel begins with the protagonist Hilda receiving a visit from a woman who claims to be her late father’s child. From then on, however, the plot of the novel bears no resemblance to my own life. Whereas the contact with my new-found relatives has proved entirely positive, this is not the case for Hilda and her brother Dunstan. Dunstan, already stressed by problems at home and at work, suffers a physical and mental breakdown and his actions almost lead to tragedy. Hilda is compelled to explore the mysteries in their family background, and some shocking secrets from their parents’ past are revealed. The content is not so dark as this summary suggests because there are touches of humour, references to cats, and a reasonably happy ending.

My early childhood was spent in Gravesend, Kent, and sometimes at weekends my grandfather would take me for walks on the nearby marshes. Why I should feel inspired to set the main part of my novel there I have no idea, and it was a rather inconvenient choice because I had not been back there for so long, and visiting from my present home in New Zealand was quite an undertaking. I was in fact able to spend two days in the area in May, walking in the rain across the desolate landscape which did not seem to have changed much over the years. Carol Davidson’s book On the Marshes, and her online videos, were a great help. The East Sussex coast, another old haunt, features in one chapter. Another is set in a 1960s London cabaret club – not part of my personal experience, so the biographical material from In Disgrace With Fortune by Jean Hendy-Harris was a useful resource.

In a previous post I discussed the pitfalls of writing about the recent past, for example it is easy to forget that not so long ago most people did not have access to the internet or carry mobile phones. The timeline of You Yet Shall Die shifts between 1953 and 2005 and I chose these dates to be historically accurate, fitting in with the availability of certain drugs and medical procedures mentioned in the book. I have set the scene by occasional reference to contemporary novels, music and events. 

As discussed in another previous post, classifying crime fiction isn’t an exact science. I describe You Yet Shall Die as “domestic noir” because the plot involves crime, both past and present, rooted in family secrets and tensions. But unlike some books in this sub-genre, it is not exclusively told from the feminist viewpoint, and nor is it too “noir”.

You Yet Shall Die is available from online retailers including Amazon.com (Kindle and paperback), Amazon.co.uk (Kindle), Amazon.co.uk (paperback), and from Smashwords.com in various ebook formats.

I loved it! I really liked the characters and the sense of buried secrets gradually coming to light. And the twists were excellent, very clever! Sarah S, NZ

A well-constructed novel of would-be, actual and closet murderers joined together by blood … this story would be listed as cozy crime in the publisher’s genre list even though the book is anything but cosy … a revelatory read. Julian T, UK

SMASHWORDS COVER

Kent