Review 1528: The Janus Stone

In the second Ruth Galloway mystery, Ruth is called to a dig at a site of a mansion being converted to luxury flats, because bones are discovered under a doorway. The bones are a child’s, and Ruth is inclined to believe that the grave is more recent than otherwise.

DCI Harry Nelson begins looking at the building’s past as a children’s home. During that time, a teenage boy and his five-year-old sister disappeared. But the teeth put the death a little earlier, when the original family resided there.

This case hits Ruth a little more personally because she is pregnant. The child is Harry’s, the result of an emotional night during the last case, but Harry is married. Then someone begins leaving unpleasant surprises for Ruth.

Like with the first book, I easily guessed who the culprit was, in fact, almost as soon as the character appeared. It is hard for me to tell whether this would be obvious to most readers. I am interested in the characters, though, so I enjoyed the novel and look forward to reading more of the series.

I do want to say something about my Quercus paperback edition, which was not impressive. About halfway through the book, I came across a sticker that was printed over by the text of the book. Later, a half page cut zigzag fell out of the book. When I turned to that page, I found that half of the text was on the zigzag page and half was on the page fastened into the book, which was whole, leaving a zigzagged half-blank page. If the loose half page had fallen out of the book before I got it, I would not have been able to read that page.

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Review 1522: A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell’s fiancé was killed during the First World War, and twenty years later she’s one of the many single women in Winchester. Even though there are so many, they haven’t gained any respect, it seems. Violet has managed to free herself from her difficult mother by arranging a work transfer from Southampton to Winchester, but so far she hasn’t made much of a life for herself.

When she stumbles upon a private ceremony in Winchester Cathedral, she gets interested in the work of the broderers, a group of women who embroider kneelers and seat cushions for the cathedral. She joins the group and soon has made friends with an office worker because of it. Although Violet is at first hyper aware of other people’s attitudes, through her new friendships she begins to become more accepting and take more risks.

I was reasonably interested in Violet’s journey, but this novel seemed unfocused to me. For example, although people are inconsistent, Violet’s extreme awareness of what other people think does not seem to mesh well with a woman who occasionally goes out to pick up men for sex. This characteristic seems much too modern for the woman Violet was at the beginning of the book, although the affair at the end is more plausible. Also, as to the two preoccupations of the novel, embroidery and bell ringing, it was as though Chevalier couldn’t decide which to write about. She did a better job at bell ringing than did Dorothy Sayers in The Nine Tailors, which I found incomprehensible (not the mystery, just the information about the bells), but I think that perhaps two focuses is one too many.

Maybe to Chevalier the cathedral said cushions and bells to her, but she wasn’t really writing about the cathedral. In any case, I’m trying to poorly express that I found this novel mildly interesting but also unsatisfying.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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Review 1517: House of Glass

Clara is born with bones so fragile that as she grows, they can snap for the slightest reason. Her mother and stepfather keep her inside a home filled with padded corners until she is an adult. When they judge that she is finally able to come out, she is slightly misshapen through injuries that didn’t heal well.

Shaken after her mother’s death, Clara finds comfort in visiting Kew Gardens and learning about the plants. Her voracious curiosity tends her to spend a lot of time talking to the foreman of the glasshouse. Eventually, he offers her a job. A wealthy man wants to establish his own glasshouse to rival that of Kew. Will she take a job overseeing the planting and establishment of this garden?

Clara decides to take the job at Shadowbrook, where she is received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bale. The owner of the house, Mr. Fox, is often away on business, and even when he is home he doesn’t like to be disturbed in his rooms on the upper floor.

Clara finds there are rumors in the village about the house and its former occupants, the Pettigrews. Mrs. Bale seems to be under some strain, and she eventually reports that the house is haunted by Vivenne Pettigrew. Clara doesn’t believe in ghosts and begins trying to learn about the Pettigrews. Those who are willing to talk about Vivienne seem to be describing a different person than she imagines from the few words spoken by those who knew her.

Ever since Fletcher’s marvelous Corrag, I have been waiting for her to write something as good. This novel comes very close. It starts out as a ghost story but goes much farther, exploring women’s role in pre-World War I society. It is atmospheric and wonderfully written, with an assertive and appealing heroine. I recommend it highly.

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Review 1515: Conviction

Denise Mina’s novels are usually fairly gritty murder mysteries. Conviction, although harrowing in spots, reminded me much more of Catriona McPherson’s cozy thrillers.

When Anna’s husband Hamish dumps her for another woman and takes her children, she realizes there is nothing she can do, because she has been living a secret life. Nine years earlier, a series of horrendous events caused her to run away and assume a new identity. If she were to try to get custody of her girls, she could be found out, and she would be in danger.

While all this is going on, she views a podcast about the death of Leon Parker, who had been her friend years ago. He and his family were killed aboard his yacht. His cook was found guilty of the murders even though she was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Anna becomes determined to find out the truth about Leon, because he was married to Gretchen Teigler, who Anna believes sent killers after her years ago.

This is a fast-paced, well-written chase across Europe to find evidence. Anna is accompanied by Fin Cohen, a rock star and the husband of the woman who ran off with Hamish. Even though there are some tough situations in the novel, it reads more lightly than Mina’s previous work. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1508: The Gallows Pole

In a remote Yorkshire valley in 1767, David Hartley and his brothers call together all the clippers in the area. Clippers have for centuries been debasing the coin of the realm by clipping edges off to make counterfeit coin. Hartley is already known as King David in the region for his control of the valley that his home lies above on the moor, but now he declares that they will all become rich by becoming systematic. All the people in the area will send him coins, and in return they will all get a portion of the proceeds. To make more money, he brings in a man called the Alchemist, who will make more convincing coins. Any man who refuses to participate is brought into line.

Within two years, this gang has caused enough disturbance in the local economy that an exciseman, William Deighton, is brought in to try to bring the Hartleys and their gang to law. James Broadbent, a member of the gang who thinks he hasn’t been rewarded enough, decides to turn informant.

On the one hand, this novel is at times lyrical, especially in evoking the landscape, and it is based on true events. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the subject or the brutality. There is a lot of fascination in our society with people who are essentially gangsters that I don’t share. Although Myers tells most of the story in a fair-handed way, he does seem to come down a bit on the side of the thieves, even as he recounts some crimes against innocent men. This book won the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize for 2018, but I’m not sure it’s the one I would have picked.

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Review 1504: The Curate’s Awakening

Thomas Wingfold is a curate who was brought up in the church but has never really considered what his beliefs are. When he is challenged by a cynical university man, George Bascombe, to prove that Christ even lived, he realizes he can’t do it. This sends him into a crisis of faith, during which he tries to form his own beliefs.

Helen Lingard is George’s cousin, a young woman who is described as someone who has never thought before. George comes to believe he can mold her thought to match his, in which case she might make a wonderful wife. However, Helen finds she needs someone to turn to when her beloved brother, Leopold, returns home in desperate trouble. After the curate begins preaching more heart-felt sermons about his search, she decides to confide in him.

This novel, written in 1876, is part of a trilogy called The Curate of Glaston, and it is meant to have a spiritual message. As such, it wasn’t a good choice for me, especially as it goes into great detail about Thomas’s conversations with his mentor and his sermons. It is perfectly readable, though, if you are interested in such a subject. I was, in fact, interested to find out what happened to Helen and Leopold, but although I tried very hard to finish this book, I couldn’t.

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Review 1499: Tombland

My understanding was that Lamentation was supposed to be the last of C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries; then Tombland came out. I had previously wavered about whether to continue with the series about the dour lawyer, but Lamentation was so good that I decided to read Tombland.

It is 1549. Edward VI is 12 years old, so the country is being ruled by Lord Somerset, the Protector. It has been a late summer, so crops are not expected to be good. Further, landlords have begun illegally enclosing common land for sheep, throwing their tenants off the land. As a result, thousands of poor are roaming the country. The Protector has promised that a commission will look into this problem, but so far nothing has happened.

Lady Elizabeth asks Matthew to look into a case where a distant relative, John Boleyn, has been arrested for murdering his wife, Edith. Lady Elizabeth does not wish anyone to know that Edith came to her for financial help and did not receive it. Edith had left her husband nine years previously, and no one knew where she went. Recently, she was found brutally murdered, upside down in the creek on her husband’s property. Lady Elizabeth wants to know whether John was guilty and if not, have Matthew find the murderer. If need be, she will try to get John a pardon. This notion is difficult politically because of the Boleyn connection, so it is a last resort.

Matthew thinks it is unlikely that John would have killed his wife and left her body so exposed, because he is the likely suspect and it negates his subsequent marriage to his mistress, Isabella. John’s twin sons, Barnaby and Gerald, seem like demented feral animals, but Matthew also believes they loved their mother. He finds Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, to be an angry, hateful man. Still, aside from a land dispute, he can’t find a motive for Edith’s murder.

This novel is 800 pages long, and John’s trial is in the first few hundred pages, so I was wondering about that as we approached the verdict without a solution to the crime. But, for this novel, the mystery is really an excuse, almost a McGuffin, for what Sansom is really interested in, the story of Kett’s Rebellion. Common men anticipating the promised commission begin making camps, rounding up landlords who have enclosed their land, and tearing down enclosures. Matthew, his assistant Nicholas, and his old friend Barak are taken up by the rebels when they go to visit a potential witness, Flowerdew. The last half of the novel is about this incident in history.

I thought this novel was interesting, but I also felt that if Sansom wanted to write about the rebellion, it might have been better not to wrap it into a mystery. In fact, I felt that the section dealing with the rebellion was a bit too detailed, taking up more than 400 pages, with a 50-page essay at the end of the novel. As a result, I didn’t think this book was as good as some of his others, particularly Lamentation. Sansom appears to want to be a straight historical novelist, and maybe he should just do that.

Finally, although I feel that some of the books in this series are outstanding, it has always bothered me that no one in them ever shows a vestige of humor, and Matthew has to be one of the most depressed characters ever.

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Review 1493: Harbour Street

Sergeant Joe Ashworth and his young daughter Jessie are traveling on the Metro, returning from a Christmas concert, when the train is halted and everyone is made to get off. Jessie notices that one person doesn’t get off—an older woman who is too nicely dressed to be going to Mardle. She is dead, stabbed by someone on the train.

The woman turns out to be Margaret Krukowski, a 70-year-old resident of a Mardle B&B who helps run it. The B&B on Harbour Street is owned by Kate Dewar, who inherited the house from a relative. When Joe and Vera Stanhope go to interview Kate and look at Margaret’s room, Joe feels that something is familiar but puts the feeling down to his recognition of Kate as Kate Guthrie, who had been a famous singer.

Margaret seems to have led a blameless life. She was very private, but aside from her work at the house, she volunteered with several charities. One of them was The Haven, providing temporary housing for women in need of a place to stay.

It takes a while for Vera and her team to find out Margaret’s secrets, but they can’t get past the fact that no one seems to think badly of her. Then another woman is killed.

Harbour Streeet is another mystery by Cleeves that really kept me guessing. She is good at creating believable characters, and her plots are complex but not beyond belief. This is one series I’m not tired of yet.

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Review 1492: Instructions for a Heatwave

I’m really liking Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t know why it took me so long to try her.

In 1976 London, the country is experiencing a record-breaking heatwave. (Of course, those of us who have lived in Texas don’t think 90° F is that hot.) One morning, Gretta Riordan’s newly retired husband doesn’t return from his trip to the store. When her grown children go to the police, they find out he’s taken money from the bank account and say he is not, therefore, a missing person.

This event brings the rest of the family together for the first time in three years, which was when Aoife, the youngest sibling, left for New York after her sister, Monica, broke with her. Aoife still doesn’t understand the reason for the break.

Monica herself is not happy. After her first marriage, to Joe, broke up, she married Peter. Peter has two daughters who hate her. She hates the old house in Gloucester where she lives, in which Peter will allow her to change nothing.

Michael Francis loves his wife and children but feels his wife is becoming distant. It takes a while to find out why.

All, even Gretta, have secrets, which must come out before relationships can be healed.

O’Farrell writes luminous prose and understands the complexities of people. This is a lovely book.

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