Review 1613: O, The Brave Music

Seven-year-old Ruan Ashley leads a bleak existence. Her unhappy mother seems to care little for her, preferring her sister Sylvia. Her father is a dour nonconformist minister. They have little money and live in a poor area of a Yorkshire factory town. Ruan is misunderstood, a dreamer who loves reading, especially poetry, and thirsts for beauty.

Things look up when Rosie, the daughter of a wealthy factory owner, comes to visit with David, a boy Rosie’s father has adopted. They take her for a visit to their home up in the moors, where she and David run wild. Family illness calls for her to remain there for the summer.

Ruan’s life becomes one of loss, but it is also mixed with some times of great contentment. Daring it all, she remains herself, a person who refuses to conform to expectation.

This novel is touching as well as lyrical. It is a true ode to life, written in 1940 and looking back 40 years.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 1569: The Seagull

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Disgraced former superintendent John Brace is dying in prison, so he asks Vera Stanhope to visit him. He tells her he has information about the disappearance years ago of Robbie Marshall. He will tell her where Robbie’s body is if she will check in on his daughter, Patty Keane, a single mother with mental health problems.

Vera does, so Brace tells her he discovered Robbie dead one night and buried him in a culvert on St. Mary’s Island. When the police investigate the scene, they find two bodies in the culvert, a man and a woman.

The team’s investigations seem to indicate that the female may be Mary-Frances Lascuola, the mother of John Brace’s daughter, a junkie who vanished a few years before Robbie did. Then, Gary Keane, Patty’s ex-husband, is found dead. A common denominator that seems to link all of the people the team is investigating is the Seagull, once an upscale nightclub that burned down years ago. Another common link seems to be the Gang of Four, a group of wildlife buffs whose members were John Brace, Vera’s father Hector, Robbie Marshall, and a shadowy character known as the Prof.

This is another complex and interesting mystery by Cleeves. Her novels are always atmospheric with believable characters and difficult mysteries.

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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 1497: Elmet

Best of Ten!
My very brief research on Elmet tells me that it was a Welsh kingdom in what is currently West Yorkshire, but the Wikipedia article says that Bede refers to it as “the forest of Elmet.” This reference is certainly apt for the novel Elmet.

Daniel, his father Daddy, and his sister Cathy live in the deep forest in a house their father built. Daddy has claimed the land, which the children’s mother owned when she died.

Before they lived there, the children stayed with their grandmother while Daddy was gone for long periods. But Cathy was being harassed by local boys until she finally beat them up. When Daddy took Daniel and Cathy to report the repeated bullying to the head teacher, he could see that she already believed that the attack was unprovoked, believed the middle-class boys’ lies over the poor children’s truth, that is. So, Daddy took them away to the forest and told them he wouldn’t leave them again.

At first, their life seems idyllic as they live mostly off the land, but we know from the beginning that Daniel is running away from some horrible event. So, a feeling of dread builds.

Daddy is an uneducated giant who makes a living fighting illicit bare-knuckles boxing matches. In his past, he also did violent work off the edges of legality, but lately he has used his great strength to help out poor people against injustices by landlords and former employers. Because of his past, however, he can’t seek out legal means to sort out his problems, and the worst one appears with Mr. Price, a man known to have cheated locals out of their land and a poor landlord. He claims that the kids’ mother sold him her land before she left the area.

This novel is stunning in its beauty, full of dread, dark, and wonderful. Set in the present, it depicts life so violent and exploitative for the locals in poverty that you would think it was feudal times. It’s not often I read a book this good. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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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 1451: Big Sky

I always buy anything by Kate Atkinson as soon as it comes out, but I was especially pleased to learn there was another Jackson Brodie novel. I think her last three books have put her in another category altogether, but it’s fun to see Jackson again after an absence of nine years.

Jackson is out with his son Nathan when he spots a young girl being picked up by a man in a car. She is young enough to sport a backpack with rainbows and unicorns, which he finds the next day in a bay near his home in Bridlington. The police don’t seem to be interested.

Later, he is hired by Crystal Holroyd to find out who is following her in a silver BMW. When Crystal’s kids are threatened, this case becomes more serious.

Jackson also stops a man from jumping off a cliff. This man is Vince Ives, who has lost his job and was being divorced by his wife until his wife is found murdered. Now, of course, the police suspect him of murder.

More is going on than that, though, as a series of coincidences leads Jackson to discover a human trafficking operation.

Atkinson’s mysteries are more quirky than otherwise, following lots of threads that end up being connected (some of them) at least by the presence of Jackson himself. In the meantime, we’re entertained by the musings of Jackson and some of his more likable fellow characters. Another entertaining read for us by Atkinson.

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Transcription

A God in Ruins

Day 1298: Hidden Depths

Cover for Hidden DepthsAfter a rare night out, Julie Armstrong returns home in the wee hours to find her son, Luke, dead in the bath. Her 14-year-old daughter, Laura, is sound asleep in her room.

Luke has been despondent since the death of his friend, Thomas Sharp, from drowning. Julie assumes he killed himself, but Vera Stanhope’s team assures her it was not a suicide. Luke was strangled, his bath filled with scented oil and flowers.

Felicity Calvert is surprised when she meets her son at the bus to find that her teacher has traveled out there to view their cottage with the idea of renting it. Felicity isn’t sure she wants to rent it again but is surprised when the young woman, Lily Marsh, leaves without asking the rate.

Vera’s attentions turn to the Sharps, a local criminal family, wondering if Davy Sharp blamed Luke for his son’s death. But Davy says it was a accident. Soon, another body is discovered in a tide pool by Felicity Calvert’s son. It is Lily Marsh, submerged in a pool surrounded by flowers. The Calverts are at the shore as part of Pete Calvert’s birthday celebration, accompanied by his three best friends, all bird watchers.

This is another clever mystery by Ann Cleeves. Her characters are convincing, and her plots complex without being overly complicated. I am enjoying both the Ann Cleeves series I’m reading.

And by the way, I wish everyone a safe New Year’s Eve and a happy  new year!

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Day 1264: Telling Tales

Cover for Telling TalesHere’s another book for the R.I.P challenge!

In addition, I have just read the Get Your Goth On Dare at Classics Club, so I have decided that I will take up that dare. During the month of October, I will read The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins for the dare. I picked it for obvious reasons.

* * *

Ten years ago, Abigail, a fifteen-year-old girl, was discovered dead by her best friend, Emma. Abigail’s father’s spurned lover, Jeanie Long, was found guilty of the murder. Police have now received belated testimony confirming Jeanie’s alibi. She was not guilty. It is too late for her, though. When her request for parole was turned down a few days earlier, she hung herself.

Vera Stanhope is called in to find out how the investigation could have gone so wrong. Right off the bat, she finds that Jeanie was convicted on no forensic evidence. Looking further, she finds indications of conflict of interest in the case.

On hearing the news about Jeanie, Emma’s younger brother Chris returns from university. He seems to be visibly upset and tells Emma he followed Abigail everywhere the summer she was killed. The next day, he is found murdered. Vera guesses that he must have witnessed something ten years ago that made him realize now who the murder was.

As the villagers’ secrets begin to come out, Vera finds several people to suspect of murder. This novel is truly suspenseful at times, and I never came near to a solution of the crime. This is proving to be a good series.

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Day 1246: The Crow Trap

Cover for The Crow TrapThe Crow Trap is Ann Cleeves’s first Vera Stanhope mystery, set in the North Pennines in Yorkshire. It is unusual in that Vera is barely a character until halfway through the novel.

The first half is narrated by three different women who are doing an environmental impact study for a proposed quarry. They are staying in a remote cottage called Baikie’s that is used by students doing research.

Rachel is the head of the project, and she arrives to discover the body of her friend, Bella, in the barn of the nearby Black Law Farm. Bell has apparently committed suicide and left her body in a place where it would be discovered by Rachel rather than by her invalid husband, Dougie. Rachel is disturbed by this suicide, because she can’t think of a reason for it.

Anne is at the cottage to survey plant life. But she is already involved in a way that may be a conflict of interest with Godfrey Waugh, the married man who will decide whether to excavate the quarry. She is irritated by both other women, especially with Grace.

Grace is there to survey wildlife and has been reporting an astonishing number of otters, to the point where Anne is suspicious of her numbers. Grace is very quiet, sharing almost nothing of herself with her work mates, sleeping little, and hardly eating. Then Grace is found murdered nearby the cottage.

Vera, an eccentric-looking woman, begins investigating the women and the quarry deal. But she views the two women still working in the cottage as a crow trap, a cage containing a crow that is there to attract another crow. She thinks the killer will strike again.

Although this mystery spends so much time on background that some may find it a little slow moving, that is one of the features that makes it stand out. There is some information about the killer that the reader can have no way of knowing, but there are hints enough that it is possible to guess the right person. In any case, I thought this was an excellent mystery, complex and interesting. The characters seem real. The Yorkshire setting that is so evocative in the TV series isn’t vividly evoked, nor are the accents, but that’s a slight fault.

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Day 890: Charlotte and Emily

Cover for Charlotte and EmilyI have read two of Jude Morgan’s literary biographical novels but never felt I was really seeing the true character of the subjects. However, with Charlotte and Emily, Morgan seems to have found his subject.

Charlotte and Emily covers most of the Brontës’ lives, from the time they were children until Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls. By that time, all the other Brontë siblings have died.

Charlotte is the main character of the novel, although it is occasionally told from the point of view of Anne. Emily remains distant from the reader, harder to know.

Much of the novel is concerned with the focus of the entire family on the future of brilliant Branwell, the only son. The girls are sent for schooling so that they can be teachers and earn money to help educate Branwell. Although Charlotte wonders if she can become a writer and even tries sending poetry to Southey, the poet laureate, she is discouraged by both Southey and her father.

Of course, Branwell never finds a vocation and instead becomes a wastrel. Charlotte and Anne work doggedly as teachers, although they hate it. Emily gets herself sent home both from school and work.

I have read biographies of the Brontës, but this novel is the first I’ve read that gave me a sense of what their lives may have been like. I found it completely absorbing. If you are a Brontë lover, this is a book for you.

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