To begin, I would like to thank all of you who left such lovely messages here and on Twitter during my self imposed break from blogging. Although little has been resolved on the personal front, I have continued to read, but circumstances have curtailed the production of reviews. Realising I’m about a gazillion books behind, here for your delectation and delight is a round-up of some terrific, and not so terrific, smorgasbord of reads that have helped keep me sane along the way and more to come. It’s good to be back, and enjoy!
First up, all the way from the USA is a highly readable Japanese set thriller, Painted Doll by Jonelle Patrick. Part of the Only In Tokyo series. Tokyo detective Kenji Nakamura is more than a little distressed to discover that the death of his mother ten years previously in a supposed accident, is actually connected to a string of murders of young women attributed to the Painted Doll Killer. What follows is not only a complex and compelling investigation to catch a killer, but also a brilliant study of Nakamura’s emotional turmoil when dark secrets from his own familial background come to the surface. Patrick balances both facets of the book with a deft touch, producing a genuinely gripping crime thriller which wrong-foots and perplexes the reader throughout, and drawing us in emotionally to Nakamura’s travails both professional and personal. The case proves itself to be violent and disturbing in equal measure, and there are some good turns of pace in the narrative. The book is steeped in Japanese cultural references, and proved to be incredibly enlightening about the conflicts of old fashioned tradition, and contemporary society, and the gaps between the generations, as well as being highly informative on Japanese life generally. Suffice to say, I will be seeking out the other instalments of the series. Highly recommended.
In a change of pace, Cross Purpose by Claire MacLeary, quickly revealed itself to be a quirky, but nonetheless absorbing debut. When Maggie Laird’s disgraced ex-cop husband is found dead in the office of his private investigation business, various distasteful truths come home to roost, leaving Maggie financially strapped, emotionally wrought, and drawn into the dark criminal underbelly of Aberdeen. Through necessity, and some cajoling from her loud, blousy and utterly loveable next door neighbour ‘Big Wilma’, who joins forces with her, the intrepid duo set out to clear the besmirched name of Maggie’s husband, but find themselves navigating some dark and dangerous waters along the way. MacLeary’s prose is assured and engaging, bursting with the liveliness of the Aberdonian vernacular, particularly in evidence in the contrasting personalities and social standing of Maggie and Wilma and in the criminal world of the drugs trade they find themselves immersed in. Not only does MacLeary paint an unflinching picture of the sink estates, and those drawn into the drugs trade, but also a simple but effective study of people doing what they need to, to simply get by or to profit by the misery and dependency of others. I found it interesting how every character had some semblance of damage or insecurity in their characters in some form or another, and the way that these flaws evinced themselves in their actions or moments of epiphany. Despite the grim realities of life that MacLeary explores, the book is underscored by a wonderful black humour at times, which drew more than one chuckle or knowing nod from this reader. Really enjoyed this one, and an impressive debut.
Right, from Aberdonian sink estates let’s time travel back to 1666 and the Great Fire of London, in Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, where the body of a man is found in the smoking ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral, stabbed in the neck, with his thumbs tied behind his back. So far, so good, and what unfolds from this is a delicious and vivid exploration of London society, and through a world of cheats and traitors, class and gender oppression, and a damn fine murder mystery. Absolutely central to my enjoyment of this book, apart from the perfectly realised period detail, was the character of Catherine ‘Cat’ Lovett, a young gentlewoman, and daughter of a notorious regicide, condemned to live with grasping relatives. As a result of an attack on her person, she goes on the run, assuming the position of a housemaid, but is drawn into the sphere of the men charged with redesigning London, but into further danger due to her father’s reappearance having plotted against the former king. Cat is a mercurial and striking character, compartmentalized by society by virtue of her gender and class, but with a keen mind and inquisitive spirit which reveals itself in her aptitude for, and interest in the world of architecture. Equally, she is feisty and brave, and has a determination to track down and confront her father at odds with the demeanour that society expects from her being of a certain social class. Taylor’s characterisation throughout is lively and reminiscent of the band of good natured fellows and absolute rotters that inhabit the works of Dickens for example. Outright villains sit cheek by jowl with characters you root for throughout, particularly those labouring for acceptance in the shadow of the sins of their fathers. Taylor conjures up all the sights, smells and atmosphere of the period with aplomb, and provides an intriguing and twisty murder mystery into the bargain too. Recommended.
Now to London in the contemporary era in the company of Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard which has been languishing on my shelves for far too long. The first of a series introducing claustrophobia-suffering, relationship-fearing psychologist, Alice Quentin, who finds herself unwittingly drawn into the world of a serial killer by virtue of her consultancy work for the Metropolitan police. Using Crossbones Yard, a neglected piece of London ground that was used as a cemetery for fallen women as a locus, Rhodes weaves an intriguing psychological thriller, with a sublime nod to the real life case of murderers Fred and Rosemary West. Alice is a likeable enough character, fitting wonderfully into the mould of psychologically troubled psychologist- physician heal thyself perhaps- who finds herself in some degree of peril throughout. Perhaps, because of my voracious crime reading, the identity of the perpetrator of the heinous crimes was a little too obvious quite early on, but despite this I had a resolute compunction to read on, as I found Alice a compelling figure throughout, and found the band of emotional misfits and miscreants she encounters both professionally and personally rather engaging. I have bought the next in the series so that’s probably a good recommendation.
And so to the pseudonymous J. P. Delaney and The Girl Before, the first contender for the mantle of this year’s Girl On The Train. Brace yourselves. Despite my resolution to steadfastly avoid any domestic noir thrillers in 2017, I had already signed up for this one and its attendant blog tour. Having read the book, I then bowed gracefully out of the blog tour (thanks to Quercus for their understanding) as I really, really disliked this book for a whole host of reasons. My trademark tag-line of Grand Designs meets Fifty Shades of Grey, probably tells you most of what you need to know, about this tortured tale of enigmatic, but emotionally stunted control freak architect, entrapping hapless young women in a prison of his own creation. Still with me? Good. Excruciating dialogue and clunky plotting dismayed me further. However, with a prime spot on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Bookclub, soaring sales, and probably a film, my opinion matters little. One to make your own minds up about.
(With thanks to Jonelle Patrick for the review copy of Painted Doll, Saraband for Cross Purpose and Quercus for The Girl Before. I bought The Ashes of London, and Crossbones Yard.)