Book log 2015: 16) James Runcie — Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death

First of the Grantchester Mysteries series, about a Church of England vicar who solves mysteries in collaboration with one of the local police detectives. The first book is a set of six short stories, each a standalone about an individual case, but with an overall arc running through them. I bought it because I’d seen and enjoyed a couple of episodes of the tv adaptation. This doesn’t always mean I’ll like a book, but in this case I’m very glad I bought it. It’s an excellent period cosy mystery, written by someone who knows the minutiae of Anglican clerical life. The ebook for this one is often low price as a hook for the series, and well worth getting.

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book log 2015: 15) Luke Young — Friends with partial benefits

Sweetly funny milf erotic romance novel – but be warned that the characters spend an awful lot of the book being interrupted before they can actually do something about their attraction. Successful romance writer Jillian divorced her no-good husband a while back for cheating on her, and hasn’t had much luck in the dating game since then. So when her son comes home from unversity for vacation and brings his friend Brian with him, Jillian can’t help but notice that Brian’s very nicely put together. He’s also her son’s friend, which puts him off limits.

Brian thinks Jillian’s pretty hot, even if she’s old enough to be his friend’s mother. In fact, she *is* his friend’s mother, which puts her off limits…

While some of the situations they end up in are frankly implausible, the lead and supporting characters are well-written, and Jillian and Brian’s ever more frantic efforts to first hide and then give in to their attraction are entertaining. This isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste; but if it appeals to your sense of humour, it’s a lot of fun.

This is the first of a series, but there’s closure at the end of the book. The ebook is free as a hook for the series, and I think worth downloading to try it out.

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Book log 2015: 13) Sarah Pinborough — The Death House

This is my nominee for the 2015 novel Hugo.

Yes, I liked it that much. I bought this YA speculative fiction novel when I saw Gollancz tweet an opening day offer, because I’d greatly enjoyed one of Pinborough’s tie-in novels and wanted to read more by her. I started reading it that day, and was bowled over. It is a stunning portrayal of life, love and growing up under the shadow of death; a bittersweet coming-of-age novel about children and teenagers who know they will never do so.

It’s set in a near future very much like our present, save for one thing – there is an illness so terrible that all children are tested for the signs that they are carriers. If they test positive, they are taken to the Death House. There they will be cared for and given as normal a life as possible, right up until the time the sickness activates. It may be a few months, it may be years, but one thing is certain – they will die. And they will never be allowed to leave, or have contact with anyone other than each other and the staff assigned to care for them.

Toby has been in the House for long enough to have found ways to cope with the separation from his family and the knowledge of what awaits him, but the arrival of a new girl disrupts both the interactions between the Death House inmates, and Toby’s coping mechanisms. Through his eyes we see the different ways the children deal with what their lives have become; all the emotions of a lifetime compressed into a few short years, with the teenagers like Toby finding themselves being surrogate parent figures for the younger children. There’s a mystery plot as well; and the whole is a slow-burning build to a resolution where the older children decide exactly what is worth fighting for with their foreshortened lives.

Moving and beautifully written, this was one of the best things I read all year.

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booklog 2015 – 4) Pati Nagle – Dead Man’s Hand

Five murdered poker players from different eras are brought back from the dead for one last tournament. The prize is life itself.

The book opens with Wild Bill Hickok finding himself pulled from the grave, his bones clothing themselves with flesh and the flesh with clothes. The reader follows along with Bill as he tries to work out what’s going on and why he feels an urge to go to Atlantic City, although the reader has an advantage over him in being able to recognise the present day and just how much time has passed. Another four men from different time periods have the same experience, although one is so recently dead that he is able to convince friends and family that he’d been kidnapped and held incommunicado for several years. As they gradually assemble, they discover that they have been revived for the greatest poker tournament in history – between the greatest players, no matter when they lived.

The result is an atmospheric blend of ghost story and mystery, with some superb world-building going into the strange casino that has revived the men. The characters are well developed, and it’s a joy to watch their interaction, and their different reactions to the present day. Those reactions are driven in part by their different reasons for wanting the prize; not just a new life in a recreated body, but what they want to do with that life. A chance at love, a chance at revenge, fascination with this new world they find themselves in… Even for the four losers, their short time walking the earth again allows them to do at least a little of what was left undone.

A lovely short ghost novel for Halloween, with the emphasis on the human soul rather than on horror.

direct from Book View Cafe, with excerpts available
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Book log: 82) Victor Canning — The Whip Hand

1965 thriller, the first of four featuring private eye Rex Carver. Carver accepts what is presented as a straightforward job of tracing a young woman, and ends up chasing around Europe in a murky plot where he’s working for at least three different masters who may or may not be on different sides, and include at least one official intelligence organisation. Definitely a product of its time, in more ways than one, but good fun and well worth a read.

LibraryThing entry

book log: 81) Gladys Mitchell — The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (The Mrs Bradley Mysteries)

81) Gladys Mitchell — The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (The Mrs Bradley Mysteries)

Second of the long-running Mrs Bradley mystery series, and the first I’ve read. I bought a set of nine of the novels recently re-published by Vintage (Random House) because I adored the BBC adaptation starring Diana Rigg and Neil Dudgeon. Unsurprisingly, the books differ significantly from the tv series, but are equally enjoyable. And I think the tv adaptation is faithful to the tone of the novels; even if Diana Rigg is far too elegant and glamorous to be the physical Mrs Bradley of the books, she’s got the personality right.

Mrs Bradley is elderly, wealthy, eccentric, and a talented and experienced psychologist who uses her skills to solve crimes. As other reviewers have noted, there’s a distinct resemblance to what you’d get if you turned Miss Marple into a wealthy woman who has married and divorced three times, and divorced at least one of those husbands for being boring. The ones I’ve read so far are enormous fun.

The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop is fairly gruesome, in that the body of one Rupert Sethleigh is found neatly butchered and laid out as cuts of meat in the local butcher’s shop. Sethleigh will not be missed by Wandle Parva, and there is a large and varied selection of people with motives to do away with him. Adding to the fun and games, many of those people have reason to protect each other, and their attempts to do so only confuse the issues. General silliness ensues as Mrs Bradley disentangles methods, motives and opportunity, frequently by deliberately poking the suspects to see what they will do.

LibraryThing entry

Booklog: 79) Jennifer Ashley — The Duke’s Perfect Wife

79) Jennifer Ashley — The Duke’s Perfect Wife

Fourth and final book in the Highland Pleasures quartet of romance novels about four brothers who are Scottish Lords in Victorian Britain. This book is about Hart MacKenzie, oldest of the brothers, and head of the family since their father’s death. Their father was a brutal monster, whose ill-treatment of his family has damaged all four men. Hart has done much and sacrificed much to protect himself and his brothers, and that as much as the ill treatment has had its effect on him. There are other losses besides, including losing his wife and child to death.

And before that there was Eleanor Ramsey, his first fiancee, who broke off their engagement when she discovered what it was he did to deal with his demons. Now Eleanor is back in his life, with the intention of protecting him from a potential scandal involving nude photographs taken of him long ago.

Hart still loves her, and has no intention of letting her go this time. But holding Eleanor Ramsey will take more than even Hart Mackenzie’s skill at seduction.

It’s a good book, and does an excellent job in rounding off the story arc of the family as a whole. But it doesn’t quite make good on hints dropped in earlier books about the darker strands of Hart’s personality. There were things set up which suggested that Hart had been involved in some fairly heavy BDSM, which may or may not have been consensual, but which contributed to his reputation as a man who could use his social position and wealth to get away with a great deal. As it turns out, Hart has good reason for thinking of himself as having the same capacity for viciousness and violence as his father did, but it’s to do with trying to protect his family. The BDSM isn’t a red herring, but it’s not what we were led to believe in the earlier books. I thought it worked, in part because I eventually felt Ashley may have been making a deliberate point about society’s assumptions about consensual BDSM, but I can see why other readers felt that it was bottling out. There’s fannish gossip about backtracking due to publisher pressure — if true, then I think Ashley did a good job in retconning the setup from earlier in the series.

LibraryThing entry

book log: 76) Edward Marston – the Queen’s Head

First of the Nicholas Bracewell mystery series, set in a theatrical company in Elizabethan London. Bracewell is the bookholder for Lord Westfield’s Men, a responsible position in its own right even without the additional tasks taken on by Bracewell. Bracewell finds himself with an unexpected task of the worst kind when his friendĀ  and colleague, actor Will Fowler, is called in a tavern brawl. Bracewell is determined to find the killer, but has other equally urgent matters to deal with, not least of which is ensuring nothing goes wrong with the performance of a new play before the Queen herself. Jealous rivalries both within the company and with another company aren’t helping matters…

It’s an entertaining romp, but unusually for Marston, there were a couple of elements that could be problematic for many readers. They’re historically accurate, but nevertheless they need flagging up. One is the portrayal of one of the senior actors as having a taste for pretty boys, and this being tolerated as long as he leaves the company’s apprentices alone – which he doesn’t. Given other things he’s written I don’t think Marston intended this, but it does come over as equating “homosexual” with “pedarest”. The other is that the book does get into the head of characters with the strong anti-Catholic prejudices one might expect in this time period.

book log: 65) PD James — A Taste for Death [audio book]

BBC Radio 4 full cast dramatisation of the novel, presented on 2 CDs. Two men are discovered with their throats cut in the vestry of St Matthews Church. One is a local tramp, the other a former government minister. The political implications make the murder investigation a job for Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team.

It’s a good adaptation played by an excellent cast, and I enjoyed listening to it. But squeezing a long book down into 2 hours 20 minutes means that a lot of material has had to be cut, and I think the adaptation does suffer for it. It’s still very enjoyable, but I think might feel a bit thin to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the book.