Saturday, 28 December 2013

Entry Island by Peter May

I haven’t read anything else by Peter May so I don’t know if the dual timeline is characteristic of his work, but it is used here to add depth and interest to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward detective novel about an apparently domestic murder: when  the Québec Sureté are called to a remote island to investigate the murder of one of the inhabitants, it seems immediately clear that his wife must be the killer. Sime Mackenzie (pronounced “Sheem”; it’s Gaelic) isn’t so sure, though, because he feels oddly drawn to Kirsty Cowell, the woman who is likely to be arrested. Is his feeling that he has met her before real, or is it a product of the prolonged sleeplessness that has followed the break-up of his marriage?

The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago in the Gulf of St Lawrence with a population of French, Scots, English and Acadians, and part of the province of Quebec; Entry Island, however, is English-speaking, and that is why Sime has been sent as part of the investigation team – to conduct interviews in English. With him he takes the baggage of his own Scots descent, distant memories of the brutal Highland Clearances which uprooted thousands of impoverished Highlanders, often putting them straight onto emigration ships bound for Canada, where those who survived the journey must make a life for themselves in the young colony. Thanks to his grandmother, Sime has grown up with the stories of his ancestry on the Isle of Lewis, but his rediscovery of that history as an adult, reading the diaries of an earlier Sime Mackenzie -- extracts provide the second timeline I referred to above -- is woven throughout his investigation of the present-day murder:

The first time I strayed further from our village than Sgagarstaigh, or Ard Mor […] I was amazed at the size of our island. Once you left the sea behind you, you could walk all day without ever seeing it again. But the land was pitted with wee lochs reflecting the sky, and it broke up the monotony of the landscape.
The thing that amazed me most, though, was the size of the sky. It was enormous. You saw much more of it than ever you did at Baile Mhanais. And it was always changing with the wind.

When I first saw Atlantic Canada (from the air only, sadly; I’ve never been able to visit properly), I was struck by how familiar a landscape it must have looked to the homeless Highlanders, an impression further reinforced by the writings of Alistair MacLeod, that wonderful chronicler of Nova Scotia. Here, too, the parallels between Hebridean Lewis and the Canadian Entry Island are drawn, and the Highlanders’ forced displacement juxtaposed against that of Kirsty, who refuses to leave the island where she grew up.

A haunting story of exile and loss, Entry Island will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Note: My review copy came courtesy of

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Postal Challenge 2014

This year Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader hosted a postal challenge to draw attention to the decline in letter-writing in recent years, something which we should all deplore. I was sorely tempted to join in but neither reading nor blogging were going particularly well at the time, so I was sensible.

This year, though, Melwyk is hosting the challenge again, and I'm determined to join in. I'm delighted to find that there were some epistolary novels already on the TBR pile, and I've been able to draw up a list which looks more like unadulterated pleasure than hard work.

What's involved? Here's what Melwyk has to say on her blog:
What is the Challenge?

The key is to read and review books with a postal theme. These can be non-fiction on the subject of letter writing, collections of real letters, or epistolary fiction of any era. Be creative! Review each one and link back to the challenge -- there will be quarterly roundup posts for you to link reviews and posts to as you create them.

The challenge runs from January 1st, 2014 to December 31st, 2014.  You can sign up ANY TIME throughout the year.

Any books chosen can overlap with any other challenge, and rereads are allowed. Just remember to review them somewhere online in order for them to count toward the challenge. Lists don't have to be made in advance, though feel free to share your choices and inspire other readers if you wish! I always think that making lists is half the fun :)
How do I join in?

There are a few ways to participate in this challenge. 

Postcard Level:   Read and review books with a postal theme.

Snail Mail Level:   Read and review 8 books with a postal theme.

Parcel Post Level: Read and review 12 books with a postal theme.

Air Mail Express Level:   Read and review 12 books with a postal theme AND commit to sending more old fashioned letters this year. At least 12 pieces of mail (or more!), and you can share numbers or even images of your mail art in the quarterly roundups.

Anyone who completes the challenge at any level will have their names thrown into a draw to win some letter-related goodies at the end of the year. In addition, if you complete the Air Mail Express Level, you'll get a chance to win a lifetime membership to (and some goodies from) the Letter Writers Alliance!
Need ideas about what to read? Check out the links at last year's sign-up post, or scroll through some of the epistolary titles that were reviewed in 2013.
To join in, just go to Melwyk's blog and sign up, either with your introductory post or just with your blog's name. You don't even have to have a blog to join.

I agree with Melwyk that lists are half the fun, so here's mine:

  1. Jean Webster, Daddy-long-legs: I've been meaning to re-read this childhood favourite again. It's available on Project Gutenberg and in various print editions. I may well read the sequel, Dear Enemy, too.
  2. Nina Stibbe, Love Nina: Despatches from Family Life: Annabel has just reviewed this and I liked the sound of it, so I'd already ordered it from the library. How convenient!
  3. Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society: I'm the only person who hasn't read this, it seems. What a good opportunity to set that right.
  4. Joyce Dennys, Henrietta's War: Ditto. It's been sitting on the Kindle waiting for a couple of months.
  5. Helene Hanffe, 84 Charing Cross Road: I have read this one, but it seems like a good time for a re-read.
  6. Sarah Caudwell, The Shortest Way to Hades: Loved the first in this series, Thus Was Adonis Murdered. I'm pretty sure that the epistolary passages continue into the second book -- indeed, I can't see how they wouldn't. Should be a real treat!
  7. Jessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye: This was on several people's lists for the 2013 challenge, I think, and I like the sound of it. The library has it.
  8. Rosie Thornton, More Than Love Letters: Okay, this is a re-read, but I remember enjoying it very much.
  9. The letters of Jane Austen: Something to dip into throughout the year? I have the edition of her letters published by Lord Brabourne on my Kindle -- not complete, about 2/3 of them -- but I also have various collections with extracts, including My Dear Cassandra, which has lovely illustrations to complement them.
  10. Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After: This series/trilogy started with Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, and is just fun. And is the only one I might need to buy.
  11. The sequel to Daddy-long-legs is Dear Enemy. I haven't read it.
  12. To round off the year, I may go for another re-read, one based on Jane Austen's letters and another real favourite, Hazel Holt's My Dear Charlotte. This is described as a detective novel in letters, by the author of the splendid Mrs Malory series.
There! It should be entirely possible to add new titles during the course of the year, too, with quarterly summaries to look forward to. Twelve books puts me at the AirMail Express Level, which means I have to commit to sending at least 12 pieces of mail, too (I don't suppose 50 Christmas cards is going to count, is it?) Well, I do like both sending and receiving mail -- usually cards -- so I don't think this will be too much of a hardship. My card collection is nearly as extensive as my TBR pile, in fact - perhaps this will deplete it a little. At any rate, it's beginning to look like a year of unalloyed pleasure!

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Two murder mysteries

I seem to have missed the instalment before Susan Hill's A Question of Identity (number 7 in the Serrailler series), but it didn't affect the investigation into the apparently random killings of little old ladies. Susan Hill is not going to let her readers off when it comes to victims, you are going to be sympathising with them before they get bumped off, so you'll feel personally affronted by the crime when it happens. Our hero, Simon Serrailler, may be intelligent and good-looking, but he's a flake when it comes to his personal life, and can be pretty irritating. Of course, we understand why, but it doesn't stop you wanting to shout at him sometimes. Fortunately, he's not so bad at being an uncle, which is just as well because his sister Cat's family is having a difficult time. So, too, is their stepmother Judith, whose marriage to their cold and distant father is beginning to look shaky, although she won't talk about it.

What really makes this series compelling is the Serrailler family. The crime element would be enough on its own to make the books readable -- Hill does them very well, cranking up the reader's anxiety for her victims. Grit is provided by the occasional first person viewpoint of the murderer, reinforcing motive without quite giving away their identity. But the author really excels at portraying the Serrailler men in their family setting: reserved and complicated, even brooding, they guard their own interests at the expense of those around them. This is family saga in the guise of crime novel, and very effective it is too. But it does mean that they are better read on order.

The Frozen Shroud by Martin Edwards is the sixth Lake District Mystery involving historian Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett. As in the Serrailler story, a murder has happened which seems to echo others from the past -- but how can they possibly be connected when the killers are dead? The coincidence is enough for Hannah to be drawn into the investigation, where she finds not only Daniel but her own closest friend involved.

I didn't plan in advance to review these two books together, but it occurs to me that they are an interesting pairing. For a start, in The Frozen Shroud Edwards encroaches on Hill's territory with its lakes and mists and obscured identities -- there are moments of high gothic worthy of The Woman in Black. Unlike the Serrailler series, though, The Frozen Shroud could stand on its own as a mystery -- while the previous instalments provide background about the main characters, and some events are dependent on the recent past dealt with in the earlier books, the puzzle of the three, possibly connected, murders is at its core in the way that the Serraillers are at the heart of Hill's series. This may be due in part to the Lake District setting, which emerges powerfully in Edwards' writing in a way that Serrailler's Lafferton fails to. Susan Hill has apparently mentioned both Salisbury and Exeter as models for Lafferton; I've lived in Exeter and, sadly, Lafferton has no resonances of that city for me. Maybe Salisbury is a better fit? I don't know... but honestly, Lafferton doesn't really feel like anywhere very distinct. I've also lived on the edge of the Lakes, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy Martin Edwards' books so much. By fictionalising a real and recognisable place, he brings his obvious feelings for that landscape into play, and grounds his characters within it; part of his work is then done, and he can focus on the plot, while Hill's nebulous Lafferton almost impedes development. When Hannah sits down in her office it's the same one where she sat in the last book, and the book before that -- Simon's office is just a line of print on the page.

Hmm... I think I may be feeling my way towards saying that actually, the strength in Hill's series is the female characters, and that I find Serrailler himself a bit ephemeral. I don't mean to imply that he's unconvincing, but perhaps his portrayal leans too heavily on what the author tells us about him rather than what we discover. Looking back, I realise that my interest always quickens when the women appear -- Cat and Judith are warm and vital and decisive, and seem real. In the Lake District mysteries, Daniel and Hannah, too, have reason to be guarded in their relationships, but if they choose inaction, it is for caution rather than calculation.

The Frozen Shroud and A Question of Identity are both excellent examples of how British crime novels have evolved from Golden Age detective fiction: one is essentially a police procedural while the other riffs on the classic country house mystery, but both are driven by plot and character in equal measure. Both would make excellent last-minute Christmas presents for the connoisseur, or why not start at the beginning with both series?

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Crocodile on a Sandbank, first published in 1975

I've always known that the first encounter between Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson must have been an almighty clash of personalities, but for some reason I'd never read the first of Elizabeth Peters' books. When I discovered (some time ago) a cheap Kindle deal on the first four, I snapped it up, but have only now got round to reading it (there are still good deals, incidentally - as I write, this first is on Amazon UK for 99p).

Much of the character of Emerson is based on Flinders Petrie, as is the research - Petrie was the first Egyptologist to systematically categorise his finds, realising that where other dating methods were impossible, pottery - for instance - could be identified by its stage of development, so he meticulously recorded each piece, building up a historical record. Much information had been lost through haphazard "research" and straightforward looting, but Petrie's methodical approach makes early twentieth-century archaeology a fascinating field, and Peters' series is a wonderfully rendered and spirited recreation of that period. Amelia Peabody has all the characteristics that made early lady explorers indomitable - she travels in comfort because it would be irrational not to do so, rather than because she is afraid of discomfort:
Emerson grumbled at all the unnecessary luxury. I myself have no objection to comfort so long as it does not interfere with more important activities. (From Curse of the Pharaohs)
She despises the squalor and poverty in which most of the Egyptians live, but alleviates these conditions wherever she can, travelling with a collection of eye ointments and other paraphernalia, and she makes lifelong friends of many of their workers.

Inevitably, Amelia's meeting with Emerson is the scene of immediate conflict, since both are opinionated and emphatically convinced of their own correctness in everything. It is Emerson's younger brother Walter, and Amelia's companion Evelyn, at once attracted to each other, who contrive further meetings. The Emerson brothers are digging at the site of the heretic king Akhenaten's temple, but they are beset by problems caused by the superstition of the workers and their own chronic lack of funding. In fact, when the women arrive, Emerson is seriously ill and Amelia must at once set to work to save him. When he recovers, the willingness of both women to approach archaeology with care and academic rigour rapidly establishes the quartet as a team so effective that even the reluctant Emerson must admit it.

Peters treads the line between Amelia's self-awareness and self-deception with great skill (and considerable glee) even in this first of the series. Amelia is always so certain of her own rationality and rightness -- and much of the time, the reader will agree that her decisiveness and proposals are most sensible. Indeed, her obtuseness at times can look like wilful self-deception and, if it is, it's as plausible a trait as any other she shows. The reader simultaneously concurs with the other characters and colludes with Peabody in overcoming their objections to the course she proposes, but no decision ever proceeds without much wrangling:
Only Evelyn’s intervention prevented a full-scale battle at breakfast, and it was she who insisted that we all get some sleep before discussing the matter again. All our tempers were strained by fatigue, she said; we could not think clearly. This was, of course, Evelyn’s tact; her temper was never strained, and I am rational under all circumstances. It was Emerson who needed rest in order to be sensible, although I doubted that sleep would improve his disposition very much.
In case you've never read anything by Elizabeth Peters (I guess there may still be the odd soul out there who hasn't), this series isn't just about archaeology -- all the novels have a mystery at their heart. In Crocodile on a Sandbank someone is apparently trying to sabotage the dig -- the mummy of a long-dead priest of Amon appears to be haunting the site and there are numerous unexplained accidents. In fact, this is a running theme throughout the series, trading on the competitive and sometimes cut-throat nature of early Egyptology. And, of course, there's the Curse of the Pharaoh...

I can imagine that for some, Amelia Peabody might just be too much, I suspect you are either going to love her or hate her. Her admiration (privately expressed) for her husband can be a bit irritating at times, but it's entirely in character. She feels like a real person; I adore her.