Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dead Men’s Bones by James Oswald

Dead Men’s Bones is the fourth book in the series featuring DI Tony McLean written by the Scottish author James Oswald who combines a successful writing career with farming. 
The book begins with the discovery of a naked body in a river outside Edinburgh – the body is male and covered with tattoos.  DI McLean hardly has time to start investigating this suspicious death when he is sent to the home of an MSP who has been found shot in the grounds of his house in Fife.  Inside the house the police find the bodies of the MSP’s wife and two young daughters. It looks like the MSP killed his family before committing suicide.
It appears that DI McLean has been allocated this case because it is political hot potato and his superiors do not want to be associated with it.  He has a reputation for being a bit of a maverick who can be dispensed with should he discover anything which would reflect unfavourably on the government. 
Like all the books in this series, this is a police procedural story but with a supernatural twist at the end which makes these books different from most current crime novels.
What I particularly enjoyed about this book:-
·       The development of the characters during the series – I especially like DI McLean who comes across as very human – his strong sense of justice drives him to solve cases even if he annoys his superiors in the process; he is a good team leader who cares about the members of his team as people; he also cares about the less fortunate members of society as his treatment of the homeless ex-soldier demonstrated
·         I liked the descriptions of Edinburgh and the surrounding area – having lived in the city for 8 years I could picture the various locations in the book
·         McLean’s relationship with his superior Duguid seems to be slightly better in this book – I did find that their constant battles were becoming a little boring and repetitive
·        The ending was very exciting when DI McLean realises that his team are in danger and goes to check on them
·        The story was cleverly plotted with various layers including the involvement of a mysterious man from the Special Branch who encouraged McLean to keep on investigating the case of the MSP

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I read Silas Marner by George Eliot with  my local book group recently – this book was written by Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, in 1861.  This is quite a short book and an easy read.  The book tells the story of Silas Marner, a linen-weaver, who is uprooted from the town where he works because he is falsely accused of stealing money from the minister of the religious community where he worships.  Marner moves to the country settling in the small village of Raveloe.  He does not mix with the local folk here and is thought to be eccentric.  As Eliot explains at the beginning of the book, weavers were regarded with some suspicion by the country folk as they possessed skills which they regarded as almost magical. “In this way it came to pass that those scattered linen-weavers – emigrants from the town into the country – were to the last regarded as aliens by their rustic neighbours, and usually contracted the eccentric habits which belong to a state of loneliness.”

Silas Marner is obviously a very good weaver as he makes plenty of money – this he hoards, keeping the guineas in two leather bags which he counts every evening.  “He thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children – thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.”

The years pass by uneventfully, until one evening when Silas leaves his door unlocked to go out on an errand, a thief enters who steals his gold.  Silas is devastated by the loss of his gold but this event serves to make him more acceptable to his neighbours who now feel some pity for him. Shortly afterwards another event happens in Silas life which restores him to life – this is the appearance of a young girl in his cottage one snowy night.  Silas is so captivated by the child, whom he names Eppie, that he decides to adopt her and this action helps even further to integrate him into village society.  “That softening of feeling towards him which dated from his misfortune, that merging of suspicion and dislike in a rather contemptuous pity for him as lone and crazy, was now accompanied with a more active sympathy, especially amongst the women.”  One of his neighbours in particular, Dolly Winthrop, provides a great deal of help and advice in bringing up Eppie. 

At the end of the book, Eppie’s real father makes himself known to her and suggests that she come and live with him and his wife.  However I am not going to disclose the ending – if you want to find out you will need to read the book!

I really enjoyed Silas Marner which like all good novels can be read on many levels. In the book Eliot investigates the relations between the individual and the society in which they live.  The characters are all real and believable.  The story moves along at a good pace and all the various strands come together at the end in a satisfactory manner.  It touches on the effects of industrialisation.  It can be read as a moral tale – the good people are rewarded while the bad ones get their just deserts.

I will let R T Jones have the last word “but if, by the time we reach the end of the novel, we have a suspicion that George Eliot is not always as straightforward as she seems, we may be left with some doubts about the apparent conclusiveness of that fairy-tale ending.” (from the introduction to The Wordsworth Classic edition)


Portrait of the author aged 30 by the Swiss artist Alexandre Louis François d'Albert Durade (1804–86)



Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Hummingbird by Kati Hiekkapelto

The Hummingbird is the debut novel by the Finnish writer, Kati Hiekkapelto.  It features the detective Anna Fekete who moved to Finland with her family as a child from war torn Yugoslavia.  She has recently moved back to a northern Finnish coastal town where her brother Ákos also lives.  Anna and her brother are very different – she can speak 6 languages whereas Ákos doesn’t work and has a drink problem.  He hasn’t integrated well into Finland.

Anna finds that her new partner, Esko, is a rascist who says very provocative things about immigrants. However the relationship between Anna and Esko improves as the book progresses and they learn more about each other.

The book starts with the murder of a jogger who is found with an Aztec pendant.  More murders follow and the police struggle to find links between them.  The victims all have this pendant - what is their significance?  

There is a second story running through the book about a Kurdish girl who phones the police for help but then asserts this was a mistake.  Anna is so concerned about this girl that she watches the family home in her free time.  I liked the technique used by the author where some chapters are written in the first person so we find out what is really happening to the Kurdish girl.

Language is a very important theme running throughout the book which includes excerpts of Anna’s own language – like many readers I was unable to read these as there was no translation provided.  Perhaps the author was making a point here by making the reader feel frustrated so s/he could understand how immigrants must feel when they first arrive in a new country unable to speak the language.  It was very interesting to find out more about the experience of immigrants in Finland.

This book dealt with the themes of

·         Home – what do we mean by “home”?  Where is your home?  Anna is torn between her life in Finland and her life back in Hungary where her family live

·         Integration and belonging

I enjoyed the book as I like to find out about other countries and I know nothing about Finland.  The author captured the landscape and the climate well especially the changing seasons.  “It seemed that summer had finally come to an end, though the skin yearned to cling to the warmth and the touch of seawater for just a moment longer.”

On the whole I thought this was a very good debut novel and I am looking forward to reading the sequel entitled The Defenceless.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason

Hypothermia is the 6th book in the Erlendur series by the Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason.  The book starts with the suicide of a woman at her summer cottage near Lake Thingvellir.  Although there are no suspicious circumstances, Erlendur starts to investigate this death.  It seems that the woman has been very depressed since the death of her mother two years previously.  Her father had drowned in this lake when she was a young child.

Running alongside this investigation, Erlendur is also trying to find out what happened to two young people who disappeared many years earlier leaving no trace.  Erlendur’s obsession with these missing person cases seems to stem from the loss of his brother in a snow storm when they were both children.  In this book we learn more about this incident and the promise he made to his dying mother to find out what happened to his brother, Bergur.  This helps to explain Erlendur’s character which is described as “gloomy and withdrawn” by an author who wrote about the incident.  Erlendur describes the day the family left their farm to move to Reykjavik.  “On the last day we walked from room to room and I felt a strange emptiness that has stayed with me ever since.”

We also find out more about Erlendur’s failed marriage and meet his ex-wife, Halldóra.  Their daughter Eva is keen for her parents to meet but the meeting is unsuccessful as Halldóra is still very bitter towards Erlendur blaming him for everything as he walked out on her, leaving her with two children to bring up on her own.  Erlendur tries to explain why he did this but Halldóra is unwilling to listen.

There are a number of themes running through this book:-

·         Ghosts and guilty secrets

·         Lakes, cold water and hypothermia

·         Missing persons

I really enjoyed this book and feel that I now have a much better understanding of Erlendur as a person.  I like Erlendur’s ability to speak to people and get them to open up and disclose secrets which have been kept buried for many years.  In this way he finds out a great deal about people and is able to work out links between the past and the present.  The descriptions of the Icelandic landscape are excellent contributing to the overall dark mood of the novel.  I am certainly looking forward to reading more of the Erlendur series.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I read Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recently at my “Lunch with Dickens” book group and it is also one of my 50 books to read for the Classics Club book challenge.  Sir Nigel was written in 1906 and is a historical novel.  It is set between 1350 and 1356 during the Hundred Years War and describes the early life of a young English squire, Nigel Loring, up to the time when he is knighted.  It is the prequel to the White Company although at the end of Sir Nigel we find out what happens in his later life.

Nigel becomes a squire to Sir John Chandon and goes off to fight in France.  Before leaving he promises Lady Mary that he will perform three deeds of honour so that he can be worthy of her hand in marriage.

I enjoyed the book which was well written – the use of use of medieval words and phrases give a flavour of the times but without posing any problems to understanding the story. 
The book was fast moving and funny in parts.  Sir Nigel was an honest, brave young man who wanted to do his best for his king and for Mary.  It was interesting to find out about the strict rules knights had to follow.  I enjoyed the description of the English sneaking into the castle of the Butcher of La Brohinière through the tunnel. Parts of the story were quite bloodthirsty especially the descriptions of how the dead were treated and how the archers went around gathering back their arrows from the battlefield.  However, life was very different in the 14th century. 
Here are some quotes which give a flavour of the book.
"Over the winding river, across the green meadows, rose the short square tower and the high grey walls of the grim Abbey, with its bell tolling by day and night, a voice of menace and of dread to the little household."
"There are two seasons of colour in those parts: the yellow, when the countryside is flaming with the gorse-blossoms, and the crimson, when all the long slopes are smouldering with the heather."
"The visors had been closed, and every man was now cased in metal from head to foot, some few glowing in brass, the greater number shining in steel.  Only their fierce eyes could be seen smouldering in the dark shadow of their helmets.  So for an instant they stood glaring and crouching."
Sir Nigel is very different from the Sherlock Holmes novels but Conan Doyle thought his historical books were some of his best work.  I will certainly read The White Company sometime.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle