Ann Cleeves, Cold Earth (2016), White Nights (2008)

I’m woefully behind in posting about books (10!! I don’t think I’ve been that bad in a long, long time), so I’m going to lump these two up. I’ve recently read a Vera mystery by Ann Cleeves, and it proved just as good as the TV series, so that I decided to continue in the same vein for the Summer Book challenge. I’ve watched several seasons of Shetland on TV with Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, but had never tried the books before. A lot of the appeal of these mysteries are the beautiful landscapes of the Shetland islands, but not only… (If you don’t want to be sitting in front of this blog post forever, don’t start me on Douglas Henshall… Some people have Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper… 😊 To each their own…). So I came to the book with high expectations (and also a bit disappointment that I wouldn’t see… Douglas Henshall… but I digress)

Following my own rule of being totally unrully when it comes to series, I had #2 and #8 in the Shetland series (that’s Amazon special offers for you), and I started with… the late one. My reasoning was that the #2 might have had a TV adaptation which I’d seen. Which proved actually wrong (or I am becoming even more forgetful than usual). Jumping back from #8 to #2 was indeed a little spoilery, but having followed the TV series I’m pretty much all spoilt already 😏. But for the sake of clarity I’ll report on them in chronological order.

In White Nights, the action takes place in summer, when the Shetland islands have long days because the sun never sets on those Northern latitudes. People do all sorts of wild things during this period, we’re told, especially as they want to enjoy this period before storms, rains and darkness come back for the rest of the year. The book opens with tourists getting down the boat in Lerwick. An art opening is taking place at an upscale gallery on the beach, organized by famous painter Bella Sinclair, and also presenting some paintings by Fran Hunter, who happens to be… Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend. During the gathering a man with an English accent, whom nobody can really place, makes a bit of a scandal and Jimmy Perez escorts him outside. But the next day, the man is found dead, hanging from a rafter in a nearby shed. As it happens, it’s not suicide, but finding who this man is proves to be a challenge, as is the rest of this investigation. If nobody seems to know the victim, why would anyone want to kill him?

I really enjoyed the story and its quiet pace. Every character is well developed and full of his/her own faults and story, even people you hardly see for more than a few pages. For example, one woman on the island is a shopkeeper who reads novels and is very shy, I’m glad Cleeves took the time to develop her, although one feels that Perez never considers her a suspect. The person in England who knows the victim has her own backstory too. Shetland has small communities where everybody knows everything from their neighbors, and so you wouldn’t think it possible to have so many lies, treasons, bitterness and heavy feelings hidden from one another (and from the police) for years. My only reservation is that the resolution seemed to come out of the blue; although it made sense in terms of motive and opportunity, I still found it a bit unrealistic.

Cold Earth takes place years after White Nights, and let’s cut the chase to state that a lot has happened since then and Jimmy Perez’ girlfriend is no longer Fran Hunter. The opening scene is formidable: a burial on a rainy, winter day in Shetland triggers a landslide, which engulfs the road and a nearby house and kills a woman. A woman in a red silk dress in a cottage that everyone thought empty. Who was she? Perez is obsessed, especially as he learns that she was in fact killed before the landslide. The landslide’s scene struck me, especially as I have recently watched the Crown (season 3) covering the Aberfan disaster in 1966 (I had no idea of this historical event and it is presented in a very powerful way). Here the cemetery is literally pushed by the mountain and the rain into the North Sea, and the mental image is sure to leave a mark.

Perez works on this case with a Scottish police chief detective named Willow, and there’s definitely a spark (and more) between them. That’s the thing about reading books out of order. Now I have to tell you that Fran Hunter is, in fact, dead, and Jimmy Perez is still grieving, and also taking care of Fran’s little girl (in the TV series, the daughter is a lot older, so I was confused for awhile). Will he be able to get over his grief to allow himself all the feelings for Willow? Don’t worry, Ann Cleeves steers clear of the romance territory, we’re still very much in the cozy mystery/ thriller genre and the pace is rather more gripping than in the White Nights. Once again, I have a tiny bit of reservation with the resolution, but I’m totally ok to follow along whatever Douglas Henshall… erh, Ann Cleeves has in store for me.

I enjoyed this one even more than White Nights, and I might get back to read the books in-between, if during the colder months I’m in urgent need of rainy, windswept landscapes, Scottish accent, and Douglas Henshall.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate: Wartime Short Stories (2020)

I don’t know about fellow book bloggers, but in my experience it’s so much easier to write about a book one dislike than a beloved book, and to add another layer of complexity, it’s way easier to write about novels than short story collections. All this to say that I’m sorry to write only now about this collection I read and enjoyed in early July (!). If I delayed writing this post many times, it’s because the book is really good and I don’t want to mess it up!

This collection presents 22 stories written between 1940 and 1946, many of them published in the NewYorker for American readers. Of course, as this collection is published by beloved Persephone, it begets questions and comparisons with other women-centric short stories of the same period, such as Goodnight Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I loved). Both collections focus on women’s daily experience on the home front (more often than not the quintessential British village or the upperclass mansion – think Midsommer Murders) and what goes in their hearts and minds beyond the official “Keep Calm and Carry On”: hopes and fears, tragedies, disappointments and tiny intimate upheavals. But Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories are a bit more emotional and kind, while these stories often have a darker undertone, although often tinged with enough humor to make it more palatable.

Even though I read them two months ago now, I still have fresh memories of these vivid scenes. Evacuee children from London to the countryside don’t react to their new surroundings like the adults expect them to. Tobacconists have few cigarettes left: which customers will they favor with their treasure? Wealthy homemakers contemplate the potentially liberating destruction of the home they’ve been restricted to. Women learn to use weapons in the perspective of a potential Nazi invasion, but perhaps they shouldn’t be trusted to have such powerful tools. Burrial ceremonies – and the ensuing family reunions – get disturbed by the impromptu falling of a bomb. Women in the absence of men make unconventional lodging arrangements. And so many other stories… We get to see a bit of everything, from wealthy to poor people, from Londoners to country people, and every time Sylvia Townsend Warner takes an unusual perspective.

I don’t know why Sylvia Townsend Warner is so little known and so little read. She’s been already a favorite writer of mine since Lolly Willowes, but I have neglected her for too long. This collection convinced me to try and find more books by her, either stories or novels. I’m writing this up for the winter!

Karen Maitland, Company of Liars (2008)

The book was pushed into my hands by Mr. S. himself, who encouraged me not to give up. Well I didn’t, although I was tempted more than once. I was squeamish about the pandemic setting (it’s set in 1348 during the Black Plague), but that wasn’t the problem. The thing is, it’s awfully slow. I might have enjoyed it more edited of a few hundreds pages.

I had understood that it was 1. a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 2. a mystery. Both are rather misleading. It compares to Chaucer to the extent that a group of different people travel together due to the plague and nothing more. The cover and the blurbs already announce that each of the travellers hide some secrets about themselves from the others, and then they die one by one. I’d supposed that some would die of the plague, but that’s not the case. And the first death actually occurs past the half mark of the book!

The book is actually part historical fiction, part thriller, part supernatural. I found the mix interestingly unusual but it is not my favorite. The question is not really whodunnit but why, and I didn’t care much for each person’s secret. The ending left me frustrated as well.

Still, I enjoyed the research on people’s everyday life and beliefs in the Middle Ages, which is rather unusual. I get that people back then had a lot of supernatural beliefs, but the supernatural part of the plot itself was rather distracting to me. It made me doubt the historical part.

I have a lot of great memories of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders regarding the 1666 Plague and it should not compare… Any recommendations on good historical novels set in the Middle Ages?

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club (2020)

The Thursday Murder Club is not a club where murderers meet on Thurdays to commit their crimes. It’s a weekly appointment for 4 members of Coopers Chase Retirement Village in Kent, all fast approaching 80 years of age, to put their skills and brains together to investigate cold cases. The story is told by Joyce Meadowcroft, a very proper retired nurse, who has been recently invited by Elizabeth, the group leader, to join the club, as Elizabeth’s best friend Penny is now in hospice care. In a retirement community, it is expected that some members will die. But it would be from illness or old age, and not from being murdered. Soon the group of friends is thrilled (!) to learn that the village property developer has been found murdered, and of course they are very keen to provide help to the local police.

This has the perfect recipe for a great cozy mystery: quirky and endeading characters (imagine Miss Marple who would have joined forces with other nosy old people; the bonus would be that each of them used to have a career or skills that would come handy to unmask criminals). I adored Joyce, and Elisabeth. I liked that the book has a really comedic quality, but also it can venture into a more melancholy tone.

I didn’t know that Richard Osman is a British TV celebrity, and frankly, I couldn’t care less, because the mystery, setting and characters are all delightful. I understand that this is his first novel, and at some points it shows a little, as the pace is rather uneven and there are too many characters and backstories crammed between the covers. But it is a resounding success, and a great entertaining read, and I’m sure to be looking to the next mystery that our friends of the Thursday Murder Club will be investigating.

Ann Cleeves, The Darkest Evening (2020)

I watch Vera Stanhope mysteries on TV, but I must confess that I haven’t read many Ann Cleeves mysteries in book format. In fact, I only read one, The Glass Room, and it was back in 2014! This is definitely something I should work on, because Ann Cleeves delivers a solid plot with characters I enjoy, and instead of wasting my time with some stories that hook you up but stretch your credibility beyond reasonable limits (I’m thinking Domestic noir, Girl on the train and friends), I should turn to classic British countryside whodunits such as this one.

The Darkest Evening starts with a snow storm, something that’s always nice to read about when you’re at home in summer (even if the weather is not really summery these days. Vera takes a wrong turn on the road, and she finds an empty car, doors open, stuck in a snow drift. Inside the car is a baby in his snowsuit, unharmed, but not trace of any adult around. Vera takes the toddler to the nearest shelter she finds on that road: her cousins’ big mansion.

If you’re familiar with Vera Stanhope, you probably know of her stinginess, her propensity to call everyone “love” and her dogged determination to solve crimes, even if it means bossing her team around at ungodly hours or in bad weather to follow some clue. I remembered from TV episodes that her father was an excentric and raised her on a lonely, run-down house on the moor. In this book, we get to learn that her father was the black sheep of an otherwise rather wealthy family. The Stanhopes are the lords and ladies of the manor, overlooking the villages and the farms but the manor itself is in bad financial shape.

I enjoyed this book with its numerous characters with secrets and backstories, the gossips and lies and the reveal totally took me by surprise. It’s always fun to see people underestimate Vera because of the way she talks or walks. I could picture Brenda Blethyn playing in this story. I don’t want to wait another 6 years to read another book by Ann Cleeves!

John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016)

I never thought I would say something like that about a Harry Potter book but this one left me “meh”. It sure isn’t awful but there’s nothing to rave about either. Mostly, it felt a bit pointless. The Deathly Hallows offered to all fans a climax and a closure; it’s really tough to have anything come after that.

So what can The Cursed Child offer? A revisit to best loved characters, almost twenty years later. Time is not kind to anyone, and fans probably hate to see the kind of adults Harry, Hermione, Ron and the others have become. I don’t mind so much, but the whole thing about parenting is hard felt rather heavy-handed.

It offers also a new visit into famous moments of the canon, thanks to time-travel devices. But after the first moment of surprise the whole time-travel thing feels more like a gimmick. (And we all know that I’m not allergic on principles to time-travel in literature) Even my son commented that there was enough back-and-forth to give you motion sickness. The plot itself was not really what I expected of J.K. Rowling. There are really implausible parts (I don’t want to go into spoilers, but there’s a particular awkward detail that really beggars belief), inconsistencies and some predictability, which does not make for a good cocktail.

I love the Harry Potter series (still love it despite this one, which I don’t really consider part of the story), and I transmitted this love to my elder son, so that was only logical that I would buy him this book. It was perhaps a fault of mine that I didn’t read it before giving it to me. My son rather enjoyed it (but not to the degree of the rest) and when he told me to read it, I added it to the pile… for a full year and then more (to my shame). I picked it up for the Summer reading challenge (#20BooksofSummer organized by Cathy from 746 Books) because I wanted to something easy and light. In that respect it was alright, and it was entertaining in a fully nostalgic way, plus it was a good opportunity to talk again about Harry Potter with my rapidly-growing teenager.

I have a mild curiosity about how all this magic and time travel translates onto the stage but I surely wouldn’t pay a fortune to get tickets.

The One with the Metal Detectorists

Elly Griffiths, The Night Hawks (Ruth Galloway #13, 2021)

This is only my second Ruth Galloway mystery but I am already invested in this tightly-knit community of interesting characters – and I also know that this book won’t be the last I read in the series! I discovered Ruth Galloway and her little Norfolk village in March with #11 (yes, I know, this is not reasonable) and this one is #13, but I could catch up without any problem. I won’t say the book can’t read as a standalone, but if you do, be aware that you might soon get addicted like me and that you’ll want to read the rest!

Ruth Galloway is an archaeologist (and now the head of her university department), and so to her, metal detectorists are just annoying amateurs who are messing around and messing things up. I’ve hardly ever seen metal detectorists in my part of the world but I had never thought they actually could find real historical artifacts! But here, not only do they find an old burial site on the Norfolk coastline, but they also discover the body of a recently deceased person. And this person may not have died of natural causes… That’s one of those (happy?) coincidences where Ruth Galloway finds herself once again at a crime scene at the same time as DCI Nelson, who is also the father of her child.

I let myself being entertained by a mystery full of twists and red herrings, but I cared less for the whodunnit than for the interactions between the large cast of characters. Is Ruth going to enjoy her new position at work? Why is her newly recruited professor so cocky? Will Nelson ever consider retirement? What kind of Norfolk tradition and old tales will the mystical druid Cathbad refer to this time? How is it possible for a druid to be happily married to a police inspector? Where is Clough? (that one may have its answer in volume #14 that I missed). Thanks to Griffiths’ great skills at characterization and witty dialogues, I actually cared about this small world as if all these people really existed. (I do wonder how she keeps track of all these people though…)

The book will keep you turning the pages late into the night, and if you’re anything like me, Norfolk coastline will probably be added to your list of destinations to visit one day.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Workers’ Paradise City

David Young, Stasi Wolf (2017)

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years (five! I would have sworn 3 maximum!) since I read the first book of this series. I still remember it quite well, which is a testament to David Young’s skills. I had quite enjoyed this foray into the world of the German Democratic Republic and its criminal underworld, especially as I am old enough to remember it. Young has created a believable character, Karin Müller, full of nuances. She is a police officer with crimes to investigate and murderers to catch, as expected, but her job is way more complicated in a country where crime is not supposed to exist, and where political surveillance applies to all including the police force itself.

This second book picks up a few months after the end of the first one, and I must say that, contrary to many mysteries, I strongly recommend to read the first one before. Karin has refused to work for the Stasi and she’s been punished with a boring cop job in Berlin admonishing rebellious youth. But she’s given another opportunity, away from the capital, in a town where two babies have recently disappeared. Her mission is to lead the investigation to find them asap, without telling any civilian that there actually was a crime. Halle Neustadt (aka Ha-Neu in short, pronounced like the Vietnamese capital) is supposed to be a model Communist town where model industry workers live an ideal life in modern apartments with all the modern amenities (toilets! fridges!). The disappearance of babies has no place in the propaganda, especially as Communist brother leader Fidel Castro will soon come for a visit.

Karin is highly frustrated by all the hindrances the secret police and the party are putting on the investigation, but if she doesn’t toe the line, her desk job awaits her back in Berlin. Soon enough, she suspects that the case is more than a simple disappearance. Her past is catching up with her too, as Ha-Neu is close to her childhood home, where difficult questions have been left unanswered.

I was fascinated by the setting of Ha-Neu and the book sent me right down the rabbit hole of archives photos to see how this socialist city was supposed to be back then and how it still functions now… or not. (Google Ha-neu only if you have some spare time ahead!). I didn’t enjoy the plotting structure as much as the first book, as Young alternates chapters from an unknown voice and chapters with Karin’s investigation, and there’s a lot of back and forth in time. Still, there was enough red herrings (in a red city, sorry-not-sorry for the bad pun) and twists to keep me hooked until the end. I was interested to learn more about Karin’s childhood and back story but it was a bit too easy to guess what was coming on that side.

[Spoilers ahead] The ending made me roll my eyes more than a little. There are far too many coincidences with the personal life of Karin… The poor detective has to give birth to twins with an emergency C-section and then hop out of bed, ride a car, a helicopter and God knows what else to save the day. Sorry but at that point the plausibility was stretched way too far! The research about history may be impeccable, but Young could have asked any woman having had a C-section (which is admittedly way easier than historical research) and she would have pulled down this part of the book before it went to print. It might be a solid digression, but it made me think of the male gaze and of the lack of women in the publishing industry (I would hope that a female editor would have objected too).

Despite its obvious weaknesses I am willing to give the series one more chance to redeem itself, because the setting and the main character are worth it. I am awfully late to the series (which is now at #6!), so have you read the next one(s) and does it remain as enjoyable?

The One in 1937 Beijing

Paul French, Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China (2012)

I sadly don’t remember exactly where I first heard of this book, but I suspect that it might be on the Sinina podcast. Someone spoke of or wrote about this book in glowing terms, and I’m quite grateful that it put me on the scent of this true-crime-meets-history-book. I rarely read true crime books (as you may know that I read little non-fiction anyway), but this one fascinated me, not by the criminal aspect per se, but for the historical and social depth it provided. It made 1937 Peking alive again, and it’s no small feat. You can hear the noises, smell the street food and see the fancy hotels as well as the most sordid slums and bars.

I lived in Beijing (that’s how we’re supposed to spell Peking) for several years in the early 2000s and I never even heard of the foreign legation quarters. (That I didn’t hear about this particular murder is not surprising, given that’s it’s more of a footnote of history). It’s not that the Chinese capital is totally oblivious of its past… it’s rather that it’s very selective about it. The Forbidden Palace, yes, the Temple of Heaven, yes. Everything that celebrates the grandiose past of the Chinese capital is preserved. Some carefully preserved old neighborhoods where tourists can do tours, as well. In the Old Summer palace, there are signs in front of ruins reminding that the French and British troops are responsible for this destruction in 1860 and in 1900. But the fact that foreigners did live in Peking in an enclosed neighborhood as late as 1937? I’d never even thought about it. A short note at the end of the book mentions that the cemetery for foreigners, where the young girl at the center of this investigation was buried, has been replaced by the Second ring road: I believe it says a lot, and I can only credit the writer for his thorough investigation.

Pamela Werner was a British high school student who studied at a boarding school for foreigners in Tientsin, but she came back to her father’s home in old Peking for the winter break. On one night in January, as the Chinese are preparing for the Chinese New Year celebrations and the Russians celebrate their own festival, she goes to the skating ring to meet with friends, but fails to come back home. Her body will be found the next morning in an awful state.

The murder of a foreigner, and a young girl at that, was a shock for the foreign community in Peking and was a nightmare for the Chinese police who had to deal with diplomacy as well as the investigation, which was led conjointly with a British policeman sent from Tientsin. The investigation didn’t lead to any arrest, and Pamela’s father later launched into his own investigation and arrived to his own conclusion, based on very dubious confessions by very dubious people. Whether you believe it or not is entirely your choice, and I don’t think that I was 100% convinced by French’s theory, even though he presented it convincingly.

1937 Beijing was on the brink of disaster. The Japanese forces were increasingly present and arrogant (the murder occurred a mere 6 months before the Marco Polo bridge incident which marked the beginning of the war). Countless Russian refugees who had fled the Soviets at the onset of the 1917 Revolution were at the end of their tethers and lived in abject poverty, prostitution and drug trafficking. One single dead girl, however horrific were her circumstances, soon weighed little when war started and most foreigners left the country.

This book highlighted my selective ignorance of some part of the history of China and Beijing. I’m even more curious to find some social history of 20th China, which would counterbalance my knowledge which is far too centered on very high-level events.

The One with the Norfolk Marshes

Elly Griffiths, The Stone Circle (2019)

I have followed Café Society bookish posts for quite a while, and she had (before her hiatus) always some great British mysteries recommendations, especially police procedurals. I had noted the name of Elly Griffiths, but had never actively sought it out.

When I saw this author’s name among the Amazon Kindle monthly deals, it sort of fell into my lap (for 2,99 euros) and I could not resist for long. Still, there was a “slight” problem: the book I purchased is #11 in the series and I had no clue who the characters were. Yes, I usually don’t strictly follow book series in order, but this is a bit extreme, even for me. I felt as if I was coming very late to the party, and the hosts had practically started eating desert.

But soon my discomfort disappeared, the hosts of the party being extremely welcoming. Yes, I had not the back story of any of them and they knew each other for decades, but they had a real spark and warmth, and I loved the interactions… It took me very few pages to start caring for Ruth Galloway, a single mother who works as an archaeologist at the university of Norfolk, on the coastline. The father of her daughter is actually DCI Nelson, who has a wife, two grown daughters and expects the birth of another kid sometime soon. Well, you can see that it’s complicated… There is a large cast of characters and each had his/her own way to react to a crime. I was more than ok to follow along the twists and turns of the plot that often invoked the past, previous investigations resulting in success and failures. The pace is fast but not too fast, and the writing has just the right amount of British witticism which makes me crave for tea and scones.

Frustrated as I am not to be able to travel, I was also very interested to learn about the Norfolk marshes and the sea henge dating from the Bronze age. Photos are impressive but the book had let me to believe that the circle of timber set in the sea was a lot bigger than it really is. Anyway, I’m definitely sold on Ruth Galloway’s adventures. I may not go back from the beginning all the way up to volume 11, but I might pick and choose a few along the way. If anyone can recommend favorites, I’d be glad!