The Buried by Sharon Bolton

Two new Sharon Bolton books in one year! I loved The Dark, the latest in Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, which was published in the spring – and now, with The Buried, she returns to her Florence Lovelady series. I’ve been waiting for this sequel since I read The Craftsman in 2018 and had almost given up hope of it ever appearing, but here it is at last. It was definitely worth the wait!

The Buried begins in the summer of 1999, with Florence Lovelady visiting Larry Glassbrook in prison. Florence, now a senior police officer with the London Met, was responsible for Larry’s conviction thirty years earlier for the murder of three teenagers in Sabden, Lancashire. Now the remains of four more children have been discovered and Florence is confused. Are these more of Larry’s victims or are the remains more recent, meaning that the real killer is still on the loose? Also, the bodies were found in the grounds of Black Moss Manor Children’s Home, which Florence had helped to close down in 1969 after finding evidence of neglect and cruelty. What does this mean and how can she discover the identity of the children?

Soon after Florence’s visit, Larry Glassbrook dies of cancer and preparations are made for his funeral. His daughter Cassie returns to Sabden after a long absence and immediately sets her sights on John Donnelly, whom she loved as a teenager and who is now a married man with children. Cassie herself has become a successful songwriter, but she has never quite managed to put the past behind her and still has questions about some of the things that happened in Sabden thirty years ago.

The first section of the book alternates between Florence and Cassie during the build up to Larry’s funeral and I have to admit, I felt very confused. I found that I’d forgotten most of The Craftsman and I kept coming across references to people and events I couldn’t remember at all. Who was Marigold? What was Florence’s involvement with Black Moss Manor? I had no memories of those things at all, but they were obviously important. Then I discovered that I wasn’t supposed to remember them as they didn’t actually form part of the plot of The Craftsman. I just needed to be patient because the second section of the novel takes us back to 1969 and my questions about Marigold and Black Moss Manor were answered. The shifting timelines with various parts of this book set both before and after the events of The Craftsman means it works as both a sequel and, in a way, a prequel.

The 1969 storyline (which forms the main part of the novel) is excellent – Sharon Bolton at her best. I was completely gripped by Florence’s investigations into the allegations of abuse at the children’s home and the obstacles she faces in trying to get anybody to take her concerns seriously. The 1960s setting allows Bolton to explore the sexism and misogyny Florence faces as she tries to do her work; the other police officers are exclusively male – local men from Sabden who resent Florence’s university education, southern accent and the fact that she is a woman doing what they consider a man’s job. Meanwhile, we get to know Sally Glassbrook, Cassie’s mother, who is struggling to cope after Larry’s arrest and imprisonment. As the family of a convicted murderer, Sally and her daughters are in a vulnerable position and find themselves having to fend off the unwanted attentions of Roy Greenwood, Larry’s former business partner.

Finally, I need to mention the supernatural elements! The way The Craftsman ended made me think these were going to be a major part of the second book, but things didn’t go quite as far in that direction as I’d expected and the crimes committed are all very human ones. We do see more of the coven of witches who are operating in Sabden (Pendle Hill, site of the famous 17th century witch trials, casts its shadow over the town), the influence of the mysterious and sinister group known as the Craftsmen, and Florence’s own seeming ability to communicate with the dead, but I didn’t think these elements dominated the story too much. However, they are there and won’t appeal to everyone. I would say these books are closer in tone to Bolton’s early standalones such as Sacrifice and Awakening than they are to the Lacey Flint novels or her other recent thrillers.

I loved this book once I managed to get back into the story, but I would definitely recommend reading The Craftsman first – or re-reading it if, like me, you read it several years ago and can’t remember the details.

Thanks to Orion for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Something Light by Margery Sharp

This was one of the books from my 20 Books of Summer list, which I did actually read before the September deadline although I didn’t manage to post my review in time. First published in 1960, as the title suggests, it’s a light read.

Our heroine, Louisa Datchett, is a thirty-year-old single woman who lives alone in a tiny London flat – so tiny that she can ‘turn on a tap, fill a kettle, light a gas ring and reach down the coffee tin, all without moving her feet’. Louisa has never married, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like men – she does like them and has plenty of male friends, all of whom have a habit of coming to her with their problems. In fact, she’s been so busy solving men’s problems that she has barely had time to think about herself – and there certainly hasn’t been time for any romance in her life.

Being a ‘modern’ woman, Louisa hasn’t previously felt that having a husband was in any way essential and has established a career for herself as a dog photographer. This unusual job has provided lots of interesting opportunities for Louisa, but she’s finding that it’s not a reliable way of paying the rent! One morning, having bought an extra yogurt from the milkman for the starving musician next door and worried about her friend, Hugo, who has bronchitis, it occurs to Louisa that it would be nice to have someone taking care of her for a change!

The rest of the book follows Louisa’s attempts to find a husband, each one more disastrous than the one before. First she sets her sights on Freddy Pennon, a wealthy older man whom she met the previous year in Cannes while photographing an Italian film star’s poodles. When this ends in failure, she decides that perhaps a steady, dependable man would be a better option – or maybe a widowed family man looking for a stepmother for his children. Fortunately, Louisa has enough sense to see that none of these relationships are likely to work…but just as she gives up hope of ever meeting a suitable husband, one appears where she had least expected to find him!

Louisa could be seen as quite a contradictory character; on the one hand she is an independent and capable woman who lives on her own and supports herself financially through work, while on the other she sets herself the old-fashioned goal of finding a husband no matter what. It also seems a bit unfair on the men she targets, who have no idea that they are being lined up for marriage. However, she goes about this in such a good-natured way, making sure nobody gets hurt by her actions, that you can’t help liking her and hoping she’ll get what she wants in the end.

The overall story is quite predictable and I could easily predict who Louisa would end up with as soon as he made his first appearance, but each separate episode in the novel has its own little twist, which keeps things interesting. This isn’t one of my favourite Margery Sharp books (so far that would be Britannia Mews or The Flowering Thorn) but it’s an entertaining read and sometimes ‘something light’ is just what you need.

The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (trans. Ros Schwartz)

This is one of Georges Simenon’s many psychological thrillers, which he described as romans durs or ‘hard novels’. I’ve read two of his others – The Man from London and The Strangers in the House – and have enjoyed both, so was looking forward to reading this one. First published in 1965 as Le Train de Venise, it has just been reissued by Penguin Classics in a new English translation by Ros Schwartz.

The novel begins with Justin Calmar boarding a train in Venice to return to his home in Paris after a family holiday. His wife and two young children will follow in a few days’ time. During the journey, another passenger engages Justin in conversation and he finds himself agreeing to deliver a briefcase to an address in Lausanne when the train stops at the station there. However, things don’t go according to plan and Justin ends up returning to Paris with the case still in his possession. Unable to resist the temptation, he breaks the locks and looks inside…and what he finds there will change his life forever.

I won’t say too much more about the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense of wondering what is inside the case and what Justin will decide to do with it. This is a very short book (176 pages in the paperback version) and for the first half, the tension builds and builds. It would have made a perfect Alfred Hitchcock film! It’s not a crime novel, however, so don’t go into it expecting one; the mystery is never fully explained or resolved, it ends abruptly and we are left with lots of unanswered questions. The events on the train are simply a starting point for Simenon to explore the psychological effects on Justin Calmar as he battles with nerves, guilt and paranoia, lying to his wife and his friends and finding that each lie leads to another.

The second half of the book isn’t quite as strong as the first and I do wish we’d had answers to at least some of those questions, but this is a fascinating and compelling story – my favourite by Georges Simenon so far.

Although I was slightly disappointed that only the first few pages of the book are actually set in Venice – the rest either on the train or in Paris – I wasn’t too disappointed because Paris is, of course, a great setting as well. And as Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are hosting their annual Paris in July event this month, the timing couldn’t be better!

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie

July’s theme for Read Christie 2022 is ‘a story which takes place on holiday’; I didn’t take part in last month’s read as I’d already read the suggested title (Murder in Mesopotamia), but decided to join in this month with At Bertram’s Hotel.

This late Christie novel, first published in 1965, begins with Miss Marple arriving for a two-week stay at Bertram’s Hotel in London courtesy of her nephew who thought she might like to get away from the village of St Mary Mead for a while. The hotel is one that Miss Marple remembers fondly from her youth and, having heard that it has changed very little over the years, she is looking forward to staying there again. However, it turns out not to be quite the relaxing break she expected; first an elderly hotel guest, Canon Pennyfather, goes missing, then Miss Marple’s attention is drawn to the unusual behaviour of two more guests – the notorious Lady Sedgwick and her estranged teenage daughter, Elvira. It seems that something is not quite right about Bertram’s Hotel, but can Miss Marple help the police to discover exactly what is going on?

I enjoyed this book, although I don’t think it’s one of Christie’s best. There’s no central mystery to be solved – there’s the murder of a minor character which takes place late in the novel, but otherwise we hear about crimes that have happened ‘off the page’ rather than witnessing them ourselves. The sequence of events surrounding the disappearance of the absentminded Canon Pennyfather was fascinating, but again more of a subplot than the main focus of the story. What we do get is a growing sense of unease and a feeling that something is wrong without knowing precisely what it is.

I loved the portrayal of Bertram’s Hotel, which at first appears to be a quaint, old-fashioned establishment that has deliberately tried to preserve its Edwardian charm with the sort of atmosphere, furnishings and food that will appeal to a certain age and class of guest. As the story progresses, Miss Marple’s pleasure at finding the hotel just as she remembered it turns gradually to disappointment as she discovers that you can never really go back and that things don’t stay the same forever, no matter how much you want them to.

Sadly, Miss Marple herself doesn’t have a very big role to play in this novel. Chief Inspector Davy – known as ‘Father’ because he’s close to retirement age – is the person responsible for carrying out the investigations and we see more of him than we do of Miss Marple. However, as usual, she is the one who provides the vital clues and observations that enable the crimes to be solved and the culprits to be caught.

August’s Read Christie theme is a book ‘set in a hot climate’, if anyone wants to join in!

This is book 8/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Death in the Andamans by M. M. Kaye

This is the sixth and final book in M.M. Kaye’s Death In… series. I’ve now read all of them and although this one, Death in the Andamans, is not my favourite it’s another that I’ve enjoyed. If you’re new to these books, don’t worry about reading them in order – they are all completely separate, standalone novels, the only connection between them being that they’re all murder mysteries featuring a young female protagonist and set in countries the author had personally visited.

Copper Randall is working as a typist in a London office when she receives an unexpected inheritance from an uncle and decides to spend some of the money on a visit to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Her friend, Valerie Masson, is the stepdaughter of the Chief Commissioner there and has invited Copper to stay with them at Government House on Ross Island, the administrative capital of the Andamans (at this time, the Andamans, like the rest of India, are still under British control). Copper arrives just in time for Christmas and, on Christmas Eve, attends a picnic with the other British people on the island – a community which includes Valerie’s fiancé Charles and his friend Nick, who has become Copper’s own love interest.

As the picnic breaks up and the group begin to return home, some by road and some by boat, they are caught in a sudden, violent storm. One of the party is swept overboard and presumed drowned, but as the others reach the safety of Government House and take shelter there, they start to wonder whether it really was an accidental death. Cut off from the rest of the islands by the weather, Copper and her friends must try to identify the murderer before they have a chance to kill again.

There are plenty of suspects, the most obvious being the dead man’s cousin, who stands to inherit his coconut plantation if no will is found. But of course, there are other people who also had the opportunity, although their motives are less clear. There are lots of clues, lots of red herrings and lots of creeping around in the middle of the night listening to footsteps and creaking floorboards (this sort of scene seems to be a speciality of Kaye’s, appearing several times in almost every book in the series!). I didn’t solve the mystery, although the culprit was one of several people I had suspected throughout the novel. Once the villain was revealed, though, I felt that the conclusion was too drawn-out with various characters taking turns to give explanations and tie up loose ends.

Like most of the other Death In… books, this one provides a snapshot of the British Empire in its final days, although she doesn’t really explore the local politics or the effects of colonialism here the way she does in Death in Kashmir or Death in Kenya. You do have to put up with some of the attitudes of the time – the sense of entitlement, the dismissal of the local people as superstitious and uneducated, as well as some sexism with Copper and Valerie’s two boyfriends, Nick and Charles, determined to keep the women out of danger. Charles also has an irritating habit of speaking like someone from a PG Wodehouse novel (deliberately – we are told that he’s been modelling his conversation on the books he’s found in the library, ‘an institution that would appear to have been last stocked during the frivolous twenties by a fervent admirer of such characters as Bertie Wooster’.).

However, the descriptions of the Andaman Islands are beautiful: the breeze ‘whispering through the mango trees’, the ‘tall, feathery clusters of bamboo’, the beach with its ‘clear, glassy water that shivered to a lace of foam about the dark shelves of rock’. Kaye really excels at creating a strong sense of place – I think only Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart are as good! The way she describes the approach of the storm, with its torrential rain and hurricane-force winds is particularly dramatic.

In her author’s note, Kaye describes how she came to write this novel; it was inspired by a visit to the Andamans in the 1930s, when her friend’s father was posted there as Chief Commissioner (the character of Valerie is clearly based on the friend). However, due to the outbreak of World War II, the book didn’t get published until 1960 – originally under the title of Night on the Island and then again in 1985 as Death in the Andamans. This explains why the novel feels much older than the publication date would suggest.

Not the best book in the series, then, but still an entertaining read.

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

Having enjoyed two of Carol Birch’s earlier novels – Orphans of the Carnival and the Booker Prize nominated Jamrach’s Menagerie – I decided to try her new book, Shadow Girls. I enjoyed this one too, but it’s a very strange novel and not quite what I’d expected!

From the blurb, I had thought this was going to be a ghost story, but for the first half of the book at least, it’s much more of a ‘school story’. Our narrator, Sally, is a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in 1960s Manchester and the time and place are vividly evoked with references to the music, films, fashion and culture of the decade woven into the narrative. Like most girls her age, then and now, Sally’s life revolves around schoolwork and spending time with her friends and her boyfriend, and this is the focus of the first section of the book. Through Sally’s eyes we get to know her best friend, Pamela, a rebellious troublemaker nobody else likes, and their ‘enemy’ Sylvia Rose, a girl from a posh background who is a talented classical singer. She also describes her feelings for Rob, her first serious boyfriend, whom she is starting to have doubts about.

The supernatural element of the story isn’t introduced until surprisingly late in the novel, when Sally has a mysterious encounter with Sylvia that will haunt her for the rest of her life. The pace picks up from this point and it does become the ghost story I had expected – in fact, it’s quite a creepy one, particularly as, like many good ghost stories, it’s never completely clear which of Sally’s experiences are real and which are in her mind.

Despite not much happening for half of the book, I found it all very absorbing and was pulled into Sally’s world from the first page. I’m not sure whether so much build up was really necessary, but I enjoyed it anyway and found the book so difficult to put down that I ended up reading most of it in one day. Now I’m interested in reading Carol Birch’s previous ghost story, Cold Boy’s Wood. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Terrible Kindness by Jo Browning Wroe

The Welsh village of Aberfan is a place many of us associate with the 1966 mining disaster where a landslide of coal waste collapsed onto the village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Among the many volunteers who arrived in Aberfan to help deal with the aftermath of the tragedy were several hundred embalmers. A Terrible Kindness imagines the story of one of these embalmers, the fictional William Lavery.

William is just nineteen years old and newly qualified when the disaster happens, but he works tirelessly alongside older and more experienced embalmers to help identify and tend to the bodies of the victims. Not surprisingly, this will have a profound effect on him and leave him psychologically damaged for years to come. It also brings back memories of other traumatic moments that occurred earlier in William’s life – including one particular incident that led to the breakdown of his relationship with his mother. This incident is only hinted at throughout the book and it’s not until the final chapters that we find out what happened.

The Aberfan disaster is something that is still within living memory for a lot of people, so it’s important that authors handle things like this with care and sensitivity – and I think Jo Browning Wroe does this very well. These scenes are naturally very sad and moving, but also filled me with admiration for these people who voluntarily carried out such an unpleasant, difficult but essential task. However, Aberfan is only the starting point for William’s story and apart from two or three chapters, the rest of the book is set elsewhere.

A lot of time is spent on William’s years as a young chorister at a choir school in Cambridge, the friendships he made there and the events that made him abandon his promising singing career and go into the family embalming business instead. The complex relationships between William, his mother, his uncle and his uncle’s partner are also explored and this is the real focus of the book rather than what happened at Aberfan. I did have a lot of sympathy for William, who was clearly struggling, but I wished he had been able to get help and find a way to move on rather than making life so unhappy for himself and his loved ones for so many years. His mother, Evelyn, also frustrated me with her inability to consider other people as well as herself and I felt that the revelation of the incident that caused her estrangement from William was a bit of an anticlimax.

I think the inclusion of the Aberfan storyline will draw a lot of readers to this book, but will also put other readers off and I do wonder whether a fictional tragedy would have served the purpose of the plot just as well. As an exploration of grief and forgiveness, though, it’s an excellent read and an impressive first novel by Jo Browning Wroe.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.