Cassandra Clark: The Dragon of Handale

Standard

Unknown

Hildegard has returned from her pilgrimage to Compostela and arrives at Swyne to find her welcome a little cold. The prioress suggests that she may like to visit Handale Priory in the far north of Yorkshire to contemplate her future. Arriving at Handale, Hildegard discovers a lot of secrets and mistrust, a priory punishing penitents harshly and where novices disappear regularly. Then both a mason working on the Prioress’ new quarters and then the Priory priest are killed and there is revolt amongst the local nobility with the scent of rebellion against the king in the air. How does the fearsome Dragon of Handle fit into this?

This is the fifth book in Clark’s series and I had read the first two only so, whilst familiar with Hildegard, I had to piece together some of the backstory. Not that this was a problem as Clark is an engaging writer whose balancing of plot and historical detail is excellent. The story is clever, mixing the horrors experienced by some young women forced into becoming nuns, the vulnerability of young heiresses without protection, the superstition of ordinary people in the middle ages and politics of revolt against an anointed king.

Becky Masterman: Rage Against The Dying

Standard

Unknown

Brigid Quinn has recently retired from the FBI and is living a quiet life in Tuscon with her new husband Carlo. Carlo doesn’t know the details of Brigid’s federal past and she is reluctant to share these with him. Brigid was a top agent working on high profile cases but she is haunted by the Route 66 killer, the one she did not catch and the one who killed her protege. After killing a suspect in another case Brigid was sidelined and shunted into retirement.

One day she gets a call from the FBI, they have a man who has confessed to being the Route 66 killer and he leads the FBI to the body of the agent Brigid was so close to. However something about his confession does not ring true and when Brigid is targeted by another killer, and when another agent goes missing, Brigid is in a race to find the real killer before others die.

This is a novel premise in that the heroine is a retired female with grey hair and health problems, yet is still mentally functional. This type of central character is not written about unless in the ‘Miss Marple’ vein and it is refreshing. The plot is convoluted but clever and moves along at a decent pace – not so fast that detail is lost, but not so slow that it drags. Brigid is a prickly character and other characters are not drawn as well. Overall this is a really entertaining book for a short term fix of thrills.

Attica Locke: The Cutting Season

Standard

Unknown

Caren Gray is General Manager at Belle Vie, an antebellum sugar plantation which is owned by the Clancy family but run as a historic tourist attraction. One day a body is discovered in the plantation fields, a migrant worker, and the local Sherrif’s Department focuses on a worker at Belle Vie. Caren is convinced of his innocence and also believes the death may be related to the ambition of one of the Clancy brothers. Caren grew up on the plantation, her family had been associated with the estate since before the Civil War, so how do the recent events link to the mysterious disappearance of her ancestor over a hundred years ago.

This is the second Attica Locke book I have read and it is even better than the first (Black Water Rising). The plot is complex and therefore the book is hard to categorise, it’s not a straightforward crime novel but it’s also not really literary fiction. What is really engrossing is the power of the land and its hold over the characters. What is also carefully described are the relationships between the different groups of people. Caren is clever woman but she didn’t complete Law School because of funding, her mother was a cook and her forebears were slaves, her ex-partner (and her father) were from middle-class African-American families, lawyers and doctors. The Clancy’s are rich and powerful members of society as are the clients who book weddings at the plantation house. The workers at Belle Vie are poor white, poor black or poor hispanic, the workers at cane plantation are hispanic immigrants.

Justin Cartwright: Lion Heart

Standard

Unknown

Richie is 33, a talented scholar but living a life of mediocrity, in an unhappy relationship and with no visible means of support. His father was sent down from Oxford and lived a life of hippy abandonment on drugs until his death. Then things start to move for Richie. He undertakes a thesis with a grant from his old college which is based on Crusader Art, he journeys to the Middle East and starts to follow a trail related to King Richard’s lost treasure, the True Cross.

So far so good. This is an interesting book as on the face of it the story is preposterous, Richie has no visible means of support yet can travel at the drop of a hat, he is in an unsatisfactory relationship but once that ends he is incredibly attractive to every woman he meets and academically the papers he needs suddenly appear as if by magic. However despite the fact that the plot is ridiculous, the writing is excellent and the reader really gets drawn in the story. Despite myself I really enjoyed this book.

Shirley McKay: Hue and Cry

Standard

Unknown

Hew Cullen has been studying in France for several years but is coming home to Scotland. On his return to St Andrews he finds himself embroiled in murder and corruption involving his friends, his University colleagues and even his family. in Scotland in the late 16th Century the Kirk holds sway and a terror of witchcraft means that many are vulnerable. The discovery of a dead boy at the weavers shop links commercial pressure with sin and also a scholarly scandal that Hew must unravel to save his sister and his former tutor.

What’s good about this book is the plot. It’s clever mix of murder and corruption which is not completely obvious but makes complete sense when revealed. Hew is not really an effective detective but does make connections and the device of using the King as the arbiter of justice is artfully written. The problem with the book is more about the sense of time and place. Great chunks of the book can be read without knowledge that this is taking place in Scotland, and even more without knowledge of the 1580s. The occasional bit of vernacular language drops in and reference to plaid/burn etc are not enough.

Having said that the book is an easy read and quite engaging, it wouldn’t stop me carrying on to read others in the series.

William Dalrymple: Return of a King

Standard

Unknown

In 1839 an expeditionary force entered Afghanistan, deposed the ruling family and placed their own choice of king on the throne. Over the next three years that force was harassed, attacked and eventually driven out of the country at devastating loss of life and humiliation.

The invading force was British and their motivation was to do with the relationship between Afghanistan and Russia. However the local tribes disliked the British more than they disliked each other and chose to work together to restore some form of independence for their country. Starved of supplies and facing a harsh winter the British choose to retreat over the Khyber Pass, some were fortunate to be captured and held as hostages, others were less fortunate. Eventually the British regrouped and invaded from India to wreak their revenge but the first Afghan War was a lesson for the British Empire.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and Afghanistan is still an area fought over. The Russians invaded in the 1980s and were driven out by the western-sponsored Taliban, now the Taliban are the enemy and the intertribal warfare still continues. The roots and the background to the modern conflict are evident in the events described in this book.

William Dalrymple has produced a meticulously researched account of the first Afghan War. He has used source material from all protagonists to great effect, no-one is a hero and some terrible decisions were made.

Leif G.W. Persson: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End

Standard

Unknown

It’s the start of winter in Stockholm and what seems like a routine suicide. A young American man has fallen to his death from a high window and for the local police there is nothing more to add. However in his shoe is a message for Superintendent Lars Martin Johansson, described as the only honest policeman in Sweden, and as Johansson looks into the death he realises that it is not as straightforward as it seems. Johansson’s investigations take him from the USA to the heart of Swedish politics and corruption at every level of Government and law enforcement.

I picked up this book following a press review and it is a revelation. Intricately plotted with a cast of characters who are both believable and frightening, the story is engrossing. The conspiracy theories are not so farfetched as to be unrealistic and this goes beyond the usual scandal-noir murder investigation.