Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case

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Caspar Leinen is a newly qualified attorney who takes a call to be a public defender in a case one evening. An italian has murdered an old man in a luxurious hotel in Berlin, seemingly in cold blood. A day after taking the case Caspar discovers that the victim was the grandfather of an old school-friend whom he knew well in his youth.

The case seems open and shut, the perpetrator does not deny the crime but someone seems to want the case ended quickly. Caspar is offered a huge professional opportunity if he will just let the trial run its course. Something needs hiding and when it is uncovered it leads to a legal dilemma that lies at centre of modern Germany and its post-war rehabilitation.

This is a short book that does not take time to read as it bounces along quickly. The writing is spare, there are few long descriptive sections and the general plot line is easy to guess. However its truncated nature is a real asset as it makes one take notice of the actual plot and the fill in the gaps – revenge by an individual and guilt of a nation are powerful narrative devices and this is a wonderful book.

Dan Jones: The Plantagenets

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Covering 250 years of English monarchy in 600 pages was always going to be a challenge. With eight reigns to cover, two civil wars and huge changes to society, Dan Jones set himself a real task but this book is a complete triumph. Beginning with the events leading to the ascension of Henry II – the wreck of the White Ship and the resulting wars of succession between Stephen and Matilda – the book charts the ups and downs of volatile ruling family.

I have actually read biographies of all the Plantagenet kings with the exception of Henry III and this work draws on a wide variety of sources including those books plus a good selection of primary sources. What sets this book apart is the quality of the writing. Jones has a really engaging style which doesn’t get bogged down in quoting innumerable sources and which doesn’t offer a partisan viewpoint. He beds the actions and decisions within the context of the society of the time. Kings were expected to show their power and prowess by war, yet war was expensive and that brought conflict with both the people and, over time, Parliament. The context of the wars with both France and Scotland is explained and so are the antecedents of the Cousins War. That will form the basis of Jones’ next book which I am eager anticipating.

Diana Souhami: Murder at Wrotham Hill

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1946 and Britain is suffering from post-War austerity. Dagmar Petrzywalski lives alone in a hut next door to her mother’s bungalow, she is a spinster who retired from her work as a telephonist and is not well-off. She likes to save money when travelling by getting cheap rail tickets but to get to the station she has to hitch hick early in the morning. Harold Hagger is a small-time criminal living under an alias and working as a lorry driver, several years ago he jumped from a train whilst in custody and sustained brain damage that means that he occasionally blacks out. Harold is driven by impulse and that is dangerous to all those he comes into contact with.

Early one autumn morning a body is found on the roadside at Wrotham Hill. A woman has been strangled and dumped afterwards, she is soon identified as Dagmar. Who would want to kill an innocent and eccentric woman like her? This is the premise for a story of old-fashioned detective work that reflects the lives of a series of characters making up a strata of society rarely considered.

Despite the fact that this is a completely factual book, the prose is very well-written and sympathetic to all the characters. The lives of the victim, the criminal, the policeman and the executioner are all considered and contrasted. Life for the working classes was hard before, during and after the war and crime and the black market were rife. After all this though the story of the murder at Wrotham Hill leaves one feeling sad that society could not help either of the principles have a better life.

Rachel Urquhart: The Visionist

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Polly Kimball has had a hard life through her fifteen years – watching her father leave her brother backward after an attack and then being sexually abused by him herself – she learns to read her father’s moods. One night he comes home drunk and Polly can’t take any more. She persuades her mother and her brother to leave their farm but taking one last look at her father she accidentally drops a lamp and the farmhouse goes up in flames.

Polly’s mother leaves Polly and her brother in the care of a local Shaker community where Polly experiences a ‘vision’. This stuns the community and subjects Polly to scrutiny. Meanwhile the ownership of the Kimball farm is being fought over by a number of interested parties.

The story is told from three viewpoints: Simon, a fire investigator blackmailed and bullied by powerful local business; Polly herself and Charity, a devout Shaker who believes in Polly. It is a powerful tale of small-town life in the mid-19th century and a portrait of a religious sect that many have heard about but few know.

In fact this book is a terrific read. The three narrators have clear voices and clear motives for their actions. The storyline is well-crafted and the prose is incredibly lyrical and haunting.

Robyn Young: Renegade

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1299 and Robert Bruce is in Ireland, exiled from Scotland and searching for the fabled Staff of Malachy. King Edward’s vassals are searching for both Robert and the Staff. Edward himself is intent on conquering Scotland but his eldest son Prince Edward would rather enjoy the company of his friends.

Robert submits to Edward and is welcomed back into the fold of those loyal to the King but he plots to gain the throne of Scotland with the nobles. After the death of John Comyn (named on Bruce) and the betrayal of William Wallace, Robert has to escape London and return to Scotland.

I had already bought this second instalment of the saga before I read the first and I’m not sure that I would have in hindsight. This is a tortuous tale which jumps all over the place in terms of timeframe. As said before there is a slight frame to weave a story on but this is not developed much in terms of character.

Tristram Hunt: Ten Cities that made an empire

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For several hundred years the British Empire was the envy of the world. It was a network of trade and politics that brought huge wealth to Britain and, arguably, allowed many nations to develop government, commerce and education. However over the past hundred years that Empire has dissolved and Britain no longer controls trade.

In this book Hunt tries to expire the history of the British Empire, both its rise and its fall, by looking at the urban history of ten cities central to it. Each city is taken separately and its architecture, design and history are linked to the colourful characters of empire.

This is a novel approach and in general works well. The characters and stories are entertaining and cleverly chosen to illustrate certain points. Hunt is writer who does not get too bogged down in historical detail and that lightness of touch is definitely a benefit.

Jamie Mason: Three Graves Full

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Jason is a bit of a loner who has a big secret – a year ago he killed a man and buried him in his backyard. Haunted by what he did, Jason finds it difficult to touch his gardening tools but knows that his overgrown front yard is drawing attention to him and his property. He hires a contractor to sort out his front yard but is shocked when the work uncovers a body buried there and then the police find a second. Terrified that they will find the other body, the one he is responsible for, he decides to dig it up and move it.

This story is almost impossible to précis because at each stage there is a twist which leads it further in black comedy or even farce. Yet, at its heart, this is a detective story.

The characters are brilliant and surprising, there are no heroes or villains in the main, just a group of people who make choices that seem logical at the time to them (and that includes the dog!). The writing is fizzy and story bounces along, it is a brilliant debut novel and I look forward to more.