I love this book. I love the cover, the title, the period it is set in and I love the easy yet accomplished way in which the author tells a well-paced mystery.
I should point out that this is the third in a series and that I read it without having read the first two. Fountains Abbey isn't too far from where I live, just north of Leeds in Ripon, and I've been there. It is wonderfully atmospheric and when I saw a book naming it in the title I just picked it up and bought it without knowing very much. I was in a hurry and, once I had established that it was a historical murder mystery, I was happy to give it a go.
Thomas Hawkins is the man to whom it falls to investigate threats which have been made against a disgraced politician who has been forced to abandon public life following the South Sea fiasco which left hundreds ruined. He has an ulterior motive but I'll leave it to you to discover what that is. He is ably assisted by the feisty Kitty and a young boy. It is set at Studley Hall and Fountains Abbey in 1728, when the water gardens at the Abbey were being created by the family at the heart of the plot. (These gardens are now a World Heritage site administered by the National Trust.) The plot moves on at a good pace and drew me in from the start. In my opinion the book also benefits from not being too long. I've read a few books lately which run ON such that the pace suffers and my attention falters. However, at a tidy 344 pages, it is just about right. There is plenty of action, good characterisation, an interesting mystery and plenty of luscious period details. And it is all written in elegant prose which doesn't distract from the story. What more can you ask for? I will definitely be reading the preceding books. Now, where's that Christmas list gone?
Some pieces from my Etsy store:
Today on the blog I am going to review two books that I have finished recently. The first one I knew nothing about before I began reading, the next is the second in the Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud which I was confident I would like as I loved the first (The Screaming Staircase - read my review here: book-review-the-screaming-staircase-by-jonathan-stroud.html).
So, let's turn to 'Rose Raventhorpe Investigates: Black Cats and Butlers' by Janine Beacham. It is the first in a series which is probably aimed at middle-grade readers. Not that I let that stop me, and I'm glad because I thoroughly enjoyed it and have been recommending it to anyone who I think will appreciate it.
As the title suggests, the plot centers around a mystery - in fact it is a murder mystery with a few other elements to it. Someone is killing butlers and the main character, a young girl named Rose from a well-to do family, decides to investigate the matter herself when events relating to the matter cross her path. It is set in a fictional version of York in (I think) the nineteenth century. Rose and her friend Emily are fun characters and the butlers who they encounter during their investigations are quirky and engaging (who knew butlers were so good with swords?). The plot moves along at a lovely pace, which was a relief as I have read too many books lately which progressed so slowly I lost interest. Not so here. Each time I put it down I was impatient to return and, in the days before I had so many other demands on my time, I would have read it in a couple of sittings. The setting, fictional Yorke, was nicely gothic and the whole thing had just a spice of darkness to it.
As I live close to York and have been many times (I have set one of my own stories there), I did find it a little confusing at the beginning as I wasn't sure whether it was meant to be real York or not, but once I decided that it wasn't (getting to the bit involving the Shambles which had clearly been renamed demonstrated that it was a mostly fictional place), I was able to move on and just use my knowledge of York to compliment the descriptions within the book.
Overall, a fun and lively read which brought my imagination to life (and made me want to pop back to York!). I will definitely acquire the next in the series.
Now it's the turn of the second instalment in Jonathan Stroud's excellent series for children: Lockwood & Co.. It is called, 'The Whispering Skull' and it follows 'The Screaming Staircase'. Although Amazon places it in the same age bracket as Rose Raventhorpe (9-11), I have to say that Lockwood & Co. is likely to suit an older audience than Miss Raventhorpe. The prose and plot are more complex and the subject matter is darker (although Black Cats & Butlers is also quite dark).
Stroud has chosen to write this series from the point of view of a member of Lockwood's team, rather than Lockwood himself. Her name is Lucy and she has a special talent in relation to ghosts. She is one member of a three person team (the others being Lockwood and George) who are teenage ghost specialists in a world where only children can hear and sense the many ghouls which comprise 'the Problem'. As with the first book, there is a mystery at the heart of the plot, namely who has stolen a dangerous relic and to what ends? However, for me, the book's great charm comes from the interactions between the team members. I really care about what happens to them. Each is strongly written and individual. There is mystery, humour, tension and action and a wonderfully murky atmosphere. Whilst it didn't quite engage me as much as the first one, it was a close run thing and I will be reading the third. The writing is wonderful - seemingly effortless yet of very high quality.
I wish I knew how he does it!
I have really been enjoying my reading lately. Last summer I lost my way with it a bit, I think because I was reading books which were winning literary awards and being talked about, rather than stories I had chosen by reference to the author or the blurb. So I went back to my safety zone for a while and reconnected with my love of historical fiction and crime novels. I have written about my discovery of Susanna Gregory's historical crime fiction HERE and now it is time to take a look at the three modern crime books which I have read so far this year.
First Up: The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
This is a book I have wanted to read for a while. It was published two years ago by J.K. Rowling using the pen name of Robert Galbraith and is the first in a new series, the third installment of which was published just before Christmas 2015. The story is set in current-day London and introduces us to Cormoran Strike, the glamorously named private detective who features in each of the novels. There ensues a suspicious death, a cast of suspects and an investigation by Mr Strike and his new secretary, Robin. The main thrust of the plot is: did the beautiful young model, Lula Landry, jump or fall from her balcony, or was she pushed?
I loved this book. I found it to be immensely readable, clever and superbly written. The characters were well drawn and vivid and the story just complicated enough to keep me guessing without losing me along the way. The tone of the writing and the atmosphere of the story was particularly impressive, managing to be both up-to-date and slightly reminiscent of the old-fashioned gumshoe novels of the 1920's and 30's. These components are skillfully combined to produce an immersive and thoroughly entertaining high-quality read. There is a fair amount of swearing in the dialogue which isn't something that I always particularly enjoy but in this case I believe that it was largely necessary to add authenticity to the character and I did not find it gratuitous or offensive. I should also mention that the emphasis of the plot is on the 'whodunnit' and the characters involved rather than blood and guts. It is not a graphic serial-killer type of book which suited me just fine. (It's more Ian Rankin than James Patterson).
If you enjoy crime fiction this is a must-read.
Next: The Silkworm, also by Robert Galbraith
After finishing 'The Cuckoo's Calling' I couldn't wait to start the sequel. This novel also features private investigator Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin. This time they are engaged to investigate the disappearance of an eccentric and erratic novelist.
In terms of character, plot development and atmosphere, I found this book to be just as good as the first in the series. The writer really does have a wonderful ability to bring the people on the page to life and to pull the reader into a vividly-drawn world. The plot is satisfying, with plenty of suspects and motives and is expertly drawn together. Again I found myself eager to get back to reading whenever I had to break away, resorting to carrying the book around the house with me to grab an extra few minutes here and there. I have to say, though, that the subject matter of this second book is much darker than the first and unpleasant/uncomfortable and just downright weird in places. But I like a little bit of weird now and again so it was not a problem for me.
I haven't read the third book yet but I am very much looking forward to it. This is now one of my favourite series of books and I hope she writes plenty more of the same quality.
And Finally: The Falls by Ian Rankin
If you like crime fiction you probably already know about Ian Rankin and his fictional creation, John Rebus and if it isn't your genre you probably haven't read this far so I won't spend too much time introducing you to the characters in this book. Suffice to say it is another masterpiece by, in my opinion, one of the very best in the business.
The plot centres around a missing student who arranges to meet a group of friends for a drink but doesn't show up. Rebus, as grouchy and flawed yet as loveable as always, investigates with his usual obsessiveness and disregard for the rules. The hunt for the missing girl brings him into contact with old friends and acquaintances and takes him down rabbit holes that no-one else is interested in. Meanwhile Siobhan (his usual sidekick) is pursuing her own angle, employing some of the tricks she has picked up from her boss.
The book follows different strands to the investigation leaving the reader uncertain as to which will lead to a dead end (no pun intended) and which will lead the team to the solution. It is a complex web of mystery and suspense against the backdrop of the sights and sounds of modern Edinburgh. I always find Rankin's books hugely satisfying and this one was among the best I have read, leaving me in awe at the talent required to pen such a tale.
This is the first book I have read by this author, although I know that he is well-established, having written the Bartimaeus sequence of novels and a number of others. It was the cover which drew me to this one whilst I was browsing around Waterstones about a year ago. I had a flick through it and placed it on my 'to be read' list and I finally got around to it over Christmas. I'm so glad that I did. From the first page the reader is drawn deftly and cleverly into a well-drawn world of teenage ghost-hunting with darkness and humour in equal measures.
The book is written through the eyes of Lucy who is a young ghost-hunter with special talents. This surprised me at first as I had expected the viewpoint character to be Anthony Lockwood, given the title of the series, but it worked extremely well. Lucy interacts closely with Lockwood, together with a third agent, and the reader therefore sees these characters through her eyes and all three of the teenagers are central to the story.
A sinister atmosphere of spookiness and mystery is established quickly at the outset and the style of writing is extremely accomplished whilst being accessible. For me, every aspect of this book delivered strongly: from vivid characterisation to a plot more complex and satisfying than I was anticipating to the detailed world-building involved in setting up an England in which different types of ghosts roam free after sunset and are hunted by talented children. It is lively, funny and chilling with wonderful attention to detail. I will definitely be reading the rest of the series and would recommend it as an original and gripping read. For those of you interested in categorisation - this is not a book aimed at grown-ups, although it is definitely one that many adults would enjoy. (When it comes to categorisations for books for middle grade and teens, I get confused but I think that this probably falls within the 10 plus range, although I've noticed a review or two on Amazon suggesting that 10 might be a little young - I wouldn't like to say as I suppose it depends on the child).
With 85 out of 87 Amazon reviews giving this book 4 or 5 stars (the majority give it 5), I am clearly not alone in appreciating the work of this imaginative and talented writer.
I came upon this author only a few weeks ago whilst killing ten minutes browsing in WH Smiths. I don't mean that she was actually lurking in the store but rather that my eyes were drawn to a book called 'The Cheapside Corpse' which had an interesting cover and, upon closer inspection, promised to be a historical mystery. When I realised that it was the latest in a series I decided to acquire the first one and start from the beginning (for once).
If you have been reading my reviews on a regular basis you'll know that I struggled with my last read and, if I am being honest, with a few books which I have not reviewed on here. I therefore needed something to restore my enthusiasm; something which was both well written and absorbing. I'm so pleased to say that this book was definitely that something.
It was first published in the UK in 2006 and begins a series following the adventures of Thomas Chaloner, an English spy recently returned to Restoration London from Holland. He finds himself penniless and in need of work. He turns to his previous employer and is soon treading a very fine and consistently dangerous line between a number of interlinked investigations and intertwined relationships. There is plenty of murder and intrigue to satisfy lovers of crime novels and the setting is so vivid that it drew me in at once and will doubtless appeal to fans of historical fiction. London in 1662 is brought to life superbly and in a subtle way which does not involve reams of description but rather provides an immersive backdrop to what turns out to be a complex story. It is extremely accomplished and I was not at all surprised to find that this author has an extensive back catalogue featuring another series character, Matthew Bartholomew, (set in the fourteenth century) and that there are many Thomas Chaloner novels for me to devour. It was a total pleasure, feeling like I was in the hands of an experienced and talented writer who would not let me down.
Having said all of that, I can see how some readers might find the sheer numbers of characters in this book overwhelming. Indeed, I found it hard to keep up at times, especially since many of them were referred to sometimes by first names, by second names and also by their titles (eg the Earl). At times I was lost but I went along with it and I kept up most of the time. A strong lead character with a few key people around him helped. but make no mistake, there is a lot going on in this book. The writing is so smooth that it is not difficult to read in that sense but the layers of complexity do necessitate a fair amount of recapping - done largely through the thoughts of Thomas Chaloner. So if you are looking for something simple, perhaps this isn't for you but I personally adored the fact that there was so much going on, lots of twists and red herrings and colourful characters. For the first time in a while I reached the end of a novel wishing I had the sequel already on my bookshelf. A hearty thumbs up and five stars from me.
In the new year I will doubtless be reviewing some of my Christmas reads, but I also hope to post a few writing-related articles. I am thinking: an update/reflection on how the experience of self-publishing 'Into Dust' has gone and also a piece on how I began writing, the path I have taken so far and some of the key decisions I have made along the way. In the meantime, thanks for reading and have a wonderful Christmas holiday x
I've not been looking forward to writing this review. I did think about not posting it at all but I invested a significant amount of time in reading the book and it raised several points which, I decided, might make for an interesting piece. Further, this author has already sold millions upon millions of copies so I don't think my little blog will cause much consternation. I have, however, decided not to use the book cover as I don't want to get into any copyright hot water. I have thus far taken the view that if a review is favourable, a publisher is unlikely to take issue with an image used in a post which gives free, positive publicity but as my review is going to contain a number of negative comments, I decided to go with some lovely pictures taken by my brother when he went to Istanbul last year which, I can assure you, directly relate to the novel's plot.
I am assuming that most people reading this will already be familiar with Dan Brown and his novels, which include the hugely famous The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons so I will move straight on to his latest book and the subject of this review Inferno.
Inferno was first published in the UK in May 2014. It is the fourth book in a series which features fictional renowned symbologist Robert Langdon. I have read the previous three books plus the other two novels which this author has published and, with the possible exception of The Lost Symbol (which I had a few issues with towards the end) I have thoroughly enjoyed them all. I was therefore very much looking forward to Inferno, particularly as I had been reading something heavy and demanding beforehand and was craving some light relief - a good page turner which would keep me guessing whilst engaging my brain sufficiently that I felt entertained throughout.
Unfortunately this isn't what I got. Now, there are plenty of four and five star reviews out there for this book so thousands of people were obviously thrilled by it and I respect that. I believe that people should read whatever they enjoy and I don't like it when people look down upon the work of a particular author on the basis that they write popular fiction which is perhaps lacking in heavy-weight literary merit. I attended a literary festival a few years ago where the panel engaged in frequent 'Dan Brown bashing' and I found it uncomfortable. Therefore, I was hoping to love this novel but sadly found myself disappointed.
After giving this review considerable thought, I have decided to break it down, with childlike simplicity, into 'things I liked about it' and 'things I didn't like about it' with the hope that I will give a balanced view.
Things I liked about it:
Locations - The cities used within the novel greatly appeal to me. Florence and Istanbul are portrayed as beautiful, vibrant places steeped in history and the author has clearly immersed himself in both. Sights and smells were brought to life and iconic buildings described in detail. I did, however, find aspects of the setting problematic and these are covered below.
Dante references - Each of Dan Brown's books is based around a historical/artistic theme and set in one or two well known cities which complement the narrative. In this case the poet Dante Alighieri, and in particular his infamous work The Divine Comedy, written during the early fourteenth century, formed the backdrop to the puzzle and chase at the heart of the plot. This was a big draw for me and I found the insights into Dante fascinating. I had recently read parts of The Divine Comedy and so had a natural interest in it as a backdrop for a modern mystery/thriller. So far so good.
The pacing, after about page 200! - This is also a good point and a bad point. I found that the first half of this book dragged but it suddenly picked up about half-way through and I found myself much more engaged and reading more quickly.
Things I didn't like so much
Character development was sketchy - Ok, so this is meant to be a fast-paced thriller and it features a series character with whom many of the readers will already be familiar but this doesn't mean that character depth can be ignored completely. I still need to care about these people and I found that I did not. The main character is rather flat but my biggest issue was with the female counterpart, Sienna. Fair enough, the author tries to make her bright and capable but it was done in a very cumbersome and inconsistent way. We are told rather than shown so much about her that it read like a character synopsis. I found descriptions of her appearance to be cringe-worthy and the interaction between herself and Robert Langdon in the first half of the book made me squirm at times, it was so flat and stereotypical.
Description - Atmosphere was severely lacking, at least until the mid-point. The word 'eerie' was used dozens of times to the point where it jarred me out of the story every time it appeared. It makes me wonder where his editor's head was. Eerie is a good word but there are plenty of others and its constant use came across as lazy.
Location - Whilst I found the settings to be attractive and interesting, I was puzzled by the way in which much of the information and description was inserted into the narrative. Rather than being cleverly woven into the plot, there were huge paragraphs of informative text just dropped into the book, slowing down the action and, to be honest, much of it just seemed out of place at times.
The writing style - I wasn't after something beautifully crafted when I picked up this book but I did expect something professionally put together. After all, this is Dan Brown. He has made millions of dollars and doesn't churn books out. I would have thought, therefore, that significant time and effort would have gone into his latest offering. The resources available must have been immense yet, in my opinion, it reads like an early draft. It was too long (a hundred pages could have been cut and it would have been better for it), the same words were repeated regularly, often in the same line or paragraph, the use of the singular 'was' and the plural 'were' was dubious in several places, the reader is repeatedly told how the characters 'felt' (again - this is meant to be a fast thriller and the action shouldn't be slowed by too much description but I thought it went too far - Langdon 'felt' one way then Sienna 'felt' another way all the way through and it started to grate quite early on) and the whole thing 'felt' clunky. A thorough edit and a rewrite could have made it a much more satisfying read and I think this is what annoyed me most. This isn't his first offering and I know he can do so much better on the basis that his earlier books were a pleasure to read. Such a dip in quality is a real shame and I found it a little insulting. To end this point on a positive note, however, I found that many of these issues were in the first half of the book. Then it mysteriously picked up in quality and tempo and I even began to enjoy it - reminded of his earlier books which I found so engaging.
Plot - My main issue with his last book The Lost Symbol was that the plot faded away at the end. I just ddidn't buy into it. Having said that, it managed not to spoil the entire book hence my desire to read Inferno. I have to say, the plot in Inferno didn't quite hold together for me either, at the end. I don't want to include any spoilers so I will simply say that I think he just about got away with it again but I would have liked to have been presented with a more satisfying conclusion.
In summary I was relieved when I finished this book. Whilst it had its plus points and I would not knock anyone for enjoying it (or anything, for that matter!) I found it to be too poorly put together to get any real joy from it, although it improved markedly from around the mid-point. I am glad that there are people still enjoying his work but I don't think I will be reading his next offering.
Published by: Doubleday; First Edition (15 Jan. 2015)
I'll steer clear of spoilers here as I know that there are still a few people who have not yet read this book! It made it on to my extensive to be read pile for a couple of reasons. First, I'd just invested in a Kindle and was wanting to try it out when an offer came through to purchase it for £1.79. Secondly, I wanted to read something current. There was a discussion going on and I was keen to join in.
The book's premise is, by now, fairly well known. It is written primarily from the viewpoint of Rachel, a woman in her early thirties who spends a serious amount of time staring out of the window of a train during her daily commute into London. She passes this time building up a fantasy world around the people she sees by way of compensation for the things that are lacking in her own life.
It is written in the first person, present tense, and it may take a few pages to adapt to this if it is not what you are used to. But that is as long as it will take, I promise. The immediacy of the writing, the access it gives to Rachel's thoughts, quickly drew me in and I could not rest until every layer of character and plot had been revealed.
At the heart of the book there is a mystery which unravels through the multiple viewpoints of three different women (although we stay largely with Rachel) and it is the combination of this mystery and the detailed and realistic way in which the characters are drawn which had me racing through to the end. The intimacy which was developed with the characters really took hold, pulling me into their world and compelling me to finish the book in just three days when really I should have been doing other things. It has been a while since that has happened to me and I was glad of it.
After finishing the book and posting my review on Goodreads, I read through some of the other comments. Inevitably there were plenty of one and two star reviews alongside the many five star appraisals (my own included). The main problems the detractors had were:
1) There were no nice/good/admirable characters. True, perhaps, but it didn't bother me. Most characters in most books are flawed in some way and the first person narrative really shows up every weakness a character has. I wonder how many people we would like in real life if we had access to their every thought?
2) The ending was predictable. I disagree with this. It was guessable, certainly, but that is part of the book's appeal and there were so many suspects and red-herrings that there could have been any number of viable endings. Yes, I had my suspicions and ultimately I was right, but I still needed to know how it would resolve and I would not have felt cheated had it ended in a different way.
So, in summary, a five-star (if uncomfortable in places) read for me based on devourability (new word I've just made up, there), excellent writing and the cleverness on the part of the author in dragging me, cringing, into Rachel's rock-bottom world.
I love most types of fiction - crime, mystery, fantasy. Oh, and historical fiction of course and middle-grade books and, well, you get the picture.
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