Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

HarperCollins | 2017 (15 June) | 356p | Review copy | Buy the book

Seven Days in May by Kim IzzoDespite their enormous wealth and beauty, New York socialite sisters Brooke and Sydney Sinclair share little in common. Parentless, they are free to explore their interests. Sydney is a suffragette who wants to use her wealth for good, supporting causes she cares for, such as birth control and abortion – controversial for a rich young woman in 1915. Brooke, on the other hand, is about to have the wedding of the year (in her opinion). She is to marry Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook and one of those impoverished English aristocrats in need of a rich American heiress. Edward has arrived in New York to escort Brooke and Sydney back to England for the wedding and, in Brooke’s case, a new life. War in Europe seems a long way away, despite Edward’s imminent departure for the trenches in France, but, as the Lusitania sets sail to Britain in May 1915 amid warnings of German U-Boats hungrily patrolling the Atlantic and Irish Sea, war suddenly seems much more real to Brooke and Sidney.

The glamour of the chapters aboard the Lusitania are contrasted by the story of Isabel Nelson, a young woman who has escaped a scandal in Oxford to redeem herself fighting the war in the mysterious Room 40 of the British Admiralty in London. It is here that Isabel finds she has a gift for codes and ciphers and soon becomes an integral part of what is largely a male team. Much that is secret passes through Isabel’s hands but most alarming of all are the messages that indicate that the U-Boats have caught the scent of the Lusitania.

Seven Days in May is a glamorous novel, full of the rich colours and romance of its day – at least for those who are rich, far from war and have the time and money to sail across the Atlantic in the most luxurious of ships and cabins for a week of dinner parties, cocktails and promenades. But thanks to Sydney’s rebellious ways, we’re also given glimpses of life below decks, in the Lusitania‘s less salubrious but nevertheless still smart quarters for third class passengers. Confined to the ship for a week or more, gossip is everything, new friends are made, lovers even, and lives can be changed. We meet people, both fictional and historical, and a vivid picture of life aboard the Lusitania is created. But it is all overshadowed because the reader knows what happened to the ship.

I am such a big fan of novels set on ships, particularly during the glorious days of the great liners. I love the manners and the etiquette, the contrast between the luxury of the upper decks and those below, between passengers and crew, between old and new worlds. However, there is an air of predictability to Seven Days in May that goes beyond the well-known event of the Lusitania‘s sinking, which is anticipated throughout the book. It isn’t difficult to work out at all how the love triangle aboard the ship will play out. Similarly, Isabel’s story has little depth. She’s purely there to build tension. Although it must be said that this is a device that works very well.

The anticipated sinking takes its time, and I must admit that by that point I was very ready for something to happen, also welcoming an escape from the Brooke, Sydney and Edward situation, even though I liked all three characters. Edward is particularly interesting and I would have liked to have spent more time with him when he was less concerned about his marriage. The sinking added the drama the novel was waiting for and I was engrossed in those chapters. I also really appreciated the historical background to the sinking and to the suggested policy of the war office towards civilian vessels risking the Atlantic. It’s for this that I read Seven Days of May – as soon as it arrived, that’s how interested I am in the subject – and it gave me much to think about and a desire to find out more about the ship, which has been overshadowed by the Titanic tragedy three years before.

Seven Days in May is a light and entertaining read, largely romance with a dramatic conclusion. That’s what I was expecting and, as a result, I enjoyed being swept away on the high yet dangerous seas for a day or two. I must also add that this is a beautiful paperback and this most definitely added to what was a very pleasant reading experience.

The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick

Orion | 2017 | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Returning Tide by Liz FenwickIt is the summer of 2015 and a family is gathering in the beautiful Cornish village of Mawnan Smith to celebrate the marriage of young Peta. It will take place at Windward, the home of Peta’s grandmother, Elle. Windward holds many memories for Elle, especially now, because it was here, seventy years before, that another wedding took place and it changed her entire life. There is nothing she can to do to prevent the rush of memories. Ghosts walk everywhere.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Cape Cod, Lara’s great grandfather is reaching the end of his days. As Lara holds his hand through those last moments, he utters one final word: ‘Adele’. Lara has never heard the name before and is surprised that his dying breath should be spent on a woman other than Amelia, his much mourned English wife who had died many years before. He never remarried. Only too happy to run away from problems in her own life, Lara leaves the Cape to spend time with a family friend on the Cornish coast, an area which held special meaning for her great grandfather and Amelia. Lara is determined to discover the identity of Adele and to learn more about those months when her great grandfather was stationed in Cornwall during the Second World War. The past is about to come to life.

I’m the first to admit that The Returning Tide is not my usual type of read but this was one of those occasions on which I read a synopsis of a novel and I knew instantly that I had to read it. The first reason is its movement between two periods of time – World War II and the present day, and the long-term effect of that war on the people we meet in this book. Secondly, it is largely set in my favourite place on the planet – Cornwall, particularly the bit around Helford, which I visit every year and to which, one of these days, I dream of retiring. Thirdly, I love family sagas, especially those which move through the wars of the 20th century. So, I picked up The Returning Tide and hardly put it down again until it was finished the next day. I fell in love with it instantly.

Liz Fenwick writes exquisitely. She poured me into the lives of these people, the generations of families and friends, and made me care deeply for them, even the present-day youngsters. Our main characters, Elle and Lara, are easy to like and Elle in particular is a compelling personality as she undergoes the trauma of reliving painful memories. It’s through Elle that we revisit the past and begin to understand her relationship with her twin sister. There is a real sense of carpe diem amongst these young people during the Second World War. Time is short, quite literally for some of their male friends. Elle is a Wren, deciphering telegraph messages, and she has to listen in to such things that they will colour her life. Elle is altered completely by the war, and so too is her sister.

The detail of these historical sections is marvellous. I’ve always been interested in the history of Cornwall during World War II, you can see the evidence of it everywhere, from wartime structures to gravestones that speak of great personal tragedy. The Returning Tide brings the past vividly to the fore but does it in such an evocative and moving way. Through tales of love and loss.

The novel is divided between the past and the present and, while the sections in the past were my favourite, I was also engrossed by the modern chapters, largely due to the forceful personality of Elle. Elle unites the novel in wonderful ways. She made me cry and smile.

There is great sadness in The Returning Tide, but it’s inviting. I wanted to read it with chocolate and red wine. It was hugely comforting despite the tears. Because it’s also a story about love and it is very tender, especially in its treatment of Elle’s grandson Jack.

The Returning Tide is a beautiful novel in so many ways, from its gorgeous locations and its characters, to its prose and its spirit. Liz Fenwick is a wonderful storyteller. For a few hours she transported me away to somewhere else entirely. I could almost feel the Cornish sea air brushing against my face.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

Doubleday | 2017 | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

Dangerous Crossing by Rachel RhysIt is the summer of 1939 and Lily Shepherd is escaping her tedious life in London for a new beginning in Australia. The new rich of Australia are desperate for servants and no-one is more sought after than a young British woman. With her fare fully paid by the government, Lily boards the ocean liner Orontes, which sets sail from England on a month-long voyage to Sydney. Lily’s eyes are to be opened as never before. Although she travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, Lily finds herself mixing with first class passengers who are also on the look out for something – excitement, an escape. Always conscious that when they arrive in Australia, these would be the people she serves, Lily is captivated by her new rich, glamorous, hedonistic friends – Max and Eliza Campbell.

But Lily has also caught the eye of others – the quiet and flirtatious Edward and the loud and fascist George. Both men compete for Lily’s attention, while watched on by the decadent Eliza and Lily’s cabin-mate Ida, a serious and earnest young woman who appears to judge Lily for every thing that she does.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers of Orontes have been separated from the world outside and it is a world in which the lights are going out – war with Germany is close, Chamberlain is conducting last minute talks with Hitler for peace, people aboard hope for the best but some fear the worst. The passengers include Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians. On board ship politics are kept at bay but most, especially George, already view these people as the enemy. And when she befriends a young Jewish woman, Lily is given a glimpse of the horrors that some have already experienced in Europe. Unfortunately, the ship cannot keep all of these horrors at bay. Not everyone who embarked in England will survive the voyage.

It might be early in the year but I already know that A Dangerous Crossing will be a key read of 2017 for me. It is sensational. I was engrossed from the very first enigmatic chapter and I stayed hooked until the end. I grabbed every spare moment to read it and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys

The wonderful Hb cover!

The writing is absolutely stunning. Rachel Rhys seemingly effortlessly carries us back to 1939, a world in some ways still innocent and yet poised on the edge of blackness. Life aboard the Orontes, with its galas, dinners, parties and gossiping on deck, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the descriptions of the excursions that the passengers undertake, in such inviting places as Naples, the Pyramids and Ceylon. It’s a terrific blend of claustrophobic life aboard the ship and then the excitement of experiencing new places, the heat intensifying as the ship voyages southwards.

But the appeal of A Dangerous Crossing doesn’t just lie in its locations and historical detail but also in the passengers themselves. Lily is a wonderful companion and like so many of the other people that we meet she has a past to run from. Eliza and Max are an extraordinary couple, with a depth to them that you would never have guessed at the beginning. As the voyage continues we learn more and more about all of these people as they are forced into ever closer intimacy. At times, the revelations are beautifully touching and emotional, at times tragic. We are brought so close to it all.

It feels like these are the dying days of the old world and George in particular exhibits some shocking behaviour, especially towards local people on the excursions. But there is also a sense that the behaviour of socialites such as Eliza also belong to another time and maybe the future belongs to young women such as Lily who are escaping the past to start afresh, independent. A Dangerous Crossing does contain a mystery but it actually contains lots of mysteries, all of them engrossing and intriguing. There is so much more to this novel than you might initially think.

The story is captivating, the writing enchanting – and what a spectacular cover. A Dangerous Crossing is a triumph. Rachel Rhys is the penname of Tammy Cohen, whose unusual and original thriller When She Was Bad was such a highlight of 2016. How Tammy/Rachel can write! I have no doubt that A Dangerous Crossing will feature in my top books of 2017 post – it’s that good. I’m so excited to think where Tammy/Rachel will head next – I do know it will be wonderful.

Other review
Writing as Tammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Corpus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2017 (26 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Corpus by Rory ClementsIt is the end of November in 1936 and the people of Britain are being kept in ignorance about the crisis facing the country’s monarchy. But all is about to be revealed, thanks to the independent America press and King Edward VIII himself who is determined to put life with the woman he loves above duty to his country. The upper reaches of society and government are in turmoil and matters aren’t helped by the conflict between fascist and communist which has spread beyond Germany to Spain and elsewhere, including Britain. It’s the time of rallies and demonstrations, calls to arms, idealism and cynicism, spies and treachery. The time is ripe for murder.

Professor Tom Wilde teaches history at Cambridge University. His specialism is Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster who was responsible for bringing about the fall of Elizabeth’s greatest rival, Mary Queen of Scots. Wilde knows better than most the potential dangers of the time in which he finds himself living. His students are divided between the left and the right. He can only urge them to consider the significance of evidence and prejudice in our understanding of the past and the present.

Wilde himself will need all his skill to help Lydia, the young poet who lives next door to him. Her schoolfriend Nancy has suddenly died, apparently of a heroin overdose, and then the parents of another friend have been found butchered in their home. When other individuals emerge with an interest in the murders, Wilde searches for connections and these take him into the dangerous and dark heart of Europe’s turmoil in these grim cold days of the winter of 1936.

Rory Clements is familiar to many for his wonderful Elizabethan mystery series featuring the spy John Shakespeare, last seen in Holy Spy. In many ways, Corpus would seem to be entirely different but it is a stroke of genius to create a new character, Tom Wilde, who is so fascinated by and knowledgeable in John Shakespeare’s world, who demonstrates the constant timeless themes of history which endlessly recur. The events of 1936 are relevant to the 1580s just as they are also relevant to today. This perspective illuminates Corpus and adds such depth to its events and attitudes. Rory Clements is a fine writer of such clever novels and in Tom Wilde he has created a character to do him proud, every bit as much as John Shakespeare.

You need to have your wits about you when you read Corpus. This is a very clever book, rich in intrigue and deceptions, with an army of characters to keep track of. I had to do a fair amount of looking backwards into the novel to remember who certain people were, particularly during the early part of the book as we move from one location to another – Cambridge University, country homes, London hotels and more. But all becomes much clearer as the novel continues and the rewards for the reader’s attention are high.

The storyline is marvellous! Its complexity is very satisfying to unravel and it captures so much of the sinister world of 1936 Europe. Hitler and Stalin walk in the shadows of this novel. Their reach is almost limitless and for many in this book their appeal is intoxicating and powerful. But the novel never forgets how much is at stake – there are frequent reminders of the bloody war in Spain, the King’s abdication promises chaos in Britain and the violence of the novel increases as several of the characters emerge from their disguises. There is a social divide here, too, with many types of people represented – the upper classes, politicians, immigrants, academics, miners – but some things unite them, including murder.

Rory Clements writes as brilliantly as he plots and this is a novel steeped in atmosphere, menace and history. The fact that we know what happened after 1936 adds a certain tension and also means that we know how believable and plausible the events described here are.

If I had to find fault with Corpus, I’d be out of luck. This is a standout historical novel and a gripping spy thriller. Clearly Rory Clements can turn his attention to any period of history he likes and in it he will find gold.

Other review
Holy Spy

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie Fox

Orion | 2016 | 279p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Days of Leda Grey by Essie FoxDuring one of those endlessly hot days of 1976, journalist Ed Peters discovers the Edwardian photograph of a beautiful young girl in a seaside town junk shop. Ed is immediately captivated by her face and learns that she lives nearby in White Cliff House. Her name is Leda Grey and she was once an actress, and the house was owned many years ago by Charles Beauvois, a director of silent films. Ed is desperate to learn more about the life of this woman, not seen for decades, and so he visits White Cliff House determined to win Leda Grey’s trust and hear her story which, he is sure, will bring a lost silver age to life.

Leda Grey and her house, decaying, unlit, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, bewitch Ed Peters. Despite her years, Leda Grey still evokes the artistry and wonder of those days of silent movies and her house is full of reminders of those days and of the films that she made with Charles Beauvois. As Ed watches the films, winding the handle of the ancient projector, and reads Leda’s memoirs, her Mirrors, she and Ed relive those years long ago when one day Leda could be Lady Macbeth and on another she could be Cleopatra wearing a crown of snakes.

Leda Grey is the mistress of playing femme fatales roles and this air of doom and tragedy gently breathes through the pages of The Last Days of Leda Grey. The very title is laden with foreboding and the novel’s opening page declares that death should be expected. Ed Peters, one feels, is a lonely, searching individual, his yearning for something inexplicable enhanced by the summer’s sleepy heat. He is ready to be enchanted by Leda Grey and so he is and the story she tells doesn’t disappoint.

The novel moves between Ed’s experiences at White Cliff House and the retelling of the past thanks to Leda Grey’s Mirrors. The title of the memoirs is apt because mirrors, reflections and lights play an important role in the novel, all hinting at the trickery of film-making, as well as self-deception, a lack of knowledge and lies. As Ed Peters tries to understand he becomes increasingly knotted in the events of the past and the atmosphere of the novel grows more and more heavy with danger, mystery and sin.

The Last Days of Leda Grey is an intoxicating, bewitching sometimes sinister read. Essie Fox writes beautifully and immerses her reader in the story, which is often theatrical, sometimes sexual and increasingly disturbing. At times I found its atmosphere a little too heavy for comfort and I welcomed brief breaks to clear my head but I was soon ready to immerse myself once more. The Last Days of Leda Grey is a relatively short read, perfectly suited for a long winter’s evening, but the impression it leaves is much more lasting.

The Bone Tree by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree | Greg Iles | 2015 | Harper | 850p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Tree by Greg IlesNext spring Mississippi Blood is published. This is the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As part of the celebrations, I was so pleased to post a review of Natchez Burning for an international blog tour back at the end of August and now it’s the turn of The Bone Tree. The Bone Tree follows on directly from Natchez Burning and so this review assumes you’ve read the earlier book first.

Penn Cage, attorney and Mayor of Natchez, a small town in rural Mississippi, continues to hunt for his father Dr Tom Cage, the town’s popular doctor for many years, who is now on the run for the murder of Viola Turner. This elderly black woman was once, in the sixties, Tom Cage’s much loved nurse. She was also the sister of a man brutally murdered by the Double Eagles, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan, and she suffered greatly at their hands. Everyone involved is now much, much older and some are in the mood to confess before death claims them. Journalists Henry Sexton and Caitlin Masters (also, just to complicate things, Penn’s fiancée) are working together to expose the truth, and one of the best ways to do that will be to discover and reveal one of the Double Eagles’ killing grounds, hidden within the Mississippi swamps – the Bone Tree. Legend has it that the Bone Tree contains, in addition to the bones of the murdered, evidence that links these men to one of the most devastating and notorious crimes in American history.

The plot of The Bone Tree is a complicated business, as you’d expect from a novel that comprises 850 pages and one that also succeeds the equally substantial Natchez Burning, one of the most satisfyingly structured and richly layered crime novels I’ve read. There are multiple threads and many characters and we move between them – there can be a fair few chapters before we return to each strand – but at the heart of the novel we have Caitlin’s pursuit of the truth, Penn’s hunt for his father and Tom’s struggle to survive at as little cost to the lives of others as possible. All set within a fascinating re-examination of a dark period in Mississippi’s history, one that might not be as safely buried in the past as one might have hoped.

But The Bone Tree differs from Natchez Burning in that there is another investigation on top of all of the rest and for long stretches of the novel it takes precedence over anything else – FBI Special Agent John Kaiser’s investigation into one of the biggest crimes of modern American history. For the time being, the Double Eagles will have to wait.

There are sections of The Bone Tree that are utterly harrowing, tense or thrilling – or all three of these at once. There are moments here I’m not going to forget, there is one in particular that is totally shocking. But these sections are surrounded by great swathes of meticulously detailed discussion into the big, arguably unsolved, mystery of the 1960s. I’d argue that The Bone Tree contains within it a superb, much shorter novel but this, and the pace, has been lost to some degree by the material that surrounds it.

The events of the novel take place over a period of just a few short days and the events of each are described over hundreds of pages. Nevertheless, my interest was kept alive throughout because, despite it all, the evil of the Double Eagles and their terrible deeds can still be traced through the pages. Tom and Penn continue to focus on their crimes, refusing to be sidetracked by Kaiser’s ulterior motives, and Caitlin’s pursuit for the truth is absolutely dedicated, but the author’s fascination with Kaiser’s investigations takes precedence far too often, in my opinion, for the flow of the novel.

This is an extraordinary trilogy, welcoming the reader to become fully immersed in its portrait of evil, focusing on events that took place over just a few days. The conclusion of The Bone Tree is so tense and gripping that it left this reader so excited for the concluding novel Mississippi Blood. It sounds as if this final novel will be half the size of its predecessors which makes me think that its focus will be narrowed further and this time the emphasis will be on the answers we are all so desperate to learn.

Other review
Natchez Burning

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

Thin Air | Michelle Paver | 2016 (6 October) | Orion | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Thin Air by Michelle PaverIt is 1935 and Dr Stephen Pearce is medic on a five-man expedition that aims to climb and conquer the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. He is the last-minute replacement doctor, doing his older brother Kits, also on the expedition, a favour. Shortly before they set off, the team attend a party at the home of Charles Tennant, one of only two survivors of another expedition that tried and failed, so spectacularly, to claim the mountain’s peak in 1906. Tennant, now old, his feet amputated after that awful climb, refuses to see anyone – but Pearce stumbles by mistake into his rooms and hears more than enough to fill his heart with dread at the thought of the trial to come.

And so we venture onto the mountain in the last few days before the monsoon season closes it to all climbers. The men, along with their small army of porters, follow the trail of that earlier Lyell expedition up the mountain, pitching camps where they had also pitched, Kangchenjunga looming above them, the ice closing in. At first all goes well, spirits kept high not least because of the dog that adopted Pearce in the foothills and has now become a member of the team in his own right. But the discovery of cairns, the final resting places for the Lyell’s expedition dead, changes the mood, especially when Pearce realises that not all of the dead were given a grave in which to rest in peace.

Michelle Paver’s earlier novel Dark Matter continues to be one of my favourite horror novels, a ghost story set in the frozen Arctic which terrified me. It takes quite a lot for a novel to frighten me, generally only ghost stories succeed and then not all of the time, but Michelle Paver knows just which way to do it. There are similarities between the two novels. Thin Air also takes place in a frozen, perilous environment and is set in the 1930s. Only a few characters are involved, adding to the mood of isolation, lonely dread, even the fear of madness. But Thin Air is no imitation. It is every bit as good as Dark Matter, every bit as frightening. I read the second half late at night by lamplight. Perfect.

The story is told to us by Stephen Pearce himself, a man of science but filled with curiosity about the doomed Lyell expedition – although not as much as his brother Kits who is almost obsessed by it. In a way, Stephen is the last man on the expedition that you’d expect to become so haunted during those days and long nights on the avalanche-swept mountain but this is an environment that promises the unexpected.

There is another side to the novel that is also fascinating – the relationship between the British climbers and the sherpas and porters that do their bidding. Barefooted, the Sherpas are only offered boots when they are too far up the mountain to disappear. There is ingrained racism, suspicion and utter dependence. But there is a religious side to it as well. Pearce hates the mythology and superstition with which the locals have surrounded this mountain but Pearce is a man about to change.

The relationships between the five-man team, plus the dog, are beautifully treated by Michelle Paver. The brotherly relationship between Stephen and Kits is just one part of this.

Thin Air is a short novel – I read it in two sittings over one day – but it is long enough for the reader to wallow in its chilly darkness. It is rich in atmosphere, the environment stunningly described. Kangchenjunga is a formidable character in its own right and it is a deadly one. But it is also such a satisfying ghost story, so perfect for these darker evenings, and it is wrapped within a beautifully told and sad tale. Thin Air succeeds as an excellent ghost story and horror novel but it is also a wonderful piece of historical fiction and I thoroughly recommend it.

Other review
Dark Matter