Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

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

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

Natchez Burning | Greg Iles | 2014, Pb 2016 | Hodder | 853p | Review and bought copy | Buy the book

Next spring is published Mississippi Blood, the final and highly anticipated book in Greg Iles’ trilogy begun by Natchez Burning and continued in The Bone Tree. As a run-up to the big day, I am so pleased to be part of a blog tour that will review Natchez Burning through September and The Bone Tree during October. I jumped at it. This tour has provided me with the perfect opportunity to read books I should have read a long time ago. I’ve heard nothing but good things and, as I read Natchez Burning, I kept asking myself why on earth I hadn’t read it before. I must have been barmy.

On with the review…

Natchez Burning by Greg IlesNatchez Burning might be the fourth Penn Cage novel by Greg Iles but it is the first in a distinct trilogy. Earlier books are referred to and characters do reappear but you certainly don’t need to have read them to get every bit of satisfaction out of this wonderful book.

Penn Cage, once a prosecuting attorney, is now the mayor of Natchez, a small and relatively quiet community in Mississippi. It wasn’t always that way. Natchez, now reeling from Hurricane Katrina, was once caught in the fire of civil rights abuse, held to hostage by the Ku Klux Klan and, even worse than the Klan, the Double Eagles, a local KKK splinter group that tortured, raped, murdered, with no fear or expectation of justice. Justice in Natchez at that time and place was white and it was supremacist. Few people then stood firm against the Klan, albeit carefully, quietly, and one such man was Dr Tom Cage, Penn’s much loved father and a very well-liked and caring doctor. But, to Penn’s bewilderment, Tom Cage has been accused of murdering Viola Turner, his immensely popular African-American nurse from the 1960s, who, now an old woman, had recently returned home to Natchez to die but had instead met a death that was anything but peaceful.

Tom Cage refuses to defend himself for reasons he will not explain and so Penn is compelled to hunt for the truth. To do that he must tear open the wounds of the past and what he finds is utterly horrifying and terrifying. Natchez is a town rotting with secrets, so many of its citizens stinking of past crimes, but not all of these crimes are in the past and the more that Penn prods the beast, the more it stirs. The murder of Viola is just one of the many mysteries facing Penn as he uncovers hints of a conspiracy that, if revealed, could leave American history in need of a rewrite. It could also mean the death of Penn and Tom. Just how well do you know anyone? This is a fundamental question that now faces Penn.

Natchez Burning is a substantial novel at about 850 pages but its size hides the fact that these are pages that will fly through the fingers. Greg Iles is a great storyteller and he keeps this immensely complex and multi-layered plot well under control so that at one moment you can sense everything coming together while, at the next, you become well aware of a whole new mystery developing legs. And what that means is revelation after revelation, not to mention shock after shock as Penn uncovers the truth, or at least some of it (some secrets are even deeper buried), about the town’s past. This scrutiny of such a terrible period in recent history is also a great thriller and it enthrals from start to finish. The narrative itself moves through time, taking us and Penn even closer to events.

The victims of the Double Eagles, their lives, hopes and deaths, receive care in this novel and in a way provide its heart.

Natchez Burning is a full and satisfactory novel in its own right but it leads directly into The Bone Tree and that is where I’m heading next. I expect great things and I have every confidence that my expectations will be exceeded.

The Secret Wife by Gill Paul

The Secret Wife | Gill Paul | 2016 (25 August) | Avon | 404p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Secret Wife by Gill PaulIn 1914, not long after the start of World War I, cavalry officer Dimitri Malama is injured on the Russian-German front. He is sent to a hospital close to St Petersburg to recover, but this is no ordinary hospital. The rooms of the summer palace of the Tsars, the Catherine Palace, have been converted into wards for officers and one of Dimitri’s nurses is Nurse Romanov Three, otherwise known as Her Imperial Highness, Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Tatiana is no stranger to Dimitri. He is of aristocratic birth and before the war he had been one of the royal family’s imperial guard, keeping a respectful distance. But these new circumstances change everything and Tatiana and Dimtri fall in love.

From that moment on, everything changes for Dimitri. Through war and revolution, Dimitri will do all he can to love and protect Tatiana as her status is reduced radically from princess to prisoner, the threat against the imperial family increasing almost daily as they are moved around this immense nation, the chains tightening little by little.

In the present day, Kitty Fisher escapes a personal crisis in London by fleeing to a remote cabin in the Lake Akanabee, New York State, which had been left to her by a great grandfather she had never known. His only surviving relation, she becomes absorbed by his story, especially after she finds a valuable and tantalising piece of jewellery lost beneath the cabin’s front steps.

The Secret Wife moves between the stories of Dimitri and Kitty, both of which illuminate this great love of Dimitri’s life, a love that haunted his entire existence. It’s not difficult to understand why Kitty should become so consumed by it because this novel absolutely enthralled this reader at least with its emotional and powerful story of love and loss.

The tragic story of the Tsar and his family is well-known but its power to shock, as well as fascinate, continues and Gill Paul makes excellent use of her sources to present the full horror of events, while still reminding us, albeit gently, of the appalling conditions faced by ordinary Russians (and Russian soldiers) under Romanov rule. But the emphasis throughout is on the love affair between Dimitri and Tatiana, mostly focusing on Dimitri as he is forced to make choices that he knows he may live to regret. At times Dimitri is ruthless, knowingly so, in direct contrast to the purity of his love, and there are a few moments that demonstrate that there is nothing he won’t do for Tatiana.

We know Tatiana relatively little but Dimitri is not always an easy man to like. But he doesn’t want to be liked. He wants to save Tatiana and her family. Gill Paul cleverly, without filter, shows the results of this tunnel vision on the lives and feelings of the people around Dimitri.

I was completely engrossed in The Secret Wife, as a thoroughly entertaining historical novel and for its love story. There are so many emotions on display here and it’s hard not to be moved as history overtakes love. The book skilfully combines fact with fiction. I didn’t fall for Kitty Fisher’s story particularly but it played a relatively minor part in the novel’s structure and worked well as a device to bring the story up to the present day. It was the story of Tatiana and Dimitri that captivated me and ensured that I finished the novel in one glorious day’s reading.

Other post
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

The Constant Soldier | William Ryan | 2016 (25 August) | Mantle | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Constant Soldier by William RyanIt is 1944 and soldier Paul Brandt has returned home to Germany from the Eastern Front. He is not the man he was before and not just physically. Brandt’s obvious life-changing wounds only hint at the deeper psychological damage and shame that the war in Russia has left him with. His home village isn’t what it was either. It lives under the shadow of a luxurious hut where the SS officers from the nearby concentration camp get their R&R. Waited on hand and foot, they are in need of a steward and Brandt, no longer any other use to the army, is perfect for the task. Not that Brandt wants the job but on his return to the village he glimpsed one of the hut’s female slaves, still somehow clinging on to life, and he recognised her in an instant.

Meanwhile, the Russian front is coming closer and helping to push it on is a young Russian woman, a tank driver.

The Constant Soldier is an immensely powerful, emotionally charged, beautifully written novel. In these final months of the Second World War, we’re shown the impact of five years of war, and longer of fascism, on a small community that knows only too well what will happen when the Russians finally arrive. The village itself is depleted of everyone Brandt used to know who has been judged deviant by the Reich, while in the hut we see men perhaps crazed by power, others shamed by spending their war here and not fighting elsewhere. And watching closely are the female prisoners imprisoned in the bunker, let out only to slave for their masters, the hut reminding us all of what is happening in the nearby concentration camp.

The novel moves between Brandt and the others in the hut. Brandt’s feelings are easier for us to empathise with but there are portraits of other men here that are absolutely – and horrifyingly – fascinating. The commander Neumann in particular is so well painted. It’s a portrait of a man who almost knows how evil he has become and who is consciously trying to be normal – sometimes – and yet we are reminded of the personal cost he has paid. There’s no question that we sympathise with him, that would be impossible, but his character is complex and he’s hard to forget.

There are multiple tragedies in The Constant Soldier. This war, the Reich, has done its work and now the young and the old must pay the price as the Russian tanks approach and so few are left to defend the village. The focus is on a small community but we are given glimpses of the wider war through the characters’ memories. The concentration camp, though, reproaches from the shadows, barely referred to but always there.

The female prisoners are central to the story and all men are judged by how they behave to them. We are given insights into the women’s thoughts but only comparatively rarely. This is a cold, dark place. There are moments here that might make you cry, especially one moment in particular.

The Russian woman in the tank is an interesting figure, giving us a glimpse into the Russian army that we might be unfamiliar with. These sections add to the tension of the novel as the harsh early months of 1945 freeze the ground and I really enjoyed them.

The Constant Soldier is a novel in which thoughts and fears must often be silenced, kept hidden, with character slowly explored and revealed in its true nature, but during the final third of the novel there is a strong sense of all hell being let loose and these chapters are very tense indeed. While William Ryan takes us into very dark and sometimes distressing territory, there are glimpses of hope – the war will end.

No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien

No Man’s Land | Simon Tolkien | 2016 | HarperCollins | 566p | Review copy | Buy the book

No Man's Land by Simon TolkienIt’s hard to imagine a more appropriate date to post a review of No Man’s Land than today, 1 July 2016, the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which forms the powerful, overwhelming heart of this wonderful novel.

In the first years of the 20th century, Adam Raine struggles to thrive in the face of poverty, reinforced by tragedy. He experiences London at its worst, and is even threatened by its worst as the workhouse beckons from the shadows. Adam and his politically militant father have no choice but to head for the pit village of Scarsdale in Yorkshire where they have relations among the oppressed miners. Adam is an intelligent young man and his father is determined that he should have every chance – under the sky and not in the lethal depths of the pit. But yet again the fates conspire against Adam, marking him always as an outsider. Later, when Adam finally feels hope on earning his scholarship to Oxford, it is to be short lived. It is 1914 and England is at war and nothing will ever be the same again.

It’s as if everything in Adam’s life is leading up to the Somme in July 2016. His friendships with the young miners, as well as with the son of the pit owner who lives in the big house, lead up to their dependence on each other in the trenches, resulting so many times in grief and pain. So few who go over the top will survive, or at least emerge unscathed in body and mind. But it also affects Adam’s great love. He fell in love at first sight with Miriam, the village parson’s daughter, but is that relationship able to withstand the trauma of war, especially with the pit owner’s youngest son Brice so ready to snatch the prize?

No Man’s Land is a substantial novel and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Big themes and big emotions are served best by a novel that the reader can immerse themselves in over several days and there is a lot going on here. It features several distinct sections, although these can really be abbreviated to before the war and during the war. The Adam who fights in the trenches has very little in common with his earlier self but that doesn’t mean that his life before the war was drama-free. The sections inside the pit are as powerful as anything that follows during the war sections.

The writing is beautiful, sometimes deceptively simple and, as a result, packing an emotional punch of some size. I cried several times reading this, twice even while on the bus, and not all of those tears fell during the war sections. Great grief is experienced and expressed. The support,physical as well as emotional, of comrades is life-changing. And then there’s the horror of trench warfare and how utterly diabolical that is and we’re spared none of it. We get a tiny glimpse of the unbelievable stress and fear and it brings us so close to Adam and his brothers-in-arms.

I didn’t get along so well with the chapters that deal with the love affair between Adam and Miriam, nor did I care as much for the rivalry between Adam and the odious Brice. These chapters felt conventional and out of place when compared to the rest of the book and the characters of Miriam and Brice (and the dastardly footman) seemed two-dimensional in comparison to Adam, his father, the miners and their families, and Adam’s comrades. There are so many individual stories in these pages, families and people changed by events in the mine or in the trenches. They are all so memorable and colourful, at times heartbreakingly sad, occasionally amusing, but all very real. I much preferred the time spent on these people, their stories and their role in Adam’s changing character.

I love a grand saga that immerses me in the lives of people, their families and a community. No Man’s Land brings these together perfectly against a background of pitiless war and the injustice, hardship and cruelty of mining during the early 20th century. We spend time on the front and down the pit but contrasting with it always are memories of life continuing above ground or in the relative safety of the British countryside. These memories taunt the men that suffer but how they comfort them as well. Interestingly and movingly, there are occasional references in the novel to future events, informing us that Adam will look back on this time when he’s in France.

No Man’s Land has such a power to it and despite its themes and darkness is always such a pleasure to read, the pages turning themselves. It brings the events and sacrifice of 100 years ago to the forefront of our minds and straight to our hearts and reminds us that we must never forget.