Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The Cottingley Secret is such a marvellous amalgam of true historical events and a delightful modern day book of magical realism that I am not sure that any review I write will really do it justice, but one can but try!

I think most people in my age bracket will remember the revelation that the Cottingley Fairies photos  had been faked by two cousins from the Yorkshire town some several  decades previously.  As a child  I actually remember Seeing the story on Arthur C Clarke’s programme about the supernatural. Those pictures had divided the nation, sceptics and believers alike had staked their reputations on their theories.

This book takes that story and the mysticism it always evoked and focuses the reader on the perspective  of the younger of the girls, Frances and links it to the destiny of a modern woman Olivia whose familial connection to the Cottingley affair is revealed gradually as she tries to engage her Grandmother who is sinking further and further into Dementia.

Olivia herself, a believer in the fairy Folk as a child, begins a journey of discovery and attempts to open herself up to magic again after a terrible loss, an acceptance of a bitter truth and a chance inheritance with the potential to change her life entirely as a result.

The two timelines are interwoven so skilfully through the device of a undiscovered personal account ‘Notes on a Fairy Tale, by Frances Griffith. This story of a lost and lonely young  girl forced to move to England from South Africa to live with family she had never met, to a wild and unfamiliar landscape had strong echoes for me of  “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodson Burnett. It draws you into the tale,in much  the same way, the evident discovery of joy in the untamed nature of The North, the sheer  magic of the place giving comfort to a lonely child, the kinship of Elsie and Frances, echoes that of Mary and Dickon.

 Such a feeling of intense enjoyment was evoked by the account of the unchecked escalation of the notoriety of the photos , a young girl’s fear for a father at war and the revelation that for Frances at least, the belief in  and encounter of fairies was real.

The photos may have been fabricated, but here the magic that prompted their creation is realised in the undergrowth of that infamous beck.

Olivia’s strand of the book is just as beautiful.  Grief, loss, rebirth and renewal all feature as her unexpected 
inheritance of her Grandfather’s used book store allows for a searching of her soul, and an  acceptance of a lethargy in spirit that has led her to accept a man wholly unsuited to her whimsical spirit . The story of the Yorkshire Fairies offers an opportunity via her ailing Grandmother’s connection to the Cottingley Incident to learn about and remember the joyous and vivacious soul her Grandmother had been, as Dementia  now ravages her mind and physical health.

The moments between Martha and Olivia left me near tears, it is the honesty of the descriptions of the effects of the disease and the sheer thievery of it’s symptoms that ground the narrative in reality, providing a foil  so that the lighter more joyful and magical elements can be shown in such vivid relief. The addition of friendly family friends and a grieving widower and his delicate daughter are liberal  seasonings of sugar and spice to what is an utterly delicious and delightful whole.

I loved this book,  I know it will invigorate interest in the Cottingley Photos  and start the debate over the fifth photo and it’s authenticity, but for my part I can wholeheartedly say I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Festive Treats: The Christmas Bargain by Shanna Hatfield

Rather like the chocolate tubs so prevalent at this time of year, this book is just sweet enough and the perfect little festive pick me up. Squeaky clean, no clunky sex scenes here!  A young woman saved from a drunken and abusive Father, confirmed batchelor Banker with a penchant for the outdoors. Saving Face and virtue, a speedy marriage ensues and then the process of growing from strangers,through friendship and fellowship and into partners and helpmates.

This is not a story of high drama, don’t expect huge calamity or high peril, it is a gentle tale of  friendships ( the neighbours who take them and their tentative courtship,under their stewardship are delightful!) of feelings unexpressed, but deeply felt and of parental scrutiny and acceptance as the arrival of the In-Laws throws their comfortable coexistence into disarray and catalyses the rather lovely final steps into marriage.

As delicious as a bite size mince pie and just as satisfying!

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Festive Treats: No Holly for Miss Quinn by Miss Read

I try to get at least one Miss Read Book into my reading year since I discovered her last December when trying to find Christmas Stories on audible  that were a little less sappy romance and a little more substance. That is not to say that I am adverse to said sappy romance which I still gorge on at Yuletide both in book and film form if my Christmas 24 viewing figures is anything to go by!

“No Holly for Miss Quinn” is pretty much perfect for the more traditional Christmas Reveller, set somewhere in the sixties or early seventies, this audiobook  version of the story, read by the delightfully plummy Gwen Watford, a stalwart of the Hickson Miss Marple years, is delightful.

This is a traditional Christmas tale hammering home the ideas of being grateful for family, of the melancholy and loneliness that Christmas brings for some and the  remembrance that the glorious joy that a simple Christmas by the hearth whilst the weather rages outside,is something we modern Folks used to the razzmatazz of laser light shows, LED trees and 24hour Tv seem to have forgotten and are much the poorer for.

It is filled with paper chains, homemade mince pies, Children in joyful anticipation of Santa’s coming , walks after dinner in the bracing chill air and such beautiful descriptions of the Norfolk countryside (even referencing my own Home town of St Neots in Cambridgeshire) that you cannot fail to be swept away.

Truly wonderful.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Plague Pits and Riverbones - Detective Lavender Mysteries by Karen Charlton

One of the things I hate the most about being a reviewer is when I find a fabulous book and it is mid-series. This is most appropriate in the case(if you forgive the pun) of  The Detective Lavender Series. I was immediately drawn  into the story and it’s wider setting.. It is written with a real flair for the sensory details that make the placement of the action in the time of London’s Bow Street Runners so realistic. The scent of the river, the warmth of a hearth, the flavour of Pies, the cityscape itself all add to this utterly immersive read.

Detective Lavender is besieged with a number of cases, his trusty Sergeant Ned is needed elsewhere and so he is flitting from staking out a disgruntled Liverpudlian with a grudge against the Home Office, dealing with a spate of robberies of the Rich on the Highways and Byways of the suburbs of the Capital and then there are the skeletal remains that just keep being unearthed at the Thames and closer to home in the very confines of Bow Street Station itself!

The plot is an expertly crafted group of threads that like the tapestries of old are eventually woven into a piece of such beautiful creativity. The story development never seems contrived and each piece of the puzzle is reached in a very organic way with different people gradually adding to the whole. Science, rumour, hard graft and luck all play their parts.

It is a real shame that my ignorance of the series has meant I missed the development of the characters in the three previous books ( something I am to rectify very quickly) as I am now a devoted fan of all. Karen Charlton has crafted such a lovable band here, from the highest echelons of society down to the  lowliest copper and his ragtag brood and there uniting both these disparate worlds is Lavender  himself and his exotic and stunning bride. He believes she has married beneath her, but they are perfectly matched, he clever, handsome and vital, she vivacious, bright and sophisticated.

This is a book that has extremely wide appeal, not as pompous as Holmes, this is a book of humour and warmth despite the grimness of the poverty depicted.  Fans of  the BBC hit “Ripper Street “who miss the show but need something a little less brutal to settle down with,will find this near perfect and the similarities with another beloved detective, Murdoch of Toronto are undeniable, but more than that, this is a book of such attention to detail, so evocative that it could not fail to make huge fans out of all who delve inside.

The fact that Lavender, Magistrate Read and the other lead Officers were realife “Runners” just adds a frisson to the whole book and even more reason for me to seek out the previous books to gorge on as winter approaches.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Strange Weather by Joe Hill.

Anyone who has known me for any length of time will know that one of the highlights of me reading life was meeting Joe Hill at a reading at the wonderful Foyles store in London, so to say I am a fan is a bit of an understatement, so my anticipation for this collection of short novels, (or really long short stories as it might be better to describe them) was high.

I was not disappointed, Joe Hill has an incredible skill with language, it is rich in it’s descriptors so a scene is vivid and sensual and yet also has an inate ability to make even coarse language flow so it remains authentic to the speaker so it does not jar.

Snapshot is the eerie tale of a Polaroid camera that takes away memories rather than creating them. The more photos it takes, the more it destroys and deletes. A possessed camera not withstanding and a violent psychopath wielding it  and the spookiness of the images captured are by no means the most troubling part of this story for me.  The portrayal of  the memory loss, worry and confusion that dementia brings about. The agonies loved ones endure, the flashes of cognition that cause more pain in their fleetingness.  I have seen other reviewers say this is the weakest of the four, but for me it was the most personally upsetting.  Good stories evoke an emotional reaction and this certainly affected me.

Loaded is a story of the moment. Densely packed with issues that affect every single person in America today, whatever side of the political, social or religious divides you sit, this story will evoke strong feelings. From the “accidental” death of a near squeaky clean black teen by a white cop with poor risk assessment skills, the story ratchets up the tension using every fear in American hearts, rights of every kind are offered up for scrutiny. Freedom of the press, Right to Arms, racism, sexism and even assisted suicide all become part of this harrowing and ultimately desolate story of guns and Gung Ho , machismo ridden man whose fall into madness is all the more frightening against the backdrop of the reality of the Gun problem in America.

Aloft is a good old fashioned science fiction story with a foundation in the idea of loneliness being a transferable emotion. Our hero feels disillusioned and insular in his group of closest friends but is then thrust into true solitude as a cloudlike alien entity breaks his fall out of a plane in a skydive  attempt to impress his unrequited love. What follows is a intriguing battle of wills and a marvellously weird reveal that reminded me of a couple of episodes of Dr Who - Always a bonus!

Rain  was a straight out environmental post apocalyptic disaster. Spunky heroine survives crystalline shards from the sky, created in the clouds. A terrorist weapon of Mass Destruction. Part Mad Max with crazed religious cults wallowing in the end of Days and in the closing paragraphs a wonderful twist and a searing judgement on the kind of escalation that can occur through misinformation a trigger finger just a little too itchy on those cursed red buttons... Mr Trump had best steer clear of this story just in case it gives him ideas!

A collection that has resonated in every part of my mind, clever storytelling and a inordinate amount of food for thought on the plight of humanity. Mr Hill you have done it again. A Triumph.

36 Question’s that changed my mind about you by Vicki Grant


This YA book is deceptively simple in it’s structure. Two complete strangers are paired up by sexual orientation and then have to answer thirty six predetermined questions in a bid to orchestrate a relational connection.

 Enter somewhat annoyingly neurotic  Hildey and the more laid back, laconic and seemingly mercenary Paul. To maintain anonymity they are to address each other as Bob and Betty. They begin face to face, but after an emotional outburst continue via Messenger. Somehow freed by the structure of the questions they begin to examine ideas and notions that perhaps they had never consciously considered.

The inevitable oil and water mix of grammar policing high flyer with the “Just Scrapes by”  high school drop out is a great foundation for this story. A clinical chore becomes a mutual reliance from both participants . We gradually peel away the layers and reveal vulnerabilities and qualities that intrigue and entice. By sharing the pasts, presents and worrying futures they eventually both learn as much about themselves as they do about each other. 

The deep dark secrets they harbour are excised, and an attachment (based on understanding the minutiae  of each other’s lives rather than appearance or the posturing so common even by the most genuine people on social media) is formed.

Throw in (quite literally, in fact) an expensive tropical fish, a gay best friend, parental traumas and a  romantic dash through a blizzard and you have a throughly entertaining story and I defy you not to start making a note of the questions to try out on your nearest and dearest.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Pets Of Primrose Cottage - A Place to Hide by Sheila Norton

It seems that the serialised novel is making a resurgence, the work that Dickens and later Stephen King did to make the art of waiting for the next bite size advance in the plot  so tantalising is being used now to introduce new works to an ever hungry audience.

This tale of disgraced media darling who returns from the glamour of New York to a less than enthusiastic family in Loughton. The invasion of privacy or her parents and twin sister galvanises a move to a small town on the edges of Dartmoor to escape scrutiny by the ravenous paparazzi.

Unfortunately in Crickleford, everyone has a nose in everyone else’s business, this coupled with a disturbing propensity to lie fluently to the kindly family who takes her in as a lodger and then an ever increasing circle of kindly locals makes for humorous reading. 

The tangled web she weaves leaves the near broke Emma with a new burgeoning career in pet sitting. Fearful German Shepherds, a local crime spree and physical fitness not withstanding,Emma starts to imagine her New Start might just work, that is until the handsome local Hack Matt Sorrentino  becomes intrigued by the newest crime fighter in town.