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February 2016




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Feb. 12th, 2016


The End of Law: a novel of Hitler’s Germany, Thérèse Down

Imagine finding out that your husband and your father are murderers. Then imagine finding that they are responsible for thousands of deaths. This is the situation of Hedda, once a beautiful Berlin socialite taking no interest in politics: ‘No one ever mentioned “das Judische problem” in the Schroeder household.’ Now she’s unhappily married to handsome Walter Gunther, a high ranking SS officer. By the end of the book her eyes have been opened and she’s a different woman.

When I started this book I wondered if I’d be able to get through it. Even when you already know the facts, reading about a meeting of high ranking officials who are calmly discussing the best methods of killing people is almost too distressing. Luckily, this being fiction, interest in the characters and their fate kept me reading. Although Germany’s military victories (and defeat by the RAF, yay!) are mentioned, the book is about the internal politics of a Germany where the law, medical ethics and Christianity are twisted to justify the cold blooded murder of ‘mentally impaired and chronically ill lebensunwertes leben – those deemed medically to be “unworthy of life” and subjected to what the Führer termed “mercy death,’ And, of course, the Jews.

Walter is a devoted servant of the Reich, anxious to be noticed as such by the high command and willing to obey any order. Karl Muller is a completely different character. Trained as an engineer and then as a doctor, it’s rather a mystery how he managed to achieve a high rank in the SS and be responsible for engineering gas chambers. Unlike Walter, Karl takes no pleasure in his work; he is at first sickened and then wracked by guilt: ‘Karl turned to prayer as an alternative to suicide.’ Karl and Hedda had met years before and their lives become linked again, although not romantically. Karl finds his own method of resistance, knowing where it will lead. Hedda has to deal with a violent husband and a threat to one of her children and becomes a braver person and a more loving mother as a result.

Thérèse Down has written this book to honour those who were part of the lesser known (and mostly Christian) resistance in the newly barbaric Germany. She’s done so successfully and although it’s fiction, The End of Law is a useful addition to the history of the period.

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.

Feb. 10th, 2016


The English Girl, Katherine Webb

Two women of different generations are obsessed with the idea of Arabia and their stories become entwined. The older woman is Maude Vickery. Born into a wealthy family, tiny, plain and fiercely intelligent, she reads about Arabia as a child and longs to see it for herself. An indulgent father bankrolls her travels and after earning (but not being allowed at that time) a 1st class degree, she sets off. Overcoming incredible difficulties and hardships, she becomes the first woman to cross the Empty Quarter. The first woman because she is beaten in the race by her childhood friend Nathaniel Elliot. Joan Seabrook is very different. Her family is not rich, her beloved father has been killed in a freak road accident, her adored brother is away in the army while her mother is sinking into depressed widowhood. Joan’s inspiration came from the tales her father told her, taken from The Arabian Nights. Her imagination was caught forever and she longs to see the desert for herself.

Joan’s story starts when she and her fiancé Rory travel to Oman (in 1958 a British Protectorate), where they stay at the British residency with kindly ‘Uncle Bobby’, a friend of her father. She is wildly excited at the thought of meeting her idol, Maude Vickery, who lives in a house nearby. Here is where I have to say that I took an enormous dislike to Joan. This is what I jotted down when I was about halfway through the book: ‘Joan knows nothing about men, nothing about politics, nothing about the desert and Oman. She’s a provincial nobody who should have stayed at home with her mother, married some nice bloke and had children. I really hate her!’ Harsh words but Joan is a really silly girl, twenty six going on twelve. She does get to meet Maude and her slave/companion Abdullah and is thrilled. She sees her brother and is forced to assess the relationship between him and Rory in a new way but does nothing about it. She puts at risk her own life and those of others through her own selfish obsession and her blindness to the way Maude is using her.

My advice to anyone else who feels the same way about Joan is: don’t give up! The ending really does make the whole book worthwhile. Maude is a bitter old woman and the revelation as to how unforgivably Nathan betrayed her plus the terrible revenge she plans for him (although both are now in their eighties) had me reading faster and faster to find out what would happen. The descriptions of Oman, the desert and its people are all excellent and the subject matter is unusual. I’ve read other books by Katherine Webb which I liked more than this one but it is a rattling good story if you can get past Joan. I’m sorry if you’re supposed to sympathise with her but I just couldn’t.

The book will be published by Orion on 24th March and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Feb. 8th, 2016


Out of Sorts, Aurélie Valognes, trans. Wendeline A. Hardenberg

A quick report on a book which made me laugh out loud. I was sorry to finish it. Out of Sorts is yet another book which I found lurking forgotten on the Kindle. It’s an AmazonCrossing book, translated from the French.

Ferdinand Brun is eighty three and a grumpy old man. He lives alone in his filthy Paris apartment, ignoring his neighbours and engaged in constant warfare with the concierge, Madame Suarez, who certainly has it in for him. His daughter Marion, who lives in Singapore, worries that he’s not coping and arranges for him to go into a retirement home. As he’s in good health and hates institutions, the thought horrifies him. There seems to be a conspiracy to get him out of his home.

Then his life is turned around by two wonderful characters. First Juliette, a very precocious ten-year-old, erupts into his life, announcing that she intends to have lunch with him every day as she doesn’t like the school cafeteria. Her conversation is a delight. Next he gets to know Beatrice, a neighbour who, at ninety two, is still full of energy and has a busy social life. Both Juliette and Beatrice are determined to get Ferdinand out of his rut and start engaging with other people. Can the habits of a lifetime be changed? I wasn’t much interested in the redemptive aspects of the story, just found it very funny. It’s short, charming, recommended.

Feb. 5th, 2016


Death in Profile, Guy Fraser-Sampson

This a police procedural detective story, with a lot of detail. Very much the kind of thing I like.

A serial rapist-murderer is on the loose in genteel Hampstead and DCI Tom Allen and his team are exhausted and depressed by their failure to find the killer. When the body count reaches five, Allen is replaced by a younger man, the fast-tracked graduate Simon Collinson, now a Detective Superintendent. This is due to police politics and the need to deal with the press, baying for a result. As Allen is an old-style copper, the kind with a ‘copper’s nose’, he naturally resents this and resolves to pursue his investigations alone. His colleague, DI Metcalfe, feels for his old guvnor but plays it by the book, supporting Collinson and shutting Allen out. Metcalfe has another problem: his irresistible attraction to the distractingly gorgeous DC Karen Willis.

Unfortunately for Metcalfe, Willis has a partner, Peter Collins. He’s extremely brainy, with three degrees in psychology and a doctorate in criminal behaviour. He’s also odd, dressing as though he’s time travelled from the past. Willis suggests that the team invite Peter to join them unofficially as a profiler. He does so and draws up a profile of the type of person likely to commit such a bizarre series of killings. The police then (slogging away), search for such a man and find him. But is he guilty? Allen doesn’t think so.

Although firmly set in the present day, this book constantly references the Golden Age of detective fiction. Some of the police investigators, like Collinson, are well read in it. Metcalfe gets confused when fiction starts to merge with reality and he finds himself acting in a Dorothy L Sayers pastiche, which the author obviously enjoyed writing. To say more about that would be just too much of a spoiler.

I’d previously read Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Mapp & Lucia sequels, which were well done. His first venture into detective fiction is very clever. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed by the solution to the mystery but that didn’t stop me enjoying the book very much. Murder in Profile will be part of a series called The Hampstead Murders and I’ll certainly be reading the next one.

Murder in Profile will be published by Urbane Publications on March 17th and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Feb. 2nd, 2016


Winter cheer

As grey January (following grey December and grey November) merges into grey February, I really need to see flowers. I splashed out on a bouquet from Waitrose:

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Feb. 1st, 2016


January Books

Dickens at Christmas
A Winterfold Christmas , Harriet Evans
Number 11, Jonathan Coe.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend
The Murder at Sissingham Hall, Clara Benson
The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse , Alan Bradley
Exposure , Helen Dunmore
The Vintage Teacup Club, Vanessa Greene
Let Him Lie , Ianthe Jerrold
The Moonlit Garden , Corina Bomann
Missing or Murdered , Robin Forsythe
The Silk Merchant’s Daughter , Dinah Jefferies
Fencing with Death, Elizabeth Edmondson
Death in Profile, Guy Fraser-Sampson
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Jan. 30th, 2016


The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, Dinah Jefferies

In spite of the pretty cover, this is not a charming story about manufacturing and selling silk in Vietnam: it’s about the Vietnam war. Not what we think of as ‘The Vietnam War’ of the late sixties and early seventies, which cast such a blight over my youth, but the fifties war between the French colonial power and the Vietminh. The silk merchant has not one but two daughters. Sylvie, the elder, takes after her French father in looks and is glamorous and European-looking. Nicole, thanks to their Vietnamese mother, is petite and dark and can pass for Vietnamese. This is Nicole’s story.

All her life, Nicole has felt second best to Sylvie; the less loved and appreciated daughter. In 1952 the family is living in Hanoi. Father declares that he is making over the entire silk business to Sylvie, giving Nicole only the silk shop in the old, Vietnamese part of town. She resents this but comes to love the business and the people around her. Back home, she had fallen for Mark, an American and probably a CIA agent. Through the shop she meets a young Vietnamese man who tries to turn her to the Vietminh (or Viet Minh) cause. She’s already suffered from being called a Métisse, a half-breed. Now she’s told that one day she will have to choose where her allegiance lies.

The poor girl is only eighteen but is faced with impossible choices. She has found out that her father and Sylvie are capable of terrible things in the defence of French interests. Later she learns at first hand of the cruelty of the rebels. This is not pleasant reading. To her, neither side seems entirely in the right and she has no idea whom to trust. I must admit to muttering ‘silly girl!’ while reading of her experiences. In any given situation, she seems to make the wrong decision. Central to the story is Nicole’s relationship with ‘troubled’ Sylvie. Did she really try to drown Nicole when they were children? When their world collapses around them after Dien Bien Phu, will Sylvie betray her own sister?

The book deals with an unusual subject and as in The Tea Planter’s Wife the descriptions of the country bring the place and period vividly before the reader. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter will be published by Penguin next month and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Jan. 27th, 2016


‘Conversation Piece’

‘I wish I had your garden. Mine is so new!’
‘I wish I had yours. A new garden! Why, it’s like a blank book that you mean to fill with verses.’
‘If you can write!’

From Gardener’s Nightcap, Muriel Stuart

Jan. 25th, 2016


Can anyone recommend ... ?

I've been sent a voucher for a free Kindle book. I was thinking of getting one by Elizabeth Edmondson but don't know which to choose.
Any particular favourites? I've already read Finding Philippe and the Very English Mysteries.

Edit. Bleh. You can only choose from a shortlist of bad books. Heigh ho.

Missing or Murdered, Robin Forsythe

The man who is either missing or murdered is Lord Bygrave, a wealthy, highly respected official at an unnamed Ministry. One evening he leaves London for the country, spends the night at an inn and next day vanishes, leaving his traps behind in his room. Detective-Inspector Heather of Scotland Yard is on the case but so is ‘Algernon’ Vereker. Eccentric, whimsical Vereker is an artist who obviously has means enough not to rely on painting for a living. He also happens to be a close friend of Bygrave and his executor. The plot unfolds in a leisurely fashion, with Vereker and Heather sparring pleasantly with each other while each hopes to be the first to solve the case.

As there’s no body in the case, it seems impossible to know whether Bygrave has gone missing for reasons of his own or has met with an accident or worse. There are a few obvious suspects, chiefly the nephew who inherits the estate. What about Bygrave’s secretary, rather a cad and with debts? Who is the mystery woman to whom Bygrave apparently made over £10,000 six months before his disappearance? In this case, nothing is straightforward but Heather and Vereker do eventually come to a similar conclusion and solve the mystery.

Missing or Murdered is another offering from Dean Street Press, who kindly sent me a copy of the book to read. They’ve brought out five Vereker mysteries. I really fancy reading The Ginger Cat Mystery for the title alone. A curious fact about the author is that he was himself a civil servant, working at Somerset House, who was sent to prison for a fraud he was involved in there. How many crime writers have a criminal record, I wonder?

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