Small Hand

As I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. As a reflex, I bent it over and we stood for a time which was out of time, my own man’s hand and the very small hand held as closely together as the hand of a father and his child. But I am not a father and the small child was invisible.

Following my previous forays into spooky tales come Hallowe’en, this year I thought I’d have another crack at a Susan Hill ghost story. The Woman in Black, although atmospheric and very, very dark didn’t exactly scare the pants off me. And nor did We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson or The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore. But then I didn’t exactly read them alone in the witching hour. The Small Hand, subtitled A Ghost Story, has had some pretty spooked reviews and I thought it a fitting tale for the end of October. I was planning to read it at night but after a recent bout of horror films (The Shutter starring Joshua Jackson was excellent), I’m afraid I couldn’t quite make myself.

In this novella, Hill recalls a forgotten age, her language mimicking the great storytellers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and an England harking back to the pre-war era although it’s set in contemporary times. Adam Snow is an antiquarian bookseller on his way to see a client when he stumbles across a dilapidated house and overgrown garden. Once a tourist destination for garden lovers, The White House lies forgotten and disenchanted. He feels an urge to see the place and it is there that he first encounters a strange presence. As he increasingly suffers panic attacks and feels a small hand pulling him towards a watery grave, he confides in his brother Hugo, who had had a mental breakdown several years ago, and asks for his help. But Hugo wants to forget his past and is now happily married. Who is the little boy whose hand keeps finding his? And what is the secret behind the sorry house and garden?

Particularly chilling is Adam’s atmospheric journey into the mountains of France to an isolated Cistercian monastery reminiscent of Jonathan Harker’s foray into deep and dark Transylvania in Bram Stoker’s classic horror, Dracula. Adam is there to examine a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio for a client but is immediately consumed with fatigue and fear and is looked after by the gentle, if silent, monks of Saint Mathieu des Etoiles.

Although The Small Hand doesn’t offer many surprises, what lifts Susan Hill’s novella far above any ordinary tale of horror is her beautifully crafted prose. Every word has been weighed, every pause timed. Her descriptions evoke the slow and silent descent into horror as Adam succumbs to the lure of the creepy house and garden. He can’t help himself. And you can’t help yourself worrying what will happen to him. Hill is indeed a master at cranking up the tension. It’s a slow and deceptively calm book which will make you want to scream at the end. A little gem.

I read this as part of Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Evil and the Mask

I created you to be a cancer on the world.

Fumihiro Kuki is the youngest son of the powerful Kuki family whose business sprawls and controls most of Japan. His father has revived the eccentric family tradition of breeding a son in old age to become a cancer, one with which to destroy everything that people hold dear. As part of his training, he has planned Fumihiro’s life in such a way that when he turns 14, he will experience hell. And this will be the catalyst which will turn Fumihiro into a harbinger of doom. But Fumihiro is smart and aware and tries to stay one step ahead of his hateful father. And there is Kaori, a young girl who is adopted from an orphanage to keep Fumihiro company. Both starved of love, they only have each other. And so begins Evil and the Mask, a dark, twisted tale by Fuminori Nakamura.

It’s one of those novel where the less you know, the more you will be surprised. Like Nakamura’s previous novel, The Thief, the translation is spot on and smooth, and you can’t help but fall into the story. I was expecting something a little more doomsday-ish like in the Japanese ultra-violent films so popular in the West. But Evil and the Mask is subtler, deeper and is more about the potential effect of evil on the human psyche. The fact that Fumihiro tries to fight against his destiny even going so far as to have plastic surgery, that he sacrifices his own happiness for another’s, that he has found some sort of purpose to his life because of the realisation that it isn’t about himself anymore is something to ponder upon. Like The Thief, Nakamura digs deep into our fears and makes us confront what it means to be human and what it takes to resist evil when it won’t let you go.

Although I’m a huge fan of Nakamura’s style and enjoyed reading Evil and the Mask, my only sticking point is that the novel feels slightly passive when you compare it to The Thief. There is a lot of reflection but not much action – it’s as though Fumihiro is the perpetual outsider, looking into what his life should have been like. It’s a wonderful novel on regret and what-ifs but it may fall a little short if you are looking for something more exciting.

I would like to thank Soho Press for kindly sending me a copy to review.

I read this as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 7 and Carl’s R.I.P. VIII. Do go and see what others have been reading.

Rivers of London

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch follows the adventures of Constable Peter Grant, fresh from completing his probationary period at the Met, who is called in to help with a murder in Covent Garden. There he encounters a ghost and is duly seconded to the ESC9 or Economic and Specialist Crime Unit 9 mostly known as The Folly. Headed by the enigmatic and suspiciously young Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, Grant soon becomes a part of an intimate group including a suspiciously pale Gothic Lolita with very sharp teeth named Molly who is really into recreating incredibly heavy Victorian dishes and a little yappy dog named Toby, who investigates supernatural and magical incidents ignored by the rest of the police.

CCTV cameras have caught images of a man beheaded by another whose face had suddenly transformed into something with a hooked nose and a long chin. Soon, other unprovoked attacks are reported including one where the perpetrator’s face has stretched and collapsed killing him too. Grant and Nightingale are drawn towards the theatrical legacy and feuds that litter Covent Garden and are soon on the trail of a malevolent spirit out for revenge.

Grant is also drawn into a territorial dispute between Mother and Father Thames and their separate offspring tributaries and needs to quickly learn how to navigate amongst the god-like folk who seem really easy to anger. Together with his by-the-book colleague Lesley May, on whom Peter has a little crush, and the wonderfully spontaneous Beverley Brooke, one of Mother Thames’ younger, bouncier daughters, Peter is in a race against time to bring the mad spirit under control and to stop all out war on the Thames.

Combining a supernatural mystery with an original take on London folklore, Aaronovitch has successfully managed to create something utterly original with traces of Gaiman, Mieville and Rowling, Rivers of London is a highly entertaining, informative and, dare I say, utterly enjoyable read.

I’m a huge fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May series that brings out the best of London’s varied and rich history and Aaronovitch does the same but with a twist of the supernatural.

Although the folklore and cultural history is a big draw, I particularly liked the characters Aaronovitch has created. Peter is a self-deprecating geek who loves his family and friends and Nightingale is an enigmatic sleuth and wizard moulded in the form of an ex-Oxbridge/Hogwarts junior prof. With a sympathetic and engaging protagonist who is symbolic of multicultural, multi-racial London, Aaronovitch has managed to do something new. Here’s to London’s newest apprentice wizard.

Although there has been a somewhat mixed reception amongst my friends regarding this series, the main one being that it’s a little too light and could use a little more depth, all of them have said they enjoyed reading Rivers of London and were impressed with the London Aaronovitch conjures.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

R.I.P. VIII has started!

9 September, 2013

RIP8

Hurray! It’s shiver me timbers time as Carl’s R.I.P. VIII has started. This is one reading challenge I look forward to every year as my thoughts turn to darker tales. I will once again be doing the Peril the First Challenge and this year have lined up the following books of which I hope to read four or more.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield – it’s coming out in October but I was lucky enough to win a copy!
The Twyning by Terence Blacker – all about rats
Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – time-traveling into the Black Death
Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura – can you be groomed to be a cancer?
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey – a touch of gothic

And I’m still on the search for a book that will really scare the pants off me. Any suggestions? The Woman in Black didn’t work and nor did The Greatcoat. But I’m hopeful. Something spooky rather than gory. So suggestions please!

Two Graves

The final novel in the Helen trilogy, Two Graves is also the 12th novel featuring the cerebral, debonair Southern FBI Agent Pendergast who is also the most efficiently ruthless agent who gets the perpetrator even though his methods are often eccentric and barely legal. As this is the concluding volume in a long-running series, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t read any of the books featuring Agent Pendergast, then you are missing out and I suggest that you go and get yourself a copy of The Cabinet of Curiosities which is the first book I read and got me hooked on the series by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. Seriously, you won’t regret it. If you have read most of the books, especially the previous two, Fever Dream and Cold Vengeance, then carry on and tell me what you think!

Following swiftly on from the events of Fever Dream and Cold Vengeance, Agent Pendergast finds himself caught in an intricate web of intrigue and deceit going back almost 70 years as everything he believed about his beloved wife, Helen, is shown to be a lie. He has just been reunited with Helen when she is abducted and so Pendergast once again goes in search for what is most precious to him. But this time, he is up against a diabolically clever foe who has been waiting and nurturing a new breed of soldiers to recapture the world and it no easy task even for someone like Pendergast, especially when he is faced with someone who may be even cleverer than him.

As a new chapter opens in Pendergast’s already twisted life, he must once again rely on his friends, Vincent D’Agosta of the NYPD, his ward Constance Green and newly resurfaced side-kick Corrie Swanson from a previous adventure, Still Life with Crows, to keep him grounded even as he prepares to face his deadliest enemy. For someone whose methods are uncannily similar to his brother Diogenes has surfaced and is committing a series of murders in full view of the security cameras. Who can it be? And what other secrets will Pendergast unearth?

I can only go on for so long without giving everything away. In this instance, I’m happy to say that there will be more books of which White Fire will be out at the end of the year. Hurray! Although Two Graves is the finale of the Helen Trilogy, it is also a new beginning for Pendergast with the discovery of the mysterious twins, Alban and Tristram. Parts of Two Graves reminded me a little too much of Huxley’s Brave New World but I strongly suspect there were similar real life scenarios wherever enterprising Nazis managed to escape to.

And I so want you all to go and find out for yourselves. I can’t reiterate enough how much I enjoy Preston & Child’s novels featuring Agent Pendergast. They’re polished, thrilling and packed full of fascinating historical and cultural information. A thousand times better than a lot of thrillers out there.

Cold Vengeance

Here it is. I never did murder Helen. She’s still alive.

Recall my obsession with the FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast who is a cross between a modern version of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and an undertaker and for whom nothing is impossible. He’s back in the second volume of the Helen trilogy which began with Fever Dream and continues with Cold Vengeance. This is the 11th title in the Agent Pendergast series which I’ve been avidly following for the last 10 years. Apart from them being nail biting thrillers, they’re erudite and retain an old world charm reminiscent of the Victorian sensation novels mixed with the darkness and fog of the Victorian underbelly with their whiff of murder and crime all operating with 21st century technology and an inexhaustible supply of money. The Pendergasts are an antebellum New Orleans family with enough skeletons in their closet to make Flavia de Luce proud.

If you haven’t read the series, I would recommend you start with A Cabinet of Curiosities which will introduce you to all the relevant characters and set you onto a wonderful journey in Pendergast’s world. Otherwise, at least read Fever Dream as Cold Vengeance is a direct continuation. There are some spoilers below which are inevitable when discussing a long-standing series but I will try to keep them to a minimum.

So as we found out in Fever Dream, Pendergast’s beloved, deceased wife Helen had a lot of secrets of her own. And in Cold Vengeance, we find out that her brother, Dr. Judson Esterhazy, who is on a hunting trip in Scotland with Pendergast has a lot he wants to keep hidden and will do anything to keep it that way. Including getting rid of his brother-in-law. As the two spar and circle each other, Pendergast begins to realise that the secret is bigger than he had imagined and with the appearance of the sinister Covenant, he opens up a can of worms with a trail leading back to post-war Brazil, a notorious hiding place for former Nazis. What does this have to do with Helen? And can she really be alive?

Pendergast must work against the clock if he is to uncover the mystery of his wife’s apparent death before Esterhazy can get to him. And this time, his adversary is as intelligent, cold and as ruthless as he is. When Pendergast’s ward Constance Green, who is recovering from her brush with Pendergast’s diabolical brother Diogenes, is kidnapped, the tension is ratcheted up a notch. For Pendergast will not stop now that he has a purpose, an obsession.

Pendergast is a cold, cerebral person who keeps his emotions tightly under control. Until he acquired Vincent D’Acosta, his unexpected friend in the NYPD and unofficial partner in several cases, and Constance, his ward, he had no weaknesses. But those two, together with Helen will prove to be his Achilles heel and his enemies know exactly how to get to him.

As usual, Preston & Child have done a superb job. Cold Vengeance is the novel that bridges this trilogy and is thus very fast-paced. There is a lot more action than usual which left little room for the usual plethora of fascinating information one usually gleans from Preston & Child’s research but I didn’t mind that at all. I cannot wait to read Two Graves, the conclusion to the Helen trilogy. I cannot wait.

Circle of Shadows

In Circle of Shadows, Harriet Westerman, wife and mother, and Gabriel Crowther, reclusive anatomist, take their sleuthing skills for their first adventure abroad in the fourth volume of Imogen Robertson’s engaging historical crime series.

A year after the events of Island of Bones, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther have resumed their lives and returned to their respective domestic arrangements; Harriet looking after her children and Crowther immersing himself in his scientific research. Harriet’s sister Rachel has married dashing lawyer and family friend Daniel Clode and is on her honeymoon to the Mittel European Duchy of Maulberg when tragedy strikes. At their annual Carnival, Clode is found half-raving mad with his wrists cut. But worse, in the same locked room is the body of a highly influential court lady and former lover of the Duke, murdered and yet spotless.

When news reaches Harriet, together with Crowther and their friend Owen Graves, she rushes to help the Clodes and get to the bottom of the mystery. Because Harriet is convinced Clode is incapable of murder which means he has been framed. As more suspicious deaths resembling ritualistic models of the occult pile up at court, Harriet must seek the aid of her sworn nemesis, the famous and beautiful castrato Manzerotti who happens to be visiting Maulberg at the invitation of the Duke. What is Manzerotti up to and can Harriet really trust him? And can both Crowther and Graves help her find the killer?

In such a tightly controlled and strictly hierarchical society such as Maulberg, also a university town bubbling with secret societies, crazy alchemists and spies, Harriet and Crowther must use their wits to outmanoeuvre a truly diabolical mind.

As per her other novels in the series, Robertson has once again created an interesting mystery this time focusing on the mechanics of a small, Mittel European principality with its petty but iron clad rules and discipline. It is dark yet unsentimental which is a big part of what I like about Robertson’s mysteries and especially refreshing is Harriet and Crowther’s relationship which has grown deeper and yet doesn’t yield to the usual romantic conclusion one normally expects. Also interesting is how Harriet’s relationship with Rachel evolves as previously she was so disapproving of Harriet’s involvement in solving crimes and its affect on her children’s prospects. And as usual, there is the diabolically fascinating Manzerotti who I can’t help but love; so clever, so beautiful and so naughty.

Although the central mystery itself didn’t quite live up to the lofty heights it hinted at in the beginning of the novel, Circle of Shadows is nonetheless a fast-paced and enjoyable read and I can’t wait for the next installment.

Although this is a personal preference, I do recommend you read the books in order just to get a better feel of the developing friendships of the central characters and the loose passage of time. The mysteries themselves are, however, self-contained.

I would like to thank Viking for kindly sending me a copy of Circle of Shadows to review.

Other volumes in the Westerman/Crowther series:
Instruments of Darkness
Anatomy of Murder
Island of Bones

Island of Bones

So it looks like I’m going through a Harriet & Crowther fest. But you know, I’d forgotten how utterly absorbing it is to read a series one book after the other without distraction. And so onto the third book of Imogen Robertson’s historical mysteries featuring Mrs. Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther, Island of Bones. Like with any series, I prefer reading the books in order and do feel that you gain a better insight into the characters as their relationships mature through the series. And it bugs me if I don’t know everything about their past. But each to their own.

Slowly recovering from the events of two years ago in Anatomy of Murder, Harriet is chafing at the bit, stuck at home, trying to be a good mother and sister. When her reclusive neighbour and friend, Gabriel Crowther receives a letter from his estranged sister who is a guest at what used to be their family home in Cumbria, she jumps at the chance to solve the mystery of a long-buried body found on what the locals call the Island of Bones and to try and support Crowther as he finally stops running and faces his past. For Crowther is Baron Keswick, son to a murdered father and brother to a convicted murderer. But there is something not quite right and Jocasta Bligh, who had helped them in Anatomy of Murder, had witnessed a strange man in green near the dead Baron’s body before she was branded a liar and left her, and Crowther’s, home town so long ago.

Returning after almost 30 years, Crowther soon realises that a tragic error may have been made and in trying to discover the secrets behind the mysterious body, he uncovers his family’s history bloodliy intertwined with those of the Earls of Greta, defeated and exiled as supporters of the Jacobite rebellion and from whom Crowther’s father had bought his lands.

We finally get to uncover Crowther’s tragic past and although this doesn’t reveal that much more of Crowther’s character, it introduces us to a bit of Jacobite history together with some interesting family dynamics and financial arrangements of the gentry. And with it is embedded the local superstitions and the deep ties that bind the local people with their lord and their land.

I enjoyed reading this book even more than the previous two and learnt a little of Jacobite history of which I was ignorant. Robertson is once again on the ball with mixing history and mystery. She doesn’t shy away from introducing unpleasant characters, this time in the guise of Crowther’s sister whose traumatic past has left deep marks on her character even though she has made an advantageous marriage and lives a life of luxury. Crowther too sheds a skin as he faces his past head on and Harriet slowly regains herself as she takes a break from her duties at home.

Next up is Circle of Shadows.

Anatomy of Murder

Following on from their adventure in Instruments of Darkness, Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther once again find themselves embroiled in intrigue and murder in the sequel, Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson.

With London fawning over the imminent performance at His Majesty’s Opera House by the mesmerising French soprano Isabella Marin and the exquisite Italian castrato Manzerotti as the backdrop, both Harriet and the reclusive Crowther tread the path between privilege and the darkness that underpins their city. For a French spy is on the loose and they are given the task of saving their country and the men who fight so bravely for her. And amongst them is Harriet’s husband James, a highly decorated naval captain who has sustained a grave head injury throwing their marriage into jeopardy.

As Crowther tries to draw Harriet out of her domestic darkness with the lure of mystery and puzzle-solving, they must hunt down a ruthless killer who has killed a man working for His Majesty’s Opera House but with ties that go deep into the heart of government. And as the bodies mount up, it is only with the help of Jocasta Bligh, a reader of cards and someone who has always kept her own counsel, that Harriet and Crowther can finally tie the threads that will bind their killer and spy before tragedy strikes closer to home.

In the follow-up to her first novel, Robertson hasn’t just provided another mystery for both Harriet and Crowther to unravel. She has opened up the world of musical London in the form of the musical sensation of the period, the strange and captivating allure of the castrati. As in Instruments of Darkness, music plays an important role in her new novel but she has twinned the thrill and fast pace of espionage during a period when Britain and France are waging battles on the seas. Not only does Harriet have to deal with matters of state defense, but she has to cope with a sick husband who has changed considerably from the man she married and who cannot remember their life together.

One of the things I admire about Robertson’s books is the character of Harriet. She is strong and eccentric but also a wife and mother. And she has this wonderful friendship with the reclusive Crowther who can only be described as her soul-mate albeit a platonic one. Robertson has managed to flesh out a character who is complex and earthy, infusing her with all the paradoxes of a real, emotional woman without making her sentimental. Although I very much like Crowther, he with the painful past and dry intellect, it is Harriet who is the more complex of the two. I like the idea that she isn’t a woman that one can box into a category. Within her own society she is labelled as troublesome and eccentric, and although she cannot help getting involved, she also struggles with the consequences it may have on her family resulting in a loving yet quarrelsome relationship with her younger, more socially conscious sister Rachel. And yet she can’t stop.

The friendship between Harriet and Crowther is one based on mutual respect and understanding and, more importantly, acceptance of their difficult characters. Their growing confidence in each other as the series progresses is subtly done. As in the previous novel, the plot is fast paced and multi-faceted making Anatomy of Murder an absorbing read. I can’t wait to read the next in the series, Island of Bones, where we finally delve into Crowther’s painful past.

Instruments of Darkness

The first in a series of historical mysteries by Imogen Robertson, Instruments of Darkness is set in 1780 with the action split between London and the Sussex countryside.

When Harriet Westerman stumbles upon a dead man during one of her morning walks, she turns to the reclusive newcomer Gabriel Crowther for help knowing he was a science man. Crowther, although displeased at having to interact with his neighbours at first, soon realises that Harriet is no ordinary matriarch but one with a fine, inquiring mind who soon disarms his lonely existence and offers him a fragile, yet equal, friendship. Together they set out to find out who murdered this man and why he was carrying a valuable ring belonging to nearby Thornleigh Hall, the seat of the Earl of Essex? Was the murdered man the missing heir? And what exactly is going on in Thornleigh Hall where the Earl lies bedridden, his second son is drinking his life away while his beautiful, common step-mother looks on? And who exactly is the sinister retainer who virtually runs the estate? As Harriet and Crowther dig deeper, they discover dark secrets stretching back years that no one is willing to discuss which have contributed to the degeneration of a once great family.

Instruments of Darkness has a dark mystery at its core which ranges from the deceptively simple Sussex countryside to London, seething with political and religious agitators, and to revolution in the New World. This is tempered with the unorthodox partnership between a reclusive intellectual with a hidden past and a wife and mother who feels caged in her big, country house. Harriet is an interesting character. Happily married with two small children, nevertheless she is bored and chafing at the bit at having to stay at home while her husband is away sailing the seas. Once she used to sail with her husband, doing things that most ladies weren’t supposed to, but she’s had to settle down to look after her family including her younger sister Rachel. I liked the way in which Robertson doesn’t glamorise Harriet’s situation. She’s practical, intellectual and loves her husband and in Crowther, she has found a friend who accepts that she is more than just a wife and mother and who treats her as an equal mind. This doesn’t mean that she can do whatever she wants; she is still constrained by the social rules of her day which can threaten to ruin her if she steps out of line.

I enjoyed this atmospheric mystery and don’t mind getting to know more of Harriet and Crowther. Especially Crowther. What is it about reclusive intellectuals with a tragic past that is so enticing on paper?