Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack by Marilynne Robinson

Jack is the fourth volume in the ‘Gilead’ series by prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, which I did not know when I requested it, and started reading. Having said that, I have no desire to read any of the earlier books as most of the religious content does not interest me. I was drawn to the developing relationship between Jack and Della, and the difficulties they encounter.

Jack is just out of prison for a crime he did not commit, though there were many others he was guilty of. He helps Della when she drops some papers and, mistaking him for a man of the cloth, she invites him home for tea. Jack is portrayed as the black sheep of the family – not having read the other books I have only this story to go on. He does not seem to be a bad man – just down on his luck – but then we are seeing everything through his eyes.

I found the racial discrimination described in this story deeply upsetting. Despite knowing the history, and that segregation existed, reading about Jack and Della’s struggles made it all so much more vivid and real. What surprised me most was why Della’s family objected to their relationship.

Despite their obvious differences, they have things in common; both come from religious families with a preacher for a father, and they are united by their love of literature and poetry.

Almost the first third of the book consists of one long scene in a graveyard; Della is locked in overnight, and Jack is planning to sleep there as he has rented out his room to make some money. This is a bold move by the author, and contains some witty dialogue, but could have been shorter without losing its impact.

Despite believing that the only way he can ‘do no harm’ to other people is to isolate himself, he is repeatedly drawn to Della, even knowing that she has much more to lose than he does.  We are not privy to Della’s thoughts, but she stands to lose her home, job and reputation and so is not entering into this relationship lightly.

Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful, lyrical prose that deals with a myriad of themes: racial prejudice, religious faith, family relationships, alcohol dependence to name but a few. Take away all the religious dogma, and it’s an almost timeless story of love and redemption.  It is overlong with a bit too much of Jack’s repetitive introspection, but it gives us a fascinating portrayal of life in the segregated southern states of the US in the 1950s.

Thanks to Little, Brown Group and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Less Dead by Denise Mina

The Less Dead is a stand-alone novel from award-winning Scottish crime writer Denise Mina.  Following the death of her foster mother, GP Margo goes in search of her birth mother. She is shocked to discover that her real mother, Susan, was a drug addict and a sex worker; she was also brutally murdered, only months after Margo’s birth, and her body dumped at a bus stop in Easterhouse. She arranges to meet Susan’s sister, Nikki, and enters a world so outside of her comfort zone that she is not sure if she wants to go any further.

The story is split between the 1980s and present day, and highlights the contrasting attitudes between then and now; it also makes it obvious that some things have not improved. The title refers to those, like Susan, whose deaths are not considered to be important enough to warrant a thorough investigation, and, unsurprisingly, the killer has never been brought to justice.

Mina brings Glasgow to life – warts and all – in this gripping tale, and shines a light on the dark side of masculinity. The story is mostly told from Margo’s point of view, but there is another voice, anonymous, in the shadows, full of poison and hatred. Both Nikki and now Margo receive letters – taunting them – alleging that they are from the killer. It is unclear where the threat is coming from, and this makes for a very tense and unsettling read.

The characters are well written and thoroughly believable. At the beginning of the book, I found Margo unlikeable and hard to empathize with, but by the end she has changed and become stronger. I did find her treatment of her boyfriend Joe a bit puzzling though. In contrast, Nikki has sorted herself out but still no one will listen to her; all she wants is Margo’s help in catching her sister’s killer.

The Less Dead is not a police procedural, but an intelligent and gripping crime thriller that shines a sympathetic spotlight on attitudes to sex workers, drug addiction and deprivation in the dark underbelly of Glasgow. Full of menace and dark humour, this unusual book will definitely make you stop and think.

Thanks to Vintage and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Innocent Dead by Lin Anderson

The Innocent Dead by Lin Anderson

The Innocent Dead is number 15 in the Rhona Mcleod books by Lin Anderson. This is one of my favourite crime series as I can just jump right into the story without any scene setting. I know exactly who all these characters are, even if there have been some changes in their lives, and the setting in and around Glasgow is very familiar to me.

When wild swimmers discover a body buried in peat on the edge of a lochan to the south of Glasgow, a forty-five-year-old cold case is re-opened. Eleven-year-old Mary McIntyre disappeared from East Kilbride in 1975, but her body was never found. Fortunately, advances in forensics will give the team more to work with this time.

Told from the points of view of Rhona, DS McNab and Mary’s best friend, Karen, we get a rounded picture of events, but no insight into the mind of the killer. Karen has buried the events surrounding Mary’s disappearance deep in her subconscious, and the facts gradually come to the surface with devastating results.

Stories about the murder of children can be hard to read, but Lin Anderson has written with great care and sensitivity in this case. The flashbacks to the time of Mary’s disappearance evoke Glasgow and the surrounding area in the 1970s really well, especially the housing schemes, and the segregated schools.

Many possibilities are suggested for the identity of the killer, only to be dismissed as a new suspect comes to light. The advances in forensic science make the investigation easier in some ways, but the passing of so many years mean it is more difficult in others.

This series is as much about the characters as it is about the plot. While I’m sure it would be fine as a standalone, it would be a much richer experience to start at the beginning (Driftnet) and understand the backstory of such well-written and believable characters.

Thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.   

My Hands Are Tied by Sean Campbell

My Hands Are Tied by Sean Campbell

In My Hands Are Tied, DCI David Morton and his wife, Sarah, are invited at the last minute – only a fortnight before – to their son’s wedding, and find themselves at Terra Farm; home to the Collective, and now to Stephen and Abigail, the future daughter-in-law they have yet to meet. The entrance is hidden behind high hedges and a security gate where they are asked to surrender their mobile phones. This level of security all seems a bit much to DCI Morton, but he goes along with it, not wishing to rock the boat. His relationship with his son is difficult enough already without him ruining the ceremony that is about to take place.

When they eventually get inside, Terra Farm is not what they were expecting. It is more like a small village tucked away in a valley, hidden from sight, but actually very close to civilization in SW London. At the centre is the barn, where the ceremony is due to take place, surrounded by eight bungalows, most of which are a bit ramshackle and rundown.

What follows is a bit of a homage to classic detective stories and the ‘country house’ mystery where all the characters are trapped inside, and the detective has his work cut out discovering who the killer is. Here it is a gated commune, dedicated to living an alternative lifestyle, where everyone has something to hide.

Having had a few too many beers after the ceremony, DCI Morton is forced to stay the night. He is woken in the morning by the sound of gunshots; one of the commune members, Guy Rosenberg, has been murdered. Worried that his son might end up being wrongly charged with the crime, he goes against protocol and carries on investigating, when he should have handed the case over to another officer, hoping to find the killer before the weekend is over. Losing his job doesn’t seem to bother him as he was near retirement anyway, but I thought his lack of concern over losing his pension, if found out, was a bit unbelievable.

The story is well written and the characters fleshed out and believable, even though some of them are decidedly weird, but something about this book just does not work for me. This is number seven in a series, but the police officers working on the case did not convince me that they were part of a team. One striking omission is the lack of humorous banter usually found in crime novels.  

I have not read any of the other books in this series, but, while the story worked perfectly well as a standalone, perhaps I would have gained some insight into why this team were not convincing if I had read the series from the beginning.

Thanks to Sean Campbell for a digital copy that I review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team #RBRT

Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis

Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis

While still at school, sixteen-year-old Emmie Blue releases a balloon with a message tied to it. Against all the odds, it is found by Lucas on a beach in Normandy and he makes contact with her. Fast forward fourteen years and Emmie is shattered when Lucas announces he is getting married and wants her to be his ‘best woman’; she had been hoping that he was going to propose to her. Having been made to feel so welcome by Lucas and his family, Emmie has perhaps misread the situation as her own family are so dysfunctional.

Lia Louis has written well-rounded, believable characters. They are not all good or all bad, but flawed individuals just like in real life. When the initial shock has worn off, Emmie starts to re-evaluate her past. Her eyes are opened, and she discovers she is not the helpless victim she always thought she was; she has an inner strength and can cope with whatever life throws at her. By the end Emmie also sees Lucas in a different light – as he actually is – not the idealized version she has carried in her head for so long.

I love the humorous exchanges with her friends, Rosie and Fox, who also work with her in the hotel, and have her best interests at heart. Her landlady, Louise, helps her come to see that she already has somewhere to call home. As the past is slowly revealed, we realize that everything did not happen the way Emmie thought it did, and that Eliot is one of the good guys.

Set between France and a seaside town on the south coast of England, Dear Emmie Blue would make a great romantic comedy film. I really enjoyed it and will be looking out for other books by Lia Louis in the future.

Thanks to Orion and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.