Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

In Small Pleasures, Jean Swinney, a reporter on the North Kent Echo in the 1950s, is sent to investigate Gretchen Tilbury’s claim to have had a virgin birth. As Jean looks into the case, and gets to know the Tilbury family, she realizes all the things that are missing from her own life.

This is a beautifully written story full of historical detail and a strong sense of time and place. The characters are convincing and illustrate the conflict between duty and personal happiness in the post-war years, before the freedom of the ‘swinging sixties’.

The title is very apt; Jean looks forward to the ‘small pleasures’ in her day, as they provide solace in a life at the beck and call of her frail and demanding elderly mother.

Small Pleasures would make an interesting period drama, on television or film, as the story leaves a lasting impression. I had not read any other novels by Clare Chambers, but now intend to explore her earlier work as I enjoyed this story very much.

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

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

Redhead by the Side of the Road is the latest book by Anne Tyler. This novella-length story is about Micah Mortimer, who is janitor for the residents of his building, and a freelance computer technician, Tech Hermit. His life is very ordered and organized; I would say he has Asperger’s or something similar. Set in Baltimore, as all Anne Tyler’s novels are, Micah’s quiet life goes off-course, when the son of a former girlfriend turns up at his door thinking Micah might be his real father.

He is not, but tries to help and gives Brink a bed for the night. His lady friend, Cass, is facing eviction, but is upset when Micah does not offer her somewhere to stay; she breaks up with him.

Their relationship had seemed to be built on habit rather than passion, but Micah only appreciates what he had when it is too late. The book ends a bit abruptly, but perhaps Anne Tyler was leaving it to the reader to decide what happens next.

This character-driven narrative is about the minutiae of everyday life, and what it is to be human. It is not Anne Tyler’s best novel (my favourite is The Accidental Tourist), but it is still a joy to read.

Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves

The Darkest Evening is the ninth book in the Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves, the title having been taken from a poem by Robert Frost. I am a big fan of Ann Cleeves’ writing, and have read all the #Vera and #Shetland books (as well as being an avid viewer of the TV programmes).

The book opens with Vera getting caught in a blizzard on her way home, and finding a baby in an abandoned car. Heading for the nearest signs of civilization, she ends up at Brockburn, a large country house belonging to her late father’s family. When baby Thomas’s mother is found murdered nearby, Vera calls in Joe, Holly and the rest of her team, though the investigation is hampered by the extreme weather conditions.

A strong sense of place is always evident in Ann Cleeves’ writing, and The Darkest Evening is no exception. In some ways this is a modern slant on the classic country house mystery, with a large cast of characters and red herrings galore, set amid the snowy Northumbrian landscape.

As Vera and her officers search for the killer, many closely guarded secrets are revealed. This is a small community where everyone knows each other’s business and gossip is rife. Ann Cleeves repeatedly leads her readers in the wrong direction, up dead ends, until all is finally revealed.  

As Vera last visited Brockburn with her father when she was a teenager, we get a bit more background about the Stanhope family, and why Vera does not have much to do with them these days.  

The Darkest Evening has all the hallmarks of an excellent crime novel – fantastic plot, brilliant writing and strong character development. Despite having a large cast of characters, we have no trouble telling them apart as Ann Cleeves works her magic and brings them to life on the page.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book but, while it works well as a standalone, you would enjoy it all the more if you read all the other Vera stories first.

The Country Escape by Jane Lovering

The Country Escape by Jane Lovering

The Country Escape is a delightful story of new beginnings. Katie and her daughter Poppy have moved to a run-down cottage in Christmas Steepleton on the Dorset coast. This is to be their safe haven away from her controlling ex-husband, Luc. Harvest Cottage needs a bit of work, but for the immediate future it will suit Katie and Poppy just fine. A local film production company sees its potential as the ‘house of a serial killer’, and the fees they are willing to pay will give Katie a bit of breathing space to sort her life out.

One morning, not long after they moved in, they wake to find a horse in the back garden, and this is how they meet Gabriel. He explains that Patrick was pulling a traditional gypsy caravan owned by Granny Mary, who was suddenly taken ill and had to go to hospital. Although not keen, Katie agrees he can stay until alternative arrangements can be made, and the caravan in the garden makes a great refuge when the filming has taken over the house.

Despite the cover, there is nothing twee about this book; it depicts flawed characters with real-life problems such as bullying, sexual stereotyping and the devastating prospect of sight loss. As a refreshing change, Gabriel is not the usual ‘alpha male’ main character. He is very creative and among other things makes and sells beautiful patchwork quilts.

The atmospheric setting is shown in the vivid descriptions of the autumnal Dorset countryside. The cast of quirky but believable secondary characters results in a humorous story with a positive message; no matter what the problem is, there is always hope.

I read and enjoyed a lot of Jane Lovering’s early books, so when The Country Escape came up on NetGalley I jumped at the chance to review it, and was not disappointed. Katie and Gabriel help each other to see their problems in a new light, and so are able to overcome the past and move on.

Thanks to Boldwood Books and NetGalley for a digital copy to review.

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths

It is now two years on from The Stone Circle and much has changed, not least Ruth having relocated to Cambridge. All the usual characters are there, but the new setting makes everything feel slightly off-kilter to the reader and Ruth, who is clearly having trouble adjusting to her new life.

Despite hoping for a new start, it is obvious that life with Frank is not quite right. Ruth’s main impetus for moving away was to put some distance between herself and Nelson; in this she does not succeed, and the books would not have the same appeal without their relationship at its heart.

Ivor March has been imprisoned for murdering two young women, but will not divulge where two other bodies are buried. In an attempt to get closure for the missing girls’ families, DCI Nelson goes to visit March in prison. The upshot is he will only reveal the location if Ruth is in charge of the excavations.

There is an interconnectedness to the plot with Ruth having been on a writing retreat run by March’s ex-wife, Cathbad’s daughter reporting on the case for the local paper and Nelson’s daughter being a member of the local cycling group. As we have come to expect from Elly Griffiths, there is misdirection galore, and plenty of red herrings to keep the reader guessing.

This series is all the more enjoyable because the cast of characters are so familiar; they are at the heart of the stories, much more so than the mysteries. You could read The Lantern Men as a standalone, but to make sense of all the relationships it would be much better to start at the beginning. The sense of place, mix of crime and archeology, cast of well-written and well-loved characters, and Elly Griffiths’ usual wit and humour all combine to make this a thoroughly entertaining read.  Let’s hope we see Ruth return to Norfolk in the next book!