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Plague by Julie Anderson

Plague by [Julie Anderson]

Cassandra Fortune (Cassie) is a civil servant moving in the high echelons of political elites. She carries about the burden of her previous, badly imploded, career and tries to rebuild it in her new role at the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. It is at this point that she uncovers a body of a young Polish man among the remains in one of London’s old “Plague pits”. Another body, this time of a young Spanish man, is found together with Cassie’s pass to the Palace of Westminster. Links begin to form between the deaths, Cassie, the Whitehall and commercial lobbies.

Cassie embarks on an investigation alongside Detective Inspector Andrew Rowland.

Plague is a tight, fast-moving and absorbing crime drama. The theme of the resurging plague is particularly relevant in today’s reality as is the exploration of political power and influence, corruption and dodgy dealings. Cassie’s romantic interest in Andrew Rowland (which doesn’t quite take off) adds that extra human touch to the story, which is both believable and nuanced. The plot picks up pace as it moves towards the dénouement and becomes quite impossible to put down.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.

Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.

However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.

You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

The Cry of the Lake by Charlie Tyler

The Cry of the Lake by [Charlie Tyler]

This is one of those edge-of-your-seat psychological thrillers. Once you start reading, you find yourself instantly immersed in a tale of intense – almost insane – vengeance, distorted truths and deeply buried, traumatic past. You have to keep going deeper and deeper, until you’re totally absorbed by the story.

The narrative is powered by three different perspectives: Grace, Lilly and Flo. Grace and Lilly are sisters, but for reason which are revealed later in the story they pass themselves off as mother and daughter. It is primarily Grace who adopts this new, alien to her psyche personality to ensnare Tom, a man the two sisters seem to have an unfinished business with. He is the father of Flo, the third narrator.

At the outset, you cannot comprehend why anyone would want to destroy such a nice, kind man as Tom. You instinctively loathe the sinister, duplicitous – and murderous – impostors who have snaked their way into his and Flo’s perfect family life. Lilly is the weaker of the two, more likely to crumble under pressure. Grace seems unstoppable in her mission of hatred. Slowly, people from their past enter the scene and revelations are made to shed some light on her motives. At times, it makes for a disturbing reading: abuse, self-harm feature among other difficult themes. A great read.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Firstly, you will come to adore the octogenarian Club members. They are something else! And they thrive on murder. Elizabeth, a female version of James Bond, in retirement. Ron, a geriatric activist and tireless instigator; quite an orator, when pushed. Joyce, quiet as a mouse, a once-upon-a-time nurse. Ibrahim, a psychotherapist with a sharp eye for detail (so sharp that it borders on compulsive-obsessive). This quartet of amateur detectives gathers once a week to solve cold cases. Until, one day, a brand-new murder lands in their collective lap; and another one a few days later. Not to mention the discovery of human bones in an old convent graveyard, which would be perfectly normal had said bones been found inside a coffin. And so the scene is set for a thorough and methodical investigation, which the actual police detectives, Donna and Chris Hudson, can hardly keep up with.

Osman builds the case skillfully, adding layer upon layer of wider social and personal background. The network of current and past events is smoothly woven together. As the unraveling of the two murders progresses, the characters develop and flourish. I particularly enjoyed the character of the Polish builder, Bogdan who started as a stereotype only to surprise me as I got to know him better (well, as Elizabeth and her husband, Stephen, got to know him better).

This is a classic cosy mystery: funny, full of observational humour, presenting the reader with a deliciously twisty and unpredictable case to get your teeth into.

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman

I must confess I haven’t read Neverwhere and, at first, I was a bit lost in this short story. But I quickly found my way by simply following the Marquis de Carabas who in his turn was following the scent of his extraordinary coat stolen from him in mysterious circumstances. We have traversed most puzzling worlds of Below London where tube stations come to life to become characters in the story. Thus we have the Elephant, Victoria and the frightening Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. I found that world bewitching.

The Marquis de Carabas’s quest brought to mind another short story, “Overcoat” by Gogol. There too an owner unlawfully deprived of his precious coat moves heaven and earth to retrieve it, and not even death seems to be able to stop him. The coat represents his life. Here too, the coat has given the Marquis his name, his identity and his direction in life. Without it, he is incomplete. His older brother, Peregrine, is his guardian angel in the (many) hours of need.

I have reached for this story because I loved Good Omens and I wanted to discover a bit more about Neil Gaiman. I am hooked.

Revelation by Jo Fenton

This dark and pacey crime drama hits a nerve. It’s 1989. Becky, who is a law student, is confronted with the death of another student. Rick is killed in his room in the hall of residents.His body is found by Dan, his very close friend. Becky embarks on an investigation, keen to get to the bottom of this tragic death especially because she cares about Dan who is deeply traumatised by Rick’s death. Strange forces seemed to play part in this death and a later disappearance, including a suspect Kabbalistic group.

This book appealed to me personally on many levels. I too studied law in the late eighties and lived in a hall of residents, surrounded by people who became close friends. Those were very different times. Fenton reflects those times really well: the overall ambience of the eighties, the trends, the music, the raging AIDS and early prejudice against gays, the lecherous professors. I was transported back in time.

The characters are vivid and the background behind the killer’s motives complex. The denouement comes as a surprise. It is a very satisfying crime mystery.

Death of a Witch by M.C. Beaton

Being a great fan of Agatha Raisin, I decided to give Hamish Macbeth a go. I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.

Although Death of a Witch was my first read in the series, I was instantly immersed in the world of the remote village of Lochdubh in the heart of Scottish Highlands. The title character, PC Hamish Macbeth is kind of a godfather figure who protects and looks after the villagers. His love for the place and its inhabitants is palpable. It is stronger than his ambition or his young heart’s romantic pursuits. M C Beaton paints the location vividly and with such refinement that its authenticity is assured. Throw in the mix a dog and a wild cat, Hamish’s two beloved pets, and your heart is captured for good.

In this story, Hamish pursues the killer of an alleged witch, and further three local women. The witch died a nasty death, but she wasn’t a likable character, and not only because she was peddling love potions which had very unpleasant side effects on the menfolk. The other victims were decent or semi-decent women who, on the surface, had nothing to do with the witch. Hamish, assisted by his erstwhile love interest, the journalist Elspeth, and by his new love interest, the pathologist Lesley, tries to get to the bottom of this convoluted multi-victim case.

I enjoyed this witty, charming and fast moving cosy mystery and will be reading more of Hamish Macbeth.

 

Invisible Girls by Lisa Jewell

Invisible Girl is one of those rare specimens of fiction where you simply cannot skip to the final chapter to find out what happened. You will itch to do that, but going to the end won’t give you many answers. The complexity of this book is hidden in every sentence and every chapter as you press on, page after nail-biting page. You cannot it blink or you will miss another nuance or vital clue which will only make sense later. This book is booby-trapped with twists, secrets, suspicions, misdirection and complication.
Last night, before midnight, I started on 68%, thinking I wouldn’t be able to finish it in one sitting. How wrong was I! I read into the early hours of the morning.
The story is told from the point of view of three main characters, diametrically different from each other, but closely interconnected. Owen is a socially inept, 33-year old virgin who loses his teaching job because of allegations of sexual nature made by his students. Cate Four is a wife of a respected psychotherapist, a mother to two teenage children, a woman given to suspicion and guilt about being suspicious. A troubled teenager with a past that affects her mental health, Syffire Maddox is the psychotherapist’s erstwhile patient who develops unhealthy obsession with the man and starts following him around. At first sight the only thing they have in common is their postal code in Hampstead, London. Soon, it becomes clear that much more binds them together as several themes are being dissected by the author: the deception of appearances, the veneer of respectability, the suffocating effect past trauma has on a person’s life, the restraints of morality the society places on people and what happens when some of us give themselves a respite from sticking to them. and much, much more.
Invisible Girl is a psychological thriller at its best.

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once by Cat Hickey

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once by [Cat Hickey]

The Bellhop Only Stalks Once is a cracking crime mystery set in an exotic location, featuring a cast of colourful and diverse characters and presenting the reader with a puzzling case to solve.

Chloe is an American lass on a solo holiday in Costa Rica. Things start going terribly wrong with firstly just one overzealous bellboy from Chloe’s hotel going missing, soon followed by another two. Chloe is the only person to have witnessed his bizarre disappearance. One minute he was there waving to her, the next he sauntered into the jungle. He had made a nuisance of himself prior to his vanishing act, and consequently suspicion falls on Chloe. You feel for her. She is in a foreign country and quite out of her comfort zone. But she is one feisty gal, determined and smart, and she has some allies, such as Juan as well as the charming Mateo, until he too is gone, that is.

Apart from the relatable and likeable characters, the setting also plays its part in the story. The deep and dangerous Costa Rican jungle, the heat and the beautiful but precarious crossings create a thrilling ambience. Amulets and accessories featuring mysterious local deities add more mystery. Little hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you dive into that world with Chloe.

Although there is humour and adventure, there is also an element of grim, brutal reality and pure unrepentant evil. You certainly wouldn’t want to send your child on a holiday where they could end up just like those missing bellboys.

A thrilling and clever book. Highly recommended.