REVIEWS - MY READING MATTER

REVIEWED ON GOODREADS & AMAZON


The Demented Lady Detectives' ClubThe Demented Lady Detectives' Club by Jim Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


There are two narrative strands in this novel. One is written from the point of view of a woman with a colourful past, which she attempts to record before dementia hits and her memory goes. She remains unnamed until near the end. The other strand focuses on Janet Bretherton, a widow who we first met in The English Lady Murderers' Society.

Janet now lives in a small town in Devon where she is starting to make friends and find a way to live on her own. In this novel, as in the previous one, we are offered a selection of older women to get to know, along with Janet. Belle, who Janet met in France is visiting and may become a permanent resident. Christine runs an esoteric bookshop, Sandra works as a psychic, Frieda has a vintage clothes shop and there are three or four others. All these ladies belong to a bookclub and meet regularly.

When a mysterious man is found dead in the river, speculation is rife as to who he might be and who (if anyone) killed him. The bookclub members jokingly suggest they become The Demented Lady Detectives' Club. Janet, a writer of detective novels, takes the idea more seriously and, with Belle's help, tries to work out who the man was and what happened to him. She reasons that the answer to these questions will be the most obvious ones and can therefore be discovered simply from the known facts. She has, however, despite her acquaintance with DI Stephen Gregg, very few facts to go on.

Will Janet discover the murderer before the police do? Will the second narrator, and her shocking secrets, be revealed? And will the relationship between Janet and the much younger DI Gregg go anywhere?

This is a sometimes funny, sometimes serious novel which at times seems like cosy crime. Don't be fooled though – there is a gritty side to it. As is usual with Williams' crime novels, the morality of the crime, the criminal and the justice (which may or may not be dished out) are blurred.

A satisfying and enjoyable read that pokes fun at New Agers in a gentle and affectionate way.

You’ll enjoy this if you like detective novels that don’t conform to stereotypes.


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 The English Lady Murderers' Society
The English Lady Murderers' Society by Jim Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Janet Bretherton may or may not have murdered her husband. She goes to live in France where she meets several other women who may have done or be considering doing likewise. Even if they haven’t all gone quite as far as murder, though, they do all still harbour secrets.

In the village of Puybrun (a location Williams has used before, in Recherche) the women, all exiles from England, gather regularly to pass on skills and information. In addition to Janet, there is Belle whose husband, Charlie, may be imaginary (or dead); Carol, who may have done away with a previous boyfriend and has slept with a lot of men called Dave; Earthy, an old hippy who has run away from a commune; Joy, who tries to hide how truly awful her husband is; and Veronica and Poppy, who sensibly love each other, keeping men out of the equation altogether.

When a much younger man shows interest in 60 year old Janet, she wonders what he is after. It seems, though, that all he wants is to dance. Throw in a British detective investigating a fraud involving Janet’s husband’s business, a case of mistaken identity exploited for gain and a lot of local colour, and you have the delightful mélange that is The English Lady Murderers' Society.

This novel is witty, elegantly written and cleverly plotted. The characters all come alive on the page and draw us into their stories. Williams claims an in-depth knowledge of, and delight in, older women and this shines through in every word. A true piece of reading pleasure.

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  Ox Herding: A Secular PilgrimageOx Herding: A Secular Pilgrimage by Jackie Griffiths
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jae is dissatisfied with her life. Though she has a child, Chloe, and a partner, Jason, she lives with her parents, has no outside job and is at a crossroads. Distant and withdrawn, she accepts Jason’s suggestion they take time apart. Jae feels the urge to explore a spiritual journey and she sets off on this quest, visiting a type of fairground where various religions and ‘isms’ have set out their stalls.

As she goes from one to the next learning their beliefs and practices she comes to realise none of the organised religions are for her. Neither are Humanism, Existentialism and so on. She decides she must find and follow her own path. At home she has a picture of a man leading an ox (one of the zen ox herding pictures). This image takes on greater significance for her when she encounters the man and the ox on her journey.

This book – and I’m not sure whether to call it a novel or a spiritual treatise – starts off couched in the real world of Jae’s ordinary life. Very soon it ventures into a more fantastical territory, reminiscent at times of Alice in Wonderland. Nothing is quite as it seems and Jae must face and defeat her own demons in the shape of the ox and the young ox herder. Just as she seems to have gained wisdom she is brought down again and understands she has reached a false summit. There is still further she must go.

Jae’s journey is the journey of a seeker after truth; it is the well-documented journey of spiritual advancement and ultimate enlightenment. At times beautifully written, at times overladen with unnecessary adverbs, it is always intriguing and honest in its intent. The present tense of the narrative threw me a little at first. I know from my own writing experiments that this can serve to distance the reader. However, I soon got into the rhythm of it and it became less distracting as I was drawn into the story.

I believe this is a first novel and if so, it is an excellent effort. Though not a total adverb-hater (I believe all words have their place), I would advise the writer to resist their lure in future. This book would be sharper and just as vivid without most them.

PS: I received this ebook free in return for an honest review. (To be reviewed on Bookmuse.)

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Writing the town ReadWriting the town Read by Katharine E. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jamie lives in Cornwall and is a reporter for a local newspaper. She has a sexist boss, a boyfriend, Dave, who may not be as faithful as he could be, and a selection of friends and colleagues all of whom are pretty well-drawn characters. On 7th July 2005 she waves Dave off as he heads up to London for employment reasons. The 7th July 2005 was, of course, the day of the London tube bombings.

When she can’t get in touch with Dave, Jamie starts to worry. He would have been travelling to his meetings by tube at around the time of the bombings. Eventually the police call to say there is a man in hospital, badly injured, who was carrying Dave’s wallet. This turns out to be a false lead, however, and Jamie struggles to cope as the months go by and Dave is still missing.

Alongside the main mystery of what has happened to Dave, there run other strands dealing with sexism, newspaper closures, animal rights and the tensions of friendship. All these aspects are well handled, competently written and make for an interesting read.

Though I ultimately enjoyed this novel and would certainly recommend it as an intriguing read, I was almost put off at the beginning by what seemed to me to be too much personal detail before the story got started. I began to think it was an autobiography as it has a very chatty style and not much appeared to be happening other than the thoughts and opinions of the narrator. I felt that most of the first chapter and a lot of the second could have been omitted. I’m glad I stuck with it though, as it was worthwhile in the end.

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RechercheRecherche by Jim Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I hadn’t come across Jim Williams before I discovered this book and I am so glad I did. I now have the pleasure of looking forward to reading the rest of his work.

Recherche is the sort of novel I would love to have written myself. It’s deeply weird, is told in several voices and leaves you wondering at the end. It is, on one level, a murder mystery but the mystery isn’t who did it, it’s whether it was ever done at all.
Lawyer, John Harper has left his wife and is spending the summer in France with his secretary/lover Lucy. When Lucy disappears Harper is suspected of her murder though no evidence can be found.

Alongside the present day mystery (set sometime in the 90s) runs the bizarre tale of an old man, Harry Haze, who claims to be a vampire. Be warned though - this isn’t Twilight. It’s a fascinating romp through the history of the last hundred years or so which mixes Proust with Dorian Grey, Churchill with Rudolf Hess, takes a detour into Lolita country, and throws in asides on Rasputin and Bela Lugosi for good measure. Harry Haze tells fantastic (in the original sense of fanciful and absurd) tales of having been (among other things) a war criminal, a Jewish stand-up comedian and a friend of J. Edgar Hoover - but can he ever be believed?
John Harper doesn’t think so. But then, ultimately, he doesn’t know what to believe.

If you enjoy literary allusions, swooping language and mysteries that stay mysterious, this book is for you.


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The Return of Captain John EmmettThe Return of Captain John Emmett (no relation!) by Elizabeth Speller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

London, 1920. In the aftermath of the Great War and a devastating family tragedy, Laurence Bartram has turned his back on the world. But with a well-timed letter, an old flame manages to draw him back in. Mary Emmett’s brother John—like Laurence, an officer during the war—has apparently killed himself while in the care of a remote veterans’ hospital, and Mary needs to know why.

This book has much to recommend it - the clarity of the writing, the characterisation, the lovely descriptions - but... Ah yes, but.

I would have liked it more if there had been less reportage and more first hand experience. Much of the information was passed on second or third hand from someone who heard it from someone else who may have actually been there. This became irritating after a while. I wanted to see the scenes not have them told to me all the time.

Also the denouement when it came was both unexpected and yet unsurprising. There was none of the 'Oh wow I didn't see that coming' even though, actually, you won't see it coming. And that's because it's a bit of a let down.

That's not to say I didn't want to keep on reading it - it is compelling enough in its own way - but I'm afraid I read the last few chapters in a slightly frustrated manner.


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 Crimson ShoreCrimson Shore by Gillian Hamer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crimson Shore is the first of a new detective series - The Gold Detectives. In this novel, the 'Gold' in question (DI Amanda Gold) takes a backseat as DS Dara Brennan steps up to the mark. Pushed by his superior, the unpleasant DCI Idris Parry, Dara leads the hunt for a murderer with an inventive streak. The killer seems bent on revenge for some unknown hurt to do with a children's home in the nineties and spares no one who gets in his/her way.

As the bodies pile up, Dara goes into meltdown in his private life. His marriage is falling apart and his attraction to fellow DS Kelly Morgan isn't helping. Dara is a rough diamond - he has his faults but it's difficult not to like him and urge him on. The rest of the team each have their own quirks and strengths and the dynamic between them is brilliantly portrayed - I felt like I was one of them and missed their squabbles and banter when the book came to an end.

The forensic detail is very well handled - Hamer knows her stuff - and though the locations (Anglesey) are beautifully described she doesn't spare us the often gory details of the bodies that regularly show up, or the terrors the victims go through. This is never overdone though. I was reminded of Stuart Pawson's books which have the same sort of mix of camaraderie and cadavers.

All in all, Crimson Shore, the first of The Gold Detecives series is a great find. No doubt we will home in on the other team members as the series progresses but I think for the moment I'm a little bit in love with Dara Brennan. I can't wait to meet him again.



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Celia's RoomCelia's Room by Kevin Booth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every now and again a reader comes across a book which is a perfect fit. For me, this is one of those books. I had very little idea of what Celia’s Room was about before I started reading it, so it was a true pleasure to enter this world and discover it was one I was comfortable in.

Alternating chapters tell the first person stories of two young men: Joaquim and Eduardo. Barcelona is almost a third protagonist in this beautifully written novel as we wind through its streets, its bars, and its subcultures uncovering its secrets and its secret places.

Joaquim, an artist, and Eduardo, a business student, are polar opposites involved with a group of friquis that includes the flamboyant Carribean Narcissus, Alvaro his lover, a host of minor characters, and of course Celia, a prostitute of dubious gender. Narcissus inveigles Joaquim into stumping up the rent on a decaying mansion and the freaks move in. There are grand plans to restore the house to its former glory but little is likely to come of it. The seedy grandeur of the former ballroom, with its peeling wallpaper and crumbling plaster, provides the perfect backdrop for this strange collection of people and their drug-infused dreams.

Both Joaquim and Eduardo fall under the spell of Celia who is mysterious, voluptuous and aloof. Eduardo is both attracted and repelled; this is not the life he wants for himself and he merely skirts the fringes of group. His brutish behaviour hides his pain at the loss of his father and sister; his entanglement with Celia almost destroys his relationship with his girlfriend Fra.

Joaquim is disturbed by his own sexual confusion. He is drawn to both Celia and Narcissus though an undercurrent of distrust unbalances him. He paints portraits of each them, not knowing if his work is good or bad, or if it will be received positively, or even if he will ever reveal it at all.

This richly allusive novel has its own mysterious voluptuousness – the prose is studded with gems and brilliant flashes. There is often a dreamlike underwater feel to the narrative yet it is always fully alive. Behind the beauty we sense the dread, the fear of what may come, the fragile hold on love and friendship that may turn out not to be that at all.

With Celia’s Room Kevin Booth has created a minor masterpiece.


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ScherzoScherzo by Jim Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The 18th century Venice of Scherzo by Jim Williams is hallucinatory and filled with intrigue. La Serenissima hides in the mists and miasmas that hover over her canals and seep into her alleyways; her citizens creep through her streets cloaked and masked. Dark deeds are performed by hidden hands and mystery abounds.

Scherzo is ostensibly the story of a murder and its investigation but it is also the evocation of a particular time and a particular place brought to life in fascinating detail.

The protagonist is Ludovico, a castrato, mutilated as a boy to enable him to pursue a musical career. Ludovico is a colourful character who mixes with both high and low Venetians. He makes the acquaintance of the mysterious Monsieur Arouet, who may or may not be Voltaire and the pair attempt to solve the murder of a high-born citizen.

Written in Williams' gloriously flamboyant style, this is a romp through the lives of a variety of characters (including Casanova) taking in art, philosophy and secret societies along the way.

Though a possible culprit is found, there may not be a definitive solution to the murder mystery. Indeed there may not have been a murder at all.

The language is rich, the intrigue is tangled and the characters may not be who they claim to be. This is a wild tale about lies and illusion, with a narrator so unreliable even he doesn't know when he's telling the truth.

It's worth bearing in mind that 'scherzo' means joke (and 'Ludo' means 'I play') and there is much joking and playfulness in this wonderful book.

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Blood DivaBlood Diva by V.M. Gautier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure how I'd get on with this book at first as the opening is quite startling. It didn't take long to realise I was in competent hands though and I just couldn't stop reading.

A combination of historical novel, police procedural, and erotica, with vampires thrown in - what more could you want?


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A Funeral for an OwlA Funeral for an Owl by Jane Davis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was very impressed by this book. It's the first I've read by Jane Davis but I will certainly be seeking out more of her work.

Other reviewers have outlined the story so I won't go into that again. For me, the beauty of the book is in the language and in the way it is told. The author holds a microscope (or a pair of binoculars) up to life and describes it in all its detail. There are flashes of brilliance in the descriptions of ordinary events, and acute insights into mundane actions.

The characters are well-drawn, particularly Shamayal with his attitude and vulnerability, and the younger Jim (although at times he seemed older than his years).

This is a book that is often poignant but never maudlin.

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The Sadness of AngelsThe Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't know quite what to make of this novel at first as it's rather different from the other books by Jim Williams I've read. But then all Williams' books are different, both from each other and from just about any other book you care to mention. It's also some time since I read any Sci Fi (Asimov half a lifetime ago) and I generally avoid fantasy altogether (despite loving the fantastical when it's couched in reality).

As I read on I found myself entering into a dream world, a barren land of strange creatures and bold yet vulnerable characters. This is a world of long Great Years where the sun barely rises above the horizon for generations at a time and people are either old to the point of immortality or rarely live beyond thirty. It is a disorientating world with hints of myth and legend, and a sense of some greater truth hidden beneath it all.

Destructive angels mingle with self-styled gods, evil sultans, mad emperors - devils in disguise. Opposing them are our heroes (and heroines) - novice priests of a mysterious Order which violently opposes those claiming to be descended from monkeys, filthy horsewomen who keep their men veiled, an ancient Mapmaker who travels the globe like the Wandering Jew, a half mythical princess of an icy land. A Game is being played but no one quite knows what the rules are or what the outcome might be.

A battle is fought against the Slavers, a rough bunch who round up anyone they can put to work and who curse in various bastard languages. Our heroes haven't a hope of winning - and yet...

This is often a very funny book and one that conjures strange images. The animals, though having familiar names - horses, bears etc - have wheels and tentacles. They emit gases through anal vents and often sound vaguely motorised. The Monkey (the last perhaps of its kind) has green fur that glows and it witters through its anal vent. It made me think of a Furby.

The effect of all this is the disorientation of the mind (well, the mind of this reader anyway) - a disorientation that leads to a dreamlike state where anything can happen, and often does.

This is the first book in a series in which Williams intends to explore the implications for space travel by creatures with a human lifespan faced with the vast distances between planets.

I look forward to reading more of the adventures of this odd band of fellow travellers and having my mind bent further. My straining to find the meaning behind it all may just turn out to be the koan that flips me into enlightenment.


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