The Hidden, by Melanie Golding

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Ruby is a special person. She has a big heart, but is haunted by family secrets and loneliness. Unfortunately, she’s also prickly—prickly enough that it’s hard for people to learn about the kindness and loyalty underneath Ruby’s apparent standoffishness. Everyone gets Ruby wrong. And when Ruby gets caught up in sinister events in The Hidden, by Melanie Golding, it means that a lot of people end up surprised while they chase her across Great Britain.

Ruby is one of the narrators of this odd genre-hybrid. The other is her putative sister, a detective named Joanna. On Ruby’s side, The Hidden is a story of rescue and folklore come to life. On Joanna’s, it’s a manhunt involving a missing child. For us readers, it takes several chapters and some backtracking to find out what’s really going on. I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about this book at first. I worried that it would try to do too many things and The Hidden would be a shallow experience or that the two genres wouldn’t mesh together enough to be a cohesive narrative. Thankfully, The Hidden worked for me.

So, just like the narrative, let’s backtrack. One day, Ruby is caught spying on a very attractive neighbor doing yoga in his flat. The next couple of days sees Ruby and the man doing the dance of the socially awkward who are into each other. I thought it was cute, too, until Ruby accepts an invitation over to yoga man’s apartment only to find a toddler and a woman who really, really doesn’t want to be in that apartment. This is strange, but not as strange as the woman’s fixation on a coat she believes yoga man has hidden away from her. When we join the narrative, some months later, Joanna and other police officers break into yoga man’s apartment and find him near death in an overflowing bathtub. This is strange, but not as strange as what happens when yoga man wakes up from his coma and violently escapes the hospital.

There is a lot going on in The Hidden‘s plot, but what really made this book work for me was the attention the author gave to the shifting psychologies of the characters. So many characters flip from good to bad, dubious to heroic, rulebound to rebel in totally believable arcs that I was kept guessing right up until the last pages. This book was a wild, fascinating ride—although, I’m curious to see if the combination of genres works for other readers, too.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Glass House, by Beatrice Colin

It takes some gumption for an Anglo-Indian woman to pack herself up, with her child, and travel thousands of miles from Himalayan India to Scotland. It takes even more gumption for that same woman to travel to rural Scotland with the express purpose of inserting herself in the middle of a tricky inheritance situation. It’s not hard to see that Cecily Pick is just that kind of woman. In the opening pages of Beatrice Colin’s The Glass House, we can see the Cecily is the kind of woman to breeze past any obstructions or objections by either not seeing them or just by refusing to argue.

Cecily and her daughter Kitty arrive at Balmarra, the estate belonging to her husband’s family, shortly after The Glass House begins. Cecily’s plan is to use her husband’s inheritance (the patriarch has recently died) to fund that husband’s botanical explorations back in India and her daughter’s education. We know before Cecily meets her in-laws for the first time (yikes!) that this plan will involve selling Balmarra and its enormous glass greenhouse out from under them. I was prepared to like Cecily. It wasn’t easy to be an Anglo-Indian in 1912 (or at any time, probably), but her grand scheme made me pull back. All of a sudden, Cecily was one of the grasping relatives that come out of the woodwork for will readings that I’ve seen in fiction. The difference this time is that we get Cecily’s perspective in addition to the point of view of the relative who’s about to have their life turned upside down.

I was expecting a lot more turmoil from the opening of The Glass House, considering what Cecily is up to. Instead, Cecily keeps her cards close to her vest when she finds her retiring in-laws. A large part of the story is told by one of them, Cecily’s sister-in-law Antonia. Antonia is the kind of person who life has passed by—a direct contrast to the take-charge Cecily. So instead of a bitter conflict about financial inheritance, The Glass House is a story about emotional inheritances because of the few things the women have in common is that they grew up with men who told them how they had to be because they were daughters instead of sons.

The Glass House is a solid story, recommended for readers who like family dramas set in atmospheric country manor house. The surprise ending is a wonderful conclusion to a story that had me guessing more than once. The only thing that could make reading The Glass House better would be a large mug of Darjeeling to accompany it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Thunder Bay, by Douglas Skelton

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

The island where Douglas Skelton’s Thunder Bay is set is the kind of place that can’t help but infuriate and enchant its inhabitants. Stoirm, the fictional Scottish coastal island, is a place where people have long memories and an unshakable need to keep their families’ secrets. It would be a tough nut to crack for even a seasoned reporter. Rebecca Connolly, one of the few journalists for a weekly paper, only has a tenuous family connection of her own as an in with the people of Stoirm. Thankfully, this connection is shored up by her own determination and the fact that secrets, no matter tightly held, have a way of coming out eventually.

Thunder Bay kicks off with information that wouldn’t really be news in a big city. On Stoirm, word that a man widely believed to be a murderer is returning sets all kinds of feathers to ruffling. The only reason that Roddie Drummond is not in prison is that he was given a “not proven” verdict, a rare outcome only seen in Scottish courts. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict Roddie of the murder of his girlfriend. On the other hand, there’s enough doubt that the jury couldn’t declare him innocent. Rebecca tries to argue her way to the island, talking up all the reasons why the editor of her paper should send her to write up the story, but her boss says no. Rebecca goes anyway, where she ruffles a lot of feathers herself as she starts asking questions of various islanders.

As the novel progresses, we start to piece things together as Rebecca collects dribs and drabs of information from people who’ve kept their mouths shut for fifteen years. We also get glimpses of events from the perspective of Roddie and, more troubling, a woman who is viciously abused by her husband. These three narratives only come together towards the end of Thunder Bay, when all the wheels come off. Poor Rebecca, who only went to the island with a vague plan to become a journalist-who-digs-and-tells-the-truth, finds herself in the middle of violent men, scheming lairds, guilt stricken people with too many secrets, and the alternately flexible and rigid codes of conduct of the people of Stoirm.

Thunder Bay turned out to be a surprisingly gripping read. I had no idea where things were going to end up, even though the people Rebecca interviews give up useful pieces of information left and right. Skelton’s characters kept bucking expectations as they tried to stick to Stoirm’s “ethical” code. They are far from the polite (mostly) suspects that Poirot had to tangle with in his cases. Rebecca is lucky she didn’t get caught in the crossfire. Readers looking for something out of the ordinary and atmospheric might like this one.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, by Andrew Miller

There are always questions when a soldier returns home. The questions range from the obvious “how are you?” to the inevitable and dreaded “what did you do?” John Lacroix is typically tight-lipped about his experiences in the failed Peninsular War against Napoleon in Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. He returns to his lonely family estate with bloody feet, partially-deafened, and aimlessly depressed. He takes off for the north shortly after his homecoming. At first, he is only fleeing his terrible memories of Spain. What he doesn’t know is that he’s also being pursued by two men with murderous intent. What John did during the war is a very important question and the answer will decide whether he should live or die.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is also a book about journeys. John’s purported reason for going to the islands north of the Scottish mainland is music. His father collected songs. But as a partially deaf man, this reason is a little thin. No one really tries to stop him. It’s clear that he’s not happy and needs something to do—also, going north will him him avoid the re-assembly of his regiment. The only thing worse than the memories of war would be going back to make more.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for John; he was clearly not meant to be a soldier. And I did feel sorry for him until I met the other travelers. Calley is a soldier through and through, which makes him the perfect man for the job of hunting John down. Calley testifies at a tribunal that John was the leader of a group of British soldiers that committed an atrocity against innocent Spanish civilians. To avoid bad press, Calley is dispatched to Great Britain—with a Spanish officer as a representative of the Spanish government—as a witness to John’s execution. From there, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free becomes a curious mix of slow sections about John finding himself again with tense sections about the determined Calley and the amiable gentle Spaniard, Medina.

The chase plays out over months. In fact, things get so tense—especially once John learns that he has people after him—that the ending was almost anti-climactically brief. So much so, that I’m actually a little puzzled by this book. Miller built up a lot of wonderful dramatic tension, with well-timed revelations that made me wonder who the real villain was. There are also some undeveloped characters and settings that I wanted to know more about. One of the things that draw me to books set during the eighteenth century or the Regency is their lush descriptions of sights, sounds, and tastes. There is detail in Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, but not nearly as much as I wanted.

I enjoyed John as a character, as well as his budding relationship with Emily, one of the women who shelters him on their remote Scottish island. This book is also an interesting example of a soldier’s mental struggles in a historical setting. I just with that this book had more: more set pieces, more description, more character development for the secondary and tertiary characters. Sadly, this book was a little disappointing for me.

Confessions of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell continues to recount his adventures as the proprietor of the Bookshop, in Wigtown, Scotland, in Confessions of a Bookseller. Earlier this year, I listened to the audiobook of The Diary of a Bookseller and loved it. I jumped at the chance to hear more weird tales of life in a secondhand bookstore when I saw this available on NetGalley. This new entry did not disappoint.

Covering 2015, Confessions of a Bookseller is just as chaotic as Bythell’s first memoir. The Bookshop sees multiple construction projects, surly staff, bizarre and belligerent customers, a wormy cat, bad house guests, and ongoing battles with online bookselling software. But The Bookshop, in spite of a crumbling chimney and customers who argue for deep discounts, seems to be on better footing in 2015 thanks to all of Shaun’s side hustles like working on the Wigtown Book Festival, interviews, meme-making, anti-Kindle merchandise, and the Random Book Club. Whenever Bythell mentions this club—in which subscribers pay to receive a random book each month—I’m tempted to sign up just to see what I would receive…But I have too much to read as it is.

As before, I was struck by the parade of customers who seemingly refuse to pay books what they’re worth when they’re at the Bookshop. This parade alternates with a bunch of people looking to sell books that they no longer have room for or that they inherited. These people always overvalue books rather than undervalue them, leaving Bythell caught in the middle. Once a book is purchased the first time, pricing becomes hugely subjective. We can say that a book is worth what the market will bear. Bythell mentions that a page from a Gutenberg Bible was once auctions for £74,000. It’s a crap shoot that Bythell can’t seem to win because taste in books changes over time, book condition raises or lowers prices, and there’s the ever present undercutting of Amazon. Small wonder that Bythell is tap-dancing as fast as he can.

I would recommend Confessions of a Bookseller (and The Diary of a Bookseller) to all my librarian friends. (A lot of the customers that turn up in the Bookshop sound like patrons who turn up in public libraries.) I would also recommend Bythell’s books to anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to run a bookstore—not necessarily to disillusion them, but to give them a humorous reality check about life in the book trade.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell

In 2001, Shaun Bythell bought The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. In The Diary of a Bookseller, Bythell shares a year in the life of a book store owner. His reminisces are full of book swapping, odd customers, sometimes odder staff, and a dogged determination to keep his doors open when Amazon is undercutting the book trade everywhere and no on seems to want to actually pay for books.

I listened to the audiobook version of the book. I think listening to Robin Laing narrate (and do all the accents!) helped me get through the book. There are parts of the book that get a bit repetitive. Every day begins with a count of online orders received and filled and ends with the till total. The parts in between are the best. I loved all the stories about the strange questions people asked. What is it about books that makes them function as weirdo magnets? The Bookshop sees hordes of people who are obsessed with narrow topics, who use the store to window shop before buying books online, or who attempt to get more money than their battered, un-rare books. Thankfully, although this sounds angry and depressing, Bythell relates most of it with a wonderful sense of humor. His turns of phrase had me laughing through. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the description of an unkempt customer as looking as though “his clothes had been loaded into a cannon and fired at him.”

Another thread of the book is Bythell’s continuing efforts to keep The Bookshop open in the face of reduced sales. He uses Amazon to sell book online because there really is no other game in town. Even though Amazon is making things incredibly cheap and convenient for us, but it is destroying the book trade. It has completely disrupted the valuation of books and, I think, contributed to the way that book buyers fight so hard to pay the cheapest price whatever even though the books are worth more. There were some parts that made me squirm because I’ve bought books on Amazon when there are independent bookstores in my town. (In my defense, these stores are mostly unorganized piles of books I don’t want to read anyway.) I cheered a little bit on the inside when the shop’s daily takings took an upward swing.

Readers who enjoy memoirs about bookish lives will like this a lot, even though there are repetitive bits. I had a great time hanging out with Bythell for a year in this honest, funny memoir.

The Bookshop, Wigtown, Scotland (Image via Geograph)

Hag, by Kathleen Kaufman

39210859The women in Alice Grace Kyles’ family have always been considered odd. They have special talents: with healing, seeing the future, etc. The locals wherever they happen to live call them witches. We readers don’t have to wait long for the answer for all this to be revealed in Kathleen Kaufman’s Hag. All of the women, including Alice herself, are descended from the Cailleach, a powerful female creature sometimes called a hag.

In the short passages preceding each chapter about Alice, we learn a little bit more about the Cailleach. She is an ancient supernatural being who takes occasional mates and births daughters, who are then sent out into the world to lead “extraordinary lives.” The only problem is that once they leave their mother, these daughters forget what they’ve learned and what they’re capable. These short passages follow the line down to Alice, as each gets further and further away from their ancestry. Over and over, we’re told that the Cailleach’s time is coming—but it isn’t until the very end that we finally learn what this means.

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The rune Ingwaz features prominently in this book (Image via Pinterest)

In the longer chapters, we follow Alice from Glasgow to Colorado to Venezuela and back to Glasgow as she tries to figure out what she should do with her life. Alice is, because of time and her mother’s choice to take them to Colorado, the most cut off from her heritage. She has powers that manifest when she’s upset, but she does her best to keep a lid on these. She does her best to live normally to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Living normally is much easier than following the unconventional paths her ancestress’s followed. Apart from returning home to Glasgow and having a preternaturally knowledgable child, Alice doesn’t do much to reclaim her heritage. When the ending comes, the climax of her story reads more like an accident than a purposeful conclusion to a family saga.

Hag jumps from episode to episode in Alice’s life, so much so that it feels like it’s racing along. It’s only at the end of the book that the plot starts to resemble a conventional novel with a single arc. To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the structure of this novel. There are parts where I was hooked. The parts about Alice’s great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and great-great-great grandmother were fascinating. Unfortunately, the time jumps and the mystery about what Alice is supposed to do with her life and what it means for the Cailleach that her time is coming made the book feel scattered and undeveloped. I wished there had been more of something in Hag make me feel more engaged in Alice’s story and that of her frankly creepy child.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

The Way of All Flesh, by Ambrose Parry

38114460I prefer to read about new detectives rather than the polished kind of the classic mysteries, most of the time. I tend to find them more believable because they make mistakes and—let me be honest—because I stand a chance at solving the case before they do. But in Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, one our two amateur detectives makes dangerous mistakes while he and his ad hoc partner attempt to solve the murders of a series of poor women in 1847 Edinburgh. The tension in this book comes not just from the case but also from wondering if one of the protagonists will get himself killed before resolving the matter.

We meet one of our protagonists on one of the worst nights of his life. Will Raven, a medical student, has just discovered the dead body of the woman he loved. Fearing that he will be blamed for the death, he runs…only to run into a pair of enforcers who work for the loan shark he just borrowed a large sum. It’s a miracle that he remains in one piece long enough to make it to the first day of his apprenticeship with the famous obstetrician, Sir James Young Simpson. (Renowned surgeon James Syme also appears in this book.) It’s at Simpson’s house that we meet our second protagonist, Sarah Fisher, who works there as a housemaid and lady’s maid to Simpson’s sister-in-law. While Will has a shot at becoming a wealthy doctor if he applies himself, Sarah’s intelligence and gleaned medical knowledge are almost certain to go to waste because of her gender.

Will and Sarah get off on the wrong foot almost immediately and engage in an unwitting battle of wills while more dead women are discovered around Edinburgh. Because the women are sex workers or housemaids, they don’t receive much attention from the law. Instead, the law is more interested in finding out how an infant’s leg (without the rest of the body) come to be found on a city street. Will’s questions turn up clues that point towards a rogue abortionist (though it takes Will a painfully long time to put the pieces together). It also takes him a distressingly long time to put aside his prejudices and join forces with Sarah to stop the murders.

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Memorial plague to Sir James Simpson in St. Giles, Edinburgh (Image via Wikicommons)

The mystery in The Way of All Flesh meanders, mostly because Will and Sarah are amateurs and have day jobs that prevent them from working ’round the clock on the case. The villain is an absolute fiend, which adds spice to the mystery plot. But what interested me more was the medical history that is liberally folded into the story. Between Simpson’s experiments with chloroform—a godsend for laboring women—and the terrifying practice of gynaecology and obstetrics in the 1847s, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. I’m a ghoul for medical history and The Way of All Flesh was catnip for me. Readers with a similar interest will probably enjoy this book, if they can get over Will’s moments of righteous temper. Readers who don’t have a strong stomach might want to skip sections if they are otherwise invested in the mystery.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.

Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine

36374001Libby Snow has always wanted to visit Ullaness, a rugged island on the west coast of Scotland. Not only does the island at the center of Women of the Dunes, by Sarah Maine, have a beloved legend, she also has a mysterious family connection that she longs to get to the bottom of. She finally gets her wish when she and her boss get permission to lead a small team in an even smaller archaeological job on Ullaness. For some reason the ranking family on the island won’t let them do much and it appears that Snow is not the only one with buried secrets.

We meet Libby just as she’s about to meet the man in charge of Ullaness, Rodri Sturrock. Rodri is the baronet’s (his brother) agent on the island and, for reasons we don’t learn until much later, he is adamant that the archaeological team sticks to a very limited mission. At times, Rodri is a bit of an alpha-hole. It’s hard to blame him, though, considering that he’s holding his family and businesses together by the skin of his teeth. His business partner and housekeeper describes him as a force of nature. She’s not wrong; Rodri has a habit of sweeping everyone around him along with his plans. Fortunately, Libby is used to work with people with strong personalities. The trick is to carry on with with what you’re doing while they bluster and, when the opportunity arises, try and steer them away from their worst impulses.

While the tensions rise between Rodri and Libby, on one side, and his sister-in-law and her boss on the other, we get glimpses of the events that inspired the legend that Libby heard from her grandmother. We also see one of Libby’s ancestors tangle with another pair of Sturrock brothers. Eventually, it all connects—with some lovely echoes in all three timelines—but I don’t want to ruin the stories for other readers. I will only say that the novel made me feel like the stories were playing themselves out, over and over, until a new group of people could finally make things right.

The more I read of Women of the Dunes, the more I enjoyed it. The characters were absolutely wonderful, especially Libby and Rodri. The best part, I think, was the atmosphere of the rural, somewhat-adrift-in-time island of Ullaness. There are parts of the book where I could almost hear the gulls and smell the salt air. My only quibble is that I wish there could have been more Vikings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 24 July 2018.

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø

33952851If I’ve learned nothing else from listening to Last Podcast on the Lasts episodes about Jonestown, it’s that one should always head for the hills once the leader starts taking amphetamines. When I pair that with a lesson I learned from Shakespeare—that one should run from anyone with this particular name—I know that Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth is going to be a furious bloodbath with few survivors, directed by two people who are out of their heads with power and guilt.

In Nesbø’s version of Shakespeare’s play, another retelling in Hogarth’s series, the action plays out in an unnamed setting that I think is a version of Glasgow in the 1970s. Here, Macbeth is the head of the city’s SWAT team. Duff is an Inspector with Organized Crime. Duncan has just become chief commissioner. In the background, the head of a drug manufacturing and selling syndicate named Hecate starts to pull strings. Macbeth and Duff are visited after a raid (that Duff screwed up and Macbeth rescued) by three of Hecate’s minions, who tell the men that Macbeth will be promoted to Head of Organized Crime and, later, chief commissioner.

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Lady Macbeth goes off the rails, by Johann Heinrich Füssli
(Image via Wikicommons)

This “prophecy” kicks of a series of murders, murders to cover up those murders, and yet more murders to cover up the cover-up murders. Readers of Nesbø and Shakespeare should find it all pretty familiar. My big problem with the book was that I didn’t buy some of the early leaps of logic made by Lady, Macbeth’s lover and partner. Once she learns about Hecate’s prophecy, she almost immediately goes off the rails. She plays on Macbeth’s insecurity about his lower class origins and past traumas to get him to kill Duncan. If he can take over, she tells him, he can make the city better for everyone. So he starts killing. And, as in Shakespeare’s play, everything starts to go to hell right rapidly.

I don’t know if enjoy is the right word for how I feel about this retelling of Macbeth. It’s faithful to the original plot. Lady and Macbeth are appropriately tortured. I rather liked how Duff’s character was developed. But since this book can be summed up as murder after murder until most of the characters are dead, I feel like it lacks some of the emotional depth of Shakespeare’s version. I knew that anything written by Nesbø would be gory; I’m not surprised by that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the other books in the Hogarth series, which do take the opportunity to take on problems in the original Shakespeare or put a new spin on things. This Macbeth is more like the story was lifted and dropped into a different setting and with the great speeches trimmed away.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2018.