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Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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The Janus Stone: A Ruth Galloway Mystery
by Elly Griffiths
Brilliant British crime fiction (4/15/2024)
The Janus Stone is the second book in the Ruth Galloway series by award-winning British author, Elly Griffiths. The audio version is narrated by Jane McDowell. As Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk, Ruth Galloway is called in by U of Sussex’s Dr Max Grey when a dig at Swaffham produces a small skeleton minus its skull, buried under a doorway: an offering to one of the Roman gods, Janus or Terminus?

She’s surprised when DCI Harry Nelson turns up there: she hasn’t yet told him she’s three months pregnant with his child. Ruth knows she will have to reveal her pregnancy before it becomes too obvious, and justifiably dreads the reaction of some.

Soon after, Ruth attends a demolition site at the request of the field archaeologist, when another small skeleton is found, again minus skull, again buried under a doorway, where a children’s home existed more than thirty years previous. Ruth calls in DCI Harry Nelson in case the bones prove to be more recent than Iron Age, as the burial looks more modern. The developer, Edward Spens is building seventy-five modern units, and is displeased when Nelson puts the work on hold citing a possible murder investigation.

Nelson’s sidekick, Sergeant Clough is convinced that in any home run by Catholic nuns and priests, there’s bound to be abuse, possibly foul play, but interviews with former staff and residents show no evidence of this. What might be significant is the mysterious disappearance of siblings Martin and Elizabeth Black, in 1973.

But post-mortem evidence eventually proves the bones too old to be children’s home residents, and Nelson’s investigation heads in a direction that is uncomfortable for some, not that that will stop him probing where he sees fit. He is distracted, though, when he learns that he is to be a father for the third time, and not quite sure how he feels about that.

Meanwhile, Ruth has the decidedly uncomfortable sensation that someone is watching, someone apparently fixated on her, who starts leaving vaguely sinister messages and objects both at the digs and on her doorstep. Nelson’s reaction is to assign DC Judy Johnson to watch over her. But after she has done some research into the former residents of the Woolmarket house, Judy needs to revisit her interview with Sister Immaculata: the ageing nun must know more than she’s told so far…

Griffiths uses Ruth and Harry as her main narrators, with occasional passages from the perspective of an anonymous person apparently making blood sacrifices to appease the gods. The plot is believable, the archaeology interesting and the characters, not all of whom are what they seem, are quite convincing for all their flaws and quirks.

It is certainly refreshing to read a female protagonist who is not slim and gorgeous. There are twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing right up to the final chapters, and a nail-biting climax in which Ruth fires a gun. Returning to this cast in The House At Seas End is eagerly anticipated.
And Then She Fell: A Novel
by Alicia Elliott
a cleverly written, interesting and thought-provoking read. (3/21/2024)
And Then She Fell is the first novel by award-winning, best-selling Canadian Mohawk editor and author, Alicia Elliott. At twenty-six, Haudenosaunee woman Alice Dostator is married to Steve Macdonald, a white man, has a six-week-old daughter, Dawn, is living off reservation in the city of Toronto, and is still grieving the loss of her mother, when she once again begins hearing voices. It’s not the first time, but as a teen, she blocked them out with alcohol and pot.

Now, she’s having difficulty connecting with her baby, is getting very little sleep, and is expected to behave in a manner that makes her an asset to Steve’s attempt to get tenure in the anthropology department. She’s getting nowhere with her writing, a retelling of the Haudenosaunee Creation Story that she now regrets telling Steve about, regrets telling anyone about.

What she’s hearing, and seeing, has her worried: her mom said her grandma was crazy; but her Aunt Rachel assures her that Grandma was a medicine woman, spoke to spirits and saw the future. And this respected elder said that Alice has the gifts to see what others can’t. Her cousin Tanya talks about portals and gatekeepers, and the voices are telling her it’s important to complete her writing, although other voices aren’t so positive.

It's quickly clear from her auditory and visual hallucinations, her out-of-body experiences, her delusions, and her paranoia, that Alice is not a reliable narrator. She second-guesses her own thoughts and reactions, is increasingly unsure whom she can trust, and feels the need to keep her thoughts secret even from those closest to her. Or is what she’s seeing, hearing and feeling, real?

Elliott’s depiction of post-partum mental illness is highly credible and, informed as it is by her own experience, brims with authenticity. The novel explores white attitudes to Natives, the racism that is often unconscious or unintentional, motherhood, and Mohawk myth and legend. While more likely to resonate with Canadian readers, this is a cleverly written, interesting and thought-provoking read.

This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Allen & Unwin.
The Curse of Pietro Houdini: A Novel
by Derek B. Miller
a moving, sometimes blackly funny, and thought-provoking page-turner. (3/20/2024)
“The wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead spoke more of wear than years and I felt his presence to be dramatic and theatrical and magnetic: as though my eyes couldn’t help but fall on him and when they did—like being drawn to a performer under a spotlight onstage—I was unable to break away because of the promise of some inexplicable drama yet to come.”

The Curse of Pietro Houdini is the fourth stand-alone novel by award-winning American-born author, Derek B. Miller. It’s August, 1943, and the fourteen-year-old, determined to reach family in Naples after being orphaned by an Allied bomb dropped in Rome, is rescued from a beating at the foot of Montecassino by a man calling himself Pietro Houdini, with the same destination.

This “opinionated but charming polar bear with a big personality and a beautiful accent” somehow exudes trustworthiness, and seems to have a plan for the teen, who takes the name Massimo. They climb up to the Benedictine monastery founded in 529AD where Pietro identifies himself as the Vatican-endorsed Master of Art Restoration and Conservation from the University of Bologna, and declares Massimo his assistant. Massimo has been told his role is to ““Keep cleaning the brushes, especially if you hear someone coming. And listen to me talk. You don’t have to pay attention. There will be no test. But you must feign interest at all times.”

But as Maestro Houdini pretends to work on the frescos, and Massimo pretends to clean brushes while listening, around them the monks are negotiating with the Germans. Montecassino is, just then, one of the greatest repositories of culture on earth, a storehouse for treasure and history and art. And while Fridolin von Senger is assuring the Archabbot Gregorio Diamare that the monastery will remain neutral, safe from attack, Lieutenant Colonel Julius Schlegel is insisting that the irreplaceable artworks and manuscripts be loaded onto German trucks and taken to the Vatican for safe-keeping, just in case.

Brother Tobias, torn between St. Benedict’s admonition for silence and a peasant’s unstoppable need to gossip, shares the gist of the discussions with Pietro and Massimo. Pietro is unconvinced about the supposed sincerity of the Nazis: he believes that Truman Konig is shopping for Hitler, and that not all the loot will make it to Rome.

“It was hot and his body was perfectly still. His mind, I felt, was building a plan as big as a cathedral” Pietro hatches a scheme to deprive the Germans of a few pieces that will also serve an important personal purpose: his intentions aren’t wholly altruistic either. Keeping this under the radar takes a bit of cleverness with the monks’ meticulous inventory, and Massimo observes “Pietro’s actions seemed like those of an alchemist and his ramblings part of an incantation.” Everything done with flair.

Once their pieces of art are ready for travel, a few incidents delay their departure and, ultimately their sudden flight in the face of Allied bombs resembles a radical nativity scene that includes a wounded German soldier on a mule, a nurse, a monk, a fourteen-year-old, an Italian soldier, a flautist, and a limping art restorer. Pietro tells them “We will need to lie, cheat, steal, fight, kill, and sin our way to Naples. We will hold our own lives as precious above all others. We will trust no one but each other, and we will try and remember that in this country, at this time, there is no way to tell friend from foe.” Do they make it to some sort of safety?

Miller effortlessly evokes his era and setting, and his descriptive prose is marvellous: “Pietro Houdini had the sorted mind of a scientist but the spirit of a shaman who had seen too much and expected to see much more of it, a thinker and a storyteller and a liar who had as little reverence for the facts as P.T. Barnum. And yet, his dedication to truth—to God’s own truth, a truth Pietro claimed to know and I now believe he did—was bottomless.”

He gives his cast insightful observations: “My father was dismissive because he thought that things that don’t make sense don’t matter, when in fact they are the things that matter most” and “Secrets and lies are illusions and one must commit to the illusion if it is to work!” are examples. Based on certain actual events, Miller’s glimpse into war and its myriad effects is a moving, sometimes blackly funny, and thought-provoking page-turner.

This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Avid Reader Press/ Random House UK Transworld.
The Hunter: A Novel
by Tana French
Brilliant Irish crime fiction (3/12/2024)
After some two years fixing up his dilapidated house near Ardnakelty in the west of Ireland, ex-Chicago cop, Cal Hooper is settling in, happy with the contrast to city life: “being boring is among Cal’s main goals. For most of his life, one or more elements always insisted on being interesting, to the point where dullness took on an unattainable end-of-the-rainbow glow. Ever since he finally got his hands on it, he’s savoured every second.”

His renovation is coming along, the villagers seem to tolerate him, Lena Dunne regularly shares his bed, and Trey, now fifteen, is building her furniture-restoring skills under his watch. His discreet, low-key care has a positive effect on her academic performance and her social acuity. For Trey, Cal’s place has peace, while at home “Their mam is silent, but it’s not a silence with peace in it. It takes up space, like some heavy thing made of rusted iron built around her”

Then her four-year-absent father, Johnny Reddy turns up. Cal sizes him up: “a type he’s encountered before: the guy who operates by sauntering into a new place, announcing himself as whatever seems likely to come in handy, and seeing how much he can get out of that costume before it wears too thin to cover him up any longer.”

Johnny invites a select few farmers to hear about a scheme guaranteed to put money in their pockets: a wealthy Londoner they are soon referring to as a Plastic Paddy, who claims a connection to the village, has a tale from his granny of gold in the ground. The Reddy family’s poor reputation ensures that many start out sceptical, but meeting the very posh Cillian Rushborough convinces them they can pull it off.

The likelihood of actual gold being low, Cal is quickly convinced there’s more to it all than what Reddy is saying: just who is scamming whom?

“The main talent Cal has discovered in himself, since coming to Ardnakelty, is a broad and restful capacity for letting things be. At first this sat uneasily alongside his ingrained instinct to fix things, but over time they’ve fallen into a balance: he keeps the fixing instinct mainly turned towards solid objects, like his house and people’s furniture, and leaves other things the room to fix themselves.”

Against his usual instincts, Cal gets involved, if just to keep an eye on where things are going, to make sure there’s no backlash on Trey when things go pear-shaped, as they inevitably will.

Each processing events in their own way, Trey and Cal and Lena aren’t sharing all they know, out of misguided concern or uncertainty, each trying to protect or not worry the other. Each acts according to their own agenda, sometimes at crossed purposes. Trey sees the opportunity for a kind of justice she’s longed for to be served. And then, one of the new arrivals is murdered…

Once again, French provides a slow burn tale in which readers can immerse themselves in gorgeous descriptive prose such as: “the fields sprawl out, a mosaic of varying greens in oddangled shapes that Trey knows as well as the cracks on her bedroom ceiling” and “Summer air wanders in and out of the window, bringing the smells of silage and clover, picking up sawdust motes and twirling them idly in the wide bars of sunlight” and “This barely even feels like a conversation, just a series of stone walls and briar patches.”

Also: “The house got a fresh coat of butter-coloured paint and some patches to the roof a couple of years back, but nothing can paper over its air of exhaustion. Its spine sags, and the lines of the window frames splay off-kilter. The yard is weeds and dust, blurring into the mountainside at the edges”

The dialogue as written easily evokes the Irish brogue, while the banter is often blackly funny: at one stage, Cal is surprised to find himself engaged, and the pub scene is very entertaining. The quirky cast from the first book, including those smart and amusing rooks, still appeal, and the reader’s investment in the main protagonists is amply rewarded.

This instalment is cleverly plotted with enough turns in the story to keep the reader thoroughly intrigued. While this sequel can be read as a stand-alone, there are some spoilers for the first book, and why would one deny themselves the pleasure of reading that one first? Brilliant Irish crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK.
Exiles: Aaron Falk Mystery #3
by Jane Harper
another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction (2/26/2024)
Exiles is the third book in the Aaron Falk series by award-winning Australian journalist and author, Jane Harper. A year after he was meant to become godfather to Greg and Rita Raco’s baby son, Henry, Aaron Falk is returning to the Marralee Valley Annual Food And Wine Festival, the scene of a disappearance that postponed the baby’s christening.

On the first day of the Festival, a year earlier, thirty-nine-year-old Kim Gillespie went missing, leaving behind a husband, a teenaged daughter, and a six-week-old baby. Now, there’s an appeal from seventeen-year-old Zara, Kim’s husband Rohan and ex-boyfriend Charlie, to any who were present twelve months earlier, for even the most insignificant scrap of information that might help to reveal what happened to the beloved wife and mother.

As he and KIewarra cop Greg wander the venue before the appeal, Aaron gets a feel for who was where, including himself, although he is a little distracted by a potential encounter with a certain woman, as he was a year earlier. Many of those they speak to express regret at not having said or done something at the time while, strangely, those who knew Kim deny speaking to her on the evening she vanished.

While local sergeant, Rob Dwyer, absent at the time, along with others, wonder if Kim might have left voluntarily, Zara is convinced that her mother would never have chosen to leave her husband and daughters, and especially would never have left baby Zoe alone in the Festival’s pram bay. Some believe she may have drowned in the nearby reservoir, but Zara’s friend, Joel is certain that she did not come to the reservoir via the route where he was stationed.

Greg Raco shows Aaron the comprehensive file he has made on Kim’s disappearance, having quietly checked for himself the alibis of everyone who knew Kim, and feels in his gut that something is amiss, but what? He and Aaron walk the perimeter, suggest theories, but come up blank.

For young Joel, the Festival stirs different unhappy memories: his father, Dean, accountant for many Marralee businesses, was killed in a hit-and-run at a dangerous reservoir spot known as The Drop, six years earlier. The driver was never found. Aaron reluctantly agrees to look over footage of the scene.

Having chatted more than once to most people who knew Kim, Aaron is left wondering if this depressed woman ran away, took her own life in the reservoir, or if her fate was a more sinister one. It’s Greg Raco’s five-year-old daughter, Eva who finally, unwittingly, crystallizes the niggling thought that has danced in Aaron’s subconscious.

Harper effortlessly evokes the small Australian country town, and her characters are typical of those one might encounter there. Her clever plot has enough intrigue and distraction to keep the reader guessing right up to the final reveals. Falk’s inner monologue and his dialogue with various characters cement his appeal, and reinforce his integrity. This is another excellent example of Aussie Crime Fiction and, whether or not it features Aaron Falk, more from Jane Harper will be eagerly anticipated.
No One Is Talking About This
by Patricia Lockwood
not for everyone (2/8/2024)
No One Is Talking About This is a genre-defying book by American editor and author, Patricia Lockwood. Part One, which comprises over half the book, seems to be the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of an unnamed protagonist, a social media poster whose followers avidly latch onto “Can a dog be twins?”, and includes a generous helping of sips from social media, but it reads like the unedited, unarranged author’s notes for a work-in-progress. It is so disjointed that connecting with characters or events is difficult.

While there are plenty of pleasing turns of phrase and descriptive prose, and phrases like “Something in the back of her head hurt. It was her new class consciousness” may appeal to net-savvy millennials, to readers of the baby boomer generation it likely resembles pretentious drivel that lacks much substance.

Making sense of “The comforting thing about movies was that she could watch bodies that were not feeling they were bodies. Moving effortlessly through graveyards, even uphill, wearing clothing whose tags did not itch, there was never a stray hair caught in the lip gloss, the frictionlessness of bodies in heaven. Sliding over each other like transparencies, riding love as picturesquely as prairie horses, the sex scenes like blouses brushing against slacks in a closet, not feeling and not feeling all the things she would miss in the clear blue space” is a challenge.

Only that it is mercifully short may prompt readers of a certain vintage to reach part two, which actually has some substance, although by then, many will have lost interest, be resenting time spent, or become apathetic about the protagonist’s fate. This Man Booker prize and Womens' Prize for Fiction nominee is not for everyone.

1.5 stars
Once There Were Wolves
by Charlotte McConaghy
Moving and hopeful, this is a fascinating page-turner. (2/1/2024)
Once There Were Wolves is the second adult literary fiction novel by award-winning Australian author, Charlotte McConaghy. After an unconventional upbringing by parents who could not have been a more unlikely couple, twins Inti and Aggie Flynn are in Scotland. Inti, a biologist, is the leader of the Cairngorms Wolf Project, while Aggie is there because, after what happened in Alaska, the sisters are always together.

Even though the Scottish Parliament has approved the release of fourteen wolves into Cairngorms National Park, the local farmers, gamekeepers and hill walkers are all very resistant, all convinced that their livelihoods will be adversely affected, and either dubious or apathetic about the positive environmental effects the wolves will bring.

As Inti and her team observe, the wolves gradually leave the caged areas, begin mating, and a litter is produced. But the largest of the wolves is shot by a farmer, who claims he mistook it for a wild dog. The Chief Superintendent of the local police, Duncan MacTavish is treading a fine line, trying to keep the locals happy and uphold the law: the farmer is not charged.

But the attraction, the connection between Duncan and Inti, from the moment she helps him rescue a runaway mare, is electric. They succumb, but Inti also resists, not wanting the distraction from her work, or any involvement, and a good reason to resist would be Duncan’s ambivalence about the whole Wolf Project. Easier said than done.

Then a farmer dies, and his injuries might be due to a wolf attack: Inti doesn’t want to believe it. But if not a wolf, then who? Surely no one would kill a man just to see the wolves blamed? The victim, though, as well as showing how strongly opposed he was to the rewilding in several heated interactions with Inti, was more predator than prey, and others might have reason to want him gone.

Inti is an interesting character, passionate about wolves, strongly bonded to her twin, and afflicted with mirror-touch synaesthesia, an unusual condition that cause her to feel what she sees. Her passion results from time spent with their naturalist father, while her police detective mother’s exhortations to “toughen up” likely contributed to her later attitude and actions.

Flashbacks in Inti’s narrative gradually reveal what occurred to alter the twins: Aggie, strong and fierce, a leader and protector, eventually a linguistics teacher; Inti, living by her father’s code, all care and kindness, much in Aggie’s shadow; until they almost reverse roles, with Aggie mute and crippled by agoraphobia, a shadow to Inti, now angry and impulsive. “I think most of me got left behind in Dad’s forest. And now I’m all the things I hate.”

As well as including a wealth of information about wolves, McConaghy’s story also features quite a few toxic males, and their opposites. The murder-mystery element has enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing right up to the final reveal. Moving and hopeful, this is a fascinating page-turner.
The Mystery Writer: A Novel
by Sulari Gentill
Another page-turner! (1/18/2024)
The Mystery Writer is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling Australian author, Sulari Gentill. When Theodosia Benton arrives at her older brother, Gus’s home in Lawrence, Kansas, having abandoned her law course in Canberra, she’s not sure of the reception she’ll get. But Gus doesn’t let her down: he’s thoroughly understanding and happy for her to stay.

They will, together, decide what and when to tell their feral parents but, meanwhile, Theo finds Benders Bar/Café, an accommodating and friendly spot where she can pursue her dream: to write a novel. She’s not the only writer taking advantage of the indulgent staff, and eventually she and Dan begin chatting about writing, with the older man offering much appreciated feedback and advice.

Only after some months does she learn that Dan Murdoch is an internationally acclaimed bestselling author, and the attractive, expensively-tailored woman who occasionally joins him is his agent with the coveted Day, Delos and Associates. Just as her manuscript is nearing completion, their mentor/mentee relationship takes a turn, one Theo cautiously welcomes, but which is unfortunately short-lived.

That Gus Benton is a junior partner in a respected law firm when Theo finds Dan is his kitchen with his throat slashed is fortunate for her, but less so for him. His partners are none too pleased with the publicity that results when Theo seems to be the only suspect on whom the police are focussing. When Gus’s house is besieged by press and Dan Murdoch fans, they are lucky to have a bolt hole with a friend.

An unexpected development after Dan’s death is the approach by his agent, who tells her that Day, Delos & Associates is interested in Theo’s novel. Veronica Cole explains their exclusivity requirements, should Theo sign with them, and Theo is a little taken aback by the level of control they insist on having. Is a writer not entitled to a private life?

Theo later observes: “The public’s interest in the lives of writers had increased with the accessibly afforded by social media and the web in general, but that very accessibility was dangerous. Online friendship was a fickle thing. Loose comments, failed jokes, or simple flares of temper could unleash a contagion of outrage and condemnation. It was no longer enough to write a good book; authors had to be photogenic, witty saints as well.”

While she remains under suspicion, and the whereabouts of Dan’s last manuscript are a mystery, and the killer remains at large, a flash of inspiration has Theo planning out a new novel, the concept of which she shares with a select few, something that might later turn out to be very important.

Several chapters are prefaced by the observations of a doomsday prepper, or comments on a forum that seem to come from conspiracy theorists, and Theo’s later close encounters with some of them are rather alarming. Before matters are finally, and very satisfactorily, resolved, Theo is stalked, there are two more murders, Theo, Gus and his friend are interrogated multiple times, evidence is planted, and there’s a police shooting that ends quite badly for one of them.

Once again, Gentill gives the reader a cleverly plotted tale with some excellent twists before the final reveal. Her characters have depth and appeal, and several aspects of her protagonist give this novel somewhat of an autobiographical feel. Another page-turner!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press.
Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel
by Bonnie Garmus
Funny, moving and thought-provoking, this is a brilliant debut. (12/13/2023)
“… here she was, a single mother, the lead scientist on what had to be the most unscientific experiment of all time: the raising of another human being. Every day she found parenthood like taking a test for which she had not studied. The questions were daunting and there wasn’t nearly enough multiple choice.”

Lessons in Chemistry is the first novel by American copywriter, creative director, and author, Bonnie Garmus. Elizabeth Zott is a chemist. While she’d much prefer to be working on her research in a lab, she’s presenting a cooking show on TV. It’s 1962, she has a daughter to support, and TV pays better. It’s not at all where she thought she’d be, ten years earlier…
In 1952, Elizabeth has already been thrown out of the doctoral program at UCLA when she rejects the advances of her thesis advisor with a freshly-sharpened number-two pencil, and ends up at the Hastings Research Institute under the supervision of the equally misogynistic and insecure Dr Donatti.

The star scientist at Hastings is Nobel-Prize-nominated Calvin Evans, who boasts a well-equipped lab all to himself. Elizabeth needs beakers, helps herself to his, and gets rapped over the knuckles for disturbing the poster boy. But Calvin is quickly entranced by this beautiful woman who clearly has a brain, and uses it. Each pretends it’s a relationship based on mutual scientific interests until they succumb to the immediate irresistible pull of physical attraction. They have chemistry.

But. Elzabeth Zott is a chemist, and she wants to do, and be recognised for, her own research, not ride on the coattails of her talented boyfriend. “Elizabeth’s grudges were mainly reserved for the patriarchal society founded on the idea that women were less. Less capable. Less intelligent. Less inventive. A society that believed men went to work and did important things – discovered planets, developed products, created laws – and women stayed home and raised children… she also knew that plenty of women did want children and a career. And what was wrong with that? Nothing. It was exactly what men got.” All that she encounters is obstacles.

Four years on, Elizabeth is a single mother starring in the most unconventional cooking show that American TV has ever seen and, despite lots of (male) objections, she has a devout following. What makes many of the men in charge uncomfortable are her freely-shared frank opinions and her encouragement of women wanting to follow their dreams.

Garmus tells her story through multiple narrators, one of whom is Elizabeth’s clever dog, Six-Thirty, and she often gives them wise words and insightful observations. While her description of sexual harassment may be confronting for some readers, Garmus also manages to include a few scenes that will bring a lump to the throat, and a generous amount of humour, some of it quite black, much of it laugh-out-loud.

Her depiction of the late fifties and early sixties will definitely resonate with readers of a certain vintage, who may have experienced similar: “With the exception of a select few, she only ever seemed to bring out the worst in men. They either wanted to control her, touch her, dominate her, silence her, correct her, or tell her what to do. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just treat her as a fellow human being, as a colleague, a friend, an equal, or even a stranger on the street, someone to whom one is automatically respectful until you find out they’ve buried a bunch of bodies in the backyard.” Funny, moving and thought-provoking, this is a brilliant debut.
Tom Lake: A Novel
by Ann Patchett
quite possibly the best novel of 2023. (11/20/2023)
Tom Lake is the ninth novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Ann Patchett. As the world turns upside down with a pandemic, Lara’s three daughters come home to their Michigan orchard to help with picking when their many regular pickers cannot. In their early- to mid-twenties, Emily, Maisie and Nell are picking the sweet cherries that urgently need to be harvested. And as they work, they insist that Lara tells the full version of a story they’ve heard before, one that features star of stage and screen, Peter Duke.

When she was sixteen, Lara (then Laura) Kenison was helping with auditions for the play her small New Hampshire town was putting on, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Without any acting ambition of her own, by the time she had listened to numerous young women making a poor job of Emily Webb, Laura, stage name now Lara, decided she could do better. And it turned out to be so. She had a real knack for the role. A reprise of the role in college, where a Hollywood director spotted her, and she was suddenly in a movie.

Eventually, she’s once again playing Emily for the summer stock theatre season in Tom Lake, Michigan, where an unknown, but very attractive young actor is playing Emily’s father, Editor Webb. The chemistry between them is instant, and neither holds back.

Lara’s account of what happened at Tom Lake that summer is interrupted by questions, comments, exclamations and criticisms from her three quite different daughters and, very occasionally, a contribution from their father.

Not every intimate detail is shared; some of the things Lara recalls, she keeps to herself, but: “I look at my girls, my brilliant young women. I want them to think I was better than I was, and I want to tell them the truth in case the truth will be useful. These two desires do not neatly coexist, but this is where we are in the story.”

Patchett evokes her era and setting with consummate ease. Her characters spring to life and stir a myriad of emotions. Her descriptive prose is wonderful: “She could get more information across with an eyebrow than other people could with a microphone… her thoughts passed across her forehead like a tickertape” and her turn of phrase marvelous: “… It’s the weight of the past that’s pinned us there…”. And no reader could ask for a better plot. This is quite possibly the best novel of 2023.
The Secret Hours
by Mick Herron
Topical, funny and very clever. (11/4/2023)
The Secret Hours is a stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling British author, Mick Herron. When the government initiates its inquiry into historical overreaching by the intelligence services, First Desk is dismissive with her PA about its impact, but is nonetheless making contingency plans. One of the civil service staff seconded as secretary to the inquiry believes it will be a launchpad for his career; the other is under no such illusion. First Desk leaves them in no doubt that access to files will be extremely challenging.

Two years on, by day 371 and after 136 witnesses, secretary second chair, Malcolm Kyle is fully resigned to the knowledge that Monochrome, fed only volunteered information from the public, is “a toothless committee, which has wasted all these months chewing empty mouthfuls”, when a highly classified file appears in his shopping trolley, a file concerning something that happened in Berlin in 1994. The right thing to do is to send it back to Regents Park, but he and Griselda Fleet, secretary first chair, are just disgruntled enough to put the file before the committee. On whose behalf they are poking this sleeping tiger remains a guessing game.

After two decades in his cottage in North Devon, Max Janacek is almost exactly what he pretends to be, a retired academic. When he disarms the woman breaking into his kitchen, and narrowly escapes her associates, he knows his cover has been blown, but by whom, and why? Certainly not the Park, and the inept effort rules out other intelligence services. And living under the radar all this time means the why must relate to his past.

In early 1994, a smart young civil service officer going under the name of Alison North was sent to Berlin, supposedly a routine secondment, but tasked by David Cartwright with covertly observing the activities of the 2IC in the Berlin Station house, Brinsley Miles. With barely nine months’ experience at the Park, Alison was unlikely to uncover anything that might taint a seasoned former joe like Miles. And yet…

While not a Slough House book, fans of the series must read this one, it has important back story on several key characters and will surely be relevant in the next book of the series. The story behind a certain photograph that features in Herron's short story, Standing By The Wall is revealed, and the transcripts of Monochrome sessions, all boring and irrelevant, demonstrate that Herron has a firm grasp on how British government bureaucracy really works.

It takes but a few lines to conclude that First Desk is still Diana Taverner. It is eventually clear just who Alison North is, and even if he is never mentioned by that name, the guy with the mysteriously appearing cigarette who punctuates his speech with farts and tells off colour jokes could be none other than Jackson Lamb, a deduction reinforced by “This monster hasn’t the manners of a zoo-bred warthog. Though he does have the looks and the charm, as you’ve doubtless discovered already” and “Miles can be abrasive. A bit of a foul-mouthed pig. He was trying this identity on for a joke once, and the wind changed, so he stayed like that.”

Herron’s tightly-plotted tale features political machinations around privatisation, a Regent’s Park mole, an executed asset, betrayals, blackmail and a trap to catch a murderer. As always, he gives the reader plenty of dark humour, some marvellous turns of phrase and a very satisfying conclusion. Topical, funny and very clever.
The Caretaker: A Novel
by Ron Rash
beautifully-written, brilliantly-plotted historical fiction (11/2/2023)
The Caretaker is the eighth novel by award-winning, best-selling American poet and author, Ron Rash. The loss of two infant daughters made Cora Hampton overprotective of her only son, Jacob, when he finally came. Cora and Daniel Hampton were people of wealth and influence in Laurel Fork, Watauga County, North Carolina. Daniel inherited the timber mill and together they bought the General Store, but folk said they were hard-working and decent, often helping those worse off.

But Jacob was heartily sick of the way they controlled his life: when he fell for sixteen-year-old Naomi Clarke outside the Yonahlossee cinema in Blowing Rock, and his parents disapproved, they eloped. Daniel’s threat to disinherit his son if they didn’t annul their marriage had no effect. Soon enough, they were proving they could make their own way.

When Jacob was conscripted to fight in Korea, he hoped that the prospect of a grandchild, the baby Naomi was expecting in May, would soften his father’s stance, but was disappointed. Risking his life in Korea was all Naomi’s fault: had he stayed in college, he would have been exempt, Daniel declared. So Jacob turned to his best friend, Blackburn.

Blackburn Gant had been the caretaker at the town’s cemetery since he was sixteen, a job that suited a man with a facial disfigurement that made people uncomfortable. He took good care of Naomi: chores, maintenance of the farmhouse, and company. Then, a certain nasty incident in town, the day before she went home to her Daddy’s farm near Pulaski, Tennessee. But he continued to visit, driving seven hours each way to bring gifts and chat.

The plan that Cora had for her son didn’t include his marrying a poor, uneducated hotel maid, so when the news came by telegram to Laurel Fork that Jacob had been seriously injured and would come home in early June, Cora saw it as an opportunity to bring her beloved son back to the fold. She hatched an audacious plan that relied on Hampton money and influence, threats, blackmail, and quite a number of lies. “There were so many lies to keep straight and more would come. Like a long line of boxcars on a steep grade, just one unhitched could cause disaster.”

Much more can’t be said without spoilers, but Cora’s scheme will have readers’ jaws dropping; it would never work in today’s ultra-connected world but, set in 1951, it requires no suspension of disbelief. Even though some breathtakingly nasty stuff happens, Rash doesn’t populate his novel with evil villains, just ordinary, flawed humans living their lives.

His characters observe: “Learning people were so much more than you thought, wasn’t that also part of no longer being a child?” and “But to love a person enough that you’d want them to love someone else instead of you . . . that’s hard.”
“Maybe it ain’t about having to make a choice which person you love,” Blackburn said. “Maybe a heart’s big enough to hold both.”

Rash challenges his characters realistically, but also gives some of them the insight and wisdom and steadfastness to meet what they must. Blackburn, he especially tests with a strong temptation: does he yield, or does he remain a true friend?

As his fans have come to expect, Rash gives the reader some gorgeous descriptive prose: “This time of day everything grew still, as if the world was holding its breath until the night fell” and “the fog began to unscarf itself” are examples. This is beautifully-written, brilliantly-plotted historical fiction: highly recommended.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Canongate books.
One Last Kill: Tracy Crosswhite Series #10
by Robert Dugoni
Addictive crime fiction. (9/27/2023)
One Last Kill is the tenth book in the Tracy Crosswhite series by best-selling award-winning American author, Robert Dugoni. When Seattle PD’s corrupt Chief of Police, Marcella Weber sets Cold Case detective Tracy Crosswhite the task of solving a twenty-five-year-old serial killer case, Tracy knows it’s a political move: if she solves it, her Captain, Johnny Nolasco will get the credit; if she fails, it will underline the need for the city to inject more funds into the Police Department.

Back in 1993, Johnny Nolasco headed a task force trying to solve the Route 99 killings: thirteen women who were strangled, had a symbol carved into their backs, then dumped. The first nine were of lower socio-economic status; the last four were middleclass wives and mothers who worked for the City. When the killer stopped, in 1995, the task force was no closer to finding the perpetrator.

And while Vic Fazzio was part of that task force, Tracy is forced to work with her least favourite colleague, Johnny Nolasco, who is immediately resentful of having his performance questioned, and is less than forthcoming with what he knows.

And publicising Tracy’s role the way Chief Weber has? Several people believe that will push the killer to having another go, to prove his superiority. As well as asking the advice of an FBI profiler, Tracy’s lateral thinking leads her to seek out the insights of another serial killer. And whether the initial victims were practice runs, she can’t know, but concentrating on what the final four have in common makes the most sense.

Then one of the original suspects is detained for attempting to strangle a hooker. Will his DNA, after twenty-five years, confirm that he is the killer?

In this instalment, Tracy’s close work with her nemesis reveals that perhaps Nolasco is human under his reptile skin. Hungry for favourable publicity, their Chief of Police jumps the gun against Tracy’s better instincts, to their later cost. There are red herrings and distractions that keep most readers guessing up to the final reveal, a reveal that might need the donning of disbelief suspenders. The resolution, though, not at all neatly tied up in a bow, is realistic. Addictive crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas and Mercer.
Horse: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
A wonderful novel that is probably her best yet. (8/6/2023)
“Jarret wondered how it could be possible to have so much, just from gambling on cards and horses. If a man could win all this, then maybe he could lose it. What if he decided to wager Lexington away, or the two of them? They were his property, just like the barn.”

Horse is the sixth novel by Pulitzer prize-winning Australian author, Geraldine Brooks. In 1850, in Lexington, Kentucky, Warfield’s Jarret, son of talented Black horse trainer Harry Lewis, is present for the birth of a foal destined to become the nineteenth Century’s most remarkable racehorse and the greatest thoroughbred stud sire in racing history: Lexington.

In 1852, freelance journalist and artist, Thomas J. Scott witnesses the closeness of the pair when he is there to capture the horse in oils.

In 2019, aspiring art historian and freelance writer Theo Northam is in Washington DC working on a thesis about the representation of black people in nineteenth Century art when he stumbles on a dingy painting of a bay colt in a junk pile. He takes advantage of a Smithsonian contact to have the painting identified and evaluated at their Conservation Institute.

Australian manager of the vertebrate Osteology Prep Lab at the Smithsonian Museum Support Centre, Jess encounters Theo when she tries to find out more about the nineteenth Century equine skeleton kept for many years in a dusty museum attic, located at the request of a British researcher studying equine anatomy.

In 1954, Manhattan gallery owner Martha Jackson is offered a painting that markedly departs from the usual style of her acquisitions, but her generally quiescent sentimental bone twinges, and she adds the painting to her private collection.

How these characters are linked is the basis of an enthralling tale that serves as a tribute to horses and art, and those who love and care for both. But the reader doesn’t have to be a fan of horses or racing or art to be utterly captivated.

Told over three timelines by five main narrators, this story gives the reader a wholly credible collision of reality and imagination, interweaving fact with fiction, all of it rich in historical detail. a marvelously diverse cast of real people and fictional characters. Brooks gives them depth and appeal, wise words and insightful observations. And she does it all with some gorgeous descriptive prose.

“Jarret learned the unfamiliar names: the burnt sienna that he’d thought of as mere brown, the French ultramarine that he’d known simply as blue. But blue wasn’t so simple to Scott. He had Prussian blue, cerulean, cobalt, teal, navy. So many complicated words for a simple thing. Jarret knew the names for horse colors— bay, blood bay, buckskin, dun, roan— but now it seemed like every other thing was just as various if you troubled to look at it closely.”

“It wasn’t a good idea to speak without putting a deal of thought into it. Words could be snares. Less of them you laid out there, less likely they could trap you up.”

While the focus is on the horse and the people around him, Brooks also touches on racism in all its extremes: slavery, the shooting of unarmed black people, and the insidious everyday racism that occurs due to privilege or ignorance. The ingrained cruelty of modern-day horseracing, especially to those horses that fail to make the grade, is also touched on.

Her meticulous research into horses, art, and racism is apparent on every page and it is heartening to see that she has incorporated her late husband’s love of Civil War history into the story. A wonderful novel that is probably her best yet.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK.
The Collected Regrets of Clover: A Novel
by Mikki Brammer
a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting debut novel (7/9/2023)
The Collected Regrets Of Clover is the first novel by Australian-born author, Mikki Brammer. As a New York City death doula, thirty-six-year-old Clover Brooks has held a lot of dying hands; she’s listened to a lot of last words and, as a mark of respect, noted down regrets, advice and confessions.

Her kindergarten teacher, Mr Hyland was the first dying hand she held. She was interested more than upset. When she was six, her parents’ accidental death in China put her in the care of her grandfather, Patrick. Having been absent for much of his own daughter’s childhood, he took the chance to get it right with Clover, raising her to be have a strong moral compass and developing her observational skills.

It’s an unusual vocation to have and, to avoid negative reactions, she doesn’t tend to broadcast it: most people are uncomfortable talking about death. Patrick’s death, alone, while Clover was overseas, was the impetus for this choice: if Clover can prevent others dying alone, she will. Her referrals come from social workers and hospital staff.

She sees her role as being present, listening, not turning away from the painful aspects of dying. It means helping someone die with dignity and peace. Sometimes it’s just about them not being alone or helping them get their affairs in order before they go. Other times it’s about helping them reflect back on their lives and work through any unresolved issues.

She doesn’t try to make them focus on all the positive things about their life— all the things they should be grateful for; it isn’t her job to help them gloss over that reality if they don’t want to; it is to sit with them, listen, and bear witness.

Clover lives with her dog and two cats and, in between clients, doesn’t really have a social life. Raised by an introverted grandfather and with a few negative relationship experiences, Clover is wary: “Observing the world, rather than engaging with it, meant I didn’t have to invest emotionally. If I never got close to anyone, they couldn’t leave me. Or it wouldn’t hurt if they did.” Her only real friend is her elegant, elderly Black neighbour in their West Village apartment block, Leo. When a young woman, Sylvie moves into a vacant apartment, she seems intent on friendship with Clover: is it worth taking a chance?

She regularly frequents one of the numerous death cafes in New York: an idea had developed by a Swiss sociologist named Bernard Crettaz as a way of normalizing conversations around death. It’s at the Public Library death café that she first encounters Sebastian Wells, whose grandmother is dying. She’s not entirely convinced he’s genuine, to start with, wondering if he’s a predator scamming vulnerable people.

But eventually, she agrees to keep his grandmother, former photojournalist, Claudia Wells, company as she lives her last weeks and days. Claudia is an interesting and fiesty woman whose one regret involves a certain young man she met in Corsica shortly before she married.

It seems that Sebastian might be interested in more than a professional relationship but, lacking instinct and experience, she wonders how to tell if this time it might work out OK. Driving seven hours to Maine with Sebastian to possibly track down Claudia’s past lover gives Clover mixed messages about their potential compatibility…

What a fascinating topic Brammer has chosen for her tale, not a comfortable one for all readers, but definitely worth exploring. Her characters are complex and appealing for all their very human flaws and foibles, and she gives them wise words and insightful observations: “The secret to a beautiful death is living a beautiful life” and “Don’t let the best parts of life pass you by because you’re too scared of the unknown. Be cautiously reckless” are examples.

This is a moving, thought-provoking and uplifting debut novel and more from Brammer is eagerly anticipated.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin General/Viking
The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece: A novel
by Tom Hanks
more than one string to his bow. (7/6/2023)
The Making Of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece is the first novel by award-winning American actor, film-maker and author, Tom Hanks. There are no prizes for guessing what the book is about. Freelance journalist and reviewer, Joe Shaw is invited by successful writer/director Bill Johnson to watch the process of a movie being made. He’s so enthralled, he decides to write a book.

Back in the post-war years, former WW2 marine, Bob Falls is the inspiration for his nephew, Robby Andersen’s comic about a flame thrower who saves his platoon from annihilation by the Japanese. Meanwhile, aspiring screenwriter Bill Johnson sends a script to agent Fred Schiller who teaches him how to polish his work to movie standard. Turns out they have a hit on their hands.

Many hit movies (and one flop) later, we watch Bill’s writing routine, and learn from what he draws inspiration, this time, a heroine who can’t sleep, one of the Ultra in Dynamo’s Agents Of Change series, and a flame-throwing ex-marine, from an old Kool Katz Komix comic. His interactions with his highly efficient Production Assistant, Al Mac-Teer set her on a path to find out who owns the rights. Eventually, Dynamo studios and the Hawkeye streaming service are collaborating with Bill to produce another Agents Of Change movie for streaming.

By the time the first days of filming are described, the massive coordination effort involved to bring it in on time and on budget will grip the reader as they follow the antics of the self-absorbed knucklehead who has scored the male lead role. His pretentiousness indicates that he clearly isn’t on the same page as the rest of them: Bill, his talented leading lady, Wren Lane the support actors and the crew. Do they let this guy derail the whole thing?

For each significant character, Hanks provides vignettes – if a vignette can be this detailed – giving each of them backstories and describing how they become part of the movie. By the end of 417 pages, you love each and every one, and wish you could spend more time with them.

Peppered throughout are interesting, informative, and often amusing footnotes, and illustrator R. Sikoryak provides three examples of Robby Anderson’s comics, two in full colour. “Interviews” with various cast and crew members add another perspective.

It must be obvious from the long list of credits at the end of each movie just how many people are involved in such an endeavour, but Hanks brings their roles to life, and demonstrates just how important each one’s contribution is. Hanks proves, once again, that he has more than one string to his bow.
Her Deadly Game
by Robert Dugoni
Another excellent read from the master of the legal thriller. (3/16/2023)
Her Deadly Game is a stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, Robert Dugoni. When Keera Duggan takes on the LaRussa murder case, she’s only been with the family firm, Patrick Duggan & Associates for a year, and she’s never defended a murder case. But she’s the daughter of Patsy Duggan, the Irish Brawler, and no one should underestimate her, especially not her narcissistic, controlling ex, Prosecuting Attorney Miller Ambrose. He’s vindictive, but she vows that he’s not satisfying his grudge in this trial.

Wealth management multi-millionaire, Vincent LaRussa claims he came home on a June Sunday night from a charity do to find his wife, Anne, shot in the back of the head as she sat in the kitchen in her wheelchair. The ghost gun is on the floor beside her. SPD Detective Frank Rossi leads the case, and tries to keep an open mind, but Ambrose has already decided the husband did it and, even if he has to play dirty, he’ll prove it.

There are lots of little unexplained things at the scene, baffling bits of trace that seem to turn the whole thing into a riddle. Anne had two visitors before Vince returned home and, on that sweltering June night, the air-con had been turned off.

Each piece of information that Keera’s investigator turns up adds another wrinkle to an already puzzling case, and to complicate matters further, Keera is receiving anonymous emails that point her to bits of LaRussa’s history, facts that don’t put him in too favourable a light.

Then there is the allegation of infidelity, and a punishing pre-nup. Is Vince a devoted husband? Or is he a lying, cheating psychopath? Did Anne’s best friend and doctor cheat with Vince? Who else might have a motive to kill Anne LaRussa?

As well as the pressure from the PA, Keera knows she needs to win this one for the sake of the family law firm, suffering her ageing alcoholic father’s reduced performance.

Set in Seattle, there is some intersection with characters from the Tracy Crosswhite series, and Dugoni sets his story against the background of Keera’s online chess game, the tactics of which may appeal to players, and parallel the court case strategies. There are plenty of twists and red herrings, and the astute reader will keep in the back of their mind an unsolved earlier case. Another excellent read from the master of the legal thriller.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer.
Dear Mrs. Bird: A Novel
by AJ Pearce
outstanding debut novel (3/4/2023)
Dear Mrs Bird is the first book in the Emmy Lake Chronicles series. A slightly vague job advertisement and a desperate desire to be a journalist: these are what lead twenty-two-year-old Emmeline Lake to quit her position with Strawman’s Solicitors and sign on as a Junior typist for Launceston Press. All her family and friends are excited for her: it’s a dream come true.

On her first work day in January 1941, she’s thoroughly disheartened when she realises that she will be typing out letters for an advice column in The Woman’s Friend, an old-fashioned weekly magazine apparently on its last legs, rather than fast-tracking to becoming a Lady War Correspondent for The Evening Chronicle.

Worse still, the acting editress, Mrs Henrietta Bird was, decades ago, the most loved advice writer in the press, but sees no reason to update her outlook or advice. She absolutely refuses to read or reply to anything Unpleasant, and Emmy is given a long list of Unacceptable topics, whose letters must be cut up and binned.

Those Unacceptable letters, though. Women who have made poor decisions, or been unlucky, or just aren’t sure what to do. Often the war had exacerbated their problems. Emmy agonises over them: surely these people deserve someone to care about their problems and help them?

She knows she probably doesn’t have the life experience to help some of them. Eventually, though, she can’t ignore them any longer, and risks her job to write personal replies. And then she takes it one step further, not reckoning on readers familiarity with Mrs Bird’s attitude.

Daily life goes on around Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, whose grandmother allows them to live in her London house while she stays safely in Little Whitfield. Engagements are broken and made, heartbreak and romance continue.

But with a war on, rationing and air raids are part of life, along with sweethearts stationed far away and volunteer night shifts at the fire station. News of those lost at the front or in air raids can make it hard to stay upbeat. And then the worst happens…

In this outstanding debut novel, Pearce easily captures her era and setting, her characters are endearing for all their very human flaws, and the plot is realistic. A dose of historical fiction that is funny and moving. The sequels, Yours, Cheerfully and Mrs Porter Calling, are eagerly anticipated.
Killers of a Certain Age
by Deanna Raybourn
a very entertaining read, (3/2/2023)
“’I wasn’t expecting that. I should have stretched first.’ The truth was, it had been some time since I’d wrapped myself like a pretzel around someone I was trying to kill, to say nothing of choking someone out. It’s more a matter of leverage than brute strength, but you always feel it in your biceps and traps as soon as you’re finished if you’ve done it right.”

Killers Of A Certain Age is the first contemporary novel by best-selling American author, Deanna Raybourn. After forty years as highly-trained assassins, Billie Webster and the three other women who make up Project Sphinx surely deserve the Caribbean Cruise they’ve been given on their retirement from The Museum, an extra-governmental organisation targeting Nazis, drug dealers, sex traffickers and other nasty types.

But while she has turned sixty, Billie hasn’t lost an ounce of her training, so she instantly spots the assassin. She and her friends quickly act to learn who his target is (them!!), then efficiently neutralise him. Shock that they are being taken out after their loyal service only galvanises their actions: they ensure that innocent souls will not be lost and make their way to safety. The aftermath includes a rather large explosion.

“For all our experience, we were used to the luxury of an entire organization at our disposal, ready to pluck us out of the field if we were in danger, prepared to clean up our messes, remove us from the line of fire. For the first time in forty years, we were on our own.”

Putting their talents and resources to good use, the four make it to Billie’s New Orleans safe house where they regroup and then work out what next. Learning the why of it is a priority; they contact one person they believe they can trust, only to soon find out they can’t. But they do find out that there’s a bounty on their heads. Quite why takes some more investigation, and they quickly realise that running and hiding is not really an option: they have to fight back.

It's truly enjoyable to watch these women being underestimated, both as old and as women, and then robustly proving that neither is a valid reason. This is a novel that will especially appeal to readers of a certain vintage, who will be pleased to see that these older women still have it, in spades, thank you very much! And the twist is excellent.

Any novel that starts with “AUTHOR’S NOTE Some of the dates are misleading; some of the names are lies. I’m not trying to protect the innocent. I’m trying to protect the guilty. You’ll understand soon enough” promises a very entertaining read, and Deanna Raybourn certainly delivers.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton.
Old God's Time: A Novel
by Sebastian Barry
a beautifully written, intensely affecting read. (2/23/2023)
Old God’s Time is a stand-alone novel by award-winning Irish author, Sebastian Barry. Now nine months retired after forty years in the Gardai, Tom Kettle lives in the Annex Flat of Queenstown Castle on Dalkey Island. His existence is fairly solitary, frugal and uncomplicated. He sees his landlord, wealthy Mr Tomelty, weeding the garden, and sometimes catches sight of the boy who lives with his actress mother in the Turret Flat, or hears the cellist in the Drawing Room Flat shooting at cormorants from his balcony.

But on a storm-threatening February afternoon, Gardai Wilson and O’Casey come wanting the former Detective Sergeant’s input on their latest case, a difficult and sensitive matter: a priest whose previous molestation case had been quashed by the higher-ups, now to be prosecuted. What they want to know about stirs all sorts of memories Tom would rather not think about.

“Yes, he had grown to love this interesting inactivity and privacy – perhaps too much, he thought, and duty still lurked in him. The shaky imperative of forty years in the police, despite everything.”

Then a special request from his former CO, Detective Superintendent Jake Fleming brings him in to Harcourt Street. He’s asked to share what he recalls of the investigation that he and his meticulous colleague, Billy Drury carried out into a pair of priests in the early eighties. He relates how frustrating it was that the evidence provided by Scotland Yard was passed, on order of the Chief Commissioner, to the Archbishop to handle, with the expected non-result.

Mention is made of what they believe to be a spurious accusation by the priest now under charges, about the murder of his priestly colleague, not long after the detectives investigation. The memories that dredges up, Tom would also wish to avoid. Now a decade widowed, Tom is thrust into memories of meeting his wife, and the confessions, made to each other, of their awful childhoods in Catholic-run orphanages, revelations that bonded them.

It eventually becomes clear that Tom might not be the most reliable of narrators: some of what he relates is definitely imagined. As people, places and conversations trigger long-repressed memories, Tom’s thoughts gradually reveal the truth of events, of a crime unsolved, and the reasons this good man is now utterly alone in a tiny flat surrounded by books still in boxes. “A sort of blossoming sense of relief maybe, that the wretched Fates had done with him. Had noticed his great happiness long ago, and emblem by emblem taken it away from him.”

This story is very much a slow burn: Barry indulges in digressions and tangents that sometimes seem to be unrelated but all add to the rich tapestry of the lives he is describing. In a story that powerfully demonstrates the devastating effect, on so many lives, of the Church’s systemic cover-up of abuse by those entrusted with the care of children, and the power of the Catholic Church, even into high levels of the legal system, over Irish society, Barry gives Tom one final, dramatic act to save a child from that danger.

As always, Barry’s descriptive prose, be it applied to characters or setting, is exquisite: “O’Casey, a long thin person, with that severe leanness that probably made all his clothes look too big on him, to the despair of his wife, if he had one” and “The sunlight stuck its million pins into the pollocky sea, the whole expanse sparked, and sparkled, as if on the very verge of a true conflagration” and “he found he couldn’t tidy his frazzled mind” are just a few examples. This is a beautifully written, intensely affecting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Faber & Faber

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