Book Review: Summer of the Dead

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Summer of the Dead, by Julia Keller, is a crime thriller set in small town West Virginia during a stifling summer. The backdrop of poverty and a socially stunted community mingle with descriptions of oppressive heat to create a claustrophobic tension as a series of murders unfold. Few clues are left for the forces of law and order to investigate. Everyone it seems has a criminal record, a drug problem or unsavoury family secrets that are suspected but rarely discussed. This is a place where residents expect few favours, each looking out for their own, raised to keep thoughts and feelings to themselves.

The protagonist is a prosecuting attorney with her own damaged past. Raised locally she understands the people she is dealing with and works hard to follow the rules that justice may be served. I did wonder about the repercussions when she failed in this endeavour, but the potential fallout for herself and the cases she was working on were barely touched upon.

In many ways the progression of the story reminded me of television crime shows: the slow build up; improbable fight scene; subsequent reveal of who was who, their relationships to each other, and why they acted as they did. As a crime novel it was easy to read. It offered false leads, twists, turns and surprises along the way. The book is atmospheric and nicely written. What I felt it lacked was depth and, at times, plausibility. I guess a work of fiction does not always have to be real.

Neither does every book written have to be a literary masterpiece. I found it difficult to empathise with the characters but I could appreciate the structure and pace of the developing plot. At times I had to check back to remind myself who was who, but I always wanted to know what happened next.

I would recommend this book to fans of compelling, gritty, crime dramas. This is the third book in a series. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I preceded it with episodes one and two.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

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Book Review: The Weight of Blood

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Edmund Burke)

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The Weight of Blood, by Laura McHugh, was a pleasure to read from start to finish. This is not to say that the subject matter was pleasurable. Many of the plot lines dealt with situations that, although all may be aware happen, are easier to ignore. It was a small town society’s willingness to do this that was explored in excoriating detail.

The story is told over two time periods, with each chapter progressing through a different character’s perspective until the tales merge for the satisfying, if grim, denouement. Events kick off when a stranger arrives in a remote town that copes with transient tourists but will not welcome incomers who wish to stay. This antipathy enables the grisly events that unfold, and it soon becomes clear that protecting established families counts more than obeying the law.

The book lays bare the damage that can be caused when human weaknesses are normalised, accepted or simply overlooked for the sake of maintaining the status quo. With limited expectations for their future, the residents see as inevitable that men will act as they wish, and that it is easier to look the other way. When accidents happen they are cleaned up, gossiped over but rarely investigated. Truth is not something that is to be faced if it will cause trouble for those who must continue to live alongside the perpetrators. Asking too many questions is discouraged for fear of the fallout.

Into this web emerges a young girl, born and raised in the heart of the town, who has lost her friend and her mother in circumstances that nobody seems willing to discuss or explore. Determined to uncover what has happened, she enlists the help of a friend, and together they start to unravel a generation of secrets and unacknowledged truths.

From the first chapter I was hooked. The pace of the novel was perfect, the unfolding tale never ceasing to engage. Every word earned its place, moving the plot along effortlessly. Such seamless writing demonstrates the skill of the author, keeping this reader engrossed for the entire three hundred pages.

The tale was compelling and thought provoking, leaving me questioning how far I would go to help a stranger when rocking the boat could bring down an accepted way of life. It got under my skin and I am glad that it did.

This is quality writing, but more than that, it is story telling at its best.

My copy of this book was supplied gratis by the publisher, Hutchinson, via My Independent Bookshop rewards.

 

Book Review: An Appetite for Violets

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An Appetite for Violets, by Martine Bailey, ticks too many boxes to pigeon-hole into one, simple genre. It is historical fiction, dark mystery, romance, travelogue and cookery. The importance of food is integral to the plot, and offers a fascinating insight into how our forebears expected to eat by place and occasion. The story has been put together in a way that brings to mind a recipe, or receipt as it would then have been called. Each character’s deeds are added, but it is not until they are all mixed together and allowed to react with whatever acts and influences they are subjected to that we can be presented with the resulting dish. It is a clever and original writing device, made all the more tasty by the inclusion of actual recipes from the period explored. As each plot strand is prepared and served we progress as with a meal, which finishes with an unexpected reveal, leaving the reader comfortably replete.

Set in the late eighteenth century the book tells the tale of Biddy, an undercook at a country house, and her relationships with her new, young mistress and other members of the household staff as they embark on an unexpected journey from Cheshire, England to Florence, Italy. It is more than a tale of the privileged who live upstairs and their downstairs staff, although the insights given into each of the characters interactions and day to day lives are integral. It is more than a travelogue, even if the discomforts and privations of travel at that time are well described.

Journal entries and letters are included, as are some dream sequences which give the back story of a slave, footman to the new mistress and loyal friend to Biddy. This variety adds interest, although the pace throughout ensures that the reader is always eager to find out what is to be presented as the next course. There are mysteries to solve, secrets to uncover, plots to unravel. As the backgrounds to each character are gradually revealed the reader gains understanding as to why they act as they do. The story is both light and intriguing with twists and turns aplenty.

Prejudices and jealousies between class, race and nationality are explored as is the timeless corruption caused by differences in wealth.  Alongside this we have faithful friendships, loves lost and found, the mindless cruelty of the self serving privileged, and acts of revenge. It is a cleverly woven tale, yet for all the depth and detail the book remains an easy and enjoyable read. Just as the lightest of dishes can contain a host of complimentary tastes and textures, so this book offers up a complex, thought provoking story that is easily digested.

Even with the addition of that final, unexpected twist, the ending was perhaps a little too sweet for my tastes. However, as an engaging, summer read for those who look for quality and substance without dyspepsia, this book offers up a veritable feast.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.