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Green Hands is the tale of a young woman – Barbara Whitton – who signs up with a chum, Anne, to work with the Women’s Land Army, replacing male farm hands of fighting age who have been called up into the forces. The action sees them first on a bleak and windswept Scottish farm in the hardest of winters, where they do daily battle trying to make mangold wurzels part company with the frozen soil. The accommodation is Spartan, the rations are meagre, and the social life is non-existent. It is all too much for Anne, however, and she departs for the softer life in The Home Counties.

Anne is replaced by Pauline, who Barbara knew – and hated – at school, but Pauline’s eccentric ways and appealing naivity about the world bring a touch of humour to the narrative. Thankfully for their childblains and frozen limbs, Bee (Barbara) and Pauline are transferred to the slightly less brutal world of a farm in Northumberland.

Readers looking for wartime tragedy, sudden death or other moments of high drama will find nothing here to their taste. Instead, there is the steady rhythm of rural life across the changing seasons, and in describing this visceral connection of the the farming people to the land they live and work on, Barbara Whitton echoes such writers as Thomas Hardy, Flora Thompson and Laurie Lee.

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Green Hands was first published in 1943 and so, unlike most of the other reprints in this IWM series which were published after the war, there was still a war going on, and public morale to be taken into consideration. This accounts for the largely upbeat and positive tone of the story, but should not be taken as a negative criticism.had the book been filmed, it would have been in black and white, but it is to Barbara Whitton’s credit that her landscape is full of colour and nuance.

Barbara Whitton (real name Margaret Watson) was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1921. Due to study Art in Paris, her training was curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War. Having volunteered for the Women’s Land Army (WLA) in 1939, she worked as a Land Girl for around a year before moving to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and later joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as a driver, where she remained for the duration of the war. During her time with the ATS she met her husband Pat Chitty and they were married in 1941. After the war, she wrote a number of accounts of her wartime experience and retained an interest in art, literature and horticulture throughout her life. She died in 2016. I found this curiosity on the internet.

Most of the IWM Classics have been stories of men at arms. Plenty Under The Counter by Kathleen Hewitt (click for review) took a quizzical look at some of the less salubrious aspects of life on The Home Front, but Green Hands delivers a tale of hardship, humour and – above all – the humanity of those who kept the country going during the dark years of wartime. It is published by The Imperial War Museums and is out now.

CHAOS . . . Between the covers

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Christopher Radcliff is a Doctor of Law and he is also what  sixteenth century England called an ‘intelligencer’. We might say ‘spy’, ‘secret agent’ or, at a pinch, ‘private eye.’ He is employed by two of the most powerful men in Queen Elizabeth’s service – the brothers Dudley. Robert is the Earl of Leicester and Ambrose the Earl of Warwick.

91c5yMTPQkLRadcliff, the creation of author AD Swanston, made his literary debut in The Incendium Plot (2018). The blurb for that book said that the country was “a powder keg of rumour, fanaticism, treachery and dissent.” Well, a few years on, and things haven’t changed a great deal. The big threat to Good Queen Bess still comes from those devious and malignant Papists, but the adherents of ‘the old religion’ have changed tack. Military conquest by Spain or France has proved ineffectual, so has a more subtle method has been chosen?

Pretty much every one of us is too young to remember a time when our currency was suspect. Yes, there have been periods of inflation (I can remember PM Harold Wilson and ‘The pound in your pocket.”) but we have never doubted that the coins in our pockets or the notes in our wallet were suspect. In February 1574, however, someone has been minting fake testons. They were, in old money, shillings, and the most common coin in circulation for everyday transactions.

BearThe fake testons also bear the image of the bear and ragged staff (right), the emblem of the Earl of Warwick. Clearly, the forgers have a double headed plan. They intend to paralyze normal day to day trade by making shop-keepers wary of accepting coins, but they also seek to diminish the status and power of the Dudley brothers by linking them to worthless coins.

When Radcliff eventually tracks down the person behind the counterfeit coins he discovers not a Papist plot, but a personal search for revenge, fired by a dreadful betrayal and a bitterness so deep that only death can sweeten it. Without giving any more away, I can say that part of this vengeance involves, strange to relate, that most delicate and ethereal of Renaissance instruments, the lute.

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Swanston has great fun immersing us in all the contrasting glory and squalor of Elizabethan England. We are led through the magnificent Holbein Gate into the Palace of Whitehall with its tapestries, panelled chambers and priceless paintings, but we also have to tread gingerly amid the horse muck (and worse) as we walk along Cheapside, and try to avoid the grasping hands of its whores and beggars.

Chaos is as authentic and swashbuckling as anyone could wish for – a must for lovers of period drama. It is published by Bantam in hardback, and by Transworld Digital as a Kindle. Both formats are available now.

SQUADRON AIRBORNE . . . Between the covers

Elleston Trevor was born Trevor Dudley Smith in 1920, and became a hugely prolific and successful novelist under many other different pen-names, most notably as Adam Hall, writing the Quiller series of spy novels.

He served throughout WW2 as a Flight Engineer, and it is this experience that he drew on to write Squadron Airborne, first published in 1955. It is an intense and sometimes harrowing account of just a few days in the life of a young RAF pilot, Peter Stuykes, in that unforgettable summer and autumn of 1940 that we now call the Battle of Britain.

We are in high summer, and the nineteen year-old Stuykes arrives at the fictional RAF base of Westhill in southern England. He has been taught how to fly, but has never been in combat. A brief training session in the air under the watchful eyes of Squadron Leader Mason passes without major disaster, but it is only a matter of hours before he is in the air again, and makes his first kill.

There are heart-stopping descriptions of aerial combat, vividly imagined because the author was not a pilot himself. He makes us well aware of the unglamorous but vital work of the ground crews who made sure that the aircraft were as fit and functional as they could be. He also hints at a dark reality – aircraft were much harder to replace than young men in their late teens and early twenties.

Perceptions of the past are ever-changing, and the current wisdom, eighty years after the event, has it that the “gallant few” version of the events of 1940 is misleading. Yes, the defeat of the Luftwaffe contributed to Hitler’s disastrous decision to invade Russia. Yes, the bravery and sacrifice of the young pilots was immense, but the reality was that RAF deployment of resources and its mastery of radar meant that the tactic of massed daylight raids by German aircraft was doomed to failure.

Trevor was writing for readers who would have been totally familiar with technical terms, abbreviations and wartime vernacular. I grew up hearing my father use many of these terms, picked up during his wartime service, but younger readers may be interested in clarification. Here are some unfamiliar terms used in the book:

ERKS: low ranking RAF personnel
FLAP: an emergency of some kind
FRUIT SALAD: Medal ribbons
IRONS: as in ‘eating irons’, cutlery
MAG-DROP: a decrease in engine power due to magneto failure
OLEO: a hydraulic shock absorber used in aircraft landing gear
SIDCOT: a standard RAF flying suit
SP: Service Police. The RAF version of Military Police
TANNOY: Public address system
TROLLEY-ACC: a wheeled device containing batteries, used for jump starting aircraft
U/S: Unservicable, broken
WAD: A cake or a bun

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The novel captures the moments of terror and exhilaration of air combat, but also the steady sapping of mental health caused by constant alerts and the ever-present spectre of violent death. Trevor doesn’t ignore the fleeting moments of happiness, whether they be the temporary solace of getting drunk in the local pub, or fleeting love affairs, squeezed in between the dreaded bark of the Tannoy, ordering the young men back into the air. Squadron Airborne has been republished by the Imperial War Museums as part of their Wartime Classics series, and is available now.

For reviews of previous novels
in the Wartime Classics series,
click the image below

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GATHERING DARK . . . Between the covers

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indexCandice Fox (left) is an Australian novelist who is perhaps best known for her collaborations with James Patterson, but back in 2019 I reviewed her solo novel Gone By Midnight, and if you click the link you can read the review. That book was set in the Queensland city of Cairns, but in her latest, she goes Stateside to Los Angeles for Gathering Dark.

To borrow a cliché much loved by sports commentators, Candice Fox leaves nothing in the changing room here in the way of characters. The larger-than-life cast includes former top paediatrician jailed for murder and now working in a fast food joint, her kleptomaniac and drug-addicted chum from prison, a fixated female cop whose career seems to be spiralling out of control, and a six-foot black female gangster and strip-club owner.

What brings this formidable quartet together? The search for the missing daughter of Sneak, the aptly named kleptomaniac. After randomly robbing Blair Harbour at her greasy take-out counter, Dayly has disappeared into the nightmare neon slick that is the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles.

gd014We all love a good coincidence, and cop Jessica Sanchez just happens to have been gifted a sumptuous LA property which sits next door to the house where Blair’s son Jamie has been fostered since his mother’s unfortunate spell in jail. And who was one of the cops involved in Blair being put away for ten years? Christian name begins with J and surname starts with S!

Fox has woven a wonderfully complex web of a plot. Blair isn’t sure why the gangster, Ada, is offering to help, but she thinks it might be because she is returning a favour notched up while the two were in jail together. We eventually learn, a little way before Blair does, that Ada doesn’t do gratitude, and has an ulterior motive.

The cop, Jessica, is pretty much loathed by LAPD colleagues, and she is warned that if she accepts the multi-million dollar mansion, she will be drummed out of the force for accepting bribes.

The unholy Trinity of Ada, Blair and Jessica plough a violent and relentless furrow in their search for Dayly, and it all comes to a head in a claustrophobic and bloody shoot-out in a sewer beneath an LA suburb. Fox is a gifted storyteller and this ‘guns and gals’ thriller will guarantee a few hours of excellent entertainment. Gathering Dark is published by Arrow and is out now in paperback.

THE SHOT . . . Between the covers

The late Philip Kerr is justifiably renowned for his magisterial series of fourteen historical books featuring the sardonic German copper Bernie Gunther. Kerr, however, was good enough – and confident enough – to write superior stand-alone novels. I read one such – Hitler’s Peace –  earlier this year and if you click the link it will take you to the review.

41PpZhwb-wLQuercus has just republished The Shot, a 1999 novel by Kerr. We are in America and it is the late autumn of 1960. In the pop charts, The Drifters were singing Save The Last Dance For Me, and a youthful looking senator called John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just won the election to become the thirty-fifth President of The United States.

Just a hundred miles or so from the tip of the Florida peninsula lies the island of Cuba, but its traditional role as puppet state of America, complete with Mafia-owned casinos, sex clubs and hedonistic lifestyles came to an  end in 1958 when communist rebels, led by Fidel Castro, finally overturned the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans have fled in their thousands to Florida, while the American government looks across the waters for signs of Russian influence over the fledgling state.

Central to the story of The Shot is an American assassin who calls himself Tom Jefferson. We never learn his real identity. We only know that his aliases are always those of American Presidents, such as Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren. Tom is a military trained sniper who earns his living killing political targets by blowing off the tops of their skulls with a .30 calibre bullet.

PKAs ever with a Philip Kerr novel, we are in a world populated by a mix of fictional characters and real-life figures. Among the latter are Jack Kennedy himself and the Mob boss Sam Giancana. Giancana hires Jefferson to assassinate Fidel Castro so that the revolution will collapse, and the mafioso can return to their old lucrative ways. Jefferson does his homework and seems all set to put a bullet in Castro’s head.

In the wake of 22nd November 1963, Jack Kennedy achieved temporary sainthood, and it is only relatively recently that his less-than-saintly private life has become common knowledge. When one of his exploits affects Tom Jefferson personally, the whole plan to kill Castro is turned on its head. Jefferson goes missing, and becomes the object of a manhunt by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia.

This novel shows Philip Kerr at his wondrous best. The historical characters are made flesh in front of our eyes, while the fictional participants are vividly convincing. Kerr’s grasp of history is immense, and he serves up a winning mixture of The Day Of The Jackal and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Shot is out now.

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL . . . between the covers

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Is it tempting fate to wonder who is the oldest living crime writer? James Lee Burke (below) is now 83, but writing better than ever. A Private Cathedral is another episode in the tempestuous career of Louisiana cop Dave Robicheaux and the force of nature that is is his friend Clete Purcel. Ostensibly about a simmering war between two gangster families, it goes to places untouched by any of the previous twenty two novels.

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All the old familiar elements are there – Dave, as ever, battles with drink:

“No, I didn’t want to simply drink. I wanted to swallow pitchers of Jack Daniels and soda and shaved ice and bruised mint, and chase them with frosted mug beer and keep the snakes under control with vodka and Collins mix and cherries and orange slices, until my rockets had a three-day supply of fuel and I was on the far side of the moon.”

Then there are the astonishing and vivid descriptions of the New Iberia landscape, the explosive violence, and Louisiana’s dark history. But this novel has a villain unlike any other James Lee Burke has created before. We have met some pretty evil characters over the years, but they have been human and mortal. Robicheaux,  long prone to seeing visions of dead Confederate soldiers, is now faced with an adversary called Gideon, who is also from another world, but with human powers to wreak terrible violence.

APC cover008The Shondell and the Balangie families manipulate, pervert and use people. Robicheaux suspects that seventeen year-old Isolde Balangie has, to be blunt, been pimped out by her father to Mark Shondell. A ‘friendly fire’ casualty is a talented young singer, Johnny Shondell, Mark’s nephew. Ever present, bubbling away beneath the surface of the Bayou Teche is the past. At one point, we even get to walk past the great man’s house, so why not use his most celebrated quote?

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
William Faulkner, Requiem For A Nun

The past involves Mafia hits, grievances nursed and festering over generations, and the sense that the Louisiana shoreline has been witness to countless abuses over the years, from the brutality of slavery through to the rape of nature to which abandoned and rotting stumps of oil rigs bear vivid testimony.

Music – usually sad or poignantly optimistic – is always ringing in our ears in the Robicheaux books. Sometimes it is Dixieland jazz, sometimes blues and sometimes the bitter sweet bounce of Cajun songs. At one point, the young singer Johnny takes his guitar and plays:

“He sat down on the bench and made an E chord and rippled the plectrum across the strings. The he sang ‘Born to Be with You’ by the Chordettes. The driving rhythm of the music and the content of the lyrics were like a wind sweeping across a sandy beach.”

In A Private Cathedral, the plot is not over-complex. It is Dave and Clete – The Bobbsy Twins – against the forces of darkness. Burke gives us what is necessary to ensure the narrative drive, but everything is consumed by the poetry. Sometimes it is the poetry of violence and passion; more tellingly, it is the poetry of valiant despair, the light of decency and honour, guttering out in the teeth of a malignant gale which forces Dave and Clete to bend and stumble, but never quite crack and fall.

A Private Cathedral is published by Orion and is out now. For more on James Lee Burke and Dave Robicheaux, click here.

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KILLING IN YOUR NAME . . . Between the covers

In February this year – remember when everything was normal, and Covid-19 was just something nasty that was happening in China and Italy? – I reviewed Blood Will Be Born, the debut thriller by Belfast writer Gary Donnelly. I said it was:
“… breathtakingly violent, vividly written and a bleak commentary on a seemingly terminal bitterness which makes normal human beings behave like creatures from a warped vision of hell.”

The full review of that book is here, but in no time at all, it seems, comes the second episode in the career of Met Police detective Owen Sheen. He has been seconded to the historic crimes unit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. If ever there were a British city where historic crimes still haunt the streets, it is Belfast. Sheen was born in Belfast, and watched his own brother being blown to pieces by a terrorist bomb as the two youngsters played football in the street. Donnelly says:

“Over the decades, so much blood had spattered the streets of Belfast, all now washed away, and forgotten by many. But there would always be those, the ones who had been left behind to count the cost, for which the stain and the pain would never really go.”

The (literally) explosive conclusion to the previous case has left Sheen sidelined and his PSNI partner Aoifa McCusker walking with a stick and suspended from duty after a stash of Class ‘A’ drugs were planted in her locker. Sheen is haunted by the discovery of a boy’s body, found in remote Monaghan bogland on the border with the Republic. The body has been partially preserved by the acidic water, but even a post mortem examination reveals few details.

Meanwhile, a spate of horrific killings has perplexed PSNI detectives. A priest has been decapitated in his own sacristy; the teenage daughter of a prominent barrister has been abducted and then killed; her body, minus one of its hands has been dumped at her father’s front door. The adult son of a former hellfire Protestant preacher and politician has been found dead – again, butchered.

Against the better judgment of senior officers, Sheen is allowed to ‘get the band back together’ and so a limping McCusker, and colleague George ‘Geordie’ Brown are joined by Hayley, a mysterious transgender person who calls herself an ‘instinctive’ because she has what used to be called a sixth sense about death or extreme violence.

As ever in Belfast, the answers to modern questions lie irremovably in the past and, almost too late, Sheen and his team discover that the killings are bound up with acts of scarcely credible evil that took place decades earlier. Revenge is certainly being served cold and, for someone, it tastes delicious.

Donnelly (below) has another winner on his hands here, and it is partly due to his superb sense of narrative, but also to his ability to create truly monstrous villains, and there is at least one in Killing In Your Name to rival anything his fellow Irishman John Connolly has created. Connolly’s creations tend to have a sulphurous whiff of the supernatural about them. Donnolly’s monsters are human, if in name only. Killing In Your Name is published by Allison & Busby and is out today, 20th August.

CRY BABY . . . Between the covers

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Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.

We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.

54502348._UY2560_SS2560_Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.

A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.

Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.

Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.

Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.

Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

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