Review of Call of the Curlew [The Orphan of Salt Winds], by Elizabeth Brooks

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The Orphan of Salt Winds was previously published in England as Call of the Curlew, a title that also plays a role in the story itself. Following the rule for literary scholars and bibliographers, I shall refer to the book by its original title. I wondered what other changes the American editors introduced to justify their presence, but it’s likely that the ‘flashlight” that figures in the story was really a “torch” and that the odious Mr. Deering’s Austin 12 had a “bonnet,” not a “hood.” But the setting remains the low-lying coast of East Anglia with its treacherous tides and dangerous currents. These also are crucial to the story, and attracted me as a reader. Having enjoyed many happy times sailing from West Mersea in my younger days, I was eager to revisit the location.

This is a two-track narrative. The backstory takes place at the beginning of the Second World War and unfolds over two years. Virginia, an eleven-year-old orphan girl, has been adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell (a name that seems simultaneously ominous and homely) and come to live at an old house on the coast, Salt Winds. The contemporary narrative is set on New Year’s Eve, 2015, as the aged Victoria contemplates adventuring into the marsh for the last time.

Clem is a nature writer living in a perfect location; Lorna is a children’s book illustrator. Virginia and Clem immediately form a strong bond, but there seems a tension with Lorna. There is also the officious well-off neighbor Mr. Deering, a widower with daughter Juliet and her obnoxious younger sibling Theodore. Not only does Mr. Deering’s interest in Lorna seem sinister and obsessive, but he attempts unsuitable familiarities with Virginia. Juliet is an early victim of the German raids when a bomb obliterates her railway carriage as she was returning to school On the night of 31st December 1940, Virginia sees through the window a German fighter aircraft crash into the marsh. Even if the pilot survived, he would surely drown. But Clem, confident in his knowledge and experience, takes a rope and torch to try to rescue the downed enemy pilot if he is still alive. Clem never returns, but Virginia never loses hope that he somehow survived and faithfully awaits his return. Best stop here with the plot to avoid spoilers.

I confess some disappointment with Call of the Curlew, though I think it’s not undeserving of the high praise it has received from readers such as Claire Fuller. It is a very slow boiler even though it has a thriller climax that I didn’t find quite believable—this villain never would have had the nerve actually to shoot anyone. And what some might term the “big reveal” most readers will see coming from afar. I don’t mind that—the best books are those you can read again after you know the plot. But I don’t think Call of the Curlew is one. And though a mysterious child is introduced from out of the night to give us some gothic frisson, and the setting so recalls The Woman In Black, I was just never scared, not ever a little bit. I shall be watching out for future books by Elizabeth Brooks, but this one didn’t quite come together for me. The ingredients of plot, character and setting represent the best traditions of the classical English ghost story, but the dish seemed bland and overcooked.

I am grateful to Galley Club for the favor of a gratis copy in exchange for my review.

Review of The Lingering, by SJI Holliday

An abandoned lunatic asylum is the perfect setting for a ghost story and Rosalind House, built in1845, is now the home of a “synergistic loving” community presided over by Smeaton Dunsmore, one of the narrators. The community rule is a volume called The Book of Light. Mostly they seem keen on gardening and carpentry. Another resident and narrator is Angela Fairley, who humorously refers herself as Fairy Angela, and is a psychic investigator searching the house for evidence of paranormal activity. Their community is joined by a couple, Ali and Jack, who ostensibly are in quest of a quiet retreat. She used to be a nurse and he a police officer, but the inquisitive Angela discovers evidence that there is something fishy in their past. 

“I was fascinated by the paranormal, folklore, the seventeen-century witch trials…. I trained myself to read tarot, dabbled with Ouija boards … but it was pretty obvious that I didn’t possess a channel. So I … decided to make it my life’s work to prove the existence of ghosts” is Angela’s statement of her calling. She doesn’t experience the appearance of ghosts herself, but she tells Ali, “I think you can only see ghosts if you’re responsible for taking a life.Ali herself has an experience of being attacked by something in the bath. Later she sights a wet child, a boy no one else can see. But he leaves footprints.

The Lingering was a superb Halloween read for me and I am delighted to welcome SJI Holliday to my my list of favourites that includes Susan Hill, Andrew Taylor, and F. G. Cottam. It is difficult to develop the classic ghost story to full-scale novel length. To make The Lingering work, Holliday has to introduce some themes from other genres. So besides the ghost of an old victim we have a serial killer on the loose and another traditional standby, pharmaceutical experiments. But though I found my credulity a trifle strained, The Lingering was a non-stop read. If you like plausible horror fiction, you should enjoy this story.

Review of Putney, by Sofka Zinovieff

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Crucial scenes in Putney are set not in London, but in Greece, especially the sexual consummation of the ill-starred relationship between the thirty-something Ralph Boyd and the thirteen-year-old Daphne Greenslay and their final encounter aboard a ferry boat whose name appropriately translates as Holy Nectar. This story is very much a Greek tragedy. Ralph re-enacts the pattern Aeschylus described: hubris attracts Nemesis, and though vengeance is slow – taking thirty-seven years – her aim is sure. We even have a Fury in the person of Daphne’s girlhood BF, who urges her to prosecute Ralph for this ancient crime. Daphne herself, now a recovering drug addict working as a travel agent specialising in Greek holidays, had seemed unaware of any psychologically damaging after effects of this crime till she noticed how her own thirteen-year-old daughter was developing her sexuality.

Britain is practically unique amongst civilized nations in having no statute of limitations for sex crimes. In most American states it varies between ten and twenty-one years (though not in Maryland, as many of us have become very aware recently). Even so, with a long history of drug abuse, Daphne would not be the most convincing witness against Ralph, now a distinguished composer, though diagnosed with cancer.

Daphne’s parents, Edmund and Ellie (for Eleftheria – why can’t modern Greeks pronounce an upsilon?), a writer and an activist lawyer, certainly put the SOUCE in insouciance; neither of them seemed to pay any attention to what must have been obviously a most unhealthy interest in their daughter on Ralph’s part. Which raises a problematic issue with this story. While the relationship between Ralph and Daphne is criminal and totally sick, for the story to generate pathos it also has to have a kind of terrible beauty. I had feared Putney might read like Lolita, but for me it didn’t. Ralph isn’t a usual paedophile – unlike Humbert Humbert he is not fixated on nymphettes. All of his other sexual relationships seem to be either with adult women or teenaged boys. I find him a full-blown victim of Aphrodite at her most careless. There may be undertones of the story of Daphne and Apollo as well, as Ralph is a musician and his first encounter with Daphne occurs in a treehouse. It’s not Daphne’s age that attracts Ralph, it’s her soul. Though he is totally selfish – especially in his treatment of his wife Nina – and utterly sleazy, he seemed to me perfectly to exemplify the contemporary expression ‘eyes wide shut’. Because the liaison began in the mid ’70s, when the antinomianism of the later ’60s was still prevalent, it is easy to imagine a bohemian like Ralph imagining he could get away with anything. Not even imagining; starkly insensible that there was anything wrong even though he has to go to a lot of trouble to disguise the relationship.

There is a school of criticism that holds Sophocles’ Oedipus actually knew his mother’s identity even before the events of the play. I do not believe that. But I am very taken with the parallels between the story of Oedipus and Putney, especially the denouement in Greece, that in several respects (including a visit to Thebes) is reminiscent of Oedipus at Colonus. In both cases we have an old man pursued by guilt for an unnatural relationship. Different readers will surely have quite varying responses to the fate of Ralph. Some will feel he gets off too lightly; others that the ending is appropriate and we can close the book with the sense that justice was done and perhaps the name of the boat wasn’t entirely ironic.

Because I love classical tragedy and the early potions of the book took place in London at the time in my life I felt most at home there (including the famous hot summer of ’76, the setting of so many marvelouslly moving stories including My Summer of Love and The Ladybird), I was reluctant to put this book down. If you’re not too repulsed by theme, you should find this a gripping read that will leave you with lots to consider.

Review of Truth and Lies, by Caroline Mitchell

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Since first bursting onto the publishing scene with a true ghost story, Paranormal Intruder, the former police officer Caroline Mitchell has been one of the hardest working writers in the criminal fiction field. She started with DC Jennifer Knight, whose distinctive  supernatural powers of perception led her to catch murderers who were not only demonic, they really were demons! I really loved her. One of the principal weaknesses addicts of detective fiction reveal is an allergic response to the paranormal.

I expect every keen reader of police detective novels has a personal police force. As we read different authors, we recruit some of their main characters and reject others: Cassie Maddox and Lacey Flint are outstanding officers on mine – but I’d not let ‘Scorcher’ Kennedy or Antoinette Conway into the squad room, or any of those gross middle-aged men with bad figures who do Andy Dalziel imitations in so many current procedurals.  Mitchell prefers  to limit her detectives to three outings: Jennifer Knight was succeeded by Ruby Preston, a detective with more conventional abilities though with some dubious relationships. I’d definitely want Knight on my squad but Preston failed her probational in Love You to Death. Now we have Amy Winter in Truth and Lies. Winter’s distinction is having biological parents who were serial killers: sort of like Fred and Ruth West. Amy’s father is dead, but her mother is serving a life-tariff. As Amy was adopted by a police detective’s family and took their name, the force don’t know her real biological inheritance. But now her real mother is trying to manipulate her by offering to shed light on some of their old murders. Professionally of course that is a no-no, but locating the remains of the victims to help their families assuage their grief is a morally acceptable justification for cutting corners.

And whilst Amy is dealing with her imperiously monstrous mother, a child goes missing along with her pet cat, which provides a motive to introduce another delightfully unusual investigator, a veterinary expert on feline forensics. That alone should make many of us want to read this book. In addition to the Jennifer Knight stories and Ruby Preston, Mitchell has written a could of stand-alones. Witness is a psychological abuse story and I hated it. Silent Victim is a school story about an abusive student/teacher relationship that quite gripped me. So I was not surprised that in Truth and Lies Caroline Mitchell let her plot run away with her, tying up more loose ends than were left undone in the first place. Still, it’s an excellent story, Amy is an appealing character, and her mother is someone you’ll love to hate. I shall give The Secret Child, the next in the series, a chance.

Review of Maidens’ Trip, by Emma Smith

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Maidens’ Trip: A Wartime Adventure on the Grand Union Canal perhaps appears to have taken me forever to read (three years), but as it took place in a lost world that yet seems always just beyond my horizon in the past, savouring it slowly in snippets was the best way to enjoy it. During the Second World War, British women were required to participate in the war effort. The young Emma Smith grew bored serving as a typist in some War Office bureau (it was in fact the Secret Intelligence Service but still no less stultifying) and volunteered to become a ‘boater’, piloting canal boats carrying coal and metals back and forth from London to Birmingham. This book is a slightly fictionalised account first published in 1948. The crew consist of Emma, Nanette, and Charity, three young women in their late teens – the latter two composite portraits of the girls Emma worked with. What would now seem to most of us an absolute horror (and indeed many of the volunteers quickly found other assignments) of wet, cold, overwork, danger (drowning, being crushed between the boat and the wall of the lock, hitting your head on a bridge), lack of sleep, and wearing the same filthy jersey and trousers held together by safety pins, is made to sound like a delightful lark and a wonderful opportunity to escape the expectations of being a proper young lady. The other ‘boaters’ – the families that made their living working the canal – seem not quite to have known what to make of these middle-class girls. And their adventures dealing with the highly temperamental one-cylinder diesel engine brought back some nautical memories of my own.

I found out about Emma Smith when I read her memoir As Green as Grass and since I have read her novel The Far Cry. (You can find my reviews of these on this blog.) And I still wish I knew her as a person — as I’m only seventeen years younger, it would have been possible had I not discovered her way too late reading her memoir. But of course I couldn’t have known her as she was in 1943. But I still so admire the people of that generation, with their mixture of cultural sophistication and innocence, their courage and self-sacrifice, sense of belonging to each other, and especially common sense and humour. Even vicariously Emma Smith has been such a privilege to have known.

Review of Bitter Orange, by Claire Fuller

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Clair Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days utterly captured me with its strange tale of a father and daughter living out his survivalist fantasy for years alone in the woods and its bizarre aftermath. (Fortunately not at all like Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling’s repulsive treatment of a similar theme.) But Swimming Lessons, Claire Fuller’s second novel, failed to catch fire for me, perhaps because both the characters and the setting were very damp. The latest, Bitter Orange, is un-put-downable gripping though one would expect the principal character to be a drab. Frances presently lays dying in a palliative care unit and her memory keeps returning to the events of the summer of 1969 when her dull life took an unexpectedly exciting turn. Her mother finally died after Frances has spent years as her principal caregiver, barely maintaining a career as an architectural historian. Then she was hired by an American millionaire who had acquired a ruined mansion in Hampshire called Lyntons to appraise its grounds, probably to find valuable objets (such as a Palladian bridge) that could be dismantled for shipping overseas. But Frances finds she is sharing the place with a younger couple. Peter is an antiques dealer, his task to value the furnishings of the house, of which there appear to be none as the army wrecked the place when they requisitioned it during the war. (Sort of like in Brideshead Revisited.) Cara is an extravert given to voluble exclamations in Italian and preparing elaborate meals with nowhere to sit and nothing to eat off of but lots to drink. They look the ideal fun couple. Is Frances – who seems straight out of a novel by Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner — finally going to ‘get a life’ after all?

Then things start turning darker. Under the floorboards of Frances’s attic bathroom is a small telescope set as a spy glass to peer into the bathroom below that Cara and Peter share. Cara isn’t an Italian at all; she’s actually Irish and grew up in a smaller Ascendancy rattled ruin and the seeming fun-couple’s relationship reveals deep fissures. Peter is actually married to someone else whom he is still supporting. Cara is also a total fantasist with a lost baby in her past for which she gives utterly bizarre accounts. Then they discover ‘The Museum’ – the hiding place from the army for all the family valuables and jewellery. They have no key. To get in Peter has to take a sledgehammer to the door. Suddenly the three of them have furniture, tables and chairs and plates to eat off of. And being an antiques dealer, Peter knows how to turn hot artefacts into cold cash. What does Frances do? Does she write her employer and tell him about the treasure trove’s being looted? Of course she responds as I would have done (at least when I was younger) …

At this point I’d best leave the remainder of the story for the reader to discover. For me it was really affecting and disturbing, and yet like the best stories, perfectly appropriate and in character. It is fascinating how well Claire Fuller can use physical detail to create atmosphere, like the cabin in Our Endless Numbered Days and the huge piles of annotated books in Swimming Lessons. Here Frances’ botanical sampling knife, the telescope spy glass, the bridge covered with weeds, the memento-mori ring Cara adopts as a replacement wedding band, the cigarette case Peter gives Frances, the orange tree trapped in the glasshouse (which is also the name for a military prison) with its inedible fruit that gives the book a title, and the sledgehammer all play a sinister symbolic role in the tale. And the twists were so nicely prepared that they scarcely felt like twists and seemed to come just as they look inevitable.

Though Bitter Orange is definitely a five star, some nasty loose ends bother me and as the story runs on two tracks, past and present, to finality, I’ll always wonder about them. Why was the little telescope spyglass planted in the floor? Who was the father of Cara’s baby? How could Victor the priest, who’s at least ten years older than Frances, have officiated at her deathbed and burial? Was the bridge in the Palladian style and what became of it?  Tho’ Bitter Orange is excellent, it is not quite the book I still await from Claire Fuller. That is the sequel to Our Endless Numbered Days, where we encounter Peggy again, as an adult.

New Publication: The Chaplain of Blackburne House, by Bill Kupersmith

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Jennifer McCreavy, is a young Episcopal priest. As the story opens, she has just accepted a position as chaplain, mistress of a girls’ dorm called Blackburne House, and Latin teacher at Saint Aidan’s, a boarding school in Connecticut. But she has also embarked on an undercover mission. Her half-sister Cathy Foxcroft was a second-year student at the school. The previous April she was found hanged in a dormitory stairwell, presumed a suicide. That was totally out of character; Cathy liked school and had no history of depression or self-harm.

When Jen arrives at Saint Aidan’s at the beginning of term, she discovers that the school has fallen under the aegis of a glamorous couple, Antonia and Alastair Brucemoore, a wealthy manager of a secretive hedge-fund and her husband the school’s academic dean and drama coach. A couple of years ago, Saint Aidan’s was in dire financial straits, and the Brucemores assumed control. They live in mansion overlooking the school.

Tackling new responsibilities, Jen concentrates on revitalizing the spiritual life of the school, insuring the safety and welfare of the girls in her dorm, teaching Classics and religion, and coaching the field hockey team. She makes new friends among the students and staff, especially the 17 year-old Amber Talbott, the proctor who assists her in running the dorm, and establishes a close working relationship with Josiah Powel, the senior Classics master. From the school nurse, Jen learns that drug activity and sexually transmitted diseases are rampant on the campus and that Cathy had asked for an HIV test shortly before her death.

Gradually we become aware that Saint Aidan’s is under the influence of dark spiritual forces. These work to implicate Jen in a scandal that would destroy her ministry in the Church and her teaching career. As Jen continues her investigation, it appears the Brucemoores’ mansion is focus of drug activity, sexual abuse, and internet pedophile pornography. When one of girls in Jen’s house is abducted and placed in grave peril, Jen and her friends must risk everything to rescue her.

The Chaplain of Blackburne House is an exciting mystery thriller as well as realistic depiction of life at at a boarding school. We see both the best and the worst features of an elite educational institution and how Jen’s spiritual values and devotion transform the lives of her students, revealing the power of love, friendship and commitment summed up in the house Latin motto, Res Unius Res Omnium. Along with the spirituality, there are paranormal manifestations well. Readers who enjoy school stories and mystery thrillers, along with more than a touch of the supernatural, should enjoy following Jen’s adventures.