Category Archives: Mystery

Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).

Heresy

The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.

giordano-bruno

Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).

3.5/5

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Filed under Book Review, books, Brent Libraries, Cityread London, Heresy, history books, Libraries, Modern Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers

Boy Nobody, Allen Zadoff

 

Allen Zadoff has written an unbelievable book. Honestly, it’s one of the best novels I have ever read. It dazzles in every aspect and never ceases to surprise.

 

So we start the book in the mind of our protagonist, this is a first person book. We don’t even know the protagonist’s name. The story starts off when “Boy Nobody” is friends with a kid called Jack. Jack invites “Boy Nobody to his house where his father is and that’s when we start to realise who “Boy Nobody” actually is, he’s an assassin. From the very first pages we sense that our protagonist is something special: “Jack’s dad wanders by with a beer in his hand. Chen Wu is his name. His friends call him John. He’s the CEO of a high-tech firm along Route 128. Lots of government contracts.” Our protagonist notices every little detail. Eventually he injects a poison into Mr Wu which kills him, “Boy Nobody” escapes, arousing no suspicion. That’s only the start of the book though.

Shadow Boy

Bit by bit we start to learn more about our protagonist. He gets new assignments every time he finishes one, his superiors are called Mother and Father and he still has memories of how it started. A few chapters in he’s sent on a new assignment, to kill the mayor of New York by befriending his daughter. I won’t describe what happens after that because then I would spoil your read.

 

What is so good about this book is how we discover more and more about our character as the story goes on. The author makes us believe that his mind works like a robot who’s constantly calculating but more importantly has no emotion at all. But as the story goes on we learn that’s not true. Our protagonist starts to feel emotion as doubt creeps in. The author completely submerges us into his brain; we know all his thoughts and dilemmas. What I also enjoyed very much was the attention to detail. I’ll give you an example: “She’s maybe fifteen, long brown hair, too much gloss on her lips. She has a backpack slung across one shoulder. The strap pulls her shirt tight, the swell of her breast pressing against fabric”, this is all in the mind of our protagonist.

 

AllenZadoff

Allen Zadoff

 

 

This is a fantastic read, with plenty of surprises, I guarantee if you like action, thrillers and even romance books you’ll thoroughly enjoy this one, it’s a cracker!

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What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.

Katie

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Filed under Book Review, books, Crime, mental health, Mental Health Awareness Week, Missing people, Modern Fiction, Mystery, reading, Thrillers

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I know this book has already been reviewed on this blog by my colleague but I enjoyed this book so much that I wanted to add my review too!

gone-girl-book-cover-med

This is the story of married couple Nick and Amy Dunne.  On their fifth wedding anniversary Nick comes home to find his front door wide open, furniture overturned as if there has been a violent struggle and his wife gone.  The book then gives us alternate chapters of Nick dealing with the fallout of his wife’s disappearance and extracts from Amy’s diary telling the story of their relationship from their meeting  up to the time of her apparent kidnap and probable murder.  Neither the reader nor the characters know what really happened to Amy so we all get to engage in a captivating guessing game as well as finding out about the dysfunctional relationship of two very flawed characters.

The initial chapters I struggled with a little, I disliked the characters and found a lot of the regular pop references unfamiliar partly because it’s an American book and partly because I’ve just never been very clued up on popular culture now or as a child!  But as I read on the negatives became positives and I found myself gripped by the story and enjoying the writing style.  I think it’s a real tribute to Flynn that she has managed to write such a compelling book where pretty much all the characters are various degrees of repellent! Usually I find it hard to get into a story when you are unable to root for any of the characters, these characters are all rotters; Amy, Nick, their families, their friends, the police investigating the case, the lawyers who get involved and the media reporting on the case – by no means are they all evil but none of them are remotely likeable or admirable in their behaviour.  I guess the ‘character’ you are rooting for is the story itself – you just have to see it played out.  For once I agree with the opinions on the book cover, this book really was ‘addictive’, I read it in a weekend which is very unusual for me as I tend to be a slow reader.

gone girl scene

Scene from the movie. Amy’s husband and parents use the media to plead for Amy’s return…but are they as innocent as they seem?

Another thing I enjoyed about the book was the setting.  After I had got over the unfamiliarity the alien-ness became an asset.  It is primarily set in a mid-American town that is really suffering in the economic recession; it’s a background of boarded up shops, layoffs, struggles and broken dreams – a setting very fitting and very real.

The first part of the book focuses on the past of their relationship and immediate aftermath of the disappearance.  Then it shifts to a sort of PR battle between various characters but primarily focusing on Nick.  First he is the pitiable ‘widower’, then the prime suspect, next the terrible husband, then pitied again as the wrongly accused and back to prime suspect.  These shifts are not entirely based on evidence found but also the media’s changing angle on the story which swings this way and that.  It is an interesting analysis of how the media judges those involved in crime and makes decisions about who is the victim and who the villain – there are many examples of this process in real life news stories.

set_gone_girl

The happy couple? The state of the couple’s marriage comes under the media spotlight when Amy goes missing.

The third section of the book is a sort of conclusion, dealing with the aftermath of events.  This is the part of the book I enjoyed the least.  It’s not bad but I often find with mysteries and thrillers that the questions (what happened? who’s guilty? will the police work it out? etc.) are actually more interesting than the answers!

I highly recommend this book and if you haven’t read it yet or seen the film I think you should pick up a copy today.  If you haven’t managed to avoid plot spoilers, and it’s tricky as it has been widely discussed and reviewed, I still recommend you read it as it is a well crafted tale that offers enjoyment beyond the twists, turns and surprises.

4.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

This is a very good book but the plot took a direction midway through that I really wasn’t keen on.

The book set a little after the first world war and is about a well to do mother and daughter (Frances) who have fallen on financial hard times so decide to take in lodgers – The Paying Guests.  A young couple, Lilian and Leonard, move in and the first half of the novel is about this slightly uneasy living arrangement.

PayingGuest

I found this first half of the novel utterly sublime, there is so much in there even though relatively little happens.  It’s riddled with tension around class, sexuality, the role of women, the generation divide.  The living arrangements form a fascinating dynamic, the mother and daughter are from upper society but now have no money, Lilian and Leonard are from working class backgrounds but Leonard has found a good job in insurance so have much more cash and better prospects than their well to do landlords, so where does the power lie?  Frances’ mother is old fashioned and is very embarrassed by her daughter doing housework, but they can’t afford servants any more so what choice do they have?  Frances, a formed suffragette, longs to embrace the new opportunities for independence that are becoming available to women but feels morally obliged to keep house for her mother, especially as her mother is still grief stricken by the lost of her two sons in the trenches.  There is tension between the young couple, they married partly because Lilian was pregnant but the baby died leaving them tied to each other with neither entirely happy in their marriage.  Like I say, there is so much going on and all of it subtly played out through little moments; an awkward conversation in the scullery, a passing on the stairs, an overheard hushed argument in the parlour.

The novel changes around the midway point.  Things become much more melodramatic and the subtlety is all lost.  I personally did not enjoy this change, the novel doesn’t become bad but I would have preferred it to continue as a story of human relationships amid massive social changes not a story of passion and violence.  I won’t go into detail of what happens as you may wish to find out for yourself, and I would still recommend this novel even though I found it somewhat disappointing.

4/5

Zoe

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Event: The Sign of Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes could be said to be the world’s greatest multimedia star. But he never even existed. In stories, plays, musicals, movies, not to mention TV and radio, he’s been played by over 70 actors from countries across the globe. The magic is that we all feel we know the character, he’s as ubiquitous as The Beatles or Father Christmas in popular culture and adored by even those who’ve never read a word of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original books. How did this happen? And how has a very Victorian character endured and thrived in the modern, digital world?

Sherlock on sofa

Tomorrow night amateur sleuth and Holmes buff WJ Bird be appearing at The Library at Willesden Green to take you on a journey from Baker Street to the bright lights of Hollywood and beyond to answer these questions.

The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in 1900, the latest just last year. His author died in 1930 but new stories about his most famous creation are still being written. Sherlock Holmes himself was killed off in a story in 1893 but returned from the dead in 1901 so perhaps his immortality was assured back then!

I met up with Will to ask him a few questions about his relationship with the great  fictional detective.

Q. What’s Your favourite Sherlock Homes story and why?

“The Red Headed League” is a personal favourite as it is such a bizarre case and a lovely depiction of working life in Victorian London. Like many of the early short stories, nobody dies either. “The Musgrave Ritual” too is interesting as it’s a historical case that Holmes himself narrates – it’s set before he met Watson.

 

red headed league

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the ITV version of The Red Headed League.

Q. Why do you think Sherlock Holmes captured the public’s imagination?

Come to the talk to find out my theories on this! But it’s mainly down to 1) the spread of popular media like magazines, cinema, TV and radio and 2) the creativity and passion of a lot of talented people over the past century, not just Arthur Conan Doyle!

Q. How has Sherlock Holmes influenced modern detectives on TV and in fiction?

Difficult question, but I guess being the first popular detective in English fiction means that he’s influenced them all. The detective as a maverick, not an establishment figure, has become a common theme, as has the importance of the more approachable “sidekick”. Conan Doyle also helped establish the idea of exposing the criminal underworld of a modern city through sometimes shocking tales, setting the template for Raymond Chandler and his like.

Big screen sherlock

Sherlock Holmes has appeared many times on the big screen

Q. Will Sherlock Homes still be in the public consciousness in 100 years?

As he keeps being reinvented then absolutely yes. As I say in my talk he’s gone in and out of fashion in popular culture over the decades, but the stories have never been out of print. But he’s becoming almost a mythical figure like Robin Hood now, not merely a literary one.

To hear more from Will do please come along to our free talk at The Library at Willesden Green, 6.30pm, 18 November.  (They’ll even be free wine and mince pies!)

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medThe author of the brilliant novel is Gillian Flynn. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good plot and also a mystery. I would also recommend this book to someone who is usually determined to finish a book because trust me you will need a lot of determination. I picked up this book 3 months ago and read 3 chapters (which took 2 weeks) and gave up. I picked the book up again (4 weeks ago) and, am finally towards the end. I was a mission but it was worth it.

The novel is about a girl-Amy- who goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. The police suspect Nick Dunne – Amy’s husband. Amy’s friends reveal that Amy was afraid of Nick and Nick swears it isn’t true. I really don’t want to give away a lot of the plot because that’s what lures the reader. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. Nick says they weren’t made by him. So the real question is what did happen to Amy?

Guys I will tell you from experience try you best not to discuss the book whilst reading it with anyone who has read or seen the movie because it is tempting and they probably will spoil the ending and all your hard work reading.

I give this novel a 5/5.

Umaimma

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