The Sandpit

The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare is a bit of a slow burner but well worth persevering with.

John Dyer, an ex journalist, has returned from Brazil to Oxford with his son and enrolled him in the rep school that he had attended nearly 50 years ago. Life is dull and predictable in the middle class Oxford academic and school community until an Iranian, Rustum Marvar, parent entrusts John with the results of his research. When Marvar and his son disappear, the mystery unfolds at pace as different intelligence services and murky business interests encircle John and his son trying to find the potentially world changing secret.

The Sandpit is elegant, well observed and quite readable but overall a little unsatisfying.

3.5/5

The House of Lamentations

The House of Lamentations is the 5th in Shona Maclean’s much praised Seeker series.

It’s 1658, Damian Seeker is living under cover in Bruges keeping tabs on the royalist followers of the exiled King Charles who are scheming to restore Charles to the thrown. Meanwhile in London the Protector, Cromwell, is in the last days of his life and all around him are preparing for a power shift and a new leader.

The royalists have discovered that there is a spy within their midst they have no idea who it is and send their own spy to spy on Seeker’s spy. Complicated? Yes but Maclean weaves a complex plot around these characters while providing a fascinating and detailed understanding of life in 17th century Bruges and the politics of England and Europe.

The House of Lamentations is historical fiction at it’s very best. The publisher says this is the last in the series. I hope not!

4.5/5

The Sin Eater

The Sin Eater by Megan Campisi is very definitely different. Set in a version of Elizabethan England that has dystopian hints of the Handmaid’s Tale, the story is told by May Owens, who is the Sin Eater.

Sin Eaters hear the sins of others and then eat foods associated with each different sin, they carry those sins with them to the grave and relieve the sinner of the fear of dying and being cast into some form of hell with Eve rather than going to their Maker. It is a cruel world where the burden of being the city’s Sin Eater and a social outcast is imposed on women by the mail judges as a way of exercising power and revenge.

May discovers a plot to kill the Queen, a mystery about her own parentage and eventually realises her own agency and independence.

After a slightly slow start The Sin Eater is a compelling read well worth persevering with. I think this is Campisi’s first novel, I hope she writes more.

4/5

Elementary

When I was in my early teens I devoured every bit of the Sherlock Holmes opus, all 4 novels and the 5 collections of short stories. In fact I think I read most of them twice! Since then I have read a few attempts to extend the series, some have worked quite well (e.g. The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz) and some have fallen short.

Elementary by William Todd comprises “4 mysteries from the case files of Sherlock Holmes” which Dr Watson had not published. It didn’t work for me, it felt formulaic and somewhat predictable. To be honest I couldn’t bring myself to read all 4 of the stories, 2 were more than enough!

Unless you have read and remember all of the original Conan Doyle stories you might do better to go back to the originals and even if you do remember them I would still rather read the originals again than these wooden homages.

Death in Delft

Death in Delft by Martin Brack is the first in a new series. Set, not surprisingly in Delft in 1671 the plot is based around 3 young girls who have been abducted, one turns up dead and our hero Master Mercurius a protestant protest who is also a secret catholic, is called on by the mayor to try to solve the murder and find the two remaining girls before they are killed.

As a crime novel this might be quite standard fare though well executed, what makes this more interesting is the rich imagery of 17th century Delft, the currents of repressed religion post reformation and the insertion of the painter Johannes Vermeer and the scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek who discovered protozoa into the plot. The novel is in the form of a journal by Mercurius and has a dry humour running through his dialogue with the reader.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this, I’ll give the next one a go.

4/5

A Shooting at Chateau Rock

A Shooting at Chateau Rock is the 13th in Martin Walker’s Bruno Courreges series and it does not disappoint.

The Bruno series are well paced, elegantly written and charming, there are usually 3 threads to the plot, the main mystery, a sub-plot and a beautiful description of the French village life within the Perigord region. Add in Walker’s obvious love for French regional cuisine and wines, the simple recipes that magically appear and you will feel as if you are sitting around the table with him for a Sunday lunch in the French countryside.

This isn’t all food and countryside, Bruno is a tough, likeable character who fans of the series have followed through scrapes and romances (still unresolved). A Shooting at Chateau Rock delves into the way in which wealthy Russians have been purchasing EU citizenship and the crime that follows them. It’s a great page turner for a sunny afternoon, perhaps with a glass of chilled white at your side.

4.5/5

Agency

Friends have recommended William Gibson’s novels to me for some time but I hadn’t got round to reading any of his stuff. Agency is a cracker of a SciFi novel.

Agency isn’t an easy read, you have to work at it, as the basis of the plot unfolds quite slowly and you are left wondering what is going on and struggling to keep track of the different threads for a while. Press on because it is well worth the effort.

The novel switches from San Francisco in 2017, where Clinton won and Brexit didn’t happen, to a weird techno London a century in the future. Are we jumping back and forward in time or are these different parallel strands of history and who controls who?

This is very reminiscent of some of the best of Philip K Dick (the all time master of SciFi for me) leaving the reader wrestling shifting reality and consciousness. I loved it and will be plunging into more of Gibson’s work soon. Read it!

5/5

The Riddle of the Fractal Monks

The Riddle of the Fractal Monks by Jonathan Pinnock is a quirky comedy mystery. It combines some psychopathic monks with a fascination for fractal mathematics with a hapless pair of heroes who seem to be immune to any of the ridiculous situations that they fond themselves encountering. They are all searching for a missing PhD thesis by a friend of the heroes, but really who cares?

I can’t think of a redeeming feature to this novel, apparently it is part of a series which I will avoid.

1/5

Power Play

Power Play by Tony Kent is a very readable thriller.

An aircraft is blown up halfway across the Atlantic, one of the passengers is the leading candidate in the forthcoming US Presidential election. The baggage handler, a Syrian refugee, who placed the bomb confesses but rapidly questions arise as to whether he is a terrorist or a stooge.

It soon becomes evident that forces close to the current President are trying to shut down the legal team defending the baggage handler and the intelligence agency that starts to investigate.

This a fast paced but really rather preposterous page turner. At the end my reaction was – “really?”. I can imagine this being script fodder for the production machines of Amazon or Netflix but as a read it leaves quite a bit to be desired.

2.5/5

The Good, the Bad and the Little Bit Stupid

The Good, the Bad and the Little Bit Stupid is the second novel by Marina Lewycka. If you have read and enjoyed A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian you are going to love this.

George is approaching his 80th birthday, he has left his wife Rosie after an argument over Brexit on referendum night and is living with their next door neighbour Brenda. He seems to have won the jackpot on the Kosovan lottery but he isn’t sure that he entered the lottery and he can’t remember the password to his bank account to access the money. What follows is hysterical chaos as different money laundering gangs are desperately trying to gain access to George’s bank account and Rosie and Brenda are battling over George’s wandering affections.

This is charming, funny and well observed. Highly recommended

4/5