Category Archives: Book reviews

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

World War II is over. “1-0, 1-0,” chant England fans. “2-1, 2-1,” chant German fans wittily in response. [A little topical satire about the result of the England-Croatia match at the World Cup in 2018 –ed.] Juliet Ashton, an author, isn’t quite sure where to go next with her literary career. By chance, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, who lives on the island of Guernsey and is a fan of Charles Lamb, and through him, she learns about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Soon Juliet is corresponding with the various members of the Society and learning about life on the island during the German occupation, which wasn’t much fun for either side because of a shortage of food.

Hounded by the ghastly American, Markham V. Reynolds, who thinks she’s going to marry him, Juliet jets… sails off to the island to meet everyone in person, and fits in so nicely that long before the book reaches its conclusion, you know she’s going to stay.

Juliet also learns more about Elizabeth McKenna, who thought up the Society’s name when a group of islanders were returning home after the curfew and got caught by a German patrol. McKenna then has an affair and a baby (Kit) with a nice German officer (Christian Hellman), but her pluck and courage get her into trouble, and not in a good way.

Naturally, Juliet ends up adopting Kit, and there’s romance in the air, but Reynolds, who was only interested in her because she’d be an arm ornament, need not apply.

The Guernsey Literary Etc. is an appealing book, but never wholly escapes its American roots. Apart from one oversight that I noticed (note to Americans: we use walkingsticks; cane is used to make baskets and chastise obstreperous schoolboys), the book was written in English. I didn’t know what to make of Billee Bee Jones, Sidney Stark’s Americanly named assistant. I can’t imagine any Englishwoman in 1945/46 being called Billee, let alone Bee. No wonder she turned out to be a wrong ’un.

You can, however, play trope bingo (American style) with The Guernsey Literary Etc.. There’s a gay best friend (Sidney Stark), an adorable moppet (Kit McKenna), a defiant martyr (Elizabeth Mc­Kenna), a tragic romance (Elizabeth McKenna and Christian Hellman), a love triangle (Juliet, Dawsey and Markham), gender-role reversal (Juliet and Dawsey), and a bit of the old will-they-won’t-they (Juliet and Dawsey). Oh, and a city gal (Juliet) finds a home among plain, ornery country folk (Guernsey). (First prize: an eternal subscription to click bait articles from The Guardian, or an American TV series of your choice.) It comes across as a book which, consciously done or otherwise, was written to be turned into a film.

It’s all readable stuff till rather late in the book (probably the part Burrows was responsible for) when it switches from being an epistolary novel to the Diary of Isola Pribby Aged 34 and 3/4. At that point, I started hearing Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident saying, “And I did investigating in the bedroom. And there was threepence ha’penny under the bed. And I did investigating in the laundry etc.” I’m surprised Pribby wasn’t writing to Sidney, although the time frame would’ve made the outcome difficult to delay to allow for the passage of letters between Guernsey and London.

I don’t think the character of Elizabeth McKenna quite worked because of her absence as a direct voice in the text. Priestley did much better with Eva Smith in An Inspector Calls. When Juliet was floundering with her book based on all the stories she’d got from the islanders, Stark observed that the core of the story was McKenna, and then suddenly Juliet starts noticing that everyone’s talking about her, putting her at the centre of their stories, and yet her story is one among many. McKenna’s centrality is never effectively established, and there would have been other islanders who met with similarly tragic fates, but their stories are never heard. Perhaps it was also too obvious that McKenna hadn’t survived Ravensbruck.

Overall, The Guernsey Literary Etc. is an enjoyable, decent enough read which makes good material for a wholesome film.



The Nothing Girl

By Jodi Taylor.

Jenny Dove lives with her aunt and uncle, and has an imaginary golden horse called Thomas as her best friend, who saves her from committing suicide. Jenny has a couple of issues – a slight stutter, and some unnamed problem that’s never identified.

One day, the feckless Russell Checkland, who was previously involved with Jenny’s utterly gorgeous cousin, Francesca, asks her to marry him. Her aunt and uncle strenuously object, and Checkland turns up to the wedding both late and drunk, apparently still pining for Francesca. Within two weeks, Jenny wants a divorce, but her husband asks that she postpone it for a year.

Their new household begins to acquire various waifs and strays: Kevin the hopeless, homeless mugger; Marilyn, an abused donkey with the loudest bray in the world; the housekeeper’s daughter, Sharon; and a mangy, abused cat which Jenny saved from drowning.

Thomas eventually leaves because his services are needed elsewhere, but Jenny acquires a real horse, also called Thomas, of a similar temperament to fill the Thomas-shaped hole in her life.

Jenny also has a series of accidents, which point to something sinister going on. Checkland seems to be the most likely culprit (her aunt and uncle believe that he’s abusing her), but the signals are mixed before the truth is revealed.

The Nothing Girl is a book in which the author seems to have followed her nose to see where the story led. Given that Jenny’s life is in danger, the tone needs to have been more suspenseful and the sense of menace more evident throughout, but the story rambles along for quite a distance with no apparent aim in mind. If the idea was that the book would take a dark turn, it takes too long to get there. Jenny’s alleged major issue is often mentioned, but never specified, and there is a reason for that, but it’s a device that can’t reasonably be sustained.

This is another take on Cinderella along with the obvious Harry Potter, lives-with-uncle-and-aunt trope. There are other books in the series, but I think one is enough and will wait for the next volume in Taylor’s vastly more fun St Mary’s series.


Murder at Meaux

By Cassandra Clark.

Hildegard is scarcely off the ship home before she finds herself ankle deep in corpses. Brother Anselm has allegedly committed suicide, but Hubert doesn’t believe a word of it, and Ulf, Roger de Hutton’s steward, has allegedly murdered his ghastly wife, Eunice.

Hildegard tracks Ulf down, but gets shot with a crossbow bolt for her pains and confined to barracks, but even that can’t stop her from continuing her investigations with the help of Gregory, Egbert and Pierrekyn.

When Sir Bernard Vavasour, his wife Avis, and the local sheriff come for Ulf, Hubert thrusts a big stick into the spokes of their intentions by forcing a hearing to be held at the abbey.

Ulf is proved to be innocent, and villainy is taken into custody. Brother Anselm’s killer is unmasked as well, and how the door of the scriptorium was barred from the inside is also revealed.

Clark seems to be trying too hard to create suspense at times as one event after another goes unexplained, and I began to worry that the book was going to end in a lengthy exposition tying up all of the loose ends that were flapping around like a drunk octopus in a hurricane. Gregory ended up performing that role to some extent, but it was at least integrated into the story rather than ending up as a retrospective monologue from one of the characters.

We already know that Hildegard plays fast and loose with her vows as a Cistercian, and she does so unexpectedly again, confessing to her transgression quite freely. Hubert is suitably annoyed because he’s also been waiting for her to decide what her future is going to be, but Hildegard once again dodges the issue, and by the end of the book remains a member of the church (but quite possibly with a dispensation to have sex with whichever bloke she fancies).

Hubert, like the good Guardian reader he is, acknowledges his own shortcomings, but questions regarding his allegiance remain without any clear resolution, and the exact nature of his relationship with Hildegard could become a tedious distraction if Clark insists on pursuing the whole will-they-won’t-they line.

On a more practical note, there are a number errors in the Kindle edition. Pierrekyn’s name is misspelt several times, and Sir Bernard’s wife, Avis, is mixed up with Ulf’s wife, Eunice, in a couple of place.


Some Kind of Fairy Tale

By Graham Joyce.

When Tara Martin knocks at the door to her parents’ house, they’re stunned because they haven’t seen her in twenty years. In fact, she herself is stunned because she thought she’d only been away for six months.

Her story is that she met a man called “Hiero”, who spirited her away to other world when she was 16. He promised to let her return to the mortal world when the door between it and the fairy realm were open, but what seemed like six months there was twenty here.

Life in the real world has changed. Tara’s mum and dad have got old, her brother, Peter, has become a farrier and has a family of his own, and Richie, her ex-boyfriend, who was accused of her murder and whose life was ruined by her disappearance, remains affected by the events twenty years before.

Tara is packed off to Vivian Underwood, who thinks the whole story about the fairies has been fabricated, but who is taught a lesson because Tara is not the first person to tell him her story.

Meanwhile, Peter’s son Jack accidentally kills a neighbour’s cat and devises an improbable scheme to substitute another one for it.

Predictably, Tara finds herself out of place in the real world, officially being 36, but really still being a teenager who’s picked up some powers from her erstwhile hosts. Hiero has vindictively given his rival a brain tumour, which clears up once the girl has followed her raggle-taggle gypsy back to Tír nan Óg.

The book never quite engaged me. I have no particular interest in the dull banality of rural England, and even less in the chapters which contained lengthy expositions of Underwood’s thoughts about Tara and her supposedly concocted fairy world.

The end of Some Kind of Fairy Tale fizzled somewhat as if Joyce had had enough of it. Tara suddenly vanished back to the land of eternal youth (although that exigency became clear long before she stated it), leaving Richie a note, and no one asked what right Hiero had to inflict a brain tumour on him. At least Mrs Larwood was happy with her replacement cat.


A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia

By Clara Benson.

When Ticky Maltravers drops dead outside Cynthia Pilkington-Soames’ front door, her son, Freddy, a feckless journalist with the Clarion, is forced to move the body and then investigate the incident. It’s not an easy job because all of Maltravers’ acquaintances had good reason to murder him – he was blackmailing them. His man, Weaver, decides to continue his master’s business and gets stabbed in the back.

In spite of his general lack of diligence or competence, Freddy manages to find Maltravers’ collection of incriminating evidence and return the offending items to the victims before also working out who the real killer is, revealing all to the police, and nearly getting stabbed in the process.

Freddy is a likable, personable neutral sort of character, being from his mother’s world, but not closely involved with it. His mother, Cynthia, indifferently leaves it to her son to try and deal with the aftermath of Maltravers’ death while keeping her own vice – gambling – from Freddy’s remotely located father. The mysterious Valentina Sangiacomo and the less mysterious Amelia Drinkwater are both forthright modern girls who will jolly well do as they please in spite of any reservations Freddy might have about their involvement.

The book is very much a collection of comical clichés. Freddy is another Bertie Wooster sort of character (although he lacks a Jeeves to guide him), and his mother and her social circle are all suitably snooty, snobbish and judgemental. However, the obvious elements of the story don’t detract from the entertaining quality of the writing which evokes the style of the age.

Overall, the book is fun, light reading, with Freddy Pilkington-Soames being a mixture of Bertie Wooster (mainly) and Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. We’ll see what happens in coming instalments of the series.


Darien: Empire of Salt

By Conn Iggulden.

In Darien: Empire of Salt, General Justan tries to overthrow the government in a coup d’etat.

That’s about the entire story.

The main characters play their parts in this drama. The clairvoyant hunter, Elias Post, is blackmailed into using his skill to assassinate King Johannes. Nancy discovers that she doesn’t neutralise magic, but absorbs it, and converts it to heat, which she can use to devastating effect. Tellius, the Fagin of Darien, finds that Arthur is not a child, but an ancient child-sized golem, who becomes the king’s bodyguard, and is then made king by Lady Sallet (who is a prominent member of one of the city’s ruling families).

Unlike Elias, I couldn’t see how this one was going to end. I thought the main characters might form some sort of league, but that never happened so that the story ended up being about a bunch of random people with special powers mostly acting randomly. While Elias was forced to help the gunfighter, Vic Deeds, assassinate the king, Nancy murdered Lord Albus, the king’s uncle, in revenge for her father’s death at the hands of Albus’s men, and then promptly turned round to defend the city against General Justan and his army. Arthur, aided by other boys under Tellius’s wing, decided to close the gates of the city even though he had little obvious motivation to do so.

Like Sir Richard Ashbury in Dan Davis’s series Vampier Knight/Outlaw, Elias was constantly being pushed to his limits, and he somehow rather improbably survived, which was suspending my disbelief just a little too far.

The world of Darien is magical, but there are also guns, although these are rare and the tech seems to be beyond the weapons of the 17th century. The Sallet Greens, who are Lady Sallet’s elite warriors, wear magic-powered armour reminiscent of mechas in anime. Indeed, the overall feel is a bit like the anime series Last Exile.

It may be that the overall story will become clearer as the trilogy progresses, but far from appearing to led to an obvious second book, Darien: Empire of Salt is self-contained.

The story is a decent read, but does seem to be a little aimless.


Vampire Crusader

By Dan Davis.

In Vampire Outlaw, Sir Richard of Ashbury embarks on his windiest adventure yet. His brother, William de Ferrers, wants to lure him to Sherwood Forest where he will use his brother’s blood to create new vampire minions because he’s fed up with doing it all himself. Instead, on the order of Richard’s liege lord, the Archbishop of York, he heads to the Weald. And then he heads back towards Sherwood. And then back to the Weald in what appears to be some sort of odd medieval tennis match. And some of the time, he’s dragging around the evil Friar Tuck because he needs to torture him for information about de Ferrers, but in the end, he abandons that idea, and if he had the slightest inkling of what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have bothered because ultimately he finds William in Sherwood without getting information out of anyone. But it takes some time before Richard deposits Marian and Eva (who is both the archbishop’s daughter and his bodyguard) at a priory from which they are abducted to lure our hero and his company into the forest.

All the while, the chapters are long, the fights seem longer (and often repetitious), and although things happen such as raids on camps of French soldiers and an attack on Lincoln, the whole story feels like a prolonged bout of literary inertia which would’ve benefited from brutal editing by getting Richard straight to Sherwood for his big fight instead of having him scurry from one end of England to the other.

The whole Friar Tuck episode is a case in point. Richard even goes so far as to capture some villainous nobleman for Tuck to tuck into, but when it doesn’t have the desired effect, Richard decides to kill the friar and his snack. It’s only at the very end that Tuck reveals some plot to poison King John, which Richard vainly attempts to thwart. But as far as getting Richard to Sherwood to confront de Ferrers goes, he should’ve killed Friar Tuck as soon as possible, or sometime before that. In truth, the complete excision of this part of the story would be no great loss.

The length of the chapters doesn’t help the ponderous nature of the story. Even the internal breaks within chapters often come less infrequently than I’d like because the waffly prose is fatiguing.

Davis still can’t tell the difference between “lie” and “lay”, and “taught” for “taut” slipped through along with a couple of nonsensical errors which I couldn’t decipher. There were a few instances of “for” as a conjunction, which is at best dated. As I said in my previous review of Davis’s work, It’s not literary or elegant. I’m not sure how much effort gets put into revision, but there were occasions where the author got stuck on his new favourite word. Such instances of novel vocabulary tend to be obvious, and are all right, but not if the word is used again in a page or two when a thesaurus should’ve been consulted. The same goes for a certain amount of repetitiousness when Richard eventually meets de Ferrers and keeps declaring him to be a raving loon.

“Would you care for a cup of blood?” asked William as if he was serving afternoon tea.
”You’re a raving loon,” said Richard.
“Nice weather we’ve been having.”
“You’re a raving loon.”
“I see the West Indies are 35 for 2 after 20 overs.”
“You’re a raving loon.”

There is, as I feared, a third book on the way, but I shan’t be reading it.

Vampire Crusader

By Dan Davis.

Richard of Ashbury arrives home to find his brother and his entire household have been brutally slaughtered. His dying sister-in-law, Isabella, extracts a promise from him that he’ll avenge their deaths. And off he goes after William de Ferrers, who has a retinue of six exceptionally monstrous men.

Richard travels to Marseilles where he encounters one of de Ferrers’ men, Rollo, and defeats him before he sails for the Holy Land. There he espies Alice de Frenenterre, Richard the Lionheart’s girlfriend, and eventually manages to start a somewhat fraught relationship with her.

Meanwhile, there’s the little matter of liberating the cities of the Levant from their rightful owners, and in the course of the fighting, Richard distinguishes himself and win plaudits from King Richard. Now that he’s a big noise, he marries Alice.

It doesn’t last. William and his men attack Richard’s home, kill Alice, and abduct the children. Richard the Lionheart offers assistance from his vassal, Henry, the King of Jerusalem, but the latter refuses money and arms, and sends Richard to the archbishop, who has a priest who knows where de Ferrers and his band are hiding.

There’s an ambush, but Richard manages to kill his attackers before entering a cave system where he confronts de Ferrers after killing the rest of his retinue. However, his archenemy resorts to the old trope of giving Richard the choice between killing him or rescuing the prisoners, and being a Good Bloke™, he rescues the prisoners among which are his stepchildren. Nonetheless, in spite of certain revelations, Richard is still determined to have his revenge.

It becomes clear during the course of the story that Richard is a little odd, and initially, it does seem strange that he doesn’t account for it or know how he got that way. It’s only later in the story that he learns the truth, but by then it’s clear that he’s a sort of vampire-like creature. Curiously enough, even if no one knows that the man is some sort of blood-drinking creature, a lot of people seem to know about his true background, though he is unaware of it.

The book is not badly written, but it’s not well written, either. There’s quite a lot of repetition such as frequent comments in the fight scenes about how fast Richard’s opponents are or how fast he is or how large his opponents are. There’s quite a lot of grinning, and Richard often alienates others. The book needed to be revised to supply the necessary variation that the perceptive reader appreciates. Davis also has a bit an obsession, it seems, with everywhere being stinky one way or another, although that was quite possibly the Middle Ages all over.

The author clearly doesn’t understand the difference between “lie” (recline) and “lay” (place one thing on another), gratingly opting for the latter throughout. He also uses “for” as a causative conjunction and he uses it in that Greco-Latin usage at the start of a sentence, which is an entirely un-English construction. This is not posh or literary (at least it hasn’t been literary since 1913), and it’s not natural contemporary English. At least Davis is not as bad as Ann Swinfen when it comes to this.

The Alchemist of Netley Abbey

By Cassandra Clark.

As the gang rides home from Salisbury (in the wrong direction), some mercenaries attack them, causing Herbert de Courcy to break his leg. From there he’s ferried to Netley Abbey where a group of pilgrims is waiting to board the St Marie to continue on to their destination, and a somewhat batty Welsh monk, Hywel, is conducting somewhat batty experiments.

“All right,” said Hildegard, “where’s the body?”

It’s Brother Martin, who happened to be on the ship when it got struck by lightning, although that didn’t kill him, but rather poison did.

Meanwhile, the sluice running beneath the kitchen which the monks use to trap fish has got blocked.

“It’ll be a body,” said Hywel, and everyone else agreed, although they tried not to look at Hildegard in case they were next to meet with an untimely end.

Indeed it was. There’s no point in being coy about it.

Meanwhile, the sickly Mistress Beata makes it known that she has access to the book which Hywel has been waiting for, but she’s being as medieval version of ebay to screw money out of her husband, which she gives to the acrobatic Alaric so that he can become a monk.

And with that, the gang start sailing home.

I was hoping this would be the last in the series, but it isn’t. The relationship between Hildegard and Hubert hasn’t been resolved, but there’s plenty of sneaky snogging, and Hildegard is frequently naked (because of the unusually hot weather; honest). The story has a couple of twists to it with the vague possibility that the prostitute Delith might reappear in a future tale.

The spelling is all over the place at times, from the misspelling of “travelled” and “travelling” to mixed instances of “sceptical” in close proximity to each other, to the outright misspellings of “fiery” and “nothing”. “Militia” ([collective noun] “group of weapon-wielding yokels”) is often used for a single member of the group in the same way ignorant hacks use “forces” (uncountable; yes, I know that’s morphologically ironic) as if it means “soldiers” (countable entities) before the correct “militiamen” is employed. “HQ”? In the Middle Ages? I think not. “Pimp”? What is this? Some tacky American film from the 70s? O tempora, o lack of appropriate heroic diction!

I assume Clark is perhaps working on the next volume, but though she lacks George Martin’s flatulent verbosity, she should, I think, bring the whole thing to an end before Hildegard ends up being a one-woman plague, mowing down people from one end of England to another.

The Scandal of the Skulls

By Cassandra Clark.

‘I’m brilliant and everyone else is an arse,’ said the slogan on Hildegard’s T-shirt, and she meant it.

Hildegard, Hubert, and Hubert’s mates, a couple of ninja monks called Gregory and Egbert, return to England in the middle of a storm. Hildegard makes her way to Salisbury with Gregory where before she can say, “I’m the main character. Let me through!”, there’s a corpse dangling from a windlass up the cathedral spire and she’s already sticking her nose into everyone else’s business, but making little headway into the case.

She also discovers she’s being followed by a mysterious man called Sir John de Lincoln, who seems to know a lot about her, even her cool spy name, Mistress York. De Lincoln reveals that he was one of Thomas Swynford’s gang the night Rivera was lynched, but the killing disgusted him so much that he’s renounced his allegiance to his former master and his faction.

“I like Little Dick,” said de Lincoln.
“I prefer big dick myself,” said Hildegard.
“Who’s Big Dick?”
“Hubert de Courcy’s.”
De Lincoln looked puzzled.

While the nun is in Salisbury, she takes a detour to Clarendon to see her daughter, Ysabella, who is one of the Countess of Salisbury’s wards. The countess wants to arrange a suitable marriage for her, which turns out to be a union with de Lincoln, although the business is just part of his nefarious plot.

Back in Salisbury, another man is murdered, and the finger of blame points at Frank Atkinson, who vanishes as if he’s been swallowed up by a hole in the ground – where Hildegard eventually finds him. The evidence is suggesting that in spite of Atkinson’s apparent connection to both murders, he’s a red herring.

There’s also the matter of getting some gold to London to get the popular Sir Simon Burley, Ricard II’s tutor, out of the Tower. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Hildegard receives a bunch of lavender, but when she reaches Clarendon, everyone’s gone. “Everyone’s gone, domina,” said the servant. What an idiot, thought Hildegard and ran around the house shouting, “Ysabella!” even though no one was there. When she does catch up with the countess, it’s clear de Lincoln has abducted Ysabella and her boyfriend, Ivo, and that they’ve gone into the marsh. Of course, de Lincoln falls in…

…and then he falls out because like Escrick Fitzjohn, the man is a human water bear. While Hildegard is wandering around the town, watching the May Day celebrations, de Lincoln appears out of nowhere and drags her up the steeple for the grand finale. It’s all part of de Lincoln’s nefarious plot.

Although The Scandal of the Skulls reaches a point where little progress has been made in identifying the murderer, it doesn’t fall into the same trap as The Butcher of Avignon with long passages in which Hildegard is going through a tedious process of elimination. In fact, the murders are ultimately less important than de Lincoln’s twisted schemes, and in the end, the former are no more than a distraction.

Hildegard’s character shifts at times as she morphs into one of those annoying people who thinks she alone is competent while deriding everyone else. Her trip to Clarendon is an egregious example of this, where she still goes about the place even though the remaining servant has informed her that no one’s in. She needs better motivation (beyond being the main character) to investigate matters that are no concern of hers. Perhaps she could set up shop as a PI, say, The No. 1 Nun’s Detective Agency. Ysabella comes across as an annoying 14-year-old Guardian reader who thinks that by sounding huffy about something, her wishes will be effected. Overall, there are more Guardian-like comments in this volume. De Lincoln appears to be unhinged with his empty dark eyes that are dark and empty. Brother Gregory is repeatedly described as having sun-bleached hair as if the reader has forgotten within a few paragraphs that he was in the Middle East for many years.

Overall, the story is well plotted. Even if the identification of the killer comes late in the day and is of no real relevance, Clark brings everything cleverly together.

There are a few typos in the Kindle edition, including the repetition of a long passage early on. This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening in the first place regardless of the source. There’s also the matter of the title, which has nothing to do with the the content. There’s no scandal and even fewer skulls.