The Birdwatcher by William Shaw

I wwas recommended to the author’s series featuring DS Alexandra Cupidi. On investigating, I found that there is this first novel before the series proper begins. While we are introduced to Alex Cupidi, the central character is another police officer, Sergeant William South.

We are told at the outset that South has committed a murder. This is the story of how he investigates a murder, while at the same time the secret he has kept hidden for years is unravelled.

Set in the sometimes bleak marshy coastal area around Dungeness in Kent, The Birdwatcher introduces us to the area and to DS Cupidi, while being a good police crime story in its own right.

A solid 8 out of 10.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Ian Pears

This is a weighty book. Literally – the hardback-sized paperback is 890g, or about 2lb!

This is also a long book, coming in at 690 pages of fairly close text.

We are taken back to the later years of the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). Here we have 4 accounts of events in Oxford in 1663. The Restoration is in its early years. There are many political and religious tensions – at this time the two were closely related. The 4 accounts are of mainly the same events, but written from different points of view and with different motivations. Many actual historical figures are featured, albeit with elements of fiction woven into their actual stories. Having studied this period of English History as a ‘special subject’ in History A Level 45 years ago, I found the aspects that were founded in historical fact very interesting. I shall have to pick up my copy of Aubrey’s Brief Lives again.

The book is set around events in Oxford, and particularly the death of an Oxford don and how a young woman was accused of his murder, tried and hanged. We see how some believed in Sarah Blundy’s guilt, some tried to save her, and others thought that although innocent Sarah had to hang to protect other interests.

As I said, we have 4 different accounts. The narrators are a Venetian merchant’s son and doctor, a student who is trying to clear his father’s name of the stain of treachery to the Royalist cause, a cryptographer who worked for Cromwell and now the restored King – a man who sees plots everywhere, and a bookish historian. Each brings his own perspective and agenda to the telling of the story. Each story contains elements of the truth, but also misdirects the reader through that narrator’s interpretation or misdirection. One distracts from the truth of his activities to protect others, one is vain and deluded, and possibly mad, a third is so caught up in his own preoccupations that he comes close to the truth of what has been going on but ends up getting it very wrong. And it all comes together only in the last pages.

This book is long. I had to persevere with it somewhat as I found two of the narrators unsympathetic and overly preoccupied with their own reputations, with showing themselves in a good light. But it was worth persevering with in the way that all came together and the author reveals what was actually happening. As a literary thriller, a kind of detective story, it is very satisfying.

As I said, a weighty book. It requires patience, but I think it is worth it. 9 out of 10.

The Singing Line by Alice Thomson

I bought The Singing Line in 2012, following a recommendation by an Australian friend. So I have just read it, 9 years later.

Alice Thomson is the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Todd and his young wife Alice. In the 1850s the newly wed Charles and Alice left England for the colony of South Australia. Charles Todd led the ambitious project of constructing a telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, where it could be connected to a cable that would complete a link between Australia and the rest of the Empire. Messages between Australia and London that had taken months to reach their destination would take a few hours.

The continent had only been crossed once before from north to south. There were deserts, mountains, swamps to traverse. There was no known route across the mountain ranges in the middle. And yet Todd did it. He named the town of Alice Springs after his wife.

Some 125 years later his great-great-granddaughter and her husband followed the route of the telegraph across Australia. This book tells the story of that 1997 journey, of Charles Todd and his construction of the telegraph line, and of Alice. Ultimately it is a very human story, well told.

9 out of 10.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

I think a lot of my problems with this book may be the responsibility of the narrator. It took me a while to realise that this book is written in a number of different voices. The narrator did not change his voice, and the introduction at the beginning of each chapter did not initially make this clear. In fact the narration was at times pretty lifeless, making it easy for my attention to wander. That is a pity.

This book is set in Istanbul some centuries ago, I think the late 1500s. It centres on the school of miniaturists attached to the sultan’s court. There is a love story, and also a detective thriller as the killer of two of the artists is tracked down.

At the heart of this book is also a discussion of the differing approaches of Islamic and European art, a conflict which has led to the killings.

I think with a different narrator I might well have enjoyed this book more, rather than wishing it would come to an end. I think I will probably try more Orhan Pamuk, but not with John Lee.

That is why I am giving this 6 out of 10.

The Creak on The stairs by Eva Björg Ægisdóttir

There seems to be more and more of a set formula to Icelandic crime novels: The detective relocating from Reykjavik to get away from something in their past; a claustrophobic small town; an unsolved mystery a generation earlier; and – of course – a murder.

The Creak on the Stairs follows that formula. It does it well. Elma is a detective relocated to her home town of Akranes, escaping memories of her breakup in the big city. Not long after she returns, a body is found. The deceased also used to live in Akranes, and has avoided the town ever since. So why was she there? Why has she been killed?

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir reveals the details slowly, both of what comes out in the investigation and of what happened in the dead woman’s past. And when all is answered, the answers are satisfyingly not what might have been expected.

So yes, this book follows the formula, but it does it well. 7 out of 10.

The Girl From The Hermitage by Molly Gartland

Disclosure: I was given the kindle e-book by the publisher.

I read this book under something of a misapprehension. You know those books that start with an episode from many years ago, and then fast forward to more recent times, when the secrets that have been hidden all those years come out?

Well this is not one of those books. The trouble is that until late on I thought it was.

What we have here is the story of Galina, a child of the Soviet Union, with episodes in her life and her difficulties accepting the changes as the old order changes. The first scenes take place in Leningrad, in the bitter winter of 1941 when the city is under siege. Galina is a child. Her father is commissioned to paint the portrait of a general’s sons. Her uncle has ‘disappeared’. Her father dies.

We then move on, pretty much a generation at a time, with episodes of Galina’s life as a mother, grandmother and great grandmother. And I kept expecting some big reveal going back to the time spent huddling in the cellars of the Hermitage during the siege, but it never came.

No, this is just the story of Galina’s life, told through those episodes at intervals of 20-odd years. In the end I was reminded of the old ladies I saw in 1993, in the Budapest equivalent of Bond Street, trying to sell a bunch or two of vegetables outside the opulent luxury shops that had suddenly arrived.

Molly Gartland tells Galina’s story nicely. It feels authentic. 7 out of 10.

Rachel to the Rescue by Elinor Lipman

This is a lightweight, harmless attempt at topical satire. Rachel has a junior menial job in the Trump White House, After being fired for an unflattering comment about Trump sent in a “reply all” to an e-mail, she is run down as she leaves the White House. The driver happens to be the President’s mistress.

And so it continues, a kind of parallel universe, a different history to the one we know happened. With a bit of a romance thrown in.

And it all ends suddenly with a swift change of gears as Covid shuts things down in March 2020. But then real life was like that.

As I said: lightweight and harmless (or should that be mostly harmless?). 6 out of 10.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

What a lovely book! The Midnight Library has been getting high praise, and deservedly so.

Nora Seed’s life is falling apart. It is full of regrets – about things she backed out of, including possibly being good enough to swim in the Olympics, her engagement to be married, and being in a rock band. She decides to end it all.

But she ends up between life and death, in the Midnight Library. Here she is given the opportunity to try out other lives she might have led, had she made other choices at various times. One by one her regrets are unpacked, and she gets the chance to see them all in a new light.

Beyond that, no spoilers. Very well narrated by Carey Mulligan. 10 out of 10

Rather be the Devil by Ian Rankin

Yes, another Rebus. The 21st, in fact.

DI Rebus is still retired, and so is in fact a civilian. Yet he still sticks his nose in to cases in which Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are involved, and seems to end up running them. I am surprised Siobhan and Malcolm haven’t been told that if they have anything further to do with Rebus they will be out of the force!

This novel has a mix of old cold case, up to date police politics following the restructuring into Police Scotland, and investigation of current crime. And of course Rebus and Cafferty – who also seems to be having second thoughts about being retired – continue their ambiguous relationship..

Not the best Rebus, but not bad. The series has yet to disappoint.

7 out of 10.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

I chose this audiobook out of sheer curiosity: I knew next to nothing about Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes except that they had a fearsome reputation. And what a fascinating history this turned out to be.

The story comes in 3 parts. We begin with the boy who was to become Genghis Khan, how he grew from just another boy in a nomadic herder family to defeat and unite clans then tribes to become the Great Khan of the Mongols, and then embark on wars of conquest.

Then we have the massive expansion of the Mongol Empire, from Korea to the Mediterranean, with discussion of the tactics, often brutal and ruthless, always cunning, that were used to defeat enemies. (Interestingly, it seems that they pretty much decided that Europe 800 years ago was too backward and not worth bothering with.)

The final section covers the rapid decline of the Mongol Empire, and its lasting effects. In some ways, this last section was the most fascinating.

It was interesting to be listening to this audiobook in 2020. It seems that a substantial cause of the collapse of the empire was the Black Death, which came out of China and was rapidly carried along the trade routes and communication lines of the Mongols. Just a few weeks earlier I had read an article arguing that a major cause of the demise of the Roman Empire was a couple of pandemics in the period 3-400 CE, spread through the Roman communication routes.

I found this fascinating and really interesting. Strongly recommended. 9 out of 10.