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Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ann Cleeves' Shetland series - Books 3 & 4

Readers of my earlier posts on White Nights and Raven Black might remember that I was trying to get through this series quickly as I was excited to watch the BBC adaptation on television. Unfortunately it didn’t especially grab me after watching the first episode. As is often the case when a favourite book makes it onto the screen, the characters just weren't as engaging as they appear in my head! And the main problem was that the BBC started halfway through the series with Red Bones, which I hadn’t read at that point and I didn’t want it spoiling the book for me. So I gave up on the TV show and concentrated on the last two books in the series.

Here are a couple of mini-reviews of the third and fourth books in the Shetland series. I really enjoyed them, but does anybody else find crime fiction so hard to review sometimes? I have nothing but admiration for dedicated crime fiction bloggers who can write reviews that are so much more than a simple synopsis but also manage not to give away any spoilers.

Those who have enjoyed White Nights and Raven Black will already know Sandy Wilson as Jimmy Perez’s bumbling young sidekick, clumsy and a little careless. But in Red Bones we get to know him and the complicated dynamics of his family much better as his elderly grandmother is found shot in her garden. At first it seems like a tragic accident when one of the islanders confesses to taking pot-shots at stray rabbits in the dark at the time the death occurred. But Mima was a feisty old lady who knew all the gossip about everyone on the island, and something doesn't seem quite right about her demise. Suspicion is cast upon the Whalsay locals as well as a group of archaeologists who have been conducting a dig on Mima's land. Everybody is excited to dig up old coins and bits of pottery, but it’s only when human remains are found that they realise just how significant the site may be to Shetland history. Maybe some things should be left buried.

Red Bones didn’t capture my attention as much as the others in the series, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a good read. I just didn’t feel that the setting or characters were particularly memorable and the ending lacked the impact of the first two books in the quartet. I think it's worth reading as part of the series, but I wouldn't get too excited about it as a stand-alone novel.

For the final instalment in the Shetland series, Blue Lightning, we see Perez return home to Fair Isle at long last to introduce his fiancée, Fran, to his parents before they marry. It's a bleak setting - the weather is miserable and Jimmy is under pressure from old man Perez to return to the island for good and settle down there. But he doesn't have chance to ponder his domestic situation for too long because a murder has been committed at the bird observatory's hotel, and bad weather means that Fair Isle is inaccessible to the outside world. Perez has to deal with this one on his own.

This is by far my favourite of Cleeves' quartet. It is simply a wonderful mystery and very reminiscent of  Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ which is one of my favourites of all time. A small cast of suspects, strangers to each other and to the island, unable to leave and unable to access any assistance from outside. The tension is unbearable and I was left guessing until the last moment when the final event is revealed and comes as a real punch in the guts! This was a dark and thrilling ending to the whole series and as I have grown very fond of Jimmy, Fran, Sandy et al I am really sad that there will be no more.

I have been very impressed by Ann Cleeves' skill in twisting intricate plot strands together effortlessly and in creating realistic characters with great depth. I must try her Vera Stanhope books next. Can anybody recommend any more of her books to me?

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

World Book Night 2013

So today is World Book Night and this year has been the first that I have participated as a giver of books! For those unfamiliar with this event, World Book Night is a charitable event aimed to promote reading in adults. It runs as a parallel to the more established World Book Day, which tends to be more oriented towards children. All over the world people have been giving away free books today, particularly to those who don't read for one reason or another - maybe they don't think reading for pleasure is for them, maybe they 'don't have time', or perhaps they find reading itself to be a struggle. A few months back I applied and was accepted to give away copies of Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture. So today I set off to work at the hospital with a big bag of lovely books to distribute!
I had originally intended to give the books away to patients at work but as the day approached I became more and more apprehensive about this idea. There were two things holding me back: firstly, the nature of the job I'm doing at the moment means that most of my patients are quite acutely unwell, either waiting for investigations or immediately post-surgery, and I don't think that many of them would be particularly enthusiastic about fiction while they are feeling so rotten. And secondly, I have to admit that I wondered how professional it would seem to be approaching patients to have a chat about reading. I'm quite conscious of the way in which front-line NHS staff are being portrayed in a fairly negative light in some corners of the media at the moment, and was worried that people would turn around and tell me to stop asking them about books and to get on with doing my job!

So when I set out this morning I changed tack and decided to start by sharing books with colleagues instead. And it went really well! I handed some out to other doctors and left a little pile in the doctors' mess with a World Book Night poster explaining that people could help themselves. I also gave some to the cleaners, canteen staff and some of the nurses who I work with on the ward. It was really nice to see the smile on peoples' faces and in some cases incredulity that you were offering them a book that was entirely free. Lots of people said that they didn't read much as they don't feel they have the time, but said they would make an exception to give The Secret Scripture a try. In the spirit of the event I tried to avoid giving copies to keen readers, but when you're offering free books it's a bit like moths to a flame and it would have been very difficult to say no. But what was nice was how a couple of the self-confessed bookworms noted the name of our local bookshop that I'd written inside their copies, and said that they would strive to visit independent bookshops more often rather than always buying from Amazon.

There were a few hiccups, though. A couple of ladies seemed very suspicious that there was some sort of religious organisation behind the event that might have a spiritual agenda (possibly due to the title of the book I chose!). They were asking "well who else would be giving away books for free? Have the government paid for these?". It's funny how people tend to think there must be a catch and that nothing in life really comes for free. I overheard another man ask his friend: "Do you think you're going to read that, then?". He replied: "Well, no, but it's free isn't it? So you may as well take one". I nearly called him a cheeky monkey and asked for it back! But then I thought that maybe he would change his mind when he got home, or perhaps he was just putting on a bit of bravado in front of his friend so as not to seem nerdy and bookish. I do think some people still see reading as a bit of a nerdy pastime! But even if a book was free, why would you take it if you had absolutely no intention of ever attempting to read it?

At the end of the day I had about 8 copies left in my bag, so on my way home I took a trip up the stairwell of my building and left them on the doormats of neighbours who I don't know with a little note to say Happy World Book Night! I felt like Father Christmas sneaking around and hoping that nobody caught me in the act. I hope they enjoy the surprise when they leave the house tomorrow morning, and who knows, maybe I will meet some new friendly neighbours as a result if they like the book and strike up a conversation in future.

So ultimately I enjoyed my World Book Night experience and I'm really glad I made the effort to get involved. To anybody considering taking part as a giver next year; it is a scary idea at first but quite a rewarding task to undertake. I really want people to enjoy The Secret Scripture as much as I did. And to anybody who also participated in the events this time around; I hope you had fun!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

I am back to the blog after taking a little bit of a break to navel-gaze and think about how exactly I can make the most of my time and fit in everything I need to do. It just got to a point where I was feeling like there are simply not enough hours in the day - drained and burnt out. In addition, I had a bit of a run of reading mediocre and uninspiring books, and had little inclination to sit down and make the effort to document my thoughts on them. But after a short blogging holiday I am feeling more motivated to start again, so it should be business as usual from here on in!

In my absence I have been cracking on with the Literary Exploration Challenge and making good progress with that. I also found this great video over on Ariel Bissett's Youtube channel. She talks a lot of sense about compulsive book-buying and the wasted potential involved in having hundreds of books on your shelves that you'll never have time to read.

This really struck a chord with me so I've decided to set myself a challenge of sorts to try and rein in my book-buying habit - a 'three out, one in' system. It's been going to plan since I started at the beginning of April, but I have to confess I've been cheating a little by reaching mainly for the thinnest books on my shelves, little novellas I can whizz through in a day! Books like this one.

This is a something that I should have got around to reading ages ago. I had it lined up for my RIP challenge in the Autumn but just wasn't in the mood to read it back then. I tend to think that horror stories like this are perfect for dark and blustery days, but I eventually picked this up on a gloriously sunny Sunday and enjoyed it just the same, finishing it in a few hours.

Many people may be familiar with this spooky tale after seeing the successful movie adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. I haven't seen it, so didn't have much idea of what to expect. Arthur Kipps is a junior solicitor trying to build a reputation and gain experience in his field. So when his boss offers him the chance to travel to the isolated rural town of Crythin Gifford to arrange the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow, he agrees at once. On arrival in the town it is clear that something isn't quite right with the Drablow estate, but the locals keep their mouths tightly shut and diligent Arthur is determined to press on with his work. But a creeping sense of unease descends as he tries to uncover Mrs Drablow's secrets and find out the identity of the mysterious woman in black who seems to be keeping an eye on his every action.

This is a small and perfectly formed horror story written in the tradition of the Victorian Gothic classics. I'm not sure if I thought it good enough to be considered as a classic in its own right, but it is certainly very satisfying. Susan Hill's writing is beautifully descriptive and paints an incredibly vivid picture of the eerie, fog-drenched landscape of the salt marshes. It's one of those books where I truly don't see how the film could match up to the perfect images that the prose conjures up in your mind - I can't imagine it having the same impact. The suspense builds slowly up to a chilling climax. If anything stopped me from truly loving The Woman In Black it would be the fact that I didn't really engage with Arthur as a character and found him a little dull. However, it is short enough for that not to pose too great a problem. Give this a read if you're in the mood for some shivers down your spine.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Forty Years Of Murder by Professor Keith Simpson


As you are probably beginning to realise, there are many genres in the Literary Exploration Challenge that I have been dreading having to read. It feels like almost every time I write an update I'm saying 'this genre isn't my usual cup of tea' - who knew I was so narrow-minded when it comes to books?! But there is probably no category on the list that I found so unappealing as True Crime. To be honest, I was surprised it even made it onto the challenge list, as when I think of True Crime books I think of trashy, sensationalist accounts of grisly murders that aren't particularly 'literary' at all. In my head I tend to lump them in with those 'misery memoir' books about people who have suffered terrible childhoods. There's a certain sense of voyeurism about them. Of course there are many well-written mysteries and crime novels that are based on true stories, but my overall impression of the genre was not good.

Inspiration eventually came from an unlikely source. I was flicking through my old copies of the BMJ and in amongst all the journal articles and studies I came across their literary column, where they highlight books, poems or plays with an interesting medical slant. This particular issue had recommended a bestselling autobiographical account of a doctor with an unusual and fascinating career. I suspected it would be long out-of-print and impossible to track down, but fortunately ReadItSwapIt came to the rescue and I managed to source a second-hand copy.

Professor Keith Simpson was the first Professor of Forensic Medicine at Guy's hospital in London, and began his career as a forensic pathologist in the 1930s and 40s. He worked on countless high-profile murder cases for the Home Office and Scotland Yard, involving criminals who have now become infamous, such as the Kray twins and Lord Lucan.

By far the most fascinating aspect of this book is the detail about the history of forensic medicine. Anybody who reads a lot of crime fiction or watches CSI would think Simpson was working in a completely different world. These days it is easy to think that a murderer can be convicted on the basis of a DNA match from a cheek swab that takes 5 seconds to do. But back in wartime Britain the technology to do that didn't exist and it was infinitely more difficult to prove someone guilty. Simpson pioneered techniques that we take for granted today, such as forensic odontology (identifying a criminal from bite marks left on the victim). He also had to demonstrate the quick intelligence to explain and justify his conclusions in court.

His writing style can come across as a bit smug and self-congratulatory, and that did grate at times, but to be fair his achievements are truly astounding. I was amazed to read that on one occasion he was able to prove murder had taken place through identifying a single gall stone in a pile of rubble (with only the naked eye) after the rest of the body had been dissolved in acid.

As well as learning about the roots of forensic pathology you get a real insight into how much society in general has changed over the years. A large number of the criminals mentioned in this book were eventually hanged, and it's also interesting to read about how many got off scot-free because of a lack of hard evidence in court. Without the concrete proof provided by DNA tests etc., a conviction could rest solely on the pathologist's clinical deductions and reasoning, and it was often possible for the defence to pick holes in his logic. I was also amused to see how much society's attitudes towards doctors have changed. Simpson discusses a case in which he proved the innocence of a doctor who had been accusing of killing his patient for monetary gain. He dismisses this as a possible motive:
"She had left an estate of £157,000, out of which the doctor received an old Rolls Royce and a chest containing silver valued at £275...hardly a rich legacy!"
I imagine concerns might certainly be raised these days if a GP inherited a car and a chest of silver from one of his patients! On the other hand, Simpson also talks about doctors who got into trouble after prescribing morphine and sedatives for palliation of their terminally ill patients. When you consider the fuss that has recently been kicked up in the press about palliative care and the use of the Liverpool Care Pathway, it seems that maybe not so much has changed after all.

So of course, this is a book chock-full of gruesome stories and grisly details, and if you are of a squeamish disposition then I'd steer well clear. But anybody who is a fan of crime fiction - particularly with a forensic/pathological theme, such as the novels of Tess Gerritsen or Patricia Cornwell - would do well to track down a copy as it is a really interesting read.