The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths – a review

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For today’s Thursday Creation Review, I’m catching up on an outstanding one from March when. I wrote a few words on Goodreads for this third book in the Fiona Griffiths series by Harry Bingham and promised a longer review.

This will be my third review of a Fiona Griffiths book – see also: Book 1. Talking to the Dead and Book 2. Love Story with Murders.

Anyway, as promised…

StrangeDeath

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths

(Fiona Griffiths #3)

by

Harry Bingham (Goodreads Author)

It started out as nothing much. A minor payroll fraud at a furniture store in South Wales. No homicide involved, no corpses. Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths fights to get free of the case but loses. She’s tasked with the investigation.

She begins her enquiries, only to discover the corpse of a woman who’s starved to death. Looks further, and soon realizes that within the first, smaller crime, a vaster one looms: the most audacious theft in history.

Fiona’s bosses need a copper willing to go undercover, and they ask Fiona to play the role of a timid payroll clerk so that she can penetrate the criminal gang from within.

Fiona will be alone, she’ll be lethally vulnerable – and her fragile grip on ‘Planet Normal’ will be tested as never before …

Review 5 stars

Fiona Griffiths is one amazingly quirky detective and this third book adds just another layer or two to her persona. Harry Bingham continues to throw curve balls in her path, starting with that title.

When DC Fiona Griffiths is tasked with investigating a minor payroll fraud, she discovers a vaster crime is lurking within the first. Fiona is asked to go undercover as a timid payroll clerk to penetrate the criminal gang from inside. But, being alone and vulnerable, challenges her ability to cope with reality.

I enjoyed this third book even more than the previous. Fiona continues to go down unexpected paths and evolve in unexpected ways. With her new persona, she is so complex and fascinating that there was room for her to explore this new world, discover different people – all well portrayed – and prove she can interact convincingly with criminals. If you have read the first two books, then you know that her father has criminal connections. However, she is always operating on a precipice – in reality, and in her mind.

As Fiona becomes Jessica, there is a clever change of pace that matches the new character – a new character that Fiona inhabits almost too well. The title began to make sense, but then the author added new twists and turns – new layers to his protagonist and that title.

The settings are crafted with a realism that matches the unfolding story – from London offices to remote Welsh farms. Gritty when the scene requires that but uplifting when the reader needs green spaces and strong breezes. A year in Fiona’s life covers so much territory.

Harry Bingham is a great believer in keeping readers thinking as well as the coppers and the criminals. He creates believable situations and demonstrates the depth of his research, even down to the details of forms that Fiona/Jessica handles and the electronics both sides use.

Nothing is ever easy or calm when undercover, and as Fiona/Jessica got deeper into this criminal world, I asked, “Will Jessica survive?” Prepare for another awesome ending.

I look forward to visiting Fiona Griffiths’ Cardiff/South Wales world soon, especially as she has ongoing questions to resolve.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

Mr Churchill’s Secretary – a review

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For today’s Thursday Creation Review, I’m reviewing a historical mystery set in World War II that I read after reading tempting reviews for two books from the ongoing series.

I’m hesitating from getting the next book for reasons stated in the review – and the length of the series so the costs in reading time and my dwindling book funds.

 MaggieHope

Mr Churchill’s Secretary

(Maggie Hope Mystery #1)

by

Susan Elia MacNeal (Goodreads Author)

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.

Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

In this thrilling debut, Susan Elia MacNeal blends meticulous research on the era, psychological insight into Winston Churchill, and the creation of a riveting main character, Maggie Hope, into a beautifully crafted mystery.

Review 3.7 stars

Fortunately, I didn’t read too many reviews of this novel first, so my enjoyment wasn’t tainted by watching out for potholes – historical or linguistic errors. Yes, I spotted some mistakes, but the plot swept me past them. So, I’m not going to nit-pick – and I know first-hand about American editors making changes for their larger market. (I fear my own writing lapses into Americanisms that might cause problems.)

Anyway, I suspended my disbelief and judgemental self to read about a clever young woman attempting to push past the restrictions imposed on women. The heroine, Maggie Hope has the qualifications to be more than just a typist for Winston Churchill, but that is how she starts out at 10, Downing Street. From there, she becomes involved in ‘a web of spies, murder, and intrigue’ earning promotion of sorts.

The plot unfolds through a series of events told from multiple POVs – almost too many by the end, though never a read-block – and the threads are brought together in a series of climactic episodes. Eventually, these lead into the over-long set-up for what has become not just a sequel but a series of books.

Were there plot holes? No, a few coincidences but life is full of them, and these felt explained, especially as some characters were being minimal with what they told Maggie – they have their reasons like there is a war on and “Careless talk costs lives”.

As a Brit ex-pat living in the US, I enjoyed reading about London during the war and recognised places from having lived there (and researched places destroyed in the Blitz). The fashion, music, art and celebrity references made me smile, especially as Maggie was part of a set on the fringes of high-society. Hobnobbing and name-dropping was rife throughout the world I grew up in. There were settings outside London that I recognised, although a few decades after these events – they came alive for me.

The characters, especially Maggie, felt realistic, even though emotions felt restrained in some cases. For instance, when death becomes more personal, there are demonstrations of grief – but not wailing. But even by the time the Blitz arrives, there is a sense of numbness for some – a numbness that shatters, perhaps not as overtly as we might portray it today. Stiff upper lip? And some of the secondary roles felt shallow in passing.

When the Luftwaffe arrived over London, the atmosphere changed, and the plot moved faster for me. Life must continue, including dancing, but the danger was more visible – and the smell pungent. So, characters are asking, ‘Who to trust?’ They become more conscious of Nazi sympathisers and more in their midst. Britain has older enemies and we slowly learn why in dialogue, memories and songs.

I always felt that Susan Elia MacNeal had done her research – for instance, when Frederick Ashton appeared- and despite the few potholes that I read around. Her ‘historical notes’ make it clear that this research was extensive, and she used numerous reputable sources, including her inspiration for Maggie and her fictional exploits in the real-life Churchill secretaries, Marian Holmes and Elizabeth Layton Nel.

This was a fast read, and I recommend this novel. Book 2 will have to wait as I have other historical novels to tackle first – and I need to forget those distracting reviews that I want to disagree with.

3.7 stars upgraded to 4.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – four stars

Characters – three stars

Structure – three stars

Readability – four stars

Editing – four stars

 

Heathcliff: The Unanswered Questions Finally Answered? – a review

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For today’s Thursday Creation Review, I’m reviewing another of Sue Barnard’s novels, Heathcliff: The Unanswered Questions Finally Answered?, which I announced prior to its release on Monday, July 30th, alongside my review of Sue’s last novel, Never on Saturday.

This post is somewhat delayed due to MS depression zapping my spoons.

Heathcliff

Heathcliff: The Unanswered Questions Finally Answered?

by

Sue Barnard (Goodreads Author)

“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now…”

Cathy’s immortal words from Wuthering Heights change Heathcliff’s life. At just seventeen years of age, heartbroken and penniless, he runs away to face an unknown future.

Three years later, he returns – much improved in manners, appearance and prosperity.

But what happened during those years? How could he have made his fortune, from nothing? Who might his parents have been? And what fate turned him into literature’s most famous anti-hero?

For almost two centuries, these questions have remained unanswered. Until now…

Review 4.4 stars

I always enjoy Sue Barnard’s novels so was looking forward to this one – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Although I read some long summaries of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, to familiarise myself, I regretted that I had never read the book – my excuse being that it was not a set book at school, unlike Jane Austen’s and Joseph Conrad’s works. (An omission that I intend to rectify). However, a prior knowledge isn’t required as many of the incidents are recounted, albeit with the missing three years at their heart.

The style of narration adopted seems to echo that used by Emily Bronte, but with Sue Barnard’s style woven in to make this a re-telling. Each scene is told from alternating perspectives, with the narrator’s name before each one.

For those three years of Heathcliff’s life that Emily Bronte left unexplained, Sue Barnard has done some interesting research and come up with plausible reasons, not only for his wealth and prosperity but also for his appearances and mannerisms. But I won’t let on about that time, just believe me when I say that the explanation works – as does some fascinating revelations at the end of the novel. Hidden secrets and devious research make for key threads.

Barnard makes good use of the historical setting for her re-telling, creating some new and memorable characters to fill those unexplained years. And the existing characters might be Bronte’s but they are fleshed out, although I didn’t understand some of their oddities. Heathcliff became clearer and darker than I had envisaged him – no thanks to Hollywood. He comes over as both tragic as he spirals out of control and depressing in his failure to see reason. But isn’t that the way with anti-heroes?

So, this wasn’t a smooth read, nor my favourite Barnard book, but I still recommend this novel.

Story – four stars

Setting/World-building – four stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – four stars

Structure – four stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

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The Secret Keeper – a review

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How many books deserve a re-read as soon as we turn the last page? Today’s review is one of those wonderful gems that encouraged me to re-indulge by reading large sections throughout and to see and smile at how cleverly the tapestry was crafted.

The Secret Keeper

by

Kate Morton (Goodreads Author)

During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother.

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past.

Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world.

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Review 5+ stars

The blurb and other reviews for The Secret Keeper hooked me, and I am so grateful as this novel is an amazing read – deserving more than five stars.

When sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson glimpses her mother, Dorothy assault a man in self-defence, the act seems justified and she hides the memory. Thus, the secrets begin – or do they? That is one of the brilliant elements of this novel as there is not just one secret but many, inter-twined over the decades from before Laurel was born. Perhaps, there is more than one Secret Keeper.

Fifty-two years later, as Dorothy is dying, the Nicolson children gather to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, and the discovery of a photograph from WWII of Ma with another young woman poses questions about their mother’s past as the other woman is a stranger from her unspoken wartime experiences. Yet the woman’s name feels familiar to Laurel, except it is only in the end that she realises why.

‘Not about Ma, I mean that young woman. She was a different person back then, with a whole other life we know nothing about.’

Laurel is now sixty-six and a much-loved actress, and she uses her abilities and resources to discover more about her mother’s past. It was great to have this older main protagonist with all her evolving attitudes, memories and experiences – not just in 2011, but when she was much younger as well. And the reader is treated to some distinctive characters in the various periods, notably the 1940s and the present day [2011]. Each one has a unique voice and that memorable feature that fixes them in a reader’s mind.

The language feels correct for the various periods as do the settings from fashion and music to the gap between rich and poor. For me, growing up in the 50s and 60s the scenes in those period stirred so many memories. The research seems to have been meticulous at every turn – many of the sources are noted in the acknowledgements.

As the past is gradually revealed, the reader discovers more through Dorothy’s eyes, and Laurel’s discoveries uncover secrets. Kate Morton makes clever use of memories – memories that change over time, memories that are interpretations of events, and memories that spark a wave of emotions.

As a crime novel reader, I know how personal observation can be faulty. Who is Dorothy? Does that depend on who is digging? Who knows what happened? As I kept reading, I learnt about secrets, misunderstandings, and dreams all conspiring as fate propelled events. There were moments when I thought that I had sussed everything out – wrong. The author did a masterly job of weaving an intricate tapestry of events with revelations that kept skewing the plot.

Although Laurel and Dorothy are central to the drama, with some excellent secondary characters, there is a strong feeling throughout that family is everything – from the Nicolson children to the families lost in the Blitz.

Loss is something that many of the characters face. There are poignant moments that becomes memories, beautifully described, especially through childhood eyes. With both Dorothy and Vivien, we get contrasting memories and reactions to events, yet they have experiences in common – and they have secrets. As does Laurel whose own observations have informed her as an actress who can empathise – as the reader does.

‘Laurel knew quite a bit about keeping secrets. She also knew that was where the real people were found, hiding behind their black spots.’

Laurel finds those real people and learns some amazing truths behind the secrets. When I reached The End, I could see the tapestry, but I had to read every key paragraph and chapter again. That re-read was as magical, especially as I could now see the pieces slotting smoothly into place – and hiding the black spots and secrets.

The Secret Keeper is an amazing novel with so many clever twists – a masterful five star plus read.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Authenticity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars

 

#IWSG – Spring Inspiration

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Another month and another IWSG post. Well, not just any month but the Blogging from A to Z Challenge month, so I managed to write 26 posts and got them scheduled on the correct days. But enough of that – I’ll post my reflections on the Challenge next week – this is an IWSG monthly past.

May 2 question – It’s spring!

Does this season inspire you to write more than others, or not?

Of course, Spring inspires me – to get outside and soak up the sunshine. And yes, Spring is here, and the little grey cells are sparking – despite the MS. Okay, I have my struggles with the misfiring nervous system, and my brain loses direction and thoughts. I forget what I am doing, my fingers hit too many wrong keys, and my body must sleep sporadically or suffer the painful body-wrenching attacks.

Officially, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Spring arrived on March 20, 2018. That means that the Spring Equinox must have set all those A-to-Z posts in motion.

I’ve even used the last few days to devise a cunning plan. Did Baldrick help with that?

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The cunning plan: to write a review once a week of one of the books I’ve read and failed to review here. Those reviews will be scheduled for every Thursday.

However, I reserve the right to write other posts – if motivated.

What about the deviously cunning Fates Maelstrom plans? Not abandoned or shelved but extended.

I wrote draft one of Book 3 in the Snowdon Shadows series for NaNoWriMo last November. Then I started editing Fates Maelstrom in December, developing all the ideas needed for the final draft prior to beta-reading.

That has led to Goth Patrol, a short story about the main protagonist, policewoman Sparkle Anwyl and how she lost her first love and joined the CID. I’m starting on another short, Face Trash, her first case as a detective, fresh from police college. Call these stories ‘character research’.

Or should I publish those stories first?

That’s what Spring does for my devious brain – seeds seeking fertile soil.

[One problem: I need a friend to sit with and chat, face-to-face over a pint or a meal. I lost that when I moved four years ago.]

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The awesome co-hosts for the May 2 posting of the IWSG are E.M.A. Timar, J. Q. Rose, C.Lee McKenzie, and Raimey Gallant!

Purpose of IWSG: To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds!

Every month, we announce a question that members can answer in their IWSG post. These questions may prompt you to share advice, insight, a personal experience or story. Include your answer to the question in your IWSG post or let it inspire your post if you are struggling with something to say.

Posting: The first Wednesday of every month is officially Insecure Writer’s Support Group day. Post your thoughts on your own blog. Talk about your doubts and the fears you have conquered. Discuss your struggles and triumphs. Offer a word of encouragement for others who are struggling. Visit others in the group and connect with your fellow writer – aim for a dozen new people each time – and return comments. This group is all about connecting! 

Let’s rock the neurotic writing world!

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG

 

 

A Journey of the Heart – a review

This is the second Book in the When Women Were Warriors fantasy trilogy and when I reviewed the first book, The Warrior’s Path , I was excited to read Book 2. I wasn’t disappointed.

Journey of the Heart 

A Journey of the Heart (When Women Were Warriors #2)

by Catherine M. Wilson

A Journey of the Heart Book II] shows the same strong storytelling ability of the first book. The language is still almost musical and wraps its sweet spell around you. Storylines that were just starting to grow in the first book are also very well developed here. Intrigue and conflict are fleshed out and take some surprising twists. All that I had hoped for, reading the first book, begins to bloom. “–from a review by Kate Genet on the website, Kissed By Venus

“Catherine Wilson creates a magical sense of place, and of belonging to that place. Within that, she also tells how it feels to not belong. Ms Wilson ‘s is a tale of bone wisdom. It whispers of what we remember when we sleep at night and dream. It calls us to remember that women had, and still have, a wise and powerful place in the world.”–from a review on the blog, The Rainbow Reader, by Baxter Clare Trautman, author of The River Within

“In this book, we see Tamras world open from the House of Merin and its immediate environs into the lands beyond its borders. She meets other peoples, whose ways are different from those she knows. Similarly Tamras inner life expands as well: the feelings within her blossom into the romantic love that will be the linchpin her life will hinge on “–from a review by Charles Ferguson on the Goodreads website

In Book II of the trilogy, Tamras ‘s apprenticeship as a warrior isn’t turning out quite the way she expected. Her unconventional choices lead to her crossing swords, almost literally, with Vintel, the war leader of Merin ‘s house. She finds herself embroiled in a power struggle she is doomed to lose, but the loss sends her on a journey that will change her destiny and decide the fate of her people.

 

Review 5 stars

When Tamras continued her journey ‘when women were warriors’, I slipped back easily into her world again as the characters and settings were familiar from Book 1. As was the writing, which continued to weave its spell over me.

The rhythm that Catherine Wilson chooses continued to remind me of an oral storyteller. Once again, the beautiful poetic phrases kept me reading and held my attention throughout.

As events at Merin’s House and on the northern frontier unfold, Tamras faces crucial decisions and discovers her real friends – and the conflict with Merin’s war leader Vintel intensifies as does her relationship with Maara, the warrior that she is apprenticed to.

Love is the central theme to this book and the trilogy. Not just romantic love but the emotion that is special and deep, that ties people together and gives them life but also hurts. Love is explored in a multitude of ways – mother/child, siblings, woman/woman, warrior/apprentice, wife/husband, first loves. The writer helps the reader feel the intricacies of the emotions involved, never rushing the scenes where characters interact with dialogue, glances or caresses.

Although women are central to the tale and women hold the main warrior role, this is not a simplistic role reversal. Some reviewers, mainly fellow men sadly, have missed the fact that there are warriors at Merin’s House who are men. In modern society, women wanting to fight was frowned on until recently, to the extent that some disguised themselves as men. In contrast, this world-building portrays a more balanced society where such strict divisions are not present.

The reader experiences the battle emotions and reactions as Tamras has her first encounter with the raiding northern tribes. In most cases, the reactions are rooted in respect between fellow warriors and apprentices, and even between rivals.

However, this world is realistic with characters that have been slaves and that issue is gradually explored as the revelations paint a complex world and the war that created much of the backstory emerges into view. The reader discovers more about Merin and her fellow elders as well as her importance to Tamras.

Caring for others has many angles – and complications – as Tamras learns…with love playing its complex role. Once again, there are lessons at every growth point regardless of age and previous experiences. How does one wield that delicate position called ‘Power’ and what is the nature of that ability? The novel is filled with crucial questions for Tamras and the reader – challenges.

The characterisation continues to be rich and the central characters grow as events unfold. Some learn, and others just react, although motives are cleverly revealed – but not too soon. Tamras’s path got clearer but rockier as the mid-point of the trilogy was reached. From there onwards, lines are drawn as the inner and outer conflicts simmer. There will be a climactic clash but as in other great epics, that is being set up with physical and psychological skirmishes that test characters.

There is more great wisdom here, and there are ancient tales woven into the whole – fireside storytelling within a saga. Tamras, especially, told stories that she had learnt while growing up – tales that are told in the style of oral ‘tales of yore’. These add to the magic of the novel, and to the sense of an older world more in touch with its roots.

All the events and revelations set up Book 3 neatly, so A Hero’s Tale has moved top of my ‘Must Reads’ list. Although I’m reading the trilogy on Kindle, I have just ordered the paperbacks to place on my bookshelf alongside my prized copies of The Lord of the Rings.

Story – five stars

Setting/World-building – five stars

Diversity – five stars

Characters – five stars

Structure – five stars

Readability – five stars

Editing – five stars