In Cold Blood

I don’t usually read very much non-fiction, but I’ve always felt like In Cold Blood is one of those modern classics that I ‘should’ read one day.

Truman Capote tells the true story of the Clutter family (father, mother, son and daughter) who were all murdered in one awful night. They were universally liked in their community, and as they rarely used cash, only about 40 dollars worth of goods and money had been taken from their home. The town was shocked: what could possibly have driven someone to so brutally take the lives of 4 people? The story also follows the path of the two killers: Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. From fairly different backgrounds, they had each set out on a life of criminality, which led them eventually to the horrific murders described in this book.

I did wonder at first whether the book would hold my interest throughout. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t often read non-fiction, and there was no real mystery involved. The killers are known to the reader almost from the beginning. However, Capote has a brilliant writing style that captivates the reader’s attention; at times the book reads almost like fiction, and I had to occasionally remind myself that all of this actually happened.

A well-written account of truly chilling murderers, it is certainly worth reading.

The Company of Ghosts

When I picked this book up, I thought it looked really interesting, and couldn’t wait to get started; I loved the idea of a ghost story set on a mysterious island.

The Company of Ghosts tells the story of Ellie, who travels to a mysterious isolated island with George, but soon finds herself entirely alone. Except she soon comes to discover that she’s not as alone as she first thought. Ellie needs to unpick the mystery of the girl who appears all over the island: who was she and why does she keep visiting Ellie?

As always with books written for young adults, I feel I need to be careful in being too critical, as it was not written with someone like me in mind, but for young people. However, I still felt a little disappointed in the book.

The second half was great, and we actually get into the ghostly goings-on, but this was rushed at times and could have done with more development. And what of the first half? Well, it was a little implausible that Ellie would travel to such a remote place with people she’d never met, but leaving that aside, it just read more like a romance novel than a ghost story. It was slow going and I almost abandoned the book altogether at one point.

There were good points to the book as well though: the language was good, with rich descriptions; the tense atmosphere worked well, especially in the second half, and Ellie’s descriptions of how she would paint the things around her were lovely.

Overall, an interesting idea, but the first half was just too slow and plodding to make it a book I’d enjoy.

Murder on the Links

Murder on the Links is Agatha Christie’s second Poirot novel and is one I had not read before. 

Poirot receives a mysterious letter from Mr Renauld who fears he is in danger and travels to France with Captain Hastings. Unfortunately, their arrival is too late: Renauld is dead, murdered following an encounter with two bearded men who wanted to discover an important secret he had. Poirot and Hastings must endeavour to discover the truth behind what happened to Renauld, which is complicated even further with the discovery of another dead body, and the arrival of the mysterious ‘Cinderella’ who Hastings met on a train only days before the crime.

If I’m being completely honest, it took a while for this story to grab my interest. The beginning certainly seemed to be slow going, and at times there were a few too many characters to keep track of. However, the ending was well worth it and I felt glad that I’d stuck with the story for that reason. I wouldn’t place it with Christie’s best books, but it was enjoyable and there were plenty of the usual clues and red-herrings, designed to keep the reader guessing. Worth a read if you’re already a fan, but if you’re looking for an introduction to the Poirot stories I’d recommend you start elsewhere (The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express would be my suggested choices).

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I am a big fan of literature written in or set in the Victorian era. Even so I often wonder what exactly it is that appeals so much to modern readers (myself included) about this time period. Maybe it’s that such a lot of English literature that we read at schools, colleges and universities comes from the 19th Century. Or maybe it’s a TV thing: period dramas seem to have an enduring appeal to viewers, which spills over into our reading habits.

The Essex Serpent, set in the late 19th Century,¬†tells the story of widow Cora who travels into Essex in search of scientific discoveries. She soon hears the tale of the Essex Serpent, a mysterious creature that stalks the village of Aldwinter. It was last ‘seen’ in the 17th Century, but a rising tide of hysteria seems to be gripping the villagers. Cora views this as a scientific adventure and hopes to be able to bring a newly discovered species to London to display. In this she disagrees with William Ransome, the local vicar who is filled with faith, yet also entirely rational when it comes to the presence of the serpent. They are drawn together into a friendship and mutual affection, which threatens to develop into something more.

This story is so beautifully told, with amazing descriptions of natural landscapes, but also a focus on historical detail from a time period where the world was under-going rapid change and discovery. The relationship between Will and Cora is subtle and entirely believable, but also the focus on medicine, science and socialism draws the reader into a much broader world than that of just two characters. In fact we follow several different characters from a variety of backgrounds, all trying to find their place in a world that is changing around them at a rapid pace.

A well-told, intelligent work of historical fiction that I would most definitely recommend.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Psychological thrillers have been really popular lately, and with books like I See You it’s easy to understand why so many people are reading them. They’re full of twists and turns, lots of drama, but also contain complex heroes and villains.

The story of I See You begins with Zoe Walker, who on her regular commute from work spots her picture in the classified ads, amongst a range of adverts for chat lines and escort agencies. It contains no information: only a phone number and a website, neither of which are accessible when she tries them. Zoe’s family convince her it can’t possibly be her, and the next day it’s another woman’s face, then another’s. Her worries escalate when one of the women advertised is murdered, and another is a victim of theft, and Zoe becomes determined to discover the truth behind the mysterious adverts.

This is a very tense thriller, dramatic but also highly creepy. The characters are well developed and you really find yourself drawn into the plot of this novel. There are lots of twists and turns, and the reader is kept on their toes from beginning to end. One to read in a couple of sittings, the only problem is that once you start reading, you won’t want to stop!

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase

Some books from your childhood really stick with you, and for a long time now I’ve been meaning to re-read The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as its a book that stayed in my memory for a long time. I’m not sure whether it was the adventurous plot, the ever-threatening wolves or the cruel villains that most strongly impressed themselves on me when I first read the book many years ago.

The story follows Bonnie, a wealthy, spoiled young girl, whose poor, but more gentle, cousin Sylvia comes to live with her under care of a new governess whilst Bonnie’s parents take an extended sea journey. Willoughby Chase is in the north of England, in an alternative Victorian era where a channel tunnel to Europe has allowed ferocious packs of wolves into the country and their menacing presence is felt throughout the story. However, it is the villainous governess Miss Slighcarp and her accomplices who are the real ‘wolves’ of the story, and whom Bonnie and Sylvia must fight against if they wish to escape a life of cruelty and suffering.

As always with books read in childhood, I was worried that this story may not be as good as I remembered it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fast paced, with interesting protagonists and plenty of drama. Definitely a book I will be sharing with my own children one day.

The Witchfinder’s Sister

I love a good historical novel, especially ones based on real events and people, so The Witchfinder’s Sister seemed an ideal choice.

It is based on real-life 17th Century witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, who was responsible for a mass number of executions of women who were believed (and ‘proven’ by him) to be witches. The story follows his fictional sister Alice, and her reaction to his persecution of any woman seen to be ‘different’.

The most fascinating part of this story is definitely in the truth that lies behind it. You cannot read it without feeling absolute sympathy for the hundreds of women wrongly put to death at the hands of witch-hunters and the legal system at the time. The ending to the story is interesting and not one I expected (but I won’t say any more, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for anyone). It also departs from complete realism at times; there are hints that in fact maybe there is more than can be explained going on, but there is no question in this story as to where the true evil lies: within the hearts and minds of those who take it on themselves to accuse and punish those who are innocent.

Definitely one that I would recommend for fans of historical fiction.