The second in Massey’s Perveen Mistry murder mysteries set in 1920’s India (the first was The Widows of Malabar Hill). Perveen is a ‘lady’ lawyer, educated at Oxford after discrimination suffered when trying to undertake her law degree in India (this is explained in Massey’s novella ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’). Perveen is constrained by the mores of the time, including British colonialism, and also by her Parsi background (she can’t, for example, be divorced from her violent estranged husband). But never mind, she can look after herself and take on most people. Here she takes a job mediating between a maharani from a far-flung principality in the hills and the British authorities who have legal care for her son – the maharaja-in-waiting. Perveen gets embroiled in a possible murder investigation when she finds the maharani’s other son was supposedly mauled to death on a hunt in suspicious circumstances. The palace is remote, hard to get to, and hemmed in by mist, and there may be a poisoner at work. There is a suggestion of love interest in the form of Colin Sandrigham – a slightly bitter but companionable British agent living in the picturesque but lonely circuit house where Perveen is put up in bad weather before moving on to the palace (much to her chagrin, Colin is the only one there besides a loyal servant ). Some may find the pace too slow, but I love the detail of the setting and customs as well as Perveen’s self-control and no-nonsense approach. She may not, perhaps, be the action heroine that is now ubiquitous but she’s smart, determined and knows she must work within the constraints that are placed on her.
In a time of taut, fast-paced, violent and unrelenting thrillers, this mystery set in Bombay in the 1920s is a welcomed antidote. Massey seems to be as interested in evoking the feel of the time, it’s mores and details, as setting up the puzzle of her mystery. She spends time, too, in establishing her characters, especially her heroine Perveen Mistry – one of the first female lawyers in India. Perveen is not tough and brash but quietly intelligent and determined. Of course, no detective heroine is going to escape a complication on her past (or present) and Perveen’s is a bad marriage that she just manages to escape (some peculiarity of Parsi law – the Mistry’s belong to this sect – is utilised here). In fact marriage la
w, in this case, that involving Muslim women living in Purdah, features in the murder that has Perveen perplexed. She is well-placed to investigate as she is able to interview the secluded women.
There is mention in ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’ about Perveen’s time studying law in Oxford, and I would have liked to have followed this thread. Here we get a flashback to Perveen studying at an Indian college, where the female students are supposed to hide themselves away in a female common room when not attending lectures. There are only a few of them and Perveen is the only one studying law where she is subjected to the petty cruelties of the male students. Perhaps Perveen’s time at Oxford will be included in a later book, as it appears, this novel is the first in a series. However, if you can’t wait that long, Massey has written a novella called ‘Outnumbered at Oxford’ that introduces Perveen. This is included in a boxed set of four novellas called ‘India Gray’.
I hadn’t heard of Massey before but she has written quite a number of novels, most notably a series of mysteries set in Japan where her heroine, Rei Shimura, is an antiques dealer. The first of these is ‘The Salaryman’s Wife’ published in 1997 and the most recent ‘The Kizuna Coast’ (2014).
A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh
From the Wreck – Jane Rawson
‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ is a hybrid novel – part dystopian thriller, part crime novel. Ex-journalist Stevie is working as a presenter on a TV shopping channel in London when an epidemic of illness strikes, people call it ‘the sweats’. Like a flu outbreak, no one thinks much of it until people start dying, quickly. Stevie is initially oblivious and waits in a bar for her new boyfriend to turn up, when he doesn’t she goes to his flat and finds him dead. Maybe its natural causes but she succumbs herself to the sweats before she think much about it. When she recovers (one of the few, it transpires, who do) she finds a letter to her from her boyfriend, a successful paediatrician, asking her to deliver a laptop to another doctor at the hospital where he worked, and to trust no one. As she tries to carry out this request, she has to navigate a London slowly shutting down as more and more people die. To make matters worse, it looks like someone is prepared to bash her, or worse, to get their hands on the laptop.
Stevie does all the normal things a crime character has to, interview people, follow up leads, outwit the masked man following her, piece together the puzzle that goes deep into clinical trials and corporate greed, amid a populous getting more and more desperate. I liked the way that the pandemic starts slowly and societal structures work for a while, and some people (including Stevie) try to carry on as normal for as long as possible. The detail is all there: choked hospitals, eerily quiet roads as people are instructed to stay home, outbreaks of vigilantism and random violence. Stevie is tough but aware of her own vulnerabilities, and the brief relationship she has with a computer hacker who helps her is a welcome respite against the horrors all around.
The hybrid nature of ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ reminded me of another novel I’ve read recently: Jane Rawson’s ‘From the Wreck’. This is an amalgam of Australia historical fiction (it is set in SA in the 1860s) and science fiction. You might think ‘steampunk’ but the novel is a far cry from that. It is really a thoughtful exploration of loneliness and being ‘other’. The novel centres around George, a steward on a ship that is wrecked off the coast of South Australia. While the survivors are slowly dying of starvation, a strange woman appears among them – she may or may not be Bridget Ledwith, one of the passengers. George and this woman are the only survivors but the woman disappears soon after they are rescued.
George is forever after affected by the strange things that happened to him on the wreck. Meanwhile a sea-dwelling being from another world has seized upon him as their first contact with a human. The creature is desperately alone: ‘They are gone home and I am here and I am a million years too late’. To stay near George, the being fuses with George’s son Henry who develops a precocious interest in arcane (mostly natural history) knowledge. Another character Beatrice Gallwey, hard-drinking and tough, moves next door and we think she may be worthy foil for our extra-terrestrial. The interaction, and self-interest, of these four characters plays out to an ending that was, for me, unresolved. Rawson set herself a massive task to get these strands to work together; I enjoyed the parts: the other-worldliness of the creature, Rawson’s depiction of the rambunctious George who is alternately self-assured and terrified, her lovely portrait of young Henry who is at once enhanced and used by the creature, and the self-contained and cold Bea who pleases herself (below the radar) in a conventional society. Mixing these strands together didn’t quite work for me but it was interesting to go along with the ride wondering where this strange story was heading to next.
In the 11th century, young Tuscan, Luca de Falconi, joins a crusade with his father, the Conte. However, Luca isn’t any ordinary crusader – he can see demons and his father shows him a secret book held by the family written in an indecipherable language. It soon becomes apparent that there are some sinister forces at work, and the princes and clergy leading the crusade are inept, corrupt, or both.
When they reach Anatolia, Luca takes pity on a young woman, who wants to join them. Suzan’s mother is a mute, and is reviled by the members of a convent where she occupies a cell – like Luca, she is not what she seems, and neither is Suzan. Providentially Suzan is able to read the mysterious language of the book and she and Luca work out that the demons, who desire human bodies, are planning something when the crusaders makes it to Jerusalem.
There are trials and tribulations for Suzan and Luca along the way as they try to decipher the meaning of the book and survive the various skirmishes and sieges. Starr does not hold back on the violence and dubious nature of the crusade. The period description is rich in detail, even if the language, thoughts and relationships of the characters have a decidedly modern feel.
There is quite a complex plot, and the story is drawn along well by the device of the book, however, I thought some of the threads were tangential or not worked through properly, possibly because there may be a sequel in the making.
“The Book of Whispers” won the Text prize for an unpublished YA manuscript.
Oops. Having been doing too well with this one – supposed to be 12 books in 12 months of spec fiction by women writers I haven’t read before. Trying to find books to read, I realise how much more fantasy than science fiction there is by women writers, and I didn’t really want to commit to a lot of big fat fantasy books (though I do like fantasy). Anyhow I have read two more suspects for this challenge: The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones – wacky and a lot of fun with an oversized Griffin, Elda, as the endearing heroine. Wynne Jones is very good at misfits finding a way to fit in to their world. The other book is The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson. Jenna has been in a car accident and wakes up after being in a coma for eighteen months. Her scientist parents have whisked her away to the country to recuperate. Jenna’s grandmother is strangely hostile to her and Jenna tries desperately to remember the past through videos her parents have made from key periods of her life. This perfect ‘Jenna’ seems quite distant to the Jenna watching them – her nightmares suggest something different – and why can she remember word for word the whole text of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ but not what happened to her two years ago? An interesting novel about identity and ethics – not surprisingly it’s taught in schools.
Okay. I don’t know why I’ve done this, especially as it is already July but I’m doing a Worlds Without End “Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge” – 12 books in 12 months. The idea is to read spec fiction and fantasy by women writers you haven’t read before. Looking over my ‘read’ books for this year, I notice I have already read a few:
- “Juniper Time” by Kate Wilhelm. This spec fiction novel was written in 1978 and I was drawn to its funky cover. Jean is a post-grad linguist working in a university in the US in a time of society breakdown. If you have a job, you’re protected but she can’t continue to work for her compromised boss so she leaves and for a time lives in a decaying ‘new town’. After being attacked she flees to her grandfather’s old abandoned ranch. Meanwhile her childhood friend Cluny is an astronaut but the space station he works on is slated for closure until a mysterious object is found floating in space near it. Both Cluny’s father and Jean’s were astronauts – both dying in suspicious circumstances. The threads link when Jean is called on to try to decipher what is written on the extraterrestrial object. I enjoyed this book but it was extremely strange and oblique with a lot of philosophising.
- “Witch Week” Diana Wynne Jones. This is a wonderful children’s book about orphan children of witches who have been liquidated by the state. In school any hint of magical abilities could prove fatal. It is funny, clever, tense, with great characters. Written in 1982, it predates “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, but it is similar in many ways. Fantastic – I definitely will read the others in the series.
- “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik. This fantasy, again featuring a witch, is influenced by Eastern European fairytales. Agnieszka is a peasant girl who is chosen by a wizard, the Dragon, to live in his castle for ten years. Girls (as servants) are selected in return for the wizard protecting the villagers of the valley from the sinister, encroaching forest. Agnieszka turns out to have magical abilities much to the annoyance of the Dragon. She has to learn to use them in time to help him ward off the growing power of the forest. Quite a lot of fun but it gets darker as the story progresses.
- “Blythewood” by Carol Goodman. For some reason this novel is not on the Worlds Without End database so I can’t include it in the challenge. This is YA boarding school fantasy. It starts with Avaline being rescued from a fire at the sweat house where she’s forced to work after her mother dies. The rescuer is a strangely attractive man who flees the scene afterwards. Her mother’s strange past is crystallised when Avaline gains entry to the prestigious Blythewood Academy. Naturally the students aren’t normal students and Blythewood is a place where they train to fight evil forces. There are some YA aspects that are a bit annoying, but on the whole it is an exciting and absorbing read. There are two sequels so far – “Ravencliffe” and “Hawthorn”.
So now to find some more women SF writers that I haven’t read. I have Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time” in my sights.
Joanne Harris is a interesting writer – very diverse in her output. I started out with her where most people did, “Chocolat” in 1999. It wasn’t really my sort of book but the fantasy element with its whiff of witchcraft was intriguing. Over the years, I looked at her other books but they didn’t appeal (“Five Quarters of the Orange”, “Coastliners”). I then came across “The Evil Seed” – Harris’s first published book (1989)– a wonderful contemporary vampire thriller. I have no idea why this terrific book is not better known. A lot of her bibliographies, don’t include it at all. I then read Jigs and Reels, a satisfying collection of her short stories, and then the horribly titled “Lollipop Shoes”, which follows Chocolat’s heroine Vianne and her two daughters who are now living in Montmartre, and what happens when the seductively sinister Zozie comes into their lives. (I note that this book was later retitled The Girl with No Shadow for some editions).
I gave “Gentlemen and Players” to a relative for a present. When they didn’t read it for a couple of years, I repatriated it back to my place. They missed out on a fantastic suspense novel, cleverly constructed and compulsively readable. It is set in a boys’ boarding school, St Oswald’s, and has two narrators. One is the working class offspring of the school’s loyal ‘porter’. Harris portrays a character who is both envious of the advantages of the wealthy boys at the school, who is unconfident and jealous, but also, especially in this person’s older voice, deliciously cynical, cutting and conniving. The other narrator is the about-to-retire classics master – also cynical about the school and the powers that be there but someone who is good at his job and liked by the boys (this is a lovely portrayal reminiscent of Mr Chips or, albeit is a less schmaltzy form, the teacher in Dead Poets Society).
We soon find out that our first narrator has infiltrated the school as a teacher and is now bent on wreaking revenge for a wrong that is slowly revealed through the story. The revenge starts out in small ways, things going missing and innocents being blamed, graffiti scrawled on teachers’ homes, but is then ratcheted up: pornography found on teachers’ computers and students going missing. Our narrator is keeping the classics master for a final coup de grace or, more appropriately, check mate. My edition of the novel has chess pieces to represent the two narrators – a white king for the classics master and a black pawn for the other narrator. The sections of the book also refer to a game of chess, and that’s what it is in the end as the two narrators battle it out for who will survive.
I’ve been careful what I’ve said here because there is a huge twist at the end that it would be unfair to reveal. Most reviewers have praised this device but I felt it wasn’t necessary. It is one of those twists which make you go back over the book to work out how you were fooled. Nevertheless “Gentlemen and Players” really is a virtuoso example of suspense writing.
Luckily, with novels, usually you can tell from the subject, the tone, the style of writing and the characters whether it is going to be your sort of book or not pretty much straight up. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was unusual for me in that I loved the strand set in the late 60s with young heroine, Amber, and her family but was left cold by the contemporary strand centred around Lorna. While there was drama and interest in the first strand, and a tragedy that pulls the family apart with far-reaching consequences, twenty-something contemporary Lorna is self-satisfied, dull and annoying – the plot device that links her to Black Rabbit Hall is unbelievable and unlikely, and while she has to confront something in her past, her tribulations are trivial compared to those of the earlier family. There is also a light-hearted silliness in the contemporary strand that sat uneasily with the tension and growing unease in the 60s storyline, for me. This miscalculation was such a pity as Chase creates-a wonderful portrait of the Alton family, especially the children and Amber’s close, but fraught, relationship with her twin brother Toby. When the tragedy occurs and all sorts of strains are placed on the family, we really do get drawn into their world and a sense of rising crisis when a step mother and her handsome son are inserted into it. Amber’s innocence but also her need to grow up is poignantly and sensitively done.
I could hardly bear to read the pat ending to this book, when Lorna comes into her own. I don’t think she deserved her redemption. I won’t do a spoiler but the ending really made me angry like it was some sort of tacked on finery designed to pretty up the picture, but which in reality dragged it all down.