Meandering through (Aussie) Middle Grade: The Turnkey…

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Today I’ve got the final book in my recent run of World War II related reads, with The Turnkey by Aussie author Allison Rushby.  We excitedly received this one from Walker Books Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Flossie Birdwhistle is the Turnkey at London’s Highgate Cemetery. As Turnkey, Flossie must ensure all the souls in the cemetery stay at rest. This is a difficult job at the best of times for a twelve-year-old ghost, but it is World War II and each night enemy bombers hammer London. Even the dead are unsettled. When Flossie encounters the ghost of a German soldier carrying a mysterious object, she becomes suspicious. What is he up to? Before long, Flossie uncovers a sinister plot that could result in the destruction of not only her cemetery, but also her beloved country. Can Flossie stop him before it is too late?

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The Turnkey is a solid, original and intriguing tale that has the perfect blend of mystery, history and paranormal activity.  Flossie is the Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery in London, a job which involves ensuring that the dead interred in the cemetery remain – for the most part – peacefully at rest.  With the Blitz causing chaos every night, Flossie seeks solace in visiting some of the other Turnkeys in London’s major cemeteries.  On a midnight sojourn to St Paul’s Cathedral – a favourite thinking spot – Flossie encounters a ghost who shouldn’t, by the laws of the afterlife, be there (never mind that he’s dressed in the uniform of a Nazi SS Officer) and is drawn into a mystery that could tip the scales of the war in favour of the Nazis.

Flossie is an immediately likable character and throughout the story demonstrates her resilience, courage in adversity and compassion for those in difficult situations.  The Nazi officer, who we discover has an unexpected link to Flossie herself, is suitably evil and frightening, and each of the Turnkeys that we meet has his or her own personality, quirks and in some cases, secrets.

I always love books for young readers that aren’t set in schools.  Apart from the fact that being school-less allows the author to neatly avoid all those boring, repetitive, school-bully-based tropes, the non-school setting also makes books for young readers more accessible and interesting for grown up readers.  Such was the case with The Turnkey.  In fact, I kept forgetting that Flossie was meant to be twelve years old – albeit a reasonably long-dead twelve years old – such was the adult appeal of the novel. I love a good set-in-the-Blitz story also and the mix of bombed out London with the atmospheric cemeteries really worked to give a sense of the never-ending clean up and rescue operations that coloured that particular time in London’s history.

The pacing of this story was spot-on, with no filler material included to slow things down.  Reveals came at regular intervals with just enough new information to spur the reader on to discover the next twist in the ghostly Nazi’s plans.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to maintain all the threads of the story without losing the quality of each along the way.  By the end of the book the reader gets to experience the paranormal aspect of the Turnkeys working together (plus some patriotic and enthusiastic ghostly members of the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital), a journey into Churchill’s war rooms and the war rooms of the Nazis, a glimpse into the reality of those living and dying in the rubble and shelters and hospital wards of London during the Blitz, and a fantasy element featuring ancient artifacts.  None of these separate plot threads felt forced or tacked on and taken together they added greatly to the originality and atmosphere of the novel.

The only thing that could have made this book better – as I say with pretty much every book, everywhere – would be pictures.  I remember seeing a documentary or something on the Chelsea Pensioners and their red jackets and it would be awesome (and instructive for younger readers) to see some images of these iconic characters, as well as some images of the actual cemeteries or London during the Blitz for example.  There is a little author’s note at the back with some historical information and it was nice to see that the author had also consulted that seminal of cemetery-related tomes, Katherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead.  **I read this ages ago and thought I was amongst a select few, but it keeps popping up as a reference authors have used for lots of fiction books that I’ve come across.  Give it a read if you feel inclined.**

 

I’m fairly sure that this is intended as a standalone novel but I would be interested in seeing what happens next for Flossie.  Given that she’s dead and doesn’t have to age or experience the changes of growing up, it would be cool to see a progression of historical/fantasy/mystery novels featuring the Turnkeys of London’s major cemeteries in different time periods up to the present.  I’d read them, anyway!

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly World War II fiction and you can’t go past a paranormal twist I would definitely recommend hunting down The Turnkey.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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Escaping to the Country Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be: Abigale Hall….

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It seems to be the week for World War II stories, as we had one yesterday, we’ve got one today and there’ll be another tomorrow – at least no one can say I don’t do my bit for fans of historical fiction!  We received a copy of Abigale Hall by Lauren A. Forry for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Amid the terror the Blitz in the Second World War, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca have had their share of tragedy, losing their mother to German bombs and their father to suicide. But when they are forced to leave London to work for the mysterious Mr. Brownawell at Abigale Hall, they find the worst is yet to come.

The vicious housekeeper, Mrs. Pollard, seems hell-bent on keeping the ghostly secrets of the house away from the sisters and forbids them from entering the surrounding town—and from the rumors that circulate about Abigale Hall. When Eliza uncovers some blood-splattered books, ominous photographs, and portraits of a mysterious woman, she begins to unravel the mysteries of the house, but with Rebecca falling under Mrs. Pollard’s spell, she must act quickly to save her sister, and herself, from certain doom.

Perfect for readers who hunger for the strange, Abigale Hall is an atmospheric debut novel where the threat of death looms just beyond the edge of every page. Lauren A. Forry has created a historical ghost story where the setting is as alive as the characters who inhabit it and a resonant family drama of trust, loyalty, and salvation.

First up, this book felt like a much longer read than its 256 pages.  I felt like I was reading for ever and ever and getting sucked deeper and deeper into the lives of the characters and the mire in which they find themselves.  In terms of bang for your reading buck, Forry has packed an incredible amount of plot into a standard amount of pages.

We first meet Eliza and her younger sister Rebecca while they are in the custody of their Aunt Bess, after the death of their mother in the Blitz and the suicide of their father.  Aunt Bess isn’t the warmest of mother-figures and life for the girls is unpleasant in London, despite the fact that their immediate needs are more or less met.  Eliza enjoys her work at a theatre and is hoping that her beau, Peter, will cement their relationship by popping the question without too much delay.

All this changes when Aunt Bess announces that the girls are to be shipped off to work as housemaids at Abigale Hall, a country house in Wales.  Without so much as a by-your-leave, the girls are manhandled out of their Aunt’s flat and away to the middle of nowhere to be left at the mercy of the unrelenting Mrs Pollard and the nightmarish spectre of Mr Brownawell.  The girls’ tenure at the house is filled with secrets, rumours from the villagers about curses and missing girls, and the marked absence of the Lord of the manor.   Things are not as they appear at Abigale Hall – and they appear pretty grim indeed – and it is clear to Eliza that the longer they stay, the worse the impact will be on Rebecca’s tenuous mental health.

The story is told from the perspective of Eliza and later on, Peter, as he tries to track down Eliza herself as well as another missing girl from their workplace.  The narrative flicks between the paranormal, skin-crawling atmosphere of Abigale Hall and the far  more banal dangers of post-blitz London and its seedy underbelly.  Throughout the story Eliza is never quite sure who she can trust and is torn between securing her own safety and remaining a dutiful and loyal sister.

I must warn the sensitive reader that there is a bit of animal cruelty in the story as well as a collection of incidents that will make you say, “Ick!” mentally, if not aloud.  I quite enjoyed the looming unease of the parts of the story set in the house.  These were neatly balanced by Peter’s sections of the story and this stopped the story becoming too paranormal or too mundane at any given point.  The plot, taken in its entirety, is full of twists, turns and unexpected revelations that spin the reader’s train of thought and switch the trajectory of the characters at every turn.

The ending was remarkably satisfying to me as well…but then I’ve always been one to enjoy the downfall of characters who feel like they should get a swift clip around the ear.

This would be a great choice for a holiday read if you’re looking for something a bit creepy and complicated with a historical setting.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Hanging Tree: Peter Grant #6

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If you are a fan of urban fantasy and police procedurals and haven’t yet become involved with Ben Aaronovitch’s DC Peter Grant series, you are doing yourself a grave disservice.  Today I have the sixth book in the series for you courtesy of Hachette Australia (although I have just found out that a graphic novella set in between books four and five has been released….and NOBODY told me! **NB: I’ve also just noticed that there is another short story set in between books one and two that was published in 2012 that I didn’t know about**) but if you think this series is something that might interest you, you really need to start at the beginning.  For everyone else, here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The Hanging Tree was the Tyburn gallows which stood where Marble Arch stands today. Oxford Street was the last trip of the condemned. Some things don’t change. The place has a bloody and haunted legacy and now blood has returned to the empty Mayfair mansions of the world’s super-rich. And blood mixed with magic is a job for Peter Grant.

Peter Grant is back as are Nightingale et al. at the Folly and the various river gods, ghosts and spirits who attach themselves to England’s last wizard and the Met’s reluctant investigator of all things supernatural.

It is no secret that I am a great fan of the first three books in this series, found the fourth quite lacking save for the epic and unexpected twist literally in the last few pages, and was bored rigid and greatly disappointed by the fifth.  Happily, The Hanging Tree is a return to form for this series with a multi-layered mystery and a cast of mostly familiar characters, with the Thames family featuring chiefly amongst them.  So, after returning to London, Peter becomes involved in a case featuring a number of young people and an unexplained death in one of London’s most prestigious apartment blocks. While on the surface, the case looks like it doesn’t require much Falcon involvement, once the surface is scratched it becomes clear that this case could be intricately linked with the identity of the Faceless Man.

Cue an inadvertent admission to manslaughter by the daughter of a river Goddess and some shifty looking Americans poking their noses in to Falcon’s investigation and things start to get tangled up pretty quickly.  One thing I did find tricky about this book was that given that the previous book took place outside of London, and that I hadn’t read a London-based DC Grant story since 2013, I found it a little tricky remembering who was who from previous books.  There are a number of wizards and demi-monde folk who reappear in this novel and a little ledger in the front with the names of all the Little Crocodiles and various hangers-on and where they fit in to the story would be incredibly handy for feeble-memoried readers like myself.

I very much liked the developing professional partnership between Peter and Guleed here, and was happy to see Stephanopolous making a contribution, as this was where much of the humorous banter came from in this particular story.  Lesley May makes a much more significant appearance in this one too, which I am pleased to see remedied as her lack of involvement in Foxglove Summer was one of my main complaints about that book.  The relationship between Peter and Beverley Brook also takes a backseat  in this story, which was quite a relief after being bombarded with it in book five.  There are a pair of new practitioning ladies introduced in this book, with some new, never-before-seen (by Peter, at least) powers that shake things up a bit and provide some interesting implications for how these may impact on the Folly in the future.  Peter has mastered a couple of new (and quite amusing) forma since the last book, as well as having developed some helpful new magic-proofed gadgets and these added a bit of variety to the spells we have come to know and love.

The big plot point in this novel is the fact that Peter and Nightingale catch up with and uncover the identity of the Faceless Man – but I’m not telling you any more than that.  The ending leaves things up in the air once again, with all sorts of options left open for what might happen next.  All in all, I was pleased with this offering and although I will soon need a wall-sized reference chart to plot who is who and who is related to who and by what means to refer to while reading, I think I’m well and truly invested in this series for better or worse.

Until next time,

Bruce

An Adult Fiction Top Book of 2016 Pick: Down Station…

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Bruce's Pick

Oooooh, exciting times!! Today I’m bringing you my first Top Book of 2016 pick in adult fiction and it is an unexpectedly exciting, original, yet familiar read.  We received Down Station from Hachette Australia for review, not quite remembering why it was we requested it in the first place, and were enormously surprised by how much we loved everything about it: from the characters, the settings, the genre-switching, the multiple points of view….but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A small group of commuters and tube workers witness a fiery apocalypse overtaking London. They make their escape through a service tunnel. Reaching a door they step through…and find themselves on a wild shore backed by cliffs and rolling grassland. The way back is blocked. Making their way inland they meet a man dressed in a wolf’s cloak and with wolves by his side. He speaks English and has heard of a place called London – other people have arrived here down the ages – all escaping from a London that is burning. None of them have returned. Except one – who travels between the two worlds at will. The group begin a quest to find this one survivor; the one who holds the key to their return and to the safety of London.

And as they travel this world, meeting mythical and legendary creatures,split between North and South by a mighty river and bordered by The White City and The Crystal Palace they realise they are in a world defined by all the London’s there have ever been.

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Despite this book having lots of elements that I just can’t go past in a book – London, train stations, portals, time travel, finding oneself unexpectedly in a hitherto unknown place – when I received it in the mail and read the blurb on the back, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I had requested it (apart from that gorgeous cover, obviously. We all know I’m a sucker for an attractive bookish face).  It seemed like this was going to be a dystopian, which I’ve been steering away from for mental health reasons, and after I read the first few chapters, I was even more worried that this was a dystopian dressed in a pretty jacket.  For the opening of the book, apart from introducing our main characters, presents a frankly terrifying escape from a fiery, possibly world-destroying inferno.

Things settle down a bit, however, when our protagonists find their way out of the fire and into Down, a world that seems to exist purely for the purpose of escape.  As the seven survivors try to decide what they will do in this new, safe-for-the-moment environment, they discover sea serpents, a man tended by wolves and the existence of a shady geomancer, who may or may not know the way back to London.  Which itself may or may not now exist.

The book unfolds into a full-on other world story, as events cause the momentary forgetting of return to London, and lives hang in the balance.  The story alternates between Dalip – a young sikh engineering student struggling to assert himself as an individual outside the expectations of his family – and Mary – a young woman learning to wield the power of personal choice after a traumatic and violent childhood.  While there are plenty of fantasy elements speckled throughout the plot, the author never loses sight of the inner struggles of his characters, and I think that is what makes the book stand out for me as a Top Book pick.  Despite the craziness going on around them and the potential loss of all that they once knew, the group must try and make the “right” decisions, in a world where morality is clearly relative.

I am so pleased that this is a series opener.  Normally, at this stage of my reviewing life, I prefer standalones, but the surface has only just been scratched in Down Station and I am excited to see how Dalip, Mary and the rest manage themselves given all the changes that have happened for them over the course of this book.

If you are into adult fantasy fiction, and enjoy stories with excellent character development, then you really should pick up Down Station, not least because I want someone to discuss it with!!

Until next time,

Bruce

An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: Of Things Gone Astray…

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Today’s read-it-if features a very unusual book.  With multiple points of view and interconnected yet mildly bewildering stories, Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson is part anthology, part unified narrative and thoroughly engaging, once you get past the first few loss-beleaguered chapters.

Delia can’t seem to find her way to places that were once as familiar as the back of her hand. Jake collects and catalogues lost and discarded items that he finds in the street. Mrs Featherby is missing the front wall of her house.  Robert turned up to work one day to find the building had disappeared. And Cassie is turning into a tree in the middle of Heathrow Terminal Two Arrivals.  As these wildly different characters, and others, try to come to terms with their various obscure conditions, their stories become entangled in different ways.  What once was lost may never be found for this motley group…or it may just be that they have gone temporarily astray.

 

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Read it if:

*your standard response to being thrust unexpectedly into public view is to carry on as if nobody can see what you’re doing

* you are one of those people who, upon realising that you cannot for the life of you find what it is you’re looking for, makes little tutting noises before going on to complain loudly about how modern supermarkets should just leave things where they are instead of changing everything about to try and get us to buy things we didn’t come in for

* you’ve ever patted yourself on the back for helping a stranger who’s asked for directions, only to realise a few moments later that there were at least three other ways to get to the destination that are quicker, safer and less complex than the way you told them to go

After reading the blurb of this book, I was initially under the impression that it was a collection of short stories.  As it turns out – rather obviously in fact, given that the words “a novel” appear on the front cover – Of Things Gone Astray is actually a single novel, but it’s told from the alternating points of view of half a dozen characters.  In the first few chapters we are introduced to these characters in turn, and discover to some extent what it is that they have lost – for in this novel, everyone has lost something.  Or someone. Or they’re waiting for something or someone.  I found it a bit tricky in the beginning to remember who was who as the point of view shifts every few pages with each new chapter. Is Martin the bloke with the missing piano keys or the bloke with the missing job, I would ask myself as I came across his chapter heading.  Is Cassie the tree girl or the disoriented girl? Once the story gets going and the characters start bumping into each other, as it were, it was a lot easier to keep everything sorted in my mind, and by the end I had each character down pat.

I thoroughly enjoyed the brevity of the chapters and the multiple points of view in this book, as I feel I am slipping into a bit of a book slump of late, and I appreciated the choppy, quick dips into each characters’ tale that allowed me to pick the book up and put it down repeatedly without feeling like the plot wasn’t moving forward. The narrative has a certain sense of poignancy about it, dealing as it does with ways in which people cope with loss, but there was also a sense of hope and even ambiguity that pervaded the book.  I felt at the end that some people might be a bit disappointed that there didn’t seem to be any kind of moral or take-away message about dealing with grief  or moving on from loss, but I felt very content with the fact that the stories just ended, some with loose ends tied up and some without.

I don’t think this book will be for everybody, but if you don’t mind something a bit different from the usual linear, one-narrator type novel then Of Things Gone Astray might be the perfect out-of-the-box find for you.  Don’t forget to go into it with bookmark at the ready though – you wouldn’t want to lose your place.

Until next time,

Bruce

. * I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Edelweiss. *