The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The setting of The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is 1954 Nebraska, and 18 year old Emmett Watson has just been driven home by a warden. Emmett has just finished serving a year long stretch at a work farm, his punishment for inadvertently killing someone. It isn’t long before Emmett discovers that two of the other inmates have hitched a ride to his home, hiding inside the boot/trunk of the warden’s car.

Emmett had had big plans for his release. With his mother having left home years before and his father’s recent death coupled with the fact that the bank had just foreclosed on the family farm, Emmett has nothing to stop him from chasing his dream of taking his younger brother Billy and driving west to California where he plans to start his own business. Farming isn’t for him.

The unexpected and unwanted arrival of the two inmates who have absconded throws all Emmett’s plans into the air. A lot happens over the next ten days but with remarkable calm he manages to cope with all of the problems that his sometime friends cause him, mainly because Emmett is determined never to act rashly again as that is what had led to him being at the work farm/jail in the first place.

The Lincoln Highway is well written and I enjoyed it, although not as much as the author’s previous books A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility, both of which I really loved.

I was very happy to be sent a digital copy of this book for review by NetGalley via the publisher Viking. Thank you to both.

Murder at Standing Stone Manor by Eric Brown

Murder at Standing Stone Manor cover

Murder at Standing Stone Manor by Eric Brown is the eighth book in his Langham and Dupre mystery series. Donald and Maria have just moved from London into Yew Tree Cottage where they have a distant view of Standing Stone Manor from across their snow-covered garden. The villagers of Ingoldby in Suffolk are mainly very welcoming, but it seems that Professor Robertshaw who owns the manor can be a bit of a thorny character. When Donald is invited to the manor he’s surprised that the professor is very affable, but he wants help from Donald to get to the bottom of something strange.

The professor is an archaologist and he’s been digging on land that apparently doesn’t belong to him and obviously that’s causing tension, particularly from the man who believes the land is his. But Robertshaw’s own household is not a comfortable place to be. His wife Xandra is seriously ill and is being nursed by her niece Nancy who would otherwise be homeless. Xandra’s son Randall is arrogant and bullying towards Nancy, as is the professor, and they are both especially obnoxious to Nancy’s friend, an ex-RAF man who is living rough in an old caravan.

When the professor is found dead there are quite a few people in the neighbourhood who would have been glad to see the back of him and of course Donald and Maria sort it all out.

The book is set in the 1950s and Brown does manage to evoke that era well. I enjoyed the mystery which I suppose comes under the category of cosy, and there are some really likeable characters, not just Donald and Maria. I do wish that we could have more of Charles who is Donald’s agent and appeared more in the earlier books, I really liked him. I don’t think it’s necessary to read the others in this series although if you can get a hold of them then you should definitely give them a go.

Thank you to Canongate Books/Severn House and NetGalley who sent me a digital copy of this book for review.

Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott

Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott is the third in this murder mystery series which is set in Inverness in the 1950s.

Again we’re back at the offices of a local newspaper – The Highland Gazette. Mrs Smart is a mainstay of the organisation and when she is found dead – murdered – the whole place is thrown into confusion. Mrs Smart more or less ran the place, without them really realising it.

Joanne Ross, one of the reporters, is now separated from her abusive husband, it’s a big step for a mother to have thrown her husband out, in a community where women are supposed just to put up with things.

The police are pretty useless and it’s left up to the newspaper staff to investigate Mrs Smart’s murder. During their probing all sorts of secrets come out, in fact nothing is as it seems, not even Joanne who seems so strong and sensible, it now looks like she is going to make the same mistake she did before. There’s no doubt that her brains turn to mush at the sight of a handsome man, no matter how he behaves towards her.

I enjoyed this mystery and the setting. There are quite a few likeable characters, I had an idea who the culprit was but these books are about more than the crime. They’re about how women were viewed in 1950s Scotland and how attitudes began to change, slowly. I’m looking forward to the next book and finding out what happens with McAllister and Joanne.

Although A.D. Scott doesn’t live in Scotland now she is very definitely a Scot and I read this one for the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh

The Late Scholar cover

The Late Scholar by Jill Paton Walsh and published in 2013 is one of those books in which she has taken the Dorothy L. Sayers characters, Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey and written a tale, supposedly in the style of Sayers. I read the first one which Walsh wrote, actually she finished a book which Sayers had begun, and I wasn’t too convinced by it as I recall.

But either I’m getting less fussy or this one was better. Set in 1953, Peter is now the Duke of Denver due to the death of his elder brother and part of his duties is to be the ‘visitor’ of an Oxford University college, St Severins.

There has been quite a lot of upset at the college between two warring factions of fellows. Some want to sell a rare book which may have been owned by King Alfred, and some of the writing in it may even be by the king. The other faction want to sell the book so that some land can be bought as a money making opportunity for the college.

The voting for and against has been at a deadlock and it seems that in desperation someone has taken to murder as a way of winning the vote. Harriet and Peter, with the help of Bunter of course sort things out.

Jill Paton Walsh does a good job of writing the characters, albeit they are less witty, mainly because they are now married, the storyline lacks the ‘will they won’t they’ sparkle of the earlier Sayers books. Peter and Harriet are now an old married couple with almost grown up sons, the chase has been long won and Peter doesn’t have to dress up in a harlequin suit again. A shame really as it was fun when Harriet kept turning his offers of marriage down. Especially as a large amount of the female readers would have jumped at the chance to marry someone like him, including Sayers herself.

Murder at the Chase by Eric Brown

Murder at the Chase by Eric Brown is the second book in the Langham and Dupre mystery series. These books tick a lot of boxes for me as I enjoy the 1950s setting, this one begins as a locked room mystery – something else which I like – and there’s an English village location.

It’s not absolutely necessary to have read the first book in this series Murder by the Book but it is preferable I think. You can read my thoughts on that one here.

It’s July 1955 and the writer Donald Langham has just about plucked up courage to ask Maria Dupre to marry him but he’s planning a romantic setting in which to do the deed, he’s taking her off to rural Suffolk.

Just as they are about to leave for their trip Langham gets a phone call from Alastair Endicott asking him for help to track down his father who seems to have gone missing, despite his study door and window being locked. Edward Endicott had been working on the biography of a Victorian Satanist called Vivian Stafford, a some time resident of Humble Barton, the small Suffolk village where the Endicotts live. Vivian Stafford has apparently returned to the village, claiming to be over 120 years old and a possessor of supernatural powers.

Donald Langham realises that Humble Barton isn’t far from where they were going for their romantic break so he decides to go there and see if he can help solve the mystery.

I’m already looking forward to reading the third in this series, which is yet to be published. My only gripe with this one is that the literary agent Charles Elder doesn’t appear in it as much as I would like and not being of a romantic frame of mind I’ll be very glad when Langham and Dupre actually get hitched, then they can settle down to married bickering and banter which I find to be more entertaining than romance. This is a well written book in which Brown manages to conjure up a very believable 1950s.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley has appeared in a few of my favourite blogs and has always been adored by the readers (my pals!) so I was fairly sure that I was in no danger of finding this book to be a dud – and of course it wasn’t. In fact I’m already reading the second in the series and have the third one from the library.

Set in England in 1950, Flavia de Luce is the youngest in a family of three daughters, their mother Harriet died in a climbing accident and Flavia has no memories of her. Their father is a remote, withdrawn character, as were most fathers at that time. The girls are very much left to get on with things on their own which is something that their father might not have done if he had had an inkling of just how nasty elder sisters can be to their much younger siblings. I know because I’m a third daughter myself!

Never fear though, Flavia gets her own back, she’s a great character and with her love of chemistry it’s a brave or stupid person who crosses her. I never particularly wanted a daughter (it’s all that pink girly stuff which put me off that idea) but if I had had one I would have wanted her to be like Flavia.

When Flavia discovers a dying man in the garden she becomes involved in a mystery which had its origins years before she was born. She always seems to be a few steps ahead of the police and with the help of her trusty bike Gladys and an old family retainer called Dogger she solves everything.

There’s quite a lot of chemistry in the book and if I’m reading about something which I don’t know much about myself I’m always wondering how correct the information is. So each time a chemical was mentioned I asked my trusty resident Chemistry Ph.D guy (Jack) and I’m glad to say that it was all correct.

I enjoyed being in the company of Flavia so much that I began to read the second one in the series straight after finishing this one. Hurrah for libraries!

Murder By The Book by Eric Brown

Eric Brown has been writing science fiction successfully for donkey’s years but Murder By The Book is his first foray into crime fiction and going by this one I certainly hope it won’t be his last. It’s published by Creme de la Crime, an imprint of Severn House Publishing.

I read far more vintage crime than contemporary crime books, mainly because I don’t go in for ultra gory descriptions, so the 1950s London setting fitted the bill for me, Brown managed to evoke the atmosphere well, not that I was there at the time mind you, but I have soaked up a fair amount of the ambience in my years of reading vintage crime. It’s also nice and bookish, involving crime writers, agents and publishers.

Charles Elder is a literary agent who confesses to Donald Langham, one of the writers that he represents, that he’s being blackmailed over compromising photos. Charles is actually a likeable character, bon viveur, gourmand and generous gent, something quite rare in literary circles. Unfortunately his Achilles’ heel is that he’s a bit of an old queen at a time when it was still illegal in the UK. Donald has had some experience of working in a detective agency in the past so he offers to try to track down the blackmailer for Charles.

Donald isn’t exactly successful and more crimes follow thick and fast when crime writers are found dead in bizarre circumstances. When Charles ends up in hospital it gives Donald the chance to get closer to Maria Dupre, Charles’s French assistant, he has fancied her from afar for years. They bond over their mutual angst over Charles. Donald is a bit slow when it comes to women it would seem.

As ever, I don’t want to say too much about the storyline, I did have an inkling as to the culprit at around the half-way or two thirds mark but it certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment and there were plenty of twists and turns along the way which had me doubting my guess. An awful lot of tea drinking goes on in Murder By The Book, with Earl Grey being Donald’s tea of choice. So if you’re a bit of a tea Jenny too you might want to make sure that you’re well supplied with your own favourite blend of tea to accompany the book.

I found Eric Brown’s writing to be smooth and pacey, I read this one in three chunks but I would have read it all in one sitting if life hadn’t got in the way of my reading time. Although I’ve not read an awful lot of science fiction I think I might just have a go at some of his SF too.

The front cover says: A Langham and Dupre Mystery. I’m looking forward to reading the next one and the development of Donald and Maria’s relationship.

The Duke’s Daughter by Angela Thirkell

After watching all the horrible things which have been happening in the news from all corners of the world, I was in dire need of some light-hearted reading to take my mind off it all. This book fitted the bill perfectly and although I sometimes had a bit of difficulty keeping all the characters straight in my mind, especially when people who featured in earlier books are mentioned, I still found it really enjoyable.

This book was first published in 1951 and the upper class inhabitants of the county of Barsetshire are still grumbling about Them – by which is meant the Labour government of the day which seemed to be spending all of its time thinking up ways to tax the supposedly wealthier members of the poulation. Death Duties are a big worry to those who have money and the rest of them would no doubt like to have the luxury of having so much money that they had to worry about how much was going to be paid over to the government on their death!

As ever Angela Thirkell has purloined bits from various classic authors, most notably Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen and set it in her own time.

In this one there are quite a few characters being paired up at the end, to everybody’s satisfaction, and some of the more ghastly characters are nicely snubbed. I’m reading these books as I find them so not always in the correct order which is a wee bit annoying but I intend to read them again when I get the full set. No doubt the news won’t be any better then, whenever that may be.

I found this book in an antique centre, very reasonably priced and it’s a first edition, not that I’m ever bothered with that, but it does have the original dust jacket, a bit tatty, but it has comments on the back from luminaries of the time, a couple of them I haven’t heard of but here are a few of the comments.

‘Grace, wit, equanimity and engaging narrative power… if the social historian of the future does not refer to this writer’s novels, he will not know his business.’ – Elizabeth Bowen.

‘Mrs Thirkell possesses to a high degree the gift of making characters spring to life. She is often both witty and shrewd… she has a most observant, and often an attractively wicked, eye.’- C.P. Snow

I’ll just add – Angela Thirkell is well worth reading!