Reading round up

With a bit more time on my hands and a newly minted library card, I’ve been getting through a handful of novels a week lately. The downside of being dependent on the library is that I’m on the long, slow-moving list for the latest Galbraith, Rankin, Pat Barker, Sarah Perry and some others. I tried to add Tana French’s The Wych Elm but it’s not even published here yet, I think the US got it first. I’m simply steering clear of bookshops because my resolve will almost certainly crack.

But the positive is that I can take a punt on novels I’m not sure about or that are quite short. Full price, but c.300 page books are those that I’m least likely to buy, regardless of reviews, because they’ll be gone in an afternoon. If I can drop them back to the library a day or so later, then it doesn’t matter. Mostly, these experiments have worked out well.

In no particular order, here’s a bit of a round up,

Books I’ve loved

So Much Life Left Over – Louis de Bernieres. It’s the sequel to The Dust that Falls from Dreams, which I have on audio and could not get through. But, L de B was on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast and this sounded great so I grabbed it and tore through it. Now I’ve gone back to TDTFFD.

Priestdaddy – Patricia Lockwood. I remember seeing loads of reviews of this when it came out, but it never got as far as my TBR list. It’s a really entertaining narration of the year or so Patricia and her husband moved back in with her parents while they were saving money. Her father is a Catholic priest (who converted after he was already  married with kids) and an extreme character who prefers to spend his time at home in as little clothing as possible, often playing loud electric guitar.

How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran. Because the older I get, and the more pissed off I get, the more interested I get in feminism. Particularly as we seem to be moving backwards as all the poor, under-appreciated white men start to feel threatened by absolutely anything that suggests that society might move shift in the direction of equality, thereby curtailing their god-given right to behave however the fuck they want towards women at all times. Did I mention getting more pissed off?

How to be a  Woman is a collection of essays that interposes Moran’s tales of her own growing up with the current state of play, and what she learned along the way. And it is very fair, and very reasonable and entirely full of common sense. E.g. being pressured into make up or heels or fashionable clothing is all nonsense; of course women do not have to children to validate their existence. When I have got some money again, I will buy my own copy and carry it around with me at all times. And whenever things are bad I will open it at random and reflect on the wisdom within. It can be my personal tool for bibliomancy.

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks. Which is his collection of short stories that you will already know about unless you’ve been under a rock, because they were rave reviewed everywhere. And justifiably so. Elegiac, touching, funny, sad, deftly written gems of stories. Plus lovely pictures of old typewriters.

Books that were meh

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel. Very much in the ‘give it a go’ category to start with, because I am so over these pseudo-thrillers with the twist or surprise ending. There wasn’t any surprise with this one and I feel as though I had read all its different elements about a dozen times before. Family mystery, missing girl, black sheep returns to home town to figure it all out and reconnects with old boyfriend who never got over her. See what I mean?

Fatal Inheritance – Rachel Rhys. So, to start with the title, the inheritance is not fatal. But I suppose Slightly Threatening Inheritance wasn’t as dramatic. Secondly, I can’t stand unbearably naive heroines who create problems for themselves by failing to say or do something any normal person would say or do. Thirdly, the fact that characters keep arguing as evidence of thinly disguised sexual tension only works if there is the slightest reason for one of them to fancy the other in the first place. Which is something else I also struggle with in respect to unbearably naive heroines.

Anyway, woman mysteriously inherits part share in house in south of France and escapes overbearing, dull husband to visit and try to find out why. Meets fellow inheritors and faithful family retainer, continues to dress badly and be unable to hold her drink but blossoms in sunshine etc. Dull, overbearing husband arrives to take her home (because she hasn’t bothered to communicate with him, so obvs.) and also to underline difference between grim home life in suburbs and glory of independent life in southern France. Mystery resolved.

Books that I abandoned/would have thrown across the room if it was my own copy

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. What an awesome name the author has. So this I just abandoned, can’t tell you how far in because I couldn’t be bothered to check. After Mr Hancock has got his mermaid back from the brothel, having been shocked by explicit goings on. I think he’d just sold it and decided to build houses in London with the money. Abandoned because I realised that at best I didn’t care about any of the characters, at worst I disliked them. And I’m not hugely interested in the details of the C19th whoring scene.

Honeymoon – Tina Seskis. Full on shoddy thriller territory, this one. Cuts back and forth in time, between a woman on her honeymoon on which her husband has gone missing, and her earlier dating life. What drives me nuts in this type of literature is the artificiality of the attempted suspense, created by really obviously hiding some information. In this instance, it’s the name of the husband that is dodged, which means that all the dialogue, including the internal dialogue, avoids mentioning his name. Clunk. This is in order to protect the part-way through reveal that the husband is, in fact, the brother of the guy she was dating! Gasp! Or rather, snore, because you can’t deliberately avoid a character’s name for that long without it being a massive red flag that you’re trying to fuck with the reader’s expectations.

Dunno what happened. Don’t care.

 

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Reveal: Robbie Williams

Something of an unlikely book for me to be listening to, given that I wasn’t ever even much of a Take That fan and I’m not particularly interested in Robbie Williams. I was aware of Reveal but I’d assumed it was the usual ghost written celeb biography/hagiography and I wouldn’t have gone near it were it not for it being picked up on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast. I’m always on the look out for long books, too, and this clocked in at 17 hours.

The book is actually written by Chris Heath, who seems to have shadowed, interviewed and had a bunch of friendly chats with Williams over more than 10 years. Although Heath does make his own stance very clear, particularly when recounting the Twitter abuse Williams gets, the book is very much warts and all. Two things become clear very quickly: First, that Robbie Williams has no filter. Despite his years in the business, his tendency is to react first and then deal with the consequences later. But secondly, that despite or because of his success, he’s a hugely polarising character and plenty of people seem to hate him just for being there. They are very happy to express their hatred, for which we all have social media to thank, without any seeming realisation that there is a person at the receiving end of the invective. That’s disturbing and probably unhealthy and I’m sure studies are being done on the way that internet anonymity intensifies force of expression, and I’m equally sure that the results will tie in with those famous torture studies. Net result – people suck, unless they are very watchful of themselves.

Add to that the consistent and deliberately negative misrepresentation by the press, and there is absolutely no way Williams can win. His choice is either to work very hard at crafting a press friendly personality that then has to be maintained 100% of the time. Or just to carry on being himself as much as possible.

So I found Reveal very interesting, although less because of Williams himself and more because of the insight given into the damage that fame, money and the press can do to someone. In this case, particularly if that someone started as a 16 year old with pre-existing depressive and insecure tendencies. The book goes up to about 2016, by which time Williams is describing himself as agoraphobic. If this were an allegory, it would be one at which people could nod wisely and note the irony in being a hugely successful pop icon who yet prefers not to leave his own estate. But that’s his life, and if I had that kind of money and faced that kind of relentless scrutineering and abuse I wouldn’t go outside either. In fact, I would reinforce the bars of my gilded cage with something a whole lot stronger than gold, hire bodyguards with a zero tolerance policy and become a complete recluse. All of which means that I simply could not do the job that is ‘being famous’.

Fame just looks like an absolute nightmare, a game that is played with loaded dice. Robbie Williams is just a regular bloke, except with such incalculably huge insecurities that none of the markers of success manage to weigh in the balance against them. He loves his wife, he loves his kids. He falls out with people, his weight fluctuates, he’s a songwriter even during the period when he thinks he’s retired from the game. After making it through his wild years, about his only remaining vice is smoking. I lost track in the narrative but I actually think he quit that too. His job is to make music but it’s every single aspect of his life that is continually judged and usually found wanting.

There were times when I had to stop listening, usually when Heath was listing the troll comments Williams gets on social media. Experiencing the abuse third hand was overwhelming. The other eye-opening moments were when Heath unpicked various media storms. We all know that the tabloids are purely exploitative and will never let the truth get in the way of a damning story. Turns out, it’s not just the tabloids – everyone will run with the dominant narrative. So the take aways for me from this book were that I need to re-evaluate my own relationship with social media, and with the press in general.

As for the famous, it’s a reminder that they give us their talent. They don’t owe us their lives. As Neil Gaiman put it ‘G RR Martin is not your bitch.’

 

In which I discover podcasts

Yes, indeedy, cutting edge as ever. Next up, I discover Netflix. (Not necessary, the BBC currently has all of the last 10 seasons of Dr Who on iPlayer, so who has time for anything else when you can re-run David Tennant?) But while I was packing up all my belongings prior to moving, I wasn’t in the mood for music, had run out of audiobooks and couldn’t face daytime radio. And so, podcasts it was. Mr W, looking at you now you finally have a smartphone.

  1. My gateway drug to podcasts was, of course, The Archers Omnibus. It is an objective of mine to get back to spending 75 minutes faffing about on Sunday mornings, to the gentle accompaniment of The Archers. In the meantime, the podcasts serve me very well indeed. Will Brine and Jenny Dahling really sell Home Farm? Will Kate ever get her head out of her arse? Is Fallon really going to marry PC Plod? And who will win the Talented Pets competition at the annual Village Show? (For American readers who are not Mr W – I’m not making this up. The Archers laughs in the face of your so called long running soap operas.)
  2. Mrs Brightside – Susan Calman and comedian friends slash guests talking about depression, anxiety, mental health issues and often, how completely mad the Edinburgh Fringe is. If ever a podcast landed at the right time it was this one, because I started listening when my anxiety was at its absolute peak. It’s funny, insightful and incredibly down to earth about the issues suffered by the various guests and Susan herself.
  3. So I daringly branched out even further into Radio 4 territory and on to Front Row. This is R4’s week night arts review show, and it covers everything from 17th century play revivals to grime. The presenters are just as likely to enjoy Mamma Mia! 2 as the latest literary darling, and they venture beyond the M25, so I find it likeably ecumenical. Plus, I’ve developed an intellectual crush on Stig Abell.
  4. Which crush led me to the TLS podcast, Freedom, Books, Flowers & The Moon, because it turns out good old Stig is editor at the TLS. I can only assume the title of the show is a literary reference I just don’t get. If not, it’s a collection of Good Things One is Generally In Support Of.  I listened to their summer books special, and to an ad hoc episode of Stig Abell and that bloke who is the literary editor of The Spectator discussing why Lee Child’s Reacher novels are so good.
  5. Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast is something he launched when the books bit got axed (boo!) from the revamped drive time show (which, separately, I’m not loving. Nothing against Jo Wiley, just it’s not working for me. Also, why axe the books bit? Fools). The podcasts are every two weeks, hosted by Simon and sports guy Matt. They’re only three in so far, but the pattern is two authors and two books each time, one fiction and one non-fiction. This gives the authors plenty of time to talk about their books. My sense is that Simon Mayo is pretty well liked and appreciated in the literary world and so far he’s been getting some great guests: Lynda La Plante, Robbie Williams, Louis de Bernieres. I’ve picked up a few recommendations for the TBR list (D B John, Star of the North) and I’m currently listening to Robbie Williams: Reveal on audio, which I guarantee wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So far, Simon Mayo is resisting being interviewed about his own recent novel (Mad Blood Stirring), but I think I’ll buy it out of sheer gratitude.

Of course, all this merry podcast listening goes to fuck when I hand back the Merc with its useful built in Bluetooth. My new car, which I really won’t be able to identify in a line up, does not have Bluetooth. But it’s cheap, not in negative equity and has room for both cats at the same time! 

I’ll fit Bluetooth.

 

 

Seals!

I went camping for the weekend. We thought that S needed her spare room back for guests, and I desperately wanted to see the sea. I felt guilty spending the money but I bought a tent and a cheap camping stove and reasoned it was the most cost effective way of achieving a quick holiday. I decided on Norfolk because after blasting through all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series earlier in the year, I’ve been wanting to see salt marshes. I booked a camping pitch for £15 a night, checked the weather and was hugely relieved to see it looked several degrees cooler at the coast.

As it was a back to basics weekend, I navigated via road atlas, which actually worked pretty well. I just needed to remember the names of the key destinations and road numbers along the way: Evesham (A46) – Stratford – Warwick – Coventry (M6) – Thrapston (A605) – Peterborough (A14) – Wisbech – King’s Lynn (A169) – Cromer. In this age of Satnav, does anyone still plan their route any more? When I can, I like to make the journey part of the trip rather than just a means to an end. This was not the prettiest route but there’s a kind of magic to a list of unfamiliar place names. Now I have the geography of another part of the country roughly laid out in my head for when I need it again. It also meant that I could listen to Everyone Brave is Forgiven without Siri interrupting me.

The heat has been so oppressive around here that when I stepped out of the car into a breeze, I barely recognised it. Suddenly, the sunshine was beneficent again. Plus, I love being on my own in places where no one knows me. It’s like being invisible and you just know you aren’t going to have to talk to anyone at a level beyond the transactional for days. I don’t know if that’s an introvert thing, but I find it really relaxing. After 5 hours of travelling, I was reinvigorated.

Even so, there’s not a lot to be done with Cromer, but I found the second hand bookshop and the first two Dalziel and Pascoe novels. Reginald Hill has been on my TBR list since I heard Mick Herron recommend him at the Oxford Literary Festival.

I’ve been camping plenty of times, but never on my own before. And tents are a lot easier these days but still come with exactly the sort of instructions that make no sense to me whatsoever. I had one tricky moment, then I figured it out and suddenly, I had a sturdy blue bolthole for the weekend! After which, I was overcome with laziness and decided to settle in with the default camping foods: Dairylea slices, bread rolls, red wine. I hung my torch up in the tent and read A Clubbable Woman. 

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My tent was definitely the smallest on site. Even the guy on the motorbike had a pop up tent that was bigger.

Now, admittedly an air mattress might have made sleep a more comfortable proposition, but it was ok for a couple of nights. Besides which, there was coffee. That little camping stove was amazing. I mean yes, it took a while to boil a litre of water, but it got there. And it was a gorgeous morning, so I was happy to wait.

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That was Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that S brought me back from the US.

Since it wasn’t a thousand degrees, I’d decided I’d try walking from Holkham Beach to Wells-next-the-Sea. The website said it would be a couple of hours each way, but I thought I could pick up the Peddar’s Way for the route back and get some shade in the pine trees.

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Holkham

Holkham Beach was a sight to lift the heart. I paddled all the way to Wells and there were barely any people. Turned out, they were all at Wells. By the time I got there and remembered why it’s called Wells-next-the-Sea not Wells-on-Sea, that last mile inland nearly broiled me. I bailed on the walk back and got the bus instead. Peddar’s Way will have to wait for next time.

Empty beaches were a theme. But I was warned by the locals that out of term time, everywhere gets mobbed and is horrible, so I guess I was lucky with my timing. This was Sheringham beach, I got in and out on Sunday morning ahead of their world record attempt for the largest number of Morris Dancers in one place at the same time. Shudder. I had idly wondered why I kept seeing lone Morris Dancers around.

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I don’t even remember where this one was (Cley?) but only a few miles away up the coast from Holkham, the sand shifted to shingle.

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Sunday was all about the seals, though. I was expecting a pleasant boat trip and maybe a few seal heads bobbing around in the sea at a distance. I’d booked my boat trip with Ptarmigan, based on nothing more than picking up their leaflet at the shop on the campsite.

They were great, one of the smaller boat trip companies so we had to wait for several boat loads of Bean’s Boat Trips to get out of the way first. But the boats all take the same route out to Blakeney Point – thankfully not open sea because I get seasick really easily. Not that I can tell port from starboard but I like boats and the seasickness banishes all Patrick O’Brien induced fantasies of sailing holidays, or even any kind of long trip. I barely made it to Block Island.

Ptarmigan’s was a traditional clinker built boat, and the guide pointed out various other, locally built boats as we headed out to the seals. Blakeney used to be a major shipping harbour in the Middle Ages and was still going through to the 19th century. Now it’s heavily silted up and there’s just one commercial shipping boat, which goes after crab and lobster.

And then, seals! There are a couple of colonies of common seals and grey seals, so maybe 2,000-3,000 seals. They weren’t afraid of the boats, they were curious, but they kept their distance.

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Grey seals in the water could disappear as soon as they went under, even though it wasn’t that deep. They merged with the shadows.

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The grey seals are darker and have the longer faces, ‘like Labradors’ our guide said.

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After all that, I got home sunburnt, salty, tired and incredibly relaxed. Bring on more camping, more Norfolk and more seals.

Nightfall Berlin, by Jack Grimwood

 

Not that Grimwood needs my good words after this weekend’s note in The Times from Marcel Berlins. I’d link to it but, paywall. And I regret to say that I’ll be a bit vague, because I listened to the audio version and so can’t refer back to the actual text. The audio version was so good, it made me want to drive to the Leicester office for more listening time en route. Of course, once I got to Leicester I immediately wanted to come home again, but you can’t have everything.

Nightfall Berlin is the second novel to feature Major Tom Fox, following his first outing in Moskva a couple of years back. I loved Moskva to the extent that I bought copies as gifts for a couple of people. It’s a proper, old school, Cold War thriller, introducing Fox as a flawed lead with plenty of his own ghosts to be dealing with while he’s trying to find the missing 15 year old daughter of the British Ambassador. I wasn’t even all that interested the Cold War period, and now I’m finding it fascinating.

At least in Moskva, Fox was on official business. In Nightfall Berlin, he’s on the wrong side of the Berlin wall without any papers or allies, on the run because suspected of murder. He was sent to bring back a horrible old man who defected some years back and now wants to come home and die in peace. Or something like that – the letter the old git sends to The Times contains a deliberately mistaken classical reference linking to an old case, and the game is afoot when the man is found murdered in his flat.

The Stasi, the KGB and his own people are all after Fox at one time or another. They all want the memoirs the old man was writing and they’re willing to beat the truth out of Fox when he denies having them. Repeatedly.  There are twists, turns, failed attempts to escape back to West Berlin, shootings, meetings in the zoo, conspiracies, and cover ups. While that could sound like box ticking, that’s not at all how it reads. Comparisons with Le Carre are inevitable, and there’s a nice nod when Fox’s former handler hands him a copy of the latest Le Carre novel, intended for the KGB. The copy is returned with a book report.

Grimwood is great at representing the paranoia and bleakness of East Berlin, and the ever shifting relationships between the different sides as they carry out the behind-the-scenes dirty work that lets official policy continue. Fox isn’t being paranoid when he says ‘Trust no one’, nor even when it’s ‘There’s no one to trust’. Allegiances seem to shift on a dime, even Fox worries that the KGB uniform he ends up in at one point suits him surprisingly well.

My favourite threat (no spoilers as to circumstances): ‘… I’ll have you killed. I won’t even bother to do it myself, I’ll just look at the photographs.’ Boom.

Responses to Ovid

It was the last day of my Ovid’s Metamorphoses course on Monday, and I shall miss it. The good news is that there are plenty of online courses, so when I move I’ll still be able to study something, although not anything in the classics line.

There were a couple of lines about Helen in Bk XV that stayed with me, because they reference Helen when she’s old and you never think of Helen as old. In fact, I don’t know what does happen to Helen after she’s taken home from Troy. I can’t imagine it was back to married life with Menelaus. I think there’s a play to be written about Helen’s life when she’s older, and I’d like to see Helen Mirren play her.

In the meantime, a few stories were stuck in my head, so I exorcised them by scribbling some bits down. Sorry, Ovid.

Helen

‘and, when her glass shows every time-worn wrinkle, Helen weeps

And wonders why she twice was stolen for love.’ (Ovid, Met. XV)

Helen dreamed her birth again. Curled, nestled, perfect in the perfect oval of her egg, she felt the sunlight illuminating her and stretched out to reach its warmth. The eggshell fell away. Helen, unfolded, saw for the first time her own graceful, white arm extended towards the sun. She recognised beauty as though it had been waiting all along for her to claim it.

Waking, she felt the weight of dried tears on her cheeks. Old griefs.

Eurydice

‘And now they neared the edge of the bright world,

And, fearing lest she faint, longing to look,

He turned his eyes – and straight she slipped away.’ (Ovid, Met. Bk X)

‘Do you know, just before he slipped out of sight, I swear I saw him shrug. Like, oh well, that’s it then, worth a shot. Why did he have to look back like that, just as I was nearly out in the light of day? I only stopped to check for snakes, once bitten, twice shy is what I say. If he really loved me, he’d have been straight back down here, begging Hades for another chance and never mind that dratted dog had woken up again. What’s the point of being a great musician if you can’t lull a dog to sleep, I ask you? Not that I ever liked the lyre all that much myself. But oh no, off he goes, drowning his sorrows by partying with those Maenads, and they’re no better than they should be… And now he hasn’t even got a head, and if he thinks I’m spending the afterlife with a man without a head, well, he can just think again is what I say…’

Medea

‘Medea fled, swathed in a magic mist

Her spells had made…’ (Ovid, Met. Bk VII).

The potion had taken weeks to create, and Medea had used up the last of her energy in searching for the right herbs, picked at just the right time. Much of the mystery attaching to her rituals was for show, but this particular magic needed moonlight in its making. Now she was exhausted and all she wanted to do was to sleep. She would complete the spell in the morning. She sent the dragons away, and told her maidservant to wake her at dawn.

The girl had been with Medea for a year now. She was quiet, unobtrusive. Medea mistook her silent watchfulness for stupidity and was grown careless. When the moon was full in the sky, the girl took the wicked black knife set out for the morning’s work, and slit Medea’s throat.

Reading roundup January – March

Technically, also a listening round up as I’ve been getting through audio books so fast I keep buying extra credits on Audible. The hard part is finding anything – as with Amazon, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, browsing on Audible is a horrible experience.

Wins of the year so far:

London Rules – Mick Herron. Inevitably, because I am such a fan of the Jackson Lamb series. In this one, hopeless Roddy Ho has been giving out secrets to his girlfriend, which explains how he even got a girlfriend, and someone is trying to kill him. The only reason Lamb objects is because if someone is going to kill one of his Slow Horses, he’d prefer it to be him. Meanwhile, a terrorist cell is making use of the plans Roddy inadvertently passed along, the minister who engineered Brexit is gunning for higher office (and hoping his cross-dressing won’t come out), while the PM is hoping he can retire and write memoirs from his shed. Shed. Got that? Definitely not shepherd’s hut. Can Jackson’s motley crew save the day? Can Jackson get any more objectionable? You betcha.

Brilliance, A Better World and Written in Fire – Marcus Sakey. Seriously, I don’t understand how these haven’t been optioned into a Netflix series already. Picture a world in which 10% of people have abnormal abilities. Could be maths, science, pattern recognition, you name it. In the US, the government has responded by putting the most brilliant in concentration camps schools, where they are routinely de-humanised and driven to be dysfunctional. Nick Cooper is an agent with the Department of Analysis and Response (DAR), which hunts down criminal abnorms, and he’s one of the best. Nick finds out that DAR isn’t what it seems, the factions within the government, society and abnorm society start to follow up on their independent objectives, and the world is heading for a showdown.

The Smiling Man – Joseph Knox. I loved Knox’s debut, Sirens, which i also listened to, and which introduced us to extremely flawed DC Aidan Waits. In this follow up, Aidan is clean but back on the night shift with his partner Peter ‘Sooty’ Sutcliffe, who could give Jackson Lamb a run for his money in the being deeply unpleasant stakes. Aidan is investigating a dead body found in a disused hotel, while also battling his own demons in the return of the brutal father figure who traumatised and criminalised his childhood. There is a nightmarish, hyperreal quality to Aidan’s life, helped by the narrative being from his point of view and the fact that he barely seems to sleep. I’ve seen Knox’s novels described as ‘Manc noir’ and it’s certainly the dark underbelly of the city that we get to see.

The Ruth Galloway series – Elly Griffiths. I’m not going to name all the individual titles, but having read the first four novels in this series, I suddenly got addicted to them in audio form and listened to the next six. All the individual mysteries are strong and compelling, but almost more than that I like the overarching story of the difficult relationship between Ruth Galloway and DCI Harry Nelson. That’s what keeps me coming back, as with Susan Hill’s Serrailler series. Just as you think something might come of it, another blocker ends up in their way. Which may not be a bad thing, because try as I might I can’t see Ruth and Nelson actually living together with any degree of success.