John Bude, The Cornish Coast Murder (British Library Edition, 2014 )
Ernest Carpenter Elmore (1901–1957), writing as John Bude, was a lesser-known contemporary of Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie and debuted his thirty crime novels with this endearing first.
Two amateurs, a vicar and a doctor, compete with a professional detective to solve a murder. Naturally, I sided with the amateurs, and though I was unable to guess “who did it,” the process was engaging to the end. The detective posits his possible suspects and studies (wrongly) how each one could have done it, while the vicar—using scientific, empirical methods, always believing in everyone’s inherent goodness—solves the case.
Today, the characterization seems stereotyped by social class and gender, but the stereotypes themselves offer a view of prewar English thought. There is a considerable charm in the language and in the story itself. For crime novel buffs, this writer is a delightful one to know.—AA
Cat Rambo, Hearts of Tabat (Wordfire Press, 2018)
Rich in emotions and description, with romantic elements, this second book in the Tabat Quartet revolves around a murder mystery. We experience the imaginary port city of Tabat through the eyes of four narrators: two merchants and two siblings from a poor household. Both Adelina, the secret publisher of a newspaper, and Sebastiano, a member of the Mages’ College who handles trade negotiations, come from merchant families with high expectations. Eloquence and his younger sister, Obedience, worship at the Moon Temples like most of the poor and therefore receive names based on personality traits. While Eloquence, who has the good fortune to become a fresh-water pilot, does have a gift with words, Obedience doesn’t fit her name. She struggles to escape the miserable apprenticeship the Temple finds for her.
As the novel begins, Adelina is obsessed with her former lover, the famous female gladiator, Bella Canto. When she meets the charming Eloquence, it seems she might finally move on. But will Eloquence’s rigid ideas about his younger sister ruin their relationship?
Hearts of Tabat plays out against a richly developed world, one in which mythical animals serve mankind and fuel machines. Revolutionary ideas about the magical beasts are developing; the murders that take place attest to that. Far from being mere “beasts,” the wonderful magical creatures that populate Cat Rambo’s world have feelings and needs that human society will ignore at its peril.—GM
Miquel Reina, Lights on the Sea (AmazonCrossing, 2018)
This extraordinary debut novel, skillfully translated by Catherine E. Nelson, follows the journey of Harold and Mary Rose Grapes, a retired couple devastated by the drowning of their young son thirty-five years earlier. When the government evicts the Grapes because their house lies on a bluff high above an island shoreline being eroded by the waves, it has no way to know that the decree threatens to break the couple’s last link with the past: the attic encompasses the frame and mast of the boat Harold built so that the three of them could set sail as a family.
On the night before the Grapes expect to leave their island forever, a freak accident spins the house and the land it stands on into the sea, where due to the unusual geology of the rocks the whole structure floats. Unable to steer and struggling to survive, the Grapes slowly come to terms with the tragedy that haunts them, especially after the house washes up on a distant and forbidding shore.
Although magical realism is not my usual literary cup of tea, the focus on character and the empathy extended to both halves of this long-married yet emotionally out of synch couple drew me in and kept me hooked from the first line.—CPL
Kit de Waal, The Trick to Time (Viking, 2018)
There is a trick to time. You can make it expand or you can make it contract…
This wrenching book has at its heart Mona as she approaches her sixtieth birthday. Mona lives in a small, quiet seaside town in England where she makes and dresses, to exact specifications, wooden dolls. Although she is a quiet and solitary person with few connections, as the book unfolds, her story is compelling and heartbreaking.
The author goes backwards and forwards from present-day England to rural Ireland, where Mona’s idyllic childhood as a cherished only child is disrupted by the loss of her mother. As a teenager, and like so many young people from Ireland, Mona moves to Birmingham, England, to start a bright and exciting new life. However, her new and lovely marriage and life are torn apart by the loss of her first and only child and by the tragic circumstances of her Irish husband, William, being in the wrong place at the wrong time as Birmingham is bombed by the IRA.
We find out that the dolls are to comfort women who have lost their babies to stillbirth and learn Mona’s beloved William’s fate as the themes of love, loss, and what might have been resonate strongly in this story.