Book reviews: the HTWB pick of the best for summer reading

Here are my reviews for a great choice of summer reading from sharp police thrillers to vintage whodunnits to a romantic family saga, and even a fictionalised memoir that will bring joy to your heart. Some of the original reviews were quite long so I have given them a haircut to save you reading my extended thoughts on the books!

book reviews

What books would you recommend for summer reading this year?

Let’s start with the hard stuff

Retired detective and now author Stephen G Collier has now published his second book in a chilling series of murder mysteries set in and around the city of Northampton, England where he served many years on the Northamptonshire Force. This being just up the road from where I live, I enjoy the stories even more as I know the places he’s talking about. But even if you don’t, his policemanlike attention to detail combined with no-nonsense narrative and gory truths will have you on the edge of your chair. Here are my thoughts on the first two books in the series:

Blind Murder

book reviewAfter a flashback prologue which you think will set the scene – and it does, although you don’t realize why until later – we briskly move on to the first murder scene where the vividly-described decomposing body of an elderly lady managed to put me off my lunch on the day I was reading about it. And that takes some doing.
Fairly early on we find out the identity of the perpetrator of these stomach-turning murders, so this book is actually more of a “why-dunnit” and “how-dunnit” than a “who-dunnit.”
What you don’t expect as you turn the pages, however, is the way Collier incorporates twists in the plot that (without giving the game away) smack crime fiction tradition in the face by the departure of characters who shouldn’t depart, and the arrival of characters of whom you think, “who the hell are you and why are you here?”
It may be a slightly unusual way to tell the story, but I think it’s great – and it works superbly well, particularly in the final dénouement of the plot.

Driving Dead

book review on HTWBThis long-awaited sequel to Blind Murder definitely does not disappoint. It’s every bit as dense as the first book and every bit as creepy as Collier mixes the relatively bland and comical police jargon together with ghastly, gory, violent death. As you read on you begin to understand why police and the other emergency services need to speak in light-hearted jargon as a means of coping with the sheer evil that’s out there.
One thing I would say about Driving Dead is that to enjoy it to the full, it helps if you already have read Blind Murder. Although the main plots in both books are completely standalone, the background stories and narrative will come alive for you better if you already know what they are about and what happened.
Many of the characters from the first book reappear in this one, and we share Collier’s very sensitive portrayal of the recently widowed Dr Kirsty Kingfield coping with the horrors of her job, her grief at the loss of her husband, and the early rumblings of emotional and romantic recovery.
At nearly 400 pages it’s a long book and there are many different characters and sub-plots to keep up with, so make sure you allow it plenty of time! It’s worth every minute, too.

The Miss Dimont Mysteries

Author T P Fielden is the fiction-writing nom de plume of broadcaster, journalist and Royal biographer Christopher Wilson who has a distinguished background in the UK’s “Fleet Street,” having been a columnist on several of the UK’s leading newspapers. The Miss Dimont mysteries are beautiful vintage pieces set in a delightful English seaside town in the late 1950s, where Miss Dimont works as a feisty reporter on the local newspaper. These books appeal to anyone who likes a rather less blood-curdling murder story than that provided by Stephen Collier (see above) and I think must be of special appeal to the older Baby Boomers in our midst. Here’s what I said about the first three in the series: I gather number four is due for publication in November 2019.

The Riviera Express

book reviewsI totally trashed my day’s plans by deciding to read a few further chapters of The Riviera Express before going about my weekend chores. Instead I read the remaining 300 pages of the book in one sitting (I read fast, mind you.) The chores had to wait because I was totally transfixed by T P Fielden’s wicked way of grabbing you by the throat at the end of each chapter, leaving you desperate to know what happens next.
Being a lover of crime fiction anyway I was wondering whether this vintage setting was going to be a little precious, but no – in fact it paints what I understand (from what my parents had shared with me) is a very accurate picture of those post-WW2 years where the serious sadness of the war bumped into newly unrestrained freedom and frivolity, often with uncomfortable results. Fielden manages to use undercurrents of this more serious element of the period while entertaining us with wry humour, and a complex, twisting plot that – like all good whodunnits – keeps us guessing right to the end.

Resort To Murder

book reviewsIf I had been in Temple Regis during the late 1950s I would have opened up a funeral parlour. So many bodies! And a proper local newspaper with its WI reports, wedding writeups, stolen bicycles, lost cats and murders all rolled into one weekly thrill that mere days later was wrapping the fish and chips. Having read both The Riviera Express and Resort To Murder I now feel I have spent all my summer holidays in TR since I was a baby.
The youth-renewing contraptions in Resort To Murder may seem ridiculous to us now, but if you look at newspaper and magazine advertising from that time you will see similarly absurd products tempting gullible consumers. I particularly like the way Fielden weaves murder and corruption through all this beatific innocence, demonstrating how although customs and courtesies turn themselves inside out through history nothing much ever changes about the dark, evil side of human nature. The third in the series, A Quarter Past Dead, is next but one on my reading pile (have Stephen Collier’s latest police thriller to read next) and I’m truly lookng forward to it. Meanwhile I mustn’t forget to book my holiday at The Grand Hotel in Temple Regis: first week in June should be perfect…

A Quarter Past Dead

book reivewWhen a very elegant and very dead lady is found in a cheap cabin at a 1950s holiday camp, the locals of Temple Regis have no idea who she is or why she was there in the first place, and also why she had been shot through the heart with no evidence of a struggle or attempt to escape on her part. Feeling, with good reason, that the Temple Regis constabulary is somewhat slow off the mark the intrepid Miss Dimont sets out to get to the truth which of course she does, but she has to jump some large hurdles along the way.
Meanwhile we watch an escalating row between a sphere-shaped holiday camp owner and the proprietor of the snooty 5-star hotel next door, which Fielden describes in such a hilarious way it will have you shouting with laughter. Funny though the rivals’ antics may seem there are far deeper and darker issues here which turn the book into more of a tragicomedy, perhaps, than a light-hearted romp.
Personally I like the way Fielden adds a brutal touch to the sunshine and lemonade every now and again, especially as people at that time were still feeling the sting of war from the previous decade. It makes the stories more realistic and gets you thinking, as well as laughing.

The Emotions Trilogy

I have written in here before about author Antonia Abbott and her charming family saga set in rural Oxfordshire, England. The stories centre around a comfortably-off middle class family who look average enough, until Abbott begins to peel back the onion skins and reveal all kinds of skeletons, sadness and joy rolling out one after another. If you like a “ripping yarn” without too many bodies or bloodshed, this series is perfect.

Mixed Emotions: An Oxfordshire Affair

book reviewsI enjoyed this upper-middle class romp thoroughly and living quite near Oxfordshire, I recognized many of the towns and villages described in the story. Although we have one brief diversion to Monaco, the vast majority of the time the action takes place in amongst the soft brown Cotswold stone buildings and rolling green countryside.
This novel isn’t just about the frivolous young Susie, either – it’s the first in a family saga destined to go on into a series of three, so we’re told. Certainly Susie’s parents and brother are interesting characters and all have their share of small-but-perfectly-formed skeletons in the closet, as do some of the secondary characters who emerge later in the story which helps us look forward to book number two.
Add to this some delightful foraging in antique shops, some lunches and dinners in bijou Oxfordshire pubs and restaurants plus enough champagne to float the Ark Royal, the book gives you a very rounded experience of this extravagant family, their friends and their lifestyle.

Heightened Emotions: An Oxfordshire Wedding

book reviewsOur Susie hasn’t learned her lesson. Far from it. Despite becoming engaged to the handsome and long-suffering David and seeming to have calmed her fun-loving libido down a bit, it isn’t long before she is cantering off, trampling all over everyone’s corns, feelings and egos once again.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the skeletons rattling in some of the other characters’ closets.
In Antonia Abbott’s almost Miss Marple-esque, genteel and restrained style, we uncover some hideous and horribly realistic villains emerging from prison gates, under magnolia trees, flashing nude photographs and lurking in the bushes.
All the way through this book in the trilogy we share the Rowlands family’s experiences in organizing a lavish British upper-middle class wedding, with all the the attendant frustrations, stress, hysterics and more.
But how does the wedding work out? Aha…

Enduring Emotions: An Oxfordshire Tragedy

book reviewsDespite the decorous, genteel appearance of the central Rowlands characters, underneath all that lies a seething, squirming mass of frustrations, misunderstandings, pomposity, downright stupidity, delicious meals, wine and champagne to die for, and various other nice traits to create utter hell.
Spoilt little bitch Susie Rowlands, has been left pregnant and in the lurch by her long-suffering fiancé David when he understandably thought she had been playing away with her ex – the evil Jonathan – in the second book of the trilogy.
Without wishing to give too much away, in the early part of this Book Three she manages to give birth by C-section and get married to David after all not only all at the same time, but all while confined to her hospital bed.
Annabelle’s aging parents are a serious cause for concern; the tedious Jonathan keeps stirring up the doo-doo; Kevin the blackmailer gives us all a huge shock; and the only human to keep us on an even keel is Alf in The Crown whose tasty food and flowing champagne keep us all grounded as well as refreshed.book reviews
And my favourite character? The delightful Basset Hound “Allsort,” who strikes me as more sensible than all the human Rowlands put together.

The Rainbow House

Book reviewI met author Barbara Grengs in an online writers’ group and was delighted to meet her in person in Minnesota some years ago where she entertained my son and me royally. I already loved her writing from her very successful Toby Martin Pet Detective series of books for 12-14 year-olds in which, as a former secondary English teacher, she manages to sneak in a few discreet English grammar and vocabulary lessons along with the excellent stories. In The Rainbow House Barbara tells her own story – they story of her youth in rural Minnesota, but fictionalised to protect the innocent! Having had to choose new names for everyone she made my month by naming the lead character (herself) Suze  … and here’s what I wrote:

In this wonderfully romantic story author Barbara Grengs brings back not the “down-homedness” of the redneck variety, but the other type: wholesome, happy, uplifting love that spreads from the most isolated of rural culture to the hard-rock centre of Minneapolis/St Paul … from where Barbara “emigrated” to the gorgeous environs of the Rainbow House. Read it. You’ll love it. I did.

Hope you find some great reading here

All titles in this review are available on Amazon: click on the cover images to go to the UK Amazon for more information. And what books would you recommend for summer reading this year? Please share!

Comments

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Thoughts

  1. For those of us Canadians, I love the series by Louise Penny, Set in a fictitious small town in Quebec, they centre around Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Delightful!

    Also I read the books in the series set in post WWI in London by Jacqueline Winspear. Her private detective Maisie Dobbs is both a detective and an amateur psychologist. Brilliant!

    You can see I love mysteries!

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