The Decagon House Murders (1987): Yukito Ayatsuji

★★★★½

Only a few days ago, I wrote about finding it difficult to engage with Japanese fiction. Clearly I only had to wait for the right book, because Yukito Ayatsuji’s cult mystery novel has had me absolutely hooked. Seven students head off to spend a week on a remote island, intrigued by a tragic murder committed there six months before. They believe, as members of the K-University Mystery Club, that they might just have the deductive skills to solve the crime. As a local fishermen ferries them out, they discuss the problem with modern crime fiction. It doesn’t allow enough scope for deduction, one of them complains. ‘What mystery novels need,’ he argues, ‘are… a great detective, a mansion, a shady cast of residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer.’ Best of all is the ‘chalet in a snowstorm‘ model, where characters are cut off from the outside world. Little do they realise that, soon, they will be in that very same situation, trapped on an island with no means of escape. And then, one by one, they will begin to die. Someone on that island is a murderer. But who? Intricately plotted, this stonking novel challenges the reader to use her ‘little grey cells‘ to solve the mystery before the grand denouement. All the clues are there. But can you work out the solution? (Spoiler: I didn’t!)

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The Foundling (2020): Stacey Halls

★★★

When Bess Bright falls pregnant in 1747, she knows there’s no chance of keeping her baby. As an unmarried mother, how could she afford to feed and clothe a child in the cramped apartment she shares with her father and her feckless brother? Bess knows that her daughter’s best chance lies with the Foundling Hospital, where children are well-fed, clothed, and trained for respectable careers in service. Heartbroken at the choice she has to make, she leaves the newborn Clara in the hands of the Hospital officials, along with a token that Bess can later use to prove her identity – for she’s determined to claim Clara as soon as she can afford to keep her. After six long years, she finally returns to the Hospital, life-savings in hand, to collect her little girl. But she’s greeted by shocking news. Clara is no longer there. Six years ago, on the day after Bess dropped her off, she was collected by a woman – a woman who, according to the ledger, gave Bess’s own name and address. What can have happened? Who would have impersonated Bess to steal her daughter? And can she still manage to find Clara, after all these years?

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The Belting Inheritance (1965): Julian Symons

★★★

Christopher Barrington has lived at Belting, the sprawling country house belonging to his maternal great-aunt, ever since the age of twelve, when he lost his parents in an air crash. The family is a strange one: the widowed old Lady Wainwright and her two sons, hapless Miles and uptight Stephen, along with Stephen’s wife Clarissa. Two other sons, Hugh and David, were lost in the Second World War and Lady Wainwright has never come to terms with her loss, especially that of David, her bright and charming favourite. In the summer of Christopher’s eighteenth year, we watch through his eyes as the old order at Belting comes under attack. As Lady Wainwright lies dying of cancer, a letter arrives, closely followed by a stranger, who claims that he is the long-lost David Wainwright. Inspired by the famous Tichborne case, this is a highly entertaining – albeit hugely convoluted – story.

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Wylder’s Hand (1864): Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

★★★

Mark Wylder’s marriage to Dorcas Brandon will bring about a truce between their families, after centuries of avaricious squabbling over titles, incomes and the ownership of Brandon Hall itself. But, as Charles De Cresseron travels down from London for the festivities, he can’t help marvelling that Mark has pulled it off. Despite their long acquaintance, Charles has never really liked Mark, and his raffish old acquaintance seems unworthy of a stately and beautiful woman like Dorcas Brandon. She, for her part, maintains an air of queenly indifference to her impending marriage: this is clearly no love match. When Mark unaccountably vanishes, shortly before the wedding, all the evidence suggests that he has cut and run; but what has prompted his disappearance? To make matters worse, his departure leaves a convenient gap on the stage at Brandon Hall, and Dorcas has another admirer waiting in the wings: the devilish Captain Stanley Lake, all too eager to take advantage of his rival’s absence. All the components of Victorian Gothic are present and correct: rambling old houses; dark secrets; ghosts and devilry; dastardly plots; innocence under threat; and an abiding mystery at its heart.

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Spring Garden (2014): Tomoka Shibasaki

★★★

You may remember that I have a vaguely vexed relationship with Japanese literature. While I’m fascinated by the culture it describes, I often have difficulty getting into the writing itself, which, at least in English translation, can feel strangely detached or repressed. However, I’m determined to keep at it and, along the way, I’ve found a few books that I’ve enjoyed unconditionally, like the detective novels of Seishi Yokomizo. Spring Garden, which originally caught my attention by virtue of its gorgeous cover, has been on my shelves for a while: now, as the sun grows stronger and the trees burst into blossom, it seems the right time to read it. It falls into the category of ‘evocative but slightly frustrating’: a tale of two lonely people who bond over an old photo-book that records the sky-blue house next door to their block of flats. It’s less a story than a glimpse into someone else’s life – a chance to walk alongside them for a while, without the promise of explanation or catharsis – and it has a bittersweetly nostalgic feel, as Shibasaki explores notions of loss, change and stasis in a world that’s moving too fast.

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Piglettes (2015): Clementine Beauvais

★★★★★

It’s that time of year again. Mireille Laplanche logs on to Facebook to find out the results of the annual Pig Pageant competition, awarded to the ugliest girls in the school (run by Malo, her childhood best friend turned nemesis). She can normally rely on getting first prize, but she’s surprised to see that, this year, she has ignominiously dropped to third place: a mere bronze! Who are these two girls who’ve beaten her? Mireille is fascinated. She sets out to meet her fellow Pigs, Astrid Blomvall (Year 11; gold) and Hakima Idriss (Year 8; silver), both of whom are distraught by the news and (in Mireille’s view) need to grow thicker skins. World-weary Mireille does her best to comfort them and, as she gets to know her new friends, she finds herself conceiving a plan. What if they could defang the Pig Pageant, and turn social media to their advantage instead? Funny, inspiring and heartfelt, this is a tale of the underdogs taking control of the narrative: a very modern story of determination, adventure, and sausages. Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourself to meet your new heroines: the Piglettes.

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The 19th Wife (2008): David Ebershoff

★★★★

I first read this book several years ago, before I started this blog, and although I remember enjoying it immensely, I couldn’t remember the details. It’s Ebershoff’s third novel and focuses on the practice of polygamy in the Mormon church by interweaving the stories of two women, separated by more than a century. One is Ann Eliza Young, the apostate former (nineteenth) wife of the early Mormon leader Brigham Young. Her lectures and writings, represented here by a fictional autobiography, helped to expose the reality of plural marriage and, ultimately, to abolish it in mainstream Mormon faith. In the present day, we meet BeckyLyn Scott, a member of a breakaway fundamentalist sect which preserves the practice of polygamy. BeckyLyn’s husband has been shot dead in his basement den and she, his nineteenth wife, has been arrested for murder. Her son Jordan, expelled from the community as a teenager, comes to believe that BeckyLyn is innocent; but how can he prove it? The stories of these two women intertwine in an absorbing tale of plural marriage, faith and family. To make matters even more interesting, events since the book’s publication have focused international attention on the community that must surely have inspired Ebershoff’s fictional Mesadale.

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The Amateur Marriage (2004): Anne Tyler

★★★½

It’s December 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor has galvanised the USA into action. As excitement fizzes on St Cassian St, a Polish neighbourhood in Baltimore, the young shopkeeper Michael Anton unexpectedly meets Pauline Barclay. This vivacious young woman in a red coat captures his heart immediately. Her wide-eyed admiration convinces him to sign up, alongside the other neighbourhood boys, leaving behind his widowed mother and heading into the world. When he returns, he and Pauline marry, with all the impulsiveness that has characterised their fledgling relationship. Marriage is what you do, after all, as a young couple in times of war. This novel follows the consequences of their decision across fifty years of challenge and change, both at home and in wider society. The ramifications of their hasty, imperfect match ripple out not only through their own lives but into those of their children and friends. It’s a moving, completely convincing tale of everyday life, teasing out its little joys and sorrows, and showing that, even in the face of great events, it’s the small dramas which shape our lives most powerfully.

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The Thief of Time (2000): John Boyne

★★★

I’m really not doing very well on the blog-writing front at the moment. In my defence, it has been a dramatic year so far. We nearly sold our flat, nearly bought a house, and then had it all fall through at the last minute. For over a month, I was so busy with estate agents, conveyancers and the Rightmove website that I barely picked up a book, but fortunately all that is on hold for a while. There is some very happy news too: we recently got engaged, and so there’s wedding planning to be done. While trying to form opinions on stationery and flowers, I’m also trying not to lose myself in a pink-saturated Pinterest feed, never to be seen again. As you can imagine, this emotional roller-coaster has disrupted my reading plans. That ambition I had, at the start of lockdown, to finally get beyond the second volume of Proust? Hasn’t happened. However, I have read a variety of entertaining books in recent weeks, ranging from the fabulous sci-fi-necromantic romp that is Gideon the Ninth, to Dolly Alderton’s surprisingly moving and relatable Everything I Know About Love. For the last couple of days – I’m rather ashamed to admit it – I’ve been absorbed in Lady Colin Campbell’s phenomenally gossipy Meghan and Harry: The Real Story, which has provoked numerous exclamations of, “She didn’t!” Please don’t judge me. But I want to start on slightly more conventional ground, with John Boyne’s The Thief of Time – a book which gave me a certain sense of déjà vu.

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One Corpse Too Many (1979): Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book 2

In times like these, it’s comforting to read a book where the author is entirely in control: where everything gels beautifully, and you don’t have to do anything but be carried along on the story. Few books convey this ‘sinking into a warm bath’ feeling better than Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series. I read the first book some time ago now, and actually read this second instalment immediately afterwards, but didn’t write about it at the time. It’s been long enough that I’d completely forgotten what happened, and had the pleasure of reading it all over again: disguise, distrust, nefarious deeds and all! It’s 1138 in Shrewsbury and King Stephen and his army are camped outside the town walls, while the last of the Empress Maud’s loyalists wait defiantly within the castle. When the castle finally falls, as all know it must, the garrison are executed. The monks of Shrewsbury Abbey volunteer to undertake the pious work of burying the 94 dead men, but when Cadfael takes charge of the task, he makes a troubling discovery. There are not 94 corpses but 95, and the extra man has not been hanged along with the rest of the garrison, but garrotted. How has a murder victim come to be concealed among the bodies of these men, and who was he? Cadfael and his new assistant Godric resolve to find out.

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