The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley (2017)

I was smitten when I read Natasha Pulley’s first book, ‘The Watchmaker of Filigree Street’ a year or two ago, and so when I saw that a second book was being sent out into the world I knew that I had to rush out and buy a copy.

I’m so glad that I did. It was a lovely mixture of the familiar from the first book and the completely different and utterly right for this book; and it was set in the same slightly fanciful but utterly natural past that I wished could have been but that I know probably wasn’t.

At this point I should explain that this isn’t a sequel or part of a series, that there is a character who appears in both books, but that this is a different story set at a different time in that same world.

9781408878460

Merrick Tremayne is a horticultural expert and battered veteran of the East India Company’s opium trade. He’s retired to his family’s diapidated Cornish home after sustaining a serious leg injury, and, much as he loves the place, he is desperately sorry that his days of adventure are probably behind him.

They’re not of course, but he doesn’t know that.

He spends his days in the gardens and the greenhouses; and he is happy there but he is concerned that the estate continues to decay and that his brother, Charles, is either unwilling or unable to do anything about it, He’s also concerned that there seem to be explosions in the trees, and that the heavy statue that his father brought back from his travels seems to change position when he isn’t looking.

Charles doesn’t believe a word of it, and is inclined to believe that he is afflicted with the mental illness that sent their mother in an asylum. He tells Merrick that carrying on as they are isn’t an option: he can take on a small country parsonage or he can follow in his mother’s footsteps.

Fortunately help is at hand.

Merrick’s old friend, Clement Markham — a fellow adventurer and a peer of the realm — arrived with a wonderful proposition. Quinine supplies in India are running low and the government urgently needs a man who can travel to Peru, take some cuttings from the country’s quinine-rich cinchona trees, and make sure that they get to the sub-continent safely.

He says that Tremayne is their man.

He protested that his leg wasn’t up to the trip; he suspected – correctly – that there was more to the trip than he was being told; he knew that others had tried do the same thing and lost their lives in the process; but he was intrigued and he remembered that his father had told him stories about his own travels to that part of the world, and hinted that there were more stories that he couldn’t tell.

He joined the expedition.

It took him Merrick and Clem into the uncharted depths of Peru, to the town of Bedlam, a place that was both real and fantastical. There were lamps made of glowing pollen, there were exploding trees, there were rock formations of pure glass, and there was a border made of salt and bone that is was fatal to cross.

The two men reacted quite differently to these things, to other remarkable things they encountered and to the people they met. It became clear that they had different destinies …

I was drawn into this story from the very beginning – I loved the way that the fictional Tremaynes were insinuated into the family history of the real Tremayne family that used to live at Heligan – but even if I hadn’t known that very real place, where the lost gardens are open to visitors, I still would have been captivated.

I loved the way that Natasha Pulley told her story, and the way she held me at Merrick’s side as he made his extraordinary journey. Quite often I found that it wasn’t difficult to work out what was going on a little before he did, but I didn’t mind that at all because it was lovely watching all of his responses as he learned more and more.

The world he travelled through was so well realised, and the Peruvian jungle and the town of Bedlam felt wonderfully real and alive. The imaginative elements worked well because they came out of the natural world and old traditions, and they spoke of what makes up human. I particularly liked that way that those things sat against practical concerns, particularly the importance of a good cup of coffee.

The plot is so well constructed; and I loved that so much of the early part of the story in Cornwall was related to what happened to Merrick – and what had happened to his father – in Peru. I worked out a lot of things but I definitely didn’t work out everything, and I loved the final resolution, back in Cornwall again.

You could read this book that asks questions about life and faith; or you simply enjoy a lovely journey through a world that is both real and fantastical.

I was too caught up in the wonder of what I was reading to ponder the serious questions, but I saw that they were there and they gave the story weight without ever weighing it down.

I was sorry to leave the world of this book, but I know that I will go back one day to revisit this story and – I hope – to read new ones.

A Dangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys (2017)

Set in 1939, not long before the outbreak of the second World War, ‘A Dangerous Crossing’ follows young Lily Shepherd as leaves her much loved family and a past she would rather forget behind her to sail towards  a new life in Australia.

She is travelling on a cruise liner, the ‘Orontes’, thanks to an assisted passage scheme, paid for by the Government to encourage people to settle in Australia. Lily had been a domestic servant, and she had been told that when that when she reached Sydney she would have no trouble finding a good job, as good servants were in short supply and valued very highly indeed.

This story of Lily’s month long-voyage is a lovely period piece and a fascinating travelogue; threaded with mystery and intrigue.

She travels in tourist class with other young women who are travelling for similar reasons, under the watchful eye of a chaperone; but Lily finds herself mixing with a much wider social circle in the dining room. She forms a friendship the quiet and charming Edward Fletcher and his protective elder sister, Helena; and she is captivated by a rich, glamorous, hedonistic couple – Max and Eliza Campbell – who come down from first class because they feel unwelcome there.

Less happily, Lily catches they eye of the loud and fascist George; and her cabin-mate Ida, a terribly intense young woman looks on disapprovingly.

At sea, with only brief stops on land along the way, the passengers have little idea what is happening back at home. They know that with Germany could be close; some hope for the best but many fear the worst.

There are Jewish refugees and a large group of Italians on board; some – and most vociferously, George –  regard those people as the enemy. Lily befriends a young Jewish woman, who shares her fears for the family she had to leave behind, and tells Lily of some of the terrible things that are already happening in Europe.

As time passes secrets unravel and tensions grow,

Not everyone who sailed from England will survive the voyage.

I was hooked from the first page to the last.

The first chapter told me that someone had been arrested and led from the ship in handcuffs when it docked in Sydney, and I had to keep reading to find out why and to find out who it was, but I found many more reasons like that to keep turning the pages.

‘A Dangerous Crossing’ is a wonderful character study of people with very different backgrounds, who would not usually mix, but were drawn together in the close confines of the ship. It a self-contained world, where, for the five weeks of the voyage, the usual rules did not apply.

Rachel Rhys evokes the period, and a world on the brink of change, quite beautifully. Life aboard ship –  the daily routine and social events – is so vividly drawn,  and the accounts of excursions to places like Gibraltar, Naples, Egypt, Yemen and Ceylon felt so real that I really felt I was there, travelling right across the world.

I was travelling with people I knew, but people that I knew had secrets.

Lily was a wonderful companion, Eliza and Max were an extraordinary couple, and Edward and Helena were intriguing. As the voyage continued I learned more and more about them all; and I realised that they all had such depth and complexity. Some of that revelations made my heart lift and some of them made my heart fall. Some of them I foresaw, and some of them came as complete surprises.

The final twist, that led to the walk in handcuffs in the first chapter, was the most remarkable of all.

Rachel Rhys deployed he cast of characters very effectively, she gave her story many different aspects of her story, she caught the changing times beautifully, and she wove her plot very cleverly.

I felt so wonderfully close to it all.

I’d call this book commercial fiction done very well.

There were times when I would have liked a little more subtlety, and I thought that the epilogue was more elaborate than it needed to be; but the book as a whole works.

Let the Dead Speak by Jane Casey (2017)

Eighteen year old Chloe Emery was unhappy.

She had been to stay with her father, but his new wife and her two sons had made her so uncomfortable that she couldn’t stay, and so she was making her way home to her mother. Rain was pouring down and so she couldn’t turn down the offer of a lift from her neighbour, Oliver Norris, even though he made her rather uncomfortable too.

It was clear that something terrible was going to happen.

When Chloe stepped through her front door she began to realise that that something had happened while she was away. Her mother wasn’t there, the mess was appalling and the smell was dreadful. When Oliver Norris reappeared – because Chloe had left her bag on the back seat of his car – he realised straight way that the mess was blood.

Maeve Kerrigan and Josh Derwent are sent to the scene. She is newly promoted to DS, she is eager to prove herself in the her new role, and she is equally determined that Derwent is going to stop treating her as a junior. That doesn’t quite happen, but it is clear their wonderfully combative relationship is underpinned by mutual respect.

Though there is no body they are at the beginning of a murder enquiry. Chloe’s mother, Kate Emery, is nowhere to be found, all of her belongings are still at home, and the physical evidence is compelling.

Chloe was staying with the Norris family, they were protective of her and she was unwilling to say very much at all. That might be quite natural, but it might be that the Norris family had something to hide, it might be that Chloe was withholding facts that could help to reveal what had happened to her mother.

The police were left to wonder is Chloe was a slow-witted as they had been told. Because if she was her obvious physical attractions might make her very vulnerable. Because if she was her close friendship with Bethany Norris, who was very bright and a few years younger than her, was very hard to understand.

But at least Chloe was safe …

Understanding the kind of woman Kate Emery was might help the police to discover what had become of her, but hard facts were hard to come by and they heard a great many conflicting opinions.

The picture that emerged was of a complex character who might have been beginning to run out of options …

The story was set up so cleverly, it was full of drama and incident, and the plotting and the pacing were immaculate.

It rings true. The details are right, the characters  are utterly believable,and the twists, when they come, are in no way contrived. They flow naturally out of that story. And whenever I thought I had things figured out something else came to light to make me think again. It really is very well judged.

I’ve grown to like Maeve Kerrigan over the course of seven books in this series now. She is good at her job, she works well with her colleagues, but she is still a little inclined to rush in without thinking things through. Her role as a mentor to a new graduate recruit was an interesting element of this book, and I’m still enjoying the development of her working relationship with Josh Derwent.

The story is a little too dramatic to be true, but I can quite believe that Maeve is in London at work.

I’m just a little sorry that her own story hasn’t moved forward, and that I’ll have to wait for the next book in the hope that it will.

That’s my only small disappointment with this book.

A couple of books ago I wrote:

“Oh Jane! I just want you to get everything right, because when you do you could have an outstanding piece of crime fiction on your hands, you really could.”

This time she did and she does!