Posted in Book Reviews

Last Letter Home – Book Oxygen Review

Last Letter Home

Rachel Hore

Published by Simon & Schuster 22 March 2018

560pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

 

 

Rachel Hore’s ninth novel is an unashamedly romantic tale, spanning some seventy years. Briony Wood, a historian, is on holiday with friends in Italy. She is fascinated by a derelict villa set in the hills behind Naples that was used as a base by British soldiers during World War II. Briony’s grandfather had been in the area in 1943 and she wonders whether he had visited it. A local woman gives her a sheaf of letters written by a woman called Sarah Bailey, from Norfolk, to a soldier named Paul that were found in the villa.  Briony finds herself driven to discover more about Sarah and Paul, and her late grandfather, Harry Andrews.

The action switches to 1938, and Sarah Bailey has returned to England, following the death of her father. With her mother and sister, she sets up home in the Norfolk village of Westbury, not far from a lovely old manor house. Ivor, a distant relation who lives in the manor house, takes an instant liking to Sarah and she is flattered by his attentions. Paul, a young German man, lives in the area with his mother who is English. They escaped Germany when Paul’s father was killed. As the winds of war blow stronger, Paul finds that not everyone is happy to have a German living nearby. Sarah and Paul find they have a common interest in gardening and despite Ivor’s efforts to belittle Paul, they become firm friends.

Initially, Rachel Hore’s writing is overly stuffed with adjectives that overwhelm the story. However, once the settings and main characters are introduced, her writing settles down into a smooth rhythm and the pages turn with ease. The settings are well researched and both the 1940s and modern day Italy are richly atmospheric. Wartime Norfolk is full of small but telling details and although there are some stock characters – the posh manor family, the ex-soldier estate manager – they do not detract from the enjoyment of the tale. Sarah is the most developed character and it is easy to sympathize with her. In Ivor, Hore indicates a cruel streak from the outset, while Paul seems a little passive at first. Briony’s need to find out about her grandfather’s life is well drawn, and the letters by Sarah are touching and full of character.

As the war gathers pace, life changes for everyone, with even Ivor’s family finding their luxurious life slipping away. Sarah works hard gardening under the watchful eye of the government inspectors who want every patch of earth to produce food for the country. Hore echoes the burgeoning relationship between Sarah and Paul in the modern day sections with Briony and the man she falls in love with. It adds interest to both relationships, showing that while the world may have changed, the complications of love relationships span the decades. This is an engaging read – with a well disguised twist – and the mix of history and romance is handled with great skill. A fabulous book to take on holiday.

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Posted in Book Reviews

Burnout by Claire MacLeary – Sunday Herald

CROSS Purpose, Claire MacLeary’s striking debut novel, introduced Harcus & Laird, an odd couple of middle-aged Aberdonian quines turned private investigators. It was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year. In Burnout, Maggie Laird and Big Wilma Harcus return, rebuilding the private investigations company that Maggie’s late husband ran after his dishonourable dismissal from the police force. Maggie hasn’t given up hope of clearing her husband’s name but in the meantime she has to work as a private investigator to pay the bills that her part-time job at a local school doesn’t cover.

She meets with Sheena Struthers, a well-to-do woman from an affluent area of Aberdeen, who thinks her husband is trying to kill her. Maggie is surprised but sympathetic, seeing a little of herself in Sheena. Wilma, on the other hand, is furious that she has accepted Sheena as a client, the pair having agreed to stay away from domestic cases. ‘Ah’m only tryin to protect you, ya feal quine,’ says Wilma. The most serious disagreement of their fledging partnership threatens both their personal and professional relationships. By showing their differing reactions to Sheena’s problem, Maggie compassionate and Wilma doubting, MacLeary has added depth to both characters. Maggie is also trying to support Ros, a young teacher, whom she befriends during breaks at school. Ros is suffocating in a marriage where her narcissistic husband calls all the shots but she is trying to make it work for the sake of their baby son.

Wilma juggles Harcus & Laird cases with a job as a cleaner at a local hospital. She relishes getting out and about, following up on insurance claims to establish whether they are genuine or fraudulent. This means that Wilma is rarely at home and Ian, her usually easy-going husband, is far from happy. With the growing distance between herself and Maggie, Wilma struggles to cope.

After several meetings during which Sheena provides little evidence for her husband’s alleged murderous tendencies, Maggie tries to point her client towards a doctor. When Sheena is later found unconscious in her own home, Maggie wonders if she has missed a vital clue. She is interviewed by DI Chisolm, formerly a colleague of her late husband, who is investigating Sheena’s case, and also calls on DS Burnett, who has long carried a torch for her, to help with a personal matter.

The Aberdeen setting provides an interestingly tough background and MacLeary doesn’t shy away from using strong language appropriate for her characters. She touches on current social issues, such as violence against women and the discrimination they face, particularly when dealing with public bodies such as the police. Working-class Wilma’s surprising lack of confidence allows MacLeary to explore class, an issue that continues to haunt British society. But she also leavens the tale with some welcome humour, Wilma seeing the funny side of even the most troubling circumstances. Harcus & Laird’s second outing is as absorbing as their first. This is a thoroughly entertaining series that could run and run.

Burnout by Claire MacLeary is published by Contraband, priced £8.99

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