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‘I Have Lost My Way’ by Gayle Forman ***

I shall open this review of Gayle Forman’s newest novel, I Have Lost My Way, by saying that despite reading and quite enjoying a couple of her books to date, I have found that they are a little lacking in places.  As with Forman’s other books, I Have Lost My Way – the rather cheesy tagline of which is ‘They lost their way but found each other’ – deals with the notion of fate, and questions how different decisions can have lasting impacts, both on our lives, and the lives of others.

9781471173721The storyline here intrigued me, following as it does three different characters who randomly meet, and then play a huge part in each other’s lives during that single day.  Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel meet one another following an accident in New York’s Central Park, in quite unlikely circumstances; Freya slips from a bridge, falls onto Nathaniel and knocks him out, and then requests the help of passerby Harun to get him to a medical centre.  All three are teenagers, roughly exactly the same age, which makes it feel even more of an unlikely occurrence.  They are also all struggling, in one way or another, with problems which come to light as the novel goes on.

Freya is a singer, who has been signed up by a fame-hungry manager, and deemed the ‘next big thing’.  However, she begins to have problems with her voice during the recording of her first full album.  The book’s blurb, and some of the early narrative, states that she has ‘lost her voice’, but this is not entirely true; rather, she is just unable to hit some notes.  She comes from a fractured family, her father having moved back to the Ethiopian town where he grew up, when she was a young girl, and her sister not speaking to her for reasons to do with Freya’s musical career.

Harun is a young Muslim, with a loving family who worry about him if he is five minutes late getting home after college.  He is keeping a vital secret from his parents and siblings; he is in love with a boy named James, and the pair have been meeting every single Thursday when Harun should be studying.  ‘Thursdays were their day to be together in Manhattan, where they can slip through the streets like ghosts’, writes Forman.  They have just broken up, and so Harun feels rather despondent, unable to concentrate on anything but his memory of James.

Nathaniel is the most mysterious character of the three, having fled to New York from Washington state with the little money he has.  The only inkling we have of his problem at first is that his family have suffered a tragedy, and he had no choice but to escape.  We learn that he had to grow up very quickly indeed after his mother moved away to California, and his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer.

After the three of them quite literally collide with one another, they slowly reveal their pasts, ‘which they have been unable up until now to confront, and together, find their way back to who they’re supposed to be.’  Several chapters encompass all of the characters together, detailing their conversations with one another, and subsequent chapters are then told from the perspectives of Freya, Harun, and Nathaniel.

The levels of trust which the characters exhibit for one another in the space of just a few hours are, frankly, ridiculously unlikely.  Had the narrative unfolded over several weeks, rather than just taking place in the space of a single day, the whole may have been more believable, but this aspect really began to irritate me.

The way in which Forman brought such different and disparate characters together here is an interesting one, but at the same time, it feels so calculated, and thus cannot be fully believed by the reader.  Its ending feels particularly predictable, and whilst the writing was of a good standard throughout, I did not feel as though the character voices were distinctive enough.  In I Have Lost My Way, Forman has clearly been ambitious, but it does not quite pay off.

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‘Devotion’ by Nell Leyshon ****

I very much admired Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk upon reading it a few years ago, and was eager to read more of her work.  It has taken me a while, but I was able to find a copy of her second novel, 2008’s Devotion, online, and eagerly read it whilst on holiday during the summer.

9780330426428Devotion sounded more traditional in terms of its plot and setting than the aforementioned The Colour of MilkThe Observer has described it as ‘a moving tale of a family falling apart’, and author Catherine O’Flynn writes that it is ‘a compelling study of a family cast adrift; written with subtlety and sensitivity, this deceptively simple tale pulls the reader closer with each page.’  The Times Literary Supplement says that Devotion questions ‘how we understand situations and feelings, and how we read the story of ourselves.’

Rachel, the wife of Andrew and mother of two girls named Grace and Tilly, decides at the outset of the novel that her marriage is no longer working, and asks Andrew to leave.  At this point, she feels as though she is in control, and knows what she is doing, ‘but Rachel is wrong, and her decision has consequences no one could have foreseen.’

The entire story is told from all four of their perspectives, an approach which adds an awful lot of depth.  Tilly, the youngest family member at six years old, is the one who struggles the most with the decision, not really understanding what has happened, or what has caused it.  At the end of her first piece, she says: ‘His books are still here even though Dad isn’t.  I watched him drive off with his car full of insects and suitcases and books, but I don’t know where he went.  Teenage daughter Grace is the one who discovers quite how quickly her mother has moved on after going to deliver a cup of tea to her bedroom one morning: ‘My mother’s dyed red hair was spread over the pillow.  Her skin was tanned and she wore her silver bangles on her arm which was draped over him.  Her arm, over him.  This person I had never seen before.’

Devotion is a highly immersive contemporary novel.  One quickly gets a feel for the characters; the girls particularly have a vividness and vivacity to them, and their voices feel like realistic ones.  Leyshon is incredibly perceptive, and so understanding of emotions; she notes how each character changes as the novel goes on, and how they are forced to change by others.  She demonstrates the ways in which people can protect others, and also how they can put them at their most vulnerable, and their most alone.  The feeling of unease which begins to creep in has been placed so well.

It is tempting to speed through this thoughtful and searching novel to its cataclysmic ending, merely in order to see what happens, but this is a novel to savour.  Leyshon’s writing has a quiet beauty to it, particularly with regard to her descriptions of the natural world.  The highly accomplished Devotion is a book which I likened to Ali Smith’s wonderful The Accidental as I was reading it, and I hope it is one which many readers discover sooner rather than later.

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One From the Archive: ‘Every Eye’ by Isobel English *****

Every Eye is a beautiful Persephone novella, complete with, as ever, stunning endpapers.  It was the publishing house’s fifteenth publication, and is one of my favourites to date.  The copy does not contain a blurb – as many Persephones do not – but, perhaps unusually, there is no extract from the work itself either, as is often the Persephone way.  Rather, we are given an insight into the novella through an extended John Betjeman quote.  In the Daily Telegraph in 1956, Every Eye‘s publication year, he wrote: ‘Sometimes, but not often, a novel comes along which makes the rest one has to review seem commonplace.  Such a novel is Every Eye.  It is remarkable for the skill of its construction, and for the style of its writing…  [English] is on the mark whether she is observing scenery or character.’  I hasten to agree. 9781903155066

Isobel English is a pseudonym for June Braybrooke, a friend of the likes of Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, and Stevie Smith.  For simplicity’s sake, I shall refer to the author as English throughout my review.  The novella’s preface was written by her husband, Neville Braybrooke; he includes many fascinating biographical details, and writes also about the rather charming publication preparation of Every Eye: ‘… after it was returned [from being typed], she wrapped it in a silk scarf, as was her custom, and delivered it by hand to her publishers…’.  English published only three novels in her lifetime, between the years 1954 and 1960.  In 1974, she won the Katherine Mansfield Prize for her collection of short stories entitled Life After All.

Every Eye runs to just 119 pages, but its length is perfect; English’s writing certainly works well in the more compact literary frame.  The novella charts the life of a newly married woman named Hatty, and begins with the death of her aunt, Cynthia: ‘It is strange that this news should arrive today, the eve of our departure.  Tomorrow morning Stephen and I are to set off for Ibiza, the most savage of the Balearic Islands.  We have been married a year and this is a long-promised holiday.  Now it seems something over and above, an involuntary almost predestined mark of respect to a dead person, for it was Cynthia who first told me of this place which must have been when I first met her  about the time of my fourteenth birthday’.  Indeed, Cynthia, who was married to Hatty’s ‘big brown bear’-like Uncle Otway, lived there for much of her life.

Hatty is often frank, and I was immediately endeared to her; she strikes one as rather an original character construct, by all accounts.  When asked for Cynthia what she likes to read after a fraught exchange has taken place, for instance, we are given the following information: ‘Still cautious but placated almost completely, I answered, a little gruffly I remember: “I like good books,” and then to illustrate the extent of my knowledge: “I like Rider Haggard very much, but I can’t stand Jane Austen”.’

Every Eye is not at all a run-of-the-mill portrait of a young newlywed.  The details which English gives too, particularly with regard to Hatty and Stephen’s relationship, and their wider circle, intrigue: ‘6.30am and Victoria.  Stephen’s mother, Amy, is already on the platform waiting to see us off; she has brought with her the young girl that she hoped Stephen would marry before he met me.’

The structure which English has used here, of a continuous narrative with no chapter breaks to speak of, works well; it allows her to present us with a coherent barrage of thoughts and memories, which run simultaneously alongside her present day life and travels.  English’s descriptions are incredibly perceptive; she picks up on all kinds of minute details.  Of the train journey which Hatty and Stephen take through France, for instance, she writes: ‘To begin with we are a carriageful of nondescript putty-coloured figures.  But with the thinning out from station to station, there develops before our accustomed eyes brilliant coloured designs on women’s dresses, cyclamen gashes on mouths and headscarves; the cerulean of the sky greased and shining on the eyelids of the girl in front of me’.

Hatty has such realistic touches to her, and she has been thoughtfully and intelligently constructed.  English’s writing is strong and distinctive throughout, and the novella is often quite darkly funny: ‘So it is Wednesday, and the first for Cynthia below the ground – the cold raw earth lined with evergreens.  “Six feet of semi-detached will do me nicely, dear,” I had heard her say often enough when she was looking for another smaller flat when their lease expired.  At last this has been realised as a permanency’.  Every Eye is a beguiling and sometimes unsettling book, with a vivid sense of place.  From the first it is incredibly absorbing, and is a fantastic choice if you are looking for something which you can read without too much trouble in a single sitting.

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The Book Trail: From ‘The Colour’ to ‘The Light of Day’

I have chosen Rose Tremain’s wonderful historical novel, The Colour, to kick off this edition of The Book Trail.  As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

 

1. The Colour by Rose Tremain 9780099425151
Newlyweds Joseph and Harriet Blackstone emigrate from England to New Zealand, along with Joseph’s mother Lilian, in search of new beginnings and prosperity, but the harsh land near Christchurch where they settle threatens to destroy them almost before they begin. When Joseph finds gold in a creek bed, he hides the discovery from both his wife and mother and becomes obsessed with the riches awaiting him deep in the earth. Abandoning his farm and family, he sets off alone for the new goldfields over the Southern Alps, a moral wilderness where many others, under the seductive dreams of the “colour,” rush to their destinies and doom.

2. In the Forest by Edna O’Brien
Based on a horrendous true crime, In the Forest is the story of Mich O’Kane — ‘not all there in the head’ it’s said — who shoots three people dead in the woods of Ireland. Edna O’Brien traces the events that lead to such horror. Mich O’Kane hears voices; he cannot stop mourning the death of his mother. Theft and other crimes lead him to a Christian Brothers borstal, then to a British prison. By the time he returns home, he is an institutionalised criminal incapable of telling the truth even to himself. Single mother Eily lives with her young son Maddie in a house Mich camped out in after his mother’s death. One night, Mich drags them out of the house and orders Eily to drive to the forest. The third death is that of a priest he entreats to come to the murder site. This tragic and starkly terrible story is told from various points of view, including Eily’s, Mich’s granny’s, and a priest’s. But the core of the story is Mich, born to fail. Can there be any hope for him?

11366043. Schooling by Heather McGowan
Catrine Evans, a young American, is sent to an English boarding school after her mother dies of cancer. Memories of Isabelle, the best friend she left behind in Maine, give way to dreams haunted by images of an accidental death she believes they caused before she left for England.
4. Small Remedies by Shashi Deshpande
Shashi Deshpande’s latest novel explores the lives of two women, one obsessed with music and the other a passionate believer in Communism, who break away from their families to seek fulfilment in public life. Savitribai Indorekar, born into an orthodox Hindu family, elopes with her Muslim lover and accompanist, Ghulaam Saab, to pursue a career in music. Gentle, strong-willed Leela, on the other hand, gives her life to the Party, and to working with the factory workers of Bombay.  Fifty years after these events have been set in motion, Madhu, Leela’s niece, travels to Bhavanipur, Savitribai’s home in her last years, to write a biography of Bai. Caught in her own despair over the loss of her only son, Aditya, Madhu tries to make sense of the lives of Bai and those around her, and in doing so, seeks to find a way out of her own grief.
5. The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra 307278
The young Brahman Samar has come to the holy city of Benares to complete his education and take the civil service exam that will determine his future. But in this city redolent of timeworn customs, where pilgrims bathe in the sacred Ganges and breathe in smoke from burning ghats along the shore, Samar is offered entirely different perspectives on his country. Miss West and her circle, indifferent to the reality around them, represent those drawn to India as a respite from the material world. And Rajesh, a sometimes violent, sometimes mystical leader of student malcontents, presents a more jaundiced view. More than merely illustrating the clash of cultures, Mishra presents the universal truth that our desire for the other is our most painful joy.
6. That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern
It is a village flirting with the more sophisticated trappings of modernity but steeped in the traditions of its unforgettable inhabitants and their lives. There are the Ruttledges, who came from London in search of a different life on the edge of the village lake; John Quinn, who will stop at nothing to ensure a flow of women through his life; Jimmy Joe McKiernan, head of the local IRA as well as town auctioneer and undertaker; the gentle Jamesie and his wife, Mary, who have never left the lake and who know about everything that ever stirred or moved there; Patrick Ryan, the builder who never quite finishes what he starts; Bill Evans, the farmhand whose orphaned childhood was marked with state-sanctioned cruelties and whose adulthood is marked by the scars; and the wealthiest man in town, known as the Shah.  A year in the lives of these and other characters unfolds through the richly observed rituals of work and play, of religious observance and annual festivals, and the details of the changing seasons, of the cycles of birth and death. With deceptive simplicity and eloquence, the author reveals the fundamental workings of human nature as it encounters the extraordinary trials and pleasures, terrors and beauty, of ordinary life.

1673027. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
The stunning new novel from highly acclaimed author William Trevor is a brilliant, subtle, and moving story of love, guilt, and forgiveness. The Gault family leads a life of privilege in early 1920s Ireland, but the threat of violence leads the parents of nine-year-old Lucy to decide to leave for England, her mother’s home. Lucy cannot bear the thought of leaving Lahardane, their country house with its beautiful land and nearby beach, and a dog she has befriended. On the day before they are to leave, Lucy runs away, hoping to convince her parents to stay. Instead, she sets off a series of tragic misunderstandings that affect all of Lahardane’s inhabitants for the rest of their lives.

8. The Light of Day by Graham Swift
‘On the anniversary of a life-shattering event, George Webb, a former policeman turned private detective, revisits the catastrophes of his past and reaffirms the extraordinary direction of his future. Two years before, an assignment to follow a strayed husband and his mistress appeared simple enough, but this routine job left George a transformed man.  Suspenseful, moving, and hailed by critics as a detective story unlike any other, The Light of Day is a gripping tale of murder and redemption, as well as a bold exploration of love and self-discovery.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

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‘Our Life in the Forest’ by Marie Darrieussecq ***

I have only read one of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s novels to date, All the Way, but I found it rather too offbeat and strange for my personal taste, and was not overly enamoured with it.  Her newest offering to have been translated into English by Penny Hueston, however, sounded most interesting.  Whilst still not a fan by any means of science fiction, I have been reading a few dystopian tomes of late, and thought I would give Our Life in the Forest a go.

Its blurb states that the novel will challenge ‘our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state.’  Le Monde promises that ‘the reader will be captivated’; The Observer calls Darrieussecq’s talent ‘dazzling’; and Liberation writes: ‘… reducing this book to a dystopian tale is doing it a disservice…  A journal from beyond the grave, as time runs out…  And a profound novel about loneliness.’

Set in the near future, ‘a woman is writing in the depths of a forest.  She’s cold.  Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her.  She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung.  Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients 9781925603781who had suffered trauma…  Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them.’  This woman, our narrator, has fled to the forest along with many other people, ‘as a form of resistance against the terror in the city.’  Their halves live in the forest with them, and have to be taught how to function as humanly as is possible.  Only the privileged have halves, too; those who cannot afford the full body clones which can be used for organ replacement and the like, have jars, which are filled with just a few organs.  Those who cannot afford the jars have no help or assurance at all.

Whilst introducing her plight, the narrator admonishes herself: ‘Time to get a grip.  I have to tell this story.  I have to try to understand it by laying things out in some sort of order.  By rounding up the bits and pieces.  Because it’s not going well.  It’s not okay, right now, all that.  Not okay at all.’  She then goes on to describe her physical body, and the ways in which it has begun to fail her.  From the outset, she has an awareness of her own mortality: ‘I’m not in good shape.  I won’t have time to reread this.  Or to write a plan.  I’ll just write it as it comes.’  She is, she tells her audience, ‘writing in order to understand, and to bear witness – in a notebook, obviously, with a graphite pencil (you can still find them).’

Interestingly, the halves which belong to the characters are the only beings here which are given names.  None of the living protagonists, or those whom the narrator briefly comes into contact with, are really identifiable from the mass.  Using this technique, Darrieussecq ensures that her novel is at once anonymous and intimate.  It feels almost as though the crisis which she has created has befallen everyone, without exception.  Indeed, the narrator assumes that we know parts of her story, and have an understanding of the changed world which she lives in, already.

The world building in Our Life in the Forest is effective in many ways, but there are certainly a few elements which could have done with more explanation.  To me, a relative newcomer to the dystopian genre, I found some elements to be far more interesting than others.  Our Life in the Forest has been quite intricately crafted, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the plausibility of scenes and settings.  However, there is an emotionless quality to it, which in turn creates a kind of detachment.  I found my reading experience to be interesting enough, but to me, the novel was not wholly satisfying.

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‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol.  At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’.  The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’.  The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant…  among the best fiction of our time.’  The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’.  The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate. 9780099592761

Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’.  Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’.  He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to.  In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.

The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard.  I always took the paved path between the railings.  Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’  The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’.  The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer.  The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.

The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter.  It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes.  When he opened them, there she was.  She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy.  He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head.  He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again.  There she was.  No one had come; he’d known that no one would come.  It was his luck.  There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’  This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away.  The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.

The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them.  For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too.  It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping.  Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug.  It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’  I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began.  Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight.  The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along.  Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character.  Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.

Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’.  This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year.  Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me.  I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period.  Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.

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‘The Pigeon Pie Mystery’ by Julia Stuart ***

I have wanted to read Julia Stuart’s The Pigeon Pie Mystery for what feels like absolutely ages, after really enjoying her other three novels (The Matchmaker of Perigord (2007), Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo (2010), and The Pearl Fisher of Scotland (2016).  The Pigeon Pie Mystery is her third novel, and is set largely inside Hampton Court Palace and its grounds during the reign of Queen Victoria.

As still happens today, the reigning monarch allowed ‘grace and favour’ residents to make their home in Hampton Court Palace, with their rent, at least, being paid by the state.  One such character, whom Stuart focuses upon in this novel, is an Indian Princess named Alexandrina, and nicknamed Mink.  She is invited to make her home in the palace in March 1897 after her father dies ‘in such unusual circumstances’ and leaves her penniless, forcing her to move out of their luxurious home, and into quarters with her hopeless and stubborn maid, Pooki.9780307947697

Soon after she arrives, Mink ‘is befriended by three eccentric widows’, who invite her to a picnic, along with many other grace and favour residents and their families.  Pooki decides to bake a great British favourite, a pigeon pie, for the occasion.  At the picnic, nobody touches this, save for General-Major Bagshot, who dies.  The coroner discovers traces of arsenic in his system, and Pooki thus becomes the favourite suspect in the ensuing investigation.  A ‘fun and quirky murder mystery’ is promised.

This quirkiness is perhaps most apparent with a couple of the peripheral characters, as well as with Stuart’s rather inventive chapter headings.  These range from ‘The Ominous Arrival of the Undertaker’ and ‘An Unfortunate Incident with the Blancmange’, to ‘The Hazards of a Stuffed Codpiece’.  The character list which has been included also features quite unusual attributes and details about the protagonists.  The Countess of Bebbington, for example, is a ‘parsimonious widow in perpetual mourning, with an addiction to ferns’, and the Watercress Seller who ‘hawks outside the palace gate and sleeps in a coffin’.

I hoped that The Pigeon Pie Mystery would be just as entertaining as Stuart’s other novels, but was left feeling a little disappointed.  Whilst there are some undoubtedly creative and amusing elements at play within it, they become lost somewhat in rather a saturated plot, peopled with too many characters.  The writing is certainly intelligent here, but it feels as though Stuart was trying to make too many things work; she had too many fingers in too many pies, and the result became something of a muddle, unfortunately.

The Pigeon Pie Mystery reads like a comedy of manners; in this way, it does tend to become a little silly in places.  Whilst the novel did keep my interest, it was not at all what I was expecting.  It felt quite different to Stuart’s other books, perhaps just because it is her only historical novel.  Although there is great period detail, and a clearly large amount of research which has gone into this work, it feels flatter than it should.

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