Where Falcons Fall by CS Harris

Each year I buy myself books as a birthday present. My financial situation at the time dictates whether I stroll out of the bookshop with a couple of novels nestled in my handbag or if I traverse carefully, knees bent, back braced, trying not to topple over under the weight of soon-to-be dusty volumes. In recent years it has been the former, but however many stories I manage to gift myself there is always a certain series included. For my birthday I always buy myself the latest Sebastian St Cyr novel.

falcons-fall-225-shadowThis blog is not devoid of Sebastian reviews. The series is one of my very favourite things to read – a thoroughly enjoyable experience I look forward to with giddy excitement. The books also rank in my mum’s favourites and even though we currently live very far apart (England and Australia) I still pop each finished ‘Sebastian’ in a bag and mail it across the seas for her to read. I know it would probably cost about the same to order her a copy, but the act of specially posting it is one that makes us feel connected; somehow the reading experience is more shared.

In Where Falcons Fall, Sebastian and Hero are outside London for once, and it gives the story a refreshing air. While staying in a small Shropshire village to try to discover more information about the man Sebastian believes could be his half-brother, and thus perhaps learn who is their shared mother, the Viscount and his wife become entangled in a rare local, and also particularly mysterious, murder. What at first appeared to be a quiet, harmless hamlet soon reveals itself to be a place hiding dark deeds and people with dark agendas.

I will have said it before, but I can’t recommend the Sebastian St Cyr series enough. They are well-written, well-plotted, romantic and exciting –  the perfect novels to give yourself for your birthday. Or  for Christmas. Or just because.

 

 

S is for Sicily

Sometimes I give the impression that I worry about my age. And sometimes I do. I reckon I’m about four years off well-meaning relatives and domestically-blissed friends wondering out loud what I’m going to DO about ‘finding a MAN so I can have CHILDREN’ before it’s ‘TOO LATE’. I think it’s more the anticipation of this annoyance that stresses me, rather than the (not that many) years I’m carrying. Maybe it’s a single woman thing… I reserve the right to be contrary over matters of age, in any case.

It’s new year’s eve and notions of time passing are on my mind. And in August Heat they are also on the mind of my dear friend Inspector Salvo Montalbano, adrift in a sweltering summer in Sicily and pondering if his advancing years are affecting his reason, his actions, his decisions, his heart, his very being. The body of a young woman, throat slit, is found stuffed in a trunk in a hidden room of a holiday house and the police are determined to find her killer and violator, concentrating on a dodgy property developer and a simple young man with uncontrollable urges. Helping the police is the victim’s beautiful, twenty-something twin sister—but is she more of a hindrance than a help to our Salvo?

Like a glistening plate of antipasto; stuffed, fresh and colourful, and glistening with olive oil, an Andrea Camilleri Inspector Montalbano novel is always a delight. A feast of tight and pointed narrative, lashings of humour and social commentary, a sprinkling of literary and historical references, a breathing, sparkling sense of place, an intriguing mystery to solve and a cast of characters that gladden the heart. Reading this series always makes me so goddamn happy. Camilleri is a wonderful writer and I am highly sentimental about many of the characters, especially loyal Fazio and our Montalba.

But in August Heat Salvo is a troubled man, and though often a reflective creature, in this novel he has a darker edge. He does things, thinks things, makes errors in judgement which are out of character and a shade or two outside his usual moral code. Could it just be the interminable heat? Or is he losing his touch? Are the tendrils of senility starting to caress his mind? (Our protagonist is deeply worried about being 55 years of age ‘and more’.) These changes of character concern him as much as they concern his readers. Mind you, they concern his readers because of their affection for the detective, not because they don’t make for good storytelling. A darker Montalba in a state of slight despair only whets the appetite for the novels to come.

I find myself occasionally dreaming of visiting Montalbano’s Sicily. Strolling the beaches, swimming in the sea, dining in the trattorias, lying on a sun-drenched terrace, letting the Mediterranean breeze waft over me. Though in my crazy imagination I’d quite like the inspector to be there as well, and if we could just do something about the rampant crime and mafioso I’d be most appreciative. Of course there’s nothing stopping me visiting southern Italy the next time I’m in that part of the world. It’s definitely on ‘the list’. Perhaps I can visit it with that person who will help keep the well-intentioned questioners at bay for a few more years. You never know your luck.

Happy new year, everyone.

Q is for Questions

At the end of the year we start asking ourselves questions. Did I do all I planned for the year? Am I satisfied with my life? How did I spend my Christmas bonus so quickly?

Q is for Questions. And who asks lots and lots of questions? Well, small children. Usually in the middle of an important over in the cricket or while you’re telling their mother an inappropriate story. But also detectives; and don’t I just have a tonne of detective novels stored up in the pile. And what a great excuse in these festive and ‘light-reading’ times to get back into some Regency murder.  That’s correct my cravat-wearing, cobblestone-strolling aristocrats, it’s time for another Sebastian St Cyr mystery.

There’s something about a southern hemisphere Christmas which makes me look forward to lolling about on a verandah with a reading indulgence or a favourite friend. And a Viscount Devlin mystery fits both these criteria. In the latest novel by CS Harris, What Remains of Heaven, Sebastian is asked to investigate the murder of the Bishop of London in a recently opened crypt and that of the 30-year-old corpse the bishop’s somewhat fresher body was found lying next to. At the same time, Sebastian’s relatives continue to attempt to marry him off, an old army colleague is trying to murder him, and he and Hero Jarvis (daughter of the evil and powerful Charles, Lord Jarvis) keep sidestepping a rather important conversation.

I am yet to find a St Cyr novel which disappoints, though perhaps this one is a little tamer than the others. Mind you, there is still a crime to be solved; action and attacks, intrigue and interest, close calls and clues—both to the murder and to Sebastian’s past. Perhaps I’m just impatient that I didn’t discover some of the information about Sebastian’s parentage that I wanted to, nor get to see a couple of plot developments I’m waiting on (and am now assuming will be revealed in the next instalment). Perhaps I was just disappointed that our hero didn’t spend any time in the bath in this novel…

One day, CS Harris’ mysteries/romances will be made into a TV series and the lucky man performing as our Lord Devlin will become a heart-throb the likes of who we haven’t seen since that time some bloke called Colin Firth played Mr Darcy. In the meantime, while the tube-watching masses are ignorant of the existence of Sebastian St Cyr, we the book-reading (and sometimes tube-watching) population can pour ourselves a refreshing cocktail, settle into a comfy chair on the balcony, put our feet up on the rail and indulge in these well-written, elegantly entertaining and fun-to-read novels.*

* In previous posts discussing these novels I have stated that they also suit stay-in-bed winter weather. I think we can thus conclude that Sebastian St Cyr mysteries can be read at all times, in all seasons.

Ah, Sebastian!

I read when I go away for my holidays (as you all know from past dispatches), but when mooching around the house on the Christmas break, reading seems like a bit too lengthy a commitment to make when you only have 10 days to get as much sun, sleep, sea, dvd-watching, ham-eating and mince-pie-scoffing as possible completed before putting your game face back on and trundling on in to the office. Though of course there’s always at least one book on the go and what better book to indulge in while reaching for another Gaytime (that’s an ice-cream for you global readers) than the next book in the Sebastian St Cyr series – Where Serpents Sleep. Oh yes, our heartbroken hero returns, scouring the streets of Mad George’s London in his buckskin breeches for all sorts of filthy murderers, this time with an unexpected (or was it so unexpected?) ally.  Our wonderful viscount still spends many a paragraph reflecting in his hip bath or having very legitimate reasons for getting shirtless and all manly and brave, and we love it, love it, love it.

See a post on the previous title here (and note that Pile o’ Books worked on the first two Sebastian St Cyr mysteries in their Australian form). Oh and if you haven’t worked it out, this is one of the brand new mini-posts. We start with the letter A next!

Books 22 and 23: The Patience of the Spider and The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri

What is it about some novels that make you want to travel to the places they depict? It’s not just well-told descriptions of place, although that helps. It’s something deeper, a heartfelt emotional connection with the characters and stories of a particular setting; with characters who are likewise intricately entwined with their surrounds.

I was thinking of this kind of thing while travelling around Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada, the home and inspiration, perhaps life force, of LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables. Thousands and thousands of people visit a tiny town on a small island to SEE the land where a fictional character resided. I did it. And every bookish person I know asked me if I was going to PEI on my Canadian travels. It was about all they wanted to know. And my visit to Cavendish was good and all was stunningly beautiful and satisfying and only served to place Anne with an ‘e’ on an even stronger footing in my heart.

So many novels do this to us. It’s why publishers so often refer to settings when promoting a book. Who doesn’t want to be whisked away to exotic or interesting shores? At the moment, my special novels which do this are the Inspector Montalbano mysteries. As soon as I open them I can smell the Mediterranean, taste the espresso, hear the church bells ringing and the scooters beeping. Whenever I read these books I want to runaway to Sicily and eat mullet on a paved terrace. Under the spell of the author’s words I am completely transported to the villages of Salvo Montalbano. Indeed, I feel almost Sicilian while I read these books. Ciao.

The transportation qualities of a good novel, is one of the most pleasurable things about reading. And when we read while we travel those qualities are at least doubled in power with the parallel journeys we’re taking. So at the moment I am enjoying the double delight of dining on lobster rolls and watching little fishing boats bobbing in the cold waters of the Canadian Maritimes in person, and indulging in clam linguine and zipping through the cobbled streets of a seaside Mediterranean village in my head (well, not zipping, really, because Salvo Montalbano drives likes his nonna).

A tough life, si?

***************

Canadian depository for The Patience of the Spider:  Halifax HI Hostel book exchange.

Canadian depository for The Paper Moon: window ledge of room 336, HI Quebec City.

Book 14: Why Mermaids Sing by CS Harris*

mermaidsThe Sebastian St Cyr novels are Regency-era murder mysteries with a healthy dollop of romance and fabulous attention to things like costume, atmosphere and contemporary societal gossip which make them not only thrilling, entertaining and so much fun but slightly addictive. They are the perfect Sunday-morning-no-I’m-not-getting-out-of-bed readers. Fluff your pillows, fill the teapot, adorn the plate with mint slices and away you go.

The author describes her murder-solving viscount as ‘Mr Darcy with a James Bond edge’ and it’s kinda perfect. Sebastian (the right kind of name for someone to be obsessed with, don’t you think?) is a handsome, wealthy aristocrat with a strong sense of right, an attention to dress and wild cat-like eyes, who can fire a pistol and ride a horse while hunting down a maniacal killer through the outskirts of mad King George’s London… truly, what else does a girl need? Why don’t we throw in that he’s a returned soldier from the Napoleonic wars who is still haunted by his experiences, that he is keenly respectful of women, has virtually adopted a street urchin (who sometimes helps him in his investigations by scouting out the seedier sides of the great metropole) and drives the ‘ton’ bonkers by his refusal to conform to their prejudiced elitist ways. And he spends a reasonable amount of time lazing around his lover’s bedroom in the nude (or at least shirt off) pre- or post- love-making. Anyone breathing a tad heavier yet…?

It’s funny, because I’d never think of myself as a ‘romance’ reader but when it pops up in a novel as a sub-plot I’m all for it and in fact occasionally wish for more of it. Not that the St Cyr novels are romance novels – solving the murders is the key – I  guess I just find them so indulgent and enjoyable that perhaps for me, they are my Mills n Boon. And I don’t mean this in any disrespectful way!

The author, CS Harris, is an accomplished writer of a few genres and one of them is romances (check out her great blog here) so there’s definitely an undertone of passion and its accoutrements in these novels. 

In this third adventure – Why Mermaids Sing (which never fails to remind me of one of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill novels – who would have thought mermaids had so much to do with sinister murdering?) – the endearing magistrate Sir Henry Lovejoy asks Sebastian to help him solve the murders of a growing number of young men with no seeming connection apart from being found horrifyingly mutilated and in public places. What links these poor fellows? Is it simply random? Or could it be something to do with their fathers and a devastating voyage from the subcontinent? Could in fact one of society’s taboos have been broken for the sake of survival? Or could one of Sebastian’s former military colleagues be indulging his bloodthirsty urges back in the Motherland?

I just love these books and am fighting the urge to order the fourth one while it is still in hardback (in these GFC times one should try to limit one’s discretionary spending).  They are fun, thrilling, interesting and entertaining reading. They would be absolutely perfect for a BBC mini-series … though I’m yet to work out who should play our hero. I’ve passed on the fever to my mother and have recently thrust them in the hands of a dear friend, and now I want to reach out of this little screen and pop them in your lap. It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, after all, so plump up that pillow, butter a crumpet, slip on your bed socks and hunker down for a fine time.

*  Disclosure: Pile o’ Books worked on the first and second Sebastian St Cyr novels.

Book 9: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale

resized_9780747597285_224_297_fitsquareNon-fiction makes its first appearance in my pile o’ books  this year with a fascinating and accomplished book from Kate Summerscale.  (Though I should explain that this work encompasses many of my fiction loves and does indeed read somewhat like the murder mystery genre which was inspired by the events The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details… just in case you suddenly thought we were going to be travelling down some modern history/current affairs/biography path for the rest of the year. We’ll be back to fiction next time)

The murder of a young boy becomes an almost obsessive interest in 1860’s England with the details of the crime and the search for his killer, playing itself out throughout the land in any 2-bit rag that could print a story. For the first time, the reporting on this crime allows the public into the privacy of the middle class family home (previously sacred) and sets off a chain of investigations, hearings, theories and more letters to the editor than you could imagine. The most well-known police detective in London is sent to solve the murder – his name is Jack Whicher – and the case leads both to his prolonged fame and fall from the graces of a fickle society.  

What you learn in Summerscale’s fantastic book is that Whicher and the Road Hill House murder were the inspiration for detective fiction to come. Wilkie Collins, Dickens’ Bleak House, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and her manor house murders, gosh, I’ll even suggest that Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the library, and just about any modern detective story some gruff, unmarried loner can poke a bottle of 12 year single malt at, all have some kind of beginning in Jack Whicher and Victorian society’s fascination with the art of detection. Summerscale blends details and comparisons such as this with the real-life story of Saville Kent’s murder and the quest for his killer.

This is the kind of non-fiction I like: an interesting topic, told from a fresh angle, written in a narrative style and peppered with tidbits, facts and historical suppositions, such as you have never before encountered. The excitement the case roused and the endless appetite the public had for stories of ‘detection’ is fascinating, and you find yourself drawn in to the investigation and lives of the main players in a similar way. Victorian society’s intrigue is contagious and Summerscale entices you to try to work out the culprit for yourself and work out why they would do such a thing (just like you would if you were indulging in some Miss Marple).

Kate Summerscale is coming to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and I’m going to see her speak (she is a former literary editor and has judged the Booker prize, which is interesting in itself). I’m also now keen to add Wilkie Collins to my reading pile and brush off some old Arthur Conan Doyles.

Not a bad review for a book then, if its readers want to see the author and read some of the books her book discusses…