Tag Archives: good reads

THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers (2017)


Historical Fiction

Mrs. Placidia Hockaday is barely a teenager when she comes to live with her new husband, Major Gryffith Hockaday, on his farm in rural South Carolina.  They spend two days and two nights together until the Major receives the news that he must immediately return to his regiment.  The American Civil war has already been raging for around two years when the Major leaves his inexperienced young bride in charge of his 300 acre farm, his young son, and the few slaves and workers still attached to the farm.  Two years later he returns.  The gossip mongers are anxious to share some news with him; during his absence his young wife conceived and bore a child.  Yet there is no evidence of a baby and she is unwilling to share any information with her husband or the authorities.

This novel is told through a series of letters, journal entries, and legal documents and the narrative that emerges is a harrowing tale of abuse, deprivation, loss and even some heroics.  The truth is unveiled  to the reader slowly until the full story is exposed – with its many tragedies and a few triumphs.  This book would never be classified as “a mystery”,  yet there is a profound mystery at its core that must be unravelled by the reader.

This novel highlights the strength of one woman, forced  to overcome an almost impossible situation.  It also broached the topic of future generations and how they are affected by the circumstances of a war.  I think an interesting thing about this novel for me was how I actually changed my mind about certain characters as the novel progressed.

The epistolary novel was common until the beginning of the 20th century but there has been a resurgence in its popularity.  Some novels that come to mind –

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

Letters From Skye by Jesssica Brockmole (2013)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers Algonquin Books (2017)




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GOOD TIME COMING … by C.S. Harris (2016)


Historical Fiction … A Novel of the American Civil War

I killed a man the summer I turned thirteen.  Sometimes I still see him in my dreams, his eyes as blue  as the Gulf on a clear spring morning, his cheeks reddened by the hot Louisiana sun. ”  page 1.

This is a powerful and harrowing story about a young girl named Armie coming-of -age in Louisiana during the American Civil War.  While almost every able-bodied man from the area is north fighting for the confederates, the women and children remain at home trying to maintain their dwellings, families and businesses. Almost every family has already lost a son, father, or relative, and the ones who haven’t, live in fear of that awful news.  Armie’s situation is unusual because, although her father is a physician with the confederate army,  her parents were staunch abolitionists before the war.  This earns them the mistrust of several of their neighbours at a time when  mutual  support is a lifeline.  In the spring of 1862,  the union troops were beginning to steam up the Mississippi River and the citizens were besieged  by army raiding parties; stealing and killing their livestock, burning their properties, and violating the women.  The population was starving and disease was rampant while the union soldiers helped themselves to anything and everything they could find.  Some women choose not to live with the repercussions of rape,  they would rather die.

And young Armie tries to make sense of a situation that is senseless, to understand a world that is in chaos, to recognise and adapt to the villainy and evil that she sees in men’s souls through their actions.  Not always successfully.  She asks lots of questions about God and she doesn’t get answers that satisfy her.  The two wisest people in her life are her own mother and an old former slave and they are only partially able to answer her questions.

“Life is unfair” is a quote from John Kennedy…and probably every teenager that ever lived.  But there is unfair  (my parents won’t buy me a new bike like all my friends have) and there is unfair ( I live in fear everyday over the new atrocities tomorrow could bring, and I wonder if I will survive.)

The truth is a little sickening and certainly not unique to this particular war; that the murdering, pillaging  and rape of women and children IS a weapon of war. It is demoralizing for the citizens and their fighting soldiers.

At one point in this novel young Armie is put in a position that no 13-year- old should ever have to face.  There are strong women in her family and she has some good role models. In fact the village women’s’ strength can be a revelation at times especially since some of them had been Southern Belles in their former life.   

I never like to give away too much with a plot but this novel had me riveted to every page. It was engrossing, interesting and thought-provoking.  It was also heartbreaking, agonizing and tragic.  

Many readers will be familiar with  C. S. Harris, since she is the author of the very successful   “Sebastien St. Cyr” mystery series with eleven entries so far. I have read them all (love them) and I suppose that is how I found this novel. I am glad I did because this is a powerhouse.

I am not a huge fan of the title although I can understand why it was chosen. GOOD TIME COMING  is a line from a song poular before the war and it certainly speaks of hope. And sometimes hope is all you have to get through. It just doesn’t seem strong enough for this powerful novel.—just my opinion.


C. S. Harris

Severn House Publishers










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THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)


house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves …2016

This is the seventh cold-earthbook in Ann Cleeves’ delightful Shetland series featuring the dogged detecting skills of Jimmy Perez. I have been a fan of this series since the first book RAVEN BLACK appeared in 2007 and in some ways this book provides some closure from the first book.  Magnus Tait, a lonely old man and a suspect in RAVEN BLACK is being buried in the first few pages. We learn that in the intervening years, he had developed some friendships and his last years were not as lonely. It is during his funeral that a landslide sweeps through the cemetery and a nearby croft and exposes the body of a well dressed lady. It is determined that she was murdered before the landslide so Jimmy Perez calls Chief Inspector Willow Reeves to head the investigation. This is a character that has appeared in the last few books and, up until this book, I never cared for her much. I found her irritating and also wrong a lot of the time but in this entry she seems more reasonable (but I don’t think she is a good match for Jimmy.)  Jimmy is still grieving for his murdered girlfriend but he is at least open to the idea of a relationship.  Well…he is…then he isn’t…then he is….you get the idea.

Sandy Wilson is another character that has been along since the first book . The once raw  recruit has grown and is now a thoughtful contributor to the team. He is also in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if marriage is in his future.

In recent years this book series has been made into a television series – simply called SHETLAND.  I have only just recently had a chance to see it and it is well worth watching just for the spectacular scenery.  I love Douglas Henshall but I think he was miscast a Jimmy Perez.  Jimmy had a shipwrecked Spaniard in his family tree and is always described as dark and Spanish looking.

I love these books because Cleeves does a wonderful job of describing life on the Islands. This book does a great job of describing the contradictions of privacy – the homes can be miles apart with vast expanses of land in between yet there is that small town element where everybody knows your business. Private but no privacy.

Good addition to a fabulous series.

***  After the third book this was called a trilogy – after the fourth book it was called a quartet – now it is just called a series.  I mention this because in recent years I just fell in love will Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE TRILOGY….LOVED IT so I just want to remind Peter that there is no reason you have to stop a three just because you once called it a trilogy.***

COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves   2016   Macmillon

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THE ICE TWINS by S. K. Tremayne

Scottish Island Fictionice twins

“It is a traumatized yet beautiful landscape” p. 70

The Scottish Island in this novel is the perfect choice for a creepy thriller like “The Ice Twins”. Allow me to do a checklist; remote–yes, isolated– very,  unpredictable weather–you bet, unreliable communication–no wifi or cell service on this island. If that’s not enough- well, the locals call this Island a “thin place”, somewhere between our world and the next.  And this particular Island has been uninhabited for two decades, so throw in a dilapidated old house with lots of drafts and a vermin problem and this is the setting for this chilling thriller.

The “just-barely-functioning” Moorcroft family have quit London and  decided to take up residence on this Island off the coast of Skye, after the father (Angus) inherited the land from his Grandmother.  They have had a bad couple of years (understatement). It has been just over a year since one of their identical twin daughters died in an accident and the surviving twin, Kirstey (or is it Lydia) has been experiencing behavioural problems. Angus was fired from his job and Sarah (mother) is overwhelmed with grief and guilt. There is also a problem involving the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Somehow, moving to this spooky island is going to help? Is there method to this madness?

The story is told by alternating the points of view between Angus and Sarah. Personally, I was surprised by some of the twists and turns. The author manages to use the eerie setting  to great advantage and some of the characters are soooo… creepy.

The author is a travel writer and this Island is based on an island he visited in his youth. There are photos that accompany the text and I can only assume that they are from this same island; Eilean Sionnach. I like the photos – they’re a nice touch.

THE ICE TWINS by S. k. Tremayne

Grand Central Publishing, 2015



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Amateur Sleuths …… some thoughts



I recently read and reviewed a mystery novel I enjoyed called “Murder at the Brightwell”,(Ashley Weaver,Minotaur 2014) featuring a spirited socialite named Amory Ames. It was set primarily in an upscale  seaside resort hotel in 1930’s England and the dialogue was cracking …sort of Nick and Nora Charles–witty. The reason I am writing this post is because I am actually quite confused with a review I read in Publishers Weekly–“….the affable Amory could carry a series, though plausibly involving her in future murder cases will require some imagination.” Wait–huh? Somebody should have spoken to Madame Christie before she wrote twelve novels featuring a elderly spinster with a hankering for solving murders…and knitting. This has sent me pondering on the nature of the amateur sleuth ( not including the P.I. or police consultant ) The book stores are full of them; bakers, knitters, cake makers, Jane Eyre, librarians, cat lovers, cats, basket weavers (okay, not really sure about that one) decorators,dog lovers, dogs , etc.—all solving murders!  I am not saying I am a fan of all these books but I am saying that the idea of any amateur sleuth is probably a stretch. I sincerely hope I never come across a single murder in my life,  to say nothing of double digits. I am thinking now of Alan Bradley’s brilliant series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce; a child who has solved at least six murders (did I mention she’s eleven-years-old). Bradley writes so well she is almost  believable.

So what is my point?  How about this….Amateur sleuth series…you like them or you don’t, they’re good or they’re not, but plausible, credible, believable—-probably not most of the time.

And don’t have dinner with Jessica Fletcher.

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WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT…..by Mary Stewart (1956, Hodder and Stoughton. Ltd)

wilfireFiction novels set on Scottish Islands.

When I was googling and searching for fiction set on the Scottish Islands I came across this book by the famous writer Mary Stewart. I was very sure(kind of, sort of)  I had read it many years ago so I checked some review sites to see if it was indeed the very book I remembered. Then I made a BIG MISTAKE and I looked on that site that begins with a W and in two short paragraphs it revealed the plot –and the ending!  Definitely not a good idea for a whodunnit. It was the book I had read  maybe thirty years ago but I just couldn’t convince myself to read it again –  what with knowing the ending and all. Then fate jumped in. I was having dinner with a longtime friend and I mentioned my blog and my interest in Scottish Island fiction.  This was actually the same friend who  had travelled the Islands and Highlands of Scotland with me over twenty-five years ago (we actually had a rail/ferry pass called “The Island and Highland pass”). At the end of the evening she handed me her well-worn paperback copy of “Wildfire at Midnight” and suggested that it was worth reading again.  Apparently she too had originally read it many years ago and it had inspired her, during her travels on Skye, to find a place much like the lodge/hotel in the book (preferably without the murders) We stayed in an  establishment called  Flodigarry Hotel for a few days that she now says she chose because it reminded her of the Camas Fhionnaridh Hotel from “Wildfire at Midnight” (although it was on the northern part of the island and nowhere near the Cuillin). I remember eating strawberries and real cream in the beautiful lounge area. It was very lovely and made me think I was in an old black and white movie.

Back to the novel. Young, exhausted, divorcee(scandalous) Gianetta decides to  clear out of London shortly before the coronation (1953) , and  ends up at a very remote and isolated lodge on Skye. The cast of characters (including her ex-husband) staying at the lodge become a cast of suspects after a murder takes place. This is a great atmospheric whodunnit that may sound dated to modern audiences especially when Gianetta is trying to get her priorities straight—-

“Has no one ever told you that people mean more to women than principles? I’m a woman, Inspector Mackenzie!” (p. 178) Ah huh.

There are some great descriptions of the mountains and scenes of mountain climbing — made more timely since Hilary was about to conquer Everest. This paperback is only 224 pages so it is really a nice quick read.

Another  book by Mary Stewart is called “THE STORMY PETRELS” (Fawcett, 1995) and it takes place on a fictional Scottish Island  called Moila.  This book made me think of the plot diagrams my teacher would draw on the chalkboard when I was in primary school. It looked like a mountain . First the flat meadow (beginning/exposition) , then up the mountain (rising action), the mountain peak(climax), down the other side of the mountain (falling action), and then some more flat ground(resolution/ending)  Well if I had to plot this book it would be a flat line with a few ant hills and gopher holes. Nothing much happens.  I should state that I don’t usually write at all about books I haven’t enjoyed – I mean I have never written a book so who am I to judge – but I think it may be important for people who have read “Wildfire at Midnight” to know they are not getting the same goods with “The Stormy Petrels”.

Mary Stewart will be 97 next month.

Not sure is this qualifies as contemporary but–oh well.

P.S. Dear fans of Scottish Island fiction. Please read the comment left on this post by Linda Gillard. She is a very successful author (Emotional Geology, Star Gazing) and she has written about the Islands and lived on Scottish Islands.  Her recommendations are received with gratitude. (and maybe THE STORMY PETRELS is worth reading if only for the descriptions.)

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Does Your Mother Know……by Maureen Jennings (Dundern, 2006)

doesdoesI am back on my blog and I am happy to say that I haven’t yet run out of Scottish Island fiction with an emphasis on murder and mystery. Today’s entry is a 2006 novel written by Maureen Jennings. This author is well known here in Canada for her “Murdoch” mystery series that also appears as a tv series on Canadian tv. This novel is the first of two to feature Christine Morris as a Canadian police officer and expert in profiling. This is a contemporary novel. As the story opens, Christine is at a conference in Edinburgh where she is learning about modern police methodology. She is shocked when she is contacted by the Northern constabulary of the outer Hebrides and informed that her mother has been in a fatal car accident on Lewis and has disappeared. Christine is estranged from her mother but the last she heard her mother was residing in Canada. On Lewis, Christine finds herself working with a local officer in unexpected circumstances and together they try to solve a murder. Even Prince William figures into the plot. And the book covers a little slice of life on Lewis. The second Christine Morris novel is called “The K Handshake” (Dundern 2008) although it is set in Canada. A solid mystery.

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SACRIFICE …..by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur, 2008)

sacrificeAnother day, another blog about Scottish Islands in contemporary fiction. “Sacrifice” is an exciting suspense/mystery/thriller which is even more impressive because it is the author’s debut novel. It is a “stand alone” that was followed by two more “stand alones” and then a superb series (three entries so far). I’d say this author has a very bright future. Sacrifice takes place on the Shetland Islands. The main character is named Tora Hamilton and she has come to live on Shetland, the land of her husband’s birth. She is, of course, an outsider but even her husband has not been back for twenty years. In the beginning of the novel a grief-stricken Tora has rented a backhoe and is desperately (and illegally) trying to bury her beloved and recently departed horse. What she uncovers is a woman’s body. Bog bodies are not uncommon in these parts but this body was murdered with the heart cut out and buried for less than five years.
Bolton does a wonderful job of adding old legends into a modern story and she knows how to twist and turn a plot. She also vividly portrays the outsider vs. insider(local) aspect in the most compelling manner.
One of the “outsider” characters appears later in her “Lacey Flint” series – I won’t say a name because that would be telling.
When I say this book has everything I’m not kidding–there is even an appearance by the famous Shetland ponies.
Great book–watch for this author!

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WRITTEN IN BONE……..by Simon Beckett (2007)

written in boneOnce again the topic of my blog will be contemporary fiction set on Scottish Islands with an emphasis on murder mysteries and thrillers.  The setting for this novel is the fictional island of Runa in the very real collection of Islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. I’m Okay with this.  I think if you’re going to bring murder and mayhem to a small population it is better if it’s fictional; Miss Marple’s St.Mary Mead and Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove come to my mind. “Written in Bone” is the second book in a series featuring forensic anthropologist David Hunter and written by Simon Beckett. Apparently, Mr Beckett became interested in this occupation when he visited The University of Tennessee anthropological Research Facility (nicknamed the Body Farm) as a journalist in 2002.  The author and his character are both Englishmen. I don’t usually say this but I don’t think it matters if you read this series in order.  The character of David Hunter has been grieving his late daughter and wife for many years and this affects his job, his friendships, and his commitments — I think that is enough to know to dive into the second novel—but by all means read the first.

David is sent to Runa to check out a suspicious death that many of the locals are calling “spontaneous combustion” While he is on the Island the weather gets progressively worse until the island loses all communication with the outside world….Oh yeah, and there IS a killer in their midst.

This is not a cozy. I feel I must stress that because a lady on my library web sight was very (ahem) displeased with these books (well the first one anyway) because of the gory content.  What can I say — he studies dead bodies to determine the when, how, why and where of death as much as possible. And he depends on bugs almost as much as Gil Grissom (CSI TV show).

In an earlier blog I discussed how the remoteness of Scottish Islands could add suspense to a novel and I think this book is a good example of that theory.

The other novels in this series;

#1. The chemistry of Death (2006) Delacorte Press

#3. Whispers of the Dead (2009) Delacorte Press

#4. The Calling of the Grave (2010) London Bantam

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