This Body of Death by Elizabeth George (Harper Collins, £18.99)
Inspector Lynley’s back! And so is the writer’s form, with another elegantly conceived tale involving the emotionally crippled lord and his sartorially-challenged sidekick, Barbara Havers.
One steaming day in the New Forest, Meredith sets off to patch up relations with her ex-best friend, Jemima. But Jemima is not at work, nor at the woodland cottage she shares with her latest dodgy boyfriend, troubled thatcher Gordon Jossie. Then, guess what? A woman’s body is found in a London cemetery and Meredith turns detective.
The case is given to Inspector Isabelle Ardery, a vulnerable divorcee who stashes mini vodka bottles in her handbag, but she knows she can’t crack it without cerebral input from Lynley, who is gradually thawing after his wife’s murder (a development which greatly upset George’s fans and spawned the unreadable dud What Came Before He Killed Her).
Interwoven in the traditional murder-mystery, which gets bogged down by some unmemorable characters, are chilling and well-written bulletins from a child murder case, along the lines of the Bulger one, which makes for desperately uncomfortable reading. Obviously, the two cases must be linked, and it is this that propels the story.
There are lighter moments, not least the startling chemistry between the two inspectors, and the hilarious vignette in which Ardery attempts to give Havers a makeover. A satisfying poolside read, in which the steam emanating from a baking New Forest seems to rise off the page.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline, £16.99)
Two stories run in tandem: one starting in 1950s Soho, one in present-day London. The former concerns the beautiful Lexie Sinclair, who is plucked from rural Devon by Innes Kerr, a Bohemian art collector and magazine editor. She becomes, first, his lover and protégé, then a successful art critic and a single mother.
The second is set in present-day London, and concerns Ted, a film producer, and his Finnish girlfriend Elina, an artist. They have a new baby, whose birth was traumatic, and are struggling with life. Elina wonders if she will ever feel normal again and Ted’s behaviour is worryingly peculiar-he keeps going into a trance as he strains to understand what the flashbacks he is having mean.
The two stories are obviously intertwined, and some readers will guess the link-which I will reveal is far more satisfying than some unconvincing connection with a ghost (a technique this writer has used before)-sooner than others. The book has had rave reviews, and deservedly so, for the writing is magical and both periods in time are beautifully evoked.
Obstacles to Young Love by David Nobbs (Harper Collins, £7.99)
Timothy Pickering is a reluctant Romeo to Naomi Walls’s ambitious Juliet in their school play but then real life and hormones take over, and the pair are bunking off school for an illicit weekend in London that will influence their lives for ever.
Timothy is wonderfully Pooterish-he inherits his father’s taxidermy business (this spawns some genius humour) and he’s a lightweight on his mates’ traditional Pennine Piss-ups; Naomi gets a few parts in dud sitcoms and a bee in her bonnet about converting people away from religion. They make unsatisfactory marriages and suffer tragedy, but they never forget each other.
It all sounds rather silly, but in the hands of the man who created Reginald Perrin it becomes a comic, evocative and thoughtful triumph-not dissimilar to David Nicholls’s uber-popular One Day.
Homemade Kids by Nicola Baird (Vermilion, £10.99
Nicola’s eco-zealotry has already been well documented in her husband Pete May’s hilarious book There’s a Hippo in My Cistern, but at least she really does live by her energetically expressed principles, including not owning a car or flying, holidaying in Britain, and enthusing her North London neighbours to grow veg, keep chickens and flush the loo less.
Here, through swapping information with other mothers, she aims to show new parents that a baby’s arrival can be a great time to switch to greener living, and gives all sorts of commonsense advice to make parenting more fun, less tiring and show that it doesn’t have to cost the Earth.
She points out that interesting life doesn’t have to stop either; a baby doesn’t know whether it’s in an art gallery or a park-‘it just wants to be with you, and it’s fabulously portable’. The really great thing about Nicola, though, is that her enthusiasm, although earnest, is more charming rather than hectoring, and, best of all, it’s always optimistic: ‘Pushing a buggy uses up 86 calories a day’!
The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson (Faber & Faber, £12.99)
The author convincingly puts himself in the angry, emotionally disorientated shoes of a sixty-something, newly widowed woman. Unable to stand the silent claustrophobia of her London home, she bolts overnight to Norfolk. There, she rents a cottage, walks wildly on Holkham beach, bird-watches, drinks morosely in pubs and tries to work out if life is worth living.
We follow her every train of thought, from the mundane to the profound, as she lurches from lethargy to manic energy, trying to understand whether she is grieving for her marriage or for the state of marriage. It was not a perfect union-there was unfaithfulness and boredom-and the widow has another motive for coming to this part of the country, whose wildness is expressively evoked.
It’s a briskly told tale which can be read in one sitting, which is probably as much time as you will want to expend on this woman’s self-absorption and chippy humour, although you find yourself desperately wishing her well.
The Loss Adjuster by Aifric Campbell (Serpent’s Tail, £10.99)
Caro, Cormac and Estelle are an inseparable trio in childhood, but the dynamic changes when they reach their teens. Three’s sometimes a crowd, but they find a secret, and somewhat horrific, way of dealing with it. Then Estelle, who is autistic, is murdered at the age of 15, and Cormac takes off, never to return.
Caro, the narrator, develops a successful career as a loss-adjustor in an insurance firm, coping sympathetically and sensibly with clients who are in a state of shock. Her personal life, though, is a mess: she can’t get over her twin obsessions, with Cormac, now a famous musician, and Estelle’s dreadful death. However, it is the cemetery vigils for the latter which lead to an unlikely liaison, but one that may point to salvation.
Aifric Campbell, for whom this is a second novel, is a great discovery; she writes fluently and has created a compelling story which will stay with you.
The Garden in the Clouds by Anthony Woodward (Harper Press, £16.99)
Anthony Woodward dreams of owning a remote rural retreat that combines austerity with cosiness, and romance with real weather-Shackleton’s hut, Withnail and Ring O’Bright Water rolled into one. To complicate matters, he also wants to create a garden good enough to open for the National Gardens Scheme’s (NGS) Yellow Book. Finally, he finds the ramshackle Tair-Ffynnon in the Welsh Black Mountains.
Hundreds of people have felt the need to put their tales of renovation, leaky roofs and suspicious locals into print-from France and Spain to the Hebrides-and the genre has arguably been over-egged, but Mr Woodward’s gardening heritage and his NGS ambitions, not to mention his fluent writing style, makes this one stand out. I particularly liked the moment when, as the local stern NGS representative arrives, his small daughter pipes up: ‘She doesn’t look like a dragon.’