This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor

Sarah Crossan (Bloomsbury: £7.99; e-book £2.19)

Toffee, by Sarah Crossan, Cover imageThe last time I read a story written in verse, it was The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. It took a while to get into the way of the language and the way it was sometimes easier to pronounce the words out loud to get the sense of what was written.

Eventually I was able to get into the rhythm of Chaucer’s bawdiness, and not only followed the story, but found myself laughing out loud at the raucous debauchery. My experience of adapting to the difference in style, from prose to verse, left me trepidatious about starting Toffee. Would I enjoy the style, never mind the story? Would I be able to concentrate sufficiently to unpick the details from the verse?

I need not have worried. I picked up Toffee during week 4 of lockdown. After all, what else had I to do? The housework was (relatively) up to date; the garden would rival Chelsea. Time for something a little different.

Sarah Crossan is Ireland’s Children’s Literature Laureate, which says as much about her ability to use an apostrophe correctly as it does about her skill as a writer.

Allison is a troubled teen, on the run from a miserable home life. She encounters Marla, an older lady suffering the effects of dementia. Both are reliving parts of their lives, good and bad, and these parts of the verse are interwoven with the present day events. But if this all sounds like the usual doom and gloom of the teen section in the library, then hold up: it’s not. It’s real without being endlessly grim. It’s optimistic without being remotely cheesy. It’s a tale of growth and maturity and compassion and so many things we all need to know and remember. 

Please don’t think this makes it bland and boring; it is most definitely neither of those things. Allison meets Lucy, who has the advantages of a moneyed, indulgent home life. But her relationship with Allison led to some stomach-churning passages, which took me back to high school and its feelings, frustrations and disappointments.

I chomped my way through Toffee in four instalments, partly because it is a compelling story, relevant equally to teens, adults, parents and those with older parents. But it was my ability to read the pared back style of verse that was the real revelation: once I had reached the end of the book I found my thought processes clearer. Every word of Sarah Crossan’s writing is chosen with care. There’s nothing superfluous.

Would I read more of Sarah Crossan’s work? Most definitely. And I won’t have to be subjected to a lockdown to do so.

Katja Ivar (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99; e-book £7.51)

This is the second outing for former Finnish police officer and current private detective Hella Mauzer. Set in Helsinki in the Cold War era of 1953, the body of a prostitute turns up in a harbour. The police do not treat the death with any priority, but when a second girl is injured the madam turns to Hella for assistance.

Police Inspector Mustonen is within an ace of replacing his boss, the head of the homicide squad, Jokela, but has to play by his rules, rules which are corrupt and with which Mustonen has difficulty. Jokela needs him to conspire to protect the son of a high ranking politician who has consorted with the prostitutes and is slowly regarded as a suspect. Mustonen’s wife is a social climber and puts him under intolerable domestic pressure.

The deaths mount up and the pressure on both Hella and Mustonen for their own distinct purposes reaches boiling point. The book ends up with an utterly unexpected and superb climax. The characters are well drawn and the setting in a chilly, wintry Helsinki is utterly authentic. It also reflects the social mores of the time and no doubt what are now called the “old police ways”. Enjoy!


Elly Griffiths (Quercus: £18.99; e-book £12.99)

This is a superbly crafted narrative with well drawn, believable characters. The story revolves around Dr Ruth Galloway, the former resident forensic archaeologist for North Norfolk police but who now finds herself taking an academic post amongst the spires of Oxford. She has a child whose father is DCI Harry Nelson, with whom she had an affair but both retain deep feelings for each other. Ruth lives with Frank and Harry with his wife Michelle.

Ivor March is convicted of the murder of two women whose bodies were uncovered in his partner’s garden. Nelson is convinced March has committed further murders and March offers to assist but only if Ruth conducts the excavation of the bodies. This demand is key to the story, but in Griffiths’ deft writing, we do not appreciate the significance until she has wrung us dry with the tension which mounts to a chilling crescendo.

The flat landscape of Norfolk with its marshland is beautifully evoked, especially when the author does not appear to live there. There is a large cast of characters (and a helpful biography of them albeit at the end of the book) and many of the characters know each other in unexpected ways in such a small geographical community. There is a slight element of needing to keep up with the interlinking of characters and who knows whom. However the story zips along at a fast pace and it is genuinely difficult to put down. I read this lengthy book in three sessions. Utterly gripping.

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