1 June 2020

Private Lives by J.G. Harlond

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Goodreads n/a

One of the joys of being a reviewer for Discovering Diamonds is the chance to try books that perhaps you might otherwise have overlooked. Private Lives is a case in point, since it's set in England during WWII and not my usual reading fare. I am so glad not to have missed this gem of a book though.

The story opens with a bang - literally - when semi-retired detective Bob Robbins hears shots coming from a nearby farm. What follows, as Bob is hauled off his holidays and seconded to the local police force, is a murder mystery full of intriguing leads, blind alleys and absolutely stuffed full of memorable characters.

Despite the seriousness of the main subject matter - a death and the strange disappearance of a man whom Bob saw clearly injured who couldn't possibly have walked away (could he?) - there is so much gentle humour. All of the characters are seen through Bob's eyes and his perception of each character is witty. I liked the way Bob thinks and he made me chuckle. His relationship with his dead wife is brilliantly portrayed. We don't get to hear much about Joan, but with a delicious economy of words we find out everything we need to know about their relationship, especially how it's continued since she passed and the exact moment she stopped 'talking' to him following an indiscretion with a lady...

We are also treated to economical description which nevertheless paints the whole scene: the pub is a 'jumble of pint-wielding elbows'.

There are some wonderful period touches, such as the mention of a car's wooden steering wheel, the smell of lavender furniture polish, and some brilliant comedy scenes: Bob's sidekick, young Laurie, has rather too much of the local cider, which, as one of the other main characters, Mrs Flowers, says, 'goes straight to your elbows and knees.' Mrs Flowers runs a sort of boarding house whose residents are mainly members of a travelling troupe of players. At a local village hall one of the players, an Austrian, accidentally turns tragedy into farce, his Teutonic accent becoming more and more noticeable as his distress increases, which is unfortunate in the extreme given the wartime setting. I found myself giggling out loud. The thespians include a light-fingered 'tealeaf' who has deliciously skewed morals. She's happy to pilfer ornaments but draws the line - momentarily - at reading private correspondence. And it's not just the players who provide entertainment. The cook makes some rather bizarre sandwiches...

All of this is delightful, but there is great pathos too. The title of the book is apt and many family secrets come tumbling out. Bob is astute in piecing the story together, although he's sometimes hampered by his attraction to one of the main suspects, but he's also cautious because he is sensitive to the tragedy behind these family secrets. The cook may be a macabre and comedic character, but there's a sad and, as it turns out, inevitable reason for much of his behaviour.

To say any more would be to spoil the brilliant plot. As I said, this book would not be  my usual reading choice and I'm so glad I've read it. Ms Harlond also writes books set in much earlier historical times and, having been introduced to her elegant, witty and accomplished writing, I'm off to look those up.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

©Annie Whitehead
ARC edition reviewed

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31 May 2020

Guest Spot - Susan Appleyard

I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire and immigrated to Canada with my husband and 3 small children in the seventies. Those children have produced 6 grandchildren and one of those grandchildren has just had a son of his own. I have been blessed with a wonderful – and growing! – family. For the last twenty-five years or so, my husband and I have been spending increasingly long periods of winter in Mexico and we now stay here for fully 6 months. (Anyone who has experienced an Ontario winter would understand why.) We have a house by the sea near Puerto Vallarta, lots of nice people to hang out with and there is a writers’ group here. I feel blessed in this also.

History was always my passion. It is one of the things I miss about England. I have always enjoyed writing also. I was the kid in school who was often chosen by teachers to read my essay or story out to the class as an example of how things should be done. And never, not once, did I write a character into a corner and then have him/her awaken from a dream. So weak! I always had dolls in my bed because I used to make up little plays of derring-do in my head and act them out. I was the heroine. Various dolls were the villains. I think it was inevitable that I should become a writer or an actress. If I had become an actress, I wonder if I would be super-rich now. Another Meryl Streep perhaps?

My first opportunity as a writer came from a small publishing company in Toronto, Canada. They gave me a 3-book contract, published 2 books and then announced they were selling out to another company in that literary mecca, Beverly Hills. Right out of the blue. I had only a sip from the cup of success before it was snatched away. My career was in the toilet, so was my spirit. I gave up trying to get published. I did lots of other things, but I never gave up writing. Every now and then, the urge would come upon me and I would have to get something down on paper. (Yes, it was paper in those days.) It was a compulsion every bit as powerful as the need for a cigarette when you’re trying to quit.

Thirty years after the publication of my first book came my second opportunity – with Amazon, and I have taken full advantage. I now have 2 more books published as paperbacks, and 8 Ebooks, with 1 more on the way in April. All within 5 years. So those ‘in-between’ years weren’t entirely wasted.

I have now faced the fact that I have probably written my last book. I find computer use is adversely affecting my eyes. And yes, I realise there are other options, none of which suit me. More compelling is that in the past when I have finished a book, I already know what I want to write next and am eager to begin. Not so this time. There are other things I like to do. I like to paint and dance and swim and play cards. I go to the gym and do water aerobics. I’m a fit 71-year-old and intend to stay that way. In a few days, I will be going scuba diving for the first time. (Cross that off the bucket list.) And I think it’s high time I learned how to cook Mexican.

So I am at ease with my decision. My life has been and still is happy and fulfilling.

Thank you for reading.




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