The Running Grave by Robert Galbraith is the seventh outing for Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott’s private detective agency. When they are approached by the family of a young man feared to have been brainwashed by a religious cult, Robin goes undercover at Chapman’s farm in Norfolk to find out what is really going on at the Universal Humanitarian Church led by the charismatic Papa J. Meanwhile, Cormoran tracks down various ex-members as evidence mounts of the Church’s involvement in several serious crimes.
‘The Running Grave’ is another 900+ page doorstopper like its two predecessors in the series, but thankfully has none of The Ink Black Heart’s formatting issues and all of the gripping atmosphere of Troubled Blood. There are no signs that the romantic tension between Cormoran and Robin will be properly resolved any time soon, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if this was strung out for another seven novels at this rate. Since I’ve been writing this blog, this is the only long-running series I have really got into and stuck with over a number of years. The familiarity of the characters is now very comforting, even if Robin’s time at Chapman’s Farm involves some of the most sinister and disturbing events in the series yet. J. K. Rowling has confirmed that she has been working on the eighth book and I would very happily read several more instalments following Strike and Ellacott’s cases.
Abroad in Japan by Chris Broad accompanies his successful YouTube channel about his experiences as a sarcastic millennial Brit living in Japan for the past decade. The book mostly focuses on the culture shock of his first couple of years teaching English as a foreign language through the JET programme in a rural area of northern Japan. With only a basic grasp of Japanese, the language barrier inevitably proves to be his biggest challenge. Some of his experiences reflect the more conservative society in Japan, such as his difficulty finding a rental property in Sendai as a foreigner, while other aspects are mostly just perplexing, like the craze for KFC at Christmas. The later chapters cover the years after his YouTubing takes off and see Broad travel more widely around Japan, culminating in filming a video with Ken Watanabe. I wasn’t familiar with the Abroad in Japan channel before I read the book, but still found the dry humour very enjoyable.
Criminal: How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All by Angela Kirwin documents her social work in men’s prisons in the UK. Kirwin’s stories date from a few years before lockdown, but she includes plenty of up-to-date statistics about how the pandemic combined with several years of government cuts and “tough on crime” rhetoric have exacerbated the existing cycle of problems including poverty, poor mental health, rundown and overcrowded facilities, understaffing, lack of effective rehabilitation programmes and recividism. Kirwin repeatedly mentions the statistic that 48% of prisoners will reoffend within 12 months of their release and questions what short prison sentences for non-violent offenders are supposed to achieve. If you are familiar with the existing problems of the criminal justice system, then there is nothing remotely surprising in Kirwin’s case studies, but it is still a pretty damning and well-articulated account of how our prisons are indeed failing us all.
Pet by Catherine Chidgey tells the story of Justine Crieve who looks back on her 1980s New Zealand childhood when she was the latest “pet” of her charismatic and mysterious form teacher, Mrs Price. When objects start going missing in class, suspicion falls on Justine’s best friend Amy, the only student not to fall under the spell of Mrs Price. I read positive reviews of this book when I was looking at possible contenders for the Booker Prize longlist and it is a compelling portrait of how someone in a position of trust can manipulate others and how children’s loyalties and rivalries can be easily pulled in different directions. The flashbacks to the social dynamics and playground politics of school life are reminiscent of ‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood and the psychological tension is constructed very effectively, with a shocking yet inevitable ending.