Autumn by Ali Smith


Autumn is the first of Ali Smith’s books I’ve read and at first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The blurb attracted me – it describes it as ‘a breathtakingly inventive new novel, a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means.‘ I didn’t find it ‘breathtaking’ but I did enjoy it.

I liked the beginning which begins with a stream of consciousness as Daniel Gluck, a very old man, ponders his life and his approaching death. The main focus of Autumn is the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth Demand who first met when Elisabeth was a child and moved into the house next door to Daniel’s. We see their friendship at various stages in their lives throughout the book.

As I expected from the blurb Autumn is not a straightforward story, so whilst I wanted to know more about the Daniel and Elisabeth story I was quite happy to diverge from their story through the different sections about a variety of different themes from death, aging, love and of course autumn.

I liked the wordplay and references to many other books from Dickens to Shakespeare, the details about Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, the life, work and death of the pop artist Pauline Boty, and the accurate and amusing accounts of the frustrations of everyday life such as those describing Elisabeth’s attempts to renew her passport.

It’s both poignant and cutting in its look at modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit (that word is never mentioned) – the confusion and the misery and rejoicing, the insanity, and the division. It’s a remarkable book.

Autumn is the first installment in Ali Smith’s novel quartet Seasonal: four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962. She is the author of Free Love and Other Stories, Like, Other Stories and Other Stories, Hotel World, The Whole Story and Other Stories, The Accidental, Girl Meets Boy, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, Artful, How to be both, and Public library and other stories. Hotel World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and The Accidental was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. How to be both won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Costa Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Folio Prize. Ali Smith lives in Cambridge.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 5464 KB
  • Print Length: 243 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0241207010
  • Publisher: Penguin (20 Oct. 2016)

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, for review.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I received an uncorrected proof copy of this, her latest novel, from Lovereading. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England.  Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.

It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing  fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.

I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.

I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.

The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama.

My thanks to Headline for also providing a proof copy via NetGalley.

  • Hardcover: 576 pages (also as an e-book)
  • Publisher: Headline Review (20 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472235827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472235824

Amazon UK link

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

One of my favourite books – On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin was first published in 1982 when it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award. The Black Hill is one of the Black Mountains on the border of England and Wales, although fictionalised in this book. It was made into a film in 1988. And today it is released in an e-book edition by Open Road Integrated Media.

It’s a gentle, richly descriptive book of both the landscape and the characters, about lonely lives on a farm, largely untouched by the 20th century. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.

I love this book and most of all I love they way Chatwin brought the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. It highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.

  • File Size: 6409 KB
  • Print Length: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (October 18, 2016)
  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Language: English
  • Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

Amazon US link


The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is his second novel about Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden, which I reviewed in 2011.


This story follows the struggles of a farm labourer in North-East England. The series began with the novel, ‘Tom Fleck’, in which we followed Tom’s adventures, loves, and troubles in the year 1513, the year of the Battle of Flodden. The present book re-enters his life twenty-three years later in 1536, in the dark year of the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent rebellion known as ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Tom is on a journey with his wife and blind daughter and must travel through the chaos.

My view:

Once again I was transported back to the 16th century with Tom Fleck and his family, this time it is 1536. He now has grown-up sons, Francis and Isaac, both at sea, part of the crew of the Plenty under Captain Ben Hood, a daughter of seventeen, Kate, who is blind and twins aged 15. Tom is now a farmer, living for the past twenty years at Crimond Hall on the Durham coast. As Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries begins Tom and Rachel, his wife, together with their daughter Kate set out for London to visit a lawyer as Rachel has been bequeathed five hundred gold sovereigns in her father’s friend’s will.

As the blurb indicates their journey is not without danger, bringing them into contact with the rebels led by Robert Aske (a real historical character who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest). Tom’s sons, Francis and Isaac are also in trouble as the Plenty runs aground on the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Straits, encounters a ‘plague ship’, a grounded Portuguese caravel with just one man and a dog left on on board, and engages battle with Barbary pirates from North Africa.

The Black Caravel is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives, for example one character refers to ‘poor Anne Boleyn what’s got no head‘ and he thinks that Richard of York was the true King, not Henry VIII. I was immersed in the time and place – the landscape, the bird sounds, the plants and animals, the towns and the seascape are all beautifully described; for example this passage describing the scene as the fog over the Goodwins lifted:

The fog shifted. Then swirled. Driven before a freshening breeze the murk swept away to the northeast. The shore boat approached the grounded Plenty in bright noon sun. In the shallows around her, the sea was a burnished duck-egg green. Farther out, the surface glowed steel-bright and sparkled with a million ripples. The drying sandbanks threw back white light, fierce to the eyes.

An urgent shout came from the Plenty. The rowers bent harder. A hoard of dark shapes undulated across the sandbank. The seals bugled in alarm while they jostled to plunge into the sea. A flock of pied birds lifted in panic before the approach of men who ran full tilt armed with crossbows and spears. The oystercatchers flew overhead, bleating. Urgent hands reached over the side to heave the heavy captain onto the deck of the cog.(page 59)

There is so much packed in this short novel, reflecting the way of life and the attitudes of the times such as the religious fervour as England broke away from Rome, the ways of treating illness (Kate is blind as a result of a blow to her head) and the anti-semitism that prevailed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

My thanks to Harry Nicholson for sending me a copy to read and review.

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (30 Aug. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1535378085
  • ISBN-13: 978-1535378086
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Favourite Books: October 2007 – 2010

Each month I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite books I read during the years 2007 – 2010. These are some of my favourite books I read in October in each of those years. October seems to have been another great month for books as I rated so many 5/5, but I’m highlighting just one for each month in this post. Revisiting these books makes me want to re-read all of them.

Click on the titles to see my original reviews.


Crossing to SafetyCrossing To Safety by Wallace Stegner – was Wallace Stegner’s last novel published when he was 78 years old. It’s a beautiful, and thought provoking novel and I loved it. It’s a story about love, marriage, friendship, relationships, ambition, illness and death; in other words it’s about life and death. In essence, the novel recounts the lives of two couples who first met during the Depression in 1930s America and the joys and difficulties they encounter throughout their lives.

The painful honesty of this book in portraying life’s happiness, joy, pathos and sorrow is what touched me the most and makes it a book to remember and treasure.


Behavior Of MothsThe Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, a brilliant book! It’s the story of two sisters, Ginny and Vivi. Vivi, the younger sister left the family mansion 47 years earlier and returns unexpectedly one weekend. Ginny, a reclusive moth expert has rarely left the house in all that time. What happens when they meet again is shocking to both of them. It’s a story full of mystery and suspense as it is revealed that the two have very different memories of their childhood and the events of the past.

Two events in particular affected their lives. The first is when Vivi aged 8 fell from the bell tower and nearly died. She was impaled on an iron stake and as a result lost her ability to have children; the second when Maud, their mother died having tripped down the cellar steps changing their lives for ever.

And I loved all the detail about moths. They are not an aside but are integral to the story.


The ComplaintsI thought The Complaints by Ian Rankin was one of the best books I read in 2009.

It’s the first book featuring Inspector Malcolm Fox of the PSU, or Professional Standards Unit, part of the Complaints and Conducts office.  The PSU is sometimes called  ‘the Dark Side’. He is asked to investigate DS Jamie Breck, a likeable young cop who is allegedly involved in a paedophile site run by an Aussie cop in Melbourne. Then Jude’s partner, Vince is murdered and Breck is the investigating officer. As Fox gets to know him it becomes increasingly difficult for him to know just who he can trust. Just who is the good guy?

I grew to really like Fox, yet another divorced cop with a drink problem. He is a good guy, he plays by the rules and looks after his family. He’s bit of a philosopher, an outsider mistrusted and hated by other cops.


Quite Ugly One Morning (Jack Parlabane, #1)Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre begins with a graphic description of a particularly nasty murder scene, which is normally guaranteed to make me stop reading. But it would have been a great shame if I’d let it put me off this book, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was  first published in 1998 when it won the First Blood Award for best crime novel of that year.

The dead man is Dr Ponsonby, a well- respected doctor working for the Midlothian NHS Trust in Edinburgh. Investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane gets involved as he lives in the flat above Ponsonby and the terrible smell coming up from below leads him into the murder scene. It soon becomes apparent to the reader who did the murder and it is the motive behind it that needs to be ferreted out.  It’s fast, full of action, and surprisingly funny.

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

Accidents Happen is one of my TBR e-books that I’ve had for a couple of years. It’s described as a ‘gripping psychological thriller where one woman’s streak of bad luck may be something far more sinister’, so I thought it would be just the right sort of book to read for this year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

It begins well with a strange, scary episode about a child waking up to the sight of something slithering, full of threat, not sure what it was but terrified as it was angry with a gaping mouth revealing a tiny white spot, where the poison came from.

Episodes like this are interspersed between the chapters of the story, each one more terrifying than the rest. These are actually much more scary than the main story, which is about Kate, a widow and her young son Jack.


Kate Parker has had so much bad luck in her life, she’s convinced she’s cursed. But when she tries to do her best to keep herself and her son safe, people tell her she’s being anxious and obsessive.

Just when her life starts to spin completely out of control, an Oxford professor she meets offers to help. But his methods are not conventional. If she wants to live her life again, he will expect her to take risks.

When a mysterious neighbour starts to take more than a passing interest in her, Kate tries to stay rational and ignore it.

Maybe this, however, is the one time Kate should be worried.

My thoughts:

Kate’s husband had died 5 years before the book starts and Kate is obsessed with statistics, so much so that they are now ruling her life – statistics about all the things that go wrong, or could go wrong. And this is preventing her from living a normal life – the lengths she goes to are extreme and they are affecting her Jack, her son. As readers we know that some of Kate’s fears are real, but she doesn’t focus on those, although they do bother her. I began to feel something was wrong. And when she met Jago, an Oxford professor my feelings intensified – there was definitely something suspicious going on. Why was he getting her to take such risks and putting herself into such strange situations?

At first I was enjoying this book – it’s very readable, although the concentration on Kate’s fears got a bit repetitive – but increasingly as I read on I just couldn’t believe what was happening. For me the tension that had been building up just disappeared. I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.

I think I’m in the minority about this book as it has more favourable reviews on both Amazon and Goodreads.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI.

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

My opener this week is a book I’ve borrowed from the library, The Quarry by Iain Banks:17909006

Most people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.

This is probably because I’ve had to think about who I am and who I am not, which is something your average person generally doesn’t have to do. Your average person has a pair of parents, or at least a mother, or at least knows roughly where they fit into all that family business in a way that I, for better or worse, don’t. Usually I think it’s for the better, though sometimes not.

These first two paragraphs certainly make me want to read on – where does this person fit into the picture?


Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends – or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul – the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol – friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.

But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.

Would you read on?

Joyland by Stephen King

I’m so glad I read Joyland by Stephen King – it’s so good.


I nearly didn’t buy it, put off by the cover (you should never judge a book by its cover!) and by the publishers, Hard Case Crime – it was the word ‘hard‘ that really made me pause, especially when I looked at their site and saw they publish ‘the best in hardboiled crime fiction‘. Not being quite sure just what ‘hard boiled crime fiction‘ is, I looked it up. This is Encyclopædia Britannica‘s definition:

Hard-boiled fiction, a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue.

Not my sort of book, at all! But it’s by Stephen King and I like his books, so I did buy it. It’s not ‘hard boiled fiction‘ as defined above. The only way it fits that definition is that there is a lot of slang in it – ‘carny’ slang, which King explains in his Author’s Note is what he calls in this book ‘the Talk‘. It is ‘carnival lingo, an argot both rich and humorous’. So not ‘hard boiled’ at all!

Joyland is a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.

It’s narrated by Devin Jones, looking back forty years at the time he was a student, suffering from a broken heart, as his girlfriend had just rejected him and he spent a summer working at Joyland, in North Carolina, an amusement park with ‘a little of the old-time carny flavor‘.

Along with various rides, ‘Happy Hounds’, and a palm-reader, there is the Horror House, a ‘spook’ house which is said to be haunted by the ghost of Linda Gray, whose boyfriend cut her throat in the Horror House. The boyfriend had not been found and it appears he may be a serial killer as there had been four other similar murders in Georgia and the Carolinas.

It’s also a story of friendship, of Tom and Erin, of children with the ‘sight’, a young boy in a wheelchair and his mother, and Dev’s search for the killer.

I loved the setting of the funfair, Dev’s nostalgia for his youth, his sensitivity, and the images the story evokes – it’s not just the story but the way King tells his tale, with just a touch of horror and the supernatural.

Who knows – maybe I should read some more of Hard Case Crime’s publications!

Reading ChallengesReaders.Imbibing.Peril XI.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

I previously enjoyed The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz, so when I saw Magpie Murders  on NetGalley I was keen to read it and delighted when I received an uncorrected proof. I think it is an outstanding book by a master story-teller, with a wonderfully intricate plot. It’s a prime example of a puzzle-type of crime fiction combining elements of the vintage-style golden age crime novel with word-play and cryptic clues and allusions to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also a novel within a novel, with mystery piled upon mystery. I loved it.

The outer story and the contemporary mystery is that of Alan Conway, the author of the Atticus Pünd Mysteries. His editor, Susan Ryeland is reading a manuscript of his latest novel Magpie Murders, expecting to enjoy it as much as his earlier books, even though she really couldn’t stand Conway himself. What she wasn’t prepared for is that this book would change her life.

The inner story, that told in Conway’s novel is a whodunnit, a murder mystery full of twists and turns with plenty of red herrings. I was enjoying it as much as Susan as she read of the death of Mary Blakiston in the little village of Saxby-on-Avon in 1955. Mary was an unpleasant character. She had been found dead at the bottom of the stairs at Pye Hall where she was the cleaner for the owner, Sir Magnus Pye. It appeared that she had tripped and fallen down the stairs.Then Magnus is also found dead, but this was obviously murder as he had been beheaded.

So back to the outer story. When Susan came to the end of the manuscript she found it wasn’t finished – there was no denouement. And she couldn’t contact Conway to get the final chapters of the book and then she discovered that he was dead. So, she sets out to find the missing chapters and in so doing discovers even more mysteries – was Conway’s death an accident, suicide or murder? Like Mary Blakiston in his novel, he was not a popular man, and there are a number of other parallels between his novel and his real life.

Magpie Murders is a really satisfying read, with believable characters, set in beautifully described locations, tantalisingly mysterious and so, so readable. I also particularly liked the use of the rhyme of ‘One for Sorrow’ in the chapter headings of Conway’s novel in the same way that Agatha Christie used ryhmes in some of her books. It’s quite long, but the pages sped by as I was drawn into both stories and keen to find the answers to all the questions all the mysteries it had posed.

Many thanks to NetGalley and the publishers Orion Books for an ARC.

The Black Friar by S G MacLean


The Black Friar by S G MacLean is one of those books that has the power to transport me to another time and place. I was totally absorbed, convinced I was back in England in the 17th century.

It is the second book in the Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set in 1655 during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master, in charge of the security of the regime. It’s a complex mystery, particularly as there are various factions and religious sects plotting rebellion against Cromwell.

A body, presumed by his black robe to be that of a Dominican friar, is found bricked up in a wall in Blackfriars, once a monastery and now a derelict building gradually falling into the River Fleet. But this was no friar, as Seeker recognised him as Carter Blyth one of Thurloe’s undercover agents, who had been working in the Netherlands, observing the Royalists colluding with foreign powers. As far as Seeker knew he had been killed in Delft three months earlier. Seeker’s task is to find why he had been killed and who killed him. He discovers that Blyth under Thurloe’s orders had in fact infiltrated a group of Fifth Monarchists who wanted to overthrow Cromwell and had been living with the Crowe family, members of the group, under the name of Gideon Fell.

It’s a complicated and intricate tale as Seeker, helped by Nathaniel Crowe, tries to discover what Blyth had been doing, and what trail he was following. There are missing children, whose whereabouts Blyth had been investigating, and plots to overthrow Cromwell as well as plots to reinstate Charles Stuart as King.

Although The Black Friar is the second book in the series, (the first is The Seeker, which I haven’t read) I think it works well as a stand-alone book. The characterisation is strong and I particularly like Damian Seeker, a man both respected and feared, and a man to trust.

I also like the way S G MacLean has based her book on solid historical research (she has an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen) and weaves real historical figures into the story, such as the poet John Milton, now an old blind man, the Secretary of Foreign Tongues and the diarist Samuel Pepys, an Exchequer clerk, who though very personable was ‘prone to drink and some lewdness.’ It all brings to life the atmosphere and tenor of the 1650s. I loved it.

My thanks to Netgalley and Quercus books for my copy of this book. It is due to be published on 6 October.

Books Read in September 2016

Today is the last day of September and as I shan’t finish any of the books I’m currently reading today, my total for the month is eight books – all fiction.

I wrote posts about five of them. Three are books from my TBR piles (books I owned before 1 January this year), one is a library book, two are review books and two are books I bought this year:

  1. The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter (TBR) – an Inspector Morse book in which he investigates the account of death of Joanna Franks in 1859. An enjoyable book.
  2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – a psychological thriller in which Rachel spots a couple from the train window and sees a shocking event. I was not enthralled.
  3. Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie (Tommy & Tuppence short stories) (TBR). I  enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun.
  4. Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander MCall Smith (LB) – This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness.
  5. The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge (RB) – I enjoyed this immensely. It is a tragicomedy, the story of two unlikely friends, Freda and Brenda.  I was completely taken by surprise at the bizarre twist at the end, which I thought was brilliant.

I  shall write a review of The Black Friar by S G MacLean (RB) later next week.

Here are some brief notes of the other two books:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – I enjoyed this unusual story about a boy whose father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre. Oskar is is trying to discover the facts about his father’s death and also to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father’s closet by attempting to search for which of the 162 million locks in New York it might open.

Oskar is an extremely bright nine-year old, most likely on the Autism Spectrum. The narrative, streams of consciousness in parts, switches between Oskar and his grandparents, touches on the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War where his grandparents were living and on the bombing of Hiroshima. The text is interspersed with what at first appear to be random photos. I thought it was fascinating and moving without being sentimental.

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – I have mixed feelings about this book, parts of it are brilliant, fascinating and funny, but parts of it are tedious and boring. It is about Owen Meany, a very small boy with a strange voice who believes his life is directed by God, and his friend Johnny Wheelwright. Owen accidentally kills Johnny’s mother during a baseball game, setting in motion most of the rest of the story. Johnny doesn’t know who his father is and the two boys try to discover his identity. One of the main themes of the book is the conflict between faith and doubt.

It begins quite slowly and there were times when I was about to give up reading it, but then it picked up pace and grabbed my attention – such as the scenes where Owen plays the part of Baby Jesus in a church nativity, which is hilarious, and the Ghost of the Future (the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come)  in a performance of A Christmas Carol. But I got increasingly irritated by the capitalisation of everything Owen said and of the enormous amount of description of everything in the minutest detail – and I normally enjoy descriptive writing! Even so, I just had to read to the end, intrigued to find out what would happen.

My favourite book, the book I enjoyed the most, is The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge.


The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve recently read The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge and I enjoyed it immensely.

It is the story of two unlikely friends, Freda and Brenda. Their relationship is the central focus of this book – it’s basically a friendship of convenience as they are complete opposites. Their backgrounds and personalities are very different. They met by chance in a butcher’s shop, where Brenda having left her drunken brute of a husband and a mad mother-in-law was in floods of tears. They share a room and work together in an Italian wine factory in London, gluing labels onto the bottles. Freda is sixteen stone, with blonde hair and blue eyes, Brenda has reddish shoulder-length stringy hair, with a long thin face and short sighted eyes who never looks properly at people. The difference between them is epitomised in Bainbridge’s description,

At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat.

Brenda desperately tries to escape the the amorous attentions of Rossi, the factory manager – as Freda says Brenda is a born victim, who’s asking for trouble. But it’s not just Brenda who runs into trouble. Freda, who is in love with Vittorio, the trainee manager and nephew of the factory owner, organises a factory outing in the hope that she can seduce him, but the outing goes from bad to worse.The van arranged to take them to a stately home fails to turn up so only those who can fit into two cars set off, then there are fights at Windsor Castle, and a bizarre visit to a safari park. Passions rise, tempers flare, barrels of wine are consumed and it ends in violence and tragedy.

The book begins as a comedy, but then continues with an uneasy undercurrent as the outing gets under way before descending into a dark tragedy that is surreal and farcical and also desperately sad.  Beryl Bainbridge’s writing, so easily readable, is rich in descriptions. The book is superbly paced; the tension rises in an atmosphere of seediness, and frustration, before reaching an unbelievable and grotesque climax.  I had no idea how Bainbridge could draw this story to an end and was completely taken by surprise at the bizarre twist at the end, which I thought was brilliant. It’s savagely funny, full of pathos, touching moments, frustrations, shame, stress and unhappiness, all combining to make this a most entertaining book.

Beryl Bainbridge (1932 – 2010) was made a Dame in 2000. She wrote 18 novels, three of which were filmed, two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and television, and many articles, essays, columns and reviews. Five of her novels were nominated for the Booker Prize, but none of them won it. Years ago before I began writing BooksPlease I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, published in 1999, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, published in 1998, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.

Since then I have read three more of her books and loved each one –  A Quiet Life, published in 1976, a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material; An Awfully Big Adventure, another semi-autobiographical novel set in 1950, based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; and The Birthday Boys, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition, published in 1991.

The Bottle Factory was inspired by Beryl Bainbridge’s experience working part time in a bottle factory in 1959. It was first published in 1974 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in that year.

Thanks to the publishers, Open Road Integrated Media, via NetGalley for my copy of this ebook edition, featuring an illustrated biography of Beryl Bainbridge including rare images from the author’s estate. It’s due to be released in the US on 4 October.

Amazon US link

Recent Additions at BooksPlease


From top to bottom: the first seven in the pile are from Barter Books in Alnwick, my favourite bookshop where you can either swap or buy books. I took seven books in and came home with another seven. I love browsing at Barter Books and always find books I want to read.

  • Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott – I had to search round the various places fiction is shelved in Barter Books before I found this book in the Romance section. It’s by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott. The books she wrote under this pseudonym are a complete change from her crime fiction – she was such a versatile writer. Her daughter, Rosalind, called them “bitter-sweet stories about love”. It was first published in 1944.
  • Arms and the Women by Reginald Hill – I’ve been collecting his books in an attempt to read them in chronological order. This is the 18th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery in which Ellie, Pascoe’s wife is in danger at a decaying seacoast mansion.
  • An April Shroud by Reginald Hill – the 4th Dalziel and Pascoe mystery, set in a solitary mansion in the Lake District where Pascoe is spending his honeymoon.
  • The House by the Churchyard by Sheridan Le Fanu – the Horror section is right next to Crime Fiction and I don’t usually look there but as I walked past this book caught my eye as it was displayed in one of the holders on the side of the bookcase, maybe because I’m taking part in the R.I.P. event at the moment. Le Fanu was described by Henry James as in the ‘first rank of ghost writers‘. Set in the 1760s in Ireland, it begins with the accidental disinterment of an old skull and an eerie late-night funeral.
  • A Game of Sorrows by Shona MacLean – the second book in the Alexander Seaton series. I’ve read the first and the third so I was pleased to find this one. It’s set in 1628 in Ulster as Seaton investigates a family curse – a family divided by secrets and bitter resentments.
  • The Collector by John Fowles – another author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. This could also be a choice for the R.I.P. event. It’s described as a thriller with psychological and social overtones, the story of a kidnapping.
  • A Walk Along the Wall by Hunter Davies – I was really pleased to find this book Hadrian’s Wall is the most important Roman monument in Britain. Hunter Davies grew up at one end of the wall and was inevitably drawn to walk its length. It’s part history, part guidebook and part personal experience and gives readers a taste of what life was like in this remote part of Britain 2000 years ago.

The bottom two books in the pile aren’t from Barter Books:

  • The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is a book the author sent to me for review. It’s his second novel, a sequel to ‘Tom Fleck‘ which I reviewed in 2011. It begins and ends at Hartlepool in 1536, the year of The Pilgrimage of Grace, as Barbary corsairs are raiding northwards.

and finally a birthday present (in August):

  • Rowan’s Well by C J Harter – a psychological thriller (another one for  R.I.P. maybe). Rowan’s Well is a remote house on the north-east coast of England, home to the charismatic Brooke family, the scene of murder and betrayal.

I want to start reading them all – now!

Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book

Agatha Christie’s Short Stories: The Mysterious Mr Quin

Agatha Christie blogathon

This post is my contribution to  Little Bits of Classics and and Christina Wehner‘s Agatha Christie Blogathon in honour of Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September.

Agatha Christie is one of my favourite authors. I first began reading her books when I was in my teens but it was in 2008 when Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise launched the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge that I began to read my way through all her books. There are 66 mystery and detective novels and numerous collections of short stories. In February of this year I completed my reading of her 66 mystery and detective novels and some but not all of her short stories.

The Short Stories

There is some confusion over how many short stories Agatha Christie wrote. The Agatha Christie website records that she wrote 150 stories, whereas Wikipedia records that she wrote 153 short stories, published in 14 collections in the UK and in the US. By my reckoning she wrote 157 short stories, published in a number of collections, but I may have included duplications  as some stories were published under different names in the US Collections. I’m hoping that as I read the stories the actual number will become clear. For my list of her short stories see my Agatha Christie Short Stories Page.

But whatever the real total may be there can be no doubt that it is an impressive collection of stories originally published in several magazines and then in a number of collections. They do vary in quality, some are very short, almost skeletal, with the puzzle element given greater emphasis than characterisation.The first collection of her short stories, Poirot Investigates was published in 1924, when Agatha Christie was 34.


Agatha Christie in 1926

As today’s topic in this Blogathon is dedicated to anything about or by Agatha Christie not related either to Poirot or Miss Marple this post is about one collection of short stories:

The Mysterious Mr Quin

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover 1930.jpg

The Mysterious Mr Quin First Edition Cover

This was first published in 1930 featuring Mr Harley Quin and Mr Satterthwaite. This is my favourite of her collections, containing some of her very best short stories.

In her Autobiography Agatha Christie said these stories were her favourites too. The stories were not written as a series, but one at a time at intervals of three or four months or longer and were first published in magazines. They are set in the 1920s and have a paranormal element to them, as well as a touch of romance. I found them all most entertaining.

In the Foreword she describes Mr Quin as:

… a figure invisible except when he chose, not quite human, yet concerned with the affairs of human beings and particularly of lovers. He is also the advocate for the dead.

Mr Satterthwaite, who was in his sixties, a little man, with an elf-like face, is Mr Quin’s friend:

Mr Satterthwaite, the gossip, the looker-on at life, the little man who without ever touching the depths of joy and sorrow himself, recognizes drama when he sees it, and is conscious that he has a part to play.

The titles are

1. The Coming of Mr. Quin
2. The Shadow on the Glass
3. At the “Bells and Motley”
4. The Sign in the Sky
5. The Soul of the Croupier
6. The Man from the Sea
7. The Voice in the Dark
8. The Face of Helen
9. The Dead Harlequin
10. The Bird with the Broken Wing
11. The World’s End
12. Harlequin’s Lane

In the opening story, The Coming of Mr Quin, Mr Satterthwaite first meets him on New Year’s Eve, at a house party when talk had turned to the suicide of Mr Capel, the man who had originally owned the house. The enigmatic Mr Quin, a tall, slender man, appears in the doorway.  The light shining through the stained glass above the door makes it appear that he is dressed in every colour of the rainbow but when he moves the effect fades and Mr Satterthwaite can see that he is  dressed conventionally. Whenever he appears in the stories, some trick of the light initially produces the same effect. Mr Quin subtly steers Mr Satterthwaite into discovering the truth behind Mr Capel’s suicide.

In the following eleven stories Harley Quin always appears unexpectedly and suddenly, and then just as suddenly disappears, having influenced Mr Satterthwaite to change people’s lives, and solve mysteries by producing clues and asking pointed questions, making the solution obvious. He is, without doubt, the most mysterious and unusual character in all of Agatha Christie’s books.

One of my favourite stories is The Man From The Sea. Mr Satterthwaite, who is a wealthy man, althought the source of his wealth is not revealed, is on a Mediterranean island. Walking along the cliffs he meets Anthony Cosden, about to leap to his death. He’d been planning to do so the previous evening but had been prevented when he’d met someone else at the edge of the cliff – a mysterious man in fancy dress, ‘ a kind of Harlequin rig‘. Anthony reveals he only had six months to live and doesn’t want a lingering end and in any case he has no one in the world belonging to him – if only he had a son …

Mr Satterthwaite next meets a woman in black in the quiet garden of what seems to be an empty house. The woman asks him if he would like to see inside the house and clearly needs someone to talk to, someone to hear the tragic story of her life. It’s a touching story of remorse and the desire to make amends.

Mr Quin’s role in this and in other stories is to help Mr Satterthwaite to see beneath the surface, to see things in a different light. At the end he takes his leave, and all Mr Satterthwaite see is his friend walking towards the edge of the cliff.

The final story, Harlequin’s Lane is another bittersweet tale of lost love and fate and rather eerie. Mr Satterthwaite goes to visit a married couple, the Denmans, who live at Ashmead, on Harlequin’s Lane. Mrs Denman is a Russian refugee whom John Denman had married after escaping Russia on the outbreak of the revolution.

They are out when he arrives and he takes a walk down the Lane, wondering about its name and was not surprised when he meets his elusive friend, Harley Quin, who tells him the Lane belongs to him; it’s a Lovers’ Lane. It ends at waste ground covered with a rubbish heap where they meet Molly  who is to be Pierrette in the masquerade the Denmans have planned for the weekend. A car accident interrupts the arrangments injuring some of the dancers, until Mr Satterthwaite intervenes, but still tragedy strikes. Mr Quin, seems to have cast a magical air of unreality over Mr Satterthwaite:

Mr Satterthwaite quailed. Mr Quin seemed to have loomed to enormous proportions … Mr Satterthwaite had a vista of something at once menacing and terrifying … Joy, Sorrow, Despair.

And his comfortable little soul shrank back appalled.

Truly a mystifying collection of stories. I enjoyed it immensely.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, R.I.P. Challenge and the Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category of a ‘performer’.

The current paperback edition:

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece Ed edition (2 Jun. 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007154844
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007154845

Favourite Books: September 2007 – 2010

Each month I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite books I read during the years 2007 – 2010. These are some of my favourite books I read in September in each of those years. September seems to have been a great month for books as I rated so many 5/5, but I’m highlighting just one for each month in this post. Revisiting these books makes me want to re-read all of them.

Click on the titles to see my original reviews.


Crow Lake by Mary Lawson – this tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party.

When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’ death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Convincing characters combined with beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds make this a memorable and lyrical novel.


The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates made a great impression on me in 2008 and I wrote three posts about it – see here and here for the first two and here for my final thoughts.

This is a melodramatic and memorable book depicting a grim, dark world, a violent and pessimistic world, gothic and grotesque. In some ways it reminds me of Hardy’s novels – you know something terrible will happen whatever the characters do to try to avert tragedy.

The main character is Rebecca Schwart, born in New York Harbor, the daughter of Jacob and Anna escaping from Nazi Germany in 1936. They live a life of abject poverty whilst Jacob can only find work as a caretaker of Milburn Cemetery, a non-demoninational cemetery at the edge of the town.

Soon the town’s prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty results in unspeakable tragedy. In the wake of this loss, and in an attempt to put her past behind her, Rebecca moves on, across America and through a series of listless marriages, in search of somewhere, and someone, to whom she can belong.

The ending both surprised and touched me enormously.


Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear – the third book in her Maisie Dobbs series. This one is set in 1930 when Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France – to the battlefields where she had been a nurse.

I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still strong, people are still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets.


The Fall by Simon Mawer – beautifully written, I was enthralled by this book. This is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later and also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked.

The narrative moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless – Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers – Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

My Tuesday Post: The Pursuit of Happiness

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy has been sitting on my bookshelves for so long I can’t remember when I bought it. It was one of the first books I recorded on LibraryThing in 2007, so I already had it then. I must have bought it sometime between 2002 when it was published and 2007. It is one of those chunky books, 646 pages, that I keep thinking I’ll read one of these days, and then I pick up a shorter book, or a book I’ve just bought or borrowed and it stays on the shelf. It’s time to decide whether to read it or not.

The Pursuit Of Happiness by [Kennedy, Douglas]Blurb:

New York, 1945 – Sara Smythe, a young, beautiful and intelligent woman, ready to make her own way in the big city attends her brothers Thanksgiving Eve party. As the party gets into full swing, in walks Jack Malone, a US Army journalist back from a defeated Germany and a man unlike any Sara has ever met before – one who is destined to change Sara’s future forever.

But finding love isn’t the same as finding happiness – as Sara and Jack soon find out. In post-war America chance meetings aren’t always as they seem, and people’s choices can often have profound repercussions. Sara and Jack find they are subject to forces beyond their control and that their destinies are formed by more than just circumstance. In this world of intrigue and emotional conflict, Sara must fight to survive -against Jack, as much as for him.

In this mesmerising tale of longing and betrayal, The Pursuit of Happiness is a great tragic love story; a tale of divided loyalties, decisive moral choices, and the random workings of destiny.

Chapter One

I first saw her standing near my mother’s coffin. She was in her seventies – a tall, angular woman, withe fine grey hair gathered in a compact bun at the back of her neck. She looked the way I hope to look if I ever make it to her birthday. She stood very erect, her spine refusing to hunch over with age. Her bone structure was flawless. Her skin had stayed smooth. Whatever wrinkles she had didn’t cleave her face. Rather they lent it character, gravitas. She was still handsome – in a subdued, patrician way. You could tell that, once upon a time, men probably found her beautiful.

Every Tuesday, Jenn from Books And A Beat hosts Teaser Tuesdays at which time participants grab their current read, open to a random page, and share two or three “teaser” sentences from that page while avoiding any spoilers.

From page 77:

‘Good afternoon Kate,’ she said, her voice controlled and untroubled by my outburst. ‘I’m glad you came.’

‘Who the hell are you? And what the hell is this?’ I said, again holding up the photo album as if it was the smoking gun in a murder trial.

What do you think? Would you keep on reading?

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford first appeared in Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (first published in 1922) when they had just met up after World War One, both in their twenties. Their next appearance is in Partners in Crime, a collection of short stories, first published in 1929.

Life has become a little dull, especially for Tuppence. Tommy works for the Secret Service but wants to see more action, so when Tommy’s boss Mr Carter offers them both a new assignment they jump at the opportunity. It’s to take over for six months the running of the International Detective Agency under the name of Mr Theodore Blunt. It had been a front for Bolshevist-spying activity and in particular they were to look out for blue letters with a Russian stamp on them. They were also free to undertake any other detective work that comes their way.

All of the stories first appeared in magazines between 1923 and 1928 and they are parodies of fictional detectives of the period, some of whom I recognised and some I didn’t. When she came to write her autobiography many years later, even Agatha Christie couldn’t recognise some of them, noting that whilst some had become household names, others had ‘more or less perished in oblivion. Those I recognised include Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, The Old Man in the Corner, and Hercule Poirot, himself.

Most of the stories are self-contained adventures. They are slight and brief, and not really taxing or difficult to solve. I enjoyed reading them, because they are written with a light touch, and a sense of humour and fun. Tommy and Tuppence are likeable characters; Tommy is not as dizzy as David Walliams played him in the recent TV series. I’ve now read all the Tommy and Tuppence stories. There are four full length novels as well as Partners in Crime (Tommy and Tuppence 2) and unlike Poirot and Miss Marple Tommy and Tuppence age with each book:

  1. 1922 The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1)
  2. 1941 N or M? (Tommy and Tuppence 3)
  3. 1968 By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence 4)
  4. 1973 Postern of Fate (Tommy and Tuppence 5)

Reading Challenges: the Agatha Christie Reading ChallengeMount TBR Reading Challenge, and the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt.

My copy is the current edition with this cover:


The first UK edition, however, has this cover, which I prefer.

So I’m choosing this cover for the Vintage Scavenger Hunt, in the category of a book showing a Shadowy Figure on its cover.

My Friday Post: Sunshine on Scotland Street

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
 where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

I’ve just started reading Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith, one of his 44 Scotland Street novels.

It begins:

Even if she had not been an anthropologist, Domenica Macdonald would have understood the very particular significance of weddings. Anthropologists – and sociologists too, perhaps even more so – often tell us what we already know, or what we expect to hear, or what we are not surprised to learn. And so we all know, as did Domenica, that weddings are far more than marriage ceremonies; we know that they are occasions for family stock-taking and catharsis; that they furnish opportunities for naked displays of emotion and unscheduled tears; that they are a stage for sartorial and social ostentation; that they are far from the simple public exchange of vows they appear to be.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

He looked at his watch. That brief encounter with the two girls on Queen’s Street had taken place about twenty minutes previously. That gave him forty minutes to have a necessary cup of coffee, unpack his clothes and products, and have a quick shower before the girls arrived – if they arrived. They had laughed when he had shouted out the invitation, but it had been, he thought, a laugh of delight rather than a dismissive laugh.

The 44 Scotland Street books form a serial novel about the residents of 44 Scotland Street, a fictitious building in a real street in the author’s home town of Edinburgh. It first appeared in daily episodes in the Scotsman newspaper in 2004 and I read a few of them online some years ago.

I felt in the mood for something light and not about murder, psychologically disturbed characters, or full of doom and gloom and this seems to be just that – ‘a joyous, charming portrait of city life and human foibles‘ according to the Sunday Express (quoted on the back cover).

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins has won a lot of awards and is a very popular book. It has good reviews, Stephen King for example describes it as a “Really great suspense novel. Kept me up most of the night. The alcoholic narrator is dead perfect.”

I thought it sounded good, so I decided to read it. But it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I wasn’t enthralled.

It began well with Rachel on the train each morning looking out at the houses on the road where she used to live before she was divorced. As the train stops at the same signal each day she enviously watches a young couple who are living the perfect life, or so she imagines. Then something happens that shocks her and everything changes and she begins to get involved in their lives, with disastrous results.

But I couldn’t easily distinguish between the three main characters, Rachel, Anna and Megan. Each one is an unreliable narrator and not very likeable. I had to keep referring to the chapter headings and dates to remind myself who was who and what happened when. I didn’t find it chilling or thrilling and any suspense rapidly disappeared with the repetition of Rachel being drunk, then being sorry, but unable to stop drinking. Then there are all the phone calls, text messages and emails that she sends when she is drunk. She has blackouts and can’t remember what happened, or what she said. Added to that she dreams and is unable to distinguish between them and reality. Overall it’s dreary and depressing.

So after a good start, the narrative lost impetus and dragged on to its conclusion, which by comparison seemed rushed, with a twist right at the end that took me by surprise. I suppose it is a ‘page-turner’ as I did want to know what what going to happen, but it left me feeling unsatisfied, irritated and rather out of sorts.

I’ve seen this book compared to Gone Girl, another book I have sitting waiting to be read. Now, I’m wondering if I’ll find that one disappointing as well. Do let me know your views on both or either of these books.

Reading challenges: Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016, 20 Books of Summer 2016 and although I didn’t find this book particularly perilous, Carl’s RIP XI (Readers Imbibing Peril), because plenty of other people have.

The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter

An Inspector Morse book, The Wench is Dead is the 8th in the series, first published in 1989. This is a bit different from the other Morse books in that it is historical crime fiction – no current cases are investigated.

The wench is dead

Morse is in hospital being treated for a perforated ulcer. Whilst recovering he is given a book called Murder on the Oxford Canal by the wife of a recently deceased patient at the hospital. It’s an account of the investigation and trial that followed the death of Joanna Franks in 1859. She had been found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal. As he reads, Morse becomes convinced that the two boatmen hanged for her murder and a third man who had been transported to Australia were innocent.

Dexter based his book on an account of a Victorian murder in 1839, that of 37-year-old Christina Collins as she travelled the Trent and Mersey Canal atRugeley, Staffordshire, on the Staffordshire Knot en route to London. It reminded me of Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time in which Inspector Alan Grant, also recovering in hospital, investigates the murder of the Princes in the Tower.

Morse enlists the help of Sergeant Lewis as well as that of Christine Greenaway, the beautiful daughter of one of the other patients. She works as a librarian at the Bodleian Library. So he is able to study original source material as well as the account in the published book. Morse finds it an absorbing puzzle, like a tricky cryptic crossword, and the more he read and thought about it the more questions came to his mind. He was not satisfied that the conclusions drawn at the trial about the forensic and pathological evidence were right. He felt uneasy about reported conversations between the various people involved:

… all of it was wrong somehow. Wrong if they were guilty. It was if some inexperienced playwright had been given a murder-plot, and then had proceeded to write page after page of inappropriate, misleading and occasionally contradictory dialogue. (page 133)

I thought it was ingenious and compelling reading, very well constructed and very clever. By the time he leaves the hospital Morse is convinced that he has solved the mystery. It’s a tale of  intrigue, lust and deception, with more than a few twists and turns.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge, 20 Books of Summer 2016 , Vintage Cover Silver Age Scavenger Hunt: in the category of a Building (not a house) – the front cover of my copy shows the Hertford Bridge, popularly known as the Bridge of Sighs, which joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane in Oxford.

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI

It’s time for the annual R. (eaders) I. (mbibing) P. (eril) event, hosted by Carl  at Stainless Steel Droppings, taking place between September 1st and October 31st.
(Much thanks to Hugo Award winning artist Abigail Larson for the use of her art)

This event involves reading books from these categories: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, Supernatural or other closely-related fields. Reviews, while not required, may be posted on Carl’s blog.

I shall be attempting:


Peril the First: Read at least four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. I have plenty of Mystery, Suspense, Thriller and Gothic books on my shelves and Kindle to choose from, including these four:

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo


My Friday Post: The Scent of Death

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City
 where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is a library book I’m thinking of reading. It’s The Scent of Death by Andrew Taylor. I borrowed it because I’ve enjoyed some of his other books. It begins:

This is the story of a woman and a city. I saw the city first, glimpsing it from afar as it shimmered like the new Jerusalem in the light of the setting sun.


August, 1778. British-controlled Manhattan is a melting pot of soldiers, traitors and refugees, surrounded by rebel forces as the American War of Independence rages on. Into this simmering tension sails Edward Savill, a London clerk tasked with assessing the claims of loyalists who have lost out during the war.

Savill lodges with the ageing Judge Wintour, his ailing wife, and their enigmatic daughter-in-law Arabella. However, as Savill soon learns, what the Wintours have lost in wealth, they have gained in secrets.

The murder of a gentleman in the slums pulls Savill into the city’s underbelly. But when life is so cheap, why does one death matter? Because making a nation is a lucrative business, and some people cannot afford to miss out, whatever the price…

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

You’re a thief, a damned pickpocket. There were two empty purses in your bundle. And those shoes you had on your feet – well they tell their own story don’t they?

I like the promise of this book – historical crime fiction set during the American War of Independence, a war about which I know only the briefest of details.

Books Read in August 2016

I read 6 books this August, three of them TBR books, and all are fiction, a mix of crime fiction, historical fiction and epic fantasy novels. One book is a library book and one a review copy. (The links are to my  posts on the books.)

  • The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (TBR), a fascinating novel about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485 and one of the best historical novels that I’ve read.
  • The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas Hume (LB), the second The Sea Detective novel, set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby.  It had been assumed that her mother, Megan had committed suicide, although her body had never been found.  Cal McGill helps Violet find out what really happened.
  • The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961. It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. Overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.
  • The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, a review copy from Lovereading due to  be published in October. This is another unputdownable book by Karen Maitland, set in Porlock Weir in 1361, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. My full review will follow later this month.
  • A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire,1) by George R R Martin (TBR), an epic fantasy novel  set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict. It’s complex and multifaceted, and full of stories and legends and wonderful characters. I loved it.
  • The Mysterious Mr Quin (Agatha Christie…The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie (TBR) – I finished this collection of short stories yesterday. It’s one of her earliest books, first published in 1930, not at all like her Poirot or Miss Marple books, and I enjoyed it very much. It’s beautifully written. I’ll write about it in more detail soon.

It’s impossible to decide which is my favourite this month between books in different genres. I loved The Sunne in Splendour, The Game of Thrones and The Mysterious Mr Quin in almost equal measure, each book taking me to completely different worlds and times.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner: Paperback Publication

I first posted this review of Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner last December prior to its publication in hardback. I loved this gripping and intense crime thriller and it’s out in paperback today!

I was a bit doubtful that I would like Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner as it’s written in the present tense, which I usually find irritating. But I needn’t have been concerned because it wasn’t long before I’d completely forgotten the tense and I was totally immersed in the story. And I loved it.

Missing, Presumed is crime fiction, investigating the disappearance of Edith Hind, a beautiful Cambridge post-grad.  Her boyfriend, Will Carter had returned to their flat to find the front door open, coats in disarray and a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. It’s told from different characters’ viewpoint, each one individually distinct, beginning with DS Manon Bradshaw on the Major Incident Team (her name means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew, but I thought it was Welsh), a lonely disillusioned single woman approaching forty, who overcomes her insomnia by listening to the low murmurings of police reports on her radio.

Edith’s mother, Miriam, Lady Hind, is distraught, wondering if somehow this is fault, her daughter the centre of a drama. Sir Ian Hind, a successful doctor, physician to the Royal Family and a friend of the Home Secretary adds to the pressure the police are under to find Edith. Edith’s friend, Helena comes under suspicion and known offenders are interviewed, but after the first 72 hours she is still missing. The team’s urgency is cooling  as the possibility that Edith is still alive diminishes. Then a dog walker finds a body in the Ouse, near Ely; is it Edith? The search for the killer is intensified.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the final section, ‘One Year Later‘ in which the ends are tied up , was necessary. But apart from that I found it gripping and intense. I was intrigued by the multi-layered plot, and thought the characters were fully rounded, believable people, explored with psychological depth – in particular Manon Bradshaw stands out. And, best of all, it is beautifully written.

The Author

Susie Steiner began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor on Weekend Magazine for 11 years. For more information see her website,

Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – her first is Homecoming.

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”


When we began watching the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones, I was hooked and once we finished watching I immediately wanted to read the series, A Song of Fire and Ice. I’d just read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, about the Wars of the Roses and had noticed the similarities between that and A Game of Thrones, the battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster paralleled by those between the Houses of Stark and Lancaster for example.

I don’t often read a book after seeing an adaptation, but in this case it proved ideal – the actors and scenery were perfect for my reading of the book, although there are some differences (the ages of the Stark children for example). I loved both the book and the TV series.


Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

I was completely immersed in this world inhabited by numerous characters and set in different locations (Seven Kingdoms), all portrayed in meticulous detail and expertly constructed so that all the fantastic creations are credible, and complete with back stories and histories. Beginning with a Prologue the book is then narrated through different characters’ points of view – each chapter is headed by that character’s name making the plotlines easy to follow:

  • Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King.
  • Lady Catelyn Stark, of House Tully, wife of Eddard Stark.
  • Sansa Stark, elder daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Arya Stark, younger daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Bran Stark, second-youngest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, mother unknown.
  • Tyrion Lannister, son of Lord Tywin Lannister, called the Imp, a dwarf, brother of the twins, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime, called the Kingslayer,
  • Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, the Princess of Dragonstone, sister of Prince Viserys, the last of the Targaryens.

Other characters include:

  • King Robert of the House Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard Stark’s oldest friend, married to Queen Cersei, his son Joffrey, spoiled and wilful with an unchecked temper, heir to the Iron Throne.
  • Robb Stark, oldest true born son of Eddard Stark. He remained at Winterfell when Eddard became the Hand of the King.
  • Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport.
  • Khal Drogo – a powerful warlord of the Dothraki people on the continent of Essos, a very tall man with hair black as midnight braided and hung with bells.


GOT Map1

  • Winterfell: the ancestral castle of House Stark.
  • The Wall: built of stone, ice and magic, on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, guarded by the Night’s Watch to protect the Kingdoms from the dangers behind the huge wall from ‘the Others’ and the Wildings.
  • Beyond the Wall: the first book begins Beyond the Wall with members of the Night’s Watch on the track of a band of Wildling raiders.
  • King’s Landing: a walled city, the capital of the continent of Westeros and of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • Essos: across the Narrow Sea from Westeros, includes the grassland known as the Dothraki Sea.

This article in The Telegraph lists the locations used in the TV series.

This is no fairy tale – it’s set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict, the multiple viewpoints giving a rounded view of the conflicts the characters face. It’s a love story too. There are knights, soldiers and sorcerers, priests, direwolves, giants, assassins and bastards.  It’s complex and multifaceted, and it’s full of stories and legends – here for example Maester Luwin tells young Bran Stark about the children of the forest:

“They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms.

“They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wisemen were called greenseers and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. (page 713)

I shall be reading the next book in the series soon, A Clash of Kings. The other books are A Storm of SwordsA Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I read the Kindle Edition:

  • File Size: 8515 KB
  • Print Length: 819 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0007448031
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager (23 Dec. 2010)

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge  – a book I’ve had since October 2015, and the What’s In a Name Challenge – in the category of a book with a piece of furniture in the title.

First Chapter, First Paragraph:

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for some time and it’s one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s an Inspector Morse book.

It begins:

Intermittently, on the Tuesday, he felt sick. Frequently, on the Wednesday, he was sick. In the Thursday, he felt sick frequently, but was actually sick only intermittently. With difficulty, early on the Friday morning – drained, listless, and infinitely weary – he found the energy to drag himself from his bed to the telephone, and seek to apologise to his superiors at Kidlington Police HQ for what was going to be an odds-on non-appearance at the office that late November day.


That night he dreamed in Technicolor. He saw the ochre-skinned, scantily clad siren in her black, arrowed stockings. And in Morse’s muddled computer of a mind, that siren took the name of one Joanna Franks . . .

The body of Joanna Franks was found at Duke’s Cut on the Oxford Canal at about 5.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 22nd June 1859.

At around 10.15 a.m. on a Saturday morning in 1989 the body of Chief Inspector Morse – though very much alive – was removed to Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. Treatment for a perforated ulcer was later pronounced successful.

As Morse begins his recovery he comes across an account of the investigation and the trial that followed Joanna Franks’ death . . . and becomes convinced that the two men hanged for her murder were innocent . . .

What do you think? Would you keep reading? I’m predisposed to like this book, because I loved the Morse TV series and also because I’m a fan of cold case investigations – especially one this old.

My Week in Books: 17 August 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.


A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

 I am reading two amazing books right now – A Song of Fire and Ice Book 1 of A Game of Thrones by G R R Martin. I’ve now caught up with the TV series and I’m reading the first book. I am thoroughly enjoying it.Blurb:

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

and I’ve also just started reading an uncorrected proof of The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, which is due to be published in October.Blurb:

1361. Porlock Weir, Exmoor. Thirteen years after the Great Pestilence, plague strikes England for the second time. Sara, a packhorse man’s wife, remembers the horror all too well and fears for safety of her children. Only a dark-haired stranger offers help, but at a price that no one will pay.

Fear gives way to hysteria in the village and, when the sickness spreads to her family, Sara finds herself locked away by neighbours she has trusted for years. And, as her husband – and then others – begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable.

The price that I ask, from one willing to pay… A human life.

Then: I’ve recently finished The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, one of my 20 Books of Summer. A ‘damsel in distress’ murder mystery. It wasn’t brilliant – my review is in this post.

Next: It will be one of the books from my 20 Books of Summer list. I’m not sure which one – maybe The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.Blurb:

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…

The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth

I’m falling behind with reading for my 20 Books of Summer Challenge as I didn’t read any of them in July. I decided to read one of the shorter books to get back into the swing of the challenge and chose The Girl in the Cellar, a Miss Silver Mystery first published in 1961, by Patricia Wentworth (1878 – 1961). I wrote about the opening paragraph in this First Chapter, First Paragraph post.

It begins well as the main character finds herself in the dark in a cellar, not knowing who she is or how she got there. She is standing on the cellar steps and there is a dead girl lying at the bottom of the steps. She doesn’t recognise the dead girl either. She finds a bag beside her on the steps, which she doesn’t think is hers, but takes it with her as she escapes from the house and finds herself standing at the end of a road. She gets on a bus where she meets Miss Silver, who seeing how confused and frightened she is, takes her for a cup of tea and offers to help her. A letter in the handbag is addressed to Mrs James Fancourt and it seems that her name is Anne and she is to stay with her husband’s two aunts.

I think the opening of the book is the best part, setting up a scene of suspense and mystery. For most of the book Anne is suffering from amnesia but there is so much repetition of what little facts Anne knows that it became tedious reading, because it’s not just Anne who goes over and over what has happened but other characters too. I think the repetition lessened the sense of suspense, and overall, I thought the book was odd and not very convincing. There are too many coincidences, improbabilities, and loose ends.

This is the last of the Miss Silver Mysteries, published in the year Patricia Wentworth died. The first in the series was published in 1928. Miss Maud Silver is a retired governess who became a private investigator. She likes to help young lovers in distress – in The Girl on the Cellar, a ‘damsel in distress’ and she loves to knit and is a very sympathetic listener. I’ve only previously read one of the Miss Silver books, The Brading Collection, which is a much more convincing book.

As well as the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, this book qualifies for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category, ‘Damsel in Distress’.

The Woman Who Walked into the Sea by Mark Douglas-Home

Earlier this year I read and loved The Sea Detective, the first Cal McGill book. Cal is an oceanographer using his skills in tracking human bodies and sea-borne objects. So I was really looking forward to reading the second book, The Woman Who Walked into the Sea. Maybe my expectations were too high because I was a bit disappointed – that’s not to say I didn’t like it because I did, but it lacked the pace and complexity of the first book and just didn’t grip my imagination in the same way. Cal is really a secondary character and there is very little sea detection in the story.

Set in an imaginary coastal village of Poltown in the north of Scotland, the story revolves around the main character,Violet who had been abandoned as a new-born baby. An anonymous letter to a social worker reveals that her mother, Megan Bates, had last been seen walking into the sea. Her body had never been found and it had been assumed after her bag and hat had drifted ashore that she had drowned herself. Cal helps Violet with details of the tides and currents which convinces Megan had not committed suicide. She is determined to discover what had happened.

I liked the mystery surrounding Megan and the local people, most of whom have problems/secrets and then there is the ‘local’ mafia and a controversial wind farm proposal. But the appeal of The Sea Detective for me was not just the detective elements but Cal himself and his expertise in the marine environment, the mystery of how the ocean currents and wind speeds affect where things get washed ashore and tracking back to find where they originated.  And I thought this second book was unevenly paced, the action slowed down by long descriptive passages so that the suspense that had been built up drained away and my attention drifted.

So, even though I liked this book, I don’t think it quite lived up to The Sea Detective. There is a third book, The Malice of Waves and I hope that the focus is more on Cal and his sea detective work.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

Richard III (1452 – 1485), that controversial king – what was the truth about him? Did he murder his nephews, the ‘Princes in the Tower’, was he deformed, with a withered arm, a hunch back and a limp as Shakespeare portrayed him, was he a cold-blooded, evil villain? Or has he been maligned and been turned into a  monster who killed his brother’s sons in order to take the Crown?

I remembered merely the brief details about the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between the house of York and Lancaster for the throne of England,  from my school history lessons and only became interested in Richard III years later when I read Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower, which examined the available evidence and came to the conclusion that Richard III was responsible for their deaths. Some years later I read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, which also investigates his role in the death of his nephews and his own death at the Battle of Bosworth and concluded that Richard hadn’t murdered his nephews.

The discovery of his skeleton buried beneath a car park in Leicester in 2012 revealed that although ‘the curved spine on the skeleton does show he had Scoliosis, he did not have a withered arm or other details attributed to him in some characterisations’ (see the Incredible Discovery at the King Richard III Visitor Centre ).

But it wasn’t the discovery of his skeleton that nudged me into reading  The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Penman’s detailed historical novel, first published in 1982. It was watching A Game of Thrones, which is based in part on the Wars of the Roses – Stark and Lannister/York and Lancaster etc.

The Sunne in Splendour is a fascinating novel about his life from his childhood to his death at Bosworth Field in 1485. Much has been written about Richard, from the time of his death onwards, that Sharon Penman points out has to be considered in the light of the writers’ bias, stating in her Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I once came upon the definition of history as ‘the process by which complex truths are transformed into simplified falsehoods’. That is particularly true in the case of Richard III, where the normal medieval proclivity for moralizing and partisanship was further complicated by deliberate distortion to suit Tudor political needs.’ (page 884)

She states that she had tried to be as accurate as possible, drawing upon facts that are not in dispute, relying on contemporary chroniclers, and when dealing with conflicting accounts ‘to choose the one most in accord with what we know of the people involved.’ 

I think this is one of the best historical novels that I’ve read. It is full of detail, but her research sits very lightly in this book, none of it feels like a history lesson, and it all brings Richard’s world to life. Penman portrays a very likeable Richard, from his childhood onwards he comes across as a kind, generous and brave man, a skilled leader on the battlefield, a loving husband to his wife, Anne, and devoted and loyal to his brother, Edward IV, who was by no means a saint. I particularly liked the way Penman showed his relationship with his family, especially with his brothers Edward and George, the Duke of Clarence.

I could easily visualise the battle scenes, that eventually brought the Wars of the Roses to an end and was fascinated by the view of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) – I’d like to know more about him. It’s his view of Richard that prevailed after his accession to the throne. During his life Richard he had a good reputation and was loved, particularly in the North of England. But he fell victim to treachery and intrigue.

One of the drawbacks of reading historical fiction is that if you have any knowledge of the period you know the eventual outcome. Penman’s skill is such that even though I knew Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field I kept hoping he would survive and defeat Henry Tudor.

As for her solution to who killed the princes, that is one spoiler I’m not going to reveal – I was convinced though by her version of events. I think The Sunne in Splendour is a brilliant book, I was absolutely gripped by it and was sad when I came to the end. It’s a long book, nearly 900 pages and it took me a while to read it, but never once did I think it was too long, or needed editing. I loved it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve left too long unread as it’s been on my shelves for 5 years!

Six Degrees Of Separation: Year of Wonders to Blood Harvest

I found this meme on Debbie’s ExUrbanis blog. It is hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best, and was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, “Chains”, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularized by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book, for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

You make your own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain.

This is my first chain:

Year of Wonders chain

The chain this month begins with Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, one of my favourite authors, although I haven’t read this book – yet. It’s set in a small village in Derbyshire, during the year of 1666 ravaged by the plague. The story was inspired by the true story of the villagers of Eyam, Derbyshire and their own historical account of the plague.

This leads on to the following books:

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, also a novel of the plague, but set in 1348 as a group of people flee across England as the plague moves inland from the ports. The members of the group, a conjurer, a one-armed storyteller, a musician and his apprentice, a young couple on the run, a mid-wife and a strange child who can read the runes, are all liars with secrets that are gradually exposed as they journey on.

Secrets are also a major part of In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward, in which two girls go missing: Rachel Jones returns, Sophie Jenkins is never found. Thirty years later, Yvonne, Sophie’s mother commits suicide, which prompts Rachel, to try to remember what had happened. She is a genealogist and her research into her own family history proves to be invaluable, as devastating family secrets are revealed. This also links back to Year of Wonders as it is set in Derbyshire.

In The Blood Detective genealogist Nigel Barnes helps DCI Grant Foster to track down a killer who has left cryptic clues carved into his victims’ bodies. Although this has some really gruesome scenes, which I normally avoid, this a fascinating fast-paced book linking the crimes of the past – the events of 1879 – to a series of murders in the present.  It is set in London and the topography of London through the years also helps Barnes to solve the crimes.

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine is also set in London. It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys.  Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary. These diaries, published over seventy years later, reveal themselves to be more than a mere journal. For they seem to hold the key to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. It falls to Asta’s granddaughter Ann to unearth the buried secrets of nearly a century before.

Denmark and family secrets are the links to this next book, Anna Märklin’s Family Chronicles, a psychological mystery by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, a Danish author.  Set in Denmark in the present day with flashbacks to Sweden during the early part of at the beginning of the twentieth century, Anna finds herself with beset with problems. Her father is seriously ill and strangely secretive about his family background.  Anna longs to know more and when she finds her grandmother’s journal she is enthralled. But digging into the past can reveal secrets that you might not want to know.

The final link in this chain is another psychological mystery, Blood Harvest by Sharon Bolton. I could have chosen any one of her books but this one stands out for me.  Evi, a psychiatrist has a new patient, Gillian, unemployed, divorced and alcoholic, who can’t accept that her daughter died in the fire that burnt down her home. Meanwhile, the new vicar in town is feeling unwelcome and hears voices in the church, but can’t find anyone there And a young boy keeps seeing a strange, solitary girl playing in the churchyard. Who is she and what is she trying to tell him? It’s a dark, scary book and one that I found disturbing, but thoroughly absorbing.

My chain goes from a seventeenth century English village devastated by plague to a twentieth century English village in six links, via books revealing murder, mayhem and mystery in their pages. Apart from Year of Wonders these are all books I’ve read and enjoyed, even The Blood Detective, a grisly tale.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Girl in the Cellar

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

I didn’t read any of my books for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge in July, so I’ve got some catching up to do. One of the shorter books on my list is The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, in which Miss Silver helps Anne, who has lost her memory, but who thinks she has witnessed a murder.

It begins:

She looked into the dead unbroken dark and had neither memory nor thought. She was not conscious of where she was, or of how she had come there. She was not conscious of anything except the darkness. She did not know if time had passed. There seemed to be no sense that it went by, but it must have done, because the moment when she knew nothing but darkness had changed into a moment in which she knew that her feet were on stone, and that she must not move from where she stood.


A young woman regains consciousness and finds herself on some cellar steps. At the bottom of the steps there is the corpse of a dead girl. She cannot remember who she is, what has happened or why she is there. Terrified and confused she manages to find a way out and as she flees she runs into Miss Silver, who offers to help her.

A letter in her bag is the only clue to her identity. But by investigating what has happened to her will she find herself in danger? Can she trust the letter writer? And who is the girl in the cellar?

This is a Miss Silver Mystery (there are 32 in the series), first published in 1961, the year that Patricia Wentworth died. She was born in India in 1878 and wrote dozens of best-selling mysteries being recognised as one of the “mistresses of classic crime.” She died in 1961 and was as popular in the 1940s as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. Miss Silver, a contemporary of Miss Marple “was her finest creation”.

What do you think? Would you keep reading? I think this opening paragraph sets the scene well, with the sense of danger and mystery to make me want to know more.

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

For me the book chosen for the current Classics Club Spin is The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling. It’s a novella, just 60 pages, which first appeared in The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales, published in 1888.

Set in India and narrated by a journalist this is a story of two ruffianly-looking adventurers, wanderers and vagabonds, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who announce that they are off to Kafiristan in the mountains of Afghanistan to make themselves Kings. They tell the journalist that when they have got their kingdom ‘in going order’ they will let him know and that he can then come and help them govern it.

But some two years later, on a hot summer’s night, what was left of Carnehan crept into the journalist’s office,

He was bent into a circle, his head was sunk between his shoulders, and he moved his feet one over the other like a bear. I could hardly see whether he walked or crawled- this rag-wrapped, whining cripple who addressed me by name, crying that he was come back. (page 24)

And he had a sorry tale to tell.

I was a bit disappointed with it, mainly because for a novella it took such a long time to set the scene and the opening section was confusing, with references I didn’t understand. After the slow beginning the story picks up when it gets to relating what happened to Dravot and Carnehan. The Kipling Society website (where you can read the story, which is also free on Amazon) has some notes that helped me understand more – Masonic, Biblical and other references and details about the places and people mentioned.

The Kipling Society also gives details of the background to the story and some critical responses to it. Overall the responses are good – that it is a memorable, fantastic tale, some believing it to be a masterpiece, but Kingley Amis stated it was a ‘grossly overrated long tale‘. I was also interested that Edmund Wilson is quoted as stating that the story is “…surely a parable of what might happen to the English if they should forfeit their moral authority.”[Edmund Wilson “The Kipling that Nobody Read”, in Kipling’s Mind and Art ed. Andrew Rutherford, Oliver & Boyd, 1964.]

There was a film adaptation in 1975, starring Sean Connery as Dravot and Michael Caine as Carnehan with Christopher Plummer as Kipling, which according to some is much better than the story itself.

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and lived there until he was five when he was taken to live in England, returning to India in 1882, where he worked as a journalist. As well as short stories he also wrote poems, including If, and novels, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907.

My copy is an e-book, which I’ve had for several years, so it counts towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

I’ve recently read John le Carré’s biography by Adam Sisman and inevitably it made me want to read le Carré’s books. I decided to start with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, first published in 1963.


a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.

Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.

My view:

This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.

Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.

The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:

… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he  be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)

By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed,. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)

I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)

But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.

This fulfils the “Broken Object” category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

SandlandsSandlands is a beautiful collection of short stories that held me spellbound from start to finish. This is all the more extraordinary as I am not a great fan of short story collections. I often find that they leave me feeling that something is missing – either the storyline is not developed enough, or the characters are not convincing, or that they are just too trite or banal. In other words that they are disappointing.

Not so with Sandlands – I think this is a special collection of well written stories set in the Suffolk landscape, describing real people, and containing well- researched detail into myths and folklore, wildlife, and environmental changes that slips seamlessly into the fiction. They are just the right length for me, perfect little cameos each one complete and satisfying – that’s not to say that all the ends are neatly tied up, as some, such as Nightingale’s Return, about an Italian visiting the farm where his father had worked  as a prisoner of war, end leaving me wondering what happened next, or rather just what had happened in the past.

The individual stories are varied, some looking back to the past, some are sad leaving me with tears in my eyes, and some have a supernatural element. I loved all of them, but a few are outstanding, for example, Curlew Call in which a teenager spends time during her gap year living in an old house overlooking the the salt marshes, as a companion to Agnes, an old lady who is wheel-chair bound. She is fascinated by the landscape and the wildlife, in particular the curlews, calling out across the reed beds each evening, before she goes to sleep:

You wonder what they’re doing out there in the dark, sleepless and crying like that. And if you lie still and listen – really  listen – there’s something so pitiful about the sound, it could nearly break your heart. like someone whistling hopelessly over and over for a dog that’s lost. (pages 220 – 221)

Agnes paints, but not the usual East Anglian landscape of sky and clouds with a low horizon. I was really taken with the descriptions of her paintings, nearly all foreground, with reeds at the top and the rest of the painting taken up with the mudflats, showing the swirls and squiggles left by the tide. And the colours she’d used held my attention:

You think that mud is only grey and brown but when you look properly, the way Agnes had, you can see she’s right, and that it’s also the blackest black, and pure white, and it holds glints of red and gold and ochry yellow, and reflected blues and greens, and deep, imperial purple. (page 226)

As the story unfolds, so does the story of Agnes’ life.

And I finished reading the final story, Mackerel, with tears in my eyes when I came to the last paragraph, even though I had begun to realise what was inevitably the outcome. This is the story of a grandmother and her granddaughter, Hattie, set in a fishing village near the Suffolk sea. Ganny, as Hattie calls her has lived all her eighty nine years in the same place and is expert at handling and cooking fish.

Hattie, by way of contrast has an honours degree in marine ecology, has travelled the world, but also loves the Suffolk landscape and the world of her grandparents – the sights, smells and Ganny’s cooking, kippers, fish pie and above all the mackerel. This story is filled with images of Ganny filleting the mackerel, coating them in oatmeal to fry in butter, or to bake in greaseproof sprinkled with lemon or cider in a tight parcel. It made my mouth water reading about it.

As in Curlew Call, Ganny’s life unfolds and this story too is full of colour, this time of the sand instead of the mudflats:

This is a land of sand. The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it’s a wonder anything grows in it at all. On the common it’s a powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the the slightest breeze, but on the roads it’s as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.

… You could almost fancy it the work of strange secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and spars like a signature on the landscape. A land with the imprint of the sea. (page 256)

It’s impossible for me to do justice to these stories. If you like strong, atmospheric stories, stories that bring to life the world of the past, tying them to the present, stories of family life, of the natural world, of folklore and the mystery and wonder of it all then you’ll love this book as much as I did.

With grateful thanks to Rosy Thornton for sending me this lovely book to review. It’s published tomorrow. And she has also written full length novels that captivated as much as this collection – do read them. For more details see her website.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Sandstone Press Ltd (21 July 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 191098504X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1910985045

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’m just about to start reading Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. It won the Booker Prize in 1987.

It begins:

I’m writing a history of the world.’ she says. And the hands of the nurse are arrested for a moment; she looks down at this old woman, this ill old woman. ‘Well, my goodness, the nurse says. ‘That’s quite a thing to be doing, isn’t it?’ And then she becomes busy again, she heaves and tucks and smooths – ‘Upsy a bit, dear, that’s a good girl – then we’ll get you a cup of tea.’


Claudia Hampton – beautiful, famous, independent, dying.

But she remains defiant to the last, telling her nurses that she will write a ‘history of the world . . . and in the process, my own’. And it is her story from a childhood just after the First World War through the Second and beyond. But Claudia’s life is entwined with others and she must allow those who knew her, loved her, the chance to speak, to put across their point of view. There is Gordon, brother and adversary; Jasper, her untrustworthy lover and father of Lisa, her cool conventional daughter; and then there is Tom, her one great love, found and lost in wartime Egypt.

What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

My Friday Post

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear, the 10th Maisie Dobbs novel. It begins:

Prologue – London, July 1933

Edith Billings – Mrs Edith Billings, that is, proprietor of Billings’ Bakery – watched as the dark woman walked past the shop window, her black head with its oiled ebony hair appearing to bob up and down between the top shelf of cottage loaves and the middle shelf of fancy cakes as she made her way along with a confidence to her step.


London, 1933. Some two months after an Indian woman, Usha Pramal, is found murdered in a South London canal, her brother turns to Maisie Dobbs to find the truth about her death. Not only has Scotland Yard made no arrests, but evidence indicates they failed to conduct a full and thorough investigation. Before her death, Usha was staying at an ayah’s hostel, a refuge for Indian women whose British employers had turned them out. As Maisie learns, Usha was different from the hostel’s other lodgers. But with this discovery comes new danger – soon another Indian woman who was close to Usha is found murdered before she can speak out. As Maisie is pulled deeper into an unfamiliar yet alluring subculture, her investigation becomes clouded by the unfinished business of a previous case. And at the same time her lover, James Compton, gives her an ultimatum she cannot ignore …

Friday 56Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Maisie felt her skin prickle when she read the more common name for the Camberwell Beauty: the Mourning Cloak. It was not a clue, not an element of great import of her investigation, but there was something in the picture before her that touched her heart. That something beautiful was so bold, yet at once so fragile.

I’ve read a few of the Maisie Dobbs books and like them. I’ve read just the first chapter of this book so far and it promises to be as good as the others. I don’t know the significance of the Camberwell Beauty butterfly but I know it under that name – not as the Mourning Cloak. It’s a rare butterfly here in the UK.

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell

Last month I read books from my own shelves for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (books owned before 1 January 2016) and the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, but then the urge to read other books took over, mainly because I’ve been adding books to my shelves. For the time being I won’t be reading for the Mount TBR Challenge as I have several books that I’ve acquired this year that I want to read first.

One of them is Ruth Rendell’s No Man’s Nightingale.


The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage.

Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is. So when he’s asked whether he will assist on the case, he readily agrees.

But why did the vicar die? And is anyone else in Kingsmarkham in danger? What Wexford doesn’t know is that the killer is far closer than he, or anyone else, thinks.

My thoughts:

I like Wexford, so I was predisposed to like this book (who in my mind looks like George Baker in the TV Wexford series) and I did enjoy it, although not as much as some of her other books.

Maxine Sams has several cleaning jobs, including cleaning for Reg and Dora Wexford – she talks all the time and regales Wexford with stories about her family, interrupting his reading of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which she thinks is a holiday guide to Rome. One of Maxine’s clients is the Reverend Sarah Hussain – and it is Maxine who finds her body, lying on the living room floor. She had been strangled.

Wexford, although enjoying his retirement, is pleased when Detective Superintendent Mike Burden asks if he would like to be involved as a consultant in the investigation into Sarah’s murder. It’s interesting to see how Wexford approaches this as he does not agree with Burden’s methods, thinking he has too many team meetings and ignores things Wexford would have concentrated on, nor can he express his opinions openly. And he isn’t sure just what he should or should not report back to Burden. As most of the book is written from Wexford’s point of view we can see how his mind works and the way he views his former colleagues and society in general and I was glad to see that as a retired person he is portrayed with an agile and observant mind.

There are plenty of red herrings and sub-plots that had me wondering as I read. At times it was rather confusing and I noticed a few continuity problems. Various issues are raised, not just the position of the elderly in society, but also questions of race and gender, religious intolerance, rape, single mothers and family relationships. I liked Wexford’s thoughts on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his musings on religion – he is a’committed atheist’ ( I don’t remember that from earlier books) and the self-doubt he reveals. I also liked the comic elements as Wexford tries to escape from Maxine’s non-stop chatter.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but think I prefer Ruth Rendell’s standalone books and those she wrote under the name of Barbara Vine.

Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley

It’s that time of year again when I have less time for blogging – summer when the grass and the weeds grow in abundance. So what with that and a host of other things this post is shorter than I would like it to be.

I like W J Burley’s Wycliffe books. I’ve read several of them up to now and enjoyed each one. Set in Cornwall, they have a strong sense of place, and Wycliffe is a quiet, thoughtful detective.

In Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is staying with a Penzance lawyer, Ernest Bishop and his family for a few days over Christmas at the Bishops’ hill-top house. With his wife away in Kenya, Wycliffe is not looking forward to Christmas, and the welcome from the family is polite rather than welcoming. The situation only gets worse when a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play, and then her father also goes missing and her mother is found dead in their cottage. Wycliffe moves out of the Bishops’ house as it appears they may be suspects.

What follows is Wycliffe’s investigation which goes back to a crime committed five years earlier, involving many twists and turns. It was a quick and entertaining read with a lot of characters, but all are clearly distinguishable. The plot is complex and it was only as I was getting near the end that I began to have an inkling about the identity of the murderer.

W J Burley (1914 – 2002) lived near Newquay in Cornwall and was a teacher until he retired to concentrate on his writing. He wrote 22 Wycliffe novels. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin was the 13th, first published in 1986 and as such fits into Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the Silver Age (Vintage Mysteries first published any time from 1960 to 1989) in the category of ‘Spooky/House’ on its cover. It is also one of my 20 Books of Summer 2016.

Books Read in June

I read seven books in June, all of them ones that I’d included on my 20 Books of Summer Challenge, six of them books that qualify for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (ie books I’ve owned prior to 1st January 2016). And I’ve managed to write about six of them – see the links to the books listed below.

  1. High Rising by Angela Thirkell (TBR) – an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the 1930s.
  2. Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham (TBR) – crime fiction introducing DC Fiona Griffiths, one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across.
  3. Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine (TBR) – a murder mystery, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers. A brilliant book.
  4. A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (TBR) – Inspector Alan Grant investigates the apparent suicide of a young and beautiful film star, Christine Clay, who was found dead beneath the cliffs of the south coast.
  5. The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (TBR) – a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as well as being a beautifully written book, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath. I loved it.
  6. Heat Wave by Penelope Lively (TBR) – an in depth study of angst, frustration and conflict, set against the changing landscape of the countryside, the effect of the heat on the land, the crops and the people.
  7. Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin by W J Burley – a search for a missing person turns into a murder case. (My post on this book to come later.)

During June I continued reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain, which has reminded me of all the difficult times we have lived through in the years after the Second World War and continue to experience.

I’ve been reading some excellent fiction and my favourite book has to be Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine:

closely followed by The Glass Room by Simon Mawer:

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I’ve read quite a lot of Penelope Lively’s books and have found them full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and covering various philosophical and moral issues that make me think. Heat Wave (first published in 1996) is no different in that it is about relationships, the connections between the past and the present, love, marriage and adultery, jealousy, anger, grief and loss.

However, I groaned when I began reading it because it is in the present tense and I’m not that keen on that. But as I read on, my irritation with the tense began to fade away as I became engrossed in the story. It’s quite a simple one really, the strength of the book, I think, coming from the characterisation, the increasing tension and the oppressive atmosphere of a blazing hot summer.

Pauline, a freelance copy-editor, is spending the summer at her cottage, somewhere in the middle of England. Her daughter, Teresa, grandson, Luke and son-in-law Maurice are next door in the adjoining cottage, whilst Maurice concentrates on finishing the book he is writing. They are visited by James and Carol, who accompany them on visits to tourist attractions to help with the research for his book. As Pauline sees the relationship between Teresa and Maurice change, apparently following the same pattern of her own failed marriage, she becomes increasingly anxious and angry, unable to intervene.

In just 184 pages, Penelope Lively builds an in depth study of angst, frustration and conflict, set against the changing landscape of the countryside, the effect of the heat on the land, the crops and the people. Interspersed are her trips to London, her long-standing and now platonic friendship with Hugh, her conversations with one of the authors whose book she is editing and who is also struggling with his marriage, and the family’s visits to tourist attractions as part of Maurice’s research for his book. So alongside the personal relationships Heat Wave also looks at the countryside, how it is changing, our relationship to nature and how farming has changed because of industrialisation and tourism.

I love the descriptions of the countryside that Pauline sees through her window, just one example:

A light wind ruffles the field – shadows course across the young wheat. The whole place is an exercise in colour, as it races into growth. The trees are green flames and the hedges billow brilliantly across the landscape. The old hedgerow at the bottom of the garden has a palette that runs from cream through lemon yellow and all the greens to apricot, russet and a vivid crimson. Each burst of new leaf adds some subtle difference to the range. For a couple of weeks the whole world glows. (page 24)

But this is not just an idealised view of the countryside; she also notes the unnatural discordant sight of fields of dead grass as a result of the policy of set-aside, the industrialisation of agriculture, and the nasty, glaring yellow of oil-seed rape seen by some as an intrusive blight.

What irritated me when I began reading the book, paled into insignificance as the tension between the characters grew, culminating in an inevitable climax as the hot weather ended and a violent thunder storm broke over the cottages. I ended up loving this book.

Heat Wave is my 28th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 6th book for the  20 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer 

Synopsis from Amazon:

Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure – these are things that happen in The Glass Room.

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child.

But the house’s story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.

The house and its setting are not fictional, but are based on the Tugendhat House, Brno in the Czech Republic. A few of the characters are non-fictional but the rest are imaginary and their story has no basis in fact. In his introduction to the Abacus edition of the book, published in 2013, Simon Mawer describes his first visit to the house, which was then a museum. He hadn’t planned to write a novel centred on the house. To him is not a museum, but ‘vibrant and alive’, and the novel was born.

I found it a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as I was reading. It is, as the synopsis relates, the story of a house, the Landauer House, and specifically of a room within that house called the ‘Glass Room’.

Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it [the Glass Room]. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt. Isn’t it wonderful,’ she exclaimed, looking round with an expression of amazement. ‘You feel so free, so unconstrained. The sensation of space, of all things being possible. Don’t you think it is wonderful, Viktor? Don’t you think that Rainer has created a masterpiece for us?’ (pages 64-5)

The whole wall of the lower ground floor is plate glass. The room is a huge space, white walls, furnished with little decoration beyond a piano, specially designed chairs in the sitting area in front of an onyx wall veined with amber and honey, polished to a mirror-like gloss, reflecting the light, and a circular dining table in the dining area enclosed in a semicircle partition of Macassar wood.

But it was the story of the people who lived/worked in the house that captivated me and made me so anxious for them and about what would happen to them as the events of the Second World War and beyond overtook their lives. It’s not only a gripping novel, but also a beautifully written book with interesting and likeable characters, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath; and a book about architecture, ideas, about love and loss, about prejudice and persecution. A deeply moving and haunting book.

I’ve read two of Simon Mawer’s earlier books, The Gospel of Judas (2000) and The Fall (2003), both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed. He has also written:

Chimera (1989)
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Place in Italy (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel’s Dwarf (1997)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012)
aka Trapeze
Tightrope (2015)

For more details see his website.

The Glass Room is my 27th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 5th book I’ve read in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

Library Loot

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. 

I’m trying to reduce my TBRs, but I can’t resist borrowing library books, especially when the mobile library van stops down the road, which it did last week. I was quite restrained though and only borrowed three books. They are all books in different series, that I’m reading totally out of order:

Library bks June 2016

  • The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is part of a cycle of novels set in the literary universe of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books of which The Shadow of the Wind, which I read before I began this blog, and The Angel’s Game, which I have not read, are the first two instalments. I wondered whether it would matter that I haven’t read The Angel’s Game but a note at the beginning of The Prisoner of Heaven assures me that the cycle of books can be read in any order as each work presents an independent, self-contained tale, connected through characters and storylines, creating thematic and narrative links.

Blurb from Amazon:

It begins just before Christmas in Barcelona in 1957, one year after Daniel and Bea from THE SHADOW OF THE WIND have married. They now have a son, Julian, and are living with Daniel’s father at Sempere & Sons. Fermin still works with them and is busy preparing for his wedding to Bernarda in the New Year. However something appears to be bothering him.

Daniel is alone in the shop one morning when a mysterious figure with a pronounced limp enters. He spots one of their most precious volumes that is kept locked in a glass cabinet, a beautiful and unique illustrated edition of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. Despite the fact that the stranger seems to care little for books, he wants to buy this expensive edition. Then, to Daniel’s surprise, the man inscribes the book with the words ‘To Fermin Romero de Torres, who came back from the dead and who holds the key to the future’. This visit leads back to a story of imprisonment, betrayal and the return of a deadly rival …

From the back cover:

London, 1933. Two months after Usha Pramal, is found murdered in a South London canal, her brother turns to Maisie Dobbs to find the truth about her death, as Scotland Yard have failed to conduct a proper investigation.

Before her murder, Usha was staying at an ayah’s hostel, a refuge for Indian women whose British employers had turned them out. But nothing is as it seems and soon another Indian woman is killed before she can speak out. As Maisie is pulled deeper into an unfamiliar yet alluring subculture, her investigation becomes clouded by the unfinished business of a previous case. And at the same time her lover, James Compton, gives her an ultimatum she cannot ignore …

  • Pray for the Dying by Quintin Jardine, a Bob Skinner Mystery. There are 26 books in the series set in Edinburgh and previously I’ve read just one – Fallen Gods, the 13th book. Pray for the Dying is the 23rd. I’d been meaning to read more of these books before now as I did enjoy Fallen Gods, but quite simply other books got in the way, as they do …


‘After what happened, none of us can be sure we’re going to see tomorrow.’

The killing was an expert hit. Three shots through the head, as the lights dimmed at a celebrity concert in Glasgow. A most public crime, and Edinburgh Chief Constable Bob Skinner is right in the centre of the storm. The shooters were killed at the scene, but who sent them? The crisis finds Skinner taking a step that he had sworn he never would. Tasked with the investigation of the outrage, he finds himself uncovering some very murky deeds…The trail leads to London, and a confrontation that seems too much, even for him. Can the Chief solve the most challenging mystery of his career…or will failure end it?

And now I just need to find time to read them.

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

I’m currently reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, so I’m delighted to see that he has won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel Tightrope.

Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh,The Glass Room, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles, is the fourth book by Josephine Tey that I’ve read. It was first published in 1936 and is the second book in her Inspector Grant series. I enjoyed it but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s as good as the other books by her that I’ve read, namely:

  • The Daughter of Time, first published in 1951, a fascinating novel in which Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower;
  • Miss Pym Disposes, first published in 1946, a psychological study of characters and motives, in which Miss Pym investigates the death of a student at a physical training college; and
  • The Franchise Affair, first published in 1948, set in a post Second World War England reflecting the social attitudes of its time and based on a real case from the 18th century of a girl who went missing and later claimed she had been kidnapped.

Inspector Alan Grant investigates the apparent suicide of a young and beautiful film star, Christine Clay, who was found dead beneath the cliffs of the south coast. But he soon discovers that was in fact murder as a coat button was found twisted in her hair and he suspects a young man, Robin Tisdall who had been staying with Christine in a remote cottage near the beach, especially when it is revealed that she has named him as a beneficiary in her will. Tisdall has lost his coat and so the search is on to find it to prove either his innocence or guilt.

But it is not so straight forward and Grant has other suspects – Christine’s aristocratic and wealthy husband, an American songwriter, and her estranged brother to whom she had left the gift of ‘ a shilling for candles’. Then there are her friends, including the actress Marta Hart, a leading lady, Judy Sellers, who played dumb blondes and Lydia Keats, an astrologer who casts horoscopes for the movie stars.

Other characters include my favourite in the book, Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s 17 year old daughter, a quirky character who proves to be most resourceful.

I enjoyed it but thought that overall it was a bit messy, a bit all over the place, as Grant dashed about the south coast and London. It’s definitely a book of its time with several casual anti-Semitic references and Tey has used a lot of slang and idioms that aren’t so recognisable today. There are red herrings and plenty of twists and turns, all of which meant that although at first I identified the culprit, by the end I had no idea who it was. What I thought was more interesting is the way she wrote about the destructive nature of celebrity and the lengths to which the stars went to keep some privacy in their lives – not so different from today.

This book fits into several of the challenges I’m doing this year – the 20 Books of Summer, Mount TBR Reading Challenge, the Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt (in the category of a cover showing a body of water) and the Read Scotland Challenge, because Josephine Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth Mackintosh (1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels.

Josephine Tey’s books:

Alan Grant
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948) 
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)

Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Arrow; First Thus edition (3 Feb. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099556685
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099556688
  • Source: I bought my copy

My Friday Post: The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which I’ve just begun to read. It begins:

Oh yes, we’re here.

She knew after all these years. Something about the slope of the road, the way the trajectory of the car began to curve upwards, a perception of shape and motion that, despite being unused for thirty years, was still engraved on her mind, to be reawakened by the subtle coincidence of movement and inclination.

Friday 56

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Her eyes were blue, so pale that they gave the curious illusion of transparency, as though you were looking through them and seeing the sky.

He fumbled for his lighter and watched as she bent towards the flame. She wore a grey cloche hat and her hair was dark and cut short, not cropped as severely as Liesel’s and her friends’, but short enough to be a statement that she was a modern woman. A Slav he fancied.

It looks from the opening sentences and the extract from page 56 that this is going to be a detailed, descriptive book. I like that.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House has been built for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But, when the storm clouds of WW2 gather, the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child. But the house’s story is far from over, as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian.

This is a work of fiction, but the house in Prague is real. Mawer follows it through all of the upheavals of 20th century Czech history.

Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine

What an amazing book is Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine*. It was published as Anna’s Book in the USA. I loved A Dark Adapted Eye, A Fatal Inversion and The House of Stairs, but Asta’s Book tops all those.  I think it’s brilliant!

It’s a book that demanded all my attention and I just didn’t want to put it down. There’s a murder, a missing child, a question of identity and overarching it all are the stories of two families – the Westerbys and the Ropers and all the people connected to them. So many characters, so many red herrings, so many incidents that at first did not appear to be of any or of much importance that turned out to have great relevance.

It had me going backwards and forward and placing so many markers in the book to try and keep track of it all. How did Barbara Vine handle so much material in such a clever way? It is so intricately plotted and the portrayal of so many characters is so skilfully handled.

It begins in 1905 when Asta Westerby and her husband Rasmus have come to East London from Denmark with their two little boys and their servant Hansine. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. The story is not told chronologically, but switches backwards and forwards between Asta’s diaries, beginning in 1905 when she was pregnant and hoping the new baby would be a daughter, and the present day after Asta’s death. The diaries had been translated and published by her daughter Swanny (Swanhilde), and along with details of the family’s life reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child. After Swanny died Asta’s granddaughter Ann became involved in searching for the truth about these facts. Additional material is also related through a trial transcript and various accounts of events by different people.

The book kept me guessing all the way throughout the various mysteries it threw up. I was very tempted to peek at the end of the book for the answers, but managed not to and I’m glad I didn’t as it would have ruined the suspense. I was so impressed at how it all hung together, with no extraneous material – all those minor incidents and characters are completely necessary.

As in other books by Barbara Vine it is not only the characters and the mystery that are enthralling, it is also the atmosphere and the settings. Houses in her books take on characters of their own and in this one there are several, maybe the most dominant is Devon Villa where Lizzie Roper was murdered, her mother also died of a heart attack and Lizzie’s daughter, Edith was last seen as she climbed the stairs up to her mother’s bedroom. And then there is the doll’s house that Rasmus made for his daughter, Marie, replicating Padanaram, the Westerbys’ second house in Shepherd’s Hill, Highgate.

*Barbara Vine is the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of many thrillers and psychological murder mysteries . She died in 2015 at the age of 85. Her mother was born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark; her father, Arthur Grasemann, was English. As a result of spending Christmas and other holidays in Scandinavia, Rendell learned Swedish and Danish.

Asta’s Book is my third book for the 20 books of Summer Challenge and the 25th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. Definitely a book I’d love to re-read.

Short Story Sunday: Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve been reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales as part of Carl’s Once Upon A Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest. So far I’ve written about The Rose Elf, The Shepherdess and the Sweep, and The Snow Queen.

I’ve been disappointed in some of the other stories, some are gruesome and moralistic.  I don’t remember feeling that about them when I first read them as a child, which shows, I suppose, the different approach children have to such tales, or maybe it’s just me.

In my descriptions of today’s stories I have not concealed the endings. It’s difficult to write meaningfully without doing so or to decide what should not be revealed in these stories and anyway they are well known and have been told or retold in one form or another. But if you don’t want to know how they end please be aware that there are spoilers in what follows.

First, The Red Shoes, in which a little girl, Karen, longs to have a pair of shiny red shoes, even though the old lady who had adopted her told her that the shoes were very wrong and unbecoming. Karen disobeys her and wears the red shoes to go to church. But they are magic shoes and they compel her to dance, won’t come off her feet and take her dancing where she doesn’t want to go. The result is just awful.

An angel tells her she must dance until she dies, so that children will see the consequence of pride and vanity. In desperation she begs the executioner to cut off her feet along with the shoes, which then go dancing away by themselves and she is left a cripple with wooden feet. She begs for God’s mercy, is taken into service by a clergyman and eventually dies, ‘her heart was so filled with sunshine, peace and joy that it broke. Her soul took its flight up to heaven.’


The strange thing is that I didn’t remember what happened at the end! So I either stopped reading when the horrible bit began, or have blanked it out of my memory. The moral of the story is to point out the consequences of pride and disobedience.

The next one I read is The Brave Tin Soldier, a bitter-sweet tale that also ends in disaster. I suppose this one is about the dangers of pride too. He is one of twenty five tin soldiers, but he has only one leg as he had been cast last when there was not enough tin left to complete him. He wants to marry the cardboard ballet dancer, standing in the middle of a looking glass lake as it appears that she too has only one leg as she balances with one leg lifted raised so high the soldier can’t see it.

At midnight the Jack-in-a-box opens and the little black imp inside warns the soldier to keep his eyes to himself. The soldier ignores his warning and the imp tells him to just wait until the morning. Morning comes and a draught from the window (or is it the imp’s doing) knocks the soldier off the window and down into the street. He is too proud to call attention to himself when the little by who owns him looks for him and he is swept away down the gutter and ends up in a canal, threatened by a large water rat and is then eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and cooked, whereupon the soldier is saved. But that is not the end as one of the little boys throws him into the fire, a door is opened and the draught carries away the little dancer also into the fire. She blazes up and the tin soldier is melted down, leaving only a tin heart.

It’s true he was brave, but he was also too passive or too proud and so fails to save himself. But I do remember liking this story as a child, but maybe that was because I just accepted his fate.

Much more encouraging is the tale of The Ugly Duckling – a famous story about the duckling who was different from the other ducklings, mocked and picked on by the other birds. I remember seeing this story in the film with Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen and the song: There Once Was an Ugly Duckling – quack, get out, get out of town. Of course the ugly duckling is not a duck at all! I thought of this story whilst watching Springwatch this week when the poor bedraggled blue tit was worn to a frazzle feeding her babies that were actually great tits, not blue tits!

And another story that has a happy ending is The Nightingale -one of my favourites as a child, so I’m pleased I still like it. It’s about a nightingale whose beautiful singing captivates all who hear her, including the Chinese Emperor. She agrees to come to his palace and sing for him, living in a cage but still allowed to fly twice a day. The Japanese Emperor sends him a mechanical bird, decked in rich jewels, which when wound up imitates the nightingale’s song. Everyone loves the artificial bird and the real nightingale flies away.

But eventually the artificial bird’s mechanism became worn out and it could no longer sing. The Emperor was heart broken when the real bird cannot be found and he collapsed close to death. But the live nightingale comes to his rescue and sings to give him hope and consolation and his death is averted. He wants her to return to the palace but she refuses as she can’t live inside, but agrees to come and sing for him in his garden.

It is a beautiful story contrasting art, technology and nature and one that is full of optimism about the joys of life.

I think this will probably be my last post for the Short Story Quest, which I have enjoyed even though some of the stories failed to live up to my memories.

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

I think DC Fiona Griffiths must be one of the most original fictional detectives I’ve come across. She is the creation of Harry Bingham in Talking to the Dead. She is Welsh, single and at the start of the book is aged 26, being interviewed for a job with the South Wales Police in Cardiff. She had a degree from Cambridge where she studied philosophy (a prize winning student). However, there is a problem as she has a two year gap in her CV around the time of her A Levels and she doesn’t want to talk about it. But as Human Resources have passed her OK, she gets a job.

But is she really OK? I soon began to have doubts about that. Four years later she is a detective constable, mainly working on routine details. However, Fiona does not play by the rules and when she is asked to help on the investigation of the brutal murders of Janet Mancini, a part-time prostitute, and April, Janet’s 6 year old daughter she doesn’t hesitate to use her initiative. Her colleagues and her boss think she is odd, although very smart and a quick worker. She is dedicated to her job and whereas DCI Jackson likes the ‘good DC Griffiths’, he’s not so keen on the other one:

The one I ask to do something and that something never seems to get done. Or done after fifteen reminders. Or done in a way that breaks the rules, causes complaints or pisses off your fellow officers. The Griffiths who decides that if something is boring her, she’s going to make a mess of it until she’s moved to something else. (page 52)

Even worse she gets obsessed, throws herself into finding out the truth with no regard for her own safety and without calling for backup, or referring to senior officers. And she’s clearly still suffering from whatever it was that caused the gap in her CV. But on the other hand she is a brilliant researcher and has great instincts and intuition. She focuses on the credit card found at the scene of the murders, fascinated by the fact that it had belonged to a millionaire who had been presumed dead after a plane crash over the sea (his body had never been recovered), convinced it is a vital clue.

There are two strands to the mystery, as alongside the Mancini murders Fiona is investigating ex policeman Brian Penry, a bursar at a Roman Catholic boys’ school, who had stolen money from the school. And there is also a mystery surrounding Fiona and her family, which is only partly revealed at the end of the book.

I really should not have liked this book as much as I did as it’s written in the present tense, solely from Fiona’s viewpoint. But I loved it and in this book was completely at ease with the present tense. It’s also quite strange in parts as we see further into Fiona’s mind; she has difficulty connecting with her feelings and with other people and some of her thoughts and actions are strange and disturbing. Whilst it is not an overtly violent book it is a dark book in places and there is an amount of gruesomeness involved (but I didn’t have to avert my eyes, as it were, or skim read any of the book). I had an idea about Fiona’s trauma, as I’d come across a similar case in another crime fiction novel, but I don’t want to spoil the book for others by saying what it is.

I will most certainly look out for the next book in the series – there are now 5 Fiona Griffiths books and I think these are books that should definitely be read in sequence. The locations are well grounded, there is a definite ‘Welsh’ feel and atmosphere and the characters are well defined. See Harry Bingham’s website for more information about him and his books – he’s written others as well as the Fiona Griffiths books.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Orion (28 Mar. 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1409137228
  • ISBN-13: 978-1409137221
  • Source: I bought the book

Talking to the Dead is my second book for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge and the 24th for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge, completing the second level.

My Week in Books: 8 June 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.


A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

 I’ve just started Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham, his first book featuring British detective Fiona Griffiths.


A young girl is found dead. A prostitute is murdered. And the strangest, youngest detective in the South Wales Major Crimes Unit is about to face the fiercest test of her short career.

A woman and her six-year-old daughter are killed with chilling brutality in a dingy flat. The only clue: the platinum bank card of a long-dead tycoon, found amidst the squalor.

DC Griffiths has already proved herself dedicated to the job, but there’s another side to her she is less keen to reveal. Something to do with a mysterious two-year gap in her CV, her strange inability to cry – and a disconcerting familiarity with corpses.

Fiona is desperate to put the past behind her but as more gruesome killings follow, the case leads her inexorably back into those dark places in her own mind where another dead girl is waiting to be found.

I’m still reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, basically Britain after the end of the Second World War up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. I’ve read up to page 152 so far out of 672 pages. It will be a while  before I finish this book – I don’t read non-fiction quickly!

Then:The last book I read was High Rising by Angela Thirkell. See this post for my review.

Next: It  will most likely be one of the books on my 20 Books of Summer list, probably Asta’s Book by Barbara Vine.


Asta and her husband Rasmus have come to east London from Denmark with their two sons. With Rasmus constantly away on business, Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing her diary. These diaries reveal themselves to be more than a journal, for they seem to hold the key to an unsolved murder.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

This is the first book I’ve read for the 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2016 – and it’s a good one. High Rising by Angela Thirkell has been on my TBR list for 2 years so it also counts for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. It’s an entertaining and witty social comedy, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire, borrowed from Trollope, in the 1930s, and originally published in 1933.

Laura Morland is a widow with four sons, who supports herself by writing novels, which she knows are not ‘in any sense of the word, literature‘ but which have appeal. She lives at High Rising and her friend, also an author, George Knox and his daughter Sybil live at nearby Low Rising. Her youngest son, Tony, an exasperating character, who talks non-stop about his passion for trains, is still at boarding school, where Laura’s friend, Amy Birkett is the headmaster’s wife. The other main characters are Adrian Coates, Laura’s publisher, Anne Todd, Laura’s part-time secretary, Dr Ford, and Miss Grey, George’s new secretary. Their comfortable lives are disrupted by Miss Grey, who having no relatives she can go to, is on the lookout for a husband.

It began slowly for me and I wondered if I was going to like this book, thinking maybe it would only be a 2, or possibly a 3 star book on the Goodreads rating scale. But it grew on me as I became drawn into the 1930s world of rural England, with its servants and social structure, where everybody knew their place. As Alexander McCall Smith in his introduction writes this is not in ‘Wodehouse territory – Thirkell’s characters do have jobs and they do not spend their time in an endless whirl of silliness.’ By the middle of the book I began to think it was a 4 star book and by the end, even that it was maybe worth a 4.5 star.

As McCall Smith writes:

Affection for social comedy is not something we should have to apologise for, even if that sort of thing is eschewed in the contemporary novel. Such matters may seem unimportant, but they say a lot about human nature. Above all, though, we do not read Angela Thirkell for profundity of emotional experience; we read her for the pleasure of escape – and there is a perfectly defensible niche for escapist fiction in a balance literary diet.

The emphasis is mine – and I like the description:  ‘a balanced literary diet‘, another way of saying that my reading tastes are eclectic.

There are many passages I could quote, but I’ve chosen just a few to give a flavour of the book:

George: If there is one  pleasure on earth which surpasses all others, it is leaving a play before the end. I might perhaps except the joy of taking tickets for a play, dining well, sitting on after dinner, and finally not going at all. That, of course, is very heaven. (page 196)

The sun shone, the cuckoo bellowed from a copse hard by, other birds less easy to recognise made suitable bird noises. In the little wood primroses grew in vulgar profusion, a drift of blue mist showed that bluebells were on the way, glades were still white with wind-flowers. All the trees that come out early were brilliant green, while those that come out later were, not unnaturally still brown, thus forming an agreeable contrast. A stream bordered with kingcups made a gentle bubbling noise like sausages in a frying pan. Nature, in fact, was at it; and when she chooses Nature can do it. (page 211)

(I particularly like the sentence I’ve marked in bold.)

… Adrian proudly explained that if there were more women like Sybil, who knew they couldn’t write, the world would be a better place. (page 220)

This is the first of Angela Thirkell’s books that I’ve read and shall certainly search out more of hers to read. She wrote nearly thirty Barsetshire novels as well as other works of fiction and non-fiction. For more information about her see the Angela Thirkell Society (UK) and the Angela Thirkell Society of North America.

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Virago; Reissue edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844088839
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088836
  • Source: I bought the book

Classics Club Spin: the Result

and it is … number 15, which for me is

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, a novella. That’s fine – I should be able to slot that into my Summer reading without any difficulties before 1 August.

I’ve read some of Kipling’s books before, including The Just So Stories, Kim (I thought I’d read this but I haven’t), Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and his poem If. Then there is, of course, The Jungle Book (seen the film and may have read the book).

My copy is an e-book, which I’ve had for several years, so it will also count towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge too.

Books Read in May 2016

May was another good reading month for me. I read seven novels and one book of memoirs.

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – a book I’ve owned for years. Virginia Woolf’s first novel about a young woman’s search for life, love and the world, an intriguing book.  Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. A sad book.

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, crime fiction that moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed. I was carried away by the story.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill – memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). Her love of life shines through this remarkable book. I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers (LB) – a beautiful book that I enjoyed immensely, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. There is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie – an excellent book. Hazel McHaffie’s novels cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery concerning missing teenage girls.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley – a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan. Bombs, clockwork inventions, the London Underground, Gilbert and Sullivan and much more more make up this fantastical tale. I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson – the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America. I found this a melancholy tale about a dysfunctional family, a story of loneliness, loss, suicide, death, and transience. I liked it but it’s probably the least enjoyable book I read in May.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini – I loved this amazing book, not an easy read emotionally, but one that will live in my memory as one of the most devastating and heartbreaking stories I’ve read. Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them—in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul—they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. (Goodreads summary)

My favourite books of the month are:

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini

Impossible to choose between them!

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetNatasha Pulley’s first novel made a great impact on me from the start of the book. It is one of those books that I enjoyed very much, but don’t feel that I can really do it justice in a blog post. Even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it.

So instead of me trying to write something coherent about it I’ve copied the synopsis from the inside cover:

In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.

My thoughts:

These are just a few thoughts that struck me both as I was reading the book and later thinking about it. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan, following the lives of the main characters, Thaniel Stapleton, Keita Mori and Grace Carrow. I like to know what is historical fact and what is the author’s own creation. So I was pleased to read in her Acknowledgements, that Natasha Pulley explains that there is some historical accuracy and cites Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London for resources on the early days of the London Underground, the Knightsbridge Japanese show village, the bombing of Scotland Yard and numerous other interesting things.  (As I read the book I was very tempted to leave the story to find out more about these topics, but the story drew me on and I left them for later.)

I was completely convinced by the setting in a different time in a world that was familiar and yet so different. I  liked the writing style, although in parts it’s a bit ‘clunky’ and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’ or ‘them’ made it a bit difficult to follow, but this is only a minor quibble. I also liked the characterisation and how the characters’ history was revealed and how their personalities were developed. Keita Mori is an interesting character and as I read my opinion of him kept changing – just who is he? He is an enigma, why is he living in London, is he the bomb maker, does he in fact know what is going to happen, is he a magician? He baffled and confused me as much as he baffled and confused the other characters.

Equally fascinating are the sections set in Japan; Grace’s story, her research into luminiferous ether (a bit hard to follow), her relationship with Akira Matsumoto, the elegant son of a Japanese nobleman; the Japanese show village in Hyde Park where Gilbert and Sullivan went to research for the Mikado; the early days of the London Underground; and of course the clockwork inventions, in particular Katsu, the clockwork octopus.

There is so much in this book, so many passages I underlined in my e-book, so many intertwining stories and lines that I have not mentioned – politics, the Fenians, bombs, the workings of the Home and Foreign Offices, suffragettes, racism, and class snobbery – I could go on and on. It may seem that this is a hotch-potch of a book, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity, producing a fantastical tale that occupied my mind during and after my reading.

I reserved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street at the library but before it was available the e-book was on offer on Amazon, so I ended up reading from both editions. And in doing so, I can now see the benefits of both – I can underline in an e-book and make notes without any damage to the book and as it has X-Ray it’s easy to find passages about the characters and places etc. But the physical book is a joy to read – the text is set in Bell, originally cut for John Bell in 1788, and the cover is beautiful.

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

and the inside cover has this map:

The Watchmaker map P1020045

This book also fits so well into the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the Fantasy Genre. I’ve seen it described as ‘steampunk’ but I’m not at all sure what that is – to me it’s historical fantasy.

Short Story Sunday: The Snow Queen

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: P1010936Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.

I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends, Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass  and how he followed  the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace.  I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.

I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.

It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:

I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.

What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.

The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.

My Friday Post: Housekeeping

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week’s book is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

It begins:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs Sylvia Foster, and then when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled of her daughter, Mrs Sylvia Fisher.

Friday 56

A sad opening, I thought. Two young children passed from pillar to post.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Sylvie put her hands in her pockets. “I think I should stay for a while,” she said. The aunts are too old. I think it’s best for now, at least.”

See my previous post for the synopsis.

Short Story Sunday: The Shepherdess and the Sweep

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.

Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.

The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.

So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”

Illustration from “Fairy Tales, 1850” by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator (from Wikipedia)

Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.

The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie

I’ve read one of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, when she asked if I would like to read Inside of Me I didn’t hesitate to say yes please. And I wasn’t disappointed. I think this is an excellent book and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop, keen to find out what was going to happen next.

Hazel McHaffie’s novels all cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery – teenage girls are going missing, the latest one being Maria aged sixteen, last seen walking alone along Regent’s Park Canal. Tonya Grayson is worried, no terrified is a better description, that her missing husband, Victor, could be involved. But the police are convinced he is dead; his clothes were found neatly folded in a beach, although his body was never found. India, their daughter, who was eight at the time, believes, even after seven years, that he is still alive, reinforced by hearing his voice in a crowded London station, the day after Maria was reported missing.

The narrative, told in the first person, switches between Tonya and India living in Scotland, and Chris, who works in a florist shop in London, mourning the loss of a daughter. Chris, after reading the newspaper report about the missing teenager, spots Maria at a local car boot sale, offers to help and ends up taking her home, anxious about her safety.

India is anorexic, but won’t accept the truth, either that her father is dead or that she has a weight problem. Tonya tries to help her but cannot get through to her and for most of the book seems completely out of her depth, unable to move forward herself. She is plagued with doubts about Victor and his relationship with India, which had been very close. India’s best friend, Mercedes is also obsessed with her weight and encourages India both to find her father and to take even more drastic ways to gain her target weight.

Hazel McHaffie has got right inside each character’s mind, making this a compelling and convincing story. And it is a gripping story, easy to read, but by no means a comfortable read, in turns emotional and troubling. It conveys the complex dilemmas of living with eating disorders, problems with body image and difficult family relationships, issues with control and coping with emotional disturbance, obsessions and compulsive behaviour. Added to all this there is the mystery of what happened to Victor – his pile of clothes on the beach reminded me of Reginald Perrin (from the TV series  in the 1970s). I think it is a wonderful book and I don’t think I’ve read another novel like it. I’ve only touched its surface in this post!

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: VelvetEthics Press (5 Mar. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 099262312X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992623128
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Hazel McHaffie is a Scottish author. For details of her background and qualifications as a nurse, midwife, PhD in Social Sciences and Research Fellow in Medical Ethics see her website, where she also lists her awards, life changing experiences, and more personal stuff such as her character traits, addictions (including good books), and hobbies. She also writes a most interesting blog.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Once more I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, so this is a short post with brief thoughts on The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers. I enjoyed it immensely.
This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. Agnès was found as a baby in a straw shopping basket, wrapped in a white tablecloth, with just a single turquoise earring in the bottom of the basket that may or may not indicate her parentage. She was brought up by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. It tells of how Agnes became the cleaner of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, in central France, north of Paris, and not only of the cathedral but also a cleaner for other residents of the town.

So, there is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres. Moving between the past and the present, the details are slowly revealed. There are many characters, some likeable people including the Abbé Paul, Professor Jones, who teaches Agnes to read, Philippe Nevers, and Alain Fleury, who works on the cathedral restoration and some unlikeable characters such as Madame Beck and Sister (later Mother) Veronique whose interfering ways cause Agnes such a lot of trouble. All are convincing characters with depth.

I liked it all, the slow build up as Agnes’s history unfolds, the interaction of the characters and the description and history of the cathedral also added to my enjoyment of the book.

Short Story Sunday: The Rose Elf

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m beginning this Sunday, with what I hope will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’ll be reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936

beginning with The Rose-Elf.

I don’t remember reading this story before – and I think I would if I had read it, because it’s such a gruesome story. The Rose-Elf is very short and surprised me by the horror of the events it unfolds.

It begins by describing the Rose-Elf, who is so small he can’t be seen by human eyes. He is a beautiful creature, with two transparent wings reaching from his shoulders to the soles of his feet, making him look like an angel. He lives, as you would suppose in a rose tree, having little rooms behind each rose petal:

‘… what delicious scent filled all his apartments, and how beautifully clear and bright were the walls, for they were the delicate, pale red rose leaves themselves.’

He danced on the wings of butterflies, walked along the veins of leaves, which he looked upon as roads. But one day the weather grew cold and the leaves closed before he could get back inside the roses, so he flew to a honeysuckle for shelter and here he came across a pair of young lovers – a handsome young man and a charming girl. It’s at this point that the story moves from a cosy fairy tale that you would be happy to read to very small children into something dark and chilling. For the girl has a jealous, wicked brother who plots to get rid of the young man and kills him.

The girl is heartbroken and the Rose-Elf who witnesses the murder of her lover, does what he can to help her but this is a tragedy. It’s not an ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending. The horror is not in the actual killing but in what happens to the corpse afterwards.

The Queen of the bees hums her praise of the Rose-Elf saying ‘how beneath the smallest leaf dwells one who can expose and avenge crime.’

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I recently read Crystal Nights: a Scandinavian mystery by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, who kindly sent me an e-version of the ARC of her book. The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013.

Once I started reading Crystal Nights I was hooked. It begins with an extract from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a fairy tale about the struggle between good and evil, when a magic mirror was smashed into many pieces, which then entered the eyes, hearts and minds of people infecting them with evil.

Crystal Nights moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. In Berlin in 1938 Jewish families, including the Stein family, Simon, his wife Sara, and Miriam and Isaac, their two young children flee from the events of Krystallnacht, the “night of broken glass”.  Their journey doesn’t get them to safety though and ends with Sara desperate as her son becomes dangerously ill and Simon refuses to get medical help.

Moving on to the 1960s in Kalum, the story divides into the years 1963 and 1967. In 1963 a middle-aged smallholder from Brook Farm, north of Kalum is killed in a road accident. The relevance of this death only becomes apparent towards the end of the book. In 1967 a young boy, Lars-Ole disappears. His mother believes he had gone to stay with his father, but eventually everybody except for his friend Niels, assumes he is dead although his body has not been found. Niels finds Lars-Ole’s notebook, in which he had written some coded messages and sets out to discover what has happened to him, putting himself into great danger.

I particularly liked the comparison between Andersen’s fairy tale and the events of Krystallnicht and I think the characters of both Lars-Ole and Niels are well-drawn, with the village setting in the 1960s particularly convincing. I was carried away by the story, a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed.

You can see photos and maps showing the area in this picture companion to the book.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 820 KB
  • Print Length: 187 pages
  • Publisher: Candied Crime; 1 edition (6 May 2015)
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

The idea for March and April in HeavenAli’s Virginia Woolf Read-a-long was to read one or more of: The Voyage Out, Night and Day (Virginia Woolf’s first and second novels) or Between the Acts which was her final novel. This was just the reminder I needed to get The Voyage Out down from my bookshelves where it’s been sitting unread for years.

This post is far too long, but one reason for writing this blog is to record what I think of a book and what I want to remember about it – this post only touches on that even at this length! There is so much more to be said about it.

I’ve not written much about the plot. This is the Synopsis from the back cover of my copy (published by Penguin in 1992):

The Voyage Out opens with a party of English people aboard the Euphrosyne, bound for South America. Among them is Rachel Vinrace, a young girl, innocent and wholly ignorant of the world of politics and society, books, sex, love and marriage. She is a free spirit half-caught, momentarily and passionately, by Terence Hewet, an aspiring writer met in Santa Marina. But their engagement is to end abruptly, and tragically.

Background to the novel:

In 1913 Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had been suffering ill health for some time – depression,  nervous breakdowns and anorexia – when her half-brother George Duckworth published The Voyage Out in 1915. She had started writing it years earlier and had revised it several times before finalising it in 1912 and 1913.

I don’t like to read the introduction of a book first as often it gives away elements of the plot that I’d rather not know in advance, but I think that this paragraph does help to explain much that I wondered about as I read the book. But if you don’t want to know just skip this next paragraph.

In the introduction to the book, Jane Wheare wrote:

A knowledge of Woolf’s life will certainly deepen our response to all her work. Amongst many other details from the young Virginia Woolf’s experience that appear in fictional form in The Voyage Out one can single out her bouts of mental illness, on which she drew for the description of Rachel’s  fever; the voyage which she made to Spain and Portugal with her brother Adrian in the spring of 1905, her sister Vanessa’s illness and her brother Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906; and her interest on feminism. (page xiii)

My thoughts:

I finished reading it a short time ago, but have found it difficult to write about it. It is an intriguing book, beginning in a leisurely fashion as Mr and Mrs Ambrose (Rachel’s aunt and uncle) stroll down the Strand to the Embankment on their way to board the ship, Euphrosyne  and yet there is tension in the air and Mrs Ambrose has tears rolling down her face. This tension and sense of underlying trouble and anxiety continues throughout the book.

It begins mid-stream, as it were, with little background at first about the characters or about why the people are on board the Euphrosyne. It is only when the ship arrives at Santa Marina (a fictional place) that Woolf explains why they are going there; and their relationships are slowly revealed through their conversations and actions. The Dalloways make a brief appearance in the book when they spend a short time aboard the ship, leaving before the ship reaches Santa Marina.

I was surprised at just how naive Rachel is for a young woman of 24, even though she had been brought up by her two aunts. Helen Ambrose is shocked, writing about her niece in a letter to a friend, criticising the current methods of education:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and until I explained it did not know how children were born. (page 59)

In some ways this is a coming-of -age novel and Rachel’s actions and reactions are the focus of the book. In it Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. It’s a huge subject, at times celebrating the wonder and beauty of life and at other times plunging down into the hopelessness and despair that some of the characters experience.

I knew from the book’s description that it ends in tragedy and I wondered as I read what form it would take. But even so, I was taken aback at the desperate sadness of it – it was draining!

Some quotations:

On religion: Mrs Dalloway is talking to Helen Ambrose – “I always think religion’s like collecting beetles,” she said, summing up the discussion as she went up the stairs with Helen. “One person has a passion for black beetles; another hasn’t; it’s no good arguing about it.” (Page 33)

On politics: Mr Dalloway (a politician) talking about a suffragette sitting outside the house (House of Commons): “My good creature, you’re only in the way where you are. You’re hindering me, and you’re doing no good to yourself.” And later in the conversation he says: “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do: and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has a right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” (page 24)

Mr Ambrose replies: “I don’t care a fig one way or t’other. If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.”

On women:  St. John Hirst speaking, “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all.” …

It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it’s all humbug? (page 139)

There is much more I could quote on women’s suffrage in this book.

On England in June – an example of Woolf’s descriptive writing: The thought of England was delightful, for they would see the old things freshly; it would be England in June, and there would be June nights in the country; and the nightingales singing in the lanes, into which they would steal when the room grew hot; and there would be English meadows gleaming with water and set with stolid cows, and clouds dipping low and trailing across the green hills.

and comparing it with South America:

… “Lord, how good it is to think of lanes, muddy lanes, with brambles and nettle, you know, and real grass fields, and farmyards with pigs and cows, and men walking beside carts with pitchforks – there’s nothing to compare with that here – look at the stony red earth, and the bright blue sea, and the glaring white houses – how tired one gets of it! And the air without a stain or a wrinkle. I’d give anything for a sea mist.” (pages 138-9)

A note about the cover

I think the cover is striking. It’s from a painting by Roger Fry – Roquebrune and Monte Carlo from Palm Beach, in the City of Glasgow Art Gallery.

Roger Eliot Fry (14 December 1866 – 9 September 1934) was an English painter and critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain, and emphasised the formal properties of paintings over the “associated ideas” conjured in the viewer by their representational content. He was described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.[1] The taste Fry influenced was primarily that of theAnglophone world, and his success lay largely in alerting an educated public to a compelling version of recent artistic developments of the Parisian avant-garde. (from wikipedia)

Fry, who for a while had an affair with Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, was a friend of Virginia’s. She wrote three books subtitled ‘A Biography‘ – her biography of Roger Fry is one of them, first published in 1940.

For more information on Roger Fry see Art UK.

Needless to say – I enjoyed this book and it has encouraged me to read more of Virginia Woolf’s books (I’ve already read Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush, all before I began my blog, and Death of a Moth and Other Essays – see also this post.)

Adding to the TBRs

As usual I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, with four to do. I’m in the middle of writing about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, but it is taking me longer than I’d hoped and I haven’t finished my post yet.

So, here’s a post about the four books I’ve added to my TBRs this week:


Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve added one paperback and three e-books:

  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. A friend recommended this book to me and I was delighted to see that it is one of the Kindle Daily Deals this morning. It’s steam-punk, a genre completely new to me! It is described as:

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius ? and a clockwork octopus ? collide.

I hope I’ll like it as much as my friend did!

  • John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman, because I want to know more about the author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Night Manager and his other espionage books. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, and began writing novels under a pen name. This is the definitive biography of a major writer, described by Ian McEwan as ‘perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain’.
  • Time Heals No Wounds: a Baltic Sea crime novel by Hendrick Falkenberg. This is one of the free books for Amazon Prime members in May. German author Hendrik Falkenberg studied sports management and works in sports broadcasting. The magical allure that the sea holds for him comes alive in his stories, which are set on the north German coast. His first book, Die Zeit heilt keine Wunden (Time Heals No Wounds), was a #1 Kindle bestseller in Germany and has been translated for the first time into English.
  • And lastly, HeavenAli held a draw to give away some of Virginia Woolf’s books and I’m delighted that I won Orlando in the giveaway.

Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.

I’m looking forward to reading these books in the coming months!

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Silver Pigs

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

This week I’m featuring The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis, a book that I started reading last night. Whilst this is a new-to-me series, The Silver Pigs was first published in 1989 and there are now 20 books in the series. Lindsey Davis also writes the Favia Alba Mystery series. She has won many literary awards, and was honorary president of the Classical Association from 1997 to 1998.

It begins:

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.

It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the street unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is historical crime fiction, the first of the Marcus Didius Falco novels. Set in Rome in 70AD, Vespasian is the new Roman emperor and Falco is a private informer, or private eye. In this first book he and his partner Helena Justina rescue a young girl in trouble. He is then catapulted into a dangerous game involving stolen imperial ingots, a dark political plot and, most hazardous of all, a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors Falco has sworn to expose.

My copy has an introduction by Lindsey Davis in which she tells of how she began to write historical fiction, setting a typical private eye figure in Rome two thousand years ago. It has maps and a Dramatis Personae.

And I do like the cover.


The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I was pleased when the Classics Club Spin number came up as 8, because for me that was The Mill on the Floss, a book I’ve had for years, so it was time I read it. I think one of the reasons I hadn’t read it is the size of the font – it’s small. But then I realised that there is a free e-book, so I read it on my Kindle as I could increase the font size.

Description (from my paperback copy of the Penguin Popular Classics 1994 edition, shown above):

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

My thoughts:

The Mill on the Floss was first published in 1860. The story begins in the late 1820s, when Maggie, who is ‘big for her age, gone nine‘ and her brother, Tom aged about twelve are living at Dorlcote Mill on the banks of the river Floss near the town of St Oggs. Their father is anxious that Tom should have a good education so that he can go into business – he does not want him to be a miller. But it is Maggie who is the keen reader, enjoying books like The History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe, Aesop’s Fables and the Pilgrim’s Progress.

I enjoyed parts of the book more than other parts. The first part of this book, covering Maggie and Tom’s childhood for example is fascinating and a study of early 19th century rural life and education. Tom goes away from home to study under a tutor, Mr Stelling and meets Philip Wakem, whose father is a lawyer, Mr Tulliver’s opponent in a lawsuit. Maggie and Tom’s relationship is difficult, although she professes she ‘loves him better than anyone else in the world’, even when he rebukes her. Meanwhile Maggie becomes more friendly with Philip than Tom and her family like.

There are some lovely scenes, for example Maggie’s escapade when she leaves home to live with the gypsies. And I liked all the scenes with Mrs Tulliver’s sisters, who look down on her for marrying a miller and criticise Maggie’s appearance and behaviour, for Maggie is full of high spirits and energy. The sisters also provide comic relief, at times being miserly and self-centred, with a strong sense of their own importance. But things go from bad to worse for the Tullivers, when Mr Tulliver loses the lawsuit and eventually loses the mill.

In other places, between scenes there are long, rambling passages, that I found too wordy and philosophical and I waited impatiently to get back to the story. But overall I liked the book, more than I liked Adam Bede, but not as much as I remember liking Middlemarch, which I read long before I began this blog.

The Mill on the Floss is an epic novel encompassing various themes such as love, marriage, family loyalty, the social conventions of the times, and the struggle to survive. Feminism, education, and the role of women in society are to the fore, as Maggie is torn between two men who love her and is judged harshly for her behaviour.

It is a character driven plot; the river Floss plays a major part in the story, running through a wide plain, hurrying on to the sea, laden with ships. It’s a noisy place with Dorlcote Mill is on its banks near a stone bridge and the rush of the water is deafening, along with the ‘thunder of the huge covered wagon coming home with sacks of grain‘.

And it is the Floss that provides the huge climax which took me by surprise. It’s a dramatic ending and yet I found it rather unsatisfactory, not sure that I could believe what I had read, and shocked by such a sad ending. Looking back after I finished the book I realised that it had been foreshadowed almost from the start and I had missed it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 and The Classics Club.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

If I don’t write about a book as soon as I’ve finished it the details begin to fade. I finished reading  Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees a few weeks ago. So this is a short post on the book, which doesn’t really do justice to it!

My thoughts:

I loved this book. Barbara Kingsolver writes in such a way that I can easily visualise the scenes, beginning with the opening paragraph in which she describes a tractor tire blowing up, flinging a man up in the air and throwing him over the top of a Standard Oil sign. Taylor (originally called Marietta/Missy) grew up in rural Kentucky. She left home when she had saved enough to buy a car, an old VW. She changed her name to Taylor after the first place where she ran out of petrol, which just happened to be Taylorville. She drove on until the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, on land owned by the Cherokee tribe. And it was there at a garage that an Indian woman abandoned a baby girl in Taylor’s car – she called the baby, Turtle.

They travel on to Tucson, where she settled for a while, living with Lou Ann, a mother whose husband, Angel Ruiz left before their son was born, and working for Mattie at ‘Jesus Is Lord Used Tires’. Mattie, however, is also involved in an underground railway moving illegal Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants to safe houses. She talks of the obligation under the United Nations ‘something or other’ ‘to take in people whose lives are in danger’. And Taylor becomes involved in helping her.

There are several themes running throughout this short, but well written book – both political and social including family relationships, particularly mother/child, sexual and physical abuse of small children, the integration of cultures, as well as the always current issue of refugees and illegal immigrants. I thought it was all thought-provoking as well as fascinating reading.

I have read some of Barbara Kingsolver’s later books, including The Poisonwood Bible, a longer and much more complex book, which I’ve read twice and loved. There is a sequel to The Bean Trees that I really want to read now – Pigs In Heaven.

Reading Challenges: What’s In a Name? in the category of a book with the word ‘tree’ in the title.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home  sent me a copy of  The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home for review in advance of the publication of the third title in the series The Malice of Waves on 19 May and I’m glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s one of those books that grabbed my attention right from the start when two young teenage girls from India are sold into the sex trafficking trade, completely unaware of the dangers and terror that awaits them. Then, Edinburgh-based oceanographer, Cal McGill is caught on camera planting a rare wild flower in the garden of the Scottish Environment Minister in a campaign to make politicians aware of the dangers of climate change. Detective Inspector Ryan wants to charge him with vandalism but the minister’s wife wants to keep the plant!

From then on the story gets complicated. It’s more of an investigative story than crime fiction, with several strands to the story, but it’s so well told that I had no difficulty in following all of them: a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade. It’s set mainly in Scotland with a strong sense of place throughout.

The main characters are all fully rounded and complex – Cal McGill works for environmental organisations tracking oil spills using wind speeds and data on ocean currents; DI David Ryan and DC Helen Jamieson are investigating the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart – tests had revealed that they belonged to the same body; and Basanti, one of the Indian girls, whose resourcefulness saved her life. I especially liked Helen Jamieson, the overweight policewoman, whose boss, Ryan mistakenly thinks is stupid, and the way she deals with him.

The strand that interested me most concerns Cal’s grandfather, from the (fictional) island of Eilean Iasgaich. He had died during the Second World War, washed overboard during a storm, whilst their trawler was patrolling the sea around Norway, one of seven men who had died – and yet his name had not been included in the island’s war memorial. Cal eventually discovers the truth about what actually happened and how his grandfather met his death.

It’s a gripping and emotional story. I loved it.

The Sea Detective is Mark Douglas-Home’s first book. Before writing books he was the editor of Scotland’s leading daily newspaper, The Herald, and The Sunday Times Scotland. He is the nephew of the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home who was Prime Minister of the UK from October 1963 to October 1964. He lives in Edinburgh.

I’m looking forward to reading his second book, The Woman who Walked into the Sea as well as his third, The Malice of Waves.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

My Reginald Hill Reading Project

Inspired by reading Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence recently I decided I want to read more of his books and I’ve made a page to record my progress. When I visited two secondhand bookshops this last week I stocked up on as many of his books that were on the shelves that I haven’t read:


They are all Dalziel and Pascoe novels, apart from The Collaborators, which is a standalone novel set in 1945 in Paris. From the top down they are (synopses from Amazon, essentially the blurbs on the back covers) :

  • Dialogues of the Dead: A man drowns. Another dies in a motorbike crash. Two accidents … yet in a pair of so-called Dialogues sent to the Mid-Yorkshire Gazette as entries in a short story competition, someone seems to be taking responsibility for the deaths.In Mid-Yorkshire CID these claims are greeted with disbelief. But when the story is leaked to television and a third indisputable murder takes place, Dalziel and Pascoe find themselves playing a game no one knows the rules of against an opponent known only as the Wordman.
  • The Collaborators:Paris, 1945. In the aftermath of the French liberation, Janine Simonian stands accused of passing secret information to the Nazis.She is dragged from her cell before jeering crowds, to face a jury of former Resistance members who are out for her blood. Standing bravely in court, Janine pleads guilty to all charges.Why did Janine betray, not just her country, but her own husband? Why did so many French men and women collaborate with the Nazis, while others gave their lives in resistance?What follows is a story of conscience and sacrifice that portrays the impossible choice between personal and national loyalty during the Nazi occupation.
  • Child’s Play:When Geraldine Lomas dies, her huge fortune is left to an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. But at her funeral a middle-aged man steps forward, claiming to be her long-lost son and rightful heir.He is later found shot dead in the police car park, leaving behind a multitude of suspects. And Superintendent Dalziel and Peter Pascoe find themselves plunged into an investigation that makes most of their previous cases look like child’s play…
  • On Beulah Height:Fifteen years ago they moved everyone out of Dendale. They needed a new reservoir and an old community seemed a cheap price to pay. But four inhabitants of the valley could not be moved, for nobody knew where they were: three little girls who had gone missing, and the prime suspect in their disappearance, Benny Lightfoot.This was Andy Dalziel’s worst case and now he looks set to relive it. Another child goes missing in the next valley, and old fears arise as someone sprays the deadly message on Danby bridge: BENNY’S BACK!
  • Midnight Fugue:Gina Wolfe is searching for her missing husband, believed dead, and hopes Superintendent Andy Dalziel can help. What neither realize is that there are others on the same trail. A tabloid hack with some awkward enquiries about an ambitious MP’s father. The politician’s secretary who shares his suspicions. The ruthless entrepreneur in question – and the two henchmen out to make sure the past stays in the past.Four stories, two mismatched detectives trying to figure it all out, and 24 hours in which to do it: Dalziel and Pascoe are about to learn the hard way exactly how much difference a day makes…

Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I found a lot to enjoy in Bones and Silence, Reginald Hill’s 11th book in his Dalziel and Pascoe series, first published in 1990.

Blurb (from the back cover):

When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe in what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Dalziel of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty in acting the part …

My thoughts:

I liked all the complications of plot and sub-plots in this book and the interplay of the characters. It’s full of interesting characters and humour, but it is the plot that takes precedence. It is so tricky, with numerous red herrings and plot twists. Dalziel is positive that he saw Philip Swain shoot his wife; shooting her at close range, destroying much of her face and removing the top of her head. But Swain insists it was an accident – he was trying to stop her from killing herself and the gun went off. The only other witness, Greg Waterson, backs up Swain’s story – and then disappears.

My image of Dalziel comes from Warren Clark’s portrayal of him in the TV series because I watched the programmes before I read any of Hill’s books. To me Warren Clarke is Dalziel, just as David Suchet is Poirot. Dalziel is a larger than life character, speaks his mind and is never politically correct. He is is positive in his belief in Swain’s guilt even when everyone else thinks his wife’s death was an accident:

Andrew Dalziel, despite what his friends said, was no paranoiac. He did not believe himself to be infallibly perfect or unjustly persecuted. His great strength was that he walked away from his mistakes like a horse from its droppings, and as he himself once remarked, if you leave crap on people’s carpets, you’ve got to expect a bit of persecution.

But when he believed himself right, he did not readily accept evidence that he might be wrong, not while there was any stone left unturned. (page 242)

But it doesn’t help that Swain has been cast in the role of the devil opposite Dalziel’s God in the mystery play and the two are constantly sparring. The whole sub-plot of the mystery play is brilliant. Each Part of the book is headed by a quotation from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays, each one relevant to the events that follow. And the vision of Dalziel as God is so funny, especially when the fat man has to climb a narrow ladder up the back of a triple decker stage mounted on a flat car. Dalziel has to sit on a tiny platform over the upper deck, perched above polystyrene clouds.

Pascoe has recently returned to work after a period of sick leave, following an accident and, impatient to find evidence against Swain, Dalziel delegates the anonymous letters to Pascoe to discover who has been sending them. This sub-plot about the identity of the letter writer is the only part of the book that I’m not sure about. I had several thoughts about who it could be, but I was wrong and in the end when the author was revealed I wasn’t completely convinced that that character could have known all the information given in the letters. Still, it makes a dramatic conclusion to the book and came as a complete surprise to me.

Although Bones and Silence is a long book (524 pages) I read it quite quickly, completely absorbed in its mysteries and impressed both with the ingenuity of the plot and the quality of the writing. I really mustn’t leave it very long before I read some more of Reginald Hill’s books.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (25 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007313128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313129
  • Source: I bought the book

Reginald Charles Hill FRSL (3 April 1936 – 12 January 2012) was an English crime writer, and the winner in 1995 of the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016 – a book I’ve owned for four years.

Before the Fact by Francis Iles

On the face of it Before the Fact is a straight forward story. It tells the tale of wealthy, intelligent but plain Lina McLaidlaw whose family are against her marriage to the handsome, charming and fascinating Johnnie Aysgarth; Lina’s father tells her Johnnie is a ‘rotter’. But right from the opening paragraph it’s obvious that Lina’s father is right. In fact Johnnie is much worse than her father realised:

Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

First published in 1932 by Francis Iles (* see below*), Before the Fact is a Golden Age crime fiction novel that is a psychological character study of its two main characters, Lina and Johnnie. It’s cleverly written. Lina slowly realises Johnnie’s true nature – that of a compulsive liar and gambler, a manipulative scoundrel who thinks nothing of being unfaithful, even of arranging a murder, or two.  But still she stays with him, trying to control and change him, believing his lies until she has to accept him for what he is, with disastrous consequences.

As Lina’s eyes are slowly opened I became exasperated at her naiveté, her acceptance of what she she has discovered about Johnnie. She comes across as a fool besotted by him and desperate for his love and attention, and even though her suspicions are aroused she still deliberately ignored all the warning signs, descending from panic, terror, horror and despair into passivity. She is maddening, a born victim and I began to wonder how it could possibly end. It was even more chilling than I had imagined.

*About the Author (copied from the publishers):

Frances Iles was a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox, who was born in 1893 in Watford. After serving in the army during the First World War, Berkeley worked as a journalist for many years before his first foray into the crime genre with The Layton Court Mystery (1925).

His two primary non-de-plumes were Francis Iles and Anthony Berkeley. As the former, he was a master of the psychological suspense genre, always with a wry humorous tenor to his writing; as the latter he acted as a trailblazer in the classic ‘Golden Age’ of crime and detective novels.

An intensely private man who always shunned publicity, Berkeley died in 1971.

As I read I marked a few passages that although not directly connected with the story I found interesting:

About artistic criticism – in particular female criticism:

If one did not happen to like a certain book, picture, or piece of music, one took it for granted that the book, picture, or piece of music was just bad; and the people who thought it was good, were, quite simply and plainly, mistaken. It never occurred to any female critic that a book might possibly be above her own level of intelligence (the men of course read only detective stories). (page 42)

on artists:

‘Aren’t artists intelligent?’ Lina asked innocently.

‘Of course they’re not. Most of them haven’t got the brains of a mouse. They just have this odd knack of being able to put things on canvas, and that’s all. They are the dullest of all the creators. Musicians are the nicest: you never hear a musician talk about himself at all. Then the really good authors. They don’t thrust their work down one’s throat; they’ve no need to. Then the second-rate authors, who do, and have. And then the painters, a long way bottom.’ (page 125)

I wonder who he was referring to?

And on murder:

When you incite a person to do something which both of you know will probably kill him – is that legally murder or not? (page 177)

Lina discusses this point with Isobel Sedbusk (based on Dorothy L Sayers), a writer of detective stories, thinking that it wasn’t ‘real murder, like giving the man poison, or shooting him, or anything like that.’ Isobel replies:

‘No, I’m inclined to doubt whether it would be murder, from the legal point of view. The legal definition of murder is ‘to kill with malice aforethought’. Still, you’ve got the malice aforethought all right. And if he knowingly incited the man to commit an act which would result in his death …’

Malice Aforethought – another novel by Francis Iles (published in 1931) begins with revealing the identity of the murderer. I shall have to read that one soon.

Reading Challenges:

Classics Club Check-In April 2016

Classics Club check inIt’s time for a Classics Club Check-In. Three years ago (next week) I joined The Classics Club, signing up to read and write about at least 50 classic books in at most five years. This is the first time I’ve taken part in a Check-In, although I have joined in with the Classics Club Spins, which I enjoy.

The list is not a fixed list and I have changed it since I started in 2013.This is my current list. I’ve listed the books in a-z author order. I’ve read 18 books, shown in bold, so I’m behind if I’m going to meet my target in the next two years. Currently I’m reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (my current Spin book).

It’s hard to pick a favourite. These books stand out in my mind – Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

  1. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen – finished 24 August 2015
  2. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – finished 29 June 2014
  3. The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
  4. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (a re-read) – read in November 2014
  6. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchanfinished 21 February 2014
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather – finished 26 September 2013
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  9. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins – finished 30 September 2015
  10. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  11. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  12. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  13. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – finished 29 June 2013
  14. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  15. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  16. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  17. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – finished 10 October 2015
  18. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  19. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  20. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  21. Adam Bede by George Eliot – finished 18 September 2015
  22. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  23. Romola by George Eliot
  24. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  25. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  26. The Forsyte Saga (1-3) by John Galsworthy
  27. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  28. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  29. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  30. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  31. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  32. Washington Square by Henry James – finished 17 December 2013
  33. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  34. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – finished 16 July 2013
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – finished 10 December 2014
  36. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  37. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – finished 20 November 2013
  39. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – finished 20 September 2015
  40. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  41. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  42. Barchester Towers (Barsetshire Chronicles, #2) by Anthony Trollope – finished 22 February 2015
  43. Doctor Thorne (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope – finished 3 March 2016
  44. Framley Parsonage (Barsetshire Chronicles, #4) by Anthony Trollope
  45.  The Small House at Allington (Barsetshire Chronicles, #5) by Anthony Trollope
  46. The Last Chronicle of Barset (Barsetshire Chronicles, #6) by Anthony Trollope
  47. The Time Machine by H G Wells – finished 29 March 2014
  48. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  49. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – finished 22 February 2014
  50. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

My Week in Books: 13 April 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.


A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: Currently I’m reading three books, because I like to vary my reading. So, I have a classic, a crime fiction and a non-fiction book on the go:


George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

  • Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill – a Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction novel. It’s book 11 in the series, which I’m reading totally out of order (there are over 20 in the series) and it is really good.


When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer, threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile, the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Daziel, of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty acting the part…

  • L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde. Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits. This biography is based on collections of private papers held in The Lowry, Salford Quays.
  • Then: I’ve recently finished The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, her first novel. I’ve read some of her other books –  loved The Poisonwood Bible which I’ve read a few times, and Homeland, a book of short stories, but wasn’t so taken with The Lacuna. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bean Trees – my review will follow shortly:


Plucky Taylor Greer grows up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys an old car and heads west. But midway across the country motherhood catches up with her when she becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle. In Tuscon they encounter an extraordinary array of people, and with their help, Taylor builds herself and her sweet, stunned child a life.

Next: I really don’t know.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

Stacking the Shelves: 9 April 2016


Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I’ve borrowed three library books this week, books by authors whose books I’ve read in the past and enjoyed:

  • The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I borrowed this because I’ve some of Salley Vickers’ books and loved them, in particular Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Where Three Roads Meet, so I’m hoping I’ll love this one too.


There is something special about the ancient cathedral of Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.

No one quite knows where she came from – not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she is subtly transforming their lives, even if they couldn’t quite say how.

But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious rumours from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the hearsay grows uglier, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.


Reading Gaol’s most famous prisoner is pitted against a ruthless and fiendishly clever serial killer. ‘Intelligent, amusing and entertaining’ Alexander McCall Smith It is 1897, Dieppe. Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, novelist, raconteur and ex-convict, has fled the country after his release from Reading Gaol. Tonight he is sharing a drink and the story of his cruel imprisonment with a mysterious stranger. He has endured a harsh regime: the treadmill, solitary confinement, censored letters, no writing materials. Yet even in the midst of such deprivation, Oscar’s astonishing detective powers remain undiminished – and when first a brutal warder and then the prison chaplain are found murdered, who else should the governor turn to for help other than Reading Gaol’s most celebrated inmate?
In this, the latest novel in his acclaimed Oscar Wilde murder mystery series, Gyles Brandreth takes us deep into the dark heart of Wilde’s cruel incarceration.


Charlie Howard – struggling crime-writer by day, talented thief by night – has gone straight. But holing himself up in a crumbling palazzo in Venice in an attempt to concentrate on his next novel hasn’t got rid of the itch in his fingers. And to make matters worse, a striking Italian beauty has just broken into his apartment and made off with his most prized possession, leaving a puzzling calling card in its place.

It looks as though kicking the habit of a lifetime will be much more of a challenge than Charlie thought.

Sneaking out into Venice’s maze of murky canals, Charlie’s attempts to tame a cat burglar embroil him in a plot that is far bigger and more explosive than he could ever have imagined.

We should treasure our libraries.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

When I began reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks I wondered why I’d left it nearly eight years on my book shelves before I  got round to reading it. I loved it; it’s a real gem! It has joined the ranks of my favourite books and is definitely a book for keeping and (I hope) for re-reading.

How could I not love a book about books, in particular an ancient book, one that was thought to be lost or destroyed, a book that escaped burning by the Inquisition and the Nazis, a book that survived shelling during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, a book known as the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah – a medieval Jewish prayer book containing the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Feast of Passover.

In Geraldine Brooks’ Afterword she explains that People of the Book is fiction, inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history but most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary. She then goes on to define what is true and what is fictional, which I think is the best way of presenting historical fiction.

Australian Hanna Heath is a rare-book restorer and it’s not only the content of the haggadah that interests her, it is the hidden history of the book that captured her imagination and also mine. She finds tiny clues to its history as she restores the book – a fragment of an insect’s wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a tiny white hair – clues to unlock its mysteries. The story of the book is told in reverse chronological order beginning in 1996 and working back to 1480. Interwoven with each story is Hanna’s own story as she too discovers her roots. It’s a story too of love and war, of family relationships, of Anti-Semitism and of historical religious conflicts as the haggadah survived disaster after disaster. It’s also a novel about preserving the past, its culture and history for future generations. It has depth and breadth and is beautifully written. I was irresistibly engrossed in this book and full of wonder at its stories, reaching back in time from Sarajevo to Vienna, Venice, Tarragona to Seville in 1480 and also Hanna’s story from 1996 to 2002.

There are many descriptions of the haggadah throughout the book, all of which made me eager to know more about it. This is just one example from the chapter on wine stains set in Venice in 1609:

Aryeh released the catches, admiring the work of the silversmith. Each clasp, closed, was in the form of a pair of wings. As the delicate catch released – still smoothly after more than a century – the wings opened to reveal a rosette enfolded within. Aryeh saw at once that the book was a haggadah, but unlike any he had seen before. The gold leaf, the pigments … he stared at the illuminations, opening each page eagerly. He was delighted, yet a little disturbed, to see Jewish stories told in an art so like that of the Christians’ prayer books. (page 163)

And here, by way of contrast, is a description of Arnhem Land in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, where Hanna is working in the caves studying the Aboriginal rock art to document and preserve it before the uranium or bauxite companies blasted it into rubble:

I stepped out of the cave and blinked in the bright daylight. The sun was a big disc of brilliant madder, reddening the stripes of ore that ran through the sheer black-and-ocher rock face. Down below, the first shoots of new spear grass washed the plain in vivid green. Light silvered the sheets of water left behind by the previous night’s downpour. We’d moved into Gunumeleng – one of six seasons the Aborigines identified in a year that whites simply divided into Wet and Dry. Gunumeleng brought the first storms. In another month, the entire plain would be flooded. The so-called road, which was actually virtually a marginal dirt track, would be impassable. (pages 339-340)

I just had to know more about the Sarajevo Haggadah and found these illustrations (see Wikimedia Commons for more illustrations and these sites for more information –  WikipediaThe Times of Israel and About Haggadah:

Copies of Sarajevo Haggadah in parliament building – from Wikimedia Commons

The Sarejevo Haggadah, 15th century Spain – from Wikimedia Commons

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

Stacking the Shelves: 2 April 2016


Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

I bought three books this week.


I loved watching The Night Manager, adapted from John le Carré’s novel, so when I went to Main Street Trading on Tuesday I hoped they would have a copy. They didn’t – but they did have Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I watched the BBC adaptation many years ago (Alec Guinness was George Smiley).


George Smiley, who is a troubled man of infinite compassion, is also a single-mindedly ruthless adversary as a spy.

The scene which he enters is a Cold War landscape of moles and lamplighters, scalp-hunters and pavement artists, where men are turned, burned or bought for stock. Smiley’s mission is to catch a Moscow Centre mole burrowed thirty years deep into the Circus itself.

Yesterday I went shopping and passing Berrydin in Books I had to go in and, of course, I had to buy a book – well two actually. First another book that I was prompted to read by a TV adaptation in 2012 – Birdsong by Sebastian Foulks.


A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict – from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

And also Citadel by Kate Mosse, because I like time-slip books. The main story is set in 1942-44 in Nazi-occupied  Carcassonne in France and moves back in time to 342, with a monk, Arinus trying to find a hiding place for a forbidden Codex.


1942, Nazi-occupied France. Sandrine, a spirited and courageous nineteen-year-old, finds herself drawn into a Resistance group in Carcassonne – codenamed ‘Citadel’ – made up of ordinary women who are prepared to risk everything for what is right.

And when she meets Raoul, they discover a shared passion for the cause, for their homeland, and for each other.

But in a world where the enemy now lies in every shadow – where neighbour informs on neighbour; where friends disappear without warning and often without trace – love can demand the highest price of all…

As soon as I read some of my TBR books (6 in March) it seems I just have to find more – at least it’s only three this time.

The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey

The Secret Hangman is the first book I’ve read by Peter Lovesey and as it’s the 9th in his Peter Diamond series I was hoping it would read OK as a stand alone book – it does. Peter Diamond is a Detective Superintendent with the Bath police.


Peter Diamond, the Bath detective, is having woman trouble. His boss wants him to find a missing person, the daughter of one of her friends in the choir. He is not enthusiastic. Another woman, who calls herself his Secret Admirer, wants to set up a meeting in a local pub. He tries ignoring her. Then there is sexy Ingeborg Smith, the ex-journo detective constable, distracting the murder squad from their duties. No one ignores Ingeborg.

Murder becomes a possibility when a woman’s body is found hanging from a playground swing in Sydney Gardens and a suspicious second ligature mark is found around her neck. Diamond investigates the victim’s colourful past. More hangings are discovered and soon he is certain that a secret hangman is at work in the city . . .

My thoughts:

Diamond’s wife had died three years earlier – as I haven’t read the earlier books I suppose this is a spoiler, but it is important to know this from the start of this book, because he is now beginning to recover from his grief and becomes rather too involved with an attractive woman he met by chance in a carpark. The story of their relationship runs parallel to the investigations into the hangings and the series of ram raids his boss wants him to investigate.

At first there doesn’t appear that there is any connection between the victims and the motive for killing them only becomes clear quite late on in the book. The only similarities are that the victims are all couples – the wives are killed first, followed a few days later by their husbands, and all the bodies are found in public places as though the killer wanted their deaths to be discovered and publicised.

It takes a while before Diamond cottons on to the identity of the killer – and I was there some time before him, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. Diamond is not a brilliant detective. He is rather old-school, not above a bit of threatening behaviour (and more) to suspects, not bothered about upsetting his boss, nor is he comfortable with technology. But he is determined and thorough – I liked him and want to read more from the series.

Peter Lovesey is a British writer of historical and contemporary crime novels and short stories. He has written many books, not just the Peter Diamond series, but also a series of books featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era police detective based in London – the full list of his books is on his website – there are plenty to read!


Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve owned for 7 years, and one I should have read ages ago, but well worth the wait.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

I received a proof copy of Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen as a member of the reader review panel for It’s the first book in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published in May 2016.

This is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. Told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536.

I knew the brief facts about Katherine, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, married first to Prince Arthur and then to his brother Henry after a papal dispensation allowing the marriage after Arthur’s death; her subsequent failure to produce a living male heir, suffering a series of miscarriages; the only baby to survive was a daughter, Mary; and her divorce in 1533 from Henry VIII, who was by then besotted with Anne Boleyn.

This novel fills in the facts in great detail including the question of whether her first marriage was consummated. Katherine maintained it wasn’t and based on research Weir takes her word as the truth. In her Author’s Note she refers to recent research by Giles Tremlett and Patrick Williams that shows ‘we can be fairly certain that Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and that he died of tuberculosis.’  She cites the basis of her account of Arthur’s illnesss on Dr. Alcaraz’s testimony, given on 1531 at Zaragoza. She portrays Katherine as a determined woman who never ceased loving Henry and above all who did everything she could to protect the legitimacy of her daughter.

Katherine is portrayed as a woman of her time – obedient to her parents and her husband, conscientious about doing her duty  and active in maintaining an alliance between England and Spain. But even so, she resisted Henry in his demands for an annulment of their marriage. She was heart-broken both at her failure to produce a living male heir and to keep Henry’s love – because they were in love at the beginning – and maintained that she was the true queen right up to her death. I tend to forget the length of their marriage, glibly remembering the mnemonic ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived‘. Katherine and Henry were married for over 20 years. I did get tired of the account of their endless wrangling, going over and over the same arguments, never getting anywhere – but then I suppose that was how it was for them both.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It’s a long and comprehensive study, which has increased my knowledge and understanding of Katherine of Aragon and the early 1500s. It is obviously based on extensive research and written with great attention to historical accuracy, but in places this made it tedious and too drawn out.

  • Hardcover: 624 pages – also available as a Kindle edition
  • Publisher: Headline Review (5 May 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472227476
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472227478
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Source: Review copy

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

I quoted an extract from the opening paragraph of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark in an earlier post, whilst I was in the middle of the book. I finished reading it a few days ago and have been wondering what to write about it ever since. It’s one of those books that has received a mixed reception with some reviewers thinking it’s a well written book whereas others think it isn’t. I enjoyed it very much.

It’s a story centred on the lives of two women – Elizabeth Pringle and Martha Morrison. Elizabeth has lived all her life on the Isle of Arran and knowing that she is dying and has no living relatives, leaves her house, Holmlea in Lamlash, to Anna Morrison, a woman she had seen years before, pushing her daughter’s pram down the road outside. Anna Morrison, had fallen in love with the house and written to Elizabeth asking her to get in touch if she ever thought of selling it. But Anna is now suffering from dementia and it is her daughter, Martha who goes to Arran to see the house on her mother’s behalf.

What follows is a dual narrative moving between Elizabeth’s account in her own words of her life up to the present day and Martha’s current situation, told in the third person, as she meets the people Elizabeth knew, in particular, Saul, a Buddhist, Niall, a young man who is passionate about gardening, and Catriona his sister who runs a hotel on the island. It’s a deceptive book in that it appears that not much happens and it is gentle and leisurely paced, but it is actually packed with events, some of them dramatic and devastating in their effect on the characters’ lives. And it has a vivid sense of place and of Arran’s history, which I loved.

I much preferred Elizabeth’s story beginning when she was just four and her father went off to fight in the First World War; her relationship with her mother; her life as a teacher and her love life. I found the ending of her life very moving. Martha’s story seems rather pat, everything falls into place a bit too easily – especially her relationship with her mother and sister and the instant friendships she makes on the island.

It’s a book about family, relationships, especially mother/daughter/sister relationships, about happiness, love and heartbreak, old age, memories and the contrast between life in the early part of the twentieth century and the present. It’s strong on description, which is important to me as I like to visualise the locations – and I had no difficulty at all with that in this book.

All in all, I was captivated by this story.

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programmes. Her home has always been Scotland and her family’s connection to Arran goes back over many years.


Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve had for two years, and Read Scotland 2016 – a book by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Friday is book excerpts day on two blogs:

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires.  Friday 56

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an ebook), find one or more sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

I’m currently reading The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark. (See this post for the synopsis)

It begins with a letter dated 1 January 2006:

Holmlea, 20 Shore Road, Lamlash, Isle of Arran

Dear Mrs Morrison,

A long time ago, almost thirty-four years past, you wrote to me requesting that I contact you should I ever wish to leave my home. I knew then that I would never live anywhere else, and so there was no point in my replying to you. I have lived in this house since I was eight years old but I am what people these days describe as ‘ancient’ and somewhat frail, and although I have managed perfectly well on my own until now, I know I am not long for this world. I have told my doctor I will move to a small nursing home as I realise it will be less trouble for him, and I have finally locked up the house.

My family such as it was, is long dead. There is no one alive but me.

I am instructing my solicitor to write to you at the address on your letter. Holmlea is yours if you still wish it.

Page 54 (pages 55 and 56 are blank pages)

It was Mary who raced to Benkiln that fateful September of 1918 clutching a newspaper from France. I have read the cutting so often I know it by heart. ‘Arran gunner in brave attack on the Hun. Sergeant James Allan Pringle showed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack north of Bray-sur-Somme on 22 August. 

My thoughts

There were several things that caught my attention when I saw this book on display in the bookshop – first of all the cover, with its delicate colours, of a young woman entering a door, then the title with its hint of a past to be revealed, and thirdly the opening letter with its offer of a house on the Isle of Arran if Mrs Morrison still wished it. It’s a poignant letter, which saddened me a little with that sentence – There is no one alive but me. 

I’ve now read just over half of the book, which tells Elizabeth’s story along with that of Martha, Mrs Morrison’s daughter. I’ve never been to Arran, an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, but Kirsty Wark’s description is making me eager to see it for myself. The book has a quiet, gentle atmosphere, which is also very compelling reading, packed with the events of both Elizabeth’s and Martha’s lives.

The Madness of July by James Naughtie

When I began reading The Madness of July I was immediately drawn into the story. I used many markers as I read it because it has such a complicated plot. It’s a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s one sweltering July as Will Flemyng the foreign office minister and former spy finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage, a world of deception, manipulation and diplomacy. It’s the Cold War period and Will discovers politics can be just as dangerous as espionage.

I really wasn’t sure what was going on at first, not sure what was relevant for me to remember and understand, not even sure who was who as the narrative switched between London, New York, Washington and the Highlands of Scotland. So there were times when I had to backtrack when I came across a character or an event, that turned out to be important to the story, which I hadn’t realised earlier on. The characters know what has gone before, know each other, know what they are talking about – but we don’t.

In a different book this would be a major drawback – in this book it is necessary. It’s as though we’re peering through the fog, until gradually the fog lifts and things become clearer. Or it’s like beginning a cryptic crossword where you have all the clues and no idea about the answers. Anyway, I loved it. If the content isn’t too clear at first the writing is, Naughtie uses beautiful imagery and the characters are vividly drawn, in particular the part set in Scotland at Altnabuie, the Flemyngs Highland estate:

At Altnabuie, they woke to a trembling dawn. Flemyng had raised his bedroom window before turning in, and when he opened his eyes, very early, he could smell the highlands. There was a edge to the warmth and the damp, and the tang of tree and field lured him on. He looked towards the loch and saw swirls of mist rising up in thin pillars, like the guilty secrets of hidden smokers, leaving a thin topping of white cotton on the water that crept over the surface and was beginning to disperse here and there with the coming of a soft breeze. It would be gone within the hour. The herons were on their favourite stone, prim and still like a pair of disapproving clerks. The crows cawed in the woods beyond, and behind him, on the eastern side of the house where the sun was already giving life to the place, he could hear the cockerel at work. Everything was crisp and clean, the stifling urban fog a world away. (page 173)

The events that July take place over just 6 days. An American, Joe Manson dies, apparently of an overdose and is found in a store cupboard (it was a large one full of boxes and all sorts of spare objects) in the House of Commons – except that as the House is technically a royal palace deaths are not allowed and bodies have to be discreetly removed and ‘expire’ elsewhere. And thus begins a political crisis – who was Manson, how did he die, what did he know, what had he said – and to whom? And there is a letter on House of Commons notepaper that Will found on the photocopier – an anonymous letter that is puzzling him, a letter from someone who is desperate and who feels he/she is being driven insane.

A secondary plot, but to my mind just as interesting, maybe even more so, concerns Will and his family. He has two brothers, an older on, Mungo who lives at Altnabuie, and a younger one, Abel, who goes by the name of Grauber, their mother’s maiden name, and lives in New York. Mungo has been researching their family history and has discovered a secret about their mother that he finds disconcerting, even frightening.

And the madness? At one point Flemyng, talking about politics says that the rules of the game mean that you have to behave irrationally. A point is reached where you invited destruction, he’d said, as if it were inevitable. ‘Maybe madness isn’t an aberration, but the natural end to our game.’ Everyone aspired to it in politics, even if they didn’t recognise it for what it was. (page 110)

Madness has been haunting Flemyng: Because in these corridors – balance and rational though we believe ourselves to be – there’s madness on the loose. (page 326)

If you like a quick easy read, then The Madness of July is not the book for you. It, however, like me, you like a book that makes you think, that keeps you on your toes as you read, that both puzzles and entertains you, then you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

James Naughtie (pronounced Nochtee, or – /ˈnɔːxti/ as it is given in Wikipedia, which doesn’t mean anything to me) is a British radio and news presenter for the BBC. From 1994 until 2015 he was one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. He is now a ‘Special Correspondent’ with ‘responsibility for charting the course of the constitutional changes at the heart of the UK political debate’, as well as the BBC News’s Books Editor, contributing a book review to the Saturday morning editions of Today. The Madness of July is his first novel. He has also written books on politics and music. He was born in Aberdeenshire and lives in Edinburgh and London.

His second novel, Paris Spring, also featuring Will Flemyng, is due to be published in April this year.


Reading Challenge: Read Scotland 2016 and What’s in  Name? 2016 – in the category of a book with a month of the year in the title.

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh(1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels (see the list at the end of this post). I read The Daughter of Time some years ago and thought it was an excellent book, a mix of historical research and detective work. Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower. I’ve also read The Franchise Affair, which I thought was also an excellent book.

I bought Miss Pym Disposes at the local village hall when I went to vote  in the European Election in June 2014. There was a table full of books for sale – nothing to do with the election, but a bonus for me! Based on the other two books I’d read by Tey I thought it would be a good buy. And it was. It is set in the 1940s and was first published in 1946.

I knew from the synopsis that Miss Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to Leys Physical Training College to give a lecture on psychology. But then there was a’nasty accident‘.

So I was wondering about that ‘nasty accident’ as I began reading the book – who has the accident and is it really an accident, and if so who was responsible for the accident? It all seemed to be plain sailing until something happened that nobody expected and it was that that triggered the ‘accident’. It was intriguing and very cleverly written.

There is a long build up to the accident.  Miss Pym had been a French teacher at a girls’ High School until she inherited some money, left teaching and wrote a best-selling psychology book. She was invited to Leys by her old school friend, Henrietta Hodge, the college Principal and stayed on there for a few days, that extended into two weeks as she got to know and like the students and the staff. However, she realises that all is not as perfect at the college as she had thought, alerted to that fact that when one of the students, Teresa Desterro, tells her that everyone is just a little bit insane in this last week of term – ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.‘ Miss Pym observes how strenuous their studies are and the stress and anxiety the senior students go through in their final exams and learn where Henrietta has found jobs for them, or if she has found jobs for them.

This is not a conventional crime fiction novel. It’s a psychological study focussing on the characters, their motivation and analysis of facial characteristics. It looks at the consequences of what people do and say and, as Miss Pym discovers who she thinks is responsible, it also looks at how much a person should intervene, or as one of the characters tells her, ‘Do the obvious right thing, and let God dispose.’ Miss Pym agonises over her decision, was she really going to condemn someone to death?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, such a delight to read, a book that is beautifully written. I thought the slow build up to the ‘accident’ was perfect and I kept changing my mind about who would be involved – and it has such a good twist at the end.

It is the ideal book for these challenges: Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category ‘More Than Two people’, and Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge.

Josephine Tey’s books:

Alan Grant
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948) (my review)
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)

Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

I’ve recently read Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which I’d meant to read about a year ago after I finished Barchester Towers! I enjoyed it, although I think it’s a bit too drawn out – I could see where the plot was going very early in the book. The conclusion is predictable.

But that didn’t matter as it’s a book about mid nineteenth-century prosperous country life and the traditional attitudes towards the accepted codes of conduct, of the importance of birth, of wealth and above all about money, class and power. It’s about human relationships and the strength of the novel is in the portraits of its characters and their responses to matters of principle in the face of upper class idiocy and snobbishness. Trollope uses gentle satire in this novel, emphasising the absurdities of the class divisions in society and poking fun at the professions, with the names of doctors, such as Dr Fillgrave, whose name wouldn’t inspire me with confidence, parliamentary agents such as Mr Nearthewind and Mr Closerstil and lawyers called Messrs Slow and Bideawhile.

Doctor Thorne is the third in Trollope’s Barchester Towers books – the first one not set in Barchester, but in Greshambury in East Barsetshire, where the Gresham family and Doctor Thorne and his niece Mary live. As the novel opens nothing is going well for the Gresham family, they are in financial difficulties, the estate is mortgaged and they are heavily in debt. It is imperative that Frank, the son and heir to Greshambury Park and its estate, should marry money – indeed, his mother, Lady Arabella, the sister of the Earl de Courcy insists ‘He must marry money‘, a refrain that is repeated throughout the novel. But Frank has fallen in love with Mary, who has neither money or rank, and is illegitimate and as the story proceeds she is increasingly ostracised by the Gresham family, egged on by their rich relations the De Courcys.

Although the book is called Doctor Thorne, the main character to my mind is Mary Thorne, who shows great strength of character throughout. Mary had been adopted by Doctor Thorne, after her father, his brother had been murdered by her mother’s brother. Her mother had left England for America, where she had married and had a family. The brother, meanwhile had done well for himself after he left prison and made a fortune. Mary knows nothing of her background.

I particularly liked Miss Dunstable, the daughter of ‘the ointment of Lebanon man‘, who had inherited £200,000 when he had died recently. The Gresham family, or rather Lady Arabella, instruct Frank that he is to ask her to marry him – her wealth over-riding the fact that her father was a tradesman.

My only criticism of this book is that the discussions about whether Frank and Mary should or should not be allowed to marry are too drawn out and slowed down the plot too much for my liking. Apart from that I thought it was good, Trollope’s authorial comments were interesting, the dialogue was realistic and lively and the main characters came over as real people. An entertaining novel and now I’m keen to read the next Barchester Towers book, Framley Parsonage; Doctor Thorne also appears in this book!

In his Autobiography Trollope wrote that he had been trying to think up a new plot and he asked his brother to sketch one for him, which he did! He thought it was a good plot and the book was, he believed, the most popular book he had written. He was surprised by its success.

After I finished reading Doctor Thorne I realised that it was a perfect choice for the What’s in a Name? Challenge in the category of a book with a profession in the title. It’s a book I’ve had since before 1 January 2016 and fits into the Mount TRB Reading Challenge too and it’s also a book I identified for the Classics Club Challenge.

I wanted to read Doctor Thorne before the three-part adaptation of the book that starts tonight on ITV at 9 pm, so that my reaction to it wouldn’t be influenced. Now that I have read it I’m not at all sure I’ll watch the adaptation. If there are too many changes I know it will irritate me.

February’s Books 2016

I finished reading six books in February and am in the middle of two more, both long books. Just one book from my TBR shelves this month, and no non-fiction. My unfinished books are SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard and Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope – a three part adaptation of this novel begins on ITV on 6 March.

The six books I finished are:

  1. Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane (review book) – crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders featuring Dr. Kate Moreland as she is once more involved in solving a murder mystery.
  2. Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir (review book) – as the title indicates historical fiction about Henry VIII’s first wife. A detailed fictional biography. My review is to follow.
  3. A House Divided by Margaret Skea – historical fiction set in 1597 in Scotland and France, this is the most gripping story of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. The historical facts blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages.
  4. Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn – ‘cosy’ crime fiction in the Daisy Dalrymple series set in England in the 1920s – an entertaining book.
  5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (TBR) – fiction of a different style from the other books I read this month, one to make me think. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this is the Reverend John Ames letter to his young son.
  6. Slade House by David Mitchell (library book) – a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. Once I started I had to read to the end.

Although I enjoyed all the books I read in February and was fascinated by Slade House I have absolutely no doubt about my choice of book of the month – it’s the brilliant

A House Divided by Margaret Skea.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is another short post as I am still trying to catch up with writing about the books I’ve read in February. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of them. It is narrated by the Reverend John Ames as he nears the end of his life. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 John Ames is 76, dying of heart disease, and writing a letter to his young son aged 7 telling him the things he would have told him if he had lived to see him grow up. A letter for his son to read when he is an adult.

Ames writes stories of his brother, and his father and grandfather, including tales of what had happened in Gilead, such as the story of the horse that sank into the ground into one of the tunnels the inhabitants had made and the lengths they had gone to get it out and fill in the hole. He also wrote about his beliefs and his relationship with his friend, also a preacher, Boughton and Boughton’s son, Jack. There is a mystery surrounding Jack, what is the ‘great sin’ he committed, why he had left home, what happened to him and why he had come back. Jack is named after John, who struggles to forgive and understand Jack.

In parts I found this a bit rambling and repetitive, reflecting the fact that Ames wrote over a period of time and probably forgot he’d mentioned things before, or because he was emphasising their importance – such as the first time he met his wife, who is a lot younger than him.

I took my time reading because you do have to concentrate and not rush to find out what happened. I enjoyed it and think I would probably get even more out of it on a second reading, especially for the philosophical and religious ideas.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge ( a book I’ve owned for about 8 years).

Slade House by David Mitchell

I was in the middle of reading two books on my Kindle, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope and SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, when the battery died and I know I could still have continued reading whilst it was re-charging, but I didn’t. Instead I picked up Slade House by David Mitchell, a book I’d been thinking of reading soon and once I started it I didn’t want to stop. It’s not long, just 233 pages and they just whizzed past my eyes in no time.

Apparently it began as a short story on Twitter – but I didn’t know that – and is a sort of sequel to The Bone Clocks – but I haven’t read that, and there is a character near the end who also appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – but I haven’t read that yet either!

None of that mattered. I suppose it’s the sort of book to read at Hallowe’en, but that doesn’t matter either, because I read it, devoured it I could say, yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. It’s a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. I read it as a fantasy, something that I couldn’t believe could ever happen (or at least, I hope not) – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it immensely.

It’s not easy to find Slade House. It’s down Slade Alley, which doesn’t normally exist and it only appears to those who have been invited, or are drawn to it. There is a door set into the right hand wall of the alley, a small black iron door with no handle or keyhole, that opens if you’re meant to enter. There you meet a stranger, are invited into the House, and find yourself in a strange and dangerous situation, and there is no way out – eventually you find yourself in a long attic at the top of the stairs – where something terrible happens to you.

The stories begin in 1979 (although in fact it begins much earlier than that) and ends in a strange and mystifying way in 2015. Each story is complete in itself; the people who enter Slade House do not seem to be connected in anyway – a young teenage boy and his mother, a recently divorced Detective Inspector, students on a Paranormal Society field trip, and then the sister of one of the students. The connection is the House and the brother and sister who occupy it – and to say what they were would be to reveal too much. Needless to say that I was hoping each time that the victims would escape their fate. I was gripped both by the individual stories and by Slade House itself, enchanting and darkly sinister. The sense of menace just grew as each victim succumbed and yet tried to warn those who followed.

Now, I’m keen to read both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I bought a few years ago and is still sitting in my TBR piles and The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t got yet. It just shows how reading one book can seriously disrupt whatever reading plans I had!

A House Divided by Margaret Skea

One of the best historical fiction books I read last year was Margaret Skea’s debut novel, Turn of the Tide, which captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland.  So I approached its sequel, A House Divided, hoping it would be just as good, and it is. Indeed it’s even better. Once more I was whisked back to the world of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. It is the most gripping story of warring factions in Scotland, the French Wars of Religion, superstition and horrific witchcraft trials.

It’s now 1597, six years after the events in Turn of the Tide. The Munro family are believed to have died in a fire at their home, Broomelaw but Kate Munro and her three children are living at Braidstane in Ayrshire under the protection of the Montgomerie family. They have the assumed the name of ‘Grant’, in hiding from the Cunninghame family, particularly from William Cunninghame, the son of the Earl of Glencairn, head of the Cunninghame clan. Kate’s husband is in France, fighting with the Scots Gardes for the French Henri IV. Meanwhile William Cunninghame has taken possession of Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower house. And it’s becoming more difficult and dangerous to keep their identity secret; the children are asking questions and the eldest, Robbie, wants to go to join his father in France.

Kate, who has gained a reputation as a ‘wise woman’ from her knowledge and skill in the use of herbs and plants for healing and as a midwife, is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of Patrick, a Cunninghame supporter, with the birth of her baby. When Patrick meets Kate and her daughter, Maggie, he is suspicious. thinking they look familiar, reminding him of Munro’s wife, and so the danger begins. And it increases as Kate’s reputation grows and she is summoned to the Scottish court as Queen Anne (James VI’s wife), having heard of Kate’s expertise, needs her advice in carrying a baby to full-term.  She had been advised to try a number of methods to avoid a miscarriage:

I have eaten crushed orchid leaves, powdered fox’s lungs and crab’s eyes; drunk wolf oil and tincture of foxglove; been bled and leeched till I think I have little blood left; told to lie on my side and on my stomach, even upside down. Few treatments convenient and none effective. (location 3242)

It’s no wonder they failed and a wonder she survived!

There is so much I loved in this book – first of all the story itself, expertly narrated, full of tension and surprise, and then the characters, some based on real historical figures and others fictitious, such as the Munro family. The story is well grounded in research and based on facts – James VI, whilst waiting to inherit the English crown, wanted to bring peace to Scotland and to put an end to the wars between the clans. His interest in, or rather his obsession with witchcraft comes to the fore in this novel as Kate is accused as a witch and brought to trial as part of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. Also historically accurate is the Scots involvement in France as under the terms of the ‘Auld Alliance’ they had citizenship rights in France as well as trading agreements and the Scots Gardes were an elite Scottish regiment whose duties included the provision of a personal bodyguard to the French King.

But it’s the personal touches that brought home to me what life was like in the 16th century, what their houses were like, the food they ate, the dangers that faced them in their daily lives, as well as the growing interest in science and medicine as opposed to superstition and religious bigotry and fervour.

This is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Not only is the story absolutely fascinating, but it is also well written and well paced. The historical facts all blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages not just of the landscape and the Scottish Court, but also of the grim details of warfare, of the horrors of the witch trials and of sickness, typhoid and plague, of wounds, of childbirth and of death. It’s strong, compelling reading, a book that made me keen to find out what would happen next and at the same time one I didn’t want to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available as a paperback
  • File Size: 1017 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Sanderling Books; 1 edition (15 Oct. 2015)
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

Margaret Skea is currently working on her third novel – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016

Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I always intend to write about the books I read soon after I’ve finished them, whilst the details and my reaction are fresh in my mind.  But recently I haven’t managed to do so and now have four books to review. I can deal with one of them quickly because I don’t have much to say about it – Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn. This is the seventh book in the Daisy Dalrymple Mystery series (there are 22 in total so far). I’ve read the first three and have been waiting to find the fourth to read them in order, but gave in when I saw this secondhand copy.

Set in the 1920s this is a cosy mystery that doesn’t tax the brain too much. Daisy’s brother-in-law, Lord John Frobisher, asks her to investigate a series of poison pen letters that many of the local villagers including himself have been receiving. So Daisy and her step-daughter, Belinda, go to stay with her sister and brother-in-law. Lord John is anxious to avoid a scandal, but when a murder is committed the local police have to be informed about the letters. Daisy’s fiancé, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard is concerned about Daisy and Belinda, so he gets involved informally, all the time trying to keep Daisy out of danger. The village is a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and resentment, with plenty of people with possible cause to commit murder. I liked the interaction of the members of the WI, bossed by the vicar’s wife and the way Daisy managed to get each of them to talk to her.

Styx and Stones is a quick and easy read, (although I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer until quite near the end) with the focus on Daisy and Alec’s relationship as well as on the poison pen and murder mysteries.

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I’d enjoyed the first book in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, Imperium. So I’d been looking forward to reading Lustrum, the second in the trilogy (published as Conspirata in the US and Italy) . It didn’t fail to live up to my expectations – it surpassed them. I think it’s historical fiction at its best. I immediately went on to read Dictator, the third book in the trilogy, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think Lustrum is the outstanding book of the three.

I had intended to write a more detailed post about Lustrum and Dictator but life and medical issues decided otherwise, so this is just a short post on both books.

Lustrum begins where Imperium finished in 63 BC with a dramatic scene, as the body of a child is pulled from the River Tiber, a child who had been killed as a human sacrifice, grotesquely mutilated. What follows is an account of the five year period (a lustrum) of Cicero’s consulship and the battle for power between him, Julius Caesar, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, and Clodius an ambitious playboy. It ends with his exile from Rome.

Once I began reading I was immediately drawn into the world of Cicero. The story is once again narrated by his secretary, the slave Tiro, giving access to Cicero’s thoughts and feelings. Tiro is an interesting character in his own right – he is reported to be the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim and some of the symbols in his shorthand system are still in use today, such as &, etc, ie, and eg. As in Imperium and in the third book, Dictator, Harris has used Cicero’s actual words, adding to the books’ authenticity. Harris states that he hopes it is not necessary to read the books in order but I think it adds much to the enjoyment if you do.

Dictator covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life when he was no longer a dominant political figure in Rome. The book begins with Cicero in exile, separated from his wife and children and in constant danger of losing his life. Apart from the first part of the book when Cicero is working towards returning to Rome, I didn’t find it as exciting or as compelling as the first two books. This is mainly because there is so much happening such as the civil war and the downfall of the republic from which Cicero is excluded first because on his return to Rome he is sidelined, and then retired.

All three books are based on extensive research but Harris is such a good story teller that they don’t read like text books. Roman history has always fascinated me and reading this trilogy has revived my interest, so much so that I am now reading Mary Beard’s book, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, that goes right back to the beginning describing how Rome grew and became such a dominant power.

When I saw Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor sitting in the mobile library shelves I just had to borrow it. It’s historical crime fiction in which Gordianius the Finder gets involved in the Catilina conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

And I would also like to re-read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series to compare with Harris’ trilogy, or at least some of the books involving Cicero and Caesar. Oh for more time to read!

Lustrum is one of my Mount TBR Mountain Challenge 2016 books (ie books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016) .

My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.


A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.


A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.


Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.


Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane

Janet O’Kane’s second book Too Soon a Death follows on from No Stranger to Death, set in a fictional village in the Scottish Borders and continues the story of Doctor Zoe Moreland, a widow and one of the doctors at the local health centre. A boy’s body is discovered on the banks of the River Tweed, near the Chain Bridge, linking Scotland and England and Zoe is asked to help identify the body because he had a note in his clothing giving the health centre’s address and phone number – but he was not one of their patients.

Zoe is not without her own problems. I think this book reads well as a stand alone book, but it certainly helps to have read the previous book, which explains her current condition. At the beginning of Too Soon a Death she is still recovering from a vicious attack (details in No Stranger to Death) and is heavily pregnant.

As the events unfold, she receives anonymous phone calls and is followed by someone in a blue car, who at one point almost runs her down. Added to that her best friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist, is having problems both with her ex-husband and a client, with disastrous results. Can Zoe trust a new acquaintance, the vet Patrick Dunin – she wonders who it is that keeps phoning him claiming his attention? A large, vicious looking dog attacks Zoe’s own dog and is savaging sheep. Where has he come from? And that is not all – Zoe has secrets in her own past that are finally revealed in this book.

In some respects Too Soon a Murder has a Midsomer Murders atmosphere, and a general ‘cosy’ feel, but it is not without violence. Its main focus, however, is on Zoe, how she is coping with her pregnancy, her plans for Keeper’s Cottage, which she has bought from Kate’s brother and her hopes to become a partner in the health centre. The crimes are investigated by DCI Erskine Mathers and Sergeant Trent, with Zoe’s assistance, although there are things she can’t tell the police because of patient confidentiality. It has a great sense of location (this may be helped because I know the area a little bit, living a few miles away on the English side of the Border), and the characters are well grounded and believable people, even the minor characters such as Margaret Howie, the practice receptionist, comes across as a character in her own right.

My thanks to Janet O’Kane for providing me with a copy to read and review. I’m looking forward to reading her third book, which she is currently writing.

Reading challenges: My first book for the Read Scotland Challenge –  a book set in Scotland.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Runaway

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

Runaway by Peter May is one of the books I’m thinking of reading this month. I’ve read some of his other books, the Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island and thoroughly enjoyed them, real page-turners. So I’m hoping that Runaway will be just as good.

It begins with a Prologue:


He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. And after a lifetime of being someone else in another land, he wonders who he is now. This man, who, he knows, is fading all too soon. A life squandered for a love lost. A life that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.

and moves on to Chapter One in 2015:


Jack stepped down from the bus almost at the end of Battlefield Road and raised his head towards the darkening sky with a sense of foreboding. He took in the brooding silhouette of the smoke-stained Victoria Infirmary that climbed the hill above the field of battle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was once defeated by James VI, and felt as if someone had just walked over his grave.

Now, reading this, I am keen to read on. Flicking through the book I can see that it alternates between 1965 and 2015.

The back cover reveals that in 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged. In 2015, a brutal murder forces those three men, now in their sixties, to journey back to London and finally confront the dark truth they have run from for five decades.

 What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.


It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.


‘Laws are silent in times of war.’

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.


I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.

Stacking the Shelves: 23 January 2016


Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

Last night I finished reading Lustrum by Robert Harris, the second in his Cicero Trilogy (the first is Imperium). It ends as Cicero goes into exile and so this morning I had to buy the third book, Dictator, which covers the last fifteen years of his life.


There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children…

I’ve also borrowed these books from the library. My summaries are adapted from the blurbs.

Library bks Jan 2016

From top to bottom they are

  • Blue Genes by Val McDermid – I was put off reading her books several years ago when I just couldn’t stomach watching the violence and torture scenes in the TV series of The Wire. This sounds a bit different as it is a Kate Brannigan mystery, set in Manchester. The back cover reveals that Kate is having a bad week – her boyfriend has died, her plan to capture a team of fraudsters is in disarray and a neo-punk band wants her to find out who’s trashing their flyposters. It delves into the world of medical experimentation – I’m hoping it won’t be too gory!
  • Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri – I’ve read a few of his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but this is historical crime fiction set in Vigàta in Sicily in 1880, when a young man arrives in town and opens a pharmacy – then death arrives an the town and its most noble family will never be the same again …
  • Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg – he is one of my favourite authors. This novel is about memory and the slow fading of the mind as John visits his mother in a nursing home and finds that most of all she is longing for her mother, Grace, the mother she barely knew. Reaching from the late 19th century to the present, this becomes a deeply moving, reflective elegy on three generations linked by a chain of love, loss, and courage.
  • No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell, another favourite author. This is the 24th Inspector Wexford novel. The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage. Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling cyanideSparkling Cyanide (published as Remembered Death in America) was first published in 1945. It is a novel in which a crime is investigated a year after it was committed.

Rosemary, the wife of wealthy George Barton dies suddenly at her birthday party at a West End Restaurant, the Luxembourg, after drinking a glass of champagne laced with cyanide. Rosemary had been in a depressed and unhappy state of mind after having a bout of influenza.The official verdict was that she had committed suicide but a year on George, having received anonymous letters stating her death wasn’t suicide, is convinced that she was murdered. He arranges another party, this time for Iris, Rosemary’s younger sister, inviting the same guests, hoping to identify the murderer. But his plan goes awry, as after drinking a toast to Rosemary’s remembrance the party ends with yet another death.

Rosemary was a wealthy heiress in her own right and after her death her inheritance had passed to Iris. George had invited Colonel Race* to both parties, but he had been absent both times. He had known George since his boyhood but had only once met Rosemary, who he thought of as ‘a singularly lovely nit-wit – but certainly not a melancholic type‘. He helps Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard to investigate both deaths. As well as Iris and George the guests at the party were Ruth Lessing, George’s efficient secretary, and Rosemary’s friends, Anthony Browne, a man with a dubious past and a politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra.

In a series of flashbacks Agatha Christie highlights each person and their relationships with Rosemary and it appears that each one, including George and Iris had a motive for killing her. I was convinced quite early on that one particular character had to be the murderer, but reading further on I began to have doubts, switching from one person to another. As it turned out I was right about my first suspect – Agatha Christie was expert at writing things that could be taken two ways. If I was right about the ‘who’ I couldn’t work out the ‘how’, particularly for the second death, but knew that where everyone sat at the round table was significant. When that was revealed I thought it was difficult to believe, which is why I don’t place it among her best books – but it’s still a very enjoyable read. And it was popular with the public achieving sales of thirty thousand in the first year of publication.

*Colonel Race – first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. His appearance in Sparkling Cyanide was his last. He was an agent working for the British Secret Service, often sent on difficult or sensitive missions. In this book he is over sixty, described as ‘a tall, erect, military figure with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes‘.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category of ‘Bottle/Glass for drinking’.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1945 Agatha Christie published two novels, Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes as the End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…‘Ah, those days … for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘,  is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.

Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.

I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.

I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.

But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and maybe What’s In a Name? in the ‘Month of the Year’ category if I don’t read a book naming a month of the year!

Vintage Crime Fiction

I’ve been thinking about joining Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt, but I didn’t think I had enough books in the Vintage Mystery genre to attempt it.

BUT, the Scavenger Hunt idea appeals to me and so I thought I would have a look at my own books, just to see exactly how many books I do have that match Bev’s definition of ‘Vintage Mystery’, which is:

* All books must be from the mystery category (crime fiction, detective fiction, espionage, etc.). The mystery/crime must be the primary feature of the book–ghost stories, paranormal, romance, humor, etc are all welcome as ingredients, but must not be the primary category under which these books would be labeled at the library or bookstore. 

*For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Golden Age short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.  Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive).  Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989. 

And to my surprise, when I went to my shelves – instead of looking at my list in LibraryThing – I found I actually have 14 books first published pre-1960 and 7 first published between 1960 and 1989 (inclusive). My LibraryThing catalogue is certainly not complete!

So, in theory I do have enough books to attempt the Scavenger Hunt for both eras, provided that the covers show the objects listed for the Hunt! And as I do want to read all these books, it’s a no-brainer, so I’m going to do it. And I’m going in for both Eras!

The idea is  to find as many objects on the scavenger hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era.

These are my books in the Golden Age Vintage era. Some are Penguin books with no pictures on the covers and so I’ll look for alternative covers.

Vintage gold

And these are my books from the Silver Age Vintage era.

Vintage silver

The Challenge runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. Sign up any time between now and November 1, 2016.  Any books read from January 1 on may count regardless of your sign-up date.

And “On the cover” may apply to either the front or the back cover of the book. For example, if you need a map or a chart for your scavenger hunt list, then Dell Mapbacks are perfect–with the map in question on the back cover. Also, the item should be found on the cover of the edition that you read. If at all possible either post a picture showing the item on the cover or provide a link to a page showing us. Exception:  If the edition you read has no picture whatsoever (hardbacks that have no dust jacket or e-copies, for example), then you may go on another scavenger hunt online to find a cover image–again, please provide a link to the edition used.

This is the list for the Golden Age Era there are 75 items!!! (The Silver Age Era lists the same items.)Scavenger Hunt1

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

I had no great expectations when I began reading Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown (first published in 1954) because I’ve not been keen on her stand-alone international intrigue/spy mysteries. But I thought it started very well and I was soon drawn into the story.

It’s the early 1950s and a number of scientists have disappeared, amongst them is Thomas Betterton, a brilliant nuclear scientist, who had discovered ZE Fission. The British Secret Service suspect that he and the other missing scientists have gone beyond the Iron Curtain, either kidnapped, or tempted by money or by the dream of an ideal world, working for the good of humanity. His wife, Olive, has no idea where he is, but sets off for Morocco, ostensibly on medical advice for a complete rest. However, the plane crashes and she is killed before she gets to her destination.

Hilary Craven, whose abundant red hair is similar to Olive’s, is intent on taking her own life, but she is recruited by Jessop, a British Secret Service Agent who persuades her that if she wants to kill herself she could help her country at the same time by impersonating Olive and thus trace Betterton. In doing so it leads her to a secret scientific complex hidden in the High Atlas mountains and a terrifying discovery.

It went over the top with a string of disasters, involving a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic. And added to the international intrigue there is also a murder which is only revealed right at the end of the book. If the plot is bizarre and rather weak, and some of the characters are stereotypes, Hilary’s character is more convincing. And as in her other spy thrillers, Agatha Christie uses it as a vehicle for her own concerns about the state of the post-war world, decrying what she saw as the attempt to impose a world order and discipline, where individuality is suppressed. Hilary thinks she:

would rather have a world of kindly, faulty human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy. (page 102)

It’s a dangerous world where

Once you have got into that state of mind where the taking of human lives no longer counts, then if it is simpler to put a little explosive package under a seat in a plane than to wait about at the corner on a dark night and stick a knife in someone, then the package will be left and the fact that six other people will die also is not even considered. (pages 143-144)

Just as true today as in the 1950s!

I am nearing the end of reading Agatha Christie’s full length novels and now have just 2 left to read. Although Destination Unknown is not one of my favourites I did enjoy reading it – it moves quickly and kept me interested in its twists and turns. There’s a lot going on and it’s not easy to know who is telling the truth and who to trust.


Added on 15th January 2016:

The edition of Destination Unknown that I read has this cover, fulfilling the cigarette/pipe category on the Golden Age Vintage Mystery Hunt card, as well as the Mount TBR Reading Challenge:

Imperium by Robert Harris

With not many days left until Christmas and the New Year I’ve just about got time to write a bit about two books I’ve read this month from my to-be-read books. I’ll be writing about the second book in a later post.

The first one is Imperium by Robert Harris, the first in his Cicero Trilogy.

I love historical fiction and over the years I’ve read quite a lot of it, including novels set in Ancient Rome, so I’m familiar with the characters in this book, but not about all the details that Robert Harris has packed into Imperium.

Beginning in 79 BC, this book set in the Republican era is a fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Tiro, his slave secretary. Tiro was a real person who did write a biography of Cicero, which has since been lost in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand. Harris has based Imperium on, among other sources, Cicero’s letters, which Tiro had recorded, successfully interweaving Cicero’s own words with his own imagination.  It is basically a political history, a story filled with intrigue, scheming and treachery in the search for political power as Cicero, a senator, works his way to power as one of Rome’s two consuls.

The first part of the book (and I think the best part) covers the trial of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily. I found this gripping as it was by no means obvious that Verres would be found guilty. Cicero builds the case against him and the resulting trial is a dramatic showdown.

After that the book dragged just a little bit for me as it moved on to describing a complicated struggle to change Rome’s government from a Republic to having an Emperor as absolute ruler. But it picked up again towards the end and overall I thought this was a very good book and I’m keen to read the second in the trilogy, Lustrum.

In such a short post as this is I cannot go into much detail – and the novel is very detailed. I marked many passages that struck me as interesting and felt much of the struggle for power applies as much today as it did in Ancient Rome. I’ll finish this post with one quotation (there are plenty of others I could have chosen):

You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election. But an election is a living thing – you might almost say, the most vigorously alive thing there is – with thousands upon thousands of brains and limbs and eyes and thoughts and desires, and it will wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong. (page 471)