Summer in books

“My personal hobbies are reading, listening to music, and silence” – Edith Sitwell

It’s been pretty quite round here on the Western Front, hasn’t it? There’s been much going on behind the scenes but alas, very little of it exciting. On the plus side, I’ve got a lot of reading done recently…

M. R. C. Kasasian, The Curse of the House of Foskett

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After enjoying the first in the Gower Street Detective series, I looked forward to devouring this one. Building on our characters and bringing them out their shells, I enjoyed the changing relationship between our personal detective Sidney Grice and his young ward, March Middleton (more than the mystery, which I found surreal and confusing at points). It’s daft, there’s some tongue in cheek humour which won’t appeal to everyone (I enjoyed the silliness in amongst the rather dark observations of Victorian London), and March’s back story was a little jarring despite how necessary it was, but I still found myself looking forward to picking it up. What can I say? Period murder mysteries are my thing.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 22.25.16The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series books are – to me at least – comfort in literary form. The characters are warm and inviting (but suitably flawed, McCall Smith is a romantic but a realist), and despite not having read any of the more recent instalments, I enjoyed diving back in. The main plot involves Mma Ramotswe taking her first ever holiday and struggling to leave things to Mma Makutsi (the fear of being undermined or usurped is one that a lot of us probably recognise…) but it was the sub-plot involving a young boy Mma Ramotswe becomes involved with which I felt was particularly well woven in. Samuel’s tale contrasts the wealthy side of the main characters with the reality of the poverty of Botswana and without being jarring. Easy to read but thought provoking.

Marian Keyes, Angels

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After struggling to finish a couple of her later novels, I realised there were a couple of earlier Keyes’ books I’d not read – and I’m glad I gave this one a go. Rather slow to get going, it focuses on Maggie Walsh, the eldest of the five sisters, and her ways of coping with the end of her marriage. What could (particularly given Maggie’s backstory) be a rather dark tale ends up being brightened by a couple of dated and ridiculous, but still entertaining, sub plots. Cheese aside, it’s Keyes’ sense of humour combined with her uncanny ability to tap into the darkness in people’s lives which make her writing so enjoyable, and in Angels she goes one step further, adding a powerful manifesto on Irish women’s rights into the mix. Much more than the chick lit label.

Jean-Paul Didierlaurant, The Reader on the 6.27*

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-57-22After seeing this pop up on other blogs and hearing good things about it, I was excited to continue my foray in to French literature. Every morning Guylain reads random pages from discarded books to his fellow commuters, as a form of therapy for the way he spends his day. Any literature lover will empathise with his predicament – his job involves destroying the very things he loves, and gives him huge amounts of pain. It was the very simple premise which drew me in, although I found myself rolling my eyes a little at the over the top descriptions in the first few chapters. I’m glad I stuck with it, as I loved how the quiet Guylain was drawn out – through his support of his former colleague and his new found elderly friends, and later as he develops a quest to find the owner of a diary he ‘rescues’. It’s hard to discuss without giving away the plot too much, but I loved the way in which so few characters told such a rich story. Highly recommended for a rainy afternoon.

Trudi Canavan, The Magician’s Apprentice

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-20-58-20I’m a latecomer to Canavan’s trilogy, which introduces us to Sonea, a slum girl who realises during a street riot that she has magical powers. Cue a chase, and a disagreement about who will be her mentor… I’m not sure how I felt about this one. While not a fan of fantasy fiction in general, I did enjoy the back story and setting. But oh, it’s slow – so slow that I found myself zoning out a little – partly because it feels very much like the book is scene setting for the rest of the trilogy, and partly because very little happens. It passed the time, but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing out to pick up the next one.

Fern Britton, Hidden Treasures

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Every now and then I find myself picking up something ‘easy’ to read – a bedtime book, if you will. I went for it after seeing some good reviews. Oh, how wrong they were… it was terrible. The (probably not ghost-written, given how bad it was) plot revolves around Helen, who relocates to a little village in Cornwall and rapidly finds that the vicar is in love with her, while she’s got a thing for the local ‘historian’. That pretty much says all you need to know – stereotypes, clichés and some questionable subplots abound. Please, recommend some better alternatives to me!

Susan Cain, Quiet

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I’ve been meaning to read Quiet for a few years, so when I finally got around to it, after watching Cain’s excellent TED talk, I had quite high hopes.  I really enjoyed parts of the book – discussing the ‘history’ of extroversion in the USA and how the cultural shift towards group work and behaviour happened was interesting, as was the (only) scientific part discussing amygdala responses, but I wasn’t convinced by the rest. At a couple of points, I felt that Cain hadn’t quite worked out her definitions (this, by Elaine Aron, whose book I read a few years ago sums it up nicely) and I found that undermined her points somewhat. I suspect this is the downside of a non-fiction work written by an interested enthusiast. It’s very approachable, but it’s clear that Cain isn’t a psychologist (or even a journalist) and that’s ultimately what lets it down for me.

M C Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-14Another attempt at a bedtime book – I read the first few Agatha Raisin books online a few years ago and thought I’d have a go at revisiting the series. It started off optimistically – a fun and silly Cotswold set murder mystery, but was marred somewhat by a lot of padding and a slightly daft (i.e. highly implausible) love triangle. I suspect the downside of the series is that, for the most part, the eponymous heroine’s home village provides an excellent supporting cast. When the mystery is taken outside, as in this case, the ‘charm’ is somewhat missing and it all feels a bit… flat. Entertaining enough but not the best book I’ve read recently.

Agatha Christie, Poirot’s Early Casesscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-02-57Ah, this is more like it. Eighteen short stories, all featuring our favourite Belgian, as told by his sidekick Hastings. Brought together in the 1970s into one book, the mysteries were originally published in the Sketch periodical and American anthologies before being brought together, and there is an element of Agatha Christie in ‘training’ in a few of them. Coming after, chronologically speaking, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces Poirot, they very much set the scene for what is to come –  murders, thefts and scandals abound. Unlike some of the novels, in places the mysteries can be a bit rushed (unsurprising, given the length) and it does feel a little like the recurring characters are in “development” but as a one-a-night collection, they’re ripping good fun.

J.K Rowling, Jack Tiffany, Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Childscreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-03-37Is it a book? Is it a play? Is it a book and a play? Given my distaste for sequels, prequels and any form of ‘spin off’ (literary forms more so than televisual), I was reluctant to read HPATCC and it took me a few weeks after the rest of the world to get around to it. Honestly? I wish I hadn’t. The plot was… sketchy (rushed, and without the padding which makes the original series so ‘real’), the characters were nothing like their younger selves (Ron in particular infuriated me, as his portrayal as a rather dim and bumbling idiot was such a step backwards from his character arc) and all I could think was “this is fan fiction”. Perhaps it works for the stage – I don’t know – but nothing about it worked for me.

Katie Fforde, A Summer At Seascreen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-04-36I’m not sure why I bothered, to be honest. I knew it’d irritate me from the off – our heroine is Emily, a single woman in her early 30s, who loves her life… so of course the plot line is that she’ll fall in love and give it all up. Of course she will. Because a single woman in possession of a successful career must be doing it because she’s secretly in want of a husband. Add in an unrealistic set of friendships with an old lady and a young girl, a will-they-won’t-they romance, the Northern Lights, some negative stereotypes about GPs attitudes to home birth, some complete falsehoods about an English trained midwife not being able to work in Scotland, and you have yourself A Summer At Sea.

 

And so there we go, a decided mix from the last few months. It’s been rather handy to reflect back – definitely a good way of working out what to read next! Any suggestions for easy reading but not terrible books will be gratefully received…

 

*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review