December in books

“Books to the ceiling, books to the sky, my pile of books is a mile high. How I love them! How I need them! I’ve have a long beard by the time I read them.” Arnold Lobel

Better late than never, a round up of last month’s books. I had grand plans of spending my Christmas holidays devouring hundreds of literary treats, but devoured considerably more of the edible varieties. Never mind.

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for TeaArsenic

I reserved the next couple of Murder Most Unladylike books back in September after devouring the first, and happily this one didn’t disappoint. The second installment sees us visit our heroine Daisy at home, when her birthday tea is interrupted by… a murder. Easy reading but with some lovely attention to detail, this one kept me guessing right until the end and was arguably more enjoyable than the first.

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Loveimprobability

I’m in two minds about this one. I read it knowing very little about the plot, other than it received rave reviews, but if I’m honest I struggled to see why. Following the history of the (fictional) painting of the title, I found it slow to get going and I struggled to keep interest in all of the (not particularly well written) characters, but I enjoyed the mystery in-between the less meaty plots. As a former art history student, it was always going to be vaguely up my street, but I’m not sure I’d rush to suggest it to others. It’s clear the author has a huge amount of knowledge but I’m not sure it translates to fiction.

M. C. Beaton, Death of a Dreamerdeath

After ploughing through The Improbability of Love, it was time to return to something considerably less taxing – and this hit the spot. Easy reading and decidedly comforting, we see our policeman hero Hamish MacBeth manage to solve murders, woo visiting tourists, and drink quite a lot of whisky in the process. Despite having missed quite a few of the previous books, it wasn’t particularly important as the characters are surprisingly well drawn without background information and the supporting cast were as entertaining as the plot. Reliable and inoffensive, it was an easy weekend read.

Julian Fellowes, Belgraviabelgravia

I wasn’t expecting much from this. Most folk will know Fellowes as the writer of Downton Abbey, but he has somewhat of a pedigree in historical fiction (and an Oscar for Gosford Park) so I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much I enjoyed Belgravia. Starting in 1816, and following two families over twenty five following years, the novel focuses on the importance of scandal – or avoiding it – for Victorian women, and on the snobbery and arrogance of the upper classes. I enjoyed Fellowes’ subtle portrayal of the unpleasant side of wealth, and I was surprised at how he managed to take a rather well used plot and turn it into something considerably more interesting – and dare I say – with a decidedly sympathetic feminist angle.

Robin Stevens, First Class Murderfirt class

Two in one month? Well, why not when they’re this much fun. The third of our Wells And Wong Detective Club outings joins them on the Orient Express – of course – where Daisy and Hazel are determined to detect despite Hazel’s stern father. The introduction to Mr Wong, having met Daisy’s family previously, was a nice touch, and added some intrigue to the plot. I really enjoyed the way that old characters popped up and new ones were introduced, so I was glad to read them in order. Fun, a bit silly, but an excellent homage to the Christie which undoubtedly inspired it.

India Knight, Comfort and Joycomfort

I decided to have a bash at a couple of festive novels to get me in the spirit, and this was the first I picked up from the library. An easy reading tale, it was written unusually – with the action taking place on successive Christmases with little explanation of the years in between. I enjoyed the format, it helped carry the story along and made for some interesting plot twists and turns. The characters however? I found them infuriating. It was an interesting plot, focused around Christmas for blended and ‘modern’ families but I found the hugely affluent family setting grating and Knight’s rather bitchy stereotyping, particularly of the single friend, left an unpleasant taste.

Mandy Morton, The Ghost of Christmas Pawsfeline

Another foray into the festive novel – this time featuring (bear with me) detective cats. This pastiche is either one of the best or one of the worst novels I’ve read in a long time. I can’t quite work out which. Hettie and Tilly, our heroines, are called to solve a riddle in a Cornish village, where the ghost of Christmas Paws is causing chaos. Part crime, part adventure, there’s some mildly amusing tongue in cheek jokes along the way (lots of Daphne Du Maurier references) and a lot of daft sub plots. Utterly ridiculous with a twist which made me splutter – it did what it said on the cover.

October and November in Books

“Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book.” – Patti Smith

In October I read a grand total of one book. Actually that’s not technically true – I started half a dozen but I only finished one. I had a reading blip, one of those months where I couldn’t quite get my head into anything. And so, I turned to Harry Potter. It’s a comfort thing – for me anyway – and seems so delightfully autumnal. It’s fairly safe to say that it broke my drought, and I was back on form in November…

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secretsscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-00-07

The second in our wizarding series, HPATCOS is possibly my least favourite, largely because the action all happens in the second half. However, there are some excellent sub plots, missed out from the films to cut down on time. I’d completely forgotten about several and loved revisiting them (death day party, anyone?). One of the joys of the HP series for me is how many characters are quietly brought in, particularly those who become more significant later (a feat of plotting many authors don’t seem to manage) and I love the subtleties of Ginny’s personality and the introduction of Dobby.

Rainbow Rowell, Landlinescreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-00-51

I think it was Janet who recommended Landline as a book to break my can’t-be-bothered spell, and it certainly did the trick. Entertaining, and easy enough to read in short bursts on my commute, the plot (LA TV writer is unpleasant to husband, thinks he will leave her, finds a phone which calls 1990s him and tries to fix things) frustrated me. I found myself rolling my eyes too frequently at our heroine, Georgie, and how incredibly selfish and irritating she was. It’s hard to be bothered about a romance when you’re not rooting for the lead…

Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets In Your Eyesscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-01-42

I’ve been meaning to pick this up for ages and finally got around to it – reading it on a train journey while sitting next to someone studying a midwifery textbook gave me huge joy – and not just because I have a dark sense of humour. Doughty’s sort-of biography runs through her early years training to be an undertaker, starting off with the work of a mortician. Funny, brutal and at times very touching (she has a genuine love of her work) I really enjoyed the cultural history she inserts along the way. A surprisingly enjoyable read.

Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrowscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-02-35

Next up, this Young Adult historical crime caper. Penniless Sophie blags herself a job in the haberdashery section of a large and newly opened department store (think Selfridges, circa 1905…) and rapidly finds herself accused of the theft of a priceless gold statue. Handily she has a couple of new pals to help her solve the crime and clear her name. Easy reading, but rather stereotyped (the poor male sidekick, the rich girl looked down on her parents), it was entertaining but I won’t rush back to read the next.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabanscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-03-32

The third Harry Potter instalment, and a close contender for my favourite. The Prisoner of Azkaban is where things start getting really quite dark for our teenage wizard, and the tone of the novel steers decidedly away from the children’s book writing of the previous two. I suspect this is why I like it, Rowling begins to introduce her overarching themes of injustice and darkness earlier, almost from the start and the threads from HPATPOA weave through the remaining novels. This is one which definitely weathers frequent rereading.

Hester Browne, The Honeymoon Hotelscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-04-35

Every now and then you need a bit of fluff in your life. This is it. The tale of the Bonneville Hotel’s events manager Rosie and her rivalry with Joe, the controversial son of the hotel’s owner is moderately entertaining, although the only accurate depiction of working in hospitality is the talk of the ludicrous hours and low wages. I’ve read a couple of Browne’s earlier novels and found them rather fun and not too daft (compared to many others…) so perhaps this one was a dud.

Sophie Hannah, Closed Casketscreen-shot-2016-12-06-at-20-05-13

I wasn’t convinced by Hannah’s first foray into the world of Poirot… and I wasn’t convinced by her second either. Poirot is invited to Ireland for this installment, where a famous author is convinced she will be killed. She isn’t. Someone else is. While the mystery itself was passable, Hannah’s narrative style was frustrating – sticking to cliche rather than Agatha Christie’s slow and gentle unfolding of the mystery. None of the charm or personality of Poirot was there, none of his quirks. Such a shame.

September in books

“Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it” P. J. O’Rourke

A bit of a mixed bag this month – I’ve been branching in to non-fiction and really enjoyed reading outside of my comfort zone…

Tim Spector, The Diet Myth

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-20-35-43I’ve been reading this book for ages, probably about six months, dipping in and out every now and then. Written by Tim Spector, a Professor of epidemiology and lead of the British Gut Microbiome Project (i.e., someone who is *qualified* to talk about health in the way no modern food writers seem to be) it breaks down a whole lot of myths around food, nutrition, the way our bodies process what we eat and drink, and how these all relate to being ‘healthy’. I picked the book initially in the hope it’d help me stay healthy after my move into vegetarianism, particularly given there’s a variety of stomach issues in my family. While it wasn’t ground-breaking for me as someone who is fairly clued up anyway (the highlight was having my criticisms of Paleo and low carb diets vindicated), I enjoyed it and I’m sure I’ll come back to certain chapters in future as it’s nicely laid out according to food group (carbs, proteins etc.). It’s an easy read, in a chatty and accessible format – definitely worth a gander for anyone looking to improve their knowledge about health and food.

Robin Stevens, A Murder Most Unladylike


When I saw Janet’s review, I knew I’d enjoy this – and I did. Harking back to the days of boarding school tales, it’s a rather tongue in cheek pastiche of both the ‘girls adventure’ genre, and cosy murder mysteries. Published as a children’s/teen book, it’s funny enough to appeal to adults, and the mystery itself is actually pretty decent – plenty of red herrings, some minor scandal, and some excellent lead characters in the glamorous Daisy, and her slightly frumpy best friend Hazel. I thoroughly enjoyed my year at Deepdean School For Girls.

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train


I’m late to the party with this one but I suspect part of the reason I enjoyed it is because I’d forgotten pretty much everything I heard when it was published. Emily, a depressed young woman, finds herself entangled in a missing person case. Her alcoholism making her a particularly unreliable witness and it would have been easy for Hawkins to stumble on her characterisation here, using stereotypes and prejudices, but I found her handling of Emily’s mental health sensitively done. The slow reveal of her demise as the book progresses allows the reader to empathise with the situation, despite being as frustrated with Emily’s narrative as she is with herself. It’s hard to review without spoilers, and the ending itself was gripping but a minor let down (maybe I have a particularly dark mind or was expecting a final twist), and I’m not sure the film will do the nuances of the plot justice.

Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible


I didn’t have high hopes for this one. Given to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy an Austen, I was a little worried – I’ve detested all of the other Austen Project rewrites so far. But. I was wrong. Now – there are caveats to this. Primarily, the reason I liked Eligible was that it really wasn’t a retelling, more a reimagining and so to an extent, I was able to detatch myself from the original. The scandals and desperation of women in the early nineteenth century don’t really have modern equivalents, so Sittenfeld has been clever in the way that she’s used the plot as a guide and reinterpreted the characters (something some of the other Project rewrites could have benefited from). This does mean some of my favourite elements of the originals were missing, Mr Bennett for example was missing his resigned intelligent nature, but the general ‘feel’ and pace have been retained and it’s still pretty amusing. Daft, and enjoyable.

Susan Calman, Cheer Up Love


Part biography, part self help book, Calman has adapted one of her best known standup comedy shows into a short book about herself, her career and her experiences of depression. As a fan of her standup and  her Radio 4 programmes I looked forward to picking it up after hearing positive reviews from a friend, and I wasn’t disappointed. Warm, honest and funny, her writing is very easy to read and I found her honesty and vulnerabilities refreshing.

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


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


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


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

May in books

“Doctor Who: You want weapons? We’re in a library. Books are the best weapon in the world. This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have. Arm yourself!” – Russell T Davies

A hit and miss month, in which I venture away from my usual crime novels – and find a gem – and attempt to build on my recent ‘self help’ disaster and get no further…

Anna Mazzola, The Unseeing*

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Sarah Gale, a seamstress with a young illegitimate child, was sentenced to death for her part in a murder – that of a love rival – in Victorian London. The case was sensational, given the brutality of the killing and the distribution of body parts across the city, but Gale’s story has disappeared into history. Mazzola has brought back Sarah Gale in this reimagining of a true crime, telling the case through the eyes of the struggling young lawyer brought in by the home secretary to investigate the conviction. But why is Sarah so reluctant to receive the help she needs? What is she hiding?

It’s incredibly difficult to review this book without accidentally letting out an enormous spoiler, partly because the plot is so very simple. The portrayal of Gale herself is the biggest success, simultaneously appealing to the reader because of her vulnerability, but also one of the most infuriating protagonists I’ve come across (there were a few times I wanted to shake her!). Characters and murder aside, I’d probably say the biggest theme in The Unseeing is how utterly horrific life was for impoverished people in the nineteenth century. Gale’s fall from grace, mirroring that of another minor character, is a stark reminder of how vulnerable many women and children were.

Frustrating, exasperating and at times harrowing – I loved it.

Heron Carvic, Picture Miss Seeton*

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When retired art teacher Miss Emily Seeton leaves a Soho theatre and finds herself a witness to a stabbing, little does she think that it will draw her into a dark criminal underworld involving drugs, murder and mayhem… 

A forgotten classic from the 1960s, Carvic pastiches the earlier Golden Age spinster detectives in Miss Seeton, who is somewhat of a cross between Miss Marple, and Mapp and Lucia. Miss Seeton isn’t the most intellectual of heroines, and I found this rather refreshing – rather than setting out to solve crimes, she does it by accident which means we get to know our supporting cast rather better than in other cosy crimes, but also allows Carvic to introduce a lot more dry humour along the way. I’ll be honest, the plot had me slightly baffled (clearly I wasn’t paying enough attention to pick up the finer details in the opening chapters – it’s both silly and subtle) but I enjoyed the period setting, and the 1960s backdrop allowed for a little bit more scandal than my usual Agatha Christie crimes. Not my favourite crime read of the month, but recommended for fans of the classics.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

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Brown, a social worker by background, draws on years of academic research to offer ten guidelines for wholehearted living – or – on how to live with authenticity. Reflecting on topics including courage, compassion and shame, Brown encourages her reader to develop confidence in themselves.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having first heard of Brown via her marvellous TED talks and enjoyed reading some of her online articles, I was expecting to get on rather better than my first foray into the world of “self improvement”. After all, Brown is an academic, and my inner snob was reassured that someone with a PhD in the topic would be worth listening to. And so I downloaded the audiobook, listened while I was walking home from work for the rest of the week… and that’s all I have to say. Bizarrely the entire 7hour tome seems to have gone in one ear and out the other because I remember next to nothing, other than a couple of anecdotes. I realise this makes for a rubbish review but in some ways I think it’s telling that, despite my initial hopes, this book made absolutely no impact on me whatsoever. Oh well – lesson learnt… no more self improvement for me.

Marie-Sabine Roger (trans. Frank Wynne), Soft In The Head*

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Originally published in French, the inspiration for the 2010 film “My Afternoons with Margueritte” has been retranslated and republished for an international audience. Following the friendship of Germain, a mid-40s man with a learning difficulty who bonds with mid-80s Margueritte over pigeons in the park, this gentle tale explores friendship and family – and the joy of reading.

Oh, how I devoured this one – it was the perfect accompaniment to a long train journey. Easy to read, charming and with gentle but realistic characterisation, I really enjoyed getting to know our leads, particularly gentle Germain. Roger manages to draw out a realistic depiction of someone who calls himself “soft in the head” without putting a label on him (a rather nice contrast to The Rosie Project), exploring Germain’s neglectful childhood, and allowing the reader in to understand just why the friendship is so important to both Germain, and Margueritte.

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers – this is another take with a very simple plot, but again, because it’s done so beautifully well it works. The translation was excellent (sometimes I feel that humour or wordplay are missed, both of which are a key feature here), the only criticism I would have is that it’s very French and I found myself googling references to literature at several points. That aside though, a gorgeous read. Highly recommended.


*provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

April in books

“Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?” – Henry Ward Beecher

April saw me (yet again) ignore blogging… But I did read a bit, so there’s that…

Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn

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When 23 year old Mary Yellan’s mother dies, she finds herself alone, and travels to Cornwall to live with her Aunt and Uncle at Jamaica Inn. Finding herself in the middle of a smuggling ring, Mary must establish week is telling the truth – and how to stay safe…

I read Rebecca years ago and enjoyed it, so I was intreagued by how different Jamaica Inn was – while the rather Gothic tension was familiar, that was the end of the similarities. Jamaica Inn isn’t the most challenging book I’ve ever read – the plot is surprisingly simple – and at times I found myself wondering why it is so lauded. It’s slow. Nothing much happens until the last few chapters. The “twist” isn’t really that surprising… But it is incredibly atmospheric, something that I find a lot of more modern novels lack. I suspect I would have enjoyed it more if I’d been curled up next to a log fire with the wind and rain outside, but it was a good pick anyway.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, shares her advice and wisdom on living creatively in this self help slash biographical tome. Outlining the reasons why people don’t explore their creativity, and encouraging us to ignore the “fear” which stops most of us from exploring our full potential, Gilbert writes frankly about her own experiences to encourage the reader.

I’ve found myself struggling to find my creative mojo recently. In absolutely no way did this book help – if anything, I finished it feeling more frustrated than I did to begin with. While I have no doubt that Gilbert is well intentioned, her never-ending stories about her own success frustrated me and I found it increasingly repetitive. This could be because I listened to it rather than read it, which did tend to emphasise how little she actually says. A one hour TED talk? Yes. A six hour audiobook? No. Ultimately it also failed to address the key reason that a lot of people I know are not “living creatively” – frankly, we’ve not worked out what we are good at yet. If you’re into her books, or think writing is your thing, give it a go. If you’re looking for advice and inspiration? Don’t bother.

Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker

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Myrtle Dunnage shocks the Australian town of Dungatar when she returns from a long absence to look after her mentally ill mother. Why do they all think she is cursed? Why did she leave, all those years ago as a teenager? And how did she become such a skilled seamstresses? Rosalie Ham’s debut novel, set in the 1950s, explores themes of prejudice, love… and fashion.

After seeing trailers for the film version of this book at the beginning of the year, I decided to give the original a go. Myrtle – now known as Tilly – is a fascinating lead character, an outcast who has been wronged by her community, and I enjoyed watching her revenge playing out over the course of the novel. To an extent though she is more of a vessel to tell the story of a town inhabited by individuals who struggle with their own happiness, and despite the slow first third of the book, I found the ekeing out of the stories of the other personalities just as interesting as Tilly’s, if not more so. It’s hard to describe The Dressmaker without giving anything away, but its fair to say that Ham has a knack for drawing a character and I found myself both laughing and crying at different parts. Worth a read, particularly if you didn’t catch the film.

Alexander McCall Smith, The Novel Habits of Happiness

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The tenth novel in McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series sees our philosopher heroine drawn into a mystery of identity – that of a small boy, Harry, who is convinced that he has lived on this earth before and who is unsettling his mother with tales of another family. Isabel’s professional life is also thrown into disarray as she discovers that her unpleasant former colleague may be relocating to Edinburgh…

There’s several reasons I enjoy McCall Smith’s “philosophy” series, and I suspect they are the same reasons that other people don’t. The setting is in many ways the star, which suits me fine but I suspect would put others off as the nuances (such as the significance of where characters live) are likely to be lost unless you know Edinburgh. Similarly, McCall Smith has a tendency to add in smatterings of what I can only assume are his own interests – Auden poetry and ruminations on morality for example – and I do find myself wondering if there is an element of biography in the series. But despite these niggles he writes an excellent character and is one of the only male authors I can think of who can successfully write a woman. One of the reasons that Isobel is such a strong lead character is that she is flawed, particularly in this book, where she finds herself repeatedly ill at ease. In many ways not much happens plot wise, I suspect that it’s largely scene setting for later in the series, but even still McCall Smith offers a gentle but firm reminder to his readers that quite often our assumptions are wrong – and that the adage that we are all fighting our own secret battle is often worth remembering.

Kerry Greenwood, Flying Too High

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In the second of the Phryne Fisher mystery series, we discover that our daring investigator is not only clever and beautiful – she’s also an excellent pilot! After a rather daring day at an airfield, Phryne is asked to investigate two different mysteries. The first – the murder of an unpleasant businessman whose son is protesting his innocence despite being charged. The second – the kidnapping of a young girl just weeks after her father wins the lottery. Can Miss Fisher save the day?

After enjoying the first in this series last month, I thought I’d keep going and give the second a try. In many ways I enjoyed it more than the first as we get to know not only Miss Fisher a little better, but her growing band of sidekicks too. The novel itself is pretty short but captures the essence of the 1920s incredibly well, particularly the controversial nature of women’s roles in society. While it would be easy to write off the series as daft, frankly I’d rather call it entertaining fun – and we all need a light-hearted read now and then. I’m looking forward to the next already.

March in books

“Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably” – C. S. Lewis

March saw me reading more than I blogged (whoops), although February’s habit of getting a few chapters in before deciding a book “wasn’t for me” took a while to wear off. Luckily a couple of long train journeys and a few days off work did the trick, as did speed reading a couple of choices for Alex’s Blogging Good Read series!

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 20.25.24Part autobiography, part philosophy, Do No Harm is a collection of short anecdotes by one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. Published in the months leading to his retirement, the book chronicles both Marsh’s own career and the changes to the NHS over a forty year period.

I picked this up on a whim after being vaguely aware of good reviews, but it took me a long time to get round to reading it. It was worth the wait – this is one of the most moving and thought provoking books I’ve ever read. Marsh has an astonishing way of exploring the people behind the operations he performs, and is incredibly honest in describing how he remembers his failures rather than his successes (a scene where he visits a former patient in a long term care facility and realises that he recognises many of the names is heartbreaking). He explores his own ego and is surprisingly aware of his own faults – this makes him all the more impressive, particularly as none of the ego is demonstrated when he talks about his voluntary work teaching in post-Soviet Ukraine. Don’t let the somewhat gory subject out you off, Do No Harm is much more an exploration of life, death and kindness.

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

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First published in 1970, this collection of letters between Ms Hanff, a writer in New York, and the staff at Marks and Co., situated on Charing Cross. Spanning four decades and hundreds of exchanged parcels, the letters begin some unlikely but lifelong friendships.

It’s an unusual book, this. I often find letter- formed stories hard to read, so I listened to it as an audio book, which worked well. The upside of the letters is that, as far as we are aware, they are all real and the correspondents slowly come to life as the years go past. The downside? I can’t help thinking they are edited. There are considerably more from Hanff to the bookshop than the other way around, and unfortunately I found the London characters much more interesting. Hanff comes across, despite her generosity to the staff in sending food parcels, as somewhat of a diva, and I often found myself rolling my eyes at her. It’s a pleasant enough tale but unfortunately not quite up there with The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which I couldn’t help but compare it to.

Michelle Birkby, The House at Baker Street

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When Sherlock Holmes turns down the case of Laura Shirley’s blackmail, his housekeeper Mrs Hudson is appalled – and is convinced that she can help. Roping in Mary Watson (and several other familiar characters), to help her, she quickly realises that lives are at stake as well as reputations.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoy Holmes adventures, and this was a rather good spin-off. I found the first couple of chapters rather frustrating (lots of “more on that later” type talk which never quite got explained) but the story quickly became gripping and I found myself racing through it. Conan Doyle pretty much ignores his female leads, so it was fun to have them come out of the shadows. The plot itself was quick paced, and although there were the usual historical liberties taken, I easily forgave them, because it was an enjoyable read. I hope there’ll be another in the series soon.

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues

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The first of the Miss Phryne Fisher series, Cocaine Blues introduces us to our heroine. Phryne is persuaded to return to her native Australia to investigate the suspected poisoning of a family friend, and finds herself caught up in a mysterious Cocaine racket – with dangerous consequences…

After enjoying the Australian TV adaptions, I thought it was time to give the novels a try. Phryne is not your typical 1920s heroine, she’s sparky, scandalous and would fit in rather well with my group of girlfriends – despite her modernity being a little jarring against the backdrop at times, she is rather marvellous. In some ways, the mystery is secondary as the book is really a scene setter for the rest of the series (it reminded me of the pilot episode of a TV show, introducing people rather than plot), with Melbourne’s seedy underworld being explored and Phryne’s new friends introduced. For the second time this month, though, I’m looking forward to the next adventure.

Jostein Gaarder, The World According to Anna

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Published on the twentieth anniversary of his famous “Sophie’s World”, Gaarder’s latest novel is a Young Adult tale of a teenage girl who finds herself receiving messages from the future, when her great granddaughter asks her to stop climate change.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having never quite got around to picking up any of his other classics I was excited to see what the fuss was about. Oh, how disappointed I was. Gaarder’s premise was interesting, but there was no explanation of how Anna recived her messages, and the characterisation was, in my humble opinion, dire (particularly Anna’s psychiatrist, who was a cartoon). I also found myself rolling my eyes at how far fetched and inaccurate some of his assumptions of climate change are. I’m not the biggest fan of YA, as done badly it can read like it was written by a YA, and sadly this fell into that category. Not for me at all.

February in books

“Most of what makes a book ‘good’ is that we are reading it at the right moment for us” – Alain de Botton

This month I have mostly been getting two or three chapters in to a book before realising it was due back at the library, or getting bored and deciding that it wasn’t for me. Any bedtime suitable page-turner recommendations? In the mean time – here’s what I did finish…

M R Kasasian, The Mangle Street Murders

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When Marge’s beloved father dies, she moves to London to live with her guardian, Mr Sidney Grice, the famous personal detective. On her first evening in his home, their tea is interrupted by a woman desperate for their help – her son in law is being tried for murder, and she’s convinced he is innocent. Marge believes her, but Mr Grice is not so sure…

I thoroughly enjoyed The Mangle Street Murders – largely because of the unusual starring characters, more than the mystery itself. Marge, an outspoken gin drinking rebel, would be welcome on a night out with me any day. Her uncle? Not so much… Grice is an unusual hero, an unpleasant vegetarian with a penchant for a cup of tea, he’s clever and entirely motivated by money. At least he’s honest about it. The murder itself wasn’t a huge surprise to me (although there were some fun twists and tangles), but I’ll be reading the next one with glee anyway.

Jojo Moyes, After You

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After You picks up where Moyes’ bestselling Me Before You left off (consider this your spoiler warning…), revisiting Lou as she tries to come to terms with what happened when we first met her. Eighteen months later, and she’s living in London, working in an Airport bar, barely in touch with her family. But then she has an accident, and a visitor, and she’s drawn back into Will’s world.

I loved Me Before You. Loved it. I did not love After You. While I was keen to revisit the story, having since read more of Moyes’ books, I was sceptical as to where the plot would take Lou next. When we left her, she was grieving but ultimately the first book ended on a high, with options and possibilities in Lou’s future. After You sees them dashed rather spectacularly (to say nothing of the personality transplant our leading lady has had in the mean time) and Moyes relies heavily on additional characters to push the story forward. I eye rolled a lot. Never a good sign.

Lesson learnt: don’t read sequels.

Dan Brown, Inferno

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The fourth in Brown’s series (so, technically not a sequel) about Robert Langdon, cryptologist and star of his famous Da Vinci code, Inferno begins with Langdon waking up in a Florentine hospital with no idea how he got there. He quickly realises it’s related to a mysterious alerted image of a painting depicting Dante’s Inferno. But why does Langdon have the image? Why is he being chased? And why does he keep having flashbacks?

Sometimes you just to suspend all intelligent thought and go with the flow of a book in order to enjoy it. This is one of those books. The plot was bonkers. Utterly ridiculous. A polymath doctor and a university professor solving riddles which may save the world from an unknown major threat? With the UN involved? Three weeks after finishing it I still have no idea what on earth was going on – but regardless, I did enjoy it, probably because it was set in Florence and made a lot of references to nice art and buildings. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to read another though.

Anna Freeman, The Fair Fight

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The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth, born and raised in a Bristolian brothel in the 1790s. Too ugly to join the family trade, she finds herself training up as a pugilist – a boxer. Intertwined with her story is that of Charlotte, her financial backer’s affluent but miserable wife.

The first thing that struck me about The Fair Fight was the language. The crude local dialect brought the characters to life quickly, and I loved how Freeman changed her words to indicate the social class – and genders – of those giving the narrative. I also really enjoyed the setting, for once not in London, and not the aristocracy. Parts of the novel are brutal, particularly in the descriptions of neglect and poverty, but they are so subtly written in to the plot that they don’t stick out or become judgemental. The only downside? The multi narrative format. As well as Ruth and Charlotte, a third character, George, tells the majority of the first third of the tale. It’s jarring, in a book about women – although he gives additional details and context which pop up later, I found his section long winded. An impressive debut.

January in books

“A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge” – George R R Martin

About 18 months ago I decided to do the 52 books in 52 weeks challenge. I enjoyed it, I managed to finish it, and it was a pretty enjoyable way to push myself into relaxing more. I’ve decided to have a crack at it again – although perhaps not quite so strictly. If I don’t read 52 that’s fine by me because this is a challenge and not a competition. This is a good thing for several reasons, but largely because (despite having spent several days of January on holiday) I haven’t exactly got off to a flying start. This month I have mostly been watching TV. And I’m ok with that.

So, here goes. My January list…

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.51.491880s London. Thaniel Parker, a quiet and lonely young civil servant, finds a watch in his lodgings which seems to save his life when a bomb goes off. But why him? And who made the mysterious watch? In his quest to find out more, Thaniel befriends a lonely Japanese watchmaker, a young female chemist, and a mechanical octopus.

For a debut this is a mighty impressive – the attention to detail, the multi layered plot and the subtle Victorian science fiction elements were seamlessly woven in. I really enjoyed it.

Marian Keyes, The Mystery of Mercy CloseScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.53.01

Helen Walsh, private investigator, finds herself in a dire financial situation and struggling with her personal life.  Her latest case – a famous boyband member who has disappeared just weeks before a comeback tour, finds Helen increasingly under pressure, and she slowly begins to crack…

Keyes is back on fine form here – her earlier novels are undoubtedly her best, but her portrayal of Helen’s fragile state and the thought processes of someone at wits end are spectacular, as well as surprisingly funny in places. I did find it a little long (perhaps because I guessed the “twist” fairly early on), but for an easy read with a deep message, you can always count on Marian Keyes.

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When a beautiful young woman visits detective Sam Spade and begs him to find her sister, he is suspicious. Something about her story doesn’t quite add up – and his gut instincts prove right. Instead of a missing woman, Spade finds himself on the case of a missing statue, worth thousands.

I was so looking forward to reading The Maltese Falcon but if I’m honest – I was disappointed by it. I loved the noir feel, but it was incredibly complicated and convoluted (although I listened to it as an audiobook, which maybe didn’t help), and I really struggled to care about what was going on. I suspect this novel is more famous for the works it influenced than for its own merits as it felt very dated, and not in a particularly good way.

Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary And Potato Pie SocietyScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 20.53.40

In post-war London, writer Juliet is really struggling to come to terms with the changes to her life when, out of the blue, a letter from a reader in Guernsey contains an unusual request – help finding an out of print book. A correspondence follows, during which Juliet is introduced to the world of Guernsey during the Occupation, and the lives of the islanders who survived.

I have been wanting to read this book for years after hearing an excerpt on Radio 4, so I was very excited when Sally included it in my Christmas gift swap. It somehow manages to be touching, hilarious and horrifying all at the same time, and I found myself in awe of the stories of the islanders which are so often forgotten about. In a way, it’s a shame that the cover and title are somewhat twee, as the stories in some of the letters (fictionalised but phenomenally well researched) will stay with me for years. I’ve never read anything quite like it – I’ll be recommending it to everyone.

Ten Alternatives to Sherlock

imageSo. Sherlock. We waited so long and we got… Well, I’m not entirely sure what we got to be honest. I don’t know about you, but as the BBC’s reboot has gone on, I’ve lost a little more interest with every series. I had such high hopes. Period costumes! A not-twins mystery! No Moriarty! Alas. Hopes dashed. But then as I am frequently reminded, I am a purist.

If, like me, you need your faith in Mr Holmes topping up, may I humbly suggest a gander at some of the following?

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes

Let’s start at the beginning, after all, it is a very good place to start – the original short stories are still rather marvellous. They’re perfect for a bedtime read, preferably listened to aloud, but always with a hot chocolate or a sherry.

Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

To me this is the “proper” TV adaptation, first shown on ITV in the 80s. Golly it’s good, true to the stories and spirit of the originals. Jeremy Brett is perfect – clever and acerbic, and his Watson is a worthy sidekick. Highly recommended for dark winter nights.

Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary

The American reboot, starring Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson, is (in my opinion) miles ahead of the BBC version. Holmes is flawed but likeable, Watson is respected by him, and while it’s a little in the CSI realm it’s still excellent. The first two series are particularly good.

Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary

It’s not clever, but it is fun. Holmes and Watson are persuaded to venture up to Edinburgh, where dark things are happening in the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Is it the ghost of David Rizzio? Silly, and clearly written for a US audience, but worth picking up.

Antony Horowitz, The House of Silk

Antony Horowitz brought back Holmes to mixed reviews in the first of his series. I enjoyed it, the Victorian feel was suitably spooky, and the full length tale works well. At times it reads like a labour of love – true to canon – and all the better for it.

Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes

I suspect that this 2009 Hollywood spectacular is what first brought Holmes to the attention of most folk. Considering it stars Jude Law, it’s not too bad. It’s certainly entertaining and a good Sunday afternoon watch, even if I’m not sure director Guy Ritchie ever read one of the original tales.

…and a few that aren’t technically Holmes, but are still a rather fun romp through the Victorian criminal worlds…

James McLevy: The Edinburgh Detective

McLevy was the first detective in Edinburgh, and rapidly became a local celebrity. His memoirs are a spectacular insight into the dark side of the city’s Old Town, particularly as most of the streets mentioned are still in existence. Conan Doyle was known to be a fan of McLevy’s books when he was a medical student, and no doubt was influenced by them. Re-published on a small scale a few years ago, it’s worth tracking down a copy.

Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

Both the original book by Kate Summerscale, and the subsequent recent TV adaption are fantastic. The true story of a particularly horrific murder in a wealthy family, they also explore the role of Scotland Yard investigator Mr Whicher and the subsequent effects of the case. A dark tale of the privilege of the upper classes and the ‘reality’ of Victorian detection.

Julian Barnes, Arthur and George

Part biography, part mystery, the true and intertwining tales of Arthur Conan Doyle and a young man who is wrongly accused of a crime explores Victorian ideas of race and class – but it’s also a marvellous insight into Arthur Conan Doyle’s personal life and his fascination with the occult.

Ripper Street

Matthew MacFadyen stars as DI Reid in this BBC/Amazon Prime spectacular set in the 1880s, shortly after the Ripper’s time. Aside from moments of extreme silliness, the characters and mysteries are compelling. The geek in me enjoyed the historical accuracy, too.


Are there any other Sherlock spin offs which I should investigate? Or am I terribly wrong about the BBC’s latest interpretation?