Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Family Vault

The Family Vault (Kelling & Bittersohn, #1)The Family Vault by Charlotte MacLeod
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a title that was suggested to the Crimes & Thrillers reading group I attend by one of my readers (and now firm online friend) in Canada, and I find it absolutely incredible that I’m only now getting to discover this wonderful series featuring the amateur sleuths Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn—for the fact is its author Charlotte MacLeod is virtually unknown here in the UK.
Why? It’s my guess it has something to do with her original publisher’s territorial rights, and an unwillingness here in this country to take on a book that uses so much American terminology. If I’m right, how damnably parochial and very short sighted of them was that??!! As it’s still not being published here, the library managed to order us a few paperback copies from Amazon—which turned out to be printed here, so I imagine they’re probably print-on-demand. And people wonder why publishers have become an endangered species!
Great characters, great story, an attractive pair of detectives; quite simply a fab introduction to what promises to be a truly excellent series. But you probably know that already and have known it for years…unless, of course, you happen to live in the UK.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Closed Casket

Closed CasketClosed Casket by Sophie Hannah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Brand New HERCULE POIROT Mystery” proclaims the cover of this book which boasts the full support of Agatha Christie Limited. Christie fan that I am, I understandably approached it with some caution. I needn’t have worried. It is absolutely wonderful.
It starts with a chapter delivered in the third person, in no sense mimicking the great Ms Christie but so well written I was immediately hooked. I would have been quite happy for it to continue in this vein, but it didn’t. It then changed to the first-person narrative of one Edward Catchpool—a detective with London’s Scotland Yard—whose voice at times might have been that of the good Captain Hastings himself. But do not curl your lip, I beg of you, mon ami. This is no meagre pastiche by any means.
Lady Playford, author of the beloved Shrimp Seddon mysteries (whose precocious ten-year-old heroine leads of a gang of child detectives), invites Poirot and Catchpool to a family house party at her rural Irish mansion where she announces that she has changed her will, disinheriting her two children in favour of her terminally ill secretary.
Hannah’s characters are at once complex and yet instantly recognizable. Even the supporting cast is beautifully drawn. I was immediately attracted to the ageing Irish cook who takes one look at Catchpool and says, ‘I knew I was right—you’ve got that look about you!’
“…I asked the obvious question, to which she answered, ‘The look of a man who drinks water all through the night!’ She said this as fiercely as if she were accusing me of baby farming or some equally hideous crime, then pointed to her mouth and said, ‘Dry lips—I can see them from here!’”
She enigmatically goes on to relate a seemingly unconnected story about a nephew who had once stolen some peppermints from a bowl and had broken the bowl in the process. Although I wasn’t expecting an explanation for these bizarre and unfathomable utterances on her part (the mother of a friend of mine was an ageing Irish cook whose comments and observations were just as obtuse), I was truly delighted with it when one finally came.
That kind of sums up how very generous this book—and its author—is. Cozy thrillers don’t get much cozier…and certainly no more challenging. I think the last words should go to Lady Playford, Shrimp Seddon’s creator, whilst I go hunt down the first in Hannah’s series:
“‘…if my plots were simpler then people would guess, wouldn’t they? And you can’t have people guessing. I’m afraid I don’t write for dimwits and nor will I, ever. I write for those capable of rising to an intellectual challenge.’”

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Death Comes to Lynchester Close

Death Comes to Lynchester Close (Lord Francis Powerscourt, #14)Death Comes to Lynchester Close by David Dickinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m about to shout. It’s an alert for a spoiler not of my making but—would you believe it?—of the publisher’s, and my aim is to prevent you from seeing it. WHATEVER YOU DO, DON’T LOOK AT THE BACK COVER! Don’t even be tempted. There’s a really catchy hookline there (which I’m sure somebody is exceedingly proud of) that renders the first three-quarters of this investigation (and therefore the book) a tad redundant. Once I’d read it I couldn’t unread it, so with increasing impatience I spent an age ploughing through what would have otherwise proved an intriguing enough plot, waiting for the various investigators to twig what I’d already been told was going on. Way to kill off a reader’s interest! Why Little, Brown allowed this to happen is anyone’s guess.
So, hopefully if you take my advice, what do you get? A cozy mystery set in the imaginary English city of Lynchester a couple of years before the First World War. The presiding detective, who is summoned down from London, is Lord Francis Powerscourt, a peer of the realm. He has a wife, Lady Lucy, and a friend, Johnny Fitzgerald, to assist him—in addition to the fawning local police in the shape of Inspector Vaughn. Lord Francis and his crew don’t get much of a look in when it comes to descriptions. Though it’s the first book I’ve come across in this series I believe it’s actually the fourteenth, so perhaps we’re meant to know what they’re like by now. By contrast, all the other characters are succinctly and sometimes humorously drawn, each one distinctive and fairly rounded. I could imagine meeting them in the real world.
The writing style is unique. There’s hardly any scene-setting, and transitions between scenes can be as abrupt as a single sentence. It reminded me of the stage directions in a play. The bulk of the narrative is delivered as a series of two-person conversations, some of them lengthy, with very few of the component speeches receiving any attribution (such as “Powerscourt said” or “replied the Dean”). Yet I was seldom at a loss to know who was speaking and, once I got used to it, I found the style refreshingly different from the other cozies I’d recently been reading. There’s a wealth of history here too, but I suspect you’d need to know what you’re looking for in order to recognize it. It’s incorporated so well that it’s practically hidden.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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The Devil's Workshop

The Devil's Workshop (Scotland Yard's Murder Squad, #3)The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone dabbling in Ripper lore with the aim of identifying the killer must eventually deal with the ultimate question. Why did the killings stop? Did he die? Did he embark for South America to continue his career? Was Mary Jane Kelly his actual target and, having killed her, was killing no longer necessary? Here Alex Grecian ingeniously suggests that the Ripper was taken captive by a group hell bent on having the punishment fit the crime, a bit like Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado’s Song but without the sense of humour. This is not a spoiler, I hasten to add; it’s where this book begins.
My Penguin edition tells me Grecian is acclaimed for his comic book series Proof (they probably meant graphic novel series, bless them), and as I made my way through the text I could practically see the images being inked up as I read. The underground network of tunnels branching off a sunken street; the blind, colourless fish slapping at the surface of an unlit lake; the deer cantering off into the distant gloom. I could almost discern which frames were to be rendered from a ground-level point of view.
Unsurprisingly Jack is a leading player, and Grecian does a great job in developing his character—showing us his madness and slowly revealing his moral code—to the point where we’re never quite sure how he’s going to react, no matter how well rounded the character might be. By contrast the police (including the heroes of the piece, DI Walter Day and his sergeant, Nevil Hammersmith) appear at best well-intentioned if entirely ineffectual, and at worst positively inept at their jobs.
The blood bath, when it comes, is definitely a blood bath. Some of the characters you’ve met are going to die. That said, strangely I found it an emotionally satisfying experience, which I suspect other readers will too. It’s nicely handled.
If you’re looking for a cozy thriller with a bit of detection and a wealth of historical detail, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for a decent page-turner involving Jack the Ripper, you will.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (Bryant & May, #11)Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart by Christopher Fowler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across the Bryant & May novels some years ago at the beginning of their career. Although I had certain reservations about the series, I picked this one up to see how the pair were getting along now.
OMG. There’s probably more London history here per inch of text than in any regular history book. Fowler clearly loves this city, and I was staggered by the sheer amount of research he’s put in, and not just with regard to the myriad settings he makes use of in this book. Want to know how coffins are sealed these days? It’s here. Want to know how magicians make doves appear from thin air? That’s here too (I have a sneaking suspicion Fowler once patronized the same magical supplies shop in Holborn in the late 1980s that I did—stage magic not wicca, I hasten to add; flash paper and silks, not bunches of sage and crystals).
My reservations of old still remain. I don’t respond well to an excess of arcane theories piled one atop another in an effort to create an atmosphere. A little goes a long way if you let it. But that’s my own predilection and maybe my loss, and I would hate to put anyone off reading this because of it. However, on balance I have to say I find Arthur Bryant more annoying than he is endearing (I suspect Fowler means me to), so I was extremely impressed to discover Bryant contemplating his nature and finding himself at fault.
So just how are the pair were getting along now? Quite well really, all things considered.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Monday, 12 February 2018

The Moonstone

The MoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It kills me to think that it’s coming up to forty years since I first read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Though I list it among my influences as a writer, the truth is, when I saw it was the next book for my Crimes & Thrillers reading group, I seriously wondered whether I’d still be able to understand it, let alone enjoy it.

I tend to believe that, with some notable exceptions, the shelf life of a novel is approximately fifty years, by which point the cultural references are lost and, as our language has developed and moved on, the original meaning of the text becomes obscure. There’s an unintentionally hilarious example of this in The Moonstone, where Mr Franklin Blake, a young man with prospects, asks Mr Bruff the solicitor to arrange a meeting with his beloved Rachel at the lawyer’s house:

…‘May I venture to suggest – if nothing was said about me beforehand – that I might see her here?’
‘Cool!’ said Mr Bruff.

Cool, especially followed an exclamation mark, no longer means “impudent” or “presumptuous” as it once did. But as The Moonstone is approximately a hundred and fifty years old, it’s amazing that the bulk of it remains perfectly readable, thanks in the main to the old family retainer Gabriel Betteredge’s narrative voice, in which half of the book is delivered.

Examine the plot and you’ll see that the two main characters are the star-crossed lovers, Franklin Blake and Miss Rachel Verinder. But, judged by their actions alone, they come across as surprisingly unsatisfying heroes. Rachel (who isn’t permitted a narrative voice) spends the first half of the book locked in her room refusing to see or to speak to anyone; Blake (whom I liked during his time as a narrator) spends the entire book trying to get Rachel to see him and is disappointed time and time again. The only reason I was prepared to think highly of these two was because Gabriel Betteredge clearly thinks highly of them and manages to humanize them by recalling snippets from their youthful past.

Collins went to great lengths to give each of the many narrators his or her own identifiable voice. Most work very well, and, really, these are the characters I take with me having finished the book. There are however some exceptions. The retired Sergeant Cuff, formerly of Scotland Yard, could not sound drearier, and his summing up of the case—after the true thief is unmasked at the climax—falls especially flat. But it’s Mr Murthwaite, traveller to exotic climes, who provides the most impenetrable and boring speech of the whole novel:

‘…The organization is a very trumpery affair, according to our ideas, I have no doubt. I should reckon it up as including the command of money; the services, when needed, of that shady sort of Englishman, who lives in the byeways of foreign life in London; and, lastly, the secret sympathy of such few men of their own country, and (formerly, at least) of their own religion, as happen to be employed in ministering to some of the multitudinous wants of this great city. Nothing very formidable, as you see!…’


I also found the Christian busybody Miss Clack’s narrative, which proved really popular with readers when The Moonstone was first serialized, to be fairly tough going, though it’s never as impenetrable as Murthwaite. Luckily some of its humour still survives. One of Clack’s favoured charities is the British Ladies’ Servants’ Sunday Sweetheart Supervision Society, presumably providing a chaperone service for courting maids on their half day off – as if their lives were not made miserable enough already!

There are two minor characters who deserve special attention: the maid Rosanna Spearman and the doctor’s assistant Ezra Jennings. Both are outcasts, both possess some physical deformity of a sort, and both are denied the partner whom they love. It occurs to me that they represent what Rachel and Blake might have become if the mystery of the diamond had never been sorted out. Jennings, who is instrumental in this, clearly has a well-developed back story, and one that is shrouded in mystery, which made me wonder if Collins was preparing the way for a future novel.

I wondered the same thing too about a very minor character, Octavius Guy—better known as Gooseberry—who, like Jennings, turns up towards the end of the book. Despite being a minor character, he is very likeable and has praise heaped on him from all quarters. Here’s what Sergeant Cuff has to say:

‘One of these days,’ said the Sergeant, pointing through the front window of the cab, ‘that boy will do great things in my late profession. He is the brightest and cleverest little chap I have met with, for many a long year past…’

For all its faults I still love The Moonstone, and cherish the fact that my own writing has been compared to it. I’ve come to notice that nearly all of my favourite books are flawed in some fashion, for which I always seem to love them more. The Moonstone remains a great book.

But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

Monthly Post: February 2018

Gooseberry (Send for Octavius Guy, #1)Gooseberry (Send for Octavius Guy, #1) by Michael Gallagher
Current average rating: 4.08 of 5 stars

Hi! No new post this month because I hurt my back before Christmas and it’s going to take a little while for it to heal. By way of recompense let me offer you a free download of Gooseberry: Octavius Guy & The Case of the Thieving Maharajah (#1). A perfect antidote for those winter blues (or something to soak up on the beach in the height of summer, depending on your hemisphere)! Offer ends on February 28th 2018.

“Sometimes you see a book and just know you’re going to love it…An absolute treat for fans of Collins’ novel [The Moonstone] and a successful novel in its own right.”—Emma Hamilton,, LibraryThing Early Reviewers (5 stars).

Happy investigating!

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Night's Child

Night's Child (Detective Murdoch, #5)Night's Child by Maureen Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Maureen Jennings’s Murdoch Mysteries courtesy of my Canadian friend Suzy. Set in late-Victorian Toronto, it is well researched and beautifully written, with well-drawn characters and a likeable detective who seems smitten with a woman who could prove to be his match. The difficult subject matter is carefully handled. It’s just a pity that Jennings seems to have been led astray when it comes to any technical aspect of photography (the shutter and its cable were attached to the camera body, not to the lens; examining the exposed or unexposed plate in any light other than a filtered dark red would result in its ruin by fogging, not that she would see any difference to it prior to its chemical development; increased exposure gives darker prints not lighter ones, and vice versa)—but, given the quality of the writing, I hardly cared.
Since ITV have turned the Murdoch Mysteries into a series, I imagine the books should be available in the UK, and I can’t wait to read more.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Moriarty (Sherlock Holmes, #2)Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Take the Scotland Yard detective who went up against Holmes in The Red-Headed League, re-imagine him as something quite different to how Dr Watson portrayed him in that particular account, then pair him up with, say, a Pinkerton agent, and you have all the makings for a bestselling book.
Throughout Horowitz refers to a second case where Inspector Jones crossed paths with the famous detective (The Case of the Three Monarchs; Horowitz’s own invention). In an act of extraordinary generosity, Horowitz provides us with Watson’s account of it at the very end of the book, an homage perfectly recounted. It even goes so far as to elucidate the problem of how far the parsley had sunk into the butter!
A real treat for Sherlock Holmes fans. But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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A Dismal Thing to Do

A Dismal Thing to DoA Dismal Thing to Do by Alisa Craig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d never come across Charlotte MacLeod before, and was sent this by my Canadian friend Suzy. “America’s Reigning Whodunit Queen” trumpets the blurb in the back matter of this paperback dating from 1988, followed by a quote comparing her to Agatha Christie. And with good reason, it turns out. When I started this book, I’d just finished They Came to Baghdad for the sadly missed Goodreads Agatha Christie Reading Group. The style was fractionally more modern, but was just as crisp and precise without being in any way derivative, and it immediately drew me in.
MacLeod seems to be virtually unknown here in the UK. I can only assume this is to do with the historic decisions of international publishing houses over whom they will publish in their various territories. With the advent of Amazon, such decisions are pointless…and yet they are still being made.
I only wish it had been Janet, wife of DI Madcoc Rhys of the Royal Canadian Mounties, who got to play the detective. He’s fun, but she’s more fun.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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A Murder on London Bridge

A Murder on London Bridge (Thomas Chaloner, #5)A Murder on London Bridge by Susanna Gregory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My second Susanna Gregory book, this time with detective Thomas Chaloner—to my mind a great improvement over her other one, Matthew Bartholomew. It’s 1664, the English monarchy has been restored to the throne (and is already proving unpopular for its lewdness and licentiousness), Catholicism is all but banned and there’s more than a whiff of gunpowder tainting the air.
This time Gregory has a wealth of historical characters and facts to work with, and her love of weaving them all into a plot is infectious. Seasoned Crimes & Thrillers’ readers will have clocked the object of that plot after the first few chapters but, hey-ho, it’s still a good read.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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A Poisonous Plot

A Poisonous Plot (Matthew Bartholomew, #21)A Poisonous Plot by Susanna Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s 1358 in Cambridge, there’s a brisk black-market trade in an expensive white powder called sucura, the townsfolk are up in arms about the scholars (so nothing new there, then), and people are dying in their droves. I enjoyed dipping my toe into the first Susanna Gregory book I’ve read.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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They Came to Baghdad

They Came to BaghdadThey Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There must be an end of all the savagery in the world, the wars, the misunderstandings, the suspicions. A common meeting ground, that’s what we all need. Drama, art, poetry—the great things of the spirit—no room there for petty jealousies or hatreds.”
“N-no,” said Victoria doubtfully, recalling friends of hers who were actresses and artists and whose lives seemed to be obsessed by jealousy of the most trivial kind, and by hatreds of a peculiarly virulent intensity.

There’s normally a healthy dose of humour to most of Ms Christie’s books, but this time I laughed and laughed! The intrepid heroine, Victoria Jones, is a thinly disguised young Agatha, getting herself into and out of all sorts of scrapes in the exotic city of Baghdad and nearby archaeological digs. There even seems to be a veiled reference at the very end of chapter nineteen to Ms Christie’s own disappearance twenty-five years earlier:
“Reminds me—now what does it remind me of?—ah! Yes, Elizabeth Canning, of course. You remember she turned up with a most impossible story after being missing a fortnight. Very interesting conflict of evidence—about some gipsies, if it’s the right case I’m thinking of. And she was such a plain girl, it didn’t seem likely there could be a man in the case.”

See? Laugh and laugh! Sometimes as vivid as a travelogue this thriller fairly gallops along. I’d read it once before, but had forgotten just how good it is.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read (or rather re-read) for the currently-on-pause Goodreads’ Agatha Christie Reading Group—and thoroughly enjoyed!

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (Flavia de Luce, #8)Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Whether it’s a sketch of two pairs of footprints disappearing along a beach, or Oliver Inchbald’s deft hand at children’s poetry, viz.,
Splash! Sploik! Splonk! Splink!
Jumping in the rain
What a jolly mess, I think
Here I go again!

I’d like to think Mr Milne had humour enough not to go turning in his grave. An extraordinary premise, wonderful pastiches, and of course Flavia. Thoroughly enjoyed!
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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After the Funeral

After the Funeral (Hercule Poirot, #31)After the Funeral by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“You—er—acted as companion and also did the—er—well—looked after the house?”
It was evident that he had touched on a delicate subject. Miss Gilchrist flushed a little.
“Oh yes, indeed. I did most of the cooking—I quite enjoy cooking—and did some dusting and light housework. None of the rough, of course.” Miss Gilchrist’s tone expressed a firm principle. Mr. Entwhistle who had no idea what “the rough” was, made a soothing murmur.
“Mrs Patner from the village came in for that. Twice a week regularly. You see, Mr. Entwhistle, I could not have contemplated being in any way a servant. When my little teashop failed—such a disaster—it was the war, you know…”

The Second World War has taken its toll on everyone, the genteel Miss Gilchrist included. The ageing but sharp-as-a-button lawyer Mr Entwhistle recognizes the type: “a composite picture of hundreds of ladylike figures approaching him in numerous Bay Trees, Ginger Cats, Blue Parrots…all chastely encased in blue or pink…and taking orders for pots of china tea and cakes.”
One of the things that struck me on re-reading this much loved Poirot (as you can see, not only is the cover missing, the bottom couple of lines have been ripped from the first seventeen pages by happy young canine teeth) was that many of the cozy mystery writers of today go to great lengths to recreate a sense of past, whereas Ms Christie grounds her novels in her own time—whilst using contemporary issues that her readers would already be quite familiar with. As a consequence she needs to say very little to define her characters and convey her setting—yet how well she adoes it nonetheless!
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read (or rather re-read) for the Goodreads’ Agatha Christie Reading Group—and enjoyed once again!

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Uncle Silas

Uncle SilasUncle Silas by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At its heart this is the story of young Maud Ruthyn, whose mother is dead and whose father, the wealthy scion of an ancient yet untitled family, seems utterly naïve and quite ill-prepared to raise his daughter properly—in fact he hardly ever speaks to her and keeps her in isolation from the world. When he learns that he has but a short time to live, he recklessly decides to give his estranged, impoverished, and socially-outcast wastrel of a brother, Silas, guardianship over Maud as a demonstration to society at large of his contempt for the allegations made against the man. Some years ago a gambler named Charke had been found at his home with his throat slit—and yet the room in which he was found was locked from the inside. Suicide? Murder? Who knows? (Duh!)

This is definitely a cut above your general penny dreadful, but to my mind it suffers fairly early on from a number of passages that felt poorly conceived and clumsily written. Victor Sage, the editor of the Penguin edition I read, felt these same passages to be laugh-out-loud funny; so what do I know? They involve “Madame” (Maud’s inebriated, pilfering tutor, who is foisted upon her by her own well-meaning father) doing a witchy dance in a cemetery. Personally I find her far more frightening (and realistic) when Maud is recounting the woman’s many mood swings and petty cruelties. Madame’s broken French accent is also problematic, as are the many regional accents that Le Fanu employs throughout. I managed to get most (though not all) of what was being said—indeed, occasionally it reads perfectly fluently—but it wasn’t much fun, and it slows down what would otherwise be a compulsive and riveting tale.

I think the great strength of this novel lies in its characters. There were times when I found myself not liking some of Maud’s more entitled attitudes; others when I felt positively sorry for Silas’s son, Dudley.

What else? It’s long; in common with the majority of novels of the time, it is in fact three books. Virtually all the female characters’ first names begin with the letter M (Maud, Monica, Mary, Milly, Meg, Madame); that said, there is a Sarah who pops up later—but even then her middle name happens to be Mathilda. The five shillings Maud pays out for her fortune to be told is today’s equivalent of £50; the pound for the lucky talisman and the pound that she presses into Tom Brice’s hand to deliver a letter, a cool £200 a piece. If you do choose to read this book, try not to think of Cousin Monica as being the elderly woman she is initially presented as; I almost choked when I discovered that she’s only 49! And as intriguing as the locked-room mystery (and its eventual explanation) may be, you will be left wondering why it was required. Best not to dwell on it; just enjoy it for what it is.

But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Sparkling Cyanide

Sparkling Cyanide  (Colonel Race, #4)Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Because there’s someone there who twitters—twitters like a little bird.…A little bird told me—was a saying of my youth. It’s very true, Kemp—these twitterers can tell one a lot if one just lets them—twitter!”

At the point I write this, this final appearance from Colonel Race has been around for 72 years. It’s hard to read such old text with 21st Century eyes and not chuckle at the unintentional meanings that have crept into the language—or frown at the racial and misogynistic slurrings that would not be acceptable today. The character of Colonel Race is becoming ever more out of touch with modern ears; the veneer of his charm is wearing thin. For example, here’s what he says about Christine Shannon, a minor character who proves herself to be an excellent witness, whom, with little or no justification, he considers to be an airhead:
“If he’d put anything into Barton’s glass, that girl would have seen him. She’s a born observer of detail. Nothing to think about inside her head and so she uses her eyes.”

Luckily the bulk of the story is carried on the shoulders of others—including the neat bit of detection at the end—and the writing rates among Ms Christie’s finest. Critics such as Charles Osborne (The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie) have questioned how credible the handbag-and-table device is. Personally I cannot help but admire the beauty of its logic. I’m appreciative too of that faint whiff of a haunting, something that Ms Christie, either in mockery or in earnest, does so incredibly well.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read (or rather re-read) for the Goodreads’ Agatha Christie Reading Group—and thoroughly enjoyed!

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia de Luce, #7)As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you, like me, adore a certain twelve-year-old master poisoner, you will love this book. This time Flavia is relegated to a finishing school in Canada from which girls disappear on a regular basis.
This was my second reading, and my original reservation—that at the end I had no idea why they were disappearing—still stands. I have a nagging suspicion that there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on in this title.
But quibbles be damned! Suspend disbelief and just wallow in the glorious mind of a truly beautifully-drawn character. You’ll feel better for it! I did.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Mrs. McGinty's Dead

Mrs. McGinty's Dead (Hercule Poirot, #30)Mrs. McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mrs. Oliver cast a glance over the Penguin display. It was slightly overlaid by children’s waders.
“The Affair of the Second Goldfish,” she mused, “that’s quite a good one. The Cat it was Who Died—that’s where I made a blowpipe a foot long and it’s really six feet. Ridiculous that a blowpipe should be that size, but someone wrote from a museum to tell me so. Sometimes I think there are people who only read books in the hope of finding mistakes in them. What’s the other one of them? Oh! Death of a Débutante—that’s frightful tripe! I made sulphonal soluble in water and it isn’t, and the whole thing is wildly impossible from start to finish. At least eight people die before Sven Hjerson gets his brainwave.”

Ms Christie’s alter ego Ariadne Oliver is in fine comic form in this one, bemoaning the lot of the mystery writer. As for The Cat it was Who Died—surely that’s Death in the Clouds, don’t you think? It’s interesting to speculate if the museum in question was actually the British Museum.
A truly delightful mid-period Christie with surprises right to the very end.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read (or rather re-read) for the Goodreads’ Agatha Christie Reading Group.

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Catilina's Riddle

Catilina's Riddle (Roma Sub Rosa, #3)Catilina's Riddle by Steven Saylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Steven Saylor, and would argue that he writes beautiful prose, creates brilliant characters and gripping plots, and manages to paint Rome in the time of Cicero so it comes to life before your eyes without his ever labouring over the history. Unfortunately none of that applies to this book.
Many stories (hero sagas in particular) begin with a “call to action”—the hero refuses to answer the call and then Fate (or the gods) must intervene to force his or her hand. Gordianus, the narrator, spends the first seventh of this novel resisting the call—so much of it, in fact, that I began get annoyed with him and, worse, to dislike him for his dithering. At over 700 pages, it’s certainly long a book, not least because it is bulked out by interminable, endlessly repetitive speeches by Cicero (and, to a lesser extent, Catalina)—not a good move, even if they are based on the historical record. Much of the political background (and, towards the end, even some of the action) is delivered via conversations overheard by Gordianus as he moves through the streets of Rome—not snatches, mind you, but lengthy, 10-minute dialogues between strangers—typically “a farmer” and “a merchant” who conveniently represent opposing points of view. One early example of this has an unnamed orator discussing Otho’s law and Rullan land reform with a heckler in the Forum. That one ran for a whole ten pages. It’s a device that tried my patience and quickly wore thin, and I ended up willing Gordianus to move on so that Meto could get his augury read. This was the important bit, after all. If we’re meant to care about Meto, then that was what we were interested in.
So is there anything good about this book? Well, it’s great to meet all the old characters again, though of all of them only Rufus and maybe Marcus Mummius manage to shine above the barrage of all that history. The others seem mired in it. Not that the history is all bad; though it’s a little forced, I’ve never seen anyone else try to explain how the various public offices (e.g. praetor, consul, etc.) worked, or why people would ever wish to run for them, given that they do so at their own—often crippling—expense. It was interesting to compare the election in which Meto votes with the ill-judged snap election called by Theresa May, which just so happened to take place at the same ttime I was reading that section. Gordianus’s relationship with his come-of-age son—as well as notions of what actually constitutes family—are delicately and masterfully explored. It should have driven the book. Unfortunately history is allowed to get in the way.
My final gripe probably seems trivial and petty by comparison; it’s not. At the beginning of Part Two, Gordianus is sharing a wineskin with his eldest son, Eco. On page 115, it lies “flattened and empty” on the grass between them; by page 119, they’re passing it back and forth again, presumably guzzling down its contents. It’s details like this that can destroy the reader’s mental image of a scene in a heartbeat.
One for the staunchest fans only and determined completists, I fear. Do yourself a favour and read “Arms of Nemesis” instead. It’s the one I requested. It’s just a pity it wasn’t available.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Death Comes as the End

Death Comes as the EndDeath Comes as the End by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“She was not a servant…She had a wig on her head and she wore jewels—a servant does not wear jewels.”
“Jewels?” demanded Imhotep. “What jewels?”
The boy replied eagerly and confidently as though at last he had overcome his fear and was quite sure of what he was saying.
“Three strings of beads with gold lions hanging from them in front…”
Esa’s stick clattered to the floor. Imhotep uttered a stifled cry.

It’s Ancient Egypt, the end of the First Intermediate Period and beginning of the Middle Kingdom, when the Egyptian capital transfers to present-day Karnak—the city that, under the later Greeks, will eventually become known as Thebes. When ageing ka-priest Imhotep returns from the north with a beautiful young concubine, his extended family are none too pleased. After she dies in an apparent accident, is it her revengeful spirit that returns to bump the family off one by one?

Each of the characters is well defined as a particular “type” (e.g. knowledgeable old grandmother, elder son’s nagging wife, middle son who’s a bit of a gambler), and yet with few exceptions they are all quite sketchily painted, even by Ms Christie’s economical standards. Too sketchily perhaps for us to engage with them fully? I’m a great fan of Ms Christie, but even on re-reading this remains one my least favourite of her works. Still pleased I had a reason to read it again, though, for I don’t think my copy will last another outing!
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Taken at the Flood

Taken at the Flood (Hercule Poirot, #28)Taken at the Flood by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“My word, laundry’s a problem nowadays. Four ruddy weeks since they’ve been to our place—not a clean towel left in our house, and my wife washes all my things herself now.”

So laments Superintendent Spence about the privations suffered in post-war Britain in this tightly-plotted Poirot novel from 1948. And he’s not the only one to suffer. Aunt Kathy, the scatty spiritualist wife of Dr Lionel Cloade, queues for hours for a “depressed-looking bit of cod” and a tin of golden syrup, which, having fought for, she promptly drops in the street. Poirot, ever the gentleman, retrieves the cod and runs after tin for her.
Highly enjoyable, and with a truly novel premise, this book sounds the death-knell for weekend house parties in the country, summers on the Riviera, and sumptuous first-class train travel to ever more exotic climes. From here on in it’s all council housing estates encroaching on St Mary Mead and gardens falling into disrepair because one cannot get the staff. Not that I’m complaining.
BTW, two things that may not be immediately obvious to current readers, but were as plain as day to contemporary ones:
1) When Superintendent Spence talks about his wife washing his things, he means by hand. Poor her; lucky him. I hope he appreciates it.
2) As much as I adore cod, it seems to have been the only fish in general supply throughout the war, to the point where it became thought of as unwelcome, repetitive fare.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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The Chessmen

The Chessmen (Lewis Trilogy, #3)The Chessmen by Peter May
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though it’s the final part of a trilogy, this was my first contact with Peter May’s books, picked at random by the Crime & Thrillers reading group I attend. So I wasn’t as prepared as I might have been for the sheer profusion of weather-on-landscape descriptions (for which apparently May is both loved and acclaimed). As beautiful as their prose might be (and it is; it is never mechanically written), from very early on they appear on every page and it read so unnaturally I began to wonder if I was missing out on some insider joke.
As for the story proper, the characters are all very likeable, the setting is gorgeous (Lewis, the northern-most of Scotland’s Western Isles), and the writing’s immersive—especially when May slips into the first-person narrative of Fin’s remembered past. Towards the end I even found myself looking forward to finding out what the weather was like—and strangely it no longer felt like overkill!
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Career of Evil

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3)Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“My heart sinks every time I open a thriller and it turns out to be about rape or sexual child abuse, or, as is the case here, both.” Thus begins a recent review I wrote for a different book, by a different author, and one which amply justified my sinking heart.
Not so with this one! Hurrah! You know from the start you’re in capable hands, that Rowling will tackle these difficult subjects to the full, and deliver for the reader an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
No, my heart sank for a very different reason; you will know what I mean. My favourite of the series so far. Desperately awaiting the next. Loved and reviewed for #MysteryWeek
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Why Didn't They Ask Evans?

Why Didn't They Ask Evans?Why Didn't They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“It’s as though we’d walked on to the stage in the middle of the second act and we haven’t really got parts in the play at all, but we have to pretend, and what makes it so frightfully hard is that we haven’t the faintest idea what the first act was about.”
Frankie nodded eagerly.
“I’m not even so sure it’s the second act—I think it’s more like the third. Bobby, I’m sure we’ve got to go back a long way…And we’ve got to be quick because I fancy the play is frightfully near the final curtain.”
“With corpses strewn everywhere,” said Bobby. “And what brought us into the show was a regular cue—five words—quite meaningless as far as we are concerned.”
Why didn’t they ask Evans?”

This is one of Ms Christie’s attractive thrillers that feature a pair of amateur sleuths (with no sign of Miss Marple or Monsieur Poirot lurking in the background). In this case it’s the happy-go-lucky Bobby, the fourth son of a country vicar, and the thoroughly modern Lady Frances, better known to her friends as Frankie. The plot, which is generously seasoned with all manner of thrilling devices, could well have served as a template for all of Francis Durbridge’s Paul Temple mysteries. There’s (and trust me, there are no spoilers here, just teasers) the enigmatic words on the dying man’s lips, the business—in the theatrical sense of the word—with the photograph used to identify the body, the mysterious foreign doctor in his high-walled clinic situated in some out-of-the-way spot in the countryside, and a gang that’s apparently trafficking in morphine. Then there’s the staged accident to gain ingress to a house, the more-than-a-faint-whiff of The Woman in White about the mysterious Moira Nicholson, and the casual mention-or-two of a possible suicide by a seemingly neurotic millionaire. It was so good to read this again.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read for the Agatha Christie Reading Group at Goodreads. A perfect cozy for #MysteryWeek

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The Silkworm

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having started this book (and well before finishing) I took a peek here on Goodreads to see how it fared for reviews. I wasn’t surprised to see how highly it was rated—and deservedly so, in my opinion. No, the surprise was the one review that took Ms Rowling to task for missing the opportunity of making Robin Ellacott the protagonist, and offering her advice on how to improve her writing in future (for which, I am sure, Ms Rowling will be eternally grateful).
Having finished the book, which is steeped in the toxic world of writers, literary agents, and publishers, I began to wonder whether the review in question was not some kind of “knowing” tribute—an in joke, if you will—for the writer sounded uncannily like one of Rowling’s own characters—self-opinionated, overbearing, and hilariously drawn.
Ms Rowling’s pen is scathing, and never more so than when dealing with self-publishing authors. In our defence, let me quote from a poem by one of the more scurrilous of our number. Bear with me; it’s worth it:
Little lamb, who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee,
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
—from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, by the self-published writer and printer Mr William Blake

Did you clock the missing question mark? Outrageous! And you should see how he constantly misspells the word “tiger”! Oh, how I laughed! But I digress.
I love how Strike and Robin are perfect counterfoils, tag-teaming their way through the narrative. I laughed out loud at the chain-smoking agent and the literary horrors foisted upon us by the indie author. I took the bait—so carefully laid—and put my money on the wrong horse. I prayed for Robin and Matthew’s relationship to break up, but then you don’t always get what you want, do you? I am already lapping up the third book. Long may the series continue!
Having just said that, it occurs to me to wonder how many traditionally published authors would be able to identify the English tense used in “Suffice it to say” or even “God save the Queen” without Googling it? Hmmm.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Enjoyed and reviewed for #MysteryWeek

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The Soul of Discretion

The Soul of Discretion (Simon Serrailler, #8)The Soul of Discretion by Susan Hill
My rating: Unrated

My heart sinks every time I open a thriller and it turns out to be about rape or sexual child abuse, or, as is the case here, both. I happened to be watching an old episode of The Closer (series 3, episode 4), which also deals with sexual child abuse and murder, and it occurred to me that what is so often depressingly lacking in the work of thriller writers (and so abundant in good TV) is an outcome that emotionally satisfies the reader/viewer. It is certainly absent from this book by Susan Hill, best known perhaps for “The Woman in Black”. So why did I suggest the group try it?—which I truly regret, by the way. Where to begin?
Being a fairly recent title, the library had quite a few copies. I thought it would be interesting to compare how Hill tackles modern novels with those set in Victorian times. The blurb on the cover made no overt mention of the subject matter. Goodreads reviewers, when I checked it out there, rated it highly and some even mentioned that, although it’s the eighth in the series, it can be read as a stand-alone.
It can’t. The detective, Simon Serrailler, is barely developed (I only learnt that he had platinum-blond hair in the closing pages, destroying any hazy image of him that I had managed to build up). In contrast, a good third of the book is dedicated to his sister, who has nothing to do with his child abuse case and is only tangentially related to the rape that occurs (that has nothing to do with his case either). Cat drinks wine; she drinks water; she worries about her finances as she goes about her doctoring duties; she visits a terminal cancer patient and listens to the woman’s lengthy reminiscences. As this is probably in line with the series format, that ought to be fine for existing fans, but it is utterly frustrating for newcomers. Nor does it leave Hill any room to bring the book to an emotionally rewarding conclusion.
One for fans only, I suspect. But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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The Quiche of Death

The Quiche of Death (Agatha Raisin, #1)The Quiche of Death by M.C. Beaton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A simply written blueprint for a staggeringly successful cosy thriller series. Agatha Raisin starts off as being flawed to the point of caricature, but in Beaton’s hands—through a beautifully manipulated character arc—she becomes loved and human and alive.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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The Coroner's Lunch

The Coroner's Lunch (Dr. Siri Paiboun, #1)The Coroner's Lunch by Colin Cotterill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dr Siri Paiboun—the one and only coroner in 1970s Laos—is a man to whom the dead give up their secrets…though as much through their otherworldly apparitions to him as by his own forensic investigations. And he has a fine cast of loveable characters to help him: Nurse Dtui, who reads trashy Thai magazines that are frowned upon by the new Communist regime, yet has the brains and chutzpah to become his assistant; Mr Geung, a young man with Downs Syndrome, who is more experienced in autopsy than the good doctor himself; even Saloop, the dog, who undergoes a massive change of heart as the novel progresses.
Full of gentle humour—often at the expense of the new regime, though occasionally at human behaviour—this is a great start to a wonderful series.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Revelation (Matthew Shardlake #4)Revelation by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Six years have gone by since Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake’s first outing as a detective. This time he is hunting down a serial killer whose horrific murders are staged to recreate a string of biblical prophecies from the Book of Revelation.
It’s a gripping story and beautifully told, set against a backdrop of fanatical religious factions and the mental illness that both they and the biblical texts, which are now available in English for the very first time, can cause. Classic Sansom at its best.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)Dissolution by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The year is 1537, the tyrant Henry VIII is on the throne, his much-anticipated religious reform is souring by the minute, and now that the smaller monasteries have been dissolved it is time for the larger ones, who together own great swathes of English countryside, to capitulate. When one of Thomas Cromwell’s commissioners is decapitated whilst persuading one such community to do so “voluntarily”, the Vicar General sends the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.
Historical whodunnits really don’t get any better than this, not least because you don’t need any foreknowledge of the period to appreciate it; Sansom lays before you all you need to know against a background of beheadings, tortured confessions, and even talking parrots imported in appalling conditions to amuse London’s elite.
He also paints a fine picture of a religion in turmoil, with the papist monks who believe they need to intercede between God and the common folk in order to ease their paths out of purgatory, the reformers who to varying degrees believe that intercession is neither necessary nor desirable (for there is no such thing as purgatory), the individual hot-gospellers who have access to an English bible for the very first time and, gorging on the words, believe themselves to be God’s own prophets, and the king and his cronies who cynically use reformation to feather their own pockets. Then, of course, there are the common folk themselves who quite rightly suspect that they will be no better off when all this reformation nonsense is done and dusted.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Venus in Copper

Venus in Copper (Marcus Didius Falco, #3)Venus in Copper by Lindsey Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Falco, the swords-and-sandals, wisecracking informer (read “detective”) from Imperial Rome and his patrician (read upper-class) girlfriend Helena are back in one of the earlier books from this series. You would never realize it when you are reading it, but a wealth of historical detail underscores everything from the characters and plot to the endless one-liners that make up much of the dialogue.

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The Curse of the Pharaohs

The Curse of the Pharaohs (Amelia Peabody, #2)The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Peters
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I LOVED this. Elizabeth Peters is SO good. My Crimes & Thrillers group read the first in the series some time ago and enjoyed it so much that, now we have separated ourselves from the library which spawned the group and are now obliged to suggest our own titles, I thought we would probably enjoy reading the second one Although I’m only coming to this series (begun in the 1980s) now (2016), the writing is timeless.
As cosies go, Amelia Peabody’s is an not just an exceptional narrative voice, it’s seminal. I was laughing out loud at the antics her infant son Ramses gets up to as the novel begins. I never quite managed to work out how old he is when he unearths the bone from the compost heap (I’m guessing older than two but not yet three, at which point he has begun to write—not just print—but WRITE).
‘I fink,’ he said, ‘it is a femuw. A femuw of a winocewos.’
‘There are no rhinoceroses in England,’ I pointed out.
‘A a-stinct winocewos,’ said Ramses.
Her eye for detail is as is as extraordinary as her eye for humour.
A murder ensues. Motives abound. At some point Peters claims that, unlike in reality, writers of sensational detective fiction can suit the facts to how they themselves would like them to be. If I were writing this book, I would have a very different murderer—even though the culprit turned out to be exactly who I wanted them to be.
Fantastic stuff. A pity then that libraries seem to rid themselves of older books in order to accommodate new ones, especially when said books are clearly classics.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Wrath of the Furies

Wrath of the Furies (Ancient World, #3)Wrath of the Furies by Steven Saylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I LOVE Steven Saylor’s writing and this book is no exception. The plot takes its inspiration from the simultaneous slaughter of all Romans based in Asia Minor on a single day in 88 BCE, as perpetrated by King Mithridates. Classed as “A Novel of the Ancient World”, it follows the exploits of the young Gordianus of Rome—currently residing in Alexandria—as he tries to find out what has become of his old tutor.
While I’m grateful that Saylor has found a way to give us more of Gordianus (these are in fact prequels to his earlier tales), I confess to being sorry that he didn’t end up passing the torch to Gordianus’s daughter, Diana.
For anyone new to Saylor’s novels, I’d recommend they begin at the beginning with “Roman Blood” and “Arms of Nemesis”.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (The Grantchester Mysteries #3)Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maybe it’s because I read this on the heels of another of his books; maybe it’s because short stories (which these are) don’t allow for intricate plots (or in this case clues); maybe it’s because the opening tale was the least satisfactory of the four, which set a tone for the book that the author then never quite managed to shake. Whatever the case, I found it very tough going.
Sidney’s likeable enough, as are most of his companions, but in this book his friend Inspector Keating seems especially badly drawn. At one point he’s meant to be having an affair—though we scarcely see any proof of it; the next minute it’s over and his wife, although she’s keeping him on a short leash, has forgiven him. And quite why he’s so anxious to whisk Sidney off to France in one of the cases (Female, Nude) is anyone’s guess.
It’s a pity, because Runcie is really quite brilliant in his descriptions of people. Here’s what he does with one minor character: “Daisy Playfair spoke in a husky voice that sounded like a sore throat, and with her tongue forward in the mouth, as if she was about to offer an all-too-alluring kiss. Her lipstick was glossily pink, her skin was tanned and her cleavage was pleasingly visible. Sidney tried not to stare and composed himself by looking down to the floor and concentrating on her white slingbacks; only to discover that Daisy also possessed the most erotic feet he had ever seen.”
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike, #1)The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fool that I was, I balked when I saw the size of this weighty tome. It didn’t take long before I was hooked, however, and it proved to be the perfect antidote to the dour and miserable nature of our book club’s last two offerings.
Cormoran Strike is a fascinating and complex character, as is his sidekick Robin. It was interesting to watch how Rowling gets you on their side; she starts the minute she introduces them and then she never really stops. It’s skilfully done. The mystery is sufficiently mysterious, the people in the fashion industry could be based on real people (I’m sure I recognized at least some of the jewellery), and even the minor characters spring lifelike from the page.
Reading it, could I detect the spirit of J. K. Rowling in its prose? No. Well, perhaps towards the end. Though I definitely felt it was written by a woman. The thing is, I felt the same way about The Ice Twins—which wasn’t—so it just goes to show how much I know.
Loved it!

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Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (The Grantchester Mysteries #2)Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night by James Runcie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Short stories featuring a priest turned detective in 1950s/1960s Cambridge…communist spies, bigamist bridegrooms, and poisoned lemonade at the cricket match. It’s a little lightweight admittedly, but it doesn’t really get much cosier—or gentler—than this.

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The Man in the Picture

The Man in the PictureThe Man in the Picture by Susan Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this. It’s a short read that fairly drips with atmosphere and foreboding, made even still weightier by that unrelenting, authoritative Victorian voice that flows so readily from Hill’s pen. It matters not a jot that it isn’t actually set in the Victorian era. Just lie back and pretend that it is.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Murder of a Lady

Murder of a Lady (Dr. Hailey, #12)Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third vintage crime “classic” reissued by the British Library that my reading group has tackled in the past few months, and it’s easy to see their appeal. This one is a locked-room mystery that starts off routinely enough, but later broadens its horizons to include some first-rate descriptions of the countryside surrounding the Highland loch where it is set, plus some psychoanalysis of the very small cast of suspects, which makes for some surprisingly tense reading. Unfortunately Wynne is not content to drive just one or two characters (e.g. the laird’s son and his wife) to the point of catharsis—every one of them needs to turn their life around, apparently—to the detriment of what is really quite a good book. Nor is the solution of the first murder especially believable, though the solutions to the next two are, and I have to say I was absolutely shocked at who Wynne chose kill off. I didn’t see that coming!
As with The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude, the cover of Murder of a Lady is taken from a set of posters promoting railway travel to destinations around Britain. They’re perfect.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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Game of Mirrors

Game of Mirrors (Inspector Montalbano Mysteries)Game of Mirrors by Andrea Camilleri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read a couple of Inspector Montalbano mysteries many years ago and quite enjoyed them. Game of Mirrors proved to be no exception. I love how Camilleri conjures up Sicilian life with just a few carefully chosen words, most of them describing—no, detailing—food. It occurred to me whilst reading this that a translator’s job cannot be an easy one. There’s a lot of verbal humour here that would probably be lost in a straightforward rendering of the text, and I think Stephen Sartarelli, who translated the book into English, has done Camilleri proud (Catarella’s speeches and Prosecutor Tommaseo’s singing the whole scale are two fine examples).
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read for the Crime & Thrillers reading group that I attend at Canada Water Library, and for my 2016 Goodreads reading challenge.

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The Cornish Coast Murder

The Cornish Coast MurderThe Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reverend Dodd, the local vicar, and his dinner guest, the local doctor, find their Monday night ritual of divvying up crime thrillers from the local lending library interrupted by a phone call announcing a murder. Their neighbour, Julius Tregarthan (no, not local Squire in this case—though he is a Justice of the Peace) has been shot to death.
Originally published in 1935, the text for the most part could be mistaken as being modern. In his introduction to this edition, Martin Edwards suggests that Bude “pays more attention to characterisation and setting than many of his contemporaries”, and I think this goes some way to explaining why the novel has the feel of a likeable, modern-day Cosy, albeit one set in the 1930s.
The weird thing is, I’m almost positive that I held this book in my hands when I was a young child (old enough to be able to read the text, but too young to make a lot of sense of it). I got a strong feeling of déjà vu with the opening sentence, and a much stronger one when I saw the title of the twentieth chapter: The Little Greystoke Tailor. Clearly I used to flip through books. I still do sometimes.
I think the British Library is on to a winner, republishing these forgotten gems from the Golden Age of Crime Writing.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read for the Crime & Thrillers reading group that I attend at Canada Water Library, and also for my 2016 Goodreads reading challenge.

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had no idea how I’d get on with this book. It was given to us for the Crime & Thrillers book group I attend; it is not one I would normally pick up. That said, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it managed to keep my attention. I’d worked out who the murderer was by some point in the middle, and from then on it was a pleasure to see how Hawkins went about revealing clues as to their identity. She does it quite masterfully in fact.
Much has been made on Goodreads of what a mess the main characters are. It’s true, many of them are unpleasant, but I found myself feeling sorry for the central character, Rachel. Hawkins makes much of the London commuter belt setting, which she portrays to perfection, so quite how the novel will translate into film once it’s been relocated to New York remains to be seen.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know! Read for the Crime & Thrillers reading group that I attend at Canada Water Library, and also for my 2016 Goodreads reading challenge.

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Mystery in White

Mystery in WhiteMystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was originally published in 1937. It was republished in 2014 by—somewhat surprisingly—the British Library. It’s subtitled “A Christmas Crime Story”, and it does exactly what it says on the tin.
One Christmas Eve, a group of passengers disembark from a snow-bound train and chance upon a deserted country house, where—mysteriously—the fires are lit, the kettle is boiling, and tea has been laid out for them. But where is their host?
The characters are nicely delineated. There’s old Mr Maltby, member of the Royal Psychical Society; Lydia and David, two bright young things who happen to be brother and sister; the showgirl Jessie, with the power of psychometry (divining insights from objects simply by touching them); young Mr Thomson-without-a-p, a clerk who daydreams of saving damsels in distress from the wreckage of airplanes—go psychoanalyse that! There’s a pompous bore, who soon gets the wind knocked out of his sails, and a cockney ne’er-do-well, the least convincingly drawn of all the characters—surprisingly so, since Farjeon himself is descended from an impoverished Jewish family from Whitechapel.
There’s a murder or two, and it falls to the ultra-logical, perspicacious Mr Maltby to unravel the affair. Every time he opens his mouth, I hear and see the actor Alastair Simm at his most cadaverous and dyspeptic.

Some of the “witty”, “sparkling” banter feels decidedly shaky, and there’s some unnecessary and confusing business involving Maltby claiming to find a dead body in one of the rooms when he hasn’t—but what else do you expect from a book of this vintage? A good-natured if extremely lightweight novel from the brother of Eleanor Farjeon, the poet who gave us the words to “Morning Has Broken”.
Read for the Crime & Thrillers reading group that I attend at Canada Water Library, and also for my 2015 Goodreads reading challenge.
But that’s just my own humble opinion…what do you think? Do let me know!

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