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Friday, 10 December 2021
I was reading a heap of books for a competition I'd been asked to adjudicate this month, and I can't review them till the judging is public (if even then!) so this is just the frills of reading, so to speak.
Cecilia Peartree, TheChristmas Catastrophe: It’s great to be back in Pitkirtly again, with Amaryllis taking another step towards humanity by sort of acquiring a cat, albeit briefly. The Petrellis at the Italian restaurant take a starring role and for this part of the plot it’s useful to have read the preceding books – but then that’s the joy of this series, growing to know the characters and their eccentricities, the doughnuts, Dave’s aversion to Fiat Pandas, the dogs, the local dignitaries and their secrets ... As usual Christopher the archivist treads bewildered through the whole thing and Amaryllis believes she’s in control. Wonderful.
Terry Pratchett, Wings: This is the third in the children’s Bromeliad series about a race of nomes that live in a department store – only in this book they have managed to travel on Concorde and venture as far as Florida to see the space shuttle take off. Packed with loads of Pratchett-style wit and wry reflections on life, this is very funny, though I still prefer some of his adult series. It's the first Pratchett I've read in a while and I enjoyed it.
Elly Griffiths, The NightHawks: So good to get back to Ruth and her life and friends! I loved the portrayal of her as reluctant head of department, dealing with her new staff, and the dig was fascinating. These are such enjoyable books, like visiting old friends: hope they keep coming.
Jack Benton, The Man by theSea: A good spooky read for this time of the year: mysterious deaths on a beach, investigated by a man who is a ‘practising alcoholic’, ex-soldier and ex-con.
Nikki Copleston, The Promiseof Salvation: In some ways this leads on from the previous book in the series, but there’s plenty of information given to allow it to be read as a standalone (or to remind anyone who has left it a while between books!). I like the lead investigator, Lincoln, and his tentative relationship with his librarian friend, and this continues here. The police team investigates, on and off as cases are taken from them and reassigned, the discovery of a missing child’s skeleton, an assault at a country club and the murder of an earl’s uncle, with the tempting possibilities of links between these cases and some interesting ties to events thirty odd years in the past. The complex plot – with an additional mystery elsewhere – heads up several blind alleys and has the reader occasionally yelling ‘No! Not that!’ before it all becomes beautifully resolved. A very enjoyable read.
Mel Jolly, Becoming FutureYou: There are those at whom this book is aimed with needlepoint accuracy, those who please everyone before themselves and don’t realise that this is doing them no good. (I’m not saying that there are not those who please everyone before themselves and blossom, this is just not specifically for them). However, I think most human beings would derive some benefit from this book which is not promising success with shiny gold sequins on, but success in becoming the best of the person you’re happiest being. It comes with a workbook that makes you examine lots of superficially simple questions that actually can take some answering, questions regarding other people’s expectations of you (useful and not), goals you have abandoned and why, dreams that you don’t think you can follow. Some bits are challenging – you can make this as deep as you like, digging over dreams half-forgotten and remembering why they were abandoned – and some bits are great fun, like creating the character Superhuman You (there’s a free downloadable workbook with space for all these questions and answers) who has all the characteristics you choose for them, regardless of your current skills and talents (and looks!). There’s a very helpful chapter on confirmation bias when it comes to believing bad things about ourselves.
Joy Ellis, Hunted on theFens: The plots are stretching the bounds of credibility, but these are enjoyable reads. My main petty gripe with this one was Joseph complaining about his daughter wanting to save the planet, then the daughter driving (not using public transport) from Exeter to Edinburgh for an interview with a big company in the city. Not much planet-saving going on there. A petty gripe, indeed. Still, as I say, entertaining reads – I certainly don’t regret buying a box set.
Yvonne Vincent, Losers’ Club: Set aside the setting of a non-existent island off the coast of Aberdeenshire and this is an entertaining cosy comic crime with a variety of bad language, sold in aid of a cetacean charity.And meanwhile ... it almost looks as if The Bear at Midnight will be out soon, if not before Christmas then shortly after!
Death strikes the hall at Buckquoy, and when Thorfinn has to appoint a new leader there, bitter rivalries emerge. Then a woman dies, and matters turn serious. When accusations hit close to home, Ketil and his old friend Sigrid must find out who the killer is, if only to defend themselves in the teeth of even more devastating news.
Tuesday, 2 November 2021
It's been another horribly busy month - with sadly very little writing done. But that seems to be changing now and life is looking slightly more under control, so here is the very short list of what I managed to slump over in October!
Alison Leary, Beach Cat Blues: Oh, it’s good to be back in this world of Aubrey’s, where there are suspicious goings-on in a nursing home and a private school. Aubrey is beautifully written and I still maintain these are not cosy – there’s far too much of the real world in them, and not all cats are sweet and fluffy.
David Pearson, A Fatal Liaison: I found this a bit pedestrian, but perhaps it just didn't hit my mood. Burke, the main investigator, is an unsympathetic character and his sergeant, Moore, is a bit whingey. There was nothing much to mark this out in terms of originality, quality of writing, humour or charm, though it was perfectly readable. Some of the police procedure seemed a bit lackadaisical – why did they not talk to the victim’s daughter, or look into his and his wife’s bank details earlier? Never mind keeping an eye on some of the potential suspects to prevent absconding. It sort of worked in the end.
M.W. Craven, Dead Ground: Engrossing from the start with another blindsider played by Tilly before she and Poe head off to the kingdom of MI5 for a new case. As usual several things seem to be going on all of which wind up into one satisfying conclusion, and our intrepid heroes are as dysfunctional, in the most functional way, as ever. One of the books for which I leave my 10% at a time rule and just read straight through – excellent.
Joy Ellis, Shadow Over the Fens: This is a complex double case and the main characters are developing nicely – as is the understated but clearly deep love of the Fens.
There, see? That didn't take long!
I'm still (still!) working on The Bear at Midnight, but the end is sort of in sight with a decent pair of binoculars. Maybe by Christmas? Then, if my addled brain will co-operate, there's a sequel to The Slaughter of Leith Hall and the next Murray to write. It has a tentative plan and everything! well, sort of. Or I could just retire ...
Saturday, 9 October 2021
It's a low count for books read over the last two months, but that's not to say I didn't appreciate them! I'll only put up the first cover this month as I am, as usual, running to catch up with myself - apologies to all those cover artists I'm missing out!
Here's a quick summary:
Trevor Wood, The Man on theStreet: Written from the point of view of a homeless ex-naval man in Newcastle, this is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller-whodunit with interesting and likeable characters and an authentic feel to the setting. A book that lingers - must get the sequel.
The Ice Killer, RossGreenwood: I love Mrs. Chan. I’d like her to come and work with me, but I’d also be incredibly reassured to think that every police station has a Mrs. Chan on their payrole – preferably high up on it. Otherwise this is cleverly written and appealing, the narrative alternating between the police activities and a woman named Ellen, who is finding out more about her past and how it is dramatically affecting her present.
Jason Vail, Missing: After a bit of trouble of his own, Steven Attebrook goes looking for the children of his old friend Harry, and ends up with another missing person case along the way and a little problem with warring armies. Odd Americanisms like ‘teamster’ crop up, but in general this feels quite British and is as usual entertaining, though I felt the political history weigh a little more heavily in this (with the occasional paragraph of explanation of military allegiances and manoeuvres). Though it has a satisfactory ending in itself, it is also setting up the plot for the next book to which I shall, as usual, look forward.
Jim Napier, Legacy: St. Gregory’s is a junior Oxbridge college on the loose round about where University College London is situated (or SOAS or SEES, so it could be any of them). It has the usual collection of scholarly misfits and a few interesting students, foreshadowed by a poignant preface. When a mature student goes under a bus suspicion goes about amongst the staff, while McDermott, an alumnus of St. Gregory’s, hopes it will not fall on his old tutor. This has a very traditional feel to it with some subplot to do with McDermott’s family and personal life and an enjoyable relationship between him and his subordinates.
Stuart McBride, TheCoffin-maker’s Garden: I’ve tried the Ash Henderson series before and not enjoyed it as much as the Logan McCrae ones, but I liked the sound of the premise of this one so thought I would give it a go. The fictional setting, Oldcastle, is thoroughly grim, but in this one at least the characters get to go out and about a bit and there is some humour. Still, I didn’t feel it drew me in completely – I was able to leave it for several nights at a time. It’s certainly gritty, but in the end I enjoyed it. I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to get another one in this series, but who knows?
Joy Ellis, Crime on the Fens: I found the beginning of this very unappealing, and left it for a few months before a desire to tidy up my Kindle drew me back to give it another go. And then it caught me, for the most part: the main characters are interesting and I enjoyed the relationship between them, and gradually the team behind them came to life. It’s a shame that there’s a lot of wandering punctuation and some poor editing that pulls you out of the story. I also found a few aspects of character development a bit unbelievable, but I could warm to these books, I think. I have a set of five so I hope the rest are enjoyable!
John Gaspard, The Bullet Catch: Quite an entertaining mystery with a magician as the detective, looking into protecting an old school friend who fears being shot in the course of making a film, and another old school friend suspected of murdering her husband. There’s a great deal about the lives of stage magicians and their tricks here which makes for an interesting read, though I think there’s nothing to worry the Magic Circle. I think it’s the first in a series and if someone threw the next one in front of me I’d be happy enough to read it.
Deryn Lake, John Rawlings Investigates – Death in the Dark Walk: This is set in the mid 18th century in London, and is not immediately gripping, though that may be my fault as I lost track of the book for a while. It seems to be a rule that any book set in this period and place must feature Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, and that indeed is where the murder takes place. The book is soaked in period detail, sometimes to its detriment, and I found the habit of calling the main character the Apothecary (particularly when he hadn’t really established himself as one just yet) a bit irritating. John Fielding is convincing as the real-life magistrate, and I quite enjoyed meeting other real historical characters in the course of the investigation. It was fairly easy to guess who the murderer might be but it still made quite an entertaining read – I have four in a box set and hope they settle down a bit as the series continues.
Well, there we are - and I'm already reading the next Deryn Lake and Joy Ellis. Meanwhile I'm two-thirds of the way through The Bear at Midnight, Orkneyinga 4, which I really should have finished two weeks ago. Never mind ...
Wednesday, 8 September 2021
Don't know what century I'm in at the moment!
If you're near Ballater this coming weekend I'll have a stall somewhere on the Green on Saturday for the Ballater Mountain Bike Festival - come and say hello!
And if you're anywhere online, Orkney Viking Week is part online and part live, and I'll be doing an online talk and reading next Thursday, 16th, at 7p.m. BST - there'll be an exclusive reading from the new book and a cover reveal!
Monday, 16 August 2021
Some variety this month and some tremendously enjoyable books, including something spooky, something Biblical, something teenage and something romantic. Read on!
Reyna Favis, Soul Search: We hit the ground running here with someone trying to escape the ghost of a small boy, a spirit determined to do damage. The story revolves around Fia, who sees dead people and is with something like Mountain Rescue, working in the woods. There’s a good deal of technical detail about these rescues which is interesting in itself, but the main theme is how Fia, tutored by Cam, comes to terms with the spirit world and her responsibilities towards the people she sees. It feels a bit episodic at first but the plot is neatly drawn together into one investigation, and with its resolution we’re set up for the series. I normally read in 10% chunks but I’m ready to be carried away by any one book – this was indeed a book that carried me away.
Carmen Radtke, Let SleepingMurder Lie: I think this is a stand-alone from the author of the Alyssa Chalmers and the Jack and Frances series, both of which are terrific. It’s a romantic murder mystery, more trad than cosy, set in an English village with a strong heroine in Eve, half-American half-English wanderer, who decides to solve a five-year-old murder mystery. It’s a well-paced, entertaining read with amusing but not stereotyped side characters and a satisfying ending. I just felt like taking Eve aside, though, and explaining curry to her. You can’t generalise: there is a curry for everyone, even Eve.
Hazel Prior, Ellie and theHarpmaker: Well, we’re straight in here as Ellie meets the harpmaker in the first couple of pages. The harpmaker, is awkward, literal, and apparently a loner. Ellie is ambiguous, but he gives her a harp. Immediately, as she tries to explain this odd act to her husband, we want to read on. I loved the rich descriptions of nature on Exmoor, even as I agonised over Ellie’s marriage and Dan’s relationships.
M.W. Craven, Short Cut: A small book of short stories featuring Tilly Bradshaw and Washington Poe in lockdown – very amusing.
William Savage, The ReluctantHeir: it’s a while since I read one of these Adam Bascom books and I find he is now a baronet, but no less keen to investigate mysterious deaths. I enjoy reading about Adam and his wife and other associates (particularly his mother), but this seemed to need another read-through as there were several places where tenses seemed not to follow on properly, and other continuity issues. But I liked the sensitivity to social differences and responsibilities, the niceties of behaviour and relationships.
Zara Altair, The Roman Heir: I seem to be reading lots of books with Heir in the title these days. This one starts with some awkward language, sentences that stumble and stagger a bit. It is a novella and it could do with a better edit, though the sense of period and place is good (the later Roman period and Ostia rather than Rome, so a little unusual for a Roman book) despite Americanisms like calling the Mediterranean the ‘ocean’.
Paula Gooder, Phoebe: Gooder’s academic works on Christianity, particularly on the New Testament, are noted for their friendly, approachable tone and this comes into its own here in a novelised version of the visit of Phoebe, a wealthy deacon mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to Rome. Gooder invents her story but places it in her own scholarly studies of the Roman world at the time and peoples it with likeable, interesting, essentially human characters. Perhaps not a natural novelist, Gooder nevertheless tells a good story with charm. The last 30% of the book – in which, in fact, Gooder is quite happy to admit that she is not a novelist – gives a quantity of fascinating background information and scholarly sources on which she based her story.
Paula Gooder, Everyday God: With reference to ‘ordinary time’, those sections of the church year when we are neither celebrating nor working towards celebration, this is a book in praise of the ordinary and of the God who is with us as much, or even more, in the everyday as He is in tragedy or in grand worship. Gooder encourages us to learn to see God in the normal patterns of life, or in asides to that life, and having seen Him to hear what He is asking us to do. In the same way, she tells us that God is also happy with ordinary people – He does not need us to be extraordinary as He can do that for us, for His purpose. This is a very heartening book, written in an easy style, taking examples from the Bible and chatting over them in a familiar and friendly way.
Matt Dickinson, Lie, Kill,Walk Away: This is a teen novel (is that YA?) with alternating narratives by Becca and Joe, and inspired by the death of government scientist David Kelly some years ago. Joe is a graffiti artist with a youth offending record, while Becca already has an offer from Cambridge based on her A levels aged fifteen. When Becca’s father, a government scientist, is found in an apparent suicide attempt, Becca’s life becomes more complicated. The style is immediate and urgent and the two main characters are very likeable straightaway: both have suffered tragedies in their young lives and are coping as best they can. And they’re bright – bright enough to do that sensible thing that so many characters fail to do in books when they discover some momentous secret: they keep it to themselves and don’t rush up and tell the bad guys what they’ve discovered. Hooray! Some good questions asked here, what killing and radicalisation really does to you, and under what circumstances might radicalisation be more likely to work. And a very exciting story.
Lesley Krier, The First TimeEver: I thought I had read the first in this series (Baby’s Got Blue Eyes) and had been intending for some time to go back and read more – and when I finally did, in this box set, I found I’d missed the first two, including this one. It’s a great start, with a firearms officer shooting a man dead for the first time (entirely in the course of his duties), then building his character – and what a great character Ted Darling is. My main problem with these books is that the titles set off earworms all the time!
Lesley Krier, Two Little Boys: A stressful subject at the centre of this story, organised child abuse, which is particularly difficult for the hero Ted Darling. It’s interesting and touching to see the effect the case has on the police team as individuals, and we really run with the police here in their ups and downs trying to solve the mystery. Mind you, it feels very realistic – though I particularly liked the scene where Ted drives with a ranting suspect in the back while his senior officer repairs his jacket.
Lesley Krier, When I’m Old and Grey: This one begins with a surprise visit from someone in Ted’s past and a possible mystery to solve. I do like the way the team develops through this series, particularly Steve and Maurice. This may have been my favourite so far – I liked the plant toxins and the pace of the investigation, and as for the fiery Jez, she was the perfect candidate for the Ted-as-manager treatment!
And in terms of writing - well, I'm about a fifth of the way through the fourth Orkneyinga Murder, cover to be revealed at the Orkney Viking Festival in September (I'll be Zooming, not in person, sadly, but I'm hoping to do a reading from the new book, if I've written enough!).
Friday, 2 July 2021
A smallish but varied selection last month:
Julie Anderson, Plague: A very London start, heading down into a part of the Underground being refurbished, where a burial chamber and informal ossuary has been found. The plot circles around Westminster and particularly the House of Lords, and the route of the Tyburn river, where a small organisation is gratifying the fantasies of important visitors to London. Cassie is trying to revive her own career while stepping warily around the upper echelons of the Civil Service. It’s an exciting thriller, though I thought that the plague element of it was lost and I had hoped for more about the historical features under London’s streets, not just the Tyburn. Still, it’s quite a good start for a series and I liked the setting, much of which is familiar to me.
Cecilia Peartree, The Heiress is not at Home: This is a companion series to the Missing Heirs series, and very much in the same lines. The action has moved to Dorset, where a young lady is very sensibly fleeing an unwelcome attempt to marry her off as a financial settlement. The plots are lively but more in the manner of a Georgette Heyer than a murder. Yet there is political action here as well as the ever present threat of smugglers – riots in Lyme Regis! This is another very intelligent and amusing read from this author.
Cecilia Peartree, The Identity Illusion: Darn it, every time one of these books comes out I can’t resist dropping everything and heading back to Pitkirtly! This time Amaryllis’ sister makes an appearance, causing confusion and chaos in a manner that Amaryllis herself would be perfectly happy with. And is Christopher developing a backbone? And what is happening in the museum? Goodness, Pitkirtly might be the crime capital of Fife but the population feel like my dearest friends!
David Penny, The Red Hill: Good atmosphere from the start, in 15th century Granada under the Sultan. A British man is his surgeon, and the sultan asks him to investigate a series of maimings and killings in the palace. It’s a bit repetitious – could have done with an edit, really – and the hero is not as bright as everyone thinks he is - there are a couple of points where he's just too busy to hear what the useful informant has to tell him - but the sense of place is really spot-on and the end sets up the series well.
M.J. Trow, Maxwell’s House: A knowing, brisk beginning with a dead girl in a murky, deserted house. The descriptions of schools and their management are amusing, but bitter, and the constant mimicry of actors and comedians is a little overdone. I preferred his Kit Marlowe series. But this has its interest, too, and when the teacher who is trying to take responsibility and find out more about the murders of his pupils is at risk of arrest for those murders, the plot becomes more sinister. Can the police, with their curiously dull senior officer, actually be trusted? Can the teacher? Or is that senior officer sharper than he seems?
Delia Owens, Where the CrawdadsSing: As this book progressed I became more and more reluctant to read it. It begins miserably and improves, which usually leads to a disaster. I shan’t say whether or not that disaster happens – I did cry, I’ll say that much – but certainly this is a beautifully written book with a deep feeling for the marshes where it is set, so that you can hear the birds and smell the damp vegetation and feel the sea breeze. I’m glad I read it.
Peter May, ExtraordinaryPeople: The first in the Enzo MacLeod series set in Paris and other parts of France. This is a real puzzle book, and an exciting chase with interesting characters, though you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief for the plot. I had read May’s Lewis trilogy some time ago and found it quite hard to take entirely seriously, though they were well-written too. I then abandoned him for some years until I saw him interviewed at Granite Noir this year and found him very entertaining, so on the strength of that I bought this and the first in the China series.
Letters to a DiminishedChurch, Dorothy L. Sayers: Goodness, this could have been written last week, instead of just after the Second World War. Sayers is knowledgeable and witty, and can take us from the Apostles’ Creed to crime fiction to T.S. Eliot with ease and purpose, and you find yourself nodding and agreeing with all of it. Though there are excursions elsewhere, the main theme running through the book is human creativity, how it reflects that of God and how it is essential for our happiness and fulfilment in our spiritual life, whatever that life may be. The context of industrialisation, global crisis, economic struggles and celebrity culture are very familiar to us. My only regret is that this edition, which includes questions for discussion groups, also incorporates both American spellings and some odd, probably spellcheck related, errors I’m sure Sayers herself would have winced at.
Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends andInfluence People: If you took out all the business-related anecdotes about Mr. Smith from Delaware winning the contract for the diagonal steam traps from the intractable tycoon after attending the classes on winning friends, this book would be about a quarter of its size. But they are gently amusing, mostly, and they do reinforce the author’s simple points – be nice to people, imagine what they might want, remember their names and help them, and you will win the game. It’s a very American book – there are methods recommended that would come across as quite creepy in the U.K. – nevertheless, its advice is sound and given in an innocent, guileless fashion that negates my cynicism. And having heard of it for years, I was pleased finally to give it a read, even if there was only so much I could take of Mr. Smith’s business triumphs in one sitting.
And aside from reading, what am I up to? I'm waiting to be given access to an archive for some research for a new book that I can't really start until that happens, and toying with the idea of Orkneyinga 4. Only toying, though, so far!