Forgotten Murder – Dolores Gordon-Smith

I like a good cosy crime novel when I need a bit of brain down-time. I suspect it’s a habit picked up in my early teens when I was too old for children’s books but not quite mature enough for proper adult books; my Dad started me off on Agatha Christie, John Creasey and Leslie Charteris books and the genre has stuck.

Dolores Gordon-Smith is, in fact, a modern author but her books are set in the 1920s/30s so they have the right ambience as far as I’m concerned. She isn’t an author whose books I rush to buy as soon as the next one comes out but periodically I decided to check whether she’s written a new one and if she has I’ll generally buy it.

The sleuth in the books is Jack Haldean a former Royal Flying Squad pilot turned author and the policeman on the case is Bill Rackham.

In this novel, the tenth of the series, Jack is asked by his new wife to investigate her school friend’s odd reaction to a house she visited. The investigation uncovers the forgotten murder of the title, which Jack and Bill solve.

If I was being pernickty I would say the plot is a direct lift from an Agatha Christie book, although I can’t remember the title and it was set at the seaside rather than in London. Having read the Christie book I had an inkling of what some of the outcome would be, although I confess to not having cottoned onto the murderer, which was good.

I enjoyed my down-time with this book and I think the fact there are long gaps between reading the books in the series means I’m not as quick at picking up the clues as I am with some series.

If you’re going to read them though don’t start with this one, go back to the beginning and start at A Fete Worse Than Death.

Click here to find out more about Dolores Gordon-Smith and her books

My Lord John – Georgette Heyer

Most people, if they know Georgette Heyer at all, know the author for either her detective novels or the Regency romances she wrote. I first came across her through both of these genres when I wasn’t quite old enough for adult books but had definitely outgrown children’s books.

I read my way through any books I could get my hands on as they came into the second-hand bookshop in the local market and eventually landed this one.

The Lord John of the title is John of Lancaster, third son of Henry of Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV. It starts when he is around 6 and finishes just as his oldest brother Henry is starting to take up some of the reins of government due to his father’s ill-health. The book ends abruptly as Heyer had to put it to one side to complete more popular books to pay her tax bill! She intended this book to be the first of a trilogy about the House of Lancaster during through the Wars of the Roses.

As I remembered it, from 40 years ago, this book had a different feel to it and, to an extent, it awakened my interest in the Wars of the Roses; I live in Yorkshire in what would have been a Lancastrian supporting area.

Rereading the book as a “proper grown-up” with more knowledge of the history of the period this book wasn’t as interesting as I remembered it being. It was a chore getting through to the end feels as though it needs a good edit to lop out some of the boring bits.

It did remind though that I always wanted to know more about John of Lancaster and what he did with his life. If anyone can recommend a book I’d be grateful.

 

Snap – Belinda Bauer

My Christmas book from Michael. Opened at 11.30am and finished at 9pm!

This isn’t my usual type of murder mystery, being set firmly in the late 20th and early 21st centuries but I’d obviously read a review and stuck it on my wish list, where Michael picked it up and bought me it.

The story starts in 1998 with 3 children stranded on the hard shoulder of the M5 waiting for their mother to return from reporting their breakdown. She never returns.

The second strand of the story centres around a London murder investigator, DCI Marvel, who has been sent to Somerset as a punishment for not following rules. He is unhappy at being there and seriously unimpressed when he is called upon to investigate a break-in. His interest is piqued when he finds out that this appears the be the latest in a long chain of unsolved burglaries.

The third strand involves Catherine While whose house is broken into but who doesn’t report it because of a knife and a note that are left on her bed.

Eventually, all three of the strands come together and several unsolved cases are solved.

This was a great “beach read” book. The central characters of the children and Catherine were engaging, the detectives less so but you knew Marvel was going to get involved and solve the case. It was signposted from early on where the clues were leading but you wanted to follow them anyway.

I found it slightly frustrating not knowing why the murderer really did it or why he had the very specialised knife although I didn’t really care deeply enough about the book to worry it over too much.

Would I recommend the book? Yes, if you want a book you drift along with for an afternoon. If you want something to engage your brain with, probably not.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

It isn’t often I buy and read a book that is newly out but this one caught my fancy and intrigued me so I bought it and started reading it straight away rather than adding it to the pile.

To summarise the book I would describe it as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day.

Aiden Bishop is trapped at Blackheath Manor and keeps waking up in other people’s bodies trying to prevent and/or solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, daughter of his host and hostess. In his various guises he doesn’t know who is friend or foe, who the mysterious “Footman” is and how to piece together the puzzle.

Eventually, he works out what happens but rather than leaving he remains to rescue Anna, who may or may not have been helping him.

I found the first chapter of the book dull and tedious to read. If I didn’t have a stubborn streak that won’t let me not finish a book I’ve started I probably would have gone no further. I’m glad I did continue with it.

I liked the main character and his responses to his various host bodies. I enjoyed working out who might be friend or foe and who the murderer might be. I also enjoyed not being able to piece it all together before the denouement.

I found it a bit frustrating that once I’d worked something out it occasionally took Bishop a chapter or so to catch up! It was a bit like those times when you shout at a TV detective to stop being a numpty as the answer is staring them in the face.

As I debut novel I thought this book was excellent. If you like odd, quirky stories and historical detective series I’d definitely recommend this book to you. And I look forward to reading Turton’s next.

Pig and Pepper – David Footman

Some time ago I read a potted history of the Russian revolutions by David Footman and, whilst researching the author to write my blog on the book, I came across references to this book. So, of course, I ordered it and it finally floated to the top of my “to read” pile.

David Footman was a diplomat, a spy and a historian so it isn’t surprising that this book is set in the diplomatic community in the Balkan state of Vuchinia where the narrator, Mills, has been posted.

The story is, ostensibly, about how an underemployed consul and other members of the bored ex-pat community fall for a con man who turns up in Vuchinia, having fled Poland.

Vickery, the con man, stirs things up, makes life more interesting and exciting and then moves on, leaving a trail of turmoil and destruction behind him.

The story is also a picture of early to mid-20th century English-abroad behaviour; the cliquishness, the superiority and the smugness.

It was clear from early on how the story was going to unfold but mostly I enjoyed the journey. Occasionally, I wanted to shout at Mills not to be so naive, to stop being so self-centred and to treat the women in his life better. It is definitely a book of its time when it comes to women’s role in the plotline!

This book isn’t a page turner but it is a pleasant way to while away a Sunday.

Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims – Toby Clements

It isn’t often I review the “story books” I read but I really enjoyed this one and wanted to share my thoughts.

The book is set during the War of the Roses, an era of history I find interesting. The main protagonists are Thomas and Katherine and we follow their journey from rural calm to the middle of the action at the Battle of Towton.

When we first meet them Thomas is monk whose role is to write and illustrate texts. Katherine is an oblate at the nunnery next to the monastery. Katherine, at the nearby river washing is attacked by a band of horseman and Thomas comes to her rescue. Both end up fleeing religious life and the book follows their adventure to Calais, Wales, Northampton and, finally, Towton.

I enjoyed reading this book; I liked the setting, both time and places and I liked the characters, wanting to know more about Katherine’s mysterious past and what happens next. The ending is definitely calculated to make you buy the next in the series and I’m pleased I picked up this series when all 4 books are published; it would have been frustrating to have to wait for the next book to come out!

It is interesting to read the descriptions of the battles and to have a glimmer of an idea about what it must have been like to be in the thick of the action at Towton. It will be interesting to go back to the site of the battle with this imagery in my head; nowadays it is peaceful, rural, agricultural scene. (The picture at the top is of Towton)

I can’t, at the moment, think of anything I didn’t enjoy about this book. It was a good page turner, set in a period I know a little about and would like to know more of, with likable, interesting characters. Clearly, with this type of book, you need to suspend disbelief to some extent – these characters would almost certainly not have had all these adventures – but it’s a good story.

If you like historical adventure stories I’d recommend it.

Click here to find out more about the Battle of Towton

 

Gorsky – Vesna Goldsworthy

I don’t actually remember buying this book but it turned up at the bottom of a pile when I was moving the heap of books waiting to be read from the side of the sofa onto the revolving bookcase I bought in an effort to tidy the sitting room.

I can see why I might have bought it.  It has an attractive cover, the blurb from Michael Frayn is good and the synopsis inside the front cover sounds interesting.

It was also an easy and quite interesting afternoons read but…

Essentially the book is a direct lift of The Great Gatsby relocated to London in the Noughties and with Russian oligarchs rather than the new/old money Americans of the source novel.

The narrator, rather than being a bond salesman, works in a bookshop and is tasked by Gorsky, the Gatsby equivalent, with creating the perfect library to impress the love of his life, Natalia Summerscale.

As he gets drawn into their lives Nick, the narrator, describes the life of the super-rich in the 21st century.

As I said earlier, an easy and quite enjoyable book but…

Knowing The Great Gatsby, and enjoying F Scott Fitzgerald’s work, this book is a blatant rip off of it and a pale imitation.  Fitzgerald managed to make his characters believable as human beings as well as portraying the emptiness of their lives and souls.  Goldsworthy just doesn’t breathe life into her characters and I didn’t care about the injustice of the wrong man getting killed.

Given a choice I’d spend the afternoon with Gatsby not Gorsky.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays – Thomas Hughes

It is years since I last read this book and decided to reread it on a whim having spotted it on my bookshelf.

I think the book is from a holiday with my parents, staying at my aunt’s house in a rainy and windswept Whitley Bay.  My parent’s kept me amused with a constant steam of books and, concerned that I was devouring books at a rapid rate of knots, decided to start me on some books meant for older children.  This was one and Hans Brinker was the other.

I really enjoyed re-meeting the characters in the book and there was so much I don’t remember.  I also don’t remember the social commentary and the way the book highlights what were then seen as desirable traits in young English gentlemen.  I suspect I didn’t notice these things when I was younger because although I had the vocabulary and reading ability for the book I didn’t have the emotional maturity.

I enjoyed reading about how Tom stood up to Flashman and I’d forgotten just what a horrible person Flashman is.  It has completely put me off reading George MacDonald Fraser’s books.

It was also good to read the ending where Tom hears of the death of Dr Arnold and contemplates how much influence he had on his life.  I’d also completely forgotten about this ending too.

All in all this was an excellent re-read and I would recommend it.

The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

This is one of those books that has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be read for years.  It’s been there so long I don’t even remember when or why I bought it.

For some reason it caught my attention when I was looking for a book to read on the train so I decided now was the time to read it.

It is about the aristocratic Salina family who live near Palermo in Sicily and is set during the Risorgimento or Italian unification.

The central character is Prince Fabrizio Salina, a middle-aged, modern-minded scientist who sees the need for change yet is too indolent and hide-bound by his family history to be part of that change.  His nephew, more like him than his own children, is in the thick of the changes and is an up and coming man.

The book shows, through Salina’s eyes, the transition of Sicily from Bourbon principality to inclusion in this new thing called “Italy”.  It tracks the transition from aristocratic rule to professional government and the rise of the middle-class. Yet Salina continues in his belief that the more everything changes the more everything stays the same.

The book wraps up with the Princes’ death from a stroke and a post-script relating what happens to the children as they grow old.

I found the book quite hard to read.  I like the fact that I now know more about the Risorgimento and the upheavals it caused in long-established states.  It was interesting to understand how the hereditary ruling class was being gradually displaced by the growing middle-class and professional class. But it was the reading equivalent of going for a walk in the midday sun in Palermo, slow and languorous!  It might have been better if I’d read it in the evening.  It certainly didn’t lend itself to waking me up on my commute. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either.

Click here to find out more about Risorgimento

Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.