TBR Thursday 290 and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I still seem to be storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Jun 2021

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been on track with so many targets at this point of the year – it can’t last! Poor old Reginald Hill is falling behind – must make more effort. I should be able to catch up with the Classics Club and finish by my extended deadline of the end of the year – only a couple of chunksters left and all the rest should be fairly quick reads. The shortfall in new releases has reduced considerably this quarter and (theoretically) will be smashed by the time I’ve read all the review books on my 20 Books of Summer list. The fact that I’m abandoning lots of new fiction isn’t helping, though! The TBR Reduction is awful – I can’t see me meeting those targets without magical intervention. But hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read three from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, and had another still to review from the previous quarter…

76. Way Station by Clifford D Simak – I loved this well written, thought-provoking science fiction novel, with shades of Cold War nuclear fear, lots of imaginative aliens and a kind of mystical, New Age-y touch. 5 stars.

77. The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher – This, the first mystery novel written by a black American and with an exclusively black cast of characters, delighted me with its vivid, joyous picture of life in Harlem. Lots of humour and a great plot. 5 stars.

78. The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – A slow-going but interesting look at the beginnings of the Scottish herring industry, following on from the devastation of the Highland Clearances. I enjoyed this one, not least because several of my blog buddies read it with me. 4 stars.

Not good on the quantity, perhaps, but high on quality!

78 down, 12 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Managing to keep on track with this challenge at the moment more or less – I’ve read three this quarter, but only reviewed two of them so far. However I had one left over to review from the previous quarter…

43. The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude – One in Bude’s long-running Inspector Meredith series, I find these a little too painstakingly procedural for my taste, although the plot and setting of this one are good. 3½ stars.

44. The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts – Talking of too procedural, I abandoned this one halfway through on the grounds of being determined not to die of boredom! Crofts’ first, and the best I can say about it is he improved in later books. 1 generous star.

45. The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – Great writing and a perfectly delivered plot mean that this one’s reputation as a classic of the genre is fully deserved. More psychological than procedural, and with a wonderful depiction of an early version of “trial by media”. 5 stars

45 down, 57 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I only read two for this challenge this quarter but in my defence one of them was a massive biography of Franco, which I haven’t yet reviewed. However I had one left to review from last quarter…

5. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda. The story of young wife and mother, Natalia, living in Barcelona while her husband is off fighting in the war. It’s a fascinating picture of someone who has no interest in or understanding of politics – who simply endures as other people destroy her world then put it back together in a different form. Packed full of power and emotion – a deserved classic. 4½ stars.

6. Last Days in Cleaver Square by Patrick McGrath. As Franco lies on his deathbed in Spain, Francis McNulty is convinced the dictator is haunting him, and his memories of his time in Spain as a volunteer medic on the Republican side and the horrors he witnessed there are brought back afresh to his mind. Beautifully written, entertaining, moving, full of emotional truth. 5 stars.

Two short books, two different squares, and two great reads, so hurrah for this challenge!

6 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

Unbelievably I’m still up-to-date with this challenge, so three reviews for this quarter plus one that was left over from the previous quarter. Did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

MarchThe Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves – The first of the Vera Stanhope series – the underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character. But oh dear, the book is massively over-padded and repetitive, and I found it a real struggle to wade through. 3 stars.

AprilCold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – A parody of the rural rustic novel popular at the time, there’s a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. It outstayed its welcome just a little as the joke began to wear rather thin, but overall an entertaining read. 4 stars.

MayThe Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith – The first of the Cormoran Strike novels sees him investigating the death of a supermodel, with the help of his temporary secretary, Robin. I’m feeling repetitive myself now, but this is another with a good plot buried under far too much extraneous padding. Galbraith’s easy writing style carried me through, however. 4 stars.

June – Sweet Caress by William Boyd – In the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decides to become a professional photographer, and her elderly self looks back at where her career took her. Sadly this one didn’t work for me at all and I eventually abandoned it. 1 star.

Even if there were no five stars, there was only one complete dud, so I think you did pretty well, People! And they’re all off my TBR at last – hurrah!

6 down, 6 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo June 2021

I’ve done a little better this quarter and have also started looking ahead to try to make sure I have something for each box. I might shuffle them all around at the end so this is all quite tentative at this stage. The dark blue ones are from last quarter, and the orange ones are this quarter’s. (If you click on the bingo card you should get a larger version.)

EnglandThe Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into Small Town at the moment, since the setting plays an important part in the plot.

IcelandThe Chill Factor by Richard Falkirk – 4 stars. Another that could work for Small Town, or Europe, but I’ve slotted it into Island at present.

MalayaA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute – 5 stars. Could be Australia as well, so Oceania, but I’ve gone with the Malayan section and put it into Walk.

AustraliaThe Survivors by Jane Harper – 4 stars. Another that would work for Oceania, but since the Beach plays a major part in the story that’s where I’ve put it.

ScotlandThe Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn – 4 stars. Since this is all about herring fishing, I don’t imagine I’ll find a better fit for the Sea box.

Still a long, long way to travel, but there are some interesting reads coming up for this one…

7 down, 18 to go!

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Whew! Apologies for the length of this post, but I guess that indicates a successful quarter. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 289…

Episode 289

My reading has slowed to a crawl again this week and as a result the TBR has gone up a little – by 2 to 196. But it absolutely is NOT MY FAULT! For once, I managed to capture the culprit on camera…

andy murray gif

Spooky story part 1: Before I get to the books I want to tell you about something that really happened to me yesterday, and nearly made me get the Fretful Porpentine out of his hibernation early! I was leaving a comment on one of those blogs that gives you a form where you add your name and website details. Because I’ve commented on it many times before, my browser knows what I’m going to fill in so prompts me. But this time it gave me two choices – FictionFan or Aelfrida Tillyard. That seemed most odd to me since obviously I’ve never used the name Aelfrida Tillyard, and especially since to the best of my knowledge I’d never come across it in real life or in books. So I googled her…

Aelfrida Catharine Wetenhall Tillyard (5 October 1883 – 12 December 1959) was a British author, medium, lecturer on Comparative Religion and associated religious topics, spiritual advisor and self-styled mystic.”

Are you as spooked by that as I was?

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Anyway, here are a few more books that I should be serving up soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Knock Murderer KnockIt was exciting this month! Life of Pi went into a huge early lead which I thought would be unassailable. But gradually, vote by vote, Knock, Murderer, Knock crept up on it over the next couple of days. They were neck and neck for a bit, and in the end the victory was won with just a one vote difference. Proves that more of You, the People, like the idea of homicidal maniacs in spas than animals in boats! Good choice, People – I shall be planning to read and review it in September.

The Blurb says: “I think,” said Palk slowly, “there’s a homicidal maniac loose in the Hydro, but who it is, God knows.”

Presteignton Hydro is a drably genteel spa resort, populated by the aged and crippled who relish every drop of scandal they observe or imagine concerning the younger guests. No one however expects to see gossip turn to murder as their juniors die one by one – no one, that is, except the killer. The crusty cast of characters make solving the case all the harder for Inspector Palk – until the enigmatic sleuth Mr. Winkley arrives to lend a hand.

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Fiction

The Promise by Damon Galgut

The PromiseCourtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. Another in my bid to read more new fiction releases, but this time picked for the author rather than just the blurb since I’ve enjoyed the one book of his I’ve previously read, The Good Doctor. I must say the blurb sounds great, though… 

The Blurb says: The Promise charts the crash and burn of a white South African family, living on a farm outside Pretoria. The Swarts are gathering for Ma’s funeral. The younger generation, Anton and Amor, detest everything the family stand for — not least the failed promise to the Black woman who has worked for them her whole life. After years of service, Salome was promised her own house, her own land… yet somehow, as each decade passes, that promise remains unfulfilled.

The narrator’s eye shifts and blinks: moving fluidly between characters, flying into their dreams; deliciously lethal in its observation. And as the country moves from old deep divisions to its new so-called fairer society, the lost promise of more than just one family hovers behind the novel’s title.

In this story of a diminished family, sharp and tender emotional truths hit home. Confident, deft and quietly powerful, The Promise is literary fiction at its finest.

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Thriller

False Witness by Karin Slaughter

False WitnessCourtesy of HarperCollins. I’ve always felt that Karin Slaughter’s thrillers sound too gruesome for my taste, but Eva at Novel Deelights has finally broken my powers of resistance with her gushings of love for her books. So I requested this one on NetGalley and then received a paper copy too from the lovely people at HC. I hope this doesn’t mean I need to read it twice, but who knows? Maybe I’ll want to…

The Blurb says: You thought no one saw you. You were wrong.

Leigh and her sister Callie are not bad people – but one night, more than two decades ago, they did something terrible. And the result was a childhood tarnished by secrets, broken by betrayal, devastated by violence. Years later, Leigh has pushed that night from her mind and become a successful lawyer – but when she is forced to take on a new client against her will, her world begins to spiral out of control. Because the client knows the truth about what happened twenty-three years ago. He knows what Leigh and Callie did. And unless they stop him, he’s going to tear their lives apart …

Just because you didn’t see the witness … doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.

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Thriller

The Twisted Wire by Richard Falkirk

The Twisted WireCourtesy of Collins Crime Club. I loved The Chill Factor, also from this author, so was delighted when this one popped through my letterbox…

The Blurb says: A crossed telephone wire causes a call from the President of the United States to his Ambassador in London to be overheard by geologist Tom Bartlett. Tom, preoccupied with thoughts of the conference he is to attend in Israel, puts the incident from his mind, unaware that he might not have been the only person listening in…

He has not been in Tel Aviv a day, however, before the first attempt is made on his life. As Arab, Israeli, Russian and American agents begin to converge on him, it’s clear that someone wants Tom’s briefcase – and will stop at nothing to obtain it.

The Twisted Wire, first published in 1971, is set at the height of the Middle East conflict, combining politics, espionage and murder into a compelling fast-moving adventure.

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Tolkien on Audio

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien read by Andy Serkis

The HobbitIt’s decades since I last read The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings which I re-read every few years. I think I was at that odd age of being both too old and too young for this one when I first read it – too old to enjoy it as a children’s book, too young to appreciate it with an adult eye. So although I liked it, I didn’t love it with the passion I felt for LOTR when I read it just two or three years later. Timing is everything! I’ve been intending to give it another chance for years, and when I saw that Gollum himself had recorded it, how could I possibly resist?

The Blurb says: Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life, rarely travelling further than the pantry of his hobbit-hole in Bag End. But his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of 13 dwarves arrive on his doorstep one day to whisk him away on a journey ‘there and back again’. They have a plot to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the Magnificent, a large and very dangerous dragon….

The prelude to The Lord of The RingsThe Hobbit has sold many millions of copies since its publication in 1937, establishing itself as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

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Spooky story part 2: So anyway, I read on down the wikipedia entry for Aelfrida Tillyard, only to discover she had written one of the books in Yesterday’s Tomorrows. So I had indeed been searching on her name, along with 99 others, to find out if her book was available. Phew! The porpy can continue his snooze undisturbed…

Hibernating Porpentine

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK, NetGalley or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday (on a Wednesday) 287 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 287

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, People, time for the next batch of four, and a nicely varied bunch this time, I think, still all from 2016. As usual I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a September read. Knock, Murderer, Knock was, I think, another Kindle impulse purchase during my early vintage crime frenzy – I’ve never read anything by the author before, but it sounds fun. The Vegetarian was one of those books everyone seemed to be raving about, so I acquired it and then, as usual, didn’t get around to reading it – the reviews make me feel I could love it or hate it. I’m ashamed to say Above the Waterfall is one of my ancient NetGalley ones that slipped through the net – I’ve loved one Ron Rash novel before and not loved one, so again it could go either way. And I acquired Life of Pi after loving Martel’s later book, The High Mountains of Portugal – I feel I may be the only person left alive who hasn’t read it. I still would like to read all of these pretty much equally, so you really can’t go wrong…

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Vintage Crime

Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland

Knock Murderer KnockAdded 15th July 2016. 202 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.70 average rating. 259 pages.

The Blurb says: “I think,” said Palk slowly, “there’s a homicidal maniac loose in the Hydro, but who it is, God knows.”

Presteignton Hydro is a drably genteel spa resort, populated by the aged and crippled who relish every drop of scandal they observe or imagine concerning the younger guests. No one however expects to see gossip turn to murder as their juniors die one by one – no one, that is, except the killer. The crusty cast of characters make solving the case all the harder for Inspector Palk – until the enigmatic sleuth Mr. Winkley arrives to lend a hand.

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Fiction

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianAdded 20th July 2016. 104,335 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.59 average. 188 pages.

The Blurb says: Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiralling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavour will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

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Fiction

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Above the WaterfallAdded 15th August 2016. 5,115 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.52 average. 252 pages. 

The Blurb says: Les, a long-time sheriff nearing retirement, contends with the ravages of poverty and crystal meth in his small Appalachian town. Nestled in a beautiful hollow of the Appalachians, his is a tight-knit community rife with secrets and suspicious of outsiders.

Becky, a park ranger, arrives in this remote patch of North Carolina hoping to ease the anguish of a harrowing past. Searching for tranquillity amid the verdant stillness, she finds solace in poetry and the splendour of the land.

A vicious crime will plunge both sheriff and ranger into deep and murky waters, forging an unexpected bond between them. Caught in a vortex of duplicity, lies, and betrayal, they must navigate the dangerous currents of a tragedy that turns neighbour against neighbour—and threatens to sweep them all over the edge.

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Fiction

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiAdded 12th October 2016. 1,406,996 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.92 average. 461 pages.

The Blurb says: After the sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen-year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan—and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and beloved works of fiction in recent years.

Universally acclaimed upon publication, Life of Pi is a modern classic.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Why not Bulgaria?

😦

Sweet CaressIn the early days of the twentieth century, young Amory Clay decided to emulate her uncle Greville and become a professional photographer. Many years later, Amory reminisces about where her profession has taken her over the years. And of course it has taken her to all the places we’d expect – the decadence of ‘30s Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, WW2, Vietnam, in most of which places, this being a Boyd book, she has sex with a “scandalous” edge – married men, women, etc.

I’m afraid I abandoned this halfway through, after it taking me over a month to get to that point. I used to love William Boyd and still think his earlier books, and an occasional later one, are great stories well told. But recently I’ve found myself struggling to get up any real interest in the lives of his characters or in their stories. This one has been told before and told better by Boyd himself, in Any Human Heart, the story of a man who lived through all the major events of the twentieth century (and had lots of sex). Why Boyd felt it would be a good idea to do it again with a female lead beats me, but even if I wasn’t having strong feelings of déjà vu I doubt if Avery would have won my heart.

The thing about her is that she goes to these interesting places – Berlin, London, New York – and seems to miss everything interesting about them, perhaps because she spends so much time in bedrooms. I found myself wearily wishing that just once an author would find somewhere new to explore rather than the overtrodden path of Nazis/WW2, etc. Not to labour the point, but the twentieth century lasted for a hundred years and involved countries other than the UK, the USA and Germany. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if some author leapt into the unknown and took us to, say, Bulgaria, or Bahrain, or Venezuela? I assume something must have happened in these countries over the course of a century. I know, I know – plenty of authors have gone further afield, but I was feeling bored and a little bitter while I was musing. Boyd used to be one of the authors to whom I looked to expand my fictional horizons, but recently his books feel safely settled in the overly familiar.

He also uses an odd device in this one, which I feel doesn’t work at all. Over the years in real life, he has collected random photographs from sales, etc., which he presents here as Amory’s work. This meant that, firstly, it often felt to me that he was manipulating the story to fit round the photos so that oddly random episodes would be included, like Amory briefly working as a fashion photographer, which didn’t sit well with the character or the overall thrust of her life. Secondly, the photos are not particularly special – for the most part they are rather mundane snaps of people doing random things. I felt that if these were supposed to highlight Amory’s talent, then the poor girl clearly didn’t have much.

Boyd, William
William Boyd

My other major complaint is that Amory comes over as such a passive character, which I don’t think was Boyd’s intent at all. I think he was trying to portray her as adventurous, daring, ahead of her time – an early example of a woman playing men at their own game. But at every step of her life (up to the halfway mark when I gave up), every job she gets is arranged for her by a man – her photographer uncle, her rich lover, and so on. Even when she crosses to Berlin to photograph the seedy side of life with a view to gaining some notoriety, she does so at her uncle’s suggestion and funded by his money, and on her return, it is he who arranges her exhibition and tempts the interest of the press. Amory fades to near invisibility in terms of her own input to the trajectory of her life.

So, bored and dismal, I gave up. Sorry, Mr Boyd!

People's Choice LogoBook 6 of 12

Oh dear, People! This was Your Choice for June, and I don’t blame you at all – I had high hopes for it myself. But I fear it turned out to be a major fail. Oh, well! 😥🤪😥

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 284…

Episode 284

I seem to have read about a zillion books in the last couple of weeks, so that even although half a zillion more have arrived, the overall result is that the TBR has plummeted by an amazing 5 to 197! And now that I’m starting my fast and furious 20 Books of Summer who knows how far it will drop??

freefall gif homer

Here are a few more that should fall off the edge soon…

NB Before I begin, an update on the Review-Along for The Silver Darlings: Rose has now received her copy and we’ve tentatively agreed a new review date of Monday 14th June, if that suits our fellow readers Christine and Alyson. Let me know if it doesn’t – otherwise brush off your notes!

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth

The Black CabinetThere was never much doubt about the winner this month, People – The Black Cabinet shot into the lead in the first couple of hours and never looked back. The other three were all so far behind I can only describe them as also-rans. A good choice – it sounds like it should be fun, and it’s short! Hurrah! My faith in You, The People, is restored… 😉

The Blurb says: The lowly assistant to a London dressmaker, Chloe Dane yearns for a new life. She has bittersweet memories of being a carefree child playing hide-and-seek at Danesborough, her family’s magnificent country estate. Decades later, the ancestral mansion has been restored to its former glory—and Chloe is shocked to discover that she is the sole heir.

Danesborough is not the sun-filled, evergreen place she remembers. The trees are bare and the house is shrouded in mist. But the enormous gold-and-black lacquered Chinese cabinet in the drawing room is exactly the same. Chloe’s childhood imagination created an entire story out of the intricate carvings on the cabinet: a flowing river filled with boats and fishermen and one frightening man she called Mr. Dark.

But now, as Chloe begins to uncover Mitchell Dane’s true motives for bequeathing her the centuries-old manse, she has a very real reason to be afraid: The truth about what’s hidden in the black cabinet will soon threaten her life.

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Fiction

Highway Blue by Ailsa McFarlane

Highway BlueCourtesy of Harvill Secker via NetGalley. Another in my bid to read more new releases, picked purely on the basis of the blurb. The early reviews are distinctly mixed… 

The Blurb says: Anne Marie is adrift San Padua, living a precarious life of shift-work and shared apartments. Her husband Cal left her on their first anniversary and two years later, she can’t move on.

When he shows up suddenly on her doorstep, clearly in some kind of trouble, she reluctantly agrees to a drink. But later that night a gun goes off in an alley near the shore and the young couple flee together, crammed into a beat up car with their broken past. Their ill-at-ease odyssey takes them across a shimmering American landscape and through the darker seams of the country, towards a city that may or may not represent salvation.

Highway Blue is a story of being lost and found; of love, in all its forms; and of how the pursuit of love is, in its turn, a kind of redemption.

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Science Fiction

Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Science Fiction in 100 Books by Mike Ashley

Yesterday's TomorrowsCourtesy of the British Library. I’m terrified of this one! It’s similar to Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, which led to a new challenge and pushed my poor TBR rocketing into space. And now they’ve done the same for science fiction! Will I be able to resist yet another challenge?? I can only hope all the books sounds awful! It doesn’t say it in the blurb, but I believe the book’s focus is specifically on British science fiction (though that mention of Asimov has me wondering…)

The Blurb says: From the enrapturing tales of H. G. Wells to the punishing dystopian visions of 1984 and beyond, the evolution of science fiction from the 1890s to the 1960s is a fascinating journey to undertake. Setting out this span of years as what we can now recognize as the ‘classic’ period of the genre, Mike Ashley takes us on a tour of the stars, utopian and post-apocalyptic futures, worlds of AI run amok and techno-thriller masterpieces asking piercing questions of the present. This book does not claim to be definitive; what it does offer is an accessible view of the impressive spectrum of imaginative writing which the genre’s classic period has to offer. Towering science fiction greats such as Asimov and Aldiss run alongside the, perhaps unexpected, likes of C. S. Lewis and J. B. Priestley and celebrate a side of science fiction beyond the stereotypes of space opera and bug-eyed monsters; the side of science fiction which proves why it must continue to be written and read, so long as any of us remain in uncertain times.

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Fiction

Shadows Over the Spanish Sun by Caroline Montague

Shadows Over the Spanish SunCourtesy of Orion via NetGalley. Another new release that caught my eye due to its Spanish Civil War connection. I have a feeling it might be going to be more romance than historical fiction, but we’ll see…

The Blurb says: Spain, 1936. Leonardo’s only connection to his past is the half medallion he wears around his neck – a painful reminder of his origins, and of the man he must fight to become. As the shadow of war falls over his beloved country, Leonardo is drawn into a desperate, forbidden love affair. But risking everything for love is a dangerous gamble, where one mistake could destroy everything…

2019. When Mia Ferris discovers that her beloved grandfather has fallen from his horse and is in need of care, she immediately flies to Spain – leaving behind her new fiancé, and her own complicated feelings. But when she discovers a photograph of an unknown woman and a bundle of old letters in her grandfather’s room, Mia must untangle a terrible history that changes everything she thought she knew.

A sweeping novel of passionate love, betrayal and redemption, set against the turmoil and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War.

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Thriller

The Killing Kind by Jane Casey

The Killing KindCourtesy of HarperCollins via NetGalley. I love Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, but I’m excited to see her do a standalone thriller for a change. Early reviews are glowing…

The Blurb says: He tells you you’re special…
As a barrister, Ingrid Lewis is used to dealing with tricky clients, but no one has ever come close to John Webster. After Ingrid defended Webster against a stalking charge, he then turned on her – following her, ruining her relationship, even destroying her home.

He tells you he wants to protect you…
Now, Ingrid believes she has finally escaped his clutches. But when one of her colleagues is run down on a busy London road, Ingrid is sure she was the intended victim. And then Webster shows up at her door…

But can you believe him?
Webster claims Ingrid is in danger – and that only he can protect her. Stalker or saviour? Murderer or protector? The clock is ticking for Ingrid to decide. Because the killer is ready to strike again.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

When the detective is more complicated than the plot…

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Cuckoo's CallingWhen supermodel Lulu Landry falls to her death from her apartment window, the police put it down to suicide. She had been seen earlier that evening having a big bust-up with her boyfriend. But her brother, John Bristow, doesn’t believe that verdict – he’s convinced that Lulu was murdered. So he seeks the help of Cormoran Strike, ex-military man and not very successful private detective, to investigate.

Strike has a complicated family and backstory, clearly designed to be a recurring detective in a long-running series, as of course he has indeed become. Son of a hippy groupie mother and a rockstar father, with a parcel of half-siblings on his father’s side with whom he has very little contact and one half-sibling on his mother’s side to whom he’s close, when we first meet him he is in the middle of a messy break-up with his long-term fiancée which leaves him homeless and sleeping in his office. Add to this his background as a military veteran who lost a leg when his vehicle was bombed, and, as I said, complicated. All of this complication may be why the book is ridiculously overlong. (FF muses: Poirot just came from Belgium – that was enough, wasn’t it? Miss Marple has even less backstory. And yet Agatha Christie books have been selling for a century. I wonder if readers in 2121 will still be reading about Cormoran Strike.)

Lulu Landry has an equally complicated background which we learn about at equal length. The adopted mixed race daughter of white parents, her beauty has made her rich and famous but not necessarily happy. Her boyfriend is perpetually drunk or high on drugs and the two regularly have spectacular rows. Her brother, also adopted, seems to love her to an unhealthy degree. Her adoptive mother, who seems to have treated Lulu like a pretty doll, is now dying of cancer. But there’s no real reason why Lulu would have committed suicide on this particular night – in fact, it seems highly unlikely. Just as well the police were so easily satisfied, though, or there would have been no case for Strike to investigate, I suppose!

Robert Galbraith
Robert Galbraith

Strike is assisted in his investigation by his new temporary secretary, Robin, who has secretly always wanted to be a private detective and discovers to her own delight and Strike’s surprise that she has something of a talent for the work. Soon she’s out from behind her typewriter, joining in on the action. Fortunately she finds Strike’s habit of descending into drunken maudlin self-pity more endearing than I did, and soon becomes a kind of emotional prop to him along with all her other skills.

I feel I’m being unfairly negative about the book. In fact, I quite enjoyed reading it. Galbraith’s writing style has an easy flow to it which keeps those pages turning even when there’s a lot of repetition and extraneous padding. I could have lived without the constant unnecessary swearing, which I assume Galbraith throws in to show she can write for adults as well as children. I’m pretty sure that in fact children would appreciate the foul-mouthery far more than this adult did. But otherwise I found it very readable, easy on the brain and, sadly, almost instantly forgettable. I wouldn’t refuse to read another in the series, but I won’t be rushing out to acquire them either, especially since I believe they actually increase in length as they go on, with the latest one coming in at a frankly ludicrous 944 pages. They would have to be chocolate pages to tempt me to pick that one up!

People's Choice LogoBook 5 of 12

This was the People’s Choice winner for May. A reasonably enjoyable read, and I’m happy it’s off my TBR – so a win! Thanks to all who voted. 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 283 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 283

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four, and I have baffled the desire of You, The People, to pick me a 600 page book every month by the ingenious device of not including any… bwahahaa!! Still in 2016, and all crime this time, most of it older or vintage. The first two are Brother Cadfael books – a series I loved long ago but haven’t revisited in years. No idea why I got The Black Cabinet – probably a Kindle Deal or something – but it sounds potentially entertaining. And, of course, although Martin Edwards’ book isn’t vintage crime, he is the man behind the British Library Crime Classics series, so still all connected! A trickier choice this time, I feel, because of the rough similarity in the books.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Historical Crime

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters

The Virgin in the IceAdded 11th April 2016. 8,018 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.14 average rating. 294 pages.

The Blurb says: The winter of 1139 will disrupt Brother Cadfael’s tranquil life in Shrewsbury with the most disturbing of events. Raging civil war has sent refugees fleeing north from Worcester. Among them are two orphans from a noble family, a boy of thirteen and an eighteen-year-old girl of great beauty, and their companion, a young Benedictine nun. The trio never reaches Shrewsbury, having disappeared somewhere in the wild countryside.

Cadfael is afraid for these three lost lambs, but another call for help sends him to the church of Saint Mary. A wounded monk, found naked and bleeding by the roadside, will surely die without Cadfael’s healing arts. Why this holy man has been attacked and what his fevered ravings reveal soon give Brother Cadfael a clue to the fate of the missing travelers. Now Cadfael sets out on a dangerous quest to find them. The road will lead him to a chill and terrible murder and a tale of passion gone awry. And at journey’s end awaits a vision of what is best, and worst, in humankind.

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Historical Crime

Brother Cadfael’s Penance by Ellis Peters

Brother Cadfael's PenanceAdded 8th May 2016. 4,576 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.27 average. 292 pages.

The Blurb says: November, 1145. While Cadfael has bent Abbey rules, he has never broken his monastic vows–until now. Word has come to Shrewsbury of a treacherous act that has left 30 of Maud’s knights imprisoned. All have been ransomed except Cadfael’s secret son, Olivier. Conceived in Cadfael’s soldiering youth and unaware of his father’s identity, Olivier will die if he is not freed.

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Vintage Crime

The Black Cabinet by Patricia Wentworth

The Black CabinetAdded 7th June 2016. 266 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.72 average. 251 pages. 

The Blurb says: The lowly assistant to a London dressmaker, Chloe Dane yearns for a new life. She has bittersweet memories of being a carefree child playing hide-and-seek at Danesborough, her family’s magnificent country estate. Decades later, the ancestral mansion has been restored to its former glory—and Chloe is shocked to discover that she is the sole heir.

Danesborough is not the sun-filled, evergreen place she remembers. The trees are bare and the house is shrouded in mist. But the enormous gold-and-black lacquered Chinese cabinet in the drawing room is exactly the same. Chloe’s childhood imagination created an entire story out of the intricate carvings on the cabinet: a flowing river filled with boats and fishermen and one frightening man she called Mr. Dark.

But now, as Chloe begins to uncover Mitchell Dane’s true motives for bequeathing her the centuries-old manse, she has a very real reason to be afraid: The truth about what’s hidden in the black cabinet will soon threaten her life.

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Contemporary Crime

The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards

The Coffin TrailAdded 9th June 2016. 1,781 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.66 average. 301 pages.

The Blurb says: Oxford historian Daniel Kind and his partner Miranda both want to escape to a new life. On impulse they buy a cottage in Brackdale, an idyllic valley in the Lake District. But though they hope to live the dream , the past soon catches up with him…

Tarn Cottage was once home to Barrie Gilpin, suspected of a savage murder. A young woman’s body was found on the Sacrifice Stone, an ancient pagan site up on the fell., but Barrie died before he could be arrested. Daniel has personal reasons for becoming fascinated by the case and for believing in Barrie’s innocence. When the police launch a cold case review, Brackdale’s skeletons begin to rattle and the lives of Daniel and DCI Hannah Scarlett become strangely entwined. Daniel and Hannah find themselves risking their lives as they search for a ruthless murderer who is prepared to kill again to hide a shocking secret.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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TBR Thursday 281…

Episode 281

Since I feel as if I’ve hardly finished anything this week being stuck yet again in the middle of several massive books, it’s a surprise to me that the TBR appears to have gone down 1 to 198! I’m sure my spreadsheet has a life of its own.

Confused spreadsheet gif

Here are a few more that should be coming up soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunWell, Dear People, for the fifth time in six months you have chosen the approximately 600-pages option, and this time sadly also the one I least wanted to read! The vote was neck-and-neck all the way through, and how I hoped that Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye would win (304 pages and sounds great). But it was not to be – a very late vote broke the deadlock, and Adichie won. Oh well! A lesson to me to delete books I’ve gone off! Maybe I’ll love it. (Or maybe I’ll just pretend A Dark-Adapted Eye won and read it instead… 😉 )

The Blurb says: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a novel about Africa in a wider sense: about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race – and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

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Classic Crime Fiction

The Conjure-Man Dies by Rudolph Fisher

The Conjure-Man DiesCourtesy of the Collins Crime Club – Harlem imprint. This wasn’t on my original Classics Club list but it seems perfect to fill one of the remaining slots, so I’ve bumped Anatomy of a Murder to make room for it… 

The Blurb says: A unique crime classic: the very first detective novel written by an African-American, set in 1930s New York with only Black characters.

When the body of N’Gana Frimbo, the African conjure-man, is discovered in his consultation room, Perry Dart, one of Harlem’s ten Black police detectives, is called in to investigate. Together with Dr Archer, a physician from across the street, Dart is determined to solve the baffling mystery, helped and hindered by Bubber Brown and Jinx Jenkins, local boys keen to clear themselves of suspicion of murder and undertake their own investigations.

A distinguished doctor and accomplished musician and dramatist, Rudolph Fisher was one of the principal writers of the Harlem Renaissance, but died in 1934 aged only 37. With a gripping plot and vividly drawn characters, Fisher’s witty novel is a remarkable time capsule of one of the most exciting eras in the history of Black fiction.

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Fiction

Nightshift by Kiare Ladner

NightshiftCourtesy of Picador via NetGalley. Continuing my bid to read more contemporary fiction, I picked this on the basis of the blurb. Must admit so far I have abandoned more of my contemporary fiction choices than I’ve finished, so I’m hoping this one fares better…

The Blurb says: Nightshift is a story of obsession set in London’s liminal world of nightshift workers.

When twenty-three-year-old Meggie meets distant and enigmatic Sabine, she recognises in her the person she would like to be. Giving up her daytime existence, her reliable boyfriend, and the trappings of a normal life in favour of working the same nightshifts as Sabine could be the perfect escape for Meggie. She finds a liberating sense of freedom in indulging her growing obsession with Sabine and plunges herself into another existence, gradually immersing herself in the transient and uncertain world of the nightshift worker.

Dark, sexy, frightening, Nightshift explores ambivalent friendship, sexual attraction and lives that defy easy categorisation. London’s stark urban reality is rendered other-worldly and strange as Meggie’s sleep deprivation, drinking and obsession for Sabine gain a momentum all of their own. Can Meggie really lose herself in her trying to become someone else?

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Vintage Crime

The Man from London by Georges Simenon

The Man from LondonCourtesy of Penguin Classics via NetGalley. This will be my first experience of one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels. Though Maigret is what he’s best remembered for, a lot of bloggers over the years have praised some of his other books at least as highly, sometimes more so. The blurb certainly makes it sound appealing…

The Blurb says: On a foggy winter’s evening in Dieppe, after the arrival of the daily ferry from England, a railway signalman habitually scrutinizes the port from his tiny, isolated cabin. When a scuffle on the quayside catches his eye, he is drawn to the scene of a brutal murder and his once quiet life changes forever. A mere observer at first, he soon finds himself fishing a briefcase from the water and in doing so he enters a feverish and secret chase. As the murderer and witness stalk and spy on each other, they gain an increasingly profound yet tacit understanding of each other, until the witness becomes an accomplice.

Written in 1933, soon after the successful launch of the Inspector Maigret novels, this haunting, atmospheric novel soon became a classic and the inspiration for several film and TV adaptations.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 280 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 280

(A reminder of The People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! At last we’re moving into 2016, and I have far fewer books from that year than from 2015 – I must have been attempting to get hold of my ballooning TBR by this stage. However, there are plenty to take us through the next few People’s Choices. As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a July read. Most, but not all, of these still appeal to me, but I’ll keep my opinions to myself so as not to sway yours! I missed a few of Sharon Bolton’s early books and always intended to go back and read them, hence Blood Harvest. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of those books everyone seemed to be reading except me, and was added to my TBR as a result of all the glowing reviews. I’ve meant to try Barbara Vine’s books for centuries, and A Dark-Adapted Eye comes recommended as one of her best by the blogosphere’s resident crime expert, Margot Kinberg. And Grey Mask marks the first appearance of a vintage crime novel on The People’s Choice – this must have been the point where I finally snapped with contemporary crime and time travelled back to the Golden Age.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Blood Harvest by Sharon J Bolton

Blood HarvestAdded 2nd March 2016. 5,948 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.96 average rating. 576 pages.

The Blurb says: Psychologist Evi is worried about one of her patients – a woman who is convinced her little girl is still alive. Two years after the fire that burnt their house down.

Meanwhile, the new vicar in town is feeling strangely unwelcome. Disturbing events seem designed to scare him away.

And a young boy keeps seeing a strange, solitary girl playing in the churchyard. Who is she and what is she trying to tell him?

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Fiction

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunAdded 23rd March 2016. 115,829 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.31 average. 562 pages.

The Blurb says: Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a houseboy for a university professor. Olanna, a young woman, has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos to live with her charismatic new lover, the professor. And Richard, a shy English writer, is in thrall to Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister. As the horrific Biafran War engulfs them, they are thrown together and pulled apart in ways they had never imagined.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterpiece, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, is a novel about Africa in a wider sense: about the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class and race – and about the ways in which love can complicate all of these things.

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Crime

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine

A Dark-Adapted EyeAdded 23rd March 2016. 7,692 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.97 average. 304 pages. 

The Blurb says: Winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award

Like most families they had their secrets . . .

And they hid them under a genteelly respectable veneer. No onlooker would guess that prim Vera Hillyard and her beautiful, adored younger sister, Eden, were locked in a dark and bitter combat over one of those secrets. England in the fifties was not kind to women who erred, so they had to use every means necessary to keep the truth hidden behind closed doors – even murder.

A Dark-Adapted Eye is modern classic. If you enjoy the crime novels of P.D. James, Ian Rankin and Scott Turow, you will love this book. Barbara Vine is the pen-name of Ruth Rendell.

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Vintage Crime

Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth

Grey MaskAdded 1st April 2016. 4,620 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.71 average. 320 pages.

The Blurb says: Furious at being jilted at the altar by his once-fiancé Margaret Langton, Charles Moray left England behind him. Now, four years later, he returns to his family home, only to find it unlocked and with a light burning in one of its abandoned rooms.

Eavesdropping, Charles soon discovers that a criminal gang has been using his house to plan a vicious crime. The target is the beautiful Margot Standing, who is due to inherit a considerable fortune. And what’s more he recognises the voices of one of the conspirators – his lost love Margaret Langton.

How did Margaret come to be involved? And who is the terrifying masked man who has her in his thrall? Charles contacts Miss Silver to unravel the mysteries of the case and, if she can, save Margot Standing’s life.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Don’t go into the woodshed!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Cold Comfort FarmOrphaned at the age of 20, Flora Poste discovers her father was not the rich man the world thought. Once his debts are paid off, Flora only has an income of £100 a year. Her friend suggests she should take some kind of training and get a job, but the idea of this holds no appeal for Flora. So instead she writes to all her relations, most of whom she has never met, asking if she can come and live with them. All respond, and remarkably each of them offers her a home, though none of the homes sound terribly appealing to Flora. But the letter from her cousin Judith Starkadder intrigues her – the address, Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, conjures visions in itself, and Judith’s vague hints of some kind of dark deed having being done to Flora’s father for which the Starkadders owe atonement is too tempting. So off she sets to meet the huge extended family of Starkadders who live on the farm…

At first I feared this was going to be one of those many books that infest English literature where the sophisticated, upper-class, urbanite author mocks the unintelligent, uneducated and uncouth rustic yokels. But it quickly reveals that in fact it’s parodying just that kind of novel, and also the novels then in vogue showing the reverse – the kind of noble savage of the modernists, where those rustics are born with an innate honour and a stolid kind of decency as opposed to the sophisticate’s shallow decadence. Frankly, if I were DH Lawrence, I’d have sued her! (If I hadn’t been dead at the time, obviously.)

Flora is not decadent – she’s far too well brought up for that. She is however supremely self-confident in her ability to sort people’s lives out for them, and the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm offer her plenty of opportunities to indulge her passion for turning messiness into order. There’s brooding Seth, shirt unbuttoned half-way down his chest to reveal bulging muscles and an ultra-masculine lustiness irresistible to all women (except Flora). Reuben, obsessive about improving the farm, but thwarted at every turn by his father and brother. Amos, the father, who is a terrible farmer, devotes his free time to hellfire preaching in the local town. Young Elfine, wild as a woodland sprite, struggling to win the man she loves. Old Mrs Starkadder, living her life in her room, haunted by the memory of when she was two and saw “something narsty in the woodshed”, is a kind of matriarchal tyrant, refusing to allow any of the younger family members to leave the farm and make different lives for themselves. Even the farm animals merit Flora’s reforming zeal, as she is determined that the bull be allowed out of the barn where he seems to spend his entire life.

There is a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. DH Lawrence, I felt, was never far from her thoughts – all that intensely brooding animal sexuality and profound angst. But Thomas Hardy is surely in there too, with his somewhat idealised but simple rural characters. I’m not well read or analytical enough to catch all the references, and there might be a tendency to start creating links that don’t exist – for instance, when Flora meets the hot weather by donning her green linen suit, I couldn’t help wondering if Ted Burgess from The Go-Between might have played his part in influencing Seth’s character. Wikipedia informs me that the main influences are apparently two authors I haven’t read, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb – I’ll take their word for it, although to me it’s so DH Lawrence that I can’t imagine he wasn’t one of her major influences too. Gibbons also occasionally veers outside her own remit of literature to take a pop at her modern world, and these bits are very enjoyable, such as when we meet a Hollywood producer and hear his opinion on the qualities required in a romantic male movie-star.

Stella Gibbons
Stella Gibbons

Despite all the good things it has going for it, it also has some weaknesses that stopped me from whole-heartedly loving it. There are so many characters I was still struggling to remember who was who well into the later stages, except for the three or four main characters. It gets a little repetitive – the joke begins to wear thin after a while and there’s a lot of repetition, for example, of the references to “something narsty in the woodshed”. There are things that I simply didn’t get – possibly my fault, possibly they are referencing some book I haven’t read and would have been hilarious if I had. For instance, the various cows around the farm keep losing legs or horns with no explanation – this baffled rather than amusing me. And, while I kept reminding myself it was humour and not to be taken too seriously, I found Flora’s solutions to various people’s problems probably made her happier than the characters whose lives she was supposedly improving.

Overall, though, the good certainly outweighs the less good parts of it. An enjoyable read for anyone who has dipped their toes into early 20th century English literature, and I’m sure would be even more entertaining for people who are widely read in it.

People's Choice LogoBook 4 of 12

This was a People’s Choice winner, and hurrah, you picked a good one! You’re definitely getting better at this, People! 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope 1) by Ann Cleeves

Is there an editor in the house?

🙂 🙂 🙂

The Crow TrapThree women are staying at Baikie’s Cottage to carry out an environmental impact study on land which is earmarked to be turned into a quarry. Rachael is the leader of the team, and knows the area well – her friend Bella lives on the neighbouring farm. She knows Bella loves her life in this harsh landscape so when she arrives only to find Bella dead, hanged in the barn, she finds it hard to accept the official verdict of suicide. The other two women on the team are strangers to Rachael and to each other. Anne is an extrovert, and has had a string of affairs, most recently with the man who wants to turn the land into a quarry. Grace is the complete opposite – introverted, quiet, clearly unhappy. When a body is found on the land, it will be up to Inspector Vera Stanhope and her right-hand man Joe Ashworth to work out motives and opportunity, and to connect the dots between the murder and Bella’s suicide…

Sometimes I feel like a stuck record, but at well over 500 pages this novel is ridiculously over-long – repetitive and padded to the point where I several times considered abandoning it. The underlying plot is good and Vera is an interesting, if unbelievable, character – another of these detectives one feels would have been quietly shuffled to a desk job long ago since she is incapable of following rules and doesn’t mind putting herself, her colleagues and even members of the public at risk in pursuit of her case. But hey-ho! That’s modern crime fiction for you, and plenty of people seem to like these damaged detectives. At least Vera is functional.

The book starts off well enough, telling of Rachael’s arrival at the cottage, her finding of Bella, and then of the next few days as the three women get to know each other a little. It’s already far too drawn out at this stage, but eventually the body is discovered and we can hope the police procedural element is about to begin. Only for those hopes to be dashed! Back we go to the very beginning, this time following Anne through those same few days, learning more about her life, and seeing things from her perspective. And then… you’ve guessed, haven’t you… we do it all again, this time in the company of Grace. It’s not that any of the three women’s stories are uninteresting in their own right, but to cover the same period again and again had me feeling as if I was in Groundhog Day.

Ann Cleeves
Ann Cleeves

Finally, about halfway through, this introductory stage is at last over, and Vera arrives on the scene. It picks up a bit after that, although there’s so much backstory about Vera’s life interspersed among the plot that the pace never gets out of second gear. Vera’s method is to set the women up to be bait in the hope the murderer will return, while sending these civilians off to ask questions of suspects and bring her back the information. Extremely odd method of policing, far more suited to the Golden Age of the amateur detective than the modern police procedural. However, it’s reasonably enjoyable, and well written.

Overall, I can’t say this one thrilled me much – a crime novel requires far more plot and less repetition to hold my interest for so long. However I see that the next book is considerably shorter (though still longer than a crime novel should be) so hopefully Cleeves reined in her desire to cover every detail three times. I’d consider reading more of them, but I fear Cleeves, with two less than enthusiastic reviews out of three from me so far, is perhaps never going to make it onto my must-read list. Given her huge popularity, I don’t expect that will bother her much!

People's Choice LogoBook 3 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for March. Thank you, People – I know you meant well… 😉

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 278… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 277…

Episode 277

Oh, no! Despite all my efforts, somehow the TBR has gone up again by one this week to… oh, no! 200!! It’s not my fault though! It’s all those horrible publishers and book-sellers ganging up on me!

browse-me-books

Here are a few I’ll be browsing soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Sweet CaressAn excellent choice, People, though you surprised me – I was sure that Louise Penny’s Still Life would run away with it this time. It was very close – just one vote between them, with the other two lagging a few votes behind. I plan to read this one in June…

The Blurb says: Born into Edwardian England, Amory Clay’s first memory is of her father standing on his head. She has memories of him returning on leave during the First World War. But his absences, both actual and emotional, are what she chiefly remembers. It is her photographer uncle Greville who supplies the emotional bond she needs, who, when he gives her a camera and some rudimentary lessons in photography, unleashes a passion that will irrevocably shape her future. A spell at boarding school ends abruptly and Amory begins an apprenticeship with Greville in London, photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But Amory is hungry for more and her search for life, love and artistic expression will take her to the demi monde of Berlin of the late ’20s, to New York of the ’30s, to the blackshirt riots in London, and to France in the Second World War, where she becomes one of the first women war photographers. Her desire for experience will lead Amory to further wars, to lovers, husbands and children as she continues to pursue her dreams and battle her demons.

In this enthralling story of a life fully lived, illustrated with “found” period photographs, William Boyd has created a sweeping panorama of some of the most defining moments of modern history, told through the camera lens of one unforgettable woman, Amory Clay. It is his greatest achievement to date.

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Classic Science Fiction

Way Station by Clifford D Simak

One from my Classics Club list. I’ve only read a couple of Simak’s short stories before in various anthologies, but I’ve been impressed, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Enoch Wallace is an ageless hermit, striding across his untended farm as he has done for over a century, still carrying the gun with which he had served in the Civil War. But what his neighbors must never know is that, inside his unchanging house, he meets with a host of unimaginable friends from the farthest stars.

More than a hundred years before, an alien named Ulysses had recruited Enoch as the keeper of Earth’s only galactic transfer station. Now, as Enoch studies the progress of Earth and tends the tanks where the aliens appear, the charts he made indicate his world is doomed to destruction. His alien friends can only offer help that seems worse than the dreaded disaster. Then he discovers the horror that lies across the galaxy…

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Crime

The Silence by Susan Allott

Courtesy of HarperCollins. Another unsolicited review copy and I feel this could go either way for me. Dual time story from the looks of it – when will that trend end? But it has pretty high ratings on Goodreads, so fingers crossed…

The Blurb says: It is 1997, and in a basement flat in Hackney, Isla Green is awakened by a call in the middle of the night: her father phoning from Sydney. Thirty years ago, in the suffocating heat of summer 1967, the Green’s next-door neighbor Mandy disappeared. At the time, it was thought she fled a broken marriage and gone to start a new life; but now Mandy’s family is trying to reconnect, and there is no trace of her. Isla’s father Joe was allegedly the last person to see her alive, and now he’s under suspicion of murder.

Isla unwillingly plans to go back to Australia for the first time in a decade to support her father. The return to Sydney will plunge Isla deep into the past, to a quiet street by the sea where two couples live side by side. Isla’s parents, Louisa and Joe, have recently emigrated from England – a move that has left Louisa miserably homesick while Joe embraces his new life. Next door, Steve and Mandy are equally troubled. Mandy doesn’t want a baby, even though Steve – a cop trying to hold it together under the pressures of the job – is desperate to become a father.

The more Isla asks about the past, the more she learns: about both young couples and the secrets each marriage bore. Could her father be capable of doing something terrible? How much does her mother know? What will happen to their family if Isla’s worst fears are realized? And is there another secret in this community, one which goes deeper into Australia’s colonial past, which has held them in a conspiracy of silence?

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Christie on Audio

Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

After a couple of long audiobooks, I feel I need to feed my Christie/Fraser addiction, and the cats feel it’s too long since their namesakes Tommy and Tuppence got a mention on the blog. I’m a bit surprised the blurb says “six short stories” since I think there are thirteen in the print collection, and the length of the audiobook suggests it’s unabridged. I’m hoping it’s a blurb error… 

The Blurb says: Six short stories from the Queen of Crime, telling, amongst other things, of Pink Pearls and Sinister Strangers.

Bonus Feature: Includes an exclusive Q&A session between Hugh Fraser and David Brawn, Publishing Operations Director at HarperCollins.

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were restless for adventure, so when they were asked to take over Blunt’s International Detective Agency, they leapt at the chance. After their triumphant recovery of a pink pearl, intriguing cases kept on coming their way: a stabbing on Sunningdale golf course; cryptic messages in the personal columns of newspapers; and even a box of poisoned chocolates.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 276 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 276

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! This is the very last batch from 2015 – a year when I was clearly buying far more books than it was possible to read. As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a June read. A particularly varied bunch this time, and they all still sound potentially great to me so you really can’t go wrong! Although I’ve been a Rebus fan for years I’ve always dipped in and out, so that there are still a few I haven’t read – A Good Hanging is one of them. I’ve read about a million glowing reviews of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, of which Still Life is the first. William Boyd is an excellent storyteller when he’s on form, but sometimes he isn’t, so Sweet Caress could go either way. And A Tangled Web made it onto my TBR when Rose reviewed it way back when the world was young!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin

Added 9th December 2015. 2,835 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.86 average rating. 320 pages.

The Blurb says: Twelve remarkable, gritty stories starring Detective Inspector John Rebus in his home city of Edinburgh, as only Ian Rankin can portray it: not just the tearooms and cobbled streets of the tourist brochures, but a modern urban metropolis with a full range of criminals and their victims–blackmailers, peeping Toms, and more than one kind of murderer. It’s a city like any other, a city that gives birth to crimes of passion, accidents, and long-hidden jealousy, and a city in which criminal minds find it all too easy to fade into the shadows. As dedicated readers of the series well know, nobody is better equipped to delve into Edinburgh’s back alleys and smoky pubs than Rebus, and no one better able to illuminate his world than Ian Rankin.

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Crime

Still Life by Louise Penny

Added 22nd December 2015. 164,211 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 321 pages.

The Blurb says: As the early morning mist clears on Thanksgiving Sunday, the homes of Three Pines come to life – all except one…

To locals, the village is a safe haven. So they are bewildered when a well-loved member of the community is found lying dead in the maple woods. Surely it was an accident – a hunter’s arrow gone astray. Who could want Jane Neal dead?

In a long and distinguished career with the Sûreté du Quebec, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has learned to look for snakes in Eden. Gamache knows something dark is lurking behind the white picket fences, and if he watches closely enough, Three Pines will begin to give up its secrets…

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Fiction

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Added 23rd December 2015. 8,172 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.93 average. 464 pages. 

The Blurb says: Born into Edwardian England, Amory Clay’s first memory is of her father standing on his head. She has memories of him returning on leave during the First World War. But his absences, both actual and emotional, are what she chiefly remembers. It is her photographer uncle Greville who supplies the emotional bond she needs, who, when he gives her a camera and some rudimentary lessons in photography, unleashes a passion that will irrevocably shape her future. A spell at boarding school ends abruptly and Amory begins an apprenticeship with Greville in London, photographing socialites for the magazine Beau Monde. But Amory is hungry for more and her search for life, love and artistic expression will take her to the demi monde of Berlin of the late ’20s, to New York of the ’30s, to the blackshirt riots in London, and to France in the Second World War, where she becomes one of the first women war photographers. Her desire for experience will lead Amory to further wars, to lovers, husbands and children as she continues to pursue her dreams and battle her demons.

In this enthralling story of a life fully lived, illustrated with “found” period photographs, William Boyd has created a sweeping panorama of some of the most defining moments of modern history, told through the camera lens of one unforgettable woman, Amory Clay. It is his greatest achievement to date.

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Fiction

A Tangled Web by LM Montgomery

Added 30th December 2015. 4,464 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.88 average. 257 pages.

The Blurb says: Over the years sixty members of the Dark family and sixty Penhallows have married one another—but not without their share of fighting and feuding. Now Aunt Becky, the eccentric old matriarch of the clan, has bequeathed her prized possession: a legendary heirloom jug. But the name of the jug’s new owner will not be revealed for one year. In the next twelve months beautiful Gay Penhallow’s handsome fiancé Noel Gibson leaves her for sly and seductive Nan Penhallow; reckless Peter Penhallow and lovely Donna Dark, who have hated each other since childhood, are inexplicably brought together by the jug; Hugh and Joscelyn Dark, separated on their wedding night ten years ago for reasons never revealed, find a second chance—all watched over by the mysterious Moon Man, who has the gift of second sight. Then comes the night when Aunt Becky’s wishes will be revealed…and the family is in for the biggest surprise of all.

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VOTE NOW!

(Click on title and then remember to also click on Vote, or your vote won’t count!)

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

P.S. Note for The Silver Darlings review-alongers – due to Rose’s copy not having arrived yet, the review date will be postponed. I’ll post the new date once it turns up. Keep your notes!

People’s Choice: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

On a mission…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The preacher father, Nathan, is enthusiastic and sure of his ability to bring the villagers to his rather wrathful version of God. The mother, Orleanna, and their four daughters are less keen, but being female their opinions don’t count, so at first they’re willing to try to make the best of it. It’s only for a year, after all. But when the Congo declares independence from Belgium and the mission tells Nathan to return to America, he refuses – he is determined to finish his work whatever the cost to his own family. Left without even the meagre wage the mission had provided or the support of other missionaries to fall back on in emergencies, life, already hard, becomes almost unbearably tough for Orleanna and the girls. And then tragedy strikes…

We are told from the beginning that Orleanna has left one of her precious children buried in the African soil, but we don’t find out which one till long into the book, nor how she dies. The first half of the book tells of the day-to-day life of the family as they begin to learn about the ways of the people they have come to live among. Gradually the older girls realise, each in her own way, that the Congolese are not in some kind of spiritual darkness – they have their own culture, beliefs and traditions, as meaningful to them as baptism and the Commandments are to Nathan. The poverty in their life is not of the spirit but of the body, scraping out a mean existence from land the forest is always seeking to reclaim, at the mercy of the rain – too little equals famine, too much, mudslides and destruction. Meanwhile, the white colonialists in the cities live in luxury gained through the exploitation of the Congo’s rich natural resources and its people.

Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened. First, picture the forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.

Yes, it is a preaching, message-driven book with much to say about racism, the evils of modern colonialism, the greed of American capitalism, and the perversion of religion into a tool of subjugation and control. But it’s done extremely well and is beautifully written, and (perhaps because I agreed with most of what she was saying) I found I wasn’t irritated by the drip-drip of worthiness running through it. It’s also somewhat plotless – I’d describe it as a family saga except that somehow that always sounds like a rather disparaging term. It follows the girls from childhood into their middle age, so that we see not just what happened to them in the mission but how that period impacted the rest of their lives.

The story is told in the voices of the mother and daughters. Orleanna only appears briefly at the beginning of each section of the book and she is looking back from the perspective of her old age. The girls, however, are telling us the story in real time throughout, in rotating chapters, and Kingsolver does a remarkable job of juggling four distinct voices and personalities, while gradually ageing them through childhood into young adulthood and finally to the more reflective maturity of mid-life. By the end of the book, they are of the age their parents were at the beginning, and so can perhaps understand and forgive more readily than their younger selves could.

Rachel is the eldest, fifteen when the book begins, a typical teenager, more interested in clothes and boys than religion and missions, and is frankly appalled at being dragged to a place where there are no cinemas or dances, no potential boyfriends (since to Rachel black boys certainly don’t count), and no electricity. It’s 1959, so no cell phones or internet – the girls are completely cut off from their former lives. Rachel is not what you’d call studious and she uses words wrongly all the time, which gives a humorous edge to her chapters. But she’s a survivor, protected by the shell of narcissism her prettiness has allowed her to develop.

….Slowly Father raised one arm above his head like one of those gods they had in Roman times, fixing to send down the thunderbolts and the lightning. Everyone looked up at him, smiling, clapping, waving their arms over their heads, bare bosoms and all. Then he began to speak. It was not so much a speech as a rising storm.
….“The Lord rideth,” he said, low and threatening, “upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt.”
….Hurray! they all cheered, but I felt a knot in my stomach. He was getting that look he gets, oh boy, like Here comes Moses tramping down off of Mount Syanide with ten fresh ways to wreck your life.

Ruth May is the youngest, just five when we first meet her, and to me her voice was the least true – she uses a vocabulary and thought processes well beyond her years, I felt. But she’s still fun, and unlike her sisters she’s young enough to adapt quickly to life in the village, befriending the African children and picking up their language easily.

Adah and Leah are twins, aged about fourteen at the start. Adah was brain-damaged at birth, and although highly intelligent she rarely speaks. She thinks oddly too, loving to find palindromes wherever she can and having a particular enjoyment in reading and writing backwards. I found this extremely tedious and was glad that she gradually grew out of it before I reached breaking point – reading backwards, I’ve realised, is not something I enjoy! Leah soon begins to show through as the main voice. Also intelligent, she is observant and interested in the world around her, though she’s still young enough at the beginning to not always understand what she sees.

Later in the book, we see how life plays out for the three surviving daughters. I need to be vague here so as not to give spoilers, but two of the girls make very different lives for themselves in Africa, while the third returns to America, though still carrying her African experiences in her heart. These three lives combined give Kingsolver an opportunity to show the broad history of this part of Africa and its troubled relationship with America over the next three decades or so, and she does it very skilfully so that it remains a personal story rather than sinking into polemics. She has an agenda and she gets it across, but it’s the girls, now women, who think the thoughts and live the lives that show the reader the contrasts, the politics, the aftermath of colonialism – no lectures from the author required.

There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I’ll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That’s pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There’s the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace.

Book 2 of 12

This was a People’s Choice Poll winner so thank you, People – you picked an excellent one! I thought this was a wonderful book, well deserving all the praise and plaudits it has received. It made me laugh and cry and care and think – isn’t that what all good fiction should do?

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 273…

Episode 273

I can barely bring myself to report on the TBR this week. After achieving a Zen-like state of perfect balance over the last few weeks, a fit of NetGalley madness overcame me and *takes deep breath* it’s gone up by 7 to 197! Why couldn’t they have rejected all my requests? Why?? WHY???

Here are a few more that will make a tiny dent in the heap soon…

Winner of the People’s Choice Poll

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Well, that was the closest race ever! A Meditation on Murder leapt into such a big early lead it looked as if it was going to be untouchable, but gradually, very gradually, The Cuckoo’s Calling began to gain on it, until at last they were neck-and-neck. For a day or so I thought I would have to use my casting vote for the first time ever, but at the last moment a sudden vote gave the victory to Galbraith! The People Have Spoken! This will be a May read…

The Blurb says: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

Factual

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography by Stanley G Payne and Jesús Palacios

Next up for my Spanish Civil War challenge. I was very impressed by Payne’s history of the war, so was delighted to see that he had also written a full biography of Franco, and promptly bought it. Since then I’ve looked up the co-author, Jesús Palacios, on wikipedia, and it would appear he has been involved in fascist and neo-Nazi organisations, so my enthusiasm is severely dented! However, the blurb claims the book is ‘objective and balanced’ – we shall see!

The Blurb says: General Francisco Franco ruled Spain for nearly forty years, as one of the most powerful and controversial leaders in that nation’s long history. He has been the subject of many biographies, several of them more than a thousand pages in length, but all the preceding works have tended toward one extreme of interpretation or the other. This is the first comprehensive scholarly biography of Franco in English that is objective and balanced in its coverage, treating all three major aspects of his life—personal, military, and political. The co-authors, both renowned historians of Spain, present a deeply researched account that has made extensive use of the Franco Archive (long inaccessible to historians). They have also conducted in-depth interviews with his only daughter to explain better his family background, personal life, and marital environment, as well as his military and political career.

Franco: A Personal and Political Biography depicts his early life, explains his career and rise to prominence as an army officer who became Europe’s youngest interwar brigadier general in 1926, and then discusses his role in the affairs of the troubled Second Spanish Republic (1931–36). Stanley G. Payne and Jesús Palacios examine in detail how Franco became dictator and how his leadership led to victory in the Spanish Civil War that consolidated his regime. They also explore Franco’s role in the great repression that accompanied the Civil War—resulting in tens of thousands of executions—and examine at length his controversial role in World War II. This masterful biography highlights Franco’s metamorphoses and adaptations to retain power as politics, culture, and economics shifted in the four decades of his dictatorship.

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Historical Fiction

The Manningtree Witches by AK Blakemore

Courtesy of Granta Books via NetGalley. I know nothing about the author and haven’t seen any reviews of the book – I was simply attracted by the blurb. It feels like it’s been a while since I took a blind punt on a book – fingers crossed! 

The Blurb says: England, 1643. Parliament is battling the King; the war between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers rages. Puritanical fervour has gripped the nation, and the hot terror of damnation burns black in every shadow.

In Manningtree, depleted of men since the wars began, the women are left to their own devices. At the margins of this diminished community are those who are barely tolerated by the affluent villagers – the old, the poor, the unmarried, the sharp-tongued. Rebecca West, daughter of the formidable Beldam West, fatherless and husbandless, chafes against the drudgery of her days, livened only by her infatuation with the clerk John Edes. But then newcomer Matthew Hopkins, a mysterious, pious figure dressed from head to toe in black, takes over The Thorn Inn and begins to ask questions about the women of the margins. When a child falls ill with a fever and starts to rave about covens and pacts, the questions take on a bladed edge.

The Manningtree Witches plunges its readers into the fever and menace of the English witch trials, where suspicion, mistrust and betrayal ran amok as the power of men went unchecked and the integrity of women went undefended. It is a visceral, thrilling book that announces a bold new talent.

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Crime

The Last Trial by Scott Turow

Courtesy of Pan Macmillan via NetGalley. Scott Turow has long been a favourite author of mine and in this one he’s back in his usual stamping ground of Kindle County. Despite it being described as an “explosive thriller”, his books are usually long, slow and thoughtful, as much literary fiction as legal thriller, and I suspect this one will be too…

The Blurb says: In this explosive legal thriller from New York Times bestselling author Scott Turow, two formidable men collide: a celebrated criminal defense lawyer at the end of his career and his lifelong friend, a renowned doctor accused of murder.

At 85 years old, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a brilliant defense lawyer with his health failing but spirit intact, is on the brink of retirement. But when his old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a former Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, is faced with charges of insider trading, fraud, and murder, his entire life’s work is put in jeopardy, and Stern decides to take on one last trial.

In a case that will provide the defining coda to both men’s accomplished lives, Stern probes beneath the surface of his friend’s dazzling veneer as a distinguished cancer researcher. As the trial progresses, Stern will question everything he thought he knew about his friend. Despite Pafko’s many failings, is he innocent of the terrible charges laid against him? How far will Stern go to save his friend, and–no matter the trial’s outcome–will he ever know the truth? Stern’s duty to defend his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system both face a final, terrible test in the courtroom, where the evidence and reality are sometimes worlds apart.

Full of the deep insights into the spaces where the fragility of human nature and the justice system collide, Scott Turow’s The Last Trial is a masterful legal thriller that unfolds in page-turning suspense–and questions how we measure a life.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 272 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 272

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! Still working through books acquired in 2015, but finally getting close to the end of them! As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a May read. A crime week this time, but still quite varied, I think. The Cuckoo’s Calling keeps lingering simply because it’s so long. (OK, I cannot tell a lie – it’s also because I think Cormoran Strike is a really silly name.) I read and enjoyed a later book in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series, so bought the first in the series, Last Rituals, intending to catch up – that clearly went well! I’m ashamed to say that Soft Summer Blood is a NetGalley book – don’t know what happened to make it linger since I’d enjoyed a couple of Helton’s other books. And A Meditation on Murder was acquired on the recommendation of a blogger who has since disappeared without trace from the blogosphere.

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Added 12th September 2015. 498,822 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.87 average rating. 561 pages.

The Blurb says: After losing his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike is barely scraping by as a private investigator. Then John Bristow walks through his door with an amazing story: His sister, the legendary supermodel Lula Landry, famously fell to her death a few months earlier. The police ruled it a suicide, but John refuses to believe that. The case plunges Strike into the world of multimillionaire beauties, rock-star boyfriends, and desperate designers, and it introduces him to every variety of pleasure, enticement, seduction, and delusion known to man.

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Crime

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sirgurdardottir

Added 3rd November 2015. 8,980 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.59 average. 314 pages.

The Blurb says: At a university in Reykjavík, the body of a young German student is discovered, his eyes cut out and strange symbols carved into his chest. Police waste no time in making an arrest, but the victim’s family isn’t convinced that the right man is in custody. They ask Thóra Guðmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two, to investigate. It isn’t long before Thóra and her associate, Matthew Reich, uncover the deceased student’s obsession with Iceland’s grisly history of torture, execution, and witch hunts. But there are very contemporary horrors hidden in the long, cold shadow of dark traditions. And for two suddenly endangered investigators, nothing is quite what it seems … and no one can be trusted.

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Crime

Soft Summer Blood by Peter Helton

Added 3rd December 2015. 55 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.67 average. 224 pages. 

The Blurb says: It all seemed so simple: a murder; an obvious suspect; a shaky alibi: DI McLusky never had it so good. Until a second killing challenges all his earlier assumptions. With every new piece of evidence McLusky brings to light, the case becomes more complicated. Does it have its roots in a disappearance eighteen years earlier, or is it firmly based in the present?

Meanwhile, DI Kat Fairfield and DS Jack Sorbie are tasked with finding the daughter of a prominent Italian politician, who has disappeared while on a student exchange programme at Bristol University. Neither is overjoyed to be lumbered with a routine missing person’s case while McLusky heads a high-profile murder investigation. Until they find a dead body of their own…

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Crime

A Meditation on Murder by Robert Thorogood

Added 5th December 2015. 1,499 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.99 average. 358 pages.

The Blurb says: Aslan Kennedy has an idyllic life: Leader of a Spiritual Retreat for wealthy holidaymakers on one of the Caribbean’s most unspoilt islands, Saint Marie. Until he’s murdered, that is. The case seems open and shut: when Aslan was killed he was inside a locked room with only five other people, one of whom has already confessed to the murder.

Detective Inspector Richard Poole is hot, bothered, and fed up with talking to witnesses who’d rather discuss his ‘aura’ than their whereabouts at the time of the murder. But he also knows that the facts of the case don’t quite stack up. In fact, he’s convinced that the person who’s just confessed to the murder is the one person who couldn’t have done it. Determined to track down the real killer, DI Poole is soon on the trail, and no stone will be left unturned.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

TBR Thursday 268 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 268

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! Still working through books acquired in 2015 – this was definitely a year when I had no control over my book-buying addiction at all! As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be an April read. An odd bunch, this time, I think. Blacklands is the first in a trilogy – I also have book 2 which I acquired at the same time. Belinda Bauer is one of those authors I often love and sometimes don’t, so it could go either way. The Ocean at the End of the Lane was acquired while I was having a brief but passionate love affair with Neil Gaiman. Cold Comfort Farm was a recommendation from L. Marie, though in what context I’ve long forgotten! I love Megan Abbott’s books where she explores the dark hormonal side of teenage girl angst, but Die A Little sounds very different – noir written by a woman is still quite unusual. I haven’t kept a note of it, but I suspect Margot is the culprit for adding that one!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Crime

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Added 8th July 2015. 7,426 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.69 average rating. 240 pages.

The Blurb says: Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb digs holes on Exmoor, hoping to find a body. Every day after school, while his classmates swap football stickers, Steven goes digging to lay to rest the ghost of the uncle he never knew, who disappeared aged eleven and is assumed to have fallen victim to the notorious serial killer Arnold Avery.

Only Steven’s Nan is not convinced her son is dead. She still waits for him to come home, standing bitter guard at the front window while her family fragments around her. Steven is determined to heal the widening cracks between them before it’s too late. And if that means presenting his grandmother with the bones of her murdered son, he’ll do it.

So the boy takes the next logical step, carefully crafting a letter to Arnold Avery in prison. And there begins a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a desperate child and a bored serial killer . . . 

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Fantasy

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Added 8th July 2015. 494,184 ratings on Goodreads, with a 4.00 average. 181 pages.

The Blurb says: Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

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Fiction

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Added 16th July 2015. 42,593 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.90 average. 338 pages. 

The Blurb says: Winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, COLD COMFORT FARM is a wickedly funny portrait of British rural life in the 1930s. Flora Poste, a recently orphaned socialite, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and becomes enmeshed in a web of violent emotions, despair, and scheming, until Flora manages to set things right.

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Crime

Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Added 3rd September 2015. 2,407 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.67 average. 256 pages.

The Blurb says: Shadow-dodging through the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood and its seedy flip side, Megan Abbott’s debut, Die a Little, is a gem of the darkest hue. This ingenious twist on a classic noir tale tells the story of Lora King, a schoolteacher, and her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the district attorney’s office. Lora’s comfortable, suburban life is jarringly disrupted when Bill falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant with a murky past.

Made sisters by marriage but not by choice, the bond between Lora and Alice is marred by envy and mistrust. Spurred on by inconsistencies in Alice’s personal history and possibly jealous of Alice’s hold on her brother, Lora finds herself lured into the dark alleys and mean streets of seamy Los Angeles. Assuming the role of amateur detective, she uncovers a shadowy world of drugs, prostitution, and ultimately, murder.

Lora’s fascination with Alice’s “sins” increases in direct proportion to the escalation of her own relationship with Mike Standish, a charmingly amoral press agent who appears to know more about his old friend Alice than he reveals. The deeper Lora digs to uncover Alice’s secrets, the more her own life begins to resemble Alice’s sinister past — and present.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

People’s Choice: The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey

Cosy-ish murder mystery in Oklahoma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! Alafair Tucker’s husband owns the neighbouring farm to the Days’, but Alafair wouldn’t have been too much interested in Harley’s death except that she has found out that her daughter, Phoebe, has been sneaking over to visit Harley’s son, John Lee, and the two youngsters appear to be in love. So when John Lee becomes the chief suspect, Alafair wants to know the truth – did he do it?

Set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma, this is a cosy-ish murder mystery with lots and lots of authentic-feeling details about life in a farming community at that time. Alafair and her husband Shaw have nine surviving children, ranging from little kids to teenage sons and full-grown daughters, and the prevailing feeling reminded me very much of the Waltons – they all love each other and get along; the kids are kind and respectful, and help their parents with the farm and housework; and they’re all very close, so that a threat to one is a threat to all.

I say cosy-ish rather than cosy, though, because there’s enough grit in here to keep it feeling real. We learn of the children Alafair lost in infancy, we see the poverty of the less fortunate members of the community, and we see how women’s lives are dependant on the will and nature of their men. Shaw is a lovely husband, who works hard, stays sober and enjoys nothing more than spending time with his wife and kids, so Alafair’s life is sweet, even though she works harder than a modern woman could possibly imagine just to keep her huge family fed and the household running smoothly. Shaw and Alafair have a modern outlook for the time (though not in any way anachronistic), allowing their daughters to be educated beyond basic schooling if they choose – one of the oldest girls has secretarial qualifications, for example.

In contrast, Harley Day is a vicious, drunken brute who neglects his farm, so his wife and family are poor and often hungry, to say nothing of the constant threat of physical violence. Although everyone knows this, there’s no real way to intervene – Harley effectively owns his family, and the idea of his wife leaving him would be scandalous despite his treatment of her, and anyway, how would she survive and be able to feed her many children?

Donis Casey

The book is fairly slow, but that seems to suit the story, set in a time when life itself was slower paced and things took longer – no quick phone calls, so if you wanted to ask a neighbour something you had to hitch up the pony to the buggy and drive a few miles over difficult roads and through bitterly cold weather. Casey tells us in detail about how Alafair feeds her family – a massive undertaking with no convenience foods – and how the weekly laundry wash gets done, and so on. But she does it very well, as part of the story rather than as an interruption to it, and I loved all this detail, while thanking my stars for microwaves and washing machines!

The mystery element is very good, although Alafair’s detection skills rely a little too much on lucky guesswork. There’s a good range of suspects, and the pacing, though slow, is steady, holding my interest throughout. Alafair’s method is simply to go and ask questions of various neighbours and townsfolk, and this lets us see how the society works. I didn’t guess the murderer, but found the solution satisfying and believable, and rather darker than I anticipated. I found the whole read enjoyable, absorbing and comfortably relaxing, and Alafair’s plethora of children means there’s plenty of room for more stories about her family in the future – I look forward to reading some of them.

Book 1 of 12

You chose this book for me in a People’s Choice Poll, and hurrah! You picked a winner! Well done, People – I knew I could rely on you! 😉

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 261 – The People’s Choice…

Episode 261

(A reminder of the People’s Choice plan. Once a month or so, I shall list the four oldest books on the TBR, then the next four, and so on, and each time you will select the one you think I should read, either because you’ve read and enjoyed it, or because you think the blurb looks good. And I will read the one you pick within three months! If I begin to fall behind, I’ll have a gap till I catch up again. In the event of a tie, I’ll have the casting vote.)

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OK, time for the next batch of four! Still got loads from 2015 – seems to have been a big year for acquiring more books than I could feasibly read! As usual, I’m planning three months ahead so the winner will be a January read. I bought the Pascal Mercier novel after enjoying another book of his, Night Train to Lisbon – pre-blog, though, so no review. RJ Ellory is a hit-and-miss author for me, but when he’s good, he’s very good, and I’m told this is one of his best. Ann Cleeves also has had a mixed reaction from me, based on the only two books of hers I’ve read so far. Attica Locke (I seem to be developing a theme here) is another whom I sometimes love and sometimes don’t. All of these appeal to me still, so you really can’t go wrong!

I’m intrigued to see which one you pick…

Fiction

Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier

Added 20th April 2015. 691 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.62 average rating. 625 pages.

The Blurb says: In a quiet seaside town near Genoa, experts are gathering for a linguistics conference. One speaker, Philipp Perlmann is recently widowed and, struggling to contend with his grief, is unable to complete his keynote address. As the hour approaches, an increasingly desperate Perlmann decides to plagiarize the work of Leskov, a Russian colleague who cannot attend, and pass it off as his own.

But when word reaches Perlmann that Leskov has arrived unexpectedly in Genoa, Perlmann must protect himself from exposure by constructing a maelstrom of lies and deceit, which will lead him to the brink of murder.

In this intense psychological drama, the author of Night Train to Lisbon again takes the reader on a journey into the depths of human emotion and the language of memory and loss.

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Thriller

City of Lies by RJ Ellory

Added 20th April 2015. 503 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.66 average. 468 pages.

The Blurb says: John Harper has just made a discovery: the father he believed to be dead for more than thirty years is alive, though lying in a coma in a Manhattan hospital. Returning home to New York brings with it memories of childhood, many of them painful, and yet Harper could never have prepared himself for the truth.

Confronted with the reality of his father’s existence, Harper finds himself seduced by a lifestyle that he seems to have inherited–an underworld life of power, treachery, and menace. As he desperately tries to uncover the facts of his own past, he is faced with one lie after another, and with each new discovery he becomes more and more entangled in a dark and shocking conspiracy.

From the acclaimed author of A Quiet Belief in Angels and A Simple Act of ViolenceCity of Lies is a tense and gripping thriller, each twist and turn more shocking than the last.

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Crime

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves

Added 20th May, 2015. 11,334 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.87 average. 561 pages. 

The Blurb says: At the isolated Baikie’s Cottage on the North Pennines, three very different women come together to complete an environmental survey. Three women who, in some way or another, know the meaning of betrayal…

For team leader Rachael Lambert the project is the perfect opportunity to rebuild her confidence after a double-betrayal by her lover and boss, Peter Kemp. Botanist Anne Preece, on the other hand, sees it as a chance to indulge in a little deception of her own. And then there is Grace Fulwell, a strange, uncommunicative young woman with plenty of her own secrets to hide…

When Rachael arrives at the cottage, however, she is horrified to discover the body of her friend Bella Furness. Bella, it appears, has committed suicide – a verdict Rachael finds impossible to accept.

Only when the next death occurs does a fourth woman enter the picture – the unconventional Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope, who must piece together the truth from these women’s tangled lives…

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Crime

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

Added 3rd June, 2015. 5,727 ratings on Goodreads, with a 3.52 average. 450 pages.

The Blurb says: Jay Porter is hardly the lawyer he set out to be. His most promising client is a low-rent call girl, and he runs his fledgling law practice out of a dingy strip mall. But he’s long since made peace with his path to the American Dream, carefully tucking away his darkest sins: the guns, the FBI file, the trial that nearly destroyed him.

Houston, Texas, 1981. It’s here that Jay believes he can make a fresh start. That is, until the night he impulsively saves a drowning woman’s life – and opens a Pandora’s Box. Her secrets put Jay in danger, ensnaring him in a murder investigation that could cost him his practice, his family, and even his life. But before he can get to the bottom of a tangled mystery that reaches into the upper echelons of Houston’s corporate powerbrokers, Jay must confront the demons of his past.

With intelligent writing that captures the reader from the first scene through an exhilarating climax, Black Water Rising marks the arrival of an electrifying new talent.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.