Back-to-School Madness

When do normal people grow out of back to school fervour? It is some time since I graduated, yet every time September rolls around I am desperate to buy all the stationery. I want new pens, notebooks (the lure of a fresh exercise book is irresistible), planners, backpacks… I even crave a timetable I can colour code and hang over my desk.

So much so that I have been inspired to start designing my own stationery. I love sending letters and the lockdown gave me the time to create letter paper I will really love to use. Obviously I am back at work now but I am making the effort to try and paint at least a couple of times a week. It has been a lot of fun and I don’t want to lose that.



Most people set resolutions in January. I always want to study in the autumn. It might seem odd but I reason that I might as well make the most of the fact that right now all I want to do is learn. I even dragged out my university calculus textbook because I am all too aware that I have forgotten most of what I learnt.

My actual focus at the moment though is Latin. I wanted to learn Latin ever since I first read the Lord Peter Wimsey books as a teenager but it wasn’t offered at my school and by the time I took my A Levels my priorities were elsewhere. Since university though I have worked through one book by myself and taken two adult classes. I always get on very well to start with but get bogged down as the grammar becomes more complicated. I am one of the generation of schoolchildren for whom only basic grammar was considered necessary so when it comes to things like the subjunctive I struggle to define it in English, let alone in Latin. This time I am determined to crack it. I even have post it notes stuck up by my bathroom mirror.



Of course, Latin is not the most useful subject I could study. Yes I will (hopefully) learn more grammar than I did in English but I can hardly travel to Rome and have a conversation in Latin. I enjoy it though which is really the whole point. Besides, perhaps the apparent uselessness is part of the charm. There is no stress of a looming deadline, no practical situation where I will need to show my skill. I can just revel in the joy of learning for its own sake.

Book Review – Truly Devious

Several months ago I watched a Booktube video which recommended Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious as a boarding school story crossed with Agatha Christie. Naturally, that very much appealed to me but although I made a note of the title I didn’t actually get around to finding a copy. Now of course, I am in the middle of a huge cosy crime phase and am desperate to find new authors to read. Added to that, the onset of autumn always gives me back to school fever and makes me very keen to study so this was the perfect read for me right now.

Publisher’s Blurb

Ellingham Academy is a famous private school in Vermont for the brightest thinkers, inventors, and artists. It was founded by Albert Ellingham, an early twentieth century tycoon, who wanted to make a wonderful place full of riddles, twisting pathways, and gardens. “A place,” he said, “where learning is a game.”

Shortly after the school opened, his wife and daughter were kidnapped. The only real clue was a mocking riddle listing methods of murder, signed with the frightening pseudonym “Truly, Devious.” It became one of the great unsolved crimes of American history.

True-crime aficionado Stevie Bell is set to begin her first year at Ellingham Academy, and she has an ambitious plan: She will solve this cold case. That is, she will solve the case when she gets a grip on her demanding new school life and her housemates: the inventor, the novelist, the actor, the artist, and the jokester.

But something strange is happening. Truly Devious makes a surprise return, and death revisits Ellingham Academy . The past has crawled out of its grave. Someone has gotten away with murder.

I loved this book. It gave me just the right amount of school content and I could really picture myself there. It sounded like a great school too – lots and lots of time for reading!

The mystery was gripping and I didn’t want to stop reading. So much so that I had to get hold of the second book straight away – you don’t see the whole mystery solved in the first book and I for one very much want to figure out exactly what happened. It is now sitting on my desk waiting patiently for me to finish writing this so I can read it instead.

It is wonderful to have found a new series about which I can get excited. There is nothing quite like waiting impatiently for the next book to be published and I just know that by the time book four is published next year I will be more than ready for it.

Book Details

Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson

Publisher: HarperCollins

ISBN: 9780062338068

RRP: £7.99

In Defence of Georgette Heyer

My online book club’s choice for August was Frederica by Georgette Heyer.  I practically lived on Heyer when I was a teenager and this is one (of many) which I read over and over again.  It has been several years though since I read one of her Regency novels (although I have read some of her detective stories more recently) so I was very excited to pick one back up.

It was wonderful to be back in Heyer’s world.  I had forgotten just how much I loved reading these books and I was immediately drawn back to a very comforting place with characters I really cared about.  Heyer’s books are just lovely stories and are above all funny – Frederica has what must be the best non-proposal scene in literature.

Many of the readers in our group had issues with the amount of Regency slang used in the book but I have to confess that I didn’t even notice most of it.  I still haven’t quite worked out whether that is a cultural thing (only a handful of us are from the UK – do we still use any of these words?) or whether I have just read too many of the books, although I suspect it is the latter!

I would have said that Georgette Heyer was the perfect read for anyone who loves Jane Austen but there were a few in the group who found it too slow for them and couldn’t finish it.  Frederica is not perhaps the fasted paced of her novels and if you want a bit more action it might be worth starting with something like The Reluctant Widow or The Unknown Ajax which, incidentally, has the funniest final scene – it belongs on the stage in a farce.

The romance aspect does always tend to be a slow burner.  Heyer is credited with creating the whole Regency romance genre (Barbara Cartland is known to have copied her) but really her books are so much more than ‘just’ romances.  They are comedies of manners and are all about the relationships between many different characters.  Heyer is all too often written off as only a writer of romances for women.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with romances but giving books that label does tend to limit their readership.

Georgette Heyer deserves to be much more widely recognised, if only for the incredible amount of research she put into her books.  A great deal of what I know about Regency England was gleaned from the pages of her books and I firmly believe that there is so much variety in her books that there is at least one of them for everyone.  That goes for men too – I once got my Dad to read The Unknown Ajax and he enjoyed it very much.  It is all about finding the right book for you.

Comforting Cosy Crime

I’ve realised that I have been talking a lot about cosy crime books recently – it seems that in times of stress I really do find them comforting.  I generally revert to old favourites – Margery Allingham, Catherine Aird, Dorothy L Sayers…  At the moment I am mostly (but not exclusively) reading familiar authors but have been seeking out new to me titles.  They have the double advantage of seeming comfortingly well known whilst still being exciting new stories.

I am not alone either.  I remember early on in lockdown reading a piece by Robin Stevens about how the reading of crime fiction always increases in times of crisis.  Apparently it is because it is (perhaps subconsciously) reassuring to read a book which has very human problems we know will be neatly solved by the end.  I think we can all see the appeal of that!

For me, there are some stricter rules.  I do not like books where it turns out the narrator – or someone whose thoughts we can follow – is the murderer.  That breaks one of the rules of golden age detective fiction, although it is one Agatha Christie was happy to break – she is well know for breaking many of them!  I do hate getting emotionally attached to the villain.

I also like to have a fair chance of solving the murder myself. All the detective’s clues should be available to me otherwise it just isn’t fair. I love Ngaio Marsh but Alleyn has a terrible habit of saying something along the lines of, ‘I’ll tell you on the way.’ to Inspector Fox and we never get to see that scene. It’s a bit infuriating sometimes.

I do also have an issue with books where it turns out the murder was in fact a suicide. This is a problem which is very specific to me but I just don’t enjoy those stories nearly as much.

I have however been having a lovely time indulging my taste for cosy mysteries.  They are a balm I can highly recommend.

Book Review – The Plot is Murder

I am always on the lookout for new (to me) cosy crime books.  They are just so comforting and the best kind of relaxation so when I heard about the Mystery Bookshop series by V M Burns I had to try it out.  It is set in a mystery bookshop after all!

Publisher’s Blurb





Samantha Washington has long dreamed of owning a mystery bookstore.  And as she prepares for the grand opening, she’s realizing another dream–penning a cozy mystery set in England between the wars.  While Samantha hires employees and stocks her shelves, her imagination also gets to work as her heroine, Lady Penelope Marsh, long-overshadowed by her beautiful sister Daphne, refuses to lose the besotted Victor Carlston to her sibling’s charms.  When one of Daphne’s suitors is murdered in a maze, Penelope steps in to solve the labyrinthine puzzle and win Victor.

In the meantime, however, the unimaginable happens in real life.  A shady realtor turns up dead in Samantha’s backyard, and the police suspect her–after all, she might know a thing or two about murder.  Aided by her feisty grandmother and an ensemble of enthusiastic retirees, Samantha is determined to close the case before she opens her store.  But will she live to conclude her own story when the killer has a revised ending in mind?

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I very much enjoyed this book.  It is light, easy reading which is perfect right now.  The mystery kept me guessing and I especially loved reading about Nana Jo and the girls.  I only hope I’m half as active and resourceful as them when I’m their age!

I hadn’t realised that half of the text  would be taken up by the crime novel which Sam is writing.  That did throw me a bit to start with but I actually really like the way it was woven into the main plot.  There were however some aspects of the portrayal of life in 1930s England which grated and I did feel that perhaps some more research could have been done here.

Overall though, I thought it was a fun book and I will definitely be reading more in the series.

Book Details

The Plot is Murder by V M Burns
Publisher: Kensington Publishing
ISBN: 9781496711816
RRP: £11.99

 

Book Review – Death Sets Sail

I have been a fan of Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series for years so, although I am very sad that Death Sets Sail is the last in the series, I was incredibly excited to receive a review copy from Penguin Random House.

Publisher’s Blurb

The ninth and final novel in the number-one bestselling, award-winning Murder Most Unladylike series.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are in Egypt, taking a cruise along the Nile.  They are hoping to see some ancient temples and a mummy or two; what they get, instead, is murder.

Also travelling on the SS Hatshepsut is a mysterious society called the Breath of Life: a group of genteel English ladies and gentlemen, who believe themselves to be reincarnations of the ancient pharaohs.  Three days into the cruise their leader is found dead in her cabin, stabbed during the night.

It soon becomes clear to Daisy and Hazel that the victim’s timid daughter is being framed – and they begin to investigate their most difficult case yet.

But there is danger all around, and only one of the Detective Society will make it home alive…

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I have been waiting for this book for so long that I was afraid I might have built it up too much in my mind and I would be disappointed.  I needn’t have worried though – this is a great book which definitely lives up to the rest of the series.

Of course, I am well above the target age for these books but even so I found the plot had a lot of unexpected twists and I only guessed the murderer a few pages before they were revealed.  That’s the best kind of mystery – it’s satisfying to be able to work it out but only if it’s right at the last minute!  I also loved the fact that the book is set in Egypt and I especially enjoyed the Agatha Christie references.

The characters have grown a lot over the course of the series and I will be sad to see them go.  Hazel in particular has developed so much and I found myself cheering for her several times in this one.  Robin Stevens has just announced a new series which will begin in 2022 and will focus on Hazel’s little sister May – I will be very much looking forward to that. In the meantime if you haven’t read Murder Most Unladylike yet I would highly recommend giving it a go.

Book Details

Death Sets Sail by Robin Stevens

ISBN: 9780241419809

Publisher: Puffin

RRP: £6.99

Readings from Northanger

Recently I have been re-reading Northanger Abbey with a lovely group of Jane Austen enthusiasts – most of whom are far more knowledgeable than I am.  I have so enjoyed our discussions and I have learnt a lot from them.

The first time I read Northanger I didn’t get it at all.   I had heard that it was very funny and I couldn’t understand why.  Then I learnt about gothic novels and read it again.  It turns out that it is indeed hilarious and I have loved it ever since.

The plot has a great deal to do with that (of course) but I also love how heavily books feature in the story.  As a bookish teenager I very much identified with Catherine – I too have spent much time living more in my fictional worlds than in the real one.

I have also very much appreciated the books I have discovered within its pages.  Like many people, I was pushed to read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Catherine Morland and, although the sentences are long and have far too many commas, I enjoyed it.  An even better discovery was Fanny Burney who I read partly because she is mentioned in Northanger and partly because I knew Jane Austen herself enjoyed reading her.  For me she was far superior to Mrs Radcliffe.

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From there I went on to discover several other 18th century authors including Maria Edgeworth who I loved.  I have not yet embarked on any of Samuel Richardson’s novels but I have no doubt that I will at some point.

For now though I have returned to the gothic and am about to start Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  This one isn’t mentioned in Northanger Abbey but I’m sure that Catherine and Isabella would have adored it.

Summer Mysteries

I am taking a few days annual leave this week. I have only been back at work for five weeks but it has been exhausting and I was more than ready for the break.

Of course, there are still things I need to get done this week but I was hopeful that I could spend a good chunk of the time reading. So far I have done pretty well and have read two of the Albert Campion series by Margaret Allingham – Traitor’s Purse and Coroner’s Pidgen. I have read both before so knew I would enjoy them and I have been revelling in them.

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I would have moved onto the next one but it is new to me and I need to wait until I actually have a copy. Instead, I have been drawn to another cosy mystery – The Plot is Murder by V M Burns. I don’t know a huge amount about this one but it was recommended to me and it is set in a mystery bookshop. How can I not like it?

Jane Austen Society

Last weekend should have seen the AGM of the Jane Austen Society UK at Chawton House.  This year is the 80th birthday of the society and so it would have been quite a special occasion.  Of course, for obvious reasons, this couldn’t happen.

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Instead, Chawton House hosted an online event which included a tour of the house and a talk about the history of the society which was very interesting.  1940 seems like an odd time to be creating such a society and I can understand why people thought there were more important things going in in the world.  It is however an excellent example of keeping calm and carrying on.

The highlight of the day for me though was the selection of birthday wishes from Jane Austen societies around the world.  It was very moving and even humbling to see how much people love Jane Austen and her world.

The videos are still available on the Chawton House YouTube channel and are well worth a watch if you can.

Mostly Butterflies

Last week I received a surprise parcel from Macmillan.  I had a suspicion as to what it might be but was completely wrong as it turned out to be a beautiful copy of Matthew Oates’ His Imperial MajestyMy first flick through showed me that it has some gorgeous illustrations but I was somewhat sceptical about the review on the front cover from Patrick Barkham – ‘Monumental, transcendent, hilarious.’  This is a natural history of the Purple Emperor butterfly and it is packed full of fascinating information.  How could it possibly also be hilarious?

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I had to take this picture on a rainy day when not a butterflywas in sight so I made do with a brooch.

It turns out that it can.  I am still only partway through (my Mum who doesn’t normally like reading non-fiction was so taken with this book that she borrowed it to read herself) but there are definitely some very funny moments.  I particularly enjoyed the account of a meeting with a walker when the author was lying flat on his back looking for butterflies in the trees above him with binoculars.

I love butterflies.  Hacking out on the ponies I often see many of them flitting about the hedgerows and although I can identify very few of them they are wonderful to watch.  I even have a sketchbook from when I was eight or nine to which I gave the misleading title of Mostly Butterflies.  On looking through it I find that there is precisely one butterfly – apparently a Monarch.  A more accurate title would have been Mostly Horses but I was obviously very keen on butterflies at the time – even if it was a short time.

Thank you to Macmillan for the free review copy.  I am looking forward to reading the rest of it when I get it back!