Christmas Crime

Now that December is well and truly upon us I am beginning to want to read all the Christmas books. However, although I am listening to A Holiday by Gaslight – which is utterly charming – my main reading has actually been very much focused on cosy crime. Apparently that is what I want from Christmas right now!

I have just finished Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair. I have been slowly working my way through her books as until a year or so ago all I had read was Daughter of Time. I loved that book so much but for some reason had never moved on to any other, maybe because I was worried that it was the Richard III theme which appealed and not the writing itself. It turns out that – unsurprisingly – Josephine Tey is a great writer and I very much enjoy her books.

The Franchise Affair is possibly my favourite so far – except for Daughter of Time of course. I was hooked very early on and all my spare thoughts were occupied by it. Inspector Grant actually featured very little but I loved Robert Blair and was completely invested in his story. Plus that of the Sharpes of course.

In short, I loved this book and I am very much looking forward to the next.

Finding Lark Rise

I have stayed in Dartmouth many, many times and I thought I knew all about its literary connections (Agatha Christie, Christopher Robin…) but it turns out that there really is always something to learn. Flora Thompson lived there from 1928 to 1940 and in fact wrote Lark Rise to Candleford there.

I discovered this purely by chance when we were booking our cottage – we stayed in a house called Larkrise and when I Googled ‘Larkrise Dartmouth’ I got several results about Flora Thompson. Of course, I had to do a bit of research then and find out all I could! Once we were there I made sure I found the house where she lived and although I didn’t get to her grave (with a book shaped headstone) this year I will make sure I do next time.

Lark Rise had been on my TBR for years so naturally I had to take it with me. My copy is such a lovely little book and it felt wonderful carrying it about with me – and reading it in the places Flora would have known. I have always loved taking books back to their roots and it is definitely something I can recommend.

Christie Immersion

Over the past couple of days I have been exploring round Dartmouth and enjoying it very much. There are so many gorgeous houses on the edges of the town – and over the river around Kingswear – and what with those and the palm trees I feel as if I am in an Agatha Christie novel. I can practically see people walking to tennis parties. This is the heart of Agatha Christie country after all

Unfortunately whenever I am here there seems to be an awful lot of building work going on. The walls and fences springing up around those houses make them look more like fortresses and I am convinced they looked much more welcoming in their heyday. I appreciate that the owners don’t want people all over their lawns but four private notices on one gateway does seem excessive. All the pretty blocked up gateways make me very sad too – and it doesn’t help at all that most of the houses are not lived in all year round.

However, I try not to dwell on that and just enjoy the sea air and gorgeous views. I neglected to take a Christie book with me but I did have A Tourist’s Guide to Murder by V M Burns which – completely fortuitously – involves a trip to Dartmouth and so was very appropriate. It is definitely the perfect place for reading cosy crime.

Vanity Fair

Whilst I was away I was ploughing my way through Vanity Fair. This is a book which has sat on my TBR for years and which has always intimidated me so I hadn’t picked it up to read before. The size of it wasn’t an issue but I think I was worried that I wouldn’t like any of the characters and so wouldn’t enjoy the book. That would more than likely make me struggle to read it.

However, I was determined to give it a go and being away at a book festival seemed like the perfect time to do so. I started it on the train to Cheltenham and really I didn’t want to put it down again! Every spare moment I had I was reading it and I had such a good time doing so. It is much easier reading than I had anticipated and also funny which was unexpected.

It was true that I did not especially like many of the characters – although my liking for them was constantly changing – but for once that didn’t matter so much and I was just caught up in the story. In fact, it was poor Amelia – a character who is very good and dutiful – who at times irritated me far more than manipulative Becky Sharp.

Hopefully I will learn a lesson from this and not put off reading a book for quite so long again.

Cheltenham Haul

I am finally home from the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I am utterly exhausted but I had the most amazing time and I am already planning and hoping for next year. To be so completely immersed in books was just wonderful.

In the end I was relatively restrained when it came to book buying. Two event books – The Book Smugglers and The Boy at the Back of the Class which I have been meaning to read for so long – plus Agatha Oddly and Wishyouwas. Agatha Oddly is another book I have been intrigued by for a while but one I have never seen in person and Wishyouwas was brand new and irresistible. There were many, many more books I could have bought, most especially The Murderer’s Ape which a colleague raved about but which sold out before I bought it. I will definitely be getting hold of a copy soon though.

I did however also buy a couple of tote bags because I just couldn’t resist them. Not that I don’t already have plenty of those!

I loved being at Cheltenham and I was very sad to leave it all behind me. On the other hand, it is very good to be home and back in my own space. The rain is simply pelting down outside and I am curled up by the fire. Evenings don’t get much better than that.

The Pursuit of Love

Over the past week I have been reading The Pursuit of Love with a wonderful group of bookish friends. I know that I have read it before but apart from the fact that I had a vague idea Paris came into it somewhere I couldn’t really remember anything about it. Even when I started reading it nothing seemed familiar which was a pleasant surprise and very unusual for me.

I really enjoyed the book – Nancy Mitford’s writing is just suited to me and I raced through it. It’s a funny thing though – although I love the writing I am not immediately drawn to read any more of her books. I can only think that I didn’t find the plot uplifting enough to draw me in for more. No doubt that will change and I will be reading her again in the future.

The best bit though was the discussion we had afterwards. We covered topics from class structure to drag hunting to rationing and I loved it. Bookish friends are the best!

Literary Loveliness

I have been having another wonderfully literary week. First up, on Saturday I got to attend the LM Montgomery Institute’s round table discussion on Rilla of Ingleside at 100. I have always loved the sound of the Institute’s conferences but as they are in Canada it has been impractical for me to get there. Since the pandemic forced them to hold the event online this year I finally got to attend and I am so glad I did.

It was such an interesting discussion. It took me a while to get round to reading Rilla because I was a bit scared it would be too distressing but it turned out to be a beautiful book and quickly became one of my favourites in the series. It was wonderful to hear such an academic conversation about it.

Then on Monday night I went to the Sevenoaks Bookshop’s online event with A J Pearce, talking about her new book Yours Cheerfully. I rhapsodised about that one a couple of weeks ago so I won’t do so again now other than to say I loved the book and was very excited to get to go to this event.

It was a great evening – A J Pearce seemed lovely and the conversation was fascinating. I was especially pleased to hear that more books will hopefully be in the pipeline. I can’t wait!

The Comforts of Middlebrow

Finding myself at the end of a book at the beginning of the Easter weekend, I was casting about on my unread shelves for my next read. I had recently finished Yours Cheerfully (more on that another time) and so for the first time in quite a while I was very much in the mood for some gentle mid-century middlebrow fiction.

I love these kinds of books. I can’t remember now whether I discovered D E Stevenson or O Douglas first but I do remember exactly how I found them. Stevenson was a recommendation from a friend (Miss Buncle’s Book was my first), Douglas was a serendipitous find when I was browsing in a charity bookshop (Jane’s Parlour). I adored them both and will now snatch up any of their books – or anything similar – which happen to come my way. Having said that, although I read Mrs Tim of the Regiment many years ago now, I had never got around to reading the rest of the books in the series. This weekend seemed like a good time to finally do so.

They were the perfect books for a long weekend. The weather was glorious (if a little chilly at times) and with very few other claims on my time I could properly indulge myself and read for hours. It was wonderful and I read through all three books. They are just as good as I remember the first book and I was made so happy by them. I was even pleased to find some similarities between Mrs Tim and myself – she too is a fan of Anthony Trollope.

If you haven’t discovered Mrs Tim yet I can highly recommend her acquaintance. These might be gentle books but they are not short on plot and they are some of the most comforting books I know. If you liked Diary of a Provincial Lady I know you will enjoy these too. As you can see, they work well on a picnic but they are equally good reading when you are curled up inside. I am determined to actively seek out more books by D E Stevenson – instead of just waiting for them to fall in my lap!

Winter Mood Reading

For the first time in weeks I have picked up a book which isn’t just cosy, familiar comfort reading. It did come from a familiar source though – L M Montgomery mentions The House of the Seven Gables several times in her journals and she seemed to enjoy it a lot so I have been meaning to read it for years.

For some reason, now seemed like the time. I have been immersing myself in her journals once more and they persuaded me to pick it up. I’m only about halfway through at the moment but I can definitely agree that it is a good book.

It’s funny though – it is both exactly what I need to read right now and also not at all what I want. It is a very gentle book which moves slowly with not a great deal of action (the first chapter is entirely given over to the backstory of the house and the family who lives there). So far anyway – for all I know it really picks up in the second half! That is certainly very soothing but it is also not gripping at all so I don’t find myself desperate to pick it up and I am more likely to get distracted by other things.

It is at times like this that I’m grateful I can read more than one book at once. When I have the focus for a slow story I have this one ready, when I need a bit more plot I can pick up something else. Choice is a wonderful thing!

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.