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.

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.