There were a few options for this post this week, but in the end I’ve settled on a really good locked room mystery, because those are so satisfying when done right – and this is really done right!
Dick Markham is in love (again). The object of the crime writer’s affection is Lesley Grant, a new arrival in his village. But when she accidentally shoots and injures a fortune teller at the village fete, he is told a story about her that is very different from the one that she tells about herself. Cast into confusion, he is asked to take part in a scheme to expose her as a serial poisoner – only for the person accusing her to be found murdered in exactly the way that he was told Lesley kills her victims: in an impossible locked room set up. Then Gideon Fell arrives on the scene to try and untangle the mystery.
It’s been a while since I read a locked room mystery, and this one is so clever. It is the first Gideon Fell mystery that I have read – although I read another of John Dickson Carr’s novels earlier in the year, and gave another Fell lined up already. But I can see why this one in particular has such an impressive reputation. It’s really pacy and makes you feel completely off balance as a reader because it twists and turns around so much you’re never really sure what you think – or what you’re meant to think. And I can’t really say any more about it than that because it gives too much away – even writing the plot summary was tricky! Anyway, give it a look for yourself.
My copy of Til Death Do Us Part came via my Kindle Unlimited subscription, but it’s a British Library Crime Classic, so when it cycles out of KU it should be available on all the major ebook platforms. And of course you can buy it in paperback direct from the British Library Bookshop online.
This Recommendsday post has been a long time in the making, but actually really fits in with the theme of this month in a way – I’ve written about the theatre and careers on the stage a fair bit – but also featured a children’s film starring one of the actors in it!
Forever Young by Hayley Mills
So lets start with that one – Hayley Mills is the star of my favourite version of The Parent Trap, but was also the biggest child star of her day. She was born into an acting family – her father was Sir John Mills, her Mother Mary Hayley Bell and her sister Juliet is also an actress. She won a Bafta for her first film role and was signed by Disney. This book takes you through her childhood career and what happened when she grew up. It’s got plenty of Old Hollywood and British Acting Royalty detail in it as well as all the sorts of thing you want to know about being a child star and what sort of effect it has on you. It doesn’t talk a lot about her life after the mid-1970s, but given that most people are probably reading this because they’ve watched her juvenile performances, and by that point she’s all grown up and married, that’s probably a reasonably wise decision unless the book was going to be much longer. The good news is that I came out of the end still liking her, although some of the decisions she made in her early adulthood were not the best!
Home Work by Julie Andrews
From the star of one of my favourite childhood films to the star of two of them! This is the second memoir that Julie Andrews has written – and the first of them, Home, finishes just before she becomes a major star. So as the Sound of Music and Mary Poppins are among my favourite movies, I was looking forward to reading this to see what the experience of making them was like for her. And that is in there – but just not in as much detail as I was expecting. Andrews and her co-writer, her daughter Emma, rattle through 30 years of her career and personal life at breakneck speed and without ever really letting you in on what Andrews was thinking or feeling. She’s been in psychoanalysis since the 1960s, so you would assume that she has more insight into what was going on than she is telling you, but she’s definitely keeping you at an arms length and preserving that Old School Hollywood aloofness that some old school stars like her have cultivated since the early days of their career. Now whether some of her reluctance to talk about what must have been the very real difficulties of her second husband’s prescription drug dependence are because she was writing this not long after his death (or even before) and she doesn’t have the perspective yet, I don’t know. But for all that the details of making Mary Poppins and SoM are satisfying (in as much of them as you get, and I’m not sure there’s masses here I didn’t already know) the lack of everything else holds this back.
I Was Better Last Night by Harvey Fierstein
Most of us probably first saw Harvey Fierstein in Mrs Doubtfire – or heard his voice in Mulan, but Fierstein is something of a Broadway legend – he wrote the play Torch Song Trilogy, the book for the musical version of La Cage aux Folles and won a Tony as the original Broadway Edna in Hairspray. His memoir follows him through growing up in 1950s Brooklyn through all those big moments and achievements. It’s a long and hard journey – with addiction and loss along side spectacular highs but as well as being a personal story, it also shows the development and evolution of New York theatre in the last third of the twentieth century and the changing face of gay culture.
Mean Baby by Selma Blair
At the other end of the spectrum to Julie Andrews is Selma Blair’s memoir. Blair doesn’t hold anything back – her drinking from an incredibly young age, her fraught relationship with her mum, her self destructive behaviour – it’s all here along along with the professional successes you already know about, or at least that you know about if you’re my age – Legally Blonde, Cruel Intentions, Hellboy – and her activism after her diagnosis with MS three years ago. It’s a story of resilience through adversity and proof that no matter how someone’s life might look like on the outside – movie roles, front row seats at fashion shows – you never know what is going on in secret and the struggles that are going on behind the scenes.
And that’s your lot for this post. I do have several more actor memoirs sitting on the pending self, so there may well be a follow up at some point, but who knows when that might be given my current track record!
We’re rocketing towards the end of the month, and after a delightful week of reading last week, I’m finishing the BotW selections off with a YA novel which I picked up on my buying spree at Foyles at the start of the month.
Piglettes tells the story of Mireille, Astrid and Hakima who are voted the ugliest girls in their school by their fellow students. None of them are happy about it – but for Mireille it’s not her first time on the list – which was started by a boy she used to be friends with – so she decides to befriend her fellow Piglettes rather than sit around and be miserable. What ends up happening is an epic summer cycle trip from their town to Paris to try and go to the French President’s garden party on Bastille Day. Each of the three girls has their own reason for going, but what they don’t expect is to become the centre of media attention as the country starts to follow the three girls as they cycle towards Paris selling sausages on the way.
This is a modern twist on the adventure-without-adults sort of books (see Swallows and Amazons etc) that I really loved when I was younger (and still do to be honest). Ok, Hakima’s brother comes along with them and he’s an adult, but he never really seems like an intruding adult presence restricting the girls, he becomes more like part of the gang. The idea of cycling across France selling sausages sounds a little bit bonkers – but it’s actually perfect – the girls have a goal, they get to meet loads of people and they get to find out new things about themselves and each other. But as well as being about friendship and self discovery, this is also quite a foodie novel. The pork sausages they’re selling are made by a local butcher. Mireille’s grandparents own a restaurant and they make their vegetarian sausages there themselves – as well as their special apple sauce to go with it. At the places they stop at on the way there’s often local food – including when Mireille detours them to go through the town where her favourite cheese is made (Crottin de Chavignol if you’re interested).
Clementine Beauvais has translated this herself from the original French, and if you can get past the envy of being good enough to write novels in two languages (and it did give me a touch of the green-eyed monsters), she’s given it a whole load of humour but it also still feels distinctly French. I would love to see the original for comparison to see what the jokes and references were in the original and what if anything she’s changed for a non-French audience. It’s clever and funny and I really enjoyed it. Also it made me want to go on holiday to France and eat some regional produce. Maybe I’ll have to settle for buying some speciality cheese to keep me going until we can get over there again.
I bought my copy of Piglettes on a trip to Foyles but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo. As I found it in store, I’m hoping that you could be similarly lucky if you look in a bookstore, even if Foyles’ website isn’t currently showing any click and collect copies…
Yes, this is very late now, but it’s a bank holiday weekend coming in the UK this week and last week I had three nights away from home so I *finally* pulled my finger out and read the rest of the books that I had been thinking about for this post. I know – I started writing this in late June, but I got distracted by the rereads and exciting new series. And some of the books I was going to put into this ended up in other posts, or as books of the week (Acting Up I’m looking at you) I am such a mood reader. I don’t even know why I try to make lists and plans of what to read when. And yes, this is all romance or romantic comedy or adjacent genres, but that is what I like to read on a sun lounger. Sue me. As usual, if it has an * next to the title if came from NetGalley, otherwise I paid for it with my very own money. And you’ll be glad to know I’ve already started on the Christmas reading post. Maybe I’ll get that one done on time…
Beach House Summer by Sarah Morgan*
Sarah Morgan‘s summer novel this year follows the ex-wife of a TV chef in the immediate aftermath of his death in a car crash. Stay with me, I know that sounds like it might be miserable, but don’t worry. To return to the plot: Joanna’s marriage to Cliff was dysfunctional to say the least and carried out in the glare of the media spotlight. So when she finds out that there was a young woman in the car when it crashed and that the woman is pregnant, Joanna knows she has to help her. The two women head to Joanna’s house in the town that she grew up in to hide from the paparazzi. Joanna hasn’t been there since she ran away with Cliff in the aftermath of a breakup with her high school boyfriend and she’s soon going to have to face the past and the community she left behind. Ashley needs space to plan her and the baby’s future – but there are still a few secrets to come out… This is a delightful sun lounger read, if you can just get past the death-y bit at the start, which I did – but that’s why it was on the list for a couple of weeks! It’s basically a small town, second chance romance with relatively low peril.
The Friendship Pact by Jill Shalvis
On to another regular author of mine and Jill Shalvis’s summer ‘22 book is a second chance romance for two characters who have been damaged by their childhoods. Tae spent her childhood worrying about money and about her mum’s attempts to find a man to make them a family. Riggs’ dad was an alcoholic who liked to hit his kids. But the two of them were friends in high school – until they weren’t. Now Riggs is back in town to visit his brother and his company providing adventures for athletes with disabilities and wounded veterans. Tae’s events planning company is organising their summer programmes. The two of them reconnect, but there are obstacles to a happy ending for them. I read it in 24 hours and was nearly late back from my lunch break because I was enjoying it so much. There’s a testimonial for you!
In a New York Minute by Kate Spencer*
Franny Doyle is already having a bad day before her dress catches in the subway door: she’s just been made redundant. But now her dress is ripped but even worse – the whole subway can see her bum and her knickers. luckily fellow passenger Hayes lends her his jacket to save her blushes. That would be the end of it – except someone has posted what happened to their Insta stories and now they’re viral sensations – #SubwayQTs. Their new found fame (notoriety?!) means they end up seeing each other again, and again, and again: but is there more there than just a hashtag? This has a buttoned up and awkward hero who comes off as aloof and a creative heroine with a tight knit group of friends. If I hadn’t had to do actual things, I could probably have read this in one giant sitting – it’s light and fluffy and endearing.
Donut Fall In Love by Jackie Lau
And finally, this isn’t a summer new release (it came out in October last year!), but I’m giving it a quick shout out because it feels like it would be a fun read if you were on a sun lounger. This has a Hollywood star and a normal person pairing (which I like – see Olivia Dade!) and it’s also got a bakery and a baking show. What’s not to love.
It’s been a couple of weeks of Girl’s Own type books, so I’ve no regrets about making another of them this week’s Book of the Week and carrying on the theme of theatres and dancing.
A Time to Dance is a standalone ballet career book about the first couple of terms of a newly established ballet school in the north of England. It follows a selection of the pupils as they study dance, help promote the school and try and work out if dancing is really what they want to do. It’s quite gentle and there’s no peril really at all – even less than usual in these books if anything, but I particular enjoyed the fact that it focussed on several of the girls and the different challenges they faced.
Most of the time in ballet books you have a school-age heroine who is convinced that she is destined to dance and that there is nothing she would rather do with her life. But this has a couple of older pupils who have left school are trying to balance learning to dance with jobs and the need for cash. And it’s got several girls who are studying even though ballet isn’t going to be their career. Of course it does have a desperate to dance or two too, but I appreciated the variety and the realism it added to the mix. This was written in the early 1960s and has a more modern feel to some of the other books – the potential distractions for the students include television adverts and modelling.
I haven’t read any Robina Beckles Willson before but this was charming. Goodreads only has this and a couple of picture books under her name, and I didn’t get a chance to look her up to see what else she might have written that hasn’t made it into Goodreads database!
I got my copy at one of the book sales at conference, but I suspect that most of you aren’t going to be interested enough in the genre to want to buy it! If you do, you’ll probably need a specialist bookseller or a lot of luck.
After a theatre themed post yesterday, I’ve got another theatre-set book because this is out today! The Twist of the Knife is the latest in the other Anthony Horowitz meta-detective series. In the Atticus Pund series you have a book about murder in a book about murder. In the Hawthorne and Horowitz series, you have a fictional Anthony Horowitz getting involved in solving murders and writing a book about the process. This is the fourth book and sees Horowitz himself the main suspect in a murder after a critic is stabbed to death after giving Horowitz’s new play a terrible review. It’s really clever – it’s incredibly meta as Horowitz references the need to write the Moonflower Murders while he’s trying to slice the murder. Obviously you should start reading these at the start of the series, but if you’ve enjoyed the earlier mysteries, I think you will enjoy this one. My copy came from NetGalley, but it’s out in the shops today in hardback, Kindle and Kobo.
Yes I finished this on Monday – but it’s out today so it’s actually time appropriate. Check me out with the ever so slightly forward planning.
Husband Material is the sequel to Boyfriend Material which was a Book of the Week back when I read it in early 2021. We rejoin our erstwhile heroes two years into their actual relationship (as opposed to the fake one, see Boyfriend Material) and its all going well for Luc and Oliver. They’re making their relationship work – Luc’s trying not to bring the chaos and Oliver’s getting therapy and it’s all lovely. Except that suddenly everyone is getting married and Luc thinks maybe they’re meant to too, because that’s what you’re meant to do when you love each other, right? Right?
I have strongly mixed feelings on sequels usually. I know I’m always saying that I want more of the happily ever after at the end of my romance novels, but I appreciate that an actual novel needs tension and conflict. Most sequels do this by breaking the couple up and getting them back together (or variations thereof) and that often drives me mad. Particularly when the breakup is because of something you could solve by having a conversation. This does not do that. There is conflict, but I was not really ever worried that Luc and Oliver going to end up together – just how were they going to work it all out. And I can’t really explain any more than that without massive plot spoilers.
All the supporting cast are back too – Luc’s friends, his crazy mum, thankfully not too much of his awful dad. And there’s lots of banter and pop culture references. And if I didn’t quite love it as much as the first one, it was a pretty high bar to hit and it was lovely being back with some old friends for a few hours. This is apparently a universe now – so there’s a third book coming, but about a different couple, one of whom briefly featured in this book. So that’s fun too.
My copy of Husband Material came from NetGalley (thank you bookish gods) but it’s out today in Kindle, Kobo and delicious paperback, including from Words and Kisses where they have signed ones. You definitely need to have read Boyfriend Material to get the most out of this though.
So a slightly cheaty pick this week, as it’s not a book I haven’t read before, but as I finished the Phryne reread last week, I’m going to let myself break the rules!
Murder and Mendelssohn is the twentieth book in Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series and has a lot of the key threads in the series running through it. Inspector Jack Robinson asks Phryne for help investigating the murder of an unpopular conductor. Jack thinks the killer may come from among the choir he has been rehearsing so Phryne decides to infiltrate the choir and find out. But at the same time, one of her old friends from World War One is in town and needs her help keeping a mathematical genius alive.
My favourite Phrynes are the ones with a large cast of suspects, a love interest and a historical connection – and this has all of that. The full Fisher menage is here – with the exception of Lin Chung, and it has has Greenwood’s take on Sherlock Holmes in Rupert Sheffield, former codebreaker and current irritant to all around him except John Wilson.
I wouldn’t suggest you start the series here, because you’ll miss all the fun of getting to this point, but if you do make this your first taste of Miss Fisher, then it will give you a pretty good flavour of what everything is all about. One last thing – a warning: if you’ve watched the TV show, don’t expect this to be the same. I’ve enjoyed the series, but it’s a teatime drama and they have adapted the series to fit that – which means they’ve done a few things to Phryne’s love life, added some running plot strands that don’t exist in the book and reduced the size of the Fisher household somewhat. So treat them as separate entities if you can.
You can get Murder and Mendelssohn in all the usual ebook formats – Kindle, Kobo and the rest – and that’s probably the easiest way to get hold of them.
As mentioned yesterday, not a lot of options this week for Book of the Week, but luckily I read a really interesting British Library Crime Classics book so all’s serene, even if slightly later in the day than recently!
Prudence Pinsent is the unmarried daughter of the Master of a (fictional) Cambridge college. On her way to visit her cousin in Suffolk, she meets an old friend who is investigating a drug smuggling gang and has connected it with both Prudence’s cousin’s estate and the colleges of Cambridge itself. Prudence is sure her cousin can’t be involved, so she decides she must investigate and find out who is.
I’ve written (at length!) about my love of Gaudy Night which is also set in a fictional college (at Oxford though, not Cambridge) and so the premise of this appealed to me a lot. And it’s funny and entertaining – and the mystery is good as well. Suffolk makes such an atmospheric setting for mysteries – like Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham – with eerie flats, fogs, water ways etc and then you have college life and academic personalities.
Lois Austen-Leigh is a relative of Jane Austen (several greats niece) and it is very tempting to say that the witty style must be a family trait. I haven’t read anything of hers before – as well as telling me about her famous relative, the forward said they have been very very rare until the British Library Crime Classics got hold of this, so I hope they publish some of the others too.
My copy came as part of my Kindle Unlimited subscription, which means it’s only available as an ebook on Kindle at the moment, but you can buy the paperback direct from the British Library shop should you so wish.
So yesterday we did the new releases, and today I’m back with my other favourite books of the year so far – the ones that aren’t new, but that I’ve read for the first time this year. And it’s a slightly random mix of the nearly new and the really old.
I’m going to start with the really old – and that’s two of my Persephone subscription picks. I’ve had five of my six books through now and read three of them and A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair and The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler both got five stars from me. The Two Mrs Abbotts got four stars – and that was mostly because I wanted more Barbara herself and even as I write that I wonder if I was being too harsh and I should upgrade it! All three of them – and the other two Miss Buncle books are great if you want low peril reading in your life at the moment – and who doesn’t to be honest.
Then there are two nearly new books that I’ve given five stars as well so far this year – there’s Greg Jenner’s Ask a Historian answering fifty questions about history that people have asked Greg. And then there’s very recent BotW pick Acting Up by Adele Buck, which is a theatre-set romance which I loved so much I immediately bought the next book in the series. Honestly June was such a good month of reading for me.