And I’ve already got my copy of Amongst Our Weapons in my grubby little hands as you can seee! I told you that I’d got a signed copy pre-ordered from Big Green Books – and they appear to have some of them left if you’re in the market. As it’s the ninth book in the series, it’d be breaking all my rules if it ends up being a Book of the Week – but I’m not ruling it out, although if previous books are anything to go by, you really need to have read at least some of the others to get the most out of. So instead, I’m going to remind you that I have a Series I Love post about them from two years ago from not long after the False Value came out.
I’m finishing the month as I started it, with another murder mystery book pick for my Book of the Week, in a slightly cheaty move because I finished it on Monday, but I’ve talked enough about Inspector Littlejohn recently already, and that was pretty much all I actually finished last week! But before I get down to my review of the new Derek Farrell, a quick reminder that tomorrow is the Mini Reviews and Thursday will be the August Stats.
Danny Bird is facing up to a scary prospect: a weekend at a country house to help Caz fulfill a promise to a dead friend. Pub manager Ali is chauffeuring them down to Dukes Halt where they find a mismatched set of weekend guests: a Hollywood actress, a right-wing MP and an Albanian gangster among them. Soon there’s a body in their midst and Danny is detecting again to try and clear himself and his friends. But he’s also trying to work out what happened at the house decades ago when he discovers an unhappy boy’s secret diary.
This is the fifth outing for Danny and the gang and it’s a good one. Farrell has taken Danny out of the Marq (the Asbo twins are left in charge of running a talent night while they’re gone and I look forward to seeing how that works out) and put him into a country house murder mystery in the grand tradition of the genre. It’s got everything you would expect from an Agatha Christie – but updated to the present day. In one of the earlier books in the series Danny is described as Poirot on poppers, which is a great line but doing Danny a slight disservice now because he is not the isolated external figure that Poirot is. He’s got friends, relationships, a perspective and that all comes into focus in this. You also see him more on his own in this that he has been in the previous series so there’s a lot more about who Danny is and what he believes in that you’re used to and that’s a really good development. But don’t worry, there’s still plenty of witty banter and oneliners. The pandemic means there has been a longer break between full length books than I was hoping when I finished Death of an Angel (although Death of a Sinner did help) but I think Death at Dukes Halt has been worth the wait.
You can get Death at Dukes Halt direct from the publisher, Fahrenheit Press, who have it in various ebook formats and paperback. If you do get the paperback from them, you get the ebook with it as well which is nice – I started reading the paperback and then switched to the kindle so I could read it on the move. But you can also get it on Kindle.
A big of week in reading last week, with some Christmas stuff you’ll hear about anon. Or at least I hope you will. Anyway, back to some old school crime this week for my BotW pick.
Sick as a Parrot is the fifth book in Liz Evans’s series featuring somewhat unconventional private investigator and ex-cop Grace Smith. Grace’s latest client is Hannah Conti, a young woman who has recently discovers that she is adopted and that her natural mother was convicted of murder. Hannah wants Grace to clear her mother’s name. And so Grace is drawn into the very messy murder of a school teacher two decades ago that no one wants re-examining. Meanwhile Grace is also pet-sitting a neurotic parrot and despite all her best efforts she also has an incredibly unreconstructed former colleague sleeping in her spare room.
This is the second book in this series that I’ve read (the other one being Who Killed Marilyn Monroe, the first in the series) and they’re both on the edge of gritty with an enjoyable side of black humour. They were written in the mid 2000s and that gives them an enjoyably low tech and low fi edge. Grace is a fun heroine – enjoyably flawed and smart in someways – but not in others. There are some common threads in this book from the first one too which have clearly been developing nicely in the interim which I’d like to go back for. And there’s an interesting romantic thread in this that means I really want to read the sixth and final book in the series.
So this is where it gets tricky. This is an older book which I picked it up secondhand, I think at a National Trust book stall. So you’ll have to hunt for it. But you never know, you might find one of the other books in the series while you’re at it. Some of the series have been republished on Kindle with new titles – you can find the box set of the first three here and some of them are even in Kindle Unlimited, if that’s a thing you have. Who Killed Marilyn Monroe is available on Kobo, but it’s the only one I could find there sadly.
Well, well, well. As you might have noticed I managed to bring the ongoing list down a bit last week. I’m quite pleased with myself, but my book of the week is one of the many that came out last Thursday. I wasn’t intending on this being the featured review this week – it’s not exactly low profile, but it was the book that I liked the most last week and thought that I would have the most to say about. Also I had a very wafty weekend and spent more time watching Formula One and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader: Making the Team than I did reading, so some of the other stuff I had planned for the week didn’t get read…
First, before I get to the plot, I have been excited about this book since it was announced more than a year ago. If you’re in the UK, you’ll know Richard Osman as the one with all the answers on Pointless or the host of House of Games. He’s got a lovely way about him on Twitter, he always comes across very well any time you hear him talking and the plot synopsis sounded great. In fact it all sounded so good that I was worried it couldn’t live up to my expectations – especially as a debut novel. I mean murder mysteries aren’t exactly easy to pull off. The fact that I’m writing about this here, indicates that I have good news for you! Anyway, to the plot.
Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron all live at frankly rather nice sounding retirement village in Kent. Every Thursday they take over the Jigsaw room meet up to discuss unsolved murders (under the guise of a society for fans of Japanese opera to keep away the nosy). Then the owner of the retirement village is found dead, just after a consultation meeting about an expansion. Now they have a live case to solve – they’ve got the skills to do it, but will they manage it before it’s too late?
Now reading that plot synposis you’ll think that you’ve read stories like this before. And yes this does have some similarities with cozy crime series featuring an older protagonist. But it’s not really a cozy crime. The mystery is twistier and more complicated. I can’t say much about the solution, because that would be spoiling things and you know that I don’t do that, but it doesn’t quite fit the cozy format. And as well as the mystery, there are proper side plots. It’s all told as a mix of narrative and Joyce’s diary – which really works as she is the newest member of the club and gets to do a lot of the exposition – but all four members of the Club are properly realised characters with backstories that you hear about, hopes, worries and fears. And the two police officers are great too. It’s also got a strain of melancholy to it – they are old people and they’re not done with life, but they do worry that this might be the “last time” that they do something and worry about the things they have lost (and in some cases develop strategies to try and combat this). Oh and it’s funny. Dryly funny and witty not pratfalls and stupidity funny. Wry observances and witty asides type funny. It’s great. I would happily have spend another 100 pages with the gang. If there’s another one, you can sign me up to read it now.
My copy of The Thursday Murder Club came from NetGalley, but you should be able to get this everywhere. I’ve been out to London today and walked up Charing Cross Road and Tottenham Court Road and could see it in the front section in the Big Foyles and it was in the Window at the Waterstones. It’s that sort of release – probably in the supermarkets too, and definitely in the airport bookshops, if you’re lucky enough to be going somewhere. When I went looking for links, Amazon was out of stock of actual copies – which means it’s an even smarter choice to order if from your local indie. And of course it’s out in Kindle, Kobo and Ebook.
It’s nearly the end of the year and I promised you some extra posts looking back at the year didn’t I? Well, here’s my look at five of my favourite books of the year. Looking back on my Goodreads stats to write this, I realise that I’ve been very stingy with the 5 stars this year – which has made this very tricky to write because there are a lot of 4 star ratings and I’ve had to workout which ones were my real favourites. And because of the way this blog works, you’ve heard about most of these before – either as Books of the Week or in other roundup posts – because when I like stuff this much, I tell you about it!
A Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge
This was part of my pre-Washington reading and although I read a lot of good books in that particular reading jag, this one has really stuck with me. A snapshot of all the children and teens killed by guns on just one day in America, it is meticulously researched and will break your heart. If you are in any doubt about the scale of gun deaths in the US, this will put it all into perspective -this is just a normal day – no mass shootings, just ten dead young people ranging in age from 9 to 19.
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders
Lets get all the sad books out of the way to start with. This is a middle grade continuation/follow on to E Nesbit’s The Five Children and It book. I think I read the 5 children (maybe even more than one of them) after the 1990s BBC TV series was shown and it had never occurred to me that these were the children who would be the young men and women of the Great War – and of course when Nesbit was writing the books, she had no idea what was in their future either. This is really, really good, but also quietly devastating. There are a lot of Second World War middle grade books, but not so many (or at least not that I’ve come across) Great War ones – this is a very good addition to the genre. It came out a couple of years ago, but reading it this year with the centenary of the Armistice, felt very timely. It wasn’t my BotW at the time -I was in a historical crime groove back in at the start of the year, but I’ve recommended it a few times since and it’s quietly crept up my list of best reads of the year.
The Victory Disc by Andrew Cartmel
The third in the Vinyl Dectective series is right up there as one of my favourite detective stories of the year. This time our unnamed hero is on the hunt for records by a wartime swing band. The Flarepath Orchestra were contemporaries of Glenn Miller, but their recordings are incredibly rare. After one pops up unexpectedly, the Detective and his gang are asked to track down the rest. But there are still secrets and lies at the heart of the band and soon a great deal of danger is threatening the gang. This wasn’t a Book of the Week at the time – because it’s the third in the series and you’ll get the most from them by reading them in order. The first in the series, Written in Dead Wax was a BotW last summer though – and I thoroughly recommend starting with that. My Dad has read these and practically snaps my hand off to get the next one from me! Good reads doesn’t have any details for a fourth yet, but I’m hoping that we’ll get more adventures in vinyl in 2019.
Anyone for Seconds by Laurie Graham
Regular readers know how much I love Laurie Graham (and if you don’t, here are the posts to prove it) but I remember saying to a friend before this came out that if she was going to write a sequel to one of her novels, this wasn’t the one that I would have picked. How wrong I was, because this is my favourite of her contemporary novels in ages. It snuck out a bit under the radar in August and I nearly missed it. We rejoin Lizzie Partridge, the heroine of Perfect Meringues, some twenty years after we last met her. Lizzie was a TV-chef on the regional news, but after The Incident she has mostly worked in print. But when her last paying gig is pulled, Lizzie decides to run away in the hope that it’ll get her some attention. But no-one notices. It does however, set in train a series of changes in Lizzie’s life. It was a BotW and it’s still one of my favourites this year.
Early Riser by Jasper Fforde
It was a long wait for a new book by Jasper Fforde – my big Fforde discovery and binge actually happpened before I started this blog, but Early Riser was worth it and it was a BotW. Set in a world where humans hibernate for four months every winter, this follows the adventures of one man in his first year as a Winter Consul – one of the people who watch over the sleeping masses. This is completely standalone from his other books, but if you’ve read other Fforde novels you’ll spot that this world has some elements in common with Thursday Nexts. It’s fantasy and sci-fi but at the end of that spectrum that I like.
The Birth of South Korean Cool by Euny Hong
And another non-fiction book to round out this list. Euny Hong’s family moved back to South Korea in the 1980s when she was at school so she is ideally placed to take a look at how South Korea turned itself into a big name on the world stage through the course of twenty years. This is a really, really interesting and readable guide to the Korean pop-culture phenomenon and the policy behind it. Although some of the section dealing with North Korea is now slightly dated that doesn’t detract from the overall impact of the book. I would happily have read another 100 pages. It had been on my to-read list for ages – but I finally got around to getting hold of a copy after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics at the start of the year (although it took me another few months to get around to reading it!). I’ve recommended it a number of times – and used knowledge I learned from it to look smart when talking about K-pop with younger colleagues. A winner all around!
Let me know what your favourite books of the year have been in the comments – and coming up over the next few days we’ve also got my reading obsessions of the year – and how 2017’s obsessions have lasted as well as the books that I’m looking forward to in 2019.So here you are, six of my favourite reads of 2018. There were a few five star reads this year that aren’t on the list – but they are very much from favourite authors – new installments in the Wells and Wong series and from Gail Carriger and the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang that I’ve already talked about so much already over the years that I’d be boring you to tell you about them again.
So this week’s BotW is the latest in my quest to find more historical crime series. As regular readers are well aware by now, if there are two things that I love, in book terms, it’s murder mysteries and the inter-war period. Witness my previous ravings about my beloved Lord Peter (sidenote, I’ve just treated myself to the Radio play collections from Audible and it is glorious), Daisy Dalrymple, Phryne Fisher et al. So during my Kindle store virtual rummagings I often pick up books that I think might scratch that itch. This was one such purchase.
A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia deals with the murder of one Ticky Maltravers. And never was someone more aptly named. Ticky is a tick of the highest order. For although it appears that he’s really popular, underneath the surface something rather unpleasant is going on. When Ticky drops dead after a meal to celebrate his birthday, newspaper man Freddie Pilkington-Soames finds himself involved – on two fronts. Firstly his mother was in the taxi with Ticky when he died, and secondly Freddie is chasing the story to try and hold on to his job.
Freddie is Bertie Wooster on the outside, but much, much cleverer on the inside – a bit like Albert Campion in some ways, who is described on occasion as having a foolish face which leads people to underestimate him. And that makes for an engaging read. Freddie is straddling the two worlds in the book – the high society trying to hold on to their secretes and the forces of justice and the press. And because of his job, Freddie has a legitimate reason to be involved in the case which, as I’ve mentioned before, is often a stumbling block for the crime solver in series like this.
I believe Freddie was a side character – a comic one – in Benson’s other series, but although I’ve read one book of hers, it was a while ago and the details have faded. But based on how much I enjoyed this, I’ve clearly been missing out. I’ve added the rest of the Freddie books to my Kindle watchlist, and the other series – the Angela Marchmont mysteries – too. I was really impressed with how good this was – and for a while I thought it might be one of the forgotten Golden Age books that I’ve picked up on offer. I put that down to the fact that it comes across as a mix of PG Wodehouse and one of the Queens of Crime – witty but with a solid, slightly grubby murder.
My copy was on Kindle (I even paid for it) – and it’s still only 99p at time of writing this – but it’s also available on Kobo or as a paperback, although I suspect that will be a special order job rather than one you can pick up in the bookshop.
A shorter BotW post this week, because you’ve already had three great books from my reading last week in my Summer Reading post! But I finished Picture Miss Seeton on Sunday afternoon and wanted to give it a mention.
A retired art teacher, Miss Seeton witnesses a murder after leaving a performance of Carmen. Despite only getting a shadowy view of the killer, she manages to draw a picture that enables Scotland Yard to identify him. Soon she’s facing peril in the rural cottage she’s just inherited, where the villagers are also taking an interest in the new arrival.
This really scratched my itch for cozy crime with added humour. Miss Seeton is a wonderful send up of elderly lady detectives. She’s impossible to shock, utterly unflappable and practises yoga in her free time. She’s always one step ahead of the police and always manages to be in the right place at the right time to pick up the vital clue. I found the switching points of view occasionally a bit jarring or confusing, but I forgave it because I was having so much fun reading about Miss S’s adventures. It was a perfect book to read while recovering from nightshifts.
I’m fairly sure I’ve seen some Miss Seeton’s at the library (or maybe in the discount bookshop) so I suspect I may be reading more of her adventures in the near future. Picture Miss Seeton is available on Kindle and Kobo and should be available (probably to order) from all the usual sources.
We’re back in classic crime territory for the week’s BotW – although it’s a bit of a cheat as this is a reissue of whole book – Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery – but it is excellent and it gives me a great chance to talk about an author who I think is a bit neglected.
This is a tricksy and intriguing standalone mystery which sees a policeman and his son trying to solve the murder of a particularly nasty neighbour. Jerry happens upon the scene of the crime and soon has his Scotland Yard detective father involved. This was originally a serialised book (just like some of Harriet Vane’s novels in my beloved Peter Wimsey) and you can really tell from the pacing and multiple cliffhangers. There is a clever drip feed of clues which method you turning the pages, and although I had suspicions about the culprit, it wasn’t until quite late on that I worked it all out.
This was my first non-Campion Allingham and it didn’t disappoint. I usually prefer my detective books to be part of a series (I prefer Miss Marple and Poirot to Christie’s other books) but this was a pleasant surprise. But then it’s not that different in style to the Campion series, you could almost swap the leads for Albert and his son and it would nearly work (except that Albert is not a cop) and that totally works for me! In case you haven’t met Allingham’s most famous creation, Albert Campion is the younger scion of a noble family, who uses an assumed name and solves mysteries with the help of his faithful manservant and police officer friend. Sound familiar? Well that’s because it supposedly started as a Lord Peter Wimsey parody, but developed into much, much more (an BBC ran for much longer). Albert’s Bunter equivalent is a reformed (ish) criminal and Campion end up being much older than Peter. They’re also more adventure stories than detective, most of the time you don’t have a chance of working out the solution to Campion’s cases but they’re such great fun you don’t care.
I discovered Margery Allingham when I was living in Essex – where she still had a large presence in their libraries as a local author, even though she’d been dead 40 years at that point. I devoured as many of them as I could lay my hands on, and although the series has its ups and downs, I defy you not to like them if you’re a fan of Wimsey, Marple and Poirot or even adventure stories like Amelia Peabody or Vicky Bliss. It’s not the first one, but start with Sweet Danger and I defy you not to get hooked.
My copy of The White Cottage Mystery can via NetGalley, but you can buy it in paperback from Amazon, Foyles and Waterstones or on Kindle. You should also be able to find new or secondhand copies of Albert Campion too. Don’t blame me for the spending spree that will ensue though…
Here it is finally – the post about Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series that I’ve been promising for so long!
Phryne was my discovery of the year in 2013 – I read the first book, Miss Phyrne Fisher Investigates* on June 1 last year – and by September I’d read the first 18 books in the series (books 19 and 20 took a bit longer because they initially fell outside my Kindle book cost limit as they were so new – although I stretched my limits on occasion for some of the others) reading them almost in one sitting. I’ve just re-read the whole lot to see if they’re as good second time around – and they really are.
So who is Phryne? Well firstly, it’s pronounced Fry-knee (not Frinn as I had it in my head until she told some one how to say it!) and the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher is a 1920s aristocrat, who spent her childhood in poverty in Melbourne before her father came into his title. She returned to Australia in her mid-twenties to investigate a mystery for a friend of the family (and to get away from said family). She liked Melbourne so much that she stayed and has established herself as a Private detective. She’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s brave, she knows what she wants – and she has the money to do it.
There aren’t a lot of (good) female leading ladies in historical detective fiction**. This is mostly because for the vast majority of history women haven’t really had the power to do much on their own – and it’s hard to construct realistic stories around what they would have been able to accomplish. From this point of view, Kerry Greenwood has done a perfect job in creating Phryne. The post-war period brought greater freedom for women, particularly if you had money – which Phryne does. Greenwood has also given her a stonking – and realistic – back story which explains why Phryne has the attitudes that she does and also creates openings for stories that aren’t too far fetched.
And in a genre where men often get all the action in the bedroom, Phryne more than holds her own. She may on occasion pine for a man – but not to marry, she just wants them in her bed! Her lovers rarely last more than a book – but they always leave on good terms. Lin Chung is the notable exception to this rule – but I’m not going to tell much more than that because I don’t want to ruin it for you.
Like every good detective, Phryne has a gaggle of loyal helpers including her maid Dot (frequently described as a “good girl” who tries not to be scandalised by her employer), her adopted daughters (picked up during a case) and Bert and Cec, the wharfies-cum-taxi drivers-cum-red raggers. And as she’s not actually a policeman, she has her own Inspector Japp in the form of Inspector Jack Robinson and his constable, Hugh Collins.
I don’t know a lot about inter-war Australia, but I can’t remember a jarring word or phrase in the books, and rarely has anything struck me as being too far-fetched. There’s often a bibliography at the end to reassure you that the author really has done her homework. In fact the more I read about what people could get up to in the 1920s (Kenya’s Happy Valley, some of the Bright Young Thing’s antics), the more I think that Kerry Greenwood’s been positively restrained!
So, in short, if you like your period crime novels with strong heroines, interesting plots and a little bit of bedroom action (fairly subtle, not too graphic) and you haven’t read any of Phryne’s adventures, may I point you in the direction of Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates in paperback or on Kindle. She’s well worth it.
* The first book was originally published as Cocaine Blues – I’m assuming they changed it for the UK market to make it clearer that it’s the first in the series. I can’t think of any other reason. It’s still called Cocaine Blues in Australia.
**I’m planning posts on some of my other favourites as well – and I’m always looking for recommendations – please leave a comment if you have suggestions for more that I should read.