So this is the point where I look back on the series I’ve read this year and pick out some highlights for you.
Let’s start with a new to me discovery – Her Majesty the Queen Investigates. These were fun cozy Murder mysteries with a royal twist. As I said in my series post about them, I think they work best in slightly closed settings – or at least not London – but I liked the characters and the tone a lot. It’s a shame there’s a year until the next one.
Moving on to Richard Osman. This year we got the third Thursday Murder Club book and they continue to be both clever and witty and fun but occasionally heartbreaking. This is the series that spawned the copycats that are popping up all over the place at the moment – I’m reading my way through some of them so you don’t have to!
I really enjoyed the Nanette Hayes mysteries, but I wish there were more of them. I am still looking for more 90s crime series that I missed out on (too young at the time!) and can catch up on now because they do seem to work for me – see some of the Fahrenheit series I’ve enjoyed. And I have another of the Liz Evans books waiting that I picked up from the charity book stall at the shopping centre. If you have any suggestions please do whack them in the comments please.
I’ve also carried on working my way though some of the other series I’ve been reading for years. I’m up basically up to date on the Kate Shackleton series now, as well as Dandy Gilver. It continues to be tricky to find new historical-set mystery series that I don’t wish to throw across the room, but I’m still trying. I hope Carola Dunn is having a happy retirement but I do miss her and the prospect of a new Daisy Dalrymple. But I’ve basically binged the Mary Russell series over the last two years, which has been good, but that age gap still annoys me. Royal Spyness continues and Kerry Greenwood has written a new Phryne that I’m saving for a special occasion. All hail Kerry.
I’ve been running a theatricaltheme for a couple of weeks now so I thought I’d start the bank holiday weekend with a bingeable series of romance with a theatrical theme.
Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities books are a series of enemies to lovers type romances set in London – initially in the world of West End theatre but in the fourth and fifth in the series expanding a little to include asetting at a country house and then two rival TV producers and. They tend to have sunshiney heroines and grumpy heroes who are actually big softies underneath and plenty of charming banter. In fact several of them were Books of the Week when they came out and I’ve mentioned them all at some point before, but now I’m finally taking them as a group.
They’re all set in the same world and there is character cross over but – like many romance series – each story is selfcontained and features a different couple. Act Like It has a fake relationship between two co-stars who can’t stand each other to try and help a bad boy fix his image problem. Pretty Face has an actress who’s been pigeonholed as her man-stealing period drama character taking on a West End role and fighting with the director who doesn’t want to give her the part. Making Up has an understudy who takes over the leading role and a make-up artist who is working on thes show after his professional reputation took an unfair battering. The Austen Playbookhas a daughter of an acting dynasty taking a role in a new Jane Austen TV series being filmed at the ancestral home of a descendant of someone her grandmother had an affair with. And Headliners has two rival TV presenters who are forced to work together on morning TV to save the show and save their careers. And don’t they all sound delicious? I mean I started reading the series again just to write this post, and that’s a bit of a disaster in itself to be honest, because I have a long list of things I’m meant to be reading and these aren’t on it.
You should be able to get them on all the usual ebook platforms – there’s even an omnibus edition of the first three if you’re feeling ready to commit. Also Lucy Parker’s newest novel Battle Royal – which was a Book of the Week here almost exactly a year ago – is £1.99 at the moment. No news yet on when the sequel to that one is coming though…
As it’s been a week of Girls Own content, lest carry it on with another classic children’s series – this time an adventure one for boys and girls.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the series, they follow a group of children going on outdoor adventures during the school holidays. There are three families – the Walkers (the Swallows), the Blacketts (the Amazons) and the Callums (the Ds) – who appear in various configurations across the series, but the opening books (which are my favourites) mostly centre on the Walkers and the Blacketts who start off as rivals but become friends. Sailing is often involved – and many of the books are set in and around the Lake District in the North West of England.
I first encountered the Swallows and the Amazons when my Year 3 teacher read the first book out loud to our class and I carried on reading most (if not all) of the rest of the series by borrowing them from my local library. What’s not to love about a group of children going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake all summer long. There’s “pirates” and actual crime and it’s just wonderful. Let’s be honest, which child didn’t wish they’d had a grown-up free holiday or two, or been allowed to roam around without supervision for days on end – I think it’s one of the reasons why Secret Island was one of my favourites of the Enid Blyton series when I was little.
I should say at this point that I am not by any means an outdoors person. We never went camping when I was a child, so when I was first reading these the idea sounded fun – I think I “camped” on the floor of my bedroom for a few weeks after reading the first book, but I was not a big walker or hiker. I also suffered from travel sickness so being on a boat of any size was always pretty awful, but I loved the books – and still continue to enjoy them whenever I get a chance for a re-read. There’s something about children with a secret code between themselves and who go on what are basically quests that just really appeals. Also you learn a lot about various countryside-y things from the mid 20th century – most of what I know about charcoal smoking and dowsing for water comes from this series – which of course means I’m hopelessly out of date, but I didn’t know that at the time.
There are a couple of books in the series that get a bit weird – and as with a lot of books of similar era, there are some bits that haven’t aged well. I probably should have had a reread before I posted this – but I remember that I found Missee Lee very weird when I read it when I was about 10. And I don’t own all of them – I have some from when I was little and I’m picking the others up as I see nice copies at sensible prices. But I do own the first two on audio book and have listened to their fairly regularly. I treated myself to Pigeon Post (my other childhood fave) the other week and it’s next on my to listen list.
The first book has been turned into a film twice – it’s been a while since I saw the original film, but I remember it as being fairly true to the actual plot. I have seen the most recent one has had a fair few alterations to the plot – and not just the fact that they renamed the unfortunate to modern ears Titty. I’ll leave you to judge for yourself from the trailers!
Anyway, delightful outdoors fun, even if pemmican – real or fake – sounds disgusting!
I am off to book conference this weekend, so in honour of all the fun I’ll be having, this week’s series I love post is a Girls Own one.
Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells series follows a series of young women as they embark upon careers in dancing. The first book, A Dream of Sadlers Wells was first published in 1950 and follows newly orphaned Veronica Weston as she tries to carry on learning ballet despite having moved to live with her cousins in Northumberland. The second book follows Veronica as she embarks upon her training at Sadlers Wells ballet school (now the Royal Ballet) and the other books in the series all follow girls who have a link to Veronica somehow.
Despire being clumsy and coordinated, I loved ballet books when I was a child and moved on to Sadlers wells after I had started on the Drina series – as both had reissues at about the right time for me. But the Sadlers Wells ones were harder to find – and didn’t go the whole way to the end of the series, so some of the later ones I’ve only read in the last five or so years. And the end of the series isn’t a good as the start, but the first half dozen or so are just great. Because they focus on different people you also get glimpses of your old favourites as you carry on. In fact a bit like romance series, some of them set up the next heroine in the previous book!
And where Drina is a city girl through and through, nervously learning to love the Chiltern when she’s sent to school there for a term, she is worried about getting injured and ruining her dance career (and she does indeed twist her ankle at one point) the women of the Wells books embrace the outdoors. Veronica, Caroline, Jane and Mariella romp around the countryside on their ponies, swim in lakes and clamber around the hills. They made me want to visit Northumberland – although not learn to ride a horse.
It’s only thinking about it as an adult that I realise that, like many Girls Own books of the era, they’re subtly quite subversive in their way. In the first two books, Veronica refuses to give up her ambitions of a dancing career in the face of various trials and tribulations – but also in the face of a potential love interest. Sebastian is a musical prodigy and in one quite awful speech when he’s trying to persuade Veronica not to go to London, he says that women don’t have to have careers and could (and maybe should) leave it to the men. But Veronica carries on – and gets the success and the love too. In the later books you can see her and Sebastian, married but she’s still dancing. And if they don’t do a very good of listening to their daughter Vicki, they don’t really do a worse job than any of the other parents in the book! But the message is there – girls don’t have to just grow up and get married, they can do things and have a career too.
The thirteenth in the series has just come out (Thursday in fact) and I’m on a bit of a binge, so here we are with a series I love post about the time travellers, sorry historians who investigate in contemporary time at the St Mary’s Institute for Historical Research. If I had to describe these in a sentence I would go for: time travel adventure books with a comic (mostly darkly comic) twist.
Now this is one series where you definitely want to read in order, because it’s complicated and there is a running plot and a running enemy. And at the start of the first book, Just One Damned Thing After Another, we are introduced to St Mary’s as Max joins the staff – which is great because it means that you get everything explained to you as it is explained to her and you meet all the characters you’re going to get to know and love as you go through the series. And then soon you’re hurtling through history with the disaster magnets of St Marys as they try to find out what really happened at various historical events or research what life was really like centuries ago.
A couple of warnings: there’s some sexual violence in the first book that may be a no no for some people. And when things go wrong, they really go wrong – and some times it’s not fixable. Oh and Jodi Taylor is also not averse to killing characters off. Try not to get too attached to anyone. I also think that the series has gone way beyond what Taylor was originally anticipating – and sometimes when you read a lot of them back to back you can see that a little bit.
But either all that out of the way, this series is a rollicking ride through history – which is accurate enough about the things I know about not to make me ragey, is able to make you cry as well as laugh and isn’t afraid to make major changes to the lives of its characters – no endless love triangles a la Steph Plum here. Taylor seems able to write a couple of novels a year and there are also stacks of short stories that fit in between the full length novels. Oh and there’s a spin of series which I own but haven’t started reading yet. So if you do get into it you have plenty to work your way through.
It’s been nearly five years since the first in the Maisie Dobbs series was my BotW and as the seventeenth in the series can out recently, it seemed like an opportune time to feature the series here.
At the start of the series it’s 1929 and Maisie is setting up a private investigation firm in London. As I said in my review at the time, the mystery in that book is slighter than you expect because the book is also doing a lot of heavy work in the set up for the series itself. Over the course of the rest of the series Maisie has carried out all sorts of different types of investigations – some murder, some not – but a lot of them using her experiences and contacts made during the Great War. Time moves by as the series goes on (yes, I know that sounds obvious but it’s not always the case!) and by book 17 we’ve reached 1942. This passage of time has enabled a huge variety of different set ups as well as meaning that historical events can be woven into what’s going on. And of course there have been developments in Maisie’s personal life.
This is one of my favourite series to dip into. They’re basically very easy to read historical mystery novels. They don’t have the hint of humour that you get from Royal Spyness or Daisy Dalrymple, but they’re not gruesome-gruesome either. I think there’s bits of it that need to be read in order, but I certainly haven’t done that – at the moment I’ve read 13 of the series – but the books I haven’t read are 9, 14, 15 and the newest one and I’ve read some of the others in the wrong order too! If you don’t read them in order you will get spoilers for Maisie’s personal life, but to be honest that may not necessarily be a bad thing. If you read them you’ll understand, but anything else I say will be a spoiler!
In terms of getting hold of them, it should be fairly easy – I’ve seen them in bookshops (new and used), libraries (physical and virtual) and they’re all on kindle and Kobo too. And because of all the factors mentioned above, if you want to see if you like them, you could just start with whichever one you can get hold of easiest. As I write this the cheapest on Kindle and Kobo are books 11 and 12 weirdly.
Bonus picture: Fitzroy Square on Thursday morning – the location of Maisie’s office.
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.
Today I want to talk about Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series, because the latest book in the series came out this week, and it seemed like a really good moment to introduce newbies to the wonderful world of Veronica (and Stoker).
Our heroine, Veronica Speedwell is an orphaned, independent woman. When we meet her at the start of the series, she has just buried her aunt and is about to resume her life of travelling the world in the pursuit of butterflies. But while she is back in Britain, she is drawn into a mystery and into the orbit of the incredibly grumpy taxidermist and natural historian Stoker. The latest book, An Impossible Imposter, is the seventh in the series and so far we have discovered secrets about Veronica’s family and about Stoker’s past, romped through artists colonies, archaeological circles, women’s clubs, private clubs and gothic Cornish castles. The latest one promises an amnesiac heir and I can’t wait. Although I may have to, because I’m not meant to be buying hardcover novels at the moment, no matter how much I want to.
It’s hard to talk about them much more than that, or you give too much away – as you’ll see if you click through to the BotW reviews for A Treacherous Curse and A Dangerous Collaboration, but basically they’re fast paced Victorian-set adventure capers with a feisty heroine and a grumpy hero, if Stoker can be classed as such (he definitely wouldn’t like it). They’re also witty and have clever premises as well as good mysteries. What is not to like?
I forgot to check if Foyles had any in stock when I was in there the other weekend, but my suspcion is that if you want this in physical editions, you’re going to have to order them specially. But they are on Kindle and Kobo and do try and read them in order if you can, it will work so much better if you do. And if you’ve already read all of these, then you should really check out some of Raybourn’s other books – especially the Lady Julia series.
So this is a post I’ve been thinking about writing for ages – but thought I probably ought to read some Anthony Trollope before I did so that I can sound knowledgeable about the origin of the setting. But I’m finally admitting that that’s probably not going to happen any time soon – because, you know, huge to-read pile, pandemic and my general (and ever more pronounced) reluctance to read anything “classic”. And the other issue is that I’ve only read fifteen of them. But if I wait for Virago to publish all of them I could be waiting a long time. So, I’m going for it now. Sorry, not sorry.
This is a series of loosely connected books all set in the same (fictional) county and featuring some of the same characters. The first book was published in 1933, and as in book 15 I’ve just reached the end of the Second World War the section of the series that I’ve read fits nicely into the interwar period that I read about so much. Not a lot happens in them – or at least nothing dramatic – they are just amusing and witty portraits of life in a certain part of British society. In High Rising – the first in the series – we met Laura Moreland, a widow who started writing books to help pay the school fees for her irrepressible son Tony. The books are wildly successful, but not highbrow, so Laura is somewhat embarrassed by them. There are squabbles in the community, misunderstandings, misbehaving children, there are issues of class and there are gentle romances. The pattern for the series is set.
They do turn darker through the Second World War, and there are bits that haven’t aged as well as others. I see from notes on the later books in the series that they turn more romantic and less social comedy, but as far as the ones I have read go, they are comedies of manners and society with some romantic interludes. Think the Golden Age murder mysteries in style and tone but with more humour and no dead bodies. If you read school stories as a child (or still do as an adult like me) then Summer Half is a behind the scenes look at what might have been going on in the staff rooms of some of the schools that you read about (albeit at a boys school). There are books set at Big Houses or at weekend parties. There are fetes and village events. And there is a lot of gentle fun to be had.
And as we all know that’s the sort of mood I’m in (almost permanently) at the moment. Gentle fun, low peril, it will all turn out alright in the end type books. In fact the only thing that hasn’t turned out right in the end here is that Virago changed the editions so that the cover illustration doesn’t wrap around the spine on the later books that they’re republished so my shelf doesn’t match as nicely as I want it to. Truly a first world problem.
You should be able to get hold of these fairly easily – I’ve bought mine in various bookshops as well as on Amazon (there are a couple that were kindle only at first). In fact I think I originally started reading them because I spotted one on a table in Old Foyles. I saw the cover and read the back and off we went. And it’s been delighful.
It’s been a while since I posted a Series I Love post – since Amelia Peabody in January last year to be exact – so I thought it was time for another. As I finished the latest in Rhys Bowen’s Royal Spyness series this week, and really enjoyed it but because I said I wasn’t going to write about any more Christmas books, this seemed like a good solution!
Set in the 1930s, our heroine is Lady Georgiana Rannoch, daughter of a duke and a cousin of George V, and whose family lost most of their money in the Great Crash late in the 1920s. Her father is dead and she’s trying to survive on her own, because life with her brother and sister-in-law is just too unpleasant (and cold) to contemplate. Luckily for her, Queen Mary quite likes her and keeps asking her to undertake little tasks to help out the Royal Family. Unluckily for her, this also tends to lead to her stumbling across bodies as well as the dashing but possibly disreputable Darcy O’Mara. There are 15 books in the series now and they’ve taken Georgie around various of the royal residences, the English and Scottish countryside, over the water to Ireland and the south of France and much further away to Transylvania and Africa.
If you’re a history nerd like me, you have to not think to hard about where in Queen Victoria’s family tree exactly Georgie’s family are meant to fit in, but equally if you’re a history nerd all the details about the royals in the 1930s are really quite delightful and more accurate than a lot of similar books are (I’m naming no names, but there are some terrible attempts out there). Georgie is a very fun narrator – she’s very inventive and determined not to end up dependent on her brother and end up as free labour for her sister-in-law, the awful Fig. At the start of the series she starts a housecleaning business – trading on the snobbery of people who want to be associated with a distant royal, whilst hiding the fact that she doesn’t actually have a staff and is doing the cleaning herself. But she’s also grown up quite sheltered from the real world, which means that the reader can often see stuff coming that she can’t – like when she tries to hire herself out as a dinner and theatre companion, when her housecleaning business starts struggling.
Georgie is also surrounded by an entertaining group of supporting characters. As well as the handsome Darcy, there is her accident prone and not very good maid Queenie (who she can’t bring herself to get rid of) and her daring Bright Young Thing friend Belinda. There’s also her maternal grandfather a former policeman who is uncomfortable around all of Georgiana’s posh friends and royal relations. Then there’s his daughter – Georgie’s mother Claire – who after managing to marry into the peerage with Georgie’s father, is now working her way through a string of rich husbands and gentleman friends. The books are working their way through the 1930s and Claire is set up as a bit of a rival to Wallis Simpson and you get some delightful sparring between the two of them whenever they come into contact with each other.
The latest book in the series, God Rest Ye Royal, Gentleman is set at Christmas 1935, so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next as we move into the somewhat frantic events of 1936 and the Mrs Simpson situation comes to a head. As regular readers will know, I do love a book set around the abdication crisis (Hello Gone with the Windsors) so I’m hoping Rhys Bowen has got some fun ideas for how to get Georgie involved in it all.
I started reading the series slightly out of order – as I picked up a few of the early ones from the Works (see my BotW post about A Royal Pain for details) but I’ve been up to date for a while now and reading them as they come out. I would say you can read out of order – if you want – up until about book 11, after that, you sort of want to be going in order a little bit. Or at least you do to get the maximum fun out of it all.
If you like historical mystery series like Phryne Fisher or Daisy Dalrymple then these are worth giving a try. Bowen also writes the Molly Murphy series, which I’ve not read – yet – because I’ve never managed to get hold of the early ones in the series at a price I’m happy with. I’m sure it will happen at some point though. If you read the Boyfriend Club series or some of the early Sweet Dreams books when you were a teenager, Rhys Bowen is also Janet Quin Harkin, so you may find that you like the writing style, even if you don’t usually read historical mysteries.