by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s books are like dear old friends. Not the kind you spend every weekend with, but the one whose company is no less welcome and warming fr its infrequency.
Northanger Abbey is a particular favourite of mine, mainly because of the style. It differs from her other works in that she uses direct author intrusion to speak directly with the reader. It is clear that she is telling you a story and often takes control of the narrative. Despite this change in style, it loses none of the wit and observational skills that are very much the hallmark of Austen’s work.
In Northanger Abbey, Austen’s would-be heroin Catherine Moorland sets out on her first adventure beyond the family home. She is t spend 6 weeks in Bath with her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen. Catherine is determined to find adventure but her hopes are dashed as their lack of acquaintances leaves them sidelined from society. However, two chance encounters soon end this initial isolation and propel Catherine into a series of events and friendships that offer more opportunity for adventure than she could have hoped for.
Catherine Moorland is an innocent propelled into society she cannot fully comprehend. The direct honesty she is used to has not prepared her for the deceitful and ambiguous nature of those who claim her as their friend. She thinks the best of everyone but she soon begins to realise that not everyone is as honest about their feelings as she is.
Whilst it might not be to everyone’s taste, Northanger Abbey is a pastiche of the gothic tales of the time and is a book I enjoy revisiting.
by Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah has an enviable reputation as a thriller writer, but this particular book offers very little either psychological or thrilling.
I found the main character, Chloe Daniels frustratingly fickle and unbelievable. The plot had all the makings of an interesting thriller, but it never really got going.
The whole concept lacked conviction. The chance meeting with her knight in shining armour, the reaction of her best friend and the warnings from another stranger all failed to convince me of the validity of the plot.
Not what I had expected at all. A very disappointing read whos only saving grace is that it is short.
by Lissa Evans
Lissa Evan’s openly admits that she has a deep fascination for the lives of ordinary people during the 1939-45 war. There seems to be a growing interest generally in this side of those dramatic and turbulent years. Wars are not always fought exclusively on the battlefields, and the lives of those left at home are becoming of increasing interest. I have never been a fan of conventional war stories but do enjoy books that take a look at life on the home front.
Lissa will be recognised by many as the writer of “Their Finest Hour-and-a-Half” (since made into the film of almost the same name). Where “Finest” focused on the struggling British film industry, Careless Heart takes an often humorous but always enlightening look at evacuees, the black market and the Blitz.
At the outbreak of the war, Noah Bostock is living with his elderly godmother on the fringes of Hamstead Heath. Life is simple and Noah is happy. But very soon events turn his life upside down and he finds himself evacuated to St Albans. An on cue, enter Vera Sledge, thirty-six-year-old widow, drowning in debts and struggling to care for her mother. Vera is unscrupulous about how she makes the money she needs and sees the rather sickly looking Noah as just another opportunity.
Vera and Noah and as different as chalk and cheese, but their needs soon begin to bridge the gap. Noah has the cool head and ability to plan the vera lacks, making them a perfect team. Together they cook up a scheme to make money quickly. But there are some things that even Vera will not stoop to, and when they come across those who will, things begin to get dangerous.
Careless Heart opens a window on the seedier side of wartime Britain, but with humour and compassion. Lissa’s research into home front activities of the period makes this book not only entertaining but informative. I thoroughly enjoyed Noah and Vera’s story and was left wanting to know more about this miss-matched pair.
by Adele Abbott
Right from the top, I have to admit that this was something of an odd choice for me. Not the book itself as such, just the fact that I chose to read book #29 in a series before reading any others! The reasoning behind the purchase is lost on me now, but none-the-less, I ploughed on regardless. And to be honest, despite there being a few references and ongoing subplots I struggled with, the book itself was a refreshing summer read.
Jill Maxwell is not only a private investigator earning a good living in rural England, but she is also a witch, something that the majority of her clients know nothing about. Her cases are an interesting mix covering both worlds. She is simultaneously searching for a missing canal boat owner and investigating the mysteriously vanishing water in the fairy reservoirs. It is all in day’s work for this particular sleuth.
I found the style of writing very easy to read and the gentle humour made it a particular pleasure. In a typical PI style, the story is told in the first person and is very dialogue-driven. Ms Maxwell does not go in for long-winded descriptions or soliloquise. The writing is concise and well-paced. I particularly liked the way the mundane and magic worlds were interwoven.
All I need to do now is go back 28 books and see where it all began…
by Mavis Doriel Hay
One of the British Library Crime Classics series, this 1930s crime novel is a bit of a lost treasure. Not exactly a gripping page-turner in the way modern readers would expect, it is typical of the period. What makes it stand out from the crowd is the focus on its female characters.
Set in a pre-Morse Oxford, a group of young ladies from Persephone College discover the body of their Bursar floating down the Cherwell, things begin to get very un-ladylike.
Reading Death on the Cherwell is like peeking through a window onto another world. As much as it is a crime story, there is a secondary theme of prejudice and attitudes to women, particularly in academia. Today we expect to see strong female leads, but this has not always been the case. In 1930s Britain, young ladies were not really expected to put too much effort into securing a higher education. After all, what use would that be once they had married, which was their first primary goal anyway!
Whilst Sally, Daphne, Gwyneth and Nina – our would-be sleuths in this tale – do their best to uncover the truth behind their gruesome find, the male characters, particularly the police, display an embarrassing level of condescension towards them. But this was the attitude of the time and its reflection in this work is only to be expected.
I enjoyed the book but found the plot itself a little strained at times. Like many others in the series, it is the insight into the period that makes it interesting.
by Cixin Liu
Translation by Ken Liu
Before going any further I need to make one thing clear – the three bodies referred to in the title are celestial rather than biological. That said though, there is a reasonably large number of the later scattered through this very gripping and imaginative book.
I also have to say that when I purchased the book I was not aware that it was the opening volley in a trilogy. At the time I was looking for a stand-alone Sci-Fi novel by a modern author. That may sound a relatively simple thing to do but like so many things these days, it is not as easy as it seems. Science Fiction shelves of bookshops I visit seems o have more zombie and vampire stories that traditional Sci-Fi and those I do find are part of ever-growing series. I am starting to feel very nostalgic for the good old days.
But enough of that, what about this Three-Body Problem? The story begins in 1967 at the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution. I have to admit to being ignorant of the events of the period – Chinese history has never been high on the school curriculum and it is something that I have only ever come across references to. This is the first time I have read anything that deals with the events and looks at their implications. It is not long before the bodies begin to pile up and the characters that drive the story to emerge.
The three bodies in question are three suns. Their orbits are erratic and unpredictable, hence the problem – how does a civilization survive the extremes created by its orbit around these bodies?
The answer is: with difficulty which is why there are looking beyond their own system for a new home. Then one day, due to events precipitated by the Cultural Revolution, their prayers are answered. What follows is one of the most imaginative and compelling science fiction stories I have read in years. The science behind this tale is second only to Cixin Liu’s natural storytelling.
I have to say that The Three-Body Problem is not only a great piece of fiction, it also taught me a little about an important historical period I knew nothing about. I do have to say that I was very grateful for the List of Characters helpfully added at the beginning of the book. Without it would have struggled to keep track of the characters. Not there are a lot of them, I just found myself struggling with the Chinese names.
Although I was looking for a stand-alone book, I am not in any disappointed to started on this particular trilogy. I am looking forward to reading the rest.
by Rachel Joyce
For 11-year-old friends, Byron and James, the summer of 1972 was a landmark in their lives. It was a time of innocence, a time when all young boys should have been having adventures and enjoying the great outdoors. But for Byron and James – and their families – this was a summer of momentous change that set them all on new and very strange paths.
It all began with a traffic jam on the way to school. When Byron’s mum decides to take a short cut through the notorious housing estate she sets in motion a train of events that lead us to the second thread of the narrative.
it is 40 years later. Jim spends his days cleaning tables in the supermarket cafe and his nights slavishly following the routines imposed by his OCD. He has no friends but his routines keep him far too busy as he strives to keep himself and everyone around him safe.
As the narrative swings between 1972 and the present, the connection between the two slowly begins to take shape. It is a very tragic tale but one with an all-be-it discretely hidden sense of hope. It is not an easy story. Byron in particular faces challenges that no 11-year-old should ever have to.
If there is a villain in this tale it is Byron’s distant and domineering father. The greatest tragedy of the book is that when his young son needs support and love, his father is unable to offer it, leaving a very confused boy to make sense of the cruelties of the world on his own.
I found this to be an emotionally charged but very enjoyable book. I was just a couple of years younger than James and Byron in 1972 and have my own memories of the period that Rachal Joyce evokes very clearly. And although our backgrounds were very different, I found I had a real affinity with both boys, but Byron in particular. I could feel his frustrations. how much different his life might have been if anyone had just given him a hug and sympathised with him when he needed it.
Although not perfect, Perfect is a compelling read that will pull all your emotional strings. A great read.
by Sophie Hannah
Sophie Hannah is best known for her psychological thrillers but in this novel, commissioned by the Hammer imprint, she put all her experience to good use as she turns her attention to the world of the supernatural.
The Orpha Choir is something of a slow burner. Louise Beeston is being tormented by her party-loving neighbour Juston Clay (or, as she likes to call him, Mr Farenheit). For months Louise, along with her husband Stewart, have had to put up with having Clay’s musical choices foisted on them on a regular basis. But it is Louise who suffers the most and is finally driven to breaking point. When she contacts the Environmental Health Department things seem to improve, but not for long.
Louise’s life takes some strange twists over the following months, but it is not just Clay’s musical choices that are behind her troubles. With her son recently accepted as a border at the prestigious Saviour College School, Louise is struggling to cope and lack of sleep is not helping. There are a few interesting twists and it is clear that all is not as it seems.
Louise and Stewart live ordinary lives in Cambridge, struggling with the usual worries – work, family, neighbours and their own relationship. It is the very ordinariness of their lives that makes the way the plot unfolds so intriguing.
This is not a classic horror or ghost story. It is an intriguing story of one woman’s battle against forces beyond her control. I enjoyed the plot and the characters and who knows, one day we may see the movie – it is a Hammer Horror book after all.
by Emma Healey
Opening the first page on a highly acclaimed debut is always something of an adventure. Having read some good reviews my expectations were high but also tinged with a little trepidation. I have been disappointed by so many similarly praised books in the past that I am always half expecting to be disappointed.
For one thing, the premise behind the book is a little strange – an elderly lady with dementia trying to solve the mystery of a missing friend whilst at the same time trying to unravel the 70-year-old mystery of her missing sister, Sukey. Maud may have trouble remembering everyday things like why she has come to the shops or recognising her daughter, Helen, but one thing she is very clear about, her best friend Elizabeth is missing. The trouble is that no one else seems to be taking any notice of her and she can’t understand it. Woven into her frustrations over her missing friend are very clear memories of her childhood, particularly her sister and the year she went missing. Separated by a lifetime, Maud’s need to find answers to these mysteries is touching and emotional.
As Maud tells her own story, the present becomes increasingly confused and vague, but the disappearance of Sukey remains clear and very focused. For me, this is an outstanding piece of storytelling. Anyone who has lived with the realities of a loved one with dementia will understand Maud’s story and the mixed emotions of those close to her. There is no doubt that dementia is the cruellest of afflictions Having watched my mother-in-law succumb to Alzheimers, the book could have been difficult to read, but it wasn’t. Emma handles it with compassion and humour. There is a mystery to be solved, and the answer is not entirely unexpected.
Elizabeth is Missing is a unique and touching book that kept me enthralled from beginning to end.
by Barbara Pym
Having already read a couple of Barba Pym’s novels before, I picked this one up expecting much of the same. In one way I was not disappointed – Green Leaves is a simple story of ordinary folk facing new challenges told in a straightforward, matter of falk sort of way. It is the simplicity and ordinariness of the characters and their situations that make her work so captivating. There is nothing too demanding.
But ultimately I found Green Leaves rather disappointing. The plot was a little thin, the story a little meandering. The narrative tried to follow too many characters with the result that none were given the time and room to grow and develop in a way I would have expected. It is all a little too shallow for me.
Whilst I enjoyed the way the book opened a window onto a community and way of life that was under threat at the end of the 1970s when the book was written, the story itself lacked the focus and insight that made her earlier work so compelling.
A Few Green Leaves was Barbara Pym’s last novel and I really wish I could say she finished on a high, but I can’t.
To be fair, the book is a light, gentle read perfect for a summer afternoon on the beach, just don’t expect to be swept away by it.