Friday, 30 December 2016

Review: Ruth's First Christmas Tree by Elly Griffiths

Ruth's First Christmas Tree is a short story from Elly Griffiths's Ruth Galloway series, and fits in neatly between A Room Full of Bones and Dying Fall. At the time of writing, it's available as a free ebook; the last third of the book is an extract from Dying Fall.

Ruth has decided this year she will have the 'perfect' Christmas. Her daughter is now old enough to appreciate Santa Claus - and presents! It's three days until Christmas and all Ruth needs now is the perfect tree.

This series often refers to Ruth's involvement in excavating a wooden henge on the beach near to where she lives. The henge was moved to a local museum for preservation and now a small piece has gone missing. The curator is in hospital with pneumonia and Ruth's druid friend, Cathbad, is convinced the man's recovery depends on the finding of this small peg.

Will Ruth ever find the perfect Christmas tree? Will she solve the mystery of the disappearing peg? Unlike the novels in this series, no one is murdered but I found the story entertaining all the same. Part of the appeal of this series for me has always been the characters (especially Cathbad!) and the subtle humour. It's like spending Christmas with old friends!

Related Reviews:

Monday, 26 December 2016

Review: The House at Sea's End by Elly Griffiths

This is the third book in Elly Griffith's Ruth Galloway series and my favourite so far. Six skeletons have been found on a local beach, their remains only exposed after a cliff fall. They appear to have been there for some time, possibly since WW2, and their hands have been tied behind their backs.

Meanwhile, two elderly men are found dead in apparently unrelated, non-suspicious circumstances. But there is one curious fact they have in common, something which could link them to the bodies found in the cliff - or is it just a coincidence? Except DCI Nelson doesn't believe in coincidences...

Normally I hate books written in the present tense but Elly Griffiths does it so well I don't even notice. I usually hate anything to do with WW2 too, but I found the historical backstory fascinating. I also love the humour and the way the main characters are starting to feel like family. 

Part of the mystery centres around an old gothic house, balanced right on the edge of the cliff and likely to go over any day. I LOVE stories with old houses in them and there is an especially creepy chapter where Ruth and Nelson find themselves trapped while a snowstorm rages.

Despite there being no shortage of potential suspects, I still didn't work out who the murderer was. Brilliant stuff!

Related Posts:

Friday, 23 December 2016

Review: Dying for Christmas by Tammy Cohen

I bought this a couple of years ago but didn't get around to reading it because some of the reviews I read at the time made the story sound as though it might be too gruesome for me - I'm a bit of a wimp! But it was coming up to Christmas, I was going to be on holiday, and I wanted to read some 'festive' crime fiction. There's not a lot of it about, strangely enough!

Jessica Gold is the oddball of her family - loved, but definitely eccentric - her brothers even call her 'weird' to her face. It is the day before Christmas and she's headed into town to do some last minute shopping. She takes a break in a busy cafe, and is surprised when the handsome and charismatic Dominic Lacey takes the seat opposite her and begins to chat her up, mentioning how much she reminds him of his ex-wife. A man like this is usually completely out of her league, so when he invites her back to his apartment she goes quite willingly, even though the voices in her head are telling her she's an idiot.

She should have listened to those voices! Dominic Lacey is planning on having Jessica for Christmas, and not quite in the way she'd hoped. He's even got her some very special presents, one for each of the twelve days of Christmas - but will she even get to live that long? And what, exactly, did happen to that mysterious ex-wife?

Dying for Christmas is brilliantly written in a very modern style. I found Jessica entertaining and engaging, although not very likeable - but that was kind of the point. In fact none of the characters are likeable, but this is a very clever psychological suspense, and no one is quite who they seem. Dominic in particular is a deliciously manipulative villain; his desire to swap life stories reminded me a bit of Hannibal Lecter (don't worry, no one gets eaten!). The best way of describing the story is as the publishers have done: 'Misery meets Gone Girl'.

The story is funny in places, a kind of dark humour, and most of the nasty violent stuff happens off the page. There are a couple of massive twists about halfway through, one of which I guessed, the other I didn't. 

If you enjoy traditional, cleverly-plotted psychological suspense, and don't mind a few brief descriptions of off-the-page gruesome stuff, then this is the book for you.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Review: The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone is #2 in a series about Dr Ruth Galloway (a forensic archaeologist) and DCI Harry Nelson.

The story starts with Ruth visiting her fellow archaeologists on a Roman dig and meeting the resident expert, Dr Max Grey. His team have found bones buried beneath a wall, and we're introduced to the Celtic/Roman tradition of a foundation sacrifice - burying a body beneath a wall or doorway as an offering to Janus or Terminus. Janus is the god of beginnings, gates and doorways; Terminus is the god who protects boundaries and boundary stones.

This thought is uppermost in Ruth's mind when the police call her in to examine the skeleton of a child found by builders demolishing an old house, but surely it's just a coincidence that the body has been buried directly under a doorstep? There was once a children's home on the site, and two of the children went missing forty years ago. Could the skeleton belong to one of them? But why is the skull missing?

The story is cleverly written to include lots of potential suspects for murder, all with very plausible motivations and all with something to hide - including Ruth. How is she going to tell the father of her child that she's pregnant?

I enjoyed the book because I loved the characters, flaws and all, as well as the gentle humour and quirky historical details. I really love the character of Cathbad the druid and his unlikely friendship with DCI Nelson - who doesn't want to like him but just can't seem to help himself. And I love that Ruth is quite capable of saving herself - there is a rather tense chase scene at the end. I also didn't guess the identity of the murderer, which is always a plus for me!

Related Posts:

Review: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Friday, 16 December 2016

Review: The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

The Crossing Places is the first in a series featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson. I'd already read #4 in this series over the summer (I have a bad habit of reading books out of order) but made the effort to track down the others as I enjoyed it so much. The story, as you might expect, is a mix of present day murder mystery and a bit of history. It is set in a fictional area of Norfolk, beside the sea.

DCI Nelson is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of a young girl and the mocking letters he received from the perpetrator; now another girl has gone missing in much the same circumstances. Is it the work of the same person, or a copycat? When the body of a young girl is found in the salt marshes opposite her home, Ruth is called in to determine whether the bones are contemporary or historic. She becomes more involved with the case as she realises the letters the abductor sent to the police contain many references to archaeology. Is the perpetrator someone she knows?

Unfortunately, because I'd read #4 in the series already, it was fairly easy for me to work out the villain - so make sure you read these books in order! I loved the characters, particularly Harry, Ruth and Cathbad, and the atmospheric descriptions of the salt marshes meant the location was almost a character on its own. I've now bought the next six books in the series, and I'm planning on having a lovely time reading them back-to-back!

Recommended, particularly if you like murder mysteries with gentle humour and not too much violence, served up with a slice of history on the side.

Related Post:

Review: The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths

Monday, 12 December 2016

Review: Duke of Pleasure by Elizabeth Hoyt

I love Elizabeth Hoyt's books, particularly her Maiden Lane series, which is historical romance set in Georgian England. Duke of Pleasure is #11 in the series but you don't have to have read the others to enjoy the story. 

Hugh Fitzroy, the Duke of Kyle, is the illegitimate son of King George II, who uses him as a kind of spy for the work he can't trust anyone else to do. Hugh's current investigation is into the Lords of Chaos, a secret society of aristocrats, similar to The Hellfire Club. One night Hugh is ambushed by their assassins, but fortunately rescued by a notorious vigilante known as the Ghost of St Giles - who turns out to be a woman.

Ironically, the female 'Ghost' Hugh is now obsessed with is already known to him as the street urchin 'Alf', who lives on 'his' wits by dealing in information - for a price. It takes Hugh about half the novel to realise Alf's real identity, and me about the same amount of time to recognise a reworking of My Fair Lady, as Hugh trains Alf to pass herself off as an aristocrat to help him steal some important papers and finally catch the Lords of Chaos.

I enjoyed Duke of Pleasure because it wasn't the usual girl-meets-rake historical romance, it had lots of action and adventure, as well as a bit of a mystery, and I loved the character of Alf. I would definitely recommend this book to fans of Georgian romance.

The Ghost of St Giles (a kind of Georgian Batman) has appeared as a main character in three other Elizabeth Hoyt novels: Thief of Shadows (#4), Lord of Darkness (#5) and Duke of Midnight (#6). Alf has also appeared in other Maiden Lane books, mainly Lord of Darkness. So if you do want to read the other books in the series, you might want to start with those.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Review: Another Little Christmas Murder by Lorna Nicoll Morgan

I was attracted to this book because of the cover and the title*, which goes to show just how shallow I am! At the time, the ebook version was a little bit expensive (it has since come down in price) so I borrowed a copy from the library. Because I was so keen to start reading it, I also downloaded a sample to my Kindle, and was initially disappointed because the first six pages were a long description of the heroine driving through snowy Yorkshire. I thought I'd made a horrible mistake! But when my library copy arrived I gave it another go, and became completely hooked!

The story is a typical cosy murder mystery. It was written in 1947 and it would be easy to make comparisons with Agatha Christie, but their writing styles are completely different. (Christie's  stories are more fast-paced, with fiendishly clever plots). But I liked the inter-action between Morgan's characters and they were different to the usual retired colonel/vicar/spinster types. For a start, our heroine (Dilys) is a commercial traveller - a partner in a firm of manufacturing chemists. Determined to reach her next stop by nightfall, she drives through the hills of Yorkshire and gets stuck in a snowstorm. She is quite pragmatic about it (something I loved about this character!) but ends up being rescued by Inigo Brown, who is on his way to stay with his uncle at Wintry Wold. Such is the snowstorm, they are soon joined by many others, much to the indignation of Inigo's new, young, and very glamorous Aunt Theresa.

Although the story starts off a bit waffly, once it gets going there is lots of witty dialogue, particularly between Dilys and Inigo, and even a hint of a romance. The potential suspects are introduced gradually, so the reader can get a real sense of who is who, and Dilys is a very likeable, almost modern heroine. I was well on the way to giving the book 5 stars, but towards the end it became a bit farce-like, with lots of 'mysterious' goings-on in the middle of the night, the heroine stalking the corridors with a poker, and cars being sabotaged. Although one strand of the mystery was easy to guess at, the identity of the murderer took me completely by surprise. 

If you love vintage murder mysteries, you will enjoy Another Little Christmas Murder, and I would have loved to have seen Dilys in more stories. 

*One niggle: there was no mention of Christmas until the epilogue, when one character mentions going to 'spend Christmas' with their family!

Monday, 5 December 2016

Review: Moonlight and Mistletoe by Louise Allen

I've always been a fan of Louise Allen and I picked this up when I had the urge to read something Christmassy.  The story is about Hester Lattimer, who has arrived in a sleepy English village hoping to escape a scandal. She has a small inheritance, which she used to buy the beautiful if slightly decayed Moon House and sets about trying to establish herself as a respectable single woman, with the aid of a timid ex-governess as her companion, a rescued waif with ambitions to be a butler and her maid. This is slightly hampered by the deliciously dashing Earl of Buckland setting up house directly opposite, setting village tongues wagging.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, because as well as the historical romance, there is also a bit of a mystery, both about Hester's 'scandal', threatening to derail her friendship with the Earl, and Moon House itself, which has not been lived in for many years and might possibly be haunted. Is the Earl's interest in Hester only a sham, to hide his interest in buying the house for himself? And what of the mysterious dead roses, appearing throughout the house?

The story is firmly set in winter, leading up to Christmas, although not overly festive. I loved the light humour and the characters - Hester, determined to be independent and not rely on a handsome man to save her; Jethroe, saved from the slums with ambitions to become the best butler ever; even nervous Miss Prudhome, the companion, determined to do her job and 'save' Hester from the advances of the Earl, even though she doesn't particularly want saving!

This is a well-researched, very entertaining Mills & Boon historical romance with a bit of a mystery and the occasional sex scene, and would definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Recommended!

Friday, 2 December 2016

Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers is #3 in Philippa Gregory's The Cousins' War series. The story is about Jacquetta of Luxembourg, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, and is a prequel to The White Queen, ending neatly at the exact moment that story begins. With hindsight, I wish I'd read this book first, as it explains the tensions leading up to the start of the Wars of the Roses, something I never fully understood (maybe I should have paid more attention at school!). It explains who all the leading players were, and their motivations, which is a great help when many of them switched sides - and then back again!

The story starts with Jacquetta at the home of her uncle, making friends with one of his prisoners of war, a young girl named Joan, who says she hears the voice of God. As Joan has been advising the Dauphin of France in his war against the English, understandably the English want Joan dead. Sure enough, they burn her at the stake, for being a heretic, witch and traitor. And Jacquetta learns two important lessons (1) To keep quiet about her own visions and (2) That the wheel of fortune 'can thrown a woman so high in the world that she can command a king, or pull her down to this: a dishonoured agonising death'.

But Jacquetta has caught the eye of the most important man in France - the 'elderly' Regent, John, Duke of Bedford and brother to the English King Henry V - but not in the way she thinks. The Duke wants her to predict the future of England, but all she sees are a ring shaped like a golden crown, battle after bloody battle, and a queen with her horse at a forge, putting the horseshoes on backwards ... 

I think this is my favourite of the series so far. It shows the beginning of the amnosity between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, something I never really understood. I loved the character of Jacquetta, a strong woman who never really wanted the power she had, who learned to conceal her gift of second sight and anything else which might be construed as 'witchy'. Unlike the previous two books, The White Queen and The Red Queen, Jacquetta is often right at the heart of the action - with her own life, as well as those of her husband and children, in peril. She is feistier than Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen) and a lot more likeable than Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen).

A fascinating woman, an exciting read - and definitely recommended!

Related reviews:

The White Queen (#1 The Cousins' War) by Philippa Gregory
The Red Queen (#2 The Cousins' War) by Philippa Gregory

Friday, 25 November 2016

Review: A Mistletoe Masquerade by Louise Allen

At this time of year I like to read books with a Christmas theme and so I picked this one by Louise Allen, one my favourite authors. It is a novella, of less than 100 pages, and at the time of writing it is only 99p on Kindle.

The story is about Lady Rowan Chilcourt, concerned about a marriage arranged between her timid best friend, Penny Maylin, and the Earl of Danescroft - who is suspected of murdering his first wife! So Rowan arranges to travel with Penny to a Christmas house party, disguised as her dresser (a kind of lady's maid), to find out everything she can about the notorious Earl.

Meanwhile, the Earl's friend Viscount Stoneley is equally concerned that he might have fallen prey to a fortune hunter and agrees to travel to the same house party disguised as the Earl's valet ... 

I enjoyed this story because it is different to the usual Regency romances in that it is set in below stairs and shows the lives of the servants, and how hard their work could be, with lots of well-researched historical details. I loved the characters and the final denouement at the Christmas ball, and the little festive touches, such as kissing beneath the mistletoe ...

Fans of Mills & Boon historical romances will love it!

Friday, 18 November 2016

Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

The White Queen is the first book in Philippa Gregory's Cousins' War series about the War of the Roses. The heroine is Elizabeth Woodville, a widow with two young boys, who has been left destitute after her husband's death while fighting for the Lancastrian cause. Her sons' inheritance has been seized back by her mother-in-law, so she waits upon the road hoping to meet the new king, Edward IV, and plead for her cause. Edward, however, takes one look at her and falls madly in love (or rather, lust) and is determined to have her for his own, even if that means going against the man who made him king, the Earl of Warwick. When Edward tries to force himself on Elizabeth she turns a knife on him, so he agrees to marry her. But as the marriage takes place in secret, with very few witnesses, is it even legal?

The beginning of the story took me a little by surprise, as it is similar to those historical romances I love to read, with not quite so much of the battles and beheadings I'm used to reading about in Philippa Gregory's books. But the characters were very likeable and realistically portrayed, and it was fascinating getting a glimpse of the real people behind the stories in the history books. The first half of the book shows the endless battles Edward went through to keep his throne (we experience them second-hand through Elizabeth, waiting patiently at home). The second half is about how Elizabeth is forced into various alliances to protect her children.

I did enjoy reading The White Queen, and would happily give it five stars, but out of the series I think I preferred the later stories. The Red Queen, about Elizabeth's frenemy Margaret Beaufort, was a far more interesting character, as was Elizabeth's mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg (The Lady of the Rivers) and sometime 'witch'. 

As The Lady of the Rivers is effectively a prequel to The White Queen and ends at the exact point The White Queen starts, you may wish to start the series with that one. I wish I had read it first, as it would have helped me understand the characters motivation a bit more, and who they all were.

Related Reviews:

The Red Queen (#2 The Cousins' War)
The Lady  of the Rivers (#3 The Cousins' War)

Friday, 11 November 2016

Review: Do You Want to Start a Scandal (Castles Ever After) by Tessa Dare

When I originally downloaded this book I had assumed it was part of Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove series because the heroine is Charlotte Highwood, whose sisters have their own stories in A Week to be Wicked and Beauty and the Blacksmith. Instead it turned out to be part of Castles Ever After - the hero, Piers, is the brother of the hero in Say Yes to the Marquess. However, you don't have to have read any of those other books to enjoy this story.

When Charlotte finds herself a guest at the same country house party as Piers Brandon, aka the Marquess of Granville, she feels duty-bound to warn him that her mother is likely to have designs on him as a prospective son-in-law. In fact, her mother is so keen to bag an aristocrat for her youngest daughter (particularly as the elder one has just married a blacksmith), it hasn't escaped Society's notice - and Charlotte has been nicknamed the Desperate Debutante. Of course just after Charlotte has tracked Piers down to the library, and informed him of all this (much to his bemusement), they hear voices outside the door and realise they are about to be discovered alone together. And in Regency times that would mean a very speedy trip to the altar - exactly what Charlotte was trying to avoid. So they hide behind the curtains and inadvertently end up witnessing a romantic tryst between two other guests. And then, after the embarrassment of all that, Charlotte and Piers still end up being caught together - although strangely, Piers doesn't seem all that bothered ...

*mild spoilers coming up*

I enjoy reading Tessa Dare because she creates such great characters and her stories are as funny as they are romantic. I love humour in the books I read, and I also like a bit of a mystery. Part of the plot of this story was Charlotte's attempt to track down the other couple in the library, hoping to get out of her engagement to Piers, but that kind of fizzled out. There were also what appeared to be a couple of attempts on her life but again, they weren't quite what they seemed either. As I'd spent a chunk of the book trying to work out likely suspects, I found this a little disappointing.

So, recommended if you love your historical romances to be modern, funny and sexy. Not recommended if you're hoping for something more traditional, like Jane Austen. And if you've never read Tessa Dare before, I recommend you also try When a Scot Ties the Knot, which has to be one of my all-time favourite books.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Review: Once Upon a Regency Christmas by Louise Allen, Sophia James and Annie Burrows

Once Upon a Regency Christmas is a lovely Christmassy book containing three novella-length, Christmas-themed, Regency romances by Louise Allen, Sophia James and Annie Burrows. I am a huge fan of both Louise Allen and Annie Burrows, and have read all their books, but Sophia James is new to me. The theme running through all three stories is that the heroes might not be quite who they seem to be.

On a Winter's Eve by Louise Allen

Lady Julia Charlcott is newly arrived in England from India. Her much older husband has died but her plans to re-enter English society is thwarted when she overhears her sister-in-law bargaining with a gentleman over what he would pay if Julia were to wed him. Furious, Julia walks out, intending to have a traditional Christmas at her late husband's home in the country. Unfortunately she heads straight into a snowstorm, where she meets Captain Giles Markham trudging through the snow with a live turkey...

Marriage Made at Christmas by Sophia James

Christine Howard's heart has been frozen since the death of her fiance but when her life is saved by a mysterious American, she can feel herself begin to thaw. Hired as her bodyguard, it is soon clear William Miller would risk everything to protect her - but what if Christine is not the target?

Cinderella's Perfect Christmas by Annie Burrows

When Alice Waverley catches a cold, she realises it is the perfect excuse to spend Christmas home alone, doing exactly as she pleases, while her horrible relatives head off to a country house party. Unfortunately they've only been gone a few hours when Captain Jack Grayling and his two young children arrive at the house seeking shelter from the snow. 

I loved On a Winter's Eve and Cinderella's Perfect Christmas because they were both very traditional, Christmassy stories - just the thing to read to get into the Christmas spirit. The characters decorated the house, created presents from very little, were snowed in and built snowmen. I loved the tale of the escaped turkey from On a Winter's Eve and the wry, wicked humour of Cinderella's Christmas. Marriage Made at Christmas was not quite so festive as the other two stories, but I did enjoy the very different story of the scarred bodyguard searching for his own happy ever after.

Definitely recommended!

(I received my copy of Once Upon a Regency Christmas directly from one of the authors)

Monday, 31 October 2016

Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors. I love her style of writing, so deceptively simple, and the growing sense of unease that pervades her stories.

I saw film versions of The Haunting of Hill House several years ago. I don't remember much of the original 1963 film (released as The Haunting), apart from the scary spiral staircase scene(!), although it is apparently fairly faithful to the book. I do remember the 1999 version starring Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta Douglas, which was entertaining (if cheesy), and didn't bear much resemblance to the book at all. As I read the story, I found myself wishing that someone like the BBC would remake it, keeping true to the source material, because it would make a deliciously creepy drama.

Dr John Montague has been looking for a haunted house to study. When he hears about the notorious Hill House, he decides to stay there and see what happens. Rather than go alone, he invites several others to go with him, without actually telling them the house is haunted. In the end only two others turn up: Eleanor, who experienced poltergeist activity as a child (when stones fell onto her house for three days), and Theodora (Theo), who has ESP. A third guest, Luke, is foisted onto Dr Montague by the owner of Hill House - Luke's aunt. Luke is a liar and a thief, and his aunt is hoping that by sending him to Hill House to keep an eye on her property she will keep him out of trouble.

Luke was my favourite character. Despite the lying and the thieving, he does have some principles and finds humour in most situations. He also gets the best one-liners! Eleanor is the heroine. In her early thirties, she has had a very lonely life caring for her mother and feels guilty that she couldn't be there when her mother died. She is thrilled to be invited to Hill House, delighted to make friends with Theo, and sees Luke as a possible romance waiting to happen. She loves the feeling that she finally 'belongs'. Of course that's exactly when everything starts to go horribly wrong.

The Haunting of Hill House is more psychological suspense than ghost story, so horror fans might find it a little slow. There are some very spooky moments; my favourite is when Eleanor comes across a family having picnic in the grounds of the house, only for it to disappear as she runs though it, but the first scare does not occur until at least halfway through the book.

So, recommended if you like deliciously creepy psychological suspense with the occasional shock. But maybe not if you want your ghost stories to terrify you from the very first page. Although the shocking twist at the end took me completely by surprise.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Review: Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

I did read all of Agatha Christie's novels when I was a teenager, including this one, and I watched the ITV dramatisation a few years back, but I still couldn't remember who the villain was, so I decided to read this one again as part of my Halloween Reads.

This is a Poirot story, one of the later ones - written and set in the late 1960s - a fact I hadn't appreciated until I reached the line: 'The younger one was wearing a rose-coloured velvet coat, mauve trousers and a kind of frilled shirting.' Helping Poirot solve the mystery is his friend Ariadne Oliver, a crime writer - and one of my favourite Christie characters - I wish she'd had a series of her own!

The story starts with Ariadne going to stay with a new friend, Judith Butler, whom she met on a Greek cruise. Judith is a widow with a young daughter, Miranda. Also living in the village is the incredibly bossy Rowena Drake, who is organising a Halloween party for all the children. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as it turns out) Miranda is unable to attend because she is ill, but Ariadne still goes along to help. The descriptions of the various games brought back a few memories of the Halloween parties I went to as a child! I'd never liked apple bobbling - with good reason, as it turns out, because during this party thirteen-year-old Joyce is murdered by having her head shoved into the apple bobbing bucket. Why Joyce? Well, earlier she had been trying to impress Ariadne by telling her how she had once witnessed a murder, although 'I didn't know it was a murder when I saw it.' Of course, no one believes Joyce, because she is known for being a liar...

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Ariadne and Poirot. Once the murder has taken place, each chapter concentrates on a different suspect, very much like the game of Cluedo. You have to concentrate hard to remember what each person has said and pick out the clues from the red herrings - a style of crime fiction I've never much cared for, because it can feel a bit repetitive.

I worked out the villain without too much effort, although there were a few clever twists I didn't see coming! And I did enjoy the story - I'd forgotten how funny Christie could be - but I don't think I'll be rushing to re-read any more.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Review: Melody Bittersweet and The Girls' Ghostbusting Agency by Kitty French

I absolutely loved this book! It took a while for me to get into it, as I'd just read several 'traditional' Victorian ghost stories back-to-back, and this is a very bouncy, fast-paced romantic comedy, so it was a bit of a shock to the system - but in a good way!

At the grand old age of 27, Melody 'I see dead people' Bittersweet decides to stop fighting the unique talent which is persistently getting her fired/losing her potential boyfriends, and sets up The Girls' Ghostbusting Agency. Along for the ride are best friend Marina, the terrifyingly efficient Glenda, and young Artie, who is soon completely out of his depth: 'I've never been locked in a cellar before. This is the best job I've ever had.' 

Unfortunately Melody is not the only psychic in the village. The deliciously gothic Leo Dark, complete with swirling cloak and a legion of fans known as 'Darklings', is the ex who trampled over her heart in his rush to get his own TV show. Now Melody and Leo are in direct competition trying to help the three Scarborough brothers move on to the other side. All they have to do is solve the mystery of who murdered cricket-loving Douglas way back in 1910, allowing the spooky old family mansion to be sold for development. Simple. Or maybe not.

Why did I enjoy this story so much? Well, it was a lot of fun and I loved the characters and the way they interacted with each other, particularly poor put-upon Artie. There is also a bit of a love interest with two 'heroes' for Melody to choose from, the aforementioned Leo, who might not be quite as ruthless as he appears, and Melody's Nemesis, journalist Fletcher Gunn, who is out to prove both Melody and Leo are a couple of con-artists. 

If you're the kind of person who loves Scooby Doo and Ghostbusters you will love this, and you'll also enjoy spotting all the references to classic British and American TV shows. If you want your romantic comedy to have a little bit more edge, you will adore the mystery and the spooky bits, but if you're expecting to die of fright, it's not going to happen. You might die of laughing though.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Review: The Travelling Bag and Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill

I've loved Susan Hill's ghost stories ever since I read The Woman in Black as a teenager. This little book contains four novella-length stories of about fifty pages each. The hardback version has a beautiful retro cover and would look lovely on any bookshelf. The stories themselves are set in different time periods, although these are not exactly specified. 

The Travelling Bag

One of those story-within-a-story tales. A paranormal detective sits in his club and recounts his most 'intriguing' case to a friend. This turns out to be the story of scientist Walter Craig, his rivalry with the more successful Sir Silas Webb, and of a mysterious travelling bag. 'It was at this exact point that there crept over me a sense of claustrophobia, and an increasing fear ... as I watched the man open the travelling bag.'

Boy Twenty-One

A sad little tale of a lonely schoolboy who finally makes a friend. Very poignant - although there is humour during the part where he and his schoolmates take a school trip to an ancient manor house - and appear to leave with one extra ...  'In the end, there was nothing for it but for everyone to say that Mrs Mills had had a long tiring day, perhaps wasn't feeling herself, and the bus left with the teacher seated at the front, with a queer, dazed expression.'

Alice Baker

A creepy story about a crumbling office block and the women who work there - including the very odd titular character. 'I could sense Alice Baker's presence but I could not see her. I smelled her though, a smell of mould and rottenness and decay, as if I had stumbled into an ancient cellar.'

The Front Room

One of those 'no good deed goes unpunished' tales, of a young family who kindly offer their spare room to an elderly relative - who then proceeds to make their life hell. 'The shadow stirred again, like a tree in the wind, but did not go. The silence was like the silence of deep snow.'

Out of the four stories my favourite was Alice Baker with Boy Twenty-One as a very close second. 

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves traditional, creepy ghost stories, but not to those who love their ghost stories to have non-stop shocks and gore. 

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Review: The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore

The Greatcoat is half ghost story, half poignant love story, but if you are expecting to be half scared to death you are going to be disappointed. There are no jump shocks here.

It is 1952 and middle-class women were supposed to give up work when they married. Isabel spends her entire day cooking meals for her GP husband and trying not be be fobbed off with fatty cuts of meat from the butcher - a completely alien lifestyle to me living in the 21st century - I actually snorted out loud when her husband suggested they got a cleaner in to help her out!

The two-roomed flat they are renting (from a very Mrs Danvers-ish landlady) is freezing. In an effort to keep warm, Isabel uses the old RAF greatcoat she has found in a cupboard as a blanket. It doesn't take long for the original owner (Alec) to make an appearance, tapping on the window like a vampire from a horror movie, and it's not just his greatcoat he's after!

There is a lot of historical detail about life in the early 1950s, and that of an RAF pilot during the war, but the most chilling scenes are when time seems to slip. Occasionally Alec realises life has moved on without him before his mind resets, and Isabel glimpses Alec's long-lost world superimposed on her own. It reminded me of Tom's Midnight Garden and The Time Traveller's Wife.

There are a few twists I didn't see coming, mainly because I wasn't expecting them. I'd been lulled into believing this was a nice little paranormal romance, but the final scenes are genuinely chilling, along with the revelations about Alec's death and the reason for his return. 

This is a lovely ghost story, which I thoroughly recommend, although it is more poignant than frightening.

About the Author

Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire in 1952. She won the first Orange Prize for Fiction (now the Baileys Prize) for her novel A Spell of Winter. She wrote about the Siege of Leningrad in her 2001 novel The Siege, which was described by the historian Antony Beevor as 'a world-class novel'. It been translated into more than twenty languages. Her 2014 novel The Lie focuses on the trauma of the First World War and its aftermath through a group of three characters who come of age during that war. The Lie was a Sunday Times bestseller. She is also a poet, short story and children's writer. Her 'Ingo' series of novels for children has been published around the world.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I originally downloaded this book because the title caught my eye (I love castles!) along with the cover - and the fact that it was written by Shirley Jackson. I love her style of writing - she is one of the few authors I'm prepared to forgive for not always settling for a traditional happy/satisfying ending. 

The story is told by Mary Katherine Blackwood (also known as Merricat, sometimes affectionately, but often as an insult by the people who live in the village). The Blackwoods are a wealthy family who have lived for generations in a large house surrounded by a large estate. "As soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world."

Six years ago Merricat's father, mother, aunt and brother all died when arsenic was put into a sugar bowl. Merricat's elder sister Constance was arrested for the murders, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. Their Uncle Julian was the only other survivor. Everyone in the village hates the Blackwoods, although it is unclear whether this is due to their wealth, because they are 'different' or because one of them is believed to be a murderer. Merricat refuses to be intimidated and visits the village every Tuesday to buy groceries. Constance is agoraphobic and does not like to leave the house; Uncle Julian's mind is going and he is confined to a wheelchair.

At the start the story reads like a mystery. Why do the villagers hate the family so much? What did happen six years ago? Who was the murderer? The answers are dripped in very, very slowly. The writing style is deceptively simple and yet the tension curls tighter and tighter. It is closer to psychological suspense than horror. Is Merricat an 'unreliable' narrator? Every word she speaks is the truth - but it's the truth as she sees it. She casts spells, buries objects or nails them to the trees in the wood. Is she a witch or just completely bonkers? 

When their estranged cousin turns up, hoping to divide and conquer, and make off with the family fortune, you just know it won't end well. But don't under-estimate the Blackwoods. They have always lived in the castle - and they always will.

Recommended if you love claustrophobic psychological suspense in the style of The Turn of the Screw. Avoid if you're a fan of fast-paced jump shocks and gore.

About the Author

Shirley Jackson was born in California in 1916. When her short story The Lottery was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, readers were so horrified they sent her hate mail; it has since become one of the most iconic American stories of all time. Her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, was published in the same year and was followed by five more: Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, The Sundial,The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, widely seen as her masterpiece. In addition to her dark, brilliant novels, she wrote lightly fictionalised magazine pieces about family life with her four children and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965 at the age of 48.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Halloween Reads 2016

I am one of those boringly predictable people who love to read holiday books in the summer, Christmas books in the winter and spooky books leading up to Halloween. There was one time when I made a habit of re-reading Bram Stoker's Dracula in the last few days of October, but I'm hoping I'm past that now. When you get to the point where you can quote large chunks of text from a book, its probably time to move on!

But I've had a rummage through my Kindle and found lots of long-forgotten gems - old favourites as well as books I'd downloaded and then forgotten about - and I'm planning on working my way through they over the coming weeks. They will not necessarily be straight-forward tales of horror; some might only have the slightest hint that not all is as it appears, some won't be frightening at all! But gather around the fireside my friends, for something wicked this way comes ...

Related Posts:

10 Books Which Chilled Me (on my personal blog)

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

The Red Queen is #2 in Philippa Gregory's Cousins War series about the Wars of the Roses. The heroine is Lady Margaret Beaufort, who I had vaguely heard of but didn't know much about, other than she was a tough old biddy who gave birth to the future Henry VII at the age of thirteen.

I am a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. Ironically, my favourite books are about the real-life historical characters I'd never much cared about prior to reading their stories, such as Katherine of Aragon in The Constant Princess and Mary I in The Queen's Fool. I suppose that is part of Philippa Gregory's skill - making the reader feeling empathy for a person who was probably unlikeable in real life.

The story is told in the first person from Margaret's point of view, apart from a couple of battle scenes. We first meet her as a very pious, precocious child. Even at the age of nine she knows she wants to devote her life to God, after becoming obsessed with Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, her sole duty is "to bear a son and heir ... a boy for the House of Lancaster" and she is soon packed off to Wales to marry Edmund Tudor.

The plot deals mainly with Margaret's conviction that it is God's will her son should become King of England and her obsession with ensuring it happens. Unlike some of the other more unfortunate characters, Margaret's life is never really in danger, despite all her double-dealing and plotting. But the story is a fascinating read none-the-less, and there is the occasional humour in the way the characters, particularly Margaret's husband, tolerate her obsession. This is funny while Margaret is a child but around the halfway mark, as she grows older, you realise how much her obsession is hurting those around her. Towards the end of the story it is clear she has become absolutely ruthless, although there is a point when you feel the penny has finally dropped: "At last I recognise that the sin of ambition and greed darkened our enterprise." But then it is revealed that rather than admit to any failings of her own character for her troubles, Margaret is actually blaming her hated rival, Elizabeth Woodville!

I loved this book and look forward to reading the others in the series.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Cat Morland is the daughter of a vicar, and slightly naive due to being home-schooled, who longs for the kind of excitement and adventure she reads about in her favourite books (the very Gothic Hebridean Harpies series). When her wealthy neighbours offer to take her to the Edinburgh Festival for a month, she is thrilled.

I've not read the original Jane Austen version of this story, so I'm unsure how closely this re-imagining follows the original. Much of the first half of the book is taken up by Cat going to various Festival events and meeting the rather awful Thorpe family. Bella, who swiftly becomes her new best friend, mainly for their shared love of the Hebridean Harpies, and the bombastic Johnny, who decides Cat is going to be his new girlfriend, regardless of what she thinks. In extreme contrast, are the gentle, kind-hearted Tilney's - Henry, who teaches Cat to dance, his mysterious sister, Eleanor, and their 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' elder brother Freddy, on leave from the army, who delights in causing trouble.

The second half the story is where Cat is invited by Eleanor to stay at the family house - or rather, baronial castle. Expecting a deliciously gothic mansion, like the settings for one of her favourite books, Cat is rather disappointed to find the interior has been completely modernised. Still, there are lots of mysterious goings on to compensate ...

I loved the leisurely pace of this novel, so different from Val's crime novels. I particularly enjoyed all the descriptions of Edinburgh and the famous Festival, which really made it come alive for me. I also have a weakness for the same kind of gothic novels as Cat, so I appreciated the humour, and the developing romance between Cat and Henry was sweet.

Recommended if you'd like to read a clever, funny and inventive re-working of the classic Jane Austen novel, but if you're expecting something more like Val's crime novels, you might be disappointed.

About the Author

Val McDermid comes from Kirkcaldy, Fife, and read English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford (where she is now an Honorary Fellow). She was the first ever student from a state school in Scotland. Following graduation she became a journalist, and worked briefly as a dramatist.

Her first success as a novelist came with Report for Murder the first Lindsay Gordon Mystery, first published in 1987.

Among her many awards are the Portico Prize for Fiction, the LA Times Book Prize, the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award and the Cartier Diamond Dagger. She has published 27 novels, short stories, non-fiction and a prize-winning children’s book. She is a regular broadcaster for BBC radio and lives in Edinburgh.

Author Website

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Review: A Passion for Him & Don't Tempt Me by Sylvia Day

I picked this up from the library today - only to realise when I got home that I'd already read it. So I took it back! But it's been several years since I'd read it, so I read it again.

As well as her hugely successful Crossfire series (contemporary romance), Sylvia Day also wrote a series of Georgian historical romances:

#1 Ask For It
#2 A Passion for the Game
#3 A Passion for Him
#4 Don't Tempt Me

They are set in the 1770s and the characters (both male and female) work for various governments as spies. As with any series, you get the most out of them if you read the books in order! However, you could probably get away with starting with book #2.

A Passion for Him
(#3 Georgian Series)
by Sylvia Day

Amelia is the younger sister of Maria, the heroine of book #2. Although betrothed to the handsome Earl of Ware, Amelia is still in love with her childhood sweetheart, Colin, who died saving her life. Amelia and Colin's backstory is told in flashbacks throughout the book, which is handy if you haven't read #2 (or, like me, have a memory like a sieve).

Despite being betrothed to the kind-hearted Earl, Amelia falls head over heels in lust with a handsome stranger at a masked ball. Completely obsessed, she is soon arranging assignations all over London, determined to discover the stranger's secrets. And he has quite a few - one of which I'm sure you've already guessed! There's lots of sex and sometimes the language is a bit crude, but Sylvia Day certainly knows how to write a page turner and I enjoyed the story very much.

Don't Tempt Me
(#4 Georgian Series)
by Sylvia Day

So after reading #3, I then had to read #4 again. This one is about Irish mercenary Simon Quinn, who was Maria's lover in #2, and Colin's boss in #3. Still with me? 

Simon is all set to retire with the fortune he's made working for the British government, only to be tricked into doing one last job - seduce the cold-hearted French assassin Lysette Rousseau. Except Lysette seems to have completely changed since their last assignment - almost as though she is another woman entirely ...

This is my favourite story out of the four, even though it somehow manages to juggle the relationships of three different sets of characters. It starts in Paris in 1757, some twenty-three year earlier, and details the passionate affair between Marguerite Piccard and the Marquis de Saint-de-Martin, before it all goes horribly wrong, mainly due to the interference of the villain, known as 'L'Espirit'. L'Espirit turns up again in the present, to make Simon and Lysette's life hell, and if you haven't read the earlier books you might become extremely confused by this point, as there are an awful lot of characters and some of them have very similar-sounding names. I did enjoy the spy-thriller style plot, although I did work out the identity of the mysterious L'Espirit. And I'd have preferred more about the relationship between Simon and the woman he falls in love with.

About the Author

Sylvia Day is the #1 Sunday Times and #1 international bestselling author of over 20 award-winning novels sold in more than 40 countries. She is a #1 bestselling author in 28 countries, with tens of millions of copies of her books in print. Her Crossfire series has been optioned for television by Lionsgate.