*sidles in guiltily*

Oh dear. It has been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve just had a peek at my last post and it was before Christmas – five weeks ago, in fact. Yes, I was at work for that brief burst of business around Christmas and the New Year (I had time to put in the sale, do a large stock return and put the Valentine’s Day display in – it’ll be there until March, I guess) but I have been furloughed since January 5th. I’ve been reading. Lots. And doing art, and cleaning, and Microsoft Jigsaw (oh boy, that little addiction is still going strong…). I’ve even made a detailed plan of all the jobs I can see I need to be doing around the house. I even added ‘write blog posts’ to the plan. But, as you can see, what I haven’t managed to do is write a blog post all year! Luckily, the year is not yet a month old – let’s hope I can get back on track (while getting my finger out, my nose to the grindstone and my ear to the ground. Let’s hope the lockdown gets lifted before that little lot totally ruins my spine…..) Here are some things I read since last year!

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales From The Café – Toshikazu Kawaguchi

9781529050868Follow up to Before The Coffee Gets Cold, these four linked stories tell of more people who need to use the Café Funiculi Funicula’s magical seat which allows those sitting there the chance to travel back in time (although not in space). Their stories involve them meeting wives, friends, family and lovers and giving themselves a sense of closure. We also learn more about the lives of those who run the café. This is a lovely gentle read – although, for maximum enjoyment, I’d suggest you should read the original book first.

 

D: A Tale of Two Worlds – Michel Faber

9780857525109This is a quirky tale telling of a world where the letter D begins to disappear. Dhikilo is a young girl, originally from Somaliland, who is the first to notice – she has been used to her name being shortened to Dicky, or even Dick, but when your best friends start calling you Icky well, you know something is wrong. She sets out to solve this mystery with the aid of her history teacher (despite having been to his funeral) and his dog, a Labrador (or Sphinx) called Mrs Robinson. Her adventures reminded me (and many other readers apparently) of those of Alice, Milo or the Pevensie children but I think the self-knowledge she gains makes the book most similar to The Phantom Tollbooth. 

This is a book for children* – a fact which I wasn’t aware of until after I read it – but it actually sits very comfortably with folk and fairy tales which, with their dangers and moral messages, are just as suitable for adults. And this could serve as a sort of gateway book to Faber’s other, absolutely definitely, adult books. 

*Despite having a lot of Dickens references – many of which would be beyond the reading of the average pre-teen, I think. I read it despite this – I really don’t like Dickens….

Home Stretch – Graham Norton

I read and enjoyed Norton’s previous book, A Keeper, a thriller set in a small Irish town so I expected more of the same from this one. And, in many ways, it is similar – partly set in a small, fictional town in County Cork and with a cast of characters who need mysteries solved in order to be able to move forward with their lives. Where it is different is that much of the action takes place away from Ireland and also that the main character, Connor,  is gay. In fact, I was surprised by the lack of gay characters in A Keeper, and Norton writes all his characters (gay or straight) well so this is a good thing on the whole. 

9781473665170Connor is one of only people who managed to walk away, relatively uninjured, from a car crash the day before his sister’s wedding. A day at the beach ends up killing the bride and leaves one girl unable to walk. Connor was driving the car and, in the way of small towns in most countries, the locals find it very hard to forgive him. Like so many young Irishmen before him (and since) he makes his way to the UK, firstly to Liverpool and then London, and then he moves on to New York. At least there he is free to admit to his sexuality and finds love, for a while. However, when his nephew Finbarr meets him in the States, Connor decides to go home and try to make his peace with his family and the community they live in.

Norton’s own voice shines through the writing (I love an author who can write with the lilt of Irish brogue) and this is a good read. I’m a fan of him as a comedian and presenter – I can now add ‘as an author’ to that list.

Death Awaits in Durham – Helen Cox 

9781529410365The latest book in a series I’ve very much enjoyed, this one sees Grace, heroine Kitt Hartley’s ex-assistant in the library, moving to Durham to further her education at a prestigious private college. Grace discovers that the murder of a student, the previous year, is still unsolved so decides that she should look into it. When Kitt comes to visit her they set out to investigate – interviewing the victim’s fiancé, the host of the radio show she was speaking to live on air when she was attacked and staff at the college. It soon becomes obvious that there is a mystery to solve and also that, once again, Kitt and Grace are in danger. With lots of Cox’s trademark humour and a satisfyingly obscure plot this is an entertaining read. My only issue was that there seemed to be one or two tiny, weenie liberties taken with the city of Durham itself – and that is only something I noticed because I lived and worked there for over a decade. I think I’m being a bit too fussy…

Phew. That was quite a catch-up. However, there are lots more reviews to do to bring you up to date. They will need to wait a day or so – hopefully you won’t have wait as long this time…

Jane

 

 

 

 

Leave the World Behind – Rumaan Alam

What’s the best kind of book to read during a global pandemic? Something with an apocalyptic event in it, I hear you say? Well, of course it is (for me, anyway….). Especially when the book is this good…

Amanda and Clay are one of those high-achieving, endlessly busy couples who never seem to stop so they are looking forward to some time away in the Hamptons (where else?) with their teenaged children. Getting away from it all is the order of the day – good food, a few drinks, some mutually satisfying parental sex and as much Netflix as humanly possible. But, soon after their arrival, disaster strikes (in a very First World kind of way) when all communications go down. No tv, no phone signal and, the horror, no internet! At first this seems to be just an annoyance (or the End of All Things and Very Unfair if you are a teenager) but soon the situation develops. An older couple arrive, suddenly, claiming to be the owners of the house (who Amanda and Clay have never actually met – they, like us, do everything online…) and bringing news of blackouts and power outages in the city too. At first there is a great deal of mistrust – are the Washingtons, GH and Ruth, really the rightful owners? or are they a threat? Despite Amanda and Clay’s liberalism their biggest concern is that the older couple are black – they have difficulty understanding that race is no barrier to intelligence, class and wealth – but they do share the space. Whatever their race, the Washingtons are older and frailer than them. The four adults begin to plan – although they don’t really know what for. Is this a war, a natural disaster, an apocalypse? Whichever it is, they need to think about food, shelter, water, safety….

This is much more literary than the apocalyptic novels I usually read – more Atwood than King – and much, much more middle class. This isn’t a bad thing – the end of civilisation will happen to everyone, regardless of class – but it means this is very hard to categorise. There is an overwhelming sense of dread which spreads throughout the story but it isn’t a horror novel: the two couples mistrust each other and try to second guess motivation and actions but it certainly isn’t a psychological thriller. The world, as we know it, is obviously changing beyond recognition but it isn’t quite a post-apocalyptic dystopia – for a start the apocalypse is still underway and everyone is far too well-bred and organised to be dystopian… Whatever, this is a brilliant read – with, at the end, a sense of optimism. Things may never be the same again but hope is the very last thing to die.

Jane

Books about me (sort of)

It shouldn’t matter, if a book is telling a great story, whether the main character (or any of the main ones) are exactly like us. I have loved books where the key figures are a different gender, nationality or race from me – heck, some of them have been rabbits or hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings – and all I needed was a point of contact. It is also very important that everybody is able to see themselves in all kinds of narratives – books, tv, films, art – and I am not suggesting for a moment that this isn’t the case. I’m lucky – as a middle-aged, white woman I show up all over the place – and I will always read and champion books with diverse characters but, if I’m 100% honest, I will also always be distracted by books with booksellers in them. I’ve read a lot of fiction about books, booksellers and librarians – but here are a couple of biographies which have real resonance with my work life…

The Bookseller’s Tale – Martin Latham

I started bookselling *counts on fingers* (*runs out of fingers, adds toes – still not enough…*) 33 years ago. No wonder I’m tired. But Martin Latham, a legendary figure to old Waterstones hands, has been around even longer (and, unlike me had other jobs before he turned his hand to shelving, table-pyramidding and recommending for a living). This book is partly his reminiscences about his long career in retail and partly (a larger part) a history of bookselling itself and of our relationship with books and reading. We explore books through the ages – from the earliest days of handwritten and illustrated volumes, through the rise of ‘chapbooks’ (short, popular books which were often illustrated and started nearly 400 years before Penguin paperbacks) – as well as the ways that they were sold (book pedlars, stalls of the kind that still flourish along the Seine in Paris and, of course, bookshops themselves). There are some stories of interactions with authors and bookshop customers but many, many more about the real stars of the show – the books themselves.

Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops – Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell, on the other hand, has written this book all (well, nearly all) about the customers. You can tell that he has made a thorough, if not entirely serious, study of them since he gives us a cod-scientific study of the various species (and sub-species) of customers who come through the doors of his second-hand bookshop in Wigtown. The descriptions are humorous – you can definitely recognise the ‘types’ described whether you’ve met them in bookshops, record stores, garden centres or any of those retail outlets which, in the ‘before times’, welcomed browsers – and often quite affectionate. Not so much for the ‘non-customers’, the ones who just appear, hang around for a bit and leave without even thinking about buying anything – he doesn’t have much time for them – but there are certain classes of book buyer who, you feel, he has a lot of time even if he doesn’t share their taste in books. As a bonus there is even a section about booksellers themselves – spoiler alert, we’re not all perfect either…

Of course, although I recognised all the customer types described I’d have to say we mostly get the good sorts. For a start, it is almost impossible to park a camper van of any size outside our shop, and winter in Bradford is far too cold for lycra. And, during the current lockdown, I miss all the customers, whatever category they fall into….

Jane

If You Liked This, You Might Want to Try…

Obviously, a large part of my job is recommending books to people and it isn’t always as easy as you’d think. I like to get an idea of what kind of thing the customer likes and, sometimes of course, they are buying for someone else. At this time of year we get a lot of people who don’t come into a bookshop except to buy gifts for the readers of their family – and that’s fine. Not everyone is a big reader but I do enjoy helping readers and non-readers alike find the right volume for them/their Uncle Sid so it can be worthwhile working out what books share similarities. This can be easy – Uncle Sid loves the work of Lee Child so the latest Jack Reacher gets bought every year – or a bit harder. But we call it, in the bookselling biz, IYLYL (If You Liked … You’ll Love). I’m not going to guarantee the ‘love’ bit but here are some ideas for books which may suit certain types of reader (or box-set binger/movie fan).

For the Fan of All Things Medical…

Medical memoirs are still huge – Adam Kay, Christine Watson et al are still doing well and I, for one, am delighted that Holby City is coming back next week. So, if you are searching for a book which looks at the work being done by those stalwarts of the NHS then might I suggest either Breaking & Mending by Joanna Cannon or The Doctor Will See You Now by Amir Khan.

Joanna Cannon has written a couple of wonderful novels featuring the very young and the elderly but many of her characters explore issues of mental health. I loved both the novels for their blend of humour and humanity so I was eager to read her memoir, Breaking & Mending, even though I knew it would be a tougher read. This is the reality of life as an NHS doctor – where stress, long hours and sheer panic seem to be ever-present – and an almost painfully honest account of how Cannon coped. Or, often, didn’t. It made me so glad that there are people willing to put themselves through the rigours of work in psychiatric medicine (and even more glad that I am not one of them).

Dr Amir Khan’s book is, in many ways, a lighter option. Khan is, among other things, a tv doctor appearing in a Channel 5 series and as an expert on various popular magazine shows. But this memoir focuses on his work as a GP in a busy Bradford medical practice – the highs and the lows, the patients, the colleagues and the work of helping people to become healthier, happier or a more accepting person. There are plenty of lighter moments – I’m not sure how Khan will ever face the garden centre staff again – but also some which are quite heartrending. His patients don’t always survive the health problems which beset them and he too has friends who feel they can’t continue in medicine. The timing of the writing means that Khan also is able to write about how he and the medical practice he works in cope with the huge changes brought about by COVID. This is another book full of smiles as well as tears and for me it was close to home in many ways – being set in my home city and in the extraordinary times we are all living through.

Either of these books would be great for anyone interested in modern medicine – and both authors are utterly brilliant on Twitter! @JoannaCannon @DrAmirKhanGP

For the (many, many) fans of Richard Osman

Richard Osman is very new to world of fiction but he has very quickly made a huge impression. His first novel broke all kinds of records and is the fastest selling debut crime novel since the good folk at The Bookseller began measuring such things and we are all delighted that he has signed up to do two more books in the series but – and it’s a big but – we won’t be seeing them for at least a year so we need something to fill the gap. After some consideration, I’d like to suggest a new novel by Elly Griffiths for the job.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

This is a slickly pacey novel set, largely, in a sleepy seaside town. It shouldn’t be suspicious when a woman in her nineties is found dead – she was sitting quietly, in an undisturbed flat, by a window – but her friends think they know better. Peggy Smith was not your usual sort of old lady, with her flat full of crime novels many of which name her in the acknowledgments, and a business card naming her as a ‘Murder Consultant’. A mixed bag of people – a Ukrainian carer, an ex-monk barista and a fellow resident of Seaview Court called Edwin – set about investigating her life and death, roping in DS Harbinder Kaur along the way. There are a few more bodies, a lot of authors, the odd road trip and an awful lot of twists and turns.

Like Osman’s book this is a crime which tends slightly towards the ‘cosy’ but not because there is no death, blood or danger. The cosiness in these books comes from the essential normalness of the characters: the joy comes from the fact that, like most normal people, they are all wonderfully individual and a little bit daft. There’s plenty of humour among the corpses and a hefty dose of development among all the personalities involved. I hope we catch up with Edwin, Natalka and Benedict in DS Kaur’s future cases but, even if we don’t, they are probably real enough to have adventures without being in a book…

Left-field Fantasy

I’ve met a few people (but only a few) who tell me they don’t enjoy fantasy but after a bit of questioning it turns out that they don’t like the elves, dwarves and magical swords. Now, I think all these things have their place but if you like your fantastical literature set in a world with a little more familiarity – in the style of Good Omens or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – then you may want to try one of these…

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

Talking of Jonathan Strange this is Clarke’s long-awaited (15 years? I call that very long-awaited…..) follow up. This, obviously known as the ‘difficult second novel’ can sometime disappoint but, oh boy, this does not. Otherworldly and magical it also has glimpses of reality (although you do only see them from the corner of your reading eye) which coalesce towards the closing chapters. The world, dominated by clouds, water and almost endless surreal architecture reminded me strongly of the feelings I had the first time I read the Gormenghast novels by Mervyn Peake (and this is high praise from me – I loved those books). Like Jonathan Strange it would be impossible to describe what actually happens succinctly but if you want the sense of being transported to another world where life is strange, frightening but beautiful then the world of Piranesi is a place you want to go.

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London – Garth Nix

Somehow, I have never read any Garth Nix, despite many of my friends and colleagues raving about his Abhorsen and Keys to the Kingdom series. I’m a contrary sort, I guess. This book drew me by the word ‘Bookseller’ in the title – as ever, I’m a sucker for a book which features book people…

This book is set in an almost realistic England in the early 1980s as a young girl, Susan, searches for her absent father. This leads to her becoming mixed up with the mysterious Booksellers of London – a shadowy organisation whose function is to protect the world we know as reality from a parallel, older, world which is fighting to break through to our own. Susan joins forces with a pair of Bookseller siblings – Merlin, one of the more physical left-handed variety, and his sister Vivien, one of the more analytical right-handed kind – to solve the mystery of her heritage and the death of the sibling’s mother. With a supporting cast of goblins, policemen, guest-house landladies and taxi drivers this is a breakneck journey through a world of magic and danger. It is also hugely funny, clever and well-thought out – a vastly satisfying read.

The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton’s brand of fantasy is fascinating. His first was like a time-travelling Golden Age crime novel – and also a cross between Quantum Leap and The Prisoner – so it was hard to know what his second novel would entail. It turns out it was a sort of locked-room (or rather, locked ship) mystery with a supernatural predator set on a 17th century Dutch East Indiaman sailing from the colony of Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) back to Amsterdam. It is a slight cheat to call this fantasy when it is more of a supernatural thriller crossed with a historical detective novel but, to be honest, I suspect Turton’s work is going to start creating categories and genres all of their own…. There is a spirit known as Old Tom whose malignant powers have spread from the Netherlands to the colonies, a self-combusting prophetic leper, the world’s greatest detective, a beautiful woman and her brutal, powerful husband, a precious machine, a child with extraordinary intelligence, and a supporting cast of piratical sailors. Mostly a historical novel, partly a supernatural suspense story – totally gripping.

Jane

The Constant Rabbit – Jasper Fforde

Cards on the table – I’m a big fan of Jasper Fforde and, I suspect, we voted the same way in the 2016 referendum. I’ve worked my way through his Thursday Next novels, the Nursery Crimes series and the stand-alone novel Early Riser. I have some of his children’s books (the Last Dragonslayer) on the to-read pile and, like almost all of his fans I am eagerly awaiting the follow-up to the intriguing Shades of Grey. And new books in both the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series, of course. Goodreads have listings for all these good things but no dates (and only a few titles) so I’m going to have to be patient for a while. In the meantime, I have this offering to keep me occupied – another of Fforde’s novels based on the kind of increasingly odd ‘what ifs’ that spring into his mind…

9781444763621Imagine a world where a mysterious event (the Inexplicable Anthropomorphising Event) led to a small number of animals becoming human-sized, able to speak in human languages and live alongside us as equals. Of course, not all humans see this as a good thing – some people are so bothered by otherness – and a political movement has arisen to supress the right of rabbit-kind. Peter Knox works as a ‘rabbit spotter’ for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce since he is one of the few humans who can tell individual rabbits apart (they have the same problem with humans) but his rather dull life starts to change (at some speed) when a rabbit from his own past moves in next door.

This is, on the surface, an amusing story about talking bunnies but satire is lurking nanometres below the surface. How do we react to those who we think are different to us? How violently do some people hate those they feel threaten the way of life they cherish? How far can you oppress a group before they fight back and what form should that fight take? The parallels with the modern political situation are pretty obvious. But still funny, obviously, because I’m fairly sure Jasper Fforde doesn’t have any other way to be…

Jane

More young at heart reading…

Here are a few more children’s books I’ve read recently. Things are still pretty odd out there in real life so escaping into the many worlds of fiction and fantasy, especially one aimed at youngsters, seemed like a good idea. Given the quality of writing for children around at the moment I’d say there are no downsides at all to this…

Castle of Tangled Magic – Sophie Anderson (illustrated by Saara Soderlund)

Having read Sophie Anderson’s two previous books I was looking forward to another foray into a world of Slavic myth and folklore – and I got just what I was looking for.

Olia lives in a castle, with her parents, her beloved Babusya (grandmother) and her new-born baby sister. The family has lived in Castle Mila for generations, since the days when they would have been Lords of all they surveyed, but now they are just a fairly ordinary family living in a very (very) large home full of history – with grand halls, secret passageways and vast domes. But this life is threatened by magical forces and it seems that Olia is the only one who can fight back and save her home, her family and much, much more. This is a tale bursting with adventure, magic and lessons in learning how to work out what is really important. It never shies away from the truth that some things are more important than power, riches or even history.

The Beast and the Bethany – Jack Meggit-Phillips

Ebenezer Tweezer is 511, but looks centuries younger, and lives a life of luxury and riches. All this is thanks to a terrible monster who lives in the 15th floor attic of his palatial home – a beast who manages to vomit up all the wonderful gadgets he requires, endless cash to buy fabulous art and, most importantly, a potion which gives him both long life and youth. Of course, all this comes at a cost as the Beast demands bigger and more unusual items to eat as a payment. Which means that, before his 512th birthday, Ebenezer must provide the Beast with a child to eat or he will age rapidly and die.

Enter Bethany. A prickly, unpleasant orphan who the woman in charge of the orphanage (the distinctly nasty Miss Fizzlewick) is only too pleased to release into Ebenezer’s care. Always playing tricks, bullying the other orphans and causing general mayhem, Bethany is a very naughty child who, it seems, no-one would miss. But, when Ebenezer finds he has to spend some time with Bethany before she becomes the Beast’s next meal, he discovers that, perhaps, some things are more important than money, possessions or eternal youth…

A fun and often silly adventure story featuring two main characters who, despite having no real redeeming features at the beginning, we warm to as we find out more about what made them the people they are. There are also at least a couple of thoroughly evil villains whose comeuppance I spent most of the book anticipating with childlike glee.

The Night Bus Hero – Onjali Q Raúf

Raúf’s previous books have looked at serious issues (the plight of refugees and domestic abuse) but in ways that make them approachable and manageable for young readers. Sad, funny and heart-warming – these are great stories for children of all ages above about seven. And this newest tale is no different.

Hector is not a nice boy. He is lazy, greedy, rude and, worst of all, a bully. He and his two friends take pleasure in mocking, tripping and hurting the other children at school and especially enjoy threatening them with reprisals if they don’t hand over their cash, lunch or treats. They prey especially on the weaker and more nervous pupils but they particularly hate the ones they refer to as ‘teacher’s pets’. However, when Hector decides to play a mean prank on a homeless man in their local park things start to change for him. He ends up joining with Thomas, the homeless man, and Mei-Li, the biggest teacher’s pet of all, to find out who has been stealing iconic London landmark statues.

What I loved about this book was that the characters had real depth. Hector is unpleasant but he is never seen as a joke (unlike, say, the Golden Ticket winners in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and we do see a lot of the reasons why he act the way he does. His parents are often absent and the adults in his life have found it easier to write him off as a trouble-maker. He isn’t a totally lost cause either – he seems genuinely fond of his little brother, Hercules, and soon starts to see the error of his ways when he learns more about the troubles Thomas and Mei-Li have experienced. The real villains, the statue thieves, provide a more comedic angle and there are plenty of other lighter moments too.

Tilly and the Map of Stories (Pages & Co book 3) – Anna James

The final book in this round-up is another one in a series which I have been following with interest. It features adventure, a strong heroine and a bookshop – what’s not for me to love?

This is the third adventure for Tilly and her best friend, Oskar, as they continue in their fight against the Underwoods – sinister siblings who have taken control of the Underlibrary and the source books which allow people like Tilly to travel into books by ‘bookwandering’. In the previous books Tilly has been given items which she is sure form a map of some sort, leading to a legendary group known as the Archivists, who will be able to help her overthrow the Underwood’s regime. Her grandparents, ex-Underlibrarians themselves, are cautious after the dangers she has already faced but her mother helps her sneak away and sends Tilly and Oskar to the United States to follow the first clue – a code used in the Library of Congress.

The two children are thrown into a series of adventures and make a great team – each bringing different skills to the party. They fall deeper and deeper into books, fiction and stories – braving more peril and meeting some remarkable characters. They will need all their wits, bravery and imagination to avoid destruction on a huge scale…

As ever, I have hugely enjoyed working through this selection of books for our younger readers. While there are authors out there who are writing books of this quality (and, even better, series of books…) I think the future of literature is in good hands.

Jane

Crime in many forms….

A quick round-up of some recent crime novels I have read (with a sneaky extra one stuck on the end that I read while I was dithering over actually writing the blog post…)

Chaos – A D Swanston

Historical crime novel set in the Elizabethan era and the second in the adventures of Christopher Radcliffe, lawyer turned spymaster for Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and favourite of the Virgin Queen. There seems to be a plot against the Dudley family which is manifesting as a spate of forged coins and seditious slogans. The false coins are enough of a worry, undermining the efficient running of the economy, but they and the slogans are specifically suggesting that the Dudleys are part of the plot…We follow Radcliffe and his trusted network of contacts – from goldsmiths to prostitutes – as he tries to discover who is framing his employer. And, because no sleuth worth their salt is ever allowed to just solve the crime, he also needs to prevent his new housekeeper from being executed as a witch and to try and save his relationship with the rather prickly Kat. Between the rock of the Dudleys and the very hard place of a disgruntled lover Radcliffe is in danger of losing everything…

Good characters and solid historical knowledge made this a good read – perfect if you are looking for books in the vein of CJ Sansom or Rory Clements.

Murder on the Moorland – Helen Cox

Another series, but this time set in the contemporary North of England. Previous books have been set in York but this one moves out to the stunning Yorkshire countryside (always a bonus for me) where the peace of a Dales village is shattered, for a second time, by a murder with strange ritual overtones. Kitt Hartley would be fascinated enough but when she discovers that the first murder was that of her lover’s wife she knows that she must get to the bottom of the mystery. Kitt – the crime-solving librarian – is a great character, funny, strong and annoying clever, and her friends Evie, Grace and Ruby are interesting too. The plot was nicely twisty and the denouement wasn’t overly obvious – everything was just the right blend of cosy and gritty for my tastes and I’m absolutely thrilled to find that the next book in the series is set even further afield: in my old stamping ground of Durham!

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons – Christopher Fowler

Fowler’s Bryant & May books are always a joy. The two stalwarts of the Peculiar Crimes Unit can always be relied upon to solve whatever criminal weirdness shows up on the streets in London but, when the Speaker of the House of Commons throws himself out of a high window to his death neither Arthur Bryant nor John May are available to help. One is recovering from a serious injury and the other just, well, not around and the unit itself has been disbanded. Again. And, it seems, for good this time. But a series of further incidents and deaths – all seemingly linked by the verses of a well-known, London-based nursery rhyme – mean that the curmudgeonly pair are needed more than ever.

All the usual team are present and augmented by a Home Office ‘observer’ (because what does a unit brought back to solve one, last, case need more than an ‘observer’) and a prickly teenaged intern. The plot thickens faster than instant blancmange and my brain was soon throbbing (but not unpleasantly) with possibilities and random information. The gradual unwinding of a plot so convoluted it could only have come from a mind as strange (in a very good way) as Christopher Fowler’s is curiously satisfying. I love the Bryant & May mysteries but could I ever be brave enough to read two in a row without needing a lie down and a stiff drink?

Never Forget – Michel Bussi

Another author whose gratifyingly complex plots mean I will always be happy to read their work. This time with added gallic charm and menace. (As an aside, I met Michel Bussi once at a publisher event – I can confirm he is very charming, terribly French, but not menacing at all….)

In a small coastal town in Normandy a young man, Jamal, is training for a gruelling running race when he tries to help a distressed woman on a cliff-top path. He tries to help her away from the edge with a scarf he found moments before but she seems to grab the scarf and jump: when he rushes to the beach to see if he can still help she is dead but, somehow, in the seconds it took to fall the scarf was tied around her neck. Jamal, disabled, a stranger to the area and an immigrant, becomes the main suspect for the woman’s murder but he knows he didn’t do it. Or, at least, he is fairly sure he didn’t as events pick up pace and he goes on the run – yet even in hiding somebody is sending him clues to this murder and two others, with uncanny similarities. Can he solve the mystery or will he be framed for crimes he didn’t commit?

And, finally,

The Diabolical Bones – Bella Ellis

In this book the Brontes, and all of Howarth, are shocked to hear that the skeletal remains of a child have been discovered hidden away at Top Withens farm, hidden since the tragic death of Mary Bradshaw over a decade ago. Widower Clifton Bradshaw, still apparntly tortured by grief, is threatening to keep hold of the bones so the sisters and Branwell brave terrible winter weather to remove the remains and give them a decent burial. The bones appear to be those of a malnourished child in its early teens, a strange medal found suggests they were left there around the time of Mrs Bradshaw’s death and arcane symbols on the bricks used to wall them up suggest some connection to dark arts and ancient magics. The Brontes, using their wits, courage and determination and the local folk-lore handed down to them by the wonderful Tabby, set about solving the mystery even when it leads to terrible danger.

A fabulous series in which events seem to suggest the girl’s future novels (so many Wuthering Heights hints here I could hear Kate Bush warbling away the whole way through!) but also to shed light on the reality of life in the Victorian era. Poverty, anti-Irish sentiment, the terrible conditions for orphans combined with the kind of Gothic storytelling popular at that time makes this a clever and interesting read for anyone who enjoys historical crime, the Brontes or just a great story…

Jane

Vesper Flights – Helen Macdonald

Many people take comfort from nature – during lockdown the fact that many people could get out, on their government authorised daily excursion, and reconnect with the natural world. Whether through running up and down hills (the only option available to those of us living in undulating Queensbury), walking in local woods, gardening or just taking the chance to listen to birdsong if you were able to leave the house there was some solace available. Now that traffic noise, the school run and even the odd contrail are back we could just go back to our urban/suburban lives – or we could read some top-quality nature writing from a total mistress of the art. Macdonald first came to many people’s attention with H Is For Hawk – a multiple prize-winner which blends falconry and the author’s overwhelming grief at the sudden death of her beloved father – this new book should make sure that she stays at the front of the mind when quality non-fiction is needed.

Vesper Flights is a collection of essays which explore the natural world around us and our emotional and physical reaction to it. Each beautifully crafted essay looks at a natural phenomenon – the flights of birds, their nests, the mysterious world of mushrooms, even ostrich farming – and helps us to relate the lessons we can learn from it about our own lives. How diving in high altitude lakes could help us learn about life on other planets, how thinking about the way that birds flock, and seemly move as one, should make us think again about our attitude to migrants in our own, human, world, and how recalling the memory of a particularly moving natural phenomena can feel like travelling back in time to experience it over and over again. But it can also be read just for the beauty of the words themselves: the writing is wonderful – descriptive, sometimes poetic and occasionally almost angry – reading it made me promise myself to go back out into the nature all around me (even if just into my garden) to appreciate it all over again.

Jane

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Full disclosure: I’m a huge fan of both Pointless and Richard Osman’s House of Games so I was unreasonably happy to hear that Richard Osman himself had written a novel. I feel I was totally predisposed to love any book he wrote – would I end up disappointed? Spoiler alert: I was not disappointed!

Joyce is the newest member of the Thursday Murder Club – a group of friends living in the Cooper’s Chase Retirement Village who don’t find jigsaws and tea dances quite thrilling enough. No – they’d rather work through cold cases from former member Penny’s days in the police. Ex-nurse Joyce joins forces with retired psychiatrist Ibrahim, Ron a former rabble-rouser who likes to keep his rabble-rousing hand in and the mysterious Elizabeth whose past is shady but, obviously, dramatic – and they are all ready to leap into action when their detecting moves on from unsolved crimes of the past and onto the sudden death of Tony Curran, co-owner of Cooper’s Chase. As all and sundry underestimate the detecting power of a group of senior sleuths, they work their way to the bottom of Curran’s murder and more with a combination of intelligence, guile and sheer stubbornness. With a supporting cast of Polish builders, slightly iffy priests and actual police officers (whether they want to or not) the plot thickens into something you could stand a spoon in…

Richard Osman is showing precocious signs of National Treasurehood. In these troubled times (I refuse to use ‘unprecedented’…) this is a reassuringly British crime caper which has, quite rightly in my view, been compared to a classic Ealing Comedy. A wet Sunday afternoon and endless cups of tea kind of book – to misquote the late lamented Douglas Adams, this is a book which makes the tea-time of the soul a little less dark.

Jane

Children’s Round-Up

It must be very strange being a child right now – schools closed since March (yay!) but unable to see friends or family (boo!) and then straight into the long summer holiday (yippee!) but with lots of extra uncertainty about where you are able to take a break without having to risk another two weeks of mum and/or dad’s attempts at home-schooling (groan!). Nobody is enjoying the uncertainty (and adults start to pull faces if you even mention exams….) so, if I were back to being my ten-year-old self, I’d be spending as much of the summer as possible reading. Who am I kidding: middle-aged me is going for that option anyway and some of the books I have been enjoying were aimed at satisfying my inner child. Now the youngsters are heading back to school you could think about some of these titles as rewards for going back/doing homework/not being under your feet all day

My Other Life – Polly Ho-Yen

This book (and the next) are part of a series from Bloomsbury aimed at encouraging independently in Key Stage 2. Authors the children may know from books that have been read to them by parents or teachers but shorter (less than 100 pages): short novels but full of all the excitement, ideas and emotions that children enjoy.

9781472972576This story is told from the point of view of Mae who has a loving (if not terribly well-off) family, good friends and chronic asthma. She spends a lot of time, after particularly bad attacks, in hospital and it is there that she starts seeing a strange crack in reality which no-one else notices. Finally, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she goes through this rift to discover an alternate reality. In this life she lives in a big house, has material thing a young girl could wish for and, wonderfully, she doesn’t have asthma at all. As she discovers the joys of breathing freely, exercising without fear and having a great big bedroom, however, she realises that some things in this existence are not necessarily better – her parents work so hard they barely have time for her, her best friend avoids her and they never take time to visit her grandmother. Is not having asthma (which the family were dealing with in a sensible, loving way) worth losing all the other good things in her life?

A good book for youngsters of six or seven upwards and one which may of particular interest if they have experience of chronic conditions.  For me it also seems as if it may appeal to young Doctor Who fans too – it has a similar mix of interesting story and gentle introduction of big issues of health, friendship and family.

My Friend the Alien – Zanib Mian

9781472973900A second book in the Bloomsbury Readers series and this one is also about friendship and feelings. Maxx is an alien who has been sent to earth to learn about emotions – something they don’t have on his planet – and, at first, he isn’t sure if there is any point to them. But he meets a young lad called Jibreel, who is treated like an alien himself just because he is from a different part of the same planet, and begins to learn much more about feelings, kindness and lovely, lovely chocolate (the best Earth food, in Maxx’s opinion, and who am I to argue). Jibreel and Maxx teach each other lots about life on their respective planets and how to cope with the problems life throws at you, wherever you’re from.

A good story for 6/7+, with messages about refugees, friendship and learning to cope with and express feelings. But also plenty of bottom and snot-based humour because you can’t get too much of that 🙂

Agent Zaiba Investigates: The Poison Plot – Annabelle Sami

9781788952071A slightly longer book now – aimed at the 8-12 year old market. Or middle-aged if that’s what floats your boat…We first met Agent Zaiba when she saved both some stolen diamonds and her favourite cousin’s mehndi party. In this second outing she is a little closer to home and trying to run an activity at her school summer fete. Obviously, it is a detection-based activity and, in between setting it up she is watching her dad and brother compete in the baking competition. When a real-life crime occurs – poison in the cupcakes – Zaiba and best friend Poppy spring into action to work out who is to blame. There are lots of clues as the story develops, plenty of red herrings (not my favourite flavour of cupcake) and, hooray, a big helping of least favourite cousin Mariam. Add in some less than mature behaviours by many of the adults and this becomes a brilliant cosy crime caper for Key Stage 2 children…

Umbrella Mouse to the Rescue – Anna Fargher

53255132Another follow-up to a book I very much enjoyed – this continues the adventures of Pip, an orphaned young mouse, as she works with Noah’s Ark, an animal organisation working to help the human Allied armies defeat the Germans as they retreat after the D-Day landings. After their betrayal by someone from within the group they travel to Paris, join in with the (literally) underground resistance there, make new friends and enemies too. As previously, the wartime setting means there is peril, betrayal and death and this is cleverly done to highlight the horrors of war for young people without being too gory.

Little Badman and the Time-Travelling Teacher of Doom – Humza Arshad & Henry White

9780241378502Finally, yet another sequel, this time another slightly bonkers adventure for Humza Khan (the best twelve-year-old rapper in Eggington and newest recruit of the mysterious ‘Agency’ after he saved the world from alien slug aunties) and his best pal Umer. The boys are looking forward to a long six-week holiday spent teaching their new friend Wendy how to play knock-down ginger but fate has other plans and the two boys end up being sent to a summer school in Pakistan as a punishment for a prank they are pretty certain they didn’t even do. They plan to escape (well, Humza plans and sort of drags Umer along with him) but decide to stay when they are finally given their first mission by the Agency – to find out whether their science teacher, Mr Malik – an ex-Agency member – is plotting anything evil. The boys soon find themselves in trouble – with Mr Mahmood, the very angry headteacher, Mr Malik and with the mission itself. It turns out being a spy is quite hard work and, sometimes, a little bit dangerous.

This book is full of adventures, laughs and pranks. It also shows that quiet Umer is as useful a spy as the more boisterous Humza, that Pakistan is not the backwards country the boys feared it would be and that, sometimes, you can learn a lot about your family by finding out what they were like as children. This would be a fun read for youngsters of 8 and over who have enjoyed reading Walliams, Baddiel and Jeff Kinney and were wanting to branch out into a new author.

Jane