What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been methodically working my way through the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy L Sayers with varying degrees of satisfaction. I’ve commented before on the dated nature of the language and views in several, and in particular the racist attitudes that really jump out of the page to a modern reader. In The Nine Tailors, it was the patronising attitudes to the ‘servant’ class and to ‘village idiots’ that made my toes curl.

In this story, Lord Peter finds himself trapped in a small village on the fens, when the wrong body is discovered in a grave! It was an excellent premise, and made for one of the most complex murders in this whole series, but oh my goodness, I could have done without all the bellringing. I read in the foreward that publication was actually delayed because Sayers was struggling to get to grips with the campanology at the heart of this story, and I’m not surprised. It was interesting to a point, and it certainly made the whodunnit very, very tricky to resolve but was the sheer volume of detail contained in the book really necessary? I am not convinced. On the contrary, I wonder if, given that she was apparently heartily sick of writing Lord Peter stories at this point, and that she had always looked down on the detective genre, it was her attempt to lift it to a more intellectual level? On saying that though, of course I enjoyed the story. The fens and the landscape and the villages play a really fascinating role and are characters in themselves, and I was very fond of the vicar and his wife who may or may not have been Sayers’ tribute to her parents. A highlight was Bunter running a field kitchen during the flood, but on the whole I felt this was a book that I could have lived without. I could have DNF’d it or skipped to the end, but I have travelled a long road with Lord Peter, and I didn’t want to miss any of the journey, so I stuck with it.

And launched straight into the next book in the series. Gaudy Night is the one I’ve been waiting for, the main reason I stuck with this series because at last Peter and Harriet make a final decision about their future together – or apart. But first…

Harriet Vane, a detective writer who Peter encountered in the dock when she was accused of murdering her lover and who he has been proposing to every month or so since, is having doubts about her career. I’ll say up front that I found it very difficult not to read Harriet in this state as the author being thoroughly autobiographical. I know that Sayers actually quit writing the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and only returned to it when her life and fortunes changed. Harriet, like Sayers, is doing very well for herself as a writer of detective fiction at the beginning of this book, but she sees her writing as second-rate, she’s embarrassed by it, and longs for a more literary and academic life. In Oxford, her alma mater, she wonders if this is really possible, and as the story (slowly) unfolds, we see her pondering and debating at length, the issue of academia versus the real world. Can a woman be an academic and a wife? Can she have her own, fulfilled and independent life and at the same time share her life with a man? (Slightly straying from the point here, but this is the debate every one of my own heroines have with themselves in my books, and I know it’s an ongoing debate still, with a great number of women.)

While Harriet is pondering, and witnessing for herself the hothouse of emotions that accompany the enclosed (almost nun-like) world of the woman’s college in Oxford, there is (of course) a crime going on, and this is her excuse to remain there, and to continue to debate her future with herself. The crime – as with most crimes in this series – is secondary to the human interest stories, the intertwined, often toxic relationships, the pressures on women to conform, or to accept that they will be forever outsiders if they don’t. That issue is in every one of the books in this series, but in Gaudy Night it is right at the fore – and it’s enthralling. (I should say that it’s also tedious in parts, in fact, because it’s so enthralling if you get my drift – the going round in circles, I mean, sounds so familiar, that you want Harriet to get on with it, even though you know that it would be a mistake – huge mistake – for her to just close her ears and jump one way or the other.) I was invested to a degree in finding out whodunnit, but most of the time I was simply rooting for Harriet to find a way to have it all. And most of the time, incidentally, Lord Peter himself was very much absent.

This was far from a flawless story. I think it was a little bit too long, a little bit too repetitive. I found the Oxford world a bit toe-curling – no, very toe-curling – because I doubt it’s changed that much, and so much entitlement and obvious privilege always gets my wee socialist (prejudiced) hackles up. I found the ‘insider’ dialogue, the acronyms and customs, also a bit tedious, and some of the more academic debates too. But nothing seriously detracted from my enjoyment of this book. And nothing that would stop me turning the pages faster and faster. The ending? Ah, it was perfect, but I’ll say no more save that Harriet and Peter plight their troth in their own very particular way. 

I tried, I really did try not to dive into the very last book in the series, but I failed. In Busman’s Honeymoon Peter and Harriet are married. The book opens with a whole series of letters which give an insight into the couple’s wedding and the views of various people, positive and negative about their alliance. I was delighted that Sayers had the confidence to make their relationship extremely sensual (not graphically so, I hasten to add) and to show the reader just how hugely satisfying their marriage was going to be – and after investing all this reading energy into the previous books, thank goodness!

But it’s not all plain sailing. Peter and Harriet have their own lives and they are both very strong characters set, in their ways. Adapting to coupledom isn’t easy. Harriet struggles not to push her way into Peter’s deep introspective self, to keep her distance when he needs space, and Peter struggles with his instinctive desire to protect and defend a wife who prefers to fight her own battles, thank you very much. Much of this ‘getting accustomed’ takes up the page space, making the crime (a body in the cellar of their honeymoon house) take second place, but that’s as it should be, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t get me wrong though, there is a great and classic whodunnit woven into this book which, as usual, I cursed myself for not having solved. One thing I really love about Sayers is that her crimes (with the exception of the bell-ringing one) are always solvable – the clues are always there if you look – and she never throws the kind of curve ball you would never have guessed at you. And yet, I never manage to solve them until pretty close to the end. Either I’m not very good (which is definitely part of it) or I am much more caught up in the characters to take the time out to think – which is most of it.

Busman’s Honeymoon brought my long-standing relationship with Harriet and Peter to a close. I’m gutted, but it was a highly satisfying ending. I’m sure that Peter and Harriet were happy and I’m also sure that happiness was at times rocky. The ending of the book left me in tears. Peter in his purest, rawest state, secure enough in the love they share to reveal himself so. Nothing more to be said, except to give a big happy sigh.

Indian Summer is number seven in Sara Sheridan’s Mirabelle Bevan detective series set in Brighton in the 1950s, and I think this might be one of my favourites so far. At the end of the last book (Russian Roulette), Mirabelle and superintendent Alan McGregor parted company, though you just knew she was wrong about him. One of the things I admire about the author is her determination to stick with Mirabelle being stubborn, misguided, and in many ways quite biased when it comes to people, especially Alan who can never reach the hagiographic heights of her dead lover, Jack. Mirabelle is unlikable at times, and often infuriating, but all the more human for it.

Anyway, back to this story, and it’s summer and stifling in Brighton, and Mirabelle’s decided that there’s something odd going on at the local home for children suffering from TB. As ever, there’s real history backing up this story, and as ever, there’s a clear line drawn (of attitudes and perspective, I mean) between those who endured the war (WWII) and those who were too young to remember it. It’s getting closer to the Swinging Sixties, the Brighton of the Mods and Rockers, and Mirabelle is starting to feel her age. There are some touching moments in this book where she doubts herself, questions the ongoing relevance of her past, and it’s almost painful to read, because for someone like her, doubt is almost inconceivable.

I won’t go over the plot. Of course Alan comes back into things, but Mirabelle is not your conventional heroine, and she stays very much in character which for some readers I suspect might be difficult to take. Her assistant Vesta has a baby but she’s continuing to work – another issue that this book nicely incorporates – and something else I’m enjoying is the growing and changing dynamic between these two strong women, as one questions herself and the other grows more confident. The story shifts on at the usual cracking pace. There’s the usual complex unfolding of the crime because (as usual) motivations are complex, and at the end, another twist in the relationship between Mirabelle and Alan. This is proving an excellent and consistently enjoyable series. I already have the next one sitting on my Kindle. My only word of caution would be to read the series from the start and in sequence, else you’ll miss out on a lot. 

When I hit a reading slump, when I’m a bit down about my own writing, or when I just want to escape the world, I turn to old favourites, and anything by Marian Keyes falls into that category. I think I’ve read Angels, the third in the Walsh Family series, at least twice before. Margaret is the good girl of the Walsh family, but in this book she’s had enough of conforming and runs off to join her friend Emily, a failing script-writer, in Los Angeles. As you’d expect from the wonderful Ms Keyes this is a funny (in places laugh out loud, which is much rarer than it should be) and moving story. It deals with difficult issues like infertility with a very light touch but one that really makes you think. And of course, it deals with family dynamics in a masterful way. But…

That’s the problem with reading a back catalogue when you’ve been reading the front one – especially if, like me, you’re very familiar with it. This was what I’d call Keyes-Lite compared to her more recent work. It’s not fair to judge, because of course she’s changed and improved and moved on since this was written, but on this read for me it felt a little bit as if it was trying too hard to be funny and to poke fun at the LA life. Maybe also, thinking about it, since it was published there have been so many reality TV shows exposing that very life-style that it’s not so shocking as it first was when I read it ?(I haven’t seen many, but Selling Sunset would be the perfect example.)

Don’t get me wrong. I loved this. I raced through it. It delivered exactly what I wanted, a comfort read with a feel good ending, a lot of laughs and a few tears. If you haven’t read any of the Walsh Family books then I urge you strongly to remedy that, and to read them in order. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating, I can’t help but judge wonderful fabulous favourite authors such as Ms Keyes more harshly than others because I expect so much more. So I’ll stop digging myself into a hole here. I enjoyed this. It wasn’t my favourite re-read of hers, but it was still fab. And I doubt if it will be the last time I read it either. 

And this leads me onto something which for me was much-anticipated – a new book by Marian Keyes! I rarely buy fiction in hardback, but I was straight out to the shops to get my mitts on this one! There was a tiny bit of me that was worried I’d be disappointed but how wrong I was! Again, Rachel, is the follow-up to Rachel’s Holiday (the second in the Walsh Family series), which was one of the very first Marian Keyes books that I read, and I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. It was the perfect follow on story. I couldn’t put it down. There’s not much more to say!

But I will. Life has moved on for Rachel and her sisters (and one of the many things that I love about this series is that we get to see them through each others’ eyes – as one of four sisters myself, this sort of different perspective on family dynamics is fascinating). So Rachel has changed a lot since we last saw her, but she’s in essence still the person we first met, even though on the surface she’s squeaky clean. Marian Keyes does flaws so well. She doesn’t shy away from difficult issues or from painful ones, and there’s stacks of them here. She puts real life on the page in vibrant colour, and she deals with it with compassion and humour – a lot of humour. This isn’t just a book about Rachel though, it’s about the whole family, starting a few years after we last saw them in The Mystery of Mercy Close, Helen’s story. It doesn’t end the Walsh saga, but it moves all of them along nicely and believably. Oh yes, and with humour, did I mention that? I loved this. I might have mentioned that too. If you haven’t read any of the Walsh stories, lucky you. Go out there and read them. In order. And then read this one. The latest. I really hope not the last. 

The Man Who Died Twice is the second Thursday Murder Club book by Richard Osman. I thoroughly enjoyed the first one, and I raced through this too. It was pacey, it was fun, and story-wise it rocketed along. However, escapist as this story was, I felt that this book stretched the boundaries of credibility a bit too far. In the first book there were moments where I stopped reading and thought, no way, but I was so taken up with the story I  dived back in and forgot about my doubts. In this book, I stopped, thought, no way, and then when I dived back in, I found my enjoyment diminished. I kept coming back to the questions some of the plot twists raised, and some of the behaviour of the key characters too – in particular Elizabeth. I didn’t buy a lot of what happened – I mean I really didn’t buy it, as opposed to thinking hmm, that’s stretching things. So as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough of the Thursday Murder Club. I won’t be surprised if Richard Osman isn’t done with them, and I know that loads of people will be crying out for more, but I’d like to see something different from him.

I had only read one book by Adele Parks before – several years ago – so when I discovered to my delight that she was to be the interviewer when I sat beside Sarah Ferguson for the launch of the paperback version of our novel Her Heart for a Compass, I decided to read something more recent of hers. Lies, Lies, Lies was a very difficult book to read, and not one that I’d slap the ‘enjoyable’ label onto! It was a page-turner, it was stuffed full of really, really well-drawn characters, but the subject matter was deeply troubling and the two main protagonists themselves were so deeply unlikable – deliberately so. A very brave book for a writer to write.

Simon is a drinker. I found the opening scene, where we are shown the path he’s going to take with drink really, really difficult to read, it rang so painfully true. The lies Simon tells himself and others, and perhaps even more painful, the lies that Daisy tells herself and others made for a very emotional read. Sadly, many of us have witnessed this kind of behaviour from family or friends.  It was the familiarity of the pattern of Simon’s behaviour and in Daisy’s that I found so difficult to take, and in fact I had to stop reading at times, and go read something less disturbing.

Daisy and Simon’s marriage is falling apart, but they’re holding it together because they remember how it used to be, and because they both adore their daughter. Then something appalling happens, and it all begins to unravel. But it doesn’t unravel in a simple way. Just when you think you know who’s to blame, you discover another pertinent fact. You re-adjust your thoughts, then you learn something else. In this book, there are absolutely no simple explanations. There are lots and lots of causes and effects. There are historical causes beyond the control of the protagonists, but also decisions that they make on impulse. For good reasons. For bad reasons. Or because they simply don’t think it through. Above all else, what I think this novel does is show that there is no simple ‘cure’ for addiction nor any easy reason for it. Life is complex, and even when you have to understand a chain of events and the motivation behind it – say, to make a legal judgement – you can’t. There’s no black and white. So you have to decide which shade of grey to go with.

I’m sorry if this doesn’t make sense, but I don’t want to give any of the plot away. This book made me think a lot about the disease of alcoholism, but also about how desperate people can become when they have one goal, only one goal, and they can’t achieve it. It also made me think about our ‘justice’ system. In these dark political times, that has been on my mind a great deal. Is there any such thing as justice? Hmm, if you’ll forgive the pun, the jury is out on that one!

I will definitely be going back for more of Adele Parks’ books. I’m very interested in her new one after having the privilege to talk to her about it. But first, something lighter!

EPSON MFP image

Still Life is by Sarah Winman, an author new to me. It’s a total feel good novel that leaves you with a huge big smile on your face and a strong desire to revisit Florence (I was there with my sister Catriona and friend Peter in 2001). I picked a copy of this book up by chance from one of those fabulous browsing tables in Waterstones, though since I’ve read it, I seem to have seen it everywhere.

The story opens towards the end of WWII with the memorably-named Ulysses Temper embroiled in recovering stolen works of art. He meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian and they click, spending a memorable night together talking and bonding. Time moves on, and Evelyn disappears from the narrative leaving you wondering when she’s going to crop up again (she does, but I’m not going to spoil it). It’s the end of the war, Ulysses is back in the East End of London. Peg, his wife, has a child by an American, but they remain friends, and he’s drawn back into the dark, colourful, warm and wonderful world of the pub, where there’s a fabulous cast of characters including the parrot, Claude. Life moves on again. Ulysses inherits a house in Florence. Time moves forward. The characters intertwine, move apart, intertwine. And time moves on again.

This is a warm-hearted and joyful read. It’s genuinely a book that you can’t put down and don’t want to end. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, it’s set against some heart-breaking history, and the characters are very, very far from perfect – which of course makes them all the more empathetic. It’s beautifully written, and you can’t help but invest a ton of emotion into the fate of every one – including the fabulous city of Florence, a character in itself. I devoured this book which had something that is rarer than it should be, a perfect ending. My sister and I spent many hours casting the film, and I even went so far as to record my thoughts on TikTok. Please, someone, please make the film! (Talking of TikTok, I have also made a short light-hearted montage showcasing all the books in this blog. It is just a bit of fun but please feel free to have a look and let me know what you think.)

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

These are my most recent favourite reads. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.

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4 Comments

  1. What a shame that you didn’t enjoy the bell ringing in The Nine Taylors. I loved all that detail – but I am a church bell ringer so it was great to see my hobby featured in a novel (doesn’t often happen!).
    I am surprised you find time to write with all that reading – well done!

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever ‘met’ a real bell ringer, how lovely, thank you for stopping by. I had no notion until I read this book that there was what seemed to me (someone without a musical bone in her body, though I do love music) such complex mathematics behind it all. Or that so much practice went in with hand bells. What I did really enjoy was the relationship between the ringer and his bell, which was portrayed quite touchingly. And of course, the fact that Peter was an amateur campanologist as well as an amateur everything else.

  2. You’ve raced right past me with Lord Peter, but that’s okay – I tend to wander around a lot when reading series books unless I just get hooked (for better or worse) on the series character. Sometimes when I want to glom books, I have a hard time with it – either they are *too* light and fluffy to read one after the other, or they’re took dark and dismal. (Looking at you, Ms. Bev’s Blessings series and Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series).

    Anyway. I’ve found my reading habits haven’t really recovered since Covid a couple of years ago. I find myself drawn more and more to vintage crime/noir novels. My first stop at the library is the mystery section instead of romance. I don’t like the direction HR is taking right now, so I’ve more or less stopped reading new romance novels, except my monthly splurge for Harlequins, LOL. More than 300 on Mount TBR now! Participating in SuperWendy’s TBR challenge is very helpful, though, at chipping away at the mountain. Unfortunately I get these thrift bugs every so often and tend to add more to the pile faster than I can get them off!! At least I’ll never run out of things to read.

    I finally read Flowers in the Attic a couple of weeks ago to see what all the fuss was about. It’s a good gothic horror story but I can’t with VC Andrews fans thinking she was somehow an amazingly original one-of-a-kind genius. Maybe its because I’ve read so much vintage work (and listen to vintage radio shows) that I could find the thru line from Victorian novels to FitA fairly easily. The follow-up Petals on the Wind was laughably awful, but I do have the final book in that series, Garden of Shadows, on hold at the library. I want to know why the grandmother turned out as she did!

    1. I had to look Flowers in the Attic up straight away. I had heard of it but had no idea what it was. OMG, it looks brilliant so now on my gigantic TBR list. I am fascinated by Victorian gothic, and the whole Victorian obsession with death too. In fact just Victorians generally, they are so extreme in their views, and an endless source to me of fabulous conflict to write about. I know it’s not strictly period, but that bit in the film The Others where they realise the pictures they are looking at are of dead people – that gives me shivers. For years after I saw that film, I couldn’t be on the other side of a glass door without expecting Eric Sykes to appear. Even now I’m writing it I’m getting goose bumps. So I think I’ll make sure I’m not alone when I read Flowers in the Attic.

      I have been dipping in and out of booktok on Tiktok to see what people are reading. Contributors are mostly a whole lot younger than me, but the range is amazing, and I picked up my current read from there. I’ve noticed more and more book shops including the one in my local town have tables full of Tiktok reads. Is this a thing that exploded through the pandemic? If so, it’s a real positive – which I am just about to post about on the next blog.

      As far as I’m concerned as a reader, reading anything is better than nothing, and I think we go through cycles in what we like and why. Major change like the pandemic was bound to affect us, whether we accept that or not. Of course as a writer I want people to read my books but hey, can’t have everything!

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