Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017

20 Books of Summer 2017 – Round-Up Post

So I finished the 20 Books of Summer Challenge, one that started on 1 June with the finishing line being 3 September and I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on the books I read.

As Cathy of 746 Books is so good, she sets no rules for this challenge but I chose to select my twenty books from my own bookshelves, ones that I’d bought, or been given as presents.


In line with previous years the selection was mixed but featured Agatha Christie and Reginald Hill who are obligatory entrants, although technically re-reads from years ago.

Bones and Silence by the fantastically talented Reginald Hill was based around medieval play with Dalziel holding centre stage by playing God. As always the mystery was inventive, the author ensuring that all the emotions well and truly ridden, with the whole book emphasising a real sense of being in the hands of a master of the English language. I love the Dalziel and Pascoe series and very few police procedural writers manage to weave so many strands of a story so satisfyingly into a story.


Although I find it hard to believe I hadn’t read Agatha Christie’s Murder is Easy before, if I had, I didn’tremember one iota of this story. I’m surprised not to see this one featured more often on lists of her best books, although neither Poirot or Miss Marple feature there are a whole bunch of brilliant (and inventive) murders to entertain – murder by hat paint being the top of my own personal list. This was the first book referenced in my earlier read A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup – if you are an Agatha Christie fan I can’t recommend this book highly enough.


This year has been the year I have explored the different ways of presenting true crime and my journey has taken me back to the Victorian times to crimes committed far more recently – my remit being to confirm that the best examples are not about sensationalism but far more often in a bid to understand the criminal mind.

The Ripper of Waterloo Road by Jan Bondeson tells the tale of an unfortunate high class prostitute in the earliest years of Victoria’s Reign with Eliza Grimwood meeting her death following a night at the theatre in London. This is an unsolved murder where the author proposes a credible suspect and puts Eliza, and later murders, fully in the context of the times they lived in. With Eliza apparently being the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Nancy in Oliver Twist. Jan Bondeson proposes that this unknown serial murderer terrified London’s population 50 years before the notorious Jack the Ripper acquired his moniker

Just a few years later in 1849 in County Tipperary is the setting for The Doctor’s Wife is Dead by Andrew Tierney tells a quite different type of crime. Andrew Tierney makes the case that Ellen Langley, the doctor’s wife, is killed (possibly poisoned but certainly ill-treated) because her husband wanted a younger model. This story told is a court room drama with secrets and lies exposed. Ultimately though this is the story of the life and death of a woman who has been lost in the midst of time but sheds light upon many women who would have endured a similar life, even if the end result wasn’t an untimely death.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French has a very different feel to it, not unexpectedly, with the setting being the more unfamiliar setting of Peking, just before the occupation by the Japanese. In 1937 Pamela Werner was found brutally murdered. Her killers were never identified although the author presents a compelling case with suspects. Although the author takes us through the known facts and investigation, this is as much a story of the time and place and I have to say, a victim who seems to be a mystery all of her own.


Truman Capote is of course widely acknowledged to be the father of the true-crime genre and In Cold Blood is the book that many true-crime writers aspire to. Here for the first time we get to know the murderers outside the narrow confines of the crime committed, in far more detail than the other books I’ve read; this is their story of the awful night when the four members of the Clutter family are slain in their Kansas home in 1959. Perhaps because the crime is solved we don’t only hear about the perpetrators but the victims, the investigators and the wider circle in the community who were touched by the murders.

The Spider and the Fly by Claudia Rowe is a different type of read again. This is her story about writing, and meeting a murderer as a journalist. Kendall Francoise lived in Poughkeepsie, New York and he murdered eight women between 1996 and 1998. When he was arrested, a search of his home discovered his parents and sister living amongst the empty larvae casings in a home that was at odds with their public personas. Claudia freely admits she was drawn to the darkness of Kendall (and his family’s) story to try and make sense of her own life. A fascinating mix of memoir and true crime.

Another theme in my reading this year is seeking out those writers who use true crime to inspire a fictional novel; think  Burial Rites by Hannah Kent or Little Deaths by Emma Flint to name just two.

The main and probably true entrant to this section (the other two are more loosely linked) is Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood with her amazing story of Grace Marks who was tried for the murder of Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper cum mistress Nancy Montgomery in 1843. This story is very much set in the place and time but has the introduction of a doctor using experimental psychological methods to find the truth to the many conflicting statements attributed to Grace Marks. Using the backdrop of quilting patterns there is so much depth to this superb book.

Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch explores a fictional author who uses the disappearance of a man in the 1970s in his most successful novel to date. But forty years on his neighbour from the upstairs apartment becomes obsessed with the author. As the reader we explore the link between the presumed dead high school teacher, and the fact that he was having an affair with one of his pupils, and the success the resulting novel gave the author especially as his many war novels have not hit anywhere near such dizzy heights. While this book is full of themes, mainly of the dark variety the true crime is where it all seems to start, or is it?

Before the Poison by Peter Robinson features a grief-stricken composer who buys the house of a murderess; the fictional Grace Elizabeth Fox (I know to be wary of women bearing the name Grace now!) was hanged for the murder of her husband, Dr Fox by means of poison on New Year’s Day in 1953. Our protagonist Chris Lowndes becomes somewhat obsessed with the murder and more crucially of the guilt or innocence of Grace. His investigation into the crime mirrors those actions taken by the true crime writers featured earlier and it took a while for me to convince myself that this was in fact a work of pure fiction.


In no way is this section intended to be sexist but the following four books are marketed for women. I used to read far more ‘women’s fiction’ than I do now and this was a foray into the wide variety on offer.

The Island by Victoria Hislop tells the story of the island of Spinalonga, an island in Crete which was a leper colony until surprisingly recently. Leprosy obviously is the backdrop for a story which is in part saga of a woman growing up in the shadow of the island, one the encompasses all those raw human emotions of jealousy, grief and loneliness but doesn’t forget to take in the most important counterbalance of hope. This is far from some slushy story and the historical research that backs up the novel shines through taking this beyond the romance and family story to something that says more about humanity itself.

The Judge’s Wife by Ann O’Loughlin is set in 1950s and 1980s Ireland with a foray to India. The book tells of a young woman married under sufferance to an older Judge who ends up committed to an asylum following the birth of her daughter Emma. Grace Moran (again – what are the chances of three of my reads featuring a woman called Grace?) mourns the loss of her child and her life at the asylum is far from easy, especially given her fall from grace (pun fully intended) There are themes of inter-racial love along with the injustice of a life stunted by fear of judgement from the community. A beautiful tale told without resorting to cheap tricks to raise the emotions.

In contrast The Summer House by Santa Montefiore is a lighter read, the subjects being the family of Lord Frampton who are confronted by the arrival of an illegitimate daughter at his funeral. With an odious lawyer, a sour-puss dowager along with the quiet restraint of Antoinette Frampton, wife of the Lord and mother to his three surviving sons all complete with an almost invisible butler this story is entertainment with no obvious message to impart. An ideal summer read to while away the hours sat in the curiously absent British summer this year.

The Girl from Nowhere by Dorothy Koomson has an ‘issue’ right at the centre and to the forefront of this novel. Clemency Smittson is adopted, raised in white family where her heritage is at odds with that of her adoptive parents. Her father is more open to celebrating her difference whereas her mother tries to ignore it and is fearful that if Clemency were to be introduced to her birth family then she would become redundant. If this all sounds a like a hard read, think again; Dorothy Koomson is an incredibly talented writer with a real gift for creating appealing characters with a strong sense of realism.

The World Wars had such a lasting impact on the lives of everyone who lived through them it is unsurprising that such a large body of writing features these times. For the challenge this year I read a novel and a non-fiction book, both of which brought something new to this period of history.

Starting in Berlin and finishing at Autwitz Concentration Camp nine year old Bruno tells his story in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Uprooted by his father’s job Bruno misses his house and his friends when the family moves to the place he calls ‘Out With.’ Set in the distance from the new, and in Bruno’s view, inferior new house Bruno spots a barbed wire fence and many people walking around in striped pyjamas. When he investigates he meets Shmuel a Jewish boy and the two become friends. Moving and a great way to introduce the realities of World War II to younger readers.

Stranger in the House is a compilation of the memories of women at the close of World War II. Many women were welcoming home men that had been fundamentally changed by their experience as well as physically damaged. Julie Summers provides the reader with a wide range of recollections from mothers, daughters, widows and mothers to the change in their own lives when the men returned. I was very impressed that the book touched on the more complex subjects of adultery and illegitimate children as well as the familiar rationing and lack of housing in this very difficult time.

Of course I widely read crime fiction and I didn’t deprive myself of catching up with some of those that had been sat patiently on my bookshelves.

An archaeological dig is the setting in New Zealand for a two-stranded mystery in What Remains Behind by Dorothy Fowler. With the archaeologists exploring the worship place for Kaipara Harbour community which had burnt in the 1880s and coming up with some theories in the more recent past the chief protagonist and archaeologist becomes embroiled in the mystery of a farmer who went missing in the more recent past. This slower paced crime fiction was unlike that which I usually read as although far from lacking in action, it has a less frantic need to find answers than a modern police investigation.

I read a lot of series books which probably partly explains my huge TBR and the Nicci French series featuring the psychotherapist Frieda Klein is on my list of must-read books. The books started on Monday and Saturday Requiem is the sixth and Frieda, after a difficult investigation has sworn-off working with the police any longer. This book was full of the trademark brilliant characters who I love and had a complex mystery at its heart with the story arc that has been running from the start surely nearing its conclusion?


Broken Heart is the seventh book in the David Raker series written by Tim Weaver. This crime fiction series of books starts with the premise of missing people rather than dead ones. This book, like the others in the series is a complex mystery which involves a woman entering a car-park in Somerset and disappearing, seemingly into thin air. The woman was married to a talented film director who on being expelled from America uses his talents to produce horror movies in Spain. There is a lot of detail about film making and I fear that the difficult circumstances I was in whilst reading this book meant I was unable to fully appreciate it.

In Beryl Bainbridge’s novel The Winter Garden we go on a wonderfully airplane journey to Russia with Douglas Ashburner and Nina who he is having a clandestine affair with. The couple aren’t alone though they are with a party of peculiar characters. Once they arrive in Russia all sorts of illogical regulations are imposed on the group and Nina goes mysteriously missing for a large portion of the action. A novel illustrating the Kafkaesque nature of the country in the 1980s perhaps missed its mark a little with this reader.


For someone who often feels far too much of her reading is set in the UK I travelled far and wide to:

New Zealand

I also managed to read three books where a chief protagonist was named Grace and bizarrely two books which featured the name Phaedra!

So with 20 physical books read and reviewed from my bookshelves the total outstanding should have dropped by 20 too? End of May count was 107 and today I have 100 – something hasn’t quite worked out here!! I guess I have to keep my fingers crossed that Cathy will organise this challenge next year as I appear to have lots of books still to read.

I hope you enjoyed my whistle-stop tour of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge as much as I enjoyed reading them all – the original reviews can be found by clicking on the book covers.

I want to finish by saying a huge thank you to Cathy who organises this challenge and to the other participants who have entertained me throughout the summer with their excellent reviews and updates on their progress. Goodbye Summer 2017.

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

The Summer House – Santa Montefiore #20booksofsummer

Contemporary Fiction


The Frampton family are in a state of shock as Lord Frampton has died, albeit doing what he loved most, facing danger on off-piste skiing, and he met his end under an avalanche.  So to the funeral where a beautiful young woman appears who quickly declares with the aid of the family lawyer, Julius Beecher, to be the illegitimate daughter and therefore sister to the three Frampton brothers.

Antoinette Frampton doesn’t know what to think, she’s always been a bit of an aside to George’s more adventurous lifestyle, staying home to keep house after the years of raising the children who are now in their late twenties, and of course entertaining his mother, the Dowager, who lives in the Dowager house on the beautiful estate.

There is a strong sense of place, and the author’s intimidate knowledge of those in the higher social circles shines through. We have the butler Harris, on hand at all times to serve the various drinks, shortbread and to rustle up a picnic whenever the fancy takes the family and likewise the gardener who has tended to the gardens for forty years but is absolutely delighted when Antoinette shows an interest as she works through her grief in a new project. We are also given an insight into the way the upper class view each other depending on their place within the wider family, to be honest this all felt a little bit ridiculous to me but on the other hand it adds a bit of glamour!

Back in the here and now, Phaedra having introduced herself is keen to return to her home in Paris, but first the will has to be read, and that reveals that the beautiful and expensive Frampton Sapphires are to be given to her, along with a generous bequest. Roberta, wife of Josh is less than impressed but Phaedra has already won over the eldest son David who is undoubtedly attracted to the beautiful young woman, of course it cannot be, after all she is his half-sister.

This book wasn’t really my usual read, and I chose it as one of my 20 books of summer in part because I have two other books by this author courtesy of a friend, which have sat on the TBR for a long time and I thought I really ought to read one of them. Sadly this book didn’t have me convinced the writing style is a little over-blown for my tastes and I’d pretty much worked out what the end was going to be before I hit the fifty page mark. That’s not to say this is a bad read, the characterisation was well done, although I couldn’t help feeling that if the Frampton’s had mixed outside their own social circle more that maybe they wouldn’t have, been bowled over by her superficial psychological support delivered with a tender pat of the hand.

The family is a good mix of characters and the grief of both Antoinette and Margaret the Dowager, whilst ever-present is not overwhelming, but nevertheless holding many of the truths of how people react when their lives are unexpectedly turned upside down.

I can see this book as an ideal holiday companion but sadly, because I’d managed to guess the ending it really didn’t quite work for me.

The Summer House was my twentieth read in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge – yes I have completed this challenge before the finish date of 3 September!

First Published UK: 19 July 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
No of Pages: 464
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

Dear Mr. M – Herman Koch #20booksofsummer

Contemporary Fiction

The words that come to my mind when I think about Herman Koch’s writing are despicable characters, sardonic humour and very, very dark. Dear Mr. M without a doubt, lived up to this assessment, easily matching these ingredients first met in The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool.

In this book we have a neighbour obsessed with a writer, aging M who lives in the same block of apartments as he does in Amsterdam.

Dear Mr. M,
I’d like to start by telling you that I’m doing better now. I do so because you probably have no idea that I was ever doing worse. Much worse, in fact, but I’ll get to that later on….

Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M  You may think you’re alone, but as of today I’m here too…

Right from the off, even if you have picked this book up blind, there is a real sense of creepiness, and this persists right through the novel.

Our narrator, the neighbour gives us a full picture of just the kind of man is; a writer who had one hit book, Payback, a writer who although he has written other books now has his greatest hit quite far in the past. He is pompous and scathing of everyone he knows and seemingly incapable without his young wife to tend to him. We don’t however have a name for the narrator, or what he does, but we do know he stalks the author in the most insidious manner, and we have a feeling that there is a purpose, just what, is the mystery.

“By using the word ‘tolerance,’ you’re simply placing yourself on a higher plane than those you tolerate. Tolerance is only possible when one fosters a deep rooted sense of superiority.”

The subject matter for Mr. M’s best-seller was based on the mysterious disappearance forty years before of a trendy school-teacher. The last known sighting of the teacher, Mr Landzaat, was at the holiday home of his pupil Laura who was staying for the Christmas holiday with her classmate Herman. Laura had been the teacher’s lover, but by the time he disappeared their liaison was over and Mr Landzaat was on his way to Paris to welcome in the New Year with friends, but he disappeared one snowy day never to be seen again.

This book is, as might be expected, full of contradictions and spikiness. We attend literary events courtesy of our famous author and see his take on the behind the scenes one-upmanship which it’s only too easy to believe might just exist between literary authors. We also have a sense that his younger wife has been chosen just to get up the nose of those authors who are somewhat higher up the bestseller list than our subject, who churns out war stories, Payback being a one-off foray into a different kind of writing. The signings and the publisher events are marred not just by the lack of his current success but the belt-tightening of the industry with lavish dinners of the past giving way to buffets in the present day.

The seemingly unrelated storylines that make up this book are cleverly combined as the book progresses but even when I was unsure quite how this was going to work, each individual strand is a delight in itself, an insight into the most unattractive people you would probably wish to spend time with. Please don’t read this book if you need to like at least one of the characters, I can guarantee you won’t enjoy this bunch at all! But if like me, you enjoy a clever book, one that is quite unlike anything else you are likely to read, Dear Mr. M will both delight and horrify you in equal measure.

Dear Mr. M was my nineteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

First Published UK: 25 August 2016
Publisher: Picador
No of Pages: 416
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2017

Stranger in the House – Julie Summers #20booksofsummer


This non-fiction book takes a look at the women, be they wives, mothers, sisters or daughters who welcomed back their menfolk from the Second World War. How did these women adapt to the men who returned from battlefields or prisons? How did they begin to cope with all too apparent trauma that returned with them?

Stranger in the House is a collection of reminiscences about life in the immediate aftermath of the war and of the long term consequences of readjustment. There are interviews with wives, widows, sisters, daughters and granddaughters showing how this war cast a very long shadow indeed. Julie Summers has also raided the historical archives to give us the mother’s view – these poor women had often already lost members of their family in the First World War, how brave they must have been to send off their sons to another conflict.

This is a book full of details, clearly carefully researched and full of real accounts from the women who had lived, not only through the upheaval of war itself, with sometimes many months with no idea whether their loved ones are alive or not, to the aftermath with damaged men returning to families, sometimes children who didn’t recognise their fathers and all this with severe rationing in place.

“When their war ended, our war began.”

Of course the men themselves had an enormous adjustment to make and it seems like those in charge had accounted for the fact that support was needed for these fractured families following the huge failings of the First World War but this concentrated on practicalities like housing rather than what was really needed which was emotional support for the men and women who had to pick up the pieces of their lives.

The structure of the book is that the chapters relate to all the different subjects from the aftermath of war, communication and the variety of different relationships the women had with the men that returned from war.
One of the early chapters focusses on the contrast between those men stationed where the Army Post Office were able to deliver and those who weren’t. The men and women who had received regular communication on the whole fared much better than those who hadn’t.

“Letters for us stand for love, longing, light-heartedness and lyricism. Letters evoke passion, tenderness, amusement, sadness, rejoicing, surprise. And none of this is possible without the Army Post Office”

Of course some of those letters told of children born while the men were away, and not all of these could be explained in the husband’s absence. These families had a whole different struggle when the men returned and the author didn’t shy away from this difficult subject.

There is a particular emphasis within the book on those men who had been Japanese prisoners of war and it seems from the accounts in this book that many of these men were specifically ordered not to talk about their experience and of course these men often came back with serious medical problems to cope with too. The number of different voices, children at the time of their father’s return, who talk about rituals or issues over food and mealtimes is striking and so sad to read. The often factual accounts which are devoid of exaggeration or a wish for sympathy are all the more heart-rending because of that.

It is particularly touching that the last chapter speaks to the grandchildren of these men and often these children, not bought up to avoid any talk of the war, got the men to open up for the first time to their relatives and the families heard what the men had seen and heard during the six long years of war.

I don’t think I’ve read a book about war that more poignantly illustrates that for a whole generation the war was never really over.

Stranger in the House was my eighteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

First Published UK: 2008
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
No of Pages: 384
Genre: Non-Fiction – WWII
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

The Judge’s Wife – Ann O’Loughlin #20booksofsummer

Contemporary Fiction

The heart of this book is set in 1950s Dublin when Grace is married to the much older Martin Moran who will go on to become a prominent judge. Grace isn’t given much choice in the matter, young women at that time weren’t, particularly if they were dependent on their spinster aunt for support.

Grace’s story is pieced together by her daughter Emma, some thirty years later, following the death of the Judge, who was by this time estranged from Emma who viewed her childhood as a cold comfortless challenge in a household bereft of maternal love since her mother had died at the time of her birth.

The first clues are a packed case with beautiful clothes and a letter that was never posted. What Emma finds will take her back in time to the asylum where her mother was incarcerated following the birth of her child, a child she only saw for a short time before being bundled into a ward with the other inconvenient women.

‘Scuffles of clouds framed by rectangular, dirt-encrusted windows danced overhead. The sound of laughter drifted up from downstairs, where the two attendants puffed on cigarettes and relayed to the staff canteen every detail of the committal of the judge’s wife to the asylum’

In a world far removed from Emma’s discoveries in Ireland, a young woman in Bangalore India is struggling with an errant husband. Devoted to her Uncle Vikram who wants to take a trip back to Ireland, the land that nearly destroyed him thirty years ago. His sister Rhya, Rosa’s mother, is dead set against the trip but the two are making plans and Rosa hears Vikram’s tales of his lost love in Ireland and the awful events that meant he had to leave without saying goodbye to her.

The Judge’s Wife is an inviting tale, full of emotion of a time where appearances were everything and true emotions were buried out of sight. I loved the little historical details especially those around clothes – Emma wears Grace’s old clothes delighting in their beauty while in Bangalore Rhya sighs over her beloved saris which hold memories, both happy and sad. The author’s chosen settings are evocatively recreated for the reader’s pleasure. The brightness of the colours in Bangalore contrasting with the absence of colour in Grace’s life in the asylum.

There is a lot of drama in this book from the horrors of a healthy young woman being incarcerated in an asylum to Vikram’s broken heart as he retreats to the coffee plantation a life far removed from his training as a doctor. The judge also turns out to have been misread during his life-time and Emma comes to understand his remoteness to her as a child, was not because he didn’t love her. As is necessary in these types of book, there are a fair few coincidences to keep the story moving along, but that doesn’t detract from a story that is about people, injustice and above all betrayal can inflict terrible wounds causing damage far wider than could ever have been anticipated. On the flip-side the characters all reveal how much the hardest challenge is if you have someone backing your corner and so countering the destructive relationships we have episodes where a friendship, romantic relationship or that of a devoted sibling can ease the hardships of life.

An enchanting read that had the power to transport me to a time and place quite unlike home.

The Judge’s Wife was my seventeenth read in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

First Published UK: 1 July 2016
Publisher: Black and White Publishing 
No of Pages: 312
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood #20booksofsummer

Historical Fiction 5*s

The year is 1843, the place is Ontario, Canada and the victims are Thomas Kimner and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Thomas had been shot whilst Nancy had been strangled.  James McDermott, Thomas Kimner’s stable hand and Grace Marks his maid were apprehended trying to escape to America and put on trial for murder. James McDermott was hanged whilst Grace was imprisoned for life. These are the facts that Margaret Atwood uses as the base of her multi-faceted novel to bring Grace’s story to life, whether her version comes close to the truth the reader will have to decide.

“I have of course fictionalized historical events (as did many commentators on this case who claimed to be writing history). I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known.’”

 By the time we meet her Grace has been imprisoned for quite some time. A model prisoner she is engaged as a maid to the Governor of the prison where she is being held. Petitions for her release have been a feature of those who protest her innocence but one man, the fictional Dr Simon Jordan wants to use her to explore her sanity, he has a goal to open a private clinic and a case study that gets attention could help him along this road. But is or was Grace ever insane? Why else would a young maid suddenly turn on her employers and become a notorious murderess? Or is there other elements to the story that the Victorian values of the day could not or would not see?

It is the conversation that Grace has with Dr Jordan that gives us her background, the long arduous journey from Dublin, the trials of living with a feckless father and younger siblings to care for and Grace’s ‘escape’ into working life as a maid, with friends who teach her the ways of the world. No one can say Grace’s story is anything but captivating and it’s bolstered by the picture of Grace recounting it whilst stitching at the table in the Governor’s house. Grace explains to Dr Jordan about the quilts that every young woman should have before she marries, the stories behind the different patterns these objects that were in every household having their own stories to tell. And of course the Doctor doesn’t know what is true and we are reminded of the uncertainty of the narrative by some fairly nifty switches from the first to the third person, denoting thoughts and words within the text itself. This gives the narrative a nebulous feel, the truth surely lies somewhere within the book, but it may be you have to decide where.

I was enchanted not only by Grace’s own story but the way that she uncovers the lives of many other women in the course of her conversations with the good Doctor. From her mother, to her friend and fellow maid Mary Whitney and Nancy the Housekeeper and mistress of Thomas Kimner then up the ranks to the daughters of the Governor who still covet a quilt for their own dowry but will have someone else carry out the minute stitching for them. Each is worthy of a story in their own right leaving me stuffed full of life-like characters by the time I turned the last page on Grace Marks and her story.

Alias Grace was my sixteenth read for my 20 Books of Summer 2017  challenge, a fine example of a true crime being used as inspiration for a novel, and a highly accomplished one at that.

First Published UK: 1996
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages: 560
Genre: Historical Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US


Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2017

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne #20booksofsummer

Historical Fiction

This is one of those books I’ve wanted to read for what seems like an age but I’ve never got around to actually doing so, until now. My short review is that The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas should never have languished on the bookshelf for a day, let alone the age that it did.

Bruno wants to be an explorer, he’s practiced in his big house with plenty of nooks and crannies in Berlin. His main occupations are keeping out of his older sister, Gretel’s way, enjoying the company of his three friends and treating the maids with the disdain of one who is born to a privileged background. Bruno’s father is a different matter, brusque and busy and a visit from ‘The Fury’ sends the whole household, Bruno’s mother included, into a frenzy.

Not long after the visit Bruno returns home to find his belongings being packed into a crate by Maria, the maid. The family is moving to ‘Out With’ and the house is being packed up. Bruno is told that move is ‘The Fury’s’ idea and no amount of pleading or bargaining on Bruno’s part can stop it happening.

In ‘Out With’ the house is smaller, there is the presence of soldiers, one particularly brutal Lieutenant named Kotler and from Bruno’s window in the far smaller house he can see a big fence and people wearing ‘striped pyjamas’ in the distance.

It is no secret that Bruno, the son of a Nazi befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel who is inside the barbed wire. When Bruno’s head is shaved due to lice he is pleased to see he looks like Shmuel, although a little fatter, and the two boys make a plan.

The whole premise to the story is that Bruno is an innocent, his misuse of the words that flag to the readers the true horror, is used to denote that. Bruno in his previous life didn’t associate with Jews and doesn’t understand the significance of the word. This is possibly the most unrealistic point made in the book but nine-year old boys can be terribly self-absorbed! I was fairly sure I knew what was going to happen all the way through this third person narrative by the rather lonely Bruno’s eyes, but I didn’t and the turn the book took caught me off-guard.

What is fascinating is that this book, aimed at young readers also encapsulates a number of themes that will only be spotted by the older reader, for instance the ‘friendship’ between Bruno’s mother and Lieutenant Kotler but there are some that are spot on for the age-group such as the change in the siblings relationship once other people of their own age are removed from the picture. Gretel is a curious character, one minute playing with dolls, the next making sure she was always wherever Lieutenant Kotler is, capturing a pre-teen at that most awkward of times.

At times this book made me smile, at others it made me weep but most of all it made me think. It isn’t a true story, of course nine-year old Shmuel wouldn’t have lived long enough at Auschwitz, he certainly wouldn’t have had time to make friends with a boy who happened to live on the other side of the fence but in my opinion it doesn’t make this a bad book, it could be the starting point for an interest in understanding what really happened to children in Nazi Germany, no matter which side of the divide they were born on.

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas gets the award for producing the most emotional reaction in my 20 Books of Summer 2017  and is my fifteenth read.

First Published UK: 2007
Publisher: Definitions
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Historical Fiction
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Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Mount TBR 2017

Before the Poison – Peter Robinson #20booksofsummer

Crime Fiction

Famous trials: Grace Elizabeth Fox, April 1953, by Sir Charles Hamilton Morley

Grace Elizabeth Fox rose from her bed and dressed with the aid of her young Attending Officer Mary Swann at 6.30 AM on the morning of 23 April, 1953. She ate a light breakfast of toast, marmalade and tea, then she busied herself writing letters to her family and friends. After a small brandy to steady her nerves shortly before 8.00 AM, she spent the following hour alone with the Chaplain.


So starts Before the Poison the tale of a fictional murder trial in 1950s England as seen through the eyes of Chris Lowndes a composer for films, who has returned to his native Yorkshire after decades living in the US. Recently bereaved he buys the remote Kilnsgate House unseen as somewhere to compose music and to recover from the loss of his beloved wife Laura.

It doesn’t take Chris long to discover that Kilnsgate House was the scene of a murder some fifty plus years before. On 1 January 1953 Dr Ernest Fox and his younger wife Grace, aged forty, were entertaining two old friends, waited on by their maid Hetty Larkin. The fire was roaring and despite rationing the menu comprised of roast beef, mashed potatoes, roast parsnips and Brussel sprouts followed by that very English desert rhubarb pie and custard. Outside the snow began falling and it didn’t stop, the party was going nowhere and the guest bedroom was made up for Jeremy and Alice Lambert. That night Ernest died and the remaining four inhabitants waited with his body two days until the police and the mortuary van could get to the house. With what he gleans from Grace’s life and learning that his brother was at school, next door to the prison when Grace was hanged, her life and perhaps more importantly the question of her guilt, or innocence, becomes something of an obsession.

With my love of historical crime, this fictionalised account of a murder trial in the 1950s hit just the right note with the details about the key players really coming alive, it was hard to believe that all this was fictional perhaps because the author had clearly done his research so the details were spot on with key references such as Albert Pierrepoint, the most famous of hangmen, adding hooks to hang the case on. With our protagonist being a composer the numerous references to music are completely in sync with the story unfolding and provide a gentrified backdrop to a story that delves into the past to a time where perception was everything. Fictional this may be, but Peter Robinson makes good points about why a woman may be suspected of murder, particularly if it was thought that the woman didn’t hold the highest of morals.

The story is of Chris in 2010 researching the crime, the details of the murder and the trial are presented in excerpts from the book, Greatest Trials and later on some diary excerpts that give further context to the key player’s life. This made for tantalising reading with the details forming a natural part of the story-telling, a clever device that allowed Chris’s narrative to focus on his next step in his discovery.

I haven’t read any of the Inspector Banks books but if they are anywhere near as absorbing as I found Before the Poison to be, I need to check them out sooner rather than later.

Before the Poison fourteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer 2017 Challenge.

First Published UK: 2011
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
No of Pages: 488
Crime Fiction
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Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads, Mount TBR 2017

Murder is Easy – Agatha Christie #20booksofsummer

Crime Fiction

Murder is Easy was first published in 1939 with the opening scenes set on a train where a retired police officer, Luke Fitzwilliam hears a fantastical tale of a village where a murderer is reducing the population. To be honest Luke Fitzwilliam, in this day and age would probably have studiously avoided Lavinia Pinkerton’s eye and never heard the story of how she was going up to report her suspicions to the detectives at Scotland Yard. But these were different times and Luke Fitzwilliam is reminded of his own spinster aunts and sits and listens to the list of names which includes the next intended victim, Dr Humbleby, never letting the scoff in his head mar what I imagine to be his kindly features.

Imagine his surprise when reading the obituaries a few days later he sees that his travelling companion was knocked down by a car soon after they parted company – of course these days the spinster aunt would have to depend on kindly friends or relations to spread the news of her demise on social media. Not only that. Dr Humbleby reported as to having died of septicaemia. Our esteemed retired detective was a little bit bored now that he’s retired and a plan is made. He will stay at the home of a friend’s sister and pretend to be writing a book about witches and superstitions of the area. Hard to pull off successfully today as a quick google search would blow his cover to smithereens, but possible, after all who would look unless they were worried about their dastardly deeds being discovered?

Once in the town he is delighted by his pretend cousin Bridget Conway who is engaged to the frightfully rich Gordon Whitfield and as the house is large and not being the only servant, she shares his home in Wychwood under Ashe still acting as his secretary until they are married. It doesn’t take Luke long to find quite an impressive list of key suspects using the second spinster to have a leading role, Honoria Waynflete, who is both observant and knowledgeable and Luke suspects she already has a suspicion about the identity of this serial killer who uses a different method of murder for all his victims. Not for this killer the outright violence of a knife or a gun, no, young tear away Tommy Pierce fell from a library window whilst engaged to clean it and the servant Amy Gibbs swallowed hat paint instead of cough medicine in the night and was discovered in the morning when she wasn’t up and about laying fires and preparing breakfast.

Agatha Christie’s novels really do recreate an era that has long passed and although the mysteries are ingenious I can’t help but feel it is something of the nostalgia for something that has been lost forever that makes her books quite so appealing and it’s in the details that this is underlined. Who would honestly believe that a retired detective could pop up in a village, have his suspects, and there are quite a few, talk to him, often at length without his cover being blown. Meanwhile we have a young woman debating marriage to a man she doesn’t love to gain security seeing it as swapping one job for another – secretary or wife – as Bridget says it’s the same job description, but being the wife pays better.

I thoroughly enjoyed Murder is Easy although I confess I was a little worried because I do have a penchant for a certain Belgium and his little grey cells but without his pronunciations to make me giggle like a schoolgirl, I could really work hard at solving the puzzle and find the killer. It didn’t work, I failed miserably!

Murder is Easy /em> was my thirteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer 2017 Challenge.

First Published UK: 1939
Publisher:Harper Collins
No of Pages: 273
Genre: Crime Fiction
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Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2017, Book Review, Books I have read

The Ripper of Waterloo Road – Jan Bondeson #20booksofsummer


In 1838 a high-class prostitute, Eliza Grimwood, took a French-speaking gentleman home to her shared lodgings. The following morning Eliza was found with her throat cut and her abdomen slashed. Her fellow housemates, who included her boyfriend William Hubbard had not heard a sound except a single yap from her pet dog.

Jon Bondeson is a crime historian with more than twenty books to his name and he starts by setting the stage, describing London at the early time of Queen Victoria’s reign. He gives special attention to the Waterloo Bridge and the perception of prostitute demonstrating the prurient interest from the public and the different classes of ‘working women.’ We also get a whistle-stop tour of the most notable murder of the time including the Ratcliffe murder and that of Hannah Brown by James Greenacre and Sarah Gale. This is a book packed full of information with references to sources and lots of pictures of the subjects and not confined to those in the penny dreadfuls of the time. In fact the illustrations that are present on many of the pages bring to life the points the author is making with perfect placement, something I much prefer to those books that confine these to the centre pages.

As Eliza and the mysterious French speaker had arranged to meet at The Strand we are treated to some of the plays that may have been showing on that fateful night of Friday 26 May 1838, sadly it is not possible to know what was on the bill of this small but packed theatre that night. Eliza and her ‘guest’ alighted a Hansom cab which took them back to Waterloo Road but who the man was has never quite been established.

Inspector Charles Frederick Field was called to the scene, a former actor he had been one of the first officers of the New Police when it formed in 1829. Jon Bondeson takes a pause to enlighten his readers to other crimes that this, probably the best-known Policeman in London encountered over the course of his career. There is no doubt that life in the force at that time was hard but the crime were not investigated in quite the isolation as I perhaps thought. First came the inquest.


Waterloo Road – 3 June 1838

In true melodramatic fashion the inquest was given the run-around by local characters either not giving the information they held or alternatively throwing suspicion in all direction so that even the most trivial of facts became obscured. All of which kept the news flowing with Charles Dickens taking such a keen interest Nancy of Oliver Twist fame is believed to have been inspired by poor Eliza Grimwood.

Of course a true-crime begs to be solved even all these years later and with the help of Inspector Field’s diary, which is perfectly preserved, along with newspaper articles and other contemporary offerings, Jon Bondeson is sure he has found the culprit and it seems to me that he provides a very compelling argument for his case. Of course as in the case with all these types of crime, despite even the most in-depth, and the author studied this crime over a decade prior to this book being written, can’t ever give us a conclusive answer and sadly no court of law will pronounce its judgement.

For lovers of Victorian true crime The Ripper of Waterloo Road gives a comprehensive examination not only of the crimes committed but wider commentary on the life and times without allowing itself to get into too wide a discourse which would make the book far too unwieldy.

The Ripper of Waterloo Road was my twelfth read in my 20 Books of Summer 2017 Challenge.

First Published UK: 13 January 2017
Publisher: The History Press
No of Pages: 288
Genre: Non-Fiction – True Crime
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