At Amberleaf Fair

By Phyllis Ann Karr

Rating: 4 stars

The toymaker Torin has just had his marriage proposal rejected in favour of that from one of his best friends. His day gets worse, however, as his brother, Talmar, the High Wizard, falls ill, and then his friend’s marriage token goes missing, and Torin is the prime suspect. He has to work to clear his name, all the while worrying about his brother, and his own future marriage prospects.

I really enjoyed this book – in the afterword, the author calls Torin’s world “The Gentle World”, and I very much agree with this characterisation. The whole book is really gentle – nothing really bad happens at all. People are still arrogant, proud and impetuous, but there seems to be no real malicious intent in any character.

It took me a while to get into the flow of it, but once you do, it’s a pleasure to read. The narrative is split between Torin, the storyteller Dylis, and the judge Alrathe and it’s it’s fun to read to build up a picture of the world that the characters inhabit as they go about their lives. There were hints within the text that got me wondering, and again, the afterword confirmed that this is a far-future Earth, rather than secondary world fantasy, albeit one where Clarke’s Third Law is in full swing.

A lot of the book is focussed on Torin’s choice to break from generations of his family to be a toymaker, not a magic-monger. This decision is being tested by his brother’s illness and Talmar’s desire to have Torin come back into the “family business” if he dies. Torin spends a lot of the book agonising over this decision, of how he wants to spend his life, versus what others expect of him. That, not the theft, is the greatest intrigue for me, and I had great sympathy for his plight.

This is a good comfort book. It’s got a gentle mystery, romance and everything is All Right In The End. Delightful.

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Spotlight (Miss Silver, #12)

By Patricia Wentworth

Rating: 4 stars

I was recommended Patricia Wentworth after reading an Ngaio Marsh book a few months ago. Having had various issues with that one, I thoroughly enjoyed this introduction to Wentworth.

Gregory Porlock is a blackmailer, who invites the various people he’s got stuff on to his home for a dinner party. He obviously goads someone too far, and he is murdered during the course of the evening. Miss Silver gets involved through a set of unlikely events and, in between bouts of knitting, soon sets things to rights.

I enjoyed this an awful lot. Wentworth sets the stage carefully, introducing us to Porlock and each of his guests and making us dislike the man intensely. The murder doesn’t happen until over a hundred pages in, and then the police investigation is the focus for quite some time. It’s not until well over half way through the book that Miss Silver makes her main entrance (although she’d had a cameo earlier).

I loved the interplay between her and police sergeant Frank Abbott. By this point in the series, Miss Silver is a known feature at Scotland Yard and the young Frank has taken a great shine to her, calling her his “revered preceptress”. His boss, chief inspector Lamb is less affectionate, but still respects her abilities a lot.

It was a great story, with good characterisation, and I’m impressed with how deftly Wentworth handled a large cast. I wasn’t wild about the very paternalistic relationship between Dorinda Brown and her cousin, Justin Leigh, but it’s very much of the period. Anyway, I shall definitely be looking out for more of Miss Silver’s handiwork.

Book details

ISBN: 9780340178331

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns (Sub-Inspector Ferron Mysteries #1)

By Elizabeth Bear

Rating: 4 stars

This novella introduces us to Sub-Inspector Ferron, a detective whose latest case involves a person who has been literally turned inside out. And the only witness is a genetically engineered cat who’s been wiped (and ends up re-imprinting on Ferron). Set in a future India, we get brief, tantalising glimpses of a fractured world as Ferron and her lieutenant, constable Indrapramit, try to find out who could have killed the victim, and what their motive could have been. At the same time, she has to deal with her overbearing mother, and there are rumours of unusual activity in the region of the Andromeda galaxy.

There’ a lot packed into this novella. The world-building of the future that it’s set in is impeccable and very deftly handled. Throwing in parrot-cats, breakdown of nation states, immersive virtual reality and much more, while keeping us grounded with Ferron and Indrapramit. In amongst all this, the actual murder actually gets a little lost. I wasn’t surprised that I didn’t figure out who did it (I never do), but I still don’t really think I understand the why of it and what actually happened. But then, does it really matter, with such a wonderful world, and the intrigue of a signal from the stars?

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Murder in Mesopotamia

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Amy Leatheran is brought in as a nurse to the wife of an eminent archaeologist who is on a dig in Iraq. Nurse Leatheran senses that all is not well on the dig, but is still shocked when there’s a murder. Thankfully, Hercule Poirot is in the vicinity and is called in to assist on the case.

I really enjoyed this mystery, with its evocative setting and intriguing characters. As Poirot says, the key to the murder is the psychology of the situation – especially that of the victim, and how her personality affected those around her.

The book is narrated in the first person by nurse Leatheran, who is a fun character to have in that role. She’s very prim and proper, and has the appropriate amount of British distrust of foreigners, although she does fall into playing the Hastings/Watson role with remarkable ease.

Something that I thought was quite odd was how unsympathetically that the female characters in the book spoke about other women. There are several women involved, starting with nurse Leatheran, and all of them often speak badly about both specific other women, and the female sex generally. I wouldn’t have been surprised by this if the book had been written by a man, but it wasn’t. Both Mrs Leidner, the woman that nurse Leatheran is here to look after, and Mrs Mercado, the wife of another member of the dig team, are described in particularly, one might say, catty, terms.

But leaving that aside, the mystery was intriguing, I enjoyed the characters a lot and, as usual, I completely failed to figure out whodunnit.

Book details

Publisher: Pan Books in association with Collins
Year of publication: 1981

Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London, #9)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

From the blurb, I initially thought this was going to be a locked room murder – with a murder being perpetrated in the London Silver Vaults, but it turns out those (which are a real thing) have been opened up and turned into a shopping arcade, so the door was wide open. What we actually get is a thriller of a story as seven former prayer circle members, all with certain platinum rings, are being picked off, one by one. And yes, of course Peter makes the requisite Tolkien jokes.

Alongside the investigation, there are the elaborate preparations around Beverly’s pregnancy and the twins that she’s carrying. This gives us a different view into Lady Ty, now that she’s going to be an auntie. Less the terrifying political player and more, well, human. In a different way, that’s also true of DCI Seawoll, as the investigation takes the Met up to his home territory, around Manchester and we get to spend some time with him, and even his father.

Aaronovitch is slowly expanding his wizarding world. Peter is eager to deepen his US links, and expand them to the Continent as well, and re-establish the broken connections with the Sons of Weyland and bring their engineering expertise back into the Society of the Wise. Personally, that’s the sort of stuff that I’m more interested in. The crime-of-the-week in the book is there to drive these things, but isn’t as interesting to me as the world and the people in it. But after nine books, as many graphic novels and several novellas and short stories, I would imagine (and, indeed, hope) that I’ve come to care for the characters as people, not just mcguffin-solving machines.

The edition I read was the Waterstones one that has a short story included, Miroslav’s Fabulous Hand. This, along with a couple of references in the main book, shed new light on Nightingale’s chapter of Monday, Monday, the last graphic novel, and gives us the backstory to the pre-WW2 mission that Nightingale had been on when he was apprehended, as we see in that story.

Speaking of Nightingale, his announcement at the end made me sit up! It’ll be interesting to see what the implications of this are. I imagine it won’t stay secret for long, so I wonder how the demi-monde will react. And if it’ll have the effect on Peter that he wants.

So another really fun story in an evergreen series that I thoroughly enjoy. The one thing in the books that makes me uneasy is the black and white way that the Metropolitan Police is presented. They’re very much the Good Guys, swooping in to save the people of London from whatever befalls them. In the real world, the Met’s reputation is substantially more tarnished than that. Between corruption, institutional racism, servicing officers abusing and murdering women and the ongoing Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, it’s disappointing that there’s not much referencing any of these.

Notwithstanding that, which I can understand – these are fairly fluffy books, and I can see why Aaronovitch might want to keep real world ugliness out of them – it was a whole lot of fun, and I look forward to the next one.

Book details

ISBN: 9781399603096
Publisher: Orion
Year of publication: 2022

The Red House Mystery

By A.A. Milne

Rating: 4 stars

I had been completely unaware of A. A. Milne’s work beyond Winnie the Pooh until a chance reference to this on, of all places, File 770. I was intrigued and when I found out it was out of copyright and available on Project Gutenberg, I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s a locked room mystery, with our amateur detective, Anthony Gillingham, wandering on to the scene by coincidence, just after the death of the brother of Mark Ablett, the owner of the titular Red House. We follow Anthony as he gets to grips with the people and the events, with his friend Bill as the Watson to his Holmes.

The book had actually kicked off from the point of view of the housemaid, and I’d wondered if we were going to going to get something more understanding of the household staff, but after that first chapter, they are left far behind. Although incidentally, I do think there’s an interesting story to be told from that angle – after all, in this period, who notices the servants? I had high hopes of the film Gosford Park for this, but it was more interested in the upstairs/downstairs social shenanigans than the mystery angle.

But putting that to one side and taking it as it was, I enjoyed this a lot. There was enough information revealed to the reader at the same time as the protagonist that I could keep coming up with the same sort of theories that Anthony was and although it was fairly clear who the murderer was fairly early on, the how and the why were left to the final chapter, as in any good whodunnit.

I enjoyed Anthony as a protagonist. He was a fun character and I sort of wish that Milne had written more stories with him. The idea of someone getting an inheritance and then using it to take on all sorts of careers, keeping them up for as long as he wanted, tobacconist and waiter being but two of his former professions, and having the security to move on when it stopped being fun. I think many people would envy that. It also helps that he’s a really nice chap too.

So an enjoyable whodunnit, well told and set in the heart of the Edwardian period (or the modern day, as it would have been at the time). He’s not written an awful lot of other novels, but off the back of this, I’d definitely be interested in seeking some of his others out.

Book details

Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Year of publication: 1999

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club #1)

By Richard Osman

Rating: 3 stars

I nearly gave up on this book under a quarter of the way through. I just wasn’t enjoying it very much. I found the main characters pretty cardboard, the villain of the piece was completely pantomime and the writing was so-so. I thought to myself that if it didn’t improve by the 100 page mark, I’d give up. I pushed on even past the quarter way limit I’d set and eventually it settled down a bit and I started to enjoy it.

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim are residents of a well to do retirement village in the picturesque English countryside, whose hobby is to look over old police files trying to spot clues that were missed in the original investigation. Then there’s a murder right on their doorstep and they’ve got a hot case to deal with, rather than their usual cold ones.

The book is structured with lots of very short chapters (possibly designed for people who don’t usually read books and who bought it purely on the back of the author’s fame. Cynical? Moi?). Some are first person as Joyce’s diary, while the rest are third person, usually following one or two of the cast as they go about detecting. It’s never made clear why we get these “diary extracts” but it does help you sympathise with Joyce. I’m going to skip past Elizabeth’s very convenient past as some sort of superspy which gives her many favours that she can call in and lots of spycraft and contacts because, well, at that point you’ve just got to accept the conceit and move on.

One thing the book does well, especially later on, is show you the realities of old age. Of the ever-present fear that this spring could be the last you’ll see. That your partner of so long is starting to lose their facilities, that you shouldn’t really get a young dog, now should you? There’s a lot of melancholy, but also the warmth of a long and fulfilled life. That picture into ageing is, for me, really the USP on this book, since, as a mystery, it leaves something to be desired. I really don’t think you could have solved the case on your own, since to do so requires information that the reader isn’t given, until it’s revealed in appropriately dramatic fashion.

So the characterisation of the heroes improves, and it becomes a light, entertaining read. The villain does remain pretty pantomime throughout though. I enjoyed it well enough, but have no desire to pick up any future books in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780241988268
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2021

Tales from the Folly: A Rivers of London Short Story Collection

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

This collection brings together a number of stories about Peter Grant and others with knowledge of magic in his world. These have mostly be reprinted elsewhere and I’ve read most of them before, although it’s still nice to have them all in one place.

The book is ordered by putting the Grant stories together at the front and the others at the back. I preferred to mix them up, so I tend to alternative a Peter story with a non-Peter story. Of the Peter stories, King of the Rats was a bit disappointing, as it stopped just as it was getting interesting. I’ve got a vague feeling that more of that story might have been covered in one of the novels, but after eight books and counting, I’m finding it hard to keep track. Much better was A Rare Book of Cunning Device, seeing Peter chasing something deep in the stacks of the British Library, and introducing the rather marvellous Elsie ‘Hatbox’ Winstanley. Aaronovitch teased a future short featuring her and resident Folly library Harold Postmartin, which I think would be an awful lot of fun.

Of the non-Peter stories, Three Rivers, Two Husbands and a Baby was probably my favourite, dealing with the aftermath of Peter and Beverly’s, er, excursion in the river Lugg. It was one of the few stories that I hadn’t read before as well. There were three flash pieces amongst the non-Grant stories as well, which Aaronovitch calls ‘Moments’. I’ve recently discovered that these tend to be available online and you can find links to all of them on the Follypedia.

Not an essential volume, by any means, especially if you tend to get the Waterstones editions of the books, which usually have a short story at the end (most of the ones in this collection started off life as Wasterstones exclusives), but spending time in Peter Grant’s world is always fun and the stories do help round out the characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9781625675095
Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.
Year of publication: 2020

Monday, Monday

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 4 stars

It took a while to figure out what this clever little graphic novel was doing, and once I did realise, I had to go back and re-read it as soon as I’d finished it. Each of its four chapters (issues) tells the story of the same day in the life of the Metropolitan Police, from four different points of view. First we see series regular DI Stephanopoulos’ day, as she takes over an active operation from an injured colleague, finding it not working as smoothly as it should, and worrying about corruption.

The second chapter is interesting because it not only has Nightingale’s perspective in the present, as he leads a short course for officers on detecting vestigia and when to call in the Folly, but we get flashbacks to his youth, both in his school days, and his service in the second world war. Which reminds me – we know that Nightingale fought in WW2, but this flashback suggests that his true youth was in the early part of the twentieth century and he may have had a hand in the Great War too, despite the best intentions of his headmaster. There’s also a lovely sequence to contrast this, as Nightingale looks after Peter’s new children during a childcare crisis – a side to him that we’ve not seen before.

The third chapter starts with Peter dealing with new parenthood (twins, no less!) and then shows how he fits into Stephanopoulos’ investigation. There’s a lovely little section near the start with Peter at home with the twins where he gets out a measuring tape and tries to analyse at what point they start to cry when separated from each other. It’s as pure Peter Grant as you can get and a lovely little aside that had me grinning to myself. The military foxes also make a return, as they are now providing protection for the twins from, amongst others, unauthorised personnel, ne’er do wells, intruders and, of course, cats.

The final chapter ties it all together, as it follows Abigail and Foxglove in their own little adventure, and discover how it intersects with what the others have been doing. While much of whole graphic novel is wordless, it’s much more evident in this last one, as it leans heavily on the art to tell the story, quite successfully, too.

It’s a nice storytelling idea and rewards re-reads. Random little asides and what had seemed to be artistic non sequiturs that make sense in context of what we find out later on as we integrate them into a fuller picture. And, of course, I’m always keen to find out more about Nightingale’s past.

The artist has changed again for this volume, bringing it more closely in style to the earlier work, which I enjoyed more, so this felt more familiar and comfortable to me than the last few volumes.

A fun story here, and one that ties into the wider mythos of Aaronovitch’s world. The comics are good, but, as always, I look forward to the next novel in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781787736269
Publisher: Titan Comics
Year of publication: 2021

The Man in the Brown Suit (Colonel Race #1)

By Agatha Christie

Rating: 4 stars

Anne Beddingfeld is a newly orphaned, but adventurous young Englishwoman, who witnesses a man falling to his death in the London underground. This leads to somewhat more adventure than Anne bargained for and a trail that leads to South Africa and maybe even true love.

I hadn’t realised that this book didn’t star one of Christie’s famous detectives, but Anne was an awful lot of fun. The story is told in the first person as her memoir of the affair, with some chapters being “extracted” from the diary of an MP that Anne happens to encounter.

Anne’s fellow travellers on the ship that takes her to Africa are a varied bunch, each well drawn and with their own characterisation, letting the reader put them into their own mental map of the plot. I especially liked Mrs Suzanne Blair, the society lady that Anne takes into her confidence; and Guy Pagett, the rather prim secretary of MP Sir Eustace Pedlar – he reminds me of that wonderful PG Wodehouse creation, The Efficient Baxter.

The identity of the mastermind behind the whole thing caught me entirely by surprise, the whole thing was deftly put together, with all the clues and red herrings that you’d expect from the Queen of Crime. While I was a bit disappointed not have Hercule Poirot solving the mystery, Anne is a delightful character and I couldn’t stay mad at her for long.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007151660
Publisher: HarperCollinspublishers
Year of publication: 2002

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