The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

“I admit I did not plan my escape very well, but the fact is that I had not planned it at all.”

There is something enduringly appealing about the Victorian mystery, which is probably what caught my eye on this one – along with the title I’ve been misspelling all over the place! ūüėČ Think Sherlock Holmes – mentioned in-novel as a fiction, with Arthur Conan Doyle a contemporary figure – but with a female¬†Watson narrating. Indeed, Miss Lane (she does have a first name, but the reveal is one of the mysteries of the book ūüėČ )¬†has an¬†excellent detective mind in her own right, but she’s a little more down to earth than her ‘Sherlock’, Jasper Jesperson.

The case(s) told here are strongly linked to Miss Lane’s past as a debunker of psychic frauds. When faced with what could well be the ‘real thing’, the crime solving duo must also deduce any links to the disappearing mediums in the city, while trying to set up their new partnership with more mundane cases, like the mysterious sleepwalking of their landlord’s brother in law. And there’s still the shadow of Miss Lane’s previous partner to be dealt with…

I did enjoy this book, but there were a few things that irritated me a little. Firstly, the first person narrative is just a little too… well, full of moans about emotions and doubts and feelings. I don’t want to say it’s ‘girly’, but I’m struggling to find another phrase. There is something just ‘meh’ about a lead character voicing their doubts and fears every few paragraphs.

The other main character, Jesperson, is the opposite: head first into everything with an enormous sense of adventure – which, alas, ends up coming across as childish, not least because he still lives with his mother (the Mrs Hudson of the piece) and acts out like a spoiled brat once or twice. Oh, and of course he’s a martial arts expert, master hypnotist, and not quite as differentiated from the ‘Great Detective’ as I imagine he was supposed to be. Hmm.

Overall, though, the story was intriguing and fun and the period mood remained appealing, so it’s rather a shame I didn’t get on too well with the characterisation. That said, this looks like it might be the first in a series, and I’d quite like to see where it all goes next.

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 32 chapters
First published: May 2017
Series: The Curious Affair Of book 1
Read from 7th-14th May 2017

My rating: 6.5/10

The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith

“Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of Kgale Hill.”

This is one of those books that I sort of meant to read somewhere along the way, and never quite got around to – huge thanks to NetGalley, therefore, for the eARC and chance to rectify that!

My awareness of this series actually comes from the TV adaptation done back in 2009 (who let that be so long ago?! o_O) which I enjoyed: it was ‘nice’ and sweet¬†and a lovely glimpse of a culture vastly different to my own.

The source book isn’t so very different, and a vague remembering of the plot lines only added to the sense of coziness. There is something lovely about snuggling under the duvet on a cold Scottish evening (and, of course, the author is based locally, but has lived in Botswana) reading about the vastness of the Kalahari.

I’m wary of the idea of taking this as too true to life – I’m sure the realities are a little less sugar-coated, despite the mentions of scorpions, snakes, and witch doctors. But, in a world such as the one we find ourselves in right now, I’ll take cosy and comforting – especially one that lets me ‘travel’ as far as this.

Looking forward to picking up the sequels – and there are many! –¬†with far less delay!

NetGalley eARC: ~235 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 1998
Series: No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency¬†book¬†1 (of 17, currently)
Read from 2nd-8th March 2017

My rating: 7/10

Elementary, She Read – Vicki Delany

“The Great Detective eyed me. I eyed him back. ‘Don’t give me any of your cheek, you.'”

I’m a sucker for books about books, or set in book shops. I’m also quite fond of Sherlock Holmes, especially the newer versions, so there was a lot to catch my eye with this one.

Gemma Doyle Рprobably distantly related to the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, according to her own uncle Arthur Рleft England after the breakup of her marriage, and now owns and runs a Sherlock Holmes-themed store in a small tourist town in Cape Cod, North America. When she discovers what looks to be a rare original magazine containing the first Holmes story, hidden on a shelf in her shop, her instincts tell her something is clearly afoot.

Her own sleuthing abilities quickly help her track down the magazine’s owner –¬†alas, a little bit dead. Unless there’s a hugely improbable coincidence going on, Gemma deducts that the two events are likely connected. However, her attempts to figure out what might be going on bring her into the focus of the police – and Gemma is soon the prime suspect in not one but several crimes!

I found this a sweet, light little tale. The mystery is well handled, overall, and suitably, urm, mysterious (!),¬†but¬†to be honest the ‘nice’ tone is probably the strongest element. Small town life, great friends, owning a bookstore, eating leftover scones from the tearoom every day – it’s all very lovely. Just, y’know, with added dead people o_O

The characters – supporting in particular – do tend a little toward the one-dimensional (harridan neighbouring shop owner, for instance).¬†As the main character, Gemma is a bit¬†harder to critique. On the one hand, there is a large amount of hinted-at backstory, which¬†provides an interesting depth, but on the other it’s odd that she is so completely unaware of being a female Sherlock Holmes. In fact, that’s sort of the point of the book: female sleuth with incredible powers of deduction, and a best friend with the initials JW.

Overall, I liked – I was in the mood for something candyfloss light, and this pretty much fit the bill. I’d happily peruse some of the next volumes if/when they happen, but don’t go looking for the next thrilling page-gripper.

NetGalley eARC: ~320 pages / 21 chapters
First published: March 2017
Series: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery book 1
Read from 18-20th February 2017

My rating: 7/10

Inferno (2016)

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in hospital with no memory of the past few days – indeed, he cannot recall how or why he’s in Italy, never mind why someone might have been shooting at him.

Despite hallucinations and sensory overload from his head wound, it’s not too long before¬†the Professor of symbology is dashing through Florence¬†solving puzzle clues left by a madman – leading to¬†nothing less than a plague that will wipe out half of mankind! Assisted by the lovely genius doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones, soon to be seen in¬†Rogue One), Langdon chases puzzles based around Dante’s inferno –¬†the poet’s defining vision of hell. Unable to remember or figure out who they can trust, can the duo prevent the apocalypse?

Having seen a lot of movies in a short space of time, this was easily the most disappointing. It does that usual thing of being very Big and Flashy, and ultimately hollow and not desperately satisfying. On the other hand, that sounds pretty much right for a Dan Brown adaptation ūüėČ

What is done well: ¬†the opening of the movie has a good stab at portraying the effects of head trauma, and the special effects showing Langdon’s hallucinations of Dante’s hell. These look pretty great on the big screen, although aren’t necessarily used as well as they could have been. Certainly, by the time we get to the end they’ve been shown so often as to have lost much of the drama.

The rest isn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s all a bit ‘meh’ at the end of the day – the kind of movie that helps me see what some of my blockbuster-phobic friends have against this kind of soulless, big screen ‘movie of the week’ spectacle that ultimately manages to be borderline on entertainment only if you switch your brain off. And while I will argue with them massively over superhero movies, this one isn’t really worth the effort.

Overall: if you liked the first two, this one’s probably a little better. Maybe.

Released: 14th October 2016
Viewed: 15th October 2016
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

The Lie Tree – Frances Hardinge

“The boat moved with a nauseous, relentless rhythm, like someone chewing on a rotten tooth.”

Occasionally a book comes with just so much praise that it can only be a disappointment Рright?  And so I started the much-hyped The Lie Tree with a little trepidation.

Faith is in that awkward phase – no longer quite a child, not quite a woman.¬†She also rather awkwardly has a brain, not something that’s looked kindly upon in the times that she lives in, and far more of a taste for adventure (i.e. any) than her class breeding allows for. She’s caught between a mother who seems self-centred in the extreme, and a father who’s cool and distant – and apparently in some kind of trouble, as we start the book with the whole family being moved away from society to escape some unnamed disgrace.

But since “All knowledge – any knowledge – called to Faith, and there was a delicious, poisonous pleasure in stealing it unseen”, it’s not too long before she figures out what’s going on, and that at the root of it all is a tree. A fantastical, impossible tree, which shuns daylight and feeds on lies whispered to it. Feed the tree, and the fruit it bears will show you a truth – the bigger the lie, the bigger the revelation. How far¬†would you go to uncover the ultimate truth?

I’m not going to suggest that this book is perfect, by any means, but boy does it give it a good go at getting there! If anything let it down just a little, it was perhaps that the overall story couldn’t quite live up to my expectations – not from others raving about the book, but from the amazing tension and darkness and mystery that builds up over the course of the telling.

It’s a deliciously dark book, full of the frustration of being a young girl/woman in a century that is more constricting than the corsets Faith is ‘training’ to wear.¬†The way that she’s¬†dismissed as less – well, everything – than her young brother left me wanting to claw¬†someone’s eyes out! It’s so fitting, then, that it is Faith who gets to make the discoveries, to seek out the truth – even if she has to do it behind everyone’s back and by telling the blackest of lies.

While the story is only 90% there for me in the end, despite or possibly because of some of the later twists and turns, the world building is spot on. I was utterly sucked in to the atmosphere the author creates. This is not a book you can read in small doses – it’s the kind that demands a curling up on the sofa with plenty of refreshments, while you devour as much as you can in long sittings!

Recommended. Duh! ūüėČ

Paperback: 410 pages / 36 chapters
First published: 2015
Series: none
Read from 26th-29th August 2016

My rating: 9/10

Mystery Mile – Margery Allingham

“‘I’ll bet you fifty dollars, even money,’ said the American who was sitting nearest the door in the opulent lounge of the homeward-bound¬†Elephantine, ‘that that man over there is murdered within a fortnight.’

I’m on a little bit of a Margery Allingham binge at the moment, following¬†The White Cottage Mystery¬†and¬†The Crime at Black Dudley. Indeed, it was getting hold of this¬†eARC of the rereleased second volume of the Campion mysteries that drove me to read the first, and while I enjoyed it, I’m happy to report that the second in the series is a much stronger affair.

Albert Campion is very much the main character this time, foiling a murder attempt on a cruise ship in the opening chapter. The intended victim turns out to be an American judge, travelling to England in the hopes of avoiding the mysterious Simister Рa very Keyser Soze-like figure of myth and rumour Рand his gang of criminals, who are trying to either kill him Рperhaps in revenge Рor at least scare him away from revealing information about the shadowy leader.

Campion takes the judge and his two adult offspring to stay in the tiny village of Mystery Mile, hoping they’ll be safe. Of course, things can’t possibly go to plan…

As ever, I love the period¬†setting of these books and the way they¬†let me remember the TV adaption I loved as a kid.¬†Mystery Mile was actually used¬†for one of the¬†episodes, which made for an odd deja vu in the reading. However, the writing – the story structure¬†in particular¬†– is much stronger here than the previous examples of Ms Allingham’s work I’ve tried, and between that and my dodgy memory I really was left¬†puzzling over the mysteries through most of the book.

There are a few references in this volume to the previous misadventure, but not so much that you have to have read it first. Indeed, I’d suggest this is a better introduction to the mysterious, frivolous, but sneakily crafty, Campion and his world. It does perhaps stray just a little darker than the previous tales, but I still loved the brief sojourn to a whole other place and time, where the police didn’t look too hard at the blackmail material, content to let the victims live their lives while the criminals come to a sticky end!

NetGalley eARC: ~224 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 1930
Series: Campion book 2
Read from 28th-30th June 2016

My rating: 7/10

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham

“The view from the narrow window was dreary and inexpressibly lonely.”

Invited to spend the weekend at Black Dudley, an imposing and isolated manor house, a group of people are left wondering if one of the party is a murderer after a party game goes horrifically wrong in the dark. Their notions of law and order are further challenged when they find themselves held captive in the house, caught up in a dangerous power struggle between rival criminal gangs. And through it all, everyone is left to wonder: who is the mysterious Albert Campion?

I suppose I should review the book rather than the format, but this was the first time I’ve listened to a complete¬†audio book, which does rather colour my experience. At first it was very odd, and I did wonder if the narrator ‘doing the voices’ was going to put me off. Plus, it was a very slow way for me to get through a book, given my usual reading speed.

However, once I forced myself to settle a bit, I loved it! Probably elements of remembering being read to as a child, there was something extremely relaxing about putting on a chapter or two before bed and focusing complete attention on the words – no letting your mind wander, if you want to follow the story!

So, that story. I think it was well-suited to the audio format, the whole thing gaining some weight purely from the length of time it took to listen to, while actually being a relatively slight volume. I learned how visual my recall is, struggling a little with the cast of characters at times, despite the different attempted voices. The accents, though, did add to the mood of the piece.

I was surprised when the story changed quite dramatically several chapters from the end, against my expectations. It was also unexpected how little Campion himself is in the story: a key character, but not the lead role. A little reading up shows that Allingham probably intended for pathologist, Dr Abbershaw, to star in an ongoing series, before response to the book suggested the foppish, not-what-he-seems character of Campion to be the more intriguing.

Overall,¬†the story is more rounded and self-assured than Allingham’s first,¬†The White Cottage Mystery, and like that book I loved the less-than-grim mystery and period setting. Slightly flat characters and the pacing¬†of the story structure mean¬†I can’t give it a very high rating, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the break from my more usual kind of reading.

Audiobook: ~208 pages / 7 hours 33 listening time / 29 chapters
First published: 1929
Series: Campion book 1
Read from 9th-28th June 2016

My rating: 6/10 for the quaint mystery, higher for the audio book experience