Books · Review · YA


A beautifully rendered YA ghost story

I’m not a big YA reader, but you can definitely sell me a book with a cover, and Pam Sym’s Thornhill is a good example. Although I didn’t actually buy it (it arrived in the staff room as part of the appraisal batch we received in advance of the Waterstone’s Childrens’ Book Award) it was the cover that pulled me in. Charmingly dark and Gothic with a moleskin-feel, and black-edged pages, I wanted to read it just so that I could touch it.*

Thornhill by Pam Sym

This is not a complex book, it’s not an original story but it is beautifully and originally delivered. I read it in a matter of hours, helped by the form of the binary narratives.

The story revolves around the lives of two lonely girls, Mary and Ella. Mary is an orphan, and Ella the only child of a mostly-absent, widowed father. Mary’s somewhat more complex narrative is delivered in a series of diary entries, whilst the simpler tale of Ella is depicted in Sym’s cleverly constructed, and beautiful black and white illustrations.

Their stories converge when Ella and her father move into a house over-looking the old orphanage (Thornhill), and Ella starts seeing a strange girl in the over-run, and fenced off grounds of the building.

There is definite homage paid to Francis Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden which not only provides clear inspiration but is actually cited as a favourite book for both girls. Mary, isolated from her peers by selective mutism, finds expression in the making of puppets which she models on characters from her favourite books. As we intersect with her story she has just begun to fashion the characters from Burnett’s book.  The two girls’ interest in each other grows to nascent friendship when Ella finds and repairs one of the puppets that had been left broken and lost in an enclosed garden in the grounds of Thornhill.

I really enjoyed this book. I felt for both girls, and felt the frustration of any parent at the poor choices made by the attendant adults in the tale, but ultimately it is a story about friendship, and how somewhere there is a friend for everyone. Though – again as a parent – I have some reservations about the conclusion as a cure for loneliness. I’m also left with the impression that there may have been another direction this book was originally taking. There are details in the story that suggested to me a different conclusion, or even another character emerging, and when that didn’t happen the attribution for certain events didn’t really ring true. That said I doubt if it is obvious enough for most of the target audience to either notice or worry about.

Overall, definitely worth the read. 

*I’m a bookseller, fondling books is one of the perks. If you think that’s weird you should be in a bookshop when two or more of us are stood around together sniffing copies of a new book and comparing it to other fragrances we have known.

Books · Review

Bats in The Belfry

A Cosy Crime sleeper worthy of resurrection

I’m a huge fan of Cosy Crime, I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, so it should be no surprise that I’m a big fan of the British Library’s inspired decision to republish lost Golden Age novels.

Fifty-one re-issues in and I’m still stunned at the number of authors who had stellar careers as crime writers, were fully inducted members of the Detection Club, and had publication lists to rival Christie’s but who, within a few years of their deaths, had just vanished from the pantheon classic crime novelists.

Bats In The BelfrySuch a writer was E.C.R.Lorac, author of Bats In The Belfry. In his introduction Martin Edwards describes  the pseudonymous Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett)  as enjoying a “low-key career spanning more than a quarter of a century.” It also produced a catalogue of over seventy novels, yet, cosy crime fan that I am I had  never heard of her until her book turned up on my work intranet.

Bats, British Library’s inaugural Crime Classic for 2018, is also the first of Lorac’s novels to be given the British Library treatment.  It couldn’t have happened to a better book! One of the dangers of republishing books that have disappeared in the mists of time, at least if you are republishing them for the mass market, is that some of them will prove to have  been ‘lost’ with good cause. Not that the writing need be poor or the plotting weak, but there are social aspects that can be critical to the development or fundamental premise of the story that change over the course of  half a century. When that happens there is a danger that the reader will at best be disgruntled with a puzzle they were unlikely to be able to solve because they didn’t understand the clues they were being given,  or, at worst, that the whole premise will seem beyond ludicrous to modern readers. Of the twenty or so BLCC’s I have read only one has fallen into the latter category, and whilst there have been one or two which were a bit plodding thanks to such issues they have largely been a pleasure to read, and I have been able to joyfully pit my wits against the authors’ intrinsic challenge to solve the mystery before the denouement.

Bats in the Belfry most definitely falls into this class of Crime Classic, so much so that it’s a surprise to find from Edwards that it was a bit of a non-starter when it was first  published in 1937.

A failing writer, his actress wife, his ward and a selection of friends are collected one evening following the funeral of the writer’s cousin. Shortly thereafter the writer himself has vanished, his suitcase and passport left in a darkly sinister studio known variously as The Belfry, and The Morgue.  The story is as dark and twisty as any you could hope for from a member of the Detection Club, and it plays nicely on themes of the time. Broken marriages, financially emasculated men, and the requisite ‘strange foreign man’ all appear, and even aarchaeology gets a look in.  As the main characters sit and incautiously discuss ways to bump off someone and hide the body there is brief verbal tussle over the usefulness – and even existence of – dene holes, ancient subterranean storage areas that provided writers of the time with endless possibilities, most notably in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  Lorac’s plotting is flawless and deceptively simplistic, and she leads you back and forth from suspect to suspect. She is brutally unsympathetic to her characters, and her writing bundles you along until you finally reach the conclusion, to discover how good you are at detecting. Or not.



Books · Review

Force of Nature

Jane  Harper builds on the promise of her debut novel 

Harper’s debut novel ,’The Dry‘,  was one of my personal books of the year last year, and in fact I still sell it quite regularly to customers seeking recommendations. I was absolutely delighted ,then, to receive a proof copy of her new novel,Force of Nature‘, from LittleBrown.

The plot is fairly straightforward , five female colleagues take part in a team-building weekend in the forests north of Melbourne. Three days later and several hours behind schedule four of them finally struggle back to the base camp, dehydrated, panicked and battered. The fifth one – Alice Russell, unpopular with the others – walked out of the camp one night and hasn’t been seen since.

force of nature cover
Force of Nature by Jane Harper will be published in hardback on 08/02/2018 by LittleBrown

Is her disappearance linked to the serial killer who had made the area his hunting ground twenty years earlier, or is it the result of the bullying,  anger and resentment that permeates the group? Or is it less than a coincidence that the woman who is missing is an informant for Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, the officer investigating her employers for money laundering?

In ‘The DryHarper used binary narratives – one historical, one contemporary – to artfully unravel a single story. She repeats this formula in ‘Force of Nature’ with equal success,  the only difference being that in this instance the ‘historical’ events preceded the contemporary events by a few days, rather than decades.

One of the outstanding qualities of Harper’s writing is her character development. She delivers convincing and well-realised personalities who manage to be separate and distinct from each other without falling into charicature-like stereotypes. The  new book makes the most of this particular skill, building one of the narrative lines from the alternating perspectives of the remaining four women of the group, and using it to steer the story in different ways unique to each character.

This is a beautiful example of Harper’s defining quality as a writer: the ability to  carry a simple, uncomplicated storyline with masterful writing and composition. The way she utilises the voices of her characters: the careful, almost throw-away manner she drops in suggestions that could as easily be red-herrings as critical plot devices. With perfect pacing that builds exponentially to a dramatic,  whirling climax Harper unravels a gripping tale.

Two books in an she has already made it onto my ‘favourite authors’ list. I shall be reserving space on my bookshelves for all her future books.



My Goodreads annual summary

My Year In Books 2017

Screenshot-2018-1-2 Goodreads 2017 Year in Books


My book absorption for 2017. Not as impressive as I would have liked, but there have been some great books in it. I have had the pleasure, this year, of discovering a number of new authors that I have immediately fallen in love with. A couple of whom even had the great decency to already have a good back-catalogue for me to work through!

There were some dark moments this year. Certainly one of the darkest but most compelling books I have ever read, made it onto the list.  One or two debut authors, and a couple of returning favourites.

Stand-out names this year for me have been Abir Mukherjee, Jodi Taylor, Jane Harper, Laura Lippman and Ben Aaronovitch and – absolutely not ‘least’ – Adam Kay whose book This Is Hurt  Going To Hurt should be required reading for anyone who thinking of criticising the NHS or supporting J.Hunt in his efforts to break it.


Books · Grahpic Novel · Review

Flashpoint, & Flashpoint ft. Batman

 Geoff Johns, &  Brian Azzarello
I don’t do DC but Dystopian Dystopia was more than I could resist.


Ok, so I arrived late at this particular game. I’m not the world’s biggest graphic novel reader, and I tend to stick to the independents. I haven’t read anything off the Marvel or D.C. shelves since I was a kid, pushing forty years ago.

It’s not that I don’t like them. I cut my teeth all those decades ago on regular doses of X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but that was back in the days when they were still comics, and fandom didn’t require that you memorised every detail of all of the characters lives and evolutions through different multi-verse manifestations. I can’t be bothered with that shit. Also, I like things a little twisted and, really, superhero books are ultimately all superhero books, no matter how anti-hero the superheroes are.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman and Iron Man: I love X-Men and Wonder Woman, but I’m not really interested in reading my way through the umpteen different series each major character has spawned.

Enter: a customer in the shop one day. He starts rattling on about this alternate DC Universe stuff: a series of books were the nominally twisted world of DC becomes even more twisted and warped. Where Wonder Woman is at war with Aquaman and half of Europe has been sunk. A universe SO twisted that when the Waynes are held up in the alley – it’s not Thomas and Martha that are killed, and so it’s not Bruce that becomes Batman…

Well, I was never going to resist something that twisted and warped and now, two books in, I’m spending as much time researching all the stuff I missed by not reading all those comic-books as I am actually reading the comic-books!

Anyway, long story short: These story lines are fantastic, and if you like DC, and you like twisted you should definitely be reading them.

Books · Review

I Am No One

By Patrick Flanery
Half hearted ‘cyber thriller’  isn’t very ‘cyber’ and fails to really ‘thrill’

I Am No One CoverWritten in the first person I Am No One is the account of recent events in the life of the fictional NY academic, Jeremy O’Keefe. O’Keefe, ironically an expert in surveillance, finds himself the subject of apparent scrutiny by unknown observers, a discovery that propels him into paranoia and pushes him to the boundaries of sanity. As the story is unpacked, page by page, it becomes clear that O’Keefe’s paranoia is not unfounded, and that his initial confusion as to why anyone would want to bother observing the behaviour of a mundane and only moderately successful Professor actually belies a deeper understanding of the cause and his actions that precipitated it.

O’Keefe is a difficult character to really sympathise with. Whilst his ideology is admirably egalitarian he falls into that bracket of slightly stuffy, middle-class liberals who take themselves too seriously and fail to practise what they preach. In fairness to O’Keefe he largely has the grace and self-awareness to question the rationality of his fears and accidental moments of prejudice (though he is of the very typical male Liberal variety that doesn’t seem to recognise the contradiction of professing himself feminist whilst watching porn): slightly pompous, slightly too much self-regard slightly too much sense of victimhood, he is not unlikeable just a bit of a non-entity. Whilst this is clearly intentional it makes his narrative stodgy. Not unreadable, but at the same time easy to put down for a week whilst a more engaging book is read. This is either a spectacularly adept piece of characterisation or an unfortunate reflection of the author, Patrick Flanery. I do hope it is the writing because if not then all the peculiar, inaccurate and unlikely observations made by O’Keefe on behalf of his character regarding differences between the British and Americans are likely also Flanery’s. For example the breath-taking assertion that socio-economic failure is treated more harshly in the UK than in the US, when any basic knowledge of sociology in the two countries shows that the criteria for failure is a) much broader in the US and b) responded to far more harshly, e.g.: “if you don’t earn enough from your three jobs to afford medical insurance to pay for your cancer treatment, you clearly haven’t worked hard enough. The fault is yours , you are a failure and the punishment is premature death.”. It is also difficult to accept that Flanery is regularly treated with distrust and dislike by bank cashiers for his Irish name. Quite aside from anything else most bank cashiers in this country now aren’t old enough to remember the Irish troubles, and the bigots-for-bigotry’s-sake have long since transferred their angst from the Irish to the Poles and the Muslims.

Flanery is also an academic, something that is abundantly obvious from the highly structured writing method he employs in this book. The reader is left with the impression that where other novelists write books to be read as stories Flanery has written a text with an eye to future deconstruction by English Lit students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but occasionally one wishes he could have been a little less concerned with construction in the minutiae and more concerned with crafting a story with a complete beginning, middle and end: and therein lies one of the greatest failings of this book: it has no real conclusion. Questions are raised that go unanswered. In particular there are issues with characters, whose true identity may never be elaborated upon or, in the case of his girlfriend who makes a sudden, poorly explained behavioural volte-face that is entirely out of character but provides Flanery with a device to enable his protagonist take the critical closing step to the tale.

It seems that Flanery has written this book as a parable on the dangers of unfettered digital surveillance: how easy it is for those who wish to to access all our personal data and how very quickly and efficiently lives can be subverted. Whilst this may be a revelation to a few it has to be said that there is nothing revealed in this book about the scope and methods of data collection that anyone who has even a small amount of technical savvy won’t already know, which rather undermines it as an expose. The book also attempts to portray how easy it is to suddenly and unintentionally find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately in this story the actions which purport to have landed O’Keefe in possible criminality are so ridiculous and far-fetched that only the most paranoid would ever see an offence in them. Contrary to highlighting the ease with which the well intentioned can unwittingly find themselves in need of lawyers it suggests that all the peripheral characters are actually far more paranoid and delusional than O’Keefe will ever be

Books · Review

Wilde Lake

by Laura Lippman
Beautifully rendered story chronicling the awful collision between events past and present for a newly inaugurated District Attorney.


9780571321766 Thank you to Andrew at Faber & Faber for the ARC. This book was the first in a run of a fantastic half dozen or so that I read back-to-back – either ARC’s or proofs – and that were all compulsive reading.
OK – so my first admission here is that, although I read a lot of crime I have somehow managed to remain completely oblivious to the (quite large!) body of work from Ms. Lippman!

That said the, fact that there exists such a body to give evidence to her long experience as a writer goes someway to explaining the smooth skill with which the story of newly-appointed State’s Attorney, Lu Brandt, is unpackaged and delivered to the reader.

The story is told in a combination of first- and third-person relating current and past events. I found this a slightly odd and unsettling, though effective, way to use the voice of the narrator, and I was constantly bothered by who was narrating in the third-person sequences.

Lu Brandt, scion of a former and legendary State’s Attorney , grew up in the experimental new town of Columbia, in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake. For me she is one of the most realistic characters I have ever read, and I feel a strong empathy for the child Lu in the historic sequences, though she was far smarter than I ever was! Her mother’s death early in Lu’s life, her father’s immersion in his job and the age gap between Lu and her older brother left the precocious Lu with the feeling of always being an outsider in her own life, yet one with a unique and largely over-looked position from which to view the events of all their lives. In childhood this externalism simply confused her: as an adult she misconstrues it as casual and unintentional neglect – nothing she can’t overcome or forgive with an adult’s perspective. Gradually, though, she begins to feel there may have more deliberation behind it.

The plotline is simple: The first case to land on Lu’s desk in her new job is a mundane but nasty murder. Directing the police to be more thorough than her predecessor demanded Lu finds occasional links back to her earlier life in Colombia. At first these seem like nothing more than the kind of inter-connection of lives that is to be expected in small town, but the further she digs the closer to home the connections appear to come, and her earlier childhood observations begin to take on a more menacing cast.

This is not an original format or even a particularly uncommon story but it is in the details and the delivery that Lippman’s skill is brought to bear. The steady rhythm with which the facts and fictions, truth and lies are laid before the reader; the characters, who are developed from bright-eyed high-schoolers, through college and into more cynical middle-age; the events that carry those same characters to that darker stage of their lives – all of these aspects of the story are delivered with a style and depth that make this one of the most thoroughly engaging books I have read this year.