Book Review: Murder by Matchlight by E. C. R Lorac

He waited as she had bidden him, amusing himself by visualising the owner of the cheerful Cockney voice. A woman as old or older than himself, he judged (Macdonald was looking fifty in the face), a Londoner undoubtedly, one of the undaunted millions who take blackout and bombs in their stride, and prefer the hazards of those “twin b’s” to the “’orrible ’ush” of the safe countryside.

I haven’t read any of the British Library Crime Classics in a while despite the fact that I have enjoyed all the ones I have read so far. Murder by Matchlight is a recent re-publication of an author I had never heard of. I’m a fan of Golden Age crime fiction in general but this novel had an additional bonus for me- it was published in 1945 and is set during the war. It is an interesting novel and very readable, and I liked that the war time setting was integral to the plot. What made it truly fascinating though was the reality of it… This is a contemporary look at life in London during the Second World War. Blackouts and rationing are not new information to me of course but I feel there must be a realness to the way Lorac has her characters behave and feel given the publication date.

To add the last touch of grotesqueness to a grotesque night, Macdonald found that his share in the final rescue act (probably made, he reflected, at the risk of both their lives to judge from the creaks of the old house) was the salvaging of Mrs. Rameses’ silk stockings (in his pockets) and a quantity of her clothing (over his arm).

This mystery is investigated by Chief Inspector Macdonald after a man is murdered noiselessly in the dark of the blackout on a bridge in Regent’s Park. The mystery is made even more intriguing by the presence of two witnesses who initially kept their presence secret in the dark of the park and were then startled by the noise of the murdered Johnny Ward’s body falling.

The witnesses had only been able to hear what was happening as the only light in the park on this November night had been provided by Johnny briefly lighting a match in order to light his cigarette before he died.

An interesting cast of characters is quickly established as as well as the two witnesses, Johnny lived in a boarding house. As more is revealed about Johnny’s character and life it becomes clear that there could be multiple motives for his murder.

At first I was rather frustrated by the author seeming to use a number of coincidences to move the plot along but these were in fact explained convincingly as more was revealed.

The war time setting is used in the plot brilliantly, from the blackout adding a layer of possible deception to everything to the way that the suspects’ strength of character are seen through how they cope with living in London in wartime.

There are multiple episodes dealing with people being bombed out of their homes that adds a real depth to what could be just a pleasant, cosy read.

When Macdonald reached Dulverton Place the next morning, he was quite prepared for what he found: it seemed a logical continuity with the negative room. The short street still existed as a thoroughfare, but it ran through a level open space where small hummocks of rubble alone had been left by the demolition of bombed premises. There were acres of such open spaces between the Elephant and Castle and Camberwell Green. After one prolonged stare Macdonald made his way back to the main road and stopped the first Civil Defence worker he met. The C.I.D. man stated his identity and then, pointing to Dulverton Place he inquired: “When did that happen?”

“Last February,” was the answer. “Funny thing— that street survived all through the ’40–’ 41 blitz— never touched. Then on the night of February 10th a load of incendiaries came down on it. We got everybody out and put them in the big surface shelter at the end there— and then a big H.E. hit the shelter. Shocking business. Sheer bad luck.”

Macdonald nodded. “All that,” he said. “Some of them survive?”

“Oh yes. A surprising number. My God! I shan’t forget going in with the Rescue Squad… Some things you can’t forget.”

“I know,” said Macdonald, and for a few seconds they both stood in silence.

The mystery itself worked well and I would be tempted to read more of her work, even though it was the 1940s setting that sold me on this. I half guessed whodunit although not why and there were plenty of clues that I did not pick up on initially until they were made clear by the author.

It was a great pick for my 1945 read for A Century Of Books challenge and was the second book in a row I’ve read on my kindle and devoured in one sitting. If you like Golden Age crime or are interested in the Second World War it is well worth a read.

Fact is, I’m a bit tired of the case. It seems to me that the fact that one ne’er-do-well has met a violent end is not a matter of supreme importance in a world which is in the throes of a convulsion which may destroy civilisation itself before we’re through.

Book Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

I haven’t been reading much lately. Work has been a bit manic and I’ve found myself staying late more and more frequently. When I get home I’ve been parking myself in front of the TV instead of curling up with one of the million or so books in my flat.

I guess I have been picking away at several thing: A N Wilson’s doorstop of a book on The Victorians gets a chapter read of it every so often and I’ve been slowly working my way through Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia. I’ve even read a couple of Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories in the hope that she’ll be the author to convert me to the short story. Yet despite this worthy list I hadn’t actually got close to finishing a book in some time.

Then They Both Die at the End came along and completely swept me back up into reading. I tend to pick up bargains on the kindle every so often and then never read them. Then, unusually, I read this book within a month or so of downloading it, and I have to say it was a great choice to break my reading slump. I’m glad I followed whatever instinct made me pick this up. I’ve never read the author, and I don’t read much YA. What genre this book should be categorised as I don’t know, but I found it just to be a genuinely good book.

First of all though isn’t the title of this novel great? It has a really interesting concept to go with it too. If you are going to die in the next 24 hours you will get a phone call letting you know. It’s a simple premise which is carried out really well. To make things more interesting the characters don’t know when in the 24 hours they will die. It could be a minute after receiving the call or they could have over 23 hours left.

It opens up all sorts of questions: how would you live your final hours? Would you try and be as cautious as possible and eke out as many hours as you can get or try to do as much as possible in the time you have left? Would you want anyone to know? How would you treat someone if you know they are going to die that day?

And the one that particularly got me thinking- do you die because you know you are going to die that day? Do you set a chain of actions in motion that result in your death that would not have occurred if you did not know you were going to die that day?

It’s not often that I will have long, rambling chats about the books I read with my other half but this one really got me thinking and we had a really good conversation about it.

I think what really impressed me about this book though was how positive it was. It could have been really angst ridden and/ or almost a thriller or horror novel, trying to work out how this was happening to them. Instead it was all about learning how to live your life rather than about death. It was about the impact you can make on someone’s life and the importance of friendships, family and found family. For a book with the title They Both Die at the End it was a really positive book with some great take home messages.

This is primarily the story of two 18 year old boys who each receive the phonecall telling them they are going to die. Mateo Torrez is lonely, shy and cautious. He is alone in the world apart from his best friend and his Dad, who is in hospital in a coma. Rufus Emeterio, has lost his family and is in the Foster system. He’s made some mistakes and his actions at the start of the novel hang over him. He is really close with the other boys who are fostered with him and they have a really supportive relationship.

Inevitably, the two cross paths.

The phone calls themselves completely sold me on this author. On the one hand Mateo’s caller is so wrapped up in her own stress that she can’t even summon up the energy to talk to him sensitively. Rufus pleads with his caller that this can’t be right, he’s only eighteen, there must be a way out of this and his caller tells him that it could be worse and tells him a brutal story from earlier that day. Both Mateo and Rufus’ reactions felt realistic although they were both very different and so did the actions of the callers themselves. If your job was to tell people that they are going to die today isn’t it natural that you would eventually become desensitised to what you were doing or that it’s awful nature would become too much and you would just snap back at someone?

There isn’t a lot happening in this novel, but I think that is actually one of the positives of this book, and what makes it so readable. The two main characters’ development is done really well and I found myself empathising with both Mateo and Rufus at different times.

The world building of this Earth that is similar to ours but different in this one significant way is also clever. I particularly liked the use of social media and the way that culture has evolved to include significant numbers of people knowingly going about their final day on Earth, but that people still don’t know how to treat someone in this circumstance.

It is a book with a diverse set of characters, with lots of positive relationships portrayed that manages to be about coming to terms with dying young without being depressing.

This novel does change perspective a lot. This is mainly between Mateo and Rufus but also between various of their friends and other more random characters. These changes in perspective can be a little frustrating but the majority of the time the reader is either with Mateo or Rufus and the interludes with other characters are short. It helps that all of these do weave together in a way that makes sense towards the end of the novel.

I think if I had realised the age of the main characters in this novel I might have been less likely to pick it up, so I’m pretty glad I didn’t realise until I started reading.

I’ve struggled a little to write about this without spoilers and so some of the aspects I liked best about the book I can’t comment on without giving away how the book ends, but I did enjoy the entire book. It’s the sort of story that I think could have been ruined by the ending- and I felt that the finale of this book worked very well.

Finally, this book was published in 2017 so I am actually making some progress with my Century of Books challenge! Although after this slump I am really going to have to pick up the pace.

Top Ten Tuesdays: Books I Loved with Fewer than 2000 ratings on Goodreads

I must apologise. I wrote this post a few days ago and then completely forgot to schedule it. Work was frantic today then I had a leaving dinner for a colleague then came home to statistics drama (don’t ask!) so only remembered about this post just now.

Nonetheless it is still Tuesday… Just, which means I get to make a list! That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesdays lists give me an excuse to make a list each week.

I feel like this week’s list was made for me as I read a lot of lesser known authors.

Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre by Gwendoline Courtney

I loved this book so much when I read it. I read it for the first time a couple of years ago and I’ve read it several times since. It’s a great family story about four sisters getting a new Stepmother and it only has 48 ratings on Goodreads

Little G by E. M. Channon

This is another potential comfort read about a grumpy professor who is charmed against his will by the children next door and the young woman who helps to look after them. This was re-published a few years ago by Margin notes books and has since sadly gone back out of print. Impressively it doesn’t even seem to have an entry on Goodreads.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell

I fell in love with this book. Every so often a book comes along that you literally cannot put down. For me this Memoir of life in Chelsea during the blitz and it’s sequel (which was actually written earlier) The Dancing Bear about life in Berlin just after the war were truly un-put-down-able. I am so glad they were re-published by Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press but I think it’s such a shame that both of these have less than a hundred ratings on Goodreads each.

Underfoot in Show Business by Helene Hanff

I’ll admit 84 Charing Cross Road (and its sequel the Duchess of Bloomsbury Street) are my favourites of Hanff’s work, but this is a humorous gem too about Hanff’s earlier working years. With 511 Goodreads ratings it’s clearer a lot less well known than some of her other works.

The Exiles by Hilary McKay

I loved this hilarious trio of books about four sisters when I was younger. I re-read this a few years ago in a fit of nostalgia and was still laughing out loud. Can’t believe this only has 850 Goodreads ratings, were Hilary McKay books not a part of everyone’s childhood?

The First Violin by Jessie Fothergill

I can’t even remember how I stumbled across this 1877 novel but I really loved this tale of an English girl who travels to Germany and falls in love with a mysterious German man. I can’t remember how I came upon this but I can’t believe it’s so little known these days and has only 75 Goodreads ratings… It deserves more.

Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson

I’m not normally a fan of books involving infidelity but I loved this story. It’s also set in Vienna before the first World War so I was probably always going to adore this.

Gerald by Daphne Du Maurier

This biography of Gerald Du Maurier is rather interesting. Whether because Gerald seemed like an interesting character, because it was a biography written by his daughter or because his daughter was Daphne du Maurier, most likely a combination of all three but regardless this was an interesting read that somehow has only 77 ratings.

Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck

This is another Furrowed Middlebrow reprint that I recently enjoyed about a week in the life of a Vicar’s wife in 1940. I think Peck definitely counts as a forgotten female author with just 86 ratings on Goodreads.

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

My recent introduction to Spark via this book sent me scurrying to find more of her work, but this is clearly not one of her more well known novels with only 547 ratings.

Some books that I wrongly thought might be under 2,000 ratings…

Deathless by Cathrynne M Valente- 2097 ratings

Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf- 4130 ratings

The School At the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer- 3471 ratings

Come Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan- 2535 ratings

Graveyard Shift by Angela Roquet- 6568 ratings

Top Ten Tuesdays: Favourite Couples in Books

It’s Tuesday, which means I get to make a list! That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesdays lists give me an excuse to make a list each week.

There are some really great couples portrayed in books, and I have no doubt that when I read everyone else’s lists I will realise even more that I have missed.

Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. There are hints at this from the very first book, Anne of Green Gables and it all comes to a head in Anne of the Island, one of my favourite and most re-read comfort reads. I love how natural the two are together and I think they really balance each other out.

Charlotte De Ney and Richard Mar

I am a huge fan of all things Ilona Andrews, and they are masters of setting up characters with great chemistry. The obvious choice was to use Kate Daniels and Curran, the Beast Lord from the long “Magic” series where there is an undercurrent of will they/ won’t they in the first few books as well as an awful lot of arguing. There is something about Charlotte and Richard that appeals to me though. They are the main characters in Steel’s Edge, the final book of the Edge quartet, a series of standalone books set in the same world with some connecting characters. Both of them are tired, not old perhaps but certainly older, and definitely not expecting to find romance. Theirs is a romance that comes together despite all their hardships.

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy

It might be cliche but I can’t not include these two. They were made for each other… When they get out of their own way of course. If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice what are you waiting for?

Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth

Yes, another Jane Austen couple, but if anyone deserves two entries it is Austen. Anne is really the opposite of Elizabeth Bennett in many ways, and is so very, very real, and that Letter. It takes a long time for these two to come together but that only adds to the feeling that these two are and will always be perfect for each other.

Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin

Not everyone seems to be convinced of this couple who come together in the fifth Harry Potter The Order of the Phoenix but I have always found them convincing. Their romance is hidden in the pages of the latter Harry Potter books, lurking in the background, and everytime I re-read these books I always hoped to see more of it revealed. If anyone deserved a happy ending it was Professor Lupin, and despite his clear self-sabotaging I think he is a perfect match for Tonks- after all he was a Marauder.

Phebe Moore and Archie Campbell

Another romance that lurks a little in the background, is that of Archie and Phebe in Louisa May Alcott’s Rose in Bloom. Theirs is a quiet romance, or it would be if it were not for Archie’s family who do not believe that orphan Phebe is good enough for him. They fear that Phebe is taking advantage of all the help they have given their servant over the years. Phebe is heartbroken over this. I’ve always enjoyed the little moments we see of the two together and I enjoy this quiet romance.

Irina and Mirnatius

Perhaps a strange choice as these two are certainly not in love at the start of their marriage in Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver and I don’t think they are yet there at the end either, but there seems huge potential for the two to grow to love each other, both have been victims in a way and terribly lonely… Even if the fulfillment of this romance is just in my imagination I think they have the potential to be a great and powerful couple.

Juliet Ashton and Dawsey Adams

A post war setting; the delights of the other characters of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and most importantly a romance that come together through letters and reading.

Beauty and The Beast

This is my favourite fairytale and I love Robin McKinley’s re-telling: Beauty.

Ralph Hollis and Jessica Egerton-Smythe

I adored Cuckoo in the Nest when I was younger (I could probably do with re-reading it soon to be honest). I loved the theatre setting and the interesting cast of characters, and I always enjoyed the portrayal of these two characters.

I must have missed out so many great characters. Who are your favourite couples in books?

January Round up

For such a long month January has been rather pleasant. Although, admittedly towards the end rather diseased.

I’ve been reading…

-My first ever audio book was the must listen Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

-Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading made me smile, and I have to agree with her assertion that the world is divided into people who would be excited if a Tiger came to tea and those who would be dismayed.

-I finally got around to reviewing my first Nora Ephron book

-I had a lot of fun with Gwendoline Courtney’s 1940 adventure story The Grenville Garrison, which has surprisingly strong female characters.

I’ve been listening…

Perhaps I should have been listening to something louder in this rather listless month but I’ve been loving Nina Simone’s Nina Sings the Blues which I return to every so often.

I’ve been eating…

If anyone finds themselves up in the Highlands of Scotland I must recommend visiting the small town of Grantown-on-Spey which is less touristy than Aviemore and which has a lovely high street (with a bookshop!). I was here just after New Year and went for a light lunch at The High Street Merchant, whose walls are covered in local art and whose food is truly delicious. Smoked chicken risotto… Homemade spicy houmous… Crab pasta… So yummy!

I’ve been watching…

I still haven’t managed to get to see The Favourite despite the good reviews but I did go to see Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse with the other half.

Now I have seen rather a lot of these comic book movies. Some have been good, some great fun and some bloody awful.

This is animated, all bright colours and comic book tropes and I just fell in love with it. It’s a really good story, some good acting, a menacing villain with an actual backstory and was just fun. It has to be one of the best of this genre of movies.

Book Review: Bookworm- a Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan.

A tiger who just turns up, without any explanation or invitation, and stays for tea? BOUNDARIES, PEOPLE. My sense of propriety was offended and the promise of domestic sanctity, upon which my childhood tranquillity largely depended had been breached. There are two types of people in this world – those who long for the

arrival of a tiger at the door and those whose profoundest wish is that nothing so unexpected happens, ever. Ever, ever, ever.

After a brief moment at the start when I was unsure of her humour and then a terrifying moment in the middle when I thought we were going to fall out over Anne Shirley I realised I had found a kindred bookworm and fell down and worshipped this book.

This is a memoir of Mangan’s childhood told via her reading experiences. As she grows older the nature of the books change but we see what they meant to her at that time and learn a little about Mangan’s life along the way. For some reason at first her light, slightly sarcastic humour annoyed me but as I settled into the book it grew on me and it was clear her passion for these books and reading was real and not the mocking I think I read it as in the opening pages.

I love that she assigns as much importance and time to Sweet Valley High as she did to the Classics. It makes it real. I love that every book is a reading copy and that she still has them all. And I really love that she still re-reads these books from her childhood. Throughout, there was a constant refrain in my head of “me too”.

Our books of choice differed in places but the real love and passion for these books, and how they have helped to form who she is today meant that I was drawn in by the whole memoir regardless of the book being discussed.

I read Nancy Drew mysteries and Baby-sitters Club books rather than Sweet Valley High and being that bit younger Harry Potter was of course part of my formative reading where it was missing from Mangans. Yet I was also blown away and changed irrevocably by Goodnight Mister Tom at about the age of eleven. Dimsie and the Abbey Books may have disappeared from libraries by the time I was visiting them but various of the Chalet School books were still there and I couldn’t stop picking them up.

Then there were the little points, that those not a bookworm would not understand. The immediate, overwhelming need to read a book immediately, right now, must finish is conveyed very well. The excitement of a new book by a previously unheard of author; the even bigger excitement of a previously unheard of book by a favourite author.

Ah – ‘skein’. This was my first meeting with the word. It looked strange then and it looks strange now. But I stomped off to ask Dad what it meant and so bent it to my will. It has not come in particularly useful since, but if you make usefulness your metric for life it will not be much of a life. I know this because in all fields other than words it is my metric, and I have had no life at all.

I think though, my favourite part of this book (and I imagine anyone reading this post, or who has even heard of this blog must be a fellow book lover) is that it is not a literary exercise. It is not a best of list. It is personal, sure objectively speaking some titles may have more worth than others, but the volumes included here are the books of this person’s childhood and helped to form who they became. They are particularly memorable for when they were read, or one little memorable sentence, or the time they evoke. Every book we read is a part of us and has helped to make us who we are.

If I was ever to get introspective I imagine Brent-dyer, Rowling, Alcott, Montgomery, Magorian, McKinley et al probably had rather a lot to do with who I am today.

I really would recommend this to anyone who is a bit of a bookworm themselves, I think regardless of your personal taste in books there is something to be found and enjoyed here, and it is a rather joyous book to read.

I’ve been in a little bit of a book rut recently, but this has rekindled my passion for reading nicely even if as a 2018 publication it is a duplication year for my Century of Books.

In the first chapter of the first of the thirty-nine books of the series (yes, thirty-nine. My finances would be put under severe strain, but a completist learns to live with it)

Book Review: The Grenville Garrison by Gwendoline Courtney

This adventure story published in 1940 was my saviour when I was off sick recently. The perfect antidote to being stuck in bed with a nasty bug. Although considering my tally for A Century of Books has not yet reached double figures I was both impressed and dismayed to find out that this and my other most recent read were duplicate years. I guess I need to start paying attention to publication dates before I pick up reads.

I fell in love with Courtney’s Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, which has recently been republished by Girl’s Gone By under its original title Stepmother, when I read it last year. Sadly, for me this The Grenville Garrison is not in the same league but that didn’t stop me enjoying it.

At the start of this story we are introduced to the Grenvilles who are about to start their summer holidays.

Helen and Audrey meet their brothers Edward and Roy, and their cousin Nigel at the train station on their way back from school. It turns out that their parents are out of the country visiting Nigel’s father who is the ambassador to Czeravia. Unwilling to have their children visit them as there is a possibility of revolution in Czeravia the adults decide that the children are old enough to stay on their own for the summer months.

As if these teens (and their two dogs) spending their summer without adult supervision in a cottage on an island on the river running through the Marquess of Hatherfield’s land is not enough to build a story on, Sir Hatherfield also has a mysterious young companion staying with him.

Then Sir Hatherfield disappears and young Nigel overhears some suspicious strangers plotting in Czeravian. After that there is much danger for each of the Grenvilles as they becoming involved in protecting the Czeravian monarchy.

Yes the plot is as daft as I have made it out to be. Yes it is pretty predictable. No there is no in depth characterisation- the Grenvilles are plucky and honourable and the villains nasty and somewhat incompetent. For all that though it was fun, and the female characters are just as plucky, honourable and courageous as their brothers.

In fact, Helen, the oldest of the girls, rescues her brother, swims in the river in complete darkness and calmly ignores her brothers and any other boys when they try to protect her. They all look to her for help and she comes up with half of their plans. She rows her brothers about, keeps watch in the small hours, and although she doesn’t like the idea of shooting at people is the acknowledged best shot of all the Grenvilles.

I was worried when I started this that Helen and Audrey would be all about the housekeeping while the boys were out adventuring. I should have had more faith in Courtney.

Although I must admit I really wasn’t expecting the guns. There is a whole chapter on how they smuggle the guns into their “garrison” on the island and then they actually shoot people. I must say for a somewhat predictable read I wasn’t expecting that. Audrey, the youngest, isn’t given a rifle because only seniors are allowed to join the rifle club at school and Audrey isn’t old enough to join, which I suppose does seem like a sensible policy, relatively speaking!

This isn’t where I would start with Courtney: I really did fall in love with Elizabeth of the Garrett Theatre and Sally’s Family is also excellent. On the other hand if you come across a copy or are already a Gwendoline Courtney fan it’s well worth picking up. Even if it is just to see a 1940 heroine as bold as her brothers and, perhaps even rarer, who is respected for this by all the male characters in the novel.

“But I don’t think you understand,” Charles said earnestly. “Perhaps if there were just you three boys I might- who knows- accept your help gladly. But you have girls with you, and there might be- in fact I am afraid it is a case of there will be- danger.”

“That’s all the more reason why we can’t leave you in the lurch,” Edward declared, and more murmurs of approval came from the others. “And- well I don’t know about your country, of course, but in these days in England the girls prefer to take their chance with us.”

Rather!” Audrey exclaimed, perching on the table again. “You aren’t keeping me out of any of the fun I tell you!”

“Of course not,” Helen agreed. “We are all in this, Charles, and you are not getting rid of us, even if you want to.”