Review of The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace – 3.5 Stars

The Case of the Curious Cook (WISE Enquiries Agency #3)The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Review of The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace – 3.5 Stars

Before you go any further with this book please be aware that it is the third in the series. I picked this up in a store and found the premise intriguing; a book shop that seems to be unknowingly acquiring books, but nowhere on the cover does it mention this apart from the text “A WISE Enquiries Agency Mystery”. Although it is quite an interesting story, I really don’t think this book worked well as a standalone.

As mentioned the premise is really intriguing and in fact it develops nicely to include the story of a brother imprisoned for murdering his sister (both of whom are artists) and a rather questionable old folks home that may be coercing old people to handover their cash to them in their wills. All of this takes place on and around the lovely town of Hay-on-Wye (in Wales), which is a superb setting and well described.

This point probably stems from reading this book as a standalone also, but there just seemed to be far too many characters to keep track of, the duchess, Mavis, Annie, Christine, Carol, the duchess son and daughter, the two book shop owners, the two old folks homes owner, Annie’s love interest (pub landlord), Christine’s love interest (dodgy builder), Carol’s hubby and Son, several old ladies at the old folks’ home, etc, etc (not to mention the pets). For a 197-page book this just seemed so excessive. Perhaps if I had read the first two I would have enjoyed this group of characters more but I found it really confusing and just unnecessary to the story.

However, an important point to make with this book is that the writing is actually really easy to read and flows nicely. I often think it is useful for readers to see a brief extract as they would in a book shop so here is a little passage from the novel:

‘Oh Henry, your face is a picture,’ said the old woman, with a voice he recognized.
‘Mother?’
The woman pulled her wig from her head to reveal his mother’s neatly-trimmed almost-white hair. She took off the specatcles and he saw her twinkling eyes. The brownish lipstick made her look washed out, and the purple floral dress was – well, it made him feel quite bilious.
‘Ta-daa!’ said his mother with a flourish. ‘You truly had no idea it was me, did you dear?’

I would definitely read other works by this author, especially as a light-hearted mystery (something suitable for a holiday read or something). I hope in future editions they make it obvious on the covers the number of the series each book is. This would help the reader make a better assessment.

So in summary my opinion is; it’s a great setting, easy-to-read, interesting concept. It just doesn’t work well as a standalone with a large cast of characters to keep track off.

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Review of Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories – 5 Stars

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost StoriesEight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories by Rowan Routh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is pretty much as the cover describes, eight authors were given after hours access to eight English Heritage sites to create this new series of ghost stories. The book immediately peaked my interest, I have been an English Heritage member for many years and I am always intrigued by the histories of the properties. I also enjoy a good ghost story, so this book seemed to offer the best of both worlds.

The collection of stories is really quite interesting. Some of the authors chose a historical slant, whilst others chose a more psychological approach, and some even chose alternative histories. All in all a great variety of ghosts. The actual mixture of properties is really interesting too. I would fully recommend York Cold War Bunker to those that haven’t been, this is an easily overly looked site but so interesting with a great guided tour.ghosts-gespenter-spooky-horror-40748.jpeg

The Authors and Locations are as follows:
• Kate Clanchy, Housesteads Roman Fort
• Stuart Evers, Dover Castle
• Mark Haddon, York Cold War Bunker
• Andrew Michael Hurley, Carlisle Castle
• Sarah Perry, Audley End
• Max Porter Eltham Palace
• Kamila Shamsie, Kenilworth Castle
• Jeanette Winterson, Pendennis Castle

There were two stories that really stuck out for me. Mark Haddon’s tale at the York Cold War Bunker was really eerie and so descriptive it felt a little too real (which is only a good thing I think when it comes to ghost stories). Stuart Evers tale from Dover Castle is brilliant and had such an unexpected twist I was kicking myself that I hadn’t seen it coming. There were a couple of stories I didn’t enjoy quite so much but that is the thing about a collection it means there is a bit of something for everyone.

I must say one of my favourite things about this book is the end section entitled “A GAZETTEER OF ENGLISH HERITAGE HAUNTINGS”. This is a collection of hauntings and sightings that have been reported to staff at various locations around the country and makes for a really interesting read. Poor staff! I’m not sure many people would want to continue closing up on a dark night after hearing some of these tales, but they do make for entertaining reading.

I thought this was a great concept and hope English Heritage choose to offer more of these collections. It would be brilliant if they actually opened up late night visits to English Heritage members and invited them to do their own creative writing based on the experience, (maybe with publication of the best entries in the magazine that they send to members). I am sure many would jump at the chance.

Overall a really intriguing collection, the fact that you can visit the locations written about is the cherry on the cake.

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Review of “Pirates” by Celia Rees – 5 Stars

Pirates!Pirates! by Celia Rees

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I know technically Celia Rees is classed as a YA author and after jumping over that thirty hurdle I probably don’t fit that bracket anymore *sigh*. However, that doesn’t stop me enjoying a good book. And Celia Rees certainly knows how to write those, regardless of your age group! Her writing style is just so-damn-readable, she keeps you turning page after page long after you have told yourself a dozen times “just one more page and then I will put it down”.

So, what is ‘Pirates’ all about (apart from Pirates of course)? For me, this book was about determination to decide your own destiny, no matter the obstacles. The story is told by Nancy Kington, a Georgian heiress to her father’s fortune (much aggrieved by her brothers). When her brothers plot against her to marry her off and keep their father’s business and fortune for themselves Nancy has to find a way out. When she finds Minerva, her friend and slave, being assaulted Nancy accidentally kills the attacker. So with many reasons to go and few to stay the girls make their way into the worlds of piracy.Pirates Cover

The easily forgettable and incredible thing about this tale is it is actually based on a true story. Minerva Sharpe and Nancy Kington were real people. I think the author portrays a real homage to them in this book and it is clear that they spent a lot of time learning and researching both the pirate’s lives and the time period.

As mentioned above, I really enjoyed the authors writing style. It is very clear, yet very emotive. I quite like the extract below:

 

“I’d be the one to decide what was, and was not, to do with me. I felt anger growing inside me, fuelled by all the things I’d seen since I came to this beautiful blighted country. I felt it bloom into fury as I brought the candle round to see what he had done. The scars on her back were not new. Fresh stripes glistened in long streaking criss-cross patterns across a back where the flesh was ruched into sharp ridged peaks so rucked and buckled that it no longer resembled flesh at all.”

This moment is one of my favourites in the book, it is an empowering moment for Nancy to find her inner strength and confront those that do her wrong. Although Nancy has peaks and troughs of confidence throughout the book, when she finds her moments of strength as the reader you think “Yes, go on girl, show them what you are made of!”

Pirates - internal image

Internal Pages from the book: Pirates

I really enjoyed this book and will certainly look out for more of this authors work. Empowering, engaging and entertaining story with swashbuckling thrown into the mix – what more could you want?!

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Review of The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martinez – 4 stars.

The Oxford MurdersThe Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly, I am surprised this book I only 3 stars on Goodreads. There is very little to dislike about this book. It is a strange mix of mystery and mathematics which may seem a little heavy going at first (but stick with it people), you soon get loads of twists and turns that will keep you guessing all the way through which for me is the best bit about a mystery novel.

This story follows a young mathematician who having won a scholarship has relocated to Oxford. Soon after his arrival, his landlady ends up dead from a suspicious death. When he meets Arthur Seldom a mathematical hero who was a close family friend of the deceased he is immediately in awe and the two start to work out the murder as if it were a mathematical puzzle. When more murders happen close to Seldom it appears the killer may be targeting him, testing just how clever he is and testing if he can solve the murders before someone else dies.

sherlock

I do agree at times this book is a little maths heavy with multiple theories flying around. I didn’t dislike this and found it quite similar to Sherlock Holmes logic puzzle with Moriarty always one step ahead. Smart, questioning, quick-paced writing which makes this book irresistible to put down.

For what it is worth I absolutely loved the hospital Buzzati theory about the floors circling down to death. I have no idea if this is a real thing or made up for the book but it was very clever. If you go on to read the book I am sure this bit will stand out to you. The book is written with a rather formal writing style (possibly to exaggerate that the narrator is not English-born?), but the writing is still quick flowing.

 

 

“Now that the police have been informed? I don’t know. I suppose he’ll try to be more careful next time.’
‘You mean, another murder that no-one will see as a murder?’
‘That’s right,’ said Seldom, almost to himself. ‘Exactly. Murders that no one sees as murders. I think I’m starting to see now: imperceptible murders.’
We were silent for a moment.”

Overall this book is an intellectual thriller that will appeal to those who like logic puzzles. Fast-paced, clever narrative, interesting characters, all with the beautiful Oxford backdrop.
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Review of The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse – 3 Stars

The Winter GhostsThe Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most people will like Kate Mosse from her novel Labyrinth and whilst I loved that novel I must admit this one didn’t wow me. For a start the majority of people that see ghost in a book title and the tagline “Do you believe in ghosts?” will possibly feel a little cheated. So, this is your warning, the ghost element of this book is pretty lacking. There is certainly no fear factor and limited ‘ghostly’ atmosphere (in my opinion).

However, the story isn’t bad. Young guy, grieving, previous mental breakdown, crashes in a snowstorm in the Pyrenees mountains. Gets rescued and taken to an isolated village where everything is not quite as it seems. Not to mention mysterious caves in the mountains that haven’t been accessed for a number of years. Sounds good right?

The Winter Ghosts - cover

The cover from my copy

So, trying to figure out why I didn’t love this story, I think there were a couple of reasons:

  • The writing was very slow. It felt like the reader had to wade through several pages to mine a nugget of story out. In fact, the book could probably have been a fair bit shorter and would have been much better for it.
  • The novel was full of melancholy and there were very few areas of light to be found in the pages.
  • There was no wow factor. I kept waiting for something unpredictable, some kind of plot twist, something I’d overlooked to come back to light, but it never arrived. That very thing that keeps you reading just never happened so it left me feeling a little deflated and unrewarded as I had ploughed my way through the book to the end.

I didn’t give this a 1 star, so here is what I liked about the book.

  • The time hop between 14th century period with Cathars/fear and the 20th century with the after-effects of the world war/grief storyline was nicely handled between the two periods.

 

  • The location was brilliantly described and intriguing. Isolated villages, snow-covered mountain and unexplored caves. It’s really made me want to visit the region.
  • The story behind The Winter Ghosts is really insightful and describes what inspired Mosse. I am quite intrigued by a couple of un-reads on her suggested reading list.The Winter Ghosts - suggested reading

Overall, not great but not bad either.
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The Winter Ghosts behind the scenes

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Review of Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – 5 stars.

Orange Is the New BlackOrange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like everyone else that comes across this book these days, the main reason I was attracted to it is that I love the TV series. However, it is important to note this book is not like the show. The TV series primary function is entertainment mainly in the form of humour. This book is a memoir, therefore like life, there is some humour but a fair whack of heartbreak and struggle too.

I really wish I had read the book before I watched the series as I did find little bits distracting, my mind drifting off on its own wondering such things as I wonder if Pop is the character Red in the tv series (I am pretty sure the answer is yes btw, feel free to let me know otherwise XD). This being said – the book is brilliant.

So, what’s it about. Piper Kerman, at twenty-something, gets bored of her plain white life ends up shacking up with a woman who works as a drug runner. Naively she underestimates the seriousness of this until a time she is asked to carry cash for the drugs trade. Not long after Piper gets out of the relationship (and the business) but as is usually the case her past catches up with her many years later when she is living a quiet comfortable life with her devoted boyfriend Larry. When she ends up with a custodial sentence her world becomes a very different place and Kerman recalls the stories of the women who help her see her prison time through.

I often think it’s useful to see an extract of a book to get an idea of the writing style. Even more important for a memoir as you are committing to read someone’s life and if it’s droll you will soon lose interest. Kerman’s voice is very readable, here is a brief section which I think is a beauty:

“I never understood why laundry soup was the one free thing provided to us (other than toilet paper rations, which were passed out once a week, and the sanitary napkins and tampons stocked in the bathroom). Laundry soap was sold on commissary; some women would buy Tide and give away their eight free soap packets to others who had nothing. Why not soap to clean your body? Why not toothpaste? Somewhere within the monstrous bureaucracy of the Bureau of Prisons, this all made sense to someone.”

I learned a lot reading this book. For example; Kerman was sentenced on a US drug conspiracy charge so her sentence was based on the total amount of drugs involved in the operation, not her small role in it. A stark warning for anyone in the trade.

So, all in this is a pretty great book. Really it’s a story about staying strong and about appreciating the inner strengths of others too. Everyone has their own battles, strengths, weaknesses, secrets and successes. Kerman captures such a variety of those beautifully and writes about them with both empathy and respect.

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Review of Dolly by Susan Hill – 3 stars

DollyDolly by Susan Hill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Susan Hill. Her horror stories are incredible. Her story “Black Sheep” (which is not a horror story) is probably one of the best novellas I have ever read. In that vein, it probably seems like I am giving this book a poor score and it’s not that, it’s just so many of her other books are so much better…that this one felt a little flat and a little disappointing.

Firstly, this book is a real slow burner. Susan Hill’s writing is great but the pace in this novel is just so painfully slow. Stuff just takes a long time to happen. When it gets going there are creepy moments that Hill does best, it just takes its time to build up. Here is a sneaky little extract:

“The doll cried for a fourth night and this time he climbed up to the shelf and took it down. It lay in its box, stiff and still, looking like a body in a coffin. And realising that, he knew what he should do.”

The story primarily follows Edward, an orphaned little boy sent to live with his elderly aunt. His spoilt cousin Leonora also stays at the house. Edward spends most of his time torn between wishing to play with his intimidating cousin and staying out of her way in case she is in one of her moods. Then his cousin gets a gift of a doll, when the doll is not the beautiful doll she dreams of Leonora’s attitude goes from bad to worse. At the same time, strange things happen around the house. When Edward returns as an adult following his aunt’s death he is reminded of several things he had tried to forget.

This book really does have all the ingredients for a great horror story; creepy house in the middle of nowhere, elderly isolated aunt, orphan unwanted child and of course the doll. Whilst there where some really enjoyable moments like the quote above the overall effect of the story just didn’t leave me thrilled.

If you have read Susan Hill’s other works this probably isn’t going to be a great read for you. However, if you are new to Susan Hill you will probably enjoy this introduction to her writing.

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Review of The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – 5 Stars

The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like I am very late to the party having only just discovered Angela Carter but in case I’m not here is my review of The Bloody Chamber.

Firstly, wow! The writing in this book is incredible. Here is a brief extract to show you what I mean:

“When they saw the white bride leap out of the tombstones and scamper off toward the castle with the werewolf stumbling after, the peasants thought the Duke’s dearest victim had come back to take matters into her own hands. They ran screaming from the presence of a ghostly vengeance on him. Poor, wounded thing.”

Powerful stuff in just a few short lines. Angela Carter has a really unique writing style that makes the words appear both like a great literature piece that you feel smart reading and at the same time quite humble and absorbing so that the stories are approachable to the everyday reader.

Anyway, back to the book itself. It is split into ten short stories. Several of these are re-tellings of recognised classics. If anyone has ever read the “original” Grimm stories (for example in the original Grimm version Cinderella’s sisters cut off their toes to try to make them fit the slipper), Carters tales are like this only much much darker. The Snow Child (re-telling of Snow White) was particularly shocking and striking and stuck with me long after I finished the book (not quite giving me nightmares, but not far from it).

I know this isn’t a part of a normal review (never judge a book by its cover and all that) but I must add the cover of this book is particularly beautiful. It feels like an old-fashioned storybook and the black and red imagery really draw the eye.

The Bloody Chamber Cover

My copy of the book.

If you are intrigued by all the hype around Angela Carter then this really is a fantastic book to get you going. Although not for the faint-hearted. This really is a smart, intriguing and beguiling collection of stories.

Enjoy! 🙂

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Review of The Last Dance by Victoria Heslop – 3.5 Stars.

The Last Dance: And Other StoriesThe Last Dance: And Other Stories by Victoria Hislop

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a quirky little book which I picked up after a visit to Athens hoping it would capture some of the pretty Greek city between its pages.

Some of the stories have a bit of a moral to them particularly the Kafenion which tells the story of twin brothers who get an equal share in their fathers café but are forever jealous of the other and find it difficult to share.

The Periptero is another little story that holds a bit of moral within the tale, telling the story of a young flashy man who flaunts his money and wealth in front of an elderly newspaper kiosk owner who has learned the value of the little things. Will the young man get his comeuppance for his greed and vanity?

The writing in this book is often very beautiful and very evocative of Greek settings. For example:

“Manos worked through the night and with a giant can of white emulsion and a roller he swiftly covered the stained anaglypta. Soon the place was transformed. He repainted the bar in a bright blue and resolved to paint the frames of two chairs each night until they were all in matching azure. The effect was dramatic.”

All the stories are quite slow burning which is fine for a holiday read but just something people looking for a fast action page-turner should be aware.

Despite the book containing ten short stories all the characters were quite unique and a joy to read about. Of these, one of my favourites was Kyria Kakanidis from the story “The Lesson”. Her character was smart, humble, and overall very likeable. Well-portrayed by the author. The Last Dance - internal image

 

As I said this is a quirky little book.

 

I think it’s probably a 3.5 stars. It is slow and despite being short stories the author spends a long time on description rather than getting to the plot. Also, the stories have limited conversations so sometimes you get page after page of words without dialogue to break it up. This can be a little off-putting. However, the stories themselves are joyful. There is a well-thought out range of tales and I enjoyed the authors not with photos and inspirations behind the pieces.

 

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Review of The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing – 5 Stars

The Mesmerist (The Mesmerist, #1)The Mesmerist by Barbara Ewing

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has several stories concealed within its pages all delicately woven together to make the reader turn the pages.

The origins of the story begin with two sisters, Hester and Kitty Preston, who run away from home at a young age. Hester and Kitty soon find work as actresses but an accident occurs and Hester damages her knee. They hear of a mesmerist in town and on visiting him Hester is soon walking much better. Hester begs him to teach her his skills and in time she soon becomes more famous than he is.

The story then follows Cordelia (Kitty’s daughter/ Hester’s niece) through unfortunate circumstances becomes poor and desperate, so decides to try her hand at her aunt’s old profession. With her best friend Rillie by her side, they soon start to pull it off. As is usually the case, the past can’t stay buried and secrets and lies soon come back to haunt Cordelia and the new life she has created.

I must say this is the first Barbara Ewing book I have read and it pulled me in hook, line and sinker. Her writing style is superb, it’s easy to read, not boringly overly descriptive like some historical fiction novels are (although it captures plenty of historical contexts) and it keeps the story moving at a great pace. Even the historic speech is quick-flowing and direct. Here is an example extract:

“’Lord Ellis regrets, Miss Preston…’
She looked at him in surprise. ‘Please do not address me as Miss Preston. I am Lady Ellis.’
‘I am afraid you are not, Miss Preston. The-ah-marriage ceremony in the chapel all those years past was conducted by-a friend. It was a jest.’
‘A jest?’
‘Ah – no – perhaps that is not the word. But it was not legal or binding.’ He sniffed. ‘You are not, and never have been, Lady Ellis.’

Whilst initially I wasn’t over-enamoured with the character Cordelia, through her hardship and her plight I really did grow to adore her and root for her. Her best friend Rillie was a wonderful character who brought such a human element to the story. Everyone would want a best friend like her. Cordelia’s strong spirit is truly backed by Rillie’s motivation and belief in her to do well.

The settings in this book tended mostly to be various squares and theatres around Victorian London and I think the author does a great job of capturing these (particularly the hardships of being female in these settings) without overly labouring the descriptions.

This novel took so many twists and turns I did not know what way it would turn out. As a reader, I love this feeling and nothing makes me turn the page more.

A fantastic novelist! Cannot wait to read many more of her works.

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