Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Just tapping out a quick review after a busy weekend of sunshine and playdates at the park. Last year I read my first mystery novel, The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis (reviewed here) and decided mysteries are a genre that I’d like to explore more, and where better to start than with the so-called Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

Hercule Poirot, the retired Belgian detective, is travelling to London on the Orient Express when the train is delayed by a snow-drift in Yugoslavia, during which one of the passengers is murdered, but fortunately Poirot is on hand to investigate.

I’ve often been deterred by the gruesome and ghastly aspects of the crime genre, but I found this so easy to read, and without any of the blood and violence that I find so off-putting. Murder on the Orient Express is hardly an action-packed thriller, as the main body of the story consists of Poirot methodically interviewing the other passengers to distinguish the witnesses from potential suspects, but it’s still a page turner as Agatha Christie knows exactly when to drop in another clue or twist, and I had a lot of fun puzzling over the evidence and piecing together the clues to work out who the murderer was. It’s also an interesting story morally as the victim is neither innocent or sympathetic, and it raises some questions about justice, vengeance and vigilantism, yet I still found the resolution satisfying.

Murder on the Orient Express was a delight to read, full of humour, twists, misdirection and a very clever resolution, it was a great mystery to start with, but one I’d love to read again. Have a lovely week. X

First Quarter of 2021 in Books

Spending winter under lockdown has helped get my reading off to a great start, and I’ve somehow powered through 19 books in the first three months of 2021, and thought I’d share a little round-up of short reviews here.

The House with the Chicken Legs and The Castle of Tangled Magic by Sophie Anderson

Twelve year old Marinka lives in a house with chicken legs along with her grandmother, Baba Yaga, a Guardian who guides spirits of the dead through the gate from our world to the Afterlife. Marinka is training to become a Guardian, but she feels lonely and trapped, longing to choose her own destiny. I adored this original and poignant story about growing up, full of big themes and big emotions from grief, regret and loneliness to family, friendship and home.

I was disappointed by the spiritual sequel which follows Olia as she tries to save her beloved home from tangled magic leaking out from another world. It’s a fairly straightforward hero quest, but I felt most obstacles were too easily overcome, and I was disappointed that Marinka’s adventures ended when marriage and motherhood began, though I did like some of the supporting characters, Cascadia and the spirit of the Castle, Feliks.

Letter to My Daughter by Maya Angelou

My first non-fiction read of the year was a re-read of this collection of short essays, anecdotes and poems on a variety of topics from charity and philanthropy, gratitude, travel, parents and children, faith and religion to rape, grief, racism and segregation. It’s a short but thought-provoking and inspiring read.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie

The narrative switches between Poirot, the victim’s father, husband and lover, as well as another passenger on the train, Katherine Grey, who is drawn into the murder investigation and the theft of the victim’s rubies. The clues are carefully placed, there’s some clever misdirection and even a bit of romance, and I was pleased I solved part of the mystery before Poirot’s reveal at the end.

The Secret Chapter by Genevieve Cogman

In the 6th instalment of The Invisible Library series, the mysterious, Mr Nemo, hires Irene and a team consisting of thief, thug, gambler, hacker and getaway driver to steal a painting with significance far greater than its value. I love a good heist, but it was after the theft when the team starts double crossing each other that things really start getting interesting and the suspense ratcheted up when Irene has to choose between saving one world she cares about and preventing a war that could destroy countless other worlds.

The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis

The Bronte sisters are investigating the mystery of a child’s bones interred in the wall of a local landowner’s home. I found this slower paced and lacking the steady stream of clues, suspects and suspicious circumstances that made The Vanished Bride so riveting. However, the siblings’ interpersonal dynamics are almost as fascinating as the mystery they’re trying to solve, and there’s a good mix of humour, eerie and thrilling moments in this sequel.

City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones by V.E. Schwab

Twelve year old Cassidy Blake is the daughter of professional ghost hunters recording a TV show about the world’s most haunted cities, unbeknownst to her parents, however, is the fact that following her own near-death experience, Cassidy has the ability to see ghosts, including her “corporeally challenged” best friend, Jacob. City of Ghosts is set in Edinburgh and I loved seeing somewhere familiar from a different perspective.

The sequel takes place in Paris, where Cassidy has drawn the attention of a poltergeist whose behaviour quickly turns from mischievous to malevolent. Cassidy and Jacob’s friendship is the emotional touchstone of the story, and I really enjoyed learning more about Jacob’s life and death in this spooky and moving follow-up.

Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale

I was looking for something a little bit whimsical and magical to help me through the winter lockdown and picked up this because of comparisons to one of my favourites, The Night Circus (reviewed here).

The story of The Toymakers spans almost fifty years, starting in 1906 when sixteen year old Cathy runs away from home, answering an ad in the newspaper for a job in exchange for bed and board at Papa Jack’s Toy Emporium. Cathy finds a new home and family with Papa Jack and his sons, Kaspar and Emil, at the Toy Emporium until 1917 when the war intrudes on their safe, little world.

I loved the complexity of Kaspar and Emil’s relationship as the brothers compete for their father’s attention, praise and ultimately to become his successor, and there are parallels with the story of Cain and Abel here. I also appreciated the contrast between the magic, wonder and innocence of toys and the Emporium with the horror, suffering, violence and death of the Russian Katorga (penal labour camps) and the first World War. One of the brothers goes to war a charming, brilliant, young man but returns a shellshocked shadow of the toymaker, husband, father, son and brother he was. Yet even after the end of the Great War, the brothers’ own conflict continues right up to a bittersweet ending.

The Toymakers is an enchanting but haunting story of love, grief, family, secrets, toys and war. Have a lovely week. X

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Blogging has fallen by the wayside lately as other aspects of life demanded all my time and attention, but I’m easing myself back in with a review that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since December. I loved the first book in the Gentleman Bastards series, The Lies of Locke Lamora (reviewed here), but I probably left it a little too long before picking up the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, as my memory was a bit fuzzy about some of the characters and events that it references from the first book.

Red Seas Under Red Skies takes place a couple of years after The Lies of Locke Lamora, and the story jumps back and forward describing how Locke and his best friend Jean, left their homeland and began setting up their latest elaborate heist. What makes heists so much fun to read is how the characters have to improvise when their carefully laid plans invariably go awry; Locke and Jean have barely set their own plans in motion when they’re press-ganged into another scheme by a naval commander who recruits them to incite pirates into attacking the coast that his navy protects in order to secure his own power and influence.

Much like The Lies of Locke Lamora, this has a long set-up and the story didn’t really grip me until about 300 pages in (roughly halfway) but after that I was hooked and it kept me guessing until the last page, though the ending wasn’t quite as clever or satisfying as the end of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Locke and Jean’s friendship is at the core of the story, their banter is laugh out loud funny and their loyalty to one another is genuinely touching, yet Red Seas Under Red Skies is not lacking in romance as Jean falls head over heels in love with the dashing, diminutive and utterly delightful pirate, Ezri Delmastro.

Despite a slow start, Red Seas Under Red Skies is a swashbuckler full of humour, friendship, romance and pirates which ended on a cliffhanger that had me almost immediately reaching for the third book in the series. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside follows, Sancia, a former slave turned thief with some unusual abilities, when she’s hired to steal an ancient artifact for a life-changing sum of money. The magic system of scriving – a system of commands that objects are compelled to obey which can alter reality – is also fairly unique, though there’s a lot of exposition describing how it works, and what is and isn’t possible throughout the story.

The narrative switches between Sancia, Gregor Dandolo who happens to be the founder and leader of the city law enforcement, and Orso, a mad-scientist scriver – who became a surprise favourite character. I can’t say too much about him without spoiling the story, but Clef, a sentient scrived object, was also a brilliant character, and his bantering dialogue with Sancia and their friendship was one of the highlights of the story.

Foundryside is a fun fantasy heist with some clever ideas, plenty of twists that kept me guessing and lots of humour, though it was somewhat weighed down by exposition about the magic system. Foundryside is the first book in the trilogy and I’m looking forward to reading the next installment. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve been finding a lot of comfort in fiction lately and decided to re-read The Night Circus when I was in the mood for something whimsical and romantic. I first read The Night Circus back in 2013 but I’d forgotten almost everything about it and felt like I was discovering it all over again.

The story follows two young illusionists, Celia and Marco, bound together in a competition between the two rival magicians who trained them. The Night Circus or ‘La Cirque des Reves‘ becomes their battleground as they seek to find out who can create the most stunning illusions.

I was captivated from the very first page, drawn into a world full of illusionists, contortionists, acrobats, fortune tellers, costume designers, architects and clockmakers, and it’s full of sumptious descriptions of the costumes, food, perfomances and, of course, the illusions that Marco and Celia create. The plot is meandering but not uneventful or lacking in suspense or twists. I was enchanted by circus life, the competition and courtship between the protagonists, and I really didn’t want it to end.

The Night Circus is a delightful, whimsical and romantic story, and given that most of the story takes place at night is a perfect cosy, comfort read for long, dark winter evenings. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

2020 in Books

A combination of sleep deprivation from caring for a newborn and too much time spent watching news of the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and the US Election unfold meant whole weeks passed with me barely managing to read a single page. Having said that, I was much less concerned with quantity than quality in 2020, and although I only managed to read 28 books (and shared 24 reviews with a little backlog still to post), I’ve loved so many of them and discovered some new favourite books and writers. The vast majority were fiction, and almost half of those were fantasy, though magical realism was also well represented. I also read my first mystery novel, and that’s a genre I plan to explore this year.

I enjoyed so many of the books that I read in 2020 that it’s genuinely hard to pick my top five, but Crooked Kingdom, The Vanished Bride, The Lollipop Shoes, The Night Circus (a re-read) and A Conjuring of Light were the highlights.

On the flipside, I’m of the opinion that there are too many books in the world to force myself to read something I’m not enjoying. I have a 100 page rule but after that I give myself permission to give up without feeling guilty, and there were three books that I didn’t finish in 2020. I had high hopes of a Latin-American inspired fantasy with Nocturna, but I found it too derivitive of the Shades of Magic trilogy and lacking in the Latinx mythology and setting I was looking for, I gave up on page 154 of 471. I loved the Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, but I’ve been underwhelmed by the rest of the trilogy and the third book just didn’t hold my interest so I gave up on page 369 of 724. The Architect’s Apprentice was a bit different from the stories I normally read, and I left it on page 195 of 452 because I found it too slow-paced and couldn’t sympathise with the protagonist.

I’ve set myself a reading challenge but beyond the numbers I’d like to read at least five non-fiction books, and I’m hoping to finish or catch-up on a few series that I’ve started (The Invisible Library series, The Daevabad trilogy, The Bronte Mysteries and the Broken Earth Trilogy to name a few) before starting any more. I never stick to book-buying bans but would like to prioritise reading what I already own, though there are a few books that I’m eagerly anticipating coming out in paperback that I know I won’t be able to resist; there are also a few old favourites I’d like to re-read, something I typically don’t do because there are so many new books to read.

I’d love to know what your favourite reads of 2020 were, and have you set any reading goals for 2021? Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis

Mysteries are a genre that I’ve always been curious about but never tried, but I’ve been fascinated by the Bronte sisters ever since I read Wuthering Heights in my teens and I couldn’t resist this when I chanced upon it in a bookshop a wee while ago.

When Elizabeth Chester, the second wife of Yorkshire land owner, Robert Chester, goes missing in mysterious circumstances, the Bronte sisters take it upon themselves to investigate. The narrative switches between Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s perspectives, and their brother Branwell plays a supporting role too.

This is such a clever little mystery about the Bronte sisters investigating a crime and how the details of their detective work might have inspired their own novels. The Vanished Bride is full of governesses, gypsies, ghosts, secrets, scandals and schemes, and at the heart of it all, the three intelligent, imaginative and independent Bronte sisters.

The story is peppered with little details and historical facts about their real lives, and it’s a treat for fans of the Bronte sisters.

This was a departure from my usual reading habits, but one I thoroughly enjoyed. The Vanished Bride is a fun story, full of humour, suspense and twists, that’s perfect for a dark winter eve. X

The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

It was just over two years ago that I picked up the first book in the Invisible Library series (reviewed here), intrigued by the cover, title and synopsis, and since then it’s become one of my favourite series as they are such fun stories with compelling characters (from the determined and resourceful librarian, Irene, to her love interest the Dragon Prince, Kai; Vale, the human detective, and even the seductive libertine Fae, Silver), fabulous settings, plenty of action and suspense, humour and lots of original ideas. The Mortal Word is the fifth book in the series, and it’s full of the usual blend of kidnap and assassination attempts as Irene investigates a murder during the negotiation of a peace treaty between the Fae and Dragons.

It’s always fun reading about Irene solving mysteries, uncovering conspiracies and escaping danger, and yet I consider these to be such such cosy, comfort reads. The Mortal Word was full of suspense, atmosphere, humour and a little bit of romance, and I adored the villainous Bloody Countess who was delightfully macabre.

As Irene continues to question her loyalty to the Library and its purpose, this series just keeps gettting better and better, and this was my favourite book so far. As the series progresses, I’m so enjoying seeing the characters (and their relationships with one another) develop, and learning more about the different factions they represent from the Librarians, Fae, Dragons, and, of course, the humans caught in between them all.

In other library related news, this week I learned that our local library, which has been shut since the first lockdown in March, is scheduled to reopen in 2021. I’ve always believed that libraries are such a valuable community resource, and I’m delighted that we’ll have one within walking distance again soon. Take care, and have a lovely week. X

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

My husband and a close friend have been nagging me to read The Priory of the Orange Tree for ages, but I kept putting it off because of the length, over 800 pages is quite a commitment when I usually only have time to read during my daughter’s naps and for an hour or two before bed. It’s been a while since I read epic, high fantasy but I was hooked from the start and found myself reading past my bedtime most nights.

In the West, wyrms are feared and hated for bringing death and destruction, while the East worship dragons as noble and wise. Yet both have a common enemy in the most hated of all the dragons, The Nameless One, who is waking after 1000 years asleep. The Priory of the Orange Tree is set in an incredibly detailed world with its history, mythology and religions woven throughout the story.

The plot follows four characters spread across the world: Ead is a member of the clandestine Priory of the Orange Tree who has been assigned to infiltrate the court of Queen Sabran and protect her from harm; meanwhile Sabran’s childhood friend, Loth has been exiled and sent to find out what happened to Sabran’s missing father; Tane is training to become a dragon rider in the East; and the exiled alchemist, Roos, is scheming about how to exonerate and avenge himself. It’s also worth noting that I found the supporting and secondary characters every bit as nuanced and interesting as the protagonists from the witches, pirates and privateers to the knights and courtiers. The Priory of the Orange Tree is full of political intrigues, betrayals and conspiracies, but also romance, friendship and loyalty. The plot trots along before breaking into gallop in the second half where most of the action takes place as it hurtles towards the conclusion.

The Priory of the Orange Tree is a brilliant epic fantasy that I thoroughly enjoyed reading and discussing afterwards. Take care, and have a lovely week. X