Cat Among the Pigeons, published in 1959, is one of Agatha Christie’s later Poirot mysteries and combines a girls’ school setting with the story of a revolution in Ramat, a fictional country in the Middle East. I still have a lot of reading to do before I’ll have finished all of the Poirot books, but this is one that I’ve particularly enjoyed.
Most of the action takes place at Meadowbank School, an exclusive girls-only school in England which is still run by its two founders, Miss Bulstrode and Miss Chadwick, but first we visit Ramat, where Prince Ali Yusuf is preparing to escape the uprising in his country. In an attempt to keep some of his fortune safe, the Prince gives some valuable jewels to his pilot and asks him to smuggle them out of the country. The pilot’s sister and young niece, Jennifer, have been visiting Ramat but are due to return to England the next day, so he hides the jewels in their luggage without telling them what he has done.
Back in England, Jennifer begins attending Meadowbank School, one of several new girls to join the school that term. There are also some new teachers, a new secretary and a new gardener. When a murder takes place at the school a few weeks later, it seems that whoever committed the crime may have been trying to find the missing jewels. Is there someone at Meadowbank who shouldn’t be there? In other words, is there a ‘cat among the pigeons’?
Well, I was completely fooled by this one! While I found it very easy to guess the hiding place of the jewels, I did not guess who the murderer was until the truth was revealed. The most annoying thing was that I did originally suspect the right person but was thrown off the scent halfway through the book and decided I must have been wrong. After that, I think I suspected almost everybody!
As I was reading I kept wondering when Hercule Poirot himself was going to enter the story and I was surprised to find that he doesn’t actually make his first appearance until the final third of the book. By the time he arrives on the scene the mystery has already been partially solved and while he does unravel the rest of the clues and identify the murderer, I’m not sure Poirot’s involvement really added anything to the story.
Although the mystery was a good one that kept me guessing, the reason I enjoyed this book so much was the setting rather than the plot. Like many British children I grew up reading Enid Blyton books and still have very fond memories of them. I loved her two school series, St Clare’s and Malory Towers, and in Cat Among the Pigeons Agatha Christie captures the same sort of atmosphere. The school setting, the focus on the lives of the girls and their teachers, and the very late appearance of Poirot, gives this book a slightly different feel from the others I’ve read.
Have you read this one? Which is your favourite Poirot mystery?
I read my first John Boyne book, the Gothic ghost story This House is Haunted, last year just in time for Halloween. Since then I’ve been wanting to read another of his books and this novel, based on a real-life crime which took place in London more than a century ago, is the one I chose. It turned out to be a good choice because I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed This House is Haunted, although the two books are quite different.
Crippen is a fictional account of the life of the notorious murderer, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen, who was found guilty of murdering his wife and hiding the remains in the cellar of his home at 39 Hilldrop Crescent. It sounds very morbid and gruesome, I know, but the book is actually not as dark as you might imagine thanks to Boyne’s sense of humour, colourful characters and storytelling flair.
The story begins in the summer of 1910 and introduces us to a group of passengers on board the SS Montrose, sailing from Belgium to Canada. There’s Mrs Drake, a demanding, overbearing woman, and her daughter, Victoria, who is hoping to find romance on the journey. Then there’s Martha Hayes, who would prefer to hide herself away in her cabin with a pile of novels than mix with the other passengers, and Matthieu Zela, a Frenchman travelling with his obnoxious nephew, Tom. And finally, we meet Mr Robinson and his teenage son, Edmund, who are hoping for a quiet and uneventful journey.
If you’re not already familiar with the Crippen murder case, you might be wondering what the relevance is of the Atlantic voyage I’ve just described. I can promise you it is very relevant, although we don’t find out why until later in the book. Before we reach that point, we go back in time to the 1860s where we follow the young Hawley Harvey Crippen through his childhood in Michigan. As a teenager he decides he wants to study medicine, but when his parents refuse to help him financially it seems unlikely that Hawley will ever become a fully qualified doctor. After marrying Cora Turner, a music hall singer, the Crippens move to London where Hawley becomes an assistant in a homeopathic medicines company. Several years later, Cora disappears, her friends become convinced she has been murdered, and Hawley finds himself under suspicion…
Before beginning this book, I had heard of Dr Crippen but didn’t know any of the details of the case. I didn’t even know that there was so much controversy surrounding it. Boyne presents an interesting theory as to what may have actually happened, though I have no idea whether there could be any truth to this theory or not – I suspect there probably isn’t, but the book certainly does show Crippen in a much more sympathetic light than you might expect. It would be hard not to feel sorry for Boyne’s portrayal of a boy forced to abandon his dreams, a quiet and mild-mannered man bullied and abused by his selfish, manipulative wife.
My only complaint is that it was difficult to know exactly which parts of the novel were fictional and which weren’t. I looked up some factual information about Hawley Harvey Crippen after I read the book and was surprised to find that Boyne had changed so many biographical details, such as the names of Crippen’s parents and the fact that his first wife had actually died of a stroke rather than a road accident as described in the novel. When writing a fictional account of a real person’s life, it’s obvious that things like conversations, thoughts and emotions will have to be invented, but I’m not sure what the point was in altering all those little details.
Anyway, I didn’t worry about any of this until after I’d finished the book. While I was reading I was completely captivated by the twists and turns of the story and by Boyne’s wonderful writing style. I’m looking forward to exploring the rest of his novels now!
The Secret Countess (also published as A Countess Below Stairs) is set in 1919 and the title character is Anna Grazinsky, the daughter of a Russian count and countess. During the Russian Revolution, she and her mother and brother are forced to flee their home in St Petersburg for safety in England, but on the journey they lose their remaining family jewels and arrive in England with nothing. Determined to get a job so that she can help to support her family, Anna finds a position as a maid at Mersham, the estate of the Earl of Westerholme. With Selena Strickland’s The Domestic Servant’s Compendium as her guide, she settles into her new job and earns the respect and friendship of the other servants, who are unaware that she is a countess.
The young Earl, Rupert Frayne, is returning to Mersham for the first time since leaving to fight in the First World War and has announced that his fiancée, Muriel Hardwicke will soon be joining him. At first the Fraynes, their friends and their servants are pleased with the news of Rupert’s forthcoming marriage because Muriel is a rich heiress and her money means that the future of Mersham will be safe. But while Rupert is awaiting Muriel’s arrival, he notices the new Russian housemaid and finds himself falling in love.
It was not hard to predict what was going to happen in The Secret Countess! From the beginning it was obvious how it was going to end, but that didn’t make the book any less enjoyable. After finishing the dark and disturbing Gretel and the Dark I wanted something light and gentle to read next and this book was the perfect choice. I thought it was a lovely story with a magical, fairy tale quality and an old-fashioned feel (the book was first published in 1981 but could have been much older than that). The romance between Anna and Rupert is a subtle, understated one and doesn’t ever really dominate the story, but I never doubted that there would be a happy ending and that they would somehow overcome the obstacles in their path.
While my preference is usually for books that are less predictable and with characters that are more complex and nuanced (most of the characters in this book are either completely ‘good’ or completely ‘bad’ with nothing in between) that didn’t really bother me this time. Anna could easily have been one of those sickening heroines who is too good to be true – she’s beautiful, generous, sweet, kind and loving – but I couldn’t help liking her anyway. In the same way, the character who turns out to be the villain of the novel is horrible in every way, yet perfect in the context of the story. Another of the strengths of this book is its wonderful supporting characters. My favourite was the Honourable Ollie Byrne, the little girl who loves life despite its unfairness towards her, but all of the others are given a distinctive personality of their own too – even Rupert’s dog, Baskerville.
If I’ve understood correctly, this book was originally written as a book for adults but has now been repackaged to appeal to YA readers. I honestly think this is a book that could be equally enjoyed by both adults and younger readers and it would be a shame if anyone missed out on reading it because it has been marketed in a certain way. This is only the second book I’ve read by Eva Ibbotson (the other was Madensky Square) and I’m pleased that I still have so many of her other books to explore!
There seem to have been a lot of historical thrillers in recent years that focus on the search for a valuable item – a book, a crown or a manuscript. A Burnable Book is another one, but with enough differences to make it feel refreshing and original. While many authors (CJ Sansom, SJ Parris, Nancy Bilyeau to name a few) set their stories in the Tudor period, this one is set in the 14th century, during the reign of Richard II, a period covered less often in historical fiction. The missing item in question is a book of prophecies which accurately predicts the deaths of the previous twelve Kings of England…and the one who is currently on the throne, King Richard II.
This book – and the embroidered cloth in which it is wrapped – has fallen into the hands of Agnes Fonteyn, a ‘maudlyn’ (or prostitute), who receives it from another girl whom she meets just outside London’s city walls. Minutes later this girl is murdered, leaving Agnes, who is unaware of the book’s contents, wondering what is so special about it that someone was prepared to kill for it.
John Gower, poet and ‘trader in information’, hears about the book from his friend, Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain exactly why he wants it so desperately. When John begins his search for the book he soon discovers that he and Chaucer are not the only ones looking for it and that the prophecies it contains could implicate one of England’s most important noblemen in a plot against the King. As the action moves from one side of London to the other, over the Thames to Southwark, to the libraries of Oxford and then to Florence and back again, the history of this ‘burnable book’ is slowly revealed.
The name of the author, Bruce Holsinger, should be familiar to anyone who took the Coursera course “Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction” last year (Holsinger was the instructor). This is his first novel and after listening to him talk about other works of historical fiction during the course, I was interested to see what his own book would be like. I’m pleased to report that it’s very good! The setting is believable, the historical background feels thoroughly researched, the plot is cleverly constructed and the story is exciting.
I did have a slight problem with the number of characters in the book as I found some of them difficult to distinguish from each other, particularly some of the bishops and noblemen who only played a minor role in the story. After a while, though, several characters began to emerge as stronger and more interesting than the others: John Gower, whose strained relationship with his exiled son, Simon, is tested during the course of his investigations; Millicent Fonteyn, sister of Agnes, who will do anything to avoid returning to life in the brothel where she grew up; and Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, born “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both”. I liked the fact that the novel shows us the lives of people from all levels of society, from the nobility and clergy of England to London’s lower classes, including butchers’ apprentices and the ‘maudlyns’. Eventually the stories of each of these characters and more begin to come together, connected by the common thread of the burnable book and its treasonous prophecies.
Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar and it shows in his portrayal of the 14th century world which feels accurate and authentic. I can’t say the same for the dialogue, which is too modern for the period, but this didn’t irritate me as much as it sometimes does and the slang probably reflected the way some of the characters would have spoken. When reading the author’s note at the end I was interested to find that some of the things I’d assumed were fictional were actually based on fact. The character of Edgar or Eleanor Rykener, for example, was inspired by historical records of a transvestite prostitute. The poet John Gower really existed but not many details of his life are known, so Holsinger was able to use his imagination to fill in the gaps.
I think my favourite aspect of the novel was the concept of the ‘burnable book’ itself and the cryptic messages it contains. It was fascinating to learn more about the process of creating and breaking ciphers and codes and to watch as various characters tried to interpret the meanings of the prophecies. I also enjoyed following Gower’s mission to locate the book and identify its author, and the problems faced by Agnes and the other maudlyns in deciding what to do with such a dangerous possession. I don’t know if Bruce Holsinger is planning to write a sequel to A Burnable Book but I hope so as I would love to meet some of these characters again!
Anahita (Anni) Chavan’s whole family are gathering at her hill-top bungalow in Darjeeling to celebrate her one-hundredth birthday, but even surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there is still one person missing. This is Moh, her beloved son, whom she has not seen since he was a small child. Everyone believes him to be dead…everyone except Anni who is sure that he is still alive somewhere in the world. A year later Anni herself has died, but before her death she had written down her story and entrusted it to her favourite great-grandson, Ari Malik, in the hope that he would try to find out what happened to her missing son.
Anni’s story leads Ari to Astbury Hall in England, where filming is currently taking place for a new period drama set in the 1920s starring the beautiful young American actress, Rebecca Bradley. When Lord Astbury invites her to stay at the Hall for the duration of the filming as a safe haven away from the world’s press, Rebecca gratefully accepts, hoping that the peace and quiet will give her a chance to decide what to do about her equally famous actor boyfriend, Jack, who has just proposed to her.
Soon Rebecca is drawn into Ari’s search for the truth about Anahita’s past and as her tragic story unfolds, we are taken back to India in 1911, where as a young girl Anni becomes friendly with Princess Indira, the daughter of the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar. She and Indira are sent to school in England just before the beginning of the Great War, and while staying with family friends at Astbury Hall in Devon the relationship Anni forms with Donald Astbury changes her life forever.
This is the third Lucinda Riley novel I’ve read (the other two were The Girl on the Cliff and The Light Behind the Window – I still need to read Hothouse Flower) and it’s my favourite of the three. Although there were times when I found the plot easy to predict and a few coincidences that felt too implausible, there were enough unexpected twists to keep me in suspense wondering what was going to happen next. I particularly loved the parts of the book set in India during the British Raj and also the insights into what life was like for a young woman trying to find a place for herself in a new and unfamiliar country.
Sometimes when a book is set in multiple time periods, the different threads of the story can feel disjointed and unconnected, but that was not the case here. They came together perfectly, with the secrets of Astbury Hall being slowly revealed as Ari and Rebecca discover them. As usual, though, I found myself enjoying the historical sections of the book more than the contemporary ones. The modern day characters do have storylines of their own – Rebecca’s troubled relationship with her boyfriend and Ari’s struggle to find the right balance between his work and his personal life – but they didn’t interest me as much as Anni’s. I thought Lucinda Riley’s writing really came alive in the sections about Anni – the dialogue felt vibrant and the characters were strong and memorable, especially Anni herself, her best friend Indira, and Donald’s cruel and manipulative mother, Maud Astbury, the villain of the book.
The Midnight Rose is a long novel (650 pages – and it’s one of those books that is physically big and heavy too) but once I became swept up into the story I stopped thinking about the number of pages and concentrated on enjoying Anahita Chavan’s fascinating tale.
I received a copy of this book from Pan Macmillan for review
As someone who has always read mainly fiction, I have been making an effort to read more non-fiction. The type of non-fiction books I find myself drawn to tend to be books about history or biographies of historical figures; I’ve read a few of these recently and The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is one of the best I’ve read. It’s a very long book at almost 700 pages but as the book covers two centuries of history that’s not surprising!
The book begins in the year 1120 with the wreck of the White Ship in which King Henry I lost his only son and heir. This led to the period of English history known as The Anarchy, a civil war with the country divided between supporters of Henry’s daughter, Matilda, and of his nephew, Stephen. It was the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, the future Henry II, who was England’s first Plantagenet king. Dan Jones tells the story of not only Henry II’s reign, but the reigns of all the Plantagenets who followed, up to and including Richard II who was deposed in 1399. Of course there were several more Plantagenet kings after Richard II, but Jones does explain why he chose to end the book at this point.
I love reading about the Plantagenets and find them far more interesting than the Tudors. However, I have to admit that most of my knowledge of them comes from reading historical fiction and while I certainly think it’s possible to learn through fiction, it was good to have the opportunity to read a factual account of the period. Actually, I found this book almost as entertaining and compelling as a novel anyway; Dan Jones does a great job of making the historical figures he’s writing about come to life and conveying the drama of some of the most important events of their reigns. Instead of just telling us that Henry I’s son died in a shipwreck, for example, he describes the sails of the ship billowing in the wind, the shouts of the crew and the freezing water pouring into the ship. This makes the book very readable, though despite it not being too academic it still feels thoroughly researched and I never had any reason to doubt the accuracy.
Before beginning this book, there were some Plantagenet kings whose lives I was more familiar with than others. I found that I already had quite a good knowledge of Henry II and his relationships with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, his sons and daughters, the knight William Marshal and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. And I knew the basic facts about Richard I (the Lionheart) and his crusades, and about his brother, King John. The story of the final king featured in the book, Richard II, was also familiar to me, but I had less knowledge of the others in between – Henry III and the three Edwards (I, II and III). I enjoyed learning about Simon de Montfort’s rebellion during the reign of Henry III, the 1326 invasion of England by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, and the possible fate of Edward II, all subjects I had previously known very little about.
The Plantagenets would be a great choice for any history lover looking for an accessible introduction to a fascinating time period. I’m hoping for a second volume covering the 15th century and the Wars of the Roses.
I received a copy of this book from Netgalley for review.
Speaking from Among the Bones is Alan Bradley’s fifth novel featuring the wonderful Flavia de Luce. Flavia’s intelligence, her passion for chemistry (particularly poisons), and the fact that she is still only eleven years old makes her one of the most fascinating and unusual detectives in fiction. The series is set in the 1950s in the small English village of Bishop’s Lacey where Flavia lives with her father and two sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, at the family’s ancestral home, Buckshaw. In each book Flavia investigates a murder mystery, torments (and is tormented by) her sisters, conducts experiments in her chemical laboratory, and desperately searches for information about the mother she has never known.
Flavia’s fifth adventure begins as she excitedly awaits the removal of St Tancred’s bones from his tomb in the church crypt to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of his death. She is hoping to be the first person in Bishop’s Lacey to see the saint’s bones, but what she eventually discovers when the tomb is opened is something quite different: the body of the church organist, Mr Collicutt, who had disappeared a few weeks earlier. Who murdered him and what was their motive? And why is he wearing a gas mask? These are the questions Flavia must try to answer – hopefully before Inspector Hewitt solves the mystery first! Accompanied by her trusty old bicycle, Gladys, Flavia begins to search for clues, but as well as making some discoveries regarding the organist’s death and the possible identity of his killer, she also starts to uncover some of the secrets of her mother’s past.
I’ve enjoyed every book in the series so far, but I think this one might be my favourite (either this or the Christmas-themed one, I am Half-Sick of Shadows). As I’ve mentioned in my previous Flavia reviews, I love this series because I love Flavia, the supporting characters, and the setting of Bishop’s Lacey. The actual murder mysteries are not usually very complex or difficult to solve and are not the attraction of these books for me, but I thought this was an improvement on the previous ones. It was tightly plotted with lots of clues, suspects and red herrings and during her investigations Flavia finds herself crawling through underground tunnels, entering secret locked rooms, encountering a wooden effigy that appears to have started weeping blood in the church, and discovering that she is not the only amateur detective in Bishop’s Lacey!
While Flavia is still just eleven and has only aged slightly over the course of the series, I do think we’ve seen her grow up and mature since the first book. There has been development with some of the other characters too, particularly Ophelia (Feely) and Daphne (Daffy), Flavia’s two sisters, who are not quite as horrible to Flavia in this book as they have been previously – or maybe Flavia is just learning to deal with them better. Also in this book, their father is continuing to have financial difficulties, forcing him to consider putting Buckshaw up for sale and this shared trauma helps to bring the whole family together for once. By ‘family’ I’m including the servants, Mrs Mullet and Dogger. Dogger is a great character and a true friend to Flavia – I like him more and more with every book!
If you’re new to this series, beginning with book five probably wouldn’t be a problem, but if possible I would recommend starting with the first one, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and enjoying all of Flavia’s adventures in order. This is the only one to finish with a cliffhanger ending, which means I now can’t wait to read the sixth book, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches!