Book Group 4 – Books Read 1: A-G

About the book and a review

NonFiction  |  Fiction:  Authors A-G  |  Authors  H-L  |  Authors  M-S   |  Authors T-Z   

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I have always thought of this as a Marmite book.  People either love it for its bizarre humour, unusual characters, and unexpected insights into humanity, or hate it for its absurdity.  This is the first of a series of books, all of which started life as a radio series, which first went out in 1978.  I listened to it when it was broadcast and feel some of the humour is lost in the written form, although it helps if you have heard the radio series or seen one of the films, stage performances or TV series over the years. 

It starts off with the total destruction of the earth to make room for an intergalactic highway.  Ford Prefect, an alien from a planet millions of miles away, is a roving reporter for the Hitchhikers Guide, who has been stranded on earth for five years.  He hears about the planet’s imminent demise and rescues his best friend on earth, Arthur  Dent, just at the point of destruction, by hitching a ride on one of the spaceships in the fleet sent to destroy the earth.  They then embark on a series of very strange adventures as they hitchhike around the galaxy. 

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was first published in 1979, and now has cult status.  When I recently started to read it again,  I realised the ‘guide’  referred to in the book is in fact an electronic book, the size of what would now be a mobile phone, with illustrations, thousands of pages and the ability to read its text out to you. How prophetic!

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold
Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

Fantasy.  The author says at the beginning that he blames his father for getting him to read Tolkien and Raymond Chandler.  It is actually more like Terry Pratchett (without the humour.)

It is set in a magical world 6 years after the “Coda”.  The humans – in an attempt to get some magic power for themselves, somehow caused the Sacred River to freeze, instantly removing the magic from the world.   Creatures like fairies who relied on magic for their very existence just died; some shape changers, like werewolves, were frozen mid transformation, and the immortals, like elves and vampires, just became very old.

Fetch Phillips is a “man for hire” – he won’t call himself a detective, in Sunder City – which used to run on magic, but is now just rundown.

I thought this was a great concept and I enjoyed the 2 books, but the series is becoming very dark.

The triple echo by H E Bates

Set in WW2, this book is only short, but it is very powerful.  It was written in 1970s and explores themes which are topical today regarding gender.  A lonely woman is trying to keep an isolated farm going on her own while her husband is missing overseas, possibly as a prisoner of war.  A handsome young army recruit comes into her life.  He is a farmer’s son and helps her on the farm, and they become lovers.  When his regiment moves on he decides to go AWOL and hides with her at the farm posing as her younger sister.  This works well for them both until a brash army sergeant stumbles across the farm and is attracted to the younger ‘sister’.  I won’t give too much away but it is clear from the start this is not going to have a happy ending.

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs                               A British Library Crime Classic, first published in 1961

Jim Lane’s body was found in a river near Ely.  He had been stabbed in the back, but nobody who knew him could understand why anyone would want to murder him.  But Jim was leading a double life and was really James Teasdale.  His family in Yorkshire thought he was a travelling salesman.  Those who knew him as Jim Lane knew him as the owner of a hoop-la stall in a travelling fair.

It is up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to unravel the mystery of who killed James, and why – and where.  The remains of an undigested meal in his stomach showed that he was dead long before his body was thrown into the river.  So Littlejohn travels to Yorkshire to try and solve the case.

Bellairs has the knack of combining a good story with the drama of the murder and a good helping of humour.  The ending of this particular book is pure comedy.

Surfeit of Suspects by George Bellairs 

A mysterious explosion in the offices of Excelsior Joinery Company, in the sleepy town of Evingdon, results in the death of three of the directors.   When it is discovered that dynamite was the cause, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called to the scene, where he uncovers a web of fraud and corruption.

He’d Rather Be Dead by George Bellairs 

Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to solve a murder in a seaside town.  The man murdered is the mayor.  He had a dubious past, but, once he had made his pile, he moved to the seaside town and turned it from a lovely small seaside town into a tacky Weston type resort.  He was hated by everyone and he enjoyed the fact.  He gave lavish lunches for local big-wigs and it was at one of these that he was poisoned.  It could have been the solicitor, the town clerk, the dentist, the doctor, et al, because he had made enemies of them all.  Bellairs describes all these characters, and the town, that you can easily visualise them.  When I have finished this book I shall certainly read more of them.

Bellairs’ style is first class – he is wonderful at description and his use of English is excellent.

The only criticism I would make is that this story is set during the second world war but no one seems to be on rations or fighting.  The town is heaving with holiday-makers who are spending a lot of money.

— I confess to a slight addiction to these British Library Crime Classics, and George Bellairs is a favourite.  I enjoy his mix of old-fashioned crime-solving with a certain humour. 

The Windsor knot by S J Bennett

Her Majesty a detective?  Yes, maybe a little stagey but not unprecedented:  Peter Lovesey’s Bertie novels about her Great Grandfather’s detective career were entertaining. 

This one is a novel set before the Referendum, but still in modern times.  An ‘Unfortunate Incident’ is reported in Windsor Castle after a relatively informal ‘Dine and dance’ party, when a pianist with a very good ability to dance, including once with the Queen, is found dead the following morning.  It is pointed out that the Queen, who is watched by everyone, also watches back, so is very talented at it.  She conducts her investigation very discreetly with the assistance of a member of her staff. 

The murder and its solving are secondary to the characters.  There is a delightful portrait of Prince Philip in action helping while keeping out of the way.  The picture of the life of the Queen balancing appearances, diplomacy, and politics, while enjoying her horses and the Windsor Horse Show, is illuminating.  Not to mention judicious power naps and rest periods to keep all the balls in the air.   It adds to the legend of the tireless machine that most people would die for in a heartbeat and why.

I enjoyed this book very much and look forward to the next one. 

Scarlet Feather by Maeve Binchy

An easy read this month from the popular author, Maeve Binchy.   The name comes from the surnames of the 2 main characters who start their own catering business – they both have separate life partners and the story keeps the reader up-to-date with the state of both relationships.  They both have birth families and, of course, there are the 9 year old twins.

Altogether, this makes it hard to put down, at which Maeve Binchy is extremely skilled.  She has a real knowledge of the class system and women’s often-believed place in the world – in the home with children!  She also has a somewhat tongue-in-cheek opinion of family values, e.g. Muttie and his wife Lizzie.  This is true of most of her books – I have also read, for light relief, Tara Road, Evening Class, and Night of Rain and Stars.

A young doctor’s notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

It’s a collection of stories, based on the writer’s experience as a newly qualified doctor in rural Smolensk Russia around 1916.  They originally were in medical journals but were later compiled into a novel.

The stories are witty; sometimes there is a sense of foreboding.  It’s a good historical document as it clearly shows how hard things were after the revolution and how many in rural areas struggled to understand what was happening.  Bulgakov was the first doctor to document the signs of problems with shin bones in late stage syphilis, common in Russia in that era, and it was called Bulgakov Sign till being renamed Bandy Leg Sign in the west.  He covers some of this in the book.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

This book starts in London in 1967, when Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, starts work as a secretary at a London art gallery. She is taken under the wing of the mysterious and rather formidable, Marjorie Quick, who acts as her mentor and helps her develop her career. 

After a lost masterpiece arrives at the gallery, the story moves to rural Spain in 1936, where another young woman, Olive Schloss, and her art dealer father are living and where they befriend a local artist and his sister.  The Spanish section of the book is all set in the Spanish Civil War.  I didn’t really enjoy the descriptions of things which happened in the war, but it was an eye opener for me, albeit a rather shocking one.  The book doesn’t dwell on this too much, however, the setting is a vital part of the ‘who done it’ which is one of the central themes. 

As the story moves back and forth between London and Spain, the reader (and Odelle) uncovers a secret about the lost masterpiece and the artist who created the painting.  I found this a real page turner, with lots of twists and turns, and a brilliant twist at the end. I was kept guessing right to the end.

Truth to tell by Mavis Cheek

Nina Porter lives a conventional, comfortable middle-class life with husband, two children and a nice home.  A turning point in her life comes when she realises just how often we lie, or at best fail to be honest, in our everyday lives.  The catalyst is the prospect of the annual ‘bonding’ trip that her husband’s employer organizes for the staff and their spouses.   She just does not want to go, knows she never enjoys it, but just does it to conform.

So …… she decides to be truthful and not only to tell her husband she isn’t going but from that point on to always be honest with everyone …… 

It’s a light-hearted and funny but very insightful and in its own way quite meaningful.

The bookshop on the shore by Jenny Colgan

Jenny Colgan  is a very warm and amusing writer, keeping the reader fully aware of the tragic situation with her sense of humour. 

The main character is Zoë plus her very young son, Hari.  The boy and his father really love each other ,but nevertheless his mother has to care for and provide for him.  Consequently she is always really short of money in London, so accepts a post in Scotland, living in as a sort of housekeeper to 3 children and their father, plus a job in a ‘Bookshop’.  Fortunately, Hari makes great friends with the youngest child, Patrick, and Zoë herself is very concerned about all the children and their moody Father.  It is generally a mystery what happened to his wife and why she seems to have disappeared.  However, there is a gradual improvement in the children’s behaviour and lives. 

Will all be well in the end?   Will Hari gain his speech?  Will we know about the children’s parents?  Will Zoë fall in love? 

A Scanner Darkly  by  Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick is a science fiction writer, who you probably have never heard of, but you will have heard of some of the many films based on his books, which include:  Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, and Blade Runner (the book was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which is a much better title, but they left out the electric sheep in the film!)

Born 1928 and died 1982, Dick was married 5 times, attempted suicide twice, and used recreational drugs.  While at college he read the works of Plato and came to the conclusion that the world is not entirely real and there is no way to confirm whether it is truly there.  All Dick’s stories are recognisable a mile off, they all have a sense of paranoia, that something is wrong with reality itself.

A Scanner Darkly was published in 1977, a semi-autobiographical story …… and includes an extensive portrayal of drug culture and drug use.   Bob Arctor is an undercover police agent living in a house of drug users.  There is a new and dangerous drug on the streets -“Substance D” – which reduces the interaction of the two halves of the brain, causing the user to lose all sense of self.

Arctor finds that to fit in with the people he is infiltrating, it is necessary to consume some illegal drugs, and eventually he ends up taking substance D.  He gradually starts losing touch with reality.

The police are anxious to uncover the source of the drug, but the department is compromised.  When Arctor reports to the station he wears a “scramble suit” (the only science fiction idea in the book): anyone looking at him sees only a blur.  This means that only his immediate boss knows who he really is.

Some of his police colleagues have identified the house where he lives as a house of interest, so they bug it.  As they don’t know who Arctor really is, he is given the task of reviewing the recordings of events in the house.

So now Arctor is becoming hopelessly addicted to substance D and his sense of self is also being eroded by being asked to spy on himself!   It all ends badly, the police find the source of the drug, but Arctor is hopelessly insane.

This is an interesting novel (and not particularly science fiction).  The most memorable part is the afterword where the author says “This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did.” He goes on to list a number of his friends who are marked as either deceased or brain damaged.

Death in Malta by Rosanne Dingli

Novelist Gregory Worthington, suffering from writer’s block, goes to Malta to try to find inspiration for a new novel.  He discovers that the house he rents is owned by a family whose little boy had gone missing 20 years before.  It isn’t known whether it was kidnap, murder or accident, and it is clear that even 20 years later it hasn’t been forgotten.  He becomes obsessed with the story, upsetting many people – including the family – with his insensitivity.  Part of the book is his own version of the story, written as a novel

This could have been a tense, interesting story but the author panders to the mass market by introducing long, boring bedroom scenes – which I skipped – and a soap opera type sub-plot.  Neither add anything to the story.

The worst part of it for me was the ending.  Worthington finds the boy’s body and realises it was an accident – hid the body even more, and then goes back to Australia without telling anyone. 

The ending put me in a fury!   To me it was totally and utterly morally wrong.  I don’t understand how the author could see that as the right thing to do.  From known cases where children have gone missing the family always want to know, and want the body. 

I certainly won’t be reading any more books by this author……….

The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier

This was Daphne du Maurier’s first novel (her perhaps most famous being Rebecca) and was published in 1931.  It describes 4 generations of the COOMBE FAMILY who originate in PLYN, a small seaside village in Cornwall.  It starts with the Wedding Day of JANET to THOMAS, a thriving boat builder, who begat JOSEPH, who begat CHRISTOPHER, who begat JENNIFER.   

Janet’s marriage was a happy one, yet there was a special relationship between her and her son, Joseph.  The Coombe family built a boat and when Joseph passed his Master’s Certificate, they hoped that he would be the boat’s master.  A figure head of Janet was completed on the boat which showed her ‘Loving Spirit’ and love of adventure.  Joseph eventually begat Christopher, who  was at first afraid of the sea, but overcame this fear and tried much later to save the boat when on the rocks.  Christopher had left Plyn but returned there, as did his daughter Jennifer, who married happily and begat children.  The generations are probably still emerging there and do they recognise ‘The Loving Spirit’ of Janet?

Interviewing the Dead by David Field

A rumour is started that the dead are haunting London, and the ghost of the Ripper has returned.   A Methodist preacher in Whitechapel is annoyed and preaches the opposite.   He is accosted by a surgeon from St Thomas’ Hospital, who wants him to work on finding the truth.   The surgeon’s daughter is also a forensic analyst and determined to find the truth. And highly allergic to mansplaining and putdowns.  An enjoyable mystery, with the start of police techniques, Photography and fingerprinting.

Troubled Blood (Cormoran Strike 5)  by Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling)

The principal characters are Cormoran Strike, a former investigator for the military police who has lost part of his leg in a bomb attack whilst serving in Afghanistan.  He had a feckless mother and was mostly brought up by his grandparents.  He has left the forces and set up a detective agency in London.

In the first book, he employs a temp, Robin, who rapidly becomes a co-detective and, by the latest book, Strike’s business partner.  Robin also has a troubled past.  She took a Psychology degree course at university, but, following being raped, the trauma drove her into the arms of boyfriend Matthew, who is emotionally abusive.  She and Strike are attracted to each other, but clearly the author will continue to keep them apart in order to keep our interest!

Troubled Blood is about a cold case, 40 years old: a doctor with a husband and small child left her practice one evening and disappeared without trace.

Despite its length, I enjoyed the book immensely; it is in the standard Agatha Christie format, lots of red herrings and the detective (always Strike for some reason) only puts it all together right at the end.  J K Rowling is a superb plotter, I didn’t see the end coming.  The characters are really well drawn and recognisable.  The action is shown from Robin or Strike’s point of view and the author is really good at getting inside the heads of the two protagonists, particularly Robin’s.

Our Mother’s House by Julian Gloag

A strange story of 7 children who, frightened of being separated when their mother dies, bury her in the garden and continue life as before.  She had been chronically sick and they’d cared for her which makes it easy to conceal her death.  The story then follows their story.  It had twists and turns, and the end itself provides a further unsuspected twist.  It was during the course of the story, one of the girls dies as a direct result of some tribe issues.  They find their father and in the end kill him and bury him with the mum and carry on.

I found it reminded me in parts of Lord of the Flies, Flowers in the Attic, and a few more.  I’m not sure it’s a book I will read again.

Past Caring by Robert Goddard

An unemployed History teacher is invited to Madeira to stay with a friend, who takes him to dinner with a South African, who owns a Quinta estate, and he is asked to research the truth of the memoirs of the previous owner, who at one time was in Asquith’s cabinet in 1910.  As is usual with Robert Goddard, the plot thickens and gets nastier. 

If you’re interested in Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and/or the Suffragettes, you should find this absorbing.  I didn’t enjoy the beach scene, but that character is well signalled, so there aren‘t many surprises in that direction.  The main character develops in relation to the other characters, but more because they go down from their start position of conceit.  The mystery unfolds more slowly than it should, owing to the historian’s lack of guile and dispatch.  The Suffragette is the best character.

The Dragons of Kellynch by Maria Grace

There are many Austen spin-offs, and a lot of them are pretty bad.  I like this one and the others in this author’s output.  I have already read the earlier ones in the series, but this one, book 5,  is endowed with pleasant surprises, and confirmations that I was right about people in Austen novels.  This is a prequel to Persuasion, set a couple of years after Anne has refused Frederick Wentworth.  It takes nothing away from the story, but adds to the book delightfully.   Would Jane have liked it?  I can only say she would either have liked it or hated it.  I think it’s better than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is one of my guilty pleasures.  I think spinoffs have to be very, very good to work.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

I find Greene’s books fall into two categories, the very dark and the amusing but ultimately, slightly dark.  This falls into the second category.  It starts off as being very funny.  The main character is a middle aged vacuum cleaner salesman.  He is living in Havana and earning very little money, when he is recruited as a secret agent for British Intelligence.  The only problem is he doesn’t know any secrets.  In order to keep earning the money he starts to make things up about people he knows in order to put something in his reports.  This includes sending secret plans, which are actually drawings of a vacuum cleaner.  It all starts to go very wrong, with disastrous consequences, when the things he made up in his reports appear to start to come true.

The Confession by John Grisham

John Grisham is a very well known author of ‘legal’ books.  The Confession is made by Travis Boyette, a murderer.  In 1998 he abducted, raped, murdered, and buried his victim in a place where no-one else would find her.  A young local football star, Donte Drumm, was arrested for this crime but, in fact, had nothing to do with it.  He was convicted of this crime and  sent to Death Row, where he was imprisoned for 9 years.  Four days before the execution, Travis Boyette found out about this and decided to confess.  Did the powers that be believe him?  A Church Minister, and a Legal professional were involved but could they save Donte?  Would they watch the execution, if there were one?  The Death Penalty was not executed in most states, but still carried out in Texas?  Would Travis Boyette find the murdered girl’s body in time to save him?  How did the families of the victim and the convicted footballer react?