My weekend reading plans

I’ve been communing a lot with my TBR shelves recently and as I whittle away the long-languishing books the communing is taking longer and longer, but this morning the shelves spoke quickly and loudly: Miss Benson’s Beetle and it felt right and good.

Miss Benson's BeetleMiss Benson's Beetle
by Rachel Joyce
isbn: 0857521993
Publication Date: June 11, 2020
Pages: 389
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Doubleday

Margery Benson's life ended the day her father walked out of his study and never came back. Forty years later, abandoning a dull job, she advertises for an assistant. The successful candidate is to accompany Margery on an expedition to the other side of the world to search for a beetle that may or may not exist. Enid Pretty is not who she had in mind. But together they will find themselves drawn into an adventure that exceeds all Margery's expectations, eventually finding new life at the top of a red mountain.

This is a story that is less about what can be found than the belief it might be found; it is an intoxicating adventure story and it is also a tender exploration of a friendship between two unforgettable women that defies all boundaries.


I also continue to whittle away at Histories of the Unexpected and I’m about half-way through.  Maybe, maybe, maybe I can get through the rest of it this weekend.  If I push.  It’s killing my average days to read curve.

Histories of the UnexpectedHistories of the Unexpected
by James Daybell, Sam Willis
isbn: 9781786494122
Publication Date: October 1, 2018
Pages: 467
Genre: History, Non-fiction
Publisher: Atlantic Books

In this fascinating and original new book, Sam Willis and James Daybell lead us on a journey of historical discovery that tackles some of the greatest historical themes - from the Tudors to the Second World War, from the Roman Empire to the Victorians - but via entirely unexpected subjects.

You will find out here how the history of the beard is connected to the Crimean War; how the history of paperclips is all about the Stasi; how the history of bubbles is all about the French Revolution. And who knew that Heinrich Himmler, Tutankhamun and the history of needlework are linked to napalm and Victorian orphans?

Taking the reader on an enthralling and extraordinary journey through thirty different topics that are ingeniously linked together, Histories of the Unexpected not only presents a new way of thinking about the past, but also reveals the everyday world around us as never before.


I’ll leave you with a little Pikacu action, as she quietly reminds me of reading that needs to be done:

The Jewels of Paradise

The Jewels of ParadiseThe Jewels of Paradise
by Donna Leon
Rating: ★★★½
isbn: 9780802120649
Publication Date: October 1, 2012
Pages: 244
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Atlantic Books

Donna Leon has won heaps of critical praise and legions of fans for her best-selling mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. With The Jewels of Paradise, Leon takes readers beyond the world of the Venetian Questura in her first standalone novel.

Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian, and like so many of them, she s had to leave home to pursue her career. With a doctorate in baroque opera from Vienna, she lands in Manchester, England. Manchester, however, is no Venice. When Caterina gets word of a position back home, she jumps at the opportunity.

The job is an unusual one. After nearly three centuries, two locked trunks, believed to contain the papers of a baroque composer have been discovered. Deeply-connected in religious and political circles, the composer died childless; now two Venetians, descendants of his cousins, each claim inheritance. Caterina s job is to examine any enclosed papers to discover the testamentary disposition of the composer. But when her research takes her in unexpected directions she begins to wonder just what secrets these trunks may hold.


A compelling, yet weird, no-body mystery that reminds me in many ways of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time.  Set in modern Venice, Italy with our MC researching the recently discovered papers of Baroque composer and bishop Agostino Steffani, in an attempt to settle a centuries old dispute over who inherited.

So much of this book is research, which was sometimes interesting but never what you’d call fast-paced, and while I love classical music, I dislike opera (no singing please, just the music), so at the beginning I worried for my attention span.  It soon becomes clear that the letters have very little to do with his ‘side’ career as composer and more to do with his diplomatic mission for the Vatican.  Even that sounds more exciting that what you get, but it is interesting.

The writing is good but the structure is wobbly and the characters all fail to set and feel half-formed or as though Leon couldn’t commit.  Leon obviously has issues about her own faith that bleed out through the pages.  The book remains an academic exercise until just past the mid-way point, when suddenly Leon throws connections to Opus Dei in, but never explains them, nor develops them.  Morretti’s motivations are never explained; we’re supposed to believe he’s a ‘bad guy’ but with no tangible reason or proof.  But she also seems unable to commit to whether this was going to be a suspenseful mystery, or an academic one.  A scene of menace is jarring and effective for its psychological impact, but nothing ever becomes of it and its eventual explanation is ineffective, at best.

I loved the ending though – such a perfect twist on importance between the secular and the religious.  The ending was almost perfect.

It was a good read, though as a standalone, it left too many threads dangling, and the author was too transparent about her own feelings about faith in my opinion; I thought it was good, but had it been better balanced and better executed it could have been amazing.

Heroic Hearts

Heroic HeartsHeroic Hearts
by Anne Bishop, Charlaine Harris, Chloe Neill, Jim Butcher, Kerrie L. Hughes, Kevin Hearne, Patricia Briggs
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780593099186
Publication Date: May 3, 2022
Pages: 350
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Publisher: Ace

In this short story collection of courage, adventure, and magic, heroes—ordinary people who do the right thing—bravely step forward.

In Jim Butcher’s “Little Things,” the pixie Toot-Toot discovers an invader unbeknownst to the wizard Harry Dresden . . . and in order to defeat it, he’ll have to team up with the dread cat Mister.

In Patricia Briggs’s “Dating Terrors,” the werewolf Asil finds an online date might just turn into something more—if she can escape the dark magic binding her.

In Charlaine Harris’s “The Return of the Mage,” the Britlingen mercenaries will discover more than they’ve bargained for when they answer the call of a distress beacon on a strange and remote world.

And in Kelley Armstrong’s “Comfort Zone,” the necromancer Chloe Saunders and the werewolf Derek Souza are just trying to get through college. But they can’t refuse a ghost pleading for help.

ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BY Annie Bellet * Anne Bishop * Jennifer Brozek * Kevin Hearne * Nancy Holder * Kerrie L. Hughes * Chloe Neill * R.R. Virdi


This sounds like a romance, but as the cover makes clear it’s an urban fantasy anthology, and the title refers to acts of heroism by characters that would normally be considered bit players or underdogs.

And it’s an excellent collection; with the exception of one (The Vampires Karamazov, which felt like a story fragment, or at least, a story with an incomplete ending), I enjoyed all of them; not something I can often say about anthologies.  Of course this collection’s deck is stacked, if you know what I mean, with authors like Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Anne Bishop, Kevin Hearne, and Chloe Neil, each of them offering short stories that complement or extend their most popular series.

I’m not sure I can come up with a favourite.  As much as I enjoyed all my favourite authors’ entries, when I think back across all of them the two that immediately come to mind as stories that ‘stick’ are Jennifer Brozek’s The Necessity of Pragmatic Magic – perhaps because I might overly identify with Felicia, who only wants to be left alone, and Kerry L. Hughes’ Troll Life which somehow charmed me in ways I can’t quite pinpoint; maybe the sentient trains?

Patricia Briggs’ story features Asil, Dating Terrors, and while it’s always fun to read about Asil – he makes me laugh – and the story is good, I have to admit I think he plays to best advantage when he’s surrounded by Charles, Anna, Bran and the rest of the pack.  For those interested, this short story is not the same one as Asil and the not-date found in the Laurel K. Hamilton anthology Fantastic Hope; it’s related, I suspect, and I’m certain Dating Terrors takes place after Asil and the Not-Date.  It also appears to have long-reaching implications for Asil and his fans; I’m wondering if they’ll play out in the next Alpha and Omega book?

Skull Duggery (Gideon Oliver, #16)

Skull DuggerySkull Duggery
by Aaron Elkins
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780425227978
Series: Gideon Oliver #16
Publication Date: January 1, 2009
Pages: 281
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Berkley Prime Crime

Gideon is happy to be in Mexico with his wife-until he’s asked to examine the mummified corpse of a drifter thought to be shot to death. Gideon’s findings reveal that the cause of death is far more bizarre. Then he’s asked to examine the skeleton of a murder victim found a year earlier-only to discover another coroner error. The Skeleton Detective knows that two “mistakenly” identified bodies are never a coincidence. But if he isn’t careful, unearthing the connection between them could make him another murder statistic in Mexico.


Years ago – years and years ago now – this series was recommended to me by someone on BookLikes.  I never got around to hunting down the first book, but ran across this one at a used book sale a year or two later and bought it intending to hang onto it until I’d read the first 15 books.

Fast forward to last week, when I accepted that wasn’t going to happen and decided to just dive right in.

Turned out that was totally fine, I don’t feel like I missed anything at all, and best of all I was presented with a really good, solid mystery.  The pacing was leisurely, which frustrated me a bit at first, making me realising that even in books our attention spans have shrunk, but I found the characters and the writing interesting enough to dig out my store of patience.  I also put it down to read The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir when I was about 25% through, so obviously my store of patience could use some building up.

Once I picked it up again, though, it just all started working for me.  I like Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropologist, and I loved the plot structure.  I knew from the start what the first plot twist would be, but that reveal was made so early it was clear there was far more coming.  It was all so laid back I kept wondering how the author was going to manage the moment in any mystery where the MC is in peril.  When it did happen it was so fast and furious and wtf? that it seemed anti-climatic, but from there the story just got more and more nicely twisty until the ending was just clever and satisfying.

I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found a new series to seek out and enjoy – and it’s one that I’ll be happy to acquire at the same leisurely pace as the writing, with a sense of anticipation but not urgency.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

The Chilbury Ladies' ChoirThe Chilbury Ladies' Choir
by Jennifer Ryan
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780008163716
Publication Date: February 20, 2017
Pages: 453
Genre: Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Borough Press

Kent, 1940. The women of Chilbury village have taken umbrage at the Vicar's closure of the choir now that its male singers are at war. But when spirited music professor Primrose Trent arrives, it prompts the creation of an all-female singing group. Resurrecting themselves as The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, the women use their song and unity to embolden the community as the war tears through their lives. Dependable Mrs Tilling sees the choir as a chance to finally put herself first, and a welcome distraction from thoughts of her son fighting on the front line.

For Kitty Winthrop, the precocious youngest daughter of Chilbury Manor, singing is the only way to outshine her glamorous sister Venetia, who isn't letting the war ruin her plan to make every bachelor in the county fall in love with her. Meanwhile, when midwife Edwina Paltry is presented with a dastardly job which she's convinced will make her rich, she will have to misuse more than the trust of the choir's women to carry out her scheme – and nothing is going to stop her.


This book starts with the About the Author and includes this bit:

Many of the characters’ stories in the book are based on real life, discovered through [the author’s] extensive research and her grandmother’s experiences.

and I have to say, it made the read somehow more enjoyable.  As a book of pure fiction, I think I would still have enjoyed it, but might have felt less satisfied with the characters’ stories; as a work of fiction based on read people and events, the loose ends and un-satisfactory resolutions for some of them felt authentic and more tolerable.

In structure, this is an epistolary novel told from multiple POVs that come from letters and diary entries written in 1940 England, just as the war really begins to hit the home front.  I’d argue it’s not a truly epistolary structure though; while I’m sure some people wrote very detailed letters and diary entires, I can’t imagine very many would go so far as to write long narratives that include setting a scene and transcribing exact dialog.  It works, but those who don’t care for epistolary structures might find this more tolerable.

Told from 6 POVs, which sounds like a lot, but works really well, this is the story of a small village near Dover whose vicar disbands their choir because there are no men left.  The women and children in the choir find strength, comfort and an outlet for their anxiety in their choir performances – a good thing because lots of terrible things happen in the course of 1940, both war related and not.

There’s an obvious love story, a sneaky love story and many non-romantic mini-plots.  The ending of a few are satisfying, the ending of a few others are realistic and left open, and a few – at least 1 – left me thinking there wasn’t enough information given for me to believe in their finality.  Overall though, it was a book that started slow, but efficiently pulled me in until I didn’t care to put it down again.  An enjoyable read.

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood ReadingBookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
by Lucy Mangan
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780224098854
Publication Date: March 1, 2018
Pages: 322
Genre: Books and Reading, Memoir
Publisher: Square Peg

When Lucy Mangan was little, stories were everything. They opened up different worlds and cast new light on this one.

She was whisked away to Narnia - and Kirrin Island - and Wonderland. She ventured down rabbit holes and womble burrows into midnight gardens and chocolate factories. No wonder she only left the house for her weekly trip to the library.

In Bookworm, Lucy brings the favourite characters of our collective childhoods back to life and disinters a few forgotten treasures poignantly, wittily using them to tell her own story, that of a born, and unrepentant, bookworm.


Were you a bookworm as a kid?  I was.  I was even voted “Class Bookworm” in 7th grade – a category they made up just for me.  I was the kid with the book inside the text book during school lectures.  So when I saw this a few years ago, I thought … maybe.  As much as I enjoy most books about books, I figured the title was likely to be an overstatement and I’d be reading a sedate, literary criticism of childhood books.  The front flap reinforced this suspicion.  Which is why it sat on my shelves for so long.

Oh, how wrong – and kinda right – I was.  Lucy Mangan is a true bookworm; back in the day, she’d have given me a run for the title and the award.  She was also way better read than I was, so there is some lit criticism here, but it’s fabulous lit criticism; she’s hilarious and she’s rational and she’s so very real.

On Enid Blyton:

I can barely bring myself to talk about my Enid Blyton.

Like generations of children before me,
and like generations since (she still sells over 8 million
copies a year around the world) I fell head over heels in
love. No, not love – it was an obsession, an addiction. It
was wonderful.

It was an older girl that got me into the stuff. Becky-
next- door lent me her copy of something called Five on a
Secret Trail. It was a floppy, late 1970s Knight Books
edition with, I believe, the original 1950’s illustrations
inside. I read it. It was good. Very good. I enjoyed it. I
enjoyed it very much. I asked Becky if she had any more.
She did. It was called Five Run Away Together. I read it. It
was good. Very good. Possibly even better than Five on
a Secret Trail. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it very much. I
noticed it had a number ‘3’ on the spine. Five on a Secret
Trail had a ’15’. What did that mean? I decided to look for
clues. Even without a loyal canine companion to help me,
it didn’t take long. The endpapers carried a
list. Apparently Enid Blyton had written twenty-one
books! What excellent news! What riches! What vital.
absolutely essential riches!

I took the news and the list to my parents. I’m going
to need all of these,’ I said, gently.

And so it began.

And on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series being a Christian allegory:

The tale of Lucy Pevensie discovering the secret
world beyond the wardrobe door is a story about
courage, loyalty, generosity, sacrifice and nobility versus
greed, conceit, arrogance and betrayal. You can call the
former Christian virtues, or you can just call them
virtues, let the kids concentrate on the self-renewing
Turkish delight, magically unerring bows and hybrid
man-beasts and relax.

Reading this, I feel like I missed out on something amazing by not living down the road from Lucy.  I suspect we’d have had a lot of fun swapping books and comparing notes.  But it was a joy to read her memoirs now and in so doing take a trip down the memory lane of my own reading.

Mangan primarily recounts her childhood reading in a fun and often funny style, but she also dips lightly into the historical aspects of Children’s literature here and there, when the subject matter seems to call for it – a specific genre, or the roots of illustrations.  These bits are less engaging, more straightforward, and in context with the whole, makes the pace drag a tiny bit when you get to them.  They’re interesting, but they’re not entertaining.

Because Mangan’s writing style is very conversational, the sentences that include many clauses and often long parentheticals can sometimes be hard to follow.  This was probably my only criticism – not that I didn’t enjoy the style, because I absolutely did – it’s just once or twice, by the time the sentence ended, I had forgotten how it began.

Admittedly, a large number of the books that Lucy Mangan covers are books unknown to me.  I expected this because she was growing up in London, and I was growing up in tiny town Florida.  But I was delighted at how often our book titles did converge, and how many titles that, even if I didn’t read them, I was familiar enough with to easily follow along.

The author has written a few other books, and I enjoyed this one so much, that I’m interested to discover what they’re about and see about getting my hands on one or two.

The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner

The Witch's Vacuum CleanerThe Witch's Vacuum Cleaner
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9780857534835
Publication Date: August 25, 2016
Pages: 388
Genre: Children's Fiction, Fantasy
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Do you believe in magic?

Can you imagine a war between wizards, a rebellious ant called 4179003, or a time-travelling television?

Can you imagine that poor old Mr Swimble could see a mysterious vacuum cleaner in the morning, and make cheese sandwiches and yellow elephants magically appear by the afternoon?

Welcome to the wonderful world of Sir Terry Pratchett, and fourteen fantastically funny tales from the master storyteller. Bursting from these pages are food fights, pirates, bouncing rabbits and magical pigeons.

And a witch riding a vacuum cleaner, of course.


Long before Terry Pratchett became Terry Pratchett! he was a journalist for the Buck’s Free Press, writing short stories for their Children’s Circle.  This is a collection of some of those short stories, enhanced with illustrations by Mark Beech.  It also includes commentary after each story by a Suzanne Bridson, though I’d not include that as an enhancement.

I found the stories charming in a Roald Dahl way, except I suspect Pratchett of imagination, whereas I sort of suspect Dahl of LSD abuse.  They were funny, witty and there are hidden references to LOTR, C.S. Lewis’ work, and hilarious homages to the Wild West, including Maverick.  As I read, I kept thinking my nieces would find these fun, if I could get them to just try a story or two (they’re reaching that age when the tastes of all adults tank and can’t be trusted), and I must bring the collection to the attention of my sister-in-law who insists that teaching small children is fun.

The commentary was meh and in my opinion, skippable.  Bridson is, I’m assuming, aiming it at the stories’ audiences, and it’s obviously meant to steer them towards the full novels.  The comparisons she points out are the obvious ones, and she ignores almost all of the careful nuances and subtle wordplay that I appreciated most.

My edition is the slipcased one shown and it’s beautiful.  Inside I found it included a full colour illustration from Mark Beech, on postcard sized stock, slipped between the pages, a pleasant bonus.

Books & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local Bookstore

Books & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local BookstoreBooks & Mortar: A Celebration of the Local Bookstore
by Gibbs M. Smith
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781423650430
Publication Date: September 4, 2018
Pages: 152
Genre: Books and Reading
Publisher: Gibbs Smith

A visual feast celebrating the alluring power of bookstores - 68 paintings by illustrator Gibbs M. Smith.

The local bookstore, a place of wonder, refuge, and rejuvenation for book lovers the world over. Books & Mortar is a celebration of these literary strongholds. Sixty-eight oil paintings capture these storefronts at a moment in time, and pair the artwork with quotations about the joy of reading, the importance of bookstores, and in many cases, anecdotes about the shops and owners themselves.


I’m a sucker for these types of books, even though I know they date quickly, and I was feeling grumpy about my DNF and needed something easy and quick.

Based on the About this Author on the back page, I gather that this was a posthumous publication of primarily the author’s (who was also a publisher) personal paintings of bookstores around the country, put together as a memorial of sorts.  As such, some of the bookstores included had already closed (thought only a small number).  Most have some description about the history of each shop, some only a quotation.

The painting style appeals to me and I was delighted to see a section at the back for “bookshops I have visited” with each shop listed and a place to include the date, making this book a journal of sorts for anyone willing to write in a book.

DNF: A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder

A Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and MurderA Fiancée's Guide to First Wives and Murder
by Dianne Freeman
Rating:
isbn: 9781496731609
Series: Countess of Harleigh Mystery #4
Publication Date: October 8, 2021
Pages: 295
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Kensington

For Frances Wynn, widow to the late Earl of Harleigh, life has a cosmopolitan flavor of late. No sooner has she sent her mother and daughter off on a shopping trip to Paris than she and her fiancé, George Hazleton, are socializing with visiting members of the Russian royal family. Yet amid this whirlwind, scandal also comes calling when Inspector Delaney turns up outside Frances's house with a young French woman with a shocking claim: she is Mrs. George Hazelton.

As the future Mrs. George Hazelton, Frances assumes the woman is either lying or demented. "Mrs. Hazelton," aka Irena, makes other outrageous statements. Among them, she insists that she is the illegitimate daughter of Russian royalty, that she has been abducted and held for ransom many times, and that someone is sending her threatening letters. When George arrives, he clarifies that he is certainly not married to Irena--though he can confirm her royal parentage. But even as he agrees to investigate whether Irena's life is in danger, her claim proves tragically true. Irena is found strangled in Frances' garden.

To uncover a killer--and clear their own names--Frances and George must determine which of Irena's outlandish stories were based in fact, and who stood to benefit from her death. And as the search reaches a shocking conclusion, they may find that villainy lurks all too close to home...


It’s rare that I DNF a book, and I enjoyed the first three of this series, but I got 45 pages in and … a big fat no.

I’m never going to be able to suspend my belief enough to read about a spoiled rotten by-blow of the Russian royal family who baldly lies about being the MC’s fiancé’s wife so she can blackmail him into investigating someone sending her letters.

In an age where a woman would be sent to a sanitarium for merely reading the wrong book, the idea that this silly child could successfully throw this tantrum and manipulate the main characters is beyond ridiculous.  I don’t care that she does end up dead, it’s a terrible, weak premise.

A Farmer’s Diary: A Year at High House Farm

A Farmer's DiaryA Farmer's Diary
by Sally Urwin
Rating: ★★★★½
isbn: 9781788160698
Publication Date: April 4, 2019
Pages: 248
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Profile Books

Sally Urwin and her husband Steve own High House Farm in Northumberland, which they share with two kids, Mavis the Sheepdog, one very Fat Pony, and many, many sheep. Set in a beautiful, wild landscape, and in use for generations, it's perfect for Sally's honest and charming account of farming life.

From stock sales to lambing sheds, out in the fields in driving snow and on hot summer days, A Farmer's Diary reveals the highs, lows and hard, hard work involved in making a living from the land. Filled with grit and humour, newborn lambs and local characters, this is the perfect book for anyone who has ever wondered what it's like on the other side of the fence.


It will come as no surprise to anyone, with the loony menagerie we have, that MT and I enjoy being surrounded by animals, and have both flirted with the idea of someday doing some small scale farming.  Extraordinarily small scale; a few acres with a variety of edible landscaping, a small garden, and a few more rescue animals that would seem sensible.

If we ever thought anything more than that would appeal, this book would have put paid to that fantasy.  Farming is hard, which isn’t a newsflash for most people, but more than that, it’s a form of voluntary indentured servitude that guarantees 365 sleepless nights a year, as Urwin’s diary attests.

From context, this seems to be the book form of one year of Sally Urwin’s blog entries.  They’re well-written, funny, heartbreaking and depressing all at once.  I mean, come on, one of their breeding rams is named Randy Jackhammer.  For someone like me, these memoirs of farm life are fascinating, and a potent reminder of why I’m still working in IT.  I enjoy living off the land, but as the author so brilliantly illustrates, depending on the land for your living is a horse (or a sheep) of en entirely different colour.

A fascinating read.