The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagI loved ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie;’ I was beguiled by its eleven year-old heroine, Flavia de Luce; and yet I was strangely reluctant to pick up this sequel.

It wasn’t that I doubted Flavia, who is a real gem of a character, it was that I wondered if Alan Bradley could pull off his wonderful blend of Christie, Mitford and Blyton again.

He could! I was engrossed from the first scene, of Flavia dramatising her own funeral in the churchyard, to the final grand denouement.

Flavia was distracted from her dramatics by the sound of a woman weeping. She was Nialla, the assistant of television puppeteer Rupert Porson, whose van had broken down.  Flavia, always curious and always in search of adventure, took it upon herself to offer help. And after that help has been found the puppeteer is inveigled into putting on a show in the village hall.

It was a wonderful spectacle – especially the murder!

Naturally Flavia takes it upon herself to investigate, and a complex plot begins to unravel.

It took in the vicar and his wife, a mad woman in the woods, a former prisoner of war who had stayed on, the unexplained death of a small boy some years before, and one or two long-buried secrets.

This was a dark tale, but it had plenty of colour, a good dash of very well judged humour, a great deal of incident, and some very tight plotting.

That plot did rather rely on characters being a little too ready to talk, and on one or two deductions that had little in the way of logical underpinning. I noticed but I wasn’t too concerned, and I didn’t think too much about what the answers might be, because I was always caught in the moment by some very fine storytelling.

It was lovely to meet Flavia’s family again. She had two sisters, one still had her nose permanently in a book and the other was still focused on her mirror, though she was a little distracted since she had found her first young gentleman admirer. They both tormented Flavia and she reciprocated using all of the resources of her chemistry laboratory. Her father was oblivious, locked in his study with his stamp albums. And a visiting aunt would upset the apple-cart.

Dogger, Flavia’s father’s manservant, was a wonderful foil for her whenever he was called upon; and Mrs Mullet, the cook, did a grand job too, with a wonderful knowledge of village affairs and many words of wisdom.

I should also mention Bertha, Flavia’s trusty bicycle.

And the village of Bishops Lacey had much to offer too.

It was all wonderfully familiar, and it was lovely to see a little evolution and much promise for the future.

Flavia held everything together magnificently. She’s bright, she’s funny, and though she’s young for her years in some ways and ridiculously mature in others, the psychology worked. Her home, her family, her situation made her what she was. She’s grown up a little, learnt lessons from her adventures, but she’s still endearing and infuriating in pretty much equal parts.

Her voice rings true and I still love her – though I can understand why some don’t.

And now I’m not at all reluctant – in fact I’m eager – to pick up the next book in the series.

Clearing the Decks: The Final Round of Introductions … for now …

I am creating a home library of the books that I think I can let go after reading, or maybe let go without reading at all for my Clearing the Decks Project

The project began last year with one hundred books. By the end of the year forty books had left the premises last year, and so I’m adding forty more for 2012.

I’m introducing the books ten at a time, and so here are the final ten to make up the hundred I’m going to draw on.

Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

Tanis Lyle was one of those passionate women who always get their own way. Her cousin Laura hated her. Most women did. But men found her irresistible and she used them mercilessly. So when Tanis was found murdered there seemed to be any number of suspects on hand. But Miss Silver had her own suspicions . . .

A mystery author from ‘my period’ I had yet to try, so when this one turned up on a charity shop sale table I picked it up.

The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel

Langston Braverman returns to Haddington, Indiana (pop. 3,062) after walking out on an academic career that has equipped her for little but lording it over other people. Amos Townsend is trying to minister to a congregation that would prefer simple affirmations to his esoteric brand of theology.
What draws these difficult—if not impossible—people together are two wounded little girls who call themselves Immaculata and Epiphany. They are the daughters of Langston’s childhood friend and the witnesses to her murder. And their need for love is so urgent that neither Langston nor Amos can resist it, though they do their best to resist each other.

I think I bought this at the lovely Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road back in the days when I worked just around the corner in Cranbourn Street. Which means I’ve had it for a very long time. I’ve started a couple of times and I’ve liked it but not been sufficiently engaged to keep reading. So next time it’s finish or ditch!

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Two 19th century stage illusionists, the aristocratic Rupert Angier and the working-class Alfred Borden, engage in a bitter and deadly feud; the effects are still being felt by their respective families a hundred years later. Working in the gaslight-and-velvet world of Victorian music halls, they prowl edgily in the background of each other’s shadowy life, driven to the extremes by a deadly combination of obsessive secrecy and insatiable curiosity. At the heart of the row is an amazing illusion they both perform during their stage acts. The secret of the magic is simple, and the reader is in on it almost from the start, but to the antagonists the real mystery lies deeper. Both have something more to hide than the mere workings of a trick.

I loved the film and I was curious about the book, which I had heard was quite different. So I picked up a copy on ReadItswapIt.

Wicked by Gregory MacGuire

An astonishingly rich re-creation of the land of Oz, this book retells the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, who wasn’t so wicked after all. Taking readers past the yellow brick road and into a phantasmagoric world rich with imagination and allegory, Gregory Maguire just might change the reputation of one of the most sinister characters in literature.

There was a time when this book was everywhere; I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so when I spotted a copy in a charity shop I picked it up.

Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King

Filippo Brunelleschi’s design for the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains one of the most towering achievements of Renaissance architecture. Completed in 1436, the dome remains a remarkable feat of design and engineering. Its span of over 140 feet exceeds St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome, and even outdoes the Capitol in Washington DC, making it the largest dome ever constructed using bricks and mortar. The story of its creation and its brilliant but “hot-tempered” creator is told in Ross King’s delightful Brunelleschi’s Dome.

I read a historical novel set in Florence – I think it was one of Sarah Dunant’s – and it made me want to read about the real history. I asked on for recommendation LibraryThing, this book was mentioned, and so I acquired this copy. I forget where it came from.

Last Train from Liguria by Christine Dwyer-Hickey

In 1933, Bella Stuart leaves her quiet London life to move to Italy to tutor the child of a beautiful Jewish heiress and an elderly Italian aristocrat. Living at the family’s summer home, Bella’s reserve softens as she comes to love her young charge, and find friendship with Maestro Edward, his enigmatic music teacher. But as the decade draws to an end and fascism tightens its grip on Europe, the fact that Alec is Jewish places his life in grave danger. Bella and Edward take the boy on a terrifying train journey out of Italy – one they have no reason to believe any of them will survive…

I bought this new – the synopsis made me think of wonderful books by Kate O’Brien and Maura Laverty, which has to be a good thing.

Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers by Antonia Quirke

‘Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers’ is the story of how a young female film critic’s love-life is affected and nearly ruined by her obsession with male movie stars. As her increasingly hapless hunt for the right man unfolds and her television and newspaper career unravels, our heroine finally begins to understand that difficult truth: that life is not like the movies. Entwined with the narrative of her real-life love affairs is a kaleidoscope of digressions on great screen actors — her dream-life with Gerard Depardieu, a personal ad seeking out Tom Cruise, a disastrous climactic encounter with Jeff Bridges. It’s a helter skelter ride through love and the movies which reads like a screwball comedy. And the screwball is our heroine, who seems to know everything about movies and the human heart, and nothing about anything else.

An impulse buy in a charity shop – the title intrigued me, I had to take a look, and once I’d looked I had to bring the book home.

The King’s Daughter by Christie Dickason

As First Daughter of England, Elizabeth seems to live a life of privilege and luxury. Yet she is imprisoned by duty; a helpless pawn in the political machinations of her father, James I. She trusts only her beloved brother Henry until she is sent a slave-girl, Tallie, who becomes her unlikely advisor. As their friendship grows, the innocent Elizabeth must learn to listen to dangerous truths about her louche father and his volatile court. Can she risk playing their games of secrecy and subterfuge in order to forge her path to love and freedom? Tragically robbed of Henry in mysterious circumstances, Elizabeth must summon all her resilience and courage to determine her own future. As a stream of suitors are invited to court, her father’s unpredictability and the unstable political climate threaten to destroy her one chance for happiness and perhaps even her life.

I’d seen this in the library, I meant to borrow it one day, but then I saw a copy in a charity shop and I couldn’t resist.

Visibility by Boris Starling

London, 1952. As the fog rolls in, the chase begins… A stranger’s approach offering highly sensitive information seemed routine to an ex-spy turned policeman. But when a body turns up instead of state secrets, Detective Inspector Herbert Smith finds himself in a race against time to solve the murder. For he is not the only one after the dead man’s secret. It seems the CIA, KGB and MI-5 are all vying to get to the truth first and some are prepared to kill for it. As the Great Smog descends on London, bringing chaos and death, Herbert finds himself facing one of the greatest evils of the twentieth century. At stake is the biggest prize of all: the key to life itself.

I think I picked this one up in Waterstone’s on a day trip to Truro.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore

Wedlock is the remarkable story of the Countess of Strathmore and her marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney. Mary Eleanor Bowes was one of Britain’s richest young heiresses. She married the Count of Strathmore who died young, and pregnant with her lover’s child, Mary became engaged to George Gray. Then in swooped Andrew Robinson Stoney. Mary was bowled over and married him within the week. But nothing was as it seemed. Stoney was broke, and his pursuit of the wealthy Countess a calculated ploy. Once married to Mary, he embarked on years of ill-treatment, seizing her lands, beating her, terrorising servants, introducing prostitutes to the family home, kidnapping his own sister. But finally after many years, a servant helped Mary to escape. She began a high-profile divorce case that was the scandal of the day and was successful. But then Andrew kidnapped her and undertook a week-long rampage of terror and cruelty until the law finally caught up with him.

I must confess that I saw this in the library, thought I must borrow it when I had some space on my ticket, and then I realised that I had a copy at home.  Another book from Waterstone’s in Truro I think.

Any thoughts on this batch?

It brings me up to one hundred books again, so now I must update the project page.

And I’m going to report every ten books. Quarterly reporting didn’t work last year, and I’ve noticed that I have three projects involving one hundred books –  Clearing The Decks, Filling The Gaps and A Century of Books – so I’m going to take stock on each one every ten books.

At least, that’s the idea…

Clearing The Decks: Introducing Ten More Books

I am creating a home library of the books that I think I can let go after reading, or maybe let go without reading at all for my Clearing the Decks Project

The project began last year with one hundred books. By the end of the year forty books had left the premises last year, and so I’m adding forty more for 2012.

I’m introducing the books ten at a time, and so here are ten more.

Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

Funeral Music by Morag Joss

International cellist Sara Selkirk is apprehensive about the charity concert in Bath’s famous Pump Room. It’s the first time she will have performed in public since the death of her lover the previous year. But, in the event, Sara’s performance is overshadowed by the death of the concert’s organiser, Matthew Sawyer. In the ensuing police investigation, many secrets are uncovered including a stolen needlework collection, an immigration racket, a headmaster’s adulterous affair with his secretary. What, if anything, do any of them have to do with Sawyer’s death?

I spotted this one in the library back when I lived in Harrow, but I didn’t get around to borrowing it before I moved. My new library didn’t have a copy,  but a little later it turned up on ReadItSwapIt …

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Satiawan

Up in the house that sits on the hill, a strange spell is brewing… To Meridia, growing up with her father Gabriel, who vanishes daily in clouds of mist, and her bewitching mother Ravenna, the outside world is a refuge. So when as a young woman her true love Daniel offers her marriage, it seems an escape to a more straightforward existence. Yet behind the welcoming façade of her new home lies a life of drudgery and a story even stranger than that she left behind. Aged retainers lurk in the background; swarms of bees appear at will, and of course, there’s her indomitable mother-in-law, Eva, hiding secrets that it will take Meridia years to unravel. Surrounded by seemingly unfathomable mysteries, can Meridia unlock the intrigues of the past, and thus protect her own family’s future?

I’m not sure, but I think I picked this up in a Waterstone’s 3 for 2 on a daytrip to Truro. I liked the look of it at the time, but I didn’t pick it up to read straight away, and when I did I was less sure.

Blood Harvest by S J Bolton

NOW YOU SEE HER… Gillian is haunted by the disappearance of her little girl two years ago. A devastating fire burned down their home, but she remains convinced her daughter survived.
NOW YOU DON’T… Ten-year-old Tom lives by the town’s neglected churchyard. Is he the only one who sees the strange, solitary child playing there? And what is she trying to tell him?
NOW YOU RUN… There’s a new vicar in town – Harry – and he’s meeting the locals. But menacing events suggest he isn’t welcome. What terrible secret is this town hiding?

Another ReadItSwapIt book

The Catch: Prize-Winning Stories by Women

In 1996, the Asham Literary Trust organized a competition of short stories by women in honour of Asham House, the house in Sussex where Virginia and Leonard Woolf lived. The competiton attracted over six hundred entries of which the judges selected thirteen which are published here together with commissioned stories by Kate Atkinson, Rachel Cusk, Louise Doughty, Candia McWilliam and Deborah Moggach. The result is a varied and sensuous collection of stories that successfully blends the work of established writers with new authors.

This one came from Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road years ago  – some interesting authors and a wonderful award.

The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushkin

Stepping out into the dusk of a warm Moscow evening, esteemed art critic Anatoly Sukhanov feels on top of the world: his career is glittering, his wife is beautiful and his children are clever. But the year is 1985 and the air is heavy with change. Sukhanov’s future will be haunted by doubt. Beset by heartbreaking visions of a past he gave up, he questions his choices: in swapping a precarious life as a brilliant underground artist for comfort and security did he betray his dreams? And if his dreams are lost, what does he have left?

I spotted this one in a charity shop; the title and the author’s name rang a bell, but I couldn’t think why. When I picked the book up I found that it had been longlisted for The Orange Prize, and that seemed to be a good reason to bring it home.

School’s Out by Christophe Dufosse

When a teacher is found dead, having apparently committed suicide, his friend Pierre Hoffman takes over class 4F and finds himself responsible for a group of strangely subdued, well-behaved and yet menacing pupils. Assuming their behaviour to be a response to the trauma of their teacher’s death, Pierre Hoffman at first takes it easy with the precocious class, refusing to embrace the hostility felt by other staff members towards the children. Over the weeks that follow, however, he receives a series of signals and warnings that cause him to question the motivations of his pupils and the circumstances of his colleague’s suicide. Refusing to believe that the situation can be any more sinister than his suspicious imagination, Hoffman applauds and supports class 4F’s decision to organise a school trip to the Normandy coast. Only once the trip has begun, however, does Hoffman begin to understand the extent of their bizarre solidarity and their ultimate goal…

I picked this one up in the Oxfam Bookshop in Falmouth. The synopsis was intriguing, there was a comparison to The Secret History, and so I decided to bring the book home.

Incantation by Alice Hoffman

This is a chilling story of friendship, first love and family secrets. Estrella lives in Spain, next door to her best friend Catalina. They used to be inseparable, but then Andres, Catalina’s cousin and the boy she’s planning to marry, starts to gaze at Estrella instead. And Catalina starts to plot…Estrella’s family have always done things slightly differently. Lighting candles on a Friday, for example. But these tiny things that Estrella has done all her life suddenly add up to something huge. She discovers that she and her family are Marranos – Spanish Jews living double lives as Catholics. And soon the outside world starts to intrude on her life – the world of the Spanish Inquisition, of neighbours accusing each other, of looting and riots. It is a world where new love burns and where friendship ends in flame and ash.

I’ve been reading Alice Hoffman’s books for years, but I’d never tried any of her YA titles. This one was on offer in exchange for a book that had been on my swap list for ages, so I thought I’d give it a try.

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Ten-year-old Jamie Matthews has just moved to the Lake District with his Dad and his teenage sister, Jasmine for a ‘Fresh New Start’. Five years ago his sister’s twin, Rose, was blown up by a terrorist bomb. His parents are wrecked by their grief, Jasmine turns to piercing, pink hair and stops eating. The family falls apart. But Jamie hasn’t cried in all that time. To him Rose is just a distant memory. Jamie is far more interested in his cat, Roger, his birthday Spiderman T-shirt, and in keeping his new friend Sunya a secret from his dad. And in his deep longing and unshakeable belief that his Mum will come back to the family she walked out on months ago. When he sees a TV advert for a talent show, he feels certain that this will change everything and bring them all back together once and for all.

A freebie with NewBooks magazine

The Lie by Petra Hammesfahr

Nadia and Susanne have just met. They look uncannily alike, but one is filthy rich and has both a husband and a lover while the other is dirt poor and single. So, when Nadia asks Susanne to spend a weekend with her husband, how can she refuse the outrageous fee on offer? So Susanne changes her hairstyle and clothes and, one Friday afternoon, drives Nadia’s wine-red Alfa to her beautiful suburban villa. However, what appears at first to be a harmless game quickly turns into a deadly web of lies.

I read The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr a while ago, and it was a brilliant piece of dark crime fiction. And so I checked the library copy for this one, but there wasn’t a copy to be had in the country. I forgot about it until I spotted a familiar name in a charity shop …

Stratton’s War by Laura Wilson

London, June 1940. When the body of silent screen star Mabel Morgan is found impaled on railings in Fitzrovia, the coroner rules her death as suicide, but DI Ted Stratton of the CID is not convinced. Despite opposition from his superiors, he starts asking questions, and it becomes clear that Morgan’s fatal fall from a high window may have been the work of one of Soho’s most notorious gangsters. MI5 agent Diana Calthrop, working with senior official Sir Neville Apse, is leading a covert operation when she discovers that her boss is involved in espionage. She must tread carefully – Apse is a powerful man, and she can’t risk threatening the reputation of the Secret Service. Only when Stratton’s path crosses Diana’s do they start to uncover the truth. But as they discover Morgan’s connection with Apse and their mutual links to a criminal network and a secretive pro-fascist organisation, they begin to realise that the intrigues of the Secret Service are alarmingly similar to the machinations of war-torn London’s underworld.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. I’ve liked Laura Wilson’s books in the past and this one in library stock. But it only ever seemed to be available when I lacked space on my ticket, reading time, or the inclination to read this sort of book. never when I looked for it. So I nabbed a copy on ReadItSwapIt.

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And that’s it for this batch. Any thoughts?

Clearing the Decks: Ten More Books Join the Project

I am creating a home library of the books that I think I can let go after reading, or maybe let go without reading at all for my Clearing the Decks Project

The project began last year with one hundred books. By the end of the year forty books had left the premises last year, and so I’m adding forty more for 2012.

I’m introducing the books ten at a time, and so here are ten more.

Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

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Behind Closed Doors by Susan R Sloan

Valerie O’Connor comes from a large, close- knit, working class family in Vermont. At the age of eighteen, she marries twenty-five-year-old Jack Marsh. He is a handsome, dashing Korean War veteran, but he is also a damaged man who cannot keep himself from taking his fears and insecurities out on his wife and his five children. To make matters worse, Jack takes Valerie away from her family, and all the way across the country, isolating her from the very people who know her and care about her the most. Too proud to ask for help or admit her failure as a wife and mother, Valerie is unable to protect either herself or the children. One by one, pushed to the extreme, the children escape, in one fashion or another, until they are all gone, even Ricky, the youngest and perhaps the most troubled, and there is only Jack left, and Valerie must face the reality of her marriage and her life. And then, as if out of the ashes, another generation begins. Will history repeat itself? The answer is a message for us all.

Seven years ago I moved home to Cornwall. It was definitely the right decision, but I did worry about bookshops. Small local shops, good though they are, can’t offer the same range of books as big London booksellers and I feared that I would miss great books. And so I made regular trips to Waterstones in Truro to discover new books. This was one of them. Fortunately I discovered LibraryThing and book blogs and so I have discovered more books than I ever would have by visits to bookshops alone.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner

In nineteenth-century Oxford, an extraordinary child is born – Edgar Jones, a porter’s son with a magical talent. Though his father cannot see beyond his academic slowness, his abilities as a metalworker and designer are quickly noticed, and become a source of tension within the family. When Edgar comes to the attention of a maverick professor at work on a museum of the natural sciences, Edgar is at once plucked from obscurity and plunged into the heart of a debate which threatens to tear apart the university. Edgar’s position is a dangerous one – will he be able to control the rebellious spirit that fires his inventiveness, but threatens to ruin him, and to break up his family once and for all?

I borrowed Nightdancing, Elizabeth Garner’s first novel, from the library and loved it. I meant to wait for this one to appear in the library too, but I saw it discounted, it had a lovely cover, and so I bought a copy.

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Alabama, 1931. A posse stops a freight train and arrests nine black youths. Their crime: fighting with white boys. Then two white girls emerge from another freight car, and within seconds the cry of rape goes up. One of the girls sticks to her story. The other changes her tune, again and again. A young journalist, whose only connection to the incident is her overheated social conscience, fights to save the nine youths from the electric chair, redeem the girl who repents her lie, and make amends for her own past. Stirring racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism into an explosive brew, Scottsboro is a novel of a shocking injustice that reverberated around the world.

This one caught my eye when it was longlisted for the Orange Prize a couple of years ago. I ordered it from the library, but there was a queue of people waiting behind me and so I had to take it back unread. I meant to borrow it again but it went out of my head until someone requesting one of my books on ReadItSwapIt was offering it. I took the book rather than forget it again!

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

When the author of The Hayseed Chronicles, Arthur Hayman, is mown down by a concrete truck in Soho, his legacy passes to his widow, Martha, and her children – the fragile Rachel, and Luke, reluctantly immortalised as Luke Hayseed, the central character of his father’s books. But others want their share, particularly Laurie, who has a mysterious agenda of her own that changes all their lives. For buried deep in the books lie secrets which threaten to be revealed as the family begins to crumble under the heavy burden of their inheritance.

I loved the sound of this when I read about it, and when I saw a very cheap copy in a supermarket I bought it. I started reading straight away but I wasn’t too enamoured, and so I pushed it to one side. I’ll try again, and I hope I like it more than I did the first time, but if I’ll accept it isn’t a book for me.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler is the son of cigar maker, born in late 19th century New York. As Martin approaches manhood, it is rapidly clear that his ambitions stretch far further than inheriting his father’s shop, as he moves first to take a job in a hotel, then to open a restaurant, and rapidly ascends to become a builder of hotels of his own. He is a classic entrepreneur, a young man who has the audacity to make his dreams – and the American Dream – come true on the grandest possible scale. But when Martin sets out to build the Grand Cosmos, a hotel that rivals Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast in its scale, and aims to rival the world itself in its scope, this mesmerising novel finally exposes the ambiguity of the American dream and the perils and wonder of human ambition and human imagination.

I must confess than I can remember buying this one in Books Etc in Charring Cross Road before I moved out of London, which means it has been waiting to be read for more than seven years. It does still appeal, but it has never quite been the book of the moment. Yet…

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

‘Buy my stepfather’s ghost’ read the e-mail. So Jude did. He bought it, in the shape of the dead man’s suit, delivered in a heart-shaped box, because he wanted it: because his fans ate up that kind of story. It was perfect for his collection: the genuine skulls and the bones, the real honest-to-God snuff movie, the occult books and all the rest of the paraphernalia that goes along with his kind of hard/goth rock. But the rest of his collection doesn’t make the house feel cold. The bones don’t make the dogs bark; the movie doesn’t make Jude feel as if he’s being watched. And none of the artefacts bring a vengeful old ghost with black scribbles over his eyes out of the shadows to chase Jude out of his home, and make him run for his life . . .

This is a new book but I really don’t remember where it came from. And that’s unusual. My thinking is pull it out now so that its ready and waiting for this year’s RIP Challenge.

War Damage by Elizabeth Wilson

London in the aftermath of WW2 is a beaten down, hungry place, so it’s no wonder that Regine Milner’s Sunday house parties in her Hampstead home are so popular. Everyone comes to Reggie’s on a Sunday: ballet dancers and cabinet ministers, left-over Mosleyites alongside flamboyant homosexuals like Freddie Buckingham. And when Freddie turns up dead on the Heath one Sunday night there is no shortage of suspects. War Damage is both a high-class thriller and a wonderful evocation of Britain staggering back to its feet after the privations of the War. And in Regine Milner it possesses a truly memorable heroine. She’s full of secrets – just what did happen in Shanghai before the war?

My fiance picked this up for me at a book sale that I had to miss because I had work commitments.

Zoology by Ben Dolnick

Henry likes to think of himself as a promising jazz musician. The truth, however, is slightly less glamorous. At 18, he’s dropped out of university, lives at home with his bickering parents, and spends most of his time with the family dog. The outlook, it seems, is bleak. So when his brother offers to put him up for the summer in his New York City apartment, Henry leaps at the chance to start living the life of his dreams! But jazz gigs are not immediately forthcoming so Henry lands a job at the Central Park Children’s Zoo. Over weeks spent chopping vegetables and shovelling dung, his world gradually expands to include a motley crew of zoo keepers, doormen and animals of every description. Amongst these, the undisputed star is Newman, the zoo’s stoic Nubian goat, in whom Henry confides his growing love for Margaret, the girl upstairs, like him in town for the summer. As the months unfolds in a haze of jazz bars, ill-advised romance and hard truths about family, Henry learns what it is to love – and to lose.

Another impulse buy, but this time from a charity shop. I wonderful cover caught my eye and I liked the blurb enough to bring the book home.

The Unseen by Katherine Webb

England, 1911. When a free-spirited young woman arrives in a sleepy Berkshire village to work as a maid in the household of The Reverend and Mrs Canning, she sets in motion a chain of events which changes all their lives. For Cat has a past – a past her new mistress is willing to overlook, but will never understand . . . This is not all Hester Canning has to cope with. When her husband invites a young man into their home, he brings with him a dangerous obsession… During the long, oppressive summer, the rectory becomes charged with ambition, love and jealousy – with the most devastating consequences.

I bought this in a library sale not long after it was published, but it got stuck on the bottom of a pile of books and I never quite got to it. I really must!

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

‘I was lying dead in the churchyard…’ So says eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce – but soon a murder provides a gruesome distraction from her own death… A travelling puppet show arrives in the sleepy English village of Bishop’s Lacey, and everyone gathers to watch a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk in the village hall. But a shadow is cast over proceedings when a shocking murder takes place during the performance – a murder which strangely echoes a tragedy that occurred many years before. For Flavia, undoing the complex knot that ties these strands together will test her precocious powers of deduction to the limit – and throw a revealing light into some of the darker corners of the adult world…

And another one from the library book sale that I never quite got to …

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And that’s it for this batch. Any thoughts?

p.s. I’ve had a busy week – a three day course and a car to get serviced, MOTed and taxed – so I’m running behind with a few things. I’ll catch up with myself one day …

Clearing the Decks: The First Introductions for 2012

Last year I decided that I needed to let go of some of my books .

There are so many wonderful books in the world, so many wonderful books still to come that I want to only hold on to the very best. The books that I want to pick up again and again, the books inspire an emotional reaction whenever I see or think about them.

So I selected a hundred books from the ridiculous number that I had unread. Books I wanted to read but probably didn’t need to keep. Those books went into my home library, to be read or rejected, and then passed on for others to read.

Forty books left the premises last year, so I’m adding forty more for 2012.

I realised when I chose them that I was getting closer to my goal: having the books I wanted to keep on shelves, and reading books that I wanted to read but not keep promptly before letting them go.

But I’m not there yet.

I’m introducing the books ten at a time. Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

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Who Saw Him Die? by Sheila Radley

Cuthbert Bell, the village drunk, has been killed by Jack Boodrum in a road accident. In unravelling Jack’s and Cuthbert’s past, Inspector Quantrill and Sergeant Hilary Lloyd uncover secrets that shatter the peace of the little Suffolk town.

I picked this one up a couple of weeks ago. A charity shop had three books for a pound. There was one I wanted, one my fiance wanted, and so I looked for a third. This was the one that caught my eye.

Mother Love by Domini Taylor

When Angela Turner marries Kit Vesey she is drawn into a web of lies and deceit, with horrific results for her and her family. For Kit’s mother, Helena, is divorced from her husband, Alex, a prominent conductor, and Kit has been leading a grotesque double life … It is only when Alex is knighted that Helena comes to realise the extent of Kit’s betrayal and the rage of an abandoned wife and neglected mother is unleashed …

A very tatty copy appeared in a bargain bin and it reminded me of the tv series, so I had to pick it up.

Tom Brown’s Body by Gladys Mitchell

When an unpopular teacher at a private boy’s school is found murdered, only Mrs. Bradley can solve the mystery in this classic crime caper from the redoubtable Gladys Mitchell.

I read one book by Gladys Mitchell years ago and I always meant to read more but I never did. So when this appeared in the art gallery book sale for less than the price of a library reservation it seemed sensible to buy it. But as Gladys Mitchell wrote so many books I daren’t keep it after reading in case I’m tempted to start a collection!

Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley

As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers. So when a family tragedy strikes, Julia returns to the tranquility of Wharton Park and its hothouse. Recently inherited by charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation. This leads to the discovery of an old diary, prompting the pair to seek out Julia’s grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park. Julia is taken back to the 1940s where the fortunes of young couple Olivia and Harry Crawford will have terrible consequences on generations to come. For as war breaks out Olivia and Harry are cruelly separated . . .

I loved ‘The Girl on the Cliff’ and so I picked up this one too. But I passed that book on and so I think I must let this one go once I’ve read it as well.

The Hidden Child by Camilla Läckberg

Crime writer Erica Falck is shocked to discover a Nazi medal among her late mother’s possessions. Haunted by a childhood of neglect, she resolves to dig deep into her family’s past and finally uncover the reasons why. Her enquiries lead her to the home of a retired history teacher. He was among her mother’s circle of friends during the Second World War but her questions are met with bizarre and evasive answers. Two days later he meets a violent death. Detective Patrik Hedström, Erica’s husband, is on paternity leave but soon becomes embroiled in the murder investigation. Who would kill so ruthlessly to bury secrets so old? Reluctantly Erica must read her mother’s wartime diaries. But within the pages is a painful revelation about Erica’s past. Could what little knowledge she has be enough to endanger her husband and newborn baby? The dark past is coming to light, and no one will escape the truth of how they came to be…

I’ve borrowed all of Camilla Läckberg’s other books from the library, but there was a long queue for this one and so when I saw a copy in a charity shop I grabbed it. Which doesn’t make too much sense, because I would have reached the front of the library queue by now and I haven’t picked up my copy.

The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

When Lucas inherits Stoneborough Manor after his uncle’s unexpected death, he imagines it as a place where he and his close circle of friends can spend time away from London. But from the beginning, the house changes everything. Lucas becomes haunted by the death of his uncle and obsessed by cine films of him and his friends at Stoneborough thirty years earlier. The group is disturbingly similar to their own, and within the claustrophobic confines of the house over a hot, decadent summer, secrets escape from the past and sexual tensions escalate, shattering friendships and changing lives irrevocably.

I love big house books and I read some great reviews of this one. I meant to wait for it to appear in the library, but when I saw I charity shop copy I picked it up.

The Pleasure Dome by Josie Barnard

Belle is bright, funny – and a hopeless mess of self-doubt. A situation not improved by having a glamorous television presenter for a mother. In a bid to shock her mother and hijack some attention for herself, she gets a job as a dancer at the Pleasure Dome, a glitzy champagne strip joint in Soho.

Pokerface, Josie Barnard’s first novel, was cleared from the decks last year. A great book but I was happy to pass it on. So it made sense to add this one in this year. I must confess that it has been waiting for so long that I really can’t remember where I came from.

The Harlot’s Press by Helen Pike

London, 1820: George IV is to be crowned King at last. But will his estranged wife Caroline be allowed to join him as Queen? The city is in turmoil, as her radical supporters rally to her cause and threaten to overturn the government… Into this tumultuous world is thrown Nell Wingfield, a gutsy seventeen-year-old printer of political pamphlets. Nell has recently returned home after a six-month absence that she would rather not explain. After her mother s death, she was duped into working at one of the Houses of the Quality , the brothels on St James s, turning tricks with men at the heart of the English establishment. When one of them a key protagonist in the plot to keep Caroline from the throne – was found dead in his bed, it was time for Nell to leave. But, back on Cheapside, she finds that the family print shop, far from providing a sanctuary, has become a hotbed of dangerous radical activity. Nell’s troubles, it seems, have only just begun…

My fiance is a volunteer gardener, and he found a bag of books dumped among garden waste. This was one of them.

The Diviner’s Tale by Bradford Morrow

Cassandra Brooks is a single mother-of-two, a schoolteacher and a water diviner. Deep in the woods as she dowses the land for a property developer, she is lost in her thoughts, until something catches her eye and her daydream shatters. Swinging from a tree is the body of a young girl, hanged. But when she returns with the authorities, the body has vanished. Already regarded as the local eccentric, her story is disbelieved � until a girl turns up in the woods, alive, mute and identical to the girl in Cassandra’s vision. In the days that follow, Cassandra’s visions become darker and more frequent as they begin to take on tangible form. Forced to confront a past she has tried to forget, Cassandra finds herself locked in a game of cat-and-mouse with a real life killer who has haunted her for longer than she can remember.

This one came from the bag in the gardens too.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is only fifteen when she is sent to Kabul to marry Rasheed. Nearly two decades later, a friendship grows between Mariam and a local teenager, Laila, as strong as the ties between mother and daughter. When the Taliban take over, life becomes a desperate struggle against starvation, brutality and fear. Yet love can move a person to act in unexpected ways, and lead them to overcome the most daunting obstacles with a startling heroism.

This came from the LibraryThing Secret Santa a couple of years ago. If I hadn’t been given a copy I would have borrowed it from the library rather than buying a copy, and I think I should be fine letting this one go.

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And that’s it for this batch. Any thoughts?

Clearing the Decks – and Beyond

Little over a year ago I launched my Clearing the Decks Project.

I pulled from the shelves one hundred books that I was confident I wouldn’t want to keep after reading to create my own home library. I would borrow books from the stacks and then return them to a charity shop, thus clearing the decks.

The project worked – 40 books have gone and just 60 remain – better figures than I hoped.

But I only read 9 of those books. 31 I decided I didn’t want to read.

Once they were off the shelf I realised that I didn’t need to read them. Because other books would always be there calling me more loudly. Because my reason to read them have been lost since I bought them home.

Those 31 books should not take offence. They are all I’m sure good books, but they aren’t the books for me any more.

Almost every day I discover a new book I want to read, or I think of an old book I want to read again. And so I have learned that I have to be selective, to read only the books that I am confident I love, the books that will offer me what I need.

So now I only buy books that I can’t order from the library and books that I am quite certain I will want to keep.

And I am going to keep clearing the decks.

I’m sure that I have other books that I can read, write about, and then pass on. And others that I can simply let go.

So watch out for 40 more joining the project!

Poker Face by Josie Barnard

Allie was convinced that she would be top of the class. Her classmates had made up stories, embellished the truth, but her account of “My Summer Holiday” was completely honest, completely true.

“Bugger this for a lark,” our mum said. “I’ve had enough.”

Yes. This is satisfactory. It is printed in my best hand, in my orange Junior School exercise book. I am pleased.

It is my turn to read out to the class …”

Allie wasn’t top of the class. She won no plaudits at all. Instead she was swiftly shushed by her teacher, and then sent home with her younger brother and sister.

At the age of eleven Allie was learning that life wasn’t fair, and that she had to fight using all the means at her disposal.

That’s what her mother did. She walked out on her husband and her children, never to return.

Three children in a remote Yorkshire farmhouse, with a father who struggled to cope. He cared, he tried, but he just couldn’t cope, practically or emotionally. No wonder his children were insecure, all fighting for time and attention.

Allie shows a wonderful mixture of bravado and vulnerability as she tries to keep her fractious siblings in order, avoid the attention of the school bully, and see off the very real threat posed by her father’s women friends.

Her story is honest, horribly sad, and at the same time horribly funny.

The battle continues as Allie moves on to Big School. She adopts a new, subversive strategy.

“I am reconstructed.

There were stages that had to be gone through. They took me months. First there were these glasses – brown tortoiseshell with an extraordinary large number of dark swirls in them, so they actually do look black, except under close scrutiny. and nobody will be getting close enough to do that.

My new glasses are pleasantly heavy on the bridge of my nose. They distract all attention from the wishy-washy colour of my eyes. By everyone’s standard, they are extremely ugly.

If the worst comment I get is “speccy four eyes” I will be disappointed.

It is my first day at Big School. It is vital that the immediate impression I make is as I planned.

My fringe is grown long enough to touch nearly all along the top edge of my new glasses. It’s like the fringe and the plastic frame are fused together, a mask that can be slotted on and off for complete disguise.

I wriggle my neck inside the stranglingly tight collar and tie. I certainly got that right, my degree of prissiness. My navy and sky blue tie knot is practically pea-sized. Most pupils haven’t even got theirs on yet, or they’re busy lassoing themselves with pre-knotted ones as they go.

The reconstruction is successful.”

Yes, Allie is bright, bolshy, self-possessed and, extraordinarily strong-willed. But she is also immature and quite unable to see the effect she has on others, or to see herself as others do.

Her strategy has unexpected consequences. The face she presents to the world is so distinctive, so remarkable that the school bully is captivated. She takes Allie under her wing.

And so a line is crossed. Allie is no longer fighting for survival, she has become one of the bullies. At school and at home. And she is doing so much damage, to her family and to herself.

There are no easy answers.

But there is truth, about the pain of a damaged family, about the dark side of childhood, about the difficulties of growing up, and about how you survive day by day.

Truth told in a voice that has wit, pathos, emotion. And the power to draw you in, to make you care.

Poker Face is a very little book, but it says an awful lot.