One Book, Two Book, Three Book, Four… and Five…

A few days ago Simon decided to “do a little this-book-that-book-this-book-that-book sort of post that I hope you’ll copy on your own blogs. A quick bit of fun…”

He had a wonderful list, and since then I have read many more.

And now, of course, I must add my own.

The book I’m currently reading

“Our favourite novelists make something thrilling out of the recognisable. They make real a story that, however unlike our own life it might seem, can reach the humanity common to us all – that is the magic of the novel. Faulks on Fiction takes a look at the British novel through its human characters – the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains.”

I can never resist books about books, and this one was infuriating and wonderful in pretty much equal parts.

The last book I finished

“In the bustling harbour city of Port Said, Nellie witnesses a mysterious death and this makes her a target for a killer and involves her in international intrigue with the fate of nations at stake. On her journey from the Land of the Pharaohs to the exotic Orient, Nellie meets the most famous magicians in the world, legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Frederick Selous, the real life inspiration for Rider Haggard’s hero in King Solomon’s Mines and for Indiana Jones. As magicians conjure the fantasy and a spiritualist raises the dead, Nellie discovers that the deadly plot begun in Egypt has tentacles around the world.”

Maybe not great literature, but definitely great entertainment. In a rare burst of efficiency I finished reading and wrote about the book (in the post before this one) on the same day.

The next book I want to read

“Map of a Nation tells the story of the creation of the Ordnance Survey map – the first complete, accurate, affordable map of the British Isles. The OS is a much beloved British institution, and “Map of a Nation” is, amazingly, the first popular history to tell the story of the map and the men who dreamt and delivered it from its inception in 1791, right through to the OS MasterMap of the present day: a vast digital database. The Ordnance Survey’s history is one of political revolutions, rebellions, and regional unions that altered the shape and identity of the United Kingdom over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s also a deliciously readable account of one of the great untold British adventure stories, featuring intrepid individuals lugging brass theodolites up mountains to make the country visible to itself for the first time.”

I picked this up in the library because it was so beautiful, not really meaning to bring it home. But it was just so readable, and it brought back memories of when I was thirteen years old and had aspirations of becoming a cartographer.

The last book I bought

“This newly translated collection of stories brilliantly evokes the shifting scenes and restlessness of summer. A professor arrives in a beautiful Spanish village only to find that her host has left and she must cope with fractious neighbours alone; a holiday on a Finnish Island is thrown into disarray when a disconcerting young boy arrives; an artist returns to an old flat to discover that her life has been eerily usurped. Philosophical and profound, but with the deceptive lightness that is her hallmark, ‘Travelling Light’ is guaranteed to surprise and transport.”

I’m not supposed to be buying books until I have a new job. And I’m not buying new books but I have to take an occasional look in charity shops and secondhand bookshops. A collection of short stories  by Tove Jansson on a charity shop shelf priced at just £1 was something that I  just couldn’t resist.

The last book I was given

“As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved. Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.”

I loved Jane Harris’s first novel, I heard great things about her second, and so I was delighted to win this from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. It arrived this morning, and it is absolutely beautiful.

The Illusion of Murder by Carol McCleary

Nellie Bly, who lived from 1864 to 1922 was a pioneering American woman journalist. And now she is a fictional character, appropriated by Carol McCleary, to play the leading role in two novels.

I’m often dubious about this kind of literary borrowing, but I have to say that Carol McClearly does it very, very cleverly. She takes the facts of Nellie’s life and weaves in crime, mystery, and scandal, that had to be suppressed from the reports that Nellie wrote. And she introduces prominent figures of the age who Nellie may well have met.

At the end of the first book of the series, The Alchemy of Murder, Jules Verne challenged Nellie to match the 80 days that it took his fictional hero, Phileas Fogg, to circumnavigate the globe. Nellie vowed to do better, to take a mere 75 days.

The Illusion of Murder is set on this journey, a journey documented by the real Nellie in the book “Around the World in 72 Days.”

But, of course, some facts had been suppressed:

“How do I make a connection between a murder in an Egyptian marketplace, a holy war to drive the British from Egypt, a train car named Amelia, the world’s greatest actress and an American racehorse enthusiast rich as Midas?”

The story opens as Nellie’s journey reaches Egypt.

In a busy marketplace in Port Nellie sees a man stabbed. She rushes forward to try to help, and the dying man passes her a key and whispers the  word ‘Amelia.’

 Nellie is convinced that the man is European, and that he had been travelling on the same ship as her. Her companions deny it, insisting that what she saw was a dispute between natives, something that needn’t trouble them.

Nellie is unconvinced. She knew what she saw, She will not abandon her journey, but she will uncover the truth. But the truth is elusive as Nellie has to cope with fellow travellers who dismiss her as a troublesome,  hysterical, attention-seeker, officials who are not prepared to acknowledge that something irregular may have happened, and quite a number of others who would like to silence her.

Nellie doesn’t know who to trust. She would like to trust Frederick Selous, the man who was the model for both Alan Quartermain and Indiana Jones, but she senses that he is keeping something from her. As is Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress, whose reasons for making the journey are far from clear.

The balancing of a complex mystery and an exciting race around the world is very well done.

Which is not to say that there aren’t problems: the style and the characterisation are a little simple, the wonder of such an extraordinary journey is a little underplayed, and there are times when the plot slips for a while leaving characters rushing around for no particular reason.

In the end though I was swept away an eminently likeable and inspiring heroine, and by the wonderful colour and drama of her story.

The mystery was solved on the final leg of Nellie’s journey. She found answers, quite extraordinary answers, to her questions on a train from Chicago to New York.

It was such a clever conclusion. It was completely unguessable, and yet it brought everything together perfectly.

The story was ludicrous, but it was very, very, readable, and I couldn’t fault the logic.

And so I am wondering what Nellie’s next adventure might be.

2009: A Year in the Library … and a Year in the Pub


Let’s start in the library.

J. Kaye from J. Kaye’s Book Blog hosted the 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge.

You could commit to reading 12, 25 or 50 library books in 2009. I went for the maximum, and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.

Here are a few reasons why I love  libraries:

  • I am lucky to have a good public library service – I can order any book in the county or in a large reserve stock for just 50p.
  • I also belong to the wonderful Morrab Library. There are only 19 private subscription libraries in the UK and this one is just a few minutes walk from home.
  • I can still visualise where my favourite books were in the library when I was a child.
  • Without libraries I wouldn’t be able to read anything like as widely as I do.
  • I pass the library as I walk home from work. A little look around the shelves after a difficult day is wonderfully theraputic!
  • I like to think I can influence what the library stocks by ordering and borrowing books. I have been known to borrow under-borrowed books that I own to help their statistics.
  • Don’t book lovers have a duty to support libraries? If we don’t we can’t assume they will still be there and then how will people who can’t afford to buy books read and how will other people discover books?
  • I first met my fiancé in the library!

I’ve  read 106 library books this year.

Some wonderful new authors and a few books that I hadn’t heard of until I saw them on the shelves.

I’ve added some to my shelves since, there are more I’d like to.

And I’ve uncovered a few put of print gems.

The full  list is here.


And so to the pub

The 2009 Pub Challenge was hosted by Michelle at

Read at least nine books published for the first time in your country in 2009. I’ve done 3 rounds – 27 books.

Here they are:




(There are a few more I’ve read but not written about yet and, I suspect, a couple I’ve missed.)

Some great books – the ones I’ve starred are la creme de la creme!

Chunkster Challenge – Done and Dusted!


I committed to 6 books of 450 or more pages for The 2009 Chunkster Challenge and I’ve done it!

Here’s the list:

Not a dud among them, but I would pick South Riding out as the star!

The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary

The Alchemy of Murder

“I’ve never feared any man as much as I fear the man in black. His is an evil that seeks blood in the darkest places of gaslit streets and forgotten alleys. The Alchemist if how I’ve come to think of him…”

The opening paragraph speaks well for the book that is to follow. It is historical, it is at the same time clearly modern, and yet it works.

The speaker of those words is Nellie Bly and she is in Paris as an investigative reporter during the World’s Fair in 1889.

Nellie, we learn, has had a difficult life but she has learned to stand on her own two feet and build a life for herself and her mother. A combination of luck and her own inherent curiosity led her to become a reporter and she has established herself by taking risks and by exploiting the fact that she can goes to places and see things that men cannot.

Along the way Nellie encountered the man she believes to be “The Alchemist”, and it is to track him down that she has come to Paris.

Her investigation is set against not only the World’s Fair but also an epidemic of Black Fever and anarchists plotting to overthrow the government.

Jules Verne and Oscar Wilde became involved in the investigation; Louis Pasteur has a signigicant role to pay; and Toulouse Lautrec and Paul Verlaine put in appearances too.

It sounds ludicrous, and yet Carol McCleary makes it work.

Nellie is a charming heroine, and although she rather too modern, she is a woman you can warm to and such a positive figure than you can easily forgive her for that.

The mystery is well constructed and all of the characters and themes that the author has at her disposal are well used. It is simply and clearly written, making it very easy to fly through the pages.

The story has clearly been well researched, and the line that lies between informing and preaching has been walked well. There were moments when I couldn’t believe the story, but I could never disprove it!

And I didn’t really want to disprove it – the Alchemy of Murder was a wonderfully entertaining journey.

The conclusion lays a clear path for a sequel, and I could easily see this being the start of a very successful series.

Library Loot / Cover Attraction

I have two pieces of Library Loot this week and both definitely qualify as Cover Attractions. I wasn’t seeking them out but I spotted them with covers facing out from the new book shelf and I was drawn in.

Here they are:

The Alchemy of Murder

The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McLeary

“Nellie Bly – reporter, feminist and amateur detective – is in Paris for the World’s Fair in 1889 and she is on the trail of an enigmatic killer. The city is a dangerous place: an epidemic of Black Fever rages, anarchists plot to overthrow the government and a murderer preys on the prostitutes who haunt the streets of Montmartre. But it is also a city of culture, a magnet for artists and men of science and letters. Can the combined genius of Oscar Wilde, Jules Verne and Louis Pasteur help Nellie prove a match for Jack the Ripper?”

A perfectly balanced cover. Striking enough to draw me in but with enough detail and subtlety to keep me looking. And isn’t it nice to see the heroine of a historical novel without her head or other parts of the body cut off?!

It looks like an entertaining mystery. I didn’t really want another big book. I was just going to note the details to look for it again, but I read the first few pages and I was hooked. So it had to come home.

Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd

“Famous for its ingenuity and wit, The Canterbury Tales is a major part of England’s literary heritage. From the exuberant Wife of Bath’s Arthurian legend to the Miller’s worldly, ribald farce, these tales can be taken as a mirror of fourteenth century London and medieval society. Incorporating every style of Medieval narrative – bawdy anecdote, allegorical fable and courtly romance – the tales encompass the blend of universal human themes and individual personal detail that have fascinated readers for over 600 years. Here they are retold in full by Peter Ackroyd.”

The wonderful sky blue background made this book stand out. And then the figures processing along the bottom of the cover drew me in.

In many ways I feel I should read the Canterbury Tales in their original verse form, but I’ve looked at them and it just seems like too much hard work. So I thought I’d see how I get on with a modern translation and then hopefully go back to the original one day with an idea of what’s going on. We’ll see!

Have you seen a lovely cover this week? Then do share your Cover Attraction here.

And have you found any great books in the library? Share your Library Loot here.