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The_House_of_SilkWhat’s the book about?

The House of Silk is a Conan-Doyle estate approved revival of the Great Detective by Antony Horowitz, told by an aged Dr Watson with Holmes himself gone. The tale has been withheld because of the nature of the crimes involved and the fact that their becoming public would “tear apart the entire fabric of society”, so he is writing them while he still can for release after he too is dead.

Why did I want to read it?

I have always tried to read at last one Holmes-related novel during August Crime Month – the man’s portrait is of course the header for the challenge (the post is here in case you missed it) and this sounded really interesting. I also like what I have read of Horowitz.

What did I think of it?

This is really very well done indeed, capturing the tone of the original stories with slightly more edge to suit modern tastes, being a little less circumspect about the nature of the criminal acts without being explicit, and showing that what we might consider a modern crime does of course have its roots in the way young people in poverty were treated in the past and how the status of certain individuals meant that even the most appalling things would be covered up through fear of at best loss of respect for their betters and at worst potential revolution. All the usual stalwarts are here – Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade and the Baker Street Irregulars – and of course Holmes gets himself into danger and shows of both his analytical skills and talent for disguise.  But definitely quid a bit darker than most Holmes-related fare.

The next in the series, Moriarty, comes out later this year (just in time for Christmas, in case anyone’s interested)

The Baskerville Legacy was not at all what I expected. When I saw it in the book shop I was immediately attracted by the cover and the subtitle “A Confession”. Ah ha, I thought, this is going to be a lovely Holmesian pastiche telling the true story of the Hound of the Baskervilles; not a straight retelling because Conan Doyle himself appears all the way through, so not a version of Holmes but a “how it came to be”. Which it was and wasn’t.

There isn’t actually a mystery here. It’s the story of how The Hound came to be written; the germ of an idea by a friend of Conan Doyle, a man called Bertram Fletcher Robinson, worked on jointly or so it would appear. But in many ways the tale being written is incidental, as this is a book about friendship, writing, collaboration, professional jealousy, talent or the lack of it and the impact of a dissolute lifestyle. Oh and of course there is spiritualism.

It’s a really enjoyable short book, and one of the most interesting things (apart from the portrait of Conan Doyle who isn’t always the jovial chap he was often portrayed as) is where the author has taken real events and changed or elaborated on them to produce his novel. because Robinson and Doyle were friends, holidayed together, and appeared to have collaborated though Doyle is the sole author on all published versions. there seems to have been a real controversy over this though as the author says none of the correspondence between the two men (if it still exists) has ever been made public. The author’s note at the end is a fascinating read all by itself.

I very much enjoyed this story, with its unsettling air of creepiness, of jealousy and strong feelings, and would recommend it as something a little bit different on the whole Holmesian thing. So not what I expected as I said, but a very happy accident.

This was my second Readathon read.

I have been very quiet on the blog recently, simply because I haven’t been reading that much, due to an increase in social activity (it’s that time of year, lots of cocktails, what can I say) and also because I have been distracted by my new toy, the iPad which I bought myself  as an early “didn’t I do well in 2010” present.

I have always been easily diverted by bright and shiny things.

So I will not reach my target of 52 books this year but will attack the same goal with renewed vigour in 2011. At least, that’s what I’m saying now.

And I will be helped by the bookish spoils received from the Book God and others this Christmas:

  • My Favourite Dress by Gity Monsef and others – a beautiful big fashion picture book, full of talented designers picking their favourite frocks, none of which I can ever afford or indeed hope to fit into…
  • 100 Years of Fashion Illustration by Cally Blackman – absolutely gorgeous book with wonderful examples of fashion illustration from Paul Iribe in 1908 to Kareem Illya in 2005. Has made me realise that I would have liked to have been a wealthy Edwardian
  • Britten & Brulightly by Hannah Berry – a graphic novel to add to the collection “There are murder mysteries and there are murder mysteries, but this is a noir where nothing is black and white” sayeth the blurb
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, in graphic form by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young – exactly what you might think, absolutely lovely and wished for solely because I liked the illustration of the Cowardly Lion on the cover….
  • Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King – it wouldn’t be Christmas without a new Stephen King purchase though in terms of reading I am about 5 books behind (not to mention the Dark Tower series (so let’s not and say we did))
  • Blow by Blow by Detmar Blow with Tom Sykes – the story of Isabella Blow, muse to Alexander McQueen – yet more high fashion
  • Paperboy by the lovely Christopher Fowler – won the first Green Carnation prize and looks like it will be brilliant – to be saved for the dead grey days of January
  • Dark Matter by Michelle Paver – a ghost story “Out of nowhere, for no reason, I was afraid”
  • Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet – I love books about books
  • The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley – another one of my favourite authors. “A boy, a mysterious guardian and a haunted house with a terrible secret”.
  • Gaslight Grimoire: fantastic tales of Sherlock Holmes – Fantastic tales. Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to like?
  • A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore – shortlisted for the Orange Prize, don’tcha know. Audrey Niffenegger says its full of perfect sentences and that would be good enough for me even if I didn’t already like Lorrie Moore
  • The Existential Detective by Alice Thompson – on my wish list simply because I read about it at Lizzy’s Literary Life and it sounded right up my street
  • The Thoughtful Dresser by Linda Grant – more fashion; “the thinking woman’s guide to our relationship with what we wear”
  • A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd – WWI mystery novel
  • The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova – can it live up to The Historian? I hope so…
  • Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan – “Three strong women. Two feuding families. A singular story of enchantment…”

Not a bad haul, I have to admit. And there’s also The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble (a personal history with jigsaws) which I have already started.

The God of the Hive is the long-awaited (by me at least) sequel to The Language of Bees which I reviewed here last year. Having to wait 12 months to find out what happens next has been a tiny wee bit frustrating. But it has been worth the wait.

Again it’s difficult to talk about the plot of this novel because it runs on immediately from the events of its predecessor, and by that I mean within minutes of the end rather than weeks or months afterwards. And I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice to say that Sherlock and Russell are separated for much of the book, on the run, hiding from the powerful and menacing group who have killed several people already, trying to get to the bottom of what was going on.

So all I can say is that it’s pacy and exciting and all the great characters appear and some new ones are introduced and all the disguises and skulking about and action is all included, so thoroughly enjoyable and devoured in a couple of days. The only downside was that the Book God had read this first and kept on offering to give me pointers to the way the plot would develop in an annoying fashion which has been noted in the future. He won’t get the chance to do that to me next time.

So if you are already a fan of the Russell novels you will find a lot to enjoy here, but you really need to read The Language of Bees first as otherwise it just won’t make sense.

TheLanguageofBeesLaurie54241_fThe Language of Bees is the latest instalment in the tales of Mary Russell, wife to Sherlock Holmes, and starts off from the end of the last story (Locked Rooms) with Russell and Holmes arriving back to their home in Sussex to find one of the bee colonies deceased (if that’s what happens to hives) and a figure from Holmes’ past (and I’m not going to say who it is) looking for help. This starts a murder mystery which involves Mycroft (one of my favourite characters from the canon) and his extensive resources assisting Russell and Holmes in travelling up and down the UK to visit some of the most ancient sites in the country, seeking a dangerous and influential man. I think. It’s quite hard to write about this without giving away too much of the plot, which is something I really don’t want to do as the intricacies of the story is what makes the series so successful, alongside as the lead characters of course.

I will put my cards on the table and say that years ago, when King first started writing this series I was sceptical; I loved Sherlock Holmes and couldn’t see him ever getting married, especially to a much younger woman. But I picked up The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and gave it a go, and was instantly hooked. The books are written with such affection for Holmes, Watson et al, Russell herself is a distinctive character, and the events of each (while often harking back on occasions to the past) are all set after Holmes has retired, so don’t really tinker with the mythology at all.

The only disappointment in relation to The Language of Bees is the phrase “to be continued” which appears at the end, and the knowledge that I have to wait untill sometime in 2010 to find out how this particular story develops.

Well worth reading, snatched out of my hands by the Book God as soon as I had finished it, and if you haven’t read any of the Russell stories, then you really should. Excellent.

OscarWildeandaGameCalled51000_fSo Susan over at You Can Never Have Too Many Books has started a very interesting discussion on the use of real-life people in fiction, whether it’s justified, how readers feel about it and so on. It’s a really thoughtful piece so do go and have a look, and I mention it here not just because I’m a fan of Susan’s blog (which I am) but because this is the second book in a row I have read which is very much set around people from the real world and I am trying to look at it in the light of Susan’s post and some of the comments that have appeared there already.

Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder kind of gives itself away in the title. It’s the second in Gyles Brandreth’s series (I wrote about the first one here) and does what it says on the tin; it turns Oscar Wilde into an amateur sleuth, and is packed with names that are recognisable to anyone who knows the detail of both Wilde’s life and the literary scene of the time. So, we have Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Lord Alfred Douglas, Robert Sherard (Wilde’s first biographer) and several other lesser known names.

The story is quite a simple one; it is 1892 and the Socrates Club is having one of it’s regular dinners, presided over by Wilde himself. At the end of the meal he suggests that the guests play a game called Murder – each of them will write anonymously on a slip of paper the name of the person they would most like to kill, and the other guests will try to work out who was chosen by whom and why. Not explained very elegantly but you can probably see where this is going. Two of the slips are blank, and the same name appears four times. And Wilde’s name is mentioned once, ditto his wife Constance. The game goes a little bit sour, but Wilde thinks nothing of it until over the course of the next three days the first three names on the list, including a parrot, die in more or less mysterious circumstances. Who around the table is a killer?

It’s an ingenious puzzle and I had absolutely no idea who the murderer was, what the motive was and how it all fitted together but I really enjoyed finding out. Wilde comes across as a complex, attractive and sympathetic figure and I learned a lot about the period. It’s well written and clearly meticulously researched by someone with an affection for both the characters and the setting. Do I think that’s what Wilde was really like? Probably not. Does it matter? I’m not sure it does. Did it make me want to find out more about the real people? Well, yes, especially in the case of Conan Doyle’s friend Willie Hornung who created Raffles; I’ve never read any of his stories and am off to find some now. The author’s note is very illuminating, and that is the one thing I do look for in a novel with real people; some indication of what’s true, and what’s invented. And there are some very nice in-jokes, too. Recommended.

I have to confess that I have never really warmed to Gyles Brandreth, whether as a journalist, a TV personality or as an MP. However, with Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, I have been pleasantly surprised and will probably have to reassess my view of him.

It is 1889 and Oscar Wilde finds the body of a young man with his throat cut in the room of a house in Westminster where Wilde has an appointment. Although Scotland Yard do become involved, Wilde decides to investigate on his own as the young man was known to him, and he enlists two of his friends. Which sounds much as you would expect, except his friends are Robert Sherard, writer and great-grandson of William Wordsworth, and Artur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. The game is indeed afoot.

This is really good fun, witty and clever and gives a sense of what Wilde might have been like as a friend. His relationships with both Sherard and Conan Doyle are based on fact, and there are interesting biogrpahical notes at the end of the story for those of us who like to know a bit more of the factual background to this type of novel.

I did twig reasonably early on who might be involved in the death of Billy Wood, but not the reasons why or the detail around the murder and subsequent events. Trying to guess the culprit in a crime novel is all part of the fun as far as I am concerned and it’s always enjoyable to find out just how right or wrong I am. What makes this book so satisfying is the picture it portrays of late Victorian London and the lifestyles of those with a bit of money.

This is the first in a series (I think there are three so far) and I look forward to reading the others.

Bride of the Book God

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Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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