The Excitements by C J Wray

‘The Excitements’ by C J Wray was one of the book recommendations from Matt Cain when ‘The Book Taster’ treated us to a little bonus social last month. This book just sounded like a bundle of fun, and that is exactly what it is.

Our lead characters, Penny and Josephine, are two elderly sisters who love to have a bit of ‘excitement’ in their day. And it is often down to their dear nephew to ensure that something of the kind is planned for them. Little does he know that these two wonderfully colourful characters have had their fair share of excitement over the years…and still continue to do so, even if it can occasionally be a little risky.

Our adventure with them takes place in Paris, where they are to be honoured for their work during World War Two. And, as a rather dramatic set of events unfolds in Paris, we are also sent back to the past through Penny and Josephine’s memories to see what exactly has brought them to this moment – and it is certainly a life of excitement, love, loss, danger and heroism.

I found this book a true joy to read, for a number of reasons. There is humour amongst the pages of this book as the ladies really do enjoy life, and have a little bit of a cheeky side to them – but, also, we are given some fantastically creative characters who bring humour to the page, even in some of the darker moments. It is always nice to see older characters represented as being full of life, and liberal, and having appreciated their past adventures. And the historical fiction element of the book keeps you reading as you want to know all the secrets about all the characters.

This is a story that will be a hug in a book if you are a fan of the characters and stories of Richard Osman and A J Pearce. I think this will be a great read for the summer when you want a real piece of escapism with a bit of adventure thrown in. I would probably not have found this book without the recommendation from Matt Haig, so I am so glad that I took the plunge and gave it a read on a whim, because it is a treat that I would not have wanted to miss out on.

The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I am a month behind on my Read Christie 2024, so mid-March means I have picked up the February pick. This was my introduction to Tommy and Tuppence in the written form (I have listened to them as an audio book) and I was very pleasantly surprised as they did not leave much of a mark on me as an audio book.

This, despite having some dark undertones as you would imagine from Christie, is a more light-hearted novel. I think because our characters are younger, with more optimisim and hope as they have come out of World War One. They are also a fantastic pair, bringing the best out of each other as only very dear friends (or more) can do. I found myself having a little smile on my face as I read some of the lines, because Tommy and Tuppence just seem to bring such joy to the story. Even in their darkest moments.

This is a brilliant story of espionage and politics. The world has come out of World War One but there are still threats on the horizon, with an unstable Europe and distrust between the nations. Tommy and Tuppence get drawn into this world, almost accidentally, and embark on a life as private investigators: can they find the missing Jane Finn and the documents she was given to take good care of? They certainly give it a jolly good go, meeting a whole host of suspicious characters along the way, and finding themselves in a number of dangerous situations.

There are some twists and turns along the way, but this is not Christie’s most complicated tale. In fact, you may work some of the plot out, but that does not spoil the reading experience as the fun of reading this story is being on the adventure with Tommy and Tuppence, and rooting for them at every moment.

I am not sure they will replace Poirot in my affections but this is a slightly different reading experience. I certainly won’t be avoiding reading more of Tommy and Tuppence, which I think I have been up until this point, as I like to read Poirot and Miss Marple for comfort reads, which means I have been missing out on some of Christie’s other stories.

The Murder after the Night Before by Katy Brent

Book and Pudding Club Knowle picked ‘The Murder after the Night Before’ by Katy Brent as the March pick. This is a book that I have seen around recently, with the most amazing neon pink cover, so I was quite intrigued when it got picked. This is also described as a bit of a black comedy, which is probably a genre I do not usually read – my thriller choices tend to be quite traditional and, well, dark.

Molly Monroe wakes up from a rather heavy night to find out that she has a rather x-rated video that has gone viral and she can not remember a thing about – but, to beat that, she also finds out that her best friend has been murdered (or so Molly thinks) in the bathroom of their flat. I mean, as next mornings of regret and confusion go, this is actually the thing of nightmares. However, Molly is a determined young lady and she is determined to find out the truth about her best friend Posey’s final moments – and who this too-good-to-be-true young man, Jack, is, as he has appeared at possibly the worst moment of Molly’s life.

This was an engaging read from the start and it definitely has all the traditional ingredients of a murder mystery. I am not sure it was a true thriller, as I am not sure tension was always built up throughout the narrative, as I think it was fairly clear that there would be a ‘happy ending’. I did work out one of the twists of the main story, but I did not work out the secret we find out about Molly’s family. Molly is a fantastically strong female character, as I am not sure that many of us could recover from what she is experiencing at the start of the story.

I think this is a light-hearted read, but I am not sure I found the humour in it. It deals with some quite heavy topics and creates some great characters, but I am not sure I saw it as witty and humorous, just a rather well-written novel by a clearly talented female author who can create a book for a feminist age. I am sure that I will read more books by Katy Brent, as I was definitely hooked and needed to know all the secrets of the story.

Dog Days by Ericka Waller

This book has been on my shelf for quite some time, since it was kindly sent to me by a lovely Bookstagram buddy. However, as soon as I saw that Ericka Waller is one of the guests at the next ‘Book Taster Live’, I knew I had to make it a priority on the tbr pile.

This book is an emotional rollercoaster of a read, but is also a true love letter to our canine friends. We meet three very different characters: George, a rather grumpy old man who has just lost his wife of 50 years; Dan, who has spent a lot of his time as a counsellor helping others, but has not always helped himself, and Lizzie, who appears to have left an abusive relationship to protect herself and her son. They are three very different characters, with their own struggles in life, but they all know the love a good dog provides – that constant companion that is alway by their side, whatever life throws at them.

I really enjoyed this book because, despite tackling some very difficult topics such as grief and mental health, it is done with care from the first page. The characters are so beautifully created that you feel like you are on their journeys with them, and that they are real people – and the dogs are all just as important characters, as they offer the emotional support to our three lead characters. There are some surprises along the way as you discover why George, Dan and Lizzie are quite as they are and you follow them as they get to where they need to be. It is like three stories in one, even though the characters are a little more connected than they may realise.

I could not put this down; I was always invested in finding out more about George, Dan and Lizzie – and hoping that each would find their happy ending. Or, at least, would find what they needed to be able to, to reach a happy ending or find closure on something that they need to leave in the past and move forward.

This is such a clever concept of a book, as there is so much amongst its pages about what it is to be human, to love, to lose and to have a constant and loyal companion (even if George does not even know that is exactly what he needs). I will be sharing this book with others, as I think it is a book that will mean something different to each reader. And I am now really looking forward to the chance to meet Ericka Waller at the next Book Taster Live event.

Becoming Ted by Matt Cain

Last month, The Book Taster treated book club members to a little online social with Matt Cain. This was an absolute treat as, last year (almost exactly to the year), I read ‘The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle‘ and had absolutely adored it, and Matt Cain was a joy to listen to and share some of his recommendations.

After the event, I knew that ‘Becoming Ted’ had to be my next read, because I was pretty sure it would bring me pure joy. Ted is shocked by the announcement from his husband Giles that their marriage is over and he has met someone else. This forces Ted to face up to the truth about his marriage: maybe it had not been quite as perfect as he thought it was, and maybe it had been holding him back from his dreams all this time. As Ted has to restart his life, he starts to become a little more himself than he had been for quite some time; facing up to his past, looking at his present and working to create his bright future – as a drag queen.

‘Becoming Ted’ is such a heartwarming story, proving that it is never too late to follow your dreams, but also that you should never let anyone else stop you from being who you really are. It is a story of love, of all kinds. And a story of friendship and family, both things that may not always follow a smooth path but can also be the most valuable thing in our lives.

This book made me laugh out loud and it also caused me to shed a tear or two – there is one moment with Oskar and his search for his father that had me in floods of tears, on a train which is (of course) never awkward. The characters are all so beautifully created that you feel like you know each one of them personally (or that you would definitely like to hang out with them if you could), which is what adds so much emotion to this book, too.

I will be recommending this book regularly to people when they ask me what to read next, especially when they are looking for an uplifting read that can probably teach us a lesson or two along the way. And Matt Cain is certainly now added to my list of go-to authors (‘Madonna of Bolton’ is already on the tbr pile), especially when I am looking for a book that will ensure a real joy of reading for the time that I am in its company.

Girl on Fire by Tony Parsons

A friend of mine passed ‘Girl on Fire’ on to me recently so, as I was in a bit of a crime and thriller mood, I decided I would sneak it in before the end of February. I mean, as we are in a leap year and there is an extra day, I may as well use some of it reading.

‘Girl on Fire’ introduced me to DC Max Wolfe (although not his first case), and I was quite taken with this character. A single parent who loves his dog, his job and follows his moral compass, even when the odds may be stacked against him or his case.

Max Wolfe is caught up in the events of a terrorist attack on a local shopping centre, and becomes involved in trying to draw out those who were responsible but also those who believe that they have a right to carry out vigilante justice. There appears to be danger around every corner, from many different sources but Max Wolfe always keeps his sense of fair justice, which makes him a fascinating character to read about as he faces so many troubles and dangers in his work.

I actually found this quite a thought-provoking read, as there was a study of character along the way as it considered what influences people to carry out some of the actions that they do. And how different people view right and wrong, justice and injustice – how do we form our morals and values?

My only tiny frustration with this book with the punctuation of the flow occasionally to explain a piece of police jargon or abbreviation. Although I appreciate as readers we may not have fully understood these things without that little explanation, I just occasionally felt that it interrupted my flow when I was fully immersed in a moment in the story. But I think that was probably just my personal preference when I read rather than a criticism.

I think I would like to read more about Max Wolfe and will be keeping an eye out for more books which feature him in the lead, because I am keen to see where his character came from and where his character is going. Only six more books to read – so many books, so little time.

Weyward by Emilia Hart

At a recent book club meeting we were asked to share our latest reads, and one of my lovely bookish buddies recommended ‘Weyward’ by Emilia Hart. Now, this is a book that I would not be reading without the recommendation; although the cover is absolutely beautiful, I just would not normally think that this is a book that would be my usual read.

However, spurred on by the recommendation, I decided that I would give it a go. Especially as it was a little bit of a bargain as an e-book, and I am trying to use that format to ensure that I try some books that I would maybe not normally read. And that is exactly what ‘Weyward’ was.

This is a fantastic mix of historical and contemporary fiction as we meet three women connected by their family history. In the present day, Kate is escaping a controlling partner. In 1942, Violet is struggling with her place in the world and her father’s expectations. And, in 1619, Altha is on trial for witchcraft. Yet, these women are all stronger than they realise and are not to be tamed, for they are ‘weyward’.

It is hard to discuss some books when you do not want to give away the plot, and this is a book that I think you need to read to fully appreciate. However, if you like a book with strong female leads and a little bit of mystery and intrigue as you read – then this is the book for you. This story really sucks you in, especially the story of Altha, who faces trial in Lancaster, a city close to my heart from my university days – and the stories of witches in Lancashire and surrounding areas are woven into the history of the city and the university.

I am not sure I can do this book justice, as I genuinely think to really appreciate it, then you have read it – which I totally recommend you do.

Maybe Next Time by Cesca Major

‘Maybe Next Time’ is the February book choice of The Book Taster Book Club. I was excited that I managed to pick my copy up in New York when I visited in January – I absolutely love the cover of the US edition and, of course, it is a Reese’s Book Club pick, too.

This is an interesting concept of a book. Emma lives the same day, Monday 3rd December, her dateversary with her husband Dan, and it always has the same tragic ending. It does not seem to matter what Emma does, she lives a very similar ending. However, she goes through a whole host of emotions and experiences on the same day, repeatedly. This leads Emma to make some reflections about the life she has been leading, the relationships she has formed, and the decisions that she makes. And, the final page…well…

I think it takes some skill that Cesca Major has written a book that always happens on the same day but keeps us reading. The study she makes of Emma and the experiences that Emma goes through makes it a book that you keep reading. It is a fascinating journey that you go on with Emma, hoping as she does that the outcome may become different.

This is a good read – just possibly a little long. I loved the character development and the relationship between Emma and Dan (the letters Dan writes Emma are wonderful) but I could just have skimmed a couple of pages off the end – but that is probably a me issue rather than the book. I can, however, understand why for many readers this has been a great read and I definitely have some fellow readers in mind who I will be recommending this book too.

The Girls Who Disappeared by Claire Douglas

After the Book Taster introduced us to the books of Claire Douglas, I had made a decision that I need to read her backlist. So, one of my reads in February was ‘The Girls who Disappeared’ (as I found it at a little bit of a bargain price).

This was another great twisty thriller, with atmosphere built from the first page, and a fantastic strong female lead in the form of the journalist Jenna Halliday.

This is a small-town mystery. Twenty years earlier, Olivia Rutherford was in a car accident with her friends, but when she wakes up, the other girls have gone. For twenty years, there has been no explanation for what happened that night, but as the anniversary approaches, Jenna Halliday wants to do a true crime podcast in an attempt to see if it exposes any new information. However, it seems that some people in this small town will go to extreme measures to ensure that nothing new is exposed – or to ensure that any other secrets are exposed.

The small-town setting adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere, as does the forest and the road where the accident happened. Claire Douglas is excellent at using the setting to add to the tension of the story that is being told.

As it is a thriller, it is quite hard to say too much about the plot of the book, other than you are left feeling that everyone has a secret that they are trying to keep hidden, and you never really know who is genuine as a character. It is a quite a ride from start to finish – with a fantastic reveal when we reach the conclusion.

Past Caring by Robert Goddard

When I was at my IRL book club in January, one of the lovely members recommended the books of Robert Goddard to me – thrillers with a link to history sounded like a great read to me. And one that involves the Suffragettes sounded even better. So on my return from book club, I looked up ‘Past Caring’ by Robert Goddard and thought I would give it a go. Especially as I am trying to read books recommended to me a little more, and a little more timely (rather than waiting for months).

This book was fantastic. Considering (as I have said many times) I do not read the blurb, I was not entirely sure what I was expecting other than the words used when it was recommended to me. This is a historical mystery: why did Cabinet minister Edwin Strafford resign when his career seemed to be on the up? That is what Martin Radford is asked to find out. And it takes him on quite an adventure – and one that becomes a little more dangerous and thrilling than he could ever expect.

Edwin Strafford introduces us to his story through the pages of his memoir; Martin Radford’s job is to find out if Strafford is a reliable narrator or not. This leads Martin into a web of lies formed by the new family of Strafford’s former fiancee’s family – a family that Martin is closer to than he realises. Although there was one secret or twist I worked out as I read the book, this did not spoil the story. In fact, I was so invested in Strafford’s story and how he had been treated that solving that one mystery felt like an achievement (and made me dislike the villain of the piece even more).

This was so well plotted, with so much history entwined with the fiction of the thriller, that I found that I always wanted to know what was going to happen next. Dual timelines enriched the thriller as there were actually multiple mysteries that needed solving. I can see why Robert Goddard is a popular author and I have added yet another author to my must-read-the-backlist list. There are just so many good books and so little time…