On My Shelves – Alan Banks series by Peter Robinson

As most will already know, sadly, author Peter Robinson died in October 2022. Mainly known for the DCI Alan Banks series, it’s that series that I wanted to write about.

The DCI Banks novels are set in the fictional English town of Eastvale in the Yorkshire Dales. Robinson has stated that Eastvale is modelled on Ripon and Richmond and is somewhere north of Ripon. A former member of the London Metropolitan Police, Inspector Alan Banks leaves the capital for a quieter life in the Dales. Of course, a quieter life is the last thing Banks finds as he investigates a series of crimes in the Yorkshire town. Banks is an everyman, and the character works all the better for it, and the openness with which is flaws and foibles are shown.

“Gallows View”, book 1, introduces Banks to the reader to Eastvale and the team, not to mention his wife and children. This gives a wonderful sense of place, the characters are on the whole fully rounded, and the crimes/solutions make sense.

Thankfully, that is how the series continues. Each book can standalone, but they, of course, make more sense if you read them as a series and you get to follow the lives, careers and happenings in each character. Banks first appeared in print in 1987 and ran for 28 books, not including short stories. I read the first novel back in 2013 and after that I read 19 of the books, in fairly quick succession. Given that that is the same number I stopped on for Stephanie Plum, 19 seems to be about my limit for a series.

One of my favourite characters was always Annie Cabbot, she grows in confidence and ability through the series. If you’re also into Ian Rankin’s work, Annie is in much the same role as Siobhan.

Like all long series this one has its really strong instalments, and it’s weaker one, but there wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy. Of all the books, I’m torn on giving my favourite. I loved “Gallows View” and the way it bring the reader into the series, but of the following books, here are a few that stood out for me.

“In a Dry Season” caught my attention because at the time of reading I was working in the water industry, and I know the kind of emotions seeing those drowned villages reappear can bring some people.

“Aftermath” was just brilliant and chilling, not to mention a shocking revelation of a serial killer.

“The Summer that Never Was” was a brilliant examination of the way childhood friends drift apart as adults, and why their childhoods were never quite what they remembered.

Then “A Piece of My Heart” and its link with music festivals, aging rock stars and the effects of friendship, really stayed with me for some time.

Banks did become a TV series, staring Stephen Tompkinson, but I never watched them because I couldn’t see Tompkinson as Banks. The actor and the man in my imagination just didn’t gel. But TV shows are never as good as the books, so if you’ve never read Banks, I highly recommend that you give him a try, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Book Review – The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman

Blurb

The new vicar had never wanted a picture-postcard parish – or a huge and haunted vicarage. Nor had she wanted to walk into a dispute over a controversial play about a seventeenth-century clergyman accused of witchcraft… a story that certain long-established families would rather remained obscure.

But this is Ledwardine, steeped in cider and secrets…

A paradise of cobbled streets and timber-framed houses. And also – as Merrily Watkins and her teenage daughter, Jane, discover – a village where horrific murder is a tradition that spans centuries.

My Review

Merrily Watkins is not your usual vicar, certainly not the Vicar of Dibley. Jane is a fairly normal teenager. They move to Ledwardine to take over after well-established vicar retires. What looks like a sleepy village where no one would harm a fly soon takes on a different outlook.

We start with an ‘accidental’ death that leaves a group, including Merrily, in a spray of blood. But it’s accidental, and it looks like next year’s apple crop will be a good one.

The cider festival is going to put the Village on the map. The Village has big plans. Especially with a well know playwright offers a unique and local story to be acted out like by a perhaps more famous good-looking actor that the ladies swoon for, even though they know he’s gay. The villagers are not quite so happy to find out that they want to rewrite the history of the Village and one particular vicar. The word homophobic isn’t a joke here, and Merrily and the church are soon caught up in a power play of acceptability with powerful individuals on each side, and all pushing Merrily to do the ‘right’ thing. When kids are kids and experiment with cider, then boys come into the gastric mix, things don’t work out quite the way you might expect. When one girl goes missing after her sixteen party things are really hotting up.

This is the story of how bad an apple can get, especially one that has been left to rot and fester since the 1660s. Homophobia, mysticism, paganism, Church inflexibility, money grabbing, sex, murder, evil curses, growing pains and most of all misogyny in all it’s ugly forms are on full display with this one.

A writer friend recommended this book to me. What they did not mention was how long the book was. When I brought it I did bulk a bit at how long that was going to take me to get through, Given that as a freelancer I work regardless of the day, and that I thought it would take me forever to get through this one book, I decided to read it starting in 2022 and into 2023 (so it didn’t adversely affect my reading stats for the year). Yes, reading stats matter to me, see my Review of 2022. I know, I’m said. But honestly, once I started reading this book, I really just wanted to read on. Definite page turner.

It’s a very readable book. The story is complex, but it keeps you interested. Told primarily from the points of view of Merrily and Jane, but as necessity demands to get the actual picture of what’s going on, there are other POV characters too. Of particular importance are Gomer, the yokel–and I mean that in the best way possible–and Lol. Gomer is Mr Fix It here, will do a lot for the church. He sees and knows more than he’s letting on. Until he lets on and then you’re in for a surprise. Lol, real name Laurence Robinson, was a real eye opener. He seems pathetic, and to some he will be, but as the book progresses the reader learns more about him and his past and that better understanding brings you to a place of sympathy and frankly rooting for him to be the hero, not an easy or certain step for him. None of the characters were caricatures, which was lovely, and they all had things in their past, and in their presents that they need to protect. Some of them managed this with much greater wisdom than most. It was good to see a vicar as a human with all the fragility that comes with that.

The finale is a masterpiece.

While a lot of the denouement makes perfect sense from the facts as they were laid before the reader, so didn’t come as a surprise, there were parts of this that felt like failure were being snatched from the jaws of success. Then there was one revelation I was not expecting, and it was just wonderful. Clearly I won’t spoiler this review by saying what it was, but it surprised me, then made perfect sense, then I was left wondering why I hadn’t seen it. I should have seen it. 

Well done, Mr Rickman, well done!

If you can get past the sheer length of this book, I would highly recommend. 

Give this guy all the stars.

Or apples.

Review of the Year 2022

During 2022, I have managed to read 60 books. Not all of them crime, though that does take up a large percentage of the titles. The makeup is:

Okay so by now you may have realised that I’m also a bit of a geek and I love my spreadsheets, but there you go.

As you can see 24 pure crime books and a further 18 of fantasy crime books.

As for stars, well I’m apparently getting a bit tight on giving stars. Or possibly I’m just enjoying fantasy crime more than crime, because the distribution of stars and the averages by genre surprised me.

I know most people give their favourite books of the year, but honestly, I’m struggling to bring the list down to do that.

Of pure crime my favourites have to be split in two. For UK crime, it would have been “The Safe House” by Louise Mumford. I loved the premise, I like that it’s set locally (relatively) to me. Mr Wiffles is just wonderful! Plus, it’s just a cracking good read and I would highly recommend it. For overseas crime, has to be “The Rabbit Factor” by Antti Tuomainen. It’s funny, unexpected, gives a good sense of location, and the lead character is an actuary, and it’s so rare to find a hero who’s that interested in maths. And he has a cat. I do like a cat (see Crime Cats).

Of the fantasy crime, I’m really struck for picking just one. I loved “The Invisible Library” by Genevieve Cogman, but I read it for the second time this year, which shows that I really loved it (and the series that follows). Then I read “Doing Time” by Jodi Taylor. This is the first of the Time Police books and I loved it, laughed out loud and really loved the characters and all they are up to. Then, in December, I read “The Stranger Times” by CK McDonnell, this was a birthday gift from my hubby (my birthday is the end of November), and I read it in like two sittings because I couldn’t put it down. The premise alone made me smile, sections of the books, and sometimes individual lines made me laugh out loud. It’s intelligent and sassy, irreverent and, at times, beautiful. Unusually, my hubby also read it and enjoyed it.

I would recommend any of the above, so give one or two a go. Of the fantasy crime books, unless you are into fantasy, the most pure crime one is in fact “The Stranger Times”, so if you’re going to step outside the norm, give that one a try.

The point really is all about enjoying reading. Read books, talk about books, share books, but most importantly, find some books you love. Doesn’t matter what genre you read, I don’t believe in getting sniffy about any of them, just read what you enjoy. Have fun!

Book Review – Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye by M C Beaton

Again, it’s that time of year and so I thought I’d delve into a Christmas novel. I have enjoyed the Agatha Raisin series from The Quiche of Death on. Though I have to say, I’m also enjoying the TV series starring Ashley Jensen, Kissing Christmas Goodbye is episode 1 of series 4 and I will admit that while it was on over the weekend, I didn’t actually see it as I was cooking Christmas dinner, but today, I finally finished the book – which is why I’m late in posting this today. M C Beaton was a wonderful writer, I’ve enjoyed Agatha, and the Hamish Macbeth series too. If you haven’t read any, then I would recommend giving them a go, but don’t expect either to be too like watch you can see on the telly. Here is my take of Kissing Christmas Goodbye.

Blurb

Agatha is dreaming of a white Christmas – but who will be joining her under the mistletoe?

During the grey days of early December Agatha is obsessed by only two things – Christmas, and her ex, James Lacey. Although she says she feels nothing for James now, she’s sure that planning the perfect Dickensian Christmas for all her friends will somehow reanimate her love.

Even the murder of Mrs Tamworthy, poisons with hemlock a the local manor house, does little to distract Agatha from organising her perfect yuletide celebrations. Yet poor Mrs Tamworthy had written to Agatha, telling her that someone wanted to see her dead before the year was out. Slightly guiltily, Agatha sets out to solve the case with the help of new recruit, young Toni Gilmore. Toni is a mere child of seventeen and alongside her, Agatha feels old, weary and unfestive. But as the days march ever closer to the 25th, Agatha knows she much catch the murderer – nothing will stop her having her perfect day!

My Review

Agatha is bored. She’s running a detective agency and looking for missing cats and dogs, she’s also looking for a new detective to assist since Harry has left (not in the TV series, so if you want to know about Harry, you’ll have to read the books). Enter Toni, seventeen, keen and in need of the mother figure Agatha thinks she’s incapable of being.

Speaking of mother figures, there’s Mrs Tamworthy. Rich and mean, Mrs Tamworthy thinks that her children are out of kill her. And the more you learn about them and about Mrs Tamworthy, you can see why.

With Christmas approaching, Agatha has big plans. Not least of which are getting ex-husband James Lacey back, despite the surprisingly good advice from Sir Charles that she doesn’t even love him anymore. 

Agatha bumbles around, Toni gets lucky and then really unlucky. Between the two of them, love lies tangled and the truth somehow falls out of the whole mess of information about dysfunctional families, love, history, betrayal and murder.

As I mentioned above, I really do enjoy the works of M C Beaton and the Agatha Raisin series, but the constant interruptions of our home real life Christmas rather dragged my attention away from this book. However, Boxing Day arrived, and I had no more interruptions, and read two-thirds of this book in one sitting. And it has to be said that once I had the time to sit and read, the book really warmed up. However, I did find a few things about the read less satisfying. The story is good, the twists and turns work. Agatha’s reactions to Toni and Toni’s to Agatha really work well. But this was a book that, oddly, suffered from far too many twists. It felt like there were things just thrown in for the sake of throwing them in, that more concentration on the central themes might have worked better. I also found some of the dialogue unrealistic and a little stilted.

Overall, while this does take place at Christmas, it’s not an especially Christmassy book. That said, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it, if you are working your way through the Agatha Raisin series, include this one when you get to it, but it’s not worth keeping it for Christmas. A reasonable read, not overly Christmassy, keep it in series and it’ll work.

Book Review – Christmas at The Grange by T E Kinsey

Yes, it’s that time of year, I can ignore it no more, so here’s a bit of a Christmas read for you.

Blurb

It’s Christmas 1909, and for once Lady Hardcastle—respectable gentlewoman, amateur spy—and her lady’s maid, Florence Armstrong, are setting sleuthing aside. They are invited to the festivities up at The Grange, as guests of Sir Hector and Lady Farley-Stroud.

But barely have corks been popped and parlour games played when a mysterious crime comes to light. Someone has broken in while the revellers were distracted and made off with a priceless pearl necklace. Lady Hardcastle and Flo are determined to catch the thief—but with so many Christmas guests encamped at The Grange, is it possible that the felon is hiding in plain sight?

With the clues stacking up, Lady Hardcastle bears down on her culprit. But just as the pieces come together, it begins to look as if there is something more devious afoot at The Grange…

My Review

Lady Hardcastle is invited to enjoy Christmas with the neighbours, so naturally takes her devoted lady’s maid, Flo. Indulgence is the watchword of the party, as is to be expected given the season, what wasn’t expected was the taking of a pearl necklace. Being something of a spy, albeit a not entirely officially, Lady Emily Hardcastle is determined to find the necklace and the culprit.

It doesn’t take long, but then this is just a novella, a fun one-sitting read full of lively characters and a delightful sense of the time, not to mention the sense of humour. There is no real suspense, but it is exactly what it needs to be.

Lady Hardcastle and Flo are one of very few pre-war mysteries I can stomach, but I would recommend the series generally, and this one in particular for a quick read at Christmas.

Book Review – The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

Blurb

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are three things you should know before you hire me:

1. Sobriety costs extra.

2. My services are confidential.

3. I don’t work for humans.

It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, it’s not the humans who need my help.

I just want one real case. One chance to do something good. Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

My Review

Ex-solider turned ‘Man for Hire’ goes out looking for a missing person and gets caught up in something so much bigger.

Fetch Phillips is a man on a mission. One imposed on him by his own guilt. Through the book that guilt is exposed, and it’s a guilt that isn’t entirely his for where he places it, but it does demonstrate several times how he could have avoided things and how pandering to the male ego, especially the ego of a less sharply intelligent male, will get that male to do just about anything. In some respects, I felt really sorry for Phillips, in others he got what he deserved.

However, he is living a world that definitely didn’t deserve what it got. It’s harsh and hard, and full of pain. Not just for Phillips, but everyone there. For everything they lost. Which is pretty much everything.

At the core, this is an old-fashioned detective novel. There was a touch of noir, a bit like Raymond Chandler with proper monsters, not the ones who hide behind a human façade but the obvious type of monster, Vampires, Ogres, etc. Imagine that the Hammer House of Horror Studios (dodgy horror movies and TV series from the 70s) filmed “The Lady in the Lake” with Christopher Lee lurking in the background. Actually, that said, Christopher Lee would have made a wonderful Edmund Rye.

Phillips bungles his way through, gets hit so many times he should be brain damaged, though if he were, that would explain a lot. He does prove his bravery and that leads to some of the best exchanges in the book, particularly in the morgue.

There are some interesting side characters. I really like Simms, and this relationship worked beautifully in the moment where Philips shows his bravery. Their exchanges are everything they should be for the two archetypes they represent. I also love Georgio, though I’m not so sure I could stomach his cooking.

I read this because I heard it was in the same vein as Ben Aaronovitch and Terry Pratchett. And it does appeal to that kind of taste. Through the book, there is a lot of set up, obviously as this is the first book, the reader needs to understand the world and the characters that are introduced. There are some particularly dark spots but also a few moments of levity and it even raised a smile or two (especially the morgue scene, but that tells you more about my humour than the book).

I have to say that I found reading this book a slog, though I will also temper that with the fact that I started reading it just as Covid floored me and I was struggling to concentrate on anything, so it’s unlikely to be such a slog to others as it was to me. In full health I might well have rattled through it.

This is the first of three (so far) and while I’m not running out to buy the next one, I will get it in and read on, and because of that I have to say that yes, I would recommend this book.

On a completely silly note, I particularly like the little images used for scene breaks.

Did the Movie Ruin the Book – Reacher Series

Firstly, I will specify that I am talking about the 2012 film with Tom Cruise, not the series that I haven’t watched.

When I first read “Killing Floor” was I captivated. I loved that book. Found it absolutely stunning. I almost immediately read the next three. 

“Killing Floor” was one of those books that really defines the phrase page-turner. I felt I had to keep reading because I didn’t want to miss a thing and I needed to know what happened next.

The scene that stayed with me most clearly was the fight in the prison’s washroom, just because he’d put on his cell mates glasses. That was class.

The rest of the book is just as good, and the way that the plot reveals itself keeps the reader interested. In other words, it was a great book.

Then I heard that of all the actors out there, Tom Cruise was going to play Reacher.  I was at CrimeFest when Lee Childs was interviewed about the fact. The mere idea of an actor 5 foot 7 playing a character that’s 6 foot 5 just doesn’t work for me. It’s not that I think Tom Cruise is a bad actor, but he’s not the best, he has done some really good movies. His best, I think, is “A Few Good Men”. He was simply brilliant in that. But I can’t see him as an action figure, not even given that he’s about toy sized. Add in that what little I know of him from the tabloids doesn’t appeal either, nothing much appeals about watching him play Reacher.

To be honest, I haven’t read a Reacher since I found out about the movie. So did that ruin the series for me? No, not really. Given what I’ve said above about Tom Cruise, it might not be a surprise to hear that I’ve not watched the movie. Ergo, the movie can’t have ruined the books for me.

So, what did? What stopped me reading Reacher? Well, honestly, the books ruined it for me. I got to book four, and I realised that there was just such a formula that I wasn’t interested anymore, even when he got the house and seemed to get the girl, I didn’t care, because I’d already learned from the CrimeFest interview that Reacher wouldn’t be keeping the house. Which meant that the old formula was going to come back.

Spoiler alert: The formula is that Reacher strolls into town, sees a problem, gets in trouble for trying to help, sleeps with the girl, sorts the problem, leaves never to return.

I can see why some readers would be happy with that time and again, I wasn’t. So, like Reacher, I moved on, and I’m not likely to go back.

If you like Reacher, please don’t let this personal opinion put you off. Books are about entertainment, and if you’re entertained, carry on enjoying them.

On My Shelves – The Heretics of De’Ath by Howard of Warwick

Blurb

Medieval mystery for people who laugh starts here….

England’s most famous date 1066: At the monastery of De’Ath’s Dingle, during a completely pointless theological debate, there is a mysterious death. Routine business for the average investigative medieval monk.
Unfortunately this isn’t a tale of average monks.

Anyone who would put the idiot Brother Simon in charge of a murder investigation is either one chant short of a plainsong or is up to something. When Brother Hermitage, innocent in every way, including bystanding, is lined up for execution, he begins to wonder if something might be going on.
Perhaps his new companion Wat, weaver of pornographic tapestry, can figure out what it is. Before it’s too late.

If you are a lover of the historical detective genre, if you have a deep respect for the worlds created, don’t read this book. It’ll only upset you.

My Review

I have said that I don’t read historical fiction, and generally, I don’t, but then I was looking at my shelves the other day and I noticed this series. This is the first volume of The Chronicles of Brother Hermitage. It follows the life and adventures of Brother Hermitage, a young (probably 19), and naïve monk as he meets Watt, a maker of dubious tapestries, and they find themselves surrounded by murders they are compelled to investigate. By the way, the quality of Watt’s tapestries is fine, but the depictions aren’t something a young monk should ever look at since Watt uses an inordinate amount of pink silk.

Wasn’t sure about this when I bought this book what it would be like, but I had a good time reading it. It’s fun, irreverent, humourous. The humour comes from one character, Hermitage, taking everything literally, and the other, Watt, being a more worldly wise character attempting to steer him right. It’s a mix of ecclesiastic and potty humour, with the twisting of language that works so well for the likes of Pratchett.

I literally laughed out loud when I read this, and I enjoyed it so much, I’ve brought and read many of the subsequent novels in the series.

Book Review – The Accidental Medium by Tracy Whitwell

Blurb

The Accidental Medium is the first book in a hilarious series from Tracy Whitwell featuring Tanz, the accidental medium who, with the help of the dead, is about to become an unwilling crime-solver.

Tanz is a wine-loving, straight-talking, once-successful TV actress from Gateshead, whose career has shrivelled like an antique walnut. She is still grieving for her friend Frank, who died in a car crash three years ago, and she has to find a normal job in London to fund her cocktail habit. When she starts work in a ‘new age’ shop, Tanz suddenly discovers that the voices she’s hearing in her head are real, not the first signs of madness, and that she can give people ‘messages’ from beyond the grave. Alarmed, she confronts her little mam and discovers she is from a long line of psychic mediums. Despite an exciting new avenue of life opening up to Tanz, darkness isn’t far away and all too soon there’s murder in the air

My Review

I brought this because it said “hilarious” and “unwitting crime-solver”. Besides, it was half price, I was on holiday, and it appealed.

The main character, the accidental medium herself, is Tanz, a late 30s actress struggling to get acting work. She also from Gateshead, likes a bucket or two of white wine, and has some interesting friends. But she’s brassic, so she gets a job working part-time in what I can only describe as a new age shop which also offers tarot readings. Then the voices in Tanz’s head start in proper, and she opens herself up to a new side of life.

There is a murder in the book, one Tanz solves, as most murders actually are solves, very quickly.  But that only rears its head on page 190, there are a lot of other stories to get through first.

According to Amazon, this book is in “horror parodies and satires”. It’s not horrific. It’s actually a very gentle and amusing take on a life less ordinary.

As mentioned, I bought this while on holiday and I read it over two days of that holiday. It was fun, readable, enjoyable and exactly the kind of light entertainment I was looking for on holiday. Not what I would call hilarious, but definitely appealed to my sense of humour and raised a smile. And it does have a murder, however late it appears in the story, so can be considered on the periphery of crime fiction and included here. Though in all honesty, if I’d brought it expecting crime fiction, I would have been disappointed. Still I will give the next in the series a go.

I liked it.

Book Review – Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Blurb

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit – we do paperwork so real coppers don’t have to – and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

Now I’m a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden … and there’s something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it’s falling to me to bring order out of chaos – or die trying.

My Review

I wasn’t sure about this when I first picked it up, and I can’t even remember why I did pick it up.  But I do like the mix of solid police procedural an the arcane.

Peter Grant is a great character who draws the reader into his world with frank observation and a cool head. A PC in the Met, he’s lead by a ghost to answers he wasn’t expecting, and that introduced him to DCI Nightingale, and man few would ever expect. DCI Nightingale heads the Special Assessment Unit.  He’s also a wizard.

The case sends Peter and his colleague Leslie May on a wild ride around London, introducing Peter and the reader to a new, or rather, very old, side of the city.  There are ghosts, and spirits and of course, magic.  Peter isn’t that happy with the restrictions Nightingale puts on his learning and practice of Newtonian Magic, but there are reasons, not least of which is that too much magic will literally kill you.

The cast of this book is wonderfully diverse, Peter is of Nigerian descent and his parents are great. Nightingale is a quintessential Englishman, but he would be, given his age. Leslie, like Peter,is a Londoner through and through. And Dr Abdul Haqq Walid, is just fabulous, the name implies Arabic, but this is due to his conversation to Islam, he speaks with a soft, lilting Highland accent. The characters stand off the page in well developed form. Each is unique and has their own voice.

I will admit that I first listened to Rivers of London on audiobook, and I loved it. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith does the most fantastic job of being the voice of the Rivers of London. Peter Grant may be his voice, but he does an excellent range of voices for the characters, I particularly enjoy the gruff DCI Alexander Seawoll.  For some reason, the voice of Nightingale always makes me think of Peter James, I have no reason why, but it does.

My point of course, is that this is a wonderful book that pulls the reader along with the events, beautifully written, and a wonderful introduction to a whole new London you may never have met before.  The following books are just as brilliant.