The Thirty-Nine Steps

  
Title: The Thirty-Nine Steps

Author: John Buchan 

Published: 1915

Challenges: Reading the Twentieth Century, The Classics Club, TBR Pile 2015

Synopsis

Richard Hanney is just thinking about how boring is London life is and how he should leave when his upstairs neighbour appears seeking refuge.  This mysterious man has uncovered some kind of plot involving various governments and although he gives Hanney some hints, he largely keeps the plot to himself.  When this neighbour is then found murdered in Hanney’s flat, Hanney knows he must disappear for a while and try to find some way to warn the British Government of the plot.  He hotfoots it to Scotland with the police (who are after him for murder) and some Germans (who think Hanney knows all about their plot) hot on his trail.  His time in Scotland involves a wealth of adventure, from disguises and explosions to car crashes and finding some unlikely allies, Hanney is determined to do anything to ensure he stops this mysterious plot. 

My Thoughts

The Thirty-Nine Steps is a good old fashioned adventure.  Told from the perspective of Hanney, this is a simple and engaging narrative that is action packed but in a simplistic way.  That’s not an insult to the book, in fact it is compliment as I found this an easy and exciting read; you know the hero is going to be successful but it’s fun to read of his scraps and the challenges he faces.  It’s pure adventure escapism.

Published in 1915, I was surprised that there weren’t really any major comments on the war, at least not until the very end of the novel and that was just a passing sentence.  But then the more I thought about it, the more it made sense.  The Thirty-Nine Steps was written at a time when Britain was slowly waking up to the reality of war so it makes perfect sense that this novel is old fashioned adventure and a tale where good overcomes evil; readers probably needed that.  And there are some ‘subtle’ hints at war and the German enemy.  The bad guys in The Thirty-Nine Steps are crafty Germans who are good at disguises and hoodwinking their enemies.  They are portrayed as lying tricksters who will stop at nothing to get what they want and they get their comeuppance.   

Overall this was a great read and one that I enjoyed much more than I expected.  I think I might hunt out some more of Buchan’s work. 


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Toby’s Room

 
Title: Toby’s Room

Author: Pat Barker

Published: 2012

Challenges: TBR Pile 2015

Rating: Five out of five stars

Synopsis

When Elinor Brooke’s older brother, Toby disappears on a French battlefield in 1917 she wants to get to the bottom of the ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ report her family received.  Throughout her life her relationship with Toby has been close, close to the point where it is hard for them to explain and discuss their relationship, and she can’t accept the reports of his death.  Elinor wants to discover the truth about Toby’s death, so she writes to an old friend from Art College, Kit Neville, who has been horrifically wounded and was the last man to see Toby alive.  Neville ignores Elinor’s letters so she relies on her former lover and fellow ex Art student, Paul Tarrant to help solve the mysterious death of her much loved brother. 

My Thoughts

I always forget that, as well as drawing on the real life horrors of the First World War, Barker uses real life war figures as some of the inspiration behind her novels and their stories are often subtly interwoven into the background of her main characters.  In Toby’s Room Barker writes about the real life portraits of soldiers with horrific facial injuries – painted by Henry Tonks – to bring a wounded Kit Neville back into Elinor’s life and thus enabling her to discover the truth about her brother’s death.  I love it when real life figures unexpectantly turn up in fiction as it makes me eager to carry out more research and to learn more about these people; such a geek! And of course this makes me extra happy as I love anything about the First World War.  Again I forget that Barker’s writing has this effect on me and Barker’s writing is truly beautiful.  Her understanding and depiction of the horrors of the war is just heart wrenching and yet hauntingly beautiful at the same time.  I’m usually pretty rubbish at remembering to highlights quotations or parts of novels I particularly like, but I did it this time and the following is just one of sentences I found so perfect and relatable: 

‘ A hole opened up in the conversation and we all stared in to it, until several people at once rushed in to fill the silence.’ 

How beautiful is that sentence? 

Throughout Toby’s Room there is the mystery surrounding Toby’s death; a mystery that was actually quite unexpected but in hindsight makes sense, which I guess is the sign of a good mystery. It is clear from the beginning that there is more to Toby’s death than meets the eye but this is not thrown down the readers’ throats and is actually subtly explored, with more focus placed on the living and them getting to grips with their own life changing injuries than the dead, which certainly makes sense when thinking about war.  The hospital scenes and the descriptions of the injuries and the procedures and operations these soldiers went through is both fascinating and horrifying in equal measure.  This aspect of the First World War is so interesting to read about, especially when you think about how limited they were in terms of technology and this is just another reason why I loved this book. 

I enjoy anything that teaches me new facts about the First World War, even if they do make me incredibly sad. Perhaps one of the saddest facts I learnt when reading Toby’s Room was about all the poor dachshunds (sausage dogs) that were killed because they were a German breed.  I also found the methods doctors and surgeons used to help those with facial injuries an interesting area for further research.

If you haven’t ever read any of Barker’s novels about the First World War I can strongly recommend them, especially The Regeneration Trilogy. 

The Kingmaker’s Daughter

 

Title: The Kingmaker’s Daughter

Author: Philippa Gregory

Published: 2012

Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading England

Rating: 4 out of 5

Synopsis

Anne Neville is one of The Kingmaker’s Daughters.  Her father, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick has helped to put Edward of York (Edward IV) on the throne, usurping The Sleeping King and ousting the House of Lancaster.  But of course it is the late 1400s and life in the Royal Household is far from stable.  Although many are happy that Edward is King, lots are far from impressed with his choice of wife, Elizabeth Woodville – the subject of Gregory’s The White Queen.  It is this marriage that causes unrest within the House of York, pitching old friends against one another and brother against brother.  Throughout Anne’s life she is surrounded by numerous plots aiming to deceive and undermine the Royal Household; she is used as a pawn by the men in her life, from her father to her first husband (a challenger to the throne) to her brother in law (George) and to her husband, Richard III.  When Anne’s father switches sides and fights against King Edward, Anne survivors the stigma left by his betrayal and his deceit.  She marries Edward’s brother and rises to become Queen, however she spends her life in fear of Elizabeth Woodville and her suspected witchcraft.

My Thoughts

I forgot how much I enjoy Philippa Gregory’s writing.  I have read the books preceding this one in The Cousins War series (The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Lady of the Rivers) and have the next two books on my shelf and the narratives are just so engaging and interesting.  It is not my favourite area of history but Gregory really makes it come alive and it is so easy to become lost in the world of secrets, treachery and betrayal.  The great thing about Gregory’s novels is that they truly capture the female voice in a strongly male dominated society.  It has been awhile since I read the earlier books in the series but the great thing about this series is that each book is told from a different female character’s perspective so they over lap slightly and you can easily pick up on the links and it is interesting to read about the same event from different view points, especially opposing ones.  

I’m not sure how much I liked Anne Neville as a character; yes, I know she is a victim of the time period, but she is hardly the most endearing of people.  She is torn so much between her loyalties to different people in her life and her quest to fulfil her father’s ambition and become Aueen warps her and makes her overly suspicious of everyone.  I suppose I did finish the novel feeling sorry for her, mainly because her husband is beginning to become overly flirtatious with his niece, making a laughing stock of Anne in the process.  I was utterly convinced that Anne was going to be pushed down the stairs and that was how she met her death, but clearly I’m confusing her with another poor wife in history.  I was pleased that I remembered one character was drowned in a barrell of wine, so at least I’m not too lost in random historical facts.

A slightly rambled blog post I know, but I’m tired (ha!). I’m going to try not to leave it too long before I read the next book in The Cousins’ War series, but for now on to a favourite author and a fantastic reread. 

Mariana

 
Title: Mariana

Author: Monica Dickens

First Published: 1940

Challenges: Reading the Twentieth Century, TBR Pile 2015 and Reading England

Synopsis

Mariana is a novel following the life of Mary Shannon as she moves from childhood to young adulthood (for some reason I remember reading that they didn’t have teenagers until the 1950s?) to marriage.  It opens at the start of the War and with her new husband away fighting Mary takes off with her dog to a secluded cottage to escape from her worries.  It is here on the wireless that she hears some terrible news and, due to storms cutting off communication lines, she must wait until morning to discover if her worst fears are to be realised.  

The narrative then moves to Mary’s childhood and her love for her Grandparents’ Somerset home, Charbury and her cousin, Denys who Mary is infatuated by.  Her whole childhood and time at school is spent in awe of Denys, keeping a secret engagement and doing anything he asks, such as jumping off a garden wall.  It is not until she visits him at Oxford that Mary realises how silly her girlhood dreams were.  Her life then takes her to acting school (a dismal affair) to Paris and a more public engagement to a Parisian who cares rather too much for the showy and finer things in life and then back to London to meet the perfect man.  And then the War begins.

My Thoughts

I knew I would like Mariana as soon as I read the following lines in the Introduction:

  
I couldn’t think of a better way to sum up England if I tried and just to make it clear I love living in England.  That being said I feel as though it has taken me a long time to read a relatively short book, well 370+ pages.  I’m completely blaming this on moving and I promise that will be the last time for a few months that I blame anything on this…well apart from when I can’t find a certain book because it’s packed in a box somewhere.  In places Dickens’ description is lyrically beautiful; there is a fantastic passage detailing two young men strolling across a sunlit lawn that just instantly brought that image to my mind and made me wish for those hot, lazy summer days.  

In places I laughed and in places I cringed as I was reminded of a young me and all the silly infatuations your teenage years brings.  One particular quotation I snapped on my phone was Granny’s response when Mary asked if her school friend could visit Charbury: ‘Of course, Darling. Bring the whole school if you like.’  I found Mary such an endearing protagonist; she was such an ordinary, young woman, in fact I think she is even described as ‘not a beauty.’  She goes through all the dramas and dilemmas anyone growing up faces, from finding your career path to being fooled by the superficial facade of some people.  Who amoung us hasn’t fallen madly in love with some handsome guy only to find that actually there isn’t that much going on behind the eyes?  

Mariana can successfully be added to the list of Persephone Book I have thoroughly enjoyed.  For me it is the romantic simplicity of the narratives that I truly love and I know I will always be transported to a beautiful world.  

Challenges

Mariana ticks off a book in three lists: 1940 in my Reading the Twentieth Century; book 6 in my TBR Pile 2015 and Somerset in Reading England.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

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Title: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy
Author: Helen Fielding
Published: 2013
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015 and a third book for London in my Reading England challenge, but that doesn’t really count.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5

*WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Synopsis
Bridget Jones is back…albeit older and with two young children in tow. She has moved on slightly from the life of a carefree thirty-something singleton plagued by the horrors and the minefield that is dating and is now a widowed fifty-something plagued by the horrors and the minefield that is dating. Yes after sailing off into the sunset with the lovely (although slightly too sensible for me) Mark Darcy at the end of The Edge of Reason, Mad About the Boy sees Bridget struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of Mark and the chaos and tribulations of raising two children alone whilst trying to fit in school concerts, trips to visit her mum and Aunt Una in their glamorous retirement home, business meetings about potential scripts, dates with men met over the Internet and the possibility of what we all ultimately dream for…a perfect romantic mini break! Ha!

Mad About the Boy explores the difficulties of suddenly finding yourself single in your early fifties and realising that the dating world you used to inhabit has completely changed. No longer is it a world of office romances and meeting through friends, but instead it is dominated by dating websites and all the difficulties this brings. Not to mention the difficulties of dating a man 20 years younger. Although Mad About the Boy isn’t just about dating and Bridget’s love life, it deals with the everyday dramas of family life and the various issues of family life in an endearing and heart warming way.

My Thoughts
I originally started reading Mad About the Boy not long after its release; my friend picked up an airport copy on a trip to Malta and after she devoured it on the flight there I added it to my holiday reading. However I started it on the flight back and didn’t get much further than that. I decided to add it to my TBR Pile for 2015 as I didn’t really have any motivation to pick it up again but I felt as though I should finish it and find out Bridget’s fate, especially after I had read the first two instalments. I forgot how easy to read Fielding’s writing is, in Bridget she has created a lovable character who is far from perfect but copes all the same. I like the diary style, especially the added information at the start of each day’s entry detailing silly extras such as ‘number of Twitter followers lost, entire bags of cheese eaten, amount of time spent worrying about lack of communication from toyboy’. I was also pleased to read updates on the lives of some of Bridget’s friends and family, including her ‘f**kwit’ ex boyfriend, Daniel Cleaver and her crazy and overpowering mother. For some fans of Bridget I am sure the hardest bit was coming to terms with the death of Mark Darcy; I liked how Fielding introduced the death early on in the novel but didn’t reveal how it happened until part way through, creating some mystery surrounding the whole thing. I do think killing off Mark was a good move as I’m not sure how interesting Bridget’s diary would have been if it was just full of ‘smug married ness’ and I couldn’t imagine Mark and Bridget ever actually getting divorced.

My favourite parts of Mad About the Boy were definitely the bits exploring online dating. I have had a fair amount of experience of online dating which when I say it makes me feel like some ridiculous failure at dating in ‘real life’ but I guess that comment is incredibly rude to the millions of people who use online dating sites and slightly hypocritical as I willingly used it. I find the whole process very unromantic, but unfortunately it is a part of the technological age we live in. Fielding perfectly describes the confusion this style of dating brings, the waiting for replies, the nosing at profiles and hoping the other person doesn’t know you are spying, the whole ‘are they really who they say they are’ dilemma and perhaps the most common online dating experience of all – endless messages back and forth and yet never actually arranging a face to face date. I loved these parts of the novel because they are so relatable and offered such a true snapshot of dating in the twenty-first century.

I have read a few reviews criticising how Bridget Jones has changed from a haphazard, yet endearing singleton to an unrealistic and unachievable portrayal of an upper middle class life many of us could never achieve. And yes I agree that it is highly unlikely that I will end up living in a gorgeous mansion in a posh part of London or have the luxury of never needing to work and being able to afford a nanny etc but surely reading is supposed to offer some form of escapism…I’m never going to live in Westros or a Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire, but I can dream.

Challenges
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is the fifth book I have read from my TBR Pile 2015, which makes me very happy as I am ahead of target. I am conscious that I still have my two biggest books to go, but Vanity Fair definitely has to wait until my plane journey to Australia, luckily a friend is reading it at the moment and has only positive things to say about it.

Withering Tights

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Title: Withering Tights
Author: Louise Rennison
Published: 2010
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading England
Rating: 2 and a half out of 5 stars

Synopsis
Talulah Casey – cousin of Rennison’s famous female protagonist, Georgia Nicholson – is off to a drama summer school in Yorkshire. At 14 she is completely obsessed with fitting in, changing her insecurities and having her first snog with a boy. The school is set in the wild Yorkshire countryside and because of this their summer performance is inspired by Bronte’s Wuthering Heights . Tallulah, after spending a few weeks feeling like the least drama-y (not a word I know) person at the school is offered the lead role of Heathcliffe. Will she put on a performance to ensure she passes the course and returns to the school as a pupil, or will her performance be memorable for all the wrong reasons?

My Thoughts
As a teenager I devoured the Georgia Nicholson series of books and loved the main character and all her crazy antics, so when I saw Withering Tights for 99p on the Kindle I knew I had to buy it. And there it remained, languishing on the Kindle until I decided to add it to my TBR Pile 2015. When I picked it up recently I was expecting to be transported back to my teenage years and the enjoyment I found in the Georgia Nicholson books. This was my first mistake. I forgot that I was no longer a 14 year old girl; I’m 27 years old. I couldn’t relate to the character at all. Yes, I vaguely remember worrying about whether or not anyone was EVER going to kiss me and panicking because I was so much taller than all the boys I went to school with, but at some point I grew up. I’m not saying I don’t worry about things anymore, but now it is more along the lines of money, work, where will I live (my flat is being sold so I need to move out *sob*) and if my boyfriend’s friends will like me. Ok, I’ll admit the last one is a little bit like the teenage characters in Rennison’s books, but at least I’m not spending hours fretting about how to snog someone.

I can’t put this slight negativity down to the fact I am now adult as I have read other books aimed at teenagers and enjoyed them. I guess I was hoping for something a bit meatier and full of scandal and secrets (Pretty Little Liars style). That being said, I can fully appreciate how Withering Tights appeals to teenage girls, whose biggest worries are often fitting in and kissing boys, so for the target audience it’s great, just not a book that I feel crosses the teen-adult reading barrier.

Challenges
Withering Tights counts towards two of my reading challenges, one I didn’t even think about. It is the fourth book in my TBR Pile 2015 and ticks Yorkshire off the list for Reading England.

The Phantom of the Opera

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Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston Leroux
Published: 1909
Challenges: Reading the Twentieth Century and TBR Pile 2015
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
Underneath the Paris Opera house lives a ghost, a phantom, an angel of music. He haunts those who work at the opera and although many believe the ghost is nothing but a superstition, there are those who truly fear his presence. One of those people is singer Christine Daie. Christine is an orphan and on his death bed her father promised her he would send her a The Angel of Music and this is exactly who Christine meets. Only it isn’t an angel, it’s Erik, the phantom who lives in the depths of the opera. He falls hopelessly in love with Christine and longs for her to feel the same, hoping that when she sees his true face she won’t recoil in horror. Erik’s fascination with Christine could lead to horrific outcomes for Christine and all those she cares for.

My Thoughts
I love the musical The Phantom of the Opera, it is one of my mum’s favourites and I have lovely memories of watching the DVD and seeing the stage production in the West End. I end up in tears every time and my resounding feeling at the end is always ‘but he just wanted to be loved.’ The novel has been on my shelf for years and I have never quite managed to pick it up, which is why I put it on my TBR Pile for this year…and if I’m honest I was a little disappointed.

I found the novel really hard to get in to and I just didn’t feel much interest in the characters, despite knowing the narrative and caring about the musical version. There were points where I genuinely thought I would give up as I was losing interest. The only thing that saved the novel for me was that just over halfway through it actually became much darker and thus much more interesting. After Erik has kidnapped Christine from the stage, right in front of the eyes of the opera audience, we follow Roaul, her love interest, on his quest to find her. Roaul is helped by someone who knows Erik from his past and is aware of the depraved and warped way his mind works and is therefore looking for a trap around every corner. The description of Erik’s torture chamber and ‘house’ by the lake deep underground is terrifying and truly encompasses many gothic features, however despite how fascinating this part was, it still wasn’t enough to make me rave about this book. I think the biggest issue for me is that I know and love the musical so much that this was always going to be a tough benchmark for the book to live up to. Unlike the musical, I didn’t feel any real empathy for Erik, rather I just wrote him off as a horrid character.

I’m glad I have read it, but I don’t think The Phantom of the Opera will be making a permanent home on my bookshelf.

Challenges
The Phantom of the Opera Is the third book ticked off my TBR Pile 2015 which means I am on track in terms of reading the twelve books in twelve years.
It also counts as my book for 1909 in my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

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Title: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
Author: Winifred Watson
Published: 1938
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading England, Reading the Twentieth Century
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 l

Synopsis
Miss Pettigrew is on her last chance. She has no position, no income and her landlady is threatening to have her evicted, which for a lady in her 40s with no family is a terrifying prospect. She has two chances at a job; a maid or a governess. So when she knocks on the door of Miss LaFosse’s London flat the last thing she expects is to be swept into a world of glamour, parties and men. From the moment Miss Pettigrew meets Miss LaFosse she is saving her from various men and helping her to cover up their existence when the next one appears. Miss LaFosse is eternally grateful and takes Miss Pettigrew under her wing as her new friend, introducing her to her glamorous friends and giving her the make over Miss Pettigrew always dreamed off. It is a tale that takes Miss Pettigrew to a world she never thought existed and certainly a world she never knew she could be a part of.

My Thoughts
It is very rare that I finish a book with a huge smile on my face, yes I enjoy a lot of what I read and a lot of it makes me smile, but Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day left me feeling uplifted and just generally happy. Miss Pettigrew’s journey from a quiet, unassuming and slightly scared woman to a confident woman who finally finds her calling in life was a lovely one. It truly showed how someone’s life could easily change in just one day and change for the better. Miss Pettigrew is a lovely character and although she is only 40 – which is hardly old – she seems much older and reminds me of a lovely old lady and an old lady you want to have around in a crisis. Within minutes of meeting Miss LaFosse she starts helping her out and makes her realise what, or who, she truly wants in life. It made me want a Miss Pettigrew of my own, as I know there are times when I desperately need someone else to steer me in the right direction and perhaps having someone impartial can be hugely beneficial. Perhaps one of my favourite chapters centred on a visit to a party and Miss Pettigrew, who has never really had a drink before, has a few too many strong drinks and tells one young man exactly what he needs to hear. I loved the description of Miss Pettigrew after a few drinks and the confidence she felt; ‘she felt grand. She felt brimming with authority and assurance. It was a marvellous sensation. She thought scornfully of her former timid self.’ . I loved how confident and bolshy the alcohol made Miss Pettigrew and how free she felt having drunk, although she did suffer from the sober guilt of ‘have I offended anyone’ which I also enjoyed.

For me the novel explored the idea that you should take advantage of all opportunities that come your way and that helping others will always lead to positive outcomes and I think this is what left me smiling at the end. Miss Pettigrew got exactly what she deserved, in a positive way and I was pleased for her character. To go from having no one and nothing to having everything is a lovely ending.

Challenges
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day falls into three of my challenges for the year, so I am very pleased; I like books that tick more than one box. This is the second book I have read from my TBR Pile 2015; I am happy with the progress I am making with this challenge especially as I have a bit of a head start with two books in one month. This novel also ticks off London in my Reading England 2015 challenge. I only set the challenge of reading 4-6 counties so I am hoping two counties in one month is a promising sign. Finally, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is another book towards my Reading the Twentieth Century, so all in all a good challenge book.

Dumb Witness and the start of TBR 2015

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Title: Dumb Witness
Author: Agatha Christie
Published: 1937
Challenges: TBR Pile 2015, Reading the Twentieth Century and Reading England
Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Synopsis
After a serious fall down her stairs, Miss Emily Arundell writes to Hercule Poirot with suspicions that someone is attempting to murder her. Her fall is blamed on the dog, Bob and the ball he likes to push down the stairs, however with her money hungry family visiting, Emily is convinced the real culprit is among them. Could it be the fashionable and out-spoken Teresa? Or is her rakish brother, Charles to blame? There is always quiet, unassuming Bella, who has married a Greek doctor, but then again. After all she remembers putting Bob’s ball away herself. Unfortunately by the time Poirot reads Emily’s letter she is already dead, not from the fall, but from the liver disease that has plagued her for many years. Of course Poirot isn’t entirely convinced this is the case, especially when he discovers that Emily’s family do not benefit from the will, instead her companion, Miss Lawson does. He is anxious to discover the true culprit behind the fall and ensure that no one else comes to any harm; he is adamant that the guilty criminal could strike again.

My Thoughts
I love Agatha Christie and I find she is one of my go to authors; when life is getting a tad stressful and I need some light relief I know I can depend on a Christie novel to cheer me up. Of course Dumb Witness is no exception. It is a novel I have never come across before, having never seen a TV adaptation or heard it mentioned in various readings. As always I failed to guess the murderer, well I had an idea but only in the last twenty pages and my motive was completely wrong. As I have said before this is part of the beauty of Christie’s writing, I like the idea of guessing and hoping that one day I will get it right. Perhaps the most memorable characters were Teresa and Charles, both of whom seemed to exude an attitude of rich and spoilt which contrasted well the the Victorian morals of Emily Arundell. The differences in attitudes and opinions of generations is always interesting and I quite like the idea of a rich, disapproving, old aunt in the country – it reminds me of Jeeves and Wooster, although slightly less jovial. A great read and one less book from my Poirot reading list.

Challenges

Dumb Witness ticks boxes in three challenges; TBR Pile 2015; Reading the Twentieth Century and Reading England as some of the novel takes place in Berkshire. It is the first book on both my TBR Pile for the year and for Reading England so I am pleased to have gotten off the ground with these two challenges.