Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah



BLURB: “Lady Athelinda Playford has planned a house party at her mansion, but it is no ordinary gathering. She announces that she has decided to change her will, cutting off her children and leaving her fortune to someone who has only weeks to live…

Among Lady Playford’s guests are Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who have no idea why they’ve been invited…until Poirot starts to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. When the crime is committed, and the victim is not who Poirot thought it would be, will he be able to solve the mystery?”

REVIEW: I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie, particularly those stories led by Poirot, one of her most famous protagonists. I was keen to read these new takes on Christie’s original character, written by Sophie Hannah, after being recommended them by a friend. I was most certainly not disappointed; in fact, I was instantly captured by how Hannah seems to mirror Christie’s writing style so accurately, whilst also adding an additional flavour of her own particular style. The book was witty, offered an excellent social commentary on the class issues of the period, and captured the true essence of a traditional murder mystery. Mostly narrated by Inspector Edward Catchpool, an old associate of Poirot, this novel tells the story of famed children’s mystery author, Lady Athelinda Playford, who lives with children Harry and Claudia and their respective partners, Dorro and Randall. The household also contains a butler, maid and cook – and, most integral to the story, a young, unwell man named Joseph Scotcher who is a close friend of Lady Playford, accompanied by his nurse, Sophie. Alongside Poirot and Catchpool, Lady Playford also invites her lawyer friend, Michael Gathercole, and his associate Orville Rolfe, to stay at her home for the announcement of changes she has made to her will. Upon the announcement that she plans to leave all of her estate to Joseph, who is dying of a kidney disease, there is uproar among her family, and Poirot begins to expect that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a sinister event occuring. When Joseph is murdered later that evening, having just proposed marriage to his nurse, the events take a darker and more confusing turn. As the mystery deepens and the police get involved, making inept decisions at every turn, Poirot and Catchpool are left to work on their own intiative to uncover who, out of the many motives presented by Lady Playford’s guests and family, felt their motive deeply enough to murder an already dying man – and how they did so. I do not wish to reveal the ending of the story here, as the twist is cleverly done and thoroughly explained by the character of Poirot, but I was very impressed with the ending and, indeed, with the book as a whole. I am very keen to read Hannah’s other Christie-inspired work, ‘Monogram Murders’ – I’m hoping it will be waiting under my Christmas tree!


Christmas Treats by Enid Blyton



BLURB: “Curl up with this collection of festive short stories by Enid Blyton. From the proud rocking horse who learns the gift of giving to a snowman befriended by elves, these joyful tales celebrate the true spirit of Christmas”

REVIEW: As previously mentioned, Enid Blyton was one of my favourite childhood authors, and reading her books as an adult feels like having a big hug from an old friend. I was really excited to settle down with this collection of her festive stories, and it definitely got me in the Christmas spirit! These stories are lovely little tales, complete with moral lessons, that would be a lovely thing to read to children over the Christmas period – or, indeed, to read yourself to remind you of the true meaning of Christmas! My particular favourites were ‘The Christmas Pudding that wouldn’t stop’, ‘The Fairies’ Christmas Party’ and ‘The Battle in the Toyshop’. I would highly recommend this book to children and adults alike!


Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino


RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with Ursula. Will the cost of losing her enchanting voice and nearly her soul prove too high for Ariel, or will the power of good prevail?”

REVIEW: Ursula is possibly my favourite Disney villain (closely followed by Scar from ‘The Lion King), and having read Valentino’s previous twists on Snow White and Beauty and the Beast I was really looking forward to this one. I was, however, a little disappointed. The novel had so much potential, but many of Valentino’s ideas and tales about Ursula’s background could have done with more elaboration, as could the story of her time in Triton’s court. The story of how she lost the human father who adopted her was heartbreaking, and explained much about Ursula’s personality and villainous actions. Yet other backstories that would have added depth to her character were skimmed past; we learned that she had been close to Triton’s wife during her time at court, but little more about their friendship. We learnt of the fact that Triton and Ursula were in fact brother and sister, but saw little of the dynamics of their relationship aside from skimming the surface of their fallouts and hatred for one another. This made it possible to understand why Ursula targeted Ariel, but it would have been interesting to be able to identify more depth to her motives. Whereas Valentino’s previous books did make the reader feel sympathy for the villains whose stories she told, I have to admit that despite my intial sympathy for Ursula over the death of her adoptive father I had soon stopped feeling anything for her at all. This is unfortunate, as it is this sympathy for the villains which first attracted me to Valentino’s work. The three mad sisters who feature in all three novels are still prominent in this book, and I enjoyed following their story more than I enjoyed following that of Ursula, though of course the two storylines are linked. I particularly love the character of Pflanze, the cat belonging to the sisters, who can communicate with them as well as other witches. Overall, however, I found the book disappointing, and was able to read through it quickly as there was little to grab my attention.


The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton


RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Joe, Beth and Frannie take their cousin Rick on an adventure he’ll never forget! Find out how they escape from the Land of Dreams. And what goes wrong in the Land of Topsy-Turvy. And who drives a runaway train in the Land of Do-as-you-Please”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved Enid Blyton as a child. Beginning with my Mum reading me her Famous Five books as bedtime stories, I soon ended up loving such series as ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ – and, of course, the Faraway tree stories. I picked up this copy during a free book giveaway at work a couple of weeks ago after realising I couldn’t find my Faraway Tree collection (which I’m still desperately hunting for!), and couldn’t resist re-reading it. ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ is the second book in the series, and I remember it as one of my favourites. These stories truly are enchanting. A magic tree, inhabited by lovable characters such as the beautiful fairy Silky, the amusing Saucepan man, and kind-hearted Moon-Face, hosts a different magical land at the very top of its branches every week. Three local children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, are eager to introduce their cousin Rick to the wonders of the Faraway Tree and their beloved friends there, and this leads to a number of enchanting and amusing adventures for the children and their magical friends. My favourite tale had to be that of the Land of Magical Medicines, in which amusing incidents involving lots of growing, shrinking, flying and swelling up took place. The stories made me feel as safe and comforted as they did when I was a child, and I remembered the enchanting feeling of escaping on a new adventure every chapter with a great deal of fondness. I would highly recommend this book, and it is definitely the sort of story that should be read to children to encourage imagination and a belief in magic – one day, I hope I will be reading it to children of my own.


Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi



BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.




The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory



BLURB: “Elizabeth’s royal cousin Jane Gret is faced with the choice of death or denying her faith after being forced onto the throne of England. It is left to Elizabeth to measure the threat posed to her by the remaining Grey girls – the famous beauty Katherine Grey and her sister, a little person, Mary. Alternately befriended and snubbed, the two girls thrive as the queen’s companions, learning to judge her moods and avoid her temper tantrums. But they each have a secret: Katherine is in love with an heir to the great family Seymour, and Mary with the queen’s sergeant porter. They come to realise that Elizabeth will never allow them to marry for fear of a Tudor heir to the throne.

Their martyred sister Jane’s advice is clear. ‘Learn you to die’, Jane wrote in her famous letter to Katherine. But Jane’s tragic story and her fatal choice is only the beginning for her two beloved sisters…”

REVIEW: I have always been a fan of Philippa Gregory, but as readers of this blog may remember, I was very disappointed with her previous offering, ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’, which was unrealistic and poorly written. ‘The Last Tudor’ is another novel about three sisters, but in this Philippa Gregory is certainly back on form. The book is based solidly on historical fact and primary sources, which the previous book seemed to lack and which is vital in writing historical fiction – there is a great deal of difference between artistic licence and plucking facts out of nowhere. This novel is split into three parts, each narrated by one of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. I previously knew quite a bit about Jane and Katherine Grey, but far less about Mary, and was therefore surprised by what I read. The book is gripping and well-written; I didn’t want to put it down despite knowing how the stories of each character would end. The tragic lives and the strength and endurance displayed by these three women make them truly worthy of admiration, and I hope that in releasing this novel more people take an interest in these bold historical figures. Jane’s story narrates her devotion to the Protestant faith, which she refuses to recant even upon facing death, and her difficult relationship with her mother. When Jane is pushed into marriage with Guilford Dudley, and then pushed to take the throne upon the death of her cousin, Edward VI, she is terrified and unwilling. Yet Jane is brave, and sees her accession as an opportunity to strengthen the Protestant faith throughout England. When supporters rally behind Mary Tudor, however, Jane finds herself in the Tower of London, betrayed and neglected by those she trusted most – aside from her two younger sisters, who continue to love and support her.

Upon Jane’s execution, we move on to hear Katherine’s story. Viewed as giddy and foolish by her religious older sister, we discover that Katherine is actually intelligent in her own right, with a deep understanding of court politics that serves her well both in the court of her Catholic cousin Mary and later in the court of the volatile Elizabeth, who views both Katherine and Mary as threats to her throne. Katherine is also beautiful, with a love for animals and merriment at court, and she soon catches the eye of Ned Seymour. By marrying the two would hold a strong claim to the throne in the form of any children they may have; so knowing that Elizabeth will refuse them permission, the two marry in secret. Katherine is soon pregnant with Ned’s child, and while he is abroad on a diplomatic mission she is locked up in the Tower, where she gives birth to a son who has a strong claim to the Tudor throne. Ned and Katherine gain the sympathy of a Tower jailer who allows them to meet in secret, and she soon gives birth to a second son. The two are torn apart when Elizabeth discovers this, forced to live away from each other until Katherine dies of grief.

Finally, we hear the story of Mary, a sufferer of dwarfism who at the time would have been referred to as a ‘little person’. Mary uses her height to her advantage, able to spy and listen in on court gossip without anyone noticing she is there. Also beautiful and intelligent, she falls in love with her social inferior, the Queen’s sargeant porter Thomas Keyes. Much like Katherine, when their secret marriage is discovered, the couple are separated and Thomas is locked up in the Fleet prison.

All three sisters had tragic lives and suffered cruel and terrible fates at the hands of the Tudor Queens. This novel is a fascinating attempt by Gregory to make their stories better known, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb



BLURB: “One hot summer in 1922. A house at the heart of the village. A crime that will shock the community. A man accused and two women with everything to lose.

When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder, his sister Pudding is determined to discover the identity of the real killer. Together with newcomer, Irene, she begins to uncover the truth – a secret that has been buried for years. But when they happen upon a strange object, hidden in the past, they realise it will change everything…”

REVIEW: I am about to reiterate for the millionth time that Katherine Webb is one of my all-time favourite authors; this time, however, I am going to add that ‘The Hiding Places’ may well be my favourite book of hers so far. Gripping and beautifully written, with a huge twist that I didn’t see coming at all (very shortly followed by a second shocking twist), this book is absolute genius, and I finished it feeling both overwhelmed by the story and disappointed that it was over.

This novel tells the story of what happens to the small town of Slaughterford when a local businessman, recently married and liked by everyone, is brutally murdered. The story is written in third person but focused through the perspectives of three women; Pudding, the sister of the boy arrested for the murder; Irene, the victim’s new bride; and Clemmie, a mute village girl embarking on a secret love affair. Pudding’s brother, Donny, damaged by his experiences in the First World War and now needing almost constant care, is an easy target to pin the crime on, and as he was at the scene of the murder, it seems that little can be done to rescue him. As Pudding’s search for the real killer, and evidence that will save her brother from hanging, heightens, she enlists the help of the victim’s wife, Irene. Although initially uncertain, Irene soon comes to believe in Donny’s innocence, and, combined with the strange feelings she has been getting ever since she moved to the rural town with her husband, begins to sense that something more sinister is behind the murder. As the two work together to unveil the mystery surrounding Alistair’s death, and a similar murder that occurred precisely fifty years earlier, new evidence comes to light that makes for a twist that both alarms and confuses the reader initially, but is soon revealed to¬† be simply a brilliantly complex plot twist from the author.

As usual, Webb’s writing was wonderfully emotive and descriptive, and the novel hooked me in from the beginning. I absolutely loved this book and would highly recommend it.