Category Archives: Kate Summerscale

The Queen of Whale Cay – Kate Summerscale

I would like to pretend that after having read ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ I had popped Kate Summerscale’s first non-fiction novel ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ onto my to be read list. That wouldn’t be true. In fact for some reason I didn’t even go and look it up, and yet when I saw Sue Perkins raving about it on the BBC’s ‘My Life In Books’ (which I am hoping they bring back) I thought ‘ooh that sounds like the perfect book for me’ and indeed it was a real treat, and one that showed sometimes life really is stranger than fiction.

HarperPerrenial, paperback, 1997, non-fiction, 248 pages, from the library

I admit that before I opened ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ I had never heard of Marian Barbara Carstairs, who was known as Joe Carstairs, who was proclaimed ‘the fastest woman on water’ as a world champion and record breaking speedboat racer in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I have to say, as some of you might be thinking, the idea of a book about boat racing could be quite dull but if anything could be said about Joe Carstairs the last thing they could think of would probably be dull. In fact as Kate Summerscale found out, when a relative of Joe’s wrote to her to write an extended obituary in the Telegraph (where Summerscale worked), Joe Carstairs was a rather extraordinary woman.  

Joe was not your stereotypical young girl who stood to inherit a great fortune being the granddaughter of Nellie Bostwick, one of the original trustees of Standard Oil, and a multimillionaire of the time. She didn’t want to run out and meet a husband for a start, instead having lots and lots of lesbian affairs, including one with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly (who I thought sounded fascinating and want to find a biography of, anyone know of any?) It appears Joe was never quite herself in childhood, brought up by her mother who never spoke of her father and who married men and had affairs like it was going out of fashion, and after falling off a camel at London Zoo at the age of five Marian B. Carstairs felt that she was reborn as the person she should be ‘Tuffy’. But ‘Tuffy’ grew up and soon became ‘Joe’, a woman who liked boat and car racing and preferred the company and clothes of men.

“Captain Francis disapproved of his wild stepdaughter. ‘He thought he’d cure me,’ recalled Joe, ‘but he didn’t.’ This wildness, the sickness which was not cured, was even then a euphemism for her masculine behaviour. When Francis caught the little girl, aged eight, stealing his cigars, he punished her by ordering her to sit down in his study and smoke one. If you’re sick, he said, go out, throw up and come back. Joe, who had been pilfering his cigars for some time, sat down and calmly smoked her way to the end.”

It is not only the life of Joe that is so fascinating, the fraught relationships with her parents, the sham marriage for inheritance, her role driving ambulances in the war (her I wondered if she was the inspiration for Sarah Waters ‘The Night Watch’), the endless affairs including with some very famous women, the obsession with a small doll called Lord Tod Wadley (who even had his named engraved on the front door so people would actually call for him), the buying of an island ‘Whale Cay’ and it ruling… I could go on and on.

It’s also fascinating because of the time period it covers, the developments in those years (both in technology and science, the latter makes a very interesting story as her mother was part of a movement to use ‘testicular pulp’ as a healing substance – which went wrong), and the eccentricity of Joe’s family and the people close to her. In fact I won’t list every single wonderful story or event; you should simply read ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ and find out more.

I have to add her that whilst I think any biography could probably have been made interesting by such an eccentric and fascinating person as Joe Carstairs, I think Kate Summerscale makes her come truly alive. Summerscale must have also had quite a job on her hands in trying to separate the fact and the fiction from Carstairs life, as the tapes recorded of her telling her tales sometimes proved to be just that. Summerscale includes these ‘exaggerations’ and if anything it made Joe Carstairs more real to me, I liked her even more. So I am thankful to Kate Summerscale for telling her story in ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’, which I should add won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1998, and for Sue Perkins for enthusing about it. I hope I am now passing on that enthusiasm to all of you.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Harper Collins, Kate Summerscale, Review

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

So I am on time for the second of the Richard & Judy Books of 2009, and it is the superb The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Nothing to do with the fact that I had in fact read this book last year and it was in fact in my Savidge Dozen, ok it’s sort of cheating but not really. I mean be fair, with the amount of books arriving at the moment I need to keep ahead. So here is the review from when I read it back in November…

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. The case took place during the night in Summer 1860, the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Kate Summerscale, Review, Richard and Judy

The Richard & Judy Challenge

So it was announced this week what the Richard & Judy Books 2009 are. I have to say Amanda Ross (some people believe Richard & Judy have a say also, some don’t, I don’t comment) has chosen possibly the best selection this year that I have seen. Is this something to do with the fact they have moved onto the TV channel Watch, which ironically no one does seem to be watching? Either way the selection looks really varied and has real promise.

I know some people think that Richard & Judy is low brow reading, the choice all popular fiction and the like. I have to say I disagree. Firstly I think that anything that gets people out there reading is a good thing. Secondly I have to admit that some books I have truly loved have come from these selections (though not the summer ones from experience so far bar The Island) books like The Shadow of the Wind, Half of A Yellow Sun, Mister Pip, Restless, The Lovely Bones, Notes on A Scandal, Arthur & George and The Time Travellers Wife have been on their lists. I’ve loved all of those. So I am setting up the Richard & Judy Challenge and aim to have read them all way before each on is done on the telly (not that I will see it anyways) so here is the list, in case anyone has been on Mars, ha.

The Brutal Art – Jesse Kellerman (Sphere)
Ethan Muller is struggling to establish his reputation as a dealer in the cut-throat world of contemporary art when he is alerted to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: in a decaying New York slum, an elderly tenant has disappeared, leaving behind a staggeringly large trove of original drawings and paintings. Nobody can tell Ethan much about the old man, except that he came and went in solitude for nearly forty years, his genius hidden and unacknowledged. Despite the fact that, strictly speaking, the artwork doesn’t belong to him, Ethan takes the challenge and makes a name for the old man – and himself. Soon Ethan has to congratulate himself on his own genius: for storytelling and salesmanship. But suddenly the police are interested in talking to him. It seems that the missing artist had a nasty past, and the drawings hanging in the Muller Gallery have begun to look a lot less like art and a lot more like evidence. Sucked into an investigation four decades cold, Ethan will uncover a secret legacy of shame and death, one that will touch horrifyingly close to home – and leave him fearing for his own life.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale (Bloomsbury)
It is midnight on 30th June 1860 and all is quiet in the Kent family’s elegant house in Road, Wiltshire. The next morning, however, they wake to find that their youngest son has been the victim of an unimaginably gruesome murder. Even worse, the guilty party is surely one of their number – the house was bolted from the inside. As Jack Whicher, the most celebrated detective of his day, arrives at Road to track down the killer, the murder provokes national hysteria at the thought of what might be festering behind the closed doors of respectable middle-class homes – scheming servants, rebellious children, insanity, jealousy, loneliness and loathing.This true story has all the hallmarks of a classic gripping murder mystery. A body, a detective, a country house steeped in secrets and a whole family of suspects – it is the original Victorian whodunnit.

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson (Canongate)
The nameless and beautiful narrator of The Gargoyle is driving along a dark road when he is distracted by what seems to be a flight of arrows. He crashes into a ravine and wakes up in a burns ward, undergoing the tortures of the damned. His life is over – he is now a monster. But in fact it is only just beginning. One day, Marianne Engel, a wild and compelling sculptress of gargoyles, enters his life and tells him that they were once lovers in medieval Germany. In her telling, he was a badly burned mercenary and she was a nun and a scribe who nursed him back to health in the famed monastery of Engelthal. As she spins her tale, Scheherazade fashion, and relates equally mesmerising stories of deathless love in Japan, Greenland, Italy and England, he finds himself drawn back to life – and, finally, to love.

When Will There Be Good News – Kate Atkinson (Black Swan)
In rural Devon, six-year-old Joanna Mason witnesses an appalling crime. Thirty years later the man convicted of the crime is released from prison. In Edinburgh, sixteen-year-old Reggie works as a nanny for a G.P. But Dr. Hunter has gone missing and Reggie seems to be the only person who is worried. Across town, Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe is also looking for a missing person, unaware that hurtling towards her is an old friend – Jackson Brodie – himself on a journey that becomes fatally interrupted.

The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff (Black Swan)
Jordan returns from California to Utah to visit his mother in jail. As a teenager he was expelled from his family and religious community, a secretive Mormon offshoot sect. Now his father has been found shot dead in front of his computer, and one of his many wives – Jordan’s mother – is accused of the crime. Over a century earlier, Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, Prophet and Leader of the Mormon Church, tells the sensational story of how her own parents were drawn into plural marriage, and how she herself battled for her freedom and escaped her powerful husband, to lead a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. Bold, shocking and gripping, “The 19th Wife” expertly weaves together these two narratives: a page turning literary mystery and an enthralling epic of love and faith.

The Bolter – Frances Osborne (Virago)
On Friday 25th May, 1934, a forty-one-year-old woman walked into the lobby of Claridge’s Hotel to meet the nineteen-year-old son whose face she did not know. Fifteen years earlier, as the First World War ended, Idina Sackville shocked high society by leaving his multimillionaire father to run off to Africa with a near penniless man. An inspiration for Nancy Mitford’s character The Bolter, painted by William Orpen, and photographed by Cecil Beaton, Sackville went on to divorce a total of five times, yet died with a picture of her first love by her bed. Her struggle to reinvent her life with each new marriage left one husband murdered and branded her the ‘high priestess’ of White Mischief’s bed-hopping Happy Valley in Kenya. Sackville’s life was so scandalous that it was kept a secret from her great-granddaughter Frances Osborne. Now, Osborne tells the moving tale of betrayal and heartbreak behind Sackville’s road to scandal and return, painting a dazzling portrait of high society in the early twentieth century.

Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (HarperPerennial)
In early 2006, Chuck Ramkissoon is found dead at the bottom of a New York canal. In London, a Dutch banker named Hans van den Broek hears the news, and remembers his unlikely friendship with Chuck and the off-kilter New York in which it flourished: the New York of 9/11, the powercut and the Iraq war. Those years were difficult for Hans — his English wife Rachel left with their son after the attack, as if that event revealed the cracks and silences in their marriage, and he spent two strange years in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, passing stranger evenings with the eccentric residents. Lost in a country he’d regarded as his new home, Hans sought comfort in a most alien place — the thriving but almost invisible world of New York cricket, in which immigrants from Asia and the West Indies play a beautiful, mystifying game on the city’s most marginal parks. It was during these games that Hans befriends Chuck Ramkissoon, who dreamed of establishing the city’s first proper cricket field. Over the course of a summer, Hans grew to share Chuck’s dream and Chuck’s sense of American possibility — until he began to glimpse the darker meaning of his new friend’s activities and ambitions.’ Netherland’ is a novel of belonging and not belonging, and the uneasy state in between. It is a novel of a marriage foundering and recuperating, and of the shallows and depths of male friendship. With it, Joseph O’Neill has taken the anxieties and uncertainties of our new century and fashioned a work of extraordinary beauty and brilliance.

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin (John Murray)
As the clock chimed the turn of the twentieth century, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite took her first breath. Born to a cabaret dancer and soon orphaned in a scandalous murder-suicide, Lilly finds refuge at a Catholic orphanage, coming under the wing of the, at times, severe Sister August, the first in a string of lost loves. There she meets Hanne Schmidt, a teen prostitute, and forms a bond that will last them through tumultuous love affairs, disastrous marriages, and destitution during the First World War and the subsequent economic collapse. As the century progresses, Lilly and Hanne move from the tawdry glamour of the tingle-tangle nightclubs to the shadow world of health films before Lilly finds success and stardom in the new medium of motion pictures and ultimately falls in love with a man whose fate could cost her everything she has worked for or help her discover her true self. Gripping and darkly seductive, The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite showcases all the glitter and splendor of the brief heyday of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hollywood to its golden age.As it foreshadows the horrors of the Second World War, the novel asks what price is paid when identity becomes unfixed and the social order is upended.

December – Elizabeth H. Winthrop (Sceptre)
Eleven-year-old Isabelle hasn’t spoken in nine months, and as December begins the situation is getting desperate. Her mother has stopped work to devote herself to her daughter’s care. Four psychiatrists have already given up on her, and her school will not take her back in the New Year. Her parents are frantically trying to understand what has happened so they can help their child, but they cannot escape the thought of darker possibilities. What if Isabelle is damaged beyond their reach? Will she never speak again? Is it their fault? As they spiral around Isabelle’s impenetrable silence, she herself emerges as a bright young girl in need of help yet too terrified to ask for it. By the talented young author of FIREWORKS, this is a compelling, ultimately uplifting novel about a family in crisis, showing the delicate web that connects a husband and wife, parents and children, and how easily it can tear.

The Cellist Of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway (Atlantic)
This is the top 10 bestseller, now in paperback. Snipers in the hills overlook the shattered streets of Sarajevo. Knowing that the next bullet could strike at any moment, the ordinary men and women below strive to go about their daily lives as best they can. Kenan faces the agonizing dilemma of crossing the city to get water for his family. Dragan, gripped by fear, does not know who among his friends he can trust. And Arrow, a young woman counter-sniper must push herself to the limits – of body and soul, fear and humanity.Told with immediacy, grace and harrowing emotional accuracy, “The Cellist of Sarajevo” shows how, when the everyday act of crossing the street can risk lives, the human spirit is revealed in all its fortitude – and frailty.

So who is up for the challenge and will be joining me? Don’t all rush at once! Doesn’t anyone else think this is a strong line up? I have already read two of the books (both the Kate’s) but think at the moment the most exciting ones are The Gargoyle and The 19th Wife, I also think Netherland will be my downfall. Just something tells me it might not be quite me, we will see though!

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Filed under Andrew Davidson, Beatrice Colin, David Ebershoff, Elizabeth H. Winthrop, Frances Osborne, Jesse Kellerman, Joseph O'Neill, Kate Atkinson, Kate Summerscale, Richard and Judy, Steven Galloway

Collecting The Classics

Only six days into the New Year and I am going to have to edit one of my resolutions already. It was that tricky one of not really buying anymore books. I think what I should change it to ‘not buy anymore new books’ or ‘only buy classics from charity shops’. Or maybe a mix of the two, I’ll work it out later? Anyway on my way to Sainsbury’s to stock up on post holiday food and happened to stumble into my two favourite charity shops. By the time I left I had bought five ‘classics’ and all for under £3, now really how could I say no?


Cider With Rosie – Laurie Lee
I didn’t know very much about this when I saw it on the shelf and yet I instantly knew the name. However looking at the blurb it sounded quite interesting. A memoir of life in a Cotswold village in the 1920’s before cars or electricity revealing what life was like in the not so distant past that is also like another world. I can’t wait to read this book.

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
Another book that I know very little about but have seen so many times on peoples shelves (well we all like a nosey don’t we) and have been recommended is this one. So I decided that with a classics year ahead it was time for me to bite the bullet and read this one. I didn’t realise that it was funny, or is meant to be, what’s always put me off I think is that its labelled as a ‘war novel’ and sometimes you just have a bit too much war.

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Another book that I have always wanted to read but have yet to, I do hope it’s better than ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’ which I didn’t enjoy at all. This is meant to be one of the great, great modern classics. In my head I am going to love this as much as I did Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
I always got this and Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ mixed up and having read one I was delighted to find the other in a very short space of time. The biggest thing that made me want to read this apart from it being ‘groundbreaking’ and set in a mental institution was the ‘tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched’ that character sounds far too promising and fascinating. Plus I haven’t seen the film so have that to look forward to afterwards.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
I actually owned this for a while but never read it and as it had a coffee stain and was given to me I gave it to charity. I managed to find a new pristine copy, but may also have to go back for another 70’s edition that Novel Insights wants and we may do this as a Rogue Book Group choice in the future. This caused controversy on its release due to the fact it reconstructed the murder of a farmer and his family in Kansas in 1959 exploring the investigation and everything that happened to those involved. After devouring Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ I though this would be right up my street.

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Filed under Book Spree, Book Thoughts, Evelyn Waugh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Kate Summerscale, Truman Capote

New Book Resolutions

First of all Happy New Year!

It’s that time where we both look forward and look back and stock take isn’t it? At the beginning of last year when I start the blog properly one of the internal resolutions that I made in myself was to keep the blog up and not let it run dry. I didn’t do as well at that as I thought I would, I mean I reviewed every book I read but the blogs I had intended to write like ‘why I am obsessed with what everyone else reads on the tube’ and many more never got written but hopefully they will in 2009, I definitely improved toward the end of the year though! I also made some other resolutions on here…

The ones that sadly I failed at were;
– Read a Jodi Piccoult, I have always had something against her books and have absolutely no rational for this, 2008 wasn’t the year that I broke that habit
– The Odyssey, my mum would have been so proud if I had… but nope
– Read harder fiction, well am gunning through Anna Karenina at the moment and Will Self’s ‘The Book of Dave’ wasn’t easy but was extremely rewarding
– Hardy and Trollope, double no
– Revisit old favourites; nope sadly I was focused on getting through my huge TBR
– Give some books a second chance, no I wanted to have a second slog at Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ but I simply didn’t.

The ones I managed were;
– Read more short stories, I read two collections, maybe three but would have liked to read more
– Read a James Bond
– Read Tess Gerritsen, well I definitely did that actually becoming a big fan, managed to save some for this year though
– Read more non fiction, well with the Mitford Letters, a book on ghost hunting and the fabulous Kate Summerscale I did just that

So what about for 2009? What book resolutions have I got this year? Do I want to take any over that I didn’t manage this year? Well the ones I am setting myself this year are;
– Find a new favourite author I haven’t read before but can’t get enough of
– Classics, I want to read a lot more classics both classic classics and modern classics if that makes sense
– Try stuff I wouldn’t normally, this means joining some more book groups me thinks
– The Man Booker-a-thon, I would really like to give this a go this year especially now I know more publishers
– Possibly re-try a few books like ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ and ‘Company of Liars’ the latter I really wanted to read but it didn’t grab the mood I was in, oh and Kate Atkinson’s ‘Behind The Museum
– Not buy as many books; I think this one is unlikely.

I think that’s enough? Is anyone else making any book resolutions this year?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Kate Atkinson, Kate Summerscale, Lionel Shriver, Tess Gerritsen, Will Self

The Savidge Dozen

Blimey so a reading year is over… a year of some good reading, some difficult reading, some readers block plus some dire reading and some frankly amazing reading. In fact there was so much amazing reading I changed my mind and didn’t do what I did last year and have a top ten, instead am doing as the delightful Dove Grey Reader had done and am doing my version of the Man Booker Dozen. So thirteen then… unlucky for some but not for these authors who should feel very lucky (I am being facetious) it was a really hard choice actually, really, really hard. I did stick to last years rule though of only one book per author. So here goes, in reverse order…

13. The Spare Room – Helen Garner
There was uproar in the blogosphere when this didn’t even make it onto the Man Booker Prize long list and after reading it I could see why. A thought provoking, sparse and raw novel about dealing with cancer this book was also filled with heart and emotion. Helen invites her friend Nicola to stay after she is diagnosed with terminal cancer, what follows is nights of cleaning beds, friendships pushed to breaking point and possibly one of the most honest fictional voices I heard this year.

12. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer
I think if Nancy Mitford was still around (what is it with the Mitford’s being everywhere this year, more on them later) she would probably have been a massive fan of this novel. All at once this novel is sharply witty, comical, touching, observant and sad. Juliet Ashton became possibly my favourite character of the year as a writer struggling to find the next book in her and befriending the said society (it’s too long to write the title each time) and corresponding through letters with the many wonderful characters on a post occupied Guernsey. Superb!

11. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
This book was simply unputdownable, and yes that is a word I have made up but should exist. When 15 year old Michael meets older woman Hannah when he falls ill he doesn’t know this is a relationship that will be in their lives forever. After becoming lovers one day Hannah vanishes only to reappear in Michael’s later life and to make him think about his life and the country he lives in totally differently. A new interesting, horrifying and thought provoking look at the Holocaust. Will make you think, a lot.

10. The Room of Lost Things – Stella Duffy
I honestly genuinely believe this is one of the most over looked gem books of the year, and not because I know the author and think she is fabulous. I would hope you’d know by now that I am not that sort of person. This book celebrates London and has some of the most fabulous characters in it. Be it from the story of Robert Sutton who is selling his laundrette (where everyone leaves their secrets in their pockets) after a lifetime of hard work to the homeless men who sleep under an archway on a old battered sofa the characters in this book are full of life and I secretly hoped for this to be the start of a series. A love letter in novel form by the author to South London!

9. When Will There Be Good News? – Kate Atkinson
My love for the writing of Kate Atkinson went stratospheric this year with the third so far in the Jackson Brodie ‘literary crime fiction’ series. Having also read its predecessor ‘One Good Turn’ this year I didn’t think her coincidence based complex plots could get any cleverer, I was wrong. This book is much darker than the previous two and grittier yet still in parts incredibly funny. It also of course had one of the characters of the year in it through Reggie the sixteen year old girl who saves Brodie life and yet brings an old flame and a mystery that needs solving into his life on top. It’s so difficult to explain this book, so simply put… buy it!

8. Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones
Ok so this book has been out a while but sometimes I get behind, I mean The Reader is eleven years old, so be kind. I ironically had no expectations of this book at all which sees the children of a small village on a tropical island receive a new teacher and a new book to study ‘Great Expectations’. The new teacher Pop Eye or Mr Watts takes on the class when no one else will due to war in the South Pacific. This reminded me slightly of Half Of A Yellow Sun for the graphicness of war which when you start reading the book you wouldn’t imagine you are going to have in the story ahead of you. Definitely my most shocking read of the year, amazingly written and celebratory of fiction and all it can inspire.

7. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
When Novel Insights and I decided to do this as one of our Rogue Book Group choices I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea. I was completely won over by Waugh’s stunning writing and possibly my favourite villain of the year in the form of Lady Marchmain. Charles Ryder reflects on returning to Brideshead during the war on his own history with the building and the Marchmain’s who owned it and their privileged life style in the post Second World War glory days. However Charles experience has a nasty sting in the tale that though he has tried to forget he simply cannot. A genuine classic.

6. The Boy in the Striped Pyjama’s –John Boyne
If there is anyone left who hasn’t seen the movie (which was almost as good as the book, a rarity) or who hasn’t read this book themselves I do not want to give a single bit of plot of this book away as if I had known what was coming I don’t think it would have worked in the same way. I will say that it tells of a young boy Bruno who is forced to move from his childhood home with his mother and sister to join their father for his work. The land they move to is in the middle of nowhere though eventually Bruno befriends another young boy through a fence. Through their innocent friendship Bruno is brought into a much darker world one that will change his life and his family’s lives forever.

5. Mudbound – Hillary Jordan
I admit that the title I found both intriguing and incredibly off putting, however a random purchase in Sainsbury’s (I know, I know) led to me reading possibly one of the most surprising and remarkable books of the year. Set in the Mississippi Delta in 1946 you are first lead to believe this is a novel about a resentful wife being made to live in the cotton farm of her nightmares she swiftly calls Mudbound. What Jordan manages to bring in to this incredible novel is stories of family breakdowns, affairs, war and racism. Not always comfortable reading, especially one sickening scene, this book absolutely blew me away. I cannot wait for Jordan’s second novel whenever it comes.

4. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale
Now shock horror, Mr Savidge who never really liked to read non-fiction has two in his top ten. The first of which is Kate Summerscale’s simply wonderful, if crime can be wonderful, retelling of the events of ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’. Back in 1860 in the small town of Road in Wiltshire a horrific murder took place one which the local police simply couldn’t figure out so at a time when detectives were a new thing Scotland Yard sent Mr Whicher to investigate. The murder both provoked national hysteria and also inspired many authors such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle. Being a fan of crime fiction and of books this was a perfect read and made all the facts down to train timetables easy to digest until you find yourself detecting alongside.

3. To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
I most people will know this book and I know it had been a book that I had wanted to read for a long time and so after sneakily buying myself and Novel Insights a 50p charity shop copy each it became a Rogue Book Group choice. Scout tells the tale of her town in the 1930’s Deep South of America. Her father Atticus (a wonderful character) is defending Tom Robinson of rape, Tom is black and in a time and town where racism is rife he finds himself and subsequently his family struggling with the town and struggling for justice. I loved it, even though until about 50 pages in it hadn’t gripped me suddenly I was hooked.

2. On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan
In a year that has seen a lot of McEwan pass in front of my eyes, and has seen him become one f my favourite authors, it was this book in particular that wowed me of all of his I read. Set in the early sixties it is Edward and Florence’s wedding night. For uptight and inexperienced couple, through not speaking and misunderstood actions, this is the night that will change their lives forever and have devastating results. A superb look at how society has changed and how people have become more informed on life since, but also a sad and startling look at innocence, communication and what was expected of differing genders in those times, plus what was morally or socially correct. A small book with a lot of punch and bite. Oh, and its the second year that Mr McEwan has been in my top three books of the year!

1. The Mitford’s: Letters Between Six Sisters – Charlotte Mosley
What had initially led me to read this book was the idea of letters that spanned a huge amount of history. Having, until this book, only known of Deborah Cavendish (though not as a Mitford because of her name, but because I know Chatsworth well), Nancy Mitford (as an author) and Unity Mitford (as the supposed mother of Hitler’s child) to a small degree; I fell in love with all the sisters (possibly bar Diana, she didn’t have being crazy as an excuse to liking Hitler like Unity) and thought the amount of British history contained in one book was phenomenal. I also loved their play on language, thoughts on society, books and people. I defy anyone to read this and not be 100% in love with it and ready to start again once you have put it down. This book has unquestionably inspired me to read a lot more non fiction in 2009. Best book of 2008 by a clear mile, no offense to any others.

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Filed under Bernhard Schink, Books of 2008, Charlotte Mosley, Evelyn Waugh, Harper Lee, Helen Garner, Hillary Jordan, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson, Kate Summerscale, Lloyd Jones, Mary Ann Shaffer, Stella Duffy

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale

You know when you keep seeing a book and you pick it up four or five times in the space of a few weeks and you think you want it, people have said you should read it and you just think you have too many books? If this is the case just buy the blinking book, as this is how I have been feeling about Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ or ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ as it suggests, and frankly I think this is one of the best books that I have read all year. So I must say a thank you to Bloomsbury for sending me this.

The subtitle of the book refers to the fact that this is not your normal gothic Victorian murder mystery; it’s a real murder mystery. In fact ‘The Murder at Road Hill House’ somewhat gripped the nation back in 1860 and saw the dawn of the detective in the form of Jack Whicher. This murder mystery in a country house where one of the occupants definitely did it sparked imaginations of the greats and inspired novels by Dickens, Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins over the years. It all started on an unremarkable evening during the night in Summer 1860, the Kent family went to bed a s normal however the next morning the body of a young boy was found having died in tragic circumstances, the police couldn’t work out who had done it and so Scotland Yard were called. The case became huge news and in the small town of Road there was uproar and unwanted attention with the whole world guessing ‘whodunit’.

Now I am not a massive fan of non fiction, I love diaries and letters but with most non fiction I tend to wander and read it alongside my fiction, the fiction taking priority. Not when this book was around it wasn’t. Summerscale makes all the facts and theories turn into a wonderful and spellbinding read that could put to shame some crime fiction around at the moment. The research she has done is incredible down to the trains caught on what dates, the timetables from the time to match the possible escape of the killer. Clothes worn, movements of every member of the household and makes it come to life effortlessly. You really could have been a member of the public at the time following the case, making your own assumptions and falling for the red herrings along the way.

The book does also deal with the time significantly after the murder and looks at the future of all those involved including the murderer themselves. What is also fascinating with this book is that Summerscale shows how the best writers of that era and just after used various parts of this story and its characters to create some of the masterpieces still being read today such as the ‘Moonstone’ so it’s a fascinating look at the history of crime fiction and the ‘sensationalist’ novels that became so popular following, and of course left me with a list as long as my arm of books to read in the future.

This book is nothing short of pure brilliance, and will appeal to so many people for so many reasons. If you love books then you can learn about the history and add another twenty to your TBR. If you love crime then read the murder that helped establish the genre. If you love a good yarn this ones brilliant and its true. If you like non-fiction then the research and facts you’ll read and learn without even knowing is unbelievable. Yes you might have guessed that this book is one of my very favourites of the whole year, simply a must read.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2008, Kate Summerscale, Review