Tag Archives: P.D. James

A Very British Murder

There simply are not enough shows on the telly about books, fact! So when one does come along invariably I will watch it just because it is about books, occasionally though one comes along that is so up your street and so brilliant you want to tell everyone about it. This is exactly how I feel about ‘A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley’ the second episode of which is on tonight on BBC Four at 9pm and which I insist you watch. But here is a teaser, without spoilers, of why (if you missed it) the first episode was so brilliant…

Lucy Worsley, who hosts the show, is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces where she puts on exhibitions like ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ which is currently on at Hampton Court Palace. She is also a writer of several historical non-fiction books the latest of which just so happens to be ‘A Very British Murder’ and is now on my bedside table to be read between bouts of ‘The Luminaries’ (which I am still making very slow progress on bit by bit) though for the purposes of this post I moved it by the telly as you can see below…

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You can tell you are in good hands with Lucy, and that she loves a good book, as before the opening credits of the first show have rolled she states “Grisly crimes would appal us if we encountered them in real life, but something happens when they are turned into stories and safely places between the covers of a book.” It is of course the history of the British crime novel which this series celebrates, from Dickens to Christie and onwards, and to start it all Lucy looks at the first real cases of murder (The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, The Murder in the Red Barn and The Bermondsey Horror) which really got the public talking about murder and gave them an appetite for the salacious and sensational, which authors of course switched onto and as ‘the Detective’ was born, so of course was ‘the Detective novel’.

Well I was spellbound for an hour. I have since been recounting several people will facts like ‘did you know that in 1810 only 15 people were convicted of murder?’ or ‘did you know of The Bermondsey Horror and that Maria Manning was Charles Dickens inspiration for Hortense in ‘Bleak House’?’ It has made me desperate to go off and find some old ‘Broadsides’, newspapers/pamphlets solely aimed at chronicling the most horrid of murders for the public, also Thomas DeQuincy’s essay ‘On Murder’ from 1810 and dig out some modern books, which didn’t get mentioned on the show, like ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree’ by P.D James and Thomas A. Critchley (a non-fiction about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders) and Nicola Upson’s new novel ‘The Death of Lucy Kyte’ (a fiction with shadows of The Murder in the Red Barn). Plus with autumn in the air here in the UK I have been pondering dusting off some Wilkie Collins etc and bringing back a sensation season myself! I love it when TV makes you want to switch it off and read a book instead, don’t you?

Suffice to say Lucy is marvellous, and brilliantly camp or ghoulish when required which makes it all the more enjoyable, as she hosts often sat beside a fire making you feel like she is almost telling you a bedtime story brimming with murder in itself, which I suppose it is really. Anyway if me going on and on about its brilliance wasn’t enough I will just mention the facts that Simon Callow is on it tonight as we discover what the Dickens, erm, Dickens thought and was inspired further by and Kate Summerscale will be on discussing the case which inspired ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. What more could you ask for on a Monday night?

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The Victorian Chaise-Longue – Marghanita Laski (Revisited)

I feel the need to apologize that The Persephone Project has gone a little awry. Last Sunday we really should have been talking about ‘The Home-Maker’ by Dorothy Canfield Fisher and instead a month and a week late we are back with ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ by Marghanita Laski. Oops. This seems all the more ironic as the 6th in the Persephone series is actually one of, if not the, shortest books they have published. Yet do not let the size of this book fool you, like the chaise-longue of the title this book is very deceptive and packs much more in than you would think – hence I am glad I decided to read it again rather than upload an older review (look how many comments I used to get, what has gone on there?). In my memory ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ was a ghostly spooky tale, now having re-read it I am in fact wondering if it is not a small tale where horror meets a sci-fi time travelling edge. Not what you would expect from a Persephone title, but I am learning to expect the unexpected.

Persephone Books, paperback, 1953 (1999 edition), 99 pages, from my own personal TBR

“Will you give me your word of honour,” said Melanie, “that I am not going to die?” Almost from the very first line of ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ Marghanita Laski gives you a sense of foreboding and the impression that this is not going to be the most settling of reads. At some unnamed time around the late 1940’s/1950’s we find Melanie in bed after recently suffering from a particularly bad bout of TB, an illness she had mildly before the ill advised birth of her son, which has led her to being in bed for such a prolonged period of time. However the last test results have shown some signs of recovery and so, as a treat, Melanie’s doctor has agreed to let her be moved to a more engaging part of the house where she may get more sun and fresh air yet must be able to rest. So Melanie finds herself in one of the parlour rooms on the chaise-longue that she bought, spur of the moment, on an antiques shopping trip when she should have been looking for a cot. Yet when Melanie wakes from a sleep on it she finds herself not in her home but somewhere quite other, somewhere in the past, and as someone else far weaker than her though also in a consumptive state. And so the confusion and terror begin…

‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ is a book that I think works on two levels, and shows the depths of this novella. In the first instance this is a tale of horror and terror, and it was meant to be. As P.D James mentions in the preface, Marghanita Laski actually took herself of to a remote house in the middle of nowhere to write this so she could feel vulnerable and frightened and try to pass this on to the reader which I think she does excellently. We have all woken up after an afternoon nap feeling groggy and disorientated (or in my case thinking it is the next day, having my body clock thrown out of all context and subsequently being a royally mardy so and so) yet to wake up in somewhere unknown, being called ‘Milly’ and slowly realizing you are in the past – the Victorian period as it transpires – full of consumption, shut away from the world being watched over by a sibling who seems to hate you for some unknown reason would be quite enough for anyone. (Actually I wouldn’t mind waking up in the Victorian era just for a day or two as long as I had had some jabs beforehand.)

What Laski does her, which I think is so brilliant, is that she slowly allows Melanie to learn more and more about Milly. There is the initial fear of waking up somewhere so other without your loved ones, however as she puts the jigsaw puzzle of Milly’s life together further we see Melanie has even more to fear. It is that horrid slow trickling sense of dread that we have all had at some point, even over something minor (like thinking your Gran’s house might have a gas leak and suddenly sitting bolt upright by her bedside at hospital as you think you left the grill on – as an example completely plucked from thin air) and so we empathise with Melanie even though initially we are not sure what we make of her. Laski’s second master stroke as I discovered on this second read.

Melanie is quite a flighty thing when we first meet her, in fact the words ‘insipid’ or ‘vapid’ might be the words that spring to your mind initially. Yet as we read on we realise there is more to Melanie than we might think. She has a steely core, she knows what she wants and is a bit spoilt too. She is told not to have children while she has a mild case of hopefully curable TB, and ignores it. She also plays the men around her, shes independent enough to go shopping alone for what she likes and going against doctors orders, but she plays herself as the frightful fool when she wants her own way, making men think they are the better sex. It’s actually a bit nauseating.

‘How clever you are, darling,’ said Melanie adoringly. ‘You make me feel so silly compared with you.’
‘But I like you silly,’ said Guy, and so he does thought Dr. Gregory watching them. But Melanie isn’t the fool he thinks her, not by a long chalk, she’s simply the purely feminine creature who makes herself into anything her man wants her to be. Not that I would call her clever, rather cunning – his thoughts checked, a little shocked at the word he had chosen, but he continued resolutely – yes, cunning as a cartload of monkeys if she ever needed to be. But she won’t, he told himself, and wondered why he felt so relieved to know that Melanie was loved and protected and, in so far as anything could possibly be sure, safe.

What I thought Laski did this for was that clearly she wanted to look at how roles for women had AND hadn’t changed. It is too easy to label this book showing how much things for women had moved forward and how awful things were in the Victorian period. Actually I think more reviews have done that than Laski because she shows that women like Melanie may be in a much better situation than the likes of Milly but they still have to play the game of making men feel superior in order to get what they want. What I think Laski is asking in hen will the sexes truly become equal and until then won’t women always been in some sort of confinement in one sense or another?

Maybe I have gone too deep? However is was that statement on women that I came away really thinking about on the second read and I liked ‘The Victorian Chaise-Longue’ all the more for having that hidden depth in a genuinely oppressive, confusing and claustrophobic tale of time traveling terror. The more and more I have thought about this book the more of an understated masterpiece it seems.

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Victorian Based Books…

One of my favourite things to read, which Essie Fox’s ‘The Somnambulist’ reminded me of especially after talking with her about it, is a good Victorian novel and yet weirdly I have seemed to have strayed from them in the last few years. I don’t just mean the originals like the wonderful Wilkie Collins who I have binged on in the past (though I have been considering some of his novels I haven’t yet read and as you will see I have been debating trying Charles Dickens again what with his birthday having come and gone) but also the contemporary novels by authors like Sarah Waters and many more. I did have a brief binge on one after reading Essie’s, which I will be discussing tomorrow, but I think once I have finished of the wonderful letters between Nancy Mitford and a bookshop I think it is time to gorge myself on all things Victoriana. I love the dark atmosphere and sense of mystery that the period brings and it seems perfect at the moment as Britain seems to be having a big freeze. I already have three books lined up for the weekend…

‘The Sealed Letter’ is the only Victorian fiction, though contemporary, I have at the top of the TBR so far. I had to get this from the library as I forgot I had lent it to someone and suddenly fancied it. It will be my second and a half read of any Emma Donoghue, I got half way through her short story collection ‘The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits’ when someone selfishly (joking) ordered it for themselves and so back to the library it went. ‘Room’ is obviously her most famous novel but with ‘Slammerkin’ and others it seems Emma likes this period so I am hoping it is good.

The other two books are non-fiction. ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree; The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811’ by P.D James and T.A. Critchley was been inspired read by the fascinating experience that listening to the audio book of Judith Flanders ‘The Invention of Murder’ is proving to be. In the first several chapters I have listened to the case of the Ratcliffe Highway murders and not only how they were the case of the first real serial killer, but also how they changed the way the police worked. I couldn’t get enough and so pulled out this book dedicated just to that and seeing the wonderful P.D James playing a cold case detective for real, fabulous.

‘The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper’ either the official memoirs of Jack or simply the mad ramblings of James Carnac arrived by surprise the other week. I am one of those many people fascinated by this case because of course no one ever found out who Jack the Ripper was – in the case of James Carnac’s writing it could be that he really was him or that he was a bit mad and wrote a very grisly and almost too knowing novel about Jack. I am going to play detective and try to decide the truth, I have ordered a few Jack the Ripper books to read alongside this one. Does that make me a bit morbid having a grim fascination with it all?

Oh and if you are wondering what I will be reading all these on, check out this reading chair (which the books were photographed on) below, doesn’t it look like a wonderfully modern contemporary version of a Victorian chaise longue? It’s very comfy I have many wonderful hours ahead.

I am now mulling over which classic Victorian novel to dip into at some point too. I have some of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s lesser known works, some more Wilkie Collins (and I believe his biography by Peter Ackroyd is on the way) or do I take the plunge into Dickens? After all Susan Hill makes a compelling case on Dovergreyreader today, do visit. What would you recommend? Are you a fan of books set or written in the Victorian era and which are your favourites? You may inspire me.

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July’s Incomings…

I decided that after seeing all of your thoughts and responses on incoming posts, and discovering that you like them, I would carry on doing them monthly. However what has changed is the way I deal with books that have arrived. Id I have asked for them then they go straight on a special part of the TBR (which is getting a big update and cull this week), or they get read within a few days. If they are for The Green Carnation then they live with all the other (and it’s a vast amount) of submissions. As for the unsolicited ones… well… I decided instead of just piling them all up until then end of the month I would try and do ‘instant elimination’. So now I try and dip in and read a few pages here and there in the book, after reading the blurb, and decide if it’s a book for me, my Mum, Granny Savidge Reads or the charity shop. So far the system is working and so there are fewer books in this month’s incomings, let’s take a look at them.

First up the paperbacks…

  • August by Bernard Beckett – I saw this on The First Tuesday Book Club as Jennifer Byrne recommended it and it sounded intriguing, plus I loved the upside down title. When I saw I could bagsy it from We Love This Book HQ I did… obviously to review for them (and for you).
  • The Legacy by Kristen Tranter – unsolicited copy, this is a ‘9/11’ book I believe and whilst I am not sure how I feel about those, this one sounds like it might be from an angle you wouldn’t expect.
  • The Player’s Curse by Brian Thompson – unsolicited copy (but a very me one), this has reminded me I need to read the first in this series still, so I will be digging that out. I think this might be the third and I can’t read out of sync so will have to get the others if I like the first.
  •  Your Presence Is Requested At Suvanto by Maile Chapman – unsolicited copy, a tale set in a hospital deep in a wood, how can I not want to read this one?
  • Conference at Cold Comfort Farm/Westwood by Stella Gibbons – unsolicited copies, now I haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm yet so this is a timely reminder to, in fact these books set me off wondering if I am reading too much contemporary modern fiction currently.
  • The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman – I said yes to this one, not because I had read his previous novel, but because it was a novella and also one that sounded like a fairytale.
  • Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck – I asked for this one because I saw it somewhere and it sounded really spooky, so I cheekily asked when the publishers were sending me something else.
  • Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong – unsolicited copy, not sure why I fancied this one now, but I did.
  • No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod – unsolicited copy, this won awards in 1999 I believe, but seems to have been reissued. I want to know more.
  • Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam – unsolicited copy, I fancied this because of the cover (shameless) but sadly you can’t see how quirky it is.
  • Two Cures for Love by Wendy Cope – Cope was the cure for my poetry fears, I have this collection of Selected Poems awaiting me.
  • A Mind To Murder/Unnatural Causes by P.D. James – after having met her and then done an article about her I want to read more of her. I also got her ‘Talking About Detective Fiction’ which I couldn’t find to photograph. Oops.

The Hardbacks…

  • Everything That Began After by Simon Van Booy – this nearly went off to my Mum, as it’s set in Greece and she loves the country as she teaches classics, however I then looked him up and thought ‘I want to read this first’, I have and thoughts coming soon.
  • Bed by David Whitehouse – sounds like a really, really interesting and quirky debut novel about a bedridden boy.
  • East of the West by Miroslav Penkov – unsolicited copy, which came with a lovely hand written note from the publicist saying just why she loved it, you can’t not try a book when a publicist does that.
  • Rivers of London/Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch – I asked for these as I keep seeing them everywhere and when I read the blurbs I thought they sounded like a lot of fun, and a fun escapist read is what you need now and again.
  • Solace by Belinda McKenn – unsolicited copy, I am glad this turned up, there is a huge buzz about this book building so I want to read it before it all starts getting over hyped. Watch this space.
  • My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher – unsolicited copy, this sounds like a brilliant young adult novel and one I am going to read before passing onto my sister.
  • Pure by Andrew Miller – I resisted this book until I heard it was about cemeteries and I have a strange fascination with them, I do miss tour guiding at Highgate so much.
  • The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French – I am trying to say yes to more independent publishers, I feel its something I am missing so am going to give this a whirl.
  • The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey – unsolicited copy, heard lots of praise about her last novel, and this one seems short-ish, so why not?
  • Jubilate by Michael Arditti – I read Arditti many years ago and it was quite an impressionable read for me in my late teens so I wanted to check in on him again with his latest.
  • The Picture Book by Jo Baker – Again this was all thanks to the publicist and the passion for the book in an email, I couldn’t say no.
  • You by Joanna Briscoe – I liked Joanna Briscoe’s debut Sleep With Me which I read before I blogged, I think, and it was a darkly delicious unnerving book. This one sounds very good indeed and also like it might have some interesting twists, its next to read.

Now before I go onto what I bought for myself I wanted to share two proof copies I got that are so simplistically stunning I couldn’t not show you…

I know nothing of Kevin Wilson, though I think ‘The Family Fang’ is a brilliant title, and have enjoyed a previous Ellen Feldman novel. But aren’t these so nice to look at? There’s no cover picture to judge, just the title, the author and the blurb. I really like it.

So what did I buy myself this month? Well there were the car boot bargain books but until Friday nothing else. I had to hunt out a copy of ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ by Walter Tevis for a project you will be hearing more about later today. I then accidentally walked into Fopp and it gained three new friends because they were only £1 each (some random one day offer)…

  • Easter Parade by Richard Yates – I was trying to remember which blogger specifically made me want to read this but then realised there was a whole host of them.
  • The Quarry by Damon Galgut – we long listed his ‘In A Strange Room’ for The Green Carnation Prize last year and I never reviewed it, which was silly, I liked it and wanted to try more. This isn’t his most famous by any stretch but it starts with a random murder that gets out of hand and I thought sounded worth a try. I have already polished it off.
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – an utterly random purchase where I thought ‘oh I will risk it’. I loved the title, the cover and the blurb, simple as that.

So what do you think of this month selection? Any you would recommend I race to read or would like me to read soonest? Also, what do you think of my new filtering regime for books. Do you have any system in place that you could recommend?

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We Love This Book

If you are visiting Savidge Reads, be it on a return visit or just by the joys of a search engine or two, the chance is that you like books. So when a new little something bookish is brought to my attention then I really want to bring it to yours.

So today I bring you news of We Love This Book, which is a new ‘consumer’ magazine from the people who bring you The Bookseller. Here I do have to put in a small disclosure that I did hear about it after having done a column for The Bookseller a while back whilst it was in its late planning stages and had been asked if I might like to write for it, I said could I have a gander first? There, I wanted to say that just so you know. Anyway, as you can probably see from the picture above and its state, it has been travelling in my bag from hospitals, to work, to Gran’s etc (I like to dip in and out of a magazine) and it’s a really good read with some really good features.

You have Desert Island Books – this month it’s Tony Blair (hmmm), Past Master – this month Mark Twain, The Child in Me – looking at people’s favourite children’s books, and a piece I think is a great bookish twist called Three Course Crush which takes three delightful courses from three new cookery books. There’s also a great feature on Forbidden Love with Alan Hollinghurst discussing ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ and pieces on ‘the other woman’. Plus there are heaps and heaps of reviews of forthcoming books. What more could you ask for?

In case you were thinking ‘oh, you can only get this in the UK’ (and actually in the UK there are only 100,000 free copies available from certain book shops and libraries for now, you can subscribe though) there is a wonderful website which also features some of the magazine contents and some additional blogs, reviews and features – in fact there is one about P.D James written by a certain someone you might know, hee-hee – plus event listings and a ‘find a bookshop’ facility too.

I think it’s a great new website for a book lover and so thought I would let you know about it. It’s also still in its infancy and I believe that they are always looking for your thoughts on how they can change and improve it for you.

Which bookish magazines and websites are your favourites? Am I missing out on any?

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Persephone Weekend, My Life in Books & World Book Night

I thought I would do a little bookish round up post (I say little but I never quite manage to keep posts that brief, I will try) today of some of the latest bookish things that have been preoccupying my mind when health and hospitals haven’t. I could ramble on but I shall not and instead just get on with the three bookish things that I wanted to point you in the direction of instead…

First up is ‘Persephone Reading Weekend’ which starts today and runs until the 27th. In what is becoming an annual book bloggers delight in celebration of those lovely grey covered wonders the lovely Claire of Paperback Reader and Verity of Cardigan Girl Verity blogs are running a weekend of reviews and competitions all in celebration of Persephone Classics. If you haven’t read one yet then this could be the ideal time to get into some or won some so do have a gander. I have dug out a Persephone (I have noticed I only really have ones with the colourful covers, I wonder why that is) which I have almost finished and am hoping to put my thoughts up on that and join in all the fun on Sunday.

Here in the UK the wonderful (and I do genuinely love them at the moment with all this and ‘South Riding’) BBC are starting what is going to be a special year of TV shows about books. You may remember that I mentioned ‘Faulks on Fiction’ the other week, its proving interesting with a wonderful list of books I now need to read yet at the same time its also rather pretentious which is a shame as I like Faulks. I digressed. The new show this week has been ‘My Life in Books’ which sees Anne Robinson interviewing a whole host of well known faces (I don’t want to say celebrities) talking about their five favourite books which have meant a lot to them at different times in their lives. I am LOVING IT. So far my favourite guests have been P.D James (for her love of Sherlock), Clare Balding (for choosing some sentimental rogue novels along side Greek myths) and most of all Sue Perkins who just made me want to read every single one of her recommendations and in particular ‘The Queen of Whale Cay’ by Kate Summerscale (of ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ fame) if you can watch it on iPlayer then do, if not I believe its on YouTube too.

Finally it’s just over a week until ‘World Book Night’. I have been selected to give 50 copies of my choice away, I will reveal which one it is over the next week or so, and I am a little stuck on how to do it. I had hoped to get a local bookstore involved but they don’t seem too keen, I wont be in hospital (well I hope not) though if I was that would be sooooo much easier, so I am a little stuck on what to do. Any ideas? What’s going on with you at the moment be it bookish or otherwise?

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Cover Her Face – P.D. James

One of the crime authors I was going to ask your advice about yesterday was the author P.D. James. That was until I realised that actually I had one of her novels, indeed her debut in fact, ‘Cover Her Face’ in the TBR and so feeling the need for some crime I decided that would be my next port of call. I didn’t really know what to expect, but from the cover I was guessing a more modern version of an Agatha Christie manor house murder mystery, and in some ways that is what I got and in others it wasn’t.

Reading the blurb of ‘Cover Her Face’ you would think that this was simply the mystery of Sally Judd’s murder after the church fate in the fictional Essex village of Chadfleet. Yet what we get is not simply a sudden murder and then a backtracking of story lines through flash backs and interviews with subjects, P.D. James lets you get to know the victims and the suspects first giving little titbits of information and possible motives as she goes.

I don’t want to give too much information away but basically Sally Judd, who is a new parlour maid at Martingale House (the manor of the village, isn’t really liked by anyone and to be honest doesn’t seem to care or indeed hide the fact. She’s talk of the village before she has completed a day’s work because she is shockingly an unmarried mother and also because she seems mysterious, no one ever quite knows too much about her past even Miss Alice Liddell, the Warden at St Mary’s Refuge for Girls who recommends her to the Maxie family when they are hiring new help. With so much dislike of her from those both upstairs and downstairs in the house, along with the fact her past seems to be shrouded in mystery Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh has quite the job ahead of him in working out who did it.  

“She seemed in some ways a natural murderee. What did astound me was the news that she was an unmarried mother. She struck me as too careful, too scheming for that kind of trouble.”

I am of course going to give nothing away, rather like P.D. James who leaves lost of hints (many red herrings) along the way but doesn’t let the murder show their true colours until the very last minute. I have to say I had gone of on a completely wild goose chaise over a dress choice someone made and night caps. I don’t think that gives anything away though to those of you who haven’t read this yet, and indeed I would advise you to read it. It’s by no means the perfect murder mystery, I wasn’t as chilled as I wanted to be but that’s more me than the book itself which has its darker moments. Is it wrong of me to say I would have liked another murder or two? One just didn’t seem quite enough.

It’s an incredibly accomplished debut novel (though, and this is a minor issue, I could have done with some more paragraph breaks) which manages to mingle some police procedural, the observations of people and village life, some amateur sleuthing, some great characters and some brilliant lines like ‘Mrs Maxie smiled faintly. For the second time the delicate claw was unsheathed.’ It hasn’t bowled me over as it might have done on its release in the 1960’s, though I wasn’t born, but its definitely made me want to try more James as her passion for murder – if that’s how I can put it – does come of the page and makes it more of a meaty manor house murder than you might expect. 7.5/10

This is a book Faber sent me a while ago when they released their lovely Faber Firsts editions.

I get the feeling I would like P.D. James if I met her. I have heard her lots on the radio and her intelligence there is in the pages of her books so I will be reading more. She has a huge following and is now one of the current crime greats so I am hoping you will tell me where to turn next, I am thinking that a stand alone novel might be good before I get hooked in the Dalgliesh series. What do you think?

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