Top 10 Books of 2016

First, some statistics from my year of reading. I read 104 books (71 fiction, 33 non-fiction including 23 audio books, 27 eBooks & 26 rereads). I acquired 200 physical books (mostly bought but some review copies) & probably about 40 eBooks – hard to tell & a lot of them are free which is really neither here or there. All of them are invisible. I read 11 more books than I did in 2015 so I’m pleased with that. I do spend more time every year on the iPad, reading blogs, reviews, magazines, newspapers, Facebook & Twitter, listening to podcasts. I also spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon looking at Simon Savidge & Jen Campbell‘s Youtube channels. Lots of bookish goodies there, end of year roundups, plans for 2017 & Christmas book hauls. It’s interesting that, even though I have completely different tastes in books from Simon & Jen, I enjoy watching them talking about books. However, I enjoy the incidental reading I do & it’s not a competition so I will try to stop worrying about the time I spend on non-book reading although I’ll continue to keep statistics because I’m a librarian & can’t resist a good list!

Here’s my Top 10, in no particular order although Genji was definitely my book of the year.


The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Life in Imperial Japan. A completely immersive reading experience about a culture I knew little about. I’ve even bought another copy, in the Seidensticker translation, for my next reread.


A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell. The best WWII memoir I’ve read. The devastatingly honest & raw story of the Blitz through the eyes of a compassionate woman. One of the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press.


Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport. A look at Petrograd through the eyes of expatriates in this centenary year of the Revolution.


Tales of Angria by Charlotte Brontë. When you thought you’d read everything the Brontës wrote, these stories written by Charlotte when she was in her 20s, reveal the origins of her later work.


Deep Water by Christine Poulson. An unputdownable thriller about medical fraud & an involving, human story about the families desperate for a breakthrough. The first in a series about medical researcher Katie Flanagan.


Sandlands by Rosy Thornton. Involving short stories linked by place & some characters. Set in the Suffolk fenlands, the stories range across time & history in a very satisfying way.

shuteRuined City by Nevil Shute. A story of England during the Depression & one man’s determination to keep a town from dying. Full of Shute’s usual attention to the detail of work, in this case, ship building, finance & engineering.


Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. A stunning novella infused with the melancholy of post Great War Britain. The events of this one day will change Jane’s life forever.


The Moon & Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham. The story of a man obsessed with his own destiny & willing to ignore the feelings of anyone who gets in his way. I read several Maugham novels this year but this was my favourite.


The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg. Life in Germany for an Englishwoman during WWII. Written years later only with the knowledge that Bielenberg had at the time, this is a suspenseful story full of the domestic details of surviving war & possible treachery.

Footfall – Christine Poulson


Cassandra James is shocked when her friend, retired academic Una Carwardine, is found dead in her home. She’s horrified to discover that Una had been thrown down a staircase by an intruder. When Cassandra is told that the strange, silent phone call she received on a chaotic evening was Una’s last call, she is determined to find out why Una rang her & what she wanted her to do.She also feels guilty that her increasingly busy life – head of the English Department at St Etheldreda’s, life with Stephen & their daughter, Grace, & work on her book – had meant that she saw Una much less often than she had in the past.

Una & her husband were academics specialising in 19th century literature, Cassandra’s own field. Cassandra is spending her study leave writing a book, using the collection of the Cambridge Literary & Philosophical Institute (usually known as the Lit & Phil). She’s surprised & honoured to be invited to join the Institute’s Board by head librarian, Giles Brayfield. Una had planned to leave her vast & valuable collection of 19th century literature to the Institute along with a bequest that would enable the Board to buy back the lease on a prominently sited building that they desperately need for storage & as a way of raising the Institute’s profile. Giles is determined to drag the Institute & its collection into the modern age – putting the catalogue online is just the beginning – but there’s a shock in store when Una’s will is read & the bequest is instead left to St Ethedreda’s. Then, as the lawyers delve into Una’s estate, the money to store the collection is missing. Una seems to have spent over half a million pounds in the last months of her life. How could she have spent so much money & what did she buy?

Footfall is a terrifically twisty murder mystery & I’m only sorry that it’s the last in the Cassandra James series. As always, I loved the setting – academic Cambridge with its libraries, bookshops & impoverished students trying to make ends meet. Bookselling, especially the rare book trade, is brought into the story by Cassandra’s meeting with Giles Brayfield’s friend, Eileen Burnham. Eileen tempts Cassandra with copies of the 19th century sensation novels she loves & also gives her some vital clues about what Una was up to at the end of her life. Cassandra’s personal life is also as complicated as ever. Stephen catches chicken pox & takes Grace off to visit his sister in Devon while he recuperates, leaving Cassandra at a loose end, revelling in the freedom of being on her own but also anxious & a little bereft. There’s more than enough to make Cassandra anxious. Apart from Una’s death & the mystery of her estate, odd things have been happening at Grace’s nursery – objects appearing & disappearing. Then, there’s a woman posing as Cassandra, copying her hairstyle & even sitting at her desk at the Lit & Phil. What could her motive be & could she have any connection with Una’s death? Then, there are Cassandra’s unresolved feelings for Superintendent Jim Ferguson. Jim is investigating Una’s death & Cassandra is drawn into the investigation not only because of her relationship with Una but because of her knowledge of books.

The many subplots keep the action moving along & Cassandra’s frantic juggling of work, motherhood & marriage rings true. Even the infrequent moments of calm when she can concentrate on her book are haunted by a looming deadline & the thought of the work waiting for her at St Etheldreda’s at the end of her study leave. All in all, this is a very enjoyable series. I definitely won’t be waiting another 15 years to reread it. I now have them all safely on my Kindle so I can revisit Cambridge & Cassandra whenever I need a dose of academic mystery.

Stage Fright – Christine Poulson


After the events of Murder is Academic, & the birth of her daughter Grace, academic Cassandra James is on maternity leave from St Ethedreda’s College. She’s helping a local theatre group put on a production of East Lynne, an adaptation of one of the most popular sensation novels of the Victorian era. Cassandra is still unsure about the future of her relationship with Stephen & she’s relieved when he’s sent to the US on a business trip. Cassandra’s work on the script of the play has given her a focus & she’s also reunited with Melissa Meadow, the leading lady of the production who she’d first met in the maternity ward as they coped with their premature babies.

Melissa is married to Kevin Kingleigh, the director & leading actor of East Lynne. They’re renting Journey’s End, not far from Cassandra’s home, The Old Granary, in the Fen country outside Cambridge. Cassandra & Melissa had bonded over their shared experiences & when Melissa confides that she’s received an anonymous letter, Cassandra is surprised that she hasn’t told Kevin or the police. The letter is a poem by Byron & signed The King of Cups although the signature has been printed upside down. Melissa seems concerned & a bit fragile but the stress of combining motherhood with a demanding role as Lady Isabel in the play could explain that. Cassandra is shocked then when Melissa disappears, leaving her daughter, Agnes, behind.

The police can find no evidence of foul play or that Melissa may have left voluntarily but Cassandra can’t believe that Melissa would leave Agnes or Kevin as they’d seemed so happy. More practically, the show must go on & Melissa’s disappearance causes problems for the theatre group. Two documentary makers filming the rehearsals are finding that their project could prove more exciting than they could have hoped; the search for a new leading lady becomes urgent & then there’s the sightings of the theatre ghost lurking in the auditorium when young actress Belinda Roy is frightened by a shadowy figure sitting in the dress circle. Stan, the deputy stage manager, efficiently keeps the production on track as well as taking Cassandra in hand & organising her outfit for the first night but even she feels the tension as time goes on & Melissa doesn’t return. Cassandra is also disconcerted by the reappearance in her life of her first husband, Joe. Now a professor at an American university, he wants to catch up with Cassandra on a visit to Cambridge but he revives memories of their brief marriage that Cassandra finds difficult to resist.

Stage Fright is a very exciting mystery with the added attraction of the theatre background & Cassandra who is an engaging heroine. I’m also a fan of Victorian sensation fiction so the East Lynne discussions were also fun & relevant to the plot. Cassandra’s friendship with Melissa is grounded in their shared experiences in the maternity ward & Cassandra is glad to be working on the script for the play, to have something to keep her mind occupied while she gets used to motherhood. The closed circle of the theatre company can be friendly but also claustrophobic & Cassandra is soon questioning everyone’s motives & relationships. Kevin seems devastated by Melissa’s disappearance & a bit lost at being left to care for Agnes alone but is there something he’s hiding? While Cassandra worries about Melissa, she’s also helping Kevin to care for Agnes & getting used to being a mother herself. Joe’s reappearance while Stephen is away confuses Cassandra but eventually leads her to a decision about her future as she tries to work out the motive behind Melissa’s disappearance. I really enjoyed reading this again after nearly 15 years & I’m looking forward to reading Footfall, the third Cassandra James mystery.

Murder is Academic – Christine Poulson


I love a mystery set in academia. Even a mystery set in the town of Oxford or Cambridge will do. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, Veronica Stallwood’s Kate Ivory, Jill Paton Walsh’s Imogen Quy,  Amanda Cross’ Kate Fansler &, of course, Gaudy Night, are all favourites. After reading Christine Poulson’s latest novel, Deep Water, I remembered how much I’d loved her three novels set in Cambridge featuring academic & Victorian literature specialist Cassandra James. Published in the early 2000s, I’d borrowed them from my library. No longer in print, fortunately all three (Murder is Academic (aka Dead Letters), Stage Fright & Footfall) are available as eBooks.

When Cassandra James visits the Head of her Department, Margaret Joplin, she’s shocked to find exam papers blowing around the back garden. Then, she discovers Margaret’s body in the swimming pool. What looks like a tragic accident soon becomes problematic when Cassandra discovers letters that show that Margaret had been having an affair with a student, a young woman who had died a few months earlier in a climbing accident. Could Margaret’s husband, Malcolm, have discovered the affair? Lucy’s letters to Margaret were passionate & Lucy was increasingly intent on bringing their relationship out into the open. The scandal would have ruined Margaret’s career & her marriage as well as putting the future of St Etheldreda’s College at risk. What if Lucy’s death wasn’t an accident? Could Margaret have committed suicide from grief or remorse?

Cassandra is appointed acting Head of the English Department after Margaret’s death. Master of the College, Lawrence, warns Cassandra that unless she & her colleagues can come up with an impressive research & publishing program, the future of the college itself is threatened. Cassandra’s book on Victorian poetry is almost finished & Margaret had been working on a book as well. However, the other lecturers, Merfyn, Alison & Aiden, had published little & their jobs were most definitely on the line. Cassandra’s doubts about Margaret’s death & her knowledge of her affair with Lucy, would be dynamite to the tabloids if the knowledge became public & Lawrence wants no scandal. Cassandra has quite enough to do with her increased workload & she tries to put her doubts aside. Apart from anything else, she discovers that she’s pregnant &, although she is soon happy about the baby, she’s unsure how serious she wants her relationship with her partner Stephen to become. Another student, Rebecca, hints to Cassandra that she knows about Margaret’s affair & threatens to go public unless her sub-standard work is passed. When Rebecca is attacked & left in a coma soon afterwards, Cassandra knows that someone wanted to silence her & that Margaret was murdered. All the academics have tangled personal lives & something to hide but did any of their secrets include murder?

… what if I was writing a book about this, about what’s been happening over the last eight months or so? That startling idea seemed to bring things into focus. Well, what would I do? Exactly what I did when I was researching my academic books. I wouldn’t take anything for granted, I wouldn’t rely on anything anyone told me unless there was evidence to back it up; I’d go right back to the beginning – further probably than anyone else had thought necessary – and work my way forward, casting my net as wide as I could. And all along I’d be weighing the evidence, looking for the connections and patterns, piecing together a picture…

I loved this book just as much the second time around. As the first time was nearly 15 years ago, I’d forgotten everything about the plot & suspected the wrong person almost until the end, just as I probably did back in 2002.As always, Christine Poulson’s sense of place is atmospheric. Cassandra lives in The Old Granary, a lonely house with its share of odd noises & things that go bump in the night as well as housing too many books & a cat called Bill Bailey. Cassandra’s reluctance to commit to Stephen has as much to do with her desire to keep her life in neat compartments as it does with her feeling that, after two failed marriages, she should be wary about any new relationship. I enjoyed the academic atmosphere, Cassandra’s researches in newspaper archives & libraries & a particularly spooky trip to the site of Lucy’s death. There are also some very funny moments, including a séance where one of Cassandra’s colleagues claims to be receiving literary advice from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Finally, how could I resist a heroine who loves my favourite quote?

What was it that Logan Pearsall Smith wrote? ‘People say life is the thing but I prefer reading,’ I often think that should be my motto.

I could almost think that I’d somehow remembered this when I came to start my blog but I don’t think so although I can’t remember where I did first read it. One of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems (which I posted about the other day in Sunday Poetry) is also quoted near the end of the book. If you enjoy academic mysteries, download a sample of Murder is Academic. I guarantee you won’t want to stop reading. More information about the series can be found on Christine’s website.

Christine has posted a list of books (not just mysteries) set in universities here & so has Moira from the blog Clothes in Books here. I like the sound of the Emma Lathen & have downloaded a sample as I’ve never read her books.

Sunday Poetry – Emily Dickinson


Emily Dickinson is one of my favourite poets & this is one of my favourite poems. It’s passionate & ecstatic but also warm & comforting, describing the wildness outside & the comfort within.

It’s quoted near the end of Murder is Academic by Christine Poulson, which I finished reading on Friday & will be reviewing next week.

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

Literary Ramblings


I’ve started a ridiculous number of books in the last few days. Usually I have two or maybe three books on the go at once – a hardback at home, a paperback or e-Book for my lunchtime walk & coffee & an audio book. I’m about to begin The Mysteries of Paris by Eugene Sue with my 19th Century Bookgroup. This is a massive tome (almost 1400 pages in the new Penguin translation) that is going to take us two months to read.


Then, my new-found interest in ancient history led me to a reprint of Dilys Powell’s book, The Villa Ariadne, about Crete, the discovery by Arthur Evans of the site of Knossos & the WWII history of the island. Thinking about Crete reminded me of The Moonspinners by Mary Stewart, which I haven’t read for years.


I enjoyed Christine Poulson’s new book, Deep Water, so much that I’ve downloaded the eBook of her first Cassandra James novel, Murder is Academic which I read when it was first published. I’ve only read the first chapter but already I’m surprised by the differences between life then & now. Cassandra discovers the body of colleague Margaret Joplin in her swimming pool with the papers she was marking strewn around the garden & in the water. I was surprised that the college is so horrified by the destruction of the papers as they seem to be the only copies & the students won’t get their degrees if they’re destroyed. Nowadays everything’s on a USB if not in the Cloud. The book was only published in 2002 so hardly decades ago but how life has changed.


I also read a sample of Conclave by Robert Harris, after reading an enthusiastic review by Mrs Miniver’s Daughter. I haven’t read any Robert Harris for years – Enigma was probably the last one – & I was drawn in immediately so I downloaded the eBook as I couldn’t wait to borrow a copy from work.


I’m also reading & enjoying Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, one of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press.


I’m between audio books at the moment, having just finished listening to An Autobiography by Agatha Christie, a book I read over 30 years ago & enjoyed again. I was a little unsure about Judith Boyd’s decision to narrate the book in the voice of an old lady. Christie was in her 70s when she wrote the book but I found the choice a little off-putting. However, I got used to it & enjoyed all 28-odd hours of it. Since then, I’ve been listening to podcasts (mostly political ones after the events of last week) but one of the non-political ones was this Book Club program on Kidnapped that inspired me to pick up a Stevenson novel, Weir of Hermiston. I read The Master of Ballantrae a few years ago but I’ve never read this final novel.


Speaking of podcasts, here is a fascinating discussion with Helen Rappaport & Catherine Merridale on their new books about the Russian Revolution.

I was also very excited to discover that the Dorothy L Sayers Society have allowed access to The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion. I’ve just reread the four Harriet Vane novels & it was wonderful to be able to look up all those quotes & obscure references that Sayers took such delight in. The Companion has been out of print for some time so it’s very kind of the Society to make it available to everyone. You do need to register but it’s free. The details are on the Society’s homepage.

A few other bits & pieces I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks. For fans of L M Montgomery, are you an Anne Shirley or an Emily Starr?


An article on cats in bookstores.

A new T-shirt from Out of Print which I just had to have.

Mimi Matthews – a blog I’ve just discovered with the most beautiful images, mostly Victorian fashion & painting.

Finally, Open Road Media are making Rumer Godden’s novels available as eBooks. She’s one of my favourite authors so it’s good to have her books available.