Elderly millionaire Simeon Lee decides that for Christmas he should gather round him all his far-flung family, including a couple of estranged sons and an orphaned granddaughter that he's never met before. In front of the assembled family, he then announces his intention to change his will. As this is a 'Poirot' mystery, it doesn't take much imagination to guess what happens next....
Fortunately, the Belgian sleuth is on hand to help track down the culprit.
Hercule Poirot's Christmas is an Agatha Christie mystery full of her stock characters and culprits - the patriarch about to re-distribute his wealth; the solid dependable stay-at-home son; the black sheep of the family; the mysterious foreign beauty; the ex-partner's son who turns up out of the blue. There are almost more reasons for murder than there are characters! Poirot, of course, with his little grey cells, can untangle the dead ends and red herrings, and uncover a man's most hidden secrets in a glance. It all seems a little dated and sedate in comparison to modern thrillers but still an entertaining read.
Continuing our series of seasonal posts - a children's thriller set in the Dead Days between Christmas and New Year -
Underworld Adventures review by Maryom
During the Dead Days between Christmas and New Year doors open between our everyday world and the supernatural one that goes unnoticed for the rest of the year. Something is coming from this other world in search of the great stage magician Valerian. Many years ago he made a pact to get what he wanted - and now it's time to pay up! He believes there is a book that will tell him how to avoid his debt - if only he can find it, accompanied by his assistant unnamed street orphan Boy he sets off on a hunt round the frost bound streets and alleys and graveyards of the City.
The Book of Dead Days is an exciting race-against-time adventure set in a sprawling unnamed city somewhere vaguely in Europe and somewhat vaguely located in time. It's a place where magic combines with and contrasts against science; a place of dark alleyways, magnificent domed houses and ghostly catacombs - particularly scary if, like me, you've the slightest fear of confined underground spaces.
A rather younger read than some Marcus Sedgwick novels but still an enthralling read full of atmosphere and threat.
In the summer of 1937 a British expedition heads north to set up their base at Gruhuken, a remote, uninhabited bay on Spitsbergen where they intend to spend the winter gathering meteorological information. Jack Miller, the only non public school boy, joins them as wireless operator. The original team of 5 is swiftly reduced by fate and as winter sets in the expedition is down to 3.
Arriving at Gruhuken, they find not the pristine arctic wilderness they'd expected but a place scattered with the remains of trappers huts and mining operations. The captain of the ship transporting them there, warns them of the tricks that total darkness plays on the mind, of madness overtaking those that try overwintering in the Arctic and hints that Gruhuken is setting to even more disturbing happenings. All starts well, perfect weather, a rather 'boy's own' adventure but as days shorten to nothing, stranger things begin to happen....
The book is told through the medium of Jack's diary and the reader feels the mounting fear and tension with him. With his permanent chip on the shoulder about class, he doesn't make an attractive hero, though it's his determination to be seen as equal to the other members of the expedition that leaves Jack exposed to the worst of the endless night, alone..
This is wonderful, chilling, spine tingling read, especially for anyone like myself who has problems with total, beyond street-lighting, can't see the hand in front of your face, darkness. The author captures both the unsoiled beauty of the Arctic and the growing menace in Jack's mind. I do wonder, though, whether there would have been more surprise if the book's cover hadn't stated 'a ghost story' - I was rather expecting a ghost to appear sooner or later.
This book is out of style to my normal reading, but increasingly I am trying something new. From the very beginning I found this to be a compelling read and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, there were times I wanted to say to the 'hero' - Louis - that I had seen something at least a chapter ago and why was he being slow BUT it didn't detract from my enjoyment. We got to the obligatory love scene and I wondered why he bothered - for the publisher? - but later it takes on more significance.
If I coldly analysed the hero he is one of the cleverest and thickest and most compassionate and heartless people you could wish to meet. Yes there are flaws in the main character, but none the less I come back to the fact that I found the book compelling and thoroughly enjoyed it.
If you want a clever 'whodunnit' then maybe this isn't for you. If you want blood and violence that curls your teeth then maybe this is not for you although there is a reasonable body count. If you want to enjoy a compelling read then I would strongly recommend this book.
A Proper Old-fashioned Ghost Story review by Maryom
Newly orphaned Michael Vyner is invited to spend Christmas with his almost unknown guardian, Sir Stephen, at his remote East Anglian home, Hawton Mere. Sir Stephen turns out to be a reclusive invalid, spending most of his time in his private tower room attended by his sister, and instead of receiving a warm festive welcome Michael is left to amuse himself as best he can. In wandering the dark gloomy passageways of the moated house, he discovers a hidden priest hole, strange noises and apparitions, but Michael soon realises that the ghostly figure he sees isn't intent on harming him but is asking for his help....
A chilling ghost story of the classic "huddle round the fire while the wind howls outside" variety, with all the expected ingredients - the house, isolated by both location and weather; the mysterious guardian; a tragic death; a secret room - and not a vampire or werewolf in sight! Intended for older children/young teens but perfectly chilling for adults. Chris Priestley creates such a feeling of brooding evil and growing menace that even in the middle of summer, I could feel a chill spreading through my bones. (I actually decided to finish reading it in the light of day)
Something I would love to know the answer to, though - was Hawton Mere based on any specific building? As I read the description of a moated house with a priest-hole and tower and twisting staircase, I was sharply reminded of a National Trust property I've visited near King's Lynn, but on a hot Easter weekend with absolutely no sign of ghosts.
Much loved... but are you surprised? Review by The Mole
OK, this one is 'cheating' but HEY! who could resist this timeless classic on a day that ends with... The Night Before Christmas?
I first remember this story when I was only a wee toddler being read to we children about a thousand years ago by our mother. She would read it once and it would go away for another year and it came to epitomise Christmas, so when we had our first child we found this book (It was new then and had no tooth marks on it!) and I read it to her. That was over 30 years ago and it still comes out each year for a reading. Being honest though, 14 years ago we had our second only child and we also read it a lot to her although her sister still comes over when we read it again.
Who can resist the power of the those reindeer?
Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!
Or the friendliness of the man in red..
He had a broad face and a little round belly That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
Yes, cheating though it may be, I love this book and it is steeped in memories. Truly magnificent and this particular version has beautiful illustrations on each page that manage to totally encapsulate the spirit of the poem.
The second in our seasonal series of reviews, The Bomber is set in the week running up to Christmas.
All she wants for Christmas.... review by Maryom
Annika Bengtzon is the newly appointed head of the crime-desk at Stockholm's Evening Post newspaper, stressed out from all sides - pressure from deadlines, hassle from her male colleagues and the everyday chores of family life. Just when she's looking for a quiet week on the run up to Christmas a major story breaks as a massive bomb goes off at the Olympic Stadium, leaving pieces of the victim scattered everywhere. Annika is determined to be first with any news about the killing but her enquiries soon lead her too close to the bomber.
The Bomber is my first Liza Marklund novel and one I thoroughly enjoyed. It's an interesting slant to have the investigation of a murder seen from a journalistic angle - not with Annika playing a Miss Marple type amateur sleuth but merely going about her job and uncovering the victim's private life hidden behind a public façade. There's a lot of well-captured office atmosphere with back-biting and griping from co-workers who wanted her job but the focus is, of course, on who is responsible for the bombing and what is their motivation. An excellent whodunnit with a totally gripping ending - even though I thought I knew how it would resolve itself.
Starting with the appropriately titled Midwinterblood, from now to New Year we're posting a series of seasonal book reviews - fantasy, crime, ghost stories....
Chilling Tale for Midwinter review by Maryom
The story starts in the future, 2073, at the height of summer with endless day and no night. Eric Seven has travelled to Blessed Island to investigate the rumours that its inhabitants live forever but no children are born there.
He discovers a beautiful, seemingly idyllic place, without cars or crowds, but menace lurks beneath the postcard prettiness. It's also a place where Eric finds his preconceptions challenged - he can no longer communicate with the world at the touch of a button, the sun doesn't set and he falls in love at first sight with islander Merle. On Blessed Isle, though, things are not straight forward.There's no falling in love and living happily ever after as Eric and Merle find themselves part of a story that has been re-playing itself on the island for over 10 centuries since the king was sacrificed at Midwinter to save his people.
I've been working my way through Marcus Sedgwick's backlist for a while now and this, his most recent, is my favourite to date. Midwinterblood is a haunting, beautifully told story. The opening pages caught my imagination with the eerie, isolated island setting that put me in mind of The Prisoner and The Wickerman and the evolving backwards plot didn't disappoint. Definitely one to read again and again, as I'm sure there are nuances still to be discovered.
Midwinterblood is published as a teen/YA book but I'm sure there are many adults who would be equally mesmerised by it - I certainly was.
Maryom's review - 5 stars Publisher -Orion Genre - YA
During "Anti Bullying Week 2011" someone kindly recommended this book to us but unfortunately it was too late at that time to get a copy, read it and review it for the weekly theme. We have how managed to get hold of a copy and I am very happy we did.
The book is structured in a very 'cartoon' and 'quiz' style format and this gives it the attraction that it can be picked up and put down after just a couple of pages so not demanding a long sit and read but, in fact, encouraging a 'stop and think about that' approach.
This book does not teach you how to physically deal with bullies or "bs, bs and sc fs" as we get to know them, it rather teaches the reader how to appreciate themselves more, develop self-confidence and self-esteem and so stop themselves being the target of bullies.
It is, in my opinion, a must for just about every child so that they can understand more about themselves as well as get on and enjoy life more. But more importantly I feel that parents should give it a read too. A child that is being bullied will probably not talk about it and if parents can understand the symptoms of low-esteem then they can help the child without causing confrontation and talking about it, and after reading this book it becomes apparent to the reader how to help someone to see themselves better, enjoy life more and get more from life in general.
A really good book BUT... I would love to think that it has helped thousands of children but if children read it, the process needs weeks, if not months, of work to make it really happen - and it will happen - but without support will a child keep working on it? Or will they find it's not an instant fix and walk away from the book? Unfortunately I believe they will walk away, so parents... read it, especially if you know your child has picked it up or read it, and support them in any way you can. There are useful websites in the back as well that may assist parent and child.
But I apologise, this is supposed to be a review, not a rant! It is an excellent book and takes a great approach to the issues. I would highly recommend this book to old and young alike.
Anna is no ordinary child. She was conceived as a designer baby to provide cord tissue that would save the life of her sister Kate, terminally diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. Over the years she has given blood and bone marrow, now aged 13 she is being asked to donate a kidney and Anna feels its time to take a stand against her parents, to take legal action against them for the rights to her own body.
Thought provoking novel raising questions about the morality of 'designer babies' a child conceived merely for the use of its spare parts - but at the same time an immensely readable, moving story of one family's struggle to come to terms with having a terminally ill child. Anna is shown as a caring, loving teenager, caught between the pain and suffering of her sister and the trauma that she must undergo, again, to help. I didn't feel the lawyer's romantic sub-plot was really needed - and perhaps detracted from the main story-line but the only bit I wasn't happy with was the ending which just seemed too convenient and a bit of an easy way out of the dilemma.
I actually read My sister's Keeper soon after Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a novel with similar themes in which children are replicated solely for use as bodyparts donors and I think it influenced my reading of and response to My Sister's Keeper, making it seem, in comparison, lighter weight.
Another thing all children (and their parents) need - a book of nursery rhymes! I know I've raved before about Jackie Morris's work, but I just love her painting style - and would really like to ride on a cat!
For teens -
if they're into deep, philosophical nihilism or just inclined to think "why bother" Nothing by Janne Teller
...or spy thrillers...
The Long Reach By Peter Cocks
A fast paced action adventure in London's gangland, a great alternative for anyone who loves the "Young Bond" series
...or if you think they'd like a lighter weight read ....
Lighter, maybe, but it's still a real conversation starter - after all we've all had that dream of what we'd do if we won the lottery
For Fantasy Lovers -
Bloodstone- book 2 of Gillian Philip's Rebel Angels series. Allegedly a teen/YA book but one that will appeal equally to adults. An emotionally charged, intelligently written fantasy. It's probably better if the recipient's read book1 - Firebrand -, but if they haven't, buy that as well!
For history buffs
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - not a new book, and rather long, but if they haven't read it they still have time before the sequel Bring Up The Bodies is published in Spring
For the thrill seekers -
Before I Go To Sleep - a really creepy debut novel from SJWatson about a woman who starts each day with her memory wiped clean. Of the differing stories she's told to explain her problem, which can she believe?
or for more comedy-thriller
Smokeheads by Doug Johnstone
Four mates go away for a quiet weekend sampling their way through Islay's many malt whiskies. After a brush with the local law, things go rapidly downhill into a nightmare Deliverance style nightmare.
And a slightly unusual recommendation - Don't give one book but a whole year's worth! Peirene Press specialise in short, compelling foreign fiction - generally around 200 pages - and offer a variety of subscription packages - there's sure to be something to suit.
Harald Guntlieb is a wealthy German student continuing his research into European witch trials in Reykjavik. That is, until his horribly mutilated corpse is discovered propped in a cupboard at the university. The police quickly arrest his drug-dealer friend Hugi but his family are not convinced the killer has been found and engage Icelandic lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottir to re-examine the case alongside their company's representative ex-policeman Matthew Reich. It soon appears that Harald's interest in witchcraft was not solely academic and Thora and Matthew are led on an increasingly grisly trail attempting to discover the events leading to Harald's death.
Another excellent Scandi-crime discovery, full of convolutions and saving the best twists and turns for the end - although as I flicked through before writing this review, I realised that clues for the ending had been there all along but not quite spotted by me!
In the best tradition of fictional detectives, Thora has her own problems at home - mainly centred on her son Gylfi. Last Rituals is the first of a series and I'll be interested to see how he copes with future events and how the relationship between Thora and Matthew develops.
I was a little disappointed that there wasn't more of an Icelandic feel to the story - and, no, I can't quite put my finger on what I mean by that, other than to say that although Thora and Matthew's investigation takes them to various places outside of Reykjavik - such as the Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery at Holmavik and caves settled by Irish monks - I didn't get a feel for the landscape or atmosphere. Still, this novel is meant to be a crime thriller, not a travel guide!
Remarkable headlines that get you reading Review by The Mole
Compiled from headlines and articles gathered from small local newspapers around the country, there are bound to be treats in this book that will at least raise a smile with everyone. But these articles are not gaffs gathered surreptitiously but instead with the full co-operation of the paper's editors. They are serious articles that mean something to the locals, but when viewed by people outside the locality they become amusing.
"Village is crime free" - perhaps not something to make the Met proud, but sure to satisfy the village involved. "Boiled egg explodes" - hardly something to make a national headline. The articles are accompanied by the full transcript of the article and you are left with a smile and wondering in what tranquil backwater these items make the headlines. Other items such as "Police called to pull up Drunk's knickers" and "Cows on the run after tractor theft" are presented as only headlines and maybe we don't really want to understand any more anyway? Some though... and I don't want to spoil it for the readers are just outright funny!
A book to pick up, read a couple of headlines, share a few with a room that is trying to watch "White Christmas" for the 20th time before being driven to put the kettle on.
A really entertaining book and maybe difficult to believe.
Maryom described it as:-A whimsical humorous slice of life as seen through local newspapers.
Fred has an obsession - hats! We are told, in rhyme, about the some of the many hats he has and why he decides to get the biggest hat that he can find for a special occasion. Unfortunately this proves to be an unwise move and we find out why all the cats sleep in hats.
Using models in the style of Postman Pat and many other children's favourites, rather than cartoons, the author has illustrated this tale as well as crafted the verse.
A very easily read book for the early reader and one where they will learn the names of many different types of hats. But putting the vocabulary to one side, it is a fun book with bright and attractive pictures that kids will really enjoy and that's what books must always be about.
Publisher - Maverick Books Genre - Children's Early Reader
Following a car accident, Holly's mums has been in a coma for some weeks and both Holly and her father, Sam, are almost moving in a daze. They are trying to get on with life but apart from being nearly Christmas it's also nearly Holly's birthday as well and Sam needs to get her a present. In his daze, while shopping, he bumps into an old man who points him at the ideal present - but it is rather a special present. Little does Sam know though of the perils he is exposing Holly and her friend Georgina to by buying her this present.
I have to admit to having loved this book and not really understanding the 'why' of it. The story is not all chasing from the bad guys, or all death and mayhem but is sensibly paced and almost genteel with a fair amount of tension and menace thrown in! Amongst the danger and wonders that Holly experiences we enjoy a fair few highs and lows but the lows are not the kind to leave the reader in tears. And as this book is aimed at the younger reader it is not a surprise that it leaves the reader with a warm glow as the last pages turns.
Although aimed, I believe, at the 10+ reader this book would happily suit the 8+ reader age group as well. And I will admit to being above this age group and I really enjoyed it as well!
Publisher - Upfront Publishing Genre - 8+, fantasy
"They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40. So when Ben and his wife Dinah were approached to write a guidebook about family travel, they embraced the open road....
...featuring deadly puff adders, Billie Piper's pyjamas and a friend of Hitler's, it's a story about love, death, falling out, moving on and growing up, and 8,ooo miles in a Vauxhall Astra."
Although that's the promotional line, I felt it didn't really describe the book. I'd been expecting an hilarious account of the pitfalls of holidaying with tiny children, made worse by the long time - 5 months - spent on the road. But the start of their epic journey coincides with Ben's father falling ill and the account of the family's trip is interspersed with reminiscences exploring their father/son relationship. Interesting and moving, maybe, but not, I felt, "what it says on the tin."
Despite the many testimonials from celebrities about the hilariousness of the book, it didn't really find my funny spot. There were occasional laugh-out-loud moments but it wasn't the constant rib-tickling event I'd expected.
Warning - contains fairly frequent strong language
We all know about Henry VIII, or think we do - the piggy-eyed chap with the many, many wives, who spent his time chopping off heads. But do any of us stop to wonder how he turned out like that? This is exactly what HM Castor sets out to do in VIII.
Starting with a small boy hiding in the Tower of London from the rebels trying to dislodge his father from the throne, this novel traces the influences on Henry and their possible impact on his character - his father's tenuous hold on the crown, his upbringing as 'spare' rather than 'heir' and his sudden catapulting into prominence upon the death of his brother, Arthur.
The period and characters are brilliantly brought to life in a way never allowed in a non-fiction book. Telling the story in the first person from Henry's point of view lets the reader get behind the politics and power struggles of the time and see Henry as a person - just one who happens to grow up to be king.
An outstandingly readable account of Henry's life - I was hooked from the start. Admittedly it's written for Teens but I'm sure any adult who found Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall just too long and demanding would love it as well.