Something Light by Margery Sharp

This was one of the books from my 20 Books of Summer list, which I did actually read before the September deadline although I didn’t manage to post my review in time. First published in 1960, as the title suggests, it’s a light read.

Our heroine, Louisa Datchett, is a thirty-year-old single woman who lives alone in a tiny London flat – so tiny that she can ‘turn on a tap, fill a kettle, light a gas ring and reach down the coffee tin, all without moving her feet’. Louisa has never married, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t like men – she does like them and has plenty of male friends, all of whom have a habit of coming to her with their problems. In fact, she’s been so busy solving men’s problems that she has barely had time to think about herself – and there certainly hasn’t been time for any romance in her life.

Being a ‘modern’ woman, Louisa hasn’t previously felt that having a husband was in any way essential and has established a career for herself as a dog photographer. This unusual job has provided lots of interesting opportunities for Louisa, but she’s finding that it’s not a reliable way of paying the rent! One morning, having bought an extra yogurt from the milkman for the starving musician next door and worried about her friend, Hugo, who has bronchitis, it occurs to Louisa that it would be nice to have someone taking care of her for a change!

The rest of the book follows Louisa’s attempts to find a husband, each one more disastrous than the one before. First she sets her sights on Freddy Pennon, a wealthy older man whom she met the previous year in Cannes while photographing an Italian film star’s poodles. When this ends in failure, she decides that perhaps a steady, dependable man would be a better option – or maybe a widowed family man looking for a stepmother for his children. Fortunately, Louisa has enough sense to see that none of these relationships are likely to work…but just as she gives up hope of ever meeting a suitable husband, one appears where she had least expected to find him!

Louisa could be seen as quite a contradictory character; on the one hand she is an independent and capable woman who lives on her own and supports herself financially through work, while on the other she sets herself the old-fashioned goal of finding a husband no matter what. It also seems a bit unfair on the men she targets, who have no idea that they are being lined up for marriage. However, she goes about this in such a good-natured way, making sure nobody gets hurt by her actions, that you can’t help liking her and hoping she’ll get what she wants in the end.

The overall story is quite predictable and I could easily predict who Louisa would end up with as soon as he made his first appearance, but each separate episode in the novel has its own little twist, which keeps things interesting. This isn’t one of my favourite Margery Sharp books (so far that would be Britannia Mews or The Flowering Thorn) but it’s an entertaining read and sometimes ‘something light’ is just what you need.

The end of 20 Books of Summer…and the start of R.I.P XVII!

This year’s 20 Books of Summer (hosted by Cathy at 746 Books) is over now, so let’s take a look at how I did. The rules were very simple – just make a list of 20 books and read them during June, July and August. In previous years I’ve never come close to finishing my list, but this time I’ve been much more successful!

Here are the books I’ve managed to read and review from my list, in the order I read them:

1. Fortune by Amanda Smyth
2. Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo
3. The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben
4. Death in the Andamans by M.M. Kaye
5. Summerhills by D.E Stevenson
6. Godmersham Park by Gill Hornby
7. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
8. At Bertram’s Hotel by Agatha Christie
9. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
10. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
11. Haven by Emma Donoghue
12. The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel
13. Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb
14. The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer
15. Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie
16. The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
17. Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull
18. The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

I’ve also read this one but not had time to review it yet:

19. Something Light by Margery Sharp

And I’m reading this one now:

20. Shadows and Strongholds by Elizabeth Chadwick

I could probably have completed all twenty by the deadline, but didn’t want to rush the last few books. I’ve also read several others that weren’t on my list, so I consider this summer’s reading to have been a success – particularly as it included some very long books!

If you’ve been taking part, how did you do?


This is also the first day of another of my favourite reading challenges, R.I.P., which is back for its seventeenth year! This used to be one of the biggest events in the book blogging calendar but seems to take place mainly on Instagram and Twitter now. I still like to join in, even if it’s in a more casual and flexible way these days.

The idea is to read, watch or listen to anything that fits one of the following categories:

Dark Fantasy

After reading from my 20 Books of Summer list all summer, I don’t want to make another long list of R.I.P. reads as I would prefer to be spontaneous and just read whatever I feel like reading. However, there are a few books that I would definitely like to get to during this year’s challenge.

Two mysteries on my NetGalley shelf:

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz
Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass

A book of short stories I would like to dip into throughout the event:

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

I have plenty of other books on the TBR that would also be perfect for R.I.P., so watch this space to see what else I decide to read!

If you would like to join in with R.I.P. XVII, more details can be found on the Readers Imbibing Peril blog or by following @perilreaders on Twitter or Instagram.

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

When I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer, I tried to include a mixture of new releases I was excited about reading and older books that had been on my TBR for a long time. The Rose of Sebastopol is one that I bought back in 2010 from my favourite bookshop, Barter Books, and has been waiting on my shelf for twelve years! If I’d known I was going to enjoy it so much I would certainly have made time for it before now.

The novel opens in 1855 with our narrator, Mariella Lingwood, arriving in Italy to visit her fiancé, Henry Thewell, a surgeon who has recently been stationed in Crimea where war is continuing to rage between Russia and the allied forces of France, Britain, Turkey and Sardinia. Having become seriously ill, Henry has left the battlefields and is recuperating in the Italian town of Narni. Their reunion doesn’t go as planned, however, when the feverish Henry mistakes Mariella for her cousin, Rosa – and she discovers that throughout his illness he has been calling Rosa’s name.

Rosa had left England for the Crimean peninsula several months earlier hoping to join Florence Nightingale’s team of nurses. At first she had kept her family informed as to her whereabouts, but then her letters stopped coming. Unable to learn any more from Henry other than that he and Rosa had met in the Crimea and that Rosa is now missing, Mariella sets off for the war zone herself, determined to find her lost cousin and to hear the truth about her relationship with Henry.

Mariella is an unlikely heroine to be undertaking such an epic journey. Coming from a comfortable middle class background, she has led a very sheltered life and so far her only involvement in the war has been sticking maps and newspaper cuttings into a scrapbook. She represents the Victorian ideal – quiet, obedient, devoted to her parents and conforming to society’s expectations in every way – but for most of the book, I found her very unlikeable. Not only does she lack personality, she’s also quite selfish – probably a product of her upbringing as she has never been encouraged to show any real empathy for people less fortunate than herself.

In contrast, Rosa is a much more engaging character – strong, courageous, determined to achieve her ambition of becoming a nurse and making a difference to people’s lives. I think most authors would have chosen to tell Rosa’s story rather than Mariella’s, so I was intrigued by Katharine McMahon’s decision to write from the perspective of the boring, uninteresting Mariella who, until Rosa disappears, seems content to sit at home with her needlework. Of course, there’s some character development eventually and the journey across Europe does begin to gradually change Mariella’s outlook on life, but it’s always Rosa who drives the plot forward despite being physically absent for most of the novel. Similarly, it seemed at first that Henry would be the main male love interest in the book, but the real hero turns out to be someone unexpected. I was impressed by the way McMahon has us thinking we know which characters we’re supposed to like or dislike, then turns everything around and makes us think again.

This is possibly the first novel I’ve read with the Crimean War as the setting. I’ve read other books set in that time period where the war has been referred to, but I can’t think of any that have actually taken us to the heart of the action – Florence Nightingale’s base at the hospital in Scutari, the sites of the Battle of Balaclava and the Battle of Inkerman, and the besieged city of Sebastopol (or Sevastopol as we would normally call it now). McMahon doesn’t try to portray the war in any kind of romantic way, concentrating instead on the mistakes made by the British and French commanders and the terrible human cost, with large numbers of deaths and casualties. The idea of allowing women to nurse wounded soldiers was very new at that time and we see how some of the women volunteering to join Florence Nightingale were turned down because they were too young or too attractive; they had to meet a strict set of criteria because everything they did would be reported in the British media and Nightingale wanted nothing to damage the reputation of the nursing team she had put together.

I really enjoyed this book and if any of you have read any others set during the Crimean War I would love to hear about them.

This is book 18/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 46/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy The Wolf Den as much as I did. A book about prostitutes in a Pompeii brothel didn’t sound very appealing to me, particularly as Ancient Rome has never been one of my favourite settings for historical fiction, yet it has turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list this year. Once I got into the story I found it difficult to put down and am looking forward to reading the second book (this is the first in a planned trilogy).

Set in 74 AD, just a few years before Pompeii will be destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, this is the story of Amara, the daughter of a doctor from the Greek town of Aphidnai, who is sold into slavery after her father’s death. Following a series of misfortunes she has ended up at the notorious Wolf Den brothel owned by the moneylender Felix. Amara and her fellow She-Wolves are treated as commodities, existing only to give pleasure to their clients and to make money for Felix. The women have lost not only their freedom but also their identities and even their original names. It’s a miserable life, but Amara finds some comfort in the friendships she has formed with the other prostitutes.

The women working at the Wolf Den come from a diverse range of backgrounds – from Greece, from Carthage or from Egypt, abandoned at birth, taken captive by slave traders or, like Amara, sold off by their own families. There are just five of them at the beginning of the book – Amara, Victoria, Dido, Cressa and Beronice – although more will arrive later as Felix continues to make ‘investments’ in his business. Each of the five, despite some clients seeing them as interchangeable, has her own distinctive personality and her own way of coping with the situation she has found herself in. Not all of the women can remember life before the brothel, but Amara can and she’s determined to regain her freedom.

This is the first book I’ve read set in Pompeii (I do have a copy of Robert Harris’ Pompeii somewhere, which I’ll get round to eventually) and I loved following Amara around the bustling, vibrant city, going into the shops, taverns and bathhouses, taking part in the Vinalia festivities and watching the gladiators in the amphitheatre. We also see inside the beautiful villas owned by Pompeii’s rich and powerful when Amara and Dido are booked to entertain at private parties and get a glimpse of the lives that could have been theirs under different circumstances. Although most of the characters in the book are fictional, the Roman author, naturalist and military leader Pliny the Elder makes an appearance and has an important role to play in the plot. Finally, real pieces of graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii are used in the chapter headings, adding some further historical authenticity to the story.

The Wolf Den is not always an easy book to read; the nature of the story means there are some quite graphic descriptions of both the women’s work within the brothel and the violence they are often subjected to by the men who pay for their services. Elodie Harper doesn’t shy away from having bad things happen to her characters, but there’s some warmth and humour in the novel too, as well as the beginnings of a romance between Amara and another slave. I can’t wait to read The House with the Golden Door to see how the story continues.

This is book 17/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 45/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull

Richard Hull’s The Murder of My Aunt is one of the best books I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series. I’ve since read some of his others, available from a different publisher (Agora Books) and apart from Left-Handed Death, which was quite entertaining, they were disappointing in comparison. I hoped for better things from Excellent Intentions, another BLCC book. If nothing else, it has a lovely autumnal cover!

First published in 1938, Excellent Intentions begins in the courtroom. We know that someone is on trial for murder – but who is it? We will have to wait until the end of the book to find out; it’s a clever and unusual structure, with the details of the crime unfolding through a series of flashbacks as the witnesses provide the evidence and the jurors listen to the cases put forward by prosecution and defence. This format works very well as it allows us to see the story from lots of different angles and look for clues that will help us to guess who it is that has been accused.

We do know that the victim is Henry Cargate, a rude and unpleasant man who has made himself very unpopular since moving into the ‘big house’ in the village of Scotney End. On the day of his death a problem with his car forces him to take a train into town and just as the train leaves the station he is seen by another passenger to take a large pinch of snuff. Seconds later he is dead. As Cargate was known to have a weak heart, it is at first assumed that he has died of natural causes – until his snuff is found to have been laced with potassium cyanide, bought by the victim himself to destroy a wasps’ nest.

Because Cargate is such a horrible man – a man who ‘wanted to do nobody any good’ – there are plenty of people who could have had a reason for wanting him dead. However, there are only four who could have had access to the snuffbox and the poison, both of which were kept in Cargate’s own study. There’s Mr Yockleton, the vicar, whom Cargate had accused of stealing an emerald the day before the murder; Raikes the butler and Miss Knox Forster, the secretary, both members of Cargate’s household; and finally, Andrew Macpherson, a dealer in stamps. Cargate is a keen stamp collector and he and Macpherson had recently had a disagreement over whether some of the stamps in his collection were fakes. I should warn you here that we learn a huge amount about different types of stamps and their colours, markings and perforations, which you may or may not find interesting!

Any of these four people could have committed the murder, but only one has been accused and it’s up to the jury to decide whether this person really is the culprit. As the trial continues, we hear how Inspector Fenby, the detective investigating the crime, has decided who he thinks was responsible – and this is where I started to lose interest a little bit. There’s a lot of focus on alibis, timings, the positions of the snuffbox and the poison on Cargate’s desk, and who could have been in certain rooms during certain periods without being seen. This is never my favourite kind of mystery as I find it difficult to keep all of these things straight in my mind; I tend to prefer books that concentrate more on the motives of the characters and less on the technicalities of the crime.

I loved the ending, though. Even after we find out who it is that’s on trial, there’s another twist to come! This was an entertaining read overall and I would still like to read Keep It Quiet and Murder Isn’t Easy, the only other two Hull novels currently in print that I haven’t read yet.

This is book 16/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Haven by Emma Donoghue

I’ve read four books by Emma Donoghue now and each one has been completely different from the one before! Haven is a particularly unusual novel and even after finishing it I’m still not quite sure what I really think of it.

The setting is 7th century Ireland and the novel begins with a stranger arriving at the monastery of Cluain Mhic Nóis on the banks of the River Shannon. His name is Artt and he claims to have had a dream, a vision sent by God:

‘An island in the sea. I saw myself there. As if I were a bird or an angel, looking down on the three of us.’


‘I was with an old monk, and a young one.’ The Abbot shows no sign of understanding him. ‘The dream is an instruction to withdraw from the world. To set out on pilgrimage with two companions, find this island, and found a monastic retreat.’

Artt persuades the Abbot to let him take a small boat and go in search of the island, accompanied by two other monks: the elderly Cormac, who came to religion late in life after losing his loved ones to plague, and Trian, a young man given to the monastery by his parents as a child. The three monks set off in the boat and eventually come to the uninhabited rocky island of Skellig Michael, where they prepare to live in seclusion together for the rest of their lives.

There’s really not much more to the plot than that, but what could have been an extremely boring book is surprisingly absorbing in the hands of Emma Donoghue. I found it interesting to see how the three men set about establishing their own little settlement on the island and how different their views were on what is necessary for survival. Skellig Michael is a harsh, remote and inhospitable place; looking at photos, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to live there, but monks (not the ones in the novel, who are fictional) really did build a monastery there. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was used as a location for two of the recent Star Wars films.

Cormac, the most practical of the three, believes that their immediate priority should be to build shelter for themselves ready for the winter, but Artt – or ‘the Prior’ as he now calls himself – insists that there will be time for this later and that their time should first be spent on constructing an altar, a chapel and a stone cross. Meanwhile Trian is kept busy fishing and capturing the puffins and other seabirds that will provide them with meat and eggs, as well as fuel and fat for candles. I should tell you that there are a lot of graphic descriptions of gutting fish and killing birds, which I felt became repetitive and excessive – but I think maybe Donoghue has a message here for us, a warning regarding humans’ destruction of the environment and the wildlife that shares our planet:

But Trian struggles to believe that such a variety of lightsome and beautiful birds have formed in their translucent ovoid caskets, broken out of them, walked, cried out to their brethren, taken flight, over and over for these thousands of years…all so Trian can now fling them down to flame and char on a cooking fire.

I disliked Artt more and more as the story progressed and he became increasingly fanatical and adamant that ‘God would provide’, refusing to listen to the concerns of the other two monks. I also found my attention wandering whenever Cormac began to tell one of his many stories about the saints. The ideal reader for this book would have a much stronger interest in Christianity than I do, I think! There’s a revelation near the end which I had suspected all along, and although it came as no surprise to me, it does provide a turning point in the story – but just as things were starting to get exciting, the book ended. It’s a strange novel, as I said, and won’t necessarily appeal to people who’ve enjoyed Emma Donoghue’s other books (it’s nothing like the other three I’ve read – Room, Frog Music or The Wonder), but it’s a short, quick read and worth picking up if anything I’ve said about it has piqued your interest!

Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 14/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 42/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

August’s theme for the Read Christie 2022 challenge is ‘a story set in a hot climate’, so the recommended title, Destination Unknown, which is set in North Africa, was the perfect choice. I was a bit apprehensive about reading this one because it doesn’t seem to get very good reviews and it’s certainly not one of Christie’s better known novels (in fact it’s one of only four of her books never to have been adapted for TV or film), but I found it entertaining enough.

We first meet our heroine, Hilary Craven, in a Casablanca hotel room, preparing to commit suicide. Her daughter has died, her marriage has broken down and she feels she has nothing to live for. Before she can go through with her plans, however, she is interrupted by Jessop, a British secret agent. Jessop has noticed a resemblance between Hilary and another woman, Olive Betterton, who has been fatally injured in a plane crash, and he has an interesting suggestion to make…

It is believed that Olive was on her way to Morocco to join her husband, Thomas Betterton, a renowned nuclear physicist who recently went missing in Paris. Betterton is one of several scientists from around the world who have all disappeared without trace. Jessop wants Hilary Craven to impersonate the dying woman in the hope that she will be able to locate Betterton and the other missing scientists. With nothing to lose, Hilary agrees.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis of the plot, this is not a murder mystery like most of Christie’s other books and it does not feature any of her famous characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence. It’s much more of a thriller, with elements of spy/espionage fiction. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel – although the plot is undoubtedly a bit far-fetched and unlikely, I do like a good impersonation story and was interested to see how Hilary would cope with her task and where following Betterton’s trail would lead her to. I also loved the descriptions of Morocco and wished we could have spent more time in Casablanca and Fez before Hilary’s adventures took her off into the High Atlas mountains:

All about her were the walls of old Fez. Narrow winding streets, high walls, and occasionally, through a doorway, a glimpse of an interior or a courtyard, and moving all around her were laden donkeys, men with their burdens, boys, women veiled and unveiled, the whole busy secret life of this Moorish city. Wandering through the narrow streets she forgot everything else, her mission, the past tragedy of herself, even her life.

As is typical of Christie, the plot takes lots of twists and turns, there are some surprises and we are never sure which of the many characters Hilary meets can and cannot be trusted. However, later in the book, when we discover what has happened to the missing scientists, it all becomes quite bizarre and I felt that the motive behind the disappearances was quite weak and implausible. Remembering that the book was published in 1954, though, the world war which ended less than ten years earlier must have been on Christie’s mind, as well as post-war politics and the Cold War; there are references to creating a ‘new world order’ and a mysterious figure whose charisma and power of oration makes Hilary think of Hitler.

Hilary herself is less engaging than the heroines of some of Christie’s other thrillers, such as Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit and Victoria Jones in They Came to Baghdad, and the book overall is not as much fun as those two. I find the thrillers a nice change from the mysteries, though, and I did enjoy this one despite finding the first half much stronger than the second. I’m not sure whether I’ll take part in Read Christie in September – the theme is ‘a story with a female adventurer’ and the group read is They Came to Baghdad which, as I’ve just mentioned, I’ve already read (and loved, but don’t want to read again just yet). I might see if there’s an alternative title I could read to fit that theme instead, or maybe I’ll wait and join in again in October.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.