Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Fashion. Titanic. Scandal ... My Local Connection

I recently read and reviewed the book "The Dressmaker" by Kate Alcott.  A principal character in the book was Lady Lucile Duff Gordon.  I knew that the character in the book was based on a real person, an early 20th century fashion designer and fashion innovator.

 She was a trendsetter; introducing the first runway fashion show with live models, designing a line of "ready-to-wear" designer clothes for women and designing fashion/costumes for Broadway plays.

Unfortunately, despite her enormous contribution to the early days of the fashion industry what Lucile is most known for is being on the Titanic's first and only voyage and her allegedly deplorable, (dare I say it?) inhumane behavior as the ship went down.

What I did not know, and learned through happenstance watching a local news broadcast, was that Lady Duff Gordon had a local connection to my little part of the world.  I was puttering around in the kitchen getting supper things cleared from the table when her name being announced caught my attention.  So I immediately began listening a little more closely.  I learned that Lady Duff Gordon had lived part of her, somewhat notorious, life in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.  And ... the Guelph Civic Museum happened to be having an exhibit featuring her that was going on right now.  Well ... I knew I had to visit the exhibit.  After all, there is no such thing as coincidence, right?  So this past Victoria Day weekend I spent a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon exploring the Guelph Civic Museum - a lovely building that I not visited before - and learning just a little bit more about this woman with the local connection.

The exhibit was staged on two floors of the museum, the first floor dedicated to her early years in Guelph and the "Titanic Incident" and the third floor dedicated to actual samples of her dresses and fashion innovations.

She is partly responsible to getting women out of corsets and fashioning more
comfortable lingerie.  Sounds like the Victoria Secret of her time.  There is still a line of lingerie marketed under the "Lucile, Established 1890" label today.


Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born on July 13, 1863 to Douglas Sutherland, a Toronto civil engineer and his wife Elinor Saunders, an Anglo-French-Canadian.

As I was wandering the exhibit I overheard two other patrons, rather elderly ladies, discussing the picture of the house were Lucile was raised ... commenting that the house is still standing albeit sans wrap around porch.  All right ... YES! ... I WAS eavesdropping.

Lucile began sewing early in her life.  There probably wasn't much else to do in Guelph in the late 1800's?   At the age of seven she began making dresses for her dolls with materials from cases of cast off clothes and fabrics which were sent yearly from relatives in France.  She soon moved on to making dresses for herself and her sister, future novelist Elinor Glyn.

Lucile married for the first time in 1884, when she wed James Stuart Wallace.  Alas, despite having a child together, daughter Esme, the marriage was not a happy one.  Wallace was a alcoholic and was involved in several not so discreet love affairs.  Lucile consoled herself in love affairs of her own and in 1890 they separated and Lucile began divorce proceedings.  In 1900 she married Cosmo Duff Gordon, a wealthy Scottish landowner and sportsman.


After her divorce from Wallace Lucile had supported herself and her daughter by working as a dressmaker.  Before long she had opened Maison Lucile, in the fashionable west end of London.  From all accounts Sir Cosmo supported Lucile's venture's into the fashion industry and invested in her business.  In 1910 she opened her first "fashion house" in New York City.  It was an almost instant success and it wasn't long before she moved to a larger venue.

Lucile made a name for herself on Broadway as well, designing many fashionable costumes for the stage and for the new phenom - the silver screen.  One of her frequent and loyal customers was Ontario born movie legend Mary Pickford.

Lucille Limited can rightly be called the first international leading house of couture as in addition to her New York house, she opened a house in Paris in 1911 and in Chicago in 1915.  She was legitimately international with couture houses in three countries. 

Despite her success, the "French fashion world was scornful" and she often found herself the subject of cartoonists because of her innovative and the, hitherto unheard of,  idea of using "live mannequins" to model her clothes.

Lady Duff Gordon would enlist pretty shop girls working for her, dress them in her designer clothes and parade them around the room as "live mannequins" while patrons enjoyed tea and treats.  Although the practice was scoffed at and ridiculed at the time, we all know how that turned out ... can we say Milan, Paris, New York and Toronto Fashion Weeks!



With her success as a fashion designer and her husband being a Baronet, money seemed to be no object for the Duff Gordons.  Needing to travel to America they booked first class passage on maiden voyage of the ill-fated Titanic.  For some unknown reason they booked their passage under the names Mr. and Mrs. Morgan.  Of course we all know that the Titanic hit an iceberg and began to sink.  As passengers were being evacuated Lucile, Cosmo and Lucile's secretary Laura Francatelli were placed in Lifeboat 1, the fourth lifeboat to be launched approximately one hour after the ship struck the iceberg.  The lifeboat was a "cutter" designed for the emergency use of the Titanic crew so had less seats than the other lifeboats.  Despite it's smaller size (pictured below) it still had a maximum capacity of 40 people and was launched with only 12 persons aboard.  Despite the infamous call for "women and children first" Lifeboat 1 carried 10 male passengers (seven of whom were crew members).

Lifeboat 1 was dubbed "the money boat" because of it's not near capacity cargo and rumors that Lord Duff Gordon had bribed the seamen on board to
keep rowing and not allow any of the multitude of people in the water to climb into the lifeboat.  Taking a page from Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake" guide, Lady Duff Gordon even commented to her secretary that it was too bad that she had now lost her "beautiful nightdress". 

A general inquiry was held into the sinking of the Titanic and fueled by pressure from the tabloid press in both the United States and England a special inquiry was held into the circumstances surrounding the launch of Lifeboat 1.  The appearance of Lord and Lady Duff Gordon, the only passengers called to testify at any of the Titanic inquiries, resulted in the largest crowd of spectators.  Lord and Lady Duff Gordon were never formally charged in any wrong doing but the court did admonish that "occupants of Lifeboat 1 should have made a more concerted effort to rescue survivors from the water".


Lucile Duff Gordon really had no luck when it came to traveling by sea and it could even be said that she had somewhat of a charmed life when it came to boat and ship disasters ...

When her mother remarried she and her sister moved to the Isle of Jersey with their mother and her new husband, David Kennedy.  In 1875 following a visit to relatives in England, Lucy and her sister Elinor survived a shipwreck when their ship ran aground in a gale force storm.

Lucile escaped with her life when the Titanic hit an iceberg.

In 1915 Lucile had booked passage on the RMS Lusitania.  It was reported that due to illness she cancelled her trip at the last minute.  On that voyage, where Lady Duff Gordon should have been aboard,
the Lusitania was hit by a German torpedo and sank.

I guess three times is the charm. 


A few years back I went to an exhibit of "Story Quilts" entitled "From Oma to Oma" which left me with a bit of a fascination of how people can make quilts to reflect a story as clearly as any written on a page.  There was one such quilt, crafted by fabric artist John Willard, hanging as part of this exhibit entitled "A Night to Remember".  It was a beautifully crafted piece of art and looking like the caps of waves were the names of all the passengers and crew members that sailed on the Titanic on that fateful voyage.  I was able to locate the names of Lucile and Cosmo Duff Gordon and Lucile's secretary, Laura Francatelli (admittedly with a little prompting from an arrow on the descriptive picture posted along side the quilt) as well as the name of another rather well known survivor, the "unsinkable" Molly Brown (which I found all on my own - thank you).

And since this after all a "book" blog I had to include the following which were displayed among the object in glass cabinets filled with the smaller sized mementos of Lucile's life and accomplishments.  Two first edition books concerning Lucile and her family.  Lucile herself wrote two autobiographies, the American first edition of the first autobiography was on display.

Lucile's sister, Elinor Glyn, was a rather well known author.  She was a journalist, screen writer and author who was quite notorious in her own life, causing scandal on both sides of the ocean.  It is widely accepted that Ms. Glyn was this first to coin the phrase "It Girl" in her novel "The Man and the Moment" which throughout the 1920's was a common term referring to "sex appeal".

Her book "Letters to Caroline" was also included and it features an original sketch by Lucille on the front flyleaf.

A rather sad sidebar to this exhibit is based on another "local connection".  Thomson Beattie was born in Fergus, Ontario which is 20 Km north of Guelph.  Thomson and two friends were traveling on a winter vacation when one of his friends became sick and had to return home.  Tired of traveling themselves Thomson and his other friend, lifelong companion Thomas McCaffry, decided to make their way home as well booking passage on the Titanic.  Thomas wrote his mother before leaving "we are changing ships and coming home in a new, unsinkable, boat".

Beattie and his companions did make it on to one of the last available lifeboats, a collapsible, but died of exposure waiting for rescue.  A month after the Titanic went down, from the deck of the liner Oceanic, a lifeboat was seen bobbing in the water.  The three bodies in the raft were sewn into canvas bags and buried at sea.  Thomson Beattie was still wearing the evening clothes he had worn on the Titanic that last night.

In a coincidence odd enough to give you goose flesh ... Thomson Beattie was buried at sea on his mother's birthday at almost the exact spot were where she had been born 82 years earlier ... in the Atlantic ocean on a ship bound for Canada.

He is remembered with a stone on the family grave site in Fergus, Ontario.

So very many things I learned today because of one name in a book!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Dressmaker - A Review


Tess Collins always knew she was destined for better things than being a house girl for some aristocratic family in France, so she scrimped and saved and without telling anyone paid for passage aboard a ship bound for the New York.  She knew she was right about her destiny when she not only caught the eye of two gentlemen on board, one a sailor the other a wealthy Chicago businessman, but also of Lady Lucille Duff Gordon, the foremost female dress designer of the time.  Just as things were looking up for Kate – a little quicker than she had an even dared hope – disaster struck.  As it turns out Kate’s passage was on the Titanic.

Tess is one of the fortunate few third class passengers that made it onto a lifeboat and she realizes that happened only because Lady Duff Gordon had allowed her to stay in first class as her personal assistant.  Of course, Tess feels indebted to the designer and being an aspiring seamstress herself welcomes the opportunity to work with Lady Duff Gordon in New York.

Lucille is not an easy person to like under the best circumstances, but when allegations are being made public about her behavior in her Titanic lifeboat Tess begins to question the woman’s morals.  Add to that being courted by both the men from the ship Tess’s life in New York is spinning a little out of control.

The reader knows from the first that Tess’s ship is the ill-fated Titanic so that itself lends itself to the anticipation of a good story.  The reader also knows that this is a historical romance so a little relationship angst is also expected.  Ms. Alcott gives us those and so much more in “The Dressmaker”.  The inclusion of some of the ugly Titanic survivor stories, Senator Smith’s inquisition questioning the lifeboat situation, the fallout from that and the inclusion of characters taken from the pages of history, such as reporter Pinky Wade, based (I believe) loosely on real life investigative reporter Nelly Bly.

As so often happens when I read historical fiction I let go of the fictional part and start to focus on the backstory.  Soon enough I was not as caught up in Tess’s romantic problems and more fascinated by the intrigue surrounding the upper-class Titanic survivors.  Ms. Alcott certainly did her homework as far as the historical accuracy was concerned.  In my opinion that made “The Dressmaker a better than average read.

Four stars for this one.

Interestingly enough, as I listened to the last disc of this audio book (shout out to narrator Susan Duerden) a segment was announced on my local news about Lady Lucille Duff Gordon.  I had no idea there was local connection to this historical figure.  Apparently Lucy Christiana Sutherland was born in London, England and raised in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.  Guelph’s local civic museum is hosting an exhibition featuring Lady Duff Gordon; her life and contributions as a fashion trend setting designer and her misadventures on the Titanic.  I am definitely going to check that out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website)

Kate Alcott is the pseudonym for journalist Patricia O’Brien, who has written several books, both fiction and nonfiction. As Kate Alcott, she is the author of The Dressmaker, The Daring Ladies of Lowell, and A Touch of Stardust. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Author photo © Marianna Koval

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Lost and Gone Forever - A Review


In “Lost and Gone Forever” we revisit with the Scotland Yard Murder Squad.  The faces are all familiar but so much has changed since the previous book.  Nevil Hammersmith is no longer part of the murder squad.  He has moved on to running his own private investigations office, but aside from the odd missing persons case handled by his co-worker, Nevil has only one case that he cares to investigate – the disappearance of Walter Day – believed to be kidnapped by Jack the Ripper.

Day is eventually found but not through any of Nevil’s tireless pursuits.  Day is free but he also carries a secret that makes him a very dangerous man.

Can things ever go back to being as they once were or has Saucy Jack irrevocably damaged everything?

This is another good entry into the Murder Squad series.  And, in my opinion this one, over any other of the books in the series, would definitely not work as a standalone novel.  If you’re a fan of historical thrillers and this story piques your interest, do yourself a huge favor and pick up the others first … you won’t be disappointed.

With that bit of encouragement out of the way I must admit that the first third of this installment had me scratching my head a little.  It seemed like a major deviation from the past books.  Yes, the characters were all present and accounted for.  Yes, the reader is privy to what has happened since we left our friends approximately one year ago.  And yes, the reader is allowed to breath a sigh of relief that Walter Day has not perished at the hands of The Ripper.  Still, I began to enjoy the story a little more when “the gang” was all reunited in their attempt to apprehend the elusive Jack.

Again, Victorian London is well represented and the addition of a few new characters moves the action along nicely.  Buried secrets and lies are finally revealed and Mr. Grecian has thrown in a shocker that I NEVER saw coming.  With that he ensures I will be definitely be picking up the next installment.  Oh yes!!  I am sure there will be another Murder Squad book and I am looking forward to it.

A solid four stars for this one from this fan of the series.

I received this book at no charge from the publisher, Penguin Group Putnam via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from his website)

Alex Grecian is the national bestselling author of the “Scotland Yard Murder Squad” novels, including The Yard,The Black Country, and the forthcoming The Devil’s Workshop. After leaving a career in advertising, working on accounts that included Harley-Davidson and The Great American Smokeout, Alex returned to his first love: writing fiction. He co-created the long-running and critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof, which NPR named one of the best books of 2009. One of the Proof storylines is set in the 1800’s and inspired Alex’s debut novel The Yard.

He has also written an original “Murder Squad” e-book, The Blue Girl, and an original graphic novel, Seven Sons, as well as a multitude of short stories, both comics and prose, for various anthologies. 

He lives in the Midwest with his wife and son. 

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Caller - A Review

THE CALLER by Dan Krzyzkowski

Leslie Calloway’s life did not necessarily follow the path she had anticipated, but all in all it was good.  She felt fortunate so she wanted to give back in some way.  Events in her past made volunteering at 1-800-FRIENDS, a call center for children whose parents are out of the house, a good fit.  It’s a call center set up in the basement of church with outdated phone systems, a standing protocol not to call 911 (there had been some crank call issues in the past) and manned on a totally volunteer basis.  On one particular night, with a major winter storm brewing outside, Leslie wonders how she herself is going to get home to her son and to relieve the babysitter when the phone rings.  Seven-year-old Justin is on the line and he has just told Leslie that there is a man in his basement.

So begins the hours long ordeal for Leslie on one end of the phone and Justin on the other.  Leslie does everything she knows how to do but eventually she decides protocol be damned and calls 911 … the storm must have brought down the lines and no one answers … with her heart pounding she realizes it’s just her and Justin and, despite the storm, she needs to get him out of that house.  As she is trying to save Justin the crisis takes an unexpectedly personal turn and her panic escalates.

At 164 pages this is not an exceptionally long book, but it sure does pack a punch.  Told in Leslie’s first person narrative the reader finds themselves sitting right there in the room as she continuously tries to move Justin to a safer place.  The suspense is nerve-tingling.  If you pick this book up make sure you set aside a block of time because you are going to want to read it from the first page to the last in one sitting.  I know I did.

This story takes place in 1994.  I did not think anything of that until it came to my attention that this was not just a choice by the author to (maybe) explain some of the “dated” phone equipment but due to the fact that this book was first published about ten years ago.  According to some other reviews he has revised the book, tightened up the editing and added some sections possibly fleshing out Leslie’s personal side.  Whatever compelled this revision, it worked.

I’d like to thank Mr. Krzyzkowski for sending me a copy of this book at no charge in the hope that I would post an honest review.

I read library books, previously gently loved books, brand new books where no one has cracked the spine yet and I read on my ereader as well as my tablet so I don’t often speak to the physical attributes of the books I read.  However, I want to add here that for a paperback edition this was a lovely book to hold and read.  The book has nice crisp, white, better than average quality paper with a clean font that made reading this page-turner even more enjoyable.

I am definitely going to check into Mr. Krzyzkowski other book “One Lane Bridge”.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)

Dan Krzyzkowski attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he earned a degree in psychology.  He is the author of the novel One Lane Bridge.

A writer and fisherman, Krzyzkowki lives in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and works for the U.S. Postal Service.

This One Just Didn't Work For Me


Some words that were used to describe this book were “sparkles with wit”, “sparks of humor in the deepest dark” and “tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman”.  Well, I didn’t find it any of those and almost DNF’d the book at the halfway point, but with only about 100 pages left to read I persevered hoping that after Liz/Liza/Elizabeth/Beth (even her husband can’t keep straight which name she chooses to use at any particular time in her life) grew out of her teenage angst stage she would become a character I could relate to – didn’t happen. 

Being an often-backsliding-battle-of-the-bulger myself I am frequently drawn to books featuring characters waging the same war.  Add to that the fact that the setting for part of this book was Mississauga, Ontario (or Misery-Saga as Elizabeth refers to it) the book held appeal on a few levels which enticed me to pick up.  In similarly themed books, whether the character succeeds and is blissfully happy in the their thinness, fails and comes to grips with their body or somewhere betwixt and between I am happy for them.  Elizabeth did none of those … she was miserable fat and even more so thin.  Not only that, she seemed to make everyone around her unhappy as well.

The story is written presenting short periods of Elizabeth’s life that I assume are to be the “13 ways of looking” referred to in the title.  I found this a little off-putting as the time line would jump months or years into the future with no warning or explanation of why events were now so different from the previous page.

From her disastrous teen role models through her horrific on-line dating experiences to her hard won weight loss success and eventual falling of the wagon, this book did not work for me.  Even the parts that I understood were supposed to be humorous just seemed sad.  For me, everything about this one just did not work.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book cover)

Mona Awad was born in Montreal and received her MFA in fiction from Brown University.  Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, the Walrus, Joyland, Post Road, St. Petersburg Review and elsewhere.  She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in creative writing and English literature at the University of Denver.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Teacher - A Review

THE TEACHER by Katerina Diamond

“The Teacher” is a solid debut novel by Katerina Diamond.  That’s not to say that it does not have its flaws, but still a very enjoyable read for fans of the crime/thriller genre.  Is it even appropriate to use the word “enjoyable” for a novel this gruesome?  The tag line “Not for the faint of heart” is a valid warning.

As the book opens the head master at a very prestigious private school in Devon receives a package.  He knows what the package contains without opening it and is also aware of the fact that it foreshadows his death.  He is not wrong.  The next morning he is found hanging from the rafters in the school’s assembly hall.  Before he died he sent a very cryptic note to someone, simply saying “HE HAS RETURNED”.

So begin a series of murders … one more ghoulishly gory than the next … perpetrated on influential, well-respected members of the local community.  DS Miles, just recently returned to duty after an enforced leave and DS Grey, new to the detachment, catch the first case but in a sudden turn of events the powers that be are doing everything they can to keep them at arm’s length from the investigation.  Circumstances, however, have a different agenda and the two investigators keep getting drawn in further and further, until it seems they themselves might not survive this case.

Admittedly, the plot itself is not a new one – revenge for past sins – it has been done countless times before.  As a probably unfair example because their release dates were to close together, but having recently read “Brotherhood in Death” by J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts) this book is a hair’s breadth away from being called “fan fiction”, but Ms. Diamond does give it a couple of new twists.  It is page-turner and I enjoyed the read.

Now about those flaws I mentioned at the beginning of this review?  The writing (editing?) could have been a little better as some parts were confusing; too many similar character names … Abbey, Adrian, Andrea … and then, often referring to characters by their first names and then their last names, sometimes in the same paragraph.  Throw in some nicknames and it definitely required some rereading of sentences to keep them all straight.  Not something I want to do when I’m reading an otherwise fast paced crime thriller.

Every character in this novel was somehow “damaged” from previous life events.  I understand an author building empathy for the characters and understanding for the character’s decisions and actions, but it would have been nice if just one person in the book had suffered no trauma – even fictional characters need a shoulder to lean on once in a while.

Frustrating for me as well, certain threads of the story were dropped along the way with no explanation or closure. (The package that arrived at the beginning of book – it seemed significant but then it was placed in a desk drawer, still unwrapped, and never mentioned again.  Did the police miss it?  Parker’s dog – in the story for a few chapters to move the action forward and then never heard from again?)

Some of the action was gratuitous and a little far-fetched (Christian’s eventual fate) even for crime thriller fiction.  Cringe-worthy to be sure but it felt slightly misplaced in the story, as if the author added it because she could.

Shaking off the first book jitters Ms. Diamond could be a crime writer to keep on the radar so I stand by my first statement; a solid debut novel and fans of crime thrillers will certainly enjoy it.  I understand that her second novel, “The Secret” is due to be released in October 2016 and also features DS’s Miles and Grey so obviously this is the first of a series.  I would not hesitate to pick it up, just to see where the story (and the writing) goes.

I’d like to thank the publisher, Harper Collins UK, Avon and Netgalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the Harper Collins website) 

Katerina Diamond was born in Weston in the seventies, and her parents owned a fish and chip shop in the Greek community. She moved to Thessaloniki in Greece and attended Greek school where she learnt Greek in just 6 months. After her parents’ divorce, they relocated to Devon. After school, and working in her uncle’s fish and chip shop, she went (briefly) to university at Derby, where she met her husband and had two children. Katerina now lives in the East Kent Coast with her husband and children. This is her first nove

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Stopped Heart - A Review

THE STOPPED HEART  by Julie Myerson

I turned the last page of this book on Sunday.  I put it on a side table and mulled it over for a little while, thinking about it every time I caught a glimpse of it lying on the table.  How was a going to try and write a review when I couldn’t even decide whether I liked the book or not?

Fair warning here, the words “time line” are going to be WAY overused in this review. 

Mary and Graham Coles are desperately trying to carry on with their lives after the devastating crime that took their two daughters.  As many people do, they decided that a change of location might help with the healing process.  Graham finds a cottage on the outskirts of a small village and instantly falls in love with it and the large garden leading to an orchard.  It even has a quaint “apple shed” at the far end of the property.  Mary is not so sure and one very early morning before they moved she got out of bed, got in the car and drove to look at the cottage one more time.  Before she even got to the door she heard someone whisper her name.  Determined to start their new life she agreed to move anyway.  Soon after they befriend another childless couple and things begin to look like they may work out after all.  But – looks can be deceiving.

This story is told in multiple time lines, the present (Mary and Graham), the not too distant past (their tragedy) and 150 years into the past (the, also tragic, history of the original family in the cottage).  Multiple time lines is never a deal breaker for me when reading a book, in fact truth be told, I enjoy that particular writing tool.  In “The Stopped Heart” it became rather confusing.  The time line would switch suddenly from one paragraph to the next in the same chapter.  It was always a sudden jolt that I never quite got used to.

I really enjoyed the story being told in each time line.  All through the book there were hints and glimmers – even bright flashes at times – that the stories were interconnected, but when I finally got to the end of the book I felt that only one of those “bright flashes” had come to fruition.  The story kept twisting and spinning; the threads tantalizing my imagination, yet those threads did not ever connect.  I expected so much more to come together at the end, particularly one specific story thread.  Again, hints and teases, then it never happened and I was quite disappointed.

Yet, there was a definite “spine chilling” aspect to each time line that I loved.  Some ghosts, a mysterious stranger, an abduction, some murders and a deliciously creepy stalker character … those were the elements that kept me reading.  And, is it a ghost if it is a glimpse of a presence from the future?

All wonderfully written.

And then … and then …

I got to the end and rather than having an “AHA!” moment I was left with a “WTF” that came at me out of the blue and somehow didn’t even make sense? 

Conflicted about this one?  I’d say!

I’m going to give it 3-stars and call it done.  After all that I still would not hesitate to recommend this book to fans of twisted stories with a supernatural element.  In fact I’d love to hear the opinion of others about this one.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from the book jacket)

Julie Myerson is the author of nine novels, including the internationally best selling “Something Might Happen”, and three works of nonfiction.  As a critic and columnist she has written for many publications including “The Guardian”, “The Financial Times”, “Harper’s Bazaar” and “The New York Times”.

The Woman in Blue - A Review

THE WOMAN IN BLUE by Elly Griffiths

This book made me want to continue on with the series.

Reading a series (this is the 8th entry) means having an investment in the characters and I like Ruth.  I like the fact that she has flaws, that she questions herself and her choices despite the fact that she is smart. I enjoy that she is middle aged and carries the baggage that comes with experience and that she is loyal to her group of very diverse friends.  One of those friends, Cathbad (and shouldn’t everyone have at least one Druid friend?), is cat sitting for a friend on the grounds of St. Simeon’s in Walsingham, a popular destination for religious gatherings and pilgrimages.  Cathbad and the cat have a love/hate relationship and late one evening while he is out looking for the once again errant feline Cathbad sees a woman in blue standing near a grave marker in the cemetery.  Believing it to be a vision of the Virgin Mary Cathbad retreats in awe.  The next morning a young woman clad in a blue cape is found in a nearby ditch, murdered.  Obviously it had not been the vision Cathbad had assumed.

DCI Harry Nelson is called in on the case.  There is no archeological mystery to be solved here, just a straight up murder, so Harry breaths a sigh of relief that there would be no reason to call Ruth in on this case.  Meanwhile, Ruth has received an email from a University friend – a fellow archeologist now turned Anglican priest – asking if they can meet when she comes to St. Simeon’s on a female church leader’s retreat.  She has been receiving threatening messages denouncing the right of women to become church leaders and was hoping Ruth could help her try and figure out the sender’s identity.  Another murder takes place and Ruth feels she needs to enlist Harry’s help as the notes and the murders could be related …

… And the circle closes!

Are the murders related to the mysterious notes?

Having been slightly disappointed with “The Ghost Fields”, the last entry in this series, “The Woman in Blue” was a welcome surprise.  This book broke out of the pattern of having a major archeological mystery to solve (although there was still a little flavor of one and I do enjoy those. They were, after all, my reason for initially beginning with this series).  Without the history to explain around an archeological find it allowed Ms. Griffith’s to tackle a more contemporary issue facing religious institutions today.  Some readers may find this entry a little heavy on the religion issue, but I felt it was integrated well into the story.  On the plus side for me, we become a little more acquainted with Cathbad and his new family.

Ms. Griffiths gives us wonderful descriptions of the countryside, as usual, and takes the reader along the twists and turns that make for a good mystery.  She also (seemingly) ties up a tension filled situation, which has been prevalent in the last two books.

I am not certain this book would work as a stand-alone for first time Ruth Galloway readers but it is definitely a strong entry into this series for fans.

I would like to thank Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing a review copy of this book at no charge in exchange for my honest opinion.

HOW I BECAME ELLY GRIFFITHS (from her website)

My name is Elly Griffiths, except it’s not really.  My real name is Domenica de Rosa and I’ve written four books under that name.  I was born in London in 1963 and my family moved to Brighton when I was five. I loved Brighton and still do – the town, the surrounding countryside and, most of all, the sea. I went to local state schools and wrote my first book when I was 11, a murder mystery set in Rottingdean, near the village where I still live. At secondary school I used to write episodes of Starsky and Hutch (early fan fiction) and very much enjoyed making my readers cry.

I did all the right things to become a writer: I read English at King’s College London and, after graduating, worked in a library, for a magazine and then as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins. I loved working in publishing and eventually became Editorial Director for children’s books at HarperCollins. All this completely put me off writing and it wasn’t until I was on maternity leave in 1998 that I wrote what would become my first published novel, The Italian Quarter.

Three other books followed, all about Italy, families and identity. By now we had two children and my husband Andy had just given up his city job to become an archaeologist. We were on holiday in Norfolk, walking across Titchwell Marsh, when Andy mentioned that prehistoric man had thought that marshland was sacred. Because it’s neither land nor sea, but something in-between, they saw it as a kind of bridge to the afterlife.  Neither land nor sea, neither life nor death. As he said these words the entire plot of The Crossing Places appeared, full formed, in my head and, walking towards me out of the mist, I saw Dr Ruth Galloway. I didn’t think that this new book was significantly different from my “Italy” books but, when she read it, my agent said, “This is crime. You need a crime name.”

And that’s how I became Elly Griffiths.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Soft in the Head - A Review

SOFT IN THE HEAD by Marie-Sabine Roger

“I’ve decided to adopt Margueritte.  She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point putting it off.  Old people have a tendency to die.”

So begins this lovely story of how a chance meeting can change your life for the better.

All his life Germain has been told he was a “half-wit” and a little “soft in the head”.  Germain was handed a horrible set of circumstances from the get-go; a father who didn’t know he existed, a mother who was abusive and provided only the bare necessities of life – not interested enough to make him attend school and who never said “I love you”.  As an adult he lived his life in the same manner; whittling to pass the time, taking jobs only to pay for living expenses and for only long enough to, once again, qualify for unemployment and spending the rest of his time in the local bar where his friends made sure he was the butt of all their jokes.  The only things he is passionate about are (occasionally) his girlfriend and his garden.

“…with people, it’s just the same: just because you’re uncultivated doesn’t mean you’re not cultivable.  You just need to stumble on the right gardener.  Find the wrong one, one with no experience and you’re a botched job.”

A meager and sad existence until one day while counting pigeons (one of his favorite past times) at the local park he strikes up a conversation with Margueritte, an elderly lady who it turns out also happens to enjoy counting the pigeons.  This most unlikely hobby to have in common sets them on the course that will change Germain’s way of looking at life and, more importantly, at himself.

Margueritte is intelligent, was a successful career woman in her younger days and most importantly to our story, she loves to read … especially out loud to Germain.  With the gift of a dictionary, some lovingly prepared helpful notes, the stunning revelation that anyone can use the library for free and news of a devastating health crisis Germain becomes determined to improve himself for Margueritte.

There were so many parts of this book that I loved; Margueritte’s patience, Germain’s determination and growth as a character, their mutual love of books and the psuedo-grandmother/grandson relationship Margueritte and Germain nurtured.

While the book is not overly lengthy it is written well, the first part feeling a bit crass and unrefined and then slowly becoming kinder and a little easier to read.  Since it is a first person narrative by Germain, this perfectly reflects his personal journey.

I enjoyed the fact that it was an ode to literacy, reading and power of words.

At times I was not certain the above were enough to offset the part of the book I did not enjoy – with the exception of Margueritte, I pretty much disliked all of the characters, including at times Germain. 

This book was translated from it’s original French, and while I am sure that it is an excellent translation, I feel that in the way that humor often does not translate well, “Soft in the Head” lost some of its necessary pathos in the same way.  I’m rating it at 3 ½ stars because it is worthwhile read for the parts that do shine.

My favorite quote from the book …

“He talks better than me, I’ll give him that.
But what use is that if he’s got nothing to say?”

I would like to thank the publisher Pushkin Press, via Netgalley, for providing me with the book at no charge in exchange for an honest review.

I did not realize that this book was also made into a film titled “My Afternoons with Margueritte”.   While I can see this being a wonderful film I must admit that in my imagination while reading the book, Gerard Depardieu is definitely not the personification I pictured as Germain.  Now my curiosity is piqued and I’ll have to see if I can hunt down this film somewhere.


Marie-Sabine Roger, born near Bordeaux in 1957, for some years worked as an elementary school teacher before she entirely devoted her time to writing. After long stays in Quebec, Madagascar and Reunion Island, she now lives with her family in Charente, West France. Her novels have been awarded with several prizes and translated into numerous languages. She last charmed hundreds of thousands with “The Labyrinth of Words”, “The Poet of Small Things” and “Life is a Cunning Cat”.