Over the past couple of weeks my mind has been more than usually occupied by family matters and my reading time shrank to almost nothing on some days. But reading has always been my way preferred way of escaping for a few moments or winding down when necessary so I was still looking for things to read, even if not the new adventures and challenging tales that I enjoy most.
The second to last book that Dick Francis co-authored with his son was Even Money. As always it features a bloke who has something to do with horse-racing (in this case he’s a bookmaker) who experiences some unexpected unrest in his life (here it is the appearance of the father he’d thought long dead followed closely by witnessing the man’s murder) which he has to resolve to his peril while dealing with day-to-day life’s tribulations (a wife with severe mental health issues and rough treatment by the ‘big boys’ of his business). I could probably have re-read any of Francis’ 41 earlier books and gotten roughly the same amount of enjoyment and comfort as I received from reading the new one but that’s kinda the point of reading Dick Francis. At least for me. While the details might change the basic formula doesn’t and when you need an engaging if not particularly surprising story which contains enough of a puzzle to keep you interested and characters you are going to enjoy watching overcome their problems (because they undoubtedly will) then Dick Francis is your man. As with most of his books, Even Money is well-written, containing enough detail about a new subject (bookmaking) to keep it interesting, and its characters are engaging. There’s even some humour which might be the influence of Francis’ son and co-author because it’s not been much of a feature of previous novels, and the depiction of someone with mental health problems and the impact this has on loved ones is very credible which shows off the good research, another feature of the Francis novels. Rating 3/5
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I have never read any of M C Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series before which makes it an unusual choice for comfort reading. However the audio book of Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House is narrated by Penelope Keith who, aside from being a terrific English actress, is someone synonymous with my childhood. There always seemed to be one of her shows on our TV and her voice is one my ears would know anywhere and I thought I might enjoy hearing her again.
The story is almost laughably simple, Agatha Raisin is a middle-aged woman who has left London for a small English village where she has gained the reputation of being an amateur sleuth. Her new next-door neighbour is handsome Paul Chatterton and when they hear that the house of an elderly lady is being haunted the pair decide to investigate. I’ll leave the remaining few surprises up to you to discover should you have a yen to but I wouldn’t hurry. The plot has significant holes and the characters aren’t likable enough that you’d be genuinely interested in the endless boring details of their lives. Agatha Raisin is plain silly, dithering about changing her outfits every time she is due to meet her neighbour and fantasizing about him asking her to marry him despite the fact he is already married and has shown barely a ripple of romantic interest in her. Her crime solving skills are negligible at best and if I met her in the real world I’d have to fight the urge to slap her as she is pretty much everything I despise in a woman all wrapped up in a single package. I don’t actually think it’s much of a recommendation that the book was suitable for paying minimal attention to while sitting in hospital waiting rooms and keeping me awake while driving late at night. However much of my attention was held by the book is due to Penelope Keith’s acting talents and not Beaton’s storytelling ones but even Keith can only do so much with such poor source material. Rating 2/5
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The last comfort read might seem an odd choice because I am not a huge fan of PD James (I know that’s a heretical thought for a crime fiction buff). Apart from the fact I think her chief protagonist Adam Dalgliesh is an insufferable bore I find James’ books beautifully written but incredibly slow which is usually a turn-off. However slow was just what I was looking for on this occasion and again I chose an audio book, this time narrated superbly by Tammy Ustinov.
An Unsuitable Job for a Woman is the first of two books James has written about a young female private investigator Cordelia Gray, though Dalgliesh does make his presence felt. Cordelia is the business partner of former policeman (and colleague of the aforementioned Dalgliesh) Bernie Pryde and she arrives at work one day to find Bernie has killed himself. Just as she is trying to work out how to keep the business afloat without her senior partner she is approached by a woman acting on behalf of noted scientist Sir Robert Callender who wants Cordelia to investigate his son Mark’s suicide. In accepting the case Cordelia becomes wrapped up in the lives of wealthy Cambridge students who were Mark’s friends in order to unravel the reasons behind Mark’s death. I enjoyed meeting Cordelia who is quite determined to succeed despite not having much experience (and to prove wrong every second person she meets who makes some comment about the job of detecting being unsuitable for a woman). She uses as her guide the lessons that Bernie learned from his former boss Dalgliesh so his influence pops up throughout the book and the man himself makes a brief appearance at the end. The story is quite slow to unfold but in contrast to the Beaton book the details of the lives of the players are more interestingly revealed and the people themselves more believable and engaging. Rating 3.5/5
What about you? Do you have series or authors that you turn to for comfort reading?
Don’t laugh, but it’s Tim Winton. Or Murray Bail. Somehow their stories (which may make Australians gag) feel sweet and comforting.
I wouldn’t dare laugh Amy – people should take their comfort where they can. You’ve made me feel guilty though as I have never read a Murray Bail novel and not only is he an Aussie but he’s from my home town. Bad me.
Thanks on the reviews. I don’t think I could read about horse racing. I am glad to read an honest appraisal of Agatha Raisin, and since I haven’t read any of these books, I won’t now. Haven’t read about Cordelia Gray, but saw two BBC movies about her character, and liked them very much; you might like them. The actress is very likeable, too.
I turn to Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller and Sue Grafton, although their books aren’t akin to tea and cookies, but they do it for me. I just read a Garry Disher, Blood Moon, part of the series on the two police officers. It was a nice, tidy police procedural, which got me through a stressful weekend and its exhausted aftermath. It was just what I needed, enough character development and plot to enjoy, but not taxing to my tired brain.
I also turn to Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books when I need an easy escape. (I stopped reading Lee Child; books got too wild, violent and absurd, in my opinion.) Tried to read a Harlan Coben Myron Bolitar book yesterday, but it didn’t register.
Also, David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series I enjoy. They are easy to read, witty as anything, and for animal (especially dog) lovers. If I need escape and humor, I read one of his books. As good as tea and chocolate for a boost. I smile my way through them.
I also read Donna Leon’s books to unwind, but I’ve read all of them, so am (im)patiently waiting for the next one.
Picked up an Andrea Camilleri today and raced through some pages. It’ll do.
Kathy Sue Grafton is on my list of comfort reads too, and Sara Paretsky returned to form recently and I do have her latest on my wishlist (I am however waiting for the paperback because it’s ludicrously expensive as a hardback). I’ve never read Marcia Muller or any of the Harry Bosch books though I have recently acquired one of these which I will read soon. You will miss nothing in your reading life by never picking up an Agatha Raisin book.
Oh, anything by Donna Leon (unfortunately I’ve read them all now) or Sandy McCall Smith (reading La’s Orchestra just now).
Oh, and Colin Cotterill … definitely.
Have you tried A. C. Baantjer? Fairly cosy, subtle humour, set in Amsterdam, the main character is an old and rather idiosyncratic police inspector, named DeKok. Baantjer is quite prolific, and very popular in the Netherlands, of course.
Bernadette – I love the way you put that – comfort reading. I think we all go through times when we want a comfort mystery, as opposed to another sort, and I’m glad you found those. Sorry that you didn’t think much of the Agatha Raisin, but she’s really not everyone’s cuppa. Beaton’s other series, Hamish Macbeth, is also one that a lot of people love. Don’t know if you’ve tried one of those or not, but lots of people see them as comfort reading, too.
P.D. James is definitely on my list of comfort reads. I also like re-reading Colin Dexter, Andrew Taylor (The Lydmouth series), Ruth Rendell´s Wexford novels and several other beloved series.
I am glad you liked Cordelia, and I understand that she is more to your taste than Dalgiesh. I have read the first Agatha Raisin story, and though I wasn´t greatly impressed either, I might also read something similar on a bad day when I can´t concentrate on a proper plot.
I used to read all the Dick Francises when I was in my 20s but gave up a while back – I did like them a lot in those days, though. I have never tried an Agatha Raisin though I do have one on my shelf. Like you I am ambivalent about PD James – the later books are so slow and “not of the real world” Ithink – but Unsuitable Job was my favourite. I read it ages and ages ago, and had this idea at the time that Cordelia and Dalgleish might get together, but she basically fades out in subsequent Dalgliesh books (more’s the pity as I did not much like Kate Miskin who was introduced fairly late on as a sort of “”hat tip” to the modern “career woman world”….)
As for comfort reads – I suppose any of my favourite series count in that way…eg as others have mentioned, Harry Bosch or Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books. Harlan Coben, Linwood Barclay, etc are undemanding and usually fairly upbeat in the end. Elly Griffiths is becoming one! Nicci French is usually a good absorbing thrill, though “her” next books will be a series (previously they are standalones) so I wonder if that will make a difference?
I’ve read that Agatha Raisin book. I hated it and couldn’t agree more about wanting to give her a slap. The book infuriated me so much I never want to see another Raisin book again.
Although I haven’t read any of Dick Francis’s books I’ve read a few of PD James’s, including that one, which I enjoyed. I include her books in my comfort reads and also Agatha Christie’s, along with Ruth Rendell and some non crime fiction writers like Susan Howatch.
I forgot but was reminded here that I do like Linwood Barclay and Elly Griffiths; my only wish is that they both had more books out. Margaret Maron’s books, set in North Carolina, are also easy and pleasant reads about Judge Deborah Knott, Linda Barnes’ Carlotta Carlyle books are fun, too.
Marcia Muller’s latest book, “Locked-In,” for which she was an award, is not so comforting, but it’s good and interesting.