Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Catching up

I seem to spend half my life writing 'catch-up' book posts. These two couldn't be more different... I often look for similarities when doing multiple book review posts and it's fun when I find them, but there are none in these two - a non-fiction travelogue and a vintage whodunnit.

First up, Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie by Andrew P. Sykes.

I saw this one on Goodreads, someone I follow reads a lot of travel books so I pick up loads of recs from him. I gather this is Andrew Sykes's third travel book, trust me to start on the last one but I honestly don't think it matters at all. He decides to cycle from the most southerly tip of Spain, Tarifa, to the most northerly tip of Norway, Nordkapp. This takes him through Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. My kind of book... I like cycling travelogues and have an interest in most of these countries, especially France, Sweden and Norway. The author is very good at describing the landscapes he's travelling through but not overdoing it with a load of purple prose. Naturally he meets a lot of different people. I sympathised with him over the English cyclist he met who was only interested in talking about himself and didn't ask a single thing about Sykes's journey: we all know people like that. He did, however, meet some really nice people including a German father and daughter who were friendly and helpful... although another lone German cyclist, Helmut, was a terrible misery and bore and Sykes had trouble avoiding him. It only goes to show I suppose that all kinds of people take to the road on bikes for all sorts of reasons, just like all walks of life. An excellent travel read and I'll definitely be searching out Andrew Sykes's other two books, Crossing Europe on a Bike Called Reggie and Along the Med on a Bike Called Reggie... especially that Med one. Naturally, Devon Libraries hasn't got either.


Lastly, Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs.

Miss Tither is the village busybody in the English village of Hilary Magna. Nothing and no one escapes her interfering attention and religious zeal. Straying husbands, courting couples in the woods, athiests, all come under her scrutiny and are told to mend their ways according to the dictates of The Bible. When her dead body is discovered in the vicar's cesspit, no one is very surprised and the list of suspects is a long one. Inspector Littlejohn from Scotland Yard is called in to help the local constabulary discover exactly how many pies Miss Tither had her finger in and which of them helped kill her.

This British Library Crime Classic was an excellent whodunnit. The large cast of characters was at times difficult to keep track of but I managed well enough. The quintessential English village was a joy even if we weren't actually told which county it was in... pedants like me need to know these things! The gorgeous cover is from a railway poster of Suffolk and the accents portrayed seemed to back this up although Hilary Magna sounds more Somerset than Suffolk. Never mind. I had no idea until the end who the culprit was, this was mainly because this was a complicated little plot with revelation after revelation as you went along, keeping you constantly guessing and changing your mind. Clever. There's also a nice vein of humour running through the story, always a plus. I wouldn't mind reading more by George Bellairs, he was apparently a Bank Manager in real life who wrote over 50 books, most of them about Inspector Littlejohn. I know the BLCC has one other volume available, a double book edition entitled, The Dead Shall be Raised & Murder of a Quack. That sounds like as good a place to start as any.

It's pretty much autumn here in the UK, my favourite time of year. Hope you have some good autumnal reading matter to keep you happy.

~~~oOo~~~

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Caves of Périgord

My first review of September is actually the last book I read in August. It's The Caves of Périgord by Martin Walker.




Lydia Dean works for a London auction house as an expert in prehistoric art. Things are not going too well with her job, she's not getting enough customers in and thus not enough publicity for her employers. A piece of prehistoric cave art, 17,000 years old, is brought to her - the owner, Major Phillip Manners, has just inherited it after his father's death and wishes to sell it. It appears his father fought with The Resistance in France during World War 2, and must have acquired it while in Périgord, near the Dordogne in southern France. But where? It's a smallish piece of rock and doesn't resemble anything found so far in, for instance, the Lascaux complex of caves. An expert is called in from France but before the cave art can be studied it's stolen from the auction house. Lydia and Manners set off for France where they believe they can find people who knew Manners' father during the war and might be able to shed some light on the origin of the piece.

In the Vézére valley in around 15,000BC a young man, Deer, an apprentice artist, is smarting after being falsely accused of an accident in the caves where his male counterparts are painting the local wildlife. He's been banned from the caves and humiliated by being made to work with the women. Deer needs to get back into the cave to paint. He also wants to become the mate of Moon, the daughter of the Keeper of the Horses, who paints horses in the caves. But he has a rival... The Keeper of the Bulls who is rapidly becoming the most powerful man in the tribe. Somehow or other he needs to solve these two problems, but how?

Three allied soldiers are working with The French Resistance in 1944, an Englishman, 'Capitaine' Manners, Phillp Manners' father, an American, McPhee, and Francois Malrand a Frenchman with a future in politics. Their job is sabotage, the teaching of it to resistance fighters. It's testing and dangerous and made much more so by the rivalry of the various factions within The Resistance. Gaullists (as in General de Gaulle), communists, Spanish fighters who fled the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, all are vying for superiority and have plans to be the dominant force after the war is over. Manners is the peace-keeper, the one with the tricky task of preventing them from killing each other rather than the Germans. His main objective though is to stop the German Das Reich division from travelling north to help stop the imminent allied invasion. In order to achieve this aim he sometimes has to make some terrible decisions.

This book could well be vying for best book of the year for me. It really is superb. I'm sometimes not a fan of a story told from different points in history. I find you no sooner get interested in what's being told about one person's story than it comes to an abrupt end and you're swept off somewhere else with a whole new set of characters to try and remember. Here though it worked very well. The sections were not short and 'bitty' but quite long and came to a natural conclusion. The most difficult part to write must've been that of Deer and Moon in 15,000BC as we don't really know much about the cave artists, but it's very well done, a realistic scenario I thought, and I loved the panoramic feel to these sections with gorgeous descriptions of the landscape of southern France.

With my current interest in The French Resistance I found the 1944 sections the most interesting. A lot of it mirrored some of the non-fiction I've been reading recently, particulary the political elements Edward Stourton discussed in his book, Cruel Crossing. I do love it when books overlap in this manner. Fiction often teaches you as much as non-fiction in my opinion, but reading both on a subject can work extremely well if you can find the books to match, which luckily I have. (Another good fictional book on this subject is Jacquot and the Angel by Martin O'Brien.)

There are deaths in this story but it's not at all a 'murder' mystery. It's a mystery about who stole the cave art, where is it, and where did it come from in the first place. I found the history fascinating and everyone's story excellent, the weakest, for my money, being the modern-day one. That had plenty of interest but I didn't feel the romantic aspect worked fantastically well. This is nit-picking... this is a jolly good book and I truly wish there were more around like it.

~~~oOo~~~

Friday, 1 September 2017

Books read in August

August was rather a good reading month despite it being the school summer hols and thus a bit busier than usual, not to mention we're having the bathroom redesigned and thus chaos reigns... Despite all that I managed to read eight books with a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. These are the books:

43. Gardens of Stone - Stephen Grady. WW2, the story of a teenage boy in the French Resistance, non-fiction book.

44. The 12.30 From Croydon - Freeman Wills Crofts. Unusual vintage crime story.

45. The Natural History of Dragons - Marie Brennan. Part one of a fantasy series that portrays dragons as real.

46. No Man's Nightingale - Ruth Rendall. An excellent Inspector Wexford crime yarn about the death of a female vicar.

47. Continental Crimes - edited by Martin Edwards. An anthology of short vintage crime stories.

48. Cruel Crossing - Edward Stourton. How the French Resistance helped escapees from Nazi Germany and allied airmen escape into Spain via The Pyrenees.

49. My Good Life in France - Janine Marsh. Non-fiction... a British couple buy a wreck of a house in France and settle there.

50. The Caves of Périgord - Martin Walker.

So, three non-fiction - a number I'm pleased with - and five fiction. Three decent crime books in there and one good fantasy novel which is a genre I've not read in quite a while. I need to rectify that as I do enjoy a good fantasy book and have quite a few on my tbr pile still. The three non-fictions were all excellent, all concerned France, and all got a five star rating from me on Goodreads.

Choosing a favourite is rather difficult because this was an especially good month, none of the books were disappointing or dragged and I haven't a bad word to say about any of them. I think I'm going to have to call it a draw between a non-fiction and a fiction:



I haven't reviewed The Caves of Périgord by Martin Walker yet, but I will soon as it was so good. Both of these books were excellent reads, both concerned the history of the French Resistance to a greater or lesser extent, and both taught me an awful lot.

And now here we are in September and autumn's on the way, my favourite time of year. Happy reading!

~~~oOo~~~

Monday, 28 August 2017

Ahem... France again

A couple more French books today, both very different to each other but both got five star ratings from me on Goodreads due to their readability and that feeling that both authors had poured a lot of love and effort into their individual projects.

First up, Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees by Edward Stourton.

I knew that many refugees and escaped prisoners were helped out of France by the French Resistance during World War 2 but details of the route they took were sketchy in my head. I think I thought they all went through Switzerland or out via the south of France to Gibralter. And quite a few actually did but it seems many also went via various escape routes, The Pat Line, The Comet Line etc., which ran down through France to the Pyrenees and thus into Spain. The people helped included allied airmen who had been shot down over Germany, France or Belgium, persecuted Jews, resistance members for whom life had become too dangerous in France and so on. This non-fiction account tells the stories of so many very brave people that it would be impossible to recount them all here. Plus this not a book primarily about The Pyrennees, there's a lot more general information about the war and how it affected the French population. Vichy France is discussed in detail, colaboration... I had no idea there was a sort of offical French colaboration force in the south of France called The Milice. Many of the Resistance considered these people worse than the Germans. The author himself undertakes The Chemin de Liberté, one of the main escape routes over The Pyrenees, to get an idea of what it was like although it can never compare with having to do it in appalling weather, exhausted, with the threat of capture a constant threat. There isn't a lot about his walk though, mainly this is an excellent historical account of bravery in the face of appalling danger and cruelty. I gave this five stars on Goodreads as I learnt such a lot and it really is a very well written book.

Next, My Good Life in France by Janine Marsh.

Janine Marsh lives in London with her husband, Mark; she has a good, well paid job and no reason to move to another country. What she does do is pop regularly over to France on day trips to buy wine: it's only an hour and a half by ferry across the English Channel. On one of these forays, quite by accident really, they end up viewing several properties for sale and Janine falls in love with a wreck of a place in the Seven Valleys in Northern France. The couple buy it and set about renovating it, visiting every weekend they can manage. Then the recession arrives and Mark is made redundant. He drops the bombshell that he would like to move to France on a permanent basis. Janine is completely torn. Half of her loves her job... she is about to be promoted... half of her is drawn to their little house in France and the way of life. What the heck is she going to do?

Well, no prizes for guessing what the author decides to do and reading all about it was sheer delight. It's not an area where there are heaps of ex-pats so assimilating into the local village, becoming part of the community, was very necessary in order to survive. And, as I discovered when my late sister-in-law moved to France twenty years ago, the locals are nearly always very friendly. But you have to adapt to their ways, no use going there and expecting them to change for you. Why the heck should they? And, like us Brits, they have their quirks, especially when it comes to language, so many subtleties you need to learn because mistakes can be embarrassing. For instance if you're invited to a party, never ever turn up on time. It's considered rude... half an hour late is fine, two hours late is even better. And so on and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed this very personal look at the French way of life... how two hapless Brits managed to survive and fit into what sounds like a gorgeous area. Loved reading about their neighbours, their animals, their exploration of the area, it was all delightful. Janine Marsh's website, The Good Life in France is well worth a visit for all kinds of info and lovely pics. You can also follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

~~~oOo~~~

Friday, 18 August 2017

Various titles

Fair bit of catching up to do today. I've been reading but not reviewing, mainly because it's the school summer holidays and thus busier than normal. Not to mention the garden...

Anyway, three books to review... first up, The Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, this is my book 13 for Bev's Mount TBR 2017 challenge.

Seven year old Isabella, Lady Trent, falls in love with dragons the day she finds a dead sparkling in the garden. It's an uphill struggle to study them, girls are not expected to do such things and she has to conspire with her brother in order to read books on the subject from her father's library. She can be her own worst enemy though and after a disastrous dragon hunt that she should not have been on, she's banned from studying and reading. Several 'grey years' pass and eventually Isabella meets Jacob Camherst, a scholar with an interest in dragons and the two marry. Isabella is able to recommence her studies. Then the opportunity to go on field trip to study dragon in the wild occurs, can she persuade her husband to take her along?

I thoroughly enjoyed this story of Lady Trent's early days as a studier of dragons - she's writing her memoirs in her later years when things have vastly improved for women who want to gain an education. I very much liked the style of the book which is that of a Victorian female explorer. Though this is not Victorian England it does feel very much like it, the country they travel to being perhaps Russia. It's well written, fun, and written exactly as though dragons were real and available for serious study. I liked it so much I already have book two, The Tropic of Serpents, on my tbr pile.


Next, No Man's Nightingale by Ruth Rendell:

Inspector Reg Wexford is now retired, still living in Kingsmarkham, and spending his retirement reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. His ex sidekick, DS Mike Burden, calls him in to help solve the murder of a local female vicar, Sarah Hussain, a woman of mixed parentage... she was half Irish, half Indian. She had a daughter, Clarissa, who doesn't know who her father is... could this be a clue to the murder? Wexford and Burden get very bogged down questioning Sarah's few friends and an old friend from her past. It doesn't seem as though anyone would've wanted her dead but someone strangled her in her own home. Burden declares that he is never interested in motive, just the facts, but Wexford feels that motive is the key to this and even when a man is arrested ploughs on with his own investigations.

This is actually the first Inspector Wexford book I've read, although I did watch the TV series avidly years ago. It's also book 24, the last of the series Ruth Rendell wrote, so it was perhaps a bit mad of me to start reading the series with that one. That said, I don't think it matters in the slightest, probably *because* I'd seen and TV series and knew all of the characters well. I enjoyed this very much indeed, in fact I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would for some odd reason. So much wonderful dry humour in Wexford's thoughts and musings... and endless common sense. And more humour in the character of Wexford's cleaner, Maxine. She never stops talking, in the manner of people we all know, and is hilariously written. I loved Wexford's bookishness and the use of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to illustrate various points. Clever. Because it was such a complicated little plot, I really didn't know until the end who had done the deed, so that's a plus. All in all an excellent read, superb writing, and I will definitely be grabbing more from the library when I have some space on my ticket!


Lastly, Continental Crimes edited by crime writer, Martin Edwards:

I always find it difficult to review volumes of short stories, sometimes I say something about every story but as life is short I shall just review the book in a general way. This is an excellent collection of stories set all over Europe but mainly France, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Many would come under the heading of 'Vintage Crime' being set in the 1920s & 30s but there are later ones from the 1950s and so on. Two, The New Catacomb by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Secret Garden by G.K. Chesterton, I had read before. The former I thought was clever and well written, the latter I didn't read again as I hadn't been that impressed with it first time even though I do like Father Brown stories in general. Not all are actual murder stories - the title doesn't actually promise that anyway - and that's no bad thing. One of my favourites, Petit Jean by Ian Hay, was more of a war story, set in World War One. How an author could make such a story funny I've no idea, but he did and it was an excellent little intrigue yarn which actually made me giggle all the way through. I'd happily read more by this author. A couple of others I enjoyed - The Room in the Tower by J. Jefferson Farjeon (I read his Mystery in White last Christmas), which was a supernatural story set in a castle on the Rhine, and The Ten Franc Counter by H. de vere Stacpoole, a murder mystery set in Monte Carlo. Both were well written and enjoyable. Agatha Christie's offering, Have You Got Everything You Want?, is a 'Parker Pyne' story about some stolen jewels. This is one of Christie's recurrent characters that I'd not come across before, which is perhaps not surprising as there seems to be just one book of short stories and apparently they're not all mysteries. The Long Dinner by H.C. Bailey was one of those kinds of stories you feel like giving up on but come the end you're glad you didn't. It hoicks the reader all over the place from Paris, to Devon in the UK and then back to France and the coast of Brittany. Excellent story that starts out as one thing and ends up as something else entirely. Like all anthologies, Continental Crimes has its high points and its low points but taken as a complete collection I thought it was rather good and have discovered several authors I would like to read more of.

~~~oOo~~~

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Catching up

A quick catching up post today, two books to review... I was going to say, 'very different' but there is actually a connection: both books take place in the 1930s (the first one goes on into the 1940s too of course) and very much reflect those very difficult times.

First up, Gardens of Stone: My Boyhood in the French Resistance by Stephen Grady and Michael Wright.

Stephen Grady was born in 1925 in Northern France, very close to the Belgian border. His father was English, his mother French - they had met during the First World War. Mother and father, four children, grandma and an aunt all lived together in a two bedroomed house in the village of Nieppe. Stephen's father worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission tending several WW1 cemetaries in the area. Stephen is 13 when war breaks out... the evacuation of Dunkirk affects the family badly and when the Germans invade France Stephen's father, being English, has to go into hiding. Stephen is rather adventurous and wild and because of a prank with another boy ends up in the notorious Loos prison, sharing a cell with three adults. Surviving this he joins the Resistance in 1941 and begins a very dangerous existance of secrets and sabotage which sets him apart from his family.

When I started reading about France three months ago I didn't think that my reading would lead me to books about the French Resistance. I got here via a couple of crime books, but principally Jacquot and the Angel by Martin O'Brien which dealt quite a lot with the French Resistance in the south of France during World War Two. It piqued my interest. I saw mention of Gardens of Stone on Goodreads and decided to order it from Amazon. So glad I did. I usually take longer to read non-fiction and thought this would be no different. Wrong. I whizzed through it, partly because the writing was so accessible (author, Michael Wright, actually wrote the book I believe) but also it really was absolutely fascinating. I'm not really a war story sort of a person but this gripped me from the start and didn't let go. The author recounts his wartime experiences in a very matter of fact way, given he was only a teenager at the time, the triumphs, the tragedies, the fear, it's all there. Some of it makes for difficult reading, betrayal to the Germans by neighbours was rife, but also it was incredibly uplifting to read what very ordinary people were capable on in the way of bravery. Stephen's resistance 'job' was to test allied airmen stranded in France to make sure they were not German spies, because English was his first language. But he also took part in sabotage missions, doing things that no young person should ever have to do. One particular event scarred him for life. An amazing book, one I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of the second world war.

Lastly, The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts.

It's the late 1930s and Britain is right in the middle of what people are calling The Slump. It's affecting all, but particularly businesses. Charles Swinburn has taken over his engineering business from a rich uncle who built it up from scratch along with Charles's father. Lack of orders, partly caused by him not obtaining up to date machines for the factory, has put the business into dire financial straits and Charles needs to find some money - fast. He goes the usual routes, banks and so forth with no luck. The last resort is to apply to his uncle, but Uncle Andrew is an unpleasant individual with a cruel streak whose ill health makes him even crabbier. He gives Charles some money but it's not enough and Charles needs a better plan; which is when he decides to murder his rich uncle...

So here we have a murder mystery written, not from the point of view of the police officers who investigate the murder, but from the viewpoint of the man who does the deed. I don't think I've read one like this before, it was absolutely fascinating. We get the whole plan from start to finish and it's very strange because although Charles is really not a very likeable person you do find yourself 'almost' hoping he gets away with it. Note that I'm not saying whether or not he does... The tendancy is to think Charles is every bit as clever as he thinks he is, forgetting all the other crime books you've read where the police are not as stupid as the perpetrator assumes. Very clever stuff and I enjoyed this one very much. My only misgiving is a personal one, I don't care for court room dramas and for the last 100 pgs or so that's what this book becomes, so it lost a bit of its interest then for me. *But* another cracking BLCC book... which I highly recommend to lovers of Vintage Crime.

~~~oOo~~~

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Books read in July

I have to admit, July is not my favourite month of the year. In fact it's my least favourite. It can sometimes be too hot, even in the UK ha ha, and I hate that. Thankfully, July 2017 has not been too awful, just a few odd days in a row where it's been, for me, uncomfortably hot. At the moment we have cool temps. with some sunshine, many showers, weather you can get on and work in. The garden's going well, we're harvesting raspberries, plums, courgettes, runner beans, carrots and so forth. Tomatoes are just coming in. The shallot crop was large and those have been dealt with gradually over the last week, either frozen or pickled. I feel a certain sense of achievement in respect of the last month despite the fact that I hate July! Crazy, but there you go.

Oddly, despite all the harvesting, I've still managed a good reading month. Seven books in all, eight really, as one of them is a book that has two books within its pages. Anyway, these are they:

36. Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions - Mario Giordano

37. Waterlog - Roger Deakin

38. Excursion to Tindari - Andrea Camilleri

39. The Critic - Peter May

40. Words in a French Life - Kristin Espinasse

41. The Little French Guesthouse - Helen Pollard

42. Three Men in a Boat & Three Men on the Bummel - Jerome K. Jerome

So, a motley bunch. Two non-fictions, both good. Three crime yarns, a rom com, a couple of classics from Jerome K. Jerome. Three books set in France so that fascination's been with me for three months now (it started in early May) and shows no sign whatsoever of abating. Which is fine as I'm learning rather a lot... I'm now reading about The French Resistance during WW2... and knowledge never goes to waste.

I'm having trouble choosing a favourite book. The only one here that I gave a five star rating to on Goodreads is Waterlog by Roger Deakin. And it was indeed superb. Beautifully written and a book to immerse yourself in , no pun intend... oh, ok then perhaps I did mean it. ;-) But really if I think about these seven books, the one that's stayed with me is Peter May's The Critic.


It was so very French in its descriptions of wine making in the South of France, so much atmosphere and so very clever with its plotting. I should go back and give it a five on Goodreads rather than a four to be honest. Peter May is such a good writer and I haven't read anything by him that I haven't liked a lot.

So, onwards into August... another month I'm not mad about. Roll on September even though it's pretty much certain my husband's second knee operation will, at long last, be happening then. C'est la vie...

~~~oOo~~~