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~~~

Friday, 28 July 2017

France... again!

More French books. Quelle surprise! Not. Anyway, three very different books.

First, The Critic by Peter May - my book 3 for Peggy's Read Scotland 2017 challenge.

American wine critic, Gil Petty, has been murdered, his body pickled in wine, dressed in ceremonial robes, and strung up scarecrow-wise in a vineyard in the Gaillac region of the south of France. This happened several years ago and it's yet another unsolved case for Scot, Enzo McCleod, who is trying to solve seven unsolved murders from a book by an acquaintance. As a critic, Petty had a lot of influence over what sold throughout the world in the way of wine. He was also not the pleasantist of people and Enzo suspects he had more than a few enemies. But then another body, similarly pickled and strung up, is discovered and there appears to be no connection between the two men. A code needs to be broken before this distressing case can be solved but are Enzo and his team of Nicole, Sophie and Bertrand, and Charlotte up to the task?

Another enjoyable foray into the world of Enzo McCleod in the south of France. In this one wine-making plays a huge part. I would almost say if you fancy going to France to take it up, read this book! To be honest there's a little too much detail but it did make me consider the power these critics have over people's lives, be it wine, food, hotels or whatever. You can understand the resentment hard working people must feel towards them. I like the team Enzo has around him, particularly Nicole the clever student from a very poor farming background. Her problems feel very real. Not so sure about the on/off girlfriend, Charlotte. And here's yet another male author writing a middle-aged main character who's apparently completely irrestible to much younger women... Anyway despite this I do like this series... it's well written, the murders are always complicated and thus hard to solve, and Peter May really does do 'France' very well indeed. I shall read more.


Next, Words in a French Life by Kristen Espinasse:

Kristin Espinasse is an American woman from Arizona who married a Frenchman and moved to the South of France. She thought she could speak reasonable French having always had an intense love of the country and studied the language extensively. But real French, spoken by real people, is quite a different animal to that which we're all taught in the classroom and Kristen found her language skills somewhat wanting. She started a blog, French Word a Day, in which she introduces her readers to new words and illustrates them with daily happenings in her own life with her family in Provence. I found this utterly charming. All the vagaries of French life are here, I wondered at how similar we all are with our worries and concerns for our families but also... how different with our little idiosyncrasies, our taboos, and so on. I loved hearing about her husband and children... who helped her a lot with her French as they grew... her friends and most of all the area in which she lived, which sounds rather idyllic. The book, I should add, also informs and I felt I learnt quite a lot, but in a gentle way... the best way in my opinion.


Lastly, The Little French Guesthouse by Helen Pollard:

Emmy and her boyfriend, Nathan, are on holiday in the Loire Valley, staying at a guesthouse, La Cour des Roses, owned by British ex-pats, Rupert and Gloria. Rupert has a sudden seizure in the kitchen one night and Emmy rushes off to find Gloria, his wife, and finds her and Nathan in a compromising position. Next day Nathan leaves with Gloria leaving Emmy to look after Rupert, just out of hospital. She stays to help him run the guesthouse and very quickly grows to love everything about the place and loves the new friends she meets. But she has a good job back in England, friends, family... she can't possibly stay... can she?

I don't read heaps of these romantic comedy type books but I do enjoy the occasional one, especially if it happens to be set in France as this one is. And here the setting is particulary well depicted. La Cour des Roses sounds absolutely idyllic, as does the village and surrounding Loire countryside. Well drawn characters add to the enjoyment, I liked Rupert, Alain and Sophie, but particularly loved the French woman who came to clean whose name eludes me - possibly 'Madame Dupont'. I will admit to a few moments when I felt like shaking Emmy, and as to her ex-boyfriend, well... Anyway, thoroughly enjoyable and there are two more books which I'll search out in due course.

So, here we are almost at the end of yet another month. Scary. It's already feeling autumnal, a fact which I don't mind in the slightest as autumn's my favourite time of year. Happy reading!

~~~oOo~~~

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sicilian Crime stories

Two Sicilian based crime novels today. First up, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano:

Isolde Oberreiter, more commonly known as 'Auntie Poldi', is a German lady in her sixties who's decided to move to Sicily to be near her relatives in her retirement. She has a nephew who's trying to be a writer and he lives with her from time to time. He's the narrator of the tale and describes how eccentric his aunt is having lived a very colourful life indeed. She has a sort of odd-job man who works for her now and then, who disappears one day. Poldi is worried, but no one takes her seriously until she discovers his dead body on the beach. The police are on the case but Poldi decides to look into the murder herself as her father had been a detective in Germany. It's naturally a dangerous undertaking and the investigating officer, DCI Vito Montano, is not amused with her interference but is struggling with his attraction to Poldi. Unfortunately for him she also has more success with her investigations than he does...

To be honest I wasn't at all sure what to make of this. It was a fun murder mystery, I will say that, with a really nice setting on the island of Sicily. Nice sense of place and of the eccentricities of the inhabitants of that island. The problem for me, I think, was that I felt the author made Aunt Poldi just a bit too eccentric. I do actually like a bit of weirdness here and there, enjoy it in fact, but I almost felt the author had gone overboard just for the sake of it. I struggled to identify with Poldi and that's a shame as middle-aged female protagonists are very few and far between. I say 'middle-aged'... the author refers to her as 'elderly' and she's in her sixties... like me... I do not think of myself as 'elderly'! Surely these days elderly is late eighties or ninety. Anyhow, hit and miss with this book I think, but cheap to buy on Kindle and a fun read so I have no complaints whatsoever.

Next, Excursion to Tindari by Andrea Camilleri:

A young man, Nené Sanfilippo, is shot dead outside his block of flats in Vigata, Sicily. Inspector Montalbano and his team are assigned the case. Then another man turns up at the police station, very worried about his parents, Mr. & Mrs. Griffo, who have not answered their phone for several days. Montalbano naturally makes no connection between these two occurrences... *until* he finds that the murdered man and the missing couple lived in the same appartment block. It turns out that the Griffos were last seen on a coach which was taking its passengers on an excursion to the Sanctuary of the Madonna in Tindari. On the way back the coach stopped for a comfort break and no one remembers seeing them after that. Then a local Mafia chief asks to meet up with Montalbano. What on earth is going on?

Another enjoyable episode in the detecting life of Salvo Montalbano... number five as a matter of fact. I can't claim that this is one of my favourite series, because it's not. I like them, I don't love them, and I'm not sure why that is. I do enjoy the taste of Sicilian life the author brings to his stories. The island is very real... the people, their addiction to food, the history, the oppressive heat, the organised crime, the eccentricity of the police force. There's a good natured, earthy humour I like and Montalbano's love of good food is endearing. His love life not quite so much. I read these books very intermittently, so as there're are rather a lot it'll take me while to get through them. But that's ok, I have several series I read like that, dipping in and out when the mood takes me. It's all good.

~~~oOo~~~

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Two books about the water

Two watery books today. First, Waterlog by Roger Deakin.

This book is a celebration of wild swimming in the UK. It's quite a popular pastime apparently, which is something I was unaware of, although I have seen scenes of people swimming along rocky coasts on programmes such as the BBC's Coast. Roger Deakin set out, in 1996, to swim as many rivers, lakes, beachs, canals, aquaducts, you name it, of the country as took his fancy. He lived in Norfolk, near Diss, so East Anglia takes centre stage for a lot of the book. His home had small stretch of moat around it which apparently at one time, centuries ago, was not that unusual. But of course there are not many of them left, aside from a few stately homes and castles, Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk being a notable one. (It's owned by the National Trust and is a wonderful place to visit.)

He actually started his journey in the Isles of Scilly, off Cornwall, and thence into Cornwall itself. I was particulary interested in his swim in the outdoor lido in Penzance because this is where I swam as a child. The pool has recently been refurbished after being virtually destroyed by yet another Atlantic storm. Its triangular shape is apparently unique in the UK, something I didn't realise.


Photo: Penzance Jubilee pool

After that he swum all over the place, a lot in East Anglia as previously mentioned but also Scotland, Devon and Dorset, Sark in the Channel Islands, the Leeds & Liverpool canal, Lidos in London, remote mountain lakes in Wales, to name but a few.

It's quite hard to review books like this which meander almost as much as the rivers Deakin was swimming in. That's because his thoughts on all kinds of things take up as many pages as the actual swimming. We get a lot of history, topography, and musings on all kinds of topics, plus interesting bits on the people he meets, things that have happened to them and so on. The book is fascinating... it took me a month to read and I'm quite pleased about that as it meant I could savour it in detail and enjoy the wonderful laid back, contemplative nature it exudes. The sad thing is Roger Deakin died in 2006 aged 63. A sad loss to British nature writing.

Next: Three Men in a Boat - Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat hardly needs any introduction from me. This is my second or even third time of reading it, although I did't own it. Not even sure what did happen to my copy but when I saw this lovely Oxford World Classics edition advertised by them on Twitter I decided it was time for a reread and this was the one I wanted to read. It involves of course, three men, Henry, George and the narrator 'J', deciding to row up the river Thames from Kingston to Oxford, along with the dog, a fox terrier, Montmorency. It catalogues their fictional adventures and misfortunes, their ineptness despite them all being men who've been out on boats on various rivers in the past. What struck me was what a popular pastime 'messing about on the river' was back in the 1890s when this book was written. It was crazy popular, not so much for the pleasure it seemed to me, but for the act of being seen out and about and taking part. The river could get so crowded at the weekends it could take hours to get through particular locks of which there are many on The Thames. Of course, the joy of this book is not necessarily the boat trip itself. It's the author's cogitations on everything under the sun. Hilarious stuff so beautifully put that it had me it fits of laughter. And I loved how self-deluded the narrator is when it comes to his own character. To be honest he's deluded about *most* things. The book is a joy, if you haven't read it, please do, you won't regret it.

One parallel I must draw between Waterlog and Three Men in a Boat is that both sets of travellers found access to some parts of the rivers difficult due to private ownership and *signs* up all over the place. It drove Roger Deakin mad and also the three men in the boat. You might have thought things would've improved in a hundred years but no, apparently *not*. Interesting.

I'll be reading the second book, Three Men on the Bummel very soon... think I've already read that too but honestly don't remember it so I'm hoping it too will be a joy.

~~~oOo~~~

Friday, 7 July 2017

Mount TBR checkpoint #2

We're now more than halfway through the year so it's time for the 2nd. Mount TBR checkpoint.


I signed up originally for Pike's Peak which is to read 12 books off your TBR pile.

First up, Bev wants us to:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting adventures you've had along the way.

Well, I'm there... at the top of Pike's Peak. I finished my 12th. book just a couple of days ago. What to do now? Well, I think I'll move on to the next mountain, Mont Blanc, which is to read 24 books. I've no idea whether I'll manage it but nothing ventured...


2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:

A. Choose two titles from the books you've read so far that have a common link. You decide what the link is--both have strong female lead characters? Each focuses on a diabolical plot to take over the world? Blue covers? About weddings? Find your link and tell us what it is.

My link is between Bill Oddie Unplucked by Bill Oddie and Waterlog by Roger Deakin. And the link is both authors' love of wildlife, in Oddie's case specifically 'birds'. It shines like a beacon out of both books and is delightful to read and learn from.


Next:

Use titles from your list to complete as many of the following sentences below as you can. If you haven't read enough books to give you good choices, then feel free to use any books yet to be read from your piles. I've given my answers as examples. Feel free to add or change words (such as "a" or "the" or others that clarify) as needed.

My Life According to Books:

1. My Ex is/was Waterlog(ged) - Roger Deakin (To be reviewed)

2. My best friend is The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins (on tbr pile)

3. Lately, at work (It feels like) The Haunted Library - Edited by Tanya Kirk

4. If I won the lottery (I'd take to) The Cloud Roads - Martha Wells

5. My fashion sense (resembles) Bill Oddie Unplucked - Bill Oddie

6. My next ride (Leaves from) The Way Station - Clifford D. Simak

7. The one I love is The Lewis Man - Peter May

8. If I ruled the world (I'd be) William the Conqueror - Richmal Crompton

9. When I look out my window (I see) Dragonsdawn - Anne McCaffrey

10.The best things in life are On the Shores of the Mediterranean - Eric Newby

So, onwards and upwards... Mont Blanc!

~~~oOo~~~