Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Lost Book of the Grail

My second book for the What's In A Name? challenge is The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett. It covers the category, 'The word 'the' used twice'.

Arthur Prescott, is rather old-fashioned, a university professor whose heart really isn't in his job, but he has a secret. Unbeknown to his friends he is someone who is trying to track down the location of the Holy Grail. To that end he's moved to Barchester, a city he regularly visited as a child, staying with his grandfather. It was his grandfather who introduced him to King Arthur, his knights, and the mystery of the Holy Grail. He believed the grail was somewhere in the vicinity of Barchester and tasked Arthur with the search on the condition that he must keep his mission a secret.

Arthur's other obsession is books. Old books. Specifically the books and manuscripts presently residing in the cathedral library. He knows them all intimately... in fact, because the library is used by very few people, Arthur feels rather territorial about it, like they all belong to him. Which is why, when a young American woman, Bethany Davis, comes to digitise the library, Arthur's nose is put somewhat out of joint. He's not much into computers and isn't sure putting the manuscripts online is a good idea, despite Bethany's enthusiam. He tries very hard indeed not to like her and in some respects succeeds: in others, not at all.

It turns out Bethany is also a Grail seeker. But what is she doing in Barchester? How has she come to the conclusion that this is the place to search? And what's her connection to an American millionaire evangelist who collects religious artifacts?

What an interesting character Charlie Lovett has created in Arthur Prescott. Bookish, an open and curious mind about subjects such as King Arthur and The Grail, a man who obsessively goes to the quiet services at the cathedral but does not believe in God. He goes because he loves the atmosphere, the building and the music. I can relate to that completely. He's also deeply skeptical about the internet and modern living and although I am an internet user I can still relate to his misgivings, no problem at all.

This book reminded me a bit of M.R. James. Not so much in the writing and supernatural themes but his stories have been described as 'Cathedrally' and that's how I would describe this book. I don't know much about cathedrals... I've been to a few, Truro, Exeter, Wells, Bath, York, Ely, Salisbury, Winchester, St. Pauls, more than I thought actually... but, not being a Christian, I don't know all the terms for the sections of the buildings or the services and wish I did because, like Arthur, I think they're wonderful places.

I also loved to bits the bookishness of this book. I love how important the history of ancient manuscripts is in it, there are short sections set centuries ago where the author tells us how certain writings came into being and what happened to them when the vikings came raping and pillaging or during the disolution of the monasteries etc. I found it all very interesting and enjoyed wallowing in the monastic, bookish, cathedralish atmosphere of this gentle, relaxing story.

I gather Charlie Lovett is the author of The Bookman's Tale, a book I remember seeing quite a few reviews of a couple of years ago. I shall definitely be reading that at some stage.


Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Lost Mars - edited by Mike Ashley

The British Library has been reissuing vintage crime stories under their BLCC section for several years now and have many excellent titles under their belt. When they asked on Twitter for book bloggers who like science fiction to take copies of their two new science fiction anthologies, for review, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the two, Lost Mars, edited by Mike Ashley, which I've been reading and savouring over the past few weeks.

1. The Crystal Egg - H.G. Wells. Two customers try to buy a crystal egg from a dealer in antiquities but the owner is curiously unwilling to sell. He hides it away at the home of a scientist friend and together the two discover some of the egg's secrets. I read a lot of H.G. Wells as a teenager, but I don't remember this story, though that doesn't mean a lot. I'd forgotten what an amazing writer Wells was, here he creates that curious Victorian atmosphere of academia mixed with dark weirdness. Loved this to bits, perhaps it's time to reread The War of the Worlds... of which this story is apparently a kind of precursor, and maybe look for more of his short stories.

2.Letters from Mars - W.S. Lach-Szyrma. Aleriel is a winged native of Venus who travels the Solar system and writes about his adventures. He describes Mars as being a planet of very wide canals that the inhabitants use to traverse their world. Amazing imagination displayed in this story, it felt very much like a travelogue. Oddly, the author, the son of a Polish immigrant, was vicar of St. Peter's in Newlyn in Cornwall in the late 1800s or early 1900s... a church I went to for a time as a child.

3. The Great Sacrifice - George S. Wallis. Something's wrong in the Solar system. Astonomers have noticed that some of the outer planets are hundreds of miles off track. One of them witnesses one of the moons of Mars exploding and then messages arrive from inhabitants of that planet that no one knew existed. And it's a dire warning. This is one of those stories that reminds you how insignificant we are in the cosmos and how helpless we would be in the face of some kind of natural planet-threatening disaster originating from space.

4.The Forgotten Man of Space - P. Schuyler Miller. A miner is left behind on Mars by his two fellow miners, susposedly so that they don't have to share the profits of their latest trip three ways. The man, doomed to die, doesn't because he's rescued by the indigenous race who live on the planet. Good story with a nice twist at the end.

5. A Martian Odyssey - Stanley Weinbaum. A member of an exploration team gets stranded on Mars, it's either walk the 800 miles back to his ship or die. Off he sets and meets a rather strange ostrich-like creature, with whom he's able to communicate on a very basic level but who is clearly from an intelligent race. The Earthman calls his new companion 'Tweel' and the two keep each other company on the long journey. Loved this one for its 'friendship with others no matter what they look or sound like' theme. It's also quite the adventure and I felt would have made an excellent full-length novel.

6. Ylla - Ray Bradbury. Ylla, a Martian woman, starts to have strange dreams concerning a handsome visitor from their neighbouring planet, Earth. But everyone knows Earth cannot support life so what are these dreams? Her husband starts to get jealous but Ylla is unable to stop these dreams happening. This story is part of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles collection. I must confess I've not read them but did watch the TV dramas eons ago. (!970s maybe? With Rock Hudson or is my memory deceiving me?) Judging by this beautifully written, reflective story, I really should.

7. Measureless to Man - Marion Zimmer Bradley. Two former expeditions to Mars,trying to discover the secrets of the fantastical city of Xanadu, have failed, the members disappearing without trace. It seems no one is able to get inside the city, but why? A new expedition is hoping for better luck, one of its number being Andrew Slayton, a human born on Mars, seven foot tall. He alone is destined to discover what happened to the inhabitants of the lost city. Loved this! Another that I felt would've made an excellent novel. I loved the concept behind it but I won't say what that is as it would spoil it. 'But'... really good story, good writing - as you would expect from Marion Zimmer Bradley.

8. Without Bugles - E.C. Tubb. A small settlement on Mars has been there for five years looking for precious metals or minerals. It's hard, unrelentling work and one particular aspect of it has affected the workers' health badly. Earth sends someone to see if it's worth keeping the place going, but there's a problem... This was a powerful story about unforeseen consequences. I think of all the stories in the book this and the next story are probably the most realistic. It's gritty, honest and quite affecting.

9. Crucifixus Etiam - Walter M. Miller Jr. Manue Nanti has joined a project working on Mars to earn good money. He wants to travel on Earth, visit some of the amazing sites, so the hard earned money will enable him to do that. He is Peruvian and it's thought that being used to breathing at high altitudes will make it easier for him to breathe on Mars. But he still needs the adaptations to his body which will take over his breathing for him. He knows though that if he doesn't also breathe for himself, once back on Earth he'll be a wreck healthwise. Naturally this is easier said than done. This is another gritty, realistic story... quiet scary I thought, uncomfortable reading, poignant... but that's good in my opinion. Well written too, which of course increases its effect.

10. The Time-Tombs - J.G. Ballard. This story works on the premise that there was a very ancient civilisation on Mars who left a sort of digital imprint of themselves in their tombs rather than actual remains. Tomb robbers from Earth have been busy raiding the tombs for 'tapes' for many years and there are almost none to be discovered now. Or are there? Not J.G. Ballard's normal fare, he was more of a 'social collapse of society' writer (as the intro blurb puts it). This story was one of his earlier works but still has a rather bleak outlook about it. Very well written indeed.

Like all short story collections this one has excellent stories and a few that don't appeal quite so much. But that's quite a personal thing I think, those stories might be other people's favourites. None are less than very readable though, which for me makes it an excellent anthology. Usually there are a couple in every collection that I just can't get through but there were none like that in Lost Mars. My favourite story was Measureless to Man by Marion Zimmer Bradley, probably because of its fantastical city element as I do love a bit of that... where you never quite know what's going to happen. Other favourites were the H.G. Wells offering, The Crystal Egg, for its Victorian atmosphere (rather Dickensian at the beginning I thought), A Martian Odyssey by Stanley Weinbaum as I loved 'Tweel', and Ylla by Ray Bradbury which made me want to find his Martian Chronicles and read them.

All in all this was a superb science-fiction anthology and many thanks to Abbie Day at The British Library for giving me the chance to read and review the book before it's published on the 16th. April. I'll be reading the second book, Moonrise very soon.


Sunday, 1 April 2018

Books read in March

March was not a bad reading month for me... seven books read altogether and a nice mix. These are they:

10. The Herring Seller's Apprentice - L.C. Tyler

11. The Misty Harbour - Georges Simenon

12. Breakup - Dana Stabenow

13. Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson. Very interesting book on the English language... its origins, its spread, its influences and so on. Bryson's sense of humour is not as evident as it is in some of his books but it is there. Informative and enjoyable.

14. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

15. Lost Mars edited by Mike Ashley. A detailed review to come but this is an excellent anthology of fictional short stories all about the planet Mars. Available to buy in a couple of weeks.

16. How To Be Champion - Sarah Millican.

British comedian, Sarah Millican, writes very candidly about her life. A shy but clever girl at school she hated being in the limelight, but like a lot of us, was a different person at home and with close friends. After a messy divorce she took up stand-up comedy and went from strength to strength, she's now a household name in the UK. Those outside the UK might not understand the title with its lack of an A. Champion is Geordie-speak (Newcastle area) for 'excellent' 'good' 'terrific' and so on. And the book really is 'Champion'. I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah's honesty and humour, especially the banana cake baking chapter... loved that the original recipe came from John Barrowman. A word of caution, this book has a lot of adult content, if that's not your bag, this is not for you.

So four fictional books and three non-fiction read for March. They varied a bit. One or two were average, but the rest were all good. I loved Dana Stabenow's Breakup, Lost Mars had some excellent classic sci-fi stories and Sarah Millican's How to Be Champion struck quite a few chords with me. Overall though my favourite book eneded up being this:

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee was so beautifully written but about a country I'm not that much interested in, so it was quite an achievement to make me like it so much. I definitely intend to read more books by the author this year, I might even change my mind about Spain! (Not...)

Happy reading!


Monday, 19 March 2018

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee is my fourth book for the European Reading Challenge 2018, which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. It covers the country of Spain.

It's many, many years since I read Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie: I was probably a teenager. It's his most famous book I imagine but As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is quite well known too I think. The event's in this non-fiction book take place immediately following Cider With Rosie, where at the end we see Laurie leaving his loving home in The Cotswolds to explore the world... I think he was nineteen.

He sets off to see the sea on the south coast of England and then heads to London. Luckily, he's adept at playing the violin so is able to perform in the streets and earn some money. During this time he comes to understand the life of the British tramp during the 1930s, how some of them were not able to pick up their lives after WW1, some just don't want a settled life, and a lot were unemployed and looking for work.

After a few months in the the South East he decides to go to Spain (mainly because he knows the Spanish for 'Will you please give me a glass of water') and takes a ship to Vigo in the North Western corner of the country (just above Portugal). From this point he walks, over a period of many months, through Spain to the southern coast. He is ill-prepared for such a journey. The first part is forested and mountainous and not so bad but once he reaches the plains the heat is brutal and unrelenting; the locals think he's mad, naturally, but he's greeted with kindness wherever he goes. How he managed to avoid dying from sunstroke I'm not sure, I fancy he must've been very lucky.

Cities visited include Valladolid, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and so on. At one stage he takes up with a South African poet, Roy Campbell, and his family, staying with them for a while. But mainly he was among the poorer sections of Spanish society and Lee's descriptions of the hardship and unfairness experienced by these people are very revealing in respect of why the civil war happened.

For me the most interesting part of the book is when Laurie reaches the southern coast. He visits Gibralter and then walks along the coast until he reaches a small village called Almun├ęcar near Malaga. Here he settles in for the winter, employed by a local hotel as an odd job man and playing the violin at night in the bar. But war is looming, not WW2 but The Spanish Civil War, and sides are being picked. People start to die and Laurie has a decision to make.

I was a lot more impressed with this than I expected to be. Spain is not a country I have much of an interest in (and to be honest, still haven't) but Laurie Lee's writing is so rich and luscious that you can't help but love the book and be fascinated by his experiences. I gave it a five on Goodreads. I wasn't thinking to read the third book, A Moment of War, about his experiences in The Spanish Civil War, but now I think I might at some stage... one or two of the books I read about WW2 in France touched on it and it might be interesting to find out more.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Three Crime Titles

This month I seem to have read three crime books in succession, just as I did at the start of February. Unlike February though, not all of them worked for me, but that's just the luck of the draw.

First up, The Herring Seller's Apprentice by L.C. Tyler.

Ethelred (known at school as 'Ethel') Tresider is a writer, a fairly average one who is never going to win any literary awards but his books sell well, especially his Sargeant Fairfax crime series. He's divorced, his wife left him for a close friend ten years ago. When she suddenly goes missing, people seem to think Ethelred should lead the search to find her, rather than the police. Until her body is discovered in a lonely spot close to his home and then he becomes a suspect in a murder enquiry. Luckily he has a watertight alibi, he was in France at the time of her death. But Ethelred's agent, in the form of Elsie Thirkettle, who doesn't like writers, won't let the police have sole responsibility for the investigation. She eggs him on to dig into the affair. The trouble is... she can't really decide what he's up to, could he really have done away with his ex-wife?

I'm not sure what was wrong with this book for me. I gave it a three on Goodreads, which tends to mean I liked it, but didn't love it and really felt a bit 'meh' about it. It started out making me laugh, some nice humour, and Elsie is a fun character. But I didn't get a really strong sense of anyone in it to be honest. It was lightweight, which is fine, sometimes that's exactly what you need to read at times, but I do like to feel connected to the people in a book and I didn't with this. I didn't care about anyone and that's fatal for me. I did read to the end though and there was a bit of a twist, although it's easy to guess at. All in all it was ok and will appeal to lots of cosy crime fans but I probably won't carry on with the series.

Next, The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon.

Maigret is on his way to the village of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast. It's a village at the mouth of the canal to Caen and is very busy with large ships going back and forth. He has with him two people. A Captain Joris who was found wandering in Paris and has no idea of who he is and a bullet wound in his head. His housekeeper eventually came to claim him after word was put out and the three of them are now returning to the village to try to discover who shot the captain. A day or so after their arrival the captain is found dead in his bed, poisoned. This is now a murder investigation but how to make the village people talk? They're determined not let out any secrets, but so is Maigret determined... to find a killer!

Some of these Maigret books hit the mark with me and some don't. I think I like it when he leaves Paris and heads off to an insular community full of secrets - which is the case here. Simenon was 'excellent' at atmosperes in remote coastal regions... The Yellow Dog and Maigret in Holland are just two examples. I love these windswept, lonely places where he is always looked upon with extreme suspicion and has to ferret out secrets. These closed communities might seem idyllic but they're often very far from it and Simenon obviously knew that. An excellent read, really enjoying these occasional Maigret books.

Last book, Breakup by Dana Stabenow.

It's Spring in Alaska and with it comes the melting of the snow and ice that entombs the state throughout its long winter. This period is commonly known there as 'Breakup'. Kate Shugak hates this time of year. People cooped up all winter in cabins go a bit mad when they're suddenly let loose and mayhem often ensues. The season doesn't start well when two things happen. First, she's just about escapes with her life after an encounter with a Grizzly, near her cabin, and second, an aircraft passing overhead loses an engine and it falls onto Kate's land almost destroying her house. After that things go downhill rapidly with a shootout at a local bar followed by a trip out with the parents of her neighbour when a light aircraft falls on their car, more shootouts, and a woman is found dead, mauled by a Grizzly. This is one of the worst Breakups Kate can remember.

This is number seven in Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak crime series of books. I have to say it's much more about Alaska and its quirkiness during Breakup than it is about murder. I liked that as it was funny and just a bit mad but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. Kate is well and truly put upon by all and sundry. Even though she does not work as a police officer any more they still think she should be available to solve all their woes. All she wants is a peaceful life with Mutt, her wolflike dog, but the likelihood of her getting it is zero as she has inherited a personality that exudes authority from her grand-mother. I love this series... not so much for the crime element, though that it is good, but for Kate herself... she's an amazing character. And also for Alaska. I'll probably never go there but these books give a good idea of what the state is like and feed my hunger for armchair travelling.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Books read in February

Happy 1st. of March, we've woken up to a covering of snow and it's still snowing, so I don't think Spring is quite here...

*Update* we have about six inches of snow this morning... certainly not Spring!

Anyhooo, books read in February - all four of them. That doesn't seem like a lot and yet I feel as though I read steadily right through the month. Ah well, no matter. These are the books:

6. The Birdwatcher - William Shaw

7. Snowblind - Ragar J├│nasson

8. Seeking Whom He May Devour - Fred Vargas

9. The Grasmere Journal - Dorothy Wordsworth.

While this was interesting in places I was not as smitten as I thought I would be. A few things struck me though. Firstly, how ill Dorothy and William seemed to be a lot of the time. Practically every day one or both of them was sick... she doesn't really say what with or how serious it was, but still. Also, depsite all this sickness, they walked endlessly around the countryside for pleasure. Mind you, The Lake District is ideal for that sort of activity. The other thing is how many people were destitute. Again, every day they had people come to the door begging or came across some very sad cases on the roads. Anyway, some beautiful descriptions of the area but all in all slightly too repetitive for my taste.

So apparently I had a slow reading month even though it didn't feel like it. (Plus I am partway through three more books at the moment.) It might have been slow but it was graced with three excellent crime reads (books 6, 7 and 8) so you can't really ask for more than that. It's hard to choose a favourite from those three as they were all terrific but by the very slightest of margins it's this:

Loved how very French this was, and amusing, and just a bit weird. Getting back to this series has been a revelation and I'll be reading a lot more of them this year.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

A few more jigsaw puzzles

My jigsaw compulsion continues unabated, though I am reading too because there's very little on TV in the evenings to keep my interest. I'm not much into sport and at the moment it's all Winter Olympics, Football, Rugby... Anyway, these are some I've been doing over the last six weeks or so.

The castle in Germany whose name I can't pronounce - Neushwanstein - beautiful place anyway. This one is 1,500 pieces and was a bit tricky.

This one is entitled 'Skaters' and was painted by Kevin Walsh. 3,000 pieces, very enjoyable to do.

Quick and easy, The Flower Show, 1,000 pieces, a library puzzle with a piece missing.

Christmas gift, really delightful to do and featuring one of my favourite things - old books. 1,000 pieces.

'Olde Worlde Inns' (all in England from what I can see), 1,500 pieces another library puzzle but all there this time.

Another library one, 1,000 pieces, a bit Christmassy for February but who cares? It was lovely to do.

1,000 pieces showing, obviously, loads of stamps. As an ex-stamp collector this was a real trip down memory lane for me. One of my own this time.

I think my jigsaw 'to-do' pile is almost as big as my book 'to-be-read' pile. LOL!