Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The Grand Western canal

Am trying to get Hubby and myself out walking a bit more. Both of us need the exercise and there's no excuse really as we live in a most beautiful part of the country. So yesterday we took a stroll over at our local canal, the Grand Western. It's only 11 miles long as that's all that's been restored, although it was never very long to start off with. It's now a designated country park and used by many people, everyone we passed said hello and one couple, complete strangers, stopped to chat for about 15 minutes about the birdlife and so on. A simple thing to enjoy a walk but it was just delightful.

A few photos.

Mum and Dad standing guard.

Wildflowers, the yellow ones are obviously buttercups but am not sure about the blue...

Cow parsley and pink campion.

I think if you click on the pics you'll get a better look.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

Armchair travelling

Recently, I seem to have spent a fair bit of literary time in France and Italy, not on purpose, sometimes it just works out that way. Possibly I'm in the mood for those countries right now in a way I wasn't during the winter... which I suppose does make sense.

Anyway, first up, The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell (Read in April). This is my 11th. book for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 2nd. book for the The European Reading challenge 2019 covering the country of France.

This book is subtitled, '1920-1960: The golden years of glamour and excess' and that just about sums it up. The author chose a house, Chateau de l'Horizon, and its history to concentrate on and starts the book with the history of the woman who originally built it, Maxine Elliot. Maxine, born Jessica Dermot, in Maine in 1868 was of fairly humble stock. She became an actress and eventually ended up in England where she fell in love with the aristocracy and its way of life and determined to be accepted into it. This she eventually managed and after becoming a successful actress and wealthy business woman built the Chateau de l'Horizon in 1930 on the French Riviera between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. It became a magnet for the rich and famous: actors, politicians and the British aristocracy all stayed there. Winston Churchill was a regular visitor and there's a lot about his visits which he mainly undertook on his own as his wife, Clementine, hated The Riviera and the kind of people it attracted. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived nearby, at least until the war, and sections that involved them were also intriguing. When Maxine died the house was eventually bought by Prince Aly Khan and was where he first met and fell in love with Rita Heyworth. In fact, he had a decided penchant for actresses which effectively disinherited him and prevented him becoming the Aga Khan when his father died. This was a fascinating book. Mary Lovell is an excellent biographer, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mitford Sisters... this book is not quite as good, possibly the subject being not quite as rivetting, but I was nevertheless very impressed and definitely plan to read more by her. (I now own The Churchills.)

Next, A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby. This is my book 12 for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 3rd. book for The European Reading challenge 2019, covering the country of Italy.

One of the most well-known travel writers of the 20th. century, Eric Newby, recounts how he and his wife Wanda, whom he met during WW2 and features in Love and War in the Apennines, bought and renovated a ruin of a house, 'I Castagni', in Italy, beginning in 1967. As they were not living there year-round the work had to be done during their holidays, although they did seem to have quite long breaks away from England. This was a charming book, I loved getting to know his Italian neighbours, all their quirks, their routines which had not changed in hundreds of years (the spot was very isolated at that time) and their kindness which at times was overwhelming. The Newbys took part in the yearly wine-making and the descriptions of how it used to be when the grapes were picked by hand, and how it was an honour to be asked to help your neighbours, were fascinating. My goodness it was real hard graft, brightened only by interruptions for meals and plenty of wine. I love this type of book, these days there are a lot of French based ones, a few of which I've read, but it made a refreshing change to have an Italian one, although I suspect if I looked I would find there are a few modern Italian ones out there. Perhaps I will look.

Lastly, a fiction book, Mr. Gandy's Grand Tour by Alan Titchmarsh.

Timothy Gandy, in his mid-fifties and married with three grown-up children, suddenly becomes a widower when his wife, Isobel, collapses and dies unexpectedly. He's always wanted to travel abroad but Isobel was a poor traveller so they never did. Since childhood, Timothy has been interested in people who did The Grand Tour of Europe in the 19th. century and early 20th., taking in the art and the culture of countries such as France and Italy. Life with Isobel has turned him into a rather quiet, timid sort of man but he feels that if he doesn't go on this tour now, he never will. Paris is his first destination and he is quite unprepared for an encounter that happens there as he's painting, and the consequences. In fact, his whole holiday is going to follow this pattern and Tim not quite sure whether this is a good thing, or bad.

Well now, I read something by TV gardener, Alan Titchmarsh, a fair few years ago and wasn't all that smitten. It seemed unremarkable: although the writing wasn't bad, I didn't connect with his characters very much, it all seemed a bit 'surface'. But it seems Mr. Titchmarsh has now matured as a writer and this offering is a lot better. Tim is a delightful character with depth and empathy, self-searching and introspective. I loved his voyage of discovery and the gentle way he made friends and subsequently helped and encouraged people with their problems. It was also a voyage of self-discovery for him, sometimes painful, always illuminating, never boring. If you like quiet, introspective, gentle books and also enjoy a bit of armchair travelling then quite honestly, you could do a lot worse.


Monday, 13 May 2019

New books!

So what with a recent birthday and using that as an excuse to buy myself a few books as well *cough* I've ended up with a neat little (?) pile of new books.

Not the best photo ever but never mind. From the bottom:

Fireside Gothic by Andrew Taylor. Three weird tales in this one and all of them sound excellent. Bit M.R. James-ish I fancy.

Lost in a Pyramid and & Other Classic Mummy Stories, selected by Andrew Smith. Pretty much what it says on the cover I assume - mad tales about pyramids.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Essays about being lost with subjects such as mapmaking, Hitchcock movies and Renaissance painting.

Journey into Cyprus by Colin Thubron. Spotted this in Waterstones Swansea, when we were there to see the author, John Connolly, a week or two ago. Grabbed because it's an unusual country for my Europe challenge.

Beyond the Footpath, Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims by Clare Gogerty. Cogitating on walking, tips, ideas etc. Lovely cover.

Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells. 'Not sure I like the sound of this one' said assistant chappy in Waterstones...

Forget the Sleepless Shores by Sonya Taaffe. Strange stories to do with water. Blurb: Readers should expect to be captivated by many ghosts and spirits who inhabit brine, some from tears of heartache and loss, some from strange bodies of water, not necessarily found on the map but definitely discovered through charting a course through the perilous straits of author Taaffe's imaginations, which is eerie and queer (by every difinition of the word). Sounds pretty darn good to me. Birthday gift from my best friend. :-)

The Churchills by Mary S. Lovell. This author has become my favourite biographer and with my interest in Winston Churchill this was a must. Birthday gift from one of my daughters.

So... just a small *cough* pile. They'll sit on the shelf behind me for a while, doing their thing and making me happy. Small pleasures.


Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Two crime novels

As usual I'm several reviews behind so it's time to catch up on a couple.

First up, The Darkness by Ragnar J├│nasson:

DI Hulda Hermannsd├│ttir is being forced into a retirement she doesn't want. Living alone after the death of her daughter and husband some years ago, her job is all Hulda has. Her boss tells her she can have two more weeks at work and she can spend it investigating any cold case she chooses. Hulda chooses the unsolved death of a young Russian girl washed up in an isolated bay on the coast. The girl was an asylum seeker and the officer leading the enquiry had concluded that she had taken her own life, depressed at how long her case was taking. But that officer is notoriously lax and Hulda does not believe the conclusion for one moment. Hulda has two weeks to prove him wrong and find a murderer.

It's a bit grim this one. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised as Scandi noir does have a bit of a depressing reputation, but I don't read a lot of it so it did feel a bit relentless and I was taken aback by it. Poor Hulda is a very sad case. As the book goes along you find out what happened to her daughter and then later her husband, which explains her isolation and disconnection from her work colleagues. And they're a mean spirited lot, bullying really, it's horrible. Nothing seems to go right 'at all' and the ending... goodness me! I gather book 2 goes back to events 25 years ago, if I'm honest I don't think I can stand it. Even though this is a good book, very well written and gripping with an excellent feel for Iceland, the series is not, I fear, for me.

Lastly, The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the August category of 'Primary action takes place in this month'.

Ruth Galloway is contacted by a friend in Italy, Dr. Angelo Morelli. He presents an archaeology TV show where he often unearths burial sites on camera. His latest skeleton reveal came with a buried mobile phone with the text message, 'Surprise'. Aside from this, Angelo thinks someone is trying to kill him and contacts Ruth because she's a bone expert who has also been involved in murder investigations. Ruth takes her daughter, Kate, and her best friend, Shona, and her little boy, Louis, hoping they can also make a holiday of the trip. They stay in an old house in a historical village, it's gorgeous but a bit too hot for Ruth. She has a difficult time balancing work and holiday but it's quite doable until an earthquake strikes which brings DCI Harry Nelson out from England in a panic. Ruth can't decide whether to be pleased or annoyed but can't help admitting that his help with the inexplicable goings on is invaluable.

This series is like a drug for me. Once I start one of the books I can't put it down and I would probably have to say that it's my favourite crime series, although there are other strong contenders. I love the archaeology that comes with every book, the history, and yes... all the talk about bones too, love it all. But most of all I think I like the back-story of Ruth and Harry and Harry's wife, Michelle, their daughters, the wonderful Cathbad, all of the characters feel like friends and it matters what happens to them. This book also has a bit of a shock ending, but every one of the Ruth Galloway books has some kind of shock occurrence close to the end. I even find myself waiting for it now. Wonderful, 5 stars on Goodreads no question at all.


Saturday, 27 April 2019

Books Read in April

April was a slightly better than average reading month for me, seven books read and a nicely varied bunch as regards genre.

18. The Toy Makers - Robert Dinsdale

19. The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

20. Birds of a Feather - Jacqueline Winspear

21. As the Crow Flies - Damien Boyd

22. Cheerfulness Breaks In - Anglea Thirkell

23. Pardonable Lies - Jacqueline Winspear

24. The Riviera Set - Mary S. Lovell (To be reviewed.)

So, seven books, six fiction, one non-fiction, a real mixed bag including three crime yarns, three historical fiction stories and a history of the French Riviera from 1900 to 1960ish. Two of the crime books were also historical so it seems I lived mainly in the first half of the 20th. century for the whole of the month of April...

And it continues as I'm presently reading this:

Churchill featured heavily in The Riviera Set so I'm really just continuing on from that, plus I'm currently watching The Crown on Netflix in which his presence is also rather prevalent. Funny how one thing can often lead to another.

Favourite book of April is this:

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear was *just* superb.

Last month I listed six books I hoped to read in April. Of those I actually read three and abandoned one, so am quite pleased with that.

Books I would like to get to in May:

That last one, Beyond the Footpath by Clare Gogerty, might well be in the running for nicest cover of the year come the end of December. :-)

One difficultly is staring me in the face already. The first two books are Icelandic, which to choose for the European Reading Challenge? Eeeek... I don't need this kind of stress!

Happy reading in the glorious month that is May.


Thursday, 25 April 2019

Pardonable Lies

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear is my 14th. Book for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge, covering the September category of 'Primary action takes place in this month'.

Maisie Dobbs is engaged by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph, really did die in the Great War. His wife died recently believing the young man was still alive despite the fact that the plane he was flying crash landed and burst into flames. On her deathbed she made her husband promise to find out the truth of the matter, even though he is sure his son died in the aircraft.

At the same time Maisie is trying help a young girl DI Stratton has arrested for murdering her uncle. The girl is hiding something and is thus uncommunicative: Stratton thinks Maisie might be able to get through to her.

All this means she is busy so Maisie is not exactly thrilled when her close friend from university, Priscilla, asks her to find out how her brother, Peter, died during the war. Priscilla, now married and living in France, lost three beloved brothers in the conflict, plus, like Maisie, is still traumatised after what the two of them went through as nurses on the western front. Maisie knows that this and the Lawton case will take her back to France, a place she desperately does not want to go, the memories being just too awful.

It soon emerges that someone else does not want her to go either. Unexplained 'accidents' and some poisoned chocolates indicate that Maisie is about to uncover secrets that someone would really rather she didn't.

Hard to put into words what a brilliant book this is. Book three in the Maisie Dobbs series is rather heart-breaking and painful to read in places, dealing as it does with the fall-out from World War One, still ongoing even after twelve years. People who lived through it and came out the other side were utterly traumatised and it never stopped, it might go away for a bit but then return with a vengeance, as Maisie discovers when she's forced to return to France and the site of the field-hospital where she served. There's only a brief description of what was happening there towards the end of the war but goodness me it's gut-wrenching.

There is, in fact, a lot going on in this book. Don't expect a traditional murder mystery because you won't find it here. Instead there are many topics explored, legal representation for the poor, the plight of gay men in the early 20th. century, the role of psychic mediums after the war, the intelligence secrets and missions of World War 1 and so on. Female police constables were just starting to be seen, so that was interesting. Maisie is rather 'ahead of the times' and can intuitively see things others cannot, in more ways than one, which fascinated me a bit. I can't wait to see what kind of journey this series takes me on. I'm becoming rather addicted I think and I can't believe I didn't find them interesting 10 years ago. I'm coming around to the idea that for everyone there's a time to read certain books and this is my time for Maisie Dobbs.


Saturday, 20 April 2019

Catching up

A couple of brief reviews to catch up on, I seem to be reading slightly quicker than I have time to review at the moment.

First up, As the Crow Flies by Damien Boyd. This is my 13th. book for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge, qualifying for the August category, 'A Title beginning with A'.

Detective Inspector Nick Dixon has transferred from London back to his local patch in Somerset and joined The Avon and Somerset Police. When news comes through that his ex-climbing partner, Jake Fayter, has been killed in a climbing accident in Cheddar Gorge, Nick can't bring himself to believe that it was an accident: Jake was far too experienced and careful. But why would anyone want his friend dead? The parents ask Nick to investigate but the more he discovers the more he realises he didn't know Jake quite as well as he thought he did.

This is the first in a series that has already comprises 9 books. It's quite a short book but as far as I can see the books get longer, which I'm pleased to see. It was well written, I would have liked a bit more character depth but I rather suspect that will happen as the series goes along. One aspect I thoroughly enjoyed was that the setting was local to me. (I even know someone in the Avon and Somerset Police.) I loved being able to easily picture the Somerset Levels, the Somerset coast, the towns which cropped up, Cheddar Gorge... though I have never been climbing there heaven forfend. I do love reading about climbing though and this really ticked that particular box, excellent descriptions of what it's actually like. A good start to this new to me series - it's not the best I've ever read but it was a good, solid read and I have a suspicion it will settle in nicely as the books procede so I've reserved book 2 from the library.

Lastly, Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell. This qualifies for the World at War reading challenge, which is being hosted by Becky. The category is 'Any Book Published 1939 - 1945'.

This ninth book in Angela Thirkell's delightful Barsetshire series of books deals with the outbreak of World War 2. At the beginning most people are hopeful war won't happen but rather resigned to the fact that it probably will. The author Laura Morland, who has featured in several other books with her son Tony, moves out of her house and goes to stay with the Birketts who run a local private school for boys. She's there for the duration acting as a secretary but is also good friends with Mrs. Birkett. Slowly but surely the young men get called away to war but at first most are training nearby or in charge of training. Refugees arrive at the school in the form of a London boys' school plus the village takes evacuees from London. Naturally chaos ensues as the the village copes with the conflicts between the different factions but there's no shortage of good-will and people do what they always do in difficult circumstances: cope.

It was interesting to read a fictional account about how people living out in the British countryside dealt with various things that were thrown at them at the beginning of the war. The uncertainty, the sudden influx of people whose ways were very different to their own, the young men suddenly plucked out of their normal lives to lives that were anything but normal... that must've been incredibly hard for their parents to bear. All of this is nicely woven into a story which basically deals with the lives of a handful of people - Laura Morland, The Birketts, Lydia Keith bravely coping with a sick mother and trying to run an estate, her suitor Noel Merton, recently conscripted etc. There's a huge cast of extras, I particulary loved Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, two lesbians who write erotic fiction and can't keep out of the local pub. Because, believe it or not, for a novel with a serious theme, it's also very funny. There's a wedding at the beginning where the Birketts have managed to marry off their wayward daughter, Rose (see Summer Half), and the recounting of it is hilarious. In fact I laughed a lot all the way through, Thirkell had a very light touch with humour and it's really to the fore here. The book is of its time, I'm very tolerant when it comes to the portrayal of attitudes from the past because it serves to illustrate how much things have changed, but one thing, comments about a disabled child, made even me blanch a bit. But there you go, life *was* like that and there's no use denying it. A thoroughly delightful read but with a huge cliff-hanger at the end, so beware!

Happy Easter to everyone. This is one of my favourite times of the year, Easter being a lot less stressful I find than Christmas so, naturally, I've gone down with a cold so that I can't quite enjoy it as much as I would like... no energy to get in the garden for instance. Never mind, it's meant I've been able to read rather a lot. Silver linings and all that...