Sunday, 22 May 2016

Jigsaw puzzles!

What with one thing and another, it's been a bit of a year. New kitchen, new roof, trying to organise my husband's knee surgery... after a delay because of a problem with too much potassium in his blood that can now go ahead on the 7th. June. I've kept myself sane with reading and... jigsaw puzzles! Here are the ones I've done so far this year:

This snow scene I did over the New Year and into January, it took me ages as there was so much blue that all looked the same. Very pleased with how it looked when it was finished though.

A freebie my daughter picked up at the library. Another snowy scene (sensing a theme here?) It was odd because it turned out that Margaret at Booksplease was doing this at more or less the same time as I was. A fun one to do anyway, showing one of my favourite subjects: birds.

Cats, cats, cats! I had no idea there were so many breeds! Another enjoyable one.

I bought this for £2.50 in a charity shop... it had never been opened. Lovely one to do, I do love puzzles of these gorgeous botanical paintings.

Another library freebie of a Paris scene and also fun to do.


Monday, 16 May 2016

The Whispering Land

I had a couple of reasons for suddenly deciding to read The Whispering Land by Gerald Durrell. Chief among them is that I'm reading Douglas Botting's biography of him (pic to the left under 'currently reading') and have reached the stage in the book where he goes off and does this trip to Argentina. Because I own the book I wanted to have read it before Botting discusses and tells me all about it. Another reason is that I've been watching and enjoying ITV's drama, The Durrells, so was in the mood for a Durrell travel book.

This trip to Argentina was Gerald Durrell's fourth animal collecting trip after two consectutive trips to the African country of The Cameroons and one to British Guyana in the north of South America. By this time his idea of starting his own zoo is beginning to take hold although he's still collecting animals for other zoos as well as his own. Many South American animals were, at this time in the early 1960s, rather an unknown quantity though Darwin had noted quite a few on his trip to Argentina in the 1830s. Durrell includes a quote from The Voyage of HMS Beagle at the start of every chapter so it's clear he's very much inspired by Darwin's travels.

It was Durrell's new wife, Jacquie, who apparently chose the location for this animal collecting trip and she accompanies him along with his secretary, Sophie, and various drivers and guides who change along the way as the destinations alter. All of them are real characters and only too willing to accompany Durrell on some of his mad exploits. His main aim to was to see, for the first time, the massive penguin and fur seal colonies of Argentina:

It was in this desert area, protected from the sea wind by the encircling arm of the dunes, that the penguins had created their city. As far as the eye could see on every side the ground was pock-marked with nesting burrows, some a mere half-hearted scrape in the sand, some several feet deep. These craters made the place look like a small section of the moon's surface seen through a pwerful telescope. In among these craters waddled the biggest collection of penguins I had ever seen, like a sea of pygmy headwaiters solemnly shuffling to and fro as if suffering from fallen arches due to lifetime of carrying over-loaded trays. Their numbers were prodigious, stretching to the furthermost horizon where they twinkled black and white in the heat haze. It was a breath-taking sight.

In all, Durrell visits three different parts of Argentina... the coastal regions of Patagonia, the pampas, and the tropical, forested area known as Jujuy in the north. Hard to relate all of his adventures, best to read the book yourself to experience his beautifully descriptive writing and wonderful humour. I particularly liked an amazing piece about the journey one set of penguins has from the colony to the sea. Another section where he sits up all night - or tries to - to catch vampire bats feeding on the horses is also hilarious. And he wakes up early one morning, after a night's asleep under a Landrover, to find a family of foxes playing with a roll of toilet paper. His description of this episode is pure joy.

The book is illustrated all the way through by Ralph Thompson and these drawings make the book come alive. I'm no expert on wildlife so it's nice to actually see the animals Durrell was collecting.

(Click for a larger view.)

The Whispering Land was a joyous little read. It's one of the lesser known of his travel books I think... he seems to be much more famous for his African safaris to collect animals than this trip to Argentina. But the trademark humour and beautifully descriptive writing is still there and this is well worth reading. I can also highly recommend ITV's drama series, The Durrells, which I thoroughly enjoyed... beautifully acted, and such stunning scenery, and it's back for another series next year I gather.

The Whispering Land is my book 14 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 Challenge.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

A couple of titles

A bit behind with reviews so this is one of my two in one posts... two books I devoured very quickly because they were so readable. That's always nice.

First up, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.

Roger Ackroyd is a middle-aged man, a manufacturer of wagon wheels, and very wealthy. He lives in the village of King's Abbot, with various relatives, all of whom rely on him financially. It was said that he might marry Mrs. Ferrars, a widow, but she dies one night attended by Dr. Sheppard. Dr. Sheppard's sister, Caroline, a notorious collector of gossip, insists that Mrs. Ferrars committed suicide, the reason being that Caroline is sure she poisoned her husband and was so full of remorse she killed herself. Then Ackroyd himself is murdered, stabbed in the back one evening after receiving a letter from Mrs. Ferrars, posted before her death. The house and village are full of suspects. It seems a lot of people needed money from him and there is even a whiff of blackmail. One of the suspects, Flora, Ackroyd's step-daughter, goes to Dr. Sheppard's new nextdoor neighbour for help. He is a recently retired private detective who has taken up growing marrows. His name... is Hercule Poirot.

Funny how you can sometimes get so wrapped up in a book you devour it in a day. Mind you, it's not a huge book and I read it in large-print format so it was an easy read. But nevertheless it's the kind of book you find you can't put down. It's narrated by Dr. Sheppard, so you get quite an interesting viewpoint, one that belongs to the village where the crime is committed and who knows the suspects intimately. You get a real sense of the eccentricities of Poirot too, of his secretiveness when he knows things others do not - how irritating this can be, especially for Sheppard who is trying to emmulate Captain Hastings for Poirot. It's full of humour, one chapter entitled, 'An evening at Mah Jong', is absolutely hilarious... Agatha Christie had a very good eye for the humour in everyday situations and I don't think she's given enough credit for that. This is definitely one of the best Christies I've read so far and I'm told it's generally thought to be one her best as well.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd qualifies for Bev's Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt challenge under the category 'Telephone'.

Next, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Rosemary Cooke lives with her mother and father, both scientists, in Indiana. Once upon a time she had a sister and a brother but both of them have disappeared. Rosemary has just started college in California. She rarely tells people anything about herself so is rather a solitary student. Her life is one of forgetting, of not wanting to remember certain things about her childhood. So far she has succeeded in burying everything but for how much longer can she keep her secrets? And does she really want to? She needs to find answers to certain crucial questions and keeping secrets will not help in that quest one iota.

Well that's a very sparse description! Necessarily so because this is a book you need to know very little about before you start reading. About a third of the way through comes a huge reveal and although some may guess the big secret, I did not: I was taken totally by surprise. This is one of the most thought provoking books I've ever read but sadly I can't say why. I can say why I liked it. I liked the first person narrator, Rosemary, very much; she's brave and candid and a very forgiving person. I liked the sadness of this book... which might seem like an odd thing to say, but I did. I learnt a lot and that's where the sadness comes in, there's unintentional cruelty, people doing things they maybe shouldn't just for the sake of curiosity, for science. To be honest, it's heartbreaking. The book divides opinion... some seem to dislike it intensely, others really love it. I loved it and would like to read more on the subject it covers.


Monday, 2 May 2016

Books read in April

April was one of those odd reading months for me. I can't quite explain it but perhaps with such a lot going on at the moment I'm not really able to fully concentrate on books. Perhaps once my husband's operation is done and the roof finished I can get back to reading with my mind fully on what I'm doing. Because of that I read just four books in April and these are they:

22. The Kingdon Beyond the Waves - Stephen Hunt

23. Hyperion - Dan Simmons

24. To Love and be Wise - Josephine Tey

25. The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater

A bit of a sparse list! But, having said that, it must be said that three of those books were over 400 pages and not easy reads... or they didn't seem so to me. Perhaps I made unduly heavy work of them, I don't know. Some months I can whip through a 4 to 500 page book in several days, other months I plod through and the book seems endless. I think that's just the way it goes sometimes.

Enjoymentwise it was a good month. Three books were really excellent, the other one, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, OK. Certainly not terrible. As always with me it's hard to choose a favourite. Hyperion and The Raven Boys were both very good indeed *but* one book has the edge and that's:

To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey was absolutely delightful. I've read three books by her this year and not one has disappointed... all three got five stars from me on Goodreads and deservedly so. The mystery was a 'real' mystery - the ending completely surprised me - and the writing was exquisite.

Onwards and upwards. May is going to be a bit of a difficult month probably, late May anyway, but I still hope to be around a bit. Happy reading.


Sunday, 1 May 2016

The Raven Boys

My second book for Carl's Once Upon a Time X challenge is The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.

Teenager, Blue, lives in the town of Henrietta, Virginia and is the only non-psychic in a house full of female psychics, including her mother, Maura, and various eccentric aunts. But Blue does have a gift, she can somehow act as a conduit to increase the power of others: she makes things louder. But there is a problem. Her female relatives have looked into her future and ever since she can remember Blue's family have told her that if she kisses her true love, he will die.

An aunt of Blue's has come to stay, the mysterious Neeve. It's St. Mark's Eve and Neeve has taken Blue to a ruined church to see the procession of the spirits of the dead. These are people who will die in the coming year. Blue generally goes with her mother and always sees nothing, but this year is different. She sees a boy who whispers that his name is Gansey. He is wearing the uniform of the local private school for boys, Aglionby: he is a Raven Boy. When Blue asks Neeve how she was able to see this boy, Neeve tells her it means the boy is either her true love, or she is the one who kills him.

Within a few days Blue is to come across four boys from Aglionby, Adam, a poor scholarship student who would like to go out with her, wild and unpredictable Ronan, enigmatic Noah and... Gansey. She becomes involved with their search for a local leyline. Gansey believes that if he can find it it will lead to the burial place of the last Welshman to have the title of The Prince of Wales, back in the 14th. century, Owen Glendower. Blue becomes more and more embroiled in the boys' personal lives and in the search, all the while knowing that Gansey will be dead within a year...

For me this book was a bit of a slow burner. I liked Blue and her household immediately, the aunts were beguilingly potty and Blue herself is an interesting character. Her 'voice' in the book is very strong. The problem for me was that I found the four boys quite irritating for the first hundred pages. I think possibly the reader is meant to feel that way, teenage boys are, after all, teenage boys. I just thought there was just a bit too much humdrum stuff about them... I wanted the author to get to the point of the story more quickly. When that did eventually happen the book became very good, very quickly, and the boys a lot less annoying.

I liked the idea that the town of Henrietta was, supernaturally, a sort of hub. The atmosphere of the book is rather pagan and mystical, and the Welsh connection is interesting. The theory that Owen Glendower's body was shipped across the Atlantic to be buried in Virginia - I forget why - is intriguing and makes for an excellent theme to base a paranormal fantasy around. I was reminded a bit of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper's books, even though the author, Maggie Stiefvater, is American. The writing is not quite up to the standard of those authors but it's certainly engaging and very readable.

I believe there are a total of four books in this series and I definitely want to read them. Once it gets going this is a good book, older teenagers would love it I suspect, but I think anyone who enjoys a bit of paranormal fantasy would enjoy it.


Sunday, 24 April 2016

Catching up

Life is a little chaotic at the moment and thus I am reading but at a slower pace. This time last month for instance I'd read eight books... this month... three... although two of those 'were' quite long books. No matter, it's not a race, but I do need to catch up on a couple of reviews, so here goes.

First up, Hyperion by Dan Simmons. This is my 12th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 reading challenge.

It's the 29th. century and humans are out in the galaxy, living on new planets, having destroyed Earth. There's a sort of federation of planets known as the Hegemony, led by us. There's a form of interpanetary travel known as farcasting, with portals where you step through onto another planet, but it doesn't cover everywhere so sometimes people go by ship and that thing occurs where your trip might take a few months but back home everyone you know is twenty years older... or dead. There's also something called the Technocore which is run by all the AIs and is very secretive and scheming, they have a lot of power as they control all the computers and so forth. The Hegemony is being attacked by interplanetary barbarians known as the Ousters. Their current target is Hyperion an isolated planet which has been colonised by humans but not terribly successfully. There is something odd about the planet and it involves its religion which is based upon the worship of something called The Shrike. Seven pilgrims are 'invited' (not given much choice in the matter) to travel to The Time Tombs where The Shrike is purported to live... their travels being made much harder by the start of the Ouster war. Each wants something from this being but what? And why have they each been 'invited'? Why them specifically? It's decided that as they travel each will tell their story and try to discover how their various histories may be connected, so that when they get to the tombs they'll be armed with as much information as they can muster.

If that sounds like a complicated description then that's because this is quite a complicated book. To be honest, I'm not really sure I understood all of the technical explanations. I even had to go and check some of it with Wiki to make sure I'd got it right. (Don't count on it...) That said, I really did enjoy the book. Basically it's a science fiction version of The Canterbury Tales. There's a Priest's Tale, a Soldier's Tale, a Poet's Tale and so on and so forth. A bit like a series of short stories but with plenty of story inbetween to bind each tale together. I found most of the stories really quite compelling, my favourite being The Priest's Tale which read a bit like a Victorian or Edwardian 'weird tale'. The Scholar's Tale was heartbreaking, it involves his daughter who has had an accident in the Time Tombs and starts to grow younger rather than older. The Soldier's Tale was a trifle too bloodthirsty for my taste but you can't win them all. I found each story interesting and very readable, as is the whole book. It had one drawback for me and I didn't discover it until the end. I thought there would be a proper conclusion to the story and there isn't. It ends as the pilgrims reach the valley where The Time Tombs are and if you want to find out what happens to them you have to buy or borrow the next book. This is probably a spoiler but I think it's only fair to tell anyone wanting to read the book that this is the case... in fact there are, altogether, four books in the series but this first book does not stand alone. Despite that, I found Hyperion to be an excellent read and have reserved the second book, The Fall of Hyperion, from the library.

Lastly, a complete change from the above, To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey. This is my book 13 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 reading challenge and my book 6 for her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt challenge, covering the category 'A Building Other Than a House'... in this case a church.

The village of Salcott St. Mary is a typical sleepy village in a sleepy part of England. Except that it's not that typical any more as it's been taken over by celebrities who followed an actress friend of Inspector Alan Grant, Marta Hallard, when she moved there. So now the village is full of famous writers, actors and dancers. The tale begins when Alan Grant comes across Leslie Searle at a celebrity party. Searle is a good looking American and an instant hit. He gets himself invited to stay at Lavinia Fitch's large rambling pile, 'Trimmings', in Salcott St. Mary. Lavinia writes hugely popular potboilers. Leslie is driven to Trimmings by Lavinia's niece, Liz. Liz is engaged to Walter, a radio broadcaster, and Lavinia's heir. They all live in the large house along with Liz's mother, Emma, who is Lavinia's sister. Emma dislikes Leslie on sight. He's very handsome and personable, and Emma senses an attraction between Liz and Leslie, which would ruin her engagement to the plodding Walter. Walter and Leslie, who is a famous photographer, decide to do a book together. The book is all about the local river so they decide to travel the length of it in a canoe. But one night after, a public disagreement in a pub, Leslie disappears. It's generally thought that he must've fallen into the river and drowned. But did he fall? Or was he pushed? It's Alan Grant's job to discover the truth.

I must admit that I wasn't mad about the first two books in the Alan Grant series. They were fine, but for me, not wonderful. And then I read The Franchise Affair and that book turned me into a real Josephine Tey fan. Miss Pym Disposes reinforced that status (not an Alan Grant book) and To Love and Be Wise put her firmly among my favourite authors. I adored this book. Of course I could have been ready for something like this after two quite long, rambling, involved books... perhaps Josephine Tey's lightness of touch and wonderful way with describing the foibles and eccentricities of her characters was just what I needed. Whatever, I devoured it in two days and loved it to bits. It's quite a complicated list of characters and I did struggle a bit to remember who was related to who and how. But that was made up for the sense of place, a cast of eccentric nutters, and a mystery that kept me guessing to the end. I was genuinely surprised by the outcome... a real 'Oh!' moment. Very clever. My next Josephine Tey will be The Daughter of Time and I can't wait to read it. Except that there are not many left after that and I don't want to be in a position where I have none of her books left to read. I'm the same with Dorothy L. Sayers. Some of the best authors were not very prolific it seems.

It's hard to believe that May is nearly here. It will be another chaotic month for me. We're having the roof replaced at the moment and then my husband goes into hospital for a knee replacement operation. I don't think I'll be blogging very much but should be around occasionally.


Tuesday, 12 April 2016

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

My first book for Carl's Once Upon a Time X challenge is The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt. As I've had it on my Kindle for several years, it also qualifies as my book eleven for Bev's Mount TBR 2016.

In this steam-punk fantasy yarn the lost city of Camlantis is the obsession of archaeologist, Professor Amelia Harsh. The legend is that it had a Utopian society and she wants to learn its secrets to make present day society a better place. It's rumoured that the city - if it existed - is floating around in the sky, too high to be accessible, but that some of it is buried in a lake. Unfortunately this lake is in a wild and inhospitable 'jungle' area of the planet (think 'The Amazon'), called Liongeli, and inhabited by various unfriendly races who do not like strangers traversing their land.

Amelia can't get official funding to mount an expedition, so when wealthy industrialist and politician, Abraham Quest, offers to fund one, she jumps at the chance even though she hates the man and suspects his motives. Going with Amelia is Jared Black, an elderly adventurer, who doesn't want to go but is cajoled into it when Quest produces Jared's beloved once wrecked U-boat from the depths of the ocean, newly refurbished. Also accompanying them is a motley band of individuals from different races, with various skills. Quest has also supplied protection in the form of a small regiment of Amazonian type female warriors. Amelia is now wondering what on earth she's got herself into. But never mind, she's going to find Camlantis... that will make it all worth it. Won't it?

This is book two of Stephen Hunt's 'Jackelian' series, I read book one, The Court of the Air in 2011... my review of that book is here. Rereading it I can see that I more or less felt exactly the same about that book as I feel about The Kingdon Beyond the Waves. I think the term 'Never use one word when fifteen will do' applies to the writing in these books. Reading them can be a confusing experience and I'm not at all sure whether it's me or not. The books are chock full of ideas, some of them just mentioned in passing, often for no reason and it's like a kind of over-load of information really. And I lost count of the times when I would read a passage, do a mental 'Eh?', and have to reread it to get the gist. It's quite possible I'm not mentally agile enough for this series, let's face it they're probably not aimed at 62 year old grandmothers with strange tastes in books, but I can't help but feel it is a bit of drawback to write like that.

And yet... I kept reading. Because, as with that first book, the world building is amazing. I think, but am not sure, that it's a dystopian series set thousands of years in our future. There are hints. And the world the author has created is a fascinating one inhabited by many races including sentient machines called 'steammen', shape shifters, Amazonian warriors, mysterious spies from The Court of the Air and so on and so on... really it is quite amazing. And the story itself is a cracking adventure yarn... there's no lack of action as the motley band make their way through the jungle, not only fighting some very strange beings but a saboteur among their own ranks. I liked too the fact that the author has made this a story where both male and female characters take equal part in the action, he's to be applauded for that in my opinion. Even though those women for some reason all had to be muscle-bound fighters (even Amelia) he 'tried' and I appreciate that.

I think I can say that I enjoyed the book but it was hard going. I don't honestly know whether I'll read any more in the series, maybe, maybe not. We'll see.