Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Red House Mystery

Happy Easter to anyone who happens to be reading this. Hope the long Easter weekend is everything you would like it to be.

Bit busy at the moment but I did finish a book a few days ago and that book was The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne. This one qualifies for two challenges - Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge (it qualifies for the category, 'A book with a colour in the title') and Bev's Mount TBR 2014 Challenge.

There's a house party going on at The Red House - owner, one Mark Ablett. Various people are present but one of them, Bill Beverly, is a particular friend of man about town, Antony Gillingham. On a whim, Antony decides to pay his friend a visit while he's staying at The Red House but his timing turns out to be rather bad... or good depending on your point of view. Antony arrives just as Cayley, Ablett's cousin, is trying to gain entrance to the locked study. An argument has been heard followed by a gunshot. Cayley and Gillingham have to break into the study through a window and there they find the dead body of a man. It quickly materialises that the dead man is Mark Ablett's brother, Robert, home from Australia on a visit. Servants say they heard the sound of two voices - Mark and his brother - rowing. But Mark is nowhere to be seen and there's no trace of him anywhere.

Antony Gillingham is a man of independent means who has a habit of wanting to find out what various occupations are like by actually doing them. Thus, for instance, he was a barman for a while and another time a valet. He met Bill Beverly while serving in a tobaconist's shop. Now he sees his opportunity to become an amateur detective, if only for a short while, and try to discover who shot Robert Ablett and why.

There are not many suspects, most of the house party were away from the house playing golf. The case is pretty-much a 'locked room' sort of a mystery, involving a lot of theory but also a great deal of spying and investigation of the house itself by Antony and Bill. So many things just do not add up. It seems fairly obvious that Mark must have shot his brother but how did he get out of the room without being seen? And most important of all: where exactky *is* Mark Ablett?

It's funny that it's often at about the halfway mark when reading a book I own, that I suddenly decide whether or not I want to keep it. When I started The Red House Mystery it was with the plan of reading it and putting it in the charity shop box straight after. Best laid plans and all that... this one is just a little bit too good to let go.

Why? Well for a kick-off it doesn't take itself at all seriously. I gather A.A. Milne, a big fan of the crime genre, wrote it as a kind of spoof, humorous homage to the genre. And it is full of humour, lots of fun references to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for instance and some hugely entertaining dialogue. The odd thing is that after being written as a not too serious attempt at a crime yarn it then apparently became a bit of a classic in the genre. And it's really not difficult to understand why.

Antony Gillingham as the detective is perhaps a bit too cock-sure of himself, almost to the point of being annoying. He's saved by his crazy enthusiasm and the rather manic way he goes about solving the crime, dragging Bill along with him but never quite allowing his sidekick in on all his thought processes. The two of them actually make a charming pair of sleuths in that easy manner of the 1920s whereby men had no problem with friendships that involved walking along arm in arm or speaking to each other in quite an intimate manner. Impossible to imagine these days and it made me wonder at what point that kind of ease of male companionship came to an end. I certainly don't remember it in my lifetime, but it's there in books set in the 1920s and 30s, so my guess is that somehow the war put a stop to it. I wonder why or how? Very odd and perhaps a little sad too.

As mysteries go the story is a little unusual in that you think there's going to be a huge list of suspects but then they all get sent away and you end up with just two. It's not so much a case of whodunnit as *how*... because it's all rather complicated. Perhaps locked room mysteries often are, I don't know. I do know that the much loved author of the Winnie the Pooh books was a class act when it came to crime writing and I feel it's a great shame he didn't write more about the duo of Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverly. They were different enough to be vastly entertaining and it would have been nice had there been several books rather than just one.

This one will definitely *not* be going into the charity shop box.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

A couple of mysteries

A couple of mysteries to review quickly today. Both of them for various challenges I'm doing.

First up, Madame Maigret's Own Case by Georges Simenon. I read this as my book eight for Bev's Vintage Mystery challenge and it covers the category: A book with a woman in the title.

Madame Maigret is sitting on a bench, enjoying the fresh air, waiting for the time of her dentist's appointment to arrive. A woman is playing with a lovely little boy, no more than an infant, when suddenly she becomes agitated, asks Madame to look after her child for a short while, and rushes off. Several hours later, Madame has missed her appointment and the woman has not returned. When she eventually does, it's in a taxi and, without even thanking the baby-sitter, she bundles the child into the car and is away. Madame Maigret is not only very annoyed but also rather perplexed. Meanwhile the police have received an anonymous message to say that a body has been incinerated in the home and business premises of a Paris bookbinder. There's a blue suit covered in blood stains in the closet and a large suitcase has gone missing but the bookbinder refuses to admit any knowledge of the suggested crime. Maigret's progress in the case is blocked at every turn by a young lawyer who clearly has some axe to grind with the inspector. Eventually it materialises that the Madame Maigret's odd experience with the woman and child and Maigret's latest case might be connected. It also seems that using her knowledge of female attire, Madame Maigret can help solve the case.

This is the fourth Maigret book I've read this year as part of the Vintage Crime challenge. Maigret is based in Paris of course but so far this is the first book I've read that's set in the capital city. One was in Holland, another Concarneau, and yet another on a canal in the French countryside. Strangely perhaps, I didn't enjoy this Paris based novel as much as the others. I suspect it may have something to do with confusion. I got a bit bogged down in a lot of different characters up to no good. The plot was rather convoluted and I really did struggle to keep up. I assumed it was just me but then I checked Goodreads and found that others had had the same experience. This book is rather later than the other three, those being 1930s and 40s books and this being written in 1958, just meeting the 1960 deadline for the challenge. I wondered if that had anything to do with it, whether the early books were better.... not that it was a bad book at all, just sort of 'average'. I think perhaps I expected more involvement for Madame Maigret, there was some but not as much as the title might suggest. I did however enjoy seeing the domestic arrangements of the Maigrets' marriage. That part was fun and enhanced an otherwise average Maigret outing.

Next, Huntingtower by John Buchan. Better take a deep breath... I read this for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge, Riedel Fascination's My Kind of Mystery challenge, and Bev's 2014, Mount TBR challenge. Think that's all...

Dickson McCunn is now a retired man. For years he was a respected part of the middle-class, Glasgow estabishment, owning and running a very successful grocery business. At fifty-five, he's well-off, a bit of a romantic, and yearns for an adventure before he gets too old to enjoy it. His wife is away so off he goes on a walking holiday. He fetches up in a remote village where he comes across a poet. He doesn't take to the poet, who criticises Dickson's taste in poetry and keeps calling him 'Dogson'. Which is all rather unfortunate as he comes across him the next day, further on, and somehow the two get involved in the rum goings on in a crumbling mansion, miles from anywhere. They discover that a young woman is being kept prisoner by a group of ruffians. The poet, Hermitage, knows the girl, a Russian princess. Dickson, realising he's in the middle of a real-life adventure, suddenly gets cold feet. But he can't back out now because help is at hand in the shape of the Gorbals Diehards, an unruly bunch of boys from Glasgow. Dickson can't be seen to be cowardly in front of the boys, who are known to him. In fact, he's in it up to his neck and his mettle is going to be sorely tested before the whole messy business is drawn to a conclusion.

Well this book was sheer joy and fun from start to finish. Middle-aged Dickson McCunn is a delightful if rather unlikely hero and easy to identify with. Like everyone he dreams of being a hero but when the reality presents itself realises that being a hero is a messy business and people get hurt. His Scottishness shines off the page and there is a bit of Scottish dialect which can throw you a bit but is easily worked out one way or another. Previously I had only read 39 Steps by John Buchan (A Richard Hannay story) and could hardly remember that, so was not sure what to expect from the writing. It turns out that the writing is beautiful, conveying as it does a wonderful sense of the countryside... the moors and the coastline... of Scotland. That took me by surprise, I must admit. I don't remember a strong sense of place in 39 Steps but Huntingtower definitely has one. I got this as a free Kindle book from Amazon. There are two more books in the Dickson McCunn series, Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds. Those are not free but I found them free to download on Gutenberg Australia. I will definitely be reading both.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Thirteenth Child

My second book for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII reading challenge is Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede.

Eff (short for Francine) Rothmer is a young girl living in the town of Helvan Shores, somewhere in the east of an alternate universe USA. She is one of a large family, a twin in fact, a little older than her brother, Lan. The unusual fact about Eff is that she is a thirteenth child, and the unusual fact about Lan is that he is the seventh son of a seventh son. This means that while Lan is celebrated as a potentially powerful practicioner of magic and very lucky to be around, Eff is feared as someone who will bring bad luck to her family and to people who come into contact with her. Luckily, her immediate family do not fear or depise her but her huge count of uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth do, and treat her accordingly. Life for Eff is difficult.

Things come to a head and Eff's parents decide it's time to move the family elsewhere. Her father is offered a post at a school of magic on the frontier, a place where a magical 'divide' protects new settlers from the wilderness and the unusual and dangerous beasts that live there. Magicians are needed to help keep the spells that keep people safe, in place. Here Eff discovers what it is to live without prejudice. No one knows she's a thirteenth child as a number of her siblings have married or stayed behind for their education. Lan's status is known though and and for him life is now all about special lessons and special treatment: Eff realises they're drifting apart.

Eff's challenge is to make a life for herself in this strange place. This she does, making new friends and doing her best at learning magic herself. But she can't forget the fact that she is meant to grow up to be evil. The knowledge lives inside her like a virus and means she has a secret she has to keep at all costs. The trouble with keeping secrets is that the effort required eventually takes its toll...

I didn't realise when I started to read this book that there was some kind of problem with it. I read it, found it to be quite enjoyable, although taking rather a long time to really get going and possibly never really living up to my expectations. To tell the truth it's more of a coming-of-age story than anything else and as such it wasn't a bad read. But, if reading for high fantasy, loads of magical happenings and weird and unusual animals, as is hinted at in the synopsis, then the reader might be disappointed. It felt more like an introduction to be honest. For my liking there just wasn't enough of a fantasy element.

What we did have here was a real family. Not an idealised one where everyone is nice to each other but a living breathing entity where people argue, are spoilt, have favourites, misbehave, but still stick together regardless. A mother who lays down the law, worries about her children, is sometimes unreasonable. A father who's so busy with his work that sometimes the family take second place. Eff herself is a very rounded character, trying to do her best despite the 'thirteenth child' tag that is forced upon her from very early in her life. She doesn't do a lot of complainiing - I thought it wouldn't have harmed if she had done a bit more - but it's clear from the start that this is quite an unequal society. Girls are allowed education, which is something, but the boys have more freedom in just about every aspect of life. I thought the author did a good job of depicting the female 'guilt' complex, Eff is a very deep thinking girl and shoulders a lot of guilt which no one bothers to relieve her of and nor do they understand why she feels that way, especially her friends who are boys. It's quite sad.

So, what is the problem I mentioned earlier? Well, although this is a fantasy tale it is set loosely during the American pioneering days of the 1800s. And thus it seems that some people expected there to Native Americans in it, and there are none. I think the author explained it by saying that they never crossed the land bridge and thus didn't spread into North America in her universe. This caused her to be accused of racism and there were flame wars on Twitter and all that kind of thing. A real can of worms. I don't plan to get into something that happened 5 years ago, the book is what it is, and I'm not sure accusing an author of racism because she ommitted something you think should be there is particularly fair.

The decision I have to make is whether to read on in this series based on this first book. It didn't quite live up to my expectations but there are intriguing ideas and Eff's plans for her future excite me. Perhaps future books supply more of what this book promised? My library doesn't have the second book, Across the Great Barrier, so I would have to think it worth buying. Goodread reviews seem to be split between 'this is better than book 1' and 'still too much internalising'. I'll have to think about it as I'm trying not to buy too many books at the moment and those I do buy I've decided I must really want for a good reason. Why is nothing ever simple?

Thirteenth Child is also my 12th. book for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Books read in March

March was another pretty good reading month for me. Ten books read again, bringing my total up to thirty books read so far this year. I suppose at some stage I'll slow down but at the moment ten books a month is feeling pretty comfortable. It could be I'm reading faster and also being inspired by the challenges I'm doing this year, including the start of Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII one a week or so ago.

Anyway, these are the books:

21. The Nine Tailors - Dorothy L. Sayers

22. Touch Not the Cat - Mary Stewart

23. Sisters of Sinai - Janet Soskice

24. West With the Night - Beryl Markham

25. Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout

26. The Middle-aged Mountaineer - Jim Curran

27. Gentleman of Fortune - Anna Dean

28. A Woman of Consequence - Anna Dean. I haven't reviewed these last two because it's sometimes impossible to review everything. They're books two and three in the Dido Kent series and suffice it to say I absolutely love the series and each one is a delightful read.

29. Among Others - Jo Walton

30. Madame Maigret's Own Case - Georges Simenon (To be reviewed)

So that was March's reading. Funny how the first book is only four weeks ago but feels like years. I'm pleased with three non-fictions, all of which were interesting books, in the case of West with the Night quite enthralling actually. Several of the fictions were also excellent, The Nine Tailors, Among Others and the two Anna Deans. Of those four I think the award for my favourite book of the month goes to:

Brilliant book which will stay with me for a long time.


Monday, 31 March 2014

Mount TBR: March checkpoint.

This is my first year with Bev's Mount TBR reading challenge and the time has come for the first progress report, known as The March checkpoint. Not done one of these before so hopefully I can manage to get it right.

My aim for this year - the mountain I'm attempting to climb that is - is to climb Mount Ararat. That involves reading 48 of my own books before the 31st. DEcember. I thought that was doable as last year I read around 35 without really trying and 48 is only 4 books a month.

Anyway, firstly we have 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.

My number of books read is 11. That takes me to within shouting distance of the top of Pike's Peak (12 books required for that), in fact I've started book 12 so am almost there. I am in fact almost a quarter through my challenge and pretty much on track as we're now a quarter of the way through the year of course. I did wonder if I might be able go beyond 48 books and am actually quite hopeful that I might eventually manage to do that.


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

A. Post a picture of your favorite cover so far.

B. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.

C. Have any of the books you read surprised you--if so, in what way (not as good as anticipated? unexpected ending? Best thing you've read ever? Etc.)

D. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

I'll start with A - 'Post a pic of your favourite cover', which is easier said than done because when I looked at the list of books I'd read, I'd got three contenders:

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks, and Sundiver by David Brin:

I like the first because it's a wonderful depiction of a snow scene on The Prairies in the 1800s. These Puffin covers are from the 1970s or 80s I believe and I'm a bit fond of this particular set. The second is just a stunning scene of an ocean on a man-made planet with the sky and the cosmos above. Beautiful. The third I simply like because of the colours used... and the depiction of the alien, whose name I now completely forget. It's just a damn good sci-fi cover, in my opinion.

And the winner is? Consider Phlebas. Annoyingly, because I've passed the book on I don't know who is responsible for the artwork, but whoever it was - it's gorgeous.

I'll do D for my second question, 'Which book has been on your tbr pile the longest?'

Well. I suppose, strictly speaking, that would be The Long Winter because it's been owned since the 1980s. The thing is, it hasn't been on my tbr mountain since then, it's been on the bookshelf in my grand-daughter's room and actually belongs to her mum. I didn't decide to read the Little House series until the last three or four years. Probably the one that's waited longest is Sundiver by David Brin. I bought that on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee in 2006. Our hotel was a short ride away from a mall where there was a Barnes and Noble and we went there several times to escape the heat, *and* buy books. I came home with 4 David Brin books and they've languished on the shelf ever since. 'Was it worth the wait?' Frankly, no. It wasn't a bad book by any means but I had hoped for a slightly more involving science-fiction read. Not sure it was worth bringing back in my suitcase to be honest. But there you go, win some, lose some.


Saturday, 29 March 2014

Among Others

My first book for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII challenge is Among Others by Jo Walton.

Morwenna Phelps is a 14 year old girl from The Valleys of South Wales. She's just met her father for the first time, he left the family when Morwenna and her twin sister, Morganna, were very young. Morwenna - or 'Mori' as she's known - is now an only child as her sister has died. Mori's father lives in Shropshire in a manor house with his three sisters, triplets, but it's clear from the start that they don't want Mori so she's packed off to boarding school. Of course, there's no way that a Welsh girl from The Valleys is going to have an easy time of it at a posh English boarding school and so it comes to pass. For Mori is of course 'different'. Not only is she disabled as a result of whatever happened to her sister, she can also see fairies. 'Magic' is something that really exists in Mori's world but as a young teen she has already learnt that magic is inherently dangerous. And one of the biggest dangers as far as she is concerned is her own mother. Mori's life is incredibly difficult, bullied at school, unwelcome at her father's home, as different from others as it's possible to be, the only thing Mori can find solace in is books. Science Fiction books to be exact. She wonders if her love of this genre of fiction can save her, and then thinks of a way to bring it about...

The first thing I'll say is that Mori is a delightful narrator for this book. The story is told via her diary and is thus written in first person, a form I love because it enables the reader to really get to know the narrator... *if* of course the author has the skill. I'm pleased to report that Jo Walton has the skill. In spades. Mori's personality jumps right off the page at you, she's incredibly brave; not the kind of person to bewail her fate she just gets on with life making the best of the poor hand she's been dealt. I love her Welshness, despite being thrown into an English boarding school she's fiercly loyal to her Welsh roots and her family and very upset when she realises the school has inadvertently changed her.

But of course, what I really loved the most about young Mori was her devotion to science fiction books and, to a lesser degree, fantasy. Samuel B. Delany, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tolkein, to whom she's devoted, ... way too many authors to list them all to be honest. This book is a science fiction fan's idea of heaven. Mori recounts the events that are happening in her life in a very matter-of-fact way and the books she reads form a very natural part of the telling of the story: it's quite clear they are part of the very fabric of her being. It's seamlessly done - really, really clever writing.

As with all clever stories information is fed to the reader in a slow drip-feed. How Morganna died, what the problem is with the mother, what Mori's former life in The Valleys was like and so on. We watch as she grows up, her struggles at school with other pupils, her struggle to find friends and how her life is slowly transformed towards the end of the book. Her ambiguity as regards doing magic and her dealings with the fairies is a real source of unease for her, she worries constantly about what kind of person she is. Is she good or evil? We know of course and it's quite heart-breaking to see her inward struggle to make sense of it all.

I feel incredibly lucky to have happened on Among Others as my first book for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I've had it on my Kindle for a year or so and not got around to it so now was the perfect time. The author, Jo Walton, is apparently a Welsh-Canadian, not sure which part of her nationality is prevalent but the writing just felt Welsh to me. Among Others won the 2011 Nebula award for best novel and the Hugo award in 2012 for the same. I'm not remotely surprised. I'm currently reading her new book of essays about rereading science fiction, What Makes This Book so Great. Already I know I'm going to want to own it (it's a library book) and plan to stick it on my birthday list in a few weeks time.

So that's my first book read for Once Upon a Time VIII, and Among Others also qualifies as my book 11 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.


Saturday, 22 March 2014

Once Upon a Time VIII

Spring has officially sprung and that means the return of one of my favourite reading challenges, Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII. *Eight* years, goodness that's pretty good going. Not sure how many of those I've done, possibly five or six. Anyway, without further ado, my sign-up post for this year's Once Upon a Time.

“Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

~William Butler Yeats

The hauntingly beautiful artwork this year is by Melissa Nucera. And I always love the verses Carl chooses to accompany his introductory challenge posts.

The idea, as always is to:

Rule #1: Have fun.

Rule #2: HAVE FUN.

Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!

Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.

While this event retains the word “challenge” from its earliest days, the entire goal is to read good books, watch good television shows and movies, and most importantly, visit old friends and make new ones. There are several ways to participate, and I hope you can find at least one to your liking:

As per usual I'm going to do:

Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time categories. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

These are a few of the books I want to read:

From the bottom:

The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss
The Mad Ship - Robin Hobb
Fyre - Angie Sage
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (A reread)
The Wood-Wife - Terri Windling
Wizard of the Pigeons - Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb)

Not in the photo but also on my list:

Death by Silver - Melissa Scott
Thirteenth Child - Patricia Wrede
Edge of the World - Kevin J. Anderson
Among Others - Jo Walton (Kindle read)
Lost Things - Melissa Scott and Jo Graham (Kindle read)
The Little Grey Men - 'BB'
At the Back of the North Wind - George MacDonald

The important thing to note for me personally is that nearly all of these are books I own. (Fyre belongs to my grand-daughter. *Virtual wave* to her as I know she sometimes reads this blog. And I don't yet own Death by Silver but plan to soon.) I really want to read from my tbr mountain this year... some of these books have been on my shelves for years and it's high time they were read. Plus some will also qualify for the Mount TBR challenge... which is good.

So that's it, thanks to Carl for once again hosting this challenge and good luck to everyone participating.