Monday, 23 November 2015

The Lake District Murder

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (co-founder of the Crime Writer's Association) was not quite a 'random grab' from the library... that hints at a book never heard of before and I was well aware of this British Library Crime Classic when I saw it on the library shelf. I'd seen reviews on blogs and mentions on Goodreads so I was pleased to see it and happily grabbed it to read. The cover, a railway poster of Ullswater, is gorgeous but isn't credited to any particular painter on the back cover, which is a shame in my view.

Edited to add: Margaret at Booksplease tells me that the artist is John Littlejohns, a Cornish artist.

The body of the part-owner of a garage business, Jack Clayton, is discovered in a car in the garage and because of the circumstances it's assumed he's committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Inspector Meredith of the Cumbrian police is not convinced though. The man was clearly just about have a meal, why would he suddenly decide to go and kill himself? He was engaged to be married too, a contented man by all accounts. Meredith checks the Clayton's bank account and is surprised to discover that the part-owner of a garage that's only doing averagely well has rather a large nest egg. Further enquiries bring forth the information that he and his fiance were going to emigrate to Canada after the wedding but that his partner in the business, a man named Higgins, was unaware of this.

Meredith soon has his prime suspects but is distracted by their involvement in what might be a petrol delivery scam. Really he has two cases to solve and everyone involved in one case seems to be involved in the other. Surely they must be connected? Meredith's task is to find that connection and then prove it. Easier said than done.

OK, well this is no 1930s Agatha Christie type yarn with a body in the library or someone done away with in a stately home or on the 4.50 from Paddington. It reminded me more of Dorothy L. Sayers' writing in that it goes into clues and methods and timings in minute detail. You needed your wits about you to follow it, to be honest, and weirdly I did actually manage to do that, unlike Dorothy L. Sayers who was so clever she did sometimes lose me. Where it differs from Sayers (and Christie) is that this is very much a police procedural story which outlines how very difficult their job can be when there are few leads, or when they know who's done the deed but have to prove it so that it'll stand up in a court of law.

The Lake District setting was good but not brilliant, I didn't get an amazing sense of place but that's because these days we think of The Lake District mainly as a beautiful tourist destination (forgetting that people live and work there perhaps) whereas back then it was possibly a bit less so. This book focuses more on the everyday lives of the resident population and is thus, probably, more real. Although, where there are descriptions of the mountains and countryside they are nicely observed.

I thought this was not a bad book. Not wonderful, but not bad. For me it lacked the kind of characterisation where I identified strongly with the detective. In Sayers' books this is not lacking - I adore Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet - and that makes for a big difference. Big enough that I give her books a four or a five on Goodreads and this one got a three. I enjoyed it well enough but wasn't transported into ecstasies by it.

There are quite a few of these reissued British Library Crime Classics around now... all with gorgeous covers but from what I can see the quality of the stories varies a bit. I own one other, Mystery in White by J.Jefferson Farjeon, a Christmas mystery which I'll be reading soon along with some other Christmas books. I'll also keep an eye out for other BLCC books as I think the idea of reissuing 'lost' crime classics from the 1930s is a really excellent one.


Monday, 16 November 2015

The Churchill Factor

I was given The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson for Christmas last year and was absolutely determined to get to it this year, preferably around the time of Rememberance Sunday and Armistice Day, which was last Wednesday of course. For once I managed to do exactly what I planned! Miracles will never cease to be...

It's funny how some books often turn out to be not what you expect... very often they don't quite live up to your expectations, which is always a bit disappointing. The Churchill Factor was that rarity, a book that 'did exactly what it said on the tin' (British advert reference for those wondering). Boris Johnson is the current mayor of London (his two-stint term ends next year and someone else will be elected to the position). Like him or loathe him (and many do both) he has a certain eccentric charm about him that I hoped would transfer to his writing. It did. In spades. The book was everything I was hoping for, ie. a sort of conversational introduction to the life and times of Winston Churchill.

This is not at all a literary tome chronicling the life of Churchill from birth to death with everything in between. It starts in 1940 when Churchill and the country are in crisis. The war is going so badly Britain is on the point of being annilated by Nazi Germany. Quite a large percentage of the House of Commons and the British public are in favour of appeasing Hitler and making a deal: 'selling out' in other words. I honestly did not know we came that close or how many people were in favour of it. In the end Churchill managed to persuade the country and Parliament to fight on but things could easily have been very different. Johnson makes the case that no other man could've have done what he did, making us fight on and having the strength and charisma to get us through WW2. Looking at other contenders as he does, it's easy to see what he means.

Basically this is a book about Winston Churchill's character. What was he like? What made him tick? 'Warts and all' is an over-used term but it's almost true here. Johnson goes into all the man's character traits, his meglomania, his charm, his work-ethic, his honesty, his eccentricities (there were many), his capacity for drinking and so on. I say 'almost' because I did slightly feel that Johnson was almost too eager to explain away some of the more questionable decisions Churchill made. The bombing of the French fleet at Mers-El-K├ębir for instance, the description of that shook me a bit. That said, it was war and someone had to take these horrendous decisions, rightly or wrongly. None of us can really put ourselves into the position of a man like Churchill... in charge of taking a country through a world war and 'winning' the thing.

Reading this book it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Churchill was a bit mad. He fought in several wars and constantly put his own life at risk in a very gung-ho manner. A real 'Boy's Own Hero'. Johnson suspects he did it partly to impress his father who basically ignored him, but also because he was a huge self-publicist and loved reading about himself doing brave things in the papers! Complex isn't in it. We're all a mix of good and bad, selfish and unselfish, but Churchill is about as complicated as anyone I've ever read about.

I have say, I think Boris Johnson handles writing about this complex man very skilfully indeed. There's a lovely, amusing turn of phrase all the way through:

'Sometimes he could be Gibbonian; sometimes he was more of a funky Gibbon;'

And referring to one, Henry Labouchere, an anti-semetic who wanted to criminalise homosexual activity and who made endless allegations about Churchill's leadership, as 'an ocean-going creep'.

I wish I'd noted more quotes but I got so wrapped up in reading the book I forgot to note pages.

Churchill likewise had a brilliant sense of humour but Johnson makes the point that many of the famous Churchillian quotes we all know are sadly not true, they were made by others etc. I did love Churchill's way of signing off his letters with KBO. It stands for Keep Buggering On... so typical of men of that generation. My mother used to say, 'Keep your pecker up'. I suspect there were any number of encouraging sayings that people used during the war that we might deem a bit odd nowadays...

I could go on and on and on about this book. For me to read a non-fiction book in four days there has to be something special about it and for me it has to be its conversational tone. Johnson meanders about all over the place timewise, one minute you're in Parliament at the start of WW2, the next you're on the battlefields of WW1 and then suddenly you're hearing about Jennie, Churchill's mother. It sounds chaotic and I suppose it is a bit, but it works. I would say that this is probably not a book for your Churchill expert. I don't imagine (though I might be wrong) that they would learn anything new. But for me, with just a little knowledge of the man, it was perfect. I loved it and it's even better than that because I so wanted to like it.. and actually did. It lived up to my expectations and actually... that's a bit rare.

The Churchill Factor is my book 22 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Catching up

Two books to do brief reviews of today and the theme is very definitely mountainous. If you don't care for mountainous, chilly - even arctic - conditions then look away now. Nothing to see here...

First up, Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places by Griff Rhys Jones.

This is the book based on the author's BBC TV series of the same name which was aired in 2007. (Was is it really that long ago? Heavens...) I watched it at the time and then watched the repeats earlier this year which the Beeb put out in the afternoons. Very enjoyable and right up my street. Comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, is a very amiable, self-deprecating presenter of TV documentaries and, given the evidence of this book, not at all a bad writer. His mission was to climb some of the highest mountains in Britain and given he was not at all a climber this was quite a task. About a third of the book concentrates on areas in Scotland, naturally, because that's where most of our major mountains are. That suited me fine as it's a country I love... plus the photos of the scenery were utterly stunning. Possibly there were a few too many of the author himself but there you go... it's his book. I found it less interesting when he moved on to England and Wales although even then his commentary was never less than readable and often very funny. Anyone living overseas interested in the UK could do a lot worse than order the dvds - if they're available in other formats - of this series as it really is scenically stunning and very watchable.

Next, The Mountains of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg. (Never let it be said that I'm not an equal opportunities mountain reader as this is science fiction. Yes, I really am nerdy enough to search out mountains in my fictional reading as well as non-fiction...)

Having fallen out of favour for shooting a rare animal on land owned by an influential member of the ruling classes, Prince Harpirias, a minor noble, is banished to the city of Ni-Moya close to the frozen wastes in the north of the planet of Majipoor. He vegitates there until a message comes through that he's to lead an expedition north into the mountains to rescue a team of archaeologists who've been kidnapped for trespassing on land owned by an unknown tribe. This is the last thing Harpirias wants to do but he is eventually persuaded. He travels north with a motley band of soldiers and the guide, a shape-shifter, who is to be his interpreter. The kidnappers turn out to have a town nestled in a frozen valley, surrounded by massive mountains. They are also quite barbaric and Harpirias will have his work cut out to rescue the unfortunate prisoners.

I kind of wanted more from this book given it was written in 1995. To me that's late enough for a plot that's more complex than just 'explorer chappy goes north to meet with primitive culture, has sex with king's daughter and comes home'. Ok, the setting of the mountainous, frozen wasteland was nicely described which is why it got a three from me on Goodreads rather than a two. Plus, I realise this is book four in a loosely connected series ('Majipoor: Lord Valentine') and I've only read book one... which I actually thought was rather good. But still... I was disappointed and grieved a bit for what the book 'could' have been. The 'barbaric' villagers were terribly formulaic, Harpirias himself was really quite unpleasant, and the only female character was there for the sex... I mean 'really'? I must add that this is just my opinion, 'Your mileage may vary' as they say but I did an awful lot of eye-rolling as I read it. Possibly if it had been written in the 1950s or 60s I might have given it a 'lot' more leeway but I simply didn't think it was good enough for 1995.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

Books read in October

It's been a busy week so I haven't read or posted much and I've loads to catch up on. This monthly post needs doing and also a wrap up post for R.I.P X.

But before I do that I just wanted to share a few interesting links I came across recently.

Firstly, this is an article about the yew tree by nature writer, Richard Mabey, from his new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Fascinating.

Next, a spooky story from Scotland and perfect for Halloween. (I know that was yesterday but...)

And lastly, with the run-up to Rememberance Day on the 11th., a WW2 story that I was completely unaware of. Tragic that the misguided enthusiasm of so many young girls and women could have been so badly taken advantage of.

OK, onto the books.I read five in October (one, Wildwood, I've been reading for months but finished it this month so am counting it for October.)

47. Wildwood by Roger Deakin.

48. Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton.

49. The Saint Germain Chronicles by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

50. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

51. An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins.

A few words about this one as I haven't had time to review it. This is the first instalment of famous 'thinker' and athiest, Richard Dawkin's autobiography. The first half to two thirds of the book deal with his childhood in Africa and at public school in England when his family moved back here. This was all delghtful and interesting and I liked the way he meandered all over the place with his thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects. It got less interesting, in my opinion anyway, when he dwelt a little too much on the detail of his scientific research at university and later... chicks and their pecking etc. It would be of interest to other scientists I'm sure but I found myself skim reading whole sections. Still, overall I thought it was very good and will read the second volume, Brief Candle in the Dark, which is just out, at some stage.

So that was October... a fairly varied month reading-wise. Two non-fictions, which I'm very pleased about, not having read any for quite a while. My non-fiction reading is waaaay down on last year's total of 21, no way will I do that this year. I don't have a standout favourite book, all were good reads apart from The Saint Germain Chronicles which I found not 'terrible' exactly, but a bit disappointing. I'm pleased to have had a good new series recced that I enjoyed the first book of: Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton, and a new author to explore, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Makes you quite excited about reading, doesn't it?


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Lolly Willowes

My fifth book for the R.I.P. X challenge is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Laura, known as 'Lolly', Willowes is a young woman utterly devoted to her father. Unmarried with two older brothers to whom she is not particularly close, Laura and her father have been inseparable since the death of her mother. When he too suddenly dies it is decided for her that she should go to live with her older brother, Henry, and his wife and two children in London. Laura acquiesces without too much of a fight though she's not sure if it's what she really wants.

For the next twenty years Laura's life is that of the maiden dependent aunt. Her brother's family are not unkind but they take for granted that she will be an unpaid child minder and housekeeper. She adapts to London life quite well even though her preferance is very much for a quiet life in the country. But there is no returning to that as her other brother, James, and his wife now inhabit her childhood home.

Then one day Laura stops to buy some chrysanthemums in a florist shop. Questioning the shop owner she discovers the flowers have been grown in the Chiltern hills in Buckinghamshire. Straightaway she visits a bookshop and picks up a guidebook to the county. She studies it carefully and decides to leave her brother's house to go and live in a village she likes the sound of, Great Mop. There is some resistance to her plan, naturally, but Laura is determined and takes up lodgings with a Mrs. Leak.

The village is an odd one. It is undoubtedly very beautiful and exceedlingly peaceful, set amongst rolling hills and wooded valleys. But the people are not terribly friendly... nor are they precisely hostile... they're just rather indifferent. They go about their business and that business never includes Laura. Which suits Laura down to the ground because, after twenty years of being at everyone's beck and call, what she really wants is to be quiet, alone, to go unnoticed.

And so it goes for quite a while until her nephew, Titus, announces that he plans to write a book and in order to do so is going to come and live with Laura in Great Mop. Laura's rural idyll is shattered. Titus is popular in the village, a 'character'. He likes to acompany her on her walks and gets her to help with writing up his book and so on. Laura is once again at the mercy of 'family'. What can she do to solve this problem?

This might not seem like an obvious choice for the RIP challenge but the last third of the book proves that it very much is, albeit in a much more subtle, satirical manner than your more obvious 'in your face' horror story. The countryside is the star of the show here, and what may or may not go on in the woods and fields that ordinary mortals have no knowledge of. It reminded me strongly of supernatural stories Algernon Blackwood wrote about the Canadian backwoods, all beautiful descriptions of wooded valleys but with an underlying sense of the mystical and unknown. Very clever.

Of course reality is never far away. Laura knows this because she's had to live the 'real' life of a dependant relative for twenty years and can never quite get rid of the feeling that it will catch up with her eventually, which of course it does. It's not that her family are cruel, in fact quite the reverse, the problem is that Laura's life is not her own. She's living it according to her family's expectations of what a maiden aunt should be. It was an extremely common story just after World War One when this story was set. So many men were killed that there was a surplas of single women, and for women of Laura's class a career, 'earning your own living', was out of the question. You went to live with relatives and said relatives thought that you ought to think yourself lucky. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a tale of a woman who decides to break the mould and in such an unusual way to boot.

In my library book copy the introduction is written by author, Sarah Waters. I read that after I'd finished the book, as I often do, and found that an interesting and informative read. Sylvia Townsend Warner was clearly a fascinating woman, breaking the mould herself by living with a female partner for forty years until her partner's death. Not only would I like to read more of the author's fiction, I'd also like to read more about her life... I believe there are diaries available and so forth. Always a good thing to discover yet another reading tangent to go off on: you just never know where it will lead in my experience.


Friday, 16 October 2015

Two R.I.P X titles

A couple of titles for this year's R.I.P challenge today. First up is Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton, my third book for the challenge.

London policewoman, DC Lacey Flint, is returning to her car one night after an interview with a potential witness. Leaning against her car is a woman who's been brutally stabbed: Lacey is unable to save her and she dies. She finds herself working closely with the Major Investigation Team who're called in to investigate the murder. Her new colleagues are not all to Lacey's liking, especially as it seems one of the men suspects Lacey of the killing. It's not long before a connection is made between the murder and Jack the Ripper's first murder, date, circumstances and so on. Lacey being an expert on the Victorian serial killer finds herself even more to the fore in the investigation. When another body is found brutally murdered on the anniversary of the second Ripper killing it's quite clear they have a copy-cat serial murderer on their hands. How can Lacey help catch the killer and still keep hidden the secrets she's harboured for many years?

I probably wouldn't have picked this up off my own bat but Margaret at Booksplease has been recommending the series lately and my curiosity was piqued. And I'm really glad as this was a cracking read. *Not*, I should add, for the faint-hearted as it pulls no punches when it comes to describing the mutilated bodies. If you can cope with that and enjoy trying to unravel a complicated plot and guess a main character's secrets then the series is well worth a try. The tie-in with Jack the Ripper worked very well for me, loads of interesting info such as the fact that the original murders spawned many copy-cat killings and police had a really tough time deciding which ones were 'canonical' murders and which were not. Plus, journalists and police added to the confusion by making 'facts' up so no one really had any idea *what* was going on. No wonder they never caught him. There's also a fascinating theory on who the murderer was in Now You See Me. Worth reading just for that. I shall definitely grab book 2 from the library and hope to read the 4 (or is it 5... Fantastic Fiction has 4 listed and an unnumbered one underneath?) books that have been written so far.

My fourth book for this year's R.I.P challenge is The Saint Germain Chronicles by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

This short story book comprises five short stories involving Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's vampire hero, The Compte de St. Germain. I'll just go briefly through each one.

1. The Spider Glass. This is a story told around the fire with six guests attending and listening, set in Edwardian times. The narrator is an English aristocrat and he's retelling the story of what happened to one of his female ancestors in the 17th. century. Her and her son were left abandoned in Paris with no way of fending for themselves. She was so desperate she tried to rob a stranger who turned out to be the vampire, The Compte de St. Germain. The story describes how she became suspicious of his lifestyle and what she did about it. This was not a bad story actually. Told in the tradition of English ghost or weird tales... around the fire with some fascinated listeners. The end was no surprise but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

2. Renewal. James, a war correspondant, has been involved in a motor accident in France in the middle of WW2. The other passengers are all killed and James wanders off and heads for the house where he and his lover, Madelaine, were so happy, hoping to find her there. She's away and instead he finds an enigmatic count there - St. Germain. Interesting little story. You're drip fed information but again the outcome is not a surprise to anyone who reads a lot of this kind of thing.

3. Art Songs. A short little story that takes place in a concert hall. It underlines the deeply loving relationship between St. Germain and Madelaine and introduces the idea that the vampire will have move to America to avoid being investigated for his business holdings and strange lifestyle.

4. Seat Partner. St. Germain sits next to a young woman on the plane to the USA. She tells him about her life. He deduces that she's living her life as others want her to rather than as she wants. Interesting little vignette.

5. Cabin 33 St. Germain and his companion come manservant, Roger, are now living in the USA and running a log cabin holiday business in the Rocky mountains. But something is the matter with one of his young guests. She seems listless to the point of illness and her parents don't seem in control of the situation. Someone needs to investigate and it falls to St. Germain to be the one.

The stories are also interspersed with letters the vampire sends to various people in the stories and at the end there's an essay by the author about The Compte de Saint Germain.

Twenty five years ago I would have adored this book. I'd just discovered the St. Germain series after finding Cabin 33 in an anthology of vampire stories. I subsequently managed to find the first three books in secondhand bookshops here in the UK... American books published in the days before the internet... nothing short of a miracle really. I adored them all... and wanted this short story volume more than I can say but couldn't find it anywhere.

Fast-forward twenty five years and purchasing a copy from Amazon Marketplace was easy-peasy (we don't know we're born now). What a shame I seem to have outgrown the books. I still like Cabin 33... it's the only short story I have ever finished reading and immediately gone back to the beginning and read it all over again. I also liked the first story, The Spider Glass, but the rest just felt like so much padding and I found it disappointing. A few years ago I read a couple of the later instalments of the novels of this series (there are 27) and didn't enjoy them all that much. I thought they got bogged down in historical detail, as though the author had done her research and was determined to use it all. Ah well, never mind, some you win...


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

My 21st. book for the Mount TBR 2015 challenge is Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin.

The trouble with taking months to read a book is that by the time you get to the end you've forgotten what you read at the beginning. (And it doesn't help that I haven't the first idea how to go about reviewing a book like this either.) I'm not at all sure when I actually started this non-fiction book, possibly as far back as May or June, I know I abandoned it for a couple of months as I felt I wasn't really connecting with it. Anyway, I decided to pick it up again a couple of weeks ago because having got over a third of the way through it seemed a shame to give up on it.

The book is basically a celebration of trees... woodlands, forests and single trees; the fruits of those forests, the people who use them, what they do with the wood or fruit, how they make a living and so on. The author spent a lot of time camping out in woodlands, or on his own land where he had an old caravan affair he would spend summer nights in. The writing is rather beautiful and it was interesting reading about his experiences living out in the natural world and the wildlife he encounters.

There are also several chapters on his childhood. He attended an independent school where an inspirational teacher took classes of boys camping in the New Forest to study everything about a small area of woodland. They kept valuable records of the flora and fauna and a generation of boys were inspired to take an interest in the natural sciences.

Deakin covers quite a few areas of the country for the book: The Forest of Dean, parts of Devon, Essex, Hampshire, Suffolk, where he lived. We learn about moths, rookeries, bluebell woods, collecing driftwood on the coast and much, much more.

I rather thought that this was a book entirely about the British countryside until I turned a page and suddenly the author was walking in the Pyrenees. Huh? All of a sudden it became an overseas travelogue. I was not expecting that. After the Pyrenees he moved on to The Carpathian mountains to walk through forests with a friend who was retracing her father's footsteps as he ran from the Nazis in WW2. Then Deakin is off to Kazakhstan to look for the origins of the apple amongst the wild apple woods of the Tien Shan Mountains. From there he travels to southern Kyrgyzstan to learn about the walnut forests from the people who spend months each year camping there, harvesting the nuts. He met and stayed with local families and learnt about a way of life very few people know about in the west. I certainly had no idea that a large proportion of the world's walnut crop is grown in Kyrgyzstan. I wasn't even quite sure where it was to be honest - it's in Central Asia and has borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, capital city, Bishkek. I love having my knowledge of the world enhanced by reading books such as this.

Personally, although I quite enjoyed the the beginning sections of the book that dealt mainly with the British countryside, the book really took off when he went travelling overseas. That's just me though. I'm very much into mountainous locations and loved hearing more about places I'd read about in Clear Waters Rising by Nicholas Crane. But also the completely new regions - to me - of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the mountains and forests that exist there.

The saddest thing was that I knew before I started that this was Roger Deakin's last book. Wildwood was published after his death from a brain tumour in 2006, aged 63. To lose a writer such as this is a real tragedy. Not enough people write about the beauty of nature and the diversity of the peoples of our world in such a meaningful and sympathetic way. I only gave it a three on Goodreads: if it were possible it would have been a three and a half. A lot of it worked for me but some of it didn't. Long sections on Australia just didn't connect with me and I found myself skim reading those. Others might enjoy those of course, just depends on your outlook. Anyway, I'd really like to read his book on wild swimming, Waterlog, at some stage and next year plan to use Bev's Mount TBR challenge to read a lot more non-fiction like this. (It's also made me want to read The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy as Deakin mentions the book all the way through his own book.) I have already made a pile... Say no more. ;-)