Saturday, 21 July 2018

Catching up

A bit busy at the moment and thus several book reviews behind on here. So, this is a 'catch up' post, wherein I make an effort to be brief and fail dismally.

First up, Death on the Riviera by John Bude.

Detective Inspector Meredith and Acting Sergeant Strang are heading by car to the south of France. They've had information that 'Chalky' Cobbett, a notorious counterfeiter, is plying his trade in Menton, and the idea is to catch him at it and send him back to England. The trail leads to The Villa Paloma where Nesta Hedderwick, a middle-aged wealthy woman, holds court and and has constant house guests and permanent lodgers of the artistic persuasion. Her neice is one of those staying and when Strang comes across her in an art gallery it proves to be a convenient 'in' to the secrets of the villa and of those staying there. But what's all this got to do with Chalky Cobbett? And should Meredith and Strang be enjoying themselves quite so much when this is, after all, a police assignment?

This has got to be one of the best British Library Crime Classic books I've read so far. I really enjoyed the setting of the south of France, and feel the author got the hedonistic lifestyle of some of the foreigners who lived there spot-on. I'm currently reading a non-fiction book about it and although it deals mainly with a slightly earlier era, the details haven't changed much and John Bude clearly knew his stuff. This one was written and set in the early 1950s and the war was still very fresh in people's memories, but it still came as quite a shock to me to see Dunkirk described as still wrecked and practically unnavigable. Little things like that bring history home with a jolt and I like these reality checks. There's a touch of romance in this, humour, skulduggery, food and drink porn, and an excellent sense of place... loved it.

Next up, Valour's Choice by Tanya Huff.

The Confederation is an alliance of planets in which the populations have become too peaceful to fight their own wars. When 'The Others' start attacking from another galaxy they offer membership to several other less pacifist planets on the condition that they fight The Others for them. Another warlike race, the Silsviss, a reptilian species, is set to join The Confederation to help in the fight and Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is sent, with a small brigade of her men, to accompany the diplomats who're going to negotiate. *Not* her usual kind of mission. It's all going well until their ship is shot down over a wild area where young males of the planet spend time working off their severe aggression. Suddenly that aggression is pointed at the diplomats and their protectors. Who will prevail?

I gave this 3 stars on Goodreads which was possibly a bit miserly of me. 3.5 would've been more accurate as I enjoyed it and read it quite quickly. It comes under the heading of 'Military Science-fiction' I believe... these days science-fiction seems to have been compartmentalised into far more categories than it ever was years ago... and I'm not sure it's my thing precisely. I'm OK with it in small doses perhaps but endless battle scenes do bore me a bit and about half of this book concentrates on the long battle to survive against the rampant young males. I did think the various alien races were well imagined and depicted, especially the Silsviss and their planet. I'm curious about The Others as not much is said about them in this book. And I rather liked Torin Kerr as the main protagonist, her honest, no nonsense approach to everything was refreshing. So, whether I'll read more in this series is uncertain. It's a trifle too military for me *but* the world building and characterisation are both really excellent. Perhaps I'll see where the next books are in the Devon library system and go from there.

Lastly, Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers.

Harriet Vine and Lord Peter Wimsey are now married. They head off to a large house in the village where Harriet grew up, for their honeymoon... Peter decided to buy it because Harriet always loved it as a child. The seller is supposed to be there to meet and help them settle in, but for some reason he's not there. Eventually they gain entrance and the housekeeper, gardener, vicar, chimney sweep, Uncle Tom Cobley, and Bunter, Peter's valet, all help get the house ready to live in. But where *is* the owner? 'In a neighbouring town attending to business', suggests the housekeeper. And they all accept this explanation until something is required in the cellar...

I gather Dorothy L. Sayers wrote this as a love story about Peter and Harriet after their wedding, with a little murder and mayhem thrown in to keep crime readers happy. It's not the place to start if you've never read any of her Wimsey books as this is the last novel she wrote about him, the final volume being a book of short stories I believe. I thought it was delightful, full of humour, quite a lot of romance, and the murder aspect was actually very good. I didn't solve it and had no idea who the culprit was until it was revealed at the end. The thing about Harriet and Peter is that they've neither of them had an easy time of it. Harriet was accused of murdering an ex-lover, culminating in a notorious court case (Strong Poison), and Peter has not been the same since he fought in World War One (the same can be said for the men I knew who fought in World War Two). So it's brilliant to have a book where they've both found happiness at last and I can't help but feel they're perfect for each other. I have an anthology of all of the Wimsey short stories Sayers wrote, Lord Peter, and I honestly can't wait to read them now, plus I have a few of the early Wimsey novels still to read.


Friday, 6 July 2018

Blood on the Tracks

When I heard, via Martin Edwards's excellent blog, that the BLCC were bringing out a volume of vintage crime short stories based on railways I was delighted. I'm not a railway buff, let's get that straight, but for some strange reason I really enjoy ghost or crime stories set on trains. I've read several by Agatha Christie and as ITV3 are currently showing old Poirots I've recently 'seen' a couple too. Love them. So, Blood on the Tracks, edited by Martin Edwards, was an obvious buy for me and I've been reading it over the last few weeks.

A quick run-down of the stories:

1. The Man With the Watches - Arthur Conan-Doyle. A man is found dead in a railway carriage with six watches on him. The solution to this comes via a letter to the narrator, explaining everything. Slightly underwhelmed by this one.

2. The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel - L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace. This is a tale of a mysteriously dead signalman, the body found at the mouth of a railway tunnel. When another man dies in similar circumstances people suspect a supernatural cause. Excellent story, well written and slightly creepy.

3. How He Cut His Stick - Matthew McDonnell Bodkin. A bank employee is robbed of £5,000 on a train, it seems an impossible crime but female investigator, Dora Myrl, eventually works out how it was done. Not bad but didn't get a strong sense of the detective.

4. The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway - Baroness Orczy. One of series based on 'The Man in the Corner' who apparently sits in a café telling 'Polly' how murders were committed. This one involves a woman who's been killed on the undergound. Quite good.

5. The Affair of the Corridor Express - Victor L. Whitechurch. The son of a millionaire is kidnapped while on a train. An expert on train timetables works out how it was done. Another impossible crime with an ingenious solution.

6. The Case of Oscar Brodski - R. Austin Freeman. Silas Hickler, a crooked dealer in diamonds, kills a man he knows is carrying a stash of them on him. Will he get away with it or will two doctors, using scientific methods, manage to catch him? This long story was an excellent read. I liked how the murder featured at the beginning, so we know what's happened, and then we get to observe the detectives try to catch him. I've just bought four books by this author as a job lot for my Kindle for £1.99. Bargain!

7. The Eighth Lamp - Roy Vickers. An underground railway worker is absolutely terrified when he's given the job of closing up the station last thing at night. It's turning out that last light and being momentarily in the dark that unnerves him. Why? Excellent little supernatural story.

8. The Knight's Cross Signal Problem - Ernest Bramel. The cause of a nasty accident is in question. The driver of the train swears the signal was green and indicated he could go, the signalman swears it was not so. What's going on?

9. The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man With No Face - Dorothy L. Sayers. On a train journey, Lord Peter Wimsey joins in a discussion with the people in the carriage. A body has been found on a local beach, the face all bashed in, who is it and how was he killed? Terrific story this, Dorothy L. Sayers is not one of the best known female crime authors for nothing. Love how she does the speech of the common man.

10. The Railway Carriage - F. Tennyson Jesse. Solange Fontaine is only just in time to catch her train. Already in the carriage are two very odd people indeed... This is an excellent little supernatural story that works very well.

11. The Mystery of the Slip-Coach - Sapper. A man is found dead in a railway carriage. Four other occupants swear they didn't kill him and obviously didn't, so who did? Nice little 'impossible crime' story.

13. The Adventure of the First Class Carriage - Ronald Knox. This is a Sherlock Holmes story by an author other than ACD. A housekeeper comes to see Sherlock Holmes about her employers. She's worried that the husband is about do away with the wife. Quite a good story which I've read before somewhere.

14. Murder on the 7.16 - Michael Innes. Quirky little story about a body found on a film set train. Innes is famous for his John Appleby series of crime books and this is a good short story featuring that detective. I need to read a few of the novels I think.

15. The Coulman Handicap - Michael Gilbert. The police in London are watching a middle-aged woman who they know is acting as a carrier for stolen jewellry. They plan to catch her using The Underground. Enjoyed this one as it was slightly different.

I've read a few of these BLCC short story collections and this one ranks as one of the best. Possibly I'm slightly biased by the subject, I don't know, but there were only a few stories that I found 'average' the rest I thought were very good indeed. In particular The Unsolved Mystery of the Man With No Face by Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace and The Case of Oscar Brodski by R. Austin Freeman. These three really stood out for me, partly because they were different in some way but also the writing was superb. Mind you, *all* of the stories are well written as I have come to expect from vintage crime books and short stories. I particularly like that at the beginning of each story Martin Edwards writes a little about the author and what he was famous for writing. Staggering how many of these authors were hugely popular in their time but are completely unknown now. A real shame. Thank goodness for the British Library in bringing these authors back in these delightful books.


Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Update on 2018 challenges

We're now halfway through the year so I thought I would do an update on my reading challenges. I decided this year to only do two... also that both should be easy, books that I would read anyway. I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself at the beginning of a new year by trying to do too many challenges that I haven't a hope of completing. So, this year, just two.

First up, The European Reading Challenge, 2018, which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.

This runs from the 1st. January 2018 to the 31st. Jan 2019. I'm doing:

FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. So far I've read five books:

1. Summer in the Islands - Matthew Fort (ITALY)

2. A Climate of Fear - Fred Vargas (FRANCE)

3. Snow Blind - Ragnar Jónasson (ICELAND)

4. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee (SPAIN)

5. Travellers in the Third Reich - Julia Boyd (GERMANY)

So, five books read which is enough to say I've finished but I haven't. I plan to read on and hopefully explore more countries. I have to say, this is definitely one of my favourite ever reading challenges.

My second and last challenge for 2018 is the What's In A Name? challenge, which is being hosted by The Worm Hole.

This runs from the 1st. January 2018 to the 31st. December 2018. These are the categories:

1. The word ‘the’ used twice.

2. A fruit or vegetable.

3. A shape.

4. A title that begins with Z

5. A nationality.

6. A season.

I'm not doing quite as well with this one. Two books read:

1. The Word 'the' used twice The Lost Book of the Grail - Charlie Lovett

3. A shape: The Cheltenham Square Murder - John Bude

I'm currently reading a third book for 'a nationality' which will put me at halfway through after half the year has gone so that's not too bad. I also have books for the other three categories, I just need to read them!


Saturday, 30 June 2018

Books read in June

Despite other things going on this month (the garden, a holiday, grandkids) I also managed to read 7 books so that's not at all bad really. Of course that's helped by the current heatwave. I hate being outside when it's hot so at the moment I'm to be found indoors in the afternoons, windows and doors open, reading.

These are my 7 books for June:

28. The Enchanted April - Elizabeth Von Arnim

29. Travellers in the Third Reich - Julia Boyd

30. Dog Will Have His Day - Fred Vargas

31. The Dark Vineyard Martin Walker

32. Between the Woods and the Water - Patrick Leigh Fermor.

This is second part of the trilogy which charts the author's walk from England to what was then Constaninople and is now Istanbul. In this part he walks through Hungary and Transyvania stopping off at intervals to stay with various contacts or friends of friends. It sounded idyllic but always you're aware that this is the mid-1930s and within a few years the whole region will be changed beyond recognition by the war. There're beautiful descriptions of the mountains, the old towns, and a wonderful carefree atmosphere pervades the whole book. The people are friendly and thrilled to have an Englishman staying with them. A beautiful book but I found it impossible to shake the sense of impending doom.

33. Maigret and the Flemish Shop - Georges Simenon

34. A Wild Herb Soup - Emilie Carles.

Emilie Carles was born Emilie Allais in the year 1900 in the village of Val-des-Prés, in the Haute Alpes region of France. It was very remote and isolated and the Italian border was just a few miles away over the mountains. The family were of peasant stock and proud of it but life was hard, hard, hard. Emilie lost her mother when she was six, she was gathering in crops when she was struck by lightning and killed instantly. Her father, Joseph, then had six children to bring up on his own so all the children had to pull their weight. Work was a way of life because if you didn't work, you didn't eat. Simple as that. But somehow through all this Emilie managed to get herself an education and become a teacher. It's an incredibly inspiring story, heartbreaking in places - a sister died in childbirth because she didn't know what was happening and wouldn't let anyone near her, her husband being away fighting in WW1 - but through it all Emilie's spirit shines. What an amazing person she must have been... a thinker, a reader, a campaigner, a teacher in the best sense of the word. When I read about the hard lives of women like this I realise that these days we hardly know we're born.

It's so nice to have a reading month like this. Lots of really good books with different settings which have taken me all over Europe... Italy, France, Germany, Hungary and Romania, that's not bad!

It's very hard to pick a favourite. The French crime yarns were all excellent, The Enchanted April is a delightful book, and I loved reading about Emilie Carles's life in a remote region of France. But really the book I found the most interesting and 'unputdownable' was Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd:

And this is where I spent a few days earlier in the month: Arundel in West Sussex. One of the prettiest counties I've been in... rolling hills and pretty villages galore. We had a super time.


Monday, 25 June 2018

French crime books

I seem to be in a French crime book mood at the moment... not that unusual for me I suppose. LOL!

First up, Dog Will Have His Day by Fred Vargas. This is book 2 of her 'Three Evangelists' series, set in Paris.

Louis Kehlweiler is one those people who watch and keep tabs on things. He has a network of people who also watch and tell him what's going on around France. In this manner he solves occasional crimes. Out watching a politician's house one night he spots something, a tiny piece of bone embedded in some dog excrement. He recognises it as human bone and wants to know how this could happen. Investigations lead Louis and his pet toad, Bufo, to a small fishing village in Finistére in the extreme west of Brittany, where a man with a dog travels to Paris every week. Why? He finds he needs help and calls in two of the Three Evangelists, Marc and Mathias, both bring things to an investigation that he doesn't have, which is just as well as an ex-girlfriend living in the village could be clouding his judgement. This is more of a 'Two' Evangelists book than 'Three' but that's ok, the book doesn't suffer at all. Louis is a fascinating character, the product of a liason between a German soldier and French woman during WW2, so his life has never been easy. His habit of watching and keeping files and newspaper cuttings on people is intriguing and made me wonder if there are people doing this kind of thing. Excellent sense of place in this story, I've been to Finistére and it really is as wild and woolly as it's portrayed in the book. Really enjoyed this one and hope to see more of Louis in future books in this series. Although as there are only three and all were written in the late 1990s it does look like there might not be any more, especially as Fred Vargas seems to be concentrating on her Adamsberg series now. Ah, well.

Next, The Dark Vineyard by Martin Walker. This is book 2 of his 'Bruno, Chief of Police' series.

Bruno Courréges is pulled from his bed early one morning via a call telling him a field and barn are on fire. Fearing the blaze will spread in this very dry summer the fire brigade are already there fighting the fire. It turns out that the crop that's been set alight is a GM crop that hardly anyone knew was there. Is the the work of 'ecolos' who live in the area, possibly a members of a local commune? It also emerges that an American wine corporation is interested in developing the wine growing capacity of the region and the owner is already there in St. Denis making contacts and putting out feelers. One old man, his home, and farm are standing in the way of these plans. This is a can of worms and Bruno needs to handle this with kid gloves if he's to succeed in his quest to find the arsonist. One thing he doesn't need is a dead body to add to his woes... After I'd read the first book in this series I was undecided about carrying on. I liked it well enough but wasn't mad about it in all honesty. Regardless, I did decide to reserve this second book from the library and am pleased I did as I actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I liked its quirky set of characters, the details of Bruno's life (which I think I found a bit irritating last time) and the very strong sense of place in the Perigord region of France. I enjoyed all the foodie details too, even if one or two made me think, 'Hmmm, not sure about that...' A good instalment and I shall certainly read on now.

Lastly, The Flemish Shop by Georges Simenon.

A Flemish woman named Anna Peeters, living with her family just over the Belgian border in France, comes to see Maigret. She wants him to come to her coastal town to prove that her brother, Joseph, is not responsible for the disappearance of Germaine Piedboef. This young woman has had his child, out of wedlock, but Joseph is engaged to someone else that the family want him to marry. The whole village thinks this Belgian family have murdered Germaine but Maigret is unconvinced. Another wild coastal Maigret story, these are always quite good as Georges Simenon was excellent at conjuring up the isolation and insular nature of life in these regions. This is a fascinating 'family' based story which explores the sometimes claustrophic atmosphere that exists around some homes. Human nature at its most obessive and stifling and also 'inexplicable'. I do hope ITV will dramatise a few of these 'away from Paris' Maigret books.


Saturday, 9 June 2018

A couple of reviews

I've been indulging in one of my favourite reading pastimes this last week - armchair travelling. First I went to Italy in the early 1920s and then on to the post-war Germany of the 1930s, so not just armchair travelling, 'time' travelling too.

First up, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim.

Lotty Wilkins, married to an austere, penny-pinching banker, sees a notice in The Times for an Italian castle available to let for a month. She'd love to go but can't see how it would be possible. She sees another member of her ladies' club, Rose Arbuthnot, reading the advert. Rose is married to an author of historical books, the salacious subjects of which Rose does not approve as she is rather religious. Lotty seizes her chance and persuades Rose that they should club together and hire the small Italian castle. After much persuasion Rose agrees and the two of them decide to find two more women to share the cost. Neither of them has any interest in asking their husbands to go. The two women they choose to share the castle with them are Lady Caroline Dester, a beautiful young woman who wants a month away from too many admiring men and a Mrs. Fisher an older woman, very set in her ways and used to giving orders. On arrival Lotty and Rose find the castle to be isolated and utterly magical, situated as it is on the coast amongst fabulous gardens. They are, however, shocked to find that Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline have arrived ahead of them and taken the best rooms and decided that bits of the garden and castle should be for their sole use. Is this a foretaste of things to come or will the castle weave its magic spell on four women searching for answers.

What a delight this book was. I loved Lotty and Rose and their daring spirits. Both were quite alarmed at what they'd done in leaving their husbands behind to go on this jaunt. From my 21st. century perspective this seemed acceptable but back in the 1920s it would be have been questionable to say the least. In Lotty's case I actually thought it served her husband right and loved how she blossomed in Italy. Very interesting hearing about life from Lady Caroline's point of view... how tedious things can be when you're very beautiful... she talks of people 'grabbing' her as though they own her, men never leaving her alone for two minutes, the envy of other women who assume she's after their husbands when she's not... quite the reverse in fact. On the surface this is a charming book about holidaying in Italy, but in reality it's much deeper than that. It's about different kinds of marriages and how women learn to cope and compromise and often rise above intense difficulties. And it's also about the magic of place and how that can have a huge impact on lives and events. Loved it. I've read Elizabeth Von Arnim's German Garden book but she's written a lot more and I'll be on the lookout for them now.

Next, Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People by Julia Boyd. This is my fifth book for the 2018 European Reading Challenge covering the country of Germany.

In 2013 I read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, about his walk across Europe in the 1930s, and by far the most interesting part for me was when he reached Germany and had to confront the rise of fascism there. I thought a book about other people's experiences of the rise of Nazi Germany would be an interesting thing, but failed to find anything. Five years later and here it is. The book begins its journey in 1919 with German reaction to the Treaty of Versailles which brought to an end the First World War. To say the population was resentful is a gross understatement and I gather it is widely accepted now that it was extremely harsh although I'm sure there are other opinions. Anyway, the situation was ripe for someone like Hitler to rise to power and restore German confidence and pride. How people visiting the country in the 1930s experienced this change is the subject of this book and it's handled very well. What I hadn't realised was the love affair that many foreigners had with Germany. The beauty of the country, its music, its culture, its friendly people, all were a huge draw, particularly for the British and the Americans. Despite new draconian rules and regulations, the persecution of the Jews and so on, tourists found the people unchanged. 'But'...

"Foreign visitors who concerned themselves with the plight of the Jews – and the majority did not – had to deal with an unanswerable question. How was it possible for these warm-hearted, genial people, noted for their work ethic and devotion to family values, to treat so many of their fellow Germans with such contempt and cruelty?"

What came over was how desperate ordinary Germans were for the British to approve of what was happening in Germany. The new government wanted a formal alliance but of course that didn't happen. What did happen was that right up the moment war broke out British parents were still sending their teenage children to Germany to take in the culture and learn the language. Author, Julia Boyd, is dumbfounded by this and I must admit I was surprised too. There's a lot to take in in this book but it's very readable indeed and I zoomed through it in a few days. For anyone thinking of trying to learn a bit more about WW2 this would be an excellent place to start as it explains a lot, puts various events into context and from it you can understand how war was inevitable. An excellent read and a keeper.

I gave both of these books a five star rating on Goodreads, not because they were perfect - they weren't - but because I couldn't stop reading either of them and was always keen to pick them up and read on. That says a lot because it's not always the case by any means.


Monday, 4 June 2018

Books read in May

The garden's grabbing a lot of my attention at the moment and last week was half-term so fun with the grandchildren was had. All nice but it means I'm behind with book posts and likely to remain so possibly until Sept. Answer: don't do long reviews of everything I read which is what will happen with May books. So, books read in May... seven in all, not bad for me.

21. The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry.

22. Something Sensational to Read in the Train - Gyles Brandreth

23. Have Mercy on us All - Fred Vargas

24. Far Horizons - Frank Gardner.

Frank Gardner is the BBC's Security Correspondent, very familiar to most people who ever watch the BBC News. In 2004 he was shot and left for dead by a terrorist gang in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, he didn't die but his cameraman sadly did. Before that Frank was a person who sought excitement via extensive travel around the world. This book charts many of his trips but Gardner always had a special love for the Middle East and it comes over very strongly in this book. After he was shot he put his life together again and continued travelling but of course he focusses on many of the challenges which come as a result of travel with a wheelchair. This is an excellent book by an incredibly brave man, interesting and rewarding to read. There's a good interview with him here by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

25. Seven Dead - J. Jefferson Farjeon.

26. A Walk Across France - Miles Morland.

In his mid-forties Miles Morland, a banker at the London Office of a Wallstreet firm, decides to give up his job to walk across France with his wife, Guislaine, who is herself French. People think he's mad, of course. They choose the route at the bottom of the country, shadowing the Pyrenees but not walking in the mountains, from Gruissan-Plage on The Med. to Capbreton on the Atlantic coast. As French travel books go, I found this kind of middling. The walking, the descriptions of the countryside, towns and people, that was all fine, enjoyable, interesting. But for me there was a bit too much about his previous life as a banker and this I did not find at all interesting. So there you are... swings and roundabouts. Some books are just like that.

27. The Chalk Pit - Elly Griffiths, book 9 of the Ruth Galloway series.

Ruth is called in to examine some bones found in the abandoned chalk mine tunnels that run under Norwich. She thinks they're very old so no need to call in the police. A homeless woman goes missing but no one seems to be much concerned until a friend says that she's 'Gone underground'. A figure of speech or something more sinister? Then a local woman goes missing, a mother of three children with no reason to just walk off. Is there a connection between all of these occurences? Well of course there is, LOL! Yet another excellent installment of Ruth's complicated life with her daughter and policeman, Harry Nelson. I'm trying to get used to the twists at the end but they nearly always catch me by surprise. One of my favourite modern crime series of the moment.

So, a good reading month for me... not by quantity but quality. Every single book was good to excellent and I really can't choose a favourite so I'm not going to. I'm just going to feel grateful for good books when there's nowt on the telly... and with the World Cup fast approaching I fear there will be even more 'nowt on the telly'!

My first book of June has been read and finished and was The Enchanted April by Elizabeth vo Arnim. Delightful. Will try to find a moment to write a few words about it soon.