Saturday, 16 May 2015

A couple of titles

Goodness, I haven't posted since the 3rd. This is all down to reading the longest book in the history of publishing... well... not quite... but it felt like it at times... and also being a bit busy with the garden at the moment. So, slightly shorter book reviews are the order of the day and this'll be a two in one post. First up is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It's the early 1800s and magic is something which has been lost to England... there are still theoretical magicians but no one has practiced it for hundreds of years. In York some local theoretical magicians decide to visit a Mr. Gilbert Norrell who, it's said, knows more about magic than anyone in England and has the most magnificent library on the subject. The visit is not a success and he decides to teach them a practical lesson. One night he makes the statues and grotesques in York Minster come alive and talk. It naturally causes a sensation and Mr. Norrell decides to move to London and be the one responsible for bringing magic back to England. It proves to be a difficult task but eventually a couple of hangers-on manage to bring him to the notice of the powers that be. Norrell's idea is to be the 'only' magician in England and takes steps to stop others taking it up. He's unable to stop Jonathan Strange though and eventually the two men come together to be England's only practicing magicians. One of Mr. Norrell's first acts of magic was to raise the wife of a politican from the dead and it's the repercussions of this which will shape the future of the two men and those of their loved ones and followers.

It took me about two weeks to read this mammoth book (it's just over 1,000 pages long). I wanted to read it because the BBC's dramatisation of it starts on Sunday night and I wanted to have read the book before I saw it. I find this helps with understanding what's going on as these film makers tend to cut so much. Anyway, this alternate reality fantasty/history tale is a remarkable piece of work and an astonishing achievement on the author's part. Really amazing. So why do I feel a bit ambivilent about it? I'm not sure. On the one hand I found the idea of magic being a reality in Regency times totally beguiling, some of the ideas are intriguing and mind-boggling. BUT I know that quite a few people have given up on the book about 200 pages in. And, weirdly, for one who did make it to the end, I completely understand why. It rambles. And it rambles. And then it rambles some more. Scores of long footnotes in tiny, tiny writing try your patience when you have 62 year old eyes and are struggling to read them. The author has no notion of conciseness and I'm afraid I thought more than once, 'Oh, please get on with it!' And yet... I wonder if it would be quite as remarkable a book with a couple of hundred pages edited out. Part of me says 'Yes!' Part of me is not so sure. For many, its length is actually part of its appeal and I do understand that. Anyway, regardless of all this indecisiveness, I am glad I read it and if, as I hear rumoured, there's a sequel on the way I shall read it. I gather it will be about two of the minor characters in JS&MrN... Childermass - Norrell's assistant - and Vinculus, a 'maybe' magician. I would love to read more about Childermass as I thought he was one of the most interesting characters in the book and not made enough of. I'll just add that I did enjoy the historical elements of the book. There's a lot about the Peninsula War, Waterloo, King George III and how his illness was treated and so on. All fascinating stuff.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is my book 5 for Carl's Once Upon a Time IX and my book 12 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.

Next, The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.

Old Mrs. Cavendish has recently married again and her new husband is a younger man, Alfred Inglethorp. Her two adult sons and various others who live with her in her large house, Styles, are horrified and all hate the new husband, considering him to be a gold digger. When the old lady dies with his name on her lips the family assume that he has poisoned her but has he? Most of the people who live at Styles turn out to have a reason to want her dead and a method of doing it. Captain Hastings was present when she died and suggests calling in a friend of his, an ex Belgian detective and refugee from the war (WW1) who is staying in the village, one Hercule Poirot. Together, Hastings and Poirot investigate this very complicated 'locked room' case although Hastings starts to wonder if his friend has lost some of his brilliant deducting ability with age...

This was Agatha Christie's very first book and also Hercule Poirot's first appearance. I was keen to read it as she talks quite a bit about how it came to be written in her autobiography: it was as a result of a bet with her older sister. Her main regret about Poirot was that she felt she'd made him too old in his first outing as he would have been well over a hundred in the last book! As a first book I found it to be surprisingly readable. You tend to give a bit of leeway with first books, especially given that Christie was only in her early twenties when she wrote it, but it's not necessary with this. It's good. Hastings is the first person narrator and his character really leaps off the page. I love his delusions of cleverness when it comes to detective work and his weakness for women which he doesn't seem to be aware of. I think Agatha Christie knew men well as none of hers are perfect, all have weaknesses and failings. Same for women... she knew how to portray all human failings with deadly, pin-point accuracy. She threw no punches! Anyway, enjoyable and fun to link it with Christie's real life as a despenser in WWI. It's clear she knew all about poisons. There will be more books by Agatha Christie as this year progresses.


Sunday, 3 May 2015

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

I've had Agatha Christie's autobiography sitting on my TBR pile for several years now and remember buying it because Margaret at Booksplease liked it so much. At the time I hadn't read many of her books other than the ones I'd read as a teenager; now I've read a few more I thought it was time to read her autobiography.

Born Agatha Miller in 1890, Agatha Christie had what can only be termed a charmed childhood. The family weren't rich but they were comfortably upper-middle-class, at least until her father died when the discovery was made that a company in the US had been badly managed and they were in financial difficulties. Up till then Agatha's childhood was idyllic. She had an older brother and sister but was very much the much-loved baby sister and daughter. She goes into great detail about her nanny, 'Nursie', who wouldn't admit to her age, various relatives and their eccentricities, friends she had as a child, places she went and so on. In fact she recalls her childhood with great clarity and takes about half of a 530 page book to do so. Most of it was spent in a house called Ashfield, near the seafront in Torquay in Devon and Agatha was much attached to this beautiful house throughout her life. Even when the family were in straightened circumstances she persuaded her mother not to sell it, when it would have been better to do so because of the cost of upkeep.

She married Archie Christie in her mid-twenties at the start of World War One, and then worked as a nurse and a dispenser during the war. Her sister bet her she couldn't write a crime novel so she set about doing so and produced The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It took several years to get it published and she followed it with more books, but slowly. She found it hard to think of herself as an actual author. Her marriage failed just after her mother died and it was heart-breaking to read her soul-searching. If she had acted differently could she have kept her husband? Meanwhie, as a reader you're thinking what a selfish rotter Archie was... Happily, a couple of years later, she met Max Mallowan, an archaeologist, and a whole new life began. She went off to Syria with him and helped with digs, mainly cleaning whatever was dug up. It was plain she adored doing this and she writes about it at great length in the books, and also in Come, Tell Me How You Live which I highly recommend.

Book followed book and she talks a little about some of them... how they came to be written, her inspiration, her favorite ones, snippets of insight... for instance she felt she'd made Hercule Poirot far too old in his first book and by the time of the last book he would've been over a hundred! She couldn't remember how she's come to invent Miss Marple but thinks she may have been a small character in another book, under another name. One book, The Mystery of the Blue Train she loathes as she forced herself to write it after the death of her mother and the divorce. In the end I think she did consider herself a real author but it took a while and she really doesn't sing her own praises in this autobiography. This is in no way a 'Look at me, I'm wonderful' sort of a book. She is self-deprecating and modest and I particularly liked the very strong vein of wry humour running right through the book.

I very much felt, while I was reading this autobiography, that Agatha Christie was sitting in a chair chatting to me, because the book almost takes the form of a conversation. Yes, it is written more or less chronologically but all through she goes off on various tangents, giving an opinion on this or that, recalling an amusing anecdote, considering historical events such as the two world wars and so on. She says that she wrote only about certain things that she enjoyed or that stuck in her mind. Certainly things have been ommitted but then that's her perogative being a writer writing about her own life. Curious, I've ordered a biography of her by Janet Morgan so as to gain another perspective. But one thing the book has done is made me want to read a lot more of her work and I will do that thing over the course of the next few years.

It's pretty obvious how much I loved this book. I haven't read heaps of autobiographies or biographies, I'll be honest. But I 'can' honestly say that this is the best I've ever read. Agatha Christie's life was extremely interesting both from a personal and historical point of view. I would recommend this to 'anyone' regardless of whether you like her books or not as it's really not about her writing... it's about a unique and fascinating woman and the times she lived through. Wonderful, absolutely wonderful.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography is my book 11 for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Books read in April

It's been a busy month for me, Easter holidays and fun family things at the start of the month and then the garden which, after a long winter was looking woeful and neglected. It's now looking less so - veggie patch cultivated and seeds growing, flower beds ongoing and will be for some while. And so my reading has suffered a bit but that's the way it goes sometimes and it can't be helped, some months are full of reading, others not so much.

So anyway, from eight books in March I'm down to five in April and these are they:

22. Blackbringer - Laini Taylor

23. Pray for Silence - Linda Castillo. This is book two of the author's Kate Burkholder series set in Amish country in Ohio.

This is the Goodreads blurb: The Planks moved from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to the small Amish community of Painters Mill, hoping to resume the comforts of the Plain Life in Ohio. Less than one year later, the family of seven is found dead--slaughtered on their own farm. Police Chief Kate Burkholder and her small force have few clues, no motive, and no suspect. Formerly Amish herself, Kate is no stranger to the secrets the Amish keep from their "English" neighbors--and each other. When the diary belonging to the rebellious teenager Mary Plank turns up, Kate is surprised to find not only a kindred spirit but a murder suspect: the charismatic stranger who stole Mary's heart.Then there's Mary's brother, Aaron. Shunned by his family and the rest of the Amish community, could he have returned to seek revenge? Now it's up to Kate to search for some dark truths about the Planks--and confront long-buried secrets of her own. As Kate's obsession with the case grows so does her resolve to bring the killer to justice--even if it means putting herself into the line of fire . . .

I think this one was even more gruesome than the first book in the series. I loved it! Again, as with the first book, it was a real pageturner as more and more secrets were revealed. The Ohio setting is very well portrayed... I have been to Ohio so it was a bit of a nostalgic read for me. I like Kate Burkholder very much, she's not perfect and she's had awful problems in her past but is hanging in there and doing the best job she can. I thought I had the solution all worked out but of course I didn't at all. An excellent crime read but not suitable if you're not keen on gruesome descriptions.

24. Un Lun Dun - China Miéville

25.Seraphina - Rachel Hartman

26. Agatha Christie: An autobiography - Agatha Christie (To be reviewed.)

This month I seem to have concentrated quite a lot on Carl's Once Upon a Time IX challenge. Three of the books were for that and all three were enjoyable, particularly Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I also enjoyed Linda Castillo's second Kate Burkholder book, Pray for Silence, and am pleased to have more of those to read next month.

So... my favourite book? Well it was my only non-fiction book this month, and I've yet to review it, but it was this:

Agatha Christie's autobiography. More about it within the next few days but I thought it was utterly delightful. Probably the best autobiography I've ever read.

No idea what I'll be reading next month. I have eight library books and a TBR pile of hundreds, so I'm hoping I'll find something I like. Happy reading in May!


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

2015 challenges update

I meant to do quarterly challenge updates this year but for some reason it just didn't happen at the end of March. I think I just forgot to be honest, or else had a lot of other posts going on. So, anyway it looks like I'll be doing updates every 4 months instead... I've no idea what you would call that, thirdly? Doesn't sound quite right...

Anyway, this year I'm doing 3 challenges which run throughout the year, and am also in the middle of a 3 month one. These are they:

1. Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.

I signed up to the Mont Blanc level which is to read 24 books throughout the year. So far I've read 10 with the 11th. book well on the way to being finished, so that one is going well.

2. The Victorian Bingo challenge.

This is a bingo card style of challenge and for it I need to read at least 5 books. So far I've only read one. That's not very good going but I have plenty of time to catch up and plenty of books to choose from. Some are suited to Carl's R.I.P. autumn challenge as well so I'll double up when I do that.

3. The Southern Literature reading challenge.

For this I signed up for 'Pull up a seat and stay a while!'. Which is to read 3 or 4 books in the course of this year. So far I've read one, which is ok... not wonderful... but I have no fears that I won't finish this one.

4. Carl's Once Upon a Time IX.

I'm doing Quest the First which is to read 5 or more books between the 21st. March and the 21st. June. My total so far is 4 so that one is going swimmingly. I would expect to read at least 2 or 3 more for that challenge.

Lastly, as part of Bev's Mount TBR challenge I set myself the challenge of reading as many as possible from this shelf of books:

I put 24 books there. It's a coincidence that it's the same number as I need to read for the challenge, my aim really was to try and clear some of these books as I didn't think all of them was a realistic aim. I still feel that way. Anyway, here's what the shelf looks like now:

It might not look all that different but in fact there are 6 books missing from it. I've read 5 and the 6th. - the Agatha Christie autobiography - is coming along nicely. So, in actual fact, almost a quarter of the books have been read and I'm really quite pleased with that.

So, some challenges going really well, others not so well, but luckily I have plenty of time to catch up. And really the plan this year was to take it a bit easier with challenges and that's what I've done. It's much more casual and a lot more fun, I find, to do just a few that interest me.

And to finish this post... here's another thing I've been doing over the past week or so:

Happy reading or jigsaw puzzling, if you're an enthusiast like me.


Friday, 24 April 2015


I seem to be doing quite well with Carl's Once Upon a Time IX challenge so far. I didn't think I was in the mood for fantasy but perhaps I was wrong as Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is my book 4 for it and the challenge still has quite a long way to go.

Seraphina is a court musician and an important one as she is deputy to the court composer, Viridius, and handles much of the teaching of the younger musicians. Music is in her blood but to a certain extent she has to hide some of her vast talent because she has a huge secret. Her father of course knows that secret and is insistent that she keep a low profile. Easier said than done when Seraphina is in charge of Princess Glisselda's music lessons.

The princess is the Queen's grand-daughter, the queen who made peace with the dragons some forty years ago after a long war. The peace is popular with some and not with others. Dragons have learned how to take human form and are now teachers in the university, one of them, Orma, is a mentor to Seraphina and he too knows her secret.

The peace is fragile and becomes even more so when a royal prince, Rufus, is murdered. His head has been bitten off and suspicion falls upon dragonkind as this is one of their methods of killing. Seraphina does not believe they are responsible and because Princess Glisselda always listens to her, finds herself investigating the murder along with Glisselda's fiance, Prince Lucian Kiggs, Captain of the Queen's Guards. It's a poisoned chalice sort of a task. She must at all costs keep her secret, but Lucian is an intuitive sort of person and soon realises that Seraphina is not what she seems. Lies have become a way of life for Seraphina. How she will find a murderer and still keep her secret will be one of the most difficult tasks of her young life.

You know how some books start slow and you get to about page 50 and you still don't know what all the fuss is about with regard to certain books? And then you get to around page 100 and you think, 'Ah... now I get it.' Well that's how this book was for me. I'm not even sure what kept me reading to be honest. Dragons perhaps? Seraphina herself? A hint of romance? The mystery of who killed the prince? All those things perhaps. Whatever it was I'm glad I did as I ended up enjoying it so much I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.

Seraphina herself is a fascinating protaganist. Conflicted, full of guilt for something that wasn't her fault, dangerously ambivilent in nature, life is hard for this poor girl. I liked her determination to make a good life for herself, despite these drawbacks, and spent the entire book cheering her on. She alone makes this book worth reading.

It's quite a complicated world that Rachel Hartman has created here. Dragons and humans have one of the most uneasy truces you can imagine and as with all situations like this there is no black and white. The Humans are good and bad and so are the dragons. The conflict this creates makes for a good novel and although I'm not really a 'court intrigue' sort of a person I still enjoyed this aspect of the book. I'm also a bit of a sucker for any hint of romance and this was another instance where you had to feel very sorry for Seraphina. Hopefully that will resolve itself in future books but I actually don't mind a bit of drawn-out angsty romance.

All in all I think it was the mix of all kinds of threads and situations which eventually sucked me, hook line and sinker, into this book. I ended up loving it and am now after book 2, Shadow Scale, which came out last month.


Monday, 20 April 2015

Un Lun Dun

At last, a book review from me. I'm having rather a slow reading month... almost three weeks into April and I've only read three books. There are reasons - Easter, family stuff, the garden is getting underway now and things need tidying after the winter... seeds planting and so forth. All good fun and let's face it, my books are not going anywhere, they'll be here when I'm more free. Anyway, the book I've just finished is Un Lun Dun by China Miéville.

Twelve year olds Zanna and Deeba are best friends at school and at home. Deeba starts to notice that odd things are happening around Zanna, animals staring at her as though they recognise her for instance. One of their friends is nearly killed in a car accident caused by a very strange foglike substance. Then one night they look through the window, down into the street, and see a broken umbrella acting as though it's watching them - it then stumbles off. They go out into the night and follow it and end up in an underground tunnel turning a wheel that takes them to a place that seems wrong in every respect.

'Unlondon' is an alternative London where rubbish or abandoned things end up. The buildings are made of defunct items such as typewriters or old washing machines, one has a forest inside. The people aren't quite right either. One man is made of printed paper with a pincushion for a head, another wears a diving suit that hides his appearance. There's a stange individual called Brokenbroll who has control of all the broken umbrellas that 'come over' from London. And there are ghosts and a half-ghost boy, Hemi, who befriends them.

The two girls are told that Zanna is the chosen one, the 'Shwazzy' (from the French: choisi). Unlondon is being besieged by an evil Smog and it's been prophesised that a blonde-haired girl will come from London to save them. Zanna is the one. But is she? After a run-in with the Smog the girls return to their own London with Zanna's memory lost. And thus it's Deeba who worries about how things are in Unlondon and Deeba who finds a way to return. She's not the chosen one but must nevertheless find a way to defeat the Smog, not just for Unlondon's sake but for her own London's sake as well.

Ok, so this wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think I thought it was aimed at young adults of, say, 14 to 16 but I think it's more aimed at the 10 to 14 age group instead. Not that it matters as people of any age could read and enjoy it but it's nice to be aware. China Miéville's adult books are unusual I gather (I haven't read any) and possibly a bit challenging. Un Lun Dun is definitely 'unusual' but is not at all challenging to read... not for adults anyway. I think 10 year old children might find it so but also find it worth the effort as it's full of imagination with some very different, sometimes creepy, characters. All kinds of wierd things going on with every-day objects like umbrellas used as weapons, buses flying around the sky, a forest growing in a house, Westminster Abbey the centre of a spider's web that's full of portal type windows. Yes... it's that weird. But it works and is great fun.

Where it came up a bit short was in the characterisation. I never really felt much of a connection to Deeba. I admired her bravery and dogged determination to defeat the Smog but she didn't always feel like a real twelve year old girl. I think we may be back to my age-old complaint that most male authors just don't write girls or women very well. What I do admire is that the author did it at all. The fantasy genre is choc-a-bloc with books with young male protagonists so all power to China Miéville's elbow for being prepared to give us a strong 'girl'. It makes a refreshing change.

I'll be putting this one aside for my grandson to read in a year or two as I think he'll like its oddness and imagination. Although at the moment he's showing signs of being more of a non-fiction fan where books are concerned... with a definite liking for books full of facts about the natural world. To be honest, I'm just happy that I have two grandchildren who like to read.

Un Lun Dun is my book 3 for Carl's Once Upon A Time IX and my book 10 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.


Saturday, 4 April 2015

Mount TBR checkpoint #1

We're now a quarter of the way into 2015 so it's time for checkpoint #1 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

Bev asks participants to answer some questions.

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 aim is to climb Mon Blanc and that involves reading 24 of my own books this year. So far I've read 9 which means I'm three quarters of the way to the top of Pike's Peak (12 books). I'm also ahead of where I should be which is a nice cushion to have. It could be that I end up climbing higher than Mont Blanc but I've no intention of actually pushing myself to do it, if that's the way it ends up - fine. If not, no problem.

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

2A: My favourite cover so far is this:

The cover of Helliconia Winter by Brian W. Aldiss shows a scene from the book with a 'Phagor' in the foreground watching some ships carrying humans who are on the run from the authorities and looking for somewhere to land and resupply the ships. I love the wintery, snowy mountain scenery and the depiction of the strange unknown statue. The cover art is by Tim Gill.

2B: My favourite character so far has been Mrs. Ross from The Tenderness of Wolves. Her life is far from perfect already with a husband who is uncommunicative and surly and a son who is alienated from her. Then the son is suspected of murder and disappears off into the Canadian wilderness of Ontario. Despite the fact that Mrs. Ross is terrified of wilderness, off she goes in search of him with a complete stranger, enduring incredible hardship. You have a to admire a woman like that, brave, indomitable and devoted to her son. They were a tough lot back then.