Wednesday, 22 June 2016

A couple of crime titles

More catching up to do today, two crime titles, starting with Resorting to Murder edited by Martin Edwards.

This is a collection of holiday based, mostly obscure, crime stories written by various crime writers, many of whom have been long forgotten. Which is a shame really because while the collection is a trifle hit and miss, the stories do mainly hit the spot. I particularly liked several. The Hazel Ice by H.C. Bailey is a mountaineering story based in the Swiss Alps... lots of red herrings and complicated working out of peoples' alibis and so forth. Great fun. Where is Mr. Manetot? by Phyllis Bentley was written in the form of a letter, and concerned a chap who overheard something sinister in a deserted railway station and felt compelled to follow it up. Nicely written with an interesting ending. A Mystery of the Sandhills by R. Austin Freeman revolves around clothes found abandoned in the sand-dunes, where is the owner? Has he drowned? The amateur detective is into solving crimes scientifically like Sherlock Holmes. Talking of whom there's an excellent Holmes story in this volume, The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, a Cornwall based tale that I can remember being very frightened by as a child when it was shown on TV in the 1960s. All in all this is a good collection of stories, some better than others, but isn't that always the way? Love the railway poster cover too.

Resorting to Murder is my book sixteen for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

Next, The Serpent Pool again by Martin Edwards.

DCI Hannah Scarlett is still in The Lake District investigating cold cases. Her current case is the death of a young woman, Bethany Friend, six years ago. Her body had been found in the Serpent Pool but the police had been unable to discover whether she had committed suicide or been murdered. Meanwhile a good customer of Hannah's partner Marc, who sells rare books, dies in a fire. It's almost certainly murder unless he tied himself up and set fire to all his books. Is there a connection between the two deaths? Daniel Kind becomes involved via his sister and Hannah once again finds herself fighting her growing attraction to him. But the real worry for Hannah is how involved is Marc in these very odd deaths and can their relationship survive all of these upheavals?

It's been far too long since I read a Hannah Scarlett book, and I have a few to catch up on.... three more left to read. Which is quite nice really because I enjoyed The Serpent Pool an awful lot. There's always a very strong sense of place, the Lake District being where the series is set... and this one took place during the winter so that was extra nice. (I'm rather a winter sort of a person). The mystery plot was a strong one, I kind of guessed who the culprit was but not the whys and the whyfors, which turned out to be a bit unusual. Hannah's personal backstory is one I like a lot, although it's maybe a bit frustrating as we all know what she ought to do but whether she will or not is questionable. But that's how real life is so that's not a complaint at all. A really enjoyable book and I'll be going after the next book, The Hanging Wood very soon.


Thursday, 9 June 2016

Catching up

I'm waaaaay behind with book reviews so it's time to catch up with some brief reviews.

First up, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley, this is my third book for Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge.

Nathaniel Steepleton, known as Thaniel, is a telegrapher working for The Home Office in Victorian London. A one time pianist, he had to give up a promising career when his sister's husband died and it fell to Thaniel to earn enough to send her money for herself and her children.

Arriving home one evening Thaniel finds a gold pocket watch on his pillow. He has no idea where it came from or who put it there, but it's a very fine thing indeed. Nothing happens for a while apart from a threat by Irish Nationalists to plant a bomb in the vicinity of The Home Office. Everyone is naturally on edge. The watch saves his life when the bomb goes off so Thaniel goes in search of its maker. Keita Mori is a watchmaker and Japanese immigrant whom Thaniel takes to immediately but is he keeping a secret? Does he know something about the Irish bombs?

Meanwhile in Oxford Grace Carrow is a young woman studying physics at university, one of the first women allowed to do such a thing. A talented student, she's studying the luminiferous ether and wants to prove its existence with her experiments. A chance meeting at a ball brings her and Thaniel Steepleton together. Thaniel likes this studious, unfeminine young woman immediately but Keita does not. Thus Thaniel finds himself torn and having to make choices he'd really rather not but, like it or not, the lives of these three people are now inextricably entwined.

It's now a couple of weeks since I finished this and here's proof that you should write about books fairly quickly because I'm now struggling to remember it. Mainly I enjoyed it... its concentration on intricate clockwork was fascinating and something I've not come across before... it's a wee bit steampunkish and I like that. I don't think I understood all of the scientific explanations, especially Keita Mori's strange existance. But again... that was rather unique. I found characterisation slightly weak... I didn't feel strongly about any of the people in the book. I did like the flashback sections where we heard about Mori's past life in Japan. All in all not bad at all for a debut novel and I look forward to more by the author in the future.

Next, a non-fiction book, The Olive Route by Carol Drinkwater. This is my book 15 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

Carol Drinkwater is an actress, probably best known in the UK for playing Helen, the wife of James Herriot in the BBC series, All Creatures Great and Small. After moving to France to live on an olive farm, she wrote about her experiences in a trilogy of books that have become hugely popular. After writing those she decided to investigate the origins of her beloved olive tree, hoping to discover who turned the olive into the domesticated tree that we know today. How many thousands of years ago was this done? She starts her investigations in The Lebanon where she's shown an olive grove purported to be 6,000 years old. From there Carol's travels take her all over the Meditteranean, visiting countries such as Greece, Syria, Libya, Israel, Malta, meeting people, hearing their stories and discovering the history of the olive.

To be honest, I found this book to be more of a travelogue than a history book. And for me, that's fine. I notice some on Goodreads were disappointed: personally I wasn't. I found it to be the perfect mix of the author's recounting of her experiences around The Med along with bits of history of each country. My favourite place was Malta where she met a man trying to reintroduce the olive to the island after hundreds of olive groves were destroyed centuries ago. I thought that was joyous and so did she I think. More disturbing for me was her experience in Libya. This was just before the Arab Spring and Gadaffi was still in power and lone white women were not really that safe travelling alone. Now of course they're definitely not safe... but then no one is! She also found Israel unsettling, understandably so with what's going on there. It's a complicated situation but I felt she wrote very well about her time there. In fact the writing is top notch... descriptive, atmospheric, very personal. I really did love this book to pieces and was sorry to finish it. I've had it on my Kindle for several years but feel I would like paper copy so will probably get it along with its sequel, The Olive Tree. I also plan to read her olive farm trilogy at some stage.

Last, The Judge's House by Georges Simenon.

For some reason (we never find out why) Inspector Maigret has been exiled from the police in Paris. He's been sent to a quiet coastal backwater area of the the Vendée (just south of Brittany) where he's basically bored to tears. Then Didine Hulot, an elderly woman, comes to report that her husband has seen a body on the floor of a local house. Said house is owned by a retired judge who has moved to the area from Versailles, with his son and daughter. Maigret catches the judge trying to dispose of the body and arrests him. But it's really not clear who exactly killed the dead man or even who he is. There's a complicated story of a family beset by mental problems and a local fisherman who wants to marry the judge's daughter. It takes all of Maigret's ingenuity to unravel the tangled mess and get to the bottom of it all.

It helped with this one that I'd been to the Vendée where it's set and could appreciate the atmosphere and descriptions. It really was very much of its place and time, Georgs Simenon was an expert at such things and several of his books now have really sent me to the place where they're set. Plotwise I found it slightly predictable, but it was fun seeing Maigret going about solving the murder... never letting a single person know what was going on in his head. I also liked the Miss Marple type character of Didine Hulot who knew everything that was going on in the village and was always one step ahead of Maigret. Infuriating him of course. A nice comfy read for me which is what I need at the moment.

The Judge's House qualifies for Bev's Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt Challenge under the category 'Bird'... because there are rather a lot of seagulls on the cover!


Thursday, 2 June 2016

Books read in May

May was a bit of an odd month one way and another, involving a lot of running around, but inbetween I did manage to read a few books... five in all... which I didn't think was too bad all things considered.

26. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd - Agatha Christie

27. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

28. The Whispering Land - Gerald Durrell

29. A Cold Blooded Business - Dana Stabenow. I haven't reviewed this one but it's book 4 in the Kate Shugak series, and involves her going undercover in one of the Alaskan oilfields to find out why someone has died as a result of too much cocaine being available on the site. I learned a lot about working conditions in the oilfields so it was a decent read. I enjoyed it possibly a little less than the previous two but this continues to be an excellent series.

30. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street - Natasha Pulley. To be reviewed.

I enjoyed all of the books I read and really don't have a favourite. According to my Goodreads 2016 shelf I gave all bar A Cold Blooded Business four stars and even with that it was a hard choice between three and four and I may have been a bit mean not giving it four. They were all good. But really the book I've enjoyed the most this month is the book I'm three quarters of the way through right now and it's this:

If I could have added The Olive Route by Carol Drinkwater to my May books it would have won hands down. But it's not finished so this excellent book will probably be my favourite for June. I love it to bits... more on this later.

June is going to be another odd month for me but I'm still hoping to be around reading blogs and posting about the books I'm reading... if slightly intermittently. Happy reading!


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Jigsaw puzzles!

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 16 May 2016

The Whispering Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Click for a larger view.)

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

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


Sunday, 8 May 2016

A couple of titles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, 2 May 2016

Books read in April

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

22. The Kingdon Beyond the Waves - Stephen Hunt

23. Hyperion - Dan Simmons

24. To Love and be Wise - Josephine Tey

25. The Raven Boys - Maggie Stiefvater

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

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

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

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