Monday, 19 March 2018

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee is my fourth book for the European Reading Challenge 2018, which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. It covers the country of Spain.

It's many, many years since I read Laurie Lee's Cider With Rosie: I was probably a teenager. It's his most famous book I imagine but As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning is quite well known too I think. The event's in this non-fiction book take place immediately following Cider With Rosie, where at the end we see Laurie leaving his loving home in The Cotswolds to explore the world... I think he was nineteen.

He sets off to see the sea on the south coast of England and then heads to London. Luckily, he's adept at playing the violin so is able to perform in the streets and earn some money. During this time he comes to understand the life of the British tramp during the 1930s, how some of them were not able to pick up their lives after WW1, some just don't want a settled life, and a lot were unemployed and looking for work.

After a few months in the the South East he decides to go to Spain (mainly because he knows the Spanish for 'Will you please give me a glass of water') and takes a ship to Vigo in the North Western corner of the country (just above Portugal). From this point he walks, over a period of many months, through Spain to the southern coast. He is ill-prepared for such a journey. The first part is forested and mountainous and not so bad but once he reaches the plains the heat is brutal and unrelenting; the locals think he's mad, naturally, but he's greeted with kindness wherever he goes. How he managed to avoid dying from sunstroke I'm not sure, I fancy he must've been very lucky.

Cities visited include Valladolid, Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz and so on. At one stage he takes up with a South African poet, Roy Campbell, and his family, staying with them for a while. But mainly he was among the poorer sections of Spanish society and Lee's descriptions of the hardship and unfairness experienced by these people are very revealing in respect of why the civil war happened.

For me the most interesting part of the book was when Laurie reaches the southern coast. He visits Gibralter and then walks along the coast until he reaches a small village called Almunécar near Malaga. Here he settles in for the winter, employed by a local hotel as an odd job man and playing the violin at night in the bar. But war is looming, not WW2 but The Spanish Civil War, and sides are being picked. People start to die and Laurie has a decision to make.

I was a lot more impressed with this than I expected to be. Spain is not a country I have much of an interest in (and to be honest, still haven't) but Laurie Lee's writing is so rich and luscious that you can't help but love the book and be fascinated by his experiences. I gave it a five on Goodreads. I wasn't thinking to read the third book, A Moment of War, about his experiences in The Spanish Civil War, but now I think I might at some stage... one or two of the books I read about WW2 in France touched on it and it might be interesting to find out more.


Monday, 12 March 2018

Three Crime Titles

This month I seem to have read three crime books in succession, just as I did at the start of February. Unlike February though, not all of them worked for me, but that's just the luck of the draw.

First up, The Herring Seller's Apprentice by L.C. Tyler.

Ethelred (known at school as 'Ethel') Tresider is a writer, a fairly average one who is never going to win any literary awards but his books sell well, especially his Sargeant Fairfax crime series. He's divorced, his wife left him for a close friend ten years ago. When she suddenly goes missing, people seem to think Ethelred should lead the search to find her, rather than the police. Until her body is discovered in a lonely spot close to his home and then he becomes a suspect in a murder enquiry. Luckily he has a watertight alibi, he was in France at the time of her death. But Ethelred's agent, in the form of Elsie Thirkettle, who doesn't like writers, won't let the police have sole responsibility for the investigation. She eggs him on to dig into the affair. The trouble is... she can't really decide what he's up to, could he really have done away with his ex-wife?

I'm not sure what was wrong with this book for me. I gave it a three on Goodreads, which tends to mean I liked it, but didn't love it and really felt a bit 'meh' about it. It started out making me laugh, some nice humour, and Elsie is a fun character. But I didn't get a really strong sense of anyone in it to be honest. It was lightweight, which is fine, sometimes that's exactly what you need to read at times, but I do like to feel connected to the people in a book and I didn't with this. I didn't care about anyone and that's fatal for me. I did read to the end though and there was a bit of a twist, although it's easy to guess at. All in all it was ok and will appeal to lots of cosy crime fans but I probably won't carry on with the series.

Next, The Misty Harbour by Georges Simenon.

Maigret is on his way to the village of Ouistreham on the Normandy coast. It's a village at the mouth of the canal to Caen and is very busy with large ships going back and forth. He has with him two people. A Captain Joris who was found wandering in Paris and has no idea of who he is and a bullet wound in his head. His housekeeper eventually came to claim him after word was put out and the three of them are now returning to the village to try to discover who shot the captain. A day or so after their arrival the captain is found dead in his bed, poisoned. This is now a murder investigation but how to make the village people talk? They're determined not let out any secrets, but so is Maigret determined... to find a killer!

Some of these Maigret books hit the mark with me and some don't. I think I like it when he leaves Paris and heads off to an insular community full of secrets - which is the case here. Simenon was 'excellent' at atmosperes in remote coastal regions... The Yellow Dog and Maigret in Holland are just two examples. I love these windswept, lonely places where he is always looked upon with extreme suspicion and has to ferret out secrets. These closed communities might seem idyllic but they're often very far from it and Simenon obviously knew that. An excellent read, really enjoying these occasional Maigret books.

Last book, Breakup by Dana Stabenow.

It's Spring in Alaska and with it comes the melting of the snow and ice that entombs the state throughout its long winter. This period is commonly known there as 'Breakup'. Kate Shugak hates this time of year. People cooped up all winter in cabins go a bit mad when they're suddenly let loose and mayhem often ensues. The season doesn't start well when two things happen. First, she's just about escapes with her life after an encounter with a Grizzly, near her cabin, and second, an aircraft passing overhead loses an engine and it falls onto Kate's land almost destroying her house. After that things go downhill rapidly with a shootout at a local bar followed by a trip out with the parents of her neighbour when a light aircraft falls on their car, more shootouts, and a woman is found dead, mauled by a Grizzly. This is one of the worst Breakups Kate can remember.

This is number seven in Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak crime series of books. I have to say it's much more about Alaska and its quirkiness during Breakup than it is about murder. I liked that as it was funny and just a bit mad but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. Kate is well and truly put upon by all and sundry. Even though she does not work as a police officer any more they still think she should be available to solve all their woes. All she wants is a peaceful life with Mutt, her wolflike dog, but the likelihood of her getting it is zero as she has inherited a personality that exudes authority from her grand-mother. I love this series... not so much for the crime element, though that it is good, but for Kate herself... she's an amazing character. And also for Alaska. I'll probably never go there but these books give a good idea of what the state is like and feed my hunger for armchair travelling.


Thursday, 1 March 2018

Books read in February

Happy 1st. of March, we've woken up to a covering of snow and it's still snowing, so I don't think Spring is quite here...

*Update* we have about six inches of snow this morning... certainly not Spring!

Anyhooo, books read in February - all four of them. That doesn't seem like a lot and yet I feel as though I read steadily right through the month. Ah well, no matter. These are the books:

6. The Birdwatcher - William Shaw

7. Snowblind - Ragar Jónasson

8. Seeking Whom He May Devour - Fred Vargas

9. The Grasmere Journal - Dorothy Wordsworth.

While this was interesting in places I was not as smitten as I thought I would be. A few things struck me though. Firstly, how ill Dorothy and William seemed to be a lot of the time. Practically every day one or both of them was sick... she doesn't really say what with or how serious it was, but still. Also, depsite all this sickness, they walked endlessly around the countryside for pleasure. Mind you, The Lake District is ideal for that sort of activity. The other thing is how many people were destitute. Again, every day they had people come to the door begging or came across some very sad cases on the roads. Anyway, some beautiful descriptions of the area but all in all slightly too repetitive for my taste.

So apparently I had a slow reading month even though it didn't feel like it. (Plus I am partway through three more books at the moment.) It might have been slow but it was graced with three excellent crime reads (books 6, 7 and 8) so you can't really ask for more than that. It's hard to choose a favourite from those three as they were all terrific but by the very slightest of margins it's this:

Loved how very French this was, and amusing, and just a bit weird. Getting back to this series has been a revelation and I'll be reading a lot more of them this year.


Saturday, 24 February 2018

A few more jigsaw puzzles

My jigsaw compulsion continues unabated, though I am reading too because there's very little on TV in the evenings to keep my interest. I'm not much into sport and at the moment it's all Winter Olympics, Football, Rugby... Anyway, these are some I've been doing over the last six weeks or so.

The castle in Germany whose name I can't pronounce - Neushwanstein - beautiful place anyway. This one is 1,500 pieces and was a bit tricky.

This one is entitled 'Skaters' and was painted by Kevin Walsh. 3,000 pieces, very enjoyable to do.

Quick and easy, The Flower Show, 1,000 pieces, a library puzzle with a piece missing.

Christmas gift, really delightful to do and featuring one of my favourite things - old books. 1,000 pieces.

'Olde Worlde Inns' (all in England from what I can see), 1,500 pieces another library puzzle but all there this time.

Another library one, 1,000 pieces, a bit Christmassy for February but who cares? It was lovely to do.

1,000 pieces showing, obviously, loads of stamps. As an ex-stamp collector this was a real trip down memory lane for me. One of my own this time.

I think my jigsaw 'to-do' pile is almost as big as my book 'to-be-read' pile. LOL!


Monday, 19 February 2018

Seeking Whom He May Devour

Book two of Fred Vargas's 'Commissaire Adamsberg' series of murder mysteries is Seeking Whom He May Devour set, not in or around Paris, but in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes region of southern France.

Naturalist, Lawrence Johnstone, a Canadian, is studying wolves in the Mercantour NP and is finding it hard to leave the area despite his work being finished. Partly he's come to love the region and the wolves but also he lives with a lovely young French woman, Camille, and does not want to leave her. Coincidently she is also an ex-girlfriend of Commissaire Adamsberg's. The two live in a small, very rural, village, Saint-Victor-du-Mont, where everyone knows everyone else intimately and also their business.

A number of ewes belonging to a local farmer, Suzanne Melchior, are found brutally killed and a few days later so is the farmer herself. Johnstone tells Camille that Suzanne had told him confidentially she thought there was a werewolf on the loose and that she thought a local by the name of Massart was a likely candidate. It seems crazy but the sheep and the farmer have definitely been killed by a very large wolf, not a dog or any other kind of wild animal.

Massart disappears and they find a map that he's marked with a rural route up across France to England where he has a relative living. Johnstone suggests that Camille and two others, Suzanne's adopted son Soliman and her shepherd, Watchee, drive after him in a dilapidated old lorry. It's a cat and mouse chase they embark upon, but the mouse is always one step ahead. They need help and Camille remembers her ex-boyfriend, Adamsberg...

Great fun. (If you're allowed to say that about a story about vicious murders.) I loved the banter and cameraderie between Camille and her travelling companions, what a couple of characters! And the region is really brought alive by Fred Vargas - it sounds 'stunning'. This from Wikipedia:

I hadn't thought of a road-trip type murder story before but goodness, for an armchair traveller like myself, it works a treat! Especially one who loves mountains as I do.

Adamsberg himself does not join the team until halfway through, but does appear before that concerned with other things. He's following the news of the murders on TV though, but has no idea why apart from the fact that he's from a mountainous region himself (The Pyrennes) and knows how isolated and different the people there can be with their unusual superstitions. The book is chock full of these quirky characters and that makes it very real and very amusing.

As to the mystery itself, I had an inkling early on but abandoned it pretty quickly, which I shouldn't have done. But the joy of this story is not actually in the eventual outcome but in the getting there... 'the journey' as they say. Loved it and am now looking for the next instalment.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Snowblind - Ragnar Jónasson

So far this year's been a good one for me for crime fiction, three books by Fred Vargas, John Bude and William Shaw were excellent and now here's a fourth, Snowblind by Icelandic author, Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates). This is my third book for the European Reading Challenge, 2018 and covers the country of Iceland.

Ari Thór Arason Lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, with his girlfriend, Kristin. He's just finishing police college and looking for a position, she's in the 5th. year of a medical degree. Ari Thór has found it difficult to decide on a career, first of all studying philosophy, then theology, both of which he abandoned mid-course before trying the police. Kristin and he have not been living together very long when he gets a job offer. But it's not in Reykjavik, it's in a small town in the very north of Iceland, Siglufjordur. He accepts immediately before even discussing it with, Kristin. She is naturally not best pleased.

The new recruit finds Siglufjordur surprisingly isolated. The approach road is precipitous and prone to avalanches, it's not unusual for the town to be cut off for days in Winter. Thus the place is insular, claustrophobic even, everyone knows everyone and their business into the bargain. Doors are not locked at night because there is no crime. Ari Thór wonders what on earth he's got himself into.

An elderly writer who is very involved in the local amdram group falls to his death down the stairs of the theatre. An accident everyone assumes. But when a local woman is found bleeding from a stab wound in the snow in her garden, close to death, Ari Thór starts to wonder. A place with no crime and two incdents like this, one straight after the other?

The town is suddenly cut off by an avalanche on the road outside town and what with the near 24 hour darkness... the town's population starts to get twitchy. It's down to Ari Thór and his colleagues to solve this complicated mess, but he has problems of his own...

I can't say that I'm really a Scandi crime fan, not sure why, I've tried a couple but they haven't appealed for some reason. But, while reading Fred Vargas's A Climate of Fear, I suddenly fancied reading something set in Iceland. Coincidently, Snowblind appeared in front of me on Goodreads one night so I grabbed it from the library to give it a try.

For me, the best feature of this book is the setting. I suppose I thought that whole of Iceland was snowed in all winter but it seems not. The north definitely gets hard winters but the south, around the capital, Reykjavik, not so much... the harshness of the weather on the north coast is quite a shock to Ari Thór. Nice to learn these things. And so, of course, the landscape and the weather is a huge factor in the book and descriptions are so good that you very much feel as though you're there. And the town of Siglufjordur actually exists. Here's a pic from Wikipedia:

Looks like an amazing spot but you can see what it would be like in winter.

The story itself was very much a slow burner. It took a while to really get going, but then I suppose authors do need to set the scene with a new series, tell us about the main characters and so on. Once it got going however it was excellent. I liked Ari Thór, his background is quite complicated, he lost his parents as a child and this has had an effect... on just about everything in his life. To be honest all of the book's characters are conflicted with one thing or another, but that's just real life. This wasn't really a cut and dried murder mystery story and the ending reflects that. I liked it a lot and have reserved book 2, Blackout, from the library.


Sunday, 4 February 2018

A couple of crime titles

First up, The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude. This is my first book for the What's In A Name? challenge which is being hosted by The Worm Hole. This one covers the category: A Shape.

One Colonel Cotton, while enjoying an after-dinner drink with his friend Mr. Buller, is shot through the back of the head by an arrow and killed. They both live in Regency Square in Cheltenham, it's quite up-market and peopled by a very motly crowd of individuals. What many of them have in common, unfortunately, is a love of archery. Superintendant Meredith is, coincidently, staying with a friend in the square and is brought in to help the local CID solve the murder. An archery expert calculates that the arrow must've been shot from a certain house across the square. But the house is empty, locked up, and on inspection it's clear no one has been there or could gain access. And although there are plenty of suspects - practically all of the inhabitants - they have either rock-solid alibis or absolutely no motive whatsoever. Thus, it's one of those impossible crimes.

Excellent vintage crime story, this. Quite complicated with a large cast of characters but a diagram of the square, its house and occupants, at the start of the book, was very useful indeed. I didn't have a clue who'd done the deed until the police realised, but it was huge fun trying to work it all out as dribs and drabs of information were revealed. Nice sense of the area, Cheltenham and The Cotswolds, and a very nice 1930s feel to the whole book. I remain a bit smitten with these BLCC books.

Next, The Birdwatcher By William Shaw.

I absolutely love the opening lines to this book:

There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team.

The First was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.

The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.

So, William South is a sargeant in the Kent police force. He's also a very keen birdwatcher and a bit of a loner, with very few friends. One of these friends, Bob Rayner, is found brutally murdered in his home at Dungeness, a headland and vast shingle beach on the Kent coast. Despite knowing the deceased, South is assigned the case along with a new to the area CID officer, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She has a teenage daughter and doesn't want to discuss the reasons for her move from London. South is not a happy man. So far throughout his entire career he's managed to avoid murder cases; this is his first, and it's his best friend. Or was he? It turns out South knew very little about Bob. Bob had secrets and discovering what these are is proving quite tricky for the police duo. But South has secrets too. Can he discover the identity of a killer and not reveal his own very dark secret to the world?

This was a random grab from the library... 'grabbed' because of its title. I too am a bit of a birdwatcher so a book with that title is naturally going to appeal. Sometimes these grabs work out, sometimes they don't... this one very definitely did. I love these murder mystery books where the writing is such that nothing holds you up and you can just read and read thereby wallowing in the case and the characters and the setting. The setting is marvellous. Sadly, I've not been to Kent so the Dungeness area is only familiar via TV programmes, Gardener's World featured it once for instance... the difficulties of gardening on shingle and with all that salt in the air. So I did know what it was like but not from personal experience. The author makes the area really come alive, and the windswept, lonely atmosphere is tangible. I liked South even though he's grumpy and anti-social. His background was fascinating. I'm not going to say what it is as that would be a spoiler, the details are slotted into the storyline seamlessly and to me were quite chilling. Anyway, this is a prequel book apparently. William Shaw is going to write a series about DS Cupidi, the first book, Salt Lane is due out in May. I shall be reading it.