Monday, 8 February 2016

Pompeii

My interest in books about ancient Rome continues unabated and the latest offering is Pompeii by Robert Harris. This is my book six for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 and my second book for the European Reading challenge 2016, being hosted by Rose City Reader, and it covers the country of Italy.


Marcus Attilius Primus, known simply as 'Attilius', is the latest in a long family line of aquariuses... men who attended to the startling feats of engineering that were the Roman aquaducts. He's been appointed to the Aqua Augusta, the aquaduct which supplies fresh water to the Bay of Neapolis (present day Naples) where such towns as Herculaneum, Neapolis and Pompeii were situated in AD 79. The previous encumbant, Exomnius, has disappeared off the face of the Earth and no one has any idea where he's gone.

There have been some odd occurences lately, strange disturbances in the ground, wine glasses vibrating on tables, sulphur in the water that kills the fish in a fish-farm. Then a crisis on the Augusta aquaduct happens, a blockage has occurred, and Attilius needs to find it or the water supply to every town on the bay will dry up within a day.

Attilius thinks the aquaduct blockage is somewhere on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and suggests to the scholar and local leader, Pliny, that he be allowed to mount an expedition to find it and clear it: he will organise this expedition from Pompeii.

When he arrives in Pompeii things are naturally a lot more complicated than he imagined. Local politics and businesses are corrupt with the town being run from behind the scenes by an ex-slave, Ampliatus. Attilius further complicates things for himself by becoming attracted to Ampliatus's daughter, Corelia, who is engaged to be married, against her will, to a local politican. It's a can of worms and no mistake. And over it all looms Vesuvius and although the Aquarius realises something isn't right, neither he nor anyone else has any idea what the mountain has in store for the population around the bay.

The action in this book takes place over four days with time ticking away at the start of each chapter leading, of course, to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. It reminded me of one of those disaster movies where every now and then sub-titles come up to tell you what the time is, so by the time the actual catastrophe happens you're on the edge of your seat practically having a nervous breakdown. And it does take a while to get to the eruption itself, about page 200, so just 50 pages on the event itself. I was fine with that as the plotline is an interesting one. Given we all know what the outcome is, it was down to the author, Robert Harris, to keep the reader interested in events leading up to it and the story of the search for the cause of the problem with the aquaduct was a fascinating one. Details of how they worked kept me absorbed and the human story of Attilius and his relationships and problems kept me entertained.

The eruption itself definitely raised the level of excitement several notches though. The detail and the horror of it was very well described given the author had 'presumably' never experienced such a thing. And of course you yourself are wondering if Attilius and Corelia survive and if people you don't like will get their come-uppance. It's all very well done and I enjoyed Pompeii immensely. I've never read anything by Robert Harris before but will definitely read more now... he's written a Roman 'Cicero' trilogy which I gather is very good. I also fancy reading some non-fiction about the eruption and there is plenty I know. Mary Beard has what sounds like a good book out, The Fires of Vesuvius. I may break my not very strict book buying ban and treat myself to that. I have to say I'm finding Ancient Rome a far more interesting subject than I would ever have imagined.

~~~oOo~~~

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Bookshop that Floated Away

My first book for February is The Bookshop that Floated Away by Sarah Henshaw. It's my book five for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

A first glance at the title of this book, The Bookshop that Floated Away, would encourage any self respecting book-lover to grab it immediately and cleave it to their bosom. Which is exactly what I did in Waterstones, Cardiff, in November... with a title like that I honestly didn't feel I could leave it on the shelf. The trouble is I don't get to go to a Waterstones very often, as the one in my town closed several years ago. When I do get to one I tend to turn into a crazy woman, wildly running around the shop plucking books off the shelf in a sort of maniacal frenzy. It's quite possible I need to get out more...

Anyway, the book. The story is that the author, Sarah Henshaw, puts herself seriously into debt by buying a narrowboat (named Joseph) to turn into a bookshop. It doesn't make much money permanently moored somewhere (oddly, I didn't catch where) so the author decides to take the boat on a trip around the canals of England and Wales, ostensibly to advertise the plight of independent bookshops which as we all know are, for one reason or another, struggling at the moment. No matter that her experience in the matter of canals and canal boats was nil, off she went determined to sell books, hold book group meetings, have author signings and so on.

All of these things were achieved to a greater or lesser extent and the book charts the author's experiences as she negotiates locks, meets people - both new to her and people who have read her blog or follow her on Twitter - and deals with various things that occur... quite often disasters of her own making. There is also a bit of talk about books which I quite enjoyed as I always like hearing about the books people love and why.

So why, oh why, did this book not really do it for me? It's quite hard to put my finger on to be honest. At no stage did I want to stop reading but I ended up giving it 'two' on Goodreads and even now I'm not sure if that's a bit unfair. The writing was fine and bits of it were interesting and even informative. I suppose I ran out of patience with the author. She was hugely in debt, family and friends clearly concerned for her and helping her out financially, and all the time it felt like she was just playing... at their expense. I feel that if you're going to do this kind of thing you should be able to fund yourself, and also be able to look after yourself as a responsible adult. To be honest, I felt at times like a young teenager had been let loose alone on the canals of England and Wales, when the author is actually in her late twenties. Worrying.

There was also a section of the book written from the narrowboat's point of view... Black Beauty style. And while this might sound quirky and fun, it just didn't work for me somehow. Although it served to illustrate that the author was aware that some of her beahviour was immature and she knew what people were thinking, I felt it to be a bit self-indulgent and yes... 'silly'.

If anyone really does want to read some good books about canal boating then I would highly recommend Terry Darlington's three books about the trips he and his wife and dog, Jim, took which are a total joy to read.

All in all, I think I need to be a bit more restrained next time I'm in Waterstones! Or go with a book list. Or something.

~~~oOo~~~

Monday, 1 February 2016

Books read in January

January was a fairly average reading month for me with five books read. It felt like more to be honest, possibly because I've had a couple of others ongoing through the month, which are still ongoing, those will hopefully be finished sometime in February.

Anyway, the books I read and finished this month are these:

1. The Franchise Affair - Josephine Tey. A really excellent vintage crime mystery.

2. Angel with Two Faces - Nicola Upson. Murder and skulduggery in 1930s Cornwall.

3. Greece on my Wheels - Edward Enfield. Non-fiction travelogue about cycling in Greece.

4. Mystery in White - J. Jefferson Farjeon. A vinatge mystery with a nice snowy setting.

5. The Sea Detective - Mark Douglas-Home. Scottish based modern crime story.

Very happy with the books I read in January. Two of them were terrific, and three good to very good, so I can't complain at that. I certainly have worse months than that! I managed one non-fiction which could be better, though I'm halfway through two more. I really do want to read more non-fiction this year so need to pull my finger out.

I made a good start on my three challenges, four for Mount TBR, one for The European Reading Challenge and two Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt. If I continue that way I shall have no trouble completing these by the ned of the year. *If*.

Hard to choose a favourite for January as two are pretty much level pegging: The Franchise Affair and The Sea Detective. I think, by the narrowest of narrow margins it's this:


The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home (nephew of British PM, Sir Alec Douglas-Home for those who're interested in these things) was a thoroughly excellent first crime book by this author, well written, a good plot and an excellent setting. Look forward to reading the other two books in this 'new to me' series.

So that's the first month of the year done and dusted. Before we know it it'll be Christmas again. Just kidding...

~~~oOo~~~

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Two crime titles

A couple of crime titles today, one a vintage crime story, the other modern day. First up, the vintage one, Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

A group of people travelling by train get stranded when the train is brought to a halt by snow drifts. They get talking and it turns out that one of them, a man called Maltby, is an expert on psychic phenomena: his conversation makes the others rather uneasy. Suddenly, Maltby takes off, having seen something moving outside. Eventually the others follow realising it's a choice between walking and possibly being stranded in the train for days. They all pitch up at house which is oddly abandoned. 'Oddly' because it seems the owners lit the fire, laid the table for a meal and then left. It's spooky to say the least. With two of their number injured they realise they will have to spend the night as uninvited guests. But where exactly are the owners and who is the ruffian who turns up out of the blue and what is he looking for in the house? One thing's for sure... it's going to be a very long night.

This is one of those gorgeous new editions of British Library Classics, reissues of crime stories originally published in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, all with lovely covers. They're proving to be very popular and it's easy to see why as they recall a sort of golden age of crime writing and are very reminiscent of the writings of Agatha Christie and so on. Often they're books whose authors have been largely forgotten... I'd never heard of the wonderfully named J. Jefferson Farjeon for instance, despite him having written, apparently, over 80 novels. (He was also descended from Thomas Jefferson, just as a matter of interest.) Anyway, this was an enjoyable yarn with a spooky bent... not enough to be frightening, but enough to give it a frission of excitement. For those who like a book with a snowy setting this is perfect... it's snowy all the way through and there is *lots* of it! I wouldn't say that the characters jumped off the page at me but the mystery element and the setting make up for that. The cover declares it to be 'A Christmas Mystery'. If that's what you're looking for this is not really it. It's definitely snowy, but is not all that Christmassy, not in my opinion anyway. A good solid vintage crime yarn that made a fun and enjoyable, winter's read.

Mystery in White is my book 4 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016. It also qualifies for her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavanger Hunt as 'Book with a Christmas Tree on the cover' (it's on the front of the train).

Next, The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home.

Cal McGill is an expert on tidal forces in the seas and oceans of the world, especially those around the North Atlantic that affect his home country of Scotland. His ancestors were from a now uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland, his grandfather having died along with six other men during the second world war. Their trawler was on war business in the seas around Norway at the time but mystery surrounds his grandfather's death and his name is not on the war memorial to their heroism.

Feet in trainers are being washed up around the Scottish coast and the police are investigating. DC Helen Jamieson is a junior detective involved in the case but having a hard time with a good looking, promotion-seeking boss who despises her because she's overweight and not beautiful. While all this is going on an Indian girl, Basanti, has escaped captivity and has seen a picture in the paper of a girl, Preeti, who was taken prisoner with her. The picture was in the paper, a picture of Cal McGill and beside him on the wall, pinned to his charts is a picture of her friend, Preeti. Why is it there? Basanti makes her way to Edinburgh to find Cal, but he's gone to a Scottish island to try and discover why his grandfather's name is not on that war memorial...

I'm not sure that that's a very good description of what is quite a complicated book. Lot going on this one, three plotlines to follow, but I have to say I didn't find it difficult at all. One of the storylines, that of Basanti and Preeti, is quite disturbing in a sexual abuse manner so if that's not your bag, avoid this one. Cal McGill is a very different sort of hero, not really heroic at all just an ordinary bloke who is very bright and obsessed with oceans and tides. It was all rather fascinating to be honest. Helen Jamiesson I liked very much too, representing the ordinary woman who is clever and outlining the way they can be treated by shallow people who think that looks are everything. Unusual for a male author to understand that perspective I would have thought and Mark Douglas-Home clearly does. Helen's boss, DI Ryan, is appallingly chauvanistic and a fun aspect of reading this book is cheering Helen on as she copes with this. The other plotline, the historical one of the wartime island heroes, was also extremely well done and fascinating to follow. Lots of secrets and nastiness in how Cal was treated by descendents of the men who died along with his grandfather. Good sense of isolated communities on Scottish islands back in the 1930s and 40s.

I gave this book five stars out out five on Goodreads. That's how much I liked it. You can always tell what effect a book is having by how much you want to keep picking it up to read on, and I found it hard to put down, which I had to a lot this week as I've been busy. There are two more books and I'll be getting book two, The Woman who Walked into the Sea, from the library as soon as I can.

~~~oOo~~~

Friday, 15 January 2016

Catching up post

Two brief (well, I'll try...) reviews to catch up on today, a fiction and a non-fiction. First up, Angel With Two Faces by Nicola Upson which is my book two for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

Josephine Tey needs to get some work done on her second Alan Grant Novel (it will eventually become A Shilling for Candles) so she accepts her policeman friend, Archie Penrose's, invitation to holiday in Cornwall at the home of his family. Archie comes from the area around Loe Pool near the village of Porthlevan, his uncle being the owner of a local private estate. He ends up having to go ahead of Josephine to attend a funeral. A young man, Harry Pinching, has drowned in the pool, a riding accident by all accounts. But was it? The man's sister, Morwenna, hints to Archie that she suspects her brother may have committed suicide. But why would a fun loving young man with a real zest for life do such a thing? As soon as Josephine arrives she becomes embroiled in the mystery. She's horrified to discover how many secrets are being harboured in such a small community. Very soon she doesn't know what she can say to whom and realises this could threaten her relationship with Archie. One thing is for certain, answers lie in the past... and it's about to catch up with them all.

Slightly torn by this one. On the one hand, I loved the setting: I've walked at Loe Pool (it's a lake separated from the sea by a sandbar) and it's just as beautiful as the author describes, so that was very evocative for me. Josephine was there for the bluebells and I too have been there at that time of year and it's stunning. It's quite clear the author, Nicola Upson, knows that area rather well. (But then she is a 'local' author as she attended a crime panel I went to at my town's literary festival last summer... which is where I bought this book.) So that aspect of the book I liked. What I found a wee bit tiresome was the fact that every single person in the book had a secret and, like poor Josephine, I got rather confused and lost in the detail. It all felt a bit melodramatic to be honest, a bit overdone. Some of the characters were a bit clich├ęd such as Morveth, a teacher who is also a bit of a healing woman and slightly batty (or so it seemed to me), and Morvenna's sister, Loveday who's a bit fey, and the evil vicar who's Up To No Good. It was a good enough story to keep me reading to the end though, a decent mystery, and I do like Josephine and Archie. But I don't own any more of the books and if I do decide to read more I'll probably get them from the library.

Lastly, Greece on my Wheels a non-fiction travelogue by Edward Enfield. This is my book three for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge and my book one for Rose City Reader's 2016 European Reading Challenge.

Edward Enfield is the father of the well-known British comedian, Harry Enfield. He was pretty much unknown when he appeared on the BBC's consumer programme, Watchdog, representing the older person's point of view. He then wrote for the magazine, The Oldie, for many years. He's written several books about cycling in various parts of Europe and in Greece on my Wheels he does two journies, one around the Peloponnese and the other, Epiris and Acarnania... both in Greece of course. The style here was chatty and informative. You really get a taste of the Greek countryside, how mountainous it is, how beautiful, and also the heat. The author was 71 when he undertook this trip and you have to admire his stamina! He clearly enjoyed the food and the wine, and he often advises about where to stay and where to eat if you too are holidaying in these areas. Very useful. Edward Enfield wanted to do the journey as he's very keen on Greek literature and history and there's quite a bit of that included in the book, especially various conflicts between Greece, Albania and Turkey. Other countries - including Britain - also had their fingers in the pie too and not always in a good way, in fact, mostly not. He also followed in the footsteps of other travellers and he often includes excerpts from travelogues by Lord Byron, Edward Lear, Benjamin Disraeli and John Hobhouse. These I really enjoyed and would love to search out the original books and read those, particularly Byron's. I knew he was a bit of a hero in Greece for his role in their war of independence with the Ottoman Empire, but not quite how much... he did in fact die during the conflict. All very interesting and I feel as though I learnt quite a bit from reading this travelogue about Greece. I shall search out more by Edward Enfield - I think there's a book about cycling around Ireland and one where he follows the route of the Danube - as he manages to be both informative and entertaining in his writing.

~~~oOO~~~

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Update on books with snow settings

One of my favourite settings in books I read is that of a wintery, 'snowy' setting. There's nothing like sitting in a comfy chair beside the fire reading about snowstorms or what the world looks like for people the next morning and how they go about their business or even survive the coming weeks! (Think The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.) When I saw this Waterstones post on Facebook about books with a snowy setting it reminded me that I had done my own post about snowy books a few years ago. But time flies and when I actually checked I found it was back in 2009! Definitely time for an update, so here goes...

Crime:

Snow Blind - P.J. Tracy
The Virgin in the Ice – Ellis Peters
The Sittaford Mystery – Agatha Christie
The Nine Tailors – Dorothy L. Sayers
After the Fine Weather – Michael Gilbert
The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penney
Dead Cold – Louise Penny
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – Peter Hoeg
Ghosts in the Snow – Tamara Siler Jones
Death and the Dancing Footman – Ngaio Marsh
A Christmas Journey - Anne Perry
Raven Black - Ann Cleeves
Death at Wentwater Court - Carola Dunn
Ice Cold - Tess Gerritsen
Mystery in White - J. Jefferson Farjeon
Sworn to Silence - Linda Castillo
The Cold Dish - Craig Johnson
In the Bleak Midwinter - Julia Spencer-Fleming
The Virgin of Small Plains - Nancy Pickard
The Wolf in Winter - John Connolly


General Fiction:

Ordinary Wolves – Seth Kantner
Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
Light on Snow – Anita Shreve
A Winter in the Hills – John Wain
The Adventures of Captain Hatteras – Jules Verne
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
Sylvester - Georgette Heyer
Winter at Thrush Green - Miss Read
A Country Christmas - Miss Read
Once Upon a Christmas - Sara Morgan
The Abominable - Dan Simmons
Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson
Winter People Jennifer McMahon
The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey


Sci-fi/Fantasy/Horror:

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
The Fifth Elephant – Terry Pratchett
The Forbidden Tower - Marion Zimmer Bradley
Helliconia Winter - Brian W. Aldiss
The Mountains of Majipoor - Robert Silverberg
The Terror Dan Simmons
The Winter Haunting - Dan Simmons


Children's/Young Adult:

The Long Winter – Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Snowman - Raymond Briggs
North Child – Edith Pattou
Predator’s Gold – Philip Reeve
At the Back of the North Wind – George MacDonald
Northern Lights – Phillip Pullman
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Wintersmith – Terry Pratchett
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
The Call of the Wild – Jack London
The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper
The Snow Queen – Hans Christian Anderson
Winter Holiday – Arthur Ransome
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase – Joan Aiken
The Rat-A-Tat Mystery - Enid Blyton
No Such Thing as Dragons - Philip Reeve
The Dead of Winter - Chris Priestley
Magyk - Angie Sage


Short Stories:

The Triumph of Night - Edith Wharton

I haven't actually added the Waterstones ones, will check them out properly soon and possibly add them. And there must be more for each category. 'Loads' more. So if anyone can think of any, do please leave a comment.

And just to liven this post up with an illustration or two, here're a couple of my favourite snowy book covers:



~~~oOo~~~

Thursday, 7 January 2016

The Franchise Affair

It's a bit disconcerting when the first fiction book you read at the beginning of a new year is stunningly good. You almost feel a bit twitchy about it... as though you have no right to come upon a terrific book in the first week of January. And there's also that uneasy feeling that it might be downhill all the way from here. Hence the twitchiness. Anyway, regardless of me and my peculiarities, the excellent first book is The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey.


Middle-aged solicitor, Robert Blair, is about to leave his office to go home, late one afternoon when the phone rings. Five minutes later and he would've missed it and his very routine, his cozy life, would not have been changed forever by that call. On the line is Marion Sharpe. Miss Sharpe lives with her elderly mother in large house, The Franchise, on the edge of the sleepy town of Milford. The two are quite reclusive so are not well known in the town: Robert barely knows the woman.

Miss Sharpe tells Robert that the police are in her house accusing her and her mother of kidnapping a teenage girl, Betty Kane, locking her up in the attic for several weeks and trying to coerce her to work for them as a maid come cleaner. They deny all knowledge of this. Robert tries to convince Marion to phone a solicitor more experienced in criminal law, in all honesty he doesn't really want to touch the case. She refuses and he heads off to The Franchise.

It subsequently falls to Robert to investigate the girl's claims as the police are happy to let things drift until real evidence materialises. She knows all about the inside of the house and can describe the attic and its contents. The girl appears to be an innocent 15 year old, demurely recounting her tale of woe and the whole country is outraged at her treatment. But for some reason he can't fathom, Robert doesn't believe her. He hopes it's not because he's falling under the spell of Marion Sharpe. He needs cold, hard evidence of where this girl actually was when she said she was a prisoner of the Sharpes. It's a long and tedious road the solicitor is embarking upon. What he needs is one of his Aunt Lin's miracles...

I knew within 2 or 3 pages that I would love this book. Why? Well it's just so beautifully written. So much gorgeous observation of real people and their little quirks. The way routine can easily become so much of your day to day existence:

"At 3.50 exactly on every working day Miss Tuff bore into his office a lacquer tray covered with a fair white cloth and bearing a cup of tea in blue-patterned china, and, on a plate to match, two biscuits; petit-beurre Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, digestive Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays."

This about Aunt Lin:

"Have you had a nice day dear?" Aunt Lin asked, opening her table napkin and arranging it across her plump lap.

This was a sentence that made sense but had no meaning. It was as much an overture to dinner as the spreading of her napkin, and the exploratory movement of her right foot as she located the footstool which compensated for her short legs. She expected no answer; or rather, being unaware that she had asked the question, she did not listen to his answer.


In a few short sentences you know everything you need to know about Aunt Lin. Josephine Tey was so honest in describing feather-brained women like this that it's almost cruel. If the author was a man you might actually say so, unfairly I think because people like this do exist and pretending they don't is dishonest.

One of the crucial things to know about this book is that although it's listed as book 3 in the Alan Grant series, it really isn't. Inspector Grant makes three or four appearances where he's not even a particularly sympathetic character... he's the one charged with investigating Betty Kane's claims but he really doesn't seem that fussed about discovering the truth. This book is about the solicitor, Robert Blair. And the odd thing is... I didn't mind at all. I'd go so far as to say that of the three Alan Grant books I've read so far, this is by far the strongest. And I'm a bit perplexed by this, him not actually being in the book very much. I'm wondering if it's because the first two were rather theatre/stagey and that isn't particularly my thing. Whereas a story about a small town solicitor dragged out of his comfort zone into the real world to investigate a nasty little case where everyone turns against the accused, was, for me, utterly rivetting. Plus, as I said before, so beautifully written. Sly observations of people's behaviour, Miss Marpleish in their pin-point accuracy, just make this book come alive and you end up chuckling to yourself, even when sometimes you probably shouldn't.

Interesting to observe too that although this is a 1940s book, their problems with tabloid newspapers and mobs outside the houses of people accused of crimes was exactly the same as ours in the 21st. century. Nothing changes it seems. Indeed, this didn't really feel like a 1940s book at all apart from one or two attitudes of the time. The whole nature of the story felt like it could have happened last week, not 70 years ago. It's quite an achievement to write such a timeless story. I can't wait to read more by Josephine Tey and am inclined to try her two standalones next, Miss Pym Disposes and Brat Farrar.

The Franchise Affair was my first book for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge and also my first book for her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt challenge. I'm using it for the category of 'Spooky house or mansion'. I realise it doesn't look madly spooky but as it's described in the story as 'that dark silent house set down among endless fields', I think it pretty much qualifies.

~~~oOO~~~