Monday, 14 September 2020

Currently reading and just finished

Autumn has definitely arrived here in the UK. We've already had a couple of named storms and it feels crisp and cool early in the mornings, some lovely misty valley scenes out of our windows. We're so fortunate, my heart goes out to people in Oregon, Washington State and California, we're seeing hellish scenes on the TV. Anyone reading this from those states, please stay safe.

I always love autumn reading. The minute September arrives I suddenly feel like I must read something weird or spooky so my current read is this:

The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter by Theodora Goss is based on several classic weird fiction books including Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. The 'heroes' of those books somehow had daughters who, as you can imagine, are not quite right, and they all end up living together. I'm halfway through this and I like it a lot, it's fun and intriguing and I like the fact that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are involved in an investigation in it. It's written a bit oddly and it took me a while to get used to that, what I can't get used to is the frequent use of 'gotten' in Victorian England or a young girl exclaiming, 'Awesome!'. Regardless of that, I'm enjoying it a lot.

The first of three books I've just finished is, Between the Stops by Sandi Toksvig.

Sandi is a well known comedian and host of 'QI' (she took over from Stephen Fry) in the UK. She also co-hosted the new Bake Off on C4 but has just given up I think, a shame. Anyway, these are her memoirs, written in the form of her regular bus journey from Dulwich into the centre of London. It might sound like a very odd thing to do but it works a treat. Sandi loves history and unusual facts so the book is not just anecdotes from her life but pieces of the history of places she passes on her bus journey: London really comes alive. Her voice is so familiar that it can be read in said voice and I did so all the way through which made it very funny in places. She has such a lot of interesting things to say, not all of which I agreed with but that's fine. I must recommend another book by her, The Chain of Curiosity, which reprints the newspaper columns she wrote for one of the newspapers and is one of the funniest books I've ever read.

Secondly, The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham.

This one of those 'house-party' themed vintage crime novels, written in 1929, and is the first book in Margery Allingham's 'Albert Campion' series. Campion is part of a weekend get-together but is on the periphery of the plot at first as events centre on the other guests, particulary Dr. George Abbershaw who has fallen in love with one of the other guests and plans to ask her to marry him. On the first evening a sort of ceremonial dagger is the centre of attention and during a game which revolves around it another member of the party is found dead, apparently of a heart-attack. But is it? (Daft question.) This is my first outing with Albert Campion, apart from a short story read recently. I'm not sure it was quite what I expected (I didn't watch the TV series from years ago), the assumed idiocy of Campion took me by surprise a bit (reminding me slightly of Lord Peter Wimsey) and his role in things was rather more ambivilent than I was expecting. A good yarn though, well written and pacey. I will definitely be reading more.

Lastly, Travels with Tinkerbelle by Susie Kelly. This is my 17th book for Bev's Mount TBR 2020

The subtitle of this book is: '6,000 miles around France in a mechanical wreck'. To be honest that does sum the book up nicely. The author, Susie Kelly, and her husband Terry get someone to look after their menagerie of animals in rural France for six weeks and set off to drive around the perimeter of France. That's two coastlines, two mountain ranges, many forests, and an awful lot of chateaux. Oh, and I forgot to mention their two dogs, Tally and Dobby who had a remarkable talent for getting into trouble. I enjoyed this very much. Some of the coastline I knew as we've seen part of Brittany on the English Channel and been down the Bay of Biscay coast as well, although not all the way. So it was nice to revisit those. Most of it was new to me, all interesting but the part I was found 'most' interesting was Northern France and the war sites. One of these days (if the world ever shakes off Covid 19) I would like to go over and visit that area. This is my second book by Susie Kelly, Best Foot Forward was also excellent.


Friday, 4 September 2020

Smallbone Deceased - Michael Gilbert

My first book for September is Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert.

Henry Bohun is a young man who has has just got himself a new job with a firm of solicitors, Horniman, Birley and Craine. He doesn't sleep at night and hasn't really settled to a career, trying various different things since the war ended. The firm he's now working for is one that specialises in working for the higher echelons of society, Lord and Lady This and That and so on.

One of the named partners, Abel Horniman, is recently deceased and has been succeeded by his son, Robert. The elder Horniman was one of two trustees for the trust fund of Ichabod Stokes, the other, Marcus Smallbone seems to have disappeared, although no one is too concerned as he tended to disappear for months on end collecting ancient bits of pottery in Italy. Eventually though he does turn up... dead in a deed box and the body has been there for four to six weeks.

So who killed him? Inspector Hazlerigg of Scotland yard arrives to investigate the murder. It's clearly an inside job and the one person the detective doesn't suspect, Henry Bohun, because he's new to the firm, is roped in to help Hazlerigg's investigation. Working practices and office politics make this a very complicated case because people have secrets and loyalties and resent being asked personal questions. And then someone else is murdered and the thing becomes more far more personal when the lives of the staff are suddenly at risk.

Oh, how I loved this one. The writing is sublime, the author has a light touch with humour that had me grinning all the way through. And a light touch with dialogue too, every character came alive as they spoke. You have to keep your wits about you as you read, legal firms and their legal-speak are not always easy to get to grips with and I did struggle a little with trust funds and how they work. It didn't matter though, because it wasn't that that was important in the end, it was the dynamics of personal relationships: it always is.

Oddly enough there's a local connection for me with the author: Michael Gilbert was educated at Blundell's School in Tiverton where I live.

He served in North Africa during the war and was a prisoner of war in Italy, which is how he was able to write Death in Captivity so realistically. If you haven't read that I suggest you do, it's brilliant. I'm really, really impressed with Gilbert's books, to the point where I feel a collection coming on. I have Death Has Deep Roots to read, one of the BLCC's recent output, and Tracy mentioned The Black Seraphim in this post and I liked the sound of it so much I now own a copy.

Smallbone Deceased is book four of six books about Inspector Hazlerigg and I'll definitely be reading the rest and trying to get my hands on his standalone output. I love a project.


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Books read in August

Happy September, how lovely that it's here and autumn is on the horizon. Being kept busy in the garden at the moment, tomatoes and raspberries are particulary prolific. It means I'm not able to spend as much time online blogging and visiting blogs, hopefully that will ease off a bit soon. It'll have to, the freezer's full!

So, August was quite a good reading month for me, I'm just not sure where the month went! (Or the first eight months of the year come to that.) Nine books read and these are they:

54. Atlantic - Simon Winchester

55. An Air that Kills - Andrew Taylor

56. A Watery Grave - Joan Bluett

57. The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

58. Gallow's Court - Martin Edwards

59. Virgin River Robyn Carr

60. Coastlines - Patrick Barkham. The National Trust currently owns 742 miles of the coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The author of this book sets out to walk and explore just some of these sites, including The Undercliffs at Lyme Regis, The Goodwin Sands, Orford Ness, Lundy and more. Well written, informative, interesting.

61. The Somerset Tsunami - Emma Carroll

It's 1616 and thirteen year old Fortune Sharpe lives in a village at the foot of the Mendips in Somerset. Her village is inhabited by women apart from Fortune's brother, Jem. It's the time of the witch trials and greedy local landowners are casting covetous eyes on the land owned by the women, if they accuse them of being witches this land could be theirs. Badly frightened, Fortune's mother sends her away into service, dressed as a boy. She ends up at Berrow Hall looking after two children of a similar age to herself, and a toddler, and quickly strikes up a friendship with them all. The only problem is, their father is a witch hunter. I should say that this young adult novel is aimed at children of about 10 to 14. I think they would love it as it's full of adventure and quite scary in places with the witch finders and then the tsunami, which I gather did actually happen in 1607, 2,000 people died. I had no idea about that. Emma Carroll is apparently a very popular writer of children's historical novels and I can see why, if I come across any more of her books I will grab them as this was very enjoyable.

62. Miraculous Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards. An excellent anthology of 'impossible' murder mysteries by authors such as G.K. Chesterton, Sax Rohmer, Sapper, Dorothy L. Sayers (The Haunted Policeman, one of favourites of her short stories), Michael Innes, Ednund Crispin. My favourite story was The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham, an absolutely ingenious little Albert Campion story... it's high time I read some of her full-length novels about him.

So, a favourite book of August? Well, it would probably be this:

I was genuinely surprised at how much I loved The Moonstone. Just could not put it down, pretty much from the beginning. But there were several other splendid books last month too, Atlantic by Simon Winchester, A Watery Grave by Joan Bluett, Virgin River by Robyn Carr etc. To be honest it was a very good reading month all told.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

I haven't done a Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times post in while but as Autumn is rapidly approaching I thought I would sort out a few books I want to read over the next couple of months and use that for an Insane post. This meme was started by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness but has been taken over by Katrina at Pining for the West.

So my shelf this week is all about autumn reading, September and October to be precise. I sorted a few books I want to read, for various reasons, from my tbr shelves and these are they:

The pile on the left:

I have one book left in my 'Diary of a Provincial Lady' omnibus edition by E.M. Delafield and it is The Provincial Lady in Wartime, so I would certainly like to get that one read.

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert. It's a while since I read my first book by him Death In Captivity which I thought was excellent so it's definitely time to read more.

Walter and Florence by Susan Hill was sent to me by the author to read and review a couple of months ago so I do need to get to that one soon.

The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer is just part of my recent fancy to reread a few books by that author.

Death has Deep Roots is a second choice for a Michael Gilbert read.

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, well we are coming into autumn and it will be time for those spooky reads...

Travels with Tinkerbelle by Susie Kelly is my current travel book read and will take me into September.

The Somerset Tsunami by Emma Carroll I thought would take me into September but in fact I've just finished it so that should not really be on this pile.

Upright on the shelf:

No Name by Wilkie Collins will be my next read by him. Can't wait.

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes is a recent purchase, set in Kentucky, is a book about delivering books to the needy in the 1930s.

Drood by Dan Simmons will be a reread of one of my favourite books.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. I haven't read any Dickens since my late teens and it's time I did, this book is one I've owned for yonks.

Voyages of Delusion by Glyn Williams is all about the search for the Northwest Passage (which now exists I believe.)

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester is all about... yes... the explosion of the Krakatoa volcano.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a reread because I enjoyed the book so much about 10 years ago.

So that's just some of my autumn reading. Some of these will get read, some will not. But that's ok, my 'read soon' pile is always very fluid and that's fine because I'm really not a huge fan of order and rules, I like casual.


Saturday, 22 August 2020

Catching up - again

I'm permanently behind with reviews so let's see if I can catch up quickly. All three of these are new additions to my Kindle by the way, not one of them comes off the real tbr shelf and all three I bought after seeing them on various blogs I visit. So I'm blaming other people for these three, you know who you are!

I'll start with A Watery Grave by Joan Bluett.

Wiki Coffin is half New Zealand Maori, half American, his father being a sailor from New England. Wiki was brought back to the US by his father as a child and brought up by his step mother, speaking English but still a Maori in spirit. It's 1838 and Wiki gets a position as a linguist with the United States Exploring Expedition but just before it sets sail he's accused of the murder of the wife of a local big-wig. The Sheriff eventually comes to the conclusion that Wiki did not do it and lets him go on condition that he will investigate while on board his ship, The Swallow, the Sheriff being of the opinion that the murderer is sailing with the expedition. Any voyage aboard a sailing ship is hazardous enough but this will increase the danger tenfold. Can Wiki survive this? I do love a sea-voyaging book. Perhaps it's something to do with having been brought up by the sea and loving being there (but not in the summer, at least not these days) that makes books about the ocean so attractive to me, I'm not sure. I don't mind if it's non-fiction or fiction but I do have a preferance for historical sailing yarns rather than modern day ones, I suspect it's do with being really cut off from land centuries ago with the complete lack of communications and, you know, 'sailing ships'!! Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this first book in the Wiki Coffin series. Lots of adventure on the high seas, very atmospheric, but also gentle feeding of historial information about what it was like to serve on these ships. A picnic it was not! But then I knew that from reading Redburn and Moby Dick by Herman Melville and other sundry books, must give Patrick O'Brian another go at some stage. A Watery Grave was a very readable but honest book about life at sea in the 1800s and not a bad mystery to boot: I really enjoyed it.

Next up, Gallow's Court by Martin Edwards.

London 1930 and Jacob Flint, a young journalist from Yorkshire, is trying to make a name for himself with the newspaper he's working for, The Clarion. He's become fascinated by Rachel Savernake, the daughter of a deceased 'hanging judge'. She solved a recent 'Chorus Girl' murder case before Scotland Yard could do it and is now embroiled in the suicides of two emminent men who, it turns out, were both murderers. High level curruption is a dangerous game and Savernake lets Jacob know that he's very much out of his depth and ought to back off. People start to die and Jacob knows he ought to heed Rachel's warning but he needs a big scoop to prove himself, so of course doesn't do any such thing. Interesting book this. Rather confusing at the start. Who's doing what to whom? Who is on the side of right? Who isn't? Who is somewhere in the middle? I had no idea and even towards the end of the book was pretty clueless. Rachel Savernake is a very interesting character, seemingly invincible but I had no idea what her business was and and what she was up to. Martin Edwards is such a good writer and is apparently fascinated by the period between the wars. As he's been very involved with the BLCC vintage crime reisssues and has produced many of their anthologies, this comes as no surprise. This is a good start to a new series and I already have book 2, Mortmain Hall, on my Kindle.

And now, as they say, for something completely different, Virgin River by Robyn Carr.

Mel Monroe lost her husband a year ago in a fatal shooting in a convenience store. He was a doctor and her a nurse specialising in midwifery, in a busy hospital in LA in California, both jobs being very full-on. She was devastated beyond belief and can no longer cope with her very demanding job. Needing a total change she applies for a position in a small town in northern California, Virgin River. She's been told the elderly doctor in the town needs help and that there will be good accommodation waiting for her. On arriving she finds neither are true. The cabin she's supposed to live in is practically falling down and the curmudgeonly doctor is stubornly refusing all offers of assistance. Mel resolves to stay a day or two and then go off to her sister in Colorado. She's on the verge of leaving when a baby is discovered abandoned on the steps of the doctor's surgery. Now she'll have a stay a few days longer because someone needs to look after the baby. Naturally a few days becomes a few days more as local births occur and she gets involved with the local bar and restauant owner, Jack Sheridan. Well this is very much a Mills and Boon type romance so the reader knows pretty much what to expect. It's well written, has a good sense of rural, mountainous California that I didn't know much about, and I enjoyed all of the characters in the story. There's a touch of intrigue and danger so there's a bit more to it than romance, plus it has a very real sense of a grieving widow and the time it takes to get over a terrible loss. Jack is also an ex-serviceman who has served in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and there are tragic images from that which make this book a little less fluffy than you might expect. I thoroughly enjoyed this first in Robyn Carr's 'Virgin River' series (I think there's a TV series on Netflix now which is where the cover photo comes from) and already have book 2 downloaded to my Kindle. It's my first book for California too for my US challenge to read a book from every state.


Monday, 17 August 2020

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

At last I've read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins! Why did I wait my entire life to read this classic? I haven't a clue. No idea. It feels stupid now as it wasn't a difficult book at all and was so readable and such fun. Never mind, perhaps there's an argument that there's a time for everyone to read certain books and this was mine.

The Moonstone is my 15th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2020 reading challenge.

It's 1848 and young Rachel Verinder has just come of age and inherited a fabulous yellow diamond known as The Moonstone. The acquisition of this stone, by an uncle in India, is dubious to say the least, likely as not he murdered to steal it from under the nose of a Hindu sect. So the thing is cursed and is also sought after by group of Hindu men pledged to retrieve it at all costs. Needless to say the inheritance is a real poisoned chalice but Rachel is unaware of this when it's given to her. Unaware enough to put it in an unlocked cabinet overnight from where, naturally, it is stolen.

So whodunnit? An elderly steward relates all that he knows about Rachel, her mother, Lady Verinder, Franklin Blake, the cousin who delivered the stone to its new owner, the servants, local acquaintances and what happened when the stone was stolen. When no more can be done the police are called in, in the shape of Sergeant Cuff, a well known solver of impossible crimes in London. It seems there are numerous suspects as there were a lot of people in the house at the time for Rachel's birthday. And one of the servants in particular has been behaving very oddly of late. Cuff has plenty of ideas but is eventually sent away by Lady Verinder, mainly because she can't bear to have a policeman in the house. So what's to be done? According to one expert, wait for year, but why?

On the cover of my copy of The Moonstone there's a quote from T.S. Eliot calling this book: 'the first and greatest of English detective novels'. I don't know if it was the first, it may be so, but it's certainly contender for 'the greatest' I would say. It's written in the same manner as The Woman in White in that the narrative is passed from person to person according to who can best testify as to what was happening at a particular time. Thus it starts with the elderly house steward, Gabriel Betteredge, an old retainer type, who gives a rambling account of the history of the family and recent happenings and believes that the answer to every problem in the world lies within the pages of his favourite novel, Robinson Crusoe. It's quite wonderful to read and very funny in places. From him we move to contributions from Miss Clack an evangelical Christian, Matthew Bluff a lawyer, the cousin, Franklin Blake, Ezra Jennings, a physician's assistant etc. It's beautifully done, very readable, full of suspense, humour and excellent characterisation.

Favourite characters for me were Gabriel Betteredge with his unwavering faith in Robinson Crusoe, Miss Clack, wonderfully drawn, worrying herself to death about people's souls and salvation, leaving her religious tracts in their houses even to the point of going into bedrooms and bathrooms. Sergeant Cuff was also nicely drawn, I wish there were more of him in the book, I loved his obsession with roses and his perpetual arguments with the gardener. I think the person I felt most sorry for was Ezra Jennings, the doctor's assistant. We don't learn the exact reason why he's down on his luck, apart from his unusual appearance which Victorian people seem unable to cope with and which has basically made him an outcast. Very sad but I suspect it wasn't unusual back then.

Oddly enough, I didn't take to Rachel Verinder very much, possibly because there was no narrative from her so her character wasn't always clear but also I found her jumping to conclusions too readily, why didn't she 'ask' a particular person about an important occurance that she witnessed? I suppose then there would have been no book. Let's face it if people in books actually communicated most of the books we read would have no plot!

So I was pretty thrilled with this book. I love Collins' writing, perhaps more than I like that of his friend, Charles Dickens. Although before I state that categorically I probably ought to read Dickens as an older (hopefully 'wiser') person. Pretty much all of the Dickens I've read I read as a teenager and I'm sure my reaction to it now would be a lot different. In the meantime I want to read more by Wilkie Collins. I own No Name and it looks like a strong contender for my next book by him although I do have a couple on my Kindle I think and of course all of his output is now available free online. We'll see. Recommendations would be welcome if anyone has read anything specific.

Naturally, I gave The Moonstone five stars on Goodreads, a crackingly good read and inspirational as I am now determined to read more of this kind of thing.


Monday, 10 August 2020

Just finished and currently reading

I've finished just two books since the beginning of August, one I've been reading for several weeks, the other I devoured in two days. This is a quick catch-up post.

First up, Atlantic by Simon Winchester.

The sub-title of this book is 'A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories' and that pretty much sums up the book. The author starts at the beginning, going back to the slow creation of the Atlantic when the continents parted and moves on through history to the present day. He uses Shakespeare's 'The Seven Ages of Man' as his basis for the chapters of the book, 'The Infant', 'The Whining Schoolboy', 'The Lover', 'The Soldier' etc. It might sound a bit odd but it actually works very well. The book is beautifully written, very readable, not at all dry, lots of interesting anecdotes and lots of accessible history. My favourite section was that of the fishing of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, descriptions of the amount of cod that used to be there and how we humans managed to fish it out. A sad, sad story but Simon Winchester made it absolutely fascinating. I've been reading off my own shelves for months now with the intention of clearing a few books to go to the charity shop. And I've succeeded, but not with Atlantic, it's a keeper and a candidate for rereading in a few years. Fascinating and excellent. I have his book, Krakaotoa (apparently it's not 'East of Java' at all) to read and I'm really looking forward to it. I love it when I can add another non-fiction writer to my list of reliably good authors.

Atlantic was my 14th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2020.

Lastly, An Air that Kills by Andrew Taylor.

Jill Francis, a journalist living in London, is visiting friends, Philip and Charlotte, in Lydmouth after a traumatic event that has left her an emotional wreck. After she arrives the bones of a young baby are found in an old pub that's being demolished and it's thought they might date back to Victorian times. Jill and Charlotte become involved with the police investigation which is being headed by another newcomer to the area, Inspector Richard Thornhill. He's struggling with life in general and in particular his marriage and his new boss, an old style, overbearing detective. Thornhill and Jill Francis join forces to solve the case but their mutual antipathy is a barrier to progress. This was an odd one. Well written, pacey, very interesting, set on the borders of Wales and England. I devoured it in a couple of days, I was so intrigued by the case. Which makes it all the more peculiar that I can't decide whether to read any more in the series. You see, I didn't really care for anyone in the story. And it was 'grim'. Unrelentingly so. OK, the time period of the 1950s was not the most cheery of the 20th. century and thus I'm not attracted to books set during that decade, so that doesn't help. But for a book to have no humour, no one in it that's happy, that's quite an achievement really! So while I admired the writing, was fascinated by the case, despite having guessed the outcome from quite early on, I honestly don't know if I want to read on. Do I care enough about the characters? Possibly not.

So, I'm currently reading these three:

A Watery Grave by Joan Druett. Murder and mayhem on the high seas at the time of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838. Great fun so far.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Classic about a missing diamond. Loving it to bits.

Coastlines: The Story of our Shore by Patrick Barkham. Walks on the pieces of coastline owned by The National Trust. Just started but think it's going to be very enjoyable.

How nice to be reading three good books all at one time.

So, all of a sudden I'm not blogging very much and it's down to one thing and one thing only, this wretched new interface that Blogspot are trying to force upon us. I've tried it twice now and run into trouble posting pics both times and had to go back to the old legacy one. That's apparently only going to be available until the end of this month (though they said that in June and then in July) so if it does go I'm not sure what I'll do because I'm really not going to struggle to use something that gives me a load of aggro. Blogging's supposed to be fun not an extra source of stress in your life. We'll see. I'll either have to give up my blog and move my reviews to Goodreads or move my blog to Wordpress. But what if I struggle with Wordpress too? At least I'm not the only one struggling with Blogspot blogging, I just wonder if they will listen to what people are saying and leave the legacy interface for those of us who prefer it. If not I can honestly see a mass exodus. And, you know, life is horrible enough at the moment for everyone, you might have thought Blogspot would realise this and leave well alone until things are more normal, not purposely add to the stress by doing this to us. You have to wonder about these people sometimes, you really do.