Sunday, 18 July 2021

Two British Library short story volumes

I love the British Library's volumes of short stories. They tend to come in several different formats: murder mysteries, science-fiction and 'weird fiction'. Hard to say which I appreciate the most, possibly the weird fiction but it only just has the edge on the other two. The following two books comprise murder mysteries and science fiction.

First up, Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves edited by Martin Edwards. 

This anthology is, as it says in the title, all about water. Not just the sea but also rivers, lakes, harbours and so on. A few usual suspects are here. We have Sherlock Holmes' first case as a teenager, The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, set on the Norfolk Broads but essentially a story of a convict ship where the convicts had taken over the ship. Raffles and Bunny are also present in The Gift of the Emperor by E.W. Hornung, where the two are on cruise and Raffles sets his sites on pinching some valuable pearls. 

One of the best stories to my mind was The Echo of a Mutiny by R. Austin Freeman. This one is set around the Thames estuary on one of the lighthouses there and is a story of two men horrified to meet again after a historical onboard mutiny they'd both been complicit in. Austin Freeman's detective is a Dr. Thorndyke and he's brought in in chapter two to solve the murder. I'm quite keen on these Thorndyke mysteries and must read the book of four novels I have on my Kindle. This short story had a very strong sense of place, very 'foggy Thames river, Kent coast' in atmosphere. Loved it. 

Another good Thames mystery was A Question of Timing by Phyllis Bentley, describing how stopping a murder can literally be all about dilly-dallying somewhere for a while, thus delaying you, and then finding you're in the right place at the right time to save someone's life.

Other good stories, The Thimble River Mystery by Josephine Bell, set among the permanent dwellers on yachts on a tributary of the Solent at Southampton, Man Overboard by Edmund Crispin, a tale of incrimination by letter, a clever Cornish fisherman story, The Queer Fish by Kem Bennett and Death by Water a DI Appleby story by Michael Innes, also set in Cornwall. (I really must get around to reading one of the novels.)

These anthologies do vary a bit in quality but all in all this one was very strong. I enjoyed every one of the stories and a few were excellent. Most of all I loved the strong sense of place in most of them, I am rather fond of a good watery murder but nevetheless these would stand up even if that's not your favourite thing. Excellent collection. Beautiful cover too.

Lastly, Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void edited by Mike Ashley. This was sent to me by the British Library for a free and fair review.

These are short stories written before space flight was actually achieved, imagining life 'out there' in the void. It has some very famous sci-fi writers within its covers too: Anne McCaffrey, E.C. Tubb, Jack Vance, Eric Frank Russell, John Brunner. I'd already read just one story, The Ship Who Sang by Ann McCaffrey, but the story of how babies with no hope of survival can have their brains merged with a spaceship is always worth a reread. This one spawned a seven book series, mostly co-written with other authors, entitled 'Brainship'. The E.C. Tubb offering tells of the Sun about to go nova and the Earth's efforts to build a shield to protect the planet. But building is behind schedule, why? A nice human psychology kind of story. Sail 25 by Jack Vance was an interesting 'test the space-cadets' story. One of my favourites in the anthology was O'Mara's Orphan by James White. This is another of the 'hospital in space' series and I've read one or two others in other collections. Such a good story of a juvenile alien that one of the staff has to learn to treat. I must search out more of these. Ultima Thule by Eric Frank Russell recounts how a ship jumps forward, by mistake, into a complete void outside known space. Well written and disturbing. Another favourite was The Voyage that Lasted 600 Years by Don Wilcox. This is a 'generational ship' yarn. A professor will go with them and will be the only one to last the whole trip by being refridgerated and woken up to check on things every 100 years. It illustrates how one mistake he makes at the beginning, by admitting one extra man, can affect the whole project in unimaginable ways. All in all, this was another excellent anthology. Every story was very readable, some quite thought provoking and others very imaginative. I don't think of myself as a huge 'space' fan as regards sci-fi writing (I'm more into alien planets) but I thoroughly enjoyed all nine of these stories and look forward to more of these excellent collections. 

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Several crime fiction titles

As always I'm behind with reviews... right back into June for one of these in fact. I'm reading a lot faster than I can review at the moment and at some stage I'm just going to have to concede that I can't review everything, try as I might.

First up, Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear.

Maisie is unsettled. She feels as though she's reached some kind of  crossroads in her life and that it's concerned with travelling, - with following in the footsteps of her late mentor Maurice Blanche and going to India. The trouble is, she's engaged to be married and her fiance, James, is off to Canada and wants her to go with him. It's a dilemma she's trying to deal with when an Indian man asks her to take on the case of the death of his sister, Usha Pramal. Usha had travelled to England as a governess with a family but for some reason left them and ended up in a hostel run for Indian ayahs cast out by English families who no longer need their services. How she ended up dead by the side of a canal is a shocking mystery and Maisie takes the case on after the police had failed to get anywhere. Another case Maisie takes on involves a missing teenage boy so she's busy enough to keep her mind off her current dilemmas. Indian women being brought back to England to continue working with families they worked for in India and then being dismissed when they were no longer needed, in a foreign country, was not something that I was previously aware was happening in the 1930s. So I learnt something from this book. To be honest I learn something every time I pick up a Maisie Dobbs book. Jacqueline Winspear has a habit of finding a new slant on known issues that I'd never thought of before or even issues I'd never even heard of like this one. I like how much her books make me 'think'. I can also understand Maisie's personal problems and will be very interested to see what she does next. I understand the next book, A Dangerous Place, is set on Gibraltar so that should be rather interesting. Of course WW2 is fast approaching in the books and I'm fascinated to see how that's handled in this excellent series. 

Next, The Searcher by Tana French.

Chicago detective, Cal Hooper, has retired and moved to Ireland. 'Rural' Ireland. It's all woods and fields, endless rain, and a village where everyone knows everyone else's business. The locals are friendly though and happy for him to buy a dilapidated cottage and fix it up. It's not long though before Cal realises he's being watched and eventually a young boy creeps into his field of consciousness and starts to help Cal with the carpentry. As the days progress the boy asks for help in finding his brother, Brendan, aged 19, who disppeared six months ago. Cal is at first very reluctant having decided to leave this kind of thing behind him in Chicago. The boy, Trey, persists and eventually Cal agrees to help him having absolutely no idea of the can of worms he's about to open. There's quite an air of hidden menace in this novel. Tana French does not write cozy crime stories and she gets right to the nitty-gritty of rural Ireland, which looks so idyllic but has all the same problems they have in the city but on a much more personal level because everyone knows everyone. I've read one book by Tana French, In the Woods, so I knew her writing was superb and that I would find myself really immersed in the story. And the story is heart-breaking in places and scary because you know there is impending menace from the locals but you don't know who. And there was one real curve-ball that took me completely by surprise... evidence that I need to keep my wits about me a bit more. An excellent read, although I would be interested to know whether the ex-American cop rings true to American readers. 

Lastly, Swansong by Damien Boyd. 

This is the fourth book in the author's 'DI Nick Dixon' series, set in Somerset in areas I know very well. In this installment Nick goes under cover to work as a trainee teacher in a boarding school in Taunton. A girl has been found dead in the school grounds, murdered with her ring finger cut off. What Nick hasn't told his boss is that the case mirrors a murder that happened at his old boarding school, when he was sixteen, and his then girlfriend was killed. The crime was never solved. Nick feels certain that it's the same killer and now feels in a position to find his girlfriend's murderer but really he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near this case. I like school based fiction so rather enjoyed this one. It's very much a police procedural yarn with lots of twists and turns and dashing up and down the M5 in a Landrover! I wouldn't fancy trying to do that in the middle of summer (this was set in December). So, a very pacey story with a lot going on and I really do enjoy the 'local to me' aspect of this series.

Friday, 2 July 2021

Books read in June

I can't believe we're halfway through the year already. It's now downhill all the way to Christmas. *Ducks rotten eggs and sundry well aimed missiles*

Enough of frivolity. I seem to have read nine books in June but have no clue how that happened because it felt like I was going quite slowly. Plus, you know, 'the garden'. But there you go...

These are the books:

40. A Borrowing of Bones by Paula Munier 

41. People Missing in the Woods by Steph Young 

42. The End of the Road by Jack Cooke 

43. A Quiet Life in the Country by T.E. Kinsey

44. A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps 

45. Faring to France on a Shoe by Valerie Poore 

46. Spaceworlds: Stories of Life in the Void edited by Mike Ashley (to be reviewed)

47. Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen 

48. Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear (to be reviewed)

So that's five fiction and four non-fiction books and as usual with me it's quite a mixed bag. There's the usual travel writing, three murder mysteries, some sci-fi and some contemporary fiction. I've travelled all around the USA and the UK, been to Sicily, Northern France, and Nice in the south of France. Pretty much every book was very good, so I can't pick a favourite but I'll do a shout-out for these three:


All three of these were superb and luckily all three writers have written more books for me to enjoy. 

I'm currently reading this:

So my July reading journey begins in Ireland.Where else will I be travelling in my armchair this month I wonder? Exciting!

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Catching up on reviews

Still very behind with book reviews so this is another quick catch-up post.

First up, A Quiet Month in the Country by T.E. Kinsey. This is my 6th. book for Marg's Historical Fiction challenge.

It's 1908 and Lady Hardcastle and her maid, Florence Armstrong, have retired to the countryside. They have purportedly lived quite a colourful life: you get hints as the book goes along of them being stranded in China and having to make their way to India on their own. Anyway, they think they're moving to get a quiet life but naturally it doesn't work out that way after they find a body hanging from a tree in the woods. They get involved in the investigation and Inspector Sunderland, the officer in charge, is content to let them help solve this mystery involving murder, missing jewels, engagements and even cricket. This was a light, fun read which I enjoyed more for the banter between the two women than anything else. It's clear their relationship is not the traditional employer/maid one as they've been through an awful lot together. Lady Hardcastle is nothing if not eccentric and Florence is into martial arts so that makes the whole thing even more intriguing and I plan to read on in the series to find out more about these two women.


Next, Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen. This is my 7th. book for Marg's Historical Fiction challenge.

Isabella Waverly is witness to a road accident on the streets of London  and the  young woman involved dies as Bella tries to comfort her. In her hand the woman is holding a letter which Bella reads and sees is a letter of introduction to the kitchens of Buckingham Palace. The dead woman, Helen Barton, was about to take up a position as an under cook there. Unhappy in her own position as a cook in another household, Bella decides to become Helen and thus begins quite an adventure. It eventually  sees her in the south of France, learning the secrets of French cuisine from the head chef of Queen Victoria's custom-built hotel in Nice. It also sees her desperate to keep the secret of her real identity, that of a daughter to an aristocratic father who lost everything due to alcohol and who, penniless, had to go into service. And then one of the royal family's German relations is poisoned and things become even more complicated than they already are because Bella is now one of the suspects. This is my first book by popular author, Rhys Bowen. I found it very readable, if slightly far-fetched, but that didn't spoil my enjoyment at all. I loved the setting of the French Riviera, Queen Victoria was well drawn and all of the details of her household were as I have read from non-fiction books. I loved the descriptions of  the huge meals and how they were prepared - no expense spared! There was enough in the way of intrigue and secrets to keep me happy and all in all I enjoyed this one very much. 


Lastly a non-fiction book, Faring to France on a Shoe by Val Poore.

It's 2008 and the author, Valerie Poore and her partner, Koos, who live in Rotterdam, buy a secondhand barge. I can't remember now whether they named it the Hennie-Ha, or it was already called that, whatever... Unfortunately it turns out to be in not quite the good nick they thought and they sort of put it to one side and forget about it. Eventually the problems are fixed and in 2016 they decide on a trip, they go 'faring to France on a shoe'... 'shoe' because that's what a bystander shouted out one day as they went past, referring to the appearance of the boat. Anyway, they set out from Rotterdam, travelled across Belgium and into France heading for Cambrai, a town in the Hauts de France region of Northern France (just south of Lille). It's not an area you read much about in books that deal with France, Provence, Brittany, the Dordogne, yes, but not northern France. So it was a real pleasure to read something a bit different and I love books about people travelling on canals, so this was right up my street. Val is a super writer (I've read her Watery Ways so I knew that already) and it was sheer joy to accompany her and Koos as they meandered along so many different canals and through so many towns to reach their destination. I'm full of admiration for her can-do attitude too. She admitted to being terrified of the gaps between the barge and the sides of the locks, and the subsequent climb to the canal-side. I'm not surprised, so would I be! But she grits her teeth and gets on with it. She often found herself cycling for miles to pick up supplies and one story of how she did it in searing heat on a bike with a serial flat tyre astonished me. This a delightful read. Such gorgeous descriptions of the peace and tranquility of their journey and the cameraderie with the people they meet on the canal. And when they turned for home and she felt sad, I did too, quite bereft to be honest and that really is a sign of good writing. I look forward to reading more of Val's lovely books... in fact she has a sequel to this book, Faring Forth Again on the Shoe, newly released. I shall be reading it.

I wish I could say that brings me up to date but it doesn't. So, more soon!

Monday, 14 June 2021

Three non-fiction titles

A bout of sciatica has kept me off the internet for a few days, so I'm very behind with commenting on the blogs I normally visit. Apologies for that, hopefully I can catch up at some stage. But I'm busy reading away for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge and all of the following non-fiction books are on my list for that. 

First up, The End of the Road by Jack Cooke.

I like this quote from the book:

'Most of us live in denial of death. We practise unconscious alchemy, loath to accept our own mortality and searching for ways to prolong life in an age of modern medicine. Those already dead and buried are to be skirted around, side-stepped, wherever possible put to the back of our minds. The 'respect' we accord them is also a way of establishing distance between them and us. In spite of our common fate we dissociate ourselves.'

Author, Jack Cooke, intrigued by how divorced we are from death in our culture, decides to become a taphophile, a tomb tourist, and embarks on a journey around the UK looking at famous or unusual burial stories and graveyards. It sounds very maudlin or macabre but in actual fact it's not, it was all really rather fun and interesting. He buys a knackered old hearse and starts in Suffolk, on the east coast of England, at the drowned village of Dunwich. Cooke describes how heavy rain fell in Whitby, in Yorkshire, causing bones to fall from a clifftop graveyard, onto the houses below. (Goodness me...) Barrows are explored and then on to London and Highgate (he trespasses at night there) and Golder's Green crematorium, the oldest one in the country where Sigmund Freud, Bram Stoker and Marc Bolan have memorials. From London he moves on to Surrey, and then to Portsmouth where they have a 'tomb of the unknown sailor' from the Mary Rose wreck. He searches out Thomas Hardy's burial in Dorset and then on to Dartmoor in Devon. The plague village of Eyam in Derbyshire is covered, Alfred Wainwright in The Lake District, and then on to Scotland, finishing on Orkney. Sharing the author's journey is a spider called 'Enfield' because that's where he first noticed it in the corner of the windscreen. There's a lot more to this book of course, it's very well written and chock 'full' of interest and fascinating titbits and thus of interest to history buffs I would have thought. I really enjoyed dipping in and out and also enjoyed this quote on the back of the book:

'Perhaps the greatest single advantage of driving a hearse (and there are many) is that people are desperate to get out of your way. On open roads traffic will hang back, keeping its distance. In built-up areas, drivers disappear down side-streets to avoid any contact with my vehicle of ill omen. I drive through Hertfordshire much as Moses walked through the Red Sea, the way parting before and behind me.'


Next: People Missing in the Woods by Steph Young.

I bought this one after enjoying The Cold Vanish by  Jon Billman in April, the notion of people disappearing in the forests and mountains of such a huge country as the USA intriguing me greatly. The Cold Vanish was a much more personal book as it involved the search for a specific young man and the heartbreak involved. People Missing in the Woods had much more of a clinical approach as it charted numerous instances of unexplained disappearances. Curious for me was why so many people wander off and leave their phones in their cars. And why the rescuers so often find that the dogs can find no scent at all after about a hundred yards. And how these people sometimes turn up in already thoroughly searched areas or pretty much in the exact spot where they disappeared. About halfway through, the book turns into The X-Files, speculating about alien abductions and alternate dimensions. How come there are so many accounts of lost people who can see the people who are searching for them but the searchers can neither see or hear the lost? Wierd. And there are hot-spots: Crater Lake in Oregon, Mount Shasta, Superstition Mountain near Phoenix, all apparently centres of oddness. Do I believe all of this? Well. I'm expremely open minded about it all but I  do take it with a small pinch of salt. There is no doubt though that some things that happen have no rational explanation... and I am a reader of science-fiction and ghost stories after all. That said, this was not a great read for me. It was interesting as I love these kinds of weird books, but I felt led by the author to think one way when there might have been other, more rational explanations.

Lastly: A House in Sicily by Daphne Phelps.

The author inherits a beautiful old villa in the town of Taormina, which is at the foot of Mount Etna on Sicily, from her uncle. After an attempt to sell falls through she decides to take it on and live there. This was in the late 1940s, early 1950s. Sicily at that time was still recovering from WW2 and had also not really come into the 20th. century. Attitudes towards unmarried women working or owning property were archaic and Italian men saw foreign women like Daphne, with property, regardless of the fact that she had no money at all, as a meal-ticket to a life of wealth and riches. She fought them all off and turned Casa Cuseni into a kind of refuge for famous writers and painters to come and stay and the book is a series of vignettes about those famous people. Daphne knew authors such as Tennessee Williams, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway. But just as interesting for me were the stories about the Sicilian staff she employed and their quirks and foibles and strange attitudes. I was completely charmed by this library book, so much so that I'll probably buy my own copy.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

A Borrowing of Bones

So, who was it who blogged about this series? Lark? I think so... more than likely I think. If it was, a huge thank you!

A Borrowing of Bones by Paula Munier is my first book for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge and what a start!


Mercy Carr, at 29, is a retired MP officer from the US army. During her last tour, in Afghanistan, her fiancé was killed but before he died he entrusted her with his army dog, Elvis. Elvis is a Belgian Shepherd, trained to sniff out explosives but the war has scarred him and he too has been retired. The two return to Mercy's home state of Vermont and find an isolated cabin in the forest to lick their wounds.

Out hiking one day, Elvis disappears into the trees. When Mercy eventually tracks him down he has found a baby in the clearing - not a newborn, an older baby, clearly well looked after and healthy. Game warden, Troy Warner, is the officer sent in answer to her distress call and although neither of them are officially 'police' they end up working together to solve the mystery of the missing child and her mother. 

The relationship is not an easy one, Troy is recovering from a divorce and Mercy is still grieving her late fiancĂ©.  But things are made a lot easier because Troy has a working dog too, Susie-bear, a huge Newfoundland/retriever cross and, as dogs do, they help heal not just physical scars but mental ones too.

The case gets complicated, involving not just the lost baby but skeletons in the woods, missing artists, local bad guys, the neighbouring millionaire and so on. The official police do not want the help of people they consider to be amateurs but naturally Mercy takes no notice of that and Troy get dragged along, partly because he too can't resist a mystery but also to save Mercy from herself.  

Well, this is the first book in this series of crime novels set in Vermont. I loved it to bits. A crime series set in the wonderful forests of Vermont? How could you not love that? It helped that I have been there, only briefly, but enough to picture the setting very clearly. It's stunning but of course has the potential to shelter quite a lot of crime. That aspect of the book was excellent, I didn't guess the little twist at the end or anything about what was really going on. And this book is 'pacey' too... be prepared for a bumpy ride.

And the dogs! The dogs are wonderful and because of that it's like the book has four main characters, two humans and two dogs. It works wonderfully. Mercy and Troy are very much fully fleshed out characters and I loved Mercy's grandma, Patience, who runs a vetinary practice, loves to cook, and is very much indulging in some matchmaking. Really this is a character-driven series, which for me is the best sort. I love it when I'm really invested in the main protagonists and the author has taken the trouble to make them 'interesting', with lives, families, and plenty of warts.

Needless to say I already have book two on my Kindle, Blind Search, which, judging by the cover is a snowy, wintery centred book. 'Let joy be unconfined'.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Books read in May

It seems that May was quite a good reading month for me, number-wise anyway, nine books read. Quality-wise it was also 'good' but not amazing. That's fine, every month cannot be chock full of wonderful books, life just doesn't work like that and I'm happy with my choices for May.

31. Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac 

32. Fat Dogs and French Estates by Beth Haslam 

33. Case Histories - Kate Atkinson. I planned to review this but never did get to it. It was a pretty good private eye yarn, the first in the author's Jackson Brodie series. Complicated, lots of twists and turns. I haven't decided yet whether I'll read more.

34. Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall 

35. A Death in Calabria by Michele Giuttari. A Mafia in New York and Calabria, story. Not exactly terrible but not a series I'll be continuing with.

36. Four Cheeks to the Wind by Mary Bryant 

37. Summer in Provence by Lucy Coleman 

38. The Aberdyll Onion by Victor Canning. Charming short stories, mainly mysteries with a twist.

39. My Lemon Grove Summer by Jo Thomas

Zelda is in her late thirties and has reached a stage where she doesn't know what to do anymore. Her small retail business collapsed, she can't seem to find someone to share her life with and she has no home of her own. Her best mate, Lennie, is not much better off and the two decide to honour a pact they made at uni that if they weren't married or with someone by the age of forty, they would marry each other. Not that either of them expected to be doing it in Sicily! The mayor of a town in Sicily, dying for lack of residents, has advertised for people to come and live there. Zelda and Lennie find themselves with a motley group of Brits in an old farmhouse wondering where their renovated homes are, why the residents seem to hate them so much and if they will ever get to live the Sicilian dream. This was a fun read, undemanding, but interesting with its history of how lemons are grown all over the island and made into Lemoncello, although those are not apparently made with ordinary lemons. I enjoyed the romantic aspect, hated the villain of the piece as I was supposed to, and of course it made me want to go to Sicily even more. Oh well, one day perhaps. 

So, I realise I made a mistake by reading that last book in May because I put it on my list for the 20 Books of Summer challenge which doesn't begin until tomorrow so I'll have to change that one. Never mind.

I've done my usual travelling this month, been around the world twice with Prisoners of Geography and Four Cheeks to the Wind, spent time in France (twice), Italy (also twice), and a fair bit of time here in the UK solving mysteries. Not a bad month overall. I wonder what joys June will bring?