Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Catching up with fiction

Despite doing two reviews a day or two ago I'm still three books behind so more short reviews to come to try and catch up... fiction this time.

First, a book I've just devoured in two days, A Keeper by Graham Norton... my first book by him.

Elizabeth Keane is an Irish woman who's lived in New York for years. She's divorced with a 17 year old son, her husband having left her for another man, to go and live in San Francisco. Returning to Ireland after the death of her mother she finds the town of Buncarragh completely unchanged, reminding her of why she left in the first place. Sorting out her mother's stuff she finds some letters in the wardrobe (it's always the wardrobe!) They're from the father she never knew and suddenly Elizabeth wants to know who she is and where she comes from. I won't say any more than that about the plot because this is a book full of family secrets, probably more than I've ever come across I think. On the back of the book The Times newspaper describes the books as: Atmospheric, creepy and impossible to put down and I honestly think that sums it up nicely. Parts of it are full of a sort of creeping menace and I honestly wasn't expecting that. What I was expecting and 'got' was the grimness which often seems to come with books set in rural Ireland. Why is that I wonder? The Searcher by Tana French, which I read in July, springs to mind immediately. Anyway, the book. It's in no way the kind of light read I expected from TV personality, Graham Norton, but I could not put the thing down, it was compulsive. It twisted and turned all over the place and grim or no grim, I loved it. 

Next, Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang. This in my 9th. book for Marg's Historical Fiction 2021 challenge.

It's 1899 and Bram Stoker's Dracula has just been published. Young Tillie Pembroke, from a very wealthy New York family, has just lost her beloved older sister, Lucy. Lucy was found dead with puncture wounds on her neck but the police seem to be ignoring the crime. A bad fall from a horse has left Tillie incapacitated and addicted to laudanum but she has one advantage, she has a scientific, enquiring mind. By leaving the house at night in secret and with the help of poor, aspiring journalist, Ian, Tillie sets about investigating what happened to her sister. This was interesting in that it gave me quite an insight into the free and easy use of laudanum, morphine and heroin in the late 1800s. Knowing what we now know about its addictiveness, it's quite horrifying to watch quite honestly and you're sitting, reading, thinking, 'DON'T !!! '. That said, this is really a fun, if rather unlikely, gothicky style book with a plucky (mostly) heroine who loves science doesn't understand or observe the social mores about class distinction that existed a hundred years ago. It was a decent read and I enjoyed it.

Lastly, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove.

The premise of this is that some papers have been discovered (probably in the wardrobe) written by Dr. John Watson in which he declares that all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures he wrote about were cover-ups for a much bigger story. Which is that H.P. Lovecraft's weird tales of the Cthulhu Mythos were real and he and Holmes have been fighting that fight and not one of Victorian crime at all. This first book of a trilogy recounts how he and Holmes really met and what really happened to Watson in Afghanistan to leave him mentally scarred. A shadowy menace is now stalking Shadwell in the East End of London, there's a powerful but mysterious Chinaman involved and ultimately Holmes' and Watson's first encounter with a dangerous adversary. Without being bowled over, I liked this well enough. It's a bit of a romp around Victorian London with a load of supernatural goings on that are straight out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu world. Villains abound and Holmes and Watson are well tested. I have a feeling I'm going to like book two more, Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities, which involves events that happened in New England. The series is well written so that helps a lot and Holmes and Watson feel authentic, not as authentic as Conan-Doyle wrote them, but not that far off.

So that was quite a good selection of weird fiction for September and October reading and I've certainly not finished with the weirdness yet!

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Catching up with non-fiction

I'm so behind with reviews it's ridiculous. Four to catch up on, but this time I'll just post briefly about two very enjoyable non-fiction books.

Starting with 40 Memorable Life Experiences edited by Robert Fear.

This is pretty much as described in the title. A clutch of authors share experiences that were not necessarily life changing but which have stayed firmly in their memories for one reason or another. We all have them I'm sure. The collection is hugely eclectic and covers experiences such as the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro and getting heatstroke at -20C, looking for Leonard Cohen's island home on Hydra, a South Downs childhood, a Scottish family holidaying in Torquay, a first job in Bermuda on a fishing boat, attending your son's wedding by Skype, experiencing an earthquake in Alaska and so on. Several authors have multiple entries, Ronald Mackay speaks about running a farm in Canada, his experience of taking on a young man with special needs is incredibly touching, and Tina Mattern talks of a traumatic childhood when her father remarries. The selection is very wide reaching and I would've thought there was something for everyone here. Every offering is well written and very much from the heart I felt. And it's the sort of book you could easily dip in and out of as the mood takes you. I loved it and will be reading more of Robert Fear's collections.

Next, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

The first couple of chapters of this book really upset me. Raynor Winn and her husband, known as 'Moth', lost their farm and livelihood basically because a friend betrayed their trust and then because of a technical error they weren't aware of when the case came to court. The very next day Moth was diagnosed with something called Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD) which is, eventually, terminal. So... they're homeless and Moth is very ill and they have nowhere to go and nothing to do, and it occurs to Raynor that they should walk the South West coastal path, even though friends and family think they're mad. The book charts that long distance (630 miles) trek, their trials and tribulations, which are many, and Raynor's thoughts and concerns as they travel. I think I expected something lighter in tone and it genuinely is 'not'. It's heart-breaking in places. Most people who do these things have a home to go back to, money behind them, Raynor and Moth had neither of those things. And I really did expect more kindness from people along the way but the minute they said they were homeless most people backed away. On the other hand it's a book about what can be achieved against enormous odds, what humans can endure and move on from. And it's a book about love. It's beautiful quite frankly. On a more personal note, I live in the south west and know most of the areas they walked through so that did add to the interest for me. An amazing book and there's a sequel now, The Wild Silence, which I will get to eventually.

So that's my non-fiction reading for the last few weeks. In my next post I'll review two spooky, gothicky type autumnal reads, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadow by James Lovegrove and Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

A long weekend in Cornwall

We had our first holiday away from home since the start of lockdown a week or so ago. It was only a long weekend in Penzance but we fitted in a quite a lot, seeing relatives and getting out into the countryside a little. So while I ought to be doing book reviews, instead you're getting a few pics of Penzance and West Penwith in the late September autumn sunshine. 

First up, the sunrise from our hotel room on the first morning. This is looking over Mount's Bay.

Next, a couple of pics of the bay in proper daylight showing the iconic Penzance lido and the sun shining nicely on St. Michael's Mount. I'm a bit smitten with colours in these two.

Next, a walk at a village called Zennor. The church first. Apparently it's called St. Senara, thought to be 1,400 years old but rebuilt in the 12th. century. A carving on one of the pew ends depicts the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor.

Walking the path to the headland next.

And last but not least, the view from the National Trust carpark we stopped at for coffee. It's Cape Cornwall of course, a place we always have to visit whenever we're in my home county.

So there you go, hopefully you enjoyed your quick trip to Cornwall.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Books read in September

With just six books read for September it sounds like I've had quite a slow reading month. Except that it doesn't feel like that, probably because one of the books was over 600 pages long and the two non-fiction books I read took me a while to get through. Anyway, these are the books:

63. The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain 

64. A Talent to Amuse by Sheridan Morley 

65. Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth 

66. The Collected Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson. He's best known now for Mapp and Lucia but I gather in his day it was his ghost stories he was famous for. I'm not surprised. It was wonderful to reread his output, so brilliantly imaginative and beautifully written. One of my favourite ghostly collections - an especially good creepy read for Autumn. Highly recommend. 

67. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadow by James Lovegrove (to be reviewed but a fun romp.)

68. 40 Memorable Life Experiences edited by Robert Fear (to be reviewed, very good.)

So, four fiction and two non fiction.  Apart from the two non-fictions I was mainly based in the UK last month which is very odd for me! But the two non-fictions, Noel Coward's biography and 40 Memorable Life Experiences took me all over the world. I prefer to travel a bit with my fiction too though so hopefully I can arrange that a bit better this month. 

So what's for October? I'm not sure is the answer to that.

I started a reread of this:

But it's not grabbing me and I can't remember whether it took a while to get going last time I read it (2007 apparently). At the moment all the drug taking is irritating me so I fancy I may put that aside for the time being, or read it slowly in dribs and drabs when the mood strikes.

Perhaps something else from this pile as I've only read one so far.

I'm pretty sure I'm going to start The Salt Path next and I want to read The Moth and the Mountain too. I also really want to reread The Historian this month. We'll see. But I love October so hopefully it will be chock full of good books!

Happy Autumn!

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Two short reviews

Two books to review briefly today, starting with A Talent to Amuse by Sheridan Morley.

This, as will be seen from the cover, is a biography of Noel Coward, the playwright, actor, song-writer and writer. He was born in 1899 (it's funny, I never think of him as Victorian) to a middle-class family who were not well off. He performed in school concerts and holiday competitions and knew from a very early age that he would be going into into the theatre and knew too that he would be famous. His first paid job was at the age of eleven and it was soon obvious that not only did he have a natural gift for music, he was also grimly determined to make it in the business. Which of course he did and was responsible for some of the most famous plays in the history of the British theatre, Blithe Spirit, Private Lives, Hay Fever, but he also wrote or starred in some iconic films, In Which We Serve, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit again, and The Italian Job. Not to mention songs such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington and London Pride. This was a free book from Dean Street Press. Every week they advertise a free book on Twitter and the link takes you to Amazon where you can download it to your Kindle. (The link to their Twitter page is HERE.) Anyway, this was a very enjoyable read. It's made plain from the start that it's a theatre based biography, not a warts and all exposé. The author knew Coward and Coward asked him not to discuss his homosexuality in the book because 'there were still a few very old ladies out there who did not realise'. As such it is very much about his work rather than his personal life, although it does not altogether neglect that either. I found the ups and downs of Coward's working life quite surprising. He had a lot of failures amongst his huge successes and at times was quite unpopular in the British press. Some of his plays were thought to be solacious or immoral, dealing as they did with the reality of marriage and affairs. Noel Coward's life is a 'huge' subject and I would definitely like to read more. Possibly his diaries and letters would prove very interesting, he was also an habitual traveller, often travelling with the Royal Navy, and I would love to hear more about that. A good introduction to the man though.


Lastly, Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, which I first read about on Tracy's blog.

This is the first book in the author's 'Miss Silver' series of books, written in 1928. Charles Moray is returning to London after a four year absence. He's been travelling the world trying to recover from being jilted by his fiance, Margaret Langton. She gave no explanation and Charles assumed there was someone else and that by now she is married with children. It comes as a shock to discover she's not and  that she's mixed up in some very funny business. Looking around his empty house one night, prior to moving back in, he realises someone is upstairs. Hiding in a cupboard, he overhears what is clearly a gang planning something criminal, and in walks Margaret. She's only there for a few minutes and he can't hear what's said but it changes everything for him. Margaret meanwhile has picked up a young women in distress off the street. Empty headed, Margot Standing, is in fear for her life and Charles and Margaret end up trying to help her. Realising he's out of his depth and not willing to go to the police because of Margaret's secret involvement in criminal activities, Charles enlists the help of Miss Silver, a private detective of mature years, to help them with these knotty problems. This was great fun, reminding me a little of a couple of Agatha Christie's standalones, such as The Man in the Brown Suit. Miss Silver is not at all centre stage, it's more about this group of young people trying to get out of the tangled web they've woven for themselves. I'm assuming that in subsequent books Miss Silver is more to the fore. The character of Margot Standing was pretty annoying if I'm honest, but then I suspect she was meant to be. The writing, as you'd expect from someone beginning her writing career in the 1920s, was superb, they knew how to write back then. It's interesting to note that Patricia Wentworth didn't stop writing until her death in 1961, she was 83, and was incredibly prolific. I shall certainly try another of her books, in fact I have another free book from Dean Street Press again, The Red Lacquer Case, and I'll check out what the library has as well.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle - Matt Cain


Albert Entwistle has been a postman in the northern town of Toddington for most of his life. He's now 64 and since his bullying mother died he's lived on his own with his beloved cat, Gracie. Albert keeps himself to himself, the other postmen and women, though friendly, hardly seem to notice him and Albert likes it that way. In fact, he encourages it. A lot of effort is put into making sure that people ignore him because Albert is keeping a huge secret.

Things would doubtless have continued in this manner but for two things. Albert forgets that 65 is looming and that means the Post Office will retire him... and they do. And no more than a few days later his beloved Gracie dies peacefully in her sleep. Misery consumes him. He thinks back to the only time in his life that he was truly happy.

Aged 16 and in his final year, a new boy arrives at Albert's school.

 'George Atkinson. That's the new boy's name.

  He's tall and slim, with delicate features and hair that when it catches the light looks like burnt gold and reminds Albert of the grass on the moors in winter. But it's his eyes that are most striking; eyes that are such an intense shade of blue they border on violet. Albert finds it difficult to take his eyes off them.'

Of course, Albert already knew he was different to the other boys, knew how important it was that his friends not notice he had no interest in the girls they pursued with such singlemindedness. Not just because he would be bullied mercilessly if they knew but also because his father was a policeman and back in the sixties and seventies, homosexuality was a crime, punishable with a prison sentence. 

Lost after the death of Gracie, Albert wanders into his mother's old room. It hasn't change since she died, because he hasn't been able to bring himself to touch it. He finds himself looking among her things and there's a box in the wardrobe. Inside, little precious things she had kept and amongst them, a photo of Albert with George Atkinson.

So this was one of those fortuitous, random grabs from the library.What with Covid and lockdowns I'd almost forgotten what it was like to grab a random book but this one was on a table amongst other newish arrivals and I was taken by its bright cover. Looking inside and reading the blurb, I was intrigued and brought it home. 

It's quite a sad book in many ways. The manner in which Albert keeps the world at bay, how frightened he is when anyone speaks to him or he has to make an effort to be sociable or nice, even to the point of only exchanging a few words with a lonely old lady on his round and then scarpering. 'But' things change and change rapidly and it's delightful to see how Albert blossoms and what makes him do it and how people react to the massive change in him. 

The quest he embarks on is joyous to read about. There's a bit of a double timeline, mostly it's present day but we also read about what happened with Albert and George (not at all in an explicit manner) and to be honest it just makes you grieve for all the men and women this has happened to throughout the years. The intolerance was appalling and still hasn't completely gone away although things are now 'much' better. 

A delightful read, well written, the author, Matt Cain, is himself gay I believe so knows of what he speaks. The characters just jump off the page at you and Albert especially is wonderful. Definitely a book about daring to be who you really are. Loved it.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

The 20 Books of Summer challenge

So this was my first attempt at the  20 Books of Summer challenge which was being hosted by 746 Books. It officially finished on the 1st. September lasting for 3 months from the 1st. June.

These were the 20 books I chose:

1. Persuasion - Jane Austen

2. The Shell Seekers - Rosamunde Pilcher

3. Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

4. The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes

5. The Book Collectors of Daraya - Delphine Minoui

6. Sicilian Carousel - Lawrence Durrell

7. The Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay

8. The End of the Road - Jack Cooke

9. Wanderers - Keri Andrews

10. Spaceworlds - edited by Mike Ashley

11. Faring to France on a Shoe - Val Poore

12. A Borrowing of Bones - Paula Munnier

13. The Mauritius Command - Patrick O'Brian

14. A Quiet Life in the Country - T.E. Kinsey

15. One Summer in Crete - Nadia Marks

16. The Other Bennet Sister - Janice Hadlow

17. Through Siberia by Accident - Dervla Murphy

18. People Missing in the Woods - Steph Young

19. A Dangerous Place - Jacqueline Winspear

20. A House in Sicily - Daphne Phelps

Well, I certainly didn't manage to read all of the 20 books! I managed 12, which isn't terrible but neither is it amazing. Next year if I do this again I'll probably aim for 10 or 15 and spend a little more time choosing the books. I changed several of them for one reason or another so next time I would be more precise.

I wanted to travel around the world with the books I read, and did, so that's good. Places visited include, France, Sicily, Vermont and other parts of the USA, the Indian Ocean, Crete, Siberia, Gibralter, and a tour of the UK. 

Anyway, great fun and think I would definitely have another go at this one.