Read-warbler

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Catching up a bit

As usual I'm waaay behind with reviews, four to be precise, so I'm going to do a quick run-down of three of the books I've been reading since the beginning of the month.

First up, Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac.

Author, Bruce Attleton, has disappeared. His wife and friends all thought he was on a trip to Paris but at a recent dinner party they had all been discussing how you would get rid of a murdered body and two of his friends become concerned enough at his lack of communication to investigate. The police, in the form of Chief Inspector MacDonald,  are called in but they struggle to get anywhere at first. It turns out there's blackmail involved, not to mention infidelity, mad artists, impersonation... and an old, rambling house, 'The Belfry' in London's Notting Hill. It's quite complicated to be honest and I struggled a bit, not only to keep up with the intricacies of the plot, but to remember who was who, and what relation they bore to everyone else and what was going on. Nevertheless I enjoyed it a lot (no harm in giving an addled brain a good workout) because E.C.R. Lorac's writing is never anything less than superb and I will read anything at all written by her. I wondered if this book was the origin of the term, 'Bats in the Belfry', meaning mad or eccentric, but apparently not, it's thought that that term originated in America at the beginning of the 20th. century.

Next, Fat Dogs and French Estates, a non-fiction book, by Beth Haslam.

The author, Beth Haslam, and her husband, Jack, decide to retire to France. They enjoy shooting game and want to buy a house with land, including plenty of woodland, so they can start a shooting business. Sounds pretty straightforward? Er... no. It seems Estate Agents are the same the world over... you tell them what you want and they try to bamboozle you into thinking something entirely the opposite is precisely what you asked for. Beth lines up lots of viewings and her and husband and the two dogs, Biff and Sam, set off on a very long road-trip. Their experiences are catalogued in this, part one, of what is, I think, a four book series telling of their adventures in France. I loved it. Partly because some of their journey was familiar to me from our own trips to France but also it's beautifully written in a very funny, self-deprecating manner and the dogs are as much a star of the show as the humans. Plus, the eccentricities of the owners of the houses they view are beyond belief at times, and the estate agents are not far behind. I will definitely be reading on in this series. 

 

Lastly, Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, another non-fiction.

Geography was probably my favourite subject at school, apart from possibly Maths, so this one was a bit of a must-get for me when I spotted it on Goodreads. It concerns Geopolitics, which looks at the way international affairs can be viewed and understood through geographical factors. It stands to reason really, except that I'd never given it much thought until I read Krakatoa by Simon Winchester wherein he discusses that quite a lot. Tim Marshall considers the history and politics of various areas of the globe from the point of view of their rivers, mountains, seas, plains and so on: Russia, China, The USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, The Arctic, Korea and Japan and Latin America. The most interesting for me was The Arctic - with the ice rapidly disappearing who's going to lay claim to the waters? Answer, probably Russia and of course there's absolutely 'no' potential for conflict there! I appreciated the author's attempt to explain The Middle East and its divisions and wars, because I gather even experts have trouble with that. Really the author made me think about things that I never had before, or more about things I was only vaguely aware of. Some of it was scary, especially when discussing the potential for conflict just about 'everywhere'. It made me wonder how there are any humans left on the planet, let alone 7 billion of us. An interesting read. The author states, 'Geography has always been a prison', and I understand now what that means.

So, four down, one to go. I shall do a longer review of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson I think. Interesting book.


Friday, 30 April 2021

Books read in April

I've just studied my list of April books and something really rather startling has happened: I read no crime fiction whatsoever! So once I picked myself up off the floor, sat down again and thought about it... well nothing really, I still don't what happened! How bizarre.

Anyway, seven books read this month and these are they:

24. HMS Surprise by  Patrick O'Brian

25. The Platform Edge - supernatural stories edited by Mike Ashley 

26. The Volcano, Montserrat and Me by Lally Brown 

27. The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman 

28. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. A well written book about a woman who keeps getting new chances to relive her life in order to get it right. At least I think that was what it was about. I found it confusing and ultimately did not get it at all. But there you go, win some, lose some.

29. Mr Finchley Discovers His England by Victor Canning. A charming book written and set in the 1930s. It's about a middle aged man, a bit set in his ways, who gets an unexpected walking holiday, travelling from London to the south west of England and who has many bizarre adventures. It reads a little like a series of short stories. Definitely a 'discovering yourself' sort of book and very enjoyable.

30. The Villa by Rosanna Ley 

So what have we got? Two non-fictions, five fictions. Four of the books really stood out, HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian, The Volcano, Montserrat and Me by Lally Brown, The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman and The Villa by Rosanna Ley.

I've pretty much frolicked and cavorted all around the world... crossed the Atlantic, and rounded The Cape of Good Hope to India with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, spent time with an erupting volcano on Monserrat in the Carribean, been all around the National Parks of the western USA, then all around the SW of England with Mr. Finchley and then,  finally, off to Sicily for my hols. What a journey! I've loved every minute and wish I could personally thank the authors concerned for their efforts on my behalf. 

So what about May? Well, here're a few books I might have a go at but the trouble is I make pile like this, admire them for a day or two and then... read off my Kindle. Out of the seven books I read in April, six were Kindle reads. What to do about this? I don't know really but I will try to read a few of these. (Click for a much clearer view.)

It will be noticed that I've included several crime fiction reads for this month. I doubt all of that non-fiction on the right will be read but I'd like to read one of the two historical fictions on the lefthand pile, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan or One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus. We'll see.

Happy May reading!

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

The Villa by Rosanna Ley

The Villa by Rosanna Ley was one of those 99p, spur of the moment, Kindle grabs that I suspect quite a few people have indulged in over the last year or so. Sicily was the draw for me, I must admit, having become addicted to Inspector Montalbano and, to a slightly lesser extent, Young Montalbano, on BBC iPlayer and fallen for the Sicilian scenery and architecture, a book set there was an absolute no brainer.

 

 

The plot of this book is centred around three women.

Flavia: A seventeen year old young woman living with her parents on the island of Sicily during WW2. It's a claustrobic existence, girls are not free to do as they please, controlled by their fathers mainly, even to the extent of telling them who they're going to marry. But Flavia is different, she wants another kind of life and when she discovers a young British airman in the wreckage of a glider she senses another world to which she can aspire.

Tess: Flavia's daughter is in her late thirties. She has a good job in England but has just been passed over for a promotion which she feels she should've got. Mother of a teenage daughter, just spreading her wings, Tess feels she's at a crossroads and gives in her notice at work. When news comes that she's inherited a villa on the island of Sicily from a man she doesn't know, Tess's astonishment turns to 'what if...' but there's a snag: her mother is vehemently against her going to Sicily to solve this mystery.

Ginny: Tess's eighteen year old daughter is just taking her A levels. It's assumed she will then go on to uni as she's clever but this is not at all what she wants. Her father disappeared before she was born, leaving her mother, Tess, to bring her up on her own. The two have always been very close but that's changing as Ginny grows up, discovers boys, keeps secrets.

So Tess, does go off to Sicily, naturally. And Things Transpire. She discovers a long-standing family feud, tackles a years old mystery and realises that she is entitled to a life of her own but... what about the ties of history? Sicily is not called a 'dark island' for nothing, something her mother, Flavia, knows only too well.

Sometimes these 99p random grabs turn out to be little gems and so it was with The Villa. Yes, it is a light read, there are elements of romance and holidayitus, but there's also a lot of history, a whole culture to discover, strong depictions of the life problems we all encounter along the way. I liked reading about the cuisine of Sicily via Flavia's writings, I loved the secluded little coastal town where the villa is, and there was good depth of characterisation, the people were not cardboard cutouts, they felt very real and so did their problems. 

Rosanna Ley is a new author ro me but she's written a whole clutch of books set all over Europe and further afield. I realise I do actually have another hers on my Kindle, (anyone else got no clue what's lurking on there?) The Saffron Trail, set in Morocco. Very intrigued by that so will get to it soon. 

 

Thursday, 22 April 2021

The Cold Vanish

I first read about The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman HERE on Lark's blog. I always pay special attention to the books Lark reads because I know how similar our tastes seem to be and I was very glad I did this time.



 

So this is a book which I believe is fairly popular in the USA at the moment and which, needless to say, I had never heard of. (Quick pause for a shout out to my American blogging friends who frequently introduce me to books I would otherwise never come across. Thank you!)  But the moment I read Lark's review I knew it was a book I would find fascinating.

The book centres around the disappearance of Jacob Gray, a cyclist, young, very fit, who disappeared off the face of the Earth in April, 2017. He'd started a long-distance cycling trip across America  to Vermont in the Olympic National Park in Washington State but his bike was found by the side of the Sol Duc river, in said park, no sign of Jacob anywhere. The river was the first suspicion, that he'd gone for water, fallen in and drowned. Jacob was an excellent swimmer and experienced surfer but they searched the river anyway. No sign. The subsequent official search was not as stringent as it should've been, experts not called in, one set of officials not talking to another and so on. Jacob's father, Randy, ended up taking on the job of searching for his son and the author of this book, Jon Billman, joined him to help.

"People don't take trips, trips take people." -- Amelia Earhart 

What follows is an extraordinary account, not only of their search, which takes them all over the west coast and further, but of scores of other people who have also gone missing without trace. It turns out no one is keeping a database of the number people who go missing in the wild. Cities yes, but not wild places. And their number is legion. It seems cyclists don't go missing very often, possibly because they keep more to the trails. Runners, walkers, older people, small children are most likely to disappear and many of them are never found.

And this of course sparks all kinds of supernatural, X-Files type theories. Abducted by aliens, taken by Bigfoot, cults, Hell's Angels, sex traffickers, crossed via a portal to another dimension, you name it. I was fascinated by the Bigfoot people who have a huge presence in the area and whose story features quite a lot because they're welcoming and helpful to Randy and Jon. Lots of people apparently disappear on the 37th parallel, known as the USA's UFO hotspot. Mount Shasta is apparently well known for strange, mystical experiences and disappearances. Of course, having been a big X-Files fan I lapped all this up, with a pinch of salt of course, but it really is absolutely rivetting. 

As were the many stories included in the book of others who have gone missing. Some are found, or just simply turn up - often at almost the exact spot they were last seen, some are found perished in forests, on mountains, in rivers, years later, but many more are, tragically, never found at all. 

This was a compelling, 'can't put it down' book for me. The desperate search for Jacob by his father is heart-breaking, you want to weep for him. But it is also an absolutely fascinating and sobering read about the dangers of wandering off the path in America's National Parks, they are 'massive' and if you get caught out your chances are not high, even for experts in survival techniques. This one will definitely feature in my favourite non-fiction books at the end of the year, no contest.

 

Monday, 19 April 2021

What I've been reading so far in April

I've been reading pretty much all month but not reviewing it seems. Time for a quick catch-up.

We'll start with HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian, which is book three in his Aubrey/Maturin series.

I love the covers on these books, they're by artist, Geoff Hunt and his website is well worth a look. This instalment sees Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin sent to India and the South Seas to deliver an Envoy and protect The East India Trading Company's ships. They go by way of South America and then cross the Atlantic to round Cape Horn. Amazing descriptions of the storms they encounter follow. At one stage Stephen is stranded on a desert island for days and barely survives. He gets involved in a dual later in the book and ends up operating on himself. Jack is still hoping to marry his Sophie and Stephen comes across Diana Villiers again in India. And there's a death which was incredibly sad. So much happening in this one with the friendship between the two men now very strong. I love the deep understanding of human nature Stephen has and Jack's total obliviousness to what's going on in anyone's head. These books are a joy and I'm hooked and starting to understand why O'Brian is known as the Jane Austen of the sea. 

 

The Platform Edge: Uncanny Tales of the Railways edited by Mike Ashley is another of the British Library's 'weird tales' volumes which somehow found its way onto my Kindle. *Cough* I'm quite keen on railway based fiction (and non-fiction come to that) so this was a must read for me. Sadly, although it was OK, it was not a brilliant collection. Out of 12 stories I marked 5 as being good, although the writing of every one was excellent. Oddly enough, the one story that wasn't supernatural, The Tragedy in the Train by Huan Lee, and was a sort of locked room crime yarn, was one of my favourites. Other favourites: The Underground People by Rosemary Timperley, a rather disturbing 'zombie' type story, A Romance of the Piccadilly Tube by T.G. Jackson was a 'father cutting a profligate son out of the will' tale, and A Ghost on the Train by Dinah Castle was a 'see that old woman in the corner, she's a ghost' kind of story. I liked the fact that many of the authors in the anthology were unknown to me and thus had something to offer that was not familiar.
 

Lastly, The Volcano, Montserrat and Me by Lally Brown, is a non-fiction account of the author's three year stay on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. Lally's husband was posted there as part of a government contract and she, of course, went with him. Almost as soon as they arrive the local volcano starts to act up and it's not long before things get very hairy indeed. I enjoyed reading all about local customs, colourful characters and life on Montserrat as I haven't read an awful lot of books based on Caribbean islands. It sounded idyllic and how cruel that a natural catastrophe should rob the 10,000 inhabitants of their way of life. Descriptions of eruptions... and there were many... were absolutely terrifying, I've no idea how Lally stood it, but completely understand why she and her husband stayed. If you can help, you must, but goodness me, what a test of endurance and I'm so full of admiration for the couple. If you have any interest in volcanoes and how they behave, as I have in an amateurish sort of way, then this would be an excellent book to read. It's astonishing to be quite frank, her descriptions of what happens when a volcano errupts and the bombardment starts are mind-blowing. I will be reading more by Lally Brown and already have her High and Dry in the BVI (British Virgin Islands) on my Kindle. Can't wait.

I've also just finished this:


The Cold Vanish by Jon Billman, about people who go missing without trace in American National Parks, was an absolutely compelling, 'can't put it down', read which I'll review in due course.

And this one I'm two thirds of the way through:


Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is another compelling read but is driving me a bit bonkers to be honest. More about that later too.

I hope your April reading is going well?

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

My reading challenges update

The first three months of the year are now behind us so I thought I would do an update on how my reading challenges are going. I'm only doing two this year, unusual for me to not to be doing half a dozen, although I have cut down a bit over the past couple of years and, to be honest, feel much the better for it.

First up the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021 which is  being hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader and Baker.

 

I signed up for the 'Victorian Reader' level which is to read 5 books by the end of December. So far I've read 4 of the 5. These are they:

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

2. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian 

3. Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce

4. The Abominable by Dan Simmons

It looks like I'll have to up my level to 10 books, I must admit I did wonder if I was aiming a bit low. Also I perhaps need to head back a bit further in history, 3 of my 4 books are early 20th. century and although they're still classified as 'Historical' I did plan to go back a lot further than that when I first signed up. I am pleased however that each of the books I've read so far has taught me something about the time period in which it's set... which after all is the point of the exercise.


The other challenge I'm doing this year is, Book Bingo 2021 which is being hosted by  Unruly Reader.

This is the Bingo 'card' to work from:

The idea is to form a line or go for broke and read a book from every category. I'm just reading books and seeing how it turns out. LOL

Books read so far:

SURVIVAL: Into the Planet by Jill Heinerth 

RESTORATION: Krakatoa by Simon Winchester 

IMMIGRANT: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 

BREEZY: Gardens of Delight by Erica James 

QUEST: Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce 

TRIUMPH: The Abominable by Dan Simmons 

RABBIT HOLE: Emma by Jane Austen (This category covers, 'A book you fall into, or a book that inspires you to read related books'. I felt that Emma was both of those.)

So, 7 books read and not a bad start I feel. In fact, I'm only 2 short of a Bingo! on the righthand side but I shall plough on as I'm having too much fun to stop. 

So that's my challenge progress so far this year. Going pretty well I think and the main thing is I'm not stressed by either of them and they're 'fun'.


Friday, 2 April 2021

Books read in March

I can't believe another Easter is already upon us, it only seems like five minutes since Christmas! Lockdown is easing in the UK but our Easter will still be a quiet one, not least because they're forecasting wintery showers. Daffs and primroses in the garden, magnolias and camelias are everywhere magnificent, the blossom on the greengage tree is so pretty ... and it might snow. Only in the UK.

Anyway. March was an excellent reading month for me. I read eight books and these are they:

16. Brat Farrar - Josephine Tey 

17. Post Captain - Patrick O'Brian 

18. Diamonds and Dust - Carol Hedges 

19. Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert 

20. Heavy Weather an antholgy edited by Kevan Manwaring 

21. A Time to be in Earnest - P.D. James 

22. The Abominable - Dan Simmons 

23. Emma - Jane Austen (to be reviewed)

So, eight books - seven fiction and only one non-fiction. A motley mix, three murder mysteries, two historicals, a collection of weird short stories, a classic, and an autobiographical work. And they were all good. I don't know what's happened but I seem to be enjoying every book I pick up this year. Whether this is pure 'luck' or whether my skill at choosing books I will enjoy has been honed to the point where I'm now rarely mistaken, I'm not sure. I do know that I will now happily abandon books if I'm 30 or 40 pages in and not enjoying it, but even that has not happened a lot lately. Oh well, one of life's little mysteries.

A favourite books from the eight is hard because they were all so good and I would recommend any of the them to the right reader. But I think this just had a 'very' slight edge on the rest:

 


Emma really took me surprise. I knew that I liked the book but I had no idea that a third read of it would be quite so enjoyable... to the point where I just couldn't put the thing down. I have a couple more Austen  rereads coming up over the next few months, probably but not definitely starting with Persuasion.

Happy Easter to the lovely people who visit my blog, and especially to those who take the time to leave a lovely comment or two. It is so appreciated. And not only 'Happy Easter' but 'Happy Reading' too.