Thursday 29 November 2007

Castaways of the Flying Dutchman

This YA book is the second of my books for the Seafaring Challenge I'm participating in. It's Castaways of the Flying Dutchman by Brian Jacques.

Brian Jacques is the fairly well known author of the Redwall series of books for children. I thought 'Castaways' was a stand alone but checking Amazon I see there are a couple of others so it would seem to be a newish series. Anyway, I have read the first Redwall book and found it to be *okay*, nothing more. Truthfully, the same things which irritated me about that book, irritated me about this one.

The story concerns a young boy who, running away from an abusive family in Denmark, in 1620, finds himself aboard The Flying Dutchman. There follows a fifty page account of his time on the ship, abused by one and all, but managing to make his way as the ship's cook. Before long the ship is wrecked off the coast of Tierra del Fuego and something happens to the boy and his dog. He then spends a period of time with a shepherd before moving on. Next thing you know it's England, 1896, and the boy, Ben, and his dog, Ned, wash up in a small village that's being threatened by a tyrant who plans to raze the village to the ground and build a huge cement works. It's their job to do something about this, aided and abetted by various new friends.

I keep having to remind myself that Jacques writes for children, not adults, so I probably shouldn't be too harsh. It's just that, as an adult, I can't stand his writing. Other children's authors don't annoy me the way he does, so what's the problem? Well, I find his writing insultingly simplistic and bland. Everyone is stereotypical - good or bad, kind or evil, nothing in between. Plus, people simply don't speak to each other the way they do in his books! And I lost count of the number of times I was informed that Ben was 'towheaded' with unruly hair. I just think children deserve better than this. That said, I believe his Redwall series is extremely popular so who am to judge? On the plus side - I did quite enjoy the seafaring bit of the book, it's just a shame that I was hoping for more and didn't get it. I really won't be reading any more books by Brian Jacques.

Monday 26 November 2007

Still Life

I'm reading quite a lot at the moment, partly due to life becoming ever so slightly less busy but also to the fact that I'm still ill with the same cold bug I've had for about a month now. So I've been curling up in front of the fire with a book whenever possible. I love this time of year, autumn and winter are two seasons I really enjoy, but goodness how I hate the winter ills. There's a reason for them of course - in a word: grandchildren. What they get, you get. First it was the grand-daughter, but now that she's seven and seems to catch less her place has been taken by the grandson who generously shares all that he picks up during his two days at nursery. LOL. Ah well, this too shall pass.

Anyway, my latest read is one of the library books I trekked all over the county to find. It's Still Life by Louise Penny. I saw this recommended by Kay at My Random Acts of Reading and, even though I'm not really a keen reader of crime fiction, for some reason it appealed.

A little about the book. It's set in a small village in southern Quebec. Jane Neal is found dead in the forest on Thanksgiving morning; she's been shot by an arrow. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team are brought in to investigate and it proves a difficult case. Jane was an elderly resident, retired school teacher and part of a very close knit group of friends. It soon becomes clear that the murderer has to be someone local, a friend therefore. Secrets begin to emerge, as they are wont to do, and Gamache has his work cut out to sort out the facts and solve the mystery.

This was such a good read. When I was a teenager I had this thing about wanting to emigrate to Canada. I never did of course but books about Canada have ever since held a special fascination for me. I had a very real sense of place from this book. The author made me feel as though I were really in Three Pines in the autumn and that's very skillful in my opinion. As to the plot, well, I didn't guess whodunit, I was quite wrong. LOL. I very much enjoyed the character of Armand Gamache and got close to all the other characters in the village; I even felt I knew the dead woman very well. And there were unusual things about the book which I won't go into but which all added to my enjoyment. Thank you to Kay for blogging about this book, I definitely plan to read the two other in the series as soon as can get hold of them.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

The House of Mirth

My first novel by Edith Wharton. I'm not sure if The House of Mirth is a good place to start with this author but that was all the library had so that was where I started.

I'd decided to read this slowly and savour it because sometimes I read books far too quickly and can hardly remember anything about them a few weeks later. Sadly, the book had other ideas. I got so wrapped up in the dramas of Lily Bart's life that I ended up not being able to put it down.

Briefly, this is a book about a girl, orphaned at nineteen, after her father has lost all his money. Up to then she's been used to the best of everything and moved among the higher echelons of society. The setting is turn of the century New York. Almost penniless she goes to live with a rich but boring aunt who allows her some money but not enough to keep Lily in the style to which she's become accustomed. She gets into debt. Being a very beautiful woman the obvious answer is to marry a rich man and she isn't short of offers, but always falls at the last hurdle, whether from integrity or stupidity isn't clear. She makes some grave mistakes and because the majority of her rich friends are shallow and selfish, she pays for them, even though the mistakes are not always entirely her fault. And it's also clear that one particular 'friend' has got it in for her and is setting her up for a fall...

I won't say any more as there are twists and turns that would spoil it for others. I will say that this is not a particularly 'happy' read - quite frustrating at times in fact - but it is compulsive reading. You feel that Lily is on some roller-coaster ride and is about to fall off if she's not careful, (and she isn't!) I suppose the story is a warning to all about the dangers of mixing in high society; the rich are rich for a reason and it's isn't usually much to do with being kind and charitable. For me though it was more about the nature of friendship - why it is that some people have a need to be accepted by the worst kind of people? When push comes to shove who can you 'really' rely on to help you when you're down and out? Fascinating stuff and I thoroughly enjoyed this very readable but quite sad book.

I will definitely be reading more Edith Wharton but am not sure what. It depends on what the library turns up or what I can see in charity shops. The Buccaneers and The Children appeal but I really need to do some investigating about her other novels first.

Saturday 17 November 2007

A meme and bits and pieces

I nabbed this meme from Tara and Nan and my quote is from The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

Open up the book you’re currently reading to page 161 and read the sixth sentence on the page, then think of 5 bloggers to tag.

"If only she could reach there before this labouring anguish burst from her breast to her lips - if only she could feel the hold of Gerty's arms while she shook in the ague-fit of fear that was coming upon her!"

No idea what that's about as I'm only on page 95. I'm really enjoying this excursion into the novels of Edith Wharton though. I've read quite a few of her ghost stories and liked them a lot, but no novels. People seem to hold her in such high regard that I thought it was time I tried something a bit longer. There are others I know but The House of Mirth was what the library had so The House of Mirth it was. No tagging, btw, if you would like to do this meme then please do.

By and large my reading of classic American authors is really poor and, along with all my other 2008 reading plans, I really ought to do something about that. Are there any particular authors I should read? But please don't say 'Fennimore Cooper'. I will never forget trying to read The Deerslayer...


I had my first item of spam in the comments to my last post. It's never happened before and it may never happen again but I'll watch the situation and if it does I'll start using the word moderation thing. I didn't plan to but needs must. I do wish these people would find something better to do. Like READ!


By and large I've been pretty good at not buying any new books for a while. I have so much on my tbr pile that it seemed wasteful to be continually buying new ones. Well, not wasteful, buying books is an investment in education and enjoyment, imo, so wasteful is the wrong word. Whatever, I thought I would try to ease off for a few weeks and concentrate on the books I have and the library pile. Amelia Peabody threw me though. I loved the first book about her Egyptian adventures so much that I couldn't resist getting some more. I already owned three, #1, #4 and #9 so I filled in a few gaps and bought #2, 3 and 5. so those should keep me going for a while. I adore the covers on these books so much. They remind me of the ones for the UK editions of Alexander McCall Smith's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency series but I've no idea if they're by the same artist. 'Vibrant' is the word I would use to describe them:

Hmm. I was hoping if was clever they'd come out in a horizontal line rather than a vertical one. I don't think computer technology is ever going to be my 'thing'. LOL.

Hope everyone is having a good weekend. I'm away to light the fire and sit by it with The House of Mirth.

Thursday 15 November 2007

Two short books

Reading is proving a bit difficult at the moment as I have conjunctivitis. So I've stuck to casual reading this last week - a *very* short little book and a book of short stories.

First up Address Unknown by Kressman Taylor. This short work of fiction was apparently written in 1938 for a magazine and then published as a book. It concerns two friends and partners in an art gallery. One is an American Jew who lives in San Francisco, the other a German who moves back to Germany in 1932. The two correspond. At first the letters are just family greetings and news. Then the American, Max, starts to ask questions about Hitler and events in Germany. He's not easy about it - he has a sister working in Vienna etc. His friend, Martin, at first reassures him but gradually the letters take a more sinister turn. I won't say any more about the plot but this little book packs a real punch and I found it very disturbing. It only took me 45 minutes to read so I would say get it from the library if the subject interests you.

I found this cheap little Wordsworth Classic paperback a few months ago and couldn't resist it as it includes several authors I've not tried before and I thought it would be a good way to see what I thought of their writing. The stories are by authors such as Dickens, Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Guy de Maupassant, Mrs. Gaskell, Anton Chekov and so on.

I definitely had favourites though really they were all good. Several, like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Judge's House by Bram Stoker and the Sherlock Holmes yarn, The Red-Headed League, I'd read before but it was nice to reacquaint myself with them.

A little about two of my favourites:

The Squire's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell. This one concerns the arrival of a certain Mr. Higgins in a small village and charts his progress as he buys a house and settles down to marry. Slowly you realise there is something not quite right about the gentleman but there is only one woman who realises it. Beautifully written and very absorbing. I own and have read a couple of short story selections by the author but not read any novels. I must put that right but can't decide whether to read Cranford *before* it comes on the TV or after...

The Journey to Panama by Anthony Trollope. Shamefully I've read nothing by Trollope so this little story was an introduction to his writing for me. The story is a simple one about a young woman who is sailing from England to the West Indies and on through the Panama Canal. She's travelling with a family she doesn't know but becomes friendly with a young man. She starts to spend a lot of time with him and confides that she is travelling to be married but is dreading it. The point of this story is that people behave very differently to normal when confined for long weeks aboard ship and Trollope illustrates the point very well with this story.

Other stories I enjoyed were, The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy (again, never read any of his novels), The Sphinx Without a Secret by Oscar Wilde, The Kiss by Anton Chekov and Juke Judkin's Courtship by Charles Lamb. Worth every penny of the £3.97 I paid for it.

I'm now reading my first ever novel by Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. I've read a few of her short stories but never anything longer so I'm going to take my time and enjoy it. And hope this wretched conjunctivitis goes away quickly!

Sunday 11 November 2007

The First Casualty

What better day to review a book about World War One than Remembrance Sunday. The First Casualty by Ben Elton has been sitting on my tbr pile since the Christmas before last and I've been meaning to read it for ages. To be honest I'm glad I didn't as this week has seemed like the perfect time with so much else about the subject on the TV.

First, a bit about the book. The story concerns one Douglas Kingsley, a senior policeman in London, who is imprisoned for being a conscientious objector during WW1. In the process he loses his family (wife and child) who disown him and is very badly mauled by both inmates and warders of Wormwood Scrubs. His death is 'arranged' and the next thing he knows he's on the way to Ypres to investigate the death of Alan Abercrombie, an officer and son of a cabinet minister, who is listed as 'killed in action' but who has in fact been murdered.

If you were expecting a simple crime story from this book (and I was) you'd be vastly mistaken. How silly of me to expect a man like Ben Elton to write a simple story! For those who don't know, Ben Elton first made his name in Britain as a stand-up comedian, the sort specialising in social and political commentary. Since then he's become a writer in earnest, of various TV series such as Blackadder and The Thin Blue Line, and books. He's not everybody's cup of tea but I like him because he says what he thinks and no messing. And that kind of describes this book really. He minces no words whatsoever when telling us of the opinions of policeman, Kingsley, and from the perspective of almost a hundred years, he makes a lot of sense. Of course, things are never *that* simple and, to his credit, he does stress that. Conditions at the front are also described very graphically. There are descriptions of ways to die in battle, injuries, bodily functions, sex, homosexuality, you name it. If you're not keen on that kind of thing then this may not be the book for you. On the other hand if you can stand it, and are interested in WWI, then this book is a real gem.

So, yes, I'm sure you've gathered that I liked this book. I took three days to read it when I expected to take five or six because it's a heftyish tome. It's a page turner and no mistake; I couldn't put it down. So, will I rush out now and get more books by Elton? Probably not, because this is not his normal kind of output - I think he usually writes modern novels and I'm not sure they'd be my thing. But The First Casualty most certainly was and I'm really hoping he'll do more in a similar vein in the future.

Thursday 8 November 2007

Crocodile on the Sandbank

For a person who doesn't reread much I've actually done my fair share of that this year. Here's another example, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters.

My first reading of this book has to have been about 25 years ago. Back then I got it from a library - would have been either Newton Abbot or Barnstaple - read it, loved it, hoped there would be more, promptly forgot all about it. Until several years ago when I began to wonder if the series I was seeing and hearing about was connected in any way to that long ago book. It turned out it was and at last I got around to rereading the first one so I can read a few of the follow-ons. And there are plenty to read - eighteen I think! Ms Peters has clearly not been sitting around filing her nails.

Anyway, the story concerns Amelia Peabody, a Victorian woman of independent means. She's one of these forceful, no-nonsense women in her mid-thirties who feels herself to be plain and believes she will never marry. On her way to Egypt she rescues Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a ruined woman, and the two of them proceed on to Egypt as companions. Much skulduggery then ensues as they encounter the Emerson brothers, Radcliffe and Walter, who are in the middle of an archaeological dig. The women join them on the dig. Then a mummy makes its appearance - up to no good surely *g* - and Evelyn is pursued by said mummy, and sundry suitors, until eventually all is revealed to everyone's satisfaction.

I liked this every bit as much the second time of reading as the first. It really is great fun. Amelia is an excellent heroine with her no-nonsense approach and I like the fact that Radcliffe is every bit her match and doesn't let her walk all over him. The crime element is not that difficult to work out but that didn't worry me; it's the kind of book that's more about the characters than the plot. How many of these I'll read I'm not sure. I have several more to read here but I'm just not sure whether the quality is maintained up to book 18. We'll see how it goes.

Remembrance Day is fast approaching so I thought I'd make my reading fit the occasion. I'm reading The First Casualty by Ben Elton, which is a WWI crime story. So far it's excellent. In fact I think it might be a crime reading month for me as I also have two Book Crossing crime books by Julie Kaewert to read, and Still Life by Louise Penny from the library. This from someone who would never really call herself a crime reader.

Monday 5 November 2007

Libraries, books and dramas

I really enjoy visiting libraries in other towns. Our county, Devon, allows you to borrow books from any library in the county (I'm assuming it's the same all over the country) so if we're heading out for the day I often pop into the local library to see if I can pick up a gem or two. Today we headed down to Topsham which is a village on the river Exe only a couple of miles from Exeter. It has a beautiful situation on the river and is lovely for a stroll, either along the river or along the high street with its small independent shops. I was really good... I looked in several charity shops but managed somehow not to buy any books. I did however pop along to their library. After checking the Devon Library Online catalogue I found that Topsham had a copy of Still Life by Louise Penny, so that was the first thing I nabbed. It's the first in a series of detective novels set in Quebec and recommended by Kay at My Random Acts of Reading; for some reason I just like the sound of them. Really pleased to get that anyway *and* what else did I spot on the shelves but The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Thrilled about that. Hubby picked up a stack of sci fi books he'd never seen before too. So, a good book day despite the fact I didn't actually buy any.

I thought last night's adaptation of E.M. Forster's A Room With a View was absolutely charming. Good performances from all the cast but especially from father and son, Timothy and Rafe Spall. Some people didn't like the ending which had been altered. Well, not altered exactly but added to. Personally I thought it was appropriate and have no complaints.

Other dramas eagerly anticipated by me - My Boy Jack on Sunday night which tells the story of Rudyard Kipling and his son, Jack, and how he came to be fighting in WWI despite terrible eyesight. Jack will be played by Daniel Radcliffe and the trailers look excellent. The trailers for Cranford are also being shown and that too looks like it might be a winner. That will be completely new to me as I've never read the book. And I've also just discovered that ITV have made The Old Curiosity Shop, which I read many years ago but have wanted to read again for a while now. Perhaps I'll make 2008 the year when I reread some Dickens and maybe read a few that I've not read such as Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House. The BBC adaptation of the latter, from a couple of years ago, was so wonderful that I really feel I *should* read the book sometime. I fancy 2008 is going to be a packed book year...

Friday 2 November 2007


Well now, Abarat by Clive Barker is my first book for the Seafaring challenge which is being run by I Heart Paperbacks. It goes on until the 31st. Januaury so I'm quite pleased that I have the first of my four books under my belt already.

I'd never read anything by horror writer, Clive Barker, before so didn't have much idea of what to expect. *Different* is what this book for young adults turned out to be. Quite original, imo, but it's quite hard to put my finger on why that is.

The book's main character is Candy Quackenbush, a teenage girl living a less than fascinating life and with an abusive father in Chickentown, Minnesota. She gets embroiled in the problems of 'Mischief', an individual with not only his own head but about nine small ones who are all his brothers. Thus she finds herself transported to the land of Abarat, an archipeligo of islands where each island is always at a particular hour of the day. As would be expected of a fantasy/horror story the book is peopled by some very strange characters that Candy meets along the way, some friends, some foes. Christopher Carrion is the main villain of the peace (I can't even *begin* to describe him). For one reason or another he is compelled to capture Candy, but there are plenty of other not so obvious villains in this very weird universe and all are pretty fascinating. Likewise all the different islands - this book is choc-full of imaginative ideas.

Abarat is the first in a series so is a kind of scene setter if you like. Not sure how many have been written but I know there's a part two. The book itself is lavishly illustrated with paintings by Barker which help to make this a unique book - and the characters are so weird that this is actually very helpful. The book itself is very readable, and a *quick* read but somehow I was never really set alight by it. It was good but not wonderful. I also expected more sea travel than there actually was. There is *some*, enough to qualify it for the challenge, and it's certainly a very watery world, which is something that appeals to me a lot. Will I pick up any sequels? To tell the truth I'm not sure... maybe search for them in the library, which is where I actually found this.