Sunday 31 May 2009

The Circle

Yet another Peter Lovesey crime yarn, this time The Circle.

Bob Naylor works for Parcel Force as a driver but has always had a bit of a thing about words - he loves to make up little bits of doggerel and is quite clever at it. Encouraged by his daughter (he's a widower) he goes along to the local writer's circle, just to see what it's like. He's not at all convinced it's the place for him, expecting quite a degree of snobbery. Much to his surprise he enjoys himself and is wondering if he will go again when a murder occurs. One Edgar Blacker, a publisher who has given a talk at one of the meetings, is burned to death in a house fire. Arson is suspected and the chairman of the writer's circle, Maurice, is arrested. Edgar had been going to publish his book but at the last moment had demanded £5,000 from him for 'costs'. A huge falling out had ensued and the police think this is reason enough to arrest Maurice.

Bob decides this is nothing to do with him but finds himself on the receiving end of several requests from members of the circle to help clear Maurice's name, because they're certain he's innocent. But is he? He has previous form for a dispute with a neighbour, where he set fire to the neighbour's fence and accidently killed his dog. But as Bob becomes more and more embroiled in events he finds that more than one person in the writing circle might have had cause to want to Edgar dead. And then the murderer tries to kill Bob and the police turn their attentions more seriously to the writing circle. It becomes a matter of honour to Bob to try to solve this mystery before someone else is killed, but can he?

A couple of reviewers on Amazon reckon that this is not one of Lovesey's better efforts but as it's only my third book by him, I can't really say whether I agree with that or not. All I can say is that I enjoyed it very much indeed. I liked the setting of the writer's circle and all the characters struck me as very true to type. For instance there's a grammar and cliché pedant who continually points out everyone's speech or writing errors - I came across someone like this on a weekend writer's course I did a few years back, so that really made me laugh. And there was the ubiquitous 'fantasy' fan who's writing an epic, the widow of an archdeacon who's a bit on the prissy side, and the romance writer who has eleven novels at home, none of which she'd sold to a publisher. It was amusing, but also, in a way, rather sad in that I suspect Peter Lovesey knows what he's talking about and writer's circles are a bit like this.

The mystery element I found to be pretty good. I thought I was certain who'd done it and that turned out to be nonsense - of course. And I rather enjoyed the way the two investigations, that of Bob the poet, and the police one, were knitted together. The two policewomen in charge of the case were interesting and there was even a back story there where one of the police team is passing on information and it's not known who. All in all, this is quite a good crime yarn that kept me absorbed and interested right to the end.

This is book 9 in my Book awards challenge which is being hosted by, and book 12 for my Support your local library challenge, being hosted by J.Kaye.

Monday 25 May 2009

Solomon Time

I've recently been watching the BBC travel doc. series, South Pacific, which has been absolutely stunning.

(Photo from the BBC website.)

And that put me in the mood for something non-fiction and travel orientated about the area. No problem - I'd already put Solomon Time by Will Randall on my list for the Non-fiction five challenge which is being hosted by Trish's Reading Nook. Having already read two of Will Randall's travel books I had an idea of what to expect and wasn't disappointed.

As usual with the author he ends up going to the Solomon Islands almost by mistake. He tends to promise things, changes his mind, but is then unable to extricate himself from the situation. Having met 'Commander Something Somebody-Whatnot' on a school football field, who then dies not long after, Randall finds himself promising to go to the islands to set up some kind of business with money left to the islanders in the Commander's will. The deal is that the business should benefit the islanders long term and not be a quick fix.

So off he goes and, reaching the main island airport and awaiting the small plane to take him on to his destination, discovers the true meaning of the term 'Solomon Time'. It's sometime never... whenever is convenient... 'chill out'. The plane is five hours late leaving and none of the other passengers seems remotely bothered by this.

Randall eventually arrives at his new home on New Georgia and for the next few months meets a whole host of characters both local and not-so local, well meaning and friendly... and one or two who are not so much so. And then there's the wildlife:

"Nearing the top of the incline, however, I experienced the curious sensation of someone lightly laying a hand on the top of my hat. I stopped and slowly peered up. I could see nothing but the underside of the rim. Loath though I was to, for all the trouble I was going to have getting it back on, I carefully removed the hat and, keeping it upright, lowered it to inspect. On it sat a spider so colossal that had it been sighted in Eurpoe would have been reason enough for the evacuation of a medium-sized town. 'G'day. Nice hat!' it leered sarcastically."

All kinds of adventures and mishaps ensue, including being shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, but eventually an idea occurs to the author concerning the kind of business the islanders might be able to set up and run for themselves.

Randall took with him three books, In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson, A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble and Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. These are used to great effect throughout the narrative when he gets himself into various scrapes and considers what each of these authors would do in similar circumstances. These speculations form a lot of the humour in the book but certainly not all. The author is self-deprecating in the extreme, sometimes a little too much I feel. He almost wants us to think he's shallow, imo, but no one who can write like this:

"High up and bored, a sea eagle planed in circles, like a boy on a bicycle in the park waiting for his friends. Yawning, it finally headed off over the false forest floor of tree tops, its tawny wings beating in slow motion. Fat, wet splats of rain began to fall, and as they became steadier, I sheltered under the broad protection of a banana tree. On the other side of the valley, through the arch of a feeble rainbow, came two girls running through Old Edith's garden, each guiltily clutching a paw-paw to their chests with one hand. With the other they held, above their heads, huge palm leaves that hung down to cover their entire bodies. At this distance, they looked like a couple of crafty, green beatles scurrying along, picking their way through the undergrowth."

can be anywhere approaching shallow... not in my book anyway!

This is actually Will Randall's first travel book. Typical of me, I read his third book, Botswana Time first, followed by Indian Summer second, and now this one at last. I've thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. He has a beautifully descriptive but also nicely humorous way with words that means his books are easy to read but with a surprising depth to them. Somehow, he's able to catch the very real atmosphere and essence of the places he visits and conveys that to the reader. If you've never read a travel book then his books would be a very good place to start - I can't imagine anyone being disappointed with these charming, informative, atmospheric books.

I had a look on Amazon to see what else was available about the South Pacific, added them to the books Randall took with him, and came up with this short list:

The Happy Isles of Oceania - Paul Theroux (I own this)
Tales of the South Pacific - James A. Michener (war memoirs that became the basis for the musical South Pacific)
Voyaging the Pacific: In search of the south - Miles Hordern
Sea of Glory - Nathaniel Philbrick (history)
Romancing the Islands: Journies in the South Pacific - Kim Gravelle
Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe (read this)
A Pattern of Islands - Arthur Grimble (read this years ago)
South Sea Tales - Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Islands: Sailing the South Seas in the wake of Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson - Pamela Stephenson

There must be a lot more so if anyone knows of any, please do leave a comment.

(Photo - Wikipedia)

Tuesday 19 May 2009


My lovely friend, Deslily, has been after me to read Touchstone by Laurie R. King for yonks. Partly because we both love the author's writing but also some of the story is set in the far west of Cornwall where I come from. Anyway, I recently spotted a brand new copy of the book in our local library, had one of those 'oh' moments, and nabbed it.

Harris Stuyvesant works for the American Bureau of Investigation, but his reason for being in England is not official. He's on the tail of whoever it was who set off a bomb that left his younger brother a mental and physical invalid. Stuyvesant thinks it is one, Richard Bunsen, a charismatic anarchist, who has gathered quite a following, including the eldest daughter of the Duke of Hurleigh, Laura. So he has friends in high places.

In the course of his investigation the agent is sent to see Aldous Carstairs, a British agent of some kind, and finds him to be a deeply unpleasant, frightening man. Carstairs sends him off to the far west of Cornwall to meet a man called Bennett Grey. Grey was badly injured during the Great War and now suffers from a kind of telepathy which means he can't bear to be around people. It's clear Carstairs has a hidden agenda where Grey is concerned and it is also clear that Grey is completely terrified of Carstairs. He does however come to trust Stuyvesant and tells him that his sister, Sarah, is tied up with Bunsen and Laura Hurleigh, and that much of what they do revolves around a sort women's movement whose aim is to try and improve the lot of impovershed women and their families.

Stuyvesant and Grey head off for a weekend at the Hurleigh country house in Oxfordshire to try to solve the riddle... the problem being that it's possible that there are multiple riddles - not just one.

It's a dangerous time to be in England. Striking miners are giving the capital an uneasy and explosive atmosphere. The General Strike is looming and all of this, plus Stuyvesant's growing feelings for Grey's sister, make the agent's mission even more complicated than he had first thought. And to add to this he has the constant feeling that he's being used and manipulated by Carstairs. But why?

It's taken me the best part of two weeks to read this, due mostly to the fact that I've been busy but also - this no quick read! The plot twists and turns and King does what she does with her Mary Russell books and that is to excel at background information. Thus, I learned quite a lot about events of 1926, the lead-up to The General Strike, conditions for the poor and so on. And not just that, attitudes of the rich towards the poor, political shenanigans, the history of anarchists... really this is quite a complicated book. But King is an excellent writer and none of the information ever felt dry, it was all connected with the plot and 'relevant'.

I'm not surprised Deslily wanted me to read it. (Funnily enough, my eldest daughter spotted it on a recent visit and also said how excellent it was.) I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good 'thriller' or 'mystery' type read. But also to those who like an historical background to their books, who enjoy learning something from what they read. Like I said, it's not a quick, easy read - it's 500 pages of densely written story - but it's compulsive reading, especially as it heads towards its climax and suddenly, where you thought you knew who was going to do the deed, you realise you've been led up the garden path and that's not necessarily the case: anything can happen.

Excellent. A superb read. I've heard that Laurie King has, or is going to, write another book about Harris Stuyvesant and certainly hope this is the case; I would love her to turn it into a series. And many thanks to Deslily for making me read Touchstone!

My 11th. book for J.Kaye's Support your local library challenge. Nearly halfway there!

Monday 18 May 2009


I've been reading the same book for over a week now - not that it isn't good, it's excellent, it's just that I've been busy and the book is not a quick read. Anyway just so that I post about something here're a few photos of Exmoor that I took while out and about last week.

A spot called Landacre bridge. It was a lovely peaceful day there that day but it can get quite busy there with tourists and traffic.


Downstream with the addition of a few cows.

The rather stunning display of gorse.

Running down into the village of Withypool.

The bridge at Withypool. Exmoor is chock full of these gorgeous old bridges. They're usually centuries old and very picturesque.

Underneath the arches...

One of those tunnels made of hedges which I absolutely love.

Withypool post office and stores.

The bridge from the other side.

The kind of mossy, stone wall I love.

The village church.

The pub where we had lunch - The Royal Oak at Withypool.

Inside said pub.

One of the views on the way home. Pretty much typical of the moors in this country, although Exmoor is slightly more cultivated (farmed) than many others.

Thursday 7 May 2009

The library pile

I've seen several other 'library pile' type posts recently so I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon and do one too. Not only have I been in and out of my own library just recently but I also descended on my one of my daughter's local ones last week and grabbed four books. The result is that I have my full quota of eight books out at the moment (one is finished, so not in the photo below) with hardly a hope in hell of finishing them all in time. Especially as two of these have now been reserved by other people and can't be renewed; although I do have until the 21st. to read those two, so there is hope.

From the bottom:

Crossed Bones by Jane Johnson is a historical involving Cornwall in the 17th. century and a girl who gets kidnapped by pirates and taken off to Morocco. I think I first saw it blogged about on Random Jottings but also in several other places since.

Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton was, I think, the author's first book. I thought I'd give this a try after enjoying her recent book, Crossed Wires.

The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton was borrowed purely because I loved The House of Mirth and felt it was time I read something else by Wharton.

The Spook's Battle by Joe Delaney is book four in the author's YA horror series about an apprentice spook ( a sort of wizard who sorts out people's demon problems.) Good series.

The Circle by Peter Lovesey is a crime yarn about a writing circle. The author's crime stories are excellent and this one really appeals.

It's Only the Sister by Angela du Maurier is an autobiography of Daphne du Maurier's sister, Angela. I like the sound of it.

Touchstone by Laurie King... well... that one's all Deslily's fault. It's not a Mary Russell book, it's a stand-alone, a thriller from what I can see. I love King's writing so am sure I will like this - just about to start it.

So that's my current library haul. Yes... I think I must be a bit mad too.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Diggers and The Good Thief

Two short reviews for today; I think I remember how to be concise. First up, Diggers by Terry Pratchett, part two of his YA Bromeliad trilogy and book six for Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge.

Diggers continues the story of the nomes which began with them leaving the store in Truckers. The nomes are now living in the quarry. They've settled in nicely and things are going well but Masklin is not happy. He knows that the nomes do not belong here in the quarry or, for that matter, on this planet and can only see their situation as temporary. He and several others set off for the airport to try and intercept Grandson 39, the grandson of the founder of the store, who is flying to Florida. What happens while he's away is the story of the book. The nomes have discovered that the quarry is to be reopened and Masklin has told them to move to an old barn. But Nisodemus, a nome with much religious fervour, persuades the nomes to stay put. The nomes end up having to fight the humans for possession of the quarry. Luckily, Dorcas, an engineering whizz, has a secret weapon: Jekub.

This sequel to Truckers is just as much fun as that one was. Lots more excellent humour and sly digs at various types. I love the way the nomes take human writings so literally. Thus the founder of the store's 'grandson, Richard, 39' becomes Grandson 39, because they don't realise that 39 is his age. If I'm honest though, Pratchett is merely pointing out that maybe it's *us* that are the odd ones. And that's a theme that runs through all his books, be they Discworld novels or otherwise. Excellent - looking forward to the final part of this trilogy, Wings.


Next up, The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti.

Twelve year old, Ren, lives in an orphanage in New England sometime in the 19th. century. The orphanage is St. Anthony's and is run by monks. Ren was abandoned there as a baby and has no left hand; he's always wanted to solve the mystery of his parentage and what happened to his hand. One day a stranger arrives, one Benjamin Nab, and claims Ren as his brother. Thrilled, Ren leaves with him but it soon becomes apparent that not only is Ren not related at all to this stranger, Benjamin Nab is a thief and not to be trusted. Ren spends the winter with Nab and his accomplice, Tom, a drunken ex-teacher. They start to steal freshly dead bodies from the graveyard and, come the spring, the suggestion is that they travel to North Umbrage where there is a hospital and a certain doctor who pays well for bodies for his students to study on. Benjamin is violently against going to this particular town but is eventually persuaded. Once there events take a turn for the worse, if that's at all possible, but Ren realises that the secret of his origins may lie in this town and that Benjamin may know more than he lets on.

I wanted to love this YA historical, but ended up feeling a bit 'so-so' about it. The plot is pacey but I found it hard to feel any connection to the characters somehow. And there was hardly any real sense of the period in history or of place: it could have been anywhere, anytime. There were also things about it I found deeply unpleasant. I know people did some strange things in order to survive back then but even so... Add to that a sense while I was reading that things were just too bizarre and far-fetched to be true and you have a book that just didn't do it for me I'm afraid. A shame, because the potential was well and truly there.

Book 10 for J.Kaye's Support Your Local Library challenge.

Saturday 2 May 2009

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has definitely been an 'embarrassing gap in my reading', as it's generally called. When I asked my eldest daughter if she'd read it, she said it had been on the A level English syllabus when she'd been studying for it, but that her teacher had chosen to study the poetry of the song 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits instead. I have to say that this shocked me rather but this post is about The Handmaid's Tale not the failings of the English educational system. (I say 'English' on purpose because things are, or were, different in Scotland and Northern Ireland I believe.) Anyway, it was high time I read it and to that end I included it in my pool of books for the Book Awards challenge being hosted by, because it won the Canadian Governor General award in 1985.

Where to start? Some books almost defy description and this is one such iconic book...

The story describes the life of Offred, or at least her 'present' life. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time she had a husband and daughter, but no more. The USA is now The Republic of Gilead and is being run by religious fundamentalists. Women are now back to being second class citizens. They are not allowed to run their own finances, read books, dress to look alluring... freedom is a thing of the past. Offred, it soon emerges, is a 'handmaid' but what this actually involves takes a while to become apparent. The crucial thing to know is that something has happened to the environment and the birth rate is dropping. Babies are being born dead or grossly deformed and the government use this fact to introduce a system based on this quote from the bible -

Give me children or else I die. Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? Behold my maid, Bilhah. She shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.

Substitute 'handmaid' for 'maid' and the picture becomes clear. What isn't so clear is what Offred (we never discover her real name) has done to deserve this appalling fate. We discover that near the end, before which we follow her daily life as handmaid to a childless middle-aged couple and learn how handmaids - and women in general - are now treated. I'm not saying any more than that as there are twists to the story that are best read 'fresh' so to speak.

This is, without doubt, one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. I tried hard to adopt a disbelieving frame of mind. As in, 'Well, that could never happen...' But I couldn't keep it up. Too much of it reminded me of Nazi Germany or Stalin's USSSR or the way women *are* treated in certain countries in the world, even today. And what would we do, as women, if our governments started to go in this direction? It's a terrifying thought quite frankly. I'm not saying that our lives are perfect in 2009, far from it, but to be so completely powerless, not to mention dispensable if you happen to be beyond childbearing age, too much of a rebel to be assimilated, or even a nun! is truly appalling.

I tried really hard not to be angry at the men in this and in the main succeeded, because some of them were as much pawns as the women, with one obvious exception. But one telling comment came when Offred describes how the women in her office were all given the sack and then her bank account was frozen. She was suddenly completely dependent on her husband, Luke, but it seemed to her that he didn't really mind too much about the way things were going. After all... he wasn't female.

There's so much in this book to talk about... it's one of these books where almost every sentence is significant - to the point of taking your breath away. Atwood's writing is very spare in places and in others, where she's describing the mind numbing boredom, not. It's certainly one of the most intense, skilful pieces of work I've ever read and, I can say now, will probably be the best book I read all year. And I am definitely handing it over to my eldest daughter!