Saturday 29 August 2009

RIP IV - short stories

Our house is once again quiet - the rooks in a nearby pine tree and a few pigeons cooing on the roof are all that's breaking the silence. They've obviously bred well this year as their sudden loud flapping as they take off from the conservatory roof or indulge in a bout of 'flap thy neighbour', in the cherry tree, is turning me into a nervous wreck. Perfect for a RIP IV short story weekend in fact...

So I made a start this afternoon and read a nice clutch of creepy short stories: The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire and The Adventure of the Creeping Man, two Sherlock Holmes stories by Conan Doyle, of course, and The Wakeford Abyss a story from Nocturnes by John Connolly.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is one of the later Holmes anthologies, if not the last. I've heard tell that his later stories are not as good, which surprises me as, judging by the two I picked out to read this afternoon, this is not at all the case.

The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire starts with Holmes receiving a letter from one Robert Ferguson, who is concerned about his second wife. Of Peruvian nationality she was caught assaulting Ferguson's disabled teenage son and biting her own one year old son. Ferguson is at his wit's end and, naturally, Holmes and Watson travel to their client's home to investigate this macabre case.
The Adventure of the Creeping Man has Holmes and Watson receiving a visit from Mr. Trevor Bennett, professional assistant to a Professor Presbury and engaged to the professor's daughter. Both Mr. Bennett and his fiancée have concerns for her father who, at sixty one has fallen for a much younger woman and been rejected. This occurance seems to have altered his personality in various frightening ways, night-time wanderings and so forth, so much so that his daughter is unwilling to return to her home until the matter is put to rest. Holmes and Watson investigate in their own inimitable fashion.

A great start to my RIP IV challenge... what better than two seriously dark and mysterious Sherlock Holmes stories? Not much else to say about these apart from the humour in them always takes me by surprise: (Watson on his function in Holmes's life)

But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me - many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead - but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject.


I've been reading John Connolly's Nocturnes for what seems like ages. To tell the truth it *is* ages... maybe eighteen months, I certainly know that I read some stories from it for last year's RIP challenge. Anyway, I only have a few left now so hopefully I can finish it at last.
In The Wakeford Abyss we meet two men, Molton and Clements, about to make a descent into a cavern. Previously mountaineers, they have both decided to try their skills on going 'down' instead of 'up'. Only the cave they have chosen is no ordinary cave. The locals have all kinds of stories to tell and a farmer recounts how his goats, who used to eat the grass right up to the entrance, will now no longer go anywhere near the place. Our heroes, of course, ignore all these warnings (TSTL?) that would make any normal person suddenly remember a previous engagement in another country, and press on with their plans. What happens down there in the depths of the abyss? Well you'll have to read the story to find out. :-)

Sunday now, and for some reason cave stories always make me want to read Cthulhu Mythos tales so I grabbed my copy of Shadows over Innsmouth, edited by Stephen Jones, and settled to down to read.

The Church in High Street, by Ramsey Campbell, recounts how a man down on his luck travels to Temphill in order to take up employment with a friend who needs a personal assistant come sectretary. The town, situated in the Cotswolds of all places, has the reputation of being a strange place with odd inhabitants, which is exactly what the man finds when he gets there. His friend has disappeared and the man follows his friend's trail to the local church...
The Innsmouth Heritage, by Brian Stableford, follows the exploits of David Stevenson as he arrives in Innsmouth. in New England, to catch up with his old friend, Ann Eliot. The notorious families with fish-like facial characteristics are dying out in the town. Stevenson wants to try and discover something about their genes and in what way they differ from the rest of the human race. But it's the 'dreams' which are really bothering the last of the 'lookers' and David's friend, Ann, although not a 'looker' herself is, in fact, one of the dreamers...

The first of these stories, The Church in High Street, didn't really work for me. Perhaps it was the Cotswolds setting (it just is not a weird area) or maybe it was Campbell's writing, I'm not sure. I found his tendency to fill the story with as many clichéd horror details as he could, tedious, and the whole thing felt rushed and unloved. The second story, The Innsmouth Heritage, worked much better I thought. It had more atmosphere and was detailed exactly where I wanted it to be with a nice - though predictable - twist at the end.

There are a few nice illustrations in this book, done by Dave Carson, Martin McKenna and Jim Pitts, and which I couldn't resist photographing.

The truth of nature lies in deep mines and caves.

- Democritus -


Life According to Literature

This is great fun - nabbed from Danielle.

Using only books you have read this year (2009), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title. It's a lot harder than you think!

Describe yourself: The Stolen Child (Keith Donohue)

How do you feel: Bitten (Kelley Armstrong)

Describe where you currently live: The Valley of Secrets (Charmian Hussey)

If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Solomon Time (Will Randall)

Your favorite form of transportation: Wings (Terry Pratchett)

Your best friend is: Daughter of the Blood (Anne Bishop)

You and your friends are: Diggers (Terry Pratchett)

What's the weather like: Snow Blind (P.J. Tracey)

You fear: The Sedgemoor Strangler (Peter Lovesey)

What is the best advice you have to give: Remember Me? (Sophie Kinsella)

Thought for the day: The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)

How I would like to die: In the Woods (Tana French)

My soul's present condition: Moon Called (Patricia Briggs)

Tuesday 25 August 2009


I can't believe how quickly the RIP challenge has come round again. Doesn't seem like five minutes since I did the last one. And *yet* I also seem to have been anticipating it for weeks now. Pulling books out and adding them to the pile. Getting all excited along with Deslily. I sometimes wonder if I have ever properly grown up... Anyway, was thrilled to read on Susan's blog last night that Carl had put up the post for the R.I.P 4 challenge and even though it was very late I rushed over there like a mad thing to check out the details. As usual there's a gorgeous banner:

And as usual there are enough options to suit all requirements, from diehard spooky readers like myself, to those who just want to try one book to see if they like it. I've chosen to do:

Which is to: Read Four books of any length, from any subgenre of scary stories that you choose.

I have started a pool of books to read from and these are they:

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
Lonely Werewolf Girl - Martin Millar
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
Blood Sinister - Celia Rees (YA)
The Lair of the White Worm - Bram Stoker
Iron Kissed - Patricia Briggs
The Five Jars - M.R. James (novella)
Mister B. Gone - Clive Barker
Stolen - Kelley Armstrong
Whispers in the Sand - Barbara Erskine
Endless Night - Agatha Christie
Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Chris Priestley
The Man in the Mirror - Susan Hill
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship - Chris Priestley

This is in no way complete though and I'm certain I'll be adding to it, or taking away, as I go along and also as I read other people's reviews.

I also plan to do something I really got a kick out of last year and that's:

A few short story books I plan to read from are:

The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One - ed. Richard Peyton
Collected Ghost Stories - M.R. James
The Bishop of Hell and other stories - Marjorie Bowen
The Collected Ghost Stories - E.F. Benson
Dark Alchemy - ed. Jack Dann & Gardner Dozois

Plus sundry others as there are certain authors such as Edith Wharton whose stories I would like to seek out and reread.

I have my grandaughter here staying until Saturday, so not a lot of time to read, but as soon as she goes home I'll be making a start - possibly with some short stories on Sunday. So excited about this - and thanks to Carl for hosting it once again.

Monday 24 August 2009

Last Rituals

A few weeks ago Susan from You Can Never Have too Many Books and myself found we were both planning to read Last Rituals by Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. So we decided to do what I think is called a 'buddy read'. I've included a brief synopsis of the plot first, followed by our question and answer session

A German student of Icelandic history (myths and legends sort of thing), Harald Guntlieb, is found murdered at the university in Reykjavik. A professor opens a cupboard and the body falls out on top of him to be precise. The body has been mutilated - eyes gouged out and a symbol carved on his body. The police quickly arrest one of the student's friends but the murdered boy's family feel they have the wrong man. They hire Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a local solicitor, to investigate and send a German friend of theirs, Matthew Reich, to help her. The kind of information they turn up - a weird family history of the deaths of all Harald's siblings bar one and a grandfather who has passed his obsession with the occult on to Harald, plus Harald's apparent practise of some very questionable sexual practices - make Thóra wonder if she should have taken this case on in the first place. The German sent to help is almost more of a hindrance than a help, and now her son is keeping secrets from her. If it weren't that she needed the money Thóra knows she would run a mile from this...

Susan began the book review by asking the first question:
1. What made you pick this book up?

Susan: I read a review of Icelandic mystery writers somewhere (I can't find out where now, the list I had turned out to be for Swedish crime writers) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Last Rituals was on it. So when I saw Last Rituals in the book store, I grabbed it. It's her first book, so it must have been a review that I saw. Basically it's Icelandic, so I was interested!

Cath: I saw mention of it on Danielle's blog - A Work in Progress. I previously had no idea that there *were* any Icelandic crime writers! Not that I'd given the matter a great deal of thought because if I had I would have realised that there had to be. Anyway, when I looked the book up I decided I that I wanted to read it and found it quite easily in the library. Result!

Susan again:
2. Do you read many books that are translated (ie written first in a foreign language)?

Susan: Yes. Well, I should categorize that - I really read mysteries that are translated. From Iceland - Arnuldur Indridason, from Sweden - Henning Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson, and new to me Karin Fossum and Steig Larsson, and from France - Fred Vargas.

Cath: Before Last Rituals, no. Since then, by some odd coincidence, I've read three! Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and the first two Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri. Oddly enough they're all crime books, although Grey Souls is slightly more than that. I clearly have an interest in crime stories set overseas.

Another question from Susan:
3. What do you enjoy most about foreign language books?

Susan: I love the different view we get of other countries. Even when the syntax of the English is a little bit strange - a direct translation, not always idiomatic translation - I am fascinated by what that shows about the writer and language, and I wish I could read in the original language. Because Sweden and Canada share long cold dark winters, their gloom is similar to Canada's bleak view and nature landscape that fills most of our writing. Pine trees, cold winter nights, below freezing temperatures, broken by short, searing summers when no one wants to sleep because it's light out. I really enjoy seeing the world through another's eyes - it is sometimes disconcerting, true, but I find it refreshing too. I also enjoy seeing how people are characterized, what is similar about police procedurals, investigating crime, and how similar people are no matter where they are in the world. I also learn alot about places this way, not as a travel guide, but as how the cities and streets are written about.

Cath: That's a difficult question because I'm not sure I've read enough to judge properly. I *think* it's the glimpses of cultures that are quite unlike your own. The Inspector Montalbano books, for instance, are set in Sicily, where, if the books are anything to go by, there is a culture of corruption and crime which impinges on the lives of everyone who lives there. Whether this is a serious worry in the lives of normal people, I don't know. Reading books like these tends to create certain questions in my mind which I then search for the answers to. So the answer to the question is probably that foreign language books broaden the mind and make me want to read many more books from overseas - but not necessarily translated ones or, necessarily, of the crime genre. For me I think it's almost a secondary way of indulging in armchair travel.

Cathy asked:
4. Is there something about Iceland that particularly fascinates you?

Susan: I'm not sure. I became fascinated when I lived in England, and it became a weekend getaway for the English - just a short plane ride away, and very cheap! All of a sudden, I wanted to see the geysers, the volcanic earth, and Reykjavik, and I have never lost the desire to go see. I think I am fascinated by how this culture developed so far away from the rest of the world, and what it's like that far north and still have a culture, a capital city.

Cath: Yes but I'm not sure when my interest began. It could have been when I read Avalon by Anya Seton... *many* years ago. The heroine (I can't even remember her name) is captured by Vikings and taken to Iceland and I found myself fascinated by the landscape and the history. I'd love to go there to see the bleak volcanic landscapes for myself - geologically speaking I think it's the youngest country in the world and that's an amazing concept to take in, the fact that it's still growing and changing. One of these days I *will* go.

Another question from Cath:
5. Have you read any other Icelandic authors?

Susan: Yes. Arnuldur Indridason is one of my favourite mystery writers! I love Erlendur's sense of justice no matter how long it has taken, his struggles as a father and divorced husband, and the cases he gets are interesting. There is room for a lot of darkness in the human heart, and pathos and tragedy. Against this are the police, some of whom are funny, some bitter or mean, set against Erlendur and is determination to pursue a case until answers are found. I was so happy when I saw there was another Icelandic author writing mysteries! So I was always going to read Last Rituals.

Cath: The simple answer to this is 'no'. To my shame I've always been completely unaware of Icelandic authors. But I do now have one other on my tbr mountain - Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indridason, which I'm really looking forward to reading.

Cath's next question was:
6.. As a working mother, did you find Thora's problems with mixing her home-life and work true to life?

Susan: Yes! and it really added to the character, that she was juggling both, and that her kids were moody and didn't always want to go with their father. Very true to life.

Cath: Judging by my daughter's problems as a single mother it did seem to me to be quite true to life. I liked that aspect of it too, as crime writers usually focus on male policemen, it seems to me, and it was refreshing to have a glimpse of life from a female perspective. It made me think about reading other crime novels where the main 'investigator' is female. Ones that spring to mind are the Kate Martinelli series by Laurie R. King and P.D. James's Cordelia Gray books - but there must surely be a lot more?

Susan asked two extra questions:
7. Did you enjoy the mystery? What was a strength and a weakness?

Susan: Yes, I enjoyed the mystery very much. I didn't guess who the killer was until near the end, and then I couldn't figure out how it was done. One streggth were the characters - they were all well-drawn, from Thora, to her associate Matthew Reich, to the various suspects - I had no difficulties telling anyone apart, or remembering who was who. I enjoyed the various viewpoints as well, which added to the mystery, without revealing too much.
One weakness was the discovery of some key evidence - wouldn't the person involved who hid it, have tried to retrieve it? It would have been more interesting if the house had been broken into and the area searched, then to have it accidentally discovered. That wasn't quite believable. All this time and the person never noticed it.....

Yes I did enjoy the mystery. Like Susan. I was close to the end before it dawned on me who the killer was. One strength of the book, for me, was how well the author concealed that. I thought that was very nicely done.
No real weaknesses jumped out at me, but of the book in general I could say that at times the translation was slightly simplistic. But that's real nit-picking and not something terrible; possibly it's symptomatic of many translations as I noticed it in the Andrea Camilleri books too. But in neither case was it enough to put me off.

Susan asked a final question:
Bonus question: Would you recommend the book to be read?

Susan: Yes! 4.7/5!!!

Cath: Yes, I most certainly would! It's a skillful crime story with an unusual setting and well worth anyone's time and trouble.

Cath asked two final questions:

Bonus Question: Did you find the rather macabre background to this story - the manner of the student's death and so on - at all off putting?

Cath: I suppose I should have done, after all he fell out of the cupboard onto a tutor with his eyes gouged out and some weird markings on him and from then on there were some startling revelations about his interest in witchcraft and odd sexual practises. But the truth is I didn't find it off putting at all. I suppose I like reading books that deal with off the wall subjects and, it has to be said, that Yrsa Sigudardottir deals with these matters in a way that doesn't go into *really* gory detail. She states what happens in quite a matter of fact way and that's fine by me. If the details had been dealt with in the manner of say, a real horror story, then my reaction would doubtless have been different as I don't deal with blood and gore at all well.

Susan: Like Cath, I should have - some the sexual practices and how witchcraft was portrayed was gruesome, but the author deals with it matter-of-factly - this is what the victim was interested in - and like Cath says, the gory parts are NOT dwelled on. This is a crime novel with some horror aspects, which I found made it more intriguing. I do wish though that some good witchcraft would be portrayed for once. I get tired of it always being portrayed as leading to a bad end, when for the most part, the religion is about living in the world in a responsible way. Other than that, I found the macabre aspects very well done.

Bonus question: Are you planning to read book 2 in the Thora Gudmundsdottir 'My Soul to Take'?

Cath: Yes, I am. I'm keen to see what the author will come up with next in the way of a crime plot but also to see how her relationship with Matthew matures and how a certain occurrence within her family pans out. Hopefully it'll be a nice long series.

Susan: Oh yes! Please let it be out soon, because it looked very interesting - involves a haunted hotel......definitely an area of interest for me (hauntings, ghosts). Plus, as Cath said, there is that family angle that is very interesting too. I did enjoy her children, and the ex, and the partnership with the other lawyer, very much. Definitely a series to keep reading.


So that was my first 'buddy read' and I want thank Susan very much for wanting to read with me. It was a *lot* of fun and I hope to do it again sometime.

The Secret History

Goodness, what a day! It's absolutely teeming with rain this morning, I'm so glad I got the runner beans and raspberries picked over the weekend as you can't even get out there this morning. As it is, it's my last free day until Sunday as we have our grandaughter coming to stay from tomorrow to Saturday. We're planning a barge trip on the local canal and a visit to the cinema to see Aliens in the Attic. I think she's back at school at the end of next week - the school holidays have absolutely flown by.

So anyway, I need to make the most of today - I have two blog posts to do and the first is a review of The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Richard Papen is a college student from California. In truth, he's a little aimless in his academic life, not popular at school, and also not happy at home. His parents are simply not on the same wavelength and actually do not seem to like the son they've produced. He makes the decision to try to get accepted at the college at Hampden in Vermont, a college both expensive and isolated, situated as it is in the White mountains. Not expecting to be successful he's surprised to find himself accepted.

Richard hasn't been there long when he decides that he wants to join the rather exclusive Ancient Greek language course, run by the enigmatic teacher, Julian Morrow. Julian takes only a few students every year and this exclusive group tend to keep apart from the rest of the students and think of themselves as something special. After one unsuccessful attempt at joining the course, Richard makes himself known to the student group in the library and, on his second try, is successful. But 'fitting in' turns out to be not as easy as he'd thought. The course is far beyond what Richard has previously been doing in Greek lessons and the other students seem reluctant to 'let him in'. They're led by Henry, a student not very communicative but with a lot of charismatic presence. Twins, Charles and Camilla are more friendly, as are Francis and Edmund 'Bunny', two boys with well off parents, although Henry is by far the richest of the students. Richard's family are not well off but Richard makes the decision to pretend to be rich in order to fit it.

Things change and Richard begins to settle in and becomes friends with the group. But something is not quite right. He comes to suspect that they have secrets and that they are purposely keeping something important from him. The long Christmas break arrives, Richard can't go home so takes lodgings and a job with a local hippy. It's disastrous and Richard practically freezes to death in his accommodation. Henry and Bunny have gone off to France but Henry mysteriously returns early and rescues Richard from certain death. Slowly but surely a story begins to emerge of something Henry, the twins and Francis did in the woods before Christmas. Bunny was excluded but somehow found out what had happened and is now holding the group to ransom. They need Richard's help to solve this problem, but things have a habit of being much less straightforward than they at first seem. Richard is soon up to his neck in events he has no control over and suspects he has also only been told as much as Henry wants him to know. His life is no longer his own and he even wishes he'd stayed in California and never set foot in Vermont.

It's taken me over a week to read this 600 page chunkster. Was it worth it? Well yes, it was, although I must admit I'm glad I've now finished it. The story is dark with a very insular, claustrophobic atmosphere and, truthfully, it's not peopled by anyone that is particularly pleasant. Richard himself is rather amoral and the rest of the group of students are probably even worse. Their student lifestyles are totally dissolute... drink and drugs in abundance until, as a reader, you get a bit tired of hearing about it. I realise that after certain events the drinking was probably an escape but even so, it leaves one with rather a depressed view of students!

What has to be said is that the reason for being quite so involved with it all, as a reader, is the quality of Donna Tartt's writing. It's so good that you get sucked into this insular college world somewhere in the wilds of Vermont, and events that are bizarre and tragic even become quite reasonable and understandable. It's quite an achievement that such unpleasant people can have you concerned about their welfare when you're not actually reading the book but going about your daily life.

I have to make one confession and that is that after the first 40 - 50 pages I almost gave up on it. The story seemed not to be going anywhere and was too full of Greek references, so much so that I thought it might be over my head. I did 'O' level Greek Literature in Translation but it was 'years' ago so, although the names were familiar, not much else was. But I decided to continue and it was okay, I coped, and it really didn't matter that sometimes I didn't understand various references to characters in Greek mythology. The 'story' itself is less about the Greek and more about group dynamics in claustrophobic situations. At what stage do you stop blindly taking orders from someone who turns out to be less in control than you thought they were and very far from the perfect specimen they seemed to be originally? Donna Tartt's book is thought provoking and intelligent and reminded me rather a lot of A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine. If you liked one, you would probably like the other; I certainly did.

Thursday 20 August 2009

Recent book buys

I'm still only halfway through The Secret History by Donna Tartt (it's very good) so I thought I'd fill the silence with a recent acquisitions post. I still think I must be kidding myself that I haven't bought as many books as usual this year - these new book posts don't seem any less in number and nor have they less books in them it seems to me. Oh well.

This House of Sky was recommended in this post by Robin of A Fondness for Reading. It's the autobiography of Ivan Doig - an unknown author to me - who grew up in the wilds of Montana.

Desirable Residences by E.F. Benson is a book of his short stories which I nabbed from my local Oxfam charity shop.

Rambles beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins is a record of various walks this famous author did around Cornwall in the 1850s. Danielle at A Work in Progress gets the indirect blame for this one as she only mentioned a walking book about Cornwall by Collins, it was *me* that had to go and look it up and then couldn't resist buying it!

The Mother-Daughter Book Club I saw blogged about on Book Psmith's blog and thought it was something I and my eldest daughter would enjoy. There's quite a bit about Little Women in it apparently, which I've read but not for donkey's years, so I got a copy of that to reread too. Any excuse...

Three books acquired from my eldest daughter:

Wild Designs by Katie Fforde - superior chick-lit.
Four Ways to be a Woman by Sue Reidy - no idea what this is but my daughter enjoyed it so...
Lord Valentine's Castle by Robert Silverberg. Classic fantasy, the first of the Majipour books I believe, which I begged off my daughter as I quite fancy reading the series.

All I had to do was mention to my daughter and grandaughter that I fancied rereading Enid Blyton's 'R' titled books to see if they were still as magical and the grandaughter was off up the stairs like a shot and returned with this anthology. It includes:

The Rat-A-Tat mystery. "Someone knocks on the door of Rat-A-Tat house in the dead of night, but when Barney, Roger, Diana and Snubby go to answer it, no-one is there. Even more mysteriously there are no footprints in the snow." How good does that sound???
The Ragamuffin Mystery. "Merlin's Cove is the perfect place for a holiday, Roger, Diana, Snubby and Barney are looking forward to having fun. But who is the mysterious bearded stranger? And what is the sinister birdwatcher really looking for?"
The Rubadub Mystery. "Whilst staying at an Inn on holiday, Roger, Diana, and Snubby find themselves caught up in a police investigation. Who is the enemy agent at the nearby submarine harbour? Could he be staying at the Inn?"

Is it any wonder that kids still love Enid Blyton, even after 50 or 60 years?

I don't know what the other book is but my grandaughter wanted me to read it so that's fine.

And last but not least my current library pile.

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman - E.W. Hornung (short stories)
The Various - Steve Augarde (new to me fantasy series)
Lord Jim - Joseph Conrad (heard mention of on Rick Stein's Asian cookery show and was intrigued. Heard of it of course but never read it.)
The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of his Mouth - Roger Zelazny (sci fi short stories)
A Rogue's Life - Wilkie Collins (random grab)
Rifling Paradise - Jem Foster (Aussie historical, random grab)
Jigs and Reels - Joanne Harris (short stories, random grab)

I think those are enough to be getting on with. :-)

Friday 14 August 2009

Three short reviews

Time, once again, to catch up with a few short reviews.

Several people, including my eldest daughter, reckoned I should read Skulduggery Pleasant - I accordingly did just that, so I'll start with that book and then move on to the first two Inspector Montalbano books by Andrea Camilleri.

A funeral brings the Edgely family together - that of Gordon Edgley, one of three disparate brothers. Gordon was twelve year old Stephanie's favourite uncle and it was no secret that the two got along very well. It shouldn't have come as any surprise then that he leaves Stephanie the vast majority of his estate, including his very large mansion. At the funeral, and also at the reading of the will a few days later, is a very strange man - strange in that his entire face is covered with a scarf and sunglasses. He tells Stephanie that he is Skulduggery Pleasant, a sort of private detective. One night, alone in the mansion, she's attacked by persons unknown, using magic, and saved by Skulduggery. It is then that Stephanie makes the discovery that the detective is in fact a skeleton. She decides to join him in his fight against the dark, much against Skulduggery's better instincts, and is introduced to a world of magic that she had no idea existed. That it is also an incredibly dangerous world she soon discovers for herself, when her own life is in mortal danger and Skulduggery not always around to save her.

Who would have thought of a magical private detective who is a skeleton? Amazing what Young Adult fantasy authors are coming up with - no wonder this genre is one of the biggest growth areas in publishing at the moment. Derek Landy is Irish I believe and wrote screenplays before starting on this YA series, and all power to his elbow for his originality. I loved the pacey plot and the humorous dialogue, especially between Stehanie and Skulduggery who have such a refreshingly unsentimental relationship. I would recommend this for slightly older teens as it is fairly violent. Other than that I would say it could be enjoyed by *all* ages as it really is great fun.

Next up The Shape of Water and The Terracotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri.

The Shape of Water is the first book featuring the Italian detective, Inspector Salvo Montalbano. The setting is a small town in Sicily, and Montalbano a single man of mature years with a girlfriend who lives in Northern Italy. This first story involves the finding of the body of a local politician, half naked, in an area of the town known for prostitution. It's assumed he died of natural causes, during or after illicit sex, but Montalbano is not happy with that assumption and continues with the case long after his superiors wish him to. It brings him all kinds of problems as he deals with corrupt politicians, the local Mafia and the ineptness of his own staff.

In The Terracotta Dog an old school friend of Montalbano's, now a pimp, sets up a meeting with the detective and a Mafia boss who wants to turn himself in. A supermarket is robbed but the goods found abandoned the next day. And then an elderly member of the fascist party has a fatal accident which, it turns out, is not an accident after all. Montalbano is eventually led to a cave in a hillside, near the town, in which arms are discovered and thence on to discover a hidden cave behind that. Here the skeletons of two lovers are found, along with a Terracotta dog, an empty water jug and a bowl containing old coins. In the course of other investigations Montalbano is shot and thus gains the time to fully investigate what turns out to be a World War II mystery of many twists and turns.

I'm new to this series of crime books; having seen them blogged about elsewhere I thought they sounded interesting, as I do enjoy a crime yarn set in another country. Sicily is depicted as ridden with corruption and very much influenced by the Mafia; I know nothing about the island so have no idea how true to life this actually is. To tell the truth, even after reading two books, I'm still not sure whether or not I like the series (there are 10 so far). I'm finding Inspector Montalbano to be rather arrogant and not particularly likeable - he still has to endear himself to me in some unfathomable way.

The Shape of Water was not a bad story - I read it several weeks ago and my impression of it now is confused. Mainly I think because I found it hard to remember quite a large cast of characters and their, obviously, Italian names. Hopefully I'll get used to that. The second book, The Terracotta Dog, I found a bit more interesting but even that one didn't take off for me until about halfway through when the inspector starts his investigations into local events during WW2. Then it became a very human story that really did resonate with me.

One warning I feel I should add for anyone thinking of reading these books. There is a certain amount of sexual explicitness about them, and bad language. I'm not particularly put off by that but I know some are, so I think it only fair to warn people. Put it this way, if my mother was still alive I would not give her these books to read!

So, will I continue with the series? Yes, I will. There's just enough about them to keep me interested, though I'm hard put to put my finger on what. I know that's a bit ridiculous, but there you go. I have book 3 on my library pile as a matter of fact but may take it back unread and get it out later in the year; I'm not sure I want to read another one quite so quickly.


Two of these books, Skulduggery Pleasant and The Terracotta Dog, count for the Support your Local Library challenge being hosted by J.Kaye, for which I've now read 18 of my 25 books.

Sunday 9 August 2009

A walk along the tow-path

We took our grandson for a stroll along the tow-path of our local canal yesterday. I know I've put canal pics up here before but this is a different part, further out from the town. The canal is The Grand Western canal that runs from east Devon into Somerset. It's only 12 miles long because they ran out of money and just stopped building. It's now a nature reserve and a lovely amenity for this part of Devon.

There seemed to be a fishing competition going on...

My husband and grandson looking at tiddlers (minnows we thought) in the water.

There was so much 'green' everywhere you looked. I'm not much of a 'summer' fan, prefer autumn and spring, but when it's green like this I don't mind so much.

Fields of corn.

The Blackdown Hills in the distance.

Wildflowers all along the tow-path.

Surely a goblin path?

Me, myself and I.

And last but not least, a special one for Deslily.

Saturday 8 August 2009

The Stolen Child

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue is one of those books that was blogged about quite a lot a couple of years ago. I read quite a few reviews, some loved it, some didn't, and some were halfway inbetween. I have a slight fascination with fairies and goblins or... as they're referred to in this book... hobgoblins. So I bought the book and, as often happens with me, it sat on the bookshelf, sad and neglected and crushed to death by the other 300 odd books on Mount Toobieread. Anyway, to cut a long story long it was, at last, time to read it - not for a challenge or anything like that, it was simply 'time'.

Henry Day is seven the day he runs away from home and hides in the woods. The incident is the perfect opportunity for the hobgoblin group, who have been watching him for some time with a view to creating a changeling, to kidnap him. He is snatched and a hobgoblin takes Henry's place and life in the world of humans. The real Henry becomes 'Aniday' and after initiation wakes up confused and disorientated. He is now a changeling, with a new life and new companions. He will take his place in the goblin heirarchy and, eventually, it will be his turn to 'change', but this could take a hundred years or more. As the years pass Aniday makes friends as well as enemies, but all the while he can't help wondering who he really is; sometimes he remembers parents, sisters, a past life, but it's all very hazy. Meanwhile the replacement Henry is living Henry's life. His position in his new family is shaky. He discovers a talent for music and his mother adores him for this; his father doesn't and senses something's not right, distancing himself from the fledgling genius his son has become. And all the while the new Henry, while distancing himself from the hobgoblin group he has left, is also uneasy about where his musical talent has come from. He sets out to discover who he was in his previous life, before he became a changeling in the 1800s. What he discovers is a shock and will bring him back into contact with the one whose life he stole.

I think I might have been expecting a bit more of a fairytale than this story actually is. More of a fantasy story perhaps but this book is not actually that kind of thing. Yes, there is a hobgoblin group who are weird and wonderful but this is no Lord of the Rings kind of tale. It's much more of a human story about fitting in and being 'normal', whatever that is. Human relationships play a big part, how we and our parents deal with raw talent, is it always a good thing? And it's also about growing up and falling in love and how that's affected by an obsession, because both Henry and Aniday are obsessed, in their different ways, with finding themselves.

I liked this book an awful lot. Each successive chapter is told, first from 'Henry's' pov, and then Aniday's, and for me this worked well. It was almost like a series of short stories that charted scenes from both their lives. I cared very much what happened to both and found their respective journeys fascinating; Aniday's compulsion to write down his life history for instance, or Henry's need to go to Germany to further his own investigations. The story itself is beautifully written, gorgeous descriptions of the forests of - I think - Pennsylvania and the way in which progress and urbanisation affects the land. This book will stay with me for a while and might even make it onto my favourite books of the year list.