Monday 25 October 2010

Three books in brief

As seems to be the case more often than not with me these days, I'm three books behind again. So here goes with another three book post.

First up: The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards.

Some ten years ago a young woman, Emma Bestwick, disappeared in The Lake District and a journalist is pestering DCI Hannah Scarlett and her cold case team to reopen the case. Hannah is reluctant because it could be a simple case of the woman wanting to disappear, not a murder case, until someone starts calling the journalist with new information. Hannah reopens the case and is brought into contact with Daniel Kind again, as it was his father who headed the original case ten years ago. The attraction is still there and not helped by the fact that both of them are having troubles with their relationships with their partners. Hannah needs to employ all her skills as a detective to sort this one and keep Daniel out of her thoughts.

Brilliant. The first two books in this series were excellent and I think this one was even better. Fast paced, full of twists and turns, I just couldn't put this down. I like the use of an unknown narrator in parts of the book; that kept me guessing. I love the Lake Distrist setting but most off all I'm fascinated by Hannah and Daniel's relationship, and certain aspects of that move on apace in this instalment. Loved it and hope there are many more to come.

Next - A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch.

Charles Lennox is an amateur detective in Victorian times. His neighbour and friend, Lady Jane, calls him in to investigate the murder of a former maid who left her service to work for the employer of her fiance. There are many suspects in the house and many secrets that Charles simply cannot fathom. Someone else dies during a ball and Charles has his work cut out to untangle the web of deceit and lies surrounding these murders.

Well, I made it to the end so that says something but 'oh dear'. So many factual errors, implausibilities and lord knows what else really annoyed me about this one. The jacket proudly announces that the author went to Cambridge and (I think) Harvard or Yale. Goodness, if that's the case you would have thought he could have done some decent research into the period and got his facts right. Best sentence, from a British, Victorian, peer of the realm: 'He must've gotten it from the maid!' I actually laughed out loud. Which is a shame because there was a decent mystery here, trying to get out, which is why I did actually make it to the end.

Lastly - Over the Gate by Miss Read.

More about the village of Fairacre and its village school mistress, Miss Read. Includes a ghost story, strange tales of the history of the village and its inhabitants, harvest festival, Christmas, the annual outing to the seaside and much more. Perfect bedtime reading, gentle, evocative, delightful. Bought for a quid in the market in Carmarthen - bargain!

Thursday 14 October 2010

Blood Sinister

It's getting colder here in England. Almost cold enough to put the heating on and certainly cold enough for spooky, autumnal reads. Thus, I've just finished my fourth book for Carl's R.I.P. V challenge and that book was a YA horror story, Blood Sinister by Celia Rees.

It (the graveyard) was a wild place, strange and dangerous. Public notices barred access for good reason. There were no real pathways left, it was easy to get lost, and the ground was honeycombed with crumbling vaults and passages. In some places huge holes yawned under a thin disguise of grass and brambles. In others one step was enough to break through rotten brick to a pit deep enough to hide a house. Besides, even on the brightest day, it was a place of shadows. Crowded on all sides by streets and houses, it remained an island of eerie silence.

Sixteen year old Ellen is ill. Very ill. Fading away in fact and her family and the medical profession have no idea of the cause. She is sent to stay with her grandmother in London to be closer to the best medical help and an old childhood friend, Andy, is brought in to try and cheer her up.

Then Ellen discovers her great-grandmother's diaries from when she was Ellen's age, in the attic, and begins to read. Her great-grandmother, also called Ellen, lived with her father who was a famous blood doctor. A man had come to stay, Count Franz Szekelys, his family known to her father while in Europe, but a stranger to Ellen. She doesn't like him, or his female companion, but her father seems strangely in thrall to these people.

Meanwhile, Andy, is proving a welcome diversion for the modern Ellen and they share the exicitement about the diaries. But her condition is not improving - if anything it's worsening and things come to a head when Ellen is admitted to hospital...

I wondered, while reading this book, what it would have been like if it had been written for adults. I decided it would have a lot more meat on its bones and imagined something like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. As it is, it's a Young Adult book and none the worse for that and I'm sure teens will enjoy it, but for me it lacked a bit of depth.

I liked the idea of Ellen discovering the diaries and that part was the most interesting for me - probably because I find Victorian Britain more interesting to read about in vampire yarns than modern. As can be seen from the quote above, there was a wonderful disused graveyard opposite Ellen's grandmothers's house but hardly any use was made of it in the book, even though it was quite important to the plot. (Two wonderful 'graveyard' books to my mind are Falling Angels by Tracey Chevalier and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.)

This is not a vampire yarn the like of which fill our bookshops at the moment. I quite like some of those but this made a nice change and was, in places, genuinely scary. Character-wise, I didn't really connect with Ellen or Andy, although the villain of the peace was pretty disturbing. That said, there was enough about the book to keep me reading to the end.

Not bad, a quick easy read... maybe get it from the library or nab my copy if you're really interested as it's going spare and will go back to the charity shop otherwise.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Pam Ayres

For those of us with husbands who have decided opinions. ;-)


Sunday 10 October 2010

I am...

My lovely friend, Pat, at Here, There and Everywhere devised this meme/game from a book she was reading, and I thought I would give it a go. It turns out to be not as easy as I thought.

Make a list of 20 things beginning with "I am". Do not drop the "a".. it must read: I am a...)

1. I am a woman, wife, mother and grandmother.
2. I am a person who questions things.
3. I am a reader.
4. I am a lover of soup.
5. I am a TV fan.
6. I am a gardener.
7. I am a good listener.
8. I am a collector of jazzy socks.
9. I am a person who likes to please.
10. I am a person who is not good at saying 'no'.
11. I am a person who tries to tolerate fools but has limited success.
12. I am a fan of winter.
13. I am a person who loves the sea.
14. I am a person who sometimes needs to take a deep breath and ignore a slight or something that has nothing to do with me.
15. I am a cook.
16. I am a person whose closest friends are online.
17. I am a KFC junkie.
18. I am a person who survives on 5 to 6 hours sleep a night.
19. I am a person who can be, as my grandma used to say, 'daft as a brush'.
20. I am a citizen of the planet, Earth... and isn't it beautiful at this time of year:


Saturday 9 October 2010

White Nights

Crime writer, Ann Cleeves, is a newish discovery for me. I read about her Shetland series on several blogs before trying the first book, Raven Black, in May. I liked it a lot and, on a recent trip to the seaside town of Teignmouth, grabbed a copy of book two, White Nights, from their library.

The 'white nights' the title of this book refers to revolves around the fact that the Shetland Isles, where this series is set, is very close to the Arctic Circle and thus experiences hardly any hours of darkness during the summer. Instead there's a kind of permanent dusk all night, referred to as 'white nights'. Residents of the isles feel that this unnatural light almost causes a kind of madness amongst the population.

Jimmy Perez is at an art exhibition, publicising the work of his new girlfried, Fran, (who featured in the last book) and local artist, Bella, when a complete stranger has a breakdown. He professes to have amnesia but Jimmy is suspicious for some reason he can't put his finger on. The man disappears when Jimmy's back is turned and Jimmy returns to the exhibition. Next morning a body is found in a fishing hut and it is the unknown Englishman who caused the scene the night before.

Who is this man? And what did he know about about the inhabitants of the small coastal hamlet of Bidista? Specifically, four people in their fifties who have grown up together, Bella, the famous artist, Aggie, Kenny and his wife, Edith. It doesn't take Jimmy long to realise that there are secrets, not only amongst these four but also amongst their children and Bella's nephew, Roddy. It's a can of worms and Perez is not helped by the fact that, once again, he has to wait for a more senior officer to come from the mainland to help solve the case *and* by the fact that when Taylor arrives he has a hard time coping with the 'white nights'.

I think I enjoyed this more than Raven Black and Raven Black was not at all a bad book. I would call this a pageturner. Ann Cleeves's writing is very readable and pacey with a lot going on plotwise and the reader can't help but keep on turning the pages. Perhaps a lot of crime yarns are like this... I don't know as I'm fairly new to the genre... I just know that some of the crime authors I've come to love seem to write these kind of compulsive reads!

One of the things that appealed to me particualarly was the use of secrets in the plot. I do love a story where all is not as it seems and the characters have deep dark secrets that the reader has to try and guess at. I have to admit that I guessed who'd done the deed very early on. It didn't spoil my enjoyment because, of course, I had no idea if I was right, but I also wanted to know the background and reasons for the crime. Sometimes that can be more interesting than who the culprit actually is and the whole thing was skilfully handled, in my opinion.

My only other comment is how much I love the setting of the Shetland Isles. I've never been lucky enough to go but, judging from the beauty of Ann Cleeves's descriptions, it's a bleak but hauntingly beautiful place and I would love to visit one day. Maybe not in the summer though...

Sunday 3 October 2010

Three books catch-up post

I'm behind with book reviews again so this is a three book catch-up post, three quick reviews of books I've been reading over the past few weeks.

First up, Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer which is my book three for Carl's R.I.P. V challenge.

Siblings Celia, Peter and Margaret have inherited The Priory from an uncle. Along with Celia's husband, Charles, and an elderly aunt, they go down to stay for a few weeks. The Priory itself is a rambling old house with the ruins of the old priory in the grounds. The place has an atmosphere and the locals in the village are known to stay away because it's reputed to be haunted: 'The Monk' has been seen in the grounds and in the house. Peter and Charles pooh-pooh the idea that the house is haunted but the women are nervous. Things begin to go bump in the night and weird groans are heard, culminating in a skull falling down the stairs and the discovery of bones in a priest's hole. What's going on? Is someone trying to frighten them away? If so who? There are culprits galore, a drug addicted artist, a moth collector and two dubious looking men staying at the inn. All have been caught wandering in the grounds of The Priory. Can the mystery be solved before someone is seriously hurt or even murdered?

This was great fun. I've read many of Heyer's Georgian and Regency romances and love them to bits but had no idea whether I would like her mysteries. Footsteps in the Dark was written in 1930s so is, of course, of its time. The main characters all speak with clipped, upper class, English accents, such as you might have heard in films of the period. Heyer's trade-mark humour is very apparent in the dialogue and in characters such as the planchette addicted, hard of hearing, old aunt. Someone on Amazon likened the plot to an episode of Scooby Doo... I laughed but yes, they are spot on actually. Personally, I saw Enid Blyton for adults, with secret passages, hidden entrances to the house and all kinds of skulduggery and high jinks going on, plus a bit of romance. Loved it and will definitely read more of Georgette Heyer's mysteries.

Next, Summer by Edith Wharton.

Charity Royall is the adopted daughter of Lawyer Royall. She was originally from the nearby 'mountain', a rather mysterious area where the small population live in abject poverty. Bored and frustrated in the small rural town in Massachusetts, Charity manages to secure a job as the sole librarian in the town library. In walks Lucius Harney, one day, an architect studying local old houses. Charity gradually gets to know him and, seeing her escape route from small town to big city, embarks on an affair, scandalising her father and the entire village.

This is only my second book by Edith Wharton (the first being The House of Mirth) although I have read a few of her supernatural short stories. The writing is always fantastic, readable and beautifully descriptive. The sense of being in the mountains of Massachusetts was atmospheric and overwhelming. But so was Charity's closeted, stultified life - and her desire to get out quite understandable. Edith Wharton clearly understood that vast armies of women were bored stupid by their lives and that this could drive them to reckless actions that, sadly, were often their undoing. This is not a cheerful book but one that teenage girls should read, imo, if only to understand how fortunate 21st. century women are in that they have opportunities girls like Charity could only dream of. Superb read.

Summer is my first book for the Classics challenge. Realistically, I don't think I'll be finishing this one, as it ends on the 31st of this month and I can't see me fitting in three more classics before then.

And lastly, Icons of England edited by Bill Bryson.

I'm pinching the Amazon synopsis for this as it's quite a few weeks since I finished it:

This celebration of the English countryside does not only focus on the rolling green landscapes and magnificent monuments that set England apart from the rest of the world. Many of the contributors bring their own special touch, presenting a refreshingly eclectic variety of personal icons, from pub signs to seaside piers, from cattle grids to canal boats, and from village cricket to nimbies. First published as a lavish colour coffeetable book, this new expanded paperback edition has double the original number of contributions from many celebrities including Bill Bryson, Michael Palin, Eric Clapton, Bryan Ferry, Sebastian Faulks, Kate Adie, Kevin Spacey, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, Richard Mabey , Simon Jenkins, John Sergeant, Benjamin Zephaniah, Joan Bakewell, Antony Beevor, Libby Purves, Jonathan Dimbleby, and many more: and a new preface by HRH Prince Charles.

Delightful, this one. Much of it was various celeb's memories of their childhood haunts, which to me was nice as I have similar childhood haunt memories of my own from 1960s Cornwall. And it seems we remember the same things - running wild in the woods, fields and streams, not getting home until teatime and then out again first thing in the morning. I suppose there must've been rainy days but I don't remember any. Since then, this kind of childhood has all but disappeared and how tragic is that? Of course there are other, more unusual choices. Tony Robinson chooses Mick Aston, the Time Team archaeologist, for instance (I agree!) and one person chose a Victorian sewage works in London. The funniest to my mind was Bill Bryson himself, questioning the point of seaside piers. Very enjoyable, recommended as a bedtime read or for American Anglophiles who will love it.