Thursday 30 June 2011

June books

I'm just back from a few days in South Wales, armed and dangerous with loads of photos - the beautiful gardens at The Museum of Welsh Life, Caerphilly Castle, and the Welsh coastline - a few of which I'll try to post over the weekend.

In the meantime it's the end of the month and time for a run-down of what I've managed to read in June:

33. Cloudworld - David Cunningham
34. The Chatham School Affair - Thomas H. Cook
35. Body Double - Tess Gerritsen
36. Death at La Fenice - Donna Leon
37. Storm Front - Jim Butcher
38. The Warden - Anthony Trollope
39. Flying Visits - Clive James
40. Paradise Barn - Victor Watson
41. Voice of the Violin - Andrea Camilleri
42. Clockwork Angel - Cassandra Clare

Ten books this month. This sounds a lot for me, who averages five to seven books a month, but several of these were quick reads and some were the 'unputdownable' kind which you just have keep reading until you've finished... Tess Gerritsen for instance. Any rate, *all* were excellent books and June goes down as a very good reading month indeed.

My final two books for the the month were, firstly, Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri:

This is book four of the author's Inspector Montalbano series, set on the island of Sicilly. Montalbano discovers the body of a woman, bound and suffocated on her bed. The suspects for the murder are many, including her husband, her lover, a slightly retarded admirer, a doctor, and even the victim's best friend whom Montalbano is attracted to. The inspector has his work cut out this time, not only to discover the perpetrator of this hideous crime but also defending himself against his superior officers, who lack confidence in him.

I decided to give up on this series a while ago because I didn't like Montalbano very much, but I changed my mind. I'm glad I did. This is the best so far... not confusing as a couple of them have been... but a good, solid, easy to follow plot that was fast paced and surprising. Not to mention peppered with the usual humour and excellent cuisine. I'll not be giving up on this series again.

And secondly, Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare:

Sixteen year old Tessa Gray arrives in Victorian London expecting to be met by her brother, Nathaniel: he's not there. Instead, two very strange women escort Tessa to their home where things very quickly turn bad. It seems Tessa has some latent talent, which the sisters need to bring out... and not in a kindly manner - Tessa is a prisoner. Eventually Tessa discovers that the talent she possesses is to 'change' into any person she wants. Her other discovery is that the sisters are preparing her to be the wife of 'The Magister', but who this person is, Tessa has no idea. She escapes and takes refuge with a band of Shawdowhunters whose mission in life is to uphold the laws of the magical world. But they all know that the Magister will come after her with every weapon he has... daemons, vampires, warlocks and even an army of clockwork automatons. And Tessa still does not know where her brother is...

Very enjoyable this, if you like YA horror yarns that keep you on your toes with their twists and turns. Characterisation is good, the young people all feel like real people with real reactions, jealousies and faults. There's a bit of a romantic aspect to the books, which I liked, and a very real mystery element. The magical elements mix very well with Victorian London and it's suitably seedy and at times frightening. It should be explained that this is book one of a new 'prequel' series to Cassandra Clare's 'Mortal Instruments' series, which I've not read. Book two is out in December and in the meantime I'll probably read that previous series which is connected but set in modern times. I gather it's very good so the wait until December should not be too arduous.

And now I can't decide what to read. I have Barchester Towers already started on my Kindle but I like to read a proper book alongside a Kindle read. My grand-daughter loaned me Magyk by Angie Sage to reread, as she wants me to read the rest of that series but I can't remember a lot of what happens in that first book, so I may reread that. Or Vanish by Tess Gerritsen, or I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett which I picked up in Cardiff. I also picked up two crime books by Karin Slaughter, people tell me she's an excellent crime writer. I don't know... decisions, decisions.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Three short reviews

I've been reading up a storm this week but not had a chance to review anything. So, as I often do, I'm going to review three books briefly to get myself caught up.

First up, The Warden by Anthony Trollope.

Septimus Harding is precentor of the cathedral at Barchester, which means that he's responsible for the choir. He is also warden of the church-run almhouses, or 'hospital' as it's known, and lives in the lovely attached house with his youngest daughter, Eleanor. Eleanor is almost engaged to John Bold, a well known reformer who tends to take up causes which generally end up in court. Bold decides that his next 'cause' will be that of the elderly men who live in the hospital. The hospital is funded by a very old legacy and Bold feels the warden is making too much money from this will, money which ought to go to the inhabitants themselves. The warden, a gentle and unassuming man, wonders if he might be right in this but of course the church, mainly in the shape of the warden's son-in-law (eldest daughter's husband), Archdeacon Grantly, vehemently disagrees. Confusion and mayhem ensue while the matter is investigated.

This was my very first encounter with Anthony Trollope, apart from a volume of his travel memoirs I read a couple of years ago. I've no idea why I held off so long. Possibly I felt these church based novels might be a bit dry and, granted, the first couple of chapters do require a bit of concentration while the details are explained. After that though the story takes off and quickly becomes unputdownable. You can't help but feel for the unassuming warden as he's pulled this way and that while always trying to do the right thing. The reforming John Bold seems to be in it for self-advancement, and it's hard to understand how he could do this to the father of his prospective wife. And then there's Dr. Grantly, the archdeacon, who's a wonderful character, full of himself but with his heart in the right place. The tale is told with humour and honesty and the writing is just sublime. I loved it and have already downloaded the rest of the Barchester books to my Kindle and started on book two - Barchester Towers.

Next, Flying Visits by Clive James.

A few Brits, as advanced in age as me, will probably remember Australian journalist, Clive James, and the various shows of his that have been on TV in the UK... chat shows, review shows and so on. He was known mainly for his sharp wit and caustic observations. Before he became a TV personality, he was a newspaper journalist working for The Observer here in the UK. Flying Visits includes a succession of articles written by him for that newspaper between the years 1976 to 1983. Basically they recount his trips overseas visiting famous cities - New York, Tokyo, Rome, Salzburg, Paris, Washington, LA and many more. The highlight for me was his trip to China with Mrs. Thatcher and her entourage, told very amusingly and self-deprecatingly - there were times when I was in fits of laughter. The author is so well-known that it's very easy to read the entire book in his voice and I think that helps to 'get' his witty style and makes it funnier. I'm now after getting more of his work and plan to download a couple of volumes of his essays onto my Kindle, plus check the library.

James is now doing a weekly TV review column for the Saturday Telegraph and those can be sampled here. They're well worth a look.

Lastly, Paradise Barn by Victor Watson.

It's September 1940, WW2 is raging, and a dead body has been found, by the canal, in the small village of Great Deeping near Ely in Cambridgeshire. Two best friends, Mary and Abigail, begin to investigate but their fledgling investigations come to a temporary halt when Adam, an evacuee from London, arrives. Adam is an artist, Mary a quiet, thoughtful girl, while Abigail is bossy and exuberant. Between them they make a good team and the three soon find a missing flower press and famous stolen painting in Paradise Barn, one of their playing haunts. But what is the connection between these items and the dead man? Do two new paying guests in Mary's mother's guest house bear any relevance to the case? The children decide to keep their secrets until the case is solved but this unwittingly takes them into more danger than they can possibly imagine.

What a lovely book for young teenagers. I think this is a brilliant way to teach children about the war without them realising they're being taught. The children are very nicely drawn, all very different, character-wise, and their thoughts, fears, reactions are very well presented. The setting of a sleepy Cambridgeshire village is beautifully depicted... the drawing of it at the beginning reminded me of something from a Milly-Molly-Mandy book and to be honest, it had that olde worlde feeling to it. I liked it a lot and will recommend it to my grand-daughter to read as I think she would love it. There is a second book too, The Deeping Secrets, and I already have that on my library pile. The two books were recommended by Jen at Stories for Jennimen.

Monday 20 June 2011

Once Upon a Time V wrap-up post

The last three months seem to have absolutely flown by and all of a sudden Carl's Once Upon a Time V challenge is over - officially finishes today I think.

Out of all the options for the challenge the one I chose was:

This was to: read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

I managed to cover that quite nicely with seven books read and those were:

1. Beauty - Robin McKinley
2. The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde
3. Lost in a Good Book - Jasper Fforde
4. The Door into Fire - Diane Duane
5. The Court of the Air - Stephen Hunt
6. The Islands of the Blessed - Nancy Farmer
7. Storm Front - Jim Butcher

I can say, without a word of a lie, that all of these books were excellent reads. I think I managed, somewhat inadvertently, to start several new series. This is balanced, hopefully, by the fact that I also managed to read four books off my tbr pile. I could have done a bit better in that respect but four is better than none at all. I also managed to actually finish a series (Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls) which could even be a first for me. LOL. Oddly, I don't really have a favourite among them. If pushed... and I mean really pushed... I might name The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt.

Despite its faults, it was a cracking read with world building that, to me, was amazing. And it was steampunk enough to introduce me to that branch of the fantasy genre and create a new fan.

So that's it, the Once Upon a Time challenge over for another year. I've loved participating and many thanks to Carl for hosting once again.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Saturday snapshot

I've never done Saturday snapshot before but several people I follow seem to have done it today and as I was taking some photos in the garden this morning, here goes:

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books To participate in this meme post a photo that you (or a friend or family member) have taken then leave a direct link to your post in the Mister Linky. Photos can be old or new, and be of any subject as long as they are clean and appropriate for all eyes to see. How much detail you give in the caption is entirely up to you. Please don't post random photos that you find online.

This patch of ferns is part of a fern and hosta bed we're making at the side of the house. The side window of our sitting room looks out on this bed so when we sit and read or watch TV in that room, this is what we see. Or some of it. I'm rather in love with all the leaf shapes and different shades of green, the shadows etc., not all of which can be seen from these two photos. At the moment, the whole bed looks like this:

What I'm looking forward to is what it will look like in two years time.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Storm Front

At last I've read Storm Front by Jim Butcher! So many people adore the Harry Dresden series, and I actually bought this first book about 2 years ago in order to see what the fuss was all about. And there it sat, on the shelf like many other 'must reads', mocking me. Well, no more, I've read it now and can hold my head up high. Not only that, it counts as my book 7 for Carl's Once Upon a Time 5 challenge and, likely as not, my last book for that book challenge.

Harry Dresden is a private detective, a *special* private detective... he happens to be the only wizard PI in Chicago. Mainly he covers his own cases, although business is poor, but he also helps Chicago P.D. out with cases that are unexplained or that clearly concern magic.

A woman comes to see Harry and asks her to help find her husband. It seems he's been dabbling in magic and has gone off somewhere: the woman is concerned he may have injured himself. Then Harry gets a call from Murphy, at the police department, to attend a crime scene. When he arrives at the hotel room he finds a man and woman in bed... dead and having clearly been attacked by something magical. The carnage is appalling.

The White Council, a sort of ruling body of wizards, is also after Harry, thinking he might be behind the murders. Morgan, another wizard, has been watching him for years hoping he might slip up and reveal his true personna. The fact that Harry is actually one of the good guys having not quite sunk in. Suddenly, Harry's life is not quiet any more. It's much busier and downright dangerous than he would actually like it to be. So dangerous in fact that Harry is certain his death will be the inevitable result of his own investigations.

I can well understand why this series is so popular. It's rather a nice mix of crime and magic and for me that's always a winner. Harry as a character is all kinds of shades of grey. A wizard and a good guy but also very human with foibles and full of uncertainties. His life is complicated and not many people are willing to give him a break. I got rather annoyed on his behalf about that, I must admit. People who should have trusted him didn't, although I suppose if they had given him the benefit of the doubt there wouldn't have been any story so...

A good start to a 'new to me' series. The plot fair galloped along, pacey and exciting, the narrative reminding me of 1930s style crime yarns with the downtrodden PI being manipulated by person or persons unknown - nothing being quite what it seems. I certainly plan to continue with the series but will get them from the library in future as there are rather a lot and I can't justify buying a stack of books I probably won't reread, much as I suspect I'm going to enjoy them.

Monday 13 June 2011

Library Loot!

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Marg at The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and Claire at The Captive Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries!

It's been a while since I did a library loot post and they're probably all different now to what they were in the last post and so... it's time.

The lefthand pile:

Notes from a Big Country - Bill Bryson. I think this is his newspaper columns from when he moved back to the USA temporarily. Whatever, his books are always a joy.

Clockwork Angel - Cassandra Clare. Recommended by my eldest daughter. I think it might be steampunk.

The Voice of the Violin - Andrea Camilleri. Book er... 3 or 4 I think... of Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series that I decided not to continue with but changed my mind. Story of my life.

Paradise Barn and The Deeping Secrets - Victor Watson. About a group of children during World War 2 and came highly recommended by Jenny at Stories for Jennimen.

The righthand pile:

The Well of Lost Plots - Jasper Fforde. Book 3 in his Thursday Next series that I've come to like over the last few months.

Red Bones - Ann Cleeves. Book 3 in her Jimmy Perez series... another brilliant crime series.

Vanish - Tess Gerritsen. I got it!!!! I was on the library doorstep almost as they opened and then couldn't find the d*** book. LOL. Turns out it was on the 'just returned' shelf. Anyway, book 5 of her Rizzoli and Isles series of course. I should've got my husband to take a photo of me cleaving it to my bosom...

Places in the Dark - Thomas H. Cook. Recced to me in my previous post by Danielle of A Work in Progress. I checked the library for it this morning and there it was, so I nabbed it.

The King's Speech - Mark Logue and Peter Conrad. I haven't even seen the film yet, but we have it on order so should be able to see it this week sometime. My younger daughter was reading this and said it was a terrific read, so I nabbed it from her.

So, my New Year decision to try not to borrow more than 4 or 5 library books at time has gone for a Burton really. It never did stand much chance and I probably knew it at the time. I reassure myself by telling myself that libraries are in danger everywhere at the moment and if we don't use them, we'll lose them. So I'm busy using mine. See? I feel better already.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Three crime and mystery books

Well this past week has been a reasonably quiet one so I decided it would be nice to have a book binge - a crime and mystery book binge to be exact. I had three library books lined up, ready for the off, and started with The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook.

Henry Griswald, an elderly resident of the small town of Chatham, on Cape Cod, looks back to the year 1927. Then he was a teenage boy, son of the headmaster of a private school for the wealthy, in the town. In that year his father had hired a new art teacher, Elizabeth Channing. Her upbringing had been rather Bohemian, her father not sending her to school but instead taking her around Europe to educate her, and never settling anywhere. The father had written a book about this way of life. Henry, disenchanted with life in a small American town and thoroughly disliking his parents, is heavily influenced by the freedowm and lack of responsibility aspect of this lifestyle. What follows as he becomes involved with Miss Channing and her growing closeness to another teacher, Leland Reed, a war veteran and married man, is a catalogue of misunderstandings and tragedies and testament to the saying: never assume anything.

I'm not saying any more about this book as the twists and turns are what makes it such an enjoyable read and it's much better to know nothing before you start. The book itself meanders all over the place from present day, back to 1927 and then forward again, slowly drip feeding the reader little snippets of imformation. It's extremely well done. You know something awful will eventually be revealed, you think you know what it is, but the end surprised even me. Excellent, excellent read: loved it. I have Danielle at A Work in Progress to thank for this rec and I shall certainly be seeking out more books by this author.

Next: Body Double by Tess Gerritsen.

Pathologist Maura Isles has been at a conference in Paris and is arriving home from the airport. She's met in her street by the police: someone has been shot dead in their car. Detective Jane Rizzoli is reluctant to let her see the body but when she eventually does see it Maura has a profound shock. The dead woman is a mirror image of herself; eventually they even discover she has Maura's blood group and DNA. What's going on? Is there a connection between this and the kidnapping and killing epidemic that's going on in Maine? Maura's quest for answers takes her to a small coastal town in that state but also on a personal journey of her own to discover who she really is.

Oh gosh. Can this series get any better? I love, love, love Maura and Jane. Their stories are very different but I love the way Tess Gerritsen uses their personal lives as background to this series... intertwining them with the crime stories themselves. This makes the books very personal and the reader becomes very involved. The writing too is excellent, there are no frills just pacey plot and dialogue and no time wasted on extraneous details. And... you know...just the sheer cleverness of this particular book in the series (it's book 4) blew me away. It was literally fascinating what happens here... I devoured it in a day and a bit, just could not put it down. Book 5, Vanish, came back to our library on Saturday and I'm going to be on the doorstep first thing Monday morning to grab it before anyone else does. I have Elaine at Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover to thank for recommending this series and I am *so* grateful.

Lastly, Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon.

A world famous German conductor, Helmut Wellauer, is murdered, mid-performance, at the La Fenice opera house in Venice. It seems it was cyanide and it was in his coffee which he drank in the interval. Commissario of police, Guido Brunetti, is called to solve the murder. It sould be straightforward but it's anything but. Helmut turns out to have been thoroughly unlikeable, holding some extreme views, and not afraid to use information gathered against people. Thus he has many enemies. But who amongst the cast and staff had a strong a enough motive for murder? Well, practically everyone as it turns out...

Well, this is the first book in Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti series of crime books, set in Venice. I thought it was absolutely delightful. I haven't been to Venice but the sense of place seemed to me to be spot on. It appeared that this was not necessarily the Venice that the tourist sees and I found that extra fascinating. Brunetti is surrounded by cast of many, his wife, Paola, teenage children, Paola's parents that Guido seems not to understand at all. There's quite a lot of humour in his relations with others, particularly his extremely vain and useless boss. The crime itself, well I kind of had an idea who it was, but the 'why' was a surprise I must admit. A good start to a new series for me and I once again have Elaine at Random Jottings to thank for the rec.

Next... back to Carl's Once Upon a Time V challenge with Storm Front by Jim Butcher.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Cloud World

Cloud World by David Cunningham was one of those random grabs from the library. I have to say, I was attracted by its cover, (it's by David Wyatt) which is really rather gorgeous and appeals to the ever present 'other worlds' fascination I've had since the age of five when I started school, was told to draw a picture, and drew aliens from another planet. I did think that this book might be YA fantasy and could be read for Carl's Once Upon a Time challenge, but as I started to read I quickly realised it is in fact YA science fiction.

Marcus is fourteen and lives in Heliopolis. His father is the king which naturally means that Marcus is heir to the throne. His life is rather a lonely one. His father is away a lot and the two people he's closest to are Asperia, his tutor, and Titus, head of the army, who is training Marcus in everything to do with combat.

The city of Heliopolis is one of a number of citadel city states that exist above the clouds. The cities look out on a sea of cloud that is so dense that no one knows what lies beneath it. Those who have tried to find out have never returned.

The king's return from a state visit is long overdue. Eventually a messenger arrives to say that his ship was destroyed and plummeted into the clouds. It is not known how this happened. Two ships are sent to investigate with Marcus and Titus aboard one of them. There's not much hope but perhaps someone can be lowered down far enough to spot wreckage. Various ropes and pulleys are assembled but Titus, oddly, leaves Marcus's ship for their companion ship. The cage is lowered when suddenly the other ship opens fire and a battle ensues. The ship Marcus is on is damaged badly enough that it plummets from the skies, through the cloud layer, and into the sea below.

Just a few of the crew, including Marcus, survive and are washed ashore onto an alien landscape. Marcus is devastated at the betrayal of his close friend, Titus, and also still grieving for the loss of his father. As heir to the throne the survivors are wary of Marcus, unsure how they'll survive themselves let alone keep a prince alive. Marcus has a lot to prove. He must try to blend in with the crew, be as useful as possible, but most of all they must explore this place they've come to... and find a way to get home and reclaim Heliopolis.

Quite a little gem this one. I was most taken by the world building, fascinated by the idea of these cities above the clouds, interacting, warring, the heirarchy that exists etc. The mystery element - that they have no idea how they got there, why the cities were built *or* what lies beneath the clouds, is extremely intriguing. I personally love the mix of science fiction and mystery and it's well done here. Possibly I would have liked more about the other cities and the technology, as it appears they were all different. I can see that if this had been an adult science fiction book a wonderfully complicated and long series might have ensued that was imaginative and challenging. I think I might have liked that but as a YA book it works well and is not a problem.

Characterisation in the book is fine... but not brilliant by any means. You don't get a huge sense of who these people are and what makes them tick. Some male authors don't seem to go in for making their main characters well rounded people: the mix of good and bad that we all are is often not well represented. And other characters that I can't go into for fear of spoilers are a little cliched in my opinion: too black and white. I'm not sure if authors are told to write this way for children or what, but it does seem a shame not to write people as they really are.

All that said, I still enjoyed this book very much. It's very imaginative and the final chapters, which obviously I can't describe, had me on the edge of my seat they were so full of suspense and excitment. This is a two book series so there is a sequel - Cloud World at War. Annoyingly, Devon libraries doesn't have a copy anywhere in the county. Did I enjoy this book enough to buy the sequel? Yes, I think I probably did... although I might try putting in a request to my library to actually get book 2 first.


Wednesday 1 June 2011

May books and photos

A busyish May followed a busyish April, so my reading was down a little last month. Or maybe I'm getting slower... who knows. It matters not one jot really because I enjoyed the five books I did read very much indeed.

28. The Court of the Air - Stephen Hunt
29. Twenties Girl - Sophie Kinsella
30. The Sinner - Tess Gerritsen
31. Islands of the Blessed - Nancy Farmer
32. Neither Here Nor There - Bill Bryson

I think I've reviewed three of them. The other two, The Sinner and Neither Here Nor There I haven't had time to do and am not going to stress over it. Both were excellent. The Sinner is book three in the Rizzoli and Isle series by Tess Gerritsen and I've said elsewhere what a good series this is. Book three was terrific and I gather the series gets even better. Neither Here Nor There tracks Bill Bryson's trip around Europe at the end of the 1990s. It was very, very good. Funny, honest, and informative and made me want to go to Italy. :-)


We took a day trip up to North Cornwall on Monday, with our grand-daughter who's been staying here for a few days. I snapped a few photos of Bude - they're not great but I thought I would share.

It was overcast, damp and blustery so we had picnic of hot Cornish pasties in the car and this is the view from close to where we were parked, at Widemouth Bay near Bude.

Looking the other way.

There were drifts of Thrift all over the place. Going over slightly now but still quite pretty to see.

And is this weird or what? This stuff looks like a spider's web but I don't think it is. A passing couple said they thought it was done by some kind of caterpillar and they might be right as I saw something similar on TV programme recently.

The weather started to clear and we moved closer to the town where they have this nice canal area leading to yet another beach.

I'm not sure why boats always look so scenic but they really do!

The beach and cliffs beyond... wonderful walks up there, all part of the South West coastal path of course.

Braver souls than me were in the water surfing, sail-boarding and so on. Some pointedly ignoring the life-guard's announcements to please move out of the danger zone. It all looked dangerous to me but then I'm famously lily-livered about these things.

And last but not at all least, this cute feller (or feller-ess) turned up on our drive last week:

It seems we have a family of hedgehogs in the garden as my husband saw a smaller one lower down on the drive a couple of days later. I sort of wish they'd stay in amongst the trees and undergrowth as I'd hate for one of them to get run over. Nice as it is to actually see them around. But what a cutie!