Saturday 31 May 2014

Books read in May

Not a bad reading month was May, all told. Nine books, all pretty good... which is all you can ask for really. Anyway, this is they:

37. The Cuckoo's Egg by C.J. Cherryh

38. The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

39. A Fete Worse then Death by Delores Gordon-Smith

40. Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold

41. The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

42.The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett

43. Detective Stories from the Strand Magazine edited by Jack Adrian

44. The River of Adventure by Enid Blyton (To be reviewed)

45. Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell (To be reviewed)

As usual these days I seem to have specialised in crime yarns, with five of them involving crime of some sort, six if you count The River of Adventure! Most of these qualified for one or even two of the six challenges I'm doing at the moment and those are mostly going really well. There's just one I'm being a bit slow with but it - like most of my challenges this year - still has seven months to run so I'm not having sleepless nights over it just yet...

Anyway, I ought to name a favourite out of my nine books. I always um and ah a bit over this because I read some good ones this month, but really there's one serious contender and that's:

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths. I gobble each book in this series up like there's no tomorrow and it's one of the few series where I wait avidly for each new book. This latest was one of the best so far.

Looking forward, as I always do, to starting a new reading month. Not sure what I'll read, although you can bet your firstborn that crime yarns will be in there somewhere. Authors I may read next month include Edmund Crispin, D.E. Stevenson, Agatha Christie, Tamora Pierce, Angela Thirkell. And I seriously need to read some non-fic next month as, although I'm halfway through one, I have no actual completed titles on my list for May. Someome should give me a slapped wrist.

Happy June reading!


Sunday 25 May 2014

A couple of titles

I was going to make this a three book post until I realised that this coming week is half-term and I'll be busy being a grandma. Likely as not, another book will not be read before then and as I wanted to post something this will be a two book post rather than a three. Works for me. :-)

First up, The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett. This is my book six for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII and my book sixteen for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

The wizards at the Unseen University are searching for Rincewind but he's not in his room. What is there is a portal to another place, just outside the window, and they step through to have a look. It's a tropical island but when the university's female house-keeper comes through after them and accidently closes the window, thus closing the portal, they're stranded. Meanwhile, Rincewind is striding across the bush on the Last Continent which may or may not be Australia. Things are not quite right here. Rincewind sees a talking kangaroo which seems to be following him but which is also able to disappear at will. The kangaroo gives him to understand that he has a mission for him to undertake to save The Last Continent but Rincewind is not good at heroic missions, he's much better at running away. What he doesn't realise is that he's running in the direction the kangaroo wants him to go - albeit with a few detours along the way. Meanwhile those wizards are still stranded and are not alone...

As always, this is a Terry Pratchett that's clever and entertaining. I loved the constant banter between the wizards on the island, in fact it was my favourite bit... hilarious on the subject of sex for instance. The trouble is, I did find this a trifle hard to follow in places. Muddled. Possibly I wasn't paying close enough attention. Rincewind is not my favourite character (though he has grown on me) so that didn't help. Luckily, there was enough of Terry's trademark humour and extreme cleverness with words to keep me entertained. But not my favourite Discworld book I'm afraid.

Next, Detective Stories from The Strand Magazine, edited by Jack Adrian.

The Strand Magazine was published from 1891 to 1950 and specialised in crime stories and fantastic tales. A list of the authors who had stories in the magazine reads like a roll call of the most famous authors Britain has produced. Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes short story, A Scandal in Bohemia, was published in The Strand (he'd had two novels published previous to that). H.G. Wells, E. Nesbit, Rudyard Kipling, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers... all had fiction in The Strand Magazine. What we have in Detective Stories from the Strand Magazine is, obviously, a selection of the best detective fiction.

The selection is divided into various categories: The Great Detectives, Legal Niceties, The Twist, Mostly Murder etc. The editor has included some very famous authors and thus starts with a terrific story, The Vampire of the Village by G.K. Chesterton and continues with an Agatha Christie, The Dream, a very good Poirot story that I'd not read before. He then finishes the section with three unknown authors to me, The Ginger King by A.E.W. Mason, The Ministering Angel by E.C. Bentley and Today of the Comet Year by H. Warner Allen. All three of these were beautifully written, absorbing stories. I particularly liked the E.C. Bentley and discovered the main character in this story, Philip Trent, has had several books written about him and I even managed to download one to my Kindle. Somerset Maughan and Aldous Huxley also have good stories in the volume but really it was the more obscure authors I enjoyed the most - Private Water by A.J. Alan, a smuggling tale, By Kind Permission of the Murdered Man by Hylton Cleaver, about a man who wants to be murdered and Inquest by Loel Yeo (no one knows who this author is but this rather good story was the only thing he/she ever had published). The collection ends with a four part section on Sherlock Holmes. Three were by Conan Doyle, one of which I'd already read, The Adventure of the Creeping Man (but had no objection to reading again) and two I hadn't - The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton and The Adventure of the Lion's Mane. The latter, was quite a surprise as it was a 'retired Holmes' story, written by him rather than Dr. Watson, and very good it was too. The last in this section, The Adventure of the First Class Carriage, was a Holmes story not written by Conan Doyle but by Ronald Knox. It wasn't bad but I prefer the real deal to be honest.

All in all this really was a terrifically good volume of vintage crime short stories. One or two weren't to my taste but in a collection of around twenty five stories 'one or two' is not bad at all. Without exception the quality of the writing was excellent. I liked the fact that they were 'of their time' and transported me nicely to a different era. It was also nice to find a few new authors to investigate but also to be reminded how good some of the best known crime writers are and why they're so popular.

I read this book for Bev's Vintage Mystery challenge and it covers the category, 'A Short Story Collection. It's also my book seventeen for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.


Monday 19 May 2014

The Outcast Dead

I'm still on a crime/mystery reading kick it seems, today it's The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths, book six in the author's 'Ruth Galloway' series.

Ruth Galloway, who is head of forensic archaeology at the University of Norfolk, has excavated the body of a woman in the grounds of Norwich castle. The shocking thing is the skeleton's hand has been replaced by a hook. It seems they have found the burial place of the notorious Jemima Green, known as Mother Hook, who was hanged in Victorian times for the murder of several children in her care. She looked after the children of women who couldn't look after them themselves, children born out of wedlock and so forth. Suddenly the department has the producers of a TV series, Women Who Kill, interested and they want Ruth to be part of the filming.

Meanwhile,DCI Harry Nelson has a serious case on his hands. A young child has died, the third child in a row to die in suspicious circumstance in his family. Did the mother kill three babies or is this just a terrible, blameless tragedy?

Ruth is trying to do her usual juggling act of doing her job properly, being a mum to toddler, Kate, and being a friend and confidant to friends and colleagues. The question of Kate's parentage - Harry is her father - is a constant tight-rope act but mostly she thinks she has it sorted. Then a child goes missing and Ruth is pulled into the case because she seems to know everyone concerned. Could there possibly be a connection between this current case and the long-dead Mother Hook?

If someone asked me to choose a favourite current crime series I'd be hard put to decide on just one. John Connolly's Charlie Parker books - even though they're part horror - would be up there in the running, Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple books also, and these, Elly Griffith's Ruth Galloway series. I've probably said it before but picking up each new one as it comes out is like visiting an old friend. The minute I start reading I'm back in Ruth's complicated world in Norfolk, experiencing her job frustrations, her complicated feelings for Harry Nelson, her love for Kate, the wild and beautiful place where she lives on the coast of the county. I just *love* this series. I can't really account for it because I know some don't care for them, but for me they're utterly brilliant. It's a good job we don't all like the same thing, that's all I can say.

I think it must a combination of things which attracts me. The first person narrative is perfect for displaying Ruth's character in all its contrariness. I suppose the things that irritate her would irritate me too and perhaps I identify with her very strongly. But it's not just Ruth, the multiple first-person points of view allow you to hear the thoughts of most of the main characters and it makes for quite a personal reading experience.

There's also a very gentle vein of humour that runs through every one of these books:

'What's going on with you and the American guy? The one that looks like George Clooney?'

'He doesn't look like George Clooney.'

'He looks more like George Clooney than anyone else in Norfolk.'

Ruth has to acknowledge the truth of this.'

And Elly Griffiths has rather a magical way of putting things:

'Judy wishes that she could drive on forever, that her husband and son would remain in an enchanted sleep, that she could keep going until the landscape grew wilder and the Pendle hills surrounded them and she was outside Cathbad's cottage, the sinister witch's dwelling that she has never seen.'

The author is so inside her character's heads it's almost scary. Every thought they have, usually funny or a bit mean... just like all of us... is there on the page and I love it. The books just keep on getting better and better and I hate finishing each new one and long for the next one to come out asap. I don't own them but have decided to buy them gradually for my Kindle and reread the whole lot in one big gulp at some stage. I may never fully recover.


Thursday 15 May 2014

More mystery novels

A couple more mystery novels today, one straightforward, the other a mix of fantasy and crime.

First up, A Fete Worse than Death by Dolores Gordon-Smith. This is my book five for the My Kind of Mystery which is being hosted by Riedel Fascination.

Jack Haldean is an ex-world war one fighter pilot who now writes crime novels for a living. He's staying at Hesperus, in Sussex, the country house owned by his uncle and aunt, and is attending a fete in their grounds with his cousin, Greg. He suddenly spots a man he served with in the RFC, Boscombe, and things are said which remind Haldean of how much he disliked the man. Some while later, still at the fete, Boscombe is discovered dead in the fortune teller's tent. The case is a real conundrum and Jack, always fascinated by real-life murder cases, begs the police detective in charge, Superintendent Ashley, to be allowed to help solve the murder. He soon lives to regret his enthusiasm as his family and friends come under close scrutiny. Worse still, he has to investigate a notorious event of the war and put himself into very real danger.

Oh, I liked this one very much indeed. It very much has the flavour of 1920s England, all country lanes and garden fetes, but also a very real sense of the horrors and senseless carnage of the war... and the cameraderie that existed between the men who fought. Jack Haldean is an interesting amateur detective, and I liked the way he realistically lost his taste for the thrill of the chase as regards the crime when it started to involve people he knew and loved. It was difficult for him and the author made no bones about depicting that. I also liked that the offical investigating detective was not an idiot... that made for a nice change too. The crime aspect itself I found interesting and absorbing, particularly the WW1 slant. All in all, a good start to a 'new to me' series. I went off immediately to grab the second book, Mad About the Boy, for my Kindle, for the princely sum of 84p from AmazonUK. Bargain.

Next up, Death By Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold. This is also a book five but this time for Carl's Once Upon A Time VIII challenge.

Ned Mathey is a newly qualified metaphysician in an alternative Victorian London, who is trying to establish a new practice. He's called in to help one Edgar Nevett who thinks he has a problem with cursed silver and wants Ned to see if it so and remove the curse if there is one. Ned is reluctant. Edgar is the father of Victor who was at shool with Ned and as a prefect and being much older than him bullied him mercilessly. But a job is a job and Ned goes and passes the silver as uncursed. Not long after, Ned gets word that Edgar has been murdered and the cause is likely a cursed silver candlestick. Luckily, the police take Ned's word for it that the silver was not cursed and a murder investigation ensues. Ned enrols his close friend and occasional lover, Julian Lynes, and together the two try to solve what is a very tangled web, made more difficult by the fact that Victor, the school bully, is the one who wants them to find out who did it. Can Ned and Julian put aside their hatred of Victor and solve the murder without prejudice?

Well this one was a bit different. Firstly, it's a solid crime story told amid a world where magic and its use is an everyday occurance. People charm household objects to make housework easier (yes please!), use love potions, and use magic to do away with people. The other difference is that Ned and Julian are gay and although this is against the law, as it would have been in real Victorian society, the authors don't hesitate to bring it into the story and use it as another author might use a straight romance. I found it refreshingly different... others might think it a little explicit. Just a word of warning. There are also quite a lot of descriptions of some rather nasty bullying. Again, it might not be to everyone's taste. If you're OK with that then there really is quite a good crime yarn here. I must admit I suspected the culprit from the start but it didn't spoil my enjoyment. I liked the world building, magic in a Victorian setting is always attractive to me, and I really liked Ned and Julian. I particularly liked the misunderstanding element of their romance. Possibly I would have liked a few less 'gottens' but it seems some American authors never are going to learn that we don't say that word over here so I'd better get over it. I'm hoping there might be more books about these two but as the book has only been out a year it's probably too early to know.


Thursday 8 May 2014

The Man in the Queue

Well, I'm back with my crime fic once again. I never can keep away for very long. Weird to think that up until the last four or five years I read hardly any crime fiction at all and now they're part of my staple reading diet. Today's offering is The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey.

It's the last night a popular stage musical and a huge queue is waiting outside the theatre, hoping to pick up last minute seats. It's a long wait and people read or chat to each other in the queue. (No mobile phones in the 1920s!) At last the doors open and the people at the head of the queue move forward, apart from one man. The queue is so tight that he is held upright and no one has noticed that he is dead, knifed in the back.

Inspector Alan Grant is tasked with the job of solving the murder but first of all it's necessary to find out who the dead man is. No one comes forward to report a missing person and this proves to be a long laborious process. Eventually Grant discovers the man's identity and all the evidence points to his room-mate as the killer, although there are plenty of others whose actions are suspicious enough to arouse the policeman's curiosity.

Naturally, said room-mate goes on the run and Grant tracks him all over London and even to the west coast of Scotland. But the inspector is not a happy man. It's all too convenient and obvious somehow. Has he really caught his murderer?

I gather Josephine Tey was a very popular crime author in her day but now of course her books come under the heading of 'Vintage' Crime. I'd heard of this series but not read any of them until my eldest daughter gave me a set of books that she'd had given to her. So I now own all six of the Alan Grant books (plus two standalones) and that's really rather nifty as I liked this book an awful lot!

Alan Grant is an intelligent, thinking policeman, thankfully not an alcoholic, divorcee for once, but a chap of independent means who loves his job and goes quietly about it without any fuss. It makes a nice change! He is written very well as are the other characters in the book, particularly I thought, the women. The actress, the landlady, a particluar woman in the queue, the girl in Scotland, all very well drawn.

My favourite section was in Scotland in fact. The action moved to the west coast of that beautiful country and, for me anyway, it very much took on the flavour of a John Buchan novel. I was forcefully reminded of Huntingtower, which I read last month, not only in the excitement of the rum goings on and the chase, but also in the rather beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the isolated villages and the wild coastline. To be honest I could cheerfully read whole books along this line so perhaps it's time I got back to John Buchan.

So, this was a very satisfying read. I found it intelligent and tricky in respect of the whodunnit aspect because I never did guess who it was and I suspect most people wouldn't either. Oddly, I might have to cite that ending as a weakness in the book instead of a strength, although obviously I can't say why. Overall, I liked the book a lot and look forward to more outings with Inspector Grant.

This book qualifies for two of the challenges that I'm doing this year. Firstly, Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo 2014 under the category of 'a book with a professional detective'. And secondly, Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 and is my sixth book for that challenge.


Saturday 3 May 2014

Cuckoo's Egg

When I finished Carl's Science Fiction Experience earlier this year I made the decision to try hard to carry on reading some sci-fi throughout the rest of the year. I don't know why but it kind of falls by the wayside as I get my teeth into his Spring, Once Upon a Time challenge and return to the crime fic that I really enjoy these days. It's a real shame because science fiction was my first love and having rediscovered the joys of it I need to make more of an effort. Reading What Makes this Book so Great by Jo Walton has helped because it's a walking reference book of sci-fi recs and info about the genre. One of her favourite authors is C.J. Cherryh. I've only read one book by her, Goblin Mirror which I thought was 'ok' but not brilliant. Time to give her another go? Yes. I have a two book omnibus on my tbr pile which includes Cuckoo's Egg and Serpent's Reach. I chose Cuckoo's Egg for my first May read.

Duun is Hatani, a warrior come judge come mediator class of beings on his planet, Shanoen. But, sometime in his past, he's been badly scarred and keeps well away from civilisation. One day a baby is brought to him but it's a baby like no other. On his planet the population are tall and powerful with grey fur, they have claws, sharp teeth and ears that fold back. The child handed to Duun has no fur and is pink in colour: it's a human child. It's Dunn's task to bring the child, named Thorn, up. He decides to take the child into the country, to a large house surrounded by woodland where the people of his planet will not see him. He also makes the decision to turn the boy into Hatani like himself. It involves long, arduous training some of it cruel and desensitizing. How will Thorn cope? And when the training is complete will the people ever accept him as one of them?

Well, this book is only 200 pages long but it packs quite a lot in and gives the reader a lot to think about. Could an alien with a completely different outlook on life to ours, different culture, different attitude to emotions and so on, possibly bring a human child up to think he's one of them and assimilate successfully? At what age will the child realise he's 'different'? How will he cope with that? Not just the realisiation that there is no one else on the planet who looks like him but also that the rest of the population is shocked by his appearance. Because Cherryh has invented a people who are pretty xenophobic here... not just as regards outsiders but they're also not happy around people who are badly disfigured as Dunn is.

The other thing to consider is what does the father/son relationship become when they are not of the same species? The old 'nature or nuture' argument of course. In this case will Thorn's human nature surface or not? Will he simply accept things which feel contrary to his nature? When will he start to wonder where he came from and what he's doing here? And then there's puberty...

As I said, there's a lot to consider here. It's not a very plotty kind of book, but it doesn't need to be. I rather like a quiet sort of book from time to time, that just makes you think outside the box. For me this is one of the great pleasures of science-fiction, the way you have to dig deep and and consider issues properly. Plus, on a very basic level, I really do love alien planets and alien people who don't behave the way we do or look like us. Terry Pratchet said that it's hard to be a bigot when you read science fiction and I truly believe this to be so. You're forced into considering things from points of view which are very different to your own. Human traits which we might be quite proud of are not necessarily so great when seen from the point of view of someone not of this planet who has other ideas about what's laudible or honourable or just plain right or wrong. I wish more people would read in this genre, I genuinely believe it would make for a more thoughtful, broad-minded, tolerant population.

This book qualifies for Bev's Mount TBR challenge and is my 15th. book for it... making me still a book or two behind. Need to do better.