Thursday 31 July 2014

Some non-fiction

I've been reading quite a lot of non-fiction this month, four in all. One I reviewed elsewhere and these are the other three.

First, The Library Book edited by Rebecca Gray.

The Library Book is a book of essays by various celebrities and authors which deals with what libraries mean and have meant to them. Contributors include Alan Bennett, Julian Barnes, Val McDermid, comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli - recalling how he met his first Punk in a library when he was a boy - Kate Mosse, Ann Cleeves, Susan Hill and so on. Most are what they are today because of libraries they were taken to as a child. Others plead convincingly for governament cuts *not* to include libraries, because it's imperitve that the population should be educated and poor children have access to books that can change their lives. All of the essays were interesting, particulary Alan Bennett's long one on libraries throughout his life and Tom Holland's on the lost libraries of Babylon and Alexandria. There was also a library short story which was an extract from Un Lun Dun by China Mieville... I liked it so much I ordered the book from Amazon. All in all an excellent book of essays perfect for any biblioholic or library addict.

Next, Lorraine Kelly's Scotland by Lorriane Kelly, which is my book 9 for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

Lorraine Kelly is a television presenter for ITV, specialising mainly in Breakfast TV presenting. She's a native of Glasgow but lives - according to this book - in the city of Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, with her family. In the course of doing her reporting job she's travelled all over Scotland and this book is the result of all those journeys, plus various family holidays. The book is divided into various sections, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, The Highlands, The Western Isles, Shetland etc. Beautiful photos, taken by her husband, Steve Smith, illustrate the volume, these are utterly stunning. Along with the photos is quite a lot of info about the towns or cities, islands, flora and fauna and so on. An expert on Scotland might find it a bit lacking in detail, but I'm not even close to an expert so I rather enjoyed the 'basic information' style of the thing. I especially enjoyed the island sections and the story of how she had long wanted to visit the almost inaccessible island of St. Kilda, failed a couple of times because of conditions, but finally managed it in 2013. One thing is very clear throughout the book and that is how much the author adores her home country. This is what some might call a 'coffee-table' book but is none the worse for that and I passed a very pleasant afternoon reading it.

Lastly, For the Time Being by Dirk Bogarde.

Dirk Bogarde is known as one of Britain's most well known film stars of the 1950s and 60s, specialising in lighter, frivolous kind of movies. In later years he went on to make more serious, artistic type films. I personally remember him in Doctor in the House, Doctor at Large and Doctor at Sea... which was my personal favourite. Later in life he became a writer. His autobiography stretched to many volumes and he wrote novels. He also wrote a column for The Daily Telegraph, mainly book reviews but also obits and essays on various subjects. These make up the content of For the Time Being. In the first half of the book we hear about his early childhood, his war experiences, his life in France and what happened when he returned to London after 20 years in that country. There's some gorgeous writing here. I particularly liked his reminiscences of life on the French Riviera. Not an area that ever really appealed to me but when Bogarde describes how you can get away from the tourist spots and up into the mountains, where life hasn't changed in centuries, you find yourself tranpsorted by his beautiful descriptions. He was also terribly affected by his war experiences, as were most who saw action in WW2 of course, and this comes over very strongly. The second half of the book consists of the book reviews he wrote for the paper. The books he reviewed were many and varied... a lot of biographies, quite a few literary books, some travelogues etc. I wasn't quite sure if he was given books to review or reviewed his own - the former I think as there were books about people such as Madonna, which he hated, so can't imagine he would have bought those. His reviews are honest, sometimes quite scathing, other times full of enthusiasm for what he thought was a wonderful book. I thoroughly enjoyed For the Time Being. Bogarde was a superb writer, particularly when recounting his own experiences or talking about places he loved or famous people he knew. You learn quite a lot about the man himself from this volume, warts and all, and I'd like to know more so will probably try to find some of his autobiographical works from the library.


Sunday 27 July 2014

A few sundry titles

I'm way behind with reviews so this is another of my catch-up posts with three brief reviews of books I've recently read.

First up, The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley.

Very hard to know what to say about this book without spoilers as there's a plot twist near the beginning that I wasn't expecting and the whole book is about that! Hmm... I think I shall just say that this is book 6 of Alan Bradley's delightful 'Flavia De Luce' series. Flavia is, as usual, having trouble with her sisters, is ignored by her father and some, previously unknown, Cornish De Luces come to stay and are heavily involved in the storyline. Flavia as always uses her chemistry skills to solve various problems, although not always successfully. The ending opens up a whole new chapter for Flavia and I do hope Alan Bradley intends to publish more books and tell us about her progress. More than that I shall not say... just that as always I really enjoyed this latest installment in the life of the inimitable Flavia De Luce. Wonderful series.

Next, Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss. This is my book 27 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

It's now summer on the planet of Helliconia. Helliconia has two suns which means it has one normal year, a bit longer than ours, but the climate is overwhelmingly affected by the year produced by the larger sun which lasts 1,800 years. It means each season is about four to five hundred years long and summer and winter in particular are punishing and often lead to mass extinctions. Helliconia Spring dealt with the surving populations coming out of winter into spring, Helliconia Summer is set during the prolonged heat of the summer. A lot of the action takes place in the kingdom of Borlien where King JandolAnganol is divorcing his queen in order to marry the young daughter of a neighbouring king, with the aim of forging an alliance. He has many problems on all of his borders and problems of intrigue within his court. Meanwhile the planet is being watched from a space-station originating from Earth, has been for hundreds of years in fact. On the station young Billy Xiao Pin has won a lottery, his prize... he gets to go down to the planet of Hellicomia to experience real life for a few months until a virus, deadly to non-Helliconians, kills him. How will his few months on the planet affect its inhabitants?

This middle instalment of the Helliconia trilogy was good in parts and in others dragged a little. I found the court intrigue sections slightly tedious after a bit as I'm not a great one for that kind of thing. I did however enjoy the travels of SartorilIrvrash to the northern country of Sibornal and all the various adventures he had. Billy Xiao Pin was also an interesting character and a clash of cultures is always interesting to read about. The science stuff was interesting - the astronomy of the system and the biology and habits of the animals on the planet - more like that would have been nice. A lot of things are hinted at but not always explained properly. All in all, not quite as good as Helliconia Spring, a bit long-winded (570 pages), but not at all a bad read

Last, A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey. This is my book 16 for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge, covering the category 'A book that's been made into a movie'. (It was the basis of Hitchcock's 1937 film, Young and Innocent.) It's also my book 10 for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge.

A young female film star, Christine Clay, is found dead on a beach in Kent. She'd been staying secretly in a nearby cottage with a young man she'd just met, Robert Tisdall. At first, Inspector Alan Grant thinks it's suicide or an accident but a button twisted in the woman's hair makes him change his mind. Tisdall disappears and thus becomes Grant's number one suspect, but that's not to say there are not plenty of others. Christine's husband for one, a songwriter she was supposedly having an affair with, for another. Grant finds many people are involved, the actress's friends include colleagues who might be jealous and a strange astrologer. He also finds unexpected help from the Chief Constable's daughter, Erica Burgoyne. It's a strange case and there are many twists and turns before Grant eventually solves the mystery.

This is the second book in Josephine Tey's Inspector Alan Grant series. I really enjoyed the first one, The Man in the Queue, and this one was just as good. Alan Grant is an interesting detective - I like the fact that he's neither an alcoholic nor divorced - and the cast of characters are varied and different. I particularly liked Erica Burgoyne. Clearly the author knew a lot about the entertainment world as both books so far have that kind of background. All the twists and turns in the plot definitely kept my interest and the revelation of the culprit was a complete surprise and that doesn't happen very often. Enjoyed this one and look forward to reading the other books I own by Josephine Tey.


Friday 25 July 2014

Bookish smiles

I collect these silly bookish bits from all over the place, mainly Pinterest, and as the news is so unendingly grim at the moment I thought I'd share a few to lift the gloom, even it's only a little bit.

My mantra:

Who doesn't love a bit of Harrison Ford?

Still reading a lot of Vintage Crime and this really evokes the age for me:

A cool book cover for those of us finding this heat a bit too much:

A sentiment I think most would agree with at the moment:


Sunday 20 July 2014

The Overloaded Ark

Well now, I've read my first book for my new challenge, the Travel the World in Books challenge, which is to read a book from every country in Africa. I've given myself a year to do this but realistically I can see it taking two. But we shall see. Whatever happens it should be an interesting journey.

Anyway, my first book is The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell and the country it covers is the Cameroons.

Gerald Durrell was well known collector of animals for zoos back in the 1950s to around the 1980s. His exploits were often on TV and I can remember watching them as kid. He eventually opened his own zoo on the island of Jersey, specialising in breeding and conserving rare and endangered animals. The Overloaded Ark is one of his earliest excursions, if not the first, the book being written in 1953.

The author travelled with John Yealland who specialised in birds while Gerald's interest lay with reptiles and mammals. They had a list from various zoos of the kind of thing they wanted but no funding from said zoos. They were heading for the Cameroons,partly because it had particularly interesting animals and birds, but also it was very much less modern and spoilt than many other parts of the continent.

The country occupies what I think of as the bend in the west coast of Africa as it turns the corner towards Nigeria.

I would say it's not a very well known country, even now. I had some idea where of it was but could not pinpoint it precisely until I saw a map. It was originally split into two - British Cameroons and French Cameroons - but gained its independence in 1961, part of the British territory deciding to join Nigeria I gather. Durrell of course, in the fifties, was in British Cameroons and was focussing his efforts in the rainforests surrounding the Cross river.

He stresses how difficult the life of an animal collector is. Not that you're in danger really from hostile tribes or savage animals but that any trouble you get into is often of your own making and that the assistance of the local native population is imperative. The book describes in detail the help he gets from the locals, but they didn't often understand that he needed animals brought to him that were in good condition, not wounded from being roughly captured. Durrell writes in a very self-deprecating manner, stressing how ill equiped the white man is to deal with conditions in the forest, even though he might, at first, think otherwise.

Durrell and Yealland part company for the first half of the book, concentrating their efforts in different areas. The book really came alive for me in the second half when they're back together in the area of a mountain called N'da Ali. The interactions between the two are often very funny and Durrell's written descriptions of the forest and mountains become stunning. This is very much a strength of the author's writing I feel, he's so good at it that you feel yourself 'there'.

I would stress that the book is very much of its time. Durrell was very precise about the pidgin English the natives spoke and whether you would see that in a similar book these days is questionable. I don't think for a minute he was trying to be derogatory because he had huge respect for the abilities of the natives, but some might see it that way. I just saw it as an honest account of his experiences and a history lesson in how things have changed.

All in all, a good start to my challenge. I feel I've learnt a bit about the Cameroons... I didn't know there was rainforest there for instance, or anything about the kind of animals that live there. Nor did I even really know where exactly the country is and now I do. And the best thing is that I really enjoyed the book. Durrell was a superb writer whose books I read when I was much younger. I plan to dig out a few more if I possibly can as they're beautifully written and beautifully illustrated too.

The Overloaded Ark is also my book 26 for Bev's Mount Tbr challenge.


Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Travel the World in Books reading challenge

For a while now I've fancied the idea of a challenge where I could read books from every country in Africa, but not having seen anyone offering such a challenge I've not done it. (I don't think I could run a reading challenge myself.) Then I spotted the Travel the World in Books challenge where you can devise your own journey and basically do what you want! So I'm going to dive in and see if I can do it.

The challenge is being hosted by three bloggers: Mom's Small Victories, I'm Lost in Books and Savvy Working Gal.

The Goal:

Travel the world in books, of course! Expand your horizons and read books set in or written by authors from countries other than the one you live in. Visit as many different countries in books as you wish.

The Rules:

And the “rules” are simply this…YOU choose your own adventure! These are your goals but you can change them any time.

1. Determine length of time you will participate in the challenge. Just one month, An entire season, a year or 5 years?

2. Determine how many countries you would like to read about during your adventure. What criteria are you using to determine the number of countries you read about (ex. book setting, author background or both)?

3. How will you track the countries you visited in books? You could create a map in Google Maps, track on your blog or on a Goodreads shelf.

4. Determine your book list or genre if you like. Will you be listing specific books you would like to read? Do you aim to read fiction, nonfiction or a mixture of both?

5. Link up your posts. Linkies will be available for sign up/goals, wrap up, and a linky for each continent for you to add your book reviews whenever you are ready.

6. Please follow each of our 3 hosts by at least one social media or bloglovin, RSS, GFC so you can keep informed of news, updates and events regarding this challenge. We have a Travel the World in 80 Books Readathon in the works for September!


Ok, so I think I'll try and do this in a year. That might be pushing it but we'll see how it goes. I assume I can always sign up for another year if I don't make it.

How many countries? Well, opinions seem to be divided as to whether there are 54, 55 or 56 countries on the African continent. I'll deal with that at some other time but this is the map I plan to work off:

I'll keep track of them via this map and by listing the books read here as well. I'll also open a Goodreads shelf.

I won't be listing specific books as this is an ongoing adventure. And I'll be reading a mixture of fiction and non-fiction (a lot of travel books I suspect).

I'm happy to do the Linky thing and also follow the hosts' blogs etc.

So that's it. I'm very excited about this one and suspect it's going to be a lot of fun as well as educational and informative.


Monday 14 July 2014

A mixed bag...

Three more short reviews today. As the post title suggests they're a bit of a mixed bag... I like to ring the changes when I'm reading.

First up... Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson is my book 8 for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 reading challenge. (And how much am I enjoying this challenge? A lot!)

Charlotte Fairlie is the new, rather young, headmistress of a private girls' school. She's been doing the job for a year or two and loves it but her one regret is how lonely the position is. She can't be real friends with anyone or people will think she's playing favourites, or perhaps that person might be looking to curry favour with the headmistress. A new girl arrives at the school, Tessa MacRynne, whose home is the island of Targ off the coast of Scotland. Tessa seems fine until one evening Charlotte catches her running away. It materialises that her parents have split up and her American mother has gone back to America without first seeing Tessa. The girl, anxious for her father, wants to go home. A crisis is averted and Tessa stays, but Charlotte finds herself very drawn to this independant, charming girl. The following summer Charlotte accepts an invitation to visit Targ for a few weeks and there a whole new adventure begins...

After the angstiness of reading Sovereign by C.J. Sansom for a week, this was the perfect antidote. A really charming, gorgeous read. I loved it. It's a book of two halves. The first half takes part at the school and involes teachers, pupils, staff politics and so forth. I like books based in schools so this suited me fine. Very enjoyable. After that the story moves to Scotland and the perfectly gorgeous setting of a beautiful island and its inhabitants. This suited me fine too as the descriptions were delightful and so were the people. Charlotte is a delightful heroine, strong minded, independent, but with rather a sad background. She's a survivor who doesn't spend time bemoaning her lot but has made a new life for herself and is getting on with it. I liked the romantic aspect as well, it was clear how that would pan out right from the start but sometimes it's nice to have that kind of certainty when you're reading a story.

Another super book by D.E. Stevenson, probably my favourite so far. I'm hoping to find more but they're not *that* easy to find, sadly. Highly recommend this one though.

Next, The Rendezvous and other stories by Daphne du Maurier. This is my book 25 for Bev's Mount TBR 2014 challenge.

I always find it hard to review books of short stories, so I'll keep this brief. I've read quite a few of Daphne du Maurier's books but not many short stories, a few in other mixed anthologies I think... The Birds, that sort of thing. This volume has some excellent stories in it. I particularly enjoyed the first one, No Motive which is a very strong mystery about a wife and mother who commits suicide and no one can work out why. Her husband puts a private detective onto it and the resulting story is as good as any full length crime novel I've read. There are two very good ghost yarns, Escort a WW2 sea warfare story, and Split Second a domestic story about a lonely widow whose daughter is away at boarding school. Rather poignant. Other good stories include The Rendezvous, The Lover and La Sainte-Vierge all very human stories about love, lust, philandering, loss, loneliness: Daphne du Maurier wrote this kind of story very well indeed. In fact she wrote everything very well and this book of short stories is among the best anthologies I've read.

Lastly Sanctus by Simon Toyne. This is my book 9 for the My Kind of Mystery challenge which is being hosted by Riedel Fascination.

The place is the city of Ruin in Turkey, the home of a strange monastry built into a mountain. It's an extremely secretive order with a very dark secret - The Sacrament. But what is this 'Sacrament'? No one but the monks know and only a few of them are actually party to this secret. The world's media is suddenly focussed on this community when one of the monks, Samuel, climbs to the top of the cliff above the monastry and throws himself off. Liv Adamsen is the Samuel's sister. She's not seen or heard from him in eight years and is devastated to hear of his fate. She travels to Turkey to discover why he did this and immediately walks into a dangerous situation as someone attempts to kidnap her. It's clear her life is at stake as several factions fight over her. Liv has no idea why they want her or who she can trust. It's imperative that she discover the secret of the Sacrament but will she live long enough to achieve this aim?

I don't read many of these religious, mad monk, crazy conspiracy type yarns... possibly for a reason. My husband recommended Sanctus to me and as I occasionally like to humour him :-) I read it. It actually wasn't terrible. A bit Dan Brown 'Da Vinci Code' sort of thing and as I wasn't expecting too much, it was OK. It's a pageturner because you get kind of caught up in the mayhem and intrigue. There's lot of action and a certain kind of weapons talk that possibly appeals more to men than women, though not exclusively of course. The conclusion was about as unlikely as it's possible to get but didn't disappoint in its craziness: I like a bit of crazy from time to time. LOL. This is part one of a trilogy and I'm not sure if I'll pick book two up from the library or not. Life's a bit short etc. and I have so much else to read. We'll see.


Monday 7 July 2014


Sovereign by C.J. Sansom has been languishing on my bookshelf for several years. It's book three in the author's Matthew Shardlake series, the last one of these I read being Dark Fire almost exactly three years ago. I don't know why I leave these books languishing like this, as this is a *good* series! Anyway, Sovereign is my book twenty four for Bev's Mount TBR challenge and my book eight for the My Kind of Mystery challenge.

The year is 1541 and Henry VIII, his new wife Catherine Howard, and hundreds of court followers and officials have undertaken a Great Progress to Yorkshire. The idea is to reinforce Henry's position as king after a recent uprising in the area, humiliate various politicians who might have had a hand in it, and also possibly to have a meeting with King James V of Scotland.

Lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, has been asked by Archbishop Cranmer to ride to York, to get there ahead of the procession and meet with another lawyer, Giles Wrenne, to sort out some petitions to present to the king. Reluctantly he also takes on a private mission for Cranmer, that of ensuring the safety of a prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, presently locked up in the gaol in York. This man had been pivotal in the uprising and it's felt he has important information that he's witholding. Cranmer wants him brought to London for questioning but fears he might not make it. Shardlake's task is to keep him alive.

Shardlake, accompanied by Jack Barak, a man who became his assistant during the events of Dark Fire, eventually arrives in York to find the city in turmoil as it prepares for the arrival of the king. He meets with Wrenne, the lawyer he's to work with and then sees the prisoner, Broderick. All seems well, if not exactly to Shardlake's liking. Then a glazier is found dead by Shardlake, early one morning, killed by being pushed off a ladder and pierced by glass. He lives long enough to whisper some cryptic words to Shardlake and thus it's he who is tasked with investigating the murder.

The investigation brings danger, fueled by court intrigue. Nothing is quite what it seems and just to be party to certain bits of information can be a very real threat to your life. Shardlake and Barak become ever deeper embroiled in something they want no part of. But there is no choice and things will definitely get a lot worse before the mystery is solved.

I said about Dark Fire that the crime element to this series is almost secondary to the historical element. Sovereign is 650 pages long and a great deal of that is historical detail. Descriptions of York as it would have been, of the preparations for the arrival of The Progress, of The Progress itself, of the working conditions of just about everyone, of conditions in gaols and how prisoners were treated and yes... tortured. It is 'rivetting' and an awful lot of it made me glad that I live now rather than in the 1500s. It must have been scary stuff though that is from the perspective of the 21st. century of course... back then they knew nothing different. Life was cheap and cruelty commonplace. Shardlake was frequently referred to as a 'crookback' - an unthinkable thing to say about a disabled person these days - and insults were a daily occurrence he had no choice but to endure. But casual cruelty was not just inflicted on the disabled... the poor had no voice at all, women were at the complete mercy of husbands, fathers and so on, and anyone that displeased the king could expect no mercy.

Henry VIII hardly appears in the story but nevertheless the book is all about him. His tyranical rule takes centre stage and again, it's rivetting. I learnt such a lot reading this. I had no idea there was such fear during his reign. It seems just about everyone was terrified of his displeasure. Shardlake unwittingly provokes it and the consequences are not pleasant.

As well as all this there is a good mystery element of course. I kind of had that sussed, but naturally had no idea if was right: I was... but it didn't spoil my enjoyment. I say 'enjoyment', if I have one criticism the storyline is rather unendingly bleak. Not a lot happens that is fun, it's one disaster after another and maybe a bit of light relief would not have harmed. Regardless of that, the book was unputdownable and I really mustn't leave it so long next time before I read more about the world of Matthew Shardlake and his sidekick, Jack Barack. I also quite fancy some non-fiction about Henry and his six wives. I must see what's available but would welcome any recommendations.


Friday 4 July 2014

Six monthly update on challenges

Well, we're halfway through the year now and I'm pinching Margaret's idea and doing just a quick update on how I'm doing with my reading challenges. So here goes.

Once Upon a Time VIII: This took place from the 21st. March to the 21st. June. My aim was to read five books for 'Quest the First' and I actually read seven. Quite happy with that.

Vintage Mystery Bingo: The aim here is to complete one or more bingo lines which is six books. I've been reading willy-nilly all over the card and have read fifteen books altogether. I have one line with five books, one with four, and several with three. I'll easily complete this challenge by January and would hope to manage several bingo lines to be honest.

Read Scotland 2014: I signed up for 'Hebridean' which is nine to twelve books. So far I've read seven. Nicely on course with this one.

My Kind of Mystery: I signed up for 'Secret Messages' which is five to ten books. So far I've read seven so, strictly speaking, I'm there but I plan to go on and reach at least ten.

The Postal Reading Challenge 2014: I signed up for 'snail mail' which is to read eight books. A few weeks ago I was way behind on this one but somehow I got caught up and have now read five books. Should be fine finishing this one too.

Mount TBR 2014: I signed up for 'Mount Ararat' which is to read 48 of my own books by the 31st. December. That's four books a month so I should be at 24 by now. I'm just reading my 24th. book so am on course but actually wish I was slightly more ahead than this.

I did wonder, when I signed up for all these challenges in January, whether I was biting off more than I could chew. I know some folks do a *lot* more than this but I'm not always good with them, getting all excited when I start out but losing interest very rapidly in the piles of books I sort out that then sit on the shelf looking at me reproachfully. This year's been different. I felt if I could only be more focussed and actually do these challenges I could successfully take quite a few books off my tbr mountain. And so it turned out to be. I have got quite a few of my own books read and the other thing is that it's been so much *fun*. So much in fact that I think I might do it all over again next year. :-)


Wednesday 2 July 2014

Books for June

The title of this post is a bit of a lie to be honest. :-) Because my fall 10 days ago caused a nasty flare-up of my cervical spondilosis I'm not going to list every one of the 12 books I got through in June, with links, as too much typing on the pc makes it worse. I reviewed all but one of the books I read anyway so there are no secrets. LOL!

I've chosen a favourite but it wasn't easy. Every book I read in June was good. Three were standouts: The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin and Out of the Deep I Cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming - both were terrific. But I think this one had the edge:

The Sixth Lamentation by William Broderick was simply superb. Kept me guessing all the way through, excellent historical detail, and the ending made me cry.

I have to say that 12 books in June feels like a jolly good effort but part of me wonders if it's too many. Am I rushing through books too quickly? Maybe. I'm actively slowing myself down in July by reading several chunky books that have been on my tbr pile for years. (This is also a Cunning Plan as it'll mean I'll have less reviews to do, thus less typing.) Currently it's this:

Sovereign is the third Matthew Shardlake book by C.J. Sansom and very good it is too though rather unendingly bleak. Life was damn hard back in the reign of Henry VIII!

Happy reading!