Saturday 30 August 2014


Our weather here in the UK turned rather autumnal three or four weeks ago and ever since I've found myself looking forward to the next R.I.P. reading challenge. I even sorted out the books I wanted to read and they've been on the shelf tempting me to start for at least 10 days. Well, no need to resist any longer, it's here!!! R.I.P. IX (*nine* years... gosh!) is upon us.

(Art used for banners is the property of the wonderful Abigail Larson.

“Does something amuse you?’ asked Uncle Montague.
‘I was merely reminding myself, Uncle, that I am getting too old to be so easily frightened by stories.’
‘Really?’ said Uncle Montague with a worrying degree of doubt in his voice. ‘You think there is an age at which you might become immune to fear?”
― Chris Priestley, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror

Carl's sign-up post is here.

I always love the artwork he chooses and have actually read the book the quote comes from, there are three in the series in fact, and all are excellent.

Anyway, the sort of books to read are:

Dark Fantasy.

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

There are two simple rules:

1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

As usual I'll be doing:

Which is to:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (the very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be King or Conan Doyle, Penny or Poe, Chandler or Collins, Lovecraft or Leroux…or anyone in between.

This is the book pool I'll be reading from:

(Click on the image for a better view)

I don't know how many of these I'll end up reading but I want most of the books I read to come from this - part of my tbr mountain - pile. If I can read five of them I would be a happy bunny. I also know I have books on my Kindle and Nook that would qualify for the challenge and one or two library books too. So we'll see. Basically I just want to have fun without putting too much pressure on myself.

Happy R.I.P. reading and many thanks to Carl for once again hosting this brilliant challenge.


Friday 29 August 2014

Agatha Christie

Two books by Agatha Christie to review today. One is fictional, They Came to Baghdad, the other non-fiction, Come, Tell Me How You Live. Both are set in the Middle-East, Iraq and Syria specifically, war-torn areas today, and not without problems back then of course. That fact made for an interesting read in the case of both books.

First up, They Came to Baghdad. This is my book 18 for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge and covers the category, 'A book outside your comfort zone'. I had trouble thinking of a book for this category because there was nothing I could think of that was actually outside my comfort zone. I eventually chose this because I'm not that mad about espionage or spy type books and this that kind of book.

Victoria Jones gets the sack from her job as typist in London. She's not a very good typist so is not very surprised when it happens, although she was sacked for another misdemeanor. Sitting in the park wondering what to do next she meets a young man, Edward, and falls immediately in love. But he's off to Baghdad in Iraq to start a new job so it can come to nothing. But must it? On a whim Victoria gets a job as a companion to an American woman who's travelling to Baghdad. Once there she's on her own and sets about trying to find Edward. He proves elusive but she manages to fall into an adventure of her own when a man dies in her hotel bedroom. Victoria gets embroiled in some serious international espionage, working to find out what secret the man was carrying and what he might have done with it. One thing is for sure... it's unlikely Victoria will ever again be satisfied with a job as a typist.

I honestly didn't expect to like this as much as I did. As I said, spy yarns are not my thing. I find them confusing with their sometimes hard to follow plots and double agent doings and so forth. Not for me. But Victoria is a very engaging heroine... rather flawed in that she likes to lie her way out of situations rather than tell the truth. She is however brave and steadfast, seemingly undeterred by the set-backs that life throws at her. There's a lot of humour in this story - I was surprised by that but am not sure why. It's all a bit mad-cap to be honest as Victoria gets herself mixed up in some quite dangerous goings-on but always managing to extricate herself one way or another. I was genuinely surprised by the outcome of the 'mission'. I should have guessed but didn't. I thought that was nicely done. An enjoyable romp through 1950s Iraq and a thoroughly engaging book.

Next, Come, Tell Me How You Live. This is my book 30 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge and my book 10 for the My Kind of Mystery challenge, which is being hosted by Riedel Fascinaton, as it's a non-fiction written by a crime writer.

In 1930 Agatha Christie, already a successful crime writer, met and married Max Mallowan, an archaeologist. This was after her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie. In the mid-1930s the couple set off for Syria, the first of a series of digs Agatha accompanied her husband on. In her foreward she stresses that Come, Tell Me How You Live is not an academic book. It's not about the nuts and bolts of archaeological digs, it's about day to day living, the trials and tribulations of living away from civilisation with only men for company. She calls it, '... small beer - a very little book, full of everyday doings and happenings'.

And I suppose that's exactly what the book is, but it didn't feel small or inconsequential while I was reading. Agatha describes in minute detail how it was to be at a dig in the 1930s. This was before archaeological digging became a science full of precise techniques. Back then anyone could go wherever they liked and dig up what they fancied. And I suppose a lot of valuable artifacts and knowledge was lost but it did sound like Max Mallowan's digs were very carefully undertaken.

I loved hearing about the various local natives that assisted the couple, especially the house servants and the mischief they got up to. Misunderstandings were rife of course as Agatha spoke no Arabic or any of the other tongues because as well as Arabs there were also Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Yezidis. The other thing is that it was all very primitive, but Agatha was made of stern stuff - she was only really bothered when one house they slept in was over-run by mice and cockroaches in the night and they crawled all over her face. She drew the line at that and had what she called 'hysterics'. Who can blame her...

One sad thing that struck me was how little has changed in the area of Syria and northern Iraq. She says:

'We come to the question of religions generally - a very vexed question in this part of the world, for Syria is full of fiercely fanatical sects of all kinds, all willing to cut each other's throats for the good cause!'

That shook me rather. It was written in the 1930s and, over eighty years later, nothing has changed. I actually found it very strange to be reading about various towns that are now centre-stage in world affairs, which were then so remote and peaceful. Tragic.

On a more cheerful note it was interesting to compare the two books in this post, one fictional, the other non-fiction, but both set generally in the same area. In They Came to Baghdad Christie talks of one of the archaeologists travelling to Iraq with a suitcase full of books and his clothes shoved in around them. Which, in Come, Tell Me How You Live, is exactly what her husband, Max, did. Victoria in They Came to Baghdad spends a few weeks helping at an excavation and clearly Christie used her love of this life she led to help her with this section and embue Victoria with the same enjoyment and sense of inner peace it brought her.

This is a gorgeous little book. It's written with gentle humour and a great deal of love... for the natives and for the beauty of Syria. I would call it a gem quite frankly. I'm going to read the other crime novels she set in this region, Murder in Mesopotamia is one I think, and Appointment with Death, both Poirot novels. I'm also going to read Agatha Christie's autobiography at some stage and am now really looking forward to finding out a lot more about this extraordinary woman.


Sunday 24 August 2014

Another mixed bag

A real mixed offering today. I haven't posted in a little while and am three or four books behind, so this is a catch-up post of three very varied books that I've read over the last ten days or so.

First up a non-ficton, Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim. This is my book 29 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

May Beauchamp met and married her husband, the German, Graf Henning August von Arnin-Schlagenthin, at the end of the 1880s. She became Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of various books, including this, Elizabeth and her German Garden. The garden concerned was at Nassenhide, owned by her husband, about ninety miles north of Berlin and not far from the German coast on the Baltic. Elizabeth's husband took her there in 1896: she immediately fell in love with the huge schloss and its garden and decided the family should live there. The book describes how she transformed the garden from a wilderness to her idea of a perfect garden. It's also about the family and various people who visit them and these were the bits I enjoyed the most. Her husband is referred to as The Man of Wrath, the children by the months of their birth - the April baby and so on. She has the eternal problem of people who come to stay and then don't leave. A real problem for Elizabeth as she's a woman who enjoys her solitude, something I can indentify with. This is a charming book but I think I expected to like it more than I did. I never really felt completely involved even though I quite enjoyed parts of the book such as the expedition to the coast in the middle of winter. The writing was excellent however and I may try one or two of the author's fictional books at some stage, possibly, Enchanted April.

Next, Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell. This is my book 17 for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge and covers the category, 'A book with a man in the title'.

Mrs. Bradley and her secretary, Laura Menzies, have been invited to a Sherlock Holmes weekend at the home of one of Mrs. Bradley's old friends, Sir Bohun Chantrey. Sir Bohun is a huge Holmes fan and is putting on competitions for his guests and wants them to attend dressed as characters from the stories. Sir Bohun has been telling Mrs. Bradley for a while that he fears for his life and she wonders, with the odd mix of people attending, whether things might come to a head this weekend. They do in fact, but not in quite the manner anyone expects.

This is my first 'Mrs. Bradley' book by Gladys Mitchell. I vaguely remember the TV series at the end of the 90s, which starred Diana Rigg, but don't think I watched it at the time. Perhaps that was a shame as I quite enjoyed this romp through 1950s country life. This is, I think, book 28 in a series that's about 50 books long. I generally start at the beginning of any 'new to me' series but the library is rarely that obliging with these long vintage crime series, so I just tend to grab what it has, and I don't think it made much difference in this case. Anyway, there was nice humour in this story, an excellent Sherlock Holmes tie-in with the appearance of a big black hound to play The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I liked the character of Mrs. Bradley along with her secretary Laura and Laura's fiancé, DCI Gavin. The dialogue between them was sparring and witty and great fun. I'll be reading more in this series and actually have another on the library pile, The Twenty-Third Man, set in The Canaries, involving mummies and corpses and so on. Sounds like it might do for the upcoming R.I.P. challenge!

Lastly, Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman.

Mum is away at a conference and Dad is left in charge of the children. But he's a bit of a distracted dad and forgets to get milk in for breakfast. There's nothing for it but to go and get some and the children, a brother and sister, wait at home. And wait. And wait. He's ages and when he returns and they want to know where he's been he tells them a story. The story involves him being captured by green, globby aliens who want to take over the Earth and redecorate it. He falls from the flying-saucer and is captured by pirates from whom he's rescued by Professor Steg, a time-travelling stegosaurus, in a Floaty-Ball-Person-Carrier (hot-air balloon). Thus begin many more adventures which become more bizarre by the moment. Will the children ever get their breakfast?

A friend recommended this and I wondered if it would make a good book to read with my seven year old grandson on the days that he's with us during the school summer holidays. And so it turned out to be. A crazy adventure, coupled with stunning illustrations by Chris Riddell, made for a perfect book that my grandson and I could take turns in reading. The reading level suited him perfectly and we giggled our way through the story, sometimes laughing so much we couldn't stop. The book is pitched at younger children - perhaps 7 to 10 - but has another layer that can be enjoyed by adults as well. Grandson and I both loved this book and he awarded it the ultimate accolade when he said as we finished it, 'Can we read it again soon, Grandma?' Can't say fairer than that.


Thursday 14 August 2014

Two books with with a WW1 theme

This month of August, 2014, is of course the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. I generally try to read something based on WW1 or WW2 in November around Armistice Day but this year I decided to do that themed reading in August for the centenary. So today, two books that involve the Great War, one set during the conflict and the other dealing with the aftermath, eight years later.

First, Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. This is my book twelve for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge and my book six for the Postal challenge 2014 which is being hosted by The Indextrious Reader.

Elspeth Dunn is a young poet living on the Isle of Skye. She has had a book of verse published and in 1912 gets her very first fan letter from David Graham, living in Urbana, Illinois, and just a few years younger than herself. She answers and thus begins a corresspondence in which two very different people slowly get to know one another. Both pour out their hopes and dreams, things which they might not tell anyone else, and the two become very close. World War One breaks out and athough the USA is not at first involved, David decides to volunteer as an ambulance driver. Naturally it's extremely dangerous but Elspeth can do nothing to help except keep writing letters and hope fate will keep David alive long enough for them to meet. Some years later, another young woman, Margaret, is struggling to cope with a world war of her own - World War Two. Her mother has been secretive all her life and Margaret has no idea who her father is. She finds a cache of letters and thus begins a quest to find answers to some of the questions her mother refuses to answer.

This is rather a beautiful story told via the letters that Elspeth and David exchange. It works wonderfully and the reader really gets a chance to get to know both of them. Secrets are slowly revealed, some you guess at, others are more surprising. It all feels very personal, and quite traumatic at times as you experience Elspeth's dilemmas, her desperate need to have something in her life other than the Isle of Skye, which she loves but feels is somewhat of a prison, and her intense worry about what's happening to David at the front. The time split between the events and letters of WW1 and WW2 was well handled, I liked the dribs and drabs of information that slowly built a picture from which the reader can start to guess what's going on. It was a very good read, rather compulsive as you turned the pages not wanting to stop until you find out more, so I read it in a couple of days. For me, it only had one slight drawback which made me give it four instead of five stars on Goodreads... and that was the ending. Without giving anything away, I just found one or two explanations and actions hard to credit. But apart from that this really is a very good book, well worth anyone's time.

The second book is not actually set in WW1, it takes place eight years later, but the war is very much a background to this story. It's Anthem for Doomed Youth by Carola Dunn, book 19 in the author's 'Daisy Dalrymple' series. It's also my book 28 for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

Alec and Daisy are due to spend the weekend in Safron Walden in Essex, at their daughter, Belinda's, school sport's day. Their plans have to be abandoned when three bodies are found buried in Epping Forest and Alec and his junior officers, Tom Tring and Ernie Piper, are called away to investigate. The team have no idea who these three men were, or how they were connected, and investigations lead nowhere. Eventually their identities are discovered, but still no connection until Daisy suggests to Alec that, as one man was a colonel in the army, there might be a WW1 connection. Daisy goes off to the sport's day in Essex along with her friends, Melanie and Sakari and, to all intents and purposes, is away from and out of Alec's investigation. Or so the theory goes. At the school Daisy comes into contact with several of Belinda's teachers. One, a Mr. Harriman, is deeply unpleasant, especially to one teacher who was a conscientious objector during the war, and another who was a war hero. Naturally, Daisy ends up being involved with a case of her own and her and Sakari have to pool all their resources, not only to solve their own case, but also to help Alec with his.

Anthem for Doomed Youth is rather a departure as Daisy Dalrymple books go. Partly because its WW1 theme inevitably makes for a more serious book than previous instalments, but also the storyline tends to concentrate rather more on Alec and his investigation than it does on Daisy. The book certainly doesn't suffer for that, in fact I think it's one of the best in the series. Alec and his team are an interesting bunch, Tom and Ernie have had bit part roles in many of the books so far and it was excellent to have them take centre stage for once. I also really like Daisy's Indian friend, Sakari, with her fascination for Daisy's crime solving and desire to be involved. Carola Dunn has given all these 'extras' very succinct characters and drawn them with a good deal of humour but also human flaws. It's also a departure in that there is not a huge list of suspects in a country house, or other setting, where Daisy has to find out who did the deed. This is much more a story about thorough investigation and a slow discovery of secrets. Sad secrets. Tragic in fact and as always the author handles these issues with a deft and sympathetic hand. I love this long series to bits and Anthem for Doomed Youth is very definitely one of the very best of the lot.

I just want to add one small thing about Anthem for Doomed Youth. On the back of my copy, above the synopsis, there is this sentence: 'Is a deranged killer stalking Daisy through the woods?' The answer to this is 'No'. In no part of this book, 'nowhere', is Daisy in any woods being stalked and in fear of her life and anyone expecting or hoping for that is going to be disappointed. Who on earth writes the blurbs for the backs of these books? Do they even read the book? It's preposterous really and disappointing in publishers who go in for this kind of nonsense.


Thursday 7 August 2014

Books with lots of charm

Some books are just simply charming. With these books it matters not that they're not heavy on plot or full of angsty happenings or people doing horrible things to each other. And more and more... certainly over the last few weeks anyway... I seem to be reading quite a lot of this type of book. Books that you know won't upset you but will just make you feel good the minute you open them and start reading. Authors that spring to mind who write, or wrote, this kind of book: Angela Thirkell, D.E. Stevenson, Alexander McCall Smith, Alan Bradley, Carola Dunn. But there are 'loads' more and everyone has their own favourite 'charming' or 'comfort' authors I'm sure.

Anyway here are three of my recent 'charming reads' First up, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith. This my book 11 for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge as Alexander McCall Smith is of course, a Scot.

Mma Ramotswe is approached by the owner of a local football club to find out why the team hasn't won a match in ages. Mma Ramotswe is reluctant to take the case as neither her nor her assistant, Mma Makutsi, have any knowledge of the sport and nor do they wish to acquire any. The owner suspects match fixing and feels they are the ones to investigate. Mma Matkutsi has problems of her own. Her fiance owns a large furniture shop and has just taken on a new assistant in the bed department. It's Violet Sephotho, an attractive woman who knew Mma Makutsi at secretarial college and who has had a couple of run-ins with her in recent times. Mma Makutsi feels Violet is up to something, but what? At the same time Mma Ramotswe's very ancient but precious van is on its last legs. Her husband, who's a car mechanic, will be bound to give it the death sentence but she is determined to hang on to her 'old friend' at all costs. How will all of these problems be solved to everyone's satisfaction?

I haven't read a No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book for a couple of years now. I even wondered if I would read any more to be honest. Some series just run their course with me sometimes and I lose interest in reading more. But I suddenly had an urge in the library to pick a couple up, did so, and was immediately back in the world of Mma Ramotswe in Gabarone, Botswana, when I began reading. They are my personal comfort, 'charming' reads there's no doubt about it. I love Mma Ramotswe's extended thinking on all kinds of subjects... her country, cattle, being a private detective, Mma Makutsi and her 97% at secretarial college, being tradionally built, 'men'... lots of private cogitations about men. The crime being solved takes second place to her life and her thoughts. I know some people are really not keen on these books but I absolutely love them to bits. I'm very happy that, because I haven't read any in a while, I now have four or five still left to read.

Next, Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell.

Pretty, young Mary Preston goes to spend the summer (early 1930s) with relations in the country. Lady Emily and her husband, Henry Leslie, are head of the household. Staying there as well are their daughter, Agnes, and her three young children, and occasionally visiting are their widower son, John, youngest son, David, and orphaned grandson, Martin. Martin's father was killed in WW1, his mother has moved to America with her second husband. Mary promptly falls for David, which is unfortunate as, due to an independent inheritance, he has no need to work and tends to be selfish and a bit caddish, although rather likeable with it. Mary quickly grows to love her adopted family. Lady Emily is scatter-brained and interfering, Agnes, vague but beautiful and adores her children, and John, dependable and kind. Into the mix comes a French family who have taken the vicarage for the month of August; suddenly everything becomes very much more romantic and interesting, especially with Martin's seventeenth birthday celebrations rapidly approaching.

This was simply delightful. It's very much a book about relationships and how each person occupies a niche within his or her family. The family here is very strong. It's had to be as the loss of the eldest son in the war hit them hard and continues to do so years later as Martin grows to look more and more like his father. Despite that, this is not a sad book. It's full of humour and very astute observations. Lady Emily is particularly well drawn. She would drive me mad but the family accept her as she is and are always kind. Tolerance pervades the book to be honest. People accept others as they are without judgement or nastiness. It's very refreshing and, yes, 'comforting'. I'm so pleased I have three more of these Barsetshire books to read and that there are loads more after that to collect.

Lastly, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Cather and Wren are 18 year old twins who have just started college in Lincoln, Nebraska. They come from Omaha where they live with their father, their mother having walked out on the family when the girls were 8. At college, Cath had assumed she would share a room with Wren, but Wren told her no, she wanted to branch out, meet new people. If she shared with Cath they would just be twins that no one would bother to approach. Cath is very hurt... and scared. Her new room-mate, Reagan, is older than her, decidedly not friendly, and has a boyfriend, Levi, who is always around. He's very nice to Cath but he's taken... isn't he? She doesn't know anyone, has no idea how things work around the campus and her sister doesn't want her. All Cath has to fall back on is her fan-fiction. For Cath is a writer in a fandom called Simon Snow... a sort of Harry Potter fantasy series of books that have been made into films... a very popular fanfiction author in fact. She starts writing non-fanfiction with Nick, a boy she meets in her fiction writing class, and Reagan eventually and reluctantly starts to take Cath under her wing. But things get more and more difficult with assignment problems, friendship problems, family problems... 'every' sort of problem. Life at college is in fact a bit of a nightmare for the reserved and frightened Cather.

Once I started reading this I simply could not stop. Being someone who's rather close to the idea of fanfiction I could indentify with it completely. Not only that, I'm like Cath (weird that she's my namesake) in that I'm pretty sure I would find it as hard to settle and find my place at uni or college as she did. I had no problem understanding her predicament... a quiet, old fashioned girl suddenly in surroundings where everyone is a partygirl, super-confident, experienced with boys/men. She's none of these things and I really felt for her, especially when her sister basically abandons her to take up the persona of a social butterfly. She's saved by her writing. She knows that 'somewhere'... ie. on the internet... she 'belongs' and is darn good at what she does. This might sound like a sad book: it's not. It's uplifting and fun and hugely comforting to know that there are plenty of people like yourself out there... no matter how nerdy you are. As a coming of age story Fangirl is very satisfying. The author, Rainbow Rowell, clearly 'gets it' and I like that very much indeed. I liked this whole book very much indeed... one comment I read suggested the book was overlong at 460 pages. I disagree. Some books don't need to be that long but this one is just fine as it is. It's very readable, a pageturner, a perfect summer read. Set in Nebraska it told me a bit about how it is to live in that state so I've added it to my list of books read for my personal American states challenge.


Friday 1 August 2014

Books read in July

July was quite a good reading month for me - 11 books read in all. To be honest I've come to the conclusion that my reading speed has increased. My average used to be 5 to 7 books, whereas it's now 9 to 11. Even when long books are included, and there were two over 500 pages last month, I still manage the same number. I didn't know this could happen but it clearly has, so there you go.

Anyway, these are the books I read in July:

58. Sovereign by C.J. Sansom

59. Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson

60. The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

61. The Library edited by Rebecca Gray

62. Sanctus by Simon Toyne

63. The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell

64. Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss

65. Lorraine Kelly's Scotland by Lorraine Kelly

66. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

67. A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

68. For the Time Being by Dirk Bogarde

Quality-wise I consider it be a good month of reading. All these books were good, some very good, some, like the new Flavia de Luce were like visiting old friends. I've tried and I can't pick a favourite. Three or four were stand-out excellent such as Sovereign by C.J. Sansom and For the Time being by Dirk Bogarde. Others were just simply charming like The Dead in their Vaulted Arches (the new Flavia) by Alan Bradley, Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson, Lorraine Kelly's Scotland, and The Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell. Helliconia Summer by Brian Aldiss was very readable classic science Fiction.

I am very pleased that of the 11 books I read last month 4 were non-fiction. That brings my total this year to 15. It's not 'brilliant' but it's actually not bad and I'll continue to make the effort to read a few non fiction volumes every month.

I hope August is a good reading month for you.