Saturday 25 October 2014

Two book review

My reading's been really slow this month and has jumped around a bit in regards to subject, some fiction, some non-fiction etc. I think after storming through books all year I've become a bit jaded and am struggling to find books to catch my interest. I find when that happens it's best to go with the flow and do something else as my enthusiasm for books always returns fairly quickly. Anyway, two books today - A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby and Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers.

First up, a non-fiction offering, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by travel writer, Eric Newby. This is my book 34 for Bev's Mount TBR 2014 challenge.

In 1956 Eric Newby decided to temporarily leave his job in the London fashion industry and go walking and climbing in the Hindu Kush, which is a mountain range that stretches from central Afghanistan to Northern Pakistan. He travels with a friend, Hugh Carless, a diplomat who is between posts, but close to taking up a position in Iraq or Iran (I can't remember which.) The two men are complete novices at climbing mountains so start by taking an intensive three day course in Wales, in which they learn not much more than the basics. They travel to Afghanistan, hire some help and off they go.

What follows is a very interesting tale of adventure and hardship: incredible hardship in fact. The two men really have no clue how challenging the terrain in that country is, how poor the indigenous peoples are, and how hard they will have to work just to walk to the mountains, let alone 'climb' said mountains. It's incredible they survived really, both men were walking skeltons by the end of it. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is one of those iconic books that many travel writing fans cite as a 'must read'. I'm not sure I would go that far. I enjoyed it, the writing was excellent and there was plenty of humour. I also found fascinating that Afghanistan in the 1950s was reasonably accessible to foreigners, which it most certainly is not now of course. It was certainly a real history lesson. The only 'slight' drawback for me I suppose is that I couldn't believe how naive they were and how happy they seemed to put the lives of their native companions at risk. But there you go, things were different back then and this book illustrates that extremely well. Glad I've read this travel classic but would probably not read it again. Preferred Love and War in the Apennines.

Lastly, a vintage crime yarn, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. This is my book 21 for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge and covers the category, 'A book with a lawyer, courtroom or judge'.

Lord Peter Wimsey's brother, Gerald, the Duke of Denver, is at a country retreat, Riddlesdale Lodge, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He's there with his family - wife, sister, Mary, sister's new fiance, Denis Cathcart, and various friends and acquaintences. Lord Peter is holidaying in southern Europe but his valet, Bunter, reads about Gerald's arrest for murder in the paper, and the pair return to England. It seems a body was discovered in the conservatory of the lodge, at three in the morning. The dead man is Cathcart, Mary's fiance. Gerald discovered the body but claims he didn't comit the murder, even though he had argued badly with Cathcart earlier in the night. He has an alibi but won't say what it is. Peter, the policeman, Charles Parker, and Bunter, set about investigating the killing. It's a tangled web. Cathcart was not what he seemed, Mary is mixed up in the business somehow, and how is an isoloted farm, up on the moor, and its strange inhabitants connected to the crime? The case of course ends in the courthouse and it's not until then that the truth comes out.

I think this is my fourth Lord Peter Wimsey book, but the second that was actually written. I'm not reading them in order, I should be probably, but it hasn't worked out like that and as far as I can see it doesn't make too much difference. As with the other books in the series, Clouds of Witness was an absolute delight. Sayers' skill at plotting a crime yarn strikes me as second to none and she always treats the reader as an intelligent person, which is more than you can say about some modern writers.

One of the things I love most is the humour, Wimsey's dialogue is at times hilarious:

"Oh, come along old thing. Biggs is some celebrity, you know, and perfectly toppin' to look at, in a marbly kind of way. He'll tell you all about his canaries..."

This kind of thing kept me giggling all the way through.

The book is peopled with some great characters apart from Wimsey. His mother is a joy, I like the policeman, Parker, who clearly has A Thing for Mary, and the farm inhabitants up on the moor were a frightening but also hilarious crowd. Well drawn I thought. I wasn't so keen on the last quarter or so of the book which was courthouse based. But that's just me - I've never been keen on courtroom dramas. But I did think one particlaur scene where Wimsey and Bunter get lost on the moor was one of the most suspenseful scenes I've ever read anywhere.

So pleased that I have another ten Wimsey books to read. No idea which to read on my next outing, Gaudy Night seems to be universally popular but, for reasons known best to myself, I'm saving that for next years reading pile. Anyone got any other favourites?


Wednesday 15 October 2014

The Unburied

My book six for Carl's R.I.P. IX challenge is The Unburied by Charles Palliser. It's also my book twelve for the My Kind of Mystery challenge, which is being hosted by Riedel Fascination. I read it because I saw it reviewed on my friend Pat's book blog, here, and thought it sounded rather good.

Dr. Edward Courtine, a rather arrogant and conceited Oxbridge professor, has decided to spend a few days with an old friend before spending Christmas with relatives. The 'old friend' is Austin Fickling, a man the doctor was at university with in the mid 1800s. The two had a serious falling out many years ago but the doctor forced the friendship to continue, although the two men have not seen each other in decades.

Arriving in Thurchester, Dr. Courtine finds his friend behaving oddly and wonders if it was a mistake to come. After dinner Austin tells the doctor a strange story concerning the local cathedral and a double murder that took place two hundred years ago. It's thought that one of the murdered men, a Dr. Burgoyne, haunts the cathedral, and that recent works on the building may have disturbed the ghost.

Dr. Courtine is hoping to find a missing manuscript about the life of Alfred the Great in the cathedral library but also finds himself involved in rivalries between various church dignitaries and masters who teach in the choir school. A catastophe occurs when a local man who was planning to leave his fortune to the school is murdered. The doctor and his friend, Fickling, are unwittingly dragged in as witnesses and Courtine will have to decide where his loyalties lie.

I enjoyed this book but found it a bit confusing if I'm honest. I know it took me quite a few days to read as I was busy and when you don't read a book straight off but end up with breaks of a whole day and sometimes more, it really doesn't help with keeping up with what's going on in a complicated plot. Especially if your brain is as addled as mine is at times. There was a huge cast of characters to be remembered, two timelines - Victorian and the 1600s - three if you count the historical background of Alfred the Great, and a great deal of rambling about this and that.

The setting of a city, somewhere in the south of England, which had a large and influential cathedral was very atmospheric in a Victorian, M.R. James, sort of way. I took it in my mind to be Salisbury but it can't be as the houses in that city are not built right up to the cathedral and as far as I know, never have been. (I thought of Truro in Cornwall, where this is the case, but but I don't think it was meant to be that far from civilisation. LOL) Whatever, the setting and the political infighting, as regards the people who work in the cathedral and attached schools, and their constant bickering and attempts to do one another down, was very well done. Very true to life. I sort of wondered why Courtine didn't just up and go home, because it was very clear his 'friend', Austin, was Up To No Good right from the start, but there you go. If every character in every book did the sensible thing there would be no fictional stories.

The writing was excellent. As I said, very reminiscent of M.R. James and his way of telling a spooky, atmospheric tale but with much more history. If James had ever written a full-length novel I suspect it would have been just like this. I liked the history aspect a lot and always enjoy an author who doesn't presume stupidity on behalf of his reader. I'd love to read more by Charles Palliser, I gather the famous one that everyone was reading a couple of years ago is The Quincunx, another Dickensian, gothicky type mystery. I shall keep an eye out for it.


Friday 10 October 2014

Scotland pics

OK, well I've been trying to get around to posting a few photos of our trip to Scotland all week. Things always conspire but at last I have a moment to do it. It was an absolutely gorgeous week, we explored to our heart's content, went a lot further than we expected, and also fitted in an afternoon visit to some close friends. It was such a nice week, made all the better by good weather which broke the day after we left. We couldn't have timed that better. As regards the photos you'll get a much better idea if you click on each one for a bigger photo.

Anyway, first up I had to take a pic of the rather nice view from our hotel room (Premier Inn, Inverness West, if anyone's interested).

That first afternoon we took a quick ride down the road to see Loch Ness, and here it is in all its moody glory.

Day two and after studying the map (I'm the map geek of the family) we realised that a trip across the mountains to the west coast was not at all out of the question. Good decision, fabulous views all the way. This is Loch Glascarnoch.

Moody skies and dark hills all around...

Further along the road, Loch Droma.

More stunning mountain views.

Loch Broom with Ullapool in the distance.

Ullapool itself. I rather liked this quiet, unassuming town. Quite isolated but with *such* a gorgeous setting.

The view up the loch from Ullapool towards the Atlantic.

Moody Loch Broom.

These next two photos fit together. They show the coastal view over Little Loch Broom towards Loch Broom (where we'd been that morning) with tiny islands. A quintessential coastal Scottish view I think. The rain had set in and it was looking very atmospheric.

So that was our first glorious day and that's enough for this post. More soon.


Sunday 5 October 2014

Two more crime books

I spent most of last week in Bonny (and it is!) Scotland so posts here have been non-existant. Now of course I have three to do, this book post, an update on the Mount TBR challenge and a post with some pics of Scotland. So without further ado... a book review post.

The first book covers all of three reading challenges. Firstly it's my book five for Carl's R.I.P. IX challenge. Then it's my book thirty three for Bev's 2014 Mount TBR challenge. And lastly, it's my book eleven for the My Kind of Mystery challenge which is being hosted by Riedel Fascination, which takes me beyond the number of books required for the category 'Secret Messages' (5 - 10) and into a new category, 'Unearthing Clues' (11 - 20).

Alison Kerby is now a single mother, recently divorced from her husband, with a nine year old daughter, Melissa. Unable to decide how to earn a living, she buys an historical house on the coast of New Jersey with the aim of opening a guest house for paying guests. Alison is skilled enough to do the much needed renovations herself but a bucket of compound falls and hits her on the head, after which things are never the same again. She discovers she can now see ghosts, but not just any ghosts, one is the previous owner of the house, Maxie, and the other is the private detective, Paul, whom Maxie engaged to protect her against death threats she was suddenly receiving. They tell Alison that they were murdered and want her to help find the culprit as they can't go beyond the boundaries of the property. Alison is far too busy to help and thus reluctant, but when she finds a death threat in her email inbox things naturally change. Alison is no private detective but she must find out what's going on and why ownership of this particular house seems to entail threats on the owner's life, before her and her daughter's lives come seriously under threat.

This was a nice little read for RIP IX. What I didn't realise before I started the book was that the author is a man. I found out halfway through and while it shouldn't have made a difference, in reality, it did. I realised that the snappy humour displayed - by way of Alison, the first person narrator - was of a more male orientated type. I'd realised something was slightly amiss and when I found out the author was male it all fell into place. Not that that was in any way problematic, just slightly odd. In fact, this book is a fun read. If you're looking for a serious, scary sort of ghost story then this is not it. This is, I suppose, a cozy mystery and therefore humour is to the fore with the ghosts able to speak and interact with 'some' humans but not all. The house here is a beautiful, historical building and I found all the renovation details quite interesting, though possibly just a trifle too detailed. Again, evidence of a male author... but that's just my opinion of course. All in all a good, fun read, the first in a series that I'm not sure if I'll continue with. We'll see.

Next, Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin. This is my book twenty for Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge and covers the category: An Academic Mystery.

Gervase Fen has been asked to present the prizes at Castrevenford school, a private school in Worcestershire. He arrives the night before and almost immediately becomes embroiled in a murder mystery. Two of the teachers at the school are found dead and a female pupil has gone missing after a failed assignation with a male pupil. The local police are out of their depth and ask Fen, with his experience of solving murders, to help. It seems all kinds of strange events are connected with the case, including some unusual behaviour on behalf of the dead teachers, a mysterious manuscript, student romance, and the death of an old woman in a nearby village. Fen has his work cut out to solve this one, not least because the life of a student hangs in the balance.

Another very enjoyable Gervase Fen mystery. Fen is such an interesting amateur detective. Every inch an academic and just a touch pompous, but he knows he is and thus tries not to take himself too seriously. Crispin's writing style is wonderfully humorous and droll and it's quite possible to laugh yourself through his books. There's another glorious chase scene later in the book which would do an Ealing comedy proud. Totally bonkers and thus delightful. I like books set in schools so this appealed to me on that extra level and I wish there were more academic mysteries around to be honest; I find them wierdly enjoyable. I think this is my fourth Fen mystery so far so it's nice that I still have five left to read. I hope they're all as good as the four I've read so far.