Friday 27 February 2015

Books read in February

Yet another month seems to have whizzed by. I know February is a shorter month but even so, where did it go? Only seems like yesterday I was talking about books read in January and here I am with my February books. Seven this month, almost eight to be honest because if I put my mind to it I could probably finish my present book - The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney - by the 1st. March, but I have no intention of doing so as the book is too good to rush like that.

Anyway. These are the books I read in February:

7. The Quiet Game - Greg Iles

8. Cycle of the Werewolf - Stephen King. An illustrated novella about werewolf activity in Maine. Enjoyable. Beautiful illustrations.

9. Gaudy Night - Dorothy L. Sayers

10. Dear Fatty - Dawn French. Her autobiography. Quite enjoyable, written in the form of letters, I *think* to Jennifer Saunders. Some of them anyway. Slighty confusing. But not bad, not quite as good as her fiction in my opinion. Slightly reinforced my not so great opinion of autobiographies by 'slebs', (although I gather the author prefers the book to be thought of as 'memoirs').

11. Walking Home: My Family and Other Rambles - Clare Balding. Clare has been doing a radio programme for many years where she walks with various interesting people. In this book she talks about these programmes, interesting tit-bits etc., plus recounts a walk she tried to do with her brother. Clare Balding's writing style is 'friendly' if that's possible, she informs and entertains and makes you laugh all at the same time. Loved this book.

12. The Secret Adversary - Agatha Christie. The first book in the 'Tommy and Tuppence' series, this was written in 1922 and it does show its age a little, equating the Labour party with the communists and the IRA. All great fun though, loads of intrigue, twists and turns, I knew exactly who the villain of the piece was all the way through but it didn't spoil my enjoyment one little bit. I shall read more in this series.

13. The Virago Book of Women Travellers edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor.

As will be seen I've not reviewed everything I've read this month. I may have mentioned before that I decided at the beginning of this year not to. I suffer from stiffness of neck and shoulders due to cervical spondylosis and can't cope with massive amounts of typing. I plan to review books for challenges and anything I really love, but other books will just get a mention here in the monthly round-up.

My reading month has once again been eclectic. Two vintage crime yarns, a modern thriller and a horror novella covers the fiction. All of those were good. I'm very pleased with three non-fictions this month, those were all good too. Also pleased with two more books read for the Mount TBR challenge, bringing my total to five so far and almost six as my current read will count as well. That's well ahead of where I should be if I'm aiming for twenty four books at the end of this year.

So, favourite book of the month? Easy this time, it's:

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers was brilliant. Loved it to bits.

An honorable second:

Walking Home by Clare Balding was delightful. I'd recommend it to anyone to be honest.

Hope everyone has a good reading month? Next month I'm looking forward to the start of Carl's Once Upon a Time 'fantasy' challenge and have half a dozen books lined up for that. Happy reading!


Tuesday 24 February 2015

The Virago Book of Women Travellers

I've been reading The Virago Book of Women Travellers, edited by Mary Morris and Larry O'Connor, all month, dipping in and out of around fifty tales of intrepid women traipsing all over the world and having all kinds of adventures. My kind of book.

The tales are in chronological order and start in 1717 with an excerpt from a book I've already read - that of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and her Turkish Embassy Letters. It seems she really was a pioneer for women who wanted to travel. I kind of knew that but not quite to what extent.

A quote from the next contributor, Mary Wollstonecraft, travelling in Sweden, having left her baby daughter behind really struck me:

'I dread to unfold her mind, lest it should render her unfit for the world she is to inhabit.'

Should she educate her daughter or not? At the end of the 1700s marriage was about all women could aspire to and most men definitely did not want an educated, clever wife. Interesting piece from her.

I have to say that I enjoyed the earlier tales much more than the modern, 20th. century, ones. A few I enjoyed:

Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) was hilarious on the differences between the Americans and British when visiting each other. It seems they sometimes arrived unannounced, sat for an hour saying nothing and then got up and left, still silent. She got lost in the forests of Ohio which really was quite 'edge of the seat' to read about.

Mary Kingsley getting lost in a Mangrove swamp in West Africa was also rather worrying.

Isabella Bird climbing a mountain in the Rockies was also excellent, especially when she tried to get down again. I'd read about her exploits years ago, not just in the Rockies but also travelling in Asia. I'd definitely like to read those again.

Lady Mary Anne Barker went hunting in New Zealand, trying to prove to the men she went with that a woman was strong enough to be up to the challenge. Again they got lost. I sense a theme here of me liking to read about people getting lost...

Margaret Fountaine had two interests in her life - butterflies and men. She combined the two in Love Among the Butterflies which I would love to read as her writing style was both charming and funny. She writes in this excerpt about her stay in and around Palermo and the various men who chased her.

Isak Dineson (Karen Blixen from Out of Africa) writes about flying in Africa and reminded me very strongly of Beryl Markham in West With the Night. Must be something magical about flying in Africa.

Maud Parish had wanderlust and left her husband to go to Alaska (she did in fact travel all over the world). Her book Nine Pounds of Luggage is one I'd like to get hold of.

Emily Carr, a Canadian artist, loved the NW coast of Canada and specialised in drawing Native American totem poles. She managed to get herself into a village that was barred to white people, Kinwancool, and was allowed to paint their artifacts.

Dervla Murphy is another one who got lost, this time in Madagascar with her young daughter and ended up having to walk through the night having no idea where she was. I've read one book by this author and really must read some more.

Emily Hahn wrote what is my favourite piece in the whole book. She was an American journalist who wrote over fifty books and travelled the world, working. This excerpt from Times and Places recounts how, when she was living in China before the war, she decided to start smoking opium and become an addict. It's quite shocking in its matter-of-factness and really quite rivetting to read. This is another author I'd like to read more of.

The final piece in the book returns to Isabella Bird and her adventures in The Rockies, this time recounting how she took her leave, never to return again. Why she didn't stay I don't know, or can't remember, but reading about her descent from the mountains to the plains is really rather sad.

Obviously there are many more writers in this book than I've had time to mention. (Also good were tales from Edith Wharton, Box-car Bertha, Christina Dodwell, Alexandra David-Neel, Mrs. F.D. Bridges and so on.) All in all this anthology of women travellers is excellent. Like all anthologies it's patchy in places but there are very few tales that are not interesting and well written. Sometimes I wasn't too interested in reading about a particular place but the writer usually won me over. What an anthology like this does serve to do is supply the keen armchair traveller like myself with new authors to search out and read, and this one does that very well indeed.

The Virago Book of Women Travellers is my book five for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.


Friday 20 February 2015

New books!

I'm trying to be a bit restrained about buying new books at the moment. Not altogether successfully but I am making some effort which must count for something. (I can hear hysterical laughter coming from some quarters as I speak...) That said, a few have crept surrepticiously in so I thought I'd do a little post showing which ones.

This is they:

First up, my lovely 'sis', Pat, of Here, There and Everywhere sent me an Amazon gift token for Christmas. For a few weeks I couldn't decide what to buy and then I realised how stupid I was being as there's one book I've been covetting for 'yonks'. And it's this:

My favourite author, John Connolly, and Declan Burke brought Books to Die For, a book of essays, out in 2012. It consists of many crime authors talking about and recommending their favourite crime books. Some years in the 1800s are covered and then after 1928 every year has an entry and, in some cases, several. There are far too many to name all of them, but you name a crime author and he or she is probably in this book recommending their favourite writer. It's a very beautiful book. I love it to bits and can't wait to start reading it... I think it's probably a book to dip into as and when you feel like it. I am so thrilled to own it so thank you, Pat, for such a lovely gift.

Next up, The Fellowship of Ghosts by Paul Watkins.

Tell me this doesn't look like a fantasy book! Even the title is evocative. Possibly that was the intention as not only is this book about mountaineering in Norway, it's also about Scandinavian folklore and myths. Norwegian history is also covered, from the Vikings to World War 2. Absolutely my kind of book at the moment as my current interest is reading about mountains, their history and the people who explore those regions and climb of course. Saw this one on Goodreads and had to have it.

Lastly, Busman's Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers.

It's no secret that I loved Gaudy Night when I read it a week or so ago. Couldn't wait to get hold of the next book in the series and here it is. It's clearly been well-loved but that's fine, I like the fact that AM makes books more affordable for all and have no problem with secondhand books.

So that's my haul for the last few weeks. Hope you're having more success keeping your TBR mountain down than me...


Friday 13 February 2015

Gaudy Night

At long last I've reached the Lord Peter Wimsey book that most of Dorothy L. Sayers' fans say is the best of the series: Gaudy Night. I had it on my special TBR shelf of 25 or so books that I really wanted to read this year, so it was an easy matter to reach for it when I fancied a vintage crime read after a couple of months of not reading any at all.

Harriet Vane is the woman Lord Peter Wimsey would most like to marry. They met five years ago when she was accused of poisoning her ex-fiancé - in the events of Strong Poison - but all that happened back then hangs between them like the elephant in the room and prevents her from accepting his constant proposals.

Harriet is also rather afraid that marriage will rob her of her independence. She's now a successful crime author and isn't at all sure that marriage and its inevitable responsibilities will allow her to continue with her writing. She decides to return to Shrewsbury college, one of the few female colleges at Oxford, where she attained her degree, to attend the annual Gaudy Night. It's a kind of reunion weekend for former scholars and Harriet has always avoided it like the plague, but this year an old friend has pleaded with her to go to keep her company.

It's not long before Harriet realises that all is not well at her old college. It seems poison pen letters have been circulating and she herself gets several that refer to her trial and relationship with Peter. She's asked by her old tutors to investigate. They don't want to cause a scandal by calling in the police and Harriet being a crime writer seems to them to be the next best thing. Events escalate. Some nasty pranks are played and the letters continue. Harriet is afraid someone might die. There's only one thing for it, she must beg Lord Peter Wimsey for help...

Hard to do a review of this one as it's long and quite complicated. Although if I think about it, it's not the plot that's complicated it was trying to keep track of all the female dons and who they were and what they taught. I failed in that but in reality it didn't really matter as it's Harriet Vane who takes centre stage here and everyone else is secondary. We find out a lot about her university life, her thoughts on education for women, and the agonising educated women did back then about the effects of marriage on their career prospects. I found all of this incredibly interesting. Many things have changed for women since then but at the same time, many things have stayed the same and women still face exactly the same dilemmas.

This is not at all your average whodunnit, being primarily about mischief and the reasons for it in a women's college. It's also rather romantic, or it is as soon as Lord Peter arrives which sadly is quite a long way into the book. That aspect of it is delightful. One scene, on a punt on the river, was 'take your breath away' beautiful without anything sexual happening at all. Written so matter-of-factly but more erotic in feel than any sexually explicit scene could possibly be. What a writer Dorothy L. Sayers was.

In short, I thought Gaudy Night was fantastic. My favourite Wimsey book so far although I've enjoyed all of those I've read. I had that strange sensation you get sometimes when you finish a book that you hate the fact that it's ended and wouldn't mind starting all over again at the beginning. I certainly think it won't be many years before I do read it again. In the meantime I still have some of the early Wimsey mysteries to read and the last proper Wimsey/Harriet novel, Busman's Honeymoon, is on the way. After that there are several novels featuring these two by Jill Paton-Walsh which I gather are not bad. I hope that's the case as I really love these two and want to read a lot more about them.

Gaudy Night is my book four for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR challenge.


Monday 9 February 2015

Bookish smiles

I'm in the middle of two longish books at the moment - The Virago Book of Women Travellers which is excellent and Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers which is brilliant. Thus, no book review posts from me for a few days. I have a lovely new book which I shall post about but there's a second one on the way *cough* so will wait for that to come and do a 'two new books' post later in the week. So, in the meantime, because I haven't done a bookish smiles post in ages, it must be time to do another one. Most of these I've picked up on Pinterest or Facebook.

And who wouldn't want a book den like this! Art by Hans De Beer (thanks to Val for enlightening me):

Filled with gorgeous books like this perhaps:

And lastly, I love this poem by children's author, Julia Donaldson:

Hope everyone has some brilliant books to read this month of February when it's cold enough in the UK for good soup, good books, and hibernating in front of the fire to be my main preoccupation. If you feel inclined tell me in the comments what you're reading at the moment. Is it good or disappointing? Happy reading.


Wednesday 4 February 2015

The Quiet Game

When I announced my intention to do The Southern Lit challenge again this year, Kay from Kay's Reading Life (who has made a welcome return to book blogging) suggested that the Penn Cage books by Greg Iles, which are set in Mississippi, might fit the bill. The first book is entitled The Quiet Game and luckily I was able to reserve a copy from the library.

Famous writer and prosecuting attorney, Penn Cage, has recently been widowed. He has a young, four year old daughter who is traumatised by the loss and he decides to take her home to his parents' house, where he grew up, to heal. His home town is Natchez, an antebellum city, in the state of Mississippi. On the plane he meets Caitlin Masters, unbeknown to him, a journalist working for a newspaper in the same town. The lives of these two are to become inextricably entwined.

Arriving home, Penn senses that something is not right with his parents. Reluctantly, his father, a doctor, eventually tells him that he's being blackmailed by Ray Presley, a killer and ex-policeman with a finger in many crooked deals. Penn sets out to put a stop to this, only to discover connections to a case some years ago when the local big-wig, Leo Marston, tried to send his father to prison for malpractise. Penn had been dating Leo's daughter, Livy, at the time and Penn had always assumed that Leo's motive for doing this was to split Livy and Penn up. Her father having grander plans for her than to marry a local doctor's son.

When the murder, in 1968, of a local black factory worker, Del Payton, is also rumoured to be connected to Leo Marston, Penn decides, with the help of Caitlin Masters, that it's time to bring him down. But how to do this? Things are further complicated when Livy, newly separated from her husband, arrives in Natchez. What is she doing there?

It's a long, long road Penn has embarked upon. It's going to bring tragedy and death and will involve crooked dealings in the highest echelons of political society and the FBI. More than once Penn is going to regret ever becoming involved but he promised the family of Del Payton that he will find out what happened to him and, whatever happens, is determined to keep that promise.

This was a book that was amazingly good on 'setting'. I did wonder, before I started, exactly how 'southern' it would feel. Answer: 'very'. The town of Natchez and the state of Mississippi really came alive and the historical detail was fascinating. I found out a lot about the treatment of the black population in Mississippi in the 1960s and it was interesting the way the author brought in various politicians such as J. Edgar Hoover, and there were mentions of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King of course. All excellent.

But... I was at least 200 pages into this book before I really felt that I had to finish it. Before then, if I'm honest, I found it rather rambling and was getting a bit tired of the author indulging in a bit of male fantasy writing. Ie: two stunningly gorgeous, 'perfect' women who of course found the narrator irresistible, descriptions of one of them in a see-through blouse and so on and so on. I do realise that as a 60+ female reader I'm not the target audience for this book, it's probably aimed at other men and that's maybe what they like to read. But it just makes me sigh that so many male authors just can't seem to bring themselves to write about women as they really are rather than invent these perfect fantasy women. Oddly, the only women in it who felt, to me, like real people were two black characters, Ruby, the maid, and Althea Payton, the murdered man's wife. Penn's father was a very strong character but his mother? I had hardly any sense of her at all. She felt like a shadowy presence in the background to be honest.

It's such a shame because this book has the sort of cracking storyline that would hold up without all that sexual fantasy stupidity. The plot was certainly the reason I kept reading. I'm not really a political/legal thriller reader... not my thing at all normally... but the story had so many twists and turns and so much going on that for me it eventually turned into a real pageturner. I couldn't stop reading and got through the last 400 or so pages in a couple of days. Not until towards the end did I have much of a clue what was really going on. Until then it was just a huge rollercoaster ride, including a night-time river escape that was about as exciting as anything I've read. Hugely entertaining.

Now of course I can't decide whether I want to read more in this series. I'm not sure I want more of the sexual fantasy writing but having read the synopsis for the next book, Turning Angel, it does sound rather good. I'll think seriously on it and perhaps see if my local library actually has the book. (I've now checked and they do so I'll wait for it to come back in and borrow it.)

The Quiet Game is my first book for the The Southern Lit challenge which is being hosted by The Introverted Reader.


Tuesday 3 February 2015

More pics of Scotland

I suddenly realised that I never did post the second lot of pics from our break in Scotland back in October... I hope nobody's been holding their breath. ;-) Anyway, without further ado here're a few more pics of the glorious Scottish scenery.

We started this day by driving down a little road that runs the other side of Loch Ness from the A82. It goes down the loch for a couple of miles and then strikes inland, eventually arriving at Fort Augustus.

Firstly, Loch Ness in all its glory:

I believe this next one is Loch Duntelchaig (in the distance):

Sundry hills and mountains along the way:

Fort Augustus, which is at the other end of Loch Ness from Inverness, turned out to be a super little village. I could happily have a whole holiday staying there. All of these are from that area.

And lastly, this was the view out of our hotel bedroom window. It was just a simple Premier Inn, cheap but very nice, and only four or five miles up the road from Loch Ness.

And now of course, having looked at these again, I can't wait to go back to beautiful Scotland.