Monday 23 November 2015

The Lake District Murder

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (co-founder of the Crime Writer's Association) was not quite a 'random grab' from the library... that hints at a book never heard of before and I was well aware of this British Library Crime Classic when I saw it on the library shelf. I'd seen reviews on blogs and mentions on Goodreads so I was pleased to see it and happily grabbed it to read. The cover, a railway poster of Ullswater, is gorgeous but isn't credited to any particular painter on the back cover, which is a shame in my view.

Edited to add: Margaret at Booksplease tells me that the artist is John Littlejohns, a Cornish artist.

The body of the part-owner of a garage business, Jack Clayton, is discovered in a car in the garage and because of the circumstances it's assumed he's committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Inspector Meredith of the Cumbrian police is not convinced though. The man was clearly just about have a meal, why would he suddenly decide to go and kill himself? He was engaged to be married too, a contented man by all accounts. Meredith checks the Clayton's bank account and is surprised to discover that the part-owner of a garage that's only doing averagely well has rather a large nest egg. Further enquiries bring forth the information that he and his fiance were going to emigrate to Canada after the wedding but that his partner in the business, a man named Higgins, was unaware of this.

Meredith soon has his prime suspects but is distracted by their involvement in what might be a petrol delivery scam. Really he has two cases to solve and everyone involved in one case seems to be involved in the other. Surely they must be connected? Meredith's task is to find that connection and then prove it. Easier said than done.

OK, well this is no 1930s Agatha Christie type yarn with a body in the library or someone done away with in a stately home or on the 4.50 from Paddington. It reminded me more of Dorothy L. Sayers' writing in that it goes into clues and methods and timings in minute detail. You needed your wits about you to follow it, to be honest, and weirdly I did actually manage to do that, unlike Dorothy L. Sayers who was so clever she did sometimes lose me. Where it differs from Sayers (and Christie) is that this is very much a police procedural story which outlines how very difficult their job can be when there are few leads, or when they know who's done the deed but have to prove it so that it'll stand up in a court of law.

The Lake District setting was good but not brilliant, I didn't get an amazing sense of place but that's because these days we think of The Lake District mainly as a beautiful tourist destination (forgetting that people live and work there perhaps) whereas back then it was possibly a bit less so. This book focuses more on the everyday lives of the resident population and is thus, probably, more real. Although, where there are descriptions of the mountains and countryside they are nicely observed.

I thought this was not a bad book. Not wonderful, but not bad. For me it lacked the kind of characterisation where I identified strongly with the detective. In Sayers' books this is not lacking - I adore Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet - and that makes for a big difference. Big enough that I give her books a four or a five on Goodreads and this one got a three. I enjoyed it well enough but wasn't transported into ecstasies by it.

There are quite a few of these reissued British Library Crime Classics around now... all with gorgeous covers but from what I can see the quality of the stories varies a bit. I own one other, Mystery in White by J.Jefferson Farjeon, a Christmas mystery which I'll be reading soon along with some other Christmas books. I'll also keep an eye out for other BLCC books as I think the idea of reissuing 'lost' crime classics from the 1930s is a really excellent one.


Monday 16 November 2015

The Churchill Factor

I was given The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson for Christmas last year and was absolutely determined to get to it this year, preferably around the time of Rememberance Sunday and Armistice Day, which was last Wednesday of course. For once I managed to do exactly what I planned! Miracles will never cease to be...

It's funny how some books often turn out to be not what you expect... very often they don't quite live up to your expectations, which is always a bit disappointing. The Churchill Factor was that rarity, a book that 'did exactly what it said on the tin' (British advert reference for those wondering). Boris Johnson is the current mayor of London (his two-stint term ends next year and someone else will be elected to the position). Like him or loathe him (and many do both) he has a certain eccentric charm about him that I hoped would transfer to his writing. It did. In spades. The book was everything I was hoping for, ie. a sort of conversational introduction to the life and times of Winston Churchill.

This is not at all a literary tome chronicling the life of Churchill from birth to death with everything in between. It starts in 1940 when Churchill and the country are in crisis. The war is going so badly Britain is on the point of being annilated by Nazi Germany. Quite a large percentage of the House of Commons and the British public are in favour of appeasing Hitler and making a deal: 'selling out' in other words. I honestly did not know we came that close or how many people were in favour of it. In the end Churchill managed to persuade the country and Parliament to fight on but things could easily have been very different. Johnson makes the case that no other man could've have done what he did, making us fight on and having the strength and charisma to get us through WW2. Looking at other contenders as he does, it's easy to see what he means.

Basically this is a book about Winston Churchill's character. What was he like? What made him tick? 'Warts and all' is an over-used term but it's almost true here. Johnson goes into all the man's character traits, his meglomania, his charm, his work-ethic, his honesty, his eccentricities (there were many), his capacity for drinking and so on. I say 'almost' because I did slightly feel that Johnson was almost too eager to explain away some of the more questionable decisions Churchill made. The bombing of the French fleet at Mers-El-K├ębir for instance, the description of that shook me a bit. That said, it was war and someone had to take these horrendous decisions, rightly or wrongly. None of us can really put ourselves into the position of a man like Churchill... in charge of taking a country through a world war and 'winning' the thing.

Reading this book it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Churchill was a bit mad. He fought in several wars and constantly put his own life at risk in a very gung-ho manner. A real 'Boy's Own Hero'. Johnson suspects he did it partly to impress his father who basically ignored him, but also because he was a huge self-publicist and loved reading about himself doing brave things in the papers! Complex isn't in it. We're all a mix of good and bad, selfish and unselfish, but Churchill is about as complicated as anyone I've ever read about.

I have say, I think Boris Johnson handles writing about this complex man very skilfully indeed. There's a lovely, amusing turn of phrase all the way through:

'Sometimes he could be Gibbonian; sometimes he was more of a funky Gibbon;'

And referring to one, Henry Labouchere, an anti-semetic who wanted to criminalise homosexual activity and who made endless allegations about Churchill's leadership, as 'an ocean-going creep'.

I wish I'd noted more quotes but I got so wrapped up in reading the book I forgot to note pages.

Churchill likewise had a brilliant sense of humour but Johnson makes the point that many of the famous Churchillian quotes we all know are sadly not true, they were made by others etc. I did love Churchill's way of signing off his letters with KBO. It stands for Keep Buggering On... so typical of men of that generation. My mother used to say, 'Keep your pecker up'. I suspect there were any number of encouraging sayings that people used during the war that we might deem a bit odd nowadays...

I could go on and on and on about this book. For me to read a non-fiction book in four days there has to be something special about it and for me it has to be its conversational tone. Johnson meanders about all over the place timewise, one minute you're in Parliament at the start of WW2, the next you're on the battlefields of WW1 and then suddenly you're hearing about Jennie, Churchill's mother. It sounds chaotic and I suppose it is a bit, but it works. I would say that this is probably not a book for your Churchill expert. I don't imagine (though I might be wrong) that they would learn anything new. But for me, with just a little knowledge of the man, it was perfect. I loved it and it's even better than that because I so wanted to like it.. and actually did. It lived up to my expectations and actually... that's a bit rare.

The Churchill Factor is my book 22 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.


Monday 9 November 2015

Catching up

Two books to do brief reviews of today and the theme is very definitely mountainous. If you don't care for mountainous, chilly - even arctic - conditions then look away now. Nothing to see here...

First up, Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places by Griff Rhys Jones.

This is the book based on the author's BBC TV series of the same name which was aired in 2007. (Was is it really that long ago? Heavens...) I watched it at the time and then watched the repeats earlier this year which the Beeb put out in the afternoons. Very enjoyable and right up my street. Comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, is a very amiable, self-deprecating presenter of TV documentaries and, given the evidence of this book, not at all a bad writer. His mission was to climb some of the highest mountains in Britain and given he was not at all a climber this was quite a task. About a third of the book concentrates on areas in Scotland, naturally, because that's where most of our major mountains are. That suited me fine as it's a country I love... plus the photos of the scenery were utterly stunning. Possibly there were a few too many of the author himself but there you go... it's his book. I found it less interesting when he moved on to England and Wales although even then his commentary was never less than readable and often very funny. Anyone living overseas interested in the UK could do a lot worse than order the dvds - if they're available in other formats - of this series as it really is scenically stunning and very watchable.

Next, The Mountains of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg. (Never let it be said that I'm not an equal opportunities mountain reader as this is science fiction. Yes, I really am nerdy enough to search out mountains in my fictional reading as well as non-fiction...)

Having fallen out of favour for shooting a rare animal on land owned by an influential member of the ruling classes, Prince Harpirias, a minor noble, is banished to the city of Ni-Moya close to the frozen wastes in the north of the planet of Majipoor. He vegitates there until a message comes through that he's to lead an expedition north into the mountains to rescue a team of archaeologists who've been kidnapped for trespassing on land owned by an unknown tribe. This is the last thing Harpirias wants to do but he is eventually persuaded. He travels north with a motley band of soldiers and the guide, a shape-shifter, who is to be his interpreter. The kidnappers turn out to have a town nestled in a frozen valley, surrounded by massive mountains. They are also quite barbaric and Harpirias will have his work cut out to rescue the unfortunate prisoners.

I kind of wanted more from this book given it was written in 1995. To me that's late enough for a plot that's more complex than just 'explorer chappy goes north to meet with primitive culture, has sex with king's daughter and comes home'. Ok, the setting of the mountainous, frozen wasteland was nicely described which is why it got a three from me on Goodreads rather than a two. Plus, I realise this is book four in a loosely connected series ('Majipoor: Lord Valentine') and I've only read book one... which I actually thought was rather good. But still... I was disappointed and grieved a bit for what the book 'could' have been. The 'barbaric' villagers were terribly formulaic, Harpirias himself was really quite unpleasant, and the only female character was there for the sex... I mean 'really'? I must add that this is just my opinion, 'Your mileage may vary' as they say but I did an awful lot of eye-rolling as I read it. Possibly if it had been written in the 1950s or 60s I might have given it a 'lot' more leeway but I simply didn't think it was good enough for 1995.


Sunday 1 November 2015

Books read in October

It's been a busy week so I haven't read or posted much and I've loads to catch up on. This monthly post needs doing and also a wrap up post for R.I.P X.

But before I do that I just wanted to share a few interesting links I came across recently.

Firstly, this is an article about the yew tree by nature writer, Richard Mabey, from his new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Fascinating.

Next, a spooky story from Scotland and perfect for Halloween. (I know that was yesterday but...)

And lastly, with the run-up to Rememberance Day on the 11th., a WW2 story that I was completely unaware of. Tragic that the misguided enthusiasm of so many young girls and women could have been so badly taken advantage of.

OK, onto the books.I read five in October (one, Wildwood, I've been reading for months but finished it this month so am counting it for October.)

47. Wildwood by Roger Deakin.

48. Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton.

49. The Saint Germain Chronicles by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

50. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

51. An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins.

A few words about this one as I haven't had time to review it. This is the first instalment of famous 'thinker' and athiest, Richard Dawkin's autobiography. The first half to two thirds of the book deal with his childhood in Africa and at public school in England when his family moved back here. This was all delghtful and interesting and I liked the way he meandered all over the place with his thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects. It got less interesting, in my opinion anyway, when he dwelt a little too much on the detail of his scientific research at university and later... chicks and their pecking etc. It would be of interest to other scientists I'm sure but I found myself skim reading whole sections. Still, overall I thought it was very good and will read the second volume, Brief Candle in the Dark, which is just out, at some stage.

So that was October... a fairly varied month reading-wise. Two non-fictions, which I'm very pleased about, not having read any for quite a while. My non-fiction reading is waaaay down on last year's total of 21, no way will I do that this year. I don't have a standout favourite book, all were good reads apart from The Saint Germain Chronicles which I found not 'terrible' exactly, but a bit disappointing. I'm pleased to have had a good new series recced that I enjoyed the first book of: Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton, and a new author to explore, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Makes you quite excited about reading, doesn't it?