Friday 30 September 2016

Books read in September

October begins tomorrow and autumn is well and truly with us. My garden has these in abundance:

Although I'm only happy with the creatures that make these staying outside thank you very much.

In other news my reading has been quite good this month, six books read and these are they:

46. Poirot and Me - David Suchet

47. Carved in Bone - Jefferson Bass

48. The Labours of Hercules - Agatha Christie

49. Sight Unseen - Robert Goddard

50. The Old Ways - Robert MacFarlane

51. A Shadow on the Wall - Jonathan Aycliffe

All of these were enjoyable reads. None of them were standout 'wonderful' but if pushed I would choose this as my favourite:

I liked the settings, the mystery and the addition of historical detail. Will definitely read more books by Robert Goddard.

Onwards now into October, one of my favourite, if not 'the' favourite, months.


Sunday 25 September 2016

Catching up

Catching up with a few quick reviews today, books I enjoyed but didn't really want to do a full post on.

First up, Poirot and Me by David Suchet.

Because I've been reading a few Agatha Christies recently I grabbed this when I saw it on the shelf in the library. It was a light read, probably only of interest to real Poirot afficionados, which I'm probably not although I have enjoyed the Poirot books I've read and of course love David Suchet in the role. The book covers his entire experience from being cast, right through to his last performance. In fact it starts out with him playing Poirot in the episode where he dies... although that was not in fact the last time he played him. I enjoyed all the ups and downs he experienced, although if you believe what you read about actors 'ups and downs' are their lives, but in the end it did become a bit repetive. How he almost never knew if there would be another series made for instance so found it hard to plan for future roles, although this must be an awkward thing, when you've read it ten times you start to roll your eyes a bit. All in all, Mr. Suchet comes over as a lovely man, if a trifle pedantic (he freely admits to having more than a passing resemblance to Poirot), and this was a good bedtime read for me.

Next, The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane.

My problem here is that I've been reading this for months and months and that which I read at the beginning has been Lost in The Mists of Time. So, I'm going to nick part of the synopsis Goodreads has supplied:

Told in Macfarlane's distinctive voice, The Old Ways folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds — wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space, but of feeling, knowing, and thinking.

It was a delightful book. Macfarlanes's style of writing is magical, introspective, informative... very engaging. On balance, I didn't think this was quite as good as Mountains of the Mind but this is possibly because I took so long to read it, perhaps it made it feel a bit interminable. Note to self: read these non-fictions a bit more quickly! The Old Ways was my book 21 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

Lastly, A Shadow on the Wall by Jonathan Aycliffe.

The Rector of Thornham St. Stephen, in Norfolk, Edward Atherton, has died in mysterious circumstances after opening the tomb of the 14th century Abbot of Thornham. His brother, Matthew, approaches unversity don, Richard Asquith, to help him discover more about his brother's death. Asquith has a bit of a reputation for investigating the supernatural. It's not long of course before all kinds of rum doings are unearthed, literally, and things go really badly for everyone involved... or even not involved. I did enjoy this M.R. James style gothic novel. The writing is not of James' quality, but then you wouldn't expect that, it is very readable and after a slow start becomes very creepy indeed. I like the way it meanders all over the place, even venturing to the French Pyrennees at one stage. It is supposed to be a Victorian yarn and that didn't always come over, but that's a common fault with modern authors who set stories in Victorian times and it didn't over bother me. This gothicky style of creepy story is my thing I suppose, and there are *loads* of them in various supernatural anthologies and I would encourage anyone to seek them out. Some of those written by quite obscure authors from the early part of the 20th. century are absolutely 'terrific'... especially female writers. Virago did a couple of superb anthologies which I can't recommend highly enough. This was my 3rd. book for Carl's R.I.P. XI challenge.


Monday 19 September 2016

Sight Unseen

My second book for Carl's R.I.P XI challenge is Sight Unseen by Robert Goddard.

In his forties and existing aimlessly in Prague, David Umber is approached by the retired police inspector who investigated a crime he witnessed as a student back in 1981. It took place at Avebury among the very famous stone circle there. A girl working as a nanny took her eye off the youngest of the three children for a moment and the child, a two year old girl, Tamsin Hall, was snatched. In the ensuing panic her older sister stepped out in front of the van in order to stop it taking her sister away and was knocked over and killed. Tamsin has never been seen since and is presumed dead by all.

The police officer, Sharp, is convinced that he didn't investigate as well as he might have and now wants to put things right. A feeling exacerbated by an anonymous letter he's received. He persuades David to accompany him back to England and help him reopen the investigation. David was in Avebury at the time to meet a man called Griffin who wanted to show him a book of letters by Junius, an 18th. century anonymous writer of venomous letters about royalty and politicians. Junius was David's Ph.D subject and he had done much research into his identity. The man, Griffin, had failed to turn up in 1981 but in all the chaos and confusion no one had tried to find out why.

Back in England, Umber travels into Wiltshire, with Sharp, to the scene of the crime. The parents of the children have divorced, the mother and her new family still live locally, the father has moved to Jersey with his surviving son. Unsurprisingly they do not welcome being made to relive the whole horrifying experience over again, particularly as a sex offender in prison has confessed to kidnapping and murdering young Tamsin Hall. Then the sex offender is murdered himself and Sharp and Umber realise they have touched a nerve somewhere. What they don't realise is how much danger they will be putting themselves into by dragging up the past.

Well... this is my first book by Robert Goddard. I've had the author recommended to me on several occasions, just not got aroud to him, which is a shame because this book was an excellent read. It's one of his more recent ones, written in 2005 I believe, which means there is quite an extensive back catalogue and a few books written since that as well. A good list is here on Fantastic Fiction: Robert Goddard's books. Judging by Sight Unseen, I suspect there are some excellent books among those titles.

The thing I liked about this one was how it wove two mystery storylines into one so seamlessly. Ie. the case of the missing child and who took her and the historical thread of who the 18th. century letter writer, Junius, was. He really did exist by the way. All the way through you're not only trying to work out who took the child, why was she taken, and was she dead... but you're also wondering what the connection is to Umber's studies of Junius. It's a fast moving plot so you need to keep your wits about you, a lot of characters to keep in your head as well: it can be a bit confusing. But the settings of Avebury and Jersey are interesting and well depicted, especially Avebury and the stone circle. He had the atmosphere there spot on.

There were two things that stopped me giving it a five on Goodreads... which I fully intended to do until about two thirds of the way through when it began to run out steam a bit, for me anyway. Perhaps it was me running out of steam, not the plot, but it seemed to lose its momentum a little. The other thing was that I never really felt I knew David Umber very well or perhaps I didn't really like him all that much, I'm not sure. I read somewhere that this can be a problem with Goddard's main characters. In the main though a fast moving plot, lots of twists and turns and some interesting historical detail made this a very good read.


Wednesday 14 September 2016

The Labours of Hercules

My tenth book for Bev's Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016 is The Labours of Hercules by Agatha Christie. It covers the category, 'Any other animal' (other than a cat or dog) as the cover shows a wild boar, deer, lion, horse etc.

Poirot has decided to retire and grow marrows... or rather cultivate them to try and improve the flavour as he believes them to be very bland. (They are.) But first he decides to take on twelve cases which he wants to tie in with the Twelve Labours of Hercules. He's inspired to do this by a professer friend, Dr. Burton, who thinks Poirot has missed out on something by never having studied the Classics. Dr. Burton is bemused by Poirot's christian name:

Poirot looked at him [Dr. Burton] enquiringly.

'Thinking of an imaginary conversation. Your mother and the late Mrs. Holmes, sitting sewing little garments or knitting: 'Achille [Poirot's brother], Hercule, Sherlock, Mycroft...''

Poirot failed to share his friend's amusement.'

So Poirot sets out to learn something about the twelve labours of Hercules by way of twelve last cases:

1. The Nemean Lion. A Pekinese dog is stolen and returned after a ranson of £200 is paid. The woman who owned the dog only told her husband about the incident after she'd paid the ransom. The husband, livid, wants his money back and calls Poirot in to help. Poirot discovers that this is not the first Pekinese this has happened to... Very nice twist at the end of this one.

2.The Lernean Hydra. A doctor asks Poirot for help. His wife has recently died and the village gossips have started to whisper that he might have poisoned her. Is there a way to put a stop to the rumours?

3. The Arcadian Deer. Poirot's car has broken down in the middle of nowhere. He finds a hotel for the night and is later visited by a young man who has been working on his car: he needs help. He wants Poirot to find a girl - a lady's maid - he met while he was doing some work at the local big house. She was staying there with a Russian ballet dancer but suddenly disappeared. Another one with a nice twist at the end.

4. The Erymanthian Boar. Poirot is in Switzerland. He takes a funicular railway to the top of a mountain where he becomes stranded with a group of people and embroiled in the capture of a killer.

5. The Augean Stables. A political story involving the covering up of the true personality of a former British PM. This one didn't really work for me.

6. The Stymphalean Birds. Harold Waring, who works in politics, is on holiday in one of the slavic countries. He takes up with a middle-aged woman and her married daughter but it seems the marriage is not a happy one and Harold becomes dangerously involved when it all goes pear shaped. Hercule Poirot only comes in towards the end of this one but it's a good story with a nice twist at the end.

7. The Cretan Bull. Diana Maberly visits Poirot because her fiance has broken off their engagement. He's told her that insanity runs in his family, that he too is going mad and that madmen should not marry. She doesn't believe it for a moment but what can Poirot do to help? A good one.

8. The Horses of Diomedes. A doctor friend calls Poirot in the middle of the night, asking him if he could come around to a neighbour of his. It seems she's been holding drug fueled parties and a young girl is in trouble. The dr. wants Poirot to find out where the drugs are coming from. Not my cup of tea this one.

9. The Girdle of Hyppolita. Poirot's been asked to go to France to look into a case of a stolen Rubens. Inspector Japp approaches him to look into another case while he's there - the case of a schoolgirl, disappearing from a train on the way to a new school in France. Nicely done, this one... another surprising ending.

10. The Flock of Geryon. Miss Carnaby, from the first story in this collection, The Nemean Lion, is back. She's bored and has an idea for an enquiry that she could help Poirot with. A friend of hers has joined a religious sect, and altered her will in favour of the charismatic leader. Several other women who did likewise are now dead, and Miss Carnaby is naturally worried for her friend. Poirot sends her off to join the sect. Good story.

11. The Apples of the Hesperides. A wealthy financier bought a gold chased goblet some years ago but it was stolen from the seller before he could take possession of it. The financier tasks Poirot with finding finding the goblet. Interesting... with a nice ending.

12. The Capture of Cerberus. Poirot comes across Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground, a woman he'd had dealings with and admired twenty years ago. She now owns a new, popular nightclub in London and Poirot goes to see her. Later, Japp suggests that drug deals are going on in the nightclub and asks Poirot to investigate. Readable but not my favourite story by any means.

This was an absolutely delightful collection of short stories. I thought connecting them to the Twelve Labours of Hercules was ingenious... the Pekinese in the first story was the lion in The Nemean Lion, two odd women in the sixth story were the birds in The Stymphalian Birds and so on. Terribly clever. Naturally some stories are better than others, some worked very well for me, others a bit less. Personally, I really liked The Nemean Lion, The Stymphalian Birds, The Girdle of Hyppolita and The Flock of Geryon and several others were pretty good as well.

As always the vein of humour running through the entire book was joyous. It's so understated, just popped in, almost like a sleight of hand:

'He threw a glance of deep reproach at Miss Lemon. She did not notice it. She had begun to type. She typed with the speed and precision of a quick-firing tank'.

Can't you just see that? LOL! Wonderful. I'm such a convert to Agatha Christie and am having a lovely time cherry picking and sampling various books.

And talk about one book leading to another. I sent for a book about Greek myths because reading this one that deals with the twelve labours of Hercules has piqued my interest. I don't really know much about Greek lit. despite having taken it at O level when I was 17. (I failed it... the only exam I've ever failed, LOL!) Seems to me you're never too old to learn something new... or relearn something you should've paid more attention to in the first place.


Sunday 11 September 2016

Carved in Bone

I've made a start on this year's R.I.P. challenge with a crime thriller, Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass.

Dr. Bill Brockton is in charge of the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee. This is a place where human corpses are left exposed to the elements so that scientists can study what happens to them. The doctor is called to a cave in the nearby Great Smokey Mountains where a body has been found in a cave. As it has been effectively sealed off from the outside air the remains are mummified: it's one of the strangest case he has ever encountered.

The cave is in Cooke County, a rather remote area, where there's a history of lawlessness and criminality, and corruption within the official law that does exist. Dr. Brockton senses immediately that the local sheriff is hiding something in connection with the body in the cave, but getting him to reveal what he knows will require some ingenuity on his part. And what part does Jim O'Connor, a man with a ciminal past, play in all this? Despite himself the doctor is drawn to O'Connor and trusts him over the sheriff. What he doesn't realise is how dangerous this tangled web of a case is going to become and how much his personal safety will be jeopardised.

The author, Jefferson Bass, is in fact two authors in one... Jon Jefferson, a writer, and Dr. Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist. Dr. Bass did actually work at the University of Tennessee and founded The Body Farm. There are nine books in the Body farm series and Carved in Bone is book one.

For me, the best thing about this book was the setting. We drove down through that area - The Great Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee - on the way from North Carolina to Memphis back in 2006 and thought it was stunning. So this was a nice reminder of that holiday and the authors convey the beauty and sense of isolation very well indeed. I had no idea that one of the biggest cash crops there is marijuana, grown quietly in isolated valleys where law enforcement can't find them.

Storywise I found the plot interesting but the writing and background a bit 'blokey'. I've come across the 'male, middle-aged main character who has countless much younger women chasing after him' scenario before. I know this does happen in real life sometimes but for some reason I can't help but find it rather eye-rolling every time I encounter it in books. I think I must be a really cynical old lady. But really... the mystery of the body in the cave, who she is, why she was murdered etc. is more than strong enough to hold up on its own, especially with that glorious setting... for me personally, the romantic subplot was superfluous. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

The book is peopled with some very colourful characters too, so there is plenty of interest, plus a few amusing scenes here and there as the doctor is taken to various mountain locations and has to cope with some peculiar situations. He's out of his comfort zone and it was fun to read about.

I shall probably read more in this series as there was enough about it to like and it is, after all, a first book. I try to cut a bit of slack for a first attempt.


Sunday 4 September 2016

R.I.P. XI challenge

September is here and that means Carl's R.I.P. challenge is with us once again. Here's the link to his R.I.P. XI post.

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XI takes place from September 1st, 2016 through October 31st, 2016.

The kind of books to read for this challenge are:

Dark Fantasy

There are only two expectations if you want to participate with us:

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

There are multiple levels of participation so that you can imbibe as much, or as little, as you desire/as time permits, and still consider yourselves a part of this community event.

I'll be doing Peril the First.

Read four books, of any length, from the very broad categories earlier defined as perilous. They could all be by the same author, a series of books, a random mix of classic and contemporary or whatever you like.

I've created a shelf on Goodreads, listing a pool of books I'd like to read from. The link for that is here. I hope everyone who takes part enjoys the challenge and thanks as always to Carl for hosting.


Saturday 3 September 2016

Books read in August

Another busy month for me but five books read so that's not bad considering.

41. O Jerusalem - Laurie R. King

42. The Wolf in Winter - John Connolly

43. Follow that Bird! - Bill Oddie

44. Jacquot and the Waterman - Martin O'Brien

45. True Grit - Charles Portis

True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, who is just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shoots her father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robs him of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash. Mattie leaves home to avenge her father's blood. With the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshal, by her side, Mattie pursues the homicide into Indian Territory.

I rather enjoyed this western adventure, told in the first person by fourteen year old, Mattie Ross. I haven't seen the newer movie version of True Grit but remember with a deal of fondness the late 60s version starring John Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell (though I'd forgotten Glen Campbell was in it even though he was one of my favourite singers back then). Anyway... I felt it portrayed very well how it was to live in 1870/80s Arkansas, I was fascinated by it all to be honest but then I have always enjoyed westerns on the screen even if I haven't read all that many. I gather there are considerable differences between the film and the book but as I haven't seen the film in a while I wasn't affected by that. I loved Mattie and her struggle to avenge her father's death even though she was only a fourteen year old girl. I would have liked more detail about The Territory... the area outside Arkansas inhabited by Indians and outlaws... which would have meant a longer book and that would have been fine. I felt that I'd no sooner got into the book than it was finished. It made me want to read more in the same vein so I'll have to look on Goodreads to see what there is in the way of realistic westerns. Not a bad read at all.

Another good batch of books... all were decent reads and I even managed a non-fiction. Favourite read this month? Well they were all good but this one was just a tad above the others in interest and enjoyment:

September is now upon us and it's starting to feel very autumnal in the mornings and evenings. Delightful. And the R.I.P. challenge has started so I need to get my post up sharpish. Happy reading!