Tuesday 30 January 2018

Books read in January

Despite being on a jigsaw kick at the moment I still managed to read five books in January. This, I feel sure, is down to not being able to do jigsaws in the winter evenings as I prefer natural light. Plus, decent TV programmes being as rare as hen's teeth, I'm reading through most evenings and the monster in the corner remains off. (I do watch a few odd things admittedly: Vera, Walks With My Dog, The Hairy Bikers doing a cookery tour of The Med. or anything cookery related, Michael Portillo in the US and Canada.)

So, anyway, five books and these are they:

1. Summer in the Islands by Matthew Fort.

2. Maigret on the Riviera by Georges Simenon. Maigret is sent to the French Riviera to investigate the strange death of an Australian living with two women. He disappeared for a week each month... where did he go? Enjoyable, with a lot of twists and turns, one where you can't work out what's going on until right near the end. This one would be very good dramatized with Rowan Atkinson.

3. A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.

4. Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

5. The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude. To be reviewed but was very good.

So, five books and a nice variety which is what I like. Three fiction, two non-fiction... an excellent month as all of the books were good, some very good in fact.

I've started well on the two challenges I'm doing. Two books read for the European Reading Challenge and one for the What's In A Name? challenge. So, three out of the eleven already read, although I do plan to read more than five for the European one this year.

So, a favourite out my January reads? Sometimes I can't choose an outright favourite, but this month I will. It's this:

I loved the mix of complicated murders, French history and Icelandic mythology in this, super writing, very strong sense of place. Can't wait to read more by this author.


Wednesday 24 January 2018

A couple of non-fiction titles

This year I'd like to read as much non-fiction as fiction. Yeah, right... I doubt it'll happen as well but we all need goals in life. Yes. So, today I have my first two non-fiction books of 2018 to review.

First up, Summer in the Islands: An Italian Odyssey by Matthew Fort.

Matthew Fort is an English food writer, most famous in the UK for his role as a judge on the BBC programme, The Great British Menu, whereby chefs from various regions of the country compete to cook for some prestigious event or other. He first went to Italy aged 11, then as a young man spent many holidays there and has been in love with the country ever since. He'd long held an ambition to do a tour of all its islands and as, like a lot of us, he's knockin' on a bit, he decided it was about time he got on with it. He does this tour on a Vespa which he names Nicoletta. He does the obvious large islands such as Sardinia and Sicily, the famous ones such as Capri, Elba and Stromboli, various Venetian islands, but also many that I'd never heard of such as Pianosa (famous for being where Mafia bosses were imprisoned I gather), Ponza, Ventolene and many more. Along the way he relates a lot of history about famous people - Napoleon Bonaparte, Garibaldi, Maxim Gorky and so on. There's a lot about food, naturally, as Fort is primarily a food writer. I wasn't always clear what he was eating as he gives the Italian names and sometimes you get a translation and sometimes you don't. All in all this was a thoroughly charming foodie's travelogue. The writing is gorgeous, beautiful descriptions of island scenery, reflections on life, the universe and everything, thoughts about all things food... I liked it very much indeed. This is my first book for The European Reading Challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader, and covering the country of Italy.

Next, Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell:

Wigtown is a small town near the sea in Galloway in south west Scotland. It's a Scottish version of Hay-on-Wye, a booktown, with many bookshops covering a wide variety of subjects. The Book Shop, which is featured in this book, is apparently the biggest secondhand bookshop in Scotland and is owned and run by Shaun Bythell. He decides to keep a diary for a year of the daily happenings of the shop, the customers, friends who visit, the annual town book festival (held September to October), preparations for it and so on. We meet Nicky, his rather eccentric and only permanent member of staff at that time (possibly 2014, not sure) who rarely follows orders and just does what she fancies. The main interest for me was the customers. Bythell recounts religiously how bizarre people are in bookshops. Wandering in to ask if a certain book is in stock for instance, and when told 'Yes'... they turn around and march out again leaving the owner standing there open-mouthed I assume. And these days because Amazon is so cheap people ask for heavy discounts off the marked price, or take note of the book and go and order it from Amazon. I found it all very interesting indeed. Rather sad that the author says that becoming a dealer in books made him less of a reader and less in love with them, because now they're a business, a commodity. Perhaps it's not the dream job us readers tend to think it would be. A fun, very readable and enjoyable book.


Saturday 20 January 2018

A Climate of Fear

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas covers 'France' in my European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.

Alice Gauthier has a letter to post. She knows something about a group trip to Iceland when twelve people were stranded on an island for weeks, in dense fog. Two people died but the truth about their deaths has never been told. A few days later Alice is found dead in her bath, on first inspection, suicide, but it's not. Another apparent suicide takes Commissaire Adamsberg to the recipient of Alice's letter, Henri Masfauré, and his counrty estate. This suicide victim was also in Iceland. And what's the mystery about the parentage of the surviving son? Why can't he remember the first five years of his life?

Adamsberg is contacted by one, Francois Chateau, and the mystery deepens. Chateau runs a sort of secret debating society where people reinact scenes from The Terror... part of events that took place during The French Revolution. The society is deeply secretive, divisive, and rather dangerous in Adamsberg's opinion. The members seem to take performances rather too seriously. Chateau tells Adamsberg that he recognises the two suicide victims and thinks there's another possible victim.

The investigating team now have two mysteries to investigate and no idea which is relevant or where to turn. Local Iceladic villagers think the two deaths on the island were caused by a demon known as the afturganga. Are events in Iceland the key to this mystery or the French Revolution secret society? Or is there no connection whatsoever?

Why have I waited so long to read another Commissaire Adamsberg novel? I read the first book in the series, The Chalk Circle Man, in Feb. 2010! I enjoyed it a lot and made plans to read more but never did. It was Margaret at Booksplease mentioning the series to me a couple of times, who nudged me into grabbing one from the library. Typically it wasn't book two in the series I found but book ten, no matter, I read it anyway. And it was fine. I remembered him and his team, no problem.

This was a book with quite a complicated plot... two threads to keep an eye on and quite a long list of characters. Adamsberg and his team are quite a colourful bunch, he's a bit wierd, vague, disconnected at times, his deputy's the font of all knowledge and drinks too much, and another member of the team has narcolepsy. One of the women puts me in mind of the actress who plays Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones - Gwendoline Christie. Every other character, concerned with the murders, is well drawn and very individual too... I found Francois Chateau particularly chilling.

The Icelandic section was superb... made me go off and reserve a crime thriller set there in fact. The supernatural connotations worked for me, they might not for those not interested in such things. I found it all very atmospheric and creepy. Having recently seen a documentary on Iceland it seemed to me Fred Vargas had got its people spot-on too.

The book dishes up a huge dose of the history of The French Revolution, especially as it concerned Robespierre - the kind of person he was, his speeches, how he mesmerised everyone. Fascinating and made me want to read more about it though I would have no clue where to start. Huge subject.

I did think that I would only read non-fiction for the European Reading challenge but A Climate of Fear is so very 'French' and I learnt so much that I think I must use it for 'France' for the challenge.


Thursday 11 January 2018

Jigsaw puzzles!

I'm in a jigsaw puzzling mood at the moment, part of the reason that I'm not reading as much if I'm honest. Once the jigsaw puzzle mood strikes it's very hard to resist I find. So anyway, I thought I'd post a few pics of the ones I've been doing over the past couple of months as I know there are others who visit my blog who also enjoy the odd jigsaw. Click on the pics for a bigger view of them.

First up, Cats in a Toyshop, 1000 pieces, artist Linda Jane Smith... there are loads in the series, all fun to do:

Next, a sweet 500 piece one from W.H. Smith:

Next, Stag Party, 1000 pieces from The House of Puzzles. I love doing their puzzles as the pieces are unusually shaped.

Next, a Christmas puzzle... another one by The House of Puzzles. I've forgotten the title but as you can see it's all old fashioned Victorian or Edwardian Christmas cards:

Next, the one I've been doing for the past fortnight. 'Jaguar', 2000 pieces by Clementoni. Quite a challenge but thoroughly enjoyable to do:

And new purchase, not attempted yet. Saw this in a charity shop last week and even though it's 4000 pieces and my new board is not big enough to take it, I just couldn't leave it behind.

And lastly a pic of the one I've just started, Ravensburger, 1500 pieces, Neushwanstein Castle, in Germany. Another challenge...


Thursday 4 January 2018

Favourite books of 2017

At first glance it would seem that 2017 was a pretty average reading year for me. My average reading month is five to six books, sometimes a lot more, sometimes a lot less. Thus I should be somewhere in the mid-sixties for my year's total and that exactly how many I read - sixty six. So number-wise, yes, very average indeed. But when I looked at my 2017 shelf on Goodreads I saw an unusual amount of four and five star ratings. Not an average year for quality it seems. And it's true, when I look back at last year I recall an awful lot of really good books. And that, surely, is what counts when reviewing a whole year of reading.

Anyway, I've picked out a few of my favourites, books worth picking up if you happen to see them... in my opinion anyway.

The Signature of all Things - Elizabeth Gilbert. Fascinating nineteenth century story of a girl growing up to be a botanist in Philadelphia

The Lost Girls - Heather Young. Gripping story of the disappearance of a child in the wilderness of Minnesota.

Jacquot and the Angel - Martin O'Brien. Daniel Jacquot investigates the murder of an entire German family in the south of France and the possible WW2 connection.

The Vault - Ruth Rendall. I didn't review this, which is a shame as it was a terrific instalment of the Wexford series involving Wexford coming out of retirement to investigate the discovery of two bodies found in the basement of a house in London. Superb.

The Caves of Perigord - Martin Walker. A piece of ancient cave art is stolen from a London auction house. Its history and movements are revealed in this excellent book which covers several timelines seamlessly.

Bury Your Dead - Louise Penny. Gamache investigates the murder of a historian in the the Literary and History Society library, run by the English community in Quebec City. Loved this to bits.

So those are my favourite fiction reads of 2017. A favourite? That's hard as they're all terrific reads. But if really pushed I would have to go for:

Because for me personally it had everything, set in France, lots of history, and a very good mystery.

Next, non-fiction.

Kick: The True Story of JFK's Sister - Paula Byrne. A biography of the most charismatic of the Kennedy girls. This is well written, very readable and very informative. Loved it.

Flirting with French - William Alexander. Describes the author's agonising attempts to learn French. Hilarious and also excellent on how we learn new languages.

Waterlog - Roger Deakin. Wild swimming in the UK... but so much more in the way of history and the author's thoughts and opinions on many things.

Gardens of Stone - Stephen Brady and Michael Wright. Stephen Brady's experiences as a teenager in the French Resistance in WW2. Unputdownable

Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees - Edward Stourton. A recounting of the bravery of resistance fighters in Belgium and France in helping allied fighters, Jews and so on to escape the Nazis across the Pyrenees. Fascinating.

My Good Life in France - Janine Marsh. Recounts how the author bought a rundown house in Northern France and assimlated into the local community. Loved it.

Jacob's Room is Full of Books - Susan Hill. A year's worth of reading by the author. I simply loved this book about books (and much more) to bits. Adored it.

I'm not going to pick a favourite from this list. I loved them all for different reasons and all deserve to be read.

So, sixty six books read, nineteen of those were non-fiction which is not bad really though I wish it were more. I probably would have to say that this year I enjoyed the non-fiction more than the fiction although it's a bit borderline. I had a 'French' year and when I counted up how many books out of the sixty six were set in France the number came to nineteen again. That included both fiction and non-fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into French culture and history and that's maybe why I look back at 2017 as an exceptional year. If 2018 is as good as 2017 reading-wise I will be a happy bunny.

Happy New Year! Read lots!!!


Monday 1 January 2018

A few stray reviews

Christmas and jigsaw puzzles took their toll in December so I didn't read as much as usual. It's always the way I find... too many distractions, loads to do, and it's almost as if I become a bit weary of reading and need the new year to arrive to reinvigorate my love of books.

Anyway, here're a few stray reviews from December and even November, constantly trying to catch up seems to be the story of my life. LOL

The Road to Tholonet by Monty Don.

Monty Don is well known in the UK as the presenter of Gardener's World on BBC2. He's written quite a few gardening books, none of which I've felt inclined to pick up apart from this one about French gardens. Not a subject I know a lot about. To be honest I didn't know if it would really interest me because I haven't visited any famous French gardens and there are only so many descriptions of plants one can read without it becoming a bit samey. Turns out this book isn't exactly what it purports to be. Yes, there is quite a lot about the gardens, Versailles, Giverny and many others... but what it really is a celebration of all things French by the author. He went there for the first time in his teens and fell in love with the country and has clearly kept on going back. If I'm totally honest, I loved all the bits about the French culture, their food, the geography, Don's life experiences, a lot more than the garden details. I'm clearly nothing if not contrary. He has some real insights into the differences between our two countries and I learnt an awful lot. So this book, which I wasn't too sure about turned into a real treat. Maybe I will now pick up more of his gardening books if I see them.

Next, Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne.

I shall use the blurb on the back of the book to describe the plot as it's weeks since I finished it and my brain is not firing on all cylinders due to a nasty cold.

Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom - but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish's scale, left on the floor next to Mary's body.

Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick - perhaps too quick - to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plo

Enjoyed this very much. It has a really strong sense of its setting ie. The Scottish Highlands and the fabulous cover suits the book perfectly. There's quite a large cast of characters in the story and not easy to keep track, if I'm honest the person who jumped off the page at me was the dead woman, Mary Gregor. What piece of work she must've been... fascinating, so well written by Anthony Wynne. I gather there are around thirty in this Dr. Hailey series, written between 1925 and 1950 - Murder of a Lady is book 12 and has been reissued as a British Library Crime Classic. I do love these books, the quality varies but the books are rarely anything less than good and often excellent.

And lastly, The Traveller's Daybook: A Tour of the World in 366 Quotations by Fergus Fleming:

This is a whole year of travel writing, one entry for each day. The editor, Fergus Fleming, does a splendid job of including authors writing about the entire world from the 15th. century to the 20th. Too many to list here but I found old favourites and many many new writers to investigate and read... not always people one would associate with 'travel' writing I have to say. Thrilled with this bargain buy from The Works. Loved it so much I may just read it all over again this year.

Anyway, Happy New Year to you, let's hope for a more peaceful and stable 2018.