Thursday 30 May 2019

Catching up on French non-fiction

Waaay behind on book reviews, so it's catch-up time.

First up, Hot Sun, Cool Shadow: Savouring the Food, History and Mystery of the Languedoc by Angela Murrills and illustrated by Peter Matthews. This is my second book for the What's In a Name reading challenge which is being hosted by the Carolina Book Nook, covering the category of 'A temperature'.

The Languedoc (the name means Language of the Occitans I believe) region of France is in the south of the country and stretches from the River Rhone to The Pyrenees and the border with Spain. Angela Murrills and her partner, Peter Matthews, both living in Vancouver, fall in love with the area and this book charts ten years of visits leading up to them buying a house there. It's a celebration of their love of food, French food primarily, and their explorations of the region in order to try different dishes. The famous dish of the region is Cassolet, a casserole dish of confit duck, beans, sausage, pork, garlic etc. The author discovers that there's no one recipe, everyone has their own way of making it, this is hardly an unusual thing though. I also enjoyed the retelling of the history of the area, who built the Midi-Canal for instance, it was Pierre-Paul Ricquet, and as seems to be quite common, he died 6 months before it was opened. (There's a lovely TV series from 2007 made by Rick Stein where he does a canal trip down the Midi-Canal, available on dvd, as I have it, or on Youtube I suspect.) Murrills also covers the making of Vermouth, Pizza (the French say they invented it, not the Italians), denim (it's from Nimes thus d'nimes - 'denim'... I love all this language stuff!), cheese, wine, copper pans from Durfort, the list is endless. This is truly a delightful book, one of the best I've read on France and its food. It's quite clear the couple are obsessed with French food and every time they had to go home to Vancouver I must admit I felt quite sorry for them. Whether they're actually living there full-time now I don't know, this book was written in 2005 so it's possible they might be. I would like to think they are.

Lastly, One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence by Keith Van Sickle.

This book is in the same vein as the previous one, only the author is American rather than Canadian. It's much shorter and written quite differently, with short chapters that recount something that happened to the author or an opinion on a topic. The author and his wife lived in Switzerland for a while during which time they visited France quite a bit. Back living in the USA they missed France and took to spending a few months a year in that country, the idea being to improve their French to the point where they were able to make friends and converse with said new friends. This they managed to achieve with varying degrees of success, but naturally there were mishaps and adventures along the way. This was an entertaining book, a very quick read, the author's style is extremely conversational and self-deprecating. It's one of two and I bought them both for very little for my Kindle. Look forward to reading book two.


Tuesday 21 May 2019

The Grand Western canal

Am trying to get Hubby and myself out walking a bit more. Both of us need the exercise and there's no excuse really as we live in a most beautiful part of the country. So yesterday we took a stroll over at our local canal, the Grand Western. It's only 11 miles long as that's all that's been restored, although it was never very long to start off with. It's now a designated country park and used by many people, everyone we passed said hello and one couple, complete strangers, stopped to chat for about 15 minutes about the birdlife and so on. A simple thing to enjoy a walk but it was just delightful.

A few photos.

Mum and Dad standing guard.

Wildflowers, the yellow ones are obviously buttercups but am not sure about the blue...

Cow parsley and pink campion.

I think if you click on the pics you'll get a better look.


Sunday 19 May 2019

Armchair travelling

Recently, I seem to have spent a fair bit of literary time in France and Italy, not on purpose, sometimes it just works out that way. Possibly I'm in the mood for those countries right now in a way I wasn't during the winter... which I suppose does make sense.

Anyway, first up, The Riviera Set by Mary S. Lovell (Read in April). This is my 11th. book for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 2nd. book for the The European Reading challenge 2019 covering the country of France.

This book is subtitled, '1920-1960: The golden years of glamour and excess' and that just about sums it up. The author chose a house, Chateau de l'Horizon, and its history to concentrate on and starts the book with the history of the woman who originally built it, Maxine Elliot. Maxine, born Jessica Dermot, in Maine in 1868 was of fairly humble stock. She became an actress and eventually ended up in England where she fell in love with the aristocracy and its way of life and determined to be accepted into it. This she eventually managed and after becoming a successful actress and wealthy business woman built the Chateau de l'Horizon in 1930 on the French Riviera between Cannes and Juan-les-Pins. It became a magnet for the rich and famous: actors, politicians and the British aristocracy all stayed there. Winston Churchill was a regular visitor and there's a lot about his visits which he mainly undertook on his own as his wife, Clementine, hated The Riviera and the kind of people it attracted. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived nearby, at least until the war, and sections that involved them were also intriguing. When Maxine died the house was eventually bought by Prince Aly Khan and was where he first met and fell in love with Rita Heyworth. In fact, he had a decided penchant for actresses which effectively disinherited him and prevented him becoming the Aga Khan when his father died. This was a fascinating book. Mary Lovell is an excellent biographer, I thoroughly enjoyed The Mitford Sisters... this book is not quite as good, possibly the subject being not quite as rivetting, but I was nevertheless very impressed and definitely plan to read more by her. (I now own The Churchills.)

Next, A Small Place in Italy by Eric Newby. This is my book 12 for Bev's MTR Reading challenge 2019 and my 3rd. book for The European Reading challenge 2019, covering the country of Italy.

One of the most well-known travel writers of the 20th. century, Eric Newby, recounts how he and his wife Wanda, whom he met during WW2 and features in Love and War in the Apennines, bought and renovated a ruin of a house, 'I Castagni', in Italy, beginning in 1967. As they were not living there year-round the work had to be done during their holidays, although they did seem to have quite long breaks away from England. This was a charming book, I loved getting to know his Italian neighbours, all their quirks, their routines which had not changed in hundreds of years (the spot was very isolated at that time) and their kindness which at times was overwhelming. The Newbys took part in the yearly wine-making and the descriptions of how it used to be when the grapes were picked by hand, and how it was an honour to be asked to help your neighbours, were fascinating. My goodness it was real hard graft, brightened only by interruptions for meals and plenty of wine. I love this type of book, these days there are a lot of French based ones, a few of which I've read, but it made a refreshing change to have an Italian one, although I suspect if I looked I would find there are a few modern Italian ones out there. Perhaps I will look.

Lastly, a fiction book, Mr. Gandy's Grand Tour by Alan Titchmarsh.

Timothy Gandy, in his mid-fifties and married with three grown-up children, suddenly becomes a widower when his wife, Isobel, collapses and dies unexpectedly. He's always wanted to travel abroad but Isobel was a poor traveller so they never did. Since childhood, Timothy has been interested in people who did The Grand Tour of Europe in the 19th. century and early 20th., taking in the art and the culture of countries such as France and Italy. Life with Isobel has turned him into a rather quiet, timid sort of man but he feels that if he doesn't go on this tour now, he never will. Paris is his first destination and he is quite unprepared for an encounter that happens there as he's painting, and the consequences. In fact, his whole holiday is going to follow this pattern and Tim not quite sure whether this is a good thing, or bad.

Well now, I read something by TV gardener, Alan Titchmarsh, a fair few years ago and wasn't all that smitten. It seemed unremarkable: although the writing wasn't bad, I didn't connect with his characters very much, it all seemed a bit 'surface'. But it seems Mr. Titchmarsh has now matured as a writer and this offering is a lot better. Tim is a delightful character with depth and empathy, self-searching and introspective. I loved his voyage of discovery and the gentle way he made friends and subsequently helped and encouraged people with their problems. It was also a voyage of self-discovery for him, sometimes painful, always illuminating, never boring. If you like quiet, introspective, gentle books and also enjoy a bit of armchair travelling then quite honestly, you could do a lot worse.


Monday 13 May 2019

New books!

So what with a recent birthday and using that as an excuse to buy myself a few books as well *cough* I've ended up with a neat little (?) pile of new books.

Not the best photo ever but never mind. From the bottom:

Fireside Gothic by Andrew Taylor. Three weird tales in this one and all of them sound excellent. Bit M.R. James-ish I fancy.

Lost in a Pyramid and & Other Classic Mummy Stories, selected by Andrew Smith. Pretty much what it says on the cover I assume - mad tales about pyramids.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit. Essays about being lost with subjects such as mapmaking, Hitchcock movies and Renaissance painting.

Journey into Cyprus by Colin Thubron. Spotted this in Waterstones Swansea, when we were there to see the author, John Connolly, a week or two ago. Grabbed because it's an unusual country for my Europe challenge.

Beyond the Footpath, Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims by Clare Gogerty. Cogitating on walking, tips, ideas etc. Lovely cover.

Murder in the Bookshop by Carolyn Wells. 'Not sure I like the sound of this one' said assistant chappy in Waterstones...

Forget the Sleepless Shores by Sonya Taaffe. Strange stories to do with water. Blurb: Readers should expect to be captivated by many ghosts and spirits who inhabit brine, some from tears of heartache and loss, some from strange bodies of water, not necessarily found on the map but definitely discovered through charting a course through the perilous straits of author Taaffe's imaginations, which is eerie and queer (by every difinition of the word). Sounds pretty darn good to me. Birthday gift from my best friend. :-)

The Churchills by Mary S. Lovell. This author has become my favourite biographer and with my interest in Winston Churchill this was a must. Birthday gift from one of my daughters.

So... just a small *cough* pile. They'll sit on the shelf behind me for a while, doing their thing and making me happy. Small pleasures.


Wednesday 8 May 2019

Two crime novels

As usual I'm several reviews behind so it's time to catch up on a couple.

First up, The Darkness by Ragnar J├│nasson. This is my 4th. book for the European Reading Challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader, and covering the country of 'Iceland'.

DI Hulda Hermannsd├│ttir is being forced into a retirement she doesn't want. Living alone after the death of her daughter and husband some years ago, her job is all Hulda has. Her boss tells her she can have two more weeks at work and she can spend it investigating any cold case she chooses. Hulda chooses the unsolved death of a young Russian girl washed up in an isolated bay on the coast. The girl was an asylum seeker and the officer leading the enquiry had concluded that she had taken her own life, depressed at how long her case was taking. But that officer is notoriously lax and Hulda does not believe the conclusion for one moment. Hulda has two weeks to prove him wrong and find a murderer.

It's a bit grim this one. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised as Scandi noir does have a bit of a depressing reputation, but I don't read a lot of it so it did feel a bit relentless and I was taken aback by it. Poor Hulda is a very sad case. As the book goes along you find out what happened to her daughter and then later her husband, which explains her isolation and disconnection from her work colleagues. And they're a mean spirited lot, bullying really, it's horrible. Nothing seems to go right 'at all' and the ending... goodness me! I gather book 2 goes back to events 25 years ago, if I'm honest I don't think I can stand it. Even though this is a good book, very well written and gripping with an excellent feel for Iceland, the series is not, I fear, for me.

Lastly, The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths. This qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the August category of 'Primary action takes place in this month'.

Ruth Galloway is contacted by a friend in Italy, Dr. Angelo Morelli. He presents an archaeology TV show where he often unearths burial sites on camera. His latest skeleton reveal came with a buried mobile phone with the text message, 'Surprise'. Aside from this, Angelo thinks someone is trying to kill him and contacts Ruth because she's a bone expert who has also been involved in murder investigations. Ruth takes her daughter, Kate, and her best friend, Shona, and her little boy, Louis, hoping they can also make a holiday of the trip. They stay in an old house in a historical village, it's gorgeous but a bit too hot for Ruth. She has a difficult time balancing work and holiday but it's quite doable until an earthquake strikes which brings DCI Harry Nelson out from England in a panic. Ruth can't decide whether to be pleased or annoyed but can't help admitting that his help with the inexplicable goings on is invaluable.

This series is like a drug for me. Once I start one of the books I can't put it down and I would probably have to say that it's my favourite crime series, although there are other strong contenders. I love the archaeology that comes with every book, the history, and yes... all the talk about bones too, love it all. But most of all I think I like the back-story of Ruth and Harry and Harry's wife, Michelle, their daughters, the wonderful Cathbad, all of the characters feel like friends and it matters what happens to them. This book also has a bit of a shock ending, but every one of the Ruth Galloway books has some kind of shock occurrence close to the end. I even find myself waiting for it now. Wonderful, 5 stars on Goodreads no question at all.