Sunday 30 June 2019

Books read in June

These monthly sum-up posts come around quicker every time. In a way I don't mind so much at this time of year as summer is very much not my favourite season and the quicker it's gone the better. As well as gardening - one of the nicer aspects of summer - I've been indoors reading quite a lot and have thus managed to read nine books this month.

32. Head in the Sand - Damien Boyd

33. Just Another Mountain - Sara Jane Douglas

34. Death in Captivity - MIchael Gilbert

35. The Crowded Grave - Martin Walker. Not reviewed but another excellent installment of the Bruno, Chief of Police series, involving an archaeological dig and Basque separatists.

36. Schlepping Through the Alps - Sam Apple

37. The Body on the Doorstep - A.J. MacKenzie

38. Antidote to Venom - Freeman Wills Crofts

39. Bitten by Spain - Deborah Fletcher

40. The Devil's Cave - Martin Walker

So, nine books read. Six fiction, three non-fiction, reasonably happy with that. All six fiction books were crime yarns and all were excellent so it's pretty much impossible to name an outright favourite. I did very much enjoy this one though because it was different, being set in the 18th. century. I liked the lack of 21st. century conveniences, different outlook, and unusal detectives... a vicar and a mature woman.

Although it was a slow burner it eventually took off quite nicely and I'm planning to read book two in the series, The Body in the Ice, next along with the two other books I'm reading at the moment. Which are these:

21st. Century Yokel is wonderful, beautifully written, very witty and mostly about Devon and East Anglia. The Mummy book is a bit patchy so far, suspect it'll pick up. Will start The Body in the Ice very soon... not sure if it isn't going to feel a bit odd reading about Christmas in July, I'd save it for later in the year but I can't wait that long!

Happy summer reading.


Friday 28 June 2019

A quick catch-up post

Two quick reviews to finish June off. I don't know where the first half of this year's gone. We left our Christmas tree covered in a corner of the garage prior to putting it in the roof space of said garage. It's still there and I said to Hubby that there's not much point in getting it up the ladder now because if the next 6 months go as quickly as the first 6, Christmas'll be here before we know it! I do find this slightly alarming...

First up, Bitten by Spain by Deborah Fletcher. This is my 6th. book for the 2019 European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. This book covers the country of 'Spain'

The author of this book, Deborah Fletcher, bored with being an accountant, ups and moves with her firefighter husband to southern Spain. The sort of land they move onto is known as 'the campo'... it's near the town of Bullas, in a region called Murcia, and is basically rather barren, hot and wild. The Spanish mainly have holiday homes in these areas, figuring that the only people who want to live there full time are either deranged or British. The author loves animals and has a large menagerie made up of parrots, dogs and cats. They lead her a merry dance and their antics were great fun to read about, particulary a mad dog named Marcos, and an episode when two of the parrots escaped. Aside from looking after her animals the couple are rebuilding the house on their land while living in a caravan. All part-time, as the husband has kept his job in Manchester and is travelling back and forth according to the dictates of his job. I'm in awe of people who do this kind of thing. I simply would never cope... not because of the language as I seem to have a small linguistic bent and would manage I think... my problem would be leaving my family in Britain, homesickness for our green countryside, and: The Heat. I do however enjoy reading about other people coping with new cultures and this is the first Spanish one I think I've read. Self-published I fancy (not sure), which means little as Deborah Fletcher's writing is very good and I really enjoyed her witty turn of phrase. A fun read.

Lastly, The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker. This is my 19th. book for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge covering the August category of 'Original publication month'.

The dead body of a woman is floating down the river that runs through St. Denis in the Perigord region of southern France, in a punt. There's a scramble to grab the boat, onlookers try, then Bruno Courréges, the local chief of police, and a local canoe business owner have a go and manage to stop it. They realise almost immediately that this is not an ordinary accidental death. The woman is laid out in a ritualistic manner with black candles around her; has satanism reared its ugly head in their quiet little town? Investigations lead to a proposed holiday village that the Mayor is very keen to promote in order to bring money and employment to the town. Who are the people and companies that are going to be financing and running this project? The answer to this question brings the small provincial town of St. Denis to the attention of some of the highest political echelons in France... and not in a good way.

Another terrific instalment of this excellent series. To be honest, in a lot of respects Bruno is a right Goody-Two-Shoes, and I'm really not sure about this super-hero thing he seems to get to do, at least in recent books. His private life continues to be complicated as well. He juggles the two women in his life, one of whom is away in Scotland looking after her mother, the other just arrived from Paris to help him with this case, quite skillfully, but it all has to come crashing down at some stage surely? Despite these - very minor - misgivings I still love this series to bits. I suspect it's the delightful setting in Perigord, the history, descriptions of the meals, the wonderful community feel to the town and the way Bruno fits seemlessly into it all. It's gorgeous. So I can put up with Bruno heroically saving the day every time, this time it was caves which made for an exciting read to be honest. It's all good and I'm pleased there are quite a few books left for me to read... this is book 5 and there are 12 with #13 coming next year.


Tuesday 25 June 2019

Schlepping Through the Alps

Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past with its Last Wandering Shepherd by Sam Apple is my book 5 for the 2019 European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader. It covers the country of 'Austria'.

The author of this book is Jewish and comes from New York where he's a journalist. He comes across Austrian, Hans Breuer, giving lectures in New York about shepherding and singing folk songs in Yiddish. It seems he's the only Yiddish speaking shepherd in the Austrian Alps: Sam is fascinated and decides to go to Austria to meet with Hans on his home turf, find out more about his way of life and investigate anti-semitism in the modern country.

With a Jewish father who spent World War 2 in England and a communist mother who worked for the resistance during the war, and was captured and tortured for it, it seems Hans's background is more complicated than Sam had realised. The boy had had a difficult childhood as his mother had told him all the grisly details of the torture and thus, he felt, robbed him of his childhood. Hans left home when a teenager and joined an anarchist organisation called Spartakus, eventually going to live with them in a commune in Provence. They prove difficult to get away from when Hans decides to go, but go he does eventually and thus his shepherding life begins in Austria.

Sam tramps the Alps with Hans discussing Austria's role in WW2 and its anti-semitic past. He learns how to be a shepherd and finds himself very much wanting in the process. But most of all he finds out what makes Hans Breuer tick, how he conducts his rather complicated love life, and what is meant by 'Wandering Jew'.

I was a bit ambivilent about this book. Mostly I found the historical aspect very interesting and learnt a lot about Nazi activities in Austria in WW2. Hans felt that in respect of fascism and anti-semitism Austria actually embraced it much more readily than Germany. Apparently, very few war criminals were ever tried for their crimes in Austria and those that were had their sentences overturned within a few months. Not something I was aware of. Hans was of the opinion that Germany confronted its Nazi war years and came to terms, Austria did not.

I also enjoyed hearing about life in the Austrian Alps, what a wonderful area it is (think 'Heidi' even though that was Switzerland and this is Austria), although it's very much a tough way of life. What I didn't like so much was the author's attitude. A confirmed hypochondriac he seemed far more obsessed with himself rather than his subject. In the end he concludes that maybe he's disappointed with the whole experience because he found modern Austrians to be not quite anti-semitic enough. He wanted them to be violently so and they weren't. I found that an odd attitude to have, especially for a journalist.

So yes, an interesting read, I did in fact learn a lot about Austria and its history, but ultimately, for various reasons, the book did not grip me as it might have done.


Sunday 23 June 2019

Catching up on Crime

Murder mysteries seem to be my drug of choice these days as regards books and reading. Years ago, deeply into science fiction in my teens, historical romance or fiction in my twenties and thirties, addicted to Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories in my forties and fifties and never having bothered myself with crime fiction at all apart from Ellis Peters' wonderful Cadfael, I honesly never would have imagined this happening.

Is it my age? I do know that little old ladies are supposed to be avid crime fiction readers. (Not that I'm many people's idea of 'little'.) Author, John Connolly, made us all laugh when Hubby and I went to hear him speak in Waterstones, Swansea back in April. He writes the rather frightening horror/crime series about Charlie Parker and described how an elderly lady approached him to say there was only one thing wrong with one of his books (I forget which now). He imagined all kinds of things but not that she would say, 'There wasn't enough blood and gore!' So us older ladies have form on this.

It's curious... because the thing is, most other women I know who read crime fic have always read it. None have had a sudden conversion like me. At some stage I'll have to check which year it happened, but I don't think it's farther back than ten years. Annoyingly my Goodreads year records only go back to 2014 at which point I was already into the genre but possibly not as heavily as I am now. Nowadays if I go more than a week with no crimefic I get twitchy. I'll have to check my hand-written records but it is very odd.

Anyway, enough waffle. Two books to catch up on, first up, The Body on the Doorstep. This book qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the May category of, 'Primary Action takes place in this month'. It's also my 14th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2019 challenge.

The Year is 1796 and the place is the county of Kent in the South Eastern corner of England. Reverend Hardcastle, vicar of St. Mary in the Marsh near Romney Marsh, is alerted to noises outside the Rectory late one night. On investigating he's nearly killed himself as shots are fired and a man collapses on his doorstep, shot. Within minutes the man is dead having muttered several cryptic last words. The local lord asks The Reverand to investigate and at first glance this appears to be a falling out amongst smugglers, smuggling being rife on the south coast (it was the same in Cornwall of course). But things are often not what they seem. Very quickly Reverand Hardcastle realises he has no idea who he can trust. Even his new side-kick, the widow, Mrs. Chaytor, has secrets. Has he been handed a poisoned chalice?

Well we all know the answer to that question, it wouldn't be any fun whatsoever if the answer was 'no'. I wasn't sure about this when I first started it. Despite the dramatic opening it progressed quite slowly, plus I got confused with shootings here, shootings there, shootings every-bloomin'-where. Couldn't quite get the gist of what was going on and why. It did eventually sort itself out though and I very much enjoyed the interactions between the two investigators, the Rev. Hardcastle and Mrs. Chaytor. Nice touch to have one of them be a mature woman rather than a 19 year old femme fatale. Made it much more interesting to me. The author, A.J. MacKenzie is a husband and wife duo I gather and that could explain the unusal female character for the time and setting. Anyhow, not a bad first outing for this series. If I have a complaint it's that I found Hardcastle's drinking tedious, I know they did drink a lot back then, but it would be nice to have the occasional detective who wasn't an alcoholic. Just saying. Anyway, I liked it enough to grab books 2, The Body in the Ice, for my Kindle as it's only 98p at the moment.

Lastly, Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts. This is my 15th. book for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.

The director of Birmington (if you're like me you'll read that as 'Birmingham' all the way through the book) zoo, George Surridge, is a worried man. Not only is he a gambler, but he's married to a demanding wife who wants to be kept in the style to which she was accustomed before their marriage. George can't afford the lifestyle which he has created for himself. There is light at the end of the tunnel, an elderly aunt is very ill and George knows that he's her heir. All fine and dandy he thinks, but he thinks wrong. No, she doesn't disinherit him, something else happens and a train-wreck ensues and it's all quite rivetting...

This reminded me of the same author's excellent 12.30 to Croydon in that you get almost all of the book from the perpetrator's point of view - his initial problems, exactly how he manages to make things ten times worse, and the repercusions. Inspector French comes in by accident after a friend mentions the case and he's intrigued. He's get assigned to look into an 'accidental death' verdict and like a blood-hound, never loses the scent. I do like Freeman Wills Crofts writing. I gather he changed the focus of his books when he got interested in the psychological aspect of crime and criminals, their motivations and so on. It certainly worked as this is an excellent read with many twists and surprises. You'll be able to indulge in a lot of eye rolling and head shaking, plus... a truly unusual setting of a zoo and its reptile house. I have the author's The Hog's Back Mystery on my library pile and am really looking forward to reading it.


Tuesday 18 June 2019

Just Another Mountain

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Just Another Mountain: A Memoir by Sarah Jane Douglas by publishers, Elliott & Thompson. I don't do very much of this kind of thing, mainly because my TBR pile is huge enough without me doubling it with free books. But, I saw this one on Twitter, thought it sounded like my kind of thing and wrote and asked them if they would consider sending me a copy in exchange for an honest review. They very kindly agreed. I believe the book is due out this week so hopefully this is good timing.

To author, Sarah Jane Douglas, her mother was everything. Brought up without a father, they were incredibly close, even when her mother married when Sarah was in her teens. Losing her to breast cancer - her mother was in her 40s, Sarah, 24 - was utterly traumatic and pretty much caused her to go off the rails. One thing her mother loved to do was go walking in the Scottish mountains. The family lived near Inverness in The Scottish Highlands and were thus in the perfect place to indulge this passion and it was what Sarah turned to in order to cope with the loss of her mother.

The Munros are a series of mountains in Scotland that are over 914 metres (that's 3,000 feet for those of us of a certain age). Climbing them all - it's called 'Munro bagging' - is a very popular hobby amongst hill walkers and mountaineers and Sarah decides to take on this challenge hoping it might help with the pain of losing her mother. She's rather inexperienced at first, gets into all kinds of trouble on more than one occasion, forgetting to take a map, unexpected bad weather, miscalulating how long climbs will take... that sort of thing.

She survives it all though and, bolstered by her success, and as a further tribute to her mother Sarah decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest mountain in Africa. A fascinating account of what it's really like to climb that mountain follows. Some may have seen the documentary early in the year about the group of people who climbed this mountain for Comic Relief... it's clearly gruelling but it was really brought home to me exactly how gruelling by Sarah's very vivid and honest account.

More challenges follow, chief of which is her decision to go to the Himalayas with her mother's ashes. When Sarah was a child her mother had almost married a man called Gerry, the love of her life. Tragically, Gerry died before they could marry, while mountaineering in the Himalayas, and Sarah decides on a pilgrimage to find the site of a cairn put up his memory and to scatter the ashes there. There is also a mystery. Why did Gerry not tell any of his friends that he was engaged to be married to Sarah's mother?

Well, I was right to ask for a copy of this book. I love reading about mountains and the people who climb them and that button was definitely pressed here. Sarah Jane Douglas writes beautifully, her descriptive passages of what she sees and experiences on the mountains are some of the best I've read. I'm stunned that this is her first book, you would never think it in a million years. She's a very talented writer.

BUT this book is so much more than just a book about walking and climbing in the mountains. Quite frankly it's heart-breaking at times. Sarah is brutally honest about what she sees as her shortcomings - the rest of us can see it's all the result of a difficult childhood and overwhelming grief at losing the one person who loved her unconditionally and understood her. She is incredibly candid and I'm so full of admiration for her for that. It's not, after all, compulsory.

More losses follow her mother's, problems with drug and alcohol abuse ensued, marriage and relationship difficulties... luckily she has two lovely sons who probably got her through. I felt so, so bad for her and even more appalled when something else was revealed close to the end.

My favourite part of the book was definitely the Himalayan trip. Poor Sarah was was very ill with vomitting and diarrhea. She triumphed in the end but oh God, I felt for her. People talk about these mountains quite casually these days, but we forget how incredibly dangerous it still is to go there. Just a few weeks ago a handful of climbers died on Everest, too many people climbing I believe and not enough oxygen to get back down. I couldn't believe the photos of the queue of people going up that mountain, staggering, I wonder what the effect is ecologically speaking and for how much longer it'll be allowed to continue.

I'd like to thank Marianne Thorndahl at Elliott & Thompson for my copy of Just Another Mountain, for the opportunity to read and review this excellent memoir, and I really hope it does well and wish the author, Sarah Jane Douglas, all the very best in what must be a difficult time.


Monday 10 June 2019

Two crime novels

As usual I'm behind with reviews so this is a brief catch-up post.

My first book for June is Head in the Sand by Damien Boyd. This is my 16th. book for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge, covering the November category of 'Primary action takes place this month' (I know this because there was talk of bonfire night and fireworks).

The severed head of a middle-aged woman is discovered on a golf course near Burnham-on-sea in Somerset. It's been placed, quite meticulously, on the sand in a bunker. An anonymous phonecall links the case with two unsolved murders, in exactly the same set of circumstances, back in the late seventies and early eighties. It's clear that specific people are being targeted but why are the murders so far apart in time? DI Nick Dixon and his team have a race against time to discover who's doing this and why, because if they're not careful - and speedy - others will die in a quite horrific manner.

This is the second in the author's 'Nick Dixon' series, set fairly locally to me, in Somerset. I read the first book in April and quite liked it, enough to reserve book 2 from the library anyway. And I liked this one a bit more. It's a classic police procedural plot and is thus quite pacey so you need your wits about you, especially to remember who's who. My addled brain is not good at remembering huge casts of characters and what their relationship is to each other. It's a strong storyline though, a lot going on, and all linked to a cold case from 40 years ago. Some of it is hard reading, awful medical mistakes and so on, things that could easily still happen and do, so it's very sobering. But it's a delight to have a series set so close to where I live, to recognise place names and know exactly where they mean, particulary as that part of Somerset is not all that well known and doesn't harm from a bit of exposure. I shall read on in this series, definitely.

Death in Captivity by Michael Gilbert was one of several BLCC books kindly sent to me by Elaine at Random Jottings. It qualifies for Becky's World at War challenge under the category, 'A book focussed on The War'. It also qualifies for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge under the July category of 'Primary action takes place in this month'.

It's 1943 and a good number of mainly British officers are incarcerated in a POW camp in northern Italy. Tunneling out is an obsession so there is a committee in charge of it who organise the diggers and say when escapes can take place. One major tunnel is close to being finished and two officers go down to continue the work. It's a hard, dangerous undertaking but they're still shocked to discover the dead body of one of the camp's inmates at the end of the tunnel. It seems the roof caved in and smothered him. But did it? The Greek officer concerned was suspected of being a collaborator and thus highly unpopular. On closer examination by a doctor it's suspected that he might not have died in the tunnel after all... so who did kill him and why?

I can see why the BLCC have reissued a handful of Michael Gilbert's books. This one was very nicely written and gave a very good flavour of life in a POW camp. The boredom, the desire to escape, desperation in some cases, the claustrophobia, the way in which certain people get on everyone's nerves, the sacrifices that are sometimes essential, and the ingenuity of the inmates to find a way to do impossible things. I found it all fascinating. I had no idea who had done the deed or why until the very end. There was also a nice twist at the end which I didn't guess at all. Plus, I really did enjoy the travelling aspect of this towards the end, it reminded me of Eric Newby's similar journey in Love and War in the Apennines, one of my all-time favourite books. Now looking forward to reading more of Michael Gilbert's work.


Tuesday 4 June 2019

Books Read in May

A bit late with this as we've been away over the weekend. Spent a long weekend in Surrey visiting RHS Wisley (FAB bookshop) and a National Trust property called Polesden Lacey. Both wonderful, will post some pics this week, In the meantime, 'Books Read in May'. There were seven of them, so that's not a bad reading month for me.

25. The Darkness - Ragnar Jónasson

26. Dark Angel - Elly Griffiths

27. A Small Place in Italy - Eric Newby

28. Mr. Gandy's Grand Tour - Alan Titchmarsh

29. Hot Sun, Cool Shadow - Angela Murrills

30. One Sip at a Time - Keith Van Sickle

31. Messenger of Truth - Jacqueline Winspear.

Maisie is engaged by the sister of artist, Nick Bassington-Hope, a veteran of WW1, to find the truth of his 'accidental' death. On the eve of his first exhibition he apparently fell off his own scaffolding and died, but his sister, Georgina, feels that it wasn't an accident. The artist's work was controversial in that he often painted scenes from WW1 battles which depicted real people. Crucial to Maisie's investigations is the fact that his latest work, thought to be a triptych, has gone missing. Her search takes her to Dungeness on the south coast where she discovers that Nick might have been involved in something other than the art world and this also may have led to his death. Another superb instalment of Jacqueline Winspear's excellent Maisie Dobbs series, I think this was book 4. Always there are layers upon layers in these books and what starts out as a simple investigation always becomes complicated and always takes the reader to unexpected places they had no idea they were going, and often had no idea even existed. Superb, really superb. Can't wait to find out what else Maisie has in store in subsequent books.

So, seven books in all, four fiction, three non-fiction. I seem to have travelled all over the place too, starting in Iceland, moving on to Italy, doing a grand tour even, and spending quite a long time in France as well. In fact, only one of my books for May was set in my home country of the UK. So there you go.

It was such a good month that I can't choose a favourite. But it would be between these three:

So that was May and now it's June and I'm currently reading these two:

As to what I plan to read for the rest of June, I'm not sure at the moment. It's been a while since I read one of the BLCC vintage crime yarns so I may well pick out a couple of those to read... I have quite a large selection to choose from!

Happy June reading!