Tuesday 31 December 2019

Favourite books of 2019

So, this year I read 73 books. I thought that was about average but when I checked Goodreads it's actually slightly above because for the 4 years before that my totals were in the late 50s and 60s. (2014 was a complete anomaly with 101 and I'm still not sure how that happened as I'm not a fast reader.) Very happy with 73, so quantity was fine, but what about quality?

First of all I'll list my favourite books of the year.


The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell. This was so interesting that it almost read like fiction. I particularly enjoyed the World War 2 sections.

21st. Century Yokel by Tom Cox. I didn't review this one properly but it was a delightful book about walking in the Devon countryside and about the author's life and family.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Excellent account of Germany in the 1930s before the outbreak of WW2. Will definitely be reading more by this author.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. A warts and all look at moving to Denmark and trying to assimilate. It left me with a very strong sense of what Denmark is like.


How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny. A simply brilliant installment of the Armand Gamache series in which a lot of loose ends are finally tied up. Brilliant.

The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie. Not quite the usual thing from Christie as it's not Poirot or Miss Marple and nor is it set in a country pile. But I thought it was huge fun and couldn't put it down.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Pharmaceutical shenanigans in the Amazon rain forest. 'Wonderful' sense of place and beautiful writing.

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie goes hop-picking in Kent. My mother went as a child, how could this book possibly fail?

So... 22 non-fiction books read this year, out of 73. Somewhere between a third and a quarter. I always think I sould read more, it never happens so I need to resign myself to that and 22's not bad anyway.

So, what about quality as opposed to quantity? I found I was able to choose the best non-fiction much more easily than the fiction. For some reason certain non-fictions really stood out, but very few fiction books did. Yes, they were mostly good and I enjoyed the vast majority, but not that many were really fantastic. Thus, I have to say that my book of the year is this:

The Mitford Girls by Mary S. Lovell. It was just brilliant. Very readable and of course it didn't harm that the Mitford sisters were such an interesting and in some instances, contraversial, family. Terrific book.

One thing I must mention is that this year was a year in which I rediscovered the Maisie Dobbs series of historical crime books, thanks to Judith at Reader in the Wilderness. What a joy they are and I'm planning to crack on with the series in 2020... but that's for another post.

The other thing I want to mention is that I attempted 5 challenges this year and completed 4. That led to me reading a vast amount of crime stories and quite a few books about European countries. So that worked very nicely for me but if I'm honest, 5 is too many, I ended up virtually blogging about every book I read and that was tiring. In 2020 I'll be doing just 2 and suspect that will work much better for me.

Happy New Year to you lovely folk who regularly visit my book blog and comment and engage in lovely conversations about books. Thank you, you've no idea how much I appreciate it.


Friday 27 December 2019

World at War challenge wrap-up

The World at War 2019 reading challenge was hosted by Becky at Becky's Book Reviews.

The format was that of a Bingo card and thus the idea was to complete a line to get a 'bingo'. My final chart looks like this:

Altogether I read 7 books and they were as follows - first the 5 bingo line books from the top righthand corner to the bottom left:

A book focussed on the war: Death in Captivity - Michael Gilbert

A book set in England, Ireland or Scotland: Fire in the Thatch - E.C. Lorac

A fiction book set in the 1920s: Maisie Dobbs - Jacqueline Winspear

A non-fiction book about the 1930s: In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

Any book published 1939 - 1945: Cheerfulness Breaks In - Angela Thirkell

Lastly, the 2 books that were not part of the bingo line:

A book set in Europe: The Tattooist of Auschwitz - Heather Morris

A fiction book set in the 1930s: Weekend at Thrackley - Alan Melville

I thoroughly enjoyed doing this reading challenge, learnt quite a lot, and had fun. Thanks to Becky for hosting.


Monday 23 December 2019

Last reviews of the year

It's catch up time. Two final brief reviews for this year. First of all, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. This is my 7th. and final book for Becky's World at War reading challenge.

William E. Dodd is a university professor in Chicago with a deep interest in Germany, having stayed there for a while as a young man. President Roosevelt asks him to take up the post of American ambassador to the country, partly because he can't find anyone else who wants to go to Nazi Germany and deal with Hitler and his cohorts. He takes his family with him, wife, Mattie, and two adult children, Bill and Martha. The book charts his progress though the four years that Dodd held the post but also concentrates a fair bit on the experiences of his daughter, Martha. It's a very sobering book, depicting as it does the manner in which the Nazis began persecuting the Jews and the worsening of the treatment dished out to them as the years passed. It was disappointing too to read how casually anti-semitic many people outside Germany were, in fact it seems as though it was the norm for the period. Dodd did his best to get Hitler to put a stop to the violence but never succeeded. He was also not popular back in the state department as he was not one of the rich set who were usually sent abroad as diplomats. He wanted to lived within the bounds of the salary he was paid and this was thought of as absurd, an affectation. An excellent book that gives a real flavour of 1930s Germany and the main characters of the Nazi regime. One observation that if foreign powers had intervened before Hitler had fully rearmed World War Two could've been avoided is chilling, although hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Lastly, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories by P.D. James. This is my 29th. book for Bev's Calendar of Crime challenge covering the December category of 'Month related item on cover'.


This anthology consists of 4 stories.

1. The Mistletoe Murder. An author loses her husband in World War 2. Her estranged grandmother invites her to have Christmas with herself and a male cousin so the author goes thinking it will be just the three of them. But there's someone else there, a coin dealer, present to value some coins the family own. The next morning the coin dealer is found dead, his head bashed in. Who did it?

2. A Very Commonplace Murder. This one is quite a sordid little tale of an estate agent spying on an amorous couple in the neighbouring house of one of their properties. The female half of the couple is found murdered one morning. It's clear from the first person naration that the estate agent is a witness so why does he not come forward to tell the police what he knows?

3. The Boxdale Inheritence. Adam Dalgliesh's godfather, a vicar, asks him for some help. He's been left £50,000 by the second wife of his grandfather but there was some suspicion that she may have been the to one to do away with the old man as she was much younger than him. The vicar is reluctant to take 'soiled money' even though the wife was found not guilty. Dalgliesh sets out to find out who did commit the murder.

4.The Twelve Clues of Christmas. A young Adam Dalgliesh is on the road to an aunt in Suffolk, for Christmas, when he's stopped on the road by a man who is clearly very agitated. He's a member of the family who own the big hall just outside the village and apparently his elderly uncle has committed suicide. Dalgliesh goes to investigate and decides this is not a suicide case but a murder. The local police want him to explain why he thinks this, so he gives them his twelve clues.

This is an excellent little anthology, beautifully written as you would expect from P.D. James. My particular favourites were the two Dalgliesh stories, I thought they were clever and it took me back to the ITV version of the books, starring Roy Marsden, that I used to love so much. I think I might try to reread some of those books next year.


So, that's my reading year pretty much complete. I am reading these two:

But I'm pretty sure neither of them will get finished before the end of 2019, possibly not even before the end of January 2020 as they're both slow reads.

My next posts will be after Christmas so I'd like to wish everyone a very...

I hope your Chrismas is all that you wish for.


Friday 20 December 2019

The European Reading challenge 2020

Once again I'm signing up for The European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour.

The challenge runs from the 1st. January 2020 to the 31st. January 2021.

These are the 50 countries that count as 'Europe':

Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

These are the levels of participation:

FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

FOUR STAR (HONEYMOONER): Read four qualifying books.

THREE STAR (BUSINESS TRAVELER): Read three qualifying books.

TWO STAR (ADVENTURER): Read two qualifying books.

ONE STAR (PENSIONE WEEKENDER): Read just one qualifying book.

For further info and rules please visit the sign-up page HERE.

As with 2019 I will be going for the Five Star category, and plan to read at least five books, hopefully more.

These are a few 'possibles'.

They cover such countries as Spain, The Netherlands, Cyprus, France, Italy, Ireland and so on.

I managed to read 10 for the 2019 European challenge so as I'm not doing many challenges this year I may even manage to do better than that, possibly visit a few obscure places, who knows.

Books read:

1. ICELAND: The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward - K.J. Findlay


Sunday 15 December 2019

Mount TBR 2020 challenge

I did well with my Mount TBR challenge this year, reading all of the 24 books I signed up for. So, I'm signing up once more but climbing a different mountain this year.

The sign-up post is on Bev's blog here:

Challenge options:

Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancounver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

The rules are listed in the sign-up post.

This year I've decided to go for Pike's Peak, 12 books, somewhat less than last year. The reason for that is that I have a number of chunky fiction and non-fiction books to read - they obviously take a bit longer to get through so I think 12 is more realistic. Of course, if I get there early I can always upgrade.

Some of the books I hope to read through 2020:



Also possible:

And there are a lot of other possibles too *coughcough*, so we'll see. Can't wait for 2020 to arrive now.


Thursday 12 December 2019

The Year of Living Danishly

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell is my 10th. book for the European Reading challenge 2019 which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.

Helen Russell and her husband lead busy lives in London, both with high-powered jobs. Helen sometimes wonders if it's all worth it as their quality of life is not what it should be, everything being dominated by work. Then her husband is offered a job with Lego in Denmark, just for a year. He wants to go but she resists at first, she's really not adventurous, it's too big a change and she suspects it would entail a huge culture shock.

Eventually, Helen gives in and agrees to go but first she does some research and discovers that Denmark has been named the happiest country in the world. This sounds like something that needs investigating and she is more than up to the challenge. Freelance journalism calls as opposed to her previous full-on magazine job and she can use her new career to find out why the population of Denmark is so happy.

Arriving in Denmark in January is the first shock. Where are all the people? Why are the streets empty? The simple answer is, 'Hygge'. This is the Danish concept of being at home, warm and cosy, with family, in the depths of winter. And that's exactly where everyone is: indoors. They do however meet some of the neighbours when two men knock on the door at 8am to tell them they're doing the recycling wrong and proceed to take them outside in the freezing cold and demonstrate how it should be done...

Helen soon discovers all kinds of things about the happy Danes. They love beautiful design in their daily lives, minimalism etc. They like to obey the rules as they believe it makes people feel safe. They trust everyone, so babies are left outside shops, something you don't see in the UK any longer but was quite common when I was a child. They love hobbies and pastimes and joining groups for said hobbies is hugely popular in Denmark. Autopsies are apparently very popular too. Yes autopsies... on animals... and it's especially popular to take your children along to watch them. You can't fly foreign flags in Denmark, there is even a list of 'flag rules'.

Of course, Danish crime dramas such as The Bridge and The Killing have brought Denmark into our living rooms - although not mine as they're not my cup of tea - but strangely one the most popular crimes series in Denmark itself is, Midsomer Murders. Go figure...

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate look at life in Denmark. Helen Russell writes informatively, candidly, but also very conversationally of the difficulties of assimilating herself and her husband into a country where they can't speak the language (although thankfully English is widely spoken) and don't immediately get the mindset. It takes effort and, all power to her elbow, she's willing to put plenty in.

One of the things that does come as a bit of a surprise to them is how rural the coastal town of Billund, in Jutland, where Lego has its headquarters, is. Copenhagen, the capital, is very cosmopolitan. Helen and her husband lived in London, also extremely cosmopolitan. They were very unprepared for such a rural culture shock and I think this made their adjustment much more difficult. I felt for them I must admit, especially her because of course her husband had his job to go to where he met new people and had automatic acquaintances: Helen as a freelancer working from home, did not and I think she felt the isolation quite badly.

I've read quite a lot of these books about people moving to foreign countries... more often than not it's Brits or Americans moving to France, Italy, Spain. Denmark's a bit unusual so for me it was especially interesting and is one of the best I've read. I feel like I now have a really strong sense of Denmark and its people, their culture, the landscape, the weather and so on. Highly recommend this if you like this kind of non-fiction as I do.


Friday 6 December 2019

Catching up, a gardening book and Moby-Dick

A catch-up post while I actually have time. Two brief reviews, first up, A Little Light Weeding by Richard Briers. This is my 24th. book for Bev's Mount TBR 2019.

Richard Briers (1934 - 2013) was a household name in the UK, I can remember him in the 1960s in a comedy called Marriage Lines with Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers and canal cruising docs. with her husband, Timothy West on ITV). But he's probably most famous for the 1970s comedy series, The Good Life where he played Tom Good, who with his wife, Barbara, played by Felicity Kendall, went self-sufficient, growing veggies and keeping livestock in the back garden. Apparently he got really interested in gardening around the time of that series, hardly surprising I suppose. Anyway, A Little Light Weeding is full of excerpts from all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction, about gardens and gardening. There are headers for sections such as 'Daffodils', 'Gooseberries', 'Spring', 'Bees', 'Class in the garden', 'Birds', and so on. There are tips, observations and complaints. And poems. I liked this one:

Awake my muse, bring bell and book
To curse the hand that cuttings took.
May every sort of garden pest
His little plot of ground infest
Who stole the plants from Inverewe,
From Falkland Palace, Crathes too.
Let Caterpillers, capsid bugs,
Leaf-hoppers, thrips, all sorts of slugs,
Play havoc with his garden plot,
And a late frost destroy the lot.

Lady MaConochie of Inverewe

And this quote:

One of the most pleasing sounds of Springtime to be heard all over the country, is the contented cooing of osteopaths as Man picks up his garden spade.

Oliver Pritchett

A lovely book for casual dipping in and out of or for an undemanding bedtime read.


Next, Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville.

What on Earth to say about this? I haven't the skill to review it I'm afraid, so what shall I write? Well, it took me just over six weeks to read, I did actually think it would take me longer, up to Christmas and possibly beyond. It wasn't really what I thought it would be. I thought it was a book about hunting down a white whale and it is, but the white whale is hardly there until the very end so it actually isn't, not to my mind anyway. What it's about is 'Whaling'. I knew nothing about that before I read Moby-Dick and now I really do. I'm sure it's been said before that if you want to know about the whaling industry of the 1800s this is the book to read, but it's worth saying again, 'It definitely is'. I read all about the anatomy of whales, their habits, the catching of them, the men that went after them, the boats they sailed in, where they came from... Nantucket mostly... the differences between how one country went about whaling and another, how the whale was butchered... in minute detail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, it's no good whatsoever reading this with your 21st. century sensibilities on full alert: it would make you feel quite ill. I can't say that I 'enjoyed' this book. It was interesting, in parts. Rather tedious in quite a lot of other parts. Written in a manner that I struggled to understand a lot of the time, I did a lot of rereading. There's no doubt about it, this is a work of genius but I'm simply not intelligent enough to fully appreciate it. For me there was too much rambling in a style of language that I just couldn't get my head around, try as I might, and I did try. I'm glad I've read it. I've learnt a lot and that's always good, but I was not much entertained by it and have no wish to read it again, so in the charity shop box it shall go. (And, *whispers*, good riddance.)

I do have, on my TBR pile, this book:

Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund.

The blurb from Goodreads:

A magnificent, vast, and enthralling saga, Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife is a remarkable epic spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. Inspired by a brief passage in Moby Dick, it is the story of Una, exiled as a child to live in a lighthouse, removed from the physical and emotional abuse of a religion-mad father. It is the romantic adventure of a young woman setting sail in a cabin boy's disguise to encounter darkness, wonder, and catastrophe; the story of a devoted wife who witnesses her husband's destruction by obsession and madness. Ultimately it is the powerful and moving story of a woman's triumph over tragedy and loss through her courage, creativity, and intelligence.

Now that sounds interesting and will be one of my first chunkster reads for 2020. So while I turned out not to be Moby-Dick's biggest and most enthusiastic cheerleader, I have a feeling it 'will' inspire me to read other books connected with the subject, even if only vaguely. So, it's all good.


Monday 2 December 2019

Mount TBR challenge complete

This year I decided to climb Mont Blanc for Mount TBR 2019. That involved reading 24 books that I've owned since before the 1st. January 2019. These are the books I read.

1. Friday the Rabbi Slept Late - Harry Kemelman
2. Around the World in 80 Days - Michael Palin
3. Uprooted - Naomi Novik
4. Fire in the Thatch - E.C.R. Lorac
5. To Oldly Go - a Bradt travel guide - short travel tales
6. Aoife's Chariot - Katherine Pathak
7. The Mitford Girls - Mary S. Lovell
8. Weekend at Thrackley - Alan Melville
9. The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin - Georges Simenon
10. City of the Lost - Kelley Armstrong
11. The Riviera Set - Mary S. Lovell
12. A Small House in Italy - Eric Newby
13. Hot Sun, Cool Shadow - Angela Murrills
14. The Body on the Doorstep - A.J. MacKenzie
15. Antidote to Venom - Freeman Wills Crofts
16. Unnatural Death - Dorothy L. Sayers
17. Superfluous Women - Carola Dunn
18. Blue River, Black Sea - Andrew Eames
19. Melmoth - Sarah Perry
20. Backpacks, Boots and Baguettes - Simon Calder & Mick Webb
21. Narrow Dog to Carcassonne - Terry Darlington
22. A Thousand Miles from Anywhere - Sandra Clayton
23. The Cornish Coast Murder - John Bude
24. A Little Light Weeding - Richard Briers

I'm quite pleased that 11 of them were non-fiction. In fact I'm almost tempted to keep to non-fiction for it next year but we'll see... I haven't quite made up my mind which mountain I will go for yet. Anyway, another enjoyable Mount TBR and many thanks to Bev for hosting.