Sunday 31 October 2021

Books read in October

Looking at the books I've read this month there seems to be a surprising diversity of setting. Not sure why 'surprising' exactly as I ring the changes every month, but this month I do seem to have hopped about all over the place... or should I say 'planet'. Anyway, eight books read and these are they:

69. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn 

70. Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang 

71. A Keeper by Graham Norton 

72. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. A reread set around a house and its lodgers in San Francisco in the 1970s. I was underwhelmed when I read it in 2007 and underwhelmed in 2021. Can't win 'em all...

73. Death Around the Bend by T.E. Kinsey. I thought I'd reviewed this but I haven't. It's book three in the author's Lady Hardcastle series wherein her and her faithful sidekick, come maid, come companion, 'Flo', head off to stay with a lord who is into motor racing. Somebody dies doing it, naturally, but was it an accident or was there some dastardly skullduggery? Loved this. The author has got into his stride now and there was some genuinely LOL dialogue and good plotting. Excellent series, recommended by a good friend.

The cover:

74. The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths 

75. Deep by James Nestor 

76. A Distance too Grand by Regina Scott. To be reviewed but it was a delightful read: series recommended by Lark and Susan. 

So, two non-fiction and six fiction books read this month. I've walked the South West coastal path here in England,  visited New York in the late 1800s, popped over to Ireland, San Francisco, pottered a bit more around England, dived the depths of oceans all over the world (yeah, right) chatting to whales and dolphins and finished off in the Grand Canyon. What a ride! 

Proof of my excellent reading month is that I can't choose a favourite, because apart from Tales of the City which for me was a bit average (not at all 'terrible'), all the rest were terrific reads. That said, I think I found Deep by James Nestor to be the most interesting book of the month.

This one gripped me from start to finish and taught me a lot. It provided quite a lot of 'wow' moments when reading it, which is always a plus.

So, onwards into November and I've started this:

Into the London Fog edited by Elizabeth Dearnley because it strikes me that November is a good month to read weird London fog yarns. :-)

And I'm thinking of starting this:

Anyone read it? I'm in an American mood at the moment and have a handful of travel books I could read including Not Tonight Josephine by George Mahood, which is on my library pile. I want to re-read Huckleberry Finn too and read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, believe it or not. But that might be included in 'next' years plans... yes I'm already making plans for what to read in 2022.

Happy Halloween if you celebrate it and happy November reading too.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Deep by James Nestor

Having enjoyed a previous book by James Nestor, Breath, in which the author discusses at some length the nature of breathing, I was delighted to discover that my county library catalogue had his previous book, Deep. Which is, of course, also connected with breathing in that it's all about the sport of free-diving (diving without artificial aids) and thus 'deep' breathing. I'm guessing one thing led to another...

At the time of writing this book author, James Nestor, was a journalist working for Outside magazine (he may well still be) and was sent to Greece to cover the free-diving championships which were taking place there. He knew practically nothing about it so was horrified to see divers surfacing with blood streaming out of their noses or having to be brought to the surface by rescuers because they'd blacked out. He soon discovers that it's the second most dangerous sport in the world, after that thing where people jump off cliffs and tall buildings with a parachute and hope it opens in time (its name eludes me). Apparently hundreds are injured or die every year free-diving.

Anyway, as you do, Nestor decides to do some more investigations and eventually to have a go. Of course in order to be any good whatsoever your lung capacity has to be increased considerably and thus your ability to hold your breath in order to get down to 300ft. and come back alive. That's not the world record by the way, the world record for free-diving is currently 702 feet. You read correctly. The pressure at that depth does awful things to your body, especially your lungs, so special behaviours have to be learnt and even those don't always work. The author finds it incredibly difficult, which the likes of me (fully paid-up member of CowardsRus)  find rather understandable...

But he soon learns that competitive diving is not the only use this form of diving is put to. He meets experts in sea mammals who dive with whales and dolphins and are trying to communicate with them. For me, this is when the book really took off. Whole sections are dedicated to echolocation and the clicks whales and dolphins use and investigations into exactly how they use this to communicate with each other. And us. One scientist thinks he's worked out a way to introduce himself to dolphins and that they 'reply' with their own signature.

I was rivetted by this and would love to find out more and will. But this is a fascinating book, so much detail included about the make-up of the ocean floor, the life down there and how much we don't know, we know more about outer space apparently. He talks about hydrothermal vents and the theory that that is where life began, about how our world is really built on microscopic bones, and how until recently it was thought that the bottom of the ocean was an uninhabited, underwater desert. Hint: it's not. 

I've read a handful of really excellent non-fiction books this year and Deep is yet another. I had no hesitation whatsoever in giving this five stars on Goodreads and can only hope James Nestor has more such books in the pipeline. As an author he reminds me a bit of Simon Winchester whose books are a similar mine of information, written in way that anyone can understand.

Friday 22 October 2021

The Stranger Diaries

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths has been on my Kindle for a couple of years now. What I hadn't really realised was how gothicky it is and how suited it is to autumn reading and when I was reminded of this recently I plumped for it as an October read. (It's set at this time of year too.)

Clare Cassidy teaches English Lit at a local comprehensive in East Sussex, on the south coast of England. The school is an odd mix of very modern buildings and an old mansion house where a writer used to live many years ago. The writer, R.M. Holland, is only famous for one thing, a short story entitled, The Stranger. Clare is fascinated by this story and the author, to the point of being in the middle of writing an autobiography on his life. The mansion is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of Holland's wife who reputedly fell down the stairs. No one knows whether she fell or was pushed. And the other mystery is whether or not the couple had a daughter. 'Marianna' is mentioned in the author's letters but did she exist and what happened to her?

The school where Clare works, Talgarth High, is the usual mix of hundreds of kids and teachers who, on the surface get on, but underneath there are simmering tensions and a lot of competiveness and pettiness. One of Clare's best friends is another English teacher, Ella, they started their jobs at the same time and are both single. When Ella is found dead in her cottage the shock waves reverberate around the school. She's been stabbed multiple times and a quote from Holland's story (and The Tempest) 'Hell is empty' has been left by the body. 

Clare immediately finds herself a suspect in the murder case. DS Harbinder Kaur and DS Neil Winston are the investigating officers and Kaur, of Indian descent, dislikes Clare on sight. But Clare has priorities that they don't know about. Not only does she have secrets to keep about Ella, she also has a teenage daughter, Georgia, to keep out of trouble and an ex-husband to keep off her back. It's like a juggling act... and life is complicated enough without the sudden knowledge that they're all in real danger from a murderer.

Well, this one is one of those multi-layered stories that twists and turns all over the place. I loved the fact that it's based around a vintage ghost story the likes of which I've read hundreds of. The start of the tale, with a man telling a fellow passenger on a train the terrible events that happened to him when he was a boy at school, is so quintessential to many ghost stories. (The story is revealed in full at the end of the book.) Also playing a part is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. The book being written in the same style, ie. chapters from different character's points of view - Clare, Harbinder, Georgia. In fact this is quite a good book for people who like books about books.

The main investigator, Harbinder Kaur, is not your average detective. Not only is she British Indian, she's a lesbian, in her thirties, still living with her parents and they don't know she's a lesbian. I love the mother, always hoping her daughter will find a nice chap! Harbinder is also not a happy camper, she's cynical and quite angry... the reason for this is not fully explained although it's clear that growing up her brothers came first. It makes her very interesting and I hope subsequent books will address this.

I had no clue who'd done the deed so the outcome was a surprise, and so was the reason for it all... I don't suppose this was unique, others who've read more crime fic than me would know, but it seemed very different to me. All in all, a pretty good start to what is, I gather, a new series about DS Harbinder Kaur. It should prove interesting with book two, The Postscript Murders, already out.

Tuesday 12 October 2021

Catching up with fiction

Despite doing two reviews a day or two ago I'm still three books behind so more short reviews to come to try and catch up... fiction this time.

First, a book I've just devoured in two days, A Keeper by Graham Norton... my first book by him.

Elizabeth Keane is an Irish woman who's lived in New York for years. She's divorced with a 17 year old son, her husband having left her for another man, to go and live in San Francisco. Returning to Ireland after the death of her mother she finds the town of Buncarragh completely unchanged, reminding her of why she left in the first place. Sorting out her mother's stuff she finds some letters in the wardrobe (it's always the wardrobe!) They're from the father she never knew and suddenly Elizabeth wants to know who she is and where she comes from. I won't say any more than that about the plot because this is a book full of family secrets, probably more than I've ever come across I think. On the back of the book The Times newspaper describes the books as: Atmospheric, creepy and impossible to put down and I honestly think that sums it up nicely. Parts of it are full of a sort of creeping menace and I honestly wasn't expecting that. What I was expecting and 'got' was the grimness which often seems to come with books set in rural Ireland. Why is that I wonder? The Searcher by Tana French, which I read in July, springs to mind immediately. Anyway, the book. It's in no way the kind of light read I expected from TV personality, Graham Norton, but I could not put the thing down, it was compulsive. It twisted and turned all over the place and grim or no grim, I loved it. 

Next, Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang. This in my 9th. book for Marg's Historical Fiction 2021 challenge.

It's 1899 and Bram Stoker's Dracula has just been published. Young Tillie Pembroke, from a very wealthy New York family, has just lost her beloved older sister, Lucy. Lucy was found dead with puncture wounds on her neck but the police seem to be ignoring the crime. A bad fall from a horse has left Tillie incapacitated and addicted to laudanum but she has one advantage, she has a scientific, enquiring mind. By leaving the house at night in secret and with the help of poor, aspiring journalist, Ian, Tillie sets about investigating what happened to her sister. This was interesting in that it gave me quite an insight into the free and easy use of laudanum, morphine and heroin in the late 1800s. Knowing what we now know about its addictiveness, it's quite horrifying to watch quite honestly and you're sitting, reading, thinking, 'DON'T !!! '. That said, this is really a fun, if rather unlikely, gothicky style book with a plucky (mostly) heroine who loves science doesn't understand or observe the social mores about class distinction that existed a hundred years ago. It was a decent read and I enjoyed it.

Lastly, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows by James Lovegrove.

The premise of this is that some papers have been discovered (probably in the wardrobe) written by Dr. John Watson in which he declares that all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures he wrote about were cover-ups for a much bigger story. Which is that H.P. Lovecraft's weird tales of the Cthulhu Mythos were real and he and Holmes have been fighting that fight and not one of Victorian crime at all. This first book of a trilogy recounts how he and Holmes really met and what really happened to Watson in Afghanistan to leave him mentally scarred. A shadowy menace is now stalking Shadwell in the East End of London, there's a powerful but mysterious Chinaman involved and ultimately Holmes' and Watson's first encounter with a dangerous adversary. Without being bowled over, I liked this well enough. It's a bit of a romp around Victorian London with a load of supernatural goings on that are straight out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu world. Villains abound and Holmes and Watson are well tested. I have a feeling I'm going to like book two more, Sherlock Holmes and the Miskatonic Monstrosities, which involves events that happened in New England. The series is well written so that helps a lot and Holmes and Watson feel authentic, not as authentic as Conan-Doyle wrote them, but not that far off.

So that was quite a good selection of weird fiction for September and October reading and I've certainly not finished with the weirdness yet!

Sunday 10 October 2021

Catching up with non-fiction

I'm so behind with reviews it's ridiculous. Four to catch up on, but this time I'll just post briefly about two very enjoyable non-fiction books.

Starting with 40 Memorable Life Experiences edited by Robert Fear.

This is pretty much as described in the title. A clutch of authors share experiences that were not necessarily life changing but which have stayed firmly in their memories for one reason or another. We all have them I'm sure. The collection is hugely eclectic and covers experiences such as the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro and getting heatstroke at -20C, looking for Leonard Cohen's island home on Hydra, a South Downs childhood, a Scottish family holidaying in Torquay, a first job in Bermuda on a fishing boat, attending your son's wedding by Skype, experiencing an earthquake in Alaska and so on. Several authors have multiple entries, Ronald Mackay speaks about running a farm in Canada, his experience of taking on a young man with special needs is incredibly touching, and Tina Mattern talks of a traumatic childhood when her father remarries. The selection is very wide reaching and I would've thought there was something for everyone here. Every offering is well written and very much from the heart I felt. And it's the sort of book you could easily dip in and out of as the mood takes you. I loved it and will be reading more of Robert Fear's collections.

Next, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

The first couple of chapters of this book really upset me. Raynor Winn and her husband, known as 'Moth', lost their farm and livelihood basically because a friend betrayed their trust and then because of a technical error they weren't aware of when the case came to court. The very next day Moth was diagnosed with something called Corticobasal Degeneration (CBD) which is, eventually, terminal. So... they're homeless and Moth is very ill and they have nowhere to go and nothing to do, and it occurs to Raynor that they should walk the South West coastal path, even though friends and family think they're mad. The book charts that long distance (630 miles) trek, their trials and tribulations, which are many, and Raynor's thoughts and concerns as they travel. I think I expected something lighter in tone and it genuinely is 'not'. It's heart-breaking in places. Most people who do these things have a home to go back to, money behind them, Raynor and Moth had neither of those things. And I really did expect more kindness from people along the way but the minute they said they were homeless most people backed away. On the other hand it's a book about what can be achieved against enormous odds, what humans can endure and move on from. And it's a book about love. It's beautiful quite frankly. On a more personal note, I live in the south west and know most of the areas they walked through so that did add to the interest for me. An amazing book and there's a sequel now, The Wild Silence, which I will get to eventually.

So that's my non-fiction reading for the last few weeks. In my next post I'll review two spooky, gothicky type autumnal reads, Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadow by James Lovegrove and Opium and Absinthe by Lydia Kang.

Wednesday 6 October 2021

A long weekend in Cornwall

We had our first holiday away from home since the start of lockdown a week or so ago. It was only a long weekend in Penzance but we fitted in a quite a lot, seeing relatives and getting out into the countryside a little. So while I ought to be doing book reviews, instead you're getting a few pics of Penzance and West Penwith in the late September autumn sunshine. 

First up, the sunrise from our hotel room on the first morning. This is looking over Mount's Bay.

Next, a couple of pics of the bay in proper daylight showing the iconic Penzance lido and the sun shining nicely on St. Michael's Mount. I'm a bit smitten with colours in these two.

Next, a walk at a village called Zennor. The church first. Apparently it's called St. Senara, thought to be 1,400 years old but rebuilt in the 12th. century. A carving on one of the pew ends depicts the legend of the Mermaid of Zennor.

Walking the path to the headland next.

And last but not least, the view from the National Trust carpark we stopped at for coffee. It's Cape Cornwall of course, a place we always have to visit whenever we're in my home county.

So there you go, hopefully you enjoyed your quick trip to Cornwall.

Saturday 2 October 2021

Books read in September

With just six books read for September it sounds like I've had quite a slow reading month. Except that it doesn't feel like that, probably because one of the books was over 600 pages long and the two non-fiction books I read took me a while to get through. Anyway, these are the books:

63. The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain 

64. A Talent to Amuse by Sheridan Morley 

65. Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth 

66. The Collected Ghost Stories by E.F. Benson. He's best known now for Mapp and Lucia but I gather in his day it was his ghost stories he was famous for. I'm not surprised. It was wonderful to reread his output, so brilliantly imaginative and beautifully written. One of my favourite ghostly collections - an especially good creepy read for Autumn. Highly recommend. 

67. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadow by James Lovegrove (to be reviewed but a fun romp.)

68. 40 Memorable Life Experiences edited by Robert Fear (to be reviewed, very good.)

So, four fiction and two non fiction.  Apart from the two non-fictions I was mainly based in the UK last month which is very odd for me! But the two non-fictions, Noel Coward's biography and 40 Memorable Life Experiences took me all over the world. I prefer to travel a bit with my fiction too though so hopefully I can arrange that a bit better this month. 

So what's for October? I'm not sure is the answer to that.

I started a reread of this:

But it's not grabbing me and I can't remember whether it took a while to get going last time I read it (2007 apparently). At the moment all the drug taking is irritating me so I fancy I may put that aside for the time being, or read it slowly in dribs and drabs when the mood strikes.

Perhaps something else from this pile as I've only read one so far.

I'm pretty sure I'm going to start The Salt Path next and I want to read The Moth and the Mountain too. I also really want to reread The Historian this month. We'll see. But I love October so hopefully it will be chock full of good books!

Happy Autumn!