Monday 28 February 2022

Books read in February

The start of February seems like an age ago, the depths of winter, whereas now, although it still is winter of course, the light has changed and the bulbs are are up in the garden and it feels like spring is on the way. I like winter a lot and that hasn't changed, but this year I think I'm ready for it to be gone.

Thank God for books, I do not know what I would do without them at the moment (and for the last couple of years), the world is so awful. Thus, lots of reading this month, eight books in all. These are they:

11. The Dead of Winter by Nicola Upson 

12. Wintering by Katherine May 

13. Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce 

14. After by Dr. Bruce Greyson 

15. The Lark by E. Nesbit 

16. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir 

17. Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards 

18. Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck 

So, quite a varied bunch this month. Six fiction reads, two non-fiction. A good month because there were no duds, nothing that was a terrible disappointment. I think this might possibly be because I'm getting more and more skilled at choosing books I think I will like. And also better at abandoning those I'm not enjoying. I don't do that lightly but there was one this month that I stopped reading after about forty pages thinking, 'I just don't give a monkey's!'

Favourite book of the month? I don't think I can choose. Three stood out: Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir and After by Bruce Greyson. But all the rest were good too, and I would have no hesitation in recommending any of them. It's been a pretty good month all told.

So, currently reading? Well, this:


I mean, who knew? I certainly did not think I would become smitten with standalone books by Nora Roberts. But Shelter in Place is a 'terrific' read, set in Maine and dealing with the aftermath of a massacre perpetrated by three boys in their late teens. The book is about the survivors and is so, 'so' good, I can't put it down.

In my Books read in January post I listed eight or nine books as a pool to read from in February. I managed to read four of those and am quite happy with that, so I thought I'd do it again.

Books for the 'Round the World' challenge, category - Eastern Europe:

Along the Enchanted Way - William Blacker (Romania)

The Sunny Side of the Alps - Roy Clark (Slovenia)

The Thread - Victoria Hislop (Greece)

For the Back to the Classics challenge:

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton

The Mysterious Mr. Quinn - Agatha Christie


Blind Search - Paula Munier

The Other Bennet Sister - Janice Hadlow

Percy Jackson and the Sea Monsters - Rick Riordan

The Buried Giant - Kazuo Ishiguro

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra - Vaseem Khan

Waiting for the Albino Dunnock - Rosamund Richardson (non-fiction about bird watching)

Two books about The Queen:

The Windsor Knot - S. J. Bennett

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett (a 3rd. or 4th. reread)

Of course there's no way on Earth I'll manage to read all of those in one month, but I'm a list person and find it helps to have some idea of the books I would like to read each month and most importantly - write them down! I don't feel compelled to always read from that list of course and very often do go completely off piste when a sudden fancy takes me.

Happy reading in March and take care. 

Saturday 26 February 2022

Catching up (as always)

Two books to catch up on today. Firstly, Murder by the Book: Mysteries for Bibliophiles edited by Martin Edwards. This was a Christmas present from a lovely friend.

This is another of the BLCC's anthologies of themed murder mysteries. How perfect for people who like books about books mixed with a good murder yarn! The collection has 16 stories in all and as usual the stories varied a bit but none were less than very readable and some were superb. My favourite was by an unknown author to me, Roy Vickers, and entitled A Man and His Mother-in-Law. The protagonist has married for the second time, his first wife having walked out on him. His second wife had been adopted during the war, having lost both her parents, and had become slavishly attached to her adopted mother. How this all pans out, including a murder, is a beautifully observed commentary on marriage and the people within it, and not just the couple themselves. I thought this was superbly written, I liked that it was quite long and took its time to explain how the husband was like he was and how that affected his relationships. Brilliant. I also loved, Grey's Ghost by Michael Innes. This takes part at a dinner party, wherein a bishop relates how he heard someone say in passing, 'Grey's ghost was black'. Inspector Appleby (Innes' regular detective) is present that evening and works out what was meant by that comment and how things progressed. Terrific story, I really 'must' get hold of some of the Appleby novels. I liked the cleverness of Malice Domestic by Philip MacDonald, an American story of a man who thinks his wife is poisoning him. Good twist to that one. There was a Sherlock Holmes story by S.C. Roberts, The Strange Case of the Megatherium Thefts, concerning missing books, which was pretty good. Also excellent was, The Book of Honour by John Creasy. This was set in India and was another tale which took the time to explain the background so that the reader feels very invested in the characters. My final favourite was *takes deep breath* We're Know You're Busy Writing But We Thought You Wouldn't Mind If We Dropped In For a Minute by Edmund Crispin. I should think every author would identify with this very strongly as the narrator recounts how many interruptions he gets each day, making settling down to write a book almost impossible. This was very funny, I like Crispin's Gervase Fen books anyway and this has the same trademark humour. All in all an excellent collection of very varied stories all connected with books or publishing in some way or other and I can recommend it very highly.

Lastly, Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck. This book, first published in 1940, is another reissue published by Dean Street Press.

Camilla Lacely is a vicar's wife and the couple live and work in a small provincial town somewhere near Manchester. WW2 has begun, young men are being called up and the war effort is clicking into gear. Camilla's trials and tribulations are many. As a vicar's wife a lot is expected of her, not just commitees, supporting people with problems in the locality, church duties and such, but she also feels very strongly that her main duty is to support her husband in everything. It's endless pressure and worry but luckily she's stoical and can deal with things from a humorous point of view: she's very philosophical. This attitude is challenged somewhat on the day that the curate, Strang, preaches his pacifist views to a congregation and outrages the whole town. Camilla 'was' present but unfortunately was snatching forty winks behind a pillar and didn't hear what was said. All kinds of mayhem ensues, nastiness coming out of the woodwork, people getting on their high horses and threatening to withdraw financial support for various causes and so on. This is an excellent study of human nature, the good, the bad, and the downright unreasonable. Pettiness persists even during wartime, perhaps 'especially' in wartime. I liked Camilla, bravely 'keeping calm and carrying on' despite a lot of provocation. I don't know why but her husband annoyed me. I think I felt that the support was all one way but I suspect that's my 21st. century sensibilities talking. There's a lot of humour in the telling of this tale, somewhat in the style of The Diary of a Provincial Lady. I did get a little bogged down in ethical and religious discussions but that's a minor quibble. I loved one character who appeared only briefly but was mentioned a lot, Camilla's son, Dick, who clearly had his feet planted firmly on the ground. All in all, a good read and I'm interested enough to search out more work by Winifred Peck, and have in fact got one of her crime books on my Kindle, Arrest the Bishop?, which sounds like fun.

And soon it'll be March and we'll all be wondering where February went! I hope you're all finding some good books to read to take your mind off the difficult times we're going through.

Friday 18 February 2022

Project Hail Mary

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir is yet another book I've been seeing everywhere over the last six months or so. Clearly, from the reviews, very popular. And at the beginning of this year I decided that one of my personal challenges would be to try to read at least one science fiction or fantasy book per month. I did well with that in January but hadn't read anything in that vein come mid-February so I went to my library pile and grabbed Project Hail Mary.

The story opens with someone emerging from a coma and a voice asking what is two plus two. It takes the patient a long time to work this out and once he's done that the voice wants to know his name. If he can't remember, which he can't, he has to stay in the room he's currently in, which is rather traumatic because there are two other beds there, both containing dead bodies.

Slowly but surely, Robert Grace remembers his name and realises where he must be. Not that it helps to know that he's on a spaceship and the two dead people are the rest of his crew, because he can't remember what the mission is. But here he is approaching the sun. Well, no. He's not. He soon realises that this is not his sun or even his solar system, it's someone else's. It's Tau Ceti, a close neighbour of ours, and it's taken Grace three years to get here and he's on his own with a problem to solve but he can't remember what the problem is. 

Enter stage left another spacecraft. It couldn't be more different to the one Grace is in but he is contacted and the two crafts join via a tunnel and he becomes the first human to ever meet a real live member of an alien species, 'Rocky', as Grace names him. As it turns out the two have struck lucky. Grace is a scientist and Rocky is an engineer who can fix or make anything. But he can't go into the human environment and Grace can't go into his. Which is problematical as they both realise they are here for the same reason, to save their planets from certain destruction from the same source.

There used to be an American TV show years ago, called McGyver, wherein an actor called Richard Dean Anderson played a chap who got into all kinds of scrapes and always had the ingenuity to fix anything with an elastic band and a piece of chewing gum. This is what this book reminded me of. It's chock-full of science and engineering explanations of how they manage to fix some pretty challenging problems, many of them going over my head rather but I got the gist and anyway it really didn't matter because the stars of the show are Grace and Rocky and their relationship. I love how they taught themselves their respective languages via a laptop. I loved that it was explained to me exactly how different Rocky is to humans and how our atmosphere was so toxic to him. These 'differences' are why I love science fiction so much, it makes me think in an entirely different way about Life, the Universe and Everything.

This is a dual timeline story. Not only are we with Grace and Rocky trying to save their respective planets, we also go back to see how Grace got where he is. What is causing the sun's light to diminish, what the scientists decided to do about it, who they put in charge - a real kick-ass woman - and how the crew of the Earth spacecraft got chosen. I generally am not mad about dual timelines because I always prefer one over the other but that wasn't so much the case here. I did prefer being with Rocky and Grace but only marginally. 

I gave Project Hail Mary 5 stars on Goodreads. It was a terrific yarn, full of edge of your seat moments, intriguing science and best of all two fantastic main characters whose relationship was a 'joy'. I think I'll be looking for more books by Andy Weir.

Sunday 13 February 2022

A couple of titles

Two books finished over the last couple of days, one fiction, one non-fiction, both excellent.

First up, The Lark by E.Nesbit.

It's 1919 and Jane and Lucilla are two cousins who are at school together but being nineteen-ish both are eager to leave and go out into the world. They're orphans who are under the care of a guardian and when a letter arrives with bad news the two girls get their wish to leave the school, but not in the way they would've wished. The guardian has scarpered with their inheritance: he's left them £500 and a house to live in, so they're not exactly destitute but things are not hunky-dory either. Being rather positive in their outlook the girls decide to treat the whole experience as a bit of 'a lark', hence the title of the book. By accident one of them ends up selling flowers from their garden to people passing by and thus the germ of a way to make a small living is born. One thing leads to another and a business comes into being and another one decided upon for the near future. They should be able to keep themselves after all but the journey will not be straightforward.

This is one of the reissued books from the Dean Street Press people who publish books and authors that have gone out of print and been forgotten a bit. Not that E. Nesbit is a forgotten author as she wrote many famous children's books including the very famous, The Railway Children and the 'Five Children and It' series that I devoured as a young teenager. What's less known is that she also wrote a few books for adults, not to mention some very good ghost stories. The Lark is essentially a book for adults 'but' its tone is very 'young adult'... to my mind anyway. It's incredibly charming, a lovely read if you're looking for a gentle book in these horrible times we're living through. To me it was quite character driven and I enjoyed meeting all of the various people who serendipitously come into their lives and end up helping or sometimes not. It's not all sweetness and light, some of them are not what they seem and the girls learn a few valuable lessons along the way which saves the book from being too good to be true. The humour also helps with that as it's written quite tongue-in-cheek. All in all this was a delightful read that I can't recommend too highly if you love gentle stories along the lines of D.E. Stevenson, Dorothy Whipple or Angela Thirkell.

Lastly, After: A Doctor Reveals What Near-Death Experience Tell Us About Life and Beyond by Dr. Bruce Greyson.

I read this because I saw it reviewed by Diane on her blog, Bibliophile by the Sea. It might not seem a natural choice for me as I'm quite agnostic in my religious beliefs but I do have a streak in me that enjoys reading unusual books, especially those which increase my knowledge of the unknown or which insist I really think about the subject. The author, a professor of psychiatry in the USA, begins by telling the reader how his fascination with NDEs (Near-Death Experiences) started. As a young doctor, he'd been in the process of eating some spaghetti and tomato sauce when his beeper went off. It made him jump and he got tomato sauce on his tie. He went off to speak to the friend of a girl who had over-dosed, waiting in the waiting room. Later when speaking to the girl who had survived her suicide attempt, something strange happened. The girl knew about the stain on his tie, said she had witnessed the conversation between her friend and the author because she had been floating near the ceiling. She knew exactly what had been said about her and that Dr. Greyson had had tomato sauce on his tie. For the author this led to a life-time's investigation into this subject, talking to thousands of people who have had experiences like this young woman 'or' who went further and went somewhere they could only describe as 'heaven' and then got sent back, usually because they had family who needed them or unfinished work. Dr. Greyson describes himself as a skeptic when this all started for him but finds himself unable to dismiss the testimonies of so many people. There's quite a bit of science in this book, none of it beyond my ability to understand either the concepts or the experiments they did to exclude various theories. There are a 'lot' of case histories quoted here, every one of them unique and fascinating. I may have been ready to read something like this having recently been told something about what happened when an elderly aunt passed away years ago, which rather took me aback. So has this book changed my stance or opinion on the subject of what happens when we die? I would say, 'yes'. Lots to think about and I'm still thinking and considering and wondering... which is what a good book is for really!

So I'm currently reading several books. First this:

Murder by the Book, edited by Martin Edwards, is a collection of murder mystery short stories that all concern books or writing. Perfect for reading nerds like we all are. I'm about two thirds of the way through and enjoying it very much.

Also this:

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth is a book about Scandinavia. Why is it considered so wonderful to live in Denmark, Sweden, Norway etc? Why do they continually come out on top in the 'best places to live with the happiest people' polls? I'm reading this for the 'Round the World' challenge I'm doing and so far it's quite good. 

And I've just started this too:

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir who I believe wrote The Martian, the book the film of the same name was based on. I haven't read that but so far Project Hail Mary is excellent.

I hope you're finding lots of good books to read in February.

Tuesday 8 February 2022

Dear Mrs. Bird

So, Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce is yet another one of those books I saw on several people's blogs and also mentioned on a Youtube book vlog that I regularly tune into. It sounded like my sort of thing as I like a lot of wry humour in my reading, so I grabbed it for my Kindle.


Emmy's ambition for a while has been to be a reporter on a national newspaper. It's 1940 and WW2 is raging, London is in the middle of The Blitz and suffering horrendous casualties and damage to the city, night after night. Dangerous assignments sound like an exciting thing to be involved in, no matter that she does actually spend her evenings and a lot of the night answering emergency calls for the fire brigade and is not at all exempt from the bombing in the capital city. 

When Emmy sees an advert for what she thinks is a new position with a famous newspaper she jumps at it, thinking her life is about to change completely. She's so excited she doesn't ask any relevant questions at the interview which is how she finds herself a secretary to an Agony Aunt working for a dull magazine that the newspaper owner owns but has very little to do with. Poor Emmy is hugely disappointed and annoyed at herself for getting so carried away.

The Agony Aunt herself is Mrs. Bird. Mrs. Bird is rather a stately woman of the old school, no nonsense, no slacking and definitely no 'unpleasantness' as regards the letters which she will answer in her column. What Emmy finds herself doing is sorting out the unpleasant from the acceptible. The former make up the vast majority of the postbag, sad letters from women and girls who are struggling with every difficult or embarrassing thing you can think of, not just personal problems but difficulties connected to the war. Mrs. Bird wants nothing to do with any of this but soft-hearted Emmy finds herself sympathising and feeling that people are in need of help and answers if they're desperate enough to write to a magazine.

Emmy's eventual decision is to start taking letters home to answer herself. She knows this is a drastic step, especially when she signs them, 'Mrs. Bird'. She knows that if she ever gets found out, a bit more than 'unpleasantness' will ensue. But, of course, she does it anyway.

Well, sometimes highly hyped books don't live up to the hype. And sometimes they do. This is not a universally loved book and it does have its flaws. Emmy's inner voice being a bit Jolly Hocky Sticks can be a bit grating to some but personally I loved it. She reminded me so much of Sam, Foyle's driver in the wonderful WW2 crime series, Foyle's War. Her enthusiasm was so uplifting and her turn of phrase so funny, it was just a joy. She seemed to me to epitomise that WW2 spirit of 'Keep calm and carry on' regardless of what happens. Because what other choice did they have?

I felt a bit that this was a book of two halves. The first half funny and upbeat, the second not so much. Emmy's unquenchable spirit is still there but she's in conflict with a friend and that has consequences. Plus, well there's a war on and awful things happen and that is brilliantly portrayed. I not only enjoyed this book for its delightful humour and characters but I learnt from it, not just historical details but about the spirit of Londoners at this time and the horrors of what they had to endure. The book doesn't shy away from that. The importance of friendship, helping people if you possibly can, doing what you feel is right even if everyone else thinks you're wrong, are also very strong factors in the bones of this book. Overhyped or not overhyped, you'll have to decide for yourself but personally, I think not. I loved, Dear Mrs. Bird and look forward to reading its sequel, Yours Cheerfully, very soon.

Friday 4 February 2022

Catching up

Well, it's been a funny old week. Self-isolating because a close relative, that we'd been in close contact with the day before, tested positive for Covid, might not seem like the ideal way to spend a week, and indeed it has been slightly worrying. But for us it's just meant hibernating a bit more seriously than we usually do in winter and not going out at all. In fact my husband and I both tested negative yesterday, day 5, so it looks like we'll be fine but we'll test again on Saturday and will be able to see what's what a bit more clearly. The fact that we've both had mild symptoms is not helping our confusion but hey-ho, I'm sure it'll work out one way or another.

So, books have been my haven, as always, and I've whizzed through two books this week and am half-way through another. First up, The Dead of Winter by Nicola Upson.

So, this is book 9 in the author's 'Josephine Tey' books, a series in which she features a real-life crime writer, solving crimes. I read books 1 and 2 way back when and then lost track of the series. Then a cousin gave me a lovely hardback copy of this one recently, that she'd read and loved, so I hoped it wouldn't matter that I hadn't read the intervening books and plunged in. 

It's 1938 and Josephine Tey and Archie Penrose (a police officer with the Met) are heading to St. Michael's Mount for Christmas, a house party sort of thing although the daughter of the owner is doing it for charity. The book opens with a murder on The Mount, so you know who did that deed and how. That happens before the guests arrive. Further into the book there's another one and the solution to that is unknown. It's a 'people cut off from civilisation' trope, not sure what the proper name for that is, but rough weather, storms and snow, have meant it's impossible to get across the causeway to the mainland or even get a boat across. Communications are down too. You get to know the group of people stranded rather well and of course they're a motley crew and include a famous Hollywood actress. A sort of cold-case of Archie's plays a role too. There had been some character development since I last touched base with Archie and Josephine but it's easy to grasp what, though I'm now very curious to see how it happened.  I romped through this, loving it all the way. It helps that I know St. Michael's Mount of course, I grew up a mere 5 miles or so away, so it was a constant presence during my childhood. But I liked how the plot  twisted and turned until you weren't quite sure who could have done what to whom and why. And The Mount is 'such' a gorgeous setting, very moody and sort of 'looming'. Great stuff and I'll be going back and catching up with the other books soon.

And lastly, Wintering by Katherine May, a non-fiction offering that I read as one of my books for the Book Voyage challenge I'm doing, covering the category of Western Europe. (Planning to read at least one other book for this, maybe two.)

I was intrigued by the title of this as I'd assumed it would be a simple book about how people retire indoors for the winter in that Danish Hygge sort of way. And it 'is' about that but it's a lot of other things too. The author's husband gets sick and she describes the way in which the outside world retreats and you find yourself in a sort of bubble as another form of 'Wintering'. I get that, especially this week! And we've all been there with either our own illnesses or that of loved ones when absolutely everything else becomes unimportant and your focus is on living through what's happening and just surviving really. The book covers all kinds of topics, coping with depression, walking, swimming, the aurora borealis, Stonehenge, SAD, robins, bees, she even goes to Iceland to seek out more information. I enjoyed it but it was lacking something for me. I don't think I quite connected with the author even though I found some of the various topics interesting, especially the bees. It was one of those 3.5 star reads on Goodreads that you have round up or round down, which I find rather frustrating. Pleased I read it but I think it might end up being a bit forgettable. 'Your Mileage May Vary' of course and I hope it does.

My current read is this:

Absolutely 'loving' it. I'm not sure how a book based during WW2 can be so funny but it is. The main character, Emmy, is reminding me so strongly of Sam, Foyle's driver in the wonderful TV crime series, Foyle's War, also set in WW2, that I'm finding myself reading it in her voice. 

I hope you're all keeping well and staying safe.