Wednesday 22 February 2023

A couple of short reviews

So, two short reviews today, and the first of those is Murder Before Evensong by The Reverend Richard Coles. This is the first book in his new 'Canon Clement' series of murder mystery books.

It's 1988 and Canon Daniel Clement has been the Rector of St. Marys in the village of Champton for eight years. He lives with his mother, the acerbic Audrey, and two dachshunds. The patron of Champton is Bernard de Floures who lives in the stately Champton House along with his son and daughter; living nearby is a cousin, Anthony, down on his luck a bit who is doing historical work in the archives. Life is never simple for a vicar and the battle he's presently fighting is his project to install toilets in the church for the use of parishoners. Various factions are for and against and things are about to turn nasty. When Anthony is found dead in the church, viciously stabbed with a pair of secateurs, the police look to Daniel for information about the village and villagers. Who on Earth would want this rather sad and blameless man dead in such a horrific manner? So, Richard Coles is a bit of a media personality. He broadcasts on the radio I believe and is seen regulary on TV, a couple of years ago he was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing for instance. He comes over as a very amiable, gentle person and a very good communicator. (He's actually famous twice over because he had a number one hit with a group called The Communards back in the 1980s.) All this he brings to his writing, even though the book is about dead bodies galore! I hesitate to call this a cosy crime novel even though it probably is. There's a delightfully rich strain of humour running right through the book, some excellent observations on human behaviour and I loved the various anecdotes slotted in and wondered if they came from personal experience as a vicar or perhaps those of friends. If you like old fashioned 'English villagey' type crime stories then this might be up your street. I found it well written, rich in background detail, and fun to read: I didn't guess the culprit. So, I think book two is out this year and I'm sure I will read it at some stage because I do have rather an inexplicable weakness for churchy crime books.

Next up, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. This book was short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018.

George Washington Black, known as 'Wash', is a young slave on a plantation in Barbados in the 1830s. The plantation is run by two brothers. The elder, Erasmus, is a cruel man whose word is law, the younger brother, known as 'Titch', is a scientist trying to perfect a flying machine. For this he needs an assistant and he chooses ten year old, Washington Black, from the slaves on the plantation. The boy's life changes completely as he comes to terms with not being treated as property, because Titch is an Abolutionist. He begins by teaching Wash to read but where the boy's real talent lies is in art, he is an amazing artist able to reproduce plants and animals beautifully. But Titch's main interest is in flying machines and he's busy building one atop a hill on the plantation. Things come to a head when a tragedy occurs. It's not Washington's fault but Titch knows he will be blamed. And so the adventure begins: the two put their trust in the flying machine and take off into the wild blue yonder. Ok, so this was one of those books which sounded fascinating, full of potential, but which didn't quite live up to that promise. The first third takes place on the plantation and is quite gruelling as you will imagine. The elder brother is appalling and it's hard to square his treatment of slaves with that of his brother's. After that it became a reasonable adventure story, ending up by the side of Hudson's Bay in the winter. But then I found Titch's behaviour towards Wash extraordinary and didn't buy it. Then we have a whole section about Wash's time in Nova Scotia. I think my problem was that everything about the novel was 'OK'. Not fascinating or intriguing or anything else, just 'all right'. For a book about slavery, friendship, abandonment, coming of age, it lacked real depth for me. I never really felt completely invested in the characters. But that's just me, Your Mileage May Vary as they say and it 'was' short-listed for the Man Booker Prize so what do I know? LOL!


Sunday 12 February 2023

I have been reading...

It's been a week or so since I last posted, which isn't a lot but I still seem to have four books to mention or review. So let's crack on...

First up, a short story collection, Midwinter Murders by Agatha Christie. I actually started this before Christmas when I was reading a few seasonal short stories and had I picked a couple from this book. It's a very good collection of wintery and Christmas tales which feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Mr. Quin and there're also couple of standalones. I liked the Miss Marple stories best, The Christmas Tragedy and Sanctuary but also a Tommy and Tuppence story, The Clergyman's Daughter, which I talked about  HERE. But really this is a very solid collection of excellent stories. 

And, for lovers of Agatha Christie's short stories, another seasonal collection has been compiled for publication on the 2nd. March, Sinister Spring.


Next up, Blind Descent by Nevada Barr. This is my book for this month's 'Read Around the USA challenge' which is to read a book set in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah or Wyoming. 

This is book six in the author's 'Anna Pigeon' series of crime novels. Anna works as a National Park warden and doesn't seem to be able to avoid murder and mayhem wherever she goes. (And don't us avid crime readers just love these people?) This time she's sent to New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns NP to help rescue a friend of hers, Frieda, who is trapped, injured, in a mainly unexplored part of the cave system called, Lechuguilla. There's only one problem with this: Anna suffers from claustrophobia. It takes a while for her and the guides to get to her friend, when she does Frieda tells her that she thinks her injury was not an accident and that someone has tried to kill her. It not Good News. Now Anna is faced, not only with the trials of getting an injured person out through some very tight spaces, she also has no idea who she can trust any more. Well goodness me, I think if you're claustrophobic yourself you might want to think twice before reading this. I'm not particularly but it certainly gave me the shivers in a lot of places. The atmosphere of suspense and danger in the underground scenes was superb and nothing goes well so this is not a cosy mystery! I think this might be my favourite of this series so far, although they have all been good and I always love the NP settings and learn a lot about areas I had not previously heard of. I happily gave this 5 stars on Goodreads because I thought it was fantastic.

Next, To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky Chambers.

This is a science-fiction novella by an author who is very popular at the moment, one of the new breed of sci-fi authors who have suddenly come to the fore. It's about four astronauts surveying four planets fifteen light years away from Earth. They've been put to sleep before they arrive at the first planet and once they finish with each planet they are put under again. This of course means that when they get back to Earth eventually, many years will have passed and their loved ones will no longer be alive. The book charts what they find on each planet, how they interact with each other and how they deal with communications from Earth. Many years into the project they start to realise all is not well with their home planet. That's all I'm going to say. For a book that's only 135 pages long this packs a punch. To start off it's full of the science of the flora and fauna they find on the planet. It tells how their bodies are subtly altered with supplements to cope with different environments as they sleep. It sounds dry but it's not, it's fascinating. Quite character-centric too. Ariadne is the narrator and she has with her two men and another female and it was really interesting to read about their relationship to one another and how they supported each other in times of stress. I liked this a lot. I haven't loved everything I've read by Becky Chambers but I think she's a very talented new name in the science -fiction genre. 

And the last book I want to mention today is The Willows in Winter by William Horwood. This is the author's first sequel to The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. All of the characters are back, Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad of Toad Hall and are joined this time by Mole's nephew who is staying with him. Mole gets himself lost in a blizzard while on an errand of mercy and they all think he's dead. Meanwhile Toad has a new hobby, planes, and that leads to all kinds of craziness. Great stuff and I'll be reading the next book, Toad Triumphant, in May when the actual book begins. 

So that's what I've read. The books I'm reading at the moment are these three:

Murder Before Evensong by the Reverand Richard Coles is a church based murder mystery set in 1988. Red Sauce Brown Sauce by Felicty Cloake is a travelogue charting the author's cycling odyssey around the UK looking at what we Brits eat for breakfast. And Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen  by Fay Weldon is a novella length chat to her niece, Alice, (I presume she actually existed) about Jane Austen, her life and her books. All three of these are, so far, excellent. 

So, that's me up to date bookwise. I hope you're all keeping well and enjoying lots of good books.

Saturday 4 February 2023

A couple of library books

I'm the first to admit that my library usage dropped drastically during Covid, as it did for a lot of people, but for me it hasn't really recovered. So this year I thought I'd make an effort to use the library a bit more and see if I can up the number I read, which has been pretty poor (12 to 15 a year) for several years now. 

So the next two reviews are both library books. First up, On Basilisk Station by David Weber. This book is also part of my personal challenge to read more science fiction in 2023.

Honor Harrington is a captain in the Manticoran navy. Her planet is top-dog in a system where there're wormholes that provide easy travel to other places - a sort of hub - but of course all is not well in the state of Denmark. Another planet, Haven, has armed itself to the hilt and is busy trying to increase its influence everywhere, including the primitive planet, Medusa, which is overseen by the Manticoran, Basilisk Station. And this sleepy outpost is where Honor and her new ship, Fearless, are banished after she makes a superior officer and his ship look foolish in a mock battle. When the ship normally in charge of the station returns home for a refit, Honor suddenly finds herself in charge of a system which is broken. Smuggling prevails and everyone has been turning a blind eye. Until now. Honor has no intention of letting this state of affairs continue. Can she put things right while trying to gain the confidence of her disillusioned new crew, especially her second in command? Well, this story is a lot more complicated than I've been able to explain. There's quite a lot of interstellar politics in the region, it's not always clear who's working for whom and it can get a little difficult to keep track. Plus the author, David Weber, does like to go into minute detail about pretty much 'everything', particularly all the tech. The trick is to just go with it and, as others have said in reviews, it doesn't really matter if you're not one hundred percent with it, the basic story is excellent and perfectly understandable. I liked it a lot, especially Honor who is exactly as her name suggests, 'honorable' and determined to do the right thing even if she puts some very powerful noses out of joint. I think this sub-genre is known as 'military science-fiction' which might not be exactly my thing, despite me being a huge Star Trek fan. I probably wouldn't go for anything that was 'hard' military sci-fi but this one hit just the right note for me and I enjoyed it a lot.

And next for something 'completely' different, The Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith. This was a random grab from one of the library tables. I'm not even sure if it was a themed display, I just saw it there, was attracted by the cover, read that it was set in the former Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and popped it in my bag.

Bella is eight and lives with her parents on a tea plantation in Ceylon. The year is 1938. Her father, Henry, runs the plantation and her mother, Virginia, tries very hard to occupy herself in this isolated outpost of the British Empire. They hire a governess for Bella, Miss White, who has moved from Calcutta and feels that Ceylon is a real come-down, that she's far more educated than her employers, and doesn't hesitate to let them all know about it. It's an incredibly quiet life, especially for wives. Gossip keeps them going and various women find various ways to stop themselves going crazy with boredom. Bella is too young to understand the machinations of the adult world but can't help but get dragged in, leading to misunderstandings and worse. Well, I've read a fair few books by McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and Isabel Dalhousie mainly, but I'm not sure I was aware of his standalone books. Which is daft but there you go. This is a very insulated world he's getting to grips with here and it seems to me he does it very well. The stultifying boredom of British lives in these regions, at that time, oozes off the page, little things assuming massive proportions, small remarks agonised over until something is made of them that isn't there. The writing is beautiful, lyrical and almost as languorous as the lives he's portraying. And also McCall Smith is one of those male authors who do women very, very well, perhaps better than he does men. What the book reminded me of very strongly was Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacot, aka Agatha Christie. Both books have a great deal of gentle introspection within their pages, allowing the reader to get right inside the head of whoever is narrating at the time. The last couple of chapters take place in Scotland when Bella is grown up and at uni. I found these immensely satisfying as we find out what really happened and finishing off the book perfectly. When I picked this book up at random in the library I had no idea what a little treat I was in for. 

So, this is my current library pile. (Click for a bigger view.)

Quite a preponderance of science fiction but only because they had some new ones when I was in there last week. The top two are to go back and I have three more reserved books to pick up soon. Hopefully I can continue with my plan to use the library more this year.