Sunday 25 June 2023

Some catching up...

As usual I've been reading quite a lot but not doing much in the way of talking about said books on here. So... time for  a catch up via some quick reviews. 

First up, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig.

Nora Seed is in her mid thirties and feels her life to have been a failure. Currently estranged from her only family, a brother, over her unwillingness to start a band with him, her best friend doesn't speak to her as she decided against going to Australia with her and then Nora gets the sack for not being cheerful enough to the customers in a music shop. The last straw comes when someone knocks on the door to tell her her cat, her only company, has just died out in the street. Nora decides life is just not worth living and that she will end it all. Except the end isn't what she expected. She's now in a library that seems to contain books that have inside of them all the lives Nora could've lived if she had made different decisions. Can she find one amongst the thousands of alternatives that she actually wants to stay in? So this was interesting in that it dealt with all those 'What ifs?' that we all have in our lives. Those decisions we made that took us in one direction when a different decision might have taken us elsewhere and led to a happier more fulfilled life... or 'not'. I suppose it asks questions about alternate universes where we all exist but living different lives, with different people, different jobs etc. It's an interesting concept to consider. I like a book that makes me think and this was very good in that regard. 

Next, I read The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie. Thoroughly enjoyed this, one of the first Miss Marple books published after The Murder at the Vicarage. This is a series of connected short stories wherein a sort of murder club is formed over or after various dinners with friends that Miss Marple attends. People talk about various mysteries they've encountered and Miss Marple inevitably solves said mystery. I thought it was delightful. 

That was followed by a contemporary fiction story entitled, Retreat to the Spanish Sun by Jo Thomas. 

Eliza is a single parent with three grown-up children. Her husband left her when the kids were quite young and now they're adults and have flown the nest she's sold the family home and has a small 2 bed flat. Problem - for one reason or another they're all back and the place is bedlam. Eliza is taking a course and has an exam deadline but can't work in the chaos, so, on a whim, she answers a 'house-sitter required' ad and finds herself in Spain looking after a pig farm while the owner's away. The plan is to write her essay while it's quiet but Eliza reckons without the draw of the local ex-pat club who're learning Spanish, or trying to. This is one of those light books you get sucked into and I certainly did - starting and finishing in one day. I liked Eliza, in her mid-forties and just trying to better herself with a bit more education. The Spanish village setting was a delight and I learnt a bit about a local delicacy, Iberico ham. I've read three or four books by Jo Thomas and always enjoy her less than perfect heroines. 

Lastly, Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.

This a science fiction story... it's as well I didn't know it was a time-travel yarn because I might not've started in the first place. It did actually begin quite well with a 'second and thus not inheriting much, son' travelling to Canada to start a new life in 1912. Something happens to him in the forests of British Columbia which is connected with some things which happen to others in 2020, 2203 and 2401. There are colonies on The Moon in this story, and I thought those were particularly well depicted. There's a pandemic involved (not ours). And the writing was very good indeed but as always I found the time travel aspect confusing no matter how clever the author was at bringing various timelines together and surprising the reader at the end. A solid 3 star read, I was slightly disappointed in this but bear in mind that reflects my dislike of time-travel stories, your mileage may vary. (A time-travel book I 'did' quite like - To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.)

I hope you're all keeping well and enjoying some good books. 

Thursday 15 June 2023

I have been reading...

It's quite warm here in the UK at the moment. When I say 'quite warm' I mean 25 to 27C - high 70s Fahrenheit - kind of warm, not Aussie, Middle-Eastern, Saharan heat... those people would laugh at us saying we're too hot and where's the rain now please? That said, it did get much hotter than this last July, 35 to 40C... and that 'is' hot for the UK. I'm just really hoping it doesn't do that again this year but the signs are not good and we've already had warnings of Saharan waves of heat wafting our way this summer. Ugh. 

My solution to it all is to get the garden work done in the early morning and then spend the day quietly with lots of refeshment and lots of books. It's not a bad plan...

So, I finished three books over the last few days.

How to Fail: Everything I've Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day.

I'm not actually sure what this was doing on my Kindle (please don't judge. :-D). Day co-presents the Sky Arts Book Club on Sky Arts so I'm familiar with her from that, so that could be why I grabbed it, possibly it was just cheap and I was intrigued. Anyway, this is very autobiographical and the author talks a lot about how her failures actually taught her more than her successes. Failure at friendships, failure at marriage, failure to be able to conceive, failure at sport and so on. I found it interesting in that I'm always curious about other people, how they live their lives (I think that means I'm nosy...), the decisions they make, their relationship to the people around them. I suspect Elizabeth Day is a delightful person - she seems to be on TV - but I did find this a bit hard-going in places as it is  bit relentless as regards her feelings of inadequacy, but it was always very readable. 


Next, The Hunt for Mount Everest by Craig Storti.

It might seem mad but we haven't always known that Everest existed. The Tibetans knew it was there of course, or some of them did, but none of them had any idea of climbing it until a load of mad Europeans turned up fresh from climbing in The Alps and looking for something else to get their teeth into. But the first attempt didn't happen until 1921, the Tibetans in the shape of the Dalai Lama kept us out until then despite some questionable machinations from the British in India. This book tells us all about it and quite interesting it is too, lots of history, politics, and information about the main people in alpine climbing in those days. Everyone knows about George Mallory but there were others who were just as fascinating whose names have been lost in the mists of time. My only complaint is that although all the politics was quite interesting it took a while to get around to really talking about the mountain, which is why I was reading it in the first place. But overall... a good read and what about that gorgeous cover?

Lastly, something fictional, The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge. This was first published in 1940, the author being a contemporary of authors such as D.E. Stevenson, Molly Clavering, Dorothy Whipple, Angela Thirkell etc.

So the story is set in 1938 (a date like that always makes me shudder) in a beautiful old house in Hampshire, Damerosehay. It's owned by Lucilla Eliot, widow, 78 year old grandmother and head of the family in every way. Mother to six adult children, she has living with her three small grandchildren whose parents have split up. Their mother, Nadine, (Lucilla's daughter-in-law) has started an affair with David who is the beloved adult grandson of Lucilla. David is on his way to visit and try to explain to Lucilla who will not be happy as she's never liked Nadine. And how will the children react too? The relationships are slightly complicated in this novel but I quickly got a handle on who was who and how they connected to the others. The house is absolutely centre stage, its history, the beauty of it and its wonderful gardens which are haunted. Goudge was fantastic at atmosphere, I'm not sure which part of the Hampshire coast it's supposed to be but it absolutely jumps off the page at you. I found it ever so slightly hard going with 'quite' so much description I must admit, I was more interested in the family dynamics and in that I wasn't disappointed. Every character was different with their own quirks, Lucilla and her elderly maid, Ellen, were brilliant, the single daughter who lived in, Margaret, only alive when gardening, didn't get a lot of air-time but her situation was rather poignant and I liked her, Hilary the bachelor vicar son was delightful and likewise the three small kiddies, all different with distinct personalities. I won't talk about the ending, only to say these were different times and long discussions could definitely be had. Overall, I liked this a lot and as it's part one of a trilogy I will read on. 

So now I'm not reading anything at all and am at that tricky 'choose a new book' or rather 'books' stage. I'm in a mountainy mood and fancy more reading about Everest, so I have this that I might start.

Or this:


We'll see. But as for fiction, I've no idea. I'm mood reading this summer and it's rather nice.

Friday 9 June 2023

A couple of crime titles

So, I'm in the mood for a bit of a crime yarn binge at the moment. Always a fun thing to do as I seem to have no trouble finding three or four good mysteries in a row, whereas I'm struggling in other genres. For instance, I thought I would indulge in a personal challenge to read more science fiction this year and I have, but the books have been very variable and that's being 'kind'. Crime fiction doesn't do that to me, although it could also be that I've become very adept at judging which ones I'm going to like.

Anyway, first up, Death of an Author by E.C.R. Lorac. This is my 7th. book for Susan's Bookish Books Reading Challenge.

Author of popular crime fiction, Vivian Lestrange, is a recluse. Not just a 'bit' of a recluse, but an obsessive one, to the point where hardly anyone knows who he or she is. It's thought it's a man because of course only men can write really intense crime stories... And then his secretary, one of two people who know him, reports him missing. She's turned up for work and both him and his house-keeper have gone. But can her word be trusted? It's not long since she herself pretended to be Lestrange, sent by him to fool people. And is it a double-bluff? Is she in fact the author? The police, CI Warner and Inspector Bond, are completely at sea. They have no clue who's telling the truth and no idea how to proceed. As one of them stresses, what they could really do with is a dead body! It's only when Warner follows a lead to the beautiful countryside around the river Wye in Gloucestershire that things start to become clearer, or do they? E.C.R. Lorac is definitely my favourite of the authors that the British Library have 'rediscovered'. I honestly can't think how she disappeared as her books are so well written and so 'meaty'. This book was complicated and twisty. It's thought Lorac was poking fun at people who thought only men could write crime fiction although why they would've thought that back then when Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and so forth were so hugely popular is hard to say, but there you go. I so enjoyed this book and had no idea until quite near the end what was going on. Highly recommended along with her, Murder in the Mill-Race, Fire in the Thatch and many others.

Next, A Dark Matter by Doug Johnstone. This was a book mentioned by Margot at Crime Writer Margot Kinberg wherein you will always find a lot of excellent posts about all aspects of crime fiction and loads of excellent recommendations. I highly recommend her blog and also her Youtube channel.

So this is an Edinburgh based story. Jim and Dorothy Skelf, both in their early seventies, run a funeral business and do private investigating on the side. When Jim dies, Dorothy, their daughter, Jenny, and grand-daughter, Hannah, feel completely adrift because he had handled most of the business side of things. Dorothy notices money has been going out of the account every month to a certain person, something she didn't know about. This forces her to wonder if she ever really knew her husband. Jenny, divorced and in her forties, has just lost her job so, reluctantly, moves back into the family home to help out. Hannah, at uni, needs help... her flat-mate has gone missing but the police will not help, citing anyone's right to go off if they want to. Hannah does not believe Mel would do this. The book is written from the pov of the three women and it's beautifully done, each woman having a very clear and succinct personality as portrayed by Doug Johnstone. Like all of us, they have life issues they're dealing with while trying to solve several cases at once, and all felt very real to me and representative of their own age-groups. I loved this one 'but' I think I should warn readers that there's a lot of detail of the work of funeral directors. 'Minute' detail. It will not be for everyone, in fact my husband picked it up off the library pile and after I had told him what it was about he quickly put it back again. Personally, I found it fascinating but then I am slightly weird. (Only 'slightly'?) This book has a twisty, convoluted, edgy feel to it, secrets abound, people are not what they seem and the women soon realise that jumping to hasty conclusions is not a good idea. I found the family dynamics endlessly fascinating too... three generations of women trying to get along and work together to solve cases. I loved it and will read on in the series, I think there're another three or four.  Thanks for the recommendation, Margot!

Two five star Goodreads ratings in a row! That doesn't happen every day! I hope you too are finding some good books to read in June. 

Thursday 1 June 2023

Books read in May

May was quite an interesting month wasn't it? We crowned a king in the UK, I turned 70, and I read 10 books. :-) I'm sure other things must've happened... yes, we started the garden, seeds sown in the greenhouse and up and soon to be planted out, others sown outside and doing nicely. And Spring has turned very sunny and very dry... dare I say it, we 'could' do with a bit of rain now...

Anyhow, 'books'. These are they:

37. 14 - Peter Clines

38. The Bangalore Detective Club - Harini Nagendra

39. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward 

40. Queens of the Abyss ed. by Mike Ashley

41. Killers of a Certain Age - Deanna Raybourn 

42. Soul Music - Terry Pratchett

43. Horse - Geraldine Brooks. This my book for my Read Around America challenge, featuring the states of Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Nebraska. 

This is a three timeline novel about a famous racehorse from Kentucky, 'Lexington'. The story concentrates on the early life of Jarret who is a black slave who ends up with the care of the horse from quite a young age, and a very strong life-long bond is formed. We follow as the horse is sold to another owner and Jarret sold with him. Civil war happens and we see how the two cope. The second main timeline is that of Theo and Jess in 2019. Theo is a black Brit who is a journalist, Jess a bone scientist from Australia. They meet in Washington D.C. over the search for the skeleton of a horse and the quest to find the origin of a painting of a horse. The third timeline is less prevalent and is that of a New York art gallery owner in the 1950s, Martha Jackson. It sounds a bit confusing but it isn't once you get into the story and chapters are well marked. I gave this 5 stars on Goodreads because I thought it was excellent. I have no interest in horse racing and not much in horses really, but I was captivated by Jarret's story and his devotion to Lexington. But it's not just that, the book is historical fiction at its best, I learnt a lot about life in Kentucky in the 1850s, for the well-to-do, yes, but mainly for slaves.What a huge deal the horse racing life was in 1850s America but the people it depended on for its survival, black slaves, were hardly acknowledged at all. It was sobering but not depressing, there was love and friendship and loyalty and also intellectual investigations which I love. 'Not depressing' apart from a real body-punch event towards the end of the book which knocked me for six. Regardless, this will likely feature in my top ten books of the year in December. Terrific book. 

44. Death in August - Marco Vichi. (Translated by Stephen Sartarelli.) This is the first book in the Commisario Bordelli series, set in Florence in the 1960s. I enjoyed this very much, the boiling-hot City of Florence in August was a character in its own right.

45. A Prayer for the Crown-Shy - Becky Chambers. Book 2 of the author's sci-fi Monk & Robot series. It was fine but not outstanding.

46. La Vie - John Sempel-Lewis. A year in the life of the author after he had moved to The Charente area of France. He's well known for his nature writing, birds and so forth, and I think it really shows in the beautiful, lyrical writing. I thought it was delightful and gave it 5 stars, no hesitation. 

So that was my May reading month. Nine fiction books, one non-fiction. The standout book was Horse by Geraldine Brooks, but to be honest it was a good reading month and nothing was terrible. 

So, on into June and, unusually, I have no idea what I want to read this month. So it's going to be very much a mood-reading month I think. We shall see.