Read-warbler

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.


Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Books read in January

I can't believe January is behind us already, but there you go. I've even noticed that the evenings are starting to draw out just a 'little' bit and the light is also changing. I like winter a lot as a season but I also like spring and there's so much flu, covid, bugs, colds, coughs etc. around at the moment that I'm hoping as spring approaches it will ease off a bit. *Fingers crossed*

Anyway, books. I read eight in January and they were a varied bunch, not only in theme and genre but also in quality.

1. The Starless Sea - Erin Morgenstern (2 stars)

2. Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafar. This is a science-fiction story set in Nigeria. Aliens have arrived and taken up residence in the ocean off the coast of Lagos. A female marine biologist finds herself involved with first contact, along with a rapper and a soldier. It's mayhem and I found the book a bit too chaotic for my taste and somehow the depiction of Nigeria and Nigerians felt very one-sided. A few people were decent but mostly they weren't and I wondered how an actual Nigerian would feel reading this book. Not a great success for me. (3 stars because unlike The Starless Sea it wasn't 500 pages long and I liked the female marine biologist, Adaora.)

3. The Broken Girls - Simone St. James (5 stars) 

4. The View from Mary's Farm - Edie Clark (Very brief review.) (4 stars)

5. Two for Sorrow - Nicola Upson (4 stars)

6. The Pleasure of Reading - ed. by Antonia Fraser (Very brief review.) (3 stars)

7. There's a Seal in My Sleeping Bag - Lyn Hancock. A book from the 1970s by the wife of Canadian naturalist and film maker, David Hancock. This recounts Lyn's life as a sidekick to her husband as they go on expeditions to count eagles, seals, various sea birds and so on along the coast of British Columbia and once or twice down to Washington state. They also end up with quite a menagerie themselves at their home near Victoria. This had a really strong sense of BC, the coastline and the people who live there but, for some reason, it didn't quite live up to my expectations. (3 stars)

8. On Basilisk Station - David Weber. To be reviewed but a good, solid sci-fi read. (4 stars)

So, five fiction books and three non-fiction. Of the fiction reads there were two science-fiction, one magical realism, one historical crime yarn and one gothicky, supernatural, historical crime story. Quite a mix and also quite a mix of ratings. This was my favourite book of the month:

 


The Broken Girls by Simone St. James was an exciting, creepy, well written, ghostly crime yarn and I absolutely 'loved' it. Honorable mentions: The View from Mary's Farm by Edie Clark which was delightful and Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson which taught me a lot about the sad history of baby farming.

I travelled around a fair bit in January too: Nigeria, Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the USA, and BC, Canada. Oh, and into outer space with Captain Honor Harrington. 

So, a variable reading month, I did begrudge a whole week spent at the start of the year on a two star book. That did make me mutter darkly about hyped books. No matter, I will get over it... in a year or three. And it didn't help that the second book for 2023 was less than stellar too. But that's the way it goes with this great obsession of ours, you win some, you lose some. Onwards and upwards.

I hope you're all well and had a good reading month in January. What were your stand-out reads?


Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Just finished and currently reading.

So, it's been quite a good reading month so far. This week I finished two non-fictions I've been reading for several weeks and a crime fiction novel that didn't take me quite as long.

First up, the crime novel which was, Two for Sorrow by Nicola Upson. This is the third book in the author's 'Josephine Tey' series in which she imagines the famous crime author investigating murders in the 1930s, alongside her friend and Scotland yard detective, Archie Penrose.

Josephine is staying at her club in London and, to her delight, no one knows she is there so she has a few days of freedom. Her club, The Cowdray, is for women only and is being run by a former nursing teacher of Josephine's, Celia Bannerman. It's also attached and connected to a teaching hospital for nurses. Archie's cousins, Ronnie and Lettice Motley, who make costumes for West End theatres, are currently working on costumes for a gala night which will raise money for the nursing hospital. Tey is currently working on a fictional account of a notorious baby farming case from the early 1900s, the result of which saw two women, Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters, hanged for the murders of babies who were mainly illegitimate. Celia Bannerman has a connection to one of the hanged women, she was a prison warder at the prison where she was being held and looked after Amelia Sachs on the eve of her death. The Motley sisters employ female ex-convicts and Marjorie Baker is one of them. When she is murdered in a particularly brutal manner, Archie, with some help from Josephine, has to somehow untangle this convoluted mess to see who is connected to whom and where Josephine's historial case fits into it. I don't think I've made a very good fist of explaining this complicated story and plotline. I lost track about two thirds through, trying to remember who was connected to whom and why. That said, the book was quite gripping and Upson's writing is always top-notch. You might even call this book a historical with a crime element, 'maybe'. There is also quite a lot of Josephine's backstory, romance-wise. Will she plump for a lesbian relationship with her friend's ex, Marta? (Having already read book 9, I know the answer to this of course.) All in all, a decent read, if very complicated and full of baby farming detail some might find disturbing, so beware if that's not your thing... but I learnt an awful lot about a subject I previously did not know much about. 

The two non-fictions were, firstly, The View from Mary's Farm by Edie Clark, which was kindly sent to me by Nan from Letters from a Hillfarm. This is a delightful book of essays which have appeared as columns in the Yankee Magazine. In each one she tells stories of how she bought and went to live on an old farm in New Hampshire that was built in 1762, before the USA actually came into being. She talks about so many varied things, mainly country life and what it's like living out in the wilds of the New Hampshire countryside. I particularly loved hearing how she prepared for winter, the awful storms they got and how she hunkered down inside, warm and cosy by the fire. But there was also cooking, the neighbours, the vagueries of her tractor, painting her Adirondack chair (I saw some of those in the Blue Ridge mtns.), Thanksgiving and so on. This collection is beautifully written and I absolutely loved it. I'll be reading it again someday. 

And secondly, The Pleasure of Reading a collection of bookish essays put together by Antonia Fraser. This is pretty much what it says on the tin, the great and the good talking about how they learnt to read and developed their reading tastes. It was interesting in parts but I couldn't help getting the feeling that for many it was a place to display their cleverness and taste for classics that a lot of people will not even have heard of. There also seemed to be a conspiracy to look down on the likes of Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis and so forth. A few were interesting to me, such as Ruth Rendall, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Wendy Cope, Catherine Cookson. Sue Townsend amused me with this;

The first erotic book I read was about a Spanish bullfighter. I don't recall the title or the author but I certainly remember the delicious anticipation it aroused in me. I couldn't wait to grow up and have a sexual experience. Though Spanish bullfighters were thin on the ground in Leicester.

All in all a bit of a hit and miss collection but not a bad bedtime read.

So current reads. This first of all:

 

On Basilisk Station by David Weber is a piece of space opera science-fiction. It's the first in the author's Honor Harrington series: Honor is a fairly new captain of a star-ship belonging to the planet Manticore.  For one reason or another, mainly political, the ship and crew end up with a duff assignment in the middle of nowhere but I'm assuming things turn interesting. I'm only 100 pages in and it's good so far. The book is part of my personal aim to read more science-fiction this year. 

And then this:


William Horwood is the author of the Duncton Wood series of books but he also wrote four sequels to The Wind in the Willows. This is the first of them, The Willows in Winter, and a reread for me - I plan to read all four ending with The Willows at Christmas (which I have not read) hopefully some time in December. Please don't throw rotten tomatoes at me for discussing next Christmas in January...

I hope you're all keeping well this cold January and finding lots of good books to read.


Monday, 16 January 2023

The Broken Girls - Simone St. James

So... after two rather average books to start the year off with (The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorofar) I finally hit on a really good book to wallow in. That book was The Broken Girls by Simone St. James.


Idlewood Hall, near Barrens in Vermont, is a school for unwanted girls. 'Unwanted' for various reasons, some are illegimate and therefore inconvenient, some are damaged, others have no one and belong nowhere and just end up there somehow. It's 1950 and four girls, Sonia, Rebecca, Cece and Katie share a dorm at this charmless school. They stick together, slowly sharing the intimate secrets of how they ended up in this God forsaken place and why no one is coming to rescue them from it. The place is haunted of course, no one disputes that, 'Mary Hand' is reputed to have had an illegitimate child before the place was a school and it's said her baby is buried somewhere in the grounds and Mary torments the girls because of it. The four girls are surviving, barely, until the weekend Sonia is invited to stay with an aunt and uncle who previously did not want her, and disappears off the face of the Earth,

In 2014 Fiona Sheridan is living in the town, working as a journalist on a small newspaper. She has a boyfriend who is a cop but otherwise not much of a life because twenty years ago her sister, Deb, was found murdered in the grounds of the then abandoned Idlewild Hall. Fiona has never got over the death of her big sister and although they caught the man who did it, is still picking at the wound, convinced there is more to discover about the place. Her opportunity arises when she discovers that someone has decided to renovate the derelict building. What she nor anyone else is prepared for is a grisly discovery in the grounds that will change everything. 

Oh my goodness, what a ride this one was! I was not expecting that. The Broken Girls is a supernatural crime story and it really is 'supernatural', not one of those where everything is explained away in the end as being the work of some nutter who can apparently be in three places at once or whatever. This is the genuine article where there really is a vindictive ghost and I'm glad it's a book and not a film because I would probably not be able to watch it on TV. 

The story has a dual-timeline plot where I actually enjoyed 'both' timelines. That's unusual for me, I nearly always prefer one over the other. The historical sections about the four girls in 1950 was really rivetting, their situation so dire that your heart bled because they were full of character and deserved better than to be incarcerated like that. Fiona's quest was also fascinating as she fought against everyone wanting her to just forget what happened to her sister and move on. I thought she was admirable for continuing with her search for answers regardless of the pressure that was heaped upon her. 

This is a very well written book, full of creepy atmosphere with a very strong sense not only of Vermont but of the school for abandoned girls, it felt like a character in its own right to be honest: chillingly awful. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers but I loved how satisfying the ending was in tidying up loose ends and explaining everything. One or two interesting surprises etc. This is my first book by Simone St. James but I have seen her books talked about on other blogs and and on Booktube, always in a positive light, so I had an idea I would like this one. My first 5 star read of the year and I'll be reading more by this author.

The Broken Girls is my first book for the Read Around the USA challenge I'm doing and covers the category of  a book set in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island or Vermont. I also have a delightful non-fiction on the go for it, The View From Mary's Farm by Edie Clark, which was sent to me by Nan from Letters From a Hill Farm a few years ago and is based in New Hampshire. To be honest, I could cheerfully spend the whole year reading books set in New England! 


Monday, 9 January 2023

I have been reading...

But not reviewing! Not since mid-December in fact and as I'm not going to try and do proper reviews of all of them, what I'll do is talk about my most recent read first and then list the others, mainly read in December.

So first up it's The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. This is my first book for the Bookish Books reading challenge which is being hosted by Susan at Bloggin' 'Bout Books. It's also my first book for Mount TBR 2023 which is being hosted by Bev at MY READER'S BLOCK.

So, this book was a Christmas present from several years ago, it's beautiful thing quite honestly and I was looking forward to making it my first read of 2023. Briefly, the main character, Zachary Ezra Rawlins, is at uni somewhere in New England and comes across an odd book in the library. It describes underground cities full of libraries and the people that live there and run the place. And then he finds himself mentioned in this book along with an incident that happened to him as child where he came across a painted door on a wall in an alley, which was in fact a real door: he could've opened it and gone in but he didn't. Fast forward and Zachary is at a masquerade ball at a secret club in New York city because there he will find out more about the book. He meets Mirabel who takes him through another doorway and into this underground world which, it turns out, is real. I wish I could say that my experience with this book was as wonderful as the physical copy of the book I own. I will say that it is beautifully and lyrically written, no question of that, the author can write: her book, The Night Circus, was a massive success which at one time was all over the book blogging world. But for me The Starless Sea was a book that spent 500 pages never getting to the point. Zachary spends the whole book wandering around this place looking for first one person, then another, then something else. There are other characters who arrive, do something to him, disappear off and then come back later to repeat the performance. Mirabel is quite interesting and the back story of another man who disappeared down this rabbit hole, met someone, lost them but never came back is intriguing. But all of the pointless meandering and minute detail of said wanderings just bored me to tears. I've no idea how I got to the end - I think I was hoping it would get to some kind of interesting point. It didn't, or maybe by the time it did I'd lost the will to live and missed it. 2 stars on Goodreads and I don't give books star ratings like that lightly... lot of people dish those out willy-nilly... I probably give out two or three 'a year'. A sad disappointment but there you go, it happens and I will add that a lot of people love this book!

So, back in December I think the last book I reviewed was Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley (I didn't like that much either, perhaps I'm getting too picky). 

After that I read A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn, which is the first in her 'Veronica Speedwell' historical crime series. This is set in 1887. Veronica has been brought up by two aunts but there's a secret about her birth which she's determined to discover. The last of the aunts dies and Veronica is free to follow her passion for butterflies but someone tries to abduct her and she ends up with 'Stoker' an artist/sculptor/natural history sort of chap. Then they're on the run... This was an enjoyable romp, somewhat unbelievable but well written and great fun. I'll read more as I like books about women who're into science and natural history in Victorian times. 

Then came, The Maid by Nita Prose. I liked this story of a maid in a huge hotel in a big city. I thought it was New York but it's never confirmed and I don't think it matters. Molly Gray is 'the maid' in question. She finds the world difficult to navigate after her gran died, possibly because she's on the spectrum and people either take advantage or don't know how to treat her, and Gran always helped her with that. Molly's job is everything to her but when she finds a dead body in one of her rooms that job and her whole world is turned upside down. I found this a very touching book and gained a lot of insight into how people who are a bit different are treated. My heart bled for her as she tried to deal with trauma without the aid of her grandmother but I thought Molly was a wonderful character, determined to stand up for herself. An excellent debut novel.

So then I read The Accidental Adventurer by Ben Fogle who is a British TV personality who's done a lot of daring stuff like rowing across the Atlantic with Olympian James Cracknell, but has also been an explorer and leader of expeditions and so forth. He's on TV these days seeking out people who have left the rat race and are living in remote regions around the world. Quite an enjoyable autobiographical book about what seems to be a very likeable chap.

And my last read of 2022 which I finished on New Year's Day was, Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews. This is a husband and wife writing team who have a lot of series on the go so it clearly works well for them. Clean Sweep is the first in their 'Innkeeper Chronicles' and the main character is Dina who runs a B&B in a small town in Texas. It's no ordinary B&B though as the inn is magical and the establishment is like a way station for intergalactic travellers or people who're looking for a place to hide out. Someone or some'thing' is viciously killing dogs in the local vicinty. Dina is trying to investigate but an annoying alpha-strain werewolf is imposing his help upon her whether she wants it or not and then things really get out of hand when a load of vampire soldiers also arrive to 'help'. This was completely bonkers but very enjoyable and I already have the second book on my Kindle. Excellent when you want something weird but not too challenging. 

So that's my reading progress up to date. I hope you're all doing ok and finding some good books to read for the start of 2023. 


Friday, 6 January 2023

The Bookish Books reading challenge

So my final (I think...) challenge that I'm going to participate in this year is a new one and it's being hosted by Susan at Bloggin' 'bout Books.


 

This challenge is called 'The Bookish Books Reading Challenge' and Susan has all the info here in this POST.

And there is another post about it HERE with the Mr. Linky widget to log your reviews. 

Susan says: 

This is a laidback challenge designed to encourage the reading of all those bookish books that are still lingering on our shelves and TBR lists. Any book counts as long as one of its main themes is books (reading them, writing them, hoarding them, stealing them, eating them, burning them, decorating with them, organizing them, sniffing them, selling them, etc.). Any book that is essentially bookish in nature counts. All formats are acceptable. Since this challenge isn't about pages read, length doesn't matter either. Picture books are totally fine.

There are of course various levels to choose from and these are they:

Toe in the Door: 1-10 books read
Picking and Perusing: 11-20 books read
Lost in the Stacks: 21-30 books read
Living in the Library: 30+ books read
 
I'll be going for The Toe in the door, 1-10 books but who knows, I might do better as I have quite a few on my bookshleves and Kindle and also have a Goodreads shelf, HERE. Rather surprised to find I have 69 books on it... 

Some of the books I would like to read: 

The Last Bookshop in London - Madeline Martin
The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes
The Book Collectors of Daraya - Delphine Minoui
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen - Fay Weldon
Once Upon a Tome - Oliver Darkshire
The Last Library - Freya Sampson
The Book Lovers - Emily Henry
The Readaholics and the Falcon Fiasco - Laura DiSilverio
The Reading List - Sara Nisha Adams
The Library - Bella Osborne
The Little Bookshop on the Seine - Rebecca Raisin
The Murder Bookshop - Merryn Allingham
A Thing of Beauty - Peter Fiennes (need to check whether this actually fits the challenge)
Ghostland - Edward Parnell
Lives for Sale: Biographer's Tales - Mark Bostridge

I think that's enough to be going on with though I have a feeling I have more...

The other thing is that the book I'm currently reading, The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern qualifies so that will be my first book when I finish it.

I honestly think this is going to be one the most fun challenges of this year so many thanks to Susan for coming up with it. 

Thursday, 5 January 2023

Wanderlust Bingo 2023/24

I have 2 more challenges I want to join (making far too many for this year but what the heck... in for a penny etc.) and the first of them is Wanderlust Bingo 2023/24, which is being hosted by Fiction Fan's Book Reviews.

 

As is obvious, this is another Bingo challenge, I'm a real sucker for them it seems! 

The place to go for more information is HERE on Fiction Fan's blog. 

This is a two year challenge which suits me quite nicely as it's less pressure with all the other challenges I'm doing, but it's also been stressed that we should not be too bothered about deadlines. Excellent!

I'm an avid armchair traveller and am really looking forward to taking part in this challenge.