Monday, 21 May 2018

More crime fic

A couple of quick crime book reviews today.

First up, one of the British Library Crime Classics, Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon.

Petty thief, Ted Lyte, breaks into Haven House on the outskirts of a quiet coastal village in Essex. Intending only to lift a few silver spoons he gets more than he bargains for when he finds seven dead bodies in one of the rooms. Leaving in quite a hurry he's apprehended by Thomas Hazeldean, a yachtman who's just put into harbour. DI Kendall takes the case on and decides to accept Hazeldean's help. The yachtman takes off for Boulonge in France, to see if he can find the niece of the house, Dora Fenner. Find her he does... and quite a lot more.

Well, this has to be one of the more unusual classic crime books from the BLCC. The book was written in 1939 and involves all kinds of shenanigans not normally associated with crime novels, which I won't go into for fear of spoilers. I liked the French connection and the weirdness of the French house and the people in it. You never really knew what was going on until the closing chapters and then it was all quite surprising. J. Jefferson Farjeon (wonderful name) was the author of the very popular, Mystery in White, which the BLCC put out several years ago and which I also really enjoyed. As always, there is a lovely cover involved, sadly no artist named, but it's from the National Railway Museum (York?) as it's one of those fab Railway posters.

Lastly, Have Mercy On Us All by Fred Vargas.

A woman comes to see the police to report strange symbols marked on the doors of her appartment block - a backwards 4 with two small slashes - but not on all of the doors, just some. At the same time the town crier, Joss Le Guern, is reading out some very odd messages left by persons unknown. Messages which refer, in very old fashioned terms, to The Black Death as though another outbreak is imminent. Principal Commissaire Adamsberg is disturbed by these occurrences but cannot say why. His unease becomes justified when a corpse is found, looking to all intents and purposes as though the person has died of the plague. How to avoid panic setting in in Paris? Answer: find the killer before he or she kills again...

Honestly, this series goes from strength to strength. I never think the next book will be as good as the last but it always is. Each book teaches me something too. In one I learnt a little about The French Revolution and Iceland (yes, in the same book), another the Mercantour National Park in southern France near the border with Italy. In this book The Black Death takes centre stage and fascinating it is too. Adamsberg is a detective with flaws (aren't they all?) and in this he really messes up as regards a particular relationship. It's all good stuff and I love it. Fred Vargas is surely going to be my favourite author of 2018.


Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Catching up

So, it's catch up time, two brief (well I'll try) reviews to do before I go to Cornwall in a few days.

First up, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry.

There's something in the air in the coastal regions around the village of Aldwinter, in Essex, something not quite right. Local villagers are starting to say that the Essex Serpent has returned, a dragon-like water creature that kills the unwary in the marshes. Cora Seaborne, newly widowed, takes rooms in Colchester with her companion, Martha, and is fascinated by the talk, thinking it might be an undiscovered species remaining from the dinosaur era. Natural history is Cora's passion and release from a deeply unhappy marriage has given her the freedom to, more or less, do as she pleases. She gets an introduction to the Aldwinter vicar, William Ransome, married with several children and also an amateur naturalist. Cora is not religious or superstitious, Will obviously is religious but like Cora doesn't believe in mythical monsters. The two get on like a house on fire but are not fully prepared for the consequences of their investigations and the effects on the people around them.

I started reading this book about 18 months ago. I knew it was a slow burner and about 70 pages in it was doing nothing for me so I put it to one side 'for another time'. The other time arrived a couple of weeks ago and I tried again. What a difference and it only goes to show how your mood can affect how you enjoy a book. Yes, it is very much a slow burner but this time I enjoyed all the explorations, off tangent, delving into the medical world of the late Victorian era, the frustrations of women with brains who weren't expected to want to do anything with them, life as a vicar at that time and so on. Fascinating stuff. To be honest it's very much 'not' an action story. Not a great deal happens but the author has made the mundanity of ordinary people's lives interesting. I felt for Cora, not only a very nasty marriage but a strange son to cope with, clever but unable to do what men do when they're clever. The things that happened around her, romantically speaking, not of her making or encouragement, but she got the blame anyway. This book divides people and I can see why. It is slow going at times, and it's true not a lot happens, but I really enjoyed it and look forward to reading more by Sarah Perry... she has a new book out in October I think, Melmoth, another weird one by the sound of it. Good-oh.

Lastly, Something Sensational to Read in the Train by Gyles Brandreth.

The author, Gyles Brandreth, is a household name in the UK. He's been on TV for many years, Breakfast News, Countdown, Have I Got News For You?, and these days on The One Show quite a lot. He's kept a diary since he was eleven years old and starting at his first boarding school, Betteshanger in Kent. For people who were state school educated there's always a fascination with what went on in private schools, probably why some of Enid Blyton's books were so popular. The sections on Betteshanger and later, Bedales, didn't disappoint and reminded me of Stephen Fry's private school experiences (can't remember which one he went to though) in Moab is my Washpot. But Brandreth didn't hate boarding school as much as Fry, in fact he fitted in rather well, due partly I suspect to Bedales being progressive and co ed. At Oxford he got very involved in acting and producing plays and this led to a career doing similar things. I was unaware though that he had so many other strings to his bow, he's a creator of word games and books on them, started the Scrabble World Championships, is vice-president of the NPFA and knew The Duke of Edinburgh quite well (he was president), an after-dinner speaker, journalist and so on. Brandreth is also a very prolific author and is probably best known for his historical crime series about Oscar Wilde. The list of people he's met, worked with, and interviewed is extremely long and impressive. I loved all the annecdotes, the insights into a lot of famous people, some of it rather surprising, and hearing about his close friendships, family... his wife sounds like a real gem. In the 1990's he became the Conservative MP for Chester but lost his seat in 1997 during Tony Blair's Labour landslide election. The political sections of these diaries read like Yes Minister or House of Cards and reveal a lot about our parliamentary system. Some of it is very eye-rolling although having read autobiographies by Ed Balls and Ann Widdecombe none of it came as much of a surprise. All in all this was an excellent book, quite long at almost 700 pages but well worth reading - Brandreth's style is conversational and easy to read, you feel as though you're sitting with him having a cup of tea and a chat. You can't ask more than that.


Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Books read in April

I can't believe it's the 1st. of May already. Not sure where those four months of 2018 went but gone they are (and never called me mother...) I read four books during April, on the face of it a slow reading month but not so. I read steadily plus I have two books currently on the go one of which I'm 400 pages into (out of 700!), the other 300, so there's a couple of extra books there which will go on to May's total but were partly read in April. Anyway, enough rabbiting, these are the books:

17. The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett.

18. Three Men and a Bradshaw by John George Freeman.

The author's diaries of holidays he took in the 1870s with various members of his family, mainly brothers. Areas visited included North Devon, Wales, Scotland, Jersey etc. Very enjoyable, especially when they were visiting places I'd been to. Just after we came back from our uni trip to Aberystwyth with our grand-daughter I got to the bit where the author was there, for instance. The holidays were mainly walking holidays and underlined to me how much walking they did in those days that we don't do 'these' days. They thought nothing of walking 20 miles a day. Anyway, a very enjoyable book, deserving of being better known in my opinion.

19. The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas.

20. Killing Grounds by Dana Stabenow.

Very hard to pick a favourite out of the four as they were all good. It will have to be a draw I think. These two were the best books of the month:

So, on into May. I have two books to finish, Something Sensational to Read in the Train by Gyles Brandreth (his diaries from when he was a child up to the 1990s) and The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, a book I tried to read either last year or the year before, gave up on, but decided to try again. Very glad I did as I'm really enjoying it. Only goes to show how your mood can affect your reading. Off to Cornwall in just over a week, already thinking about which books to take...


Thursday, 26 April 2018

A couple of crime titles

I'm having a slow reading month, lot going on, plus the non-fiction I'm currently reading, Something Sensational to Read in the Train by Gyles Brandreth (his diaries), is over 700 pages and taking me a while to read. I have managed to read a couple of crime yarns along with it though and these are they.

First up, The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas:

A small tree has suddenly appeared in the garden of Sophia Siméonidis, a retired opera singer who lives in Paris. Her husband is not interested in listening to her concerns so Sophia turns to her new neighbours, three young men, Marc, Lucien and Mathias who have just moved into the wreck of a house nextdoor. They are all historians, plus there is Marc's godfather, Armand Vandoosler, an ex-policeman who left the police force under some sort of cloud, also living there. All of them are interested in Sophia's story, so they dig the tree up but there's nothing buried under it: it's a mystery but one that seems to be going nowhere. Until Sophia disappears. Has she run off with an ex-boyfriend or has something happened to her?

Fred Vargas is best known for her Commissaire Adamsburg series, set in France. The Three Evangelists is book one of another series of the same name, also set in France. I really enjoyed this quirky story of three historians trying to get to the bottom of this tricky mystery. Three historians... but what I learnt from this book is how much historians of different periods dislike each other. Of course it's probably good-natured dislike, but I wasn't always sure. In this book we had someone who specialised in prehistoric man, someone who specialised in the middle ages and someone who loved WW1. All very different characters and all very well drawn in my opinion. My favourite character though was the ex-policeman and godfather, Vandoosler, steering the investigation, offering advice and so on. The outcome was a real susprise too so that was an added bonus. Very impressed with Fred Vargas and her books and I already have two more on my library pile.

Lastly, Killing Grounds by Dana Stabenow.

Kate Shugak is working as a deckhand on The Freya, a fishing boat belonging to Old Sam, an elderly member of her tribe. It's salmon fishing time and the catch for all of the boats is very heavy this year. Then the fishermen go on strike as the price they're going to be paid drops by a penny a pound. One man continues fishing, Cal Meany, a man Kate had witnessed beating his son a few days before. Meany by name, Meany by nature... it seems the man is universally disliked for a lot of very shady goings on and no one is much surprised when his body is found dead and badly mutilated one morning. Kate has never before come across a murder case with so many suspects.

For my money there was just a bit too much detail about commercial fishing in this one. For anyone interested in the subject there probably wouldn't be, but I personally found myself skipping small sections. It was actually quite a while before the murder occurred too, easily a third of the way in, so I had that thing where I was constantly waiting for the body to turn up. Nevertheless there was, as always, a very strong sense of Alaska in this story. I enjoyed the 'fish camp' setting later on, the four elderly aunts are always inscrutable and thus a fun element. Not the strongest Kate Shugak instalment but the books are never less than readable.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Lost Book of the Grail

My second book for the What's In A Name? challenge is The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett. It covers the category, 'The word 'the' used twice'.

Arthur Prescott, is rather old-fashioned, a university professor whose heart really isn't in his job, but he has a secret. Unbeknown to his friends he is someone who is trying to track down the location of the Holy Grail. To that end he's moved to Barchester, a city he regularly visited as a child, staying with his grandfather. It was his grandfather who introduced him to King Arthur, his knights, and the mystery of the Holy Grail. He believed the grail was somewhere in the vicinity of Barchester and tasked Arthur with the search on the condition that he must keep his mission a secret.

Arthur's other obsession is books. Old books. Specifically the books and manuscripts presently residing in the cathedral library. He knows them all intimately... in fact, because the library is used by very few people, Arthur feels rather territorial about it, like they all belong to him. Which is why, when a young American woman, Bethany Davis, comes to digitise the library, Arthur's nose is put somewhat out of joint. He's not much into computers and isn't sure putting the manuscripts online is a good idea, despite Bethany's enthusiam. He tries very hard indeed not to like her and in some respects succeeds: in others, not at all.

It turns out Bethany is also a Grail seeker. But what is she doing in Barchester? How has she come to the conclusion that this is the place to search? And what's her connection to an American millionaire evangelist who collects religious artifacts?

What an interesting character Charlie Lovett has created in Arthur Prescott. Bookish, an open and curious mind about subjects such as King Arthur and The Grail, a man who obsessively goes to the quiet services at the cathedral but does not believe in God. He goes because he loves the atmosphere, the building and the music. I can relate to that completely. He's also deeply skeptical about the internet and modern living and although I am an internet user I can still relate to his misgivings, no problem at all.

This book reminded me a bit of M.R. James. Not so much in the writing and supernatural themes but his stories have been described as 'Cathedrally' and that's how I would describe this book. I don't know much about cathedrals... I've been to a few, Truro, Exeter, Wells, Bath, York, Ely, Salisbury, Winchester, St. Pauls, more than I thought actually... but, not being a Christian, I don't know all the terms for the sections of the buildings or the services and wish I did because, like Arthur, I think they're wonderful places.

I also loved to bits the bookishness of this book. I love how important the history of ancient manuscripts is in it, there are short sections set centuries ago where the author tells us how certain writings came into being and what happened to them when the vikings came raping and pillaging or during the disolution of the monasteries etc. I found it all very interesting and enjoyed wallowing in the monastic, bookish, cathedralish atmosphere of this gentle, relaxing story.

I gather Charlie Lovett is the author of The Bookman's Tale, a book I remember seeing quite a few reviews of a couple of years ago. I shall definitely be reading that at some stage.


Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Lost Mars - edited by Mike Ashley

The British Library has been reissuing vintage crime stories under their BLCC section for several years now and have many excellent titles under their belt. When they asked on Twitter for book bloggers who like science fiction to take copies of their two new science fiction anthologies, for review, I jumped at the chance. This is the first of the two, Lost Mars, edited by Mike Ashley, which I've been reading and savouring over the past few weeks.

1. The Crystal Egg - H.G. Wells. Two customers try to buy a crystal egg from a dealer in antiquities but the owner is curiously unwilling to sell. He hides it away at the home of a scientist friend and together the two discover some of the egg's secrets. I read a lot of H.G. Wells as a teenager, but I don't remember this story, though that doesn't mean a lot. I'd forgotten what an amazing writer Wells was, here he creates that curious Victorian atmosphere of academia mixed with dark weirdness. Loved this to bits, perhaps it's time to reread The War of the Worlds... of which this story is apparently a kind of precursor, and maybe look for more of his short stories.

2.Letters from Mars - W.S. Lach-Szyrma. Aleriel is a winged native of Venus who travels the Solar system and writes about his adventures. He describes Mars as being a planet of very wide canals that the inhabitants use to traverse their world. Amazing imagination displayed in this story, it felt very much like a travelogue. Oddly, the author, the son of a Polish immigrant, was vicar of St. Peter's in Newlyn in Cornwall in the late 1800s or early 1900s... a church I went to for a time as a child.

3. The Great Sacrifice - George S. Wallis. Something's wrong in the Solar system. Astonomers have noticed that some of the outer planets are hundreds of miles off track. One of them witnesses one of the moons of Mars exploding and then messages arrive from inhabitants of that planet that no one knew existed. And it's a dire warning. This is one of those stories that reminds you how insignificant we are in the cosmos and how helpless we would be in the face of some kind of natural planet-threatening disaster originating from space.

4.The Forgotten Man of Space - P. Schuyler Miller. A miner is left behind on Mars by his two fellow miners, susposedly so that they don't have to share the profits of their latest trip three ways. The man, doomed to die, doesn't because he's rescued by the indigenous race who live on the planet. Good story with a nice twist at the end.

5. A Martian Odyssey - Stanley Weinbaum. A member of an exploration team gets stranded on Mars, it's either walk the 800 miles back to his ship or die. Off he sets and meets a rather strange ostrich-like creature, with whom he's able to communicate on a very basic level but who is clearly from an intelligent race. The Earthman calls his new companion 'Tweel' and the two keep each other company on the long journey. Loved this one for its 'friendship with others no matter what they look or sound like' theme. It's also quite the adventure and I felt would have made an excellent full-length novel.

6. Ylla - Ray Bradbury. Ylla, a Martian woman, starts to have strange dreams concerning a handsome visitor from their neighbouring planet, Earth. But everyone knows Earth cannot support life so what are these dreams? Her husband starts to get jealous but Ylla is unable to stop these dreams happening. This story is part of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles collection. I must confess I've not read them but did watch the TV dramas eons ago. (!970s maybe? With Rock Hudson or is my memory deceiving me?) Judging by this beautifully written, reflective story, I really should.

7. Measureless to Man - Marion Zimmer Bradley. Two former expeditions to Mars,trying to discover the secrets of the fantastical city of Xanadu, have failed, the members disappearing without trace. It seems no one is able to get inside the city, but why? A new expedition is hoping for better luck, one of its number being Andrew Slayton, a human born on Mars, seven foot tall. He alone is destined to discover what happened to the inhabitants of the lost city. Loved this! Another that I felt would've made an excellent novel. I loved the concept behind it but I won't say what that is as it would spoil it. 'But'... really good story, good writing - as you would expect from Marion Zimmer Bradley.

8. Without Bugles - E.C. Tubb. A small settlement on Mars has been there for five years looking for precious metals or minerals. It's hard, unrelentling work and one particular aspect of it has affected the workers' health badly. Earth sends someone to see if it's worth keeping the place going, but there's a problem... This was a powerful story about unforeseen consequences. I think of all the stories in the book this and the next story are probably the most realistic. It's gritty, honest and quite affecting.

9. Crucifixus Etiam - Walter M. Miller Jr. Manue Nanti has joined a project working on Mars to earn good money. He wants to travel on Earth, visit some of the amazing sites, so the hard earned money will enable him to do that. He is Peruvian and it's thought that being used to breathing at high altitudes will make it easier for him to breathe on Mars. But he still needs the adaptations to his body which will take over his breathing for him. He knows though that if he doesn't also breathe for himself, once back on Earth he'll be a wreck healthwise. Naturally this is easier said than done. This is another gritty, realistic story... quiet scary I thought, uncomfortable reading, poignant... but that's good in my opinion. Well written too, which of course increases its effect.

10. The Time-Tombs - J.G. Ballard. This story works on the premise that there was a very ancient civilisation on Mars who left a sort of digital imprint of themselves in their tombs rather than actual remains. Tomb robbers from Earth have been busy raiding the tombs for 'tapes' for many years and there are almost none to be discovered now. Or are there? Not J.G. Ballard's normal fare, he was more of a 'social collapse of society' writer (as the intro blurb puts it). This story was one of his earlier works but still has a rather bleak outlook about it. Very well written indeed.

Like all short story collections this one has excellent stories and a few that don't appeal quite so much. But that's quite a personal thing I think, those stories might be other people's favourites. None are less than very readable though, which for me makes it an excellent anthology. Usually there are a couple in every collection that I just can't get through but there were none like that in Lost Mars. My favourite story was Measureless to Man by Marion Zimmer Bradley, probably because of its fantastical city element as I do love a bit of that... where you never quite know what's going to happen. Other favourites were the H.G. Wells offering, The Crystal Egg, for its Victorian atmosphere (rather Dickensian at the beginning I thought), A Martian Odyssey by Stanley Weinbaum as I loved 'Tweel', and Ylla by Ray Bradbury which made me want to find his Martian Chronicles and read them.

All in all this was a superb science-fiction anthology and many thanks to Abbie Day at The British Library for giving me the chance to read and review the book before it's published on the 16th. April. I'll be reading the second book, Moonrise very soon.


Sunday, 1 April 2018

Books read in March

March was not a bad reading month for me... seven books read altogether and a nice mix. These are they:

10. The Herring Seller's Apprentice - L.C. Tyler

11. The Misty Harbour - Georges Simenon

12. Breakup - Dana Stabenow

13. Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson. Very interesting book on the English language... its origins, its spread, its influences and so on. Bryson's sense of humour is not as evident as it is in some of his books but it is there. Informative and enjoyable.

14. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning - Laurie Lee

15. Lost Mars edited by Mike Ashley. A detailed review to come but this is an excellent anthology of fictional short stories all about the planet Mars. Available to buy in a couple of weeks.

16. How To Be Champion - Sarah Millican.

British comedian, Sarah Millican, writes very candidly about her life. A shy but clever girl at school she hated being in the limelight, but like a lot of us, was a different person at home and with close friends. After a messy divorce she took up stand-up comedy and went from strength to strength, she's now a household name in the UK. Those outside the UK might not understand the title with its lack of an A. Champion is Geordie-speak (Newcastle area) for 'excellent' 'good' 'terrific' and so on. And the book really is 'Champion'. I thoroughly enjoyed Sarah's honesty and humour, especially the banana cake baking chapter... loved that the original recipe came from John Barrowman. A word of caution, this book has a lot of adult content, if that's not your bag, this is not for you.

So four fictional books and three non-fiction read for March. They varied a bit. One or two were average, but the rest were all good. I loved Dana Stabenow's Breakup, Lost Mars had some excellent classic sci-fi stories and Sarah Millican's How to Be Champion struck quite a few chords with me. Overall though my favourite book eneded up being this:

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee was so beautifully written but about a country I'm not that much interested in, so it was quite an achievement to make me like it so much. I definitely intend to read more books by the author this year, I might even change my mind about Spain! (Not...)

Happy reading!