Monday, 27 February 2017

Books read in February

February was a pretty average reading month for me, number-wise that is, with six books read. Quality-wise it was very far from average. Three books got 5 stars from me on Goodreads and two others, 4. That's a good month and is quite a rare occurrence. Anyway, these are the books:


9. The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

10. A Life in Questions - Jeremy Paxman

11. Way Station - Clifford D. Simak

12. The Lost Girls - Heather Young

13. William the Conqueror - Richmal Crompton. Thirteen stories of 1920s mayhem with Just William and his loyal Outlaws getting up to all sorts of mischief. Great fun.

14. Jacquot and the Fifteen - Martin O'Brien


Not a bad mix of books, one autobiography, one crime, one science fiction and I'm not sure how to categorise the other three... historical fiction and children's I imagine. Every single book was enjoyable, several of them outstandingly so. Thus I'm really struggling to pick a favourite. My head says The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert or The Lost Girls by Heather Young because both were so good. But really... when it comes down it my heart tells me that this one had a very tiny edge:




I do love Martin O'Brien's Daniel Jacquot crime series, set in the south of France. So well written with a gorgeous sense of place and 'food'. Wonderful.

~~~oOo~~~

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Catching up

Time to catch up with several book reviews. Busy with the grandchildren over half-term and then a nasty cold most of this past week meant I was not really up to posting... or doing much at all to be honest. Apart from reading...

First up, Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Enoch Wallace lives in Wisconsin on his remote family farm. He's 120 years old, fought in the American civil war in fact, but looks like a 30 year old. How can this be? Government agents would love to know so they are watching him. Enoch knows he's being watched but also knows they can do nothing to harm him. He's protected by a Galactic Federation - because Enoch is the only keeper of a way station on planet Earth. Countless aliens pass through his home on the way to other planets in our spiral of the galaxy and he has made friends with many of them. His home is impregnable, protected by a sort of cloak and within it Enoch never ages. But what of these government agents? And what of his nearest neighbours, a vicious family, apart from the daughter, Lucy, who is both deaf and dumb and seems to have an affinity with nature. Can they, between them, bring Enoch's carefully built existence crashing down around his ears?

This excellent vintage sci-fi story - it was written in 1963 - is very much of its time period. World peace was very much on people's minds after two world wars and the cold war just beginning. The main character, Enoch, is very despondent about the state of the world and expecting another terrible war to happen sooner rather than later. He's even created a sort of chart to note down events and has deduced from it that war is inevitable. From our vantage point in 2017 we know that it didn't happen but I have to say I sympathised with his despondency very strongly. We all know what it feels like to have these thoughts. But this is not a depressing tale. It's a celebration of nature, of our differences, of the fact that despite all there are plenty of people working to stop war happening. The place where this story was set, by the Mississippi in Wisconsin, was familiar to me as I'd just seen it in one of Michael Portillo's railway documentaries. So I could picture it perfectly and knew how beautiful it was there. I do love these vintage sci-fi stories, I read a lot of them back in the 60s but access to them, apart from the library and one bookshop in Penzance, was difficult. No ordering from other libraries in the county in those days and I couldn't really afford to buy books. It's fun to catch up on some of the ones I didn't know about now that access is so much easier. I have to say, I really enjoyed this one... my book five for Bev's Mount TBR 2017 reading challenge.


Next, The Lost Girls by Heather Young.

It's the summer of 1935 and the Evans family are at their summer home by a lake in Minnesota. The family are the mother and father and three daughters, Lilith 13, Lucy 11 and Emily aged 6. The happenings of that summer are recorded by Lucy, now very elderly and with not long to live. It was the summer that Lilith grew away from her and joined the other teens in the area, leaving Lucy at a loose end. And it was the summer that Lucy's six year old sister, Emily, disappeared and was never found.

Justine lives in modern day California with her two daughters and her new partner, Patrick. Patrick is seemingly the perfect man but something about his clinginess worries Justine. When she learns that her Great Aunt Lucy (Justine's grandmother was Lucy's sister, Lilith) has left her the house by the lake she decides to uproot herself and the girls and go there to live, without telling Patrick where she's gone. The change from sunny California to freezing Minnesota is dramatic and no one is very happy. There are still people at the lake who remember the tragic events of the summer of 1935. The house is so full of memories it feels haunted somehow and Justine finds she can't stay there during the day. And she can't help but wonder... what did happen to the missing sister, Emily?

Fabulous, just fabulous. This is a debut novel I gather... you'd never know it. It's so beautifully written with a really intense sense of time and place and a very lovely lyrical feel to the writing. The story is written with one chapter for Lucy, one for Justine and then Lucy again and so on. Lucy's chapters are written in the first person because she's writing the journal, Justine's in the third. It works so well and sucks you in immediately. I won't say this is a happy tale because it's not. There's lot of sadness and difficulty for the characters and towards the end some of it is quite hard to read. There's also a bit of frustration... one character got away lightly in my opinion. But that's life, there are no simple answers. This is very much a 'family secrets' sort of book and I know a lot of people enjoy that sort of thing... if you do then I can thoroughly recommend this one.


Lastly, Jacquot and the Fifteen by Martin O'Brien.

Chief Inspector Daniel Jacquot of the French police once played rugby for France. For ten minutes at the end of a game he was brought on as the reserve and scored the try that won France the match against England. He doesn't really think that merits him an invitation to the reunion party for that particular team but he gets one regardless and decides to go to the weekend do with his new girlfriend, Claudine. It's being held on the Cote D'azur at the luxury home of the team's then skipper, now a billionaire businessman. Unfortunately, three members of the team have recently died so of course are not there. When another member of the team supposedly commits suicide the morning after the party, Daniel's suspicions are aroused. It doesn't look like suicide to him but no one seems interested and he finds he's on his own in his quest to find a murderer who may be killing off members of the one time French rugby team. But why? What on Earth would anyone have to gain by this?

This is the third Jacquot book I've read and am happy to report that this was equally as good as the first two... possibly even the best of the three. Which is quite surprising really as there's a bit of a rugby thing going on in it, something which I know very little about. It didn't matter in the slightest as the main focus is on who's killing various members of Jacquot's team. I gobbled the book up in about a day, which is quick for me, but it was quite hard to put down. This is partly because the plot was so fast paced but also Martin O'Brien writes really well. (He's one of a small band of British male crime writers that I've recently come to admire including Peter May, Martin Edwards and Mark Douglas-Home.) I must also add that he makes the Cote D'azur sound utterly gorgeous... all that fabulous coastal scenery and inland with the hills and wonderful houses, gorgeous views. This book really took my mind off my rotten cold and I'm so grateful for that and also very glad that I still have six Jacquot books left to read.

~~~oOo~~~

Monday, 13 February 2017

A Life in Questions

A quickish sort of review today... mainly because, while I enjoy them very much, I always find biographical, memoir type books hard to review.

Anyway, A Life in Questions by Jeremy Paxman.


Jeremy Paxman, or 'Paxo' as he's more commonly referred to here, is a household name in the UK. Not only is he famous for his rather forthright interviewing of famous politicians but he's also the question master on University Challenge, a quiz show for students which is immensely popular. Add to that quite a few excellent TV documentary series on subjects such as the Victorians and their art, World War One, The EU, The British Empire (I can recommend all of these) and you have a long and varied career.

Firstly, the author's childhood is charted at - what he refers to - as a minor public school, Malvern College, then his years at St. Catharine's college, Cambridge and thus onto his first job at the BBC in 1972. He worked in Northern Ireland during The Troubles... in fact he was all over the world in various trouble spots such as The Middle East and The Balkans, until he finally decided enough was enough and went on to do various news presenting jobs... landing a position on Newsnight in 1989.

This book made for very interesting and entertaining reading. Paxman is hugely self-deprecating throughout, laughing at himself and admitting that much of his success is down to being in the right place at the right time. I've watched, probably, every one of his documentaries and read four or five of his highly entertaining books (I particularly recommend, On Royalty, The Political Animal and The English). So I suppose you could call me a bit of a fan. I like not only his irreverant writing style but also his irreverent attitude to the powers that be and people in high places who proclaim themselves to be better than the hoi polloi and then turn out not to be. I also like his intelligence and the fact that he's a very keen reader.

A Life in Questions is written in a very readable, but intelligent way. Paxman makes his readers laugh with his way with words and sense of humour and I'm a real sucker for that. This is, necessarily, quite an opinionated book. I don't always agree with him but he always states his case clearly and concisely and always make me think... which for me is one of the reasons I like reading this kind of thing. It's also quite fascinating to hear behind the scenes anecdotes about his experiences with some of the people he's met or worked with. Some he has a lot of respect for, others not so much. I'm still wondering who 'the news bunny' is. And Sylvia Nailvarnish...

Now of course I want to read the couple of books I have of his which I've not yet read, The Victorians and Empire both based on documentaries I've watched. I also need to get his book on World War One. Highly recommend this one to anyone interested in the lives of political journalists... I realise there probably aren't that many of us. LOL!

~~~oOo~~~

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Signature of All Things

My Goodreads bookshelf tells me that I first saw The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert on that site in October of 2013. I added it as a 'Want to read' and here I am in 2017 finally getting around to it. Good job no one was holding their breath.




Alma Whittaker was born to her parents, Henry and Beatrix, in Philadelphia in the year 1800. Henry was a self made man from London, who made a large fortune collecting plants around the world, Beatrix an educated, no nonsense Dutch woman from a family of botanists in Amsterdam. Alma's was a strange upbringing, she was bright and encouraged to be self-educated by using the huge library in the house. There wasn't a lot of love around although she adored her father, but her mother was quite distance and strict. Alma had no friends of her own age whatsoever. The girl took refuge in a love of plants and of learning.

At the age of nine, Alma's life changed when her parents adopted Prudence, the daughter of one of the estate workers. Where Alma was considered a very plain child by her parents, Prudence was beautiful beyond measure. Thrown together, the two girls did not fight or even argue but they were so different, Alma open and spontaneous, Prudence very reserved, that they could find no point of reference and were never close.

It was a strange and unconventional household to grow up in. The girls were never treated as children and encouraged to take part in dinner time discussions with important and educated visitors. Education was everything. Alma revels in this and grows intellectually year by year. In their teenage years the girls gain a friend, Retta, who lives nearby and is everything they are not... a normal girl of the time, interested in clothes and gossip. Alma falls in love with a publisher friend of her father's but nothing works out as it's supposed to and eventually, she finds herself living alone with her father. Luckily, Alma still has her interest in botany and decides on a specialist field of interest within that subject. Then the publisher friend of her father brings her some wonderful paintings he's been sent by a botanist of rare talent. After that, life for Alma is never the same again.

Opinions on The Signature of All Things seems to be split right down the middle... going by Goodreads anyway. People seem to either love it or hate it... the haters finding it rambling and boring. Admittedly, it is almost 600 pages and it does ramble a bit. Normally I'm not a huge fan of that but just occasionally I find it works for me and this is one of those times.

For me, the book reads a bit like a biography of a fascinating person, albeit a fictional one. The author has created a main character in Alma who is flawed just like all of us, but like all of us she's just trying to do her best. No one told you anything about anything in those days and girls especially were kept ignorant and thus were permanently confused. She might have been born into a rich family but things are not easy for her, especially emotionally. She suffers from being tall and well built and not traditionally pretty. Luckily, she has a good brain and the opportunity to use it.

For the first two thirds of the book, Alma's existence is mostly confined to the mansion in Philadelphia. This might seem like a very restricted story and in some ways it is, but for me it only intensified the tale somehow. Alma is such a fascinating person and the people around her so interesting that I was never bored. Her studies, her books, her discoveries, all are delightful to read about.

When the action moves to Tahiti after Alma's father dies it almost becomes a different book. She's there on a quest and has a huge adjustment to make; in a tiny village in Tahiti your wealth is pretty much irrelevant. And anyway all her belongings are stolen the minute she arrives so she's suddenly learning how to look after herself for the first time in her life. I massively enjoyed this section of the book.

The scope of this novel is wide ranging. The Theory of Evolution looms large as Alma approaches her sixties and there's much discussion of how this affects mainstream religious beliefs. This is not a religious book but religion was such a large part of people's lives in the 19th. century that it's an integral part of the story and rightly so. Sexuality is unflinchingly dealt with too so if this is not your bag be warned... there is some explicitness.

For me this is a difficult book to do justice to. All I can really say is how much I loved and enjoyed it and mourned when it ended. Like I said, it really is not everyone's cup of tea, but I had a feeling it was the kind of thing I might enjoy when I was in the right mood, and so it turned out to be. I'm so glad I gave it the time and effort it deserved.

~~~oOo~~~

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Books read In January

I feel like I've spent the entire month hibernating in front of a the fire... reading. After an autumn where I just didn't feel like reading very much I've more than made up for it by reading eight books through January. For some that may not be all that many, but for me that's a *lot*. Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way. My husband was due to have knee surgery at the beginning of the month but because his long term blood sugar was too high it was postponed while he works on getting it down. No idea when it will now happen but my guess is, not until well into Spring. Several very nice book blogging friends emailed to ask how he was and I thank them for that.

Anyhoo, books. This is what I read in January:

1. The Willows - Algernon Blackwood. A weird story which I read about in The Fellowship of Ghosts by Paul Watkins. I found the novella on the net and downloaded it to my Kindle. I enjoyed the sense of place, ie. an area on the River Danube, and the idea that a place can be so close to another dimension or world that the border is very thin and things might cross over. But I also found it rather too rambling and overly descriptive. My mind kept wandering to be honest.

2. Jacquot and the Master - Martin O'Brien

3. Blood Will Tell - Dana Stabenow

4. Kick: The True Story of JFK's Forgotten Sister - Paula Byrne

5. The Haunted Library - edited by Tanya Kirk

6. Maigret in New York - Georges Simenon

7. The Lewis Man - Peter May

8. Bill Oddie Unplucked - Bill Oddie. A household name in the UK, Bill Oddie was a TV presenter of wildlife programmes until a few years ago when ill health intervened. The book contains fifty of his essays, magazine articles and blog entries. They're mainly connected with his love of birds, recounting trips to farflung places to film for the TV, personal birding trips, describing his wildlife friendly garden and so on. All are entertaining as well as funny but also often make a serious point concerning the subject in hand. I enjoyed this very much. Bill always makes me think, sometimes making me form an opinion on things I've never given much thought to. I like his forthrightness even when his opinion may not be a popular one. A great pity he's not on TV very much now. This is my book 4 for Bev's Mount TBR 2017.


So, an excellent reading month and a varied one as well. Six fiction books, two non-fiction, all good reads. I'm still majoring on crime stories it seems, four of those read this month, plus two ghost stories. Of the two non-fiction one was biographical the other essays. I think that's a pretty varied crop of books and I'm quite happy with that.

Quite hard to pick a favourite as I really did enjoy the crime yarns, particularly The Lewis Man and Jacquot and the Master, but really my favourite book for January was this:



Kick: The True Story of JFK's Forgotten Sister by Paula Byrne. This was just so readable and interesting... loved it to bits.

~~~oOo~~~

Friday, 27 January 2017

Two crime titles

A couple of crime titles to review today.

First up, Maigret in New York by Georges Simenon.

Maigret is now retired and living the quiet life in the country. His rural idyll is interupted one morning when a young man, Jean Maura, comes to call. He is French but his father lives in New York having moved there as a twenty year old. Just recently Jean's been getting letters from him that have given him cause for concern. He wants Maigret to take the boat to New York with him to help discover if his father is in some kind of trouble. It's the last thing the retired police inspector wants to do but eventually he is persuaded. Immediately the ship docks Jean Maura disappears. Maigret is now in America, speaking very little English and with no clear idea of where to begin to solve this mystery. But is there a mystery at all? The father is being very cagey and unconcerned. And if there is a mystery, has Maigret any business interfering where he has no jurisdiction?

This is #27 of the Maigret books, written in 1946 according to Goodreads. I was surprised to find him retired in it because there are loads more books after 1946 so I can only assume the timelines skip around a bit or he comes out of retirement as I remember Hercule Poirot did. Odd. Anyway, I enjoyed Maigret's expedition to New York very much. His culture shock was severe, partly because of the language barrier, but mainly to do with the idea of personal freedom that pervades the American way of life: the French are much more into officialdom, form filling and so on. Poor Maigret found it hard to cope. I did get a bit confused about who was who and who'd done what to whom and when, but got it sorted in the end. Not bad but think I prefer the earlier Maigret outings for atmosphere. And as to ITV's new productions of Maigret, starring Rowan Atkinson, I enjoyed them but am not really sure he suits the part. Suspect he will grow on me.

Next, The Lewis Man by Peter May.

Fin McLeod is back on the island of Lewis after divorcing his wife and giving up his job with the Edinburgh police. He has nowhere to live so is outdoors in a tent. A body has been found in a peatbog and at first it's thought to be thousands of years old, until a tattoo of Elvis is discovered on one of its arms. This is now a murder enquiry. Fin becomes involved when DNA reveals that the murdered young man is related to the father of Marsaili, his girlfriend when he was a teenager, and mother of his son. Marsaili's father, Tormod, has always professed to have been an only child with no living relatives. The problem is that he is now in the throws of dementia and answers to questions can't be relied upon. How on Earth can the truth be got at after all these years?

Well, this was quite an enthralling tale. It was a slow burner, gradually working up to being quite fascinating by about halfway when family history really starts to become the important aspect of the story. There are two parallel timelines going on, the events of the modern day dealing with Fin's investigations and personal problems, and that of sixty years ago told by Tormod in the first person. It sounds confusing but is not at all and works extremely well. The whole thing is compelling, it was a book I kept wanting to pick up read more of to find out what happened, but not just what happened... 'who' exactly people were. To be honest, as a whole, it was rather a sad tale so don't pick this up looking for cheerful story because you won't find it. What you will find is a beautifully written book with a wonderful sense of place in the island of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. There are some gorgeously descriptive passages that transport you right there, in all weathers... good, bad and downright diabolical. This is book two in May's 'Lewis' trilogy, the first book being The Black House which I read in 2013. I hope to read the final instalment, The Chessmen, later this year.

The Lewis Man is my first book for Peggy's Read Scotland 2017 reading challenge and my book three for Bev's Mount TBR 2017.

~~~oOo~~~

Thursday, 26 January 2017

European Reading Challenge 2016 wrap up post





The European Reading Challenge 2016 ends officially on the 31st. January. I signed up for the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE) category which was to:

Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

I did read five books and these are they:


GREECE - Greece On My Wheels - Edward Enfield

ITALY - Pompeii - Robert Harris

SCOTLAND - Findings - Kathleen Jamie

FRANCE - Jacquot and the Waterman - Martin O'Brien

NORWAY - The Fellowship of Ghosts - Paul Watkins

Very pleased to have completed this fun challenge and many thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting.

~~~oOo~~~