Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Read Scotland 2017

As always around this time of year I've been thinking about which reading challenges to do next year. I'd already decided not to do too many as I've been finding it rather confining... I like to be free to read what I fancy rather than having to read for a challenge all the time. I think I've managed to strike a happy medium by keeping the amount of challenges to three. This year I may even cut that back to two, not sure at the moment. The beginning of next year is going to be difficult as my husband's second knee replacement surgery is happening on the 10th. January, so I know from experience that books will not be a priory for at least three or four weeks after that. We'll see how things pan out.

Anyway, one challenge that I have decided to do again, after a gap of a couple of years, is Peggy's Read Scotland 2017. I enjoyed this one when I did it before, plus I do have quite a lot of books about Scotland and by Scottish authors on my TBR pile.

Peggy has a Goodreads group going for the challenge, here. All the info about the various levels of participation is there. I've decided to go for 'The Highlander' which is to read 6 to 10 books between the 1st. January and the 31st. December 2017.

My Goodreads shelf for Scotland is here and I'm hoping to get some of the unread ones off my TBR mountain. Books read can be read for other challenges as well.

Looking forward to taking part and thanks to Peggy for hosting.


Friday, 2 December 2016

The Singing Sands

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is my book 22 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 and my 11th. book for her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavanger Hunt covering the category, A Body of Water.

Detective Inspector Alan Grant has been suffering from bad attacks of claustrophobia, so much so that he's been given a leave of absence. He heads to Scotland to stay with his cousin and her family for a few weeks. As the train pulls in to his destination he passes a compartment where the dead body of a young man is just being discovered. Alan inadvertantly picks up a newspaper belonging to the dead man and later discovers a poem he had started in the margins. Intrigued, Alan can't help himself, he has to find out more about who the young man was.

The death is declared an accident, the man had fallen while drunk and hit his head. He was one, Charles Martin, and apparently French. For some inexplicable reason, Alan Grant doesn't believe a word of it. He's supposed to be recovering from an illness, taking it easy, fishing, relaxing, but he can't. Something is just not right about this incident. The trail leads him to an island in The Hebrides to find 'the singing sands' in the poem written by a dead man and thus on to a discovery he could never have imagined in his wildest dreams.

I'm so sorry that this is the last Alan Grant book - I've loved them all, although my favourite was The Franchise Affair. The Singing Sands had a wonderful sense of place, the Highlands of Scotland, absolutely one of my favourite 'places' of all. Alan Grant on holiday was a joy. I loved his cousin, Laura, and her husband, and son, Pat... with his Scottish accent that no one can understand, hero worshipping Alan. Delightful. Poor Alan though is suffering from a bad dose of claustophobia and this is very well depicted. He suffers agonies on the train journey for instance as he forces himself not to open his carriage door during the night. Car journeys are a particular trial and one scene where he has to force himself not to ask the driver to stop and let him out is particularly affective and well written.

The thing that made this story for me though was the investigation. It was fascinating to follow Alan as he made painstaking progress with his inquiries, never giving up even though many of them led nowhere. This is not a hard-hitting, serial killer sort of a crime yarn, it's a gentle, intellectual exercise as one clue after another is followed up and either discounted or added to the stockpile of information. Where it all eventually led was completely unexpected... not the kind of thing I've ever seen in a crime story before. Huge fun.

As I said, it's a shame this is the last Alan Grant book. Josephine Tey only wrote six in the series, this last one published the year of her death in 1952, she was only 56. I still have a stand alone, Brat Farrar, to read and a couple of others that I don't own. What a class act she was as a writer, one of my favourites now, several of her books I will definitely reread.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Catching up

Yet again another busy month with family committments, so very little reading done. Just two books so far this month, neither of which I've managed to review so will do a couple of mini reviews to catch up. First, Holy Island by L.J. Ross.

DCI Ryan is on three month's sabbatical on Holy Island (Lindisfarne) after a particularly nasty case. He has almost recovered when the body of a young woman is discovered in the ruins of The Priory by a woman walking her dog. Ryan is called upon to help secure the crime scene and, eventually, put on the case. Dr Anna Taylor, who is originally from the island, is brought in as a consultant on pagan rituals as it seems the dead girl has been killed and laid out in a ritualistic manner. She instantly clashes with Ryan, and not helping is the amount of baggage she's carrying in respect of her personal family history on the island. Ryan does not want Anna on the case but when another body is discovered, also ritually killed, it seems he might not have a choice in the matter.

Well, I enjoyed this well enough... liked it, didn't love it, not sure why, sort of thing. The writing is certainly good enough, the sense of place is quite strong - even though I haven't been to Lindisfarne I felt as though I had. I think what didn't work for me was the romance between Ryan and Anna. Ordinarily I've no objection at all to romantic entanglements in whatever I read but this felt a bit contrived, very Mills and Boon, and thus unrealistic because people don't go on that way any more. And yes, I have read my fair share of Mills and Boon books in years gone by, especially Regency romances. But sticking that sort of confrontational relationship into a serious murder investigation just didn't work for me somehow. Shame, but there you go. I also found other elements of the story far-fetched but can't go into that as it would involve spoilers. I have say though that the crime element was well done, kept me reading to the end, and I didn't guess the outcome, so that is definitely a plus. There are four or five in this series and I gather they're quite popular. I don't think they're for me but they do well on Goodreads and are not dear if you have a Kindle, so for some they might be worth a try.

Next, a non-fiction book, Making It Up As I Go Along: Notes from a small woman by Marion Keyes.

Marion Keyes is a well known author of contemporary fiction with about twenty books under her belt. As well as fiction she writes columns for magazines and this collection of essays is mostly taken from those, interspersed with some previously unpublished material. The essays are divided into various sections, so we have (Bad) Health and Beauty, On My Travels, Marian Meets, Soul Searching and so on. What shines through is Marian's sense of humour. I've seen her on the Friday Panel on Strictly Come Dancing's 'It Takes Two', so I know she has the most wonderful Irish brogue and is naturally very funny. I was saddened to hear that she suffers so much with mental health issues, but not surprised as you often find that people who're funny and seem confident are, in reality, just the opposite. Some sections appealed to me more than others. I'm not a girly, make-up sort of a person so the Heath and Beauty section was less interesting to me than say, On My Travels. In that section she travels all over the world so that would appeal to me, a real armchair travel fiend. Her diary of her time in Antarctica was, for me, some of the best writing in the book, really fascinating. It's very easy to identify with a lot of what Marion writes about, a dislike of parties, going mad on Twitter (I don't do it these days but have in the past), crushes on celebrities (she's famously mad about Pasha on Strictly Come Dancing but there are many others) and so on. And even when you don't identify, the subject is always interesting to read about and always amusing. I can't recommend this book of essays highly enough. I nabbed mine in Morrisons for £4... the best £4 I've spent in ages. It reminded me of another simlilar volume, The Chain of Curiosity by Sandi Toksvig. If you like essays, buy that and Marian Keye's book, you won't be disappointed.


Monday, 31 October 2016

Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics - Ed Balls

I haven't been reading all that much this month... I have months like this sometimes where nothing I pick up seems to engage me and I'm distracted by other things. We had a lovely visitor from Memphis staying for instance and the half-term week, just gone, was *really* busy. So it turns out that here we are at the end of October and all I've read is two books! And reviewed none. Goodness me, I'd better put that right, so this is Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics by Ed Balls.

I don't know how well known Ed Balls is in the wider world but here in the UK he's a household name. For many years he was in politics, first as a political advisor and then as an MP himself for ten years. He was in the Labour cabinet as Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and then served as Shadow Chancellor from 2010 to 2015 when he lost his marginal seat in that year's general election.

I have to confess here that I was not much of a fan until recently. He came over in political interviews as rather too convinced that he was right and anyone thinking differently was wrong. But then politicians as a breed often do come over that way, hardly any of them wanting to listen to an opposite point of view, or answering the question put to them, not realising that the electorate would actually quite like to see them doing those things. So what changed my opinion of him? Well, two things did the deed - this book and the BBC TV series, Strictly Come Dancing.

Let's deal with the book first. It's written as a series of essays to his younger 27 year old self. Things he knows now which he wishes he knew then, sort of thing (which of us wouldn't like that?) The book is written in four sections: Learning who you are, Learning what works, Learning the hard way, Learning to move on. Each of these four parts is divided into chapter headings such as Loyalty, Family, Markets, Risks, Spin, Hinterland, Future and so on. So into these chapters is slotted everything you can think of, some family history, political goings on from his early days as a political advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, his time as an MP... right up to the Labour party defeat in 2015, and loads of opinions, interesting anecdotes and so on.

If I'm honest I found the nitty-gritty of his political years with Blair and Brown slightly less interesting than some of the personal stuff. Where the personal stuff was concerned I discovered that he is extremely protective of his family, especially his children, because in his opinion they did not decide to be in the public eye. All power to his elbow for that, in my opinion anyway. I also discovered that he has a stammer. Not the kind of stuttering stammer that's obvious, the kind where you can't get your words out, an 'internal' stammer. For someone who had to make speeches and give interviews that must've been horrendous and I gather at times 'was'. I had no idea he played piano, ran marathons for a charity called Whizz Kidz, enjoyed karaoke (Lord help us), loves reading. I *did* know about the football but am not sure how. You just wonder why it is that politicians hide behind some kind of barrier, not wanting the electorate to know they have another, more interesting, side to them? It's a real shame actually because this is one fascinating chap.

Some while ago I read a comment by the then Political Editor of the BBC, Nick Robinson. He said he thought that at some stage the public would have a complete reversal of opinion on Ed Balls. That they would come to see him in a different light as we now do Michael Portillo, for instance, who was also reviled as a politician but is now loved as a total railway geek in his excellent BBC railway programmes. I wonder if Nick Robinson had any idea that this reversal would come about as a result of the biggest show on British TV, Strictly Come Dancing? I bet if someone had suggested it he would laughed them out of the room. But it is so. Bonkers as it might seem, it is actually so. Millions are now watching Ed Balls, not speechifying at the dispatch box, but learning to dance with his pro partner, Katya Jones. I'll tell you it is electrifying. He's not by any means the best dancer, but nobody gives a damn because he's clearly loving it, trying and working very hard, and is by far the most entertaining celebrity in Strictly this year. His first dance, the waltz, was ok, not amazing but ok. Then he comes out in week two and does this:

He totally won me over with that and, despite all predictions to the contrary, is still in it and getting better by the week. It's joyous and I love it and so, apparently, do plenty of others who are voting in their thousands to keep him in the show. I actually hope he'll get to the final.

Anyway. I'll stop pontificating and just say that if you enjoy political books or are just interested in the current phenomenon that is Ed Balls, get this book and read it. You won't regret it.


Friday, 30 September 2016

Books read in September

October begins tomorrow and autumn is well and truly with us. My garden has these in abundance:

Although I'm only happy with the creatures that make these staying outside thank you very much.

In other news my reading has been quite good this month, six books read and these are they:

46. Poirot and Me - David Suchet

47. Carved in Bone - Jefferson Bass

48. The Labours of Hercules - Agatha Christie

49. Sight Unseen - Robert Goddard

50. The Old Ways - Robert MacFarlane

51. A Shadow on the Wall - Jonathan Aycliffe

All of these were enjoyable reads. None of them were standout 'wonderful' but if pushed I would choose this as my favourite:

I liked the settings, the mystery and the addition of historical detail. Will definitely read more books by Robert Goddard.

Onwards now into October, one of my favourite, if not 'the' favourite, months.


Sunday, 25 September 2016

Catching up

Catching up with a few quick reviews today, books I enjoyed but didn't really want to do a full post on.

First up, Poirot and Me by David Suchet.

Because I've been reading a few Agatha Christies recently I grabbed this when I saw it on the shelf in the library. It was a light read, probably only of interest to real Poirot afficionados, which I'm probably not although I have enjoyed the Poirot books I've read and of course love David Suchet in the role. The book covers his entire experience from being cast, right through to his last performance. In fact it starts out with him playing Poirot in the episode where he dies... although that was not in fact the last time he played him. I enjoyed all the ups and downs he experienced, although if you believe what you read about actors 'ups and downs' are their lives, but in the end it did become a bit repetive. How he almost never knew if there would be another series made for instance so found it hard to plan for future roles, although this must be an awkward thing, when you've read it ten times you start to roll your eyes a bit. All in all, Mr. Suchet comes over as a lovely man, if a trifle pedantic (he freely admits to having more than a passing resemblance to Poirot), and this was a good bedtime read for me.

Next, The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane.

My problem here is that I've been reading this for months and months and that which I read at the beginning has been Lost in The Mists of Time. So, I'm going to nick part of the synopsis Goodreads has supplied:

Told in Macfarlane's distinctive voice, The Old Ways folds together natural history, cartography, geology, archaeology and literature. His walks take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. Along the way he crosses paths with walkers of many kinds — wanderers, pilgrims, guides, and artists. Above all this is a book about walking as a journey inward and the subtle ways we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Macfarlane discovers that paths offer not just a means of traversing space, but of feeling, knowing, and thinking.

It was a delightful book. Macfarlanes's style of writing is magical, introspective, informative... very engaging. On balance, I didn't think this was quite as good as Mountains of the Mind but this is possibly because I took so long to read it, perhaps it made it feel a bit interminable. Note to self: read these non-fictions a bit more quickly! The Old Ways was my book 21 for Bev's Mount TBR 2016 challenge.

Lastly, A Shadow on the Wall by Jonathan Aycliffe.

The Rector of Thornham St. Stephen, in Norfolk, Edward Atherton, has died in mysterious circumstances after opening the tomb of the 14th century Abbot of Thornham. His brother, Matthew, approaches unversity don, Richard Asquith, to help him discover more about his brother's death. Asquith has a bit of a reputation for investigating the supernatural. It's not long of course before all kinds of rum doings are unearthed, literally, and things go really badly for everyone involved... or even not involved. I did enjoy this M.R. James style gothic novel. The writing is not of James' quality, but then you wouldn't expect that, it is very readable and after a slow start becomes very creepy indeed. I like the way it meanders all over the place, even venturing to the French Pyrennees at one stage. It is supposed to be a Victorian yarn and that didn't always come over, but that's a common fault with modern authors who set stories in Victorian times and it didn't over bother me. This gothicky style of creepy story is my thing I suppose, and there are *loads* of them in various supernatural anthologies and I would encourage anyone to seek them out. Some of those written by quite obscure authors from the early part of the 20th. century are absolutely 'terrific'... especially female writers. Virago did a couple of superb anthologies which I can't recommend highly enough. This was my 3rd. book for Carl's R.I.P. XI challenge.


Monday, 19 September 2016

Sight Unseen

My second book for Carl's R.I.P XI challenge is Sight Unseen by Robert Goddard.

In his forties and existing aimlessly in Prague, David Umber is approached by the retired police inspector who investigated a crime he witnessed as a student back in 1981. It took place at Avebury among the very famous stone circle there. A girl working as a nanny took her eye off the youngest of the three children for a moment and the child, a two year old girl, Tamsin Hall, was snatched. In the ensuing panic her older sister stepped out in front of the van in order to stop it taking her sister away and was knocked over and killed. Tamsin has never been seen since and is presumed dead by all.

The police officer, Sharp, is convinced that he didn't investigate as well as he might have and now wants to put things right. A feeling exacerbated by an anonymous letter he's received. He persuades David to accompany him back to England and help him reopen the investigation. David was in Avebury at the time to meet a man called Griffin who wanted to show him a book of letters by Junius, an 18th. century anonymous writer of venomous letters about royalty and politicians. Junius was David's Ph.D subject and he had done much research into his identity. The man, Griffin, had failed to turn up in 1981 but in all the chaos and confusion no one had tried to find out why.

Back in England, Umber travels into Wiltshire, with Sharp, to the scene of the crime. The parents of the children have divorced, the mother and her new family still live locally, the father has moved to Jersey with his surviving son. Unsurprisingly they do not welcome being made to relive the whole horrifying experience over again, particularly as a sex offender in prison has confessed to kidnapping and murdering young Tamsin Hall. Then the sex offender is murdered himself and Sharp and Umber realise they have touched a nerve somewhere. What they don't realise is how much danger they will be putting themselves into by dragging up the past.

Well... this is my first book by Robert Goddard. I've had the author recommended to me on several occasions, just not got aroud to him, which is a shame because this book was an excellent read. It's one of his more recent ones, written in 2005 I believe, which means there is quite an extensive back catalogue and a few books written since that as well. A good list is here on Fantastic Fiction: Robert Goddard's books. Judging by Sight Unseen, I suspect there are some excellent books among those titles.

The thing I liked about this one was how it wove two mystery storylines into one so seamlessly. Ie. the case of the missing child and who took her and the historical thread of who the 18th. century letter writer, Junius, was. He really did exist by the way. All the way through you're not only trying to work out who took the child, why was she taken, and was she dead... but you're also wondering what the connection is to Umber's studies of Junius. It's a fast moving plot so you need to keep your wits about you, a lot of characters to keep in your head as well: it can be a bit confusing. But the settings of Avebury and Jersey are interesting and well depicted, especially Avebury and the stone circle. He had the atmosphere there spot on.

There were two things that stopped me giving it a five on Goodreads... which I fully intended to do until about two thirds of the way through when it began to run out steam a bit, for me anyway. Perhaps it was me running out of steam, not the plot, but it seemed to lose its momentum a little. The other thing was that I never really felt I knew David Umber very well or perhaps I didn't really like him all that much, I'm not sure. I read somewhere that this can be a problem with Goddard's main characters. In the main though a fast moving plot, lots of twists and turns and some interesting historical detail made this a very good read.