Saturday, 28 November 2009

Late butterfly

The 28th. November, quite chilly, probably one of the chilliest days of the autumn so far (5C first thing - about 40f) and this lovely specimen (a Red Admiral I *think*) was sunning him or herself on the laurel a few minutes ago:

Better late than never I suppose!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Terry Pratchett 2010 challenge

Well, here's my second challenge for 2010. I ummed and ahhhed over it for a little while, mainly because I was trying to avoid taking on too many challenges for next year but, well, a Terry Pratchett challenge is a bit of a no-brainer for me. Every year I read something by him - this year it was his Bromeliad trilogy - and I still have quite a few of his books that I haven't read. Doing this challenge will get me caught up a bit. See how easily I talk myself into these things???

Anyway, this challenge is being run by Marg at Reading Adventures and her challenge post is here.

I love that button to bits!

The challenge runs from the 1st. Dec. 2009 to the 30th. Nov. 2010. There are several different levels of participation and I'm going for:

6-8 books - Academic at the Unseen University

You can either be reading the books for the first time, rereading, or even watching the TV adaptations if you like! As long as everyone has fun I will be happy! Please also do not feel limited to only reading the Discworld books as any books by Terry Pratchett will count for this challenge.

I don't think a list is required but a few Pratchett books I'd like to read include:

Night Watch (21st. Dec.)
The Colour of Magic
The Light Fantastic
Soul Music
Making Money
Unseen Academicals
The Last Hero
The Last Continent

And a reread of Carpe Jugulum would be nice, perhaps double it up for the R.I.P. challenge in the autumn. And I would also love to reread Good Omens.

Thanks to Marg for hosting this one, I'm looking forward to getting started.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A Gathering Light

I read about A Gathering Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, on Susan's blog... here at Bloggin' 'Bout Books, several weeks ago. I liked the sound of it so much I reserved it from the library and am so pleased I did. By the way, the American and original title of this book is A Northern Light. I can't think why they changed it for UK readers, perhaps it was thought that we might not understand concept of 'northern'...

It's 1906 and seventeen year old, Mattie Govey, lives on a small farm in the northern woods, in New York State. Mattie's abiding passion is books and she is desperate to go to college and, eventually, become a writer. How unlikely a dream this is quickly becomes evident as we hear about her life. She lives with her widowed father and three sisters, her elder brother, Lawton, having recently run away after a row with his father. They are a poor family and life is hard. Day to day living for Mattie is a constant round of chores, cooking and looking after the family; inbetween that she manages to fit in her school life which she loves more than anything. Words are her passion and she has a game in which she chooses a 'word of the day' and her, and her friend, Weaver, the only black teenager for miles around who also wants to go to college to be a lawyer, think of as many meanings for the word as they can, throughout the day.

The narrative, told in the first person, skips around over the space of some months, so we first meet Mattie in the present when she's working for a local hotel, waiting tables and skivvying in the kitchen. A body has been found in the lake and it's one of the hotel guests, a young woman, Grace Brown. She had been staying there with a young man, her fiance, Carl Grahm. But Mattie knows that that's not his real name because Grace had given Mattie some letters and asked her to burn them. Mattie had tried but not managed to do it and when the body turns up she eventually reads the letters instead. What is revealed shocks her into considering what her life has been and will become. Mattie is presently engaged to Royal Loomis, a blonde haired, good looking boy whose people own a neighbouring farm. Why is he so interested in a plain, bookish girl like Mattie? Especially as he has no interest in books himself and is scathing of her passion for them. Mattie looks back over events of previous months and draws parallels between her life and Grace's. Her head tells her she will never make it to college and even if it were possible she would still have to make the choice that most female writers of the previous century, and this, have been faced with - that of having a husband and children or having a career in writing. It seems to her that it's not possible for a woman to have both.

Well, this rather special book won the Carnegie medal for 2004 and I'm not even remotely surprised. You could describe this as a feminist book and that would be correct: it most certainly is. You're not beaten over the head with it precisely but woven into the story are straightforward facts about the lives of women at the beginning of the 20th. century. Their limited choices, sexual lives (not explicit but very matter of fact), continual child bearing, daily drudgery and so on. Even if you were well off and intelligent things were not that much better, men still had the upper hand and most women had, basically, to do what they were told or what was expected of them by society. It sounds depressing and, for us looking back, it is. But the book is not depressing as a whole, there is plenty of humour and Mattie herself is an absolute joy. Her personality jumps off the page at you and you can't help but grieve for her situation and lack of prospects while at the same time loving her zest for life.

There were elements of several of my favourite books in this story. Partly it was a sort of a backwoods version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but also there were shades of The Little House in the Big Woods and Anne of Greengables, albeit rather adult ones. It depends on the teenager of course, but I don't think I would recommend this book for anyone under the age of fifteen or sixteen as some of the themes are quite adult in nature.

All in all, a wonderful read... perfect for anyone doing the feminist challenge that I've seen on a couple of blogs lately. Certainly it'll feature in my top ten list of best reads this year and might even be my book of the year. Yes - it was that good.

Friday, 20 November 2009

I haz owlz!!!

There's nothing like a surprise package to cheer up your day and I got one yesterday. Deslily at Here, There and Everywhere has become quite famous for two things - her wonderful photos of the pond life where she lives *and* her crocheted toys. They're as cute as ninepence and so, imagine my surprise when I opened my surprise parcel and found these two lovelies...

Aren't they wonderful???

And then someone else decided to get in on the act... Chickotay... (yes, I am rather a big Star Trek fan, how did you guess?):

Not to mention The Three Stooges...

Not that I'm a bird person or anything - I wouldn't want you to get that idea...

Anyway, just to instill a *little* sanity into this post, Deslily also sent me a book! The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale is one I've been wanting to read and as Deslily had finished with hers she passed it onto me.

The other two books are two Christmas anthologies that I want to read this Christmas. The Young Oxford Book of Christmas Stories I picked up in a charity shop, some months ago, and am hoping to read some of the stories with my grandaughter. Christmas Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell, I ordered from Waterstones last Christmas. Unfortunately it took so long to come in that Christmas was over before I got it, so I've been saving it for this year. It includes stories by many classic authors such as Dickens, Conan Doyle, Trollope, Tolstoy, Willa Cather and a few slightly more contemporary ones such as Truman Capote, John Updike, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen etc.

Anyway, thanks again, Pat, for my wonderful surprise package. It and the contents put a huge smile on my face and you can rest assured my new owls (I need to think of names now) have lots of company on my book shelves.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Two crime reviews

What with painting decorating the hall, stairs and landing, and various other things going on, my reading has suffered this month. Twelve books last month - I'll be lucky to hit six this. Never mind, it's not about numbers and what I've been reading I've mostly enjoyed. My current read, A Gathering Light (known as A Northern Light in the USA) by Jennifer Donnelly, is worth taking time over anyway as it is *so* good; a sort of mix of Little House in the Big Woods, Anne of Greengables and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with added mystery. I love it. As I'm pushed for time I'll do quick reviews of the two books I've finished over the last couple of weeks.

First up, The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny.

This is the third book in Louise Penny's 'Inspector Gamache' series. It's set, as are the others, in the fictional village of Three Pines which is in the forests of Southern Quebec.

Some of the inhabitants of the village are holding a seance in the local bistro. When nothing much happens someone suggests they hold one in the old Hadley house, on the hill, the scene of murders and traumatic events in previous books. During the second seance a woman dies of fright. Inspector Gamache and his team are called in and it's discovered that the woman had an abnormal amount of ephedra in her system, a herb used in the making of slimming pills. But she was not, and never had been, a slimmer. It seems she was murdered. Added to this investigation, Gamache still has troubles of his own involving his branch of the Canadian police, the Sureté. Several years ago he was closely involved in the bringing down of a rogue policeman and now that officer's friends are out to get Gamache. Someone in his own team is betraying him and he needs to find out who, while at the same time solve the mystery at Three Pines.

This book would have made a perfect read this year's RIP challenge. It was creepy and atmospheric and as good as many actual ghost stories. It's hard to overstate how much I enjoy this series. Louise Penny is such a good writer and has created a detective in Gamache who is likeable, worthy of respect, and clever. The setting too is just perfect. Three Pines, surrounded as it is by the northern forests, sounds like heaven and is inhabited by normal characters with flaws and idiosyncrasies just like the rest of us. Not all are likeable by any means, often acting in a selfish manner or doing things that are questionable. I've also enjoyed the background mystery of Gamache's problems at the Sureté. That was sort of solved in this book, but the reader gets the impression that the problem is actually far from over. Anyway, a superb read, and I already have the next book on my library pile, The Murder Stone.

What was nice is that I went from reading this book to A Gathering Light by Jennifer Donnelly and discovered that it is also set in the northern forests, but instead of the Canadian side, it is set on the New York state side. How odd it is when this happens!

My second book is The Snack Thief and it's by Italian writer, Andrea Camilleri.

I'm cheating with this one and pinching the synopsis from the FantasticFiction site. I don't normally do this but it's several weeks since I read it (before Not so Quiet in fact) and the details have really blurred in my middle-aged brain.

In the third book in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, the urbane and perceptive Sicilian detective exposes a viper's nest of government corruption and international intrigue in a compelling new case. When an elderly man is stabbed to death in an elevator and a crewman on an Italian fishing trawler is machine-gunned by a Tunisian patrol boat off Sicily's coast, only Montalbano suspects the link between the two incidents. His investigation leads to the beautiful Karima, an impoverished housecleaner and sometime prostitute, whose young son steals other schoolchildren's midmorning snacks. But Karima disappears, and the young snack thief's life-as well as Montalbano's-is on the line...

Yes, well, the whole thing got a bit confusing to be honest. What with disappearances, murders and the government intrigue... in end I couldn't remember who was doing what, to whom, and why... My fault, I think, for not paying proper attention. The big problem for me is that I really dislike Camilleri's detective, Inspector Montalbano. He's arrogant, sneaky, selfish, treats his girlfriend like a doormat and, in this book, is jealous of her relationship with the young boy whose mother has disappeared. I wanted to smack him quite frankly (the inspector not the boy).

I feel I've given this series a good go. Three books is not a bad innings and there are too many books I want to read for me to be wasting time on a series I don't really care for.

To be honest, I like the fact that I seem to be finding my niche where crime books are concerned. There are those that I can't seem to get into - the Maisie Dobbs books for instance, these Inspector Montalbano books, Agatha Raisin (not enough depth in the writing for my taste), and I don't think Agatha Christie is going to be my thing either. On the other hand I thoroughly enjoy Martin Edwards, Susan Hill, Barbara Vine, Louise Penny, Peter Lovesey, and a whole clutch of historical crime authors such as C.J Sansom, Laurie R. King, Ariana Franklin, Elizabeth Peters and Anne Perry. I'm not sure what the connection between these authors is but there must be one somewhere. Just something about them that hits the right note I suppose. Each to his (or her) own.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Library challenge wrap-up

For once I seem to have finished a challenge ahead of time. The Support your local library challenge which is being hosted by J Kaye has been running all year and finishes on the 31st. December.

I signed up to read 25 library books and have now, happily, read that number. I'm pretty pleased with my achievement - I thought I could do it but knew it was more library books than I normally read in one year, so was not too blasé about it. Anyway these are the books I read for this challenge:

1. In the Woods - Tana French
2. The Jewel of Seven Stars - Bram Stoker
3. Runemarks- Joanne Harris
4. The Valley of Secrets - Charmian Harris
5. Remember Me? - Sophie Kinsella
6. Larklight - Philip Reeve
7. The Graveyard Book - Neil Gaiman
8. The Sedgemoor Strangler - Peter Lovesey
9. Morrigan's Cross - Nora Roberts
10. The Good Thief - Hannah Tinti
11. Touchstone - Laurie R. King
12. The Circle - Peter Lovesey
13. Last Rituals - Yrsa Sigurdardottir
14. Snow Blind - P.J. Tracy
15. Grey Souls - Philippe Claudel
16. Trains and Buttered Toast - John Betjeman
17. Skulduggery Pleasant - Derek Landy
18. The Terracotta Dog - Andrea Camilleri
19. Endless Night - Agatha Christie
20. Inspector Ghote's First Case - H.R.F. Keating
21. A Christmas Journey - Anne Perry
22. Good Behaviour - Molly Keane
23. Relics - Pip Vaughan-Hughes
24. The Coffin Trail - Martin Edwards
25. No Such Thing as Dragons - Philip Reeve

A fair few of them seem to be crime books, which is odd seeing that I don't really regard myself as a hardened crime fan. Perhaps I'm becoming one. Favourites? Touchstone by Laurie R. King, In the Woods by Tana French, The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. But the majority of them were very good. Many thanks to J. Kaye for hosting.

So that's it for challenges for me for this year. I did sign up to do an Essay challenge but have changed my mind about it and decided not to do it after all. I rather fancy reading at will for the rest of the year.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Not So Quiet

Kailana at The Written World is holding a small unofficial challenge to read books about WW1 and WW2 during the month of November. This is something I usually try to do anyway - read one or two war books in the run up Armistice Day - so this is my first book for that, Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith.

Helen Smith, 'Smithy', is an ambulance driver at the front during the Great War. She's a middle-class 'nice' girl, as are all the ambulance drivers, the powers that be deciding that only nice, middle-class girls are capable of this sort of work. She shares a billet with 'Tosh', the daughter of an earl, The B.F. (her initials but it means the other thing too), Eta Potato (called so because her name is 'Potter'), and Skinny, despised by Tosh for various reasons. The work they do, driving dead and injured men from the front to various field hospitals is indescribably dangerous and harrowing. They work until they drop, with hardly any sleep, atrocious food and flea ridden accomodation. Not only that, they have to put up with the cruel and vicious treatment from the camp commandant, known as The Bitch. It's her idea of fun to victimise any and all of the drivers for no reason whatsoever or for tiny infringements.

As the story moves along we also hear about Smithy's friends and family, both back at home and serving at the front. Her sister, Trix, is working in a field hospital kitchen and also being treated like dirt by the nursing sisters. Smithy's family are all proud that both their girls are 'doing their bit' for the war effort without having any clue what conditions are like in France. It's a serious bone of contention between them and Smithy knows only too well that much of what she's enduring is for her mother to look good amongst her friends and various committees. Giving up and going home is not an option unless you're injured and even then you're harried back to France in case the neighbours think you're shirking your responsibilities. Not being able to take any more is considered cowardice from those who have no idea what the soldiers and other serving personel are going through.

This book reads like a work of non-fiction when it is, in fact, fiction. However, the author, Evadne Price (pen-name for this book, Helen Zenna Smith), borrowed heavily from the war diaries of WW1 ambulance driver, Winifred Young, when asked to write a spoof on Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Evadne refused to write a spoof on such a serious subject and wrote instead, a damning comment on the futility of war and of the people in charge. It's a powerful piece of work, harrowing to read and making you wonder why so many thousands of men and women in their twenties put up with the conditions and the carnage, sacrificing, if not their lives, then their physical or mental health. This book should be read by all as an excellent accompaniment to Remarque's superb book.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

No 1 Ladies' Det. Agency books

I'm so far behind with reviews it's not funny. On the other hand I have finished two challenges over the last few days - RIP IV and the Support Your Local Library one (have not done a wrap-up for that yet) so it's not all bad. Perhaps I can do a brief summary of the four books in need of review and then start afresh.

One of the books I read and finished was Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I loved it to pieces but am not doing a review until I've had a chance to sit down and read it all over again. There was so much of interest, so much that inspired me in this book about books, that I feel I just can't do it justice until I've gone through it again. In the meantime here's my favourite quote from the chapter explaining how Hill simply doesn't get Jane Austen:

My younger daughter learned to love Jane Austen from the BBC television adaptation starring Colin Firth and a clutch of other fine actors. She watched it so many times that she knew it by heart and could hardly be deterred from reciting entire scenes for our entertainment, until, like Mary, she had delighted us long enough.

I just can't read that without giggling. Wonderful book and I am so thrilled I own it and can dip into it whenever the fancy takes me.

Also read and finished because my grandaughter recommended it was No Such Thing as Dragons by Philip Reeve. I'm a huge Reeve fan - his Mortal Engines series is one of the best YA sci fi series around in my opinion - but I think this one was just a wee bit young for me. I can quite see how any 8 to 12 year old would love it though, with its interesting young characters and dragon hunt on the mountains in the depths of winter. It's also beautifully illustrated with a cover that is stunning. How lucky my grandaughter is to be a child now when children's books are experiencing an amazing upsurge in popularity with some brilliant writers flexing their muscles and producing some wonderful books.

Last week we had family here for half-term and I really thought I would have no time for reading at all. So I chose book six in Alexander McCall Smith's Mma Ramotswe series, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, as a book that is easy reading for the few moments I might have.

I haven't read one of these in a while - last year I think - but the joy of them is that you can pick one and up and in no time at all you're immersed in life on Zebra Drive and Tokleng Road in Gabarone, Botswana. I'm not even sure I would call them detective novels. There are small mysteries, yes, and people's problems and family problems and problems with the folk who work at Speedy Motors and The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. But the books are much more about the people in them than the crimes, fascinating as those are. In this book Mma Ramotswe knocks over a cyclist and gains a new employee for her husband. Her assistant, Mma Makutsi, takes up dancing lessons and finds romance, and Mma Ramotswe's cruel ex-husband, Note, returns. Doesn't sound like an awful lot of action I know, but somehow or other McCall Smith has a way of writing that makes it all so fascinating that you can't put the book down and when you do, you can't wait to pick it up again.
So I got through that book in no time flat, despite having visitors, and grabbed the next one to read - Blue Shoes and Happiness. In this one Mma Makutsi and Phuti Radiphuti are engaged but has she jeopardised the engagement by telling him she's a feminist? And Mma Ramotswe has worries of her own too. What's going on at the Mokolodi Game Reserve? Is it witchcraft or something else? And then there's a case of blackmail to solve... and an even stickier problem - should she go on a diet?

Wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I only have three more of these to read so need to consider which of his series to read next. I have the first Isobel Dalhousie book, The Sunday Philosophy Club, from the library and am hoping that might be my kind of thing, but I also own The 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom, an omnibus which looks interesting too. We'll see. I'm just so glad that McCall Smith has plenty of other books and series for me to try because I'd really hate to have nothing new to read from this delightful author.

Monday, 2 November 2009

RIP wrap-up

I have no idea where October went. I read twelve books - which for me is amazing - so that probably explains some of it... I was in various other worlds! Something else that also went very quickly this year was R.I.P. IV. We all started just before the end of August and here we are in the blink of an eye - November!

And so another R.I.P. challenge is over and it's time for my wrap-up. It's always sad as this and Carl's Once Upon A Time challenge are two of my favourites and they always go by too quickly!

Anyway, I did Peril the First which was to read four spooky books of your choice. I actually read six and those are as follows:

The Thirteenth Tale - Diane Setterfield
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
Endless Night - Agatha Christie
The Man in the Mirror - Susan Hill
Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Chris Priestley
Tales of Terror from the Black Ship - Chris Priestley

I enjoyed them all but my favourites were The Thirteenth Tale and the two Chris Priestley books.

I also took part in the...

and read 15 short stories from various sources. My favourite of those (a reread) was Tarnhelm by Hugh Walpole but I also loved the two Sherlock Holmes stories I read - The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire and The Adventure of the Creeping Man.

So that's R.I.P. over for another year. It's been great fun and thanks to Carl for hosting it once again.