Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Family stuff

Just a very quick update. Some lovely people have shown concern about my daughter's health issues and impending spinal surgery. Well, her operation was this morning. Naturally it was a bit of a twitchy morning for my husband and myself but we kept ourselves busy with Christmas cooking. It wasn't helped by the fact that my husband had not been able to find out what time the surgery was scheduled for when he dropped her off at 7am. Then at 1pm she called on her mobile phone to say the op had been done at 9am. She sounded a bit groggy, naturally, but so pleased to have the procedure behind her. We pick her up tomorrow and are all looking forward to a quiet but lovely Christmas. Thanks to those who sent good wishes, prayers, and positive vibes. *Very* much appreciated.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Tea and Books reading challenge

Well, ever a glutton for punishment, I've found a second book challenge for 2012. As with the WW1 challenge, I saw it first on Margaret's blog at Booksplease and it's the Tea and Books Reading Challenge. It's being hosted by The Book Garden and the details are as follows:

This challenge was inspired by C.S. Lewis' famous words, "You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."

You better settle in with a large cup of tea, because in this challenge you will only get to read ... wait for it ... books with more than 700 pages. I'm deadly serious. We all have a few of those tomes on our shelves and somehow the amount of pages often prevents us from finally picking them up. You may choose novels only, no short story collections or anthologies, and in case you're trying a short cut by picking large print editions of a book, well I'm sorry, those do not qualify for this challenge! Let's battle those tomes that have been collecting dust on our shelves, so no re-reads, please!

2 Books - Chamomile Lover

4 Books - Berry Tea Devotee

6 Books - Earl Grey Aficionado (this will be the one I'll try)

8 or more Books - Sencha Connoisseur

To sign up, please read the general rules below! Then post about the challenge on your blog, including the button above, and don't forget to link back to the Tea & Books Reading Challenge page on my blog!

The challenge will take place between January 1st and December 31st 2012.


Okay. So, the level I'm going to aim for is 'Berry tea devotee' which is four books. Partly because I like berry tea *g* but also four seems just about attainable. This is the pool of books I want to choose from:

Drood by Dan Simmons
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
No Name by Wilkie Collins
Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

The thing that surprised me was how many books are not quite 700 pages long. I had several others to add - The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, a biography of Gerald Durrell for instance, but when I checked they were 'only' 650 - 690 pages. Very frustrating.

Several other books I might choose from are:

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Bradley
The Kingdom of Shadows by Barbara Erskine
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope *if* I manage to read the intervening three Barsetshire books before the end of next year... which I would actually rather like to do.

This challenge will suit perfectly my reading plans for next year which are to read a few longer, more absorbing, books than I have this year *and* to get more books off my tbr pile. Looking forward to starting.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Challenge wrap-ups

Getting various posts out of the way while I can and this one involves two challenge wrap-ups. Aside from Carl's challenges I did two others this year, a Foodie reading challenge and What's in a Name. I've completed both! Little bit surprised by that. LOL.

Anyway, first up The Foodie's Reading Challenge which was hosted by Margot at Joyfully Retired

I did 'Bon Vivant' the aim of which was to read 4 to 6 fiction or non-fiction books that are: 'centered around food and/or drinks. That could be a cookbook, a food biography or memoir, a non-fiction book focused around a specific food, wine, chef or restaurant. Also allowed is a fictional story in which food plays a major role'.

I read four books:

1. Eating for England - Nigel Slater
2. Garlic and Sapphires - Ruth Reichl
3. Thyme Out - Katie Fforde
4. Wicked Appetite - Janet Evanovich

I planned to read more but it just didn't happen and really I'm quite happy with simply finishing the challenge. I enjoyed it very much and thank you to Margot for hosting.

Lastly I finished the What's In A Name Challenge that was hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

For this, various books had to be read which had certain words in their titles. This is what I read:

A book with a number in its title:
Twenties Girl by Sophie Kinsella

A book with jewellry or a gem in its title:
The City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

A book with size in its title:
The Small Hand by Susan Hill

A book with travel or movement in its title:
Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn

A book with Evil in its title:
Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich

A book with a life stage in its title:
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith

I enjoyed all six of those but my favourite would probably have to be The City of Pearl by Karen Traviss. It was great fun doing this challenge and my thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Murder on the Flying Scotsman

Just a quick review for this, my 6th and final book for my What's In A Name challenge for 2011, which was hosted by Beth Fish Reads. The book is Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn and covers the category, 'A book with travel or movement in its title'.

Daisy Dalrymple is off on her travels once again, to yet another stately home for an article for the magazine she works for. But first of all she has to get there and her method of travel is to go via The Flying Scotsman. Annoyed that she hasn't been able to procure a book for the journey but pleased she shelled out the extra for first class travel, Daisy is expecting a quiet, uneventful journey north. That is until a young girl turns up and Daisy realises that it's Belinda, the nine year old daughter of her boyfriend, Chief Inspector Alex Fletcher. Belinda has run away in protest at her grandmother's restrictions and, because she knew Daisy was catching this train, had decided to stow away and travel with her.

Next thing you know an old school-friend of Daisy's has appeared and tells her whole family is on the train, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and so on, because they've been summoned to Scotland by their miserly great uncle, presently on his death bed. He's about to leave all his money to his twin brother and the family hope to persuade him to leave it to them.

It's a very tangled web! A web which becomes even more tangled when the old man's twin brother, who is on the train and has been subject to all kinds of verbal attacks and persuassions, is found murdered. The whole family, plus Daisy and Belinda, who found the body, are forced to disembark at Berwick upon Tweed and take up residence in a local hotel. Daisy's boyfriend, Alex Fletcher, arrives to head the investigation and is shocked to find his daughter embroiled in the proceedings. It seems practically every member of the family had reason to want the old man dead, be it money or something else. Daisy and Alex have their work cut out, not only to solve this crime but also to protect Beinda who clearly knows more than she's letting on.

Well now, this is book 4 in Carola Dunn's very successful series about the wonderful Daisy Dalrymple. I've enjoyed them all so far and this one was every bit as much fun as the previous three. I can't decide whether Daisy is perhaps a trifle too modern for the age she lived in but suspect there were quite a few girls like her who, after the end of the first world war where many husbands and fiances died, no longer had any option but to find a job. Her and her mother were turned out of their home when a cousin inherited it. She's fairly sure he would've allowed her to live there still and her mother would have had her to live with her, but Daisy wants to be independent and who can blame her. I love her determination and optimistic outlook and also her lack of snobbery. There were still plenty of restrictions applied to women of course. You had to be extremely careful of your reputation and silly little things put it at risk, like being seen in public without a hat, getting your hair cut short and so on. These books, while on the surface fun and fluffy, are quite informative if you read between the lines to what is really going on, and one thing that is very clear - in the 1920s it was still very much a man's world.

Looking forward to reading more in this series next year. Just *one* of the many series I seem to be hooked on right now.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Superior Death

I'm fitting all my December reading into the beginning part of the month it seems. I was halfway through two books at the start of the month and those I've finished. Midwinter of the Spirit by Phil Rickman, book two of his Merrily Watkins series, was absolutely excellent. My reread of The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill was wonderful... I'll probably do a separate post about that if I can find a moment. So, my first complete book of December was A Superior Death by Nevada Barr.

Before I start I should say that this is not the cover of the book I read. My library catalogue only had the one copy and it was large print. I couldn't find that cover on the net so this picture will have to do. I also discovered that Devon library services don't charge for reserving large print books, so that made me feel guilty and a fraud because I wasn't reserving large print because I need it (although...) I just wanted to read the book! And it is a bit odd reading large print books... but actually quite nice as there's no strain involved whatsoever. I could get to like it.

So, this is book two of Nevada Barr's 'Anna Pigeon' series of crime thriller type stories. Anna, a national park ranger, has moved on from the Guadalupe Mountain NP after solving a murder down there. She is now on Lake Superior, on Isle Royale NP to be exact, which is towards the north shore of the lake, quite close to the Canadian border but officially part of Michigan.

The summer season is just beginning for Anna. Two divers who've been diving the old wreck of the merchant ship, Kamloops, talk to Anna about the six bodies that are down there... Anna thinks they're mistaken as there should only be five, but it turns out they're correct. There is an extra floating body down there, dressed in an antique service uniform. She is also approached by two seasonals, young husband and wife, Damien and Tinker, who think one of the other rangers, a difficult, surly individual, has murdered his wife and eaten her to dispose of the body!

The body in the wreck turns out to be that of Denny Castle, one of a trio of divers who do trips for tourists. His partners, twins Hawk and Holly, immediately come under suspicion but others had both motive and opportunity. Denny had just married but was possibly having an affair with the missing ranger's wife. How do all these facts tie in? Very much a novice diver, Anna's investigations take her to the bottom of Lake Superior where she'd really rather not be. And it turns out that it's not just the dangers of cold water, deep diving that threaten her life.

Excellent, excellent, excellent. Yet another edge of your seat read from Nevada Barr. Down in Texas Anna was falling off mountains for excitement. Up here on Lake Superior she's down in the depths of the lake, where it's dark and dangerous and there are issues with how long she can be down there before she'll have problems with the bends when coming up. She also has no idea who she can trust amongst her colleagues and, although she loves the 'loner' outdoors lifestyle, does feel the need for human companionship from time to time. I love the fact that she is very human with plenty of foibles, but also quite a strong character who never gives up on an investigation when others think there's nothing to investigate.

Nevada Barr has chosen yet another unique setting for this second book in her series. I had no idea there was an island in Lake Superior. And a national park at that. This is NASA's view of it:

Isle Royale is to the left of centre, very close to the Canadian border and the province of Ontario. Three American states have a coastline on Lake Superior, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. I didn't know that either... I would have guessed a couple of them but was surprised that there were three:

Being a map person I have to include a map of all of the Great Lakes:

The only one I've seen is Lake Erie - we stayed at Port Clinton and visited The Bass Islands. Very, very beautiful. Another time we visited the Finger Lakes in New York state and I now realise how close I came to seeing Lake Ontario without realising it. Rats.

I digress... here is Isle Royale from the air:

And so beautiful from the ground too:

I forgot to check where all the photos came from so I must apologise for that. Hopefully they were all from tourist sites and nothing personal.

It seems this new challenge of mine is leading me to all kinds of interesting places. I definitely plan to read more about this corner of the USA - I was bowled over by its beauty and am now wondering about its history. It seems to be all lakes, rivers and forests (how wonderful!) so that has to mean some interesting historical stuff. I certainly hope to find out at some stage.

Back to the books - I can't recommend this series highly enough and this was an excellent read. The next Anna Pigeon book is already on order as the library has no copy of it whatsoever. It's Ill Wind and takes place in the Mesa Verde NP in Colorado. I honestly cannot *wait*.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

War Through the Generations challenge 2012

I decided not to do too many official challenges in 2012. I always do Carl's challenges of course, and will have my ongoing American states one too. But I do like to have at least one other official one on the go, so I've chosen a war one and it's the War Through the Generations: World War 1.

War Through the Generation’s 2012 reading challenge will be World War I. The challenge will run from January 1, 2012, through December 31, 2012.


This year you have options when reading your fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, etc. with the WWI as the primary or secondary theme.

Books can take place before, during, or after the war, so long as the conflicts that led to the war or the war itself are important to the story. Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.

Dip: Read 1-3 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Wade: Read 4-10 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Swim: Read 11 or more books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

I've picked out a pool of books to read from:

Mr. Punch's History of the Great War
Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road - Pat Barker
The Patriot's Progress - Henry Williamson
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer - Siegfried Sassoon
People Who Say Goodbye - P.Y. Betts
Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry edited by Jon Silkin

I'm signing up for 'Dip' as I reckon I ought to be able to read three of these books in a year. And if I read more, well that would be lovely, but I'm not putting pressure on myself by promising.

I think this should be a really interesting and informative challenge for 2012 and am looking forward to starting.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Books read in November

November has been a rather good reading month for me. I think it was more fun than usual due to me embarking on a mammoth personal challenge of reading my way around the USA. Of the seven books I read last month four were for this challenge and somehow this fact meant that everything made a lot more sense than usual and I hope this continues.

Anyway, books read in November:

70. The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley
71. The Little House on the Prairie - Laura Ingalls Wilder
72. Syren - Angie Sage
73. The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett (a reread)
74. Track of the Cat - Nevada Barr
75. On the Banks of Plum Creek - Laura Ingalls Wilder
76. These is My Words - Nancy Turner

Every one of these was an excellent read but there were two stand-outs: Track of the Cat and These is My Words. I also thoroughly enjoyed the two Laura Ingalls Wilder titles and am so glad I have several more of these to read this winter. Can't wait.

And now it's December and I'm wondering where on earth this year went. Either I'm getting old or time is speeding up! Anyway, I'm not sure how much time I'll have to read this coming month. I start out assuming that December will be a normal month and of course it never is! Christmas looms and time is swallowed up with preparations for that. Add to that that my daughter will have her operation on the 20th. and will then be staying with us, along with our grandson of course, over the holiday season and I don't foresee much in the way of reading time apart from last thing at night. But that's okay, I can start again in the new year, all fresh and raring to go.

Monday, 28 November 2011

These is My Words

I finished this book on Thursday but was so busy over Friday and the weekend that my review of These is My Words by Nancy Turner had to wait until today. This is another book that was recommended to me - a couple of years ago - by Kay at My Randon Acts of Reading and that has been languishing on my tbr mountain ever since. But I always think there's a 'time' to read every single book and this one's time had definitely arrived.

Sarah Agnes Prine is a teenage girl (around 16 or 17) who lives on a ranch in 1880s Arizona. She has four brothers but wants more than anything to have a sister -

It is good to have these brothers here but it's not the same as having a girl you can talk to and play with, and besides, they can be an ornery bunch and tease me no end. I am purely outnumbered.

The family own a spread near Phoenix, but up sticks suddenly at the father's whim and begin a journey to Texas because he thinks the living might be easier over there. Sarah is the keeper of a diary and charts the family's progress.

Almost immediately tragedy strikes and continues to strike. Indians attack. The Prines join forces with a couple of other families and the Indians continue to attack. There are deaths, rape, sickness, Sarah's mother suffers a breakdown and so forth. Sarah has to grow up very fast indeed. Luckily it seems she's the best shot in the family and she is the one who saves them more than once.

Arriving at their destination what's left of the family decide that Texas is not the place for them after all. They join a wagon train that is heading back to Arizona territory and Sarah meets, for the first time, Captain Jack Elliot, the army officer who is escorting the train. She's not impressed, finding him too rough and ready and too much inclined to speak his mind. The trip is long and arduous and, once again, Sarah's shooting skills are required. She gains the admiration of the captain but is scared of the effect he's having on her.

Eventually the family arrive back in Arizona and decide to settle near Tuscon where the army has a base and where Captain Elliot is stationed. They stake a claim and start building a ranch to raise horses but, although they are now settled at last, their trials and tribulations are very far from over.

The main thing to say about this book really is how much Sarah Prine's character shines. It practically jumps off the page at you and you just can't help loving her. She judges herself harshly. She feels she is not devout enough and not 'good' like her sister-in-law, Savannah, because she has uncharitable thoughts about people and often acts rashly. But the fact is, of all the family, it's Sarah who is the strong one. Time and time again the family rely on her quick wittedness in an emergency and she never fails them. She is intelligent, strong, and a staunch ally. Throughout the book various events test her to the limit but always she comes through.

I probably should stress that this book is a work of fiction... because... in fact it does read uncannily like a non-fiction diary. I have yet to read any of the several diaries of pioneers I have on my Kindle, but it will be interesting to compare the two when I eventually get to it. What may be missing is the romantic element. Somewhere on the net I actually saw this book described as a 'romance'. I laughed. Not sure how anyone could get it quite so wrong. There is romance, yes, but Mills and Boon/Harlequin this definitely is *not*. It's hard hitting, *tragic* in places... quite a few places in fact... and underlines what a tough life these people had forging a life for themselves in an alien environment, which had a native population that didn't want them there. (And you can understand *that* too.) But underlying the tragedy is a tale of great courage and hardship written with honesty and a great deal of humour. I adored Sarah... and Jack Elliot too. What a pair.

I've just discovered that Nancy Turner has written two more books about Sarah Prine, Sarah's Quilt and The Star Garden. I honestly can't wait to get my hands on them. These is My Words will make my top ten list at the end of the year, no question. Wonderful, wonderful book.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Track of the Cat & On the Banks of Plum Creek

A two-book post today, both of which qualify for my American states challenge. First up Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr.

Anna Pigeon is a park ranger with the National Park Service in the USA. Her current post is in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the borders of western Texas and New Mexico. Anna is out patroling one day when she comes upon a body in a very inaccessible part of the park. The body is another female park ranger and it looks like she's been mauled to death by a cougar. Anna's boss seems happy to accept this verdict and later a big cat is 'dispatched'. Anna is furious at this premature killing and begins to investigate more closely. She finds that the cat prints that were around the body are all wrong and other things are also not right, why would the dead woman have gone so far without water for instance?

The problem is, no one wants to hear that this could have been murder. They all think Anna's mistaken and ought to give it up. But it's clear, after a while, that the culprit, if there is one, is probably another park ranger. Unknowingly, Anna is putting herself into extreme danger, especially when she's out alone in the mountains...

Oh wow. I finished this book some days ago and still can't get it out of my head. It had everything. Firstly, the sense of place was amazing. The author describes the mountains, the terrain, the atmosphere, the heat, wonderfully. You're there with Anna. Well I was. Stunning, just stunning. It made me want to visit the area, except that I'm probably too decrepit (bad knees and arthritis) to enjoy it the way it should be enjoyed, ie. by getting out and walking. As I said in my previous post, I didn't know about this national park, in fact I know little about Texas as a whole other than it used to belong to Mexico. I need to put that right...

Leaving aside the sense of place - which to be honest is reason *enough* to read this book - everything else about the story was just right too. Anna is a thoroughly interesting main character. She lost her husband a while ago (I didn't catch how long) and is clearly still grieving. She has a boyfriend but he senses that Anna is still in love with her dead husband. Anna herself drinks a little too much but it's not hard to understand why. I liked her relationship with her sister in New York and hope we actually get to meet her in a future book.

The plot was also excellent. Truthfully, I would have to say, 'thrilling' and I don't use that word lightly, in fact I never use it. Things happen to Anna that had me on the edge of my seat. Not only that, the way one person dies literally had me sitting in my chair with my hand over my mouth. Oh, God. I had my suspicions who the murderer was but really I didn't know the who or the why for certain until the end. And I never mind knowing who did it anyway because, for me personally, the how and the why is often far more interesting.

To sum up: wonderful. Thank you so much to the people who recced this series - LizF and Kay I think; I'm going to be eternally grateful as I read my way through the 15 or so books. In fact, book 2 is on reserve at the library right now. They only have three or four so I'll be buying the rest... I thought I could get them for my Kindle but annoyingly Amazon only has that first book available in that mode. Never mind, I will *have* to read them so how I get hold of them is irrelevant.

Next up, On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Ma and Pa Ingalls and the three girls, Laura, Mary and Carrie are on the move again. The danger from Native Indians in Kansas was too much so they head away from there to Minnesota. The place where they decide to settle is called Plum Creek and is once again prairie-land. At first they live in a dug-out under a hill but Pa, borrowing against the prospect of a good wheat crop next summer, builds a lovely log-cabin.

This time they are only a couple of miles from a town and Laura gets a shock when she's told that her and Mary can go to school. A shock because although Mary can read and add up, she can't. Most of the children at school are friendly but Laura despises Nellie, the arrogant daughter of the store-keeper who is spoilt rotten and scornful of Laura's humble 'country' background.

Things take a turn for the worse when Pa has to leave home to go east to find work. Ma is left with the children in the midst of a terrible winter and they most cope or perish.

You can see Plum Creek on the Walnut Grove website here: Plum Creek. It looks idyllic, and would be now, but life was a great deal more dangerous and less predictable back then than it is for us now. We think of these books as cosy - well I did - but the harsh realities of life are actually more to the fore in this book than in the previous two. Things take a real turn for the worse when something very unpredictable happens to the Ingalls' wheat crop. They have debts and there is nothing for it but for the father to go and find work. And he has to walk several hundred miles in worn-out shoes because he's given the three dollars for new ones to the minister for the church bell fund! Life is incredibly hard. Laura and Mary have to stop going to school for fear they'll wear out their shoes and anyway, Ma can't be left alone with young Carrie, she needs help.

There are of course compensations. There is a very strong sense of community and neighbours are always there if help is needed. There's a lovely scene towards the end where it's Christmas and the church is full of gifts from a surprising source. And family is all. Laura adores her father to distraction and even though she finds it hard to be quite as selfless as Mary, family is definitely the most important part of her life.

I can't believe how much I'm loving this series of children's books. Although they're not as hard hitting as maybe adult books on the same theme, there is real hardship and Laura Ingalls Wilder in no way shrank from telling it like it was, whether her audience were children or not. If you've never read this series you really, really should.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Bookish meanderings

I usually only read one book at a time, possibly two if my main book is a bit too creepy or is perhaps a crime book that scares me half to death. (I would cite Tess Gerritsen's books as being typical of this category, love them as I do they do not make for a comfortable bedtime read.) Occasionally though, I get so swept away that I end up reading three. And that's the case at the moment. I started These is My Words by Nancy Turner last week for my American states challenge. It's superb but rather gruelling in places. Luckily its narrator, Sarah Prine, is wonderful and at times very funny, because otherwise it might even be unbearable.

So, as light relief from that I started Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr. This series about a park ranger was recommended by several people when I asked for titles for the challenge. Because it was so popular I bought the first book for my Kindle and am already halfway through as it's a bit unputdownable. Love it. And this is the whole point of my challenge. I had never heard of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, in Texas. I feel ashamed to admit it. Look how beautiful it is:

Photos from the NPS. gov. site linked to above.

Now I have heard of it and read about it, albeit in a fictional book but... that said... the descriptions of the park are stunning and make me want to find out more. Which, in a nutshell, is why I'm taking on this Behemoth of a challenge. Some people must think I'm a penny short of a shilling to even try it but here I am, just a week or ten days in and I already know more that I did when I started. Who knew, for instance, that the 'ponderosa' was a pine tree? I didn't. I thought it was just the name of the ranch in Bonanza! But These is My Words informed me otherwise. It seems too that there may be two national parks of that name... I wonder if Anna Pigeon gets to either of them? Can't wait to find out.

And my third book arrived on Saturday, On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wondered how long I would be able to resist starting and the answer was precisely one day. I'm about 20 pages in and have I learnt anything yet? Well, yes as a matter of fact. Minnesota has prairie. How could I not have known that? I thought it was all forests and lakes! My ignorance it seems, is unending.

Okay... I'll give it a rest now and talk about something else.

So far this month I've read four books and only reviewed one. So I'll say a little about what else I've read.

I started the month with The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley. This is the second book in the author's 'Flavia de Luce' series. In this story Flavia finds herself involved with a travelling duo of puppeteers who suddenly turn up in Buckshaw. They can't pay for their van to be repaired so the vicar suggests they put on a performance in the village hall. Of course, it's not long before someone turns up dead and, as in the last book, Flavia has a lot more success in solving the crime than the local police. *Huge* fun. Love this series to bits and have book three on my library pile at the moment.

Next up, Syren by Angie Sage:

After their last adventures in The House of Foryx, Septimus returns to The Trading Post (the descriptions of this imaginary coastline were stunning) on Spit Fyre the dragon to pick up Jenna, Beetle, Nicko and Snorri. He finds them ensconced on Jenna's father's beautiful ship and only Jenna and Beetle will return with him on the dragon. A storm takes them off course and they crash land on an island. Spit Fyre is badly injured so they can't leave until he recovers. Is the island uninhabited? No, it's not. Septimus, as usual, finds trouble where he has not actually looked for it. This is such a great series. Very readable, a lot of humour and with characters who act like normal people. The books are aimed at 10 to 14 year olds I would say but are also a good, fun read for adults.

And lastly, The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett:

I snuck in a quick reread of this little book after reading Danielle at A Work in Progress's review of it here. And it was every bit as much fun as I remembered. The Queen chases one of her corgis into the mobile library, parked outside the palace, and ends up borrowing a book because she doesn't like not to. (So English.) It's by Ivy Compton Burnett and she finds it hard going but goes back for something else. A lad who works in the kitchen, Norman, helps her with titles and the queen is suddenly addicted to reading, which doesn't go down well with everyone... Such a joy this little book. Alan Bennett's unique brand of humour is understated and wonderful:

As it was, with this one she soon became engrossed and, passing her bedroom that night clutching his hot-water bottle, the duke heard her laugh out loud. He put his head round the door. 'All right, old girl?'

'Of course, I'm reading.'

'Again?' And he went off shaking his head.

Joyous. Anyone looking for a nice little Christmas pressie for someone bookish could do a lot worse.

And, last but not least I have to give a virtual pat on the back for the book title that made me laugh the most. It was amongst the recs for my American challenge and the pat goes to Kay at My Random Acts of reading. Book one of the Alafair Tucker series she recommended by Donis Casey is called, The Old Buzzard had it Coming. I'm still tittering.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

My American states challenge - post 2

I had an excellent response to my request for books for my new, open-ended, challenge to read my way around the United States. With all the books I have lined up I could be doing this for a lot longer than two or three years: think ten!!! LOL. Several people thought that such a challenge would also apply very nicely to this country, the UK, and I was delighted to hear that Margaret at BooksPlease has actually decided to try it. Do check out her post, here.

I thought I'd use this post to list a few of the suggestions I've had and to stick up a few photos of the books I own that I think might be suitable to read. I tried to take one of all of them on the shelf first:

Not all that successful but it gives an idea of how many I already own - almost forty - that I can make a start on. Add to that around a dozen sundry titles downloaded to my Kindle and I'm starting with fifty it seems.

Anyway, photographing them in two piles seemed to be the way to go so this the non-fiction:

Quite a mixed bag there: Dickens, Mark Twain, Steinbeck, travel narratives, maps, essays and so on. Most of these are multi-stated but a few are specific such as This House of Sky by Ivan Doig (Montana) and True North by George Erickson which I think is mainly Alaska but may include some of the Yukon in Canada as well. Audubon might seem like an odd choice but this gorgeous little book is full of his paintings of North American birds with little accompanying essays and poems. Just beautiful.

Next up, the fiction. How many of these will turn out to be suitable, I don't know. The thing is, I want to read fiction that actually tells me something about the state it's set in, that furthers my knowledge. If it's set somewhere that could be anywhere, then it's no good. So we shall see.

States I have covered here include Arizona, Montana, Texas, New York state, Pennsylvania, California, Wyoming, Georgia, and several are multi-stated again. Authors I have downloaded to my Kindle include, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Nevada Barr.

And here is a list of titles that people have come up with:

From a friend in Ohio:

Allan Eckert's series including Tecumseh
My Antonia and O'Pioneers – Willa Cather
Centennial - James Mitchener
Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass
Thoreau's Walden
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Glass Menagerie by Tenneesse Williams
The Little House series – Laura Ingalls Wilder
Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Harlem - Jonathan Gill
Go Tell It on the Mountain - James Baldwin
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
Jack London - The Call of the Wild
Profiles in Courage - John F Kennedy
Winesburg, OH - Sherwood Anderson
Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Plainsong by Kent Haruf
Cloudsplitter - Russell Banks
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Dream West by David Nevin
The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
Early August - Louis Bromfield
Carl Sandburg - Lincoln the War Years
The Jungle - Upton Sinclair The Jungle
All the President's Men - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
My Generation - Tom Brokaw
Once Upon a Town - the Story of the North Platte Canteen - Bob Greene
On the Road - Charles Kurault (or Charles Kurault's America)
Thomas Payne - Common Sense
the US Declaration of Independence and Constitution
The Federalist Papers - Alexander Hamilton
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Mississippi)
The Alex McKnight books by Steve Hamilton (Michigan)

From Carl (Blogger):

On the Way to Other Country – C.W. Gusewelle (Missouri)

From LizF (Blogger):

The Anna Pigeon series by Nevada Barr (multi-state)

From Yvonne at Fiction Books(Blogger):

The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd (South Carolina?)

From Thomas at My Porch (Blogger):

Mainstreet – Sinclair Lewis (Minnesota)
Echo House – Ward Just (Washington DC)
O Pioneers – Willa Cather (Nebraska)
My Antonia – Willa Cather (Nebraska)
Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett (Kentucky)
Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather (New Mexico)
Bill Bryson’s non-fiction about the USA

From Lifeonthecutoff (Blogger):

The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Wisconsin, Kansas and more)
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Chicago, Ill.)

From Nicola at Vintage Reads (Blogger):

My Antonia by Willa Cather (Nebraska)

From Val at Erasmus Cat and Lifeonthecutoff (Blogger):

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

From Pat at Here There and Everywhere (Blogger):

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson

From Carol (Blogger):

The Deborah Knott series by Margaret Maron

From Nan at Letters from a Hill Farm (Blogger):

Murder Casts a Shadow by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl. (Hawaii)

From Kay at My Random Acts of Reading (Blogger):

The Deborah Knott series by Margaret Maron (North Carolina)
The Kate Shugak series by Dana Stabenow (Alaska)
The Lena Jones series by Betty Webb (Arizona)
The Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr (multi-state)
The Alafair Tucker series by Donis Casey (Oklahoma)
The Coffeehouse series by Cleo Coyle (NYC)
The John Creepak series by Chris Grabenstein (New Jersey)
The V.I. Warshawski series by Sara Paretsky (Chicago)
Sandra Dallas for books set in Colorado esp. Tallgrass.
The Joanna Brady series by J.A. Jance (Arizona)

From Margaret at BooksPlease:

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

From Nulaanne (Blogger) - all Washington State:

Starvation Heights by Gregg Olsen (history)
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald (biography)
Moon Called by Patrica Briggs (fantasy)
Greywalker by Kat Richardson (fantasy)
The Highest Tide By Jim Lynch (fiction)
Crimson Vengeance by Sheri Lewis Wohl (Vampire fiction)

From Margot at Joyfully Retired:

Falling to Pieces – Vannetta Chapman (Indiana & Amish mystery)

LJ suggestions:

Anything by Louis L’Amour.
Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Moosepath League books by Van Reid (Maine)
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (Virginia)
The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (Maine)
The Anna Pigeon books by Nevada Barr


The Hum and the Shiver – Alex Bledsoe (fantasy, Great Smoky Mountains)
Bill Bryson's autobiography

So there we go. I hope I didn't miss anyone! But an excellent choice of all kinds of books to be going on with. But... I suspect there are many states not spoken for here and even those that are I still welcome more suggestions. So if you have any, please leave them in the comments. And thanks to everyone who has already done so.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Little House on the Prairie

There can't be many people who've not heard of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book, Little House on the Prairie. Its fame may be due in part to the television series of the same name staring the chap who was in Bonanza... was it Michael Landon? Played Little Joe I fancy (gosh that ages me). I think I saw a few of those, but I'm pretty sure I never read the Little House series as a child, for what reason I don't know. They must have been in the library in Penzance but I probably had no idea how good they were. Librarians didn't tend to recommend books to children back in the 60s and my family wouldn't have known about them. So I missed out and it's a shame; as an adult I honestly don't think you experience the same kind of magic when reading as children do and I know for certain I would have adored this series of books as much as, say, C.S. Lewis's Narnia books which completely swept me away.

The story follows on from The Little House in the Big Woods, set around 1870. Pa decides there are too many people in the forests of Wisconsin.

Quite often Laura heard the ringing thud of an axe which was not Pa's axe, or the echo of a shot which did not come from his gun. The path that went by the little house had become a road. Almost every day Laura and Mary stopped their playing and stared in surprise at a wagon slowly creaking by on that road.

Animals kept away from the area and Pa liked a country where animals did not have to be afraid of humans. So they pack up and off they go - west. Pa has heard that the government is encouraging settlers onto the prairie and that the Indians who already live there will be pushed further west again. They travel for months in a covered wagon and come to a good spot at last, close to the Verdigris river, about forty miles from Independence, Kansas.

Of course, they have nothing and have to start from scratch. Pa has to build a house for them to live in, keep them fed by hunting, and Ma has to cook, look after the children and try to help Pa with the building.

Laura finds it a strange land, this place of endless grass and silence where the wind blows so hard they sometimes fear for their lives. And there are many frightening things. The possibility of illness, 'fever 'n' ague' as they call it, which they don't realise is caused by mosquitos along the river, the close proximity of the local Osage Indians, and wolves. They have brushes with all these things and more but find friendship and neighbourliness among the other settlers. Pa thinks it's a 'good place'.

I *think* it was Susan Hill in her book, Howards End is on the Landing, who said that if you want to know how to build a log cabin or your own bed look no further than Laura Ingalls Wilder. And she's spot on! All the details of how to do it are right here in these lovely little books. There are even illustrations (by Garth Williams) to guide you. Not only that there are minute details of exactly how they lived, what they ate, the utensils they had... cups were rare for instance so Laura and Mary had to share one mug.

But there's much more to these books than that kind of practicality. The prairie is a huge presence throughout the whole book. I've never seen it for myself but consider I now have a good idea of how the region looks and feels. And you can't help but admire the bravery and guts of these people who took off into the unknown like that, even though we now know they pushed the native population out. It's quite interesting looking at the rights and wrongs of that from the distance of so many years and hearing what the settlers actually tended to think. I didn't find myself judging but just reading the historical aspect with a lot of interest: somehow I find it easy to detach myself and I'm not sure how or why.

The book has some very intense scenes for a children's book. Laura wakes one night to the sound of a wolf howling in her ear. The house is surrounded by a pack of fifty wolves and all that stands between the family and the pack is a patchwork quilt slung up over the doorway. The decriptions and intensity of this scene are incredible. Likewise the day an Osage Indian turns up while Pa is away hunting, walks into the house and indicates he wants to be fed. The fear of Ma and the girls is tangible. And then there's a scene where the Indians move out and the family watch as hundreds of them pass the house on horseback. I read this with my mouth open!

I honestly did not expect to be quite as bowled over by this wonderful little book. My eldest daughter loved them as child and I can see why now. Every Christmas and birthday there would be a request for more and being the bookaholic I was I fed her appetite quite happily. These are her books and I should really pass them back to her for my grand-daughter - I did give her my copy of The Little House in the Big Woods but don't know if she's read it yet. If my daughter wants them I'll have to get my own, in fact I've had to send for the next book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, as we either never had that one or it got read so often it fell to pieces! I know I'll want to reread these at some stage and also I think I'll feel the need to read Laura Ingalls Wilder's diaries and letters.

So, a good start to my bookish travels around the United States and I've written it down in my little book (I'm such a nerd) under 'Kansas'. Hopefully the next book will come *soon*.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

My own USA challenge

A couple of days ago I came across a book challenge that I thought would suit me down to the ground. The idea is to read 50 books, one for each of the 50 American states, in a year, and you can read about it here. My first thought was to go ahead and do it and then I had a second one (I do occasionally). How on earth was I really going to devote about two thirds of my reading space next year to just one challenge? Even in a perfect world that's just not going to happen... A third thought was obviously required.

The third thought went like this: why don't I do this challenge on my own? Make it last over several years, maybe even five, and really explore the topic properly. It's no secret that I love the USA. We've been three times and hope to go again within the next couple of years (real life keeps getting in the way though). And there's *so* much of the country that I'm longing to see. So far we've stayed mainly to the east, only getting as far west as Memphis. It's not far enough, I truly want to see The Rockies before I pop my clogs... and many other places as well: too many to mention and the sad truth is that I likely will not get to them all - this could be a good way of 'seeing' some of these places while still sitting comfortably in my armchair.

I think doing a personal challenge like this would really inspire me for our next trip. Plus *educate* me. There's much to learn about this wonderful country and, for me, books are the way to do it (although TV docs are fantastic too.) I plan, not just to read one book for each state, but several. Fiction will hopefully include something historical and something modern. Non-fiction might be history, travel, or something modern. I honestly don't know for sure... I suspect I'll go where my nose takes me and what an adventure!!! I thought I 'should' start in January 2012, but phooey to that! It's a personal thing so I'm going to start right away, in fact have already started with a children's book, The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder of course.

This belonged to my eldest daughter, she had four or five in the series which she read and read and read and are still here now on the bookshelf in our grand-daughter's room. I read The Little House in the Big Woods a couple of years ago and have been wanting to read the rest for ages. Here's my opportunity. In The Little House, Ma and Pa and the three girls up sticks and move to Kansas from Wisconsin. I'm already fascinated by this amazing trip they undertook *without* the safety nets which we're used to in the modern age. So Kansas will be my first stop on this epic literary travel around the United States.

I will also probably read a few 'general' books about all of the states. On my shelves I have Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, my beautiful Atlas of North American Exploration, Colonial American Travel Narratives, Roughing It by Mark Twain, River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon, American Nomads by Richard Grant, and Stephen Fry's America. The possiblities are endless (and it's seems I already have half of them on my bookshelves, LOL.)

Here's a final map, my favourite as it happens as I'm keen on physical maps that show the lie of the land, the obstacles that people faced when exploring, and that make me wonder at their sheer audacity and bravery. (I don't think this can really be understated.)

The last thing to add is that I would love some help with titles. If you have a favourite book set in a particular state, or several, to recommend, please do. If you know which is the best book about Lewis and Clark, please say. *Or* if you just want to say that you think I'm completely barmy to take this on, feel welcome to say that too. Except that I already know it... and for some reason I'm not put off... just really, really excited.

Happy reading!


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

R.I.P. VI wrap up

Well, the 1st. of November is here and, bizarrely, it could easily be a summer's day if you disregarded the reds and yellows of the leaves on the trees and the dead leaves all over the lawn. It's clearly autumn but we have bright blue skies and mild temps and the fuchsia outside my window is still in flower, even though we have had a couple of frosts. Of course, one of the sad things that the 1st. November means is the end of R.I.P. VI which as always has been hosted by Carl.

It seems to whizz by in no time... bit like the years now that I'm getting older I think. Anyway, my self allotted task this year was to complete:

... which was to:

Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (my very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming or Edgar Allan Poe…or anyone in between.

I went past the four books way back in September in fact and eventually ended up completing nine books.

1. Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs
2. The Gates - John Connolly
3. The Blood Detective - Dan Waddell
4. Eclipse - Stephanie Meyer
5. The Small Hand - Susan Hill
6. The Wine of Angels - Phil Rickman
7. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs
8. Wicked Appetite - Janet Evanovich
9. The Mephisto Club - Tess Gerritsen

Five of those were off my tbr pile and four from the library. Which might not seem too bad but of those five only three were from the pile I originally put aside! I either need to stop putting books aside for challenges or be a bit more focussed.

No matter, the main thing is I enjoyed the books I ended up reading. I usually say it's hard to pick a favourite but this year it isn't. Two books stood out as excellent, atmospheric and thoroughly enjoyable and those two are, The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman and The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. These are my two 'star reads' of this year's R.I.P. challenge.

I also managed to read a small clutch of short stories this year, less than I would have liked but there is always next year.

It's all been great fun and I would like to thank Carl for, as always, being such a good host.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Short stories for R.I.P. VI

What I, rather stupidly, didn't anticipate when R.I.P. VI started and I said that I fancied doing some short story weekends, was exactly how busy my weekends are at the moment, what with Real Life and its little problems. So, I did one at the beginning of the challenge and have not found time to do another until now, right at the end of it! Oh well... better late than never, as they say, hopefully I can do better next year. In the meantime I've read a small handful this weekend:

I started off with a story Susan Hill recommended in her book, Howards End is on the Landing; it's called Mr. Jones, it's by Edith Wharton, and can be read online here and/or uploaded to your e.reader if you have one (which is what I did).

Lady Jane Lynke inherits 'Bells', an old property in Sussex, and, while staying with friend in Kent, decides to visit it anonymously.

It was a lustrous motionless day. Autumn bloom lay on the Sussex downs, on the heavy trees of the weald, on streams moving indolently, far off across the marshes. Farther still, Dungeness, a fitful streak, floated on an immaterial sky which was perhaps, after all, only sky.

She comes upon the house...

In a dip of the land, the long low house, its ripe brick masonry overhanging a moat deeply sunk about its roots, resembled an aged cedar spreading immemorial red branches. Lady Jane held her breath and gazed.

It's love at first sight but, because she doesn't tell the maid who answers the door who she is, she can't gain admittance because 'Mr. Jones says that no one is allowed to visit the house'.

Eventually she does of course get in, and subsequently moves in too. But there's an odd thing - although the housekeeper and maid talk about 'Mr. Jones', he's nowhere to be found. The excuse is that he's old and frail and not well, but this continues on for weeks. Not only that, certain parts of the house appear off limits, keys lost etc. Lady Jane and her writer guest start to investigate and their investigations involve a plaque in the church, a portrait of a woman, and a locked room where the family archives are kept...

How can anyone resist writing like this? Truthfully, it's not a story to read if you want to be scared out of your wits, it being only slightly creepy. Really, it's one to read if you love beautiful writing and a very strong sense of place. Sadly, I've never been to the Sussex Weald, but writers such as Kipling wrote so beautifully about the area that I feel as though I have. Edith Wharton must have been there herself as the timeless atmosphere feels perfect to me. Well worth half an hour of your time.

Next, I read a story recommended by Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books. It's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman, which can be read online if you click on the link or as I did once again, transferred to your e.reader.

A man goes in search of a guide to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle: he wants someone in particular, one Calum MacInnes. MacInnes is reluctant to take him to this mythical cave. It is said that inside a man can collect as much gold as he can carry and MacInnes is one of the few men to have actually done this. But the man is insistant and they go, but is MacInnes to be trusted? The long, arduous journey will reveal all...

I love it when I read a story thinking it's one thing... and it turns out it's something else altogether. Clever, clever writing, that. I'm not overwhelmingly a fan of Gaiman's writing. Some of his books and stories I love - The Graveyard Book for instance - and some I'm so-so about. This though is pretty skilful stuff and I liked it a lot. There's an almost lyrical feel to the prose and a very strong sense of time and place. And also a very clever twist. Another one that's well worth half an hour.

And last, but not least, I reread a story that was sent to me some months ago by the author, Julia Kavan: Dreaming Not Sleeping.

Hard to describe this one as it's about dreams and, rather cleverly, written like a dream. The reader isn't sure what's going on at first. Then it becomes clear that a woman is having strange dreams and that, subsequently, her husband is concerned about the depth of these dreams and the state she's in when she awakes... the fact that she clearly doesn't want to wake from them. Is she becoming obsessed?

I'm not saying any more. This is a beautifully written, atmospheric, creepy little story.

It was a kiss that brought me here. Soft and gentle. It ripped away my breath and tore away my soul. Now I can't find my way back. I don't want to find my way back. I hope you understand.

It's quite short, but I think it works at this length as many of the best short stories often do. A small word of warning, this is quite an erotic piece of work. I was fine with it but it might not be everyone's cup of tea. The story is available for purchase here on AmazonUK. I have to say that if Julia ever writes a full length novel I would be very interested in reading it.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Wicked Appetite & The Mephisto Club

Two books to do quick reviews of today: Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich and The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. Both are for various challenges. Wicked Appetite covers no less than *three* - Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge, The Foodie's Reading challenge which is being hosted by Margot at Joyfully Retired, and it also covers the 'Evil in the title' category of the What's in a Name challenge which is being hosted by Beth Fish Reads. So that's the one I will start with.

I'm going to be lazy with this one and use the Amazon blurb to describe it.

Life is pleasantly predictable for Lizzy, until a tall, black-haired, dark eyed man shows up. His name is Gerwulf Grimoire, also known as Wulf. And he wants what Lizzy has: knowledge. Almost simultaneously comes another man, a different man, but this one just as dangerous. His name is Diesel. And he wants several things Lizzy has, only one of them being knowledge.

Unbeknownst to Lizzy, she has the ability to find 'empowered objects'. A collection of stones that represent the seven deadly sins have made their way to Marblehead. If the stones are grouped together, they have the power to unleash hell on earth. Wulf wants them. Diesel wants to stop him. And Lizzy is the key to all of it.

Can Lizzy stay one step ahead of two men who both want her...both body and soul?

Janet Evanovich is of course best known for her Stephanie Plum series of crime books. I believe it's a series of comedy style stories about a bounty hunter; I've not read any but my husband has enjoyed quite a few of them in the past. In fact this was his library book which I nabbed after he'd read it as I thought it sounded like a lot of fun. I *think* there might be a connection between these and the Stephanie Plum books to be honest as one of the synopses of one of those books I happened upon mentioned a 'Diesel', so it seems like there might be a crossing over of characters there.

Anyway, this was a lot of fun. I enjoyed all the baking that went on, Lizzy is an expert at making cup-cakes, in fact she's almost supernaturally good at them... and it's quite crucial to the plot. There's a lot of humour, mainly provided by a pet monkey anmed Carl, and a friend of Lizzy's called Glo who has bought a book of spells and begins practising them with disastrous consequences. But I also loved Diesel's very dry humour.

There's not a lot else to say about this one really. It was a very light, fun, read, perfect for bedtime reading... I assume it's part one of a new series but am not certain about that, or whether I'll read any more. Maybe.

Next up, The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen. This one just qualifies for Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge - my 9th. and probably final book for this challenge.

'I HAVE SINNED' is scrawled in Latin in blood at the scene of a young woman's brutal murder. It's a chilling Christmas greeting for Boston medical examiner Maura Isles and Detective Jane Rizzoli, who swiftly link the victim to controversial celebrity psychiatrist Joyce O'Donnell - Jane's professional nemesis and member of a sinister cabal called the Mephisto Club.

In Italy a young American woman is on the run. Someone is after her and she can't afford to stay more than a few months in any one city. Some years ago Lily Saul's family made the mistake of taking in a nephew after his father had died. They had no idea what they were admitting into their home.

A policewoman is killed outside the meeting place of The Mephisto Club and yet more ancient symbols written on the door and, later, on Maura Isles front door too.

The body found at Christmas was mutillated and the hands removed. It's soon discovered that one of the hands does not belong to the body, so where is the second victim? Jane and Maura travel to upstate New York to view the body of a woman with a hand missing, in a deserted house in the country. What is the link between these two women?

The case is so complicated that the police realise they have a very clever adversary on the loose. And that in order to solve this crime they need the help of the group of people who not only understand the ancient symbols, but possibly the devil himself - The Mephisto Club.

Can these books possibly get any better? Surely not. They're all excellent but, like everything else, I do have my favourites, and those *two* would be Body Double, which is book 4, and this one, book 6, The Mephisto Club.

To be honest, I didn't know, before I started it, that it would be suitable for R.I.P VI. But then the rather weird supernatural background became apparent with its hints at satanic rituals and I knew it was perfect. I love all this centuries old bible-based, historical or not, stuff. Tess Gerritsen weaves her plot around all kinds of amazing ideas and I lapped it up. I won't go into what kind of ideas as that would involve major spoilers but it is fascinating stuff. Whether there will be more with this background I don't know. There is certainly scope for it and I can but hope!

Monday, 17 October 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

The evenings are certainly drawing in now and the weather here in the UK is turning pretty chilly. They're talking about sleet and snow this week, in the highlands of Scotland, and I suspect it's going to be cold enough for light frosts down here in the SW. Autumn is well and truly with us and Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge is entering its final weeks. How sad! I think I'll probably carry on reading my spooky books to be honest as I've had such a ball with them all. I finished my 7th. book yesterday and it was Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

Jacob Portman's grandfather has just died in suspicious circumstances. *Very* suspicious circumstances. It seems that Jacob was the only one able to see the monstrous thing lurking in the undergrowth when he found the body, but did he really see it? And what do the nightmares he's started to have mean? Slowly his parents and his psychiatrist manage to convince him that the cause of all this weirdness is a mental breakdown and Jacob eventually starts to recover.

The trouble is, Jacob can't quite forget all the tales his grandfather told him about his childhood. How he was the only one of his family to escape Poland when the Nazis invaded and how he ended up on an island off the the coast of Wales under the care of a certain Miss Peregrine. It seems she ran a home for rather odd children and his grandfather had shown him photos of some of them. One seemed to have levitated, another was lifting a huge rock and in another all you could see was clothes, the indication being that the child was invisible. Jacob is sure the photos are fakes, but are they?

Jacob manages to convince his father, a keen ornithologist, that a holiday (they live in California) on the Welsh island, birdwatching, is a good idea and off the two of them go. They settle into the local pub and Jacob sets off the next day to find the home. It's on the other side of the island and, to his dismay, what Jacob finds is a wreck of a house. It seems it was destroyed by WW2 bombs and all but his grandfather killed, but Jacob is sure he's being watched. Who could it be? The truth, when Jacob eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, could hardly be more astonishing... or more dangerous.

I think this one might go down as my weirdest book of the year. The photos I mentioned are actually in the book and are, apparently, *real*. The author used them to illustrate his book, I assume with permission. It all makes for rather an odd book which might not be to everyone's taste, but I quite enjoyed it.

The unusual plot is what has made this one popular I think. Although some things are guessable, the way things are arrived at is not, in my opinion, and I found myself both intrigued and admiring of the author's imagination. It's quite some achievement to keep someone as jaundiced as me guessing, especially in the supernatural genre as I've read quite a lot.

There's also quite a nice sense of place. There are several such islands off the coast of Wales, none of which I've been to but have observed from the mainland, and it feels like the author had it fairly spot on. I don't know whether he based his island on any one of them, I suspect it's an amalgam but, whatever, it works.

It's always hard for an American author to write a book set in the UK, and vice versa; it usually shows. In this one I thought the author did a good job though I was thrown quite badly when Miss Peregrine used the word 'knob-head'. That's not a term that would have been around in her time, plus... it's not a word a woman of her generation would use... at least I don't personally think so. I don't even use it now, in the 21st. century. So that threw me, but overall I thought that aspect was pretty well done.

If you like your supernatural fiction to have scary monster type characters then this is the book for you. The sense of menace is always present and you never quite know what's going to happen next. I'm assuming, from the end, that this is going to be a series. I'm quite pleased about that as I'd like to see what happens to the children and am very intrigued by the 'monsters'. A good read and I can understand why it's so popular at the moment.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Wine of Angels

I'm still finding that there are several blogs I can't comment on without having to be 'anonymous'. Is anyone else still having problems? because this has been going on for months and months now and is pretty irritating.

Anyway. Enough of minor annoyances. I've just finished my 6th. book for Carl's R.I.P VI... the best of the lot so far... and that is The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman.

Ledwardine is a fictitious village in Herefordshire, an English county on the Welsh borders. It's had no vicar for a little while and Merrily Watkins is brought in as the 'priest in charge'. Right from the start there are traumatic events. An elderly man commits suicide in the large apple orchard that almost surrounds the village, during a kind of pagan night-time ceremony, witnessed by a large crowd. And, aside from that, things just don't feel right in the village. Lucy Devenish, a local shop owner and expert on folklore in the county, hints at all kinds of rum goings on and starts to involve Merrily's fifteen year old daughter, Jane.

One night, Jane goes out drinking with Colette, a local restaurant owner's daughter. Not realising the strength of the local cidar, Jane gets drunk and, pursued by local yobs, the two girls end up in that same apple orchard. Things become confused and Colette disappears. Being a bit of a trollope, people think she's just disappeared off with some lad, but has she?

It doesn't help that Merrily hates the vicarage. It's a huge place that doesn't feel at all welcoming and her and Jane find themselves rattling around in its large rooms and corridors. Not only that, Merrily is having waking nightmares and starts to wonder if the place is haunted.

More problems arise when a local playwright and his young boyfriend want to stage a play in the church. It's based on the story of a young seventeenth century priest of the parish who was accused of witchcraft and put to death. The boyfriend, an actor, feels the priest might have been gay and this was the reason he was hounded to death. The play is clearly controversial and the village is divided, some supporting, some violently against, led by the sort of squire figure, John Bull-Davies whose ancestor was involved with the trial.

From not being able to believe her luck at being transferred from inner Liverpool to the rural idyll of Ledwardine, Merrily now regrets her move. She not only finds herself between a rock and a hard place as regards the play... she also has no idea what's going on with her own daughter who clearly has a lot of secrets she does not want to share. If Merrily is to keep this job she has sort the mess out before someone else disappears in mysterious circumstances, or even dies...

Well, this was a bit of doorstop of a book (600 pages) which has kept me royally entertained for a week. My eldest daughter pressed it on me, saying that I must read it as it was excellent. And so it was!

I would describe it as a 'busy' novel. A lot going on in respect of plot lines - things going on in people's lives... much more than I've been able to describe here to be honest. And it's all very cleverly interwoven. Things affecting one person inter-connect with someone else so it's a bit like a jig-saw puzzle where all the pieces need putting togther to see the whole.

It's a while since I've been this involved in a book and I think that's down to the main character, Merrily, and her daughter, Jane. They seemed very real to me, especially the difficult relationship that can exist between mothers and their teenage daughters. How does a modern teenager feel, for instance, when her mother finds God and becomes a Church of England vicar? Jane is especially embarrassed to see her mother praying in front of the window and in one bit they sit to eat dinner and Jane says to herself over and over, 'Please don't say grace, please don't say grace...' It's thought provoking and very very honest.

There's also a very real sense of place. Herefordshire is a very pretty county and you can sense the history as you travel around. There are still many villages just like Ledwardine with their black and white timbered houses and apple orchards. In this story orchard is a character in itself, creepy, atmospheric, stifling almost, and the centre of much that is weird and strange.

If the book has a fault it's that some of the village characters are a trifle clichéd. There's an overbearing squire figure, a crazy 'folklore' expert who's an older woman, the playwright is gay because of course all artistic people are... and so on. It didn't worry me particularly because I do realise that clichéd characters are written because they are often like that in real life and to pretend otherwise is to deny the reality of things.

All in all, this is the best book I've read in ages, and I've read a few good ones recently. I'm delighted that it's book one of a series of eleven and can see that I'm going to get completely hooked on Merrily Watkins and her adventures in Herefordshire!

Monday, 3 October 2011

Books read in September & Sweetness

I'm going to do this as a combined post so that I can catch up on myself a bit. First, a quick run-down of what I read in September, and then secondly a quick review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

September was pretty much an average reading month for me, six books read... well actually five and half... as one of them, Barchester Towers, is a book I started back in August and have been reading slowly. So this is what I read:

58. Bone Crossed - Patricia Briggs
59. The Gates - John Connolly
60. Barchester Towers - Anthony Trollope
61. Blood Detective - Dan Waddell
62, Eclipse - Stephanie Meyer
63. The Small Hand - Susan Hill

Every single one of these was a thoroughly good read, but if I had to choose a favourite it would probably be Barchester Towers. It was just so beautifully written, characters that were very memorable and superbly drawn such as Obadiah Slope, and an excellent storyline. And honestly, it was so much fun and a joy to read. My next book in the Barchester series is Dr. Thorne which I have on my Kindle but I'm wondering how long I'll be able to resist getting myself a nice hard copy.

So six books read, five of those for Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge, so I'm very pleased with that acheivement. If I don't manage to read anything else for the challenge, five will complete it quite nicely. Although I *am* hoping to read several more... I have the Miss Peregrine book everyone's talking about, from the library, and a couple of others that will fit in very well. It all depends on real life circumstances really.

Next up, a quick review... my first book for October is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

The story here is based around the De Luce family who live in a crumbling country pile by the name of Buckshaw. Flavia de Luce is eleven or there abouts and very keen on chemistry, a child prodigy you would probably say. She lives with her father, and two older sisters that she doesn't get on with. In fact at the beginning of the tale she's tied up and gagged and left by them in a wardrobe. Their father lives there but is not there in spirit. His wife died some years ago and he has become a bit of a recluse, interested only in his stamp collection.

When Flavia finds a dead body in the cucumber patch early one morning, after witnessing a strange meeting between her father and the dead man the night before, she sets about investigating the crime. Is it connected to the dead bird with a stamp impaled on its beak that turned up on the doorstep a few days ago? The answer is almost definitely yes. But where does her father's stamp collection fit in? And why is the local librarian obsessed with Flavia's father's school days and clique of friends? The local police seem clueless but Flavia is not. Methodically sorting out the clues and using her skills as a chemist to aid the investigation, Flavia finds herself not only one step ahead of the police but ultimately in some considerable danger herself.

I think I might be the last person in the world to read this book. Since I first read about it on various blogs two more books have been written in the series! And I'm very pleased about that as I enjoyed this one immensely.

Flavia is such a wonderful character, full of curiosity, intelligence and enthusiasm. I have to say I'm not too sure that an eleven year old would have quite that grasp of the English language but it's all so charming that it's quite easy to suspend disbelief. You find yourself not only rooting for her all the way through the book but also feeling a lot of sympathy as her family is really quite dysfunctional. The father has no interest in his three daughters and Flavia's sisters are appalling in their disinterest and spitefulness.

The plot itself is huge fun, I loved following the clues and, as a lapsed stamp collector, found all the philately details fascinating. Humour abounds as Flavia flies around the countryside on her trusty bike, Gladys, telling the reader her thoughts on everything imaginable but especially chemistry. Truthfully, it was one of those books I found myself reading with a smile on my face and that's not to be sneezed at as an accomplishment of the author, Alan Bradley.

Wonderful. Loved it and have already reserved book two, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, from the library.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Small Hand

This next book covers not one but *two* challenges. It's my book five for Carl's R.I.P. VI challenge, and covers a book with 'size' in the title for the What's In A Name challenge which is being hosted by Beth Fish Reads. The book is The Small Hand by Susan Hill.

Adam Snow is an antiquarian book dealer, dealing in the high end of the book market. His business takes him all over the world, and indeed the UK, and one evening he's on his way back to London from Sussex, having decided to take the scenic route, when he gets lost. He finds himself on a bit of a dirt track which leads to a large house. The sign says 'Garden closed' and, assuming that he'll be able to get directions at the house, Adam enters the garden. It doesn't take him long to realise that the house has fallen into disrepair and the garden likewise, but he pushes on to explore his surroundings a bit more.

'I stood in the dim green-lit clearing and above my head a silver paring of moon cradled the evening star. The birds had fallen silent. There was not the slightest stirring of the air.

And as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it...'

And thus begin some rather strange events. Adam finds that the small hand is now a presence in his life. At first comforting, it suddenly because less so. It seems the hand is trying to force him to jump into water. On a trip to a monastry in France to look over a Shakespeare folio, and lost in the mountains, the hand tries to force him to jump over a precipice.

There is a definite mystery here. Or is Adam having a break-down like his brother, Hugo, some years ago? Slowly Adam unravels some strange facts about the house and its previous owners who renovated the garden and made it world-famous. But will he able to get to the heart of the mysterious events before he is literally killed by a ghost?

Well, this one got some mixed reviews on Amazon and, I seem to recall, mixed reviews in the blogasphere too. Personally, I really liked it. But then I'm a real sucker for a beautifully told ghost story that harks back to another time. Because, although this story is set in the present day, it actually feels almost Edwardian. The style of writing, the bookish, academic sort of background, and the way in which the garden and house are depicted, are all reminiscent of ghost stories written at the turn of the last century. And I particularly liked the section set in the French monastry... so peaceful and calming that I actually wanted to go there.

I can't say the ending was much of a surprise. And for those who like their ghost stories to scare them out of their wits this will not fit the bill. It's atmospheric and creepy, and just the sort of excellent writing you would expect from the author of one of my favourite ever ghost yarns, The Woman in Black, and the Simon Serrailler crime series. I confess I am quite a fan of her writing and, for me anyway, this ghost story more than lived up to my expectations. It's physically a beautiful little book which I'll definitely be adding to my permanent collection of supernatural tales.