Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Books read in April

April was a slightly busier month for me than the first three months of the year and that resulted in less books read. In all, this month I read six books and these are they:

31. Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

32. Huntingtower by John Buchan

33. The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

34. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

35. Lost Things by Jo Graham and Melissa Scott

36. What Makes this Book so Great by Jo Walton (To be reviewed)

A bit of a mixed bag quality-wise. Some really good books and some average ones (I tend to stop reading if the book is very bad). Only one non-fiction but hey... one is better than none at all. :-)

A favourite is, as always, tricky. I loved Huntingtower and The Red House Mystery, two books I would recommend to anybody who enjoys 1920s and 30s literature. But really I think the prize for best read of the month has to be a draw between these two books:

The Gaiman book is a perfect little fantasy and the Jo Walton book of essays on rereading classic science fiction is a perfect *big* book for sci-fi fans to use as a sort of reference book for recs and discussion of books they've already enjoyed. I like it so much I want my own copy as I know I'll go back to it again and again for thoughts and ideas.


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Bluebells, bluebells, bluebells...

The bluebells are looking particularly pretty this week so I took a walk around the garden and took a few pics. They don't last *all* that long so you have to get them while they're at their best. Anyway, I thought I'd share the photos I took. Clicking on them will bring them up larger I think.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fantasy books

Two fantasy books to be briefly reviewed today. Both of them are for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII challenge.

First up, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

A man is attending a funeral and on a whim decides to visit the area where he grew up. He finds a cottage where he had friends, an old woman allows him to sit by a pond and as he sits he remembers... a young boy who lived with his parents and sister on the edge of a village. When a financial crisis hits the family the parents decide to take in a lodger. Then the lodger dies in a car accident at the end of a quiet lane. At the end of this lane lives a friend of the boy's, Lettie Hempstock. She lives with her mother and grandmother and when he's with them the boy feels as though he is completely safe... a feeling he no longer has at home as his parents have hired a Nanny to look after the children. The boy knows she is not who she says she is but no one believes him and the only place of safety is with the family of women at the end of the lane.

That brief sketch of this book is all I'm prepared to say about the plot and even that might be a bit too much. This is genuinely one of those books that people need to read for themselves; knowing very much about it before you start is not a good thing in my opinion. Let me be honest, I haven't liked every full-length novel I've read by Gaiman, nor all of his short stories... some of those leave me cold, others I find so-so, and a few I thought were terrific. Nevertheless, I still think he's brilliant because when he hits the spot - he *really* hits the spot. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fine example of Neil Gaimen 'hitting the spot'. It's about family and home not always being the safe haven it ought to be. At seven, very little about your life is under your control and the boy instinctively knows this. He realises that there is little he can do about the terrifying things that are happening, but nevertheless he must try. And take it from me, there's some scary stuff in this book, really scary. Not horror in a gory sense but the kind of chilling stuff that could easily keep you awake at night if you were that way inclined which, as a child, I was. The three females living at the end of the lane are pretty fascinating. I won't go into the origin and ideas behind their characters or existance but for me they were what made the book work as well as it did and I loved the explanation for them. We all need that kind of wonder in our lives and Neil Gaiman is amazing at putting such ideas into writing. Brilliant, brilliant book.

So, one brilliant book and one er... not so brilliant: Lost Things by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham.

Lewis Segura is an ex-World War one fighter pilot with very few prospects. He gets a flying job working for a small company owned by Alma Gilchrist, a widow, with whom he gets involved. Lewis is an indivisual whose very vivid dreams come true and it seems Alma and the two men who work for her, Jerry and Mitch, also have weird and wonderful talents. Jerry was an archaeologist before the war took his leg. He is contacted by an ex-colleague who wants him to do a job concerned with some tablets that have been dug up out of a lake in Italy. Alma can't understand why they've been asked but all soon becomes clear when someone tries to kill Jerry with magic. The man gets away and an airborn chase across America ensues. It seems some things are better left buried...

I left my first two star rating on Goodreads when I finished this. It should have been two and a half really as it wasn't actually terrible - just a tiny bit *dull*. I bought it for my Kindle just before the start of Once Upon a Time VIII, thinking it sounded quite exciting. Luckily I didn't pay much as it really, really wasn't. Too much detail of day to day stuff and not enough of the magic and different magical lodges that exist in this 1920s world. Everything was described in minute detail... apart from anything really interesting. There was a connection with Roman gods and demons and an archaeology slant. Again not really centred on as it should have been. How frustrating! I kept reading thinking it would pick up and yes, it did a little, but sadly only marginally. Ah well, I've had a run of rather good books and it had to come to an end at some stage.

I've read four books for the Once Upon a Time VIII challenge now and am pretty happy with my progress so far.


Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Red House Mystery

Happy Easter to anyone who happens to be reading this. Hope the long Easter weekend is everything you would like it to be.

Bit busy at the moment but I did finish a book a few days ago and that book was The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne. This one qualifies for two challenges - Bev's Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge (it qualifies for the category, 'A book with a colour in the title') and Bev's Mount TBR 2014 Challenge.

There's a house party going on at The Red House - owner, one Mark Ablett. Various people are present but one of them, Bill Beverly, is a particular friend of man about town, Antony Gillingham. On a whim, Antony decides to pay his friend a visit while he's staying at The Red House but his timing turns out to be rather bad... or good depending on your point of view. Antony arrives just as Cayley, Ablett's cousin, is trying to gain entrance to the locked study. An argument has been heard followed by a gunshot. Cayley and Gillingham have to break into the study through a window and there they find the dead body of a man. It quickly materialises that the dead man is Mark Ablett's brother, Robert, home from Australia on a visit. Servants say they heard the sound of two voices - Mark and his brother - rowing. But Mark is nowhere to be seen and there's no trace of him anywhere.

Antony Gillingham is a man of independent means who has a habit of wanting to find out what various occupations are like by actually doing them. Thus, for instance, he was a barman for a while and another time a valet. He met Bill Beverly while serving in a tobaconist's shop. Now he sees his opportunity to become an amateur detective, if only for a short while, and try to discover who shot Robert Ablett and why.

There are not many suspects, most of the house party were away from the house playing golf. The case is pretty-much a 'locked room' sort of a mystery, involving a lot of theory but also a great deal of spying and investigation of the house itself by Antony and Bill. So many things just do not add up. It seems fairly obvious that Mark must have shot his brother but how did he get out of the room without being seen? And most important of all: where exactky *is* Mark Ablett?

It's funny that it's often at about the halfway mark when reading a book I own, that I suddenly decide whether or not I want to keep it. When I started The Red House Mystery it was with the plan of reading it and putting it in the charity shop box straight after. Best laid plans and all that... this one is just a little bit too good to let go.

Why? Well for a kick-off it doesn't take itself at all seriously. I gather A.A. Milne, a big fan of the crime genre, wrote it as a kind of spoof, humorous homage to the genre. And it is full of humour, lots of fun references to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson for instance and some hugely entertaining dialogue. The odd thing is that after being written as a not too serious attempt at a crime yarn it then apparently became a bit of a classic in the genre. And it's really not difficult to understand why.

Antony Gillingham as the detective is perhaps a bit too cock-sure of himself, almost to the point of being annoying. He's saved by his crazy enthusiasm and the rather manic way he goes about solving the crime, dragging Bill along with him but never quite allowing his sidekick in on all his thought processes. The two of them actually make a charming pair of sleuths in that easy manner of the 1920s whereby men had no problem with friendships that involved walking along arm in arm or speaking to each other in quite an intimate manner. Impossible to imagine these days and it made me wonder at what point that kind of ease of male companionship came to an end. I certainly don't remember it in my lifetime, but it's there in books set in the 1920s and 30s, so my guess is that somehow the war put a stop to it. I wonder why or how? Very odd and perhaps a little sad too.

As mysteries go the story is a little unusual in that you think there's going to be a huge list of suspects but then they all get sent away and you end up with just two. It's not so much a case of whodunnit as *how*... because it's all rather complicated. Perhaps locked room mysteries often are, I don't know. I do know that the much loved author of the Winnie the Pooh books was a class act when it came to crime writing and I feel it's a great shame he didn't write more about the duo of Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverly. They were different enough to be vastly entertaining and it would have been nice had there been several books rather than just one.

This one will definitely *not* be going into the charity shop box.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

A couple of mysteries

A couple of mysteries to review quickly today. Both of them for various challenges I'm doing.

First up, Madame Maigret's Own Case by Georges Simenon. I read this as my book eight for Bev's Vintage Mystery challenge and it covers the category: A book with a woman in the title.

Madame Maigret is sitting on a bench, enjoying the fresh air, waiting for the time of her dentist's appointment to arrive. A woman is playing with a lovely little boy, no more than an infant, when suddenly she becomes agitated, asks Madame to look after her child for a short while, and rushes off. Several hours later, Madame has missed her appointment and the woman has not returned. When she eventually does, it's in a taxi and, without even thanking the baby-sitter, she bundles the child into the car and is away. Madame Maigret is not only very annoyed but also rather perplexed. Meanwhile the police have received an anonymous message to say that a body has been incinerated in the home and business premises of a Paris bookbinder. There's a blue suit covered in blood stains in the closet and a large suitcase has gone missing but the bookbinder refuses to admit any knowledge of the suggested crime. Maigret's progress in the case is blocked at every turn by a young lawyer who clearly has some axe to grind with the inspector. Eventually it materialises that the Madame Maigret's odd experience with the woman and child and Maigret's latest case might be connected. It also seems that using her knowledge of female attire, Madame Maigret can help solve the case.

This is the fourth Maigret book I've read this year as part of the Vintage Crime challenge. Maigret is based in Paris of course but so far this is the first book I've read that's set in the capital city. One was in Holland, another Concarneau, and yet another on a canal in the French countryside. Strangely perhaps, I didn't enjoy this Paris based novel as much as the others. I suspect it may have something to do with confusion. I got a bit bogged down in a lot of different characters up to no good. The plot was rather convoluted and I really did struggle to keep up. I assumed it was just me but then I checked Goodreads and found that others had had the same experience. This book is rather later than the other three, those being 1930s and 40s books and this being written in 1958, just meeting the 1960 deadline for the challenge. I wondered if that had anything to do with it, whether the early books were better.... not that it was a bad book at all, just sort of 'average'. I think perhaps I expected more involvement for Madame Maigret, there was some but not as much as the title might suggest. I did however enjoy seeing the domestic arrangements of the Maigrets' marriage. That part was fun and enhanced an otherwise average Maigret outing.

Next, Huntingtower by John Buchan. Better take a deep breath... I read this for Peggy's Read Scotland 2014 challenge, Riedel Fascination's My Kind of Mystery challenge, and Bev's 2014, Mount TBR challenge. Think that's all...

Dickson McCunn is now a retired man. For years he was a respected part of the middle-class, Glasgow estabishment, owning and running a very successful grocery business. At fifty-five, he's well-off, a bit of a romantic, and yearns for an adventure before he gets too old to enjoy it. His wife is away so off he goes on a walking holiday. He fetches up in a remote village where he comes across a poet. He doesn't take to the poet, who criticises Dickson's taste in poetry and keeps calling him 'Dogson'. Which is all rather unfortunate as he comes across him the next day, further on, and somehow the two get involved in the rum goings on in a crumbling mansion, miles from anywhere. They discover that a young woman is being kept prisoner by a group of ruffians. The poet, Hermitage, knows the girl, a Russian princess. Dickson, realising he's in the middle of a real-life adventure, suddenly gets cold feet. But he can't back out now because help is at hand in the shape of the Gorbals Diehards, an unruly bunch of boys from Glasgow. Dickson can't be seen to be cowardly in front of the boys, who are known to him. In fact, he's in it up to his neck and his mettle is going to be sorely tested before the whole messy business is drawn to a conclusion.

Well this book was sheer joy and fun from start to finish. Middle-aged Dickson McCunn is a delightful if rather unlikely hero and easy to identify with. Like everyone he dreams of being a hero but when the reality presents itself realises that being a hero is a messy business and people get hurt. His Scottishness shines off the page and there is a bit of Scottish dialect which can throw you a bit but is easily worked out one way or another. Previously I had only read 39 Steps by John Buchan (A Richard Hannay story) and could hardly remember that, so was not sure what to expect from the writing. It turns out that the writing is beautiful, conveying as it does a wonderful sense of the countryside... the moors and the coastline... of Scotland. That took me by surprise, I must admit. I don't remember a strong sense of place in 39 Steps but Huntingtower definitely has one. I got this as a free Kindle book from Amazon. There are two more books in the Dickson McCunn series, Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds. Those are not free but I found them free to download on Gutenberg Australia. I will definitely be reading both.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Thirteenth Child

My second book for Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII reading challenge is Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede.

Eff (short for Francine) Rothmer is a young girl living in the town of Helvan Shores, somewhere in the east of an alternate universe USA. She is one of a large family, a twin in fact, a little older than her brother, Lan. The unusual fact about Eff is that she is a thirteenth child, and the unusual fact about Lan is that he is the seventh son of a seventh son. This means that while Lan is celebrated as a potentially powerful practicioner of magic and very lucky to be around, Eff is feared as someone who will bring bad luck to her family and to people who come into contact with her. Luckily, her immediate family do not fear or depise her but her huge count of uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth do, and treat her accordingly. Life for Eff is difficult.

Things come to a head and Eff's parents decide it's time to move the family elsewhere. Her father is offered a post at a school of magic on the frontier, a place where a magical 'divide' protects new settlers from the wilderness and the unusual and dangerous beasts that live there. Magicians are needed to help keep the spells that keep people safe, in place. Here Eff discovers what it is to live without prejudice. No one knows she's a thirteenth child as a number of her siblings have married or stayed behind for their education. Lan's status is known though and and for him life is now all about special lessons and special treatment: Eff realises they're drifting apart.

Eff's challenge is to make a life for herself in this strange place. This she does, making new friends and doing her best at learning magic herself. But she can't forget the fact that she is meant to grow up to be evil. The knowledge lives inside her like a virus and means she has a secret she has to keep at all costs. The trouble with keeping secrets is that the effort required eventually takes its toll...

I didn't realise when I started to read this book that there was some kind of problem with it. I read it, found it to be quite enjoyable, although taking rather a long time to really get going and possibly never really living up to my expectations. To tell the truth it's more of a coming-of-age story than anything else and as such it wasn't a bad read. But, if reading for high fantasy, loads of magical happenings and weird and unusual animals, as is hinted at in the synopsis, then the reader might be disappointed. It felt more like an introduction to be honest. For my liking there just wasn't enough of a fantasy element.

What we did have here was a real family. Not an idealised one where everyone is nice to each other but a living breathing entity where people argue, are spoilt, have favourites, misbehave, but still stick together regardless. A mother who lays down the law, worries about her children, is sometimes unreasonable. A father who's so busy with his work that sometimes the family take second place. Eff herself is a very rounded character, trying to do her best despite the 'thirteenth child' tag that is forced upon her from very early in her life. She doesn't do a lot of complainiing - I thought it wouldn't have harmed if she had done a bit more - but it's clear from the start that this is quite an unequal society. Girls are allowed education, which is something, but the boys have more freedom in just about every aspect of life. I thought the author did a good job of depicting the female 'guilt' complex, Eff is a very deep thinking girl and shoulders a lot of guilt which no one bothers to relieve her of and nor do they understand why she feels that way, especially her friends who are boys. It's quite sad.

So, what is the problem I mentioned earlier? Well, although this is a fantasy tale it is set loosely during the American pioneering days of the 1800s. And thus it seems that some people expected there to Native Americans in it, and there are none. I think the author explained it by saying that they never crossed the land bridge and thus didn't spread into North America in her universe. This caused her to be accused of racism and there were flame wars on Twitter and all that kind of thing. A real can of worms. I don't plan to get into something that happened 5 years ago, the book is what it is, and I'm not sure accusing an author of racism because she ommitted something you think should be there is particularly fair.

The decision I have to make is whether to read on in this series based on this first book. It didn't quite live up to my expectations but there are intriguing ideas and Eff's plans for her future excite me. Perhaps future books supply more of what this book promised? My library doesn't have the second book, Across the Great Barrier, so I would have to think it worth buying. Goodread reviews seem to be split between 'this is better than book 1' and 'still too much internalising'. I'll have to think about it as I'm trying not to buy too many books at the moment and those I do buy I've decided I must really want for a good reason. Why is nothing ever simple?

Thirteenth Child is also my 12th. book for Bev's Mount TBR challenge.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Books read in March

March was another pretty good reading month for me. Ten books read again, bringing my total up to thirty books read so far this year. I suppose at some stage I'll slow down but at the moment ten books a month is feeling pretty comfortable. It could be I'm reading faster and also being inspired by the challenges I'm doing this year, including the start of Carl's Once Upon a Time VIII one a week or so ago.

Anyway, these are the books:

21. The Nine Tailors - Dorothy L. Sayers

22. Touch Not the Cat - Mary Stewart

23. Sisters of Sinai - Janet Soskice

24. West With the Night - Beryl Markham

25. Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout

26. The Middle-aged Mountaineer - Jim Curran

27. Gentleman of Fortune - Anna Dean

28. A Woman of Consequence - Anna Dean. I haven't reviewed these last two because it's sometimes impossible to review everything. They're books two and three in the Dido Kent series and suffice it to say I absolutely love the series and each one is a delightful read.

29. Among Others - Jo Walton

30. Madame Maigret's Own Case - Georges Simenon (To be reviewed)

So that was March's reading. Funny how the first book is only four weeks ago but feels like years. I'm pleased with three non-fictions, all of which were interesting books, in the case of West with the Night quite enthralling actually. Several of the fictions were also excellent, The Nine Tailors, Among Others and the two Anna Deans. Of those four I think the award for my favourite book of the month goes to:

Brilliant book which will stay with me for a long time.