Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Mount TBR 2015 Final checkpoint

Another year is almost at an end so it's time for the final checkpoint for Mount TBR 2015.

Bev has asked that we answer question one and then two if we feel inclined. (I do. :-))

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you've planted your flag on the peak, then tell us and celebrate (and wave!). Even if you were especially athletic and have been sitting atop your mountain for months, please check back in and remind us how quickly you sprinted up that trail. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting book adventures you've had along the way.

I signed on for Mont Blanc which was to read 24 books owned by you since before the 1st. January 2015. Happy to report that I planted my flag on the top of the mountain around about mid-December. All of the 24 books were good, particularly those I read in the first half of the year, for some strange reason. I look at the list and get a really good feeling about A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers, Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss, The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney, Agatha Christie's autobiography, Clear Waters Rising by Nicholas Crane, all read before May. Books read after that were fine too but that few months at the start of 2015 seemed to be particularly good. Odd.

2. The Year in Review According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate as many statements as you can with a book read on your journey up the Mountain.

Describe yourself: The Dark Horse

Describe where you currently live: Wildwood (I wish!)

If you could go anywhere where would you go?: Untrodden Peaks, Unfrequented Valleys

Every Monday morning I look/feel like: A Murder is Announced

The last time I went to the doctor/therapist was because: [Of] August Folly

The last meal I ate was: A Tiny Bit Marvellous

When a creepy guy/girl asks me for my phone number, I: [Use] Tooth and Claw

Ignorant politicians make me: [Think of] The Churchill Factor

Some people need to spend more time: [Reading by the] Fyre

My memoir could be titled: Point of Dreams

If I could, I would tell my teenage self: [To enjoy the] Summer Half

I've always wondered: [About] The Murder at the Vicarage

So that's Mount TBR for another year. Onwards and upwards now to 2016 and another stab at Mont Blanc. Can't wait.


Monday, 28 December 2015

2016 European Reading challenge

Ok, well I ummed and ahhed about this as I did say to myself that I would do hardly any challenges in 2016. *But* this one really appeals so I'm ashamed to say that I didn't um or ah very long when I saw it on Bev at My Reader's Block's blog. The challenge is the 2016 European Reading challenge.

The challenge is being hosted by Rose City Reader and the sign-up page is here.

THE GIST: The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country – it's supposed to be a tour. (Go to sign-up page for notes about the UK.)

WHAT COUNTS AS "EUROPE"?: For now, we will stick with the same list of 50 sovereign states that fall (at least partially) within the geographic territory of the continent of Europe and/or enjoy membership in international European organizations such as the Council of Europe. This list includes the obvious (the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy), the really huge Russia, the tiny Vatican City, and the mixed bag of Baltic, Balkan, and former Soviet states.

THE LIST: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.


FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries.

FOUR STAR (HONEYMOONER): Read four qualifying books.

THREE STAR (BUSINESS TRAVELER): Read three qualifying books.

TWO STAR (ADVENTURER): Read two qualifying books.

ONE STAR (PENSIONE WEEKENDER): Read just one qualifying book.

Rules are on the official sign-up page.

I shall try for the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE) category which is the five book option. I have 'loads' of books I can read for the challenge but won't list them at the moment... they will most likely be mainly non-fiction though and I'll be looking to get some books off the tbr pile. Looking forward to making a start on this one.


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Merry Christmas!

My family arrive tomorrow so I'll not be around much for the next few days. So for all those who celebrate at this time of year I hope you all have a very...

I hope your Christmas is all that you would like it to be... with lots of books naturally!


Sunday, 20 December 2015

A Couple of titles

Catching up a bit today. Naturally things are rather busy at this time of year so moments to read are rather snatched and a bit brief. I've been reading three books over the last couple of weeks, one, The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, is going to take me into 2016 I feel, but the other two have been excellent entertainment for a busy December.

First up, Don't Look Now a collection of weird short stories by Daphne Du Maurier:

This is a collection of five long short stories, so I'll briefly outline each one.

1) Don't Look Now is set in Venice and concerns a couple, Laura and John, who have recently lost a young daughter. The husband hopes the holiday will help to heal his wife's grief. While eating in a restaurant one night they notice two sisters, one of whom is blind. The sister who can see tells Laura that her blind sister can see their dead daughter at the table with them and that she is happy. Laura is convinced by what the sisters say but John is highly sceptical. From then on events spiral right out of control. This was a powerful story of loss and grief and how we each deal with it differently. There's a strong sense of Venice, even though I've not been there I was able to see it very clearly. I like the strangeness of the tale, it was made into a film in the 1970s which I didn't like half as much as the written story.

2) Not After Midnight is set on the island of Crete. A schoolmaster takes a holiday on Crete in order to paint. He's not happy with the accommodation he's given and forces the management to let him have a chalet that's not supposed to be in use until later in the year. The management are unexpectedly cagey about letting him have the chalet which is away from the main buildings, on the edge of the sea. Apparently the previous occupant died in mysterious circumstances. Across the inlet a couple have another chalet and the obnoxious husband invites him over but 'not after midnight'. The schoolmaster soon realises that there is something very odd indeed about the couple. This one held my interest from the beginning with it's meandering explanation of what happened to the main protagonist and how trouble found him even though he wasn't looking for it. The story, although set in the 1970s, had quite an old-fashioned feel to it... almost in the style of H.P Lovecraft I thought. Excellent... though the ending was a bit weak.

3) A Border-line Case. Actress, Shelagh, is at home helping to care for her dying father. She's alone in the house with him, staring out of the window when he sits up straight, stares at her, utters a few words and keels over, dead. After the funeral, Shelagh decides to go to Ireland to look up an old friend of her father's that he had lost touch with. Nick lives on an island in the middle of a lake and Shelagh decides to pose as a journalist in order to gain admittance to the home of this recluse. Her plan works but not before she becomes very concerned for her own safety. What's going on here? A nicely written 'Mary Stewart' sort of story with two twists, one of which I guessed from the beginning, the other not at all. I liked this story as well, although I did question the morality of the main characters.

4) The Way of the Cross. A group of tourists from a cruise ship stop off to visit Jerusalem. They're all from the same picturesque and wealthy village in southern England and are a motley crowd of well-heeled middle-aged couples and two newly-weds. Their own vicar was supposed to accompany them but is ill, so a young vicar from the north of England (Huddersfield I think it was) takes his place. The company is not happy. This was really a study of people and their behaviour. So astute was Daphne Du Maurier at judging people that I was reminded of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple stories, although this is not a murder mystery. The setting of Jerusalem was fascinating, the author clearly knew the city well and brings a lot of biblical and historical references to the tale. Not the strongest story in the collection, and not really strange in the manner that the others are, but I still enjoyed it very much.

5)The Breakthrough. An engineer is sent off to the wilds of coastal Norfolk to work with another group of scientists whose work is secretive and 'off the radar' so to speak. Reluctant to go, he does decide to stay once there, only to find the work being done is rather unsettling. It involves three machines, hypnosis, a child, and a young man dying of leukemia. I won't say any more as it would involve spoilers but this is a very odd story indeed... scientifically frightening and leaning towards science fiction in tone. It's extremely well excuted with a very strong sense of location. The marshes of the Norfolk coast feel very real indeed, increasing the sense of isolation and unease. I liked this a lot.

All in all, this is a very strong collection of short stories. Beautifully written, not that you would expect anything else from Daphne Du Maurier, but I was even more impressed than I thought I would be. Each story has a very strong sense of place and I liked the fact that very few of the characters were all that likeable... the ambiguity of most people's personalities was very nicely portrayed and that made for interesting, absorbing reading. Highly recommended.

Lastly, A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie.

An announcement in the personals section of the local paper reveals that a murder will take place in a certain house at a certain time in the village of Chipping Cleghorn. The villagers thinks it's a game and turn up to see what happens. What happens is that the lights go out, a man enters the room and fires a gun, leaves and then is found outside on the floor with a bullet in him. Suicide is assumed but Inspector Craddock is not happy and continues to investigate. Eventually Miss Marple arrives to help but so much about the case is terribly complicated, especially as it starts to be suspected that some people are not who they say they are...

An excellent Miss Marple story, although if I have one complaint it's that Miss Marple herself doesn't appear until about 80 pages into the book. I love her philosophising about humanity. She's an expert in people's weaknesses and the things they will do to get what they want and I could read endless pages of it quite frankly. So there wasn't enough of her in the book for my money, but still, an excellent murder mystery. Complicated, with lots of red herrings, and all life was there in the one small village. Christie was such a good portrayer of all kinds of people, I think like her own creation, Miss Marple, she must've been a keen student of the human condition. Super writing too, I thought this was just perfect:

"Miss Marple gave the [shop] window her rapt attention, and Mr. Elliot, an elderly obese spider, peeped out of his web to appraise the possibilities of this new fly"

I look forward to reading a lot more Agatha Christie in 2016 as I work my way through Bev's Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt challenge.

A Murder is Announced is my book 24 for Bev's 2015 Mount TBR Reading challenge.


Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016

I am keeping my reading challenges for 2016 to a bare minimum. I signed up for Bev's Mount TBR again as that's really useful and fun but I wanted one other that would be also be fun. My choice is to return to the vintage crime that I enjoy so much so I'll be doing Bev's Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt 2016.

This is slightly altered from her vintage bingo challenge of the last few years and I must say I love the idea of a scavenger hunt type of challenge.

The Rules:

*All books must be from the mystery category (crime fiction, detective fiction, espionage, etc.). The mystery/crime must be the primary feature of the book--ghost stories, paranormal, romance, humor, etc are all welcome as ingredients, but must not be the primary category under which these books would be labeled at the library or bookstore.

*For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Golden Age short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960. Please remember that some of our Golden Age Vintage authors wrote well after 1959--so keep an eye on the original publication date and apply them to the appropriate card. Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive). Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989. Yes, I admit my dates are arbitrary and may not exactly meet standard definitions of Golden or Silver Age.

*Minimum number of items to complete the challenge and to be eligible for the participation prize drawing at the end of the year is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era. If you choose to do both eras, you must use separate checklists. You may not, for example, find three golden age items and three silver age items to claim the minimum six.

*Challenge runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. Sign up any time between now and November 1, 2016. Any books read from January 1 on may count regardless of your sign-up date. If you have a blog, please post about the challenge and a little bit about your commitment—if you’re going Silver or Gold…or maybe both. Then sign up via the linky below. And please make the url link to your Challenge post and not your home page. (Links that do not follow this rule will be removed.) If you do not have a blog, links to an online list (Goodreads, Library Thing, etc.) devoted to this challenge are also acceptable OR you may comment below to indicate your sign up.

*"On the cover" may apply to either the front or the back cover of the book. For example, if you need a map or a chart for your scavenger hunt list, then Dell Mapbacks are perfect--with the map in question on the back cover. Also, the item should be found on the cover of the edition that you read. If at all possible either post a picture showing the item on the cover or provide a link to a page showing us. Exception: If the edition you read has no picture whatsoever (hardbacks that have no dust jacket or e-copies, for example), then you may go on another scavenger hunt online to find a cover image--again, please provide a link to the edition used. Bottom line: if I choose to check up on entries, I must be able to find the item claimed on a cover for the book read.

*No double-counting within the challenge. If a book's cover has both a shadowy figure and a weapon, you may only use it to check off one item from the list. You are welcome to change the item claimed at any time prior to submitting it for prizes.

*Books read for this challenge may be used for other challenges as well.

*Reviews are encouraged, but they are not necessary to participate. If you do not have a blog, post to the comments below that you intend to join and then post again at the end-of-year wrap-up site when you have completed your challenge (include a list of books read, categories you have completed, and how to find images of covers).

*A Headquarters link will appear on my sidebar once the new year begins. You can go there for review links and information.

1. Challengers who complete the minimum six books from a single era will be eligible for a drawing at the end of the year for a book from the prize list.
2. Challengers who complete 12 or more books (either from the same era or six from each era) will also be entered in a separate drawing--for another chance to win, again for their choice of a book from the prize list.

In addition:
1. There will be periodic check-in posts and drawings. I will choose specific scavenger items ahead of time (some time today, actually). Those who have already found those items will be eligible for bonus prizes.
2. A grand prize for the participant who finds the most objects overall. In case of a tie, there will be a tie-breaker round. Tie-breaker to be determined.

Please keep track of your progress and be prepared to submit a final wrap-up post or comment at the end of the year. Please DO NOT submit completion notifications prior to the posting of the Wrap-Up Link. Thank you.

This is the list of items to be found... I'll be doing the 'Gold' category. (Click to enlarge the pic.)

I have a feeling this is going to be a 'lot' of fun.


Tuesday, 8 December 2015

A Daughter's Tale

After a lapse of several months during the summer and early autumn I seem to be back on course with my non-fiction reading. The latest offering is A Daughter's Tale by Mary Soames.

Mary Soames (née Spencer-Churchill) was the youngest daughter of Winston and Clementine Churchill, born about a year after the death of their fourth child, Marigold. One of her abiding wishes throughout her life was that her birth had been some consolation to them in their loss. Hers was a priviledged upbringing naturally. The Churchills were connected to the dukes of Marlborough and although the family constantly had money problems they still lived the life of the upper class, high profile politician's family.

Mary had what can only be described as an idyllic childhood. A nanny who was a cousin of the family looked after her throughout her childhood so no nasty stories there and she was happy at her private school, loved by her family etc. One of the things that shines out of the book in fact, is what devoted parents Winston and Clementine were. They clearly adored all their children, made sure they spent time with them, wrote to them constantly when they were apart. I haven't read a massive amount about Winston Churchill's childhood (I plan to correct that at some stage) but what I have read indicates it wasn't hugely happy so I wonder if this closeness to his own children was a reaction to that...

Anyway, about two thirds of the book deals with the war years (WW2), what Mary did to serve her country and the trials and tribulations of her father's leadership of the country: being especially close to her father these affected her deeply. She was one of the first women to serve in the mixed anti-aircraft batteries and rose to the rank of Junior Commander. Being a bit cynical, I have to admit I wondered if it helped that she was Churchill's daughter but still, if she was a real dud I don't think she would have managed it. Plus some of the hoo-ha she attracted did genuinely seem to mortify her, so it's swings and roundabouts with this kind of thing. I suspect whatever she did she couldn't really win, poor woman.

All of this was fascinating. What did get a little tedious was all the relating of parties and lunches with Naice Gels with double-barrelled surnames, whose names would mean nothing to most people. And because of who she was I don't think she suffered as most ordinary people suffered during the war... she never mentions rationing for instance. Although she did lose close friends and worried endlessly about her father, so perhaps I'm being a trifle unfair.

I suppose I'm slightly ambiguous about this book. On the one hand it was very interesting historically... although at times I wanted *more*. More about the people she met... Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, Joseph Stalin and so on. More about the nitty-gritty of the war. But part of me felt slightly uneasy at this very priviledged girl's easy passage through life because of the family she was born into. How nice it would be if it was as easy for everyone.

Still, this was not a bad read. Mary Soame's writing style is very readable so no getting bogged down in the narrative. There was plenty to keep my interest and I especially enjoyed reading about Winston Churchill, the family man. The author died last year aged 92 and this was her last book, published in 2011, quite an achievement to write such a book in your late eighties! She also wrote a book about her mother, Clementine, which I think might bear reading at some stage. I seem to have discovered yet another reading theme...


Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Books read in November

I have no idea where November went. In fact, I have no idea where this whole year has gone. To be honest I find it more than a little scary. So I shall not dwell on it and move swiftly on. Books read during the month gone by numbered five, which is getting to be the average monthly total for me and I'm quite happy with that. I've enjoyed a nice relaxing reading year to be honest and plan to do exactly the same next year.

OK, on to the books:

52. Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places by Griff Rhys Jones

53. The Mountains of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg

54. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson

55. The Lake District Murder by John Bude

56. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie.

Reverand Clement, the vicar of St. Mary Mead, finds the dead body of Colonel Protheroe in his study in the vicarage. He's been shot through the head by persons unknown. The problem is that the colonel was an unpopular man and the suspects are numerous. Even the vicar was heard to say that anyone who murdered the man would be doing the world a service. Inspector Slack is brought in to solve the murder but he too is universally disliked and no one wants to talk to him. So it falls to the vicar and Miss Jane Marple to solve the puzzle of who shot Protheroe. Slack thinks it's all over when the prime suspect confesses. But is it? Miss marple is far from convinced, but if the main suspect hasn't done the deed, who has?

This was Agatha Christie's first Miss Marple story and also the first I've read. I don't know how, in all my years of reading, I've managed never to read a Miss Marple crime yarn, but there you go, it's a fact. And I really did enjoy The Murder at the Vicarage so it's a shame I've not tried them before. I thought I remembered seeing the Joan Hickson version of this and that I remembered who'd done it. Rubbish! It wasn't that person at all. LOL! I enjoyed the convoluted plot, the humour, Miss Marple's observations on the behaviour of people... I could read a whole book of those to be honest, so fascinated was I. All in all, great stuff and I plan to read more Agatha Christie next year.

Murder at the Vicarage is my book 23 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.

So, that's my November reading. Two good non-fictions, a sci-fi that didn't really come up to scratch, and two very good vintage crime yarns. Favourite book? The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson because it was a stonking good read and has awakened my interest in probably our most famous politician from history. Planning to read a *lot* more about him.


Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Mount TBR 2016

I shan't be doing many reading challenges next year but I always find Bev's Mount TBR ones fun and useful, even though I probably replace those books I read each year with new ones, so am basically getting nowhere... Anyhooo, moving swiftly on, next year it's Mount TBR '2016' of course.

The challenge levels are as follows:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

Rules can be found here.

I'll be doing exactly as I did this year and going for Mont Blanc, which is to read 24 book from my tbr pile. This worked very well for me this year; even though I didn't read that many from the pile I specifically set aside, the books all came off my tbr pile and that's what counts.

Yet again, I've created a pile of books that I want to read from and this is they:

As always, click for a larger view. The sharp-eyed may notice a bit of a theme going on here, apart from the fact that they're all non-fiction that is. Each book is about the British countryside or Britain in general. There's walking, swimming, yachting, even a bookshop on a barge... and goodness knows what else on the shelf... all of it concerned with the UK. I'm not expecting to read all of these by any means. In fact, if I read half a dozen I'll be quite happy as I do have plenty of others I want to get to next year, including some chunky fiction. I'm looking forward to next year's reading already.


Monday, 23 November 2015

The Lake District Murder

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (co-founder of the Crime Writer's Association) was not quite a 'random grab' from the library... that hints at a book never heard of before and I was well aware of this British Library Crime Classic when I saw it on the library shelf. I'd seen reviews on blogs and mentions on Goodreads so I was pleased to see it and happily grabbed it to read. The cover, a railway poster of Ullswater, is gorgeous but isn't credited to any particular painter on the back cover, which is a shame in my view.

Edited to add: Margaret at Booksplease tells me that the artist is John Littlejohns, a Cornish artist.

The body of the part-owner of a garage business, Jack Clayton, is discovered in a car in the garage and because of the circumstances it's assumed he's committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning. Inspector Meredith of the Cumbrian police is not convinced though. The man was clearly just about have a meal, why would he suddenly decide to go and kill himself? He was engaged to be married too, a contented man by all accounts. Meredith checks the Clayton's bank account and is surprised to discover that the part-owner of a garage that's only doing averagely well has rather a large nest egg. Further enquiries bring forth the information that he and his fiance were going to emigrate to Canada after the wedding but that his partner in the business, a man named Higgins, was unaware of this.

Meredith soon has his prime suspects but is distracted by their involvement in what might be a petrol delivery scam. Really he has two cases to solve and everyone involved in one case seems to be involved in the other. Surely they must be connected? Meredith's task is to find that connection and then prove it. Easier said than done.

OK, well this is no 1930s Agatha Christie type yarn with a body in the library or someone done away with in a stately home or on the 4.50 from Paddington. It reminded me more of Dorothy L. Sayers' writing in that it goes into clues and methods and timings in minute detail. You needed your wits about you to follow it, to be honest, and weirdly I did actually manage to do that, unlike Dorothy L. Sayers who was so clever she did sometimes lose me. Where it differs from Sayers (and Christie) is that this is very much a police procedural story which outlines how very difficult their job can be when there are few leads, or when they know who's done the deed but have to prove it so that it'll stand up in a court of law.

The Lake District setting was good but not brilliant, I didn't get an amazing sense of place but that's because these days we think of The Lake District mainly as a beautiful tourist destination (forgetting that people live and work there perhaps) whereas back then it was possibly a bit less so. This book focuses more on the everyday lives of the resident population and is thus, probably, more real. Although, where there are descriptions of the mountains and countryside they are nicely observed.

I thought this was not a bad book. Not wonderful, but not bad. For me it lacked the kind of characterisation where I identified strongly with the detective. In Sayers' books this is not lacking - I adore Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet - and that makes for a big difference. Big enough that I give her books a four or a five on Goodreads and this one got a three. I enjoyed it well enough but wasn't transported into ecstasies by it.

There are quite a few of these reissued British Library Crime Classics around now... all with gorgeous covers but from what I can see the quality of the stories varies a bit. I own one other, Mystery in White by J.Jefferson Farjeon, a Christmas mystery which I'll be reading soon along with some other Christmas books. I'll also keep an eye out for other BLCC books as I think the idea of reissuing 'lost' crime classics from the 1930s is a really excellent one.


Monday, 16 November 2015

The Churchill Factor

I was given The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson for Christmas last year and was absolutely determined to get to it this year, preferably around the time of Rememberance Sunday and Armistice Day, which was last Wednesday of course. For once I managed to do exactly what I planned! Miracles will never cease to be...

It's funny how some books often turn out to be not what you expect... very often they don't quite live up to your expectations, which is always a bit disappointing. The Churchill Factor was that rarity, a book that 'did exactly what it said on the tin' (British advert reference for those wondering). Boris Johnson is the current mayor of London (his two-stint term ends next year and someone else will be elected to the position). Like him or loathe him (and many do both) he has a certain eccentric charm about him that I hoped would transfer to his writing. It did. In spades. The book was everything I was hoping for, ie. a sort of conversational introduction to the life and times of Winston Churchill.

This is not at all a literary tome chronicling the life of Churchill from birth to death with everything in between. It starts in 1940 when Churchill and the country are in crisis. The war is going so badly Britain is on the point of being annilated by Nazi Germany. Quite a large percentage of the House of Commons and the British public are in favour of appeasing Hitler and making a deal: 'selling out' in other words. I honestly did not know we came that close or how many people were in favour of it. In the end Churchill managed to persuade the country and Parliament to fight on but things could easily have been very different. Johnson makes the case that no other man could've have done what he did, making us fight on and having the strength and charisma to get us through WW2. Looking at other contenders as he does, it's easy to see what he means.

Basically this is a book about Winston Churchill's character. What was he like? What made him tick? 'Warts and all' is an over-used term but it's almost true here. Johnson goes into all the man's character traits, his meglomania, his charm, his work-ethic, his honesty, his eccentricities (there were many), his capacity for drinking and so on. I say 'almost' because I did slightly feel that Johnson was almost too eager to explain away some of the more questionable decisions Churchill made. The bombing of the French fleet at Mers-El-Kébir for instance, the description of that shook me a bit. That said, it was war and someone had to take these horrendous decisions, rightly or wrongly. None of us can really put ourselves into the position of a man like Churchill... in charge of taking a country through a world war and 'winning' the thing.

Reading this book it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Churchill was a bit mad. He fought in several wars and constantly put his own life at risk in a very gung-ho manner. A real 'Boy's Own Hero'. Johnson suspects he did it partly to impress his father who basically ignored him, but also because he was a huge self-publicist and loved reading about himself doing brave things in the papers! Complex isn't in it. We're all a mix of good and bad, selfish and unselfish, but Churchill is about as complicated as anyone I've ever read about.

I have say, I think Boris Johnson handles writing about this complex man very skilfully indeed. There's a lovely, amusing turn of phrase all the way through:

'Sometimes he could be Gibbonian; sometimes he was more of a funky Gibbon;'

And referring to one, Henry Labouchere, an anti-semetic who wanted to criminalise homosexual activity and who made endless allegations about Churchill's leadership, as 'an ocean-going creep'.

I wish I'd noted more quotes but I got so wrapped up in reading the book I forgot to note pages.

Churchill likewise had a brilliant sense of humour but Johnson makes the point that many of the famous Churchillian quotes we all know are sadly not true, they were made by others etc. I did love Churchill's way of signing off his letters with KBO. It stands for Keep Buggering On... so typical of men of that generation. My mother used to say, 'Keep your pecker up'. I suspect there were any number of encouraging sayings that people used during the war that we might deem a bit odd nowadays...

I could go on and on and on about this book. For me to read a non-fiction book in four days there has to be something special about it and for me it has to be its conversational tone. Johnson meanders about all over the place timewise, one minute you're in Parliament at the start of WW2, the next you're on the battlefields of WW1 and then suddenly you're hearing about Jennie, Churchill's mother. It sounds chaotic and I suppose it is a bit, but it works. I would say that this is probably not a book for your Churchill expert. I don't imagine (though I might be wrong) that they would learn anything new. But for me, with just a little knowledge of the man, it was perfect. I loved it and it's even better than that because I so wanted to like it.. and actually did. It lived up to my expectations and actually... that's a bit rare.

The Churchill Factor is my book 22 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.


Monday, 9 November 2015

Catching up

Two books to do brief reviews of today and the theme is very definitely mountainous. If you don't care for mountainous, chilly - even arctic - conditions then look away now. Nothing to see here...

First up, Mountain: Exploring Britain's High Places by Griff Rhys Jones.

This is the book based on the author's BBC TV series of the same name which was aired in 2007. (Was is it really that long ago? Heavens...) I watched it at the time and then watched the repeats earlier this year which the Beeb put out in the afternoons. Very enjoyable and right up my street. Comedian, Griff Rhys Jones, is a very amiable, self-deprecating presenter of TV documentaries and, given the evidence of this book, not at all a bad writer. His mission was to climb some of the highest mountains in Britain and given he was not at all a climber this was quite a task. About a third of the book concentrates on areas in Scotland, naturally, because that's where most of our major mountains are. That suited me fine as it's a country I love... plus the photos of the scenery were utterly stunning. Possibly there were a few too many of the author himself but there you go... it's his book. I found it less interesting when he moved on to England and Wales although even then his commentary was never less than readable and often very funny. Anyone living overseas interested in the UK could do a lot worse than order the dvds - if they're available in other formats - of this series as it really is scenically stunning and very watchable.

Next, The Mountains of Majipoor by Robert Silverberg. (Never let it be said that I'm not an equal opportunities mountain reader as this is science fiction. Yes, I really am nerdy enough to search out mountains in my fictional reading as well as non-fiction...)

Having fallen out of favour for shooting a rare animal on land owned by an influential member of the ruling classes, Prince Harpirias, a minor noble, is banished to the city of Ni-Moya close to the frozen wastes in the north of the planet of Majipoor. He vegitates there until a message comes through that he's to lead an expedition north into the mountains to rescue a team of archaeologists who've been kidnapped for trespassing on land owned by an unknown tribe. This is the last thing Harpirias wants to do but he is eventually persuaded. He travels north with a motley band of soldiers and the guide, a shape-shifter, who is to be his interpreter. The kidnappers turn out to have a town nestled in a frozen valley, surrounded by massive mountains. They are also quite barbaric and Harpirias will have his work cut out to rescue the unfortunate prisoners.

I kind of wanted more from this book given it was written in 1995. To me that's late enough for a plot that's more complex than just 'explorer chappy goes north to meet with primitive culture, has sex with king's daughter and comes home'. Ok, the setting of the mountainous, frozen wasteland was nicely described which is why it got a three from me on Goodreads rather than a two. Plus, I realise this is book four in a loosely connected series ('Majipoor: Lord Valentine') and I've only read book one... which I actually thought was rather good. But still... I was disappointed and grieved a bit for what the book 'could' have been. The 'barbaric' villagers were terribly formulaic, Harpirias himself was really quite unpleasant, and the only female character was there for the sex... I mean 'really'? I must add that this is just my opinion, 'Your mileage may vary' as they say but I did an awful lot of eye-rolling as I read it. Possibly if it had been written in the 1950s or 60s I might have given it a 'lot' more leeway but I simply didn't think it was good enough for 1995.


Sunday, 1 November 2015

Books read in October

It's been a busy week so I haven't read or posted much and I've loads to catch up on. This monthly post needs doing and also a wrap up post for R.I.P X.

But before I do that I just wanted to share a few interesting links I came across recently.

Firstly, this is an article about the yew tree by nature writer, Richard Mabey, from his new book, The Cabaret of Plants. Fascinating.

Next, a spooky story from Scotland and perfect for Halloween. (I know that was yesterday but...)

And lastly, with the run-up to Rememberance Day on the 11th., a WW2 story that I was completely unaware of. Tragic that the misguided enthusiasm of so many young girls and women could have been so badly taken advantage of.

OK, onto the books.I read five in October (one, Wildwood, I've been reading for months but finished it this month so am counting it for October.)

47. Wildwood by Roger Deakin.

48. Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton.

49. The Saint Germain Chronicles by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

50. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

51. An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins.

A few words about this one as I haven't had time to review it. This is the first instalment of famous 'thinker' and athiest, Richard Dawkin's autobiography. The first half to two thirds of the book deal with his childhood in Africa and at public school in England when his family moved back here. This was all delghtful and interesting and I liked the way he meandered all over the place with his thoughts and opinions on all kinds of subjects. It got less interesting, in my opinion anyway, when he dwelt a little too much on the detail of his scientific research at university and later... chicks and their pecking etc. It would be of interest to other scientists I'm sure but I found myself skim reading whole sections. Still, overall I thought it was very good and will read the second volume, Brief Candle in the Dark, which is just out, at some stage.

So that was October... a fairly varied month reading-wise. Two non-fictions, which I'm very pleased about, not having read any for quite a while. My non-fiction reading is waaaay down on last year's total of 21, no way will I do that this year. I don't have a standout favourite book, all were good reads apart from The Saint Germain Chronicles which I found not 'terrible' exactly, but a bit disappointing. I'm pleased to have had a good new series recced that I enjoyed the first book of: Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton, and a new author to explore, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Makes you quite excited about reading, doesn't it?


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Lolly Willowes

My fifth book for the R.I.P. X challenge is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Laura, known as 'Lolly', Willowes is a young woman utterly devoted to her father. Unmarried with two older brothers to whom she is not particularly close, Laura and her father have been inseparable since the death of her mother. When he too suddenly dies it is decided for her that she should go to live with her older brother, Henry, and his wife and two children in London. Laura acquiesces without too much of a fight though she's not sure if it's what she really wants.

For the next twenty years Laura's life is that of the maiden dependent aunt. Her brother's family are not unkind but they take for granted that she will be an unpaid child minder and housekeeper. She adapts to London life quite well even though her preferance is very much for a quiet life in the country. But there is no returning to that as her other brother, James, and his wife now inhabit her childhood home.

Then one day Laura stops to buy some chrysanthemums in a florist shop. Questioning the shop owner she discovers the flowers have been grown in the Chiltern hills in Buckinghamshire. Straightaway she visits a bookshop and picks up a guidebook to the county. She studies it carefully and decides to leave her brother's house to go and live in a village she likes the sound of, Great Mop. There is some resistance to her plan, naturally, but Laura is determined and takes up lodgings with a Mrs. Leak.

The village is an odd one. It is undoubtedly very beautiful and exceedlingly peaceful, set amongst rolling hills and wooded valleys. But the people are not terribly friendly... nor are they precisely hostile... they're just rather indifferent. They go about their business and that business never includes Laura. Which suits Laura down to the ground because, after twenty years of being at everyone's beck and call, what she really wants is to be quiet, alone, to go unnoticed.

And so it goes for quite a while until her nephew, Titus, announces that he plans to write a book and in order to do so is going to come and live with Laura in Great Mop. Laura's rural idyll is shattered. Titus is popular in the village, a 'character'. He likes to acompany her on her walks and gets her to help with writing up his book and so on. Laura is once again at the mercy of 'family'. What can she do to solve this problem?

This might not seem like an obvious choice for the RIP challenge but the last third of the book proves that it very much is, albeit in a much more subtle, satirical manner than your more obvious 'in your face' horror story. The countryside is the star of the show here, and what may or may not go on in the woods and fields that ordinary mortals have no knowledge of. It reminded me strongly of supernatural stories Algernon Blackwood wrote about the Canadian backwoods, all beautiful descriptions of wooded valleys but with an underlying sense of the mystical and unknown. Very clever.

Of course reality is never far away. Laura knows this because she's had to live the 'real' life of a dependant relative for twenty years and can never quite get rid of the feeling that it will catch up with her eventually, which of course it does. It's not that her family are cruel, in fact quite the reverse, the problem is that Laura's life is not her own. She's living it according to her family's expectations of what a maiden aunt should be. It was an extremely common story just after World War One when this story was set. So many men were killed that there was a surplas of single women, and for women of Laura's class a career, 'earning your own living', was out of the question. You went to live with relatives and said relatives thought that you ought to think yourself lucky. I thoroughly enjoyed reading a tale of a woman who decides to break the mould and in such an unusual way to boot.

In my library book copy the introduction is written by author, Sarah Waters. I read that after I'd finished the book, as I often do, and found that an interesting and informative read. Sylvia Townsend Warner was clearly a fascinating woman, breaking the mould herself by living with a female partner for forty years until her partner's death. Not only would I like to read more of the author's fiction, I'd also like to read more about her life... I believe there are diaries available and so forth. Always a good thing to discover yet another reading tangent to go off on: you just never know where it will lead in my experience.


Friday, 16 October 2015

Two R.I.P X titles

A couple of titles for this year's R.I.P challenge today. First up is Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton, my third book for the challenge.

London policewoman, DC Lacey Flint, is returning to her car one night after an interview with a potential witness. Leaning against her car is a woman who's been brutally stabbed: Lacey is unable to save her and she dies. She finds herself working closely with the Major Investigation Team who're called in to investigate the murder. Her new colleagues are not all to Lacey's liking, especially as it seems one of the men suspects Lacey of the killing. It's not long before a connection is made between the murder and Jack the Ripper's first murder, date, circumstances and so on. Lacey being an expert on the Victorian serial killer finds herself even more to the fore in the investigation. When another body is found brutally murdered on the anniversary of the second Ripper killing it's quite clear they have a copy-cat serial murderer on their hands. How can Lacey help catch the killer and still keep hidden the secrets she's harboured for many years?

I probably wouldn't have picked this up off my own bat but Margaret at Booksplease has been recommending the series lately and my curiosity was piqued. And I'm really glad as this was a cracking read. *Not*, I should add, for the faint-hearted as it pulls no punches when it comes to describing the mutilated bodies. If you can cope with that and enjoy trying to unravel a complicated plot and guess a main character's secrets then the series is well worth a try. The tie-in with Jack the Ripper worked very well for me, loads of interesting info such as the fact that the original murders spawned many copy-cat killings and police had a really tough time deciding which ones were 'canonical' murders and which were not. Plus, journalists and police added to the confusion by making 'facts' up so no one really had any idea *what* was going on. No wonder they never caught him. There's also a fascinating theory on who the murderer was in Now You See Me. Worth reading just for that. I shall definitely grab book 2 from the library and hope to read the 4 (or is it 5... Fantastic Fiction has 4 listed and an unnumbered one underneath?) books that have been written so far.

My fourth book for this year's R.I.P challenge is The Saint Germain Chronicles by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro.

This short story book comprises five short stories involving Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's vampire hero, The Compte de St. Germain. I'll just go briefly through each one.

1. The Spider Glass. This is a story told around the fire with six guests attending and listening, set in Edwardian times. The narrator is an English aristocrat and he's retelling the story of what happened to one of his female ancestors in the 17th. century. Her and her son were left abandoned in Paris with no way of fending for themselves. She was so desperate she tried to rob a stranger who turned out to be the vampire, The Compte de St. Germain. The story describes how she became suspicious of his lifestyle and what she did about it. This was not a bad story actually. Told in the tradition of English ghost or weird tales... around the fire with some fascinated listeners. The end was no surprise but I enjoyed it nevertheless.

2. Renewal. James, a war correspondant, has been involved in a motor accident in France in the middle of WW2. The other passengers are all killed and James wanders off and heads for the house where he and his lover, Madelaine, were so happy, hoping to find her there. She's away and instead he finds an enigmatic count there - St. Germain. Interesting little story. You're drip fed information but again the outcome is not a surprise to anyone who reads a lot of this kind of thing.

3. Art Songs. A short little story that takes place in a concert hall. It underlines the deeply loving relationship between St. Germain and Madelaine and introduces the idea that the vampire will have move to America to avoid being investigated for his business holdings and strange lifestyle.

4. Seat Partner. St. Germain sits next to a young woman on the plane to the USA. She tells him about her life. He deduces that she's living her life as others want her to rather than as she wants. Interesting little vignette.

5. Cabin 33 St. Germain and his companion come manservant, Roger, are now living in the USA and running a log cabin holiday business in the Rocky mountains. But something is the matter with one of his young guests. She seems listless to the point of illness and her parents don't seem in control of the situation. Someone needs to investigate and it falls to St. Germain to be the one.

The stories are also interspersed with letters the vampire sends to various people in the stories and at the end there's an essay by the author about The Compte de Saint Germain.

Twenty five years ago I would have adored this book. I'd just discovered the St. Germain series after finding Cabin 33 in an anthology of vampire stories. I subsequently managed to find the first three books in secondhand bookshops here in the UK... American books published in the days before the internet... nothing short of a miracle really. I adored them all... and wanted this short story volume more than I can say but couldn't find it anywhere.

Fast-forward twenty five years and purchasing a copy from Amazon Marketplace was easy-peasy (we don't know we're born now). What a shame I seem to have outgrown the books. I still like Cabin 33... it's the only short story I have ever finished reading and immediately gone back to the beginning and read it all over again. I also liked the first story, The Spider Glass, but the rest just felt like so much padding and I found it disappointing. A few years ago I read a couple of the later instalments of the novels of this series (there are 27) and didn't enjoy them all that much. I thought they got bogged down in historical detail, as though the author had done her research and was determined to use it all. Ah well, never mind, some you win...


Sunday, 11 October 2015

Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

My 21st. book for the Mount TBR 2015 challenge is Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin.

The trouble with taking months to read a book is that by the time you get to the end you've forgotten what you read at the beginning. (And it doesn't help that I haven't the first idea how to go about reviewing a book like this either.) I'm not at all sure when I actually started this non-fiction book, possibly as far back as May or June, I know I abandoned it for a couple of months as I felt I wasn't really connecting with it. Anyway, I decided to pick it up again a couple of weeks ago because having got over a third of the way through it seemed a shame to give up on it.

The book is basically a celebration of trees... woodlands, forests and single trees; the fruits of those forests, the people who use them, what they do with the wood or fruit, how they make a living and so on. The author spent a lot of time camping out in woodlands, or on his own land where he had an old caravan affair he would spend summer nights in. The writing is rather beautiful and it was interesting reading about his experiences living out in the natural world and the wildlife he encounters.

There are also several chapters on his childhood. He attended an independent school where an inspirational teacher took classes of boys camping in the New Forest to study everything about a small area of woodland. They kept valuable records of the flora and fauna and a generation of boys were inspired to take an interest in the natural sciences.

Deakin covers quite a few areas of the country for the book: The Forest of Dean, parts of Devon, Essex, Hampshire, Suffolk, where he lived. We learn about moths, rookeries, bluebell woods, collecing driftwood on the coast and much, much more.

I rather thought that this was a book entirely about the British countryside until I turned a page and suddenly the author was walking in the Pyrenees. Huh? All of a sudden it became an overseas travelogue. I was not expecting that. After the Pyrenees he moved on to The Carpathian mountains to walk through forests with a friend who was retracing her father's footsteps as he ran from the Nazis in WW2. Then Deakin is off to Kazakhstan to look for the origins of the apple amongst the wild apple woods of the Tien Shan Mountains. From there he travels to southern Kyrgyzstan to learn about the walnut forests from the people who spend months each year camping there, harvesting the nuts. He met and stayed with local families and learnt about a way of life very few people know about in the west. I certainly had no idea that a large proportion of the world's walnut crop is grown in Kyrgyzstan. I wasn't even quite sure where it was to be honest - it's in Central Asia and has borders with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, capital city, Bishkek. I love having my knowledge of the world enhanced by reading books such as this.

Personally, although I quite enjoyed the the beginning sections of the book that dealt mainly with the British countryside, the book really took off when he went travelling overseas. That's just me though. I'm very much into mountainous locations and loved hearing more about places I'd read about in Clear Waters Rising by Nicholas Crane. But also the completely new regions - to me - of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and the mountains and forests that exist there.

The saddest thing was that I knew before I started that this was Roger Deakin's last book. Wildwood was published after his death from a brain tumour in 2006, aged 63. To lose a writer such as this is a real tragedy. Not enough people write about the beauty of nature and the diversity of the peoples of our world in such a meaningful and sympathetic way. I only gave it a three on Goodreads: if it were possible it would have been a three and a half. A lot of it worked for me but some of it didn't. Long sections on Australia just didn't connect with me and I found myself skim reading those. Others might enjoy those of course, just depends on your outlook. Anyway, I'd really like to read his book on wild swimming, Waterlog, at some stage and next year plan to use Bev's Mount TBR challenge to read a lot more non-fiction like this. (It's also made me want to read The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy as Deakin mentions the book all the way through his own book.) I have already made a pile... Say no more. ;-)


Thursday, 8 October 2015

Mount TBR check point #3

Doesn't seem five minutes since I began the year intending to climb Mount Blanc by reading 24 books for Bev's Mount TBR 2015. Now here we are three quarters of the way through the year and it's time for check point number 3 already!

Bev would like us to do two things. Firstly:

1. Tell us how many miles you've made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you're really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you've read correlates to actual miles up Pike's Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc.

Of the 24 books required for the Mont Blanc category I've read almost 21, (just coming to the end of book 21.) I should have read 18 so I'm 3 books ahead, which I'm very pleased about. Instead of being three quarters of the way up the mountain, I'm seven eighths of the way there. Just 3 more books to go so hopefully I shall complete this challenge (unlike one or two others I could mention...)

2. Complete ONE (or more if you like) of the following:

A. Who has been your favorite character so far? And tell us why, if you like.

B. Pair up two of your reads using whatever connection you want to make. Written by the same author? Same genre? Same color cover? Both have a main character named Clarissa? Tell us the books and what makes them a pair.

C. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

D. Choose 1-4 titles from your stacks and using a word from the title, do an image search. Post the first all-eyes-friendly picture associated with that word.

So, I'm going to do 'B'.

I shall pair up Clear Waters Rising by Nicholas Crane:

And the book I'm just finishing, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin.

The reason I'm pairing these two up came as a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise. One of my reading interests is 'mountains' and in Clear waters Rising the author, Nicholas Crane, walks across Europe via a continuous line of different mountain ranges. Excellent. Loved it. When I started Wildwood I never imagined there would a connection as it seemed to be all about woods in The British Isles. Well not quite. Halfway through the book he's suddenly in the Pyrenees and I'm transported right back to March and Crane's trek through that beautiful mountain range. Both men loved the people and the scenery. A few chapters on and Deakin is in The Carpathians, a range in Eastern Europe - The Ukraine, Poland etc - just like Nicholas Crane later in his book. This range seems a very different kettle of fish somehow. More challenging, the area politically sensitive, its people not necessarily friendly. The reader can feel that the two authors are a lot less comfortable here, uneasy, life is harder and thus walking for tourists is too. It was fascinating to be honest. I really love coming across these coincidences in books so this fits my answer to this question perfectly.

I've thoroughly enjoyed doing the Mount TBR challenge again this year. Attempting less books has definitely worked for me as it's less stressful and easily acheiveable. I'll certainly be doing it again next year and have even started to sort my books for it. I know...


Saturday, 3 October 2015

Jigsaw puzzles

Folllowing up on my recent post where I posted a pic of a jigsaw puzzle I did recently, that I had loved doing, several people seemed interested in this hobby so I thought I would post some pics of my favourites over the past couple of months. This isn't the first time I've posted about jigsaw puzzles but it's a while since I have so it's time. :-)

I found this one in a charity shop and it is a real place... I found out where it was in the summer but have now forgotten again. The puzzle had really odd shapped pieces which I always enjoy in a puzzle.

This is an American puzzle. I can't remember whether my daughter found this in a local library where they have a jigsaw lending section or whether I found it in a charity shop. Whatever, it's always a pleasure to get to do puzzles from across the pond. I believe this is a scene from a NP in Oregon or Washington state.

Another charity shop find, this time the scene is Scottish, Perthshire if I recall. I always grab any snowscenes I find.

Loved doing this one, all the different scenes of seabirds, beach scenes and National Trust properties really appealed and it was like doing dozens of seperate little puzzles.

This is a German puzzle (Ravensburger) so this maybe a German mill scene. Not sure. But I always enjoy doing reflections in puzzles so grabbed this one quick from a charity shop.

Thrilled to find this American fantasy/folklore/history style puzzle in a charity shop! Just my kind of thing and really expensive on Amazon. Huge fun to do.

I don't usually struggle too much with puzzles but this one was really hard. I went wrong numerous times with all those red leaves and couldn't see why. The end result was beautiful though.

So that's a few of the puzzles I've done recently. To be honest it's part of the reason my reading has dropped off a bit but I'm enjoying them immensely and life's far too short to not do what you fancy in your spare time.


Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Books read in September

September is always a busy month for me as it's the main harvesting month for produce grown in the garden. At the moment we're peeling heaps of shallots for the freezer but also preparing tomatoes, courgettes, apples and more... also for the freezer. It's sometimes an exercise in logistics finding room in it... in fact a friend refers to our freezer as The Tardis. LOL! Anyhow, I still found some time to read and this month read five books. These are they:

42. Little Beach Street Bakery - Jenny Colgan

43. Death du Jour - Kathy Reichs

44. River Marked - Patricia Briggs

45. Terra Incognita - Ruth Downie

Roman Medicus, Gaius Petreius Ruso, finds himself heading north from Deva (modern-day Chester) to the borders of England and Scotland, a wild and lawless area where his housekeeper, Tilla, originates. Expecting a quiet time, Ruso is of course quickly disabused of this fanciful notion with an accident on the road which is not an accident, the appearance of a sinister antlered individual whom Tilla thinks is a god, and the murder of a Roman soldier. It's a real can of worms and Ruso soon wishes himself back in Deva as the powers that be assume he, with a track record of solving a murder, can help solve this one. Really enjoyed this second instalment of this 'Roman Empire in Britania' series. The sense of place is very strong, it seems to me that plenty of research has been done as to landscape, buildings, costume, conditions and so forth, plus the books are good mysteries with quite a lot of wry humour. Poor Ruso's life is endlessly complicated by people constantly taking advantage of his honourable nature and also by the wonderful Tilla. I will definitely read a lot more of this series.

46. The Violins of Saint-Jacques - Patrick Leigh Fermor

The narrator of this story meets Frenchwoman, Berthe de Rennes, on an island in the Aegean. She's lived a long and interesting life and likes to talk about it... and the narrator becomes interested in the time she spent on an island in the Caribbean, Saint-Jacques in the Antilles. Newly inpoverished, she had gone there to distant relations to be a governess to the family's children. Berthe becomes immersed in their way of life, falls in love and is fallen in love with, and all against the backdrop of a stunningly beautiful volcanic island. That basically is the book. There isn't a huge plot, just the intricacies of people's lives and how their dramas all come together at the annual Mardi Gras ball... about which there is a lot of detail. What raises this book above the ordinary is the contents of the last 20 pages. I suspected the outcome but wasn't prepared for the brilliant and devastating way in which it was written, which of course made it even more shocking than it might otherwise have been. I was going to give the book a 4 on Goodreads but made it a 5 because of the ending. Patrick Leigh Fermor is best known for his travel writing of course, I'm not sure if this is his only fictional book, I think it might be, which is a real shame. Parts of this book will live with me for a long time.

So that's it. Today is the last day of September and I can't believe how quickly this month has flown by. I intended to read more but didn't do too badly all told. The mix is interesting - no one book was like any other which is probably a bit unusual for me. I don't have a favourite book, all of them were very good and that makes me a happy bunny.

We're well and truly into autumn now and October is one of my favourite months for reading so I'm looking forward to it. To close here's a photo of my favourite of the jigsaw puzzles I completed this month. Click for a larger view.


Tuesday, 22 September 2015

R.I.P. X post

Some reading for RIP X today. Firstly, my second book for the challenge, River Marked by Patricia Briggs, followed by a few short stories of a supernatural bent.

Mercy Thompson, who is a 'walker' - a human who can turn into a coyote - is on honeymoon with her new husband, Adam, the Alpha of the local werewolf pack. They're in a motorhome on the borders of Washington State and Oregon, miles from civilisation. It should be an idyllic honeymoon. What they don't realise is that the death-rate in the river they're camped beside has soared over recent months, someone or some'thing' is luring people to their deaths in the water. It doesn't take long for Mercy to have an encounter with the culprit, Mercy, after all, attracts trouble like moths to a flame. But this is something different to her normal kind of trouble... vampires, fae, werewolves... and in order to defeat it Mercy will need every weapon available to her including that of her Indian heritage.

Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson series is one of my favourite urban horror/fantasy series and I usually try to read at least one every year for R.I.P. As usual it was an excellent read, made more interesting for me because of its wilderness and river background and the inclusion of a lot of Native American folklore. There were many revelations about who she is as well and naturally she's not who she, or we, thought she was. All intriguing and hopefully more of that to come in future books. Her relationship with Adam has also developed, and is still developing, and that too is always as interesting as the actual plot. Good series, though I'm not keen on that cover... it sexualises Mercy in a way that she isn't in the books. No matter, I read in it ebook form so didn't have to look at it.

As well as reading it for RIP, River Marked is also my book 20 for Bev's Mount TBR 2015 challenge.

Next, some short stories for:

And the book I've been reading creepy stories from is this:

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe. (First published 1840.)

The Gold Bug is a story set in the vicinity of Charleston, South Carolina. (I seem to be specialising in stories set in that state at the moment...) The narrator has a friend he visits on a lonely island just off the coast. The friend finds a golden beetle that looks like a skull and it bites him. Said friend becomes obsessed with this thing and I won't add any more as that would involve spoilers. The story is really well written in that lovely old-fashioned manner that I love. I also like the way that authors from that era had no problem with close friendships between men. This is a weird story rather than a ghostly one... I don't mind either to be honest... and I thought it was quite good.

The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar is *very* weird. The narrator is a mesmerist and realises that no one has ever mesmerised someone who is in articulo mortis... on their death bed. So he finds a way to do it. Naturally. LOL! I liked this one too. Well written and nicely creepy.

MS Found in a Bottle is a story of a ship lost in a violent storm. Good descriptions of the storm but this one didn't really work for me. I thought it got a bit bogged down in all the detail. I couldn't really follow it too well... it's probably me being a bit slow.

The Premature Burial is an unusual mix of what I 'assume' to be factual accounts of people who were buried alive, when their relatives thought they were dead, and a fictional ending involving the narrator. The former were thoroughly alarming if I'm honest. (It also begs the question, 'How many people who were cremated were still alive?' but we won't go there...) Fascinating... but horrifying. Then it materialises that the narrator himself suffers from catalepsy, a condition where patients lapse into a kind of coma that so closely resembles death that hardly anyone can tell the difference. I won't say anymore but I liked the ending and the whole story to be honest. The real cases were interesting and the mix of two kinds of story telling worked very well and really kept my interest.

The first three stories were the first in the book and then someone listed a few good ones for me and The Premature Burial was one of those. I've neglected Edgar Allan Poe for years because I'd read a few stories by him in various anthologies and not been that struck. Not sure why. Having tried him again I'm revising that opinion somewhat and will definitely read all the stories in this collection for R.I.P. X.


Sunday, 13 September 2015

Death du Jour

My first book for the R.I.P. X challenge is Death du Jour by Kathy Reichs.

The story begins with forensic anthropologist, Dr. Temperance Brennan, exhuming the remains of a nun buried at the end of the 19th. century, in the remains of an old church in Montreal. She returns home exhausted but there's no rest for the wicked as not many hours later she's called out to help investigate an arson attack. A family, parents and two babies, have been murdered and Tempe also discovers the charred remains of an elderly woman in the basement. It proves impossible to discover who they all are as the neighbours don't know them and clues in the remains of the house are non-existant.

Tempe returns to her other job in the university in Charlotte, North Carolina, but it's not long before a colleague from Montreal, Andrew Ryan, calls about the arson case. He's travelling south to pick up the trail of the dead family. Phone calls have been traced to a town on the South Carolina coast where a cult has taken up residence and Ryan wants Tempe to go with him to investigate. Tempe has a lot going on, plus is fighting an attraction to Ryan, so is reluctant to go. She's eventually persuaded though and travels south for a few days with her daughter. They eventually track the cult's remote residence to an island off the coast. Oddly it seems orderly and well-run but Tempe feels they're hiding something. It takes more deaths and all her ingenuity and bravery to discover what that thing is.

I thought this second book in the series was even better than the first. I liked the Montreal setting of the first book and this one is partly set there too... but when it moves south to The Carolinas it becomes rivetting and more psychologically frightening in my opinion. It's the cult thing that creates that fear and there's a lot about the issue in the story. How do they recruit people? Why do people believe their nonsense and get sucked in? How do they hang on to their recruits and what can sometimes be the tragic outcome? (Think Waco.) I found it fascinating and not a little scary.

It wouldn't be any exaggeration to call the pace of the plot 'relentless'. It's one thing after another with dead bodies all over the place and poor Tempe being required to be in a dozen places at once, permanently exhausted and drained from the horror of what's going on and what she has to do. I felt for her and wished she would occasionally say, 'No' to people.

Towards the end the action moves back to Montreal and final scenes take place during the famous ice-storm of 1998. This was brilliantly done and is one of the best parts of the book. Edge of the seat stuff really. Kathy Reichs really does do 'place' very well indeed and this book illustrates that well whether she's describing the heat and humidity of South Carolina or the frigidity of winter-time Quebec.

This is not your normal ghostly R.I.P. read. But for me the very real background to this crime story made it just as frightening as any supernatural yarn and a good book for the challenge.


Friday, 4 September 2015

Little Beach Street Bakery

My first book for September is a romance set in my home county of Cornwall. I don't read this sort of thing very often but I spotted it in the library, saw the magic word 'Cornwall' on the cover and that was it... home it came. The book is Little Beach Street Bakery and it's by Jenny Colgan.

Polly's life disintegrates around her when the business she's running with her boyfriend, Chris, collapses and they're declared bankrupt. Chris takes it very badly and the couple split up leaving Polly with no job and nowhere to go. She sees a flat for rent in Cornwall and on a whim decides to move to Mount Polbeare which, like St. Michael's Mount, becomes an island twice a day with the movement of the tides. Her best friend thinks she's mad but Polly needs to get away and re-evaluate her life.

The flat is terribly shabby but the view out to sea is amazing and it's a place where Polly can regroup and find her feet again. The island itself is a quiet haven although the tourist season is fast approaching when things will get much busier. Polly makes friends with some local fishermen and one day happens to bake some bread for them. Word gets out that she's a good baker but it brings her into conflict with her landlady who also owns the local bakery. The problem is that the bread for sale there is bought in and not that great whereas Polly's bread is home-made and delicious.

One of the fishermen, Tarnie, is clearly interested in Polly, but so is an American, Huckle, living in a remote cottage on the mainland and trying to get by by keeping bees and selling the honey. Having just split with Chris, she feels this a complication she doesn't need. What she does know is that her very limited finances will not last and that she needs to find a job. But what can she do?

Well then... as I said I don't read much of this kind of book, commonly known, I suppose, as 'chick-lit'. Not a term I like much to be honest as it feels a bit derogatory, though I'm not certain why I feel that way. Perhaps because I don't feel like a 'chick'. LOL! And anyway, in Cornwall if someone uses the word 'chick' they're more likely to be referring to a child. I digress.

The book is quite a cosy read I suppose, but it depends on how you read it. Polly loses her business and her relationship at the same time. Not at all cosy. Her former boyfriend and business partner would not communicate with her when it became clear the business was going belly up. He's a pain in arse in fact. He took his misery out on her and she struggled with it for a couple of years. Also not cosy. Information is fed to you about this throughout the book and you can't help but feel she was well rid of him.

The place she moves to is a bit like St. Michael's Mount in that it's cut off twice a day by the tide. It's not identical though as the village on the fictional island is much bigger, and reminded me more of Sennen Cove, being built on a steep hill. Whatever, it really took me back to Cornwall and that aspect was beautifully done. I could smell the sea, feel the breeze on my face, see and hear the fishing boats in the harbour and so on. The author doesn't prettify life for local people in Cornwall though. Yes, the surroundings are gorgeous but making a living is hard. People often work two or three jobs, property is expensive and tragedies happen amongst the fishing community. The elderly find it particularly hard to survive too.

Polly's bread baking habit is a delghtful and fascinating part of the book. I don't bake bread myself but know someone who does and it was really interesting to read about and follow her baking exploits. And at the back of the book are a selction of recipes for anyone who wants to give it a try.

Any negative points? Not really. The book was pretty much as I expected. I wasn't crazy about the two new men in Polly's life and I also wondered how many parents in the 1980s called their daughters 'Polly'. Surely it went out of fashion in the 1950s and has not returned... But that's just me nit-picking. The book was enjoyable, had good sense of place, and was not at all as cosy as one might think given the genre. It also turns out it's book one of a new series and book 2, Summer at the Little Beach Street Bakery is just out. I shall grab it at the library if I see it and might investigate other books by Jenny Colgan.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Books read in August

Happy September to everyone reading this! My favourite time of year, autumn, is almost here and I couldn't be more delighted. The evenings are drawing in and the last few weeks have been cool and comfortable. I've been busy a lot of the summer with family and the garden so book reviews have been few and far between. It's been nice as I do enjoy my grandchilden immensely and we've had a lot of fun spending time with them this summer. But soon they'll be back to school and normality will return and I'll get back to doing a few book reviews... especially now that R.I.P. has begun.

Anyway, this past month I've read four books again and these are they.

38. The Wrath of Angels - John Connolly

39. August Folly - Angela Thirkell

40. Summer Half - Angela Thirkell

41. Arms of Nemesis - Steven Saylor

The hideously disfigured body was found in the atrium. The only clues are a blood-soaked cloak, and, carved into the stone at the corpse's feet, the word Sparta . . . The Overseer of Marcus Crassus's estate has been murdered, apparently by two slaves bent on joining Spartacus's revolt. The wealthy, powerful Crassus vows to honor an ancient law and have his ninety-nine remaining slaves slaughtered in three days. Gordianus the Finder is summoned from Rome by a mysterious client to find out the truth about the murder before the three days are up. (Blurb from Goodreads.)

Well, gosh, this was a bit of a cracking read. I enjoyed the first book in the series, Roman Blood, very much indeed. I didn't imagine that book 2 would surpass it in excellence... but it did. Shifting the action from the city of Rome to the Gulf of Puteoli worked a treat and what you get from that is gorgeous descriptions of the coast of Italy and frequent mentions of Vesuvius brooding over the scene. Wonderful. Once again, as with the first book, the plight of Roman slaves comes right to the fore. More so in this book as the author portrays what it's like to be a house-slave and, in one very memorable scene at the beginning, the daily horror of being a galley-slave on a ship. Apparently, just about the worst job any slave could find himself doing. The mystery was excellent... I decided who the culprit was fairly early on and was completely wrong. Naturally. All good fun. I'm really looking forward to reading more of these now - I'm finding it rather interesting discovering more about Ancient Rome and the Romans... both in Rome and here in Britain.

So, four very enjoyable books read in August. I loved all four to be honest so I'm not picking a favourite for once. Very nice to have a reading month where all of my books are very good. Hope September is equally as satisfying.