Friday, 18 August 2017

Various titles

Fair bit of catching up to do today. I've been reading but not reviewing, mainly because it's the school summer holidays and thus busier than normal. Not to mention the garden...

Anyway, three books to review... first up, The Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, this is my book 13 for Bev's Mount TBR 2017 challenge.

Seven year old Isabella, Lady Trent, falls in love with dragons the day she finds a dead sparkling in the garden. It's an uphill struggle to study them, girls are not expected to do such things and she has to conspire with her brother in order to read books on the subject from her father's library. She can be her own worst enemy though and after a disastrous dragon hunt that she should not have been on, she's banned from studying and reading. Several 'grey years' pass and eventually Isabella meets Jacob Camherst, a scholar with an interest in dragons and the two marry. Isabella is able to recommence her studies. Then the opportunity to go on field trip to study dragon in the wild occurs, can she persuade her husband to take her along?

I thoroughly enjoyed this story of Lady Trent's early days as a studier of dragons - she's writing her memoirs in her later years when things have vastly improved for women who want to gain an education. I very much liked the style of the book which is that of a Victorian female explorer. Though this is not Victorian England it does feel very much like it, the country they travel to being perhaps Russia. It's well written, fun, and written exactly as though dragons were real and available for serious study. I liked it so much I already have book two, The Tropic of Serpents, on my tbr pile.


Next, No Man's Nightingale by Ruth Rendell:

Inspector Reg Wexford is now retired, still living in Kingsmarkham, and spending his retirement reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. His ex sidekick, DS Mike Burden, calls him in to help solve the murder of a local female vicar, Sarah Hussain, a woman of mixed parentage... she was half Irish, half Indian. She had a daughter, Clarissa, who doesn't know who her father is... could this be a clue to the murder? Wexford and Burden get very bogged down questioning Sarah's few friends and an old friend from her past. It doesn't seem as though anyone would've wanted her dead but someone strangled her in her own home. Burden declares that he is never interested in motive, just the facts, but Wexford feels that motive is the key to this and even when a man is arrested ploughs on with his own investigations.

This is actually the first Inspector Wexford book I've read, although I did watch the TV series avidly years ago. It's also book 24, the last of the series Ruth Rendell wrote, so it was perhaps a bit mad of me to start reading the series with that one. That said, I don't think it matters in the slightest, probably *because* I'd seen and TV series and knew all of the characters well. I enjoyed this very much indeed, in fact I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would for some odd reason. So much wonderful dry humour in Wexford's thoughts and musings... and endless common sense. And more humour in the character of Wexford's cleaner, Maxine. She never stops talking, in the manner of people we all know, and is hilariously written. I loved Wexford's bookishness and the use of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire to illustrate various points. Clever. Because it was such a complicated little plot, I really didn't know until the end who had done the deed, so that's a plus. All in all an excellent read, superb writing, and I will definitely be grabbing more from the library when I have some space on my ticket!


Lastly, Continental Crimes edited by crime writer, Martin Edwards:

I always find it difficult to review volumes of short stories, sometimes I say something about every story but as life is short I shall just review the book in a general way. This is an excellent collection of stories set all over Europe but mainly France, Belgium, Germany and Italy. Many would come under the heading of 'Vintage Crime' being set in the 1920s & 30s but there are later ones from the 1950s and so on. Two, The New Catacomb by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Secret Garden by G.K. Chesterton, I had read before. The former I thought was clever and well written, the latter I didn't read again as I hadn't been that impressed with it first time even though I do like Father Brown stories in general. Not all are actual murder stories - the title doesn't actually promise that anyway - and that's no bad thing. One of my favourites, Petit Jean by Ian Hay, was more of a war story, set in World War One. How an author could make such a story funny I've no idea, but he did and it was an excellent little intrigue yarn which actually made me giggle all the way through. I'd happily read more by this author. A couple of others I enjoyed - The Room in the Tower by J. Jefferson Farjeon (I read his Mystery in White last Christmas), which was a supernatural story set in a castle on the Rhine, and The Ten Franc Counter by H. de vere Stacpoole, a murder mystery set in Monte Carlo. Both were well written and enjoyable. Agatha Christie's offering, Have You Got Everything You Want?, is a 'Parker Pyne' story about some stolen jewels. This is one of Christie's recurrent characters that I'd not come across before, which is perhaps not surprising as there seems to be just one book of short stories and apparently they're not all mysteries. The Long Dinner by H.C. Bailey was one of those kinds of stories you feel like giving up on but come the end you're glad you didn't. It hoicks the reader all over the place from Paris, to Devon in the UK and then back to France and the coast of Brittany. Excellent story that starts out as one thing and ends up as something else entirely. Like all anthologies, Continental Crimes has its high points and its low points but taken as a complete collection I thought it was rather good and have discovered several authors I would like to read more of.

~~~oOo~~~

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Catching up

A quick catching up post today, two books to review... I was going to say, 'very different' but there is actually a connection: both books take place in the 1930s (the first one goes on into the 1940s too of course) and very much reflect those very difficult times.

First up, Gardens of Stone: My Boyhood in the French Resistance by Stephen Grady and Michael Wright.

Stephen Grady was born in 1925 in Northern France, very close to the Belgian border. His father was English, his mother French - they had met during the First World War. Mother and father, four children, grandma and an aunt all lived together in a two bedroomed house in the village of Nieppe. Stephen's father worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission tending several WW1 cemetaries in the area. Stephen is 13 when war breaks out... the evacuation of Dunkirk affects the family badly and when the Germans invade France Stephen's father, being English, has to go into hiding. Stephen is rather adventurous and wild and because of a prank with another boy ends up in the notorious Loos prison, sharing a cell with three adults. Surviving this he joins the Resistance in 1941 and begins a very dangerous existance of secrets and sabotage which sets him apart from his family.

When I started reading about France three months ago I didn't think that my reading would lead me to books about the French Resistance. I got here via a couple of crime books, but principally Jacquot and the Angel by Martin O'Brien which dealt quite a lot with the French Resistance in the south of France during World War Two. It piqued my interest. I saw mention of Gardens of Stone on Goodreads and decided to order it from Amazon. So glad I did. I usually take longer to read non-fiction and thought this would be no different. Wrong. I whizzed through it, partly because the writing was so accessible (author, Michael Wright, actually wrote the book I believe) but also it really was absolutely fascinating. I'm not really a war story sort of a person but this gripped me from the start and didn't let go. The author recounts his wartime experiences in a very matter of fact way, given he was only a teenager at the time, the triumphs, the tragedies, the fear, it's all there. Some of it makes for difficult reading, betrayal to the Germans by neighbours was rife, but also it was incredibly uplifting to read what very ordinary people were capable on in the way of bravery. Stephen's resistance 'job' was to test allied airmen stranded in France to make sure they were not German spies, because English was his first language. But he also took part in sabotage missions, doing things that no young person should ever have to do. One particular event scarred him for life. An amazing book, one I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of the second world war.

Lastly, The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts.

It's the late 1930s and Britain is right in the middle of what people are calling The Slump. It's affecting all, but particularly businesses. Charles Swinburn has taken over his engineering business from a rich uncle who built it up from scratch along with Charles's father. Lack of orders, partly caused by him not obtaining up to date machines for the factory, has put the business into dire financial straits and Charles needs to find some money - fast. He goes the usual routes, banks and so forth with no luck. The last resort is to apply to his uncle, but Uncle Andrew is an unpleasant individual with a cruel streak whose ill health makes him even crabbier. He gives Charles some money but it's not enough and Charles needs a better plan; which is when he decides to murder his rich uncle...

So here we have a murder mystery written, not from the point of view of the police officers who investigate the murder, but from the viewpoint of the man who does the deed. I don't think I've read one like this before, it was absolutely fascinating. We get the whole plan from start to finish and it's very strange because although Charles is really not a very likeable person you do find yourself 'almost' hoping he gets away with it. Note that I'm not saying whether or not he does... The tendancy is to think Charles is every bit as clever as he thinks he is, forgetting all the other crime books you've read where the police are not as stupid as the perpetrator assumes. Very clever stuff and I enjoyed this one very much. My only misgiving is a personal one, I don't care for court room dramas and for the last 100 pgs or so that's what this book becomes, so it lost a bit of its interest then for me. *But* another cracking BLCC book... which I highly recommend to lovers of Vintage Crime.

~~~oOo~~~