New-To-Me Books

Another visit to  Barter Books in Alnwick means I’ve added 5 more books to my TBRs.

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From top to bottom they are:

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H E Bates – a Penguin modern classic. It was first published in 1944 and is about a British pilot, John Franklin, whose plane was shot down in occupied France, and Francoise, the daughter of a French farmer who hid Franklin and his crew from the Germans. I haven’t read any other books by Bates (1905 – 1974) – he was a prolific writer.

Recalled to Life by Reginald Hill, the 13th Dalziel and Pascoe book.  Dalziel reopens the investigation into a murder that took place in 1963 – the year of the Profumo Scandal, the Great Train Robbery and the Kennedy Assassination. I should be on safe ground with this book as I’ve enjoyed all the other Dalziel and Pascoe books I’ve read.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. Three boys’ lives were changed for ever when one of them got into a stranger’s car and something terrible happened. Twenty five years later they have to face the nightmares of their past. I’m not sure what to expect from this book, not having read any of Lehane’s books before, but a reviewer in the Guardian described it as one of the finest novels he’d read in ages.

The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Willis Crofts, first published in 1933 during the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. It’s an Inspector French murder mystery set in Surrey, where first one person then others disappear. Have they been murdered? I’ve read just one of Crofts’ books before, Mystery in the Channel, which completely baffled me – will this be just as complicated?

The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier, the story of two women, born centuries apart and the ancestral legacy that binds them. This was Tracy Chevalier’s first novel. I’ve read and enjoyed some of her later books, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring and Falling Angels, so I’m looking forward to reading this book.

Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books and whether you enjoyed them – or not.

A-Z of TBRs: E-Books: A, B and C

Earlier this year I looked through my TBRs – the ‘real’ books – and as it did prompt me to read more of them, I’ve decided to take a fresh look at some of the TBRs on my Kindle. I have a bad habit of downloading books and then forgetting all about them – it’s as though they’ve gone into a black hole.

So here is the first instalment of my A – Z of my e-book TBRs – with a little ‘taster’ from each. I’ve picked books from different genres – fantasy fiction, crime fiction and non-fiction – a biography.

Assassin's Apprentice (Farseer Trilogy, #1)

A is for Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb, Book One of the Farseer Trilogy  (On my Kindle since September 2014.)  It’s fantasy fiction set in the  imaginary realm of the Six Duchies and tells the story of the illegitimate son of a prince, assassin FitzChivalry Farseer. He is raised in the stables, rejected by all his family apart from his uncle Chade, who trains him as an assassin.

My memories reach back to when I was six years old. Before that, there is nothing, only a black gulf no exercise of my mind has ever been able to pierce. Prior to that day at Moonseye, there is nothing. But on that day they suddenly begin, with a brightness and detail that overwhelms me. Sometimes it it seems too complete, and I wonder if it is truly mine. Am I recalling it from my own mind, or from dozens of retelling by legions of kitchen maids and ranks of scullions and herds of stable-boys as they explained my presence to each other? Perhaps I have heard the story so many times, from so many sources, that I now recall it as an actual memory of my own. (page 2)

The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe, #1)

B is for The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, with an introduction by Ian Rankin. It’s been on my Kindle since July 2017. Crime fiction is one of my favourite genres – I read a lot of it, but have never read any of Chandler’s books. This is his first book featuring Philip Marlowe. Rankin writes that is ‘a story of sex, drugs, blackmail and high society narrated by a cynical tough guy, Philip Marlowe‘ and that it is ‘such fun to read that you won’t notice how clever its author is being.’

The the old man dragged his voice up from the bottom of a well and said: ‘Brandy, Norris. How do you like you like your brandy, sir?’

‘Any way at all,’ I said.

The butler went away among the aboriginal plants. The General spoke again, slowly using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last good pair of stockings.

‘I used to like mine with champagne. The champagne as cold as Valley Forge and about a third of a glass of brandy beneath it.’ (page 4)

The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History

C is for The Churchill Factor: How One Man made History by Boris Johnson, on my Kindle since June 2016. The extract below is from the Introduction in which Boris explains why he wants to convey something of Churchill’s genius in this book, and asking what made up his character.

I knew that he had been amazingly brave as a young man, and that he had seen bloodshed at first hand, and had been fired at on four continents, and that he was one of the first men to go up in an aeroplane. I knew that he had been a bit of a runt at Harrow, and that he was only about 5 foot 7 and with a 31-inch chest, and that he had overcome his stammer and his depression and his appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman.

I gathered there was something holy and magical about him, because my grandparents kept the front page of the Daily Express from the day he died, at the age of ninety. … So it seems all the more sad and strange that today – nearly fifty years after he died – he is in danger of being forgotten or at least imperfectly remembered. (page 3)

If you’ve read any of these please let me know what you think?

Books Read in September 2018

How my reading habits have changed! It was only a few years ago that I read mostly paper books, but these days I read mostly e-books – six out of the nine books I read in September are e-books. Another major change is the amount of review copies I read. This month I read five review copies that came to me via NetGalley. I also read one library book and the other three books are all my own books – but only one of those is an actual physical book! And only one of the nine books is non-fiction.

They range from 5 star to 2 star books and are a mix of crime and historical fiction plus one biography. My ratings are based solely on my reactions to the books.

I’ve written about five of these books – click on the links to read my reviews:

  1. The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry 5* – historical fiction set in Edinburgh in 1847 as Dr James Young Simpson, a professor of midwifery, discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.
  2. The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon 3.5* – one of the early Maigret books, set in Belgium not France.
  3. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Karen Morton 3* – historical fiction set over multiple time-lines and with multiple narrators. I loved parts of it and it’s richly descriptive, but found it hard to keep track of all the characters and separate strands of the story.
  4. Appleby’s End by Michael Innes 3* – an Inspector Appleby book. It’s surreal, a macabre fantasy with a  complex and completely unrealistic plot and strange characters.
  5. Down to the Woods by M J Arlidge 2.5* – crime fiction, a DI Helen Grace murder mystery, tense and dark with several twists and turns. Not my favourite book of the month!

Here are some brief notes about the remaining four books:

Dead Woman WalkingDead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton 5* – Sharon Bolton is a brilliant storyteller and this is a brilliant book – complex, very cleverly plotted, full of suspense and completely gripping with great characters and set in Northumberland. It begins with a balloon flight that ends in disaster and only Jessica survives as the balloon crashes to the ground, but she is pursued by a man who is determined to kill her.  I loved this book.

Wedlock: How Georgian Britain's Worst Husband Met His Match

Wedlock:  How Georgian Britain’s Worst Husband Met His Match by Wendy Moore 4* – a biography of Mary Eleanor Bowes, who was one of Britain’s richest young heiresses. Her first husband was the Count of Strathmore – the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, was a direct descendant of their marriage. Her second marriage to Andrew Robinson Stoney was an absolute disaster. He was brutally cruel and treated her with such violence, humiliation, deception and kidnap, that she lived in fear for her life. This is non-fiction and is full of detail, but even so it reads like a novel.

East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck 4* –  the story of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly re-enact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. I enjoyed this beautifully written book, which begins slowly, but not as much as The Grapes of Wrath, which I thought was amazing. It’s long – too long really – and to my mind it reads like a morality tale of good versus evil. There are many parallels to the Bible stories, with surely one of the most evil characters ever in Cathy. I liked the way Steinbeck set out the moral dilemmas and gave the characters choice using the Hebrew word ‘timshel‘, meaning ‘thou mayest’.

The Gaslight Stalker (Esther & Jack Enright Mystery #1)The Gaslight Stalker by David Field 2* – historical crime fiction set in London in 1888. This was a disappointing book, that provides a new solution to the Jack the Ripper murders. There are two elements to the plot and I don’t think they mixed well. I liked the historical facts based on the evidence in the Jack the Ripper case and thought they were well written, if a little repetitive. But the romance between Esther, a young seamstress and Jacob Enright, a young police officer, felt out of place and is too simplistically narrated.

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin (Maigret #10)

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret at the “Gai-Moulin”.

The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon, translated by Siân Reynolds is one of the early Maigret books, first published in 1931. Two teenage boys, Delfosse and Chabot, attempt to burgle Le Gai-Moulin, a nightclub in Liege in Belgium, but on finding a body they panic and leave, fearing they’ll be suspected of murder. The next day, to the boys’ amazement, the corpse is found in the Botanical Gardens in a large laundry basket in the middle of a lawn. Who was he, who killed him, why was he killed and who had moved the body from the nightclub to the Botanical Gardens?

This short book is mainly concerned with Delfosse and Chabot and their subsequent actions that set them at odds with each other and land them in police custody. It’s an unusual Maigret book in that Detective Chief Inspector Maigret is not immediately involved in the police investigation – that is carried out by Chief Inspector Delvigne of the Belgian police and part of the mystery is why Maigret is even in Liege. Adèle is the dancer referred to in the title but she doesn’t play a major role in the book, although the two teenagers are obsessed with her. It’s quite a puzzle and Maigret doesn’t reveal his thoughts, or his reasoning until the end, much to the annoyance of Delvigne.

The plot is unconvincing and Maigret’s actions seem quite implausible, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book. It’s not really the crime that is in focus, as Simenon is skilled at setting the scene and drawing convincing characters in a few paragraphs. In this novel the two boys and Adèle stand out:

She wasn’t beautiful, especially now, lounging about in her mules and shabby peignoir. But perhaps, in the familiarity of this intimacy, she held even more allure for him.

How old was she, twenty five, thirty? She’d certainly seen life. She often talked about Paris, Berlin, Ostend. She mentioned the names of famous nightclubs.

But without any excitement or pride, without showing off. On the contrary. Her main characteristic seemed to be weariness, as could be guessed from the expression in her green eyes, from the casual way she held a cigarette in her mouth, from all her movements and smiles. Weariness with a smile. (page 28)

I knew that Simenon was a prolific author, writing seventy five novels and twenty eight short stories featuring Maigret, but I was surprised to find that The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin was the 10th book that he published in 1931. By the end of 1931 his books had been translated into 18 languages.

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (7 Aug. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141393521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141393520
  • Source: my own copy – thanks to Sarah’s Giveaway at Crimepieces blog
  • My rating: 3.5*

This book slots into the only reading challenge I’m doing this year – What’s in a Name 2018. It fits into the category of a book with the word ‘the‘ used twice in the title. It is also one of my TBR books (a book I’ve owned prior to 1 January 2018) and also a book on my Classics Club list.

He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr was my Classics Club Spin book for August. It was first published in 1946. Carr (1906 – 1977) was an American writer who also wrote under the pseudonym of Carter Dickson and Carr Dickson. In 1936 he was elected to the Detection Club in London. He Who Whispers is one of his ‘locked room’  mysteries/impossible crimes, featuring Dr Gideon Fell, an amateur sleuth.

He Who Whispers by John Dickson Carr

I really didn’t know what to expect so I was pleased to find that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s well written, set in 1945 just after the end of the Second World War when Miles Hammond is finding it hard to getting used to peacetime. London is still showing the scars of the war and he feels that his life is unreal. He has been discharged from the Army after being in hospital suffering from diesel-oil poisoning.

Then, gasping out to the end like a gauleiter swallowing poison, the war is over. You come out of hospital – a little shakily, your discharge papers in your pocket – into a London still pinched by shortages; a London of long queues, erratic buses, dry pubs; a London where they turn on the street-lights and immediately turn them off again to save fuel; but a place free at last from the intolerable weight of threats.

People didn’t celebrate that victory hysterically, as for some reason or other the newspapers liked to make out. What the newsreels showed was only a bubble on the huge surface of the town. Like himself, Miles Hammond thought, most people were a little apathetic because they could not yet think of it as real. (page 6)

His friend, Dr Gideon Fell, has invited him to dinner as a guest at the Murder Club, their first meeting in five years, where the speaker is Professor Rigaud. But when he arrives he finds none of the members of the Club have turned up. The only other people there are the Professor, and a beautiful blonde called Barbara Morell. Rigaud, however, tells them the story he had prepared for the Club – a tale of an impossible murder on the top of a ruined tower, that had once been part of a French chateau burnt down by the Hugeunots in the 16th century, and a mysterious woman, Miss Fay Seton.

The body of Howard Brooke was found lying on the parapet of the tower by two children between 10 minutes to 4 and 5 minutes past 4. He had been stabbed through his body with a sword-stick and yet the evidence showed conclusively that during this time not a living soul came near him. Rigaud points out the difficulties of scaling the wall of the tower, leading Miles to suspect he is alluding to ‘some sort of supernatural being that could float in the air‘ – in other words, a vampire.

Now, six years later Miles, Rigaud and Barbara together with Dr Fell set about trying to solve the mystery. I was fascinated by Dr Fell, supposedly based upon G. K. Chesterton (author of the Father Brown stories), in his appearance and personality. He’s immensely tall and fat, with a big mop of grey-streaked hair, and wearing a long, dark cape. He strides along ‘with a rolling motion like an emperor, and the sound of his throat-clearing preceded him like a war-cry‘.

I thought the characterisation was excellent and there is a great sense of location. The book is full of tension and there is a real sense of approaching danger and disaster as the characters struggle to uncover the truth. It is only due to Dr Fell’s ingenuity that their fears are calmed and he produces a rational explanation and reveals the truth. I too was puzzled and the book had kept me guessing right to the end. Even then when I knew what had happened I was so involved with the characters that  I was left wondering –  what happened next? 

Now, I’m keen to read more of John Dickson Carr’s books. There are a lot of them – see the list at Fantastic Fiction.

  • Paperback: 206 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books in association with H.Hamilton (1953)
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • Rating: 4*

Absent in the Spring by Mary Westmacott (Agatha Christie)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I love Agatha Christie’s crime fiction but I’ve held back from reading her other books written under the name of Mary Westmacott, not sure just what to expect. So, I was very glad to find that Absent in the Spring is just as good as her other books and I was thoroughly absorbed in the story of Joan Scudamore who was stranded in the desert, after visiting her daughter in Baghdad.

Agatha Christie managed to keep the true identity of Mary Westmacott a secret for fifteen years! Absent in the Spring is the one book she wrote that  satisfied her completely – and having now read it I can see why. She wrote the book in just three days in 1944. It had ‘grown inside‘ her for six or seven years. She had visualised all the characters and they were there ready for her to write about them and she just had to get it down on paper, writing in a ‘white heat‘, without interruptions until it was finished, leaving her exhausted. She slept for more or less twenty-four hours afterwards. She took the title from Shakespeare’s sonnet that begins ‘From you I have been absent in the spring.’ (Sonnet 98)

It is a great example of an unlikeable character that makes fascinating reading – you don’t have to like a character to love a book. In her Autobiography she wrote that it was:

… the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken. Through her actions, her feelings and thoughts this would be revealed to the reader. She would be, as it were, continually meeting herself, not recognising herself, but becoming increasingly uneasy. What brought about this revelation would be the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone – completely alone – for four or five days. (page 516)

The novel is set in Mesopotamia (corresponding to today’s Iraq, mostly, but also parts of modern-day Iran, Syria and Turkey) in a railway rest-house at Tel Abu Hamid on the Turkish border, where Joan is stranded, delayed by floods – no trains or vehicles can get through to Mosul, her next stop on her journey home to London. There are no other travellers there, only an Arab boy and an Indian servant who brings her meals, but who speak little English and there is nowhere to go, except to walk in the desert.

At first she occupies herself writing letters and reading the two books she has with her, The Power House by John Buchan and Memoirs of Lady Catherine Dysart. Then she starts thinking about herself and gradually relives her past life, all the time with a growing feeling of unease and anxiety as she reinterprets her past. She wonders, for the first time in her life what she is really like and what other people think of her, with that unsettling, anxious feeling that she is not the person she thought she was. And she resolves to put things right when she returns home.

She is jolted out of her complacency  and self deception as she remembers how Rodney had looked as she watched him leave Victoria Station:

Suddenly, in the desert,with the sun pouring down on her, Joan gave a quick uncontrollable shiver.

She thought, No, no – I don’t want to go on – I don’t want to think about this …

Rodney, striding up the platform, his head thrown back, the tired sag of his shoulders all gone. A man who had been relieved of an intolerable burden …

Really, what was the matter with her? She was imagining things, inventing them. Her eyes had played a trick on her.

Why hadn’t he waited to see the train pull out?

She was imagining – Stop, that didn’t make it any better. If you imagined a thing like that, it meant that such an idea was already in your head.

And it couldn’t be true – the inference that she had drawn simply could not be true.

She was saying to herself (wasn’t she?) that Rodney was glad she was going away …

And that simply couldn’t be true! (pages 55-56)

It really is a most remarkable book. On the surface it is a simple story, but in fact it is a complex and in-depth character study, with a growing sense of tension. The setting adds to the uneasiness as Joan walks in the desert to get away from the rest-house, with its refuse dump of tins enclosed by a tangle of barbed wire,  and a space where skinny chickens run about squawking loudly and with clouds of flies surrounding the area. There is a twist at the end of the book, which I had begun to anticipate as I approached the final pages, which rounded it off very well. An excellent book.

Now, I really must get hold of her other Mary Westmacott books!

My copy is a paperback, published by Fontana, 2nd impression 1983, 192 pages. This is the 4th book for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 Challenge.

On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill

I’ve been doing quite well with reading books for my 10 Books of Summer Challenge – but not so well at writing reviews of them.

On Beulah Height (Dalziel & Pascoe, #17)

So here is a quick review of the first of my 10 Books. It’s also one of my TBRs, a book I’ve owned for a couple of years:

I loved On Beulah Height is Reginald Hill’s 17th Dalziel and Pascoe novel. He wrote 25 in this series and although it would probably make sense to get a picture of their development I’ve been reading them out of order. It doesn’t seem to matter much, but in this one there are a few references to something that had happened in an earlier case (told in The Wood Beyond) that had affected Pascoe personally. It had  filled him with anger and it is still affecting him, whilst investigating this case. But this book can easily be read as a standalone novel.

It is not just a crime fiction novel, it is also a book that raises many issues about parenthood, the relationship between families and their children and the devastation and anguish of parents and a community at the loss of a child.

I’d really like to re-read it some time as it is a complex book, that begins with a transcript written by Betsy Allgood, then aged seven, telling what had happened in the little village of Dendale in Yorkshire before the valley was flooded to provide a reservoir. That summer three little girls had gone missing. No bodies were ever found, and the best suspect, a strange lad named Benny Lightfoot, was held for a time, then released. Benny then disappeared from the area

Fifteen years later another little girl, Lorraine, also aged seven went out for a walk one morning with her dog before her parents got up and didn’t return home, reviving memories of the missing children from fifteen years earlier. It was a case that has haunted Dalziel – and the fears increase when a message appeared, sprayed on the walls: BENNY’S  BACK. It’s been a hot, dry summer and the buildings beneath the reservoir are gradually becoming visible and tensions are rising as memories of the missing children increase the fears for Lorraine’s safety.

This book is tightly plotted with many twists that made me change my mind so many times I gave up trying to work out who the murderer was and just read for the pleasure of reading. Hill’s descriptive writing is rich and full of imagery. The main characters are fully rounded people and the supporting cast are believable personalities, often described with wry humour.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins (30 Jan. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007313179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313174
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My rating: 5*