October 2016: Reading Review

October was a very good reading month for me. I read 9 books and have reviewed 8 of them (the links are to my posts):

  1. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz – a really satisfying read, with believable characters, set in beautifully described locations, tantalisingly mysterious and so, so readable. I loved it.
  2. Joyland by Stephen King – a ghost story, a love story, a story of loss and heartbreak. It’s also a murder mystery and utterly compelling to read.
  3. Accidents Happen by Louise Millar – At first I was enjoying this book ‘“ it’s very readable, but I didn’t think it was plausible and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief.
  4. The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson set in 1536 this is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives. I really enjoyed it.
  5. The Blood Card by Elly Griffiths – a most entertaining book, with a convincing cast of characters. The mystery is expertly handled, with plenty of suspense and lots of twists and turns as the separate plot strands are intricately woven together. I loved it.
  6. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin – a fascinating account of Chatwin’s visit to Australia to find out about the Songlines and the myths of the legendary totemic beings who sang the world into existence as they wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime.
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith – a  poignant and cutting novel about modern life, how we got to where we are, and the mood of the country post-Brexit. It’s a remarkable book.
  8. The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble – this novel explores the ending of life, the nature of ageing, and life and death. But it is by no means depressing or morbid. I liked it very much. It’s densely layered, thought provoking and moving.
  9. Another Day Gone by Eliza Graham  – another excellent book – review to follow.

For most of the month I was also reading The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj by Anne de Courcy. I had hoped to have finished it before the end of October but I’m reading it very slowly. I’ve read 44% and have decided to put it on hold for a while. It’s non-fiction and I shall be able to pick it up where I left off without having to go back to the beginning!

My book of the month. and also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month, is the brilliant Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz. It’s a a puzzle-type of crime fiction combining elements of the vintage-style golden age crime novel with word-play and cryptic clues and allusions to Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s also a novel within a novel, with mystery piled upon mystery. I loved it.

January’s Books 2016

This January I read 10 books and reviewed 6 of them. I’m really pleased that I’ve managed to read 8 of my To Be Read Books, 4 of them by Agatha Christie:

  1. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (TBR) – her debut novel. This is crime fiction, a complex and puzzling mystery that kept me glued to the book as the mystery of the kidnapping of two girls 30 years earlier is re-investigated.
  2. The Shepherd’s Life: a Tale of the Lake District by James Rebank (TBR, Non Fiction) – an account of a shepherd’s year, arranged by the seasons.
  3. Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a string of disasters, involving not only a murder, but also a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic.
  4. A Month in the Country by J L Carr (TBR) – As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. A beautiful little book and one to re-read – I loved it.
  5. Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt, set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC.
  6. Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a year after the death of Rosemary her husband, convinced she was murdered, holds a party to remember her, when a second death occurs.
  7. Lustrum by Robert Harris (TBR) – the 2nd in his Cicero trilogy, set in Ancient Rome beginning in 63 BC – fascinating.  It brings life in Ancient Rome to life, and brilliantly portrays the characters and their struggle for power.
  8. Dictator by Robert Harris – the third in his Cicero trilogy. This covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life. I wrote about the beginning of this book in an earlier post.
  9. The Pattern in the Carpet: a Personal History With Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble (LB) – a mix of memoir, Margaret Drabble’s own personal reflections on doing jigsaws and the history of jigsaws and of children’s games and puzzles.
  10. The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (TBR) – Superintendent Battle is called to Chimneys, a stately home, to investigate a murder, involving diplomatic intrigue, international crime, and a jewel thief known as ‘King Victor’ – entertaining in a Wodehousian style.

I enjoyed all of them and am aiming to write reviews of the Robert Harris books and The Secret of Chimneys before the details fade from my mind.

Three books tie for my Book of the Month because it’s impossible to choose between three excellent books in completely different genres. They are  A Month in the Country by J L Carr, Lustrum by Robert Harris and A Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – which is also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (See Mysteries in Paradise for more Crime Fiction Picks).

Bks Jan 2016

September's Books & Pick of the Month

September was a good month – we had a holiday in the Lake District, the sun shone and it’s been a dry September, according to the Met Office it was the driest September since records began in 1911!

And I read a fair number of books (the links are to my posts on the books), which brings my total for the year so far to 83. Four of the books are TBRs (to-be-reads) and six are crime fiction (marked with *):

  1. The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop – my review will be on the next issue of Shiny New Books (I think!) Set 40+ years ago in Cyprus, I liked this very much – a story of human tragedy in the face of war.
  2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – review to follow.
  3. Wycliffe and the House of Fear* by W J Burley – Wycliffe investigates the disappearance of Roger Kemp’s second wife.  A complex story with sinister undercurrents.
  4. Testament of a Witchby Douglas Watt –MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion.
  5. The Moving Finger* by Agatha Christie – anonymous poison-pen letters, an apparent suicide and a murder in a peaceful country backwater in this Miss Marple mystery.
  6. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore – a suspense story of a young woman slowly but surely losing her mind – or is it a case of a woman suffering from post-natal depression. 
  7. Entry Island* by Peter May- set in present day Magdalen Islands, part of the province of Quebec, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and in the nineteenth century on the Isle of Lewis at the time of the Highland Clearances.  It mixes together two stories and two genres, crime fiction and historical fiction.
  8. The Brimstone Weddingby Barbara Vine €“ one of the best of Barbara Vine’s books that I’ve read. Stella gradually confides in Jenny, telling her things she has never said to her son and daughter €“ things about her life she doesn’t want them to know. Barbara Vine, writes beautifully and powerfully yet in a controlled manner, and the subtle horror of what I was reading gripped me. 
  9. The Shroud Maker* by Kate Ellis €“ a complex, historical mystery intertwined with a modern day murder mystery for D I Wesley Peterson to solve with plenty of characters, red-herrings, twists and turns, and sub-plots.

Pick of the monthI enjoyed all of them. It was a good month for reading crime fiction and my Book of the Month is also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. It’s …

Brimstone wedding

The Brimstone Wedding by Barbara Vine.

For more Crime Fiction Pick of the Month books see Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Pick of the Month over at Mysteries in Paradise.

Crime Fiction Pick of the Month: April

I read three crime fiction books in April: 

  • The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
  • The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
  • Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves

I’ve already reviewed The Cabinetmaker -based in Glasgow telling the story of a local cabinetmaker, Francis Hare, father of a murdered son, and John McDaid, a young detective on the investigation. It is an intricately plotted book which had me totally gripped.

Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves is a standalone book, not part of either her Vera or Shetland series. Lizzie Bartholomew, a social worker is on leave after a particular nasty episode which has left her traumatised. After a brief holiday affair with Philip Sansom in Morocco, she is surprised when he left her £15,000 in his will. But there are certain conditions she is required to fulfil, which plunges her into a terrifying situation. This is largely a psychological study, focussing on Lizzie, as she relives her past in flashbacks.

CF Pick of the monthAll three books are good reads, but my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month for April is The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers, one of the Golden Age crime fiction writers. It’s a Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery, first published in 1934, by far the most complicated book of the three crime fiction books I read in April and the most fascinating for a number of reasons. It had me completely baffled, first the bell-ringing, and then the twists and turns and all the red herrings.

Wimsey driving through a snow storm ends up in a ditch near the village of Fenchurch St Paul in the Fens and is taken in for the night by the vicar. It’s New Year’s Eve (at some period in the early 1930s) and the vicar has arranged that the bell-ringers will ring in the New Year, involving 9 hours of bell-ringing. As one of the ringers is ill with influenza, Wimsey steps in at the last minute to take his place. I had never realised just how complicated bell-ringing is:

The art of ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations. (page 21)

A few weeks later Wimsey is asked back to Fenchurch St Paul to help solve the mystery of the dead man found by the sexton whilst he was opening up Lady Thorpe’s grave to bury her husband. The identity of the dead man is unknown, his face was mutilated and his hands had been cut off  – who was he, who killed him and why? And what is the significance of the enigmatic note found in the bell-tower? It’s not an easy crime to solve and involves Wimsey in a trip to France as he tries to identify the victim. An added complication is the mystery of the missing necklace, stolen from the Thorpe family but never recovered.

I think one of the things that makes this such a good read is that it’s not just crime fiction, not just solving a puzzle, but it is also a fascinating portrait of the Fens, of their bleakness and isolation; of society in the 1930s with its rigid class divisions into gentry, clergy and villagers. The last part of the book is dominated by the floods as the sluice gates failed to keep back the water flooding all the low-lying ground, despite the new drainage works. It reminded me of the floods in the Somerset Levels this last winter, with various water authorities disputing responsibility for the disaster.

Above all, it is novel in which everything works well together, the characters are individuals, their behaviour is true to their beliefs and passions, and their conversations are realistic. It begins with a leisurely pace, with lots of detail about bell-ringing, which sometimes seemed a bit unnecessary to me, but as the plot unfolded I realised that I was wrong and I needed to pay more attention to the detail. It is essential to the plot. After this leisurely start the pace picks up as Wimsey and the police try to untangle the mystery.

It’s a book that you have to read with care, paying close attention as it is easy to get swept along with Dorothy Sayers’ beautifully descriptive prose and skilful story-telling. This is the sight that greets Wimsey from the top of the bell-tower:

An enormous stillness surrounded him. The moon had risen, and between the battlements the sullen face of the drowned fen showed like a picture in a shifting frame, like the sea seen through the porthole of a rolling ship, so widely did the tower swing to the relentless battery of the bells.

The whole world was now lost in one vast sheet of water. He hauled himself to his feet and gazed out from horizon to horizon. To the south-west St Stephen’s tower still brooded over a dark platform of land, like a broken mast upon a sinking ship.  Every house in the village was lit up:  St Stephen was riding out the storm.  Westward, the thin line of the railway embankment stretched away to Little Dykesey, unvanquished as yet, but perilously besieged. Due south, Fenchurch St Peter, roofs and spire etched black against the silver, was the centre of a great mere. Close beneath the tower, the village of St Paul lay abandoned, waiting for its fate.  Away to the east, a faint pencilling marked the course of the Potters Lode Bank, and while he watched it, it seemed to waver and vanish beneath the marching tide. (page 294)

The Nine Tailors is the first detective book by Dorothy L Sayers that I have read (previously I’d read The Descent into Hell, extracts from her translation of Dante’s Inferno). It’s her ninth Wimsey novel and I intend to read more.

February's Books

This has been a fantastic February for reading. I finished eleven books, all of them from my to-be-read books (TBRs). The links are to my posts on the books:

  1. The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
  2. Playing With Fire by Peter Robinson
  3. Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie
  4. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
  5. Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody
  6. Crucible by S G MacLean
  7. The Steel Bonnets: the story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers by George MacDonald Fraser  (Non fiction)
  8. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
  9. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  10. The Breaker by Minette Walters
  11. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I enjoyed every one of them, but there are a couple of outstanding books, one of which is Crucible by S G MacLean and that is my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. I was transported back to 17th century Scotland where Alexander Seaton investigates the murder of his friend, Robert Sim, the College librarian at the Marischal College in Aberdeen.

It’s absolutely compelling reading, including a quest for €˜a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients‘ since lost to us. There are many twists and turns and another man is killed before he finally arrives at the truth.

For more Crime Fiction Picks of the Month see Kerrie’s blog, Mysteries in Paradise.

The other outstanding book is Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I have yet to write about. I found this book quite hard to read when it was about the abuse happening to some of characters. In some ways it is a dark book and yet in other ways it is uplifting. Another book that I didn’t want to end and at the same time I wanted to rush through it to see how it would end.

I’ve had this book for nearly six years and am so glad I eventually got round to reading it.

Also worth a mention are The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (no review post as yet). I read both on my Kindle, both are short books, but beautifully composed, taut and precise. Of the two I think Ethan Frome has the edge, mainly because of Wharton’s descriptive writing evoking such an intense atmosphere.

I’m doing well at the moment sticking to reading my TBRs (books I’ve had since before 1 January 2014)  – I’ve plenty to choose from – although I am wavering and have started to read a library book. I keep finding books I haven’t included in my LibraryThing and Goodreads catalogues, so although the numbers of unread books on the shelves are going down, the numbers on LT and GR aren’t. And I have bought a few books this year to add to the unread totals!

November's Books & Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

These are the books I finished reading in November (linked to my posts on the books):

  1. Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
  2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and also this post
  3. Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell
  4. Julius by Daphne Du Maurier (from my To-Be-Read books)
  5. The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (Kindle)
  6. N or M? by Agatha Christie (from my To-Be-Read books)
  7. St Mawr by D H Lawrence (from my To-Be-Read books)

The books without posts are:

Instructions for a Heatwave is a book I bought this year; it’s shortlisted for the 2013 Costa Novel Award.  The Midwich Cuckoos is an e-book I borrowed from the Kindle Users Lending Library. Three of the books are books I’ve owned for several years (the To-Be-Read books).

It was a good month for reading. Just two of the books are crime fiction – Saints of the Shadow Bible and N or M?  Both books are by writers at the top of their form, but Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible is my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month.

See Kerrie’s blog for more Crime Fiction Picks of the Month.

 

July's Books

July was a bumper reading month for me, as I finished reading 11 books and I’ve written about 8 of them (those in blue font link to my posts on the books). (And I’ve actually been able to spend some time gardening – when it hasn’t been too hot – or too wet!!!)

  1. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (from TBR books) Historical Fiction
  2. Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville (library book) Non Fiction
  3. The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg Crime Fiction
  4. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  5. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  6. The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett Historical/Crime Fiction
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (from TBR books)
  8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (from TBR books)
  9. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  10. Agatha Christie: an English Mystery by Laura Thompson (library book) Non Fiction
  11. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books) Crime Fiction

It’s been a good month as I’ve read 6 books from my huge pile of unread books, bringing my total of TBRs up to 20 for the year so far. I’m aiming to read as many of my own unread books as I can this year.

There are also 2 non fiction books – shown underlined – a total of 8 for the year so far. I always intend reading more non fiction but usually get sidetracked by the fiction. It generally takes me longer to read non fiction than fiction, so to read 2 in one month is good for me.

Four of the books I read are historical fiction and this means I’ve nearly reached my target of 15 books for the year.

I think the best book I’ve read this month has to be To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I loved it and hope to write more about it soon.

Crime fiction is currently making up about half of my reading and this month I’ve read 5. Each month Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise hosts a post linking to bloggers’ Crime Fiction Picks of the Month.  My Pick this month is The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland.

 Synopsis

It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it. But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.

My view:

I haven’t read Sam Eastland’s first book, Eye of the Red Tsar, about Inspector Pekkala but I had no difficulty in understanding the background to the novel – it works well as a stand-alone. It’s a fast paced plot with flashbacks to Pekkala’s earlier life as an investigator for the Tsar. He is now an investigator for Stalin, charged with discovering the murderer of Colonel Nagorski. A nicely complicated plot, mixed in with historical facts, but as I know very little Russian history I can’t comment on its accuracy – some interesting information about the Tsarina and Rasputin, and Stalin doesn’t come across as the character I thought he was though. I enjoyed it and it kept me guessing until the end.