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October 2017 Snapshot

October snapshot (1)Let’s get the good news out of the way first. Last month you may remember I said that, because I’d broken my upper humerus, I had limited movement in my arm. Good progress has been made in the past month and I no longer walk like a penguin. I can do pretty much most domestic and social activities unaided now, including drive my car. Freedom at last!!! I even managed a three hour baking class last week where we were throwing around a heavy batch of bread dough (I did it left handed just to be on the safe side).

Apart from trying to coax my damaged wing back into health, what else was I up to on October 1, 2017?

 Reading now

Vernon_god_little I’m not one of those people who makes a habit of simultaneously reading multiple books. Two I can manage providing they are in vastly different genres (a crime novel say and a more literary novel, or a novel and a short story collection) but unusually I have three books on the go at the moment.

The first is my 44th Booker Prize winner – Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre which won the prize in 2003.  This is not one I was looking forward to read and it seems I am not alone. Although some reviewers thought it highly comic, others hated it and didn’t feel it deserved to win the prize. It’s set in a town in Texas in the aftermath of a mass shooting of students at the local school. One student, Vernon Little, is taken in for questioning and gets caught up in the legal and media circus. I’ve not yet read far enough to judge whether this will be one I enjoy but it certainly has a unique style.

By contrast on my e-reader is a psychological story that became a cinema classic when it was adapted  by Alfred Hitchcock with the leading roles taken by James Stewart and Kim Novak. The film was Vertigo and the book was D’entre les morts (From Among the Dead) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It was published in English as The Living and the Dead in 1956 and now re-issued under the new Pushkin Vertigo imprint. Apart from re-locating the action from Paris to San Francisco, Hitchcock seems to have stayed fairly close to the original story of a former detective asked to help an old schoolfriend who is concerned about the increasingly strange behaviour of his wife.  Interest in his quarry becomes a dangerous obsession however.

My third book is a re-read. It’s a novella which has become a stable of the school syllabus in the UK for 14-16 year olds. I’d never read Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck until four years ago when it was chosen by the book club I belonged to at the time but loved it (my review is here). Now I’m re-reading it to help coach a young girl in my village who is being bullied at school so studying on her own until a solution can be found.

Reflecting on the state of my personal library

One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books.  I’m holding steady to last month’s total at 274. I bought just one book in September:  The Ladies’ Paradise (Au Bonheur des Dames) by Emile Zola published in 1883 as part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle. This one focuses on the world of the department store, a form of retail outlet that is very familiar to us today but was an innovative concept in the mid-nineteenth century. Until then, shoppers had to visit separate establishments for different items but with  Le Bon Marché (the model for Zola’s store) they could find all their purchases under one roof. The book was adapted by the BBC for a costume-drama series The Paradise broadcast in 2012 and 2013.

Thinking of reading next…

I don’t know what I’ll be reading later in the month other than one of the remaining six Booker prize titles from my list. It’s a long time since I read any of the Louise Penny novels I bought on my last trip to the USA ( I much preferred the covers of the US editions to the British ones) so a return to her fictitious village of Three Pines could be on the cards. I also found a little collection of Penelope Lively books when I was hunting through the shelves recently and its ages since I read anything by her. As always there are too many choices!

Watching:  I read Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time at the time it was published which is now about 30 years ago and went on to read and enjoy many more of his novels (his early output is, with the exception of the magnificent Atonement, superior to his more recent work.). The recent BBC adaptation starring Benedict Cumberbatch was a reminder of just how powerful a study of loss and grief The Child in Time is and of McEwan’s versatility as an author.

Required viewing in our house at the moment is The Great British Bake Off.  I’m frustrated by the intrusions of the commercial breaks but other than that the series hasn’t seemed to have suffer much by it’s move away from the BBC ( I never did like the Mel and Sue double act). There’s a new series of The Apprentice starting I think this week – this is a show that is probably on its last legs. The last few series they seem to have scraped the barrel and found the most inane and useless candidates possible. They talk a lot about how great they are but I wouldn’t let them anywhere near any business of mine. It’s good for a laugh though.

And that is it for this month. I hope by this time next month the arm will be back in operation again. Until then, happy reading everyone.

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (James Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

An ever so tiny book splurge

After six months in which I bought only three books I’ve been on a little spree this week. I say ‘little’ because I’m determined not to let the TBR get further out of control. This is a reward for sticking fairly well to my goals for the first half of the year. As reminder I set two goals:

  1. Enjoy my library collection to the full by reading only these books for six months. In other words: read the books I already own rather than go chasing shiny new ones. This was a more positive approach than a book ban (I know from past experience I’d never keep to that) and did give me the flexibility to borrow from libraries. I did acquire  a few titles via give aways and offers of review copies but I also declined more than I accepted so the TBR is still on a downward trend. Down from 318 at the start of the year to 276 by end of June. I’m counting this as success.
  2. My second goal was to Learn how to use Photoshop to create more compelling images. With help from my husband who is a whizz-kid with this software program and some online tutorials I’ve managed to get beyond the basics. Much huffing and puffing is still involved each time I want to do a new montage and realise I’ve forgotten the instructions again or my computer won’t do what the tutorial says it should do. But I’m getting there.

I’m giving myself a breather in July before going once more unto the breach for the final five months of the year.

I’ll keep goal number one but will give myself a bit more slack to buy a few new titles (I’m thinking four new books would be a reasonable allowance for a 5 month period). I have a very long wishlist that I maintain on Goodreads so chosing just four books from that list could be a challenge.

Goal two will remain – there is  still a lot more I to learn with Photoshop so I don’t think I can declare victory just yet.

I’m going to add a third goal.

Goal 3: I will finish all the books remaining in my Booker project.  I have only 8 more titles to go before I’m done. No reason why I can’t do this by end of December.

New purchases 

Books purchased July 2017

So what did I buy on my mini spree? I deliberately avoided going to a bookshop which would be way too much temptation. Mind you I have a few hours to kill in the city tomorrow so my resolve might waver….. (I’m making zero promises!).

The local branch of The Works was doing a deal on paperbacks of 3 for £5. I couldn’t find three but did end up with:

Stasi Wolf by David Young. This is an atmospheric crime fiction series set in East Germany in the 1970s, in other words when it was still part of the Soviet empire. There’s a good review of this book by MarinaSofia at CrimeFictionLover.    I won book two in the series in a give away earlier this year but was then advised to start from the beginning so was delighted to find what I thought was book. That will pay me to give closer attention to my TBR – I got home to find Stasi Wolf is the one I already have. Maybe it doesn’t count as a purchase in that case???

The Nature of the Beast by Louise Penny. I wasn’t familiar with this title in the Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec and the publishers have a habit of using alternative titles for some of her books. So I did a quick web search while standing in the shop to confirm that I don’t already have this under a different name. I should have done that with Stasi Wolf shouldn’t I?

My local library branch has a regular book sale table which I browse regularly, on behalf of my dad, for books in the  Detective Superintendent Roy Grace crime fiction series by Peter James. He loves this series set in Brighton but gets frustrated because he can’t borrow them from his library in the order of publication. So I keep an eye out to fill in any gaps for him. No luck again on my recent visit but I did find that monstrously large book at the bottom of the stack.

Cwmcardy is published by the Library of Wales as part of their project to bring out-of-print or forgotten books of Welsh literature back into play. Cwmcardy is one of two epic novels written by Lewis Jones  about  his experience in South Wales between 1890s and 1930s and is considered one of the Great Welsh novels. This is a rather graphic portrait of exploitation, violence and political aspiration experienced by the industrial workers of this part of Wales around the time of the General Strike in 1926. That could make it sound rather grim and ‘worthy’ but I note that the reviewer who nominated this as a Great Welsh Novel,  considered it a page-turner full of action and sensation.  It’s more than 700 pages long so quite when I’ll get round to reading it is a big question – however it cost 20pence which seemed a small investment for strengthening my collection of Welsh authors.

 

 

Book series on my radar

This week’s Top Ten topic (as hosted by Broke and Bookish) is “Ten Series I’ve Been Meaning To Start But Haven’t.”  This could turn out to be a very short post in that case since I don’t tend to be a reader of series. Or at least I didn’t think I was until I took a look at my reading over the last few years and the list of books I own but have not yet read. It seems I am already part way through a few series. So let’s talk about those first.

Current Series Reading

L'AssommoirThe Rougon-Macquet cycle by Emile Zola: a sequence of 20 novels written by the French author between 1871 and 1893. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), the novels follow the lives of the members of two branches of a fictional family. Zola planned in this sequence to “study in a family the questions of blood and environments.” In other words, he wanted to advocate his theory of naturalism by demonstrating how people are heavily influenced by heredity and their environment.  So far I’ve read four of the 20 and each one has been excellent. I have another title on my 20booksofsummerreadinglist which will get me quarter of the way through the collection. That’s fine, I’m in no hurry. If you don’t know Zola’s work and want to get more familiar with it, take a look at the superb readingzola blog  created by Lisa and Dagny.

Dr Thorne by Anthony TrollopeChronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope: a sequence of six novels set in the fictitious English county of Barsetshire and its cathedral town of Barchester. The novels concern the political and social dealings of the clergy and the gentry but don’t imagine that means they are rather dull – the novels are full of power struggles, social class clashes, financial disasters and frustrated affairs of the heart. They also contain some of the most magnificently rendered characters I’ve come across in literature. I’m half way through the series – next up in my Anthony Trollope project is Framley Parsonage which was published in 1861 and features a young vicar whose aspirations to move up in the social circle make him vulnerable to the machinations of a Member of Parliament with a reputation for debt. More info about Trollope can be found at the Trollope Society website

great-reckoning

Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny

We’re now at book twelve in a series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  Louise Penny’s protagonist is a man of great integrity, a man who refuses to shirk from uncomfortable truths or to turn a blind eye when he senses corruption and wrong-doing even at the heart of the police force. But he’s also thoughtful, gentle and warm – not only to his wife and son in law but to the inhabitants of a small community in the province of Quebec called Three Pines that he discovers during the course of one of his investigations. Three Pines is a superb created fictional place; it’s so small it doesn’t even show up on maps, yet it is home to Gabri who runs the bistro, the acerbic poet Ruth, Myrna who owns the bookstore and the artist Clara Morrow. Each book that takes us back to Three Pines means we get a chance to meet up with these old friends.  I’ve read six of the books published so far (a new title is due out this August) but I didn’t read them in sequence. Penny has said each novel is meant to be self-standing but to get the full effect of the character development they are indeed best read in order. So that’s what I’ve now started to do.  You can find more about Louise Penny at her website

Series I may not finish

LamentationsThe Shardlake novels by C. J Sansom. I’ve enjoyed a few of this historical crime series which feature a laywer called Shardlake who takes on the role of the ‘detective’. Sansom is a historian by training which enables him to bring the Tudor period to life with all its political machinations, religious upheaval, sounds and smells (he does smells rather well). There are six in the series starting with Dissolution which was the first I read. I’ve read four now – the last one being number 5 in the series; Lamentation (reviewed here) – and though I’ve enjoyed them, the level of enthusiasm has begin to wane. If I wasn’t so close to finishing I probably would give up now, but it seems as Macbeth said

I am in blood

Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more,

Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4)

Future Series to Read

Palliser Novels by Anthony Trollope: Once I finish the Chronicels of Barsestshire I’m planning to move onto the Palliser novels. This is a series of six novels written between 1864 and 1879 which feature a wealthy aristocrat and politician Plantagenet Palliser, and his wife, Lady Glencora (although they don’t play major roles in every title). The plots involve British and Irish politics in varying degrees, specifically in and around Parliament. There is a bit of a cross-over of characters with those in the Barchester Chronicles – Plantagent Palliser has a small role in The Small House at Allington for example and he has an unwise flirtation with the daughter of Dr Grantly and granddaughter of the Reverend Mr Harding, characters who appear in The Warden and Barchester Towers. The Victorian Web considers the Palliser novels to be superior to the Barchester Chronicles

strangers and brothers

Strangers and Brothers by C. P Snow: This series of 11 novels, published between 1940 and 1970, is one that has been on my radar screen for about 30 years. So keen was I to read them that I made my husband trek from bookshop to bookshop in Hay on Wye just so I could get all of them in the same Penguin livery.  All the novels are narrated by a character called Lewis Eliot whose life we follow from humble beginnings in an English provincial town, through to a reasonably successful career as a London lawyer. In future years he becomes a Cambridge don, and sees wartime service in Whitehall as a senior civil servant. They deal with – among other things – questions of political and personal integrity, and the mechanics of exercising power. This series may not be familiar to you but you’ll possibly have heard the expression Corridors of Power – this is the title of book number nine but was referred to in an earlier title in the series. The term went on to become a household phrase referring to the centres of government and power. Its still in use today though the name of its originator has faded from the public’s mind. What constituted ‘required reading’ in earlier decades is barely heard about now. I’m just hoping that when I do start reading the series, that trek around Hay will prove to have been worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

#12Days of Christmas book game: day 11

music

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Eleven Pipers Piping

Day 11 of the 12 Days of Christmas game and giveaway.

We’re almost at the end of this game and its much harder than I imagined. Today is particularly challenging – not a single book title comes to my mind that involves pipers unless its related to cake decorating.

 

Booker Talk Titles for Day 

Help! I can’t think of a single book containing the words piper or piping. There’s the folk legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin which is probably in text form somewhere but I don’t know that for sure.

So I’ll have to think tangentially – what do pipers do? They mend or lay pipes maybe but thats not very interesting and probably not the intent of their song – I can’t imagine anyone being very pleased to unwrap a gift of a pipe on Christmas morning. Probably whoever created the song was thinking of the kind of pipers who make music.  That’s more like it – here are my choices:

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

This was only the second novel by Tremain that I read and I did so purely based on the fact I had enjoyed her earlier novel Restoration. This one too is set in the seventeenth century though this time we are in Denmark not England. It features a lute player who gets a position in the King’s orchestra and then falls in love with the Queen’s companion. He doesn’t realise what he is getting into because the court, for all its show of harmony is a hotbed of evil.  It wasnt as good a book as Restoration unfortunately – I found it rather confusing.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

This was a wonderful book about the love between two highly gifted musicians. One is Michael, a violinist, the other is Julia a pianist. They split up but now 20 years later she re-enters his life and their romance is re-ignited. But Julia has a secret that might get in the way of their love. A magical story which takes place to in two of the most atmospheric cities in Europe – Venice and Vienna.

And finally, something completely different – a crime story with a strong musical theme. The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is one of the novels in her Chief Inspector Gamache series set in Quebec province. It sees Gamache, head of homicide, travel to a remote island which is home to a community of monks. They are a silent order yet ironically have become world-famous for their prowess in singing Gregorian chants whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as “the beautiful mystery.” As I indicated in my review at the time, I loved this book, not just because its well plotted but I desperately wanted to hear some of that music. So I went and bought a CD of Gregorian chants. If ever you have trouble sleeping and need something to restore a feeling of peace and calm, this kind of music could be the answer.

Now over to you. Here’s how to play……

Come up with book titles or book images or anything book related (could be the name of a location mentioned in the book or a character) that matches with pipers and piping Let’s see how creative you can be. I’m looking ideally for 3 titles/images etc . You can mix and match your nominations.

Put your titles into the comments field of that day’s post. Don’t just give me the name since you could easily get that from a Google search – tell us something about the book itself. Why did you choose these titles – are they from your TBR or ones you’ve seen mentioned on a blog. Please try not to just use lists from Goodreads etc.

Feel free to blog about this on your own site or via Twitter using the #12days hashtag

The Giveaway

There’s an incentive to play along with this which is a giveaway of a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository

To participate, your list of books must be in the comments field by 10pm GMT/5pm Eastern Standard Time on Friday Dec 16.

Day by Day Prompts

Day 1:   Partridge in a Pear Tree
Day 2:   Turtle Doves
Day 3:    French Hens
Day 4:   Calling Birds
Day 5:    Gold Rings
Day 6:   Geese a-Laying
Day 7:   Swans a-Swimming
Day 8:   Maids a-Milking
Day 9:   Ladies Dancing
Day 10:  Lords a-Leaping
Day 11:   Pipers Piping
Day 12:   Drummers Drumming

Rules of the Game

1.Each day a post will go live on booker talk.com matched to the task for that day. All you to do is post a comment with your list of books on the page

2. Each day try to come up with 3 titles. No need to think of 11 books featuring pipers or eight with maids in them. This is meant to be fun not mission impossible…..

3. Participants are encouraged to be creative with the names of titles matching each day. But the books do need to be in existence – no scope here for making up your own titles.

4. The number of contributions per person will be totalled and the one with the highest number will win the prize. So if you post three titles for day 6 and 5 on day 11, that gives a total of 8 points.

5. Contributions should be entered on the page within the time limit stated each day – typically I will give 48 hours between the time I post the day’s challenge and when comments will be closed.

6. You don’t need to play every day in order to be entered for the prize. Some days will be easier than others – and anyway you have all that shopping and packing still to do

7. There is only one prize – available internationally. The Prize winner will be announced on the blog around about the 15th of December.

6. The prize is that you get to choose a book up to the value of $20 USD from the Book Depository that I will arrange to ship to you. This will probably not arrive until next year given the last postage dates for international mail.

 

A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny #crimefiction

great-reckoningLouise Penny has for a few years now been one of my favourite crime writers with her series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec.  When we got to book number 10 I was worried she was about to bring the series to an end since this saw the denouement of a long running theme of the Chief’s battle against the forces of evil that lay at the heart of the judicial and political establishment. But in book 11, The Long Way Home, she came up with a plot to keep him occupied in his retirement to the delightful small village of Three Pines, where so many of his investigations had led. As nifty as a device this was, it had limited scope I thought – this is a village so small it doesn’t even appear on a map so it would stretch credulity too far to keep conjuring up crime incidents for Gamache to investigate. I needn’t have been concerned however for Penny has devised a far more credible new role for the Chief in her newest episode in the series A Great Reckoning.

This novel sees Gamache start a new job as head of the Sûreté academy, the body that trains new officers for the force. Gamache is determined to clean up some of its less desirable practices which have resulted in a bunch of new recruits who are overly aggressive and below the standards Gamache expects from Sûreté officers. His clean-up campaign will see him go head to head with some of the established leaders of the academy who are none too pleased with the changes. It also re-unites him with one of his oldest friends, a now-disgraced former head of the Sûreté, a man who has good reason to dislike Gamache as the man who brought about his demise. When one of the Professors at the Academy is found murdered, the spotlight turns on several of the staff, including Gamache. Questions are raised about just how far would he go to eradicate corruption and what exactly is his relationship with Amelia Choquet, one of the new cadets who with her tattooed limbs and pierced nostrils and lips looks more like one of the people a Sûreté officer would question as a suspect than recruit to their ranks.

There is another mystery that requires Gamache’s attention. An intricate old map is found hidden in the walls of the bistro in Three Pines. The villagers become more and more intrigued by this artefact. Who was the mapmaker and what was the purpose? Why did the mapmaker include a pyramid, a snowman and a cow and why was does the stained glass window in he village church feature the a soldier carrying the map? Challenges and questions Gamache gives to four of the cadets as an exercise in the investigation skills they will require once on active duty. Along the way he gives them an object lesson in how to be a skilled – and compassionate investigator, quoting from Jonathan Swift and Marcus Aurelius in what seems to be one of the tenets guiding his own life:

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane

And thats one of the things I admire most about the Gamache series. The plots are generally good (the one in he Great Reckoning isn’t as compelling as previous titles but is still executed flawlessly) and the characterisation superb. But what lifts this above the ordinary crime novel is the investment made to show Gamache as a rounded man capable of great depth of understanding, humanity and humility. Qualities which he tries to pass onto his family, friends and those under his wing as he does in his end of year address to the Academy staff and students:

We are all of us marred and scarred and imperfect. We make mistakes. We do things we deeply regret. We are tempted and sometimes we give into that temptation. Not because we are bad or weak but because we are human. We are a crowd of faults. But know this… There is always a road back. If we have the courage to look for it and to take it.

Wise words from a man who is often accused of arrogance, of thinking he knows better than anyone else what to do in a crisis situation. But essentially he is a man who recognises he makes mistakes in his quest to root out wrong doing and isn’t afraid to admit it to others when the time is right.

You could do worse than read The Great Reckoning not just as an example of quality, thoughtful crime fiction but  as a study in humanity and true leadership. The extra good news is that towards the end of the book there is a hint he is going to move on to a new role. My guess he will become head honcho of the Quebec Sûreté but Louise Penny could have another surprise up her sleeve.

Footnotes

Author: The Great Reckoning is book 11 in the series by Louise Penny

Published: 2016 by Little, Brown Book Group UK

Length: 400 pages

My copy: Provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

 

Reading Snapshot October 2016

autumn-leaves-in-sun3I can pretend no longer. The tinges of red on bushes in my garden and the rate at which our copper beech is shedding leaves tells me that summer is over. Time for the season of mists and intermittent sunshine.

I know many readers who change their reading habits once the seasons evolve and start to think of slightly darker, or more cosy books once the nights begin drawing in. I don’t consciously do that – as far as I can tell I read pretty much the same things all year round. It’s rather a coincidence therefore that the two books I have on the go at the start of October are rather dark.

Reading Currently

One is the latest in the Chief Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny that I’m reviewing for NetGalley. Penny has found a clever way of dealing with the problem that two books earlier she made her protagonist retire from his job as head of homicide for the Quebec region after a dramatic showdown with the corruptive elements in the force.  The last novel saw him retire to the quiet community of Three Pines with this wife, but even then he found a crime to solve. But of course she can’t go on creating crimes in Three Pines given it is such a small community. The latest novel A Great Reckoning sees him take up a new role at the helm of the police training academy, determined on a root and branch review and a cull of the less desirable influences which of course sets him firmly on course to antagonise his colleagues. One of them get murdered and Gamache is in the frame as a potential murder. As with all of Penny’s novels we get a reasonably good plot but a lot of thoughtful commentary about the state of the world as seen by Gamache.

It’s all rather different from my second novel which is Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – the first in his trilogy. I read it a few years ago and wasn’t all that enamoured with it – it features a talking bear and some fantastical creatures called daemons that you carry with you as a reflection of your soul. Reading it a second time for my  study module on children’s literature I can appreciate more the way Pullman plays with the typical elements of fantasy and quest fiction, of mythology and Paradise Lost to create a tale of other worlds that asks searching questions about religion and the role of the Church. Still wish he hadn’t included  talking bears though….

Just Finished

I do seem to be on a run of darker material since I only just finished Do Not Say We Have Nothing by the Canadian author Madeline Thien. It’s shortlisted for both the Booker prize and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. It covers a vast swathe of Chinese history from the era of Mao and the devastation he brought to the nation not to mention the untold number of deaths, right up to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some of the history is familiar from my reading of Wild Swans (one of my favourite non fiction books) but Thien looks at this through the lens of three highly respected and talented musicians and how political upheaval affects their ability to learn, play and enjoy music. It’s an ambitious novel and really tough to review for Shiny New Books for their upcoming edition.

What’s next?

A lot of other children’s novels await my attention in coming months. Next in order will be Treasure Island which I love and Little Women which I loathe…. In between I hope to get to some of the books I mentioned in a recent post about books on the Autumn reading plan but like most of my plans its likely to go astray. German literature month beckons as does the 1947 club and then there’s the Classics Club prize which I have sadly neglected this year and the Booker project and my world literature project. Plenty to occupy me for sure.

Three Faces of Crime

I don’t read a lot of crime fiction but now and again I get a hankering for something in that line. I am clearly not destined to be a detective however because  I invariably pick the wrong person as the perpetrator and miss the significant clues along the way to their exposure. It doesn’t really matter as long as the writing is of a good standard and the plot doesn’t stretch credulity too much. What appeals to me about these books is they give me a chance to turn the dial down on the brain for a while. I’m not yearning for cosiness or the kind of book where it goes in one eye and out the other without touching the sides but I definitely want to be entertained.

All three of the crime novels I’ve read this year have had something about them that lifted them above the ordinary though their styles couldn’t be more different.

crimefiction

 

My love affair with Chief Inspector Gamache continues unabated. A Fatal Grace is book number two  in the series by Louise Penny but the fourth I’ve read (I’ve not been reading in order).

She takes us back to the Three Pines village, a Canadian community so small it can barely be found on the map. It’s a close knit community but there’s one person that the village has never taken to their heart: CC de Poitiers. This is a woman who alienated everyone from her husband and her sad, cowed daughter to her lover so there are not many tears shed when she is electrocuted during the annual curling event. But Armand Gamache is a man full of compassion and an understanding of human nature, skills which ably equip him to understand the undercurrents as he searches for the truth.  A well written novel which kept me guessing (almost) to the end and entertained with its wonderful scenes set in the village’s cosy bistro. I admire the way Penny has developed these characters, giving them little quirks and tics but never descending to the level of caricature. She has also cleverly set up a storyline that is expanded in later novels about a threat from unknown forces to our beloved Chief Inspector. If you’ve not been introduced to Gamache, I recommend you remedy that soon.

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cover of the first edition of ''The Mysterious Affair at Styles''. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

The cover of the first edition of ”The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. Shared via Creative Commons License from Wikipedia

It’s taken me long enough to get around to reading The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel to be published by Agatha Christie. It’s the novel that introduces Hercule Poirot to the world as a man with eccentric habits and a razor sharp mind.

The story of The Mysterious Affair at Styles is rather simple by contemporary standards – just one death and that happens off stage so sparing us any ghoulish details. But it’s the way the novel evokes a particular time and place that I found more interesting.  It’s written in 1916 when the world of the Edwardian landed family seems to be in its last stages. The multi-generational family living at the country house of Styles try to keep up their old way of life but the reality of World War 1 with its talk of war work, rumours of spies and shortages of essentials impinge on their comforts. Poirot himself has been displaced by the war raging in his native Belgium, finding refuge with a few of his countryman in a house owned by Emily Inglethorp, the matriarch of Styles manor house.  It puts him in pole position when his benefactor is found dead inside her locked bedroom.  Not a book that lovers of highbrow literary fiction will enjoy very much it was interesting to see where the legend of Poirot began.

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Both Penny and Christie give us professional detectives who possess an extraordinary ability to understand the forces that drive people to murder, maim and prey on the weak and defenceless. It’s often not the crime itself that intrigues them, but the character that lies behind it.

dissectionThe protagonist in my third novel  isn’t a detective nor does he have any interest in the criminal mind. He doesn’t easily understand emotions in fact because Asperger’s Syndrome severely limits his emotional response to situations and makes it difficult for him to interpret other people’s behaviour. Patrick Fort is however fascinated by death, a fascination triggered when as a young boy he witnessed his father’s sudden demise in a road accident. His obsessive desire to know why someone dies takes him to a university anatomy course in Cardiff where he he looks for answers by dissecting cadavers donated in the interests of furthering medical understanding. After weeks of working on Corpse 19, the body of a middle-aged man, he is convinced the diagnosis given on the death certificate is incorrect. Few believe his claim that Corpse 19 did not die naturally but was murdered in a hospital high-dependency ward for coma patients.

The introduction of a ‘detective’ with Asperger’s Syndrome has of course obvious parallels with Mark Haddon’s hugely successful The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time. Rubbernecker uses a similarly emotionally disconnected voice but was rather more successful for me than Haddon’s protagonist. There are times when Patrick Fort’s lack of social skills  result in some unintentionally funny scenes but we also empathise with his mother whose patience at her son’s behaviour has been tested to despair.

There is a lot to appreciate in this novel though Bauer’s ambition seems to have led her to intersperse the narrative of Patrick’s quest with several other strands which don’t work as well. The most prominent is the narrative of a middle-aged car accident victim man who is trying to recover his voice and the use of his body after lying in a coma for many years. Then there is a story line of a nurse working in the same coma unit who sets out to snare the wealthy husband of a patient. The connection between these strands does eventually come together though it makes for some confusing reading initially. I’ll give credit to Bauer however for attempting to break new ground in the realm of  psychological crime fiction. The shame is that we won’t get another chance to meet Patrick in any further novels.

Falling off the Wagon

Asundaysalont the start of this year I joined the Triple Dare Challenge @ James Reads Books. (actually I renamed this as a project since I know I don’t do well with challenges). I wanted to clear a little space in my bookshelves that I can then fill up with new purchases. James has made it super easy. We just read from our existing library until end of April. We can buy any amount of new books (and believe me I am sure to be top of the class at following that rule). We just can’t read them until May.

I’ve done well so far having read eight books from the real bookshelves and the e-reader since January.  The shelves are still stuffed due to some rather over-enthusiastic purchases of Pereine Press editions last month. But at least I have space to move things around now and see what’s lurking in the darker recesses.

But I confess I fell off the wagon last week. I was packing for my flight back to UK from Michigan later that day. It was going to be a long overnight flight so my choice of reading matter had to be spot on. I had The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis (part of my Booker Prize list) with me and I’d already started it. But at the last minute it got ditched in favour of The Fatal Grace by Louise Penny which I’d bought only the previous night. My sole reason for this eleventh hour change of plan was that Penny’s novel is set in winter time in a Canadian village; I was close to the border with Canada and the view outside my hotel room was equally wintry.  I think you’ll agree that’s rather a tenuous connection.

But my lapse has been fleeting. I’m home now and back on the wagon. Amis going to have to wait a little while because I have an invitation to a party with Mrs Dalloway. And then it will time to dig around the shelves for an Irish author as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month.  I’m thinking of taking Molly Keane with me to that party.

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

LongWayHomeWithin just a few pages of The Long Way Home it’s evident that you’re in the hands of an accomplished writer. This is the latest novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series by Canadian best selling author Louise Penny and if the plot of this tenth title seems a little weaker than its predecessors, the psychological perspectives, strong sense of place and memorable characters are undiminished.

Gamache, newly retired from his post as head of the Sûreté du Québec has moved from Montreal to live in the village of Three Pines with his wife Reine-Marie. It’s a time for reflection and a time for healing after his incendiary confrontation with terrorism and police corruption in the last novel How the Light Gets In. The quietude of Three Pines, a village so small it hardly exits on any map, seems the perfect place in which to achieve the desired calm.

“Armand Gamache looked across to the deep green midsummer forest and the mountains that rolled into eternity. Then his eyes dropped to the village in the valley below them, as though held in the palm of an ancient hand. A stigmata in the Québec countryside. Not a wound, but a wonder.”

But if Armad has come here to make a fresh start, he cannot ignore a personal request from the artist Clara Morrow, one of his neighbours, to use his detective skills and contacts. Her estranged husband, Peter, also an artist but one whose career has been eclipsed by his wife’s success, has failed to make an agreed rendezvous to reassess their marraige. Gamache ropes in his former detective partner and son in law Jean-Guy Beauvoir, to try and trace the missing man. Their search takes them on a journey into the darker side of the artistic world, revealing jealousies and the despair over unfulfilled talent.

A few Three Pines residents familiar from earlier novels make a reappearance in The Long Way Home including Gabi and Oliver who run the bistro which becomes the de facto search team HQ and Myrna the bookshop owner. The acerbic highly talented poet Ruth Zardo gets to show a side of her character hitherto unknown, providing critical insight Into the mind of the artist.

“Peter always had a ‘best before’ date stamped on his forehead,” said Ruth. “People who live in their heads do. They start out well enough, but eventually they run out of ideas. And if there’s no imagination, no inspiration to fall back on? Then what?”

Pride of place of course goes to Clara who makes it clear that although she wants the detective’s help, it’s her husband who is missing so she gets to decide how they find him.

All the elements exist for a very good mystery novel. The most enjoyable aspect of this book for me however lay beyond the discovery of what happened to Peter and related more to the themes that are woven throughout the pages.  Chief among these is the reconciliation and self enlightenment. The main characters in this book are all on a journey of some kind that will take them closer to understanding themselves and what matters most. (In her introduction, Penny says she was influenced by Homer’s The Odyssey and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

For Armand, the return to the procedures of detection rekindles his belief that while there is a world of beauty and love it is also one filled with killers and cruelty that he feels compelled to act and to stop. By the end of the novel he, like the village, has found a new sense of calm and of a new beginning.

What Louise Penny does next with this series will be very interesting to see. She hasn’t given any indication that this is the last Inspector Gamache story and having built such a strong protagonist whose ‘brand’ has resonated with millions of readers, why would she? But having retired him to one of the smallest communities in rural Quebec, it’s going to be tough to find convincing mysteries in which he can exercise his prowess.

End Notes
A Long Way Home was published in the UK in August 2014. Thanks to Sphere for providing me with an advance copy via NetGalley.

Louise Penny talked recently to NPR about her latest book. listen to the recording at
http://www.npr.org/2014/08/24/342873734/louise-penny-builds-a-magical-ensemble-in-the-long-way-home

 

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