31 August 2016

Thoughts on reading

"There is something about reading which takes you beyond the constrictions of space and time, frees you from the limitations of social interaction and allows you to escape. Whoever you encounter within the pages of a book, whatever lives you vicariously live with them can affect you deeply – entertain you briefly, change your view of the world, open your eyes to a wholly different concept of living and the value of life. Books can be the immortality that some seek; thoughts and words left for future generations to hear from beyond the grave and awaken a memory of another’s life."
Joe Simpson, The Beckoning Silence.

30 August 2016

Review: The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson

The cover of my copy.
Genre: Historical murder mystery; detective fiction. 
Themes: Murder, secrets, false identities, false pretences, unexpected visitors, movies, young love. 
Reading challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge book no.: 4/6, a book with an item of clothing in the title.

The titular mink (a coat) is the property of one of the characters in this frothy and funny country-house murder mystery. (You will have to read the book if you want to know how and why it got mutilated).

The Affair of the Mutilated Mink and the books that preceded it and followed it, The Affair of the Blood-stained Egg Cosy and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks, have been justifiably called tributes to the Golden Era mystery, and one quickly realises that it doesn't take place in some unspecified version of the 1930s, but specifically the 1930s of the detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Michael Innes, whose detectives, Wimsey, Alleyn and Appleby, are all mentioned in the story. Additionally, when a crime novel is mentioned, it isn't Agatha Christie who has written it, but her fictional author Ariadne Oliver.
I like this cover better!

This is the second in a series of three country house mysteries featuring Inspector Wilkins and the Earl of Burford and his family. The family are unlucky enough to have three separate homicides take place at Alderley, their country home, in a short period of time, and each is covered in one book. 

House-parties are a popular theme for creating interesting plots, not just in mysteries, but in romances and other kinds of novels, and this is no exception. In this volume, an impromptu house-party is formed when the Earl, who is an avid movie fan, invites an American film producer and a movie star to visit the estate to inspect it with a view of using it as the set for a film, at the same time the Countess has invited her cousin and her husband to visit, and their daughter has invited her two suitors with the intention of seeing them together and comparing them so she can decide which one to become engaged to. However, this is not the end to the arrivals: In the wake of the actor and producer there follow several uninvited visitors. Most of the guests are harbouring secrets of some sort and most are not what they seem.
I also like this one.

The characters range from fairly well-rounded to flat stereotypes.The Earl of Burford is a delightful, if somewhat eccentric gent, his wife is at first sight a typical formidable dragoness, but ends up showing unexpected qualities for the type. Their daughter is a typical bright young thing and it's interesting to follow the interplay between her and her two suitors. The guests are a typical country house mystery melange, and the detective is a refreshing change from the self-assured sleuths of the era. Personality-wise, Inspector Wilkins is the polar opposite of detectives like the arrogant Poirot and the self-assured Alleyn, being humble and self-deprecating, but he is just as able a case-solver as any of the three A's: Alleyn, Appleby and St. John Allgood of the Yard. The last one is a supremely arrogant ass who is sent in to investigate the crime and I don't think I'm tossing in too much of a spoiler when I say that he makes a fool of himself in the process, because one can see it coming as soon as the turns up. That debacle is one of the more obvious plot twists (along with another that is a perfect classic twist), but there are plenty of other twists, upon red herrings upon more twists, that should be hard enough to figure out to please any fan of twisty mysteries.

All in all, I found this to be a delightful and funny tribute to the Golden era mystery, and I will be on the lookout for the other two books.

29 August 2016

Weekly Monday Round-up (August 29, 2016)

Book I finished reading last  week:
The Affair of the Mutilated Mink by James Anderson.
(A review is in the works)

Book I started reading last week but haven't finished:
Show Me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi by Annie Caulfield

Last week's DNF books:
The Bloodied Cravat by Rosemary Stevens. It always upsets me when I can't finish a book, but this one was boring, so I saw no reason to finish it after I gave it the 50 page test (see the Terminology Glossary).

The step-back for
Lord of Fire. Delicious!

Lord of Fire by Gaelen Foley started out well but I lost interest after three chapters and set it aside. I may pick it up later and finish it, as it wasn't so much the book itself but my mood that was wrong. I'm more inclined to read non-fiction than novels these days.

 Last week's book haul:

  • Tulip had been on my TBR list since I first heard of it. 
  • The Canada guide book was a nice addition to my guide book collection (more of that anon).
  • I decided to buy The Stolen Child after reading the blurb.
  • The British Museum book is a photo guide to the museum and will be good to have the next time I visit it.
  • Courage at Sea was a freebie, and I can never resist adventure stories, especially if they are true.
  • Crazy Quilting is a good addition to my collection of quilting books. 
  • Finally, Tapestries of Life, which is a collection of quotations and poems, will make a nice bathroom read.

Reading challenge progress:
I have now read 4 of 6 books for the What's in a Name challenge and posted reviews for three of them (I'm writing the fourth). I have read 3 books for the Nonfiction Reading Challenge, which means I have 2 more to go before I can move up to the next level.

DVDs I watched last week: 

I remembered a gift card I had at a bookshop and went there with the plan of using it, but couldn't find any books I wanted to own, so I bought The Hobbit trilogy box set and have been watching the appendixes for the first film. I plan to finish watching all the appendixes before I tackle the films. I don't think I'll make it a marathon, but I do plan to watch The Hobbit films and then The Lord of the Rings films.

  Earworm that got stuck in my head:
Whistle for the Choir by The Fratellis was stuck in my head from Tuesday night through  all of Wednesday. I suppose it could be worse: it could have been Macarena or the Ketchup Song.

Other things I did last week:
Went to a big family get-together on Saturday. I swear I didn't know half the people there, and those I did were all around my age and older. We all got along splendidly none the less. 

28 August 2016

Reading status

Image found on www.freestockphotos.biz

Currently reading:
Title: Show Me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi
 By: Annie Caulfield
Challenge: What's in a Name 2016 
Challenge category: A book with a country in the title.
Challenge status: fourth of six books in this challenge

26 August 2016

Update: My Invisible Library

I have added several fictional book-titles, gleaned from a couple of novels, to my Invisible Library.

5 links on a Friday #2

The links are piling up! Here's the next batch - not all of them brand new, but hey, I just discovered them so they're new to me: 

Fictional bookshops we love:
10 Fictional Bookstores We Wish We Could Shop In, Because Flourish And Blott's Is Too Magical To Not Exist.
I'm chuffed they included Parnassus on Wheels. BTW, he book's copyright has expired and it is available from Project Gutenberg. 

Insight into the mind of a writer:
When Your Research Starts to Terrify You.
An interesting insight into the writerly mind, although the thought occurs that maybe she should be writing about something else if the subject frightens her that much. 

A heart-warming news story about a young reader:
Utah boy reading junk mail gets thousands of books aftermailman's plea goes viral.

A cook-book suitable for reading in bed:
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 30 – A Book ofMediterranean Food by Elizabeth David (1950).
I have an omnibus edition of this book plus French Country Cooking and Summer Cooking. I have never cooked a single recipe from it, but I love reading the recipes. 

One of the classics of trash literature turns fifty this year:
15 Things You Didn’t Know About Jacqueline Susann’s ‘Valleyof the Dolls’.
I'm planning to read this once I finish my reading challenges.

25 August 2016

Review: April Lady by Georgette Heyer

Genre: Historical romance; Regency romance.
Themes: Marriage problems, love, misunderstandings (big mis, no less), gambling, damsels in distress. 
Reading challenge: What's in a Name 2016
Challenge book no.: 3/6, a book with the name of a month in the title.

First I must say that when I was looking for a picture of the cover of the edition I read, I found so many nice ones that I decided to post several. The one on the left is the cover I was looking for and you will find the rest below. This one and the next one (from the original hard-cover edition) are my favourites. 

If you know anything about fashion history you will soon spot the errors in some of the cover images (e.g. too early, too late), and if you have read the book, you will spot more (wrong hair-colour, events that did not take place in the story).

This is a story that hinges on one of those plot elements that I hate: the big misunderstanding. It doesn't help that there is also a spoiled, wilful and rather stupid young woman involved (not the heroine, although she can be pretty silly sometimes) who nearly destroys the heroine and hero's chance of happiness together with her selfishness. 

The plot begins with my lady having to confess that she is over her ears in debt. She doesn't admit that it's because she lent her profligate brother money but instead lets her husband think it's because she has been gambling. This strengthens his belief in the big misunderstanding, i.e. his belief that she married him to save her family from financial ruin; and her belief that he married her because he had a duty to marry, and not for love. Both are wrong, and it seems everyone around them sees it, but not them. Mind you, these are people who live in the same house, see each other every day, and presumably occasionally have sex.This makes April Lady one of those romances in which the falling in love has taken place when the story begins and the plot is about the people involved finding out they are loved back. I like those kinds of stories, but...

Okay I'll come right out and say it: This is definitely not one of Heyer's best. There are pages and pages of conversations that don't have the sparkle and humour that can be found in some of her other books, the main characters are strangely colourless, and the supporting cast might have been borrowed straight out of a couple of her other books. The only reason I slogged through this was because it was part of a reading challenge and I didn't have a whole lot of other books to choose from. 

Apparently, Heyer herself thought the book was terrible. I'm not quite that merciless - I just find it dull and annoying - but I will certainly not be reading it again, and I think I will cull it from my collection. By the way, the review I linked to above goes into the plot and the reasons why it wasn't very good, in depth. I recommend it.

If you have read this book, do you agree with my opinion of it?
If you haven't read it, would you read it based on this review, or would you avoid it?

24 August 2016

Review: Death on a Silver Tray by Rosemary Stevens

Genre: Historical detective fiction, murder mystery, cosy mystery.
Themes: Murder, social reputations, unhappy marriages,

I originally  chose the third book in the Beau Brummell mysteries as the book with an item of clothing in the title for the What's in a Name Challenge. However, I prefer, whenever possible, to read series books in the correct reading order, so I decided to read this, the first book in the series, as a preliminary to The Bloodied Cravat. I read this one through, but The Bloodied Cravat was a DNF for me (see the glossary)and I ended up with another book for the challenge.

This is quite a frothy mystery in the historical/cosy sub-genre. A loathsome old aristocratic woman is murdered by adding poison to her nightly drink of warm milk and the prime suspect is her lady's companion, a young gentlewoman recommended to her by the Duchess of York. Brummell is in love with the Duchess and will do just about anything she asks of him, but as she is married to a member of the royal family and a scandal could destroy them both, they keep it on a platonic level. However, a scandal is looming because if the young lady is found guilty, it will have dire social consequences for the Duchess, and when Brummell declares his conviction of the young woman's innocence in public, he puts his own reputation - a much flimsier affair than that of the Duchess - on the line as well, so there is no backing out of his promise to the Duchess to find the real killer. And so he does, aided by his faithful valet, Robinson, with occasional input from a Bow Street detective, Mr. Lavender.

Brummell makes any number of mistakes one would expect from a novice detective, something I heartily approve of. It would have been very wrong to have him do brilliant deductions right off the bat while investigating his first case, and as a matter of fact, it's a couple of comments dropped by people in conversation that advance the case towards its solution.

I think I prefer this cover to the other one.
I have written elsewhere about how I loathe it when real people are commandeered by authors and made into characters in novels, especially when they are made to behave in ways that would be out of character for them. It's one of the reasons I have never read any of the Jane Austen mysteries, for example. But here we have a very famous historical gentleman being made into a sleuth.To my surprise I found I didn't really mind, perhaps because I know quite little about Beau Brummell other than that he was a celebrity in the modern sense, famous for his dress sense and good taste, and for his friendship with the Prince of Wales. I am also used to seeing him as a supporting character in any number of historical novels written about the era, so I suppose I see him more as a fictional character than a real one.

The character seems to be based, as far as personality goes, on Hercule Poirot. Both are conceited and self-assured dandies, but the difference is that we only ever really get to see Poirot from the outside, as seen by either a partially omniscient third person narrator, or by Hastings, who isn't exactly a reliable narrator. The Beau Brummell books, on the other hand, are narrated in the first person by the Beau himself, and so we get to see his self-doubt and insecurities, which makes him a more likeable and human character.

And then there's the cat. I hope this isn't going to turn into a series with a cat as the Watson.

The story is, as I stated above, frothy and light, but does touch on serious subjects apart from murder, e.g. the social conditions of servants and the problems faced by servant girls who find themselves in the family way, something that would generally result in them being let go from their positions without a reference - often by the very men who impregnated them - a terrible thing in those days.

This was an entertaining read, but I don't think I'll be keeping the book. In the cull box it goes, and then to the charity shop for someone else to buy and enjoy.

Readers: Have you read the other books in the series and would you recommend any title in particular?Although I didn't finish the other book, I am still not ready to give up on the series.

Update: Terminology glossary

I have updated my terminology glossary, removed some dead links and added four new entries.

23 August 2016

(kinda, sorta) Review: Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie

Alternative title:  Lord Edgware Dies (original British title)

Genre: Detective fiction, murder mystery.
Themes: Murder, identity switch, sociopathy.

When I finished reading Cards on the Table I realised I only had one book left to finish the five-novel Poirot omnibus it is in, so I sat down and read Thirteen at Dinner in order to finish the book. 

The plot (if you aren't already familiar with it, from book or film) revolves around a murder apparently committed by a woman who has no fewer than 12 witnesses to give her an alibi, and yet was seen at the scene of the crime at the same time. Poirot, having already become involved before the crime was committed, is commissioned by Inspector Japp of the Scotland Yard to investigate, and does so, aided by his friend Hastings and the police.

I love the noir feel to these covers.
When I called Cards on the Table a proper mystery I was, of course, referring to the fact that I haven't touched a pure mystery novel in ages. Sure, I've read thrillers, romantic suspense, and even romances with mystery side plots, but not a single book in which the mystery was the main thing.  

Thirteen at Dinner is a proper mystery, and quite a good mystery as well, even if it does rely on a coincidence to bring out the final solution. It is fortunately not a deus ex machina solution, but merely that Poirot overhears a chance comment in the street that enables him to make the final connection and catch the murderer. (I'm not giving anything away, BTW, since Hastings, who is the narrator and one of two Watsons in the story, states as much in the opening chapter). 

It's not the best Christie I've read, but it's among the better ones, and since it is included in the same volume as Death on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, two of my favourite Christie novels, I'm keeping it.


Would you read the book based on this review? 


22 August 2016

Weekly Monday round-up (including the week's haul of books)

This is my first, but hopefully not last, time participating in this meme. The week before last I relaunched my book blog by signing up for two reading challenges, and I have started with a bang. It remains to be seen how long I can keep it up this time around.

 Books I finished reading last  week:
A Parrot in the Pepper Tree by Chris Stewart 
Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. 
Thirteen at Dinner by Agatha Christie 
Death on a Silver Tray by Rosemary Stevens (scheduled to post on Wednesday)
April Lady by Georgette Heyer. (scheduled to post on Thursday)

Reviews posted about earlier reads:

Books I started reading last week but haven't finished:
The Bloodied Cravat by Rosemary Stevens
Show me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi by Annie Caulfield

Books I bought last week:
All of these, plus Two years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, jr.


Other things on the agenda:
Planning to go and pick bilberries and crowberries if the weather stays dry. The former to eat straight away and the latter to make crowberry jelly. I might even find some wild strawberries (yum!)