Monday, 19 February 2018

Seeking Whom He May Devour

Book two of Fred Vargas's 'Commissaire Adamsberg' series of murder mysteries is Seeking Whom He May Devour set, not in or around Paris, but in the Mercantour National Park in the Alpes-Maritimes region of southern France.

Naturalist, Lawrence Johnstone, a Canadian, is studying wolves in the Mercantour NP and is finding it hard to leave the area despite his work being finished. Partly he's come to love the region and the wolves but also he lives with a lovely young French woman, Camille, and does not want to leave her. Coincidently she is also an ex-girlfriend of Commissaire Adamsberg's. The two live in a small, very rural, village, Saint-Victor-du-Mont, where everyone knows everyone else intimately and also their business.

A number of ewes belonging to a local farmer, Suzanne Melchior, are found brutally killed and a few days later so is the farmer herself. Johnstone tells Camille that Suzanne had told him confidentially she thought there was a werewolf on the loose and that she thought a local by the name of Massart was a likely candidate. It seems crazy but the sheep and the farmer have definitely been killed by a very large wolf, not a dog or any other kind of wild animal.

Massart disappears and they find a map that he's marked with a rural route up across France to England where he has a relative living. Johnstone suggests that Camille and two others, Suzanne's adopted son Soliman and her shepherd, Watchee, drive after him in a dilapidated old lorry. It's a cat and mouse chase they embark upon, but the mouse is always one step ahead. They need help and Camille remembers her ex-boyfriend, Adamsberg...

Great fun. (If you're allowed to say that about a story about vicious murders.) I loved the banter and cameraderie between Camille and her travelling companions, what a couple of characters! And the region is really brought alive by Fred Vargas - it sounds 'stunning'. This from Wikipedia:

I hadn't thought of a road-trip type murder story before but goodness, for an armchair traveller like myself, it works a treat! Especially one who loves mountains as I do.

Adamsberg himself does not join the team until halfway through, but does appear before that concerned with other things. He's following the news of the murders on TV though, but has no idea why apart from the fact that he's from a mountainous region himself (The Pyrennes) and knows how isolated and different the people there can be with their unusual superstitions. The book is chock full of these quirky characters and that makes it very real and very amusing.

As to the mystery itself, I had an inkling early on but abandoned it pretty quickly, which I shouldn't have done. But the joy of this story is not actually in the eventual outcome but in the getting there... 'the journey' as they say. Loved it and am now looking for the next instalment.


Sunday, 11 February 2018

Snowblind - Ragnar Jónasson

So far this year's been a good one for me for crime fiction, three books by Fred Vargas, John Bude and William Shaw were excellent and now here's a fourth, Snowblind by Icelandic author, Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates). This is my third book for the European Reading Challenge, 2018 and covers the country of Iceland.

Ari Thór Arason Lives in Reykjavik, Iceland with his girlfriend, Kristin. He's just finishing police college and looking for a position, she's in the 5th. year of a medical degree. Ari Thór has found it difficult to decide on a career, first of all studying philosophy, then theology, both of which he abandoned mid-course before trying the police. Kristin and he have not been living together very long when he gets a job offer. But it's not in Reykjavik, it's in a small town in the very north of Iceland, Siglufjordur. He accepts immediately before even discussing it with, Kristin. She is naturally not best pleased.

The new recruit finds Siglufjordur surprisingly isolated. The approach road is precipitous and prone to avalanches, it's not unusual for the town to be cut off for days in Winter. Thus the place is insular, claustrophobic even, everyone knows everyone and their business into the bargain. Doors are not locked at night because there is no crime. Ari Thór wonders what on earth he's got himself into.

An elderly writer who is very involved in the local amdram group falls to his death down the stairs of the theatre. An accident everyone assumes. But when a local woman is found bleeding from a stab wound in the snow in her garden, close to death, Ari Thór starts to wonder. A place with no crime and two incdents like this, one straight after the other?

The town is suddenly cut off by an avalanche on the road outside town and what with the near 24 hour darkness... the town's population starts to get twitchy. It's down to Ari Thór and his colleagues to solve this complicated mess, but he has problems of his own...

I can't say that I'm really a Scandi crime fan, not sure why, I've tried a couple but they haven't appealed for some reason. But, while reading Fred Vargas's A Climate of Fear, I suddenly fancied reading something set in Iceland. Coincidently, Snowblind appeared in front of me on Goodreads one night so I grabbed it from the library to give it a try.

For me, the best feature of this book is the setting. I suppose I thought that whole of Iceland was snowed in all winter but it seems not. The north definitely gets hard winters but the south, around the capital, Reykjavik, not so much... the harshness of the weather on the north coast is quite a shock to Ari Thór. Nice to learn these things. And so, of course, the landscape and the weather is a huge factor in the book and descriptions are so good that you very much feel as though you're there. And the town of Siglufjordur actually exists. Here's a pic from Wikipedia:

Looks like an amazing spot but you can see what it would be like in winter.

The story itself was very much a slow burner. It took a while to really get going, but then I suppose authors do need to set the scene with a new series, tell us about the main characters and so on. Once it got going however it was excellent. I liked Ari Thór, his background is quite complicated, he lost his parents as a child and this has had an effect... on just about everything in his life. To be honest all of the book's characters are conflicted with one thing or another, but that's just real life. This wasn't really a cut and dried murder mystery story and the ending reflects that. I liked it a lot and have reserved book 2, Blackout, from the library.


Sunday, 4 February 2018

A couple of crime titles

First up, The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude. This is my first book for the What's In A Name? challenge which is being hosted by The Worm Hole. This one covers the category: A Shape.

One Colonel Cotton, while enjoying an after-dinner drink with his friend Mr. Buller, is shot through the back of the head by an arrow and killed. They both live in Regency Square in Cheltenham, it's quite up-market and peopled by a very motly crowd of individuals. What many of them have in common, unfortunately, is a love of archery. Superintendant Meredith is, coincidently, staying with a friend in the square and is brought in to help the local CID solve the murder. An archery expert calculates that the arrow must've been shot from a certain house across the square. But the house is empty, locked up, and on inspection it's clear no one has been there or could gain access. And although there are plenty of suspects - practically all of the inhabitants - they have either rock-solid alibis or absolutely no motive whatsoever. Thus, it's one of those impossible crimes.

Excellent vintage crime story, this. Quite complicated with a large cast of characters but a diagram of the square, its house and occupants, at the start of the book, was very useful indeed. I didn't have a clue who'd done the deed until the police realised, but it was huge fun trying to work it all out as dribs and drabs of information were revealed. Nice sense of the area, Cheltenham and The Cotswolds, and a very nice 1930s feel to the whole book. I remain a bit smitten with these BLCC books.

Next, The Birdwatcher By William Shaw.

I absolutely love the opening lines to this book:

There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team.

The First was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.

The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.

So, William South is a sargeant in the Kent police force. He's also a very keen birdwatcher and a bit of a loner, with very few friends. One of these friends, Bob Rayner, is found brutally murdered in his home at Dungeness, a headland and vast shingle beach on the Kent coast. Despite knowing the deceased, South is assigned the case along with a new to the area CID officer, DS Alexandra Cupidi. She has a teenage daughter and doesn't want to discuss the reasons for her move from London. South is not a happy man. So far throughout his entire career he's managed to avoid murder cases; this is his first, and it's his best friend. Or was he? It turns out South knew very little about Bob. Bob had secrets and discovering what these are is proving quite tricky for the police duo. But South has secrets too. Can he discover the identity of a killer and not reveal his own very dark secret to the world?

This was a random grab from the library... 'grabbed' because of its title. I too am a bit of a birdwatcher so a book with that title is naturally going to appeal. Sometimes these grabs work out, sometimes they don't... this one very definitely did. I love these murder mystery books where the writing is such that nothing holds you up and you can just read and read thereby wallowing in the case and the characters and the setting. The setting is marvellous. Sadly, I've not been to Kent so the Dungeness area is only familiar via TV programmes, Gardener's World featured it once for instance... the difficulties of gardening on shingle and with all that salt in the air. So I did know what it was like but not from personal experience. The author makes the area really come alive, and the windswept, lonely atmosphere is tangible. I liked South even though he's grumpy and anti-social. His background was fascinating. I'm not going to say what it is as that would be a spoiler, the details are slotted into the storyline seamlessly and to me were quite chilling. Anyway, this is a prequel book apparently. William Shaw is going to write a series about DS Cupidi, the first book, Salt Lane is due out in May. I shall be reading it.


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Books read in January

Despite being on a jigsaw kick at the moment I still managed to read five books in January. This, I feel sure, is down to not being able to do jigsaws in the winter evenings as I prefer natural light. Plus, decent TV programmes being as rare as hen's teeth, I'm reading through most evenings and the monster in the corner remains off. (I do watch a few odd things admittedly: Vera, Walks With My Dog, The Hairy Bikers doing a cookery tour of The Med. or anything cookery related, Michael Portillo in the US and Canada.)

So, anyway, five books and these are they:

1. Summer in the Islands by Matthew Fort.

2. Maigret on the Riviera by Georges Simenon. Maigret is sent to the French Riviera to investigate the strange death of an Australian living with two women. He disappeared for a week each month... where did he go? Enjoyable, with a lot of twists and turns, one where you can't work out what's going on until right near the end. This one would be very good dramatized with Rowan Atkinson.

3. A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.

4. Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

5. The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude. To be reviewed but was very good.

So, five books and a nice variety which is what I like. Three fiction, two non-fiction... an excellent month as all of the books were good, some very good in fact.

I've started well on the two challenges I'm doing. Two books read for the European Reading Challenge and one for the What's In A Name? challenge. So, three out of the eleven already read, although I do plan to read more than five for the European one this year.

So, a favourite out my January reads? Sometimes I can't choose an outright favourite, but this month I will. It's this:

I loved the mix of complicated murders, French history and Icelandic mythology in this, super writing, very strong sense of place. Can't wait to read more by this author.


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

A couple of non-fiction titles

This year I'd like to read as much non-fiction as fiction. Yeah, right... I doubt it'll happen as well but we all need goals in life. Yes. So, today I have my first two non-fiction books of 2018 to review.

First up, Summer in the Islands: An Italian Odyssey by Matthew Fort.

Matthew Fort is an English food writer, most famous in the UK for his role as a judge on the BBC programme, The Great British Menu, whereby chefs from various regions of the country compete to cook for some prestigious event or other. He first went to Italy aged 11, then as a young man spent many holidays there and has been in love with the country ever since. He'd long held an ambition to do a tour of all its islands and as, like a lot of us, he's knockin' on a bit, he decided it was about time he got on with it. He does this tour on a Vespa which he names Nicoletta. He does the obvious large islands such as Sardinia and Sicily, the famous ones such as Capri, Elba and Stromboli, various Venetian islands, but also many that I'd never heard of such as Pianosa (famous for being where Mafia bosses were imprisoned I gather), Ponza, Ventolene and many more. Along the way he relates a lot of history about famous people - Napoleon Bonaparte, Garibaldi, Maxim Gorky and so on. There's a lot about food, naturally, as Fort is primarily a food writer. I wasn't always clear what he was eating as he gives the Italian names and sometimes you get a translation and sometimes you don't. All in all this was a thoroughly charming foodie's travelogue. The writing is gorgeous, beautiful descriptions of island scenery, reflections on life, the universe and everything, thoughts about all things food... I liked it very much indeed. This is my first book for The European Reading Challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader, and covering the country of Italy.

Next, Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell:

Wigtown is a small town near the sea in Galloway in south west Scotland. It's a Scottish version of Hay-on-Wye, a booktown, with many bookshops covering a wide variety of subjects. The Book Shop, which is featured in this book, is apparently the biggest secondhand bookshop in Scotland and is owned and run by Shaun Bythell. He decides to keep a diary for a year of the daily happenings of the shop, the customers, friends who visit, the annual town book festival (held September to October), preparations for it and so on. We meet Nicky, his rather eccentric and only permanent member of staff at that time (possibly 2014, not sure) who rarely follows orders and just does what she fancies. The main interest for me was the customers. Bythell recounts religiously how bizarre people are in bookshops. Wandering in to ask if a certain book is in stock for instance, and when told 'Yes'... they turn around and march out again leaving the owner standing there open-mouthed I assume. And these days because Amazon is so cheap people ask for heavy discounts off the marked price, or take note of the book and go and order it from Amazon. I found it all very interesting indeed. Rather sad that the author says that becoming a dealer in books made him less of a reader and less in love with them, because now they're a business, a commodity. Perhaps it's not the dream job us readers tend to think it would be. A fun, very readable and enjoyable book.


Saturday, 20 January 2018

A Climate of Fear

A Climate of Fear by Fred Vargas covers 'France' in my European Reading challenge which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.

Alice Gauthier has a letter to post. She knows something about a group trip to Iceland when twelve people were stranded on an island for weeks, in dense fog. Two people died but the truth about their deaths has never been told. A few days later Alice is found dead in her bath, on first inspection, suicide, but it's not. Another apparent suicide takes Commissaire Adamsberg to the recipient of Alice's letter, Henri Masfauré, and his counrty estate. This suicide victim was also in Iceland. And what's the mystery about the parentage of the surviving son? Why can't he remember the first five years of his life?

Adamsberg is contacted by one, Francois Chateau, and the mystery deepens. Chateau runs a sort of secret debating society where people reinact scenes from The Terror... part of events that took place during The French Revolution. The society is deeply secretive, divisive, and rather dangerous in Adamsberg's opinion. The members seem to take performances rather too seriously. Chateau tells Adamsberg that he recognises the two suicide victims and thinks there's another possible victim.

The investigating team now have two mysteries to investigate and no idea which is relevant or where to turn. Local Iceladic villagers think the two deaths on the island were caused by a demon known as the afturganga. Are events in Iceland the key to this mystery or the French Revolution secret society? Or is there no connection whatsoever?

Why have I waited so long to read another Commissaire Adamsberg novel? I read the first book in the series, The Chalk Circle Man, in Feb. 2010! I enjoyed it a lot and made plans to read more but never did. It was Margaret at Booksplease mentioning the series to me a couple of times, who nudged me into grabbing one from the library. Typically it wasn't book two in the series I found but book ten, no matter, I read it anyway. And it was fine. I remembered him and his team, no problem.

This was a book with quite a complicated plot... two threads to keep an eye on and quite a long list of characters. Adamsberg and his team are quite a colourful bunch, he's a bit wierd, vague, disconnected at times, his deputy's the font of all knowledge and drinks too much, and another member of the team has narcolepsy. One of the women puts me in mind of the actress who plays Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones - Gwendoline Christie. Every other character, concerned with the murders, is well drawn and very individual too... I found Francois Chateau particularly chilling.

The Icelandic section was superb... made me go off and reserve a crime thriller set there in fact. The supernatural connotations worked for me, they might not for those not interested in such things. I found it all very atmospheric and creepy. Having recently seen a documentary on Iceland it seemed to me Fred Vargas had got its people spot-on too.

The book dishes up a huge dose of the history of The French Revolution, especially as it concerned Robespierre - the kind of person he was, his speeches, how he mesmerised everyone. Fascinating and made me want to read more about it though I would have no clue where to start. Huge subject.

I did think that I would only read non-fiction for the European Reading challenge but A Climate of Fear is so very 'French' and I learnt so much that I think I must use it for 'France' for the challenge.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Jigsaw puzzles!

I'm in a jigsaw puzzling mood at the moment, part of the reason that I'm not reading as much if I'm honest. Once the jigsaw puzzle mood strikes it's very hard to resist I find. So anyway, I thought I'd post a few pics of the ones I've been doing over the past couple of months as I know there are others who visit my blog who also enjoy the odd jigsaw. Click on the pics for a bigger view of them.

First up, Cats in a Toyshop, 1000 pieces, artist Linda Jane Smith... there are loads in the series, all fun to do:

Next, a sweet 500 piece one from W.H. Smith:

Next, Stag Party, 1000 pieces from The House of Puzzles. I love doing their puzzles as the pieces are unusually shaped.

Next, a Christmas puzzle... another one by The House of Puzzles. I've forgotten the title but as you can see it's all old fashioned Victorian or Edwardian Christmas cards:

Next, the one I've been doing for the past fortnight. 'Jaguar', 2000 pieces by Clementoni. Quite a challenge but thoroughly enjoyable to do:

And new purchase, not attempted yet. Saw this in a charity shop last week and even though it's 4000 pieces and my new board is not big enough to take it, I just couldn't leave it behind.

And lastly a pic of the one I've just started, Ravensburger, 1500 pieces, Neushwanstein Castle, in Germany. Another challenge...