Sunday, 27 November 2011

Favourite Books of 2011 - Part 2

I don't think I've got a particular order or theme with today's list, other than they are all newish authors and series for me and that all are excellent and I highly recommend.

So here we go..

Inspector John Cardinal mysteries

I have blogged about Giles Blunt in previous entries. He is a Canadian mystery writer; his John Cardinal series is set in North Bay, Ontario, although for the purposes of his stories, he calls it Algonquin Bay. As of 2010, there were 5 stories in this series. John Cardinal is a local police detective, who obviously gets involved in cases in Algonquin Bay; generally assisted by his partner, the lovely, Lise Delorme. Also in the frame are the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), who are responsible for overall police coverage in the province of Ontario, and the Horsemen (RCMP) who have a federal responsibility.

Blunt describes the surrounding area so very well, you almost feel you are there. Having spent a few years in North Bay, myself, it is interesting seeing his perspective, recognizing streets and locales, and reminiscing with him. His mysteries are edgy and gritty and Cardinal is an officer dealing with his own personal issues; a wife with a mental disorder, a daughter who won't talk to him and a past criminal issue. Blackfly Season is the third book in the series, released in 2005. The storyline is as follows -

"It's Spring in Algonquin Bay, and the black flies are driving people a little mad. Detectives John Cardinal and Lise Delorme have a strange case on their hands - a young woman has wandered, bug-bitten, out of the Algonquin Bay bush with a gunshot wound to the head. Cardinal becomes obsessed with finding out who she is, and who is trying to kill her. When the body of a local biker, Wombat Guthrie, is found in a cave, it seems the two cases are related - and the link appears to be a drug dealer and self-proclaimed shaman who calls himself Red Bear."

As with the first two stories in the series, Blackfly Season draws you in quickly and has you turning the pages to find out what is going to happen next. The characters are interesting and the plot exciting. And the black flies are biting; I could almost feel them, they aren't among the fond memories I have of North Bay. ;0)

Anna Travis Mysteries
Lynda LaPlante is a prolific, talented writer from Britain. She has written the highly - regarded Prime Suspect series, which featured the talented Helen Mirren, The Widows, featuring Mercedes Ruehl and Brooke Shields and another series, The Commander with Amanda Burton. She recently introduced a new character from her talented mind; DI Anna Travis. I had previously read the first in the series, Above Suspicion, and enjoyed very much.

Not following the sequence of the stories, I read Number Six in the series in October. While in the first book, Anna Travis was a junior Detective Constable, working on her first major case, in Blind Fury, we find her now a Detective Inspector, ambitious and hoping for further rapid advancement. The storyline is as follows -

"when the body of a young woman is discovered close to a highway service station, DI Anna Travis is brought on to the team of investigators by her former lover and boss, DCS Langton. As more evidence is uncovered, the team realizes that they are contending with a triple murder investigation - and no suspects.

But then a murderer Anna helped arrest years ago makes contact from prison. Cameron Welsh insists that he can help track down the killer, but he will divulge his secrets only to Anna herself. Does he really have an insight into another criminal's mind, or is he merely intent on getting into hers?

The team soon realizes that they are dealing with a killer whose deviousness has enabled him to commit horrific crimes, yet remain undetected for years. As the case draws to a close, Welsh's obsession for Anna fuels a terrifying rage that will have disastrous consequences for Anna, who finds herself staring into the face of a desperate personal tragedy."

While I did find flaws with the story, had some issues with Anna Travis' character  (and maybe that's a male thing), the story is tense, well-crafted, leads you down interesting paths and is well worth reading. I am interested in finding the mini-series to see how the stories are portrayed and if they are as interesting as the novel.

Matthew Shardlake Mysteries
I do enjoy good historical fiction and if you throw a mystery into the mix, then there is an added bonus. I have enjoyed reading Ellis Peter's Cadfael mysteries and in the past couple of years discovered another great writer of historical mysteries, C.J. Sansom. Since 2003, he has crafted 5 stories in the Matthew Shardlake series, of which I have now read 3.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer during the time of Henry VIII, starting off working special cases for Thomas Cromwell, and after his execution, working for Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. I enjoyed the first story, Dissolution, very much and then the second, Dark Fire, even more. CJ Sansom seems to have found his legs as he further develops Matthew Shardlake's character and has a great sense of the time the stories are set in; the dissolution of the Catholic Church, the selling off of church property, etc. The stories are fascinating and draw you in completely. The third story, Sovereign, finds Shardlake embarking on another mission for the King -

"Autumn, 1541. King Henry VIII has set out on a spectacular Progress to the North to attend an extravagant submission by his rebellious subjects in York. Already in the city are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak. As well as legal work processing local petitions to the King, Shardlake has reluctantly undertaken a special mission for Archbishop Cranmer - to ensure the welfare of an important but dangerous conspirator who is to be returned to London for interrogation.

But the murder of a York glazier involves Shardlake in deeper mysteries, connected not only to the prisoner in York Castle, but to the royal family itself. And when Shardlake and Barak stumble upon a cache of secret documents which could threaten the Tudor throne, a chain of events unfolds that will lead to Shardlake facing the most terrifying fate of the age... "

Sansom has written this story, creating a fascinating picture of the time, of the preparations for Henry VIII's visit to York, of the political machinations of the time and developed a suspenseful, tense, interesting mystery. I look forward to finding the fourth in the series, Revelation and finding out what next adventure/ mystery Matthew Shardlake will become involved with.

Mistress of Art of Death
 This past year I discovered another new author, Ariana Franklin. In 2011, I read the first two books in the series featuring, Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death for the King of Sicily, who finds herself in England during the time of Henry II. I read the first, Mistress of the Art of Death, in January. It was one of those rare stories that grabs your attention from the very first page; the characters are engrossing, the story is fascinating and you just can't put the book down. The first story has the King of England requesting assistance from the King of Sicily, to help solve murders of four children in Cambridge. He asks for one of the King of Sicily's Practitioners of the Art of Death (the first forensic pathologists) and the King sends Adelia.Not quite what Henry was anticipating as this isn't an occupation that people of that time would expect a woman to be in. Besides that tension, the city of Cambridge is up in arms, blaming the Jewish community for the murders. Adelia and her team must work against time to solve the murders and to prevent the city being burned to the ground. Adding to the interest is Sir Rowley Picot, a former Crusader knight, who has been tasked by Henry to assist and monitor the investigation. There is a mystery about him as well, Adelia wondering if he might, in fact, be the murderer. There are many twists and turns in this story, but it is written so cleverly and with such fire that you follow the story with trepidation and anticipation, until the exciting climax.

Adelia Aguilar 2nd mystery
 In October, I finished the second book in the series, The Serpent's Tale. The plot summary for this story reads as follows -

"In twelfth-century England,, only one woman is trained to uncover the secrets of the dead. The mistress of King Henry II has been poisoned - and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the king's estranged wife, is the prime suspect. The king must once again summon Adelia Aguilar, mistress of the art of death, to uncover the truth. But more is at stake than just the identity of a killer: civil war threatens to ravage an already war-sick England.

Joining forces with her former lover Rowley Picot, Adelia investigates the death as more savage killings ensue. Isolated and trapped by snow and cold, Adelia works feverishly to save innocents and protect the peace."

As good as or better than the first in the series, it is a tense thriller, with further development of Adelia's character and those of her faithful team of assistants. I can't speak highly enough about these stories; they are well-crafted, finely written and enthralling. Unfortunately, there are only books in the series, as Ariana Franklin passed away in 2011, just when I discovered her; a tragedy for her family and for the literary community.

Night Soldiers Novels
 Another book I read recently features another new author for me, Alan Furst; an American writer who's 1988 novel, Night Soldiers, set his writing career on the right path. This began a series of spy/ war novels, not necessarily related, but set in Eastern Europe, during the period 1933 - 1944.

Spies of the Balkans was  his eleventh novel of this series and I saw it in a bookstore in Victoria, read the summary and had to try it out. I have to say it did not let me down whatsoever. I loved the story.. fantastic! The plot summary reads as follows -

Greece 1940. In the port city of Salonika, with its wharves and tense political drama is being played out. As Adolf Hitler plans to invade the Balkans, spies begin to circle - and Costa Zannis, a senior police official, must deal with them all. He is soon in the game, working to secure an escape route for fugitives from Nazi Berlin that is protected by German lawyers, Balkan detectives, and Hungarian gangsters - and hunted by the Gestapo. Meanwhile, as war threatens, the erotic life of the city grows passionate. For Zannis, that means a British expatriate who owns the local ballet academy, a woman from the dark side of Salonika society and the wife of a shipping magnate. With extraordinary historical detail and a superb cast of characters, Spies of the Balkans is a stunning novel about a man who risks everything to fight back against the world's evil."

I really can't say it better myself; the story is simply presented, but the events are momentous, the courage palpable. I will definitely be reading more of the Night Soldier series.

So there you have it, installment 2 of my favourite reads of 2011. One more to go. I bet you can't wait!..

Keep on reading. Support your local book store!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Favourite Reads of 2011

I've very much enjoyed my reading this past year. It's been a nice mix of old and new, some rereads of old favourites, continued work on favourite series and also introducing myself to some new authors. Looking back at my reading from this year, I thought I'd start with some of my favourite rereads.

On the Beach - Nevil Shute
I've very much enjoyed finding some of my old favourites, dusting them off and reading them again this past year. Nevil Shute is one of my favourite authors. I particularly have enjoyed Pied Piper and one of my Top Ten favourites, On the Beach. I have previously blogged about this book; it's number 2 on my all-time favourite books.
I've read this story many times and also have enjoyed the movie with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. The subject matter, while depressing, is treated with delicacy and respect by Nevil Shute. The plot is very understated considering the fact that he is discussing the end of the world. I read this first as a youngster, in junior high or high school and I was very much taken with this story. I followed up with other stories on similar topics; Alas Babylon, by Pat Frank and Fail Safe by Eugene Burdick, come to mind. Since that time, I've read On The Beach a few times and I still find myself drawn to similar stories. I particularly have enjoyed War Day by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka (one I'll have to dig out again and reread) and, most recently, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

All that to say, I'm so glad to have reread this novel and even once again talking about, even briefly, it has reminded me of what a classic story it is and I heartily recommend to anyone if you've not ever read it.

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
 It had been a very long time since I'd read Fahrenheit 451. I think I may have seen the movie first, but it had been a very long time. I bought this special 50th anniversary edition in 2007 and decided this past spring that it was time to reread. In May one of my Goodreads book clubs decided to read a story in the Dystopia genre, so I chose this novel as my read.

It was an excellent choice as rereading it refreshed my memories on how excellent a story it is. Basically, it is the story of Guy Montag, a fireman, whose role in the future is to burn books. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns. Unfortunately for Guy, he begins to doubt his role, finds himself collecting books and hiding them. He then becomes an enemy of the state and is forced on the run. The story and the movie are both excellent; both somewhat different as well. Fahrenheit 451 ranks up there with other classics of this genre, especially 1984 by George Orwell, which also happens to be a favourite of mine.

I do highly recommend either novel if you are interested in exploring this genre.

The Outsiders - SE Hinton
 Another genre that was chosen this past year in my book club was Young Adult. I dusted off another old favourite for this one. I've had my copy of The Outsiders since the early '80s. I believe I bought it after I'd seen the movie by Francis Ford Coppola.

Both the movie and the book are excellent, touching, thoughtful and well-presented. The story follows three brothers, Ponyboy, Darrel and Sodapop Curtis, and their friends in a small town in Texas as they interact with each other, fight with the rich 'Soc's' on the good side of the tracks and ultimately deal with tragic and life changing events.

SE Hinton presents this story in a manner that draws you in, even if you've never experienced what Ponyboy and his brothers experience. They are well-developed and you feel for them, understand what motivates and moves them.

I strongly recommend this story, it reaches all ages. The movie is also a must-see, it has such a fantastic cast and they all work together to bring you a fantastic movie.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
 I reread my all-time favourite book again in September. I have blogged about it previously when I was discussing my Top Ten favourite books. To Kill A Mockingbird ranks as Number 1 on my list. It also ranks as number 1 on my Top Ten movies of all-times.

The story is a timeless classic. It's a simple story in its way, telling of the growing up of one Scout Finch, a young Southern girl and of her older brother, Jem. They live during the Depression, must deal with school, have fun with their friend Dill Harris, who visits each summer, and try to solve the mystery of one Boo Radley, the never-seen neighbour, who seems to leave secret messages for the two of them.

The main event of this excellent novel is a trial that their father, Atticus, becomes involved with, the trial of a Negro man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. This trial will forever change their lives and it, along with all the events that take place, are presented wondrously, in a touching, intelligent manner by Harper Lee. Even writing about it now and thinking of the story again, I feel the emotions welling up inside me. It is a rare story, one that everyone should read and one that will draw you in so you are sharing everything with Scout, Jem and Atticus. (Watch the movie too.. excellent!)

The Return of Hyman Kaplan - Leo Rosten
During my high school years, I read a humorous set of stories featuring a fascinating US immigrant who attends English classes along with other immigrants. The story was told from the perspective of the embattled, frazzled teacher of the class, Mr Parkhill, or as named by Hyman, Meester Pockheel.

The first in the series was The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, the follow-on being, The Return of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N. I had been looking for copies of these stories for a considerable time and luckily, while the missus and I were in Ottawa this past summer, I found one of them.

I reread the story with pleasant anticipation, hoping that the humour would still strike a chord with me. Luckily it did. The story is really a series of incidents, set in the classroom of Mr Parkhill, as he tries to get his students to understand the intricacies of the English language. The humour is gentle, the characters are colourful, the story is a pleasure to read. There are often laugh out loud moments, most often you find yourself chuckling or shaking your head as you finally figure out what the students are trying to present to Mr Parkhill. Hyman Kaplan, himself, is a larger than life character, full of energy, love for his new country and this language that he remakes into his own image.

I will continue to search for the other books, the stories are a pleasure to read.

Casino Royale - Ian Fleming
 I have slowly been acquiring and rereading a series of spy novels that I had enjoyed as a kid. The James Bond stories were exciting to a youngster like me, full of adventure, intrigue, sex.. The books were dark and gritty, much more like the Sean Connery movies, or the more recent Daniel Craig attempts.

I reread Casino Royale recently, this is the first of the Bond stories. The recent movie did it justice, providing the same dark, grittiness that the book had. Of course, the story, which was written in 1953 didn't have the special effects that the movies have. But it introduced Bond nicely, his love of cars, the whole 'shaken not stirred', the glamour of the casino, all of that providing a hint of the life he leads as a double-0 spy. I have thoroughly enjoyed reliving my earlier adventures with James Bond and look forward to continuing to do so this coming year.

The Thirty-nine Steps - John Buchan
 My final reread this year was another spy thriller, John Buchan's, The Thirty-nine Steps. I think I've seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1939 more times than I've read the book, but both stand the test of time. I think in many ways I relate this classic more to the movie, but the story is also excellent, and fairly different from the movie.

The premise remains the same in both though. Richard Hannay, a mining engineer, currently living in London, gets caught up in a mystery that threatens the safety of the United Kingdom. To bide time while he tries to solve the mystery, he travels the length of the British Isles, to the north in Scotland and during this journey, he must try to avoid arrest by the police and murder by the agents trying to find him.

The book was written in 1915 and as I mentioned above, the movie released in 1939, but they hold their own today. I can watch the movie and having reread the book, find them as interesting and as exciting as the first time I did either. What more can you ask from a story; that even almost 100 years on, it still manages to hold your interest and draw you in. The Thirty-nine Steps does that.

So there you have it for today, some of my favourite rereads of 2011. Next time I'll highlight some of my favourite new authors.

Keep on reading!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Reading Group Challenge 2012

It's that time of year to start looking at what I want to read in 2012 and what books were hits with me this past year. In one of my Goodreads website reading groups, we've been setting up our reading goals for 2012. The Group Reading Goal is a 12 + 2 challenge; twelve books plus 2 alternates that you pick to read over the course of the year. Of course this has lead to much discussion as we look at each others choices and comment on them. For interest sake, my tentative 12  + 2 list is -

My Group Reading Goals for 2012 -

1. Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell. At the dawn of the 19th century, two very different magicians emerge to change England's history. In the year 1806, with the Napoleonic Wars raging on land and sea, most people believe magic to be long dead in England - until the reclusive Mr Norrell reveals his powers, and becomes a celebrity overnight. Soon, another practicing magician comes forth: the young, handsome, and daring Jonathan Strange. He becomes Norrell's student, and they join forces in the war against France. But Strange is increasingly drawn to the wildest, most perilous forms of magic, straining his partnership with Norrell, and putting at risk everything else he holds dear.

2. Sergei Lukyanenko - The Night Watch. Walking the Streets of Moscow, indistinguishable from the rest of its population, are the Others. Each owes allegiance to either the Dark or the Light, two powerful forces that long ago forged an uneasy truce in order to avert chaos and disaster. They watch each other closely, carefully maintaining the world's precarious balance between good and evil. Anton, a young Other of the Light, is a Night Watch agent who patrols the streets and subways of the city, protecting ordinary people from the agents - including vampires - of the Dark. On his rounds, Anton comes across a young woman, Svetlana, who is under a powerful curse that threatens to destroy the city, and a boy, Egor, an Other still unaware of his powers, whom Anton narrowly saves from the vampires of the Dark. Anton and his partner, Olga, a powerful female Other who has been turned into an owl as punishment, work frantically with their Night Watch colleagues - each gifted with their own particular powers - to deflect Svetlana's curse and to protect Egot from the creatures that pursue him.

3. Scott Westerfield - Leviathan. It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. his own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered. with the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way....

4. Bill Bryson - At Home - A Short History of Private Life. Bill Bryson and his family live in a Victorian parsonage in a part of England where nothing of any great significance has happened since the Romans decamped. Yet one day, he began to consider how very little he knew about the ordinary things of life as he found it in that comfortable home. To remedy this, he formed the idea of journeying about his house from room to room to “write a history of the world without leaving home.” The bathroom provides the occasion for a history of hygiene; the bedroom, sex, death, and sleep; the kitchen, nutrition and the spice trade; and so on, as Bryson shows how each has fig­ured in the evolution of private life. Whatever happens in the world, he demonstrates, ends up in our house, in the paint and the pipes and the pillows and every item of furniture.

5. Deborah Cadbury - Chocolate Wars. With a cast of characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Victorian novel, Chocolate Wars tells the story of the great chocolatier dynasties, through the prism of the Cadburys. Chocolate was consumed unrefined and unprocessed as a rather bitter, fatty drink for the wealthy elite until the late 19th century, when the Swiss discovered a way to blend it with milk and unleashed a product that would conquer every market in the world. Thereafter, one of the great global business rivalries unfolded as each chocolate maker attempted to dominate its domestic market and innovate new recipes for chocolate that would set it apart from its rivals. The contest was full of dramatic contradictions: The Cadburys were austere Quakers who found themselves making millions from an indulgent product; Kitty Hershey could hardly have been more flamboyant yet her husband was moved by the Cadburys tradition of philanthropy. Each was a product of their unique time and place yet they shared one thing: they want to make the best chocolate in the world.

6. Barbara Tuchman - The Zimmerman Telegram. Barbara Tuchman's novel tells the  story of certain events leading up to America's entry into World War I and of the intercepted message that triggered the dramatic climax. It involves a tale of espionage, secret diplomacy, international politics and personal drama probably unparalleled in history.

7. Jack Whyte - Knights of the Black and White. It is 1088. Whole many French nobles continue their occupation of a violently hostile England, one young knight, Hugh de Payens, is inducted into the Order, a powerful secret society. When the new Pope calls for knights to join his Crusade to redeem the Holy Land, Hugh is commanded by the Order to go along and quickly finds himself in hellish battle in Jerusalem. Sickened by the slaughter of innocents and civilians, Hugh decides to follow a different path, forming the Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ, a unique brotherhood of fighting monks who use the skills honed in battle to defend and protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem. But the Order has a different plan, and soon the brethren find themselves charged with an outlandish and dangerous task - a seemingly impossible mission to uncover a hidden treasure that could not only destroy the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem but threaten the fabric of the Church itself.

8. Iain Banks - The Wasp Factory. Two years after I murdered my younger brother Paul, for quite different reasons that I'd disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin, Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That' my score to date. Three. I haven't killed anybody for years, and don't intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

Enter - if you can bear it - the extraordinary private world of Frank, just sixteen, and unconventional, to say the least.

9. Anthony Burgess - A Clockwork Orange.  Fifteen-year old Alex doesn't just like ultra-violence - he also enjoys rape, drugs and Beethoven's Ninth. he and his gang rampage through a dystopian future, hunting for terrible thrills. But when Alex finds himself at the mercy of the state and subject to the ministrations of Dr Brodsky, the government psychologist, he discovers that fun is no longer the order of the day..

The basis for one of the most notorious films ever made. A Clockwork Orange is both a virtuoso performance from an electrifying prose stylist and a serious exploration of the morality of free will.

10. Robertson Davies - The Rebel AngelsThe Rebel Angels revolves around the execution of a difficult will. In this case, the estate is of one Francis Cornish, a fantastically rich patron and collector of Canadian art and a noted antiquarian bibliophile. A lost Rabelais manuscript is rumoured to be among his possessions, and his executors include the deliciously revolting Renaissance scholar Urquhart McVarish; Professor Clement Hollier, a classically middle-aged inhabitant of the ivory tower; and the Reverend Simon Darcourt, Davies's obligatory humanist clergyman. A heroine is provided in the form of Maria Theotoky, a beautiful Ph.D. student of Professor Hollier's. A rich, funny, and slightly ribald campus novel results.

11. Ken Follett - Pillars of the Earth. As a new age dawns in England's twelfth century, the building of a might Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal. It is in this rich tapestry, where kings and queens are corrupt, that the common man shows eternal promise - and one majestic creation will bond them forever.

12. Barbara Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible. This is the story of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry  with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find that all of it - is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family's tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in post colonial Africa. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo's fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy.

Alt 1. Vikas Swarup - Six Suspects.  Seven years ago, Vivek "Vicky" Rai, the playboy son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh,murdered Ruby Gill at a trendy restaurant in New Delhi simply because she refused to serve him a drink. Now Vicky Rai is dead, killed at a farmhouse at a party he had thrown to celebrate his acquittal. The police cordon off the venue and search each and every guest. Six of them are discovered with guns in their possession and are taken in for questioning. Who are these six suspects? And what were they doing in the farmhouse that night? Both a riveting page - turner and a richly textured tale of human frailties, Six Suspects is the work of a master storyteller.

Alt 2. Elleston Trevor - The Flight of the Phoenix . Two men die when Frank Towns crash-lands his Skytruck passenger-freighter in the storm - whipped Libyan desert. From the broken hull dazed survivors stagger - twelve men and a monkey - to face a gruesome, near-waterless ordeal, hundreds of miles from help. Then one man conceives an apparently fantastic idea, to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old....

So there you have it, my main Group Reading Challenge for next year. I'm already looking forward to it. Next couple of Blogs I'll highlight some of my favourite reads of 2011.. Betcha can't wait, eh?

Keep on reading!!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Rotary Club Book Sale - Second Visit

I visited the local Rotary Club sale on its opening day, Thursday, and found a very few books in the hour I spent there. I thought I'd make one more visit yesterday and had a nicely successful visit. The stock had been updated and there was an excellent selection; lots of people rooting through the books, but everybody was patient and it seemed to go very smoothly. I enjoyed myself anyway.

As I mentioned, I had a very successful visit yesterday. I found some classics that will look nice on the book shelves, filled out my collection of Alistair MacLean thrillers and found a nice mix of fiction, spy and other stories. All for the super price of $3.00. You can't go wrong with that.

A Few Classics

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte

Shirley was Charlotte Bronte's second novel, written after Jane Eyre and published in 1849. The novel was written after the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne. "In her portraits of the characters Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone, she poured out her feelings for her dead sisters. Nevertheless, it is a historical novel which depicts the uneasy era of the Luddite riots, bad harvests and social unrest as well as Charlotte Bronte's belief that the denial of the world of feeling is responsible for much of society's suffering."

Charlotte Bronte was born in 1816 and lived to the age of 38, dying 13 Mar 1855. Besides Jane Eyre and Shirley, she also wrote Villette and The Professor, which was written before Jane Eyre but rejected originally by publishing houses. It was published posthumously. She also wrote twenty pages of Emma, which was also published after her death.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
 Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy was originally published in 1891. This Macmillan edition was printed in 1982. Tess falls into Hardy's Novels of Character and Environment category, along with others such as Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

The storyline for Tess reads as follows. "When old John Durbeyfield discovers that he is descended from the ancient and noble family of d'Urbervilles, he sends his daughter to visit the present holders of the title. but Tess, beautiful and innocent, is seduced by her supposed relative, the dashing womanizer, Alec d'Urberville, and is haunted by guilt and shame.
Abandoning her home and family, she starts a new life as a milkmaid in the sunny fields of Froom Valley, and here she finally meets the man she can love. But her past stands between her and happiness - if he knew the truth would he still love her?"

Men at Arms
 Evelyn Waugh lived from 1903 to 1966 and was considered to be one  of the leading writers of English prose in the 20th century. Of his work, I've only previously read The Love One, a novel about British expatriates in the US and the funeral business.

Men at Arms is the first of the Sword of Honour trilogy, which included Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. It was originally published in 1952, with this edition coming out in 1984.

The synopsis of Men at Arms, which won the James Tait Memorial award, reads as follows -

"Guy Crouchback, determined to get into the war, takes a commission in the royal corps of Halberdiers. His spirits high, he sees all the trimmings but none of the action. And his first campaign, an abortive affair on the West African coastline, ends with an escapade which seriously blots his Halberdier copybook."

Bridge on the River Kwai
 One of the classic War novels and movies is Bridge on the River Kwai. The novel is based on author Pierre Boulle's wartime experiences as prisoner - of - war in Indochina. Something I didn't realize about Monsieur Boulle is that he also wrote another classic, the Sci-Fi novel, Planet of the Apes.

Bridge on the River Kwai, originally published in 1952, tells the story of 3 men;

"Colonel Nicholson - a man who was prepared to sacrifice everything that had ever mattered to him, including his life; everything except his dignity.

Major Warden - the saboteur, a kindly, modest hero - and a deadly killer.

Commander Shears - a man who escaped from hell and was ordered back"

Great story and great movie, which won 7 Oscar, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean) and Best Actor (Alec Guinness).

The African Queen
 Another classic war book and movie comes from the pen of C.S. Forester. Known for his Horatio Hornblower novels, Forester also wrote many others, including the classic The African Queen. Published in 1935, it was also an Academy Award winning film in 1951, which starred Humphrey Bogart (who won Best Actor) and Katherine Hepburn (Nominated for Best Actress).

As the plot summary reads, "C.S. Forester is at his most entertaining in this story of the missionary woman and the Cockney mechanic marooned in German Central Africa. As they fight their ramshackle old launch down-river 'to strike a blow for England' the 'African Queen' seems to breathe the spirit of Hornblower himself."

In the film, Bogart's character, Charlie Allnutt is changed from Cockney to Canadian, as Bogart was unable to master the thick Cockney accent. Half of the film was filmed on location in Africa, unique for its time. The remainder was filmed in England, with the water sequences filmed in tanks at Isleworth Studios in Middlesex.

Science Fiction

Sci-Fi short stories
 I found only a couple of Sci-Fi novels at the sale, one from an author I'd never heard, that being Edmund Cooper. He was a prolific writer and also published under a variety of pseudonyms; George Kinley, Martin Lester, etc. Looking through his bio, he seemed to write a bit of everything.

News from Elsewhere was published in 1969, with this Berkeley edition released in May of that year. It is a collection of short stories, with the following plot summary;

"Elsewhere, where a group of 'superior' scientists from Earth are unwittingly the playthings of THE ENLIGHTENED ONES... where, on JUDGEMENT DAY, selected millions of people begin to drop off like flies...
and where THE LIZARD OF WOZ, off on a brief, terrestrial tour, most unfortunately falls in love with the most sylph-like, the most radiantly beautiful female he has ever seen; a Komodo dragon christened Kanna-Belle."

Other stories include The Menhir, M81: Ursa Major, The Intruders, The Butterflies and Welcome Home.

More Sci-Fi short stories
 One of my favourite Sci-Fi authors of all-time is John Wyndham who has written such classics as The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957). I have read each and every one at least twice, if not more. I've seen the movie and television adaptations of Day of the Triffids and also enjoyed the original Village of the Damned, based on The Midwich Cuckoos.

The Seeds of Time is a collection of short stories which Wyndham released in 1956. As the synopsis states, 'Shots of the future from the author of The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham catapults the reader of these stories into a world where time barriers have ceased to exist, where there is discrimination against Martians, where not only thought  transference but body transference is an everyday event. yet so convincing are the inhabitants of this extraordinary world, that its remoteness vanishes in a second."

John Wyndham lived from 1903 to 1969.

Mixtures (Mystery, Adventure)

 The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, is one of the classic adventure/ spy novels. The lead character, Richard Hannay, was featured in five of Buchan's novels. Greenmantle, originally in 1916 is the second of these novels.

"This is the second of John Buchan's adventure novels featuring his courageous, resourceful and high-minded hero Richard Hannay, the south African mining engineer turned spy-catcher.

The story takes place during the First World War - Richard Hannay, looking forward to further service in Belgium, is sent instead with a few slender clues - and an even more slender disguise - on a mission to discover what danger the Germans are plotting in the Middle East. His first problem is how to get through occupied Europe to Constantinople, where he eventually arrives after many narrow escapes. He fins that the East is being roused by a woman who promises the appearances of a new Prophet, a new leader. Richard Hannay and his friends go in pursuit of the elusive and mysterious Greenmantle, and in doing so experience tremendous difficulties and dangers, which involve them in one of Buchan's best pieces of descriptive writings, a Cossack war ride against Erzeum."

The other novels in the Richard Hannay series are Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep. If they are half as good at the first, the series should be excellent.

From the master, John Le Carré

When it comes to writing an excellent spy novel, John le Carré is the master. He created the iconic John Smiley, the aging, cynical spy, who featured in so many of le Carré's novels and was immortalized by Alec Guinness. He has written so many excellent novels. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was his third novel and came out in 1963. The 1965 movie featured Richard Burton in the role of Alec Leamas, administrator of the West Berlin office of The Circus.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold occurs during the Cold War, during heightened political-military tensions of the 1950's and early 1960's, when a Soviet-NATO war seemed likely to occur. The majority of the story takes place in Berlin, an island of the West set in the middle of communist East Germany. In 2006, the novel was named as one of the best 100 novels of all time by Time Magazine.

Miss Silver mystery

I've previously read one of Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver mysteries, Wicked Uncle, and very much enjoyed it very much, so I was pleasantly surprised to see another one at the Book Sale. She Came Back was originally released in 1945. The synopsis sounds very interesting and reads as follows -

"Anne Jocelyn came back from the dead. her husband Philip says he carried her off the beach at Breton, shot in the head by a German bullet, and he buried her in Holt churchyard. Now with the war almost over, the bombing stopped, her return explodes the quiet life at Jocelyn's Holt. She wants her husband and her fortune back, and she'll get them.... if she really is Anne Jocelyn. Miss Nellie Collins knows something about that, and now Nellie Collins is dead."

One of my favourite war movies (set in the Cold War) and a novel I read when I was in High School was Eugene Burdick's Fail-Safe. This is another story that became a great movie, directed by Sydney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda. The story is set in the early '60s during the Cold War. The basic plot is the scrambling of Strategic Air Command bombers as a perceived threat is detected by US Radar systems. The bombers head to their Fail-Safe points, these locations are the spots where they would either turn around or the pilots would pull out their secret instructions and head for their targets in Soviet Russia to drop the nuclear munitions.

In this story, the threat is determined, as normal, to be innocuous, but due to a technical failure and one of the bomber groups is given the instruction to proceed to their attack destinations. The rest of the story involves attempts to bring the bombers back home, to assist the Russians in stopping the bombers and the final outcome. It's a scary, intense, but at the same time, fascinating story, one that proceeds relentlessly to the surprising ending. I look forward to reading this story again.

The Once and Future King
 T.H. White's magical story of a young King Arthur, The Sword in the Stone, which was published in 1938, became the basis for the wonderful Walt Disney animated movie. For T.H. White, it was the first in the Once and Future King, tetralogy, which also featured; The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind.

 White wrote a number of stories during his life. The Sword in the Stone recreates, against the background of magnificent pageantry and dark magic that was medieval England, the education and training of young King Arthur, who was to become the greatest of Britain's legendary rulers.

Arthur learns the code of being a gentleman. He is trained in falconry, jousting, hunting and sword play. He is even transformed by his tutor, Merlin, into various animals, so that he may experience life from all points of view. In every conceivable way he is readied for the day when he and he alone, is destined to draw forth the marvelous sword from the magic stone and become the rightful King of England.

Alistair MacLean library

Finally, I found four more of my Alistair MacLean adventures. I am currently reading When Eight Bells Toll and periodically pull one of those old favourites off the shelf to read. I've slowly been finding those others that I had enjoyed reading when I was in High School. Alistair MacLean tells a great adventure thriller and reading one of his stories is so comfortable and easy.

Night Without End was first published in1959 with this tenth impression released in May 1968. "I could half hear, half feel, a hissing tremor as the aircraft gouged through the ice. Then came another convulsion and above the gale the sudden sharp sound of the crash, the grinding tearing scream of crushed metal. Then, abruptly a deep ominous silence when the sound of the wind in the darkness was no sound at all. ... For scientist Peter Mason a Greenland nightmare had just begun."

The Last Frontier was originally published in 1959 with this fourteenth impression released May 1968. "Secured to a high-backed chair, Michael Reynolds was going insane, slowly but inevitably insane, and the most terrible part of it was that he knew it. Since the last forced injection, there had been nothing he could do about the relentless on-set of this madness. The more he struggled to ignore the symptoms, the more acutely he became aware of them, the deeper into his mind dug those fiendish chemical claws that were tearing his mind apart.... "

The Dark Crusader (released in the US as The Black Shrike.. and, yes, at one time I bought both, thinking they were different stories) was originally published in 1961, with this fifteenth impression released in May 1968. "When you get to know this tough, diffident guy who's honest enough to admit his mistakes you'll stay with him to the end. And with the beautiful girl who's posing as his wife. Together they embark on a 'honeymoon' voyage which turns out to be a series of disasters. They're dumped on a remote Polynesian island where, isolated and in acute danger, they have to pit their wits against a brilliant brain; a brain backed by sadistic Chinese henchmen. Slowly the terrible meaning of The Dark Crusader comes to light..."

Fear is the Key was first released in 1961 with this edition published in 1963. "The sleepy calm of Marble Springs, Florida, is shattered when an unknown Englishman ruthlessly shoots his way out of the courtroom, abducting the lovely Mary Ruthven at gun-point and tearing out of town in a stolen car. Who is he? What is his concern with the girl, with the General's secluded house and with the great oil-rig twelve miles out in the gulf of Mexico? Who are his three enemies? A cruelly exciting novel of ruthless revenge, set in the steel jungle of a great oil0rig in the Gulf of Mexico- and on the sea bed below it."

All-in-all I think I did very well at this year's Rotary Club Book Sale. I hope they had as much success raising funds.

Keep on reading!

Friday, 11 November 2011

Latest Book Purchases

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post. I thought I'd take today to update on some of my latest book purchases. Mostly I've got them at my local used book stores, but also this weekend, the Rotary Club is having its annual charity book sale. I went on Thursday after work and spent an hour there, finding five new books (well, new for me of course). I may go early Saturday morning in case they've put out some new books from the back room. :0)

Shaken, Not Stirred
 Anyway, let's get on with this. Over the past couple of years, I've been reliving my teen years and slowly purchasing the James Bond books. I especially like these Pan editions, the covers are cool. I've read a couple so far, take one or two out a every couple of months. I recently purchased and finished Casino Royale, the first in the series. It was originally published in 1953, with this 25th printing coming out in 1967, clearly a successful, long lasting series. The Spy Who Loved Me came out in 1962, with this first Pan printing released in 1967. They are true classics and turned into a great movie series. I did a previous Blog on Bond. You can check it out here if you're interested.

Mary Russell/ Sherlock Holmes
 I have recently started checking out a couple of new series, well, purchased some books so far. Laurie R. King (for some reason, I've always read it as Laurier R. King.. strange) has two mystery series published. It was only while reading another story that I became aware of this and thought I'd check out the Mary Russell/ Sherlock Holmes books. The first in the series is The Beekeeper's Apprentice, which I don't have yet. It was published in 1994. A Monstrous Regiment of Women, which I found the other day is the second in the series and I think I'll wait to get the 1st before I take on any of the ones I have. The Game is number 7 and it was published in 2004. There are currently 11 books in the series. The basic gist of the series is that Mary Russell becomes Sherlock Holmes' apprentice and, of course, they become involved in cases together. That's about all I can tell you until I get down to reading the stories. I'll keep you posted.

Kurt Wallander mysteries
Another new series for me is that of the Kurt Wallander mysteries, written by Henning Mankell. The wife and I had watched the BBC series, starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander and had enjoyed. So I have been looking at the books, as I do enjoy the Scandinavian mystery writers, Jo Nesbo, Karin Alvtegen, Stieg Larsson and Hakan Nesser. I found this one, the sixth in the series, which was published first in English 2011.

It involves the murder of 4 nuns and another woman in Africa. This case has a role to play in another murder case that Inspector Wallander is involved with, a year later back in Sweden. I believe I've seen the TV version, but it's been long enough that it should still seem fresh and I look forward to reading it.

In 2012, besides my other reading challenges, I plan to focus on mysteries, as I have so many to read. I've promised myself that my second book will always be a mystery, working my way up from A ....... wherever I end up at the end of the year. I can't wait!

Albert Campion mystery
 I'm just in the process of finishing Pearls Before Swine, my first Albert Campion mystery by Margery Allingham and I've quite enjoyed. At the Rotary Club Book Sale on Thursday, I found another, The Tiger in the Smoke, which was originally published in 1952, with this Bantam Book edition published in 1985.

I also have another Campion mystery on my shelf, Black Plumes, which came out in 1940. Margery Allingham lived from 1904 - 1966 and wrote over 30 stories. According to wikipaedia, there was a BBC series from 1989 -1990, starring Peter Davison as Albert Campion.

I've quite enjoyed my first Campion mystery, set during WWII, involving a murder and theft of valuable art collections. Campion is an interesting character and the people around him, Inspector Oates, Lugg and others make the story flow very smoothly.

Having read one, I now look forward to reading more Campions. The Tiger in the Smoke, sounds very interesting, involving lost husbands, a triple murder. Woo hoo!

Inspector Grant
 Another British police series that I began recently, was that of Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard. The series, which consisted of 8 novels, written by Elizabeth MacIntosh under the pseudonym of Josephine Tey.

I had recently read A Shilling for Candles, the second in the series. It was also the basis for Alfred Hitchcock's 1937 movie, Young and Innocent. I like the story, liked the character of Inspector Grant and also the supporting cast, especially Erica Burgoyne, the daughter of the local Chief Constable.

I found the first novel in the series, The Man in the Queue, recently and it seemed to be an interesting premise. Written in 1929, the story involves a murder in a line-u for a musical comedy. One man in the line-up is discovered with a silver dagger in his back. This begins Inspector Grant's first case for Josephine Tey. It should be great!

Elizabeth MacInstosh lived from 1896 to 1952. She also wrote under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot.

Anna Pigeon mysteries
 Where next.. At the Rotary Club Sale, I found some additions to series that I have been reading off and on for quite a few years.

I've read a few of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon novels and, with the exception of Flashback, have enjoyed every one of them.

Anna Pigeon is a National Parks Ranger whose mysteries take her to many of the US National Parks. The stories are well-written and Anna is a well-crafted character, as are the mysteries that she finds herself in the midst of.

Nevada Barr is writing from an area of experience as she has worked as a Park Ranger. The different locales, from Natchez Trace Parkway to Isle Royal National Park to Yosemite National Park, etc, make the stories different and interesting.

Endangered Species was written 1997, the 5th in the series, and takes place at Cumberland Island National Seashore, off the Georgia Coast. The area is the breeding ground of the endangered Loggerhead turtle. The story involves a plane crash, sabotage, old murders and danger to the fragile ecological preserve, all tied together hopefully into another exciting Anna Pigeon mystery.

Roderick Alleyn mysteries
 I've collected more Ngaio Marsh, Roderick Alleyn mysteries, than I've read. From 1934 to 1982, she wrote 32 novels, classing her with Agatha Christie, amongst others, as one of the major mystery writers of her time.

Death in Ecstasy was originally published in 1936 and was her 4th novel. What I find different with Ms. Marsh's mysteries is the play-like set-up of the novels; the cast of characters in the beginning, the breaking down of the story into Part 1 and Part 2. Several of her stories are set around theatrical productions.

A native New Zealander, the majority of her mysteries are set in England, as CID detective, Roderick Alleyn is based in England. 4 of the novels she wrote were set in New Zealand, though, with Alleyn either on vacation or seconded to the New Zealand police force.

This particular novel involves the poisoning of an initiate to the House of the Sacred Flame, with suspects coming from amongst the others in the House. It's always nice to settle down with a Marsh mystery, easy to read and interesting stories.

Wycliffe mysteries
 WJ Burley is the one of the other police procedural that I follow. Burley wrote from 1968 to 2000, publishing 22 Wycliffe novels. They feature Superintendent Wycliffe who solves his crimes in the Cornish coast area.

I do like these mysteries, as they are definitely police stories; the setting up of the crime lab where the mysteries occur, the door-to-door investigations, just what you expect.

The area is also a highlight, the scenic Cornish coast. The crimes are interesting and Wycliffe is an interesting protagonist.

I've read a few of these mysteries. The Tangled Web was published in 1988 and the storyline concerns Hilda Clemo, a school girl who tells her boyfriend and family of her pregnancy and disappears from her village the same afternoon.

Wycliffe is brought in to find the girl and from the synopsis, must also deal with a feuding clan with unpleasant secrets. Sounds like a Wycliffe novel.

The remaining three books I've purchased over the past couple of weeks are 'one ofs' I guess. None of the authors are unfamiliar to me and I've read some of their previous stories, but they don't necessarily fit any particular scheme of mine.

A Gun For Sale
First is an author I've read off and on since my university days. I've recently reacquainted myself with his work; Our Man in Havana and Brighton Rock, especially. At the Rotary Club sale, they had one section with a great many Greene novels to choose from. I chose A Gun for Sale as it looked interesting.

It was originally written in 1936 and has been republished many times, this edition came out in 1972. Greene wrote over 30 novels during his life, with his first published in 1929. Many of his novels have been turned into movies. He is a popular author whose stories are still very interesting.

The storyline for this particular novel reads; "Murder didn't mean much to Raven. Assassinating an idealistic War Minister to boost the armaments industry was just a job. But when he is paid in stolen notes he determines to revenge himself against his corrupt employers. And in a tortuous double hunt this seedy outlaw becomes the unwitting weapon of a kind of social justice."

Greene has a way with words and his stories are always interesting. I hope this one follows the trend.

A Spot of Bother
 I purchased Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time back in 2005 and it was one of my highlight reads of that year. Such a different, interesting story.

I've been meaning to purchase A Spot of Bother for a long time as it also sounds interesting. I finally found a copy at my local and this time picked it up.

It was originally published in 2006 and is the second of only two of Mark Haddon's novels that were written for an adult audience. His others, and there are many, are listed under youth categories.

The storyline for this novel reads as follows - "At sixty-one, George Hall is settling down to a comfortable retirement. When his tempestuous daughter, Katie, announces that she is married to the deeply inappropriate Ray, the Hall family is thrown into a tizzy. Unnoticed in the uproar, George discovers a sinister lesion on his hip, and quietly begins to lose his mind.
As parents and children fall apart and come together, Haddon paints a disturbing yet amusing portrait of a dignified man trying to go insane politely."

If this story is half as good as the first, I'm sure I'll enjoy it immensely.

Funeral in Berlin
 Len Deighton is one of the most prolific spy novelists ever, with pretty well a novel a year since his first, The Ipcress File, was published in 1962. I have to say I've never read any of his stories; he was more my older brother's style.

However, I did like the cover of this particular one when I saw it at the Rotary Club sale. It's one I've thought of getting for a while, so I figured for the $.50, it was worth a go.

His novels have been popular as movies too, with Michael Caine starring as Harry Palmer, in The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.

I hope that the story is as interesting as it looks. It may get me to read more Deighton novels.

Next time, I'll update the stories I've been reading of late.

Keep on reading.
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