Monday, 27 February 2012

Simon Winchester - Writer, Traveller, Historian

Simon Winchester is a British-born author, who now resides for the most part in the United States. He is a well-travelled person who has shared his experiences in 22 books over the period from 1976 to the present. His books range from travel-related stories such as my current book, Outposts - Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire to fascinating histories of events and individuals.

Professor and the Madman
 Of the six books of his that I have, I've read four so far and am half way through Outposts. I was first introduced to his writings by my wife when she bought me two of his books for Christmas in 2008. I had never heard of Simon Winchester before but she thought the subject matter might interest me as we are always teasing each other about spelling and definitions. The Professor and the Madman; A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating story. While the premise is the making of the first Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which took 70 years to complete, from 1857, this story focusses mainly on one individual, an American Civil War veteran, Dr. W.C. Minor.
The making of the OED was the brain child of Dr. James Murray, who oversaw the project. The actual finding of words and meanings was assisted by over 1,000 contributors from all over the world, who provided words, origins and definitions to Minor and his group.
One of the most prolific contributors was Dr. Minor, a very mysterious contributor. Dr. Murray tried to visit or communicate with most of his contributors but had no luck getting any information from or about Dr. Minor. They maintained a correspondence for over ten years, but finally after having received nearly 10,000 definitions from Dr. Minor, Murray set out to meet him.
He discovered a fascinating individual living at a surprising location. Dr. Minor, an amazing wordsmith, was also a murderer and living in the insane asylum at Broadmoor, England's asylum for criminal lunatics.
So there you have the premise for my introduction to Simon Winchester. The Professor and the Madman, was published in 1998 and is a fascinating story, detailing the lives of two fascinating, obsessed individuals, Dr. James Murray and one of his most prolific contributors to the publication of the first ever OED, Dr. William Chester Minor. My wife hit a home run with this gift; I enjoyed every word of it; the fascinating characters, the enthralling process involved with the making of the OED.

Making the OED
 The other book, of Simon Winchester's which I received that year was on the same topic, The Meaning of Everything; The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester published this book in 2003; it's a bit of a follow-on to the story of Chester Minor. This book doesn't focus on specific individuals, but is a history of the book itself; how it was thought out; how it was approved, funded; the individuals who spent the days, months and years researching and crafting it. It's a fascinating story and of such a great scope and so well-written. The people who worked so hard, spending so many years of their lives dedicated to this book, which benefitted so many people, were dedicated and even, somewhat obsessed. I find it fascinating how many people contributied to it, dedicatdely researching words; their origins, spellings and definitions and sending their research to the crafters of the OED itself, those people who worked hours on end at the Scriptorium near Oxford putting this book together. A fascinating read and highly recommended.

William Smith

I have since purchased a few more Winchester stories and have found them as enjoyable as the first two books. The Map that Changed the World; William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology is one such story. Originally published in 2001, it tells the story or William Smith, a canal digger, who in 1793, discovered that by tracing the placement of fossils, one could follow the layers of rocks clear across England. His discovery enabled him, for the first time ever, to draw a chart of the hidden underside of the earth. This is a story of another dedicated individual, a man who spent twenty-two years of his life, travelling across England, piecing together an epochal and beatifully hand-crated map of the Earth. However it is not just a story of a map, but also a tragic story of a man, who was treated poorly, plagiarized, sent to debtor's prison and more. In the tradition of The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester delves into a fascinating individual and his dogged efforts to produce something that changed the way scientists view geography.

Most recently, I have completed The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, Krakatoa. Winchester published this story in 2003. In it he examines the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa and examines its impact on the world, the tsunami which followed and its impact on the world itself. Winchester has a fascinating way of delving into a topic; his discussion on how volcanos are created, the history of Krakatoa and that area of the world; the history of the time. Besides the devastation of the volcono's eruption itself, in which nearly 40,000 people were killed, he explores socio-political impacts, such as the wave of murderous anti-Western militancy that were triggered, one of the first outbreaks of Islamic-inspired killings anywhere. It's a fascinating story, providing a unique perpective of a powerful, world-shattering event. I enjoyed so very much; as I have with any of the Simon Winchester novels I've explored.

The British Empire
 At the moment, I'm about half way through Simon Winchester's Outposts - Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. Originally published in 1985, this novel chronicles Winchester's efforts to visit the remaining outposts of the British Empire, from the British Indian Ocean Territories (Diego Garcia) through to Pitcairn Islands. I have been thoroughly enjoying this book so far; having visited with Winchester the British Indian Ocean Territory, Tristan, Gibraltar, Ascension Island and St Helena. The story tells of Winchester's voyage to the locations, sometimes incredibly difficult and provides a history of the area and how they are currently being treated by the British government. The locations are often new to me, fascinating areas of the world, often isolated islands in the middle of the ocean. The people he meets are interesting and the locations and their history fascinating. I find that Simon Winchester always presents his stories in such a unique interesting manner. They always have held my attention and have been completely enjoyed.

A Crack in the World
 I have one left to read when I finish Outposts, that being the 2005 book, A Crack in the Edge of the World - America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. As outlined it tells the story of the massive earthquake, a magnitude of 8.25 that rocked San Francisco in the early hours of April 18, 1906. Winchester explores the legendary earthquake and fires that spread horror across San Francisco and northern California as well as the startling impact it had on American history and, as important, on what science has since revealed about the fascinating subterranean processes that caused it.

Sounds like another interesting read. So that is where I am, myself, with my exploration of Simon Winchester's writings. I highly recommend his stories; those that I've experienced I've enjoyed immensely. If you wish to explore all of his novels or in some sort of order, below is a chronological list of his stories. Enjoy!

  • 1975 – In Holy Terror
  • 1976 – American Heartbeat
  • 1983 – Prison Diary: Argentina
  • 1984 – Their Noble Lordships: Class and Power in Modern Britain
  • 1985 – Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire (also known as The Sun Never Sets)
  • 1988 – Korea, A Walk Through the Land of Miracles
  • 1991 – Pacific Rising: The Emergence of a New World Culture
  • 1992 – Hong Kong: Here Be Dragons (by Rich Browne, James Marshall and Simon Winchester)
  • 1992 – Pacific Nightmare: How Japan Starts World War III : A Future History (novel)
  • 1995 – Small World: A Global Photographic Project, 1987–94 (by Martin Parr and Simon Winchester)
  • 1996 – The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze and Back in Chinese Time
  • 1998 – The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Published in the US as The Professor and the Madman)
  • 1999 – The Fracture Zone: A Return To The Balkans
  • 2001 – The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology
  • 2003 – The Meaning of Everything — the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary
  • 2003 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
  • 2004 – Simon Winchester's Calcutta (a collection of writings about the Indian city, edited with son Rupert)
  • 2005 – A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 
  • 2008 – The Man Who Loved China — the Life of Joseph Needham (title of the UK edition: Bomb, Book & Compass)
  • 2010 – Atlantic: A Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
  • 2011 – The Alice Behind Wonderland - Alice Liddell

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Book Purchases - February 2012

I've been trying to be good this year and attempt to read more books than I buy. I don't think I'm succeeding but I have been pretty good. In February (including the end of January), I've only actually added 8 books. Mind you, in March there is a charity book sale going on, so I plan to give that a good look. :0)

Anyway, just to help keep track, these are my latest purchases. (Actually the first two on the list were Xmas presents so I actually only bought 6. And I have read about 5 in 2012. So there you go.)

This first story, Rin Tin Tin, The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean, was one of my Xmas prezzies from my daughter and her boyfriend. It seems a pretty interesting story, telling the history of Rin Tin Tin, from his discovery in the ruins of a bombed-out kennel during WWI through his many incarnations as a movie/ television hero. He made 23 movies after his return to California with his owner, American GI, Lee Duncan. At the height of his career, he was a number one box office star. He and his descendents made the move from silent movies to talkies and a successful transition to television. I look forward to reading this as I do like a good biography.

In her efforts to encourage me to keep up my running, my daughter Jennifer also bought me The Long Run, by Matt Long. Long was a New York fire fighter who was struck by a bus while cycling to wo work. Long was an iron man triathlete prior to his accident and after the accident was told that he might never walk again. The story chronicles Long's road to recovery as he teaches himself to walk again and his successful return to run the 2008 New York Marathon a mere 3 years after this accident. It's described as an emotional, honest story of a man's determination to fight through the despair and physical pain to regain a life he once had. Looking forward to this one too, although it might be a difficult, emotional read.

I'm taking a leap of faith by buying this book. A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin is the third in the A Song of Fire and Ice series. I have previously purchased the first two, but I have yet to read any. Hence the leap of faith. My wife and I watched the first two episodes of the mini-series while they were teasing the show on one of our movie channels and were totally hooked on it. Every review I've read extolls the series and I do enjoy a good sword and sorcery fantasy adventure. Book III obviously continues the story from Book II, A Clash of Kings. It continues the story of War of the Five Kings of the Seven Kingdoms. (Indeed I wonder about the two other kingdoms as well. I'm sure it'll explain everything when I get to it. I hope to read at least one of the series this year and if all goes well, keep on going. :0)

This next book is the second in a British mystery series set in Brighton, UK. The series was recommended to me by one of the people who visited our house during our Xmas house tour this past winter. (I would link to my wife's Blog on the house tour, but she hasn't posted it yet. ;0)). The series features Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, a police officer with his own demons. Book 2 tells of the sole witness to a murder whose family is threatened if he reports to the police. Courageously and with his wife's support he reports the murder to the Murder Investigation team led by Roy Grace. The series comes highly recommended and I hope to read the first, Dead Simple, in the next couple of months.

I've read a few Edmond Hamilton stories and have enjoyed very much. There are old school SciFi, simple straight-forward space adventures. Quest Beyond the Stars is an adventure into deepest, darkest space. Mercury is slowly dying. Each year its air grows thinner. Each month thousands of broken Mercurians are ordered to leave their planet. They have only one hope. Captain Future, the Solar System's most daring agent, has promosed to restore their world - a next to impossible task. The solution lies beyond the stars at the very core of the univese where no man has ventured before. There, in the shadow of doom, Captain Future meets the mightiest of all evil beings - creatures he may not live to describe... Sounds entertaining. :0)

Lynda La Plante has written so many successful novels and had them translated into equally successful TV series. Prime Suspect is probably her most well-known series. Of late she has begun a new book series, Above Suspicion, featuring Detective Inspector Anna Travis.The Red Dahlia is the second book in the series. I've read two others so far, Above Suspicion  and Blind Fury, and, for the most part, I enjoyed them very much. In this second in the series, DI Travis must race against time to catch a copycat killer dubbed The Red Dahlia. His/ her crimes are reminiscent of a killer who worked in Los Angeles in the 1940's and was called The Black Dahlia. If this book is as good as the others I've read so far, there will be nice tension and a well-crafted mystery.

In my Goodreads' book clubs, MC Beaton is regularly mentioned and so many people seem to enjoy the Agatha Raisin series, that I had to purchase one and see what it is like. Marion Chesney has written romance novels under her real name and also many successful mystery series, especially the Agatha Raisin and Hamish MacBeth series, under her pseudonym of MC Beaton. There are currently 23 books in the Agatha Raisin series and 28 under Hamish MacBeth. Agatha Raisin is a middle-aged public relations agent who moves to the Cotswolds after an early retirement. She solves murders and eventually sets up her own detective agency. The Potted Gardener is the third in the series and involves a series of assaults on the town's finest gardens and ultimately a shocking murder. Sounds like fun.

I read Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan early in February and totally enjoyed it. When I was out wandering around downtown Courtenay with the missus on Saturday I was very pleased to discover that The Laughing Oyster had the second book in the series, Behemoth. If it's half as good as the first, I'm sure I'll enjoy it. A young adult, alternate history fantasy adventure, it is written in an engaging, entertaining style by Scott Westerfeld. In Book 2, the two main characters, Deryn, a young girl, pretending to be a boy so she can fly in the British Air Service Leviathan, an airship that is part genetically mutated whale and other animals, and Alek, the heir to the Austrian throne, who has been on the run from the enemies of the State since the death of his parents. The story is set in WWI and there is great adventure and action. Excellent series so far.

Well, there you go, my latest books. I'm looking forward to reading them. We'll see how they fit into my other challenge books this year.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury

Five stars
 I finished Chocolate Wars this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's most assuredly the best book I've read so far in 2012. Deborah Cadbury is a relative of the Cadbury chocolate-making family, although as far as I could discern, her branch was not involved in the Cadbury factories in Birmingham. She does fondly recall the Xmas packages of chocolates that arrived every year. At any rate, she has researched this book diligently and written a fascinating history of the development of the chocolate industry and the families and individuals that brought it to the forefront and turned it into the global industry it is today.

While focused on the English Quaker families that developed the British chocolate industry; the Cadburys, the Fry's and the Rowntrees, Deborah also delves into the other chocolate giants; Nestlé, Hershey and Mars, amongst others.

The book is more than just a story about chocolate, which is fascinating in its own right. It's about a life style, an ethos, a way of life. The Cadburys and other British chocolate makers were Quakers. At the time of their initial experiments with the cocoa bean, Quakers could not become members of Parliament, they couldn't go to university. So their focus became industry; banking, retail, etc. The Cadburys and others chose chocolate. Their efforts to find a process to turn the cocoa bean into something that could be retailed are fascinating. As they became more and more successful, they had to find a way to reconcile their Quaker values with their massive success and money-making abilities. Their solutions make the story even more fascinating. Not only did they deal with industry, they dealt with issues such as slavery, war, poverty and applied their Quaker values to these issues.

It must have been a fascinating time as well as a struggle to develop this industry. Deborah Cadbury has a way with words and makes this whole story so very interesting. The people involved, from the deeply religious George Cadbury to the volatile Forrest Mars, are presented in such an interesting manner. You can picture them very easily. It's a great story, well worth reading and I highly recommend. Mind you, if you have a sweet tooth, it's going to develop a twinge as you read and discover the wonders of the Flake, Curly Wurly, Mars bar and so many others. Enjoy!

Rating: 5 ***** 

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Mystery Challenge

In previous Blogs, I've discussed my 2012 challenge plans and highlighted the books I've read so far in 2012. As in 2011, I've picked a few challenges to guide my reading somewhat in 2012. Some of the challenges are carry-overs from 2011 as I was unable to complete them in one year; in fact, I never thought I would be able to do so and planned to have them as long term goals. They include;

a. Around the World in 80 books - a very straight-forward challenge, being that you read 80 books set in 80 different countries. Thus far, I've managed to visit 18 countries and have enjoyed doing so:

Visiting Burma
1. England - Above Suspicion by Lynda Laplante
2. US of A - The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
3. Java - Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 227, 1883 by Simon Winchester
4. Canada - Blackfly Season by Giles Blunt
5. Norway - The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
6. India - Ragtime in Simla by Barbara Cleverly
7. Switzerland - Pilgrim by Timothy Findley
8. Burma - Burmese Days by George Orwell
9. France - The Night of the Generals by Hans Hellmut Kirst
10. Australia - On the Beach by Nevil Shute
11. Russia - Deadlock by Iris Johansen
12. Italy - Dressed for Death by Donna Leon
13. Greece - Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst
14. Cameroon - The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard
15. Scotland - The Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks
16. Israel - Knights of the Black and White by Jack Whyte
17. Sweden - Shadow by Karin Alvtegen
18. Netherlands - DeKok and the Death of a Clown by A.C. Baantjer

I started this challenge Jan 2011, so you can see, I do tend to focus on certain countries, England particularly, as many of the mysteries I like are set in Britain.

51 State Challenge
This year, in a similar vein, I started two new challenges; The USA in 51 Books and The UK Challenges Challenge. On a purely educational note, I think the latter will be the easier to track, as I do have a basic knowledge of the US states as I had to memorise the State capitals in my early school years. The UK Counties challenge will be somewhat more problematic as, even though the challenge organiser nicely provided a list of all the UK counties, I think it'll be somewhat more difficult for me to identify the small towns into their particular counties. But I'm always one for a list and a challenge, so I'm kind of looking forward to it. I've only got one US state so far; that being Texas as I've just started reading is Nevada Barr's Track of the Cat. I've read a few of the Anna Pigeon mysteries. They feature Anna Pigeon, of course, a US Park Ranger and the novels are set in the varied US National Parks throughout the US of A. This is the first in the series. As to my UK Counties challenge, I've managed to visit the London surroundings - Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham and Surrey - The Blood-Dimmed Tide by Rennie Airth. I will persevere with both and I think I'll be helped in both with this year's Individual Challenge. :0)

Of course, there is one of my first ever challenges, that I've plugged away at since Jan 2011. This is the Author's A to Z Challenge, once again, self-explanatory, in that you have to read books by authors whose names end in one of the letters of the alphabet. I've actually been quite successful with that challenge. I am only missing I, Q, U, V, X, Y and Z. I think those letters may be somewhat problematic, unless I specifically go out and buy books by those specific authors. Looking through my TBR shelf, I can only see a V so far, that being Dead-Eye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut. Of course, I do have confidence that I will find others.

Mystery Books Challenge

Anyway, what I started out to post about was this year's Individual Challenge. My aim, this year, is to make a serious dent in my Mystery book list. Of my unread shelves of books, I imagine that 50% or more are mysteries. I do like a good mystery and every time I find a new author, I find myself starting a new series. My plan this year is to work my way alphabetically through my mystery books and reading one of each author. I like this challenge and I'll be interested to see where I end up in December. At the moment, I've read or am reading 7 mysteries. (Remember that this is just one of my challenges.) I have to admit that my first book wasn't properly alphabetical, as I had to start while the missus and I were spending the holidays in the UK. But it was a B at least. My first book was John Bingham's Five Roundabouts to Heaven. The perceptive of you will notice that, yes, some of my challenges do occasionally overlap. So far my list is as follows -

1. John Bingham - Five Roundabouts to Heaven (finished 10 Jan 2012, 3 stars)
2. Rennie Airth - The Blood-Dimmed Tide (finished 12 Jan 2012, 3 stars)
3. Margery Allingham - Black Plumes (finished 21 Jan 2012, 4 stars)
4. Karin Alvtegen - Shadow (finished 28 Jan 2012, 4 stars)
5. Kingsley Amis - Riverside Villas Murder (finished 3 Feb 2012, 4 stars)
6. A.C. Baantjer - DeKok and the Death of a Clown (finished 12 Feb 201, 3 stars)
7. Nevada Barr - Track of the Cat (started 12 Feb 12)
(As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, I have commented on all of the books I've so far completed in January at the post linked here, if you're interested.)

I'm very excited about this challenge, with the opportunity of refreshing my memories on some of my favourite mystery writers; Giles Blunt, Sue Grafton, Jane Haddam, Donna Leon, Janet Evanovich, Kathy Reichs and Karin Slaughter, to name a few. Also, in the past few months, I've purchased books by new authors for me and this will be an opportunity to finally check them out and see if I need to buy the rest of the series. I'm particularly interested in -

New Authors

Lee Childs - 61 Hours (Jack Reacher series)
Colin Cotterill - The Coroner's Lunch (Dr Siri Paibour mysteries)
Caroline Graham - The Midsomer Murders series
Tarquin Hall - Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri mysteries)
Peter James - Dead Simple (DS Grace mysteries)
Laurie R. King - The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Mary Russell/ Sherlock Holmes mysteries)
Henning Mankell - Faceless Killers (Wallander mysteries)

At any rate, I'm looking forward to working my way through these books, along with my other challenges. It's been a great year of reading so far. I'll keep you posted each month on my progress.

Keep on reading!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

January Review

It's now February.... my oh my, the month has gone quickly. I thought I'd start off the month with a bit of a review of my January readings. On the whole, I enjoyed the books I picked to read in January, a nice mix of non-fiction, mystery and historical fiction. There were no 5 star books, but there were a couple that I quite enjoyed. It was a nice way to start off 2012 anyway. So let's start at the beginning.

I started and finished a couple of books while the missus and I were still vacationing in England over the holiday season.

The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks (3*). I've read a couple of Iain Banks' Culture novels the past year and found him to be a wonderful SciFi writer. This was my first attempt at one of his other stories. It's about a young man, late teens, who lives in Scotland and let's just say has some quirks. In his past he has killed 3 people, his brother has just escaped from an insane asylum and is heading home and his father hides himself in his study. This is a strange, but interesting story and there were surprises at the end. It brought to mind stories like Lord of the Flies, those odd, strange, but intriguing stories that stand off by themselves. I definitely think it's worth a read as it does offer a different style for Banks. I do think I prefer the Culture novels, but having read this, I think I may search out some of his other fiction stories.

The Zimmerman Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman (3*). One of my favourite books of any genre is Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. It's a book I've read a couple of times. I've never read any other of her histories, although I have purchased a couple of them in the past year. The Zimmerman Telegram also is set during the First World War. The British have intercepted a telegram from Germany, from Foreign Secretary Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in the US. The telegram instructs him and his counterpart in Mexico to stir the Mexicans up, to provide assistance so that they will engage the Americans and keep them occupied south of their border, rather than getting involved in the War in Europe. There are many interesting aspects to this story; one being the simple fact that I'd never heard of it before. The skill of the British code breakers in gathering key information from Germany and ensuring that the Germans didn't realise they had been compromised. How they ultimately use this knowledge to ensure that the US president, who sees himself as an honest broker trying to barker a cessation of hostilities so that he does not have to send US troops to take part in the war, can no longer stay neutral is also very interesting. Barbara Tuchman has a way of writing history to make it very interesting and accessible. She did so again with this story, one small incident in history but with great ramifications to the ultimate outcome of WWI.

Five Roundabouts to Heaven, by John Bingham (3*). This was the first John Bingham story that I have read. I found it while wandering around a nice used book store in Worthing, UK over the holidays. I have had Bingham's stories on my TBR list for awhile, so I was happy to find one finally. From 1952 to 1982, he published 17 novels. He was supposedly the inspiration for John Le Carré's most well-known character, George Smiley. Five Roundabouts was his second novel published in 1953. It is the story of two men, Peter Harding and Phillip Bartels, the story told mainly from Peter Harding's perspective. Harding is reliving his past, one of which he is not proud, as he elaborates on an incident in the past in which he tries to steal his childhood friend's mistress. Bartels is deeply in love with her and plans to leave his wife, but through the machinations of his friend instead decides to poison his wife. This is a nicely taut, psychological story, brings to mind Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. I will definitely continue to search for more of Bingham's novels as this was a nicely written, interesting story.

Blood-Dimmed Tide, by Rennie Airth (3*). This is the second in the Inspector John Madden mysteries; set in Sussex, England. The first was River of Darkness, a story I enjoyed very much. They are set just after the First World War and Madden is an Inspector with Scotland Yard, solving murders by serial killers while still trying to deal with his own personal wartime-related issues. In this second story, Madden is, in fact, retired and working a small estate in Sussex, with his new wife and children. He is drawn into a brutal murder of a local girl and ends up assisting Scotland Yard in their investigations. It is discovered that there have been other murders in other parts of England, and, in fact, in Germany, that appear to have been perpetrated by the same individual. The story is tensely-written and interesting. Personally, I do wish Airth had explored somewhat more the tension of dealing with the German police, who are going through issues caused by the ascension of the National Socialists to power. But other than that minor issue, the story is a worthy successor to Airth's first novel and well worth reading.

 Black Plumes, by Margery Allingham (4*). Margery Allingham was a prolific mystery writer from 1923 until the mid-60's. Her most noted character was Albert Campion, an upper class detective/ spy, who appeared in many of her novels. He did not appear in Black Plumes which came out in 1940. This story is an interesting character study. It is basically set in one location and follows the investigation of the murder of Robert Madrigal, who runs an art gallery along with his brother - in - law. The story follows the main characters as they try to deal with the murder, suspect each other and wait for the police to solve the case. It's a nice parlour mystery, with neat twists and turns until you reach the satisfying resolution. This was my second Allingham mystery and she is growing on me. I have another on my TBR shelf that I'm looking forward to reading.

Knights of the Black and White, by Jack Whyte (3*). This is the first story in Canadian writer, Jack Whyte's Templar trilogy. It is an interesting bit of historical fiction, following the Hugh de Payens on his journey to the Holy Land on behalf of a secretive brotherhood of knights, The Order of the Rebirth in Sion. His task, along with others of his order is to find the secret 'treasure' troves of the Tomb of Solomon, as in their beliefs, the truth of Christianity lies therein. It's a meandering sort of story, many vignettes, some action, some sex and ultimately, leaves you hanging for the second and third stories to finish the adventure. At times I wanted more to happen; the battle sequences were unsatisfying, the story was somewhat slow in developing. But at the same time, the story read easily for its length and I did end it wanting to read the next in the series. Worth taking a look at.

Shadow, by Karin Alvtegen (4*). This is the third Alvtegen story I've read, the other two being Betrayal and Missing. I do enjoy her style. Alvtegen is a Swedish crime writer who has written 5 mysteries as of 2007. Shadow deals with the death of an elderly woman, with no known relatives. A social worker begins the task of finding somebody who knows the woman, Gerda Persson, to assist with finding other family members and possibly to assist with funeral arrangements. This slowly developing idea brings us into contact with other people, the story being told from each person's perspective and as we get into the story, both past and present events unfurl that lead to a sinister, almost frightening ending. Alvtegen develops her story with a nice touch, teasing us with facts that make us wonder how they tie together. I did enjoy this mystery and I think you would like any of her stories.

The final two books were started in January, but finished the first week in February so I'll include them in my January Reading highlights.

Plan for Chaos, by John Wyndham (3*).  John Wyndham is one of my favourite all-time SciFi writers having written two of my favourite stories, The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. I was very pleased when I saw this story at my local bookstore, The Laughing Oyster. It was written at the same time as The Day of the Triffids, but didn't really get published at the time. It was newly discovered a couple of years ago and happily for me, this edition was released in 2010. It's quite different in style from his other stories and did take a few pages to get into. It reminds me of the old movie serials that they used to show before the Saturday matinee, teasing you over weeks to make you keep going to the movies. It's about a Nazi plan of domination, after the end of WWII. The story involves flying saucers, cloning, hidden installations, somewhere deep in South America (maybe). I must say I did find the story interesting. Did I enjoy it as much as my favourite Wyndham stories? No, I didn't, but at the same time I'm glad that it was released so that Wyndham's fans can read another of his stories.

Riverside Villas Murder, by Kingsley Amis (4 *). This is probably the most enjoyable book I've read in 2012, it was nicely paced, some nice twists and turns and some interesting plot lines. I must say that I originally purchased it partly because of the book cover, which caught my attention. I had previously read another Amis book, The Green Man, a sort of spiritual mystery and enjoyed it. This mystery was quite different, focusing on young Peter Furneaux, a teenager experiencing all those teen boy things, lusts after young girls (or the neighbour's wife), teen angst, issues with his parents. Peter becomes deeply involved in a murder that takes place nearby, in fact, the victim manages to stagger to his parent's house when Peter is home alone. This leads to an interesting police investigation, with Peter intimately involved. There are many neat aspects to the story and some neat twists that I didn't expect. I found it ultimately satisfying and I highly recommend.

Well, there you go, my January readings. I've started off February with Leviathan  by Scott Westerfield, an alternate history story and Long Way Round; Chasing Shadows Around the World by Ewen MacGregor, a motorcycle adventure around the world. They are interesting so far.
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