Saturday, 14 April 2018

BAD BLOOD WILL OUT by William Savage @penandpension

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads


How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I would have bought it anyway as I have read and enjoyed all of Mr Savage's books.

Genre: 18th century murder mystery.

This is the fourth in the Ashmole Foxe series of 18th century murder mysteries.  Foxe is a dapper entrepreneur living in the centre of Norwich.  Officially, he is a bookseller and purveyor of rare volumes, but in reality he has little interest in his shop, leaving it to be run by the reliable Mrs Crombie.  Aside from this, Foxe dabbles his fingers in many pies, not least of all the solving of murders to which he is often referred by the Alderman and other leading lights in the city.

In Bad Blood Will Out, Foxe is presented with two murders: one is that of a wealthy chandler, the other an actor in the White Swan theatre.  At first Foxe dismisses the latter, but finds his thoughts returning to it over and over.  His days are busy; he is also obliged to play host to his nephew Nicholas, who has come to the city to learn how to become a businessman.  As the early chapters progress, Foxe soon finds that, despite the presence of the odious Postgate, the theatre stage manager he and most others detest, he cannot resist delving into the White Swan murder - which soon becomes murders in the plural.

Like all of William Savage's books, Bad Blood Will Out is a highly readable mix of intricate plot construction and wonderful characters; Ashmole Foxe remains a delight, and the other characters are all fully rounded, with plenty of subtle humour in the dialogue.  The time and place is beautifully illustrated, with a backdrop of the world of 18th century theatre.

A stunning first chapter about a fire at the theatre some years before had my interest well and truly piqued, and the unfolding plot lived up to expectations (and the murder weapon had me stumped!).  I did wish, on occasion, that more events were shown in the same way as that first chapter, rather than being described/reported to Foxe, but this is just the personal preference of one who likes stories told from several points of view; I certainly enjoyed this novel and am sure Mr Savage's many readers will find it every bit as charming as all the others.


Sunday, 8 April 2018

THE LAST ENGLISHMAN by Keith Foskett @KeithFoskett

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I'd read Balancing On Blue by this author, and had to read another one!

Genre: non-fiction, memoir ~ hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

'Human beings have spent  the vast majority of their existence in the wild - towns and cities are a relatively recent concept and, although they make us feel secure, we are not meant to be there.  They are not our natural surroundings.'

In The Last Englishman, Keith Foskett starts out on the first of his US thru-hikes, the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which runs from Mexico to the Canadian border.  It was most interesting to read this after Balancing On Blue (about the AT~ Appalachian Trail), because at times this hike seemed almost like a learning process for the AT, in which he made errors he would not repeat in the latter, like taking too many 'zeros' (resting days), not working out exactly how many miles he needed to walk each day, spending too long in the towns for re-supplying, etc.   Before he reached Oregon, he realised that the bad weather was going to overtake him.

As well as being an account of the hike, Keith's narrative often wanders off, as his mind must have done each day on the trail, into the right and wrongs of how he wants to live his life, compared with what he feels society expects of him, though he appears to be at peace with this now.  More on this subject later, after the book review.  

This isn't only an interesting story—I think it should be read by anyone considering embarking on such an adventure, because it tells what it is really like, on a day-to-day basis, the down-sides and difficulties as well as all the good stuff.  It's honest, and you don't feel that Keith's motivation is to show himself in a good light, which, of course, makes him more likeable.  He wrestles with his fear of snakes and bears (and some of the bear encounters are truly frightening), experiences the danger of serious dehydration, meets many like-minded souls, and talks about food, a lot (I particularly like the account of Nick Levy's unorthodox ways of obtaining it....), the mozzies (always a problem), the physical strain on the body.  He talks about how hikers are perceived by the townsfolk when back in civilisation, and the simple joy of walking in the woods.

'One of my most enjoyable experiences was listening to the wind rush through the forest.  It struck me several times how simple this phenomenon was.  It transported me to an almost primitive era, before technology took over the free time of collective society.  No other sounds intruded'

There are quotes from other hikers at the beginning of each chapter (I liked these, a lot), delightful tales of 'trail magic' (the generosity of non-hiking, sometimes anonymous friends of the trail who leave supplies for hikers), accounts of the thru-hiking maestros who break all speed records (fascinating!), the psychological reasons why some drop out half-way, and an excellent section about some of the daft, ancient laws in the US and England that have never been repealed; for instance, in West Virginia, children cannot attend school with their breath smelling of wild onions.

I knocked a half star off for blog purposes (though still 5* 'I loved it' on Amazon!) because I think this book is in need of some trail maps along the way.  I didn't feel the need for them in the previous book because I know more about the geography of the eastern US, but in this I sometimes got a bit lost.  Also, photographs would raise it to another level.  One other thing, which doesn't matter a jot in the great scheme of things and some will consider a petty niggle but it massively gets on my nerves, is the use of the word 'I' when it should be 'me' (as in 'so as usual, he said he'd catch Trooper and I up').  Editor: a simple explanation of how to get it right HERE.

I found that I liked this book more and more as it went on, and read the last 40% in one go, snuggled up in bed and trying to imagine being snuggled up in my sleeping bag in a tent when it was snowing outside, like in Keith and Trooper's valiant push through snowdrifts to the end of the trail.  Lastly, there are some stories from other hikers about their life post-PCT; the one by 'Flyboxer' is heartrending.  Then there's a list from Keith about the reasons 'why' ~ I loved this.  I loved the book, as a whole, and would recommend it even if the closest you will get to hiking the PCT is looking at videos of it on youtube.  Now, which one of Keith Foskett's books shall I read next?


*****

*Not part of the book review*

Keith's books are bringing up some memories for me.  I mentioned in the review of Balancing on Blue that, after travelling canals on a barge for only a few weeks, I found being back in the 'real' world horribly depressing.  This one made me remember when I began my first job, as a secretary in a solicitor's office.  I sat there, on that first afternoon, thinking, 'this is what you have to do, 8 hours a day, forever, just so you can have a roof over your head?'  I felt as though I was in prison.  

A couple of months after starting this job, my boyfriend and I travelled around North Wales for a couple of weeks, sleeping in his van and doing stuff like walking up Snowden and traipsing round all the wonderful castles.  I lived in jeans, jumpers and walking boots, washed up in the kitchen of a brilliant hikers' cafe in Llanberis Pass in exchange for food when we ran out of money, and felt totally happy.  Going back to my job 6 hours after we got back was so awful I didn't know how I could possibly carry on doing it.  It wasn't just post-holiday blues, it was the feeling that I was in the wrong place.  Of course, what I should have done was to go and get a job in an outward bound centre, or something, but I didn't have the confidence to think 'outside the box' because I was brought up that the right and only way was the middle-class norm of studying hard at school, going to university (I had already disappointed my parents by being 'asked to leave' school half way through my 'A' levels), establishing yourself in a career in which you will slowly rise, buying property and then better property so that you can have a family and bring them up to do exactly the same thing. 

As my parents got older, they relaxed in their expectations of us; Dad was really proud of me for having my own shop for a few years and, later, writing books that people actually buy, even if I haven't become or married an accountant and bought the sort of house he and Mum lived in.  I should have had the confidence not to try to fit a wiggly peg into a square hole from the word go; I should have done stuff like walking the AT before my knees got too knackered to walk more than five miles without them hurting!  Now in my autumn years (and it's my favourite season 😉), I keep being reminded that you only get one life and it's short ~ you have to do what you want.  I have, mostly, but I do have regrets about not travelling.  Please, if you're in your 20s and 30s and feel the need, just do it ~ you can worry about the small stuff later!

I'm currently trying to persuade a friend that she absolutely should rent out her flat and go to live in the old hippie style community for over fifties in Spain (yoga, painting, etc) that she keeps looking at, instead of worrying about keeping all her savings in her bank account for a rainy day.  Fuck the rainy day.  Unlike me, she is very sociable, and she's a yoga teacher; it would suit her down to the ground, and she knows this, she's just scared of taking the leap.  I tried saying to her, 'What would make you happier?  Living in that fab place in Spain with all those like-minded people, or sitting on your sofa looking at all the noughts on your bank statement?' 

In 1971, my father and some of his friends started up a walking group they called The Strollers.  They used to do countryside hikes once or twice a week, often at night time (and always finishing in a pub), and would go away for walking weekends.  Dad was still walking with them into his eighties, and was the last remaining original member; many of the newer generation were at his funeral last October.  The Stroller's motto, on their emblems, was 'Ambulare Sit Vivere' ~ To Walk is to Live.  

In another life, maybe Dad and I would have walked the Appalachian Trail, too. 😎






Monday, 2 April 2018

BALANCING ON BLUE by Keith Foskett @KeithFoskett

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads

 

How I discovered this book: I read about the author on the Five on Friday feature on Jill's Book Cafe, and knew I had to read one of his books.  I chose this one, about the Appalachian trail, because one can only read Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods so many times.  😉

Genre: Travel memoir ~ thru-hiking the AT

I loved reading this book, at the same time as it making me feel really pissed off because I wasn't there, doing it, and now I (very probably) never will be.  I was glad I've read BB's A Walk In The Woods, because I recognised some landmarks, even the names of shelters, and was familiar with the basics of such an endeavour, not least of all the superiority of the 'thru-hiker' compared with the day hikers (I detected the hierarchy, even in such a goodwill-filled world!), the mechanics of daily living, and the reasons why people (like Bill Bryson) drop out.


When I'd finished the book I went to Keith's site and looked at the photos ~ it was great to put faces to some of the names.  They're HERE.

At the beginning, before 'Fozzie's' adventure starts, there are short first-person pieces introducing some of the hikers with whom Keith walked his many miles.  I particularly liked the story of 'PJ' (thru-hikers all have their 'trail names') ~ he got out of bed one morning, told his wife he was going to hike the AT, and would not be coming back.  Just one slight criticism that isn't really a criticism ~ I think they would have been twice as effective if dropped in here and there, throughout the book, when we'd got to 'know' the person on the trail.  Lazagne, Thirsty and co all appear at the end, too, to talk about their life post-AT.

Keith and his friends have much in common: a desire to live life their own way, a dislike of authority for authority's sake, the need for solitude, peace, to be out in the wild and lead a more simple life, away from the constraints of modern society.  I found myself smiling a lot, feeling much the same.  'I didn't like being told what to do by my parents, bosses, friends or my teachers, and I still struggle with it.'


Interspersed with the hike story are passages about the history of the trail, about the early hikers, the other great trails of the US—and a grisly murder or two.  Mostly, though, it's a journal about the journey.  Nothing much happens, but it's fascinating.  It's all about whether or not you can tell a story, really, isn't it?

My favourite parts were the accounts of the author's time alone, about the weather and the beauty of the trail, his thoughts.  'I lived in the woods, respected them and in return they looked after me.  They shaded me from the fierce sun and shielded me from strong winds ... occasionally a pool or creek would offer itself up so I could wash and every single night two stout trees held me aloft as I slept in my hammock.  The woods provided firewood for the colder nights and during the warmer nights the smoke chased away the mosquitos.  I was given logs to sit on or trunks to rest my back against.'

But it's not all ponderous and poetic - there is much about the jolly cameraderie, and also the problems faced on a daily basis ~ not only aches, pains, hunger and a slight depression once they neared the end, simply because it was ending, but also the perils of 'crotch rot'. 😨  One thing that stuck in mind was the curious two-seater privy in Maine, with a cribbage board thoughtfully placed in between. Like Keith, I thought, who on earth decided anyone might want to a) do the business in company and b) play cribbage while doing so?

I loved some of the observations, like how 'apart' he felt from 'normal' life after just a week or so on the trail, when he would leave it for a day to go into a town to restock, do laundry, etc, and it felt all wrong.  I remember that feeling after spending a few weeks on a barge in the parallel world of canals. I was amused to read that the author has post apocalypse fantasies, as I do ~ for me, it's about all the 21st century crap being over, and the challenge to survive.  And about discovering what is really important.  As Keith points out, in the world of the AT, just the knowledge that the next shelter actually had a door and a proper floor was something to get excited about.

This bit: There were virtually no buildings, no one in authority, no signs stating orders, no man-made noise, and there was no need to be in a certain place at a certain time... I believe making this connection with nature reminds our bodies and minds of a long time ago when we were truly free.  We all came from the wilds.  The history, although long gone and forgotten for all of us, still occupies a small space in the back of our minds.  Somewhere, subconsciously, our minds remember the woods where we spent our infancy, and spending time there rekindles those distant times in our past.  It was home.  



There's so much I want to put in this review ~ the sad fox in the Trailside zoo who Keith wanted to free, a confirmation for him that you really can't give a female hiker the trail name 'Pink Bits' (!), so many quotes and examples of the beauty, the generosity of strangers; I highlighted so much, but it's far too long already.  Anyway, I loved it.  I shall now go and download his adventures on the Pacific Coast Trail, and I can't wait to read about the Continental Divide!

ps, if you like this sort of book, you would probably also like Into The Wild and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Saturday, 31 March 2018

RESTITUTION by Rose Edmunds @RoseEdmunds

4 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: it was submitted to Rosie's Book Review Team, of which I am a member, but I bought it anyway!  My review of Book 2, Exposure, here.

Genre: Thriller/financial.

In this third book in the Crazy Amy series, Amy travels to Prague to help 84 year old George Smithies recover a Picasso painting last seen in 1939, and help him find his way through the maze of Czech art restitution law.  The situation is a complex one, as there is mystery surrounding family ties, and right of ownership is not straightforward.  Amy and George meet up with Beresford, an art historian to whom Amy takes an immediate dislike, and her old 'frenemy', Mel.  It soon transpires that Amy and George are not the only ones interested in the painting, which puts Amy in great danger.

The amount of research that has gone into this book is evident, with much about the history and culture of the Czech Republic that I found most interesting; I like novels that teach me about other countries.

Amy is oddly likable, even though she shouldn't be; she's snobbish and judgemental with a hell of a chip on her shoulder (and I couldn't forgive her for dragging poor, reluctant George out for a walk on their first night in freezing cold Prague!), but there's something about the way she's so honest about herself that makes her endearing.  Her emotional dilemmas, even just the seemingly trivial ones like whether or not she ought to sleep with a man who attracts her and how to get rid of the excess five pounds around her middle, make her seem very real.  

...though maybe not always so self-aware: ' "..Amy, did anyone ever suggest you might have a problem with alcohol?"  "Yes", I snapped, "the idiots at the Priory".'    I love that!  Her bitchy-aside-a-minute relationship with chavvy gold digger Mel is beautifully illustrated in its oneupmanship; I think observation about people's motivations and insecurities is a real strength of this author, and I'd love to see more of it in future books. 

Still battling through the difficulties caused by her psychological problems, Amy makes some candid statements: 'Everyone pretends there's no stigma against mental health issues, like everyone pretends there's no sexism or racism.  But it's still bubbling away beneath the surface and ... people will find a cogent, lawful reason for denying me a job ... That's the way it is'

I liked that this novel was less overtly fast-paced than the previous one, with more 'downtime'.  It's cleverly structured, and I'm sure it will be appreciated by readers who like to immerse themselves in thrillers with complicated plots, and anyone with an interest in said plot's subject matter, ie, the restitution of valuable works of art.

'We'll be there you bitcoin, came the {text message} reply, bitcoin presumably being the predictive text substitute for bitch'. 😅😆

Monday, 26 March 2018

DEAD NORTH by Joel Hames @joel_hames

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I've read and enjoyed most of Joel Hames's books, so downloaded this as soon as it was published.

Genre: Crime thriller, police procedural, murder

Sam Williams, mishap-prone lawyer and nancy Southerner, has been asked by Mancunian DI Roarkes to assist in the information gathering necessary to prosecute one Thomas Carson for shooting dead two police officers, up in the roughy-toughy, dark and dismal North West.  He leaves behind an unhappy girlfriend who is paying all the bills, largely due to Sam's inconsistent law career.  

Up in Manchester, Sam finds communication blockades whichever way he turns, dank and greasy hotels and pubs, food that is not much better, sexy designer-lawyer Serena who is also on the Carson case, an undercurrent of extreme danger/possible criminal gang intervention, and a not inconsiderable amount of resistance in the form of physical violence.

This is a most engagingly written book that I enjoyed, very much in places, though I didn't love it quite as much as The Art of Staying Dead and Victims, but that's just because it's more of a straight crime-solving-police-procedural type plot, which is not really my bag ~ my liking it slightly less is personal taste, not a reflection of the book's quality.  Indeed, that crime-solving-police-procedurals usually bore me witless but this didn't, is an indication of how good it is.

The story is action-packed with never a dull moment but a good balance of inner dialogue versus action, the plot is intricately worked out, the characters are clearly defined, and it carries with it Mr Hamer's usual wit and realistic dialogue.  Although part of the Sam Williams series, it's a stand alone, and any references made to other books/Sam's past are not at all confusing; the back story is woven in very well.

4* from me (ie, I liked it), with an extra half star in the interests of objective reviewing, because I believe it to be a jolly good example of its type.  I'd recommend it to any avid readers of well-written, well-plotted crime thrillers; you won't be disappointed.  Unless you're a particularly proud Mancunian, maybe 😉.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

THE INTRUDER by P S Hogan

5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I read Rosie Amber's review of it on her blog.  Bought it straight away, and it was only 99p. 😀

Genre: slowly unfolding psychological drama, mild thriller.

William Heming is an estate agent with copies of the keys of every house his company has ever sold, so he may snoop into the owners' lives when they are out.  Sometimes, he uses this opportunity to right perceived wrongs; there's an excellent (and very funny) section about the vengeance he wreaks on one careless motorist, but it is when his ire is piqued by dismissive dog walker Douglas Sharp that his life becomes more complicated.

Heming is proud of the pleasant, unremarkable, amiable front he shows to the world; as we delve deeper into his life we discover how sociopathic he truly is, but much of that pleasant amiability comes out in his narration, making him oddly likable.  The novel is beautifully written; at times the prose is almost poetic, more like that of literary fiction than one normally finds in a popular thriller.  

I thought it was clever of P S Hogan to make Heming physically attractive, rather than the down-at-heel stereotype of your average Peeping Tom.  He has relationships with the opposite sex, but they remain physical, only; as we see later, once true intimacy enters into the game, he is repelled. 

Looking at the Amazon page again, I wonder if the publisher has done the author a slight disservice by marketing this book like a 'grip lit' thriller, with its dark cover and tag line 'the creepiest, most sinister thriller you’ll read this year'; this could explain the bad reviews, that appear to have been written by readers expecting something more sensational, with edge-of-your-seat twists and shocks.  Yes, there is murder and more, but The Intruder isn't that sort of book.  The plot is well-paced, intricately worked, entertaining and with unexpected developments, but it's more a psychological unfolding, as the disturbing behaviour of Heming's past and the reasons for his obsession with the lives of strangers are revealed.  It's definitely one of those 'I'll just read one more chapter' books; I read the second half in one afternoon.

The word 'creepy' is used in many of the reviews (maybe as an echo of the tagline), though I didn't find it particularly so, maybe because the characterisation and many of Heming's own observations are so 'spot-on' and amusing; it's just really, really good.  Highly recommended.






Sunday, 18 March 2018

OUTLIERS: Volume 1 by Kate L Mary @kmary0622

4.5 out of 5 stars

On Amazon UK
On Amazon.com
On Goodreads



How I discovered this book: I've read almost all the books in the Broken/Twisted World series by this author, so Amazon kindly let me know when she had a new book out. 😉

Genre: Post Apocalyptic, Dystopian, Futuristic 

I really liked this book, as much as Kate Mary's zombie series.  Protagonist Indra is a member of one of the four tribes of Outliers, in a world where the Sovereign people rule, with the Fortis providing the muscle.  The Outliers are the workers, the weak, who rely on hereditary jobs in the Sovereign's kingdom.  Immediately, I wanted to know where this strange land is supposed to be; a fantasy world, or Earth?  The suggestion that it's Earth comes at just the right time, as Indra is shown the remains of one of the cities.  Centuries before, their world had been overcrowded, with technology so sophisticated that the inhabitants' weapons could wipe out whole kingdoms; this they did, unleashing 'poison' into the world that rendered much of it a wasteland.  'What they had fought over none of us knew for certain, but we know that it had not only destroyed them, but left the earth barren and dry... poisoning it for future generations.'     

Yes, I think it's mean to be Earth, but we don't know.  Books exist, containing writing that no one can understand.  I love that the question was put into my mind but not answered fully, and hope there will be more about this in future episodes.  There are other clues ~ the rich Sovereign have grown weak, small and plump because they are waited upon and spend much time eating and drinking, and the women make all the decisions (!!).  However, in the wilds, where Indra's tribe (the Winta) live, women are the weaker sex; they tend the home fires while the men go out hunting.

The beginning of this new series builds up nicely, painting pictures of the world I know I am going to continue to read about.  I liked how KLM has done this; it's not a big information dump, but she skillfully sets up all the info we need about the Sovereign, Fortis and Outliers within the first few chapters of the story, so we're good to go for the rest.  I was engrossed from the start.

After lots of terrible things happen to Indra, her friends and family, she looks around at the women of her tribe ~ women unarmed, women defenceless and useless.  This, she knows, must change.

As I was reading, I thought, 'KLM has been watching Outsiders', and in the Author's Note she thanks the show for giving her the name Asa for the guy I had my eye on as the main love interest/hero of the hour.  Works for me ~ I love Outsiders (I picture Indra looking like G'Winveer, for anyone else who watches it).

This first instalment of the Outliers saga is a real 'easy-read' at the same time as being a totally gripping page-turner, and I read 90% of it in one day.  Any negatives?  There are a few small editing glitches (the same information repeated more than once, a couple of minor instances that seemed like afterthoughts dropped in, instead of being threaded through the story), but nothing that would worry most readers, and I give this a wholehearted thumbs up.  Roll on May, when Book #2 is published!