Friday, 16 December 2011

The First Deadly Sin

I first read this many years ago, but since I absconded from the cottage with The third deadly sin, I thought I would collect the lot of them. In this one, Edward X Delaney is still married to Barbara, though she spends almost the entire novel in the hospital suffering her last illness. He's also the Captain of the 251st precinct, which is right next door to him. He decides to retire to spend time with his wife while she recovers (which she doesn't, sadly) but is convinced to turn this into an extended leave of absence and further to spend this time running an unofficial investigation at the behest of the Commissioner and a few others. Politics abound behind the scenes. Thankfully Delaney is utterly uninterested in politics, so we manage to avoid most of it.

Again, the narrative is beautifully interwoven between Delaney and the killer, which allows a reader to experience both view points and to appreciate the effect that each is having on the other. There's a fair amount of philosophising, mostly done by Celia Montfort - a woman that is ostensibly the killer's girlfriend, but about whom there is almost no information available at all. Though, to be fair, we know as much about her, her brother and her manservant as the killer does. Delaney also spends a fair bit of time philosophising, but given that his wife's condition is rapidly deteriorating, I'm willing to forgive his dwelling on the meaning of life, etc.

The ending is rather depressing and I'm not sure that it's entirely realistic. I suspect that a serious break with reality is required for it to occur and I thought it well-written and believable, though I do wonder about it's likelihood now that I'm finished reading.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Awakening

This is the first audiobook I listened to from books should be free. It's the story of Edna, a woman who finds herself constricted in the acceptable roles of wife and mother that were open to women in the late 19th century. The book was highly controversial when it was published in 1899 and ruined the rest of Chopin's writing career.

It's beautifully written with a lyrical style that makes listening to it a pleasure. I have to say, though, that the main character is not particularly likeable. There were many moments where I just wanted to slap her and tell her to stop being so self-centred and think of someone other than herself for a change. Of course, being a woman her choices were limited at the time. And yet, that did not manage to stop her from doing whatever she felt like, whenever she felt like it.

In a review I read, someone described the ending as a surprise. I can't say the same - it was quite obvious to me from quite early on. Unlike that person, I was not left feeling very pleased with the book. I would have preferred for there to be consequences. I would have liked to see Edna decide how she wished to live (which was apparently in a whimsical way where everyone attended to her fancies while she did as she pleased) and then to try and live like that in Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century. I would have liked to see what would happen if her husband decided he'd been patient and permissive enough. I would have liked to know what the results of her spending so much time - and plenty of it alone - with a known womaniser/adulterer would have been.

This is definitely worth reading and it certainly gives a sense of the limitations of life for ladies of leisure at that time. It doesn't deal with what I think are the more interesting questions relating to that topic, but we can't have everything.

The Third Deadly Sin


I read this many years ago. Seeing it at the cottage when I had nothing to read (prior to the trip to the Simon's Town Library sale, obviously) I decided to reread it and, since I enjoyed the series, to abscond with it. Since I recognised it as being one of Dad's unwanted books that were variously placed at the cottage or used book stores (or my shelves), I felt that would be perfectly acceptable. Besides I don't think anyone else reads the books down there.

Anyway, this book features Edward X Delaney, who used to be a police chief and has a thing about sandwiches. The book made me hungry, with all its talk of food. Delaney is approached by an old friend who needs his help solving a series of apparently unrelated murders committed by one person. That would be Zoe Kohler, having adventures, which as far as I can tell involves dressing up like a hooker and murdering the men that pick her up. The police's attempts to find her are fascinating and really do show the value of painstaking, methodical work as opposed to the intuitive behaviour of Poirot (for example) - but that's at least partly the difference between having suspects and not having suspects.

Sanders writes well, though I don't enjoy all his work. This is one that I can recommend without reserve. It is both a police procedural, following the investigation through Delaney, who has the advantage of being able to step outside the strict lines of protocol, being retired. At the same time the book traces the journey of the killer and how the investigation impacts on her life and her kills.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Sanditon

I've never bothered with Sanditon because Austen didn't finish it and, really, no one could manage to complete it properly. I found this at the Simon's Town Library sale and couldn't resist, since it was cheap and right in front of me. Apparently this version is the one that was completed by a woman who sometimes calls herself Marie Dobbs and sometimes Ann Telscombe and quite possibly other things as well. Austen wrote the first eleven chapters before her illness caused her to be too weak to continue.

In the first eleven chapters we are introduced to Charlotte Heywood, likely to be the heroine, who is taken out of her home environment to Sanditon, a seaside resort, through a chance encounter with Mr and Mrs Parker. Mr Parker's relatives - an excessively meddlesome (Miss Diana Parker) and hypochondriac (Miss Parker and Mr Arthur Parker) family - come to visit and we meet his friends - the wealthy and autocratic Lady Denham, her repulsive relations Sir Edward and Miss Denham and her companion-niece Miss Brereton - in the neighbourhood.

The first eleven chapters are short, but there are all of Austen's hallmarks in the characters presented. The existence and likely arrival of other characters (the wealthy Miss Lambe from the West Indies, Mr Sidney Parker, the girls school) is mentioned and there things ended for many years.

This continuation is attempted to be in Austen's style and to have a plot similar to all her others (marriage after misunderstandings/difficulties for worthy couple). Unfortunately the other lady is not Austen and it shows. The plot is a simple romance with plenty of misdirection and meddling. There is none of Austen's brilliance and there is a shocking lack of character development. The heroine comes across as rather unintelligent and very priggish. Few of the characters are terribly likeable and most of the plotting is blazingly obvious.

It was a fun read, but unless you wish to read everything ever written that's remotely related to Austen, I wouldn't recommend it.

Original Sin

The 9th Adam Dalgliesh, this one is actually set mostly in London, which is fairly rare for the series. The setting is a firm of publishers, who have suffered from natural deaths, a suicide, a number of malicious pranks and, finally, a murder. And things don't stop there, a number of other murders follow on, generally involving attempts at being disguised as either suicides or accidents.

This is an excellent novel, with one major setback. I did not find the motive convincing. The motive is essentially an extremely long-term attempt at vengeance and, while I'm sure such things do occur, I thought it lacking. I did think the manner of attaining vengeance well-thought out and very well-planned, however. The final twist was rather depressing, particularly given the fact that I think the intention is for the reader to sympathise with the murderer (which may be why I found the motive troubling). I thought some of the characters behaved in ways that were very out-of-character (third-police-officer-whose-name-I-forget in particular), which rather spoils my enjoyment of the book, as I find it very jarring to be thinking "but that makes no sense - they wouldn't do that", though it may well illustrate my inability to understand human behaviour rather than anything else.

Cargo of Eagles

I've read one other Margery Allingham, Police at the Funeral, which I enjoyed very much. This one was also enjoyable, but not quite as good. Perhaps I've just had enough of those secret agent style books with spies and international intrigue and the Cold War and so on. In which case I should take a break from those books. This has some fantastic parts and is well worth reading, however. Particularly if you enjoy mystery stories. There were certain aspects that, while important for the story, are terribly dated and rather unnecessary, in my opinion, such as the idea that young people on motorcycles are automatically violent or criminal or less-than-respectable.

Simon's Town Library

As always, when going to the cottage, there's the danger that I just won't bother to come back. Consequently I was gone a lot longer than intended. And while there, I discovered that the Simon's Town Library has a book sale every Saturday from 9-12. A room of books, donated by dying and downsizing retirees, at the end of the peninsula (sort of) where no one ever goes. As you might imagine we picked up quite a haul and I have piles to review now. Also, if you're ever down there for any reason on a Saturday morning, stop in. They deserve the support and have some wonderful items!

Thursday, 01 December 2011

Lacey Top

This took forever to make, but was well worth it. A word of advice, however, don't start learning something new (a) with something complicated or (b) while studying. Which is part of why you're not getting a picture of the back - I messed up the lace pattern on that panel. I would have liked this to be a bit longer - I feel like I spend all my time pulling it down, but it may just be that I'm getting a bit plump now that I'm not walking over to Hiddingh every day. Lace is really easy, and I would happily make more lacey things. I really like the edging, even if it does require you to sew. I made the neck edging a little big, so it doesn't really sit flat and I put in a little lace detail because I could. I'm really pleased with how this turned out, but I'd knit an extra set and a half or so of the lace pattern at the beginning to make it longer, if I made it again.

The pattern is here.

The ABC Murders

The 13th Hercule Poirot book, I quite enjoy this one. It really is quite ingenious in many ways. I like the idea of the murders - A name A surname in A town, followed by B name B surname in B town and so on. It would be quite interesting to have a serial killer working in that way (though X and Z may prove difficult, it'll have to be an international killer). Despite all appearances, however, this is not your ordinary serial killer. This is someone smart enough to hide a very personal, ordinary murder under the guise of a serial killer. I quite enjoyed the psychological assessment - exactly what one would expect from the time, and yet so amusing and quaint from a contemporary perspective. It does make one wonder what our 'cutting-edge' theories will appear to be in fifty or seventy-five years time. I particularly liked the murderer's attempt to frame an appropriately initialed man, though I found the characterisation of that man unbelievable.

Definitely an enjoyable holiday read.

The Body in the Library

Miss Marple number three. Miss Marple's dear friends, Colonel and Mrs Bantry, wake up one morning to find the (dead) body of a young blonde in their library. Naturally the village begins to talk and of course they all think that it must be a woman that Colonel Bantry was carrying on with. Cue Miss Marple, on a quiet crusade to clear his name. Out of a fair number of missing girls, the woman is identified as a young dancer from a nearby hotel/resort by a relative she was staying and working with. A couple of days later a burnt car with the body of another girl is discovered, confusing everything.

Naturally Miss Marple saves the day, explaining all those odd little twists and turns that are really very simple, once you know what happened.

At Bertram's Hotel

This is the 11th Miss Marple, and I have to say that I don't think very highly of it. The story has fantastic potential, with plenty of sub-plots and sub-sub-plots to keep you confused and unsure what's significant and what's not. Like much of Agatha Christie, it relies heavily on a fair amount of coincidence, which tends to annoy me. Unfortunately, this book simply does not live up to what one expects. The execution is poor and the pacing is problematic.

Miss Marple: the Complete Short Stories

I love this collection. I could read it every week! I'm particularly fond of the first set, generally known as the Tuesday Club Murders or Thirteen Problems. These short stories are a great introduction to Miss Marple and the way in which she goes about solving crimes (the well-known village parallel). The writing is particularly evocative and you can clearly picture a white-haired woman carefully counting stitches in the corner, listening to everything being said and quietly solving the mystery without anyone noticing.

They Do It With Mirrors

Due to lack of internet, I am horribly behind in my blogging, so expect a massive spate in the next week or so. Also, we'll be at the cottage this weekend, which will involve piles of reading and knitting and so on, so I'll have even more to catch up on when I get back... Lately I've been rereading a bunch of books, notably Agatha Christie's, because all the books I want to read are waiting in the wings for 2012 and the mass of challenges. You'd think that would give me less to review, but apparently I haven't reviewed most of these.

This is the 6th Miss Marple and one of my favourites. There's a slight hint of what she may have been like as a young girl and we get to see her outside of St Mary Mead, which is always good. She meets up with an old friend, who is worried about her sister, Carrie-Louise. She has been manipulated into inviting Miss Marple to visit her and, unsurprisingly, a murder occurs. This really is one of Christie's more ingenious plots and, knowing what happens, it's really interesting to reread it and see all the little clues and details that point in the right direction.

This is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys that sort of mystery.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Whoops

I tripped, I fell, I signed up for three more challenges. Of course, since I'm endeavouring to spend all those birthday presents I received on books (which I succeeded in today, as far as the Exclusive Books gift vouchers go), I think it's acceptable.

First up is the non-fiction, non-memoir challenge. This requires one to read non-fiction books that are not memoirs or any form of biography, really. I expect this to be easy, because I expect to continue to have access to the UCT Library. And even if I don't, I do really enjoy non-fiction, so that's okay. Of course, I also enjoy memoirs, so I'm going to start off with just ten, and see how far I get.

Next up is the war through the generations challenge, which is focusing on World War I in 2012. I shall start at 1-3 books, and see how interesting I really find it. I know I said I'd like to read more about it after reading about how it (possibly) affected Tolkien, but I'm not sure how I'll feel about it outside of that context.

And finally (I hope), I've signed up for the serial killer challenge. This, like religion, is one of those aspects of human nature that really fascinates me. So I'm looking forward to this. It doesn't seem to have any sort of level system, so I'm just going to read at random and enjoy this one.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Romans

This has been sitting on my shelf for a while, and the only reason that I picked it up to read the other day, is the Reading Round Rome challenge, which I have now started. Six more books to go!

This is an interesting introduction to Ancient Rome. It recognises that it cannot cover everything, but highlights the main points in the development and demise of the civilisation. It certainly whet my appetite for more. Unfortunately, while it admits that there were seamier, repellent aspects to Ancient Rome, it mostly glosses over them. I shall have to discover those somewhere else. This book was rather heavy on Roman law and Stoicism, the military and the Senate, but didn't really tell me very much about what life was like for the average Roman on a day-to-day basis through the years, both in the city itself and in the provinces. How did the Roman Catholic religion come to be seen as a different form of Christianity than that of Byzantium or Africa? There are so many questions that this book raises (intentionally or otherwise) that I'm not sure I'll be able to limit my Roman reading to 7 books...

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time

This is a very interesting read. It's really quite a fascinating look at political matters, the way people live in other, less westernised countries and, most importantly, the lengths that people will go to in order to help themselves. All they need is the resources, which are so very hard to come by. Greg Mortenson, however, makes sure that they get them.

This book is partly about the development and work of the Central Asia Institute (much to my disappointment, this doesn't fit the requirements of my Middle Eastern challenge as a result) and the work they do. It's also partly about Greg Mortenson - who he is, why he is the way he is and so on. It's not really a biography, though it's certainly biographical. It's a weird mix of things. It's definitely worth reading, though it can be heavy-going in places.

The Lighthouse

Another fantastic PD James, in other setting that, sadly, doesn't really exist. I'd really like to go to some of the places in these books, they're so remote and evocative. Of course, that may just be the writing.

I was rather concerned by the cavalier mention of SARS in this book, without much explanation. I know what it is and contemporary readers will have known what it is, but will readers in ten years time know what it is? I was particularly concerned by Emma's premonition that 'something bad' would happen to Dalgliesh. I'm sure things like that really do happen sometimes, but it really doesn't make me think that a particular piece of fiction is realistic. Unsurprisingly, it makes me think just the opposite. And that the author in question isn't very good at foreshadowing, which is not the case with James.

The mystery itself is very good and there are no shortage of suspects, despite the restrictions imposed by the location. The beginning was very good, and though you don't learn who the victim is until the murder happens (unless the back-of-book synopsis is very different on your copy than mine), it was rather obvious who it would be and I was very pleased as the person was shown to be a most unlikable character. The solution is not immediately obvious, though there are hints (and, obviously, clues) to the solution throughout.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Emma

This beautiful item was a birthday gift from a couple of friends of mine. It is absolutely wonderful! SJW had found the first four issues online, but I refused to read it until I could read it in full, which is what is collected in this beautiful volume. It tells the story of Emma without deviating from the novel too obviously. There are a few points that weren't mentioned, that I would have liked to see in, such as the fact that Mrs Bates was the widow of the previous vicar of Highbury. The lack of John Knightley and the children's second visit was a bit annoying, but worked very well. Like most movie adaptations, one has to accept that an adaptation does things differently. Particularly in the way that backstory is dealt with, which I think this did very well. The way they kept referring to Mr Elton as the rector annoyed me, but I suspect it's due to the language differences between the UK and the US. I must admit that the US spelling did not bother me in the slightest.

The art was not brilliant, but managed to capture the style of the characters and the feeling of the book. I would've preferred it to be a little less cartoony and a little more realistic, but that's simply a matter of individual taste. I occasionally had a little difficulty distinguishing the men from each other, particularly in the case of the Knightley brothers, but I imagine they would look quite similar.

If you enjoy Austen and graphic novels, then this is a must! I shall have to locate the others in the series, so far Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

The Clocks

I've read this before, but I was in the mood for something light and entertaining and couldn't remember exactly what happened. I have to say that there are some monumental, and extremely unlikely coincidences in this book. I found the obligatory mention of Cold War spying and defection unnecessary, except in a way to get the protagonist into the story, which could have been managed far more skilfully by someone as capable as Christie. I have to say that I found the solution, which only Poirot managed to figure out, elegant and well thought out. This isn't one of her best, but it's still a quick read that's fun and entertaining, without requiring too much thought.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Devices and Desires

I really enjoy PD James. She writes very well. She recently (at the age of 92) wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice that involves Wickham's murder, which I'd like to read. This, however, is an older book that I found in a used bookshop the other day. It's one of the Adam Dalgliesh series, which is always good.

I have to say, however, I found this book disappointing. Dalgliesh, admittedly never the entire focus of the book, usually has a greater part in it. I didn't feel that that detracted from the book, as it was interesting to see him on the outside of the murder inquiry, looking in - a detached perspective that was able to cut both ways, as police officer and as witness or even suspect. What disappointed me, I think, is that it wasn't as good as I expected it to be. That's the problem with being brilliant -a good book by other standards is only mediocre. I found the aspect of terrorism relating to the nuclear power stations unnecessary and irrelevant, though amusing. Perhaps it was less so when the book was written, around the time that the Cold War ended. I have to say that I found the solution interesting, but I didn't find the motive particularly believable. I certainly didn't find some of the attitudes present particularly believable given the time it was set, but I was only a child at the time. It's perfectly possible that there really were women whose lives were as banal and empty as some of the attitudes and assumptions indicate. I can't imagine any woman in the late 80s or early 90s really being "a dried up spinster" whose life is entirely wrapped up in "keeping house" for her brother. I certainly can't imagine that anyone would actually believe that. But James clearly thought that would be believable, so it must have been at least partially accurate.

All in all, this was a well-written book, well worth reading. It's not quite up to James's usual standard, but given how high that is, this still manages to be a good read.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Towards Zero

I really enjoyed this. Sometimes Agatha Christie's can get a bit repetitive and are less enjoyable, but this was one of her best - right up there with The murder of Roger Ackroyd. I enjoy the character of Superintendent Battle, and the rest of the characterisation in this was just as good. I particularly liked the fact that any of the characters could have been the murderer. It makes it that much more satisfying a mystery. There were also a fair number of unrelated matters, snippets out of the characters' ordinary lives that helped make the story believable and more satisfying. Particularly as they were given without comment or anything relating them to the later bit they were to do with. At the same time, it still managed to be a quick, light read.

All in all, I'd certainly recommend this to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Mushroom Pasta

I like mushrooms and I like pasta. I particularly like them together. I didn't always, but I think mushrooms are one of those acquired tastes. And I suspect I would've liked pasta a lot sooner if it hadn't always involved a tomato-based sauce, which I don't particularly like.

This recipe is actually to create an asparagus sauce, but I use it for mushrooms, or whatever else I feel like making. Even better, this is one of those sauces that is quick, so you can make it while your pasta is boiling.

First, chop up your vegetables. I always make my mushroom pieces nice and big because they shrink once they've cooked a bit. Then, boil a cup of milk. Keep an eye on it, because it's really annoying when it boils over. Once the milk is boiling, add in your vegetables and some stock powder or a crumbled up stock cube. Simmer that for a while, around ten minutes or so, stirring now and then. While that's busy, mix together 1T oil and 2t flour into a paste. Once you've finished simmering the sauce, add the paste, bring to the boil (again) and allow it to thicken, while stirring. Once it's at a consistency you like, serve with pasta.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Fibonacci Meret

A meret is a 'mystery beret'. I don't know why it's a mystery, that's something you should ask the woman who created the pattern, which is over here. It's not truly Fibonacci, though, as I ran out of the pale blue yarn and so finished the thing in purple. You probably can't see the different colours in the pictures, as it's hard enough to see them in real life and with the sun on the balcony, I'll be surprised if you can even tell that the hat isn't white!

This is ridiculously easy to make! I knit most of the thing on my circular US8s, because they're my shortest and I hate knitting across double pointed needles. I did eventually need to switch over to my US7 dpns, after I started decreasing to the crown. I should've done the ribbing on smaller needles as it's a little loose, but I really didn't want to ... mostly because I started off that way and had to restart about five times because I kept messing up the ribbing across the needles. I may make some more of these as gifts.

Geographical Challenges

This looks like being a particularly interesting challenge. There are no levels or targets set, the intention is simply to read about the Middle East. If you're wondering what is meant by "Middle East", have a look at the info post over here, which includes a bunch of books as well.

The Middle East is a particularly interesting area archaeologically, as well as historically, so I really do like the idea of reading up about it. I'm fairly sure that my knowledge of the area is shocking, so I'm really looking forward to this. While I'm tempted to set myself an amount to read, I'm going to resist the temptation.

Another geographic challenge I'm going to do is Reading Round Rome. One of the best things about this challenge is that I can start it now! I will just have to read seven books, instead of six. How simple is that?

Something that attracts me to both of these challenges is that they include non-fiction as well as fiction, which thrills me as I love non-fiction. I'm also terribly interested in history and religion and all that, both of which these challenges will have in abundance!

What's in a Name?

This is another challenge. It looks like an awful lot of fun and I cannot wait for 2012 so that I can start reading my challenge books! There's no indication that novels are preferred for this challenge, which makes me glad that I didn't start one of my new books yesterday, for it will be perfect for this!

  1. A book that contains a topographical feature in the title. For this, I plan to read Island Magic by Elizabeth Goudge. Island, being the land-form in question, of course. I've read a fair amount of Goudge and enjoy her, but this has been sitting on my shelf a while. Now I'll have a particular reason to bring it down.
  2. A book that contains something you'd see in the sky in the title. For this category I will be reading Human Smoke: the Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilisation by Nicholson Baker. Smoke is a thing you would see in the sky, and I was planning to read this a little sooner than January (it's the book I bought yesterday), but I shall have to wait. If I can't wait, there's always DH Lawrence's The Rainbow.
  3. A book with a creepy crawly in the title. For this, I will read Gogga Brown: South Africa's Hermit Naturalist by MR Drennan. For those non-South African's among you, a gogga, is an insect of an indeterminate nature. So, really, perfect for this item on the challenge!
  4. A book with a type of house in the title. For this I will read Dickens' Bleak House. This is a multi-challenge book, as it features in one of the classics challenges. I do however have quite a few other books in other challenges that would fit this (The Story of an African Farm, The House of Mirth, Great House, etc), so I might change my mind.
  5. A book with something you'd find in your bag in the title. I may go for Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for this one, as it is a multi-challenge book, being featured in my new author challenge. Or, perhaps, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, also part of the new author challenge. There are many options, but I have not decided.
  6. A book with something you'd find on the calendar in the title. Perhaps Eliot's Middlemarch, as one would find March on the calendar. Perhaps I will even read it in March, for greater amusement. That's also part of the classics challenge, so that's a good choice. Other options are rather thin on the ground at the moment, excluding rereads, so we shall have to wait and see if something more appropriate (or amusing) presents itself.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Call After Midnight

This is not part of the Rizzoli and Isles series, but is one of Gerritsen's stand-alone books. I have to say I was not particularly impressed. This is a fairly standard spy thriller with obligatory romantic sub-plot and, really, not up to Gerritsen's usual standard. It's a fun, quick read that is fairly well written and doesn't require much brain power and that's about the best that can be said about it.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Booties

I like to knit. It's fairly mindless and keeps my hands busy while I'm watching tv or reading (or studying, which, for the record, is not the time to teach yourself lace). I like to knit baby things because they're easy, quick and absolutely adorable. I recently joined Ravelry, because it's got piles of patterns in one place and I can track what I'm making and so on (next on my list is a bag for all my knitting stuff).

I'm really good at the knitting part, I'm not so good at the finishing off part. This is just about the first thing I've finished properly, seamed and ends woven in and all. I'm very proud of these little booties! You can find the pattern here, if you're inclined towards them yourself. I haven't decided who these are for yet, but that doesn't matter. I can see piles of them in my future because they're so quick and easy!

Wednesday, 09 November 2011

The Heretic's Apprentice

This is the only Cadfael mystery I've ever had to restart because I just couldn't get into it the first time. I suspect the reasoning for that was that it was around the time I was reading about the Inquisition and there's really only so much religious intolerance I can handle. I didn't even make it to the murder the first time!

This time, I finished it and enjoyed every moment of it. Given the amount of so-called heresies abounding at the time (and, really, ever since such a thing was invented), I really don't think there was any way to avoid covering the topic in at least one of the Cadfael novels. I think she did it very well, personally.

On top of that, there's a murder, which may or may not be related. There's a love story, which is not uncommon, Cadfael has a weak spot for young love. There's also dissension amongst both monks and lay folk regarding what constitutes heresy as well as what constitutes an acceptable use of one's own wit, which may or may not be dependent on one's sex and station in life. And, there's plenty of information about the crafts of the time, in this case the creation of vellum, which was skin that was used as paper (for lack of a simpler way of explaining it). I'm really glad I went back and finished this one, it was definitely worth it!

The Hermit of Eyton Forest

A Brother Cadfael mystery. I had planned to keep this for my Lethal Location challenge next year, but it turns out this was published in 1988.

This really is a very good example of what I enjoy about the series. There's plenty of real life history in the background, with King Stephen and the Empress Maud battling, in this particular novel they're currently fighting over Oxford. (On a side note, we had a lovely LARP set in this period of time, based on the fight between the King and the Empress, which was inspired by this series.) Plenty of good detecting with a healthy sprinkling of clues that let the reader work it out for themselves, if they're so inclined.

This particular novel is loosely centred on Richard, who's father is now dead. He's the 10-year-old heir to a large chunk of land and his only living relative is his domineering grandmother, who wants to marry him off to more land. Luckily for him he's safe in the keeping of the abbot. And then, a hermit arrives, Richard makes friends with the hermit's errand boy and an abbey guest is murdered. Chaos ensues. Luckily Brother Cadfael is there to solve the mystery, with the help of the sherriff, Hugh Beringar, and thankfully unencumbered by any notion of duty to the law. He can act in whatever way he sees as right. And given this is the 12th century, legal and right aren't always the same thing.

As always, the supporting characters are well-drawn and engaging, as is the mystery. Most importantly, Cadfael isn't annoyingly right all the time and none of the Holy Brethren are without fault (though some are more faulty than others, of course). In short, this is a quick, fun read that's still good despite being fluffy.

Tuesday, 08 November 2011

The Will and the Deed

This was published as Where There's a Will in the US, for reasons that escape me, given how many other works there are with that title. And, really, what is wrong with the original title that it needs to be translated into another English? Unfortunately this was first published in 1960, or I'd have kept it back for next year's Vintage Mystery challenge. I know you're wondering how this fits with either of my VM challenges, so I will tell you. This would have been a Lethal Location book. It starts off with the poor dying diva in Vienna. Once she's dead, the rest of them get into a private plane to fly back to England where they will read the will and so on. But their plane has to make an emergency landing, which strands them in a snowbound valley in a German-speaking country. Given that they were close to Zurich, they're most likely somewhere in Switzerland. They're going to be stuck there for days, possibly longer. They might as well read the will.

And so the fun begins. And by fun I mean the horror of the will not containing the bequests it was expected to and the ensuing murder and speculation. Especially given the fact that the local police force is snowbound out of the village. It's a fairly standard murder mystery, but it's well-written (when is Ellis Peters anything else?), well-timed and manages to keep one guessing. I had my suspicions from the start, but I could never be completely sure until the end. In my books, that makes this a great mystery read.

Monday, 07 November 2011

Tolkien and the Great War: the Threshold of Middle Earth

This is an amazing book. I've never really read much about the First World War. Anyone who's so much as glanced at my non-fiction shelves or GoodReads stats will note a decided preponderance of works relating to the Second World War, but nothing on the First. Everything I know about the First World War is due to Sue Harsant, who taught me history in high school (and I shall never forget her complaining after an exam/test/assignment that we should not simply say Ferdinand, because she might think we were referring to Ferdinand the Bull who went traipsing through the daisies. Her very dry sense of humour delighted myself and Tiina Napoleon at the time).

Anyway, the point of that long aside was that this is the first work I've ever read about the First World War and so was my first glimpse into the horrors of trench warfare. I had an intellectual understanding that it was a horrific thing, but I didn't understand. I still don't, thankfully, but now I have a greater idea of what about it was so horrific. Of what it was like to be there, what happened to people on the ground. On the one hand it makes me glad for the 'advances' of mechanised warfare. At the same time, those same supposed advances terrify me. No longer does individual kill individual, now machine destroys machine and life from afar. I know they had machine guns and bombs and so on, but on the whole they could at least see who they were killing. The horror of war, and the facts of war - the facts being that you are killing individuals that are really no different from yourself - were up close and personal. They no longer are.

At the same time as this works as a general introduction (for me) to the First World War (because you can be sure I'm going to be looking for more on the subject now), it also works really well as a biographical work on Tolkien. Specifically with regard to the effect that his experiences in the war and in the Battle of the Somme particularly must have had on his writing. You cannot go through an experience of that sort without undergoing profound changes. There's a fair amount of speculation on the author's part because Tolkien was extremely reticent regarding those experiences. That speculation is backed up by fairly solid reasoning (in my completely uncritical opinion) and while I'm of the opinion that you can never know exactly how things influenced the creative process, you can work out a fair amount, especially when it's something as significant as this.

If you're interested in either the First World War or Tolkien, I'd recommend this.

Sunday, 06 November 2011

Yet more challenges!

The hard part about this challenge, was choosing my theme. Books written before 1960, not a problem. At least two authors, not a problem. Mystery books, not a problem. Picking a theme, a problem! So, because I can't decide, I have decided to do two of the themes!

The first theme I picked was Colourful Crime - 8 books that have a colour in the title. The second theme was Lethal Locations - 8 books about places. I think this'll be fun and I find myself wondering if I have any books I haven't read yet that fit the descriptions.

Lethal Locations:
  1. The Secret of Spiggy Holes by Enid Blyton (1940). As the title suggests, this book is all about Spiggy Holes and what happens there. And children's mystery stories are still mystery stories.
  2. The Secret Mountain by Enid Blyton (1941). This one is about a mountain.
I have plenty of others if you include books I've already read, but I don't really want to do that, so I'll have to be on the look out for these.

Next up is the Medieval Challenge. Twelve books across four categories. I have chosen a provisional list of:
  1. Beowulf (literature).
  2. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (literature).
  3. The Confessions by St Augustine of Hippo (biography).
  4. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (allegory).
  5. The Mabinogion (literature).
  6. Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Mallory (romance).
  7. The Nibelungenlied (literature).
  8. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (philosophy). This is a multi-challenge book and is featured on the classics challenge and the new author challenge as well.
  9. The Poetic Edda (literature).
  10. The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson (literature).
  11. The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris (allegory).
  12. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (romance).
Of course, my ability to do this hinges on my ability to find English translations of the works. Now I just need to remember to sign up on December 30th.

Next up is the Library challenge. I have three local libraries at the moment, though that might change next year. At the moment my libraries are the UCT Library, the Vredehoek library and the Central Cape Town Library.

Either way, I'm aiming for Level 4, 37+ library books, none of which are rereads.

Closely associated (it uses the same picture so I haven't included a separate one for it), is the Banned/Challenged challenge. Looking at the lists of books, I'm going to read:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is a reread, but again a book I haven't read since high school.
  2. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. This is a multi-challenge book also featured on the new author challenge.
  3. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald. Another book I read in high school and haven't read since then.
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell. It's ridiculous that I haven't read this yet. This is a multi-challenge book as Orwell is part of my new author challenge.
  5. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Another book I read in school. Apparently I went to an awesome school that made us read lots of apparently controversial works. Who knew?
  6. 1984 by George Orwell. This is a multi-challenge book. In addition to Orwell being a new author, this is part of my classics challenge.
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.
  8. Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
  9. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.
  10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
  11. The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
  12. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
  13. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
  14. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.
  15. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Seriously? This is a challenged book? It's a multi-challenge book, at any rate, being part of my classics challenge.
  16. A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
  17. The Colour Purple by Alice Walker.
  18. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. This is a multi-challenge work, being featured in the medieval challenge above.
  19. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. This is a multi-challenge item, because Edith Wharton is one of my new authors.
  20. A Room with a View by EM Forster.
  21. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Another multi-challenge work, this is part of the classics challenge.
  22. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally. Another from the new author challenge.
  23. The Portrait of a Lady by Thomas Hardy. Also from the new author challenge. I think I'm only going to post more titles now if they're already part of another challenge or I already own them, or I'll be here all day.
  24. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence.
I guess I'm going to sign up for 37+ and I'll just have to remember to check if the book I'm reading counts as one of them.

Lastly (for today anyway), is this library challenge, which will have main monthly challenges and mini-challenges. And you have to read 12 library books (at least), so just one a month. Seems easy enough.

2012 New Author Challenge

Hey look, another challenge! I'm planning to read 15 new-to-me authors in 2012. Given that the challenge mentions novels, I'm going to aim for 15 new-to-me fiction authors, since I'll probably have three times that many in non-fiction. I expect I'll probably read more, but I want to keep all my challenges fairly small (except for the GoodReads total number of books one). So let's see if there are any on my shelves that are new-to-me authors that I can prepare for.

  1. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. This is part of one of my classics challenges. It still counts though, as I've never read Hardy.
  2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I didn't manage to work this into the aforementioned classics challenges, so I shall read it here.
  3. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. That's 2 multi-challenge books so far.
  4. 1984 by George Orwell. Like I said, it's shocking that I haven't read it (or any other Orwell, for that matter), so that's 3 multi-challenge books.
  5. The Prince by Machiavelli. 4 multi-challenge books.
  6. Utopia by Thomas More. That's 5 multi-challenge books in total. I think that's okay.
  7. Procession of the Dead by DB Shan. I don't know what this is about, but I vaguely remember buying it at an Exclusive Books sale sometime in the last year.
  8. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.
  9. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally.
  10. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
  11. The Portrait of a Lady and/or The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
  12. The Shell House by Linda Newberry.
  13. Kine by AR Lloyd
  14. Hood by Stephen R Lawhead.
  15. England, their England by AG Macdonnell.
  16. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
  17. The Constant Gardener by John le Carre.
  18. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.
  19. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I tried to fit this into the classics challenges, but it didn't happen.
  20. The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty.
  21. 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. I can't believe I haven't read this yet either. I couldn't find a way to fit it into the classics challenges, so it goes here.
  22. Great House by Kate Thompson.
  23. The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Another one that I couldn't get into the classics challenges.
  24. The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone by Tennessee Williams.
  25. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner.
  26. A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin.
  27. Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell.
  28. The Invisible Man by HG Wells.
  29. The Totem by David Morrell.
  30. Winifred Foley. I have Back to the Forest, but I want the first book in the series before I read it.
  31. Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte.
Right. Well. Given I have 31 new-to-me authors, whose books are currently sitting on my shelves, I guess I'm going to up that challenge to 50 new-to-me fiction authors in 2012.

2012 Classics Challenges

I do like my reading challenges, and I like reading classics. So these seem like a perfect choice for me.

For the first challenge, I need to read seven classics in 2012, of which only 3 may be rereads.

Herewith, my list of classics and why I'm choosing to read them.

1. Villette by Charlotte Bronte.
I recently 'inherited' my grandmother's Bronte collection, which belonged to her father. Inherit is a funny word though, because she's still very much alive, but I don't know what else to call it. Anyway, the only Bronte I've ever finished was Jane Eyre, and the only other one I've tried to read is Wuthering Heights. I hear this is a good one and that it was Charlotte Bronte's last, so hopefully it'll be a good read.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
The only Dickens I've ever finished was Great Expectations (unless you count the radio play of A Christmas Carol) and I wasn't terribly impressed. I've heard good things about Bleak House though, and I plan to one day watch the movie, so hopefully it'll be a good read.

3. Middlemarch by George Eliot
I started this, but didn't finish it because I lost interest. Sometimes I find that if I go back to a book a year or two later, it's far more interesting. Eliot writes very well, and this is the favourite book of some friends of mine, so hopefully I'll finish it this time.

4. The Rainbow by DH Lawrence
I've only read Lady Chatterley's Lover, which was good, but rather too full of philosophical exposition that was no doubt interesting at the time but boring a hundred or so years later. But a friend of mine loves Lawrence, and this is sitting on my shelf, so I will read it in 2012.

5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Once again, a book I've started but not finished. Everyone raves about this book, so there must be something more to it. So I'll try again and perhaps this time I'll fall in love.

6. The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas
The sequel to The Three Musketeers, which I enjoyed greatly (even if it's not as good as the first movie version I saw and never will be, sadly) it's been sitting on my shelf for ages and I'm yet to read it. So 2012 is the year!

7. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
We got this free with a bunch of other books we bought. I picked it because I hadn't read it yet and I've heard good things about it (it's a classic for a reason, after all). I haven't shown any inclination to actually read it yet and don't know anything about it except that it's set in the US and has something to do with black people (though I might be confusing it with something else), which indicates a shocking lack of knowledge on my part.

The second challenge has slightly more stringent rules regarding what you read.
1. A 19th Century classic. I have chosen The Talisman by Walter Scott. I've only read a couple of Scott's novels and I enjoyed them both, so it seems like a good idea to knock another one off my enormous to-read pile.

2. A 20th Century classic. I have chosen 1984 by George Orwell, because I haven't read it yet and that's just shocking.

3. A classic to reread. I have chosen not to choose something specific for this item. Whichever one I reread first will be it. I predict that it will be something by Austen simply because I'm currently in the middle of Lord of the Rings (again) and books started before 1 January 2012 don't count towards this challenge.

4. A classic play. Oh dear. I hate plays. That's not true. I hate reading plays. It's a requirement for the challenge, however, so I will have to choose one. I have picked The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. I'm not sure where I'll find it, since I don't buy plays because I don't like to read them, but I'm sure that would be in any halfway decent library (except my own). The reason for my choice is that I was recently in a LARP based on this and it was lots of fun. So now I shall read it and have a greater understanding of the events of the LARP.

5. A classic mystery/horror/crime. This is a tough one. Finding something that could pass for this that I haven't read that is already on my shelves (a challenge I've set for myself, except for the play) is difficult. I have settled on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Another book I started but didn't finish. I don't know exactly what happens but (possible spoilers) I gather there's something about the spirit and a connection to the portrait and it affects his ageing, so he stays perpetually young, which sounds like a mystery to me.

6. A classic romance. Is this a romance in the Austen-style or the Tolkien-style? Either way I have picked Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy because I've been trying to find a way to work it into this list since I discovered it's 19th century, not 20th, and the first line on the back of the book says it 'concerns the love affairs'. So it must be a romance, right?

7. A classic that has been translated into English. Not wanting to pick another Dumas (variety is another challenge I've set for myself) I finally found The Prince by Machiavelli. So I will read that, since I seem to be biased towards authors from the UK and the US.

8. A classic award winner. After much rooting around on wikipedia, I've discovered that most literary awards are fairly recent things. So this one will be a reread, but since I haven't read it since high school, I think that's acceptable. The winner is Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, which one the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.

9. A classic set in a country that I will likely never visit. This looked to be rather difficult, given that my collection tends very heavily to the UK and US, both of which I've been to. However, countries that never existed count, so it was a simple decision to pick Thomas More's Utopia. I did consider Tolkien, but I am trying to choose things I haven't read before and this is something I've been meaning to read for a while now.

Well, that's 16 books to read next year... I suspect I'll be signing up for more challenges as I find them though.

Saturday, 05 November 2011

Courgette Cookies


This is a recipe from the Riverford Farm Cook Book, one of my favourites. It's kind of like a carrot cake, only with courgettes. If you're from the States or otherwise weird, you would call these zucchini. We also call them baby marrows - being an archaeologist and having excavated cemeteries, baby marrow means something else entirely, so I'm going to stick with courgettes. And when I say cookies, I mean cupcakes, not biscuits (again, clarification for the Americans).

Ingredients:
  • 120g softened butter (they recommend unsalted, I don't bother)
  • 1/2c oil (they recommend sunflower, I use whatever I have)
  • 1/2c sugar (they recommend castor sugar, which I use if I have, otherwise I just use ordinary white/golden brown sugar)
  • 1c soft brown sugar (also called treacle sugar)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 3/4c cake flour
  • 2t baking powder
  • 4T cocoa
  • 450g courgettes
  • 1t vanilla extract (I usually just pour in some vanilla essence, today I'm actually using extract because I bought some for something else entirely)
First, peel and grate the courgettes. Or find someone to do that for you - there are few things I hate more than grating, so that's what I do. Then put those aside. Next, sift your dry ingredients into a bowl and put that aside as well. Cream together your butter, oil and sugar. Gradually add in the eggs and milk. Fold in the dry ingredients, then the courgettes and vanilla. Don't forget, food always tastes better if it's been tasted along the way, so taste, taste, taste!

Once you're satisfied, spoon the mixture into cookie cups and cook at about 190C for about 15 minutes, until the skewer comes out clean.

Once they've cooled down, it's time for icing (or frosting, in the States). I like vanilla icing with courgette cookies. Take some butter, some milk, some vanilla essence and some icing sugar. Mix them together until you have the right consistency and ice away.

Quiche

I like quiche. Not only is it a great word (the online OED tells me it originated from a French word in the 1920s), it tastes really good. There is a problem with quiche, however. It's expensive. The solution, therefore, is to make my own. It turns out that making quiche is really easy. For some reason none of my cookbooks have quiche recipes in them, which I feel is a failing on their part, and I had to wait for Fresh Living magazine to come along and tell me how to do it.

So, you cook your filling - today I'm roasting butternut and mushrooms. If you wouldn't eat something raw, cook it first. Next up, you take some puff pastry and line a tart tin. You put baking beans in on top and bake that for 10 minutes.
Once that's done, you remove the beans and let them cool off somewhere (some of them will stick to the pastry, it's annoying but not life-threatening), stick your cooked filling in, add anything else you want, today that's spinach and leeks. Then you scramble a couple of eggs with some milk and salt and pepper and pour that over, so that it fills the tart up. That, you bake a bit longer, probably around half an hour, until it's firm and then you eat it.

Simple, quick and oh so yummy!