And late even for January! Work has been very busy recently - that's my excuse.
Well, now, what have I been reading? Only about half will be visible here, as I've been lucky enough to have a stack of books to work through for a competition I've been asked to adjudicate. Some of those might appear later, once the results are safely out! Here's the non-competition stuff.
Sydney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: A graphic novel, starting with a witty historical synopsis of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then, clearly feeling that Lovelace’s short life doesn’t give enough scope for fun, postulating that their lives continued in an alternative and, inevitably, steampunk, existence. Hooray! There are loads of explanatory footnotes and references (in fact, even the endnotes have footnotes, and at one point the footnotes start arguing back), many of them very funny, even if some details have gone through an American mill and come out a bit mangled. If you don’t learn something about mathematics and computing from this then … well, you probably knew more than I did to start with. But I was impressed!
Deryn Lake, Death at the Beggar’s Opera: We continue with the extraordinarily long sentences and copious period detail here, as well as the irritating habit of calling the main character the Apothecary. There’s some good stuff about the theatre and some interesting descriptions of bits of what are now London, but I do feel as if I’m wading a bit. It took me a while to finish it as I kept going off to other things. This is one of those occasions where I've bought a box set and feel I need to work my way through it - on other occasions I've grown to enjoy the series very much through a box set, so we'll see where this one goes.
Angus MacDonald, Ardnish Was Home: A lovely bit of writing, moving between memories of Highland life (the good version, with intelligent, involved landlords) and an account of Gallipoli, from the view of a wounded soldier and the woman nursing him. The ending, though ... hm. Not so sure.
OthrAlison Joseph, The Darkening Sky: This is No.4 (according to Amazon - No.7 according to GoodReads - should check FantasticFiction) in the Sister Agnes series – hadn’t realised when I picked it up – but it’s smoothly written and I didn’t even think as I read it that I’d missed anything. An alcoholic ex-squaddy dies in a street fight after leaving a homeless shelter, but the mourners who turn up for his funeral bring more questions than answers. As Sister Agnes is also wrestling with the commitment of taking her vows, and bad news about a friend’s health. she begins to look into the matter of the man’s death. I enjoyed this from the start: Agnes is an interesting and sympathetic character and her friends, Athena and Julius, are striking, and some characters really surprise as the book goes on.
Peter May, The Firemaker: This is the first in his China series, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as the French series (or even the Hebrides series) – while one main character grew on me, the other did not at all, which was a shame. Nevertheless it was extremely well written, of course, well plotted and with intense atmosphere and feel for place.
Pete Brassett: Rancour. I think I’ve read one of these before. They’re entertaining but a bit chaotic, and if police interviews are really as they’re depicted it’s a wonder any crime is solved. The sentences are nearly as long as Cicero’s – one goes on for half a page – and the style is idiosyncratic and occasionally hard to follow, with amazing similes. Sometimes I find the characters confusing – must be getting old. But as I say, entertaining.
Joy Ellis, Killer on the Fens: I loved the two constables being spooked on the marsh. This one felt a bit as if everything had been thrown at it but it was as enjoyable as the others.
Joy Ellis, Stalker on the Fens: a dramatic opening with a massive road traffic accident minutes from where our two main characters are. It’s just a background bit of information, though, for the rest of the plot, which is an intriguing tale of the death of an alternative therapist. I didn’t think when I picked up the first book that I would have enjoyed reading to the end of the fifth, but I have – these books have a definite charm and the characters grow well.
Myra Duffy, The House at Ettrick Bay: I loathed Simon on sight but the situation was fairly interesting – a friend unexpectedly inheriting a large and delapidated house on Bute with an archaeological (the word always pulls me in) dig about to start just outside. The plot is linked with the history of the place though not, perhaps, the way one might at first think. The descriptions of the island were very enticing!
T.G. Campbell, The Case of the Curious Client: The historical detail is absolutely comprehensive and persuasive here but we’re straight into the action with a strange set of people, an artist, an incompetent and clumsy journalist and a laid-back Canadian doctor in Victorian London. It’s not quite clear why they volunteer together to investigate crimes and their leader, Miss Trent, is a very odd character for the time. I wasn’t sure about the Americanisms and the accents – they seemed a bit muddled to my cloth ears – but I was prepared to push through by that time and enjoy the ride, and the charm of the book increases as it goes along.
Barbara Stevenson, Where the Ocean meets the Sky: This collection of short stories (one of them pushing novella-length) is completely mad in a wonderful way. There are operatic owls, sailor cats, creepy churchyards, imaginary islands and an enchanted library book … each story is unexpected and spins with its own warped logic – a really entertaining read.
Shamini Flint, Inspector Singhy Investigates: A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree: This looks like a cosy but it certainly doesn’t start that way, with a youngster watching a father’s death under the Khmer Rouge. The setting, a war crimes tribunal, was familiar and well set up, though the one I’ve visited in Africa was less complicated and aggrandised. The Singaporean police detective, Singh, was intriguing and entertaining to spend time with, and I liked his temporary Cambodian sidekick with her own sad history. The plot flips and flops back and forth and comes to a surprising conclusion. If you want a similar setting and a quirky crime series, I’d recommend Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paboun series set in Laos.
Nicola Clifford, No Refuge: This looks like a dark book but starts more like a cosy crime, though watch out. The author has disregarded the golden rule – don’t kill the dog/cat! In the first few pages we have a dead dog, and incidentally a murder, in a Welsh village. The heroine, with a police boyfriend, is journalist Stacey, always trying to make a joke of things and often getting it wrong. She’s one of those local reporters who uses her friends to get information and sticks her nose in everywhere, so it took me a while to warm to her though I did like the setting in rural Wales. To the heroine’s credit, she’s good at the outdoors – knows what to wear and how the wildlife behave, and it was that that began to win me over. I also liked the fact that we get to see what the police are doing, too – it’s not just the view from a reporter. In the end this was an exciting read and I’d go back for more.
Ian Simpson, Murder in Court Three: This is not the first in this series but I didn’t feel that mattered too much – the story stands well on its own. Set amongst the noblesse de la robe of Edinburgh, the author’s own experience of the legal profession shines through and the cast of characters is broad and interesting. It’s another traditional murder mystery, and the plot is satisfying.
Not a bad couple of months' reading, all in all! I'm pacing myself on one or two series, James Oswald's and J.D. Kirk's, so as not to rush through them.
And what am I doing? Very, very little, if I'm honest. I'm supposed to be plotting (should really have started writing) a kind of follow-up to The Slaughter of Leith Hall, a follow-up in the sense that Charlie Robb is probably going to be the main character, but it's set twenty-one years later. I've had a lot to deal with recently, and I hope that's the only reason I haven't really got going with it, and not that it's just a dud!