Thursday, 29 July 2010

Murder at Graverly Manor by Daniel Edward Craig

Novels set in British Columbia aren’t a frequent occurrence in British libraries, so it was a happy coincidence that in the week when I followed up on a comment and ordered a crime novel by L.R. Wright, I happened across another while browsing the crime section at the library. Daniel Edward Craig sounds a bit like a lesser Hollywood star, but is in fact a hotelier moonlighting as a crime novelist, with three books featuring Trevor Lambert, hotel manager par excellence.

Back in Vancouver after a distressing incident in LA, Trevor is looking for a new job and finding himself overqualified by local standards – his interview with Mr Chagani of the Vancouver Harbourside Hotel, Conference Centre & Spa, “a four-star hotel with five-star aspirations” is reminiscent of some of the more painful moments from The Office. What has really begun to interest Trevor is the thought of running his own B&B, and Graverly Manor looks just the thing from the outside. Inside, however, is a cross between Fawlty Towers and Arsenic and Old Lace, and Trevor is thrown straight in at the deep end with a month’s probationary period before eccentric owner Lady Elinor Graverly will agree to sell the property to him. Homicidal cats, luscious hotel guests and elderly retainers all conspire to throw him off his stride, while a tenuous connection with romantic poet Pauline Johnson and stories of a mysterious double drowning in the Lost Lagoon take his mind off the everyday running of a guest house.

It doesn’t take a great investigative talent to work out what’s going on (through Trevor is agonisingly slow on the uptake – no wonder his sisters are so dismissive of his abilities) but it’s all amiable stuff. The author is fortunately sounder on the hotel trade than he is on the ramifications of aristocratic inheritance, and there’s an unintentional red herring in the tendency of his titled lady to say “thank you ever so much” (for future reference, Mr Craig, very common) but in filled in a couple of hours on a Saturday quite pleasantly and is the first of my frivolous contributions to the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Canadian Book Challenges – round up and what next?

For this year’s Challenge I’ve gone lightweight. Well, my reading has, at any rate. I’m not making a list, I shall see what comes along, and where my whim takes me. The only intention I shall state is that, as long as my Bookmooched copies arrive safely, L.M. Montgomery’s Emily books will be amongst my reading. I shall, however, try to be a bit more systematic about reviewing, so that I don’t have to do a whole batch in June 2011!

The previous three Challenges have been tremendous fun and, although I didn’t finish any of them (9 for the first, 12 each for the second and third), they sent me hunting for books new to me, as well as revisiting a few old friends (I’ll list them all later under a - new- Challenges button). So, thanks to John, I’ve still read 33 Canadian books in 3 years. During that time, too, I’ve read some tremendous reviews by other bloggers in the Challenge, and have a very long list of books I want to read. I try to limit the number of books I order from Canada each year, so I’ll use Bookmooch where I can, add the occasional unexpected title from the library, wade into the TBR pile from time to time, and perhaps allow myself one overseas purchase. This year I’m also using NetGalley, which is a great source of new books – currently I’m reading Marianne Ackermann’s Piers’ Desire; The Find, which I read for the Third Challenge, was also from NetGalley.  It takes me much longer to read books onscreen, though, because at the end of a day in front of the computer both eyes and brain are tired. While my Other Half is stuck on his second cast-off laptop (mine so long ago I can’t remember when, passed on to younger son and finally to OH) I cannot possibly justify asking for an e-reader for Christmas, alas.

Piers’ Desire by Marianne Ackermann

Read, review pending
Murder at Graverly Manor by Daniel Edward Craig
Sleep While I Sing by L.R. Wright

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Accidental Sorceror by K.E. Mills

Funny fantasy can be a risky area – for the millions of us who adore Pratchett and find him to be the most delicious thing imaginable, there are (I guess) equal numbers who utterly fail to smile, let alone chuckle, at the inhabitants of the Discworld. On the other hand, there are a number of authors I am quick to dismiss as Pratchett imitators, and who make me look like Queen Victoria on a bad hair day. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m wary of funny fantasy as a genre, especially as I take a “wasted” (i.e. unfinished) library book personally.

Which makes it all the more pleasant to report that an author new to me, K.E. Mills, has as far as I’m concerned, cracked it. I liked it from the first page. In fact, although I’d meant to just read the first chapter before getting up on Saturday morning, it was a bit of a shock to find that it was 11am and I was on page 80. I was engrossed. It was noon before I did anything useful.

Gerald the Third Grade Wizard is a hapless creature with a job at the Department of Thaumaturgy as a safety inspector. Called to investigate a staff-making factory for non-compliance with safety regulations, he finds himself facing a situation well beyond his capabilities and, shortly afterwards, the sack. His next stop is New Ottosland, a seriously backward but fertile country entirely surrounded by the desert kingdom of Kallarap, where he takes up the post of Court Wizard to an autocratic monarch who apparently has difficulty keeping his employees. With him is his long-time companion, Reg, a bird of doubtful provenance and pithy turn of phrase. Almost at once Reg is at loggerheads with the Princess Melissande, Prime Minister of New Ottosland and anxiously awaiting a Kallarapi delegation. Gerald’s sympathies on the whole lie with the princess, even if she is a bit bossy, but it’s the king he’ll have to please. Unfortunately, Lional doesn’t like the Kallarapis (he was at school with the Sultan) and he’s a believer in the divine right of kings.

Events progress at a happily farcical pace, but the characters are convincing, and Reg is nicely acid and amusing, no respecter of divine rights of anything. Although I could predict the way things were going with a degree of accuracy, not all turned out quite as expected, with a couple of little touches that really pleased. My only complaint was a serious foul-up in the printing which led to a couple of pages being printed out of sequence – very careless and the publisher should be highly embarrassed.

The Accidental Sorceror is the first of a series, I’m delighted to say. I can happily spend more time in Gerald’s company. Readers of Tom Holt’s fantasies will like these, I think, especially if they’re fans of recent works like The Portable Door. On finishing, I immediately ordered book two, Witches Incorporated from the library.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Books in pictures

On Wednesday, Cornflower talked on her blog about associating pictures with books. This is something I've done for a long time, and a number of my books have postcards tucked inside them which are somehow linked to the story. They are not always paintings - sometimes it's a postcard of a place mentioned, or perhaps a photo of a dress I imagine one of the characters might have worn. Occasionally the connection is more tenuous, and I just feel that a particular picture is appropriate to the book. Several books have print-outs of maps popped inside - I suppose all this indicates that I like visual cues to what I'm reading. I love illustrated books, not surprisingly, and can spend hours browsing through pictures.

The book that I immediately thought of, on reading Cornflower's post, was The Herb of Grace, by Elizabeth Goudge (my copy has its American title, Pilgrim's Inn). At the heart of the book is the discovery of a fresco in the ancient house to which the Eliot family have moved from London, the Herb of Grace, at Buckler's Hard on the Solent. The painting, discovered by the charmingly naughty twins Jerry and Josie, tells the story of St Eustace, here called Placidus,
a rich fairy-tale knight, riding out from the pages of an illuminated missal on his great while horse with its gay trappings, his spurs on his heels, his hunting horn slung over his shoulder, his hunting knife in his belt and his spear in his hand, his garments all bright and gay and richly furred, his dogs bounding about him.
Pisanello's famous painting of the scene is mentioned, and this, of course, is the picture I have tucked away in the book's pages - long one of my favourites.

The legend of Placidus is woven into the story of the Eliot family, creating a bond between family and home that will sustain each member. The meticulous tenderness with which the animals are painted becomes part of a greater image of love and protection, nurturing and restoring those who seek sanctuary at the Herb of Grace. Goudge, a devout Christian, has a rare ability to express a very English mysticism, so that her books sustain her readers as well.

Because such pictures have become a feature of my personal library, I thought I might take up this topic as an occasional series - when I pick up a book that has a picture slipped inside, or find a new picture/book link that seems right to me, I shall post about it here. Thank you, Cornflower, for the idea!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Baker Street Phantom by Fabrice Bourland

This is a great idea – a series which hinges on a literary mystery, and introduces a new pair of detectives, James Trelawney (who fancies himself as the new Sherlock Holmes) and his Canadian friend, Andrew Singleton, who’d rather be a writer. Finding Boston offers limited opportunities for any interesting detecting, the two young men take up residence in London in 1932, serendipitously choosing lodgings in the first street to house Sherlock Holmes, Montague Street “just round the corner from the British Museum”, as Holmes says.

For readers seeking conventional cosy crime, though, a warning – Bourland is, he says, “reviving a subgenre of crime fiction that was very popular in the past, that of detectives of ‘the strange’ or ‘the occult’.” Despite initial scepticism on the part of Singleton, himself the son of a famous Canadian spiritualist, ghosts abound.

Very much in the Holmes tradition the story begins with a visitor to the lodgings of the newly arrived detectives. It is Lady Conan Doyle, who tells them that she has a premonition that something dreadful is going to happen, and that she believes reports of hauntings at 221 Baker Street may be connected. Singleton and Trelawney, hoping to prove that the “hauntings” are staged by charlatans, decide to attend a séance, and before long find themselves plunged into the murkier parts of London, and working with some very strange characters.

There are some quibbles – mainly the signs of rushed research, I think. Bourland has obviously gone into the  Sherlock Homes part with enthusiasm, and goes well beyond my superficial knowledge of Conan Doyle’s writing, but he’s shaky in other places. He’s unfortunately muddled up his Montague Streets, so that he thinks that Regent’s Park is also just round the corner from the British Museum (it might at a pinch seem so to two healthy young men with long legs but I hope no elderly readers decide on a walking tour based on this book!)  and I was disconcerted by the description of someone as an “East Indies” officer – East India, surely? I was even more disconcerted to read that Londoners had “long ceased heating their homes with coal” so that fog rarely descended on the city and the myth was only perpetuated by Hollywood directors. I must have been born in a different London, where smogs still happened and the Clean Air Act was only passed in 1956! I’m not entirely convinced by a handwritten telegram, too – but the telex machine was first used in Britain in 1932, so it’s a moot point. These are things that a good copyeditor ought to have picked up on before publication.

I must admit that this feels like a first novel, and both writing and plotting are a little clunky in places, but writers have to start somewhere, and there’s enough here to make it certain that I’d pick up the second in the series. There are books where the author’s enthusiasm for his/her project shines through, and this is one of them.

The Baker Street Phantom came courtesy of Bookdagger’s Real Readers. Bookdagger’s website is well worth a visit. In fact, more on that anon…