Fiendish fiction read on holiday

As readers will remember, I give up reading fiction in Lent and read lots of theology instead. And jolly good it was too. The theology, that is. But I don’t half look forward to Easter Day in the afternoon when I can sit and doze with a good bloodthirsty whodunnit. Unfortunately I woke up this Easter Monday with a horrible virus and have been ill all week which has seriously curtailed my reading ability. Every time I opened the book or the Kindle I seemed to fall asleep! However, I did manage to finish a couple:

Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death by James Runcie.  You may know that James Runcie is the son of Robert Runcie, once ABofC and good egg. At least he seemed like a good egg when I met him at our Provincial Conference many, many years ago and he turned out to be really quite amusing. James Runcie has written a few books but this is his first in the clerical detective genre. Sidney Chambers is a 32 year old bachelor and vicar of Grantchester and friend of the local police Inspector. He likes jazz, cricket, cycling and people. Somehow he seems to get involved in many police cases via his Inspector friend. This book was set in the 1950s although somehow it seemed so much older than that! I’m told it is the first in a series involving Sidney Chambers which will end in 1981.

And it was lovely. Quite lovely. Just not terribly exciting or bloodthirsty. It was very much in the genre of Father Brown and was made up of six little individual stories. As always in these kind of books, real clergy are left wondering when the sermons got written and the admin done. It was probably as much as my mushy brain could cope with, mind you. The test will be whether I’d buy the next one and at the moment I’m just not sure. 3 1/2 stars. Och that’s mean. Give it 4 stars.

The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid. Now this is more like it. A really bloodthirsty whodunnit by the Scottish author. I don’t know why I haven’t read any of her books before but I did enjoy the Wire in the Blood which was on TV a few years ago with the clinical psychologist Tony Hill. I think this is the first in the series in which he features and was free with Good Housekeeping a month or so ago. I didn’t realise it was quite old – written in 1995 – and it is amazing how quickly some books can date. For example, the police didn’t seem to have mobile phones in this book and regularly had to go hunting for a phone box.

But the story was really good and really gory. A serial killer is mutilating and murdering men and leaving them in the gay ghetto. Tony has to quickly come up with the profile of the killer, working with Carol, detective inspector, and facing prejudice daily because of her gender. I told you it was dated. So those bits felt a wee bit clichéd but only because we’ve seen it on TV in this and in Jane Tennyson. There is also the added frisson of attraction between Tony and Carol which is not resolved in this book and I can’t remember if it ever does in the series of books. Nice twist at the end and superbly written. 4 stars. I’ll go and read more but the recent ones, I think.

I’m now half way through The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. This has to be one of the most surreal books I’ve read in a long time. The old man in the title climbs out of the window in his twilight home, in his slippers, and keeps walking. Half of the book is then about his adventures as he meets other misfits on the road which involve murder, kidnapping, an elephant etc. The other half of the book looks back at this old man’s life story and the people he met. These include prime ministers, presidents, and all the great and the good. It is quirky, eccentric and one of those books which probably stay with you long after you’ve read them.

Murder, mayhem and macho

I forgot to report on my last two fiction books read before Lent so here we have a wee word about them both.

The first was our Book Group choice: The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Now you might think this a strange choice for a Book Group and indeed you could be right. However one of our group has found herself unable to finish the last few books because they have been… well, a bit boring to be honest. A bit worthy, if you know what I mean. Definitely not enough excitement in them for her. So our oldest member (late 80s) suggested a Lee Child book. It would appear that her granddaughter has recommended them to granny and she has been wolfing them down. So we agreed to start with the first one of many, many in the series. Having read it I can see why the critics were so surprised that Jack Reacher was played by Tom Cruise in the latest film. Tom Cruise being known for his shortness of stature and Jack Reacher being known for his 6foot 5inchesness, or thereabouts. It was okay. It was short sentences and the story kept going at a good pace. I just got a little fed up with the amount of people he killed with no recriminations. I know they were baddies but it did seem just a tad unlikely that a stranger could wander into town, get to potter about the police station undisturbed, and then wipe out the local baddie population with much gouging of eyes and swift neck cracking. 2 stars.

The second book I read was The Priest by Gerard O’Donovan. This was a good old murder mystery set in Dublin, and a debut novel. I think I picked it up in a charity shop and needless to say the title was what grabbed me. Who could resist the strapline: “Light your candles. Say your prayers. Confess your sins. The Priest is coming.” Quite. It was another page-turner with a cop and rookie journalist fighting the establishment to catch the killer who likes to brand his victims with a cross. It was pretty exciting and not a bad plot but there was just one thing which niggled me and that was the whole ‘Priest’ thing. Now it may be that I fell asleep and didn’t take in why this killer was going around branding everyone with crosses but I did feel that this could have been made more of the story. In fact, I can’t even remember now why he was doing it and I only finished it 4 days ago. I mean, he wasn’t actually a priest if memory serves me well. 3 stars.

And now it is Lent and fiction has been set aside for Theology. Watch this space.

Reading on Retreat

As you will have read, in the previous post, I am just back from my annual silent retreat. Readers will know that I struggle with silence but do enjoy getting some time to catch up on reading. However this year our Retreat Leader – Margaret Silf – was so good that I spent much more time on her talks and pondering them after that I didn’t read as much as I’d intended. This is not a bad thing!

Testament of MaryMy first book was recommended by Mother Marion, I think, and was purchased at Christmas with an Amazon voucher courtesy of my Rector’s Warden. It is called The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin. What a strange little book. It is almost a novella, just 104 pages in my version, and ‘tells the story of a cataclysmic event which led to an overpowering grief’ for Mary, mother of our Lord. In her own words (or rather Colm Toibin’s) she tries to piece together the memories of the events that led to her son’s death.  Many of the familiar bible stories are in there but with an incredibly interesting twist. They have left me pondering them still and I know I will read it again, probably in Holy Week. 5 stars.

The second book was on my Kindle and was called The Italian Chapel by Philip Paris. You may remember I visited Orkney for the first time last summer and was greatly moved by the story of this unique chapel built by some Italian prisoners of war. This was, I thought, the story of that event put together by old documents and interviews with some of the prisoners who have since returned to Orkney to do some restoration work on the chapel. And very interesting it was too. It told the story of life on a bleak Scottish island where hundreds of Italian prisoners were sent to do work on what would become the Churchill barriers, keeping Scapa Flow safe from the enemy. And it told the story of a man who had a vision of creating a chapel for the Roman Catholic prisoners in which they could worship, and how it was put together with concrete and scavenged wood and plasterboard and billy cans and poster paint to become a beautiful chapel still used today for worship. What was disappointing was to discover that the story was probably more fiction than fact. Many of the characters were made up and  situations fabricated. I can’t help feeling a bit cheated and that I’d rather read that at the beginning of the book than at the end. And surely he had enough factual information to create a good book? 2 stars. (5 stars for the prisoners) The book could also have done with some photographs.

21 days later, Ruth has a wobble

Montserrat So how is your New Year Resolution going, Ruth, I hear you cry?  (That is, not to buy any new fiction this year.)  Have you teetered yet and given in? Have you 1-clicked by mistake and ordered the latest blockbuster novel? Have you succumbed to the supermarket’s ‘2 for £7’ or the stupidly cheap Kindle surprises that are emailed every day?

Well, thank you for asking, but no I haven’t. I nearly have. Often. 12 days in and I thought I was doing terribly well until it was pointed out that it was ONLY 12 days. Now at 21 days I see that I have added over a dozen books to my Amazon Wish List. I have wobbled a few times, teetered on the brink of purchasing but so far I have resisted womanfully. I can’t believe how hard it has been not to buy a book. Even a wander round the charity shop had to be severely curtailed when I realised I daren’t go near the bookshelves.

Our last Book Group choice was one I had on my bookshelf so that was okay. Our next one, I happened to have ordered months ago on my Kindle when it was cheap. I’ve also read a couple off my shelf since New Year. (And Lord knows I have plenty more from which to choose.)

Then, the most delicious thing of all happened. I had wondered how I was going to read books that I had been eagerly awaiting. Join the library, I was told. Then there is Mothering Sunday and the aforementioned Wish List, and my birthday of course. However, last week I was going to a church meeting when the Vestry Secretary mentioned that she had a wee pressie for me. And she did indeed. She handed over The Chessmen by Peter May, the third in the Lewis trilogy. And not just that – it was hardback! AND it wasn’t on loan. AND it was signed TO ME by the author!!!! How cool is that? What a star my VS is. Love her to bits.

Now if every month is going to be like this, then I don’t think it will be quite so bad after all.

Holiday reading and viewing

Well, it was a funny old holiday really. Not really a holiday at all. First there was the illness… the cough to end all coughs that has lasted longer than a cough ought to last and is so flipping tiring it is almost the cough that carries you off. So we spent day 1 of the holidays in the doctor’s surgery getting antibiotics and steroids (not the first for this cough, but don’t encourage me or we could be here all day).

Day 2 was spend doing the housework that had been severely neglected over the Advent/Christmas period. You know the sort of thing – rubber duck nativities scattered hither and thither, christmas lights to be untangled, cards to be taken down but only if you are willing to dust and I wasn’t quite at that stage, diary to be updated, etc etc.  Oh, and Rita kitten had just been ‘done’ so I had to spoil her ridiculously, although she didn’t seem in the slightest fazed by the whole drama, and carried on leaping about like a gazelle and cleverly removing her own stitches. (We always knew she’d go far, that one.)

And sleeping. Yes there was a lot of sleeping.

So I didn’t really get into reading mode until about Day 3 and I managed to get through Death comes to Pemberley by PD James. Now, I am a big fan of PD James. And I am not averse to a little Jane Austen either. So I thought that when PD James wrote a book in the style of Jane Austen, and cleverly following on from the tale of Pride and Prejudice, I thought: “What’s not to like?” But I really had to force myself to keep reading. It was okay. But I’m afraid I didn’t think it was a great PD James or a great Jane Austen. It was a 2 stars for me.

My next book was a Christmas pressie from Son #1 – The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I’m afraid this was a bit of a struggle too to keep at but the second half did improve things a bit. I just don’t think there were any likeable characters and so I didn’t really care what happened with any of them. Except for Krystal. I ended up caring about Krystal and she was the whore.  2 stars again.

I abandoned Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton which someone had recommended. It is a memoir of depression and perhaps is more interesting to people who have been through that or very close to someone who has. I don’t usually give up on a book although I have begun to come to the conclusion that life is too short to read bad books. But this one just didn’t seem to be good enough for holiday reading. Perhaps I’ll go back to it.

Then yesterday I went to see Les Miserables at the cinema. Now this gets a big 5 stars from me. For some reason, I’ve never seen the stage production although I did share a flat with an ordinand once from Gateshead who had a penchant for the soundtrack, in particular ‘The Sound of Angry Men’. I came to hate those angry men.  Nor did I know that it was an opera and that the whole thing was going to be sung and that took a wee while to get into. Especially as everyone sung so much higher than me – and that’s the men I’m talking about! But once I got past that, and the very obvious white teeth, it was absolutely riveting, moving, and rousing. I just adored it. And I’d go back tomorrow.

Last day of holiday and one has to find a church. Oh what a dilemma. I really must learn how to use a Sat Nav – and indeed buy an up-to-date one. But in the end I had to go and visit Papa and drop Son #1 off in Edinburgh so I ended up going ‘home’. Should have checked the website first! It was a Children’s Service! Woopee. You know, I think I’m just going to leave it there.

So it was a funny old holiday. It doesn’t really feel as if I’ve had a week off. The house is still not completely tidy and the back of my mind is still niggling with Lent courses. (Anyone recommend a good one?) The good thing, I suppose, is that the cough is nearly gone. Not quite but almost. I have caught up with sleep. And today I made my first ever Chicken Liver Pate. It remains to be seen if it tastes any good.

Oh and how is my New Year Resolution, I hear you cry? Well, not very well, thank you for asking. You may remember, dear Reader, that my resolution is to buy no more fiction this year. I have a bookcase and a Kindle full of unread books, not to mention all those books I’d love to read again. Someone asked me yesterday how it was going and I said ‘not too bad’. He then pointed out it was only 12 days. Blimey, it felt like I’d been at it for months. So far my Amazon wish-list has grown by 8 books. That’s not bad, is it?


In which Ruth reveals what books she’s read and what her plans are for 2013

Ok, so sometimes you are feeling really harrassed and busy and feeling sorrow for all womankind and you need to read something really empowering for women and that’s when I go back to good ol’ Fidelma. There’s nothing quite like a powerful woman in Celtic times to put things in perspective and find your inner woman-warrior. Actually good ol’ Fidelma was a bit wimpy in The Leper’s Bell but she got it together and solved the crime and fell in love with the delicious Eadulf all over again so that was nice. Sometimes there is just a wee bit too much history in these books or strange sounding names which my inner voice struggles with, and this was no different. Not much churchy stuff. 3 stars.

Madonna and Child with Angel 1916 by Eric Gill 1882-1940A certain lovely Rector’s Warden gave me the best present of all (Amazon voucher) among other delicious delights, and I got Eric Gill: Lust for Letter & Line by Ruth and Joe Cribb. I’ve been a huge fan of Gill’s religious drawings ever since I came across some clipart ones many years ago. A few months ago I saw a little Gill print in someone’s lounge which made me covet it and want to learn more. Have since found out that he was rather a subversive and a very naughty boy. (The biography is out of print but on my wish list.) This little book has lots of lovely pics, a brief resume of his life story and a desire to know and see more. 4 stars.

Finally, I am almost at the end of The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers which Son #2 got me off my wish list for Christmas. I only have a few pages to go so perhaps it is unfair to talk about when I haven’t finished but I’m giving it 4 stars and don’t think the ending is going to change that. I am a huge fan of Ms Vickers and her way of observing people and writing about them. This one is full of characters we all know well, especially in churchy circles. Loving it.

And now to my plans for 2013… well it is Hogmanay and one’s thoughts do turn to New Year Resolutions. I’m never very good at keeping those. But there is one area of my life which is severely lacking in self-control and that is the purchasing of novels. I have a tall 6 foot bookcase outside my study door which is full of books I’ve not read yet.  Some come from charity shops, some from church sales, many from Amazon one-click either because they were recommended by someone or I just stumbled across them, and some from the supermarket bargain bucket. I also have a Kindle which is chock-a-block with novels waiting to be read, all sorted into different categories, some only costing pennies, but mostly all unread.

Some time ago I read a book by Susan Hill called Howard’s End is on the Landing. While looking for the said book she stumbled across a host of books either unread or waiting for a second reading and decided to take a year out to do just that. Well I am going to try the same. I want to spend this year reading the books I already have and perhaps re-reading some old favourites, although I suspect there are enough new ones to keep me occupied. Catherine Fox managed to do a year without buying new clothes, so surely I can do it without buying fiction. I’m saying ‘fiction’ and that might be a bit of a cheat. What do you think? I just think there might be books to do with work which I will have to get, or is that a cop-out?

I was tempted today to go through my Amazon wish-list and buy all those big books I’m waiting for in paperback because they’re too heavy to read in hardback and too expensive yet in Kindle.  But I reckon that’s a bit of a cheat and there is always Mothering Sunday and my birthday when I can force my offspring into feeding my addiction.  And it might be time to join the library too.

So what do you reckon? Think I can do it? And what is your New Year Resolution?

More books what I have read

Gosh, it has been ages since I have blogged. That will be because of two funerals and a frantic race to get all things organised for being away. Yes, I am on holiday this week and then off to Windsor Castle next week for a course. However, although I’ve been really busy I have managed to read a few books.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick is our next book group choice. I chose it by looking at some American Book Club website and finding their book of the month. Wish I hadn’t now. ‘Full of Gothic twists, it’s an irresistible tale of skewed seduction’ said the Daily Mail. Why would I care what the Daily Mail says anyway but they got the skewed seduction right. The story could have been okay had it not been for the author’s penchant for putting all the main character’s thoughts on sex in every page. Well, not quite every page but it did get a bit tiresome. Set in 1907 Ralph puts an advert in a newspaper for a wife. Catherine arrives, beautiful of course, and then the ‘Gothic twists’ begin. There were some surprises and it wasn’t a bad wee story and page-turner but I could have managed without the endless pondering about sex.
It must be my age. 3 stars

Out of the Deep I cry by Julia Spencer-Fleming is the 3rd in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Can Alstyne mysteries, Clare being an Episcopal priest and Russ being the chief of police. I read the first two some years ago and remembered them as being quite good. I’m not sure this one was quite so good but that might have been because the story goes back and forwards in time which is something I don’t really enjoy in a novel. And how she managed to get all the sleuthing done in the middle of Lent is beyond me, however a bit of poetic license must be allowed I guess. As always, with an ecclesiastical whodunnit, I could have done with a bit more ‘churchy’ stuff. Spencer-Fleming does do ‘small town politics’ well. 4 stars.

Jeanette Winterson’s The Daylight Gate tells the tale of the Trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612. This is a book about women, some powerful and some abused. It is really a novella and just took me a few hours to read. John McLuckie does a much better review than I could. I loved the book. Winterson takes some real history and imbues it with her own fantastical writing. 5 stars.

I’m going to try my iPad for reading while I’m away instead of my Kindle. Will let you know how I get on. The clever thing is that they sync so that when I come home to my Kindle it should remember what page I was on with the iPad. Clever, eh?

The demise of the clerical novel and murder mystery

Readers of this blog will perhaps know that I am a big fan of the ecclesiastical whodunnit. I do like a whodunnit and to have one set in churchy circles is just the icing on the cake. I’ve blogged about this before and I still look out for new authors to thrill and delight, as well as enjoying old familiar writers. However, it would appear that publishers don’t feel the same way about this genre any more.

First it was Catherine Fox who I noticed tweeting about trying to find a publisher. Now Catherine excels at the clerical novel, although she has written other books as well. I’m not sure if her latest is a whodunnit or not but she’s an author that I would keep on my wish list and read anything she wrote, frankly. Another is Kate Charles whose series of Callie Anson books kept me going throughout my ministry. I gather that she has written another but can’t get a publisher either. I’ve even tried writing to the publishers begging for note of their next one, but no reply.

So, why won’t publishers publish in this genre? Is the church so out of favour? I bet PD James doesn’t have this trouble. I reckon you don’t have to know about the church to enjoy an ecclesiastical whodunnit, because it does make a wonderful setting. Ellis Peters got that one right.

So that got me thinking… why is the church such a good setting for a murder? The juxtaposition between good and evil? All those ‘holier than thou’ characters? (They obviously don’t know the church that well!) The physical setting? Dark corridors, gloomy buildings, atmospheric graveyards, spooky organ music? The supernatural element?  (You’ll find all of the above in a good Phil Rickman, by the way.)

If there are any publishers reading this, can I put in a plea please? We want more clerical murder mysteries. Actually, I don’t mind if there isn’t a murder… a good ‘churchy’ read will do me fine.

In which Ruth reveals what else she read on holiday

The Orkney trip (more of that later) meant an outing for the treasured Kindle, perfect as it is for this sort of holiday. Thankfully I am one of those people who does not vomit on the bus while reading so I managed to get four books under my belt throughout the second week of the holiday.

The first one was Relatively Guilty by William H S McIntyre, which I think is available on Kindle only.  I heard about this in the Falkirk Herald, I think, and it is by a local man  and is set in Linlithgow.  (There are 3 books in the Robbie Munro series so far.) It was a kind of murder mystery story told by a criminal lawyer and it was light, amusing and with lots of local bits to delight.  I could see this being televised.

The second book was a Novella by Hilary Mantel called Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary. It is  a strange little essay about a recent time in hospital and the loss of dignity that goes along with that. A must for all hospital staff.

The third book was Before I go to Sleep by SJ Watson and this was one I really couldn’t put down. It tells the story of a woman suffering from a special kind of amnesia which means that every morning she wakes up in bed with a man but does not know who he is. Each day she has to be reminded why she has no memory and starts to keep a journal on the advice of her Psychologist. This is a real psychological thriller which had me convinced the husband was the baddie, then the Pyschologist, then the husband, then… Great pace and although there were one or two annoying bits (like how come that mobile phone remained charged for so long?) they did not deter from a really good story.

The last book was One Day by David Nicholls, which to tell you the truth, I didn’t really fancy when it came out but there has been so much praise for it that I thought I’d give it a go. It was okay. Nice premise of meeting the couple on the same day every year, but I found it difficult to like the character of Dexter. Oh he was real enough, just not very likeable to begin with. Emma was lovely and I did like the way the book worked out but they could have done it a bit quicker for my liking.  Did enjoy the politics and history of the times but could have done with a wee bit more of that.

In which I reveal what I have been reading and watching

My summer holiday has arrived and with it more torrential rain. I have the central heating on and a fleece. 50 shades of grey have been the colour du jour of the sky for many a day now and my holiday alarm has not kicked in yet and I’m still awake at about 7am. But I have been able to make inroads to my whole bookcase of unread books, so that’s a good thing.

I read The Lewis Man, follow up to The Blackhouse which I’ve just read, by Peter May. Set on the isle of Lewis they tell the story of a policeman in Edinburgh sent to his home town in Lewis to solve a crime. Both are excellent books especially if you’re interested in that part of Scotland. The stories are both tied up with the past and the second book reveals more of Fin’s childhood growing up on Lewis. Looking forward to the third one in the Trilogy.

Just finished The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre. Not sure who recommended this one to me or where I read about it, but it is a novel about sexual abuse in Canada in the RC church. It tells the story of Fr Duncan, a priest who works for the bishop flushing out clergy who have misbehaved. Of course Duncan has his own secrets too and they are revealed as the story unfolds. In fact, it seems that everyone in the book has secrets. At times it is not a pleasant book to read, and the Church doesn’t come out of it very well. Nor should it, I guess.

Yesterday I went to see The Angel’s Share at the cinema which was good. Quite harsh in some ways, but that reflects the lives of the young men doing Community Payback, who are the anti-heros of the film. Language is choice but amusing. The film has a bit of  Whisky Galore about it.  There are some very funny bits in it and the ending will warm the cockles of your heart.

In a few days I shall be off to Orkney to explore all sorts of things. My faithful Kindle shall go with me, all bulging with unread material. More later…