Book review · Fiction · Photography

Book review: ‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon

This is a murder mystery novel from the excellent series of British Library Crime Classics, a collection of detective novels that were once very popular but went out of print in the 20th Century. Many of the books, which have been reprinted by the British Library, date back to the years between the two world wars. ‘Mystery in white’ was first published in 1937 and has been updated with a typically attractive Crime Classics cover.

mystery in white
‘Mystery in white’ by J Jefferson Farjeon (1937)

The tale begins on Christmas Eve, in a train compartment where a group of disparate individuals are making their way to various destinations for Christmas. Heavy snowfall causes the train to stop and there’s no sign of it getting going again any time soon. After discussing with each other what to do about the situation, one of the group suddenly decides to jump off the train. The others soon follow, and before long are wishing they’d never left the comfort of the train.

They blunder on through snowy countryside, hoping to find somewhere to shelter, when they come upon a house in the middle of nowhere. Finding nobody at home but the door unlocked, they make their way in and find to their astonishment that, despite the lack of occupancy, there are cheering fires burning in the grates and tea has been laid out in the dining room.

Two of the party are in a bad way, one with a sprained ankle and the other with a raging fever. The others do their best to look after them while trying to discover the mystery behind the deserted house. One of them, elderly Mr Maltby of the Royal Psychical Society, assumes the position of leader and appoints a younger man as his second-in-command. Between them they begin to investigate the house and then the area outside, which isn’t easy due to the weather conditions.

By and by, several other characters appear, and it becomes clear that at least one murder has been committed. A strangely compelling portrait on the wall holds Mr Maltby’s attentions, and slowly but surely he uses his powers of detection to solve the mystery of the house.

According to Dorothy L Sayers: ‘Jefferson Farjeon is quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious adventures’ and I would certainly agree with her that he has an uncanny ability to create atmosphere and draw the reader in. I lost myself in this book at bedtime one night and had a hard time putting it down. Jefferson Farjeon wrote more than 60 novels and was apparently very popular in his lifetime. I’ll be looking out for more of his stories after enjoying this one so much.

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Book review · Gardening · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘How to be a gardener’ by Alan Titchmarsh

I found this book for 99p in a second-hand shop and thought it might make a useful reference volume. When I got it home and looked at it more closely I decided I should read it right through from cover to cover.

How to be a gardener
‘How to be a gardener (book one)’ by Alan Titchmarsh (2002)

The book was brought out to accompany a television series of the same name sixteen years ago. I don’t remember seeing any of the programme, but in those days I wasn’t particularly interested in gardening.

This is the first in what I think is a two volume set, and it deals with the basics of gardening. In the first couple of chapters Alan explains what plants are and how they grow. This bit of the book took me back to school biology lessons and I was pleasantly surprised when things I’d forgotten I knew began coming back to me.

In the following chapters the book describes how to plan borders, design flower beds and deal with weeds. Going through each of the four seasons, it explains what needs to be done in a garden at certain times of year, and suggests ways to keep the garden interesting all year round.

Routine, and more specific, garden maintenance is gone into in some detail, including a whole chapter on how to look after lawns, and there’s quite a bit of information about how to garden organically.

I read this book over a number of days during my breakfast and each morning I learned something new and helpful. I hadn’t expected it to be such an easy and enjoyable read, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for the second book in the series when rummaging through second-hand bookshops.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘The ascent of Everest’ by John Hunt

‘The ascent of Everest’ is a first-hand account of the 1953 expedition to Mount Everest, when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first men to set foot on the highest point on Earth.

Written in engaging style by the expedition’s leader, I found it difficult to put down (despite it being rather a heavy hardback for bedtime reading), and enjoyed it immensely.

the ascent of everest
‘The ascent of Everest’ by John Hunt (1953)

This weighty tome, which explains how the mountaineering project came about and how two remarkable climbers eventually reached the summit on 29 May 1953, was completed in just four months following the successful expedition.

The author, John Hunt, was a Colonel in the British army when he was chosen by the Joint Himalayan Committee to lead and organise the trek, and by all accounts he was an excellent choice. His warmth, humour, and appreciation of his fellow men comes across clearly in his writing, alongside his exceptional mountaineering knowledge and outstanding organisational abilities.

Although there were technical aspects of the story I didn’t fully comprehend, the sense of adventure carried me along from beginning to end. I think I especially appreciated reading it while tucked up and cosy in bed, imagining those brave chaps shivering in wind- and snow-battered tents on a hazardous mountainside. Incidentally, the chapter dealing with the final ascent was written by Edmund Hillary, one of only two men who could have written it from personal experience.

I’ve read a couple of other books about Everest, but this was one I had wanted to read for a long time and I was delighted when I found it in a second-hand bookshop recently. I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in tales of adventure and exploration.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger

Ann Granger has written over 30 detective novels and this is one of her most recent, published in 2017 and featuring the sleuthing duo, Campbell and Carter .

Rooted in evil
‘Rooted in evil’ by Ann Granger (2017)

When Carl Finch is found dead in a forest, it initially looks as if he’s committed suicide. A gun lies over his body, but something about the way he’s lying suggests the body has been moved since he was killed.

Superintendent Ian Carter and Inspector Jess Campbell start investigating the likely suspects, starting with Carl’s sister and brother-in-law, both of whom seem to be holding something back in their interviews with the police.

What I liked best about this book was the setting. Events unfold in the Cotswolds, an attractive rural part of southern England and a popular location for crime novels. There’s a nice feel of old England about it, with a close-knit community, country pubs and pleasant pastoral scenery.

This is the first Campbell and Carter mystery I’ve read and I didn’t get a particularly strong impression of the two main characters.  Perhaps if I read another in the series I’ll get a better idea of their personalities.

I was slightly bemused by the very end of the story, although pleased that Ann Granger didn’t allow herself to be tempted into an obvious ending. On the whole, I enjoyed this book, found it hard to put down, and am looking forward to trying another in the series.

* * * * *

In January I made a resolution to post at least 12 book reviews on this blog, and read 100 books this year. I’m more or less on course with the reviews (I’ve done 6 to date), but I’m a long way off the reading total, which would ideally be over 50 by now, but is in fact only 33. I’m going to have to make a big effort if I’m to reach 100 by the end of December.

Book review · Fiction

Book review: ‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters

Ellis Peters is probably best known for her series of murder mystery novels featuring 12th Century Welsh monk, Brother Cadfael.

‘Rainbow’s end’ isn’t a Cadfael book but the story does involve the solving of a murder in an ecclesiastical setting.

Rainbow's end
‘Rainbow’s end’ by Ellis Peters (1978)

Arthur Rainbow is an antiques dealer and recent incomer to the rural English neighbourhood of Middlehope. Keen to get involved in community life, he joins various clubs and societies and frequently hosts parties for the great and the good at his impressive house. Despite his attempts to mingle and impress, he’s not well liked by the locals, who don’t think much of his apparent desire to become lord of the manor.

When his broken body is found lying in the graveyard, having obviously fallen from the bell tower of the church, Superintendent George Felse quickly comes to the conclusion that this is a case of murder.

Shortly before Rainbow’s death, precocious schoolboy James Boswell Jarvis, known to all as ‘Bossie’, gets hold of a genuinely old piece of parchment and uses it to manufacture a faked ancient manuscript. One evening after choir practise he shows it to Rainbow. The antiques dealer is obviously interested and takes the parchment from Bossie but claims the item is worthless. He asks Bossie where he found it and Bossie tells him it was in a chest in the bell tower.

That night, Bossie hides in the churchyard to see if Rainbow will go looking for more pieces of manuscript. Rainbow is indeed in the bell tower, but someone else comes out of the church, shortly after which there’s the sound of a tremendous crash. Thinking a piece of parapet must have fallen off the building, Bossie goes to investigate. As he’s approaching the scene he stops when he sees a man appear from amongst the tombstones. The man has a torch and switches it on briefly, just long enough to light up Rainbow’s dead body, before hastily disappearing. Bossie can’t make out who the torch-bearer is, but believes the man might have seen him.

Not long after Rainbow’s demise, Bossie gets knocked down in a hit and run incident. The car strikes him while he’s making his way home from choir practice one evening, on a quiet country road leading to his house. Bossie is convinced it was a deliberate attempt to murder him. The piece of parchment he gave to Rainbow has disappeared, and the hunt is on to find both the killer and the valuable old paper Rainbow is presumed to have been killed for.

I particularly liked the setting of this story: a quiet part of rural England containing old churches and a real sense of history.  I also enjoyed the character of Bossie, and the way in which his prodigious intellect and curiosity arouses the respect of both peers and elders. I haven’t reach much Ellis Peters, and none of her Cadfael series, but I think ‘Rainbow’s End’ will encourage me to delve further into her impressive back catalogue. She died in 1995, having published more than 70 books.

 

Book review · Garden · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘Peaceful gardens’ by Stephanie Donaldson

When I finished reading ‘Peaceful gardens’ I felt a sense of disappointment. I turned the page thinking there was more to come, only to find I had reached the end. I got this book out of the library, but have enjoyed it so much I’d like to buy a copy to read again.

‘Peaceful gardens’ is what might be described as a coffee table book, full of lovely photos with detailed captions, interspersed with more general text about gardening. Although the front cover is not terribly appealing, the illustrations inside are quite the reverse.

peaceful gardens
“Peaceful gardens” by Stephanie Donaldson (2003)

The author, Stephanie Donaldson, was Gardens Editor for Country Living magazine for many years, and has written a number of other gardening books. Although clearly a knowledgeable gardener, her writing style is easily accessible to novice gardeners like myself. I’ve often been put off gardening books by too much jargon and technical detail; ‘Peaceful gardens’, by contrast, introduces ideas and tips about gardening almost without the reader noticing they’re being instructed. That’s my sort of gardening lesson.

The book is divided into three main sections: ‘peaceful shapes and spaces’, ‘tranquillity for the senses’ and ‘scent and sound’, all beautifully illustrated with photographs giving clear examples of what’s being described in the text. There are ideas and suggestions for rural and urban gardens, although the book struck me as being more heavily weighted towards rural or semi-rural gardens that might have space for a variety of features in versatile areas. The text is well worth reading, and nicely written, but even if all you did was look at the pictures you could easily find inspiration and joy in its contents.

Each year, at the start of spring, I have an urge to do something in the garden. I want to see things growing after the long winter months, but my enthusiasm often wanes rather quickly when tasks seem too daunting or the weather’s not conducive to pottering around outside. Perhaps this year ‘Peaceful gardens’ will provide the impetus I need to fulfil some of my gardening dreams in the months to come.

Book review · Non-fiction

Book review: ‘Flight MH370: the mystery’ by Nigel Cawthorne

Four years go, on 8 March 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur International Airport bound for Beijing. Fifty minutes into the flight, the aeroplane lost contact with air traffic control. After another 40 minutes, the plane was spotted by Malaysian military radar flying over the island of Penang, a good deal west of its scheduled route. The plane was still out of contact with the ground.

Several hours later, in Beijing, relatives and friends of those onboard were waiting in the airport for the flight to land when an announcement was made that the plane had been delayed. An hour later, a message appeared on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page, stating that the plane was missing. This was the beginning of a long and tortuous wait for the family and friends, as the fate of Flight MH370 became headline news across the world.

This book caught my eye in the library, because I remembered very well watching the news coverage in the days and weeks following the plane’s disappearance. Curious to know how someone could write an entire book about a missing plane, I picked up the book and took it home with me.

flight mh370
‘Flight MH370: the mystery’ by Nigel Cawthorne (2014)

Somewhat to my surprise (I was half expecting a catalogue of detailed and outlandish conspiracy theories) it proved to be a well-researched history of what went on in the days following the plane’s disappearance, interspersed with numerous alarming examples of other flights that have crashed over the years. (I wouldn’t recommend it as reading material for a long-haul flight.)

The Malaysian government was heavily criticised at the time for withholding facts, and for giving out misleading and often contradictory information. They frequently denied this during press conferences, but watching the news it seemed obvious that the investigation was being conducted in a decidedly chaotic manner. As the days ticked by, with relatives waiting desperately for news, several sightings of possible debris were spotted by planes, ships and satellites, only to be discounted when investigated further.

One of the major problems with the investigation was that it seemed nobody knew exactly where to search. Although it was common knowledge that the plane had changed direction during the flight, it wasn’t known how long it may have continued to fly for and where it might have ended up. At one point, the search area extended over land and sea to cover an area one tenth of the Earth’s surface, an area so vast that an effective search seemed an almost impossibly challenging task.

Despite the daunting prospect of trying to find what was often deemed a needle in a haystack, more and more countries gradually joined the search. Towards the end of March 2014, 26 countries were involved in trying to locate signs of the missing plane.

During the weeks following the disappearance new information kept coming to light, but there were so many dead ends and false leads that the relatives became angry and disillusioned. Nearly three weeks after the plane disappeared, the Chinese government allowed a public protest – a very rare event in the country – when families were permitted to march on the Malaysian Embassy, displaying banners and demanding the truth from the Malaysian government.

The book concludes with the author’s own chilling proposition that the plane may have been shot down by accident during joint military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, a long distance away from the search area being targeted. If one of the participating nations (which included both Malaysia and China) had indeed accidentally shot down the plane, there would be good reason for keeping it quiet and misdirecting the search to focus on the South Indian Ocean, a region of deep water and rough seas so hostile as to make any discovery extremely difficult.

Towards the end of the book, which contains details of the underwater search using AUVs (autonomous underwater vehicles), I was reminded of just how difficult it can be to obtain and correctly identify objects in deep water. Looking on Wikipeida, I found several articles related to the missing plane, including one dedicated to the search operation (which ran into hundreds of millions of dollars and became the most expensive search ever undertaken for a missing plane). I was interested to see that one of the ships involved in the search was one I had been on in my seagoing days. I was never involved in searching for a missing plane, but I do remember seeing sonar images of aeroplane debris lying on the sea floor during my training, and feeling a shiver of horror at the thought of such a watery grave.

The official search was suspended on 17 January 2017, but a year later private company Ocean Infinity resumed it. They are currently surveying a narrowed search area of 25,000km2, believed to be the most likely crash site, and expect to finish their work at the end of April this year. So far, they have found nothing of significance and the mystery of what happened to flight MH370 appears as perplexing as ever.