Dangerous Crossing – Rachel Rhys

Another 99p Kindle Daily Deal and a better book than the last few I’ve grumped about.

This one is set in July 1939 on a ship that is heading from Southampton to Australia. Lily Shepherd is fleeing from her past and heading out to start a new life in a new country. She makes friends with a man and his sister who are going to Australia for the man to recuperate from a long illness, she gets to know a couple travelling first class, who are escaping a scandal in London and she is thrust into the company of sour woman who shares her cabin and an unpleasant man who is seated at the same dining table as her. She also makes friends with an Austrian Jewish woman who is escaping from Nazi Germany.

During the 5 ½ weeks of the journey, as the passengers get to know each other in more depth than would normally within the confines of the ship, emotions and nerves are stretched.

By the end of the journey one man has been murdered by another. One of the women has gone overboard, some believe by accident, others by design. And no one turns out to be quite what they seemed. Oh, and World War II has started!

I enjoyed reading this book. I liked the twists and turns and not knowing until the end how many of the clues I’d picked up on. I liked that I got some of the clues right but not all of them.

The one frustrating thing about the book for me was not getting to know the back stories of some of the characters as well as I might have. This though is a minor niggle.

All in all, probably the best of the bargain “holiday read” books I loaded onto my Kindle before setting off on holiday.

In Search of Robert Millar – Richard Moore

I realise I’ve been quite grumpy with my recent reviews. And in truth I have been struggling to find a book I can really engage with and lose myself in. This one though makes up for some of those disappointing reads.

This is a sort-of, semi-authorised biography of professional cyclist Robert Millar, written in 2007.

Millar was one of a few professional British cyclists who rode the grand tours in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the days before Brits really competed in the big races and before Team Sky became all-conquering.

The book describes how Moore became fascinated by Millar and his disappearance in the early 2000s. It tells the story of how Millar got into cycling, competitive cycling and professional cycling. It tries to explain Millar’s singularity and insularity, his determination and the contradictions within the man.

A large part of the book concentrates on Millar’s professional career. It describes what life was like for an outsider trying to make it in a world that didn’t welcome incomers from the English speaking world. Having read biographies about later cyclists and their well-funded teams it makes the living conditions of Millar’s era look Spartan and not conducive to the health and wellbeing of professionals who are putting mammoth stresses on their bodies day in and day out on a long Tour.

I loved finding out more about Britain’s most successful professional cyclist before the Brailsford era.

What I didn’t like, at the end of the book, was not really knowing what happened next. I wanted to know whether Millar had become more at ease with himself, did he have a more settled life? Did he find some sense of contentment somewhere? Why did he disappear so completely from view and is he safe and well. It seems odd thinking this about someone who could be such a grumpy so and so but somehow you care what happens or what happened.

A quick Google search just prior to writing this blog thankfully fills in some of those gaps. In the period between 2002, when Millar disappeared, and 2010 when articles by Robert Millar started appearing in journals again, Millar transitioned and became Philippa York. In 2017 she revealed her transition and became a commentator for ITV4 during that year’s Tour de France.

The articles about Philippa suggest she is in a better place, emotionally, than Robert Millar ever was. I hope this continues and wish her every success.

Rules of Murder – Julianna Deering

And another 99p Amazon deal…and another holiday read! I really need to be more selective about what I buy. There are brainless books that are a good read and others that are just brainless.

This one is the first, hopefully the last, Drew Farthering mystery. It is set between the two world wars with Drew Farthering being the inheritor of a large country house, currently occupied by his mother and step-father.

The main characters are Drew, his friend Nick, who happens to be the son of the butler, Mason Parker the step-father, and Mason’s niece.

Drew has been avoiding his home because his mother lives there and he doesn’t like her house parties or the man she is reputed to be having an affair with. He arrives home for a visit with Nick to find the house full and his mother’s reputed lover asleep in his bedroom.

The lover, Lincoln is later found dead, followed a little later by Drew’s mother seeming to commit suicide.

Drew, Nick and Mason’s nice start investigating, uncovering a web of lies and deceit within the family company. They eventually uncover the murderer…a lot later than I did whilst reading the book.

I found this book quite annoying. There were far too many Americanisms that stuck out like a sore thumb. I have no problem with people setting stories in other countries but I do feel they should do some proper research into that culture and into the era they are setting the story in so the context sits comfortably with people from that culture.

My other gripe is that it was just too easy to spot who the murderer was. In a good detective series I feel it should be difficult to spot whodunit until the last chapter or couple of chapters, at least in the first four or five books. Eventually, you get used to an author’s style and pick up clues much earlier. But in a first book? Really?

In short, don’t bother reading this book.

The Children of Green Knowe and The River at Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston

Another dip into nostalgia and another 99p Amazon bargain.

I remembered reading these books at school, probably early Junior School…or at least I thought I did!

I read the first book on holiday, sitting on a beach on a perfect summer’s day. Perhaps the setting helped to create the right atmosphere to delve back into childhood for a short while and I absolutely loved this book.

The book centres on Toseland Gunning and the great-grandmother he has just met. The child is lonely; his father has remarried and gone to work in Burma, Tolly is at boarding school and for the Christmas holidays he is going to stay with his late mother’s grandmother at the ancient family house called Green Knowe.

Whilst there Tolly learns about his mother’s family and all the family traditions. He explores the house and grounds and gets to know the family ghosts, giving him roots and a way to find his place in the world.

I found it a lovely, heart-warming story and one that was vaguely familiar but not quite what I was expecting.

There was one scary bit about Green Noah and the gypsy curse. I imagine that’s why I didn’t fully remember the story from childhood. I expect that bit gave me nightmares and I shut the memories away.

I was expecting the second book to be a continuation of Tolly’s adventures. Instead, disappointingly, Mrs Oldknowe has let the house out to a professor who wants peace and quiet to write a book. Dr Maud Biggin and her companion, Sybilla Bun, take Maud’s niece Ida and two displaced children, Ping and Oskar, with them to Green Knowe.

This book is about Ida, Oskar and Ping’s adventures on the flooded river and fens around Green Knowe. I didn’t find these children or their adventures as interesting as Tolly’s. This might be because I really wanted to know what happened next to Tolly. It might be that having indulged in one retreat to childhood I’d had my fix. It might just be that this book isn’t as engaging as the first one. Whatever the reason, I just didn’t take to it.

It also annoyed me that Ping was known as Ping because no one could pronounce his real name Hsu. Which might have been acceptable when the book was written but which seems colonialist wrong and plain rude in the 21st century.

The experience of the second book has put me off reading any of the others in the series, although I might look out for the ones that also feature Tolly and give them another go.

Stars in his eyes – Marti Gironelli

This is another of my 99p Kindle Daily Deal books and I can only assume that the blurb given about the book was really well written, or I was really bored, because I can’t understand why I would have bought it!

The book is a fictionalised biography of Ceferino Carrion who became the restaurateur and wine producer Jean Leon.

It tells of him trying to escape Franco’s Spain and managing to reach the USA via a sympathetic seaman. It creates the picture of an illegal immigrant working low paid jobs in New York under an assumed name. Then, via trips to Europe and Mexico, the newly named Jean Leon ends up in Hollywood.

He initially works as a waiter but builds relationships with Frank Sinatra and other stars and ends up owning La Scala and becoming very successful.

Where he is much less successful is as a family man and it is clear from this book that he neglected his family, believing money and security was what they required from him.

The sense I get from this book is that Leon was a man driven to succeed but otherwise a shallow and selfish man.

Overall, the book wasn’t bad enough to not finish but it felt like a chore to read and I didn’t warm to Jean Leon in any way.

A Ladybird Book about Pirates

I can’t tell you how excited I was to find a pristine copy of this book at the bargain price of £2.

I’ve been collecting Ladybird books for some time now and keeping a tight rein on myself so I don’t end up with hundreds of books we have nowhere to store. I only allow myself to buy books I know I read as a child and that belong to the same series as the ones I still have from childhood. This book met those criteria so I bought it and savoured the thought of curling up with it to read and appreciate the wonderful artwork.

The book contains brief biographies of 22 pirates, mainly British and Canadian from the 17th and 18th centuries. I loved the fact that there were a good number of women pirates included in the book.

And the biogs are the problem! There is almost no information about each pirate. I think I must have done some follow up research as a child because I know loads more than the pitiful explanations here and I certainly haven’t done any adult reading about pirates.

I’m glad to have the book in my collection. The pictures are wonderful. But I’m really disappointed with the text.

King John – Shakespeare – directed by Eleanor Rhode for RSC

We last saw this play in 2006, when it was set more or less in period and delivered fairly straight.

This version was definitely different, worked in some parts and confused and distracted in others.

The different bits that worked well were Rosie Sheehy playing King John – you forgot that she was a woman most of the time – and Katherine Pearce who was a brilliant manipulative and cynical Cardinal.

The first half, set in the 1960s worked well. I enjoyed the colour, the costumes and the music. And then, in the second half it didn’t seem to know which era it was set in and at the end seemed to have reverted well into the past. Confusing! I have a view that if you’re setting something in a recognisable time or location you need to stick to it or it’s distracting.

Another distracting thing was King John wearing a frock in one scene. Distracting in part because it reminded us that King John was being played by a woman, who up until that point had mainly worn trouser suits. Also, distracting because of the fabric it was made from: it had a fabulous shimmering almost liquid quality to it and I got side-tracked watch it move, making me lose my way in the plot a little.

The food fight at the wedding scene was fun. I liked that King John was holding a cake that looked destined for someone’s face and yet she just carefully put it back onto the table. On the other hand I was slightly appalled by the fact that the foil balloons spelling out “Just Married” were being popped to spell “Just Die”. I get the point being made but it doesn’t seem ecologically sound to have to keep using more and more plastic foil. I’m hoping the bangs came from elsewhere and the intact balloons were smuggled off-stage for reuse.

My final grump is the diction of the actors during the argument/fight scenes. Their lines were quite hard to hear and keep up with. Slowing it down by even half a beat would have made a huge difference to the clarity.

I can’t say I loved either this play or this production. I’m pleased I went to see it though; it reminded me that good acting can make you forget who is playing a part and that humour and laughter can be found in even grim stories.

Manstein: Hitler’s Greatest General – Mungo Melvin

I can’t remember buying this book and it’s been sitting on my “to read” pile gathering dust for ages so I decided now was the time to get round to reading it.

I’m pretty sure I bought it wanting to learn more about the Nazi campaigns in the East. I should probably have checked out the author before buying it.

Some historians/biographers are great at telling stories and bringing their subject to life. Others are not and this book fell into the latter category for me.

I bought a biography rather than a book of the battles because I’m interested in people. What I got was factual information about von Manstein and a lot a battle detail I didn’t really want. It made it a very chewy book!

I did find out a lot from persisting and finishing the book: I didn’t know Hindenburg was Manstein’s uncle. I didn’t know how fraught the relationship was between Hitler and von Manstein. I didn’t know what happened to the Generals and Field Marshalls Hitler sacked. Most of all I learned more about the constraints Hitler’s distrust of the officer corps imposed on the Wehrmacht.

However, given that this is an account of some serious battles of WW2 the book is completely lacking any recognition of the suffering of front line soldiers on the Eastern Front and fails to acknowledge the scale of death and serious injury of these men.

If I’d known this book was written by a retired General I probably wouldn’t have bought it, rightly assuming it would be a detailed book of facts and events rather than about bringing a person to life. I’m pleased in a way I did buy it and did read it in its entirety. It has increased my knowledge. But it became a chore rather than a pleasure to read.

Gym & Tonic – written and directed by John Godber

It’s ages since I’ve seen a John Godber play and I’ve never been to Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough so when a friend suggested a group of us went I jumped at the chance.

If you’ve never come across John Godber before he writes funny plays that have a serious message at the heart of them. They are usually based around working class people in the north of England.

Stephen Joseph Theatre is a smallish theatre and it’s “in the round” – seats on all 4 sides with a space in the middle for the stage. I like theatres like this. They are intimate and you tend to get more involved in the play.

This play is set in a smart Spa hotel where Don and his wife Shirley have gone to celebrate his 40th birthday. Don doesn’t really want to be there and thinks they can’t afford it. Also, his marriage is failing and he is uninspired and trapped by the family business he works in, although he can’t see it.

The premise of the play may be gloomy but there were laugh’s aplenty. If you’ve ever been to a spa, whether for a day or a longer break, and not been quite sure what to do whilst everyone else seems confident and comfortable you will recognise the setting!

At the end of the play the group I was with spent some time discussing what the ending meant and I think we all took something different away, which is interesting and causes discussion but is a bit unsatisfying.

There were 4 actors, all but Peter McMillan who was Don, playing 2 parts. Stephanie Hackett and Jacqueline Naylor were really good as Shirley/Cloe and Gertrude/Gemma. Robert Angell was less successful with Keith/Ken as there wasn’t enough differentiation between the way he spoke and moved each character.

As a group of friends we had a fun night out with the play as part of it. If I gone out just to see the play I think I would have been a bit disappointed.

Sagan: My World – Peter Sagan

This book is memorable more because of the saga in getting it than for the book itself.

The story starts just after Christmas with a Waterstones offer: a signed copy of the book for £10 rather than £20. As someone who likes a good bike race, enjoys the antics of Peter Sagan and likes signed copies of books this was too good a deal to miss. I ordered 2 copies, one for me and one for a friend.

After about a month it dawned on me that they hadn’t arrived so I chased them up. “Oh, we’re just waiting for the payment to process”, said the girl at the other end of the helpline. I’ll give them a nudge and you’ll get your books shortly.

Two weeks later, still no books so I messaged the helpline again. This time I got an apology and a promise the books would arrive. They did…but not signed copies!

I messaged again pointing out that if I’d wanted unsigned copies of the book I could have got them much cheaper and will a lot less hassle elsewhere. Their reply was that the offer of signed copies was no longer available online but I could them in certain stores. My reply, that my nearest store meant a 60 mile round trip, generated no response.

I phoned the helpline to talk to an actual person. They agreed that since the initial delay was due to them it wasn’t acceptable that I would have to travel to buy the book so they would contact a store on my behalf and get them to post 2 copies to me. Hallelujah! Someone who can think and make decisions.

I packed up the unsigned copies and returned them.

Two weeks later no books had arrived!

I phoned again. “Oh, sorry. They’re out of stock. I’ll make an immediate refund.” At this point I was, to put it mildly, somewhat cross!

Three days later a parcel arrived from Waterstones. “I bet they’re some more unsigned copies”, I said to my partner. I almost fell off my chair when I opened the box and found 2 pristine, signed copies of the book in there.

The end result of this sorry tale is that I am very reluctant to hand over any of my hard earned dosh to Waterstones anymore. I’m very disappointed in their customer service. This also means I struggle to buy new books from physical bookshops, which I like to do because I want bookshops on the high street.

The other result was a reluctance to actually pick the book up to read and a building weight of expectation.

Unfortunately, the book got crushed under the weight of expectation. For someone who is very entertaining on a cycle and during pre/post-race interviews Sagan comes across as a somewhat boring, nerdy man. Not what I was expecting at all.

On the plus side, it was good to find out more about what it’s like to be in the middle of a big pro-bike race and to read a different version of Oleg Tinkoff.