read_warbler (read_warbler) wrote,

Three books

It's high time I did a book post here as I have three books that have not been reviewed. I'll do my usual thing when this happens of a brief chat about all three. Starting with a crime story set in Alaska, A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow.

Kate Shugak is an ex-detective with the Anchorage DA department. She left after a particularly nasty case and is now living alone within 'The Park', a huge national park in Alaska. But two investigators have gone missing in the park, the second when he went to look for the first, and Kate, being a native Aleut, born and brought up there, is the the one her ex-bosses turn to to find them. Kate is extremely reluctant to work for the DA department again but as the second missing man was someone she was involved with, she has no choice. Kate's search involves close friends and family that she hasn't seen for a while. It brings back memories she'd rather not delve into and makes her face again the harsh realities of life for the native population in modern Alaska.

This is a series of books I've been meaning to start for a while. I did actually buy the slim paperback a couple of years ago but when I saw it was free for Kindle I downloaded it and read it that way. I'm a little ambivilent about it to be truthful. I did really like the character of Kate Shugak: she's thoughtful, honest and strong. But where the plot was concerned I suppose I expected a mystery in which Kate took off into the NP and there would be loads about the gorgeousness of the Alaskan landscape. It wasn't really like that at all. There was far more about the problems of the Aleuts... no jobs for young people, the temptations of drink and drugs and so on. To the extent really that the mystery took second place. And while I feel I learnt a fair bit about the problems of the state, and that's *good*, I also would really have liked more about the mystery itself. It just seemed to me that she didn't have to do much to solve it. I rather suspect these books get better as they go along as I know they have some dedicated followers among my blogging friends. My library doesn't have them so I'll watch out for cheap Kindle downloads to continue with the series.

Next: Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith.

This is the first of four autobiographies written by Dodie Smith, the famous author of 101 Dalmations and I Capture the Castle. Dodie was born in the late 1800s, her father died young and Dodie and her mother, Ella, went back to live with her parents, William and Margaret Furber. Already living with the grandparents were various of Ella's brothers and sisters, so what you had was one huge, happy household in which Dodie was doted on and never short of someone to talk to. They moved several times so there are delightful descriptions of the enormous houses they lived in, in and around Old Trafford in Manchester. Gradually the aunts married and moved away but the uncles never did and their prime function it seems was to tease Dodie and keep her grounded. She had young friends from families who were close friends of the Furbers and we have lovely details of how they all passed the time... often involving performing of some kind or visits to the theatre. Dodie was a natural performer and it was her ardent wish be an actress when she grew up. Her mother eventually remarried and the small family moved to London where the book ends and the next one, Look Back With Mixed Feelings, presumably begins. I found this a delightful read, very evocative of the times and full of a sort of zest for life. Though Dodie describes herself as not a particularly happy child, taking things such as the treatment of animals rather too seriously, that isn't really backed up by the atmosphere in the book. She was surrounded by love and it shows. Will definitely read more of these.

Lastly: Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby.

Eric Newby is well known amongst travel writing fans as one the best there is. What's less well known is that he served in the Special Boat Section during WW2 and was captured in 1942 off the coast of Sicily, during a secret raid. Love and War in the Apennines decribes what happened to him in Italy after that capture. At first he was held in an Italian POW camp, which was really a converted hotel, in Fontanellato, near Parma, close to the Apennine range of mountains which run the length of Italy. Life there was not that terrible, certainly not in the league of German POW camps, boredom was the chief enemy it seems. The real problems began with the Italian Armistice and The Allies were caught on the hop. The Germans took over the country and the prisoners in the camp decided their best bet was to go on the run. Eric's difficulty was that he was in the prison hospital after breaking his ankle. What follows is the story of his escape, his meeting with his future wife, and the Italians - those who helped him get up into the mountains and those who sheltered him.

I finished this book a couple of days ago and the atmosphere of it is still with me. It's hard to say why. I think partly it was *such* a ripping yarn, not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff but certainly exciting enough to keep me happy. Also it was about an episode of the war that I knew about, but knew nothing about, if that doesn't sound silly. It was fascinating quite honestly, to read an account of it by someone who witnessed events. But most of all I think I loved the book for two reasons. Firstly, because of Newby's beautiful descriptions of the forests and mountains in which he was forced to hide for almost a year. It was clearly stunningly beautiful but also an atmospheric, at times frightening place. Newby's writing is up to the challenge though:

Now the tunnels under the trees were as damp and vaporous and foetid as the passages in a workhouse, and everything had an air of decay. The moss which had been so brilliantly green now had a dull, brownish tinge and gave off a disagreeable, sickly smell; and the fungi which had appeared so beautiful and strange with the sun slanting down on them, now seemed possitively evil, the fruits of corruption, even the ones that I knew to be edible because, having eaten them, I was still alive. Now after the rain, there were fresh, and to me even more monstrous-looking growths, although, no doubt, they were edible too, enormous puff balls, which had emerged in the clearing of the charcoal burners, the size and shape of human skulls, some of them dead white as if they had been picked clean by birds on a battle field and left for ages in the sun and the rain, some darker, the colour of old ivory; and where a number of them grew together it was as if the buried dead were trying resurrect themselves, by forcing themselves, head first upwards through the earth.

It's not often I'm bowled over by good writing but that did it for me and this book is full of amazing scenes like that. My second reason for loving this book was that the indomitable spirit of the Italians who harboured Newby, despite the very real peril of doing so, shines in this book. They would not have considered themselves to be heroes, but heroes they were... ordinary farming families who had nothing, still found it in their hearts to take him in, feed and clothe him, and hide him from the authorities. It brings a lump to my throat just writing about it to be honest. What a wonderful testament to the human spirit.

I will definitely be reading more by Eric Newby and already have another book lined up, A Traveller's Life, autobiographical essays about his lifetime of travelling. Can't wait to get to it.
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