Old Habits

This month I’ve returned to a practice I’d recently abandoned; that is reading more than one book at a time.

For several months now I’ve stuck to reading a single book from beginning to end before starting another, but maybe two weeks ago I picked up a second, and then a third book, slowing down my progress while I try to juggle between the three.

The first was a book of short stories upon which the TV series Grantchester is based. I heard an interview with the author, James Runcie, and was drawn to the stories of a C of E priest who finds himself drawn into murder solving.

I’ve seen the drama series advertised on TV but didn’t like the look of it, but after hearing the author speak of the differences between book and TV versions, I thought I could give the books a chance. One of those differences seems to be the extent that the lead character pursues “romantic” relationships. The impression I got from the author, and also from the brief advertising clips of the show, the TV version leans more to sexual relationship than “romantic”.

I recall the author saying something along the lines that in reality the minister would have been driven out of his position in the church if his actions had been discovered.

So far I’ve finished the first of the stories in the first Grantchester book, originally titled Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. The story introduces Sidney Chambers, the Anglican priest, and how he was introduced to the world of detection. The mistress of suicide victim asks for his help, being convinced he hadn’t taken his own life. Chambers reluctantly makes some discreet enquiries and becomes convinced that she’s right. But how does he take that conviction to his police detective friend?

The story itself is reasonably simple. It’s length doesn’t allow for too much complexity, so the murder is solved with relative ease. While enjoyable as a short read, it didn’t draw me in and keep me hooked in the way that my previous crime reading has done. I also see it being in the Miss Marple and Jessica fletcher (Murder She Wrote) line of murder mysteries, that to me stretch credulity too far. How many murders does the average person come across? And is it credible that they could actually solve the countless murders that they somehow attract into the sphere of their daily lives?

My crime fiction preference therefore leans to police centred murder enquiries where the protagonists are more likely to come across crimes of this nature.

I’ve now put that book of short stories aside while I tackle the two other books currently on my reading list.

I’ve written a little about the second book in a previous post, View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley. It’s not an easy book to get through. It is episodic, with Crowley taking the reader on a journey through various aspects of his time served in the Vietnam War. He addresses his reader as a companion being shown around his various haunts and activities. While the surface has a veneer of humour, there is also a clear undercurrent of the horrors and degradation to which he and his fellow soldiers were subjected. It is clear that he recognised (or has come to recognise) the war’s futility and contradictions.

I repeat an excerpt that I used in my earlier post:

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

It’s not a “pretty” book. It’s no literary gem. It’s very uncomfortable reading due to its style and the bluntness of its very coarse language, but it comes across as a disturbingly honest account. At times Crowley appears to relish in sharing some R-rated [extreme coarse language], boys own adventures, but he also paints a disturbingly vivid backdrop that brings those “adventures” into the context of a bloody and unnecessary war.


And on to the third…

The Hanging Valley is another in Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series.
A body is discovered in a remote valley near the village of Swainshead. What seems to be the murder of an unknown tourist develops into a story of a village where everyone has something they want to hide; but to what extent will covering up their personal secrets hinder Banks’s investigation?

I started this as an escape from the slow progress I was making through the Vietnam memoir. I was eager to get back to a good page turning read, and I haven’t been disappointed yet by anything in this series.

The only problem with this approach is that I can’t read both at the same time, and I have to decide which one to pick up and therefore, by default, which one gets neglected.

While I enjoy the entertainment value of an excellent crime mystery thriller, especially one where character development is given equal weight, I’m a person who likes to learn – so, while they may not have the same page turning nature, I’m also eager to dive into books that potentially aid my understanding of topics of personal interest (currently the Vietnam war)

If only, after that initial dive, the actual reading was easier than swimming through rough waters against the current.



The Birdwatcher Update

Just over a week ago I wrote about The Birdwatcher, the book I was reading at that time.

I was reading it with the suspicion that the bookseller’s online blurb had “spoiled” an essential plot point, basically giving away the ending.

I’ve now finished the book and I found that 1)  the suspected spoiled ending didn’t eventuate and 2) that I misread the bookseller’s blurb, and that the potential “spoiler” was my own invention.

When I wrote previously I was only a third of the way through the book, and while I was enjoying parts of it, overall it wasn’t exciting me.

But that changed very quickly not long afterwards, drawing me more deeply into the characters’ lives and culminating in an unexpected but satisfying ending.

I’m very pleased that some of the characters will be returning in a book to be released in May.

salt lane


I also enjoyed The Birdwatcher enough to order one of Shaw’s earlier books A Song From Dead Lips, the first of a series set during 1960s London, currently selling for less than half price.

“My War”

At one time I considered the Vietnam war to be “my” war.

Not because of any real personal or family connection, but because it was going on when my family decided to migrate to Australia, and Australia was one of the combatants; taking its usual stance to support the USA in all of its major military ventures, whether that support was justified or not.

So, at the age of 13 we moved to a country at war, where conscription was practiced.

I was still 5 years away from what I thought was conscription eligibility, but at that time who knew how long the war would continue? (Conscription was actually from age 20, so I was two years out in my expectations). If it continued long enough I could have found myself being sent away to fight.

Then in December 1972 Australian conscription was brought to an end by the new Labor government within days of their taking power. They also stopped Australia’s involvement in the war.

Recently I watched a 10 part documentary series about Vietnam,; a fascinating insight into the history behind it, how American involvement came about, and the political lies that helped perpetuate it.

The series also looked at he increasing opposition to the war within the USA at a pivotal time of cultural change.

Some of what was going on in America was no less disturbing than what was happening in the war itself, with Government violence on American soil leading to tragedies like the killing of students at Kent State, a well-known event I’d heard about decades ago, but not an isolated or unique case of its type.

One thing that stood out in one of the early episodes, was the sense of deja vu I had when I learned how America had backed Ho Chi Minh and his rebel forces during WWII when the future North Vietnamese leader was fighting to free his country from the Japanese invader. Apart from the “irony” of the US later usurping that role as invader, the similarity to another situation a few decades later was obvious; when the US financed and trained the future leaders of Al Qaeda in their attempt to free Afghanistan from  Russian invaders, and then went on the be the invaders themselves, under attack from the very people they had trained and armed in the past.

Watching that series inspired me to return to a book I’d put aside a few years ago. View From A Low Bough by Barrie Crowley, is about the author’s personal experiences in Vietnam.

Vietnam Campaign Medal
Vietnam Medal awarded by the Sth. Vietnamese Govt. to US and Australian personnel after 6 months service

Once again I’m not finding it an easy read, but I’m determined not to give up this time. Crowley tries to write as if he’s taking the reader on a personal tour of events and places, to see hear and smell the war he experienced. The style doesn’t always work for me, but I appreciate his interesting insights into life in camp and out on patrol. Enough to make me very grateful that it didn’t become MY war.

The book is also full of “Strong Coarse Language” – as it would be described on an Australian DVD censor’s classification. But that seems appropriate in the context of young men thrown together in a harsh environment, witnessing, or involved in some of the worst aspects of human behaviour, for reasons they could never hope understand.
If they understood would they have gone along with the corrupt political hypocrisy that had sent them there? Even so, they were not blind to the ineptitude and irrationality of those directing the course of the war.

From View From  A Low Bough

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

A third journey I’m taking into 1960s Vietnam is through the 1980s series China Beach. I’m sure I watched some of it when it was first screened 30 or so years ago, but apart from a couple of the characters I don’t remember much.china-beach-season-1

I saw it described as M*A*S*H without the laugh-track – but I don’t think the comparison is fair.

So far I’ve only seen the 90 minute pilot and the first episode and it hasn’t really jogged my memory of any previous viewings.

The opening sequence of the pilot is very evocative in portraying the absurdity and incongruity of the conflict. It starts with a young woman in a red bikini, sitting on a beach. Her solitude is disturbed by the increasing volume of an approaching helicopter. She rises and starts walking away from the beach, firstly through tropical beachside bushes, that start giving way to sandbags, barbed wire, armed soldiers in uniform, and eventually the landing helicopter bringing its cargo of dead and wounded. The woman grabs a surgical smock and puts it on over her bikini…

One clear similarity with M*A*S*H, and the main reason for my interest in the series, is that it’s main character is a nurse in a military hospital, and there’s a regular influx of dust off helicopters bringing casualties to be put back together. Last year I read a few books by (or about) former Vietnam war nurses, and through their eyes got a very different perspective of the war and its human cost, and it’s that aspect that most interests me, so I’m looking forward to having time to watch more of China Beach.


nurse badge

Australian Vietnam nurse’s collar badge from my collection.


On Unplugging (At Least Sometimes)

I liked this article posted by author Nick Earls.

Nick Earls

Brisbane’s last walk-in video store is about to close. I can’t say I realised one was still open, but it’s not a bad time to pause and note the transience of an industry that started from nothing only 40 years ago, became a staple of suburban life, seemed irreplaceable as recently as the turn of the century and then skidded abruptly into the ditch of obsolescence.

It’ll be put down to streaming, but it’s more than that. It’s life. Yes, we stream, and we stream plenty (I’m sounding like someone with out-of-control rhinitis, but bear with me), but there’s more going on. We’re also spending time on YouTube and other infinite sources of online content, but there’s more to it than that too. It’s the arrival of a world of apps in our pockets, all on one convenient device. When the machines rise to take over, they will come in…

View original post 1,061 more words

The Birdwatcher, by William Shaw

I found out about this book through a brief review on Sarah Ward’s blog. I quickly ordered a copy.

Ward had said the book had an interesting ending and assured she’s give “no spoilers” to ruin the book for others.
However, the book seller may not have been so thoughtful. Their brief description of the book on their sales site potentially revealed a significant “spoiler”, and my reading of the book became an exercise in second guessing what was ahead.

What appealed to me and encouraged me to get a copy?

Firstly there was Sarah Ward’s recommendation.

Secondly I was interested in trying a new crime writer, although I’m not sure why considering how many books I still have by the handful of authors I’ve already started.

Thirdly, as a backyard birdwatcher, the reference in the title  was appealing. How many novels these days have bird watching references?

As I write this I’m only a third of the way into the book, so I still don’t know whether my spoiler fears about the bookseller’s blurb will be realised. I’m also not sure to what extent I’m enjoying it. Throughout, the story splits between two time periods; the present, with the murder investigation, and the past where childhood memories are depicted.

So far I’ve preferred the parts from the past. They seem to have more life, more colour, and a stronger uncertainty of what comes next. They also cover a period and a political situation that’s interested me since my teen years (when these events would have been occurring).

Of course, it may not be fair to write a “review” with so little of the book completed, but when I can, I want to address books as an ongoing experience, and not as some kind of post-read judgement.

I’ll have to write again later to confirm whether the book seller’s blurb was a genuine spoiler or not, and of course give a more informed account of my overall reading experience.


Blind to the Bones, Stephen Booth

Officers were explaining patiently to distraught mothers that it was impossible for somebody who had been missing for only twenty-four hours to have been reduced to a skeleton in that time, no matter how badly they’d been eating recently.


After enjoying Blood on the Tongue so much, I wanted to head straight into the next of Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry books, but found the early chapters surprisingly hard going.

The previous book’s build up was increasingly rewarding right up to the final, satisfying resolution of its many varied story threads. Starting this one so soon afterwards was like having to immediately prepare for another journey. I think the “hard going” was a result of having to  become familiar with another itinerary and some different travelling companions before the glow of a previous, well-loved trip has subsided.

Blind to the Bones includes the disappearance of a young woman who went missing two years previously; a case with significance to DC Fry whose sister  vanished during her teens.

The young woman’s mobile phone is found not long before her former housemate is found murdered on the Derbyshire moors. Is there a connection between the two?

Again Booth weaves elements of  folk customs landscape and community issues into his stories. In this book the Derbyshire practice of well-dressing is featured. He also introduces Morris dancing, although in a more brutal, industrial age form than the more familiar prancing, waving and rattling version that I had been more familiar with – having seen practitioners of that in the market place of my childhood home town prior to moving to Australia.

Investigations into the girl’s disappearance and her housemate’s murder aren’t made easy by the families involved, one resisting and avoiding the police as much as possible, the other going to the other extreme, always seeking attention.

Family complications also bring challenges to work relationships among the investigating police, putting pressure on already tenuous friendships. How far should a workmate get involved in a colleague’s family difficulties?

The tensions between DC Cooper and DC Fry continue in this book. To date every one step towards resolution is followed by two steps back. Booth has now written seventeen of his Cooper and Fry series. Blind to the Bones is the 4th, still early in the sequence of events, so that tension can be maintained with a degree of justification. However, I’m hoping there will be some kind of change through subsequent books, a sustainable progression, and not a constant continuation of the same or similar attitudes.







Musical Tastes of Fictional Characters (2)

In a previous post about the music enjoyed by fictional characters I mentioned a Waterboys reference in Stephen Booth’s  first book Black Dog. The reference is in fact in his second book, Dancing With the Virgins.


‘That was the river, this is the sea’

Ben Cooper turned up the volume on his stereo and opened the cover of his Waterboys CD. He was amazed to find it dated from 1985. In fact, most of the music he possessed was the stuff he had liked twelve or fifteen years ago as a teenager.