Showing posts with label 2018. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 2018. Show all posts

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Year in Books 2018: December

Well... I did it! I stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I read loads more novels for pleasure (i.e. in addition to the ones that, while still very pleasurable, I had to read for work, review or my radio show), and I kept up with my short reviews for each one.

And I'll let you into a little secret... while I did say that my reviews were going to be a maximum of 250 words, in fact every single one was exactly 250 words. I didn't intend to do that, but the first one I wrote was dead on 250, and I thought it would be interesting to see how long I could keep that up. It was actually quite a fun exercise (well, my idea of fun anyway), and I might keep going into 2019 with it.

You can read the other Year in Books posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here's the final list - the books I read in December.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (2018)

Each year, we stay in a cottage in Cornwall for the week before Christmas. As in most holiday cottages, there’s a little shelf of paperbacks, and this book had been left by another guest since our last trip. It’s interesting that I started the year discovering Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and then ended it with Three Things About Elsie, as they have much in common. Cannon’s book is about Florence, a woman in her eighties who is having trouble remembering things (the ‘D’ word is mentioned a couple of times, but the book takes a broader view on memory, grief and ageing than simply a diagnosis). Florence spends her time talking to her best friend – the eponymous Elsie – and generally being a thorn in the side of the staff at Cherry Tree supported accommodation. One day, a new resident moves in, and Florence is sure it’s a man named Ronnie Butler – but Ronnie died in 1953, and Florence is forced to try and remember what happened sixty years ago (with a bit of help from Elsie). This is a book that deals with the terror that comes from having no one who will listen – or hear – what you’re trying to say to them, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a celebration of the ways in which we are all connected, and how one life can touch and change others (even if it’s not apparent at the time). Moving, thought-provoking, compassionate – but above all, charming. Highly recommended.

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)

My mother-in-law has bought me quite the collection of British Library Crime Classic books over the years. I like to save most of them for when we’re on our pre-Christmas getaway, as there’s something special about reading these Golden Age gems in an isolated cottage on a Cornish cliff-top. The first one I read this year was Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry – though it’s a London mystery rather than a country house one (which might have been more fitting). Lorac’s mystery revolves around Bruce Attleton, a once successful writer who is happily living off his actress wife’s income. Attleton’s friends – Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville – become convinced their friend is being blackmailed by a sinister (possibly foreign) man named Debrette, and they decide to do a bit of investigating. Their search takes them to a bizarre and incongruous old building in Notting Hill. Known as the Belfry (or, sometimes, the Morgue) this decrepit old pile was once a religious house but is now a run-down studio favoured by artists. And it seems Debrette has been renting it. Things take a confusing turn when both Attleton and Debrette go missing, and so Rockingham and Grenville turn to C.I.D. (in the shape of Lorac’s regular detective Chief Inspector Macdonald) for assistance – but is everything as it seems? With an excellent (as always) introduction from Martin Edwards, Bats in the Belfry is everything I want from a BL Crime Classic: atmospheric, evocative, and with a strong sense of place and time. Loved it.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2016)

And I continued my holiday foray into the BL Crime Classics with a collection of short stories. This anthology is a selection of country house mysteries, selected and edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, whose knowledge and affection for Golden Age detective fiction is evident in every title in the BL’s series. This collection is themed around setting – all of the stories take place in what is, to some degree or another, the country seat of a landed family, though (as Edwards points out in his introduction) Golden Age fiction often engages directly with the changing face of the country house through the various socio-political shifts of the twentieth century. Not all of the houses here are still ‘in the family’, and not all of them are as cosily domestic as they might once have been. Nevertheless, all the selected stories share the ‘closed circle’ of the house party mystery, in which a small but often diverse group of people are thrown together for a short time. The stories collected here vary from the ‘straight’ murder mystery (e.g. ‘The Problem of Dead Wood Hall’ by Dick Donovan) to the thriller (e.g. ‘An Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White). There’s even a light-hearted parody of the subgenre from E.V. Knox (‘The Murder at the Towers’). Bookended by pre- and post-Golden Age stories (‘The Copper Beeches’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘Weekend at Wapentake’ by Michael Gilbert), this anthology gives a great overview of the pleasures and perils of the country house.

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)

I picked this up in the supermarket on a whim while we were away – I don’t know why, as I’d packed enough books to keep me going for months. I had a bit of debate whether to read this or the Christmas-themed BL Crime Classic I’d been saving for the festive season, but in the end decided to go with Draper’s book – and it turned out to be a win-win, as a large part of Cuckoo is set at Christmas too! It’s also the perfect book for reading in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The blurb intrigued me, but I was sort of expecting something along the lines of other psychological thrillers I’ve read this year: a woman goes back to clear her family home after the death of her stepmother (who hated her). Being back home brings back painful memories of her childhood, and she’s forced to confront the long-buried secrets from her past. Okay, okay – clearly I’m a sucker for this type of plot, as I’ve read at least two other books with that exact premise this year. But… Cuckoo blew me away. I genuinely stayed up for hours unable to put it down (clichéd as that may sound). It’s dark, unsettling and compelling – but it’s also incredibly well-written and just a really good story. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cuckoo is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and this is totally down to Draper’s excellent storytelling. Loved it.

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith (1933)

Time for another BL Crime Classic, and one that I was saving for the festive season. Although, as it turns out, it’s not wasn’t the most festive book I’ve ever read! Meredith’s novel is an unusual one. Its set-up is very much that of a Golden Age whodunit – an unpleasant man gathers his family together for Christmas at the country house, only to be murdered by one of the guests – but the book is actually a thriller, and a rather cynical and hard-edged one. This isn’t a whodunit, as the reader sees the murder taking place, and is then offered a first-person insight from the murderer as to the reasons and motives. What emerges is a book that almost works as a dissection of Golden Age detective fiction, which reveals the things that are never said in country house mysteries and the subtle obscurities that we fans take for granted. All of the characters in the book are given some backstory and explanation that allows us to see them as people, rather than simply characters in a well-trodden formulaic plot. Most fascinating, for me, is the detail given to one of the housemaids who, in any other book, would have been simply a felicitous plot device. Meredith does a great job of reminding us that all those oodles of undifferentiated servants bustling through Golden Age mysteries are really people with pasts, families, hopes and ambitions. This is not a cosy novel by any means, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)

Another impulse purchase from when we were on holiday – this time, a book I picked up in a charity shop in Truro. And would you believe it? It’s also set at Christmas (or at least the run-up to Christmas)! This is Jo Spain’s debut novel – she’s published (I think) three others since. I’ll admit, Spain’s wasn’t a name I’d come across. I picked the book up because it looked like a good atmospheric winter read, and I’m a sucker for ‘crimes of the past haunt the present’ storylines. And my instincts were right – I really enjoyed this one! The book begins with a prologue set in 1975 – a young woman gives birth in a Magdalene laundry, and her baby is taken from her by the nuns before she can even hold it. The book then moves us into 2010, and D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified elderly woman found mutilated and displayed in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the woman turns out to have been a nun, and that the investigation leads Reynolds and his team to a (very atmospheric – and snowed-in) convent. This is a chunky book (surprisingly long for a debut novel), but a real page-turner. The underlying motive for the crime didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Spain’s writing style is engaging and the setting is beautifully evoked. A solid contemporary crime novel – I’m glad I picked this one up.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

My Year in Books 2018: November

How exciting - I'm just one month away from having stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I've never done that before! Sadly, though, I didn't actually get time for much reading in November, so there's only one review on today's post. I anticipate I'll catch up in December though, as I usually read quite a bit over Christmas... I guess you'll find out in my next post!

If you want to see my reviews for the rest of the year, you can find them here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James (1971)

Okay, so I did say that I wasn’t going to read any more Adam Dalgleish novels. But I spent most of November with a horrible cold, and I just wanted to read something comforting – and my comfort reading is Golden Age detective fiction. In my poorly brain, I thought this would be sort of the same thing. The book begins promisingly enough. Two student nurses are killed at a training school, and Adam Dalgleish is called in to investigate. There is a sense of claustrophobia, of a closed little world in which the suspects operate, of secretive undercurrents and things left unsaid. But that’s pretty much it, I’m afraid. James’s work is incredibly evocative of place and setting, but her novels are ultimately unsatisfying mysteries. While there’s plenty of exploration of the world of nursing here – with some judgemental commentary, and an obsessive need to catalogue every early morning or late drink a character has (something I noticed in Cover Her Face as well, though at least there it was part of the plot) – there are no clues that the reader might use to solve the mystery. In fact, the ending comes quite out of the blue. There are also a couple of chapters that seem to belong to a different book: the first, which focuses in detail on a character who plays no part in the story, and the unpleasant chapter which details how Dalgleish’s sergeant gets information out of an older woman. Don’t think I’m a James fan.

Friday, 23 November 2018

My Year in Books 2018: October

Okay, it's another delayed post from me. But better late than never, I guess. Another month of sticking to my New Year's resolution. I found time to read four novels for pleasure in October (though I don't appear to have been very varied in my genre choice - it's all crime fiction this month!), so here are my short reviews of the titles I read.

(You can read all the other posts from this year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September)

I'll Keep You Safe by Peter May (2018)

I’m a big fan of Peter May’s novels. I loved the Lewis trilogy and reread the Enzo MacLeod books a couple of times. My mum and my mother-in-law are both fans as well, and it just so happened that both of them got a copy of I’ll Keep You Safe at the same time – and then they both offered to lend me their copy when they’d finished, so I raced them! My mum won (just), so I read her copy of the book. This is a book that I’d heard May talk about prior to its completion. He described it as ‘From Paris to Harris’ (though it turns out that the Hebridean portion of the book is set in Lewis, not Harris). Ruairidh and Niamh Macfarlane are the owners and creators of the Ranish Tweed fabric brand. During a trip to Paris Fashion Week, Niamh learns that Ruairidh has been having an affair, but then almost immediately witnesses her husband and his lover killed by a car bomb. She returns to Lewis bereft, but – of course – there are further revelations to come. I do enjoy Peter May’s writing, but this wasn’t one of my favourites. I loved the flashback sections describing Ruairidh and Niamh’s relationship, but the ‘present day’ crime chapters were a bit plodding and predictable. It’s a shame, because I think I probably would have been more than happy to have read a book just about the Macfarlanes and Ranish Tweed (though that might have been less marketable!).

The Secret Place by Tana French (2014)

Earlier in the year, I read a few of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels out of sequence, so managed to miss out the fifth one. This month, I finally read The Secret Place. The book sees the return of Stephen Moran (a minor character in Faithful Place) and teams him up with Antoinette Conway, a prickly and unpopular member of the Murder Squad, for the first time. The book begins with Holly Mackey – daughter of the main detective in Faithful Place – telling Moran about a development in a year-old murder investigation at her school. Moran grudgingly passes the information on to Conway, but on the understanding that he’ll be able to join the investigation. The two visit Holly’s boarding school to reopen the inquiry into the murder of Chris Harper, a pupil at the neighbouring boys’ school. The prime suspects are two cliques of girls – Holly and her friends, and a rival group – and the book switches between the police investigation and flashbacks to Holly’s gang’s involvement with Chris Harper, but also (more significantly) with each other. Like In the Woods, it’s as much about friendship as it is about a murder investigation. It’s not quite as good as In the Woods and Broken Harbour, but I preferred it to The Trespasser. Oh, and ignore any reviews that criticise the so-called ‘unexplained supernatural element’ – there’s a single, beautiful sentence that explains everything towards the end of the book, which reminded me just why I’m a fan of French’s work.

The Sleeping and the Dead by Ann Cleeves (2001)

Clearly, I wasn’t feeling very experimental this month so I seem to have stuck to writers I know. The Sleeping and the Dead is one of Cleeves’s standalone novels, so not part of the Vera or Shetland series. The book begins with the discovery of a long-dead body in a lake. Detective Peter Porteous (who is quite an unusual detective, not because he has a lot of eccentric quirks, but because he’s so calm and self-contained throughout the investigation) quickly narrows down the possibilities for identification, before concluding that the body must be that of Michael Grey, a young man who hasn’t been seen since the 1970s. Michael was an enigmatic man, who arrived in the local area to live with foster parents in his final year at school. No one appears to know where Michael came from or who his family was. The book switches between Porteous’s investigation and the story of Hannah Morton, a prison officer who was once Michael’s girlfriend. Hannah reminisces on her relationship with Michael, but also finds herself drawn into the investigation more directly (and dangerously) than she’d like. I was really drawn into this story and found myself engaged with Hannah’s story (and the mysterious Michael, of course). However, I’m not sure the mystery really went anywhere. It’s definitely a page-turner, but the denouement and explanation was a little bit of an anti-climax. There was also a bit of a tricksy coincidence that had to be swallowed on the journey to the resolution.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James (1967)

Okay, I know I sort of concluded last time that P.D. James wasn’t for me. But I got a really nasty cold towards the end of the month, and I just wanted some comfort reading (aka a whodunnit). I couldn’t find any Golden Age stuff that I fancied, so I thought I’d give James another whirl. And this one started off well. Adam Dalgliesh (admittedly not my favourite literary detective) is staying with his Aunt Jane (not Jane Marple) in Suffolk when one of the neighbours is found murdered and mutilated. The victim was a crime novelist, and he appears to have been killed with a method taken from his own writing. The other residents of the little village are all suspects, though some big crime types in that London also drift in and out of the frame. I loved the chapters in the village, with the vague air of menace that surrounded even mundane social interactions. However, the plot was at once convoluted and underexplained. I’m still not totally sure why that particular far-fetched method of murder (and the mutilation) was chosen. James isn’t too hot on clues (unlike my beloved Agatha), but I still guessed the culprit here. I also don’t quite get what was going on with Dalgliesh’s personal life. Did he break up with his girlfriend at the end? Or not? And why was he being so randomly aloof? To be fair, I’m probably going to stick with the Dalgliesh novels now – but just for completism.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Year in Books 2018: September

Here's the latest update from my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. This is definitely the longest I've ever stuck to a resolution, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to keep this up for the rest of the year. I read five novels in September (though I did go a bit faddy again this month). So here are my reviews...

(You can read the reviews from the rest of the year here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August)

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (2017)

So, I picked this book up on a trip to Blackpool in August with the residents of the care home my mum and brother manage. The residents I was with were all buying books, and so I couldn’t not get one as well. I will admit, I judged this book by its cover – I was very intrigued by the design here. The blurb also looked like something I’d enjoy: a group of children are exiled by Elizabeth I to a place called Rotherweird; years later, the town has developed into a secretive and arcane place, excelling in science and technology, but restrictive of any knowledge of its past. The book begins with two strangers arriving in Rotherweird – a new history teacher, Jonah Oblong, and a mysterious millionaire, Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has bought the old manor house. Rotherweird’s inhabitants are an odd bunch, laden with quirks and old-time affectations, and its history is shrouded in obscurity. Except… it isn’t really. The ‘mystery’ of Rotherweird isn’t particularly hidden from the reader, and this makes much of the story somewhat ponderous. I found myself impatient for the characters to catch up and do something – perhaps it would’ve been better not to have so much insistence that there was a puzzle to be solved. The book is clearly indebted to the Gormenghast trilogy, but it lacks the absorbing intricacy of Peake’s work, and it feels more frivolous and – in places – silly. It’s Gormenghast-lite, and, sadly, I was a bit disappointed in the end.

The Private Patient by P.D. James (2008)

Another book I picked up in August – this time it’s one I bought from a jumble sale at a local fun day. I have to admit I haven’t read a lot of P.D. James (and until this month hadn’t read any of the Adam Dalgliesh books). I love the Queens of Crime (Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh), and I’m a big fan of the other Baroness of Crime (Rendell), so I thought it was about time I made a start on the Adam Dalgliesh novels. But, weirdly, this involved reading the last of the series first. The Private Patient is set (funnily enough) in a private clinic specialising in plastic surgery. Journalist Rhoda Gradwyn checks in before an operation – but someone ensures she’ll never check out. Dalgliesh and his team investigate. This is a classic country house mystery, though the country house has now been transformed into a clinic (there are shades of Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side in the description of the forced sale of the hall – though James’s book was published 46 years later than Christie’s). Now, I’ll say up front that the denouement is a bit of a let-down, but I was completely engrossed in the story. It was a real page-turner, and I really enjoyed the way the plot unfolded. I was quite struck by the attention given to the victim before the murder, making her much more of a character than you normally find in detective fiction. I really enjoyed this one.

Cover Her Face by P.D. James (1962)

In for a penny, in for a pound… I thought I’d make a start on the rest of the Adam Dalgliesh novels. And this time, I started in the right place. Cover Her Face is James’s debut novel, which introduces her series detective (and isn’t it weird that James’s first and Christie’s last published novels use the same quote from The Duchess of Malfi?). We’re back in the world of the country house murder – this time, it’s the home of the Maxie family, who are just realising their way of life is on its way out and that their country house won’t be in the family forever. They take on a new maid (Sally Jupp) from the local home for unmarried mothers, but it isn’t long before Sally is found murdered. Adam Dalgliesh is called in to investigate, uncovering various secrets as he goes. It’s a very enjoyable murder mystery, though James isn’t quite as slick with her clues as Christie. And I’m fascinated by the parallels between this novel and Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, which was published the same year. The Maxies of the former are in a similar boat to the Bantrys of the latter, though they haven’t yet been forced to sell their ancestral home – there’s even a set-piece garden fête in each novel. In many ways, though Christie’s novel is more accepting of the march of progress – James’s book has a much harder heart. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away.

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

Maybe – just maybe – I read too much P.D. James in one go. I went straight from Cover Her Face to the second Adam Dalgliesh novel, but I found this one really grated on me. A Mind to Murder is set in – surprise, surprise – a former posh house (townhouse this time) that’s been converted to another use. Here, the house is now a psychiatric clinic, and the administration manager is the unfortunate victim. There were some things I really liked about this one. Descriptions of the house, the city and the season (autumn) were vivid and compelling, and it was interesting reading a depiction of a psychiatric clinic in the early days of NHS mental health treatment. However, I find that I’m starting to dislike Adam Dalgliesh – he’s like an emo Lord Peter Wimsey – and while he has plenty of personality quirks, he doesn’t seem to have any particularly acute powers of detection. I’m pretty sure any other policeman could have solved this one, and I like my detectives a little more indispensable. After reading three Adam Dalgliesh novels, I also feel like it’s really obvious which benches this Baroness of Crime sat on in the House of Lords – and I can’t help comparing them to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford novels. There are points in A Mind to Murder that make Miss Marple look like Jeremy Corbyn. Personally, I also struggled with some of the descriptions of ECT and LSD treatment in the clinic, but that was the 60s for you.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (2012)

Here’s another one I bought at the fun day in August. Now, this might sound shocking, but I’d never read anything by J.K. Rowling before. I love Robert Galbraith, though, so I had a sneaking suspicion I’d probably like Rowling too. Hmm… The Casual Vacancy was Rowling’s first ‘adult’ novel after the final Harry Potter book. It’s set in the West Country village of Pagford, and tells the story of the confusion, conflict and machinations set in motion by the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. It’s an overtly political book (even making direct reference to certain political parties), and its sprawling cast are drawn into debates on social housing, addiction and education in the run-up to the election. And… I really didn’t like it. Clearly trying to shake off the Hogwarts dust, Rowling has created a nasty, cynical little tale, where casual sexual assault, physical abuse and crime mount towards a painful climax (and an election that, by that point, really doesn’t matter). As the novel progresses, it’s clear that this is intended to be a ‘social issues’ novel, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot (it was dubbed Mugglemarch by some). Krystal Weedon becomes our council estate Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and we watch, pity and analyse (but don’t identify with) the horrors of Krystal’s life. To ensure no identification accidentally occurs, Krystal’s speech is written entirely phonetically, and this really really annoyed me. Turns out, I don’t like J.K. Rowling books. But I still love Robert Galbraith.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

My Year in Books 2018: August

This post is a little delayed, but I've finally had chance to catch up with my New Year's Resolution (which I'm still sticking to). Only four books this time, but that's not too bad. So here's the list of books I read for pleasure in August...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

I discovered Fowler’s novel while looking for books with unreliable narrators and genuine twists. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from it, except that there was a secret that would be revealed on around page 77. The book’s narrator is Rosemary, a young woman studying at university who is rather reticent about her family. We know from the beginning that Rosemary has (had?) two siblings, Fern and Lowell, who are no longer part of her life. Fern, particularly, is something of a mystery as all we know is that she ‘went away’ one day without warning. Although I did guess in advance what the secret about Fern was, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. It’s an unusual story that’s both very funny and utterly heart-breaking. The style reminded me at times of Kate Atkinson and Marina Lewycka (two writers that I really like), particularly in its non-linear structure (the story loops back a couple of time, revealing things that may not have been clear the first time round) and in the often painful juxtaposition of comedy and the brutality of life. This is a book about empathy and kindness – a sort of coming-of-age story – but one that doesn’t shy away from presenting cruelty and unfairness. I can’t say too much more without giving major spoilers, but this was a genuinely unexpected story with a central character I was really invested in and ending that stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. I highly recommend this one.

Before I Let You In by Jenny Blackhurst (2016)

Somehow, I got sucked back into domestic noir after swearing blind that this genre is not for me. I don’t know how I keep falling for the promise of mind-blowing twists and endings I won’t see coming. Sadly, I’m just setting myself up for disappointment. Blackhurst’s book is very much of a type. It has a very intriguing blurb, but it just doesn’t deliver. Karen is a psychiatrist (apparently, though she actually spends most of her time giving psychotherapy sessions), who gets a new patient called Jessica. Jessica seems to know things about Karen’s personal life, and their sessions start to unsettle Karen. The book is told in genre-typical fragmented style, including the near-ubiquitous ‘unnamed narrator’ sections designed to add sinister intrigue to the proceedings. The book’s hook is the relationship between Karen and her mysterious patient, but most of the story focuses on Karen’s relationships with her two best friends, Bea and Eleanor, and her affair with a married man named Michael. The plot is, unfortunately, ploddingly predictable, and the characters are drawn with very broad strokes. As with other books in this genre I’ve read recently, you can see the oversold ending coming a mile away. I know this genre is really popular, and books like this are very readable (I got through this one in just two sittings), but I don’t think it’s for me. Admittedly, I’ve said this before, and yet here I am reviewing another one. But I’m definitely out now: I’m going cold turkey.

Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler (2014)

So after finally quitting domestic noir (and I’m serious, I’ve really quit this time), I decided to turn to something I know I like: folk horror. I’d been familiar with Scarfolk via Twitter for a while, but hadn’t read Littler’s book. Scarfolk is a fictional north-west town that is permanently stuck in the 1970s. It first appeared on a blog creater by Littler, which purported to publish ‘artefacts’ of the town. The ‘artefacts’ on the website are public safety posters, leaflets and book covers, all based on British public safety information from the 70s, but with a disturbing, often horrific, twist. I’ve always enjoyed the way the posters and leaflets were stand-alone artefact, but that they gradually built up to create a sense of a place (and even a narrative) without spelling things out. I was curious to know how this would work in book form, where there is more text used to string things together. Undoubtedly, the star of the book is the material replicated from the website. However, there’s also a narrative (of sorts) that explains and contextualizes the artefacts. There’s a frame story about how the ‘artefacts’ came into the hands of the compiler, and the book is presented as an academic outline of the experiences of Daniel Bush, a man who accidentally ends up trapped in Scarfolk. The humour is satirical, though occasionally puerile, but I particularly loved the footnotes scattered through the story of Daniel’s descent into the madness of Scarfolk. Definitely enjoyed this one.

Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt by John Grindrod (2017)

The next book I read definitely isn’t folk horror, but it is about some of the quirks of urban, suburban and rural Britain that might inspire folk horror. Grindrod’s book is part memoir, part exploration of the history of the green belt. We’re introduced to New Addington, the council estate where Grindrod grew up, which was constructed right on the edge of London’s green belt. Taking his experiences of his childhood home as a starting point, Grindrod unpeels the layers of history to this peculiar (and often misunderstood) aspect of town planning. I found the history here fascinating – Grindrod jumps back and forth across the centuries, introducing the many writers, planners and politicians who have played a role in shaping our modern concept of the green belt. If it’s sometimes confusing, that’s because the green belt itself is a contradictory and complex mass of (often competing) ideological and pragmatic concerns, and its very existence is often misunderstood or misquoted by both its defenders and detractors. Alongside this history, Grindrod offers a more personal narrative of family life. The memoir element of the book is utterly compelling and very moving in places, but the real charm lies in the way this is woven into the story of the green belt itself. With carefully researched history and a good dose of personal reflection, the book offers an endearing snapshot of family life, personal identity and planning strategy, revealing the ways in which these connect to one another. I really recommend this one.

Monday, 20 August 2018

My Year in Books 2018: July

And so... I've stuck to my New Year's resolution for another month! This is definitely the best I've ever managed! (And I managed to read more than last month too, so I'm doing okay at this.)

So here are the books I read for pleasure in July...

(Here are my lists for the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This one was a recommendation (of sorts). I have a bit on my radio show (Hannah’s Bookshelf) called Apocalypse Books, where I ask my guests: in the event of the apocalypse, which three books would you save? A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the books Emma Jane Unsworth saved when she was a guest back in 2016, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since. Egan’s novel is actually a series of interrelated stories – when I started reading Chapter 2 I thought for a moment it was a short story collection – about a series of people connected to New York record producer Bennie Salazar and his assistant Sasha. The stories move about in time, and the book begins in the middle of Sasha’s story, and the characters move in and out of each other’s lives. It’s an interesting structure, but it’s definitely not a gimmick. The book’s title refers to time – ‘Time’s a goon, right?’ says one character – and the back-and-forth nature adds pathos to time’s cruelty. We often see what characters will become, before moving back to how they once were (and what they dreamed of being one day). Despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that most of the characters are kind of unlikeable, I found it a really compelling read (to be honest, I was really taken with Egan’s writing from the first chapter, so would have been happy if it had turned out to be a short story collection after all!).

The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana (2017)

So, I managed to get a bit hooked on domestic noir this month. Last month I read a couple of crime/psychological thriller novels, and I think they were my gateway drug. I’m using the term ‘domestic noir’ for this thriller subgenre – though it goes under other names – as I think it best captures what links these books. The best known examples are probably Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and domestic noirs tend to have troubled female protagonists dealing with some sort of secret (often something from her past) and with people who are not who they pretend to be. They’re also often advertised as having a ‘mind-blowing twist’. Quintana’s novel is about Anna Flores, whose teenage sister disappeared thirty years earlier. Now, Anna’s mother has died, and Anna has to return to the village where she grew up to clear the family home – and to finally face up to what happened to Gabriella. The Missing Girl is certainly well-written and engaging, and I did get quite immersed in Anna’s story. But I’m not sure it’s really a thriller, and it certainly doesn’t have a twist (the truth about Gabriella is pretty obvious about halfway through the book). Overall, it’s a bit too pedestrian for a thriller, and the mystery doesn’t quite work. I did enjoy the character of Anna, though, and the descriptions of family life were well-done. I’m not convinced domestic noir is for me, to be honest, but maybe I just need to keep trying…

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

And now… more domestic noir… Friend Request is probably a bit more typical of the subgenre than The Missing Girl, and it ticks a lot of the generic/cliché boxes as well. I was promised an ‘addictive psychological thriller’ with a ‘genuinely unexpected’ twist. One day, Louise gets a Facebook friend request from a girl she knew at school, Maria Weston. But Maria Weston died over twenty-five years earlier. (Admittedly, that’s a pretty cool premise, and it certainly had me hooked initially.) Louise’s story switches between the present day – as mysterious Facebook messages unsettle and long-denied secrets threaten to surface – and flashbacks to 1989, as Louise remembers what happened in the final year of school. In true domestic noir style, the main story is told from the protagonist’s POV, but there are mysterious other chapters sprinkled throughout (in third-person, with an unclear subject, and presented in italics). Also in true domestic noir style, the protagonist is troubled and is responsible for quite unpleasant actions in the past that may have affected the present. Like The Missing Girl, Friend Request’s heroine was pretty horrible to a more vulnerable kid when she was younger. But outside of these generic conventions, there really is very little to Friend Request. The Facebook mystery and its resolution is disappointing, and there is absolutely no twist (again, the solution is quite obvious early on). Maybe I’m a bit too fussy about what counts as a twist? But this one fell a bit flat for me, I’m afraid.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017)

Without sounding like a bandwagon-jumper, I really did like The Girl on the Train. A good indication of how much I enjoyed the book is that I haven’t wanted to see the film version yet. I encouraged my mum to read it after me, and she also loved it (and hasn’t seen the film). It was my mum who got Into the Water and read it first, and then she lent it to me. In typical style, she was a bit cryptic in her comments before I read it: ‘It’s a bit different to The Girl on the Train,’ was all she’d say. And she was right! Into the Water is the story of a woman – well, several women really – who died after plunging into a ‘Drowning Pool’ in a river. While Girl on the Train had multiple narrators, Into the Water turns this up to 11. Hawkins uses these multiple narrators very well. Each one has a distinct voice and story to tell, and these weave together well to create both a mystery (the deep secrets of the Drowning Pool) and a sad tale of sisterly estrangement (Jules – the closest the book has to a protagonist – has returned to her old family home after her sister’s death). The thing is, though, it’s not The Girl on the Train. The narrators are, on the whole, pretty reliable (I’m so bored of reliable narrators), and there really isn’t a proper twist ending here. But it’s a compelling and creepy tale nonetheless.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

As I say, I’m not sure domestic noir is really for me. So my next book was a deliberate change of pace. I am a big fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work, but I still have a lot of titles I haven’t read yet. The Grin of the Dark sounded right up my street: Film Studies lecturer Simon Lester is commissioned (in a decidedly suspicious way) to write about forgotten silent comedy star Tubby Thackeray. The problem is, Tubby seems to have been forgotten for a reason, and it proves very difficult to begin tracking down his lost films. Why did Tubby’s career end so abruptly? And why is it being actively forgotten now? In Ancient Images (which I loved), Campbell explores the world of the ‘lost film’ and its potential for horror, but in that book, the object of the search is actually a horror film. Here, it’s comedy all the way – and that makes it even more unsettling. The first description of Tubby on film was gloriously unnerving, despite the feeling of familiarity and similarity to other (‘real’) silent comedies. In many ways, this is a more philosophical (almost academic) book than Ancient Images, as there is a pervasive feeling throughout that there’s something wrong with comedy itself, not simply the creatures that lurk behind it. Added to this, there’s some creepy language games going on that add an uncomfortable absurdist element to the events that unfold. This is a definite recommendation – Tubby Thackeray is a truly disturbing creation!

Saturday, 7 July 2018

My Year in Books 2018: June

So, I'm still clinging on to my New Year's Resolution to read more for pleasure. After a bit of a rubbish May, I did manage to find time for three novels in June. Not quite hitting my target, but to be fair work has been crazy busy.

Before I get to my three June books, just a reminder that you can see the other books I've read in 2018 here: January, February, March, April, May

Burial of Ghosts by Ann Cleeves (2003)

I was round at my parents’ house at the beginning of the month and decided to ask my mum for some book recommendations (because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to read next). I think I asked for ‘something where the past comes back to haunt the present’ and ‘something a bit like Peter May’. She lent me two books, and the first one I read was Burial of Ghosts. I’ve never read any of Ann Cleeves’ novels before. I love the ITV Vera series, but I struggled to get into the BBC’s Shetland. Burial of Ghosts is a standalone, though, so I thought it’d be a good introduction to Cleeves’ writing. The book follows troubled young woman Lizzie Bartholomew, a social worker forced to take leave from work due to dark incidents that we learn about through fragmentary flashbacks. On holiday in Morocco, Lizzie has a quick fling with a man named Philip. On her return to the UK, she’s shocked to find that Philip has died and left her a substantial bequest in his will. But in return, he wants her to do something for him… The story unfolds in a compelling way, and Lizzie is a rather offbeat protagonist. I did guess a couple of the twists and turns, but that didn’t really diminish my enjoyment of the story, which was as much about character development than a puzzle to be solved. This one is a recommendation, and I’ll probably read more of Cleeves’ work in future.

Sanctum by Denise Mina (2002)

This is the second book I borrowed from my mum this month. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first. Sanctum is written as a diary, kept by Lachlan Harriot after his wife Susie is convicted of the murder of violent serial killer Andrew Gow. As Lachlan begins to search through his wife’s papers for evidence to mount an appeal, he begins to doubt whether she really is innocent of the crime. The premise seemed pretty cool – and it’s certainly the sort of thing I like reading – but sadly I felt it fell down on the execution. My first problem was that – despite being rather unlikable – Lachlan is a completely reliable narrator. I spent the first half of the book assuming things would turn out to be different, but as it transpired his diary is just a straightforward description of events. Secondly – and more importantly – the ‘mystery’ here just isn’t that interesting, and the ‘reveal’ falls flat. Throughout the book, we’re led to believe that something earth-shattering lurks in Susie’s study – she repeatedly tells Lachlan à la Bluebeard NOT TO GO INTO THE ROOM. The difficulty with the Bluebeard story is that, of course, they always go into the room, so you must make sure there’s something pretty outstanding behind the door. And, unfortunately, there just isn’t in Sanctum. The final explanation, though prefaced with a couple of low-key clues, just didn’t seem worth all the locks Susie placed on the door. A bit disappointing.

Miss Christie Regrets by Guy Fraser-Sampson (2017)

Oh dear. If the last book was disappointing, this next one was downright frustrating. Again, this sounded right up my street: a contemporary murder mystery written in Golden Age style. I was promised a ‘love letter to Golden Age fiction’, and a ‘puzzle box of a mystery’. Instead, Miss Christie Regrets is a rather tame (and not particularly intriguing) crime novel with some overt references to older novels. It is the second in Fraser-Sampson’s Hampstead novels (I didn’t know this when I started reading it, and I haven’t read the first). A man has been murdered in an iconic Hampstead building, and detectives discover a connection to a decades-old body found in another location. A pedestrian investigation follows, in which detectives talk like characters from a 1930s novel but keep mentioning SOCOs and the problems of modern policing. Ultimately though, there are no ‘Golden Age’ style clues, no deductive reasoning, and one of the mysteries is solved when a character conveniently tops himself, leaving a helpfully detailed note (Agatha would not approve). Sadly, the book isn’t properly edited either, which mars any possible enjoyment of the plot. Numerous typos and inconsistencies are distracting, and a character’s name changes for three pages. I’d also say that the author has a bit of a problem with names: there are two Peters, two Toms, an Alan (first name) and an Allen (surname), a Collins and a Collison, a Victor Laszlo and a Timothy Evans. Overall, the book needed a thorough copy-edit and proof-read.

Monday, 18 June 2018

My Year in Books 2018: May

Okay, so May was a pretty hectic month. I read quite a lot of stuff for work, but didn't really get chance to read much for pleasure. So embarrassingly, there's only one book on my list for May. I'm still trying to stick to my resolution, though, so here's a review anywhere.

In case you missed them, here are my posts from months when I did better: January, February, March and April.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude (1935)

I love the British Library Crime Classics series, and I’m building up quite a collection of them – mostly thanks to my mother-in-law, who’s bought me loads of titles for birthdays and Christmas (and a couple that she’s picked up second-hand too!). I read John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder last Christmas (when we were staying in Cornwall), so I was looking forward to this one. Bude’s novels are a bit unusual for Golden Age detective fiction, as they tend more towards the ‘police procedural’ side of things. Cornish Coast combines this with a bit of amateur sleuthing by other characters, but Lake District goes the whole hog and just focuses on the police investigation. A garage owner is found dead in his car, apparently having taken his own life. Inspector Meredith suspects there’s more to it, and he launches a meticulously thorough investigation to get to the bottom of things. But everything he uncovers leads to a further puzzle. Police procedurals aren’t my favourite – I’m more of a whodunnit type of person – but, as is usually the case with the BL’s Crime Classics, you get so swept away with the atmosphere and scenery that you can forgive a slightly dull plot (this one has a lot of talk of garages and petrol deliveries)! Bude’s novel is set in one of my favourite places in the world, and there’s something quite compelling about watching the dogged Inspector Meredith zooming round Cumbria on his motorcycle, before heading home for a cold-cut lunch.

I'll try and have more books to talk about next month!

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

My Year in Books 2018: April

I'm doing alright with this New Year's Resolution business! Didn't get as much time to read in April as previously, as it's been a pretty hectic month, but still found some snatches of time to read a couple of novels for pleasure. And I'm still sticking to my word count for reviews as well. This is probably the best I've ever done with a resolution!

Here are the links to my previous posts from January, February and March. And here are the books I read in April.

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2008; translated by Lucia Graves, 2009)

One thing I’m trying to do with this New Year’s resolution is catch up with the books I’ve borrowed over the past couple of years, then never read. This is another loan from my mother-in-law – though, like The Liar last month, it’s not the sort of thing we normally share. The Angel’s Game definitely has supernatural undertones, but it’s more ‘literary fiction’ than I normally go for. Set in Barcelona in the 1920s, the book tells the story of a struggling writer, David Martín, who begins his career at a newspaper after his father is killed. As David excels in the world of pulp serial fiction, he dreams of writing a ‘real’ novel. Dogged by failure, he’s approached by a mysterious French publisher who makes him an offer that seems too good to be true. The premise had me totally hooked, but I found the novel patchy. Some chapters/sequences were captivating and evocative, but much of the book was drawn-out and tedious. In places, it was rather repetitive and, as with a lot of men’s literary fiction, the presentation of women was awful (we’re only a couple of chapters in before the first Manic Pixie Dream Girl appears, and oh boy! is the protagonist’s mum to blame for a lot). That said, those captivating sequences kept me reading, and I did love the house that is the setting for much of the novel, so it wasn’t all bad. I’m on the fence as to whether this is a recommendation though.

Fall of Night by Rachel Caine (2013)

Fall of Night is the fourteenth and penultimate book in Caine’s Morganville Vampires YA series. I’ve been a fan of the series for a while – I’d go as far as to say the books are the best YA vampire books I’ve read – but I never got round to reading the last two books in the series (collateral damage in my ‘no time to read for pleasure’ situation). It’s been a few years since I read the thirteenth book (Bitter Blood), but it was surprisingly easy to get back into the series. At the end of Bitter Blood, protagonist Claire Danvers had finally helped her uneasy vampire allies defeat the various foes attacking the small Texas town of Morganville, and she’s played her part in setting a new era of human/vampire relations in motion. As a reward, she’s been given permission by head vampire and town founder to leave the town and pursue her studies at MIT (something Claire has dreamed of since she first rocked up in Morganville in the first book). Of course, things aren’t really what they seem and Claire has more enemies (human and vampire) to face. As with the rest of the series, the books feature a likable heroine, with a great team of sidekicks, and vampires that are more three-dimensional than in (perhaps) any other YA series. It’s a fun read, but I’d suggest reading the rest of the series first – so you’re familiar with the characters and the rules of their quirky vampiric town.

Daylighters by Rachel Caine (2013)

I followed Fall of Night straightaway with Daylighters, the fifteenth and final book in Caine’s series. Morganville Vampires is an interesting series in that most books follow on immediately from their predecessor, with some ending on a mid-action cliffhanger. Fall of Night and Daylighters work like this, with the shock ending of the former being the dramatic opening scene of the latter. It’s an aspect of the series that encourages binge reading, and I’ve read quite a few of the books back-to-back. Without spoiling the plot of Fall of Night, I’ll say that Daylighters sees Claire and her (human and vampire) friends return to Morganville after their brief sojourn in Cambridge (the one in Massachusetts) to find that things are very different to when they left – there is, of course, one final battle to be faced. While there were certain aspects of this book I loved – it has all the chemistry of the previous titles, and a certain supernatural creature (sort of) makes its long-awaited appearance in the series – it is a little let down by its continuity, which was really apparent reading it straight after Fall of Night. The problem is that the events of Fall of Night clearly took place over the course of a single week, but several months seem to have passed in Morganville. I did enjoy Daylighters, but this niggle annoyed me, as the rest of the series was pretty tight on chronology and continuity. Not my favourite Morganville book, but still a fun read.

The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid (2014)

The last book I read this month was Val McDermid’s The Skeleton Road. I’ve read quite a few of McDermid’s books, and I’ve enjoyed almost all the ones I’ve read so far (the only one I haven’t liked was A Darker Domain). I picked this one up in a bookshop while we were away and didn’t have any preconceptions about it. I hadn’t clocked that it was in the same series as A Darker Domain, and to be honest I didn’t even notice it had the same detective until I came to write this review! This tells you something about how McDermid does series fiction – it’s not always necessary to read the books in the order they were published, as most of them work as standalones as well as instalments. The Skeleton Road is the third novel to feature Karen Pirie, a cold case detective, and this book begins with the discovery of a decades-old body on the roof of an old school in Edinburgh. The first challenge for the detective is to identify the body, and there isn’t much for her to go on. Interweaving narratives introduce other storylines and characters: a man is killed in his apartment in Crete, a university professor worries about the fate of her Croatian lover, who left her eight years earlier, an International Criminal Tribunal prepares to wrap up its search for Balkan war criminals. The pleasure here is seeing how everything fits together, but also how the characters handle the various revelations.

My Year in Books 2018: March

I've managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for three months! Go me! I'm still making time to read books for pleasure, and I've managed to keep writing short-form reviews as well. Admittedly, I'm a bit late posting my reviews for March, but I reckon I'm doing alright, given how busy April was for me.

In case you're curious, you can click on these links for my reviews from January and February. But here are the books I read in March...

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)

I’ve been a fan of Kate Atkinson’s writing since I first read Behind the Scenes at the Museum as an undergraduate (and that book remains one of my favourite novels of all time). I’m also – as you might have guessed from other posts on this blog – a big fan of detective fiction. However, until now, I hadn’t read any of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. And I’m not sure why. They’ve been recommended to me by a number of people, so I thought it was about time I took the plunge. Hmmm… not sure I’m glad I did, to be honest. I started with Case Histories, which seemed to have a great premise: three seemingly unconnected cold cases all fall into the lap of Jackson Brodie, private investigator, who becomes (professionally) involved with the eccentric sisters of one of the victims, and the tragic father of one of the others. The book has been described as a ‘tragi-comedy’ and ‘complex’, qualities I love in Atkinson’s other novels. However, Case Histories just didn’t do it for me. It is undoubtedly a novel about a detective, but it isn’t a detective novel. There’s no sense of a mystery to be solved, or clues to be uncovered, but rather the unravelling of a series of tragic stories. While this type of unravelling works well in Atkinson’s other fiction, the presence of a rather cliched P.I. here makes it all seem rather forced. I’ve got to admit, I was really quite disappointed with this one.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (2006)

I know I didn’t really enjoy Case Histories, but I was still determined to give Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books a good try. So next up, I read One Good Turn. In this book, Brodie has retired from detective work and is living in France. On a visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, he becomes wrapped up in a ‘Russian doll’ series of events: a brutal road rage incident leads to another incident, which leads to another, and another, and so on. In many ways, the story unfolds in a more typically Atkinson way than in Case Histories, and the focus on how (sometimes minor) occurrences can have a ripple effect on the lives of people only tangentially involved is characteristic of Atkinson’s style (which works so well in Behind the Scenes and A God in Ruins, for instance). But the book’s over-arching mystery just didn’t work for me. It lacked any sense of realism or suspense, and the characters were unconvincing. Jackson Brodie himself felt like an afterthought. Although he’s caught up in the mystery at various points, he doesn’t really play a role in investigating or solving it. In fact, I’m not sure how much of it is really ‘solved’ at the end – things have happened, and some people are aware of the truth, but there’s no real denouement. Overall, I felt that this (and Case Histories) were too Atkinson-y to be good detective fiction, but too detective fiction-y to be good Atkinson novels. Jackson Brodie is not for me.

The Ravenglass Eye by Tom Fletcher (2012)

Oh dear, it seems this month’s theme is ‘disappointing books by authors I love’. Tom Fletcher’s debut novel The Leaping is one of my favourite horror novels of all time. I also really enjoyed his second novel The Thing on the Shore, particularly the way it evokes a version of Cumbria far removed from the more usual romanticized Lake District. (I’m Cumbrian by birth, by the way, and I’m from the other, non-Lake District bit of Cumbria.) Ravenglass is one of my favourite places in the UK, so I was over-the-moon when I heard that Fletcher’s third horror novel was set in the little Northern Lakes village. Sigh. I’m gutted to say it, but I really didn’t enjoy The Ravenglass Eye. The book tells the story of Edie, a barmaid at The Tup (like most of the locations, this is a thinly fictionalized version of a real pub in Ravenglass) who develops ‘the Eye’, a power which allows her to see strange events and another world. When a horrifically mutilated corpse is found, Edie realizes that she is part of something much bigger – and far-reaching – than she knew. While this is a fairly solid premise for a horror novel, the book lacks the lyricism and philosophical quality that I enjoyed in Fletcher’s previous two horror novels. We lurch from one grotesque set piece to the next, without any time to dwell on the magnitude of what we’re seeing. Sadly, the book feels rather hurried, and the ending is a let-down.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, as it’s cropped up a couple of times when I’ve been looking for themes for episodes of my radio show. Setterfield’s novel features Margaret Lea, a bookseller and amateur biographer, who is contacted by reclusive (but super-famous) novelist Vida Winter. Vida is dying and wants to finally tell the story of her life – putting to bed the various fabrications she’s created over the years – and she’s chosen Margaret as her biographer. Vida insists on letting the story unfold chronologically, though Margaret can’t resist fact-checking and leaping ahead at times, which creates an enjoyable story-within-a-story format. The Thirteenth Tale is definitely a page-turner, and there’s a lot that I really liked about it. I did guess a couple of the twists (including the final ‘reveal’), but that didn’t prevent me enjoying the way the story unfolded. My only problem with the book was that I couldn’t stand the protagonist! I found Margaret to be one of the most irritating characters I’ve read for a long while. Hardly a page goes by without her mentioning either (a) that she loves books (other people might love books, but she like really loves them) and (b) she drinks cocoa rather than tea or coffee. Fortunately, the book keeps taking us back to Vida’s story which, though a little OTT, is a lot more engaging than Margaret’s narration. Overall, I enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, though. It’s a great Gothic mystery with some decent ghostly twists.

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver (2010)

My mother-in-law lent me Dark Matter ages ago, after I mentioned I’d become a bit fascinated by Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. I kept meaning to read it, but never seem to get chance. I thought this New Year’s resolution was a good spur to finally get around to it. The book is set in 1937; a young man named Jack Miller signs up to be a wireless operator with an expedition to Spitsbergen (part of the Svalbard archipelago). A party of five men and eight huskies leave Norway, with the intention of making camp in Gruhuken and making a scientific study of the area. But, as they leave Longyearbyen (the main settlement in Svalbard), things start to go wrong. And as it’s the final days of the Arctic summer, there’s a long winter stretching ahead of them. Paver’s novel is subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’, and this is an accurate description (more accurate than it being tagged ‘horror’). This is definitely a story about a haunting. However, what I really enjoyed was the way the landscape is evoked. It would be trite to say that Gruhuken is a ‘character’ in the book, but Paver is careful to keep the desolate bay centre-stage throughout the book. Dark Matter is a short book, but wonderfully absorbing. It’s a story about how people and place are inextricably intertwined, and (strange to say) it’s revitalised my desire to visit Svalbard one day. I’m glad I finally got chance to read it!

The Liar by Nora Roberts (2015)

Okay, this is a strange one. It’s another book my mother-in-law lent me, but I’m still at a loss to know why. Or why she read it in the first place. My mother-in-law and I share a love of horror and crime fiction. She lent me Dark Matter, and we went to a Peter May book launch together. Where did this Nora Roberts book come from? (She can’t remember, by the way. I think she might have been convinced by the Stephen King endorsement on the cover!) I’m not a romance fan, but I thought I’d give this one a go for the sake of variety. The blurb promised something almost like a thriller: when Shelby Pomeroy’s husband dies unexpectedly, she discovers a web of deception and debt that makes her question whether she really knew the man she was married to. Sadly, that’s not really what the book is about. Instead, it’s the story of a very dull young woman who returns to her hometown after her husband supposedly dies. Despite her having done nothing in life except marrying an obnoxious man, everyone is inexplicably in awe of Shelby Pomeroy. The book is littered with people praising her skills at selling her husband’s designer suits to pay off his debts, and she’s the greatest singer ever. The plot mostly revolves around her copping off with a local carpenter, and the reappearance of the dastardly not-dead husband is simply an underdeveloped subplot. Suffice to say, I was bored to tears.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

My Year in Books 2018: February

So I managed to stick to my New Year's Resolution for another month. Yay! I'm still making time to read for pleasure (even if I didn't read quite as much as last month), and I'm still sticking to my 250-word limit for my reviews.

If you missed it, you can click here for my reading list in January. But here are the books I read in February...

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (2006)

I’ve been meaning to read Thomas’s novel for some time now, as it was recommended to me a couple of years ago. The person who told me about it really enjoyed it, and the blurb sounded right up my street. Ariel Manto, a PhD student working on nineteenth-century thought experiments, stumbles upon a copy of a supposedly lost and cursed work by obscure writer Thomas Lumas (the eponymous The End of Mr Y). The only person Ariel knows who has read Mr Y is her PhD supervisor, but he disappeared eighteen months earlier. As Ariel begins to read Mr Y, she discovers the secret that (presumably) drove Lumas to his death and her supervisor to disappear. I really wanted to like this book, as it’s a fabulous premise. But sadly, The End of Mr Y left me rather disappointed. I know I’m going to sound like a bit of a snob here, but, for all its academic pretensions, it just wasn’t quite clever enough. There are casual mentions of various ‘classic’ thought experiments (from Schrödinger’s Cat to Einstein’s theory of relativity) and philosophical principles, but these are never really treated in much detail. There’s also a tendency to stick to the famous examples, which makes Ariel’s PhD research seem a wee bit superficial. Strangely, for all Ariel’s insistence, Lumas’s novel doesn’t seem to be a thought experiment at all, in the end. However, for all that, I really liked the book’s ending, which is presented with a wonderfully light touch.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (2017)

I read McGregor’s debut novel If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things about ten years ago, on the recommendation of a Yr 10 lad I was tutoring at the time. I completely fell in love with the book and read So Many Ways to Begin shortly afterwards. I loved that McGregor’s first (and, to a lesser extent, second) book was, essentially, a prose poem, and that the narrative isn’t constructed in a particularly easy way. You sort of let the fragments wash over you, until you somehow know (without really being told) what is going on. I was hoping Reservoir 13 would do something similar – and I wasn’t disappointed. The book has thirteen chapters, and each one tells a year in the life of an English village, moving from New Year through the seasons until it reaches Christmas. But, as with McGregor’s first two novels, the thread of the story is strung on a communal tragedy. The first chapter tells of the first ‘new year’ since the unexplained disappearance of a young teenager who was visiting the village with her family. As in Remarkable Things, this is the story of how life continues around the hole formed by a devastating event, with characters and events presented through fragmentary and semi-objective snippets. The pace of the novel constantly reminds you of the unstoppable march of time and change, but the use of repetition and echoed phrases suggest that, perhaps, things aren’t changing as much as you think. I really enjoyed this one.

We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka (2009)

Some people don’t get Lewycka’s work, which blends madcap and often absurd comic writing with serious themes and references, but I really like the way that this works, as there’s something so human and so hopeful about the way life unfolds in her books. In her third novel, the protagonist is Georgie Sinclair, who is a copy-writer for a magazine called Adhesives in the Modern World and an aspiring romance writer. When Georgie’s husband walks out, she decides to chuck his stuff into a skip. She’s surprised to find her odd elderly neighbour, Mrs Shapiro, rooting items out and taking them away in a pram. She’s even more surprised when, a short time later, she is called by the hospital because Mrs Shapiro has listed Georgie as her next-of-kin. A quirky kind of alliance forms between the two women, with Georgie stumbling into taking care of Mrs Shapiro’s rambling, squalid home and assortment of earthy felines. She begins to get a glimpse into her neighbour’s past – taking in the Holocaust, Jewish diaspora, and the foundation of the Israeli state. A chance encounter with a Palestinian shop assistant with a side line in home repairs, the underhanded behaviour of a social worker of dubious morals, and the predations of an array of estate agents fixated on acquiring Mrs Shapiro’s house add further absurdity and trauma to the mix. I didn’t find this mix ‘glib’ as some reviewers have, but rather a testament to the extraordinary resilience of the survivor.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (2015)

Okay, this one is a reread. I originally read Career of Evil when it first came out but ended up rereading it after the first episode of the BBC adaptation on 25th February. I knew the TV version had cut a lot of subplots out/down to fit the format, so I wanted to remind myself what was missing! Career of Evil is the third Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling). As I’ve said to too many people (I’m such a hipster), I’ve never read anything by J.K. Rowling, but I do love Robert Galbraith. I couldn’t put The Cuckoo’s Calling or The Silkworm down. Career of Evil is a longer read – not so easy to finish in one sitting! – but it’s still a real page-turner. Galbraith’s detective, Strike, is a man out of time. He’s part hardboiled P.I., part whodunnit-unraveller. Like the rest of the characters who surround him, Strike is a larger-than-life figure, with enough quirks to keep a fleet of fictional detectives going. But there’s something so enjoyable about the novels, and I think it’s the story-telling. Galbraith sure can weave a yarn. Career of Evil sees Strike facing a figure from his past – someone who has sent a severed leg to his office, with a cryptic note that can only be meant for him. The mystery is: which unsavoury character is out for revenge? Strike gives us three suspects, the police offer up another, and there’s always a chance it’s someone else entirely. A really fun mystery novel.