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2019 Week 1

I have decided to revert to my “diary of the week” format this year. Having said that, there was no theatre or cinema or anything similar this week. I had booked to see “Pinter 5” at the Pinter this week, but on the day, the air temperature and pollution levels meant I would have been taking too much of a health risk by going out, so I had to give it a miss.

Reading

First up is my library reading group book. This has been hanging around a while, as the group decided to run it over two months instead of one. It was okay. I’m not a great lover of first person narration, and this book gave gave me no less than three first-person narrators. I don’t mind a historical novel, but I prefer a C J Sansom or a Hilary Mantel.

The second book I read this week is a strange little contemporary novel, chosen as my January calendar read. It tells the intertwined stories of a number of people over a period of a few days. It is bleak, wintry and set between Poland and Germany. There is a small mystery of a wolf that isn’t really explained, and all of the characters suffer misfortunes of one sort or another. I liked this book.

My third book is the Royal Institution Fiction Lab book for January. This is a reread for me. I confess I didn’t remember (from my first reading) that this was particularly science-based. I remembered something about fossils, but more about feminism and folklore. On rereading, I noticed a lot more science (I was looking for it, of course), but it still didn’t seem to be an underlying theme. It was a bit like a Dundee cake of a novel, with little science “nuts” embedded into the surface. I enjoyed it when I first read it (I had given it 5 stars), and this time I had fun spotting things like telescopes and ammonites and the use of chloroform as anaesthetic, but I still can’t quite see how this counts as a science based novel.

I chose this book as much for the cover as anything else. Roberts is one of my favourite SF writers, and this is an excellent example of SciFiCri. Some lovely examples of locked-room mystery (with a SF twist). There is a lot of blood in this book, and quite a lot of glass.

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December 31: Reading roundup

First of all, this month’s reading. Books with numbers in the titles are from my advent calendar (see December 1st for more on this).

The latest (and possibly last) in the Fractured Europe series. I have enjoyed all of these, and this one ties up some loose ends. It’s new this year, so no spoilers.

One of my advent calendar titles, and the first one I was interested in enough to download after reading the free sample. I studied Skinner’s theories of determinism in another life, and was interested to see how he envisioned a utopian society. The novel was readable, but ultimately unsatisfying. I found I didn’t particularly care about the protagonists, and I was left with questions (e.g. the remarked-upon but unexplained lack of workers in some workshops).

This book had been on my “to read” pile for a while, so I added it to my advent calendar for day 3. I wanted to like this, but in the end, the aliens spoiled it for me (as they often do). I liked the first part. A female scientist in revolutionary China, some exciting science, a bit of espionage…. It was stacking up well, and then, signals from deep space. Sigh. I have a particular aversion to badly-written aliens, but maybe it was a translation effect in this case. This book has very good reviews, so don’t let me put you off.

I loved this book. Read it.

I have had this on my list of books I thought I ought to read but had never got round to. I’m glad I finally got round to it.

Ann Veronica is the Royal Institution Fiction Lab book for December. I found it to be a bit of a grind. I don’t think Wells wrote women very well, and the science here was well-camouflaged amongst the “adventures” of our heroine. I wish she hadn’t settled for being a wife and mother in the end. Not a favourite.

This book didn’t live up to its hype for me. I found the resurrections confusing and the mystery was tied up too quickly at the end. Lots of good reviews, though, so don’t let me put you off.

This was a stand-alone short story, so price per word was pretty expensive, but it was worth it. A perfect little Christmas present to myself. Science Fiction, Dystopia, Christmas and Miéville’s excellent writing. Loved it.

This was definitely “of its time”. I bought it because I was draw in by the ghastliness of the cover, and the chance to read Japanese Science Fiction from the “golden age”. I wish I hadn’t.

The profits from this book go to Trauma Response Network, a charity that helps people suffering from PTSD.

I re-read this every Christmas. I always find something in it to make me smile.

This was chosen as the Guardian Book Club Book this month, so I had another go at it, paying particular attention to the computer game strand that I had glossed over in my first reading. I’m still not sure why that particular strand is in the book. It could have easily stood alone as a short story, or even a novella, but it doesn’t mesh at all well with the rest of the book.

The first of my new Christmas books (thanks Bex). I like these coppers, and it was interesting to read about “wobbling” (distance endurance racing over an indoor track), a sport I had never heard of before. The historical details were accurate and the setting was a place I know and had visited in my youth. I will definitely read more in this series.

The last of my ordinary calendar books for this year. I was out of one of my comfort zone with this, as it turned out to be full on horror, with apparitions, ghostly monks and black candles. There was a lot of rock music, which was a saving grace, but there was also some real nastiness. It needs a strong stomach, but I have to admit that it gripped me and I read to the end.

So, to round off the year, some statistics:

Amongst others, I read:

One utopian and ten dystopian novels.

Two “Lab Lit” novels

Six “classics”

Five “war” books

Three poetry works

Nine graphic novels

Two horror novels

Four ghost stories

One play script

One cookery book

Twenty five Science Fiction novels (19% of my reading for the year. Of that, 20% was SciFiCri).

Thirty eight crime novels (29%), of which 13% was SciFiCri and only 11% was Scandi Crime – normally much higher. Five of my Pratchett re-reads (City Watch novels)are included here.

6% of my reading this year had specifically LGBT themes and/or main characters. There was even less depiction of disability and only two books dealt specifically with mental health. That doesn’t seem very much. A target for next year seems in order here.

I only read three non-fiction works this year (four, if I include the play script “Stitchers”). Another target, methinks.

I did much more “literary” reading this year, much of it contemporary, but it is clear what my favourite genres are.

I am not ashamed.

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October 31: Reading roundup

I read twelve books this month. A little up on my average, mainly due to the Man Booker shortlist, which I have already written about, so I won’t be reviewing any of those in this post. In order of reading:

The second on the Man Booker shortlist, and the eventual winner of the prize. I didn’t think this one would win, but I am glad it did, as it turned out to be my favourite of the six.

Number three on the Man Booker shortlist.

Number four, and the most difficult to read.

Number five…

And the last one. I actually finished reading this on the day of the announcement, with a couple of hours to spare.

Reading all six, back to back, was a challenge to my brain and my pocket, and I might not do it again next year. Or I might borrow them from the library rather than buy them.

Any way, moving on…

A new addition to my small but perfectly formed collection of graphic novels. It is actually a set of linked short stories, originally published as a series of standalone comics. What you see is what you get. If you like manga and ghost stories you’ll like this. Not suitable for children.

My Calendar book for this month. Sir Fred Hoyle was a noted astrophysicist and coined the term “Big Bang“, although he didn’t subscribe to the theory, and believed solidly in the “Steady-State” universe. This book is firmly in the Science Fiction genre, but luckily for me there are no aliens or space battles, just a strange chronological quirk, and humans dealing with it. It has a very Victorian feel to it— a bit H G Wells-ish. It was ok, but the end was a bit limp, I felt.

I like Indridason’s detectives. They are always a bit “off”, and never annoyingly tropey. Flovent and Thorson are becoming favourites, particularly Thorson, who struggles with his suppressed sexuality (this is set in the forties) as well as his mixed heritage. This is only the second in this series, and it is shaping up well.

I am slowly re-working my way through Pratchetts “Watch” books, and this one seemed appropriate for the Halloween season, being set in Uberwald, where the aristocracy are vampires and werewolves. I like the Discworld novels, and have read all of them several times. I love finding new things in them—Pratchett was the master of “Easter eggs”. This time round I spotted a wonderful little Chekhov vignette, consisting of three sisters, a cherry orchard and Uncle Vanya’s trousers. Sublime.

My first foray into a new genre. LabLit.

On the surface, this book should have had everything. A female lead scientist. A mysterious feline disease epidemic that crosses into the human population. A couple of reclusive mathematicians. A government conspiracy. Bio-terrorism, etc, etc. What we get isn’t quite what was billed. Yes, there is a female lead scientist, but sadly, she is emotionally unstable and over dependent on her hunky male post-doc. The mathematicians are stereotyped as an elderly autistic professor (also usefully developing a dementia that seems to cancel out his autism somehow) and his slightly psychopathic assistant. There is only one cat. I wanted to love this book, but although it was readable, it didn’t really grab me.

This novella is one of Bassani’s Ferrara Cycle, set in northern Italy, and showing the country’s gradual slide into Fascism through the gold-rimmed lens of Dr Fadigati, whose transition from pillar of society to tragic outcast has a sense of inexorability about it. An uncomfortable read, but worthwhile.

I was a little apprehensive about this book, as I do not generally have a constitution that can cope with horror. I needn’t have worried. This was a piece of pure silliness that I highly recommend to any Sherlock fan.

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October 16: The Trench; Weeping Window; Man Booker

A busy day today. The Trench is a one-act play with puppets and live music, performed by Les Enfants Terribles.

I have seen this company’s work before, and I wasn’t disappointed. The terror of war was depicted graphically at times, and there were no happy endings for the miner hero. Lighting was used very effectively, and the actor-musicians told a difficult tale very well.

On my way home from the theatre, I passed the Imperial War Museum, where the wonderful Weeping Window poppies installation is to be housed until after Armistice Day this year. I have only seen pictures of this work before, and they do not do it justice. The installation is very beautiful, in stark contrast to the war it commemorates.

Finally today, the Man Booker prize winner was announced. I got it wrong, unsurprisingly, but the winner was the book I liked most from the shortlist, and is coincidentally about a time of trouble which we don’t quite call a war.

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October 15: Man Booker Marathon

Crikey. I did it. The final two on the shortlist, both American, both taking me out of my comfort zone.

Washington Black was a not too uncomfortable account of a slave boy’s path to emancipation. There is violence, but it isn’t dwelt on. There is hardship and fear, but that isn’t dwelt on either.

I didn’t feel that the book was deep enough, I suppose, and comeuppances seemed to come too easily.

The Mars Room seemed to be a collection of stories only loosely linked by place, and with a cliffhanger ending I didn’t care for. I didn’t find any of the characters likeable, except maybe for Conan. I don’t really understand American culture, and I rarely read contemporary American literature, so This was very much a change of genre for me.

My prediction is still for The Long Take to win the prize. We will find out tomorrow.

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October 13: The Overstory

Fourth up on my Man-Booker marathon is a story about trees, sort-of.

The book follows a diverse collection of characters and their lives as they relate to trees and the eco-system.

I liked this book, in the main, although I found myself skipping quickly through the sections dedicated to Neelay’s computer game, which bothers me in retrospect, because I feel I ought to have found that thread more interesting. Maybe I’ll reread this thread. That will be possible, because Nedlay’s thread seems to be completely separate from the rest of the book.

I have to say that I found some of the characters really unlikeable, and some of the “mystical hippy” stuff a bit irritating. There was a lot of interesting tree science, and some worrying stuff about ecology, but for me, the first section, Roots, where we met the characters, was the best.

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October 5: Everything Under

Third in my Man Booker pile is Everything Under, a strange story roughly revolving around Sarah, who is not the narrator.

There are echoes of Greek tragedy, echoes of English folk tales and a sad look at the scourge of the modern elderly. There’s a bit of fantasy, a little bit of magical realism, a bit of superstition…

There are issues around gender, which I think in one case is laboured and in another not nuanced enough, but kudos to Daisy Johnson for at least getting them out there. I worried about the cling film though.

What I really wanted to know was why Sarah did what she did. That thing that set it all in motion. And I still want to know.

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October 3: Milkman

I am working my way through the Man Booker shortlist, hoping to have finished them all before the winner is announced.

Milkman is a good book. It is readable, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for, and empathy with, the narrator.

This book made me anxious, in the medical sense. I found myself expecting, and dreading the inevitable moment when the narrator gets into the van (I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler). I hated the mother, and it took a while for me to realise that it was because of certain conversations I had had in my youth, which were echoed in the mother’s too-easy dismissal of her husband’s pain and her daughter’s innocence. I was shocked to find myself glad that certain people came to certain ends.

As I said before, this is a good book, and it is an uncomfortable read while not being a difficult read.

My early punt on the winner still stands, but this book is certainly worthy of being on the shortlist.

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October 1: September’s books

I got through nine books in September. Some of them I enjoyed more than others.

Chronologically:

My library reading group book. The librarian gave us all a long list of available titles and asked us to tick off any that we thought would be good for future reads. I just ticked off all the titles I hadn’t read, on the grounds that I’m using the group to widen my reading (among other reasons for attending). Anyway, she chose this for September, told everyone it was from my list, evoking several heavy sighs and sarcastic “thankyous”. With 800-odd pages of tiny print, it does look a bit daunting – so much so, that the group collectively decided to run this book over two months. Reader, it took me two days. As always, I found some of the characters a bit irritating, but I really enjoyed the book overall. I don’t need to detail the plot here, but there is one trope I dislike, and that I see a lot in “classic” novels, that of older guardian-like man marrying generations-younger woman from poor circumstances. It feels a bit icky, somehow.

An attack on my “to read” pile gave me this, which was readable, quite enjoyable, but with some silliness. It is basically the story of an odd little ménage à trois. Alice meets Jove on a cruise and becomes his lover. Alice is a physicist, Jove is a renowned expert on time travel. So far, so good. I hoped there might be a bit of Sci-Fi, but there isn’t. Eventually, Alice meets Jove’s wife Stella, and becomes her lover too, in a separate arrangement, which then becomes the main relationship, with a very upset Jove neatly sidelined. The silliest thing in the book is Stella’s diamond, swallowed by her pregnant mother and somehow becoming embedded in the base of her foetal spine ( no, I don’t know how, either, and it isn’t explained).

I have read a couple of Winterson’s books- Christmas Days, which I erroneously bought as a cookery book, and The Gap of Time, one of the Hogarth series of reimagined Shakespeares (in this case, the retold story is the Winter’s Tale). I haven’t read her most famous book, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, but it is on my wishlist.

This novella was a very nice “extra” to Lock In, a Sci-Fi-Cri novel that I liked a lot when I read it back in January. It details the background to Haden’s Syndrome, which is central to the novel, and could be read before or after. I’m glad I read the novel first, but that’s because I really like good Science Fiction, and Scalzi writes good stuff.

I would call Yesterday SciFiCri, because of the very clever centrality of memory-diaries to the plot. It is certainly “alternate reality”. Otherwise, it is a fairly straightforward crime novel, told from multiple points of view. I would like to see more of Hans, the detective. There are a lot of holes in the world-building, (some of them are quite exasperating), and the mechanism of transfer between short and long term memories isn’t really explored. Quite readable, quite enjoyable, and with a reasonable twist.

A classic. I bought the Steadman-illlustrated hardback as a gift for someone, but had to re-read it first. This edition contains a couple of nice essays by Orwell, as well as the wonderful illustrations. I almost don’t want to give it away.

This was my September calendar book, and it was a wonderful story of a Jewish family in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. This is really worth reading, and I am not going to write more in case I spoil it for anyone. I recommend this one.

How long have I had this on pre-order? So long I can’t remember. Anyway, it’s here, and read immediately, of course. I like Strike, and I’m glad that Robin is sorting herself out. I think this is a bit longer than it needs to be, but it will transfer well to TV, as the other Strike novels have. I enjoyed it.

This is another book I have bought as a gift. I found it odd, until I realised that it was written to be turned into dance. Here is the trailer for Raven Girl , the ballet based on the book.

The Man Booker shortlist was announced on September 20th. I bought all six, planning to read them before October 16th, when the winner will be announced. So far, I have managed one. The Long Take calls itself a poem, but I didn’t think it was poetry, really. It was very readable, and a strong story of PTSD and the toll it takes. I am taking an early punt and predicting that this will win the prize.