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June 11: Patrick Melrose

Last summer, I read Edward St Aubyn’s first Patrick Melrose novel, Never Mind, as the first of my SUMMER reading challenge books. It gripped me and horrified me enough to make me buy and read the other four books in the series.

Almost exactly a year later, Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role of Patrick in an eponymously titled TV miniseries, and plays it masterfully.

The series doesn’t flinch from the abuse suffered by the child Patrick, but thankfully doesn’t feel he need to portray it graphically. A closing door is evidence enough of what is happening.

Events in the books are rejuggled. The series starts with the death of Patrick’s father, and ends with the death of his mother. The optimistic end of the last novel is omitted completely, as is the new-age Irishman’s comeuppance.

There is wit and humour, and darkness.

This series deserves to win awards. I will be terribly disappointed if it doesn’t.

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June 11: Summer Reading #2

U is for Udall.

Strangely, I seem to have chosen another ghost story. Of course, I didn’t know it was a ghost story until about halfway through.

This book was okay. Not brilliant, but not bad. I felt sorry for all the characters, but not enough to cry for them, not even little Millie.

I wanted Jonah to get over himself, and I was oddly irritated by the central not-really-a-character, Audrey.

I wanted more of Kew, more of the paper birds.

I wouldn’t put this on my read-again list, but I don’t feel the time spent on it was wasted.

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June 5: Summer Reading #1

The first of my six summer books is coincidentally the fiftieth of my fifty-book challenge.

I wish I could say I liked this book, but to be truthful, I didn’t. The style is clever, but I found it irritating after the first couple of chapters.

I understand the concept of the bardo. And it seems to me that Saunders is using this ghost story as a way of marking Lincoln’s transition into an abolitionist. It feels clunky and patchworky, though.

There was one thing I really didn’t like. The notion that children had to be punished in order to allow adults to make penance did not sit comfortably with me at all.

Altogether, I thought there was too much bardo and not enough Lincoln.

I’m never sure what makes a Booker winner. Some I have loved. Others I have hated. This one doesn’t fall into either category for me, which says something in itself.

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May 31: Summer Reading Challenge

I did this last year, and it made me read some books I might otherwise not have chosen.

The way I planned to do it was to choose six books by author surname, corresponding to the six letters of the word SUMMER. I would first draw from my “books I own but haven’t read yet” pile; then from my wishlist of books that: I like the look of; I feel I ought to read; have been recommended etc. Finally, if necessary, I would search the internet for “author whose surname begins with U” (it’s always going to be U that’s a problem, let’s face it).

Last year I had to go searching out in the wide world for a “U”, and it gave me the odd but likeable “Baba Yaga Laid an Egg” by Dubravka Ugrešić. This year, I only had to go as far as my wish list.

So, this year’s challenge:

Between June 1st (start of meteorological summer) and August 27th (August Bank Holiday, which I consider to be the end of summer) I will attempt to read the following six books, in order.

S: George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo. I chose this because it won the Man Booker prize, and when I have read Booker winners before (Midnight’s Children, Life of Pi) they have stayed with me longer than I expected them to. I don’t think of myself as a “literature” reader. I gravitate towards crime and SF. But I make myself step out of my comfort zone every so often. I think it does me good.

U: Tor Udall. A Thousand Paper Birds. This is also literary fiction, with, I am promised, a bit of magical realism. There is a threat of romance (not my genre), but what sold me on this was the lure of origami. This was the only U author on my wishlist, and so I didn’t have many other choices(!). We’ll see how it goes.

M: Ian McDonald. Chaga. I have read a number of McDonald’s books (River of Gods, Brasyl, The Dervish House, spring to mind) and I like the idea of setting SF in a slightly “off” familiar location. I decided to go back to an early work for this first “M”

M: Ian McDonald. Time Was. The same “M”(not necessary, but I thought it would be fun), but bang up to date with this one. Time travel. Hmm…

E: George Eliot. Middlemarch. Every so often, I make myself read something I should have read when I was at school. This is it for this summer.

R: Philip Roth. Nemesis. Reading this in tribute.

The challenge starts tomorrow. Wish me luck!

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May 28: Nightfall Berlin

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I have been looking forward to reading this for a long time (I pre-ordered it ages ago). I wasn’t disappointed. Tom Fox has taken his place among my favourite protagonists, beside Renko, Koralev, Pekkala…

The story was tighter than the last Fox book (Moskva), and better for it. I like that the backstory is emerging slowly, and I really like that he isn’t forever hopping in and out of beds.

I really liked Fox’s son Charlie, and hope to see more of him in the future.

Altogether, I really liked this. Five stars.

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April 26: Macbeth #1

I have been working my way through the Hogarth reimaginings of Shakespeare’s plays, with varying degrees of pleasure and satisfaction. The latest offering is from the pen of Jo Nesbø, better known for Scandi-noir and Harry Hole.

Nesbø sets Macbeth in an un-named “northern” town, which I first assumed to be in Scotland, and still read as Scottish despite the author’s saying in a TV interview that he sees it as being somewhere like Newcastle. The characters are recognisable in most cases, and where they are not obviously Shakespearean, then they are clearly Harry-Holeiverseish.

I didn’t find a single character sympathetic-and sadly, I feel a little let down by this bad-cop, bad-cop scenario. I didn’t think the trope of the addict cop was necessary here, either. I think that Nesbø is relying too heavily on his most famous creation, and what could have been a much better book suffers from it.

Having said that, I like the idea of transforming the Thane of Cawdor to the Chief of Police, and I was intrigued by the Lady Macbeth character.

It’s likely that anyone coming fresh to Nesbø without prior knowledge of his other crime novels would like this a lot.

Three stars, I think.

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April 10: The Temptation of Forgiveness

Whenever I get a new Donna Leon, I know I will pick it up and not put it down until I have finished it. Even after 27 Brunetti novels, I still enjoy reading about him and his Venice.

This book had slightly less of Venice, slightly less of Venetian food, a lot less of sidekick Vianello. To compensate, there was more of Commissario Claudia Griffoni and rather too much hacking from Elettra Zorzi.

The story was not as crusadingly “eco” as the last couple have been. Not so anti-tourist, either. There was a nasty little thread of exploitation of the elderly, and the problem of drugs in children was left unresolved, but that is fairly standard Leon.

I detect a glimmer of weakness in Brunetti. He relies far too much on Elettra, who surely should not be given so much access to investigative work. I foresee trouble, especially since she seems to have got away with something major in this story. Griffoni also seems to be losing some respect for him. We’ll see what happens in the next one.

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March 27: The City and the City

I reread this book in advance of the TV series (starting next week, watch this space), and am happy to say I love it just as much as I did on first reading it. Tyador Borlú is one of my favourite detectives, and Beszel and Ul Qoma together make a fascinating setting. I am really looking forward to the TV version, and can’t wait to see how they do the magic which will clearly be required. I have heard that the Ul Qoma partner is to be a woman, rather than the man China Miéville wrote, and I hope this is to match more closely to the many recent “international noir” series rather than to add romance or sexual tension where it isn’t necessary. I like Borlú because he isn’t full of tropes. He doesn’t drink, he isn’t unhappy in love, he isn’t depressed… I hope they let him stay that way.

Whatever happens with the TV series, I will continue to love this book.

2009/10 Winner of: Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clark, Locus, World Fantasy and Kitschies Red Tentacle awards

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March 11: Red Clocks

Unintentionally, I read this on Mothering Sunday, in the early hours of a morning following a sleepless night. It didn’t ease my anxiety at all, and brought home just how easy it is for a world to slide into dystopia.

In this book, a law has been passed outlawing all abortions. A follow-up law bans in-vitro fertilisation (but not artificial insemination); and a third law is on the cusp of enactment, outlawing adoption by single persons.

The book follows five women in a small American town as they deal with the fallout of these laws. In addition, they all have to deal with the general male power over women, and the troubles that go along with small-town bigotry and superstition. There is only one sympathetic male character. All other males are tropes – (the jock boyfriend, the wife-beater hiding behind respectability, the creepy gynaecologist etc), but the women feel more real.

I liked this book a lot. In particular, I liked the glimpses of Eivør’s struggle to claim her own work.

Well worth reading.

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January 18: The Man Who Laughs

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Having seen the musical play “The Grinning Man”, I decided to read the book it was based on. Victor Hugo’s works are available for free from iBooks, so I downloaded a copy and settled in for what turned out to be a very bleak ride.

Like many “period” authors (Melville, Dickens and the like), Hugo indulges himself in lengthy descriptive passages, and whole chapters of what seem to be lists of the peerage. I found the book to be a difficult read because of this, and caught myself skipping sections in order to get on with the story.

There is a (thankfully not too detailed) description of the surgical procedures used on Gwynplaine, and a quite horrible account of his reception by his peers towards the end of the book. The actual ending shocked me, and was quite different from the ending of the play.