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2019: Week 25

Summer has stalled and it’s turned gloomy again, so a bit of Gothic theatre is in order. Creation Theatre produce excellent site-specific versions of classic texts, and their Dorian Gray at Jermyn Street was full of references to the St James area. The set was minimal, and they used an impression of a painting rather than s real one, and it somehow worked. I wasn’t sure how the gender-swapping would play, and I must admit that changing pronouns while keeping the names as canon confused me a bit, but only for a few minutes. A clever version, with thankfully, no haze to make me cough.

Reading

Quite a bit this week. The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction was won by Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, which I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. It also won the Goldsmiths prize last year. I liked it, but not enough to read it again.

My summer reading challenge continues. U is for Urban, and an interesting alternate-reality crime story. I was glad that the crime did get solved, even if no one gets their comeuppance.

Judith Kerr died recently, and I have fond memories of reading Mog stories every night until I knew them by heart. I had never read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, her autobiographical novel, and so I took advantage of the local library and downloaded and devoured the whole trilogy in one day. Well worth the time.

Finally, it is Bloomsday, and yes, I have read Ulysses, and no, I am not going to punish myself by reading it again. Instead, I chose to read the Republic of Consciousness co-award-winning Lucia by Alex Pheby and wish I hadn’t.

It is a well-written book, documenting, fictionally, the life of Lucia Joyce. The book has an interesting format, scenes from an archaeological dig juxtaposed with scenes from Egyptian burial from the point of view of both an observer and the deceased. All of this is cleverly set alongside biography-style chapters from Lucia’s life and eventual death. I found some of it quite harrowing, and the sexual torture scenes particularly overdone, and nasty. The parallels between the Egyptian burial and the (real) silencing of Lucia before and after her death were interesting, and the accounts of the cruelty perpetrated on asylum inmates were upsetting and sadly, probably historically accurate. This one will stay with me, I think.

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2019: week 3

Another quiet week. I did a bit of knitting, and finished a jumper I started in November last year. It was a notable achievement.

Reading

Good Omens was the Guardian readers’ choice for January. It was a re-read for me, but I had largely forgotten all but the story. I didn’t find it as laugh-out-loud funny as I expected to this time around (based on other readers’ comments), but it is undeniably clever, (as you would expect from Gaiman and Pratchett) and did make me smile. I hope that the upcoming TV series does it justice.

Christina Dalcher’s Vox was scary, and all too plausible. If you like dystopian novels you’ll like this one. It is set in a slightly off-kilter present-day United States, and is like the Handmaid’s Tale in that women bear the brunt of religious fundamentalism, but unlike it (and frighteningly more believable because of this) in that there is no underlying fertility problem to act as a “reason”.

I liked The White Book by Han Kang a lot. It reads like a poetic memoir (it reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets) , but is actually literary fiction, telling the story of the narrator’s sister. (No more spoilers from me). I liked the focus on one colour, and it was interesting to see the juxtaposition of South Korea and Warsaw.

Zugzwang is a term used in chess to describe a situation where a player is forced into making a move that will cost them the game. Ronan Bennett uses it as a device in a tight novel set in pre-soviet St Petersburg. I have a soft spot (I don’t know why) for novels set in Russia, and particularly anything set between the World Wars. This one hits the spot – a chess-playing psychiatrist gets drawn into a plot to assassinate the Tsar, and finds himself in his own personal zugzwang. It can’t have a happy ending…

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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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November 30: Reading

I read 14 books this month. As usual, in chronological order:

My calendar book for this month is Butterflies in November. This is an odd sort of “road” story. The narrator finds herself looking after her friend’s disabled son, and the two of them take a trip around Iceland ending up in a holiday home that was a lottery prize. An extremely unlikely second lottery win provides enough money for them both to be very comfortable. The narrator is pursued by exes; the boy searches for a father figure. There is a lot of weirdness, not least in the recipe for roadkill goose. I liked this book a lot, even if some of the circumstances seemed very unlikely.

Bone Lines is the Royal Institution Fiction Lab book of the month. I have already written about this book in my post about reading groups (November 12).

An addition to my small but growing graphic novels collection. Cassandra is a gallery owner who isn’t “sympatico” in the slightest. But I liked her a bit. The book is a meaty story, with a bit of crime to keep me happy. I shall look out for more by Posy Simmonds.

Another reading group book (local public library). See my post mentioned above for more on this one.

I read this on the 11th of November, to mark Armistice Day. The poem is very moving, no matter how often you read it. This edition is beautifully and horribly illustrated by Martin Impey. One to save for the next generations.

The third reading group book. This one is the Guardian online group.

Tin is a young adult book, although it wasn’t billed as one when I bought it. It is dystopian, somewhat steampunky, and definitely science fiction. There are robots. And artificial intelligence. I wasn’t overly impressed, but that may be due to the reading level.

Quicksand is the story of the aftermath of a school shooting, and the trial of the alleged perpetrator. It made me feel uncomfortable, but was cleverly constructed so as to maintain suspense. An interesting read.

I read this because I felt I ought to. I must admit that Jude wasn’t his own best friend, and I did feel sympathy, but not that much. I had been led to expect comedy, but I found this whole story tragic. Poor Jude.

I like Adam Roberts’ writing a lot. This novel is a sequel to The Real Town Murders, and features the same detective. I really like SciFiCri, and this is an excellent example of the genre. It is a new book, so no spoilers. Get your own copy, you won’t regret it.

Another dystopia. This is slightly reminiscent of Never Let Me Go, but here there is less Sci Fi, as there are no clones. I disliked the notion that women are disposable at age 50, but otherwise it felt like an uncomfortably near future. The ending was a little unexpected.

I love this book. It is one I have read again and again. I liked the TV adaptation as well, but the book is better. It is more alternate reality than Sci Fi, crime at a micro and a macro level, a detective I can like, who isn’t tropey, and a badass female cop thrown in for good measure. I’d love to read more Borlù stories.

This is described as the second in the Moscow Trilogy, but I read it after the other two, and it seems to fit more naturally as the last book. It is the story of what happened to Benya Golden after the events of Sashenka, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Finally, a sort of LabLit story without much of the science. I suppose it could just about be SciFi, but it feels as if this might be happening somewhere. Certainly the media furore described seems real enough. I didn’t really warm to the characters, and that is a shame.

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November 12: Reading groups

I try hard to broaden my reading, and have found that joining groups help, even if I am a virtual member.

Recently, I came across the Royal Institution’s Fiction Lab – a monthly meeting to discuss a sciency fiction book , rather than a science-fiction book. The session is headed by Jenny Rohn (author of last month’s book, Cat Zero). I can’t get to the actual meeting tonight, but I will be there in spirit and I have read this month’s book, Bone Lines. I found the book to be readable, and I liked the two strands, even if the Neolithic strand was a little reminiscent of Clan of the Cave Bear. I wasn’t convinced by the letters to Darwin,though. I wanted more science, and I felt that the anti-research theme could have been meatier, but this was an interesting look at an area of science I wasn’t familiar with, and I enjoyed reading it.

The second reading-group book was Endless Night, and was chosen by the convenor of the Guardian reading group. I hadn’t read this Agatha Christie novel before, and was surprised that there wasn’t a detective of any kind to be seen. I remember seeing a TV adaptation which was different enough to not remind me of what happened, so the book kept my attention. I don’t really like first-person narration, but other than that, the book was fairly standard Christie, twists and turns and unexpected endings.

The final group is my local library group, where we actually meet and discuss the book of the month. This month it was London Lies Beneath, which was more gripping than I expected. I liked some of the characters (the Hatch family in particular) disliked some others. I enjoyed reading about London as it used to be, and I cried at the tragedy that occurs quite late on. I felt that the few magical realism touches didn’t add much to the story, and it could have been stronger without them, and I really didn’t like the very end, but I expect others will disagree. I was very glad that Jimmy was able to find his own path.

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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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August 31: Books

This month I read 10 books, some of which I enjoyed more than others.

Chronologically:

I happened to be reading Out of the Ice at the end of July and it carried over into August. It was a mediocre crime novel. Not Scandi, even though it looks as if it ought to be. Set mainly in the Antarctic, and featuring an under-the-ice laboratory. A bit far-fetched for my taste, with a tacked-on child abuse thread that I thought was unnecessary.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was my August calendar challenge book, and it was terrific. Harry is the central character, and we live his lives with him. Speculative fiction, with a very clever central premise. I liked this a lot.

I’m attacking my tsundoku by means of a random letter generator. This time it was a z. Zero K refers to temperature, and the book is about a family using and coming to terms with cryogenic suspension. It was strange, in both plot and setting. I found it a bit “arty”, and a bit unsettling.

Sometimes people I follow on Twitter will mention a book. A Void was brought to my attention by an author I like. I didn’t have a copy, but I did happen to know a friendly University librarian, who let me borrow one. I found it terribly self-indulgent. The notion of writing a whole novel without using the letter e was interesting. The execution was laboured, and I found myself irritated in places where substitute words mattered (for example, in quotations from famous published works). There was a story, but I found it hard to follow, and it wasn’t concluded to my satisfaction. Unlike other reviewers. I decided not to try to write s review without the letter e.

The Bridesmaid was my local public library reading group book of the month. Ruth Rendell isn’t one of my favourite authors, and this book wasn’t one of my favourite books. It was interesting to see the story from the point of view of someone who wasn’t either the victim, the perpetrator or the police. Having said that, I didn’t feel any empathy for the narrator, or any of the other characters, for that matter, and I felt that there was a chapter missing at the end.

Grayson Perry’s book was chosen because it was a very slim paperback that would slide easily into the pocket of my overnight bag. It was interesting, if a little outdated, with some little cartoon illustrations and a bit of humour. The only non-fiction book this month.

Another random letter, this time m. I liked this one a lot. It had crime, wine, food (a lot of food, including actual recipes), and a French setting. No police, but a food magazine writer and her photographer sidekick solving a linked set of three murders. I hope there will be more in this series.

Give me an e

This book has been hyped a lot. I liked it, but it made me depressed. There were things I recognised in Eleanor, and things that didn’t ring true. I wanted to shake her at times, and I didn’t believe that her colleagues would change their opinion of her so drastically. At least there was a happyish ending.

And an f

I’d had this one on my pile for a while. A dystopian novel that doesn’t quite describe a dystopian world. The fixed period is a lifespan, the setting is an independent colony that gets re-annexed, there is a lot of scientific innovation, especially in the fields of music and sport. The narrator is one of those fixed-mindset people who perceive themselves to be hard done by when their views are not shared by everyone. This was apparently Trollope’s only foray into sci fi and he clearly found it hard work.

Smon Smon is a children’s book, but I’m not ashamed of reading it before giving it as a birthday gift to a three year old. It has an old-fashioned Eastern European look to it, and a lovely rhythmic rhyming pattern. It is a little adventure story that really needs to be read aloud.

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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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February 4: The Death of Stalin

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This is the book that inspired the recent and quite brilliant film. It is a worthy addition to my graphic novels shelf, being clever, believable and well drawn. I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this story, and chuckled quietly to myself. It is very slightly subtler than the film, and didn’t give me so many laugh-out-loud moments, but it did make me appreciate the characters more.