Posted in books

2019 Week 2

Another stay-at-home week. Did a lot of reading:

A baby step towards increasing my non-fiction reading. I am a fan of Beatles music, and wish they had made more. This book is very light on text and heavy on what look like not-quite-good-enough-to-print-in-the-paper pictures from press photographers. It’s a collector’s item for avid Beatles fans, but it doesn’t “spark enough joy” to stay on my shelf.

This is the January recommendation of the Short Story Club. It had its funny moments, but the denouement was a little unpleasant. Pure Becket, of course, and both Dante and the lobster make appearances.

I have had this book on pre-order for a long time. It is as much a memoir as a cook book, and gives a readable description of a young woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and her sort-of recovery through food. I thought it might make a good gift for someone I know, but the ingredients Ella uses are on the expensive side, so it probably won’t. There are one or two very good chicken recipes that I will try.

Absinthe is an interesting exercise in not judging a book by its cover. It is not terribly thrilling. There is far too much talking and not enough action, although when there is action it is efficiently executed. The main character has the same name as the author. (In the notes, the author refers to a story about why he used his own name, but doesn’t actually tell us the story as that is “reserved for his live audiences” when he is on tour. Hmm.) In this book we have an older “maverick” detective (sigh) who has to work under a younger female supervisor he doesn’t respect (sigh). There is very little mention of absinthe.

I loved American Hippo. It is an AU western, that might have just happened if a real-life political plan had come to fruition. I loved the characterisation: the wonderful French conwoman who can’t squeeze into an armchair and yet manages to “pass” absolutely when the group need a white man to take a plot point forward. Hero, the protagonist’s true love whose gender is never referred to and who uses “they” as their personal pronoun, and no one ever questions it. The heavily pregnant lesbian assassin. The hippos! This will be a book I read again and again. Brilliant.

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Posted in books

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.

Posted in Theatre

November 14: Troilus and Cressida

I would have loved to see this live, but Stratford upon Avon is too much of a trip for me. Thank goodness for live cinema screenings, and the comfort of a reclining seat.

The play was fabulous, in a stereotypical Mad-Max sort of way. I liked the idea of a slightly dotty female Agamemnon, and I liked that Ulysses was also played as female (although Adjoa Andoh was guilty over overacting in my opinion). Andy Apollo and Theo Ogundipe were fabulously and hunkily oversized as heroes Achilles and Ajax. The best parts for me were Pandarus (Oliver Ford Davies) and Thersites (Sheila Reid), who gave us both the comic relief and the narration; and the standout of the evening, Deaf actor Charlotte Arrowsmith, who signed the part of Cassandra seamlessly.

The set was clever- shipping containers doubling as tents, hanging ironmongery for trees, motorcycles for horses and chariots…

The costumes were fabulous, and the whole look was post-apocalyptic.

Best of all was Evelyn Glennie’s wonderful percussion score.

I loved this play. I might go and see it again if it transfers to the Barbican.

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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.

Posted in books

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.

Posted in Theatre

October 9: The Sweet Science Of Bruising

“Bruising” is a slang term for fighting. But the bruises in this play aren’t all collected in the boxing ring.

I was very moved by this account of four very different women struggling for emancipation. I found the medical/surgical intervention to deal with “hysteria” particularly distressing, even though it was not portrayed in any real detail at all. I hadn’t realised that this type of mutilation was carried out in England, seemingly quite commonly, in the upper classes. The casual violence by men against their wives, mistresses, servants wasn’t overdone dramatically, but was a definite theme.

The violence, and the other punishments for women standing up for themselves were all too close to what is still happening.

The end of the play sees the women standing up for each other, and beginning to gain strength in sisterhood, but it is clear that there is still a long way to go.

Posted in books

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 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.