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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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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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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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July 16: Reading

I have a pile of books to read (currently 46, shared between the kindle, iBooks and the wobbly pile of mixed paper-and-hardbacks on my coffee table). I also have a few on my shelves that I want to re-read. And a very long wish-list of books I don’t yet own.

I finished both my main Goodreads challenge and my personal summer challenge early, and in theory, all I have shouting “finish me!” are my two reading group books (Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Drabble’s Pure Gold Baby).

I have scheduled reading times for book groups, so what to do the rest of the time?

The answer is always a random pick from my physical book pile and a random pick from my e-book “pile”. At the moment, my e-book is the latest Harry Hole, and my physical book is one of the slim Penguin classics (Kafka’s The Trial).

But – I follow authors and readers on Twitter, and they keep making recommendations. By coincidence this morning, two recommendations caught my eye: a short story by Miranda July; and a novel by Clare North that just happened to have the word “August” in the title. That set me off of course. I thought I would end up with a mix of author names and titles, but in the end, my calendar reads for the rest of the year are all title-based except for July.

I’m probably going to to do this for the whole of next year, as a sort of side quest to my main challenge.

Here they are:

No one belongs here more than you: Miranda July

The first fifteen lives of Harry August: Claire North

The Septembers of Shiraz: Dalia Sofer

October the first is too late: Fred Hoyle

Butterflies in November: Audur Ava Òlafsdóttir

December: Phil Rickman

I intend to be very disciplined and only read one of these a month. Let’s see how it goes.

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July 9: The Rings of Saturn #1

A few weeks ago, I came across a proposal to set up a Twitter reading group. The book to be read, studied, discussed is W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. The activity is planned to run from July 9th until August 2nd.

I had joined in with a similar group at the end of last year, with the same group leader, and I decided to take up the challenge again. I chose a hard-copy edition this time.

So, I opened the book to chapter 1 this morning. The opening paragraph was encouraging:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.”

However, the author then spends the entire chapter not talking about the walk. Instead, he meanders off on an interesting discussion of several dead academics, and aspects of their work.

I can tell already that Sebald and I will have different opinions on things, if only from the interpretation of one item – Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson. Sebald mentions what I think is the most important item in the painting, the anatomy textbook that everyone is looking at. He then dismisses it as irrelevant (to Rembrandt, as well as to himself!). My copy of the book has two images of the painting:

In neither image does the textbook appear.

I am very curious to see how the book progresses. Watch this space.

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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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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.

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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.