I started a new job in June. Amongst other changes, I now have a much longer commute and I find myself with about 2 hours a day on tubes. Currently, I’m actually quite enjoying this time because I get to spend that time reading. My previous commute only gave me about 20 minutes on a tube and I often found that by the time I was settling into a book, it was time to get off, so I’d frequently just waste that time playing on my phone. Now though reading time isn’t something I have to squeeze in and I’m finding that really lovely.
Steven Brust – Taltos 15: Vallista
I usually pounce on Vlad books the second they come out, but somehow I completely missed that this came out last year. Still, I’ve now caught up, or at least I’ve caught up with reading the book, to be honest I haven’t caught up at all on the overall storyline because I have no real idea what any of the book meant. I don’t really mind that much, because spending time with Vlad is always a joy, and him wandering around a mystery house is a pretty solid set up. Working out the mystery was beyond me and not only did I not really understand the explanation, but it arrived in such a big chunk that it was actually a little dull. Still, more time with Vlad can only ever be a good thing.
Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
I’ve seen this described as the first “true crime novel” and it does hover between fact and fiction – a carefully researched retelling of true events, but written in the style of a novel, seamlessly moving between the points of view of different people, expanding their thoughts and flashbacks to their pasts. Capote himself has no presence in the book beyond his beautifully eloquence and turn of phrase. I’m sure there’s a lot of extrapolation in his work and maybe some complete fabrication too, even as you’re reading there are things that jump out that seem unlikely to have come from Capote’s research, but it all fits into the wider narrative and doesn’t feel too much like cheating, just enriching. This is now also a period story, and because the descriptions are so vivid it’s a fascinating look at history as well. I was utterly gripped for most of the book (there are a couple of sections that linger too long or get a bit repetitive) and if this was the first book of its kind, it set an extraordinarily high standard.
Jessica Fellowes – The Mitford Murders
A thoroughly entertaining murder mystery with a large and likeable cast of investigators and an intriguing group of suspects. It’s in the vain of Agatha Christie, but much richer given the length and details put in, there’s also a fair amount of Downton Abbey in there (not surprising given the author) although not really as much as the book cover might play up – the whole “six sisters” thing is actually a complete red herring as we see relatively little of the life of the main character as a nursery maid. It isn’t a book that will set the world alight, but it is a comfortable and easy read that is rewarding with the steps in the mystery and engaging with the characters.
Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Scarlet Letter
Incredibly dull. I got this because I haven’t read “a classic” for a while and this happened to be very cheap on Kindle. It got off to a bad start with a rambling introduction that took up 18% of the book (according to my Kindle) and left me very confused as to whether the book had started or not. The book proper also left me confused a lot of the time. Obviously it’s set in an incredibly different time, and it’s written in another different time, but I found it hard to pin down what attitudes the characters had, and what attitude the author had. It’s written very moralistically, but I could never quite settle what the moral stance was that any particular character was taking. Also the thing rambles on and on, twisting around and avoiding saying anything clearly. It was a slog to read and the ending wasn’t worth the effort to get there.
Peter Jones – The Venetian Game
A nice little easy read. The author’s love and knowledge of Venice is clear, but it’s not a fluffy and overly poetic love, more a very grounded one that actually feels real and tangible. The characters we spend most of the book with also feel realistic, big and charismatic enough to be fun to spend time with, but not quite so much as to be ridiculous. The same can’t quite be said for the plot and the villains of the piece which is a bit daft. But I approached the book more as a pleasant way to spend time than as a high quality thriller, and with that aim it heartily delivered. I’ve just ordered the second book.
M.L. Rio – If We Were Villains
This book is Shakespearean through and through. It’s written by a Shakespeare scholar, the characters are Shakespeare actors and it gradually becomes clear that the plot itself is a Shakespearean tragedy. That final characteristic is what really turned the book from disposable to outstanding for me. I was about half way through and already engrossed with the characters (which isn’t the same as actually liking any of them) and the story, but was a little frustrated with some of the twists of the plot that seemed to rely on somewhat unlikely decisions and actions. But with the realisation that the story was a Shakespearean tragedy, the irritations fell away. Suddenly, all the flaws became deliberate features, and while that can still be irritating, it just felt so right here. It’s not that the actions were completely unbelievable, just that they were unlikely, but with the added aura of melodrama and intensity that Shakespeare brings, they made sense. I’ve never really got on with Shakespeare, and many of the references went far, far over my head; but I found this book utterly compelling.
Nigel Slater – Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger
It took me a little while to settle into this book, but then I couldn’t put it down. The whole book is made up of hundreds of incredibly short, specific memories Slater has of his childhood mostly focusing on food. Each one is very vividly told but it can feel rather bitty. But after a while the overall narrative comes through and you see the people and the history building up. I read the entire book over a gloriously sunny weekend in the garden and I think it’s probably best to read it intensely like that, otherwise it would be easy to make the mistake that it’s just about food.
James Surowiecki – The Wisdom of the Crowds
The core concepts are very interesting, but it’s quite hard going. The author actually seems to have quite an easy style, in short bursts, but the pure density of the book makes it a quite a dry read, and I found myself speed reading chunks of it. It was hard to get a firm grasp of the different ideas he was trying to cover as many of them were quite subtle. It’s also a little dated now, being over 10 years old and I found myself often wondering what examples from the latest financial crisis and political situations would look like. I think I would have got more out of the book if it were shorter and more direct.