Books in March

Arthur C. Clarke – Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke was one of the authors who sparked my love of reading science fiction and it’s a toss up between him and Asimov for the title of most quintessential science fiction author. But I haven’t re-read anything of his in ages, and Rendezvous with Rama seemed a good place to start. It’s interesting coming back to it after reading many other SF authors, there are things which he does effortlessly, but aspects that I’m used to in more modern SF writing that’s completely missing. Clarke manages to near effortlessly get the story started and moving along, there’s hardly any pre-amble or scene setting, it’s all immediately there with no fuss and nothing but incredibly believable and grounded set ups. What’s less present though are the characters, each one is efficiently introduced for their purposes, but no time is wasted really getting into their feelings beyond what’s needed to explain their actions. They’re not cold though, they’re all clearly complex individuals who clearly have their own stories, it’s just that only relevant facts are shared. I will confess I struggled to keep track of the complicated geography and descriptions of Rama itself, which is weird because I remember Clarke’s ability to describe things being a lot better, so maybe I just missed something obvious. Clarke is always efficient, anyone writing this book today would have taken three times as many pages and left nothing to the imagination, but even with that sparsity Clarke still delivers tension, humour and a true sense of wonder.

Alan Connor – Two Girls, One on Each Knee
This is a book about cryptic crosswords, and is written in a style that will appeal to those that like cryptic crosswords, but becomes slightly tiresome for those that have a more casual interest. There’s a lot of material about the history of crosswords, their rules, how to solve them and even cultural relevance – but because it’s all broken up into small chunks and delivered seemingly randomly it can be a bit hard to follow. I always felt like I was brushing the surface rather than fully understanding any depth.

Stuart Turton – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
This book sounded right up my street – a murder mystery at a 1920’s house party combined with a ‘weird’ element of bodyswapping and time loops. I was excited to start reading it and settled in to read a big chunk in one setting. But I struggled to get into it. And then I struggled to stay engaged. And then I started questioning things. Then I started picking holes in things. Then characters eventually started asking the things I’d asked hours ago. And then it was just a matter of plodding on to the end.
This is a first novel from the author, and even won the Costa Award for first novel, but I felt it still had a lot of work to be done. The mechanics of the ‘weird’ raised too many questions for me (what remained between timeloops, how the overlapping worked…) and I didn’t have confidence that the author knew the answers. Someone like Claire North does such an incredible job building her ‘weirdness’ and establishing the rules, that she’s set a high bar for me on how I expect things to be watertight.
The murder mystery elements were fairly solid though, with plenty of different characters, threads and branches interweaving into a complex net. In fact, I found myself repeatedly wishing I was just reading that as a straight story without the weirdness which over-complicated all the characters and twists, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t have sold so well.

Agatha Christie – Peril at End House
A very enjoyable outing for Hercule Poirot. I like that he’s played up as really quite obnoxious and annoying, it’s like the narrator of Captain Hastings is just rolling his eyes the whole time. The case is well plotted out with a couple of zigs and zags and although I guessed some of the elements quite early on, I was never certain and so continued to buy into different options as they also came up.

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Books in January and February

Those of you paying attention will have noticed that in January I didn’t share my usual monthly digest of what I’d been reading, that’s because it was a rather embarrassing tally of just two books. I thought I’d make up for it in February, but frankly that was an even more pathetic count of just one book. This is mostly due to the fact that I’m working in a different office at the usual, and rather than a nice 2 hours each day on tubes to power through books, I have an unpleasant 2 hours driving slowly on clogged up motorways. That’s doing wonders for my podcast backlog, but not much for the reading list.

T Kingfisher – Swordheart
Another great book from T Kingfisher. There’s something incredible substantial about her characters – the way they speak, act and think just feel like fully realised individuals that are interesting and fun to spend time with. If I look at it objectively, I think there are some weaknesses in the storyline – maybe a little too much plodding between events and dragging things out. But as the characters are so nice to spend time with, I really don’t mind just sitting in a wagon listening to them talk. I really do adore her work.

Claire Evans – The Fourteenth Letter
A book that’s basically absolutely fine. There’s nothing to complain about, but also nothing to get excited about. The characters are engaging enough, but at first there are too many and then they don’t seem to really go anywhere; the plot moves along sufficiently, but lacks any real depth. I found something a little off though, it starts off quite easy going, gradually introducing some mysterious elements, but that light tone never quite hardens despite some very violent and disturbing subject matter. Maybe it’s that disconnect that left me feeling completely nothing about the book.

Martin Edwards (editor) – Silent Nights – Christmas Mysteries
A nice collection of mystery stories that are vaguely Christmas themed. By nature of short stories, particularly mysteries there isn’t much scope for developing characters and rich pictures, but the Christmas themes immediately give a little more richness. Some are very predictable, some are ridiculously improbable, but they’re all satisfying enough for a cold evening curled in an armchair.

Books I Read in 2018 – fiction

42 fiction books this year which I’m pretty pleased with, particularly given that all those were new books. 19 had some sort of sf/fantasy slant, 12 I’d label as crime/thriller and the rest were more generic dramas.

New discoveries
One of the reasons that I still prefer buying physical books is so that I can wander the shop, picking books that jump out because of a shiny cover, a curious name, or just to make up the numbers in a deal. When those books turn out to be great, not only is there the joy of a good book, but it’s boosted by the sense of discovery. I’ve had a few successes this year.

I was most impressed by If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a modern thriller set in the world of Shakespeare and told like a Shakespearean tragedy. It has layers to it that you don’t notice at first and gradually reward you, it’s very cleaver, but also very entertaining. I read two books by Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions and The Corset, both of which I enjoyed immensely as very solid gothic horrors that keep you guessing about whether there’s actually anything supernatural going on. I also read two books by Philip Gwynne Jones, The Venetian Game and Vengeance in Venice which may not particularly raise the bar for crime fiction, but do manage the achievement of capturing the simultaneous romance and tackiness of Venice.

Favourite authors
I’ve got a growing list of authors who I’ll return to regularly, either pouncing on new hardbacks, picking up new paperback releases, or just slowly working through back catalogs. Authors that didn’t let me down at all with their latests were Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White), Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of London 8: Lies Sleeping), Stephenie Meyer (The Chemist), Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey–Maturin 5) Desolation Island) and Andy Weir’s second novel Artemis. I polished off three books by T Kingfisher, although the two books of the Clocktaur War series really could have been one book, and Summer in Orcus occasionally lost its way. Almost all of those I found pretty impossible to put down.

Even when the old familiars are slowing down, or phoning one in, they get an allowance because of the history we’ve built up. I was slightly disappointed with Taltos 15: Vallista by Steven Brust and I tried one of the graphic novels in the Rivers of London series (Body Works) and the format really didn’t work for me. I may be falling out of love a bit with Claire North, she still has great ideas and vibrant characters, but the storytelling doesn’t quite match, The End of the Day felt like a collection of small ideas/stories forced together and didn’t really work.

Agatha Christie
A special sub-entry under favourite authors, as I had a bit of a blitz on Agatha Christie, largely thanks to the local library. At her best her works are completely gripping, and even when she’s a bit mediocre they still manage to be engaging and comfortable, with the deaths nicely clean and safe, never really having any kind of emotional impact. Of the five books I read, actually her first novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles was by far the best. A Murder is Announced and Cat Among the Pigeons were both solid entries, but By the Pricking of My Thumbs and Nemesis were a little muddled and not her best.

Classics
I usually try to read a few “books that you really should have read” but I didn’t do so well this year, even stretching the idea of what a ‘classic’ is. The most classic (ie oldest) was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which was stunningly boring. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler at least had a style and turn of phrase that I could appreciate, but still didn’t really blow me away. I gave a James Bond book a try Dr No but found it impossible to get past the sexism.

Stretching the definition of ‘classic’ a bit maybe, I finally got round to reading some of Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Preludes and Nocturnes but I continue to not get on with the graphic novel format. I also struggled a little with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré , but on balance think I liked it. The biggest ‘hit’ was probably the first of Zelazny’s Amber series Nine Princes in Amber but even that hasn’t yet inspired me to read the rest of the series.

The Rest
There weren’t many that I actively disliked, really only 3 that I couldn’t see any worth in – the world of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin made very little sense and didn’t have strong enough characters to overcome that; The Museum of Things Left Behind by Seni Glaister was a mess of different tones, and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon chose a 10 year old as a narrator and no one wants to spend this much time in the head of a 10 year old.

The other dozen books fall somewhere in the areas of flawed, disappointing, unremarkable, disposable or just plain ‘fine’.

  • How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran – powerful emotions, but I didn’t actually like reading it
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – I didn’t enjoy being in the head of this character, and I think that was supposed to be the point, but I also didn’t feel particularly challenged making it neither interesting nor entertaining
  • Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero – great idea, not very good writing
  • One Way by S.J. Morgan – like the miserable, bitter cousin of The Martian
  • Providence by Caroline Kepnes – a bit too much focus on a relationship I didn’t believe in
  • Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott – too much going on
  • The Craft Sequence 1: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone – interesting idea not very well told
  • The Invisible Library, The Masked City and The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman – entertaining enough but not quite anything more than fine.
  • The Muse by Jessie Burton – predictable story with annoying characters
  • The Mitford Murders by Jessica Fellowes – solid crime mystery
  • Books I Read in 2018 – non fiction

    I’m back to being able to comfortably call myself “a reader”. Over the last few years I’ve been blessed with a short commute and I didn’t read as much as I wanted to, or as much as I felt I should. But halfway through the year, I changed job and the silver lining of spending over 2 hours a day on the tube is that I have more reading time. With the exception of frustrating days when the tubes are misbehaving and making things difficult, I genuinely enjoy my commute because it gives me a window to read in, without feeling guilty for not working, doing chores, or even fighting the backlog of TV to watch.

    Thanks to that, I’ve read 60 books this day, not quite my record of 66, but a very satisfying total. I’m also quite pleased with the mixture of books I’ve read – some of my favourite authors, some classics, some random experiments. I’ve maybe not challenged myself particularly, I’ve deliberately avoided anything that looks too depressing, or really challenging as I’ve been trying to manage my stress levels so I don’t feel too bad about it.

    The numbers:

    • 60 books, way up from 22 last year. All of them were new to me which is quite rare, I usually have a series I want to re-read or return to something for comfort.
    • 19,000 pages (give or take a couple), 52 pages a day, so I happily met my 40 page target, on commuting days I’d regularly clear 100 pages a day.
    • 49 different authors, all either British (68%) or American (28%) and one Swede, I need to get a bit more variety in there.
    • 39% female authors – which is disappointing, but if I consider the number of books (rather than the number of authors), it improves to 47% of the books being written by women.
    • 9 books (15%) on Kindle, which remains an excellent way to read books, particularly on busy tubes. However I don’t like the experience of buying books for it, much preferring to browse a bookshop. As a compromise, I got 11 books out of my local library, which is a wonderful thing to rediscover. If you’re looking for something specific it likely won’t be there, but it’s a good source for random picks and some classics.
    • 28 books (47%) are what I’d call new, published in 2018 (13 books) or 2017 (15). 44 (73%) are from the 2010s and the rest are scattered over the previous 6 decades, then a couple in the first half of the 20th century and one published in 1850.

    Non Fiction
    18 non-fiction (30%) covering subjects from economics, history, media, and formula 1, and quality from high to low. There are 5 I consider outstanding and would highly recommend to just about anyone.

    The best all round non-fiction book of the year was Factfulness – by Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling it very successfully covers all the necessary elements a non-fiction book must deliver, informing and educating by providing both tools and examples, while also being entertaining with anecdotes. All of these are also very well done by the runners up, Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy by Tim Hartford and Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular by Derek Thompson, but Factfulness edges into the lead because it is also inspiring and actually makes me feel a bit better about the world. I also want to call out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote which almost doesn’t count as non-fiction because it’s really written as fiction, utterly compelling and beautifully eloquent.

    There were two absolute clunkers that I’d warn people away from. Steven Fry’s Mythos was astonishingly dull and dry considering the author, while How to Watch a Movie by David Thomson was both boring and uninformative.

    Somewhere in the middle ground there are 12 other books. They’re neither amazing nor terrible, but they’re all missing something to make them outstanding.

  • Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables by Sarah Whitfield – one of my best friends wrote a book and it’s really pretty good
  • Movie Geek: The Den of Geek Guide to the Movieverse by Simon Brew – enjoyable but not as substantive as I’d like
  • Sunny Side Up by Susan Calman – a NICE book
  • The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller – entertaining, but not as profound as maybe the author was aiming for
  • A Very British Revolution: 150 Years of John Lewis by Jonathan Glancey – a small step above a PR puff piece, but frustrating that it doesn’t build the history up more
  • London by Design: The Iconic Transport Designs that Shaped our City by London Transport Museum – nice to look at, but not much information
  • The Mechanic: The Secret World of the F1 Pitlane by Marc ‘Elvis’ Priestley – a different perspective on formula 1
  • The Zoo: The Wild and Wonderful Tale of the Founding of London Zoo by Isobel Charman – a creative approach, but a flawed one
  • Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger by Nigel Slater – best read quickly otherwise it’s rather bitty.
  • Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson – nice idea but badly told
  • The Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki – strong central concept but really dull to read.
  • What Doesn’t Kill You…: My Life in Motor Racing by Johnny Herbert – amazingly honest, open and charming
  • Books in December

    A slightly slow end to the year’s reading with only 3 books in December, mostly due to brain trying to hibernate, so too many tube journeys just staring at stupid games on the phone. Must do better.

    Jonathan Glancey – A Very British Revolution: 150 Years of John Lewis
    This would seem a rather random book to read, except for the fact that I started working for John Lewis this year. The history of the company is very interesting and this book does a fair job at describing how it developed entwined with the history of retail, design, society and the country as a whole. It’s a little light and fluffy, and it’s lacking any true critical thinking that would make it a more relevant history book. But it’s nice to look at, and has enough substance to put it a step above a PR puff piece.

    Gail Honeyman – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
    A colleague at work lent me this book saying she absolutely loved it, and for a while that was the only reason that I kept reading it. I REALLY didn’t like the first half or so of the book. It’s told first person and I did not like being in Eleanor’s head at all. I am still not entirely certain though whether this is because the book is good, or bad. I can recognise that Eleanor’s head is not somewhere that the reader should enjoy being, she’s got an uncomfortable approach to the world. But I’m not settled on whether that’s good writing that challenges the reader, or mean spirited writing that we’re supposed to find something amusing or freak-show like in her. The second half of the book did pick up a little (it thankfully swerved around what I thought was going to be an excruciating embarrassment for the character), but I never really relaxed into the book and can’t say I found it either entertaining or satisfying.

    Caroline Kepnes – Providence
    A random pick from the library because I liked the cover. Sadly I didn’t like the book as much. I’m not sure whether the book would be considered a young adult novel, but I felt it had a simplicity that is often found in the less good entries in that genre. Despite some interesting questions around what makes a person good or bad, there’s little depth to it with the characters all coming across as quite one dimensional. There’s far more focus on a relationship that I never really bought into. I didn’t hate the book, but it felt very ‘surface’ and disposable.

    Books in November

    Marc ‘Elvis’ Priestley – The Mechanic: The Secret World of the F1 Pitlane
    I stopped watching Formula 1 a few years ago, but when I spotted this in the library I was intrigued and thought it would be interesting to hear about the sport from the point of view of the ‘nameless’ mechanics. The perspective is interesting because the mechanics are the heart of the sport, at the centre of this massive show, and yet are largely anonymous and are certainly not making any of the money. Priestley gives an engaging and frank description of the near insanity of McLaren in the 2000’s as they challenge for world titles, are found guilty of spying (sort of) and Alonso and Hamilton do their best to destroy the team. I wouldn’t have minded a bit more description of the actual engineering, and race activity for the pitlane crews; and a little less drunken partying. Overall it’s interesting, but a little bit light. (596)

    Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 8: Lies Sleeping
    It is a little hard to find something original to say about books in this series, they are stunningly consistent, just like an old friend that you can immediately fall into sync with. It is once again brimming with cleaver, elegant and witty turns of phrase that ground the characters entirely in present day London, even when the story is towards the bonkers end of the spectrum. As usual I found myself re-reading sections for the pure joy of it. I think the story line hung together a bit longer than usual, but I did lose track a bit at the very end. (593)

    Susan Calman – Sunny Side Up
    I love Susan Calman, and this book is completely HER. While her first book was about the challenging subject of depression, this one is about joy and kindness. Since doing Strictly Come Dancing, she seems to have blossomed and this book celebrates that. That doesn’t mean it’s a simpering saccharine affair, Calman still has enough witty rage and pithy cutdowns to please my cynical heart. It is quite a lightweight book, it’s not going to change the world, and it doesn’t give a huge insight behind the scenes of Strictly or the life of a comedian, but it is just a NICE book and sometimes that’s what is needed.

    John Le Carré – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
    Generally I didn’t really follow what was going on, too many people and too much jargon. But at the same time, it was quite a page turner. It reminded me a bit of the Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander books, which have the same problem that I understand almost nothing they’re talking about, and yet somehow it all washes over you to give a quite immersive experience of the situation. It sort of all came together for me by the end, but I can’t quite definitively say whether I really enjoyed the book as a whole. I suspect if I immediately read it again, I’d probably really like it because I’d not feel so ignorant, but I’m not going to bother.

    Laura Purcell – The Corset
    Another very satisfying book from Laura Purcell, following on from The Silent Companions. The Corset is not scary in the dark and ghosty way that The Silent Companions was, but it’s still creepy thanks to just the day to day horrors of being poor in Victorian times was. The main story is told in flashback and interwoven with some day-to-day tribulations of a considerably more well off woman who is frankly quite irritating. While her own difficulties are significant to her, and obviously demonstrate the contrast in fortunes, I got frustrated at being pulled away from the more interesting story. Other than that the pacing is excellent and the resolution very satisfying. Heartily recommended for a dark Autumn evening.

    Andy Miller – The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life
    I keep reading books about reading books; and generally I find that the more the author talks about their love of books, the more I find myself turned off. This book is the closest I’ve read to actually making me believe the author really does love reading, and some of the aspects he talks about do resonate with me. But he’s also an English graduate with a tendency to pontificate and most of the books he picks are utterly unappealing to me. The book itself is rather forced, a meandering mission and a bludgeoned together structure that feels utterly artificial. His voice is strong though, and he made me smile all the way through with his little observations of life. I did enjoy reading it, which to me makes it a good book, but I think the author probably wanted a more profound impact than that.

    Books in October

    Tim Harford – Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy
    Economics is a subject I always wish I understood more, but it doesn’t seem to matter how much I read or study, it just doesn’t seem to stick in my head. Tim Harford makes economics both interesting and accessible and this book is a great illustrator of a lot of core ideas to the subject. There are 50 chapters on different physical things, or non-tangible ideas that are each just a few pages long so really easy to pick up on tube journeys or while dinner is cooking. Harford’s style is so engaging, always using stories, examples and simple metaphors that it is a really easy to see how each ‘thing’ shaped the economy and in turn shaped the world (for good, bad and often both). This is one of those uncommon books that teaches you lots and entertains you while it does it.

    Agatha Christie – Nemesis
    Some may find Miss Marple’s meandering slowness endearing and relaxing, but I just find her a bit dull and this book really emphasized it without even trying to compensate for the character traits by having a more active plot. It felt like the whole thing just dragged and dragged. It was hard to get engaged in the case when you didn’t meet half of the key characters in the mystery and by the time the plot filled in, it felt very obvious to me who did it. Not one of Agatha Christie’s better works.

    Ian Fleming – Dr No
    I thought reading a James Bond book was probably one of those things I should tick off, although I do wonder how many people, even those that consider themselves James Bond fans have actually read one of the original books. I’m not a huge James Bond film fan, I’ve watched most of them I should think, but not with any real loyalty, just as a passable action film. I went into the book nervous at what James Bond written in the late 50’s would look like, when even in modern versions he’s a fair way from what I consider ‘acceptable behavior’. I wasn’t wrong to worry as the overt sexism and exploitation were pretty miserable to read. It completely overwhelmed any enjoyment I might have got from a solidly put together action novel. It’s not going to hold up well in terms of plot and action to modern thrillers, but it got the job done as a page turner. If you can ignore the “of it’s time” elements then I suppose it’s entertaining enough, but I’m not sure why you’d bother when there’s any number of modern thrillers that will avoid most of the issues.

    Max Gladstone – The Craft Sequence 1: Three Parts Dead
    I’m a bit torn on this book. On one hand it’s got a fairly original premise – magic and religion are kind of like contracts and trading – power, belief, terms and conditions. So lawyers are at the heart of it all. That’s an elegant idea, but I didn’t think it was very well introduced or developed. There was a bit too much going on for a first novel, and as I didn’t understand how the world was working, I couldn’t get lost in the schemes and subversion of the rules. The characters were all solid, I think the plot just about hung together and it was very readable; I just didn’t quite feel it was quite there.