Books in June

Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver
It wasn’t until I read the blurb just now that I realised that the story is based on Rumpelstiltskin, making this book another entry in the growing genre of retellings of classic fairy tales. The story starts out simple, with a couple of young girls taking agency to deal with their own local problems, even though they should be powerless. Gradually the story adds more threads, expanding as events involve more groups of people, expertly building up a complex and vibrant world of politics and magic, with a core group of strong , yet human women at the centre. I do think it maybe got a little too complex and went on a bit too long with more and more levels of pan that left me a bit overwhelmed at times. The story is all told first person, but there are a few too many people who take a turn (I’m never a fan of young children acting as narrator, they’re just too unreliable and drawn out) and it gets a little crowded. However even though technically I can see those flaws, I enjoyed reading every page, so it seems a bit silly to complain that the enjoyment went on too long.

Jessica Fellowes – Bright Young Dead
Not gripping unfortunately. There were too many characters, too many cases and too much meandering about. Everyone seemed to lose track of what was actually being investigated, characters made stupid mistakes and obvious routes of investigation were completely ignored until at the last minute someone asked the obvious questions. The first book in the series felt a little different as it was more from the maid’s point of view, but this novel felt like the writer had to keep engineering situations so that she could see the lives of the rich from the point of view of the maid who would never have been there. It just felt clumsy and unsatisfying, I don’t think I’ll bother with any further books in the series.

Philip Gwynne Jones – The Venetian Masquerade
Another thoroughly entertaining entry in this series. Venice is still the star, the descriptions of the city so vibrant and personal, but the rest of the elements of the book are no slouch either. A bit of time has passed since the last book and the recurring characters have all grown and settled and are lots of fun to spend time with. The mystery itself is solid, and although the world of opera does nothing for me, it gives a justification for some rather over the top characters to play out the mystery. A comfortable page turner that was just nice to settle in with.

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Books in April and May

I bundled two months of book reviews up together again, because I once again had a very slow couple of months reading. Partially because of my circumstances, but also because most of the books I’ve been reading just haven’t really grabbed me. The big exception being the first book below, which not only had me turning the pages, but adding loads to me to-read list.

Lucy Mangan – Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading
I seem to read a fair number of books about reading, and this is the first one that has really truly captured the joy of books and reading. I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the list of books that it covered because almost all of them I remember from my childhood, even just reading the titles made me feel warm and nostalgic. Although there are plenty of autobiographical elements in it, it never deviates from being completely about books, giving little bits of information about the authors and how their works were received. It even throws in some history and sociology, reflecting on the different way people have written for children over the centuries. Lucy Mangan has a lovely writing style, natural and unforced, with heart and humour. Even reading this book on a busy tube, I felt like I was snuggled under a blanket on a sofa with my favourite books for company.

Kate Mascarenhas – The Psychology of Time Travel
You can tell from the appendices of the book that a huge amount of effort has gone into the background of time travel, building up vocabulary and slang that would work in a community of people for whom time is fluid. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate into a solid book. I think the decision to tell the story from the point of view of people outside of the time travel community critically damaged the narrative, it meant that the science, logistics and (crucially) psychology of time travel was always slightly hedged in rumor and hear-say. It never felt like it was completely coherent. It would have been so much better to tell the story from within the time travel conclave, to fully immerse in it and be swept along with the way that people act within this context. Interestingly, I see the author is actually a psychologist. I wish she’d stuck to her strengths and really focused on getting in the heads of the characters, rather than getting bogged down in a murder mystery that didn’t really engage.

Tom Hanks – Uncommon Type: Some Stories
This book is exactly what I expected Tom Hanks to write, once I got over the slightly improbable idea of him writing short stories. If you know anything about the actor and his work, his choices of settings and themes will not surprise you – they’re about normal people, mostly living normal lives that are made extraordinary just because of the heart that goes into describing them. Hanks has an un-fussy approach that is really easy to settle into and carries you along. There’s nothing shocking here, minimal tension and hardly any drama so you can just relax into it and enjoy it. Just what I needed.

Becky Chambers – Record of a Spaceborn Few
The core concept of this book is incredibly good. A fleet of ships that have fled a dying planet on a multi-generational search for a new home, but centuries later the ships ARE the home and although there are other options available, and some people leave, the fleet goes on. That’s a great set up. There are also some beautiful details of the culture and philosophies that have developed in the fleet, some passages really moved me. It’s also a good idea to follow a small number of fairly disconnected characters and cycle through their first person point of views, illustrating different aspects of the world. The problem is that there’s no plot. Each character is well established and has an interesting day-to-day life, and even some small elements of arc, but there’s just nothing substantial enough. I found it a book that was quite easy to put down and not very tempting to pick up.

Stephen King – The Shining
I’ve made it to a really quite considerable age before reading a Stephen King novel, and I find I really haven’t been missing that much. I can see why he’s such a good source for films/tv series because the ideas and characters he creates (at least as evidenced by this one work) are rich, interesting and vibrant. But I did not get on with his writing style at all. For a start it’s just so drawn out! Ironically when I reviewed the film of The Shining I complained that we “could have spent more time at the start when they’re ‘normal’ before the craziness starts”, well maybe that was a response to the book which took FOREVER to get there. I also didn’t like the disjointed nature of the writing, short chapters bouncing between different characters, most of whom were having some sort of hallucination or were half in flashback. I found it very hard to get lost in the book and kept reading faster and faster just to get through.

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.

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.