Books in September 2021

I had a couple of weeks off work and spent a chunk of that time reading slightly trashy novels, proper holiday stuff to just get lost in without too much thought or emotional trauma, and apparently television personalities are the place to go to for that.

Richard Osman – The Man Who Died Twice
Because of my love of Richard Osman I read his first novel within days of publication and described it as “a lovely little murder mystery”. Well it went on to sell over a million copies and top the charts for weeks on end. Osman is a genius in many ways and whether he carefully engineered his book to be so popular or it happened by accident, he’s managed to deliver the same trick again with his second novel. It’s got vibrant, relatable characters who it’s nice to spend time with; mysteries that twist and turn; a lightness of touch that makes it very easy to read; but also some emotional punch to make it feel substantial. I read the whole thing in just a couple of sittings, perfect for curling up with on an autumn afternoon.

Graham Norton
Holding – I read all three of Graham Norton’s books over a couple of weeks. I started with Holding and was immediately gripped. It’s a gentle mystery/thriller set in a small Irish town with a lot of vibrant characters and a lot of history and it just leapt off the page. It’s got enough depth to it to keep it engaging and to have some impact, but not so much as to really challenge. I enjoyed getting lost in it for a few hours and it was perfect for sitting in the garden with a cup of tea and some biscuits.

A Keeper – Of the three books I’ve read by Graham Norton this was the weakest and least interesting. The story didn’t quite ring true for me, and the construction of the novel with jumping time frames didn’t land well. All the drama was in the past but that meant they lacked jeopardy because you know how it ends, and the mystery of the details was completely predictable. Meanwhile the present day bits just felt contrived, relying on a series of random meetings and awkwardly contrived memories to fill in what was happening in the past. It’s perfectly readable, it’s well written and some of the smaller details really ring true, but the overall plot was a bit meh. (728)

Home Stretch – This is Norton’s third book and you can see how his writing has evolved, certainly this book does a much better job playing with multiple timelines than his previous novel ‘A Keeper’ did. The plot just about hangs together, although it does rely on some coincidences and character choices that stretch belief a little bit. This is a gentle book to read; for the characters there are big dramas and mysteries, but it’s told in such a light way that as a reader I didn’t feel anywhere near that level of tension or intrigue. That worked well for me, it’s a light read, with strong characters and an evocative but easy way of describing people and places that’s really immersive and I found myself reading big chunks at a time because it was just so comfortable to keep reading.

Claudia Winkleman – Quite
This book is like being in Claudia Winkleman’s head, and that may not be everyone’s idea of wonderful but she’s one of my favourite people and this felt like being her friend. The book is a compilation of short pieces that are somewhere between biography and advice column, at times it feels a bit too specific (it mostly assumes the reader is a woman seeking a relationship with a man), but it’s also very sweet and kind of empowering. It’s sweet and funny and her voice absolutely rings out through the whole thing. The sections are all very short and reading it at any length feels a little bit overwhelming, but in small doses it’s lovely.

S.J. Bennett – The Windsor Knot
There’s a murder at Windsor Castle, the police and security services seem to be barking up the wrong tree, so the Queen starts investigating herself. Yes, the Queen. It’s a quirky idea and kind of makes sense that the Queen is extremely smart, very knowledgeable, a bit peeved about a murder in her ‘house’ and is a little bit bored. The mystery itself is solid and well paced, the writing very easy to read, the supporting characters fun and the detail about the Royal Household convincing and engaging. However I felt slightly uncomfortable about the whole thing. Maybe if it hadn’t been set in the near present day it wouldn’t have felt quite so odd and intrusive, but I felt weirdly dirty about reading it and couldn’t quite get over that.

Books in July and August 2021

Oh dear I’m getting very behind, and even bunching two months together I only apparently read three books! And one of them I didn’t even finish. Utterly rubbish.

Bridget Collins – The Betrayals
Like Collins’ first book, this had some structural problems. The book is based at a college that specialises in teaching The Game. What this Game is, why it’s so important, and how it’s played is treated as a mystery and to me it just felt like it wasn’t a pro-active choice to treat it like this, more that the author had absolutely no idea what the answers could be. The story jumps between a few different timelines and Collins does interweave them pretty well for the most part, connecting the two together and pacing the two carefully together. There are however a few glitches where things lurch, rely on characters just being a bit dumb, and a lot of building up mysteries that I found fairly obvious. The structural issues are a shame, because there are some suggestions of interesting ideas, well built characters and a strong theme – those made the book readable, but overall a little disappointing.

D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Firstly – the reason I picked this book up at all. I found it while clearing out my grandmother’s house and what made me laugh was that my slightly stuffy gran had a copy, and that she had covered it in brown paper so you couldn’t see what it was! Underneath was a beautiful 1960’s Penguin edition. Sadly that’s as exciting as it got and I didn’t finish this book. I gave up after 100 pages, and I actually struggled over whether it was therefore fair for me to post a review. But I figured an explanation for why I stopped was just as valid.
Sadly after all that, I just couldn’t get on with the book. The language is ridiculously florid and hard to read, with some characters written in dialect that makes it more an exercise in de-coding than reading. Chunks of the book read more like philosophical and ethical debates than prose, groups of people sitting around taking different points of view on a subject. And then you’ve got the challenge that the subjects include sex, gender equality, class and women’s rights and it becomes even harder to read and less satisfying. It’s a constant thought exercise trying to work out what was ‘normal’, progressive or outrageous at the times and how that might align with modern approaches. I don’t have the historical knowledge to put the book in the context it needs. I didn’t even get as far as the sex to be honest, I was just too bored to care.

Robert Dinsdale – The Toy Makers
This is a tricky review to write because everything I would write about the book technically is pretty good, for some reason I just didn’t get an emotional connection with it that I think was the aim. This is a book where you’re supposed to feel the magic of the toy shop, to feel part of that magic through the central character who comes to work at the shop and finds a family and a home. But I just never really felt that the shop was substantive, that the magic was ‘real’, it just felt flimsy and not part of the world. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the story is also about the world and how the toy shop fits within it because it does talk about war and money and practical things… but if the toy makers have magic and everyone knows it (because they’re buying the magical toys) then why isn’t the magic used more widely? How can you put a price on a paper tree that grows, and whatever that price would be, surely it would be enough to not worry about the mortgage payments. I was expecting a book of magic escapism, and instead I got a more powerful story of complicated people, relationships and a difficult world… which would have been fine, but one cannot sit within the other.

Books in May and June 2021

I may not have seen many films in June, or read many books in May, but the book count for June certainly made up for it. It was helped by a dedicated two days sitting in the garden reading, and also a bumper crop of books from Waterstones… including my top pick of the month…

Brit Bennett – The Vanishing Half
I would never have read this book if not for being able to go into a physical book shop. I was wandering around with three books from the buy-one-get-one-half-price deal and couldn’t find a fourth. A bookseller spotted me and she recommended this book and was so passionate about it that she was willing to add it into the deal. I’m so grateful to her because it was a really wonderful read. The characters leap off the page and the steps through time are perfectly managed to move the characters forwards. It’s a really easy read but with plenty of depth within it and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

T Kingfisher – The Hollow Places and The Twisted Ones
I read back to back T. Kingfisher’s two horror novels, she’s one of my favourite authors, but she normally writes fantasy, so setting both books in our world is a departure for her and I really enjoyed hearing her voice in this setting. The characters are vibrant and incredibly relatable as usual and the setting tangible and immersive. Technically her genre has shifted from fantasy to horror, but frankly I’m not sure of the distinction between the two, it’s almost like horror is just fantastical stuff set in our ‘normal’ world. Weird animals in a fantasy setting are normal, but transplant them into a ‘normal’ world and they become monsters , both genres have magic and weirdness in both, it’s just a matter of how surprised the characters are when they encounter them.
The Hollow Place was the better of the two, managing a more smooth plot that didn’t rely on big chunks of narrative/explanation; while The Twisted Ones had a slightly underwhelming plot that I lost track of towards the end. But both books have Kingfisher’s usual vibrant characters telling the story and their normalness is a great doorway to the weirdness of the situations the books bring up. I’m not entirely sure that I found either book scary (except the description of the hording grandmother’s house), and I found myself occasionally shouting at the characters for some poor or slow thinking. But I enjoyed them nevertheless.

Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen – The Planets
This is the book of a BBC documentary, and I read the paperback version rather than the coffee table one with loads of pictures, this is a normal paperback with just a dozen or so photos in the middle and a few scattered diagrams. And that’s the principle problem with the book, there are so many visual things that the authors are struggling to describe and inspire wonder. I did like the construction of the book (and the TV series) which intertwined the story of the exploration of the planets with the descriptions of the planets and the solar system, science and theories on their history. It was an interesting and informative read, and to be fair, I probably wouldn’t have actually read the words in the coffee table book, just flicked through the photos, so there’s really no winning with me.

Philip Gwynne Jones – The Venetian Legacy
Another great mystery novel set in the wonderfully described Venice. Jones takes us to another island to expand the setting of the Venetian lagoon and open up yet another different aspect of this amazing place. I didn’t massively care for the Venetian Mafia angle of the story, but it was well crafted, twisting past events together with the present to show the long reach and wide impacts of this kind of criminal empire. This is a really great series to drop into, and this is another really satisfying entry.

Laura Purcell – Bone China
There’s some good stuff in here, a couple of different characters and a couple of different time periods that all *sort of* come together in the end but more in a kind of messy granny knot than a really nice plait. It just felt a bit clunky in places. It also suffers from the usual problem with with first person narrators keeping things from the reader, it just feels clumsy for a sub-conscious voice to keep dropping hints about what’s happened. It was an ok read, but nothing to get excited about.

Dale Bailey – In the Night Wood
This book was rather lacking in get up and go. It wasn’t really enough of anything substantial, there was a bit of fantasy, a bit of gothic horror, a bit of modern thriller, but the only thing it did with any real substance was wallow. Literally 75% of the book just kind of wallowed in the depression of the two main characters as they mourned the death of the daughter, while being annoyingly vague about the details of her death. The plot elements of the story felt like a bit of an after thought and nothing really developed satisfyingly. I didn’t hugely enjoy it and read the final third or so of the book at high speed just to get to the end.

Agatha Christie – The Mystery of the Blue Train
A middling-to-good Hercule Poirot. It’s a good collection of characters, and from the very start I was coming up with different ideas and components of the mystery and having them ruled out one by one. The only problem with it was that although I’d got elements of the solution, it felt a bit like a swerve at the last minute for the full answer and so it felt a little unsatisfying. I do think though that between the interesting set of people, the drama of a train setting and then a lot of it being set on the French Riviera it would only take a little polish of the plot to make a great film.

Books in April 2021

Lydia Kang is a new author for me, found via Kindle Unlimited and she’s got a number of skills going for her. For a start, she’s a doctor so brings clinical knowledge and detail to the murders and the investigations, she’s also clearly got an interest in history and manages to bring period settings to life. Thirdly, she can write well with vibrant characters and solid plots.
A Beautiful Poison – This is an interesting mystery story with a few different threads going on, some murders, some character puzzles and some historical elements that play out nicely. It gets a little melodramatic at times, but it was satisfying enough that I picked up a second book by the author immediately.

The Impossible Girl – There’s a lot of strands going on in this book and I’m not 100% sure they all come together. It presents as a murder mystery, there are certainly lots of bodies to go around, but it felt a bit like the murders kept getting forgotten, no one was really investigating them, and the plot wasn’t really driven by that. In fact it sometimes felt a little like the plot was just meandering around searching for a thread. It’s not that it wasn’t enjoyable, the characters are interesting and the period setting is rich and detailed (and a jump from the time of her other book I’ve read, demonstrating impressive historical research). But I wasn’t as swept away in the story, I wasn’t so enthused to keep picking it up and I don’t feel as satisfied as I did when reading her other book.

James Clear – Atomic Habits
I don’t tend to read many self-help books like this. Heaven knows I need all the help I can get, but it’s rare that I find a self-help book that actually helps, tells me something I don’t know and doesn’t come across as patronising and smug. This book isn’t without some smugness, but it was also realistic and forgiving. A lot of the stuff the book talks about may already be familiar, and it certainly makes sense, but it’s not necessarily something that individually we can articulate, and I at least find it really helpful to be able to put labels and structures around familiar behaviors and feelings. It’s not got any magic tricks and isn’t going to change your life, but it does a good job highlighting opportunities to make small adjustments that might make things better.

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch 8: Six Furlongs
As I started reading this book I was a little frustrated by it. Each book in the series adds more characters and complexity to the story’s world which really works if you’re reading a lot at a time, but it’s nearly a year since I read the last one and there’s an ever growing amount of baggage to catch up making the start of the book a bit overwhelming. But I really got into the book as it went on and thoroughly enjoyed it. The way characters have gradually been introduced over the series have made for a diverse group with a range of depths of relationships and understanding of the world of magic bringing even more richness to the world.
I went straight on to read the accompanying novella Fire Games which is a mini story with a subset of the characters who we haven’t seen in a while. It’s an entertaining read and makes a nice change to have a story told by another point of view.

Books in March 2021

T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Strength
Another wonderful warm hug of a book from T Kingfisher. Like the previous book in the series Paladin’s Grace this is a pure romance novel dressed up in fantasy adventure clothes but it can’t help wearing it’s awkward heart on its sleeve. The characters leap off the page immediately becoming old friends and the relationships are just adorable, never feeling forced or unrealistic. While the story is of secondary importance it still delivers plenty of excitement, a bit of horror and some gloriously unsettling bunny rabbits. I ADORE these books.

Natalie Haynes – Pandora’s Jar
This book takes a dozen or so female characters from Greek mythology and shows how the telling of their stories has changed over time, not so much giving new perspectives on them, but sometimes just re-promoting older versions. Haynes focuses on the ancient sources themselves for the most part, but also covers the rest of history – art, theatre, opera and modern media too. Each story is fascinating and shows how rich the myths were in the first place, and how the telling of stories is linked so strongly to the beliefs and fashions of the period of the teller, not the period of the events. It’s interesting to take a chapter per character, but I do wish there was a way to also do the opposite presentation and focus a bit more on how each period of history retold all the myths, joining the two sides of the story together. The other frustration is that for a book that talks a lot about representation in art there is only one picture per chapter, so you have to read a lot of descriptions (and/or google the images in parallel). Despite these quibbles though, it’s a fascinating book that really made me think.

Eoin Colfer – High Fire
The title and cover of this book makes it look like just another generic dragon book. It’s not that book and it’s not that dragon. This dragon lives in a swamp in New Orleans where he is hiding from humanity, drinking heavily, swearing a lot, watching a lot of television and generally wallowing in a really bad mood. His mood gets considerably worse when a showdown between a trouble making kid and a local policeman/criminal overlord wannabe lands in his back yard. The book is about as far from a generic dragon novel as is possible, the book and the characters embrace the insanity of the situation without undermining either the drama or the emotions. It was both a lot of fun to read, and genuinely thrilling as it twisted and turned.

Eva St. John – The Quantum Curators and the Faberge Egg
A team of Quantum Archivists travel from an alternate timeline version of Earth where the library of Alexandria was never destroyed and they travel to various points in history on our Earth to rescue important objects before they are lost of destroyed. It’s a bit Indiana Jones but with more wibbly science and better gadgets and I really enjoyed it. We’re launched straight into everything and the plot moves quite fast, I could actually have enjoyed spending more time on the set up and just spending time with the characters and this has the potential to become a fun series.
The Quantum Curators and the Enemy Within
The second book in the series continues to move quickly but smoothly, expanding the world’s that the author has created and delving deeper this time into how the alternate Earth of the curators works. We’ve jumped forward in time a bit which works really well so that our eyes into the world has been there a little while and can act as both our guide and the audiences questioning voice. The mystery/conspiracy elements are well paced and kept me guessing throughout, but not in a frustrated way where it felt like I was being deliberately misled at all. A fun and easy to read series, I look forward to the next one.

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 5: The Long Bad Friday
I’d been really disappointed by book 4 of this series, but having got that far, I figured I might as well read the final book. It was better than the previous one, back to the main characters and the familiar locations of Birmingham, but it inevitably lost its way. The problem with the series is that what I loved was the contrast between the mundanity of civil servants/academics dealing with alien gods who are bringing about the apocalypse. It was just normal (ish) people dealing with the periphery of an extraordinary set up. But when everything starts getting bigger, the books lose their charm. Also unfortunately this book is way too long, too many weird names and gods to keep track of, too many different threads and an ending that I didn’t really understand or like. Unfortunately given the way the series ends, I’m not sure I can really recommend it.

Books in Jan and Feb 2021

As I only read two books in January, I decided to save this post until February when I would make sure I read a bit more.

Bone Season – Samantha Shannon
I’d loved Samantha Shannon’s Priory of the Orange Tree so thought I’d delve into her back catalogue a bit, but in ‘good news/bad news’ she has clearly grown as a writer over the last few years, because this book isn’t very good. There’s a solid idea – the spirit world and people with clairvoyance are real but criminalised by the authoritarian government, but there’s more behind it than simple fear and there’s actually a complex conspiracy being hidden from the public. So far so good, but the story is told from the point of view of a 19 year old caught up in all this and she is deeply annoying. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or poor writing, but she’s very inconsistent in her thoughts and actions, very short sighted and not really engaging with the bigger issues. There’s a bit of jumping about with memories/dreams and a few lurches in the timeline when the plot moves forwards but the characters’ emotions don’t. The book is at least 100 pages too long and I found it really dragged. It’s a seven book series, but I don’t think I’ll even be bothering with the second.

Peter Swanson – Rules for a Perfect Murder
The central character of this book is a murder expert – he runs a crime bookshop, and he compiles a list of the perfect murders in crime fiction… which someone then seems to be using as a guide in the real world. It’s a really really good set up for a novel (or in fact a TV series with an odd couple of a detective and a book seller, I’m surprised no one has made that yet, Amazon would make a killing on tie-in book sales). Peter Swanson certainly knows his crime fiction and knows how to write a twisting and turning thriller. The things I didn’t like about it were personal preferences – the main character is quickly revealed to be not as innocent as he first appeared and I didn’t really like that, I wasn’t expecting there to be that much moral angst in the book and I felt a bit side-swiped by it. It’s a good book though, (maybe the ending is a bit contrived? A bit smug?) that’s a great page turner even if on occasions I didn’t want to go back to it because I didn’t want the internal conflict of trying to justify the actions of the narrator just because I liked him.

Madeline Miller – Circe
I’m reading a lot of classical history at the moment, non-fiction books that are re-evaluating how historians approach history and how much our view of myths and ancient histories have been tainted by being written and re-written by historians bringing their own baggage to the past, most notably their white, male baggage. This book stuck with that theme, but through fiction instead of non-fiction and it paints a much richer picture of a character that featured in multiple myths. Here Circe is made the hero of her own story, or sometimes the villain, or the victim. Miller creates an incredibly rich character, and in turn the surrounding characters become richer through her eyes too, bringing real human complexity where previously there’d only been basic characteristics necessary to get the messages and morals of the myths across. The book does occasionally drag a bit, although the slight meandering does fit the classical style of an epic and Circe’s story does at least deserves the page count.

NON-FICTION
Randall Munroe – What If?
Randall Munroe is a genius. Not only is he clearly incredibly smart, but he’s very curious and has a way with words and images that turns even the most complicated of ideas into something informative, entertaining and inspiring. In What If he takes the most weird and wonderful questions that the internet can throw at him and thoroughly researches them as if they’re completely viable academic questions, and not totally improbable craziness. Then he takes his comprehensive research and turns it into something understandable (usually) and funny (always) and (sometimes) really rather sweet. This book is an absolute delight, and while some of the explanations did rather get away from me, I learnt a lot of amazing stuff and laughed a lot along the way.

Humble Pi – Matt Parker
A book about maths errors – how ‘boring’ maths can have really quite serious impacts on the real world. I find I have rather muddled feelings on this book. On one hand it’s a fairly easy read, but part of that is because the chunks that go into the maths go so far that I found myself glazing over and just skimming it quickly rather than really understanding it because it was just a bit too hard (and I studied maths a bit at university). Also it’s got a jokey tone throughout which is really nice, but some of the examples used are really serious causing suffering and death. I did enjoy the book, and I did learn some stuff, it’s just that it felt a bit odd at times.

Books I read in 2020

I read a nice and tidy 50 books this year. I usually rely on my commute to get a lot of reading done, so given that I was last in the office in mid March, I’m pretty pleased with getting to that figure. After the first couple of months of working from home I set myself some better routines, and got into the habit of reading a bit over breakfast and whenever I could take a lunch break. The summer months also helped and I spent a lot of time sat in my garden with books (not much else to do). They weren’t even short books – the page count comes in at about 18,000 with an average of just over 50 pages a day. So somehow I’ve actually managed to read slightly more than last year (46 books, 41pages per day) even without having 2 hours to kill each day on the tube.

The state of ‘all this’ has influenced the books I’ve read. I’ve deliberately sought out escapist books, avoiding anything that’s “heartfelt” or “moving”. Thrillers have to be fairly disposable, and I avoided anything apocalyptic like the plague (pardon the pun). I actually thought I’d end up re-reading books I knew would be ‘safe’, but in fact only re-read 2 books.

I really missed bookshops and the library this year though. I just don’t enjoy browsing for books online as much as in person. I would probably have read more on kindle, but it took me a long time to replace the one that had been stolen at the end of last year, so I only read 13 books on it. Eight of those were through the Kindle Unlimited, which continues to be worth a month long subscription every now and then, but lacking enough quality stuff to make it permanently worth while.

I seem to have read a lot more ‘new’ books than usual. Last year I only read 4 books (9%) from the same year, and a further 9 books (20%) from the previous year. But this year I’ve had 18 books (36%) from 2020 and 14 (28%) from last year, and in fact 86% of the books I read were from the 2010s.

The 50 books were spread over 41 authors (including 2 sets of pairs writing together), and I’m pleased that 23 (59%) of them were female. Also 21 (54%) of them were new authors which I’m quite pleased with. Less impressively though only 3 of the authors were from somewhere other than UK or USA.

Non-fiction
Of the fifty books in total, only eight of them (16%) were non-fiction, that’s higher in number and percentage than last year (6 books, 13%) but still seems weirdly low to me as I usually try to have a non-fiction and a fiction on the go at the same time and I was sure I’d read more. Given the small sample set there’s not a huge amount of range, and looking at them now five of them have a feminist theme running through them. That wasn’t a deliberate choice, and in fact I usually gently avoid outright feminist works. But most of these books comes at the topics of discrimination and bias obliquely through history, psychology, business management or statistics.

My favourite non-fiction book was Agrippina by Emma Southon. I studied classical history and literature to A-Level and even elements of it through a masters in History of Science and Medicine, but Emma Southon came at the subject I slightly knew from such a completely fresh point of view that it blew me away. She shows how one sided the history telling has been, how biased from a modern and male point of view. And she’s also hilarious, the writing is so natural as if she’s just chatting over the dinner table. Her second book, A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, isn’t quite as revelatory, but is still fascinating and entertaining.

The other standout for the year was Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, an impeccably researched, challenging and slightly heart breaking book that shows the inherent bias and discrimination in the world of numbers. I also recommend Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed as a great book talking about diversity in an entirely practical and logical way, it’s not about the unfairness or emotional heartbreak, but the practicalities of why businesses, countries and societies do better with greater diversity of all sorts.

The others:

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain is a little more “woe is us” which I found annoying, but it did explain introversion clearly and openly, it would be nice if more extroverts would read it to understand the rest of us.
  • A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection by Jenni Murray – some interesting people, but each section was too short
  • Ships Of Heaven: The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals by Christopher Somerville – a little muddled, a bit light and a bit forgettable
  • Surrounded by Idiots by Thomas Erikson – an overly simplistic approach that left me hating everyone (myself included)
  • New Fiction:
    I read 16 fiction books published this year, including seven hardbacks which is probably a record for me. Most of them were from authors that I’ve read before, and indeed all three of the new reads which I rated outstanding this year were new works from two of my very favourite authors. I not only pre-ordered A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik in hardback, but cleared my weekend to read it immediately and was not disappointed. It’s a really fun read but also has an incredible depth to it, playing with classic tropes and turning them on their head. T Kingfisher somehow managed to produce two absolutely wonderful books that had me utterly charmed from start to finish – Paladin’s Grace and the amazingly named A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Minor Mage from last year was also very good).

    Other favoured authors who didn’t disappoint me with their 2020 publications were Ben Aaronovitch with a slightly more standalone Rivers of London book (False Value), Philip Gwynne Jones with another satisfying crime novel Venetian Gothic and Robert Galbraith’s fifth Cormoron Strike novel Troubled Blood, which is still entertaining, but is too long and therefore just not as good as the previous novels in the series (I reread Lethal White and it’s still outstanding). Richard Osman is a new author, but one of my favourite people, so it’s relieving to be able to say that his debut novel The Thursday Murder Club is a lot of fun, and an absolute hit on the sales charts.

    Sadly however I was let down by some authors I’d been eagerly awaiting new books from, weirdly while Kingfisher and Novik can pump out exceptional books every year, some of the authors I’d been waiting longest for were the most disappointing. Ernest Cline (Ready Player 1) and Erin Morgenstern (Night Circus) have both had a lot of years to work, but both Ready Player 2 and
    The Starless Sea were underwhelming and at times annoying. Susanna Clarke finally wrote another novel after Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and although Piranesi wasn’t bad, it was still rather underwhelming.

    Older books:
    None of the older books I described as ‘outstanding’. If I was forced to chose, the standout would probably be The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. At nearly 1000 pages long this is the kind of commitment that I normally avoid, but at least this is a standalone fantasy book rather than the traditional trilogy, so it’s probably shorter than most and it’s a really satisfying page turner that I found flying by and was grateful that I’d bought it online without noticing the thickness.

    Other recommendations:

  • Early Riser by Jasper Fforde, a long awaited return to old form for Fforde
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – as historical dramas go, it’s a bit fluffy and everything turns out very well in the end, so if you’re looking for gritty it’s not going to be satisfying, but I wasn’t looking for gritty so it worked fine.
  • A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die by Mark Hayden – a solidly put together crime thriller that completely works (while the author’s King’s Watch urban fantasy series is a little more hit and miss – Eight Kings was pretty good, but The Seventh Star was a bit annoying).
  • The Woods by Harlan Coben – an absolute page turner, apparently it’s now a Polish drama on Netflix!
  • Oddjobs 3: You Only Live Once by Heide Goody and Iain Grant, another entertaining entry in the series. Sadly the next book, Out of Hours, took a swerve towards the rubbish with a poor decision to change the settings which meant the humour completely disappeared.
  • Books to avoid
    The worst book I read this year is A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson which is slightly tricky, because it’s certainly not badly written it’s just unpleasant. It spends the whole time focussing on the small sadnesses and disappointments of life and stepping quickly past any joy. And then the ending of it is so brutal and MEAN that it made me absolutely furious and wishing I had never ever opened the book.

    In comparison the other books I’d advise avoiding are just not very good and not really worth the time when there are other much better things out there. Neil Gaiman wasted his talent doing a re-telling of Norse Mythology but rather than using his creativity to make it interesting, he just told it absolutely flat as if he were doing an intellectual exercise in merging other people’s versions and wikipedia pages, he should have taken some creative liberties and actually made a proper novel.
    Do You Dream of Terra-Two by Temi Oh has a fundamentally interesting idea, good pace and diverse characters, but the details of it are utterly ridiculous and I couldn’t suspend disbelief. Pine by Francine Toon was billed as a chilling thriller and it was stunningly boring. I gave Hilary Matnel another try with the blissfully short The Giant, O’Brien which was hard to read and lacking in a decent story, so I won’t be giving her a third chance no matter how many prizes she wins.

    Continue reading “Books I read in 2020”

    Books in December 2020

    Three books to polish off the year, and unfortunately they were all a bit disappointing. Check back in a couple of days for my overall review of the year.

    Francine Toon – Pine
    According to the review quote on the cover of this novel it’s “A literary gothic thriller to chill the marrow” (Guardian). It’s not. It’s utterly unthrilling. I wasn’t chilled, I was bored. It’s also described as a crime novel but given that the majority of the book is vague on whether a crime has even been committed it. It’s only the last quarter or so of the book that actually has any plot happen and it’s way too little, too late and too rushed. Another problem is that the story is told from the point of view of a young girl (10ish?), a point of view I always find tedious as they’re incredibly unreliable narrators, and a lazy writing technique as it gives an easy excuse for simplifying everything and building up the mystery because they’re not part of the conversations grown ups have that would immediately fill in the gaps. It’s clumsy and boring.

    Jenni Murray – A History of the World in 21 Women: A Personal Selection
    The good thing about a book like this is that it introduces you to (or reminds you of) a lot of different people from completely different times and places. But the bad thing is that with only about 10-15 pages per person you only get a very high level summary of where they lived and what they did. It’s a bit like reading a curated set of wikipedia pages, or a weird speed dating session. Jenni Murray is not an expert on any of the people in question, or their fields, and while she is a good journalist, I did feel that a lot of the sections were more editorial exercises summarising/combining other works than they were original writing. The best sections are those later in the book with modern subjects, many of whom Murray has met and interviewed which allowed her to add a more personal touch and something more original.

    Ernest Cline – Ready Player 2
    I loved Ready Player 1. It was a fun adventure romp that managed to capture the joyous spirit of what it meant to be a geek – getting lost in the things you love and finding a group of people to share those passions with. Ready Player 2 was a huge disappointment. In my review of the first book I said that I didn’t think it was necessarily a ‘good’ one, but it was the right one and it made me happy. It’s like Cline took the opposite direction – it makes perfect sense that having got all he wanted the lead character would turn into a bit of a dick, but just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it makes for good reading. I also got deeply bored and frustrated by the quest sections which spent way too much time in a very small number of settings that I was personally not interested in the slightest. The book eventually picked up and got some momentum, but I was really just disappointed.

    Books in November 2020

    Naomi Novik – A Deadly Education
    Naomi Novik is one of the author’s who’s novels I pre-order the hardbacks for, that’s about as high a complement as I can offer an author. The only greater compliment is that I’m thrilled that this is the start of a new series, even the greatest authors I often prefer to get new worlds and new ideas rather than extend existing ones. But Novik has created a world that is both comfortably familiar and original. I would probably describe it as Harry Potter meets Lord of the Flies; what would it be like if Hogwarts was trying to kill its students? The book also plays with the idea of good wizards and bad wizards, what if the supposed ‘heroes’ were making things worse and the actual hero was the one who was born with all the evil power? I was completely engrossed with the characters and the set ups and cannot wait for the next book in the series.

    Caroline Criado Perez – Invisible Women
    I’d put off reading this book for a long time, because despite being on subjects that I’m passionate about, I thought it would make me angry. By the time I did read it I was so aware of the contents that my anger was muted down to a frustration and my overwhelming feelings were of sadness and tiredness. The contents form an overwhelming narrative of how women are discriminated against through being absent in the data. Whether it’s in politics, town planning, medicine, or design of the specialist and everyday tools, women’s voices are excluded and their absence in the data means that we can’t even understand just how serious the impacts of that is, although even the small amount of data indicates that huge numbers of lives are being lost, and economies are suffering.
    While the contents and messages in the book are outstanding, I’m afraid the writing underwhelmed me a little. The quality of the research, evidenced through the volume and range of footnotes is outstanding, but occasionally lacked the human element and I would have liked a few more deep dives with interviews and anecdotes from individuals. I also struggled at times with the structure as it seemed a little meandering at times and some of the most shocking and impactful of cases, ones that people may not think of or be familiar with (eg car safety testing without any need for female crash test dummies) felt a little buried.
    It’s a fascinating, powerful and vitally important work which I would highly recommend to anyone, even if the readability could have been improved a little bit to make it a truly outstanding package. (692)

    Neil Gaiman – Norse Mythology
    There’s something about re-writing myths that seems to make even the most talented or charismatic of writers revert to the same simplistic and flat tone. Stephen Fry was guilty of this with his Greek myths, and Gaiman does the same here. The stories themselves are fantastic, and I was less familiar with the Norse ones, but the delivery is boring. Gaiman loses all sense of world building, characterization and plotting and just retells the myths by rote. You end up with written out complicated family trees, no emotions from the characters, no relationships, no development. Maybe it’s because he was trying to stay so faithful to the myths that he felt he couldn’t embellish, or maybe the stories just don’t hang together if you go more in depth, but I want more from a novel even if it means taking some creative liberties with the myths themselves. I expect better from writers of this talent.

    Christopher Somerville – Ships Of Heaven: The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedral
    I’m fascinated by cathedrals. Wherever I travel, they’re always top of my list of places to visit. They’re just so extreme, the scale of them is completely other worldly and usually built so long ago that it seems like a miracle that the knowledge even existed on how to build something so immense to last so long. Unlike castles and skyscrapers, they’re built with love and passion, with a view to last and for appreciation through the ages by more than us mere mortals. Christopher Somerville’s book captures exactly what I find so fascinating and awe inspiring about cathedrals, including the fact that it has very little to do with religion and belief in a higher power.
    Each chapter is about a different cathedral in the UK and he talks to the aspects that are most relevant to each one – the architecture, the craft workers, the glass, the history, the art, the place in the community, the people working there, the music. The cathedrals are centres of cities and communities so the book also tells you a little about the cities and the people. The scope of the book is huge and I wasn’t always satisfied that it lingered in the right places and skipped quickly over the right ones too, and the language did tend towards the flowery which made my eye’s roll a bit. More pictures would also have been wonderful. A good whistle stop tour, particularly for the behind the scenes access and conversations with those working and supporting the cathedrals today.

    Books in October 2020

    Susanna Clarke – Piranesi
    Based on the evidence of two novels, Susanna Clarke writes the kind of books that are rather hard to describe, ignoring some of the standard ‘rules’ of storytelling. She creates weird and wonderful worlds, but doesn’t introduce the readers to them, just throws them into them and leaves them to figure out what is the same and what is different. With Piranesi this sucked me in completely, I was utterly lost in the world, in a way that at times genuinely felt like I was lost in an unsettling way struggling to spot familiar landmarks to cling on to. The narrating character has a childlike sense of adventure, but the fact that they are actually in their 30’s makes that naivety unsettling. I’m not sure that the conclusion of the book and the solving of the puzzles is as well done as the set up, it was a bit drawn out and the way the ‘answers’ sort of destroys the childlike world is deliberate but sad. It’s a fascinating book, and is a third the length of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell so that definitely counts in its favour!

    Emma Southon – A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
    Following on from her fascinating book focused on a single woman and her connections to the first few emperors of Rome, Emma Southon here takes a broader look at life in ancient Rome through the lens of murder. It’s a catchy concept, as Southon says – who doesn’t love reading about murder and mayhem? It turns out the concept of murder is a complicated one and it’s actually a route in to much wider historical and philosophical issues, really getting into the challenges that there are to assess a completely different culture through the presumptions our modern, western mindset. There are still plenty of gruesome, funny and touching anecdotes throughout, and Southon’s accessible tone keeps even complex discussions light and engaging. It’s so rare for non-fiction to be so well grounded in high quality academic research and also such fun to read, and I’m really glad I’ve found this author.

    Stacey Halls – The Foundling
    I enjoyed this book, it’s not the grim and gritty historical novel that I was expecting, and to be honest I’m actually a bit glad about that as while I feel I *should* read stuff like that, I’m not really in the mood at the moment. There is some challenging content in here, particularly at the very start, around the reality of women’s lives in Georgian England when the gaps between the rich and the poor were so immense. However while there’s that dark thread, there’s also a fair amount of cheesy plot going on, which makes the novel feel a little lighter and more like a caper or puzzle at some points. The ending ties everything up in a very neat and utterly improbable bow at the end which is maybe not ‘right’ but it was nicer to read than what the reality would have been.

    Lucy Foley Double Bill
    The Guest List – An entertaining and solid thriller, with a solid level of “un-put-down-ability” and a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. It’s not a masterpiece – the jumping timelines got a bit annoying at times and the characters were slightly on the wrong side of credibility. But if you’re looking for a book to hold your attention while read under a blanket on an autumn evening, and then never really think of again, then this will hit the spot.

    The Hunting Party – I was looking for a quick, fairly disposable read and having just finished Lucy Foley’s most recent novel, so thought I’d pick her previous one up. It’s exactly the same, the same overall structure with jumping timelines and holding the reveal of the crime and the victim until very near the end, the same combination of posh and annoying old friends slightly on the wrong side of credibility with more grounded ‘staff’ observing them. As a one off structure it works, but as a repeated gimmick it’s already very old after just two books. It’s still a solid read for a dreary autumn evening, but it’s disappointing that the author doesn’t have more creativity.