Books I read in Apr 2022

After a disappointing two books in March, April is an utterly triumphant TEN! I had two weeks off work after Easter, desperately needing to relax and de-stress. Thankfully it it coincided with some lovely weather so I basically spent the whole time sat in my garden reading and it was utterly glorious. I even went to the library to get more books out and there’s another 2 books read during my holiday that fell into May.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 12: Amongst Our Weapons
This series is impressively consistent, it’s hard to think of anything original to say for the 12th book in the series. Everything just jumps out of the page into your head, the narrative from Peter is completely natural, driving the story on, providing all the exposition and conveying his personality flawlessly. The supporting characters are all equally vibrant, whether recurring characters, or new ones for this mystery. The only thing I struggle with a little is keeping track of the story itself, but to be honest, I don’t try that hard, because even if I’m not really getting the nuances of who is plotting what against who, it’s such a fun journey that I don’t really care that much.

Malcolm Gladwell – Talking to Strangers
This is not Gladwell’s best book. It still has all the wonderful storytelling and journalism, bringing a range of histories and science to life through carefully crafted narratives and humanising everyone involved. Usually however those anecdotes and explanations connect together into central themes and this time it didn’t land. The subtitle is “what we should know about people we don’t know” but the book focused mostly on how we can’t actually know whether someone is lying. I felt disappointed that there wasn’t more depth on things like cultural differences, contexts, body language, even understanding what you bring to any meeting yourself. There didn’t seem to be any kind of core message beyond – you can’t know why people are acting as they are, which was kind of depressing. It’s still an interesting read, but it just fell flat without a stronger theme to bring it together.

Tom Holt – An Orc on the Wild Side
Tom Holt has an impressive bibliography of over 40 books since the late 80’s. I read a lot of his books in college, finding him a very enjoyable read, although lacking the world building skills, depth and elegance of Pratchett. I hadn’t read one of his books in ages, but spotted this in the library so gave it a go. It’s everything I remember about Holt, thoroughly enjoyable rollercoaster journey, with some nice observational stuff and really vibrant characters. The plot and world felt fairly solidly put together actually, helped by borrowing/riffing on Tolkien’s Middle Earth and also being part of a series (not that I knew that while reading, so it can clearly be read stand alone). I’m going to make a mental note to read more of his work.

Pat Barker – The Silence of the Girls
I had been meaning to read this for a while and was slightly disappointed. I’m a big fan of the recent trend in retelling classics and myths from a more female point of view, and having studied Homer’s Iliad in detail at school thought this would be really interesting. Unfortunately I think my knowledge was a downside for this book, because although I liked the storytelling and where details were added, it didn’t do much to develop the story. It didn’t feel like there was enough richness or depth to it to really sustain even the relatively restrained 320 pages. I would have liked to see more of the characters, maybe interweaving with someone inside Troy. It’s very well written, easy to read and adds some depth to the story from The Iliad, but I think it missed an opportunity.

Pat Barker – The Women of Troy
I enjoyed this sequel to Silence of the Girls a bit more than the first book, I at least didn’t have the problem that I knew exactly what was going to happen. I felt the story was richer here, more depth and complexity, but that may just have been that it was new to me. There are more characters although there could still be more development of them. It frustrated me that more of the women weren’t given the opportunity to narrate, the majority is still from Briseis, while Pyrrhus gets a few chapters here and there. It seems ironic that so few of the women are given their voices and it would have really added to the book. As in the ( book the historical descriptions of the camp and war are vivid and feel very credible.

Jane Austen – Persuasion
Every now and then I feel obliged to pick up a ‘classic’ book and at least 50% of the time all I get out of it is a small amount of smugness that I tried. I’ve read a few Brontes and Austens and haven’t like a single one of them. Persuasion is probably the least offensive of them. The lead character is actually quite likeable, and although many of the supporting characters are very irritating, at least the central character feels that way too. I did find the plot a bit convoluted and confusing, but that probably wasn’t helped by the fact I was struggling to stay focused. At least it’s fairly short.

Claire North – The Gameshouse
Claire North’s books are a bit hit and miss. I love her concepts, she has a rare ability to take a concept like body swapping, or being forgotten by everyone that meets you and developing it into a complete narrative, fully fleshed out and believable. However her story telling sometimes lets her down, she experiments with different styles of writing and some of them really haven’t worked. This book falls somewhere in the middle. The story follows the players of games, part of a century spanning Gameshouse where the stakes can be anything from years of your life, your memories or even your name. The game of Hide and Seek may span an entire country, the pieces in a game of chess are generals, bishops and prime ministers and taking a piece could mean a death, an institution collapsing, or a coup. It’s a great concept. However I didn’t get on with the writing style which had a kind of independent observer narrating it as if we were all watching. It was interesting at first, but became grating after a while and meant I didn’t connect with the story or characters as much as if it had been told more first person. I didn’t et lost in the book, the stakes were so high and the moving parts so epic that it felt a bit unreal and I just never sank into it.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 21: Jingo
This isn’t the best of Pratchett’s City Watch novels. It lacks the adventure and mystery of the earlier books. The story and messages about the stupidity of war isn’t delivered with much subtlety and it feels a little like the Guards just got thrown in for the ride and the story compromised in order to include them. I’d actually have preferred it I think if it were a book ‘starring’ Vetinari rather than Vimes and make it a full on political satire. It’s not a bad book, there are plenty of Pratchett zingers and clever observations, but it’s not one of his best.

Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV – DIDN’T FINISH
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes.

Agatha Christie – The Hollow
A perfectly serviceable Poirot story. The characters are all a bit over the top (as usual) and the mystery meanders about a little bit, but it’s a pleasing enough read.

Books I read in March 2022

Oh dear, March wasn’t a good month for books. Just two, and one of them was really bad. And really long! Why I didn’t give up on it I really can’t explain. But just to prove I’ve learnt, I’ve thrown in a third book that was technically in April, but I stopped reading it after 2 chapters. See I can learn!

THE GOOD: Greg Jenner – Dead Famous
The history of celebrity is a longer story than you might think and it’s a subject that works very well for Greg Jenner’s easy going, down to earth approach. He’s clearly done a huge amount of research on individual personalities from the past couple of thousand years and then turned it into a solid structure to look at different aspects of celebrity and how much the term can be applied to historical figures. It’s an academic approach, but the writing style is completely accessible. He does sometimes get a little stuck by his constructs and also can’t quite stick to his self imposed rule about not covering ‘modern’ celebrities, but I’m willing to forgive. It’s an entertaining and interesting read shedding light on how remarkably little has changed.

THE BAD: Elizabeth Knox – The Absolute Book
I was lured in by a shiny cover and gushing praise on the back. The first bit of the book started quite well, a fairly straightforward kind of thriller, and then it lurched towards the fantasy and it all fell apart. What I should have done is stop at that point, about 100 pages in, but I kept going for another 500 pages for some unknown reason. The book’s a mess. Nothing felt consistent, characters and plots meandered about, the world building just didn’t work for me. I never felt like anything made sense, let alone feeling immersed or getting any enjoyment out of it. The bits that are written as a straight real-world thriller actually work quite well, but as soon as the fantasy elements break through again it just felt like random words on a page. Maybe I missed something early on and once I’d disengaged there was no way back. And I’ve no one but myself to blame for not just putting it down.

THE NOPE: Mark Rowlands – Everything I Know, I Learned from TV
The title of this book obviously really spoke to me, but digging in a bit it actually sounded even better. It’s actually a book about philosophy. That’s a subject that I’ve always wanted to know more about but really struggle to find an entrance too. Well, unfortunately this is another one I struggled with, so much that I gave up after 2 chapters. It has the same problem that every other book on philosophy I’ve ever tried, it just lost me. The problem is it’s very very heavy on the philosophy and just sprinkles some TV in as examples. But the concepts were either too complicated, too poorly explained, or just too much for me because I was lost by about page 10. For once, I’m not going to keep going through a book I don’t like and am not getting anything from, so I gave up. Off to the charity shop it goes. (750)

Books in Feb 2022

I hit my page count target, although to be honest that was only because the last Sunday of the month was a beautiful sunny day and I spent almost the whole day sitting in my garden reading, looking at the daffodils, eating a packet of biscuits and drinking tea. All while wearing multiple jumpers and a warm hat because it may have been sunny bit it was still February. I also had to break out the Terry Pratchett’s because after a run of underwhelming fiction, I just needed the reliability and escapism of the Discworld Guards.

Tim Harford – The Next Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy
Another interesting and entertaining education from Tim Harford on some things that have fundamentally contributed to the way the world works today. They’re not necessarily things you would think of as important, or that you’ve ever heard of, but they’ve either driven important transformations, or they keep the world (and its money) moving. The structure makes the book very readable, each item is only a few pages and entirely standalone. Unfortunately that does mean that some of the entries are a little confusing, or leave you wanting more.

Amanda Craig – The Golden Rule
I did enjoy reading the book as a light thriller, but I think there were opportunities missed to have more meaningful discussion of some of the central issues. The main character, Hannah, is in an awful situation, a spiral that she can see no way out of. But the book doesn’t probe too deeply on the responsibilities of how she got there. Her ex-husband is no doubt an awful person, but it’s quickly shown in flashbacks that he’s pretty much always been awful and she kept choosing him over the advice of her friends and family. The end of the book also suggests some interesting contributing factors, but despite the book dragging out the ending an unnecessary 50 pages, it doesn’t explore this angle. Throughout, I found characters making sweeping statements about “men are x”, “women are y” and it never felt like it got a richer conversation about “men and women are people, and people are x and y”. Is it good writing about irritating but realistic characters, or is it mediocre writing creating limited characters? I’m not sure.

Dean Burnett – The Idiot Brain
This title really jumped out to me, and hilariously my brother and I both got it for the other for Christmas, and I wasn’t disappointed in either my giving or receiving of the gift. It’s more focused on neuroscience and biology of the brain than it is about the psychology of how we think, but the overlap of the two are fascinating – is it biology driving behaviour or the other way around? It’s a good read, well written in manageable chunks, with a very readable style, and plenty of clever metaphors and clear descriptions. However there were lots of bits that made me glaze over a bit, as soon as the descriptions of the anatomy and names of things started being listed, I just couldn’t keep them in my head. But there are still plenty of things that have stuck and I feel like I better understand things even if I can’t remember the specific name of the bit of the brain responsible for that.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 15: Men at Arms
The Watch were always my favourite of the discworld ‘series’, and while I’ve re-read Guards! Guards! a couple of times (and listened to the excellent BBC Radio play many times) I’ve not gone further into the series for probably 20 years. Men at Arms is where the Watch really starts to grow and Pratchett’s writing and eye for observation and satire has really come into its own. There are dozens of absolute standout lines and paragraphs that other authors can only dream of writing a couple of times in their careers. If anything the satire and spoof elements have only got stronger since this book was written in 1993, TV and films really haven’t moved on that much from these tropes. The plot is clever, the characters vibrant and the writing second to none.

Terry Pratchett – Discworld 19: Feet of Clay
Another excellent Guards book. The characters and the city of Ankh Morpork are all settling into their familiar forms, the satire is firing on all cylinders and the one liners are laugh out loud funny. There’s a heart at the centre of Pratchett’s discworld novels that’s on fine display here, behind the dead pan humour, there’s actually a joy and that’s on fine display here, when Vimes gets angry about something, or when Carrot starts saying ‘stupid’ things they get to some fundamental truths that just make me want to applaud.

Books in January 2022

I’ve set myself a ‘read 40 pages a day’ target for the year, and I did an ok job in January, I hit the target 22 days and made up the difference so I averaged it out which I’m happy with. There are only three books though because I’m working through a couple of thicker books that will be finished next month. Something to look forward to, because unfortunately the three I did finish were a bit underwhelming.

Tom Allen – No Shame
I like Tom Allen, in small doses, I don’t think I’d want to see an entire show with him, but I enjoy him on panel shows and presenting Bake Off spin offs. I also prefer him when he’s being a bit more natural; when he’s performing the role of Tom Allen for too long it just gets a bit much. It seems from his autobiography that he’s been ‘a bit much’ since he was very small, and that means his book is best read in relatively short sections as well, much more than about 30 pages at a time and I started feeling like he was performing a role again, rather than being himself. I felt a bit like the whole thing was an edited performance (particularly because there were jumps in the story and gaps in the narrative). There are some lovely turns of phrase in it, nice observations of the times and places, and if you like Tom Allen, then you’ll like this; it’s just it would have been nice if there was a bit more depth to it.

Laura Purcell – The Shape of Darkness
I’m not sure whether Purcell’s books are getting worse, or whether it’s just that my enthusiasm for gothic horror is drying up, but I was not particularly engaged with the Shape of Darkness. The twists and turns were either completely predictable and took forever to be ‘revealed’ or came completely out of nowhere and just didn’t make any sense. Characters were inconsistent and everything felt very drawn out. It was ok, but it went straight on my pile of books to donate to the charity shop, and I don’t think I’ll bother with Purcell’s next work.

Jenni Fagan – Luckenbooth
This book has a very clever structure that I really liked. It’s almost a collection of short stories, tied together by the protagonists living in the same tenement building in Edinburgh through the decades. Each section tells three stories in sequential decades, three chapters each, interweaved. So it goes A-B-C-A-B-C-A-B-C-D-E-F-D-E-F etc. That’s really pleasing. The stories and characters are fairly diverse and tell you a bit about the period. Unfortunately for all that good stuff the book borders on unreadable at times because of the writing style which fully embeds you in the characters’ heads. It’s a stream of consciousness where it’s a struggle to pull out details and narrative. Most of the stories are just snapshots, and while some connect together to fill in dots, most of the stories are unfinished. A brilliant idea, done incredibly badly.

Books I Read in 2021

I read 42 books this year, which is pretty consistent with most years but down on last year’s nice round number of 50 and another chunk down on my record round number of 60. Now that I (apparently) work from home full time I don’t get the enforced dedicated reading time each day on the underground, which I really miss, it was the definite silver lining of the commute. Most of the year I have to remind myself to read regularly rather than just slumping in front of the TV. The page count was just shy of 14,500 an average of 39.7 per day which is frustratingly short of the target of 40, and a good chunk down on last year’s average of 50.2.

42 is a good number in total so I’m happy with that, but the range of books was a bit lacking. With the exception of a couple of Agatha Christies, I only tried one classic and absolutely hated it (Lady Chatterley’s Lover is mindnumbingly boring and has not aged well). 10 of the books were published this year (24%) and another 15 (36%) were from last year.

Subject wise, like my film watching I was steering clear of anything too deep and challenging for the most part, sticking with pretty easy going safe reads for comfort escapism, and entertainment. I’m clearly not alone given the immense success of like Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died Twice. Most of my reads fell into the vague genres of crime, fantasy/SF and a weirdly specific string of gothic horrors. Even the fantasy/SF was on the fantasy end, with hardly a space ship or alien to be seen.

AUTHORS
The 42 books were spread between 35 authors, although 4 of them were in pairs. 47% female is slightly below equal, and 52% were British, 21% American and even those that weren’t British or American were 2 Australians and 2 Irish, so it’s not exactly a very broad parish. But 19 of the authors were new to me so there’s at least that.

My favourite author of the year was T. Kingfisher, helped enormously by being quite prolific with 2 books published this year and 3 last year giving me 4 new books this year, and two re-reads. Paladin’s Strength started the year and then Paladin’s Hope towards the end and both were as lovely as the first book. In fact I enjoyed Hope so much that I went back and read the previous two novels again, meaning I read Paladin’s Strength twice in one year! I also read both of Kingfisher’s horror novels The Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places which had all of her strong characters and easy writing style, but I didn’t enjoy the plots as much as her fantasy work.

FICTION – 34 (81%)
The most impressive book I read this year was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s one of those generic drama/life books that sounds small when described (so I won’t) but is a beautiful story of people’s lives. It’s also a great advert for the power of bookshops. I was wandering around Waterstones looking for another buy-one-get-one-half-price and a bookseller enthusiastically recommended this to me.

Highly recommended:

  • As called out above, T. Kingfisher’s Paladins of Steel series is an absolute warm hug of a series, it has plenty of emotional and narrative heft to it, but it is also overwhelmingly lovely.
  • Naomi Novik’s The Last Graduate is another great story from her, building from the first novel loses some of the original novelty of the concept, but it still continues to grow and surprise and has THE MOST annoying last sentence in history. It’s also incidentally the top book published in 2021 that I read and I had it pre-ordered and read on the weekend it released.

  • Circe by Madeline Miller – there’s a brilliant sub-genre of feminist classical history developing and I LOVE it, this is fiction but is no less important than the non-fiction which put a different slant on the classical stories told by men (and pairs nicely with Pandora’s Jar above). The history isn’t changed, but the inflection is and it’s fascinating and hugley engaging.
  • High Fire by Eoin Colfer – my only dragon book of the year, and this is like no dragon you’ve ever met before. It’s creative, hilarious and surprisingly sweet. Ignore the terrible cover which put me off for a very long time and give it a chance. You’ve really never met a dragon like this.
  • NON-FICTION – 8 (19%)
    Eight is exactly the same number of non-fiction as I read last year, but the reduced overall total means that makes up a higher percentage. There’s also a good range of subjects! 3 history, 3 science/maths, 1 self improvement book, and 1 by Claudia Winkleman. What more could anyone want. If I were forced to pick one, I’d probably say Atomic Habits by James Clear was the best as it was both informative about how people think and full of useful things that I’ve actually put into practice this year. What If? by xkcd’s Randall Munroe and Ask a Historian by Greg Jenner were both wonderfully entertaining while also covering loads of different subjects. Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes was fascinating in how it looked at how Greek myths about women have been retold over the centuries, and what that tells us about historians and artists through time.

    Humble Pi by Matt Parker, The Planets by Brian Cox and Andrew Cohen and Underground, Overground by Andrew Martin all had a lot of interesting stuff in them but suffered slightly because of the writing style and the lack of diagrams, pictures and maps. Quite by Claudia Winkleman was just a hugely entertaining insight into the brain of someone lovely.

    Books in Oct-Dec 2021

    Oops, it looks like I failed to post about the books I read in either October OR November so now have a bumper crop for the end of the year.

    Naomi Novik – The Last Graduate
    Another brilliant novel from Naomi Novik. The second entry in the series has maybe lost a little bit of its originality now that the hero is more welcomed into the class, it has a risk this just turns into a ‘normal’ story of teenagers in a school trying to kill them with monsters. But Novik manages to keep the originality going organically as the rules of the game shuffle about in response to what happened in the previous book. There’s so much spark, life and colour here the book is an utter delight right up until the final sentence which is a massive cliffhanger. 

    Alex Pavesi – Eight Detectives
    I was attracted to this book by the idea of a mathematical model for murder mysteries, and that element of the book is quite innovative and interestingly told. The book is structured with an overarching story and then eight short stories within it, and each of the shorts demonstrates an element of the model and are varied and engaging. The overarching one is a bit less well done, the mystery a little bit forced and clunky and I was not a fan of the resolution of that one; [vague spoiler] it undermined some of the previous mysteries, basically indicating how fickle the conclusions of murder mysteries can be and how easy it is to have a different ‘solution’. It was an engaging and different read, but ultimately a little irritating.

    Andrew Martin – Underground, Overground: A Passenger’s History of the Tube
    This is a quite dense history of the London Underground from the very earliest beginnings to the fairly recent (it was published 2013, just as Crossrail was starting). The evolution of the tube is extremely complicated, driven by geography, sociology, engineering innovations and an incredibly complex series of businesses and entrepreneurs. What is now one massive network grew out of a multitude of different businesses and lines with constantly shifting (and overlapping) names. The book often fails to deliver that in a clear, or even engaging way, some sections slightly degenerated into a list of place names. More pictures, maps and charts would have really helped, the fact that it’s a book about the tube and doesn’t have a single copy of the tube map in it is a real problem. However, other bits of it are really interesting and well done, when the author’s voice and geeky joy shine through then it’s a really good read that makes it clear just how incredible the tube is.

    Greg Jenner – Ask a Historian
    Greg Jenner asked people what questions they’d always wanted to ask of historians and got back a massively eclectic collection of questions which provides a book that covers different time periods, different geographies (although he acknowledges a discrimination towards his areas of knowledge on western history) and all sorts of topics. Whether discussing how historians agree on defining historical periods (spoiler alert – they don’t), championing the reversal of previously biased histories or just talking about poop in medieval times the entries are all vibrant, educational and hugely fun. I learnt a lot and I laughed a lot.

    Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 11: What Abigail Did That Summer
    Unusually for me I didn’t pick up this Rivers of London book as soon as it was published, partly because it was only a novella, and partly because it didn’t feature Peter Grant at all, just Abigail, his precocious young cousin. I shouldn’t have been sniffy though because it was a really great read. At 175 pages it’s a pretty chunky novella and certainly tells a complete story, with a range of characters and ideas. Being inside Abigail’s head for the story is also surprisingly fun, Aaronovich gives her all the spark and realness that he manages for Peter, but also the sense of a black teenager from a London estate. Add on to that some adorable talking foxes and it was a really fun read. 

    T Kingfisher – Paladin’s Hope
    I adore this series. So much so that after I finished this book I went back and re-read the first two in the series. Hope, like the previous books is a romance dressed up as a fantasy horror. The romance (like previous pairings) is so beautifully, carefully, genuinely and honestly told that it’s just a complete joy to follow along. There’s so much going on, elegantly blended together – it’s a world of magic and gods, noble paladins called by gods, driven by duty… who also really fancy people and want to have sex. The mixture is immersive, often hilarious and completely gripping. This series (and all of T. Kingfisher’s works) are ones that I wait for eagerly and literally clear my diary for release day so that I can jump straight on them. They make me extremely happy. 

    It was so good, I went back and re-read Paladin’s Grace and Paladin’s Strength again and both are still just warm hugs of novels. Reading them all together also shows just how carefully Kingfisher has created her characters, the Paladins all have completely different personalities and responses to the trauma they have faced, but they still form a coherent group and I can’t wait to hear the rest of their stories.

    Gareth Nix – The Left Handed Booksellers of London
    I loved the idea of a secret (ish) band of booksellers standing against various mythological/supernatural beings, but found the reality of the book a bit of a slog. There’s a fine line between “rich worldbuilding” and completely overloading a book with masses of explanations and mechanics, and this fell into the latter with an over long list of different types of creatures and explanations for where they come from, what they do and how to fight them. Then there’s all the mechanics of the booksellers, and how they interact with the normal world. And THEN there’s the fact that all the characters also have uniquenesses and quirks that need to be followed. Oh and it’s set in the 80’s so there are some period elements to keep track of too. It’s all just too much and too muddled, and there’s no subtlety to any of it, it’s all what you see is what you get, it just that you’re seeing a LOT. I struggled to extract and/or care about the main thread of the story.

    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.