Books in Aug and Sept 2022

A very slow couple of months for reading, although the top book was probably thick enough to count for at least 3 books.

Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 6: The Ink Black Heart
When each of these books come out, I roll my eyes at the size and weight, grumble about poor editing and over indulgent authors… and then thoroughly enjoy every single page wishing it would go on longer. Somehow Galbraith/Rowling manages to give pace and energy to a glacially slow story which drags out both the mystery itself and the relationships between the characters. I do get a bit tired of the will-they-won’t-they relationship, but it is at least realistically told. The twist in the mystery featuring lots of social media aspects was well handled, with tweets and message boards compellingly integrated to the narrative. Despite its length I read it in just a few days, quite unable to put it down.

Elizabeth Macneal – Circus of Wonders
Set in a Victorian ‘freak show’, following the triangle of the ambitious circus owner, his brother and the unlikely new star of the show. The shifting balances of power, desire and need are carefully played out. But I found the whole thing a bit light. I didn’t really get the wonder or the emotions, I just didn’t get lost in it.

T Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking
I needed something comforting, and I couldn’t think of anything better than a book about a girl who is a wizard of bread. I mean, how wonderful a pitch is that?! This is a bit of a companion to Minor Mage and continues to play with the idea that not all magic users get the ability to control lightning, or raise the dead, some just get the ability to make dough do what what they want it to and just have to make do. Mona is moderately content in her life persuading the scones they don’t want to burn, making gingerbread men dance and feeding the grumpy sourdough starter called Bob that lives in the cellar and eats rats if they get too close. But this is a fairy tale so Mona gets thrown into a bigger adventure and as always Kingfisher gets the emotions of that SPOT ON. There’s darkness in fairy tales, bravery in being scared, weakness in the most powerful and strength in the smallest of people (with or without magic). I adored every single little thing about this book.

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Books in July 2022

Only three books in July. Normally that would be a fairly solid month, but it’s down a bit since recent months, partly because the two fiction books were a bit underwhelming.

Victoria Mas – The Mad Women’s Ball
I think there’s something about books in translation that sometimes loses the magic spark that makes the difference between words on a page and a story in your imagination. I can’t imagine how hard translating a book is so I’m not judging! I usually find these kind of gothic novels easy to get lost in, but this one just never really connected. The building blocks were all there, but it just didn’t sing to me.

Alyssa Mastromonaco and Lauren Oyler – Who Thought This Was a Good Idea
If you’re looking for a really detailed retelling of life in the Obama White House, or a critical analysis of that period of American Politics, this is not the book for you. However if you are interested in the personal point of view of the experiences of a woman working in a unique environment then this is DEFINITELY the book for you. Alyssa Mastromonaco has had some incredible roles and writes incredibly openly about what she has learnt along the way. Her humour and humility shine through the random anecdotes, and while I might have occasionally wished for a little more about the details, I really enjoyed the experience of spending some time with her.

Jennifer Saint – Ariadne
Another solid entry for female led retelling of Greek myths. I do wonder whether the handful of authors in this space have divided up the stories between them or if it’s a race to publish and hope no one else has picked the same one. I struggled at first to get into Ariadne, the characters aren’t as well rounded as in Madeline Miller’s Circe and it reads a bit more like a fairy tale with broad “good” and “bad” characters. But the story and characters develop gradually and tells an interesting end to end version of Ariadne’s story.

Books in June 2022

I read 11 books this month! But they really just came in three chunks, one non-fiction, and then two fiction series from Kindle Unlimited, the first 3 of the fairly well known Cadfael series, and all 7 of the probably very unknown Honor Raconteur series. Those 10 books would give very good value for the Kindle subscription, and it was even better given that I got the month for free!

David Rooney – About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks
It’s important to really read the title of this book, it’s NOT a history of clocks, it’s a history of civilisation told via the stories of twelve clocks. It’s a big ambition, civilisation has a LOT of history and the book somewhat struggles under the weight. There’s so much ground to cover that it’s hard to really get the richness of anything, the 12 clocks really only get a few pages each before the discussion of sociology and politics take over. It is an interesting attempt, and raised some ideas and connections that I really hadn’t heard before. However I think it tries to do a little too much and ends up spread a bit thin.

Ellis Peters – Cadfael 1: A Morbid Taste For Bones
I remember watching Derek Jacobi as Cadfael on Sunday nights as a kid and although I’ve had a nostalgic soft spot for the series, I’ve never actually read the books. I spotted however that they’re available on Kindle Unlimited and I figured I’d give it a go. I was not in the slightest bit disappointed. They’re like Sunday evening tv in paper format (or pixel format in this case). Peters finds just the right balance between easy to read, lightness and not trivialising death and the impact on everyone involved. It would be easy for these books to become bogged down in historical detail, but somehow while they still feel authentic and well researched, they’re a lovely easy read and the history and religion are just lightly sprinkled on top, I hesitate to say this, but they may replace Agatha Christie as my go to, easy reading mysteries.

2: One Corpse Too Many
Another very readable Cadfael story. This one has a bit more history going on, and although there were enough details to make the context of the plot clear, I found myself wanting to know more than my spotty historical knowledge and the book itself provided. Some of the twists of the book were slightly spoiled by knowing the characters from the TV series, but it’s still a lot of fun to read.

3: Monk’s Hood – I read this book in a single day, completely immersing myself into it and shutting out the world and it was exactly the right level of intrigue and gentleness.

Honor Raconteur – The Case Files of Henri Davenforth
Another fun, light, fantasy series available on Kindle Unlimited. An FBI agent is transported to another world, at roughly 1910s level of technology (cars and home telephones just coming in) but with magic thrown into the mix. She becomes a detective and partners with the magical examiner and starts bringing modern Earth procedures and ideas to the investigations. the set up is solid, and the characters and mysteries enjoyable to spend time with. The blending of periods, technologies and magic is well handled and while the main characters have a respect and curiousity that’s uplifting, there’s enuogh challenge to make some drama. I read all 7 available books in just a couple of weeks and this will definitely be another series/author that drive me to subscribe to kindle unlimited periodically.
1: Magic and the Shinigami Detective – The first book launches the series with a lot of energy, introducing the world and characters well, showing off the potential of the set up and delivering a solid mystery as well.
2: Charms and Death and Explosions (Oh My!) – Without the ‘newness’ it’s a little less exciting, but is a solidly entertaining mystery novel that continues to expand the world and characters.
3: Magic Outside the Box – The team take a case outside the city so we get to see a bit more of the world and a slightly personal twist to the story brings something new as well.
4: Breaking and Entering – The plot suffers a bit in this novel. It felt like the team were missing obvious clues, going round in circles and not being as systematic as they usually are. One of the key interesting things about the series is what happens when a modern day detective brings the knowledge and experience from Earth to a world about 100 years behind. So the procedures should be solid and I was frustrated that they didn’t quite seem to be here. BUT the story is still fun to read, the characters fun to spend time with, and it’s hard not to love a book with a purple, talking cat working on cases.
5: Three Charms for Murder – While the book is still very enjoyable, like the previous novel it feels like the mysteries may be getting away from the author a bit. There are a few inconsistencies and holes that don’t completely ruin things, but do start to niggle a bit. I also worry about the ‘moonlighting effect’ that putting the two main characters together romantically might spoil things (I’m always far more interested in professional respect and friendship than I am with romance, but maybe that’s just me being a cummudgeon). Still, there are now talking kittens to brighten the day and the fact that the trio are named for a slightly niche corner of Marvel Avengers fandom just makes me smile.
6: Grimoires and Where to Find Them – I’m happy to see that the romantic pairing of the two lead characters hasn’t negatively impacted this series. If anything, other than occasional gushing musings the relationship is pretty much invisible which if anything feels a little too coy even for the period setting. Still, I’ll not complain that the fun elements of the book remain undiluted. The case is an interesting one, playing more in the magical space which makes a nice change.
7: Death over the Garden Wall – This felt a lot more like an Agatha Christie novel than anything particularly fantasy or steam punk. It was a solidly put together murder mystery, but it felt rather generic and predictable (I guessed who did it very near the beginning) and lacking anything that really made use of the vivid world that’s been created. An entertaining enough book, but a bit of a let down.

Books in May 2022

Thanks to the tail end of my holiday and some very lazy weekends, I’ve read nine books in May, mostly just sitting in my garden for hours on end utterly failing to do any of my grown up chores. All but the first two books below were from Kindle Unlimited, and represent the handful of authors that are regularly putting their series up there and making it a good investment for a couple of months a year. There’s nothing there that really sets the world alight for me, but they’re firmly in the entertaining category, perfect for lazy afternoons.

T Kingfisher – Nettle and Bone
Another excellent book by T Kingfisher. Exactly like her other books it features perfectly rounded characters, concepts that are familiar but feel fresh, some very sweet romance, some imagery and ideas that are really very disturbing if you think about it too hard, and a sprinkling of absolutely bonkers ideas that somehow work perfectly. It’s hard to think of new things to say to be honest, I adore everything she does.

Tim Harford – How to Make the World Add Up
Tim Harford has a lovely writing style that conveys not only information, but also the complexities and joy behind the information. Here he gives us the 10 fundamental elements we should consider whenever presented with numbers. It’s a guide to how much ‘simple’ figures can be misrepresented either deliberately or accidentally and frankly this kind of thing should be on the national curriculum for everyone. That would be no chore because it’s very well written with plenty of examples and anecdotes that make it not only an education, but a pleasure to read.

Agatha Christie – Murder in Mesopotamia
Not one of Agatha Christie’s best novels. It has a good concept with an interesting location at an archeological dig, a good collection of characters, plenty of tension building and then a solid locked room mystery. But it’s not very well delivered. There are too many characters that are all introduced in a rush and it has a clunky narrative structure that is supposedly being retold after the fact by someone, with occasional “little did I know at the time” nods, but it doesn’t quite sit right because character introductions and things aren’t done by someone who knows the outcome of the mystery. I also found the chunks of psychology quite uncomfortable, it may be “of its time” but the casual misogyny made me squirm.

Agatha Christie – Appointment with Death
An entertaining Agatha Christie novel. I prefer murder mysteries like this one where the victim isn’t a very nice person, so as a reader I can just relish the mystery without having to feel any pesky sympathy. The book is very nicely structured, an introductory section, the murder itself and then the investigation filling in various gaps in the events to gradually paint the complete picture. The ending is, as usual, a bit forced, but it was satisfying and twisty enough that it held my attention very well.

Lydia Kang – The Half-Life of Ruby Fielding
Lydia Kang has a real talent for creating vibrant period settings that are slightly off the beaten track of the normal settings. Here we are in 1940’s New York with a pair of siblings one of whom is a trainee physicist working as an odd job man for the Manhattan Project and his sister who’s starting as a welder in the Navy Yard. Their lives are unexpectedly entwined with some of more higher society lives, but the story is very much from their point of view and how their lives continue during the war with normal family problems. The mystery elements are solidly done, Kang’s medical and science backgrounds shine through, but the science doesn’t overwhelm the story and the characters. I did find the conclusion of the story a bit clunky, I’m not 100% sure it was ‘right’, but I enjoyed the ride enough to not be overly bothered.

Eva St. John – The Quantum Curators and the Missing Codex
This fun and easy to read series continues. There’s a solid concept at the heart of the series and each book expands and pushes the world and the characters within it. I’d read the first two books back to back last year and I did find it a little hard to pick up who everyone was, the nature of the book being about betrayals and conspiracy theories makes that even harder, but by letting the details wash over me a bit I was soon back into it. The series isn’t going to be one I necessarily re-read, but it is one that makes it worth getting a kindle unlimited subscription for every so often.

Mark Hayden – King’s Watch 9: Five Leaf Clover
This is a 13 book series, and each book (and a few additional novellas) adds more characters, more mythology, and more complexity and the whole thing is really starting to struggle under the weight. Hayden is putting out the books very quickly, but I tend to catch up once a year or so (saving them up to make the Kindle Unlimited subscription worth it). I enjoyed reading this book and settled into the specifics of the story fairly comfortably, but I was distinctly aware that I was missing a huge amount of connections and richness to how everything fits together.

Mark Hayden – King’s Watch 10: Four Roads Cross
Previous challenges with the complexity of the world really came to a head in this book and it’s probably the weakest I’ve read yet, and also the longest which is an unfortunate combination. I get the feeling this was the big set up for the final 3 books of the series, laying out politics and alliances, getting pieces into place but it meant very little really happened for most of the book. Then when things finally do happen, I still didn’t follow them and when stuff finally did start to happen character choices didn’t quite sit right and left me sad and frustrated. I was quite disappointed in this book, although it’s not enough for me to give up on the series at this point, I’m hoping it was a blip before a rousing finish. But I’ll definitely be waiting until I can read the rest of the series back to back.

Lucy Campbell – Arrow in the Dark (A King’s Watch Story Book 7)
Mark Hayden’s King’s Watch series can get a bit bogged down in the weight of its own universe, so the novellas are often a bit of respite in the complexity, focusing on standalone incidents and side characters. The fact that there’s now a collaboration, with a author playing in the world is really interesting. In particular Campbell brings a interesting voice to Karina, a much quieter character then most of the massive personalities in the books. This is a fun story, expanding the (don’t call them) werewolves and I found this 120 pages or so much more engaging than the 500+ pages of Four Roads Cross.

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.