Books I read in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others:

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

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

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

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

    Other recommendations:

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

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

    Continue reading “Books I read in 2020”

    Books in December 2020

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

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

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

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

    Books in November 2020

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

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

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

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

    Books in October 2020

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

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

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

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

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

    Books in September 2020

    I’ve bought more hardbacks this month then I think I buy most whole years. I’m not sure whether that’s about my reading habits during Covid (overwhelming desire to curl up in an armchair/deckchair and lose myself in a book) or if all the authors are condensing releases targeting for Christmas. Either way it’s a bit expensive and a bit harder on the wrists and hand muscles to read them. Particularly when they are absolute beasts like….

    Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 5: Troubled Blood
    If JK Rowling had managed to keep a secret that she was writing these books, I think the increasing page counts would probably have given her away by now. This book thuds in at 940 pages, nearly half as long again as the previous one, and in hardback it was actually a physical challenge to read at times. The book does cover a full year, and multiple cases, but it still feels like a good edit would have substantially tightened up without losing anything important. Still, given that I enjoy the company of the characters and even the meandering side plots are well developed, it seems a bit silly to complain about the experience lasting longer. I’m still frustrated by the “will-they-won’t-they” relationship and am firmly in the camp that they “shouldn’t” so feel it’s all a bit manipulative.

    Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club
    This is a lovely little murder mystery novel. Set in and around a retirement village, a group of residents regularly review cold cases supplied for a retired police officer and then find themselves involved in a present day murder. It’s a lovely idea and all the characters are vibrant and large, usually just the right side of credibility. It’s on the lighter side of crime fiction, but also has some real emotion in it and doesn’t gloss over the wide ranging effects. I think if I had picked this book up randomly I would have nothing but praise for it, but with the name Richard Osman on it I was expecting a little more. There were occasional flashes of his wit, and there were some lovely bits of observation, but they were a bit few and far between when I was hoping for more. Still, an excellent first novel and I look forward to reading more.

    Thomas Erikson – Surrounded by Idiots
    Another business psychology book that tries to group everyone into a limited number of categories to help us all manage our day to day lives. The title resonated with me, and I am also familiar with the ‘Success Insights’ categories and have found them really useful for understanding both myself and others, and using them to improve my working relationships and team dynamics. Unfortunately this book is not a great advert for the system. I found the book depressingly negative, talking extensively about the negative aspects of each colour type, and how frustrating other colours find their counterparts. Too much weight was put on weaknesses rather than how to channel traits effectively. Also the book talks exclusively about single colour types, but points out that by far the majority of people in the real world are a blend of at least two colours, so the examples felt like stereotypes pushed too far. The book isn’t without value as the underlying approach is solid and even the broad strokes are helpful, but by the end I really didn’t want to spend any time with any of the colours, including my own. (680)

    Jennifer Bell – Wonderscape
    Three young teenagers are randomly transported into the future and into a virtual reality game where they have to solve puzzles and challenges to return home. It’s a solid idea and competently told, but some reason I just didn’t quite connect with it. I always felt that if I looked too closely at anything it would fall apart, characters and world were all a little flimsy feeling, lacking in depth and solidity. I can’t really point at anything specific that was wrong with the book, so it may well just be me.

    Neil Gaiman – Stardust
    I think this may be one of the rare occasions that the film is superior to the book. To be fair, I’ve loved the film for many years before finally getting round to reading the book, so it was impossible for me to read it without automatically connecting bits to the film. It’s also one of the rare occasions where I think content was added for the film (eg the extended section on the lightning ship) and aspects such as the ghostly brothers played better in visual media. The book is still a lovely read, and obviously the film wouldn’t have existed without it, but in this case I’d say there’s not really much to gain from reading the book over watching the film.

    Books in July and August

    I didn’t do my reviews in July, not because I hadn’t read enough books, but actually because I was in the middle of reading a series of books by the same author and I wanted to review them all together. It’s actually been a busy couple of months for reading, partly because the weather encouraged sitting in the garden with a book, and partly because I finally replaced my kindle.

    T. Kingfisher
    I rather feel that if the only thing I ever read on my kindle was T. Kingfisher, it would still be worth the investment. All her works have a core of realistic characters, bucket loads of charm and a dark sense of humour poking through – whether a well developed spin on a classic fairytale, a straightforward adventure story, or something a little more experimental. They’re not on kindle unlimited but they’re all only a few pounds and very well worth the investment.

    Paladin’s Grace – A completely and utterly lovely book. I’ve read a lot of T. K. Kingfisher’s books and she’s never disappointed me but this may actually be my favourite. While the storyline of the book is about assassins, conspiracies, soldiers, spies, poisons and perfumes, really the book is a romance story. Normally I’m not a fan of those, but this one is so gentle and awkward, between two ‘normal’ people who aren’t heroes and heroines, or stunningly beautiful, but just click together when they’re thrown together. Every single page made me smile and warmed my heart. Just lovely.

    Minor Mage – The notes at the end of this book explain that it’s a story that’s been floating around in her head for a number of years and has only now been turned into a fully formed book. I think that does show a bit, there are a couple of fun ideas, but the book as a whole lacks substance. It’s a shame, because the nuggets of ideas are really fun and charming (a sarcastic armadillo as a familiar and a mage with really quite minor skills) and there are some nicely demonstrated ideas about what is right/reasonable in different circumstances and depending on if you’re an individual or in a crowd. But the plot feels a little flimsy and it feels like there are some gaps and dead ends. It’s still an enjoyable read, but it felt a little under-done.

    A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking – Mona 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. (677)

    Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (kindle unlimited)
    I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and really hated the writing style, but was a bit worried that it was me being an idiot. How could an author and book with so much praise be so frustrating to read? I spotted this short story on kindle unlimited so thought this would be a good way to give her another try. It just confirmed my previous opinion. While Wolf Hall at least had a fascinating story to tell (thank you history), The Giant O’Brien didn’t even have that. It had a wafer thin story which was then incredibly badly told. The style was hard to read – hard to keep track of who was talking and what they were actually trying to say; and even if I persevered and worked it out, it was ultimately un-rewarding. I turned the pages as quickly as possible and I won’t be giving Mantel another attempt.

    Rachel Burge – The Twisted Tree (kindle unlimited)
    A solid, if slightly unremarkable fantasy/coming of age story. A seventeen year old girl starts developing weird abilities after an accident and runs away to her grandmother who she hopes will be able to explain everything. The characters are vivid and the setting on a remote Norwegian island is original but all feel a bit underused. The specifics of the magic and the mythology are a little over-complicated and random. But as a quick and easy read it was was a success.

    Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch Series (kindle unlimited)
    I read the first 5 books of this series over the span of about 3 weeks and looking back on my reviews it’s clear that I was enjoying them, but they all blurred into one a bit. Since then I’ve also read the “sister” trilogy that explains Conrad Clarke’s mysterious past and it’s rather tainted this series as it’s impossible to not interpret him in a slightly different way. Where once he was commanding and competent, now he is rather more bullying, patronising, self serving and ruthless. But the way he’s written, I’m not entirely sure the author feels the same way. Some of the other characters also now seem a bit crueler – more manipulative and clique-y. But the core ideas are still solid enough to keep me reading them. Eight Kings is good fun and takes us to yet another location and introduces yet another section of the world of magic, a bit more politics and a good old stately home murder mystery to round it all off which is quite satisfying.
    The Seventh Star – This is a slightly more straight forward crime story, so much so that the police get involved which sees the welcome introduction of Tom Morton from Hayden’s other series. The only bad news about that is that it slightly shows up that Morton is actually a more realistic and interesting lead character than Conrad is. For all Conrad’s cunning and planning his strategy in this book is never entirely clear and that doesn’t feel quite right, certainly compared to the very methodical approach of Morton and the police. I like so much about this series, it’s just a shame that the central two characters of Conrad and Meena are becoming increasingly smug and frustrating.
    Haydon has a slightly irritating habit of pulling a chunk of storyline out of each books, putting them in separate novellas and then referencing them in the main book with “if you want to hear how this happened you’ll have to read this other thing”. That’s frustrating and clumsy, often hard to time the reading of those in the right order. The novellas themselves (French Leave and Ring of Troth for these books) are perfectly solid side stories that I’m sure could have been entwined in the main books with a bit of effort.

    Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs Series
    The Oddjobs series is a classic interesting idea with two entertaining first books and then it goes too fast and falls off the rails as the author(s) take a direction away from what made the first books so entertaining. Book 3 of the series (You Only Live Once) is okay, but one of the original characters is missing and leaves a notable hole in the team. However book 4 (Out of Hours) completely loses the way. Previous installments have been set well and truly in modern Birmingham, with the weird and occult an accepted addition to our world; but this book moves completely into the worlds of the weird and wacky and loses any sense of observation and satire. Adding to the disappointment, most of the time the characters are all separated and telling individual stories (or sometimes even multiple stories in different timelines) and that makes the book even more fragmented. I just found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Really disappointing.

    Charles Bukowski – Hollywood
    The first time I sat down with this book I hated it. I got about 50 pages in and I was bored by the story (not that there was much of it), irritated by the characters and easily distracted from the wordy style. The second time I sat down (because I’ve got a stupid *thing* about having to finish all books) I decided to just read really quickly and actually found myself weirdly engrossed. Reading it quickly like this gave an engaging version of a behind the scenes of the movie process and the extremes of the people involved in it – none of whom you’d want to spend any real time with at all. I’m sure I could come up with something deep about how that very surface level attention is cleverly done to mimic the surface nature of Hollywood, but that would be way more pretentious than I think the book really deserves.

    Christina Dalcher – Vox
    I picked this up very randomly in 3 for £5 deal with very low expectations and discovered a little gem. It clearly owes a lot to The Handmaids Tale, and isn’t anywhere near as impressive, but it does a solid job of combining a challenging subject with a passable thriller. The logic of the book doesn’t really hold up. That America turned within just a couple of years from Obama’s presidency to a country where women aren’t allowed to speak is rather a stretch, but however they got there, it’s an interesting (and horrible) concept. Somewhat less well handled are the details of the thriller aspect of the book, and the cogs of the plot definitely got away from the author in the end. However the central character has a great voice (as it were) and the pacing of the book kept me wanting to keep reading even when the world of the book was such an unpleasant thing to think about.

    Robert Galbraith – Cormoran Strike 4: Lethal White
    A rare re-read. I was looking for something that I knew I could get lost in, and with the next book in the series due in Sept this was a great pick. I read all 650 pages in one weekend in the garden and it was wonderful. Even the second time, I found the slow build of the cases alongside the tumultuous personal lives of Strike and Robin utterly engrossing. The book is carefully balanced between personal stories and the cases, with the different threads intertwining and continually delivering satisfying moments. I’m not so naive I can’t see that I’m being manipulated by cheap tricks like cliffhangers at the end of the chapters and “Come and meet me, I need to tell you something urgently” tropes, but the tricks are delivered very well and they just work. At the end I had that deep joy and satisfaction of a great book, but that sadness and almost emptiness of having run out of pages. Roll on the next one.

    Books in May

    I’m finally getting into a bit of a rhythm working from home and thanks to the lovely weather and the complete lack of anything else to do, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading in my garden. Two big hits, 1 middling and two misses this month, but the hits were really good.

    Susan Cain – Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
    If ever I was in any doubt as to whether I was an introvert or not, two things have recently made me certain. The first is living alone during the current lockdown and really not actually feeling that stressed about my lack of companionship. The second is this book.
    The initial chapters come across as a “them and us”, a bit of a moan that the world is built by and for extroverts. It felt a little like the expectation was that only introverts would read the book and so we could have a bit of a moan together. That sort of thing makes me a bit uncomfortable, even when the book is actually doing a solid job in evidencing it’s claim that introverts are discriminated against.
    Either the conflict elements were toned down, or I got used to them though because the rest of the book made me feel less uncomfortable and more… seen. I could recognise myself in many of the anecdotes and examples, I could see where I would probably fall in the experiments that are described. Each section delved deeper into presenting possible explanations for why I am how I am – culture, neurology, nature/nurture and I felt more understood. Even the sections on advice for how to manage situations to reduce your stress were gentle and supportive, not patronising.
    I still have a slight discomfort with the “them and us” aspect. I’m not sure how many extroverts would read this book, and I’m not sure whether they’d really get it, or just feel like they were being told off a bit. That’s a bit of a shame, because I think beneath the thin layer of (justifiable) chip on shoulder, there’s a fascinating and useful book underneath.

    Samantha Shannon – The Priory of the Orange Tree
    Someone must have recommended this to me as it ended up on my wish list, and I ordered it online in a big stack of books to help me get through lockdown. However I forgot one of the key rules of impulse buying books online – check the page count. This came in at over 800 pages and a devastating 2 inches thick. Still, not like there’s much else to do and at least it’s all in one book not turning into an endless series.
    I think this is a book that suits itself very well to being read in big chunks, curled up in an armchair, or laying out on a deckchair looking for an escape from the real world. It’s a true epic fantasy (it even comes with maps in the front and a character list at the back). There are half a dozen different kingdoms, multiple legends/religions, good dragons and evil dragons, pirates, magic, war and romance. Absolutely everything is thrown into the mix and emerges as a well constructed world with interesting characters and a well paced story. It could have been shorter and tighter, but removing some of the padding may have made it feel rushed. My only other criticism would be that if you look too closely, two of the lead women are basically the same character which can make their stories blend together a bit. I’m not sure it was completely worth the page count if you’ve got more limited reading time, but I did thoroughly enjoy it and am grateful for it taking me out of the real world for a while.

    Kate Atkinson – A God in Ruins
    Do not read this book.
    I don’t like making that kind of blanket statement, but the end of this book made me so spitting mad, that I’m going to straight out say you shouldn’t read it. I know what the author was saying with the ending of the book, I can even respect the powerful message. I’m not saying she was necessarily wrong to tell that story and end it that way (it’s her book after all, she can do what she likes). The book itself is a hard read, full of small sadnessses, focusing on the small frustrations and disappointments in life rather than giving any space to the joys and triumphs. It is well written with excellent observation and a lovely turn of phrase, although I found the jumping references to past and future kept disconnecting me slightly from the moment. After reading through those difficult times I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was at least expecting a closing. Instead I got a twist that was a slap in the face that left me feeling angry, cold and empty. It’s well written, possibly even brilliantly written, but I wish I hadn’t read it.

    Michelle Paver – Wakenhyrst
    The blurb is rather misleading as it implies this is a book spanning multiple time periods, when in reality there are there are just a couple of very short sections in the 20th century and the majority of the book spans a few years in the 1900’s. That both disappointed me and unsettled me when reading it as I kept expecting to jump time periods and there to be more complexity to the story than there turned out to be. I would probably have been perfectly satisfied with the book without that confusion, although I don’t think even then I would have been blown away by it. The central character has an interesting and well developed voice and the diary sections are well used to provide an alternate voice. The story itself is ok, but nothing outstanding, so while I enjoyed it enough as I read it, I expect it to fade into memory fairly quickly.

    Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee – Rama II
    Rendezvous with Rama is an absolute classic of science fiction – elegant, understated and original. Rama II is none of those things. I suspect the main issue lies in the double author credit, and it would seem that actually Clarke was really little more than an editor. The first book written exclusively by Clarke focuses on the story, the mystery of Rama. The characters are secondary, there to perform roles – captain, engineer, sailor etc. That’s not to say they don’t have personality, but that’s incidental to the story. Rama II feels like it’s taken entirely the opposite approach, focusing on the characters and their relationships. But the characters aren’t very good. Most of the book reads like a badly constructed reality TV series, where despite years in planning the powers-that-be have decided to send a group of complete ill-suited misfits on the most important mission mankind has ever had. It’s a recipe for disaster that’s predictable, unrealistic and frankly not very interesting. There’s also a layer of mysticism that I could completely live without. Sadly I found this book unsatisfying and a bit of a trudge.

    Books in March and April 2020

    Matthew Syed – Rebel Ideas
    Matthew Syed takes on the subject of diversity, in its broadest definition – why it’s important to bring together people who think differently; whether that’s because they have different races, genders, backgrounds, training, specialisms or styles – you’ll get better results if people think differently and (just as importantly) can express themselves and be heard. As with all Syed’s books it’s fantastically well researched and grounds scientific explanations with vibrant anecdotes and personal accounts. It did start to lose me a bit towards the end when the theory got a little bit too heavy and theoretical, but the rest of it was interesting and entertaining to read.

    Bridget Collins – The Binding
    The book is divided into three sections and my enjoyment level varied significantly between the three. The book starts in a fairly classic way a young man with some sort of trauma in his past is apprenticed to a mysterious woman who may or may not be a witch. The fact that the blurb on the back of the book gives away the mystery is a bit of a shame, but it’s a well developed idea and the character is interesting. The second section becomes a lot less interesting, losing most of the fantasy elements that were the only reason I had picked up the book. The third section then turns into a bit of a jumble, with a new first person narrator that never quite felt coherent to me. A good start, that just didn’t work out so well.

    Kate Atkinson – Big Sky
    It’s been a long wait for a new Jackson Brodie novel, so long that I’d half forgotten the series. I suddenly remembered though that I had the dvd of the BBC series starring (hello to) Jason Isaacs so I recapped via that first. It was a good job I had because there were a lot of call outs in Big Sky to the previous works. It wasn’t until after I’d finished the book that I looked up my reviews of the previous works and realised that I had been less than glowing about a lot of them, which completely matched how I felt about Big Sky. On one hand, it’s a rich collection of characters and stories that gradually come together into something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. But on the other hand, it’s a mess of too many disparate elements that are brought together through completely unlikely coincidences (oh and there’s really not enough Jackson Brodie in it). I think as a disposable, relatively low impact thriller, it’s a satisfying read. But I went in expecting more and was a bit disappointed.

    Harlan Coben – The Woods
    If you’re looking for a solid thriller, Harlan Coben is the place to go. This book certainly kept me turning the pages and coming up with various new ideas and solutions every few chapters, and still managed to surprise me at the end. I did have a few moments of wanting to shout at characters for poor decision makers (the lawyer who doesn’t report the attempts to blackmail him seems particularly stupid) but I got better at just shushing that inner voice and enjoying the journey.

    Anthony Horowitz – Moriarty
    I suspect if I were a fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels I’d appreciate this book a bit more. I know enough to be able to spot that the style and tone were referencing the style of the original series, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy the style. There’s a smugness to the writing and many of the characters, the sense that the characters and the writer know more than the reader and are quietly gloating about that. That pushed me in the opposite direction a bit, and I found myself looking for the inconsistencies and errors even more than I usually would, and of course found plenty that either the characters or the writer overlooked. Just as I was getting very bored of the book though, there’s a twist at the end that was genuinely shocking and turns everything on its head in a way that was really very clever. So I’m torn, the excellent ending doesn’t change the fact that most of the book is fairly unremarkable and occasionally irritating.

    Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson – Starchild
    I was given three months subscription to a service that sends you random books from charity shops, and this was one of them. It’s a solid 60’s SF book that’s got some interesting stuff going on, some weird stuff going on and some incoherent stuff going on. It’s short enough to burn through and gloss over the things that make sense and it’s an ok read, but nothing to really write home about. It also turns out that this was book 2 of a trilogy, so maybe it would have made more sense read in the right order. I don’t mind random books, but not so random as to be midway through a series that is no longer in print.

    Books in January and February 2020

    Oh dear, I’m off to a very slow start reading this year. I set myself the target of averaging one book a week and I’m waaaaay behind that, without even the excuse that the books were particularly long, although 2 out of the 5 books did turn out to be pretty bad.

    Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 10: False Value
    The previous book in the Rivers of London series saw the big ongoing storyline wrapped up fairly conclusively and I actually worried that it might be the end of the series overall. Thankfully Aaronovitch is clearly not done. False Value builds from what has gone previously and continues to extend the world, but is a fairly standalone story, and I’m actually quite happy he didn’t launch straight into a new big storyline. Peter is quite removed from his usual environment and although it’s fun to see him out on his own and sharing his more geeky side, I did miss the familiar supporting characters who were reduced to not much more than cameos. I found it easier than usual to keep track of the story (probably as it was so self contained) and as usual, found plenty of charm and fun in the writing.

    Mark Hayden – Tom Morton Series: A Serpent in Paradise and Another Place to Die
    Mark Hayden is creating a fairly well put together, if not hugely remarkable collection of characters. While it’s the King’s Watch urban fantasy series that is the more creative, he’s also got a nice side line in solid crime thrillers. It was the Operation Jigsaw trilogy that spawned the two main characters for each series and although the morally dubious Conrad Clarke gets the bigger adventures in the King’s Watch spin off, I actually prefer the more straight laced Tom Morton in this straight forward crime drama. On paper he may seem a bit dull, more likely to solve crimes with spreadsheets that with running about, and more likely to quote the rule book than shout in interrogations. However he’s passionate and good at what he does and with some more lively supporting characters the books are very satisfying.
    The first book, A Serpent in Paradise has a great set up with a murder in a gated community full of highly paid sports people, plenty of room for intrigue, high emotions and drama. Tom’s more steady pace is a perfect contrast to the setting and the cast of suspects, witnesses and those in between is diverse and fascinating.
    The plot of the second novel, Another Place to Die, is a little more forgettable, but Tom is working with a larger team here that makes things a bit more interesting and it’s another enjoyable ride. I was a little sad to find out it was only a pair of books not the familiar trilogy structure, but I can see how the author (and readers) got distracted with the more flashy King’s Watch.

    Erin Morgenstern – The Starless Sea
    Eight years is a long time to wait for a second novel, and sadly this was really not worth the wait. I loved The Night Circus for the beautiful world it created, and The Starless Sea is attempting to do the same thing, this time around… ok this is where the book failed. I genuinely have no idea what it was about. It starts off well with ideas of secret societies, hidden libraries, fairy tales and stories weaving together with reality. There was some initial satisfactions as things connected together, but then I lost the threads and everything unraveled. I ended the book not knowing how the timelines worked, what the rules were, what anyone was trying to do and unsure whether it was my fault for not paying attention, or whether it really did just make no sense. I found myself cross and looking for faults (most of the characters come across as bland, either because they’re under-developed or because they’re so mysterious that you never get a sense of them. The flashes of solidity give points of hope, but they slip away and you’re left trying to track a dozen different threads to try and work out the pattern and by the end, I’d either failed, or it turned out the pattern was a blur anyway. I was incredibly disappointed.

    Karen Joy Fowler – Sister Noon
    There are some nice characters and set ups here, but then absolutely nothing happens with them. Reading the author note at the end it turns out much of it is based on real people of whom there is much uncertainty between fact and fabrication. While I admire the author’s determination to not ‘guess’ about true history, it does not make for a satisfying book as without any certainty it’s just a book of rumour and hinting. I never felt fully grounded in the period (elements felt slightly anachronistic, but maybe that’s just my ignorance showing) and I was very bored by the end.

    Books I read in 2019

    The Numbers:

    • 46 books in total – rather disappointing, down on last year’s 60. I did lose a lot of reading in the first few months of the year because I was driving to work rather than getting the tube. It did pick up later once I was back on public transport for a couple of hours most work days, but there were chunks of time with uninspiring books and zoning out to phone games instead. Only 3 books were re-reads though, and even those were classics I read at school so needed to give fresh eyes to.
    • 10 books I’d consider outstanding, 17 good, 13 middling and 6 poor – rather too many in the lower groups there.
    • 14,972 pages – 41 pages per day on average, which is a respectable number
    • 6 non-fiction / 40 fiction – disappointingly low numbers of non-fiction, particularly because a lot of them weren’t very good.
    • 24 read on kindle – this high number was mostly because I bought a kindle which came with 3 months of free Kindle Unlimited and I powered through a couple of series on there. As a whole, I don’t think it’s worth the £7.99 a month, compared to just using a normal library for free (although I only got 5 books from the library this year). But if you can get it at a discount then there are a few interesting new authors in there.
    • 35 authors, 21 of them new to me – I’m quite pleased that 60% of the authors I read were new to me. Most of the authors were single books but I read 3 Meg Elison books and 8 Mark Hayden’s
    • 19 male authors / 16 female – 46% female is still not good enough.
    • 23 British authors / 9 American / 1 each French, Canadian, Australian – very little diversity here and only 1 novel not originally written in English
    • 13 new books (29%) – I’m counting that as either this year or last year, surprisingly high, and 72% of my reading was published in this decade.

    Non-fiction – 6 books (13% of all books)
    A disappointingly low number and a limited spread of subjects covering science, history, and literature. Sadly the quality is quite well distributed – two each really good, middling, and poor; I’d much prefer a more top heavy distribution. Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life by Helen Czerski and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan both hit the sweet spot of being informative, fun and inspiring some passion for their respective subjects. The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit by Carol Baxter and Two Girls, One on Each Knee (about crosswords) by Alan Connor didn’t quite manage the same peaks, but got the job done. But A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos by Dava Sobel got too creative with the facts for my taste and Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians by Ian Stewart was so boring it the only book I actually gave up on this year.

    Classics – 10 books (25% of the fiction)
    Every year I try to chip away at the various books that people say you ‘should’ read, and this year I picked up 10 ‘classics’ – 2 from the 1970’s, 1 from the 1930’s, 3 from 1900’s and 4 from the 19th century. Not bad. My only re-reads of the year were 3 classic SF that I read voraciously at school, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke and H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds are still both incredibly readable and evocative books, unfortunately I found Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth a bit more problematic. I’ve actually never read any Steven King so rectified that by reading The Shining which had great ideas and characters, but really dragged.

    I also read four books that I probably should have read as a kid, but fell through the gaps. I quite enjoyed Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and think I would have enjoyed them as a kid. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz L. Frank Baum was alright, but disappointingly lacking in wonder and I didn’t get on with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll at all. The final classic was A Room with a View by E.M. Forster which I’ve completely forgotten about. Oh and Peril at End House another superb work from Agatha Christie.

    Best new-ish books – 8 books (20% of the fiction)
    My favourite book of the year comes from the unlikely name of Tom Hanks, his collection of short stories
    Uncommon Type was exactly what I needed to read. They are clearly personal to him, and generally just lovely. There’s nothing shocking and his writing style is un-fussy and oozing with his voice. They made me feel warm and comfortable and were a perfect anti-dote to the outside world.

    Meg Elison’s The Road to Nowhere trilogy (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, The Book of Etta and The Book of Flora) is a flawed but fascinating series. The world that she has created is brutally believable and forms a strong foundation to explore themes and subjects that are incredibly relevant today. The writing itself lets the ideas down occasionally, but even though I was at times frustrated, I found it hard to put any of the books down and charged through each in just a couple of days each.

    Some of my favourite authors put out new works that absolutely did not disappoint. Swordheart was another wonderful adventure from T Kingfisher, Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver weaved a complex collection of threads together and although it was sadly only novella length. Philip Gwynne Jones had another very satisfying crime thriller set in Venice (The Venetian Masquerade) and Ben Aaronovitch took his Rivers of London series to Germany for The October Man and didn’t lose any of the magic.

    Disposable fun – 10 books (25% of the fiction)
    These are books that aren’t really going to set anyone’s world alight, but they are well put together and satisfying reads that will make any commute pass a bit faster, or make that armchair even harder to leave. I discovered two new series this year, both available through Kindle Unlimited and worth the monthly subscription for a bit. The first was Oddjobs by Heide Goody and Iain Grant which does for Birmingham what Aaronovitch did for London and has a lovely dry sense of humour towards the oncoming apocalypse. Mark Hayden’s The King’s Watch series is a fun urban fantasy series. His writing doesn’t jump of the page like Aaronovitch’s does, but it’s very readable with some interesting characters and ideas. I charged through the first nine books in the series (13th Witch, 12 Dragons of Albion, 11th Hour, Tenfold and Nine of Wands) in just a few weeks. I then picked up his previous trilogy Operation Jigsaw (A Piece of Blue Sky, Green for Danger and In the Red Corner) which has some overlap in characters but is a straight crime thriller which was equally well done.

    Books to be avoided – 4 books (10% of the fiction)
    Two authors who I regularly pick up are Becky Chambers and Claire North; both have very interesting fresh voices, but their works end up disappointing me and both did that this year. Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few had a great idea, interesting characters and some beautiful writing, but with almost no plot to hold the threads together it was ultimately unsatisfying. North had an even bigger problem in 84k which took a fairly basic idea, didn’t do enough with it and had an almost unreadable writing style.

    Hugh Howey’s Wool series was one of my standouts of 2014 and I finished my review with “I can’t wait to see what he does next”. With Kindle Unlimited I got access to his back catalogue and was sadly disappointed. both Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue and Half Way Home didn’t really do much with the cliche tropes they were working with and I was just a bit bored.

    Everything else – 8 books (20% of the fiction)
    These are the unremarkables, I wouldn’t really recommend you read them but I’d also not recommend you avoid them. They’re just a bit meh, not much to complain about, but not much to get excited about.

    • The Unhappy Medium by T.J. Brown – not as funny as it thinks it is, or it needs to be.
    • The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans – Engaging characters, superficial plot, slightly disjointed tone.
    • Bright Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes wasn’t actively bad, it was just a slightly clumsy attempt to do something utterly unremarkable, so why bother?
    • The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas – never quite felt fully coherent, an interesting set up poorly delivered.
    • Penny Green 1: Limelight by Emily Organ – great characters, nice period detail and an engaging mystery, but the investigation builds so slowly it takes all the life out of it.
    • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – a great idea (murder mystery at a 1920’s house party with bodyswapping and time loops) but done by an inexperienced author who couldn’t hold it all together.
    • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams was a book I only really read to be able to talk to various godchildren about, it was absolutely fine for a kids book but no value add for adults.
    • Silent Nights – Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards – a nice collection of short stories, but they pretty much only work at Christmas.