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.

Books in October and November

Oops, I missed a month out!

Mark Hayden – The King’s Watch series: The 13th Witch, The 12 Dragons of Albion, The 11th Hour, Tenfold, Nine of Wands
I discovered this series through Kindle Unlimited and have charged through the first 5 books and 2 novellas. Fundamentally it’s not hugely original – a hidden world of magic just out of sight to us mundanes/muggles to which an outsider is introduced and starts turning things upside down while trying to find his way. Conrad Clarke is an interesting central character to throw into chaos, he has a background in the RAF giving him formality and a calm approach to chaos, but also a hinted at criminal past that gives him a more dangerous edge. One thing that I really like is the respect he shows to everyone, he doesn’t arrive in a new situation and stomp about, he cautiously gathers information and defaults to politeness and open mindedness. However as the books go on and he develops more confidence I was starting to find him a little bullying, in a way that made perfect sense for the character, but did make him less likeable.
The series has a wonderfully rich and well developed universe, but it is a bit complex and the books can get bogged down in exposition, including recapping what happened in the previous books. About 3 books in I also discovered that the irritating hints at some of the characters’ histories were actually referencing another trilogy of books by the same author which was a bit frustrating. However I’m now reading that series and while the books are very good, what they reveal about Conrad put’s a very different spin on the character that makes him a much more problematic character.
The supporting characters are all very well developed and varied, and play in interesting ways with Conrad. However there are a lot of them so sometimes individuals disappear for a long time and that really does leave a gap.
The books are good fun to read and charge along at a fast pace, I found them very hard to put down. In fact one of my slight criticisms is that most of the books span only a few days of real time and they run straight into each other, giving neither characters nor readers time to breath and settle into the events and relationships. I am a little nervous now of Conrad and find myself questioning his character a lot more, but even with that slight sour note, the universe, story, and writing is good enough that I’ll continue to seek out the series.

Jules Verne – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
I remember really enjoying this book as a kid, in fact I distinctly remember doing a book report on it at school. However with a grown up eye, it’s much less pleasing and actually quite frustrating. Even though the overall concept of taking a walk to the centre of the earth is bonkers to our modern understanding, I can accept it for the book, but the problem was that it was written almost as a scientific work. So huge amounts of time was spent explaining what was going on with the physics and geology, some of which is true, some of which was thought to be true at the time of writing, and most of which was made up completely. But it was impossible to tell which was which. Plus I’ve got no real interest in reading dry science if it isn’t even correct. Take that out and there’s a fun story with some charming characters, but that was a minority.

Claire North – 84k
A really horrible book to read. For a start the plot is kind of depressing – one of those “surely this could never happen” visions of the future, that is sadly these days not as unbelievable as it should be. But mostly because the writing style is just awful. The entire 450 pages is made up of fragmented thoughts and dialogue. I understand what the author was trying to do, to reflect that people don’t really think in whole sentences, and often don’t talk in them either; but it makes a deeply unpleasant reading experience. I speed read about 80% of the book hoping that I’d get something out of the plot, even if I couldn’t stand the actual words on the page. Sadly that didn’t happen as the plot is also fragmented into jumping time streams that I lost track of and couldn’t be bothered to unpick. I really don’t know why I bothered finishing it.

Helen Czerski – Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life
I’m always on the lookout for a good popular science book and this is absolutely everything I look for.
1) It’s definitely science, it covers a huge range of subjects from large to small, across every branch of science.
2) It’s popular. Every subject is explained in an incredibly understandable way, the descriptions of what is happening are simple and visceral, experiments can be recreated or easily visualised. The explanations meanwhile are built up from simple first principals that make everything incredibly approachable to anyone that’s studied GCSE science.
3) It’s written by a human being. Helen Czerski’s voice and personality come shining through and she’s a joy to spend time with. She conveys a sense of wonder at the world and exudes a curiosity of a true scientist, both are incredibly contagious.
I loved this book. It absolutely captured for me why I wanted to study science, not to delve deeper and deeper into the world of maths, but to be able to understand and explain why everyday things happen. I read the whole thing in just 3 days and would cheerfully read a whole series of these books.

David Walliams – The Midnight Gang
A solid book for kids that reminded me a little of Roald Dahl, with very much dialed down bite. The illustrations are lovely and really bring the book to life and I can see why it would really appeal to younger readers who will get some good fun and some nice messages from it.

Books in September

Heide Goody and Iain Grant – Oddjobs 1 and Oddjobs 2: This time it’s Personnel
I’m not even going to try to review these books without referencing Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London series. I know I should review things on their own merits, but there is so much in common here that I just can’t help but compare the two. For the most part the comparison is quite positive, Oddjobs has the same dry humour as the Rivers of London and that really works for me, there’s a world weariness to the characters and story, but rather than be depressing and bring the book down, it raises it up. A spirit of “oh well, this is a mess, let’s get on with it and see if we can have a laugh while sorting it out”. The other similarity that jumped out at me is a complete grounding in the locality, where Aaronovich’s London really felt like MY London, Goody and Grant’s Birmingham seemed just as grounded to me, although I’m only an occasional visitor to Birmingham (my dad and some close friends live there). The concept and story are also fairly in line with Rivers of London, and also what little I’ve read of The Laundry series, opening up a huge world of potential dramatic and comedic storylines and characters.
I thoroughly enjoyed these two books. I can’t say they were as funny as Aaronovich, but it tripped along and I really enjoyed spending the time with the characters. There’s no obvious arc storyline, or ‘big bad’ but I like that the two books are more self contained and are giving us a chance to see lots of different bits of the world that they’re building. The second book in particular did an admirable job presenting lots of smaller stories that gradually came together to a satisfying tangle. These are now definitely on my watch list for future releases.

L. Frank Baum – The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
This was written in 1900, and the film that everyone knows was made in 1939, with any number of versions, homages and parodies since, making the story completely ingrained. The book is really not very long, wasting absolutely no time on developing anything beyond the absolute minimum to hammer home the messages at its core. I was a bit disappointed that there was so little sense of wonder or magic to it. There’s also a lot more violence and death in it that we’d usually expect in modern children’s stories, but thanks to the light tone it seems a lot less substantial which is a bit odd when you notice it.

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Ticking off another classic. It’s always a bit odd to finally read the originals of stories that you’re incredibly familiar with, and I’m not sure it’s ever going to be a hugely positive experience. There was little left of this that could be surprising, between the famous illustrations in the book itself and the Disney cartoon, I was intensely familiar with most of the episodes and characters that make up the story. In fact the only thing that was slightly surprising was just how irritating Alice is. The bits of the story don’t really join up particularly well, it’s just stepping from one weird dream sequence to another so it’s hard to get any real momentum going.

T.J. Brown – The Unhappy Medium
I seemed to take an unreasonable dislike to this book fairly early on and I don’t really know why. It was a little oversold in how hilarious it was, but there were still some nice moments of dry humour scattered throughout. The set up was a long time in development and had a few glaring inconsistencies, but was solid enough and once it finally arrived the plot itself was ok. Maybe it was just that it had raised my expectations by putting quotes like “A very funny book, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens” on the front cover, a lofty height which it was unlikely to reach.

Emily Organ – Penny Green 1: Limelight
A fairly solid period set murder mystery. The characters are vibrant and interesting, the period detail nicely done and the case itself engaging. My only frustration came from the quality of the investigation which was painfully slow, no one actually asking the obvious questions or seeming to do much investigating at all. It’s an ok book to churn through, but it’s unlikely to stay with me and I’m not particularly likely to pick up further books in the series unless I’m looking for something incredibly low impact.

Books in August

I treated myself to a new kindle last month as my poor old generation 4 decided it no longer wanted to talk to the world, which I can fully understand, but did make it a little frustrating to get new stuff on to. The new generation 10 came with 3 free months of kindle unlimited so I’m rummaging through that. It’s a bit like the library, there’s usually something worth reading there, but if you’re after something specific you’re unlikely to find it. I doubt I’ll extend it after the 3 months are up given I’d rather spend £7.99 a month on one book I actually want than unlimited books that I’m a bit ambivalent about. But for now, it’s meaning I’m charging through books!

Meg Elison – The Road to Nowhere Series
1: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife –
I didn’t think I liked this book much, but I also found it quite hard to put down and read it in just two days. The story is in some ways a fairly standard post apocalyptic one, told with an eye to practical realities that make it feel very believable. By focusing on what it means when far fewer women than men survive, it provides a satisfying (if scary and depressing) spin on the classic. The story makes central character is incredibly pragmatic, but she’s also human and still reacts and feels, changing as necessary to survive in the new world that is emerging.
After a bit of reflection I think that my problems with the book stemmed from two literary constructs that irritated me. The first is the “unnamed” bit – the character gives herself a new name each time she encounters another group which makes sense, but there are a few jarring times where it makes no sense that she doesn’t use her name. The second problem was that it’s mostly written as a diary (and in my kindle version those sections had an incredibly annoying font), but drops in significant sections of 3rd person, and occasionally drifts away from the central character altogether to tell bits of the story that she couldn’t possibly know which felt like cheating. Both these problems really frustrated me, impacting the otherwise incredibly strong first person narrative.

2: The Book of Etta – The second book in this series continues all the incredibly powerful strengths of the first book, and eradicates the gimmicks that frustrated me. The world has stepped forward a hundred years or so, fast-forwarding so that we can see how societies re-form and people live without the constant memories of how it used to be. We get to see a few different places that live very differently which could run the risk of feeling a little like short stories, but they are bonded together by the central character, similar themes and an ongoing storyline that gradually builds giving the book pace and direction. Etta is a fascinating and rich character, a really interesting person to spend time with and to narrate events, a person who is completely recognisable today, but also a product of a very different world. The first book had some great ideas, but the second book builds those ideas and also delivers a much better reading experience.

3: The Book of Flora – The conclusion of the trilogy continues to develop the key themes around gender in a really interesting way, but unfortunately the writing of the narrative lets the book down a bit (just as in the first book of the series). The book is almost exclusively told by a single character which gives a satisfying focus in that regard, but there are two distinct timelines and several narrative styles. The primary story is about Flora’s journey after the end of book 2, and is told in a mixture of direct 1st person narrative and diary entries made at the time; these are then interspersed with a much older Flora reflecting back on that time, while also telling the story of the ‘current’ events. The first problem was that I got very muddled, it was hard to keep track of whether it was an older Flora reviewing the past, or a younger Flora reacting at the time. When one of the key themes of the book is about people changing and accepting and celebrating themselves and others, it was easy to get lost on the different journeys. Secondly it meant there was a lot of frustrating hinting at what was to come (“If only I’d known then what I know now…”) that just felt over-egged.
Overall I think this is a really interesting trilogy, the ‘universe’ that’s been created is brutally believable and forms a strong foundation to explore themes and subjects that are incredibly relevant today. It can feel a little episodic at time in terms of the stories, but the characters’ journeys pull things together. I think 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. Flawed, but fascinating.

Robert Louis Stevenson – Treasure Island
A ‘classic’ that I actually enjoyed reading! It’s a proper adventure story that I think probably appeals to children and adults today just as much as it did when it was written over 130 years ago. It’s a confident book that doesn’t bother to explain some of the stuff that’s going on, pirates use vocabulary and language that I don’t think would have made much sense to a general reader in 1885 than it does today, but it sort of doesn’t matter. I just found myself reading those sections at a pace and picking up general ideas rather than the specifics of the sailing, or the pirates plans and I don’t think I missed out on a huge amount. As the whole thing is told from the point of view of the young Jim Hawkins, it doesn’t really matter if things make a huge amount of sense, because it *feels* right. This is a true adventure story and it’s fun to read, what more do you want?

Lucy Maud Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables
One of those classics that I’ve never read, which is odd because I read loads of this type of book as a child thanks to being given my Mum’s childhood books like Little Women and What Katy Did. Still somehow Anne of Green Gables must have passed my mother by, which is a real shame because I think I would have loved it as a child. Anne is a great central character, full of spirit and energy, always getting up to mischief, but never through any real failings, just through clumsiness and childhood ignorance. The adventures she has would have appealed to young me as well – the all consuming friendships, the anxieties of school and the occasional unfairness of the real world. Unfortunately I’m reading this as a cynical grown up and I wasn’t quite as charmed. I found the triviality of her ‘adventures’ quite dull, particularly when I could see hints of bigger stories going on just out of sight with the grown ups. A plot does sort of appear in the last few chapters, but not much of one. I also think even younger me would have found Anne’s flights of imagination and whimsy somewhat insufferable.

H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds
Most classics of literature, even those as ‘recent’ as the first half of the 20th century, are dreary and hard to read. Meandering about, waffling on and telling even interesting stories in a way that puts me to sleep. But classic science fiction somehow is the opposite, the stories are tight and focused, and the characters come alive through their actions within the story. The War of the Worlds was written in 1898 and is still a really good read. The story of aliens invading is now a classic, but even this early entry into the genre was written with a practical eye that made it completely believable (once you accept the concept of Martians). Telling the story exclusively from the eyes of a single character makes the extraordinary story very personal, and Well’s expertly crafts the narrative so we can understand what is happening globally without losing the focus of the 1st person narrative. Still an absolute masterpiece.

Books in July

I’m back to doing about 2 hours of commuting each day on the tube which means my reading is back up to good levels. I must be one of the few people on the tubes in the summer heat that is still reasonably happy about the circumstances, there’s nothing like having to drive to work for a few months to really make you appreciate the ease of being able to completely switch off while travelling. The quality of the most of the books this month has sadly been a bit more erratic.

E.M. Forster – A Room with a View
This book feels like it falls between two periods, which I guess is appropriate the period in which it was written and set (Edwardian, start of the 20th century), but makes it slightly weird to read if you have no real historical grounding. It’s a weird mix of Victorian prudishness (a single kiss between single people could be a scandal) and the start of a move toward equality – that women could be allowed to have their own opinions. I found it really hard to get a handle on what would be considered extreme – either old fashioned or too modern, what the rules were and what the challenges were, and that made it hard to really settle in to the book. There were sections that I became fully engaged in, becoming comfortable with the voices of the characters, but then I’d stumble as something lurched to another extreme. The use of broad caricatures to represent the extreme views made it hard to see anybody’s point of view reasonably. I did find it more engaging than a lot of ‘classics’ that I try to read, but that’s not saying a huge amount.

Hugh Howey – Molly Fyde and the Parsona Rescue
A solid but unremarkable space adventure story. I never quite lost myself in the book, the main character had a strong voice, but I could not quite reconcile her as a 17 year old, she acted as a very experienced professional when the story needed it, but an overly emotional naive teenager when the story needed that. Because she was telling most of the story first person, that rather tainted the reality of the places as well, particularly in the centre section which was trying to say something interesting but couldn’t find an elegant way to do it. There are some nice ideas, and it’s clearly setting up a series that might actually get better. Although I was underwhelmed by this, I may keep reading just because I know that author will go on to write the Dust trilogy after this, which I absolutely love.

Ian Stewart – Significant Figures: Lives and Works of Trailblazing Mathematicians
One of the reasons I review all the books I read is because I have a terrible memory, at best I will remember I’ve read someone before but not whether I liked it or not. When I picked this book up in the library I didn’t bother to check my reviews which was a mistake. It turns out I’ve read one other book by Ian Stewart and summed it up as “avoid like the plague”. I will say the same about this one, with the slight concession that I didn’t actually read the whole thing. I managed about 100 pages but got very little out of it. Just like his other book, this is a muddle of history, biography and maths and none of them are very well served. You really do have to be a mathematician to understand and appreciate the importance of each mathematician and even then, I’m not sure that the history side of things is interesting enough to make it worth the effort.

Carol Baxter – The Peculiar Case of the Electric Constable: A True Tale of Passion, Poison and Pursuit
I felt a little conned by this book. I’d found it in the science section of the library and the title and blurb implied it was focused on the science and technology of the 1840’s and how they fed into police work. Really though the book is 95% crime thriller with the telegraph and forensic science only playing the smallest of roles. It’s a shame this put me in a grump, because it is actually a really good historical crime story. Non-fiction and (seemingly) impeccably researched, but structured and told like a proper legal thriller with a rich cast of characters, well structured plot and interesting insight into different parts of society at the time. Go in with those expectations and you’ll be very satisfied.

Dava Sobel – A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionised the Cosmos
I studied history of science at University, and Copernicus was a big part of it, so I’m fairly familiar with the impact of his revelations, why they were so challenging and how they fit into the wider story of science. However I wasn’t that familiar with Copernicus as a person and his place in society. So I thought this book would be an interestingly new approach to the story. It gives an interesting insight into where Copernicus came from, the culture and society he grew up in and his day to day existence. It’s a little bit of a slog as there are quite a lot of names, places and dates to track and there was sometimes way more detail than was needed, or awkward sections told almost entirely in quotes from documents that 500 years later aren’t exactly easy reads. The real frustration for me was that the crucial section about the publication of the work, was framed as a play. For a start – I don’t find reading a script very engaging, for a second it was impossible to tell how much was actually true. When I’m reading non-fiction, I don’t want it dramatized, I don’t want to have to guess whether people said, felt or did what is being described. I felt significant liberties were taken with the truth which deeply frustrated me, and to add insult to injury, I’m not actually sure it made a very good fictional play either. That completely overwhelmed any of the good scholarly effort that had gone into the work and left me very frustrated.

Ben Aaronovitch – Rivers of London 9: The October Man
I was slightly surprised when I started reading this novella and discovered that it not only did not feature the usual characters from the series, but wasn’t even set in London! It worked out ok though, because the new central character wasn’t a million miles away from Peter Grant in his character or tone and was just as well developed. I enjoyed the small scale nature of the story compared to the larger books which are adding to the overall storyline, but at the same time it opened up the scope of the series to know that there are other practitioners and professionals working with magic. I polished the book off in a couple of sittings and found it both entertaining and satisfying despite it’s short length.