Rounding Up and Looking Forward: September~ October 2018

Having been in education one way or another ever since the age of four, for me September always signals the start of a new year.  I can wipe out all the mistakes I made over the last twelve months (and what teacher doesn’t finish every year with the fervent intention to get it right next time round) and start afresh with renewed purpose. Of course, I never manage to live up to my aspirations and so when I look back on the reading I had planned for September I’m not surprised that I didn’t hit quite all of my goals. I did manage to read the new crime novels by Val McDermid and Abir Mukherjee and I am halfway through Helen Field’s latest, so not too bad there.  I will almost certainly finish the Field (Perfect Silence) this evening because I am completely gripped.  She is a writer who gets better with each book.  Not so, unfortunately, McDermid whose characters’ actions are moving progressively into the realms of the absurd. I have already given up on her Tony Hill series and I’m not sure I shall go back for another dose of the Karen Pirie books, Broken Ground being the fifth in that particular sequence.

I read three other crime novels this month. Jo Spain’s The Darkest Place, I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  I think her work gets stronger by the book, and I can readily believe in the situations she presents and her characters’ reactions to them.  Kate Rhodes’ Ruin Beach is the second in her Ben Kitto series set in the Isles of Scilly. Like the earlier novel, Hell Bay, it provides a wonderful evocation of the physical setting and I find Kitto as engaging a character as Alice Quentin, Rhodes’ other protagonist, proved to be.  I’ve just picked up a copy of Fatal Harmony, the latest Quentin novel, and that will be on the list for next month.  The third crime story was not such a success.  Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler has his ninth outing published later this week and as you will see if you read my forthcoming review, I wasn’t enamoured.  Oh well, you can’t win them all.

My Reading Group books for September were Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire – not a favourite – and J G Ballard’s The Empire of the Sun – a much better book.  I also read two other, what I would call, contemporary novels, the intended Prague Spring by Simon Mawer and Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing With You.  I blogged about both of these and thought they were excellent.  This month’s disaster was the book I read for the Years of My Life project, Lorna Hill’s A Dream of Sadlers Wells.  My childhood memories were shattered and I can only be grateful that I didn’t go mad and order half a dozen others from the series. I was tempted.  The book I didn’t get round to was my back catalogue choice, Anne Tyler’s Back When We Were Grown Up but only because there wasn’t time for everything and when I checked I found I could renew this at the library whereas some of the other books I had out had waiting lists on them.  I shall try and read it during October, although it might get pushed to the bottom of the pile again for the very same reason.

So, what is to come? Well, this month’s Reading Group picks are Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, which in fact I’ve almost completed because I need it for this afternoon, and Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer winning All the Light We Cannot See.  I think it would be fair to say that I am appreciating the Ryan, rather than enjoying it; it is not a book in which you can find much to enjoy apart, of course, from the sheer brilliance of the writing.  Where crime fiction is concerned, as predicted last month, the new Sarah Ward The Shrouded Path and the latest Robert Galbraith, Lethal White, turned up from the library and will have to be read quickly because of reservation lists. As well as the most recent Kate Rhodes, mentioned above, I also have a review copy of Shell Game, Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, which is published mid-month.  I think very highly of Paretsky’s work which, as the best crime fiction always does, inevitably shines a light on an aspect of current social concern.  This isn’t surprising when you know something of the writer’s own background and if you haven’t read her collection of autobiographical essays Writing in an Age of Silence then I strongly recommend it.  I note from my library reservation list that there are new Ian Rankin and Frances Brody novels due out in a matter of days.  They too will have long waiting lists so I may have to add them to the pile as well.  I’m afraid I never have to seek an excuse to pick up a new crime novel.

But, the month isn’t going to be totally dominated by Reading Group requirements and crime fiction.  Also needing to be returned to the library in the next couple of weeks are Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, either of which will fit nicely into my contemporary fiction slot and both of which I am determined to read.  Then there is this month’s selection for The Years of My Life project, Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle. I have several friends, both blogging and other, who will have sharp words to say if I don’t get round to that soon.  Add to that the neglected Back When We Were Grown Up and there is more than enough to keep me busy for another month.

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Rounding Up and Looking Forward: August ~ September 2018

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersWhile I was at work August was always the one month when I could ‘legitimately’ read exactly what I wanted to without having to worry about reading what I needed for my teaching.  With a new term not starting until the end of September, I could always justify, in my own mind, at least, postponing work related reading until the new month began.  August was the month when I caught up with all those books that had been published during the previous year that I had had to reluctantly put to one side as not immediately relevant.  Now, of course, August is Summer School month and so for the first part at least it is dominated not by new reads but by re-reads as I prepare for our annual get-together. This year that meant Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.  I read the Fitzgerald alongside Hermione Lee’s biography of the author and I don’t think it did the novel any favours as I came away from the life history really rather exasperated with Fitzgerald as an individual. It definitely coloured my reading of the book and I think that showed through in the way I introduced it.  Fortunately, almost everyone else loved it.  I wasn’t certain about the Hay  when I first read it but it fitted this year’s theme and I was open to being persuaded that it was better than I remembered.  It wasn’t, and although it provided a good discussion, it was definitely the least popular of our reads.  Mr Penumbra, however, proved to be far more popular than I had anticipated and I have finished the month by reading Sloan’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969.  Only a short story really, but fun if you enjoyed the earlier novel.

Other reads this month have included Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan and the latest novels by Anne Tyler, Peter Robinson and Madeline Miller.  The last of these is the only one that I’ve reviewed.  I am finding it quite hard to get back into reviewing and so am taking things slowly. I don’t want to spoil my appreciation of the books by forcing myself to write about them. I very much enjoyed both the Miller (Circe) and the Tyler (Clock Dance) but was less sure about Peter Robinson’s Careless Love.  He is very clearly setting himself up for the next novel in the series and as a result too much of the narrative is given over to a story that doesn’t reach a conclusion.  Stick to one book at a time.

The Olivia Kiernan is the first in a new police procedural series set in Dublin and if you like that genre and haven’t come across the author then I can strongly recommend this,  as I can Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin also Dublin based, which I read at the end of July.  The month was rounded off with the first of several books about playing King Lear, Antony Sher’s Year of the Mad King.  I will be teaching King Lear this Autumn and it is fascinating to read about an actor’s approach to the role.  Sher has previously written about his performances of Richard III and Falstaff.  As an analysis of the part, the Richard III is by far the best of the three, but I’ve picked up one or two interesting points to take through to our discussions, especially the comparison he makes between Lear and Richard II.  It’s not that long since we focused on Richard II so we should be able to get some milage out of that.

IMG_0245So, what about September?  I have two very early book club reads, or rather re-reads.  On Monday I will be leading a discussion on Kamila Shamsie’s award winning Home Fire.  I was one of the few people I came across who had major problems with this novel when it was first published, so returning to it has been an interesting experience.  My main criticism was that I felt the central characters came over as, at best, stereotypes and at worst, caricatures.  I really have tried to be more charitable this time round, but I’m afraid I haven’t succeeded. She mocks the right wing press, but I think she has been too influenced by left wing attitudes.  Tomorrow’s discussion is going to fascinating, especially as it will be taking place in the constituency of a British Pakistani Conservative Home Secretary.

Next Sunday it will be our annual book of the film meeting when we discuss a novel in the morning, catch up on our summer doings over lunch and then see the cinematic adaptation in the afternoon, pulling it apart (usually) over tea.  This year we’ve chosen JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which I read and saw when it first came out but haven’t revisited since.  More on that later in the month.

In other reading I really would like to get back to the pattern I set up for myself back at the beginning of the year only to have the whole thing shot out from under me three weeks later when a flat I wanted to buy came on the market.  As well as reading for book groups this included (no more than) three crime novels, a piece of contemporary fiction, something from a favourite writer’s back catalogue and a candidate for my Years of My Life project.  Where crime fiction is concerned I have the new novels by Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee and Helen Fields sitting in the book shelf.  There is the possibility that the new Sarah Ward and the new Robert Galbraith will turn up at the library before the month is out, but I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it.  I also have Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, waiting to be read.  I love his work, so that is my contemporary fiction spoken for.  I will do a separate post about the candidates for The Years of My Life because I am about to start 1950 and need to think about books for all three categories. Finally, from my backlists, having really enjoyed Clock Dance last month, I thought I would try another Anne Tyler and so have ordered Back When We Were Grown-Ups from the library. That little lot should keep me going.

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ December 2017 – January 2018

1106623932_58e6ad3de8December is always a difficult month in our house. As the Christmas scene moves onto the horizon and then the holiday season itself rolls around it becomes more and more of a problem to stick to any sort of routine and for people with Aspergers this is not good news.  I find myself wasting great stretches of time just because the world won’t let me organise my life in the way I’m used to.  This year the situation was compounded by the arrival on the 10th of fifteen inches of snow.  (Being me, of course I went out and measured it!)  I live in a no-through road, half a mile away from the nearest bus route.  For five days it was impassable.  And, even if you had been able to trudge through to the main road, it wouldn’t have done you any good because bus route it may be but there were no buses running.  This despite the fact that I live in one of the biggest cities in the country. We’re not talking the depths of rural England here.  Mind you, I have long been of the opinion that if you were to look on the local Council maps where you ought to find the name of our district printed what you would actually find is Here Be Dragons. I think they’d rather like to forget we exist.  I then made matters even worse by going down with full-blown flu – temperature, aches, pains, swollen glands, the lot.  That was three weeks ago yesterday and I am only just beginning to feel human again.  So, all in all, December was not a good month and I found it difficult to settle to reading anything very much and after the 10th nothing of any great substance.

The two works that did impress me were Ali Smith’s Autumn, which I read for my book group and Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which formed part of my Years of My Life project.  I reviewed the latter but felt that I needed to give the Smith a second reading before drawing together my thoughts about a novel which may be short but which is, nevertheless, very complex.  Flu put an end to that idea and what I am thinking of doing now is waiting until the sequence is complete and then reading all four books straight through because I’m sure that the sum is going to be very much greater than the parts.  I also read The Pursuit of Love but that turned out to be a dreadful disappointment.  Mitford irritated me no end.  My how those upper classes suffered.  My very working class roots, and no doubt prejudices too, came rising to the surface and I soon decided that for my temper’s sake I wouldn’t be going on to read Love in a Cold Climate, which was another book I had considered for my project.

Other than that I have stuck to crime fiction, which for the most part hasn’t demanded too much from my depleted little grey cells.  Two such, Howard Linskey’s The Search  and Margery Allingham’s Mystery Mile, I have already reviewed and I very much enjoyed both of them.  Four others have January publication dates and so the reviews are still to come.  As you will discover, they were something of a mixed bunch.  With Hell Bay, Kate Rhodes has begun a new series, this one set in the Scilly Isles and it is as beautifully written as her Alice Quentin novels, while Helen Fields’ Perfect Death shows her continuing to go from strength to strength.  Eva Dolan has abandoned her Peterborough based hate crime series for a one off, This Is How It Ends, a novel full of anger and one which I am not quite certain in its final pages she has managed to bring off.  And the fourth was so awful I very nearly didn’t review it.  However my comments will turn up in the not too distant future so I will leave you to find out what it was for yourselves.

IMG_0245You will understand then, that I am looking forward to January, if only on the grounds that it is extremely unlikely that it could possibly be any worse than December. I did use some of my down time to have a good think about my reading habits and although I haven’t done anything as radical as making resolutions, I do want to try and establish a better balance in my choices. I too easily resort to crime fiction or to re-reading old favourites. I need to challenge myself a bit more.  So, I’ve drawn up a tentative schedule which runs along these lines.

  • Unless there is a plethora of new publications only three crime novels a month.
  • Whatever needs reading for book groups.
  • At least one book for my Years of My Life Project.
  • At least one new contemporary novel.
  • At least one unread novel from a favourite author’s backlist.
  • Any free time left at my own discretion.

Whether I will be able to keep to this I have no idea but I am full of good intentions.

This means that for January I have some definite titles on the list and some that are rather more tentative.  I’m leading a book group discussion on Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful novel My Name is Lucy Barton so, before the meeting comes round, I’ll re-read both that and the associated short story collection Anything is Possible.  Looking ahead, re-reads where book group selections are concerned are going to be impossible to avoid. I have my last 1949 publication, Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost to start, that’s a definite as well.  So too is David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which I’ve already begun. Mitchell is one of a number of writers that I’ve come to rather late, meaning that I have a lot of back catalogue to catch up with.  The earliest of his novels that I’ve read is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I haven’t decided yet whether I am going to read all four of his previous books straight off or intersperse them with those of other writers.  I shall probably have to do a post on this just to get my ideas straight in my head.

Other choices are, for the moment, rather more fluid.  As far as I can see, none of my favourite contemporary writers have a new publication this month so I am thinking of adding Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, for which she won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year award, to the list.  Where crime fiction is concerned the only January publications I am looking forward to and which I haven’t already read are James Oswald’s The Gathering Dark and Alafair Burke’s The Wife.  The latter comes out too late in the month for me to get hold of a copy so the Oswald will probably be joined by my review copy of Sarah Hilary’s Come and Find Me and the third Albert Campion, Look to the Lady. 

Of course, all of this is contingent on what turns up from the library.  My local service is in the process of changing its systems and as a consequence chaos has ensued.  No books can be reserved, no catalogues consulted and no new books are being added.  I even received an overdue demand this morning for two books that I returned before Christmas.  I really rely on the library so all this had better be worth it.  Oh well, have a good reading month, everyone.

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ November-December 2017

1106623932_58e6ad3de8November has been a really busy work month.  That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading as much, but that rather a lot of what I have read has been seriously non-taxing, something I could just pick up and put down again without loosing the thread.  I don’t like that.  After a time my brain starts to feel woolly and I crave something with a bit more bite to it.  With luck, December will be better – busy no doubt, but not with things that demand my intellectual energy.

Book Group reads this month were Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, which I reviewed here and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread which I reviewed when I first read it quite some time ago now.  Both of these were re-reads, which is happening too often where my Book Groups are concerned.  I look to these to introduce me to new works but that hasn’t been the case this year.  Maybe better luck next time round.

I only managed one book for the Years of My Life project and that was hardly taxing. However, Enid Blyton’s The Rockingdown Mystery brought back some wonderful memories, especially when I realised that this was the book that first sparked my love of Shakespeare.  In that respect I couldn’t have picked a better starting place for a project intended to help me look back on the world that shaped me.

My one major disappointment was Laura Wilson’s The Other Woman.  I had really been looking forward to this. I loved her sequence of novels about DI Ted Stratton and even though I’m not normally a reader of one-off thrillers, for Wilson I have always made an exception.  However, I’m afraid I couldn’t even bring myself to finish this, her latest book.  It wasn’t just that I couldn’t warm to any of her characters, I couldn’t believe in them.  They weren’t even stereotypes, they were caricatures.  And when we reached what I would technically call the Igniting Moment of the story, or that point at which you realise which way the tale is going to develop, not even my famed ability to believe six impossible things before breakfast each morning was sufficient to stop me laughing out loud.  With deep regrets the book went back to the library.

I also made the mistake this month of going against my self-imposed resolution only to accept books for review that I knew I definitely wanted to read regardless, and consequently there is a discussion of a novel coming in the next weeks about which I had real reservations. In my own defence the author had been recommended to me by someone whose judgement I would normally trust, but I know that he is a friend and I think that may have influenced her own considerations. In future I shall just say no.

Other than that it has been a month of crime fiction, some of it good and some of it considerably less so.  Probably the best of these was Francis Brody’s latest Kate Shackleton mystery, Death in the Stars and of its type Michael Innes The Secret Vanguard  was enjoyable too.  However, I decided not to go back to Angela Marsons’ series after reading the first, Silent Scream, and Jessica Fellowes’ The Mitford Murders and Guy Fraser-Sampson’s Death in Profile proved not to be time well spent either.

IMG_0245So, all told, not the best of months.  I can only hope December will be better.  It should get off to a good start because the Monday Book Group is reading Ali Smith’s Autumn.  I have been putting off reading this knowing that it was on our list and I have seen some excellent reviews around the blogging world.  I also have Winter on reservation from the library.  It would be great if that turned up as well.  (Library service, I hope you’re paying attention.)  There is no Wednesday Group this month.  It falls too close to Christmas and so often coincides with parents’ evenings, school plays, concerts and discos, that we decided a couple of years ago to give December a miss.  At this time of the year you simply can’t fit everything in.

The Year of My Life project should fare better this month too.  I have to get Greene’s The Third Man back to the library by the 14th, so as soon as I’ve read the Smith it will be onto that.  I also have both of the Nancy Mitford books on hold, having decided to read The Pursuit of Love before going on to the 1949 publication Love in a Cold Climate.  I hope the title of the latter won’t prove to be too prophetic about the weather we can expect over the next few weeks; curling up over a good book is so much more pleasurable if you’ve been able to get out for a good long walk as well.  We had our first snow last Tuesday!

Inevitably, there will be some crime fiction.  I have Eva Dolan’s This Is How It Ends and Helen Fields’ Perfect Death from NetGalley.  Both of these are published in late January, so any reviews won’t appear until then, but I shall definitely read them over the Christmas period.  Dolan is a long established favourite, although I am a little wary about this latest novel as it isn’t part of her existing series.  However, she is a good enough writer for me to enjoy the journey on a stylistic level whatever surprises the plot may hold.  Helen Fields is a writer I encountered for the first time this year and Perfect Death is the third in her series set in Edinburgh and featuring DI Luc Callanach.  She is one of a group of crime novelists I’ve discovered recently who have all grabbed me from the very first novel and if you haven’t read her books, which start with Perfect Remains, then I strongly recommend them.

And, as the perfect Christmas present, on the very day itself, the latest short story in Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s will pop into my in-box.  If you don’t know these books then no words of mine can adequately describe them.  The only thing I can say is that whatever you may think it isn’t time travel. At St Mary’s they investigate major historical events in contemporary time.  Call it time travel and you will have Dr Bairstow to answer to, or even worse, Mrs Partridge, and that would be enough to ruin anyone’s Christmas.  As well as the full length tales, there is now a Christmas tradition of a short story filling the time gap between one novel and the next, so I shall spend Christmas day with much loved friends, who will no doubt get themselves into all sorts of scrapes before finally managing to make the world a better place for someone – even if it isn’t always themselves.  What more could anyone ask?

Have a good month.

 

Marching Forward

3afef1e893f675f1dd6af0348c666c70February was not really a great reading month, I’m afraid. With the exception of a couple of very good crime novels, Claire McGowan’s A Savage Hunger, which I reviewed in the previous post, and Alafair Burke’s The Ex, the review for which will be in the next edition of Shiny New Books, I wasn’t really knocked out by anything else that I read. Mind you, as a month it had a lot to live up to given that my January reading included Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Eva Dolan’s After You Die and, even though it had an extra day, February is still a short month so I won’t complain too much but just look forward to March and hope for better things.

My book group reading consists of two re-reads balanced by not only a book but an author that is new to me. The Monday Group asked for some crime fiction and as that is a group set up to look at novels shortlisted for book awards I decided to go for Sara Paretsky’s Blacklist which won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger in 2004.  I’m not certain how well this is going to go down, but I enjoy the way in which Paretsky explores the links between crime, politics and big business interests and makes it clear that while you may catch the people at the bottom, or even those in the middle, at the moment bringing down those at the top is still proving more than difficult. If nothing else it will introduce almost everyone in that group to an author they haven’t read before.

The other re-read is Huxley’s Brave New World.  I did this with a different group a couple of years ago and it works really well in discussion not only in respect of its literary merits but also in terms of asking just how prophetic the author’s vision was.  I have to say that I’m not certain myself that Huxley intended it to be prophetic but it’s a good point for debate, nevertheless.  My only qualm about that one is that we have one member in the group who always wants happy books, suitable for (and I quote!) ladies of a certain age. I’m not sure quite what she’s going to make of this.

The author new to me is Adam Foulds and the book that has been chosen is his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times.  Other than that I’ve had quite a job getting a copy from the library I know nothing about this at all, so if any of you have read it and have any comments before I start on it next week I shall be interested to read them.

As far as other reading goes the month is going to primarily taken up with tackling all those books that I said I was going to read over my long weekend off.  I hadn’t realised just how tired I was and in the end I found myself doing more re-reading simply because I hadn’t the energy to tackle anything new. I did read one of the review copies I had on hand and I began Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, but, for personal reasons, I’ve found it a particularly difficult read and I’m having to take it just in small sections.  I’ll talk more about that when I review it.  That does mean, however, that I still have Slade House and The Noise of Time waiting to be read as well as a couple of crime novels to review for NetGalley.  Given all that I don’t think I should be looking any further ahead right now. I can add to the list if I find I’m running out of material.  At the moment, that seems unlikely.