Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ June~July 2020

woman sitting while reading a book

Looking back over this past month has actually proved to be a very dispiriting experience. It’s not so much that I am discouraged by the amount I’ve read or the quality of what I’ve read but rather the quality of the way in which I’ve read it. At the beginning of lockdown I seemed to be able to engage with books in a far more thoughtful and detailed manner, but over these last few weeks I feel as if I have been reading with less attention and ending up with fewer worthwhile comments to make about books that I’m sure deserve better. I suppose that back in March there was novelty in having as much time to read as I wanted, but now that novelty has not only worn off, it has begun to drag. I am used to having long conversations about the books I’ve been reading and receiving stimulation from the other readers in the five groups I run during the course of any one month. Online conversations are great, and I wouldn’t want any of you for a single moment to think that I don’t appreciate my friends in the blogging world, but I think I’m missing having to be prepared to justify my opinions about what I read in the immediacy of face-to-face conversation. So, with that in mind, my apologies  to M W Craven, Catherine Fisher, Roz Watkins, Kate Grenville, Noel Streatfeild, Michèle Roberts and Katherine Applegate, writers to whom I have done less than justice during the month of June.

used red coffee cup and saucer

I suppose I should also apologise to those writers who I am expecting to read in July, just in case the same thing happens! However, most of the posts going up next month have already been written, and one of the things I want to give some thought to is the number of books I’ve been taking for review. Because, having once accepted an ARC I really do feel obliged to write about it, and consequently, they have been dictating my reading to far too great an extent. I’ve always maintained a list of forthcoming publications that I know I’m going to want to read and I think in future that I shall have to limit myself where NetGalley is concerned simply to the books that are already on that list. With that in mind, where I do have spaces this month I’m going to try and write a series of combined shorter reviews to work my way through as many of the books that I have committed to as I can and then keep a tighter rein on my requests in future. Even so, I think it will be several months before I’ve finally caught up with myself.

One way of dealing with this would be simply to dedicate the whole of July to reading review copies, however I’ve very much enjoyed dipping back into the world of children’s literature and also to reading from earlier in the last century than I would normally have done. So, I’ve drawn up a preparatory list for the forthcoming weeks which I hope will allow me to mix-and-match across a number of genre and a number of periods while still working my way through my review commitments. Some of these, I know, were on my projected list for June so maybe I should prioritise Lucy M Boston’s, The Children of Green Knowe and Alison Croggon’s The Gift, both of which are excellent children’s novels. Some of you may remember as well a very good televised version of the former, which I think was made in the 1980s? Mark Billingham’s Cry Baby and GR Halliday’s Dark Water are both on my to-read list and so that’s two review copies easily dealt with and in addition I’ve added Kate Weinberg’s The Truants and Rhiannon Ward’s The Quickening from my ARC pile to try and make something of a real dent in it. Peter Lovesey’s The Finisher is there as well, so that makes five that with luck and perseverance I will have cleared. To complete the list I’ve added Anne Enright’s Actress, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and the fifth Campion novel, Sweet Danger.  There was a time when only reading ten novels in a month would have seemed paltry, at the moment I’m hoping I’m not being wildly over optimistic.  Oh well, at least there are thirty-one days in July!

 

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ May ~ June 2020

book stack books contemporary cupI’m sure no one will need to ask why if I say it’s been an unsettled month. Halfway through I suddenly found that the speed at which I was doing everything had been cut by half and so a lot of the reading that I projected at the beginning of the month came to nothing. In addition, given the freedom to go out more than once a day, I’ve been walking five or six miles just because I can and also because it’s something I don’t normally have the opportunity to do. It does cut into the reading time however, and so I’ve only managed to get through seven books – almost unheard of for me. Five of these were Arcs and thus the reviews will not appear for some time, however, I can recommend, once they’re available, the latest novels by Olivia Kiernan (If Looks Could Kill), Caz Frear (Shed No Tears) and Claire Askew (Cover Your Tracks) who each have the most recent instalment in their respective crime series forthcoming in the next few weeks. In children’s fiction I read Tracy Darnton‘s current offering, due at the beginning of next month, The Rules. This was quite scary, given that the main character is the daughter of a Prepper, who has been planning for ages how he is going to survive the very type of situation we now find ourselves in. Perhaps someone should give the author a crystal ball and she if she can foresee how we’re going to find our way out of our current position. However, by far and away the best of the arcs that I read this month was Emma Straub’s new novel, All Adults Here, due out in the UK in the middle of July. I only picked this one up because it had been recommended by Elizabeth Strout; if I just read the blurb I would have assumed it was the sort of book that would never appeal to me. It’s typical Strout territory, set in a small town in the Hudson Valley and focusing on the relationships between parents and their children and I have to say that I loved every word of it. I read it as slowly as I possibly could because I simply didn’t want to leave the world that Straub had created and given the opportunity I’d go straight back there just to find out what happened to her characters as their lives progressed. If you like Strout you must put this on your tbr list. I would say it’s my book of the year so far.

The other two books I read were both published long before even I was born: Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral.  As you will know if you’ve read the reviews I wasn’t particularly impressed by the Allingham, but revisiting the lives of the Walker, Blackett and Callum families as they scoured the Lake District hills for gold was a great pleasure and seem to bring back happy memories for many other bloggers too. This prompted a desire to return and explore some of the other children’s books that I had enjoyed so much when I was working in the field and so you won’t be surprised to find that there are a couple of tried and tested volumes in my growing pile for June. I have to say though, that I’m reluctant to make too many predictions about what’s going to happen over the next thirty days given the almighty mess I made of it last month. So please take what follows as a list of possible as opposed to a list of probable, reads.

flowers on opened book

I’m pretty much up-to-date with my arcs for July, but I notice I’ve got six that are due for publication in August so I’m going to have to read at least a couple of those. For once there aren’t any crime novels amongst them so it looks as though I’m going to be fairly short on my favourite genre. However, there are three new police procedurals due out in June that I haven’t been able to pick up for review which means that I will therefore have to speak nicely to Jolyon Bear and see if I can sweet talk him into letting me buy copies.  Our finances are not as tight as they were at the beginning of the lockdown, so I think that means we will definitely be seeing M W Craven’s The Curator, Roz Watkin’s Cut to the Bone and Jo Spain’s After the Fire, joining the pile. However, three in a month is very much shortcomings for me where crime fiction is concerned so that probably means that I will be digging into the fifth episode in Albert Campion’s career, Sweet Danger, which sees our intrepid hero off to a small Baltic country in order to restore its rightful rulers to the throne. I just hope that Lugg is around this time to leaven the dough. I haven’t had much success with the other Golden Age crime writers that I’ve tried, leaving aside the obvious Christie, Tey and Marsh, but I’m not averse to giving someone else’s work’s a spin.  Does anyone have any suggestions as to authors from that period that I might look into?

In the case of children’s books one of the arcs I do have is by an author called Catherine Fisher, whom I’ve always felt is not as well known as she ought to be. With that in mind I’m currently reading the earliest of her books which I remember encountering, The Snow-Walker’s Son. It’s the first of what was originally a trilogy and then was added to with a fourth novel later on, and is probably aimed at 10 and 11-year-olds. Certainly, I would have read it with my Year 6 classes. I’m very much enjoying it and will definitely  go on to read the others. I’ve also got two further old favourites sitting on the shelf, Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe and Australian author, Alison Croggon’s The Gift. Again, both of these are the first novels in a sequence and if they live up to my memory then I will almost certainly read the later instalments as well.

Other than that, I have to say I’m a bit at a loss, especially as books that were due out in June have been pushed back by the publishers. David Mitchell’s new novel, Utopia Avenue, was expected towards the end of the month but is now advertised for July and the same is true for Ali Smith’s final volume in her seasons quartet, Summer, rescheduled for August. I said I would hang on and read all four books when the final volume was available, but given the complexity of her work I’m not sure I have the little grey cells to handle that at the moment. A question of wait and see, I think. Still, I’m quite sure that the book fairy won’t let me go short of reading material. I just hope that I managed to get through more this coming month than I’ve managed in the last.

 

Rounding Up and Looking Forward: April 2020 ~ May 2020

used red coffee cup and saucerLiving with lockdown may not have been good for much, but it has at least meant that with so many of my other activities cancelled I have been able to come back to regular blogging and with it to more concentrated reading. I know that this hasn’t been true for many people. A lot of my friends, both bloggers and other readers, have complained about finding it difficult to give their attention to new works in particular, however, I’ve been able to use it to give my days a shape and a purpose, and in such times of uncertainty that has proved to be a real blessing. Having said that, I haven’t been particularly judicious about what I’ve been reading, mainly because initially I needed to watch my finances and, not being able to get to the library, relied perhaps too heavily on review copies from NetGalley. As a consequence, the posts associated with a good number of the books I’ve read haven’t yet appeared and some won’t pop up until the beginning of July. Fortunately, as we come to the end of my first financial month under lockdown (for reasons far too complicated to go into Jolyon Bear does his sums on the ninth of every month) it seems as if there is going to be a little money to spare and, as we follow the Erasmus principle here of spending any spare money on books, next month I don’t need to be quite so abstemious.

So, in April I read fifteen books, some of which I’ve blogged about and some of which I haven’t. The vast majority of these were crime novels including two each by Claire Askew, Jane Casey and William Shaw. I blogged about both the Askew books, All the Hidden Truths and What You Pay ForI enjoyed both and was particularly pleased to find that her second novel was better than her first. The next in the series is due out later in the year and I’m very much looking forward to it. I re-read Jane Casey’s Cruel Acts just to remind myself of where the series had got to before starting on her new novel, The Cutting Place.  Casey is never less than good, but this latest book is excellent and if you haven’t already read it then I really recommend it very strongly. I did the same with William Shaw, going back to Deadland before reading his May publication, Grave’s End. Shaw is another fine writer although not as well known as Casey and I hope the post that will appear in a couple of weeks time will convince you to give him a try. The other crime fiction that I recorded here this month was Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady, which was a happy gallop through another episode of Albert Campion‘s life and Sara Paretsky’s Dead Land, which I’m afraid was a disappointment. In addition, I’ve read new novels by both Sharon Bolton and Susie Steiner, reviews of which will appear in the next week or so and I’ll leave my thoughts on those for you to read then.

Among the other books I read this month two really stood out, the first was the new Anne Tyler novel, Redhead By The Side Of The Road, which I know a lot of you have enjoyed and the other, which has already been published in America but which is still to be made available here, was Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.  This was recommended by Susan over on A Life in Books with the added commendation that Elizabeth Strout had said it was “gorgeous“. And it is! It’s something of a slow burner to begin with, but once you get into the book you simply won’t want to put it down. King was a writer of whom I’d never heard but I will definitely be going back to read her earlier work as soon as possible.

book stack books contemporary cup

So, what about May? Well over the next few weeks I’d really like to try and make my reading a little more organised and a little more varied. I still have several ARCs that I need to review, including the new novels by Olivia Kiernan (If Looks Could Kill) and Caz Frear (Shed No Tears) and Natalie Haynes A Thousand Ships, which is due its paperback release. They are all July publications, so in terms of blog posts I’ll be getting ahead of myself again. I’d like to go back and read some Children’s and YA literature as well. At one point in my life that was pretty much all I read, because it was what I was lecturing in, but over the past few years I’ve got woefully left behind with what’s out there. I have Tracy Darnton‘s forthcoming YA novel, The Rules, on my pile which, given that it’s about a teenage girl who has been brought up by a Prepper father to be prepared for Armageddon, should be very topical and Elly Griffiths has a new book out in the middle of the month, The Smugglers’ Secret, which is the second in her Girl Called Justice series, aimed at 10 and 11-year-olds. I thought as well that I might indulge myself in some old favourites, so I’m going to mine the Carnegie award shortlists. The very first winner, way back in 1936, was Arthur Ransome’s novel, Pigeon Post.  I loved all the Swallow and Amazon books as a child and I’m hoping that they will bear a second, adult, reading.

I have three relatively new books that I want to get round to. Ann Enright’s Actress was one of those on my library list when everything closed down and may even now be sitting on one of the shelves waiting for me to collect it. Annabel from Annabookbel has just sent me a copy of Jessica Moor’s novel, Keeper, which she made sound so attractive when she blogged about it and I’m also very tempted by Brian McGilloway’s latest, The Last Crossing. McGilloway is not as well known as he deserves to be. He has two very fine crime series set in the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Republic, both of which deal intelligently with the delicate situation that the police on either side of the divide find themselves in. His latest, however, is a standalone about three people who thought they’d seen the last of each other thirty years ago but who are asked to reunite to lay ghosts to rest, only to find that some things are impossible to leave behind. I spent a lot of my career working with students who had come to England to study from both sides of the Irish border, including one who was a victim of the Omaha bombing, so while I’m not expecting this to be an easy read, I am expecting to be gripped by it.

If time allows I shall probably have a look at the next Albert Campion novel and I might go back to an old project where I set out to read the earlier novels of authors I’ve come to rather late in their career. I haven’t been tempted to read the new Maggie O’Farrell. I don’t really approve of people messing about with Shakespeare‘s life. I do, however, have some of her earlier books still to read and the next one on the list is My Lover’s Lover.  I shall substitute that instead.

I hope that you all have a good reading month and that the vicissitudes of lockdown are lessened somewhat by the quality of the books that you spend time with.

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.

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.