Books 2015

January

  1. Patience – John Coates. This was a lovely, gentle re-read to ease me back into actually using my brain. Along with Maureen Lipman, who wrote the introduction, I am hopeful that Persephone will bring more of Coates’ work back into print.
  2. The Old Wives’ Tale – Arnold Bennett. Well, this was a treat. It’s the story of Constance and Sophia, two young girls in the C19th who, on the face of it, have very different lives. Constance stays at home, marries the assistant and inherits the family shop, never leaving her home town. Sophia runs away with a wastrel seducer, and lives her life in Paris until she’s reunited with her sister. The novel deals with their histories independently until they’re back together in old age. It’s small lives, rich in detail.
  3. Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood. Enjoyed this very much, and I could care less about Hemingway. It has a section from the perspective of each of his wives, and EH himself doesn’t come out of it particularly well.
  4. Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne.
  5. Skylight – David Hare. Quick scamper through the text after enjoying the play so much. I can still hear Bill Nighy saying his lines.
  6. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. Which was great, if rather distressingly believable and did make me wonder if a survival skills course would be a good idea? I liked the way the before the ‘flu and after the ‘flu stories joined together.
  7. Life after Life – Kate Atkinson. I’d heard and read so many good things about this book and yet I was quite resistant to the concept of it. And then it turned up as my January book from Blackwell’s and I read it in a  day, most of that a single sitting. I did think it was great, although I did get a bit bored with the war chapters. But the concept was fascinating, and I liked the changes wrought on Ursula as her lives began to clash.
  8. Slowly down the Ganges – Eric Newby. I’m dipping into this and enjoying it so far, but appear to be reading it at the same pace as he travelled the river. Update: I gave up about 50pp from the end because it was all getting a bit samey. Newby isn’t for me. He comes across as mostly just grumpy and dissatisfied with everything (fair enough, under the circumstance, India sounds horrible) but then, don’t go on trips like it.

February

  1. A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson. See review.
  2. Wilkie Collins – Peter Ackroyd. Delightful, although slight autobiography. Got to admire a man who kept two mistresses
  3. Hens Dancing – Rafaelle Barker. The first in a run of quick re-reads while I was tired and trying to decide what to read next.
  4. Strong Poison – D L Sayers.
  5. The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer.
  6. Frederica – Georgette Heyer.
  7. Number 9 Dreams – David Mitchell.
  8. Unnatural Death – Dorothy L Sayers
  9. The Unfinished Clue – Georgette Heyer.
  10. The Guermantes Way – Marcel Proust.
  11. The Beast Must Die – Nicholas Blake.
  12. A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett.
  13. The Shiralee – D’Arcy Niland. Put back into print by Fox, Finch & Tepper, the new imprint launched by Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, and a fine job they’ve made of it. The shiralee (burden) of the title is a 4 year old girl, whose father took her away from her adulterous mother, more with the intent of punishing the mother than out of any love for his daughter. Now she walks with him from town to town, as he sees it getting in his way and slowing him down. He’s tough on her, forcing her to keep walking when she can barely stand; and yet, despite himself, he begins to admire the way she does keep up with him. Her absolute dependence on him and faith in him gradually win him over. It’s an unsentimental story, very redolent of place and time, with a genuinely tense ending.

March

  1. The Silver Bough – Lisa Tuttle. Small Scottish town of Appleton, which has an odd historical past with strong themes of folklore and magic running through, reaches some point of crisis due to the return of Ronan Wall to his home town. Ronan was supposed to marry Euphemia about 50 years ago, when she was crowned Apple Queen, and they should have shared the magical apple in a ritual that would have tied them together and secured the town’s ongoing prosperity and happiness. They didn’t, both left the town and it’s been downhill ever since – the apple orchards on which the town’s success were founded withered and were eventually dug up. But now Ronan is back, trying to mend old wrongs; Ashley, Euphemia’s American grand daughter has arrived in town; and there are a couple of other ‘incomer’ women, also likely candidates for latest Apple Queen. I kind of liked this but it felt a bit lightweight and predictable. I didn’t really feel the dread and menace that the town’s drifting into a magical realm was meant to evoke, probably because there was never any doubt that the resolution would be positive.
  2. The Ship – Antonia Honeywell.
  3. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia – Joan Chase. A matriarchal clan in Ohio in the 50s, consisting primarily of a mother, her daughters and their daughters, seen through the eyes of the four youngest members of the family. It’s told in the first person plural and the collective ‘we’ voice doesn’t fragment even when describing the actions of individuals within the group. To me this felt as though ‘we’ included the reader but also became something like a Greek chorus observing and commenting. At the heart of it is the illness and death of Aunt Grace, but as a counterpoint, the book is as much an exploration of America’s shift from farming to commercial enterprise as it is a slice of family history.
  4. Some Luck – Jane Smiley. Galloped through this, the first part of Smiley’s proposed trilogy that will cover the last 100 years of American history. I enjoyed it and I really like the episodic structure, but I think the downside is that I feel I’m getting snapshots, rather than really understanding the characters.
  5. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters (audio). Which I’m enjoying for the period detail but I’m finding the whining annoying. Update: Ugh, abandoned this with hours left, because the characters were just too stupid to be born.
  6. Carpe Jugulum – Terry Pratchett. Well, it had to be done, and I realised I’ve been out of the Discworld for too long. In this one, Verence invites a family of vampires to his daughter’s christening, and they turn up planning to take over Lancre. Granny Weatherwax has something to say about that.
  7. Thinking of You – Jill Mansell. Just a quick Saturday morning re-read.
  8. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym. Re-read.
  9. Whispers Underground – Ben Aaronovitch. Re-read.
  10. Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch. Re-read.
  11. Foxglove Summer – Ben Aaronovitch. Re-read. Better second time round, actually.
  12. Lady of Quality – Georgette Heyer. Been wanting to read this one again for ages, so finally succumbed and picked it for a lazy Saturday afternoon.
  13. The Village – Marghanita Laski. Re-read.
  14. The New House – Lettice Cooper. Re-read.
  15. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson. Re-read.
  16. The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty (audio). I don’t know why it is that the blurbs of her books always put me off, because I always enjoy the books themselves. I should start picking them up without bothering to check.
  17. Less than Angels – Barbara Pym.
  18. A Glass of Blessings – Barbara Pym.

April

  1. No Fond Return of Love – Barbara Pym.
  2. Witches Abroad – Terry Pratchett.
  3. Lords and Ladies – Terry Pratchett.
  4. Maskerade – Terry Pratchett.
  5. Island Summers: Memories of a Norwegian Childhood – Tilly Culme-Seymour.
  6. Anna of the Five Towns – Arnold Bennett.
  7. Astonish Me – Maggie Shipstead.
  8. Three Strange Angels – Laura Kalpakian.
  9. Anno Dracula – Kim Newman.
  10. A Change for the Better – Susan Hill.
  11. Ladies and Gentleman – Susan Hill. Some monstrous characters in both of these books.
  12. Tell No Tales – Eva Dolan. This series is building so well.
  13. The Secret Place – Tana French. I listened to this when it came out but was happy to grab it in pb.
  14. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen.
  15. The Talisman Ring – Georgette Heyer.

May

  1. How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran. A couple of very funny lines, but mostly meh.
  2. A Dark Anatomy – Robin Blake. Had high hopes of this C18th crime duo but just couldn’t get into this and then found the solution entirely unbelievable.
  3. The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth. Loving this so far. Astonishing achievement and not even having to read it out loud to myself to get my head around the ‘shadow tongue’.
  4. A Song for Issy Bradley – Carys Bray.
  5. Devil’s Cub – Georgette Heyer.
  6. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion.
  7. These Old Shades – Georgette Heyer (audio).

June

  1. Private Life – Jane Smiley. Found this disappointing, in that it didn’t seem to go anywhere although the historical background was good.
  2. The Incarnations – Susan Barker. Ditto.
  3. In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware. Really liked this, even though I guessed the murderer and victim fairly early on. It kept me reading to find out how it was going to play out.
  4. The Bees – Laline Paull. So far, so ok, but I think I need to give it a solid block of reading time. Nope, forced myself through to the end but meh.
  5.  Stonemouth – Iain Banks. Great stuff, must read more Banks.
  6. The Third Wife – Lisa Jewell. Bit of a departure from Jewell’s standard chicklit fare (which I regularly acquire and enjoy), with far darker undercurrents. I liked it but I do think the ending was rather trite. Maya, who was the third wife, became more of a plot device than a character and it felt like she deserved more than that.

July

  1. Life Drawing – Robin Black. Loved this, and the ending was totally unexpectedly chilling.
  2. The Table of Less Valued Knights – Marie Phillips. Which was ok but not as funny as Gods Behaving Badly.
  3. Mirror Sight – Kristen Britain. I’ve abandoned this some not very many pages in. I can’t remember what happened in the previous books and I don’t care.
  4. So Much for That – Lionel Shriver. When I started this I thought it was going to be good but relentlessly depressing, given that it’s about one woman’s battle with cancer at the expense of her husband’s lifelong dream and roughly $2 million; while his best friend’s life goes very wrong at the same time. In fact, it was oddly uplifting, despite also being a deep dive into the horrors of American healthcare (familiarity with which is one of the reasons I’m so keen on the NHS) and the ultimate unfairness of a system that really does seem to punish the good guys who play by the rules. It was also a close look at a far from perfect marriage that is nevertheless reforged in its final year.
  5. Love and Fallout – Kathryn Simmonds. I picked this up because of the Catherine O’Flynn quote on the cover, and I only read O’Flynn because she was so charming at Stories Aloud. I liked the flipping back and forth from the Greenham Common days to present day, and the clear prose. On the strength of this I’d pick up more by Simmonds if I saw it.
  6. Treasure – Clive Cussler. Oh, Dirk Pitt. If only you were a character, instead of a collection of impossible attributes. Suspension of disbelief is vital to make it through a Dirk Pitt novel. Also, suspension of critical faculties. I’d have been more bothered by the sexism if any of the characters were other than stereotypes, but as the whole thing is an hilarious male fantasy, the women didn’t get treated any worse than the President. Although I’d still like to know: what does ‘she moved with a sensual vivacity’ actually mean?
  7. Bodies of Light – Sarah Moss. I keep seeing that she’s an under rated novelist and based on what I’ve read so far, that’s true. This feels as though it’s heading into dark family territory.

August

  1. The Good Son – Paul McVeigh. Got this as a Not the Booker recommendation and raced straight through it. Great narrative voice, draws you straight in. Some very funny moments, some tragic moments, all beautifully balanced.
  2. Riders – Jilly Cooper. How long has it been since I first read Riders? I don’t remember but all the furore over the new cover made me nostalgic. It’s more horses and less sex than I remembered and I still wouldn’t go near Rupert Campbell-Black.
  3. Still Midnight – Denise Mina. Bought this in Glasgow, realizing I had no real literary associations for the city and couldn’t recall having read anything set there. I found this disappointing, very slow going, usual unliked DC being misunderstood and shot down at every turn, un-engaging characters and a wholly unlikely romance at the end of it. I had to force myself to finish it when I was only 60pp from the end. But: the writing was good, it was the first in a series, and Mina has great review so I’m minded to suspend final judgment until I’ve tried out another.
  4. The Big Music – Kirstin Gunn. I’m worried that this might be a bit non-linear and steam of consciousness for me, but I do really want to give it a go. Update: no, abandoned this.
  5. Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J Ryan Stradal. Blackwell’s sent me this as a treat, and I loved it.

September – in which I did very well with my birthday haul of books

  1. A Little Life – Hanya Yanagahira. So, this has turned out to be a real Marmite book for people, with Scott Pack getting so annoyed he’s decided he won’t even read reviews by critics who liked this anymore. I’m on the pro side. I can see, and agree with some of the criticism that has been made: it’s overlong (although I love a long novel and am more apt to decry modern authors’ tendency to go short); Jude suffers so much abuse it must be more than is realistic for one person; at least a couple of the four friends are sketched in rather than being rounded characters. It’s not the great American novel. And yet, I was totally gripped when reading it and on a couple of occasions so upset that I had to put the book down and walk away.
  2. Wise Children – Angela Carter. An engaging romp of a novel, that I’m still thinking about a few days later. I particularly liked the way Uncle Perry would swoop in, the deus ex machina, and resolve the situation just as tragedy threatened. Dora’s narrative voice was funny and ribald.
  3. The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson. Apparently this series is the basis of a TV show, which I may even dig out and watch. Cold Dish is the first in the series and I’ll definitely be reading more. Walt Longmire fulfils some of the characteristics of the archetypal detective: when the novel opens he’s a loner (widowed 4 years’ previously), cutting himself off from his friends and living in semi-squalor in a half-complete house. He’s laconic in a way that is reminiscent of Marlowe, and he’s a tough guy who doesn’t know when to quit. As this novel develops, he starts to turn his life around, and his support network starts to confirm itself around him: his deputy, Victoria, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear. The murders are almost incidental to Walt’s own character development, and this is a great introduction to a series.
  4. I Remember – Joe Brainerd. Such a simple concept and so effective. The book is literally a collection of incidents, places, people, things, sensations, experiences etc that Brainerd remembers, and each sentence begins ‘I remember’. It’s simultaneously lulling, because that repetition sets up something of a rhythm but also nostalgic or funny, or dirty as well. The book was published in 1975 and yet there are examples that made me think ‘I remember that too!’, or which I’d heard American friends reminisce about (Oreo cookies and milk). So the particular becomes general and then a window into shared experience.
  5. The Girls – Lisa Jewell. (Audio). Jewell is clearly shifting genres and fair play to her for trying. But The Girls felt like it was trying to do too much at once: explore the murky world of teens, the reality of their emotions that are often written off by adults, the state and compromises of grown up relationships, mental health, the elderly, the peculiarly public life of living in those particular flats… Alright, already, pick a theme, lady! This didn’t work for me in a number of ways, but mostly because of the structure. Starting with the discovery of Grace’s body, it then tracked back to explore what led to that situation. Which. Took. Ages. And then the whole mystery was solved in about a day. So the structure seemed used solely to bring some suspense into an otherwise not all that suspenseful story. It felt gimmicky, and if you need that gimmick then your story isn’t up to it. The second major off-putting element was the inclusion of Pip’s letters to her father, and it may be that this played fine in print and it may be that they’re authentic. I don’t have kids so I can’t tell. But the audio version was painful and if I hadn’t been driving most of the time, I’d have skipped those bits. What Jewell does so well is the relationships and secrets within families. There was a lot of that here, and it was actually more absorbing than the ‘mystery’. A fined down version could have done without Clare and her family entirely and focused on Adele and her lot. Now those girls were odd, and a long, hot summer in which Adele’s world crumbled as past secrets came to light would have been more compelling. I think Jewell could write it – so is she keeping herself in the disposable fiction section, or are her publishers reining her in?

October

  1. Pattern Recognition – William Gibson.
  2. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self – Claire Tomalin. I liked the first half of this but found that the material from the diary was over-stretched by being handled chronologically and then thematically. Pepys doesn’t come out particularly well but I’d like to read the diaries themselves, and it did get me interested in that particular historical period.
  3. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain. This was basically a history of my people and I found it illuminating. A lot chimed with what I’ve figured out for myself along the way, or suspected, e.g. the need for quiet time for sustained thinking, in fact the very preference for sustained thinking being at odds with current working environments. It was interesting to read about about why the ‘hail fellow, well met’ type became the epitome of what a successful business person looked like. (There are a lot of plausible sounding males around my current job, who talk a good game and deliver jack shit, which leaves the rest of us scratching our heads a bit.) I also remember the pain of the forced joining in I was made to do a child, when I’d much rather have been lot to my own devices. So it all stacked up for me.

November

  1. Broken Homes – Ben Aaronovitch. Re-read.
  2. The Glass Ocean.
  3. We Are Now Beginning our Descent – James Meeks
  4. The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick.

December

  1. The Crooked House – Christopher Kent.
  2. The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets – Sophie Hannah.
  3. The Shepherd’s Life – James Rebanks.
  4. Winter Street – Elin Hildebrand.
  5. A Place Called Winter – Patrick Gale.
  6. Send for Paul Temple – Francis Durbridge.
  7. The Crossing Places – Elly Griffiths.
  8. The End of Vandalism – Tom Drury.
  9. I, Robot – Isaac Asimov.

 

 

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