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My reading progress is still very up and down, mostly because I’ve been unwell for chunks of time since Christmas and not felt able to blog. But here I am, wanting to make sure I note thoughts about the first few books I finished this year.
Magicians of the Gods by Graham Hancock
I have been a long-time subscriber to the Fortean Times because I just can’t resist any of the stuff that they cover. Ann Fadiman wrote about the shelf everyone has where they keep books about their obsession (I think hers was Arctic exploration); I definitely fall into that category of person, though I have more than one (if you’re interested the other two are posh, titled and/or fashionable women, and 16th century history). Since reading The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail I have ben fascinated by the complex theories weaved by authors about the past. I read Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods many years ago, and this is something of a follow-up. From the blurb:
The evidence revealed in this book shows beyond reasonable doubt that an advanced civilisation that flourished during the Ice Age was destroyed in the global cataclysm between 12,800 and 11,600 years ago. But there were survivors.
Firstly, no it doesn’t. Nowhere close. The stuff about the cataclysm makes sense but there is no evidence for his other claims. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t entertaining, though his style grates on you after a while. He takes pops whenever he can at traditional archaeologists, and has a clear sense of grievance. He is rolling back on previous claims but not really very far. But repeatedly saying something is true doesn’t make it so.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
I came late to this one. A powerful, beautifully written story about a boy coming to terms with his mother’s illness and possible death, and the Monster that comes to him to help. But don’t take my word for it; the Guardian said:
Exceptional…. This is storytelling as it should be – harrowing, lyrical and transcendent
I finished it on the concourse of Euston station while waiting for a train to Manchester, and I’m not ashamed to say that I cried at the end. recently made into an amazing film which I have talked about over on the Screen God.
Nod by Adrian Barnes
Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no-one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no-one ….. Bizarre new world arises
I completely forgot I had this on my Kindle app until a friend mentioned that he was reading it and thought it was something I would enjoy. Combining two of my favourite things – the aftermath of global catastrophe, and all things Canadian – I read this n just a couple of sittings (it isn’t a terrible long book). Although the focus is mainly on those who can still sleep, I was just as fascinated but the prognosis for those that can’t. A bit scary for a fairly frequent insomniac. The first person narrative is as always occasionally problematic, and the ending is inconclusive (which I like). Some people absolutely hated this book, but I thought it an interesting and original addition to the whole dystopian trend.
Knocked Out Loaded: A Comic Art Novelty by Michael Jantze
Norm Miller, stressed about marriage and all that implies, heads of for a solo skiing trip only to return without any of his emotional baggage
I love the Norm comic strip and was very pleased to find out that there was a graphic novel exploring the more series issues around Norm and his marriage to Reine and that entails. Thoroughly enjoyed it and expect to read it again.
What’s it all about?
From the blurb:
Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life. It’s a place where even the walls whisper. And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess. Will she listen?
Why did I want to read it?
I really enjoyed the author’s previous novel The Girl With All The Gifts (my review is here if you’re interested) and as that had a real impact on my I was intrigued to see what he was going o do next. And in many ways it couldn’t have been more different – a psychological thriller set in a women’s prison.
What did I think of it?
I took a little bit of time to get into this novel, but once it got moving I was totally gripped. Jess is a fascinating character, a woman who has been convicted of causing the death of a young boy and who resolves to punish herself by starving herself to death but is spoken to by the voice of a young boy which gives her a purpose to live.
But what a life – a prison where violence and drugs and corruption are rife and Jess resolves to keep her head down. You can imagine how that might work out, especially when she decides to go ahead with .
There are supernatural elements obviously but this is as much about guilt and redemption; I found the characters believable and the story gripping and moving. Very much worth reading.
In a similar vein to my recent post over on the Screen God, I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick round-up of the books I read since I last posted here on 30 July, so 4 months ago.
The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda
Japans serial killer police procedural. I almost gave up on this because of the way the female main character was treated by her male colleagues. There was one senior policeman in particular who was SO odious that I almost gave up on the book, but I also really wanted to find out what the hell was going on, so I kept going. I’m glad I did because this was an interesting story.
Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule
Compellingly horrible but excellently written true crime book about the Green River Killer, thought to be America’s (if not the world’s) most prolific serial killer. I read Ann Rule’s book about Ted Bundy years ago and following a recommendation on Twitter I decided to give this one ago. As much as I enjoy fictional versions of this sort of theme, it’s good to be reminded just how awful the reality is for the victims’ families. Scary and compelling.
Lost Girls by Robert Kolker
An investigation into the currently still at large (and let’s face it, unidentified) serial killer who has been dumping women’s bodies in Long Island. Incredibly sad as it focusses on the lives of the young women who were killed, and how their varying circumstances led them into prostitution which ultimately brought them into contact with their killer via the Internet. Grim.
The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters
As the blurb says, what’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon anyway? This is “a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse”, and it’s also a character study of the “last” policeman himself. Twisty and turny with a proper murder mystery at its heart, it allows us to look at a society waiting for the world to end, and how people cope (or not) with real impending doom. Enjoyed it so much I bought the rest of the trilogy.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
I love short stories, and I love sci-fi short stories in particular but I’ll be honest and say that I picked this column up (if you can actually pick up an e-book) because I wanted to read the title story which is the basis for the recent (and IMHO) brilliant film Arrival. Not a duff story in here; all of them are dense and complex even when they appear to be simple on the surface. Although I adored the main story, my favourite is probably the one about angels, with a very simple idea – what if angels were real and whenever they appeared on earth they basically came as a natural disaster. Fascinating. I also loved that the author did a set of notes at the end about what had triggered each story. Really very very good indeed.
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
I really enjoyed this but please don’t ask me to explain it 🙂 Inspired in part by John Carpenter’s The Thing, this is a novel about, well, time travel and Kantian (is that a word?) philosophy and revenge and obsession and Fermi’s Paradox which I had to look up and apparently refers to
the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.
Thank you Wikipedia. The quickest read this year so far and the oddest since I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and its sequels. Loved it. Brain still hurts a bit though.
So that’s it. Thankfully I’m now going to end the year in double figures, and hopefully will be able to finish a few more in December.
So, you might have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while. The simple reason for that is that I haven’t been reading. At all. My tally so far this year has been 3 books finished up to early March, one of them almost certainly started before the new year and the third (although i enjoyed it) I don’t ever get around to reviewing here. I have no explanation for this, the longest reading slump in my whole life (and believe me that represents a significant number of years!)
But I decided this could not go on and when I realised I had a day trip to Manchester (slightly over 2 hours each way not including the journey from my home to Euston) and that (for various reasons) I wasn’t taking my work laptop and therefore wouldn’t be working on the train I decided that this was a prime opportunity to pick up a physical book and get reading. And what do you know – it worked!
The Bullet is the story of Caroline Cashion, a professor of French literature who is having some physical problems – maybe RSI, maybe not – and during an MRI it is discovered that she has a bullet lodged in her neck, near the bottom of her skull. This is a huge shock as she has no memory of ever being shot and there seems to be no scar. When she confronts her family about this she discovers a number of significant facts – she is adopted, her birth parents were murdered in front of her when she was 3 years old, she was injured in the attack and apparently left for dead, and worst of all (in my mind anyway) the person who did all this was never caught. So, this being a thriller you just know what she’s going to do; yep, you’ve guessed it, she starts rummaging around and puts herself in danger. Of course. I think I might have done the same, to be fair.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot which unfolds in a very satisfying way. It moves at a fair speed and stays on the right side of being far-fetched. It is a first person narrative which for me succeeds or fails on the likability of the character and happily I liked Caroline very much, especially her interaction with her (adoptive) brothers; I have two brothers of my own and this rang true. And yes, there’s a bit of romance but at least she doesn’t rely on him to sort this all out for her (very much the opposite in fact).
So all in all a very satisfying reading experience. Recommended.
Kicking off during the Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China and moving rapidly into the present day, The Three-Body Problem is a sci-fi novel which explores the impact of a major event on one individual and the repercussions that can have for the whole of mankind. A spate of suicides amongst scientists. A strange immersive online game. Conspiracies. And lots and lots of science.
Why did I want to read it?
It just sounded so intriguing. I love science fiction, especially when there’s lots of hard science in it, and (as this is translated from the Chinese) I was interested particulary in reading from a different cultural background. Plus it was of course the winner of the Hugo award for best sci-fi novel in 2015 (and rightly so IMHO)
What did I think of it?
Oh, this definitely delivered on its promise! I knew a little bit about the actual three-body problem because my first husband’s degree was in theoretical physics, so I understand enough to know that it’s about the mechanics of celestial bodies and how they move in relation to each other, especially under the influence of gravity (eg Sun + Earth + Moon) and how it can be unpredictable. That’s the extent of my knowledge though!
I liked the mystery element of the novel – what is the countdown that Wang Miao sees that no-one else can; is the Trisolaran system in the game based on reality; what really went on at the Red Coast Base over all those years and what was Ye Wenjie’s part in it?
Of course I’m a sucker for a good conspiracy (as long as it’s fiction; I get mildly cross with claims of huge conspiracies claimed for real life – see my last review for thoughts on that) and this one reveals itself gradually throughout the course of the novel. I was also interested in the idea (which I’ve come across elsewhere) that humanity is a disease or infection and some feel that removing us from the Earth is a Good Thing (I do not of course agree with that nihilistic view).
This is a really excellent novel, beautifully translated and giving me at least something fresh and different while still firmly within traditional sci-fi. If I tell you that I was so absorbed in the story that I didn’t realise I had reached the end of the line on my morning commute that should give you some idea of how good I thought this was. I’ve already downloaded book 2 in the trilogy. Highly recommended.
I decided to re-read this Agatha Christie novel in advance of the three part TV adaptation which was on the BBC over the Christmas weekend. Although I was familiar with the story I wanted to refresh my memory so that I could see what changes the screenwriter had and hadn’t made. This is in part because of bad experiences with recent Christie adaptations where they have packed the episodes with big name actors even in the smallest parts and have mucked about with the stories so that they are basically unrecognisable.
Though for the avoidance of doubt I should say that Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple and David Suchet’s Poirot are exempt from this criticism.
I have owned a reasonable sized collection of Christies since I was in secondary school so I rummaged in the stacks to find the copy I knew I had, with the aim of reading it on a train trip to and from Manchester. What I had forgotten is that my paperback is from 1975 (22nd impression) and not only has a golliwog on the cover (one of the great Tom Adams illustrations) but also has the original 1939 title which today would be totally unacceptable, so that scuppered that idea. Didn’t want to be glared at on the Pendolino. In the end I read it roughly in parallel with the broadcast.
I was pleased to see that my memory of the story had held up pretty well. 10 people, strangers to each other apart (obviously) from the married couple who are the only servants, are invited to an island off the coast of Devon for a house party. They are a pretty mixed bunch and it becomes clear that they have all been spun a different story to get them there and more importantly they all have something to hide. And then they start being bumped off one after the other.
The tone is very dark, none of the characters are particularly likeable and of course paranoia and hysteria soon settle in and accusations start flying around. The central conceit of the nursery rhyme works well and the only thing I found jarring was the explanation of it all at the end. But still enjoyably twisted. As someone said on Twitter (and sorry, I can’t find it again) Christie invented the slasher movie 🙂
The TV adaptation
Unusually, and in this case pleasingly, the BBC decided to do three one hour episodes which I think worked really well in allowing the story to develop. It didn’t lose any tension at all, and they didn’t tinker with the ending at all. In fact, the dramatised version solved the problem in the novel of how we find out who was behind it all. Even the inevitable jazzing up for modern tastes (more sex, more obvious drug taking, some of which is hinted at on the novel) was sensitively done and didn’t jar at all. An excellent cast and high production values helped deliver the highlight of holiday TV for me (I will deal with The Abominable Bride elsewhere).
This read-along has made me want to revisit the Christie back catalogue, and that can only be a good thing. That includes reading a more modern edition of the novel to see how it’s been changed
I must do this sort of thing more often, but don’t think I’ll start with War and Peace…..
I really really did intend to write proper full reviews for each of the books below (and still will for my actual final read of the year because I will be linking it to something else) but life sort of got in the way and I want to start the new year with a reasonably clean slate so the fact that I have chosen to do mini-reviews for each of these is no reflection on the books themselves; I really enjoyed all three of them.
And when you write a paragraph-long sentence you need to stop and breathe 😀
Bryant & May: London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler
I’m not going to go on again about how much I love these books, but will just say that this short story collection was a real treat and I had only read one of them previously so that was even better. The additional pleasure was to be found in the extras:
- an introduction which gave us CF’s insights into crime fictions, always fascinating
- additional information on each of the stories; and
- a synopsis of each of full-length cases so far (there’s another one coming in a few months)
The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
Again, brilliant notes from the author and the two stories I had read before really stood up well to a revisit.
I think King’s short works are often overlooked and this had some real goodies. If you haven’t tried them you really should.
Slade House by David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks was one of my favourite reads of 2015 so when I found out that Mitchell was bringing out a short book set in the world of that novel then I know I was going to read it as soon as I could, and I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from the fact that it has one of the most beautiful book covers of the year, it is really very creepy and disorienting and reinforced my feeling that Mitchell will become a regular on my to buy list. Luckily I have a couple of his novels already on the stacks as I am on a buying freeze. This is a goodie and one I intend to re-read. Still thinking about it weeks after I finished reading it.
I think that when I flagged up that I was going to read this I said that I must be the last person in the known galaxy to do so (that wanted to read it in any case) but I’ve discovered that I’m not so that’s gratifying. I have a natural ambivalence to books being touted as The Next Big Thing – yes, I want to read them because they are being raved about, but I don’t want to read them at the same time as everyone else because hype and also because I want the dust to settle and not be too influenced by the succession of reviews that inevitably follow.
I should also admit to not buying this but borrowing it from a friend who brought it all the way from Edinburgh for me (though it sat in Silvery Dude’s desk for a month before I was able to collect it due to everyone forgetting the plan for handing it over).
Having said all that, what’s The Girl on the Train all about (in case you’ve been under a rock or something)?
From the blurb:
Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows that it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She even feels that she knows the people who live in one of the houses.
And she makes up a life story for them and then sees something unexpected which shocks her, and then the woman who lives there goes missing and Rachel inserts herself into their lives…..
Why did I want to read it?
See above. Also, as someone who regularly commuted by train into London for many years I know the pleasure of looking into people’s gardens as you trundle past.
What did I think of it?
I enjoyed reading this very much but I really think as a novel it wasn’t helped by the hype surrounding it. It’s very well written, has a story that really grips you but is not the great big new thing that the marketing campaign implied. The comparisons to Gone Girl (read and reviewed here) didn’t help either; I can see the superficial resemblance (multiple alternating viewpoints, unreliable narrators, people not being what they seem) but it has significant differences. It’s very British for a start (and I mean that as a good thing).
I also found Rachel, the main character, much more sympathetic than those in GG; I actually worried for her at several points in the book. I know that in real life she would be horrendously annoying and I would probably cross the road to avoid her but her vulnerability and desperate need to be involved to give herself some purpose was convincing and very sad.
I worked out who the baddie was likely to be about two-thirds of the way through but not the details of the solution so it didn’t get in the way of enjoying the unravelling of the mystery.
So, worth reading if you enjoy a good thriller but don’t get carried away by the marketing spiel.
Against a background of young children turning on members of their families and killing them, Hesketh Lock is investigating a parallel series of incidents involving industrial sabotage across the world. Neither of these things make sense, but are they actually connected? What do you think? And who or what are The Uninvited?
Why did I want to read it?
What did I think of it?
This is the book that hopefully broke my reading slump of recent months. I found it fascinating and read it in a coupe of days which is quite something for me at the moment. Hesketh is a compelling character, a man with Asperger’s going through difficult times in his personal life and being confronted by two sets of mysteries which (not really a spoiler) are connected in a most unexpected way. How he reacts (or doesn’t) is central to the development of the story.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot other than that; how it all comes together part of the fun, if you can call the end of the world as we know it “fun”. But I have a particular fondness for books that describe the world falling apart (the literary equivalent of a disaster movie I suppose) and this very much fits into that genre, with the added bonus of really creepy children. It’s fast paced and an enjoyable read. I liked it.
DI Antonia Hawkins is recovering from the events of her first outing (The Advent Killer which I reviewed here) and her anxiety to get back to work has her returning earlier than she probably should and straight into what rapidly becomes a new serial killer investigation, this time starting on yes, you guessed it, Valentine’s Day.
Why did I want to read it?
I enjoyed the first novel and wanted to see what the author would do with the characters. And I like nothing more than a good serial killer novel. Which sounds a bit creepy but you know what I mean. I hope.
What did I think of it?
It took me a month to finish this novel, some of which was to do with the reading slump I’ve been in for several months but a lot to do with the fact that although this is a solid read I felt that it did have some problems. Not insurmountable problems, but they stuck out for me nonetheless.
So to start with Antonia, her paranoia was really jarring to me; I get that she has issues about whether she will get her position permanently but it’s worth noting that some of those are down to how she handles the job in the first place. At least in this story there is some justification for her concerns as a high-flyer is lurking around making an impression on her superiors. The problem for me here was that what appears to be a significant subplot just sort of disappears without a proper resolution towards the end of the story.
Then there’s the title. Apart from the first body being found on the day itself the Valentine thing doesn’t really have much to do with the unfolding serial killer plot line so I thought that was a bit of a swizz (and possibly a marketing ploy); although it’s irrelevance is dealt with fairly early on it was still an annoyance.
I’m also getting a tiny wee bit bored with angst-ridden police officers. I know there needs to be drama but I would have thought the murders themselves would have provided that and we could connect with the main characters in a different way. It stuck out for me particularly because I’ve been catching up on an ITV series, Unforgotten, which has police officers whose private lives are there to show them as rounded human beings but don’t actually intrude into the story (I thought it was excellent by the way, you should check it out).
But having said all that, I did persevere with the novel and I’m glad I did because suddenly, about three-quarters of the way through, the story and pacing kick up a gear and I read that last chunk in a single sitting, and it was very satisfying. I had worked out who at least one of the people involved was likely to be quite early on, and I did wonder what if the purpose behind the murders was what it turned out to be (if that makes sense and avoiding spoilers), but it was more interesting than that, and all rather sad to be honest.
So, patchy but glad I read it and I will pick up further books in the series, but please give Antonia a break from the angst, she’s a good detective!