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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.
I have taken quite a while to get round to writing about They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper because it’s really hard to know quite where to start. To help set some context I was going to quote from the blurb on the book’s Amazon page but I got quite cross reading the thing because it makes some claims (especially about the scholarship involved) that I don’t think really hold up. It’s basically a bonkers book.
What’s it all about?
So Bruce Robinson, former actor and most notably director of Withnail and I, has spent at least fifteen years researching the case of Jack the Ripper and this enormous book is the result of his labours. And it really is a huge thing so I’m glad I had the Kindle version (you may have read in one of my Sunday Salon posts that I saw this in a book shop teetering on the edge of a shelf, only just managing not to plummet to the floor due to its sheer size). Robinson has a preferred suspect and his book is all about proving he’s right, why the guy did it and how he managed not to get caught.
Why did I want to read it?
I will put my hand up and admit that I’ve long been fascinated by Jack the Ripper, though I am well aware that it is all petty lurid stuff. I’ve read enough to be clear that a lot of the ‘facts’ out there are just theories, and some of those are fairly crackpot. So I was interested to see what this latest one would reveal. Also it was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction which gave it a certain additional interest.
What did I think of it?
Well. I’ve always been a great believer in the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think plots and conspiracies can happen; they manifestly have, and some of have been very successful. But to my mind those are the exceptions, and so when it became clear right from the very beginning of this book that the identity of Jack the Ripper was protected by a consipracy that is so enormous that it would collapse under its own weight I felt a familiar sinking feeling.
Robinson identifies the Ripper as Michael Maybrick, a surname that may be familiar to some of you because of the Ripper diaries that were floating around some years ago where James Maybrick was outed as (potentially) being Jack, having been (allegedly) murdered by his wife. The diaries were eventually discredited, but the theory here is that Michael was Jack, murdered his brother and set him up to be the Ripper, and because he was that kind of guy, framed his hated sister-in-law Florence for the killing, with the collusion of the police and the judiciary, because *gasp* Freemasonry.
Yes, it’s the Freemasons what done it, or at least covered it all up. Knew who it was all along etc. and sacrificed the truth to protect the establishment.
I don’t think this holds up because it simply doesn’t make sense, and there is a definite air of selecting material to support a theory and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. Perhaps the Ripper sections on their own, though fairly potty, make some sort of case, but the mashing together with the Florence Maybrick case (which was a clear miscarriage of justice and Robinson is right to be angry about it), just doesn’t work IMHO.
The book is exhausting to read because the author is so angry about everything; it felt like the man was writing the whole thing with his CAPS lock on. It was like being shouted at constantly. His obsessions and prejudices shine through and his language is crude and at times inappropriate to my mind, and that really jars. There were a number of “wow – did he really just say that” moments
Having said all that, it’s also quite entertaining – even funny in places – and he makes some very good points about the Ripperology industry. BI certainly never consdered abandoning the book at any point. But having dumped all this information and conspiracy theory stuff on his readers, the whole thing gets a bit rushed and then. Just. Stops. A bit like Jack the Ripper himself.
A real oddity of a book.
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.
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!
In some ways The Collini Case is both really easy and really difficult to describe. A young defence lawyer, Caspar Leinen, gets his first opportunity to appear in court when he is assigned the case of an Italian citizen, Fabrizio Collini, who has brutally murdered a prominent German businessman in one of Berlin’s swankiest hotels. I know how swanky it is because both Michael Jackson and I have stayed there, though obvs not at the same time; it’s just lovely and luxurious. Anyway, advert over, back to the point. Leinin finds out that he has a connection to the murdered man (confusion over names causes this) and tries to recuse himself from the case, but ends up taking it forward and is appalled by what he finds.
Why did I want to read it?
I love courtroom stuff and legal arguments and such like, plus I had read a couple of reviews which made it sound intriguing.
What did I think of it?
This is a book that really grabbed me and I read it in two sittings. It manages to be both very simple and very complex, because it hinges on the motive for the murder and some aspects of German law. I was aware that the author, who is an acclaimed lawyer himself, wrote the book partly to bring to everyone’s attention a particular issue which he felt needed to be addressed, and although the actual details were fascinating the campaigning part of the book (if I can even call it that) was well handled and didn’t get in the way of a tragic and compelling story of the legacy of the Second World War. Anyone who knows anything about that period and sees that the murder victim is an elderly man will probably guess what the murder may be all about but there is so much more to it than that.
This all sounds very cryptic but it’s a really fast and cleanly written story and it’s worth discovering for yourself.
I actually didn’t read that much non-fiction while I was away from the blog, probably because my fuzzy brain was incapable of dealing with anything too complicated. But I did manage the following:
These are the last volumes collecting together Hornby’s book columns from The Believer magazine. As I think I’ve said somewhere previously, whether you enjoy these or not will depend almost entirely on whether you like Hornby’s personality (at least as it comes across here) but I definitely do so I was very happy reading these. After all, this is a man who has been able to articulate why I have never got on with the works of Thomas Hardy, to wit:
Hardy’s prose is best consumed when you’re young, and your endless craving for misery is left unsatisfied by a diet of The Smiths and incessant parental misunderstanding.
It is worth mentioning that I never got The Smiths either.
Val McDermid’s Forensics (subtitled The Anatomy of Crime)
I love Val McDermid. I am ashamed to say that I have not kept up with her novels but I think she is just fabulous, and I will remedy the book thing at some point (I have at least made a note of what I haven’t read so that i can do the thing.) This was a fascinating book; I can’t resist this sort of thing as my dedication to watching CSI and related shows will testify, and this was a great introduction to the various techniques and how they have developed over time using key historical (and more recent) cases as illustration. So well written, I devoured this in a couple of sittings. You will notice that there is a fly on the cover. It appears in random places throughout the book and I can’t tell you the number of time I turned the page and forgot what it was and tried to brush it off the paper. Idiot that I am 😀
So the blog was on hiatus for a few weeks while I was dealing with some health issues which means that I have ten, count them, TEN book reviews to write and publish. But as part of my post-illness strategy is to not put pressure on myself, plus adjusting to the meds I’m now on during this period means things are a wee bit fuzzy, I’ve decided to write two posts, one each for fiction and non-fiction, with my short impressions of the books. So I can both satisfy the nerd part that wants everything recorded, while keeping the anxious part quiet. So here we go with *drum roll* fiction.
I read the bulk of this on a very pleasant train journey from Edinburgh at the end of May. It’s one of those books that everyone but everyone has been reading and reviewing so I’m not sure that I can add much that’s meaningful to all the words already out there, except to say that I really enjoyed it, Teddy is a wonderful character, it’s beautifully written, the parts about Teddy’s war service are astonishingly good and it was very moving. I’m not entirely sure that I understood the ending, and I think I may still (very slightly) prefer Life After Life, but this was a goodie.
This is sort of a sequel to The Three which I read and enjoyed last year. It’s another creepy horror novel, this time with a group of people stuck on a cruise ship where Something Goes Terribly Wrong in an is it aliens or something else we don’t understand but is out to mess with us kind of way. I liked it a lot.
There were lots of characters with no redeeming social features who got what they deserved but enough reasonable people to root for, and it was nicely done. And has reinforced my view that cruises are simply not for me.
The structure is the same as always, alternating viewpoints between Byrne and Balzano and the perpetrator, and there is definitely something to do with an asylum and their personal lives develop further and I know that I enjoyed reading at the time but that’s all I’ve got for you, sorry.
The eighth and as far as I’m aware the latest Byrne and Balzano story, this is the one with the dolls, obvs. And Byrne buys a house which used to belong to a convicted killer from a case he was involved in before. And the POV of the killer(s) is even creepier than you might expect from this series, which has been consistently enjoyable.
But again the details are a bit vague which is probably just as well as you really want to come to these fresh. By the way, I hate this cover SO MUCH.
This is the second in the Plague Trilogy; I devoured the first volume last year (my review is here) and was looking forward to this one being published and got my hands on the e-book as soon as it came out.
Different set of characters trying to deal with the sickness that has decimated the population and the impact that it has had on society. Violence and peril and alliances and danger and sacrifice. beautifully written, very compelling, I enjoyed it immensely and I’m already hankering after the third volume which I understand from a Twitter exchange with the author will have lots of jeopardy.
The novella by Clive Barker which was the basis for the Hellraiser moves, I was mildly astonished that I hadn’t read this before (honestly, call myself a horror fan?) and this was actually a book group read for a meeting I didn’t manage to attend. It’s a nasty little story full of blood and guts and torture and I thought it was great. Quite different from the film version though and *whispers* I think the story is better.
The most recent of the Laundry Files (well at least until this week when the next volume is published and before you ask, yes I have ordered it), this is basically about the bit of the civil service which deals with occult nonsense as described previously, but this time involves vampires. In the City of London. And other weird stuff.
I liked it a lot. I just really love Bob, the main protagonist, and his wife and the stuff he has to deal with and the endless bureaucracy and the fact that he doesn’t always have an answer for everything and bumbles along. I’ve seen a couple of mentions on Twitter and elsewhere that suggest others had problems with this entry in the series but I don’t exactly know why and I’m not sure I care enough to look. I am anxious about the fate of one of my favourite characters though…
So that quick canter through recent fictions reads brings me up to date. I feel a little guilty that I’m not giving these books the full treatment they probably deserve but the alternative was just to ignore them and I would have felt even worse about that, so there we are.