Friday, 13 December 2013

My maternity leave reading

I've been saving these for my maternity leave. I wonder how many I can get through before the baby arrives and I never have time to read again? One down so far - review to follow - and 2nd book started today....

The Ruth Galloway Mysteries by Elly Griffiths

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

This is another one of my catch up posts.  Now that I am on maternity leave I really should be a bit better at writing - at least until the baby comes - but I have still been feeling very tired.  I read these during the summer as a sequence, as I found them very addictive.

The titles in this series, in order, are:
"The Crossing Places'
"The Janus Stone"
"The House at Sea's End'
"A Room Full of Bones"
"Dying Fall"

Elly Griffith's heroine, Ruth, is a forensic archaeologist, working at the University of North Norfolk.  In "The Crossing Places" she is approached by Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson to help in his investigation of some bones that have been discovered on a desolate beach.  This begins a partnership that spans the series of books, as Ruth becomes embroiled in Nelson's life and work.

For me, the main appeal of this series is the character of Ruth - intelligent, dedicated to her work, independent, strong, self-deprecating - and her relationships with Nelson and other recurring characters.  In terms of the mystery element, I found the first novel to be the most satisfying but I still enjoyed the others and I intend to keep reading further entries in the series.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

"The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story," by Susan HIll

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This is a book that I read a few months ago but, as I still haven't been feeling great and haven't been reading much, I am only just getting around to writing about it.  This is likely to mean that my review will be a bit shorter than usual and perhaps a bit more hazy.  However, it does mean that, coincidentally, I am writing about this novella almost exactly a year after having read and written about "The Woman in Black." This book was even loaned to me by the same friend (thanks Bill, who has also been very disappointed in me for not writing much recently).

In this novella, the narrator pays a visit to Theo Parmitter, an elderly man who was his university tutor at Cambridge.  Theo asks him if he would like to hear a "strange and somewhat disturbing story."  It's an invitation that I suspect no-one with natural human curiosity could decline, and Theo starts to recount a story of going to an auction and purchasing a painting of a Venetian scene that is not to his normal taste.  This painting has exerted a sinister fascination over him, and he is unable to relinquish the picture even when a latecomer arrives to the auction who badly wants to purchase it. As Theo continues the story, the narrator becomes increasingly aware of his unease...

I enjoyed this and found it easier to read than "The Woman in Black." This might mean that I am getting used to Susan Hill's prose style, however I think it more likely that I felt more comfortable with this style of ghost story because it is very M.R. James (and, although I haven't read anything by him for a while, I am very fond of his writing).  It is hard to beat M.R. James when it comes to the creepy, atmospheric, slow-burn ghost story.  In particular this brought back hazy memories of "The Mezzotint."

I am also very fond of writing and films with a Venetian connection - having been to Venice on honeymoon - so I was already predisposed to enjoy this.  This is, however, not the Venice of my experience (thankfully).  The Venice that we saw was sunlit and beautiful.  This is the sinister and ominous Venice of "Don't Look Now;" of dark and oppressive alleyways, reeking canals and shops of sinister, gloating carnival masks.  I'm very glad not to know that Venice; the closest we came was getting lost in Canaregio one night (which seemed to be a more run-down and less touristy area of Venice). 

This has put me in the mood for more good ghost stories (or maybe, now that it is getting colder and night falls earlier, it is more the time of year for a creepy tale).  I still have a couple of posts to catch up with writing, but I'm not sure what to read next....

Monday, 19 August 2013

"One by One," by Chris Carter

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License. used to confuse Chris Carter the crime author with Chris Carter, originator of "The X-Files," which I am sure that I am not alone in doing.  This Chris Carter, however, comes from a position of some experience in crime as, according to the biographical blurb, he was a criminal psychologist who "has worked over 100 cases involving serial killers, murderers and dangerous offenders."  Like Kathy Reichs, pathologist turned author - whose books I also enjoy - he has now turned his professional expertise to his creative advantage.

Chris Carter's heroes are Detective Robert Hunter and his partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, who work for the LAPD's Homicide Special Section.  Carter doesn't prevaricate in opening his novel, jumping straight in with the intrigue when Hunter receives a mysterious phone call which instructs him to log onto a particular internet address - on doing so, he sees footage of a terrified man who is being held captive.  It becomes clear that Hunter has an integral part to play in the killer's machinations.... but why and to what end?

"One by One" is Chris Carter's fifth novel, but this is the first by him which I have read (so I am coming to the series a little bit late).  I normally try to read series in order - something I can be rather obsessive about - so it is unusual for me to jump in during a series.  However, with this novel, I didn't feel disadvantaged by not having read the earlier books featuring Robert Hunter; this works effectively as standalone novel if you don't feel inclined to read the previous books first, although there is always the possibility that you gain more in character development if you follow a series through from the start. 

I felt that this novel is strongly plotted and inventively gruesome.  Carter has effectively managed the thriller writers' trick of writing short, snappy chapters which end on a teasing nugget of revelation that is only fully revealed in the next chapter (hence you can't put it down).  I found it to be an addictive read which holds up well when compared to other similar writers in the field (like Jeffery Deaver, whose books I also enjoy).  Although I doubt that I will keep hold of my copy (limited bookshelf space and all that), instead passing it on to other keen readers, I might be tempted to return to the world of Robert Hunter and read other Chris Carter novels in the future....

"One by One" was published on the 15th August, and I am grateful to Simon and Schuster for sending me a review copy so that I could start to read it a bit early.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"Pigeon English," by Stephen Kelman

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This was a chance purchase at a charity bookstall.  It wasn't especially one that I felt driven to read at the time it came out but, as I find it interesting to read Booker nominated books, I picked it up when I had a cheap opportunity.  I read it a few months ago, but feeling rough has meant that I am only just now writing about it.  That and, if I'm honest, I wasn't sure what to write about it as I didn't love it but I didn't hate it either.

Stephen Kelman's hero is an 11 year old Ghanian boy, Harrison Opoku, who has moved to the UK with his mother and sister.  At the start of the novel, Harrison sees the dead body of a boy who he knows, although not especially closely, from school.  Harrison is deeply affected by this and, with a friend, turns detective to try to find out who killed his schoolfriend.

I found Harrison's voice particularly effective and this, for me, was the main strength of the book (however I should say that I know very few 11 year old boys against whom I can judge verisimilitude, and none of these are Ghanian refugees).  His linguistic style is distinctive and interspersed with slang from his home culture, one connotation of the pidgen English of the title. Harrison has a very active imagination and there is a strong vein of humour in his musings on life (such as imagining his grandfather in heaven playing rock, paper, scissors with Jesus). Kelman quite effectively shows the effects that growing up in a violent environment have on Harrison, as his desire to belong to a gang is at war with his own evolving awareness of what is right and wrong. 

There was, however, an aspect to this book with which I did have a huge issue.  The bloody pigeon.  It's a pigeon who thinks in English ... do you see what he did there? When Harrison sees the dead boy, he notices that a pigeon has walked in his blood; this pigeon becomes a - thankfully sparingly used - recurring character.  The narrative of the novel is occasional interrupted by the musings of the pigeon, who is gifted with an omniscient, godlike, insight into the human race.  This really didn't work for me.  I'm too old and cynical to accept the slightly twee concept of the pigeon commenting on humanity at face value.  As an alternative I considered the possibility that these thoughts were ascribed to the pigeon by Harrison but, as they seem beyond the level of emotional and intellectual maturity that he displays elsewhere in the novel, this interpretation didn't work for me either.  I acknowledge that maybe there is an aspect of Harrison's cultural inheritance from his origins in Ghana that might make sense of this for me but, without that knowledge, I didn't manage to come to terms with pigeon thought as a literary device.

I don't think that this is a book that I would be tempted to re-read, so this is likely to be bound for a charity shop or the work book swap shelf.  I have to confess that, while I didn't dislike it as a whole, I am slightly unsure why it was lauded highly enough to be on the Booker shortlist.  The vivid and entertaining narrative voice is its main strength, and maybe this was a major contributing factor to its consideration, but ultimately I didn't quite find it as satisfying as I hoped. 

Sunday, 23 June 2013

In which I apologise for not having posted for a while...

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I've not posted anything for a couple of months now.  I did finish a book a little while ago which I hope to belatedly review soon, but I haven't really read anything for about 7 weeks now.  I did start a couple of library books - "Life After Life," by Kate Atkinson and "A Treacherous Likeness," by Lynn Shepherd - but abandoned both because I didn't get to read them in time before I had to return them (with apologies to both authors for not finishing their books).

The reason is simple: I've not been feeling very well.  It has been self-inflicted, but not in the way that the usage of those words normally implies.  In fact, I haven't had any alcohol for quite a while now.  I've not read or posted much for a while because I have felt pretty constantly sick for the past 9 weeks, and exhausted for about the past 7 weeks.  The reason is simple: I'm pregnant.  I can't complain too much - although I have complained quite a lot - because it is something that we have wanted for a while (when I wrote it was self-inflicted, I meant it in the sense of being by deliberate choice and not in any literal asexual sense).  It would be nice though to reach the point where brushing my teeth without throwing up feels normal instead of feeling like a big achievement.

This does mean that I am unsure of the future of this blog at the moment.  I had always thought that when I got pregnant I would try to read a lot during the pregnancy (in the belief that after the baby is born I probably won't get much time to read for another 18 years): however, because I have felt so tired, if I have had spare time when I could have read then I preferred to spend it sleeping.  My Goodreads target for this year is already well buggered.

I am now 14 weeks, and people keep telling me that feeling sick and tired should wear off soon.  I have had a couple of better days, but I don't want to take it for granted.  I feel like my body isn't really my own - which is only to be expected, as I've never had to share tenancy of it with anyone before - and it probably won't feel like mine for a long time, but at least my mind is starting to feel slightly more like my own (by which I mean that I am starting to feel a bit more like reading).

I hope that this feeling will last, and that I will be able to start reading and posting in this blog a little more often in the coming months.  What will happen after the baby is born, however, is anyone's guess.....

Friday, 5 April 2013

"The Daylight Gate," by Jeanette Winterson

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In my last post I admitted to not having read very much Oscar Wilde and to neglecting the classics in general. In this post, I have to admit that I have read very little of Jeanette Winterson's writing. I think that I read "Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit" a long time ago, but nothing else since. And, to be honest, I am not sure that I would have found my way to reading this novel, had I not been loaned it by a friend and Hammer horror fan (this is published by Hammer).

In common with the last book that I read and reviewed on this blog, "Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol," Jeanette Winterson's novel takes its starting point from historical events.  In "The Daylight Gate," she takes real-life figures from historical records of the 1612 Trial of the Lancashire Witches - both the accused and the accusers - and weaves them into a fictional narrative. This was something that I know little about, but since reading this novel I have been finding out more about the history from this fascinating website.

Although I enjoyed the story and the historical background was interesting, I don't think that this has inspired me to seek out other novels by Jeanette Winterson. I do concede, though, that as I have not read much by her before I don't know how typical this novel is of her normal writing style.  I found that her prose was very bare - quite short sentences, to the point, with not much extraneous detail - and I think that it was probably too bare for my taste.  It's odd that the same friend who I borrowed this book from had also loaned me "The Woman in Black."  When I wrote about Susan Hill's ghost story here, I wrote that I found her descriptive writing hard to grip on to.  Curiously I found it hard to get a grip on Winterson's writing in this novel due to the paucity of description.  Just call me awkward; I'm sure my husband probably does.

I also felt that, although there are grim and gruesome parts of this book, it wasn't especially scary - and I did have the expectation that it would be because this was published by Hammer.  In this respect I felt that "The Woman in Black" was more effective, although I should admit that my limited horror reading does incline more towards the ghostly than the witchy (despite having called our cat Pyewacket, which is the name of a witch's familiar in a play I love called "Bell, Book and Candle").  One reason why I favoured "The Woman in Black" was that Susan Hill took us more into Arthur Kipps's fear, reactions and emotions - and fear can be incredibly catching - while Jeanette Winterson's sparse style seems to take the dictum of "show, don't tell" to extremis.  I didn't feel that I got much of a sense of the inner life of her characters - although the lesbian love story part of the novel was poignant and effective - and I wanted more insight into them.  

If you are interested in reading or watching something about witchcraft and history, I would be more inclined to recommend "Vinegar Tom" by Caryl Churchill.  This is a theatre work which I have never seen staged, but I remember reading and enjoying the script when I was at university.

Although this did not necessarily work for me, I am still intrigued to read more that has been published by Hammer and I do like a good ghost story.  In particular I am keen to get my hands on "The Greatcoat," by Helen Dunmore....

Monday, 1 April 2013

"Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol," by Gyles Brandreth

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This is the most recent in Gyles Brandreth's series of novels that feature Oscar Wilde as detective, and you can also find reviews of some of the previous entries in the series on this blog.  This novel takes place at a time nearing the end of Oscar's tragically short life, so it looks likely that this is the last in what has been an entertaining series.

The framing narrative for this novel takes place after Oscar Wilde has left Reading Gaol.  Oscar is in Dieppe, and is approached by a mysterious man who asks him to write about his time in prison - it is this account that forms the spine of the story.  This finds Oscar at his lowest ebb, having just been found guilty of gross indecency, suffering dysentery in prison, deprived of books, writing materials, fine food, drink and society.  In the solitary hell of Wandsworth Prison, a brutal warder bursts into Oscar's cell at night, raging against him, and then drops dead.  When Oscar is moved to Reading Gaol, the mystery follows him.

This is a more pared down entry to the series with a smaller cast of supporting characters by dint of its claustrophobic, insular setting.  Neither Conan Doyle nor Bram Stoker feature as characters - and I did miss them - but, according to the acknowledgements, many of the other characters were real-life figures at the time who Brandreth has similarly fictionalised.  The lack of Conan Doyle, although he is mentioned, does mean that the element of reverse engineering of Holmesian plots - which I wrote about in previous reviews of the series, and sometimes found problematic - is less prevalent in this novel.

I am still less adept at recognising where Oscar Wilde ends and Brandreth begins than I am spotting the Conan Doyle allusions.  I keep thinking that I should read more of the classics - I have read very few since leaving academic life - and then I get distracted by the latest Janet Evanovich or Howard Jacobson (granted, the latter is rather more literary than the former). I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't read Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," so some of Brandreth's phraseology might be trying to emulate it in ways that I am too poorly read to recognise.

This is a good breakfast book series, which I enjoyed (although I am not sure reading about dysentery is the best breakfast reading) and I always find it interesting when an author merges real historical figures with fiction.  They are entertaining mysteries that draw on Wilde, Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker but - aptly as I did write that I should read more classics - I do feel inclined to go back and re-read the Sherlock Holmes stories or novels, "Dracula," or "The Picture of Dorian Gray" while I doubt that I would return to read this series again.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

This year's project

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I've had an idea for my reading this year, which was hinted at in my previous post when I said that I was consecutively re-reading the Merrily Watkins series of supernatural mysteries by Phil Rickman.  This year I am going to be all about the series.  This might mean that I will post a bit less frequently on here - and it might be a good thing to have a little blogging break - but I will keep popping in with random thoughts and other one off reviews (I badly need to catch up on my review copies).

So far I am thinking this year that I will (re)read the following series:

The Merrily Watkins series by Phil Rickman

I've currently nearly finished the fifth, "The Prayer of the Night Shepherd," which might be my favourite, as its plot deals with Conan Doyle and the possibility that the hound was inspired by Hereford legend rather than Devonian.  As a south-west girl, I heartily refute this: I've even visited the grave of the guy who was meant to have inspired the character of Hugo Baskerville and got a bit freaked out, which I wrote about in the course of a review here.  As it has quite a human rather than supernatural resolution, I've never quite understood why "The Hound of the Baskervilles" gets described as horror - but Rickman has the interesting idea that Conan Doyle shied away from the supernatural because, in the words of one of Rickman's characters, something happened that "disturbed Conan Doyle enough to send him into complete denial and turn the Hound into a detective story with a weak ending".

Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series

I love this series, but I'm a bit behind (I haven't read the last one yet) and my experience of reading them has been quite disjointed.  The plot is very complex and I think I've lost track, so I need to go back to the start to get a hold on how it all develops.

The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I love these but haven't read them for probably about 10 years, so it will be nice to re-read them.  I'm including in the series the Eoin Colfer addition to Douglas Adams' work, as I haven't read this yet.

I'm not planning on re-reading the Harry Potter series as, during a recent bout of headaches, I started to listen again to the audio versions by Stephen Fry.  As I'm feeling the Fry love at the moment (not literally, alas), I will probably continue to listen to the series on my IPod while walking to and from work.  I don't tend to write about audiobooks on here, as they feel like cheating.

This has started me on thinking about series, and how some series of novels are ripe for this kind of consecutive reading while others are not.  I love the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich, but I don't think that they would repay being read in a row.  To want to re-read a series it needs to show development of writing style, ideas, plot or character (and preferably all four).  I think that the ones I am planning to read have this - whereas, funny though the Stephanie Plum novels are, Stephanie is pretty much as bad in her bounty-hunting job in the nineteenth novel as she is in the first and she seems scarcely any closer to resolving her love triangle: re-reading the series consecutively would just expose how static the series has remained, but it's fun to dip into them occasionally.

Has anyone got any suggestions for series that I should visit this year?