June’s reading – half way through the year and I reach over 180 books read

At the end of June we are halfway through this year – I am not at all sure where all the time has gone so far but the calendar must be believed. I thought, therefore, that I would take this opportunity to take stock of my reading for the first six months.

In June I read 35 books which highest number for any one month so far this year. That brings the grand total at the end of the month to 181. Assuming that I carry on reading at much the same rate that gives an anticipated total for the end of the year to be 360 which is what I read last year.

I notice that this year I am reading more books in paper form than on my Kindle. This is a change from previous years but reflects the fact that I am trying to get rid of my physical to-be-read pile, or at to least reduce it significantly, as it takes up too much space. My Kindle to-be-read pile grows at an alarming rate but at least I don’t have to keep finding new shelves to put the books on ! I have to say that as I have a weakness for charity shops and book sales that my physical to-be-read pile doesn’t seem to be reducing as much as it should do given the number of paper books I have read !

I aimed to read 25% of my books as non-fiction. I am failing at that and, in fact, in June read only one non-fiction book. Most of the factual books I have read so far this year have been history or memoirs. I shall try and improve the numbers but, as I blogged last month, I do find it difficult to read so many non-fiction books as I seem to gravitate towards stories. Maybe I need to be more realistic about this goal.

Most of the books I have read so far this year have been novels, especially romances and a good selection of classics. I make no apologies to anyone for the romances which I do very much enjoy although I wouldn’t like my reading diet only to be limited to one genre. I have also read more poetry this year than I have ever read in a single year since I was studying English Literature.

I have read some excellent books this year and blogged about them on this page and this month was no exception. I shall try and blog separately about some of the best in the next few days.

This month also saw me read the 150th book of the year. This was an audiobook “Our Man in Havana” by Graham Greene. It is a novel set in the 1950s in Cuba where an English vacuum cleaner salesman is recruited as a spy. It is a multi-layered novel, some of which is very funny, about the meaning of truth and the consequences of lying. I enjoyed it a lot.

We progress onwards to the rest of the year. I have some excellent books lined up to read and am looking forward to reading and sharing my thoughts.

 

Keep reading ….

May’s Reading – how far I am getting with one of this year’s targets

One of my aims for the year was for at least 25% of my reading to be non-fiction. Of the 28 books I read in May only 5 were factual which doesn’t quite reach my target. By the end of the month I had read 146 books this year of which 19 were non-fiction – that equates to 13%. It is not bad but it isn’t where I was aiming.

There are a number of issues I think. Firstly, non-fiction books tend to be longer so that means that I read a number of novels alongside them. Factual books also seem to be in smaller print and more complex prose so when I am tired or wanting to relax they are not the volumes I automatically pick up. My most read genres are romance novels, crime and fantasy/science fiction all of which are shorter and easier reads. I have a few books in progress at any one time including a Kindle and an audio book. One of these will always be non-fiction but the rest are usually novels.

Here are the non-fiction books I read this month just to give you a snapshot into what I like and why :

  1. Five Families by Selwyn Raab. This is a book about the mafia in New York and I listened to it on audio over a few weeks. I thought it was fascinating and included a lot that I really didn’t know including some disturbing modern stuff. I have read a few books about American organised crime so it wasn’t new to me but the scale of the operation and its wide reaching influence was disturbing. I would have liked a bit more about the actual life of gang members and the effect on those outside the operation but I was particularly taken by the way in which the author talked about the legal aspect of the fight against organised crime. Worth a read if this subject interests you.
  2. 1492 by Filipe Fernandez-Armesto. This is one of many history books which concentrate on one particular year and claim that it is a watershed moment in world affairs. The author takes the year 1492 and travels around the world to different cultures to show what happened in or around the year and why it was important. I am not quite sure that he proves his point but I did enjoy how we got a glimpse of a number of different countries and I may follow some of these up with further reading.
  3. The Predator by Wensley Clarkson. This is a true crime novel about the killer of a number of young women and girls across Europe including one of an English schoolgirl killed when staying in a French youth hostel. I have read quite a bit of true crime and this was not one of the best. The author has a very descriptive style and includes the killer’s feelings as he planned and executed his murders. I was continually wondering how he knew the detail but as the book has no references or footnotes and the author states that the killer still denies his crimes and won’t speak about them I have had to come to the conclusion that he made them up to add atmosphere – it doesn’t impress me at all and nor does his continual criticism of the police forces involved with no attempt to put their side of the matter.
  4. Severed by Frances Larson. This is an example of what I would call a micro-history. It deals with a very small subject matter through the ages – in this case, decapitation. It seems impossible that you could write a whole book about severed heads but the author has done this very successfully. This is a highly engaging book, despite the subject matter, and ranges through the years discussing methods of execution, dissection, art, cannibalism, trophy hunting and more. Very well done.
  5. Kick by Paula Byrne is a biography of Kathleen Kennedy, the sister of the better known John F, Bobby and Ted. Kick, as she was known, married into the Devonshire family and became part of British aristocracy until her untimely death. This is a well written (and well referenced) biography full of lots of insight into a very ambitious and difficult family. I was particularly moved by what happened to Kick’s sister Rosemary who had a slight learning disability. If you don’t fancy the non-fiction representation I would also recommend The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham which is a fictionalised version of many of the same events although that author has less sympathy for Kick than Paula Byrne.
  6. As I said, I usually have one non-fiction book in progress at any one time and as I write this my current volume is Elizabeth of York by Amy Licence which is a biography of the wife of Henry VII. I’ve read about her before as I have another biography by Alison Weir but she was a remarkable woman who had to navigate deadly politics (her brothers were the so-called Princes in the Tower) and who had what is probably the mother-in-law from hell. I haven’t got far with this yet.

I think that this is a pretty good representation of the sort of non-fiction I read. I do enjoy factual books and really want to read more of them but my attention keeps being drawn to the novels – the real problem is that there just isn’t enough time !

Keep reading !!

 

April’s Reading – the importance of a good story

It is a bit later than I anticipated in May to be publishing my overview of April but, for what it is worth, I read 29 books in the month. This is one fewer than in April last year but I am pleased that 21 of them were in paper form – I am aiming to try and get my physical to-be-read pile reduced even if I don’t seem to be able to stop the electronic list growing (I blame the regular Kindle sales which always seem to contain books that I just have to have to have).

This month also saw me reach my one hundredth book of the year. This was Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg. This book contained lots of imaginary text messages between characters in well-known books such as Jane Eyre. It was a great idea but sadly didn’t work for me because a lot of the books chosen such as Greek classics and modern American novels I didn’t really know well enough to get the joke. Some of it was amusing but the book was a bit of an overall disappointment. I am not sure who would know this wide variety of books well enough to get all the jokes – apart from the author.

One of the books I read this month was Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. I didn’t know anything about this book before I started it and I have no idea when and where I acquired it (which gives you an idea how out of control my to-be-read pile has got). The book is set in Papua New Guinea during an armed uprising where the inhabitants of one village are very isolated and the only white man in the area attempts to teach the children using Great Expectations by Charles Dickens as a guide. You have to have a passing knowledge of the Dickens book but the real theme of this novel is storytelling and how we tell our lives through narrative and how we learn to formulate our views of the world from stories. It was a thought provoking read and so I looked through my recent reading looking at books where the story was what gripped me. Here are a few you may enjoy :

  • A Country Escape by Katie Fforde. This is not great fiction or even a great romance but it is a gentle and engaging story of a young woman who takes on a failing farm and has to make it work. It is entirely predictable but passes the time very pleasantly and the story does draw you in. It is a good example of this type of light romance and I enjoy this sort of novel from time to time.
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris. This is a clever story. What would Germany have been like if the Nazis had won the war and continued to rule ? The hero of this novel begins to uncover some of the atrocities which have been covered up for years and puts himself in danger. It is a gripping thriller and very well researched and told.
  • Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third in her Outlander I read the first of these with some cynicism but have been absolutely drawn along by the author’s storytelling. This is a long book but I was engaged all the way through because I never knew exactly what was going to happen to the characters next. It is a time-travelling fantasy with a long running romance/love story. (I have not seen the TV series based on these books)
  • My Friend Monica by Jane Duncan. This is one of a series of books I really enjoy. The author writes about her heroine and others in rural Scotland in the first half of the twentieth century. In this book she mainly concentrates on a small engineering firm just after the war and life for a young couple just starting out. They are light books and amusing but with a lot of social history hidden away in the story.
  • Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs. This is brand new and just released (actually in May rather than April but it fitted in well with this theme). It is the tenth in this author’s series about werewolves and other supernatural creatures in modern America. In the urban fantasy field this is one of the better series and I actually read this book all in one sitting because I wanted to find out what happened next.
  • The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I have loved this thriller for years and this is a reread. Although I mostly try and avoid books with amnesia as a theme I think that the author does it very well here and I have always been gripped by the main character’s growing realisation that he may be a person he despises. I was compelled to keep turning the pages. (I have not seen the film series based on this book)

I wish you all lots of good stories – keep reading !

 

A variety of crimes

I read quite a lot of crime fiction – last year it made up 20% of my reading and I suspect that in past years it has been higher. Included in my definition of crime novels are thrillers, suspense novels, and all manner of crime including serial killer novels, police procedurals, gritty crime, historical crime, cosy crime, and more. On looking at my reading record I noticed that I was taking in a variety of different types of novel recently so I thought I would list them just to give a view of the sort of crime fiction there is out there – this is in no respect comprehensive or representative but just reflects what I have read in the past few weeks.

GOLDEN AGE. This is crime fiction from between the wars and includes exponents such as Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey. The novel I read was Murder on the Links by the Queen of Golden Age crime writing, Agatha Christie. It is an early Poirot novel and set wholly in France. It’s a short book but a good one and includes a love interest for Captain Hastings.

THRILLER. To me a thriller is a book which isn’t solely about a crime but includes another element such as a political one. Although it isn’t a golden rule I do find that thrillers seem to have some element of conspiracy theory at the centre. I have recently been listening to the audiobook of Fatherland by Robert Harris. This is very unusual in that it is set in a 1960s Germany which might have existed if the Germans had won WW2. It is a stand-alone novel. The hero is a police officer who starts to investigate a murder and then uncovers a wider conspiracy which puts their own life in danger. This is a very clever book and very exciting too – I was gripped.

POLICE PROCEDURAL. Novels like this feature a police investigation into a crime. In this case it is a series of murders. The book is Chinese Whispers by Peter May and is set in China. The book follows the Chinese police department’s investigation and the attempts of someone higher up in the establishment to hush up the crime. The book is one in a series and features an American forensic pathologist who lives with a local police official. I like this series and its unusual setting although I find Margaret a difficult character to like as she seems to annoy everyone she has contact with !

HISTORICAL CRIME. Crime novels set in the past come in all sorts of sizes and shapes but I particularly enjoy Barbara Hambly’s novels about Benjamin January which are set in 1830s Louisiana. Our main character is a free man but black and the books are heavy on the experience of slavery and the relationship between races where there is an imbalance of power. The one I have been reading this month is Wet Grave and it is a tale of murder, piracy and deceit. I enjoyed it.

HUMOROUS CRIME. It is strange to think that a book about a crime as grave as murder can be amusing but many authors manage this well. One of the best is Lindsey Davis and her books about the Roman informer Marcus Didius Falco. I am currently rereading my way through this series and have reached Last Act in Palmyra which is set in Lebanon and Syria and where our hero and his love interest are attached to a travelling show and trying to discover a murderer who must be within the group. I thought that the solution to the mystery was a bit obvious but the characterisation is great fun and the author’s portrayal of the love between Marcus and Helena is beautifully done.

SERIAL KILLER NOVELS are usually, but not always, police procedurals. They ramp up the tension as the investigators try to find out who is committing horrific crimes, usually with women victims, and almost inevitably the investigators or their families become at risk. I have recently reread A Perfect Evil by Alex Kava which is set in Nebraska and where the local sheriff calls in help in the form of the series character Maggie O’Dell who is supposed to be creating a profile of the murderer but who becomes drawn into the investigation, especially when the sheriff’s nephew goes missing. It is not the best example of the genre I have read, although it is the most recent, but it is good enough and makes a satisfying read.

COSY CRIME is a sub-genre where nothing is really too threatening or suspenseful. It is often set in small towns with quite stereotypical characters and the murder victim is so hated that no one really suffers loss whilst everything ends up happily. Lindsey Davis’ books probably fall into this category but the one I have read recently that fits the description best is The Curse of the Pharaohs by Elizabeth Paters. This is one of her series featuring Amelia Peabody who is an archaeologist and is set in Egypt. The books take place in the Victorian era and are very amusing and great fun to read. Amelia is an engaging narrator and the author manages to convey her own self-delusions to the reader in a very clever way. I love this series.

ROMANTIC SUSPENSE. These novels veer sometimes towards the romance and sometimes towards the crime/suspense element. In a romantic suspense novel the main characters will fall in love quickly as a result of being pushed together in investigating a crime, being unfairly accused, or being targeted by a murderer – or all three ! I quite like this type of book but I do try not to take them too seriously. My most recent read in this category is The Prey by Allison Brennan which is a novel about a woman who is being targeted by a murderer and the bodyguard whose role is to protect her and who falls in love. Light but entertaining reading. This one is set in Florida.

Eight very different crime novels set in eight different locations and a few different time periods. I’ve read all these in the past month and I recommend them all as worth a try but remember that there are lots more crime novels out there of many different types – maybe I’ll revisit this theme with another selection in the future.

Keep reading !

 

Some stand-alone books I have read recently

When I reviewed my books read in February I noted that a lot of them were in series and I talked about six particularly which I had read recently. You can read that blog here. When I came to look at the books I read in March I noticed that there were quite a lot of stand-alone books so I thought that I would highlight some that I have particularly enjoyed during the month.

Stand-alone books have their own attraction. The story has to be told and completed in a certain period of time with no unresolved issues to be carried across to another instalment. You have to get to know and identify with the characters very quickly. I don’t usually read a huge amount of these because I like to be completely immersed in another world and I find that I like to stay with people for a long period but I am beginning to read more of them especially as I explore the classics.

I read these stand-alone novels in March :

  • Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden. This is set in India in the Himalayas and is the story of a group of nuns who live and start a hospital in an isolated palace that used to be a harem. Slowly, things begin to go wrong as the location and the people affect the nuns. The book is full of tension as you realise that the nuns are very out of place. Quite a quick read but I enjoyed it.
  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner is also quite a quick read but a harder and (to me) less satisfying one. It is the story of a family of poor, rural Americans who take the dead mother of the family back to the place where she wanted to be buried. The story is told in a series of viewpoints including the family, people they meet along the way and even the dead mother. I found it quite strange and wasn’t entirely sure what some of it was about but the author depicts each voice very individually and you really feel the difference between the characters.
  • My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier is a chilling suspense novel about a young man’s growing obsession with his cousin’s widow as they live is isolated Cornwall. You are never quite sure about anything in this book but the growing tension is excellently portrayed. The ending is particularly powerful.
  • Burmese Days by George Orwell is about British colonial rule (spoiler – Orwell is not a fan). It is about prejudice, corruption and racism told through the story of an ex-patriot and the tight British community and how they are affected by a new arrival. It is actually quite a sad book in many ways and quite scathing in others.
  • A Place of Execution by Val McDermid is set in the Peak District in the 1960s when a girl disappears and also more recently when a book is being written about the crime. All this author’s books are compelling reading and this is a real page turner where the location plays a really important part in the story.
  • Macbeth by Jo Nesbo is a retelling of the Shakespeare play. It is cleverly done and very dark. I did think it was slightly too long as I lost contact a bit in the middle but I really admired how the author took the elements of the play and translated them to modern times making the story into a crime thriller as well as a tragedy about how power corrupts.
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a classic I don’t think I would have read except by listening to it on audio. It is a very clever parody of how people behave and their prejudices and strikes home even three hundred years after it was first published. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
  • A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the shortest book in this little collection. It has a very slight plot as the narrator uncovers a mural in a country church just after WW1. It is about grief and healing and I found it rather sad but absolutely compelling.

Some excellent stand-alone novels there which are definitely worth looking at. I shall be interested to see if April tends towards stand-alone or series books.

Keep reading.

March’s reading – I add more to my to-be-read pile than I removed from it !

In March I read 38 books. This is a good number swelled by the fact that I read a number of short books (mainly romances) and I was off work for a week which allowed more reading time.

I read 12 of those in paper form but sadly acquired almost as many replacements for the ones that I then gave away (see photo above for one weekend’s trawling through Charity shops, mainly in Worcester). I also downloaded quite a few in a number of sales held by both Amazon and Audible so I probably added as many to my to-be-read collection this month as I removed from it ! This means that I did not reduce either the number of physical books I own, or the number I own but which are unread – both of which are aims of mine. In that respect, despite the impressive number of books read, the month was a bit of a failure.

I note that I listened to five audio books which is a bit of a record. Normally I manage two or three in a month. I must have read shorter books than usual and I did have two fairly long motorway trips during the month which increases my listening time considerably.

The majority of books I read were novels, mainly romances but a few classics as well. Two thirds were read on my Kindle and 30 out of 38 were by female authors. I read four non-fiction books in the month which falls short of my aim of reading one quarter of my books as non-fiction.

Given the number of books I have read so far this year (89) I am anticipating a total for the year of 350 to 360 which would be around what I read last year. My circumstances haven’t changed significantly so that makes sense.

I’ve got another blog to write about key books I have read this month but I will say here that a lot of them have been outstanding. It seems that I can always find great books to read – I am absolutely sure that there are plenty more in that to-be-read pile. Next month’s aim is to read more than I add !

Some books I recommend after reading “A Month in the Country”

I have just started reading A Month in the Country by JL Carr. It is a book set just after World War 1 and involves the restoration of an old wall painting in a church in rural England. At the same time someone else is undertaking an archaeological dig in the churchyard. I haven’t got far enough with the book to grasp the full plot but the writing is exquisite. I am really enjoying it.

This reminded me that I have read a number of books set in archaeological digs or similar so I thought that I would write a list of recommendations of books that I particularly enjoy set in this environment.

The first books which came to mind are those by Elly Griffiths. She has written an excellent set of crime mysteries featuring an archaeologist starting with The Crossing Places. They are great fun and the author has created a gloriously complicated life for the main character Ruth Galloway. Ruth is a very believable character with lots of flaws and the anxiety and life problems faced by the ordinary reader so it is very easy to identify with her.

Another mystery series featuring an archaeologist is the Amelia Peabody series set in Egypt. Our heroine is a Victorian archaeologist who finds herself involved in lots of crimes and murders. The books are full of master criminals, mummies, parasols, mistaken identity and all the ingredients of a great cosy crime series. The books are implausible and funny but the author was an Egyptologist so they are accurate in that aspect at least. Start with Crocodile on the Sandbank.

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss is set in a dig in Greenland. It is an eerie book filled with shadows from the past and an uncertainty about what is happening in the world outside their location. This author writes harrowing books as a rule but they are also quite compelling. This isn’t my favourite of hers but it is definitely worth a read – it is very different from the rest of those I have featured here.

Guy Gavriel Kay has written two fantasy novels where the main character is a creator of murals on temple walls although his are mosaic rather than paint. The first of these is Sailing to Sarantium and it is brilliantly created and told. The author really knows how to build an alternative world and to populate it with real characters who face complex problems. I highly recommend this and all his books.

Nora Roberts’ book Birthright is also set on an archaeological dig, in America this time. It is a romance and a bit of a mystery with a number of storylines about adoption, faked discoveries local opposition to the activity. It is a light but engaging read with lots of excellent banter between the two main characters.

Kate Ellis has written a series of detective stories featuring Wesley Peterson. Although Wesley is not himself an archaeologist he has the training and all the stories involve an historical theme linked to a modern investigation. They are not particularly demanding but the way that the author frames the story makes them interesting as the narrative moves around from present to past, and from police to archaeologist. The first one is The Merchant’s House.

Sharyn McCrumb is an American writer who has written a number of books featuring Elizabeth McPherson, a young woman who cannot decide what she wants to do with her life thus allowing the author to set stories in lots of different places and environments. In Paying the Piper the archaeological dig at the centre of the story is in Scotland and there is a mystery to solve. This is a lighthearted but fun book.

Eight very different books in this list. They are set around the world, and in another one. Some are in the past and at least one in an alternative future. They are mostly, but not all, crime related and I have read them all so I can recommend them to new readers who have at least a passing interest in archeological digs and stories that may be set there.

Keep reading.