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.

Where do you get your books from ?

Since I wrote this blog there has been an excellent article with proper research written by the Guardian – see that here. Definitely worth reading – it makes its points, and my points, very well.

There has been some discussion lately on Twitter, my social media platform of choice, about book piracy. This was triggered by a website which has been taking digital copies of books and posting them for free download while claiming that it has the permission of the author. There has naturally been much discussion about this and the owner of the website has been defending his position. Personally I don’t think that he has any defence because, in my opinion, this is unacceptable as well as being unlawful. However, I assume that he wouldn’t be doing this if he wasn’t making some sort of money out of it which implies that people are visiting the site and downloading the books for free.

Now, I love a freebie as well as the next person and having a book buying habit is expensive but this sort of activity seems totally abhorrent to me. Firstly, you are denying the writer any recompense for their time and creativity. Writers who don’t earn money stop writing so if you enjoy a writer’s work why would you want to risk that happening ? Secondly, you are downloading onto your device a file from an unknown and obviously dodgy source which can only be inherently risky.

A counter argument says that if you buy books second-hand that the author gets no reward from that either. That is true and the same applies if you borrow books but in both these cases someone has paid the author/publisher in the first place which does not apply if books are downloaded free (and you can create a lot more digital copies from the first one so that one copy multiplies, whilst it is difficult to replicate a printed book).

Some ways of buying books benefit the author more than others. It is accepted that books bought from Amazon pay lower royalties than those bought new from a bricks and mortar bookshop. Do readers have a responsibility to maximise the benefit to the writer or is it OK to find the cheapest, legal, way to buy a book ? I am not sure how far the reader has a moral responsibility to the writer any more than they do to anyone else who creates and sells a product other than that to purchase it legally but I know that people have strong views on this.

Here are all the ways I have purchased/obtained books and some thoughts :

  • Paper copies via a bookshop. My bookshop of choice tends to be Waterstones but I am willing to spend in any other bookshop I see on my travels. I know that a lot of people want to spend in independent bookshops and I would do this if there was one near to me. I don’t buy a lot of new books in bookshops because I am trying to minimise the number of physical volumes I have on my shelves and also because I can often get them cheaper another way. I find discount bookshops usually don’t have much of interest for me but I always look ! Books are not horrendously expensive though, even when bought new, especially if you compare them with the price of a cinema ticket or coffee and a cake in a chain coffeeshop.
  • Second-hand books. I buy most of my physical books second-hand. I get them from a variety of sources including a charity book table at my local Sainsbury’s, charity shops and via Amazon marketplace. When I buy or acquire books this way they are often significantly cheaper than new books and therefore I buy a lot more and take risks on books that I am not sure about. This is the way that I find new authors and when I have enjoyed them I then get hold of their other books by whatever way makes sense at the time.
  • Digital books. I have a Kindle (actually, I have more than one) so I am restricted to buying books from Amazon unless I want to read them on my phone or tablet. I love my Kindle reading and I buy a lot of books in Amazon’s regular sales and when they are on offer. I also buy a lot of new books this way. My reading is about 50/50 between physical books and Kindle.
  • Free books. I get free books, often Advance Reader copies (ARCs) from a number of sources. This is because I am a book reviewer and blogger. I actually get offered a lot more than I read. I download a lot from NetGalley which is a site that releases books early in order to get reviews. I don’t have to review them (although if you keep taking and don’t review then they are unlikely to let you have a lot more) and there is no condition making me give good reviews. I also get physical ARCs via Amazon Vine where I am a reviewer – I have to review these but there are no rules about what the review has to say. I have also received free ARCs from various publishers. I do not take free copies direct from the writer. I do not sell these books on or make any profit from them. ARCs often differ from the final printed version in design and the digital copies are often badly formatted. I am grateful that I am able to receive these books and I try hard not to ask for too many (a mistake I made in early reviewing and am still recovering from) and to make sure that I review or respond to the publisher about all of them.
  • Borrowed books. I borrow books from my local library, both physical copies and digital ones, where the author gets a small payment and also from friends where they don’t. I don’t borrow a lot of books because I am able to buy books and get them free – I am not short of reading material ! In the past I had a subscription to Kindle Unlimited where you can borrow unlimited numbers of digital books from a wide selection and where the author gets a payment when you read them. I don’t subscribe at the moment because I have plenty of other books but I would consider it again in the future.
  • Audio Books. I have a subscription to Audible and get one book a month as well as buying others in their sales. I have read the odd audio book from my library subscription but they don’t have a wide choice. There are other sites to get audiobooks (my son recommends BookBeat) but I can download Audible books to one of my Kindles. You also own them if you finish the subscription.

Other people get books as gifts – no one every buys me books as presents because they have no idea what I have read. I do, however, often get book tokens which is nice.

In February I read 25 books. This is where I got them from. Ten were purchased second-hand from various sources. Nine were digital copies from NetGalley. Two were audiobooks. Two were new books bought for the Kindle and two were new books when I originally bought them but it is so long ago I cannot remember if they were from a bookshop or Amazon. That’s pretty standard for me.

Please note that none were from a pirate website and none ever will be.

Keep reading (legally) !

Some Victorian true crime and social history I have enjoyed

I have just read an excellent book of social history called The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. It is an exploration of the lives of the five women generally acknowledged to be the victims of Jack the Ripper. I have read a few books about the Victorian Serial killer in the past but where this book varies from those is that it doesn’t really mention the Ripper at all and it doesn’t go into any detail about the crimes. This is a book about the lives of the five women and how they came to be so vulnerable that they were easy prey for the killer; the author is also keen to dispel the long standing myth that all his victims were prostitutes.

This book is compelling and eye opening as we read about the lives of these women and it is also very sad as we see how easy it is to lose everything and to end up homeless and destitute. I thought that I knew quite a lot about Victorian social history but I found this book enlightening. It is also a suitable read for a week that includes International Women’s Day.

If you enjoy this look at Victorian Social history I think you might also like The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule. This is a study of Dorset Street which was once notorious for vice and iniquity and which features in The Five. The book looks at the history of the street through a number of generations and thus illuminates the story of London and its people.

The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise is a study of another famous London crime which occurred a bit before the events in The Five. The book shows more of the lives of poor and vulnerable Londoners but the victim here is not really known because he is never satisfactorily identified. He was killed to provide a body for the medical schools in the way that Burke and Hare did in Edinburgh. This book is very good at describing the lives of the criminal element of the time.

The best known historical true crime book is The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale which is about the murder at Road Hill House in Wiltshire which took place in 1860. This event actually happened in a middle class home and the book is good on the role of the police and the beginning of detective work. This is a gripping book and deserves its success.

If you are interested in the Jack the Ripper story then you may enjoy The Night in Question by Laurie Graham. This is a novel and its main character is a music hall star called Dot Allbones. Dot is an engaging heroine as she manoeuvers her way through Victorian London at the time of the Ripper killings and it all becomes a bit too close to home when she befriends a woman who becomes one of the victims. I enjoy this author’s novels and I liked this one a lot.

One of the most famous books about a true crime is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  This is a study of a seemingly motiveless crime that took place in Kansas in 1959. It is a brilliantly written book which tries to reveal the lives and emotions of the killers as well as the victims and the people of the town in which the crime took place. It discusses the murder in detail, although it is not gory, and the investigation. If you enjoy true crime then you should read this.

A final suggestion of a book which historical true crime readers may enjoy is The Devil in White City by Erik Larson. This book is partly about the Chicago World Fair which took place in 1893 but it is also about a serial killer who was operating in the city at the same time and how he used the busy urban landscape and the excitement of the Fair to lure young women to their death. It is a fascinating story.

I hope some of these books may be of interest to those of you who like social history and true crime. I certainly recommend The Five.

Keep reading