Summer reading report

It all started what feels like a lifetime ago in a tent in Derbyshire, hours after the last bell of July had rung…

I started The Murder Room (P D James) but it felt a little silly and I didn’t get far with it. I came back to it and finished it later in the holidays, but I wasn’t in the right mood to start with. The very long exposition at the start is the problem – two thirds of the book are over before anyone dies!

So instead I switched to Total Recall (Paretsky / Warshawski), and was ambushed by a detailed holocaust story spliced into the action of the novel. At the end of my degree, which is almost twenty years ago, I told myself I had had enough of holocaust survivor texts, having read so many in French and German. I felt slightly ambushed to find one in a much-loved detective series. However, it fit well, and really helped round out the characters of some of Vic’s old friends.

Both James and Paretsky are engaging, interesting reads, but they are not exactly light and fluffy, so I have a few series on standby now that are less taxing on the eye and mind. I read Kickback (Nick Boyd) for a little light relief which continued much in the same vein as the previous two in the Nick Dixon series. Our diabetic hero with his girlfriend subordinate went through a similar set of baffling detections to work out whodunnit, and it filled an hour or two.

Ken McClure tackles difficult scientific and medical topics, but he does so in short thrilling books that are well explained, so this series also counts as light relief. His hero is another one who seems to do baffling well with the ladies in record time, but Dr Steven Dunbar has at least been on the same girlfriend for the last few novels. In Lost Causes, I was thrilled to feel it was bang up to date, with references to coalition government, a female home secretary who loves her shoes, and the deputy prime minister chairing COBRA meetings! Clegg in a McClure novel! Then I realised that actually the start of the coalition is now a long time behind us. Lost Causes is a fun romp about an evil right wing conspiracy with some germ warfare thrown in, and the sequel to that, The Secret, touches on the death of Bin Laden, polio eradication and more large scale conspiracies. Published in 2013, The Secret seems to be the last of the Dr Steven Dunbar novels for now, and I’m almost sad to put the series behind me.

Just before I flew off to Madeira for a family holiday, a parcel arrived with birthday books from a dear old friend who a) knows exactly what I like and b) is a bit of a crime novel expert, so can choose very well indeed. This year’s parcel included two novels set in the former GDR which I reserved for the airport. A five hour flight and a two hour wait at a departure gate go so much quicker with a good book – and I do prefer an actual paperback, because there’s no threat of being told to turn it off once you’re on the tarmac.

David Young’s Stasi Child introduces us to Karin Müller in a story totally unafraid to sprinkle krautisms like Oberleutnant, Jugendwerkhof and Kriminalpolizei through a story with a shocking conclusion. Who knew that the people running the institutions of a communist state sometimes didn’t have the citizen’s best interests at heart?  The second, Stasi Wolf, a jolly good romp, lots of lovely period detail about building and allocating the GDR’s housing, but the plot more than a little bonkers. Not quite sure where I put these books, but I definitely must share them around the languages department at school, where there’s more than one Stasi fan.

Madeira 2017

So my week in the sun was book-ended with Germans but whilst I was actually on my sunlounger (private on villa terrace; had to be moved out of sun so I didn’t fry; also very convenient for stargazing; srsly considering a chaise longue for the lounge, it was so comfy for reading…) I read two more VI Warshawski books, Hardball and Fire Sale, both good. More than two thirds through the series now, the end is in sight.

I also read the third book from the crime novel parcel, Land of Shadows (Rachel Hall Howzer). First in a as-yet short series fronted by a black female police detective, Elouise Norton. You’ll never guess what – she has  a dark and troubling history that’s directly relevant to the case she’s starting to investigate. #shocker.

And finally to Y is for  Yesterday (Sue Grafton). I pre-ordered it from Amazon, set myself a reminder on my phone to check my Kindle at midnight, and started reading it pretty much as soon as I could. It’s a doorstop of a novel and I didn’t finish it in a single sitting, but it was a great story with an ending I didn’t see coming until it was right upon me. Although all of the Kinsey books are set in the 1980s, this is themed around a story of teenagers getting into trouble for filming something inappropriate, a theme which is incredibly contemporary, as anyone working in a school can tell you.

11 books in six weeks? Not bad; better than last year or the year before.

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What I read over the summer

Tsk, only a dozen or so posts from the last time I wrote about what I read over the summer. The skinny hasn’t changed much – it’s still almost all crime novels and thrillers, with the occasional pop science thrown in.

Before I tell you titles, I want to help promote a new blog from a friend, Britpulp. It’s a great collection of reviews of crime writing as well as some broader writing about the state of publishing within this genre.

This year in reading I have been continuing my trawl through all the works of P D James and Sara Paretsky, and recently have completed both Cordelia Gray novels. There’s a very graphic depiction of suicide by wrist slitting in one of them that has been preying very heavily on my mind ever since. In the Adam Dalgliesh world, I’m now more than half way through the series with Death of an Expert Witness read in a tent in North Wales over the May bank holiday and enjoyed; A Taste for Death which followed me around a couple of holidays and Devices and Desires in which unfortunate Dalgliesh ends up holidaying amidst a serial killer investigation with a nuclear power plant thrown in. (Again, fascinatingly, it’s the James’s depiction of bureaucracy in the 1970s and 80s that gets me. Nuclear power plants have committee meetings. Of course, when you think about it, they must have, but until reading this I never had thought about it.)

It’s been a while since I’ve dipped into V I Warshawski’s world, but most recently I have read Tunnel Vision with extended scenes set in abandoned storm tunnels under Chicago in a time of flooding. She gets thrown around, bruised and bloodied again and I often wonder if anyone has taken the trouble of writing a list of the injuries she has sustained across the series? It’s a wonder she can still walk after a career of being hit, shot, stabbed and beaten so often.

New this year has been the John Milton series by Mark Dawson. Not least for the opportunity to say, when quizzed on what you are reading, Oh yah, I’m reading John Milton? It’s not the highbrow fifteenth century poet, it’s a very readable thriller series set in the world of a British assassin, turned on by his own government and pursued across the globe. Whilst on the run, he also manages to atone for his past alcoholism with random acts of kindness supporting the oppressed, from council estate gang victims in London in the first book, to the women abused by drugs gangs in Mexico, to stumbling across a southern USA armed conspiracy. John Milton as a character is a mess of clichés – strong but vulnerable; unbeatable in a fight almost all of the time; super fit and talented with every sort of martial art and firearms skill. Mark Dawson deploys some reasonably obvious attempts to get us to like his characters and to build tension, but ends up with highly readable and enjoyable plots. And if you run out of Milton novels there’s a parallel series with an overlapping cast headed up by Beatrix Rose too.

I’ve been reading Mark Dawson on Kindle, and it seems well worth doing that. There are extra novellas not available in print which act as an introduction to his character, and an explanation of his new approach to writing – also here on his website. He’d been published in print before, only to see his novels sink without much critical or public appeal. He changed tacks to self publishing through the Kindle platform, which enabled him to engage more closely with his readers, and never looked back. Eventually, enough sales of his ebooks seemed to have pushed Amazon themselves to put his novels into paperback. Which seems a rum old way to get into print.

This afternoon I have finished reading For Reasons Unknown. Its author Michael Wood is a friend of friends on Facebook and promos for this keep popping up. It has a super female DCI as its lead character and unveils trauma in her life at the same time as working through a terribly twisty plot with a cold case and a recent death, all set in a snowy Sheffield. I had read somewhere that its author Michael Wood was a proof-reader and so a certain few horrors leaped out at me. Run-on sentences, and at least two occasions which looked like cursor slips where sentences had been jumbled into each other. Tsk, tsk.

What I read over the summer (tl;dr 7 crime novels)

Nothing that isn’t crime fiction or magazines!

I am currently working my way through several series of novels on my Kindle as a way of absolving myself of what to read next. No agonising decisions, just the next one in one of the series. Most of what I read fit that criteria.

I am particularly liking Evil Amazon’s new (?) thing where they have a page with all of the books in a series, in order, so you can check what you have and whether you’ve missed any. I am even still at the start of some of these series so have many hours of reading pleasure ahead of me.

In a tent in the Peak District, instead of going on a rainy walk, I finished P D James: A mind to murder. I loved the period detail – the bureaucracy of how a clinic used to be organised, and little details like the building the crime takes place in still needing its own switchboard and operator with potential for eavesdropping.

I began C J Box: Three Weeks to say Goodbye and finished it on my sofa when I got back. This is not part of Box’s – Joe Pickett novels, but a standalone thriller in which bad people try and get back an adopted child. It’s a thiller with the page-turner impulse brought in through one average guy’s attempts to protect his family and the lengths he will go to do so.

Whilst camping dahn sarf my old Kindle failed – the buttons became unresponsive. This has happened to me before but has been fixed by charging. In the field, this wasn’t possible as I was camping without power.

I did take a paperback with me for just this eventuality (in fact I have been carrying it around for ages, and it has somehow in my bag got food mushed into the pages and the front cover. A raisin, I think. I hope.) so the next book was a classic. Raymond Chandler: Farewell my lovely. Part of the Phillip Marlowe series, but I am not sure if I have read any of the others. I suspect I have them on a shelf somewhere. It took a number of pages to get used to the old slang used, but as is often the case, after a while I read so fast I am not puzzling too much over new words. I guessed an important part of the plot a page before it happened – perhaps just because of a slightly clunky plan. The stated reason is not quite enough to invite character X to character Y’s flat – there must be another dénouement afoot.

I couldn’t quite resist pre-ordering and reading Sue Grafton: X pretty much as soon as possible. I think for each of the previous 24 books I have waited till the paperback edition, but in the early days I was many years behind the publication dates. Now I’ve caught up I want to read them as soon as I can! This was in my view a return to form for Kinsey Millhone, without extended passages in the third person, but a narrative almost entirely from Kinsey’s perspective, in which she solves a number of cases, not just the main one.

Sara Paretsky: Blood Shot was next up, slightly out of sequence as for a minute I couldn’t find Bitter Medicine on my new Kindle. It was there so I went on to read that one too. The V I Warschawski series also has some patterns emerging. Almost any documents that get removed from somewhere and left in her flat or office will lead to a burglary. She also takes an awful lot of beatings. In book 5 of 17 she has been routinely injured in the course of her work, including this time a facial scar, that by the end she must be in a seriously bad way.

The new Kindle is lovely. I realise it’s just a machine to make me funnel more money in the direction of Evil Amazon, and there are alternatives available. Some even waterproof! But I have a lot of unread books on the Amazon system already and it just works quite well, so in the end I stayed with them. Now… what to do with the old, probably broken 2010 Kindle Keyboard device?

My final title here – although it is warm and sunny so I am about to head into the garden with the hammock and start another – is a Ken McClure / Dr Steven Dunbar novel. I found the first of these by accident a few years ago- in fact I can remember reading them on Kindle on my own on Shell Island, so that must have been the holiday I took immediately after losing my council seat in 2011. I don’t recall ever talking about them with anyone or hearing about them from anyone else, but they’re brilliant. They follow a former SAS doctor and his exploits with the Sci-Med directorate, a secret home office body that lends technical support to local police forces out of their depth with scientific or medical issues. Eye of the Raven starts with a detailed deathbed confession from a convicted psychopath of a rape and murder for which someone else is already imprisoned on dead certain DNA evidence, and explores how it might be possible that the DNA evidence is not all it could or should be.

Book (series) I have known and loved

Manda challenged me on facebook…

“Book Challenge thingy. List your 10 favourite books, that have stayed with you. Don’t be shy, share truly and don’t try too hard, reading is entertainment not a credibility challenge.”

Before I knew it I had churned out 1500 words, so it seemed wise to put the words on here too for posterity.

I seem to be less able than others I know to remember things that have happened more than five years ago, and with that goes a lot of detail of what I have read. I quite often find myself in the situation of reading a book and being able to predict where it’s going – but only a few pages before it has happened. I put this down to having read it before and forgotten rather than any power of prediction.

The main thing I read is detective fiction and I almost always look out for a series by the same author that I can get my teeth into and gallop through. So lots of what I list below will be series rather than individual books. I read so fast I must miss some of the detail.
That said, lately reading for pleasure has not been much of a part of my life. It’s a holiday activity rather than work day one, and somehow this year I have managed to pass almost all of my six week holiday without finishing a single book.

Anyway, the list.

Enid Blyton – The Famous Five. Gosh, what a ghastly start. But this was my introduction to crime novels and independent reading when I took a book off my mother, who was unable to read it aloud without sniggering, and started to read it by myself. We had loads and loads at home and so I read them.

Arthur Ransome – Swallows and Amazons and the subsequent series. This also took up many many summer holidays of my childhood, and built up a relationship with my local libraries as I put in cards to request the subsequent books in the series. Somehow the awesome books never led to me visiting the Lake District or getting interested in sailing but I was happy to read about others doing same. IF NOT DUFFERS, WON’T DROWN.

Agatha Christie – Poirot books. After a while – by about 11 – I had read pretty much everything in the young adult section of the library (even the Judy Blume, here’s looking at you, ‘Ralph’) and we began to talk to the staff about me borrowing adult books. The staff agreed with my parents to keep an eye out and steer me away from anything desperately inappropriate, but it was Agatha Christie I read the most, starting with garishly illustrated ones on my parents’ shelves, branching out through the library and eventually getting a bit organised in a quest to request and read all of them in my teenage years.

Paul Magrs – Marked for Life. I got a job during my sixth form years as an assistant at Ludlow Library where I did Saturday shelving. As part of that I was once allowed to help choose the new books they bought. There were a stack of cards from publishers, each one with title, author and a short description of the book. Staff got to go through the cards and leave a tick on the ones they thought library should buy. I made them get this one because it’s a story with a gay affair at the heart of it, and as a staff member I could check it out to myself without anyone else having to see. The literary equivalent of sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch “Beautiful Laundrette.” Magrs was a graduate of an MA Creative Writing course so it’s pretty weird book, heavily influenced by magical realism (one of the characters becomes invisible at one point). This was his first novel, and he’s written plenty since, and is also a very influential author in the Dr Who world. Looking back on my late teens, I don’t now understood how I found time to read as much as I did. I borrowed at least 6 books from the library every fortnight and read through them very quickly. At the same time somehow I managed to get 4 amazing A-Level results too. I don’t really remember doing much studying. It was more than five years ago, I suppose.

Reginald Hill – Dalziel and Pascoe. A massive skip forward – in 2005 I allowed myself a long long holiday, taking leave from being a councillor. I spent it driving around France and camping for six weeks. Preparing for that, I bought a crate of Dalziel and Pascoe novels for next to nothing and read most of them under canvass by torchlight. NB I’ve never actually even seen the TV adaptions of these. I eventually swapped them with CH for a crate of French language Maigret novels which I regret to say I have never got very far with. On that holiday I thought the complete Reginald Hill would last me six weeks but in fact I was running out by half way. As it happened I took a holiday from my holiday halfway through to return for a good friend’s stag do, so while I was staying with AC in Geneva I borrowed her computer and bought a whole bunch more books to be posted to me in England to pick up before returning to France. Which leads me to…

Sue Grafton – Alphabet novels. I had always been a bit sniffy about these but AC had some on her shelves, so they can’t have been all bad. I flicked through, they seemed eminently readable, so I bought about 10 of them and read them then and got hooked. I’ve stayed with them as she brings out more and she is so close to completing the alphabet now. The original books were tightly plotted and very slim. Now they are getting longer and sometimes she even moves away from the first-person detective narrator, which I am not a fan of. Her detective Kinsey Millhone is brilliant.

Mary Roach – Stiff – I can’t remember who first put me onto the books of Mary Roach, but she is amazing. She is a pop science writer who takes something unpleasant and writes a book about it in gory detail with hilarious footnotes. The stories she tells are about how she learned what she writes about, and the people who are often unsung heroes. Stiff is the story of dead bodies, with a chapter on “the body farm” which Patricia Cornwell readers will know about as a research facility into decay; a chapter on crash test dummies – they use cadavers in that field too; a chapter on how dead bodies used to be powdered and turned into medicine. It doesn’t sound at all promising, but it is fascinating and very funny and all of her books (Bonk, Stiff, Gulp, Spook and Packing for Mars) are the best thing ever.

Edmund de Waal – Hare with Amber Eyes. While we are on non-fiction this is a memoir of de Waal’s family heirlooms. It’s a book divided into three – first the story of how his Jewish banker family acquired this collection of Japanese carvings, and how Jewish people got very wealthy in a bunch of different European countries in the 1800s onwards. Then there’s the story of what happened during the Anschluss in Austria and how fast and how hard they fell from grace when the Nazis sacked Jewish homes and murdered people. Finally there’s the story of how the heirlooms were recovered and how they spent their time 1945-1990 in Japan, in a story that’s just as interesting. It’s very readable – the wartime section is horrifying – but the stories before and after are just as interesting. The carvings are the thread that holds the book together but the real stories are the people who owned them.

Janet Evanovich – Stephanie Plum novels “One for the money” etc. Grafton started on a finite series A is for… Evanovich went with a rather more open ended plan, started on a novel called “One…” and carried on from there. I heard about these from a book discussion Radio 4 programme, ordered the first one, read it overnight, ordered a ton more, lent them to my friends and parents and now, as with Grafton, I read the new ones as they come out. Light and fluffy crime novels told from POV of an incompetent female bounty hunter with somewhat loose morals. Very funny, untaxing, readable in about 5 hours, excellent for airports, loads of them to get through.

So what to choose for #10? I think Terry Pratchett as another prolific writer of very funny novels. Surreal and weird, sometimes it seems whole universes are spun around a single bad pun or a deliberate misunderstanding of something. You can’t really describe Pratchett, but the beautiful covers the books all have are a fab partner for the chaotic and hilarious plots and characters.

You might also like this thing I wrote the last time I got tagged in a book meme in 2006.

REVIEW: Win a copy of Rip it up!

Macmillan have kindly sent me two copies of self-help manual Rip it up – one to review and one to offer in a competition.

So if you leave a comment under this post, being sure to use your correct email address, I will draw names from a hat on Friday and get in touch with the lucky winner to ask where you want your copy sent.

The book is an interesting take on self-help and I guess they needed to send me two copies because, if you read the book and follow the instructions, bits of the book won’t be there for its next reader. The idea is that the book wants you to change your habits, and it starts out by getting you to change how you see books. Suddenly it’s OK to commit the most heinous book crime, and tear out a page!

The book is by Richard Wiseman, professor of the public understanding of psychology at Hertfordshire University, and once the initial task is out the way the (entirely readable) first chapter delves into the academic history of the theories the book is hoping you can use to change your life for the better. Following the exercises, it’s apparently possible to become a better, more productive thinner person. Imagine!

If you too want to become better, thinner, and more productive, remember to enter the competition by leaving a comment.

Non fic stories

Most of what I read for pleasure is fiction, and almost all of that, for almost all of the time I have been an independent reader, has been detective stories of one sort or another.

But in the last few years, I have started to branch out a bit into reading non-fiction for pleasure. And there’s a sort of new genre I have come across – or at least new to me – of a weird sort of travelogue / nonfic hybrid. Nonfic authors essentially writing stories that happen to be true, but have the readability of fiction. And maybe also footnotes.

The first I really bumped into were Mary Roach. I can’t now remember why I started reading her, but her books are brilliant, about all sorts of unsavoury subjects. There’s Stiff, about cadavers (which I also talked about for Pod Delusion here) Bonk, about sex and Spook about scientific investigations into the afterlife – one I didn’t enjoy quite so much. In all of these, Roach travels about the globe, meets people and then writes about the journey and the discussions.

I suppose the king of all of this genre is probably Bill Bryson. For some reason I have resisted reading almost anything by him, although I did dip into A short history of almost everything on honeymoon and did rather enjoy Notes from a Small Island, in which Bryson travels around Britain, meets people and then writes about the journey and the discussions.

Then the latest discovery is Jon Ronson, of whom I had previously not heard, but someone (probably Kayray) tweeted about his book The Psychopath Test, and I, being for some reason at a low resistance (ie tired, under the influence) popped over to Amazon and bought it. Most weeks there are a scary flood of parcels coming through the letter box of things I only dimly remember buying. And there are now two versions of Mt Toberead – the Kindle version and the print version…

Whilst on holiday, a brief moment of time away from our wonderful hosts while he wired his new sound system and she showed P around the garden and got him to take cuttings, left me alone in my room with my book for a few hours. So far, so good, and so I turned to Jon Ronson. And finished it in two sittings – three hours then and a few more on the return ferry from France.

It’s a book in which Jon Ronson travels around the world, meets people including psychopaths and mental health professionals, and then writes about the journey and the discussions. It’s fascinating and worrying, takes in the corporate world, Scientologists and Broadmoor. And eminently readable. So, at the end of the book, when the Kindle automatically suggested I might like also to read the Men Who Stare At Goats, I added that to the mountain.

RIP Reginald Hill

I read from barely two people on Twitter that ace crime novelist Reginald Hill, auteur of the Dalziel and Pascoe crimefighting duo, has died. M’learned colleague Stephen Tall has a nice post on the subject, bemoaning the quality of the TV adaptations of his work.

For me this was not an issue, for although I was aware of the adaptations I have never seen either incarnation.

I had however read a few of his novels over the last few decades, and so was able to choose his work when I went on my long French road trip in 2005. It is always a pleasure to encounter the first time an author you really like with an extensive series of novels you can get your teeth into when you get time. I have a slight completist streak, mainly when it comes to the unproductive side of life such as crime novels and TV series.

So in 2005, in preparation for six weeks under canvass on my own in France, I bought a crate of Reginald Hill novels, almost all of his books that had been in print some time, and systematically set out to read them in order. I had particularly been looking out for the Ursprungsroman of the gay character Sergeant Wieldy, which is referred to obliquely in many subsequent books. I have definitely read it, enjoyed it at the time, and have no detailed memory of what happened in it.

I ended up tearing through the crate of books, burning up the D-cells in my tent lantern so I could read through the night, and ultimately read the six weeks’ worth of books in only three. The structure of my holiday was such that I took a holiday from my holiday to return to England halfway through for a stag do so was able to ensure that a whole new stack of Amazon 1p special secondhand books was waiting for me when I got there. I moved on to reading all of Sue Grafton’s alphabet books.

My route took in my dear friend, my former French teacher, and conversation there turned to novels, and I found out that despite her northern heritage, she had never read the Yorkshire classics. We ultimately effected an exchange – and my crate of Hill novels was handed over and in return I got a big pile of Georges Simenon novels – the Maigret books – in French. I fear that crate has languished neglected somewhere ever since. I hope it’s in the attic and is OK.

To return to Reginald Hill, it seems such a shame that so few people are talking about it. So few people have mentioned it on twitter, and I haven’t heard officially on the BBC news on either last night’s 6pm bulletin or this morning’s lunchtime headlines. And the Wikipedia pages are somewhat incomplete, with most Dalziel and Pascoe novels not having a page of their own. Which is a shame.