Recommended reads

A break with tradition and I’m telling you about some recent books wot I have read, and it’s not the end of the summer holidays.  I hardly manage to read books these days – and what I’m saying with that is that I don’t make it enough of a priority. As a friend said at work: you manage to find hours to spend with your phone. I have a few mental pictures of the life I’d like to lead – in bed by 9.30 and reading for an hour; cooking Sunday lunch every week and sipping sherry to the Food Programme (empty your glass if you hear “Chorley-Wood bread process”).  The only thing stopping any of these things happening is me.

The books below are books recommended to me that I have (mostly) totally enjoyed and want to pass on.

My friends at work were raving about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I think they were initially reluctant to recommend because it’s not classicly a boy book and it has been pigeonholed a bit as chick lit. I need to read about outside my comfort zone anyway (mostly nothing but crime!) and they did point out it was a short book and would not take me long.  Amazon’s Kindle preview thing lets you download the first chapter and see how you get along, so I read the first few pages on my phone in my classroom before going home one weekend – paid there and then and finished it in a couple of sittings – with kindle and pint in Wetherspoons running up to midnight on Friday night, and then in bed on Saturday morning.  It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever read and it’s fab.  Eleanor is clearly on the spectrum and is a wonderful, spiky, unique, unreliable narrator.  The story unfolds with some complete bouleversements (hmm… is that not actually an English word?) unexpected changes in direction. It’s very hard to review without giving too much away, so you just have to read it, it’s amazing!

My friends at pudding club were raving about Magpie Murders. So much so they didn’t let me leave without pushing it into my hands and saying you must read this!  I took it to France over Easter but didn’t have a chance to read it before returning, so took a day on bed after to do nothing but read and again polished this off in super quick time. It’s a return to crime fiction but again it’s a book that gives you unexpected twists. It’s a book within a book – most of the story is a crime novel by a character within the wider text – so just by flicking through it you see two different typefaces. The metatext has all sorts of fun games to play with the story within, and you get two crime narratives for the price of one. Again, highly recommended and puts me in mind of reading more Anthony Horowitz – I might even borrow some Alex Rider from the school library.

Finally one of my friends from the language teachers who lunch collective recommended Holy Island by LJ Ross, and I’m sorry to say this is not something I would recommend at all. It’s the first in a series of crime fic / police procedural with a lead character with a back story, DCI Ryan. I found the writing overblown and clunky and there’s an obvious, heavily signposted romance between the detective and a female cult expert bussed in from a nearby university which is completely at odds with common sense and lead me to some heavy eye rolling. Then, guess what, the woman finds herself in peril with the police officer battling the odds, the weather and the antagonist(s) in the heavy-handed dénouement. I’m not in any hurry to read any more, didn’t read the “first chapter in next book” that I got free with this one and I was very happy finally to finish this story after months of it clogging up my kindle.

Coming up next – I moved straight from Holy Island to a welcome return to P D James – A Certain Justice, and will hopefully finish this afternoon, then I have been preparing some free sample chapters to see where we move next. Stephen Tall raved about Kate Atkinson so I’ve a chapter from one of her books. I heard a radio review of The Power and have been intrigued by the premise for months – “Suddenly – tomorrow or the day after – teenage girls find that with a flick of their fingers, they can inflict agonizing pain and even death.” – how different would the world be if no-one could argue with or abuse teenage girls!? An interview in the Guardian with David Sedaris has a throwaway recommendation for a book by Rebecca Front – he doesn’t appear to know who she is!  Someone – I now can’t remember who – recommended Mythago Wood, but it’s set in Herefordshire, so that’s reason enough to read it too.

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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.