Month: December 2018

Managing the TBR pile – part 2

In January I wrote a post about my TBR and how I planned to get a handle on it.

On the plus side it’s been easier than I thought to keep the physical number of books on my ‘to read’ list from growing – mostly because I’ve received a lot less in the way of review copies. The converse of this is that my reading time was mostly during my commute and I stopped working in London in September and then our new puppy arrive in November. It seems a new puppy isn’t conducive to reading… So I do need to make an effort to find the time to read (and of course review).

My 2018 plan was to:

  1. stop the books on my ‘to read’ bookcase creeping onto the floor
  2. read books in the order they arrive
  3. review books as soon as I have finished it

I’ve pretty much managed #1. There are a couple of books propped against the bookcase and I have taken off the part-read books but I did some rearranging during the year and was able to take a few books out of boxed up ‘to read’ books.

It might have been a bit of a cheat but in October I cleared from the shelves a stack of 7 books that I’d started but put back as I’d abandoned them. They weren’t completely abandoned (yet), my intention being to either finish them or really give up on them and get rid. Giving these all another try, so far I’ve managed to get into one of them which I’ve got much further with than I did before. 6 more to go.

I’ve not managed #2. I did try at the beginning of the year but sometimes I don’t want to read a lot of historical crime or police procedurals in a row so will swap between genres rather than read the next arrival.

I’ve definitely not managed #3 because a book I had read last January and planned to review at the time of the earlier post is still waiting. In fact there are 21 physical books that I’ve read which are waiting to be reviewed and there must be a few on my Kindle too.  although I’ve posted a lot more review in 2018 than I did in 2017.

Something that I’ve added into the mix is that I’ve also borrowed a handful of books from the library. If I’ve been enjoying a series, especially if I’ve been reviewing it, this is the cost-effective way of keeping up. There is an extra discipline there, however, in having to write the review before returning the books.

Now for some other stats. That ‘To Read’ bookcase has 179 books squashed on it, there are 103 books to read packed in boxes and there are 39 still to read on my kindle. All ‘give and take’ any Goodreads updates I’ve missed. So I’m not going to run out of books in the near future (apparently this is about 6 year’s worth)!

According to Goodreads I’ve read 51 books, which is the same as 2016 and the last I’ve recorded in a year on Goodreads.

I’ve no specific plans for 2019, I do need to get some new routines first as life is different now to how it was 12 months ago. I also need to (take a deep breath) clear some of the shelves of books I’ve read and make some space for newer books. It seems having cleared the piles of ‘to read’ books I might have shifted the problem to elsewhere…

So how do you manage your arrivals and keeping on top of your ‘to read’ books? How has 2018 been for your TBR?

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Breakdown – Jonathan Kellerman

Title – Breakdown

Author – Jonathan Kellerman

Published – 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

In the past I used to receive some specific hardback books at Christmas which I would then devour over the next few days. Initially this was a Dick Francis and then it became a Jonathan Kellerman; habits change, as do publishing dates, so over the last few years this hasn’t happened. It also doesn’t seem as if I have the chance to read much during the day at Christmas any longer, but a spare pair of hands with puppy-sitting and a long-neglected Kellerman on my TBR and I seized the opportunity!

This is number 31 in the Alex Delaware series, a series that’s had its ups and downs, and I’d say that this was a ‘middling’ book. The main thread of the story is that five years previously consulting psychologist Alex Delaware evaluated the young son of a disturbed actress, Zelda Chase, as a favour for a colleague. The colleague has since died and when the actress is sectioned after some bizarre behaviour Delaware is called in because of his tenuous connection. He tries to help the young woman but Delaware is unable to find out from the woman, who has been living on the streets, what has happened to her son. This leads to a bit of an obsession as he tries to find the boy and even enlists Milo’s (LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis) help in trying to track him down.

The woman is released and Delaware and Sturgis sort out some accommodation for her but she still doesn’t offer any insight into what happened to her son. Then her body is discovered in the grounds of a grand estate in a prestigious area of LA. It  takes a while but eventually they have to give credence to Zelda’s belief in a dreadful event in her past.

The scene-setting at the beginning with the events when Delaware first encounters Zelda and her son are quite tedious but worth persevering with. After the death of Zelda the book takes on more of an investigatory feel with the focus on Zelda and her story – how she died, how she came to be homeless. Then more women go missing.

Less in the way of red herrings and twists than some books in the series, more Hollywood and acting than some. The relevant information which is important solving the case comes quite indirectly to the pair and that felt a bit frustrating. If the story was about Delaware’s search for Zelda’s son he seemed to forget that was his purpose sometimes and then that thread would get back on track. Oooh – and one inconsistency late on in the book that irritated me.

The pairing of Delaware and Sturgis works well, but then Kellerman has had a lot of time to develop the partnership. In fact thinking back to when the series was first published having a gay cop in Sturgis could well have been cutting edge. The pair bounce ideas off each other and discuss their theories, which helps to take the reader along with their train of thought.

Kellerman’s writing has a very specific feel and it’s like putting on a comfy pair of slippers for me but I know it’s not a style that appeals to everyone it’s an aspect that I really like, and for me it helps to bring the characters and situations to life. This was a book more about investigation that psychology, but no less enjoyable for that.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. Probably a 3.5 star rather than just a 3.

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A House of Ghosts – W. C. Ryan

Title – A House of Ghosts

Author – W. C. Ryan

Published – 4 October 2018

Genre – Historical thriller / supernatural

This is not just an excellent read but is a beautiful book to own. I read the netgalley which means that my hardback copy, with its gold embossed cover, map and illustrated chapter headings, can stay in pristine condition!

The starting premise of the book is terrific. It’s the winter of 1917 and on a tiny island off the Devon coast, Lord Highmount has arranged a spiritualist gathering in an attempt to contact his two sons who have already been lost in the war. He has a very specific guest list and this attracts the attention of military intelligence who ensure that included in the invitations are a number of people in their employ. As the guests gather a storm descends on the island, cutting off the route back to the mainland.

So we have a house party on an island, a raging storm, spies, ghosts, and guests with secrets. Excellent! The setting is Agatha Christie-esque but deals with much more serious issues than she would have tackled in her books. Some of the guests have profited from the war and commercial decisions aren’t always the same as ethical ones, people’s actions have had unpleasant consequences.

I’m not sure if there has been an increase in the books which have a ghostly or supernatural slant to them or I just happen to have read more recently but what sets this book apart is its unambiguous approach to spirits, an approach I really liked, although this does mean they don’t necessarily add to the suspense with the story.

There is a strong cast of characters and everyone adds something to the story. The main characters are Kate Cartwright, a bright, young woman with her own connection to the Highmount family, and Irishman Captain Robert Donovan, a veteran of the war and with plenty in his own past that he would prefer no-one knew about. There is a hint of chemistry between them but the relationship that unfolds is very within keeping for the period setting. One common trait in Ryan’s writings is the ‘reserved hero’, in the Korolev series and The Constant Soldier this is more due to the necessity of the situation but while that is to some extent true in this book it also reflects the etiquette of the time.

The book is neatly plotted with many layers and although the elements may make it sound like it’s all about the action there are some serious themes at the heart of it, including the treatment of those who have served at the front and returned. The writing had a very visual quality and by the end I felt as if I might have seen a film rather than read a book, my recall of the scenes being very vivid. An excellent read for dark winter nights.

Many thanks to the publisher for the netgalley.

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The Savage Shore – David Hewson

Title – The Savage Shore

Author – David Hewson

Published – 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

This is one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, a continuation of the Nic Costa series which saw the last book (Fallen Angel) published in 2011. I had been enjoying the series and worried that we’d heard the last of Costa and his colleagues, so I was thrilled to hear that another book was coming.

The team that you would be familiar with if you’ve read the earlier books are in Calabria, in the south of Italy and far away from their comfort zone. They are there to try to arrange the extraction of the elusive head of the ’Ndrangheta, the Calabrian version of the Mafia, who is also offering up the overlord of the Costa Nostra – the most wanted man in Italy. The assignment is cloaked in secrecy, including the reason behind the man’s approach to the police and his intention to turn state’s witness. The high-stakes and sparse information don’t make this a comfortable assignment.

Costa is required to go undercover with the man’s family and must prove himself in a number of ways before he will be accepted by those in the ’Ndrangheta. This offers a few thrills and is a test of Costa’s metal. Once he has been accepted the story twists and turns as the opportunity comes for the authorities to make their move.

While Costa has the main part of the story there is an interesting aside for Peroni, who strikes up a friendship with a young widow running a small waterfront cafe. It seems that organised crime affects every one in the community and true to character Peroni risks the group’s cover to step in.

Background to the history of the location and the ’Ndrangheta is provided by extracts from the fictional ‘Calabrian Tales’ which weaves its own set of myths and legends alongside the rise of the Bergamotti family, their traditions and their values.

I’ve always enjoyed reading this series of books and Costa has been an interesting character to follow as he has developed. He takes his role-play a little too seriously and there are some thought-provoking incidents while he is undercover and towards the end of the story.

I really enjoyed the mix of thriller/mystery, the unusual location and the historical aspects to the story, and I thought these worked well using the extracts of text rather than having a character ‘telling’ lots of information. The place and people offer a glimpse of a way of life that’s long gone for most people and the vivid writing easily conjures up this new location. There are even a few meals thrown in for good measure (not quite to the level of Camilleri, but mouth-watering nevertheless).  And it’s always good when a book you’ve been looking forward to delivers.

Many thanks to the publisher for the Net Galley.

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The Trophy Child – Paula Daly

Title – The Trophy Child

Author – Paula Daly

Published – 2017

Genre – Psychological thriller

A book that’s full of characters that you love to hate. There is a complicated ‘blended’ family; husband and wife Noel and Karen with her son Ewan, Noel’s teenage daughter Verity and Brontë – their joint child. In a local nursing home is Noel’s first wife, Jennifer, trapped there because of her MS.

Where Brontë is concerned Karen is a ‘Tiger Mother’, determined to have perfection and avoid the disappointment she feels with her son. So Karen fills Brontë’s time with music lessons (the harp), Stagecoach (for self-confidence), extra tuition (maths) and she is pushing Brontë all of the time.

Then Brontë disappears and the family’s relationships come under the spotlight as Detective Sergeant Joanne Aspinall sets about trying to find the missing girl, even though she also has a connection to the family, something she fails to disclose.

These are people that you wouldn’t want to be your friends, and you definitely wouldn’t want to be Brontë. And I’m not a fan of books where the characters aren’t likeable. Verity feels like the hero of the piece although there is a mystery about her and something she has done which requires weekly drug tests at her school and trips to a psychotherapist. Nevertheless she seems to be the most normal person in the family. I also liked the character of Joanne although I’m not a fan of characters who are economical with the truth.

I enjoyed the crime aspects of the story but less so the dysfunctional family. It is a twisty tale which I’d be surprised if many readers could see where it was going but it also asks the reader to suspend their disbelief to a considerable extent.

You can read an interview with Paula Daly about her writing process here.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

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Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Title – Birdcage Walk

Author – Helen Dunmore

Published – 2017

Genre – Historical fiction

I loved Exposure so much that I treated myself to a copy of Birdcage Walk (admittedly when it came out in paperback rather than hardback). It’s made more difficult to review as Helen Dunmore died before the paperback publication of Birdcage Walk.

I was captivated and intrigued by the opening of the book. A middle-aged widower and his dog walk along Birdcage Walk and the dog discovers a hidden and somewhat ambiguous stone memorial. Intrigued the man eventually has the opportunity to quiz a local historian about the names on the stone. Stored in the archives are papers written by one of the people mentioned on the stone and these papers offer a fragment of information, with the documents dating back to the time of the French Revolution.

So far so good, the introduction was beautifully written and I was hooked. Then it all went downhill. The book moves to Bristol in 1789 and concerns the story of a family following the events of the French Revolution and their somewhat peripheral involvement in matters across The Channel.

Lizzie has been raised among radicals, her mother, Julia, who was widowed when Lizzie was an infant, is a fervent supporter of women’s rights, while her stepfather pens rousing republican pamphlets. Lizzie’s husband is a different kettle of fish, a practical man who lacks interest in idealism and who is more concerned about the impact of the upheaval on his business interests.

There is a mysterious burial and some skulduggery but I never really liked or connected with any of the characters and I found the story tedious. There were some odd parallels with The New Mrs Clifton  in terms of location, property development etc.

I persevered to the end but it felt like a chore. And the final disappointment for me was that the book wasn’t rounded off by the reappearance of the contemporary character with which it had opened.

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Salt Lane – William Shaw

Title – Salt Lane

Author – William Shaw

Published – May 2018

Genre – Crime fiction

My favourite ‘sub-genre’ of crime fiction is the traditional UK police procedural and over the past few months I’ve read a few of these – Salt Lane is the first review up but to follow is the 7th McAvoy novel by David Mark and the second DC Childs by Sarah Ward. I know not everyone is a fan of this type of series but I like the conventional framework that the procedural uses, the feeling of seeing behind the scenes and the framework usually provides a resolution towards the end- something important to me in crime fiction.

Within the sub-genre there are obviously different approaches to the story, the involvement of external characters (both within the police and outside) and the treatment of the main detective / policeman – are they painted as a maverick and/or with a drink problem, rocky personal life etc. etc?  Modern crime fiction shows this isn’t always a given and the characters can be more nuanced. Although William Shaw’s lead detective in Salt Lane is actually anything but.

Introduced in The Birdwatcher, DS Alexandra Cupidi is new to the Kent area having transferred from London, the reason being the subject of gossip in the police station. She’s quite a character – forceful, not backwards at coming forwards, dogged, determined, somewhat lacking in grace and finesse and perhaps a little lonely.

There are a number of threads to the story but the opening one with a case of mistaken identity was intriguing. There are two main investigations, one following the discovery of an unidentified woman in a watery grave close to the Salt Lane of the title. The other is the death of a young man in a farm’s slurry pit, beaten before his death, his age and appearance leading the investigation towards illegal immigrants and then on to the possibilities of people-smuggling, drugs and groups of migrant workers. As the two main plots unfold the potential connections between events becomes apparent and not in a way I could have guessed at. The investigations are a team effort and special mention must go to her colleague Constable Ferriter who provides quite a contrast to Cupidi’s character.

This is a perfect example of crime fiction helping to illuminate an issue that most readers might not be aware of (I’m not going to say which issue it is). It’s achieved by ‘showing’ during the course of the story rather than a lot of ‘telling’ in explanation and I think this helps to bring the issues to life for the reader. As with The Birdwatcher the sense of place is captured really effectively and as well as being atmospheric the landscape also plays an important part in the story.

Despite the quite domestic setting there are plenty of action sequences and tension in the plot and some quite thrilling chase sequences across the Kent landscape. Someone’s poor judgement in one of the earlier action sequences adds to the mix by prompting an internal investigation so there really is plenty going on.

Cupidi’s personal life is fleshed out and her relationships with her daughter and her mother play an important part in the book, providing some of the drama as well as filling out some of Cupidi’s backstory.

I did enjoy the contrast of Cupidi and the irascible William South in The Birdwatcher and that’s perhaps what, if anything,  I was missing in this book. While Cupidi is a great main character and there were other colleagues and family members who populated the book they didn’t provide the same sharp contrast that South did.

A really enjoyable read.

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