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Not quite a top 10 …

It hasn’t escaped my notice that many people are writing posts reviewing their year’s reading and compiling a list of their top ten (or so) books. I can’t complain at the books I’ve read in the last year (according to Goodreads there were 42) but there were just two that really stood out for me.

The first was a mix of crime fiction and psychological thriller set on the Falkland Islands in 1994 – Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton. This was a skilfully woven story told very cleverly from multiple points of view and with a set of characters that I found engaging (bucking the trend for characters we love to hate – or just hate).

The second was Life and Death by Michael Robotham. A thriller set in America this went on to win the 2015 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in September. With a visual quality to the writing and great attention to detail this was a compelling read with an unusual premise.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive lists of crime fiction suggestions then you can’t do better than check out Ayo’s list on Shots (shotsmagcouk.blogspot.co.uk). There are definitely a few there that I will try to fit in during 2016.

Coincidence …?

I’m in the midst of writing a review for a book in which I’ve said ‘the premise is an unusual one’ and when I started the review this was true, however it shares a lot in common with my current read. The books were published within weeks of each other and I’m in no way suggesting that there is any connection, copying, collusion or anything in any way underhand – it’s just pure coincidence. And I’ve noticed how frequently this seems to happen. Through a purely random choice of what to read next I’ve often spotted surprising coincidences from the small, such as two books using the same unremarkable US location, to a more fundamental plot device.

Synchronicity, coincidence? Has this happened in your reading? And can you figure out the two books I’m referring to at the beginning of my post (if it helps they were both published in 2013).

Two reviews and a trip to Paris

July saw us take a weekend break in Paris, so with this in mind I had tried to find some suitable reading before our trip. The first book that sprang to mind was Ernest  Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”. I really enjoyed Naomi Wood’s book featuring the lives of his wives and there had been a few references in that to his time in Paris. A Moveable Feast is a memoir (of sorts) of Hemingway’s time in Paris in the 1920’s. This was a period when authors and artists such as Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and of course Hemingway, migrated to Paris. The book is lots of short stories which paint brief sketches of Hemingway’s time there and his relationship with some of the other notable names that were part of his circle, as well as some about his life with Hadley, his first wife.

Shakespeare & Co - current location

Shakespeare & Co – current location

 The book is certainly an easy read and evokes the time and the place. The stories varied in length and some were more, well, straightforward, than others. Let’s just say that a few of the stories are extremely odd.

You can Google for some renowned quotes from the book but the line that I will take away is, speaking of Ralph Cheever Dunning, “For a poet he threw a very accurate milk bottle.”

The book was put together after Hemingway’s death by his last wife and it was based on a manuscript that he had been working on.  I’m sure that there is a great deal to interest scholars in the book and the version I have makes much of the fact that it includes some unfinished sketches which weren’t previously published.  All of which leaves me with the niggling feeling that what I’ve been presented with as Hemingway’s work isn’t necessarily something that he thought was ready for publication. There are some quotes at the end which are described as fragments of handwritten drafts and these show the different spin on just a few short sections that Hemingway was both writing and discarding.

We didn’t manage to see very much of the Paris Hemingway talks about but we did squeeze in a visit to the current incarnation of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

My other Paris-related read was a new title – The Lying Down Room by Anna Jaquiery, published in April this year. This is the debut novel by Jaquiery, a journalist of French-Malaysian descent. The book has a contemporary Parisian setting, with a backstory set in Russia. The book introduces us to Chief Inspector Serge Morel, who reminded me of both Commandant Camille Verhœven (from the Pierre Lemaitre books) and Camilleri’s Montalbano.

The mystery concerns an elderly woman who is discovered dead in her bed, which on the face of it is not particularly mysterious, however she has been carefully dressed and made-up. The police are keen to interview a man and a mute boy who have been approaching other elderly women, and for a long time this is their only lead. While progress is slow the sad and dark backstory provides some tantalising clues that may lead to an explanation of the murder, and a story which draws Morel and his team out of Paris and into the French countryside.

This is one of those murder mysteries where the characters are as important as the plot and Morel certainly delivers what you would expect of a detective – he has a troubled personal life (an obsession with an old flame), concerns about his father’s health, and an unusual release for his stress in origami. He is paired with an intelligent and feisty young female detective, Lila, who acts as a good foil.

The book provided some of the flavour of Paris that I was looking for, as well a being a thoughtful crime novel. Morel is definitely a detective that I want to read more about (how fortunate that this is the first of a series!). Thank you to the publisher for a review copy.

Tour Eiffel

Tour Eiffel

So Paris – how was that? The first word that springs to mind is hot! It was well above he average for the time of year and as we only had a few days we needed to crack on and fit a lot in – no time for lounging about in the shade! We managed to see many of the sights, walked around 8 – 10 miles each day and had a mixed experience of the food and drink. Surprisingly I did manage to miss out on one item on my ‘To Do’ list – I didn’t have a glass of champagne! I guess I need to go back…

Blogging – one year on

I am about to celebrate (if that’s the right word) the first anniversary of my blog. So I think that allows me a moment to reflect on what I’ve learnt during the year.

I’ve always been an avid reader and my father was instrumental in encouraging me to read a lot of the same fiction he enjoyed, so after the early years of Blyton, Ransome and Nesbit I was reading McBain, Chandler and Tey! I’ve never lost my love of a good “whodunnit” and the daily commute provides a regular opportunity to read. But blogging has given me a slightly different perspective. I don’t think that in the past I have given much consideration to what made a good book (or not) and what aspects I like or don’t like in what I read. In the past it would be finish one book and move onto the next, but the committment to writing a review means I give a lot more thought to what I’m reading. I didn’t study English Lit very far at school – I actually hated all that analysing and reading meaning into things, so perhaps I’m a latecomer to what others take for granted. What I hadn’t realised before was that there were so many varied ways of actually telling the story and in a genre like crime fiction this can have a real impact on the reader’s experience. I’ve developed more of an appreciation for writers and how they craft their story.  

And it’s not just that I’ve found out more what I read, I’ve also learnt:

  • that if you like an author there’s a fair chance you could get to meet them
  • that “bookish” people aren’t “bookish” at all – you only have to look on Twitter, blog comments, or go to an event at Goldsboro books!
  • that there are a huge number of awards for books
  • that for every person who agrees with you about a book there’s another one who thinks the complete opposite

and finally

  • that I’m never going to have time to read all the books I would like!

I’d be interested to know what others feel they’ve learnt from blogging.

Just a short break from blogging

As I’m more of an irregular blogger it might be hard to spot a break, but we have just had a few days away which means a little break from blogging.  As ever with our holidays this was a trip to Italy – this time to Lucca. We’ve visited Lucca on a few occasions, but usually when we’ve been staying elsewhere in the Garfagnana, this was the first time we’ve stayed in the city.

Anfiteatro

We manage to keep pretty busy when we’re on our hols – lots of buildings to see, photos to take & food to eat! I did take several books with me, but had less time for reading than I expected. But watch out for reviews of Philippa Gregory’s “The Lady of the Rivers” and Joanna Price’s first book “A Means of Escape”.

Wrestling with the Kindle issue

I don’t seem to be the only one struggling to decide if Kindle is the way to go at the moment. So far I have managed to resist the temptation, but I wonder if there will come a point where the decision will be taken out of my hands? There are a few authors whose series of books I have come to relatively late and I want to buy the third or fourth book in a series of perhaps seven or eight titles. It seems that the chances of being able to walk into a shop and buy these is getting smaller and smaller. I work in Westminster and up until a year or two ago I had a choice of bookshops to visit between my office and the station. Now it’s either WH Smith at Victoria station or nothing. So I must make a special effort to go to a bookshop (which by default will no doubt be a Waterstone’s) or order my book on-line (so that must be Amazon). But even a bigger Waterstone’s can’t stock enough titles (dedicating a large amount of their space to the top 100 titles) and getting books delivered through the post isn’t ideal. If it won’t go through the letterbox you have to drive somewhere to collect and helpfully our local Royal Mail collection depot no longer has parking.

So what’s stopping me sorting this out with a Kindle? Well for me part of the pleasure of owning books is having them in rows on our bookshelves. Once I have a book it’s very hard for me to part with it, not only do I have all my old books, including many from my childhood, but also a fair few of my late father’s – however uninteresting the topic! Although we’ve finally moved our CDs out of the living room as everything is on the PC, I can’t imagine not having physical books on our shelves.  

Don’t get me wrong, I can see the advantages of a Kindle. As well as a huge number of paperbacks we also have a number of authors who we always buy in hardback and I’m never going to manage the commute with a hardback Stephen King in my bag – so a Kindle copy to take on the train would be a great option.

Oddly the least of my concerns is the experience of reading with a Kindle versus a conventional book – but I assume from the number of people converting to e-books that this isn’t really an issue. I was actually trying to think of an analogy between other media which have changed over recent years – vinyl to i-whatever, video / DVD / Sky+ – in fact the mechanism for storage has changed for these, but not so much the way you actually watch or listen (although we did eventually put my Wharfedale speakers away in favour of something much smaller). Even so I still don’t think the reading experience would be an issue.

I think I will carry on resisting the Kindle for a while yet, but I fear that it’s a route that I will eventually be forced down – whether I’m willing or not.

Book breakdown

You may think from the title that I’ve made the move from printed books to e-books, but that’s not the case. For me I still need to hold a book, turn the pages, tuck in a bookmark and put it on a shelf when I’ve finished. So how can I have a book that’s broken? I was reading a Christmas gift, a paperback of Quentin Jardine’s “Skinner’s Round”, and discovered that page 184 was followed by page 217. Aaargh! After my initial panic I’ve checked carefully & page 185 doesn’t crop up later – but I do have the pages 217 – 248 twice. Unfortunately the book was on my wish list because it’s near the beginning of the Bob Skinner series, so it’s hard to get in high street bookshops. I will try the shops tomorrow, but I don’t hold out much hope.
I don’t suppose anyone has a spare set of pages I could borrow – I promise I’ll be quick!