Monday, 30 December 2013

A month in books - December

We've been at the same campsite in Ourique for a month now and I'm running out of promising-looking English titles on the book exchange shelves.  This is the only thing I REALLY don't like about Serro Da Bica - the vast majority of the books are in Dutch! It is a Dutch campsite so understandable, but there are half a dozen whole shelves of books that I can't read. And it's so frustrating! So I've done something I haven't done in over twenty years and picked up a book in a foreign language! In lieu of rapidly learning Dutch, I chose to brush off my A Level German because there are about as many German books as English ones so immediately my choices are doubled! I initially and optimistically started with Cheng by Heinrich Steinfest because it had a great cover. Ten pages in I put it aside in favour of Die Bande O.N. by Hans Pille, a novella for older children. I'm progressing much better with this one and hopefully my vocabulary will be enough improved soon that I can restart the Steinfest.

Totally unintentionally I've read or listened to sixteen books again in December. Managing to complete two audio books is an achievement because, while they're great for commuting, they are so soporific when lounging in the sun! 

(All the titles link to their relevant pages on

Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith **** 

Having listened to Child 44 on audio, I was pleased to pick up a copy of Agent 6 in a campsite book exchange, not realising that this is actually the third of the trilogy. I don't think it mattered that I've missed the second volume as the story flowed well on its own and the background narrative felt comprehensive without being awkwardly presented. I was interested in the range of venues visited - a truly international novel - and their historical setting. Agent 6 seemed to me to be less violently descriptive than Child 44, the first book making me feel quite nauseous at moments, which I did appreciate and I must now keep an eye open for the middle volume, The Secret Speech. 

Prophecy by S J Parris *** 

Historical mystery with a good sense of place and atmosphere including real figures from Elizabeth the First's court together with fictional inventions. The storyline was good and moved along at a good pace, but I found myself enjoying the book more for its setting than its plot. I would pick up other Giordano Bruno novels when I found them - a nice holiday read.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo **** 
One of my WorldReads from Sweden

At first read, there's nothing particularly amazing about this novel - the characters are well-rounded and come across as genuine people, the plot is winding and tricky, the writing is swiftly paced and draws you in. The surprise came when I realised that this novel is nearly fifty years old and, apart from the lack of technology, it hasn't really dated at all. Thanks to an interesting introduction by Val McDermid, I learned that its authors, Sjowall & Wahloo, were the trendsetters for the current way of writing crime novels. There are ten in this series - I'm going to track down them all.

Ablutions by Patrick DeWitt ***** 

Wow, this is a brilliant book! The device of 'notes for a novel' was a little offputting for the first few pages, but then it began to make sense and adds a feeling of immediacy and truth to the whole book. The narrator, a complete lost cause himself, is recording and judging those around him in a fascinating portrayal of despair and desperation. A lot of small things happen, most of them violent, and there isn't much of a storyline in an action sense, but the characterisations are perfect and I was gripped from start to finish. Easily as good as The Sisters Brothers, maybe better!

The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido ***** 

This book is one of my WorldReads from Spain.
I read this on Kindle so didn't notice that the book was in translation from Spanish until I caught up with all the notes at the end. The translation is an excellent job - there's no sense of clunkiness or bizarre phrasing at all and the text flows fluently. It's perhaps no surprise that forensic science was first practiced in China and many great discoveries hail from there, but to understand that this kind of work was being done so many hundreds of years ago is pretty amazing. Garrido has done exhaustive research into medieval China with the result that The Corpse Reader totally immerses its readers into the culture and beliefs of the times. This is a fascinating read both as an exciting novel and as a glimpse into a fascinating hidden world.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn *** 

I loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn which I read recently so I had high hopes for Dark Places too. However Dark Places for me was disappointing. The book is ok but I didn't think that it was in the same league as Gone Girl. Libby is essentially an unlikeable character and I didn't feel any particular sympathy with her so the will for her to succeed is lacking. Plus, the story itself wasn't a credible, perhaps because the main characters weren't as fleshed out. Runner and Libby seemed to be the only ones we really got to know. Hopefully, as we've already got it on the Kindle, Sharp Objects will be better!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green **** 

I saw 'romance' and 'young adult' in the descriptions of this novel before I read it, so was expecting a fairly light and schmaltzy book. The text is pretty simply written which belies its heavy subject matter and I liked the way the storyline emphasis is put on the blossoming relationship between Hazel and Augustus, rather than their suffering from cancer which is given a pragmatic approach. Hazel's level headedness in particular, raises what could have become a mawkish and sentimental book into a strong emotional novel. I enjoyed reading The Fault In Our Stars right through to the end and the only thing I wish hadn't been done as it was, was the Author's Note. In the Kindle edition, this rather blunt declamation of 'it's only fiction' is on the very next page to the moving end of the story and it felt a bit like a slap in the face! Perhaps this should be moved to the beginning of the novel or a blank page be inserted first to allow the reader a moment to adjust?

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson **** 

A considerably more readable book that Men Who Stare At Goats and I found this to be an interesting subject. Ronson does jump about between subjects and I would have liked him to spend longer on the social implications of the changes in scientific approaches but as a first book on this area of psychology, The Psychopath Test has certainly piqued my interest. I hope go on to read some of the other books mentioned in the bibliography.

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel ***** 
One of my WorldReads from France

Beautifully atmospheric evocation of a small town in First World War France, initially shielded from the immediate outrages of war, but as the fighting drags on, the town finds its own horrors. I love Claudel's writing although I am not sure I would rave about Grey Souls in the same way as I did Brodeck's Report as I thought it missed the otherworldly aspects of Brodeck. Interestingly, Dave preferred Grey Souls and cited exactly the same reason but from the alternate angle!

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning ***

Not the standard plot for a detective novel but the sprawling storyline made it difficult to remember who everyone was and why or whether they mattered. From the synopsis on the back, I was expecting more of a literary novel. However, it's only the subject that leans towards literature, the writing itself is standard for the mystery genre, complete with some pretty gung ho dialogue at times. While Dunning spends a long time building up his plotlines at the expense of rounded characters and, although this book passed a couple of days reading time ok, I found it ultimately to be unsatisfying.

Death by Black Hole by Neil DeGrasse Tyson **** 

I still don't get particle physics but have crept a fraction closer to understanding thanks to this audio book! Fortunately the really heavy (for me) theory is intertwined with lots of more basic physics, plus chemistry, history, philosophy and even religion so there's a great mix of astrophysics based information in this book. Comprised of a series of essays which overlap, Death In A Black Hole covers some areas several times and I liked that, having listened for a few hours, I was finding myself 'accurately predicting' what the next few words might be as we had already covered part of the information some hours previously. I guess I've learned something! After having listened to the book, I read through some of the Audible reviews and was surprised that the narrator has come in for such criticism. I enjoyed his enthusiastic approach and didn't find his speech too fast at all. Much of the humour in the text is pleasantly dry and, for an American book, refreshingly sarcastic. I would buy more work by both the author and the narrator, just as soon as I've managed to memorise all this book. More listenings needed I think!

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury **** 

Hard to believe this book is over fifty years old! I loved the imagery, especially of the scenes with the carnival folk and the frightening descriptions of the Illustrated Man. The story rattles along mostly at a good pace although I did find the more intense segments of moralising slowed the tale unnecessarily. The Sound Of Thunder very-short story is also included in the Audible download I listened to. This was also interesting, but obviously not such a developed work as Something Wicked.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris *** 

A good start to this novel which details the everyday lives of a group of office workers in America. The situation is pretty much the same as happens in the UK - lots of chat and little work, rumours magnified and gossip spread, one upmanship and practical jokes - so I was easily able to identify with the book. However, once we come to know these people, not much else really developed to keep my attention and I found myself not caring about their fates. There are two big set pieces which I won't give away, but these events seemed two-dimensional and unreal. I think this book could have been an excellent novella, but in stretching its idea to a full novel, the potential 'magic' is too diluted to maintain interest.

Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson **** 

Although the blurb is intriguing, I didn't expect much from this novel but was running out of options in the book exchange at our current campsite so picked it out. Bleeding London is actually pretty good! The three central human characters are interesting, if not completely rounded, and I liked the way London itself almost became another character in its own right. The story is dark in places but I identified with the obsessive walking angle. Perhaps the intertwining of the stories is too contrived, but it's a good read nonetheless.

The Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld ** 

Sadly a rather dull thriller which I found to be neither 'elegant' or 'spellbinding'. The patronising misogyny throughout is infuriating and the main characters are so two-dimensional that I didn't really care about them from half-way onwards - I just hate to leave a book unfinished! Perversely, several supporting characters are well-presented cameos. With sharp editing, the premise of The Death Instinct could have been the stopping-off point for a much stronger thriller, but there seems to be so much extraneous history crammed in that its points are dulled. A shame.

Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews *** 

This book is one those that used to reliably fly straight out the door when I had my bookshop years ago. I thought it would be more 'chick-lit' though and never bothered to read it. I picked it up on the campsite book exchange yesterday and finished it this morning! Very readable, the story is bizarre and horrifying, and the only bit I really didn't like was the ending which was rushed with several far-too-convenient elements and yelled 'buy the sequel'. Unfortunately this spoilt the book for me as, otherwise, it would probably have got a Good four stars. Instead it's an OK three stars.

So that's my December! I've got a couple of English books on my shelf still to read - The Shell House by Linda Newbury and Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard - both of which I expect to be solid three-starrers but I might be pleasantly surprised. We've also bought a Kindle 'boxed set' of the first four Sjowall and Wahloo books. The one I've read is duplicated but it's still a great price for the remaining three. Plus, of course, I have the two German books mentioned above - will they be in January's finished list?

Finally, does anyone else follow +Mary Okeke's blog? She's a reviewer of African literature and has recently posted her reads for 2013. Top of her favourites list was Neighbours by Lilia Momple so I'm going to try and pick up a copy.

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