Some notes about the first six fiction reads for #20BooksofSummer – the two non-fiction books I read as part of this challenge can be found over here.

 

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

Opening on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognisable, we meet the nine-year old narrator as he flees the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown

The novel is made up of a number of connected stories that take us through the life of this boy as he grows up and makes his way in a world that has changed in unspecified ways. By that I mean that although at each stage we are clear what particular issue he is dealing with, we don’t actually know what happened to leave the world in this state, which is a shame for me because I love all that detailed disaster stuff, but to be fair isn’t an issue for the story which I found very readable. Apparently it’s now taught in Australian schools which I found fascinating.

It’s always interesting to see references to Y2K in works of fiction; I spent a lot of my time at work leading up to the end of 1999 coming up with contingency plans should everything go pear-shaped, and we sometimes forget how much we worried given that everything turned out Ok in the end.

Anyway, this is worth reading if like me you can’t resist the post-apocalyptic thing.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

The online blurb for this is as shouty as you can get without being all caps:

the best-selling mystery from the author of the Magpie Murders, you’ve never read a crime novel quite like this

Oh wait, it does get the all caps treatment int he very next paragraph:

SHE PLANNED HER OWN FUNERAL. BUT DID SHE ARRANGE HER OWN MURDER?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the wrong question. The right question is did she know she was going to die imminently. This is a very good whodunnit with the quirk that the author is himself is a character in his own novel because he is writing a book about the lead detective, who is of course a maverick. Your feeling about this will depend on whether you like Mr Horowitz or not; I do, so all was fine. Some nice red herrings and a murderer and motive that I just didn’t see co,ing, so all very satisfying. Hoping this will become a series.

The Summer Children by Dot Hutchinson

Book 3 in the Collector Trilogy (although I think there might be a fourth on the way next year)

When Agent Mercedes Ramirez finds an abused young boy on her porch, covered in blood and clutching a teddy bear, she has no idea that this is just the beginning.

I loved the first two novels in the Collector trilogy (which I read last year but didn’t review because I wasn’t really reviewing anything for a significant period), partly because it wasn’t a standard trilogy – although many of the participants are the same the cases covered were entirely different, though just as creepy as each other. I devoured them all 🙂

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Book 1 in the Wayfarer series, and shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The ship, which has seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want.

Are you waiting for the but?

..She gets more than she bargained for.

Ta dah!

Such a good story, wonderful characters, believable world building and so well written. I like the mix of races, and spent a lot of time trying to imagine what some of the alien species actually looked like (and failed because my imagination is rubbish). A book with real heart and I am looking forward to reading the next two (already loaded on my kindle). Sci-fi at its best.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

A brilliant original high concept murder mystery from a fantastic new talent

and

Gosford Park meets Inception by way of Agatha Christie and Black Mirror

That’s ….. quite a pitch. I really liked this book, a mixture of sci-fi and crime novel with a clever concept and an intriguing mystery at the centre. Som of the characters are really horrible but they kind of have to be, and the protagonist has an agenda of his own which only becomes clear at the end and was somewhat of a surprise. One of those stories where it pays to just go along for the ride and not try to think about it too hard. Great fun.

I already know that I won’t read all of the books on my list, but I’m OK with that 🙂

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that I have only covered five books above. That’s because although I also read You Were Never Really Here, I want to watch the film version and do a combined review. (Spoiler alert – the novella is awesome).

So to make it up to you here are my thoughts on a book that I had completely forgotten about, which os surprising because I loved it.

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

A femme fatale with an appetite for cruelty that will be difficult to surpass.

Our hero is in law enforcement and gets attacked as he faces down the serial killer, but she lets him live, though mutilated in body and messed up in mind. Our heroine is a young reporter brought in to cover a serial killer case. Our antagonist is a beautiful, intelligent and utterly cruel serial killer who manipulates everyone around her.

I liked her. Apart from the excessively gruesome violence of course.

So that’s my round-up. I hope to do individual reviews for the remaining books.

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I’m working my way through my 20 Books of Summer; currently I’m on book number 10 (way behind schedule), so thought I should start catching up on reviews, beginning with the two non-fiction reads I picked up.

All That Remains by Sue Black

Sue Black confronts death every day. As Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology, she focuses on mortal remains in her lab, at burial sites, at scenes of violence, murder and criminal dismemberment, and when investigating mass fatalities due to war, accident or natural disaster.

I really like Professor Dame Sue Black (to give her her full title), having watched her TV series a few years ago (History Cold Case if you are interested and can find it), and I was very keen to buy her book and read it immediately. Of course she is very matter of fact in describing her career and experiences and her general views on death but she is also immensely compassionate; some of the most moving parts of the book are where she talks about the cadaver that she and her lab partner worked on for a year when they were learning anatomy; an elderly man who had left his body to science for this very purpose.

I saw a little video of her talking about the book, and she refers to herself as a Martini Girl (any time, any place, anywhere – hands up all those from the 1970s!) as her expertise means she is often called in to help in times of disaster. She talks in great detail about her time in Kosovo, gruelling and not for the faint-hearted.

It’s a very positive book, encouraging us to accept death as an inevitable part of life. She is a treasure!

Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell

In this ground-breaking book, Piu Eatwell reveals compelling forensic and eye-witness evidence for the first time, which finally points to the identity of the murderer.

Or does it? I’ve read (mostly fictional to be fair) accounts of the Black Dahlia case before so was intrigued to see to get my hands on this one. I am happy to admit my interest in true crime, and this is up there with Jack the Ripper as unsolved and open to many, many theories, some of them sensational and implausible.

At the time of the murder the relationship between the press and the police was almost incestuous, and corruption in the force was rife. The focus was very much on the gruesome and scandalous elements of the case and many of the pieces were very judgemental about the lifestyle of the victim, Elizabeth Short.

Più Eatwell has worked through the documents and has come up with a plausible solution to the crime which seems to fit the facts as she presents them, but as with all of these books there is always an element of doubt – unless you are an expert in the detail yourself (and I am definitely not) it’s hard to say if anything has been left out, but taken at face value this seems very convincing. Of course her conclusion has not gone unchallenged, especially by those with their own agendas, and it’s hard to see what, if anything, will happen next.

 

 

 

A couple of books from earlier in the year that I haven’t blogged about so far.

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

In her sixth novel, Cynthia Ozick retells the story of Henry James’s The Ambassadors as a photographic negative, retaining the plot but reversing the meaning.

I have read a fair amount of Henry James but not for ages, and I’m pretty sure that I haven’t read The Ambassadors, so can’t really comment on the whether the plot works as described above, but I do know that this was an enjoyable and absorbing novel set in the post-war period, where Bea is commanded by her (rather awful) brother to travel to Paris to bring her nephew home. Of course it doesn’t work out the way she intended, as her nephew has married an older woman, a Romanian refugee. Throughout the novel Bea keeps a lot of information to herself and drip feeds to her brother & sister-in-law (who is in a private clinic) with real and sometimes devastating consequences. Recommended.

Final Girls by Mira Grant

What if you could fix the worst parts of yourself by confronting your worst fears?

So Dr Jennifer Webb has developed a therapy technique which involves patients entering a virtual reality world where they are subjected to scenarios from horror films or nightmares as a means of working through their issues; in particular it’s used to mend broken relationships where both people go through the same ordeal. The effects carry on into the real world (otherwise what’s the point). Esther Hoffman is a journalist who hates this sort of thing (she has personal experience to back it up) and is intending to write a piece rubbishing the process. She and Jennifer enter the programme, but of course things go pear-shaped as external forces seek to interfere. This is really good stuff, and of course being Mira Grant there are zombies which would personally feature in my nightmares so I felt for Esther. Short enough to read in a single sitting, this is really good fun.

 

I’ve been reading a lot recently and have fallen behind in writing reviews, so in order to help me catch up here is a round-up of most of the books I read in April & May. Enjoy.

The End Specialist by Drew Margary

The premise is that a cure for ageing has been found. Not a cure for death – you can still succumb to accident, disease or indeed murder, but assuming you retain our health and keep out of harms way you can live infinitely. John Farrell takes the cure when he is in his late twenties and the novel follows him through his extended life, including his time as an end specialist where he assist those who have taken the cure but basically had enough to take their own lives. There’s a lot more to this than just John’s story of course; there’s background on how the cure came to be and a pretty good summation of the likely impact on society – how will resources be allocated if people are still being born but very few are dying, as well as who actually gets access to the cure in the first place. There are of course various fanatics with extremist views and John has to face up to his life in the end. I enjoyed reading this and would recommend if you are in a dystopian frame of mind.

Adamtine by Hannah Berry

An unsettling horror story in graphic novel form, about a man who was involved in a range of disappearances by delivering notes to the victims, but who has always denied any further responsibility for what may have happened to them. Acquitted of being the killer, we find that he himself ends up being murdered and the book gives us hints about how this might have happened; the author has talked about wanting to show us how the consequences of minor actions can lead to major outcomes, in this case the death of a man. The book is dark in both tone and artwork, and the action takes place on a virtually empty last train of the night. It is creepy, unsettling and needs to be read more than once to really work out what’s going on; no answers are presented to the reader. it stuck with me for some time after I read it and I haven’t picked it up again so far, but I know I will.

Six Stories & Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

I picked up Hydra on the recommendation of I think another blogger, can’t remember, and enjoyed it too much that I immediately bought Six Stories, part of the same series, though they can easily be read as stand alone novels. Scott King is a podcaster focussing on true crime, where there is some doubt about the solution or where an answer has simply never been found. Both books have the same structure, where King allows those involved to talk about the case from their point of view. In Hydra this involves a young woman who massacred her family, in Six Stories it’s about the disappearance of a boy whose body is found some years later. I found both books to be really enjoyable; I listen to quite a few podcasts and the structure was so well presented that you could easily forget you were not reading a transcript of the real deal. I hope that he produces more in this vein.

The Elder Ice by David Hambling

I feel very guilty that I have had this book for ages and only just got around to reading it. The Elder Ice is set in 1920s London where our protagonist, an ex-boxer called Harry Stubbs, is tasked with investigating the late Ernest Shackleton and the treasure he may or may not have brought back from Antarctica. Enter the Cthulhu mythos. I have been a fan of Lovecraft since I was a youngster; I think I read the Shadow over Innsmouth when I was still in primary school (I was 11 and still have the paperback with its lurid cover) so when I realised that not only were we heading down that road but that we would be skirting around my absolute favourite stories, At the Mountains of Madness, I was absolutely sold. I really, really loved this book. Harry is a remarkable character and I thought he was fabulous and a strong central pinning for the story. Very nicely done, and I look forward to reading future volumes.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

This isn’t for the faint-hearted and has a whole list of triggers as long as my arm. Female children are no longer naturally born, so they are genetically engineered and brought up in the School until they are sixteen and ready to be chosen by one of the elite young men of a similar age for whom they have been bred. The girls compete against each other in terms of looks and accomplishments and attractiveness, which  leads to all sorts of unfortunate behaviours and issues around body image. Frieda is our way into this world, and she has significant problems, especially with sleep, but has a close friend, Isabel, who seems to have a particular status which we don’t find out the details of until towards the end of the story. It’s teenage girls so there are petty squabbles and cliques all ramped up by the unnatural situation (to us) that they find themselves in, but it’s all that they know. It is bleak and in some places distressing and an extreme version of the pressures that girls and young women find themselves under at present. I’m an oldster, but I recognised a lot of the feelings, and was interested to see that the author said that when she looked back at her own teenage diaries she wasn’t sure that she had made the book sufficiently bleak. Stayed with me for a while. Deservedly a prizewinner.

 

 

20-booksSo as my reading is going pretty well this year I decided it was time that I took part in a challenge, and thought that this one (hosted by Cathy over at 746Books) was ideal. The twist is that I’ll be reading only books on my Kindle app; this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on #ReadingMuriel2018 – I (foolishly) believe I can do both!

The challenge runs from 1 June to 3 September and seems quite flexible in terms of rules, and I have come up with an initial list which I reserve the right to change if something else grabs me at some point.

My twenty books, in no particular order) are:

  • You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames
  • Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
  • All That Remains by Sue Black
  • The Boy on the Bridge by MR Carey
  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
  • Who Killed Sherlock Holmes by Paul Cornell
  • The Cathedral of Known Things by Edward Cox
  • Black Dahlia, Red Rose by Piu Eatwell
  • Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys
  • The Keeper by Alastair Gunn
  • Horrorstor by Grady hendrix
  • Slow Horses by Mick Herron
  • The Summer Children by Dot Hutchinson
  • Head On by John Scalzi
  • I Still Dream by James Smythe
  • The Hunger by Alma Katsu
  • The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
  • Gilded Cage by Vic James
  • Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

That seems to me to be a good mix of crime, horror, sci-fi and non-fiction.

I have already started on my first book, All That Remains, and am thoroughly enjoying it, which bodes well. Look out for updates in my progress with the hashtag #20booksofsummer

 

Finally getting round to putting my thoughts together on this second phase of reading Muriel Spark to mark the centenary of her birth. My reading for this phase covers her novels from the 1960s and ran from 1 March to 30 April, though my final read did slip into May and there is in addition a missing title.

During March I spent a long weekend in Edinburgh and visited the Muriel Spark exhibition in the National Library of Scotland which was absolutely fascinating and sadly not allowed to be photographed. If I didn’t already love Dame Muriel the fact that she seems to have retained every single piece of paper that came into her life would have endeared her to me. My favourite was the handwritten letter from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis seeking the rights to Dame Muriel’s memoir; she didn’t get them. I will warn you now that I’ll be referring to y trip more than once 🙂

But, to the books …..

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

My edition is the 1979 Penguin, I read the novel for the first time in 1981 and this is my fourth time of reading.

Dougal Douglas arrives in Peckham and insinuates himself into the lives of the workers in a local firm, and the wider community, leaving a legacy of “fraud, blackmail, violence and murder”

I go up and down with this one to be honest, depending on my mood. Sometimes I see Dougal as a trickster figure gleefully stirring things up and drawing out of the people around him what they are already capable of; on other occasions I consider him a monster, destroying lives and causing mayhem with no thought of the consequences.

This time round he was somewhere in between.

The Bachelors (1960)

My edition is a Penguin from 1985, first read in 1992 and this is my third go-round.

Bachelors of various types. Spiritualism. Mediums. Forgery. Unsavoury elements. All found in the environs of Chelsea, Hampstead and Kensington. Gossip and waspishness abound.

I appreciated the novel more on this reading that I have ever done so before. I read it on the train on my way back from Edinburgh and it was a very pleasant experience, considering how unpleasant many of the characters are, especially Patrick Seton who is a downright nasty piece of work. I have to say it’s one of my least favourite of the novels, but it’s still very good.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

My first and still my favourite of the novels, this was on the syllabus for my Higher English at school and I fell in love immediately. My current edition is a 1980 Penguin edition with the STV serialisation cover showing the wonderful Geraldine McEwan. A classmate of mine was an extra in several of the schoolroom scenes, and having seen a clip in the NLS exhibition I’ve nabbed the series on DVD.

I have read this on at least seven occasions and it is one of my favourite books of all time. I’ve covered it on the blog before, and you can find more of my thoughts here.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963)

A Penguin 1982 edition where the pages have now parted from the cover, I first read this in 1984 and this is my third time.

The story is set amongst a group of young women in London in 1945 after the war has all but ended, all of whom live in the May of Teck Club, an institution founded in the days of Edward VII for “the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

I still find this a very enjoyable novel, finding it both sharply drawn and terribly sad on this reading. I have written about the novel before and you can find my thoughts here.

The Public Image (1968)

This a 1982 Penguin edition, which I first read in 1983; this is my third reading.

Annabel is an actress living in Rome, where her husband Frederick takes his own life in a way designed to cause maximum damage to his wife’s public image. How will she deal with this?

I loved this book the first couple of times but 35 years older and in the light of #MeToo I can’t help but focus on how monstrous all of the male characters are to Annabel. t has dated quite a bit but if you can imagine it as a film in the style of Antonioni or one of his peers then it’s an interesting slice of 1960s hedonism.

And then there’s the one that’s missing….

The Mandlebaum Gate is the only book by Dame Muriel that I have started and been unable to finish; I wrote a short post about it here. But I am determined to give it another shot in the hopes that I just wasn’t in the right mood at the time, and will read it alongside the collected short stories in Phase 3.

 

 

In a similar vein to my non-fiction reads (see here), I thought I would provide a very quick round up of short fiction I read in the first quarter of 2018.

Jeff VanderMeer shorts

The Strange Bird and This World is Full of Monsters both take place in the same world as his last novel Borne, which I read last year and totally adored (you can read what I said about it here). I enjoyed both of these but found The Strange Bird much more accessible in terms of structure and narrative than This World, though both are beautifully written and very much worth reading.

The Murders of Molly Southborne

Oh this is a corker. Every time Molly bleeds another Molly is born and has to be disposed of; so she spends her life killing herself over and over. I found it totally compelling, as Molly explains what she has to do to survive, how this all happened and what her future might (will?) be. Just so so good, couldn’t stop thinking about it and will read it agin in the not too distant future.

A Long Spoon

It’s amazing the things you forget….  Apparently I bought this Kindle short back in 2014 and came across it when I was sorting out files on my iPad, and because I loved the cover I thought I would give it a go. Johannes Cabal is a necromancer and is heading off to a little-known part of Hell because someone is trying to kill him. He needs a guide though, and summons a demon called Zeranyia, one of my favourite characters of all time; she’s a hoot. This was a fun read, and I was pleased to discover (that memory again) that we have a copy of the first novel in the Cabal sequence.

Have you read any short works recently?

 

I don’t find it easy to review non-fiction books so thought that I would provide a quarterly (or thereabouts) round-up so that I don’t miss any of my 2018 reading. This post covers the first quarter of this year.

  • The Midnight Assassin by Skip Holdsworth – “Panic, Scandal and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer”, this covers the crimes of the person who became known as the Servant Girl Annihilator in Austin, Texas during the period 1884-5. Never caught, there was serious consideration of this man (probably) as Jack the Ripper a few years later. So interesting I’ve gone off and purchased the novel by Steven Taylor which recreates the murders and the various trials.
  • The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards – a history of the Detection Club as founded by Dorothy L Sayers and others, counting most of the greats (including Agatha Christie) in its membership. A breezy history of the club and the development of the classic murder mystery, this led me down several rabbit holes including rewatching some old TV series and finding successor authors picking up unfinished stories before creating their own. Dangerous for its potential impact on book spend.
  • I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – “A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.” So well written, totally fascinating and really sad whenever you come across sections where it’s made clear that they were reconstructed from the author’s notes. I read this in tow massive chunks one weekend. Gripping.
  • Bright Young People by DJ Taylor – this is one of the rabbit holes I mentioned above. We watched an adaptation of my favourite Lord Peter Wimsey novel (Murder Must Advertise) which has a number of characters described as bright young things, which led me to this book which gives a history of the Bright Young People, who they were, what they got up to and how they, mostly, declined. Includes various Mitfords and Evelyn Waugh for a start. I’m not sure it delivers much in terms of analysis but there is plenty of society gossip. I can’t resist tales of aristocratic ladies!

I seem to be very attracted to true crime at the moment – watch this space 😀

 

513UDubStkLWhat’s it all about?

Yasuko lives a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, a good mother to her only child. But when her ex-husband appears at her door without warning one day, her comfortable world is shattered.

But help is at hand in the form of her neighbour, the maths teacher Ishigawa, who has become obsessed with her. But the police get involved along with the physics professor Yukawa, who acts as an informal consultant to the police, and having studied alongside Ishigawa recognises his genius. So these two great minds battle it out and we are invited to try to work out the solution to how, exactly, Ishigawa covered up the crime.

Why did I want to read it?

I’ve recently become very interested in Japanese crime fiction (see here and here for thoughts on other books, and this was recommended to me as a particularly interesting entry in a long list of similar books. The fact that it’s quite clear from the beginning who the killer actually is adds an extra dimension.

What did I think about it?

I enjoyed this very much as a traditional crime novel with a solution that I absolutely did not see coming, and understand why it was so popular in Japan.  The relationship between the two leading male characters is particularly enjoyable, though the “devotion” of Ishigawa to his neighbour is more than a little unsettling, and we are led to believe that it is heading in a particular direction which then turns into something else. I felt that his desire to help Yasuko only made things worse for her in the long run, but of course it would be a ver different story if he hadn’t stepped in.

The solution is ingenious if troubling, and I wonder if I’m alone in feeling that the final action taken by Yukawa represented a real breach of trust. I felt really unsettled by that infliction of emotional pain though it was clearly intense to serve justice.

I will be looking out for more of this author’s work.

25541152What’s it all about?

A bestselling and internationally acclaimed masterpiece of the locked-room mystery genre

Why did I want to read it?

I have read some Japanese crime fiction before (this, for example) but came to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders via my recent intense interest in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

Although the some would say that the GACF died out in the UK (not me, it seems alive and well) the traditional forms were preserved in Japan in the form of Honkaku mysteries, where old-fashioned plot devices etc. are used in a modern setting.

Specifically, these works are determined to play fair with the reader, giving all of the information necessary to solve the crime at the centre of each story.

Here endeth the lesson.

Thoughts?

It is a very strange but utterly convincing book. I actually went off and checked whether these murders were real because the first section sets out the details alongside some new evidence in a way which made me convinced that this was based on a real-life case (which it isn’t).

So we have the back story, and when new evidence comes to light our protagonists head off to investigate this series of grisly murders – one traditional locked room mystery, one bloody home invasion and then the murder and mutilation of six young women who will be found at various sites around Japan which seem to have some form of mystical solution. All of the victims are related, and all but one is a young woman.

At a couple of points in the book the author speaks directly to the reader, stating that all of the information that you would need to solve this mystery has been provided, so basically off you go and come up with a solution before you reach the conclusion.

I won’t go into the plot more than this, because half the fun is in trying to work out what on earth is going on. The answer to how the murders were carried out is ingenious but I think you would need to be Japanese to pick up on one of the clues presented.

I enjoyed reading this very much, and it is clearly an important work in the genre. It has reinforced my interest in Japanese crime fiction and a few more have found their way onto my TBR pile.

Bride of the Book God

Follow brideofthebook on Twitter

Scottish, in my fifties, love books but not always able to find the time to read them as much as I would like. I’m based in London and happily married to the Book God.

I also blog at Bride of the Screen God (all about movies and TV) and The Dowager Bride, if you are interested in ramblings about stuff of little consequence

If you would like to get in touch you can contact me at brideofthebookgod (at) btinternet (dot) com.

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