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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 ūüôā

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 ūüôā

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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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.

16046748What’s it all about?

Countdown City is the second volume of the Last Policeman Trilogy (read about volume one here), thusly:

There are just 77 days before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Why did I want to read it?

I really enjoyed the first novel and wanted to see how the story developed.

What did I think about it?

Countdown City continues to develop the story of Hank and his desire to help people and get to the truth of the puzzle he is presented with. On this occasion, the woman who used to babysit for him and his sister needs his help to find her husband who has basically disappeared. Of course, almost everyone assumes that like many other people he has just taken himself off to wait out the end of the world in his own way, but it isn’t as simple as that, and what Hank finds sets up some issues for the future, particularly in relation to the conduct of government agencies during this crisis. And behind all of that is the problem of his sister and her conspiracy theories.

What sets this series apart I think is the way the impending catastrophe is not at the forefront of the story. I mean, it’s obviously the reason for everything that’s happening, but the author concentrates on the human stories, how people are coping and how society is changing and what that means for Hank and his friends as they pass their last days. In a world where you would be forgiven for expecting everyone to be out for themselves, there are people who still care for wider society, and it’s clear that this is the theme that will run into the third and final volume. I’m looking forward to finding out how this all concludes.

In a similar vein to my recent post over on the Screen God, I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick round-up of the books I read since I last posted here on 30 July, so 4 months ago.

28677687The Silent Dead by Tetsuya Honda

Japans serial killer police procedural. I almost gave up on this because of the way the female main character was treated by her male colleagues. There was one senior policeman in particular who was SO odious that I almost gave up on the book, but I also really wanted to find out what the hell was going on, so I kept going. I’m glad I did because this was an interesting story.

 

225384Green River, Running Red by Ann Rule

Compellingly horrible but excellently written true crime book about the Green River Killer, thought to be America’s (if not the world’s) most prolific serial killer. I read Ann Rule’s book about Ted Bundy years ago and following a recommendation on Twitter I decided to give this one ago. As much as I enjoy fictional versions of this sort of theme, it’s good to be reminded just how awful the reality is for the victims’ families. Scary and compelling.

 

16065519Lost Girls by Robert Kolker

An investigation into the currently still at large (and let’s face it, unidentified) serial killer who has been dumping women’s bodies in Long Island. Incredibly sad as it focusses on the lives of the young women who were killed, and how their varying circumstances led them into prostitution which ultimately brought them into contact with their killer via¬†the Internet. Grim.

 

17316519-_sy180_The Last Policeman by Ben H Winters

As the blurb says, what’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon anyway? This is “a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse”, and it’s also a character study of the “last” policeman himself. Twisty and turny with a proper murder mystery at its heart, it allows us to look at a society waiting for the world to end, and how people cope (or not) with real impending doom. Enjoyed it so much I bought the rest of the trilogy.

25670162Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

I love short stories, and I love sci-fi short stories in particular but I’ll be honest and say that I picked this column up (if you can actually pick up an e-book) because I wanted to read the title story which is the basis for the recent (and IMHO) brilliant film Arrival. Not a duff story in here; all of them are dense and complex even when they appear to be simple on the surface. Although I adored the main story, my favourite is probably the one about angels, with a very simple idea – what if angels were real and whenever they appeared on earth they basically came as a natural disaster. Fascinating. I also loved that the author did a set of notes at the end about ¬†what had triggered each story. Really very very good indeed.

27775591The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

I really enjoyed this but please don’t ask me to explain it ūüôā Inspired in part by John Carpenter’s The Thing, this is a novel about, well, time travel and Kantian (is that a word?) philosophy and revenge and obsession and Fermi’s Paradox which I had to look up and apparently refers to

the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates, for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

Thank you Wikipedia.¬†The quickest read this year so far and the oddest since I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and its sequels. Loved it. Brain still hurts a bit though.

So that’s it. Thankfully I’m now going to end the year in double figures, and hopefully will be able to finish a few more in December.

25434372So, you might have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while. The simple reason for that is that I haven’t been reading. At all. My tally so far this year has been 3 books finished up to early March, one of them almost certainly started before the new year and the third (although i enjoyed it) I don’t ever get around to reviewing here. I have no explanation for this, the longest reading slump in my whole life (and believe me that represents a significant number of years!)

But I decided this could not go on and when I realised I had a day trip to Manchester (slightly over 2 hours each way not including the journey from my home to Euston) and that (for various reasons) I wasn’t taking my work laptop and therefore wouldn’t be working on the train I decided that this was a prime opportunity to pick up a physical book and get reading. And what do you know – it worked!

The Bullet is the story of Caroline Cashion, a professor of French literature who is having some physical problems – maybe RSI, maybe not – and during an MRI it is discovered that she has a bullet lodged in her neck, near the bottom of her skull. This is a huge¬†shock as she has no memory of ever being shot and there seems to be no scar. When she confronts her family about this she discovers a number of significant facts – she is adopted, her birth parents were murdered in front of her when she was 3 years old, she was injured in the attack and apparently left for dead, and worst of all (in my mind anyway) the person who did all this was never caught. So, this being a thriller you just know what she’s going to do; yep, you’ve guessed it, she starts rummaging around and puts herself in danger. Of course. I think I might have done the same, to be fair.

I’m not going to say much more about the plot which unfolds in a very satisfying way. It moves at a fair speed and stays on the right side of being far-fetched. It is a first person narrative which for me succeeds or fails on the likability of the character and happily I liked Caroline very much, especially her interaction with her (adoptive) brothers; I have two brothers of my own and this rang true. And yes, there’s a bit of romance but at least she doesn’t rely on him to sort this all out for her (very much the opposite in fact).

So all in all a very satisfying reading experience. Recommended.

 

24343739I have taken quite a while to get round to writing about They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper because it’s really hard to know quite where to start. To help set some context I was going to quote from the blurb on the book’s Amazon page but I got quite cross reading the thing because it makes some claims (especially about the scholarship involved) that I don’t think really hold up. It’s basically a bonkers book.

What’s it all about?

So Bruce Robinson, former actor and most notably director of Withnail and I, has spent at least fifteen years researching the case of Jack the Ripper and this enormous book is the result of his labours. And it really is a huge thing so I’m glad I had the Kindle version (you may have read in one of my Sunday Salon posts that I saw this in a book shop teetering on the edge of a shelf, only just managing not to plummet to the floor due to its sheer size). Robinson has a preferred suspect and his book is all about proving he’s right, why the guy did it and how he managed not to get caught.

Why did I want to read it?

I will put my hand up and admit that I’ve long been fascinated by Jack the Ripper, though I am well aware that it is all petty lurid stuff. I’ve read enough to be clear that a lot of the ‘facts’ out there are just theories, and some of those are fairly crackpot. So I was interested to see what this latest one would reveal. Also it was longlisted¬†for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction which gave it a certain additional interest.

What did I think of it?

Well. I’ve always been a great believer in the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think plots¬†and conspiracies can happen; they manifestly have, and some of have been very¬†successful. But to my mind those are the exceptions, and so when it became clear right from the very beginning of this book that the identity of Jack the Ripper was protected by a consipracy that is so enormous that¬†it would collapse under its own weight I felt a familiar sinking feeling.

Robinson identifies the Ripper as Michael Maybrick, a surname that may be familiar to some of you because of the Ripper diaries that were floating around some years ago where James Maybrick was outed as (potentially) being Jack, having been (allegedly) murdered by his wife. The diaries were eventually discredited, but the theory here is that Michael was Jack, murdered his brother and set him up to be the Ripper, and because he was that kind of guy, framed his hated sister-in-law Florence for the killing, with the collusion of the police and the judiciary, because *gasp* Freemasonry.

Yes, it’s the Freemasons what done it, or at least covered it all up. Knew who it was all along etc. and sacrificed the truth to protect the establishment.

I don’t think this holds up because it simply doesn’t make sense, and there¬†is a definite air of selecting material to support¬†a theory and ignoring the bits that don’t fit.¬†Perhaps the Ripper sections¬†on their own, though fairly potty, make some sort of case, but the mashing¬†together with the Florence Maybrick case (which was a clear miscarriage of justice and Robinson is right to be angry about it), just doesn’t work¬†IMHO.

The book is exhausting to read because the author is so angry about everything; it felt like the man was writing the whole thing with his CAPS lock on. It was like being shouted at constantly. His obsessions and prejudices shine through and his language is crude and at times inappropriate to my mind, and that really jars.¬†There were a number of “wow – did he really just say that” moments

But…..

Having said all that, it’s also quite entertaining – even funny in places – and he makes some very good points about the Ripperology industry. BI certainly never consdered abandoning the book at any point. But having dumped all this information and conspiracy theory stuff on his readers, the whole thing gets a bit rushed and then. Just. Stops. A bit like Jack the Ripper himself.

A real oddity of a book.

9723667I decided to re-read this Agatha Christie novel in advance of the three part TV adaptation which was on the BBC over the Christmas weekend. Although I was familiar with the story I wanted to refresh my memory so that I could see what changes the screenwriter had and hadn’t made. This is in part because of bad experiences with recent Christie adaptations where they have packed the episodes with big name actors even¬†in the smallest parts and have mucked about with the stories so that they are basically unrecognisable.

Rant over.

Though for the avoidance of doubt I should say that Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple and David Suchet’s Poirot are exempt from this criticism.

Context

I have owned¬†a reasonable sized collection of Christies since I was in secondary school so I rummaged in the stacks to find the copy I knew I had, with the aim of reading it on a train trip to and from Manchester. What I had forgotten is that my paperback is from 1975 (22nd impression) and not only has a golliwog on the cover (one of the great Tom Adams illustrations) but also has the original 1939 title which today would be totally unacceptable, so that scuppered that idea. Didn’t want to be glared at on the Pendolino.¬†In the end I read it roughly in parallel with the broadcast.

The novel

I was pleased to see that my memory of the story had held up pretty well. 10 people, strangers to each other apart (obviously) from the married couple who are the only servants, are invited to an island off the coast of Devon for a house party. They are a pretty mixed bunch and it becomes clear that they have all been spun a different story to get them there and more importantly they all have something to hide. And then they start being bumped off one after the other.

The tone is very dark, none of the characters are particularly¬†likeable and of course paranoia and hysteria soon settle in and accusations start flying around. The central conceit of the nursery rhyme works well and the only thing I found jarring was the explanation of it all at the end. But still enjoyably twisted. As someone said on Twitter (and sorry, I can’t find it again) Christie invented the slasher movie ūüôā

The TV adaptation

p03c11l4

Unusually, and in this case pleasingly, the BBC decided to do three one hour episodes which I think worked really well in allowing the story to develop. It didn’t lose any tension at all, and they didn’t tinker with the ending at all. In fact, the dramatised version solved¬†the problem in the novel of how we find out who was behind it all. Even the inevitable jazzing up for modern tastes (more sex, more obvious drug taking, some¬†of which is hinted at on the novel) was sensitively done and didn’t jar at all.¬†An excellent cast and high production values helped deliver the highlight of holiday TV for me (I will deal with¬†The Abominable Bride elsewhere).

This read-along¬†has¬†made me want to revisit the Christie back catalogue, and that can only be a good thing. That includes reading a more modern edition of the novel to see how it’s been changed

I must do this sort of thing¬†more often, but don’t think I’ll start with War and Peace…..

 

 

I really really did intend to write proper full reviews for each of the books below (and still will for my actual final read of the year because I will be linking it to something else) but life sort of got in the way and I want to start the new year with a reasonably clean slate so the fact that I have chosen to do mini-reviews for each of these is no reflection on the books themselves; I really enjoyed all three of them.

And when you write a paragraph-long sentence you need to stop and breathe ūüėÄ

Bryant & May: London’s Glory by Christopher Fowler

25886638I’m not going to go on again about how much I love these books, but will just say that this short story collection was a real treat and I had only read one of them previously so that was even better. The additional pleasure was to be found in the extras:

  • an introduction which gave us CF’s insights into crime fictions, always fascinating
  • additional information on each of the stories; and
  • a synopsis of each of full-length cases so far (there’s another one coming in a few months)

Great fun

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

25228309Along with the Fowler collection this chunky book of stories from my favourite writer of horror really got me back into the pleasure of reading short fiction.

Again, brilliant notes from the author and the two stories I had read before really stood up well to a revisit.

I think King’s short works are often overlooked and this had some real goodies. If you haven’t tried them you really should.

 

Slade House by David Mitchell

24500887The Bone Clocks was one of my favourite reads of 2015 so when I found out that Mitchell was bringing out a short book¬†set in¬†the world of that novel then I know I was going to read it as soon as I could, and I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from the fact that it has one of the most beautiful book covers of the year, it is really very creepy and disorienting and reinforced my feeling that Mitchell will become a regular on my to buy list. Luckily I have a couple of his novels already on the stacks as I am on a buying freeze. This is a goodie and one I intend to re-read. Still thinking about it weeks after I finished reading it.

21840310I think that when I flagged up that I was going to read this I said that I must be the last person in the known galaxy to do so (that wanted to read it in any case) but I’ve discovered that I’m not so that’s gratifying. I have a natural ambivalence to books being touted as The Next Big Thing – yes, I want to read them because they are being raved about, but I don’t want to read them at the same time as everyone else because hype and also because I want the dust to settle and not be too influenced by the succession of reviews that inevitably follow.

I should also admit to not buying this but borrowing it from a friend who brought it all the way from Edinburgh for me (though it sat in Silvery Dude’s¬†desk for a month before I was able to collect it due to everyone forgetting the plan for handing it over).

Having said all that, what’s The Girl on the Train all about (in case you’ve been under a rock or something)?

From the blurb:

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows that it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She even feels that she knows the people who live in one of the houses.

And she makes up a life story for them and then sees something unexpected which shocks her, and then the woman who lives there goes missing and Rachel inserts herself into their lives…..

Why did I want to read it?

See above. Also, as someone who regularly commuted by train into London for many years I know the pleasure of looking into people’s gardens as you trundle past.

What did I think of it?

I¬†enjoyed reading this very much but I really think as a novel it wasn’t helped by the hype surrounding it. It’s very well written, has a story that really grips you but is not the great big new thing that the marketing campaign implied. The comparisons to Gone Girl (read and reviewed here) didn’t help either; I can see the superficial resemblance (multiple alternating viewpoints, unreliable narrators, people not being what they seem) but it has significant differences. It’s very British for a start (and I mean that as a good thing).

I also found Rachel, the main character, much more sympathetic than those in GG; I actually worried for her at several points in the book. I know that in real life she would be horrendously annoying and I would probably cross the road to avoid her but her vulnerability and desperate need to be involved to give herself some purpose was convincing and very sad.

I worked out who the baddie was likely to be about two-thirds of the way through but not the details of the solution¬†so it didn’t get in the way of enjoying the unravelling of the mystery.

So, worth reading if you enjoy a good thriller but don’t get carried away by the marketing spiel.

 

 

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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