TBR Thursday 204… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I was doing pretty well at the first check-in at the end of March, but I always start off full of enthusiasm. It’s the summer months that do for me – I read less, and lots of new shiny books have appeared so that my commitment to my challenges goes a bit wobbly.

So here we are – the second check-in of the year…

Uh-oh! It’s all beginning to go horribly wrong again! The MMM challenge is going fine, and I’m just about keeping the new releases under control. But the other challenges are sooooooo behind! Partly this is because I haven’t read much for the last few weeks, and also the classics I’ve read this year have been some of the chunkier ones. But even so. Some swift remedial work will be required. Look out for lots of classics and stuff over the next three months…

The TBR hasn’t dropped much, but thanks to yet another bout of rigorous (and emotionally devastating) culling, the more important combined TBR/wishlist reduction is well on track! I might be a loser, but I’m also a winner!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and this quarter I’ve visited a couple of places and been on a trek across Europe!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I helped investigate a murder with Inspector Chen of the Shanghai police in Qiu Xiaolong’s excellent Death of a Red Heroine. Then I travelled from Portugal through Spain, over the sea to Italy and finally to Austria in José Saramago’s whimsical The Elephant’s Journey, ticking off the tricky elephant travel box as I went.

I had only one detour this quarter, but it’s one of the best trips I’ve taken, and I’d probably never have gone had it not been for this challenge – which is why I love it! Leila and her friends took me on a life-affirming tour of the underbelly of Istanbul in Elif Shafak’s wonderful 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

63 down, 17 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed just three books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

42. The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – 5 bright and twinkling stars for this excellent Scottish classic – a historical novel that tells the story of Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid, who is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. Great story, great writing, great book!

43. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – Heyer’s Regency romances are the ultimate in comfort reading. This one wasn’t my favourite because I wasn’t so keen on the rather bullying hero and heroine, but there are some great secondary characters and it’s always fun to visit Bath. 4 stars.

44. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – 5 stars again for another Scottish classic (am I biased? I think I might be…). Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way.

I should be at about the three-fifths mark now, so I’m a good bit behind. I’ll need to do some intensive Classics reading over the next few months!

44 down, 46 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve done a bit of catching up on this over the last three months, having reviewed five and with another one pending. Another challenge I’m thoroughly enjoying, being constantly surprised by the variety of styles and the wide range in tone, all the way from humour to near noir. To see the full challenge, click here.

24.  Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert –  When a rather decaying corpse turns up in a deed box in a lawyer’s office, Inspector Hazlerigg enlists the help of one of the new lawyers to investigate. Loved this one – 5 stars.

25.  Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – oh dear! I really can’t stand Sayers’ snobbery and it’s out in full force here. Plus the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out. Just 2 stars.

26.  Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg – when an experienced flying instructor crashes everyone is ready to write it off as a tragic accident. Everyone except for the Bishop of Cootamundra, that is, a pupil at the flying school. The plotting is messy and crosses the credibility line by miles, but the characterisation and gentle humour make up for it. 4 stars.

27.  The Blotting Book by EF Benson – well-meaning but greedy trustee Edward Taynton has been gambling with his client’s inheritance. When it looks as if this might be revealed before he can fix it, things begin to go very wrong. A thoroughly enjoyable, if not very mystifying, novella-length mystery – 5 stars.

28.  The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts – When Inspector Mark Brendon is investigating a murder, he is hampered by the fact that he has fallen head over heels in love with the victim’s lovely young widow. Great settings – Dartmoor and Italy – and a surprisingly modern-feeling motivation for the crime make up for the rather messy structure and some implausibility. 4 stars.

28 down, 74 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Finally! I managed to actually review a couple for this challenge this quarter! Still going very slowly with it, though…

3.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Sadly, this one failed to meet my perhaps over-high expectations. The story of an African-American man learning about his history and thus finding his own identity is filled with symbolism that didn’t seem to symbolise much, to me at least, and it’s filled with repeated scenes of ugliness and brutality. The excellent prose didn’t quite cover its weaknesses. 3 stars.

4.  The Kiln by William McIlvanney. As Tam Docherty is on his way home to the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself. Loved this sequel to the wonderful Docherty – together the two books tell the story of the working classes in Scotland through the twentieth century. 5 stars.

4 down, 21 to go!

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I may not have met my targets this quarter, but I’ve still read some jolly fine books!
I’m taking a Wimbledon break now, so I’ll see you in a week or so.

Meantime, thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 194… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I do this each year because secretly I’m a masochist who thrives on feelings of personal failure it’s always good to have something to aim for. Things usually start well at the beginning of the year when my enthusiasm is high and then it all begins to go horribly wrong… round about April… and descends past laughable in the summer, to embarrassing by autumn, ending up in full-scale hair-raising horror by the depths of winter. It’s such fun!

So here we are – the first check-in of the year, and probably the best…

Impressive, huh? It would have been even better if I hadn’t abandoned Cannery Row for not having a plot (and to be fair, I was in the middle of a major reading slump and not enjoying much at that point. I may try it again later.) It should have been the third book for my 5 x 5 Challenge and the fifth on my Classics Club list. The sixth on the CC list is The Fair Maid of Perth which I’m currently reading but didn’t manage to finish in time to include it at the quarter’s end. So overall pretty successful on the challenges!

The TBR is up but, thanks to another bout of rigorous (and heart-rending) culling, the combined TBR/wishlist reduction is on track! Yeah, I’m as surprised at that as you are…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been piling up the frequent flyer miles since then! I’ve read six, though I’ve only reviewed five of them so far, plus I had one left over from 2018 that I reviewed in January.

On the Main Journey (of the places mentioned in Around the World in 80 Days) there are a couple of places that Jules Verne invented, which makes finding books for them particularly difficult! One such place is Kholby, a fictional town or village in Uttar Pradesh in northern India. So I got as close as I could by visiting Agra, also in Uttar Pradesh, with the wonderful tour-guide Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Sign of the Four. Then I had a frankly disappointing short break in Hong Kong with Rea Tarvydas in How to Pick Up a Maid in Statue Square. If I get time, I’ll revisit Hong Kong before the challenge ends.

My first detour of the quarter was to Norway, where I got the chance to watch the police solve a cold case in Jørn Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code. Then off to South Korea with Un-Su Kim in The Plotters, a strange but compelling story of feuding assassins. Tim Flannery took me on an amazing journey all over Europe geographically and through time, showing me the flora and fauna through the ages and telling me tales of the ascent of man. Then Yangsze Choo whisked me off to colonial Malay in The Night Tiger, a wonderful tale steeped in the folklore of the Chinese Malaysians. Loving this challenge!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

60 down, 20 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read four books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed three of them so far. However I’ve also reviewed a couple that were hanging over from last year…

37. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – 4 stars for this “non-fiction novel” in which Capote examines the minds and crimes of two real-life murderers. The writing is superb, but I wasn’t keen on the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction which left me resorting to Google to find out the truth of what happened.

38. Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke – a disappointed 3 stars for this sci-fi classic which didn’t wow me as much as I’d hoped. I’m still glad to have read it though, since it’s the book that inspired Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration with Clarke on the amazing film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

39. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs – the full 5 stars for this romping adventure story. Lots of stuff about evolution as it was viewed back then, with racism and sexism of its time, but it’s so full of thrills, excitement, high love and general drama that it swept me along on a tsunami-sized wave of fun.

40. The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers – 4½ stars for this espionage adventure about two young Englishmen who set out to foil German invasion plans back in 1903. The second half gets slowed down by Childers’ desire to give a warning about the growing threat from German naval power, but an excellent read overall.

41. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – the iniquity of debtors’ prisons, nepotism within the ruling classes, and the dangers of speculation on the stock market. Along the way, Dickens produces his usual dazzling array of characterisation and mix of drama, humour and occasional horror. The full 5 stars!

Still running behind, but not hopelessly. I’m making three changes to my list:

  • To replace the abandoned Cannery Row, I’ve added East of Eden. Glutton for punishment, me!
  • I’ve been given a copy of Oxford World’s Classics new edition of Middlemarch for review, so am adding it and removing The Heart of the Matter to make room.
  • I’ve also got the OWC’s new translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas (yeah, the title has changed too!), so am removing Something Wicked This Way Comes to make space. (Hmm… three short books out, three stonkers in – not sure I’m doing this right…)

41 down, 49 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m still going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review. I’ve read three this quarter, but have only reviewed one so far. To see the full challenge, click here.

23.  Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles –  a doctor plans to murder his inconvenient wife in this ironical crime novel. Irony is never my favourite thing, so this didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped. Just 3 stars.

23 down, 79 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! This challenge is turning out to be a real albatross and I’m thinking of abandoning it, but I’ll stick it out a bit longer. This quarter I abandoned one and read two, neither of which I’ve yet reviewed, so nothing to report.

2 down, 23 to go!

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An unexpectedly good quarter’s reading, considering what a pig life has been! Thank goodness for books!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 184… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

In a last ditch attempt to get down to the figure I set in my New Year’s Resolutions last year, I brutally culled the wishlist one last time, which led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Did I succeed? All shall be revealed when I post this year’s resolutions on Monday! But I’m getting so good at chopping, I’m thinking of taking up a new career…

 

I’ve done rubbishly on all my challenges this quarter, mainly because I’d developed a big backlog of review copies so I’ve been frantically reading them instead…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve been nowhere since then! Nowhere!

However, I did pretty well taking the year as a whole, and will be packing my suitcase again in the New Year – I have some great books lined up!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve actually read five books from my Classics Club list this quarter but have only reviewed two so far, so expect a little splurge of classics reviews in January.

35. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – 5 stars for this wonderful book that asks many questions that are still relevant in today’s world, about class, gender and how people are impacted by modernisation.

36. No Name by William Wilkie Collins – I’m afraid I found this book tedious, filled with unlikeable characters about whom I cared not a jot. Just 2 stars.

Again, I’ve done pretty well over the year as a whole. I should be halfway through at this stage and I’m only a little behind if you add in the ones awaiting review. And I’ve been tackling some of the longer ones recently so they’re not all left till the end.

36 down, 54 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’m going really slowly on this challenge, because of all the other vintage crime I’ve been lucky enough to receive for review, so I only managed a couple this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

21.  The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin – this is one of those crime novels that goes way beyond the credibility line, but makes up for its general silliness by being a whole lot of fun. I loved it! 5 stars.

22.  The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley – 5 stars again for this as Berkeley gently mocks the conventions of the mystery novel, and has a lot of fun at his fellow mystery writers’ expense, and his own. Highly entertaining and cleverly done!

22 down, 80 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Oh, dear! I just can’t seem to get anywhere with this challenge. I’m doing great at acquiring the books – just not so good at actually finding time to read them! Next year…

2 down, 23 to go!

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Not too successful with the challenges, then, but a good quarter’s reading nevertheless!
Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 175… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Impressively the overall figure has fallen again! It would have been even better if I hadn’t had a major splurge on review copies, but sometimes a splurge is irresistible. I’m still being rigid about adding sparingly to the wishlist and culling it ruthlessly at the end of every month. A book has to persuade me it’s essential to my happiness and wellbeing to win a coveted spot! I still have a long way to go to achieve my New Year’s Resolution – to reduce the overall total to 360. I shall sharpen my culling shears…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I’ve only made a couple of trips since then…

I actually read The Dain Curse back in June but forgot to include it in this challenge last quarter – this rather silly, almost entirely incomprehensible, but surprisingly entertaining book took me to San Francisco, one of the stops on the Main List. I visited Uruguay and several other countries in South America in the company of political exiles and their families, in Mario Benedetti’s wonderful Springtime in a Broken Mirror. And master storyteller Robert Harris took me back in time to Ancient Rome in Imperium for some political shenanigans in the company of Cicero and his pals. (I also discovered I’d been to Canada twice, so have dropped one of them off the list.)

Must do better! And must get to Africa!!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

54 down, 26 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed six from my Classics Club list this quarter, which means I’ve caught up a little more. I’ll be slowing down for a bit though as I really must tackle some of the longer ones on my list rather than leaving them all to the end…

29. The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan – 4 stars for this “shocker”, an action thriller set amidst the murky world of wartime foreign agents, and involving much running around the moors of south-west Scotland.

30. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – 5 stars for this, one of the finest examples of the science fiction books that grew out of Cold War paranoia – a suddenly dystopian society where the science horrors are balanced by an exceptionally strong human story and one of the best female characters in the genre.

31. Mildred Pierce by James M Cain – poor writing style, psychologically unconvincing and terminally dull. I feel I was generous in giving this tale of a troubled mother/daughter relationship in Depression-era America 2 stars.

32. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain again. 4 reluctant stars for this noir so black there’s no gleam of light, hope or beauty. Superbly done, but to what end? Left me feeling I needed to scrub my mind clean.

33. Marriage by Susan Ferrier – 3½ stars for this 1818 tale of two sisters, one good and tediously pious, the other mercenary but underdeveloped. Hyped by the publisher as the Scottish Jane Austen, I fear that the comparison doesn’t work to this one’s advantage.

34. Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – a modernist look at Scottish society through the prism of the small town of Calderwick and the families who live there. Feminism, repression and religion – the book takes on a lot and partially delivers. 4 stars.

I’ve also made a couple more changes to my list. I abandoned Miss Lonelyhearts after about 10 pages of abortion, suicide, marital rape and religious mania. That made me look again at my American list, which has been hugely disappointing so far, pulling the whole challenge down. I’m toying with swapping the rest out for something else – maybe Irish, maybe translated fiction. But perhaps I’ve just had some unlucky choices so far, so I’ll have one last rejig before I do:

  • I’ve replaced Miss Lonelyhearts with In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – at least it will be a good excuse to re-watch the excellent film.
  • And I’ve removed The Jungle – another one that sounds deliberately designed to show the miserable pointlessness of existence – and replaced it with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey.

34 down, 56 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read just three books for this one, but they were all excellent so I don’t mind. To see the full challenge, click here.

18.  The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton – mysterious goings-on and nefarious crimes in an English village. More of a thriller than a mystery, and quite dark – enjoyed this a lot! 5 stars.

19.  The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson – a locked room mystery set in the Houses of Parliament, written by one of early women MPs. A good mystery and a fun look at all the quirky traditions of Parliament. 4½ stars.

20.  The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie – Miss Marple’s first outing as she uses all her knowledge of human nature and evil to discover who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s study. One of the best! 5 stars.

20 down, 82 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Still struggling to fit this challenge in, but I have a couple scheduled over the next few weeks. Just one again this quarter though…

2. Imperium by Robert Harris – the first book in the Cicero trilogy, this tells of his early struggles to get ahead in law and politics. Excellently written, but not a period that ever really grabs me, so it’s not my favourite Harris. However, I’m still looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. 4 stars.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 165… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

A spectacular reduction in the overall figure! Bet you’re gobsmacked! This is because, apart from review copies, I’ve been restricting myself to only acquiring books that are already on my wishlist, and I’m being brutally ruthless about culling that wishlist at the end of every month. If a book doesn’t sparkle brightly and sing my name, it gets thrown back in the pond. I’m a TBR Champion!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve had another exciting three months of travel since then…

I had lots of interesting detours again, starting with a trip to Toronto, Canada, where I spent some time with immigrants from Trinidad in David Chariandy’s wonderful Brother. In Appointment with Death, I accompanied Agatha Christie, Poirot and a group of deeply suspicious characters on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra in Jordan. Damon Galgut took me to visit a disillusioned post-apartheid South Africa where I met The Good Doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lebanon where Najla Jraissaty Khoury regaled me with a host of traditional folk tales in Pearls on a Branch. I had a rather disappointing trip to Colombia with Juan Gabriel Vasquez streaming his consciousness and a lot of Colombian history at me in The Shape of the Ruins. And finally I visited one of the destinations on my Main Journey in the company of Valeria Vescina, whose wonderful story of the intensity of first love, That Summer in Puglia, took me to Brindisi and other locations in the beautiful heel of Italy.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

This is a map showing the countries I’ve visited so far. Some pretty big gaps there! Must start being selective…

52 down, 28 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read seven from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed five. Still a little behind, but I’m slowly catching up…

24. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 5 stars for this great Scottish classic, an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation.

25. The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – 5 stars for this science fiction classic. A great read with lots of humour and imagination,  and enough depth to make it interesting without feeling heavy – hugely entertaining.

26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me at all, and I abandoned it fairly early on. Just 1 star, I’m afraid.

27. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – sadly, the anti-man type of feminism I most dislike and, even more sadly, she forgot to put a plot in. 2 generous stars for this one.

28. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – 4 stars for this entertaining if somewhat silly and almost entirely incomprehensible novel, that is saved by the relentless pace and the snappy, hardboiled style.

I’ve also made a couple of changes to my list:

  • After the Gone with the Wind debacle, I decided to stop reading books with a race element, written by white American authors long ago. So I’ve replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
  • Having been gifted a Scottish classic I wasn’t aware of when I made my list, I’ve removed one of my re-reads to make room for it. So Annals of the Parish is out, and Marriage by Susan Ferrier is in.

28 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

I’ve read the final three books for this challenge but have still to post my review of the last one. So just two this quarter.

15. The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus – a great book from one of my favourite authors, this is an examination of the birth of the art of propaganda and myth-making, told with a great mix of light and shade. 5 stars.

16. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – the story of a Cossack family before and during the Revolution and the Civil War, showing how their way of life would be altered forever. This is a wonderful novel, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read four books for this one, but so far only reviewed three. Fewer than I intended – I need to stop being distracted by all the other vintage crime I’ve been reading, and focus! To see the full challenge, click here.

15.  Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – an insane serial killer is rampaging the countryside, murdering young women. Unfortunately the plotting in this one gets a bit silly and it’s too long for its content. Just 3 stars.

16.  The Red House Mystery by AA Milne – lots of humour and two likeable protagonists for this take on a locked room mystery. Well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining! 5 stars.

17.  The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, this is oddly entertaining, largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace. 4 stars.

17 down, 85 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

I’ve been struggling to fit this challenge in, though it should be easier now the Russian one’s coming to an end. But just one so far…

1. Fatherland by Robert Harris – In a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two, Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime, Detective Xavier March must investigate a mysterious death. Great plotting in this excellent example of an alternative history novel. 5 stars.


1 down, 24 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

I’m taking some time off now to watch Wimbledon and stuff, so don’t do anything exciting while I’m…

 

TBR Thursday 154… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Well, that’s pretty fabulous! Although the owned books have increased, the wishlist is dropping, due in part to my rigorous monthly culling. And considering I added approximately twenty books all in one go last month for my latest Five x Five Challenge, then I think it’s spectacular that the overall figure has gone down!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been travelling non-stop since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I didn’t go to any of the locations on the Main Journey, but I had lots of interesting detours. First, William Boyd took me to study chimps and humans in the Republic of the Congo in Brazzaville Beach. Then I headed off with Angela Savage to look at the seamier side of life in Thailand in Behind the Night Bazaar. I had a harrowing but wonderful journey across the Antarctic under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. I thought a little trip to Wales would be nicely relaxing after that, till Arthur Machen showed me the ancient evils hidden behind every Welsh rock in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Leonardo Padura took me on a mini-world trip in The Man Who Loved Dogs, on the trail of Trotsky’s assassin – we visited Cuba, the USSR, Mexico and Spain. After much thought, I’m declaring it for Spain, since I feel I learned most about that country from the book. Then off for a nice winter break in a resort town in New Zealand, only to get mixed up in a murder or two in Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud. And finally, murder reared its ugly head again when I fled to Gibraltar with Robert Daws for a bit of sun, sea and sand in The Rock. Phew! This travelling business isn’t very restful!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

46 down, 34 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read five from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed four. Still a little behind, but I’m gradually catching up…

  1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – 5 stars for this wonderful, typically Dickensian novel – one of his very best and a great way to start the year.
  2. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – just 4 stars for this influential psychological thriller, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book
  3. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – 5 glittering stars for this sparkling comedy from the master where, as always, Jeeves saves the day.
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – 5 stars for this novel in which Spark uses brilliantly barbed humour to skewer Edinburgh society of the between-the-wars years.

23 down, 67 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Getting very close to the end of this challenge now. This quarter, I’ve read three but so far only reviewed two. To see the full challenge, click here.

13. Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith – I was a little disappointed in this one, which seemed to spend more time debunking myths about Rasputin than shedding light on the truth of the man and his life. Just 3 stars.

14. The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura –  a monumental novel about two men: Trotsky and the Spanish agent of Stalin’s USSR who assassinated him. Although it often reads more like a factual book than a fiction, the combination of great writing and thorough research make it a winner, and an essential read for anyone interested in the history of communism. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read five books for this one, but so far only reviewed four (yes, I’m way behind on reviews). To see the full challenge, click here.

11.  Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – this one claims to be “witty”, but wit is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder thought it was silly to the point of irritation and felt quite generous when she gave it 2 stars.

12.  The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace – a novel about a group of self-appointed vigilantes who set out to right what they see as wrongs. This one has a surprisingly contemporary plot about foreign political agitators and what to do about them. 4 stars.

13.  Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – one of the first “psychological thrillers”, which looks at the effects of murder on the minds of the murderers. An essential read for its influential status. 4 stars.

14. Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac – an excellent early example of the police procedural, with realistic detection, a strong plot, some appealing characters, humour and a nice touch of horror. A well-deserved 5 stars.

14 down, 88 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Give me a break! I’ve only just started it…!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd

Of chimps and humans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

As Hope Clearwater sits on the beach outside her home in the Republic of the Congo, she looks back over the circumstances of her life that have brought her here: her marriage to mathematician John Clearwater, and her later work at Grosso Arvore, a chimpanzee research project run by the world-famous primate expert, Eugene Mallabar. The two stories, though separate, have the common theme of the pursuit of scientific fame and the toll that can take on those who fail. There are other themes too – the war that rumbles on in the Congo, the evolutionary and genetic links between human and chimp – and a third story, of Hope’s love affair with Usman Shoukry, an Egyptian mercenary pilot fighting on the pro-government side in the war, though this strand has less weight than the other two.

While each strand is told linearly in time, the book cuts between them so that the reader is following them all simultaneously. Hope’s marriage to John is happy at first. She is contentedly working as an ecologist mapping ancient hedgerows, while John is immersed in the study of chaos theory – a subject Hope can’t even pretend to understand but she does understand John’s passion for it. Gradually though, as John repeatedly fails to achieve his own goal to make a unique contribution to the subject, his mental health begins to show the strain. Jumping from one mathematical discipline to another, alternating between heavy drinking and total abstention, John’s behaviour becomes progressively more erratic and their marriage comes under ever greater strain.

The reader knows from the second strand, at Grosso Arvore, that the marriage ended, but doesn’t know how or what was the final straw until towards the end of the book. But we see Hope, still young, now researching chimp behaviour in Africa. Her task is to observe a small group of chimps who have broken away from the main group. Eugene Mallabar is about to publish what will be his magnum opus – the last word on chimpanzees – and his reputation is what brings in the grants and donations that make the research possible. But Hope begins to see behaviour in her chimp group that doesn’t tie in with Mallabar’s research. At first, she tells him about this but he dismisses her – he doesn’t want his research threatened. So she begins to conduct her own research and is increasingly disturbed by what she discovers.

William Boyd

Hope sees Usman whenever she goes to the nearby town for supplies for the project. But on one trip, she and a colleague are taken captive by a group of rebels. Although this is a fairly small part of the overall story, it’s one of the most powerful – Boyd gives a compelling picture of the chaos of this kind of indeterminate warfare which is so commonplace on the African continent.

This is a book that could easily be read on two levels. The ideas in it about scientific ambition and evolution may not be particularly original, but they are very well presented, and Boyd even manages to make the maths discussions comprehensible and interesting, with something to say about the wider world. But put all the ideas and themes to one side, and the book becomes a simple but compelling story of Hope’s life. She is an exceptionally well drawn character, a strong, intelligent, independent woman, self-reliant sometimes to the point of coldness, but I found it easy to empathise with her nonetheless.

While I found the stories of Hope’s marriage and her later relationship with Usman absorbing and emotionally credible, what made the book stand out for me was the story of the chimp research in Grosso Arvore. For those particularly sensitive to animal stories, I will say that Boyd pulls no punches – he shows us nature in all its gore, sometimes graphically. But this is all animal to animal interaction – there is no suggestion of human cruelty towards the chimps – and I therefore found it quite bearable, like watching a wildlife documentary. Hope is professional in her approach so that the chimps are never anthropomorphised, but clear parallels are drawn between the behaviour of the chimps and the war going on in the human world. And because the chimps are such close relatives to humans, they gradually develop personalities of their own that we care about as much as if they were human. The other aspect of the chimp story is Mallabar’s reaction to the threat to his life’s work, and I found this equally well executed and believable.

Harriet Walter

For me, this is Boyd at his best. The book sprawls across time and geographic location, bringing each to life and never allowing the reader to become lost. Each separate strand is interesting and engrossing and they are well enough linked that they feel like a satisfying whole. The writing and storytelling are of course excellent – when is Boyd ever anything less? I listened to it on audio, perfectly narrated by Harriet Walter. I found it took me ages to get through (mainly because I tend to listen while cooking and eating, and frankly a lot of the chimp stuff just wasn’t suited to that activity!) but I remained totally absorbed in each strand, never having that irritating feeling of wishing he would hurry up and get back to the other storyline. It feels perfectly balanced, a story about chimps that has much to say about humanity, and says it beautifully. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Final Countdown 2017 plus Quarterly Challenges Report…

TBR Year-End Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So, time for 2017’s final count to see how I did over the year…

Well, although the total has obviously gone up over the year, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. In August I started my new Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge to read all 102 books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books – or at least as many of them as I can acquire. There are currently 76 of these in the overall total, and I’m proposing to take around four years to complete this challenge. The same applies to the Classics Club which has another four years to run and accounts for roughly another 70 books. So the underlying TBR problem is actually a mere 279, which I think shows my book habit is not spiralling out of control…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve only been on a couple of trips since then…

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I sailed with Long John Silver and the crew to Treasure Island, crossing the Atlantic which is one of the locations on the Main Journey (the places Phineas Fogg visited or travelled through in the original book, Around the World in 80 Days). And then I took a detour across the Arctic with Frankenstein in pursuit of his monster.

Since it’s the end of the year, here’s how the Main Journey is going so far…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice – Titian’s Boatman
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay – Selection Day
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea – A Dangerous Crossing
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands – Days Without End
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean – Treasure Island
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland – Dead Wake
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

To see the full challenge including all the detours, click here.

39 down, 41 to go!

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The Classics Club

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So far, I’ve read nineteen from my Classics Club list – a little behind schedule, but not worryingly so. In this last quarter, I’ve read five…

  1. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – 5 stars for this Scottish classic – an exciting adventure but also a great exercise in characterisation.
  2. Foundation by Isaac Asimov – hugely influential on the sci-fi genre but unfortunately showing its age a little – just 3 stars.
  3. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – 5 stars for this masterpiece of “mad science”.
  4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – 4 stars for one of the earliest dystopian novels that inspired many later classics like Brave New World and 1984.
  5. The Catcher in the Rye – review will appear next week, so I’ll keep you in suspense till then…

19 down, 71 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

The original plan was to finish this challenge by the end of the year, but I still have a few books that I haven’t managed to read yet, so it will continue until spring. I’ve reviewed three this quarter, none of which were on the original list. I’ve also read a biography of Rasputin which I’ll be reviewing soon. To see the full challenge, click here.

10. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – this is a collection of oral histories from some of the women who served on the Soviet front line during WW2. While I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, I had some reservations about the author’s bias affecting her methodology. 3 stars.

11. The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary – I loved this wild ride in a stolen Rolls Royce across post-revolutionary Russia. It’s a rip-roaring adventure story first and foremost, but Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. 5 stars.

12. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – this dystopian novel looks at the destruction of the individual in increasingly regimented totalitarian societies. Written in 1920, it seems remarkably prescient and was the first novel to be banned by Soviet censors, remaining unpublished in Zamyatin’s native country until 1988, during the period of glasnost. 4 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read and reviewed four books for my newest challenge. To see the full challenge, click here.

7.  Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith – This is an “inverted mystery” where the bulk of the story rests on whether and how the murderer will be caught. It’s also a psychological study of the murderer and of all the other people in the house. 5 stars.

8.  Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes – this is a variation on the country house mystery, this time in the enclosed environment of a University college. Unfortunately, the perpetual intellectual snobbery and failure to move the plot along meant that I abandoned it at the 40% mark on the “life’s too short” principle. 1 star.

9.  Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – the famous Maigret’s very first outing. While not as strong as some of the later novels in the series, I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become. 3 stars.

10. The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman – this features Freeman’s regular “scientific” detective, Dr Thorndyke, but the main character in this one is the first person narrator, Dr Berkeley. It’s laid out as a traditional mystery and is very well written, full of wit, and with a charming romance for young Dr Berkeley to give it warmth. I loved it. 5 stars.

10 down, 92 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2018! 😀

TBR Thursday 136… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Okay, now, I know it doesn’t look good. But there are extenuating circumstances! I recently started my new challenge to read 102 Classic Crime novels, which meant adding roughly 80 books to either the TBR or the wishlist. (The other twenty are out of print at the moment.) So you see, if you strip those out, really the overall figure has gone down! It’s purely an optical illusion that makes it appear as if it’s gone up. It’s like when your government keeps telling you your taxes have gone down and yet you seem to keep having to pay more – it’s simply a quirk of mathematics.

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I haven’t travelled very widely since then…

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I’ve had two trips to Moscow – a luxury stay at the Metropol Hotel in the company of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and a rather more traumatic trip with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Although I enjoyed the Towles more, Doctor Zhivago is by far the better book in terms of what it has to say about post-revolutionary Moscow, so it wins the slot on my detour list. My only other foreign trip was to the Sioux lands, one of the stops on the main list of places featured in Jules Verne’s original Around the World in 80 Days. This trip was made in the company of Sebastian Barry in his Days Without End, and sadly we spent most of our time at war with the Sioux. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and see if we can’t smoke the pipe of peace…

This challenge has fallen by the wayside a little recently because of my Russian challenge, but I’ll pick it up again properly in the New Year.

To see how I’m doing on the Main Journey plus all the detours so far, click here.

37 down, 43 to go!

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The Classics Club

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Four off my Classics Club list this quarter, so still behind on this one but beginning to get into a rhythm that should allow me to gradually catch up over the remaining four years of the challenge. These have undoubtedly been some of my best recent reads…

11. The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – 5 stars for this Scottish classic that has similarities to the writings of Jane Austen, but with a darker tone. Deserves a much wider readership than it has.

12. She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – 4½ stars. A fascinatingly dark study of a character whose own actions send him on a spiral into delusion, depression and perhaps even insanity. And a decent mystery too.

13. Cop Hater by Ed McBain – another 5 star read for this first in the long-running 87th Precinct series. The combination of noir and police procedural and the excellent quality of the writing make this a true classic of crime fiction.

14. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 5 stars, of course, for this classic story about poverty, justice and race in small-town America in the 1930s. Some of its attitudes may be outdated but it still has much to say about the problems facing contemporary America.

14 down, 76 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Another two reviews from the main list this quarter, one biography and one classic of fiction. I’ve also read another non-fiction from the original list, The Unwomanly Face of War, but not yet reviewed it. This challenge is drawing close to its end, and the list has changed a bit over the year, but I’m still thoroughly enjoying my revolutionary immersion and hope to fit in at least two or three more before I finish. To see the full challenge, click here.

6. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it. 3 stars.

7. Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen – an approachable and very readable account, lighter in both tone and political content than some of the massively detailed histories of the period, but giving enough background to set Lenin’s life in its historical context. 4 stars.

I’m also adding two more that weren’t on the original list:-

8. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – issued to go alongside this summer’s British Library exhibition on the Revolution, this works very well as a substitute for those of us who weren’t able to attend. It’s beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, and the balance between text and illustrations is excellent, making it a substantial history as well as a visual feast. 5 stars.

9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – this tale of Count Rostov, sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow soon after the Revolution, is an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part, but in the end it feels oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth. 3½ stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

My brand new challenge, only started a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve only read 1 so far (as at 30th Sept) to add to the five I had already read and reviewed before I started. But I’m looking forward to making these classic crime novels a regular part of my reading diet. To see the full challenge, click here.

6. Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate – I thoroughly enjoyed this – excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. 5 stars and a great start!

6 down, 96 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading – I feel Darcy would be proud of me!

Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀

 

TBR Thursday 126… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Last time I mentioned that I had a new system for cutting back on review books – namely, that before I click request on NetGalley or Amazon Vine, I ask myself “Would you really rather be reading this than one of the books you already own?” This has actually been working well (though the figures don’t show it yet, mainly because so many publishers have been kindly providing me with books for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, which I greatly appreciate). So I’ve now extended that principle to my wishlist which had got out of hand again, resulting in a massive cull of some of the many books on there that I can’t convince myself are must-reads. I’ll be culling even more deeply over the next few months…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve been on quite a few journeys since then…

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I haven’t visited any of the places on the Main Journey this quarter but I’ve made a few detours to some less frequented parts of my fictional world. Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno told me stories of war and love in Soviet Russia and Chechnya, so I’m declaring it for Chechnya on the grounds that I’m more likely to visit Russia again. Then Kanae Minato took me to Japan to witness the after-effects of a murder in Penance. Off for a brief visit to Beijing in the company of Peter May for murder and strange traditions in The Ghost Marriage. Colm Tóibín transported me through space and time to ancient Greece in House of Names – more murders, not to mention human sacrifice! And to finish, a different war – Scott Turow’s Testimony is set partly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and partly in the Hague at the war crimes tribunal. Hmm, declaring it for Bosnia, I think…

Maybe next quarter I’ll try to do a trip that involves a little less death and mayhem and a little more sun, sea and sand…

To see how I’m doing on the Main Journey plus all the detours so far, click here.

35 down, 45 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

Four off my Classics Club list this quarter, making a total of 10 in the first year – getting way behind schedule now! But I have several of the shorter ones planned for over the summer, and then will get into some of the chunkier ones over autumn and winter…

7. The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – 3½ stars for a tragedy that left me disappointingly unmoved even though I admired the prose.

8. The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells – 5 stars! Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

9. The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – another 5 star read, taking us on a thrilling adventure in the Pennsylvanian coalfields where the infamous Scowrer gang control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder!

10. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore – 4 stars for this historical fiction about love and the infamous Doone gang in rural England. Coma-inducingly slow start, but worth it in the end…

I’m also making one change to my list. I’m removing William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – having read some reviews, I’ve gone totally off the idea. And I’m replacing it with We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which a couple of people have recommended to me both as an excellent book in its own right and as relevant to the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

10 down, 80 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Just two reviews from the main list this quarter, but since they’re the two massive histories, I’m quite satisfied with that. I’ve also finished reading Doctor Zhivago and Lenin The Dictator, but haven’t reviewed them yet, so they’ll be included in the next round-up. To see the full challenge, click here.

3. History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky – an extremely detailed and occasionally biased account of the events of 1917. A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. 5 stars.

4. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes. This is an exceptional book – an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. 5 stars.

I’m adding another book that wasn’t on the original list:-

5. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Although this isn’t about the Revolution itself, it has much to say about the USSR and Russia from 1937, under Stalin, to more or less the present day, but this time in fictional form. Another great book – 5 stars.

Finally, I’ve decided I can’t face Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916, which I included on the original list. So I’m replacing it with a biography of Rasputin which I suspect will be much more fun.

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20 Books of Summer

But there’s still two full months to go, right? Ooh, look! A diversionary tactic!

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Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀