Oh, no, no, no, no! Last time my TBR was at 197 and I swore a private oath (well, I swore, anyway) that it wouldn’t get any higher. But… well, see, it’s not really my fault! Somebody foolishly scheduled a huge factual, a huge fiction and a huge crime novel all to reach the top of my reading list at the same time. So I’ve been reading and reading and reading but not actually finishing any books. Yet new ones keep arriving. Up two to 199… but no way am I going back over 200! This is where I make my stand!
Here are a few more I’ll get to… sometime…
Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard
Courtesy of the British Library. Another author I’d never heard of much less read, but I’ve seen a couple of very positive reviews of this one since the BL republished it last month…
The Blurb says: “I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”
In the blackout conditions of a wintry London night, amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof and a young air-raid warden have stumbled upon a corpse stowed in the walls of their street’s bomb shelter. As the police begin their investigation, the night is interrupted once again when Agnes’s upstairs neighbour Mrs Sibley is terrorised by the sight of a grisly pig s head at her fourth-floor window.
With the discovery of more sinister threats mysteriously signed ‘Pig-sticker’, Agnes and her husband Andrew – unable to resist a good mystery – begin their investigation to deduce the identity of a villain living amongst the tenants of their block of flats.
A witty and lighthearted mystery full of intriguing period detail, this rare gem of Golden Age crime returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1943.
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A Lonely Man by Chris Power
Courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley. In my bid to read more new fiction this year, this is another I picked purely on the basis of the blurb. Early reviews are a bit disappointing, but we’ll see…
The Blurb says: Robert is a struggling writer living in Berlin with his wife and two young daughters. In a bookshop one night, he meets Patrick, an enigmatic stranger with a sensational story to tell: a ghostwriter for a Russian oligarch recently found hanged, who is now being followed. But is he really in danger? Patrick’s life strikes Robert as a fabrication, but a magnetic one that begins to obsess him. He decides to use Patrick, and his story.
An elegant and atmospheric twist on the cat-and-mouse narrative, A Lonely Man is a novel of shadows, of the search for identity and the elastic nature of truth. As his association with Patrick hurtles towards tragedy, Robert must decide: are actual events the only things that give a story life, and are some stories too dangerous to tell?
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Dalziel and Pascoe
Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill
Continuing my slow re-read of my favourite contemporary crime series of all time. This is the 11th book and Hill is at his peak by this stage. I’ve been listening to the audiobook versions of the last few, but for some reason Colin Buchanan seemed to stop after book 10 and Brian Glover took over for the next couple, unfortunately getting quite poor reviews for his narration. So I’ve decided to go back to paper for this one…
The Blurb says: When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure he knows who the culprit is. After all, he’s seen him with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe certainly thinks so.
To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer who is planning suicide and has chosen to confide in Dalziel. The local Mystery Plays should provide a welcome distraction as Dalziel’s been cast as God. Unfortunately, the other lead is a local builder who also happens to be the chief suspect in some recent disappearances that might actually be murders…
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Fiction on Audio
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
I loved Harris’ The Observations when I read it a year or two ago, and when I reviewed it several people strongly recommended this one. Anna Bentinck is the narrator – I haven’t listened to her before but she gets a lot of praise…
The Blurb says: As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.
Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes – leading to a notorious criminal trial – the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.
Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads, Amazon UK or Audible UK.
I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!
(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)
For the runners-up!
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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in
Like last year, I’ve been reading so many classics this year it hasn’t left room for an awful lot of modern literary fiction, and I don’t include classics in these awards. However, being forced to be choosier means I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of the books I have read. I gave eleven books the full five stars, so the choice was not easy. And two of these could really share top spot, but since I’m not the Booker committee I’ll actually make a decision!
The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo
In 1930s Malaya, young Ren was the houseboy of Dr McPherson until the doctor’s death. Before he died, the doctor gave Ren two instructions – firstly, that he should go into the employment of another doctor, William Abbott, and secondly, that he should find Dr McPherson’s severed finger and bury it alongside him in his grave. Ren has 49 days to complete this second task; if he fails, Dr McPherson’s soul will remain wandering the earth for ever. Meantime, Ji Lin is working as a dance-hall hostess, and when one of her customers becomes overly amorous he drops something – a preserved and blackened finger in a vial. And suddenly strange things begin to happen around Ji Lin – unexplained deaths and vivid dreams that seem to impinge on her waking life…
While there is on one level a relatively straightforward crime and mystery element to this, it’s shrouded in the folklore of the Chinese inhabitants of colonial Malaya (now Malaysia), especially as regards the mythology surrounding death rituals and the legend of the weretiger. I enjoyed every word of it – the characterisation, the descriptions of the society, the perspective on colonialism, the elements of humour and romance, the folklore, the eerieness and the darkness – great stuff!
After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first but she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.
Savage brings a balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written, deeply emotional and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed.
Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, young Bessy Buckley finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…
This is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it special is Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Great characters, lots of humour, nicely spooky at points – a great read!
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but as her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.
Despite the fact that the main character is dead, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders. Beautifully written, a wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. Could so easily have been my winner…
A former surgeon now acts as a general doctor in a small run-down clinic serving a population of rural villagers. Frustrated with the way his life has turned out, the surgeon is in a near perpetual state of disappointment and ill-temper. Then, one night after a long day when he has been giving all the local children their polio vaccinations, he is approached by three very strange patients, each with terrible wounds. They are a husband, wife and young son who were attacked in the street, robbed, stabbed and left to die. Which indeed they did. Now they have been given the chance to return from the afterlife, but before they come alive at dawn the next day, they must have their wounds treated or they will die again…
A beautifully written fable which, while it can be read on one level simply as a unique, interesting and very human story, has layer upon layer of depth, dealing with the big questions of life, death, faith, and the place of medicine in all of these. The whole question of the unknowableness of God’s plan and of the place of faith in determining how to act underlies every decision the characters are forced to make and, in the end, their humanity is all they have to guide them. Paralkar also shows the skills we take for granted in our surgeons – the near miracles we expect them to perform, and our readiness to criticise and blame if they fail. The underlying suggestion seems to be that we’re near to a point of refusing to accept death as inevitable, and what does that do to questions of faith?
Paralkar has achieved the perfect balance of giving a satisfying and thought-provoking story without telling the reader what to think, and as a result this is one that each reader will make unique to herself. One of the most original novels I’ve read in years.
(And yet… it seems to have sunk almost without trace, having garnered only 172 ratings on Goodreads as compared to Elif Shafak’s 5113. Suggesting that a Booker nomination is more influential than an FF Award – surely not! Get out there, people, read it, review it and force it on everyone you know… for my sake! 😉 )
An extremely difficult choice this year – both Furious Hours and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would have been worthy winners too. But this book just edged ahead in the final furlong – its originality, its profound humanity, and the fact that several months after reading it I still often find myself pondering over the questions it raises. One that I will undoubtedly read again – the highest accolade I can give to any book – and I’m looking forward with great anticipation to seeing what Paralkar gives us in the future.
Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me for this year’s awards feature.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it – I’ve enjoyed your company!
Bessy Buckley may be young in years but her hard and sordid upbringing means she’s old in experience. Fleeing from her hometown of Glasgow in search of a better life, she finds herself more or less accidentally taking a job as maid at Castel Haivers, the home of Arabella Reid and her husband James, halfway along the road to Edinburgh. Arabella is young, beautiful and kind, and the affection-starved Bessy is soon devoted to her new mistress. But the job has some strange requirements, such as that Bessy must keep a journal of her actions and thoughts every day, and show it to Arabella on demand. Soon Bessy finds she’s not the first maid to whom Arabella has shown peculiar attention; in particular there was a girl named Nora, who died in circumstances that seem to cast a dark shadow over the household…
In some ways, this is a take on the Victorian sensation novel complete with touches of Gothic horror, insanity, shocking deaths and so on. But what makes it feel fresh is the perspective of Bessy, our narrator. She’s both feisty and vulnerable, strong but sometimes unsure of herself, devoted to but clear-sighted about the flaws of her mistress. She’s learned to take care of herself in a world that hasn’t shown her much care and has retained the capacity to love, despite love having been in short supply in her brief life to date.
However, it’s Bessy’s voice that is so special – a real tour-de-force from Harris in recreating an entirely credible dialect and slang for that place and time. Bessy (like the author) is Irish originally, as were so many Glaswegians, and I loved the way Harris managed to give her language an authentic touch of Glasgow-Irish at points. Contrary to popular belief I wasn’t around in 1863 when the book is set, but a lot of the dialect words and speech mannerisms are familiar from my youth, and the pawky, irreverent, occasionally bawdy sense of humour is just about perfect. I’ve seen non-Scots say they found it a bit tricky at first to get used to the language, but for me it was as natural as listening to people who were elderly when I was a child. It’s not overdone – it’s more the rhythms and style that make it work rather than excessive use of specifically Scots vocabulary.
The story itself unfolds slowly and perhaps stays a bit low-key to really compete with true sensation novels. But I liked this more realistic approach and found the whole thing stayed very well within the range of credibility. It takes us to some dark places, not least in Bessy’s childhood, but Bessy isn’t the type to wallow – she prefers to shut her mind off to the bad memories as much as she can, and her resilience and strength make her an extremely likeable protagonist to spend time with. She’s not always wise in her actions but her intentions are usually good, and she’s hard on herself when she gets things wrong. There are some nicely spooky moments and plenty of drama to keep things ticking along, but the main joy is in the language and characterisation. While we get to know Bessy intimately, Arabella is more enigmatic – perhaps the reader understands her a little better than Bessy does. Again Harris is very skilled at playing into the reader’s expectations of this type of novel while leaving Bessy struggling to understand the psychological forces at play – the intellectual and physical repression of women, the Victorian tropes of hysteria and insanity, the Gothic horror of candlelit gloom and Freudian dream sequences, the hints of unacknowledged lesbian desire, etc.
I might have criticised it, as some have, for being a little too long and drawn-out for its content, but I enjoyed Bessy’s voice so much that I never found it dragging and would happily have stayed in her company for as long as she liked. Loved it, and will be seeking out more of Harris’ work – highly recommended!
Aha, you doubters! Last week’s increase was a temporary blip! This week the TBR is back down – by 2 to 222. Cause for celebration…
Here are a few more that will be sashaying off the list soon…
Courtesy of Oxford University Press. A nicely quirky way to tell the story of some of the women recognised by scientists but often not well known to us lesser mortals. I had a quick look at the list of names and am ashamed to admit to only recognising about five of them, so I’m looking forward to learning more about them all…
The Blurb says: Philosophers and poets in times past tried to figure out why the stainless moon “smoothly polished, like a diamond” in Dante’s words, had stains. The agreed solution was that, like a mirror, it reflected the imperfect Earth. Today we smile, but it was a clever way to understand the Moon in a manner that was consistent with the beliefs of their age. The Moon is no longer the “in” thing. We see it as often as the Sun and give it little thought ― we’ve become indifferent. However, the Moon does reflect more than just sunlight. The Moon, or more precisely the nomenclature of lunar craters, still holds up a mirror to an important aspect of human history. Of the 1586 craters that have been named honoring philosophers and scientists, only 28 honor a woman. These 28 women of the Moon present us with an opportunity to meditate on this gap, but perhaps more significantly, they offer us an opportunity to talk about their lives, mostly unknown today.
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The book that’s been lingering on my TBR longest, since 20/6/2011, it seems about time I should actually read this one! It’s one of my 20 Books of Summer…
The Blurb says: Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of The Observations – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
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Another of my 20 Books and also one from my Classics Club list. I love Rider Haggard but have read surprisingly few of his books, tending to re-read the same ones again and again. So I’m looking forward to this one, which will be new to me…
The Blurb says: “Nada the Lily” is the thrilling story of the brave Zulu warrior Umslopogaas and his love for the most beautiful of Zulu women, Nada the Lily. Young Umslopogaas, son of the bloodthirsty Zulu king Chaka, is forced to flee when Chaka orders his death. In the adventures that ensue, Umslopogaas is carried away by a lion and then rescued by Galazi, king of an army of ghost-wolves.
Together, Umslopogaas and Galazi fight for glory and honour and to avenge their wrongs. With their fabled weapons, an axe called Groan-Maker and the club Watcher of the Woods, the two men become legendary warriors. But even these two unstoppable heroes may finally have met their match when the Zulu king sends his army of slayers to destroy them!
Although he is more famous for his romances “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) and “She” (1887), the unjustly neglected “Nada the Lily” (1892) is one of H. Rider Haggard’s finest achievements. “Nada the Lily” is a dazzling blend of adventure, romance, fantasy, and the Gothic, brilliantly weaving fiction and history into an unforgettable tale.
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Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other books of Bellairs the BL has already published, so am looking forward to meeting Inspector Littlejohn again…
The Blurb says: Following a mysterious explosion, the offices of Excelsior Joinery Company are no more; the 3 directors are killed and the peace of a quiet town in Surrey lies in ruins. When the supposed cause of ignited gas leak is dismissed and the presence of dynamite revealed, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is summoned to the scene.
But beneath the sleepy veneer of Evingden lies a hotbed of deep-seated grievances. Confounding Littlejohn’s investigation is an impressive cast of suspicious persons, each concealing their own axe to grind.
Bellairs’ novel of small-town grudges with calamitous consequences revels in the abundant possible solutions to the central crime as a masterpiece of misdirection.
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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.