Page turning, 2018 Part 1

I read a lot last year. I cleared 41 books in total, surpassing my target by 1. So, did I extend my target for this year? No, I’m going for 40 again – it seems like a good target and I don’t think I’d necessarily find more reading time in my days to get another 10 in.

That being said, I’m already off to a strong start to the year with 7 down and 2 on the go at the moment.

Oddly enough, there’s a bit of a theme that ties three of these four – and at least another four on the TBR for the next couple of months – together that wasn’t necessarily intended but Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was the first of the year and probably set the ball rolling.

Gorky Park was one of those books I’d often see in bookshops and ponder its contents before moving on but, this time, I read the back and took it home. An absolute 5 Star book – well deserving of the attention and praised it received. A crime thriller set in Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorky Park reads more like literary fiction than your standard thriller and is so thoroughly engrossing and, in Arkady, powered by a great character – I’m genuinely glad that this one evolved into a series of novels and will  be adding the following instalments (along with everything Ellroy’s) to my longer term reading list.

Trying to vary my reading I thought I’d take a stab at a ‘classic’ early on this year and ended up continuing a theme. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is set in a Soviet labour camp in the early 1950s and follows the single day of one of the prisoners – Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s deep into a 10 year sentence for ‘spying’ – he’d escaped his German captors during the war, made it back to his lines and was arrested as a spy. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the Gulag system and it adds a sense of weight and truth to this novel (if you’re up for a heavier read his Gulag Archipelago is a game-changer). It’s a short but intense read and noteable as it was one of the first accounts of Stalinist repression to have been published (less than 10 years after Old Whiskers’ death).

Of course, there’s always a need for something lighter and, as my Discworld collection slowly grows toward completion, I’ve usually got a Terry Pratchett novel ready to reread for the first time in at least a decade. I had – again – forgotten just how painfully funny The Last Continent is. First published in 1998, that means it had been two decades since I’d last read it and, as I had the briefest of memories of it and remembered nothing of its plot it was akin to reading it for the first time. Pratchett’s parody of Australian culture and media touch-points – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee all get a warm roasting – easily sits as one of his funniest and most accessible reads. The invention of Vegemite and Australian slang, in particular, had me chuckling into the night.

Back in 2016 I read Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. It’s a great novel, a cold-war thriller set in Berlin as the divide was going up. Another book-shop spotting, this year’s Defectors again finds Mr Kanon setting his work in the cold war, this time – spotting that them yet? – in Moscow. As the title suggests, Defectors tackles the theme of the defections in the 1950s / 60s and, specifically, what came next. A former CIA agent, Frank Weeks slipped the net and escaped to Moscow and, over a decade later, sends word to his brother, Simon, that he – and the Soviet State – wish to publish his memoirs and wants to use Simon’s publishing house to do so.

Leaving aside the twists of the plot for fear of giving anything away, where Defectors excels is in the depiction of life for those former ‘field agents without a field’ – living in a strange suspended state, a  sort of prison within the larger prison of the Soviet Empire. Technically ‘free’ to be yet only allowed to travel to enclosed dacha complexes, use certain stores and continually monitored. Kanon manages to fill his story with sufficiently realistic and historically accurate details to make it ring true without overdoing it and slowing down the momentum – this is a thriller after all. Kanon clearly an author whose back catalogue now warrants investigation.

Up next: more Russian classics, some World War Two diaries and some new novels from Nordic Noir’s godfathers…

Pages turned

I seem to have become a lapsed blogger again. It’s what happens when life gets busy and spare time either shrinks or becomes more important. In this instance a new role has kept me busier and lunchtimes have not lent themselves to composing updates.

However – I’m now done for the year so let’s catch up, shall we?

I’m pretty much on-track to hit my self-imposed target of 40 books this year with the last one well underway with a week and change left of 2017. I managed quite a bit of progress this last month or two though with a book like The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy there’s no way to read it quickly.

Ellroy’s writing has been praised by many before and better than I’m sure I could. I will say that his is a unique and powerful voice that envelops a reader and sucks you into the seedy underbelly of 1950’s LA with a knack for the ‘big’ storylines that cross and weave into something huge. If I’m forced to I’d rate The Big Nowhere over The Black Dahlia – a much wider ranging story – and am anxious to move on to LA Confidential in the New Year.

I’ve yet to write that post I keep meaning to on Terry Pratchett. In the meantime my rebuilding of my Pratchett collection is going well. I’d say that of the 41 Discworld novels there’s what I consider a ‘golden’ period where Sir Terry hit his stride and get his style on the nose. For my money it’s from 1989’s Pyramids through to Monstrous Regiment in 2003. That’s a hell of a time frame for quality output  that recent re-reads Reaper Man and Feet of Clay both fall within. It had easily been 15 years since I’d read Reaper Man and I’d remembered nothing of it aside from ‘Death takes a holiday’ so I loved every page. The same could also be said of Feet of Clay though my memory of that one was clearer so I knew almost exactly where it was going – that being said it was still a pleasure to re-read. The Dark Side of the Sun, that being said, is pre-Discworld Pratchett and his voice was not yet found. It’s a very heavy-sci-fi book and feels, for the most part, as though Pratchett is trying too hard to force himself into a style that’s not his. There’s a brief section where the humour and narrative that would make him one of the UK’s biggest-selling authors makes an appearance but, for the most part, the 158 pages of The Dark Side of the Sun felt like a slog through three times as many.

Thinking of my need to clear a few more books by the end of the year I played a ‘cheat’ card and read 61 Hours by Lee Child – because reading a Reacher book never takes more than a couple of sittings. After being disappointed by the recent Night School I was very surprised by 61 Hours and would say it ranks up the top of those ten or so Reacher novels I’ve read to date. A great concept and plot setup and the countdown really pushes you on. The fact that Lee Child took Reacher out of his comfort zone and stuck him in an inhospitable location that often handicapped him really helped and I get the feeling Child himself was trying to shake the format up too – especially as he left Reacher’s fate unknown at the end.

Page Turning – Three More

According to Goodreads I’m pretty much on track for my 40 books challenge this year – two days into July I finished reading the 21st book I’d started in 2017.

So with a longer review for one of those four cleared since I last dropped any summary, here are those other three rounding out the list of those completed.

Night School by Lee Child

The most recent in the Jack Reacher series and one which – perhaps as Child didn’t know where to take his one man army immediately  after Make Me – hurtles us back in time to the mid-90’s (I wouldn’t mind getting on that time machine) to a time when Reacher was still actively serving in the army.

I’m now up to nine of the twenty-one Reacher novels and I’m beginning to be able to form an impression as to which ones are strong and which ones are merely ok. For my money this one sits in the latter category.  Make Me was a real strong entry after the relative water tread of Personal and took Reacher in a direction that showed growth and potential. By heading back into the past Child removes any real sense of jeopardy and it becomes more of a “Reacher gets into fights in Germany” read than anything else. The closeness of events to those of Killing Floor mean there’s nothing revelatory about Reacher’s past offered up and Child’s method of writing without knowing where events are going is too often on display when it comes to the ‘mystery’ at the centre of events.

Let’s hope The Midnight Line is another step forward rather than more standing still. Not bad but I’d be disappointed if I’d paid anything more than the £2 this one cost me.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (some spoiler)

This one had been sat on the Want-To and then the TBR list and pile for a while now. My wife got to it first and praised it and there’s no denying the regard it’s held in. I’d be gobsmacked if somebody hadn’t heard of it; its infamy probably known more than its contents.

So… do I rave about this book? Well, nobody can write like Nabokov, that’s for sure. I’d not read a line by him before now but even the first sentence is pure brilliance: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

The dark comedy is sublime, the character of Humbert is one for the archives and so brilliantly painted and there are times when one can’t help but feel for him and, yes, so much of this misperceived (by those who haven’t read it) novel is less about Humbert’s pursuit of his nymphet as it is about Lolita’s absolute playing and exploitation of his sickness.

BUT, here’s what stops me wanting to read this again and again in the same way I do about a book like The Master and Margarita* and maybe I am a prude, or over-thinking this but a large part of this novel is essentially Humbert on a cross-country tour of America having sex with a very under-age girl. It makes for a very uncomfortable read – especially when he points out her crying herself to sleep every night – and, yes, this is intended, yes Lo is “seduces” him and yes his revelling in such activities makes the downfall so much more dramatic  but the lengthy segues that detail the realisation of Humbert’s desires (no matter their forming and Lo’s scheming) are still just too visceral to make an enjoyable read for my tastes.

But – while I won’t necessarily read this one again – it is a hugely well written and brilliantly told story that underlines Nabokov’s importance in the literary cannon and should be read at least once but any such student of the form.

 

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pretty much impossible to review any of Sir Pterry’s novels in anything other than adoration. I’ve mentioned before both that it would be tricky to overestimate the  importance of Terry Pratchett in my library and literary explorations  and my desire to gradually re-read the Discworld series.

I think Pyramids often slips through the cracks when people talk about Discworld novels, I might be wrong. It’s not one that features any of the recurring characters – there’s no Rincewind or Nanny Ogg, for example – but it’s an important one. Sitting seventh in the published order it marked Terry’s first move away from the Wizzards and Witches that had dominated thus far. Prior to re-reading this one I’d done the same with Sourcery and couldn’t help feeling that perhaps even the writer was getting a little tired of the theme. Pyramids was one of the first in what’s now called the ‘cultures’ series as well as the exploration of belief on the Discworld.

Like many of those pre, say, Men At Arms, I had only vague recollections of Pyramids having read it originally some two decades ago and not since. Of course I remembered Pteppic and You Bastard, the Disc’s greatest living mathematician and – as with all of those I’ve revisited in the last couple of years – reading this one again was a real joy. Preatchett really was in a league of his own and to sit there chuckling away at this one served just to remind how much of a loss it is to no longer receive the joy of a new Discworld novel every year or so.

 

 

 

*I cannot recommend this one enough, just make sure you get a good translation as I’ve seen far too many bland ones on the shelf that seem to suck the passion and charm out of the prose.

Turning More Pages

Another couple of months and another chunk is taken out of the continually growing TBR pile.

Time doesn’t appear to be my friend of late for blogging larger reviews (life takes priority) so I’m gonna try and wrap up a few of those books whose spines I cracked over the last month or so.

The Amber Shadows is a 2016 release  (it’s not all that often I read books so close to their publish date) that I found via the author’s twitter – Lucy Ribchester’s book (her second) is set in 1940’s Bletchley Park and she’d been sharing some of those once-classified documents from home of Britain’s codebreakers during World War II  that had served as research for the novel. That’s enough to get my interest. The Amber Shadows is certainly well-researched and manages to give a very convincing account of the time and place without over-doing it to the point of stereotyped clichés as some do. The plot – Honey Deschamps works in Hut 6 transcribing decrypted signals from the German Army when she begins receiving mysterious packages of amber – is certainly promising and the writer is able to keep the reader guessing. The conclusion left me a little unsatisfied but, in retrospect, it’s certainly in keeping with the period in which it’s set in terms of how, with the second world war raging and life having taken on a different value, it may well have played out.

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The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt had been sat on my shelves for at least a year before I picked it up at the start of the month. I’d seen it in the hands of numerous travellers a few years back on a cruise and in many a list at the time so thought nothing of grabbing it for £1.99 in Sainsburys. Though I obviously didn’t think to read it either. I can only say I was stupid. It’s a brilliant book. A real ripper that I tore through hungrily. Many a review have likened it to a noir-ish Coen brothers story and I’d happily agree. Another book I’m glad I finally got around to reading and just in time it seems as Mr DeWitt has a new book out.

Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole is, I guess, a name that isn’t one typo away from being obscene in its native Norwegian. The Redbreast is my third Harry Hole read (well out of sequence) and fifth Nesbo novel. I was hesitant to read this after my disappointment with Head Hunters but I needn’t have been. While not as genuinely terrifying as The Snowman or quite in possession of its writer’s realised style, this third Hole novel not only works as a good stand-alone instalment but also serves up plenty of fodder for the Oslo detective to tackle in later novels and it’s a good indication as to how both the character and series develop- having now read three of which at random I do know think I’ll be better served reading them in order, though.

Reading things in order brings me to the couple of Discworld novels I re-read last month. My gradual rebuilding of my Terry Practchett collection is going nicely – I’ve also finally added and reread Men At Arms and travelled back via Guards! Guards!– if slower down to my decision to purchase and read on a less specific order than chronological. As such I’m not merely going to Waterstones and buying new (not to mention my disliking of the new cover art) but popping into used book stores and looking for specific titles – Pyramids is next on my list – or seeing what they have (there seems to be an abundance of The Hogfather). I hadn’t read either Mort or Sourcery more than the one reading I gave them at least a decade and a half ago. As such it was great to rediscover how delightfully dark the humour in Mort is and laugh as Death attempted to understand what it is to be human. I can’t, in all honesty, say quite the same for Sourcery as it took me a few false-starts to get through this one. It lacks the spark and momentum that his earlier and later novels would have and, looking at where it sits in publishing order, perhaps Sir Terry was reaching the point where he was running out of fuel for the Wizards / Witches / Rincewind stories. Indeed he’d soon branch out into other character and story arcs to populate the Disc. That’s not to say Sourcery is without its charms or humour but I’d be surprised if it was listed as anyone’s favourite of the Discworld novels.