Every year, I think about keeping track of what I read, and some years, I even start. This is another of these years. I’d like to keep track of how much I read, what I read, what I like, and how much of it is, in fact, utter trash. I’ve alluded on this blog to my not-so-secret vice – romantic fiction, especially Regencies – but have no idea how much of my reading is made up of ‘vice’ rather than ‘virtue’. (The inverted commas are because I don’t actually think any reading is ‘bad’, or for that matter, ‘good’; it’s just a shorthand.)
The plan is to note every book I read – by which I mean read from cover to cover, rather than dip in and out of. So the dozens of craft, cookery and gardening books I consult regularly probably won’t be mentioned here (but will probably get their mention elsewhere). I shall note down the title and author at the very least, some comments if I think of any, and a full-on review if I am so moved.
So, here’s the list for 2011. I’ll put the first at the bottom and add new ones at the top, to save scrolling.
Note added 26 August: Well, that all went a bit wrong. I had a phase of re-reading trashy books, (which was more skimming than a proper reread) so didn’t update the list. And then when I started reading new stuff again, I forgot to update this. So I can’t remember what order I finished things, and will probably remember more books as I tidy up and think, ‘Oh, I read that…!’
46. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. (24 August 2011)
I like Kate Atkinson, and really liked Case Histories, which introduced detective Jackson Brodie. This is a sort-of sequel, another book where each person’s story links together to create a whole – a dark, murky and often very violent whole. It would probably seem to rely on co-incidence were it not set in Edinburgh, where, in my experience, everyone does seem to know everyone else – or at least someone who knows them. I loved this and found it really gripping.
45. The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas.
Oh my. This was sitting on my shelf for aaaaages before I read it, and I’m kicking myself. It’s brilliant. Totally fascinating and intricate and gripping and marvellous. I won’t try to summarise it but urge you to read it if you haven’t already.
44. Talking to Addison by Jenny Colgan
Chick lit. There’s a lot of stuff lumped together as chick lit, and it covers a wide quality range. Some is well written and engaging, and others… not so much. Is the female protagonist in this book meant to be so annoying? I didn’t care what happened to her, really.
43. Hester: The remarkable life of Dr Johnson’s ‘Dear Mistress’ by Ian McIntyre
A very good, well researched biography of Hester Thrale, the muse and confidante of Samuel Johnson. It’s scholarly but easy enough to read, and very interesting. I found it hard to read about all the deaths of Hester’s children, and the cold-shouldering she got from the ones who lived – poor woman. But she was clearly one of the most interesting women of the period. Boswell couldn’t stand her – which in my book is a recommendation.
42. It’s No Wonder I Take A Drink by Laura Marney
I liked this one – a nice, straightforward read with good characters and an interesting plot. It reminded me a bit of Isla Dewar, whose books I enjoy.
41. A Hopeless Romantic by Harriet Evans
Chick lit. Not bad as chick lit goes but still more of a snack than a meal. I read it on holiday in an afternoon.
40. The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman
This one was lent to me and I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise because the cover is awful. But it’s good fun – a bit of historical intrigue and based on some real historical characters. It takes liberties with history, but it’s a page-turner. I did enjoy this.
39. Dangerous to Know by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Meh. A friend gave me a bag of books and some of them were good … and one of them was this. Writing not good. Characters nearly all unsympathetic. Plot heavily reliant on coincidence. Conclusion of mystery decidedly icky.
38. The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss (27 June 2011)
I gave my husband this book a few Christmasses ago – it seemed to be just his thing, and he seemed to enjoy it – but I’ve only just got round to picking it up myself. It’s great fun. The author describes it as ‘a bit of fluff’ and in a way, it is. But it’s written with enormous verve and the plotting, although deliberately ludicrous, is immaculate. It’s full of arch wit (with a hero called Lucifer Box, how could it be otherwise?) and silly puns and I enjoyed it tremendously.
37. The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman (June 2011)
I picked this up in the library, where it was being sold off for 50p. If I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have chosen a book by Jeremy Paxman otherwise – his onscreen persona would have put me off. And that would have been a mistake because this is a fascinating, considered, and extremely balanced book. Rather than taking a straightforward look at political life, Paxman examines the life of the politician, from childhood (he discovers that around half of all British PMs lost one or both parents before they reached adulthood and considers the significance of this) through to searching for a seat, getting elected, getting noticed, getting promoted… and then getting sacked (either by the PM, the party or the people). This is a really novel approach to the subject and does raise lots of interesting points.
36. Mesmerised by Candace Camp (June 2011)
Oh dear. Oh dear Oh dear. What a ridiculous book. Psychics and ghosts and hauntings, oh my! Murders and demonic possession and abandoned wings of castles and all sorts. Ludicrous.
35. Mariah’s Prize by Miranda Jarrett (June 2011)
This is clearly my month for silly romances. Totally unbelievable from start to finish, hero I wanted to slap, heroine I wanted to drown. And a ‘Quaker’ character, which meant the author larded the dialogue with ‘thee’. Even when the correct form would have been ‘thou’ or ‘thy’. It was painful.
34. Fallen Angel by Mary Jo Putney (June 2011)
Barmy premise (daughter of a Methodist minister agrees to sacrifice her reputation to save her village – oh, please) but actually, despite that, not a bad book. Lots of plotting and intrigue and the obligatory attempted murder, but the characters are solid and the writing is good, so despite the inanity I was happy to go along with it.
33. Seduce me at Sunrise by Lisa Kleypas (June 2011)
I went on a bit of a romance binge – I read four in a row and then had to find something savory (as you will see). Out of the four, this has the worst title by a country mile, but it’s the best book. I think LK is my new favourite romance author. I liked the characters a lot, they were very believable. I understood Win, the heroine, and while I would find the hero infuriating in real life, the author somehow made him sympathetic even when he behaves like an arse.
32. The Ghost by Robert Harris (2 June 2011)
Hmm. I did enjoy this. It’s a thriller based on a not-at-all-disguised Tony Blair. Former PM gets hauled in front of ICC for war crimes, etc. The narrator is a ghostwriter, brought in to work on the former PM’s memoirs after the former collaborator dies in an apparent ‘suicide’. It’s hard to review a thriller without giving away too much, but I’d say that the writing was very good, the characterisation was a bit patchy and the plot became steadily sillier. The ‘code’ which the CIA seemed unable to break, for example, was pretty simple, so it’s unlikely they’d have missed it. There are other examples, but I shan’t go into them here. All that aside, it was certainly a page-turner. I definitely wanted to know what happened, and in the end was a little disappointed.
31. Decline and Fall by Chris Mullin (31 May 2011)
I read and enjoyed the first volume of Chris Mullin’s diaries, A View from the Foothills, (number 11 on the list) and so, when I saw the second volume in the library, I snapped it up. Like the first volume, they’re brilliant reading. The period covered is 2005-2010, from the point the first volume ended to the general election, and so it describes the ‘long goodbye’ of Tony Blair and the takeover by Gordon Brown (what one backbencher quoted in the diaries described as ‘replacing a pychotic with a neurotic’). The long drawn-out death throes of New Labour are often painful to read – largely because so much of the misery is entirely self-infilicted and that has a particular sort of pathos. I have no real fondness for Gordon Brown but in this he appears an almost tragic figure – ambitious and able but hamstrung by his hubris after years of plotting and scheming for the job. Chris Mullin is a witty man, and isn’t shy about letting it be known if someone annoys him. (He has next to no patience with George Osborne, and Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, is variously described as unctuous, self-righteous, ludicrous and ‘the biggest charlatan of the lot’.) Although it’s clear that Mullin was depressed by what he saw as his ‘uselessness’ I actually found the diaries of Mullin the backbencher even more satisfying than those of Mullin the minister. Not least because other backbenchers were more forthcoming with their opinions so there’s a wealth of gossip which wouldn’t make it into a ministerial memoir. (Although a good ministerial memoir from this period would be pretty fascinating too.) Mixed with the political is the personal – the sadness and guilt at the decline and death of Mullin’s mother, his obvious pride in his two daughters (‘bright as well as beautiful’), the worry over the disappearances of his cat, the visits to his wife’s family in Vietnam – and they make a very satisfying whole. Recommended.
30. Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations by John Diamond (30 May 2011)
This was a re-read. I was sorting out the books in the hall and came across this one, which I hadn’t read for a long time. John Diamond died of cancer in 2001, and while battling his illness, wrote a book and a number of columns on the subject. He was also writing a book which he called ‘an uncomplimentary look at complementary medicine’, and it is the completed chapters of this that form the first half of the book. It’s brilliant reading, passionate and forensic in its detail without being polemic, impatient without being patronising, and often very witty. The fact that it ends, quite abruptly, with the words, ‘Let me explain why’ is almost unbearably poignant. We learn in the introduction that they were the last words he wrote. The second half of the book is a collection of his journalism. Some are columns about the cancer, but others are not – travel pieces, articles for the Jewish Chronicle, all sorts. And what comes out of them is that as well as a talented writer, a prolific journalist and a very brave man (although he denied his bravery) he was also very, very funny. I’m glad that this collection exists to remind us of that.
29. Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas (28 May 2011)
Yes, yes, I know – that’s a god-awful title even by my standards, what was I thinking, etc. Well, I liked the author’s Regencies, but the library didn’t have any more of those in, only this contemporary. And what can I say, except that it’s really good, and nothing at all what you’d expect from the title. It’s nominally a romance novel but it’s a bit more than that. I really liked it – liked the characters, liked the writing, liked the setting, and especially liked the bucking of one of the standard romance-novel-tropes. There’s a sequel and I hope the library has it.
28. Deep Country by Neil Ansell (25 May 2011)
OK, full disclosure: I know the author of this book, albeit not very well, and like him. Neil used to live in a cottage along the valley and up the hill from us. It’s pretty remote: until recently it had no neighbours within a couple of miles, and has no mains water, gas, electricity or phone. This book tells about the five years he spent there, how the solitude affected him, and (mainly) about the natural world he immersed himself in and the birds and animals he saw. I’d say the book is a good 70% nature journal, and I imagine many readers will be frustrated that he doesn’t say more about the experience of the house itself or the adjustment to the isolation and lack of modern comforts. But to Neil, that’s the point: that by spending time alone, he didn’t ‘find himself’ – he lost himself.
It’s a good read. It’s beautifully written and very evocative of place. That said, I do feel that there is an element of poetic licence in how the isolation of the place is described. This isn’t uncommon – I’ve read another book by a relatively near neighbour which overstates the rurality of the area to an almost comical degree. Maybe there’s a degree of fictionalising in even the most ‘real life’ accounts. Perhaps my view is skewed by living in the area (and that’s likely – lots of people comment on how ‘out of the way’ we are, and Neil’s old place is further out than us) but the solitude Neil describes – not seeing another person for weeks – had to have been self imposed rather than being enforced by the nature of his home. Even out here in the sticks, there would have been a dozen or more houses within a couple of miles’ walk, had he felt so inclined. There is something oddly disconnecting about reading a description of a place you know well, and simultaneously recognising the familiarity while thinking, ‘Well, that’s not *quite* true…’. But these are details, I suppose – it’s still a very insightful book about solitude and self sufficiency – not just practical self-sufficency, but intellectual and emotional self-sufficiency.
27. Notorious Pleasures by Elizabeth Hoyt (May 2011)
God bless Powys libraries. I’d not heard of Elizabeth Hoyt before but found this when browsing. It’s another historical romance and it’s great fun. The characters are really good, the plot cracks along and, um, the two protagonists have some really rather good sex. So whether you’re after love story or smut, it covers the bases. It also trails the next book in the series quite well – I’m quite keen to read it!
26. The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (11 May 2011)
I do like Stephen Fry and I very much enjoyed this. He’s very ‘warts and all’ about his failings, and disarmingly aware of how luvvy he sounds about his Footlights friends, which makes it a lot less annoying than it would otherwise be. He shows quite a bit of self-knowledge, I think – and it’s a useful reminder that the people who seem self-confident to the point of arrogance can, in fact, be crippled with self-doubt. The highlights for me:
– The passage about his friendship with Hugh Laurie. Very short but very moving.
– His imagined meeting of outraged fellows when women were admitted to Queens’ College Cambridge. (But they pick food up with their mouths, don’t they? Or am I thinking of cats?’)
– The two pages describing a PhD student who later became one of my tutors at university. A wonderful surprise to find him in a book and even though the events described were twenty-odd years before I met him, he’s still very recognisably the amazing, unique man who taught me and who I’ll never forget.
A very enjoyable read, and one that ends on an unforgiveable cliffhanger.
24. Married by Morning (29 April) and
25. Secrets of a Summer Night (30 April) by Lisa Kleypas
A couple of silly romances for bank holiday reading. This was a new author for me, but I enjoyed them so I shall see what else the library has.
23. Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830 by Rictor Norton (28 April)
This had sat on my bookshelf for a while – I can’t remember when I bought it – certainly a few years ago. It’s very interesting. It could be very easy for this sort of thing to become polemical (the history of oppressed minorites often does) but it’s a pretty balanced exploration of the topic. It’s interesting to see what’s changed since then and what has stayed the same, and also how the formation of the subculture intertwined with a gay identity. The book could have done with some more judicious editing, and especially proofreading (at one point he talked about someone who ‘hanged around’ instead of ‘hung around’ – which is a bit ‘ouch’ in a scholarly work) but it’s worth reading nonetheless.
22. To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn (13 April 2011)
I do tend to turn to JQ when I’m under the weather. This is one of her Bridgerton books, and I do like those. This was very sweet – but for me, the romance between widowed Phillip and spinster Eloise was secondary to the developing relationship between Phillip and his children. I actually had moist eyes at one point, I admit.
21. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (12 Apr 2011)
An awesome, awesome book. As you can see, as I read it in one day. It’s fascinating – it carries you along with all the pull of an engrossing mystery novel. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. She was 31, and left five children, one of whom was a baby. Before she died, and without her knowledge, some cells were taken from her tumour, and proved remarkably tenacious and easy to grow in culture. These cells – named HeLa – are now grown in their billions and have been used to research countless diseases and conditions. But the story of Henrietta and her children has never really been told. And the story is fascinating – as a personal story, as a family history, as a snapshot of the effects of race and class on medical care, and as an exploration of medical ethics around consent. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
20. The Dressmaker by Elizabeth Birkelund Oberbeck (12 Apr 2011)
The premise of this was interesting – a small-town couturier falls in love with a woman when he’s commissioned to make her wedding dress. The book starts well, and the emotion described feels real. In the middle, I started to feel annoyed. He is obsessive, she is callous, his ex-wife a caricature of awfulness. Also, for a book about fashion, some of the clothes sound utterly hideous. It does pick up towards the end, and for the last few dozen pages, I enjoyed it very much. The end was very poignant. All in all, I did enjoy this and would pick up another book by the author, but I’m glad this was a library book as I doubt I’d read it again.
19. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx (9 Apr 2011)
I read this one slowly. It took a bit of getting into, then I got into it and enjoyed it a lot. But I’m still not exactly sure what I liked about it. Probably the characters, who were well-drawn and engaging. There isn’t a huge amount in the way of ‘plot’, just a gentle unfolding of events. It’s very understated and lightly written, there’s no revelation or big ‘happily ever after’ but most the characters are probably happier at the end of the book than they were at the beginning. It also made me want to learn to tie knots.
18. One Day by David Nicholls (2 Apr 2011)
Hmm. Not sure what I made of this. The idea is neat – a story told by visiting the two characters on the same day of each year – sometimes they’re together, sometimes not. The writing is vibrant, the characters are well-drawn, if not especially likeable. It’s billed as a feel-good book, but I found it rather depressing. It’s hard to articulate why without spoilers – but more generally, the two main characters seemed rudderless and totally passive and that isn’t uplifting. But I didn’t hate the book – it was just… unsettling.
17. A Secret Affair by Mary Balogh (26 Mar 2011)
I like Mary Balogh. This is the last in the series of Huxtable novels. It’s quite a nice read – it ties up the mysteries from the first book and the characters are engaging enough. It didn’t follow the normal romance story arc – there was no point where the two of them seemed unlikely to get it together. This was quite refreshing in a way. But although it was OK, it’s not one of MB’s best books.
16. A Lady’s Guide to Improper Behaviour by Suzanne Enoch. (18 Mar 2011)
Another silly Regency. The main characters are quite attractive, the plot trots along, it’s an easy read, but it’s not remotely believable.
15. Venice, Pure City by Peter Ackroyd. (16 Mar 2011)
I feel as though I’ve been reading this forever. It’s less than 400 pages long, but it’s taken me a while to get through. This is partly because I’ve been too tired to read much lately, but it’s mainly because of the book. I know a lot about Venice – Venetian history was my major subject at university – so the subject matter wasn’t unfamiliar. It wasn’t a work of scholarly impenatrability. It was just so densely and poetically written that I found it impossible to rush. I couldn’t scan over the pages, because I had to read every single word. Some sentences and paragraphs were so lyrically beautiful and evocative of a place I love that I had to read them over and over. Peter Ackroyd manages to approach the subject thematically, while still maintaining a broadly chronological structure – and that is no mean feat. That he manages to make it seem so effortless makes it, I think, a work of genius. This is one of the three best books on Venice I’ve read – and I have read a lot of books on Venice. (The other two, by the way, are Venice by Jan Morris and City of Falling Angels by John Berendt. Interestingly, Morris didn’t like Berendt’s book – I like them both!)
14. Wiffle Lever to Full! by Bob Fischer (14 Mar 2011)
Quite a big gap here – I’m not getting much reading done because I’m so tired at night that I manage about three pages before dropping off. Anyway, here’s my latest. It’s about the author’s year spent going round various sci-fi and cult TV conventions, and it’s brilliant. Each chapter recounts his childhood love of, say, Dr Who or Robin of Sherwood (or his teenage obsessions with Monty Python or the Discworld) and then describes the goings on at the conventions – the obsessed fans, the costumes, the Q&A sessions, the various themed activities, the hard drinking, and, of course, the encounters with childhood heroes. It’s great fun, amusingly written (although my editorial pen was mentally uncapped in places) and although it conveyed the utter barminess of the convention-mentality, it was never snide or smug or mocking. I’m not a sci-fi geek by any means (although the only things I’d never seen at all were Blake’s 7 and The Prisoner, and I knew enough about the latter (I’m not a number, I’m a free man!) to get by) and I enjoyed it hugely. I’m still chuckling over theCurse of the Evil Knitted Robin of Sherwood Dolls.
13. My Dangerous Duke by Gaelen Foley (26 Feb 2011)
Yes, I am still reading – the silence on this page is because I’m reading a long and very intricate history book, which is taking some time. So I took a break and read this. As discussed with regard to ‘His Wicked Kiss’ below, Ms Foley’s titles are atrocious. This is another example. It is great fun, though. Again, a hero with the requisite inner demons, and I do like an inner demon – in fiction, at least. The plot is, as with many of GF’s books, ludicrous. And the end, set in what can only be described as ‘Regency Romance Meets Indiana Jones’ is hilariously bonkers. Imagine you want to hide something where nobody can find it. What do you do? Why, construct an extraordinary complex of puzzles and booby traps which would take hundreds of people to devise and build, of course. That’s your secret safe, for sure. Heehee.
12. Fatal Remedies by Donna Leon (15 Feb 2011)
I always enjoy Donna Leon’s books. They are detective stories and they’re set in Venice. I love Venice and so, years ago, a friend picked up a Donna Leon book in a charity shop for me, and I loved it. Since then, Donna Leon has been my favourite contemporary crime novelist. Her detective, Guido Brunetti, is a very engaging character – principled but not perfect – and the contrast between his work life in the Venetian underworld and his home life with his adored wife Paola, their children and her wonderful food make for beautifully balanced stories. Although you always find out who did it and why, the books don’t tie off all the neat ends – strings are pulled, the Mafia intervenes and the guilty sometimes escape justice. But the Brunettis’ relationship somehow injects some optimism and stops it being too depressing.
So, Fatal Remedies. This one involves Paola getting political, dodgy dealings in pharmaceuticals and and a Mafia hitman. It’s hard to review crime novels without giving away the plot, so I’ll just say that this bounced along in typical Donna Leon style and was a satisfying read. It’s not the best of hers I’ve read (I think that’s ‘Friends in High Places‘) but I enjoyed it very much.
11. A View from the Foothills by Chris Mullin (13 Feb 2011)
These are the diaries of Chris Mullin, the former MP for Sunderland South, covering the period 1999-2005, during which time he was a junior minister and backbench MP. This is a really interesting period (Iraq, the Blair-Brown rivalry, etc) and is of personal interest because it overlaps with the period when I worked in Whitehall.
I really, really enjoyed this book. It’s fascinating if you like political gossip (and I do) because it’s full of political gossip. CM doesn’t hold back with his opinions and is very frank if people annoy him. There are also fascinating snippets of conversations from select committees and Blair’s meetings with his backbenchers. He writes engagingly and is often very funny. There are some very prescient comments – Robin Cook saying that the publication of MPs’ expenses is going to cause problems ‘and many MPs don’t realise the mess they’re in’. David Miliband saying Blair will serve a full second term but not a third. CM spotting David Cameron as one to watch within weeks of his joining a select committee. All great fun to read with hindsight.
CM is an odd character, though. At times, I really warmed to him – honest, witty, compassionate, clearly devoted to his wife and daughters. At others, he came over as sanctimonious and I was a bit annoyed by his frustration with his lack of promotion. He rails against what he calls ‘useless activity’ (and I agree, there is plenty of that in Whitehall) but he doesn’t read his briefs, doesn’t pay attention during Prime Minister’s Questions, doesn’t read his department’s legislation ahead of time… This isn’t ‘pointless activity’ – it’s the job. That’s what ministers are for, and it isn’t in the same category as the pointless activity he complains about. (I can well imagine that he would have given short shrift to an official who had come to a meeting unprepared!) He comments admiringly on other ministers who are on top of their game (and who get promoted) but still seems to feels aggrieved when he isn’t promoted, pointing out that he works hard and puts in long hours. Yes, he does – but others work harder and longer.
That’s the most frustrating thing, actually. He is a clever man, a principled man – politics needs more people like him. But I get the impression that he stayed in the foothills, not because of any personal grudges or behind the scenes politicking, but because he cut corners and was found out. That aside, it’s a brilliant read (in fact, if he was too likeable in every respect it wouldn’t be such a satisfying read, I expect). Apparently there’s another volume out, and it’s definitely on my to-read list.
10. His Wicked Kiss by Gaelen Foley (4 Feb 2011)
I read this in the early hours because I woke up coughing and couldn’t get back to sleep. As you can probably tell from the title, this is a romance. God, that is a terrible title. Romance writers do like to instill kisses with very unkiss-like qualities – wicked, punishing, mocking – which make no sense at all when you think about it. So yes, awful title. It’s one of Foley’s Knight Miscellany series – I’ve read a couple of them already; not in order because I get them from the library. They’re good fun, usually, and this is my favourite so far. OK, it’s set in 1818 and the plot is totally mental (involving the Amazon jungle, witchdoctors, stowaways and all sorts of sea-bound derring-do, not to mention a crazed Australian – yes really), but the characterisation of the leads is very good. I do like a romance hero with believable inner demons and Jack’s are believable and suitably demonic – I rather liked Jack and did want things to work out well for him. Not that there was much suspense, you understand.
9. An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain by John O’Farrell (3 Feb 2011)
Hmm. I like John O’Farrell’s writing, but this was a bit disappointing. Maybe it’s my academic background, but I tend to expect books which call themselves ‘histories’ to have some form of historical rigour and to provide a cohesive narrative, and this… doesn’t. If you know nothing about post-war Britain, this book won’t help you much. It’s amusingly written, but it’s a series of in-jokes; the more you know about the subject matter, the more you’ll enjoy the book. Which meant that I enjoyed the second half of the book (1979 onwards) more, because I could remember most of it, however vaguely – or at least remember the people involved. The stuff about the fifties and sixties? Well, I’m hardly any the wiser (although I do know why there’s such a large West Indian population in Brixton). John O’Farrell makes no attempt whatsoever to be impartial – he freely admits this. So depending on your point of view, this book is a) extremely biased or b) absolutely true. Or possibly c) both. If you want a funny book about post-war politics, this is good fun (I laughed out loud a number of times) although it doesn’t wear its wit lightly. If you actually want to know what happened, look elsewhere.
8. Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon (25 Jan 2011)
This is a time-travelly historically romancey book. At over 800 pages I thought it would take a while to get through, but I found it very readable, so I ended up racing through it. Claire Randall, a woman from the 1940s, is sucked through a stone circle in the Highlands and finds herself in the 1740s, in the build-up to the Jacobite Rebellion, and forced to choose between Frank, her husband in her own time and Jamie, her husband in the 18th century. It’s a fun read, although I did feel it could use some editing (yes, I know, I would say that) because some of the descriptions were unnecessarily long and distracting, and a bit repetitive. There are only so many descriptions of gathering herbs that I need to get the point that yes, she is doing healing. With herbs. I found the rendering of the Scots dialect a bit irritating in places (a bit generic ‘Och lassie, ye dinnae ken’ and totally overdone – and not really how Highlanders spoke at all). There are also some crashing historical inaccuracies which I found a bit annoying – evidence that my time in the Scottish History department at Edinburgh University was not wasted: Dr Boardman, you’d be proud. Also, if we’re being pedantic, (and it looks like we are) the stone circles in the Highlands are mesolithic, not Pictish – there are Pictish stones in the Highlands but they’re not the same thing as the mesolithic circles.
So much for the history. My modern sensibilities were slightly offended by the violence that went with some of the sex. While I accept that it’s possibly historically authentic, it still feels uncomfortable and makes Claire and Jamie and their relationship less sympathetic – him for doing it, her for putting up with it. This seemed to me an extension of the trope found in a lot of romantic fiction: that all Feisty Woman secretly wants is Strong Warrior Man to pin her down and give her a good seeing to, and that even if she says ‘No’, she’ll start liking it in the end. Yeeeeaaaaah. Like I say, uncomfortable. (And not just for poor old Claire and her bruised thighs). And let’s not get on to the bit where he beats her. I also struggled a bit with the fact that the two homosexual characters in the book were both highly predatory and one was completely sadistic. I suppose one was required by the plot but I did wonder why the author felt she needed another. Possibly I’m too modern and PC for my own good. I also kept on wondering about poor old Frank left in the 1940s, probably tearing his hair out with worry while Claire was having rough sex with her hairy Highlander.
Which all sounds as though I hated the book. I didn’t. I enjoyed it and wanted to know what happened and found myself picking it up whenever I had a minute. There are sequels. The sequels probably also have dodgy accents, uncomfortable sex scenes and a tenuous grip on history as well. Will I read them? Hell, yeah.
7. Minx by Julia Quinn (22 Jan 2011)
What? It’s the third in a trilogy and I’m ill. I read this in the bath this morning. It’s nice, and just what I needed when I was under the weather. I did like this, but it’s another ‘unfortunate misunderstandings’ story. Why do women in romance novels seem incapable of saying, ‘Is that woman your mistress?’ Really, if they just asked the question, they’d save themselves a whole heap of trouble. Anyway, I like the hero and it’s nice to end the trilogy, but I think Dancing at Midnight is my favourite of the three.
6. The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella (19 Jan 2011)
Wow, I’m racing through books at the moment! Something, I suspect, to do with being a bit under the weather and preferring to hole up in bed with a book than be sociable in the evenings. I really liked this book. The same author’s first book was called ‘The Food of Love’ which I also enjoyed a lot. His themes in both books are food, sex, and Italy, and whereas ‘The Food of Love’ was a present-day tale of unrequited love, this one is a bit grittier. The setting is occupied Naples during the second world war. The protagonists are a British officer trying to make sense of the chaos of wartime Naples (and prevent British soldiers marrying Italian women of dubious virtue) and a cook from a Vesuvian mountain village. With one thing and another, and despite various obstacles, they fall in love. Capella’s ‘thing’ is the emotional power of food, and in particular, falling in love through food and cooking, and the food of Naples is brilliantly evoked here, in mouthwatering detail. (Put it this way, when I next go shopping I’m buying the ingredients for melanzane parmagiana.) The love story is nicely written and gently erotic without being graphic. One of the reviews (from The Times) quoted on the cover calls it an ‘unashamedly feel-good story’; I beg to differ. There is food and love and sex but this is also a story about war. There is suffering and desperation, murder and wartime atrocities and the demonstrations of man’s inhumanity to man are littered through the pages. I don’t really think that any book that describes starving women selling their bodies for a tin of rations or the cold-blooded murder of children can really be described as ‘unashamedly feel-good’. But there is heroism, there are high ideals and there is love. It’s a great read.
5. Dancing at Midnight by Julia Quinn (18 Jan 2011)
Ooops. I had an afternoon to myself, so I spent a few hours with a book. It’s a sequel to Splendid (book 1 on my list) and it was typical JQ fare, light, frothy, and went perfectly with a cup of tea (well, two) on a January afternoon.
4. Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. (18 Jan 2011)
I love Dorothy L. Sayers. My friend Katy lent me a Peter Wimsey book years and years ago (I forget which one) and since then I have read lots of them – but not in the right order. If you’ve never read any, I heartily recommend them – they have that lovely English murder mystery combination of cosiness and bloodshed. Very comforting. Anyway, this one is the last one, and Lord Peter marries his Harriet, and they go on honeymoon and find a body in the cellar. It’s a fab book – the business of the murder mystery sleuthing is nicely balanced by the more personal story of Peter and Harriet’s adjustment to married life. And of course the wonderful Bunter is out in force, as protective of his lordship (and his vintage port) as ever. Dorothy L’s turn of phrase is one of the best things about her books, and this one is no exception. (My favourite line was a description of Peter’s handkerchief, which ‘could have been a young flag of truce’.) Splendid.
3. The Rake by Mary Jo Putney (10 Jan 2011)
Another Regency. Terrible title, terrible cover, but actually pretty good. The characters are three-dimensional, which means that you can suspend disbelief over the plot (and you need to). I liked this one.
2. Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round the Shipping Forecast by Charlie Connolly. (8 Jan 2011)
I got this for Christmas. Christmas 2009. Ooops. I love Radio 4, love the shipping forecast, love Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Prayer’ (even if the last line doesn’t work since they renamed Finisterre). I have just finished the book and it’s fun. Charlie Connolly writes well and lightly in the Bill-Bryson-travel-book style – I did find myself laughing out loud several times – but (unlike Bryson) I wish someone had given his grammar a check-over because it did make me wince sometimes. It’s a light read, but very interesting nonetheless, especially the chapters on Sealand, the history of Heligoland (now German Bight) and the to-ing and fro-ing over Rockall. I also found some of the anecdotes from Connolly’s family history (the first chapter is about his East End roots) very moving. I know that as I listen to the shipping forecast, the place names will mean a little more to me now. I do recommend it, but probably as a second-hand or library book rather than a full-price purchase.
1. Splendid – Julia Quinn. (2 Jan 2011)
First up, a Regency romance. I do like Julia Quinn. She writes romantic comedies set in the Regency. Which sounds like an odd description but they are romantic and they are funny. Authentic to period? No. Not at all. Authentic emotionally? Yes. Some of them are genuinely moving. My favourite to date is ‘When He Was Wicked’ partly because it’s fresh; it deals with unrequited love from the man’s perspective rather than the woman’s, and it has a widowed heroine whose first husband was nice, sexy and loveable – first husbands in romantic fiction are almost invariably brutal, villainous, milksops and/or sexually inadequate. And partly because I found I really did care about the two of them. Aaaanyway. Splendid was JQ’s first book, and it does show. But it’s still an enjoyable read. Light, fun, frothy and rather sweet. Some of the plot devices clunk, some of the dialogue is a bit ropey, but the story bounds along and the protagonists are sympathetic. So yes, I liked this.