Audio Book Junkie

Audio Book Junkie

My name is Mike Finn and I'm an Audio Book Addict.

I'm here to share my experience of the books I listen to.

Review
4 Stars
“All Systems Red – The Murderbot Diaries #1” by Martha Wells – fresh, fun, science fiction novella
All Systems Red - Martha Wells

I picked up “All Systems Red” because it was one of the Best Science Fiction Nominees in the GoodReads Choice Awards 2017   It’s my first Martha Wells book, but I’m sure it won’t be my last.

 

I’ve been reading Science Fiction for more than forty years and it’s rare for me to come across a novella as fresh, engaging and original as “All Systems Red”.

 

Told from the point of view of a part machine, part organic, Security Bot that secretly refers to itself as “Murderbot”, “All Systems Red” is a turn-the-page-I have-to-know-what-happens-next read. Murderbot has gone rogue, is proud of himself for not having murdered everybody yet and mostly wants to be left alone to watch entertainment videos. Strange and violent happenings that threaten “his” humans mean that he has to put the entertainments aside and take risks to keep his humans alive.

 

Murderbot’s interior monologue is simple, alien and compelling. He is not human but he is not just a machine either. He’s a person that you end up rooting for.

 

The mystery at the heart of the book is relatively simple and is soon resolved but a whole universe of expectations and rules and behaviours are revealed along the way.

 

The ending is pretty much perfect. It allows “All Systems Red” to work as a standalone novel while leaving me hoping that there will be a sequel soon..

Review
2 Stars
"Snow" by Howard Odentz - not worth the time it took me to read its 34 pages.
Snow - Howard Odentz

I bought "Snow" as a short story to help read myself into Christmas. Even though it's set in October, it is a Christmas-related story albeit in an unconventional way.

 

I won't go into to the story, other than to say that it involves some teens doing things they shouldn't, a big bad who is a threat to them and some snow. Although the opening sentence reads:

"The night my friends and I almost triggered the next ice age, I was with Danny McDermott and Jackie Kagan"

I didn't feel any real sense of threat in this story and certainly nothing that meant anything to anyone except some high school kids with a lot of growing up still to do.

 

The writing is slick and skilful. The pace is fast. The idea is novel. It's a good goosebumps story to tell around a campfire.

 

But mostly what it is is disappointing. It fizzles out rather than ends. It never gets beyond a cartoon view of the world. This idea, in the hands of King or Simmons, might have been chilling. In Odentz's hands, it's a draft for pitching an episode in a teen high school drama.

Review
4 Stars
"The Bette Davis Club" by Jane Lotter - a fun, original road-trip novel with surprising emotional depth.
The Bette Davis Club - Jane Lotter

"The Bette Davis Club" is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.

 

Margo Just, the main character, is a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart. She's been a fully paid-up member of the Bette Davis Club for many years (I'm not going to spoil things by telling you what that means but I'm sure most of you will have met a member or two) and can't find a way to move on.

 

A New Yorker from the age of nineteen, Margo attends her niece's wedding in her childhood home inMalibu more for the free accommodation, food and drink than out of any sense of family connection.

 

When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo's financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father's classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission from her half-sister bring the runaway bride home. Ony after she accepts the mission does she discover that the jilted groom will be her driver and that her sister is as concerned to retrieve some things the bride took with her as she is to have her daughter return.

 

What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition.

 

As a backdrop to all this, we learn Margo's backstory and how she came to join the Betty Davis Club. It's the backstory that adds emotional weight to what could have been just another light comedy. When we finally see Margo in her entirety, we meet a woman on the cusp of confronting who she is and what she's going to do with the rest of her life.

 

I'd expected the "The Bette Davis Club" to be a fast fun read. It met those expectations and then exceeded them by constantly surprising me and engaging me more and more deeply with Margo's story.

 

jane lotterSadly, there are no more books by Jane Lotter. She self-published "The Bette Davis Club" just before she died of cancer. She then wrote her own obituary. You can read it here.

 

It seems to me that Jane Lotter was an extraordinary woman who gifted us with one extraordinary book.

Review
3.5 Stars
"Hercule Poirot's Christmas - Hercule Poirot #20" by Agatha Christie
Hercule Poirot's Christmas: A Hercule Poirot Mystery - Agatha Christie

I picked "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" as part of a read-my-way-into-the-Christmas-spirit effort but this book is definitely not a cosy Christmas read. It was though, thoroughly entertaining, at least up until the denouement which was clumsily presented, incredibly contrived and more than a little disappointing.

 

The title of the book, which I understand was changed from "Murder At Christmas" is a little misleading.  Poirot doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book and, for the most part, speaks only to advance the plot or to feed the reader wild and usually false theories about who the murder is.

 

Christmas plays an even smaller part in the book than Poirot does. It provides a reason for gathering a strife-torn family in a country house for a few days so that a suspect-rich locked-room murder can take place but blood flows before the festivities begin, so this could just have easily have been "Hercule Poirot's  Long Weekend Family Murder", although that title probably wouldn't have sold as well.  The only extended reference to Christmas is a fire-side speech in which Poirot explains why the "benign hypocrisy" of pretending, for many days over Christmas, to like people for whom we do not care and who we may even detest, but with whom we are forced to eat and drink and carry out rituals that feign fun, may build up a pressure to act more like ourselves that may seek to find its outlet in violence.

 

Although "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" is the detectives twentieth outing, this is first of the novels I've read. My expectations of Poirot were set by David Suchet in LWT's long-running TV series "Agatha Christie's Poirot". The TV series was very much centred on Poirot and his little grey cells. I was pleasantly surprised to find that "Hercule Poirot's Christmas" didn't follow this pattern until almost the end. Instead, the story starts by showing how each of the brothers invited to the family Christmas at which the murder will occur, interacts with his wife and reacts to the invitation itself. I enjoyed these vignettes, which mostly gave me strong or intriguing woman and weak or boring men. The time invested in the characters moved to book from a rather dry-locked room puzzle to a family struggle filled with suppressed anger and resentment and long-standing feuds.

 

We are also introduced, by way of a chance meeting on a train, to two foreigners who do not know that they will both be guests at the murder-plagued country house Christmas part. I was intrigued and horrified in equal parts by how Agatha Christie described and uses these foreigners. There is a Spanish woman, inevitably described as a dark beauty. Her mother was English and related to the family hosting the weekend and yet it is clear to everyone that this one is in no way English. There is a South African man who described himself as "British, of course" but who knows very well that this will never make him English.

 

The two foreigners are the jokers in the suspect deck, unpredictable, wild and exotic and obviously not to be trusted. The Spanish woman is described as if she comes from some semi-savage place of violent passions and inappropriate manners. The men treat her as if she were an exhibit in a zoo, something wild that might be dangerous but which they'd enjoy trying to tame. The South African man does a better job of passing for civilized but his energy and aggression and used to show how the very old man who heads this unhappy family might have been in his unscrupulous youth when he was making his fortune. Both foreigners are used to show London as dirty and overcrowded and the English as dull and repressed. I suspect Agatha Christie was using them and Poirot to take shots at a society that she found stifling.

 

Once the death occurs and Poirot gets involved, everything becomes more predictable, except that the police were more educated and confident than they ever where in the TV series and the process of trudging through the evidence is far more protracted than any TV audience would have patience with.

 

I was kept amused and engaged until the very end when the great reveal occurred. It took too long and, while technically possible, was so improbable as to be insulting.

Then the book fizzled out with a lot of happily ever after exchanges that seemed unlikely and inauthentic.

 

I listened to the audiobook version, which was enlivened by the narration of Hugh Fraser who played Hastings in the TV series and made a good fist of the whole thing. You can hear a sample of his work on the SoundCloud link below.

 

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Review
4 Stars
“St. Nick” by Alan Russell – a perfect read for getting into the Christmas spirit.
St. Nick (Kindle Serial) - Alan Russell

I see three challenges for any Christmas book:

  1. Find an original angle that's grounded in something real but allows reality to bend for Christmas
  2. Evoke the spirit of Christmas without being too saccharine
  3. Make me care about the people as people rather than as avatars for Christmas messages

 

Allen Russell's "St. Nick" manages to pass all three tests. He managed to make me laugh at bad Christmas jokes that I hadn't heard in a long time and cry at the unfairness of a universe in which children get cancer.

 

"St. Nick", tells the story of Nick Pappas, a San Deigo cop who has been through a recent trauma that has him suspended from the police force. It's Thanksgiving and he's living alone in a shoddy apartment and seriously contemplating eating his gun. He gives himself a reprieve to help his former partner catch some muggers at the shopping mall he runs security for. To catch the muggers, he goes undercover as Santa.

 

From there, Nick's life gets taken over by the responsibilities that come with the new uniform he's wearing. It brings him into contact with a terminally sick boy with an impossible Christmas wish and sends him searching for Laura, a little girl whose letter to Santa is so moving that Nick ends up starting a search to find her and help her.

 

Along the way, he builds relationships with a relentlessly cheerful Head Elf, a nurse in the Pediatric Oncology ward and a woman TV reporter who films a segment from his lap and the quarterback from the San Diego Football team.

 

Throughout, Nick remains the cop he always was. He never loses touch with reality but he does allow himself to re-engage with hope and drives himself to do the right thing for children who need him.

 

This is an engaging read, with a great pace, a good mix of laughter and tears, a plot that surprises but remains believable and a spirit of Christmas that is about finding the hope and the love to push through the depression and the pain that life offers us. I think it's a perfect  December read.

 

alan-russell-novel-bio-picture-350x520-201x300

"St. Nick" was my first Alan Russell book. Looking at his bibliography, it seems that he writes all kinds of fiction but always starts by imagining a real person in a real situation.

In this interview, "True Confessions Of St. Nick",  he explains how he went about writing "St. Nick", including the time he spent working as a Santa in San Diego.

Good Reads Best Books of 2017 – fun to disagree with

Good Reads have just announced which books their members voted for in 2017.

 

grbbo2017

 

It turns out I didn't pick a single winner, although two of the winners, "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng and "Into The Water" by Paula Hawkins are in my TBR pile. Perhaps, if I'd gotten to them in time, they'd have been my choices too.

 

I like this award as it's based on votes from readers and not on sales or critical acclaim.

 

Of course, GoodReads decides which books will be nominated and almost all the nominations have been pushed to me by Amazon or Audible during the year so it's not exactly a neutral list.

 

I enjoyed cheering for the authors I already knew and checking out some I hadn't met yet.

 

Here's who I voted for. I recommend them to you.

 

Fiction

Eleanor Oliphant

I thought the Fiction nominations were the strongest this year. As well as the winner, "Little Fires Everywhere", I'm looking forward to reading Elizabeth Strout's "Anything Is Possible" and Ruth Hogan's, "The Keeper Of Lost Things".

"Beartown" is a great book, even if I couldn't get myself past the emotionally challenging content to finish it.

 

Even so, I had no hesitation voting for "Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine". It is original, honest, authentic, challenging and yet still manages often to be funny and always to be humane.

 

Gail Honeyman is now on my Must Read list.

 

 

 

Mystery and Thriller

THE DRY

This is a genre I've only really begun paying attention to this year so many of the books nominated passed me by.

 

Based on the list, I've picked up the winner, "Into The Water" by Jane Hawkins, who is new to me, and "Stillhouse Lake" by Rachel Caine who I know only from her fantasy books.

 

I would have bought "Glass Houses" by Louise Penny, but it's the thirteenth Chief Inspector Armand Gamache book, and I've only read "Still Life" the first in the series and I like to read series in order.

 

So my vote went to Jane Harper's debut novel, "The Dry", set in a dying small town in Australia. It's an atmospheric, mostly character driven book, that I found to be fresh and engaging.

 

Aaron Falk, the detective at the centre of this story about a murdered family seems authentic and relatively cliché-free. The second Aaron Falk book "Force Of Nature" is now on my TBR pile.

 

Fantasy

 

IMG_0048I'm a fan of Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson and, to a lesser extent, Ilona Andrews' Sweep series but I'm well behind the current releases so I couldn't vote for them.

 

"Etched In The Bone", the last in Anne Bishop's "The Others" series has been on my shelf since it was published but it hasn't called to me yet. I think I'm delaying bringing the series to an end and a little worried that I'll be disappointed.

 

I'm a longstanding J. K. Rowling fan and I enjoy the movie of  "Mythical Beasts And Where To Find Them" but I'm disappointed to see the screenplay win this section. It got almost twice as many votes as its nearest rivals so it's a clear winner but screenplays are not books. Not even close.

 

My vote went to Mark Lawrence's "Red Sister", which is original, bloodthirsty and bold. Some of the themes are distressing and all of the (frequent) violence is graphic but it swept me along in its own self-confidence.

 

Science Fiction

And the rest is history

Science Fiction also has a strong set of nominees. I loved "Provenance" by Ann Leckie for its quiet evocation of another world and its insights into people, not all of whom were human.

I'm curious about "Waking Gods" by Sylvain Neuvel. I want to see if the technique changes from "Sleeping Giants" to become something more like a novel and less like a play.

 

The list tempted me to add new authors to my  TBR pile: Martha Wells "All Systems Red", Omar El Akkad "American War",  and Jeff Vandermeer, "Bourne".

 

Andy Weir, who won with "Artemis" doesn't appeal to me: too hard science, too puzzle-based.

 

My vote went to "And The Rest Is History" because Jodi Taylor, in the eighth book of what used to be a fun series about time traveller historians causing mayhem, played my emotions like a violin and made me cry. That's character driven writing  at its best.

 

 

Best Debut GoodReads Author

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I'm grateful to GoodReads for providing a platform for new talent.

 

Jane Harper is on here for "The Dry" and Omar El Akkad for "American War" and Jennifer Ryan for "The Chilbury Ladies Choir".

 

I voted for "Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan.

 

I would probably not have found this book if it hadn't been on the longlist for this award.

 

It's not as bright and cheery as the title suggests but it is a wonderful look at how books give the damaged hope. It's wrapped around a good mystery and has memorable, believable people at its heart.

 

Stacking up books for Christmas

christmas reads 2017Christmas is a precious consensual delusion. It's a once a year opportunity to place my hope and perhaps even my belief, in the magic that could be wrought if we really acted with goodwill towards each other.

 

The rest of the year, I school myself to avoid delusions and to examine carefully the motives and actions of those around me. Unless I check myself, I'll carry this mindset over into Christmas and my jaded eyes will see a slightly frantic couple of weeks, focused on cooking to impress, shopping to appease, and going to parties that serve food I can't eat and alcohol that I don't want to avoid offending people that I don't really know.

 

I check myself through rituals that change my internal monologue. I stop following politics. I reduce my workload. I spend more time at home and I tailor my reading to give Christmas a home in my imagination.

 

Here a the five books that I've chosen as this year's Christmas Totems.

 

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"

St. Nick" by Alan Russell is about a suicidal, suspended cop, pushed into playing Santa in a shopping mall to help a former colleague catch some violent men but who ends up entangled in the almost-impossible-to-achieve Christmas wishes of two children he refuses to let himself disappoint.

 

I love the potential that comes from having a cynical, depressed cop, who is close to giving up on everyone, including himself,  be the medium for bringing the spirit of Christmas into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9869733"Silver Bells" is a collection of four short stories about Christmas.

 

"Silver Bells" by Fern Michaels is about a film star leaving the shallowness of Hollywood to return home to Apple Valley, Pennsylvania. Once there, she encounters her high school crush and... I'm expecting a twisty but good-natured path to a happy ending.


"Dear Santa..." by JoAnn Ross is about a mystery author, portentously named Holly Berry, (-who would do that to a child?)  whose SUV has broken down, stranding her in a hamlet called Santa's Village in Washington for the hated holiday season. There she meets the Lodge owner and his five-year-old daughter and has a Christmas epiphany (can you have an epiphany at Christmas or do you have to call it something else?)


"Christmas Past" by Mary Burton is a darker offering about a photographer who receives a letter with a clue to a killer's identity, that takes her on a dangerous road trip over Christmas.


"A Mulberry Park Christmas" by Judy Duarte is about a resident of "Sugar Plum Lane" ( I kid you not) whose flagging passion for Christmas (and presumably, other things) is rekindled by a chance encounter with her first love.

51SFasQJ6xL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_

 

 

"The Santa Klaus Murder" by Mavis Doriel Hay is a classic 1930s English Country House murder mystery. The Melbury family's Christmas takes an unexpected turn when a guest, dressed as Santa Klaus, finds the family patriarch has been shot in the head.

 

I'm hoping this will be a light, period piece, wrapped up in Christmas garlands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hercule-Poirots-Christmas"Hercule Poirot's Christmas* by Agatha Christie is a seasonal, locked-room mystery, with a vast cast of unpleasant family members who provide Poirot with a suspect pool to wade through.

I'd promised myself a proper Poirot story this year after it turned out he only has a cameo appearance in "Elephants Can Remember", so this has an extra benefit for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

61WVGB5oZxL._SY445_QL70_

 

"Snow" by Howard Odentz is my final choice. It's a short story, currently being offered for free on Kindle  

It's set in October and it's about a killer stalking a High School in a snowstorm so it's not really on topic but I thought, snow, winter, short story, why not?

 

 

 

"Beartown" by Frederik Backman - beautifully written but too painful for me to finish
Beartown: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

I read the first half of "Beartown" in about three days back in May, some seven months ago now. I was delighted. Here's what I said about it after the first day:

    Beartown” is the latest book from Fredrik Backman ( “A Man Called Ove” and “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”).

    It’s about a remote, slowly dying, small town in the middle of the woods where the success of the Junior Hockey Team is the last hope for the town to grow rather than continue its slow decline

    I’ve barely started the book and it's already holding my imagination hostage. The language is simple and undramatic yet it gets to the heart of the things that shapes lives.

    Here’s how it starts:

    “Late one evening, towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there”.

As I read more, I was carried along by the rhythm of the sparse language, which beat into me, like the smack of a puck against a fence, how much a hockey team and a hockey game can mean to a small, failing town in need of hope and pride. It drew me into the lives of people I could see as clearly as if I'd lived with them for years and let me see the world through their eyes

And with each page, as we journeyed towards that shotgun in the woods, my sense of dread grew.

Then I reached the rape.

I saw the damage it did. I imagined the damage it would do. I understood how the ordinary, everyday nature of the act intensified its evil at the same time that it made it credible. This is how life is. I know that. But I couldn't bring myself to read more of it.

I set it aside for a while. I didn't want to abandon something so well written and so true. I was sure I'd pick it up again and savour it.

Today, I tried, not for the first time, to go back to it.

I can't, or, more honestly, I won't.

It's painful to see the world that clearly and then focus on how we do each other harm and how the harm is amplified by poverty, desperation, and a culture where the right of the powerful to do wrong is accepted with sad resignation rather than challenged with righteous anger.

I'll move on to Backman's next book and leave this one closed.

Review
4 Stars
“Provenance” by Ann Leckie
Provenance - Ann Leckie

"Provenance" is a delightfully deft piece of genre-twisting science fiction that pivots around the idea that our identity is the product of the story that we tell ourselves about who we are and where came from. It examines how the things that give that story a provenance, a history of ownership, become as important to us as the identity itself.

 

"Provenance" is a stand-alone novel, set in the same universe as the "Imperial Radch" triology, but focusing on humans living outside the Radch. The main character is a young woman, who has been adopted from a public creche by a noble family and given the opportunity to compete with her adopted brother to become the heir to the family name.

 

The story unfolds in an unhurried way, allowing time for building worlds and revealing characters. The actions starts off as a sort of heist/forgery idea, then morphs into a murder investigation and morphs again into a military thriller. The tone throughout is civilized, introspective and self-deprecating. If Jane Austen has written science fiction, this is the kind of humane comedy of manners she might have produced.

 

What I enjoyed most was that the main character kept making choices that, while fair, honourable and even quietly courageous, were unexpected in the circumstances she found herself in. The choices she makes create a chain of provenance that slowly shapes her definition of who she is and who she wants to become.

 

Ann Leckie has a gift for world building and for making us look with a fresh eye at things we might think we already understand. She creates aliens who really are alien to our way of thinking and our way of living but with whom we can be empathetic and from whom we can learn more about ourselves. It turns out that she also has a talent for humour that the Imperial Radch trilogy gave her almost no opportunity to demonstrate.

 

I listened to the audiobook version which is delivered flawlessly by the talented Adjoa Andoh, who also narrated the Imperial Radch trilogy. You can listen to a sample of her performance by clicking on the SoundCloud link below

 

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Review
2 Stars
"Darknet" by Matthew Mather - plausible tech, interesting premise, cardboard characters - DNF at 44%
Darknet - Matthew Mather

I picked up "Darknet" because I work in AI and automation and I wanted to see what someone who sees the darker possibilities of the technologies would imagine as our future.

 

Matthew Mather does a good job with the technology. The things he imagines are a "five minutes from now" version of the current technology used for bots, machine learning, pattern recognition, drones and cryptocurrency.

 

He's also come up with a dark and plausible global conspiracy, powered by an AI technology that happily uses humans to do the wetwork.

 

The action is set across the world: China, the US, Canada, the UK. There's a surprisingly high body count and the action is relentless.

 

I'm sure the novel has a clever resolution for dealing with the monstrous entity Matthew Mather's imagination has spawned but I'm never going to find out what it is.

 

I gave up just before the half-way point because I realised that I really didn't care what happened to any of the people. It was like watching someone else play a video game: great graphics and sound effects but zero emotional engagement.

 

If you're in it for a fast-paced, action-packed thriller with a plausible extrapolation of current technology then "Darknet" may do it for you. Personally, I'll wait to download the video when the movie is inevitably made.

 

Review
4 Stars
"Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore" by Matthew Sullivan
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore: A Novel - Matthew J. Sullivan

This is not the book that the title led me to think it was. It's darker, more compelling and much more moving than I expected.

 

For me, the title "Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore" suggested an upbeat, novel about people who love books doing slightly mysterious, clever, perhaps witty things. Maybe something similar to "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore". That's the kind of entertaining but not too challenging read I thought I'd signed up for.

 

Of course, the publisher's summary told me that the book started with a suicide but when I read:

When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.

I thought the suicide would have all the emotional impact of a body found in a locked room in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. 

 

This book isn't a puzzle. It isn't cute. It's a story about a woman in her twenties, damaged by a night of violence when she was ten, for whom The Bright Ideas Bookstore is a place of refuge, not just a place of work. She is the bookseller who best connects with the "bookfrogs", the damaged, often homeless, always slightly lost, people who hang around the bookstore for its warmth and shelter as well as its books.

 

Finding one of the youngest bookfrogs just after he suicides in the store is not the start of a puzzle to be unravelled, it is a traumatic event that is the first tremor in a quake that will collapse her understanding of her own past and leave her scrambling to stand in the rubble.

 

Violence, rage, lust, betrayal, and deception and the damage that they inflict on the young and defenceless are the engines of this book. There is a tightly plotted mystery that is skillfully unfolded so that my perceptions of people and events are constantly challenged and changed until what really happened is revealed.

 

The heart of this book is neither violence nor mystery but how children, damaged by not receiving the love that they need and have a right to expect from their parents, find solace in books and sometimes in each other. For these people books are not just escapism, they are the sofa-cushion fort children build to defend themselves from dragons, they are a search for identity and meaning, they are objects of love. 

 

This is a book filled with sadness, with bad decisions, with love overpowered by guilt or loss and with the genuine evil that sometimes finds us.

 

It's also a book about the persistence of the need for love and the possibility of survival through retaining the ability to be kind to others and yourself.

 

img-1448_origI voted for this book in the debut novel category on the GoodReads Choice Award 2017 nominations. I'm looking forward to Matthew Sullivan's next book.

 

I listened to the audiobook version of "Midnight At The Bright Ideas Bookstore" which is perfectly narrated by Madeleine Maybe. Listen to her performance on the SoundCloud link below

 

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The New York Times names its Top 10 Novels of 2017 and now my TBR pile is four books taller

So here's the New York Times' view of the Top Ten Novels of 2017

 

I went through the list and discarded trendy books that I'd already decided weren't for me: "Lincoln In The Bardo" (too maudlin), "Manhattan Beach" (falls apart in the second half) and "Exit West" (not interested in the topic),

 

I did find four books that were new to me and that are resting patiently on my virtual TBR pile. Take a look and if any of them call to you.

 

Downloads4

 

sing-unburied-sing-9781508237549_hrSing, Unburied, Sing

 
This isn't a usual choice for me. I normally avoid all the  American South angst and search for identity. It's too painful and too far from my experience.
 
When I listened to the extract on audible, the language called to me. There's a voice there with something to say and the words to make me feel it.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This is a roll of the dice. I'm intrigued by the idea of just following the music.
 
If it's as anarchic and fresh as it seems to be, I'll be well pleased.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This was the perfect sell: beautiful cover, narrated by the author in a distinctive voice that delighted my ears and a killer opening sentence -
"This fairy tale begins in 1968, during a garbage strike."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Irish-American nuns in Brooklyn, a young pregnant widow, pan-generational consequences.
 
How am I supposed to resist that?
 
 
OFF TOPIC POST: the Germans have a word for what I'm feeling

Over the past year, I've experienced a growing sense of depression that is new to me.

I'm familiar with Black Dog depression. We've struggled before and we'll struggle again.

This is different. This isn't about me or the people I love or things I've done or haven't done or the things being done or not done to me.

 

This is about a more pervasive sense that something I have no control over has gone profoundly wrong. Something that curdles my world and taints my life, that makes me feel powerless and abused.

 

The Germans have a word for it: Weltschmerz  - literally worldhurt.

 

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Brexit, Trump, Grenfell Tower, Brexit, Trump, Las Vegas shootings, Brexit, Trump, routine sexual abuse of the vulnerable by the powerful, Brexit, Trump, refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, Brexit, Trump...

 

It goes on and on.

 

Yet that isn't the Weltschmerz.

 

Bad things have always happened to good people.

 

The Weltschmerz, at least my Weltschmerz, comes from the gleeful smugness of the people doing the bad things, the normalization of their abhorrent behaviour that labels it as regrettable but not aberrant. The slowly dawning understanding the evil has seeped through the fabric of the world until we are all stained by it.

 

THIS IS NOT HOW MY WORLD IS SUPPOSED TO BE.

 

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Depression destroys our ability to take action. It hollows us out, presses us down, isolates us from each other.  I've been feeling that happen and looking for a way out.

 

The best escape route I can find is another feeling that only the Germans have a word for:

 

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I'm looking forward to this:

 

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It's shallow.

 

It doesn't make me a nice person.

 

But it gets me through the day.

 

Most of the time.

Review
2 Stars
"Snowblind - Dark Iceland #1" by Ragnar Jonasson
Snowblind (Dark Iceland) - Quentin Bates, Ragnar Jónasson

I must be missing something here. "Snowblind" attracts lots of four and five-star reviews and is the first book in the best-selling "Dark Iceland" quintet, yet I found it fundamentally unsatisfying.

I'm told the language is poetic. I can see that it's trying to be. I quite liked the way in which Jonasson expresses the soft oppression of never-ending snow in phrases like

    "The freezing darkness swallowed him up."

and

    "He had tried to listen to classical music to drown out the deafening silence of the incessant snowfall, but it was as if the music magnified the gloom."

It works but it's not exceptional.

I'm familiar with snow and deep cold and the claustrophobia that living beneath a mountain can bring. They're well captured here but not well enough to sustain the book.

The plot stretches my willingness to suspend disbelief and the way in which our young policeman unravelled the secrets seemed to me too hard to swallow. The man isn't just intuitive, he's psychic.

I think the heart of my dissatisfaction with this book is the policeman Ari Thor. I could not find a reason to care for him. He seems an empty man. He starts many things but finishes none. He ties himself in knots about integrity and gets indignant about love and yet is too weak to live to either standard. I know he's young but if he's that callow, where's the interest?

If you fancy a Miss Marple in the snow, set around an Icelandic village drama society rather than an English one and with modern accents, local colour and the occasional stab at the lyrical, then this is the book for you.

I'm sure it would make great television. All the moody camera work and mournful atonal music could fill the gaps where the rest of the novel should be.

I had a similar reaction to Ann Cleaves' "Raven Black" and that made great television and has a huge fan base so perhaps I'm just not equipped to savour this kind of book.

I don't think that's going to change so I'll pass on the rest of the "Dark Iceland" quintet.

Review
5 Stars
"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

I was wary of reading this book because I was told it was partly about loneliness and what it does to us and that sounds as much fun as reviewing the final stages of terminal cancer. I picked it up because it was consistently described as being well written.

 

It's more than well written. It's pretty much perfect.

 

There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.

 

The book is written entirely from Eleanor Oliphant's point of view. It's a point of view quite unique to her, a product of her history, her isolation and the pressure of a trauma that she can only cope with by living a life as free from emotion as she can manage.

 

If you've ever been the unpopular person, the nutter, the lonely one, the one who genuinely doesn't get parties and small talk and the obsession with pointless television, then there are many points in this book where you will find yourself cringing with muscle-memory recognition of embarrassment and hurt. You can see exactly how Eleanor misreads things or behaves in ways that make other people dislike or dismiss or ridicule her. You know that she knows she's not easily likeable and that she has no idea what to do about it other than endure.

 

Eleanor starts from a worse place than most of us but many of us have walked parts of this path.

 

Eleanor is strong. So strong that she rejects help and deals on her own with what has happened to her and how it shapes her daily life. Eleanor is also vulnerable, fragile and in pain. Yet she makes the most of it. She tries to have a life. Most of the time.

In the first half of the book I became acclimatised to Eleanor's coping strategies, her constraints and her small acts of courage and began to hope for her, When bad times arrived they were devastating. There's no sugar-coating. No ducking of the issues. Just a bleak confrontation of reality. It is hard to take but it is worth taking because it feels true.

 

When better times arrive, not yet good times but much better than the times that preceded them, I could see and feel the slow, painful progress Eleanor was making. Her sessions with a counsellor are wonderfully done. I've always been resistant to the concept of psychotherapy but I understand what is being done here. It's imperfect and limited but so much better than the alternative.

 

The writing is excellent.  The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.

 

This is one of my favourite books this year. I went to see what other Gail Honeyman books I could buy and then discovered that this is her debut novel. That's quite hard to take in. How do you come up with something this good from a standing start?

I listened to the audiobook version which is beautifully done. You can hear a sample below

 

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I've also included interviews with Gail Honeyman at bookpage.com and The Washington Independant Review of Books

 

gail honeyman

"Summer Mask" by Karin Lowachee - take the time to read this short story

Karin-Lowachee.pngI'm a fan of Karin Lowachee's work. It's orginal, thoughtful but still accessible and exciting.

 

I reveiwed an early work of hers, "Warchild" a while ago, an edgy piece of science fiction that is brave enough to confront what war and abuse do to a child.

 

This month, "Nightmare" magazine has published her short story, "Summer Mask"

 

I recommend it. It has interesting ideas about the nature of beauty and what it does to those who have it and those who need it. It's likely to give you a shiver

currently reading

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The Gaslight Dogs - Karin Lowachee