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.

4.5 Stars
"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

I found "Reservoir 13" hard to engage with at first. This partly the (I suspect, deliberate) frustration of my expectations and partly the style in which the people and events are presented.


The blurb says

"Reservoir 13 tells the story of many lives haunted by one family's loss."

The book opens with a search across the hills of an English National Park, for a teenage girl who has gone missing. My genre-led expectations kicked in and I settled down to a book about crime and guilt and secrets in a small village, with the mystery solved in a few weeks, during which colourful local characters and traditions are scrutinised and set aside as the villain is uncovered.  I knew that the book was on the Mann Booker Longlist, so I was expecting some trope twisting but I wasn't expecting something that rejects every convention of a crime novel.


I quickly amended my view of what the book was about but still found it difficult to care about because the story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little dialogue there is, rather than using direct speech and describes people and events with all the passion of an academic wildlife study.


I felt that I was being given a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for reasons that weren't immediately clear to me. 


I recognised that I was being shown the rhythm of rural village life where people's lives are governed by the seasons, personal routines and the politenesses required by long-term propinquity but the rhythms did not provide a narrative thrust.


I felt locked out of the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. The authorial voice seemed to have all the intimacy of a camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.


About a third of the way through, I finally surrendered myself to the rhythm of the book and let it carry me along.  It reminded me of the adjustment in pace that I had to make when I moved to a village in Somerset after living for years in London. I had to slow down to see the place. I had to let it absorb me before I could be part of it.


"Reservoir 13" shows how life is lived in a village. As thirteen years worth of seasons passed, I was given a surface view of all the things that people in a small village know about each other: the gossip, the constant observation of each others acts and the things they don't say or don't ask. I cam to understand how the politeness of being indirect grants dignity and privacy while still offering the possibility of sharing the things you cannot bear alone.


Initially, direct speech was less frequent than descriptions of wildlife or weather but, as the years passed and the context had been established, I was allowed to hear certain conversations and evesdrop on interior monologues.


The people in the village are following the same tidal flows as the wildlife around them and, just as Il earned about the courtship of badgers in the woods, I was shown that most human mating rituals are led by women and conducted through body language and eye contact more than words.


Some characters found their way into my affections: the vicar, carrying around everyone's cares and confidences, like heavy stones in her pockets, who brings comfort and compassion wherever she goes; the woman who walks her neighbour's dog every day but still treats each time as if it were something new.


The missing girl is not the centre of the book but rather something that distorts the flow of village life without adding to it, She is like a water-logged piece of driftwood that only occasionally surfaces but is always there, disturbing the peace of the water.


She has her own leitmotiv that often marks her appearance


 "The girl's name was Rebecca or Becky or Beks. She had been looked for and she hadn't been found."


She is a constant reminder of the possibility of loss and perhaps and incentive to hold on to those we love for as long as we can.


"Reservoir 13" has a distinct voice and an unusual structure that did, eventually, imprint the village on my imagination and made me reluctant to leave. The narrative doesn't thrust, it shapes your perception of people and events with gentle persistence, like a stream eroding one bank and building up another.
Reading progress update: I've read 10%.
Less Than A Treason -  Dana Stabenow

I'm only half an hour into this book and already it feels like coming home.


I have missed this series.


I've had the ebook on my TBR since it was released but, in the end, I waited for the audiobook version to come out because, to me, Marguritte Gavin's voice is an integral part of Kate Shugak.


Wonderful stuff.

"Reservoir 13" by Jon McGregor - on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist - this is not going well
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

From the description this sounds like a crime book - teenage girl goes missing on the hills above a small village - doubt - suspicion - secrets - yet it's on the Mann Book Longlist so I was expecting something with a twist.


I wasn't expcting something so difficult to engage with.


The story is told in an authorial voice that reports what little diaglogue there is rather than using direct speech.  The narration is a dispassionate description of events with all the passion of a more academic wildlife study.


This is mostly a pencil sketch sprinkled with small details highlighted in colour for no apparent reason.


There is a  focus on time passing and routines like seasons governing people's lives that gives the book a pleasant rhythm without providing any narrative thrust.


No access to the inner thoughts or emotions of the people. It has all the intimacy of a

camera drone filming a landscape:  all-seeing but from an alien non-human perspective.


I suspect the author is trying to do something new with form and that I should be delighted that he is eschewing the conventions of the genre. Instead, at more than an hour in to and eight hour book, I am still wondering what will make this book worth reading.

3 Stars
"Day Shift - Midnight Texas #2" by Charlaine Harris
Day Shift - Charlaine Harris

"Day Shift" continues the story of the small Texas town of Midnight, that started with "Midnight Crossroad"


Charlaine Harris uses Midnight as a place to collect characters from her earlier books, mix them with other enigmatic inhabitants with supernatural skills and or unusual gifts and get them involved with events that range from the slightly strange to the fundamentally weird.


If you have an afternoon to spare and you're in the mood for a gentle supernatural mystery, seasoned with quiet humour and mostly nice people trying to be mostly good, you'll enjoy this book.


If you're looking for fast-paced excitement, hair-raising thrills, and maybe some eroticised blood spilling, move on to a different book.


This is an afternoon television kind of Urban Fantasy. Think "Warehouse 13" with even less going on. It's a soap, stocked with characters looking for a plot.


Of course, it's a Charlaine Harris soap, so it's well written and the characters hold the attention but really, nothing much happens here. Midnight is a kind of Urban Fantasy Lake Wobegone. It invites you to come sit awhile and catch up with your favourite characters in an environment that is odd but somehow benign.


I enjoyed "Day Shift" (I have no idea why it's called that) enough to finish it but not enough to be waiting eagerly for the next one. If there is a next one, I may wander through it but I won't be expecting much by way of excitement except one or two small surprises.

3.5 Stars
"History Of Wolves" by Emily Fridlund (on 2017 Mann Booker Longlist)
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

"History of Wolves" is easy to read but harder to understand.


I know how I feel about this book but I'm not sure what to think about it.


It's a beautiful piece of writing that uses language with relentless precision to climb inside the head of the main character.


Each page is watermarked with a profound sense of loneliness that the main character, our narrator, struggles with, denies, rails against, imagines gone and sometimes gives in to.


I felt fully present in each of the moments described in this book. So much so that, as we drifted between past, present, imagination, dream, memory and action, I found myself accepting what was going on rather than trying to make sense of it, much in the same way that the main character does.


Novels amplify my desire for a narrative that makes sense, that tells me something, that gives me meaning. "History of Wolves" frustrates that expectation. Rather than leading me to a conclusion or a judgement and "making sense" of the main character's life for me, this novel invites me to reach my own conclusions and then to challenge them and then to wonder if conclusions are devised to be a source of spurious comfort in an ambiguous world.


The story is told by Madeline, now thirty-seven, revisiting the events of a summer when she was fourteen and the things that led up to it and followed on from it.


Madeline, who also goes by the name Linda at school and with the family she babysits for, is both the most unreliable of narrators and the most honest of narrators. She shares who she is by showing what she has done and what she was thinking and feeling at the time but she gives no direct lectures, even to herself, on what this means.


Her narrative is not linear. It follows her reflections, making connections between past and present and starting from different "nows" as she tells her tale.


Madeline/Linda both accepts and rejects the idea that she is broken, that her childhood made her into someone with one foot always reaching out into space at the edge of the cliff. She sees herself, or perhaps her idealised self, not as someone human but as a wild thing, at home in the woods and on the lake but who still sometimes succumb to the pull of a hearth and food and a pat behind the ear, like a wolf playing at being a domestic dog.


The book cover carries a Jodi Picoult style "How far would you go to belong?" tag line on the cover that seems to me to miss the meaning of this book entirely.


I don't think it's belonging that Madeline's looking for, or even love. I think she wants someone who needs her and depends on her and supports her in an identity she approves of.


Madeline can be cruel and fickle. She is aware of the power she has over others. She is also aware of her own insignificance. She seems to be trying to find people and a place where she can be what she is and still be needed by someone who sees her clearly.  Except that is too glib. It may be what she wants but  she would probably resist anyone who tried to give it to her.


"History of Wolves" walks around two ways of establishing identity: "We are what we do" and "We are what we think". Madeline, at least the thirty-seven year old Madeline, doesn't seem to find either argument persuasive. The way she reviews her own life suggests that she believes that we are who we are and it doesn't change much.  At one point she goes further and suggest that evil enters the world when we let our actions be driven by belief, a personal narrative that tells us what we want to be true and absolves us from dealing with reality.


I need to think about "History of Wolves" some more. I probably need to read it again. Not because it's a puzzle I haven't solved or because the writer's intention escapes me but because I think it has more to show me.


The book often refers to the difficulty of recognition, of seeing clearly, either through fog, or through the loss of light at dusk or the emerging glow at dawn, or even the struggle to recognise objects identified on the journey out but which look unfamiliar on the way home and can only be recognised in retrospect. I think there is something here that says we need to let our eyes adjust to shape our world and that we need a point of reference. In this book, I think I saw each moment clearly but I have not yet been able to map the journey. Which makes it feel pretty much like real life to me.

4 Stars
"Renegade: Spiral Wars, Book 1" by Joel Shepherd
Renegade (The Spiral Wars) (Volume 1) - Joel Shepherd

I finally reached the point where I'd read all six of Joel Shepherd's excellent Cassandra Kresnov books and I found that I missed his wide ranging imagination, his sharp-edged politics and his characters: strong, passionate, sometimes flawed but always believable.


So I went looking to see what else he'd written and found the Spiral Wars series (four books so far)


When I read the blurb, I hesitated:

"A thousand years after Earth was destroyed in an unprovoked attack, humanity has emerged victorious from a series of terrible wars to assure its place in the galaxy. But during celebrations on humanity’s new Homeworld, the legendary Captain Pantillo of the battle carrier Phoenix is court-martialed then killed, and his deputy, Lieutenant Commander Erik Debogande, the heir to humanity’s most powerful industrial family, is framed with his murder. Assisted by Phoenix’s marine commander Trace Thakur, Erik and Phoenix are forced to go on the run, as they seek to unravel the conspiracy behind their Captain’s demise, pursued to the death by their own Fleet. "

Long timescales like this often make it hard for me to connect with the action. The politics sounded triumphalist and the interstellar distances involved are huge. I wondered how Joel Shepherd would keep the intimacy and intensity that was a strength of the Cassandra Kresnov series in an undertaking like this.


The answer, of course, was through the strength of his character development. It turned out that "Renegade", the first Spiral Wars book, was just as intense as his Kresnov books but it was also refreshingly different in scale and in focus.


So what's good about it?


This is a great example of what Space Opera can be when the author has really thought through the worlds, the species and the history involved and yet never resorts to info-dumps but has the confidence and the control to reveal the intricacies of this universe a little at a time, through the experiences of the characters, as needed to make sense of the action. Every good space opera needs lots of action, lots of technology, lots of weapons, lots of culture clashes and complex political intrigue and lots of desperate, how-can-they-possibly-get-out-of-this? moments. Joel Shepherd delivers on all these things with flair and originality and at a pace the made the 400+ pages fly by.


The intensity of the book comes mainly from the characters. There are a lot of them but they are presented clearly and without confusion. They're also not static. They come with backstories that are artfully revealed. They have distinct personalities and ethics and goals. They are changed by the decisions they make and the experiences they have. This increases the emotional impact of the book. It makes you care who lives and dies. It goes beyond the "only you can save the galaxy" hero quest into something personal and therefore much more real.


Two characters, in particular, made the book for me. The first is Trace Thakur. She leads the Marines on the Pheonix but she is a legend throughout the Corps. She comes from a warrior cult with strong ethics around service. She is strong, experienced, lethal and much loved by her people. There is more to her than just being a warrior. Her mission is driven by her personal interpretation of honour and justice rather than by her instructions from her superiors. She is the second in command, yet she has far more leadership and combat experience than Erik Debogande, until recently a newly minted Lieutenant Commander who many believed was appointed because of his family connections and who is now acting-Captain. The dynamic between Thakur and Debogande is tense and plausible. Watching Erik struggling to rise to the challenge of being in command of the Pheonix is one of the best things in the book.


Of course, I also loved the depressingly plausible politics, the diversity of the races involved and the hints of important things being hidden by the powerful, that need to be uncovered by the brave.


I'm hooked now. I'm already looking forward to the rest of the series.

3.5 Stars
"The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag - Flavia de Luce #2" by Alan Bradley
The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag - Alan Bradley

This is the second book about eleven-year-old Flavia De Luce, who was first introduced in "The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie", where she put her considerable talents to work in solving a murder her father had been accused of.


In this instalment, Flavia becomes involved with a travelling puppeteer who has a show on the BBC, a shocking murder and ripples from the death of young boy, alone in the woods.


It's a decent mystery in its own right, steeped in the atmosphere of rural England after the Second World War, but what makes it exceptional is Flavia De Luce herself.

She is a wonderfully wrought character: dauntless, clever, manipulative, and eccentric in the great English aristo tradition. She is fascinated by and skilled in making poisons. She knows how to get people to tell things they would never otherwise reveal and she is relentless in her quest to find out who did what and why.


All this makes her rather intimidating. Flavia knows this of course. At one point, when she shows too much insight into the affairs of a young woman she is helping, the young woman points it out to her:

“You are terrifying,” Nialla said. “You really are. Do you know that?” We were sitting on a slab tomb in the churchyard as I waited for the sun to dry my feverish face. Nialla put away her lipstick and rummaged in her bag for a comb. “Yes,” I said, matter-of-factly. It was true—and there was no use denying it.'

During the denouement, Flavia reveals a crucial piece of information to the Detective Inspector debriefing her. When he turns to his team, demanding to know why they didn't know this,  the response is:

"With respect, sir." Sergeant Woolmer ventured, "it could be because we're not Miss De Luce

For all her ferocious intellect and startling precocity,  she is still an eleven-year-old girl. She is observant enough to uncover an affair but innocent enough not to be entirely sure exactly what is involved in such an undertaking.


She is also a lonely girl without enough love in her life. Her elder sisters treat her badly. Her father is distant, repressed and as obsessed with stamps as Flavia is with poisons. Her mother is dead and her only connection to her is to sit in the Rolls she owned or to ride the bike she used, which she has rechristened Gladys and sometimes treats as if it were sentient.


Flavia is not a girl who is trying to be older. Above all, she seems to be trying just to be herself which she does with great self-assurance. When she turns up late (again) and her father describes her as "Utterly unreliable:" she thinks to herself

Of course I was! It was one of the things I loved most about myself. Eleven-year-olds are supposed to be unreliable.


Flavia knows that she is willing to overstep the bounds of politeness and perhaps even decency, to get the infomation she wants but she's reconciled to that aspect of herself. She says:

Sometimes I hated myself. But not for long.

This was a delightful read and a pleasing sequel. I will be back for more.

Off Topic Post: Liverpool on a sunny weekend

We were back in Liverpool this weekend. We left the 35C/95F heat of the Swiss summer behind and landed in a cool but sunny Liverpool.


As I stood looking out my window, I was struck again by how vibrant this city is, full of energy and music and irrepressible people.


liverpool window edut


london-carriage-works-liverpool-copyright-Richard-Hoare-for-usageWe decided to treat ourselves to a lunch at TheLondon Carriage Works restaurant, near the Philharmonic Hall.  The restaurant is emblematic of the changes this area has seen over the past thirty years.


The outside is a refurbished version of what was a posh coach and carriage builders back in 1865 who's Venetian Palazzo look was meant to impress and still does.


the-london-carriage-worksThe inside is open and modern with elaborate glass panels designed to make the most of the light that floods the room.


The food and the service were excellent. They provided that mix of quality content with relaxed and friendly delivery that is typical of the new style in Liverpool.


We walked up to Hope Street, which has the odd distinction of having Liverpool's two cathedrals at either end, towards the extraordinary Catholic cathedral, built from concrete, glass and an unconventional imagination in the 1960's


Hope Street


Although I love boldness of this building, it hasn't always been well received locally. It's circular shape and tall crown have earned it nicknames from "God's Spaceship" through to "Paddy's Wigwam". Yet the the longer it sits there, the more it seems to fit as a prayer at the end of Hope Street.


We walked down to the Walker Art Gallery, a place that we've been visiting since childhood and which has always been the home to Victorian paintings on a grand scale.

hIt's a proud Victorian building itself with Doric pillars and a portico at the top of lots of steps but inside it is quite welcoming, with a cafe in the centre of what was once the grand foyer by the sweeping staircase.


It's still free to visit the gallery. The art is worth seeing, although it's been rearranged in quest of beautysince the last time I was there and some of the pieces now seem almost piled on top of one another, perhaps because there is so much to see.


We were there to see the Mucha "In Quest Of Beauty" exhibition that is touring the UK.


I had an Athena print of Mucha's "L' etoille de matin" on my wall in my room when I was at University. It holds lots of memories for me.


This was my first opportunity to see Mucha's work up close. I loved many of the pieces. He captures faces, especially the eyes and what's sitting behind them, masterfully. Some of the pieces were not shown at the best by being hung against pale walls but the exhibition told me things I didn't know and showed me pieces I hadn't seen before.


Liverpool Pian cropThis weekend was also a music weekend in Liverpool and Liverpool One, a huge pedestrian shopping area built over what used to be the fleshpots of Paradise Street, was dotted with pianos that anyone could play.


We heard everything from chopsticks, through classical and jazz to the inevitable Ed Sheeran, all performed with a contagious sense of fun that really celebrates music.


Finally we caught the train under the river to go and visit friends in Wallasey, the town we grew up in, who where holding a sixtieth birthday party, also filled with song and live music.



The trains in Liverpool have been through good times and bad. James Street Station has been refurbished recently and I think the mixture of old and new that has been struck is a good example of what Liverpool has become over recent decades. It's cool but functional and a little unexpected.


Liverpool James Street Station edit













4 Stars
"Slow Horses - Slough House #1" by Mick Herron - Le Carré rebooted in the modern day
Slow Horses - Mick Herron

"Slow Horses" is a (very) British spy thriller, set in contemporary London, in the post 7/7 bombing world of domestic anti-terrorism.


The slow horses of the title are security service people who have messed up and have been cut out of the herd of thoroughbreds with whom they've demonstrated they can't keep up. Their punishment is being sent to work at Slough House where they are given pointless routine work that is meant to demoralize them to the point where they will resign and save the Service the trouble of firing them.


This is a depressingly plausible situation. The Civil Service call this, nugatory work, i.e. work that is known to have no value.


Slough House is run as a fiefdom by Jackson Lamb, a mercurial despot with a reputation as a dangerous field agent. Discovering why he is there and what he wants is one of the mysteries of the book. His staff are a mixed bunch but it soon becomes clear that some of them are not what they seem. In the world that these folks inhabit, little is what it seems.


The plot revolves around the abduction and threatened execution of a boy of Pakistani descent by a group of right wing nationalist extremists. This takes us into BNP, EDL deluded English Nazis.


"Slow Horses" was published in 2010 and now seems rather horribly prescient. At one point, a right wing journalist (imagine that) is talking to a Tory cabinet minister who presents himself as a bumbling fool but is actually a driving force for English nationalism (not hard to imagine who that character could be based on, The journalist says:


‘Because we both know the tide’s turning. The decent people in this country are sick to death of being held hostage by mad liberals in Brussels, and the sooner we take control over our own future, our own borders …’

Given that this predates the Brexit debacle by half a decade, that's a little scary.


The plot is cunning without ever becoming Byzantine. The storytelling keeps the tension cranked up and throws in lots of surprises. The characters and how they interact with each other are credible and compelling. This is Le Carré for the modern day, with a faster pace and a new set of issues.


"Slow Horses" is a good thriller made exceptional by the plausibility of the people and the situations. It seems like an insider's view. As one of the retired Service guys says of Le Carré in this book, "Just because it's made up doesn't mean it's not true.

"Slow Horses" is the first in a series of Slough House novels. All of them are now on my "must read" list.

OFF TOPIC POST: I sense a disturbance in the Force

I mean the Cheshire Police Force. From the Tweet below, it looks like they have openings for wannabe Storm Troopers.IMG_20170803_103653


For those of you not familiar with Cheshire, it's a relatively wealthy, mostly rural County in the North West of England, with a population of about a million people.


It is nor known for its riots or large scale property damage. It's crime rate is about average (half that of London).


All of which makes this choice of advertising campaign as puzzling as is socially unacceptable. The message seem to be "Join us to put down the unruly mob"

One has to wonder who the "us" is in this context.


I think the police should apologise for this extraordinary lapse of judgement.


4 Stars
“Idaho” by Emily Ruskovich
Idaho: A Novel - Emily Ruskovich

The title says, "Idaho - A Novel". I think the last bit is an assertion of intent meant to guide people like me who reach the end of the book knowing that I'd read something wonderful but not really being able to label it.


Each chapter in "Idaho" is a work of art. Emily Ruskovich can write in a way that makes you fully aware of how a particular person is experiencing something that is vivid and immediate but also ladened with context and possibility.


At one point she even helped me see inside the head of a blood hound on a search, head down, ears and folds of skin dampening all other stimuli except the hundreds of scents that contain the one scent I am looking for.


It seemed to me, that for much of the novel, I had become that blood hound and that each chapter was a scrap of fabric, soaked in sorrow, confusion, regret, guilt, love and, occasionally hope, that I would bend over and sniff at until I had extracted every scent of emotion and traced the trails of circumstance, intent, memory and consequence that connect the chapters and the people in them.


It is an intense, absorbing experience that speaks to my senses and my emotions but, by itself, does not satisfy my need for a narrative leading to some form of release. The nonlinear nature of this narrative, the emphasis on moments of being and intense but bounded insights into a person, meant that reading "Idaho" felt more like experiencing other people's lives than it did reading a novel with a beginning, a middle and an end. I was given lots of hard, emotionally taxing questions but I was offered only the inference of answers, much as I am in real life.


There is a narrative. It is triggered by an act of violence that changes the lives of almost all of the characters in the book. Revealing this narrative in a non-linear way is not done to enhance the tension or to build to a great reveal, but to show that we are not the events that we live through. They can harm us or help us but the self we bring to each moment is what shapes the outcome of an event.


I'm sorry if that sounds obscure. Emily Ruskovich would never say anything so clumsily as that. It is merely me, trying to find meaning in what I was reading.


In "Idaho" I spent time seeing the world through the eyes of many people: May, a six year old girl living an isolated rural life in which her most intense relationship is with June, her older sister, whom she simultaneously loves and resents; Elizabeth, spending her life in prison for murder and trying to allow herself friendship and perhaps even love; Jenny, a woman who is trying to abnegate her right to anything she desires but who cannot stop herself from offering something of herself to others; Wade, a man who has survived tragedy and guilt and love but who is losing himself with each memory that slips out of reach; and Anne, who falls lives a life of sorrow-filled love that she does not feel entitled to cut herself free from.


I will remember these people for a long time. I will remember their joys and their pain and their ability to survive as long as they are remembered by someone, even if it is only themselves. I will remember the mountain they lived on and how its wildness and isolation and unforgiving winters shaped them like wind eroding sandstone.


Yet I still struggle with "Idaho" as "a novel". Probably this says more about my expectations than about Emily Ruskovich's writing but it changed my experience of the book. If "Idaho" had been a collection of short stories, I'd have gone, "How wonderful. This is like reading Alice Munro" but it was labelled a novel so I found myself expecting more connection.


The best example of what I mean is a character in this book, a young man who loses his leg through an accident in high school, who's experiences and thoughts are beautifully described but who seems to have only the most tangential connection to the other people in the book. I invested my imagination in him. I didn't like him but I began to understand him. Yet I couldn't make him fit and my inability to do so distracted and annoyed me.


I strongly recommend this book, novel or not. The writing is simply wonderful. The experiences are harrowing but in a way that made me more empathetic than horrified.

I am astonished that this is Emily Ruskovich's debut novel. I look forward to reading everything else that she writes.


I listened to the audiobook version of "Idaho" which is read with consummate skill by Justine Eyre. She helped my hound dog follow the scent trails in this book much more easily and with more passion than I had only read the text.


I've included below an extract of her performance and a short interview where she talks about her experience in narrating "Idaho"


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4 Stars
"The Spaceship Next Door" by Gene Doucette
The Spaceship Next Door - Gene Doucette, Steve   Carlson

"The Spaceship Next Door" is a fun book: witty, fast moving, great dialogue, original ideas, a twisty plot, aliens, zombies and a whole bunch of in-jokes for those of us who live and breathe SciFi and horror.

It's told in a raconteur third person style that heightens the amusement, keeps things from getting too serious and allows the parts of the puzzle to be nudged into sight at just the right pace.

The basic premise is that spaceship lands in the small mill town of Sorrow Falls, Massachusetts in the middle of the night and then,,, nothing much happens... for three years. Long enough for the good folks of Sorrow Falls to get used to having a spaceship next door and even to take for granted the strong Army presence that is guarding the ship.

Then things do start to change and it seems the end of the world is at hand. At least, it will be if sassy sixteen-year-old Annie Collins doesn't help the thirty something government agent who absolutely no-one believes is the reporter he claims to be, to solve the mystery of what the ship wants and what it will do if it doesn't get it.

Annie Collins is the heart of this book. If you don't like her, then the book will just pass you by. Fortunately, she's very likeable. She's open, friendly, preternaturally smart, always has a clever question to ask and is hiding a hugely important secret from just about everyone.

I was smiling almost all the way through this book. I listened to the audiobook version and felt entertained the whole way through.  In addition to being witty, "The Spaceship Next Door" manages to twist a number of tropes around aliens and zombies and the reaction of the military to a space invasion in very clever ways. It makes constant reference to science fiction movies and books and I could almost see the author's gleeful grin in my mind when he managed to include the line, "Take me to your leader."

If you're a sci fi fan looking for a smile and a few surprises, come and spend a few hours in Sorrow Falls and let Annie Collins show you around.

The Mann Booker Prize Longlist - how many of them do you read?

2017 booker longlist


midnights childrenThe first time I remember going out an buying a book because it won what was then called the Booker Prize was in 1981, when Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children", a long, digressive novel about post-independence India, won. It was a beautifully written and rambled wonderfully but I wouldn't have found if it hadn't been for the prize. Sadly, it set an expectation that the prize wasn't able to sustain.


I couldn't bring myself to read the 1982 winner "Schindler's Ark" (released as "Schindler's List" in the States - yes, the one they made the movie of) because the subject matter was too stark. I skipped Coetzee's "Life and Times of Michael K" because I'd been so lost and repelled reading his "Waiting For the Barbarians" .Ok, so he later won the Nobel Prize for Literature but I still don't want to read him.


In 1984, I decided to try again. Unfortunately, this was the year when Ian Banks' innovative and daring "The Wasp Factory" was passed over for Anita Brookner's extraordinarily bloodless exploration of love amongst white middle class English people,  "Hotel Du Lac".


the-bone-peopleIn 1985, Keri Hulmes "The Bone People" , a novel set in New Zealand that explored how solitude can slip into isolation, gave me hope that the Booker Prize would lead me to great writing, but when the 1986 winner was Penelope Lively's "Moon Tiger", a retrospective look at love and incest before and during World War II that still managed to be dull, I gave up.


Now, thirty years on, I'm taking another look, partly because I'm still hoping to be pointed at writers and don't know and partly because the Longlist includes books I've already bought








The 2017 Mann Booker Prize Longlist is:


4-3-2-14 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)


I like Paul Auster's writing but I get lost in his complexities.


This one tells the story of four different versions of Archibald Isaac Ferguson born in Newwark, New Jersey in 1947.


I'm sure it will be closely observed and clever and very human but I don't think I can bring myself to devote thirty three hours of listening time to it.






history of wolves

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is has been in my TBR pile since February. Maybe I'll get to read it before the Mann Booker judges make their minds up.


It's the story of an isolated fifteen year old girl, daughter of aging hippies still living in a shack and subsisting off the land, who deparately wants to belong to something normal.


I loved the title and the graphics. Now I'm hoping I didn't buy something pointlessly arty by mistake










the underground railroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)


This is one of those books I think I should read but know that I won't because I read for pleasure and this will not be fun.


I find slavery very easy to imagine and fundamentally repugnant.


If your in the mood for an historical drama on slavery and escape and what it means to be human then this may be for you. The critics liked it and Oprah endorsed it







exit_west_-_cover_001Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton). This is about two young lovers and how their flight from danger costs them their past. It explore what it means to migrate: what it gives and what it takes away.

I'm tempted by this one. I've been living as a (comfortable, very welcome) immigrant for more than an decade and I'd like to consider what it means. This quote is part of what calls to me:

“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

I recommend this review of the book.









solar-bones-cropped-coverSolar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate) This is what the publisher says:

Funny and strange, McCormack’s ambitious and other-worldly novel plays with form and defies convention. This is profound new work is by one of Ireland’s most important contemporary novelists. A beautiful and haunting elegy, this story of order and chaos, love and loss captures how minor decisions ripple into waves and test our integrity every day.

Apparently it is "a single, novel-length sentence.


Perhaps I'm shallow and unadventurous but I'd take that as a warning to read something else.





reservoir 13Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate) is on my TBR pile. I bought the audio book version because I think it will help me focus on the long, atmospheric meditation on the loss caused to a village by the disappearance of a young girl.


Not joyful stuff but the writing style appeals to me.















ElmetElmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)

I haven't been able to find out much about this one. It's a debut novel. There's no audiobook version yet. The blurb says:

Atmospheric and unsettling, Elmet is a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family's precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.

It could be good but I'll wait until I can see how it's received.









auumnAutumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton). This wasn't on my TBR pile before the Mann Booker longlist but it is now. I listened to the audiobook sample HERE   and got caught up in the prose. Also, it's set in post-brexit Britain and isn't afraid to kick around politics and pop-art.


This is the first of four "seasonal" books, so if this flies, I have more to look forward to.













home fireHome Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury) sounds promising. The blurb describes it as:

a nuanced, searing, and exceedingly timely novel about love and loyalty, ideology and identity, what we choose to sacrifice for and why. With uncanny insight, Kamila Shamsie reflects our world back at us, dramatizing the complicated humanity behind the headlines.

So it could be something or nothing. Again, the clash of culture thing appeals but I'll wait to hear more about this one






The remaining three on the list just don't appeal to me at all.


lincoln in the bardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury) The blurb says:

"The captivating first novel by the best-selling, National Book Award nominee George Saunders, about Abraham Lincoln and the death of his eleven year old son, Willie, at the dawn of the Civil War"

It's just too much: Lincoln, dying children. The wisdom of hindsight and probably a lot of symbolism. Too worthy for me.









swing timeSwing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)  The blurb says:

"Dazzlingly energetic and deeply human, Swing Time is a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them. Moving from northwest London to West Africa, it is an exuberant dance to the music of time."

I've never been able to connect with Zadie Smith's writing. I wouldn't expect this time to be any different. Sounds like a lot of intense emotion and exploration of identities that I have no frame of reference for.







ministry of utmost happinesThe Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)


I gave up on "The God Of Small Things" when it came out twenty years ago (and won the Booker).


The description of this latest book just fills me with the anticipation of wading through page after page of dense but undisciplined text covering themes rather than people.


I haven't read it. It could be wonderful. Life's too short for could bes to get a second chance.



"Red Sister" by Mark Lawrence
Red Sister - Mark  Lawrence

"Red Sister" is a high impact book that has some powerful scenes and some novel ideas but which is weakened by a clumsy structure and very limited character development.

It starts well:

"It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy Convent, Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men."

It's packed with well described violence and dramatic confrontations. It has an all-female school for assassins (imagine Hogwarts where everyone was in Slytherine and the favourite class was Offensive Use of the Dark Arts), new magic tropes, an ancient pan-galactic civilization to catch up on, a brutal, corrupt, theocracy and the rough equivalent of cage fighting, only with child combatants.


What's not to like?


Well perhaps the enslavement and abuse of children through out the book and the glamorisation of pointless violence on an enormous scale.


Reading "Red Sister" was like watching a Tarantino movie, (not the ones with the clever scripts, more like "Dawn til Dusk") only without the humour, You find yourself spellbound by the action and repulsed by the people.


The thing that I liked least about the book was the clumsy structure for imposing a "here and now" timeline over the main "backstory" that the novel focuses on. It seemed forced, gave a sense of foreboding that it couldn't live up to, and served no purpose except to set up the next book in the series.


The audiobook version is more than nineteen hours long. It kept my attention all the way through and had me going "wow" every few chapters. This is above average fiction... in parts. Enough parts for me to say, "I loved the scene where..." but not enough to say that I loved the book.

Off Topic Post: I was him but he is not me


I turned sixty this year. It's not just a number. It's a sign that I've already spent way more time than I have left to spend. I can no longer muddle through with "I'll do that some day, but first I have to..." ways of thinking. I need to make some decisions.


At least I think I do.




The temptation is to focus on answering the question, "what do I want to do with the next ten to twenty years?" I've never been good with answering that question. Even if I answered it, I doubt I'd be convinced by my own conclusions and I'm certain that if something I hadn't thought of came along that looked interesting, then I'd do that instead.


Besides, I hate the idea of spending my time ticking off things in a bucket list. It seems like a displacement activity designed to distract me from the realities of the life I'm currently living.


If I do need to answer a question, it should probably be "who do I want to be over the next ten to twenty years?" That may seem an odd, perhaps even inauthentic question to ask. Surely you are who you are?


Well, yes, but you're not who you were so there must have been the opportunity for choice along the way.


Take a look at the young man in the picture. It's 1983. He's twenty-six years old and he and the woman he will marry five years later have come to Luzern in Switzerland as part of a coach tour around Europe. It's a good trip. They're seeing new things, feeling pretty good about themselves and filing away places they'd like to come back to. Switzerland is high on the list.


He's just moved to London and taken up his first management job. He rides a motorbike to work. He doesn't have a driving license. He lives in a small room with a baby belling in the corner and a toilet down the hall. He's enjoying the novelty of London, with its theatres and cinemas, its concerts in the park and its unceasing flow of people.


He has no idea what's ahead of him and hasn't really spent much time thinking about it.


I know all this because I was him.


I'm not him any more.


It's not just that I'm twice as old and 50% heavier than him. Nor is it only because, unlike him, I've worked all over the world and spent more than a decade in Switzerland.


He'd never had a wife. He'd never had anyone he loved die. He'd never experienced physical pain. He'd never had to wonder if he had what it took to build a life in which he and his wife could be happy and secure.


The man I am now, understands the man I was then far better than he ever understood himself. Sometimes I'd like to go back and slap him and say, "Pay attention. These years are important. The people around you are important. Savour them. In a few decades you won't remember the details of the projects that ate your nights and weekends but you'll remember the people you worked with, the meals you had with friends and the new places you went to with your wife."


The man in the photograph didn't know what he had. He wasn't present enough. He wasn't grateful enough.


He was young. I am not. I should know better. I should be taking accountability for who I am and for shaping who I will become.


For the past decade or so, I've been living what Dido would call a "Life For Rent" I've been moving from one "temporary" thing to another, putting down no roots and making no plans, hardly noticing that I'm spending days that I'll never get back. My only tether to reality has been my wife and I've spent far too much time away from her.


It's time to stop renting. As the chorus of Dido's song puts it:

"But if my life is for rent and I don't learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
'cause nothing I have is truly mine"

I want a life that is connected to people and places that I care about. I want to be involved in the community I live in and earn the right to own its joys and to confront its problems. I want to be present until I no longer have that option.


I hope that, if there's an eighty year old version of myself, he'll look back at the choices I take this year and say, "Well, at least you didn't screw that up, Took you long enough though."

5 Stars
“Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” by John David Anderson
Ms. Bixby's Last Day - John David Anderson

I’m tempted to keep this review really short:

“Read this book. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly structured and shares the lives. problems, passions and fears of three young boys in a way that feels real and true without ever getting schmaltzy or maudlin.”

Except that doesn’t do justice to the impact this book had on me. It was one of the best reading experiences of the year so far.


I bought “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day” in the hope that it might be good but the expectation that it would turn out to be too saccharin for me to make it to the end of. The reviews used words like “heartwarming” and “uplifting”. These terms have been so degraded by Disney and Hallmark that, to me, they scream “phoney”.


My wife read the book first. She recommended it but warned me that it was sad and that it had someone in it with cancer. I can’t always cope with sad and we’ve both lost too many people to cancer to approach it casually.


I waited for a sunny day when I was feeling relaxed and then tried the first hour. After that, I was committed. I needed to know more about the people and what they were up to. I found myself unwilling to stop for necessary but inconvenient things like work, food and sleep. I wanted to get back to the boys and their journey.


The book is told as three first person accounts, with each boy getting a chapter in turn. The pace of both plot and character development are perfect. There is a quest structure that is amusing and exciting and sad in turns but never leaves the real world 


At the centre of the book are three very different boys who each have a particular take on friendship, a teacher they all love but who is neither a saint nor a super hero and their mission to provide her with a perfect last day.


What I liked most about the book was the way the character of each boy was slowly built up through a series of interlocking events and insights that deepened my experience as the book progressed.


I was glad to see that, while the book did deliver a big finale that actually meant something, it didn’t pull any punches and the main focus remained on the boys themselves.


I strongly recommend the audiobook version of “Ms. Bixby’s Last Day”. Each of the boys has their own narrator, which emphasises their individuality. The performances are pretty close to perfect.


One last thing. My wife was right. It is sad. It will make you cry. Life is like that.

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