10 Things I Love About Reading Short Stories

At the weekend, I read a great short story collection: Help the Witch by Tom Cox, which was a brilliant blend of funny, eccentric, folklore-ish tales and tiny snippets used to tell a bigger story. It got me thinking. I don’t read many short story collections, but when I do, I really enjoy them. So here we have the ten things I love about reading short stories.

1. They are short, but satisfying!

Bear with me here, because I’ve got several reasons why being short can be a great thing. This first is that, if the story you’re reading is well done, then you’re getting the gratification you’d normally get from a novel in a much shorter space of time. You can feel a sense of satisfaction from just a few pages, a maybe ten minute chunk of reading. Lately I’ve been enjoying reading even the tiniest of short story, such as the flash fiction or very short stories (vss) on twitter. All of my favourite songs tell stories too, in the shortest and most satisfying way.

2. What if the short story you’re reading is not good? At least it’s short!

I told you there was going to be more than one good thing about short stories being short. Sometimes, you start reading a short story and, for whatever reason, you don’t like it. Now the fact that it is short can be an even bigger advantage. You’ll still have read a story. You may not have enjoyed it, but it took less than half an hour to read. In thirty minutes, if I’m not into a novel yet, or am struggling with one, I may only read a few pages, and have nothing to show for it. With a short story, it’s over by then and I’m on to the next.

3. You can read them in one sitting.

The beauty of a short story is you can read one in a very small amount of time, which means that you can squeeze one in to the shortest of reading breaks.

4. They leave me hungry for more reading.

When I’m reading short stories, each one sort of whets my appetite for more reading, especially if they are good and well written. They can also give you a taste of an authors work, which tells you quickly whether you like their writing style or not, and can lead to the finding of new favourite authors.

5. You can read multiple genres in one small book.

Even when reading the short stories I’ve read most of in the past, which are Agatha Christie of course, I’ve always loved how the style, the characters, the themes and even the genre can change from story to story. Naturally, Christie’s short stories are predominantly mystery based, but pick up a copy of her collection The Hound of Death and you’ll be treated to macabre spooky stories, mysteries, even a little dash of romance. One of the things I absolutely loved about Tom Cox’s Help the Witch was how different each story was from the one before.

6. You can dip in and out.

A short story collection could keep you going for a while. I tend to read them in one greedy binge, but I’m sure a lot of people have a book of short stories on the go for a while, perhaps alongside other things, and the great thing about that is you can read a story, wait a week and read the next, without losing your place or forgetting what was happening plot-wise. I plan to resume Madame Zero by Sarah Hall, which I started last year, while I’ve got the taste for short stories.

7. Getting many stories for the price of one book.

If you buy a novel and it’s disappointing, well that’s £8.99 or thereabouts, not to mention days of your life, down the drain, (unless you’re reading on a device, but let’s not go there!), but buy a book of short stories and you’ve got many chances to like the book, many different worlds to visits, many different characters to get to know for a few pages. I love that opportunity. The very next one could be your new favourite, and that’s exciting.

8. A short story can slot nicely into your day in between activities.

Related to number 3 above, you don’t have to set aside much time out of your day to read a short story. If you’re a very busy person then reading collections of short stories could be a good way to boost your reading.

9. The good ones can have a huge impact.

Now we’re getting to the really important stuff. I love the way that such a small amount of pages can have such a big impact on me. Whole short stories, or large parts of them, can remain in my head, unforgettable. Some novels I’ve enjoyed, even some that I know I’ve loved, I might look back on a few years down the line and remember very little about them. A really well written short story can stay with you so much longer. My favourite in the collection I read at the weekend, ‘Just Good Friends’ was one that really made me think. It was woven together so carefully and so perfectly, bringing the strands of story so skilfully together. I know it’s going to keep popping into my head. There is a famous Shirley Jackson short story, ‘The Lottery’, which I read a few years ago after hearing it was one of the greats. I still think about it frequently. It is powerful. Reading the best short stories can be an intense experience. Which brings me to my final point…

10. I have so much respect for writers of this format.

Imagine being able to craft interesting characters, a fulfilling plot full of detail, not to mention imagery and descriptive language that transports your reader to the world you’ve created. Now imagine you can do that, not over the length of a whole novel, or a novella, but in a few short pages. I cannot stress enough how much a short story can impress me if it is done well. Sometimes I am utterly in awe of writers who can do this. To make me care about a character, a small event, a mystery even, in a fraction of the pages used by a novel is no mean feat. When you read a really good short story, the kind that makes you feel in a short space of time what you might normally feel over the course of 300+ pages, that is a very special thing indeed.

I don’t know why I don’t read more short stories. I really am a very big fan. I’m off to scour my bookshelves for more of them to read.

  • Currently reading: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.
  • Currently listening to: Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths.

Pulling No Punches: The Jack Reacher Series

The great thing about reading the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child is that you know what you’re going to get: fast paced, gripping thrillers that draw you in faster than the hero can knock someone out. Jack Reacher is an ex-army Major from the Military Police. His main skills are spotting details that don’t add up, knowing what time it is without a watch, and stopping anyone and everyone who comes up against him.

Reacher’s first outing was Killing Floor, and the first book I read was his second Die Trying. Lee Child writes, usually in third person, but sometimes in first, concisely and with great pace. Some of the books are set during Jack Reacher’s time in the Military Police, but in most he’s a bit of a drifter. Since leaving the army, he’s been travelling around America with only a toothbrush in the way of possessions. On his way he gets into various situations, that always lead to him investigating further, and invariably beating bad people up, and sleeping with the random female character of the book. My husband, my mum and I joke that to write these books Lee Child must throw a dart at the map of the USA for a new location, and then just mixes and matches bad guys and love interests for Jack. We laugh about it, but all three of us keep reading, so it must be a winning formula!

Although Jack Reacher is basically a killer, with a body count that increases book by book, you can’t help but like him. He has a moral compass. He fights battles for those who can’t fight their own, and whenever he can he seeks to right wrongs. He may be flawed, but he’s loved by millions of readers. He even has his comic moments. My favourite comes in Bad Luck and Trouble. The hotel rooms of Jack and his colleagues have been searched and trashed. Reacher, who carries nothing but a toothbrush is outraged to see that his only possession has been stamped on and broken. His response: “Bastards”.

I’ve now read 22 out of 25 full length Jack Reacher books. For once, I won’t say you have to read these in any order, the beauty of them is that you can start anywhere. If you’ve yet to pick one up, I would probably advise you not to pick up one of the army days ones first, although I suppose if you love things in chronological order you could start at the MP days and work through those ones. In my opinion, you’d be best off getting to know Reacher for a few books first. I’ve read a fair few of them in order. The only books that form a sequence of sorts are 61 Hours (my personal favourite), Worth Dying For, A Wanted Man and Never Go Back, all of which are linked by Reacher’s phone calls with Major Turner and his journey towards her, culminating in their meeting in Never Go Back. So maybe read those in order, for continuity.

If you’ve watched either of the Jack Reacher films, based loosely on the books One Shot and Never Go Back, then you may have experienced some of the clever plotting of Lee Child, but you’ve not met Reacher yet. I hope the stories are true that there will be a tv series coming soon with a much more accurately cast hero. You may have no idea what I’m talking about; long story short, 5’7” Tom Cruise was cast in the films as Reacher, who is described in every book as 6’5” and 210- 250 lbs with hands the size of dinner plates! I enjoyed both films and have watched them more than once, but Tom Cruise is physically as far from being Jack Reacher as you can get.

I’ve enjoyed reading the Jack Reacher books, and I will be sad to come to the end. Last week I read Night School, which revolves around another of Reacher’s army day investigations. It was an intriguing story, set in 1990s Germany for the most part. It wasn’t the best of the books, but it wasn’t my least favourite either. The tension was skilfully built as we were given snippets of what was happening with the culprit and the invisible enemies as Reacher and his colleague Neagley formed their case and followed every lead. I would give it 7/10.

My top ten favourite Jack Reacher books (in no particular order although the first is my favourite): 61 Hours, Die Trying, Killing Floor, Tripwire, Without Fail, Persuader, The Hard Way, Bad Luck and Trouble, The Affair, Never Go Back.

I highly recommend Jack Reacher to all thriller lovers, and anyone in search of a quick and gripping read. You won’t be able to put them down!

  • Currently Reading: Help the Witch – Tom Cox
  • Currently listening to: Smoke and Mirrors – Elly Griffiths

To Read Or Not To Read?

In my twenties my to be read pile (it used to be an actual pile on my bedroom floor) became a longer and longer list of unread books and the books made their way onto shelves, and still I kept buying. Now I’ve slowed down, but the damage is done. My house is full of books and my list is over 200 books long.

One of my biggest problems with all the books I’ve bought is my determined refusal to never not finish books once I’ve started them. Where some might read 50-100 pages of a book and then mark it as DNF (did not finish), I find myself unable to do so. So I end up with books I’ve started just languishing away on my “currently reading” when in actual fact I am obviously not reading them.

I’ve heard it said “it’s not hoarding if it’s books”, but for me it probably is hoarding as I have many other “collections” of things besides books, so I freely admit to being at least a borderline hoarder: I find it very difficult to let things go. I will get rid of a book if I’ve read it and know I never will again or didn’t particularly enjoy it, but I am troubled by the thought of letting books go that I haven’t read, just in case I one day want to read them.

So, you can see how my bookshelves and to be read list have spiralled out of control. I have begun to think harder about the fact that I will likely never read some of the books I have amassed, and that, in some cases, this may be for the best. With that in mind, this week I decided to read Deadly Décisions by Kathy Reichs. This is the third book in the Temperance Brennan series, on which the tv series Bones is based. I’ve never watched Bones other than the odd clip. I’ve read the previous two books: Déjà Dead and Death du Jour. The latter I do not remember at all, and the former I know I didn’t enjoy. Unfortunately, before I read these, sometime when I was still buying books like mad, I had decided that I would love this book series, and as a consequence I bought a bargain set of the first ten! I regret this.

First, here’s why I thought these books would be perfect for me. I had heard they were very similar to Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which I was enjoying at the time. I had also read and loved the likes of Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series and Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles. It sounded like this would be my new favourite series.

Now we come to the problem, which I’ve been puzzling for the three days it took me to get through Deadly Decisions. Why don’t I like these books? I’ve given them a chance: this was the third one I’ve read, I think that’s more than a fair chance. They should be even better than the Scarpetta series, what with Kathy Reichs being a forensic anthropologist herself, like her main character. She clearly knows her stuff. For me, unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. The author won’t stop telling us every single detail of the tests her character is carrying out. Honestly a description felt like it had gone on for several pages sometimes. Or she’ll give you pages on the history of biker gangs in Canada, or a whole page of description of a location or even what Tempe is having for dinner. It’s too much. It’s nice to know an author knows their stuff, but the best writers will selectively choose what to include to keep us reading in an enjoyable way.

My other problem, and I really did try, is that I don’t like Tempe Brennan very much. I can’t help it. She’s annoying. We have to hear all of her angsty thoughts, even the ones that have nothing to do with plot. She is supposed to be clever but she does monumentally idiotic things like going to a biker bar alone at night when she’s deep in an investigation about how dangerous these bikers are. Why? Oh yes, because she has an ever stupider nephew who is inexplicably staying at her house and getting involved with biker wannabes. I’m sorry but I just wasn’t given enough to go on to actually care whether he made it through the book. The other characters are either forgettable, or Tempe hates them for random reasons that only made me like those characters more. I actually began to feel sorry for some of the cop characters because she’s so nasty about them.

I’ve been spoilt, clearly, by the wealth of well written and likeable characters in the books of Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen and Patricia Cornwell. I haven’t actually got all the way through the Scarpetta series so I may have to revisit that soon to see if I still like it.

Anyway, I did finish Deadly Decisions. I would give it 4.5/10. It was okay if I looked past all the problems I described above. I was even mildly interested in the outcome by the final 50 pages. That just isn’t enough to make me want to read the other seven that I own. There are plenty of other books out there and many more series to try. I don’t like to be negative about books, and I know there are plenty of people out there who love this series. That’s okay, there are many series I love that others might not like at all. I’ve concluded that the Temperance Brennan series is not for me.

I’ve made the decision to part with the set (book 1 and 2 are already long gone). It will clear nearly a whole shelf on my new wall of bookshelves, and I still have some books in boxes that can fill the gap. I will be removing the books from the to be read list (something I haven’t done in a long time). I must be more ruthless when I don’t enjoy books. Maybe one day I’ll even declare a book DNF! Maybe.

Soon to be filled with other books…
  • Currently Reading: Night School by Lee Child
  • Currently listening to: Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths

Best Books: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The second book in my Best Books series is another of my favourite reads from 2020: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

“I am a product of endless books.”

– C.S Lewis

I have to admit, I’ve been putting off writing this post. It’s so hard to put The Book Thief into words that do it justice. I read it straight after Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, which I talk about here. It’s definitely unusual for me to read a book about or featuring World War 2, never mind two books in a row. So how did this book make itself one of the best I’ve ever read?

Like Life After Life, The Book Thief is unique. It takes a concept and goes with it in the very best way and makes that concept not just work but be amazing. As usual I will try my best not to spoil the book, but possible minor spoilers ahead. First off, the book is narrated by Death himself. It’s a great idea, and one that Marcus Zusak clearly had fun with. Death is not a very reliable narrator. He goes off topic to tell us about colours and deaths he has experienced. He spoils parts of the ending long before it is reached. And yet when it came to it, I was still surprised and devastated by the climactic scene. I quite honestly cry just thinking about it. This is a powerful book.

I read in an article last week that The Book Thief is technically a Young Adult book. If that’s the case, I do not know how young adults handle reading this. It is so sad. It may sound silly, but reading this made me truly realise how awful and devastating and gut-wrenchingly futile the Second World War was for the citizens of both countries. That this is a book about a German child in the middle of the war, in small town Germany, just made it hit me hard how terrible it would have been to live through the war no matter which country you were in. It is very thought provoking.

Told by Death, this heartbreaking book follows Liesel, a girl who has loses her family at the outset and is living with foster parents. As the title suggests, she steals books, and with the help of her Papa, Hans, she slowly learns to read them. Each section of her life story is intertwined with the book she has stolen at the time she describes. She has plenty to worry about along the way, big secrets to keep, and trouble to get into. It turns out that Death knows Liesel’s story because she eventually wrote it all down and he found her book.

So, as I can’t tell you about the ending, I will just tell you that I loved almost everything about the book, despite the fact that it makes me cry. I love the voice of Death telling us the story, I love the tiny heartbreaking details he includes. I love the journey Liesel makes from lonely, terrified and illiterate; to an avid reader with so many things she cares about that are precariously balanced and could be lost at any moment. I felt on edge as mundane parts of Liesel’s life went by, knowing what must be coming. I love the other characters, especially Hans Huberman, Liesel’s brash Mama, Rosa, her friend Rudy and, of course, Max. I think Marcus Zusak has written a book that makes you think about it long after it’s over. It’s a book that will stay with me forever. I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to decide to read it.

If you can bear the sadness, go out and read The Book Thief as soon as you can. I’m now trying to psych myself up to watch the film and find out how well it translates onto the screen. I give this excellent book 9/10.

Next in my Best Books series, I’m planning to tell you all about one of my very favourite books The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J. Walker.

Everything I Read (and listened to) in March!

It’s been an interesting month for reading. I was still shielding for the whole month so had plenty of reading time available, and I felt like I read a lot, but when I looked back there were only two books this month.

Partly that was because I was reading Great Expectations, my third ever Dickens, for most of the month. I had started in February. It took me longer than David Copperfield, but much less time was invested in it than was eaten up by Bleak House. The other book I read (Criminal by Karin Slaughter) wasn’t short either.

The other factor was that I was really enjoying listening to audiobooks, and I spent a fair bit of time working on jigsaw puzzles, which I find always goes well with an gripping audiobook.

Let’s deal with the audiobooks first. I finished the complete Sherlock Holmes collection, read by Stephen Fry. I only had two of the books left: His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think either short story collection was Conan Doyle’s best, but Sherlock was given plenty more outings and adventures. I enjoyed the titular story ‘His Last Bow’ as it was different from any other. It was interesting, too, to hear stories I had never heard before, some narrated by Holmes himself! Overall, I’ve enjoyed my time with Sherlock and Stephen Fry and I feel it deserves a longer write up elsewhere.

Five audiobooks I listened to this month.

Having finished my Holmes marathon, I went back to another series. I’ve listened to all of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books to date on audible. I think they make the perfect audiobooks because they don’t have such a frantic pace that you can’t follow while multitasking, but they always draw you in with the characters and pick up speed towards the end. I’m so invested now in the two main characters, Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson, that I welcomed their return into my life with open arms and listened to the two most recent books over a few days. The Lantern Men is typical of most of the Ruth Galloway series, it has murders, mysterious bones for Ruth to investigate and a fair dose of local history/mythology. The Norfolk setting is another part of the series that I love, having been born and raised there myself. The most recent entry in the series The Night Hawks was next and again a gripping listen, with a murder mystery that started at the beach and ended at the eerie Black Dog Farm. Ruth and Nelson have a fascinating relationship to say the least, and I can’t wait for the next book! If you’ve never read Elly Griffiths, I do recommend doing it in order as the relationships develop over time and are clearest and best appreciated that way. Start at The Crossing Places and go from there. I promise Ruth grows on you.

Desperate for more audio goodness, and finished with the Ruth Galloway series for now, I decided to give a chance to Elly Griffiths’ other series of books. I’ve not tried them before because I knew they were set in 1950s Brighton and I wasn’t sure that was my cup of tea. I started at the beginning with The Zig Zag Girl. The series is called The Brighton Mysteries and it is very different from Ruth Galloway. It focuses on DI Edgar Stephens, working for Brighton police and hung up on a girl who died in the war; and his former comrade, magician Max Mephisto. The two served together in the war in a strange unit known as ‘the magic men’. Now it seems someone is targeting their old unit and is using macabre versions of Max’s magic tricks to kill. I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy this audiobook too. The narrator was spot on for the characters and the story is easy to listen to and had some satisfying plot and interesting characters. I’ve just finished this one and have immediately downloaded the next in the series, so it will be good to see how The Brighton Mysteries develop.

Now, to the books. I read Great Expectations for a lot of the month. I have had this one on my shelf for a long time now, and it finally felt like it was time to read it. I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of David Copperfield in places, and it does have certain similarities, but this book felt more concise (not a word I associate with Dickens). I really enjoyed reading it, especially volume one, the excitement at the end of volume two, and all of volume three. There are such a lot of well thought out connections in it, a huge twist in the middle, and some scenes that had me genuinely on edge. There is also a lot of humour, particularly early on in the book. I found the middle section a bit slower and Pip is certainly not very likeable in this part. You still root for him, but you also cringe at the way he treats Joe. Without any spoilers, and yes this was genuinely my first time reading this book, it makes Pip’s transformation all the better. I enjoyed the uncertainty and hope of the ending. This book has some fantastic characters: Miss Havisham, Magwitch, Herbert, Joe, Mr Jaggers, Wemmick and Pip himself, not to mention all the minor players, each one so well written. The settings are fantastic too, and are well described without the description feeling too heavy or wordy. I particularly loved Wemmick’s ‘castle’, Miss Havisham’s house, and the way Dickens uses the spooky nature of settings to raise and reflect feelings of fear and discomfort in Pip (and me) in some of the scenes. This book really does deserve to be a classic. It is certainly my favourite Dickens so far.

The second book I read this month was Criminal by Karin Slaughter. This took me a bit longer than some of her previous books. I actually started it a long time ago and put it down unintentionally for a long time. I restarted it from the beginning this time. I wouldn’t say this was my favourite of Karin Slaughter’s books, and I’ve been reading the Grant County and the Will Trent books in order for years. I liked the Grant County series best, and I really liked it when Will Trent, after a few of his own books, met Sara Linton and Lena Adams and the two series merged somewhat. This book has a very different storyline, flicking between murders in the 1970s and present day. It quickly becomes apparent that Will’s boss Amanda Wagner is the central character in the story. This is her past, her first murder case, her introduction to Will’s father and mother. It’s a book that explores a lot of prejudice against women, and racism, in the police force in 1970s Atlanta. It’s a great origin story for Will, Amanda and Evelyn, and it covers interesting ground. It’s clearly a very well researched and written book, and I can see why the cover describes it as Karin Slaughter’s “best”. I’m glad I’ve read it, and I look forward to moving on with the series, it just wasn’t my favourite.

I’ve got a lot of plans for reading in April. I want to try again with Kathy Reichs and her Temperance Brennan series; I’m looking forward to reading Tom Cox’s Ring the Hill; and I can’t wait to listen to the next Elly Griffiths. Fingers crossed I can make lots of progress through the reading list.

  • Books read from The List: 2
  • Audiobooks listened to: 5
  • Currently Reading: Deadly Decisions – Kathy Reichs
  • Currently Listening to: Smoke and Mirrors – Elly Griffiths

Agatha Christie – The Mystery Mission is Complete

A few years ago I wrote about Agatha Christie and my mission to read all of her books (not including plays, poetry, autobiography and the books she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott). This year, after years of reading and loving her mystery books, I have finally completed my target to read them all.

One of my shelves of Agatha Christie – a friend was kind enough to give me most of the set of facsimile first editions.

I picked up my first Agatha Christie in February 2006. It was one of her most famous books: Murder on the Orient Express. I can still picture the moment I picked it up, in the crime section at the back of my local library, and decided to try it. There were many more books of hers on that shelf. I had started to love crime fiction the previous year, and I felt like it was time to try the highest selling mystery writer of all time (Christie is famously outsold only by Shakespeare and The Bible.) I went on to read seven of her books that month, and another seven over the course of the rest of that year. Apart from 2018, when I only read a book about Agatha Christie (Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran) and a book about one of her characters Hercule Poirot (The Mystery of the Three Quarters by Sophie Hannah), I have read at least one book by the Queen of Crime every year since. The highest amounts I’ve read in a year were 17 in 2013 and 15 in 2008.

Most of the Agatha Christie books were library books. That first year of discovering Poirot and others, I think 13/14 books were from the library. I bought my first Christie: The Mysterious Affair at Styles as a reward for myself when I made my first house sale in my first job as an estate agent. The second most prolific year, 2008, coincidentally involved a move to a new town in a new county and a brand new library to explore. I remember the excitement of going to the crime section and finding a well stocked Christie shelf. I was soon using the suggestion box in the library and getting even more excited to see new Poirot books arrive for me. In the most prolific year, 2013, I had bought a lot of second hand Christies and went on a binge of many of her best standalone books over the summer, when I also went on holiday to Torquay and visited Greenway, Agatha’s holiday home and other related sights. I finished the last of the Poirot books that year.

The rest of my collection.

From 2014 onwards, it has always seemed like I was so close to having read all of Christie’s books, and certainly I had read all of her best work. Each year I would tell myself this was the year. I now owned all of the books I needed to read in order to be finished. I also own the majority of her books now, having added to my mostly second hand collection on and off over the years. Finally, in January 2021, I read my final Agatha Christie: Postern of Fate. It seems fitting that I read the final book she wrote last of all. Definitely not her best, but a final outing for her pairing of Tommy and Tuppence, giving them a last chance of solving a mystery. Although the book is mostly dialogue and far removed from the amazing twists and turns of the books of her heyday, I was still impressed that an author of over 80 years of age was still writing bestsellers.

I am excited to think that I still have plays, poetry and an autobiography to read, not to mention the Mary Westmacott novels. I feel a bit sad to have finished, but now I can start to revisit some of Agatha Christie’s very best works again. In January I also read Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making by John Curran, a second insightful book about Agatha’s notebooks and how the notes within them became her brilliant works.

Books about or based on Agatha Christie (and her Autobiography).

To finish, it only feels fitting to mention some favourites. My top five Christies would be, in no particular order – Five Little PigsAnd Then There Were None The Murder of Roger AckroydTowards ZeroMurder on the Orient Express. My least favourites are: Elephants Can RememberNemesisThey Came to BaghdadPassenger to FrankfurtDestination Unknown. My favourite title of all the books: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? My favourite main character: Hercule Poirot; my favourite side character: Bob from the book Dumb Witness.

Writing this has made me want to start re-reading the best of Agatha Christie’s books. If you like mysteries and you’ve never tried any of her books, please read one and let me know what you think. Below I have listed all the books in the order that I read them, followed by a list of books about Christie that I’ve read.

My Agatha Christie Mission – books read by year:

2006 – Murder on the Orient Express, Murder in Mesopotamia, Dumb Witness, Evil Under the Sun, Lord Edgeware Dies, Death on the Nile, The Clocks, Cards on the Table, The ABC Murders, Appointment with Death, The Seven Dials Mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The body in the Library, Third Girl, One Two Buckle my Shoe.

2007 – And Then There Were None, Elephants Can Remember.

2008 – The Hollow, The Big Four, The Man in the Brown Suit, 4:50 from Paddington, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Five Little Pigs, Death in the Clouds, The Secret of Chimneys, Halloween Party, Cat Among the Pigeons, Peril at End House, The Secret Adversary, Dead Man’s Folly, Sad Cypress, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

2009 – Three Act Tragedy, Taken at the Flood, After the Funeral, Black Coffee, The Murder on the Links.

2010 – Poirot Investigates, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Murder at the Vicarage, Murder in the Mews, Poirot Book 1 (short story collection).

2011 – The Thirteen Problems, The Hound of Death

2012 – Hickory Dickory Dock, The Unexpected Guest

2013 – The Sittaford Mystery, The Labours of Hercules, A Caribbean Mystery, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, They Do It With Mirrors, Towards Zero, Sparkling Cyanide, Parker Pyne Investigates, Sleeping Murder, Ordeal by Innocence, Problem at Pollensa Bay, A Murder is Announced, Poirot’s Early Cases, Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, Crooked House, Endless Night.

2014 – A Pocket Full of Rye, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Spiders Web, (The Monogram Murders by Sophie Hannah).

2015 – The Moving Finger, Partners in Crime, Destination Unknown, Murder is Easy, N or M?

2016 – The Mysterious Mr Quin, The Listerdale Mystery, By the Pricking of my Thumbs, The Pale Horse, Passenger to Frankfurt, (Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah), At Bertram’s Hotel.

2017 – While the Light Lasts, Nemesis.

2018 – (The Mystery of the Three Quarters – Sophie Hannah)

2019 – They Came to Baghdad.

2020 – Miss Marple’s Final Cases, Death Comes As The End

2021 – Postern of Fate

Books Read about Agatha Christie: Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days – Jared Cade, Agatha Christie at Home – Hilary Macaskill, Poirot and Me by David Suchet, The Agatha Christie Miscellany – Cathy Cook, The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie – Charles Osborne, A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie – Kathryn Harkup, Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks – John Curran, Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Making – John Curran.

Best Books: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I thought I would start a new series of posts about books I love, that I’ve read in the past few years. I’ll be posting regularly, once a week if I can, about my ‘best books’. These will be books that have stayed with me long after I’ve finished them, books that I’ve thought about, books that have gripped me; books that are just really great reads.

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

Mortimer J Adler

My first book in this series is one of my two favourites that I read in 2020: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I will try to avoid major spoilers, but I will talk about the main concept a lot so apologies if there are any minor ones.

Life After Life is so utterly unlike anything I have ever read. It’s a book that draws you in slowly, by degrees, and before you know it you’re fully invested in the main character and her life, or should I say lives. The author, Kate Atkinson, really seems to be enjoying herself. It’s like she knows all the ‘rules’ of writing, and has fun with them, winking at the reader as she does exactly what she wants to do with this amazing story.

I was due to read Life After Life for a book group in 2019, then that didn’t happen and I still hadn’t read it. I have read books by Kate Atkinson before: two of her Jackson Brodie books, which I loved, although there is a chapter in the first one Case Histories that absolutely broke me, and I still think of it to this day as one of the saddest things I’ve ever read; and one of her standalone novels Emotionally Weird. I also have Behind the Scenes at the Museum on my TBR, but like Emotionally Weird, I have a feeling it will be a hard one for me to get into. I do like her books, but some of the quirkier novels just don’t grab me when I read the blurb. I will almost certainly go back to the Jackson Brodie series at some point, because I really enjoyed those (despite the emotionally traumatising scene mentioned above).

So, Life After Life. I admit that, going in to reading it I thought I might not like it. As I read the first couple of chapters I thought ‘oh no, I can’t put up with this constant going back’, and then, slowly but surely, it gets REALLY good. The concept of the book is this; what if there were an infinite number of chances to live your life? That’s what is happening to Ursula, who is born, over and over again in 1910. The book follows her and tells us the story ,or stories, of her lives. I wasn’t keen at first. I didn’t understand why people were saying this book was so good, but Kate Atkinson knows what she is doing. What pulled me in was Ursula starting to become aware of things she can’t explain, almost-memories of other times she has lived a certain moment. This is where, for me, it starts to get really good.

It’s very hard to talk about or write about such a great book, because firstly I don’t feel like my words are doing it justice, and on top of that I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone looking to read it. You really should all read it. I think it is a measure of how good it is that I was on the edge of my seat in the part of the book set in the blitz. I was so scared for the character, so desperate for her to make it through the various different situations she found herself in. I read this back in August and I am still thinking about it now. It also makes an interesting contrast/comparison to the next book I am going to talk about in my Best Books series: The Book Thief, which I read in August- October of last year. Based on Life After Life alone, I think Kate Atkinson is a brilliant writer. The way she crafts Ursula’s story and frustrates the reader time and time again leaves you guessing and wondering. When I got to the main part of the story, I just couldn’t bring myself to put the book down, I needed to know what would happen next.

I think one of the things I value most in a really good book is when it stays with you and makes you think, long after you’ve read it. Life After Life is one of those books for me. The way the author has written it is interesting, and she fully delivers on the promise of her premise. I love it because it’s different. It’s very different. It’s also one of those books where it’s such a well executed idea that I both wished I had thought of it, and was glad that someone else had (and had written it so well).

I can’t recommend highly enough that you read this book, if you haven’t already. I will definitely be on the look out for the related book A God in Ruins (when I’m back to buying books again). I give it 9/10, and I’m only taking off one for the slightly slow start.

Coming next week in my Best Books series: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

Reading from home: my 2021 mission

For many years now, I’ve had a problem with buying books, borrowing books and generally reading books that are not on my shelf already. Then I started listening to audiobooks as well. If you’ve seen my Book List page, you’ll see how many books I have available to me at home. There have been many things over the years I have tried to do to help me read what I have, such as banning myself from buying any books until I’ve read x amount of books, or only buying second hand books, or not buying books at all. The trouble is, I can’t help borrowing, using the library, getting books as presents and so on.

I’ve read 40% of these books!

Then I stayed at home for most of a year (and still no sign of going out again). I’d love to say it helped, and I read only books from home, but actually I borrowed a lot of books from my mum, and listened to many audiobooks. This year, I am determined. I can’t go to the library as it is closed. I can’t go to any bookshops; they are closed too. I must not buy any more books online. I will be listening to audiobooks as I’ve got five credits built up on audible and I’m almost finished with the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. Everything else I read is going to be from my shelves. I will read from home all year. I’m sure I can’t stop anyone from giving me a book present for my birthday in June, but if I can get through some of the endless backlog by then, I think that will be okay.

The good thing is, I have a huge variety of books on the to be read pile/shelf/list so I cant really complain. Having gone through the list again to update it on the blog, I also feel like some definitely need to go. As I mentioned in my previous post, I got some new bookshelves put up for me by my ever patient husband, and before I photograph the wall of books and share on here it does need to be sorted properly and rearranged so I can find everything better. Hopefully I might cull a few, although I suspect some of the books I’m least likely to ever get round to reading are in boxes in the garage so are a bit ‘out of sight, out of mind’ at the moment. What can I say, I’m a total hoarder! It’s not just books, I have started a lot of ‘collections’ of different things over the years, and I find parting with anything quite a struggle. That’s a story for another day.

Wish me luck. I’ll keep you updated as to how the reading from home mission progresses.

My cat “reading” some Dickens.

Currently Reading: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Criminal by Karin Slaughter

Reading in a Pandemic (or a review of my 2020 in books)

It has been a very long time since I blogged about books. I’ve been writing, a lot; editing a book I wrote in 2016 for NaNoWriMo, and writing another first draft during NaNo2020. I want to write more for this blog, because my bookshelves are still overflowing. It turns out that, even in a lockdown, I don’t read anywhere near enough to make headway!

I’ve been shielding during the pandemic, so I’ve had a lot of time at home and yet, in 2020 my reading habits changed for the worse. I don’t know about anyone else, but in lockdown my concentration span dwindled to nothing, and I was so busy finding things to do to occupy me (crochet, lego, jigsaws, writing) that reading fell a little bit by the wayside. I also started some books that I put down again, and haven’t resumed yet.

In 2020 I read 41 books, compared to 57 in 2019, 54 in 2018 and 58 in 2017. I read a mixture of classics, post-apocalyptic dystopian type books, YA, crime (of course!), thrillers and some others. I listened to all of the Harry Potter books on Audible (and they were just as great with Stephen Fry reading them as they are when I read them myself) to get me through the first lockdown, and the first three audiobooks of The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Towards the end of the year, as we hit another lockdown, I started to make my way through all of the Sherlock Holmes Definitive Audio Collection, also read by Stephen Fry. I’ve just reached the collection His Last Bow, so I’m still working on this.

A selection of some of the books I read last year

Another thing that happened last year, was that my husband put up lots more bookshelves. Now his “office” (which I had harboured hopes would be my library) has a whole wall of bookshelves! (Pictures to follow shortly). Unfortunately, I still have three other full bookshelves around the house. Have I made a dent into the 200+ unread books? Well, not as much as you would hope I would have done in a year at home. Oops. I’m going to try harder this year, and I’ve already started work on it.

The year got off to a good start, reading wise, I read four classics in a row and was proud of myself for this but also happy to have read some really good books. I read Little Women in between viewing the film for the first time after Christmas last year, and viewing it a second time in January. I have read, or had read to me, at least parts of this book before but I really enjoyed reading it as an adult. The 2019 film is by far my favourite version: Saoirse Ronan’s Jo and Florence Pugh’s Amy are just so great. I then finished reading Jane Eyre, which I had started in 2019. Reader, I loved it! After that I embarked on an attempt to read David Copperfield before going to see the film The Personal History of David Copperfield in February. I fell 100 pages short so had to read the ending after watching the film, but it was the quickest I had ever read a Dickens book (much quicker than my read of Bleak House, years ago). The fourth classic was The Secret Garden, which was read to me as a child. I found it so brilliant, and very emotional.

Before lockdown, I had also managed to read some less classic books. How to tell if your cat is plotting to kill you by Matthew Inman is mainly in the form of cartoons but was a fun read that made me laugh. Never Go Back by Lee Child is a Jack Reacher book I had been looking forward to for a while, as I’ve been reading them in order (mostly) and he’s been making his way to see a woman he’s spoken to on the phone for several books now (and this one was the basis of the second Jack Reacher film). Then I read The Wall by John Lanchester, which sets a suitably apocalyptic tone for what was about to follow in the real world. Personal by Lee Child was the book I was reading when the country started to lock down. Not my favourite of the Jack Reacher books.

The first book I read in lockdown was probably not the best choice. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff is a book I’ve wanted to read for years (and I still need to see the film). I did like it, and had I read it during my dystopian/post apocalyptic phase a few years ago I certainly would have loved it. Reading it as the world shut down due to a pandemic, it was a little bit too close to home really. Perhaps one day I will revisit it without quite so much accompanying drama in the real world.

A brilliant book I read during the hot days in the garden last spring, was 21st Century Yokel by Tom Cox. It takes me longer to read non-fiction than fiction, but I have loved all of Tom Cox’s books about his cats, and I pledged to this book, and Tom Cox’s next book Ring the Hill, on Unbound. I will definitely be reading the latter this year. I love the way Tom writes about nature, his family, and the various animals he encounters. This book made me laugh and cry. It’s really very good.

Next, I read Half Broken Things by Morag Joss. It’s been on my shelf for years, and has been recommended to me multiple times, especially by the author Sophie Hannah who I follow on Twitter. It’s a very strange book, I must say; the type of book that causes a sense of unease to build inside you until the conclusion. I’m glad I’ve read it, and it certainly left me thinking about it once I’d put it down. I followed it up with Miss Marple’s Final Cases by Agatha Christie. I’m not Miss Marple’s biggest fan, but this collection of short stories were easy to read and I like to see how the queen of crime’s short stories often showcase glimmers of ideas that became longer books. I read a second Agatha Christie last year, which was her murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt: Death Comes As the End. Again, it wasn’t my favourite but I do love her work. As of the end of 2020, I only had one of her books left to read in order to have completed reading them all! More on that coming soon in another post.

I haven’t finished Wolf Hall yet!

The middle of the year involved reading several thriller/crime books: Sophie Hannah’s Haven’t They Grown was as intriguing as her books always are. I personally prefer her Culver Valley series featuring Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer, but that’s because those are so brilliant! If you’ve not read Sophie Hannah yet and you like psychological thriller/crime type gripping books, I highly recommend The Other Half Lives, Hurting Distance and The Point of Rescue. Continuing on the crime/thriller part of the year I next read Make Me (my third Jack Reacher of the year), which I enjoyed more than Personal although it has a very dark secret at the heart of it. After that, I read The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, another crime classic I’ve had on my shelf for years. It’s a great book about the darkness that lies inside some people, told in a very similar way to the other book I’ve read by Thompson, the review of which you can see here (Pop 1280). It was worth the wait to read it, a very grisly thought provoking book. My final three crime books of the year were all by Dick Francis Twice Shy, Forfeit and High Stakes. I love reading books by Dick Francis. He is honestly such a good writer: the pacing is fast, the books are short, and the stories he tells just grab you and you find yourself unable to put his books down!

In the later part of 2020, I read a wider range than I normally do. Some were books I’ve had on my shelves for a while, some were lent to me and I bought one (but I think it might have been the only book I bought last year so maybe I can be forgiven for adding to my endless TBR pile). I think I might write separately about Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, as I’m not sure I can do them justice in one sentence. These two were probably my favourite reads of the year. I’m also going to plan to write a post about Laura Purcell’s horror books. I read The Corset and Bone China after listening to the audio book of The Silent Companions (which I read a strange recommendation of on Twitter and couldn’t resist). Which brings me to Then by Julie Myerson (another end of the world book – I do not learn), which is absolutely horrifying. It’s horrible. I read it, and it’s exactly the type of book I do read frequently, and it’s very well written, but honestly I would not recommend because it’s so awful, and once I was reading it I could not look away. When I say awful, I mean harrowing and terrible, not awful as in rubbish. If you do read it, remember I warned you not to. My next book, to erase away the trauma of Then, was Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer. There’s a good film of this which is now on NOW TV. It changes the book somewhat, but I was left actually unsure which I preferred, the book or the film (this has never before happened to me because the book is nearly always better). It’s a pretty light teen book with a very dark edge. Teenagers are spontaneously combusting and the story is well told by the protagonist Mara (played perfectly in the film by Katherine Langford). I think I liked what the film did with the ending, without giving any spoilers.

In December, I read the only two books that I read last year that were actually fairly newly published. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. When I read the first page of The Midnight Library, I knew immediately that it was a book I was going to read in one day. I did. It’s a book that I’m sure is resonating with so many people reading it when we are in a pandemic, and shut away at home, and struggling in so many different ways. I personally liked the way it dealt with the main character’s mental health. I also absolutely loved the central idea of the library full of books, each book a different possible life. What an idea. I wish I had ideas like that. Again, no spoilers, but I loved the fact that another character in the book has a video shop instead of a library. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is uplifting in a totally different way. The artwork is beautiful, I love all the ink pictures, and some of those that had colour were even more special. The words match so perfectly with the pictures. It was a perfect Christmas present for me, and having read it cover to cover, it is definitely a book I will return to again and again and dip in and out of.

If you’ve come this far with me, that was my 2020 in books. I have plans for lots to post on the blog in 2021, and I’m already off to a good start with my number one target for reading this year: make a dent in the TBR!

  • Currently Reading: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Criminal by Karin Slaughter
  • Currently Listening to: ‘The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (from Sherlock Holmes The Definitive Audio Collection read by Stephen Fry)
  • Books read so far in 2021 – 10

Learning to love audiobooks!

I realise it has been over a year since my last blog post, and I can’t really think why that is other than just being busy and not even realising how long has passed.

So far in 2018, I have read 21 books, and I have two confessions to make about that statistic. Firstly, that number does include Graphic Novels (I call them comic books in my head, but they do involve reading). Secondly, that number also includes three audiobooks.

Let’s deal briefly with the Graphic Novels first. I started on these last year, drawn into reading them by the Netflix tv series Jessica Jones. As a person who has nearly always read the book before seeing the film or the series, or failing that reads it after, I couldn’t not read the comics Jessica came from once I had seen the series. I read the comics in their collected books, all from my local library, who ordered in the books for me. Having enjoyed those, this year I read the Graphic Novels from the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, which is a series I absolutely love and have been reading since last year. These perfectly illustrate the characters I had come to imagine from reading Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground and Broken Homes. If you’ve enjoyed the main series of books and would like more while you wait for the next instalment, I would recommend trying the Graphic Novels. I’ve read Rivers of London: Body Work, Rivers of London: Night Witch and Rivers of London: Black Mould. My only words of warning would be, if you haven’t read Broken Homes yet and you are reading in order like me, then Body Work does contain a massive spoiler! I learnt this the hard way. Night Witch is set after Foxglove Summer and Black Mould after The Hanging Tree (which I am yet to read).

If I haven’t already said so, I highly highly recommend the whole series so far. Ben Aaronovitch writes in such a unique style and perfectly combines magical and mystical elements with policing through his long suffering police constable, Peter Grant. Read it in order, but definitely read it!

So, audiobooks. My interest in audiobooks started this year when my husband stopped reading real books (I know! Don’t get me started on this!) in favour of exclusively listening to books via Audible. I have previously listened to some books on CD but that was a very long time ago. Anyway, my idea was that I would be able to multitask and get more done around the house without having to stop reading! In an ideal world, I would love to be able to switch between the paperback and the audio version as and when needed but sadly life is not like that!

Unfortunately, my audiobook journey almost ended with my first audiobook as I made a very ill advised choice to start with.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins is, I’m sure, a great book to read on the page. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the audio version. It wasn’t that the people reading it did a bad job, or that the story was not good, it was the sheer volume of characters. I counted around 11-14 different perspectives in this book and most of those were full on narrators who narrated at least two chapters. So as an audiobook it was so difficult to follow. 5/10

Luckily, I learnt my lesson on the second try and my next listen The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths, was a great read/listen. I will be reading or listening to the rest of the Ruth Galloway books for sure. 7.5/10

Next, and most recently, I listened to Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch. This was so good! I am biased as I love the series already, but Kobna Holdbrook-Smith really brings the book, and characters Peter Grant and Beverley Brook in particular, to life so well that it perfectly fit what I had imagined from the rest of the series. 8.5/10

So, in summary, I have branched out to audiobooks, and I am enjoying this new way of reading, but I won’t be abandoning paper books and I have been reading other books alongside.

Coming soon: a review of the best books I read in 2017 and early 2018.

Currently reading: Whip Hand – Dick Francis

House of M – Brian Michael Bendis

Listening to: The Hanging Tree – Ben Aaronovitch