Crime Classics vs Modern Classics: Comparing Two Recent Reads

So far, May has been a very interesting month for reading. As I mentioned in a recent post, I decided to participate in a month long readathon called the 1900 to 1950 readathon. This is my first readathon, and I was very excited to find a large selection of books from this era on my giant bookshelf.

Today, I thought I would tell you about two of the books I’ve read; one modern classic: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and one crime classic: Sweet Danger by Margery Allingham.

This was my first experience of Hemingway, and my second experience of Margery Allingham (I’ve also read her more famous work The Tiger in the Smoke). I had very mixed feelings about both books.

First, let’s look at A Farewell to Arms. I found the style of writing strange, and this took me a bit of time to get used to. The protagonist tells his story in almost a stream of consciousness, with liberal use of the word ‘and’ joining long sentences. What I did like about this was the way he made this stream of consciousness even more disjointed and nonsensical when the character had been drinking, which I thought was very good. I give Hemingway the benefit of the doubt that the style is very much a choice and not poor or lazy writing, but at times it came across as the latter, particularly early on. It was a very realistic book, and I was left with the feeling that all of the war elements may well have been based on Hemingway’s own experiences. Although World War 1 plays a large part in this story, in that Frederick Henry is an American lieutenant serving with the Italian ambulance service, there was less war in the book than I had originally assumed there would be. Henry is injured before we see much fighting, and while in hospital he falls in love with an English girl who he had previously met and started a relationship with.

My main problem with A Farewell to Arms was the characters. I felt I wasn’t being given much to go on to make me care about Henry. He told us every detail of all the food and drink he’d had each day, and all about his comrades, but his descriptions of Catherine Barkley, the woman he supposedly loves, are sketchy at best. She comes across as barely there, a very under-drawn character who seemed to have no mind of her own at all. As a result of this, I found it was hard to care about their so-called love story. Which was a shame because their eventual ending could have been very sad and powerful, but instead I found it abrupt and bleak.

I did find myself reading A Farewell to Arms with a sense that something major was going to happen and I was interested to see what it would be. There were parts I enjoyed and even found moving, such as the retreat in Italy. The straightforward and direct style of writing impacted the way I experienced the final part of the book. It was sad but it didn’t move me to tears, for reasons it is difficult to explain without spoilers. I am unsure whether to try another Hemingway book in the future or not.

In contrast, the language of Sweet Danger felt quite unnecessarily complicated, and I felt more like I was reading a very old fashioned book, even though it was published later than A Farewell to Arms. This book followed Albert Campion, who is Allingham’s main investigator in a lot of her books, on the trail of an ancient European crown and the title that goes with it. He was trying to both find these things and restore them to the family to whom they rightfully belonged. As in A Farewell to Arms, we are not given much to go on about any of the characters, and some of the later developments come as a surprise because they’ve barely been mentioned or even hinted at previously.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find this plot very interesting. Allingham throws in details to draw you in, such as a mysterious dead body, stumbled upon by Campion’s man/ bodyguard/ general dogsbody.  Then she barely returns to these other than to give throwaway and seemingly random explanations for them. Everything that happened in this book was either barely advancing the convoluted plot, so that nothing appeared to be happening for about 200 of its 250 pages, or it was completely bizarre. All the tangents and side plots brought very little to the story and just left me feeling that the book was somewhat crazy. For example, in the middle of the book Campion is seemingly sent away to South America, with no real explanation other than diversion. Then in the final fifty pages the book descended into non-stop action as the plot was speedily wrapped up.  

In conclusion then, I didn’t really enjoy Sweet Danger, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about A Farewell to Arms. Both had elements missing that I felt I needed in order to fully enjoy them. I am glad I’ve read them both, and I don’t think I would have got to them without the readathon. With A Farewell to Arms, I felt like I was expanding the range of what I have read, and it is always interesting to read something that is completely different to what you normally read. In the case of Sweet Danger, I was glad to read some classic crime that wasn’t Agatha Christie, but I could immediately see why I love Christie so much more than other crime writers.

Have you read either of these books from the 1920s and 1930s? If you have I would love to hear your thoughts: please do leave me a comment. I have also talked about these two books in my mid-month mini wrap up on booktube, which I will link below in case you’d like to watch it.

  • Currently Reading: The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey.
  • Currently Listening to: The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Woodhouse.

 

What I Read in April

April has been a productive month for reading, and I felt like I was hitting my stride and properly enjoying reading again. This post is all about everything that I read and listened to in April. I’ve made a video on my new booktube channel about this too, which you can find here. I thought by way of a change, I will run down my ten reads starting with my least favourite all the way up to my top book of the month.

10. Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs

The month didn’t get off to the best start. I wrote elsewhere on this blog about my dilemma of whether to get rid of books I wasn’t keen on. That was because my first book of the month, Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs was not one of my favourites. I did get in to in towards the end, but I have decided to let the rest of the series go to a new home, freeing up nearly a whole shelf. I just can’t spend any more precious reading time on a main character like Temperance Brennan, who I just don’t like.

9. Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths

This was my first audiobook of the month, and it took me a lot longer to get through than its series predecessor The Zig Zag Girl, which I listened to in March. It really must have been a good month reading-wise because I didn’t dislike this book, it was a good listen. I don’t think I liked the subject matter much as it involved (minor spoiler, but the whole book revolves around this so it was probably on the blurb) two missing children turning up dead in the snow. Detective Inspector Stephens investigates, and his stage magician best friend Max Mephisto takes a bit more of a back seat in this one. I liked the newly introduced female detective Holmes, and I enjoyed the fairy-tale links but otherwise it was a fairly standard listen. I will listen to the next book in the series, but I’m going to have a break from them.

8. Caught by Harlan Coben

This was a good read too, but reading it straight after a Jack Reacher book made it seem tame in comparison. I like Harlan Coben as an author, but I’ve enjoyed some of his other books a lot more. Again, this had subject matter I didn’t love, but the plot did get really good once I got into it. This one was about a reporter called Wendy who believes she has found a paedophile in the community, and it also involved a missing teenage girl. I liked the characters and it had a good ending.

7. The Guest List by Lucy Foley

I kept hearing about this book, so I listened to the audiobook. I think it would have come out ninth on this list if I’d read it in paperback form. It’s very contrived, but it did have a pretty gripping hook and it was saved by the great performances of the multiple narrators. This book is about a wedding on a remote island. We hear the story mainly told by Jules (the bride), Johnno (the best man), Olivia (the bridesmaid), Hannah (the plus one) and Eoife (the wedding planner). In between times, we get the story of the wedding night, told in third person. The best thing about this book was the brilliant opening chapter; I loved how it set up all the action and it was almost Christie mystery-esque in its style. Sadly, the rest of the book does not meet up to the high expectations I built up from that chapter. I may listen to the author’s other book The Hunting Party, but I’ve been told it’s similarly contrived. If anyone has read both, I would love to hear what you thought and whether you’d recommend giving it a listen?

6. Madame Zero – Sarah Hall

I wrote a lot about this one in my comparison of the two short story collections I read this month, which can be found here. i’ve not put this any higher up the list, because some of it was too surreal for my tastes. If I was judging only on my favourite story ‘Later, his ghost’, this book would be higher up!

5. Night School by Lee Child

I wrote a lot about Jack Reacher after reading this book. You can find that blog post here. I really enjoyed this book, although it isn’t my favourite of Jack Reacher’s Military Police adventures. It probably would have been higher up the list, but I read a lot of different things this month.

4. Persuasion by Jane Austen

This is only the second Jane Austen I’ve tried, and I read the other, Northanger Abbey, many years ago. I’m not a huge fan of writing from this period, or at least I always think I’m not. However, last year I really enjoyed the classics I read towards the start of the year (more about that here), and it was around the time I was reading lots of classics (for me) that I got this out of the library. Then all the libraries shut, and my local one has only just reopened, so I didn’t end up reading Persuasion until the end of April 2021. I found it difficult at first to get into the right head space for the language that Austen uses, but once I got tuned in, I really started to enjoy the story of Anne Elliot and her uncaring family. I loved the middle section, towards the end of volume one, where the plot thickens and gets exciting. As for volume two, it has a very satisfying ending! I liked this book a lot.

3. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

This was a rare example of a book where I had seen the film first. It was very different from the film, but I enjoyed both in their own way. I possibly enjoyed the film more, but the film expands the book a lot, and changes the ending significantly. I enjoyed the stark and to the point style of writing here, and I liked the different ending. In this book, Robert Neville seems to be the last man alive. The rest of the population have become vampires. He spends his days struggling with his existence and swinging between drinking to drown his sorrows, killing vampires, and researching how to cure the problem. It’s a very bleak book, but I enjoyed its post-apocalyptic story.

2. Help the Witch by Tom Cox

This is the other short story collection I compared here. It was by far my favourite of the two and I explain why in the previous post about it. Deserving of being one of my favourite reads in April.

1. Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

What can I say? This was Kate Atkinson’s debut, and I’ve put off reading it for such a long time because I didn’t like the sound of it. When I finally did read it, last month, I could immediately see where the excellent Life After Life, which I read last year, came from. This is almost like a practice run, or perhaps a Life After Life if you took away the main concept of living multiple lives. Narrated by Ruby Lennox, this book takes us from the moment of her conception, through her life, with a series of chapters about other generations of her family interspersed in Ruby’s story. There was one thing that required a lot of suspension of disbelief, but that aside, I loved it. Mostly, it makes me want to reread Life After Life. i had a great time reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and I highly recommend this book.

That brings this wrap up of April’s reading to a close. If you’d like to hear me trying to describe these ten books and how much I did or didn’t like them please do check out my new youtube channel. I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve read any of these books.

In April I managed to read 7 books from the giant TBR, 1 library book and 2 audiobooks. I added three books to the TBR. (I know! But it didn’t break my no book buying rule because one of them I supported last year on unbound and it’s just arrived, one was a prize from a competition on twitter, and one was a pass on from my mum). To make up for adding three, I am unhauling 7 unread books (the Temperance Brennan series). Not bad.

  • Currently Reading: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • Currently Listening to: Animal Farm by George Orwell

The 1900-1950 Readathon: A New Challenge for May

In light of my giant and seemingly never-ending book list, I’ve decided to try something new in May. I came across a Readathon on YouTube, hosted by Katie at Books and Things: the 1900-1950 Readathon. I immediately began scouring my bookshelves for things to read from this time period.

Despite the fact that I love the ‘Golden-Age’ of detective fiction that falls firmly within this era (especially Agatha Christie), I wouldn’t say that I normally read a huge amount published between 1900-1950. I actually found a surprising amount of options on my shelves. So, here is my brief guide to my TBR (to be read) for this challenge I will be joining in with in May.

First, there are a few challenges for the Readathon, and I’ve managed to just about find something for each of these prompts.

  • 1. Read a book published 1900-1950 from the country you are from.
  • 2. Read a book published 1900-1950 from a different country.
  • 3. Read a genre classic from this time period (e.g. classic crime, classic sci-fi etc.).
  • 4. Read something from the time period that is not a novel.
  • 5. Read a book set during, or exploring, WW1 or WW2.
  • Bonus challenge: Read a book from every decade (1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and 1940s).

The books I have found to read are mainly from my own country, so prompt 1 is covered. Several of them are crime classics, so prompt 3 is covered. I will tell you about the other four in my notes below. I probably won’t read everything I found, as it is quite a few books, but I will be doing my best to read as many as possible and complete all six challenges.

A Little Princess – Frances Hodgson Burnett  1905 – I re-read The Secret Garden last year and loved it, it’s such a moving and happy book. This one is on loan from my Mum, and I’m hoping it might be just as good.

The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame 1908 – I will definitely try to read this one as I have a lovely copy, and haven’t revisited it since childhood. I can’t wait to pay a visit to Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole.

Anne of Green Gables – L.M Montgomery 1908 – I’m not so keen on this one, I’m not sure why but it’s not a book that has ever been high on my priority list. Hopefully I will give it a try and be able to cross it off my TBR. (It’s from the same set of children’s books as The Wind in the Willows, which I did not buy for this book in particular.)

Bulldog Drummond – Sapper 1920 – This is from a classic crime set I bought years ago, and I have no idea what it’s about so I look forward to possibly tackling it next month.

The Waste Land – T. S. Eliot 1922 – This one covers prompt 4, as it is a poetry collection. I’ve been meaning to read it for a while now, so I will certainly be diving into it soon.

Unnatural Death – Dorothy L Sayers 1927 – Another classic crime novel. I have already read Whose Body? in this authors Lord Peter Wimsey series.

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 1920 – This covers both challenge 2 and challenge 5, so I will read it this month. I don’t really read books about War so I’m a bit unsure, and I’ve never read Hemingway before. I might start with this one, and I’ll let you know how I get on.

Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham 1933 – A third classic crime entry on the list, I have previously read The Tiger in the Smoke by Allingham and I remember it being very good, so hopefully this will be no different.

The Rose and the Yew Tree – Agatha Christie writing as Mary Westmacott, 1947 – Finally an Agatha Christie entry. I recently finished all of Christie’s crime and thriller books, which I wrote about here and I’ve been eager to read one of the Westmacott novels for a while. I definitely plan to read this in May.

The Franchise Affair – Josephine Tey 1949 – A final crime entry. The is supposed to be a classic and I enjoyed reading A Shilling for Candles a few years ago. I will try to get to this if I can.

I also have an audiobook collection that would fit in nicely with the theme, which consists of Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) by George Orwell. They are read by Stephen Fry so I am very much looking forward to listening to them.

Finally, you may have spotted that I didn’t have anything on my list from the 1910s. It was the one decade I could not find on my shelves, but I luckily remembered that I downloaded an e-book, years ago, of The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which was first published in 1912, so I will read that in order to complete the bonus challenge.

I’m already excited to start on this readathon, because I’ve never done one before. Hopefully I will get lots of reading done. I would love to hear from you: have you read any of these books and if so what did you think? If you’re also planning to join the 1900-1950 readathon, please do let me know in the comments.

My other exciting news is that I have started a Booktube channel so that I can talk about reading and books as well as writing about them! My first video is about the 1900-1950 Readathon too, so I’f you’d like to watch that, it can be found here at Alice and the Giant Bookshelf on YouTube.

  • Currently Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Currently listening to: My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Two Short Story Collections

A little while ago, I told you what I love about reading short stories. Before writing that post, I had read Help the Witch by Tom Cox. Afterwards, having read two novels in between for variety, I read Madame Zero, by Sarah Hall. Both books contained short stories that intrigued me, and I admired the writing styles of both authors, so I thought I would compare and review the two collections.

Both of these two collections were bought for me as presents by my mum, one for a birthday, one for a Christmas. The Tom Cox book I had asked for, as I already knew I loved his non-fiction. The Sarah Hall collection was bought for me after my mum told me about a post-apocalyptic story, in which a man goes out to look for surviving fragments of Shakespeare in the decimated world to give as a present. This story ‘Later, His Ghost’ is by far my favourite in Hall’s collection, and I have read it twice. I could be wrong, but all the place names mentioned also made me think it was set in Norwich, the closest city to where I grew up, which made me like it even more.

These two books bear comparison because of their links to nature. Tom Cox writes about nature extensively in his non-fiction, and in this story collection nature is an extra character; sometimes macabre, sometimes folklore-ish, sometimes in stark contrast to technology. Sarah Hall too, draws on nature in some of her stories, particularly the opening tale ‘Mrs Fox’, which won the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013. She also cleverly juxtaposes the natural landscape with the terrifying vertigo of a man made bridge in ‘Wilderness’.

Both authors’ collections could be described as quirky, as haunting. I would say that Sarah Hall is at times more surreal, which I enjoyed in some stories but in others I found it a struggle. I was very struck by the poetic nature of short stories, particularly in ‘Mrs Fox’, which in parts is so close to poetry in the way it describes nature. It flows. It is also an extremely unsettling and bizarre story. I found ‘One in Four’ very uncomfortable reading in the current pandemic. Quite often Hall’s stories revolve around the mundane, the everyday, but with a strange twist of some kind.

Of the two collections, I vastly preferred Cox’s, which I read much more easily and found it more enjoyable. Tom Cox injects humour into his stories, even when they are haunting, sad, or strange. My favourite in his collection, by a long way, was ‘Just Good Friends’ which weaves the past and present in such an unsettling and satisfying way, and left me feeling I had read a complete novel in just a few pages. I find most of Cox’s stories gripping, and I love the way he writes. There are themes from Cox’s life as told in his non-fiction 21st Century Yokel and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind to name just two of his previous works, that are mentioned here as well. Things Cox really likes, such as cats, crisps, folklore and nature are all woven into his short stories as they are in his other books. His style is more laid back than that of Hall, and I find it more accessible. That is not to take anything away from Cox, he is poetic too and funny and quirky and I love some of his tongue-in-cheek mini stories that form longer narratives here such as in ‘Listings’ and ‘Seance’. I enjoyed ‘Nine Tiny Stories About Houses’ and ‘Folk Tales of the Twenty-Third Century’, both of which are multiple short stories gathered under one theme. My second favourite story was actually the most bizarre and shortest of the tales ‘Robot’, which is weird but also brilliant. I am very fond of the newly coined word ‘rotorsocks’, which is what the Robot has instead of feet. I found this story charmingly strange.

The title story ‘Help the Witch’ is written as a series of diary entries, and it is the setting, the idea of the protagonist being cut off by the weather in a lonely and isolated haunted house that builds the tension and fear. I somehow expected all of the book to be like this, to be essentially ghost stories, but I was wrong and I am glad about that, because what Cox gives us instead is so much better than simply a book of ghost stories.

As I said in my previous post, I admire writers of short stories for their abilities to be concise and yet descriptive, to tell us satisfying and complete tales in such an incisive way. Both of these books are so well written, and I admired poetic and beautiful sounding prose in each of them. Not every story is poetic, nor does it need to be, some are bleak and harsh and rural, especially in Madame Zero. I think my only real reason for preferring Help the Witch as a collection was quite simply that I enjoyed it more. It appealed to me more. I will definitely read it again. With Tom Cox’s book, I felt reluctant to put it down at all, whereas I had actually started Sarah Hall’s book back in 2019 when I got it, read a few stories and left it. When I came back to it I re-read the stories I already had as well as reading those I hadn’t. Both books had stories I will continue to think about, not just my favourites.

This is all a matter of opinion of course; it could be that I enjoyed Help the Witch more because I was already familiar with Tom Cox and his writing style. I would argue though, that the best short story writers employ different styles from story to story, and both of these authors do that very well. If anything, Cox’s book forms a more cohesive whole, where Hall’s stories can be almost jarringly different. I think if I read them again I would approach the two in very different ways. I think Madame Zero would be good to read one story at a time, one story to one sitting. Help the Witch I would read in one or two sittings or dip in and read my favourites.

I recommend both collections for different reasons and in different ways. Read Tom Cox when you need a spooky nature fix, a humorous look at folk tales, advertisements and houses. The book is worth buying for ‘Just Good Friends’ alone, it really is such a well crafted story. Read Sarah Hall when you can face the utterly bizarre and the surreal, but be prepared for some disturbing medical stuff as well as the mundane made interesting. It’s the sort of book I feel uncomfortable recommending, but as a lover of dystopia and Shakespeare, I would highly recommend reading ‘Later, His Ghost’.

I’m not sure whether my cat liked either of the books, even though one had a cat on the cover and the other had cats with funny names in it.

I think I’m going to have a break from short stories now, but I do have The Signalman by Charles Dickens and Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier to read at some point, both of which I’m very much looking forward to.

If you’ve read either of these excellent short story collections I would love to hear what you thought of them, and which stories were your favourites, in the comments.

  • Currently Reading: Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Currently Listening to: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Best Books: The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker

For the third post in my Best Books series I have chosen The End of the World Running Club by Adrian J Walker.

“I may as well start at the end.”

Adrian J Walker – The End of the World Running Club

This is the first book I’ve written about here in this series that I’ve read more than once. I first read it during an intense phase of reading post-apocalyptic and dystopian books, back in 2016, which I talk about here. I most recently read it in 2019 for a book group. In the interim I have recommended it to anyone who would listen and have had at least one of those people tell me it’s their new favourite book. When I read it for the book club and remembered how dark it is, I began to wonder what the group would think of me, but when you agree to read a book it ‘the end of the world’ in the title at least you’ve had a glimpse of what to expect. Minor spoilers may crop up in this post, but as always I’ve made a big effort to avoid any major ones so that you can go out and read this wonderful book.

For me, The End of the World Running Club stands out among all of the many post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction I’ve read. I have yet to find anything else in its genre that stands up to it. I loved Station 19, by Emily St John Mandel but even that does not stand up against this gripping, different book by Adrian J Walker. Walker’s narrator is Ed, a bad husband and father. He knows his failings, but he realises them all the more acutely when an apocalyptic event occurs. We are given barely a day or so of Ed’s normality before his world is plunged into some sort of wipeout “from the skies” and he manages to get his family into the cellar, with hardly a hope of survival.

Survive they do, of course, and we follow Ed into the new world as the family is separated, forcing him to start the titular running club in the hope of getting his family back. This honestly is one of my favourite books of all time. It is bleak and terrible, and awful things happen in it from start to finish. Ed is not a particularly sympathetic character, but the fact that he knows how rubbish he is at things, and the way he tells you his story just draws you in. I was rooting for him from very early on in the story.

As with all of my Best Books, it is hard to put into words why I love this book so much. Firstly, I’ll address why I like such disturbing books, full of apocalypse and dystopian settings and death. For me, prior to the pandemic at least, I actually found them to be form of escapism. If it makes any sense at all, I found that reading about such violent and horrifying societies and imaginary disasters was a comfort, a welcome reminder that my life is good. That probably makes me sound like a lunatic, but it’s the best way I can explain my love of this genre. It’s almost escapism reversed. Maybe this will change now, after the real-life events of 2020. Although some apocalyptic books have felt a bit too close to home over the past year, I have still read and enjoyed one or two, including another great Adrian J Walker book The Last Dog on Earth, which I recommend and will be writing about elsewhere, soon.

Now, why do I love the horrific story that is The End of the World Running Club? It’s well written, in that it is believable at all times that Edgar is telling us the story. His voice is well done, and his journey is a pretty epic one. He is an anti-hero, a self-deprecating mess of a man, and possibly an unreliable narrator, but he gradually becomes the hero of his own story. I really like first person narrative, and I really liked Ed’s voice, even if he wasn’t a typical hero. Like all the best narrators, his flaws and mistakes are part of what keeps us with him, reading his desperate quest until the very end. The book is full of hope as well as despair. From the moment that Ed starts running, you know you’re going to follow him all the way, and share his dreams and disasters. The pace is fast, the book never hesitates. It’s the sort of book I wish I could write. Like all good books, I have thought about this one long and hard, and despite having read it twice in the past five years, I am tempted to read it again today, now I’ve written about it!

The End of the World Running Club may not be for the faint hearted, but the book group enjoyed it, even a reader who had said beforehand that she couldn’t stand to read horror and disaster, and was squeamish. I doubt I completely converted her to reading this sort of book, but even she had been gripped and desperate to find out what would happen. I will keep recommending it to anyone, and I’ve even given it as a gift. My husband has listened to it as an audiobook, and it worked in that format too. If you come across it, or have the chance to get a copy, do try this book. It won’t be like other books you have read, and you won’t want it to be. It is its own special thing, my absolute favourite apocalyptic thriller. If you do read it, or if you already have, let me know in the comments, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Next time in my Best Books Series I’ll be breaking tradition to talk about a whole series of books: the ‘Frieda Klein’ series by Nicci French.

  • Currently Reading: Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
  • Currently Listening to: The Guest List by Lucy Foley

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