Thursday, 3 September 2015

Reading in September: The sampling plan

So, this is the reading plan for September...

This year I've amassed a sizeable list of recent books I'm interested in - they just keep piling up, but I'm never going to have the time to actually read every one of them, which usually means that lots of them fall by the wayside and get relegated to the 'probably not' category. Having completed my '2015 reading challenge' of 75 books (courtesy of Goodreads) in July, I thought I'd use September to work though some of these unread 'maybe' books.

My idea is to read a sample of each one: the first couple of chapters, the first 5-10%, depending on the structure of the book. I'm not going to be writing proper reviews of books I haven't finished reading, but I'll be posting my thoughts on all the samples here as I work my way through them, and hopefully I'll find a) some I can cross off the list altogether and b) some I definitely want to carry on with.

Watch this space for the first batch!

Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Reading round-up: August

August 2015 books

Slade House by David Mitchell - 8/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
I didn't really like The Bone Clocks, but this follow-up (not exactly a sequel; it's a separate set of stories, but they take place in the same world with some thematic overlaps) is GREAT. Each tale is centred on spooky Slade House, a place that changes form depending on who's looking and seems to swallow up its visitors. The stories of several unforgettable, unpredictable characters slowly lead the reader to understand its secrets. This is the sort of book I'd happily reread (if I ever had time to do that).

Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville - 6/10. Buy the book
If the name of this classic short story isn't familiar, the premise may be - it's about a legal copyist, the Bartleby of the title, who starts to refuse work with the immortal words 'I would prefer not to'. I'm glad to be acquainted with the story, but I wouldn't say it's required reading.

First Execution by Domenico Starnone - 10/10. Full review / Buy the book
An ageing professor meets a former student who's been arrested on a charge of terrorism; this event proves the catalyst for a chain of dramatic events and a metafictional exploration of the character/author's thoughts on all sorts of subjects - politics, education, writing, getting old, direct action vs. pacifism, etc. This is a brilliant novel, not only wonderfully written but also packed with ideas and enormously thought-provoking.

The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle - 8/10. Pre-order the ebook
It's the story of a conman, but The Good Liar itself is a confidence trick - not at all what it first appears to be. It's a sort of old-fashioned thriller that delves into its protagonist's chequered history, but to give away the exact paths it follows would spoil the story. Suffice to say, it's a highly enjoyable read that will keep you gripped from beginning to end.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Holmes's short stories are character sketches of young Americans, all somehow displaced or uncertain. The clean, straightforward style is refreshing, and at their best the stories are really funny and touching, but I felt the collection lacked diversity (in a couple of senses) and was just rather unfulfilling as a whole.

Number 11 by Jonathan Coe - 9/10. Pre-order the ebook
This sort-of-sequel to What a Carve Up! follows two friends from childhood onwards, telling a number of connected stories about what happens to (and around) them in the author's trademark style: witty, satirical but often very moving. So riveting and real that I felt like I was going to cry when I finished it and was forced to accept that I couldn't spend any more time with these characters.

The Lake House by Kate Morton - 6/10. Pre-order the ebook
Morton's latest repeats her familiar formula: a beautiful tumbledown house in the country, a family secret hidden for decades, a character receiving a fateful letter, and a narrative that's split between 'past' (1911 and the early 1930s) and 'present' (2003). It's all perfectly enjoyable but, for me, nowhere near as compelling as the author's previous books.

First Execution and Number 11 were my favourites from this month, with Slade House not far behind. The Good Liar is being talked about as one of the big debuts of early 2016, and it certainly deserves to be a success; in a world of lacklustre thrillers, it's nice to find one as strong as this.

I'm planning to do something a bit different with my reading in September, but I'm saving that for another post...

Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Monday, 31 August 2015

This week's links: 31 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...
Book reviews and lists:
Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Saturday, 29 August 2015

What to read in September & October 2015

What to read in September & October 2015
Every time one of these posts rolls around I'm shocked. How is it already the end of August?!

Purity by Jonathan Franzen - 1 September
‘A glancing encounter with a German peace activist leads Pip Tyler to an internship in South America with the Sunlight Project, an organization that traffics in all the secrets of the world – including, Pip hopes, the secret of her origins. TSP is the brainchild of Andreas Wolf, a charismatic provocateur who rose to fame in the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Andreas is drawn to Pip for reasons she doesn’t understand, and the intensity of her response to him upends her conventional ideas of right and wrong. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity is a grand story of youthful idealism, extreme fidelity, and murder.’

Arcadia by Iain Pears - 1 September
‘Henry Lytten - a spy turned academic and writer - sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds. He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world - a kind of Arcadia - who is launched on a life-changing journey. Meanwhile - in the real world - one of Lytten's former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment. As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary...’

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt - 3 September
‘Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, he is a compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling. When Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, forebidding castle of the Baron Von Aux he meets thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and a puppy. He also meets Klara, a delicate beauty who is, unfortunately, already involved with an exceptionally handsome partisan soldier. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe...’

The Watchers by Neil Spring - 24 September
‘At the height of the Cold War, officials at the Ministry of Defence conducted a highly secret investigation into unusual events that occurred along a strip of rugged coastline within the Pembrokeshire National Park nicknamed 'The Broad Haven Triangle'. Lights and objects hovering in the sky, ghostly figures peering into farmhouse windows, cowering animals, and poltergeists plaguing a terrified family of witnesses. Thirty years later, official files pertaining to these occurrences were finally released for public scrutiny at the National Archives. The disclosure prompted a new witness to come forward. This is his story.’

A Slanting of the Sun: Stories by Donal Ryan - 24 September
‘Donal Ryan’s short stories pick up where his acclaimed novels The Spinning Heart and The Thing About December left off, dealing with the human cost of loneliness, isolation and displacement. Sometimes this is present in the ordinary, the mundane; sometimes it is triggered by a fateful encounter or a tragic decision. At the heart of these stories, crucially, is how people are drawn to each other and cling on to love, often in desperate circumstances.’

List of the Lost by Morrissey - 24 September
There's no blurb for this yet, although there is all this which is... worrying... and the fact that a few days ago it was listed on Amazon as '#1 Best Seller in Gothic Romance', lol. I am extremely dubious about it but also very keen to see what it's like.

Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight - 24 September
‘Motherhood hasn't come at all easy for Molly Anderson. But she's finally enjoying life as mother to five-year-old Ella and as Arts reporter for the small but respectable Ridgedale Reader. That is, until a body is found in the woods adjacent to Ridgedale University's ivy-covered campus. This is a discovery that threatens to unearth secrets long buried by the town's most powerful residents, and brings Molly to two women who are far more deeply connected than they have ever realised...’

Ghostly: A Collection of Ghost Stories edited by Audrey Niffenegger - 6 October
‘Haunted houses, spectral chills, and of course, the odd cat… In this volume, Audrey Niffenegger has brought together her selection of the very creepiest, weirdest and wittiest ghost stories around. Scare yourself silly with old favourites by Edgar Allan Poe and M. R. James. Entertain the unnerving with tales from Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link and Audrey Niffenegger herself. And as bedtime nears, allay your fears with funny new writing from Amy Giacalone and the classic wit of Saki. When the nights draw in and the fire burns low, enjoy the eeriness, the dread and the comedy of all things ghostly.’

Rawblood by Catriona Ward - 24 September
‘For generations they have died young. Now Iris and her father are the last of the Villarca line. Their disease confines them to their lonely mansion on Dartmoor; their disease means they must die alone. But Iris breaks her promise to hide from the world - she dares to fall in love. And only then do they understand the true horror of the Villarca curse...’

Dictator by Robert Harris - 8 October
‘There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles. His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.’

City On Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg - 20 October
‘It’s New Year’s Eve, 1976, and New York is a city on the edge. As midnight approaches, a blizzard sets in – and amidst the fireworks, an unmistakable sound rings out across Central Park: gunshots. The search for the shooter will bring together a rich cast of New Yorkers, from the newly arrived and enchanted, to those so sick of the city they want to burn it to the ground. All these lives are connected to one another – and to the life that still clings to that body in the park. Whether they know it or not, they are bound up in the same story – a story where history and revolution, love and art, crime and conspiracy are all packed into a single shell, ready to explode.’

The Lake House by Kate Morton - 22 October (Reviewed here)
‘June 1933, and the Edevane family's country house, Loeanneth, is polished and gleaming, ready for the much-anticipated Midsummer Eve party. But by the time midnight strikes, the Edevane family will have suffered a loss so great that they leave Loeanneth forever. Seventy years later, after a particularly troubling case, Sadie Sparrow is sent on an enforced break from her job with the Metropolitan Police. She retreats to her beloved grandfather's cottage in Cornwall but soon finds herself at a loose end - until she stumbles upon an abandoned house surrounded by overgrown gardens and dense woods, and learns the story of a baby boy who disappeared without a trace...’

Slade House by David Mitchell - 27 October (Reviewed here)
‘Turn down Slade Alley - narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you're looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn't quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies. A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won't want to leave. Later, you'll find that you can't...’

The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski - 27 October
‘In Into the Forest, the lives of the disparate and dynamic nine characters introduced in One Rainy Day in May begin to intersect in inexplicable ways, finding harmonies and echoes in each other. What once seemed remote and disconnected draws closer toward something inevitable... At the center of it all is Xanther, a twelve-year-old girl, for whom the world around her seems to be opening, exposing doors and windows, visions and sounds, questions and ideas previously unknown. With each passing day, she begins to glimpse something she does not understand but unequivocally craves—the only thing that will bring her relief and keep her new friend alive.’

You can tell it's autumn (soon) when you look at the covers of this lot, all those dark colours. I've only read two of these, and of those I can enthusiastically recommend Slade House - it's going to make a perfect Halloween book. There's still plenty of books from July and August I haven't got to yet, but I'm interested in reading Purity (even though most of what I've read about it seems to have been written with the aim of encouraging the opposite), The Watchers and Dictator.

It seemed to be harder than usual to find titles to add to this list. There must be stuff I've missed, so please add suggestions in the comments if you know of any more (especially if they're ghost stories!)

Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Sunday, 23 August 2015

This week's links: 23 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post... Book reviews and lists: Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Catching up: Four recent reads

First Execution by Domenico StarnoneFirst Execution (2007, translated 2009) by Domenico Starnone

First Execution begins as a tale of political intrigue. Domenico Stasi, a retired teacher, goes to meet a former student, Nina, who has been arrested on a charge of terrorism. She sets him a task: to go to the apartment of a friend of hers, find a certain book and copy out a specified line, which will be collected from him by a stranger. When he complies, he finds himself drawn into a dangerous chain of events. But then the story becomes metafictional: another Domenico, the author himself, appears in the narrative, talking about how he's writing this book, where he wants it to go, and how his own experiences and memories are feeding into it. The two stories then run alongside and into each other, as Stasi's dilemma gets worse and Starnone rewinds and reshapes his story, exploring the different directions it could take. First Execution is bursting with ideas - about politics, education, writing, ageing, justice and injustice, the nature and definition of 'terrorism', pacifism vs direct action... - but they are expressed so clearly and beautifully that the book is a pleasure to read. I frequently found myself marking pages to remember, or highlighting passages that struck a chord with me (I've compiled a long list of quotes over at Goodreads). It's intensely thought-provoking and challenging - but also a gripping story I struggled to tear myself away from.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren HolmesBarbara the Slut and Other People (13 August 2015) by Lauren Holmes

Lauren Holmes's debut is aptly subtitled And Other People, correctly indicating that what's inside is a collection of character sketches rather than a set of neat stories. These are very much character-driven tales, each giving a little window into the life of one of the author's creations. There's a girl trying to negotiate coming out to her mother, a graduate who chooses to work in a sex shop instead of joining a law firm, a woman who only discovers she doesn't like her new boyfriend when he moves into her flat, and the title character - a teenager whose sex life leads to her being bullied. If there's a major flaw, it's that the stories are too similar: they're all told in first person, all about young people trying to find their way in the world, all of whom are Americans from similar backgrounds, and almost all set in the US in the present day, or close to it. I was impressed by the apparent depth of the characters and how well they were drawn in such short spaces; they'll certainly strike you as real, with all their flaws and vulnerabilities. But I felt the book could have used some diversity, in who the characters were and how their stories were told. Still, it's obvious from this collection that Holmes is a talent to watch.

The Good Liar by Nicholas SearleThe Good Liar (14 January 2016) by Nicholas Searle

Reviews of this are supposed to be embargoed until close to the release date, so I'll be publishing a more detailed write-up later. For now, I'll just say that I'm not surprised this is being talked about as one of Penguin's big debuts of 2016 - it's got that 'unputdownable' quality in spades. It starts as the story of Roy, an ageing conman who, after a series of dispiriting dates in gastropubs, appears to have found his perfect mark - Betty, elegant, widowed and, most importantly, wealthy. We know Roy has nefarious intentions from page one; things get more interesting when it becomes apparent that Betty has a hidden agenda too. But what is it? The Good Liar will keep you guessing as it slowly unpacks Roy's character and tells his life story in reverse, taking several surprising turns along the way. This is a thriller in an old-fashioned sense (comparisons have been made to Patricia Highsmith), a book I think will appeal to readers of historical fiction, classic suspense and crime.

Number 11 by Jonathan CoeNumber 11 (11 November 2015) by Jonathan Coe

Completely addictive - and what a fantastic return to form after the lacklustre Expo 58. I read this at breakneck speed, barely able to tear myself away from it. It tells interconnected stories that revolve around two women, Rachel and Alison, childhood friends whose lives go in very different directions after what might be a life-changing encounter with the 'Mad Bird Woman' when they're both ten years old. It's also a very loose sequel to Coe's What a Carve Up! and makes numerous callbacks to that novel (but you don't need to have read What a Carve Up! to enjoy it). Political/social commentary mingles with satire, mystery and a touch of horror. My favourite section was 'The Crystal Garden', which tells of a man's obsessive search for a magical film he watched as a boy. The ingredients all add up to a book so incredibly enjoyable that I fell into a genuine state of despair upon finishing it.

As with the above, a more detailed review will follow closer to the publication date. If you want a preview, an extract from 'The Winshaw Prize' - probably the most obviously satirical story in Number 11, not necessarily representative of the tone of the whole book - is available on the Guardian's website.

I read advance review copies of Barbara the Slut, The Good Liar and Number 11, the former received direct from the publisher and the latter two via NetGalley.

Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Shop

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House by David MitchellSlade House (27 October 2015) by David Mitchell

David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks may have been a disappointment for numerous reasons, a three-star book that really, if I was being completely honest, should have been two (as I've occasionally done, I gave it extra credit, so to speak, because of my affection for the author's other work), but that didn't stop me from being excited about Slade House. A (sort of) ghost story centred on one mysterious house was always going to be irresistible to me. Early reviews have compared it to classic ghost stories and horror movies, and it's often been referred to as 'a haunted house story'. That isn't quite the case, as anyone familiar with the premise of The Bone Clocks' more fantastical segments will likely guess, but Slade House certainly has the spirit (no pun intended) and suspense of one.

Why am I mentioning The Bone Clocks anyway? Well: published hot on the heels of its predecessor, Slade House is a short novel with significant links to the world of The Bone Clocks; though it's been established that all Mitchell's novels are linked, this is arguably a follow-up rather than a wholly new story. (It's also partly based on a tale Mitchell originally 'published' in a series of tweets.) That said, you might initially wonder where exactly the similarities lie. This begins as a story about Nathan, a teenage boy who, with his mother, visits the eponymous house. It's hidden down Slade Alley, grey and narrow and and permanently rainy, and is accessed through a small iron door. What lies beyond this unprepossessing door is incongruous: a grand house, a beautiful, verdant garden, and a charming aristocratic host, Lady Norah Grayer.

In what's become regarded as typical Mitchell style, the book doesn't stick with Nathan, but tells a number of short stories in different voices and different time periods, though they all have the same basic premise and structure: someone comes to visit Slade House and finds something they desire behind that door - something that's (needless to say) not what it seems. There are nuances of characterisation here that were (weirdly) absent from the much longer Bone Clocks: loveable but exasperating Nathan and his understandably agitated mother; swaggering copper Gordon, with an unexpected heart of gold; Sally - lovely, tragic Sally. The first two in particular are clever feats of subverted expectation: starting off as cliched character types, they turn out to be so much more fine-spun than that. Meanwhile, our villains are the ruthless Grayer twins - they're undoubtedly sinister and satisfyingly nasty, but there's an element of comedy in their bickering that smacks of sitcom banter. That prevents the repeating doomed scenario on which the plot hinges from making the whole thing too depressing, even though really, there's quite a lot of tragedy in this book, something that's particularly keenly felt because the characters are so well defined.

Much shorter and tighter than The Bone Clocks, Slade House lacks the flabbiness of its predecessor; but towards the end, its links with the world of Bone Clocks become clearer, its fantasy element ramps up, and much of one chapter is devoted to belatedly explaining the Grayers' backstory. This is where it lost me a little. I know lots of people love the self-referential thing in Mitchell's books, but I'm finding it increasingly gimmicky; straining to recognise references or remember where you heard a name before can sometimes be detrimental to enjoyment, and gets a bit tiresome when repeated. And as much as I thought Bone Clocks was overlong, as much as I literally just said it was good that this was shorter, there were some other things I'd prefer to have been expanded and examined, instead of a rerun of all the Atemporal/orison/pyroblast stuff. I felt slightly deflated by the ending, though as with lots of enjoyable books, that might just have been because I wanted it to go on and on and on.

The thing is that even with its flaws, I'd read this again, and I want to buy a physical copy. I loved the idea, the mystery of Slade House; the setup of each character's approach of the place; I ache to know more about some of them, maybe all of them; and the atmosphere of the whole book has really stuck with me. I think it benefits from the fact that it's definitively a horror story, and a great example of one. The late October publication date is perfect, not only because it coincides with events in the story, but because this is one of those ideal winter books, with its crawling sense of horror and rain-soaked, freezing settings. And it made me want to revisit The Bone Clocks, too. Who'd have thought?

I received an advance review copy of Slade House from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 16 August 2015

This week (and last week)'s links: 16 August 2015

This is a weekly roundup of interesting things I've seen or read online during the past seven days (or so). The usual disclaimer: linking to something isn't the same as agreeing with/endorsing it - these are mostly just articles I want to keep a note of for my own reference, but hopefully they might also prove useful or distracting to whoever comes across this post...

I've had stacks of work and very little free time for the past week and a half, hence the lack of a links post last weekend or any reviews this week, but I did manage to bookmark about a million things. You're welcome, or not.

Articles and essays:
Some interviews:
Book-related things: