Category Archives: Reading

Favourite Reads of 2019

As in the last two years, I’ve chosen a baker’s dozen of books that impressed me. Not all were published in 2019.

1) The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin.

An astonishingly mature debut novel, by a writer who knows her subject well, as her grandfather owned an orchard in Washington state. I normally devour two to three novels a week, but I slowed my reading pace to savour Coplin’s prose. It’s perfect storytelling, with a believable plot and strong characterisation that binds you to their fate.
A memorable read, it’s sure to be adapted into a film.

2) Almost Everything: Notes On Hope by Anne Lamott.

Anne Lamott is best-known to writers for her Bird By Birdwhich is one of the best guides to the writing life. She’s an intimate writer, drawing you in to contemplate life’s predicaments by the use of self-deprecating humour. Don’t be put off by her religious conviction, which is never overbearing or intolerant. Her common-sense approach to tackling big issues is candid and insightful. How can you not like someone who starts a chapter titled ‘Writing’ with “So, writing. What a bitch.”

3) Cassandra Darke by Posie Simmonds

Published in 2014, this graphic novel is a treat to view, as it’s so well-drawn, and the story is compelling and grown-up. If you’ve previously dismissed graphic novels as glorified comics, get your hand on this story, which will grip you and change your mind.

4) The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Masterful story-telling. Set in Germany at the time of the rise of the Nazis, it proves how reading is vital as an expression of free thought.

5) Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

I resisted reading this best-selling novel, wary of the hype, but it deserves its success. It’s one of the most skilful layerings of character I’ve read, drawing the reader in to side with socially inept Eleanor. That a happy ending is resisted adds to the story’s power.

6) Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver. After enjoying WakenhyrstI tackled Dark Matter. There’s something about polar landscapes that suits ghost stories, where the protagonist’s overactive imagination combines with an ineffable landscape to create dread

7) Tombland by C.J. Sansom.

The seventh tale featuring Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake who negotiates a troubled period where violence and treachery stalk the nation. A time in British history that continues to be glossed-over, what with the population rising up against the oppressive ruling class, it’s not hard to imagine the same thing happening today.

8) The Border by Don Winslow.

Sprawling, violent and scary as Winslow explains how the drug trade has infiltrated the highest echelons of power. The third story in Winslow’s trilogy about the drug war, it’s not an easy read, but nobody does it better.

9) Reading art: art for book lovers by David Trigg

The perfect coffee table book for book lovers, a wonderful survey of paintings showing the power and joy of books.

10) The Book Of Dust: La Belle Sauvage & The Book Of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman.

These two books are mighty impressive ‘equals’ (as Pullman calls them) to the His Dark Materials trilogy. Wondrous and exciting writing that draws you into the fate of the two protagonists Lyra and Malcolm. More swearing and sexual activity than before, but Lyra is now a young woman, as rebellious as ever. The stories honour the reader’s intelligence and make astute comments on our troubled times.

12) The Wolf and the Watchman by Niklas Natt och Dag.

Well-researched and brutal, the story is set in 18th-century Stockholm, following the fates of several characters whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. The book’s been criticised for dwelling on violence, but there’s a morbid fascination created by the darkness of the tale. It’s sure to be adapted into a film or television drama.

13) Homesick: Why I Live In A Shed by Catrina Davies & Lowborn by Kerry Hudson.

Thankfully, there’s a resurgence of working-class writers. Two of the best are Catrina Davies and Kerry Hudson, both of whom grew up poor looking for ways to survive, with writing being their redemption. They tell it like it is, they’re real. Fight the Power!

What books have you enjoyed reading this year? They don’t have to be recent—old favourites that you’ve revisited will do.

Reading in Translation

I like to ring the changes, by reading foreign novels, so I was delighted to chance upon a best-selling debut novel The Wolf and the Watchman in my local library. Written by Swedish author Niklas Natt och Dag whose surname means Night and Day, it’s sure to be filmed.

The Wolf and the Watchman

I was attracted by the cover design featuring a black wolf and an unusual hand-written font.

Some of my favourite crime writers are Scandinavian, including Swedes Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson and Leif G. W. Persson, Norwegians Jo Nesbø and Karin Fossum, Finn Antti Tuomainen, Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason and Dane Jussi Adler-Olsson.

A crime writer I cherish is Andrea Camilleri, whose Inspector Montalbano series is set on his place of birth Sicily.

Other Italian crime writers I like are Antonio Manzini and Marco Vichi.

French authors Dominique Sylvain, Sophie Hénaff and Pierre Lemaître do a good job with the Gallic crime scene.

In the last few years, I’ve also read crime novels originally written in Japanese, which were peculiar as the social mores are so different. Kanae Minato, Seichō Matsumoto and Yōko Ogawa tales of murder in a society where saving face is of paramount importance wrong-foot the reader.

Away from Crime, I’ve enjoyed Dutch writer Peter de Smet’s two secret diaries of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, Swede Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Swede Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.

If you’re a grumpy old man you’ll recognise yourself in these stories (who, me?) :rolleyes:

I chose Norwegian Lars Mytting’s The Sixteen Trees Of The Somme as one of my favourite reads of 2017.

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s novels are long, challenging and strange.

Which books have you enjoyed in translation?

Let’s Get Lost

The phrase ‘Getting lost in a book” is familiar and true. It applies to reading and writing a book.

‘It’s a delicious thing to write. To be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.’

Gustave Flaubert


At present, I’m one-quarter of the way into writing my sixth crime novel, wondering how to give a homicidal Russian female mercenary a love interest. All of my villains have sympathetic traits, partly to round out their characters, but also to wrong-foot the reader. It’s a challenge to make this woman appealing, as she’s killed hundreds of times and is currently chopping off the hands of big game trophy hunters. She’s dominating my thoughts.​


As an antidote I’ve been getting lost in the previous two stories, reacquainting myself with the lives of the detectives, so I can continue their story arcs.​

Their world is more real than my own when I’m writing.

My current reading matter is taking me away to Tudor England (C.J. Sansom’s Tombland), 21st-century Nigeria (Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, The Serial Killer), 20th-century Canada (Michael Crummey’s Sweetland) and into Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn about growing up in Britain’s poorest towns. It’s a privilege to time-travel and shape-shift in this way.

How are you getting lost at the moment?

In your writing and in your reading?

For no other reason, than it has the right title and it’s charming and romantic:

UK Reading Habits

This survey, by The Book People with 2,000 respondents surprised me a bit:

The UK’s Reading Habits Revealed

That Crime, Thriller and Mystery take the top three positions, with Romance only showing at ninth might be a reflection of many things—the socio-economic status of those surveyed, their gender, their age, their location. Also, how do The Book People distinguish between those top three genres? My crime novels include thrills and mystery (and, I don’t mean “Why the hell am I writing this?” :rolleyes: )

I was under the impression that Romance/Erotica ruled, with Crime/Mystery runner-up. Perhaps that’s still the case when it comes to revenue from sales:

Which 5 Book Genres Make The Most Money?

Clicking through the comparison function at the bottom of the Book People’s survey page shows that my reading habits would have put the results off-kilter, as I read about 360 books a year!

What do you make of the survey?

Awesome Books

I clenched my teeth typing that title, as ‘awesome’ is the most overused adjective in the 21st-century. Describing a pizza as awesome is ridiculous, but it’s appropriate if looking at Niagara Falls.

Awe as a word originally meant terror (think ‘awful’) but came to mean something that creates a sense of wonder. Nowadays, it’s applied willy-nilly to anything that’s good.

If we use awesome to describe wondrous or even intimidating books, I find that I’m impressed by the works of those who write simply to convey meaning and by those who create worlds with many characters. For me, the first category means poetry and what might be called ‘outsider fiction’, writers such as Richard Brautigan and Charles Bukowski.

Here’s an awesome poem describing the human condition in twelve lines:

The Ideal

This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.

A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.

This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.

James Fenton

Complex books written by C.J. Sansom and Robin Hobb which are part of a series blow me away. I’m currently reading Tombland, the seventh story in Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. It’s 854 pages long, including a 50-page historical essay on the rebellion described. I hazard a guess, that there must be at least 125 characters in the story. It’s hard to keep track of who’s who, so I’d have appreciated a cast of characters at the beginning of the book to refer to. There is a map of Norwich and Mousehold Heath in 1549, which is interesting, but not essential.

I’m staggered by how these authors organise their plotting. The first Cornish Detective story I wrote had forty characters, which made me worry the reader would be confused.

Which books do you find awesome?

And, why?

I didn’t expect to like this book, but….

It’s irritating to contemplate a book, especially one that’s become a best-seller, despite an unlikely plot and think “I don’t think I’d enjoy it,” then you try to read it and it’s just as bad as you thought! You kick yourself, promising to avoid that author.

Sometimes, though, a book title will keep nudging your consciousness, gently enticing you to read. I have a tendency to avoid reading bestsellers immediately, leaving a couple of years until the fuss has died down. I keep a record of books to request from the local library, but one of them was sitting on the shelf waiting for me last week.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was a breakout debut in 2017, winning the Costa First Novel Award. Reese Witherspoon is adapting it into a film.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Wikipedia

I loved it! It’s one the most skillful character portrayals I’ve read, for Honeyman slowly releases information about Eleanor’s history helping the reader understand why she is so strange. I admit, I guessed a plot twist, but that’s one of the drawbacks of being a writer. That the author resisted a traditional happy ending is all to the good, adding to the power of the story. It’s one of those tales where you bond with the character, wondering what they’re up to now.

Even this version of the book cover is fitting:

A couple of freinds mentioned The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I’d put off reading it because I rarely read anything about Nazis following exposure to their atrocities when I was a child after reading details of the Nuremberg war trials. I was captivated by The Book Thief.

The Book Thief – Wikipedia

It’s good to be wrong sometimes.

Other books I enjoyed, without expecting to, include Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist, which is moving in its twists and turns, tragic one moment, then comedic.

The Lonely Polygamist – Wikipedia

Another book I didn’t expect to like was Good Time Coming by C.S. Harris whose title is as misleading as the book cover design. Reading it partly as research for the second novella in my series about a traumatised American Civil War cavalry officer rebuilding his life in the post-war Reconstruction era, I was gripped by the dilemma faced by townspeople suddenly swept into the conflict by an invading army. Well-researched and surprisingly violent, I cared for the characters.

Which books have you enjoyed, that you didn’t think you would?

The Future of Reading?

My entire life has been dominated by books—reading them, writing them and teaching others how to read them, including adults with literacy problems.

Reading is a joy for life. I feel sorry for anyone who misses the pleasure. You need look no further than the incumbent of the American presidency to see what it does a person’s character if you don’t read.

Whatever your opinions on the pros and cons of reading from a printed book or its digital version, I’d hazard a guess, that these days, even people who proclaim that they don’t read books actually read more words daily than people did 25 years ago—thanks to computers and smartphones.

Image result for oblivious smartphone users

I’m currently on a cusp between going back into self-publishing and being traditionally published, should Hachette’s The Future Bookshelf deem my Cornish Detective as being sales worthy. I entered their open submission process on the spur of the moment, surprised to be asked for my full manuscript.

Maybe I should be feeling more uptight about the possibilities than I do, but my pragmatism and work ethic (where did that come from?) means that I’m keeping my head down, nose to the grindstone and not worrying about success and failure.

Overall, I’m happy that people are still reading books, and it doesn’t matter to me how they do so. It would be great if some readers were enjoying my books—as much as I do! In a way, looking at publishing, I’m surprised by the persistence of the traditional way of doing things, particularly from the stance of being a writer. Self-publishing an eBook takes minutes on KDP, with your first earnings paid two months later. Traditional publishing takes two years to accomplish the same thing.

In the 21st-century, people expect instant access to many things. Just look at the success of fast food, comparing the similarities to downloading eBooks or music files. Now think of traditional sit-down dining in a restaurant, a leisurely activity comparable to the way that publishers produce their books to be consumed. On that basis, it’s amazing that books are still printed, that it hasn’t become an activity for the elite.

But, there’s a cyber hawk on the horizon, which may do away with the effort of reading eBooks and hard copies. A while ago, I made a facetious comment on the Colony, about books being injectable.

It turns out, I may have been prescient, for Elon Musk proposes that people have an artificial intelligence chip implanted in their brains

Like any form of technology, it will be advertised as being of benefit to one’s life, making things easier and simpler—essentially appealing to the laziness within us—and, you’ll be superior to those who don’t have it.

Would you put your brain under the control of a megalomaniac?

I’m sure some people will be willing to so, ignoring the potential dangers.

It all makes me wonder what skills people will have in 50 years, as everything will be done for them, including thinking! They will be Borg.

Staying on relatively safe advantages of having a chip in your grey cells, it would mean that a ‘reader’ could have books downloaded into their noddle, allowing them to spout forth quotes and information with as much understanding of the meaning as a computer or smartphone.

Picasso put things well:

If you had a library of digital books stored in your brain, able to access the information within them, would you be deemed to be intelligent?

I previously posted in praise of Rich Reading which takes an effort to savour: if books are going to be downloaded into our brains, how are we to appreciate them?

We’re already in a situation where people don’t grow their food, don’t cook it any way but in a microwave and we don’t make our own clothing, throwing it away when it needs repairing. Driving a car will no longer be a skill, as the car does it for us. Few know how to build their own home or how to make a repair. How many of us can do mental arithmetic these days?

I can do all of these things, partly because of growing up poor, but also because I wanted to know how things work to satisfy my curiosity.

The way the future looks with Elon Musk’s proposal is that curiosity will be redundant….don’t think for yourself, we’ll do that for you.

How do you feel about injectable books?

You could finally get around to ‘reading’ the seven-volume, 4,215 pages of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.


Real Books Have Curves

As I continue my rambling way towards self-publishing my series of crime novels this summer, I had the alarming thought last night, that I hadn’t yet uploaded my first two stories to my WordPress Cornish Detective website to make them available to readers as downloads.

How to do that? Should they be in MS Word (.doc) format or as a PDF…or, both? And, how does the book cover fit into all of this? I found two helpful articles about both formats, then spent three hours faffing around attempting to get the Word (.doc) version to appear on my site. I’ve moaned about the complexity of WordPress before on this blog, so I won’t go on. One of the problems with WordPress is that it’s regularly updated, as are the plug-in widgets that operate it, meaning that online advice about how to do things is quickly outdated.

Getting a blog about writing and a website on my books up and running has felt like the Labours of Hercules.

I’ve spent most of my time in the Augean Stables!

Image result for augean stables

None of this activity feels like being a writer. And, anything I’ve read about WordPress hasn’t been reading for pleasure. As for my novels, they exist as intransigent digital files—it’s hard to think of them as books.

Weary with frustration, I shut down my laptop and went to bed with five books…I’m a promiscuous reader! 

Laying there in the company of real books, that I could feel, smell and move around wherever I wanted them, I enjoyed the sensuality of the experience.

I’m dedicated to self-publishing eBooks this summer, with POD to follow if readers ask for it, but as an activity it feels as sexy as scrubbing bathroom grouting clean!

For the reader, Kindles and other eBook reading devices have advantages, such as anonymity and being able to store many titles, but they’re not alluring or likely to encourage conversation. These are paranoid times, with mass surveillance of the population, meaning we seek ways to preserve whatever privacy we can—including stealth reading.

What do you think?

A Clever Way of Encouraging Reading

A post from the Word Lovers group appeared on my Facebook feed this morning, directing me to a story which impressed me.

High school English teacher Ryan Buck deserves praise and the $2,000 grant he received from the Book Love foundation to purchase books for his classroom library.