On the Beach – Reading List

Seeing as the idea for this blog was commenced on holiday in Greece this year when I thought, I really ought to start a reading blog, I really ought to write a brief synopsis of the books I read on holiday.  So here you go. This is especially for Clare who asked for a reading list!

Jubilee by Shelley Harris

This book was quite interesting, but didn’t really grip me. The scenes where one young character is abused are very distressing and well-written though.

Empire by Jeremy Paxman

One of the best books I have read in a long time! Fascinating and v well written. I learned a lot from this which is written in Paxman’s intelligent yet user-friendly prose.

The case of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny

Already blogged about this.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

My first encounter with Wodehouse, and oh how I loved him. I laughed all day on the beach. Interestingly, my first ever gerbil was called Jeeves.

Porterhouse Blue : a Porterhouse chronicle by Tom Sharpe

Quite funny but not on Wodehouse’s scale. I felt that I ought to be ‘getting’ it a bit more than I was, like there was an in-joke I didn’t find terribly funny.

Deity – Stephen Dunne

While I wouldn’t put Steven Dunne up with Mark Billingham, he’s a gifted crime writer and DI Damen Brook is an agreeable and believable creation. The deaths of several homeless men seem initially unconnected with the sudden disappearance of some teenagers, but slowly horrifying details help Brook put two and two together, and the ending is really quite shocking – you don’t see it coming! Which is what I like most in a book. The plot staggers a little at times, and it does lose its way in the middle, but by the end of the book you are racing to read through. I enjoyed The Reaper, and would certainly read more by Steven Dunne.

The Guilty One – Lisa Ballantyne

The Guilty One is another story about a child killer of children, but its tone is absolutely original. Paul, the main character, is representing a young boy accused of murdering a peer. As court commences we go back into Paul’s past and see how he has been shaped by events in his own life.

Ballantyne has the rare gift of being able to give both adult and child utterly authentic voices. The characters are believable, and the plot taut and deep. I stayed up far past my bedtime to finish off the story and find out what happens to both the main protagonists. This is a book which will stay with you long after you have put it down. I thoroughly recommend it and look forward to reading more by this author.

The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland

For me Maitland has yet to top “The Company of Liars”, her first book, but the Falcons… is an improvement on “The Owl Killers” (her second), and her historical research and characters never fail to disappoint. As usual the story is full of mysticism and mystery. The supernatural is entwined with actual historical events (in this case the Spanish Inquisition and the horrific auto da fee), all the more powerful because belief in the supernatural was a lot stronger in the past.

This is the story of Isabela, who must must travel from Portugal to Iceland to find pure white falcons in order to save her father’s life (he, the Royal Falconer, is accused of killing those in his care). But members of the Spanish Inquisition are on their way to stop her, and the journey becomes fraught with peril for all involved with an unusual ending which I liked.

Maitland’s history is carefully researched and she brings the past to life, but the story doesn’t have quite the intensity of “Liars”. I enjoyed reading it but not to the extent that I couldn’t put it down. It’s a good book, but the author still has to regain the captivating magic of her first novel and unlike that I probably wouldn’t reread this one.

Stranded by Emily Barr

I haven’t read Emily Barr since “Backpack” and I really enjoyed that, so I looked forward to “Stranded”. It didn’t fail to deliver: well-written, with a strong background and good characters, it’s a highly readable if somewhat implausible story about a woman who following her divorce goes on holiday to Malaysia and is stranded (hence the title) with fellow holidaymakers on a deserted island.

The story twists and turns enjoyably and the characters are on the whole well-drawn, though one of the stories between the two Americans fails to convince, and the sub-plot doesn’t quite add up. (I’m trying not to say too much as I don’t want to give anything away.) Some of the plotting is clunky: one of the lines about a pivotal email plot (“who uses hotmail nowadays?”) feels forced and doesn’t make much sense. But don’t let these small flaws distract you, suspend your disbelief and enjoy. “Stranded” is a good holiday read (as long as you’re not in Malaysia).

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

Jude Morgan has a gift for bringing shadowy people of the past to life, and The Secret Life is a real gem of a book, particularly for Shakespeare lovers but in fairness to anyone who enjoys a good read, particularly a historical one. Morgan writes from the viewpoint of both William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, and brings them, their friends and family to life. I learned a lot about Shakespeare, and his family, that I had never known, and while of course this is a work of fiction and should not be taken as gospel, it’s still hugely enjoyable and informative.

She also gives us the history of many of his most famous plays, and their places in his life, giving them emotional context. You read not only about the man and his family but about his texts. I couldn’t wait to continue reading this book and will seek out more from this author.

666 Charing Cross Road by Paul Magrs

I’m not normally terribly keen on books about fantasy, vampires, witches et al – no, I haven’t read Twilight! – but I found 666 Charing Cross Road funny, readable and original. When Liza Bathory (yes, you’ll recognise the name) discovers a mysterious booksheller in London she begins ordering from them, with disasterous results; while her niece Shelley who works in a museum finds one of the most unusual artefacts comes quite startlingly to life. Something has been unleashed by Liza’s parcel, but can its evil be contained?

The book is well-written and amusing, without losing its sinister edge. Another review describes it as “unclassifiable” and I’d agree with this. Original and quirky, this is a new voice in fantasy that I look forward to hearing from again.

There But For The – Ali Smith

I really love Ali Smith’s stories. They are small snippets of life, cleverly observed and don’t appear to be about very much, but you come away from them glad that you read them. I also read The First Person, another collection of stories, by her too. Good short stories are often harder to write than novels, I think. I know authors whose novels I have enjoyed (Joanne Harris, Emma Donoghue) whose stories disappointed me. Ali Smith is not one of these.

The Bryant and May books are all tremendous fun. They are detectives working in the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and anyone who knows me knows that peculiar crimes are my most favourite of crimes! I like Fowler’s odd, offbeat spooky stories. I also read Bryant and May on the Loose and White Corridor, and look forward to seeking the rest of the series out.
I read another Fowler novel, Breathe, which was good, but not as human and enjoyable as Bryant and May. There should be gaps in the paragraph now, but I have tried editing it 5 times and it won’t work, and I’m afraid I am losing my temper now, so I am going to leave it and you’ll just have to know I did my best.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence

I finally got around to this, the 50 Shades of its day; and found it rather uninteresting. I didn’t understand any of the characters, or warm to them, and I’m afraid Mellors have a moustache absolutely killed it for me. Frankly I thought the pair of lovers, with their little garlands of flowers, remarkably silly, and Lawrence really has no idea what sex is like for a woman because he is very inaccurate (sorry to my brother if you are reading this, just pretend you didn’t see that bit).

I did however think that the book raised interesting questions about relationships based on physical attraction and whether they have long-lasting foundations; the last paragraph of the book says quite a lot on that. I am not keen to seek out more Lawrence, though I fear that says more about me than it does about him.

The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke

This is a very odd little book, and is right up my street. It’s the first in the Timothy Quinn series, about a young boy with a most extraordinary gift. He has no idea about it, though, when he and his friend Pete find an odd boy ‘feeding the turtles’ at the local pond. Oof, it’s giving me the heebies just writing it. I am looking forward to purchasing the rest of the series.

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this. The hero of the story is the local hangman who’s (believe it or not) a jolly good sort, and you can’t help but warm to him, even as he’s preparing his instruments for torture. The translation is a little clunky at times, but the historical detail is fascinating and I’ve just ordered the second in the series.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors, and another of those rare writers who captures both the art of the novel and the short story perfectly. This series of stories tells the story of a ‘red garden’ through the generations and has Hoffman’s trademark whimsy which strays just on the right side of sentimentality.

The Submission by Amy Waldman

An original and thought-provoking book about a group’s attempts to make a memorial for those lost in the 9/11 attack.  I consider this very well-written and winced on many pages, understanding where both sides of the argument regarding the winning entry were coming from.

The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston

A silent, secretive German woman enters into an illicit affair with a man who mends instruments. I’m sure there is much more that could be said about this book, but I didn’t find it interesting, and it left me cold. Not just the heroine Saffie’s reservation, and the fact that she and her husband get married for no reason whatsoever, but because I didn’t think the story went anywhere. It’s got good reviews on Amazon though, so pay no attention to me.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The first Steinbeck I have read, and it made me cry on the beach just as Wooster made me laugh. Steinbeck is as clever with character and dialogue as Stephen King, who I think is a master of it. The story of the friends George and Lennie warms and breaks your heart simultaneously.

Now Clare, if you can’t find something you fancy in that lot, you can pay for me to go back to Greece and spend another fortnight doing nothing but read…

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Bedtime Reading

I am feeling a bit rubbish this evening. The missing little girl in Wales is really disturbing me. I think the older you get the easier you find it to put in other people’s shoes, and empathise more, and with that comes the horror of having some tiny inkling of how they might feel. If I feel this worried, if I wake up in the wee sma’s and my automatic thought is to murmur a prayer for her, if I feel sick with dread every time I hear the news come on – what’s it like for people who actually know, and love her? What’s it like for her parents, not knowing where their little one is, the endless dreadful images going through their heads? The pillow smelling of her hair, undented by her head? Kurtz said “The horror, the horror” when he Realised, and I think Realisation is the big abyss into which every human looks into at some point. Not everyone does, obviously. Hitler and Stalin didn’t. A guy at school who chased another boy around the kitchen with a knife cos he ate some of his cheese (long story) didn’t. But most normal human beings Realise at some point and I think the 30s are my Realisation decade.

On top of this I finished Bloodlands last night. I am very glad I read it, because it is important to know what ‘really’ happened. Before I read this I thought that the Holocaust had been mainly concentration camps. This underestimates the effect of Stalin and his starvation policies and the mass shootings done by both the Nazis and the Soviets. I was reading the book in the waiting-room at the hospital on Monday and an old bloke next to me asked if I was a student. I said no, I just liked reading to learn things. He looked at my book and said “Everyone ought to read books like that. Lest we forget.”

I was in the waiting-room waiting for my hand to be looked at. I had a rather odd incident on Friday night/Saturday morning. I went to bed with a cold worrying about a spot; I woke up having punched the picture of Sappho above my bed. I was dreaming that someone was coming out of it. Probably not Sappho, who would not have been frightening. But Someone. My instinct was to scream and punch the glass, and so I did in my dream. I woke kneeling on my bed with a slight stinging in my knuckles. I started to wake up and realise what had happened, and thought putting the light on might be a good idea to see if there was any glass on my bed. Not only were there slivers of glass, there were huge puddles of blood all over my pillows and my hand was covered.

I was frightened. Very frightened. I can’t remember being so frightened – it was probably when the police came through my window and I thought they were burglars and that was in 2009. I ran to the loo to get tissue to try and mop the blood up. As I couldn’t stem it I tried to ring the non-emergency ambulance number but, still half-asleep, I couldn’t get the digits right and kept getting through to BT. In the end I rang 999, by this time sobbing like a two year old. I tried to explain what had happened, premising it with “You won’t believe this, but …” and believe me the woman certainly did not. She kept asking me if I “still felt violent” and if I still had a weapon. She then told me that they were very busy, she hadn’t asked an amublance to come to me as she didn’t think I’d need one, and I should blot my cut with a tea towel. I’m ashamed to say at this point I started crying even more. A clinician came on the phone who snapped “I’ve got people unable to breathe, and you’ve cut your hand.” A fair point, but not one that was helpful, so I hung up and realised I’d have to get myself to hospital.

I tugged on a pair of trousers with one hand, and set off in my Wallace and Gromit nightshirt, still hiccuping and sobbing like a loon. Fortunately at half midnight the roads were fairly empty, and the drive wasn’t too difficult. I must have looked like someone out of Shameless: tear-stained, no make-up, hair everywhere, dressed like a tramp. I was lucky – A & E wasn’t madly busy, and I was seen fairly quickly. The doctor also seemed convinced that I had hurt myself deliberately, and it wasn’t until he inspected the wound that he admitted that I would have been hard pressed to make the injuries on purpose.

My hand needed to be x-rayed to ensure there was no glass in the cut, and the X-ray technician tried to talk to me about God, praying, and the Bible. I wanted to call my dad. I was cold and couldn’t stop shaking and I wanted someone with me. I sent a few texts to see if people were awake, but didn’t want to ring anyone because – who wants to be woken at 0100 by someone covered in blood?! But I thought I might call my dad. The technician said no; that he must be in his 80s, and I’d be waking him up for no good reason. How often did I go to church? Did I pray? Who did I pray to? Did I study the Bible? He was trying to be kind, but I felt so very tired.

My hand was stitched up. Isn’t it ironic how painful local anaesthetic is. I’ve never got irony right; someone’s going to post on here “ooh you’re like Alanis Morissette”. But it bloody hurt. Hurt far more than smashing my fist into poor old Sappho.

I drove back home, picked the glass out of my bed, and soaked my blood-soaked pillowcases in the sink. I probably wouldn’t have done that with my old Kays Catalogue bedding, but White Company linen doesn’t come cheap. I couldn’t sleep, had to take a diazepam in the end. My blood was throbbing in my injured hand and my thoughts were throbbing too.

As it is – I am alright. I was ridiculously fortunate. I punched with my left hand, not my right, for some reason. The tendon in my finger was visible, but unsevered. I’ve got sensation and movement. And I’ve got a wonderful dad who rang me as soon as he got my text telling me I should have called him because “that’s what dads are for”; took the morning off work to help me; came round and hoovered up the glass; cleaned up the blood and made me lunch; then drove me into town so I could have my hair and make up done for the hunt ball, before driving me to that. I was surprised I went, as well. I didn’t really think I could go. But I did, and had a great evening, even if I did have to ask my friend’s husband to cut up my dinner.

The next day is when the shock set in. I felt so very tired, and very nauseous (and no, it wasn’t the wine!). I curled up on the sofa and slept. (As an aside – how wonderful it is to have a Real Life sofa, rather than one which feels like sitting on Kate Moss. Thanks to my work colleague who gave it to me. The simple pleasures of life, eh.) Shock, and anger about how I’d been treated. I’d been frightened enough as it was, to wake up covered in glass and blood; if I’d been in a bad enough state to wound myself deliberately, my treatment by the 999 staff would scarcely have helped me. I suppose it helps that I am in the position of someone who has wielded a blade deliberately, and knows what goes through your subconscious in a lightning-fast flash which bypasses your logical mind and goes like wicked quicksilver right down your wrist, but I didn’t call an ambulance over it. I would never have done that. The one time I was in hospital because of that, my neighbour rang my mum, and she drove me. We sat in the waiting room and she put my head in her lap.

Well, so much for my early night.

Anyway I was talking about bedtime reading. I’ve got a book about the Bronte sisters: The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan. I absolutely loved The Secret Life of William Shakespeare which I read by her earlier this year. She has a unique gift of taking historical people who seem so distant they are like fictional characters, and making them real. I wanted to go to bed early and read that. Instead, I’m watching a film about Hillsborough. Like my Bloodlands book, it feels like it’s something that is so important to learn about. But it’s hard to take in. I must have been about 11 when Hillsborough happened and I never really understoof how hideous it was. “The horror, the horror” again. Imagining how it was to be in the ground, and crushed. Unable to breathe, suffocating. This article by Adrian Tempany is the most graphic I have read, and also the most powerful. I have thought about those people an awful lot since the latest enquiry, and like Bloodlands, it feels like I owe it to those people to know The Truth. Sometimes I get a bit worn out by all this learning though.

I need another round of Wodehouse. I need to write more about Wodehouse, and read him too. I think we would have been tremendous chums, and I was very excited when Wooster used the phrase “sharper than a serpent’s tooth” in the same way I do, although it’s a bastardisation from King Lear. It reminds me of my resolution to speak more like Wooster, because he is so entertaining and original, and behave more like the Queen, because she is dignified and kind to everyone, even dreadful people, and I can’t imagine her doing anything wrong, ever. Nothing anyone would find out about, anyway.

I’ve rambled terribly. I might delete this post in the morning.