john257hopper aims to read (well?) over 100 books in 2019

Talk100 Books in 2019 Challenge

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john257hopper aims to read (well?) over 100 books in 2019

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Dec 31, 2018, 4:42am

Hello all, I am happily signing up for this for a second year. I am finishing my 104th book of 2018 today. This is my lowest annual total since 2011 (103), but this was mainly because of three big classic novels that together took several weeks to get through and demanded a lot of reading attention.

I also have at least one sub-goal in 2019, which is to read at least one in each month of the 1001 Books you should read before you die, that I have not previously read. I have already read 157 on that list, and own 100 others of them, so I aim to have read at least 12 of those 100 in 2019.

Dec 31, 2018, 4:38pm

Welcome back! I look forward to following your reviews again this year.

Dec 31, 2018, 7:59pm

Happy reading in 2019, John.

Jan 1, 2019, 5:58am

Thanks both, and happy new year :)

Jan 2, 2019, 1:23am

Oh, that 1001 list is quite addictive. :) Looking forward to your reading this year!

Jan 2, 2019, 5:30am

Thanks, wookiebender (wonderful name, by the way!)

Jan 7, 2019, 3:36pm

1. City of Wisdom and Blood - Robert Merle

This is the second in a series of 13 historical novels about the lives of a family of minor Huguenot nobles, the de Sioracs, in 16th and 17th century France. The series was written by French author Robert Merle over a period of 26 years, though I understand that only the first four books in the series have thus far been translated into English. The action picks up where the first book ended, with young Pierre de Siorac and his half brother Samson setting out on their journey of life, with Pierre enrolling as a medical student in Montpellier. While this is very well written, I thought this mostly lacked the narrative drive of the first novel, and had throughout much of it a more comic feel, with Pierre getting into a series of sexual entanglements with almost every lady he meets, and into scrapes such as disinterring a body from the graveyard to provide an extra corpse for dissection in anatomy lessons, while at the same time engaging in sexual relations with a self-proclaimed witch in the selfsame graveyard. All this said, the threat of bitter and bloody civil war between Catholic and Huguenot is never far away, with Pierre disgusted by the reprisals of his fellow Huguenots when they take power in Nimes, butchering Catholic priests, monks and ordinary citizens ("What kind of a new world is this, that begins with the massacre of people who, when all is said and done, have the same God that we do but worship Him in a different way?”). He pleads for toleration in the face of extremists on both sides of the religious divide: "how can we possibly argue for the freedom of conscience for ourselves, which the papists have denied us, if we refuse it to those who have ideas that differ from ours?” Parts of this novel also felt like a brain dump of information on medicinal herbs, or early modern age ideas of medicine and anatomy - interesting but distracted sometimes from the narrative. These criticisms apart, this was still a very rich and well written novel and I will certainly be reading the following novels.

Jan 9, 2019, 4:41pm

2. The Wheel Spins - Ethel Lina White

This little known 1930s novel was the inspiration for the famous Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes and its two remakes. I was inspired to seek it out and read it after watching the 2013 TV movie version last week (actually closer in some ways to the original novel than was the Hitchcock film). The story is fairly well known: young socialite Iris Carr is travelling by train across Europe and befriends a middle aged spinster, Miss Froy. When she wakes up, Miss Froy has disappeared and the other passengers deny she ever existed. Iris's desperate attempts to establish the truth of what she remembers and what has happened to Miss Froy are quite gripping to read, even knowing the course of events and eventual outcome. The novel contains more backstory about Miss Froy and many of the other characters than do any of the screen versions, though I felt this broke the narrative tension a bit too much. A good read.

Jan 9, 2019, 6:20pm

>8 john257hopper: Loved the film, and liked the book enough to seek out others by Ethel Lina White. That's a big advantage of ebooks - all sorts of books have been republished. Some of them might have been better left to languish in obscurity, but I've found some entertaining crime novels. I recommend E. Philips Oppenheim,Mary Roberts Rinehart, and the delightfully named Christopher St. John Sprigg.

Jan 10, 2019, 3:28pm

Thanks Pam, I'll look into those. I've heard of Oppenheim, but not the other two.

Jan 10, 2019, 4:18pm

Oppenheim seems to have written over 100 novels. Do you have any particular recommendations, Pam?

Jan 10, 2019, 9:15pm

Edited: Jan 12, 2019, 12:06pm

3. The Railway Detective - Edward Marston

This is the first in a series of detective novels set in the mid-19th century around the then quite new railway system. The sleuth is police Inspector Robert Colbeck, a cultured and intelligent man who originally trained as a lawyer before turning to police work. It is 1851 and the run up to the Great Exhibition. A daring robbery takes place of a mail train carrying gold coins. This is followed by an explosion in a rail tunnel and then two murders. All of these crimes are linked through a particular individual with a very personal motive for undermining the railway system and the wider economy. This is a good page turner of a novel with a dramatic plot, but I found much of the dialogue slightly stilted. Colbeck is an appealing central protagonist, though his colleagues are pretty cliched: the unintelligent but loyal and brave deputy, the overbearing and constantly critical senior officer. There are at least 16 novels in this series, and the period is an interesting one, with the railways poised to transform the British economy by revolutionising transport and providing unprecedented opportunities for ordinary people to travel more widely than ever before - though not everyone appreciates these advantages.

Jan 14, 2019, 2:56pm

4. The Outsider - Albert Camus

I had similar feelings about this novel as I did to the previous Camus novel I read back in 2012, The Plague. Like that one, the events surrounding the life of the narrator have an otherworldly feel, seeming to take place in a time bubble, we only know it is set in the author's native French Algeria through the references to unnamed Arab characters and swelteringly hot weather. The first half of the novel was very banal, dealing with the death of the narrator's mother and his interactions with his neighbours, including the unpleasant Raymond, and with his lover Marie. Then a dramatic incident half way through leads to a change of pace, and the narrator is tried for murder. His own character and temperament do not help him in this situation, and his circumstances deteriorate. While the second half was a more dramatic read, it is still told in an impersonal and distant style, not typical of a first person account.

When I did my French A level back in the mid-80s, this was one of set texts some of us studied - though in my class we did Sartre's Les Mains Sales, which was more interesting than this, and for which I am retrospectively grateful to my teachers of 1984.

Jan 23, 2019, 5:32pm

5. The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne

This mid 19th century American classic novel is very much set within the ethos and mores of the Puritan community in New England in the mid 17th century. A young woman Hester Prynne with a baby (Pearl) is humiliated by the community and marked with the eponymous letter A for adultery (though the word is never used in the book). The story is about her relationship with her daughter, with an old doctor who is revealed to be her ex-husband, and with the clergyman who is Pearl's father. The story is told within a framework narrative, with an over-long introduction describing the author's personal experiences working in a custom house, where he purported to have found old documents describing Hester's story. Hawthorne is clearly sceptical of the grim joylessness of extreme Puritanism, when he describes one of their rare festive events thus: "Into this festal season of the year ............the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction." The novel is very well written and needs to be read in relatively small doses truly to appreciate the language, though it is short at only 138 pages.

Jan 28, 2019, 1:17pm

6. The Railways: Nation, Network and People - Simon Bradley

This magisterial book traces the history of the railways in Britain, and the influence they have had on nearly all areas of national life since the opening of the first public, timetabled and steam-hauled, passenger train service in the full sense we understand it now, in 1830 running between Liverpool and Manchester. From modest beginnings during that decade, they flourished all over the country in the 1840s, peaking in 1847 when investment in railways accounted for almost 7 per cent of national income. Cornwall was the last county to join the national network in 1859. The railways transformed the economy by revolutionising transport of goods and people, and gave freedom of movement to far more people to travel farther than they or their ancestors would ever have dreamed of; it's striking that just 200 years ago - a snap of the fingers in the overall march of time - none of our great grandparents and none of their ancestors had ever travelled faster than the speed of a galloping horse. In the mid-19th century excursion trains took thousands of people of modest means living inland to the seaside for the first time, thus opening more possibilities for leisure as well as work. The railways, like photography, divide the 19th century into two very different halves - as one critic is quoted as observing, "the mere mention of train or railway in a Victorian novel serves immediately to locate the action in the present, just as a reference to stagecoaches pushed the story back into the past". One example of this is the casual mention of a character travelling by train in Dickens's last unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, published in 1865, whereas we generally associate the author with the stagecoach era. The railways even changed the way we measure time, by encouraging the phasing out of local time across the country, in favour of a uniform British time to make railway timetables work properly (even so the use of Greenwich Mean Time wasn't legally binding until as late as 1880).

As well as these grand themes, the book also explores the history of aspects we take for granted, such as the heating and lighting of trains, and the varying layouts and levels of comfort (or not) that could be expected in the three classes of railway coach. Perhaps this may seem excessive detail to some, but the narrative flows in an engaging way that makes you think about things you take for granted, and how they have changed, or not, even during the 45 years or so of my own conscious memory of travelling on trains. The author also goes on to talk about developments in the technology of railway construction, signalling and so on, and how stations have changed over the years. In his final few chapters, he covers phenomena such as preserved and mini railways, and even discusses trainspotting as a social phenomenon. A fascinating and wonderful work.

Jan 28, 2019, 5:07pm

7. The Railway Children - Edith Nesbit

This classic children's novel from 1905 is a delight to read, and gently humourous in many places as our heroes, Peter, Phyllis (Phil for short) and Roberta (Bobbie for short) get up to all kinds of adventures in and around the railway, preventing train crashes, putting out fires, rescuing people from dark and dank tunnels and, slightly incongruously, meeting a Russian dissident. There are some nice illustrations in this edition also. I've never seen any of the TV and film adaptations of this, but I intend to seek them out.

Jan 30, 2019, 10:57pm

>16 john257hopper:
That Railways book sounds awesome.
Unfortunately, my public library doesn't seem to have a copy. :(

I have added it to my wishlist anyway, maybe I can get it through interlibrary loan or something.

Jan 31, 2019, 12:08pm

8. Mugby Junction - Charles Dickens

This often quite loosely connected series of short stories appeared in the Christmas 1866 edition of All The Year Round, a magazine that Dickens was then editing, while also supplying much of the content, though four stories here are by other, less well known authors. The collection is set around the railways of the fictional town of Mugby where the narrator of the loose overarching framework finds himself in the middle of the night. By far the most famous of these stories is the haunting and much anthologised The Signalmen, the second most famous Dickens ghost story. The Boy at Mugby is Dickens's hilarious satire of the catering in a British train station cafe of the time - complaints about railway food are nothing new! Most of the contributions by other authors are also pretty good, some mystery, with a few gothic twists. Overall, a very good collection.

Feb 3, 2019, 5:52pm

9. The Tin Ring: Love and Survival in the Holocaust - Zdenka Fantlova

The title of this Holocaust memoir derives from a makeshift engagement ring the author was given by her boyfriend Arno before their final separation at the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp in 1942. She kept the ring as a symbol of hope, managing to retain it through her stripping and deprivation of her possessions when deported to Auschwitz. Fantlova was a survivor - she was one of only 17 survivors of a transport of 1000 women who, spared from the gas chambers at Auschwitz, were ordered to dig trenches against the advancing Russians. Later they were sent on one of the notorious death marches in early 1945, driven forward away from the advancing Allied forces, the Russians from the East and the British from the West. Zdenka ended up in Bergen Belsen in a terrible typhus epidemic which killed most of the remaining prisoners, including her sister and remaining friends (and, unknown to her, Anne and Margot Frank). Rescued by the British, and discovering that not only Arno, but her own, father, step-mother and brother had died, she took the chance to move to Sweden to start to rebuild her life. Later in life she moved to Australia, then to Britain.

Despite this unimaginably tragic period in her life, the early chapters of this book are told in a very matter of fact way. She emphasises that her childhood was quite ordinary and happy, albeit punctuated by the tragic death of her mother when she was just three and half year old, then her father's reluctant remarriage to a step-mother, who she felt was more like a governess than a mother. Even the gradual encroachment of the Nazi menace in the late 1930s, even after their invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, did not seem real to her as long as she and her family were able to stay together in their home, a situation which lasted until the beginning of 1942 when they were deported to Terezin (her father had been arrested just before this).

One other striking feature of this remarkable account is the rich cultural life that the prisoners managed to make for themselves in Terezin, staging plays, using the talents of many of the artistic people among their number, even including some biting and humorous satires on the Nazis. These productions eventually petered out as increasing numbers of the prisoners were deported to Auschwitz, but remain a memorable testament to the strength of the human spirit under adversity.

Feb 10, 2019, 10:40am

10. Lehrter Station - David Downing

This is the fifth novel in the John Russell/Effi Koenen series set around the second world war. In this novel the war has been over for a few months and it is late 1945 in a ruined Berlin divided between the four occupying powers. Having been reunited at the end of the war after three years apart John and Effi have been living in London of late, but are drawn back to Berlin through his spying activities, her starring in a film about the life of a Holocaust survivor, and their joint search for family and friends who disappeared in the war, in particular the biological father of their adopted daughter Rosa. As with the previous novels in the series, the atmosphere is very well described, though the plot also does tender to meander. In the confused and chaotic atmosphere, characters such as black-marketeer Rudolf Geruschke are able to thrive and do deals with the occupying powers, while horrible things continue to happen, with hospitals being deprived of medicines, while black market prices for them skyrocket and children die; Jewish Holocaust survivors are still subject to anti-semitic attacks; Germans expelled from newly expanded Polish territory (mostly innocent civilians) are subjected to the same mistreatment as the Nazis meted out to the Poles; the occupying powers, spiralling towards the cold war, are mostly uninterested in bringing individual lower level Nazis to justice; groups of Jewish survivors carry out private acts of vengeance, killing individual Nazis they identify, while most Jews flee to Palestine seeking what seems to be the only true protection of setting up their own state. Against this backdrop, John and Effi face and overcome a whole range of threats and the novel ends with their disparate families reunited once again.

Feb 12, 2019, 4:59pm

11. Becoming - Michelle Obama

This is the former First Lady's autobiography published late last year. This is not primarily a political memoir, but a story of how Michelle Robinson rose from modest beginnings as the daughter of a water filtration plant worker in Chicago's South Side to being First Lady of the USA. Put in slightly longer term historical perspective, some of her great great grandparents were slaves, so from slavery to the White House in five generations. There is very much of a theme here of raising expectations - of African Americans having high expectations of themselves and each other and not accepting any glass ceiling, challenging stereotypes. On the political side, one is reminded how rapid was Barack Obama's political rise, from being elected a member of the Illinois Senate in 1997, largely unknown outside his state, via the US Senate to the presidency in barely over a decade. From Michelle's point of view, the White House years were about her making her own mark in a range of issues from girls' education, healthy eating to supporting military veterans and their families; and, at a family level, trying to allow her daughters as much chance as possible to have a normal childhood and adolescence. Written in a simple, accessible and very human way, this is a very good read.

Feb 12, 2019, 7:28pm

>22 john257hopper: I really enjoyed the little details about life in the White House that I didn't know about - like how they can't open the windows! It makes a lot of sense, but I hadn't ever thought about it.

Feb 16, 2019, 11:07am

<23 - the little details were interesting - I liked the story of their going out for a date night while in the White House, a lovely idea to keep up the habit, albeit impractical.

Feb 16, 2019, 11:08am

12. Holy Spy - Rory Clements

This appears to the final novel written in the author's series of Elizabethan whodunnits featuring Walsingham's intelligencer John Shakespeare, fictional brother to the playwright. The action however takes place before that of all the others in the main series. It is 1586 and the year of the infamous Babington plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and free Mary Queen of Scots and place her on the throne, backed by a Spanish invasion which supposedly would have been greeted by a mass uprising of English Catholics. John Shakespeare and his trusty assistant Boltfoot Cooper face the usual array of threats and horrors in trying to foil the plot at the same time as trying to prove the innocence of a former lover of John's, who has been accused of commissioning the murder of her much older husband. The sadistic Topcliffe appears less in this novel than in most of the others, though the thief and cutthroat Cutting Ball, who forms the link between several plot strands, also delights in cruel tortures of those who cross him. This made this book unpleasant to read on a number of occasions, though for the most part it was the usual colourful page turner.

Feb 20, 2019, 3:51pm

13. The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith

This 18th century classic was a favourite novel during the Victorian era, and is mentioned in their own works by many 19th century literary greats, including Goethe, Austen, Mary Shelley, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. It is an often humorous and gently satirical story of the title character Dr Charles Primrose and his family and their waning and waxing fortunes, involving abductions, house fires, imprisonments and other incidents, with some side digressions into the nature of tyranny, the prison system and the redemptive power of religion. Despite all these elements within a short novel, it didn't really hang together for me for some reason. Finally, my addition contained a set of end notes that were not referenced within the content and indeed bore no relation to that content. I would read this again in the future, though, to see if it gelled together better for me a second time.

Feb 22, 2019, 4:10pm

14. Supersense - Bruce Hood

This is a fairly interesting book about the nature and origin of irrational or supernatural belief - taking these terms not necessarily in a derogatory sense, but as representing a spectrum of non-scientifically verifiable views from mainstream religious beliefs, through belief in ghosts and fortune telling, to customary beliefs such as believing in luck, not walking under ladders, and even common or garden phenomena like believing we can tell when someone behind us is looking at us. His central thesis is that such beliefs are not necessarily taught as part of culture, but sometimes arise from our instinctive thinking as babies and young children. It's interesting stuff, albeit rather repetitive and this could probably have been rather shorter, though it is enlivened by some interesting experiments, for example offering people money to wear a cardigan, then challenging them by saying it belonged to a murderer - society's instinctive conventions prevent most people from wearing it knowing this, even though it's still the same garment. 3.5/5

Feb 25, 2019, 4:14pm

15. Munich - Robert Harris

This is the first new novel I have read by this author since An Officer and a Spy in 2014, and is a reminder why Robert Harris is one my favourite contemporary authors. Whether they are set in ancient Rome, a parallel world, fin de siecle France or, as in this case, London and Munich in 1938 his novels draw the reader in and are highly intelligent page turners. The centre of the lightly fictionalised action here is the four days in late September when the peace of Europe looked in danger of breaking over the Czechoslovak crisis, where Hitler attempted to use alleged persecution of the German population in the Sudeten areas of western Czechoslovakia as a casus belli. It is as famous of course for Chamberlain's and Daladier's notorious policy of appeasement of Hitler, agreeing to allow chunks of Czechoslovakia to be carved off and handed to Germany in order, supposedly, to prevent the dictator invading the whole country. But it must be said this was not how the Munich Agreement was seen at the time - it was initially widely popular in a Britain that was only 20 years away from the horrors of the First World War and determined never to see this repeated (as Chamberlain said, "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.") In this novel, Englishman Hugh Legat and German Paul Hartmann, who were friends at Oxford in the early 1930s, try to convince their respective senior negotiating delegation colleagues that Hitler cannot be trusted; the fact that we know they are bound to fail does not take away from the drama of the plot and the absurd hope that somehow things will turn out otherwise than they did. Chamberlain here comes across as fusty and inflexible, but also deeply committed to what he sincerely but tragically wrongly viewed as the only way to preserve long term peace. I will now read a non-fiction account of the Munich Agreement to draw comparisons.

Feb 27, 2019, 4:18pm

16. Munich 1938: Prelude to War - David Boyle

This short book covers all three of the summit meetings that British PM Neville Chamberlain held with Adolf Hitler in September 1938 in a largely sincere, but naive and of course ultimately disastrously unsuccessful attempt to stave off the threat of war. It is a deeply unedifying account of missed opportunities to stand up to Hitler, naivety and even crass unpreparedness, e.g. Britain and France not jointly deciding tactics beforehand, Chamberlain at one of the summits not having an interpreter with him and having to rely on Hitler's interpreter Paul Schmidt. No doubt from the point of view of many Britons, Czechoslovakia was a faraway country of which they knew nothing; but the treatment meted out to that country by Britain and France (the latter of whom had a defence treaty with them that was ignored) was truly shameful. Even worse than the handing over of the Sudetenland with its German speaking majority was the fact that these border areas contained the great majority of Czech border fortifications, heavy industry and armaments factories; as a result the rest of the country was ripe for the plucking when Hitler invaded and occupied the whole country the following March. A wider tragic missed opportunity was the fact that senior German army officers were prepared to overthrow the regime, if only Britain and France had shown more resolve. The author has a family connection with these events. His great-aunt, journalist Shiela Grant Duff, was a strong supporter of the Czechs and her book Europe and the Czechs was published just as the crisis was resolved in Hitler's favour; despite this it was read widely and played a major role in shifting public opinion away from appeasement. A very useful short and succinct account.

Mar 1, 2019, 4:13pm

So after two months I'm on 16 books, so slightly behind target, but nothing that can't be caught up. And on my lesser target, I've already read three of the books in the top 1001 books that I'd not read before, and have started a fourth.

Mar 2, 2019, 12:20pm

17. Thank You, Jeeves - P G Wodehouse

I had never read any P G Wodehouse before, but this will not be my last, and it was a very enjoyable light-hearted read, a bit of a relief from grimmer reading matter (though with some of the outdated racial attitudes of the time, albeit not maliciously intended). This was the author's first full length Jeeves novel, published in 1934, though Jeeves himself is absent from large parts of it, having left his master Bertie Wooster's service as he cannot stand the latter's playing on his newly acquired banjolele (a cross between a banjo and a ukelele). The story is very funny, of course, and much of the dialogue hilarious and mannered; I remember seeing the TV adaptation featuring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the 1990s, and Fry was the perfect Jeeves with his deadpan dry wit. Good stuff, though perhaps slightly long-winded in places.

Mar 3, 2019, 5:16am

>31 john257hopper: P. G.Wodehouse always makes me laugh. You are so lucky, to have all those unread books ahead of you.

Mar 5, 2019, 10:37am

18. Dragon Teeth - Michael Crichton

It is over ten years since Michael Crichton passed away, and this is the third novel of his published posthumously. According to an afterword by his widow, the text of this novel was written in 1974, and presaged his famous interest in dinosaurs through the Jurassic Park franchise. This novel is set during the so called Bone Wars of the 1870s, when bitter rival archaeologists Professors Cope and Marsh competed using unscrupulous tactics to identify, disinter and preserve dinosaur bones found in then remote parts of the USA, in this case the Black Hills of Dakota, sacred to the Sioux Native Americans. The central character is a fictional student William Johnson who during the course of the story works for both professors, is attacked by numerous parties of Native Americans and Western gunslingers, while trying to preserve some of the bones from Cope's expedition, from which he was separated, believed to have been killed in an ambush. This is a decent page turner and a very quick, superficially enjoyable read, but lacked substance for me. 3/5

Mar 10, 2019, 7:23pm

Well, you inspired me to read Munich (the novel) - thanks! I loved it.

Mar 11, 2019, 3:04pm

>34 jfetting: - glad you enjoyed it. Robert Harris is one of my favourite contemporary authors.

Mar 11, 2019, 5:28pm

19. The Inflamed Mind: A radical new approach to depression - Edward Bullmore

Having suffered from depression for years, this book caught my eye. The author is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and his central thesis is that bodily inflammation is a major cause of depression, more so than a chemical imbalance in the brain, which has been the medical consensus for several decades. While he provides a range of evidence about links between inflammation and depression, to my mind he does not prove a causal link, cherry picks his supporting evidence, and makes varying contradictory comments about the effectiveness of anti-inflammatories in combating depression. He seems to have it in big time for Rene Descartes and his dualist philosophy, which he sees as preventing proper holistic consideration of mind and body in the treatment of disease. Overall, this was also quite a technical medical read, and I thought was of very little practical help to sufferers from depression.

Mar 15, 2019, 5:36pm

20. The Last of the Mohicans - James Fenimore Cooper

This novel is set in 1757 during the Seven Years War when Britain and France battled for control of North America. It is very well written, with evocative descriptions of the landscape, and portrays the multi-faceted life of the various tribes of North American "Red Indians", depicting Native American characters in way in a way that no significant American had done before. There are, of course, still examples of the language of the time (published in 1826) that we wouldn't use today ("savages" vs. "civilised men"), but he portrays a rich variety of characters, including the central character, the young and heroic Uncas and his dignified father Chingachgook, and the villainous Magua; compared to these, the white European-American characters are much blander, particularly the sisters Cora and Alice, who are depicted as beautiful bland ciphers, as young female characters so often were in 19th century literature on both sides of the Atlantic. Between them is the figure of Hawkeye/Natty Bumppo, a white man raised by Delaware Indians, able to act as a bridge between the two cultures. The action of the novel revolves around the rescue of Cora and Alice from the clutches of the Hurons who have kidnapped them, and contains some impressive and violent set pieces, involving much scalping. There were passages where my interest waned, nevertheless this is deservedly an early classic of American literature.

Mar 22, 2019, 5:48pm

21. The Autumn Throne - Elizabeth Chadwick

This is the final volume in the author's trilogy of novels on Eleanor of Aquitaine. It is as colourful as ever, as befits the subject matter of everything surrounding the Angevins. However, from a narrative point of view, a weakness of this autobiographical novel is that Eleanor (called Alienor here, as that is what she would have actually been called) spent much of the time from the early 1170s until her husband Henry II's death in 1189 in captivity in Sarum, with occasional permitted visits to Winchester for the Easter or Christmas court, and therefore cannot be a witness to many of the dramatic events of the time, so many chapters and scenes have to come to an end with a messenger coming bringing her the tidings of dramatic events which she perforce cannot experience herself. The author is intimately familiar with the details of the Angevin period, however, so this necessary absence does not detract too much from enjoyment of the novel. Eleanor of Aquitaine is like a force of nature, wife to two kings, one of France, one of England, mother of two kings of England and powerful Duchess in her own right, a woman who lived into her 80s in an era when few men or women lived much beyond their mid 50s, outliving nearly all of her children and seeing her grandchildren grow up. Emotionally absorbing stuff.

Mar 23, 2019, 4:56pm

22. King John - William Shakespeare

Having finished the last of a trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine last night, I was prompted to read this, one of Shakespeare's less well known and now rarely performed plays. It prevents a telescoped version of the events early in John's reign in 1202-3, where he fought, triumphed over and probably murdered his nephew Arthur of Brittany, who had an arguably superior claim to the throne of England, being the son of one of John's older brothers, Geoffrey. It also presents a fictitious version of John's death and succession by his son, Prince Henry, who was not in reality born until a few years after Arthur's death. (Magna Carta does not exist in this fictionalised version of events). The events are dramatic, but it mostly lacks the memorable and pithy dialogue and quotations of many of the plays, and is one of only two Shakespeare plays written entirely in (mostly blank) verse.

Mar 27, 2019, 5:27pm

23. Brother's Blood - C B Hanley

This is the fourth in the author's series of murder mystery novels set in and around the Lincolnshire/South Yorkshire area in the early 13th century, at the time of civil war with barons supporting the boy king Henry III, son of King John, fighŧing French Prince Louis, who had been welcomed into the country as an alternative ruler at the height of John's unpopularity. Like the previous novel (and unlike the first two), this wider political drama did not impinge on the plot of this one, which centred around the murder of a monk in Roche Abbey. Our hero Edwin Weaver is once again dispatched by his master Earl William de Warenne to investigate the crime, on the strength of his earlier successes. As with some of the others, this was quite slow to get going, and the action heated up only in the last third, with the murder of another monk and exposure of the killer. This novel offered a nuanced and interesting depiction of life inside a Medieval monastery, which Edwin was at times tempted to join, due to his love of solitude and study, his wish to avoid being sent on further dangerous missions, and the seeming loss of Alys, the love of his young life whom he met during the siege of Lincoln. I really like Edwin, he is a man after my own introverted heart. At the end of the novel, the crime solved, he is reunited with Alys, whom he is soon to marry after a misunderstanding was cleared up, only to be told his lord requires his services again as another French army is to invade. This provides a good hook into the next novel, which I expect to read sooner than the two year gaps I have left between the previous couple of books in the series.

Mar 30, 2019, 5:22am

24. Queen of a Distant Hive - Theresa Tomlinson

This is a follow up to the author's historical murder mystery A Swarming of Bees, featuring Fridgyth the herb-wife gently sleuthing in the monastic community of both monks and nuns presided over by the historical Abbess Hild in 7th century Whitby. Like its predecessor, it is well written and engaging, though quite slow to get going, with the drama mostly packed into the last quarter or so, centring around murders committed for revenge as part of a blood feud, one of many such vendettas that scarred the lives of generations of many Anglo Saxons. Interestingly, I found out recently that this author has written several series of books for young adults, some set in the same time period, and this explains her fairly detailed descriptions of Anglo Saxon customs and life, that add educational colour to the plots.

Edited: Apr 1, 2019, 4:12pm

25. Camino Island - John Grisham

It's been a few years since I read a John Grisham novel, and this is not one of his typical offerings. It's not a legal thriller, but rather a story about the theft and trade of rare books and manuscripts, in this case centring around the theft of original manuscripts of F Scott Fitzgerald novels from Princeton University. The central protagonist is a young minor author, Mercer Mann, struggling to write a second novel a few years after the modest success of her first full length book and collection of short stories. She gets unwittingly drawn into a scheme to discover the whereabouts of the stolen manuscripts, while also confronting some personal troubles. This unassuming novel contains a number of colourful and memorable characters.

Apr 4, 2019, 3:40pm

26. The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

This is a re-read, prompted by the plot of the John Grisham novel I read just beforehand being based around the theft of F Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts. I feel the novel has quite a claustrophobic feel around the central characters and their lifestyle, such that it is difficult, I think, for a British reader like myself to relate to the principal characters in that place, New York, at that particular time, the 1920s, even leaving aside the fact that some of them are quite unpleasant, especially Tom Buchanan. Gatsby is a very enigmatic character and I still don't really know what to make of him. I can't really say I enjoy this book, but it is at least quite intriguing, with a dramatic final quarter.

Edited: Apr 8, 2019, 4:28pm

27. Patrick Troughton Special Anniversary Edition: The Biography - Michael Troughton

This is a biography of the second actor to play the part of Doctor Who on British TV, written by one of his sons. Troughton is my second favourite of the classic Doctors (after Tom Baker) and this book gives adequate coverage to his three years in the role from 1966-69, but also covers his extensive career both before and afterwards, starring in numerous TV shows and films of different genres, comedies, historical dramas, thrillers and horror. Some of his most famous roles outside Doctor Who were the priest in The Omen, Paul of Tarsus, Mr Quilp in Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop, the Duke of Norfolk in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and, one of his last roles, a magician in an adaptation of the children's classic novel The Box of Delights. Prior to his professional acting career, he had quite a distinguished war career, being a naval captain stationed in East Anglia, protecting the coast from enemy submarines. This book also recounts his convoluted family life. In 1955 he walked out on his wife and three children (Michael was just 10 months old at the time) to set up home with another woman, by whom he had three more children, shuttling between the two homes. This was all kept secret by the family for many years. Eventually he married another wife in the 1970s. Despite all this, he seems to have had a good relationship with all bar one of his six children, the exception being his eldest daughter who never forgave him for abandoning her mother. He worked hard all his life, too hard in fact, as he didn't slow down despite suffering heart attacks, the last of which claimed his life in 1987 at a Doctor Who Convention in the USA. This is an interesting account of his life, though sometimes the long extracts from the memoirs of other family members or fellow actors included in the text made me lose track of who was making a particular point. A worthy tribute to a fine actor.

Apr 9, 2019, 3:10pm

28. The Abominable Snowmen - Terrance Dicks

Re-reading the novelisation of this classic monster Doctor Who serial from 1967 after finishing Patrick Troughton's biography. As a novelisation, it's not one of the standouts, but the depictions of the Himalayas and Detsen monastery are well drawn, adding to the atmosphere of the original filmed in (non-snowy) Snowdonia. The Great Intelligence is a chilling disembodied form of evil.

Apr 22, 2019, 2:39pm

29. Stranger in a Strange Land - Robert Heinlein

This is one of the classic SF novels of the last 50-60 years, originally published in 1961 and re-issued in a much extended version by his widow after Heinlein's death in 1988. This new version restored many passages cut on its original publication, as they were deemed to clash too starkly with the sexual mores of the time. Whether these restorations improve the novel from the perspective of its narrative flow may be a moot point. I have not read the original version, so cannot say for sure, but I did feel that this novel was (perhaps considerably) overlong. Like many SF novels, it is a novel of ideas rather than plot per se, the central one being the clash between the very different perspectives on life, culture and ethics of Martians and Terrans. This is explored through many long interactions between the characters, covering religion, sex, culture, and the legal and political frameworks within which societies organise themselves. So far, so interesting, if rather overblown in my view. But I found nearly all the characters rather annoying, and much of the ordinary dialogue outside the above conversations grated. I was often unclear how much time had elapsed between each of the five major sections of the book (and just how old is Jubal supposed to be? Come to that, when is the novel actually set?). The best bits I thought were the early parts where Mike first came to Earth and was trying to come to terms with the change of environment, having been brought up on Mars after his parents' spaceship crashed and all onboard were killed. After he set up his Martian church, I thought the narrative became less interesting, notwithstanding the interesting issues raised. So mixed feelings about this one, and clearly I did not grok it in the way many readers have done!

Apr 22, 2019, 2:39pm

30. Far from the Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy

My second visit to beautiful Dorset over this glorious Easter holiday has been accompanied by reading my second Thomas Hardy novel. I didn't enjoy this quite as much as The Mayor of Casterbridge, but Far from the Madding Crowd is still a solid and enjoyable novel rooted in the rhythms and ways of life of 19th century Dorset, being the first of Hardy's Wessex novels. Bathsheba Everdene is an independent-minded young woman making her way in the male-dominated rural life of the time, after inheriting her uncle's farm on his death. Yet, as the object of three very different men's differing forms of love, she still shows a headstrong and even reckless side, for example when she sends a joke Valentine's card to middle-aged and confirmed bachelor farmer Boldwood, which ignites an obsession with him as he refuses to accept its light hearted motivation. She marries soldier Frank Troy, but their marriage is not a success and he disappears. It is shepherd Gabriel Oak whose loyal and steadfast devotion to her as his employer wins her love in the end, after a final explosive confrontation between Boldwood and a returned Troy. Other memorable characters include Fanny Robin, Troy's former sweetheart, who dies in the workhouse pregnant with his child. A very good read, though lacking the plot-driven narrative of Mayor of Casterbridge.

Apr 22, 2019, 2:47pm

31. Mary Anning of Lyme Regis - Crispin Tickell

I picked up this pamphlet on the life of the famous early 19th century palaeontologist at the Lyme Regis museum, which is built on the site of her former shop, where she sold some of the many fossils she discovered along what is now known as the Jurassic coast of Dorset. She was a remarkable woman, born in relative poverty and with only basic education, she nevertheless managed to revolutionise our understanding of pre-history through her discoveries of fossil icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Failing to gain in life, due to her sex, the reputation she deserved, she remained largely unacknowledged until long after her death at the young age of 47 due to breast cancer (the affliction that also killed computer pioneer Ada Lovelace around the save time).

Apr 27, 2019, 2:26pm

32. The Dinosaur Hunters - Deborah Cadbury

This is an account of the early discoveries of fossils of dinosaurs and other early creatures, and the evolution (pardonable pun) of knowledge of and thought about the early history of life on earth, throughout the first half of the 19th century. Two key early discoveries are those of the icthyosaur by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, and the iguanadon by Gideon Mantell in Lewes in Sussex. These two come across as appealing and very ordinary human individuals, often taken advantage of by others. This is especially so for Anning, discovering fossils very early on as a girl and young woman in the 1810s and 20s; but also in a different way for Mantell, who, lacking the advantages of inherited wealth and free time of other early pioneers in the field, had to make his mark as a country doctor, helping and sometimes saving the lives of his poor patients, while trying in his spare time to pursue his passion for geology, a passion that strained his happy marriage to eventual breaking point.

One of the key themes as the book goes on is the bitter rivalry between Mantell and anatomist Richard Owen, coiner of the word "dinosaur" and later the founder and first director of the Natural History Museum in London. Owen, while a brilliant man in his own right, was also unscrupulous in claiming credit for discoveries made by Mantell and others, and diminishing their achievements for the sake of his own self-aggrandisement; this worked for him, and he became tutor to Queen Victoria's children, and played a pivotal role in the organisation of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Even after Mantell's tragic death in 1852, wracked by pain caused by being thrown from a carriage a decade earlier and injuring his back, and only able to function by managing the pain with opiates, Owen rubbished Mantell's work and character in an ostensibly anonymous obituary. In a bizarre and rather unsavoury twist of fate, Mantell's twisted spine ended up as an exhibit in Owen's collection. (as an aside, the spine remained in the Royal College of Surgeons until the mid-20th century; Cadbury says it was bombed in the Blitz, though other sources say it was voluntarily destroyed in 1969 due to lack of space).

Another key theme in the book is the battle between science and religion, but it is not cast in the simple Darwinism vs. creationism paradigm; rather it was a gradual movement of the centre of gravity of mainstream scientific opinion along a spectrum of thought where, for much of the three or four decades before Darwin's Origin of Species was published in 1859, the growing evidence for the development of forms of life and the relations between them was accepted (in the teeth of opposition from creationists), but along with an assumption that God provided the original spark for life in the first place and that he wrote the rules by which life forms developed (in modern parlance, "intelligent design"). Owen was an epitome of this view. Darwin and Huxley of course changed the paradigm in the 1860s and later, such that Owen's reputation was ironically itself trashed somewhat unfairly after his death in 1892, and his life's work dismissed due to his opposition to Darwinism.

This was a fascinating read. Unfortunately this Kindle version lacked the illustrations in the print version (which I used to have, but which has annoyingly disappeared from my shelves!).

Apr 30, 2019, 3:55pm

33. Persuasion - Jane Austen

This is a re-read prompted by a visit during our Easter holiday in sunny Dorset to the seaside town of Lyme Regis, where the central dramatic incident of this novel takes place, the repercussions of which affect the happiness of many of the characters. Austen's last completed novel at the time of her untimely death aged 41 in 1817, overall it is a sharply observed portrayal of class snobbery and rigid social immobility, especially on the part of Sir Walter Elliot and his elder daughter Elizabeth, the heroine Anne Elliot's father and sister. This is also a novel of second chances, principally for Anne with Captain Wentworth, but also for grief-stricken Captain Benwick with Louisa Musgrove. There are some attractive minor characters such as Admiral and Sophy Croft, and Mrs Smith. Probably my second favourite Austen novel (after Northanger Abbey).

May 4, 2019, 12:49pm

34. Remarkable Creatures - Tracy Chevalier

This is a novel based on the life of Lyme Regis fossil hunter Mary Anning. It brings over quite well the precariousness of her family's circumstances, completely dependent on Mary's finding of her "curies" on the beach. Chapters are told alternately from the points of view of Mary and her lifelong friend and fellow fossil hunter, Elizabeth Philpot, who came from a higher social class - an unusual friendship for the time, founded on their passion for pushing forward the boundaries of geological and biological knowledge of the times, an occupation frowned on, given their gender. While mostly based on the true events of their lives, it does introduce a romantic element and a cause for jealousy between the two women, which doesn't really add to the story. A good read about a remarkable pair of early female pioneers in the sciences (though neither they nor their contemporaries would have described them as such).

May 7, 2019, 3:01pm

35. Murder in Park Lane - Karen Charlton

This is the fifth in this series of murder mystery novels set in early 19th century England featuring the Bow Street Runners, the historical Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick Constable Ned Woods. I have loved this series and given all the previous four books 5/5, but I didn't think this quite matched the same standard. While still atmospheric and a good read, with a number of potential candidates as the murderer of lothario Davy McCann, I thought the plot was a little too linear, lacking some of the colour and detailed background of its predecessors. Also I was unconvinced by some aspects such as Woods's fast, which went against his character, and all in all I thought there was a bit less depth to the two main characters than previously; a bit more whodunnit by numbers, albeit of a very high standard.

May 16, 2019, 4:16pm

36. Tombland - C J Sansom

This is the seventh Matthew Shardlake novel, coming four years after the previous one. It is now 1549 and the boy King Edward VI is on the throne, but the country is ruled by the Protector, the Duke of Somerset, the King's uncle (brother of his father Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife). Shardlake gets involved in a murder case involving John Boleyn, distant relation to the famous mother of Lady Elizabeth, the King's half-sister. While as well written with well-rounded characters as ever, as in all the previous novels, this was even longer than the others, weighing in at 800 pages. This is in fact two novels in one, the murder mystery surrounding the death of John Boleyn's wife Edith and a historical novel about Robert Kett's rebellion of 1549, when many of the yeomen and poor labourers of Norfolk rebelled against the local gentry (while seeing themselves as loyal to King Edward and the Protector). Most of the twists and turns of the murder mystery take place in the first half, though it remains ultimately unsolved when Shardlake and his companions, the ever loyal Jack Barak and Nicholas Overton, are captured by Kett's rebels. While initially dubious, Shardlake comes to have great sympathy for their socio-economic and proto-democratic demands, and won over by the peaceful reasonableness of Kett and most of the other rebel leaders. Ultimately, the rebellion is crushed, with a tragic loss of life both generally and in the case of Shardlake's own friends and acquaintances, though he also acquires a new and unexpected addition to his household. This is a tragic novel on many levels, and has the feel of the end of a series, though I also thought that at the end of Lamentation. The book is rounded off by a long essay on the historical facts of Kett's rebellion and the several other uprisings of the time, some of them religious, many others like Kett's more political and economic.

Edited: May 18, 2019, 5:21am

37. The Moon of Gomrath - Alan Garner

This is the sequel to the author's Weirdstone of Brisingamen, continuing the adventures of Colin and Susan in encountering magic creatures in the Alderley Edge area of Cheshire. Again, while well written, this just didn't grip me emotionally and I found the plot more rambling and unclear than Weirdstone. Not sure if I'll bother with Boneland, the third book in the series, written much more recently than the first two.

May 20, 2019, 3:15pm

38. Mysterium - Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's SF novels are based around scenarios where a fundamental aspect of reality is changed and charts the reactions of victims and observers to that change, whether that be the disappearance of an entire continent, or Earth being cutting off by a membrane causing the stars to disappear from sight. In this novel, following a bizarre accident at a secret research centre, an entire town in Michigan, Two Rivers, is transported to the equivalent spot and the same time in a parallel dimension where technology is more primitive, but a different form of Christianity holds sway, and women and racial minorities are oppressed - though these aspects are incidental to the plot and only mentioned briefly. In the end, having taken the town over to find out its advanced technological secrets, the authorities in the parallel world decide on a drastic solution to the anomaly that has arrived in their midst. There are a mixed bunch of characters on both sides, and new alliances form as the final fate of the town becomes clearer. A quick and mostly engaging read - there were a few info dumps, though less often than in Spin.

May 25, 2019, 5:04am

39. The Unexpected Guest - Agatha Christie

This is a 1999 novelisation of an original Agatha Christie play first performed in 1958. It enjoyed considerable success, notching up 600 performances over the next 18 months, clearly dwarfed even then by the success of The Mousetrap, which had already been running 6 years, but a good record in its own right. This play is in fact very similar to the Mousetrap in its construction and atmosphere, and on the face of it, it's difficult to see why this did not run on and on like its more famous predecessor (whose 27,818th performance I watched two days ago). This novelisation is a very straightforward adaptation of the play, with no extra scenes or lines or characters, so it reads as a bit stilted and restricted in places, but it turns into a good read with the usual plethora of red herrings and twists. I'd watch a performance of it if it came round.

May 26, 2019, 1:25pm

40. The Travels - Marco Polo

This is one of the most famous travel narratives in history, and probably the most famous from Medieval Europe. Its significance in opening up educated European minds to countries and cultures way outside their experience can hardly be overstated ("what really seems to have shocked Marco’s audience was his detailed depiction of entire civilizations that were completely unknown to them. This was a world where express messengers sped letters by foot, horse and dog-sled across thousands of miles in a matter of days, and where banknotes were legal tender when paper was barely known in the West;") He re-opened up knowledge of Asia lost since before the rise of Islam and was the first Westerner to describe the existence of Japan. Of course, his account is also spiced with myths and legends about fabulous beasts such as gryphons and legendary figures such as the fabled eastern Christian ruler Prester John. Polo was inevitably affected by the assumptions of his time, for example in believing Christianity superior to all other belief systems, but nevertheless remains remarkably open to other cultures and experiences. I thought this was particularly evident in the chapter on India, one of his less well known journeys, which was less relatively less repetitive and censorious than some of the others. Despite the book's intrinsic significance and interest, it is very repetitive in places, with very similar or even near identical descriptions applied to numerous city states in what is now China, or the other territories in the vast and sprawling Mongol Empire (its founder Genghis Khan, the grandfather of Marco Polo's patron Kubhlai Khan, conquered more land than anyone else in history in founding the world's largest empire on a single land mass). He is very fond of stock phrases about idolators, paper money, subjects of the Great Khan, and cities having all the necessities of life in abundance. Rhetorical devices such as "What else shall I tell you?" and "Why make a long story of it?" pepper the narrative. All this said, we don't know exactly how much of this narrative was written by Polo himself, a combination of curious traveller and hard-headed businessman, or by his co-writer Rustichello of Pisa, a professional romance writer whom Polo met in prison in Genoa in the late 1290s, after Polo had been captured in the conflict between that city state and his home city of Venice. What we do know is that nearly all of the places Polo mentioned in his book have been identified and he undoubtedly undertook his travels as he said (some sceptics have occasionally doubted the fundamental truth of his account because of his errors or omissions). Rightly a landmark of European literature.

May 29, 2019, 3:15pm

41. Stasi 77 - David Young

This is the fourth book in the Karin Muller detective series set in East Germany in the 1970s, with our heroine putting her wits against both criminals and members of the Stasi (who are sometimes the same people). In this one a series of murders committed through fires link back to an atrocity committed by the Nazis against their slave labourers in the dying days of the war when defeat was inevitable and the allies were getting ever close to the heart of the Fourth Reich. Someone close to Karin has links to these events, and again her desire to protect her new found family is used against her. The ending of the novel has Karin resigning her post in the Kriminalpolizei in disgust at the covering up of the consequences of the events she has revealed, so I'm not sure if this is the last in the series. It would be a shame if so, as this has been a very good and hard-hitting series with some tragic and dramatic themes, made more interesting by the interplay between the criminal and the political roles of the investigator in a totalitarian society. I hope there will be more to come.

May 31, 2019, 12:54pm

42. Carrie's War - Nina Bawden

This children's book was published in the 1970s and adapted by the BBC into a serial at around the same time, one I remember with affection watching as a 7/8 year old. At base, it is the story of a sister and brother evacuated to the south Wales valleys during the Blitz, and how they relate to the family they stay with. The characters are well rounded and distinct, with some particularly colourful ones in Mr Johnny and the dying Mrs Gotobed, dressing in her ball gowns, a slightly macabre image that I distinctly remember from the TV series. There is also a skull that supposedly carries a curse, though this is not primarily a fantasy or mystery novel. Good to renew my acquaintance with this story.

Jun 4, 2019, 1:21pm

43. Goodnight, Mister Tom - Michelle Magorian

This award-winning children's novel published in 1981 has been read and enjoyed by generations of children since. It tells the heart-warming story of a small boy, William Beech, who is evacuated to the country village of Little Weirwold just before the outbreak of the Second World War. He is billetted with a withdrawn elderly widower Tom Oakley. Despite their differences, Tom comes to care for his young charge, who, it emerges, has been beaten and abused by his fanatically religious widowed mother. At one point, the mother uses a ruse to lure the boy back to London, but all comes good in the end for young Will and Tom. The book deals with serious themes, child abuse and war, yet carries a lightness of touch with many happy scenes in the village and surrounding countryside. If I had one criticism, the book is perhaps slightly too long for its content, but that, I acknowledge, is being rather picky and I am reading it as an adult, not its main target audience. A great read.

Jun 15, 2019, 12:52pm

44. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China - Jung Chang

This is an epic personal story of life in China over much of the 20th century, told through the stories of three generations of women in one family. The author has lived in Britain since becoming one of the first Chinese students to get a doctorate at a British university since before the communist takeover in 1949. Her grandmother's family came from Manchuria in the extreme north of China, and at the age of 15 in 1924 she was given away as a concubine to one of the warlords vying for control in this part of China in the vacuum created by the overthrow of the last Chinese emperor in 1912. Her mother, the daughter of this union, was one of the early idealistic communists in the years leading up to the 1949 revolution and for the first few heady years of the new regime when there seemed to be a genuine attempt to create a better society and reduce the oppressive and miserable life of the majority of the population, especially in rural areas. The book covers in depth the dramatic and horrific events that followed: the initially promising but quickly aborted attempt at liberalisation that was the Hundred Flowers campaign; the "Great Leap Forward", where much of the country was forced to produce steel to boost industry, to such an extent that agriculture collapsed and famine ensued, in which some 30 million people died, including the author's uncle and great-aunt; then, after a brief period of reform, the appalling "Cultural Revolution", Mao's attempt to create a personal rule, overthrowing much of his own communist apparatus, which dislocated society and economy, destroying much of the country's cultural and historical infrastructure, effectively abolishing education, burning nearly all books, banning films, theatre and sport, seriously blighting the author's teenage years and adult adulthood; and which, despite some relaxation after 1972, didn't fully end until after Mao's death and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, led by his wife, in autumn 1976.

Despite this litany of catastrophe, there is hope in the love and closeness of the family, centred here around the three eponymous amazing and strong-minded women. After the death of her warlord "husband", who treated her fairly decently by the standards of the time, the grandmother found happiness married to a much older man; the mother found love with a fellow communist and, despite strains caused by her husband's principled but rigid puritanism, their marriage survived their vicious denunciations by Red Guards and others at the appalling mass meetings, and their imprisonment in labour camps until the early 1970s. The physical and mental strains of years of humiliation and subjection to forced labour and psychological pressures, killed the author's father at the age of only 54 in 1975. In the relatively more relaxed atmosphere of the later 1970s, especially after the restoration to power of Deng Xiaoping, the future paramount leader in the 80s and 90s, the author was able to study abroad and the lives of her mother and other family members, as well as that of hundreds of millions of other Chinese, improved dramatically, albeit within the framework of what remains of course a one party communist state. The afterword recounts in brief the author's life in Britain and the original publication of this book in 1991 (what I have read is the 25th anniversary edition). One thing I would like to have heard a bit more about, though, was how she was able to defect to Britain after gaining her doctorate in 1982. This is a magnificent and absorbing book, with much to say about human nature at its best and worse, and the horrors that blind adherence to an ideology can bring about.

Edited: Jun 21, 2019, 7:11am

45. The Man from Hell - Barrie Roberts

This was an excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel, with an authentic Conan Doyle style. An aristocrat loved by the local people for his generosity to the poor is murdered. While the murder is initially blamed on local poachers, Holmes quickly deduces otherwise. The murder has its origin in events 40 years before in the horrors and oppression of Van Diemen's land (now Tasmania) to which convicts were transported, often for quite minor offences brought about by poverty-stricken and desperate lives. Flashbacks form around a quarter of the narrative as the reasons behind the events in the 1880s are coloured in, and the villain behind a series of murders exposed. Very good and quick read. 5/5

Jun 17, 2019, 2:25am

>46 john257hopper: Stranger in a Strange Land is one of the science fiction classics I was thinking of reading, so your review is very useful. It sounds as though the content doesn't quite justify the length, so I'll move it down the list and move The Left Hand of Darkness up.

Jun 18, 2019, 5:33pm

>61 john257hopper: Excellent review - adding this one to the list.

Jun 21, 2019, 7:11am

46. Mr Micawber's Adventures in Van Diemen's Land - B P Franklin

As its title suggests, this is a spin off novel from Dickens's David Copperfield, telling of the doings of the feckless but lovable Wilkins Micawber and his family and the Peggottys after they emigrate to the Antipodes at the end of the classic novel. This is an interesting premise, but doesn't in my view fulfill its potential. Much of the book reads like an information dump on the issues of setting up a new colony and the challenges faced in terms of relations between free settlers and transported convicts, and between the white men and the aborigines - interesting and thought-provoking in its own right, of course, but excessive for a novel. That said, Micawber turns out to be a refreshingly liberal character once he has overcome his own misfortunes and promotes aborigines' rights to their land, decent treatment of convicts and votes for women, eventually becoming mayor of Hobart town. Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin from Patrick O'Brien's novels (Master and Commander and so on) also make appearances. The flow of the narrative is uneven, with long passages where not a lot happens (often the long information dumps I mentioned), followed by dramatic or melodramatic episodes (as a an example of the latter, a couple of chapters where through a series of deceptions, an aristocratic son turns out to have unwittingly married his own full sister, swiftly followed by the deaths of most of the participants in this farrago). Finally, there are a fair number of typos. Mixed feelings about this one.

Jun 23, 2019, 3:14pm

47. A Death at Fountains Abbey - Antonia Hodgson

This is the third in the series of whodunnits featuring gambler and womaniser Thomas Hawkins, manoeuvring his way through the perils and tragedies of early 18th century England. In this one, he is sent by his patron Queen Caroline to investigate the disappearance of a ledger which contains secrets exposing the financial wrongdoings of the "great and the good" at the time of the notorious South Sea Bubble, a financial crash that took place in 1720. The central character at the heart of the scandal here, John Aislabie, is a real historical figure, as are many of the other characters, but in addition to his notorious financial and political role, he is scarred by the emotional tragedy of a house fire many years before which killed his first wife and one of his daughters (again, a real incident in his life). These events become linked together in a web of deceit and revenge stretching back over the years. This was a good read, though it didn't feel quite as meaty as the previous two novels. I do like Thomas's partner Kitty.

Jun 25, 2019, 2:04pm

48. The School for Scandal - Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This famous play satirises upper class morality in mid Georgian society (it was first performed at Drury Lane theatre in 1777). The first two acts or so are very funny, with the characters' attitudes towards, and breathless accounts of, scandals affecting one of their number, or numerous outsiders. I found much of the rest of it lacking that sparkle, though, and the characters, both male and female are more or less indistinguishable in terms of their ways of speaking or characteristics.

Jun 28, 2019, 4:07pm

49. A Deadly Betrothal - Fiona Buckley

This is the fifteenth book in the Ursula Stannard series of Elizabethan mysteries that I have been reading over the last thirteen years, coming to know the main characters almost as though they are family members. As often, there are two plots: the national one where the 46 year old Queen is agonising whether she should overcome her overwhelming reluctance to marry, contemplating a union with Francis, duke of Alencon, brother to the French king, an alliance that will form a mutual assistance pact enabling each country to support the other against the Spanish threat; and the local one, with murder and land disputes affecting some of Ursula's distant relatives, entailing the usual travels across the country to investigate the evidence, including to a tin mine in Cornwall. I thought this book could have done with a family tree to keep track of the relevant relationships. Good, page-turning stuff, though I thought it wasn't as absorbing as the most recent two novels in the series.

Jun 30, 2019, 2:30pm

50. Doctor Who and the Zarbi - Bill Strutton

This was one of the very first novelisations of a Doctor Who story, published soon after its original broadcast in 1965. I have always regarded this story as a brave experiment that didn't quite come off, given its attempt to create an insect-based alien culture in a relatively cramped TV studio with minimal budget for special effects. Given these constraints, it works well and does convey a genuine alien culture. I have started rewatching this story alongside rereading the novelisation, and am revaluating them both. This book pretty much sticks to the TV script with a few changes of character and creature names. The Doctor is jarringly referred to in the narrative, and once even in direct speech, as Doctor Who. There are some nice line drawings, a feature of the early novelisations that was soon dropped; it wouldn't matter now, but back then this would be the only visual record a reader or viewer would have of the story.

Jun 30, 2019, 3:59pm

Halfway through the year and have read 50 books, so bang on target!

Jul 3, 2019, 5:13pm

51. Solaris - Stanislaw Lem

This is probably one of the most famous SF novels not originally written in English, being written by Polish author Stanislaw Lem and published in 1961. Two Soviet film versions followed over the next decade or so. It is a philosophical novel telling of human beings' interactions with the planet Solaris, whose planet-wide ocean appears to be a single organism that exerts interesting and disturbing influences on the humans attempting to study it. It is a hugely imaginative and thought-provoking novel, though the flights of fancy did drag a bit in places for me. The human characters are very much secondary to the story, with the interactions with Solaris being examined through the central character Dr Kris Kelvin's relationship with an enigmatic simulacrum produced by the planet of his former lover Harey, who committed suicide. A good read, though it won't appeal to all lovers of SF.

Jul 7, 2019, 1:14pm

52. The Warden - Anthony Trollope

This short novel is the first of the author's six Barsetshire chronicles, set in the fictional county town and cathedral city of Barchester, a generic West country location. It's a simple tale of a legal dispute over the distribution of charitable funds under an ancient will, and the conflicts this causes in the family of warden Septimus Harding, especially with his married daughter Susan and son in law Archdeacon Grantly, and his unmarried daughter Eleanor and her suitor John Bold. Despite its seemingly trivial nature, this strikes a chord and was quite an enjoyable read, with the author's writing style fairly simple and direct, by 19th century standards. He satirises Dickens as Mr Popular Sentiment.

Jul 7, 2019, 11:54pm

>72 john257hopper: It took me two goes to read this one, but I persevered because I'd read such good reviews of the Barsetshire Chronicles and wanted to start at the beginning. It was well worth the effort because I enjoyed the whole series so much.

Jul 8, 2019, 3:09pm

>73 pamelad: - yes, I will read the much better known Barchester Towers before too long.

Jul 11, 2019, 1:51am

53. The Excursion Train - Edward Marston

This is the second novel in the Railway Detective series set in the mid 19th century. The initial murder takes place on an excursion train taking hundreds of relatively poor people to an illegal bare-knuckle prizefight - an early example of the then revolutionary effect of the railways in opening up access by relatively poor people to popular entertainment taking place many miles away from their homes, which they could not have feasibly got to beforehand. Aside from this, the railways are not as integral to the plot here as in the first novel of the series, this one revolving on complex family relationships resulting in a trio of murders. A good page turner, though as with the first one, most of the main characters are rather cliched and the dialogue often reads to me as rather stilted.

Jul 12, 2019, 1:30pm

54. Murder in Keswick: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery - William Todd

This is the third Sherlock Holmes pastiche story I have read by this author, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the other two. The portrayals of Holmes and Watson don't strike me as wholly convincing, though they are by no means the worst I have read. The plot is decent: a headless body is discovered near Derwentwater in the Lake District just as Holmes and Watson arrive for a rare holiday away from the crime-ridden streets of late 19th century London. The solution to the mystery lies in the tangled love lives of two local families. I read this book as I am about to go for another holiday in the Lake District, though to be honest this story could have taken place in any rural area in England - the precise countryside is not integral to the story.

Jul 20, 2019, 5:35am

55. Judith Paris - Hugh Walpole

This is the follow up to the author's Rogue Herries, the first in the main series of his Herries Chronicles, following the lives of the Herries family in the Lake District during the 18th and 19th centuries. The eponymous character here is Rogue's daughter by the lover of his old age, called Paris in later life as she marries a Frenchman Georges. As before, this novel evokes a wonderful sense of the ebb and flow of life in the Lake District (the action is mostly around Derwentwater and Skiddaw), and how the little communities, and the towns of Kendal and Keswick adapt to change at the turn of the 19th century, with industrial revolution transforming the economy, and the spectre of the French Revolution scaring the upper classes, with it and Napoleon's expansionism being seen by the rural communities as a threat to their peaceful way of life. The main struggles are within and between the branches of the Herries family, with Judith, born out of wedlock and later with a son Adam similarly born, having uneasy relationships with all sides and struggling to assert her independence. I thought this wasn't quite as good as Rogue Herries, lacking some of the same narrative drive, but still a very good read while holidaying in this wonderful part of the country. Some famous historical personalities appear briefly, including Wellington, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Robert Southey.

Jul 23, 2019, 5:20pm

56. The Windermere Witness - Rebecca Tope

This is the first of a series of contemporary murder mysteries set in various locations in the Lake District. Reading the book during this year's holiday in this lovely part of the country that is one of our favourite holiday destinations, I had every incentive to like it and pursue the series, especially as most of the subsequent books in the series are currently available at very low prices in ebook form. However, I'm afraid it is unlikely I will be reading them. While the author displays a great familiarity with Lake District locations that I loved to relate to where I have actually been, I found the plot of this novel, based on two murders around a high society wedding at a posh hotel on the shores of Windermere, rather unrealistic. Worse, I didn't really like any of the characters, finding nearly all of them rather irritating to a greater or lesser degree. The central character, Persimmon Brown, a florist, seemed to change her attitudes frequently towards the other characters and the murderous events in which she becomes unwittingly involved, at times trying to act the private detective and find out everything she can about the high society families involved, and at other times ruing her involvement in the affairs of people with whom she has little in common, and yearning for her quiet ordinary life. And at the end I still wasn't really clear about the murderer's motivations for the specific murders he committed.

Edited: Jul 30, 2019, 12:50pm

57. William Wordsworth - Hunter Davies

This is a magnificently written and deeply absorbing biography of the great poet, for the general reader (i.e. not one too full of deep literary analysis). The author's approach is mostly chronological. This gives a great feeling for the ebb and flow of the poet's literary and personal life, his relationships with others including his wife Mary, sister Dorothy, and the other Lakeland poets Coleridge and Southey, in addition to the evolution of his own political and social views in response to changing external events, his own changing life circumstances, and his reactions to those changes. Combined with the author's obvious love and feeling for the Lake District, which he has apparently visited every summer for 50 years, this made for a wonderful read in the last few days of my holiday there last week and the first few days of my first week back home.

Our understanding of Wordsworth's life and relationships has been enriched by two 20th century literary revelations, that in the 1920s revealing his liaison in 1792 in France with Annette Vallon which produced a daughter Caroline; and that in the 1970s revealing that his marriage with Mary was closer and more passionate as they grew older than we had hitherto believed, Mary's role having been eclipsed in all previous accounts of their lives by the greater influence exerted by his sister Dorothy. His life traces a journey across Cumbria, being born in Cockermouth, partly raised in Penrith and schooled in Hawkshead. After a less than stellar academic career at Cambridge, he basically loafed around for a number of years, including his sojourn in Orleans where he met Annette and was sympathetic to the early French Revolution before the bloody excesses of the Reign of Terror tarnished its original high ideals. He toured in Germany later that decade before eventually settling down back in the Lakes after a brief period in Somerset, with 1798 marking the true beginning of his poetic career with publication of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of his and Coleridge's poems (including the latter's Rime of the Ancient Mariner). This marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in English poetry; in the author's words "The Romantic movement changed the culture of the civilized world, and in the English-speaking countries, Wordsworth is looked upon as its poetic leader". His reputation as such largely survived even as he went through three stages of life, "the radical youth, the solid reactionary middle-aged citizen ..{and} the liberal and mellow old man"; partly, due to the tragically young deaths of the young Romantic pretenders Keats, Shelley and Byron - "In a matter of only three years, the three brightest flames of their generation had perished. For over twenty years, Wordsworth had been virtually on his own, the first and also the last of the Romantic poets." He died in 1850 respected as a national institution, having been Poet Laureate for the previous seven years, and the image of him as a stern, humourless Victorian figure held sway for many years; but there was so much more to him and his life and work than this. An excellent read.

Jul 30, 2019, 1:01pm

58. The Alfoxden Journal, 1798 - Dorothy Wordsworth

This very short journal was kept by Wordsworth's sister Dorothy for a few months in 1798 during their residence at Alfoxden in Somerset, in a year that was pivotal in the poet's literary development, and just before their permanent move to the Lake District. The journal gives great descriptions of the countryside but lacks the depth and feel of the ebb and flow of life that comes across in the later and longer Grasmere Journal. Also, in places, I got the impression Dorothy was finding it a chore to maintain this earlier diary.

Aug 4, 2019, 3:16pm

59. Rob Roy - Sir Walter Scott

This is the third Scott novel I have read, after Ivanhoe and Kenilworth, and, as before, I greatly enjoyed the author's beautiful use of the English language to convey his story, though in this case a lot of the dialogue is in Highland or Lowland Scots, which is harder for me to read; while I could usually get the gist of what a character speaking thus was saying, on occasion it was too opaque to be intelligible. The title character does not appear by name until the last third of the novel, and his role as supposedly the Scottish Robin Hood is exaggerated in Scott's usual overly romantic fashion, though there is a very long introduction, taking some one sixth of the total length of the book, covering the real Rob Roy and the battles of his MacGregor clan against other Scots clans and against the Scottish Crown after Queen Mary proscribed the MacGregors and basically called for their mass slaughter in 1563. Dramatic events, though these do not form the main plot of the novel, which centres around Englishman Francis Osbaldistone trying to restore his father's and his own fortunes after they are falsely accused of various crimes, necessitating his travelling to the north of England and Scotland, in the run up to the 1715 Jacobite rebellion. Absorbing, and to be enjoyed on its own merits and bearing in mind the faults it contains as a historical account.

Aug 11, 2019, 4:39pm

60. First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong - James Hansen

This is a biography of the first man to walk on the Moon, which inspired the recent film of the same name (which I watched while reading this, and enjoyed). Armstrong was wary of potential chroniclers of his life, due to negative experiences at the hands of some journalists and other unscrupulous people in the heady immediate post-Apollo XI period, so steered clear of potential interviewers or biographers until James Hansen was able to persuade him to be interviewed extensively for this biography in 2005. Hansen says that Armstrong did not seek to influence his writing or conclusions, thus this is quite a rounded biography of the great astronaut, an authorised biography in the sense that it had access to family details and personal accounts from family members, but also maintains some critical distance from his subject.

It is quite a long biography, and also quite dry in a few places for most readers, with many technical details of various aircraft and early spacecraft in which he flew; though Armstrong would have welcomed this as he saw himself primarily as an engineer whose life was about resolving problems in this field. That said, much research has been done on his family background, which has been traced back ten generations to the first Armstrongs to emigrate from Scotland to America in the early 18th century. Neil was born in a small town in Ohio in 1930. He was fascinated by flying from an early age, and is quoted as saying that even in elementary school his intention was to be an aircraft designer. He gained a student pilot's license when he turned 16. He became a naval aviator and was taking part in the Korean War (including nearly parachuting into a minefield) in his very early 20s. He then became a test pilot, testing increasingly sophisticated aircraft that could fly higher and faster than ever before. This was a very dangerous business - far more test pilots died in flight than ever have in the whole history of spaceflight from the 1960s to date.

Neil applied for astronaut selection in 1962, shortly after the tragic death of his two year old daughter Karen from a brain tumour. Before the Apollo programme, he was command pilot in 1966 for Gemini VIII, in which, on the way back from performing the first docking of two spacecraft in orbit, he and co-pilot David Scott, went tumbling away end to end, potentially disastrously, before regaining control. This wasn't the end of Neil's brushes with death; while flying a lunar landing research vehicle in 1968, he had to parachute out seconds before it blew up. The story of Apollo XI is too well known to need recounting in this review, but suffice it to say that Armstrong's personal unflappability and resourcefulness demonstrated why he was absolutely the right person to command this first and successful attempt to land on the moon and return safely to Earth.

(As an aside on the Apollo programme, I have often thought that Apollo 8, that flew at Christmas 1968, should be better known, as its astronauts - including Jim Lovell who later commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 in 1970 - were the first humans to leave Earth’s gravitational field and actually travel to the moon's vicinity, and orbit it successfully).

After the storming success of Apollo XI, the rest of Armstrong's life was, in a sense, perforce an anti-climax. After a brief period as a NASA administrator, he spent a decade in academia and was headhunted for the boards of many companies. He spread himself too thinly, and in the end this told on his marriage, he and his wife Janet splitting in 1990 after 34 years together. He kept up his support for the space programme, such as it was, and objected, albeit politely and in a restrained manner, to the Obama administration's regrettable decision to cancel NASA's plans to return men to the Moon by 2020. Astronauts, being resilient and in peak physical condition, tend to lead long lives and Armstrong was generally in fine condition until his death from complications after heart surgery in August 2012 (slightly mysteriously, after he had been expecting to make a full recovery). His place as a giant in the history of exploration and engineering is assured, and even those who know nothing about spaceflight would recognise his famous words as he stepped onto the Moon's surface. But he never considered himself an explorer: “What I attended to was the progressive development of flight machinery. My exploration came totally as a by-product of that. I flew to the Moon not so much to go there, but as part of developing the systems that would allow it to happen.” He did that, of course, but so much more.

Aug 17, 2019, 7:51am

61. Return to Earth - Buzz Aldrin

This is Buzz Aldrin's memoir written in the early 1970s of the effects the first Moon landing had on his subsequent life and, in particular, on his mental health. In early 1970s America, he was one of the very few prominent public figures to speak openly about his mental health and to want depression to be treated without judgement as are physical infirmities.

The account begins with three chapters detailing the massive round the country and round the world tours that Buzz did alongside Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins for many months after their return to Earth. The extensive and exhaustingly rapid changes of location, press conferences, speeches and receptions, often involving their wives and children as well, and with minimal downtime built in to their schedules, took its toll on most of them in one way or another.

In the middle part of the book Buzz recounts his life story (at home, young Edwin "became known as “Brother.” My sister, Fay Ann, a year and a half older, could not quite manage that: her version came out “Buzzer” and it stuck until it evolved into Buzz"). His father was a pilot so Buzz flew from a very early age and, later graduating from West Point, entered the Air Force and flew in Korea during the war as a young man. Unlike Neil Armstrong and many other astronauts, he was not a test pilot, but became an astronaut in 1963 at the second attempt and took part in the Gemini programme (without the mishaps that Armstrong had undergone in his flight earlier on that programme).

Buzz apparently had reservations about being on the first lunar landing flight: "My instinct was murmuring quietly that my own scientific interests might be better served by one of the longer, more adventurous missions later on and, if I went on the first flight, it might turn out a bit difficult to get back into the swing of the astronaut business again. My instinct eventually proved to be guilty of a major understatement". While prescient, I cannot help but wonder whether there is at least some post hoc rationalisation here; and other accounts have said that Buzz was upset at not being selected as the first man to step onto the lunar surface (whatever the truth of that, his father was very angry about the situation, regardless of his son's true feelings about it). Buzz records his feelings about the Moon itself: "the surface was “Beautiful. Beautiful. Magnificent desolation.”" and "was particularly struck by the contrast between the starkness of the shadows and the desertlike barrenness of the rest of the surface." He reflects on how he and his fellow moon walkers view their home planet in light of their experience: "If the twelve of us have any one viewpoint in common, it is that unlike most men we have a special concept of the earth. We have seen it from space as whole and bright and beautiful; we have seen it from the surface of the moon as not very large and somehow vulnerable. With all its imperfections, it is a great place to come from and an even greater place to go back to."

The effect of the demands of his life and career on Buzz's well-being manifested themselves in an early warning from his nervous system even before his Apollo days. One day after the ending of the Gemini programme at the end of 1966, he "felt an almost overwhelming sense of fatigue mixed with a vague sadness. I yearned for sleep so strongly, I considered nodding off right there and not going to bed. I made it to bed and stayed there for five days." Four years later after the razzmatazz of the Apollo flight and the subsequent tours had started to died down, when Buzz was re-assessing his life and deciding what to do next, this depression returned with a vengeance. While extensive research had been carried out into the effects of spaceflight on astronauts' physical health, none had been carried out on their emotional and mental health. So Buzz was charting new territory for a man in his position and, as was nearly always the case then and sometimes still is now, albeit less so, he hid his condition as he worried it would damage his career. His relationship with his father foundered, as the latter could not understand or accept his son's condition and his wish to change his life and move away from the structured career of the Air Force. Buzz was not able to get across to his father or other older family members the crippling effects of his depression: "my intellect was by now separated by the jagged and dangerous wall of my emotions. The rule of my emotions was absolute and ruthless. In no way could I stop what I felt, but I hoped somehow to stop feeling anything at all. I yearned for a brightly lit oblivion—wept for it." His marriage to Joan also suffered hugely and he had an affair with a New York widow, although at the time this book was published in 1973, they had to an extent patched up their marriage (however, they divorced the following year).

Like many high-functioning sufferers from depression, he was extremely hard on himself: "I felt I was not entitled to have such emotions. My goal was command of every situation in which I might find myself, and such an aim was unattainable. When I sensed I was not in full command, there was no harsher judge of my actions than I myself." In conclusion, he sums up pithily what life has taught him thus: "I traveled to the moon, but the most significant voyage of my life began when I returned from where no man had been before."

Edited: Aug 18, 2019, 5:37am

62. Twelfth Night - William Shakespeare

I have read this play after seeing it performed at The Globe on Friday. It's funny and relies on comic tropes such as characters dressing up as the opposite sex, dressing in comedic yellow cross-gartered stockings for effect, and formation of love triangles. The Clown role is probably my favourite character. It's light and insubstantial and often doesn't make a whole lot of sense (e.g. the whole Malvolio sub-plot); indeed at one point Fabian says with ironic self-reference "If this were played upon s stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction".

Aug 19, 2019, 4:49pm

63. The Pearl Harbor Murders - Max Allan Collins

This is one of the author's "disaster mystery" series, in which a real life writer and amateur sleuth investigates murder against a slightly fictionalised version of a famous disaster scenario. In this case, Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and Jules Verne-esque SF adventure stories, investigates the murder of Pearl Harada, a (fictional) popular Japanese American singer in Honolulu, on the eve of the Japanese attack in December 1941. What at first seems to have been a murder committed by a jealous ex-boyfriend turns out to have been far more serious and significant, and it emerges that she has become privy to a secret that could have changed the course of the events of the following days. Burroughs is painted in a rounded and sympathetic manner and emerges as a more three dimensional character than some of the the fictional versions of his equivalents in the other novels in the series. The author did his research thoroughly and Hawaiian culture, with its mix of Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese and American elements, comes across in all its colourful vibrancy. The descriptions of the sudden and terrifying attack in the morning of 7 December 1941 are very vivid, and the sense of distorted priorities is stark: the US fear was not of invasion of the islands, but much more of internal sabotage by what turned out to be an almost entirely mythical fifth column of Hawaiians of Japanese descent, a fear that caused aeroplanes to be grounded and disarmed and thereby vastly increased the damage and destruction caused by the Japanese attack, an onslaught that in less than two hours caused nearly two and a half thousand military and civilian casualties and destruction of much of the Pacific fleet. The wrapping up of the main plot and identification of the murderer seem almost to shrink into significance against the sense of dislocation and devastation, reading the descriptions of which reminded me rather of 9/11. A good, dramatic and quick read.

Aug 21, 2019, 3:38pm

64. At the Earth's Core - Edgar Rice Burroughs

This novel, published in 1914, feels very Jules Verne-ish, albeit that the technology is updated a few decades from that author's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. While the science of a hollow Earth is obviously nonsensical, this is quite a gripping story and the environment in this strange, buried world is vividly described. This is a short novel, only 82 pages, but it packs in a lot with a bare minimum of backstory and character development. The end is rather rushed and unbelievable even in the context of the obviously fantastical narrative, but I enjoyed this one at a fairly superficial level.

Edited: Aug 25, 2019, 9:48am

65. Artemis - Andy Weir

This is the second novel by the author of The Martian (which has now made into a film starring Matt Damon). This one is set on the Moon, some time in the late 21st century (there are references to the original lunar landings as having taken place a little over a century before). In Artemis, the sole lunar city, Jazz is a low paid worker making money on the side through smuggling in small goods (no drugs or guns, though). Through one of her contacts, she is enticed into involvement in a much bigger crime, one that will allow her contact to take control of much of the Moon's economy from the company that supplies oxygen (and that turns out to be controlled by a Brazilian crime syndicate). Needless to say, the plan goes belly up and Jazz and her friends (and some not so much friends) risk their lives to overcome the unforeseen consequences of their actions. I enjoyed this story and there was a genuine sense of peril and a race against time. I liked Jazz, and the sense of a multi-faceted community forming on the Moon, and would like to read more stories against this background.

Aug 27, 2019, 7:29am

66. The Hammer of God - Arthur C Clarke

This late work by the author deals with an SF cliche, an asteroid on track to crash into Earth and wipe out most life. I have to say that this was not my favourite example of that sub-genre. While Clarke writes with his usual fluency and hard science background, I felt that the whole was less than the sum of its (often very good) parts. The main character Robert Singh had a significant backstory, though I found the to-ing and fro-ing within his timeline a little confusing. There was just not enough plot, and not until the last quarter or so did the threat of worldwide destruction really come through. So, all in all, a little disappointing, though a quick read at under 200 pages.

Aug 31, 2019, 10:53am

67. Masaryk Station - David Downing

This is the sixth and final novel in the John Russell/Effi Koenen series set around the second world war. This has been a superbly written series, full of a sense of time and place, and richly textured. Most of the novels have meandered a bit along the way, but in hindsight I now see this as part of their appeal, rather than a drawback. In this final novel the action moves forward three years to 1948 at a time when the cold war is hotting up: the former wartime allies are at loggerheads in Berlin; the Communists have taken over in Czechoslovakia; and in Yugoslavia Stalin's hegemony is being challenged by Tito's alternative approach to socialism. John Russell is as usual playing the sides off against each other and here must pull one final daring feat that will give him leverage to remove himself from both rival sides of his double agent role. One of the most interesting characters was the German communist Kurt Strohm, a loyal, hardworking and sincere believer in his cause, but whose disillusionment grows as the Soviet grip on East Berlin grows and he comes to realise he and his comrades will not be allowed to chart their own socialist path. I'm quite sorry this series has ended now.

Edited: Sep 3, 2019, 3:30pm

68. An Inspector Calls and other plays - J B Priestley

I have read the title play for the first time after seeing the 1954 Alastair Sim film version at the weekend. It's a brilliant taut piece of drama, and the twists are excellent, with the author's social conscience shining through the words of the title character. I can quite see why this is so often studied in schools. I read the first act of Time and the Conways but it didn't strike me as of the same quality and depth.

Sep 3, 2019, 3:43pm

69. The Berlin Airlift - Robert Jackson

This fairly short book provides a history of the Berlin Airlift, the tense stand-off between the western allies and the Soviet Union in 1948-49 which in many ways marks the real beginning of the Cold War. The author is a former RAF squadron leader turned full-time writer of military and aviation history, but my problem as a lay reader was that there was, for me, too much dry technical detail about different types of aircraft and military and ancillary operations, and too little broader political history and wider geopolitical background, which meant I skimmed large parts of this. This Kindle edition also lacked the map and photographs the paper copy has (the publisher's fault, not the author's).

Sep 5, 2019, 3:23pm

70. Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion - Terrance Dicks

In honour of the death this week of Terrance Dicks, one of the greatest behind the scenes figures in Doctor Who history, I have re-read this novelisation from 1974, the first he wrote of very many such, of the very first Jon Pertwee TV story broadcast in 1970, Spearhead from Space, featuring the Autons, plastic mannequins that come to life and form the army of the invading Nestenes. This is a brilliant novelisation, full of characterisation and depth that it has to be said was lacking in many later novelisations by Dicks and others. Great stuff.

Sep 7, 2019, 12:58pm

71. Doctor Who: Rose - Russell T Davies

This is a novelisation of the very first episode of the 21st century reboot of Doctor Who, broadcast in 2005 and which, like its predecessor Spearhead from Space, featured not only a new Doctor and companion, but also the plastic mannequin Autons and their controlling Nestene consciousness. The story's author was one of the key figures behind the programme's return and here expands very successfully on the script for a 45 minute TV episode, adding great depth to the characters, even relatively minor ones like the luckless Clive. All the same events happen in the same order, with some additional scenes, but the greater depth gives it much more impact. A great read, deliberately designed to echo the original Target novelisations of the 1970s.

Sep 8, 2019, 11:56am

72. Sanditon - Jane Austen

This is a novel fragment of 12 short chapters written by Austen in the last months of her life and presumably abandoned due to her growing ill-health. It sets the scene nicely for an interesting and amusing story featuring an eclectic cast of characters and it is a shame it was never completed. For those watching the current ITV adaptation, the action of these chapters is really all included in the first TV episode, so only the backdrop and characters are as Austen intended.

Sep 16, 2019, 2:15pm

73. The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon - Brad Stone

This book, published in 2013, is both a history of Amazon as a company in its first nearly two decades and a biography of its remarkable founder, who has imprinted his philosophy probably more deeply than any other CEO of a major company, arguably even more so than Steve Jobs did with Apple. Indeed, the author, a technology journalist claims that: "In a way, the entire company is scaffolding built around his brain—an amplification machine meant to disseminate his ingenuity and drive across the greatest possible radius". The company is often stated to be based around certain key concepts: putting the interests of the customer at the centre of everything it does, especially in terms of low prices and excellent customer service, and ahead of the interests of employees and the potential threat from competitors; a capacity for reinventing the rules of retail, as the most successful company whose rise coincided with that of the internet in the mid to late 1990s, surviving the dot com crash; and a determination to take a long term view of the company's prospects, eschewing immediately profitable lines for long term future growth areas across an ever great wider range of goods: witness, Amazon Fresh. This is powered by a virtuous cycle, or flywheel, described thus: "Lower prices led to more customer visits. More customers increased the volume of sales and attracted more commission-paying third-party sellers to the site. That allowed Amazon to get more out of fixed costs like the fulfillment centers and the servers needed to run the website. This greater efficiency then enabled it to lower prices further. Feed any part of this flywheel, they reasoned, and it should accelerate the loop".

Clearly in all the above, Amazon has been massively successful. Yet it has faced criticism over tax and some of its employee policies, and as Brad Stone, and many past employees point out, Amazon has no culture of work-life balance and different teams working together: Bezos appears to believe that creative tension creates progress and drives up standards. There is a powerful feeling across the political divide in the US that Amazon has got too big and is exercising a distorting effect on many markets (though some of this is caused by political jealousy, for example Trump's dislike of the liberal Washington Post newspaper, also owned by Bezos). Brad Stone is apparently writing an updated version of this book, which should be an interesting read. Certainly, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, Amazon's capacity for forward-looking thinking and not resting on its laurels seems set to ensure it continues to evolve and play a key role in online retail for many years to come.

Sep 20, 2019, 3:21pm

74. North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell

This is the second of Elizabeth Gaskell's novels I have read, after Mary Barton five years ago. The themes are very similar: class divisions, and in particular the division between, in the language of the time, masters and men. As its title suggests, this also covers the divide in England between the rural south and the industrial north (depicted here in starkly and obviously overly simplistic terms). Richard Hale is a vicar who becomes disillusioned with the established church and feels he has to move from his living in Helstone in the south to the fictional northern industrial town of Milton in the equally fictional county of Darkshire. He is accompanied by his invalid wife Maria and his independent-minded daughter Margaret, who had tried to argue him out of moving. Industrial relations are stark in Milton and the central event of the novel is a strike by the workers in John Thornton's mills. Over time the unspoken relationship between Margaret Hale and John Thornton grows, at the same time as their attitudes towards the striking workers soften, particularly after they make the acquaintance of a worker, Nicholas Higgins, and his daughters, one of whom, Bessy dies tragically, poisoned by the cotton fibres she has inhaled doing her job in the mills. There are various sub-plots, most notably that of Margaret's brother Frederick, who has had to flee the country after being caught up in a naval mutiny. Death is another theme, with both Margaret's parents also dying during the course of the novel. This is quite a powerful novel and is an early example of a novel showing class conflict and examining these and other issues from a variety of angles. Gaskell examines issues of poverty with much less sentimentality than Dickens - though her characters are far less memorable.

Sep 23, 2019, 2:45pm

75. Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune - Kate Griffin

This is the second mystery set in the seedy underworld of Victorian London in and around the theatres. At the end of the last novel, Kitty Peck unwittingly inherited the criminal empire of her grandmother the macabre Lady Ginger. Trying to reform things, she discovers her predecessor still wields influence. She gets involved with a rather unlikely plot surrounding the haemophilia known to have been present in many European royal families of the time, most famously the Romanovs. As before, the sordid nature of some of this makes it quite an unpleasant read in places (not least at the macabre ending of the novel, after the main action is concluded), though the author has undoubtedly portrayed these aspects with a well-written grittiness. I still like Kitty so I will probably continue the series.

Sep 27, 2019, 4:49pm

76. Kim Philby: A story of friendship and betrayal - Tim Milne

This is an unusual story of the life of the master spy, being written by his childhood friend Tim Milne in the 1970s, though not published until after Milne's death in 2010. Tim Milne was a contemporary of Philby at Westminster school in the 1920s, their fathers also having been at school together. Though Milne was at Oxford rather than Cambridge, they travelled extensively in Europe together during the summer holidays on three occasions in the early 1930s, which is when it emerged much later was when Philby was first recruited as a Soviet agent (they were in Germany at the time of the last pre-Nazi election, where Hitler's party did very well, and a couple of months after Hitler came to power but before Germany had become fully totalitarian). They worked together closely in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and their families became fairly close, living together for periods, during and after the war. After Philby was appointed to the UK embassy in Washington in 1949, they became less close. This was Philby's last job in SIS before he was sacked in 1951 after being suspected of involvement in the defection of Burgess and Maclean to the USSR. There was no concrete proof, though, and Milne gave his friend the benefit of any doubt; Philby was cleared by an investigation in 1955 announced in the House of Commons by no less than then Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan. Milne saw him little afterwards, as Philby became Observer correspondent in Beirut, from which he defected to the USSR in 1963 to escape definitive exposure; as Milne says, "In the world civil war we were now on opposite sides for ever."

Being himself involved in the world of secret intelligence, Milne is able to refute some of the more colourful theories espoused by other writers, and demonstrate that this secret world is by no means the glamorous and colourful life depicted in spy fiction, but much simpler, more mundane and more sordid in some ways. He points out that at many times there were rationale reasons for some actions by Philby that in hindsight were seen as signs of his spying; Philby was clever and cautious, which was why he was successful for so long, and he could not have carried out some of the daring exploits spies are sometimes credited with, without risking exposure, and thus bringing an end to his usefulness to the Soviets. Milne does not in any way condone Philby's actions, but still values their friendship. His final conclusion is: "I do not regret knowing him. He enriched my world for many years and I owed a lot to him. Certainly my association with him caused many difficulties for me but I do not feel bitterness towards him, only sadness."

Sep 29, 2019, 5:14pm

77. Death in the Clouds - Agatha Christie

Published in 1935, this "locked room" mystery takes place in a commercial plane flying between Paris and Croydon airport. A French woman is found poisoned, and an incongruous blowpipe smeared with snake venom is found stuffed down the side of Hercule Poirot's seat. Needless to say, all is not as it seems, and where does the wasp fit in? The usual varied cast of Christie archetypes are present: the objectionable aristocrat; the earnest young man; the plucky young lady he is in love with; and so on. Also present are two French archaeologists - this was in the early years of Christie's marriage to her second husband, middle East archaeologist Max Mallowan. A Christie tour de force this, very intricately and tightly plotted, almost an exercise in analysis as much as a novel - it should be as well known as some of her others such as Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, but has only ever been adapted for the screen once, as part of the David Suchet Poirot series.

Sep 30, 2019, 3:58am

78. Witness for the Prosecution - Agatha Christie

This Agatha Christie short story is packed full of twists and turns around the case of Leonard Vole, accused of murdering an old lady to get her money. I think this story demonstrates the strength of the short story model. No need for superfluous characters, just a straightforward but gripping story.

Oct 4, 2019, 3:23pm

79. The Flamebearer - Bernard Cornwell

This is the tenth novel in the Uhtred series. In this one, King Edward the Elder's son in law Aethelhelm is plotting with various others to ensure that this grandson succeeds to the throne, rather than the King's eldest son, by an earlier wife, Athelstan. Danes, Scots and various others all form part of the complex tapestry of struggle across the country. More centrally, our "hero" Uhtred finally succeeds in his lifetime's ambition to recapture his ancestral home, the fortress of Bebbanburgh, usurped by his uncle when he was a child. Needless to say, this struggle involves the usual bloodlust and battle-joy, Uhtred and his followers swimming through the blood of their enemies to win victory. But this victory does not mark the end of Uhtred's story, as there are at least two more books to follow.

Oct 8, 2019, 4:17pm

80. Edward the Elder and the Making of England - Harriet Harvey Wood

This is a fascinating and well written and researched account of a crucial but little known period of English history. Son of a much more famous father Alfred the Great, who fought an existential threat to Anglo Saxon England by holding off the Vikings from conquering Wessex in the 870s and later; and father of Athelstan, who largely completed the conquest of the territory of what is now England and defeated all his enemies comprehensively in the battle of Brunanburh in 937, probably the most famous battle on English soil before 1066, Edward has been the forgotten king sandwiched in between. But it was under his rule that the vital steps were made through a combination of military means and diplomatic alliances to create, in the author's words, "the template for modern England", including the start of the creation of the shire system, which is still largely intact today. By the time of his death in 924, he was the sole native ruler in England, i.e. excluding the diminished area in the north east including York, still controlled by the Danes, thus faced with the challenges of ruling over a larger country than any ruler in the country ever had before, legitimately earning the title first king of England. Edward was also a European ruler, not just an English one, and many of his numerous daughters (he married three times) were sought by rulers across the continent to form powerful marriage alliances. No fewer than three of his sons became king after him, Athelstan, Edmund and Edred, but only Edmund produced sons of his own, and it was through him that the Anglo Saxon line continued. Mention must also be made of his sister Ethelfleda, lady of the Mercians, a powerful ruler in her own right, who played her own equally substantial contribution in expanding the Anglo Saxon state through struggle against the Danes and other enemies.

As is always the case with a book about an Anglo Saxon figure, no full biography in the modern sense is possible of Edward, given the lack of sources available, the only significant contemporary sources being the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, around 30 charters signed by him, all from the early part of his reign, and a few other legal documents. We will never know what he was like as a person, other than reasonable assumptions we can make based on his actions. But the author takes what facts we do know and weaves an interesting narrative from them, speculating intelligently where she can, and avoiding an excessively dry and academic style. Some illustrations and a family tree would have been helpful, though.

Oct 13, 2019, 3:18pm

81. Dunstan - Conn Iggulden

This is the first novel I have read by this popular historical novelist, but I think it may well be the last. While superficially a page-turner (for the most part), this didn't for me carry the feel of 10th century England, a period I have read a fair amount about - it felt too modern. The author also plays rather fast and loose with some of the details of history. While some of this is to simplify complex details, e.g. people with very similar names, and is understandable up to a point, he has some real historical characters living far longer or far shorter than in reality. He also has King Edwy committing suicide, which I think is ridiculous - even if this wouldn't have been officially recorded, there would be later rumours and gossips about something so dramatic and shocking. There are also some anachronistic names, e.g. a royal champion called John Wyatt and a monk called Father Keats. Possibly worse for most readers is that Dunstan is really a pretty unpleasant character here, and I especially disliked the way he bullies and emotionally manipulates his younger brother Wulfric from their childhood throughout their lives. As one of the leading churchman of the early Medieval period, Dunstan exerted a huge influence on England at this period when it was first coalescing into one country, building Glastonbury Abbey and being architect of the coronation of King Edgar, creating rituals still used today (well, not since 1953 at the moment, of course). However, this novel probably does not do him justice and was disappointing.

Oct 16, 2019, 3:59pm

82. The Battle for England - Bernard Neeson

This is the sequel to the author's An Invitation to Hitler, an alternate history novel with a very different take on the events of 1940. In this one, the Nazis successfully invade Britain, landing on the coasts of Kent and Sussex. Their advance is stymied, but then the brilliant general Rommel proposes a plan to capture Weymouth Harbour and Eastleigh airport. The fightback is daring and audacious, and the politicking intense, with appeasers Lord Halifax and Rab Butler accusing Churchill of treachery for letting the Nazis invade, while Churchill accuses them of the same for still wanting a negotiated peace with Hitler.

I always find alternate historical fiction a fascinating genre, as it illustrates on what narrow chances major events can turn; while the course of history often seems inevitable after the event, it is rarely so at the time. Hindsight is both a blessing and also a curse of much historical discourse. This is more of a dramatic page turner than its predecessor, which, although very good, sometimes felt almost more like a "what if" intellectual exercise than a novel. Gripping stuff.

Edited: Oct 17, 2019, 2:08am

>104 john257hopper: You might care to find a copy of Ten Days That Saved the West, which will give you some idea of how close to reality that scenario might have been.

Oct 17, 2019, 3:08pm

>105 haydninvienna: - thanks for the recommendation (though the title at the link is slightly different).

Edited: Oct 20, 2019, 12:52pm

83. Bel-Ami - Guy de Maupassant

It's been a long time since I've read any Maupassant. Since studying his Quinze Contes for my French A level 35 years ago, I have read only Pierre and Jean in 2008. He is very readable both in French and in this English translation. The central character of Bel-Ami (translated here within the text as Pretty Boy) is Georges Duroy, an ambitious and unscrupulous man in late 19th century Paris who manages to get a foothold in the newspaper industry working at Vie Francaise, after bumping into an old friend. He rises up his profession, though having limited talent, through manipulation of others and, in particular, through seducing a successful of wealthy married women, including: Madeleine Forestier, the wife of his first employer at Vie Francaise, who is the real talent behind his early success; and, later on, Virginie Walter, the wife of the newspaper's proprietor. He even marries Madeleine after her husband's death from consumption, that most 19th century causes of untimely death, then discards her after discovering her own unfaithfulness with a government minister, and marries Virginie Walter's daughter, Susan. Despite this despicable behaviour, the story is lightly told, with an easy style of prose, and a candid air about sexual relations that would have been pretty unthinkable in a mainstream British author writing at the same period (1880s). A good read.

Oct 24, 2019, 4:24pm

84. She-Wolf - Maurice Druon

This is the fifth book in the author's Accursed Kings series of novels set in early 14th century France. However, unlike its predecessors, this is much more centred around England than France. The titular character is, of course, Isabella, daughter of French King Philip IV, sister of Louis X, Philip V and Charles IV, and wife of English King Edward II. The story of her estrangement from Edward and love affair with Roger Mortimer, their return to England and overthrowing Edward to replace him with their son, the boy King Edward III, and then the cruel murder of the deposed king, is one of the most well known and colourful stories of Medieval England, and the subject of many fictional treatments, unlike most of the rest of the series. Back in France, Charles IV, the last surviving son of the direct Valois line, is saddened when his only child is a daughter who, moreover, quickly dies. This will set the scene for the next crisis in French history when another line of the Valois must succeed, also pathing the way for Edward III's claim to the French throne through his mother and thus the Hundred Years' War. So history rolls on in this great historical fiction series.

Oct 27, 2019, 3:39pm

85. Give Up The Dead - C B Hanley

This is the fifth in the author's series of historical mysteries set in the early 13th century during the civil war between the supporters of the boy King Henry III and those of the French Prince Louis, who had previously been invited to the country by the barons opposed to young Henry's father, King John. Our hero Edwin Weaver, scribe to Earl Warenne of Surrey, a thoughtful and observant young man from Conisbrough in South Yorkshire, is missing his wife Alys, whom he re-encountered and married at the end of the previous book, and feeling increasingly repelled by the ravages of the civil war being inflicted by both sides on the innocent people of the country. The climax of the action in this book is the bloody naval battle of Sandwich, off the coast of Kent, in and around the savage fighting of which Edwin loses some of his friends and companions in differing circumstances. He also solves the mystery behind a series of near fatal mishaps that occur around the retinue of the earl and his key comrades, the source of which is shockingly unexpected to young Edwin. I really like Edwin, and I was glad to read in the author's historical note that there will be further books in the series.

Nov 1, 2019, 7:51am

86. The Dambusters - Paul Brickhill

This is a classic account of the Second World War bombing of the three massive German dams Moehne, Eder and Sorpe, as told by military historian and ex-Great Escapee Paul Brickhill, and originally published in 1951. In fact, it is not so much a history of the dambusting operation (which is less than half the book), as a history of 617 squadron, which was set up specifically for this operation under the command of 24 year old Wing Commander Guy Gibson. The squadron, under others' leadership, was involved in many other key bombing events, including of other dams, canals, cities in occupied Europe, and key installations such as V1 rocket bases and even more deadly installations, created by Nazi slave labour, the successful operation of which would have meant the utter obliteration of London. If the war in the East had continued beyond 1945, the squadron would have been involved in the war over Japan. Many of its operations, not just the Dams raid, used weapons and aircraft designed by the genius engineer Barnes Wallis, whose role in achieving military victory is as great in its own way as that of the RAF and other armed forces - in the author's words "If Wallis’s big bombs had been available earlier (with the aircraft to carry them) the Germans would probably not have lasted as long as they did.". Much is owed to him and to the 133 pilots and crew who took part in the raids, some 53 of whom perished (and only one is still alive today). Brickhill is a good writer and tells the story excitingly, though occasionally there is a little too much technical detail for the average non-specialist reader.

Edited: Nov 3, 2019, 5:11pm

87. The Woman in Black - Susan Hill

This is a re-read of this modern classic ghost story, prompted by seeing the brilliant stage production of it last week at my local theatre. It is a eerie and creepy a read as ever, conveying a thick sense of evil and horror very effectively, right up until the very last few pages. Like many of Susan Hill's books, it conveys a sense of timelessness, as though the real world is separated from the world of the events of the story by a barrier very difficult to cross. That may be why I am never sure of the dating of the novel, as the feel is Edwardian, but Eel Marsh House has electricity, even in parts of the house not used for decades. A classic read.

Nov 7, 2019, 5:06pm

88. Enemy Coast Ahead - Guy Gibson

This is the memoir of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, who led the Dambusters raid in May 1943, written in 1944, but published only after the war ended. It covers the period from the eve of war as he is peacefully relaxing on a beach in late August 1939 and contemplating the likelihood of war breaking out, up to the Dambusters raid itself on the 16/17 May 1943, though the events of that raid, which is likely to be the main reason why most readers pick up this book, occupy only a small proportion of the narrative. Prior to this, I must admit it does sometimes get a little repetitive with numerous accounts of other raids over occupied Europe and a fair amount of technical detail, though this is understandable, given the rapid development of aeronautic and ballistic technology at this time. Probably one of the greatest features of the narrative is its complete lack of any hindsight on the events of the war. Gibson and his comrades were living through, and very often dying in, the events as they happened - some 40% (53/133) of all the airmen who were on the Dambuster raid perished during it, and many more died during subsequent military actions, with Gibson himself killed in a bombing raid in September 1944 over Holland, his plane crashing into the side of a hill in slightly mysterious circumstances. They worked in what to us is a bizarre environment, facing, at very young ages, often in their early 20s, death every time they flew into the air, with a mixture of bravery, fear, recklessness and fatalism. Some of Gibson's comments about the deaths of others may strike many modern readers as trivial, even callous, but they were fighting in an existential struggle for the survival of any kind of freedom in a world threatened by the Nazi machine, without the luxury of knowing as we do how the titanic struggle would finally be resolved.

This edition has copious notes, often correcting errors made by Gibson, who was largely writing from his own memory, or providing further background on other airmen; and many photographs.

Nov 10, 2019, 1:28pm

89. The Sittaford Mystery - Agatha Christie

This is not one of the better known Christie novels, featuring neither Hercule Poirot not Miss Marple, but this gives an opportunity for other characters to breathe and take centre stage, especially in this case Emily Trefusis, girlfriend of the main suspect to this mysterious murder. In the isolated settlement of Sittaford on Dartmoor on a snowy winter night a seance takes place, in which a "spirit" announces the murder of the non-present owner of the house, a Captain Trevelyan. It emerged that he had in fact been murdered at the same time. The eventual solution turns out to be anything but paranormal, relying on, in my view, a rather unconvincing means of rapid travel. The Inspector investigating the crime is sharp enough, but lacking the intuition of Miss Trefusis who, as the sharpest tool in the whole box, gets to the solution first. There is an interesting set of characters and even a Dickensian-style convict escaped on the Moor situation. A good read, though as I say, I didn't find the resolution very satisfactory.

Edited: Nov 16, 2019, 7:19am

90. The Quick and the Dead: Fallen Soldiers and Their Families in the Great War - Richard van Emden

Most years around Remembrance Day I read a non-fiction book on a relevant theme and Richard van Emden's books tick all the right boxes: they let First World War veterans' and their families' stories speak for themselves within a well-balanced narrative that cover a wide range of human experience, avoiding cliches and over simplification of issues around this conflict whose course and conduct still give rise to strong emotions today, over a century after it ended. This book is the story of the surviving family members of those who died, particularly of their children. The author interviewed many such survivors, between the ages of 95 and 109, in the early 2000s. A number remained alive when this book was published in 2011 (I'm not sure if any remain alive now in 2019). Their stories cover a wide range of experiences and reactions: some had no memories of their fathers, but maybe owned a memento of him that acted as a personal link; others had memories of kissing him goodbye when he left for the front, and/or from brief encounters when he was back home for short spells of leave. Most of their memories were affected by the reactions of their mothers and other family members. Some mothers were so grief stricken they could never mention again the name of their dead husband, while others set up shrines in the family home to their memory. Some refused to marry again, while others did so fairly quickly, maybe for understandable economic reasons. Some refused to accept their loved one could possibly be dead and spent years hoping and waiting for them to turn up - appallingly, they were sometimes exploited by fraudsters claiming to have contacts who could help find them. In a very few cases, missing soldiers did turn up, only to find their wives or sweethearts, reasonably believing them dead, had found someone else. In short, they showed the same wide range of human emotions and reactions as any other group of people, though in the majority of cases they genuinely believed - or perhaps in some cases made themselves believe - their loved ones had died in a worthwhile cause. Further, in a country where belief in God was still almost universal, most also believed they would be reunited with them in an afterlife.

The book also deals with some other issues such as the campaign by a minority of family members for their loved ones' remains to be repatriated to Britain after the war. However, aside from the vast expense and emotional trauma the exhuming of remains in varying conditions would have caused, veterans' views were usually that the dead of their own regiments should rest together in death as they had fought together in life.

2019 is the centenary of the unveiling of the first, temporary wooden, Cenotaph and there is a description of that original ceremony, in which many family members took part, while others couldn't face it. In the same way, in later years, some families gained solace from visiting battlefield cemeteries and other graves, while others preferred not to (or could not afford to, though cheap packages were offered).

Overall, this offers a very human look at the after effects of war, while avoiding resorting to cliches.

Nov 18, 2019, 4:39pm

91. The Master of Ballantrae - Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a dramatic account of a desperate rivalry between two brothers of the Scottish Durie family, James, the eponymous Master, and his younger sibling Henry. Their antipathy is sparked off when, during the 1745 rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, their father decides to hedge his bets by having one son side with the rebellion and the other side with British King George II. James, despite being the eldest and the heir to his father's estates, gets to be the one to support the rebellion, but is more motivated by mischief making than political principle. He regularly returns to taunt his brother and father, considering himself abandoned when Henry inherits the title after he is believed to be dead. The struggle eventually costs their father his life, and the struggle transfers over the Atlantic to New York where it ends in double tragedy in the American wilderness. A good read, lacking the overall impact and colourful characters of Treasure Island, but probably a better structured novel.

Nov 24, 2019, 9:11am

92. Conspiracy - S J Parris

After a gap of four and a half years, this is the fifth book in this series of murder mysteries featuring historical Italian religious renegade Giordano Bruno, a refugee from the Inquisition in his Italian homeland in the 1580s. Like the others, it is intricately plotted, but Bruno seems more in his element here and less incongruous as an investigator of a murder mystery surrounding the French throne, than he did in his previous adventures set in England, where I thought his sleuthing was always hindered by his sticking out like a sore thumb in Protestant England of the high Elizabethan era. Despite this being set during the religious wars between Catholic and Protestant, the mystery eventually resolves to being about different more personal issues surrounding King Henri III, his wife Louise and the notorious Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, and the future of the Valois dynasty. Some colourful characters here (historical and fictional) make this a rich brew and I am glad there is at least one more book in this series, to be published in spring 2020.

Nov 25, 2019, 1:47pm

93. The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

The eponymous bibliophile in this warm and humorous novella is none other than HM the Queen. One day while walking her corgis she stumbles upon a mobile library in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace and feels she has to borrow a book to apologise for her corgis having bothered the librarian...and thus the Queen starts to read for pleasure, something she has not had time to do for many decades, if ever. She exchanges opinions with young Norman, a palace servant and the only customer in the library at her initial visit, and slowly but surely extends her reading into a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. However her officials frown at this bibliophilic activity as they see it as distracting her from her duties. This is a very funny book and a great testament to the advantages of a love of reading, though I thought it lost its charm slightly after the Queen's private secretary manoeuvred to have Norman removed from the palace. The Queen's attentions eventually turn to writing, with a twist in the very final tail of the story. Great stuff and a relief from more serious reads.

Nov 27, 2019, 3:35pm

94. The Woman in Black: Angel of Death - Martyn Waites

This is a sequel to Susan Hill's classic ghost story The Woman in Black; or to be more accurate, this is a novelisation of a film which is a sequel to a film version of Hill's novel, starring Daniel Radcliffe. While it lacks the classic Gothic writing style of Hill, I thought this was nevertheless a very good sequel, with an atmosphere of pure horror throughout. It is the Blitz and a group of children is evacuated from London to isolated Eel Marsh House somewhere in the north east of the country. If possible, the spectre of Jennet Humfrye seems even more malevolent here than in the original. There are some tragic and heart-breaking incidents here, paving the way towards an ambiguous conclusion. Very good in its own right, albeit not of Susan Hill's calibre.

Nov 30, 2019, 8:32am

95. The Railway Viaduct - Edward Marston

This is the third novel in the Railway Detective series set in the mid 19th century. They are settling into a familiar pattern, fairly decent page turners set against an interesting historical background, though with slightly annoyingly clichéd central characters whose personal idiosyncrasies are rather beaten over the reader's head at every opportunity, especially those of Chief Superintendent Tallis, Inspector Colbeck's boss, and Sergeant Learning, Colbeck's underling. The dialogue still reads as rather stilted to me. The plot was interesting enough, being based around sabotage at a French railway project being built by an English engineer, but felt rather similar to the plot of the first novel, as it involves a wealthy man, Sir Marcus Hetherington, trying to carry out the sabotage through others, albeit that his motives were based on nationalism rather than the Luddite attitudes of the landowner in the first novel. I think I'll pick up following novels in the series only when they are going cheap.

Nov 30, 2019, 5:03pm

96. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans - Arthur Conan Doyle

This Sherlock Holmes short story concerns the theft of some secret papers relating to construction of a submarine, and the discovery of the papers in the pocket of the supposed thief, a young Government clerk, Arthur Cadogan West, whose body is found on an Underground line, apparently thrown or fallen from a moving train. Holmes exposes the real thief and killer, with the help not only of Watson, but also of his own brother Mycroft, who makes one of hsi rare appearances here.

Dec 1, 2019, 7:43am

97. The Death of Irish Nell - Karen Charlton

This short story is a prelude to the next full-length novel, to be published next February, in what has become one of my favourite series of historical mysteries, set in early 19th century England and featuring the Bow Street Runners, the historical Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick Constable Ned Woods. This concerns the case of a murdered prostitute and our heroes' attempts to get the case taken seriously and army officer culprits exposed and condemned. This they succeed in doing, but at the expense of Lavender compromising his integrity as a police officer. I love the regular characters in here, they are three dimensional and you can imagine their lives outside the plots of the stories.

Dec 8, 2019, 3:54pm

98. Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe

This is a re-read of this classic novel which I previously gave up on a decade ago, now approaching its 300th anniversary (published in 1722). It is colourful, rambling and sometimes frustrating read, one that is typical of 18th century picaresque literature. Moll (not her real name, which we never find out) is born in Newgate prison to a woman sentenced to transportation and is brought up by gypsies and then in a household where, as she grows into a young woman, she is seduced by both of the brothers of the household. In all she has six marriages or quasi-marriages (including one to a man with whom she moves to Virginia and who turns out to be her own brother, whom she had not seen since young childhood, and where she also re-encounters her transported mother) and gives birth to numerous children over the next thirty years or so. After this time, reduced to poverty, she perforce turns to theft to keep body and soul together. But, as she grows richer through the proceeds of crime, it becomes its own motivation and she cannot give it up, becoming a member of a crime gang led by "the governess". After years of close shaves, she is eventually caught and taken to Newgate. She is sentenced to death but this is commuted to transportation. In Newgate she encounters one of her ex-husbands who has been arrested as a highwayman and they get together again for the voyage to Virginia. By dint of her links to a now reformed "governess", she is able to reacquire some wealth which enables her to turn over a new leaf and build a prosperous future in Virginia, where she is also reconciled to her son by her ex-husband/brother. A decade later in comfortable old age, Moll and her husband return to England in 1683.

This breathless account does, however, mask some problems with the narrative. It is one continuous course, not divided into chapters or sections; and, perhaps worse for readers' recall, almost none of the characters have names. We find out the first names of a couple of her husbands, and one or two other minor characters, but the vast majority are not named. I got used to this after a while, but had to make notes as I was going along to keep tabs on her relationships. A great read, though, dealing with issues in a way that most mainstream literature did not again for over another two centuries.

Dec 10, 2019, 4:22pm

99. The War of the Worlds - H G Wells

Another re-read of this seminal SF classic after watching the recent TV adaptation. This is as gripping and horrific as ever in its stark descriptions of the effects of the invasion on the inhabitants of this small part of south east England/London, and full of the author's thoughtful ruminations on the nature of ethics and, for example, the role of European man vs. other races, and humans in general vs. animals, but done in a way that complements the narrative, rather than seeming sententious as in some of his less well known works. Deserves every accolade it receives as being a classic of both science fiction and literature in general.

Edited: Dec 14, 2019, 12:02pm

100. Edison's Conquest of Mars - Garrett P Serviss

My 100th book of the year! And still half a month to go...

This was an American sequel to H G Wells' War of the Worlds, or to be more precise a sequel to an unauthorised American version of the novel, with the action transferred from suburban London to Boston, Massachusetts. This sequel was also published in 1898 soon after Wells' novel. In fear of a second Martian invasion, and having studied Martian technology from the wreckage of the first invasion, the nations of the world come together under US leadership (with scarcely any objections!) to send an expedition to Mars to stop a recurrence. The mission is led by none other than the inventor Thomas Edison, with participation of other scientists such as Lord Kelvin. So far, this description comes across as more Jules Verne than H G Wells. The author was a journalist with scientific training, so the science in it is, for the most part, very accurate, at least according to the state of knowledge of the time, and this is also apparently the first SF novel to depict men in space suits and an interplanetary battle between fleets of spaceships. Mars here, though, possesses the watery canals that it was believed to possess at the time, and the Martians themselves are giant humanoids whose appearance, according to the illustrations, owe more to fantasy than Wells' vision. Serviss is quite a good descriptive writer, though there is far too much showing rather than telling of the most potentially dramatic action. He is no H G Wells. So overall 3/5

Dec 14, 2019, 2:20pm

Congratulations on reading 100.

Dec 15, 2019, 6:11am

Thanks, Pamela.

Dec 15, 2019, 3:13pm

101. The War of the Worlds Murder - Max Allan Collins

This murder mystery in the author's "disaster" series is set against the background of one of the most well known fake disasters, Orson Welles' notorious War of the Worlds radio broadcast in October 1938, in which Welles and his colleagues were able to fool many Americans that a real Martian invasion of New Jersey had occurred. The novel was rather uneven, with all of the action and excitement in the second half, where the murder is revealed and the broadcast takes place (there is only a tenuous connection between them). The first half was really an opportunity for the author to set the cultural scene around the worlds of radio broadcasts and low brow detective fiction of the era, showing his extensive knowledge of the era, but perhaps rather over-indulgent in terms of the proportion of the book this takes up. Not a great novel, though the fake broadcast incident is a very interesting example of how artificial panic can be so easily whipped up.

Dec 21, 2019, 3:03pm

102. The Lost - Jonathan Aycliffe

During nearly every run up to Christmas over the last five or six years I have read one of the creepy modern Gothic horror novels by this author. In this one, it is early 1990s Britain, where Michael Feraru is the son and grandson of aristocratic Romanian emigres who fled that country after the Communist takeover in the late 1940s. Michael returns to his ancestral home with the aim of setting up an orphanage to cater to some of the poor Romanian children in the existing orphanages, whose plight was well publicised in the west after the collapse of Ceausescu's regime 30 years ago this month (I recall the haunting images of filthy and ragged children confined permanently to metal cots). When Michael gets to Romania and tries to find out more about his family history, he realises it centres on his ancestral home Castel Vlaicu, set deep in the Carpathian mountains. After some unsettling occurrences in Bucharest, he finally makes his way to the family pile, cut off from communication with his mother and girlfriend back in Britain, who continue to write to him in increasing desperation at his non-communication and the developing tragedies in his local community (this is an epistolary novel). He soon discovers dark and sinister secrets in the castle surrounding his ancestors and their influence over the local peasantry over several centuries. The ending is particularly shocking as the family secret takes over Michael's life and transforms him into a true son of his aristocratic Vlahuta ancestors. Great stuff, after a fairly slow build up, as is characteristic of this author.

Edited: Dec 25, 2019, 4:32am

103. Doctor Who: The Christmas Invasion - Jenny T Colgan

For no better reason than the time of year, I have read this novelisation of the first Christmas special from new Doctor Who, broadcast in 2005. It was David Tennant's first story and established the principle, repeated over the following few years, of a threat to Earth at the festive season (that in reality would rather have put people off this time of year!), presented in a rather more light-hearted vein than many of the main season episodes. That works on screen, for the most part, but this does not really, in my view, work as a novelisation. The story is a fairly pedestrian invasion story, with some visually impressive but ultimately unconvincing aliens. Seeing it written down, the dialogue is very banal. What rather annoyed me at the time of viewing, and again now, was the Doctor's self righteousness at Prime Minister Harriet Jones' destruction of the invading Sycorax spaceship after the Doctor has basically ordered them sternly to leave. While consistent with the Doctor's own morality, I thought it rather unfair to insist that Jones, with an understandably very different viewpoint on an existential threat to her planet, adopt the same approach. This was characteristic of an era where the Doctor was so often described, and indeed described himself, as a near omnipotent figure.

Dec 24, 2019, 10:31am

104. The Man They Killed on Christmas Day - Catalin Gruia

This is another kind of Christmas story: 30 years ago this Christmas, some of the most striking images of the tumultuous changes taking place in Eastern Europe, after the slightly earlier sight of East Germans climbing and sitting atop the Berlin Wall, were the incomprehension on the face of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu when a crowd booed him, followed by shots of him and his wife Elena at their "trial" and summary execution on Christmas day itself. This is a brief account by a Romanian journalist and writer of the life, rule and fall of the man alternately feted by the West as a relatively liberal bulwark against the Soviet Union, while ruling his own country with a tight Stalinist grip and being surrounded by a personality cult strongly redolent of those surrounding Stalin and Mao. There is relatively little in here that is new to anyone who has read books on the subject, and indeed this account reads more like an assemblage of articles, some very short, rather than a coherent analysis.

Dec 25, 2019, 6:36am

105. Star Over Bethlehem and other stories - Agatha Christie

This is a slightly more traditional set of Christmas stories than others I have read this year, though from an unusual pen. Agatha Christie published this set of short stories in 1965. They are warmly and cosily religious stories (ones not ramming religion down one's throat) about God appearing in various guises to people in a range of situations, ancient and modern, restoring hope and balance to those people's lives. Nothing outstanding but a pleasant read. 4/5

Dec 26, 2019, 8:49am

106. The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Daniel Defoe - Richard West

This is a very well researched account of the life and works of the late 17th/early 18th century writer most famous today as the author of Robinson Crusoe, often described as the very first novel. Defoe was in fact very much more, a true literary polymath, being a political commentator and journalist, author of books on morals and ethics, as well as historical biography, economics, travel and satire. His activity even extended to being, in modern parlance, a political activist and spy. His period as a novelist is really confined to a five year period of his life between the ages of 59 and 64 (1719-1724). That said, the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction was much less clear-cut than it generally is now. His novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Journal of a Plague Year are written almost as though they are accounts of their lives and other events by real people who lived through them; while a non-fiction work, his magisterial A Tour Thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain, contains many colourful fictional embellishments and indeed rests on literary conceits, as he did not conduct such an organised tour and almost certainly never visited the places in Europe and elsewhere with which he frequently makes comparisons (e.g. between Snowdonia and the Alps). Defoe lived through a period of huge change. Born (probably) in 1660, the year of the Restoration of Charles II, he was a keen supporter of the Protestant William III and Mary and their "Glorious Revolution". A convinced Puritan and non-Conformist who penned many diatribes against Papists and Jacobites, he was in practice comparatively tolerant in religion by the standards of the day. A writer on good commercial practices, he was notoriously unsuccessful in his own business ventures, spending much of his life in debt, including spells in prison, and even in his late 60s being pursued by the heirs of creditors to whom he had owed money well over three decades earlier. He was a man hard to classify in many ways; politically, while definitely not a Tory, he was not really a Whig either; religiously, while a non-Conformist, his fictional narrators are often Anglicans relatively sympathetically observing non-Conformism from the outside. Richard West compares him to George Orwell in some respects. His life and works were colourful and multifaceted and this literary and personal biography covers them very well.

Dec 29, 2019, 7:30am

107. More Ghost Stories - M R James

After watching the well made adaptation of the ghost story Martin's Close broadcast this Christmas, this is the short story collection by master ghost story writer M R James featuring that tale, along with half a dozen others. A couple of these didn't particularly impress me, especially the rather tedious Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. I also found The Tractate Middoth and, to a degree, Casting the Runes rather less good than I expected. The Rose Garden and Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance were probably my favourites.

Dec 30, 2019, 3:39pm

108. Solo: A Star Wars Story - Murr Lafferty

This is the novelisation of the Star Wars spin-off film on the early life of Han Solo, which I was inspired to read after watching the Rise of Skywalker film just before Christmas. I remembered less about the detail of the film (which I have watched only once, on its cinematic release in May 2018) than about most of the others, but this well written novelisation brought a lot of it back. By virtue of its unique status among Star Wars films as being effectively a spin-off rather than a (more or less) direct prequel or sequel to another film, it feels like the action has more room to breathe and create original characters and situations than is often the case. This novel expands on the relationships between Han and Qi'ra, and between Lando and his droid co-pilot, and also makes most of the characters seem fairly three dimensional. An enjoyable read and a real feel for what made Han Solo the cocky and arrogant character we met in A New Hope.

Dec 31, 2019, 3:13pm

109. The Crown Diamond - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I'm finishing off the year with a couple of plays penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, based on two of his short stories. This one is based on The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, and was performed in 1921, the same year as publication. It's one of his later and less highly regarded stories and the stage version takes the key elements of the story and simplifies the narrative, with the villain being Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's henchman from The Empty House. Works quite well as a simple, one act play.

Dec 31, 2019, 3:16pm

110. The Speckled Band - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the play version by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, premiered in 1910, of one of his more famous short stories, indeed the one that headed his own personal list of his favourite dozen of his own stories published in The Strand magazine in March 1927 as part of a competition whereby readers could guess the author's list to win a prize. This three act play expands on the already excellent narrative of the short story to produce a really great tense narrative, with Dr Grimesby Rylott being a really well drawn domestic bully terrorising his step daughters and household. Really great - I wonder if this play is ever staged today?

Dec 31, 2019, 5:38pm

Fairly pleased with my 110 books read this year. A decent total. Also read 14 of the books I hadn't yet read from the 1001 books you must read in your life list, so over one a month on average.

Also pretty pleased with my other annual measurement - I walked over 3.3 million steps in 2019, an average of just over 9,000 steps a day!