Book reviews – Arnaldur Indriðason – “Black Skies” and “Strange Shores” #amreading #books


Well, I’ve actually made it to the end of this series, which I’ve been reading since September 2015. I’m not usually good at reading crime, because I’m basically a giant wuss and can’t cope with Horrible Things. Fortunately, in most of these the violence is off-stage and not too gory. Also, I seem to have a higher tolerance for Horrible Things in Icelandic fiction – I am fine with icky stuff in sagas and other works, e.g. by Laxness, which I would blench at in other nationalities’ books (I have surprised people with my enthusiasm for having stood on the VERY SPOT where Snorri Sturluson was hacked to death, for example). So, I have coped with these where I wouldn’t have coped with other Scandi noir, and I’m very sad that they’re now at an end.

Arnaldur Indriðason – “Black Skies” and “Strange Shores”

(August 2015)

Both of these books are on a simultaneous timeline to that of “Outrage” – while Elinborg is on her mysterious case, Sigurdur Oli is pursuing a case initially privately for a friend in “Black Skies”, although an odd man who has cropped up in “Outrage” and also knows the AWOL Erlendur (busy being AWOL for the events in “Strange Shores”) keeps pestering him with an incoherent and half-formed accusation about an older man.

Sigurdur Oli gets too mixed up in his own case, which had seemed like a simple need for a visit but ends up with him implicated in all sorts of stuff and in trouble with a colleague (fortunately, he manages to get his own back on his over-zealous colleague, which is nice, as he’s always seemed a bit stiff and over-zealous himself). He’s also regretting his break-up with Bergthora and going over that in his mind, even trying to see her a few times.

The main case in “Black Skies” is an interesting one because it’s all tied up with the banking bubble that came just before the financial crisis, and explores the exploitation of Iceland’s banking system, which I hadn’t really understood from inside before. It was also nice to hear about Snaefellsness, a lovely ice-capped area to the north of Reykjavik which we’ve visited. There is a gruesome start to this book which is more about the potential for yuckiness than an actual event – this put me off for a bit, but probably because I was feeling a bit delicate, and once I’d steeled myself for it slightly, it was OK.

“Strange Shores”, as I’ve said, takes place at the same time again, and now we find out why Erlendur is missing (again), and needing to be asked after. He’s gone out East one last time, looking for signs of his lost younger brother, assumed perished in a snowstorm that nearly took Erlendur and his father. This story has arced through pretty well the whole series, so it’s good to dig deeper into it here. He also gets involved in an old mystery, about a woman who was lost in a storm in the 1940s. As he interrogates the very elderly witnesses and also talks to people about the loss of his brother, there’s a very strong sense of last chances, of a way of life which is being lost and a type of person that is going from Iceland.

Interspersed with Erlendur’s two plots are dreamlike sequences of extreme cold and a mysterious visitor which build beautifully towards the conclusion. A really good read, although some challenging parts, and a great end to a very good series.

I’ve read more since these, oh dear – two more finished, but luckily they were both a  bit disappointing so can be reviewed together. I’m part way through Greg Rutherford’s entertaining autobiography, but fear not – I have had a clicky-clicky session today to replenish all the gaps in the TBR, and more books will be arriving soon. How is your May reading? What’s the best series you’ve read?

Book reviews – Francis Brett Young – “White Ladies” and Virginia Woolf / Quentin Bell – “The Charleston Bulletin Supplements”


I’m still reading up a storm as I’m finding quite a lot of bits of time to curl up with a book – although I have slowed down a little bit recently as am on two quite meaty ones at the moment. Today I’ve got two period pieces – a Francis Brett Young novel published in 1935 and a work by Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell produced in 1923-27, the latter being quite a slight work with a short review (are you getting tired of all these reviews yet? I keep thinking I can slack off and then I finish ANOTHER book …).

Francis Brett Young – “White Ladies”

(04 October 2016 – Newlyn Books, Penzance)

This is the signed first edition I felt a bit guilty for buying in a town where I know there’s another FBY fan – turned out she knew it was there and happy for me to run off with it back to the Midlands. Phew. I have been interested in FBY since I worked with his archives in the University of Birmingham Special Collections, and have been lucky enough to find and read a few of his novels. The best editions are these lovely hardbacks.

This is the story of a love affair – between a magnificent woman in her prime and a beautiful late Tudor house buried in the wilds of the Midlands. It’s also the story of the Industrial Revolution and specifically the iron and then steel industry in the Midlands, from the mid-19th century until just after WW1. It’s populated, for all its didactic intent, with marvellous, slightly too impetuous, handsome women, who far outshine the men in their lives (who tend to being dictatorial or weak) and make strong, hard decisions quickly when they need to.

As usual with FBY’s novels, I loved the descriptions of the barely disguised Birmingham and Black Country towns and villages, the teeming industries and the layers of people rising and falling. He’s particularly interested in the decay of the old landed gentry and the robustness of the self-made industrialists, and the effects – genetic, social and psychological – that occur when the two groups come into contact.

It’s a historical novel written in the 1930s (why do I not mind these? Because they’re closer in time to their subject?) and so yes, women to an extent have to protect and better themselves through marriage – but men get trapped in this process, too, and interesting contrasts are drawn between the several unmarried women and the mothers in the book, giving a wide range rather than a stereotyped view. When it comes down to it, I gulped down almost 700 pages in a few days, and that’s the recommendation you need. Do pick up FBY if you chance on him in a second-hand shop!

Virginia Woolf and Quentin Bell – “The Charleston Bulletin Supplements”

(22 October 2016 – kindly sent to me by Simon from Stuckinabook)

A British Library reproduction with transcriptions and an extensive introduction to these supplements to the Bell family newspaper, produced and illustrated by Quentin Bell and his aunt Virginia. Amusing but sometimes very obscure even to a devoted Bloomsbury fan (there are copious footnotes and there’s a list of people at the back) – it’s a lovely little read and I know someone who would enjoy this as much as I did …

I’m currently wading through the somewhat sleazy memoirs of Jools Holland (there are some really interesting bits but he comes over as rather a rum chap) and a book called “My Bookstore” which has lots and lots and LOTS of short essays by authors (most of whom I haven’t heard of) and which might need to be interspersed with another few books so as not to get too samey. I have finished the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries series and those reviews will be next up, probably tomorrow. Because I wrote this up on Wednesday and I bet I’ve finished another one by the time my next review slot comes around … sigh.

Book review – Sandhya Menon – “When Dimple Met Rishi” #books #amreading


when dimple met rishiThank you to the publisher Hodder & Stoughton for making this available via NetGalley, and to NetGalley for choosing me to review it. I like books about people from one culture growing up in another, and have read quite a lot of Young Adult stuff in the past (although I don’t enjoy vampires and violence, so have had that limited a bit recently!), so this one ticked all the boxes and promised to be a nice light read when I wanted one. I was attracted by the setting of a coding summer school and the description of a couple with different attitudes to their South Asian heritage coming together and clashing or …

This one comes out in June according to Amazon (July according to NetGalley) so not long to wait.

Sandhya Menon – “When Dimple Met Rishi”

(eBook, NetGalley, 28 April 2017)

High school graduate Dimple is overjoyed when her parents actually encourage her to attend a coding summer school in San Francisco before taking up her place at Stanford. Maybe they’re finally abandoning their stifling and traditional ways and maybe her mum will stop pestering her to grow her hair, wear contacts and give up her dreams of creating the perfect app … or maybe they’ve sniffed out an opportunity for her to meet an Ideal Indian Husband. Oh-oh.

Rishi is a lot more traditional himself, having to play the good son and please his parents, going to a coding convention he’s not that interested in to show himself more willing than his sports-obsessed younger brother to do their bidding. when the two meet, will it be on purpose or by accident, and will sparks of romance fly or will the similarities in their upbringing be outweighed by the differences in their outlooks?

Given a taste of freedom for perhaps the first time, a group of American late teens show many of the characteristics of the high school cliques: is it now possible for the divisions to be broken and the geeks to stand up for the jocks? Does who your father is and who your mother wants to you be matter more than who you are yourself and your deepest dreams? While Dimple and Rishi manage to stay true to themselves, finding support in their friendship, others get caught up and pulled into an unpleasant situation.

There’s a lot to like here: Dimple’s love of coding and refusal to change herself (she might borrow some clothes from her roommate but she only straightens her hair when she wants to resemble a favourite old cartoon character) and Rishi’s essential kindness and love of art. Also impressive is the casual introduction of a character who just happens to be hearing-impaired, just placed in there, not as a plot device. There’s no real violence, and the characters are shown reflecting and reflecting on their culture, career choices and friends in a realistic not forced or preachy way. I would read more by this author.

Book review – Jess Phillips – “Everywoman” @amreading @books


I’m glad I took a nice picture of this one for the blog a few days ago, as it wouldn’t be right to use the usual TBR picture, given that it didn’t actually hit my TBR at all. My friend Meg bought me a copy and got it signed (“To Liz, badass feminist salute”) a little while ago but was saving it to give it to me at a particular time. Hooray – there was Meg and there was the book on Sunday, and I think I had it finished by Tuesday. It didn’t even get on the TBR shelf, it went straight onto my bedside table and into my hands. It’s a rare book that bypasses my terribly restrictive (not) read in order of acquisition policy, and I was hoping it lived up to the (friend-induced) hype. Did it?

Jess Phillips – “Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth about Speaking the Truth”

(From Meg, 7 May 2017)

The Labour MP for Hall Green (the neighbouring constituency to mine; I do wish I lived a few streets over!) and her call to arms and memoir promised much and handily delivered, too. Taking in chapters on motherhood, starting work, equality, politics and trolling, and more, she speaks about her own experiences and then places them within the context of (mainly women’s) general experiences. She’s open about her own experiences, good and bad, and her own personality – she knows she can speak her mind too much and yes, she does seek publicity, but so that she can highlight the women’s and equality causes she really cares about. I do realise that most political autobiography is going to be biased and self-justifying to an extent, but I really feel she’s being honest here, and I did try to read it with a critical rather than fan’s eye. It was empowering to read that she feels just as threatened and insecure as the rest of us when walking into an event or standing up and speaking about something; she explains that when under threat, she tends to expand rather than contract (I tend to do this, too, my worst examples being when about to go under anaesthetic: oh, I blush!) and that makes a lot of sense when you see how she acts and reacts.

She’s great on sisterhood and acknowledging support systems and goes out of her way to prove that she doesn’t hate men in general (just the ones who beat or rape people, or troll from behind a web of anonymity, etc.). She also deals with her own family issues and her own failings honestly, and I think her explanation that having these things in your background is not something that should make you keep out of politics is going to be helpful to people.

Phillips provides strong comebacks and reasoning through the book on various issues such as why women in abusive relationships might not leave their partners – this reminded me of the “Girl Up” book with its useful resources (I wonder if she’s read that and what she thinks of it. She does mention Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project so I’m guessing she’d be positive about it). There’s also a good understanding of why everyone isn’t as gung-ho as she is: she knows that people who tweet in support of her are likely to get trolled and explains that it’s OK therefore not to, but exhorts people to “press on the bruise” and do what they feel they can do.

I left the book with much more of a sense of who she is as a human being, and of how the Labour Party works in the House of Commons in practical terms, from the inexplicable ironing boards in the loos to the support systems among women MPs.

Book reviews – Jane Smiley – “Champion Horse” and “Star Horse” #amreading #books


Two in one today as these two books are the final two in a five-part series and follow on from one another without a gap. By the way, this pile is looking pretttttty good now: all that’s left are the Sagas, the Earlene Fowlers and one Indriðason. So the TBR shelf has receded a little, but the Pile is practically gone!

Jane Smiley is famous for writing each book in a different genre, and she’s worked her way through the campus novel (“Moo”), the unreadable Icelandic saga (“The Greenlanders”), romance, Shakespeare re-workings, all sorts. She did one about racehorses which I really liked, then started on YA pony books – and of course, being YA pony books, you can’t just have one, you have to have a series, so she did one. As I’ll explain, the blurbs don’t really fit the books, but they’re good reads for the more serious pony book fan.

Jane Smiley – “Champion Horse”, “Star Horse”

(7 April 2017)

The final two of her Abby books and a nice read, although the puffs on the front and back covers would likely leave more excitable readers a little disappointed. On the first, we’re asked whether Abby can tame this feisty horse, and on the second, told that she is offered opportunities away from the family farm, which isn’t the whole story by any means. The horses on the covers are also surrounded by stars and sparkles, whereas a nice thing about Abby is that she’s resolutely ungirly and not bothered about all the high school fuss. Anyway.

The books are written in the somewhat flat, plain tone of the other novels – which is fine, as Abby is a plain thinker herself, and this works as she negotiates High School and its changed priorities (suddenly you have to select a special hairstyle in which to present yourself, for example), as well as her horsy responsibilities and her religious family (this last is presented sympathetically although with pity, as the world slips from easy distinctions and rules).

In “Champion Horse”, she has trouble getting her own horse, True Blue, to jump, but does well with friend Sophia’s Pie in the Sky. But why is Sophia not riding her horses herself? The eating disorder theme in this book is treated wisely, with the effects on the person’s friendship group and family looked at and a tentative but not fairytale solution shown in the margins of the story.

In “Star Horse”, Gee-Whiz, an ex-racehorse, comes to the ranch and Abby uses some of the techniques she’s learned with Blue (and rejects others even though they’re presented by an expert, with support from her friends) to teach him to jump. She also has to face saying goodbye to Jack, the surprise foal of an earlier book, when it’s time for him to start his racing training.

There’s a lot of detail about training horses here, including descriptions of lessons and practice sessions, which I found interesting but would probably bore a non-horse person. Especially in the last book, the modern world – pop records! Vietnam! – start to intrude into the family’s world. And then … it just stops. But good reads.

I’ve read two more books since these so be prepared for more reviews. Two cracking ones up next! What are you reading? How ARE you?

Book reviews – Mark Ellen “Rock Stars Stole my Life!” and D. E. Stevenson “Mrs Tim of the Regiment” plus … #amreading #books


Two more books from my massive reading stint today and a funny pair but one that ended up at the front end of the TBR shelf. Both offered a good, dense amount of text that took me a little longer to get through, so perhaps these offered more reading “value” than the crop of novels from yesterday’s reviews, although I needed that lighter stuff, too.

Mark Ellen – “Rock Stars Stole My Life!”

(03 October 2016 – Penzance)

The music journalist and magazine editor (and fan, and bass guitarist) writes his autobiography. Although full of rock’n’roll excess and excitement and almost as indiscreet as promised on the cover (he certainly writes openly of his feelings about the management of publishing companies; I suspect that the part of my job that makes me a transcriber for music journalists interviewing various musicians has inoculated me against indiscretion in that area), it’s fundamentally a story of a an essentially kind, decent and loyal person who appreciates the path he’s gone along. He’s generous in his praise of his colleagues and I loved reading about the ins and outs of magazine life – especially the gone but not forgotten Word magazine. A good example of the rock write biography (OK, there are only two I can think of and both have been good) and very enjoyable.

D.E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim of the Regiment”

(03 September 2016 – from Astley Book Farm, the last remaining read from that trip!)

An absolutely charming book and I’m raring to read the three sequels (although I sadly find they are v expensive second hand and not reprinted (yet?) – I will keep a firm look-out for them). A little like the Provincial Lady in that it’s in the form of a diary of a nice lady with children and servant problems, but Mrs Tim is an Army Wife, used to moving at the drop of a hat and also taking a pastoral role with the wives of the lower ranks while dealing with the angels and horrors at her level and above.

Mrs Tim has admirers but professes not to realise this – she comes across as sweet rather than annoying in this, luckily. There’s a move and all the horrors that entails, social calls that are almost unbearable but lovely neighbours, and a delightful interlude in Scotland when she gets to take a little holiday with one of these neighbours (plus the woman’s lovelorn son and completely batty relative).

Not much actually happens in the novel: some love is found and lost, yearnings happen, ghosts might be seen and there are episodes with the children; it’s a little uneven, too, mainly episodic and veering at times between farce that’s more farcical than the Provincial Lady and lyricism that’s more lyrical, but it’s a lovely, engaging and attractive read and fabulous as a whole.

One addition to the TBR shelves has come in the form of Jess Phillips’ memoir / polemic / call to action, which my friend Meg very kindly got for me (and got signed for me) at her book launch. I had to start it almost straight away and I think it’s brilliant – straight-talking and honest and explains how she got to be how she is and where she is (MP for a local constituency and loved/hated in equal measure).

Book review catch-up: Debbie Macomber and Jenny Colgan #amreading #books


Hello after a bit of a gap – I have got lots of reviews for you now as I’ve been doing LOTS of reading. I’m going to revert to my multiple-books-in-one-review strategy for a post or two otherwise I’ll never get caught up again! Unfortunately, I was a little under the weather last week: I’m OK and nearly back to full strength and it’s done wonders for the TBR and its associated Pile (see my May TBR post for the Terrible Pile).

Debbie Macomber – “Alaska Skies”, “Alaska Nights” and “Alaska Home”

(April 2017)

A set of six books (two in each volume – she does this a lot) plus a novella detailing a couple of years in the life of the fictional small town, Hard Luck, Alaska, North of the Arctic Circle and suffering from a bit of a population imbalance. The three O’Halloran brothers decide to recruit some women to work in their town, mainly to keep the pilots from their air service occupied with some new people to meet, although it turns out the brothers are more interested in keeping the ladies to themselves. Some women move to the town to find love (they don’t usually last long), some to escape, some for the challenge, and some for other reasons, as the wise cafe owner, Ben, finds out. It’s not too stereotyped – the men are gently mocked for being rubbish at romance or showing they care rather than just being strong, mean types, and there’s gentle humour and affection throughout. There is a bit of a similar pattern in the romance is threatened, will they, won’t they type stuff, but that showed up more because I galloped through these all one after the other in a couple of days. The novella, set about 15 years after the main books, gives a great resolution to people’s stories and is nicely done.

There are different characters to enjoy and the small-town community, as always, is done really well and attractively. Alaska, with its long nights and snow but flower-filled summer tundra, is almost another character and is charmingly presented. A great comfort read.

Jenny Colgan – “Class”

(29 October 2016, Buxton)

Originally published under the name Jane Beaton, these didn’t do as well as they would have under the author’s real name, so they’ve been republished, with at least one more in print and maybe others to come.

This is described as the school story for grown-ups that the author wanted to read, and it certainly is that. It takes the tropes of the girls’ school by the sea, the strange mix of teachers and the new intake of students, jostling for position, but views most of it from the point of view of Maggie, newly moved from Glasgow with a chip on her shoulder about entitlement, and the head teacher, who has a past of her own. There’s a scholarship girl as well as the usual mean girls and trendies, a bit of traditional peril, and a handsome teacher from the boys’ school along the coast, so a good mix without being too silly or melodramatic.

I did find an emphasis on weight loss but a jokey dismissal of eating disorders which doesn’t make it suitable for all readers (although the girl in question doesn’t lose weight and proves to have sporting prowess, so maybe that balances it out a bit). But the range of characters and stories is good and I will definitely look out for the next volume.

To come, we have Mark Ellen’s autobiography (at last!), Mrs Tim of the regiment and some pony stories. What have you all been up to? I know I’m behind on my blog reading (and my own competitions, sorry!!) so share some fun facts about your reading over the last 10 days or so, please!

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