SPOOK STREET – Mick Herron

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24 pages into the spy thriller I thought : this reminds me of those dreary John le Carre spy novels. If this doesn’t improve I’m abandoning it. Page 30 is the deadline.
Whilst I read many of the JlC spy novels I don’t know that I enjoyed them that much. Half the time I didn’t have a clue what was going on – they were so vague, so murky, so is he/ or isn’t he? However, the Mick Herron Spy Thrillers came highly recommended, so we put a couple into the Milnerton Library Book Club.
And I’m so glad we did! I can’t wait to read the next one! Because – suddenly – the story took off and I was hooked, breathlessly turning the pages.

 
Herron’s style is very English – wry, dry, witty . There’s no 007 boobs and bullets stuff here. It’s all London in the rain (it never stops raining throughout the novel) and the workers in Slough House – the reject spies, the psychopaths, the drunks, the deranged, lurching along under the command of the ghastly Jackson Lamb – find themselves embroiled in the enigma when one of their own is killed – or is he?

 
There’s a rogue ex-CIA spy up to no good in France – if I write more, it’ll be a spoiler. There’s a retired top dog who’s gone cuckoo (dementia; if you read the novel, re-read my review; there’s a pun here) . What do you do with elderly spies, suffering from dementia, who know far, far more than is safe for them, us, and everybody?

 
Herron shows the morally murky world of spydom where solutions to sticky problems are always pragmatic and expeditious. They have to be. The ending of the novel is in the same vein.

 
Highly recommended. I can’t wait to read the next one!

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OH! THOSE BOOKISH NEW YEAR PROMISES!

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Some of the book bloggers I follow are rashly committing themselves to public promises and revealing their personal reading plans and promises. Reaching a target of 100 books during the year is a common theme, ditto entering x-number of Reading Challenges. Entering Goodreads annual reading challenge is another recurring theme.
Others are vowing to limit their number of book purchases, or lay waste to their TBR shelves (not before time in some cases; I recently read about a book addicts whose 1300 book TBR shelves were proving a traffic hazard within her house.). Adds a perspective to my own modest TBR shelf.
Others are determined to write book reviews of every book they read; good luck with that one, is all I can say! But: each to their own.
Another blogger asked: when did reading become a competitive sport? Good question!
I shall continue to meander peacefully amongst the Backlists, with a very occasional foray into Booker Short List territory. One cannot keep up with the Latest, Hottest, Raveworthy new novels. It’s a physical impossibility.

 

I read for pleasure, and always have done. If I’m looking for information, I hop on-line, and hey presto! Thank you Wikipedia or Google.
But I am prepared to publicly reveal that I will briskly abandon boring books. My time and my eyesight are too precious to waste. More than this – no, that’s between me and my Reading Diary, in which I record my bookish thoughts and stats. When the spirit moves me, that is.

 

My motto for 2019 is: Relax! Read and enjoy!

DECEMBER READING ROUND-UP 2018

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After the effort of reading the big Robert Galbraith novel, Lethal White, in record time, I was overtaken by the usual Silly Season hurly burly of shopping, planning, and socializing which didn’t leave much reading time.

 
Despite it’s misleading title, Himmler’s Cook proved to be a historical novel, ranging from the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s up to the current decade, focusing on the colourful life of Rose (the cook ), who survived by whatever methods she could, to live to age 105. What kept her going so vigorously for so long? Vengeance! Forget about the Christian virtues!

 
Consulting my Reading Diary I discover I haven’t reached any of my optimistic 2018 targets. I despatched 9 from the TBR pile and not the target 12. And of course I didn’t stick to my promise of buying only a measly 18 new books. My additions to the bookshelves totaled 25. Not so bad, really. In my defense, I donated many books to my local Library, so a Noddy Badge for this one. However, I was indeed ruthless about abandoning boring books. The latest casualty was my first Helen Oyeyemi novel : Boy, Snow, Bird. I know she’s widely read and admired, but I simply lost interest in the book. Sometimes one does!

 

So: I have written up a new Reading Diary for 2019, and have made my annual list of Reading Promises to myself. Actually, they serve as guidelines and reminders, more than anything else.

 
My dear daughter gifted me with an Amazon gift voucher, so tomorrow I shall be carefully selecting as many titles as I can possibly cram into the money, to read on my Amazon Kindle.

Wishing you all a splendid, enjoyable and wonderful reading year in 2019 !

FICTION

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith. Reviewed on this blog. https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/682
Himmler’s Cook – Franz-Olivier Giesbert. Story proves you should never upset the cook – this cook took revenge! Historical novel with a difference. Life in France, then WWII Berlin and the Nazis, then the USA. A long & lusty life!
The Lonely Desert – Sarah Challis. An easy read with an unusual background – the Tuareg in Mali. Dorset-born Clemmie falls in love with a Tuareg and choses to stay with him. Holiday reading!

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott. A 5-star historical Fantasy, blending Elizabethan history with modern day; written by a QC so well written and intelligent, but still entertaining. I’m looking forward to Book 2. Ken Mogi

 

Helen Oyeyemi

NON-FICTION
The Little Book of Ikigai – Ken Mogi. My big Life Changing Book of 2018.  Review to follow.

DNF
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi

HITS & MISSES 2018

It’s that time of year again. List time! I must admit I enjoy other readers’ reading lists. I’ve gained insights and inspirations over the years, so thanks to all the list-makers. I hope you find a few new authors & ideas in my list.

 
2018 has seen me reading more non-fiction, and certainly more short story collections. It’s been noticeable how many short story collections are being published. A few years back the big publishing thing was essay collections. Some of which I bought and enjoyed, notably Rebecca Solnit. Now it’s trend time for short story collections. Prompting delicious dithering on my part, choosing which new books to buy with my December book voucher gifts.

Unhampered by on-line challenges I’ve flitted happily around the Garden of Genres, and had a wonderful reading year. I hope you did too!
Happy reading!

 

THE HITS

MY BOOK OF THE YEAR
The End of the Day – Clare North

BEST HISTORICAL
A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

BEST COMIC NOVEL
Less  –  Andrew  Sean Greer

BEST LITERARY NOVEL
Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

MOST ORIGINAL READS IN 2018
Golden Delicious – Christopher Boucher
The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel

BEST SOUTH AFRICAN NOVEL
Bonemeal for Roses – Miranda Sherry

BEST SHORT STORIES
Memory Wall – Anthony Doerr

NOTABLE SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
The Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu
Difficult Women – Roxanne Gay

GREAT READS
A Tale for the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki
The Pigeon Tunnel – John le Carre
The Song Collector – Natasha Solomons
The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Clare North
Lethal White – Robert Galbraith

NON-FICTION
Wabi Sabi for Writers – Richard Powell
The Lost Empire of Atlantis – Gavin Menzies

MEMOIR/NATURE WRITING
Mountains of the Mind – Robert MacFarlane
Why do Birds Suddenly Disappear? – Lev Parikian

PHILOSOPHY
The Little Book of Ikigai – Ken Mogi

BEST FOODIE BOOK
District Six Huis Kombuis : Food & Memory Cookbook – Tina Smith

THE MISSES
City of Saints and Madmen – Jeff vander Meer
How to be Both – Ali Smith
Postcard Stories – Jan Carson

LETHAL WHITE – Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

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Now I’m a Cormoran Strike fan, but when I was handed  #4 in the series, my heart sank. 649 pages is a solid brick of a book, and I’m kinda over books like bricks. Give me a light, nifty novella and away I go.  However, I girded my literary loins and plunged in.

Two days later, I emerged, with sprained eyeballs and a happy smile on my face. Yup: she’s done it again. JK Rowling tells one hell of a story. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.

The book is a convoluted who-dunnit, set against the background of the British upper classes (politics, Westminster,  family feuds, money, wives, horses  – upper class Brits, so naturally there’s horses)  and in the end all is revealed.

But perhaps  of more interest is the on-going  personal relationship of Strike – the battered Afghan war amputee –  now a private detective in London, and his assistant/partner, Robin who is miserably married to an accountant. Things are not going well. Not for Strike, hampered by his war injury and a sinking bank balance, nor for Robin struggling to maintain her marriage which was a non-starter from the words ‘I do’ at the altar. At first I wearied of the on-going romantic tension between Strike and Robin – after all, this has been going on since Book #1 and I’m beginning to think oh for goodness sake! Enough already!  But then JKR swept me away and I stopped grumbling.

BTW, JKR does a fair bit of grumbling herself, having a jolly good go at the arrogance and greed of the British elite. She mercilessly parodies their accents, snobbish  social networking, their family nicknames and their penchant for  preposterous names. Who names their child Torquil, for heaven’s sake? Or how about Peregrine, shortened to Pringle  – which immediately reminded me of the crisps.

And on the topic of names: I didn’t care for the title. Because I live in a country with a shark patrolled coast, it reminded me immediately of the fearsome creatures. Ultimately, the title is relevant, but it jarred for me.

At the other end of the social spectrum there’s a sub-theme featuring a working class, leftie, politically correct, socially anarchic protest group which Robin infiltrates undercover. Reading those sections of the book I felt  I was witnessing JKR’s personal  political credo. To which she is fully entitled, of course. My trawling of Wikipedia revealed her as holding centre-left views, and I thought this might account for the parody of the upper class Brits in the novel.

All in all, a wonderfully meaty read, crammed with unforgettable characters. Like Strike’s long-time ex-girlfriend Charlotte – beautiful, heavily pregnant with twins, and desperately trying to reel him back in; not to worry that she’s married  … details, details. With which fascinating tidbit I will leave you. You’ll have to read the book.

Enjoy!  I did.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling#Politics

NOVEMBER 2018 READING ROUNDUP

 

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I finally crossed another book off the TBR list, The Road to Oxiana, although I only managed to stagger through four-fifths of the journey. There were two DNFs in November, but I’m copacetic about this. One of my 2018 Reading Resolutions was: I will not continue reading boring or unappealing books. It’s a waste of valuable eyesight & reading time!
I finished another TBR Basket Case by my favourite funny-man, Carl Hiaasen. For me not one of his best crime novels , because there was a huge secondary thread to the story, an impassioned rant about the fate of small town newspapers once a mega-media house takes them over; the decline of journalism, the focus on profit, and celebrity so-called news. Hiaasen is a long-time journo on a Miami Herald and Tribune Content Agency, and his hobby-horse rears up largely in this Florida crime caper.
Spurred on by other Lit-bloggers enthusiasm for novelist Muriel Spark, I tried one of her novellas. Whilst I can admire her sharp satirical pen, I didn’t enjoy it.

FICTION
Bad Monkey – Carl Hiaasen. 5 star fun on every page of this crime caper. Reviewed on this blog: https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/674

Basket Case – Carl Hiaasen. Murder with a music industry background. The usual wonderful snappy dialogue and deadly funny phrases.
The Good Father – Noah Hawley . The trauma of a father discovering his son has killed the next President of the USA. Literary thriller.
The Finishing School – Muriel Spark. A novella exploring jealousy and obsession. Not for me.

NON-FICTION
A Cook’s Tour – in search of the Perfect Meal – Anthony Bourdain. A great travel & food read. Reviewed on this blog: https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/669

On Leopard Rock – A life of adventure – Wilbur Smith. Autobiography of one of the world’s most successful and popular adventure novelists. Reviewed on this blog: https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/664

The Road to Oxiana – Robert Byron. Dense scholarly detail about Byzantine architecture, art & history. DNF
Country Driving – Peter Hessler. Journo follows road alongside Great Wall of China. DNF.

POETRY
The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry – Ed. J D Mc Clatchy. What a treasure trove. A marvellous anthology that I return to, again and again.

 

BAD MONKEY – Carl Hiaasen

 

My favourite Crime writer has done it again! A great story, colourful characters, zippy dialogue, an off-beat ex-cop (demoted to local health inspector – oh the pain!) an exotic setting (the Bahamas) and never a dull moment.

 

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There’s fraud on a gigantic scale against Medicare – a scooter scam, to be precise. Then there’s a revolting voodoo hag, who’s a nymphomaniac. There’s an equally revolting monkey, reputed to have starred in a Johnny Depp pirate movie. Plus there’s a witless sex-mad drop out, working on his tell-all celeb dairy, relating his steamy affair with his former schoolteacher. He finds her via Facebook . Said ex-teacher being one of the disgraced detective’s ex-lovers. He’s currently in love with a sexy Cuban pathologist. Complications abound.

 
Toss in a scheming wife in cahoots with her scary husband – and he’s really scary. The action doesn’t stop. The laughs keep on coming. Hiaasen had me laughing out loud by page 5. He’s the only crime writer I can think of who makes his readers laugh.

 
But besides all the merry mayhem, Hiaasen continues to beat his eco-warrior drum on the topic of greedy land developers who couldn’t care two hoots about the environment or the rights of local people. The wonderful thing about Hiaasen is that he doesn’t cram his eco- campaigns down your throat, or bash you over the head with his soap box, but the issues are there as a strong undercurrent. He’s a very skilful writer, is Mr H.

 
He’s also on a mission about ghastly misdemeanours in the kitchens of many seafood eateries in South Florida. Truly toe curling and gut turning! If you’re touring Florida, avoid the seafood! Correction: Probably safer to subsist on crackers and beer until you leave.

 
He finishes off the convoluted tale in a thoroughly satisfying way. All the baddies and low-lifes get their true desserts, not necessarily by being hauled off by the cops. Sometimes its better to have the baddies eaten by sharks or other useful garbage disposal devices.

 
Altogether a highly entertaining and enjoyable read. Perfect for holiday downtime. I’m just getting in a little early practice.

A COOK’S TOUR – ANTHONY BOURDAIN

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Sub-title: In search of the perfect meal.

I read the book on my Kindle – my first full-length Kindle read. I am very appreciative of the large font that I can conjure up. It really does help.
I will forever be an Anthony Bourdain fan. My first encounter with the bad boy chef was via his book Kitchen Confidential which I loved. It was a revelation to me. The no-holds-barred sweaty, hot, truthful expose of what really goes on in a professional kitchen.

 
When his TV series No Reservations appeared, I was thrilled . Bourdain was very easy on the eye, very entertaining and very adventurous. I always enjoy travel programmes, and travel combined with cookery – well! What a pleasure.
As a travel writer, Bourdain does it for me. You get a vivid description of place, people, food and adventures. In fact, I enjoyed his chapter on Morocco so much, it was almost as good as a plane ticket! He perfectly captures the smells, tastes, sights and sounds of the North African country. It’s a chapter I will be re-reading to cheer myself up, when I’m in need of a mini break.

 

In Asia he gamely samples such horrendous local delicacies as freshly slaughtered cobra’s heart, mixed with the local wine. Yuck. Need I add, its locally considered to “make you strong, very strong” for which read: a great aphrodisiac. Men!!! But this is just an aside. It should not deter you from reading the book.
I was shocked at the recent news of his suicide, this year. Subsequent tributes from fellow chefs, journos, food critics and friends have shown him to be a great guy. I will miss him.

 
If you enjoy travel combined with cooking, A Cook’s Tour will not disappoint. He travels to a diverse selection of countries including Scotland, Asia (Cambodia and Vietnam, his favourites) , as well as Morocco and Mexico, among others.
A Recommended read.

 

ON LEOPARD ROCK – Wilbur Smith

51vbnnYbD-L._AC_US327_QL65_Sub-title is: A Life of Adventures , and this says it all. What a life! You name it, he’s done it – hunted big game, flown aeroplanes, scuba dived, travelled the world, mixed with movie stars, and been enchanted by beautiful women. Smith’s adventure novels mirror his own life. He’s been compared to revered adventure authors like John Buchan, and H. Rider Haggard. Boyhood influences included the Biggles series of books, and also the Just William books. Combined with his boyhood outdoor African life, its not hard to see where his adventure writing’s early influences came from.
His books , and they number over 35 published novels as of 2014, have sold over 130 million copies. So I was keen to read his memoir. Partly because of his success as a novelist, and partly because he was born in Northern Rhodesia whereas I spent much of my childhood in Southern Rhodesia. Both countries now renamed: Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively. Some of the photos of his early childhood could have come straight out of my life – skinny men dressed in khaki, wearing large hats and clutching rifles. Yup : very familiar. Stories of cattle ranches and game roaming freely over the veld – ditto.
There’s no doubt about it: he loves Africa. He has owned houses around the world, but he’s an African through and through.
He preserves a gentlemanly reticence over his four marriages and I must admit I’d have liked to hear more about his personal life. However he did reveal how he met his fourth wife , a Tadjik woman named Mokhiniso Rakhimova, in a WH Smith bookstore in London.
I remember how we waited with bated breath for the next exciting Wilbur Smith novel. We couldn’t read them fast enough! Its been many years since I read one of his novels, but his memoir has reminded me that he wrote some interestingly themed historical novels. I think I’ll see if I can hunt up his novel based on Great Zimbabwe – The Sunbird.
The chapter that I enjoyed the most was in the latter part of the book, titled This Writing Life. As an aspiring writer myself, it’s always instructive to read how highly successful writers shaped their careers, and read their tips.
If you  are tired of American based urban, navel-gazing novels, or British based chick-lit, then head for the Wilbur Smith shelves to enjoy a straightforward rip-roaring adventure story, that will be an absorbing, straight forward good read.

 

TWO DNF TRAVEL BOOKS

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Country Driving : A Chinese Road Trip – Peter Hessler.

 
The reason I abandoned the book was the repetitive nature of his story. It was published in 2010, but his drive alongside the Great Wall of China took place in the period 2001 to 2009, while he was based in Beijing. Hessler  spoke Mandarin so was able to speak to people he encountered during his travels.

 

We learn that rural China at that time was uneducated and insular. Many of the folk he met goggled uncomprehendingly at him because he was the first Westerner they’d ever seen. I must confess I learned some startling facts about rural China in the early aughties. For example: Hessler commented on the scarcity of other motor vehicles on the rural roads, but remarked on animal, and in some cases, human-drawn carts.

 

The roads were beyond dreadful. Born and bred in Africa as I am, this came as no surprise to me, it sounded very familiar. As did his tales of the hair-raising behaviour of first-time, untrained, and probably unlicensed drivers. Again, depressingly familiar.

 

And so it went on – rural China at its dreary best. Perhaps that’s why I abandoned the book.

 

Paging through the book I note Part 2 is titled The Village; Part 3 The Factory. Maybe the narrative improved, but I wasn’t in the mood for it

 

 

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The Road to Oxiana – …. Robert Byron
Another travel book that didn’t float my boat. Byron  was running round Persia (now re-named Iran) and Afghanistan in the early 1930. His interests were in Byzantine art, history and architecture. He took immense interest in the ancient ruined cities and mosques that he managed to reach after arduous travels. Poor /bad / or almost non-existent tracks, unhelpful Persian bureaucrats, rascally locals, fleas, lack of food and accommodation – all the hallmarks of Middle Eastern travels in the early 1930s.

 
but mine is a Penguin Classics edition that came out in 1992. Penguin employed the renowned traveller, Colin Thubron to write an introduction to their Classics edition. He starts by saying : “ The Road to Oxiana has been called the seminal travel book of the twentieth century. Witty, lyrical, erudite, combative, it still strikes the reader with a vivid contemporary immediacy.” He tells us that well known travel writers as diverse as Bruce Chatwin LINKS and Jonathan Raban have esteemed the book. Later on he says:” Graham Greene found it alternately brilliant, gossipy and ‘dryly instructive’ .” I’m with Graham Greene on this one!

 

To be fair, the book offered appropriate maps at the beginning of each new journey, which were helpful. Thinking it over, the part of the book I enjoyed most was Colin Thubron’s introduction.