Saturday, December 31, 2022
The Best Books of 2022
Here we are, at the end of another year so – time to look back at the year just gone by in a blur. I reviewed a record breaking 104 books this year! I doubt if that will ever be exceeded and, I’m guessing, only rarely equaled. I think it’s been a pretty good reading year overall with very few poor reads and not a single DNF. As usual I’ll list the best books below with the best of the best in BOLD.
In The Woods by Tana French
Victory by Julian Stockwin
Sharpe’s Honour by Bernard Cornwell
Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann
Ghosts of War by George Mann
The Liberation by Ian Tregillis
Dodgers by Bill Beverly
A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
Defectors by Joseph Kanon
Caliban’s War by James S A Corey
Sixty Minutes for St George by Alexander Fullerton
The Hate U Give (THUG) by Angie Thomas
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M Harris
The 12.30 From Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
God’s Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
The Horns of the Buffalo by John Wilcox
The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd
V2 by Robert Harris
November Road by Lou Berney
One Summer – America 1927 by Bill Bryson
Seashaken Houses – A Lighthouse History from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas
Fast Food Nation – What the All-American Meal is Doing to the World by Eric Schlosser
Code Breakers – The Secret Intelligence Unit that Changed the Course of the First World War by James Wyllie and Michael McKinley
American Character – A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good by Colin Woodard
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
Hiking With Nietzsche – Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag
The Physics of Wall Street – A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable by James Owen Weatheral
The King and the Catholics – The Fight for Rights 1829 by Antonia Fraser
Transcendence – How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time by Gaia Vince
Hurricane – Victor of the Battle of Britain by Leo McKinstry
Footnotes – How Running Makes Us Human by Vybarr Cregan-Reid
How Spies Think – Ten Lessons in Intelligence by David Omand
The Vertigo Years – Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom
How To Lose A Country - The Seven Steps From Democracy To Dictatorship by Ece Temelkuran
Auntie’s War – The BBC During the Second World War by Edward Stourton
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism And Other Arguments for Economic Independence by Kristen R Ghodsee
Radio Caroline – The True Story of the Boat That Rocked by Ray Clark
As you can see it was a bumper year for great reads! Hopefully 2023 will be as good and I’m off to a good start as I’m presently reading one of the best books I’ve come across in years....
In other news...
The publication date age spread wasn’t bad this year – from 2021 to 1934, so a range of 87 years. I’d have liked to read more from the 19th century but that just didn’t happen this year. The average book length is still falling and is presently 315pp. I had hoped to hit 350pp at some point but that’s a LONG way off now. My reading speed/page count per day seems to have dropped off quite a bit despite having all the time I want to read these days. Not sure what’s causing that. My review pile is at rock bottom with only 3 waiting reviews. This will mean I’ll be prioritising some more short books coming up. But my future ‘plans’ will be addressed next Saturday.
Friday, December 30, 2022
Thursday, December 29, 2022
Just Finished Reading: Frostquake – How the Frozen Winter of 1962 Changed Britain Forever by Juliet Nicolson (FP: 2021) [319pp]
England, 1962. It wasn’t quite a white Christmas but when it started snowing on December 26th at least the children were happy with the prospect of snowmen and sledging before they returned to school after the holidays. But as temperatures continued to drop and snow continued to fall everyone, including the children, just wanted the winter to finally end. They had a long wait ahead of them as the snow would fall for another 10 weeks. The winter of 1962/63 turned out to be one of the coldest and longest ever recorded. In some places the sea froze, in others diesel fuel in trucks and buses froze overnight, greatly restricted travel and deliveries of vital supplies. Army helicopters dropped hay to starving farm animals and across Britain hundreds of birds, apparently frozen in flight, fell dead onto ever deepening snow drifts. No one could remember anything quite like it. Yet the country failed to grind to a complete halt. Milkmen on skies (as on the front cover) delivered frozen milk to grateful housewives, bands like the up-and-coming Beatles kept on touring despite the weather and millions of television viewers stayed warm enjoying breakthrough satirical shows that poked fun at the Establishment in ways never seen before. Under the deepening blanket of snow things were changing, women like the designer Mary Quant and model Jean Shrimpton were making names for themselves and making money too, the old deference for authority was starting to crumble helped on by the political crisis brought on by the Profumo Affair and the people longed to break free of austerity Britain and start having fun. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ was just around the corner – once the ice melted.
Although I was alive at the time – aged 2 ½ - I have no memory of this momentous winter. I can’t believe that living in a Victorian terraced house in Liverpool we were somehow immune to the cold, but I guess that I was simply too young or too unaware of events for it to have stuck with me. The author was 8 at the time and weaves her own and her family's story into the narrative which I thought was a good way to thread things together. I also liked the fact that, although she stayed in London and the Southeast for most of the events portrayed, the narrative covered the North as well as the South with interesting snippets of history around the early days of the ‘Mersey Beat’ and somewhat briefer mentions of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Although I’d only recently read a whole book on the Profumo Affair, I was impressed that the author had managed to add a few more facts that I’d been unaware of. Overall, this was solid Social History and I enjoyed it quite a lot. I always find there’s something slightly odd about reading history books about a time that you lived through. There’s a kind of temporal ‘echo’ working faintly in the background. But as this was very early in my life the ‘echo’ was very faint indeed so didn’t distract from the narrative. Recommended for any fans of 60’s Britain.
This is the last review of 2022. My 'Best of the Year' List will be coming on Saturday.
Wednesday, December 28, 2022
Tuesday, December 27, 2022
Monday, December 26, 2022
Just Finished Reading: First to Fight – The Polish War 1939 by Roger Moorhouse (FP: 2019) [270pp]
The British date the start of WW2 from 3rd September 1939 when their ultimatum to Germany expired without a response. But it was two days before this event that Germany invaded Poland and set the whole catastrophe in motion. Things, however, did not occur out of the blue. Tensions had been rising for a while, ever since a resurgent Germany began flexing its military muscles with the occupation of Austria, the Sudetenland and then the rest of Czechoslovakia. After the failure of the Munich ‘agreement’ it was clear to both France and Britain that Germany needed to be restrained by more than a piece of paper promising ‘peace in our time’. So, both France and Britain signed a very public agreement with Poland that they would come to its aid if attacked. While Poland took them at their word, both countries really hoped (indeed fully expected) that it wouldn’t come to that. As we know, Germany (and Russia) had other ideas. Back in 1939, even after everything proceeding the attack, Hitler couldn’t just roll his army across the border – he needed an excuse. Stories had been circulating of the oppression (and murder!) of minority German citizens in Poland and there had been several border ‘incidents’ where Polish troops had temporarily invaded German territory so what else could they do but protect themselves against obvious Polish aggression. This, of course, sounds all too sadly familiar from our nightly news and even in 1939 was seen as a gossamer thin provocation. But orders were given, and tanks rolled. It was all going to be over in a matter of days. Afterall, the German forces where the pinnacle of military might and the Polish? Outdated, weak, corrupt. How wrong the German intelligence was. Not only did the Polish fight, but they also fought both well and valiantly, often against vastly superior forces. It was going to be FAR from the anticipated walk-over. But what of the Allies and what of Russia? The Poles expected immediate action (as promised) by their French and British allies. What they didn’t expect, indeed no one did except the Germans, was what Russia was going to do next...
Although I knew ‘something’ of the opening actions of WW2 in Poland I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea of the detail. I hadn’t heard anything about the battles and engagements where the Germans had their assess handed royally to them by underequipped but well led and well-motivated Polish army forces. Like most people I had heard of the fight where Polish cavalry (on horseback) attacked a German armoured column but this turned out to be German ‘spin’ of an actual event where Panzer forces counter-attacked a successful Polish cavalry attack scattering the Polish forces and stopping a potential German hasty retreat. What I didn’t realise, although I should have known what was coming next, was the level of tragedy that befell the Polish people as they were partitioned (again!) between the Germans and Soviet forces. So, not exactly a fun read in places and more than a little depressing throughout to be honest. But if you want an appreciation of the start of WW2 this is a valuable read. I found it particularly interesting with the number of echoes – no doubt real and imagined – with the present conflict in Ukraine. Definitely recommended.
Sunday, December 25, 2022
Saturday, December 24, 2022
100 Questions – to get to know someone.
21. What are you most afraid of?
Intermittent dementia. Knowing that you could lose your marbles and that you might never get them back in the bag is pretty scary!
22. If superheroes were real, who would you want to protect your city?
Well, with the mess they cause ‘saving’ anywhere I’d have to say a very emphatic: No.
23. What is the silliest reason you've ever cried?
Probably during a particularly sad scene in a movie.
24. If you could be a character on any show, what show would you choose? Why?
Well, it wouldn’t be a mystery series.... Maybe a light comedy....
25. You're stuck on an island with no way off and no one knows you're there, what three items do you have with you?
Satellite phone, solar powered battery charger, HUGE bottle of sun lotion.
26. What is the name of one song you know all the words to?
An OLD one no doubt! Do songs these days have that many meaningful words in them?
27. Are you a sore loser?
28. Do you sleep with your closet doors open or closed?
Open. Although I used to sleep with them closed when I had a cat. She found my pile of T-shirts a very comfy place to sleep on!
29. Would you rather be attacked by a big bear or a swarm of bees?
Depending on the bear you might be able to our run or out-think it, but you might be able to avoid the bees in water. Plus, bees are pretty cool and you shouldn’t really annoy them for no good reason.
30. What is your biggest pet peeve?
Friday, December 23, 2022
Thursday, December 22, 2022
Just Finished Reading: The Junkyard Dog by Robert Campbell (FP: 1986) [188pp]
Jimmy Flannery likes his job and he’s good at it. As a ‘fixer’ in Chicago’s 27th ward for the Democrats his job is to get the vote out and ensure a Democratic victory. To do this he does favours to those who ask him. Small favours, naturally. Like having an obstructing tree trimmed or sorting out a parking ticket for a local business. Flannery knows who to talk to, who to flatter, who to do favours for in return for their aid. It’s how the city works and has always worked. Everything that happens in his ward is his business, even what might just be a murder. When a bomb goes off in a local abortion clinic Jim wants to know what the police are doing about it. It's personal. One of the dead was a part time nurse who lived in Jimmy’s building. The police, to his surprise, seem uninterested in investigating further even when Jim provides them with information that might just lead to the perpetrator. They’ve been told to soft pedal things until it blows over. But told by who and told why? After not getting very far on his own, Jimmy is about to give up and chalk it up to experience until the perpetrator makes a mistake – a BIG mistake – by threatening his girlfriend. Now Jimmy’s mad, as mad as a junkyard dog and someone’s going to pay.
I’d read a few books by this author years (probably decades) ago and remember enjoying them. I enjoyed this one too – a lot. Jimmy, his retired father and new girlfriend are great characters and I’m looking forward to meeting them again in some of his subsequent books in this short series (this being the first). The story had a nice ‘Noir’ feel to it despite being chronologically outside the Noir timeline. Chicago is suitably seedy with corrupt police and politicians, run down infrastructure, derelict building plots and prostitution. Jimmy swims through all of this like a well-adapted fish. I found the emphasis on his family's Irish heritage interesting (as you might expect) and enjoyed the odd reference to Catholic culture. Overall, it was a simply plotted piece – an event happens, the main character investigates thereby revealing many things of interest to the reader, problems are met and either overcome or avoided, and, eventually, a resolution is arrived at. We all know the tried-and-true method. But, as with most things, it’s the execution that matters. This is executed very well indeed, and I couldn’t really fault it. Whilst not great literature (not that I expected it to be such) this easily kept my attention and kept me wanting to turn the pages to find out what was happening. It was, at the very least, a few days above average entertainment and I’m looking forward to seeing what the author throws at Jimmy next. Recommended if you can source a copy.
Anthony Awards Best Paperback original
Wednesday, December 21, 2022
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
Monday, December 19, 2022
Just Finished Reading: Luck and the Irish – A Brief History of Change, 1970-2000 by R F Foster (FP: 2007) [189pp]
Ireland changed a LOT in the last 3rd of the 20th century. From a reasonably poor and largely agrarian society they emerged as a Celtic tiger with high-tech industries flocking to their shores. They (largely) threw off the power of the Catholic church after numerous sexual scandals as well as the growing agitation for the right to divorce, contraception and abortion. Improvements in education and a massive increase in students going to university helped power the economic miracle and joining the European Union opened up markets for their increasingly sophisticated products. After years of political strife (and political corruption) things began to calm down in Eire itself and in relations to the counties in Northern Ireland. Alongside the flowering of economic and political possibilities came the explosion of Irish culture as a global phenomenon from Riverdance to U2 as well as breakthrough novelists and poets. From a European backwater, Ireland had in a very short time become a world player in a host of areas.
It became obvious very quickly that my knowledge of modern Irish history was scanty to say the least. Many of the names mentioned of politicians and industry leaders were completely unknown to me or rang very faint bells at best. Funnily, the section on political corruption around the granting of building permits which brought down the government in the 70’s did ring a bell – but from my reading of an Ireland based crime novel! With such a low level of knowledge to comfort me I honestly struggled with this (at least to begin with) and, overall, it took me at least a day longer than anticipated to read it. Although I shouldn’t have been (really), I was quite surprised by the power of the Catholic church before they fell from grace. I had little idea that they had the power of veto in much in the political realm as well as de facto rights to sensor TV, radio and newspapers almost as they saw fit. Only after the scandals did this power diminish and then, largely, vanish.
It was interesting to read about the ‘Troubles’ in the North but from the other side. I’d read a little about the IRA in Northern Ireland (and, of course, watched a great deal of it as it unfolded on the nightly news) but I hadn’t really considered it from the South’s PoV. That chapter, as well as subsequent bits scattered throughout the book, definitely filled in that gap in my knowledge. The culture section was a bit of a strange on (to me at least) as I was aware of much of the great music coming out of Ireland in this period – being a BIG fan of U2 in the 80’s at university and beyond – but talk of authors and poets were often new to me. I’d heard of people like Edna O’Brien (and tried to read her books back in my youth) but not many of the other authors. The poets completely passed me by.
Overall, despite the effort it took in parts, this was an interesting and informative read. It certainly filled a gap (or at very least illuminated a void) in my knowledge of our near neighbour and the home of a goodly percentage of my ancestors. Much more on the island of Ireland to come – both ancient and modern.
Sunday, December 18, 2022
Saturday, December 17, 2022
The Last Book Tag – borrowed from Marianne at Let’s Read
The Last Book I Bought
East of Eden by John Steinbeck from my local Charity Shop
The Last Book I Borrowed
I don’t borrow books and, generally, hardly ever lend them out so, blank on this one!
The Last Book I Was Gifted
I only get gifted books on my birthday these days, so it was: Beyond – The Astonishing Story of the First Human to Leave Our Planet and Journey into Space by Stephen Walker
The Last Book I Gave to Someone
Splitting – The Inside Story of Headaches by Amanda Ellison to my brother to see if it offered any help with his migraines.
The Last Book I Started
Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (today!).
The Last Book I Finished
Frostquake – How the Frozen Winter of 1962 Changed Britain Forever by Juliet Nicolson (also today!).
The Last Book I Rated 5-Stars
I’m a VERY harsh critic so I don’t give out many 5* recommendations. My last book came close but Auntie’s War – The BBC During the Second World War by Edward Stourton came closer!
The Last Book I Rated 2-Stars
Small Acts of Resistance – How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. This was better than merely readable but could’ve been a LOT better given the material they had to work with.
The Last Book I DNF'd
I’ve been really lucky this year without a single DNF (so Far). My last DNF was back in Feb of ‘21: Naked Came the Robot by Barry B. Longyear, a truly terrible book.
The Last Book I Listened To
Not something I’ve ever done. I did think about it when I’m ‘out and about’ but I’d honestly prefer to listen to music instead. I am listening to a Rachel Maddow podcast presently that’ll be turned into a book at some point. Does that count?
Friday, December 16, 2022
Thursday, December 15, 2022
Just Finished Reading: November Road by Lou Berney (FP: 2018) [299pp]
New Orleans, November 1963. It was such a trivial request Frank Guidry could hardly have refused, a sort of ‘Oh, and while you’re there’ sort of thing. To be honest he’d almost forgotten all about it until he heard the news from Dallas. The feeling was something new. Once he got over the surprise, the shock, of the successful assassination he started to feel something else – how it felt to be a loose end. Because that’s exactly what he was now. The car he’d left, been asked to leave by his boss Carlos Marcello, in a parking lot a short walk from Dealey Plaza might just be traced back to him and then back to Carlos. So, loose end. Frank knew exactly what happened to loose ends, they were cut off – permanently. There was no point pledging his loyalty. Carlos would always have the doubt that Frank would save himself from the electric chair by turning States Evidence. So, Frank only really had one option – run. But run where and to who? Who would help a mob street lieutenant rather than make a phone call and get in Carlos’s good graces? It would have to be Las Vegas. He had contacts there and maybe some hope. They’d be looking for someone on their own and both the trains and flights would be covered so, a long drive it was. But if he could pick up a passenger, someone he could use as cover, that’d help, that’d help a lot. Luckily for him Charlotte Roy, on the run from a failing marriage, along with her two young daughters, need a lift to anywhere. No one Carlos sent after him would be looking for a family on vacation. It was Frank’s lucky day, though maybe not for Charlotte...
I bought this because I liked the cover and thought something about the Kennedy assassination might make an interestingly different read. I found myself regretting waiting so long to read this excellent character-driven thriller. Both Frank Guidry and Charlotte Roy turned out to be wonderful character creations, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and credible backstories. The hired killer following them was equally well drawn and his arc throughout the book was as fascinating as that of the main characters. Throughout I felt completely immersed in the world the author created. Nothing, not a word, place or incident felt ‘off’ or out of place. The sparse conversations rang true and even a few surreal events in Vegas (where else!) were outlandish enough to feel creepily believable. The ‘chase’ (it was more subtle than that generally) kept the tension humming along and the periodic outbreaks of violence – moderately graphic but completely in context – gave an enhanced tone of dread just when the plot needed it. The ending both surprised and delighted me. There was a really nice misdirection that I was initially disappointed by but quickly realised just how good it was. The following epilogue was an additional sugar frosting on an already satisfying read. Quite excellent from start to finish and most definitely one of the best books of my reading year. Very highly recommended for lovers of thrillers and for those who just want to be transported out of their day-to-day reality into another life.
Dagger Awards Best Book (nominee)
Anthony Awards Best Novel
Barry Awards Best Novel
Macavity Awards Best Novel
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
Monday, December 12, 2022
Just Finished Reading: Curious – The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It by Ian Leslie (FP: 2014) [272pp]
Anyone who has kids, or indeed been a kid, knows that a constant refrain is the word ‘Why?’ Humans, it seems, are BORN curious. Even before they/we can speak we’re pointing at things in the expectation of being given information about the object of interest, putting things in our mouths much to the horror of our parents and wandering off to explore our local environment. Our innate curiosity has taken us from the African savanna to the Moon and, if we can avoid the fate of the curious cat, no doubt eventually to the stars. But curiosity hasn’t always been revered in western culture nor is it always long tolerated in society or even in the home. After been asked the 1,000th why question it's easy to lose patience and tell a child to stop asking so many questions. Likewise, even in school a constant questioning nature is seen as disruptive to learning and all too often discouraged. Historically curiosity has been discouraged especially when questions are raised which, potentially at least, could call into doubt the foundations of the present order. Wondering about the basis of the divine right of kings or even the nature of divinity itself could get you into much more than hot water if voiced at the wrong time or to the wrong people. But, argues the author in this fascinating and highly entertaining book, curiosity is needed now more than ever as the world faces a growing number of threats to its prosperity and, quite possibly, its very existence. Moreover, curiosity on an individual level helps keep dementia at bay and enhances day to day experiences allowing things to be seen clearly for what they are.
Drawing on the worlds of psychology, sociology and icons of the business world, the author sings the praises of curiosity in ourselves as well as nurturing it in others. Personally, I’m regularly amazed at the number of people I encounter who lack basic curiosity about the world they live in. It’s not that they lack the breadth of curiosity I find within myself it’s that they lack ANY curiosity about incidents and events that impact them. I’m well known for ‘always having my nose in a book’ and reading through the sections on childhood curiosity I struggled to remember who exactly encouraged this constant drive to know more I feel burning in me as I type these words. Why, I found myself asking time and again, am I this curious about pretty much everything? It made me laugh some years ago when one of my work team asked me what I was reading one lunch time. “An introduction to Economics” I said. Why, she asked, are you reading that? Because, I said, it’s a subject I don’t know very much about. So why are you reading about it, she innocently enquired.... At that point I was, briefly, completely lost for words. I believe that curiosity, the simple desire to know, is basically life enhancing on an individual level. At a societal level it’s vital. An incurious culture is a dead culture or soon will be. Even without the growing number of potential existential threats we’re facing as a species, being a curious civilisation that encourages its citizens to be curious and remain curious throughout their lifetimes is a huge plus for all concerned. Asking questions is good. Being critical, questioning and curious is good. Never be afraid to ask WHY. Not only could you learn something new, something interesting and something useful it will lead to another question and then another. A definite recommendation for all those curious readers out there.
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Saturday, December 10, 2022
Not much to edit this time, but a few of the questions seem (to me anyway) very American based again.
11. Do you eat breakfast in the morning?
Yes. It’s often a mixture of things depending on my mood. It could be cereal, toast or just a light snack to get me going.
12. When you go to the beach, do you sunbathe or swim more?
I’m not really a beach person. I don’t ‘perform’ well in direct sunlight or in the heat. Plus, I find beach life REALLY boring. Oh, and I never learnt to swim.
13. Have you ever ridden a city bus before?
LOL – Every day when I was working. These days maybe twice a month or so. I must’ve taken tens of thousands of bus trips.
14. Have you ever traveled outside of the country? If so, where?
Yes. Scotland, Wales, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada.
15. If you got arrested, what do you think it would be for?
Probably for something really stupid.
16. What is your favorite childhood memory?
Oddly, my childhood – at least until my early teens – is largely blank. I don’t think it was to ‘forget’ anything bad, it’s just that I wasn’t really paying attention.
17. What was your favorite song two years ago? What is it now?
NO idea. I’m always listening to music so don’t really have any favourite songs that I can focus on YEARS ago. These days I’m loving listening to Classic FM on the radio – even if they’re playing a LOT of Christmas music presently [grin]
18. What teacher have you had that's made the biggest impact on your life? How?
Probably my early English and my later Maths teacher, both of whom lent me books and encouraged my reading habits very early on.
19. Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Let me think about this for a moment..... [lol] LOVE cats but still like dogs a lot too. Both are special in their own way. But there’s definitely ‘something’ special about cats.
20. What is a quote from any movie that you know off the top of your head?
LOTS. Aliens is a get film to quote as is almost any movie with Arnie in it. The “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe...” speech is probably my fave but “Nuke ‘em from space, it’s the only way to be sure” is right up there.