The Sandman Audible Audiobook – Original recording – Neil Gaiman (Author, Narrator), Riz Ahmed (Narrator), Kat Dennings (Narrator), Taron Egerton (Narrator), & 7 more – 19.10.20

I’m a big fan of Neil Gaiman novels, and have read them all, but I’d never read The Sandman, because I kind of dismissed it as being a graphic novel, and therefore not much to it (!) Well, I was clearly wrong, as this Audible original production of The Sandman is a rich and satisfying series of interconnected stories based around Morpheus, or Dream, one of ‘The Endless’ who are immortal anthropomorphic personifications of human concepts such as death, desire, destiny, or indeed, dreaming. The audiobook has a large cast of talented actors, as well as narration by Neil Gaiman himself and is very well done. Some of the stories are quite gruesome and horrific, and others are more gentle and even sweet, but all have the surreal quality of dreams. (Apparently, the audiobook is just an adaptation of the first three volumes of the Sandman’s ten volume series – wow, there is so much in the first three volumes and it’s only a third of the total!). I’ve read some reviewers who are upset by the books outdated casual exploitation of women or members of the LGBTQ community, but as it was written in the eighties, it has to be viewed in light of the cultural habitus or zeitgeist of the time. I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook – I was gripped by the narrative and found the conclusions of the various story arcs to be satisfying . I loved the actor who played Death – she was chirpy and upbeat but also wise and kind. I liked the story about Shakespeare’s players performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the faerie folk, and the story about Rose Walker from The Doll’s House, although I could go on and list most or all of the stories as the ones I liked most, since I enjoyed the whole experience! I’m very excited because I just read that they are making a Netflix TV series of The Sandman (delayed by Covid…) hopefully it will appear before too long.

Mostly Hero – Anna Burns – 16.10.20

I’m not usually a fan of short stories, but I bought and read this for two reasons. Firstly, Anna Burns Novel, Milkman was my stand out read of 2019 – I absolutely loved it, and secondly, I was a third of the way through reading Underland by Robert Macfarlane, which is a very interesting and readable non-fiction book about all things underground. Although I am fascinated by all the interesting facts and anecdotes about underground tunnels, waterways, ecosystems etc, I struggle to maintain interest through a whole full length non-fiction novel. For me, all those facts would make a compelling story even better – they could be metaphors for the hidden depths of the characters, but without the storytelling ride, I just get bored and give up. So, for a bit of light relief, I read Mostly Hero. Now that was a fun ride! As you would expect from Anna Burns, the story is a bit out there and off the wall – it’s a self aware parody of the superhero genre, and I feel like it was probably multi layered with meaning and allegory but that I’m not smart enough to appreciate it (that didn’t matter though as I really enjoyed the romp). Superheroes, supervillains, femme fatales, shoot outs, secret hideouts, love, hate death, resurrection – it’s got it all. Great fun.

The Binding – Bridget Collins (AUDIOBOOK) – 08.10.20

Hmmm, I’ll start with the positive – I thought Carl Prekopp’s narration of this novel was fabulous – I loved his soft northern accent and I thought his interpretation of the prose was spot on – like he was personally feeling the story – his soft quiet voice lent so much meaning and emotion to the words that I felt like I could listen to him saying anything. Just as well, really.

The premise was interesting – set in a version of 19th century England where books are considered evil and to be avoided because of their magical properties. I was quite interested in the first part, where the protagonist, Emmett Farmer is sent off to be an apprentice to an old woman bookbinder (considered a witch by many) because she sees in him the latent ability to create books. Emmett’s past is a ‘closed book’ to him, and when he and the reader start to find out what his backstory is, in my opinion at least, the book descends into fraught melodrama and romance novel drivel.

The final part picked up a bit, and I’ve read books that I’ve hated more, but I would not go so far as to say I liked this book. It was okay. Maybe just not my cup of tea.

Apeirogon – Colum McCann (AUDIOBOOK) – 02.10.20

I have been mesmerised by this novel for days – narrated by the author, who at first seemed to me to be somewhat jilted and strangely flat in his narration, but who actually drew me in until I was hanging on every word, I feel emotionally wrought, enriched and changed by the experience. It’s like when you come out of a really strong play with maybe only one or two cast members but that really packed a punch so that you feel like you have lived the trauma or journey with the characters. Apeirogon is set in Palestine and follows two fathers, one Jewish, one Muslim who both lose daughters in the violence there. Based on actual people the novel explores their journeys, their lives and their decisions to campaign for peace in the face of such tragic loss, but it tells the story in such a profound and beautiful, masterful, way that it is like a masterclass in ‘showing not telling’. I think the stark, simple and factual way the story is told, as well as the ‘random’ asides with facts related to peace and war and the struggles of people against people only serve to intensify the emotional punch of the experience without feeling that the book is being cheaply manipulative. I can go so far as to say that it’s my reading (or listening) highlight of 2020.

Strange Practice: A Dr Greta Helsing Novel – Vivian Shaw – 01.10.20

This book was a lot of fun to read, just my cup of tea! For fans of Sarah Painter’s Crow Investigations series, or Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, it’s set within the supernatural sub-community of modern day London. This time, instead of a detective, the main protagonist is a doctor who specialises in treating non-human people. Greta Helsing is descended from the Van Helsing family, famous for Vampire hunting, but instead of hunting, she befriends and treats vampires, ghouls, were-people and other supernatural beings. Of course there are bad guys threatening the supernatural community and Greta and her companions have to track them down and fight them. I thought the book was really well written with sympathetic and well rounded characters and I very much enjoyed reading it. I was tempted to straight away buy the next two books in the series, but I was put off by the price for each being £5.99 on Amazon Kindle, when most of the books I buy are 99p daily deals. I might yet splash out because I really want to read more of the series!

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummings – (BOOKGROUP) – 27.09.20

This was the novel chosen by my book group for our next (zoom) meeting, and I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. It’s about a mother, Lydia, trying to escape from violent drug cartels in Mexico with her young son, Luca, after every other member of her family was brutally murdered. The positive I took from the book is that it made me think about and look up on wikipedia the issues of poverty and violence in Central and South America which drive so many people to the perilous journey of attempting to get into North America as refugees/illegal immigrants.

I’m afraid that for me this is where the positive reaction ends. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the book because it was written by a privileged white middle class American woman (apparently she has discovered some small percentage of south/central American ancestry in her family tree since promoting this book….) who had very little if any first hand experience of the struggles her characters go through. I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t be able to write about things they haven’t experienced, because that would remove about 90% of all fiction (!) but the point has been raised that there are many fabulous Central/South American writers who have written books on the same topics but without the huge publicity budget and payments from publishers that Ms Cummings’ book received. Coming from Belfast, I know it can be jarring if writers set books here with the backdrop of ‘the troubles’ with no real understanding of things that are as natural as breathing to the people who actually live here.

Setting this controversy aside, though, I thought the book was just not very well written. It was like the author did lots of research, and had lots of anecdotes of terrible things that real people had suffered and just wanted to get them all into the book with little thought as to artistry, originality, or beauty in the storytelling. I may not even have bothered finishing it if it weren’t my book group read (saying that, from the chat in the book group whatsApp, I think I’m in the minority and the other members seem to have really enjoyed the book).

I’ve just started listening to the audiobook of Apeirogon by the Irish author, Colum McCann (I’ll review it here properly when I’ve finished), which is set in Palestine following two fathers, one Muslim and one Jewish who both lose daughters in the violence there. To me, this is the opposite end of the extremes and I’m already loving it. The book is a piece of art, with poetry and beauty and skill in the art of storytelling making the experience of getting to know these men and the things that shape them a much more compelling and effecting experience. It just highlights to me how bland and pedestrian the storytelling in American Dirt was.

Troubled Blood (Cormoran Strike 5) – Robert Galbraith (AUDIOBOOK) – 25.09.20

I just watched all the BBC adaptations of the previous Cormoran Strike novels, which I very much enjoyed and I couldn’t wait to get this new installment. I bought it as an audiobook, as this was the cheapest way for me to get it (using my monthly credit) and it was a long listen, over thirty hours which consumed my life for about a week! Initially, I found the narrator’s West Country accent for Strike really off putting, I was so used to the gorgeous Tom Burke’s portrayal of the tortured but nobel Strike, that the accent, which was to my ears like the lovechild of Sam Gamgee and Worzel Gummidge was just wrong. I got used to it though, and I realise that it is fitting for Strike to talk this way as he was raised in Cornwall (his backstory is explored more in this novel which is partially set in his childhood home).

I really love this series, Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) manages to capture the array of human foibles and personalities with all the good, bad and in between in a way that is totally believable and relatable. The mystery is complex and interesting, covering black magic, astrology, medicine, crime gang lords, genetic illness and more. The subplots of ongoing investigations being carried out by Strike and Robin’s agency give both light relief from, and additional insight to, the main plot.

For me, having a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship thing going on between the male and female detectives in a whodunnit is usually an annoying cliche too far that would put me off reading a series. I have to admit though, that I’m totally sold on the whole Robin/Cormoran love vibe, and it’s resolution, or at least acknowledgment is if anything, more important to me than the mystery aspect of the plot. There are some very frustrating, and also some very sweet moments between the two protagonists, and I thought this aspect of the book was handled perfectly!

When I got to the end, I was sad it was over, and wished I also had it on Kindle so I could read it again (I guess I could listen on audiobook again, but it’s so long, and I have other things I want to listen to….). If the kindle book gets cheaper, I’ll defo buy it and read it.

Why We Eat (Too Much): The New Science of Appetite – Andrew Jenkinson – 15.09.20

This book was the Kindle 99p deal one day, so I bought it, as I’m struggling to maintain my weight loss and it seemed to be a fairly rigorous scientific approach to obesity by a doctor who is an experienced obesity surgeon. The author himself admits that the title is a little misleading, as the book really addresses why some people get fat who eat the same amount of calories and have the same levels of activity as others who stay thin. Having studied genetics at university myself, and having read up on this subject already, I had already reached many of the conclusions that he states (It’s always nice to be told you’re right by someone highly qualified) but I got a little frustrated as the overly simplified and repetitive way he made his points (again, and again, and again…). I already knew that the most significant factor in being obese is your genetic makeup, which in our current environment predisposes a lot of people to being overweight. The changes in the environment which caused the rises in obesity levels seem to be initially the availability of processed sugar, and more recently (and even more significantly) the change from animal fats (butter, lard etc) for cooking and baking to vegetable fats that are produced in such a way that they are full of super unhealthy trans-fats. Most (or possibly all) of the processed foods we can buy are made with trans fats and processed sugar. The takeaway from the book for me is to change from using (what I thought was healthy) vegetable oil for cooking, to either extra virgin olive oil, or peanut oil, and avoiding wherever possible sugar, simple carbs and processed food. (The sugar one is going to be tough – who doesn’t love cakes and biscuits??)

The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman – (AUDIOBOOK) – 15.09.20

I was pretty excited waiting for this book to come out, I pre-ordered it as an audiobook as this worked out as the cheapest way for me to buy it. I like Richard Osman, he seems like a nice and intelligent chap, and I guess I was expecting a more cerebral book than The Thursday Murder Club turned out to be. It’s not deep. Set in a retirement village in Kent, the cast of characters are a group of old people who have set up a club looking at old unsolved crimes to try to work out whodunnit (the Thursday Murder Club of the title), two police officers, and a small gang of shady characters including the owner of the retirement village. When members of the shady gang start to be killed, and old bones are discovered, the Thursday Murder Club decide to solve these crimes. I liked how the book had a very positive world view, with most people being basically good and kind and well meaning, and I liked the gentle humour and the relatable conversations between characters about things like which shops make the best cakes and biscuits. There are some very touching moments as the subjects of bereavement and dementia are never far away from the inhabitants of an old people’s home. I got a bit bored in the middle, and found my attention wandering as I listened (although many books, in fact, probably the majority, dip in the middle) but I got back into it towards the end. The audiobook has an interview with Richard Osman by the Irish Author Marian Keyes (which is sick makingly sycophantic) in which he admits that he didn’t do any planning but just made things up as he went along, which is (I’m afraid) fairly obvious from the meandering and not well structured way the plot plays out. Saying that, I think I will buy and read the next book in the series when it’s released, as I did, overall enjoy reading this gentle ‘cosy mystery’ story.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk and Antonia Lloyd-Jones – 13.09.20

I found this book strangely atmospheric and very readable. Written in Polish by Olga Tokarczuk and translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, it’s the story of an older woman, Janina, who is one of only a small number of people who live all year round in what is normally a Summer cabin in a forested region near the Polish border with the Czech Republic. Her job is to maintain the empty cabins as well as teaching English part-time in the local school. She is passionately concerned with animal rights, and vehemently opposed to the active hunting tradition in the forest near her home. When prominent local men start to die in suspicious circumstances, Janina is convinced their deaths are somehow brought about by the animals seeking revenge for the acts of animal cruelty carried out by these men. I thought the language was very poetic and beautiful, with frequent references to Blake, who’s works Janina is translating with a former pupil. I liked how Janina lives in harmony with the harsh natural climate and l loved the dark humour with which she views the world.