Thursday, January 12, 2017


We are having the worst summer I can remember for a long time. Quite often December isn't great, but usually by now it's lovely and hot, to the extent that everyone complains about the heat and the dry conditions, lots of swimming happens, and I have to walk Manu at 6 am or else it's too hot for us both.

This year the main problem has been cold winds - weeks and weeks of strong blustery winds, sometimes gale force, from the south-west. Very little rain, though.

So to cheer myself up, here's some photos from my last big trip, of a lovely hot place I went to on my last big trip to Europe, 18 months ago.

This is a beach called Nazaré, in Portugal. 
We drove up to the top of a huge bluff to see this amazing view. 
Later, down in the town, we walked along the beachfront 
until we found a good place to have lunch and a cold drink. 

This was the view looking the other way, 
out to the Atlantic ocean.

Even up this high, there are pigeons...

I wouldn't mind being back there now, even though the average daily temperature in January is only about 13°C (55°F).

Hope the weather's good where you are!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Five-star reading

In 2016 I started awarding stars as I finished books, to remind myself more readily how I had reacted to them. I was surprised when I went through the list to find that I had given 5 stars to 10 books - in thinking back over the year's reading, I would have expected fewer.

I'm going to write a few comments about some of them, but I'm not going to try to rank them. These were the books which got 5 stars:

This moving and compassionate novel is set in a real place (Winter, Saskatchewan), and based on the life of Patrick Gale's great-grandfather, who emigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. In the author's words: “The mystery was around why he abandoned his wife and child to go and lead this incredibly harsh existence. He’d never worked. He was a man of leisure. My grandmother told me lots of stories when I was growing up but she never talked about Harry.”

This made me laugh and cry in almost equal measure. Described as "a darker, sadder version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time", it's a totally credible picture of living with an autistic child, and the effects on the family members of struggling with bureaucracy to get the help all of them need.

Exposure is a spy novel, but it is not what that phrase might lead you to expect. It is set in 1960s London, and the dark cloud of the Cold War has a very real presence in people's lives. The story takes place in the homes and gardens of suburban England; the main characters are a seemingly conventional married couple and their 10 year-old son; and "Fear permeates every page with a leaking, lethal insistency" (New York Times). Brilliant.

I have read several of O'Farrell's books, and have enjoyed them all, but this latest one is so clever and intriguing that I kept going back and reading parts again, just so that I could relish them fully. It's another 'jumping timelines' book - but so brilliantly managed. The Guardian review says "Stylistically, narratively and emotionally, This Must Be the Place is a tour de force, a complex and nuanced story leaping effortlessly across multiple characters, continents and time frames."  Astonishing.

If you've read Kate Atkinson's hugely successful Life After Life,  you will enjoy this book. It is described as a 'companion' rather than a 'sequel', as Ursula's younger brother, Teddy lives through his only life. I liked it better - there are fewer fireworks, but I found him to be a far more interesting, sympathetic and likeable protaganist than his sister was in the first book.

A strange, beautiful and haunting book, set in Alaska in 1885.

If I had to choose one of this year's books above all of the others, this would be the one. If you like speculative fiction, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Here's Wikipedia: 'The Bone Clocks was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, and called one of the best novels of 2014 by Stephen King. It won the 2015 World Fantasy Award.
(It) is divided into six sections with five ... first-person narrators. They are loosely connected by the character of Holly Sykes, a young woman who is gifted with an "invisible eye" and semi-psychic abilities; and (by) a war between two immortal factions, the Anchorites, who derive their immortality from murdering others, and the Horologists, who are naturally able to reincarnate.
The title refers to a pejorative term that the immortal characters of the book use to refer to regular humans who are doomed to mortality because of their aging bodies.'

I've been a John le Carré fan since my teens, and found this collection of stories and reminiscences fascinating. And beautifully, masterfully written.

I haven't read all of this American author's books, but I loved Bel Canto and enjoyed State of Wonder. This new one is great - a story so deftly manipulated and shaped that that it gives the term "family saga" a totally new meaning. It's not a long Franzenesque chronicle of events and relationships spread over many years - there are decades missing, and they're also out of order. But it's totally absorbing, and deserves all the acclaim it's been getting.

Another new publication in 2016, this speculative novel takes the importance of perfection and appearance in society, and pushes it as far as you can possibly imagine. Scarily possible.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Books of 2016

In 2016, I read 98 books. 

That total was made up of a number of different genres, which I have broadly divided into the groups you can see in the pie chart. 

Some of the labels cover a very wide range, especially the three largest groups. It seems odd to put, say, Kate Atkinson and Stuart MacBride into the same group! Really, any author worth their salt needs a label of their own...

I have happily adopted the 'Speculative Fiction' label, as it seems much more encompassing than either 'Sci-Fi' or 'Fantasy'. I couldn't put Guy Gavriel Kay into either of those categories, but Speculative is (almost) one-size-fits-all...