22 April 2014

The Crow Road

Author: Iain Banks
Year published: 1992
Pages: 512
Time It Took To Read: Two days

My fiancé suggested I read this when I claimed I didn't want to read any of my ENORMOUS COLLECTION OF UNREAD BOOKS. I go through phases of this. Anyway, it's one of his favourite books of all time, so I obliged.
It concerns Prentice McHoan, the somewhat deadbeat middle child of the younger generation of the McHoan clan. He has escaped the family town of Gallanach, where it seems everyone is related to everyone, to study (badly) at Glasgow. He likes drink, drugs, music, trying to get laid, and trying to avoid his family. He doesn't speak to his dad because they differ in religious view, and his grandmother's just died, so back he must go. There's also the mystery of why his Uncle Rory known to be a unreliable, hasn't been back to Gallanach for years. He doesn't even come back for his mother's funeral. 
This book is a catalogue of death. Indeed, it seems Prentice only comes of age because of the deaths of so many of his friends and family. And the deaths reveal slowly the secrets of Gallanach.
I enjoyed it. Iain Banks was a hell of a writer, and this book is full of languorous prose, like having a warm bath in description. The cultural references place it inextricably in 1990, which is a time I vaguely remember as one of starting school and hating chips and being steadily outflanked by younger siblings. It was simultaneously vaguely recognisable and terribly dated. Everyone is believable, and pretty much everyone who has ever attempted to escape a village or small-town life will recognise themselves in Prentice. 

Book count:  16/50

Roseanna, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, The Man On The Balcony


Author: Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
Year: 1965, 1966, 1967
Series: Martin Beck books 1 - 3
Pages: Approx 300 pages each
Time It Took To Read: A few hours each

My love of detective stories has been rekindled by the amazing Cuckoo's Calling, and I've had the Martin Beck stories lying in wait on my ebook since October. So I read the first three over the Easter weekend.
In Roseanna, a body is found. Nobody is missing, nobody knows who she is, so how are they supposed to find her killer?
In The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, a journalist has been missing for a couple of weeks, but for some reason the foreign office are involved and want it investigated....quietly.
In The Man On The Balcony, children are being raped and murdered, the city is in uproar, and the police cannot find the killer - every policeman's worst nightmare, I expect.
I love these books. I plan to read the rest over summer. You see the crime and investigation almost solely through the investigator's eyes. There are no first-person murderer narratives jarring into view. If the police don't know, the reader doesn't know (this is slightly deviated from in The Man In The Balcony, but not by much). And I love that, I love seeing it unfold, and trying to guess whodunnit. Unlike a lot of detective stories, the murderer isn't one of a number of suspects dangled before your eyes from page 1. Also, unusually, these books are mostly unconcerned with motive, or justice. Once the criminal is caught, the story ends, pretty abruptly. It is refreshing, and stark. It is pre-DNA, so the forensic examination is generally fingerprints and notes, and waiting for analysis, rather than UV lit sperm at the crime scene.
The Martin Beck stories revolutionised crime writing, and they're quite unlike most modern crime books. But they haven't aged, and have a realism and freshness that I adore.

Book count: 15/50

14 April 2014


Author: Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Year: 2013
Pages: 320
Time It Took To Read: Months to finish

I am a student of health and social care, but I'm not really studying health and social care at all. I'm studying the philosophy, evolution, science and practice of medicine. The social aspect comes into it, but as I believe the health and social care systems need to be fully integrated, it's all part of the whole and shouldn't be separate. I think one of the most dangerous parts of modern medicine is cartesian dualism - that the body and person are separate entities. Healthcare needs to be holistic. I don't mean alternative medicine, I mean actual NHS healthcare needs to take into account the person across the board. It's something I feel intensely strongly about, most particularly in psychiatry and obstetrics.

Anyway, I got this book because I've read the author's book on chemistry, Periodic Tales, and it was one of the first really interesting things I've read about elements. And I have a long fascination with physiology and anatomy. It took me ages to read, because I literally wanted to discuss every single thing I read in it with someone, so didn't get very far very fast.

Everyone has, at some point, been treated as a body. You've got a throat infection? Observe the swollen throat and treat. If you're lucky, you have a GP who understands that you can't take time off work, or rest, or afford your prescription, but otherwise your throat is the issue, divorced from your personhood. This book takes the opposite view, relating anatomy and systems to a culture and philosophy. Why is there no standard of beauty? Why is someone's gender so important and unimportant at the same time? Why do we develop symmetrically: how does the left arm know it is left? Why are left handed people historically treated as freaks? If we could live forever, would we want to? The author manages to discuss complicated scientific ideas without it becoming arduous, and uses endless sociological, cultural, and philosophical ideas and models to remind the reader that their body is simultaneously their whole reality and their empty shell. 

If you're interested in health, medicine, anatomy, society, sociology, demography, philosophy, culture or just generally in people, this is a fantastic book. I loved it. 

Book count: 12/50

11 April 2014

After Dead

Author: Charlaine Harris
Series: Southern Vampire Mysteries
Year: 2013
Pages: 200
Time It Took To Read: Fifteen minutes. I'm not lying.

This is the most disappointing book I've ever read. Ever.

I thought it'd be akin to The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, which is a meaty fan-friendly book of trivia, extra and ACTUAL CONTENT. Alas, I was wrong. 200 pages which could easily be condensed to 45, with a few lines to sum up the characters' ending. Quinn, for example, gets a WHOLE PAGE to describe his ending, but only five words (He had many more adventures). It's an affront to trees, this waste of paper. I don't know why Charlaine Harris even bothered writing it, except as a money spinning exercise. Nobody has a satisfactory ending: it's all misery, death and mundanity. The combination of this and the last proper book has taken away all the joy I had in this series. If I'd paid for this, I'd be LIVID, it's going for NINE POUNDS on Amazon and I doubt there's more than 3000 words in the whole thing.

I am taking this deeply personally, I know.

Book count: 11/50

8 April 2014

Dead Ever After

Author: Charlaine Harris
Series: Southern Vampire Mysteries 13
Year: 2013
Pages: 352
Time It Took To Read: Three hours

I have been waiting for this to come out in paperback since last year. I cannot be doing with cluttering my house up with hardbacks. The covers fall off, they take up immense amounts of space, they hurt to hold too long because I've got a faulty wrist. But this is one of the few book series that I have read AS a book series, rather than started with book ended in ebook. I needed an ending.
In preparation, I read all twelve preceding books in order over a few days. 

I was a bit worried in case the ending was shit. A series you've invested in has the potential to disappoint in a way non-series books do not. And lots and lots of fans DID think the ending was shit, and loudly declaimed this only. I avoided spoilers, and this is a non-spoiler review.

I liked it. I don't see how it could have ended any other way, while still being true to the central character. But there were lots of things left unsaid and undone that I would have liked a better ending on. As a postscript, she's written a book about What Happens Next, which I plan to read as soon as my beloved brings home my charger cable for my ereader... 
It does suffer slightly from a change in narrative style. Sookie has upset a lot of people over the years and they want revenge, and this point of view doesn't fit with the narrative of any of the other books, so it jars. Then it lapses back into the usual style. There's only one sex scene, and it's appallingly written. The sex itself is believable, but the way it's written made me cringe. It's not a particularly well thought out plot: the final villain isn't really believable in motive, and I was disappointed. The series deserved to go out on a bigger bang than this.

I'm a bit sad it's ended. I do love vampire mystery soft core, and I don't watch True Blood because bleeding wrists make me faint. But perhaps it's better this way than Charlaine Harris just churning out books to make money.

Book count: 10/50

The Filth of Roald Dahl

Author: Roald Dahl
Year: 1979
Pages: 208
Time It Took To Read: A couple of hours

Author: Roald Dahl
Year: 1974
Pages: 208
Time It Took To Read: About an hour

My eldest son bloody loves Roald Dahl. He is obsessed with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but loves all of them. I loved them myself as a child, loved the edge of darkness. I have read Dahl's story about the leg of lamb murder, but this was the first time I've read his adult fiction.
Dear reader, it is filth.
And I love it.

My Uncle Oswald is a story about a debauched man who develops an aphrodisiac akin to Spanish Fly, but stronger, and then collects the sperm of the famous to sell to greedy women hoping to buy genius. He has help from Yasmin Howcomely, a girl with a similar worldview. Oswald's motto is to never sleep with the same woman twice. The book is littered with food, drink, luxury, sex and snort-inducing hilarity. 
Switch Bitch is a collection of four stories. Two are about Oswald again, getting his end away (or trying to) in rather improbable conditions, and more experiments in aphrodisiac. One is about two men who organise a secret wife swap, with a genuinely hysterical twist at the end. And finally, in the darkest short story I've ever read, a widow tries a new relationship with awful results.

I really enjoyed these books, and I want to read more dark Dahl. 

Book count: 9/50

The Cuckoo's Calling

Author: Robert Galbraith (or J.K Rowling, as he's better known)
Series: Cormoran Strike
Year: 2013
Pages: 464
Time It Took To Read: Three days

That J.K Rowling's a wily one. Instead of writing an encyclopedia of Potterdom (which she should), she diverts us by writing a detective story in the guise of a man. And I absolutely understand why, and why she adopted a pseudonym. I haven't read The Casual Vacancy, because I'm not a massive fan of fiction (not that you'd know, reading this blog), but my sister lent me this and I was in PAROXYSMS of AWE throughout.

Everyone knows you can't have a normal detective. Detectives always have a flaw, preferably several. They smoke, they drink, they're ugly, they can't keep relationships down, they are shit fathers, they cry out for vengeance, they are gruff, they have no friends, they enclose themselves in such a cloak of dour arseholeness that nobody wants to work with them. Cormoran Strike, the detective of this book, has many of the above flaws, plus an absence of leg, but manages not to be either defined by his flaws, or irritatingly unlikeable because of them. 
Detectives also need a long suffering sidekick. Holmes had his Watson, Morse had his Lewis, and Strike has his Robin. Robin, a temp, turns out to be surprisingly good at detective groundwork. Which is handy. 
And the victim, a beautiful, fucked-up model, has fallen to her death from her luxurious mansion. None of the police involved go quite as far as saying "Are yew saying it was MUR-DUR?" like Doris in Hot Fuzz, but that's the general gist. 

I loved it. It was immersive, on the nose with celebrity culture, and not too obvious. I can't wait for the next one, which is apparently due out June.

Book count: 7/50