All The Books I Read in 2017 – Part 1 (January – March)

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I did this last year and found it really quite fun to look back at what I’ d read over the year. I’m writing this a little more methodically this time round, so I sit here in January writing about things I read in January (I know, I’m not sure this level of organisation will last to be honest). I’m still keeping the little notebook too.

January

The Pie at Night (How the North Has Fun) Stuart Maconie
An affectionate look at the North of England at play, a follow up to ‘Pies and Prejudice’. I bought this after we’d been to see Maconie read at an event nearby (in Didcot, I live in voluntary and happy exile in the South for now) and it languished on a shelf for six months. It’s an enjoyable read, I do love Maconie’s writing. It’s heartfelt I think, funny and informative. He can really capture a place in words – making me feel nostalgic for old haunts and resolving to visit bits of ‘up North’ I’ve not been to despite growing up there. ‘The North’ is quite large, after all. I am desperate to do the Clitheroe ghost walk, for example, and go on the beach at Silloth. 

Ulverton Adam Thorpe
When I started reading these tales of a fictional village* through the centuries I began to be haunted by a vague feeling I’d read it before, I clearly remember the chapter about ‘Improvements’ but after that it all seems new to me, maybe I left the book somewhere by mistake. I can’t imagine why I would have just STOPPED READING it, because it’s an absolutely brilliant, strange, occasionally infuriating and captivating book. It demands quite a lot of the reader (I don’t find this an issue, if you have no guilt about reading two or three books at once you can take a break with something else can’t you!). Thorpe speaks to us about the history of this fictional village in many voices through the years – among them a 16th century shepherd, an improving farmer, a carter, a frustrated lady of the manor, a modern property developer. Each is SO different you really can believe it’s a collection of disparate accounts of Ulverton edited into one volume. It’s a remarkable achievement.  Each chapter references back to previous events, often extremely obliquely, so you feel like you’re doing a puzzle as well. At least one chapter is completely incomprehensible, though most are reasonably straight forward, all of them are a little odd. I loved it.

*fictional it may be, but I have a pretty good idea of where this village ‘is’, and this novel is spot on with the social, economic and landscape history.

February

Rush Oh! Shirley Barrett
When this was published it went straight to the top of my to read list, I had to wait for the paperback though. I love the whole tone of this book and the little illustrations throughout. The book is written from the point of view of an older woman (Mary) writing her memoir of one whaling season when she was a young woman in the early 20th Century. Of course it’s not only about whaling; Barrett covers relationships between family, the whaling men, incomers and townsfolk, her own romantic dealings with the slightly mysterious John Beck and, hugely interestingly I thought, the relationship  of the people with the whales, and the whales with each other. Using original newspaper reports of the time, and based on a real whaling family this is such a good read. There is a little question, a little uncertainty at the end of this novel – sometimes this kind of thing is infuriating, but sometimes not, here it is the latter.

Norse Mythology Neil Gaiman ; Ragnarok A.S. Byatt
A fabulous rewriting of the Norse myths, you can really hear Gaiman as narrator if you’ve read any of his other work. I went to see him read from and speak about this book at the Royal Festival Hall. It was pretty amazing (it would have been anyway but even more so when you don’t go to literary events habitually, how I wish I did!). On the way to the reading I re-read quite a lot of A.S.Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’ – a retelling of the Norse myths in her voice  (via the device of ‘the thin child’). It was a really interesting exercise to compare the two. I’d  recommend reading both, but maybe not on the same day as both books are now  melded together, slightly confusingly, in my mind.

 

The Essex Serpent Sarah Perry
This serpent kept popping up all over my internet wanderings, almost as if I was meant to read it. I’m glad I bought it, because I loved it. There’s nothing quite as good as aVictorian mystery, and quite a lot of this is mysterious. The sense of place in this book is astonishingly accurate – I have searched for sharks teeth in Walton on the Naze, and driven through that flat, watery part of Essex, it’s a slightly strange place. The characters are drawn making you want to know all their back stories; what is Cora’s background – how did she end up married to an apparently awful individual? What’s Luke’s history? You  want to know what happens next, though I can’t imagine a sequel coming along. This is a fantastic book which I can imagine reading again. Though I must also read Matthew Sweet’s ‘Inventing The Victorians’ which Perry refers to in her notes, and has been sitting on my shelf for ages.

March

Cold Earth Anne Cleeves
The last but one of the Shetland series about Detective Jimmy Perez and his policing adventures in the Shetland isles. I really do enjoy detective fiction, from Sherlock Holmes onwards. Cleeve’s novels are really enjoyable – not really violent (except for the obvious murdering, but that always happens off stage) and are excellent if you want the true detective story puzzle of trying to work out who the killer is. There is great character development in the long running characters – if you don’t want to give Jimmy Perez a hug you must be dead inside – luckily, towards the end of the series, there is someone written in who wants to do just that. In these books you also get evocative descriptions of the Shetland landscape – making these novels, Up Helly Aa and Shetland Wool Week my prime reasons for wanting to visit the islands.

(The books are very different to the TV adaptation, not least because l’ve never seen anyone looking less like they have Spanish heritage than Douglas Henshall, who plays Jimmy – I do still enjoy them!).

The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins
Another detective, as I said up there, I really like a detective novel,  the historical detective is in my top two  of the sub genres – magical detectives is the other; Peter Grant, the Shadow Police, any other recommendations I’d love to hear them. Well, back to Thomas Hawkins, who we first met when he was chucked in the Marshalsea 
and tasked with finding the murderous devil within. Now he’s out of prison and co-running a dodgy bookshop with his young lady friend ( a business she inherited from one of the previous novel’s murderees). This is just as good as the first novel, in fact I enjoyed it more as I knew the characters so much better, well the ones who had survived anyway. It has all the Hogarthian (I know, what a cliche, but he did capture it so well) Georgian lowlife you could wish for; thieves, harlots, rakes, female gladiators, light-boys, imprisoned slightly mad young ladies, drunken violent aristocracy, and the scheming Queen Caroline (she’s not  lowlife, I admit!).  There’s a brilliant ‘ongoing cliffhanger’ in the form of flashbacks, and it really does have an excellent breath-holding , staying up to read far too late,  ending. 

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