December Books | Impulse Buys

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

It is a fact that I am not supposed to buy books in December because gifts, but as we share wishlists I know the range from where my presents will be drawn.

That’s a complicated way of saying that if a title wasn’t on my wish list it was fair game. Here we go.

The Pre-Orders

  • Beast by Matt Wesolowski – because I love the Six Stories series and the podcast format makes for compelling reading
  • Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer – because any new book by this author is a must-buy for me

The True Crime

  • American Predator by Maureen Callahan – if you’ve seen my earlier post you will know that I have already read this, and will be looking into this awful serial killer more in 2020
  • Dark Dreams by Roy Hazelwood – Sexual Violence, Homicide and the Criminal Mind because who doesn’t want some light reading…
  • The Forest City Killer by Vanessa Brown – I heard an interview with the author on a recent podcast and had to find out more about this Canadian case

The Other Non-Fiction

  • The Pulse Glass by Gillian Tindall – a personal and global history in objects; I love this sort of thing
  • Good Morning, Good Life by Amy Schmittauer Landino – I follow Amy’s YouTube channel but bought the book specifically for an online book club read; I’m already behind…..

The Fiction

  • Intensity by Dean Koontz – I don’t think I’ve ever read any Koontz; this is serial killer rather than horror
  • Gallows Court by Martin Edwards – murder in 1930’s London, the first in the Rachel Savernake series
  • We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory – Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. What happens when he and others like him join a support group? 

That should keep me busy for a while 😀

Review Catch-Up | Movies

All of these deserved individual posts but I’m superstitious and don’t want 2019 reviews to wander into 2020. It’s a thing.

Doctor Sleep

My thoughts on the Kubrick film of The Shining have been aired here before (in short, it’s a good Kubrick film, but not a great King adaptation) and I read Doctor Sleep when it came out (you can find a review of it here) and I was therefore a bit wary of what I was going to see, given that director was trying to remain faithful to both. I needn’t have worried, this was a really good film with excellent performances (especially Ewan MacGregor). Not really a horror film IMHO but creepy and absorbing and will become a favourite I’m sure.

Directed by Mike Flanagan, 2h 31 minutes long and rated 15 for strong bloody violence, gore, horror, threat and language. All boxes ticked.

Knives Out

As you will know from my book reviews I love a good crime novel and also enjoy crime movies if they are done well. I was excited for Knives Out given the premise and the amazing cast and again was not disappointed. Daniel Craig was in his element, excellent use was made of Chris Evans (and his sweater) and of course Christopher Plummer was wonderful as always – he has been one of my favourite actors for many years and I love seeing him on the big screen. It’s definitely best if you know as little as possible about this film before you see it so I will say no more other than it is thoroughy recommended.

Directed by Rian Johnson, 2h 10 minutes long and rated 12A for brief bloody images, moderate sex and suicide references, strong language

The Irishman

I’m ambivalent about gangster films and their tendency to make heroes out of criminals, even if that’s not intentional, but The Irishman was getting great reviews and the Book God was very keen to see it so we settled down to watch it on our re-established Saturday Night is Film Night – something we used to do fairly regularly but lost impetus because of excellent TV options. Anyway, this was 3.5 hours long and my heart sank a tiny bit but as soon as elderly Robert De Niro started talking I became transfixed and happily watched the whole thing. Of course it’s morally dubious and Al Pacino presents a master class in scenery chewing, and the female characters are all woefully underused, but it was beautfully made and I enjoyed it very much.

Directed by Martin Scorsese becuase of course it was, like I said it was 3h 29 minutes long and rated 15 for strong violence and language

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Well. I’m not going to say a huge amount about this here because everyone else is talking about it and I actually want to see it again before I go into any detail (avoiding spoilers as always of course) BUT subject to my disappointment at the lack of Rose Tico and the wasted opportunity that was Finn & Poe not being the couple we know they should have been, and the reminder that Carrie Fisher is no longer with us, I really really enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker. It’s not perfect but it is very satisfying.

Directed by JJ Abrams (self descibed as not good at endings), Episode IX is 2h 22 minutes long and rated 12A for moderate violence, threat

Have you seen any (or all) of the above? What did you think?

Slowly We Die

Slowly We Die by Emilie Schepp is just the latest in a long(ish) line of Scandinavian crime novels that I am seemingly unable to resist. I have mixed feelings about this one, but before we get into that…… to the plot!

A tragic incident on the operating table leaves a patient damaged for life and leads a young surgeon to abandon his profession as a physician… Now, years later, a series of senseless, gruesome murders are rocking the same medical community.

I picked up this book following a recommendation on Twitter, I think, though I can’t remember from whom (sorry for that – I really do have to get better at recording where I find out about books to read) and started to read it when I hit a bit of a slump in my #20booksofsummer reading list. I have found in the past that crime fiction will almost certainly help me get my reading mojo back.

So, as the quote above says, we have the Swedish medical profession represented mainly by an ambulance crew who unfortunately keep on turning up at the scene of horribly gruesome murders. We have the police who are investigating the cases while also looking for a dangerous criminal who escaped from hospital. And last but not least we have Jana Berzelius, the investigating prosecutor with her own set of secrets. But why are these people being killed?

I do enjoy a good medical thriller and this seemed promising but, for some reason, I stalled about a third of the way through and set it aside for several weeks. Looking back I think it was mainly because I finally twigged that this was actually the third book in a series featuring Berzelius, which explained why some of it didn’t quite make sense.

Some reviewers have suggested that you don’t need to have read the previous books to enjoy this one to the fullest, but sadly that wasn’t my experience; the significant subplot involving Jana kept getting in the way of my working out what was going on.

And it was the desire to find out the solution that took me back to the book. It was an interesting story and I failed to work out who the killer was so that’s par for the course.

In one sense I wish I had read the previous books as those would have added some useful context, but as I didn’t actually like Jana very much I can’t see me searching them out.

Not at all a bad book, just not for me.

The Man From the Train

Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewellery and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villisca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.

Bill James, who is a statistics whizz and baseball writer, became fascinated with these cases and applied his skills to work out which of the crimes were linked and which were standalone, and ultimately to identify the killer. He enlisted his daughter Rachel McCarthy James as a research assistant and she is identified as a co-author of the book.

You will know by now that I cannot leave true crime stuff alone, and I came across this book when reading through a list of best non-fiction crime reads and was intrigued by the premise, mainly because of the timeframe. Intellectually I know that what we now call serial killers have been around forever, but the idea that it would be possible to identify that type of criminal from before the First World War just called to me.

I won’t go into detail about the solution because the point of the book is to explain how it was arrived at and we don’t get given a name until the very end, but it seemed plausible that the named individual rode the rails and killed when e had the opportunity, which is the best that anyone could hope for at this distance.

The Man from the Train is written in a distinctive style which the reader will either love or find annoying; I don’t think there is middle ground 🙂 James approaches this in the same way that he would write about baseball I guess. He is very much in the thick of the narrative; no detachment here. I must admit that I really liked the way in which he makes his arguments, justifying why he has included something or why he disagrees with the assessment of others, sometimes coming across as quite defensive. He can also be a bit rude about other writers, but you get such a sense of James explaining all of this to you in person that I found it very entertaining.

James doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the murders, the poor quality of many of the investigations, and tragically the lynching of a number of suspects. Awful. He also provides context on what forensic measures were available at the time (hint – not much).

It reminded me a little of They All Loved Jack (which you can read about on my old blog) but without the unfortunate opinions.

Siren Song

When the luxury yacht Helen Brooks was last seen on is found abandoned amid the treacherous marshlands of the Humber Estuary, foul play is suspected. However, in the absence of a body, nothing can be proven. The owner of the yacht, ambitious businessman Simon Fowler, seems unprepared even to offer any sort of explanation as to what Helen was doing on board. A year later, Hull private investigator Leo Rivers is approached by Alison Brooks, Helen’s mother, to investigate both the background to this disappearance and Fowler

Siren Song is the second in Robert Edric’s Song Cycle featuring Leo Rivers; I bought this and indeed the third novel after finishing Cradle Song which I reviewed here. I’ve read some of Edric’s other work and enjoyed it and it is interesting to see how he approaches the crime genre given his more “literary” background (I hate that phrase but what can you do?). When reviewing books I tend to focus on my own reading experience but I will occasionally go off and have a look at what professional reviewers are saying. It is always interesting to see what others think, especially when, in this case, the response is negative (dull and pedestrian seemed to be the keywords) or at best damned with faint praise.

I enjoyed this book. I like Leo Rivers as a character, perhaps because he is something of a cypher and we don’t really get a feel for his private life and circumstances, which is offputting to some. I do sometimes get irritated by crime novels being more about the investigator than the crime itself, and although Rivers does get intimately involved with on of the other characters it is part of the general theme of manipulation which underpins the plot. there was an added pleasure in that one of our friends is called Simon Fowler and every time I saw the name it gave me a little jolt.

I didn’t work out the solution which is something I can’t help but try to do when reading a crime novel, but I don’t think that’s the point here; the focus for me was on the moral ambiguities involved in the various relationships. There is quite a high body count for a story that isn’t about a serial killer though.

I thought this was a complex and satisfying tale about seeking the truth, finding peace and taking revenge. It’s fair to say that some of these aims are achieved more successfully than others but that reflects life I guess. I’m looking forward to reading the third volume soon.

This was my third read for 20 Books of Summer.

My Week | Out & About & Mini-Reviews

This time last week we were celebrating the Book God’s birthday, and those celebrations extended into the Monday when we travelled to Brighton so that we could visit the Royal Pavilion. Now we’re back to old clothes and porridge as they say (in a stronger Scottish accent) where I come from. More on Brighton later, but first – the books

I had a really good reading week, finishing three books, starting with Siren Song by Robert Edric, which I’ll review in a day or so.

As for the other two:

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark – so I am fascinated by true crime as I have gone on about here ad nauseam, and one of my favourite sources is the podcast My Favourite Murder hosted by Karen & Georgia, the authors of this book, which is basically a joint memoir expanding on the stories they have told about their lives during the non-murdery parts of their broadcast. I love them and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Private Life of Elder Things is “a collection of new Lovecraftian fiction about confronting, discovering and living alongside the creatures of the Mythos.” This is a bit patchy as all anthologies tend to be, but there are some very good stories included. A quick read with one of my favourite things, author’s notes.

This week’s new books:

  • The October Man * Ben Aaronovitch – A Rivers of London novella. Trier is famous for wine, Romans and for being Germany’s oldest city. So when a man is found dead with, his body impossibly covered in a fungal rot, the local authorities know they are out of their depth. Fortunately, this is Germany, where there are procedures for everything. [Pre-order]
  • The Paper Wasp * Lauren Acampora – An electrifying debut novel of two women’s friendship, a haunting obsession and twisted ambition, set against the feverish backdrop of contemporary Hollywood. [Pre-order]
  • 1913: The Defiant Swan Song * Virginia Cowles – It’s the eve of the First World War. One era ends as another is set to begin. Before life is changed forever in the maelstrom of war, the excess and extravagance of European high society blazes its trail. Acclaimed historian Virginia Cowles paints a picture of the glamour and scandals within the upper echelon of society of seven major cities, through rich prose and lively anecdotes.
  • Just One Damned Thing After Another * Jodi Taylor – Chronicles of St Mary’s Book 1 – When Madeleine Maxwell is recruited by the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, she discovers the historians there don’t just study the past – they revisit it. But one wrong move and History will fight back – to the death. And she soon discovers it’s not just History she’s fighting…

I’m currently reading The Man from the Train by Bill James which is an early twentieth-century true crime murder mystery. I’m still considering my fiction read.

Back to Brighton. We had a super day walking around the Pavilion before having a delicious meal in a local Italian restaurant, all of this despite the best efforts of two railway companies and rain that was at almost biblical levels. Seriously, it was running down the streets. But we still had fun.

Have a great reading week!

Archie & Gretchen | Books 4-6

I have finally finished the hugely enjoyable Archie Sheridan & Gretchen Lowell series by Chelsea Cain with the last three novels discussed below.

First, a quick overview – Archie Sheridan is a police officer based in Portland, Oregon who, while hunting the serial killer known as the Beauty Killer was kidnapped, tortured and ultimately released by said serial killer, the beautiful, intelligent and extremely manipulative Gretchen Lowell. Their dysfunctional relationship is explored over six novels. Unsurprisingly, there is a very high body count.

If you would like to know what I thought about the first three then you can find the relevant blog post here.

The second half of the series comprises:

  • Book 4 – The Night Season – the one where Portland suffers major flooding, there is another serial killer on the loose and Gretchen doesn’t really appear at all
  • Book 5 – Kill You Twice – the one where Gretchen is locked up in a psychiatric unit but merrily manipulative almost everyone else, while another another serial killer is on the loose, this time with potential links to GretchenBook 4 – The Night Season – the one where Portland suffers major flooding, there is another serial killer on the loose and Gretchen doesn’t really appear at all
  • Book 6 – Let Me Go – the one where Gretchen is on the loose again and creating havoc, though there is another another another serial killer carrying out crimes in the area. This looks like its the last in the series though I think the ending is left sufficiently open so that the characters could be revisited in future.

As I said above I really enjoyed this series; the books are well-written and tightly plotted and the psychological makeup of the main characters is troublingly effective. But as with every other almost-omnipotent serial killer (looking at you Hannibal Lecter), each entry in the series has to really up the ante. This often means that situations becoming increasingly gothic, almost to the point of absurdity, so suspension of belief is essential. There were a couple of WTF moments in the final book where I really thought it had all gone too far, but I let that thought go and just went along for the ride.

If you like your psycopaths astonishingly beautiful in a head-turning way who can kill with impunity and, despite being infamous, still manage to move around freely without anyone noticing, and if you don’t mind a lot of gruesomeness and quite a bit of explicit sex, then this series is for you.