Books Read in 2022 1. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin

Genre: Thriller

Narrative Style: Alternates between first person and third person.

Published: 1994 (Under the name Jack Harvey)

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Michael Weston is a sniper and paid assassin. He asks no questions and just gets on with the job. However, this time someone has tipped off the police and he is nearly caught. Michael needs to investigate who gave him the job while also evading the police and a private detective named Hoffer who works on the behalf of the family of a previous victim.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader

Time on shelf: About ten years. I remember buying it in a charity shop because I was interested in reading a Rankin novel that wasn’t a Rebus story. However, as I was working my way through the Rebus books at the time, they always took precedence.

This started well. The story starts right in the middle of the action. Weston is in position, waiting for his victim who is about to appear from the hotel across the road. He makes the hit and the police arrive far too quickly. Weston then has to escape – something he does by hitting himself in the head with a rock and then phoning an ambulance which comes extremely quickly once they realise he is a haemophiliac. That was an unusual angle and made the story exciting from the first.

Weston’s sections are written in first person and I liked that we were being made to side with a character who was ostensibly the bad guy. I was keen to know who had set him up and how all the pieces fitted together. For all he assassinates people for money, he isn’t a nasty character. He tends to keep his distance from people or at least he tries to.

The main foil to Weston’s character is the private detective, Hoffer. He is supposed to be the good guy but it is impossible to like him. He is sexist and obnoxious. In fact, I think Rankin may have overdone it with his lack of redeeming features as he became something of a caricature. I found myself more and more irritated with him. He is never far behind Weston and his unpleasantness made it easier to root for the assassin.

There is love interest for Weston in the form of Belle, the daughter of his arms dealer. She was clearly supposed to show that women can be interested in guns and can be tough and sexy. She is in love with Weston and they fall into a relationship. I found this a bit unnecessary. Weston keeps trying to leave her behind. She refuses to be left. It gets a bit tedious after a while.

The plot is intriguing. Weston discovers that the hit is linked to a cult called Disciples of Love who have links to some US government agencies. As he investigates further, the group become more and more sinister. As with the Rebus books, Rankin’s plotting is tight. This was the most successful aspect of the book. Very satisfying.

Unfortunately not everything was so successful. Hoffer has the opportunity to kill Weston but suddenly has a fit of conscience which didn’t ring true. I wasn’t really convinced by some of the smaller characters – Spike, Weston’s friend in the States, for example. The dynamic between Michael and Belle was annoying. Ultimately this was an okay read but nowhere near as good as the Rebus books.

Reading Past and Present

Last year, I let my husband help pick the books I was reading – 50 in total – and he picked some things I had been meaning to read and a lot of classics. I managed to get through Middlemarch, Far From the Madding Crowd, Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea but not David Copperfield, Emma or The Turn of the Screw. I was pleased to get through those four as they have been on my meaning to read list for a while but I’d be a liar if I said that I really enjoyed them. I feel compelled to keep reading the classics – I’m not sure why – but I really don’t enjoy them. As a result, I went off list.

Highlights from last year were mostly modern – Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale was a favourite, as was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth was fantastic and certainly the best alternative history novel I have read. Roth and Whitehead were both new to me and I will definitely be reading more by them in the future.

Unfortunately. although I had quite a few five star reads, I also read a lot of disappointing books. David Mitchell (Utopia Avenue), Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me), Sebastian Faulks (Engleby) and Graham Swift (Here We Are) all let me down this year. The one good thing about this is the fact I do not feel compelled to read anything else by them.

This year, I am choosing less books – I only managed to read 37 books last year. I am adding some of last years books, some non fiction and more kindle books then I had last year. Hopefully, I’ll manage to stick to it a bit more successfully.

  1. Blood and Guts in High School – Kathy Acker
  2. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  3. Ridley Road – Jo Bloom – Finished 26/2/22
  4. Have You Eaten Grandma? – Gyles Brandreth
  5. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  6. The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  7. Babel Tower – A. S. Byatt
  8. Good Night and Good Luck – David Cavanagh
  9. The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
  10. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves
  11. Mr Wilder and Me – Jonathan Coe
  12. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  13. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  14. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  15. Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo
  16. Sunburn – James Felton Finished 23/1/22
  17. Maurice – E. M. Forster
  18. House of Glass – Hadley Freeman
  19. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman Finished 5/6/22
  20. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell Finished 11/3/22
  21. The Princess Bride – William Goldman
  22. The Institute – Stephen King
  23. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt Finished 22/2/22
  24. Live By Night – Dennis Lehane Finished 12/5/22
  25. Pies and Prejudice – Stuart Maconie 29/5/22
  26. No One Writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  27. More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
  28. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
  29. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin Finished 16/1/22
  30. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – Meera Syal Finished 10/2/22
  31. Shuggy Bain – Douglas Stuart Currently Reading
  32. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan Finished 30/5/22
  33. The Two Towers – J R R Tolkien Finished 11/5/22
  34. Candide – Voltaire
  35. The Underground Railway – Colson Whitehead Finished 10/4/22
  36. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham Currently reading

Books Read in 2021 37. Lady Chatterley’s Lover – D. H. Lawrence

Genre: Romance, Classics, Erotic

Narrative Style: Third person from different viewpoints.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1928

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Clifford Chatterley is confined to a wheelchair after the first world war. His wife Connie is bored and restless. They would have been ill-matched even without the added strain of Clifford’s paralysis. When the new games keeper arrives on the estate, she starts an affair with him.

Time on Shelf: Quite a while. I downloaded this because I thought it would be interesting to read and compare to modern erotica. I was put off, however, by my other attempts at reading Lawrence which had been unsuccessful.

Like most people, I was curious to read this because of the furore that it caused. I watched the 2015 BBC adaptation which features Richard Madden as Mellors (rather generous casting I would say) and was suitably sexy. I realise that this was never going to be Fifty Shades of Grey (Not that I liked that book anyway) with sex every two minutes but Lawrence’s prose was terrible and really the story wasn’t complicated enough for the number of pages that Lawrence gives it.

It’s hard to say whether this book would be read by anyone if not for the sex. Lawrence’s style is well and truly out of fashion, I suppose and thank goodness for that. There were little affectations that I found immensely annoying. For example, ‘And besides, he felt cruelly his own unfinished nature. He felt his own unfinished condition of aloneness cruelly.’ This repeating of little phrases happened quite often and made me want to throw the book away every time it happened. Then there was the exclamations. I don’t think I have ever read a book which overused the exclamation mark quite so much. Here is a particularly bad example. ‘The awful mill-posts of most females! really shocking, really enough to justify murder! Or the poor thin pegs! or the trim neat things in silk stockings, without the slightest look of life! Awful, the millions of meaningless legs prancing meaninglessly around!’ It was exhausting. I’m just glad I didn’t have to read it out loud.

Connie was always feeling things in her bowels or in her womb. (‘On this spring morning she felt a quiver in her womb, too, as if the sunshine had touched it and made it happy.’) That was annoying but maybe we can forgive Lawrence seeing that he was writing 100 years ago and he does allow that Connie has very real sexual feelings which she follows. The sex is a bit cringey (inevitably, I suppose, given that there is often something a little odd and awkward about sex written down and we think about things so very differently now.) particularly in the beginning with Connie’s first lover, Michaelis where orgasms are referred to as crises and Michaelis has little care for Connie’s pleasure.

It doesn’t get much better with Mellors. For a start, he shifts between dialect and Standard English at will. Lawrence’s attempts at writing down his dialogue are incomprehensible at times. Lawrence is as much in thrall to Mellors and his penis as he is to Connie and her body parts so the descriptions are, at least, equally absurd. The couple talk to each other like no real life people ever (in fact, this is true of all conversations and all characters. Did Lawrence ever actually talk to people?) and fall in love physically on the floor of Mellor’s hut.

The themes of this novel are quite interesting – the relationship between the classes as well as that between the sexes are dissected thoroughly – but the awfulness of the prose spoiled it all for me. I couldn’t take it seriously. Shame, really.

Books read in 2021 – 36. Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim.

Genre: LGBT, Abuse

Narrative Style: First person from a number of different points of view. Chronological

Published: 1995

Rating: 5/5

Format: paperback.

Synopsis: At eight years old, Brian Lackey is found bleeding under the crawl space in his house with no memory of the last few hours. His last memory is playing baseball. The next evening, he sees what he believes to be a UFO. Over the years, he loses more time and he becomes convinced that he has been abducted by aliens, more than once. Neil McCormick is on Brian’s baseball team and he knows exactly what happened to Brian and it has nothing to do with aliens. Brian realises that Neil is the only one who can help him fill those missing hours so he tracks him down.

Time on shelf: I bought this a couple of years ago but I’ve been aware of it for about six or seven years.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. From the very first, it is apparent that something terrible has happened to Brian Lackey and, although he cannot remember it, it has something to do with his little league baseball team and the coach of the team. We know this from Neil’s parallel narrative in which he describes his encounters with his coach. Neil couldn’t be more different from Brian. He is very aware of himself and his sexuality and he relishes the attention that he gets from his coach as he gets little love and attention at home. This is not easy to read even though Neil claims that it has not harmed him and, in fact, he loved his coach and believed that the man loved him.

The narrative moves to later in the lives of both boys – along with narratives from their friends and family. Neil is now a hustler, still very much occupied by sex. Brian is obsessed with UFOs and aliens and eventually meets someone who claims to have been abducted by aliens. He measures her experience against his own and starts to believe this is what happened to him. It is heartbreaking to see the paths both their lives have taken. Although Neil still claims to be happy and to be doing what he wants, it is clear that he has been damaged by his early experiences. Brian seems even more tragic, unable to even acknowledge what has happened to him. The alien story occupies him because he knows something terrible happened and this story means that he doesn’t have to examine the truth.

Heim deftly handles all the different perspectives and the story moves at quite a pace. It is compelling – I found myself both wanting and not wanting Brian to discover the truth. Obviously, he couldn’t carry on believing he was abducted by aliens but inevitably, when he did work it out, he would be destroyed by the knowledge and that was going to be hard to cope with.

Brian finds a photo of the little league team and realises there is some special memory attached to the image of Neil. At first, he believes that they must have been abducted together. But as his search brings him closer to Neil, he realises that the image of his coach also has a horrible effect on him. He is close to his own realisation when Neil takes him back to the house where it happened and we get a full description of what happened to both boys.

The ending was particularly difficult to read especially as Heim offers no resolution. The novel ends with Neil and Brian sat together, holding hands, as the family that now own the house come home. There is no knowing what effect the revelations will have on both their lives. It is a moment that could go in a number of different ways. It could be good – both of them perhaps can move forward – or it could be bad – maybe they will be drowned by it. It is for the reader to decide and I chose to look on the brightside.

This was a difficult read. As you might expect given the subject matter. I hesitate to say I enjoyed it because I’m not sure enjoyment is the right word. It was compelling and heartbreaking. I couldn’t put it down.

Books Read in 2021 – 35. Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Genre: thriller, masculinity, madness

Narrative style: First person, largely chronological

Rating: 2/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2007

Synopsis: Mike Engleby has never fitted in. Not at school and not at university. When he becomes obsessed with a pretty student named Jennifer, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong with him. Then Jennifer disappears and all eyes are on Mike but there is no proof that he killed her and life carries on.

Time on shelf: Not very long. I read Birdsong a long time ago and really enjoyed it. More recently, I read Paris Echo which was okay. I wanted to give Faulks another try before I decided to stop reading him all together.

I really expected to enjoy this. I thought that Mike Engleby would be as creepy and upsetting as Frederick in The Collector. Perhaps I read this too close to the Fowles but it just didn’t compare. A lot of this book felt like filler. Not much happens and Engleby was annoying. He rarely made my skin crawl.

The book starts with Engleby at university and obsessed with Jennifer, a fellow student. So far so good, right? Wrong. Although Engleby follows her around – attending her lectures as well as his own, joining a society she runs – not much happens. There is little sense of tension. Probably because it is quite a lot of pages in before she disappears. Before that, there are minor events such as he steals a letter she is sending home and reads it and he steals her diary. We also discover something of Engleby’s background – he was bullied at the private school he attended on a scholarship – but I didn’t feel drawn in.

When Jennifer does eventually disappear, Engleby seems an obvious suspect but there is no proof to tie him to the disappearance. He hides the diary which he still possesses and the event passes and he wanders into his future as a journalist. There are hints that he may have something to do with it. He talks about memory lapses and another woman disappears but his life carries on regardless. I was definitely bored now.

Part of the problem was my inability to suspend my disbelief. Engleby decides to send the diary back to Jennifer’s mother but it is okay, he was memorised it all so we are still treated to extracts of her diary. At the same time, he suffers from huge memory lapses where he had no idea what had happened for hours. This didn’t convince. The amazing memory trick is only mentioned when the diary is sent away so it felt contrived. Now I realise that this could be an authorial trick. Engleby is unreliable and we have no way of knowing whether he was remembering Jennifer’s diary exactly or not but it was too unsubtle for me. I prefer not to see the author at work.

Eventually – far too many pages later – the police have finally discovered how to extract DNA and Engleby is tried and found guilty although he is sent to a mental institution rather than a prison. His discussions with the court appointed officials and then his psychiatrist are cringe worthy and difficult to read. One thing that keeps coming up is the fact that Engleby’s violence towards women may be due to his repressed homosexuality. (Obviously Engleby does not agree with this reading of his issues.) I found this offensive and, again, not particularly well written. When Jennifer first disappears, the police make assumptions that Mike is gay, something he vehemently denies. Then his case worker also suggests that this is the root of all Engleby’s issues. (Incidentally, Mike’s opinions of her are also pretty offensive.) Is this really the best Faulks can come up with – he must really be gay? Tedious, not to mention homophobic.

Another thing that was annoying was the cameos of those that Engleby interviewed when he was a journalist. Now, it may be that this was all part of Engleby’s delusion but nonetheless it was annoying to have Ken Livingstone, Peter Mandelson and Ralph Richardson keep popping up in the narrative. It reminded me of David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue which I read earlier this year. Perhaps it is an impulse a writer of a certain calibre finds impossible to resist – I must have a go at some real people – well, resist they should. Another element of tedium.

The end of this book is ambiguous. Engleby may be innocent. It may all have been a fantasy. This didn’t make it any more satisfying and I struggled to understand what Faulks might have been trying to say. Like The Collector, there is a class element to this story but unlike Fowles novel, it wasn’t apparent what the moral was supposed to be. I think I’ll be leaving Faulks alone for a while now.

Books Read in 2021. 34. The Collector – John Fowles.

Genre: thriller, classic

Narrative style: First person from two different perspectives, chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1963

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Loner Frederick collects butterflies and obsesses over a beautiful stranger, Miranda. When he wins some money, he buys a cottage and abducts Miranda, keeping her in the cellar of his cottage.

Time on shelf: I only bought this recently but I have been intending to read it since I was a student some 30 years ago.

I was really looking forward to reading this and I was not disappointed. From the very beginning, Frederick is creepy and odd. He is uneducated and poor. He collects butterflies and has no friends. He becomes obsessed with Miranda as she represents everything he wanted – she is middle class, she is educated, she has friends and she seems happy. Frederick has none of her advantages. To him, Miranda is the very embodiment of everything that is good with the world. She sees him as the pathetic specimen he really is – instead of education and opinions, he was moral values which he never deviates from.

At first, it seems that Frederick will never be able to be with Miranda. Apart from his clear oddness, they move in completely different social circles. Then Frederick wins the pools and suddenly he has money which means he can put his plan to abduct Miranda into practise. His win is corrupting because it gives him the freedom and time to do what he wants – something that working class people do not usually have.

Even with Miranda now at his mercy, Frederick is not able to have her. At least, not without using force. He wants her to want him which she never will. He treats her like one of his butterflies, creating the perfect environment for her. Unfortunately for him, he is unable to pin her down like a butterfly. She keeps on trying to escape.

Halfway through the book, the narration changes to Miranda. She keeps a diary from the day of her abduction. I must admit that whilst I had sympathy for her, I found her incredibly annoying. In her own way, she is as self-obsessed as Frederick. She obsesses about her situation – obviously enough – and about a man called G.P. who is an artist. She admires his work and cannot decide if she is in love with him.

G.P. is a philanderer, an artist full of his own importance, giving Miranda advice about art and life that she laps up. She is unable to see that he is no better an option that Frederick. These are the two models of masculinity that Miranda is offered by Fowles – poor, disturbed and uneasy about sex or posh, arrogant and unable to commit to anything more than sex. Poor Miranda.

Both narratives are convincing and Fowles keeps the pace up. It seems inevitable that Fowles will kill Miranda, rather than she will escape. In the end, this is what happens although in a different way then I expected. Frederick then contemplates killing himself to lend the story a tragic romantic air but he changes his mind. Instead, he buries Miranda and sets his sights on a new victim, Marion, sure that he has learned from his experience with Miranda. Also, Marion is not as posh as Miranda nor is she a student so Frederick feels she will be a safer option. The story is definitely not over.

I enjoyed this very much. It was disturbing but also very clever. The class analysis was spot on and still felt relevant. It was possible to see how circumstances had affected Frederick – both his working class beginnings and the fact of winning a lot of money – but Fowles does not really allow the reader to feel sorry for him. Miranda is feisty and tries her best to escape but is thwarted every time. The battle between the two of them is hard fought and while I willed her on every time, I think I always knew she was doomed. The ending was satisfying because it was clear to me that Frederick would try again, that he was too far down the road to be able to have a normal relationship. Definitely worth the read.

Books Read in 2021 – 33. On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Genre: Black fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of different viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Belseys and the Kipps don’t get on. They are both art scholars, both study Rembrandt and Monty Kipps got his book out first. When Jerome Belsey falls for Victoria (Vee) Kipps, the families are thrown together again and again. Howard Belsey has marriage trouble. His wife, Kiki, is also dissatisfied. Carlene Kipps is dying. The various offspring of the two families have various personal issues including finding an authentic identity (Levi) and championing the cause of academia (Zora). All of this is played out on the campus of Wellington University.

Time on shelf: I inherited this when my husband’s aunt died in 2014. In the meantime I read Swing Time which I didn’t really like and this put me off going back to Smith. (I had previously read White Teeth and The Autograph Man.)

I went back and forth on how to rate this one. It is well written (4 stars) and it covers issues of identity successfully (4 stars) but the characters didn’t grab me (3 stars) and the plot was slow and didn’t pull me in (3 stars). It was a bit of a slog at times. When I got to the end, all I felt was relief that it was over.

There can be no doubt that Smith can turn a phrase. This is very well written. It is also ambitious. It is based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster which is not a book I’ve read. I have seen the film though and once I realised, it made sense. Very different families. A gift betrothed but not delivered. And, in fact, it made me feel a lot like when I have read Forster – a little like I must have missed a joke or maybe I’m just not quite clever enough to get it.

Part of the problem is that the characters weren’t very interesting to me – in fact, they were almost stereotypes. Howard Belsey is a white professor, married to a black woman who is not as thin as she used to be. He is floundering in his career and has recently had an affair with a fellow lecturer. He is terrible with technology. He ends up sleeping with Monty’s daughter. This seems a little like it could be a character arc in a John Updike novel. Kiki is little more than her race and her weight. Monty Kipps is a typical right wing, conservative Christian. And so on.

Similarly, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it often felt like the most interesting things happened off-page. I enjoyed the bequeathing of a painting by Carlene to Kiki which Monty tried to hide but even then, the court case that ensues happens elsewhere. Also, as I have previously mentioned. I’m not a massive fan of posh people or campus tales so this was on a loser from the start. I’m not sorry I read it but I’m not sure that I’ll read anymore Smith novels.

Books Read in 2021 – 32. Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel

Genre: Politics, Non-Fiction, Race

Narrative Style: First person

Published: 2021

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: David Baddiel discusses the ways in which anti-Semitism is treated differently from other types of racism and prejudice using examples from the media, TV and social media.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I read The Plot Against America at the start of the year and that sparked an interest in Jewish History. Earlier in the year, I watched Baddiel confronting Holocaust deniers for a TV program and that made me warm to him in a way I hadn’t previously so when this book came up on Kindle I bought it.

I have a mixed history with David Baddiel. When he first appeared on the comedy scene – or at least when I first became aware of him – he was with The Mary Whitehouse Experience and I loved that but then came the football years and his (and Frank Skinner’s) humour was too laddish and football based to appeal to me. Then I read Whatever Love Means which I really think is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. After that, I didn’t really take much notice of what he was up to. Then earlier this year, I watched Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel. If I hadn’t watched that, I certainly wouldn’t have read this book.

Baddiel begins by talking about a review of Charlie Kaufman’s first novel Antkind by Holly Williams. Williams complains that it has a ‘white-male-cis-het perspective’ and is, therefore, part of the patriarchal orthodoxy. However, the narrator – B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is described as having Jewish characteristics such as a Rabbinical beard and other characters behave anti-Semitically towards him. Baddiel feels, rightly I think, that this means the character is less privileged than Williams assumes.

Baddiel contends that unlike other forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism isn’t treated with any depth of seriousness. He gives examples of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles not meeting with any sort of outrage and whilst actors don’t have to black up to play a Jewish character, there are a number of characteristics that called be donned to show that you are playing Jewish. (He compared this to the outrage that greets a heterosexual actor playing a homosexual character which is probably a more apt comparison than blacking up.) I admit that I hadn’t really considered this before. Partly because I wouldn’t necessarily know whether an actor was Jewish or not but mostly because I wouldn’t have thought it was something I needed to think about. Baddiel suggests that this is one of the ways that Jews don’t count. He gives the example of Al Pacino in Hunters and Gary Oldman in Mank, accusing Oldman of not only being not Jewish but a supporter of Mel Gibson and his famously anti-Semitic rant. He asks how could this be allowed to happen?

He suggests it is because Jews occupy a unique position in society – that is as both high and low – privileged, famously running the world in many conspiracy theories and money hoarding on the one hand, low, rat-like and sly on the other. In this way, Baddiel discusses how Jews can be seen as both white and not white. He explains that while Jews might often look white, they don’t often feel white. That is they are not able to feel the sense of privilege that comes with being white. Their lives are not secure. They do not feel safe. As Baddiel rightly points out, we are not that many generations away from the Holocaust and its effects can still be felt. He talks about his own grandparents who fled to England in 1939 with his mother who was a baby. They had been rich but had been robbed of it all by the time they fled. When you know can lose everything simply because you are Jewish, you do not have privilege.

Baddiel discusses many instances of his interactions on Twitter and his experiences of being told not he is experiencing racism or not. He looks at the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn’s abject failure to deal with anti-Semitism. It’s hard to imagine people leaping to Corbyn’s defence if any other type of prejudice were being discussed. In fact, Corbyn comes in for a lot of criticism and rightly so. Other people, such as Roald Dahl, are outed as anti-Semites.

It is easy to follow Baddiel’s arguments and I found them affecting and could understand his anger. I do think that his determination to focus on Twitter made his prose somewhat disjointed at times. Also, it is hard to take someone 100% seriously when they say they don’t count via a book they have had published which many will read. (I felt similarly when I read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.) But these are minor quibbles. Definitely worth a read.

Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Published: 1950

Rating: 3.5/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on the train. Bruno is immediately captivated by Haines and proposes that they sort out their respective problems by each murdering the person who is holding them back – Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Bruno’s father. There would be no link between them and neither would get into trouble. Haines is not keen and assumes that Bruno is talking hypothetically but when Miriam is murdered, he realises he may have to keep up his side of the bargain.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time but only recently purchased a copy.

This is starting to be a theme for this year’s reading but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected. Certainly, it was not as straightforwardly thrilling as The Talented Mr RIpley and I felt it lacked the tension of that novel. I did go back and forth between ratings as parts of it were very good but other parts left me feeling bored.

The novel starts strongly. The opening line – ‘The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.’ – immediately gives the reader an impression of an unpleasant atmosphere. This is not the start of a happy story. Guy Haines is the impatient passenger, desperate to get where he is going so he can get a divorce from his wife. He is caught in his unhappy and hateful thoughts by Charles Bruno, rich and ridiculous, who joins his carriage. Bruno is full of wild ideas. The main one that he shares with Haines is the idea of two strangers, meeting briefly, carrying out a murder for each other, and then never meeting ever again. So far so good. I was hooked.

However, it then seemed to take ages for the first murder to happen. I didn’t feel the build up of tension. It felt stodgy and I wanted to get past it. This is partly due to the fact that I had an idea of what was going to happen. This isn’t a book one comes to blind. I knew there was to be action and I was impatient to get to it. This may be my problem not Highsmith’s.

There are moments of high tension after that but I didn’t feel that overall it lived up to the promise of the meeting on the train. Haines’ panic after he has killed Bruno’s father is well described and the way he falls apart even though he now has everything he wants is convincing but I expected that this would be impossible to put down and it just wasn’t.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the way that it is a metaphor for the hidden nature of homosexuality at the time of writing. Two strangers meet on the train, they hook up and go on with their lives except Bruno keeps appearing in Haines’ life spoiling his marriage to his new wife, making Haines ashamed of the things he has done. Bruno equally knows the dangers of seeing Haines as they need to remain undiscovered but he cannot keep away. When he removes Miriam from the picture, he is making a space for himself in Haines’ life that he cannot possibly fill. Haines immediately marries again, pushing Bruno back out of his life. This was more interesting then the actual plot.

The ending was disappointing. Although I sensed that getting caught was actually a relief to Haines, it still felt anticlimactic. And I felt that Bruno deserved more punishment than falling from Haines’ boat. None of it felt very satisfying. Perhaps I’ll stick to reading the Ripley books.

Books Read in 2021 30. The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Genre: Cosy Detective

Narrative Style: First person from one point of view, third person from a lot of different perspectives

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Four septuagenarians meet every week to try and solve old police cases. Then a murder occurs that is linked to their care home. They can’t help but get involved.

Time on shelf: Not long. This was given to me by my father in law because he hadn’t really liked it and he wondered what I would think of it.

I’m always a bit sceptical of celebrities writing novels. Sales are based on the famous name rather than the quality of the prose so there is no need for it to be amazing. However, I did think that if anyone could do it well, Osman could. After all, he is clearly intelligent and witty so I had higher hopes for this then I would have had for any other celebrity effort.

This intelligence is clear throughout. The main reason that this book has two stars rather than one is that it is not badly written. Osman can string a sentence together and he has a good vocabulary. It is tightly plotted with plenty (perhaps too many) twists and turns. I can see why people might enjoy it. However, I found it irritating from almost the very first.

There are a number of problems. The first one to come to light, is the switching between characters. Osman has opted for one first person narrator and any number of third person perspectives. This isn’t a problem in itself but Osman’s chapters tend to be short and they jump around all over the place so you barely get to grips with one perspective before you have to deal with the next. It starts to feel a bit chaotic.

The next thing is the tone. This book is clever and it knows. There are lots of little jokes and asides. The prose really rubbed me up the wrong way. For example, ‘How peculiar to be in this room! He shivers. Probably just the cold.’ For a start, it is present tense which is annoying. Then it is supposed to suggest something about Father Mackie (the shiverer in question) and make the reader suspicious but it is so heavy handed and unsubtle that I couldn’t take it seriously.

The characters are a wacky crew. Elizabeth, the leader of the group, was formally a spy and her former exploits are dropped casually into the narrative. She has any number of useful contacts and is adept at being two steps ahead of everyone else. However, instead of seeming like a fully rounded character, she starts to seem slightly superhuman in her leaps of intuition. There really isn’t all that much more to her either. She’s a former spy and Osman never lets us forget it. Similarly, Ron Ritchie is a union man, through and through and, again, little more. Joyce and Ibrahim are even less interesting. Joyce is a bit drippy and Ibrahim was presumably included for diversity reasons rather than anything else.

Finally, there is not a single moment of this novel when I wasn’t aware I was reading a book. The events are unconvincing. The characters – particularly the police – are unconvincing. Then there are the number of twists and turns. A better name for this book might be A Plethora of Red Herrings. There are only so many times I can stand being lead up the garden path. This novel has you running up and down it constantly. Not satisfying. I will not be reading on. Not that it matters. No doubt, millions will.