Books Read in 2022 – 18. Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin

Genre: LGBT, Humour

Narrative Style: Short, third person vignettes from multiple points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1978

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mary Ann Singleton has just moved to San Francisco. She is naïve, fresh out of Cleveland when she moves into 28 Barbary Lane run by eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal. She soon becomes friends with other tenants, Mona, Brian and Michael.

Time on Shelf: I bought this while I was at university so 25+ years ago. I read it not longer after buying it. I decided to re-read it as I’m reading More Tales of the City for the TBR Challenge and I couldn’t remember much about it.

This was a lot more enjoyable than I remembered. Although I didn’t really remember the content, I did remember that I’d been a little disappointed when I read it – disappointed enough to not carry on reading the series, anyway. Probably because I read it on the back of Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance and Bartlett’s Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall and was perhaps expecting something similar. Maupin’s novel is something different. For a start, it isn’t an exclusively gay tale. Maupin’s characters are gay, straight and trans although in the first novel, it seems that the straight characters get more page time than the others. Of course, I didn’t realise that Maupin’s novel had been serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle and Maupin felt that he couldn’t incorporate gay characters until the column had a solid following. One of his editors kept a character chart to ensure that the gay characters didn’t get more page time than the hetero ones. That would explain why the main gay character, Michael is such a fleeting presence in the first novel, compared to Mary Ann, for example.

This was a source of disappointment on first reading. However, I must say that I felt differently this time round and it was good to read a novel where the straight and gay characters live together in perfect harmony. Any prejudice tends to come from outside of their community.

I admit, I found Mary Ann a little annoying on both times of reading. She is uptight and prudish, She claims to want a new start in San Francisco but finds it impossible to let go and completely relax. It is hard to understand why Michael is so keen to be her friend. I did enjoy Michael’s romance with the handsome gynecologist, Jon who he wishes to settle down with. I was sad when it finished when Jon sees Michael in an underwear dance contest.

At the end, I felt glad that I had already planned to read on. I felt that there was more to be learned about the characters and that their tales were not over. Maupin sows the seeds of a lot of stories that have yet to flower. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 16. The Long Call – Ann Cleeves

Genre: Detective, LGBT

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of viewpoints

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2019

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Detective Matthew Venn has built a successful career for himself. He is happily married and starting to be more comfortable with his sexuality. He was brought up in a religious cult that did not approve of his sexuality so he has nothing to do with them. When first, his father dies and later, a case takes him back into the evangelical community, he has to face his mother and his past again.

Time on shelf: I bought this not long after it came out but didn’t get round to reading it. Then I accidentally watched the TV series. I usually like to read the book first so I wanted to leave the book until the TV series wasn’t fresh in my mind.

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge

The Long Call is the start of a new series. I had really enjoyed Cleeves’ Shetland series so I was hoping that this might be the start of a long relationship with Matthew Venn and his colleagues. However, although I enjoyed the plot, I found a lot of the characters a bit flat.

Matthew himself is quite well drawn. He is angry and finds personal relationships difficult. He is less gregarious than his husband, Jonathan and keeps himself to himself. When a man with an albatross on his neck is found dead on the beach, Matthew finds himself at the centre of his first murder case. It was easy empathise with Matthew when he finds the case takes him back into his past and he has to meet with his mother and Dennis, a pastor in the church. It is clear that he finds this difficult and he is often filled with self doubt.

However, I didn’t find the rest of the characters so convincing. DI Jen Raffety was a single mother with an abusive husband in her past who doesn’t trust her colleague, Ross who is arrogant and ambitious. There is Gaby, an artist who is full of secrets and Caroline, religious and rich with a father who feels he has a lot to make up for. They aren’t anymore fleshed out than this. The same goes for members of the church like Dennis and Matthew’s mother.

The plot is more interesting and I did think it was a shame that I had watched it already because Cleeves does set each discovery up well. I don’t think I would have been able to work it out if I hadn’t been able to remember the TV programme. Cleeves touches on domestic abuse, sexual abuse of vulnerable women and the way those in power cover things up whilst also focusing on Matthew’s difficulties in coming to terms with his past. All of which was interesting and compelling.

I’m not sure whether I will read the next books in this series. Whilst I did like Matthew and would be interested in his future, the rest of the characters didn’t appeal at all and I didn’t enjoy the location as much as in the Shetland books but I would consider it.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 15. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

Genre: History, politics, war

Narrative style: first person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1938

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In 1936, George Orwell travelled to Spain to report on the civil war. Instead, he joined the fight against the fascists. Homage to Catalonia is his account of the fighting.

Time on Shelf: About 3 years. I downloaded this to my kindle because I was keen to read some of Orwell’s non-fiction (I also bought The Road to Wigan Pier). But then I didn’t read either of them.

Reading challenges: TBR Challenge 2022

Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s personal account of fighting for the POUM militia in 1937. Orwell describes the revolutionary fervour that had taken over Catalonia when he is training for the front. There is a constant shortage of weapons and it is hard to understand how the war is being fought under such circumstances.

He then moves to his experiences in the field in the mountains outside of Barcelona. He doesn’t see much fighting and he describes the mundaneness of hanging around waiting for something to happen. Everything is in short supply. There is very little firewood so they are freezing. As well as food shortages, there is little tobacco – something which really troubles Orwell. Also, should fighting start, they were low on munitions. Again, it was difficult to see how they could fight under these conditions.

Orwell’s tone throughout is one of a proper Englishman. Even when he is shot in the throat, he is stoic and very much a representation of the stiff upper lip. He is also passionately anti-fascist. It is easy to see how Animal Farm and 1984 could have come from his imagination.

It was a little confusing keeping track of all the different elements that are fighting, not only against the fascists but with each other. There were communists, anarchists, and Trotskyists. Orwell carefully details the differences between them and who was allied with who but I admit that it was hard to remember who was who and I spent a lot of time reminding myself of who was who.

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. It gave a snapshot about one part of the Spanish Civil War but I will need to read more to get a full picture of the fighting.

Books Read in 2022 – 14. Shuggie Bain – Douglas Stuart

Genre: bildungsroman, lgbt, family

Narrative Style: third person – flashback framed by Shuggie’s current life.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Hugh “Shuggie” Bain loves his mother, Agnes, very much. He will do anything for her. Unfortunately, Agness is an alcoholic and is not able to look after Shuggie the way she should. The novel describes Shuggie’s life, growing up in 1980s Glasgow on run down estates, sometimes going to school, sometimes not. Shuggie is a quiet, sensitive boy who struggles to fit in. His older siblings manage to escape from Agnes but Shuggie is stuck, unable to leave and unable to save her.

Time on shelf: I bought this with birthday money, last year, so not very long.

This is not an easy read. Shuggie, his siblings and their mother, Agnes are living in Glasgow, in the 1980s and they have no money and few prospects. Life is tough. Agnes is an alcoholic who can’t look after her children. Shuggie’s father is a tough, cruel man. Agnes’ life with him was a series of sexual assaults, violence and betrayals that fuel her drinking. Later, he moves in with another woman, only appearing to make sure that Agnes remains in thrall to him.

Shuggie is a quiet and sensitive child. He cuts out picutres of women from Agnes’ Freemans catalogues, he has dolls that he carries around everywhere and he is no good at what might be considered traditionally masculine things. Everyone seems to be able to see what Shuggie cannot – that he is gay. This leads to bullying and abuse from other children and from adults. Shuggie tries to learn how to behave in a more masculine manner but he cannot hide who he really is.

Shuggie’s siblings, Catherine and Leek, are lucky to be able to escape the family home but Shuggie is tied to Agnes. He feels he cannot desert her. Heartbreakingly, Agnes has a brief interlude of sobriety and things look better for everyone. Shuggie gets to see what the world could be like. Unsurprising;y, it doesn’t last and everything is even worse because he had a taste of what could have been.

This may be a bleak book full of missed chances and shattered dreams but it is compelling. It is easy to empathise with Agnes and her inability to escape from her addiction, and even more so with her children. In the end, it is hard to say what the future will hold for Shuggie. The reader can only hope that he will break the cycle and his life will be better.

Books Read in 2022 – 13. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham

Genre: Science fiction. Dystopia

Narrative Style: First person, Chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1958

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: When Richard and Janet Gayford return from a trip into town, they find it is impossible to get into Midwich. As soon as anyone comes within a certain distance of the village, they pass out. Thankfully, the effect wears off but then it transpires that all the women in town are pregnant. What had happened to them when they were unconscious.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I wanted to read it before I watched the recent TV series.

This is a very British book. Wyndham gives his narrator, Richard, a middle class, stoic voice. As he and his wife were away, Janet does not become pregnant so he is able to view events in a largely detached way. He talks to the other villagers and reports what happened in a journalistic way, never succumbing to emotion.

When the babies are born and start to exhibit strange powers, although Richard is concerned, he is able to take a step back and report what is happening, much like a scientist observing an experiment. It quickly become apparent that the children have telepathic powers unlike anything seen in humans. They can force their parents to do their bidding even causing a couple who have left Midwich to return. They lash out when they feel threatened which is worrying for all of the villagers especially as the children are growing up much more quickly then human children would do.

As with other of Wyndham’s book. this is more a thought experiment than a novel. The focus is on how people might react and the moral ramifications. As such, the characters are not all fully developed. More important are the discussions of how the issue of the children will be dealt with when they grow to be more powerful and eventually unstoppable. Wyndham gives examples of events like those of Midwich in other countries and how their governments dealt with them before coming up with his own elegant solution. They have the issue that annihilation of a group of children, no matter how powerful, will not look good to those outside of the issue. It is also virtually impossible to surprise the children who will no doubt fight back viciously against any sort of attack.

This is a novel of discussion and thought, rather than action. It makes you think about what the government would do if such a thing were to occur. I am curious now to see how far the TV series follows the book.

TBR Challenge 2022 – Books Read in 2022 12. Anansi Boys – Neil Gaiman

Genre: Urban fantasy, mythology

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Fat Charlie has a fairly ordinary life. He is about to get married to a woman he is not sure he loves. He has a job that he neither loves nor hates. He is happy enough. Then his father dies and his world is turned upside down. His father, it turns out, is a God and, even more surprising, he has a brother he doesn’t know about.

Time on shelf: A couple of years. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick it up. I knew it would be good. In fact, that was why I picked it up now. I’d read a couple of not so great books and I knew this would please me.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2022

This was, as you might expect, an absolute treat. Gaiman blends real life and mythology perfectly. Fat Charlie is an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances and it is very easy to empathise with him when his life starts to fall apart. His brother, Spider is a God who is used to manipulating everyone and consequently getting his own way. They are poles apart at the start.

When Fat Charlie (a name given him by his father which he has not been able to escape) realises that his father is dead, his memories of him are of all the mean jokes he played on him. He knows that things won’t be straight forward. However, he wasn’t expecting to discover a brother he didn’t remember he had. He has terrible luck and is late for his father’s funeral. Life swirls round him. Out of sheer desperation, he finally calls for his brother by telling a spider he wants him. An act he soon begins to rue.

When his brother, Spider, arrives, things start to go wrong for Fat Charlie. Spider takes a shine to Fat Charlie’s fiancé and uses his godly power to impress her. Spider goes to work instead of Fat Charlie, who is too hungover, and causes issues that lead to Fat Charlie being accused of stealing from his boss. Even though Fat Charlie meets a woman he is much more suited to, he hasn’t the confidence to change the direction of his life. Although he doesn’t realise it straight away, Spider actually does him a favour by falling in love with his fiancé because he changes the course of Charlie’s life.

It’s when he decides that he wants to get rid of Spider that things get a bit darker. Charlie makes a deal with a bird God to get rid of Spider, not realising he is also putting himself in danger. At the beginning, Spider is charming and Charlie is a bit pathetic. As the novel progresses, they start to become more like each other. Spider falls desperately in love with Charlie’s fiance. Charlie learns that he can sing and as a result, charm entire audiences. They both become more well rounded as people

I could find no fault with this. The story trots along nicely, with humour, with romance and with adventure. The characters are well drawn and interesting. The African mythology fits seamlessly with the modern story. Another hit from a master of the craft.

TBR Challenge: Books Read in 2022 – 10. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane

Genre: Crime fiction

Narrative Style: Third person chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Joe Coughlin has turned away from his strict upbringing to live a life of crime. He is has graduated from petty crime to working for some of the most fearsome mobsters in the city. When he falls in love with the girlfriend of Albert White, head of a rival gang, it is inevitable that he is heading for trouble. Live by Night follows Joe’s journey to prison and then to Florida where he climbs the ranks to become gang leader himself.

Reading Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on Shelf: About eighteen months.

I was really looking forward to this book, having read two Lehane novels before and really enjoyed them (Mystic River and Shutter Island). Both of those were compelling and difficult to put down. Unfortunately this one didn’t quite live up to them. In fact, I struggled to finish it.

While I like crime fiction, I don’t often read stories about mobsters or gangsters and part of the problem was that didn’t really appeal to me. To be fair to Lehane, I think he did a good job of setting the scene in 1920s America during prohibition, but I felt that the story and the characters didn’t sparkle enough to pull me in.

Joe Coughlin was a fairly likeable character and it was easy to root for him and hope that he would do well. In fact, at the beginning, when he was a thief working for one of the crime bosses but with big ideas of his own, I thought I’m really going to enjoy this. Then he falls for Emma Gould and he loses the ability to think straight. It is annoying when a character’s stupidity is used as a plot device although obviously people are stupid in real life. However, the fact that Joe gets caught because he goes back for Emma didn’t quite ring true to me.

From then on, I found the narrative to be a bit flabby. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly pushing the narrative forward. There was nothing to compel the reader onwards. At first, there was the thought that Joe might meet Emma again in the future but it was so long before she reappeared in the narrative that I’d almost forgotten her.

The relationship between Joe and his police chief father, Thomas, was interesting and could have been further developed had Thomas not been killed off quite early in the book. Other areas of tension, such as Joe’s relationship with a former friend who betrayed him, were similarly undeveloped.

In the end, I carried on reading just so I could finish it. I don’t like abandoning books but at times I was very close.

TBR Challenge 2022 – Books Read in 2022 – 9. The Two Towers – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Fantasy, adventure

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Published: 1954

Rating: 4/5

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: The company have been beset by orcs and are no longer all together. Boromir is dead, Merry and Pippin have been captured and Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are looking for them. Sam and Frodo have already tried to escape. Somewhere in the shadows is Golem.

Time on shelf: A long time. My husband has been on at me to read the series and at last I succumbed.

Reading Challenge – TBR Pile Challenge 2022

There was a little trepidation on starting this. I’d found the first book a bit of struggle and as a result, I wasn’t sure whether to read the next one or not. After suggesting this caused my husband to wail in despair, I decided I had to carry on but I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it.

Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect this time but I enjoyed this one more than the Fellowship of the Ring. It felt like there was less history and explaining and more action this time round. I appreciate that there was a lot of scene setting that had to be done in the first book – a lot of things that needed to be explained – but it really slowed the pace. This time there was action aplenty as well as peril and danger for the main characters.

There were great characters – Wormtongue, Treebeard, and Ugluk are well drawn and exciting – and a lot more of Gollum which I really enjoyed. The battle between Gollum and Smeagol, the good and the bad, is incredibly well observed and made me both sympathetic and annoyed at different points. As a result, it was more of a surprise to discover Gollum had indeed sold Frodo and Sam out.

As previously, Frodo and Sam are the heart of the story. Sam’s devotion to his master is touching as is his mistrust of Gollum. He is unable to understand why they need to use Gollum’s knowledge. Frodo doesn’t want to either but he understands the necessity of it. Of course, there is a possibility if Sam had been nicer, Gollum might not have sold them out to Shelob but I don’t really think that is true. Gollum was always going to win over Smeagol.

As at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a cliffhanger. Frodo is in extreme danger. Even so, I wasn’t tempted to start reading the next instalment. Having said that, when I do read it, I can be fairly sure that I’m going to enjoy it.

Books Read in 2022. 8. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Black Literature

Narrative Style: Third person, largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Cora isn’t sure at first when Caesar asks her to escape with him. He tells her about the Underground Railroad which is not just a metaphor in Whitehead’s book but an actual network of stations and trains. Even though she is an outcast on the plantation, she still hesitates. The punishment if caught is likely to be horrific. But then things grow more unpleasant on the plantation and she decides to go with him and they escape. At each stop, Whitehead shows a different aspect of the horror of slavery.

Time on shelf: Not very long. Last year, I read Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and was blown away. I bought this not long after.

Whitehead starts his story on the Randall cotton plantation where Cora was born. Her mother, Mabel had escaped when Cora was younger, leaving her daughter behind. The only thing that Cora has in the world is a small plot of land and when someone tries to take it from her, she attacks him and is made to live with other outcast slaves, in Hob, away from everyone else. She has already suffered a huge amount of abuse when Caesar first asks her to escape but still she refuses at first, the risk seeming too great. Caesar persists and they make their escape.

They very nearly don’t make it. In the swamps outside of the plantation, some of Randall’s men catch up with them. In the fight that follows, Cora accidentally kills a teenage boy making it even more urgent that they manage to escape. It is a relief, albeit short-lived, when they make it to the first station of the railway and manage to get the train to South Carolina.

Of course, there troubles do not end there. Whitehead uses the railroad to show the many horrors that white people have visited on black people – not just slavery. At first, in South Carolina, all seems well. Cora has a new name and a job, she is learning to read and seems happy. The white people seem kind and caring. However, it soon becomes sinister as Cora is given a job as a ‘type’ in a living museum which gives a false, positive version of slavery. Free medical treatment given at the local hospital turns out to be governmental experimentation aiming to find a cure for syphillis and the women are encouraged towards voluntary sterilisation. The whites that seemed so kind actually still have a racist view of black people as childlike and less than themselves. Cora decides that she cannot stay. This is the start of a horrific journey for her.

Whitehead uses her journey to inform the reader of many terrible events – Cora becomes trapped in the attic of a station agent, unable to stand or make any noise, a doctor raids black graves for corpses to use in anatomy classes, in Georgia, every Friday, they have a festival which ends with the hanging of a black person – and it becomes more than just Cora’s story, more than just a story about slavery, it becomes a history of racial injustice in America.

This isn’t an easy read. And nor should it be. Like Kindred by Octavia Butler, this is unflinching in its detail. I have read some reviews that say that Whitehead’s tone is flat and it is true that it is not overly emotional but I think that it works very well given that this is a history. There is no need for it to be overly emotional when the stark facts speak so loudly. If Whitehead had shown the level of upset and horror that these events warrant, I think it would have been unreadable. Instead, the reader is given a calm voice to guide them and show them exactly what the problem is.

Another criticism is that Cora is not a fully developed character. I agree but I think it is deliberate on Whitehead’s part. She has no free will. Things happen to her. She has no power to change that or to do anything other than constantly react. Her journey is a representation of African American experience and she is a product of that experience. At the end of the novel, when she is finally free, she makes the decision of who to ride with. This is the first real decision of her life.

I enjoyed this book a lot more that Kindred where I struggled to suspend my disbelief. I couldn’t put this down. Definitely one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 7. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan

Genre: Historical fiction, Chinese fiction

Narrative Style: First person from two different points of view.

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1991

Synopsis: Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s secrets for years, since they first came to America in fact. Helen believes she is dying so she wants to tell all of Winnie’s secrets. Winnie decides to tell her daughter, Pearl, everything herself. Pearl also has secrets that she is frightened to tell her mother.

Book Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on shelf: About eight years. I inherited it from my husband’s aunt. I might have read it sooner but was put off by a more recent Tan novel, The Valley of Amazement, that I really did not enjoy.

The Kitchen God’s Wife starts with the first person story of Pearl, Winnie’s daughter. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is fractious. Winnie seems like a stereotypical Chinese mother, irritable, full of wise sayings and seeming not to have fitted into American life. Pearl is so removed from her, she hasn’t told her she has multiple sclerosis – a secret she has kept for seven years. Little does Pearl realise but her mother also has many secrets. When ‘Aunt’ Helen says she is dying and feels she needs to tell all secrets, both mother and daughter realise they need to talk to each other. Winnie invites her daughter to visit and proceeds to tell her the story of her life. This takes up the bulk of the novel.

Winnie – or Weiwei as she is known – is abandoned by her mother at age 6 for reasons unknown and her life of privilege ends. She is sent to live in the countryside with her Uncle’s family where life is tougher for her. Stories fly around about her mother but she never finds out the truth about the disappearance. This is the start of Weiwei’s sorrows and pains. Her Uncle’s family aren’t unkind but she feels she is less loved than her cousin, Peanut.

Tan doesn’t let up after that. Weiwei marries Wen Fu. He had previously courted Peanut but changes to Weiwei when he realises she is richer. This greed will be a theme of the novel with Wen Fu doing terrible things to try and hold on to Weiwei’s money. He rapes Weiwei and is violent towards her. He sleeps with other women, sometimes bringing them into the family home. He lies about his war record, claiming to be a hero when in fact, he used to fly away from the Japanese fighter planes. Weiwei’s life with him is miserable and difficult. She also loses three children.

Weiwei suffers terribly during the war and after when she ends up in prison when Wen Fu accuses her of stealing away their son and letting him die. (He died in an epidemic.) By now, she has met Jimmy (Pearl’s father) who presents a clear contrast to Wen Fu. He represents hope for the future as does the move to America.

Weiwei’s story takes up the majority of the novel with Pearl’s narrative framing it. We return to Pearl at the end so she can share her secret. I would have liked to hear a little more of Pearl’s voice but really this is Weiwei’s story which mirrors the story of China during the second world war. An interesting, emotional read.