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.

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.

TBR Challenge – Books Read in 2022 – 6. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Genre: Non fiction, Psychology, Cultural comment

Narrative Style: Informal academic

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2008

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Gladwell discusses the most successful, the brightest and best in various fields and how they got to the top.

Book Challenge: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: About eighteen months. I didn’t think that this would be the next book I finished. I started to read this after The Kitchen God’s Wife and I was only reading it on my commute but it took my fancy so I finished it quite quickly.

This was a very enjoyable read. Gladwell isn’t particularly saying anything profound but his style is easy to follow and the illustrations he uses to support his ideas are interesting. I couldn’t put it down.

The premise of Gladwell’s book is that there are some people that stand out from everyone else – be it in intelligence, musical prowess, computing, sport – and he calls them outliers. He suggests that the usual reasons people give for their success are false – innate talent, for example, personality traits or habits such as getting up early in the morning. There is no such thing as a self made man and maybe we didn’t really believe that myth anyway but even so, the way that Gladwell goes about debunking it is compelling.

In some ways, there isn’t much variety to this book. Gladwell is making the same point all the way through but I lost count of the times I was surprised or intrigued by the examples he explored. The chapters are all structured in much the same way as well. He begins anecdotally, usually detailing someone’s life story or an event and then moves to research that relates to the life story and then finally back to the original story to show how we ought to be thinking about it. Again, I didn’t mind this as it helped me understand the points that Gladwell was making in a clear and simple way.

Gladwell begins by talking about Canadian hockey leagues and how the cut off for children to go into the highest leagues allows only the oldest children to get through every year (because they are just that bit bigger and older). Then due to the extra help they get, they become the most gifted that they were assumed to be in the first place. I see this sort of self fulfilling prophecy in education all the time. Those kids assumed to be gifted and talented are given extra lessons and opportunities so that the gap between them and their classmates widens. If we gave all pupils those opportunities we might see something different happen.

The first half of the book looks at individuals such as Bill Gates and Bill Joy and tries to alter how we normally view these narratives. Gladwell suggested that 10000 hours of practising is needed in order to master anything – a musical instrument, programming a computer – and then discusses the other advantages (e.g. his school had one of the only computers at the time to allow time sharing so he got to do real time programming in 1968) that people such as Gates had. He suggested that the Beatles got to be so big so quickly because of all the hours they spend in Hamburg playing set after set after set.

The second half looks at the way our culture affects our behaviour. Gladwell suggests that we inherit cultural information in much the same way that we inherit genetic information. He asks whether we should be taking cultural legacies more seriously than we do. The most interesting example Gladwell uses is that of a series of serious plane crashes involving Korean Air planes. So serious were these crashes that the Federal Aviation Authority were considering revoking Korean Air’s overflight and landing privileges in some areas of the world. Something had to be done. The problem was all to do with the way the pilots were talking to each other and to air traffic control. It transpired that the co-pilots were using mitigated speech because of the Power Distance Index which measures how a particular culture relates to authority. In these cases, the co-pilots were hampered by the power distance between themselves and the pilot – that is they were unable to tell the pilot they were making a mistake. Not only that, unlike in Western cultures, the onus is on the listener to work out what is being said, rather than the speaker to make themselves understood. This let to obvious difficulties in the cockpit. Once this was realised, Korean pilots were trained in a different way and the crashes stopped.

Overall, I enjoyed this very much. It’s not really all that radical but it did make me think about things I hadn’t considered and I will probably read more of Gladwell’s books.

TBR Challenge: Books Read in 2022 4. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt

Genre: LGBT, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of view points. Largely chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1986

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Rose and Owen have been married for a long time. Their relationship first comes under pressure when they are told they have to buy their apartment or move out. They are unsure whether they can afford it and put off making a decision. Their son, Phillip, is in love for the first time so decides the time has come to come out to his parents. This causes problems for Owen who is struggling with his sexuality – he spends his Sunday afternoons in a gay porn theatre – and makes Rose realise some of the issues in her marriage.

Time on shelf: I’ve had a physical copy of this book for about two years but it has been on my reading list since I did my MA in the 90s.

Reading challenge: TBR Challenge 2022

I first came across this book when I took a module for my MA on Narrative and the Deviant Body. The Lost Language of Cranes wasn’t on the reading list but I came across it in my reading and added it to my very long TBR list. I can’t believe it took my this long to read it. Especially as it was a very good read.

At the beginning of the novel, Owen and Rose are a long married couple in a rented apartment in New York that they have lived in for years. They have to either buy up – which may cause them financial difficulties – or move out of the family home. Both ignore this as far as they can probably because if they start to examine things too closely, they will see the issues within their marriage. Owen spends every Sunday afternoon in a gay porn theatre while Rose carefully doesn’t ask where he was been. They willfully refuse to see each other clearly. Early in the novel, Rose meets Owen in the street on one of these Sundays and they are like two strangers. While she starts to question where he has been, she still doesn’t ask.

Their only son, Phillip, is in love for the first time. Elliot, the object of Phillip’s affections doesn’t want to be in a committed relationship. Phillip is insecure and, as a result, comes across as needy. He is unable to relax and appreciate his relationship without analysing it and worrying about the end of it. Like Owen, he is not entirely comfortable with his emotions although he is more comfortable with his sexuality. His parents don’t know he is gay, at the beginning but as he is now in a relationship, he wishes them to know. When he does tell them, it rocks their marriage even further.

Leavitt’s prose is a joy to read. It is elegant and exact. Owen, Rose and Phillip are all well drawn and it is possible to feel empathy for all three of them even when they are opposed to each other. Even though Rose doesn’t react well to Phillip’s coming out, Leavitt allows the reader to understand her position. I wanted the best for all three characters even though this is clearly impossible. For Owen to be happy, Rose and their marriage will be destroyed. Owen’s situation is heart breaking – in a particularly poignant moment, he phones a sex line and then starts to weep down the phone – as he is torn between his desires and how much he would hurt his family. When Owen eventually does leave, it doesn’t feel particularly triumphant – he seems as broken as Rose – but at least there is hope for the future.

At the end of the novel, Phillip is starting a relationship that is more equal and more real than his relationship with Elliot. Brad has been his close friend for a long time and they have the trust in each other than was missing in Phillip’s relationship with Elliot. They kiss passionately for the first time before Phillip has to go to his father who has just left home. This could be seen as representing a more open and accepting future for gay men.

This is the best book I have read so far this year and I’m going to say, it will be hard to better. It was moving and compelling. I couldn’t put it down. I will certainly be investing in more of Leavitt’s books.



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.

TBR Challenge 2022

After a year free of book challenges, I’ve decided to do the TBR challenge hosted by Adam at Roof Beam Reader. I really like this challenge because it doesn’t require me to buy any books or to read genres I wouldn’t normally go anywhere near. It’s a straightforward read the books you have challenge. As such, here is my list.

  1. Have You Eaten Grandma – Gyles Brandreth
  2. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves
  3. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  4. Ananci Boys – Neil Gaiman
  5. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Live By Night – Dennis Lehane
  7. The Lost Language of Cranes – David Leavitt
  8. More Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin – currently reading
  9. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
  10. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin
  11. The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan
  12. The Two Towers – J R R Tolkien

Alternates:

  1. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  2. The Princess Bride – William Goldman