2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.

 

2020 Mid-Year Reading Review and Statistics

What with the pandemic still very much ongoing, BL acting up again, MR’s and Char’s resulting posts re: BookLikes, the BL experience, and moving back to Goodreads, this feels like a somewhat odd moment to post my half-yearly reading stats.  I hope it won’t be the last time on this site, but I fear that the community to which I’ve belonged for almost a decade — longer than to any other online community — and which, most recently, has played a pivotal role in making the Corona pandemic more bearable to me, is on the point of breaking up.  And frankly, this is making me incredibly sad.

Book-wise, too, the pandemic has had a huge impact on my reading; for three out of the past six months, I pretty much exclusively withdrew into Golden Age mystery comfort reads, because I just didn’t have it in me to tackle anything else.  Though I suppose in comparison with others, who went into more or less full-fledged reading slumps, I can still color myself lucky.

That said, the past six months’ reading highlights definitely included all of the buddy reads, both for the shared reading experience and for the books themselves — as well as a number of books that I read either before the pandemic began or in the very recent couple of weeks … though I’m tempted to list every single favorite Golden Age mystery that I reread during the pandemic, too; in addition to a whole number of new discoveries.  So, without further ado (and roughly in reverse chronological order):

 

Highlights:

The Buddy Reads:

Jean-François Parot: L’énigme des blancs-manteaux (The Châtelet Apprentice)
The first of Parot’s Nicolas le Floch historical mysteries set in 18th century Paris.  Nicolas is a Breton by birth and, on the recommendation of his godfather, a Breton nobleman, joins the Paris police force under the command of its (real) Lieutenant General Antoine de Sartine, one of the late 18th century’s most influential statesmen and administrators. —  Parot was an expert on the period and a native Parisian, both of which elements clearly show in his writing, and I’m already looking forward to reading more books from the series.

French-language buddy read with Tannat and onnurtilraun — we’re now also looking into the possibly of “buddy-watching” the (French) TV adaptation starring Jérôme Robart.


The pandemic buddy reads; including and in particular:
Josephine Tey: A Daughter of Time (with BT’s and my individual add-on, Tey’s play Dickon, written under the name Gordon Daviot, which likewise aims at setting the record straight vis-à-vis Shakespeare’s Richard III) — A Daughter of Time was a reread; Dickon was new to me.
* Georgette Heyer: No Wind of Blame (the first of the Inspector Hemingway mysteries — also a reread);
* Agatha Christie: Towards Zero and Cat Among the Pigeons (both likewise rereads);
* Ngaio Marsh: Scales of Justice (also a reread; one of my favorite Inspector Alleyn mysteries);
* Cyril Hare: Tenant for Death (the first Inspector Mallett mystery — new to me);
* Patricia Wentworth: The Case Is Closed (Miss Sliver book #2 — also new to me; this isn’t a series I am reading in publication order).

Dorothy Dunnett: The Game of Kings (book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles)
16th century Scotland; the adventures of a main character somewhere between Rob Roy, Robin Hood and Scaramouche (mostly Scaramouche), but it also features a range of strong and altogether amazing female characters.  Another series I’m looking forward to continuing.

The first buddy read of the year, together with Moonlight Reader, BrokenTune, and Lillelara.

 

My Individual Highlights:

Bernardine Evaristo: Girl, Woman, Other
Heaven knows the Booker jury doesn’t always get it right IMHO, but wow, this time for once they absolutely did.  If you haven’t already read this, run, don’t walk to get it.  And though initially I was going to say “especially if you’re a woman (and from a minority)” — no, I’m actually going to make that, “especially if you’re a white man”.

Saša Stanišić: Herkunft (Origin) and Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)
Two autobiographical books dealing with the authors’ genocide experience, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burundi, respectively. Stanišić’s account — an odd mix of fact on fiction, which does lean pretty strongly towards the factual, however — asks, as the title indicates, how precisely our geographical, ethnic and cultural origin / sense of “belonging” defines our identity; and it focuses chiefly on the refugee experience and the experience of creating a new place for oneself in a new (and substantially different) country and culture.  Faye’s short novel (barely longer than a novella) packs an equal amount of punch, but approaches the topic from the other end — it’s a coming of age tale looking at the way our cultural identity is first drummed into us … and how ethnic stereotypes and hostilities, when fanned and exploited, will almost invariably lead to war and genocide.

 

Josephine Tey: The Inspector Grant series, Dickon, and Miss Pym Disposes
Having already read two books from Tey’s Alan Grant series (The Daughter of Time and The Franchise Affair) as well as her nonseries novel Brat Farrar in past years, and Miss Pym Disposes at the beginning of this year, I took the combined (re)read of The Daughter of Time and the play Dickon during the pandemic buddy reads (see above) as my cue to finally also read the rest of the Inspector Grant mysteries.  And I’m glad I finally did; Tey’s work as a whole is a paean to her much-beloved England — and though she was Scottish by birth, to a somewhat lesser degree also to Scotland –; a love that would eventually cause her to bequeath her entire estate to the National Trust. — Though the books are ostensibly mysteries, the actual “mystery” element almost takes a back seat to the land … and to its people, or rather to people like those who formed Tey’s personal circle of friends and acquaintances.  And it is in creating characters that her writing shines as much as in the description of England’s and Scotland’s natural beauty.

Pete Brown: Shakespeare’s Local
Another book that I owned way too long before I finally got around to reading it; the discursive — in the best sense –, rollicking tale of one London (or rather, Southwark) pub from its earliest days in the Middle Ages to the 21st century, telling the history of Southwark, London, public houses, and their patrons along the way.  The title is glorious conjecture and based on little more than the fact that the pub is near the location of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (combined with the equally demonstrable fact that Shakespeare loved a good ale and what today we’d call a pub crawl) … so it’s highly likely that, like many another celebrity over the centuries, he’d have had the occasional pint at this particular inn, the George, as well.

Dorothy L. Sayers: Love All
A delightful drawing room comedy that was, owing to its completion during WWII, only performed twice during Sayers’s own lifetime and never again thereafter, which is utterly unfair to both the material and its author — topically, this is the firmly tongue in cheek stage companion to such works as Gaudy Night and the two speeches republished under the title Are Women Human?  (I’d call it feminist if Sayers hadn’t hated that term, but whatever label you want to stick on it, its message comes through loud and clear and with plenty of laughs.)

Christianna Brand: Green for Danger
One of the discoveries of my foray into the realm of Golden Age mysteries; an eerie, claustrophobic, psychological drama revolving around several suspicious deaths (and near-deaths) at a wartime hospital in Kent during WWII.  None of Brand’s other mysteries that I’ve read so far is quite up to this level, but she excelled in closed-circle settings featuring a small group of people who all genuinely like each other (and really are, for the most part, likeable from the reader’s — and the investigating policeman’s — perspective, too), and in this particular book, the backdrop of the added danger arising from the wartime setting adds even more to the tension.  It’s also fairly obvious that Brand was writing from personal experience, which greatly enhances every single aspect of the book, from the setting and the atmosphere to the individual characters.

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
Sotomayor’s memoirs up to her first appointment to the Federal Bench.  What a courageous woman!  A trailblazer in every sense of the word — a passionate advocate for women, Latinos/-as (not just Puerto Ricans), those hindered in their career path by a pre-existing medical condition (in her case: diabetes), and more generally, everybody up against unequal odds.  Fiercely intelligent and never satisfied with second best (for herself and others alike), she nevertheless comes across as eminently likeable and open-minded — on the list of people I’d like to meet one day (however unlikely), she shot right up to a top spot after I’d read this book; in close vicinity with Michelle Obama.

John Bercow: Unspeakable
Bercow’s time as Speaker of the House of Commons was doubtlessly among the more remarkable periods in the history of the British Parliament, both on account of his personality and of the momentous decisions taken during those years; and his unmistakeable style jumps out from every page of his memoir — as well as every minute of the audio edition, which he narrates himself.  The last chapter (his attempt at outlining the odds for Britain post-Brexit) was already obsolete before the Corona pandemic hit; this is even more true now.  However, the vast majority of the book makes for a fascinating read, not least of course because of his insight into the politics — and politicians — of his time (he is neither sparing with the carrot nor with the stick, and some of his reflections, e.g., on the qualities of a “good” politician / member of parliament, would constitute ample food for thought for politicians anywhere).

 

Statistics:

As I said above, the one thing that definitely had the biggest impact on my reading in the first six months of 2020 was my three-month long “comfort reading” retreat into the world of Golden Age mysteries.  So guess what:

Of the 129 books I read in the first six months of 2020, a whopping 63% were Golden Age and contemporary mysteries — add in the 10 historical mysteries that also form the single biggest chunk of my historical fiction reading, you even get to 91 books or 70.5%.

I am rather pleased, though, that — comfort and escape reading aside and largely thanks to a number of truly interesting memoirs and biographies — the number of nonfiction books is roughly equivalent to the sum of “high brow” fiction (classics and litfic).

Another thing that makes me happy is that my extended foray into Golden Age mysteries was not overwhelmingly limited to rereads; these accounted for only 28% of all books read (36 in absolute figures), a percentage which is not substantially higher than my average in the last two years.  At the same time, as a comparatively large number of Golden Age mysteries are not (yet?) available as audiobooks — not even all of those that have been republished in print in recent years –, and as I have spent considerably less time driving to and from meetings and conferences than in the past two years, the share of print books consumed is higher than it was in 2018 and 2019.

 

Given the high percentage of comfort reading, it’s no surprise that my star ratings are on the high side for the first half of 2020 — the vast majority of the books were decent, if not good or even great reads.

Overall average: 3.7 stars 

However, my Golden Age mystery binge also had a noticeable effect on the two statistics I’m tracking particularly: gender and ethnicity.

As far as gender is concerned things still look very good if you just focus on the authors: 88 books by women (plus 5 mixed anthologies / author teams) vs. 36 books by male authors; hooray!  However, inspired by onnurtilraun, I decided to add another layer this time and also track protagonists … and of course, if there is one genre where women authors have created a plethora of iconic male protagonists, it is Golden Age mystery fiction; and all the Miss Marples, Miss Silvers, Mrs. Bradleys and other female sleuths out there can’t totally wipe out the number of books starring the likes of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey, Roderick Alleyn, and other male detectives of note.  Then again, the Golden Age mystery novelists actually were ahead of their time in not only creating women sleuths acting independently but also in endowing their male detectives with equally strong female partners and friends, so the likes of Ariadne Oliver, Agatha “Troy” Alleyn, and of course the inimitable Harriet Vane, also make for a significantly higher number of books with both male and female protagonists.  Still, the gender shift is impossible to miss.

 

(For those wondering about the “N / A” protagonist, that’s Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who of course is an AI and deliberately created as gender-neutral.)

And of course, since there isn’t a non-white author to be found among the Golden Age mystery writers (or at least, none that I’m aware of and whose books figured as part of my reading during the past couple of months), the ethnicity chart goes completely out of the window.  Again, as long as you just look at the number of countries visited as part of my Around the World reading challenge (and if you ignore the number of books written by authors from / set in the UK and the U.S.), the figures actually still look pretty good — and yes, the relatively high number of European countries is deliberate; I mostly focused on authors from / settings in the Southern Hemisphere last year, so I figured since tracking ethnicity was substantially impacted by the mystery binge this year anyway, I might as well make a bit of headway with the European countries, too.

Yet, there is one interesting wrinkle even in the comparison of author vs. protagonist ethnicity; namely, where it comes to the non-Caucasian part of the table: It turns out that the number of non-white protagonists is slightly higher than that of non-white authors, because I managed to pick a few books at least which, though written by white authors, did feature non-white protagonists.  Make of that one what you will …

   

Nevertheless, for the rest of the year, the aim is clear … catch up on my Around the World reading challenge and build in as many books by non-Caucasian authors as possible!

Addendum
In a discussion on the BookLikes version of this post, the question came up whether the author’s gender and ethnicity matters at all, or whether the only thing that really matters is the quality of the writing to begin with.  Here’s what I wrote there:

I used to think it [= gender and ethnicity] didn’t / shouldn’t matter, too. Since I started to put greater weight on women’s writing and books by non-white authors, I’ve come to change my mind.

1) It’s not about “chromosomes”, but about life experience. Women, even in today’s society, experience life differently from men. That is true even for women who (like me) were raised — not necessarily deliberately, but as it were “by default” — in such a way as to embrace roles traditionally reserved for men from early childhood on (which incidentally frequently put me at odds with the boys in the playground), and who work in an industry that, even when I was in university, was still substantially dominated by (white) men, and to a certain extent still is even today (not in terms of access to the profession as such, but in terms of what is achievable and who calls the shots). And similarly, it is obvious that blacks, Latinos/-as, Asians, and members of other ethnicities experience society differently from whites — it didn’t take George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement to convince me of that.

So it is only natural that women — and non-white authors — also tell stories differently from men, and from white people, respectively. Not necessarily, perhaps not even overwhelmingly, the way that Bernadine Evaristo does — a book like “Girl, Women, Other” could of course never have been written by a man or by a white person to begin with. (And that’s precisely the reason why I said these are the people who most need to read this book — because it reflects a perspective that they / we will only ever be able to understand, if at all, intellectually; never instinctively and from personal experience.) Nor do I necessarily mean that male writing is more “testosterone-soaked” than women’s writing (though bad male writing almost invariably is), or that “men can’t write women characters” (and vice versa). — In most cases, the differences between men’s and women’s writing are so subtle that, as long as you don’t pay any attention, you don’t notice them at all. But if you come from reading a lot of books written by men (as I had, when I set out on this course a few years ago) and then you switch to reading books written mostly by women, you start noticing them after a while — in details of writerly focus, in little things like a detail of an individual characters’ response to a particular situation (or to somebody else’s comment), in the way dialogue is framed, in what matters to a character in a given situation, etc. Again, none of this rises to the level of “good / bad” “realistic / unrealistic” writing, or to “men writing women as men with XX.chromosomes” (or women writing men as women with XY-chromosomes, or whites writing other ethniticities as black-faced whites, etc.), but it’s there; and interestingly, it’s there as much in, say, Golden Age mystery fiction and other 19th and early 20th century classics as it is in contemporary writing.

2) It’s about industry access and noticeability. The publishing industry is, for all I can see, still way too much dominated by “pale stale males”. Like in my own industry (the law), it’s not so much a matter of a lack of women (or non-white) writers (and columnists, critics, journalists, etc.) But in the corporate structures, the old hierarchies die hard — not only at the top (= the tip of the iceberg) — and though I don’t know a lot of writers personally, I know enough to realize how much harder it is for women — and for writers of color — to obtain the same amount of exposure that a white male author would be able to obtain in their situation. (Again, this isn’t as simple as “good / bad writing” or a matter of talent — it’s about what it takes *in addition* to talent and good writing.) So if I can do my tiny little bit to help by actually buying and reading their books — and by occasionally even talking about those books, whenever I feel motivated enough to write a review, or by deliberately tracking my reading and talking about that, I’m more than happy to do that.

// TA steps off soap box.

 

Original post:
ThemisAthena.booklikes.com/post/2804666/2020-mid-year-reading-statistics

February and Mid-March 2020 Reading Update

I never got around to doing this at the end of February, so what the heck … I might as well include the first two weeks of March, since that month is half over at this point already, too.  But then, February was such a universal suck-fest in RL that I didn’t even make it here for the better part of the month to begin with.  (Don’t even ask.)  So much for my hope back in January that things might be looking up …

So, lots and lots of comfort reading in the past 1 1/2 months; Golden and Silver Age mysteries aplenty, both new and from the reread department — but I also managed to honor Black History Month and advance my Around the World, Women Writers, and 221B Baker Street and Beyond reading projects.  In perhaps the weirdest turnout of the past couple of weeks, I even managed to include two “almost buddy reads” (reading books that others had recently finished or were reading concurrently — Patricia Moyes’s Dead Men Don’t Ski and Freeman Will Crofts’s The Cask) and, before vanishing into my February RL black hole, a real buddy read with BT of John Bercow’s excellent (though somewhat unfortunately-titled) memoir, Unspeakable.

 

Number of books read since February 1: 27
Of these:

 

Black History Month
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists
Yaa Gyasi: Homegoing
Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

 

Around the World
— counting only books by non-Caucasian authors and / or set neither in Europe nor in the mainland U.S.:
* The three above-mentioned books, plus
* Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
* Mia Alvar: In the Country
* Matthew Pritchard (ed.), Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922

 

221B Baker Street and Beyond
Terry Manners: The Man Who Became Sherlock Holmes
Keith Frankel: Granada’s Greatest Detective

 

Golden Age Mysteries
4 by Ngaio Marsh (all rereads): Overture to Death, Light Thickens, Dead Water, Death at the Bar
4 by Margery Allingham (2 rereads, 2 new): The Beckoning Lady, Death of a Ghost, Mystery Mile, Black Plumes
1 by Patricia Wentworth (new): The Case of William Smith
2 by J. Jefferson Farjeon (both new): Seven Dead and Thirteen Guests
1 by Raymond Postgate (new): Somebody at the Door
1 by Freeman Wills Crofts (new): The Cask

 

Silver Age and Other Mysteries
Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski (new)
Colin Dexter: Last Bus to Woodstock (reread)
Ellis Peters: The Sanctuary Sparrow (reread)
P.D. James / BBC Radio: 7 dramatizations (Cover Her Face, Devices and Desires, A Certain Justice, A Taste for Death, The Private Patient, The Skull Beneath the Skin, and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman) — all revisits as far as the actual books were concerned, as was the dramatization of The Skull Beneath the Skin; the rest of the audios were new to me)

 

Other Books
John Bercow: Unspeakable (memoir)
Tony Riches: Henry (historical fiction)

 

Of all of these, the standout entries were:

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)
A short but impactful novel tracing the coming-of-age of the son of a French father and a Burundian Tutsi mother, which coming-of-age is rudely interrupted when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda spills over into Burundi.  What starts out as an endearing but somewhat unremarkable read becomes a tale of unspeakable heartbreak in the final part, in which it only took very few pages for the book to completely skewer me.

Sonia Sotomayor: My Beloved World
Justice Sotomayor’s memoirs of her upbringing in the New York Puerto Rican community, and her unlikely, but doggedly pursued path to Princeton, Yale Law School, and ultimately, the Federal Bench — fullfilling a dream that had, oddly, started by watching Perry Mason on TV as a child.  I wish Sotomayor hadn’t finisihed her book with her appointment as a judge, though I respect the reasons why she decided to do so; and even so, hers is a truly impressive, inspiring story of overcoming a multitude of crippling conditions (type-1 diabetes, poverty, racism, and teachers discouraging rather than inspiring her, to name but a few) to chart out a path in life that even most of those who didin’t have to overcome any of these odds would not dare to aspire to.  Throughout the narrative, Sotomayor’s genuine empathy with and care for her fellow human beings shines through on many an occasion; not only for her family and friends, and for those disadvantaged by society, but for everybody she encounters — until and unless they rub her the wrong way, in whch case they will find themselves at the receiving end of a tongue lashing or two.  What particularly impressed me was that Sotomayor, though a staunch defender of Affirmative Action, repeatedly chose not to seek positions as a minority candidate but on a more neutral ticket, fearing she might unduly be buttonholed otherwise.  That sort of thing takes great strength and belief in the universality of her message.

Agatha Christie / Matthew Pritchard (ed.): The Grand Tour: Letters and Photographs from the British Empire Expedition 1922
Agatha Christie’s letters, photos and postcards from the expedition to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Canada in which her first husband, Archibald, and she were invited to participate out of the blue shortly after the birth of their daughter Rosamund.  Lovingly edited by her grandson Matthew Pritchard, and amplified by the corresponding excerpts from her autobiography, the letters in particular shed an interesting sidelight onto the thinking and life experience of the then-budding future Queen of Crime (her second novel was published while the tour was under way), and to fans, the book is worth the purchase for her photos alone (she had rather a good eye for visual composition, too) … and for her surfing adventures, reproduced here in their full glory, and in both words and images.

John Bercow: Unspeakable 
An impromptu boddy read with BrokenTune; delivered in Bercow’s trademark style and doubtlessly offering as much fodder to those determined to hate him as to those who regret his stepping down as Speaker.  I commented on the bits up to the Brexit chapter in a status update at the 70% point; the final part of the book contains much that Bercow had already said repeatedly while still in office, be it in interviews or from the Speaker’s chair; yet, while he doesn’t hold back with criticism of those whose stance he considers irresponsible, he is also scrupulously fair to all those who, he genuinely believes, are working hard to realize the political aims they consider in the best interests of theiri constituents.  In fact, the chapter about what, in Bercow’s opinion, makes a “good” politician, was possibly the most surprising inclusion in the book (and the book worth a read for that chapter alone), heaping praise (and in some instances, scorn) on a wide array of politicians of all parties, regardless whether Bercow shares their views or not. —  Even if no longer from inside the Houses of Parliament, I hope and trust Bercow’s voice will remain relevant and weighty in the months and years to come.

Patricia Moyes: Dead Men Don’t Ski
A huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for favorably reviewing this book earlier this year and thus bringing it to my attention.  Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy are a joy to be with, and like MR and Tigus (who has also read the book in the interim), I’ll definitely be spending more time in their company in the future.  What I particularly appreciated in addition to the delightful characters created by Ms. Moyes (and the rather cleverly-constructed locked-room mystery at the heart of this book) was the understanding she brought to the book’s setting in the German-speaking part of the Italian Alps, which is not only one of the most naturally stunning parts of the entire Alps but also a region fraught with a complicated history, which might have caused a lesser writer to glide off into easy cliché, but which Moyes uses rather skillfully in crafting her story’s background.

 Ngaio Marsh: Light Thickens
The final book of the Roderick Alleyn series and perhaps not everybody’s cup of tea, set, as it is, in Marsh’s “main” professional domain — the world of the theatre — and featuring a plot in which the murder only occurs at the halfway point, almost as an afterthought: and yet, upon revisiting the book, I instantly realized all over again why this (the first mystery by Marsh I’d ever read) was the one book that irresistibly drew me into the series and made me an instant fan.  This isn’t so much a mystery as a Shakespearean stage director’s love letter to the Bard, and to his “Scottish play” in all of its permutations; as well as to the Shakespearean theatre, and more generally, the world of the stage as such.  Roderick Alleyn (rather far advanced in his career and definitely not having aged in real time) eventually shows up to solve the inevitable murder, faithful sidekick Inspector (“Br’er”) Fox in tow and quoting Shakespeare with the best of them, but the stars of the show remain the actors themselves, the play’s director (whom those who read the series in order will, at this point, already have encountered in a prior installment), and ultimately, Shakespeare himself.  This may not be everybody’s cup of tea in a mystery … to me, it proved irresistible, the first time around as much as upon revisiting the book now.

Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost
Unlike my reading experience with Allingham’s fellow Golden Age Queens of Crime Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, that with Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion series is a rather checkered one, where instances of true mystery reader’s delight repeatedly follow hot on the heels of groan-inducing forays into clichéd, implausible plots populated by cardboard characters, and vice versa.  That said, even upon my first read I considered Death of a Ghost one of the series’s absolutely standout entries, and that impression has only been confirmed and reinforced by revisiting the book.  Set in the art world and populated by a cast of fully drawn, quirky characters (some likeable, some decidedly less so), the book lives off Allingham’s acerbic wit, which is brought out to great advantage here; and although Campion tumbles to the probable identity of the murderer when we’re barely halfway into the book, Allingham easily maintains the reader’s interest by keeping the “how” a puzzle, and by tying in a further puzzle whose solution will eventually provide the motive for the murder.  If there is any letdown in the book at all, it’s in the murderer’s ultimate fate, but by and large, this is a superlative effort.

As a side note, I’ve also concluded that the audio versions of Allingham’s novels work decidedly better for me if read by Francis Matthews rather than David Thorpe.  I have no problem with Thorpe as a narrator of other books, but he takes a rather literal approach to Allingham’s description of Campion’s voice, making it come across almost as a falsetto, which in combination with his overly expressive narration as a whole tends to drive me clean up the wall.  Matthews’s delivery, by contrast, while hinting at Campion’s vocal patterns, is a bit more matter of fact overall (even though it still leaves plenty of room for characterization, both of people and of plot elements) — an impression that was swiftly confirmed when a search for further Allingham titles recorded by Matthews threw up a non-Campion mystery of hers, Black Plumes, which in turn also confirmed my impression that some of Allingham’s best writing is contained in books other than her Campion mysteries.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Overall, the past six (or so) weeks contained a lot of great books, regardless whether rereads or new to me.  The two most-hyped entries in the selection — Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and Mia Alvar’s In the Country — proved, almost predictably (for me, anyway), those that I was least impressed with: they were both still solid 4-star reads, but both episodic in nature, with only some of those episodes engaging me as fully (and consequently, blowing me away as much) as, if I’d have believed the hype, I’d have expected the entire books to do.  (I know, I know.  4 stars is still a very respectable showing, and I wouldn’t give either book less than that … and considering that I’ve been known to one-star overly hyped books when called for, 4 stars is even more pretty darned decent.  Still … they both, but particularly so Homegoing, would have had so much more potential if they’d been allowed to spread their wings to the full.) — Of the Golden Age mysteries new to me, the standout was J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Thirteen Guests. Tony Riches’s Henry provides a well-executed conclusion to his series about the three first significant Tudors (Owen, Jasper, and Henry VII) — neatly complementing Samantha Wilcoxson’s novel about Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth of York, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen — and the two books focusing on Jeremy Brett and the Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring him as Holmes have given me the idea for a Holmes-related special project, which I will, however, probably only get around to later this year (if I get around to it at all, my RL outlook being what it is at the moment).

 

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John Bercow: Unspeakable


An impromptu buddy read with BrokenTune; delivered in Bercow’s trademark style and doubtlessly offering as much fodder to those determined to hate him as to those who regret his stepping down as Speaker:

I, on the other hand, found myself glued to my phone — this is a riveting narrative (even the bits about his early parliamentary career; and definitely his take on the role of Speaker: to be an advocate for Parliament and enable it to hold Government to account — as well as the chapter the reforms he introduced, particularly those behind the scenes). And, of course, a large part of the pleasure was due to having Mr. Bercow read the book to me himself; he really does a stellar job.  Listening to him, even more so than as a result of his performance in the Speaker’s chair (spontaneous quips and all), it was easy to imagine how he was capable of holding an audience captive from early on in his career — if he hadn’t chosen a path in politics, he’d easily also have done well in any other job requiring an ease at public performance (e.g., broadcast journalism or the stage).

There’s less of an explicit analysis of his shift in view from the Thatcherism of his younger days to his decidedly more left-leaning present stance — it comes across as a gradual progression in views, influenced in part (but apparently not exclusively) by his wife, a long-time member of the Labour Party.  However, while he stands by his earlier views and the manner in which he chose to express them at the time (his attitude seems to be “it was what it was and it’s part of my history — simple as that”), he doesn’t shy away from characterizing his early political performance as “shrill” and in other similarly unflattering terms.

Mostly, though, I loved his incisive (and insightful) analysis of the various governments, PMs, ministers, party whips, and other politicians he has witnessed in office over the course of the past 2+ decades, all the way to David Cameron

(“I am reminded of the verdict of the man he worked for and considered a friend, Norman Lamont: ‘Cameron was clever, but not profound.’  That is true.  In the pantheon of great leaders, the name of David Cameron will never feature.  In a list of opportunist lightweights, it will be at the top“)

and Theresa May

(who “is not a bad person — she wants the best for her country, without a clear sense of what that is: rudderless, without imagination and with few real friends at the highest level she stumbled on day to day, lacking clarity, vision, and the capacity to forge a better Britain.  In a contest as to who has been the worst Prime Minister since 1945, it is hard to choose between Anthony Eden and Theresa May“).

Bojo and his cronies also collect their fair share of authorial broadsides, beginning with the takedown of Geoffrey Cox, Boris Johnson himself and the prorogation disaster in the book’s “Prorogue” (talk about an appropriately-titled opener).  That said, and perhaps unsurprisingly, Bercow sings the praises of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — as well as of the likes of Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Ken Clark, Anna Soubry, Yvette Cooper, Caroline Lucas and, interestingly, also Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash (though he has little sympathy for their politics and none for their ERG / right-wing Tory cronies, particularly not for Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom).  Similarly unsurprisingly, the entire clique of moneyed, entitled, public school / establishment figures within the Tory party are getting their much-deserved and well-argued kicks in the shins both individually and collectively … Bercow really has come a long way from his early days in the party.  Yet, he insists that he has always felt he was in a better place remaining a Tory and holding the party to account from inside, than by changing his political affiliation — which, given how much those now calling the shots in the party have come to hate him, can’t be an easy stance to take.  (No wonder they tried several times, though always unsuccessfully, to get rid of him as Speaker.)

The final part of the book contains much that Bercow had already said repeatedly while still in office, be it in interviews or from the Speaker’s chair; yet, while he doesn’t hold back with criticism of those whose stance he considers irresponsible, he is also scrupulously fair to all those who, he genuinely believes, are working hard to realize the political aims they consider in the best interests of their constituents.  In fact, the chapter about what, in Bercow’s opinion, makes a “good” politician, is possibly the most surprising inclusion in the book (and the book worth a read for that chapter alone), heaping praise (and in some instances, scorn) on a wide array of politicians of all parties, regardless whether Bercow shares their views or not. —  Even if no longer from inside the Houses of Parliament, I hope and trust Bercow’s voice will remain relevant and weighty in the months and years to come.

 

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