Wednesday 31 January 2024

Books read in January

My reading year has started quite nicely. I decided I wanted to scale back a bit and read a bit less compulsively in 2024, so this winter I'm enjoying a bit of jigsaw puzzling and reacquainting myself with cryptic crosswords as well as reading books and so far it's working, apart from the fact that I don't seem to be 'buying' less books. I'm just a sucker for a book bargain, that's my problem.

So, I read eight books in January and these are they:

1.  The Awakening - Nora Roberts

2. Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky

3. Nature Tales for Winter Nights ed. by Nancy Campbell. This promised more than it delivered, and annoyed me because it gave the title of the essay or short piece of fiction at the start but not the author. So you had to flick to the end of the piece to see who had written it. There were, however, one or two very nice pieces in this collection and I'm sure it would suit others more than it did me.

4. Vesper Flights - Helen MacDonald. More enjoyable nature themed essays than the previous book, beautiful writing and reflections on nature in modern life. 

5. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A reread brought on by watching Lucy Worsley's latest three part documentary series on the author. It was so well done and so watchable. She mentioned that this was the last collection written by Conan-Doyle and how weird it was, so of course I had to grab my copy for a reread. Very good and yes, very weird! Recommend The Adventure of the Creeping Man and the Sussex Vampire one but all are good.

6. Mudlarking - Lara Maiklem

7. A Death in Door County - Annelise Ryan (to be reviewed)

8. Elephants Can Remember - Agatha Christie (to be reviewed) 

So, five fiction books read and three non-fiction. I've mixed the fiction genres quite a bit - fantasy, sci-fi, murder mysteries and short stories. Plus three non-fictions, one of which will make my best non-fiction list of 2024. So that's not bad, is it? You can't sask for much more than that.

Two favourite books this month:


So, onwards into February, and I'm currently reading these two:


Happy reading in February. It's our cold month in the UK and I gather there has been some mention of snow mid-month. We'll see, I have a hibernating nature in winter so that may be what my February plans are. Stay safe.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem

I'm always on the look-out for readable, fun, but informative, non-fiction books to read. I was lucky last year and found quite a few, some of which I featured in my Best Non-fiction of 2023 post. I say 'lucky' but I put a lot of effort in finding just the right books that will keep me reading day after day and not bore me to tears. So far this month I've read three non-fiction books and it was when I got to the third one that I found my first 'gem'. 


Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem is the author's debut book, first published in 2019. There was a bit of hype about it, I seem to recall. I saw articles on TV, thought it sounded like my kind of quirky read, and made a mental note to read it at some stage: here I am in 2024 just getting to it. Better late than never but also I'm a great believer in the idea that the appropriate book will find you when the time is right to read it. 

Lara Maiklem is not actually a born and bred Londoner, she was a farm girl drawn to London, as many people are, by the idea of the bright lights and possibilities of city life. It was years before she discovered the river, but once she did and started to see that there were things on the foreshore, washed up or stuck in the mud, that these things were often historical in nature and that the collecting of them is known as 'Mudlarking', she has not looked back.

A lot of people apparently do not know that The Thames is a tidal river. I'm not sure I did until I was in my forties and started to go to London occasionally, before that I had not given the matter any thought. The tidal head of the river is at Teddington apparently and it's also the limit of the Thames Waterman license, which is one of those iconic occupations that seems to belong to the world of Charles Dickens. In fact, mudlarking has been going on since then when it was urchins who were scouring the foreshore, looking for things to sell so they could eat. These days it's a hobby, but you need a license and that's not easy to get as the amount of people wanting to do it have rocketed and the the authorities have had to cap the numbers.

We're told that mudlarkers tend to fall into two categories, Hunters and Gatherers. By and large, men do the former, women the latter. Women stroll along the foreshore picking up what they see, men come armed with metal detectors and shovels and start digging, (although you're only allowed to dig to a certain depth: the rules are very strict). For some reason this amused me and rang true. (And reminded me of The Accidental Detectorist by Nigel Richardson, another gem of a book.)

Maiklem organises her book into chapters headed with areas of London that are on the river - Hammersmith, Vauxhall Bridge, London Bridge, Tower beach, The Pool of London, Greenwich, Tilbury, Wapping and so on. These are the areas where she searches and often finds her treasures. When I say 'treasure' I don't mean hoards of gold doubloons, although she has found a lot of coins, what I mean is artifacts that are ordinary things which historical Londoners have used or worn over the years, dating back to Roman times. It seems that city dwellers have been dumping their rubbish into the river for centuries, in fact at one stage The Thames was declared 'a dead river' because of it, but since then it's been cleaned up and fish have now returned.

I could go on and on about this book. It is a 'delight'. It's one of those books that combines an author's present day search or experiences of their subject with nuggets of historical information on the finds. So we hear about Henry VIII and his palace at Greenwich, the sewage problem Victorians faced (The Great Stink), the notorious Thames fogs, the history of the pipes used for smoking, coin production, about how a beach in front of the Tower of London was converted into a proper beach for Londoners to use, the list is endless and I loved every single chapter. It is extremely strong on atmosphere - London and its history, the river, the people who lived and worked along it - they live and breathe in this book. And like all wonderful books it's made me look at my shelves to see what else I have to read that's connected. So I have:

London Clay - Tom Chivers

Thames: Sacred River - Peter Ackroyd

Old London Bridge - Patricia Pierce

1700 - Scenes from London Life -  Maureen Waller

London Fog -  Christine L. Corton

And fiction:

Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens

The Port of London Murders - Josephine Bell 

So, that's just by having a cursory look at my bookshelves and Kindle. Suspect a serious search will reveal more but that's enough to last me through the year on a casual basis because that's how I'm reading this year... casually, according to my mood.  

So, Mudlarking was my first 5 star non-fiction book of 2024. I hope, hope, hope there are more to come in this vein. And if you're interested in London, British social history, rivers, books about people with a serious  quirky hobby, then I cannot recommend this fantastic book highly enough.

Thursday 11 January 2024

First books of 2024.

Unlike January 2023, 'this' year has started well as regards books. (Last year started with The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafar neither of which were all that great, in fact the latter got my only 2 star rating of 2023, if memory serves.)  My first book, The Awakening by Nora Roberts, was unfinished from 2023, so doesn't really feel like the first book for this year, but Children of Time does and it was an excellent book to start a new year with.

First up, The Awakening by Nora Roberts. My daughter recommended this trilogy and, although I'm not a massive fan of the author's Fey, Irish books, I'm nevertheless  willing to try almost anything. 

Breen Kelly lives in Philadelphia, sharing a flat with her gay best friend, Marco. She's a teacher who hates teaching but was rather forced into it by a domineering mother who has convinced Breen that she will never be more than 'average'. Looking after her mother's house one day, while her mother is away, Breen discovers that she has money, lots of it, left to her by her Irish father who disappeared when she was 10: her mother has kept this information from her. It is life changing of course and Breen makes the decision to go to Ireland to see if she can discover what happened to her father and also to see if she can kick-start the writing career that she's always dreamed of. So that's how the story begins. It turns into something very different of course as Breen discovers a portal into another realm and thus where her father went and the family she never knew about. I haven't read enough of Nora Roberts' Fey books, set in Ireland, to judge whether this is a good representation of them or not. (I read one, eons ago, and wasn't struck.) So, I have to judge it on its own merit as something new to me, and I did actually rather enjoy it. Yes, it was quite predictable, and I did think it got a bit bogged down in the detail of Breen's 'learning' in the middle. I also found the hero character rather abrasive but suspect his appeal is not aimed at a jaded old biddy like me. But what I loved was the setting on the west coast of Ireland. It shone like a wonderful character in its own right and oh gosh would I love a cottage like that on the shores of a bay in Ireland. Wild and woolly, Atlantic storms, what's not to love? The other realm was well depicted too and I did rather like the people she found there. So, swings and roundabouts but basically a success with me and I will read book 2, The Becoming, sometime this year, luckily my local library has it. 

So, in my mind, my first book of 2024 was Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is a sweeping space opera of a book which I've been meaning to read since I bought it in 2022. 

Hmm, this one's going to be difficult to describe. So, there's this planet which is being terraformed by the last of a sort of super-race from Earth, Dr. Avrana Kern. She presses the button, so to speak, releases a capsule of monkeys who carry a virus which means they will advance quickly, but there's a sabateur on her ship, all goes pear-shaped, and she has no idea whether said monkeys survive to inhabit the planet. Fast forward a couple of thousand years and her brain is inside a computer when another ship approaches. It's from Earth and is an Ark ship, carrying the remnants of the civilisation that followed Kern's. Earth is dead and thousands of people in stasis have nowhere to go, except Kern's planet. She's not having any of that for one reason or another and sends them on their way, but not before they get a glimpse of what is actually on the planet and the civilisation it's building. So, I've tried to make this spoiler free although anyone who knows of this book is probably aware of the twist. This is my first book by sci-fi writer, Adrian Tchaikovsky. His reputation goes before him so I was intrigued to read something and I was not disappointed. I'd heard that characteristaion was not his strongest point and I would say, yes, perhaps. People talk about his world building and that I would very much agree with. The beings on the planet, the world they have created: brilliant. The book is written from two perspectives, that of the people on the ship coming from Earth and that of the inhabitants of the planet. I preferred the latter but both were excellent. There were difficult decisions, ethical dilemmas, both on the ship and on the planet. It was fascinating. And the end surprised me. I gave this one 5 stars on Goodreads, if 4.5 was available it probably would've got that as I did think it wouldn't have harmed to lose a few pages. But all in all an amazing sci-fi read and as it's part one of a trilogy I'll be reading on sometime this year.

So, two very good books to start my reading for 2024. One hundred per cent better than last year. I hope you too have started your reading year well? Also that you're staying safe and well. Happy January reading.

Saturday 6 January 2024

My Life in Books 2023

I've done this 'My Life in Books' meme for several years now. Always have a lot of fun doing it, the idea being simply to answer the questions with the titles of books you read last year.

In high school I (liked): To be Taught if Fortunate - Becky Chambers

People might be surprised by: Who Killed the Curate? - Joan Coggin

I will never be:  Behind the Sequins - Shirley Ballas

My fantasy Job is: The Left-handed Booksellers of London - Garth Nix

At the end of a long day I need: The Pleasure of Reading - ed. Antonia Fraser

I hate being: Rotten to the Core - T.E. Kinsey

I wish I had: A Year of Living Simply - Kate Humble

My family reunions are: A Scream In Soho - John Brandon

At a party you’d find me (saying): I'm Sorry I'm Late, I Didn't Want to Come - Jessica Pan

I’ve never been to: The Bright Edge of the World - Eowyn Ivey

A happy day includes:  Red Sauce, Brown Sauce - Felicity Cloake

Motto I live by: Sea of Tranquility - Emily St. John Mandel

On my bucket list is: The Pavilion in the Clouds - A. McCall-Smith

In my next life, I want to have: A Ship of Magic - Robin Hobb

Would love to see other people's answers! 

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Best non-fiction, 2023.

So, just twenty two non-fiction books read last year but there were some really good books amongst those so I thought I would do a separate post to talk about a few of them.

First, I must apologise for being a bit AWOL in commenting on posts for a couple of days. I took a tumble in the kitchen and knocked my head quite badly, so took a day or two to be quiet and get over it. I'm fine now but my head still has a nice lump and I have a really impressive black eye! Not a great start to 2024. 

So, books. In 2023 I read a few less non-fiction books than other years but those I did read were excellent and very memorable. These are a few of the best:

La Vie: A Year in Rural France by John Lewis-Stempel is what it says on the tin - a recounting of the author's move to France and how he settled in, started a garden and got to know the locals in the village. The writing was 'sublime' and I absolutely loved this short little book.

The Hunt for Mount Everest by Craig Storti is a historical account of the discovery of Mount Everest. I say 'discovery'... the locals always knew it was there, obviously, but it was a bit of a myth to western explorers and even when its existance was confirmed the Dalai Llama managed to keep the world at bay for many more years. Lots of interesting political history in this one and I do love books about climbing and how it emmerged as a serious 'thing' amongst Europeans.

Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin is self explanatory. I didn't review this but that doesn't mean I didn't think it was absolutely superb. I learnt so much and want to read more biographical works about Austen and her works now. I have Lucy Worsley's book to start me off, hopefully get to that this year. 

The Accidental Detectorist by Nigel Richardson was such a fun, enjoyable read. Quirky and bonkers in places but also a lot of history and information about the various buried hoards that have been found all around the UK. Plus, you know, 'mad' people. (My favourite sort.) LOL! Highly recommended.


Outlandish by Nick Hunt. The authour considers the various landscape anomalies that exist in several European countries and goes to look at and experience them. I still think about this book, it was outstanding quite honestly, 'beautifully' written and so informative and full of atmosphere. Absolutely loved it and hope to read his, Walking the Woods and the Water this year. 


Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker. This is another book I'm still thinking about. The author goes to live in the Maramures region of northern Romania, a region that has not changed in centuries. He's practically adopted by the community he lives with and also gets to know the local gypsy population too. I don't know when I've ever read a book with a more intense sense of place: forests, villages, wintery landscapes, it was like moving back to the middle ages. Wonderful. 

So that's just six of my favourite non-fiction books for 2023. It's a cracking year when I can pick out six superb books like this and could easily have included a handful more.

Some honorable mentions. Two books by Kate Humble, A Year of Living Simply and Home Cooked, both gorgeous. Bringing in the Sheaves by The Reverand Richard Coles charts the life of a well known TV Vicar - enjoyed it a lot. A Spoonful of Sugar by Brenda Ashford - nannying during WW2. 50 Shades of the USA by Anna McNuff - cycling across the 50 states of the USA. I could go on and on, it's been a stellar year for me for non-fiction. Let's hope 2024 is equally as good.