Reading List 2021
Updated: Jan 2
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes - Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle *****
I love reading the adventures of Britain's favourite detective. I have read all the novels, but it is in the collections of short stories that you really feel like you get to know Sherlock Holmes. I love them, all of them and this collection is as good as the rest.
Agatha Christie an Autobiography - Agatha Christie **
Agatha Christie is, and I suspect always will be, my favourite author. This autobiography however left me feeling disappointed. The main reason for that I suppose is that it’s not what I hoped it would be. There is very little detail about her books, her stories, how she came up with them, what inspired her, where her characters came from, her challenges in writing them or in-depth thoughts on the great Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. There was absolutely nothing of her famed disappearance in 1926. I enjoyed reading about her travels but I have read much about them elsewhere. The Grand Tour and Come, Tell Me How You Live were more satisfying reads. I found myself skimming through interminable sections about her childhood and inane conversations between her relations and servants. Much of it was boring and I found myself saying out loud, ‘I don’t care!’ whilst reading it. In the foreword the author confesses that the book is an indulgence and that, I think is an accurate description. She writes about what she wanted to remember rather than what most of her fans want to know.
The Guardians - John Grisham ****
I enjoyed this book very much. The plot involving a team of lawyers trying to secure the release of an innocent man wrongly imprisoned for decades, was an intriguing one. I have always found these miscarriages of justice fascinating and terrifying and the American justice system as a whole bewildering. I thought the author did a good job of leading me through the process of how one might get an innocent person exonerated. It was well-paced and interesting from beginning to end. I was never bored or restless and liked the characters. I shall read more from John Grisham in the future. I was pleased to read afterward that the real person on whom the story was based was finally released from prison after 33 years.
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury **
I’ll leave it to others more intelligent than I to fully dissect and interpret the meaning of this modern classic. It seemed to me that the main message is to warn the reader of the dangers of an unthinking populace. In a world where books are banned and burned the people are entertained by wall to wall tv screens. Their only thoughts are what make them happy. Books and the ideas within them are dangerous and problematic. As a teacher and a parent it did make me think about the battle between screen time and reading time. It is true what others have said: reading is and has always been a minority leisure exercise. This is sad, I think. I liked the ‘you are what you read’ message and that the books people had read lived within them. Overall I wouldn’t say I really enjoyed it but it was an interesting, thought-provoking read.
Allan's Wife - H. Rider Haggard *****
I love these stories. Non-stop adventure through the wilds of Africa leave you gasping, laughing and shaking your head. The hero is is a rough and tough adventurer who provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones. Each story is just terrific fun. In this story Allan treks through the African bush with his faithful native friend, meets a long lost friend, marries her and takes on an army of baboons led by a crazed monkey-woman. How could you not love that? I can’t recommend the Allan Quartermain stories highly enough. I absolutely love them and Allan’s Wife was another fantastic read.
Around the World in 80 Days - Jules Verne *****
This is by far my favourite Jules Verne book so far. I loved it from beginning to end. I have also read Journey to the Centre of the Earth (which I really liked) and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (which I was disappointed by). It was a fun, fast-paced adventure across the globe. In my ignorance, before reading it, I was under the impression that he travelled around the world in a hot air balloon. I don't know where I got that idea from but think perhaps it was from a childhood cartoon I loved. I found him a rather unappealing character, though certainly unusual, but loved the plethora of adventures he and his friends had along the way. He travels (and is pursued) around the world by boat, train, sledge and elephant. He visits Europe, India, Hong Kong, Japan and America. He encounters all manner of dangers and obstacles in his bid to prove it possible to traverse the globe in eighty days. I like reading nineteenth and early twentieth century travelogues and this reminded me of them. It was a really fun adventure from start to finish and I would heartily recommend it.
The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova ****
I would say this book could fit neatly into a number of different genres. It was part thriller, adventure, gothic novel and detective yarn. The author has clearly carried out exhaustive research into the history of Vlad Tepes and Medieval Eastern Europe. I know next to nothing about this period and so found it a little difficult to follow. The story centres upon the search for Dracula’s (final?) resting place. Gothic vampire lore intertwines with historical mystery to create an interesting and enjoyable read. The main characters travel to lots of interesting and atmospheric places which I loved. I thought it was too long and perhaps there could have been more vampires (I love Dracula) but overall It was an enjoyable novel: an entertaining mix of many of my favourite genres.
Holy Island - L. J. Ross ***
I don't read a lot of modern crime fiction so I don't have much to compare it to but I did enjoy this one. The fact that it is set on Holy Island was the main draw for me and I know the author has many other books in the series set in the north east (I live in Newcastle). I found it to be well-written, I liked the main characters and the plot was fun and gruesome. I wasn't so keen on the romantic aspect of the plot but I appreciate that, for many people, romance is a key part of any good story. The finale was fast-paced and thrilling and I loved the epilogue. I did correctly guess the main culprit but that was probably just lucky instinct born out my love for reading Agatha Christie whodunnits. All in all it was an enjoyable read and I will look out for the next in the series.
Blue Moon - Lee Child ***
The Jack Reacher novels are, for me, the equivalent of a Hollywood Blockbuster film that requires no effort on my part. You can just switch your brain off and enjoy it. I really like those kinds of films and these books fall into the same category for me. In this novel the famous protagonist, Jack Reacher, helps out an old couple struggling to pay their medical bills. In the process he brings down not one but two competing crime families. It has all the action and violence you would expect, the sharp humour and no-nonsense attitude of the tough guy who is really a good egg. It's a quick, fun read that I liked though didn't love.
The Rosetta Stone - William Dietrich ****
This novel is a great historical adventure. It’s set at the close of the eighteenth century and involves the search for a mysterious old book with magical powers. It begins where it’s predecessor ends, with the main protagonist on his way from Egypt to the Holy Land. There are exotic locations, nefarious villains, battles, explosions, history and mystery. Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the main characters and his attempted conquest of the Holy Land features strongly. I love action and adventure novels and I love the search for hidden treasures. If you do too, this book has everything you need.
The Hollow - Agatha Christie ***
I was very excited to read this one because it involves Hercule Poirot, one of Christie's most amazing creations. When all the guests assemble at a country house for the weekend, you feel you are in store for another classic mystery from the Queen of Crime. While it was OK, it didn't quite reach the heights of many of her other books I have read. All the ingredients were there that you would want and expect but I felt it didn't have the sparkle or the oomph of some of her other classic whodunnits. I felt like it lacked pace and Poirot wasn't really in it very much. The ending was OK but not a 'Wow' moment or shocking twist like you get with some of her books. I never try to work out who did it because I like the surprise at the end butt the finale didn't really pack much of a punch. Overall, I enjoyed it but it's nowhere near her best.
The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole ***
As a big fan of gothic literature, this has been on my must-read list for a long time. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, it is considered the very first gothic novel. Many of the aspects of the genre we now take for granted can be found in this book. It has the creepy and violent villain, it has the eery supernatural elements, it has noble heroines and a damsel in distress. It also has the macabre feel and dark melancholic tone of good gothic novels. I enjoyed all of those aspects of the novel but, I have to say, I wasn't really gripped by it like I have been with others (like The Monk for example). The story was good and it felt like a rich gothic tale, but I wasn't wowed by it. The Castle of Otranto is definitely worth a read and deserves a nod for introducing the staples of a genre that has become one of my favourites.
American Tabloid - James Ellroy ****
This book, for me, is like passing a car crash on the motorway. It’s hideous but you can’t look away. It follows three main characters who dwell in the dark and dangerous underworld of 1950s USA. JFK and his brother Bobby are main characters. So too are J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes and Sam Giancana. The Rat Pack are in it and there’s even a cameo from Marilyn Monroe. I’ve never read a book like this before, so full of everything abhorrent about people and society in general. The language, the violence, the repulsive nature of the characters, the sleaze and the immorality were non-stop in your face from the word go. I think the writing style will annoy some people but for me it made it feel like a fast-paced read that kept thundering along giving you no chance to breathe. It was appalling and fascinating. I wanted to pull away but couldn’t. I was enjoying it too much.
The Lost World - Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle ****
As a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and Victorian literature in general, I was eager to read what Doyle’s other books were like. I love reading adventure stories, with H. Rider Haggard one of my favourite authors. Swap the wilds of Africa for the jungles of the Amazon and you have a very similar feel. A small group of explorers travel into the depths of the South American jungle to find a land of prehistoric animals. They get into various scrapes, close shaves and encounter some terrifying beasts. It all makes for a terrific adventure. Professor Challenger was an interesting character as were the other protagonists. I did wish there was more dinosaur action in it and the story slowed down a bit about two thirds of the way through but other than that I found it a fun read. I shall read more of Professor Challenger’s adventures and am pleased that Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle is just as good at writing adventures as he is whodunnits.
Camino Winds - John Grisham **
Meh. This is the third Grisham book I’ve read now (I haven’t read any of the famous ones) and I’m definitely sensing a pattern. It’s another little guy takes on the big guy story. The big evil corporation is corrupt and amoral but the ordinary folk figure out what’s going on and bring the whole thing down. Is Grisham the Frank Capra of modern thriller writing? It was OK I suppose but nothing more than that. The characters were interesting and the plot moved along steadily. It wasn’t what I was hoping for though. It wasn’t a whodunnit. The crime was solved almost immediately and there were no twists or turns. That said, I wasn’t bored or disinterested. I just didn’t find it particularly enjoyable. The author seeks to awaken in his readers a knowledge of all of society’s social ills. A noble cause, but becoming a bit predictable.
Bombshell: The Night Bobby Kennedy Killed Marilyn Monroe - Douglas Thompson ****
Marilyn Monroe, The Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, organised crime, politics, Hollywood, corruption and murder! It’s easy to see why the 1960s continues to fascinate. I haven’t read a book about Marilyn for 20 years but even so, lots of the story was familiar. In many ways her whole life was a tragedy but the events surrounding her death characterise so much of what was abhorrent about the world in which she lived. The book does a good job of offering a concise summary of her life and describes in detail the sordid private life of JFK. I found some of it a bit flat and repetitive. The first 60 pages were a slog and the denouement was anti-climactic. I thought the sequencing could have been better and the writing wasn’t always easy to follow (some very long sentences I had to read multiple times). The story of what happened on the run up to the murder and the murder itself were engaging. I couldn’t put the book down at this point. There was probably more info about the LAPD and the cover-up than about Marilyn and RFK though which got a little tiresome. I think most people will find this an interesting read and for all the Marilyn fans out there, this will be a valuable addition to the collection. I am interested in conspiracy theories in general but I don’t go along with them. In this case though I am inclined to believe that Marilyn was murdered. This book provided a compelling argument.
Lamentation - C. J. Sansom *****
Take a bow, C. J. Sansom, you've done it again. I love the Shardlake series and this one was just as fun, fascinating and absorbing as the others. Set in Tudor England, Matthew Shardlake is a prominent lawyer with some high-profile friends and enemies. In Lamentation he is tasked with finding a controversial book stolen from the Queen, Catherine Parr. In his attempts to do so, he crosses swords with some of the biggest personalities in the land, the biggest even. As a wannabe writer myself, I find it almost unfathomable that Sansom can pack in so much detail and create such an authentic atmosphere, that we the readers really feel like we are right there in Tudor England. The detail doesn't detract from the story though. It never feels like you're reading a non-fiction book, such is the skill and talent of the author. I have a keen interest in the history of The Reformation so I loved reading about the religious turmoil of the age. Sansom expertly weaves it all into the story to create a novel which is enthralling and entertaining from start to finish. I read these books wishing I could write something as good. Lamentation is a cracking read. If you're already familiar with the Shardlake series, you'll love it and if you like historical fiction, you'll love it. Don't miss it!
Jaws - Peter Benchley ****
Jaws is one of my favourite films, and one of the greatest ever made. Until recently I never considered reading the book but I introduced the film to my daughter not long ago and decided to give it a go. In this day and age the film is obviously a lot more famous than the book and anyone who reads it will probably have seen the film first. I was surprised by how much of it was different. The core theme is obviously the same: there is a giant killer fish feasting on the inhabitants of Amity Island. The summer season is the lifeblood of the economy so there is much debate over how to handle this potential catastrophe. Should they close the beaches? All the characters we know from the film are in there but some of them are portrayed very differently. The scenes where the shark strikes are really good and the opening few pages are gripping. It is a genuinely enjoyable thriller and a great summer read. I read it by the pool while on holiday in Morocco. It would be even better to read on the beach! This is a different kind of thriller, and one that I really enjoyed. But the big question is: film or book? For me, it's got to be the film.
The Moving Finger - Agatha Christie ***
This can hardly be described as a Miss. Marple mystery for her role is a cameo at best. The story itself is classic Christie though not one of her greatest accomplishments. The residents of the quaint little village of Lymstock are scandalised by the letters of a Poison Pen artist. The deviant soon graduates to a double murder which has the villagers all a flutter. Jerry Burton (the narrator) and his sister Joanne are at the forefront of the action. Our favourite little granny-sleuth doesn’t appear until the final act. And even then, her only real contribution is to explain the whole thing to us. I liked the twists and, as usual, I had no idea who the murderer was. I was bored at times and found some of it tiresome but it got back on track soon enough. I love Agatha Christie more than any other author. This book was quite good. No more than that.
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East - Robert Fisk *****
It is difficult to write a concise review of such a book given that it is a sprawling mass of 1300 pages and covers decades of Middle Eastern History. It has taken me all year to read as I had to take frequent breaks from it to read something more light-hearted. Robert Fisk was a journalist for the Times and Independent who spent decades covering the Middle East from his base in Beirut. The book begins by detailing his conversations with Osama Bin Laden in the caves of Afghanistan as a prelude to the following three decades of turmoil. He covers a huge amount of History which is fascinating to read about. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the invasion of Kuwait, Israel vs. Palestine, the Armenian Genocide, Algeria, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 are all covered in exhaustive and personal detail. The author does a remarkable job of combining an overview and commentary of the big issues and players with his personal experiences. He frequently includes details such as the names of individual victims and their families as well as serial numbers of bombs and missiles. The History of the modern Middle East is a tragic one, involving the death of countless innocent people and the ruination of nations. It was an exhilarating read and at times a depressing one. It was published in 2006, long before the death of bin Laden, the Arab Spring, war in Syria, and the rise of ISIS. The Taliban are currently finalising their takeover of Afghanistan after Biden's capitulation. I write this on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 when the world is remembering the last great global shift. Can any of us really quantify, the long-lasting damage to the western world of that horrific day? The author makes a valiant attempt and pulls no punches in his scathing assessment of American, British and Israeli foreign policy. He frequently calls out the lies of Bush and Blair and writes in bitter tones of the enormous damage western interference in the Middle East has caused. I learned a lot from reading this book and am eager to learn more.
Whose Body? - Dorothy L. Sayers **
I have to say I was disappointed. I’ve been meaning to read Dorothy Sayers for a while. I don’t read a lot of crime novels but I love a whodunnit and Agatha Christie is my favourite. I thought I would really like this one but it never really grabbed me. I liked Lord Wimsey but I was never eager to keep reading. I think it was the plot I found uninspiring. A dead body is found in someone’s bathroom at the same time an aristocrat goes missing. There was nothing wrong with the characters but the story just didn’t interest me. I enjoyed the denouement though I found the whole thing implausible. I will read another Sayers book because I think / hope there are better Wimsey adventures out there.
The Innocents Abroad - Mark Twain ****
Mark Twain is one of America’s most celebrated writers and this travelogue is one of his bestsellers. Shortly after the civil war he joined a band of tourists undertaking an epic journey across Europe, the Holy Land and Egypt. With customary humour and sarcasm, he details his experiences in what has become this, perhaps the most famous of all travelogues. It was a bit too long for me and I lost interest in parts but I loved his chapters on the Near East. I devoured his chapters on Turkey and Constantinople and his adventures through Palestine brought back many happy memories for me. In our first year of marriage, my wife and I travelled around Israel to many of the places Mark Twain writes about. And although we did so over one hundred years later than he, I recognised much of what he describes. I am somewhat jealous that he made it into the Dome of the Rock when I was forbidden. His descriptions of zealous pilgrims still ring true and the ridiculous obsession with relics and true sites seemingly haven’t changed (apart from there being a new favoured spot for Golgotha and the garden tomb since Twain wrote). Yet despite his ridicule for the religious absurdities which he encountered often (you would still encounter them today) he seemed to me to be a man of faith. That was my interpretation of much of what he said. I like reading travelogues, especially ones written many years ago. This one is right up there where it belongs as perhaps the most famous. Twain brings alive a world we no longer know but one which is instantly recognisable, if not from experience, then from our imaginations. Bravo.
Dune - Frank Herbert ****
If possible - particularly with a classic book - I will always try and read the book before I see the film or TV series. I would like my own imagination to kick in when reading it, not someone else's. With a new blockbuster adaptation of Dune currently in the cinemas, I raced to read the novel first even it meant missing a cinema trip with my friends. I was not disappointed and enjoyed the book, though I did find the first 50 - 100 pages a bit of a slog. The characters were interesting and really changed and developed as the book went on, particularly the main protagonist: Paul. His relationship with his mother, friends and love interests, I found fascinating as well as his transformation from teenager-with-potential to revered leader. I liked the way the author depicted the worlds and planets, the politics of the universe and the strange tribes and peoples. The book is rife with parallels to our own world and even though it was written in the sixties, the underlying messages still ring try today. It was also clear that much of our beloved sci-fi films and tv series' owe a debt to Dune. I am a big fan of Star Wars and I could tell that George Lucas must have been influenced by this novel. If you like a good fantasy-sci-fi epic then this is a good one. A classic book that didn't disappoint. Now for the film...
Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho - Stephen Rebello ****
I must have seen Psycho for the first time when I was 15 or 16. I adored it then and still do. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films every made and Hitchcock is a genius. This is not controversial for you will have heard and read that said many times. I recall, when we went to California for a family holiday when I was 17, visiting the Universal lot and doing the backstage tour. I loved seeing the houses where they shot Murder She Wrote, the shark from Jaws and the big fires, explosions and floods they treat you to. However the big draw for me and what I got most excited by was seeing the Bates Motel and the house on the hill. I bought a Psycho T-Shirt and door-hanger, such was the impact the film made on me. The book does a sterling job of walking the reader through the entire process of making the film with huge emphasis on the enigmatic director. I can't imagine you would appreciate this book very much if you weren't intimately acquainted with the film. As I was reading about the various scenes, characters, dialogue and music, I could picture them all in my head (I even put the soundtrack on while I was reading it). I loved reading about the behind-the-scenes info of the shower scene, 'mother', Bernard Hermann's score and the reaction to the film when it was released. To think that one critic said that Psycho was a blot on Hitchcock's reputation, is hilarious and unbelievable. I wish I could have been alive at the time to experience this film when it first came out. To hear the screams, to see people fainting, to see the shock and disgust on people's faces would have been a thing to behold. My Dad told me of how he persuaded his mum to take him to see it because he was aware of the tumult that surrounded it and how it had been banned in many American states. He was 10. It's mild by comparison to today's standards but rightly deserves its reputation as the first real shocker / slasher movie. If you love the film and you're interested in how these things get made then you'll love the book. I did.
White Queen of the Cannibals - A. J. Bueltmann ****
I didn’t realise this was a children’s book until I started reading it. It was a fun and informative read nonetheless. Mary Slessor was a Scottish missionary at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. She was utterly devoted to preaching the gospel to the cannibal tribes of the Nigerian jungle. Her life was an adventure and a struggle as she sacrificed everything for the sake of the heathen tribes of the Calabar. I enjoyed it and will now pass it on to my daughters to read.
The Chalet - Catherine Cooper ****
I read this winter crime thriller much quicker than I normally would which I think is a good sign. Indeed, I whizzed through the first half in a few hours because I didn’t want to put it down. The book is set in an Alpine ski resort where a death occurs while the protagonists are skiing off-piste. Twenty years later a group assembles in a luxury lodge and some of those involved in the death are among the number. As the novel progresses, more is revealed about the main characters and their involvement in the death. I enjoyed this gradual revelation and I was eager to find out what was going to happen next. It was a definite page-turner. However I have to admit I was disappointed by the ending. It all felt rather anti-climactic. It was still a very enjoyable read though, right up until the last few pages.
'Salem's Lot - Stephen King *****
I wanted to expand the repertoire of books I read to include different genres. I chose ‘Salem’s Lot because it’s a classic horror story. Stephen King is a renowned storyteller and having previously read The Stand, knew that it would be a real page-turner. Ben Mears is a successful author who returns warily to the small Maine town of his youth: Jerusalem’s Lot. When people start going missing and others begin to look haggard, pale and exhausted, Ben and some others in the town think something sinister is afoot. They’re right. They soon discover that an ancient vampire has taken up residence in the sleepy old town and has set about recruiting the residents to his army of the undead. It’s a classic vampire novel and I absolutely loved it. It was fun, scary, shocking and left me rueing the day I would finish reading it. There is no higher compliment for a book than that. Stephen King is a master storyteller and ‘Salem’s Lot is a triumph.
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens *****
Like many others it seems, I read this every year and absolutely love it. I can’t imagine anything I write here will add anything to the volumes that have already been written about this No. 1 Christmas classic. It’s poignant, profound, emotional and ultimately heartwarming. There are so many classic lines in it, I’d struggle to pick a favourite though I’ll end my review with this gem from Mrs. Cratchet, “The Founder of the Feast indeed! I wish I had him here. I’d give him a piece of my mind to feast upon, and I hope he’d have a good appetite for it.”
On the Incarnation - St. Athanasius *****
I really enjoyed this book. It was short, clear and to the point. No wiffle-waffle or lengthy, contrived chapters that use a great many words to say very little. His arguments for Christ are passionate and heartfelt and as such it was a great reminder of some of the timeless truths of the Christian faith.
The Dead of Winter - S. J. Parris *****
I love the Giordano Bruno series and these three novellas serve as a good prequel to the other books. He is such a good character and I love reading about his exploits. These stories take place mostly in Naples but the third (and best) has Bruno summoned to Rome to stand before the Holy Father. There’s murder, mystery, conspiracies, secret organisations, love affairs and dangerous politics going on throughout. I loved it. Parris is one of my go-to authors for historical fiction. I think she may have even usurped Sansom in my affections for Tudor crime mysteries. A cracking short read, highly recommended.