What I Read in Winter 2020 (Part 1)

So, I think we can all agree that 2020 has been an unusual year to say the least. Yes? And my absence from this blog since last May (yikes!) is by no means the most remarkable thing to have happened.

So I won’t bore you with the details and excuses, but just go straight into today’s blog post, the first of many frequent and regular ones to come, I hope.

Unlike my blogging, my reading was very consistent over winter. I completed 5 books in June, 5 in July and 5 in August. My average rating was 4.2 / 5. Here are the June books in the order I read them.

1351323

THE JEWEL GARDEN

by Monty and Sarah Don

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

This was a re-read, so I knew I’d enjoy it, but I was interested to see if I gave it the same 4-star rating this time. And yes, I liked it just as much. It’s the true story of gardening writer and TV presenter Monty Don, his wife Sarah, and their journey towards the garden and life they have now. Their early married life together is fascinating. They started a jewellery business that boomed crazily, giving them a jet-setting celebrity lifestyle, and then went bust just as fast, leaving them practically destitute. A large part of the story is Monty writing frankly about his severe depression and how working with his hands in the soil has been part of the way he’s learned to manage it. There’s a lot about gardening but even more about people and relationships and just life really, and it’s a wonderful book.

1470663

THE SALTMARSH MURDERS

By Gladys Mitchell

Rating: ⭐⭐

This was not so wonderful. From the “Golden Age” of detective stories, but definitely base metal for me. Mrs Bradley, the Freudian psychologist and amateur sleuth, is barely a sleuth at all and is hugely unlikeable. The portrayal of the one black character is cringeworthy even for that time and as for the depiction of domestic violence and how the woman “must like it or she’d leave” – no thanks. And the mystery was just boring. I finished it in the hope the solution would dazzle me, but no. A dud all through I’m afraid.

13642

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA

By Ursula Le Guin

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Another re-read, but from more than forty years ago and again I wondered how an older me would see this story that I loved so much as a teenager. I was a bit concerned it wouldn’t stand up to my current much-more-critical reader brain. But I needn’t have worried: this was and still is a small masterpiece, the precursor to all the books about student magicians, including The Name of the Wind and Harry Potter. But it’s more lyrical, more spare and beautiful, a little gem of a story set in a land of countless tiny islands. And it still brought tears to my eyes. If you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t read this classic, go get yourself a copy. And every time you stop reading and think, “that’s a familiar trope – she stole that”, please remember: no, she didn’t steal anything. Le Guin was the first.

18007564

THE MARTIAN

By Andy Weir

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I listened to this as an audio book and it was a big surprise to me. I liked the movie and expected the novel to be average, an enjoyable way to pass the time on a couple of long drives, but no more than that. I absolutely loved it. Wil Wheaton does a great job of the narration, and there is so much more to the book than the movie. I listened to it in 2 five-hour chunks and wasn’t bored once, or tempted to take a break. There’s a lot of technical stuff about how the astronaut character survives after being stranded on Mars and I have no idea if what he does is feasible or not, and I don’t care. It was fascinating. Every time I thought I had almost had enough of following this one character all on his own, the scene would switch to Mission Control and what was happening there. After a while I’d get a little tired of the human relationship drama back in America and bang – back I’d be with Mark Watney. Great pacing and structure and an unforgettable character.

13538873

MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE

By Robin Sloane

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I’m a sucker for stories about books and bookstores. Add in a secret society of readers with a hidden agenda, a computer nerd and his cohort of unusually-talented friends trying to solve the mystery, and it would have been a miracle if I’d disliked this. But I had so much fun with it that I couldn’t give it any less than 5 stars. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but it’s one of those books that make me very glad I’m a reader.

So that’s Part 1 of my winter reads. Part 2 coming soon. Please comment if you’ve read any of these books, and let me know if you agree or disagree with my assessments. Happy reading!

Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

And Other Lessons from the Crematory

By Caitlin Doughty

3.5 STARS

This felt like two books to me: in one, Caitlin Doughty gives us stories from her time working in a crematorium. This is the reason I wanted to read the book in the first place and it was as enthralling, confronting, heartbreaking and heartwarming as I had hoped. Doughty is a good storyteller and she has some great material to work with, from the next-of-kin who want nothing to do with their loved ones’ remains and simply instruct the crematory to send them the ashes in the post, to the loving families who bring food and grave goods to be put into the coffin and even sing to the dead before the cremation. There are also some very honest and somewhat disturbing descriptions of dead bodies and how they are handled by those who work with them. This is all fascinating stuff.

However, then there is what I’m calling the second book: Doughty intersperses her crematorium anecdotes with information about death and funereal customs from other times and other places and philosophises at length about our own culture’s relationship with the dead and their mortal remains. She also gives us an eye-opening and somewhat scathing view of the modern American funeral industry. These passages kept breaking the flow of the narrative to such an extent that in the end I simply began skipping over them. It’s not that the material is inherently uninteresting or even badly written, but the two parts of this book simply don’t mesh smoothly together. I kept wanting to get away from the general and cultural and back to the specific and personal.

If Doughty had made the choice to simply write a memoir about her crematory experiences, with maybe just a word or two about how death is treated in our society and how she feels about it, I believe that could have been a 5-star book for me. As it stands, though, 3.5 stars reflects my reading experience more accurately. I would recommend this book, just be aware of its sometimes jarring dual nature.