The Sport of Kings – C. E. Morgan

I’m not sure quite what I expected from The Sport of Kings, but this wasn’t it. It is a great American Novel in that tradition, a look at Kentucky social structures and racism, and a commentary on family relationships.

My teenage years reading horsey books proved valuable here, as I had a basic understanding of the breeding of Thoroughbreds, and how American horse farms can work. But at every section I was left struggling to keep up as the setting changed dramatically, especially with the first cut to Allmon. And I didn’t understand any of the Interludes or what they where adding to the story.

I still read it compulsively though, letting the threads pull the story together to a coherent whole, and appreciating how early foreshadowing was tied up in the last section of the book. It is clearly a well-structured book, with character depth and development. We see whole generations moving through the community, and social changes as history carries old practices away.

A well-written book, and although not one I would have chosen myself, the sort of book that is worth reading to gain perspective, even if the writer’s aims are at times opaque. As I am trying to read the women’s prize, the focus on me throughout much of this was disappointing, as was Morgan’s decision to publish with her initials rather than first name.

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

Having cast aside The Lesser Bohemians, I picked The Dark Circle out of my library bag in its place. This was much more readable, written in a conventional third-person style, moving between points of view as the plot develops.

I appreciated the perspective on the dawning days of the NHS, and how rationing, waiting lists and condemnation of patients was always part of the culture. But the NHS itself was not the subject, far more how the circle of friends at the centre of this novel drew together, and each coped with and recovered from, their time in the institution. How they each managed in the prospect of death, and how ultimately each of them left.

It is a “coming of age” story, but one with a difference, in that the trial these young people pass through is one of its time. And the writing gives a perspective on that time, and a connection to the characters that makes the whole situation heartbreaking.

Very well-written, and a good selection of a slightly unusual subject-matter.

Unfinished: The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

This was not a good start to my Baileys challenge: I got 20 pages in and the writing style and subject were just irritating me. Skipped to page 100 and the writing style was the same breathless internal monologue, so I gave up. This one just wasn’t for me, so back to the library it goes.

Fool Moon: Dresden Files 2 – Jim Butcher

There’s not all that much to write about book 2 in a fast-paced series. Only that Butcher manages both continuity and pan-series arcs as well as an original and compelling plot. Dresden is a wonderfully flawed hero, trying to do good, but coming up against his own issues that make it all much harder. I’m hopful that these will be worked on through the series, as his understanding of them is already increasing.

The “Moon” title is a dead giveaway as to the supernatural theme of this book, but even here Butcher manages some originality, and I love Dresden’s tendency to go away, research and write a report for his client. No simple “turn up and do the fun stuff” for him – he’s working the same as everyone else who deals with the public sector in this millennium.

The twist at the end is satisfying, and I look forward to seeing this cast of characters in the next book: currently heading my way on order.

The Lure of the Lake District – Steve Goodier

We are fortunate to live close enough to the Lake District that day trips are possible. It is an area I have returned to again and again throughout my life, as a child, doing my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expedition, with my husband and now with our son. I have walked mountains, cycled, taken boat trips, had tea shop visits and even skied within the confines of this national park.

Goodier captures the spirit of everything we love about the Lakes, its wild spaces which are well-tamed, and how well recorded life in the Lakes is. He tells us of his days in the hills, and inspired our walk on Saturday with his description of “doing a number 35”, that is taking advantage of the days when no-one is up to a famous peak to pick up one of the easier walks towards the end of a Wainwright book. We had a lovely day in the snow on Selside Pike, but the going was definitely too hard for a tough mountain.

 Then there is the review of other Lakeland writers. As well as acknowledging Wainwright, he picks out some less well-known authors, who developed the whole concept of a writing guide. I have ordered a couple of books by Coleridge and am now aware of John Wyatt’s work for when my to read pile is more manageable

Storm Front – The Dresden Files 1 – Jim Butcher

I’ve been aware of the Dresden Files before, but had never felt particularly pulled to them, until I read a Butcher short story a few weeks ago. I ordered it in the library reservation system, although have been disappointed to be unable to order Fool Moon (book 2) so Abe books has come to the rescue.

The Dresden Files is a take on the sterotypical consulting detective theme, with the additional twist of said detective being a practicing wizard in modern-day Chicago. Gritty and real, unlucky in love and hopeless at actually paying his rent, Harry Dresden is a hero it is easy to feel drawn to. He has the wit, the insight and the abilities to get through a fiendishly unlucky set of circumstances when all he really wants to do is pay (last month’s) rent.

The writing is compelling, drawing me into this world where so much criminality is down to other-worldly forces. The dark side of human nature is battled against as day becomes night, but we know all along that Dresden is somehow going to solve the case. For starters there are another 15 books for him to appear in!

As I mentioned at the start, I loved this enough to buy book 2, and am glad I have the whole series ahead of me.

The Man who Rained – Ali Shaw

The cover of this set the tone nicely – is a nice “chick lit” with a fable woven beneath it. Elsa is taking the normal “running away” approach to life, and settles  in a small town. But of course it is not an ordinary small town, and it takes a few chapters before we discover how unusual it is.

This is hardly deep literature, but covers both the bright and dark sides of the human spirit. We see displays of love and of jealousy, of loyalty and a brutal mob.  The human side alone is powerful. Then the magic is imaginative, running with the idea of spirits (mischievous or otherwise) which have local powers.

I loved how Shaw drew all the threads together for the ending, giving very satisfying conclusions to all the parallel subplots running through the novel.

Dangerous Women Part III – Edited by George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois

Dangerous Women is a collection of fast-paced stories centred around women. They vary in style and quality, and although one (by Melinda Snodgrass) I abandoned, it has also led me to reserve the first of the Desden Files novels to read. The Butcher story was typical, of the collection, a women who against the odds manages to use her wits and femininity to escape from dangerous enemies and end up ahead by the end of the story.

The editors don’t make an entry into this collection, outside a short introduction by Dozois, which I would imagine anyone picking this up for the George R. R. Martin name on the front would find a disappointment. However anyone who remains disappointed as the short stores unpack would be missing in taste. By the end I was only sorry that there were only seven stories, and I’m fairly likely to pick up the other parts of the Dangerous Women series.

Fludd – Hilary Mantel (Audiobook)

Hilary Mantel is one of those authors whose work I keep feeling like I should read, but then being too overwhelmed by the degree of seriousness to start. So I went for the audiobook solution, listening as I commuted for a fortnight.

Fludd is set in 1950s Lancashire, up in the Pennines. For those who don’t live in this area, it might be surprising that these are several villages and small towns that are very much Catholic, here in the cradle of methodism and in a country that has been officially protestant since the turn of the 17th Century. So the idea of this insular community, with an equal distrust of Yorkshiremen and Protestants seems very lifelike to me. Then we have the named characters, from a priest who has lost his faith, a nun who isn’t quite sure what she is doing and a bishop who wan’t to modernise this parish.

This novel is about the changing of times, faith and human nature. As a new arrival, Fludd challenges the existing community, sowing new thoughts and ideas. And then there are the small miracles that occur in his presence.

However despite all this, I couldn’t enjoy the climax the book finished at. It could so easily have gone somewhere else in those last couple of chapters, and made a larger point. Of course it is possible that the whole point was the individuality of the divine, and that deeper meaning needs another reading to solidify.

Messy – Tim Harford

As one of the BBC’s top statistics correspondents, Harford is not the person I would expet to write a book subtitled “How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”.  But this is not a book on tidying, but on how the human brain requires opportunity to be creative, new constraints to seek new solutions and move outside our comfort zones.

Now in the spirit of “forced improvisation”, a quote from a page picked at random:

As Bezos [of Amazon] liked to say during the crunches of 1998 and 1999, ‘If you are planning more than twenty minutes ahead in this environment, you are wasting your time.’ He was a man in a hurry. No wonder he created such an almighty mess.

This was from a chapter titled “Winning” and describes how some successful military and business tactics involve making “good enough” decisions so fast that your opponents are unable to react. This is also descibed as Trump’s tactic as getting inside his opponents’ OODA loop such that they are incapable of reacting before he has moved onto his next tactic.

Overall this is a fascinating look at how to keep yourself on your toes, and the benefits that can come from doing so. I’m still going to keep my tidy desk though!