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2019: The Reading Year In Review

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair … we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Dickens must have been looking over my shoulder in 2019 because it was definitely a year of mixed fortunes.

I started with great optimism that I would – finally – complete my Booker Prize project. But I’m ending the year with one book still to go.

In January I was confident I would also finish the long-overdue Classics Club Project. Yet, here I am a year later with two books adrift from that total of 50.

On the plus side of the 56 books I read this year, 39 were by authors I’ve never encountered before. Some of them are going to be writers I will want to read more from in the future; such as Diane Setterfield, Vita Sackville-West; Brian Moore and Patrick Gale.

I also added four new countries to my world of literature reading list thanks to the 20booksofsummer reading project (or in my case 13 books). Austria, Croatia; Jamaica and Rwanda brought the total of countries to 41 and edging me closer to the target of 50.

And now for the 2019 roll of honour

Shortest Book Of The Year

Sanditon by Jane Austen. Calling this a book is actually stretching the description. It is only 128 pages long and isn’t complete. It’s a fragment of a novel Jane Austen was writing when she succumbed to illness. She laid it aside and died before she could complete the text. It was re-issued in 2019 to coincide with a new television version written by Andrew Davies – you can’t even call it an adaptation since he admitted he’s used all of Austen’s material before even episode 2. Not that it matters because I watched part of it, thought it was dire, and resolved not to bother any further.

Longest Book Of The Year

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is 614 pages of sheer bliss. He takes four strangers from different backgrounds and with vastly different attitudes to life and throws them together in an unamed Indian city. Around them the country is in turmoil as the declaration of a State of Emergency gives official licence to detention, torture and forced sterilisation. The novel is a joy from start to finish.

Biggest Surprise Of 2019

I read eight non fiction books this year; more than in any previous year. Even more of a surprise – five of them were outstanding. One is even shortlisted for my Book of the Year award. I seem to be developing an interest in memoirs which is a genre I’ve never given much thought to in the past. It will be interesting to see if this continues through to next year.

Best Book By Welsh Author 2019

The prize goes to Alis Hawkins for None So Blind, the first in the Harry Probert-Lloyd historical crime fiction series. Set in rural Wales in the nineteenth century, this novel demonstrates admirally how to seamlessly weave research into a novel without detracting from the narrative flow.

Most Disappointing Book 2019

I had three contenders for this award. William Boyd’s Love is Blind and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription were in contention but ultimately I gave the prize to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

Cue wailing and gnashing of teeth among the thousands of readers for whom this was a favourite book of 2019. It was hailed as a powerful story about a miscarriage of justice and the black American middle class experience. But I never felt the injustice issue was being tackled head on in a way I would have expected given all the praise heaped on this novel.

Best Non Fiction Book 2019

I’m really spoiled for choice but I’ve narrowed the options down to three books. Becoming by Michelle Obama was an outstanding mix of humour, insight and reflection This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay took us behind the scenes of the medical profession in the UK with a book that had the ability to make me chortle and vent in equal measure. Reading The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, the memoirs of a couple who embarked on a 600 mile walk when they were evicted from their farm left me awed by their resilience but angry at the way homeless people are viewed.

And the winner is ….. The Salt Path. I felt I walked every step with this couple, feeling their hurt when people shunned their company and sharing their joy in nature. A tremendous book that deserves all the praise it’s received.

Best Book In Translation 2019

A Whole Life by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler was remarkable. Just 149 pages long it was an evocative, tender story of a quiet soul who has a remarkable capacity to accept whatever life throws at him. It was moving but wasn’t sentimental. Just pitch perfect I thought.

Best Book 2019

And now for the ultimate accolade: the title of my favourite book from 2019. I was looking for a book that I enjoyed reading at the time but have continued to think about long after I closed it for the last time. I asked myself which book/s had I recommended most frequently and which book/s had I talked about most often during the year.

There were four books that stood out.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West for its tremendous portrayal of an elderly woman

How It All Began by Penelope Lively; an exquisitely contrived novel of seven lives derailed because of a single event.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore is an unflinching yet sympathetic portrait of loneliness. It qualifies as the most painfully sad book I’ve read for many years.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. For the reasons I described earlier.

And the prize goes to ……

…. The Salt Path. A book I have urged friends everywhere to buy and read. I hope I’ve encouraged you all to go out and buy/borrow it as soon as possible.

Uncovered: An Overdose Of Crime On The Shelves

Today marked yet another attempt to bring some order to the chaos of my book collection. Thanks to a mini cull I can see some space on the bookshelves which is just as well because the piles on the floor are in danger of toppling.

Every time I do this exercise I make a discovery about my stock of “owned but unread” books. Today’s discovery was that I own a load more crime fiction novels than I expected.

It’s a surprise because, though I’m partial to a little crime fiction from time to time, I’ve never considered myself a huge fan.

I view them as entertaining, something I enjoy at the time, but not the kind of book that makes me think or that lingers in my mind long after I’ve got to the final page. Most of them are so forgettable that, were you to ask me to describe a particular book, I’d be in difficulties.

Those I do recall are memorable because the characterisation is sharp, the setting evocative and the narrative deals with interesting issues. Hence why I enjoy Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series so much.

Given all this, how have I ended up owning 22 crime fiction books?

Fortunately I can turn to the spreadsheet where I record all my purchases and acquisitions (gifts, donations, ARCs etc) to find some answers.

Completing A Series

A few are parts of a series I’ve been following. That accounts for my copies of Nature Of The Beast and Bury Your Dead which are part of the series by Louise Penny I mentioned earlier.

It also accounts for In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins. It’s the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series and I enjoyed the first None So Blind so much I had to get the follow up. I do need to read this soon however because there is a third book Those Who Can due out in May 2020.

Earlier this year I started reading a series by Abir Mukherjeeset in India at the time of the Raj. I must have been convinced this would be good because even before I read book one, A Rising Man, I had already bought books 2 and 3 and have an ARC of the fourth.

Who Can Resist A Bargain?

I can’t, at least not when it comes to books.

I volunteer at a National Trust property which runs a second hand bookshop as a way of raising funds. So of course every time I report for duty I just have to have a peek at the most recent donations.

The prices are ridiculously low – just £1 will get you a paperback in good condition (the volunteers who run the shop vet everything before it goes on the shelves). So hard to resist…..

Which is how I acquired two books by Jane Harper: The Dry and The Lost Man, both of which a friend had highly recommended.

A “two for the price of one” offer at The Works brought me Stasi Child, a debut novel by David Young which has won several awards. What attracted my interest was that it is set in the former East Germany during the time of the Cold War. I also bought the follow up Stasi Wolf.

I have a set of three books by Alexander Wilson that came as a discounted bundle from The Book People. Wilson was one of the pen names of Alexander Joseph Patrick “Alec” Wilson, an English spy and MI6 officer. I’ve no idea about the quality of the books; maybe their plots won’t be as interesting as the real life story of the author. After his death in 1963 he was discovered to have been a serial bigamist but then questions began about the true nature of his intelligence work.

Buzz Books

There are some books I bought purely on the strength of reviews from other bloggers, mentions in social media and the occasional newspaper review. Unfortunately I failed to record the exact source of the recommendation – something I shall try to remedy with any future purchases.

Into this category falls Sixty Four by Hideo Yokoyama which revolves around the disappearance of two teenage girls 14 years apart. It was published with considerable buzz in 2018. It’s a massively chunky book , which is probably why I haven’t tackled it yet.

I also have Lewis Man by Peter May which is clearly a mistake because it’s book number one in a trilogy and I don’t have book one. So now I have to decide whether to go back to the beginning and add yet another title to my shelves…..

It’s going to take me a few years to work my way through all of these because I’ll space them out among other genres. If you’re a crime fiction expert maybe you can help me decide which of these to read first? And if there are any titles here that I could maybe give away…..

Alis Hawkins and the reader’s machine gun test #Cwtch Corner

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Alis Hawkins has been on a month-long tour of independent bookshops in Wales to promote her latest novel In Two Minds. It’s the second in her
Teifi Valley Coroner series – the third Those Who Can – is due out in May 2020.  I managed to catch up with her during a break from meeting local readers in Nickleby’s book shop in Llantwit Major. 

Alis Hawkins

Q. How would you describe In Two Minds in one sentence.

Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.

Q. This is the second in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?

Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.

It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)

And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.

There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”

Q.There’s a risk when writing historical fiction that the narrative gets overloaded with historical information (many readers find this irritating). How do you try to get the right balance? 

I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.

So, how do I avoid it?

I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place. For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.) But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?

For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.

Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds – it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”

Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away? 

Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.

Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.

But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”

Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book

Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.

Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.

Q. What book are you reading at the moment? 

“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.

My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!

And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”


Alis Hawkins

Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

None So Blind was published in 2017. In Two Minds was published by Dome Press in May 2019. She is now working on the third title in The Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Can

She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales. 

You can learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk

She is also on Facebook at AlisHawkinsAuthor and on Twitter  @Alis_Hawkins

My review of None So Blind is here 

 

None So Blind (The Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries) by Alis Hawkins #writingWales

Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of  Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Rebecca riots

Artist’s illustration of the Rebecca Rioters. Source: Wikipedia

In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.

The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers –  often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.

They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame. 

The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.

It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.

Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.

none so blind

Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”. 

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation,  making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.

…  I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…

It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.

The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .

It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind  that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause.  Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:

… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.

None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of  mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a  lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.

This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.


About the Author

Author Pic Alis HawkinsAlis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.

About the Book 

None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.

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