August reading – a step into non-fiction

I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, though I find a lot of it looks interesting and then never really get round to it. But this month I seem to have read more non-fiction than fiction and really enjoyed it. More evidence of my changing reading habits – created by either lockdown or age – or possibly just evidence that there’s a lot of innovative and interesting writing out there and I’ve just never noticed it.

Negative Capability – Michele Roberts

“Yesterday ended in disaster. Very late at night I decided to write down everything that had happened; the only way I could think of coping. So here goes.”

Here opens Negative Capability, a memoir from Anglo-French novelist Michele Roberts. I’m fairly certain I’ve read one of her novels but cannot for the life of me think which. Anyway, this is her diary, written over the course of a year, after her novel is rejected and a number of other things happen. In it, she charts her thoughts about literature, walking, living partly in France and partly in London, relationships, friendship, sex and all manner of things in between. I found myself drawn in by her lifestyle which is delightfully stereotypically writer-y, all glamourous poverty, cheery local neighbourhoods and eccentric friends, with a whiff of high culture and really good food. The title comes from a state described by Keats, about trying to exist and accept uncertainty, and realising that this state can help rebuild after uncertainty or change. This book is the year Roberts spent in trying to achieve it. Strange and good-quirky, and a helpful idea to have in your arsenal in these strange times.

At the Pond: Hampstead Ladies Pond – various

What a sweet little book this is! It’s a series of essays written for each season of the year, about women who have swum in Hampstead Ladies Pond. I’m not at all sure about swimming in a pond with creatures and weeds (it feels less fresh than the sea) but there is something beguiling about this space that I’m really intrigued about what it’s like there and have been Googling pictures. It helped to have this to read in between chapters of the Lemm Sissay book (see below).

Everybody Died so I Got a Dog – Emily Dean

I bought this on the basis of its title alone, it seemed so very me. I had never heard of Emily Dean before – apparently she presents things – but very much enjoyed this story of her upbringing, politely described as bohemian but essentially closer to child neglect and general awfulness by her parents. However, that is all background to the main part of the story – her beloved sister gets an aggressive form of cancer and dies very quickly, and then as Emily tries to deal with this, her mother and later her father both die. These are not likeable people but it all felt very human, the messes we make and the ways we can only rely on dogs to save us from ourselves.

Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me – Kate Clanchy

Oh this book. I read it the week of the exams fiasco. Many people have described it as ‘uplifting’ but I cannot fathom why. It is one teacher’s story of working with vulnerable children, children who have been dumped on by the system, and while you might find it uplifting to see how she gets them to describe how they feel, and how they can write poems that help describe their experiences, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly angry. We are broken. We are letting them and ourselves down. Loads of teachers are doing excellent unsung work, like this but without a book deal, but they are not receiving the wider support and resources they and the children need. I don’t know why we accept this, why we aren’t pouring cash into making sure we educate people and help look after them. Read this. It’s excellent. Then for god’s sake vote for someone who will resource education the way it needs to be resourced.

Vita and Virginia – Sarah Gristwood

I bought this on our first visit back to a National Trust property, along with jam and scones. Obligatory. It’s a basic intro to the friendship between Vita and Virginia, how their story started as a love affair and settled into a deep friendship. As I read so much Woolf last year, I knew most of it but this is a lovely book and I enjoyed the focus on the two of them and also the pictures.

Gears For Queers – Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

I like a good travel book and have read a number of cycle touring books over the years but it never really occurred to me that the writers/ cyclists were all fit, able bodied folk pedalling miles without a care. This changes all that. Abi and Lilith are partners who have a range of health problems, mental and physical, and who decide to go on a cycle tour across Europe. They are unfit, very poor and in some ways quite badly equipped. But this of course adds to the experience and this diary is told in alternate chapters by each, often giving you both sides of the story. I enjoyed this and it’s good once in a while to be reminded that you need to look at things from another point of view.

My Name is Why – Lemn Sissay

I read an excerpt of this when it was first published and wept all over the newspaper. The book is perhaps a little better – no less awful in terms of what happens – but you get a sense of how he became the man he is, how he found the necessary resilience to manage. Lemn was born to an unmarried single mother who had to go back to Ethiopia after he was born, and after he had been taken from her. She would not sign the adoption papers but having had to leave, lost what little claim she had. He was raised by foster parents for a number of years and was given another name. Then his foster parents, almost on a whim, it seemed, rejected him and sent him away from the main home he had known. He spent a year in a children’s home. I won’t tell you more, but this is all described through the documents kept at the time and which he had to request as an adult in order to find out the truth about his childhood. It is incomprehensible to me that people can treat children with such casual attitudes, such banal cruelty. Again, an essential read.

Fiction:

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

Just the two fiction titles this month and to be honest, at times this felt like reading a newspaper. This is the third in Coe’s Rotters Club trilogy, and examines the years leading up to and including the Brexit referendum. Coe is excellent when considering the personal impact of Brexit, and he does try to put across some idea of why people may have voted to Leave, even if his sympathies are very firmly on the Remain camp. His strengths lie in his characters and he writes with fondness for many of them.

Dissolution – CS Sansom

This is the first in the Matthew Shardlake series and is set in Tudor times. Shardlake, an associate of Thomas Cromwell, goes to investigate the violent killing of another associate, at a monastery. At the time of the Dissolution, the monks are obviously shifty and on edge, unwilling to accept that change must come to them and there are lots of secrets buried in the monastery. I really enjoyed this, it’s good to remember other interpretations of Cromwell besides Mantel and, like the best crime fiction, this gives you real insight into the troubles in society at the time of such change in the kingdom.

The Little Free Library NG7

At one point recently, I looked at the pile of books by the back door waiting to be donated to a charity shop and wondered if it might be easier to find somewhere to leave them nearby for other people to enjoy. I envisioned a little shelf on my road with a sign asking people to help themselves. The main argument against this (aside from not having a spare shelf or anything to waterproof it with) was that I was concerned that my neighbour would spot the two books she gave me over the fence and realise that I hadn’t read them. (It was a nice gesture on her part, I just don’t fancy James Patterson books.)

Luckily for Nottingham, other people are less rubbish than me and do amazing things with scrap bits of wood. So, if you find yourself in the New Basford area, take a stroll to Central Avenue (it runs parallel to Nottingham Road) and check out the Little Free Library.

Here it is.

It’s jam packed with books, of all kinds, including a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book that E hadn’t read and was very pleased to find. The library works on an exchange system: you leave a book, you take a book. We took two books and left three. We also left a comment in the visitor’s book to say hello and thank you.

A while back, a local phone box was full of books and I thought that was great too. Certainly no one uses it for phoning people any more. Perhaps we should reclaim more spaces to share our books.

For now, you can find the Little Free Library on Central Avenue, New Basford, next to Cooper and Berry’s, and on Twitter @littlefreeng7

Reading in July

It’s not been a vintage month for reading. So it is with some relief that August is here and I can let this month’s books go (figuratively at least, as the charity shop bins are still resolutely shut to donations. I am considering piling my leftovers in the local phone box and inviting people to help themselves.)

On the plus side I did browse in an actual bookshop, not once but twice this month! However, since the shops have to then put the books away for a few days if you’ve touched them, I tried very hard not to browse in the normal way. Those of us who browse by reading the back of the book, and then flicking through the pages at the style, are struggling with this but I was as good as possible. The smell and feel of a bookshop are still the same though, even through a facemask, so thank you for being there still.

And so to July’s reading:

The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien

It took some trouble and the wrong order from a local bookshop to get hold of this book, which has been in those lists of books for feminists to read for YEARS. So after all that, it was perhaps inevitable that it was quite disappointing. I can imagine the fuss when it came out, and I know the reasons it was banned in Ireland, but I found it riven with cliche and rather bothersome. It is entirely possible that O’Brien’s book opened the door to the cliches of poor Irish peasants encountering nuns but I’m not interested in reading about them. Sorry Edna.

The Truants – Kate Weinberg

This debut was billed as a mix of The Secret History and Agatha Christie but sadly it’s neither, let alone both. A campus-set ‘mystery’ but sadly let down by formula. The writing is promising but there needs to be more depth to the characters.

Big Sky – Kate Atkinson

My personal belief that Atkinson has been dialling it in for the last few years was not improved by this, the latest in her Jackson Brodie series. Stick to the earlier books.

Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

I usually like Winterson’s books, and I really enjoyed her retelling of Shakespeare’s the Winter’s Tale but I was nervous about this – I found Frankinstein to be a duty read. But interviews with winterson found her speaking with passion and interest about the book, and the themes and it was a reading group choice so I thought I’d give it a go. It is packed with ideas, some of them only a couple of sentences long but if those were explored, they could be a novel in themselves. There were so many ideas, so much speculation that, in my opinion, the characters were pretty reductive. It was all rather shallow.

When the Music Stops – Joe Heap

This was an advance read on Netgalley, about an old woman with dementia who finds herself and her baby grandson on a drifting boat with leakage problems. It is a perilous start, which leads us back into the past which a different chapter bringing us a piece of her past, and characters from her past appearing as ghosts on the boat to help her try and get to safety. I really liked the structure, and the characterisation is great. Bookmark this to get when it’s published in the autumn, and take a moment to enjoy its beautiful cover.

The Easternmost House – Juliet Blaxlands

This is a memoir of sorts, an account of a year living in a house that is perilously close to a cliff that is crumbling into the North Sea. I thought it sounded fascinating and, in another author’s hands, it probably would have been. This reeks of privilege and misanthropy, and speaking as someone who is quite misanthropic herself, it was too much even for me. While I think some of her points about our strange attitudes towards food production are accurate, the way they are phrased and the way she looks at them makes me want to yell at her. There was less about the sea than I wanted to read about, most of the book it seemed unlikely they lived near the sea at all. Really disappointing.

A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

This has sat on my shelves for years and with the TV series starting this month, I thought I’d better finally get round to it. I’m not going to finish it. I read enough to cover episode one and more, and it’s just too flowery and dull for me. I don’t hate it, it’s nice enough but for 1,400 pages, I need more than ‘I don’t hate it.’ Someone one Twitter said they really liked very long novels where very little happens but that someone is not me. Sorry Vikram, I’m dnf-ing this one and going back to An Equal Music, which I loved.

There you go. One book this month that I enjoyed. Not a vintage month! However, August has started well and I’m enjoying the books I’m reading right now so fingers crossed this continues.

May’s reading

An Inheritance – Diane Simmons

This is an excellent novella in flash, a series of short stories that link to tell the story of seventy years and four generations of a single family. As you’d expect for a flash piece, it demonstrates really tight writing and Simmons can really paint a picture with few words.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

My work reading group chose this to read – a novel about a pandemic, nice timing – and yet I found it strangely comforting. It is a hopeful book anyway, the idea of a theatre company travelling around a ravaged America performing Shakespeare couldn’t be anything but, and yet the parts where the disease starts to take hold were also interesting to read. It was worse than we had outside the walls and that too, was comforting in a weird way. Mandel was lauded for this when it was published and rightly so. Very enjoyable.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I love Maggie’s writing. And her books. This was a departure from her usual style – into historical fiction – and although I often say I don’t like historical fiction, it isn’t true. The story of Shakespeare’s son who died and inspired his father’s greatest play – O’Farrell takes the scant facts we know of Shakespeare and runs with them. She restores Anne Hathaway to prominence in WS’s life and Anne is the main character here, a wife and mother grieving and confused by her family’s tragedy. This is heart in the mouth kind of writing, and insightful on grief, loss and love. One of this year’s best.

High Wages – Dorothy Whipple

I was recommended Whipple by a friend and, given that she lived and wrote in Nottingham, I was keen to read her. This is great stuff, a really enjoyable tale of a working class shopgirl trying to make her way in inter-war years, and navigating work, old fashioned employers and confused swains.

Dear Emmie Blue – Lia Louis

I read an advance copy of this, by my Twitter pal Lia, and I loved it. I don’t read a lot of what I believe is called ‘chick lit’ type books but Lia’s writing is so fun and assured that I make exceptions. Emmie, aged 16, releases a balloon with her name and email address on and hopes that a fabulous person finds it. That person is Lucas, in France, and they become best friends. Now, many years later, Emmie has realised she is in love with Lucas but he is about to get married to someone else. The book is about destiny thwarted, sustainable friendships and Jon Bon Jovi, the characters are dear flawed sillies and the writing makes you race through the book as fast as you can.

The Birdwatcher – William Shaw

I picked this up because my hubbie is a birder and it’s set in Kent where I grew up. It’s a crime thriller, the first in a series with a new detective and yet the focus of the book is not on the detective but on her partner, an old grizzled cop (aren’t they all?) whose neighbour is found brutally killed, and his death leads them down a path of trafficking, drugs and dark secrets. A light read.

June reading round up

I’m a bit late to July but I get there eventually. So, how is reading developing for you under this strange in-between time from lockdown into that already hackneyed phrase ‘new normal’? I felt like June’s reading was nearly back to normal, but looking at the list, it wasn’t really. But I tell you what does work if you’re still struggling with reading – rereading! Yes, two books this month have been old favourites and they did give me a boost. I have also resurrected this year’s ambition to read those books that have been sitting for years on my shelves and cleared not one but three this month. So not bad going really.

Leo Days – Patricia Wendorf

This is a re-read and, I think, well out of print. My copy is a battered second hand book and I know nothing of the author but the book is a slim account of Ruth , one of those well meaning liberal types who volunteer somewhere to help the less fortunate because she can afford to. And then her husband leaves her, having had an affair with her sister, embezzled all the money from her father’s business and naffed off to avoid the consequences. So she has to move down to the part of town where she’s been volunteering and discovers what it’s like to live with the hoi polloi. It is naive and dated in some things, but I am still rather fond of it and it has some relevant insight into how we treat others that is timeless.

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

A ‘did not finish’ I’m afraid, despite the rave reviews. It was alright, the writing was good but I just didn’t really get on with it. I did wonder if it was part of the continual lockdown reading issue and in another time I might like it. I don’t know.

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Here’s my other re-read of the month. And what can we say about it that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, but it was an enormous comfort to me. Such dialogue! Such wit! Such cads in uniform and bitchy Bingley sisters and ghastly clergymen and their snotty patrons and silly younger sisters!

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

This has sat on the shelf for a few years and I thought it was time to get it down. It’s a cracking book, really assured deft storytelling and covering such a range of emotion. Set in Nigeria just before, during and after the Biafran War, we follow the fortunes of two sisters, their partners and friends, and their servants through the bid for independence and the shocking war and suffering that followed. Like many I suspect, I knew nothing of this part of history and Adiche really makes it leap off the page. Recommended.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Another book that has been taking up space on the shelves for a while. At 800+ pages, it is a monster. And having finished it, I’m still unsure about it. The early section in New York is very good. And then it wanders to Las Vegas and got less interesting before returning to New York and a strange ending. I don’t know. The first few pages are well written but ambling, then it really takes off and then she ambles again. I really feel like her editors should be firmer. And yet, actually the plot was the least interesting thing about it so do we want it firmed up?

Someone at a Distance – Dorothy Whipple

Having enjoyed the last Whipple so much (last month) I leapt straight into another and found it less enjoyable. It’s the story of a nasty grasping French girl who becomes a companion to an old English woman, to avoid watching her old lover get married to someone else, wins the old lady’s affection, an inheritance, and then sets out to seduce the old lady’s son, a previously happily married man. So a family is broken up and everyone is just quite tedious and dull about it. It is well done, the writing is sharp and Whipple is scathing about most of the characters but I just didn’t sympathise with any of them.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo Lodge

The last book that has sat on the shelves for a while, the rise of the BLM movement prompted me to read this. It’s surprisingly easy to read, and I raced through it, and it’s also thought provoking. Lodge’s style of ‘personal experience leading to social history’ is a modern one and allows the reader to also reflect how they may have added to a situation or how they could react in the future. It also makes the book accessible and it’s understandable that there is currently a campaign to get it introduced in schools. My A level sociology course could have done with this kind of thing.

Reading under lockdown – April round up

I finished March unsure how much reading I would get done. The lockdown had shot my concentration and my usual solace, reading, had not helped. But into April and I found myself adjusting, relaxing into the new rhythms of the days and, although I missed my commute to read in, I found my way back.

Non-fiction helped. I finished Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea early in the month and immediately started reading Tracey Thorn’s book about singing, Naked at the Albert Hall. While I’m not particularly interested in singing except for something I do for fun at home, I do like Tracey’s writing and she made this a welcome wander around a personal subject, interviewing other singers, discussing things like performance, range and stage fright.

I also read The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury. This is a book about how Bradbury enticed wildlife back into a previously abandoned back garden of her new house, one submerged beneath decking and with no sense of life. Although I was interested in the subject, I chiefly bought the book because the title is the same as a dystopian teenage novel I got out of the library as a young girl which made a huge impression on me. From what I remember (the book is out of print) it was about an experimental facility that conducted experiments on teens and I remember nothing except how different it was to anything else I’d read before, and that I was faintly horrified by it. But back to this. Bradbury does great things in a small space with a tiny budget and I loved finding how she encouraged wildlife return but good grief, she was sooooooooo sensitive! There was little in the book to discuss her mental state officially but I suspect there must have been an underlying reason for some of her reactions which were hopelessly OTT. She sat and wept when the neighbouring landlord chopped down a rogue buddleia that the sparrows sheltered in. She wept and dwelled on it for days. People destroy what they don’t value – she did nothing to encourage others, even nearby, to value the area and the gardens, she just cried and oh, she annoyed me.

To fiction, and my daughter’s bedtime story was new to both of us: Moondial by Helen Creswell, a local author, and this was set in Lincolnshire. A time travelling ghost story, it started with a scene of absolute horror (to me – E was fine) and turned into an enjoyable romp of ghostly nonsense. E enjoyed it, and is now looking forward post-lockdown when I shall take her to Belton House, where it was set.

I read Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, which I picked up last year on holiday when we visited Lyme Regis. A fictionalised version of Mary Anning’s life and her friendship with another female fossil hunter of the time, Elizabeth Philpott, and how they changed the face of science. It gave Mary Anning a voice, and grounded her in a way the children’s books skate over – it covered both the poverty she lived in and the wonder and knowledge that she possessed in a way that was realistic and moving.

My reading group book this month was The Great Fortune, part 1 of The Balkan Trilogy, by Olivia Manning. I’d had the whole trilogy on my shelves for ages so was glad to get it down and disappointed that it was a very dated book – in a way that I hadn’t expected. The story of a young newly married British couple in Romania at the start of the Second World War, it gave no sense of place and had an old fashioned, patronising, I may as well say racist, view of the Romanians. It was very much a ‘British people acting as if they owned the place’ type of book and I liked none of the characters. While it was well written, it isn’t something that for me has stood the test of time.

And finally, I went back to The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. I had to start it again, having read the first 250 pages and had to put it down due to concentration issues, but soon got through those and continued. It suffers for plot at the beginning, it misses Anne Boleyn to drive the action along, and is slower and more ambling at the start as a result. However, we’re in safe hands and it’s an engrossing read, especially if you’re trying to work out which bits are going to be relevant later on. By the end however, I couldn’t put it down, and stayed up late to finish it and it was so worth the effort. It’s a fantastic achievement and a real inspiration. She deserves all the prizes going.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency by LD Lapinski

The happiest of book birthdays to my pal LD Lapinksi, whose first book The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is published today! I’m so pleased to be able to share a review of the book with you and order you to rush (online) to buy it.2020-04-28 10.35.52

“There have always been places in our world where magic gathers.”

It’s a good opening line, yes? Intriguing enough to get you looking about you to spot such a place, yet knowing enough to make you realise you haven’t a prayer of finding one.

The Strangeworlds Travel Agency is the first in a trilogy of world jumping adventures of Flick Hudson, who discovers a strange shop in the small town she and her family have moved to. Here is the description of the shop from the book. I love this:

“The Strangeworlds Travel Agency was very much like a magical shop should be.

The leaded windows were dirty and cracked. There was peeling paint on the front door and it hardly ever seemed to be open. However, there was one element of the shop that refused to fade into the background: the sign over the window. It was always clearly painted, in silky gold letters embellished with black against a ruby-red background. There was a globe at the beginning of the sign and another at the end.”

I love how this starts off sounding like Black Books but moves quickly to something much more exciting and classy. Inside the shop are suitcases that are the portals to other worlds. But this isn’t just a Faraway Tree kind of ‘flitting through things for fun’ kind of series, these worlds are connected and there is trouble afoot. For the guardian of the agency, Jonathan Mercator, is looking for his father, a world jumper who has gone missing. When Flick and Jonathan join forces to try and find him, they find a whole lot more mischief and magic waiting for them…

I was excited to read this because I have knitted socks for the author and, as everybody knows, this is the basis for an excellent relationship. Seriously, though, I love what she’s already achieved with this, the first book in the series. The details of each world are delightful, packed with humour and observation but there is a serious tone and messages for our world that resonate without being preachy. In Flick, we have a great main character that is brave and adventurous, but also loving and occasionally self-doubting and, as such, she feels real – a real person acting as we might.

I really enjoyed this but my daughter (aged 7) heard the opening description of the book above as read by LD herself on Youtube last week, and her mouth dropped open with excitement. She has excellent reading taste, so if you don’t take my word for what a great book this is, take hers.

You can buy The Strangeworlds Travel Agency at all good bookshops that are currently offering mail order (and many of them are – why not buy independent?)

March non-reading hiatus

Well, who knew the first thing to desert me in a time of national crisis is my desire and ability to lose myself in a book? And bearing in mind that I started March so excited by the publication of The Mirror and The Light it’s just really rubbish timing. I’m 250 pages in, can’t remember anything that’s happened and can’t concentrate when I pick it up.

I started the month re-reading the five volumes of the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard as I was immersing myself in a big character-based saga while I waited for the Mantel. I’d not read the fifth volume before, set in the 1950s and published just before Howard died a few years ago, and I don’t like it nearly as much as the others. It feels like a sequel and not a series continuation. However, the series as a whole is a splendidly enjoyable piece of work and I shouldn’t complain that one of the volumes is less than the others.

For a change, I took Car Park Life by Gareth Rees away for a weekend (seems a long time ago) at the beginning of the month. This is a non-fiction exploration of the life in car parks surrounding large faceless warehouse-type shops, the out of town strip malls featuring B&Q, the Range and various supermarkets. It’s a wry look at modern life and the soulless nonsense that dominated life not so long ago – a good read during these strange times where we are suddenly either staying at home or standing in one of these car parks, at least 2 metres away from anyone else.

And then the lock down. I have two reading group books to get through for next week – one taking place online, the other probably not – and haven’t been able to get through either of them. It’s not the writing, it’s my mind.

So I’ve turned to non-fiction, knitting and embroidery to relax. I do them while listening to the sound effects on the Calm app. The non-fiction is Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie. It’s an exploration of our relationship with the sea, especially women’s relationship with the sea, and much of what she says seems familiar to me. It’s gentle and reflective and about all my mind managed last week as I worked overtime and worried, and this week as I worked extra time and home schooled my daughter.

One of the good things on Twitter at the moment is that lots of bookish people are saying similar things. Reading is not doing it for them in the same way. I’m planning to find some more non-fiction in the house – I have some Rebecca Solnit, The Bumblebee Flies Anyway, and Tracey Thorn’s autobiographical volumes all waiting. Perhaps then, I may go back to Thomas Cromwell.

February reading round up

The Secrets of Strangers – Charity Norman

I received an early copy of this (published May 2020) on Netgalley. ‘2020-03-01 21.31.52Women’s fiction’ is a genre that often gets belittled or derided but it contains some absolute gems that offer a really good read, with strong characters and emotional depths. The Secrets of Strangers is one such book. A simple premise – five strangers end up in a single place and we learn about their lives. The place, in this case, is Tuckbox Cafe in Balham and our characters include a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, a lawyer struggling with IVF, a homeless gambling addict, a grieving farmer, and his wife. When a hostage situation takes place in the cafe, it is down to our cast, and the police negotiator outside, to work out what has happened and why. As they learn more about each other, they begin to try and help each other through their problems. The novel paints a fantastic and realistic picture of the terrible effects of coercive control, but has much to say on families and modern life. Really enjoyable read.

The Illness Lesson – Clare Beams

I had an advance reading copy of this too but didn’t want to make too much of a song and dance about it because in the end, I didn’t think it was anything special. It is the story of a girls’ school, opened in nineteenth century USA by well-meaning men, and how hysteria spreads among the female students, as told by the headteacher’s grown up daughter who is also teaching. It is well written and Clare Beams has clearly got talent, but I felt it was too similar to other stories with similar themes and ultimately felt quite let down by it.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

I read this in a hurry before watching the play at Theatre Royal. The book is superb and I sobbed through the end pages at the brutal truth of it all. In short, Conor’s mum is dying of cancer and he doesn’t know how to deal with it all, until a monster calls one night. The monster is the yew tree from his garden and he tells him stories that help Conor to start to process his feelings, and to understand the complexity of emotions. The stage adaptation took the script pretty much directly from the page and the audience was in pieces. Thoroughly recommended.

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

The reading group choice for this month, and I enjoyed it without loving it. I liked the jolly adventure side of it but felt there was something missing, a depth to the characters I think. Washington Black is a slave on a plantation in the Caribbean when he is chosen to be an assistant to the master’s brother, who is building a flying boat/ hot air ballon prototype. When they both find they have to flee the island, they use the balloon to escape and their adventures start there. It’s a fun read but I didn’t find it a great read.

Everyone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

One of the books that’s been on my shelf for a while, I think I bought it on the back of some rave reviews. Set in the Second World War, I found the first half quite irritating as the characters seemed to be treating the war like an enormous jolly jape which, coming at this time of Brexiteers banging on about the Blitz spirit and stuff like that, rubbed me up the wrong way and I nearly gave up with it. But the second half, set partly on the island of Malta during the siege, and in London, was much more serious and the bleak consequences of it all were rammed home. Perhaps the contrast was what the author was hoping for. So, worth sticking with.

The Salt Path – Raynor Winn

A true story of an older couple who lost their home and are made homeless, jobless, income-less just as the husband, Moth, is diagnosed with a degenerative disease. So, they decide to walk the South West coast path to try and figure out what to do. As you do. Actually I’ve a,ways wanted to do this, without the heavy lifting, s I really enjoyed the book but it’s real quality is to show how awful people can be. When people find out they’re homeless, so many of them back away or treat them badly. It seems incredibly difficult for them to get anyone to fill a water bottle. Tiny bits of behaviour that add up, taking away people’s dignity bit by bit. A really interesting book.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Wold Hall had sat on the shelf for a while. I think I’d been intimidated because a few people had said it was a tough read. I remembered this once I’d got at least 150 pages in and was addicted to the style and the story and the sheer presence on the pages. How lovely, then, for my father in law to lend me Bring Up the Bodies so I could continue reading straight away. Only four more days to go till book three…

Read them, wallow in them, re read them. She’s a wonder.

I’m filling my time until The Mirror and the Light with a re-read of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles. Mantel is a fan of Howard and reading them so close together, you can see why and how one has influenced the other. Together, they’re almost perfect reading material.

January’s reading

I remembered last month how much I like blogging. My time has dropped right off so the occasional review is all I’ve managed but I thought I could at least do a monthly round up of books. Let’s see how it goes! These are the books I’ve read this month:

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal 

I so enjoyed Kit’s debut My Name is Leon but this is very different, though still really good. It is about Mona, an Irish woman in Birmingham who owns a toy shop. Mona makes dolls, hand stitched special dolls, though we don’t find out the significance of this until later. Mona has some lovely friends but is ultimately alone and we know she has suffered some dreadful losses in her life. This is a gentle story of how she finds peace and reconciliation with her loss – it’s engaging and sensitively written, in the best sense. Full of humanity.

The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

Greene is well known and yet I always get the sense he is underrated. This is a story where very little happens but it’s a masterful exploration of love and the stupid things it makes us do. And again, it’s another story of loss. Greene uses his male narrator Maurice to give us a well rounded portrait of a love affair between Maurice and Sarah, married to a politician – its beginning, and its protracted end. Go and read Greene, everything he has written – he is one of the very best.

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

What a terrific book this is. It was my reading group’s choice this month and we all really enjoyed it, which is rare. It’s a retelling of the Greek story of Antigone (which I am not familiar with) but set in a family of British Asian children. Their mother has died and they never knew their father who died after arrest for jihadi activity. Told from the point of view of each of the three children, and the boy who gets involved with the family, it’s a strong exploration of how politics is so personal and can have devastating consequences.

Chances Are – Richard Russo

A new Russo novel is always something to celebrate and I enjoyed this one very much. Three old college buddies reunite in their sixties on the New England island where they all had one final hoorah holiday after graduation. What has happened to them in all that time, and whatever happened to their friend Jacey, who disappeared the day they all left the island, is told through the different perspectives of the three men. It’s another strong character-led novel by Russo, whose portrayal of masculinity has always been nuanced and realistic. One of my very favourite authors.

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

This was my New Years’ resolution – to read books that have sat on the shelf for years. Fifteen years in this case. Every year I’d look at it, think ‘yeah I’ll get round to reading this’, put it back and ignore it for another year. It was a memory from the film that made me think I’d watch it – I didn’t care much for the main story of the English patient and his tragic love affair but I did remember the lovely scene between the Sikh soldier and the nurse in the church and it was that I wanted to read about. As it turns out the book is mostly about the Sikh (British Sikh soldier, Laurence Fox – how ’bout that?) soldier and the nurse’s stories, and the English patient is a sub-plot. So I loved it. Even though the scene in the church is actually between the soldier and one of his mates, and not with the nurse at all. Worth the wait.

Mudlarking – Lara Maiklem

My in-laws bought this for me for Christmas and nearly kept it to read themselves. It’s taken me nearly a month to get through because I was savouring it and reading a chapter before having a break. It’s part-history, part-geography of the Thames foreshore by one of its prime mudlarkers, Lara Maiklem. She walks us along the banks of the Thames, telling us about her finds, introducing us to the area and the other mudlarks, and in each chapter she tells us of some of the history of London. It’s a delightful wallow of a read and it’s worth checking out her accompanying Instagram account where she has pictures of everything she talks of in the book.

Moving – Jenny Eclair

I joined a reading group at work with books supplied by the local library system and in some ways we have to read what they have in numbers. I thought this would be better. I starts well, with an old woman going through the rooms in her house and finding things that give a clue to her life in each. This part is just long enough to get you engaged with the character and then Eclair moves onto another character who is peripheral to the main plot of the book, but who bizarrely gets the longest section of the book – possibly longest because she outlines in painstaking yet dull detail every sexual encounter and interaction this character has. Finally we move on to another character and, after more details (mainly of everything he eats),we find an ending of sorts, with some relevance to the beginning. Peculiar.

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

Devastating. A Harvard professor of psychology and linguistics develops early onset Alzheimer’s and this book is the story of what happens next. As there is no cure, you know it’s going to be a sad ending but it’s pretty awful all the way through. But Genova handles the subject brilliantly, there is a strong sense of character and pathos without it being mawkish. And the reactions of Alice’s family are really realistic and moving too. Recommended but pack the tissues.

And a quick word on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I don’t normally get books based on the hype. There has been so much hype about this. My book Twitter timeline has been full of recommendations by bloggers and all sorts of book people whose opinion I usually trust. Since the subject matter – a Mexican woman and her son try to cross the border to the US – interested me, I bought the hype. And I pre-ordered the book, only to pick it up as the controversy hit the headlines. A lot of Mexican and Mexican-American writers have pointed out the anomaly of a white American woman writing about this subject and they have detailed how inaccurate much of the portrayal of Mexico is. OK, I thought. Well I’ve got it now, if I keep one mind on the inaccuracies, I can still read it as a thriller, right? Well no, as it turns out. Not only is it lacking in a real sense of place – it reads like an American book, I mean it really does – but it turns out that the character of Lydia isn’t that engaging. I thought I could get something out of reading this but it’s incredibly disappointing. There’s no emotional engagement with the characters at all, Lydia is pretty one-dimensional and if you combine this with the inaccuracies, there is very little to recommend it. So I end with a truth: Public Enemy said it best.