All posts by basfordianthoughts

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.

2019 reading round up

Another year, another round up of my reading. Every year I don’t think I will be able to read as much as the year before because I’m so busy and yet the books are quite probably the thing that keeps me sane and give me some needed down time.

I’ve read 104 books so far this year! I will confess that there were a few of these (three or four I think) that I did not finish, but I read enough pages of them to feel I’d invested enough of my time so they count, as far as I’m concerned. A breakdown of the books goes as follows:

78 written by women, 26 by men. Five of them were books I read with my daughter at bedtime (I didn’t count the books I’d already read – I only count the ones that were new to me.) 23 were non-fiction and 16 were by Virginia Woolf.

For 2019 was the year of Woolf for me. My reading group chose to read The Waves in March and it’s an incredibly difficult book to read, but perhaps a little easier if you have immersed yourself in her so that you get accustomed to her style. At least that was my hypothesis so I tried it for a month. I read my way through her diaries and, as she wrote a book or an essay or a short story, I read that too. I supplemented it with biographies and critical readings of Woolf. It didn’t make The Waves a lot easier to read, if I’m honest, but I was so glad that I did it. I continued the experiment for longer than a month to get through it all, and I still have her letters to read, as well as five short biographical essays. However when I finished her final diary, knowing she had put it down and walked off to drown, I did miss her so very much. She is such a complicated creature, with some views that are abhorrent and wrong, and yet she writes with passion and anger and such piercing insight into the human condition that you cannot help but like her. She became so real to me this year.

What else this year? I read very little crime – only three crime books. I read poetry – and discovered Mary Oliver, three books by her which I enjoyed very much. I may also be one of the only people I know who didn’t enjoy Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

What are my books of the year then? In no particular order, here are my top 5:

  • Home by Amanda Berriman. This is not the kind of book I would have normally have picked up at all, if I hadn’t heard such rave reviews. This may sound like a cliche but I COULDN’T PUT IT DOWN. It’s excellent. Read it, if you haven’t already.
  • You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. A heartbreaking story of empire, intolerance, and violence, brilliantly told by Barr who doesn’t dwell on sentiment or the violent aspects but allows the story to touch you. A book that makes you think twice – about legacy and how we tell stories to ourselves.
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers. Yes, it’s long, yes, it’s overwritten in parts but I don’t care. It’s a 600-page Pulitzer winning novel about trees and it made me quite simply want to down all tools, hug trees and devote myself to the overthrow of the capitalist system that is destroying the planet. A big, complicated, beautiful, ambitious glory of a book.
  • Orlando by Virginia Woolf. I had to have at least one of hers in here. Mrs Dalloway is still my favourite but I’d read that before. This was new to me this year and I loved it. I loved how simply she dealt with the gender fluidity, the quirk of having a character live for centuries, and I loved the humour in the book. It was so easy to see that it was a book written in love and out of love and for love, and as a gift to her love.
  • Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo. It takes a while to get going but it’s worth it for a slow build up of pace, character and an ultimately satisfying ending. Shakespeare in an all male prison on Dartmoor during the 1812 war between the British and America? Who’d have thought it. But it’s based on a true story and Mayo tells the story well.

I’m going to throw two honourable mentions in here: one for An Odyssey by Daniel Mendelsohn, where a classics professor tries to teach The Odyssey with his elderly irascible father in the class. It’s a true story, very entertaining and with some lovely insight into father-son relationships, as well as teaching me a lot about the Greeks. The other honourable mention was for An American Marriage, the winner of the Women’s Prize, which I thought was EXCELLENT – very real and heartbreaking.

What’s up for next year’s reading? I want to get through a more diverse line up of books, including more non-fiction, as well as books by a wider range of authors. And I’ve vowed to tackle some of the books that have sat unread on my shelf for years – these include The English Patient, A Suitable Boy, Wolf Hall and The Balkan Trilogy.

 

 

Christmas books

I love a Christmas book. The solace of a familiar read for the shortest days of the year, stories that, when done well, can be as comforting as a warm mince pie and a glass of mulled wine. Here’s my current collection:

2019-12-08 13.18.53

Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater

You have to have a cookbook in a Christmas book pile. These two are cooks whose books can be read and enjoyed without necessarily making any of the recipes because the quality of writing is top notch. Nevertheless, the recipes are also a joy, even if Slater is probably better placed for modern cooks than Elizabeth David.

Christmas Days – Jeanette Winterson

This is a collection of stories, recipes and non-fiction notes by one of Britain’s most interesting writers. My hardback edition is cloth bound and gorgeous, with cover illustrations by Katie Scott and care in all the pages. The theme of the book is The 12 Days of Christmas and it comes with 12 recipes and 12 stories within, each of the recipes with a personal story to it, so you get a bit of Jeanette too, as much as she allows. It’s a lovely variety, a proper Christmas selection box of a book.

One Christmas Night – Hayley Webster

Hayley is one of the ‘good people’ on Twitter. Her questions and comments offer compassion and genuine interest in her fellow person and so, following a thread she published last Christmas, she was asked to write a Christmas book, and this was the result. Set on a single street in Norwich on Christmas Eve, One Christmas Night tells the stories of nine residents and how their lives interact as crime, human mistakes and tragedy take place. It’s ultimately a joyous story of family and love, which is precisely what anyone following Hayley might expect, and contains some lovely scenes of insight and compassion. It’s perfect to curl up with on a cold day.

Miss Marley – Vanessa Lafaye

A prequel! In a lovely cloth bound edition, festive and red and beautiful. This prequel was finished by Rebecca Mascull after the death of Vanessa Lafaye, and I cannot tell the difference between the two writers. It’s a story that examines what happens to Scrooge to make him into such a crosspatch, so bitter and disillusioned with life, and is charming without being sentimental, something Dickens rarely managed himself. A treat, and in the spirit of the original.

Festive Spirits – Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is one of those writers who always make me notice others in my day to day life. I read this collection of three short stories on the tram to work and as I finished each one, I looked at my fellow passengers and cast them in their own short stories. The stories here contain wit and everyday love, one about a nativity, another a retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life, and all told with the trademark Atkinson humour and quirky affection.

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

It doesn’t need much intro, this does it? I have two copies of this book, both once belonged to my Grandpa who loved Dickens and who I remember fondly, especially at Christmas. I have just read this to my daughter for the first time, and the simplicity of its storytelling and its message of love and generosity to others always appeals. While as a rule I like my Christmas books to be clad in lovely binding, this cheap paperback has a ribbon bookmark added with a staple by my Grandpa, and still contains illustrations.

A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

Another collection of short stories. It’s a format that fits the season, it seems. These are lovely, from the author of Harold Fry,The Music Shop and other novels. Joyce is another author whose portraits of normal people trying to connect with others are so beautifully written, and the people in this collection are no exception.

Stardust and Snow – Paul Magrs

Another story that went viral on Twitter before the author was asked to publish it. Stardust is the story of Daniel, a young fan who won a competition to watch Labyrinth at a special screening with the Goblin King himself, David Bowie. A letter sent by his dad meant that Daniel, who had autism, meant that Bowie asked him to come backstage to talk in quiet. This is the story of this encounter and is just beautiful. You will cry happy tears as you read it, a story of putting on masks to hide yourself, and of simple kindnesses.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

Another classic and very sweet. From another time, and a place that feels much further away and different than perhaps it should.

An Unexpected Gift: Three Christmas Gifts – Marcel Theroux

These were originally written as Christmas gifts for family by Theroux and have been published in pamphlet by the marvellous Rough Trade books imprint (which, if you haven’t checked them out yet, you MUST do, they publish all sorts of fascinating and splendid work.)

Lanterns Across the Snow and The Star Dreamer – Susan Hill

This is quite the loveliest looking book. Regally bound in purple with a red slipcase, and illustrated with woodcuts, and ordered direct from Long Barn Books, Susan Hill’s publishing venture, meant that Lanterns on the Snow also came accompanied by The Star Dreamer, a sweet fable about Aziz, a boy with vivid dreams who travels with his father and encounters the three wise men off to visit a baby king. This, too is illustrated beautifully, this time by Helen Cann. (From the website, both books come signed with Christmas salutations from the author.)

As you can see, the look and feel of the book is as important as the content. A lot of these are published in special editions, making them lovely tactile objects as well as providing quality reading content. You don’t get that with a digital edition.

I’m always interested in new Christmas books to add to the shelf – so hit me up with your suggestions! Merry Christmas one and all.

 

The never decreasing TBR pile

For the last two years I’ve been tracking my reading and book buying habits. Why?Well, really in response to a tweet from someone (I forget who) in publishing, an idle enquiry that got me thinking. Could I really justify buying as many books as I did? How did my reading ambitions fit with reality?

I had a beautiful notebook, sitting blank on my shelf, which was made to celebrate the publication of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty in 2005, and was well placed to be my tracking book. It seemed fitting. I buy notebooks and don’t use them in much the same way as I suspected I bought books and didn’t read them. I was about to find out.

I track reads on Goodreads anyway, for ease of reference, but wrote them down here too each month, as well as books I had bought, been sent for review, won, received as gifts or got out of the library. After a while I also started to add in things I’d watched – book events, exhibitions, films or special TV series I thought worthy of record –  for no reason than that it had resonated with me and I wanted to write it down.

So what have I found out about my habits? Bearing in mind I have copies of both The English Patient and A Suitable Boy on the shelf and have left them unread for around 15 years. How long does it take me to read a book? Are there any patterns?

Well yes. It turns out there is a pattern of sorts. First up, I read on average 8-9 books a month. (I’m a fast reader with a peculiar style of getting through a page.) My book buying habits are less predictable. There was only one month in the last two years where I didn’t buy a book at all. Some months are 2-3 books, some months are more. Last year, it averaged about 4-6 per month, this year I can see I have mostly succeeded in buying fewer books in an effort to ‘get through them’ and it’s more like 3 per month. Except in February and March when I bought 20.

So, in theory my initial suspicions were not correct – I read more than I buy. But I also go to the library once in a while – either when I have something I want to order from them or if they get some new books in that I browse (our library is small and the range mostly appeals to old ladies. There is a lot of British crime or saga books so not all my thing.) I get sent a few books for review or I ask for them on NetGalley. My mum lends me books. I get them as presents. So I think it sort of averages out as a one-out-one-in policy.

If I can read them within three months of buying them, I can easily justify the one-in-one-out policy. But that doesn’t always happen. There are 2 books from January 2018, the month I started the tracker, that I haven’t yet read. I’m interested in reading both of them but now they’re here, there’s no hurry.

This also reflects my TV watching habits. I am still more likely to watch something ‘live’ as broadcast than on any other platform. If it’s on TV and I want to watch it, better that I sit down to watch live or I just won’t do it. I bought Mr Barsby a box set of Breaking Bad at least 5 Christmasses ago, which we still haven’t watched. I doubt that we ever will – but if it had been on a channel we had access to (it wasn’t) when it was first on, I may have joined in the hype, and not just wondered what the fuss was about. Now the hype has died down, I wonder why I was even bothered.

This is nicely reflective of society in general, I guess. We want what we haven’t got and overlook what has been sitting on our shelves for years. It explains why there is so much focus on the next debut author or the big new book by a superstar author, and neglect the backlist. Yet sometimes the backlist is the most rewarding read.

So what have I learned? First up, that I need to think and reflect on whether I really want to read a book before I buy it. Am I suckered by the hype. Am I just buying it out of habit because I get twitchy not being near books after a while? Several of my purchases could have done with some reflection time, maybe some decent browsing time where I could have read a few pages first.

Second, I think I need to consider whether I’m buying a lot of ‘same-y’ books. I scanned the shelves the other day in an attempt to look for variety and found very little. It would be beneficial to read more widely – not necessarily different genres – but maybe different styles, different countries, books in translation, books by minority writers could all feature more in my bookshelf. 

Third, I’m always wanting to re-read a number of books. I’ve done less re-reading these last couple of years than I normally do and I feel it. There is benefit to re-reading. You see new things. Your changing life experiences may mean different parts of the book speak to you more this time round. Plus, in some cases, it’s been so long since I read something, Middlemarch, for example, that it almost feels like the first time.

So I shall take these lessons and consider what they mean for my habits this year, and I shall see if next year, I’ve been able to act on them. For now:

I vow to read The English Patient and A Suitable Boy in 2020. And Wolf Hall.

Please send me lists or recommendations of books I can read to widen my horizons. Please not fantasy fiction but I’ll try most other things.