All posts by basfordianthoughts

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.

 

Review: Beyond Kidding by Lynda Clark

A disclaimer to start the review with – Lynda Clark is a friend of mine, we used to work together at a branch of a well-known bookselling chain. Aha! You say, you may have some exciting author insights? Well, not really no. My overriding impression of Lynda was how well she wore wide legged trousers, striding forth from the back of the shop all in black, looking splendid, and how jealous I was since my legs are far too short to pull those off successfully.

What I didn’t know about Lynda is how much of her sense of humour appears to be down the toilet! Beyond Kidding has a lot of pooh talk, and all sorts of bad taste jokes. Once I got beyond the initial surprise, this had an appeal and I spent much of the read snorting with laughter.

Beyond-Kidding-RGB-195x300However, I should start at the beginning. Beyond Kidding is Lynda’s debut novel and comes with a short blurb comparing her to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Coupland on the back. No pressure there. I’ve only read one of Coupland’s books and found that not only did it not have toilet humour but it also had a dreadfully disappointing ending so Lynda has already done better on two counts.

Beyond Kidding starts with a great premise. The ‘hero’ – more of an anti-hero, I suppose – Rob works in a porn shop run by his childhood friend Bummer (yep) and one day decides to go for a better job and a better life. At an interview in some soulless corporation he attempts to ingratiate himself by inventing a son, Brodie, and makes such a good impression he is forced to keep up the pretence when he gets the job. In order to get round this, he then lies to say Brodie has been kidnapped. But when the police ring to say they’ve found Brodie, he has to take home a child who looks uncannily like the non-existent boy Rob photoshopped.

The book starts with Rob trying to explain the whole story to a work colleague, and as such, this frames the narrative, with the two of them commenting on each episode as it happened. Aside from the smutty humour, what I liked about the book is that Rob is so unlikeable, and so are practically all the characters. They’re hopeless for the most part, but Lynda carefully layers on their actions and their motivations throughout the book so that by the end you have found their hidden hearts of gold beneath the mess, the pooh and the peculiar family set ups.

I also liked that although the work is classed as literary sci-fi, you don’t have to read it that way. If you’re not a sci-fi person (and on the whole I’m not) you’ve nothing to fear here. It has some moments, especially by the end, but as I said earlier, I felt that the ongoing characterisation was the most satisfying part of the novel for me and as such, the genre is less important. To go back to the comparisons with Vonnegut, this is perhaps where Lynda succeeds the most, and the final chapters land emotional sucker punches with the best of them.

Beyond Kidding is published by Fairlight Books on 31 October, in paperback at £8.99.

PS When you know an author it does lead you to wonder why their partner’s name is in the book as a milk frother. I may never know.

 

Review:The Woman in the Photograph – Stephanie Butland

I thought the opening to this book was as engrossing as anything I’ve read in a while, with an intriguing set up, historical notes and a heroine off to do her own thing in the face of her father’s and fiance’s disapproval. Veronica Moon is a photographer, one who rose to fame in the heady days of feminist Seventies Britain but has now been forgotten and lives a reclusive life alone. A retrospective exhibition, the work of a tired mum and the relative of Veronica’s great friend and love Leonie, is about to open in London and bring Veronica back to life. Will it help solve the mystery of why she faded from public life and help heal old rifts? 


The book is split into flashback scenes from Veronica’s and Leonie’s friendship, and modern scenes as preparations for the exhibition go ahead. Each chapter also has historical notes and writings from Leonie and Veronica, both of them mainly unpublished. It focuses on the British feminist movement, starting with the Ford Dagenham strikers, before looking at Miss World protests, Greenham Common and many things in between, such as the more private and violent side of the women’s movement – Veronica documents injuries caused by domestic abuse to potentially use as evidence in court. It makes a positive change to read about the British wave of protests, since so many historical moments always seem to look at America – it’s good to remember how radical British women were at the time. And how we still need them. 


I enjoyed Veronica’s growth as a character very much, and her encouragement of the younger woman to go to a protest, and to have confidence in her self was fun to read. Leonie’s chapter were a little hectoring, but she’s an old school feminist and there are still plenty of those around. 


This is a great book – if you want to learn more about the women’s movement of recent times, or remind yourself why it’s so important for us all to don our DMs and take to the streets – but it’s also well written, intricately researched and full of authenticity.

Review: Expectation by Anna Hope

2019 seems to be the year for novels about modern womanhood. Following Hannah Beckerman’s If Only I Could Tell You and Katy Mahood’s Entanglement comes Expectation from Anna Hope.

You may know Hope from her historical novels, The Ballroom and Wake, but this is a departure from those to modern day London. We meet three friends, Hannah, Cate and Lissa, sharing a house in East London with great expectations for their futures. Careers, romance, fun and above all, friendship, are their goals.

Ten years on, we meet them again and, you may have guessed it, life has not panned out how they wanted. Lissa is still trying to make it as an actor, battling against industry prejudice on middle aged women; Hannah is trying her third round of IVF and desperate for a child; and Cate has recently moved to Kent with her new baby and a husband she is no longer quite sure of, especially feeling isolated but near his family.

Anna Hope’s great strength in her historical novels was her characters, and Expectation is no exception. The three women are well drawn, and we see their flaws, irritations and good points in all their glory – well rounded, real people on the pages. As such, reading Expectation feels like it does when you catch up with your mates after a few months apart.

Expectation, along with the novels I mentioned earlier, are all honest about womanhood, discussing what we ask of women – what society expects – and how we can never live up to this. Expectations of women, from their parents to the glossies, from their partners to their employers, are examined here – how can anyone live up to these? All three characters at some point feel like a failure, through no fault of their own.

And yet, how glorious to feel like we’re finally being seen properly. While reading I nodded several times in recognition, and said ‘yes’ as the characters were allowed to behave badly, to make their mistakes and not be punished for them. Not too much anyway.

I read this quickly, it’s an enjoyable and engaging book full of life, good sense and real people. And occasional moments of drinking too much and saying what you’ve always wanted to say to some pompous overbearing arsehole. (I particularly enjoyed that scene – no further spoilers coming.)

Thanks to Alison Barrow for my proof copy of Expectation.

Review: Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis

How exciting to review a book by someone I know. (To clarify, I do not actually know Lia but we chat on Twitter – she posts about food, parenting, exhaustion and Bon Jovi, and who am I to diss any of that?)

Somewhere-Close-to-Happy-1-1Somewhere Close to Happy is Lia’s debut novel and has the loveliest cover with a dear little caravan on it (the significance of this becomes clear when you read the book). It is the story of Lizzie James, in her twenties and working in a steady but dull job, living at home with her dad, and trying to deal with a family wedding where she’s been invited to be a bridesmaid out of obligation on the bride’s part. So far, so ‘women’s novel’ but the book soon tells us more about Lizzie’s life so far.

For into her life comes a letter, from Roman, a boy who was Lizzie’s best friend, her rock, her salvation when she struggled with terrible mental health issues as a teenager. Lizzie met Roman in a youth facility for ‘troubled teens’ and together they helped each other survive. Until Roman disappeared. Now, 12 years later, Lizzie takes his letter and, with her friend Priscilla, tries to track him down.

Once in a while you read stories in the media about how children are growing up too fast and what they can and can’t handle, what we should or shouldn’t be teaching them etc. And oftentimes, you forget what reality is like for many kids across the country. But Lizzie and Roman are trying to deal with divorce, bereavement, alcoholism and neglect, even before you talk about their mental ill health. Their story is told through a mixture of present scenes, flashback scenes and instant messaging chats that Lizzie finds in the attic. This way, Louis tells us just enough at a time, while giving us accomplished glimpses of their characters.

There is some wicked humour here. Lizzie’s family, in the pre-wedding scenes, are ghastly, and her best friend Priscilla is a blast, despite facing sad times of her own. The humour is there to offset some poignant scenes, as the truth of Roman’s disappearance comes to light. But the main story is Lizzie’s, a girl who starts out just trying to manage but ends up lifting herself higher. This is a deftly told tale, and we are in the hands of a talented new writer. Louis’s next book has already set the publishing world aflame – so once you’ve finished this one, get waiting impatiently for the next!

Somewhere Close to Happy is published on Thursday by Orion Books and you can find it at all good bookshops. Thanks to Netgalley for my advance copy.

Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo

beekeeper of aleppoOh, this is a simple and lovely book. And a timely book, also. It is told by Nuri Ibrahim, the titular beekeeper of Aleppo who has had to flee Syria with his wife Afra.

Nuri and Afra are in a bed and breakfast in Brighton with several other refugees, all waiting to see if their claims to asylum will be accepted by the British authorities. Nuri starts to tell us of life in the B&B and his account of life merges into his memories of his journey to get to the UK, and of the life they left behind.

As you can imagine, this is a difficult and heartbreaking story, and the reader realises sooner than Nuri that there is something wrong with his recounting. Nuri is trying to reach his cousin, best friend and partner in beekeeping, Mustafa, who has made it to Yorkshire and is setting up a beekeeping project for refugees. Mustafa’s emails to Nuri are often the only thing that keeps him going through the terrible journey he and Afra make, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Greece and then to the UK. It is a journey of terror, sorrow, heartbreak and humiliation. It is no spoiler, I think, to tell you that Afra and Nuri are suffering the effects.

The book is incredibly well written, unflinching in its depiction of the hardships, but without unnecessary detail – leaving some of the worst events to the reader’s imagination. The writing is full of warmth when describing the characters and their lives together, you are rooting for them from very early on. I liked how the current chapters morphed into the reminiscences, the passages joined by a single word.

This is an excellent debut, full of compassion and hope, for characters lost when their world changes beyond all recognition. It should be widely read.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is published on 2 May 2019 by Zaffre Publishing. Thanks to Netgalley for my review copy.

 

Woolf Works: my month of reading Virginia Woolf

My reading group’s choice for March was The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I have a lot of Woolf on my shelves but haven’t got round to reading very much so I was glad at the choice. Until I picked it up and tried to read it.

virginia_woolf_1902It’s well known as her most challenging work and for good reason. There is a rhythm and an order to the words but it is very poetical, at times random and mostly quite a difficult read.

I put it down again.

I needed to get into the flow of her writing and I looked at my shelves of Woolf and decided an experiment – I would read only Woolf or Woolf-related works all month and immerse myself in her and then near the end of the month, I would try The Waves again.

I owned five volumes of her diary and decided to start with those, reading her fiction simultaneously as she wrote it, and supplement the whole thing with biographies, criticism and essays, and ideally read some contemporaries too. It was an ambitious ask for someone with a full time job, a small child and a novel of their own to rewrite but I decided to see what I could do.

The diaries start in 1915 and so far this month I’ve managed to read two and a half volumes of them so I’m at 1927. We’ve witnessed the end to the war, the flu outbreak, a range of political changes and the general strike. The Woolfs (they referred to themselves as the Woolves) have moved back to London from Richmond, and bought property, started the Hogarth Press, taken a variety of writing jobs, and Virginia has written The Common Reader, a range of Short Stories, Jacob’s Room, Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. Of these, I have read the stories, Jacob and Mrs Dalloway. I’ve also managed to read some biographical and critical books too, supplementing my own books with a trip to the library.

V Woolf olderWhat has this experiment achieved? I’ve absolutely loved the immersion in Virginia’s world. It’s a confusing whirl of dinners and teas with famous people, setbacks and illnesses, lost dogs, arguments with the servants, and heaps of books. She reads and writes and reads some more. I tried reading her diaries before but spread them out and spent too much time trying to remember who everyone was. This was a mistake. It is easier to let the detail wash over you and read them in big chunks as many of the same people come in and out. She is a writer who rewards you with a big reading exercise like this – with her letters, diaries, novels and range of articles there is a lot to get through and they provide you with a full honest picture.

Woolf is racist, anti-semitic, and a terrible snob. While much of this could be excused as being a product of her time (and class), it is still galling to read some of her dreadful thoughts and then be told that her set believed they were intellectually superior and open to more ideas. Nevertheless, she has great insight into other people, and offers that insight into her own marriage and her own resilience in dealing with a mental illness for which there was no real treatment at the time. She has humour, a healthy sense of competition and criticism, and a real sense of injustice that can at times transcend her snobbery. She was, in short, a real contradictory, flawed person – and one with a wonderful writing gift.

I have resumed my diary in response to hers and admire her experimental writing techniques in hers as a place to try new things. I would love to continue the experiment and immersion as I still have so much to read but I also have reviews piling up to get through (Virginia would approve of this as much of the time she had to put aside what she wanted to do in order to write reviews that brought money in) so hopefully in May I can resume with To The Lighthouse.

I did read and finish The Waves, which was still challenging but without the immersion I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have finished it. The only disappointment is that I didn’t read it in order alongside the diary, because I haven’t got that far yet but I may dip into it again when I get there and see if I find it different.

 

Review: Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger

Not just a cookbook. Not only a cookbook. Whichever you prefer, if you like to read about people losing their way and finding it again thanks to family, friends, love and great recipes then this is for you. You could, if so inclined, regard it as a modern version of Heartburn by Nora Ephron, without the infidelity. The warmth, humour, insight and food are all there.

midnight chickenMidnight Chicken opens with Ella Risbridger, feeling overwhelmed, scared, confused,  trying to walk under a bus and being rescued, roasting a late chicken late into the night and realising food and ‘moments’ are what make life worth living. She doesn’t make it sound as melodramatic or trite as I have just done, though, thank goodness.

You may, if you were a reader of the late women’s online magazine The Pool, remember Ella’s columns about caring. As such, this book is tinged with sadness throughout because I knew of the twist at the end, of the constant presence in the pages of one who would soon not be there any more. Ella writes of mental illness, of love, of difficult family relationships and of having to leave, of wonderful family relationships and friends and impromptu recipes made out of whatever you have in the cupboard.

As such, she and I are often on the same page: extolling the virtues of shop bought puff pastry and how Danny the Champion of the World offered a new way to discover flavour and what dads could be like, if they wanted. There are a few moments where I feel she is mistaken – never red sauce on bacon sandwiches, always brown – and Marmite? Bleagh. But in general, this is an absorbing honest book with cooking instructions for the scared, the poor, the novice. All are written with patience, humour and a sense of the potential joy they can give.

The recipes are a mixture of simple things that everyone should have lying about, trashy food for quick pleasures, and fabulous looking food for breakfasts, picnics, last minute dinner parties and life in general. Nothing is too complicated, most of them don’t ask for too many ingredients or faffing. I confess, I haven’t actually cooked anything from it yet as I only bought it on Friday and have been busy reading it from cover to cover but it all looks simple, flavourful and delicious.

Midnight Chicken is published by Bloomsbury and out now from all good bookshops.

Review of 2018

Woah! I read a LOT in 2018. 91 books so far and a week still to go. I’m not quite sure how I fitted all of this in, except that I’ve stopped cycling to work and now have tram time.

To be fair, two were novellas in flash, one was a short story in a single slim volume, and three were children’s books I read to E at bedtime (we’ve moved onto chapter books and these were all new to me so I included them). There was also a cookbook and a volume of poetry.

Still, that’s a lot of books. I didn’t finish three of them, but one of those was 300 pages in so a substantial chunk.

At the start of the year, I started to keep track of how many books I read each month and how many I buy, as well as library books, review books and so on. It was pretty interesting, most months I got through as many as I brought into the house until May when I had a ‘stop buying for a while woman!’ moment (this lasted a month) but then I did calm down and didn’t buy quite as many as I read.

Stats time:

60 of the books were by women and 28 by men. The others were collections of short stories of both sexes.

I read 17 non-fiction, including two feminist cartoon (for want of a better word) books. The best of these were:

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – a brutal memoir of the year after Didion’s husband died suddenly and her daughter was incredibly ill in a coma, and how Didion coped with all of this. It’s brutal because she was absolutely floored by her husband’s death and at times this feels like her focus when the reader wants her to focus on her daughter’s needs.

Flaneuse: Women Walk the City by Lauren Elkins – a look at how women have claimed public spaces. Elkins picks a few cities – New York, Paris, Tokyo – and walks them while also examining how we claim space, how cities don’t encourage a flaneuse, and a look at artists who have also walked cities.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing – a fascinating book, linked a little to the previous title, where Laing explores isolation in cities and how this has been represented in art. It’s part biography, part autobiography, part art history and a bit of sociology.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow – a monster of a book but really well written. If the founding fathers had been written like this when I was studying them at university I would have found them much more interesting. It helps when you can sing an accompanying soundtrack from the musical too…

The rest were fiction and I have read some great stuff this year. Last year I narrowed the reading down to a top five but this year it’s a top eight fiction titles. So in no particular order:

  • The Road to California by Louise Walters – a lovely story I reviewed way back in February
  • Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce – I loved this debut, simple and funny and charming – review is here
  • Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty – an underrated author, MacLaverty, I think. I loved Grace Notes for its simple beauty and this too is a wonderfully written poignant book of an older couple whose marriage is disintegrating.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman – I LOVED this. Women develop an inner power, zapping men with electricity and the world’s men watch and plot in horror. The scene where the Saudi women zapped all the cars they hadn’t been allowed to drive had me cheering out loud while I read. Fabulous stuff.
  • The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson. Part of the series that retells Shakespeare’s stories, this is The Winter’s Tale and really enjoyable. It also works so much better than the recent series that retold Jane Austen’s tales – get Winterson on Persuasion.
  • Larchfield by Polly Clark – Auden, Scotland, post-natal depression and nasty neighbours. Really enjoyable debut novel.
  • Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale. I’ve reviewed this one here.
  • Once Upon a River – Diane Setterfield. Not out in book form until next month but you can read my review here.

There you go!

#BookReviewGift The Goldblum Variations

Jeff Goldblum rocks. You know it. Helen McClory thinks so. So she wrote a bonkers pamphlet containing poems, flash fiction and bingo all about Jeff and alternate versions of him in other universes. You can buy it now with a yellow cover but mine is colour your own, adding more fun to the mix.

It’s absurdist and very silly but even more fun, you can now also watch a film of Jeff reading from it because he is the best of men.

Watch him here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQoqLUaZTzA

You can buy Jeff from 404 Ink. 

jeff goldblum