Category Archives: reading

March reading round up

Was it just me or did March feel like about three months long? And it was such an up and down month too, with the anniversary of lockdown casting a shadow over everything and finishing with this glorious spring weather. Still, here is what I read this month:

The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

The month didn’t start well. This has sat on the shelf for months and I thought I should get it done with but I don’t know if it was the book or me but it didn’t work for me at all. I’ve read Boyne in the past and found him to be patchy – one book I thought was good, another I thought was poor. I know a lot of people who like this one and I still can’t put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. But it was a dnf.

What She’s Having – a Dear Damsels Anthology

A relief then, to turn to this – an anthology of women writing about food. This is lovely and I cannot tell you what a glorious change it was to read about women and food without any mention of diet or body loathing or calories or any of that shit. Every woman I know has been on a diet at one (or more likely many) point in their life and we are so tuned to worrying about what we eat that this collection genuinely feels fresh and exciting because it doesn’t talk about that. Instead we get a lot of food memories, a lot of family and a lot of love. It reminded me of the recent Daunt books anthology In the Kitchen which I equally enjoyed.

Brother of the More Famous Jack – Barbara Trapido

This was my re-read this month, which I picked up when I was feeling low. It’s one of my favourite books of all time and I feel I should soon get myself a new copy as mine is showing signs of wear (but is signed by the author who once visited the bookshop where I worked and took me out to dinner at a fancy Nottingham restaurant and shocked all the posh diners by talking loudly about Martin Amis and scenes of masturbation. I dislike Amis but love Barbara Trapido.) I had forgotten quite how un-PC it is and how much I love all the characters despite that. A comfort and a joy.

A Tomb with a View – Peter Ross

My in-laws bought me this for Christmas and it’s a fascinating read. Ross lives overlooking a graveyard and goes wandering around the country and to Ireland, to find out more about some of the best known graveyards and the stories behind them. Often the stories are of lesser known mortals, even the chapter about Highgate, and how they came to be designed, how they are used and who they contain are to be found in this book. There were only two things wrong with it: that he didn’t visit Nottingham’s Rock Cemetery, and that there weren’t more pictures.

I Belong Here – Anita Sethi

This was an advance copy via Netgalley and is published at the end of April this year. Sethi, Manchester born and bred, from immigrant parents, is racially abused on a train while on her way to a book event. It is an event that unsettles her, for obvious reasons, and partly to calm herself she goes to walk the Pennine Way, to find ‘the backbone of Britain’ and explore her feelings and those of others towards people like her, non-white British folk. She talks about the rising level of racial hate crime, micro aggressions, and even recalls an encounter with Prince Charles where he reveals himself to be less than enlightened – a timely story given this month’s news headlines. This book has less walking in it than readers of other walking memoirs might like, but it explores interesting, relevant and important issues about what it means to be British and how we might all try to see who belongs here is wider than the narrow definitions reflected in the media.

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa

This month’s reading group choice and I started out enjoying it very much. It told the story of the residents of an island in Japan who find that many objects in their lives ‘disappear’, and once they do so, their memories alter so that they lose any idea of what those items are or how to use them. The Memory Police are in positions of power to take away anyone who does not forget the disappeared items, including the narrator’s mother. When the narrator’s editor finds himself in danger from the memory police she hides him so he will be safe. I began thinking this was a fascinating book, with a lot to say about collective memory and curation and control, but in the last third of the book I found myself wanting to know why – and this question was never answered. There was also a ludicrous plot twist which just annoyed me. So a mixed bag, but she is a very gifted writer – I enjoyed her style.

A Half-Baked Idea – Olivia Potts

This is a memoir of Olivia Potts, a promising barrister, who undergoes a serious breakdown after her mother’s death. So she decides to enrol in the Cordon Bleu cookery school in London and become a patisserie expert. As you do. I enjoyed this though there really is a point where I no longer cared about the finer points of French baking. Given the choice between mille feuille and an apple crumble, I’d take the crumble any day. Less precise but no less joyful.

Domestic Bliss and other Disaster – Jane Ions

This is the latest title from Bluemoose Books and a fun read. It features Sally, a middle aged MP’s wife who has, as the title suggests a number of domestic issues to deal with, including a son home from college and building rent free eco friendly accommodation in the driveway, a friend’s shifting love life and the wrath of the neighbours. I was reminded strongly of Alan Bennett when I read this, it has the same sense of humour and so refreshing to read something featuring a middle aged woman who is not smug but very relatable.

Supporting Cast – Kit de Waal

These short stories feature characters from Kit’s novels and now I feel compelled to go back and re-read those so I can put the two together properly. But as a writer, I love the idea of taking a character and writing them a story away from your main plot. Some of these are very short, some give you more context for the novels but all of them are skillfully written and give you a full portrait in just a few strokes.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver and The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman

Two poetry books this month. I will read anything by Mary Oliver so this new edition of poems she wrote for the dogs in her life is a joy and a testament to the fact that they are the best of animals. Plus the illustrations are gorgeous. And The Hill We Climb is the poem Gorman read at President Biden’s inauguration, that fabulous performance that she gave. I bought a copy for myself and one for E to keep and take with her through life.

Moments of Pleasure

Hopefully by now you have heard the joyful piece of perfect pop ‘Only for Tonight’ by Pearl Charles – it has been stuck in my head on an almost constant loop for weeks but it’s such a life-affirming piece of wonder that if you haven’t heard it yet, you must go and find it now. It combines seventies influences with a modern attitude and is altogether wonderful.

I caught up with films on iplayer this month, including Carol starring Cate Blanchett which I’d not seen before and which featured the song No Other Love by Jo Stafford which is just lovely. The film was good too.

I also watched Edie, one of those films we do where British people do eccentric things in the face of adversity. In this case, Sheila Hancock’s character decides to climb a mountain in Scotland before she dies, because she’d not been able to climb it with her father and she had spent 30 years caring for her husband instead. I liked it because it was set in Lochinver, the town where we stayed in Scotland a few years ago and I recognised the setting, including the Suilven mountain which is quite distinctive. Anyway, she gets into all kinds of pickles but I was struck by what a cow her daughter was to her and how she had to share her triumph with someone else instead. I hope my mother knows that if she wants to do something batshit insane in her dotage then I am absolutely here to help her.

Finally this month, I found joy in going for a walk. For about three hours I walked the streets of Nottingham, nosing in people’s gardens and houses and enjoying the sunshine – I haven’t been anywhere except for a run a few times a week all year and this felt very different. The changed pace made all the difference and I came home much happier and worn out than I had been for ages.

Have a good month, everyone! Stay safe, and pick up your litter.

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.

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:

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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.


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.