Tag Archives: book bloggers

August reading – a step into non-fiction

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

Negative Capability – Michele Roberts

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

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

At the Pond: Hampstead Ladies Pond – various

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

Everybody Died so I Got a Dog – Emily Dean

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

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

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

Vita and Virginia – Sarah Gristwood

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

Gears For Queers – Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper

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

My Name is Why – Lemn Sissay

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

Fiction:

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

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

Dissolution – CS Sansom

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

April reading round up

I feel perhaps I should change the target for my reading challenge this year, I’m well over halfway towards it already. I didn’t expect to get through so many books this year and still manage to keep up with writing every day but it turns out a healthier eating and exercise regime can have unexpected benefits with sleep quality too. *turns into health bore* Sorry.

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

I really enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book, and this got so many great reviews that I nearly wasn’t disciplined enough to wait for the paperback. However, I’m glad I did – because I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it lacked a certain something for me. Obviously the subject matter was dark, and realistic, and impressively low-key – so many lesser authors could’ve made a meal of the revelations, but still. I’m going to hang onto it for a while because I think a re-read may yield more.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid

I heard Hamid interviewed on Radio 4 the other week and realised I’d not read his best-known book. How I enjoyed it, once I’d got used to the style. The style is, I think, the best thing about it but its honesty about the politics was refreshing and full of things observers felt perhaps they couldn’t say in the time following 9/11.

The Last Days of Leda Grey – Essie Fox

A journalist finds a copy of a beautiful 1930s silent film star in a shop in a coastal town and sets off to find the star, now a reclusive old lady living in the ruins of a house on the cliffs. His interviews aim to find the truth about her life. I don’t want to go into more detail without giving away the plot but I found it unsettling, immersive, creepy and melancholy. I really enjoyed this!

The Comfort of Others – Kay Langdale

I interviewed Kay Langdale for an earlier post – check it out here if you’re interested

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

Non fiction of the month is a running book that came into my mind when I was out for a run myself. I’ve never read any of Murakami’s novels – I find the cult of him rather offputting and really should get over myself – but I enjoyed this wander around his mind and a lot of what he said resonated with me. The comments about training yourself as a runner and writer make sense, and if I can get myself to run 10k within a matter of weeks, why do I not apply the same techniques to writing with more discipline? While I writer every day, the amounts vary and the results are less obvious – I have a feeling this is more to do with self doubt than anything else. I do like that he doesn’t really think of anything while he runs, because neither do I but I think people often assume that you do.

Guernica – Dave Boling

I know very little about the Spanish Civil War so my non-fiction aims now include Antony Beevor’s book about it – there is so much literature based around the conflict. This was an interesting book and I think it probably benefited from me not having much knowledge of the war. The first half of the book is mainly to immerse the reader in the town of Guernica and some of the families within. There are brief cameos from Picasso and the German bomber in charge of the attack. The characters are perhaps a little one-dimensional but I didn’t think I mind this, until the main attack occurred and then I found that I wasn’t as upset at what happened as I might have been in the hands of a better author. The other problem with Guernica is that of course, there was no real revenge or conclusion to the atrocity, so the author has to manufacture a slightly contrived ending in order to bring about an end to the story. But having said all that, I still found this an interesting read and it will spur me onto find out more.

Hold Back the Stars – Katie Khan

I rarely read sci fi but I enjoyed this very much indeed. The opening chapter is astonishing, and draws you right in, hand in heart. This is a love story between Carys and Max and we find them floating in space further away from their spaceship, and with only 90 minutes worth of air left. In that time, we learn about how they met and why they’re floating in space. It turns out there’s been a massive war that has destroyed the USA and the Middle East, and much of the remaining world has joined together in a utopian system which forbids people to form close relationships until they’re over 35. And the asteroid belt has moved closer to Earth and prevented humans from exploring space any further. As you can imagine, there is a lot to cover in the book, and Khan intersperses the countdown of air chapters with the backstory with ease.

The Lauras – Sara Taylor

I thought Taylor’s first book was good but not completely enjoyable. This was different. Told in the first person by Alex, a teenager of indeterminate gender, as their mother leaves their father and goes on a road trip, just the two of them, to clear up loose ends. Alex’s mum spent her youth in foster homes and broken homes and has gone through all kinds of unpleasantness, but made friends – many of them called Laura – and promises along the way. The two of them have to stop every so often for Alex to go to school and for the mum to make some money by waitressing but essentially make their way across the US and finally up to Canada to find one of The Lauras. Along the way, Alex starts to grow up, find out more about what kind of person they want to be. It’s an occasionally bleak, but always absorbing read.

Standard Deviation – Katherine Heiny

If you ever wanted to read a book that talked about the phrase, “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” this is it. Heiny’s first novel is a very funny story of a marriage, told from the point of view of Graham, the husband. His second wife Audra is unlike anyone I would ever want to meet in real life, and there are moments when Graham appears to feel the same. Through a string of awkward encounters at parties, with his first wife, with friends and odd acquaintances, Graham and Audra look after their son, who has Asperger’s and try and get through life as best they can. It’s insightful, bitchy, wickedly funny and a really good read.

My July reading

I got waylaid this month by a friend going to see the Harry Potter play so I started re-reading them all. (There’s no re-reading option on Goodreads so my reading challenge figures are wrong…) I’ll talk Harry at the end. Otherwise…

Rowan Coleman – We Are All Made of Stars

I wrote last month about how I’d stopped reading A Song for Issy Bradley because of the hospitalisation of my daughter after she choked on a grape and went into cardiac arrest. I haven’t yet been able to pick it up and went into a reading funk, not knowing what to dip into. Thank goodness for this book. I won a copy of this from Rowan Coleman’s Facebook page (along with a lovely silver star pendant and necklace) and had been saving it for the right time. We Are All Made of Stars is about Stella, a nurse at a hospice who writes letters for her patients so they can finally say what they want, to be read after their death. But Stella is married to an ex-soldier who is suffering severe PTSD and neither of them know what to do or how to move on.

You might think a book that brushes so close to death is not what a traumatised mum should be reading but I found this to be such a soothing balm to read. It’s a cliche to say something like this can be life-affirming but this is what I found in the book. Above all things, it’s a love story, or rather several love stories, including a lovely burgeoning relationship between two teens, and we also witness the love between patients and families, and among the patients together.

Some of the letters Stella writes are stories in themselves and I found myself thinking about what splendid spin offs they could make. All in all, this was an incredible comfort to me as I spent a week in some kind of limbo trying to drag myself back to real life. But aside from my personal life, this is a warm and generous book, full of the best that people can be.

William Boyd – Sweet Caress

This is one of Boyd’s epics. The ones that cover the life of one person, spanning a wide amount of time. His best known, and I think best book, that does this is Any Human Heart (fully recommended) but Sweet Caress is pretty entertaining too. The person in question is Amory Clay, a female photographer. We meet her while she is a teen at school where her traumatised father attempts to kill them both, all the way through to her last days in Scotland in the 1970s. In between, she becomes a society photographer, causes a scandal in pre-war Britain, goes to war, finds love and gets married.

I liked Amory but I felt as a character she was always a little distant, though I’m not sure why. She is not a wholly formed jump off the page character like Logan Mountstuart from Any Human Heart. Her family and friends are never fully formed either, and I wonder if this was because it was was written in the first person. Amory seemed aloof from others, and thus painted them as aloof from us.

Having said that, I love these kind of books with big sweeping world changes within, and how one person can tell a bigger story. This is not quite Boyd’s best but it’s on the right track.

Sue Perkins – Spectacles

I don’t often do biographies, and I rarely do celebs but I was staying with my mum and she had this to hand. I read it in two evenings. It’s very funny. I like having ridiculous feelings of kinship with someone I admire, so the fact that me and Sue have the same first names and birthdays in September both made me like her even more. Plus, we have a loose family connection through her speech therapist. Mostly, this is a funny affectionate look at Sue’s life and how her family, friends and lovers have kept her going. The stories about her parents are wonderful, I imagine quite exaggerated, but with the silly humour that always gives me the giggles.

Harry Potter (I’m currently on book 6)

I love how quickly I get absorbed by these books.

I hate how no one told JKR about Stephen King’s rule on words ending in ‘ly’. It’s the writing rule I try to stick to the most. The number of times Harry says something bitterly… make it stop!

My fondest bookselling memory, in fact, possibly my favourite work memory of all (apart from flashing my tattoo at Sir David Attenborough obvs), remains running the launch party for book seven at Nottingham Waterstone’s. Torrential rain, five times as many people as we were expecting, chaos, and the only person available to put our displays together was my sister who had come to volunteer for the night for fun. Everyone else was busy entertaining the customers. At 2am I stood in the pouring rain in a large black velvet witch’s hat yelling at a man that I was closing the shop and he was too late for his copy but he could come back at 7am when we reopened.

I have no idea what this says about me.

Review: Melissa by Jonathan Taylor

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the Melissa of the title dies at the beginning of the book – everything that follows is a result of this tragic occurrence. As she does so, all her neighbours experience a musical hallucination – most find it beautiful if perplexing, only a few dislike it.

The novel is apparently based on a true story, though one I’ve not heard of, and the early part of the book reads as a factual account by scholars and media reports. Once the hallucination and its after effects are dealt with, then the novel is a straightforward third person narrative. For we’ve only just begun.

What happens next? What happens to a family when its youngest member dies? What happens to a community when you share an event but can’t explain it? These are the questions Taylor wishes to explore and the result is a frank, sometimes dreadfully sad, exploration of the devastation wrought by grief.

Taylor’s writing style did at times perplex me, I will admit. He is clearly a well-read man, with a well-researched book. A lot of that research makes its way quite obviously into the book. If you ever wanted to know how a disease like leukaemia can progress then you can find it here, and somehow the progress of the disease is told in a way that moves the story on. Perhaps less successful are the music references, and the passages about physics but I admire that they’re there at all – its not everyone who can sound knowledgeable and everyday about some of these things, even if I didn’t understand anything about them.

As you may expect, the characters are the strongest part of ‘Melissa.’ And rarely (in my reading experience) he writes women well. The two main female characters, Melissa’s mother and half-sister, were sympathetic yet complicated. Even the tabloid ‘escort’ across the road, while not a particularly sympathetic character, did have a distinctive voice that sounded authentic. Melissa’s father, Harry, was perhaps the best character in that his pain and total confusion and denial was heartbreaking to witness.

So to sum up, I thought Melissa was an intriguing, at times heartbreaking, read. It was at times scathing about modern life, at times brave about the human condition. It’s well worth a read, enjoyable and engaging.

Melissa by Jonathan Taylor is available to buy now from Salt Publishing, priced £8.99

*Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of Melissa by Jonathan Taylor to review. This review is also on Goodreads.