Tag Archives: books

June reading round up

As I type, I’m still wearing jumpers and feeling a bit nippy. Where did the sun go? This month I did get to sit in the garden reading for, ooh, a couple of days? But it is still pretty grey out there at the moment – fingers crossed for next month.

Reading this month has been mostly positive with a couple of crashing disappointments. Let’s see:

Learning to Talk to Plants – Mata Orriols

Orriols is a Spanish author and this is set in Barcelona, translated from the original Spanish. I enjoyed it – it’s a low key story of a woman who is widowed young, but her feelings of her husband’s death are complicated by the fact that the day he died, he told her that he was leaving her for another woman. Only one or two of their friends are aware of this so she is treated as someone with very pure grief, when actually she is wrestling with a mix of emotions. Frankly I felt her to still be far too nice to her dead husband but there you go. The title is a reference to her husband’s plants on their flat balcony, which she neglects and then decides to tend.

Still Life – Sarah Winman

This is a beautiful book. I had been looking forward to its release, as I loved all her past novels, especially the most recent Tin Man. Still Life is a quiet meandering ensemble novel, with some low key plot and a wide cast of characters. Set mostly in Florence, with mostly English characters, it opens in the Second World War with the main character Ulysses, a gentle globe maker turned soldier, taking academic art historian Evelyn to try to save paintings from destruction in a German retreat. Following the war, they both go their separate ways but are destined to get back together at some point and the novel follows their lives and loves over the next two decades or so. It’s a lovely engrossing book, and one that definitely deserves to be read in a sunny garden. It does feel these days that there are a lot of books out there that have been asked by publishers to crowbar some major plotting into a story that doesn’t really need it (see below, also The Goldfinch) but this one has been allowed to stand with basic plotting. The characters drive the plot and thank goodness for that. If you are interested in people and how they interact, how they mix with each other and how they live their lives, then this is a great example of a book that lets you spy and listen in. The city of Florence also has a clear character part and it also tips a knowing hat to EM Forster, especially A Room With A View. I loved this, and it deserves to do incredibly well.

The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton

In a bit of a funk following some non-fiction and general book hangover from Still Life, I picked this up. It came as part of my book subscription from Bookish (indie booksellers) who send a paperback every month. I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise. Turton wrote the incredibly complicated crime time travel hit The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle which I enjoyed as a bit of confusing fluff, but this hit me at just the right time and was just the thing. It’s an historical supernatural ghost-ish type story – although it makes a point that it is not meant to be an accurate historical novel, nor does it really have ghosts. However, it is a rollicking read – an absorbing fun read and absolutely plot driven. Essentially, if you’re going to do a plot-based novel then this is the way to do it.

Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers

Continuing the theme of plots hammered into character-based novels, this was my reading group choice this month and I started off enjoying it very much. The characterisation was excellent, and the writing is really good. In this light, it’s unsurprising that she was longlisted for The Women’s Prize. BUT, at some point she must have remembered she needed to tie up the storylines and sadly chose incredibly lazy solutions involving quite tired tropes about LGBT characters and also characters with mental illnesses. Not to mention the terrible terrible final chapter. Such a shame.

Mrs Narwhal’s Diary – SJ Norbury

Thank goodness, then for this! Published by tiny indie press Louise Walters Books, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an updated I Capture the Castle as told by a middle aged Woman and Home reader. And it’s none the worse for any of that. Mr Narwhal, burdened with an ancestral home to manage but no interest in managing it, leaves and the resulting burden shifts to his wife who has started writing a diary to keep track of her feelings. A ruined castle, financial woes and a character called Rose with love-interest issues, you see why I thought of the Dodie Smith book? But it’s charming and a light read. Do please buy it direct from Louise Walters who needs all the love.

These Towers Will One Day Slip Into the Sea – Gary Budden

I helped to crowdfund this, an odd but beautiful little book about Reculver in Kent. It’s an area, near Herne Bay, where I used to visit as a child for holidays and where we often go to the coast when we return to visit. Reculver is excellent for finding fossilised sharks teeth, and has plenty of rock pools and fun for the children. This is a fictionalised essay-treatise thing, hard to categorise, which looks at the history of the area from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon times to the present and of the people there. It has lovely illustrations by Maxim Griffin and has been a bit of a labour of love, judging by the crowdfunding emails I used to get from the author. We need more odd but lovely little books like this.

Everyone is Still Alive – Cathy Rentzenbrink

I received a review copy of this on Netgalley and wanted to like it so much. I like Cathy Rentzenbrink’s other books – non-fiction – of grief, bereavement and finding solace in books. This novel is very well written and will absolutely appeal to huge numbers of people but not me, sadly. If you like Motherland on the BBC this is right up your street – all about ghastly middle class parents and Rentzenbrink has good points to make about it all. But the modern attitude to competitive parenting makes me want to hack my hands off and I cannot bear it, even in comedy form. You may all love it. She is a good writer.

Square Haunting – Francesca Wade

When asked if I could time travel, where would I go, I usually reply 1950s New York but this book has made me add inter-war London to that list too. Square Haunting takes its title and inspiration from a Virginia Woolf essay. Woolf was very fond of walking the London streets, finding much to love and be inspired by, and the ghost of her runs throughout this study. Wade explores the lives and work of five women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury in some of the inter-war years. They do not all know each other, they do not all meet or talk together – it is merely a coincidence that they were there at some point in those twenty years or so. But each used her time there to explore in both personal and professional lives, what women could do, what they could say and how they could influence or make changes. The result is a fascinating book of thoughts and boundary pushing, of love and destructive relationships and support and big ideas. Excellent.

Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers

One of the women in Square Haunting was Dorothy L Sayers, who I knew very little about but who sounded so interesting. So I bought this, regarded as one of her best novels, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but rather centered on her female character from the series (and potentially more interesting than Lord Peter who I was nonplussed by tbh) Harriet Vane. As a crime novel today, Gaudy Night would be cut right down as it is padded by a hell of a lot of conversations and extra details – it’s a long slog. But the crimes themselves are of a period piece that actually do speak to modern day issues – a poison pen writer who trashes people’s reputations and belongings, and nearly drives one character to suicide through the vile nastiness in the letters that plays on mental ill health issues. Having read Square Haunting, it was also helpful to remember what Sayers was interested in as the extra parts cover some of her larger themes.

This is How We Come Back Stronger – various (ed: Feminist Book Society)

This is a book of essays created during the pandemic which asked prominent feminists about their lockdown, the impact of Covid on feminism and what we can do to help recover. It is very definitely intersectional and wide ranging and the strongest message that comes out is just that we have to listen to each other, leave that ladder up and be more humble and willing to be a community. There are a lot of experiences in here that speak to areas I know little about – and the book’s main selling point is how accessible it makes those experiences – so you learn a lot about what is like for black women, for LGBT women, for Muslim women and all the ways we intersect. It’s an important book to read to highlight our differences and to make sure that we are open to other people’s experiences.

Moments of Pleasure

I went to the cinema this month! For the first time since February 2020. Aren’t the seats nice and wide and comfy? Isn’t it great to be able to walk into my local indie cinema and have a cup of tea in their new refurbished bar before the film? It was an aspect of normality that was worth waiting for. We watched In The Heights, which I loved as a fresh piece of positive loveliness.

In a tribute to Eric Carle, we bought a set of caterpillars to grow – which was something we did a couple of times last year as part of our home schooling extra curricular activities. Today I will be releasing our butterflies but it’s been as much fun watching them develop from hungry little caterpillars into beautiful butterflies.

And finally, Mr Barsby has been bringing home bunches of peonies this month to have as cut flowers in the house. Blowsy, brassy flowers, peonies just don’t care. As showy and frilly as a bride in a badly-advised dress, I am rather fond of them. In your face, other cut flowers!

May reading round up

Somehow I’ve only read six full books this month, though I read a bit of an advance copy of another and am making my way slowly through two large non-fiction books as well. And it was my daughter’s birthday (more to think about and organise, even without a party) and I also did three writing courses online so it’s not been all wasted time. But on the whole, my reading this month has been a pleasure – some cracking books this month.

A Wild and Precious Life (ed: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert)

This is an anthology of recovery stories – crowd funded and published by Unbound. It was begun as a writing project in a centre that supported addicts in London, and the editors above who ran the sessions put a call out for recovery pieces from the public as well as featuring pieces by some of the addicts they were working with. The pieces within are not just about addiction but cover a lot of other kinds of recovery as well, however, this also has some of the best writing I have found on addiction. I tend to regard addiction stories with caution, as so many can be repetitive and dull. These are not. They don’t preach or boast, they simply tell it as it is and they do so with great power. It deserves to be widely read, there is much of human nature laid bare here.

In the End It Was All About Love – Musa Okwonga

This is terrific. A very short 98 pages, and I pre-ordered the limited edition cover (number 26) so each one had a different stripe pattern on it. This is a part novel, part auto-biography, part love letter, part examination of race and identity and father-son relationships and love. It’s written in the second person, which is both unusual and hard to pull off. And finally, it is part poem. If I read this description I would think, “Dear God, no,” but honestly, it’s a wonderful book. I had to read it slowly, putting it down after each section to digest and think about before I could go on. Okwonga is a black British writer who lives in Berlin, and is the author of the book about being a black pupil at Eton which you may have heard about recently. He also hosts a football podcast and has a wonderful full laugh. This is the story of an unnamed protagonist (with many similarities to the author) and his exploration of himself, of how others see him, of how he thinks and grieves for his father. It’s hard to get across what it is about, and how many pages I marked because the writing or the insight was astonishing and I wanted to retain it – only please do read it and see for yourself how amazing it is. I loved it.

The Stranding – Kate Sawyer

This is due to be published next month and is Sawyer’s debut novel. I got an advance copy on Netgalley and was surprised when it was not what I expected from the description. Fortunately, I thought it was better than the description – it had more depth and nuance of feeling and covered much more time that I was expecting also.

The Stranding opens with Ruth, travelling in New Zealand, finding a beached whale dying on the sand. At its side she meets Nik, and they both climb inside the whale to escape what we can only assume is a nuclear explosion. We soon find that the majority of the world has been wiped out (we never know the details and the book is the stronger for it) and that Ruth and Nik are likely some of the only people left. Their story, of survival and resilience, is told along with the parallel story of Ruth’s life back in London and how she made the decision to go travelling in the first place. The relationship between the two is real and subtly drawn, and in direct contrast to the toxicity of Ruth’s relationship with her awful boyfriend in London. I thought this was a strong debut, with real insight into human character and will look forward to reading more.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This was a reread for my reading group. I read it last year, just after I got my reading mojo back after the early days of the pandemic took it away completely and I wasn’t sure if I’d taken it all in then, but I did love it. So a reread was in order and I loved it this time too. O’Farrell is one of my favourite living authors and this is so powerful and personal and insightful. I loved the historical perspective she offers and how she approached the book, forcing us to think twice about what we’ve been told about England’s greatest poet. Worth all the accolades, I think.

Should We Fall Behind – Sharon Duggal

This was recently featured on the BBC2 book programme Between the Covers which I wanted to like but found rather fluffy and with too many guests not saying enough about each book. I managed to read Duggal’s book in time for the programme and was glad that I had done so because they swept quite briefly over it, when really it deserves more. Should We Fall Behind is published by indie publisher Bluemoose Books, and is the story of homeless man Jimmy Noone (no one), living on the streets where he makes friends with Betwa. When Betwa goes missing Jimmy looks for her and winds up on Shifnal Road, with its range of residents, each with their own problems. The lives intertwine as Jimmy becomes the means for them all to come entangled – it’s a compelling ensemble piece that gives life and depth to the stories you see everyday around you. You know the saying about being kind to people because you don’t know what they’re going through? This is essentially it in book form but without sounding so trite. It’s an excellent portrayal of ordinary people and the hidden richness of their lives. Buy it.

Getting Colder – Amanda Coe

This had been sitting on the shelf for ages and I’m not going to say much about it as I didn’t really rate it much. It wasn’t badly written, it just did nothing for me.

Moments of Pleasure

I hugged my mum this month – the first time for 8 months that I’ve seen her and my sister in the flesh. There was a lot of cake, hysterical laughter, cricket in the park and a general catch up. If travelling could only be made easier – I really feel that science could have sorted teleportation by now.

I really enjoyed Nomadland (available to stream on Disney+) though I love Frances McDormand in practically everything so I was always going to enjoy this. Such a bleak shot of the system chewing people up and spitting them out, but them still finding some kind of connection where they could. People can be brilliant, resilient, with such depths.

I know the fuss has been about going back to pubs and bars, but my goodness isn’t it great to sit and work in a coffee shop again? To hear the clanking as the barista gets to work, and to smell the croissants baking out the back. Such a joy. I have not yet been to a pub or bar but caffeine indoors, oh yes.

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.

February: a short month with many books

Somehow I’ve read 11 books this month. And while one of them was a re-read, the others were new. Three of them I read on the Kindle app which means I didn’t read them as thoroughly as I would have done on the page. Still quite pleased with it though.

Home Cooking – Laurie Colvin

A friend recommended this as their comfort read and I love cookery books you can read so I got hold of a copy. It is indeed a delight, being a cook book written by a frank talking New York woman, who comments on lifestyle as much as food and recipes. If you like Nora Ephron movies, you’ll like this.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My re-read for the month and my favourite book. It will always be a comfort and a joy to read.

The Spare Room – Helen Garner

Lord. This is an unflinching book, a stark exploration of how a friendship can be tested through the worst of life. Helen’s friend Nicola comes to stay – Nicola has very serious cancer and is seeking treatment at an alternative therapist near Helen’s home. Helen is completely unprepared for the impact this event will have on her and how hard it is to deal with. You like to think you will support your friends in anything they need but we all know there are sometimes limits – and Nicola refusing to countenance any criticism of the quacks who are ‘treating; her s incredibly difficult for Helen and for us, the reader, to manage. A stark, portrait but a very successful treatment of a difficult subject.

The Family Tree – Sairish Hussain

I really enjoyed this. It’s a big absorbing family saga, in the style of Tim Pears or Elizabeth Jane Howard but centred around a British Pakistani family of a dad, two children and their grandmother. Having had their mother die when the girl Zahra was born, the book explores Zahra and her big brother Saahil, and what happens to them – in the form of racism, family ties and drugs. I loved the characters and how they forced themselves through the worst of events to come back together. A big hearted, absorbing novel.

Girl Reading- Katie Ward

A series of short stories, very loosely linked, based around paintings. This would have worked much better had the paintings been reproduced in the book so you could have seen them while you read (I imagine copyright issues are a factor and they are available on the website) It was alright.

Such a Fun Age – Kiley Reid

This was one of those books where you could see what the author was trying to do quite early on and once you got the point then she didn’t stop hammering it home. I couldn’t warm to it, though I tried. I did get the point though.

The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex

This is published next month and there is a lot of buzz about it. I enjoyed it. It’s based (loosely) on a true story of how three lighthousemen went missing from their very isolated lighthouse in the middle of the sea one day at the turn of the twentieth century, with the doors locked from the inside. They were never heard from again. This takes that basic premise and imagines their fate, shifting the story forward to the 1970s and flitting further forward to the wives and girlfriends still looking for the truth thirty years later. It is a strong debut novel, exploring themes of male isolation and mental ill health and deserves to do well.

Father of Lions – Caroline Wallace

Well this looked interesting from the front cover, and parts of it were interesting but they weren’t what was promised on the front so I spent much of the book being very cross. If you expect this to be, as billed, ‘How one man defied Isis and saved Mosul zoo’ you will be disappointed. If you want to read what life was like in occupied Mosul by a bunch of people who lived near a park where some animals were dumped and how many of the animals (spoiler alert) don’t make it, then you will find that here. To be honest, there was a lot of detail that wasn’t needed and the book could easily have been a magazine article – it may have been better if it was.

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness

I love Bill. This is a series of chapters about things he has done that inspire happiness, and he hopes might make you think or want to try some out or consider what makes you happy and do more of it. And it’s worth reading for the chapter about the dog alone.

The Lip – Charlie Connelly

This is published in March and is the author’s debut novel, though he has previously written non-fiction. It took me a while to get into it as the narrator and protagonist Melody Janie, is a prickly and odd soul who doesn’t invite you to get close to her. And you do get to find out why. This is an antidote to all those people who bang on about how beautiful Cornwall is (it is) and close their eyes to the huge social and economic problems of the area. Melody’s difficult life, the sudden loss of love and security that she has suffered and the trauma of her later experiences make you love her. This is not the Cornwall the tourist brochures want you to know, it’s the one that gets mentioned in passing : the lack of secure employment, the unaffordable housing for local people, the seasonal poverty and isolation. It’s an unsparing portrait but a skilful one and should serve to make people think.

Together – Julie Cohen

A few months back, I took an online writing workshop with Julie Cohen and enjoyed it so thought I would try her books. This was well written and intriguingly structured but sadly I was so bothered by the denouement that it spoiled the whole thing.

Moments of Pleasure

This month, my moments of pleasure have mainly been food related: Bovril on crumpets late one evening when I’d skipped having dinner; making lime curd and spreading it in between a lime and courgette cake, teamed with thick double cream. Clemency Burton Hill introduced us to the lovely piece ‘Handel on the Strand’ by Percy Grainger and I spent an enjoyable evening indulging in the Hitchcockian glamour of post-war Nice with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, in To Catch a Thief.

Bedtime reading

E and I finished reading the third in Katherine Woodfine’s Sinclair Mysteries (only one more to go) and have started reading The Dark is Rising, book two of the series of the same name. She likes it but finds it a bit spooky. This month she also (of her own accord) picked Anne Frank’s diary off the shelf and raced through it, finding she had a lot in common with Anne; I think we may have a new role model.

Clearing out your books

Happy New Year!

I’m not one for quantities of New Year Resolutions but I do tend to have a clearout around this time. A clean and clear out, once the decorations are down, makes it a little bit easier to face January.

Lockdown, and especially working from home, has made me dissatisfied with the number of books we have in the house. Normally I would have said that I liked having a lot of books but recently the clutter has started to bother me and I now prefer a good selection and room for display.

However, in a small two bedroom terrace containing three bookworms, careful shelving isn’t always a possibility so a clear out was needed. I usually have a book clear out once a year anyway, going through and considering what I won’t read again or that which I no longer fancy reading. Plus, when I’ve finished a book there is a good chance it goes to the clearout pile instead of back on the shelf so I do think my shelves have a high turnover rate.

However, Mr Barsby is a different matter. He reads a lot slower than I do and is never going to get through a lot of the dry history tomes sitting on the shelves. A few years ago he wrote an article for The Bookseller reviewing the history books published that year as a special round up and was sent huge quantities of books as possible titles to mention. Our shelves have never really recovered.

There are many opinions about book clearouts. Marie Kondo had a lot of people yell at her for suggesting they clear out books but if you follow her advice (does your book collection spark joy? Yes? OK.) then there’s really no need to worry. My collection, and that of my husband, did not spark joy.

Some people would say that, as books are replaceable, do you need to hold onto them at all? These are people who a) do not understand the sentimental value of a particular volume, b) do not make notes in the margins for future reference and c) do not wake up in the middle of the night with an immediate and pressing need to check a very specific passage from Wolf Hall. Plus, what do you do if it’s gone out of print?

Helene Hanff, back in 1952 had very definite views on this and I lean towards her way of thinking.

I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally cannot think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.”

So what criteria do you use to clear out your books? I’m like this:

Have I read this?

If yes, am I going to read this again?

Might I refer to it at some point? Would I like to have it on the shelf to look at it and know it is there?

If no, am I ever going to read this?

The final one usually covers books that I once bought in a fit of self-improvement that have never grabbed me enough to actually read. Perhaps I should know more about economics, the Second World War, art, and social theories but I should really be honest with myself at the point of buying rather than four years later when I give up trying.

The biggest problem currently with clearouts is what to do with them. Our local book donation bank is full. The charity shops are closed and not taking donations. So Mr Barsby’s books are in the boot of the car hoping the book bank might be clear soon. He’s only cleared two shelves and we have a whole bookcase to go still so Oxfam of Nottingham, I know there’s a pandemic but please. We need you.

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.

January’s reading

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

The Trick to Time – Kit de Waal 

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

The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

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

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

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

Chances Are – Richard Russo

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

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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

Mudlarking – Lara Maiklem

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

Moving – Jenny Eclair

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

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

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

And a quick word on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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

2019 reading round up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Christmas books

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

2019-12-08 13.18.53

Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater

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

Christmas Days – Jeanette Winterson

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

One Christmas Night – Hayley Webster

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

Miss Marley – Vanessa Lafaye

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

Festive Spirits – Kate Atkinson

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

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

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

A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

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

Stardust and Snow – Paul Magrs

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

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

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

An Unexpected Gift: Three Christmas Gifts – Marcel Theroux

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

Lanterns Across the Snow and The Star Dreamer – Susan Hill

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

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

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

 

The never decreasing TBR pile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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