Tag Archives: Reading

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.

The Comfort of Others: Q&A with Kay Langdale

I’m so pleased to welcome Kay Langdale to the blog today, to answer questions about her most recent book, The Comfort of Others.

CoverMinnie and her sister Clara are two elderly spinsters living in an old house in the middle of a housing estate.  They have an ordered lifestyle, trying where they can to stop decay in the house, and living quietly together. One day Minnie starts to write again in her childhood diary, finally ready to record the unspoken sadness at the heart of the sisters’ existence.

In the house opposite them, lives Max and his mother. Max has never known his father and is happy with his life until his mother gets a new boyfriend. Confused and feeling rejected, he starts to use his mother’s old Dictaphone as a diary.

The two characters become unlikely friends and their stories intertwine, each influencing the other in ways they didn’t expect. And as they do so, the ghosts of the past and the challenges of the present weave together to make an enthralling read.

I should start the Q&A by saying how much I enjoyed the book – I raced through it, reading it very quickly. It’s absorbing, moving and there’s some lovely humour and humanity in it.

Kay Langdale © John Cairns
Kay Langdale Photo credit: John Cairns

What made you decide on a diary format?

I felt that the diary format allowed me to get under the skin of the characters better, especially Minnie. Her reticence meant that she would not have chosen to talk directly with anyone about what happened to her, and so allowing her to write it down felt like the most authentic means of capturing it. With Max, the Dictaphone allowed uninhibited chatting which felt somehow more age appropriate. At the beginning he says that he feels like a reporter, and so it allows him an emotional freedom to explore what’s happening to him.

The book hinges around the idea of an estate sold off with new houses surrounding a large manor house – Minnie is hemmed in. Where did this idea come from? Is the house based on anywhere in particular?

I drove past a large house once that had been similarly surrounded by an estate, and I was very struck by how it looked as if it was marooned in its own space like a vast sea creature. I felt the idea worked on multiple levels; life is going on beyond the house while Minnie is ‘encased’ within it, and also the estate has erased the parkland but it’s all still there in Minnie’s mind. It allowed the past spaces to still have a physical, ghostly presence.

The book is made up of tiny details and there’s a theme of ‘noticing’ things, overlooking people as they go about their lives. You seem to celebrate the beauty in the everyday – do you see this as part of the writer’s job?

Yes, most definitely. I also think the small things often communicate the most. So often, it is a small detail about someone’s life that tells us the truth of that life. I think that the home, and the daily round, are sacred spaces.

I loved Max’s humour – he was such an enjoyable narrator – the book has such distinctive character voices, Minnie being more formal. How did you ensure the voices were so distinctive while you were writing them? Did you write large parts in each voice and then divide them up for the smaller chapters?

I confess to hopping between them. I had a very strong sense of them as characters right from the beginning and so moving between their voices wasn’t difficult. The first time we see Minnie is the image I first had of her; waiting, hands clasped, by the bay window. Minnie’s most difficult scenes I wrote in one section, mostly because it was such an immersive piece of writing. I also listened to the Bach Goldberg sonata piece Minnie refers to – over and over while I wrote – which was a way of steeping me in Minnie’s experience. (It’s the version played very slowly by Glenn Gould and is for, me, the musical heart map of the book.)

Minnie’s formal style makes the two shocking scenes almost more shocking and sad because of the matter of fact way she relates them. Yet in some ways her sister Clara seems more repressed of the two elderly women. Was this something you consciously wanted to explore? Minnie’s experiences as a young girl, and then as a palliative nurse, make her more alive and attuned to the importance of showing kindness while we learn little of Clara and how she feels.

You are absolutely right. It was completely my intention that Clara remained ‘unexplained’. The things we know about her – that she painted a watercolour, that she sat on a bench with a boy, that a Latin teacher phoned her – is all reported by Minnie. We only see Clara through the prism of Minnie. We always see Clara behaving responsibly –as first born children often do – and conducting herself just as her mother would like. The only time Clara indirectly communicates is when she plays the piano at two key moments in the novel.

I saw Minnie and Clara’s relationship to each other like a duet, but we can only hear one voice. It was my intention that the reader has to piece together Clara’s story for themselves – to imagine how it was for her. I’m quite interested in one day writing Clara’s version. Perhaps she was not always as stultified as Minnie perceived.

The other thing I loved was a small detail about Max’s friend Eddie who has special needs. Max’s friendship with him is important to both of the boys but it’s not made a big deal of in the book. I liked how Max was able to connect with ‘outsiders’ but how he just sees them as other people – his innocence is refreshing and ideal. Was this a conscious decision to reflect something about Max or did you want to include a different character who was just part of the landscape?

It was both. I wanted Max’s world to be less confined that Minnie’s, and I thought it was important – and realistic – that he would have school friends and experiences outside of his home and Rosemount. But, the fact that Max is so intuitive about Eddie’s needs was important in the way I was trying to build his character. For Max, the quality of love is a little unreliable and as such he is watchful and alert. He is quick to sense other’s discomfort or disquietude. However, his natural warmth and sunniness means he is also quick to provide an antidote to it. With Eddie, he works within what makes Eddie comfortable. It’s that innate sweetness which I think Minnie senses in him, which is why she allows herself to begin the friendship.

Thank you for such interesting and insightful questions – I’ve loved answering them.

There we go! Thank you so much to Kay Langdale for answering my questions. The Comfort of Others is available now in paperback, priced at £8.99.

My thanks to Hodder Books for sending me a free copy to prepare the questions

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I’m so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for Rebecca Mascull today! I really enjoyed reading The Wild Air – it’s got a great heroine and a story that sheds light on a little known part of history. Here’s my review:

We need more adventure books these days. Especially us women. I don’t mean thrillers involving dark secrets and titles with ‘girl’ in them, I don’t mean crime books, or secret missions and explosions. I mean proper adventures, heroines doing brave, bold, daring things, going further and better than others.

The Wild Air - jacketThank goodness, then, for Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air. It’s a proper adventure telling the story of Della Dobbs. Della is an unlikely heroine, shy and diffident at the beginning and living in the shadow of her family in Cleethorpes. Della’s father doesn’t like her very much, transferring his affection on her older brother Puck and her younger sister Cleo. When Della’s widowed Aunt Betty moves to Cleethorpes, Della finds someone who recognises her talents in engineering and love of flight. Together they work to make Della an aviatrix – one of the pioneering women flyers who made the path so much easier for later stars such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

The book is in two distinct parts – the first is Della’s set up, flight training, and subsequent success at air shows around the country and across Europe. But then comes the First World War and Della is grounded and stuck at home instead of being allowed to help the war effort with her talent. There’s a love story too, as Della’s friend and penpal Dudley makes his feelings known. (Incidentally, we should have more pen pals in the world. Especially ones that share geeky enthusiasms.)

As the war develops, Della has to go on an adventure, even more of one than learning to fly in a man’s world. I won’t go into any more detail because of spoilers but this is what I mean by an adventure story – daring deeds, peril and bravery. Suspend your disbelief and just immerse yourself in the excitement.

The Wild Air is well researched, featuring cameos from several real aviatrixes, and there is some technical detail about the planes but fortunately (for us non-petrolhead readers) this is just the perfect amount. The story seems at once a long time ago yet startlingly relevant as we still hear about discrimination in the aviation industry. I’ve not read either of Mascull’s previous books but this has thought, passion and attention to characters in it that means I will be seeking her backlist out.

Have I mentioned the cover? When I saw the book first mentioned on social media, I loved the beautiful cover and wanted to read it without knowing what it was about. Isn’t it lovely?

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published on 4 May 2017 by Hodder Books and is priced at £18.99 in hardback.

I received a free review copy via Netgalley – thank you.

Bookmarks, collecting and not folding that page corner over

I admit it. I often fold the corners over of my books to mark my page. I never used to do this – as a child that read avidly I mainly used bus tickets as bookmarks and would never dream of ‘damaging’ a book in this way. Working in a bookshop tends to take away any reverence you have for books so corners folded down it is, though I still balk at anyone who leaves a book open and face down.

All of which is ridiculous since I inherited my grandmother’s bookmark collection. She was a regular but, I think, not voracious reader and had a small bookcase with some of her favourites on – Miss Read I especially remember – as well as making frequent trips to the library. I’ve no idea how she came to collect bookmarks but I remember us always trying to find them for her when we went on day trips or holidays. My aunt did the same.

our bookmarks
‘Our’ bookmarks

The bookmarks were kept in a large flat white cardboard box that would no longer shut flat but when I got them I transferred them into an album with collectors pages which was easier to store in my tiny house. And then I put them into a cupboard and forgot about them, continuing to use cardboard promo bookmarks or fold the corners down while I read.

This situation has recently changed. I have decided that it is now important to maintain and grow the collection. Important to me, I mean. Like organising my recipe cupboard, this strikes me as something that only middle class grown ups do but what the hell. Over the last year I’ve started to buy bookmarks whenever we’ve gone somewhere and I’ve added them to the folder.

international bookmarks
International bookmarks

I thought you might like to see a few of them. Many are from National Trust or English Heritage sites, castles, big houses, or museums. It may be that bookmarks are a quintessentially British item, especially embossed leather ones, but certainly the majority of the collection are from this country.

Having said that, here are some from other countries. I remember buying the New Zealand one which must have been my first addition to the collection, back in 2008.

There are several that have meaning for my family and where we lived. (See ‘Our’ Bookmarks above) They also used to make bookmarks to remember the country’s special occasions and historic moments, which came in a cardboard folder with the date on. Commemoration bookmarksThere are a number of these – mainly royal occasions and so on and the small collection is probably my least favourite part. It strikes me that this is the kind of thing that the Brexit crowd might like – perhaps they could produce one to celebrate our first national batch of innovative jam or something.

Craft bookmarksThere are a few handmade craft bookmarks – crochet, pressed flowers and woodcrafts. And at least one that I think I made as a child out of a piece of leather. There are also the novelty bookmarks, which I remember liking as a child with beads in the shape of ladybirds on the end, and a furry cat head, and strange shaped bookmarks.

As you might expect, I like the bookmarks with literary connections the most.

literary bookmarks

I need to find some more. And yet, I should also consider using some of them once in a while, if only to stop folding down the corners of my books…

What do you use as a bookmark? Tell me in the comments below!

March reading round up

I am so far ahead in my reading challenge this year! 23 books and counting. My knitting has lapsed to make room for it. And there were some absolute crackers this month.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

I will post a proper review for this once it’s published but in the meantime, pre-order it because it’s excellent.

How to Measure a Cow – Margaret Forster

I like Margaret Forster but as a novelist she did seem to blow hot and cold. This is a cold, I’m afraid. It’s got an interesting premise but she never followed through on the bit that would have held my attention the most.

A Life Between Us – Louise Walters

The second book from Louise Walters, following her enjoyable debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase. I have reviewed this elsewhere on the blog so you can read more here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Dear Ijeawele

Bought to celebrate International Womens’ Day earlier in the month, this is a series of lessons in how to bring up a girl in this world. This is fifteen suggestions on how to view the world and to bring your daughters up to be brave and bold. Written to answer a friend who asked for advice, Adiche has a range of things to say that really resonated with me as a woman and as the mum of a girl.

After Julius – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The reading group suggestion this month, and an odd read. I love Howard’s work and this is very dense in places but wonderfully structured. I couldn’t decide if I liked any of the characters completely, they were so believably flawed – callous and sympathetic, hopeless and kind. Howard always covers darker aspects of stories than you expect for a novelist of her time, especially when it comes to matters of sex, but this renders her a strong clear voice of how far we can go to hurt each other.

The Wild Air – Rebecca Mascull

Another book that I will review on publication later this month. Beautiful cover, fascinating story. Watch this space.

Dadland – Keggie Carew

My non-fiction choice this month was a bit hard-going so it’s been read on and off all month. It’s not actually hard to read not is it too harrowing despite the subject matter but for some reason I struggled with it. Anyway, Dadland is Keggie Carew’s attempt to understand and explore her father’s life as he descends into dementia and starts to lose his memory. In part tribute, in part history, Tom Carew led a fascinating life – war guerrilla for the British in France and Burma, thrice married, businessman, friend to Patricia Highsmith, the list goes on. Keggie researches all this and intersperses the history with personal anecdotes of growing up with Tom, and looking after him as he grows less capable. Despite finding this a long read, it’s a rewarding one.

Review: A Life Between Us by Louise Walters

I came to the second novel by Louise Walters with some anticipation, having enjoyed her debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase very much. This second book is being self-published by Walters, an act of independence to be admired.

A Life Between Us is set in the present day and features Tina, a lonely housewife, avid reader, compulsive overeater and bereaved twin. Tina is still grieving – her twin Meg, we know, died in childhood in an incident that Tina blames herself for. When Meg asks Tina to avenge her, we are plunged back into the past and the story of Tina’s aunt Lucia.

The narrative switches between the past, as we begin to find out more about Lucia, and the present, as Tina starts to follow her husband’s advice to get out more, joins a reading group and makes a friend.

Walters has written of a lovely, engaging, ordinary woman who has very little idea of how she is struggling, and her hapless husband who is equally stuck in different ways. (I mean it as a good thing when I describe Tina as ordinary – the kind of person we could all meet.) Walters is excellent at portraying an isolated woman, as she showed in her debut novel, and here she describes Tina’s attempts to make sense of her world with a strong sense of pathos. She has also written a real *SPOILER ALERT – KIND OF* nasty piece of work in Lucia, someone whose first scene as a child displays some of the mean spirit she will continue throughout. The mean streak is not really explained, as some authors might do, and this is refreshing. She just is.

This is less a whodunnit, despite Meg’s urging for revenge, and more an examination of how we deal with grief and loss. A confident and assured novel.

A Life Between Us is published on 27 March by Troubador Press. You can buy a copy here. 

February reading

A short month but not bad for reading.

The Good Muslim – Tahmima Anam

I read Anam’s debut years ago as part of the judging group for the Guardian First book Award and then had the pleasure of talking to her at a publisher’s dinner a few months later. She was a lovely, very neat person – I remember thinking how ‘together’ she was considering the whirlwind that her first book had been for her. Having made such an impression on me, I completely didn’t realise that this was a sequel until halfway through. Like the first, this features a strong Bangladeshi woman as the main character, this time Rehana’s daughter Maya. I really enjoyed this despite knowing nothing about the politics and history it described (a quick stop in Wikipedia needed). Maya and Rehana are very realistic characters, likeable but flawed, rushing into mistakes and meaning well. I’ve just bought the third book in the series and am looking forward to seeing what happens to them all next.

What a Way to Go – Julia Forster

A lovely trip back to the Eighties for us kids who grew up about the same time. I recognised a lot of the references and a couple of them had me going “oh my god yes!” in sympathy (hint: French toilets.) The story is a little rambling but charming and the protagonist – 12-year old Harper – is such a sweetie that you want to spend a lot of time with her. The story concerns her parents’ divorce and subsequent relationship and financial woes – so far, so run of the mill perhaps but the writing and the point of view is what makes the difference here. Really enjoyable read.

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

Oh this is an amazing book. I’d heard good things about it and there it was on my bookshelf when the reading group suggested we read it. The story of three people – two inmates and a doctor – in a Yorkshire asylum in the early years of the Twentieth Century, this is beautiful. I don’t want to write too much in case I give anything away so instead, please know I could easily gush over it till you’re all bored .

We All Begin as Strangers – Harriet Cummings

I got a free review copy of this from NetGalley and therefore feel quite bad about not really enjoying very much. It has an intriguing premise but I felt the execution was lacking. Each part of the book is narrated by a different character and the idea is that we examine how well we can ever really know our neighbours. And that’s all fine, except the point of view of the secret protagonist only came in at the end and was the most interesting, so a little bit wasted. In my eyes anyway.

Postcards From the Edge – Carrie Fisher

I bought this while still mourning, and am pretty sure that I’d read it before but I remembered nothing. How I enjoyed it. Such bitchy voices! Such insecurity! So many digs that probably went way over my head! Suzanne Vale is a great protagonist – really flawed and occasionally dislikeable but you really root for her, certainly by the end. I loved it.

Eat Sweat Play – Anna Kessel

My vow to read one non-fiction book per month continues with this and I’ve barely finished reading it before I press it on my husband so he has an idea of ‘what we have to put up with.’ Kessel’s book is an examination of women in sport – how we should do it more, what we have to gain, the media, the male atmosphere of sport, the negative comments, images and attitudes of sporting bodies that have hampered women’s sporting achievements and participation for decades. It’s both eye opening and depressingly familiar – I read several bits nodding my head in recognition and welled up with anger at my PE teachers, midwives, acquaintances and any number of people when I realised the extent of prejudice, the size of the barriers we’re facing. Read it if you’re a parent, if you watch a spot of tennis in June, if you’re a hardcore fan and even if you couldn’t give a shit about sport – it gives a fascinating insight into a wider society issue.

To read: 2017

My ‘to read’ list currently looks like this:

20170122_210529

Every New Year I resolve to read more non-fiction, so am feeling pleased that I’ve already put a history book on my reads of January list. Four biographies on this list, a book of essays and a book about sport is a good start. I also resolved this year to read more diverse voices so have rushed out to buy Homegoing, and added the Anam and the Hamid to the list as a start, as well as The Good Immigrant. It’s not brilliant but it’s a start.

Last year my to read blog post contained at least six books which I didn’t read so technically I should add those to the list too. Once I’ve checked what they are.

This is just the start.

August reads

I had the luxury of reading an entire book in a weekend this month – something that never happens usually. It was due to a combination of Bank Holiday at my in-law’s house, losing the knitting pattern I was working on and nothing on the TV. What bliss. Otherwise the month was as usual – catching reading time when I could around work and childcare.

Judy Blume – In the Unlikely Event

There was a moment when I started reading this that I was staying at my mother’s house. There’s really nothing like reading a Judy Blume book in the house where you grew up to make you realise you haven’t moved on in the past 25 years at all… Anyway, this is one of Judy’s books for adults and the one she said she always wanted to write. It brings to the page an incident from her childhood, where her town witnessed three plane crashes into the town over a matter of months. The book’s narrative is spread over a number of different points of view, though many of them from young teenage girls, and this does give the reader the sense that they’re reading a YA novel. It’s none the poorer for it, and Blume’s great talent has always been to bring the pain and confusion of being a teenage girl to life. It’s no different here. There is an impending sense of doom as the narrative changes to the passengers climbing on a plane for a journey but the impact of the crashes is somehow dulled. I felt this was lacking something, but I can’t tell you what it was. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable enough read, and I did feel reunited with an old friend.

Alexandra Heminsley – Running Like a Girl

Having just started running seriously again, I picked this up for a bit of inspiration. It’s a light hearted way of looking at running by someone who’s run quite a few marathons – and her journey to that point. She also covers the parts that other running narratives may not tell you – about sports bras, what to do if you need a poo while running and how to deal with crippling self doubt. It’s fun and inspirational, and I both laughed and cried while reading it.

Karl Over Knausgaard – A Death in the Family

This was my own suggestion to my reading group this month and I’d like to apologise to them for suggesting it. I wanted to see what the hype was about. I have no idea, having read it, what the hype is about. I was reading an article earlier in the month about the old argument that women’s stories, about love and families, for example the Blume above, are often seen as ‘women’s lit’ where men writing on the same subjects will be seen as ‘literature.’ There is nothing to demonstrate this better than this piece of self indulgent tosh. When it comes down to it, so many stories about white middle class straight boys are the same – all about drinking and how long it took them to get their hand up a girl’s jumper. This was the same with extra waffle, and a few things about his dad. Later, we discover he has cast his dad off for his alcoholism and then his father dies, having drunk himself to death. (Or did he? There’s a slight mystery about the circumstances of death but god forbid Knausgaard actually tells us this bit) Then Karl and his brother return to the fmaily home to clear it up as it’s become a pigsty, with rotting crap everywhere and their senile grandmother living in the detritus. This bit was actually quite interesting but it added nothing to the character development of the narrator, Karl Ove. This has been feted as literature that blurs the boundaries between fiction and autobiography but if I was going to fictionalise my life, I’d do something ot make it a bit more interesting. And insightful.

Katherine McMahon – The Girl in the Picture

This was the second in a series, apparently, although it didn’t matter if you hadn’t read the first, which I hadn’t. Set in 1926, the heroine is one of the few female lawyers in London and therefore, you’d think, quite feisty. The story concerns two cases she takes on, one about a bunch of toffs and the other a poor family torn apart by domestic abuse. In the background, the heroine’s persona life suffers as her grandmother dies, a close friend and relative moves to France and her boss proposes marriage just as her old lover returns to town. So a lot going on. It was all quite enjoyable, except… the heroine was dreadfully passive. For someone who had fought to get herself such a prominent groundbreaking job she just sat back and let people dictate to her a lot. It all got on my nerves rather.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

I couldn’t resist this debut novel having seen reviews on Twitter and I’m glad it was as deftly written as they suggested. The main story is of Yuki, a Japanese-American girl who decides not to return with her parents to Japan but stays in New York with friends. This is the late Sixties, and Yuki’s story is one of loneliness, isolation and, despite it not being overtly spelt out, racism. As a result, she spends far too long in an abusive relationship and struggles to be taken seriously as an artist. In the present day, we find Jay whose father has just died and left his house to Jay’s mother, Yuki, who left them when Jay was a baby. Jay must go and find her, now living in Berlin, and confront her. Jay was a self centred over grown child, in my view, though it could be that I just have issues with people who like cats as much as he did. But Yuki was far more interesting and despite needing to be shaken out of her torpor at times, the reader can at least see why she feels so stuck and so alone, so powerless, and feels for her. This is a really assured debut and I’m really quite jealous.

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.