Tag Archives: reviews

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!

April reading round up

April has been a reading month. I mean a lot of reading. Though in the last week I’ve barely touched a book so crammed it all in early. I had a week off work which helped. Anyway, this is what I read this month!

Books among the tulips

This Lovely City – Louise Hare

Oh I loved this. It’s set in London and features a group of black men who came to England during the Windrush time and how they try to settle for work and family within the city. It’s a love story between Lawrie, a postal worker, and his neighbour Evie, and how they get entangled in a tragic discovery. I thought this was brilliantly written, and really liked how it brings a whole scale of racist actions to life – from blatant attacks to micro aggressions – and the effect these have on someone who is just trying to have a normal life. This is Hare’s first book and she’s clearly a great new writing talent.

The Most Fun We Ever Had – Claire Lombardo

No idea where the title came from as I couldn’t finish it, or even get very far but this should be a life lesson – that if a book has recommendations that compare it to Jonathan Franzen then I need to put it down and not bother (I never finished a Franzen book either). Anyway, if whining rich white Americans is your thing, perhaps this would work but I thought they were weird as all that and wasn’t interested.

Miss Benson’s Beetle – Rachel Joyce

Loved this, in what is likely to be Joyce’s best book yet. She writes loneliness and isolation so well, and yet this is not a lonely or sad book. Instead it details the blossoming of a friendship and of a life and is written as a girl’s own adventure, including all the tropes of the boy’s own genre but in reverse. It’s splendid fun and I’ve been waiting for the paperback for so long but it was worth the wait. Miss Margery Benson jacks in her soulless teaching job in the 1950s and goes off to fulfill a lifetime ambition – to find an as yet undiscovered beetle. Advertising for an assistant, she finds she is travelling with Enid Pretty, a pink suited, high heeled extroverted cupcake of a woman who should be the last person you would expect to travel to the jungles of South Pacific islands. But Enid has a secret and Miss Benson needs help. It’s an unlikely friendship but I thought it was fantastic.

Listening Still – Ann Griffith

I really liked the quiet poignancy of Anne Griffin’s first book and was delighted to find a cameo appearance by the protagonist of When All is Said in Listening Still. Listening Still is the story of Jeanie, who works in her family’s undertaking business. Jeanie can talk to the dead. She take their last confessions, their messages and regrets and requests. But the rest of her life is falling apart. Her marriage is rocky (for the record, I thought her husband was a whiny petulant type who was lacking in empathy but never seemed actively unpleasant – masterful stroke of characterisation) and her parents have decided to have retire early and up sticks to the seaside, leaving her and her husband to run the business with her aunt. The book tells of how Jeanie grew up with this gift, how she had a grand passion and a close circle of friends and most of all, it tells of the burden she carries by listening and talking to the dead. This is a great concept for a novel and I thought Griffin really carried off the ‘supernatural’ element of this well, never allowing it to become fantastic or silly. This is another quiet triumph for Griffin, who can tell deep truths about unknown lives with charm and insight. Thanks to Netgalley for the review copy.

A Woman is No Man – Etaf Rum

A book set among Palestinian families settling in Brooklyn and how the women are treated in these close knit Muslim communities. The story centres on Isra, a shy woman sent from Palestine to be married , and how she tries to please her husband’s overbearing mother Fareen, and fit in with the rest of his family. Years later, we see Isra’s daughter Deya having similar battles with Fareen to avoid being married off – but there is no sign of Isra. The truth about what happened to her, and how Deya can have a different life is what drives the book – incredibly sad but fascinating look into another culture.

David and Ameena – Ali Rauf

The second book this month about immigrant families in New York – this time a love story between a Jewish chap and a Mancunian Muslim girl. I found him quite annoying tbh, but otherwise this was interesting without being entirely emotionally engaging.

Love Letters – Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West

The title is a misnomer, to be honest, as these are letters and diary entries for the whole length of the Vita and Virginia’s relationship, which was not always that of lovers, but I imagine “Close friends who were once lovers and also had a business relationship letters” doesn’t really work as a title. Anyway, while I had read some of these before, putting them in a book together makes it comes across as much more of a story – Woolf wrote to so many people and had so many visitors that her diaries and letters volumes are jam packed. These are quite lovely, and made me feel very affectionate towards them both.

Reader, I Married Him – ed. Tracy Chevalier

These are short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, or at least by the line from Jane Eyre used as the collection’s title, but in truth, there seemed little to link them well and it was a rather odd collection. Not badly written and there are some great writers here but I didn’t really get the concept well and it all fell rather flat.

There was Still Love – Favel Parrett

I can’t remember who or what recommended this but I’m so glad I found it. It’s a quiet book where little happens but is rather beautiful and has much to say about unseen lives that nevertheless witness moments from history. There Was Still Love features a Czech family, including twin girls, one of whom is sent away to escape the war (the family could only afford the ticket to send one girl away) and the other who stayed in Prague. The ramifications for them and the rest of their family are explored in slow steady detail here and its rather lovely.

The Ends of the Earth – Abbie Greaves

Another book I picked up via Netgalley as an advance read and I got through it quite quickly – I read faster on the ereader app than in an actual book. Mary sits each evening in a tube station with a sign reading ‘Come home Jim’ and has done for the last seven years. Why? Her friends set about trying to find out. It is a shame, then, that the reason is really very poor.

Crossroads – Mark Radcliffe

A music book that explores moments where musicians reached a crossroads to make a change in their career that went splendidly well for them and for music in general. Mark Radcliffe reached a similar crossroads in his life, following cancer treatment and a milestone birthday, so he decided to loosely use that as a theme to talk about things he really likes, and throws in tons of dad jokes too. A fun read.

You, Me and the Sea – Elizabeth Haynes

I really wanted to like this and still quite can’t put my finger on why I didn’t. It is about Kate who has made a series of ‘”fuck ups” and decides to take a temporary job on a remote Scottish island looking after a birdwatching holiday retreat. Also on the island is the lighthousekeeper Fraser, a large man with a tragic past that has followed him to the island (though to reveal more would spoil the plot, but I did guess it anyway). I think it would have been better had it been at least 100 pages shorter – there’s a lot of introspection on Kate’s fuck ups and Fraser’s bad dreams – and Kate could have been less annoying, perhaps if she didn’t try to base her whole self around being one of those women that can’t exist without a man. Whatever it was that I didn’t like – length, characters, fewer descriptions of puffins than expected – I did at least keep reading to the end.

Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luselli

This was the book group choice for the month – and my pick too. I chose it because of the fuss surrounding American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins (which I also read and thought was very badly written tosh) – Lost Children Archive was on a list of alternatives people might like to read if they wanted to find out more about the Mexican border crisis from more authentic authors. But this is barely a book about the Mexican border crisis and instead a quite dull essay on the disintegrating marriage between two very strange people as they drive across America with their children. I think somewhere in there may have been the point that she was trying to make about families, connection, about how we treat each other – and there was a tenuous attempt at creating a parallel between the border crisis and the eradication of Native Americans which was quite clumsy. Weirdly, in the middle of the book, I came across a single paragraph which was all about how we experience time differently and, while she wasn’t writing about the pandemic, it made so much sense to me and really resonated, and then it went back to the self indulgent nonsense it had been before. I need to apologise to the reading group. This was a disappointment. If anyone has any good recommendations about the border crisis then I’m still interested…

Moments of Pleasure

We loved Queen of Katwe which was on BBC iplayer this month – a film about a Ugandan chess champion. And with the easing of lockdown restrictions, we also made it to a National Trust shop and stocked up on their superior blood orange curd which has been gracing my daily toast – it is a thing of joy. On the whole, my forays into the city have so far been fun enough to stimulate by listening to other people gathering and enjoying the atmosphere, but then I’ve been glad to come home away from them all. So obviously the best moment of pleasure this month for any reading fan has been going into bookshops again. I came home with a lovely new pile of things to read from both the shops in town.

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.

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 РKit de Waal 

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

The End of the Affair – Graham Greene

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

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

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

Chances Are – Richard Russo

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

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

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

Mudlarking – Lara Maiklem

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

Moving – Jenny Eclair

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

Still Alice – Lisa Genova

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

And a quick word on American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

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

2019 reading round up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Christmas books

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

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Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater

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

Christmas Days – Jeanette Winterson

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

One Christmas Night – Hayley Webster

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

Miss Marley – Vanessa Lafaye

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

Festive Spirits – Kate Atkinson

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

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

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

A Snow Garden – Rachel Joyce

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

Stardust and Snow – Paul Magrs

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

A Child’s Christmas in Wales – Dylan Thomas

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

An Unexpected Gift: Three Christmas Gifts – Marcel Theroux

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

Lanterns Across the Snow and The Star Dreamer – Susan Hill

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

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

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

 

Review: Beyond Kidding by Lynda Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review:The Woman in the Photograph – Stephanie Butland

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


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


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


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

Review: Expectation by Anna Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Alison Barrow for my proof copy of Expectation.

Review: Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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