Reading Bingo 2017

Given that I’m still catching up on 2017 reads here on the blog, I thought it might be fun to take part in the 2017 Reading Bingo. I spotted this on Susan’s A Life in Books, where the idea is credited back to Cleopatra Loves Books. I think I might have cheated slightly so I’m probably not deserving of a full house, but it’s a nice way to wave a flag for some good reads that didn’t make my Best of 2017.

A book with more than 500 pages: A few contenders (surprisingly, given the amount of short and YA fiction I read last year), but I’m plumping for Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl because it was genuinely huge and didn’t just have big, generously spaced print! Worth a read if you’ve even a passing interest in Dahl and his work.

A forgotten classic: It’s hard to know for sure if a classic is forgotten, especially when it might just be an example of your own ignorance. But I read Dahl’s Esio Trot this year for the first time and thought it was so sweet. This tale of unrequited love and 140 tortoises seems to be much less well-known than many of Dahl’s other books.

A book that became a movie: I did read Murder on the Orient Express for the first time this year, although not because of Branagh’s adaptation. I ended up watching the film a few months later and thought it was quite fun, although the opening section is just madness and I really only got ‘on board’ (ha! puns!) when it calmed down a bit, stopped trying to do ‘all the things’ and focused on the characters and the train. Would definitely pick book over film. [For an example of film over book, I also read The Sword in the Stone this year and was a bit underwhelmed…]

A book published this year (2017): Quite a few contenders, given I’m usually late to the party, but I’m picking Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister – a tense account of Matthew Hopkins’ witch-hunt of 1645 told from the perspective of his (imagined) sister – because I haven’t yet had a chance to write it up and it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

A book with a number in the title: Angela Thirkell’s sort-of memoir, Three Houses, about three significant houses from her childhood that shaped the adult sensibilities evident in her writing. Two of the houses belonged to her grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones.

A book written by someone under 30: Ooh, this was a hard one to figure out. Eventually I sussed that Amy Sackville’s The Still Point was published when she was just 29. You can read my review here.

A book with non-human characters: Lots of options here given that I re-read a lot of Dahl in preparation for Sturrock’s biography. I’m going to flag three of them, because two are only very short… 😉 – Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Rob Ryan’s lovely A Sky Full of Kindness about two birds embarking on parenthood, and Marie Phillps’ Gods Behaving Badly, which takes the Greek Gods and sticks them all into a 21st-century London house-share.

A funny book: I particularly enjoyed Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels this year for their cosy, gentle, rose-tinted humour (ignoring the death, bodies and motherlessness for a second…). Also funny was Lemony Snicket’s series All the Wrong Questions.

A book by a female author: Oh. So many. I’m going to flag three women writing about their own inspiring lives – Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped: A Memoir, and Judy Fairbairns’ Island Wife: Living on the Edge of the Wild.

A book with a mystery: In order not to repeat titles already used, I’ll highlight Michele Roberts’ Daughters of the House about two young girls growing up in post-World-War-II Normandy. Guilty silences and secrets abound – what is the mystery of the broken shrine in the woods and how does it relate to their own cellar?

A book with a one-word title: To highlight a book I read back in March and never wrote up, I’m choosing Eleanor Wasserberg’s atmospheric debut Foxlowe, about a cult called The Family. Told from a child’s perspective, the chillingly innocent ‘Green’, it has a sucker punch of an ending.

A book of short stories: Although I’ve been working my way through Daphne du Maurier’s novels, I’d only ever read her short story collection The Birds. This year I added The Breaking Point and they were just as gripping and unsettling.

A book set on a different continent: This category highlighted a reading weakness of mine. Most of my books were based in Europe with a scattering of American locations for flavour. So I’m choosing the book set furthest away, Lily King’s Euphoria, which I wrote up here.

A book of non-fiction: I decided to ignore memoirs, collections of letters and biographies for this one, which narrowed the NF field. I choose Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction for it’s well-researched exploration of the witch-hunts of the 15th-18th centuries, focusing on specific events at Leicestershire’s Belvoir Castle.

The first book by a favourite author: I’m not sure whether this counts as it’s a repeat AND it’s tricky to justify a favourite author based on just one book, but I’m desperate to read Amy Sackville’s Orkney based on how much I enjoyed The Still Point.

A book you heard about online: All of them? Honestly, book blogs pretty much dictate my reading life. But I’m going to highlight Sophie Divry’s short, sweet, humorous novella The Library of Unrequited Love because you’ll motor through it in one sitting and you won’t be sorry. I know more than one blogger highlighted this but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember who in particular.

A best-selling book: It’s hard to know for sure as I certainly haven’t verified my figures(!) but I’d be surprised if Dahl’s The BFG wasn’t one of the best-selling novels on this year’s list of books read. A re-read but one that never gets old and I’m so looking forward to reading it with my daughter.

A book based on a true story: I remember being shocked at the time that Judy Blume’s book In the Unlikely Event, a story about three plane crashes in three months in a small American community, was based on true events. And not just true events, events that Blume herself lived through.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile: The book that had been on my TBR list and in my collection unread for the longest was Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. I can’t begin to think why. She’s one of my favourite authors and it was, predictably, wonderful. Maybe I was saving it up for the sheer pleasure of reading it. It made my Best Reads of 2017.

A book your friend loves: They’re sadly not my ‘in real life’ friends, but the twitter community of #TheDarkIsReading are united in their love for Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, which I read for the first time this year in the readalong.

A book that scares you: I mentioned Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions here, but I’m choosing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved because it was easily the most chilling thing I read this year. It would be presumptuous to suggest I reviewed it, but I captured some thoughts here.

A book that is more than 10 years old: Lots of options, but I choose Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, a harrowing story and a great example of extended journalism.

The second book in a series: I read all four books from Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions, including book two – When Did You See Her Last?

A book with a blue cover: Helen Dunmore’s page-turner Your Blue-Eyed Boy. I’ve promised to write this up already and I will definitely do so.

Free square: I’m going to flag Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch here because it nearly made the cut in so many other categories. It’s a really interesting examination of George Eliot’s life and best-known novel through the prism of Mead’s own life experiences and the perspectives brought by re-reading the book at different ages.

Now to start looking ahead to some 2018 goals…

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2017 – 12 reading highlights

Image credit: UMagazine http://urdu-mag.com/blog/

Well the minutes are ticking down on 2017. It was an odd sort of reading year in many ways. I read for comfort a lot more than I normally do, which meant that my final tally features less reads that one might consider challenging or those that ask for a more sizeable emotional or intellectual commitment. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the rather tough year that it’s been, both personally and on a global scale.

For me, comfort reading often features books from series (i.e. familiarity), books targeted at young adult readers or books set in a rose-tinted past. I read through almost the entirety of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries over the course of the year and discovered Lemony Snicket’s series All The Wrong Questions, which is brilliant and I urge you to read it, particularly if you’re already a fan of A Series of Unfortunate Events. A major highlight was discovering Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising quintet, of which more below.

I’ve skimmed through my 2017 reads – 102 in total – and highlighted 12 books that I’m most glad I read over the last few months. They’re books I read this year, not necessarily those published this year (I’m always slower on the uptake with those). They appear in the order in which I read them and (by complete and pleasing coincidence) are an even spread between fiction and non-fiction. Although the poor blokes don’t get a look-in – just one male author, who I promise is not a ‘token’! Oops.

  1. Penelope Lively – Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time: Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and this had been languishing on my ‘to read’ shelves for far too long. It was as wonderful as I hoped. No one writes about the juncture where history, memory and time meet in quite the same way as Lively. Thanks to the Waterstones sale, her new book Life in the Garden is on its way.
  2. Jessmyn Ward – Men We Reaped: A Memoir: In five years, Ward lost five young men who were close to her to suicide, drugs and accidents. This is not an easy read but it’s a searing indictment of what life is still like if you’re a young black man living in poverty in the USA.
  3. Joyce Carol Oates – My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skyler Rampike: Loosely based on the death of 6-year-old beauty pageant winner JonBenet Ramsay, who was found murdered in her own home in 1996, Oates’ story about ice-skating champion Bliss Rampike is told from the perspective of her older brother, Skyler. I picked this up on a whim and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with the subject matter, but I was blown away by how immense an achievement it is. It’s enormous, epic, incredibly well plotted and structured, with material presented in many different forms. You can’t help but tip your hat to Oates’ superior skills and her masterful handling of the complex effects of trauma, grief and guilt.
  4. Mary Roach – Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in Space: A great blend of science, fact, story-telling and ‘what??’ moments, all wrapped up in an accessible, engaging read. As the blurb says ‘space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human’ and this book makes that crystal clear. Plus it answers the questions EVERYBODY always asks!
  5. Sue Gee – Trio: An impulsive library grab led to an unexpectedly beautiful, elegiac and nuanced story about grief, music and the tremulous connections between gentle, quiet people. Beginning in Northumberland in 1937, the book follows history teacher Steven Coulter as he tries to find his way following the death of his wife.
  6. Donald Sturrock – Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl: With unprecedented access to Dahl’s archives, Sturrock’s biography is an absorbing, detailed and balanced read. Despite being a 600+ page chunkster, I motored through this surprisingly quickly and learned a great deal about the complex character and fascinating life of Dahl. Although I’ll never read Boy in quite the same way!
  7. Oriel Malet – Letters from Menabiliy: Portrait of a Friendship: I read this because of the connection to Daphne Du Maurier, who fascinates me. But I came away extremely pleased to have ‘met’ writer Oriel Malet, who I can now only ever imagine in her houseboat home on the banks of the Seine. Malet and Du Maurier’s correspondence offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two unique and thoughtful authors, with a pleasing insight into the behind the scenes of a writing life.
  8. Barbara Pym – A Very Private Life: an autobiography in letters and diaries: Pym! Pym! And in her own words! Lovely and moving. You can see my review here.
  9. Amy Sackville – The Still Point: I guessed that I’d still be thinking about this cleverly written book a long time after finishing it, and I was proved right. Find out more here.
  10. Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions: A recent read with a generous dollop of gothic spine tingle. You can read my review here.
  11. Helen Dunmore – Your Blue-Eyed Boy: A gripping read from a truly great writer who so sadly died in June of this year. Based on the outpouring of love and respect in book blogging circles, I’m probably not the only one trying to fill personal reading gaps in her back catalogue. I’ll not say anymore about this particular book here as I’m planning to write a proper review in the new year. If you wanted a reminder of just how wonderful a writer Dunmore was, just click here.
  12. Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising: This book is significant in two ways. Firstly, it’s an absolutely cracking read. Secondly, it taught me (finally) what twitter is for. Thanks to Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird, I’ve been taking part in my first shared reading experience, enjoying TDIR alongside a few thousand others. It’s been a wonderful way to discover a ‘classic’ that I missed as a child and has given me such a wonderful variety of perspectives on the story and it’s universal themes. Having always been a bit phased by Twitter, and a bit distracted by its negatives, I’ve discovered that it’s all about finding your tribe.

Hope you all have a wonderful time seeing in the new year; I guess some of you might already have started! I’ll be back in the next few days with a look ahead to 2018 and a bit of literary bingo…

#TheDarkIsReading – A Midwinter Reading Group

Isn’t ‘midwinter’ just the best word?

A quick post today to bang a drum for an event that I’ve been quite excited about since hearing of it over on Dove Grey Reader.

Robert McFarlane and Julia Bird are hosting a worldwide readalong of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, second in her sequence of 5 books that goes by the same name. I missed out on the books as a child; how, I’m not quite sure. It’s so exactly the sort of thing I would have devoured and loved. It’s always a little sad not to catch a children’s book at the perfect, ‘magical’ age so when I heard about the readalong, the idea of enjoying them for the first time in the company of a few thousand other people (some newbies and some long-term fans) sounded like the ideal way to capture a little of the magic I might have experienced reading them as a child.

Because I am an annoying completist, I had to read the first book in the sequence beforehand – Over Sea Under Stone – but I’ve been reliably informed that isn’t essential.

The Dark Is Rising begins on midwinter’s eve, so the readalong picks up at the same otherworldly time of year (i.e. TODAY!). It’s due to carry on until Twelfth Night, but you can read at whatever pace suits you.

Julia Bird featured the event on her blog here, and you can keep abreast of the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (inspired).

Laura Purcell – The Silent Companions

Remember the lady peeking through the cover of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions? She’s baaaaaack…

 If you’re partial to a bit of spine-tingling creepiness in the run-up to Christmas (and the Christmas ghost story is a fine old tradition), then I would heartily recommend Purcell’s recently published slice of gothic.

I’m a bit stuck for how to write this review, though, as I really don’t want to give away anything at all about the central conceit of the book. Just to set the scene, the story centres around newly married and very recently widowed Elsie who, in the opening pages, appears in both the confines of an asylum and then, in flashback, taking a bleak carriage ride to her late husband’s mouldering country estate, known as The Bridge. From that alone, it’s safe to assume that The Bridge is no cosy bolt-hole full of rosy-cheeked servants and crumpets by a roaring fire.

The story really is gothic with a capital ‘G’ and almost all of the best tropes are present. There’s the asylum and Elsie’s presumed ‘madness’, to make you question what is real and what is not. In similar vein, the frame narrative jumps us from St Joseph’s Hospital to The Bridge in both 1865 and 1635, further emphasising the surreal nature of what’s happening. Throw in some witchcraft, a pinch of isolation, hidden diaries, lots of sneaking around old houses in the middle of the night, plenty of lovely dark, brooding weather, a creepy child, (quite) a few deaths in increasingly macabre ways, and ‘ta-dah’ – Gothic Soup. It’s fab, I loved it.

The silent companions are also a brilliant theme for a book of this nature and I’m just shocked not to have stumbled upon a ghost story about them before – they are, quite frankly, a gift to a horror writer.

If you’re at all a fan of this sort of book, it’s satisfying, deeply unsettling and very well constructed.

And if you’re in the mood for spoilers, a little further reading about the ‘silent companions’:

 

A book is not just for Christmas: 9 Christmas gift ideas for book lovers

Lots of people have already finished their Christmas shopping and to them I say ‘Congratulations!’ I very much wish I was done, but I’m not quite.

For anyone who might still be looking for some inspiration, I thought I’d share a few ideas for ‘Things to buy for book lovers who already own and buy a lot of books, making it tricky to buy for them without spending ages checking their shelves first’.

Persephone books – always a good option for gifting because they are just so beautiful. Persephone also do box sets and a book-a-month subscription service.

If you’re interested in subscription services, the gold standard (priced accordingly) is Heywood Hill’s A year in books. I would LOVE to try this one day; I’m currently living vicariously through Thomas at Hogglestock’s subscription. There are cheaper options out there, of course. Not on the High Street offer a couple of options and if you really know your giftee, you could always try doing your own!

For the book lover who regularly loans out their favourites, how about a personal library kit?

Someone once bought the book map for me and it is hands down one of my favourite things hanging on my wall. Good for hours of poring over!

If your giftee happens to like both books and Christmas, how about a book about Christmas? I’ve read Judith Flanders’ The Making of Home and can recommend her engaging style and eye for an interesting detail.

If you want to risk buying a book, go for a current one. How about the Waterstones’ Book of the Year? (I have seen SO much buzz about this and am desperate to read it. It’d be lovely to own the beautiful hardback version.)

Another recent book getting a wonderful write-up (and one that is so beautiful it is automatically elevated to ‘GIFT’) is Robert McFarlane and Jackie Morris’ enormous The Lost Words

How about giving someone the chance to meet one of their bookish idols? Both the Hay Festival and the Cheltenham Literary Festival offer gift vouchers for their events. There are bound to be others who do a similar thing.

And if you’ve saved every penny you found down the back of the sofa since the reign of Queen Victoria, you could perhaps swing for this? My own personal, well-a-girl-can-dream item.

Britta Rostlund – Waiting for Monsieur Bellivier

What would you do?

You’re a journalist, idling in a Parisian cafe, when a stranger asks you if you’re waiting for Monsieur Bellivier. Only the man doesn’t appear to be Monsieur Bellivier himself. And he doesn’t seem to know who he’s looking for.

Fortunately for the sake of the story, Helena Folasadu says that she is. And from there, she’s drawn into a mysterious second job that involves sitting in an enormous empty office at the top of a busy commercial block, forwarding on inexplicable emails containing random combinations of letters and numbers.

Meanwhile, in another district of the city, Mancebo, a Tunisian shopkeeper finds his predictable routine-driven life turned slowly upside down when the woman across the street – the enigmatic Madame Cat – convinces him to moonlight as a private detective in order to find out whether her novel-writing husband is having an affair.

Britta Rostlund’s twisting, turning tale, moves back and forth between Helena and Mancebo’s stories until they inevitably overlap at the end. There are plenty of hooks and unexplained events to keep you turning the pages, but as the stories unfold, the revelations about Mancebo and Helena’s own lives are just as absorbing. Their involvement in the clandestine affairs of others has the effect of sharpening focus on their own day-to-day concerns. They become at once more observant, more derailed and more willing to push at the boundaries of the routines into which they have settled.

Rostlund’s narrative, with its topical mood of paranoia, also reminds the reader at intervals that the story is set in a post-9/11 Paris. Here suspicion is the natural order and fear is a constant undercurrent. In this sense, Mancebo and Helena mirror society at large in that almost everything they do is overlaid with anxiety and all unexplained events are suspicious. It’s an interesting way of commenting on shifts in our collective consciousness that are at risk of becoming embedded in the status quo.

However, there’s a fair bit of humour and I enjoyed the window Rostlund opened on parts of Paris that aren’t so well represented in fiction.

It’s also a story that reminds you how easy it is to see only the littlest bit of the world around you, or to become so overtaken by routine that it subsumes the detail of life.

I really enjoyed the premise of this book and once the preliminary lines had been cast I was well and truly hooked. The characterisation – of Mancebo and his family in particular; Helena could perhaps have done with a little more flesh on her bones – was strong and the dual narratives meant that you were never more than a few pages away from a cliffhanger. If I had one criticism, it was perhaps that the ending didn’t come with the ‘oomph’ that I was expecting. But I wonder if that says more about the strength of the build-up. I think this is perhaps one of those stories where the majority of the pleasure is in the anticipation, the puzzling over which of a dozen intriguing denouements you could possibly be escalating towards. I’d certainly recommend it at any rate.

In which I am sucked in by covers

I’ve long known about my type(s) when it comes to men (hello unwashed-looking, bearded musicians and toned but not beefcakey men with celtic colouring, i.e. dark hair and lighter eyes). But I’m also starting to see a pattern in the books I pick based on ‘looks’ alone.

A recent trip to the library produced these entirely impulsive picks:

Look how pretty they are.

That eye peeking through the keyhole on The Silent Companions belongs to an entire lady lurking menacingly in the end papers. And she is menacing, make no mistake. I’m about 50 pages from finishing it and it’s definitely one of those late night reads where you must go to the toilet before you start reading or you’ll be trapped in bed by the thought of the thing that will grab your ankles if you get out again. I’ll come back to it when it’s done….

But seeing these two lined up next to my bed made me painfully aware how susceptible I am to a certain type of cover. Let’s look in more detail at other books I’ve gathered after I was suckered by a cover.

Four of these books are wonderful, and the other two (The Wonder, The Snow Child) may well also be wonderful and I’ll find out once I’ve read them.

But let’s break it down, shall we?

Clearly, if you want to sell me a book, there are certain key elements you need to include on the cover. Silhouetted figures. That one was a surprise. Bonus points if they’re reading a book. Some kind of leafy vine. Check. A smattering of fauna. Metallic accents. Don’t introduce too many colours. If in doubt, go with blue.

And wow. I’ve just noticed this. Start the title with ‘The…’. Ha.

Thing is, there are just a bazillion beautiful, clever covers out there, and so many great books that are also works of art. This just seems to be my particular hook when I’m browsing with intent.

Anyone else with a type?!