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…


Highlights from a summer of reading: the rest…

I promised some miscellaneous bits from my summer reading to finish. So, in no particular order…

A scattering of essays:

Lives in Writing, David Lodge – this is hard to categorise because it’s not, as it might first appear, about people who write. Although it sort of is by a more roundabout route. It’s actually a lot about the people who write about the people who write, and a bit about the people who write in the process. Still with me? In this collection of essays, Lodge focuses on biographies, autobiographies, biographical fiction/criticism, diaries and memoirs from and about famous writers and, in so doing, unpicks the writing life from a number of different perspectives. Of particular interest is Lodge’s take on biographical fiction in light of his works Author, Author and A Man of Parts (about Henry James and H.G. Wells respectively). Given that the essays were mostly originally published in a number of different contexts, there’s a really interesting breadth of writing style on offer too. I breezed through more journalistic essays, such as those on Alan Bennett, Simon Gray and Malcolm Bradbury – in fact, I think my favourite essays are those in which Lodge writes about writers who are also friends, as in the case of Gray and Bradbury – and painstakingly unpicked my way through heavier, more lit crit essays on Frank Kermode and Terry Eagleton (with some success, I hope!). But I really enjoyed having to re-engage brain with each shift in style and there’s a lot of interesting information on offer about the subjects of Lodge’s essays too. A recommended read if you’re at all interested in writers (as well as their work).

A wonderful epistolary memoir:

A Very Private Eye: an Autobiography in Diaries and Letters, Barbara Pym – I am a Pym fan and really have very little to say about this other than that, if you too are a fan of Pym then this really is a must read. Compiled by her sister, Hilary, and close friend and colleague of many years, Hazel Holt, this is a selection of extracts from Pym’s diaries, writing notebooks and letters (to, amongst others, Philip Larkin – a long-time friend and fan). It’s so lovely to hear from Pym in her own warm, astute, humorous and often poignant words. She’s a true writer, in the sense that even the littlest fragments from her notebooks are gold. Although I was aware that Pym had a bit of a resurgence later in her writing life, I had no idea just how many years she spent in the wilderness, doggedly continuing to write the novels that publishers assured her no one wanted to read. Her stoic humour in the face of all that rejection is an inspiration. Hopefully she’s currently somewhere lovely having a right good chuckle at the explosion of Pymophiles out there in the blogosphere continuing to do their level best to make sure she’s not overlooked again.

The obligatory Christie:

Peril at End House, Agatha Christie – every few months I get the urge to read another Christie. This was a good one. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. Nicely played, Agatha.

There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.


David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends? 


2014 – a year in books

390890378Although I’ve only been blogging for a short while, a year end summary gives me an opportunity to look back at some pre-blog books that are worthy of a mention.

Plus I love the completeness of a wrap-up.

And lists.

Isn’t it funny how many book lovers are also great lovers of lists and the analysis of reading habits? I’m not going to create pie charts but I can tell you – thanks to my list keeping – that I read 104 books this year. I’m bothered that it isn’t 105 (for the same reason that the volume on the TV remote control must always stop at a multiple of five) but given that my target for the year was 100, I do feel pretty pleased. I also know that I read just under 29,500 pages (29,470 to be exact). Now this doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever but I find it interesting. It’s an average of 80.7 pages a day. Will this change my life or influence my future reading plans? No. But I’m pleased I know it. I suspect I should probably stop now or my tendency to become horribly competitive with myself (although never anyone else, oddly) will kick in and I’ll be stuck in a terrible spiral of targets.

Top 10 books of 2014 (6 fiction and 4 non-fiction, in no particular order):

  • Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road: I read this all the way back in January. While some elements of the story have faded, my absolute conviction about the quality of the book is still very strong. I was toying with the idea of starting a book blog when I read it and I took some notes, extracts of which are included below:

“Set in 1950s America, Frank and April Wheeler are living the life that so many aspired to. The glow of their suburban idyll frames two attractive, intelligent people with two perfect children – one boy, one girl – and a life of mod cons, prospects and security. But we see quickly that all is not perfect in paradise. As the story develops, we see the tarnished truth behind the Wheeler’s suburban lives. They thought they were destined for more; they thought their potential would shine through and lift them above their friends and neighbours. Their destiny, their ambition, was to be doers and not talkers.  And haven’t we all felt like that? Haven’t we all talked about something that we’ve never done? Buckled it when faced with real risk or the potential for greatness?

I’ve read few writers with the perception and understanding that Yates shows. There’s a cloying sense of inevitability about the way the story develops that echoes the claustrophic routines and familiar patterns of their suburban lives.

Yates is also brutal in his insistence that we look at the Wheelers lives as they really are and understand how we collude in the lies we tell ourselves. If the book is, in part, about our ability to curate our own image and present our best selves to the world at large, Yates’ task is to ensure that we see Frank and April without the benefit of rose-tint or soft-focus. Bludgeoned as we are by their sharp-edged reality, we can’t help but turn inwards and look at ourselves a little more closely. It’s not comfortable but it’s achingly insightful.”

  • Kate Forsyth, The Wild Girl: With a fascination for fairy tales and a soft spot for doomed love affairs, this book called my name. It’s a fictionalised exploration of the relationship between fairy tale scholar, Wilhelm Grimm, and one of the women who contributed stories to his collection, Dortchen Wild. Set in 19th century Germany, amidst war, terror and tyranny, this is a dark, full-blooded book that left me emotionally overturned and with a head full of the richness, sensuality and colour of the world Forsyth has created.
  • Molly Keane, Good Behaviour: Easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. I’ll be reviewing it separately so I’ll keep it short here. I’ll just say that it is amongst the darkest of the black comedies I’ve read and Keane has a masterful eye for detail, both in her perfect, perfect turns of phrase and her absolute grasp of human nature, from its highest manifestations to its very lowest.
  • Barbara Pym, Excellent Women: I read Pym for the first time this year and then I went on a little spree. I wholeheartedly adore her and her character-led ensemble books with an emphasis on the simple interactions between ordinary people. Excellent Women is singled out here because it’s so quintessentially Pym-like. And in Mildred Lathbury, Pym has created the epitome of the excellent women that are a hallmark of her writing: as Goodreads puts it “the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted.” If you like your humour gentle and English, with a suppressed helping of razor-like wit, you must give Pym a try.
  • Graham Rawle, Women’s World: This is something I’d had on my to read list forever and a day. I thought a little about how to approach describing it and decided that less is more. It was first published in 2008 so many people will be familiar with the premise but if you aren’t, you must pick this one up. Just open it at random and you’ll see what I mean. It’s novel as art project on an absolutely epic scale. In Norma Fontaine, Rawle has created one of the most memorable characters I’ve encountered in fiction and found a truly remarkable way to evoke a bygone era.
  • Lucy Wood: Diving Belles: This is the book I wish I’d written. Wood’s collection of short stories meld Cornish legend, magic, myth and the complex relationships between people in a spine-tinglingly beautiful way. I think I’ll write it up separately so I can wax lyrical about it in the way it deserves.
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: This book is probably the reason I decided to do a list of ‘top reads of 2014’. I think it’s a book everyone should read. I’m working on a review at the moment, which I won’t even pretend will do it justice, but if I had to sum it up I’d say it’s a book that asks every question you can think of about what it means to be human. It’ll leave you staring at the ceiling at 2am with a very full mind indeed.
  • Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?: A witty, frothy, joy of a book that I laughed out loud at multiple times and quoted from at such length that my husband eventually gave in and read for himself. We both agreed. If Mindy Kaling would consent to be our best friend, the world would be a better place. There can’t be many people out there who are as funny, honest and refreshingly real.
  • Shereen El Feki, Sex and the Citadel:If you really want to know a people, start by looking inside their bedrooms.” Ignore the obvious nudge-nudge, wink-wink connotations because this is a well-researched, insightful and studious book about the people and culture of Egypt. It’s also personal – El Feki has her own experiences and family history to draw upon. I grew up in the Middle East, only moving back to the UK when I was 15. The Muslim community has suffered unduly in the intervening years because of a comparatively small number of people with uncomfortably extremist views and this book is a wonderful way to understand more fully this fascinating and complex part of the world. There’s religion, politics, economics and culture, of course, but in filtering them through the distinctly personal, El Feki makes it easier to grasp their impact.
  • Dr. William Bass & Jon Jefferson: Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Body Farm: I work, and have always worked in publishing. With a few exceptions, the people I spend most time with are also in publishing or teaching. So I find other jobs fascinating and it’s certainly the reason why I’m always drawn to books about unusual career paths. They don’t come more unusual than Dr Bill Bass, one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists and creator of the Body Farm – a site where donated human bodies could be studied as they decayed under a variety of conditions. I won’t pretend the book isn’t gruesome in parts and if you’re not keen on creepy crawlies perhaps give it a miss. But I was also surprised at how engaging, funny and emotionally affecting the book was. Bill Bass is an exceptional human being and it’s clear from his narrative that, while he spends his days amongst the dead or murdered, his focus is always on how his research impacts the living, whether that’s bringing justice to the families of victims of terrible crimes or solace and closure to those who are left behind to carry a heavy emotional burden.

Happy reading for 2015!