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…


Highlights from a summer of reading: fiction

Since I was last here, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t said very much about them. It occurred to me that they represented most categories on the reading spectrum, so I thought I’d pick out a few highlights.

Some really good fiction:

Euphoria, Lily King – someone somewhere, and I have to apologise for not being able to credit where credit is due, said about this that it’s one of those really good pieces of writing that makes you want to go away and read more about the non-fictional inspiration for the fictional story. Having finished it, I wholeheartedly agree. Euphoria is based (loosely, I understand) on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and given that truth is often too unbelievable for fiction, I’d love to know where the boundaries lie between Mead and her fictional counterpart, Nell Stone. The story centres on the events of a few months in the jungle of New Guinea, where Stone, her husband Fen and a third party, and fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, become entangled in a complex web of professional and personal interactions, interwoven skillfully with the preoccupations of the indigenous people they are at once a part of and set apart from. There are actually boundaries all over this novel and King poses some lovely meaty questions about the lines between scholarly observation and true understanding, as well as the idea of how we change something by being a part of it, thereby potentially destroying forever our hopes of witnessing something as it truly is. I loved that King managed to be smart about both the intellectual ambitions of her characters and their emotional cores.

The Still Point, Amy Sackville – it’s interesting when you write about books together in an arbitrary way how often you discover links between them that you might not otherwise have noticed. As I set out to describe Sackville’s debut, it strikes me that it too explores the reconciliation of human ambition with human emotion, as well as the potential pitfalls of human nature. The setting couldn’t be more different though. Her beautifully crafted narrative jumps from a rambling Victorian house on a searing summer’s day to the splintering cruelty of an Arctic winter a hundred years earlier. It’s a story about Edward Mackley, charismatic polar explorer, Emily, the young wife he left behind, and his great-great-niece Julia, who is now living in his house with her husband Simon, while attempting to make sense of Mackley’s legacy: a legacy that includes not just dusty boxes of possessions to be itemised, but the meaning of his failed attempt at the pole, and the idealised love that kept Emily waiting until waiting turned into a life to be endured. I loved this book, for its evocative settings and descriptions as much as for the way it muses on the nature of relationships. But I think what most stood out was its narrative voice, which jumps out at you in the opening lines. Rather than listening to a distant omniscient voice, it’s a little like sitting in one of those observational rooms with a two-way mirror, watching over the people in the novel,  while the narrator sits next to you, arm around your shoulder, lots of friendly ‘we’s’ to draw you in. I wasn’t sure whether Sackville would manage to sustain it for the whole book but somehow it becomes like listening to a friend and the first book I picked up afterwards with a more conventional authorial voice seemed a little strange and distant in comparison.

And before I wrap up, I thought I’d give a quick shout-out to Martine Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets, a historical novel with a pleasing foodie slant. I probably won’t still be thinking about this one in a few months – as I more than likely will in the case of The Still Point – but this 18th-century tale of aspiring cook Biddy and her journey across Europe in the wake of a mistress who, from the off, is clearly embroiled in a ‘plot’ of some sort, is an absorbing read. I really want to use the word ‘rollicking’…you know what, I just will. It’s a touch rollicking. While some bits are very much  on the darker side, there’s a sense of adventure about the whole thing that keeps you turning the pages.

Hmmm. On the subject of unexpected links, it’s just occurred to me that all three of these books present their stories from the point of view of more than one of their main protagonists. Both Bailey and King use letters and diaries to present viewpoints. And both King and Sackville jump around in time (although only a little in the case of King). I do like unexpected links. Anyway, tomorrow night – non-fiction!


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?