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OFF THE SHELF
What have you been reading this year?
This is my list of books I’ve picked off the shelf recently. I just wish I could read faster so that I could cram in more…
We all know it: our time on this planet is gone in the blink of an eye, certainly when comparing our estimated four score years and ten with the lifespan of trees, say, or stars or even the lumbering sea turtle. But just imagine if you had more time…much more time than the average human being. Well, that’s the premise of October‘s choice, which is Matt Haig‘s “How To Stop Time”.
The narrator, is over 400 years old, born in France in 1581. He is one of a group of people who age much, much slower than the average human being. Now just take a moment to truly absorb what that might be like…because that’s what Matt Haig has done and it is this incredible level of detailed analysis which makes the book so very, very believable!
The boy’s mother, for example, was drowned as a witch for having a son that did not look the same as everyone else, year after passing year. Clearly she had made some deal with the devil, right? So suddenly being an “albatross” (the name given to these long-lived people) is fraught with danger. They are forced to continually move on every eight years or so in order to not draw attention to their prolonged youthfulness, never daring to put down roots.
And the other thing they are warned not to do is to fall in love! So what happens when you do just that, and father a child? Is it better that your child be a regular human being or an albatross like you? What can you do when you start looking less like your partner’s lover and more like her son?
The book jumps around in both time and place for the narrator has led many different lives all over the world in his quest for happiness and his search for his long-lost daughter. It takes him the whole of those 400 years to work out the best way to be happy with his lot and it’s a way that is fraught with danger…and not all of it from the outside world!
Truly gripping, highly recommended and a book that burrows into your head. I’ve always said I wanted to live forever….now I’m not so sure.
For September my choice is Maritta Wolff’s “Sudden Rain”. Admittedly, this is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea…a tale of love, marriage and infidelity across a group of friends and acquaintances in 1970s LA, but before you dismiss it for being too ‘old’ or too ‘female’ just know this about the manuscript: the typewritten copy languished for 30 years in the author’s refridgerator, following a falling out with her publisher and it only resurfaced after her death, to be published posthumously.
There’s obviously more to Maritta Wolff than you might first assume. And one thing that strikes you immediately about the novel is how very well observed it is. She misses nothing and you will find yourself in any number of the characters’ mannerisms, I’m sure. She also has the most fantastic ear for dialogue, the book reading at times more like a play than a novel. Admittedly, it’s a style that has perhaps had its day, for there’s many an occasion where the weighty dialogue does nothing to move the story along, just faithfully observes the way we converse.
But the characters are interesting enough and the depiction of domestic discontent real enough to keep you engaged until the very end. And given that this was written more than forty years ago, you’ll also be amazed at the issues which she highlighted as being important, for they have stood the test of time until today.
Sometimes the story is bigger than the book and that is very much the case with August‘s choice: “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. First a screenplay and then a novel, this short, easy-to-read book tells the story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who was taken to Auschwitz Concentration Camp in early 1942 where he was fortunate (in relative terms) to secure the “privileged” job of camp tattooist, numbering the thousands of people who passed through the camp’s gates.
The fact that anyone survived the horrific conditions in such places is incredible. The fact that Lale survived is also due, in part, to his strong character: an optimistic, mindful man even in the face of the most unimaginable horrors.
As the camp tattooist, he had access to the administration block where he procured the confiscated gems and money of the prisoners that entered, using them to buy food and medicines, which he then distributed around the camp. He was even able to use these ‘black-market’ goods to bribe the guards to let him see Gita, the young, shaven-headed, emaciated girl with whom he fell in love, and whom he later married and had a child with.
That this is a love story is incredible. That both Gita and Lale survived is equally astounding. That such cruelty and barbarism, as was administered in these camps, can almost become the norm is deeply disturbing. It’s heartbreaking to be told of their daily suffering; sickening to read of the football match organised by the guards between themselves and their starving prisoners, a match which the prisoners could not allow themselves to win even if they had not been starving.
The story will stay with you long after you finish the book and this is exactly as it should be, lest we ever forget the inhumanity of the holocaust. Heather Morris went on to write “Cilka’s Journey”, charting the life of another character from the camp and once you have read that, try Antonio Iturbe’s “The Librarian of Auschwitz”. Finally, consider picking up a copy of Jeremy Dronfield‘s “The Boy who Followed his father into Auschwitz”. And catch him while you can at the Wimbledon BookFest this October. Tickets are still available as I write this!
July’s literary pick is the debut novel of Poppy Adams (well, it was her debut back in 2008): The Behaviour of Moths.
This dark tale is one of a dysfunctional family at its very best. The father, a lepidopterist, lives for his work. The mother fills the resulting void with alcohol. The two sisters go their separate ways: Vivi, the younger, heading off for adventures in London and Ginny staying at her father’s side in their crumbling Gothic mansion to learn about the behaviour of moths.
Fifty years on, Vivi returns to the ruins of their family home to find her hermit of a sister selling off the family heirlooms, creeping around the house with virtually no contact with the outside world. Her sister’s homecoming forces Ginny to look back at the preceding years, recounting her increasingly disquieting anecdotes in a unique, and unsettling voice. As you venture deeper and deeper into the novel with her you just know something is really wrong and you almost dread coming to the end in case the unthinkable is revealed.
I won’t post any spoilers. How can a book be intriguingly funny yet deliciously disturbing at the same time? You best read it yourself to find out.
June 2019 My copy of Nick Hornby’s “About A Boy” has a picture of Hugh Grant on the front, indicating that I came late to this wonderful novel and did indeed see the film first.
In fact, I loved the film. So could the book be as good, I wondered? Better even? Let me tell you straight off, it blows the movie out of the water! And yes, Hugh Grant was perfectly cast as the ineffectual moneyed drifter, living off the royalties of his father’s Christmas song, but why oh why would the screenwriters mess with the book’s absolutely perfect ending?
There is so much more subtlety in the novel. Like the film, it tells the story of Will (HG) a middle-aged man who, without money-worries, thanks to his dad’s epic hit, fills his time drinking, going to the cinema, listening to music and chasing women. A full life that he comes to realise (by the end of the book) is completely empty. He has no real connections with anybody (it’s easier after all not to become too involved…that way you can walk away when things get messy).
Similarly, 12 year old Marcus, a socially awkward misfit, having just moved from Cambridge to London with his suicidal mother, also has no connections. To be his friend at school is social suicide.
In an attempt to broaden his shag-pool, Will invents a two-year old son (Ned) and thus ingratiates himself with all those lonely single mothers. It is through an outing with the single parents group that he meets Marcus and suddenly life becomes a whole lot more messy!
An unlikely (but totally believable) friendship blossoms between Marcus and Will and Marcus is also befriended by moody Nirvana fan Ellie McCrae who is constantly in trouble at school for wearing her Kurt Cobain sweatshirt (the book is set in 1993). The ties between all of them strengthen, culminating in a train trip to Cambridge after Marcus’s dad falls off a window ledge and Ellie’s misguided rage at the suicide of her rock idol, Cobain.
Dead ducks, dead pop stars, a nearly dead mother…you might be surprised at Nick Hornby’s light touch in the telling of this wonderful tale!
For May I am going back to the world of YA lit with Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 “nerd power ballad” (to quote the New York Journal for Books) ‘Fangirl’.
Cath Avery and her twin, Wren, are negotiating their first year at college, leaving behind a bi-polar father and a fractured childhood that saw their mother walk out on them when they were eight. Wren is the party girl, drowning her unhappiness in alcohol, whereas Cath loses herself in the world of fan fiction for the Harry Potter-slash-Twilight world of Simon Snow.
Admittedly this whole fanfic thing is anathema to me and I think your enjoyment of the book would be greatly enhanced if you too were immersed in this rather odd (to my mind) practice but one thing Rainbow Rowell does is create great characters, with great dialogue and thus you will always have a great story. (I was a fan of hers as soon as I had read ‘Eleanor and Park’. Brilliant!)
Rowell, for instance, sums up the gap between Cath and her older boyfriend, Levi beautifully: “Levi lived in a house. Cath lived in a dorm, like a young adult – like someone who was still on adult probation.”. And the gap between mother and daughter is equally well-defined when her mother declares sullenly, “You don’t want me here.” and Cath replies with the wonderful truth: “…It’s not my job to want you or not want you. It’s not my job to earn you.”
You will believe in the characters and love them too. Who wouldn’t love a boyfriend who declares that his girlfriend is so cute he needs “to make a pinhole in a piece of paper just to look at you.”? Aaah. I could go on but then I would risk sounding like a fangirl….
April’s book is “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith. As someone who opened her own detective agency at the age of nine I guess this book was always going to resonate with me, though unlike Precious Ramotswe in McCall’s novel, I had to close mine a couple of week’s later having failed to secure any mysteries to solve. I blame it firmly on a lack of life experience and the fact that my parents wouldn’t let me roam beyond the grounds of the house!
Having said that, the lovely Precious is also filled with self-doubt as she initially sets up her agency in Botswana using money inherited from her father. Who will want a lady detective, she wonders? What does she know about solving cases? Yet solve them she does in her own gentle but determined fashion.
It is a lovely humour-filled read, exploring the lives of all the different characters who stop by the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. Published in 1998, this is the first of a series of nineteen novels so obviously the agency does considerably better than mine!
March: Off the shelf this month, after a binge of mindfulness books in February, is Helen Russell’s “The Year of Living Danishly”, one woman’s quest to uncover the secrets of the world’s happiest country, allegedly.
When her husband is offered a job at Legoland’s HQ in Billund, Denmark, she decides to leave behind their poky ground floor apartment and stressed-out London lifestyle and relocate to a remote area of rural Denmark where people ‘hibernate’ through the winter in their cosy, designer homes experiencing that very Danish of concepts: hygge (defined by the dictionary as ‘a quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well being which is regarded as a defining characteristic of Danish culture’).
With a month every chapter the book is a light-hearted look at a different culture and the pleasures and pitfalls of life abroad, with a ‘things I have learned this month’ summary at the end of each section. I feel happier already!
February‘s book choice is short, easy to read and full of humour, though you could be forgiven for not expecting it to be any of those things! It’s Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, a book published in 1961 but set in a girls’ school in Edinburgh in the 1930s.
You cannot help but love the flawed character of Miss Jean Brodie, a progressive and manipulative teacher who intends to educate her chosen few favourite students in matters far beyond the confines of the regular school syllabus. She sets about filling their pre-teen heads with stories of her love affairs and with her own personal politics, moulding her protegees to become, as she puts it, “the creme de la creme”.
Thoroughly recommended. And for those of you old enough to remember the 70s TV show, you will read it with Geraldine McEwan’s voice firmly planted in your head.
The pick for January can be found on the YA shelf and is Alex Bertie’s “Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard”, which was published back in 2017. Described as a transgender poster boy and YouTuber, in this book Alex Bertie details his transition from female to male and provides us with a book that is packed with incredibly honest insights and loads of useful information for anyone on a similar path.
For me, it was a real eye-opener, a subject I know little about but am slowly researching for a character in a forthcoming novel. I sincerely hope that I learn the lessons on these pages well so that I don’t find myself inadvertently becoming part of the problem. Well done Alex Bertie for writing about this incredibly difficult and personal subject with such humour and candour and making it so accessible to the rest of us!
Also Off The Shelf for 2019
“Mindfulness for Creativity” by Dr. Danny Penman; “Mindfulness for Health” by Vidyamala Burch & Dr Danny Penman and “The Mindfulness Bible” by Dr Patrizia Collard….yes, it’s been a very mindful start to the year!
“A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String” a collection of short stories by Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat.
“Botchan” by Natsume Soseki…a little bit bonkers (but that might have been due to the dodgy translation)
“Extracted” by RR Heywood….poorly written nonsense!
“Goodbye Mr Chips” by James Hilton. Given that there have been various TV and film adaptations of this novella, you might be surprised just how short and unassuming it is. But lovely just the same!
“The Nothing to See Here Hotel” by Steven Butler…a kids’ book and probably great fun if you are eight!
“The Adventures of Augie March” by Saul Bellow. A fun account of a very different time. More of this in the August blog!
“The Overstory” by Richard Powers. Could this be the greatest book ever written? Read September 2019’s blog post and decide if it’s worth your time!
“The Ghost” by Robert Harris. My first taste of a Robert Harris novel…fairly gripping, though a lot of build up to a very short climax (I am still talking about the book!), though redeemed by a bit if a twist in the tale at the very end.
2018’s Great Reads
December’s novel is Donna Tartt’s ‘The Little Friend’, which was published back in 2002. I am somewhat ashamed to say that this book has sat in my TBR pile for as many years…largely due to the fact that it contains over 500 pages of densely packed text! But finally I have taken the plunge and elevated it from ‘to-be-read’ to ‘read-and-thoroughly-enjoyed’.
It centres around the Cleve-Dufresnes family living in Mississippi in the late 60s/early 70s, and in particular 12-year-old Harriet. All of them have been traumatised by the murder of Harriet’s brother Robin, back when she was a baby. Harriet’s mother is medicated to feel nothing anymore, her sister falls apart when the family cat dies and after that seems to drift through life barely noticing anything and the father has quietly slipped away to live in another state.
Harriet decides to find out exactly who was responsible for her brother’s death and sets out on a mission with her friend, Hely, which sets her on a direct collision course with the local gangsters in their small town.
If you enjoyed ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’, I am sure you will enjoy this too!
November’s book is Adam Kay’s ‘This is Going To Hurt’, the harrowing (and I mean truly harrowing) diaries of a junior doctor…everything you didn’t want to know, in fact, about what it’s like to work on the NHS front line.
I really didn’t want to read this…and I didn’t actually want to like it, but very quickly it had me both in tears and then laughing out loud, both on Wimbledon train station too, which was slightly embarrassing. Not a lot of novels can do that!
Moreover, unlike many books of this ilk where the story is powerful enough to make up for the writer’s shortcomings as an author, this book is well written and has several nice turns of phrase. I particularly liked his description of a deep gash to someone’s finger as a “muppet’s mouth”. Instantly I saw the wide flap of skin in my mind’s eye. Nice? Maybe that’s not the best word.
But the stories of what it is like to work a 97-hour week in which you routinely make life and death decisions, or perform procedures that you have only seen once before will definitely stay with you long after you close the book. If Kay’s diary entries are accurate, then anybody working in the NHS below the level of fat-cat consultant is not only massively undervalued (by the public and fellow NHS workers it seems) but also up against such incredible pressures it’s hard to understand why anyone would ever want to go into medicine.
But this is a book that’s written for laughs. And laugh you definitely will.
Next month’s putting up of the Xmas lights is never going to be quite the same again. Read the book and you’ll know what I mean.
October 2018 This month I am heading back to the fantastic world first unveiled to us in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials Trilogy” with a story that takes place 11 years earlier.
“La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust Volume 1” sees Lyra this time as a baby, and she is in great danger. Her saviour comes in the form of 11-year-old Malcolm Polstead, the only child of the local inn keepers, and their sullen kitchen maid Alice.
When a massive flood destroys the priory, where Lyra was being looked after by nuns, Malcolm and Alice rescue the baby determined to deliver her safely to her father, Lord Asriel. In Malcolm’s trusty canoe, La Belle Sauvage, they embark on a perilous journey from Oxford to London, navigating treacherous floodwaters and dodging evil hunters who are also on the lookout for Lyra.
September 2018 This month it is Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” which has gripped me the most. Published in 1966, this was the book which made Capote’s name in a furore of controversy with his reconstruction of the brutal, senseless slaying of the Clutter family at their Kansas farmhouse in 1959.
This “non-fiction novel” (to quote Truman Capote) is both chilling and compelling.
It is chilling because it details a quadruple murder by two young villains -Perry Smith and Dick Hickock – who had initially sought out the Clutter family believing them to have thousands of dollars on the property. In the end all they got was $40, a radio and a pair of binoculars. Rather than leaving their victims tied up, each was shot at close range for no reason other than Smith and Hickock had promised to leave no witnesses. The murder, therefore, was very much ‘in cold blood’.
And it is compelling because, through extensive interviews with these murderers, Capote formed a bond with them which helped flesh out their characters and backgrounds on the pages of his novel. Can you ever understand the minds of people who commit such atrocities? Probably not. Should you get to a point of ever feeling sorry for them? Again, probably not. But thanks to Truman Capote you see them for what they are: real, fully-formed, despicable human beings.
August 2018 He sounds like a power tool but Harry Bosch is the maverick LA detective appearing for the first time in Michael Connelly’s “The Black Echo”.
I am new to this writer, even though The Black Echo (the first of twenty-one novels to feature Harry Bosch) was published back in 1992. In this debut novel, Bosch is called upon to investigate a body in a drainpipe. However, he soon finds himself personally involved as the victim turns out to be a fellow Vietnam veteran.
Looking forward to a gripping crime thriller….
July 2018 Already I don’t want this book to end! Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol”, his powerful 2009 follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, is as gripping and, at times, startling as you would expect from such a writer.
Set in Washington DC, our hero and Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, arrives at the U.S. Capitol Building to give a lecture. Except no one is there. He soon discovers that he has been summoned by an unknown man to decipher a code which, it is said, will lead its recipient to long-lost ancient wisdom. Unfortunately the recipient in question is a murderous mad-man who leads Langdon into the clandestine world of Masonic secrets and hidden history, and Langdon has no choice but to follow in order to save himself and his closest friends. A chilling, fast-paced thriller.
June is going to be a month of children’s fiction, and who better to start with than Katherine Rundell? The Wolf Wilder transports you to a snowbound Russia of yesteryear in which ‘wolf wilders’ Feo and her mother are employed to take wolves once tamed by their aristocratic owners (who kept them as pets) and teach them to live in the wild again. But having crossed the Russian Army, Feo, and her wolves, are on the run in search of her imprisoned mother…and justice.
In The Explorer a group of children become stranded in the Amazon after their small plane crash lands through the trees, killing the pilot. Although they have survived the accident, with little chance of rescue, surviving the vast dense jungle that surrounds them seems like an almost impossible feat.
May 2018 Off the shelf this month is Philip Gwynne Jones’ “The Venetian Game”, described as a stylish thriller (though it’s no Da Vinci Code, sadly) and set (not surprisingly) in the city of Venice. Vividly depicted by Jones, it’s also no surprise to find that he lives there himself and so records the intricate details of Venetian life with genuine authenticity, instantly transporting us with him to the heart of the story.
It’s a tale of double-crossing art thieves, and unwittingly snagged in their dangerous game is Nathan Sutherland, the English Honorary Consul to Venice who is more at home translating lawn mower manuals and helping lost tourists. But why should such a man be singled out to look after a mysterious package? As you read you can’t help asking yourself…what would I do if I were him?
April 2018 Three, Two, One…that’s how many times I have immersed myself in the the three books that comprise Sally Green’s Half Bad Trilogy. The three books send you on a breathtaking and original adventure set in an enchanting but divided world of witches made up of Whites, Blacks and Half Bloods, but dominated by the infamous Half-Code Nathan Byrn, a teenager with the weight of the world on his young shoulders….literally.
The final installment of the trilogy is “Half Lost” and the story has now grown well beyond Nathan as a troubled teenager to an all out war between the different factions. Leading that war is Nathan helped by Gabriel and members of the Alliance of Free Witches. They battle the dark magic of the Council leaders and its Hunters at vast personal cost, all in the name of a peaceful world in which fellow witches can live and love as they choose.
An incredibly brave novel, though for me the second and third books still do not come close to the start of this wonderful tale. And the end…well, you’ll either love it or hate it.
March 2018: This month’s pick is “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman. The protagonist is a woman who is indeed completely fine so long as she doesn’t think about her past and steadfastly maintains the same rigid routine each week: wearing the same clothes, eating the same food and consuming 2 bottles of vodka every weekend with which to fill the emptiness. Fine indeed.
Of course something or someone has to come along to upset her carefully ordered world: so throw in a heart attack, a kindly co-worker and a crush on a worthless musician and then you have got a novel. And an interesting one at that!
A touching portrait of social isolation, this book most definitely champions the outsider in our increasingly homogenised world.
February 2018 This month’s pick is Mick Herron’s “Slow Horses” picked purely to be a bit of light reading after January’s harrowing selection…and already it’s doing the trick! The ‘slow horses’ are the intelligence service’s screw-ups, sidelined to where they can do least damage, and left to perform more menial tasks such as transcribing mobile phone conversations. One of these slow horses is River Cartwright who is on a mission to redeem himself and prove that his bosses have underestimated him.
Can he succeed? With a name like River Cartwright I’m sure he can! A thrilling novel that sucks you in to the world of MI5 and its shady double-dealings.
January 2018 This month’s pick is the 2003 novel “We need to Talk About Kevin” by Lionel Shriver. Yes, starting the year off with a really cheery read, this is the painful tale of a mother’s relationship with her teenage son Kevin who, at 15, massacred a number of his fellow school students.
Two years on his mother, Eva, is trying to come to terms with this horrific incident and her doubts, fears and own dark secrets are all slowly revealed in a series of letters which she writes to her husband, Franklin. Is it her fault that Kevin has become this remorseless, cold-blooded killer? Can she still love this boy?
I can safely say this is THE most disturbing book I have ever read (and I devoured every word!).
Also Off The Shelf This Year….
“Don’t Skip Out on Me” by Willy Vlautin…I am a big fan, but why no happy ending?
“The Writing Life” by Annie Dillard
“The Lost World” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle…a gripping explorer’s account of finding a lost Jurassic world in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.
“The Lunar Cats” by Lynne Truss…evil, swearing cats may not be everyone’s cup of tea!
“The Parent Agency” by David Baddiel…good fun!
“Scissors, Paper, Stone” by Elizabeth Day….annoying: how did this ever win awards?
2017’s Great Reads
December 2017 This month’s pick is “Slumdog Millionaire” by Vikas Swarup. Told in a series of flashbacks, each one pertinent to a question asked of the protagonist in the Indian gameshow equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, the life of Ram Mohammad Thomas unfolds.
It is a gripping tale of poverty and sadness but also of incredible resilience on the part of the young story-teller. For me, it doesn’t always work in the first person but nevertheless it is a charming and heart-wrenching portrait of slum living in modern India, a riveting page-turner and as a first novel simply remarkable. Jealous much? Yes!
November 2017 This month’s pick is “The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe”. Okay, so I probably won’t read the complete works but will more likely dip lazily in and out of a few favourites.
Who doesn’t love the thrumming beat of his poem The Raven?
Who can resist the spiteful tale of revenge in The Cask of Amontillado (“Yes, I’ll go down to the cellar with you…”)?
Edgar Allen Poe..the Stephen King of the 1800s!
October 2017 This month’s pick is “Go Tell It on The Mountain”, the first (and semi-autobiographical) novel from James Baldwin.Having been blown away by the Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation exhibition last month, I vowed to read this book, which has been in my collection for decades and I am so glad to finally be getting round to it!Set in 1930s Harlem, Baldwin tells the poignant and touching story of (amongst others) teenager John Grimes, a young boy in conflict with himself as he develops homosexual feelings for older boy Elisha. John is torn by his conflict with religious step-father Gabriel and society in general as he questions the values imposed on him by the church.John’s struggle turns out to be one that is echoed and mirrored in the lives of the rest of his extended family: good people struggling with the harsh doctrine of the church and with being black in 1930s America. Not many laughs to be had!
September 2017 This month’s pick is “The Essex Serpent” by Sarah Perry, the tale of a curious monster that is said to lurk in the Essex Blackwater estuary, terrorising the residents of the village of Aldwinter. A charming story set in the 1890s its protagonist, the widow Cora Seagrave, is wonderfully modern having cast off her corset along with her newly departed husband and now spends her free time grubbing around in the mud for fossils on her extended visit to Essex. Will she find proof of the monster? The local vicar is dismissive of this myth yet finds himself drawn to Cora with her passion for science and palaeontology. Is it science or religion that will win out in the end? Who can tell?!
August 2017 This month’s pick is “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which details one man’s (slightly) humorous account of forcing himself to read all those books he had been meaning to read for so long and never got round to (sound familiar?).
Fifty books in one year admittedly makes my low-brow goal of one-book-a-month seem quite pathetic but it’s too easy to claim that there’s always something else which gets in the way of sitting down with a good (or bad or mediocre) book. So perhaps we should do what Miller’s wife tells him to do when he is whinging at the enormity of the task ahead: ‘”Oh, stop being so melodramatic” she said “Just do what I did. Read fifty pages a day and leave it at that.” ‘
There! The gauntlet has been thrown down along with the washing-up gloves.
July 2017 This month’s pick is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. It’s easy to forget that Hemmingway’s sparse writing style, which makes his works so easy to read today , was quite new back in 1926 when this was first published.
The novel focuses on a group of disillusioned expats living, drinking and getting bored in 1920s Paris. Very much lost in their post World War I society, they blot their pain with champagne and dancing, in a futile attempt to put the war behind them and give some meaning to their lives once more.
There have been many fantastic tales since then of various lost generations, but let’s not forget: this was one of the first.
June 2017 This month I am mainly reading…“The Liar”, Stephen Fry’s first fictional novel from 1991. If you have read Fry’s first autobiography “Moab is my Washpot (as I have) you will be familiar with these public school characters and their antics, and may well grow weary of their witty, erudite exchanges (as I have…sorry).
Protagonist Adrian Healey bears more than a passing resemblance to Stephen Fry, a highly intelligent young man who is bored with ordinary life and so spins gigantic lies as a way of distancing himself from the hum drum world and mocking it at the same time. The character, like the writing, is clever and funny but hard to empathise with.
May 2017 This month I am mainly reading…“A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K Le Guin. The great thing about belonging to a book club is that you are forced to read books that you would otherwise never pick up, and this is one such book.
A YA fantasy novel, originally published in 1968, this is a coming-of-age tale for the young wizard Ged. Whilst honing his skills at a school of wizardry (no, not Hogwarts) he is sucked into a magical duel during which he performs a spell that unleashes a terrifying shadow from beyond the grave. What follows is Ged’s attempt to rid himself of this creature and mature both as a person and a wizard.
Written in a rather distant third person narrative (much more JRR Tolkein than JK Rowling) it can sometimes seem dated but it has stood the test of time to become a classic in this genre and the first in a series of Earthsea novels. I am invested enough to continue and am actually enjoying it!
April 2017 This month I am mainly reading…“Us” by David Nicholls. Narrated by middle-aged scientist, husband and father Douglas Petersen, this is the story of his “Grand Tour” of Europe, taking in the art museums and culture with his gregarious wife, Connie, and his moody teenage son, Albie. The holiday serves as an attempt to save their marriage as well as to give Douglas a chance to bond with (and educate) his son, and is organised with the precision you would expect from a meticulous biochemist. So what could possibly go wrong?
Punctuated by a series of flashbacks, the Petersens’ life together unfolds in this moving and memorable journey and I am betting that you, like me, will grow to love the stiff fifty-four year old narrator. Here’s hoping for a happy ending…
March 2017 This month I am mainly reading…“Across The Nightingale Floor” by Lian Hearn. This is a tale of murder, betrayal, deception, love and magic (to name but a few of its themes). A fantasy set in feudal Japan, it follows the turbulent life of sixteen-year-old Tomasu, the only member of his village to survive a brutal massacre. By no small coincidence, Tomasu is saved by Lord Shigeru, adopted and given a new name (Takeo) as well as a new identity whilst being encouraged to develop his latent magical talents and assassins’ skills, all in the name of revenge. Intriguing and unusual.
February 2017 This month I am mainly reading…Tracy Chevalier’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring”. Inspired by Vermeer’s painting of the same name, Chevalier imagines the story behind the portrait, as told by sixteen-year-old Griet, who goes to work as a maid for the household of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
Painting her own picture of seventeenth century living (and loving) in the canal-ringed city of Delft, in the Netherlands, Tracy Chevalier has produced a surprisingly easy to read study of love and loss, family and art.
January 2017 This month I am mainly reading…“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn. I admit it: I am a huge GF fan having read and loved ‘Sharp Objects’ (her debut novel) and ‘Gone Girl’ (her third novel). Dark Places (an apt description of the inside of her mind, I’m sure) is the second novel so I doubt that I will be disappointed!
Its starting point is a family massacre in poverty-stricken rural America then the story leaps forward twenty-four years when the sole survivor of the massacre starts to question the evidence she gave as a child which put her (murderous?) brother Ben behind bars for the slaying. Aaah, bedtime reading indeed. Sweet dreams!
Off the Shelf During 2016
December 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“Zanzibar” by Giles Foden. A thriller largely set on the idyllic shores of Zanzibar, the novel entwines the lives of a number of characters: Nick, a marine biologist, deployed to the island to safeguard their coral reef, Miranda, a young expat taking up her first foreign posting in neighbouring Tanzania, Khaled a young Arab fundamentalist haunted by discovering his parents mysteriously butchered bodies as a child and now under the wing of Osama Bin Laden and finally one-armed ex CIA maverick Queller. Originally published in 2002 (so after the 911 attacks on New York) the novel is based on the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa so all the more chilling knowing what was to come.
November 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“The Battersea Park Road To Paradise” by Isabel Losada. I can’t believe I have had this book sitting on my shelf for the last few years (it was first published in 2011) and didn’t pick it up sooner. This isn’t a self-help book. Having said that, if you feel the need for a little self-help, read this first!
The author looks at five paths to making real change in your (well, her) life: Feng Shui, the motivational speaking of Anthony Robbins, Vipassana meditation (sit still and say nothing), Advaita (who are we anyway?) and Shamanism (with the help of some really strong hallucinogenics).
Written with plenty of humour, Losada’s narrative non-fiction is a joy to read. I am a convert!
October 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes. The writing makes for a light easy read even if the story itself is far less fluffy. In a nutshell, quirky, money-strapped Lou Clark is employed for six months to look after wealthy quadriplegic Will Traynor as he considers the prospect of assisted suicide in Switzerland. Will’s mother hopes this chirpy, kooky young woman can change Will’s mind and give him a reason to live beyond their six-month agreed ‘deadline’. This book is a multi-million best seller but, honestly, it left me cold and unconvinced. Hey, what do I know???
September 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“After Me Comes The Flood” by Sara Perry. This is an odd tale of an odd man (John Cole) who one day decides to close up his book shop, which no one ever comes into anyway, and drive off into the sunset.
When his car breaks down in a remote location he comes upon a secluded old house, the residents of which greet him with open arms mistaking him for another (delayed) visitor with a similar name. For whatever reason, John doesn’t set them straight and plays along, intrigued and drawn in by the unusual residents of this rambling old house.
I am not sure what will happen when they discover he is not who they think he is, but one thing is obvious: they too are not as they seem at first sight.
Halfway through and the jury is still out on this unusual debut novel!
August 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“This is the Life” by Alex Shearer. With its snapshots of life, and death, this is the wonderfully touching story of two brothers who come together again when one of them is diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Initially hard to follow without a linear timeline, the chapters are made up of colourful anecdotes from their lives as remembered by the younger brother who has flown out to Australia to care for Louis as he undergoes treatment.
No happy endings, as you would expect, but written with an incredibly light touch for such a dark subject. A joy to read.
July 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“The Tortilla Curtain” by T.C. Boyle. Set in modern-day LA, this book follows the lives of two very different families: the comfortably-off Mossbachers, Delaney and Kyra, who live in a middle class gated community at the top of Topanga Canyon and the poverty-stricken Mexicans Candido and his young, pregnant wife America, who are homeless, often close to starvation and camping illegally at the bottom of the same canyon.
There are no easy answers to the problem of illegal immigration explored in this novel but what is perhaps most striking is how easily racism can be stoked by fear and misunderstanding in even the most liberal of individuals (Delaney). A real thought-provoking read.
June 2016 This month I am mainly reading…“The Wife’s Tale” by Lori Lansens. Middle-aged Mary Gooch is trapped in the rut of her life, a prisoner of her morbidly obese body and her cravings for junk food. Then, on the eve of her silver wedding anniversary, her husband doesn’t come home and she is forced to confront just how much her world has shrunk as her physical mass has ballooned.
Now, Jimmy Gooch’s mysterious disappearance shocks her out of this suffocating inertia and onto a plane to California, for the first time in her life.
Through a series of misadventures, fuelled by the kindness of strangers, and Mary’s own concern for others, she reconnects with the world and herself, shrugging off the fear and the shackles of her former life.
A wonderfully uplifting book. A MUST MUST MUST read!
May 2016 This month I am mainly reading…”Marina” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This is a dark yet magical gothic tale set in 1980s Barcelona, following fifteen-year-old Oscar Drai on a journey into a mysterious underworld of macabre happenings.
Whatever your fears, they will be played on here: graveyards and black butterflies, wooden puppets springing to life along with a life-and-death chase through Barcelona’s stinking sewers which clearly hide their own devilish secrets. And we haven’t even mentioned Oscar’s mysterious, ghostly friend Marina…what’s her story?
April 2016 This month I am mainly reading…”The Girl On The Train” by Paula Hawkins. This book is not at all what I expected! What I expected: a Gillian Flynn style thriller, a cat-and-mouse style chase: the mouse has seen something she shouldn’t and the cat is after her. What I discovered: a book which is every bit as good as a Gillian Flynn style thriller, complicated by the fact that the mouse is an alcoholic and makes an unreliable witness!
Short, easy-to-read chapters from multiple character viewpoints make it a compulsive page-turner and nothing is quite as it first seems.
March 2016 This month I am mainly reading….”Human Croquet” by Kate Atkinson. 16-year-old Isobel Fairfax and her alien-obsessed brother Charles are both given to wishful flights of fancy, waiting in vain for the return of their mother, Eliza, who vanished without trace many years prior. They now share their lives with their father and his new wife (Fat Debbie), sour Aunt Vinny and Mr Rice (the lodger). Then Isobel starts to fall through holes in time, transporting her back to her home town as it was centuries before.
A surreal and colourful tale with more than a hint of evil about it. Will Isobel’s glimpses of the past finally unlock the mystery surrounding her mother’s disappearance? Will she like what she discovers? I suspect not!
And having finished it now…I didn’t get it!!! Love her writing, love her characters but to me the story made no sense!
February 2016 This month I am mainly reading…”The Ice Twins” by S.K.Tremayne. This is one creepy, psychological thriller which is impossible to second-guess as it twists and turns and unravels its dark, dark tale. The Moorcroft family has been torn apart after the tragic death of one of their identical twin daughters, Kirstie…or is it Lydia? That is just the start of their problems as they try to rebuild their shattered lives on the remote Scottish island of Torran. Gripping and wonderfully disturbing!
January 2016 This month I am mainly reading…”How To Build A Girl” by Caitlin Moran. There’s a reason why this became a Sunday Times No 1 Bestseller (as stated on the cover)…it’s hilarious! Fourteen year old Johanna is deeply unsatisfied with her lot, which is understandable: her family are dirt-poor, she has never had a boyfriend and life is something that only happens far beyond her Wolverhampton Council estate. So she decides to recreate herself as she would like to be: worldly, sexually active and sassy. With the help of a new persona (Dolly Wilde) she becomes Dolly Wilde: music journalist and party animal, learning as she goes and definitely faking it until she makes it! Excellent!
2016’s Other Good Reads
“The Age of Bowie: How David Bowie Made a World of Difference” by Paul Morley
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid
Different. Stays with you.
“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom
More of the same from Mitch Albom with his interest (obsession?) with mortality.
“Black Rabbit Hall” by Eve Chase
Hard to believe this is a first novel. Bit sentimental at the end but a great read…and it’s set in Cornwall. Bonus!
“The Martian” by Andy Weir
Our book club all agreed, this was thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff!
“Revival” by Stephen King
An ending that will haunt you, but what else would you expect from Mr King?
“The Secret Garden” by Francis Hodgson Burnett.
How can a children’s book published in 1911 be so wonderfully captivating, not to mention sophisticated? Absolutely everyone should read this!