What I’m reading

2019

May

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Brilliant, highly recommended.

The Distance Between Us by Maggie O’Farrell. Beautiful – love the structure, too. Read it in a day!

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. Funny and sad, light and entertaining.

April

1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear by James Shapiro. Confession – I didn’t read all of it, just those bits in particular about King James, the Gunpowder Plot, equivocation and Macbeth. Fascinating and worth-knowing – helps to put Macbeth into better context.

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. Beautiful. All about building things together and then tearing them apart: hot-air ballooning, photography, and his grief on the death of his wife.

The Sciatica Relief Handbook by Chet Cunningham. Because I’m suffering. And because this one doesn’t expect me to chant mantras about how it doesn’t really hurt (it really does hurt!). It details gentle stretches which actually help, gives sensible advice about finding a comfortable position to sleep in and how to carry shopping/do the gardening and generally get on with life. (Even though it’s American and over 20 years old!)

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (transl. Ginny Talley Takemori). Dark, poignant and very funny. Precise and sharp. A great read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. A crime-writing friend recommended this after I’d been to see – and enjoyed – a performance of Witness for the Prosecution, also by Christie. This was a well-constructed whodunit with a cracker of a twist at the end (no spoilers, however!).

Circe by Madeline Miller. Brilliant – you should read it!

March

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan. Bleak and beautiful – short stories about an Irish rural community around the time of the financial recession 2008 onwards, all linking together, all sensitively told.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls. Historical fiction, not usually my thing, but loved this story about the Pendle Witches set in 1612.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. Eccentric YA story with haunting photos – intriguing.

Somebody I Used to Know  by Wendy Mitchell. Author’s enlightening account of living with her own early-onset dementia. Moving and hopeful.

After Rain by William Trevor. Beautifully-written, disturbing, quiet selection of short stories, mainly (but not entirely) set in rural Ireland. Deftly and acutely observed characters, painful to read sometimes.

Envy – 7 Deadly Sins vol. 6 Pure Slush Books. My story, Fred’s Party, is on page 123! An interesting selection of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction with some pieces I absolutely love. Reading an anthology is always instructive!

The Only Story by Julian Barnes. (Wivenhoe Bookshop Bookclub choice, but I’d have read it anyway.) Mostly loved it – the evocation of the narrator’s youth, the love story within, even though I read most of it with a sense of foreboding, knowing it wouldn’t end well… What I didn’t enjoy was the uncomfortable change from first to third person narrator for part 3 – though I’m sure it was deep and meaningful (telling his own story, or something, and the ‘now’ rather than then part of the narrative) – which felt clunky and awkward to me. And then for the last paragraph, for the hauntingly sad last meeting, the narrator reverted to ‘I’, and I wished he’d stayed like it all along. Highly recommended, however!

February

Stories from Rattle Tales: The Brighton Prize 2018 ed Edward Rowe and Erinna Mettler. I was a reader for the first two rounds of this competition, so was excellent to read (and in some cases, reread) the winning short stories and flash fictions.

The Art of the Novel ed Nicholas Royle. Useful selection of essays with suggested reading and writing exercises. One to reread again.

Northern Lights: The Graphic Novel adapted by Stephane Melchior (art by Clement Oubrerie). Not a huge graphic novel fan, but I loved this – really gets the spirit of the novel.

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce. WW2 ‘Agony Aunt’ by accident, with an appealing protagonist and gentle and upbeat humour.

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow. One day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm: failed actor, failed husband, failed businessman, failed son – a day when everything crashes around him, his ‘day of reckoning’. Bellow’s eye for detail is superb, it’s dated, being set in 1950s America.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (obviously!). Reading and rereading. This is our Wivenhoe Open Air Shakespeare production for June 2019, which I’m co-directing, and we’re auditioning soon. Each time I pick it up, I find new language to love and marvel at. Wonderful.

The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadim. Loved the voice, loved the 1970s Essex backdrop. Beautifully told. Great.

Winter by Ali Smith.

Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall. BBC National Short Story Award 2018, (shortlist). Available as a podcast. I read – and listen to – a lot of flash fiction and short stories and rarely record them here. This one was moving, profound and tightly-written – recommended.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting (transl. by Paul Russell Garrett). Epic tale of family mystery and self-discovery, ranging from Norway to The Shetland Islands to France. Wivenhoe Bookshop bookclub choice for February – a great read.

January

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. Beautiful, delicate touch, light and funny, and moving. A Twitter recommendation. Shorter length, too!

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. A poignant coming-of-age (American) story, which I enjoyed more than I expected.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. A modern-day rewrite, set in Edinburgh at festival time, and in the Scottish Borders, using social media and pretty convincing. An entertaining read, though I think it will date quickly.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Beautifully written, bitter-sweet. Excellent.

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt by Sarah Armstrong. Third novel by Colchester writer (see September 2018) – out in hardback in February, though I couldn’t wait and read it on my kindle. Great story – highly recommended.

The Accidental by Ali Smith. Weird and wonderful!

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. A fascinating read, and very worthwhile, even thought I found myself overwhelmed with more detail than I can remember.

2018

December

The Radleys by Matt Haig. The Radley family, who live in Bishopthorpe just outside York, are vampire abstainers. That is, the parents – who try hard to blend in and live like ordinary people – are knowing abstainers, and the children don’t even know they are vampires… Obviously, that leads to complication after complication. The premise is so clever, so inspired; the black, bleak humour about the family, and fitting in is absolutely spot-on. Great read. Matt Haig never disappoints.

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. Written in the seventies, iconic and round-breaking, I can see why it shocked. And it hasn’t aged brilliantly. Bits were clever and entertaining to read, and bits of navel-gazing were tedious and I skim-read them.

Letter to Sister Benedicta by Rose Tremain. Well-written, a good read, and satisfying in that an aimless, downtrodden woman starts to make decisions for herself.

L’Etranger (The Outsider) by Albert Camus. Haven’t looked at this since A-Level French back in the early ‘80s. I liked it a lot better this time, and suspect that the unfeeling, to-the-point main character Mersault is on the autism spectrum (she says, summing up Camus’ existentialism in a rather naive and narrow way). This translation by Sandra Arnold is particularly readable.

Becoming by Michelle Obama (listened to the edited audio version on Radio 4, read by Michelle herself). Loved it.

November

52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel. OK, so I havn’t actually read all of this yet (if I take one poem a week, it’ll take me all year), but I’ve read the introductory essays which had me saying, ‘Oh, I see,’ to myself many times. I’m also re-reading the AQA GCSE English ‘Power and Conflict’  poetry pack (which has some real favourites in it), and generally trying to be more open about my poetry reading. And trying to read poetry slowly, appreciatively, without skim reading.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. Took me a while to get started, as I felt the beginning was a littel contrived, but then I found I totally cared for the two protagonists and absolutely fell into it and didn’t want it to stop. (Had to keep checking back on the passage of time – note to self – keep it really simple!)

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Wonderful, wonderful novel (which I’ve read many times before). Cassandra is one of my favourite narrators and the opening line: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink is one of the best opening lines. The standard of writing remains this high throughout.

The Possession of Mr Cave by the excellent Matt Haig, though this one was disturbing and chilling, with an increasingly deluded and demented protagonist.

I Remember Nothing by the brilliant, witty, acerbic yet self-deprecating Nora Ephron.

Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher by Alex Toms. Poetry. Beautiful word weaving by very talented local poet.

Lullaby by Leila Sliman (transl. Sam Taylor). Thriller beginning: ‘The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.’ Unpleasant but unputdownable…! Well-written.

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale – a favourite author, and this one began with the main character taking a dose of RadioActive Iodine for a thryoid cancer, which had personal interest (see my other blog My Big, Fat Thyroid!).

October

I Am, I Am, I Am – 17 Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell – utterly compelling. I’m familiar with a writer hooking their autobiography onto a theme, but to write through having had so many close-encounters with death is quite an extraordinary, but surprisingly successful choice of theme. Hugely readable (I could barely put it down), and worryingly relatable in parts. Best read of this month, so far.

Every Third Thought by Robert McCrum

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

How to be Happy by Eva Woods

Lawn House Blues by Philippa Hawley – her third, recently-released novel. A page-turner and thoroughly entertaining read. I’m partisan because she’s my friend (and if you visit her website, look out for me filming her book-launch speech in one of the photos!).

Transcription by Kate Atkinson – not a read (though I did read the first chapter in a promotional pamphlet form) but a listen on Book at Bedtime (catch it on iplayer). Different from her other stories, but still fascinating.

September

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer (with an inter linear modern English translation!) Fantastic! Shouldn’t have been so terrified of it…

Autumn by Ali Smith – beautiful, sensory, dreamlike and clever. Warm and funny. Should have read this when it first came out. Going to look out for other books by Ali Smith now.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

The Devil in the Snow by Sarah Armstrong

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick

 

August

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler – Anne Tyler’s writing is gentle, accurate and believable, and the idea of a travel writer who hated travelling ensured this was a humorous and thoughtful story.

The Pebbles on the Beach: A Spotter’s Guide by Clarence Ellis

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey – I loved Elizabeth is Missing and couldn’t wait to read this. It was great! A put-upon mother of teenagers struggles through the aftermath of her daughter’s return after her mysterious and unaccounted for disappearance, and I loved how the story jumped around in supposedly random ‘stream of consciousness’ subheadings, like the workings of the protagonist’s mind. Don’t let that rather weak description put you off – it’s a cracking, well-written story and the unusual structure works brilliantly, and doesn’t interfere. As a reader, I felt huge empathy for Jen, the mother. Innately readable, and enough mystery that I always wanted to read on.

 

July

The Humans by Matt Haig – funny and heartwarming – highly recommended, clever story. Made me laugh out loud while waiting to fly (an experience which always scares me, so this distraction was a good one!)

Fish Anthology 2018 – of course! An excellent read…

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