Monthly Roundup – December 2019

I hope you have been enjoying a peaceful and happy festive season. With my three children home I have had a lovely Christmas, especially as I have not had to host any additional visitors. That probably sounds most unfriendly but reflects more on my social anxiety than a dislike for people. I did attend a Christmas event for the first time in several years – accompanying my husband to his work ‘do’ – and have been chewing over my behaviour throughout the evening ever since. It is frustrating that my mind cannot let go of minor incidents that others are unlikely to pay any heed to. At least I was happy with how I looked on the evening if not the impression made.

How does that read – a middle aged woman happy with how she looks? The beauty industry would be appalled. The recent (not unprecedented but rarely maintained) change in my outward appearance is in no small part down to the exercise regime I have been building up to for the past two years. I was gifted a Fitbit for Christmas 2017 and on Boxing Day that year got on the scales and was horrified enough to decide to do something about my weight. I am now 30kg lighter which allowed me to take up running thanks to decreased fear of the impact on my joints. I completed the ‘Couch to 5k’ program this month and am now working on improving my time over the distance. My Fitbit has been upgraded to a Garmin activity tracker and I am enjoying the challenge of trying to beat personal bests across a range of regular activities. I recognise how privileged I am to enjoy good enough health to enable me to do this.

Between family and exercise my available reading time has decreased this year. I posted reviews for 10 books in December – 8 fiction (1 translated), 1 non fiction and 1 mixed anthology. I also put together a list of books read throughout the year that I am happy to recommend.

Click on the title below to read my review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

 

Fiction

I reviewed two works of fantasy fiction, neither of which I enjoyed. As a result I will take a break from this genre as my criticism of them largely reflects the overuse of tropes rather than the quality of the writing.

 
Course of Mirrors by Ashen Venema, published by Matador
Infinity Son by Adam Silvera, published by Simon and Schuster

My review of another book not enjoyed led to a fellow blogger expressing an interest so I was happy to pass my copy on to her. I feel vindicated in writing negative reviews when they encourage a reader to pick up the book.


The Ground is Full of Holes by Suzy Norman, published by Patrician Press

Thankfully, all remaining titles reviewed were more to my taste. These two YA novels both impressed.

 
The Raven Wheel by AF Stone, published by The Book Guild
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, published by Penguin

I reviewed a couple of novels by authors whose previous work I enjoyed – they did not disappoint.


A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Faber and Faber
All the Beggars Riding by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber and Faber

 

Translated Fiction

This was the final book from my pile of HarperVia proofs. I have enjoyed them all.


The German House by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), published by HarperVia

 

Non Fiction

Living near Silbury Hill, the history in this monograph was particularly fascinating. Each of the Little Toller books I have read are beautifully written and produced.

On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe, published by Little Toller Books

 

With climate change very much in the news this anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces is a timely if troubling reminder of man’s impact on our world.


Planet in Peril edited by Isabelle Kenyon, published by Fly on the Wall Press

 

I posted my annual list of book recommendations mid month which comes with a risk that I will read a book before year end that should have been included. Although I enjoyed many of the titles read in the latter half of the month I decided not to add any to the 24 books listed here.


Annual Roundup: My Books of 2019

 

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

I wish you all a healthy and happy 2020 filled with much good reading.

Jx

Annual Roundup: My Books of 2019

Before anyone points it out, I know there are still a couple of weeks left in the year. Plenty of time to read a few more books and maybe find a gem that could have made it into my annual list of recommendations. However, with January fast approaching I need to make a start on my 2020 TBR pile. Also, I like to get this list out before Christmas in case it tempts anyone to buy another easy to wrap present, or to treat themselves.

A quick count suggests I have read around 135 books so far this year. Unlike Lucy Ellmann (author of the critically acclaimed tome, Ducks, Newburyportand seemingly fond of making sweeping, controversial statements when interviewed), I enjoy reading contemporary fiction including quality crime fiction. Many of the titles selected below were published this year. Not all though. Let’s start with the books I read in 2019 that were not new releases and that I am happy to recommend.

Click on the title to read my review. Click on the cover to find out more about the book.

   
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, published by Corsair
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, published by Picador

   
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, published by Fox, Finch and Tepper
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt


On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe, published by Little Toller

 

It is fair to say that I enjoy translated fiction from around the world. Books selected for translation will generally have been well received in their original language before being published in English – many are award winners. These are just a few read this year that I particularly recommend.

 
Katalin Street by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), published by MacLehose Press
Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), Published by Charco Press

 
A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel), published by World Editions
The German House by Annette Hess (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), published by Harper Via

 

Short Story collections are, apparently, more difficult to sell than novels. Given modern man’s allegedly shortening attention span this seems strange to me. If tempted to dip in then these two books are worth considering – quality writing telling succinct, captivating tales.

 
Witches Sail in Eggshells by Chloe Turner, published by Reflex Press
This Way to Departures by Linda Mannheim, published by Influx Press

 

Most non fiction is chosen by readers because the subject matter is of interest. Sometimes, however, a book is just so original, well written and entertaining that it is worth reading however much (or little) the headline topic may appeal. I believe every reader would find the following two titles both interesting and engaging.

 
Car Park Life by Gareth E. Rees, published by Influx Press
The White Heron Beneath The Reactor by Gary Budden, with artwork by Maxim Griffin

 

Children’s fiction is a genre I would like to read more of. Treat the young readers in your life to this, the second in a series that I am enjoying immensely.


Sunny and the Hotel Splendid by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), published by Salt

 

My next recommendation is a recent read so hasn’t yet had time to prove it will linger. Nevertheless, I’m including it because it was so compelling and hard hitting – YA Fiction to open eyes to the challenges faced by troubled teens.


The Raven Wheel by AF Stone, published by The Book Guild

 

Crime fiction is a popular but crowded genre so authors have to offer something special to be noticed. The Marnie Rome series, which I believe finished with this next recommendation (I have read and enjoyed all six books in the series), does so with ease.


Never Be Broken by Sarah Hilary, published by Headline

 

On then to new releases in general, sometimes described as literary, fiction. This includes titles with greater or lesser elements of fantasy – isn’t all fiction an imaginative creation? My longest list of recommendations as it is the type of book I read most often.

 
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession, published by Bluemoose Books
Mothlight by Adam Scovell, published by Influx

 
The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, published by Doubleday
Flotsam by Meike Ziervogel, published by Salt

 
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published by Granta Books
The Offing by Benjamin Myers, published by Bloomsbury

 
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, published by Atlantic Books
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, published by Harvill Secker

 

Twenty-four books is more than I would usually include in my annual roundup but I decided not to cull my choices further as all of the above deserve consideration. I hope that each of you will find something of interest in my recommendations. I wish you many hours of satisfying reading.

 

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 5

My final guest slot recommending a summer read to listeners of James Thomas’s afternoon show on BBC Wiltshire was delayed by a day due to the Bank Holiday. It was then squeezed into a packed schedule. Thus it was a little shorter than previous segments although I hope I still persuaded some listeners to read the book I was recommending.

This week it was Black Sugar by Miguel Bonnefoy (translated by Emily Boyce), published by Gallic Books. I talked to James about my enjoyment of translated fiction, that it offers new perspectives as written by an author raised in a different country and culture.

I had mentioned before the show that I would be spending September reading entries to the Link Age Southwark 25th anniversary writing competition, and that I had become involved with this after meeting Becky Danks at The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses winners’ events in London. As I wasn’t expecting to discuss this live on air I somewhat fluffed my answers to his questions. Sorry about that.

Speaking to the show’s producer afterwards she told me she never listens back to herself as she would be far too critical of her performance. Perhaps this is a lesson I should take away from my experience live on air.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just over 6 minutes, here.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to talk about books and to discover what it is to appear on a live radio show. The bus journeys I have had to take to get to Swindon each week I will not miss.

Books conclude with an acknowledgements section. My thanks for my ability to post these soundtracks go to Rick and Paddy whose technical support from our village location enabled the broadcasts to be captured for these posts.

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 4

Earlier this week I returned to the BBC Wiltshire studios in Swindon to offer a summer read recommendation to afternoon show listeners. Karen Gardner was again the host and had been browsing my blog prior to our conversation. She told me that her book group had read The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, both of which she enjoyed. On the show she asked me about why I thought these books had proved popular. I hope that I did these excellent stories some sort of justice.

The book I recommended this week was Missing by Alison Moore, published by Salt. I chose it as a contrast to last week’s suggestion (We that are young), as it is a short novel that still packs a mighty punch.

Karen asked why I favour the smaller presses. Again, I hope that the words I was required to conjure live on air made sense – the willingness to take risks and offer an alternative to the commercial fiction generally favoured by the big publishing houses.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just under 8 minutes, here.

I have one more slot to participate in before summer’s end. I now need to decide on my final recommendation.

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 3

On Monday of this week I enjoyed my third guest slot recommending a summer read to listeners of BBC Wiltshire’s afternoon show. On arrival I discovered that James Thomas, the usual presenter, was not hosting. In his place was Karen Gardner who ran the show in a slightly different way. Even with my limited experience I have learned that taking part in a live broadcast involves an element of unpredictability. The preparation I had done was useful but much was not featured (the book read over weekend, my planned reading). This week’s show focused solely on the one book I was recommending.

We that are young, written by Preti Taneja and published by Galley Beggar Press, was my book of the year last year. It is a big book, ideal for those who like to immerse themselves in a compelling story.

As well as discussing the format and plot of my recommended title we talked about literary prizes – We that are young won this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels – and their importance, especially for the smaller presses, in raising the profile of particular books.

Karen had told me beforehand that she listened to audio books so was interested to hear that We that are young has recently been made available in this format.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just over 6 minutes, here.

I will be returning to the studio next week to recommend another summer read. I feel privileged to have been offered this opportunity to bring excellent books to the attention of listeners.

Live on air – BBC Wiltshire summer reads segment, Week 2

After last week’s nerve wracking debut I returned to BBC Wiltshire in Swindon earlier this week to take part in my second live radio guest appearance on the James Thomas afternoon show summer reads segment. This week I was asked to recommend a non fiction book and chose Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers, published earlier this year by Elliott & Thompson.

To open I was asked about the books I have been reading since last week and we talked briefly about What Are You After? by Josephine Corcoran, published by Nine Arches Press. Coincidentally, Josephine lives in the Wiltshire town of Trowbridge which I hope was of interest to listeners.

I then moved on to discuss Under the Rock, also giving a brief mention to the author’s fictional work set close by, in Yorkshire’s Upper Calder Valley, The Gallows Pole which is published by Bluemoose Books and won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2018.

Asked what I would be reading next I mentioned: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile by Adelle Stripe, and Sal by Mick Kitson. Both of these authors will be at the Marlborough Literature Festival next month discussing their debut novels, an event listeners may well wish to attend.

If interested you may listen to the radio segment, which lasts just over 7 minutes, here.

It was heartening to be told as I left the studio that positive comments had been made about my choice of books as they are not familiar titles. I am also pleased that I have been invited back to recommend another summer read next week.

Live on air – talking about summer reads on BBC Wiltshire

At the end of last week I received an email from Roo Green, producer on BBC Wiltshire’s weekday afternoon radio show, asking if I would be interested in taking part in a summer reads recommendation segment the coming Monday. Anyone who follows my more personal posts, here or on social media, will know that the idea of such participation takes me way outside my comfort zone. I find it hard to think on my feet preferring the written word where I can carefully consider what I say before committing it to public scrutiny. Nevertheless, the opportunity to talk about excellent books that too often fly under readers’ radars was too good to pass over.

Never having attempted anything like this before I was unsure what to expect. I was told that I would be asked about my blog and then invited to talk about one book I would recommend to listeners. I submitted half a dozen suggestions and Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill, published by Lightning Books, was selected. I duly wrote out the words that I wished to say as a script and practised reading it out loud. When I arrived at the studio in Swindon I was gently told it would sound obvious that I was reading and I should simply talk to the show’s host, answering his questions as in a conversation.

Back home my children were primed to record the show that I may listen to it afterwards. They also picked up this 15 second ‘coming soon’ announcement a half hour or so before. How strange it is to hear my name mentioned in this context.

In Swindon the segment got under way and I was asked about how I started book blogging, how I selected the books I read and my opinion on ereaders. James Thomas, the show’s lovely host, was doing his best to put me at ease. I managed a shout out to small publishers: Galley Beggar, Influx and Salt Publishing.

We then moved on to the discussion of the book selected – Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O’Neill. Sadly I did not do it justice. The inspired concept and nuances of structure and presentation did not come across in the words I managed to extract from my nervous brain. Could do better would be on my report card.

To finish I was asked to mention the books I was currently reading. John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky was successfully recalled but I didn’t include the title of Patrick Gale’s new book – Take Nothing With You. I then got my blog address wrong (doh!). I truly struggle to think on my feet.

If you wish to listen to my performance it is here (lasts just under 9 minutes).

The plan is to run this segment on BBC Wiltshire every Monday afternoon throughout the summer with a different book featured each week. I have been invited back next Monday to discuss a non fiction book and have suggested Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers, published by Elliot & Thompson. I am delighted that my local radio is talking about books. Wish me luck in rising to the challenge and learning to enjoy the experience.

My Books of 2016

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First off may I express my gratitude to those who support my endeavours to spread the book love. Thank you to the publishers who provide me with the majority of books I review. Thank you to the wider book community, particularly my fellow bloggers, who so generously and enthusiastically share and retweet my posts. Thank you to my readers – some 30,000 of you this year – I hope that you have enjoyed and found value in my words. Thank you to the authors who enrich our lives with their art.

I write my reviews immediately after finishing each book that I may capture how it made me feel. In selecting this list of favourites from the 170 or so titles that I read and reviewed in 2016 I am choosing based on lingering impressions – the books that stayed in my head. I have not provided summaries here but if you click on the title you may open my review.

It has been a good year for readers, which is perhaps just as well given all that has gone down in the wider world. I felt somewhat ruthless whittling my list down to just these few when there were so many others that I enjoyed. Each of these titles went deeper than simple pleasure, valuable though this is. The writing and stories burrowed inside and have remained.

In no particular order, my fiction Top 11:

Non Fiction:

  • Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari  (Harvill Secker)

And just for fun, what every coffee table needs…

Please remember, should you choose to buy any of their books, it helps the small publishers if you order from them direct.

I wish you all a peaceful and happy 2017 enhanced by much good reading – sláinte.

 

Book Recommendations 2015

love-books

Reading enjoyment is such a personal thing and books shine for a plethora of reasons. When I was asked to name a favourite, or even a top three from my recent reads, I struggled. This has been an outstanding year for new releases, plus I have delved deep into my TBR pile.

What I list here are the contenders for my own personal top slot. I have grouped them under headings to enable readers who like or dislike particular genres to add their own filter. Sometimes it is good to be challenged, other times more gently entertained.

Of the 118 books that I have read so far in 2015, plus the 8 that I read after compiling my recommendations list last year, these are the ones that particularly stood out. If interested you may click on the title to read my review.

Beautiful stories:

After the Bombing by Clare Morrall

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Shtum by Jem Lester

Yellow Room by Shelan Rodger

Thrilling thrillers:

Hotel Arcadia by Sunny Singh

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

Rebound by Aga Lesiewicz

The Abrupt Physics of Dying by Paul E. Hardisty

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Deliciously chilling:

The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

Compelling crime fiction:

No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

Retelling history:

Into the Fire by Manda Scott

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Stories that linger:

Being Someone by Adrian Harvey

Leaves by John Simmons

Light From Other Windows by Chris Chalmers

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester

Feel good, with that something extra: 

A Man Called Ove  by Fredrik Backman (translated by Henning Koch)

A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Genre defying but fabulous:

Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery

Playthings by Alex Pheby

The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan

Short story collections:

Wrote for Luck by D.J. Taylor

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

For the children, and the child in us all:

A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

Fleabag and the Fire Cat by Beth Webb

Young adult fiction:

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

Outstanding non fiction:

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson

Place Waste Dissent by Paul Hawkins

.

And finally, a book that I am reluctant to recommend because I know that it will not appeal to large swathes of my reading friends, but which I cannot leave out because it is, quite possibly, the best work of fiction I have ever read:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

 

Thoughts on recommending a book

read-me

With the end of the year approaching I am starting to consider which books to include in my annual round-up of recommended reads. As I do this I have, in the back of my mind, a second reason to think about the year’s books. My sister’s birthday falls in January and we have a tradition of sending each other a few works of fiction on these occasions. Careful selection is required as our reading tastes do not always overlap.

When we were at school, while I was thinking about maths and computers, my sister was studying Chaucer, Shakespeare and the modern classics. She is a qualified teacher and has worked in a bookshop. She has a particular type of book that she prefers to read.

Whereas I would claim to read eclectically, seeking out the quirky and unusual alongside the literary masterpieces, thrillers, crime fiction, gothic horror and character driven stories of life, love and loss; my sister has more focused interests. She is conservative in her views and likes to be able to relate to her reading matter. She has an interest in modern history, tales of family, and prefers not to be disturbed. As an example of this, she did not wish to read ‘The Wasp Factory’ by Iain Banks, which is one of my all time favourites, after she was told it contained some gruesome scenes.

In my review of ‘A Little Life’, by Hanya Yanagihara, I stated that it was, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read. I will not, however, be buying it for my sister. Although the study of the characters is one of its strengths, and she likes this in a story, I am unsure how she would react to the detail of Jude’s childhood abuse and his subsequent sexual experiences.

Reviews contain personal opinions. I can enjoy a book immensely but still see that it would not appeal to everyone. What I look for when I am choosing a book for someone else is a tale that I hope will be right for them.

For this reason I do not select an overall book of the year in my annual round-up. Instead, I will set out categories and include favourites in each of these. It is my hope that this will prove more useful for future readers. Hyped books can be disappointing when tastes do not match.

Although I claim to read eclectically there are certain types of books which I will choose to avoid. Unlike many, I do not enjoy romances, erotica or books that linger over sex scenes. I prefer suggestion to explicit detail. I struggle to empathise with a character who is attracted to body over mind.

My sister has opined that I must find her preferences shallow but I refute this. We both read for pleasure and should be free to make choices for ourselves. I like to be challenged by a book’s arc yet sometimes look for a title that I expect to be entertaining more than thought provoking, because that is what I need at that time. I do not wish to judge any reader whose life I have not lived.

A good book needs to be well written and put together, but beyond that the definition depends on the reader. I will not be a literary critic who looks down on any book that encourages reading and provides pleasure, even if I would not choose it for myself.