Monthly Roundup – January 2018

We made it through January. I know illness has dogged a lot of us this month – if you are still suffering I wish you a speedy recovery.

I started the month with a few thoughts on the year just past. I have now been blogging for over five years and my site continues to evolve as I work out the ongoing direction I wish to take.

My first review of the year was for Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens: Jane Seymour – The Haunted Queen which is to be published by Headline in May. I had intended to include this as one of my end of year books to look forward to in 2018 but ran out of reading time over the festive season. My new Fitbit encouraged me to get out walking which was probably a good thing.

I then took a week’s break as I had a family holiday to enjoy and a big feature planned for the remainder of the month. These things take time to organise and prepare.

Those who follow my blog regularly will be aware that this month has mostly been about The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, who last summer invited me to join their reader panel and help judge submissions for the prize. After the longlist was announced in November I contacted the longlisted publishers inviting them and their authors to answer a few questions or write a guest post for my blog. The before Christmas period is just about the busiest time of year for those who provide us with books so I am grateful for the positive responses received.

As part of this feature I posted author interviews with:

I included publisher interviews with:

I received guest posts from:

I am also grateful to my fellow judges, Graham and Paul Fulcher, who offered their carefully considered and detailed reviews to run alongside the content I received from authors and publishers. As I had already posted my reviews of the longlisted books I felt that these alternative thoughts added to the feature.

My bookish adventures took me along a new path when I participated in my first ever podcast, adding a few thoughts on one of the longlisted books – We that are young by Preti Taneja – alongside interesting interviews with the author and with the publisher. You may find out more about the podcast, created by The YYY Books Podcast, by clicking here.

As well as my Republic Of Consciousness Prize posts, I published a few reviews of other books I managed to read this month:

I attended two bookish events in January. The first was in Bristol, a stop on the New Voices of 2018 roadshow organised by Headline. The second was the Judges Dinner for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. Held in London this gave me the opportunity to meet my fellow judges offline, and to discuss the longlist with a view to whittling it down to the five or six titles that will go forward from here. I will be writing more about this event next month after the shortlist is announced in Manchester on 19th February.

I was privileged to receive a number of new titles from publishers which have been added to my TBR pile. For those interested, I post pictures of my book post on my Instagram feed. Thank you to all the publishers who send me books to review. Like most book bloggers my TBR pile is vast and enticing. If I have received your book I assure you I am doing my best to find time to read it.

Thank you also to the many readers, bloggers and publishers who share my words on their social media feeds. I very much appreciate your support. February will see a return to more personal book reviews. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts.

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Looking back and looking forward

My little family and I have raised our glasses to the old year and welcomed in the new. There was discussion about how worrying the world has become with extremism on the rise and compassionate leaders apparently in short supply. There was concern expressed over upcoming exams. There was also much to share and look forward to. I recognise how fortunate I am in the people I know from my small corner of rural Wiltshire and among my wider online friends, from whom I have received much encouragement and generosity in the past twelve months. I go forward into 2018 aiming to share this kindness and support.

I reviewed 187 books last year, putting myself under pressure at times to meet deadlines. To enable proper appreciation of a book, which is the least the author deserves, I believe it should be read for pleasure; despite the quality of prescribed texts I did not enjoy the books I was required to read at school. My desire to read in a positive frame of mind was one of the reasons that led me to withdraw from participation in blog tours at the end of last year, a decision that affected the number of titles I received from certain publishers. Despite this, it is not a decision I regret.

Also last year I created a review policy page for my blog although it still needs some work to achieve its aim. I find it a challenge to succinctly describe the books I wish to read, or not read – I have enjoyed so many titles that would not fit within the parameters I have attempted to set down. I may also remove my email address from this policy page as, despite what I have stated, I have been approached by self-publishing authors and feel uncomfortable declining their creations. I have no doubt that many of their books could be worth reading but without the filter of a publishing house that does not charge its authors to put out their work I am reluctant to add them to my vast TBR pile. My refusal to read ebooks (remember what I said about reading for pleasure?) results in the authors incurring a cost sending me their book and I feel guilt if I do not manage to read in a timely manner. So many books, so little time.

I have much to look forward to in the coming year. As well as reading new books to come and unread books from my pile, I will be revisiting the Republic of Consciousness Prize longlist in preparation for the judges meeting. Prior to this gathering I plan to post interviews with several of the authors and publishers whose work is being considered along with guest posts and other content. I am very excited about this prize and am delighted to be involved.

A highlight of 2017 was my participation in the Guardian newspaper’s Not the Booker Prize process which culminated in me being invited to join the judging panel. Reading for the RofC prize and the Not the Booker prize introduced me to many books that I would not otherwise have discovered and included some true gems.

Another endeavour that I have derived satisfaction from in 2017 has been contributing to Bookmunch. This site focuses on the sorts of books I particularly enjoy and I am delighted to be on the team. If you are unfamiliar with their work, do check it out.

I ended the year on my blog with a series of reviews for books to be published in the months to come. Of these I particularly recommend The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees, Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary, On The Bright Side by Hendrik Groen (translated by Hester Velmans) and Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. There are, of course, many more new books to be read and I look forward to sharing my thoughts.

Those who follow my Instagram may have noticed a decrease in bookish posts over the festive season. I have been enjoying some down time with my family, taking walks and recharging my batteries. This will continue through to next weekend when we have some time away planned. In the coming year it is my aim to find a better balance between my book blogging and other pursuits.

For me, book blogging is about more than just reading and writing reviews. I have literary events to look forward to, guest spots on various media arranged, and hope to meet many more authors, publishers, event organisers and bloggers as the year progresses. I am grateful to have found the bookish world to be a friendly and supportive place thus far. It is my fervent wish to make a positive contribution.

A huge thank you to the publishers who provide me with many of the books I review, and to the publicists who have kept me on their lists. Thank you also to all who have read, commented and shared my words. Although I may not say so directly each time, I always appreciate your support. I hope that you have found books that inspired, gave you pleasure, and facilitated a better understanding of different cultures and points of view. I wish you all much good reading, and a Happy New Year.

Reading Bingo 2017

This fun little exercise is not something I have participated in before but, having enjoyed reading Cleo and Marina‘s choices, I decided that I would take part too. If you click on the covers you may read my reviews.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

The Last Hours by Minette Walters.

A captivating and chilling account of life as it would have been for the lords and serfs in England, 1348. They lived in fear of a wrathful god and are now facing a virulent plague that kills victims within days. I have read many fictional accounts of plague ridden England but the breadth and depth of this one truly impressed.

A Forgotten Classic

The Beauties by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater).

A collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories and my first foray into this esteemed writer’s work. Snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens.

A Book That Became a Movie

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Despite knowing the story well I enjoyed, once again, immersing myself in the world of the boy wizard and his nemesis.

A Book Published This Year

Quieter Than Killing by Sarah Hilary.

I don’t read as many crime novels these days as their plots had started to merge into each other, but Sarah’s books remain outstanding. This is the fourth in her Marnie Rome series. A battle for survival is being fought by those living in the run down estates of ignored and dirty London. There is a brooding violence lurking within the twists and turns of the plot, each new scene oozing menace. Masterfully crafted.

A Book With A Number In The Title

2084 by various authors.

Anthology of fifteen short stories set in a variety of dystopian societies. Each builds on contemporary topics, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed. The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling.

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

Stanly’s Ghost by Stefan Mohamed.

The third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. An adrenaline pumping adventure that never takes itself too seriously. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers.

A Book With Non Human Characters

A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris.

A dark fairy tale weaving magic and the power of the natural world into a story of love and then revenge. A reminder that however much man tries to insulate himself with his beliefs and inventions, he remains reliant on and at the mercy of the forces of nature. We may damage our world but it will not be tamed.

A Funny Book

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige.

Interpreting funny as curious, quirky.

Council worker Ray Eccles walks to his local beach where he suffers a blow to the head from a falling seagull. This previously ordinary middle aged man, who had never before thought to create art, returns home to spend every waking moment trying to paint the woman he glimpsed as he was felled. Ten years later Ray Eccles is acclaimed by the art world, the depiction of which is fabulous. The book is piercing in its insights, poignant yet somehow uplifting. Existentialism wrapped into an entertaining tale.

A Book By A Female Author

So the Doves by Heidi James.

Intelligent murder mystery. An evocative study of memory and the stories we create to shape how we regard ourselves. Artfully told this tale demands that the reader question their core perceptions of themselves. It is a disturbing, compelling, ultimately satisfying read.

A Book With A Mystery

Whiteout by Ragnar Jónasson (translated by Quentin Bates).

The fifth book in the author’s Dark Iceland series of crime novels to be published in English. In many ways this felt like a country house murder mystery with chilling, nordic noir undercurrents. Excellent reading.

A Book With A One Word Title

Glass by Alex Christofi.

One young man’s attempts to cope in our modern world. Entertaining and engaging with an understated depth and intelligent humour.

A Book of Short Stories

Postcard Stories by Jan Carson (with illustrations by Benjamin Phillips).

Fifty-two short stories, one for each week of a year. They were originally written on the back of postcards and then mailed individually to the author’s friends. Mostly set in or around contemporary Belfast they capture the attitudes and vernacular of their subjects with wit and precision. As with Carson’s previous work, there is at times an injection of magical realism which beautifully offsets the dry humour of her candid observations.

Free Square

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja.

A fabulous reworking of King Lear set in modern day India. A literary feast and my book of the year.

A Book Set On A Different Continent

Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.

A story of a suicide and its effect on the family, particularly the surviving sibling. Deeply disturbing yet brilliantly rendered.

The First Book By A Favourite Author

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

The author’s only book to date but I met him at a festival and he is lovely so, a favourite.

This is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrels and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past. A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging.

A Book I Heard About Online

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers.

A fictionalised story based on surviving accounts of true events from eighteenth century northern England. Multi-layered presenting the north and its people with vivid, brutal realism. Although historical, it is a tale for our own changing times. A prodigious, beguiling, utterly compelling literary achievement.

A Best Selling Book

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

A story of three brutal murders in a remote community of the Scottish Highlands in 1869. Booker shortlisted. Original and engaging.

A Book Based Upon A True Story

Tinderbox by Megan Dunn.

A book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides. It is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

A Book At the Bottom Of Your To Be Read Pile

How to Be a Kosovan Bride, by Naomi Hamill.

Not from the bottom of my TBR pile as I question if I will ever get there but one that sat waiting to be read for longer than it deserved.

Two young women living in newly liberated but still deeply traditional, contemporary Kosovo. Both enter into marriages sanctioned by their respective families while other girls their age continue with school. One is warmly welcomed by her in-laws but discovers that life as a wife is not as satisfying as she had hoped. The other is rejected by her husband and returns to her studies, trying for university. The rhythm and form of the narrative quietly capture the difficulties to be faced when female aspiration stretches beyond the widely accepted limitations of weddings, babies and home. History and supposed progress in a country I knew little about.

A Book Your Friend Loves

Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Not just my friend, anyone who has posted comments about this on line.

A hauntingly, achingly beautiful story of friendship and love. A glorious, heartfelt read.

A Book That Scares You

Nasty Women by various authors.

A collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. Predates the #MeToo campaign. Enlightening and discomfiting, an important read.

A Book That Is More Than 10 Years Old

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve.

The first instalment in a quartet of novels focusing on a futuristic, steampunk version of our world. An imaginative page-turner.

The Second Book In A Series

Freefall by Adam Hamdy.

The second book in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy. A high-octane, adrenaline fuelled thriller that powers along at unremitting pace yet never runs out of the energy and ingenuity to maintain reader engagement.

A Book With A Blue Cover

Blue Dog by Louis de Bernieres.

A story of a boy and his dog, somewhat Boy’s Own in aspect but still good reading for any age. As one would expect from an author of this stature, the writing is fluent and engaging. Loosely based on the true story of a Kelpie cattle dog that travelled around Western Australia’s Pilbara region in the 1970s.

Reading the 2017 Guardian Not The Booker Prize Shortlist

Last year I set myself the task of reading the Guardian newspaper’s Not The Booker Prize shortlist – you may read my roundup here. The exercise left me feeling a little jaded, the reading not always being as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. I did enjoy attending Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. Not many in the audience had read the complete shortlist so this at least provided a sense of satisfaction for my efforts. It did at times feel quite an effort.

Nevertheless, when summer rolled back around and nominations were invited for the 2017 prize I once again became caught up in the excitement of promoting lesser known works – something I always enjoy doing. This year, at the initial stage, I waited to see what titles others would nominate. To gain a place on the longlist only one nomination is required and some of the books I would have considered putting forward had already gained a place. I added The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel (Salt Publishing) which richly deserved consideration.

Voting on the longlist proved challenging as so many good books were included amongst the 150+ to get through to this stage. In the end I gave my two votes to The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks (Salt Publishing) and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers (Bluemoose Books). Sadly, neither made it onto the shortlist.

It was, however, an interesting looking selection which I therefore decided to read. Grateful thanks to the publishers who supported my efforts by providing copies of their books.

On each of the past six Fridays I posted my review of the book Sam Jordison was to discuss in the Guardian during the following week. You may click on the title below to read my thoughts.

Not Thomas by Sara Gethin (Honno Press)

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li (Legend Press)

The Threat Level Remains Severe by Rowena MacDonald (Aardvark Bureau)

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society by Ann O’Loughlin (Black and White Publishing)

Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige (Bluemoose Books)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (Viking)

I found this a stronger shortlist than last year, much more enjoyable to read. The final book, Anything Is Possible, was not selected by public vote but rather chosen by last year’s judges as a wildcard entry in a new idea being trialled this year. Having read it I was surprised by the choice. It is a follow on to the author’s critically acclaimed novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I have not read. Comments on my review suggest that it will be well received by the author’s fans as it builds on characters previously referred to. It does not, in my opinion, stand alone. Anything is Possible is also the only book on the shortlist not published by a small independent press, something that may be indicative of the sort of prize Not The Booker has become. In my view this is a good thing.

I made a conscious decision to post each of my reviews prior to Sam’s appearing in the Guardian that I may not be influenced by his thoughts. I was then able to add my views BTL and consider points made by other readers. I enjoyed this process and was only sorry that more comments, especially from those who voted the books onto the shortlist, were not submitted.

Last week, in what I believe may be an unprecedented move, Ann O’Loughlin requested that her novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, be withdrawn from the shortlist. You may read her statement here. Whilst respecting her right to act as she sees fit I have mixed feelings about an author reacting in this way to a negative review. One of the other authors, Sara Gethin, gave her thoughts on the withdrawal here.

And so the process continues with the remaining five books. Although I have a clear favourite – Man With A Seagull On His Head by Harriet Paige – I am glad to have read each of the first three, which I may never have discovered had they not been included. This is a strength of the contest.

If you would like to attend this year’s Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop on Thursday 12th October you may book a ticket here. Sam Jordison will chair the event where those authors who accept the invitation will read from their books and may then respond to his Guardian reviews.

The winner will be announced in the Guardian following a public vote and then a meeting of the chosen judges which will be broadcast live by the paper on 16 October. The winner will receive a rare and precious Guardian mug such as that pictured above. They may then bask in the glory that goes with winning this inimitable literary prize. Despite the withdrawal it has been a fine year.

The Competition is powered by the collective intelligence of Guardian readers. Enough said.

Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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In mid January I wrote of my plans to read the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist (you may read my post here). Between now and the announcement of the prize winner on 9th March I will be posting my thoughts on each book along with guest posts from those of their publishers who chose to take part in this feature. I am grateful to all who found the time to provide me with content.

I had previously read two of the books from the prize longlist which did not make it onto the shortlist. I have since read one other. If you click on a title below the photograph you may read my reviews.

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I had also previously read one of the shortlisted books:

Given the quality of the writing in all of these books I was eager to tackle the remaining shortlist and have not been disappointed. All credit to the prize judges for curating such an impressive selection.

On Friday I will post the first of my remaining reviews – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). This has already won the Goldsmith Prize and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year. It was the only other book from the Republic of Consciousness Prize long and short lists that I already had on my TBR pile. All other shortlisted books have been generously provided by the publishers for this feature – a big thank you to them.

Next week I will post my thoughts on: Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Diane Williams (CB Editions – who went into semi-retirement just before the shortlist was announced); Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories) which was also shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize and the 2016 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction; Treats by Lara Williams (Freight Books).

My reviews for the remaining three books on the shortlist – Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic) which was shortlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Counter Narratives by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Light Box by KJ Orr (Daunt Books) – will follow along with the promised publisher guest posts.

Naturally I am not the only person reading these books. I recommend you check out the reviews being posted by the contemporary small press – A site for small presses, writers, poets & readers as they are excellent.

As a footnote to this introduction I will add one other thing that this exercise has taught me – how to spell consciousness. I have been hashtagging it on Twitter incorrectly for over a month. If you spot me doing this sort of thing again? Please let me know.

Reading the Galley Beggar Press backlist

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Today I should have been travelling to London to attend a book launch and party for Forbidden Line by Paul Stanbridge, the latest offering from Galley Beggar Press and currently on the shortlist for the Republic of Conciousness Prize. Due to engineering works I had to pull out as my planned train home will not be running. This is disappointing, especially as I have been preparing for the event for some time. My preparation involved reading so actually no great hardship there.

For Christmas in 2015 I was gifted a Galley Buddy subscription along with copies of every full length paperback I did not already own from the publisher’s backlist. When no bookish shaped gifts appeared in my stocking last year it was pointed out by my not-a-reader husband that I had not yet read all of the previous year’s much wanted titles. When I was invited to this party I decided to pick up my neglected books. Galley Beggar Press publish ‘hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose’, just the sort of stories I enjoy. There will be no Gig Review this weekend as I had planned, but you may now read my reviews of all the books by clicking on the covers below.

forbidden-line   Adam-Biles--Feeding-Time

Alex-Pheby--Playthings   Anthony-Trevelyan--The-Weightless-World

wroteforluck    francisplug

randall--paperback   andrew-lovett-everlasting-lane-ebook

eimear-mcbride-a-girl-is-a-half-formed-thing-paperback   simon-gough-the-white-goddess-paperback-v2

Should you wish to order any of these please consider doing so direct from Galley Beggar. Even a few extra sales can make a difference to the viability of small presses.

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.