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Reading Life: 18th September 2017

A photograph the Breacon Beacons, taken from a few metres from the edge of a mountain

Firstly, thank you all for your messages about Tabby. I’m not able to respond individually at the moment but I did read them all. Thank you.

My reading life has been different lately; I’m still figuring out reading times in regards to my job – I’ve been doing some content marketing for the SO: To Speak festival of Southampton and it’s been a lot of fun, finding out connections between Jane Austen and the city, and Southampton composers and Charles Dickens.

I am a bit behind on my reviews so I’ll be scaling back during November and December. The biggest thing will be reading for my event with A J Waines. Waines is a psychological thriller writer with two interesting stories. One is fair – she is a hybrid author, self-published in Britain and traditionally published in Europe. The second is pretty awesome – in 2013 she published a book called Girl On A Train. You can probably guess the rest – two years later sales of her book increased and, a fact we’re using verbatim in the promotional material, The Wall Street Journal said that she started getting lots of reviews saying it wasn’t what people expected.

Many readers have said they liked it a lot more than the other one.

I’ve retitled the event this time; instead of ‘in conversation with’, we’re calling the evening The Original Girl On A Train, neatly sidestepping any issues over using Hawkins’ title but being obvious about what we’re talking about. I’m looking forward to it, it’s in conjunction with the festival so there’s more support and advertising opportunities.

But, and admittedly more to the point in the context of these posts, Waines’ has quite a backlist, so I’ve lots of reading ahead of me.

In terms of other titles, I’m in the midst of Nicholas Royle’s Ornithology, a short story collection based around the theme of birds that has similarities to other books – Max Porter’s Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, for one. More importantly, in terms of similarities, you may remember a few months ago I reviewed An English Guide To Birdwatching by Nicholas Royle. Excellent book – only it wasn’t written by the Nicholas Royle whose short story collection I’m reading now. However, An English Guide To Birdwatching references the short story collection – I believe it is in part why the title of the novel includes birds. The two authors met a few years ago – they didn’t know about each other until they both submitted work to the same literary magazine and the editor of that magazine sent the replies to both stories to a solo Nicholas.

It’s confusing, yes. But having first read In Camera (‘Salt’ Nicholas, as I’ll likely refer to himself from now on – he works at Salt Publishing), and then Birdwatching, reading Ornithology is a particular experience I’d never have had in another situation. It’s this weird situation wherein there’s added context to the book that in a way shouldn’t be there.

I’ll stop there.

Moving on, I’ve just finished Fanny Blake’s Our Summer Together – a contemporary romance about a 60-something British women who has a relationship with a younger Bosnian immigrant. Not bad, just a bit repetitive and with two highly different characters. I’m a fair way through Lesley Glaister’s The Squeeze – a difficult read but well written. Next up is Chitra Ramaswathy’s Expecting – a non-fiction essay collection about being pregnant that’s up for the Polari Prize – and after that I may read a bit of Dorthe Nors. I’m going for shorter books at the moment.

I’m considering making a start on Virginia Woolf’s oeuvre before Christmas but we’ll see – previously I didn’t know much about her and so was surprised not to find her books on Project Gutenberg. I now know a lot more, including the new fact that I want to go and visit Monk’s House, and so will work on the idea that if I get all the reading that needs to be done before Christmas… done… I’ll go purchase Orlando.

What are you reading at the moment, what did you read previously, and what will you read next?

 
Reading Life: 7th August 2017

A photograph of the church section of Netley Abbey

I’ve been struggling with overwhelm recently. I received a lot of books for purposes other than review that I hadn’t expected; I’m making progress but together with other happenings it’s been difficult. I’m making an effort to clean up my list of currently reading books, finishing those I’m nearing the end of and making a decision on those I’d not got too far through that have been languishing on the list for months. A Brief History Of Seven Killings is off for now; I only got about 50 pages in and the amount left… I know it’d just languish longer. 12 Years A Slave has been removed because I think by removing it I might actually get back to it; I was enjoying it a lot (as much as it can be enjoyed; as a historical document). There is definitely something to be said for not having a number of books currently on the go. I think three’s the limit for me – any more and it doesn’t feel as though I’m making any progress. It’s also, I’m starting to realise, a reading slump creator.

I finished Erskine’s Sleeper’s Castle last week. As it continued it seemed to me that it’s two stories put together, a plot thread of time slip and a plot thread heading in the direction of Gone Girl; both threads petered out in the end. I may give Lady Of Hay a go but it isn’t something I’m going to prioritise at the moment.

The past couple of weeks I’ve been making a big effort to read in the tiny moments available; I’m trying out the idea of reading in queues, when waiting for people to be ready to leave, that sort of thing. At the moment it’s an ebook I’m carrying via a tablet so there has been some start up time factored into it, but I’ve read a fair number of pages this way, particularly when considering my slow reading speed. Whether I’m actively retaining the information, in terms of whether the ‘quality’ of such reading will result in a fair opinion at the end of the book I’m not yet sure – I think in this case it will be fine because the book is an easy read.

I’m determined to have finished more currently-reading books by the end of this month for a better reflection of what or, rather, how much I’ve read, which is more than it seems at present. A reading list with many finished books means a clearer head for future reading.

What are you currently reading, and do you read in those spare moments?

 
Reading Life: 9th June 2017

A photograph of flowers

Earlier this week I made the decision to get back to books I haven’t finished and the almost unheard of (for me) decision to allow myself to abandon, for now, books that I’ve started but have made little progress in. I’ve several books on my list now that are unfinished and it’s becoming a bit of a reading burden as well as just a bit silly, effectively creating an inflated number of books read. Subsequently I finished a book I’ve been reading since last month – I’m not setting any limits on how long the book has to have been on the list.

This has led to another effort to finish Tender Is The Night. I didn’t really feel like picking up a ‘current’ read yesterday, so I opted to try once again to read Fitzgerald’s higgledy-piggledy novel and, pun intended, I have turned a page. I’ve reached that point I’d heard about wherein the narrative becomes clearer and more active, the plot is a lot more linear and thought through, and I read a good number of chapters. On book two of the novel it’s turned into something akin to the term people have been using to refer to Tom Malmquist’s book, ‘autobiographical fiction’, wherein a diagnosis of schizophrenia had been given to a main character prior to the start of the book, whilst she was in hospital.

The book I finished before that was Joanna Hickson’s The Agincourt Bride. I’d been steadily continuing it alongside others, but decided it was time to complete it (I’d paused because I’d started reading it for a planned event that was then cancelled). It’s a different sort of book to others on similar subjects/tones in that the person of honour, so to speak, is being talked about by a third party and that third party is fictional, but it’s been a very interesting reading experience – the cover and general expectations pointing to more of a historical romance but the reality being more about the politics with lots of details about battles and the French-England conflicts. The book’s title is the part to base your expectations on.

Despite my prior dislike of Madeleine Thien’s work, albeit that it was a while ago, I have bought her latest, award shortlister. Her event at the Hay Festival was absolutely brilliant, I was completely won over to the point of getting the book there and then. I’m hoping to start it shortly. I also got a copy of a book I regretted not getting last year – I had found a hardback of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane but unwisely chose to mull it over a bit, losing it to someone else. I was particularly interested in a hardback which at this point is difficult to find but I found another this year and didn’t hesitate.

In terms of current reads, Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck is a priority, however as I’ve said before it’s a long book and when I opened it I discovered small text and small margins so it’s going to take longer than I’d thought. It’s looking a bit like an updated Vanity Fair at the moment, in terms of heroine personality, and a bit prone to extensive detailing. Still the plan is to finish it sooner rather than later.

In the near future I’m looking at Meike Ziervogel’s The Photographer and the book she commissioned for Peirene Press, The Cut. The former is inspired by the lives of Meike’s grandparents in war-torn Germany and the latter was commissioned last year – a book about the divisions in the UK in regards to Brexit.

How is your reading life?

 
Reading Life: 12th April 2017

A photograph of a copy of Emma Henderson's The Valentine House

I’ve been reading so much lately it felt time to write another post of this type. After what has been a long semi-slump – which often turned into a short complete slump – I’ve a lot of motivation.

My current older read, though I use ‘current’ loosely as the book is not a priority at the moment, is Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline – the full title includes ‘The Orphan Of The Castle’ but I’m going to employ the single word/name most of the time. (I’m not sure how correct that is, but many pages online shorten it.) I discovered Turner Smith some years ago but Emmeline, which is a Cinderella-type story, was only available in scanned fragments of old editions and difficult to find in print. In the years since, Project Gutenberg have produced a full text. Finding that made my day.

Born in the mid 1700s, Turner Smith led a mixed life. She was rather well-known in literary circles for her poetry – she wrote both poetry and prose, a good few novels at that – finding praise from Wordsworth and Coleridge, but otherwise her life was not so good. Her husband got into enough debt that he was sent to prison and Turner Smith joined him; the couple separated at one point and whilst the author later made good money she ultimately ended up in poverty.

I intend to make the book a priority when I can; at the moment I’m just a few pages in, having wanted to get a sense of the atmosphere. So far, so great. There’s a very, very, gentle humour and a lot of what seems to be goodwill. It’s a fairly long book but yes, if these few pages are something to go by, it’ll be worth it. I wasn’t aware of Turner Smith’s other work, didn’t even know she was a poet, and I can’t remember how and why I first found out about her, but I’m considering reading her other work if I enjoy this one. I love the idea of reading older fiction and as this is 1700s (which is quite early in terms of female writers – I’m also looking at 1600s’ Aphra Ben) it suits.

Emma Henderson’s The Valentine House has been welcomed this month. I had been wondering if she was writing a second book, after her Orange Prize shortlister, Grace Williams Says It Loud; it’s been an exciting few days. There seems to be a bit of a disability theme going on, with one character making vague references to a ‘weird gait’ and what appears to be Bell’s Palsy. I’m almost half-way through and it’s not been made clear yet but again, as with Henderson’s previous book, it’s a look at things from a more distant view, for want of a better term, and the focus is on the story. I’m not quite sure where the narrative is going but I think it may turn out to be one of those books you read to relax. It’s set in various decades of the 20th century, always in the French Alps, and features a lot about climbing and family requirements. This said, there’s a sexual theme lingering beneath that is quite dark – it may well be that it’s a nice easy read up to a certain point.

Phillip Lewis’s The Barrowfields made my (previous) week. I was working on a deadline, semi-self imposed as review deadlines can be, and it was the best kind of book for such a situation – I could have stopped reading, in that ‘could put it down’ way, but I was really very happy to continue. I came close to waxing lyrical in my review so I won’t carry on now except to say I’m really looking forward to Lewis’ next, even if I’ve not heard hide nor hair of it.

Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution is fairly good. I’m finding the writing a bit lazy, as though Donnelly has tried too hard to get contemporary young adult speech right, and the letters written by a 1700s teenager don’t read any differently, but the story is promising. It’s a lovely little book; I found a hardback copy which was very welcome as I’d wanted the book for a while and it was one of those situations where you regret not having got a book before a cover change.

I’ve Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent waiting in the wings. I might be very excited about that.

What are you reading?

 
Reading Life: 15th March 2017

A photograph of a blackbird

I’ve read outside, sleeves pulled up to the elbows, twice now this month. Glorious. I currently have a couple of books I’m right in the middle of and a couple more I’ve put on hold for the time being. Those on hold I hope to get back to soon – I know I should finish them anyway but there’s the additional downside of it seeming as though I’ve read more books than I have: my reading log has six unfinished books on it which inevitably ups the overall number of ‘books’.

At the moment I’m concentrating on two novels – Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia and Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore.

The O’Reilly is a book I chose from a back catalogue. It’s one I heard a lot about around the time it was published and was intrigued by, but I’m glad of the space in-between its release date and my reading it. It’s about Aemilia Lanyer, a poet/minor courtier who lived in the 1600s. She was the first woman, at least in Britain, to be paid for her craft and knew Queen Elizabeth. ‘Craft’ in the other sense is also relevant – literature about her involves a level of what would have been termed witchcraft (herbs, potions) and Lanyer is known to have visited an astrologer.

Dark Aemilia

I’m glad I waited because I have added context in which to read it; Elizabeth Fremantle’s most recent release, The Girl In The Glass Tower, is another interpretation of Aemilia and so I liked the idea of hearing two different voices on the subject in a short period of time. Both books are indeed very different – whereas Fremantle’s Aemilia is widowed, poor, and focused on her possibly fictional friendship with the Lady Arbella Stuart (great-great-granddaughter of Henry VII), as well as the rumours of witchcraft, O’Reilly’s book takes place at court during Aemilia’s younger years and concerns the possible connection between the poet and Shakespeare. Both books are written in very differing manners so whilst they’re fictional you do get the feeling you’re reading widely.

(Of Shakespeare it has been proposed Aemilia was his ‘Dark Lady’, hence O’Reilly’s title. It’s suggested that Aemilia may have been his muse; the film Shakespeare In Love seems to have been a starting point for O’Reilly and after having read up on Aemilia, I was rather surprised to discover the film does not directly reference her.)

Dark Aemilia is a good book; there is a lot of period detail and O’Reilly’s evidently taken her time over it. The chapters are appropriately titled ‘scenes’ and there are a fair number of nods towards the theatre in the narrative but for me it’s proving a little too theatrical. Aemilia, here, is also quite black-and-white in her thinking and quite frustrating. I’m appreciating the book rather than actively enjoying it.

Rory Gleeson’s Rockadoon Shore is a book I picked up at the John Murray Fiction Showcase earlier this year. Many of the books highlighted will not be published until much later in the year; Gleeson’s publishing date was January. At the event the author made the book sound quite humorous and very intriguing; it’s about a group of friends who go on a weekend away – the story takes place over a couple of days. Growing up I always wondered why characters in books so rarely ate lunch and hardly ever bathed so the short time period in the book appealed to me. There are indeed more showers and much food and drink is consumed. The general style of it I’m enjoying – there’s a lot of white-space as the dialogue often consists of single words (the F word is one of them) and Gleeson has a pretty good knack for characters. Interesting is the way he writes the women, often in the male gaze and yet other times a lot more objectively, more as a woman would write them – I’m sensing a deliberate decision here to portray both genders from various perspectives. This said, when it comes to the female characters’ narratives (Gleeson’s narrative is third person and the chapters cycle through the characters, one at a time) they aren’t completely realistic.

Rockadoon Shore

I’m yet to work out where the story is going; at this point I’m under the impression it may just be an exploration. If it is an exploration then I’m not sure how successful the whole will turn out to be, partly because the scope is so limited. But it’s a good escape and relatively short, an easy read. As a slow reader I’m enjoying being able to read 70 pages an hour.

As a general update on the books I’ve put aside for now: Vanity Fair is still there, but now alive and kicking. I recently decided to re-start it which may be ill-advised as I was already half-way through but I could not see myself getting through it otherwise; Tender Is The Night lounges somewhere at home – I last picked it up at Christmas and I’m not worried about that; 12 Years A Slave is excellent, I’m just aware I can’t give it the full attention it requires; A Brief History Of Seven Killings I’ll be going back to after my current two books; With Her In Ourland I’m slowly making my way through. The ‘problem’ with the Perkins Gilman is it’s very much a lecture, a sort of fictional political tract, than a novel, and as Herland was so good it’s been quite a let down.

So that’s my reading – a bit all over the place at the moment, rather like me in general. I’m hoping it’ll settle down sometime soon.

What have you read recently?

 

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