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February 2021 Reading Round Up + Podcasts

I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog. One of my rabbits has required two emergancy vet visits in as many months, having also had an issue at Christmas which we just managed to catch before it became urgent. It’s a common intestinal issue, GI Statis, where if you don’t treat or catch it early enough the rabbit dies. It’s been constant stress and rushing around and now we’re waiting for blood test results to see if we can find out what’s going wrong. Suffice to say February and March have been overwhelming and my read list is a bit… sparse.

But I did get some reading done, three books that I very much enjoyed, and I hope to review the two that were new reads.

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Catherine Cho: Inferno – A short while after giving birth to her first child, Cho was sent to an involuntary psych ward in the US (she was visiting from the UK) having experienced Post Partum Psychosis; she details the experience, interwoven with the events to the run up. Stunning book; Cho’s story needs reading widely and her handling of the literature side of things is phenomenal.

Fiction

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: Secret Passages In A Hillside Town – Mundane, boring, Ollie, who lives in his own world and doesn’t even seem to know or care what his son’s name is, has a blast from the past when a past lover adds him as a friend on Facebook and Ollie starts to be imbroiled in a present-day version of his fantastical childhood. Fantastic, strange, out and out weird – I still haven’t worked it all out but there’s no question; it’s amazing.

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Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen: The Rabbit Back Literature Society – Ella becomes the long-awaited 10th member of a society that involves the country’s greatest writers – but are they the greatest writers, really? A very good look at ideas and writing in general.

I had a ball with my February reading. Three excellent books. The categories are incomparable and I couldn’t pretend to choose a favourite.

So far in March I have read one book and have tentatively started another. I’m going to continue doing what I am and taking it one day at a time.


Two podcasts today as I’m behind in posting them here. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media players below.

Charlie and Susmita Bhattacharya (Table Manners; also The Normal State Of Mind) discuss her world-wide travel and moves abroad – including a visa-less stopover, the experiences of recent immigrants to Britain, and having your work featured and serialised on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra.

Charlie and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (The Rabbit Back Literature Society; Secret Passages In A Hillside Town) discuss dreams that become literature – vampires; books where words and plot points change in a sort of book plague; secret passages that wipe your memory, and many more – writing a book that’s difficult for a reader to work out and not knowing yourself what the answer is, creepy and traumatic fictional games, and issuing an alternative ending to your novel in a brand new publication.

To see all the details including links to other apps, the episode pages can be found here.

 
2021 Goals And 2020 Data + Podcast

A photograph of Hever Castle gardens in autumn

In 2020 I read 57 books. Twelve were by men, 45 were by women. Fourteen were by non-white authors. Four were collections, 2 non-fiction, 17 re-reads. I didn’t read any poetry – I do have one at the ready but didn’t manage it for it to count for the year. I’d like to improve those numbers, particularly I’d like to read more, but I’m going to go careful.

Something very noticeable was the number of new books I read: the most numerous year was 2020 (11), the year of the reading, somewhat understandable with the podcast but I didn’t expect it to be quite as many. The furthest-away year was 2007 (1), which is utterly rubbish; I need to do better there. Further numbers: 2019 (7); 2018 (7); 2017 (8); 2016 (9); 2015 (1); 2014 (1); 2013 (2); 2012 (2); 2011 (1); 2010 (2); 2009 (3); 2008 (1).

I have ummed and ahhed over setting goals. I have ended up with three, and two are different to all other years. I pretty much failed last year’s goals but I think that’s true for a lot of us! Last year’s goals were as follows:

  1. Read more by month, looking at shorter periods of time rather than the longer period of a year: I didn’t do the former, but did do the latter. Going by two weeks at a time all the time really emphasised the passage of time – for quite a while, the slowness of it.
  2. Read more classics of all kinds: failed completely.
  3. Thackeray: it’s still on the list.
  4. Read Dragonfly In Amber: I didn’t actually get a copy until very late in the year; I’ve been purchasing very little and present-giving events were small. Thanks to my Second Mum, as I call her, I now have a copy and hope to get to it soon.

So, this year, I’d like to read at least one classic. I’ll be seeing the word ‘classic’ in terms of ‘older classic’, because at the moment I don’t think Gabaldon should count, and neither do I think George R R Martin, who I hope to get to, should count.

In addition to this, I’d like to get to more books received as presents; I’m thinking from recent years. These are Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days, Sharlene Teo’s Ponti, Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock, and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

And, lastly, more bookish-related than about specifics books, I want to try and work past an issue I have where the feeling of being daunted by starting a new book (all those pages ahead of me…) means that it takes me time to get into the book. I need to get better not only at just starting and getting past the first pages – after which the issue disappears and I’m away – but also a (potentially) related issue, which I’ve spoken of before, where I never really take in the first page or so. Yes, this, despite my interest and focus on first lines.

Did you make any goals for this year?


This Monday’s podcast episode is with Elizabeth Baines. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Elizabeth Baines (Used To Be; Astral Travel; also The Birth Machine; Balancing On The Edge Of The World; Too Many Magpies) discuss writing for radio, short stories – the relative importance of their first lines and differences to novels – writing a book about trying to tell a story, and the difficulties in labelling someone complicit or a victim in the context of past societal values.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
January 2021 Reading Round Up

January wasn’t bad; aside from the books below I’ve two on the go and turned my way through a further small chunk of pages of A Shepherd’s Life.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Elizabeth Baines: Used To Be – A short story collection with the theme of different roads in life. Very, very good.

Katy Yocom: Three Ways To Disappear – Quinn and Sarah lost their sibling, Sarah’s twin, in childhood; now adults, Quinn tries to get back into her art whilst being a mother to her own set of twins, one with a chronic illness, and Sarah leaves her job as a reporter in dangerous locations to work in tiger conservation in India. Much better than my brief summary can do, this is a super book that explores trauma, conservation, and in the conservation all of the social affects conservation has on humans.

Susmita Bhattacharya: Table Manners – A collection of stories about human relationships and connections, linked by the theme of food, whether the food is an item, an idea, or a construct. Awesome.

It may not have produced the numbers, but the reading was wonderful. Everything I read was fab, and the books I have started recently – Catherine Cho’s Inferno and Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant, the latter one of those books I took off my list when I didn’t make headway last year (I’m now further along) are great. Cho’s in particular is just incredible; Inferno is her memoir about her time with Post-Partum Psychosis; it’s a brave book, written – and structured – spectacularly well and I can’t but believe it only narrowly missed out on winning the Young Writer of the Year Award in December (won by Jay Bernard for their poetry collection, Surge).

That’s what I’m looking forward to in February, the Cho and the Li. Absolutely, completely.

 
Second Half Of 2020 Film Round Up + Podcast

…Otherwise known as the extreme Christmas round up. I didn’t watch too many films until November when I figured I’d so something about the fact Christmas was going to be quieter and make it festive in other ways.

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Bringing Up Baby (USA, 1938) – A paleontologist, trying to get on with his work and prepare for his marriage, meets an all-over-the-place woman who pushes him to help her with her leopard. Obviously unrealistic and over-the-top but nevertheless absolutely hilarious.

Brief Encounter (UK, 1945) – Two strangers meet in a railway station café and begin a short affair. Definitely best in the context of the era.

Christmas Ever After (USA, 2020) – A writer goes on her annual Christmas holiday to a winter lodge and meets a man who looks exactly the same as the man in the artwork that graces her book covers; the predictable ensues. This is a bog-standard made-for-TV movie but the reason I’ve not included it in my Christmas list below is because this is a movie that has broken ground that’s taken forever to break. Whilst the story itself may be run-of-the-mill, the cast is good, and, most importantly, there is diversity. The lead uses a wheelchair. There is zero mention of her disability, zero questions on it, zero mockery, indeed the only time such a thing comes anywhere close is when she simply mentions that shes ‘going for a push’. It’s about freaking time this happened, and full props to Lifetime for doing this, the film gets a 5 from me just for that though the fact the cast are decent definitely makes it a lot better – and an actual disabled person/person with a disability playing the role! In addition to this, the as-I’ve-started-to-understand usual non-white best friend role (if there are non-white actors they have almost always been a sidekick of sorts) is an independent woman who is there for guidance and otherwise gets on with her own life; there is also a woman who likes the hero but isn’t in anyway nasty, which makes a change too. All around fabulous, grammar rules be damned.

Frozen II (USA, 2019) – Elsa and co. go in search of the spirits that have the power to bring peace. Definitely an exercise in ‘how do we make more money from this?’ but there are some very good moments.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Keep Dancing) (India, 2007) – When a man approaches a woman at Waterloo Station she pretends to be engaged to put him off chatting her up, and he follows suit, making up his own fiancée; the fictionised stories of the two relationships are told as they spend more time with each other. Another film that’s difficult to summarise without spoilers; one of the best Bollywood films I’ve seen to date. Absolutely top-notch comedy, good references to older films and the actors’ real-life connections to each other, and just all-round fun.

Moana (USA, 2016) – A young woman in centuries-past Polynesia secretly takes on the task of finding the god that took away with him an essential ingredient to the community’s island’s peace. Pretty fun in parts but the limited scope in terms of location – in other words, most of the film taking place on a tiny boat – has a big affect on the over all product.

Muppets Most Wanted (USA, 2014) – During rehearsals for a stage show, Kermit is kidnapped and replaced by a Russian criminal who is also a frog. Some of the humour is good but I personally felt this went a bit too far with the stereotypes.

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12 Days Of Giving (USA, 2017) – A man wins $50,000 dollars and decides to donate it to various people he meets day-to-day to the upset of his fiancⅇ one of the people is a child who wants to play ice hockey and lives with his single mother… yep, it’s predictable. But also fairly good, a nice enough watch.

Broadcasting Christmas (USA, 2016) – Two presenters, past lovers, compete to gain the role of co-host on a popular morning show. Standard plot with above average actors; that one of them is Melissa Joan Hart makes it much better.

Christmas At Graceland (USA, 2018) – A business executive travels to her hometown to work on a takeover deal but finds the idea of a big corporation taking over a caring family company difficult, meanwhile she meets an old flame who she used to sing with. The film would be okay if the real-life country star who plays the lead could also act.

Christmas Cookies (USA, 2016) – A business… yeah, okay, this film has the exact same set up as the previous one, just with a cookie company instead of finance. It even has the same male lead, however as he can act and as the female lead of this one can, too, it works.

Christmas In Homestead (USA, 2016) – A filmstar visits a cute Christmas-loving town for her latest film and starts to fall for the owner of the hotel and his young daughter. Nice enough; bog standard.

A Christmas Love Story (USA, 2019) – When her choir rehearsals are joined by a new kid, the teacher has to work out a way to convince his father that he should be allowed to stay – and the father turns out to be the nice man she shared a taxi with. There is a lot more going for this film than a spoiler-free premise would suggest; for all the predictability it’s actually a very decent film.

The Christmas Train (USA, 2017) – Two journalists who used to be together happen to take the same sleeper train just before Christmas; one of them is there with her boss, a director whose film she is writing. This film has an interesting concept, a different concept, but it’s far too sickly sweet, the green-screening is too obvious, and the surprise ending that really didn’t need to be there wrecks everything that came before.

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A Dream Of Christmas (USA, 2016) – A woman who wonders ‘what if’ is transported to a version of her life where she took the job offer and didn’t meet her husband. Nice enough.

A Godwink Christmas (USA, 2018) – A woman who’s unsure about her relationship goes to stay with her aunt but gets stuck in a cute town when her car breaks down and starts to fall for the owner of the hotel she ends up spending the night in. This would have been okay if there had been an ounce of chemistry between the leads.

Love You Like Christmas (USA, 2016) – A woman who works in advertising breaks down halfway through her journey and has to stay in the Christmasy village she comes to. Average plot – samey plot, in fact – above average actors; it turns out that a plot that’s been done to death can still have a breakthrough if the script is done right and is at least somewhat believeable.

Marry Me At Christmas (USA, 2017) – A bridal shop owner helps the sister of a filmstar plan her wedding and falls for the filmstar. Average.

Mistletoe & Menorahs (USA, 2019) – A woman who needs to learn about Hannukah to impress clients meets up with a Jewish guy who needs to learn about Christmas to impress his partner’s family. This film had a lot of potential – it’s a different premise, the actors are great, and so on – but it does miss the mark where the Christmas being taught is simply decorations and the Hannukah taught is how to light the menorah and make one item of food. Had there had been… more, this would’ve been a really good one.

The Mistletoe Promise (USA, 2016) – Two strangers who hate Christmas agree to pretend to be in a relationship to further their careers. Predictable premise well saved by decent actors and a good script.

A Rose For Christmas (USA, 2017) – A businessman is assigned to help create the festival float that will represent his company and the float company owner is a woman he’s going to fall for. Unrealistic and not a great story – the float’s also incredibly naff given it’s to promote a fair sized company.

Why do I watch these Christmas films? It’s certainly a good question when so many aren’t great – the ones that are good are pretty awesome, and therein lies the conundrum. I did do better this year; whilst still choosing premises that sounded okay, any that weren’t working for me within about 20 minutes were turned off in favour of the next. There were a ton and I only watched ones early on; I saw as the weeks went on that films added often had black actors in the main roles which was good to see; it seems this year’s productions have favoured more diversity in general and I’m looking forward to catching up on those next time.


This week’s podcast episode is with Katy Yocom. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Katy Yocom (Three Ways To Disappear) discuss tiger conservation in India and balancing numbers alongside human requirements for life, the importance of being diligent when writing about a culture that is not your own, and what the three ways to disappear are.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
2020 Year Of Reading Round Up

In 2020 I read 57 books, not my lowest number but definitely less than I’d considered it might be at the beginning of the year! I had a number of books unfinished by the year’s end, most of which I’d begun in the early spring, and, due to not having got very far with them, I decided to leave them off my reading lists completely until such time as I can contemplate starting them again, properly. The only one I kept was James Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life; I had read a good chunk of it and it was different to the other books in that whereas I read those outside and in the day in general, Rebanks’ book was saved for bedtime reading – time carved out without other books to distract me kept me going. All this to say that there are two books I carried over into 2021: the ever-present Vanity Fair (perhaps I need a readalong) and A Shepherd’s Life. The latter is in fact my father’s book – I bought it for him upon request when it was first published, and later he lent it to me to read – and so I was originally planning to finish it quickly. Having not seen Dad since last, last, Christmas and not knowing exactly when the next time would be, I admit to taking my time with the book. Got to find those small upshots where they are!

For the first time, I’m not going to do personal favourites. As you’ll see from the ratings, there was little not to like.

Best Of The Best

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Elizabeth Baines: Astral Travel (2020) – Following her father’s death, Josephine looks to make sense of his abusive behaviour through writing about him, and there is a lot more to uncover than her family will allow into the book. Probably the best book about childhood abuse I’ve read – this is an incredibly difficult book to read but the study and further exploration is exquisitely done.

Intisar Khanani: Thorn (2012) – When Princess Alyrra is betrothed to Prince Kestrin, she’s not comfortable with the idea of travelling to his kingdom with Valka, who dislikes her, and the sudden appearance of a mage followed by a fae-like lady the night before has her more so; as Valka betrays her and the two womens’ bodies are switched Alyrra starts a different journey, one that will involve learning all manner of things about herself in order to turn back the changes, and all manner of things about her new kingdom that royalty are never privvy to. A superb fairytale retelling and adaptation, Khanani expanding on the ideas in the original Goose Girl to incredible effect.

Isla Morley: Come Sunday (2009) – The young daughter of Abbe, a woman who is struggling with her general situation, dies in an accident and Abbe has to wade through the repercussions of this whilst learning to live with her grief. An exceptional look at extreme grief and bad circumstances and the process towards acceptance and hope.

Joanna Hickson: First Of The Tudors (2016) – A fictionised story of Jasper Tudor, son of Catherine de Valois and her second husband Owen Tudor, as well as Jane, mother of his illegitimate children, taking us from Jasper’s early years to the initial first campaigns to bring Jasper’s nephew, the future Henry VII, to the throne. A fantastic story, immersive, detailed, and just simply a very good book in general.

Laura Pearson: I Wanted You To Know (2019) – A young mother is diagnosed with cancer and as she struggles through the changes to her world and future she writes letters to her daughter for the girl to read after she is gone, making preparations and healing relationships beforehand. An incredibly emotional read; difficult but important.

Peter Ho Davies: The Fortunes (2016) – Four stories connected by Chinese American history, racism, passing, and that rubbish idea that all Asians look the same: we follow 1800s Ling as he works for a Chinese American laundryman and white American railway construction company owner; Hollywood star Anna May Wong discusses her career progression which is marred by racism; a fictionised friend of Vincent Chin discusses the night of his death and what followed; and John travels to China with his wife to adopt a baby, already having lots to think about on the subject of being Asian American now and throughout history, and finding even more now as he goes through the last stages of the handover. An utterly fantastic book – the handling of the subjects, and the writing and language in general is superb.

Sofie Laguna: The Eye Of The Sheep (2014) – Jimmy sees things differently to other people though he doesn’t quite know it, but he does know about the tentacles in his mother’s chest that cause her problems, sees his dad struggle, and often can’t help himself from running around for ages; the family situation as it is is not sustainable and we see the changes through Jimmy’s eyes. A fantastic book about a child who defies a label, and his very normal, everyday family, living in the 70s and 80s.

Tracy Rees: Florence Grace (2016) – A young girl living in relative poverty in the Victorian period is employed for an evening as a servant for a party, and she meets a boy with the surname Grace – who isn’t going to be her husband. I don’t want to spoil the story so I’ll leave it there; this is as enjoyable as Amy Snow but pretty different and more Dickensian and Emily Brontë than Amy Snow’s Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

5

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4.5

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4

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3.5

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3

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My reading list unsurprisingly reflects my podcast. There are no classics (Oliver Goldsmith was a casualty of the ‘not having got very far’) and nothing before 2007. There are also few review copies which I didn’t always get to in good time; I’m likely to lessen the number of those this new year. Podcast reading also means there are a number of re-reads here. I have changed a couple of ratings to reflect my updated thoughts on them; this accounts for discrepancies between ratings on this page and ratings and words in the linked reviews. I’ve excluded re-reads from my ‘best of the best’ list because it didn’t seem right to include them, especially as many were already on the ‘best of’ list for the year I first read them. The list also follows the one per author rule of previous years and due to that being strict enough, I’ve allowed for a higher number of best reads this time around.

Whilst compiling this post I made a note of various statistics which I later realised would be best included in a different post. I’ll be putting them together with my goals in the next few days. I’ve also a bumper film round up to get to.

What did you most enjoy reading last year?

 

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