August disappeared in a blur and I’ve only now realised I didn’t do an update that month on what I’m reading currently, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. I’d better get my act together before this month comes to an end.
What I’m reading now
I’m flitting between Wales and Colombia at the moment.
I bought The Sound Of Things Falling On a few years ago after I read a review by Stu at Winston’sdadsblog. South American fiction seems to rely heavily on magical realism (which I’m not keen on) but fortunately Juan Gabriel Vásquez is more of a straight realist writer.
The novel does begin rather oddly however with an item making the news in Colombia:
The first hippopotamus, a male the colour of black pearls weighing a ton and a half, was shot dead in the middle of 2009. He’d escaped two years before from Pablo Escobar’s old zoo in the Magdalena valley, and during that time of freedom had destroyed crops, invaded drinking troughs, terrified fishermen and even attacked the breeding bulls at a cattle ranch .
This story, for a reason not yet explained, reminds the narrator of his acquaintance several years earlier with an ex pilot who gets gunned down in Bogota. The rest of the plot then focuses on the narrator’s attempt to discover why his friend was assassinated.
It’s beautifully written, with an overwhelming tone of regret that the narrator didn’t invest more time in the relationship.
Though I haven’t got to the heart of the story yet, it’s evident there is a connection to the country’s notorious drug trade.
On my Kindle app, I’m reading The Party Wall by Stevie Davies which was published by Honno Press earlier this month. I haven’t got very far into the book yet but it’s shaping up to be an unsettling tale of Mark who is trying to ingratiate himself with his recently-widowed neighbour.
It’s one thing to offer to walk her dog and offer her a sympathetic shoulder to cry on but Mark is decidedly creepy. What kind of neighbour thinks it’s ok to go snooping upstairs while the funeral wake is in progress, searching through his neighbour’s clothes and removing a few objects?? I have a feeling this book is going to get much darker.
What I just finished reading
I have a friend to thank for introducing me to Maggie O’Farrell when she gave me The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox as a gift one Christmas. Her latest novel Hamnet has cemented her as one of my favourite authors.
I’m not surprised she won the Women’s Prize for Fiction with this novel which is a fictionalised account of the short life of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. It’s an exquisitely written narrative that vividly captures every day life in a sixteenth-century home and the strength of a mother’s love. Review to follow shortly.
Also highly enjoyable, though in a very different way, was Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink. Who can resist a book which has multiple lists of recommendations for other books to read? But Dear Reader is more than just a book of lists, it’s a very honest account of the way reading can provide joy as well as comfort at times of stress and pain.
What I’ll read next
Always a tough question for me because I much prefer to have flexibility in what I read and don’t like to be over-regimented.
I do have a copy of the most recent instalment of the Detective Inspector Tudor Manx crime fiction series set on the island of Anglesey, Wales. I’m looking forward to finding out whether the DI is still haunted by the disappearance of his sister many years earlier. Shadow Soul by Dylan Jones was published by Bloodhound Books in August 2020.
Also on the horizon is Old Baggage by Lissa Evans which I’m collecting from the library on Friday. It’s been around since 2018 but it was only recently, reading Susan’s review of Lissa Evans’ latest book Victory, that I got interested in this author. It seems there are some characters from the first book that make an appearance in Victory so it makes sense to begin with Old Baggage.
On top of this I have a (signed) copy of The Wild Silence by Raynor Winn which was published this month.
It’s a follow up to The Salt Path which was one of my stand out reads from 2019. That book finished with Raynor and her husband Moth at the end of their 630 mile walk around the coast of England.
I reached the end, desperate to know what happened to the couple. Did Moth’s health stabilise or deteriorate (just before they had set out on their walk, he had been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease) ? Had he managed to finish his degree? Were they still homeless? The Wild Silence provides the answers.
Those are my plans. Now what’s on YOUR reading horizon for the next few weeks? Let me know what you’re currently reading or planning to read next.
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
If you’re a regular reader of book reviews you’ll have noticed that certain phrases and expressions crop up regularly.
Reviews of crime novels and thrillers will frequently tell you that the book is “full of suspense” or “a page turner” that “kept me guessing”. Among reviewers of contemporary and literary fiction, ” compelling” and “intriguing” feature prominently as does ” characters that linger long in the mind. “
I’m not being sniffy about this. It’s hard work trying to come up with new ways to express an opinion or to convey the essence of a book. There’s an art to reviewing with the best practitioners able to produce an article that in itself is a fine piece of writing. One that entertains as well as informs. I’m in awe of the people (usually those who write for the high-brow, serious outlets) who can sustain high quality and a level of freshness time and time again.
I’d love to have even half their level of skill. Writing reviews is a painful process for me, trying to balance the need to give readers a sense of the book’s style and themes without getting bogged down in details about the plot. With every piece I tackle, I’m conscious that I might have used the same (or similar) form of words only a few weeks earlier.
If I have a tough enough time with roughly 50 reviews a year, imagine the challenges faced by magazines which, over the course of a year, must publish hundreds of reviews.
The Times Literary Supplement has squared up to this issue with a strong line on phrases and words they deem unacceptable or inappropriate.
Here is their list of 20 words and phrases that reviewers must be sure to remove before submitting their articles.
I’m sure a number of these will be familiar. I bet you’ve all seen literary classics described as “baggy monsters” or humorous novels that made the reviewer “laugh out loud.”
I plead guilty to using some of these terms myself. I know I’ve used the phrase “these are minor quibbles” or variants of it, many times. Ditto “searing indictment of …” Often it’s just laziness on my part, opting for the easy approach rather than investing time to re-phrase or do a thesaurus look up.
The rationale for the TLS’ inclusion of most of these phrases is clear. When you read them without context they can come across as silly. “Writes like an angel” strikes me as particularly ridiculous. Others are just over-worn (“rich tapestry”) or outdated (like “curate’s egg”)
But what’s wrong with “eponymous hero”? I’m even more baffled by the guidance to avoid saying an author “reminds one of Martin Amis”. Is the problem the use of the impersonal pronoun or just the reference to Martin Amis? Why, out of the hundreds of thousands of authors in existence is he the one to be singled out?
The TLS’ editorial team must have invested considerable time and effort to select just 20 words and phrases. It would be interesting to see what didn’t make it onto the list.
I’m wondering which words/phrases I would have included. “Awesome” would definitely be on my list though I can’t honestly see TLS reviewers using that word. “Life-affirming” would be in contention, as would “unmissable.”
But generally I’m not keen on the idea of prohibiting words en bloc just because they are cliched or ubiquitous. Sometimes you use a well-worn phase because there is no other expression that so perfectly captures your ideas about a book.
I’m curious what you think of the TLS’ selection. Any surprises about the inclusions or omissions? Those of you who write way more reviews than I do, how do you avoid using the same expressions over and over again? Any tips and tricks to share?
Everyone who loves reading will recognise the sense of joy that emanates from the pages of Cathy Rentzenbrink’s memoir Dear Reader.
Joy is what she recalls from a childhood when every book transported her to an enchanted world and rainy afternoons could be transformed by the chance to read.
The joy of reading continued into adolescence with the relish for school stories, Narnia and Biggles replaced by devotion for Jean Plaidy, Agatha Christie and Jilly Cooper. And further still into adulthood when, as a temporary Christmas sales assistant at the Waterstones branch in Harrods, her conversations with customers were so animated, her boss thought she was gossiping with her friends.
A Reader’s Journey
Dear Reader charts Cathy Rentzenbrink’s life as a reader, from her earliest childhood memories through her years in bookselling, to the present day and the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition to be an author. Woven throughout are her reflections on the power of books; whether to change the course of a life, spark happiness or provide comfort and succour at times of distress.
I find it consoling to be reminded that I am not alone, that everything I feel has been felt before; that everything I struggle with has been perplexing others since the dawn of time.
In Cathy’s case, books became her lifeline when her brother was fatally injured in a car accident. Her friends couldn’t help because at 17 years old, they knew little of suffering, but in the novels of Mary Welsey she found people who had encountered challenging situations and survived. Reading them helped her realise she was not alone.
Often people can be a bit snooty at the idea of books as a form of escapism, but I believe this is one of the greatest powers of literature: to comfort, to console, to allow a tiny oasis of – not exactly pleasure, but perhaps we could think of it as respite, when we feel we might otherwise drown in a sea of pain.
Life Lessons From Books
All through Dear Reader, Cathy Rentzenbrink connects events in her life with books she was either reading at the time, or from which she could draw inspiration.
As an eight year old for example, she was punished in school by being made to stand on a chair in front of the whole class. She drew consolation by remembering how Amy in Little Women had been similarly shamed.
Decades later, when launching the Quick Reads initiative she told the audience at the House of Commons that reading books had taught her how to behave in fine places.
I joked that … thanks to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, I’d never drunk the contents of a finger bowl, because Esther Greenwood had done exactly that the first time she encountered one.
Dear Readers United
Dear Reader didn’t wow me initially. In fact it put it aside after just a few pages thinking it was going to be essentially just list after list of book titles, separated only by a few reflective comments.
But I’m glad I decided to give it a second chance. It wasn’t simply her insights about the reading experience and our responses to literature, that won me over. It was Cathy’s personality.
She made the book feel like a chat with my best bookish mate. So many times I’d find myself smiling and nodding in recognition over her anecdotes.
I’ve never tried to read while walking as Cathy once did, ending up on the pavement with a cut knee (kudos to her that just wanted to carry on reading the Minette Walters!). But we’re alike in finding it hard to resist the urge to start conversations with strangers when I see them reading in waiting rooms and on public transport. And though I don’t have anything like Cathy’s depth of knowledge, just like her I often have to say something when I hear customers in a bookshop talking about one of my favourite books.
I loved the way Cathy Rentzenbrink talked about her father and his own experience with literature. He’d left school at a young age, unable to read or write. But when the law changed and he had to complete his own shift reports, he signed up for literacy evening classes. In later years their phone conversations would be peppered with discussions about the books he was reading.
There was no snobbery about her father’s choice of books, she recounts. It didn’t occur to him to judge books on their literary merit or the gender of the author.
That open attitude also comes through in Cathy’s own reading choices. Her recommendations – grouped in themes like Books about Writers; Books About Reading, Mothers and Children; Posh People Behaving Badly – range widely across genres and eras.
You’re as likely to find A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghira, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes and Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively as Rivals by Jilly Cooper and the Harry Potter series in her lists of favourite books.
She’s also a big re-reader. I thought I was doing well having read Middlemarch at least six times but Cathy beats me hands down with Rebecca (read 10 or even 20 times) and Pride and Prejudice (50 times).
Would I recommend Dear Reader? Absolutely. It was one of my #20booksofsummer books and proved to be a gloriously exuberant, funny, but also moving account of a life-long love for books. It will chime with everyone who recognises the excitement of beginning a new novel or how it feels to be so deeply engrossed in a book, nothing – absolutely nothing – else matters.
Dear Reader : The Comfort And Joy Of Books by Cathy Rentzenbrink – End Notes
Cathy Rentzenbrink grew up in Yorkshire but has now returned to Cornwall where she was born. She worked in bookshops, for The Bookseller journal and on literacy campaigns via The Reading Agency and Quick Reads.
Her first book The Last Act of Love was a reflection on the life and death of her brother. Her second, A Manual for Heartache is a broader look at sorrow, anguish, despair, loss. Dear Reader, her third book, was published by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, in September 2020
Cathy blogs at cathyreadsbooks.com and tweets @catrentzenbrink.
With thanks to Picador and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
If you’ve had a book blog for several years you might be thinking it’s time to freshen up the way it appears to readers.
One obvious solution is to change the theme. But it takes time to sift through the hundreds of design options to find the one offering the right layout and functionality. And if you use plug ins, you could find that some of these won’t work any longer so you’ll have to find replacements.
There’s another – and simpler – solution: just change the colour of your text. You can change the text colour across the whole site. Or you can just change the colour of headings and a few words. You might decide for example that you want to use colour to draw attention to the title of the book you’re reviewing.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on three ways to change text colour in a WordPress site. Let’s do the two easiest ones first!
Method #1. Change Text Colour Using WordPress Classic Editor
WordPress editor gives you the ability to put individual words, sentences, paragraphs, or subheadings in a different colour from your main text. The method you’ll follow will vary slightly between WordPress classic editor and WordPress Gutenburg editor
1.First you need to create a new post or a page and add your text (or you can edit an existing piece of content).
2. Click on the toolbar toggle icon on the far right. You’ll see a second row of icons which give you additional formatting functions.
3. Select the text whose colour you want to change. Click on the arrow to the right of the A symbol to access the dropdown menu.
The colour palette gives you 39 colour options. The small “x” in the bottom right corner will activate “no colour”, meaning the text colour will automatically adjust to the default colour.
A word of caution about some of these colours. The yellow, teal and peach might look pretty but text in those shades will be hard to read. As a general rule, avoid the pale tints. Dark and solid colours work best against a white background.
4. If you don’t like these colour choices, you can get more flexibility by clicking the word “custom” underneath the colour squares.
5. Now all you need do is click the small circle and drag it within the colour rectangle to find the shade you want. As you move around you’ll see a corresponding change in colour square in the bottom right corner.
You should also notice that the numbers shown in the text boxes labelled “R” “G” “B” and “#” also change. The RGB numbers indicate the specific composition of your colour (the proportion of red, green and blue). The “#” figure is called a Hex code and is a shorthand formula for each colour.
It’s well worth making a note of these numbers so you can be sure to use the exact same shade across all your site.
6. When you’re happy with your choice, just click on “OK”. Your custom colour will now be saved in the colour palette.
Method #2. Change Text Colour Using WordPress Gutenburg Editor
1. Create your text using the paragraph block or heading block.
2. To change the colour of the entire block, simply click on the block. You should see the block settings panel on the right side of your screen.
3. The visual editor will show you some options based on your theme. Just click on one of these to change your text colour. Or choose a custom colour by following the same steps as in the classic editor. If you also want to change the colour background for a text block, you can do that here.
To change the colour of just a few words, or a sentence, you need to use a slightly different technique.
4. First highlight the word(s) you want to change. Then, click the small downward arrow on the content editor toolbar to reveal a drop down menu of formatting options. Why the Gutenburg developers thought it a good idea to hide these behind the arrow, is a mystery but that’s where you’ll find the ‘Text Colour’ link.
5 Click on that to see the same colour options you had when changing the text within the whole block. This includes picking one of the default options or selecting any colour you want by using the custom colour link.
A few extra things worth knowing:
- If you change your mind about a custom colour you selected, just go back to the colour palette and hit the “X” – it will restore the default. .
- You can also change the text colour of a bulleted list but only by highlighting each line in the list. the colour of a whole list block. Nor can you change . Very irritating.
- You can’t change the colour of the bullet point in a list. Any colour changes affect the whole line
- You can change the colour of individual words in a heading. But you cannot change the background colour of a heading.
Method #3. Change Text Colour Across
The Whole Site
Every WordPress website has default font colours depending on which theme you selected. Some work better than others. Light grey body text, for example, is difficult to read when set against a white background.
Can you change these default colours?
Yes you can but only if your selected theme allows customisation. Mine does but it’s very limited. I can change only the colours of the blog header and the background colour. If my selected theme was more compatible with Gutenburg block editor I would be able to do a lot more colour customisation.
Your theme may give you more flexibility. So here’s what you need to do.
1.Open your WordPress dashboard, select Appearance – then Customize to open up the Theme Customizer.
2. Once in the Theme Customiser look for an option such as ‘Typography’. The name of the option will vary depending on your theme. If you don’t find anything like this, you’re out of luck unfortunately.
But if you do find something like typography, you should get another menu which looks similar to this:
3. Click on “Body” You need to click on this to get the colour palette. Choose your colour just as you did when changing the colour of individual words and headings. The choice you make here however will change the text colour in all your posts and pages.
If you want to change colours of all headings across your site, this is also the place to do just that – you just click on each heading size and select the colour.
Didn’t work for you? If you’re prepared to put effort into it, there is an alternative method you could use to change the default font colour. I warn you though that it’s rather more fiddly and technical and is available only if you have WordPress.com Premium or Business plans. It involves the use of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code.
I’ve had a peek at some of the instructions and decided it’s far too complicated. Even WordPress says it can occasionally be complex. I don’t have the enthusiasm to battle with coding, especially when it looks as if I have to change themes anyway to overcome some compatibility issues with my current theme.
If any of you are feeling emboldened however and want to have a go at the CSS method, just leave a comment here and I’ll get you the instructions.
If you have a go at any of these methods, let me know about your experience. Don’t forget to check out the other articles in the A2ZofBookBlogging series page.
This week candidates for Sample Saturday are novels that were on my Classics Club list but never got read. I think I acquired them more than ten years ago when they were on a supplementary reading list for a course I was taking on the nineteenth century novel. I no longer need them for academic reasons so the question is whether they would still hold my interest or is it time to let them go.
Evelina by Fanny Burney
Evelina or to give the book its full title The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, was published anonymously in 1778 as a satire on Georgian society. It’s meant to be a notable significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth.
Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat. At the age of 17 she gets to leave her secluded country home to take a holiday in London. The visit opens her eyes to the delights and dangers of society.
I’m thinking No. I’ve tried epistolary novels from this period (and earlier) previously and never found them very entertaining.
The Verdict: Abandon
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
Belinda is an 1801 novel that forms part of a tradition of society novels where bright young women are in search of a good marriage. Belinda was rather different however because it features an inter-racial marriage.
In the first two editions of the book, Edgeworth has an African servant on a Jamaican plantation who marries an English farm-girl and a potential marriage between the eponymous heroine and a rich West Indian Creole. By the third edition, published in 1810 both plot lines have been toned down. The servant character is omitted and Belinda only esteems the Creole and never agrees to marry him. One theory is that Edgeworth’s father insisted on the changes.
I don’t much care for the early society novels – they can be rather tedious. But the inter-racial dimension makes this one more interesting.
The Verdict: Keep
The Egoist by George Meredith
A tragicomic novel published in 1879 about the marriage intentions of a self-absorbed knight who can’t understand why any woman wouldn’t jump at the chance to be his wife. One of the women in his sights is strong-willed however and has no interest in getting hitched to this vain man.
There’s a theme in the book about the difficulty of being a woman in Victorian society, treated as an object to be traded between fathers and potential husbands. That would encourage me to read the book but it’s the description of a comic narrative that sets alarm bells ringing. My sense of humour isn’t on the same level as the original readers of the book so I have a feeling I’d find it silly or irritating
The Verdict: Let Go
Unless you strongly disagree and tell me I’m making a big mistake with Burney and Meredith, my TBR is now lighter by two books. The idea of Sample Saturday isn’t to get rid of books but to make sure my shelves have only books I do want to read. What do you think of the decisions I’ve reached – if you’ve read any of these books I’d love to hear from you.