Finding Time to Read

1A few months ago The Readers podcast discussed how avid readers could carve out even more of their day to indulge in their favourite activity. You can listen to the discussion here.

It’s something I’ve been wrestling with recently when faced with the realisation that a)my personal library (sometimes known as the TBR) is ever increasing and b) I keep hearing of books I really want to read, whether new issues or ones that have been around for decades, or maybe centuries.

Andy Miller solved the issue by setting himself a goal of reading 50 pages a day when he embarked on his Year of Reading Dangerously (click to link to see my review). For him, that meant sometimes spurious visits to the Post Office so he could stand in the long queue and read…. Ingenious but I reckon Mr BookerTalk would get suspicious about my sudden need for stationery and postage stamps in a world of electronic communication.  Seeing a page goal is of course one way to rattle through books but if feels a bit like a chore to me. I did it a few times when I needed to read a book by a certain date for the book club discussion – I ended up dividing the total page count by the number of days to get to my daily tally. The freaked when I saw the result. It meant all the time I was reading I was checking my progress and re-calculating my score. Not how the reading experience should feel.

Rather more appealing is the approach used by Patrick Ness who decided that he wanted to better appreciate short stories so set himself a task of reading one before breakfast every day. As a warm up for the day ahead that is rather more enticing than reading the daily newspaper litany of calamity, intrigue or vacuous celebrity gossip. And its something that could easily be adapted to say reading one chapter of a book rather than a short story. So appealing – but have I done it? Er, no….

Today I noticed that Goodreads has an article which lists strategies to find more time for reading  adopted by people who responded to a social media poll.

Some of them will be very familiar to you:

  • commute to work by public transport instead of driving
  • if you have to drive, then use audio books
  • switch your habit of watching tv at night and read instead (I know a lot of you have done that)
  • retire from work (that sounds good but in reality other things have a habit of taking over what you think is spare time)
  • schedule ‘me’ time which you use to curl up with a book

One that I liked the sound of though was this

“Throughout the day I play a little game. I read a chapter (just one) and then I get up and clean something. Example: Go and sweep the kitchen floor. Then read a chapter. Then fold a load of clothes and put them away. Then go read another chapter. I can do this all day. It works great for me!” (Shannon Strickland-Brown)

It’s the perfect ‘carrot’ in the ‘carrot and stick’ approach except with this there is no stick unless you consider publishers to whom you have promised reviews, the stick. The beauty is that it lends itself to all kinds of household chores or tasks I don’t want to do. Filling the car up with petrol (always a distress purchase for me), or cleaning the cooker (yuk), weeding the flower bed or emptying the dishwasher. Of course there is the temptation to make those jobs so small that you end up spending more time reading than doing them!!. Is it acceptable to read a chapter every three garments I iron I wonder or do I have to get through the whole basket before I feel I’ve earned the right to pick up the book?

It has the makings of a good swaps game doesn’t it?

30 minutes ironing = 30 minutes reading

two garments ironed = 15 minutes reading

one basket of ironing =a whole morning reading

It will undoubtedly mean the chores take longer to finish but just think of the pleasure you’ve earned.

Do any of those strategies appeal to you? Anyone fancy playing the ironing swap game or are you too busy already reading??



#20booksofsummer wrap up

20booksof summerYes I know it’s no longer summer but better late than never I suppose. So here is the outcome of the first reading challenge I have ever completed (drum roll and applause please….)

I knew I would never get through 20 books so took advantage of the flexible choices offered by Cathy at and went for 10 books. When I made the list I was trying to be clever by doubling up on titles that could also count for three other projects: Women in Translation month, AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) and my own Booker prize project.

I’m a bit behind on the reviews but am slowly catching up. So here’s what I accomplished – there were some hits, some also rans and some down right failures..

  1. This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Excellent Read –review posted here 
  2. NW by Zadie Smith Read it – Dazzling in some ways but not sure I saw the point of it review posted here
  3. High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – Read but not a great choice for me review posted here 
  4. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford Thoroughly enjoyed this – review posted here Counted this for AllAugust/All Virago
  5. Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read and enjoyed in parts review posted here  I double counted this for my Booker project
  6. The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis. Read and enjoyed the humour – review not yet written. I double counted this for my Booker project
  7. Life & Times of Michael K  by J M Coetzee. Read but review not yet written because I haven’t made up my mind what I think of it.  I double counted this for my Booker project
  8. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimimanda Adichie Read – enjoyed the style, left me wanting more Review posted here 
  9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – Enjoyable take on Japanese culture review posted here  Double counted this for Women in Translation Month
  10. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde: Read it but it was a bit of a slog. Review posted here Also counted towards Women in Translation month

I had a few back up titles on my list originally so I could change my mind if needed. The back ups were:

The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. A dud – did not finish review posted here 

Frost in May by Antonia White never got around to reading this but it was a re-read anyway

An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah Started to read it but ran out of time 

Overall  I enjoyed the experience. Because I chose the entry level I never felt overwhelmed by what I still had to read. So I’ll be back again next year assuming Cathy decides to continue the venture that is.

NW by Zadie Smith: portrait of a divided city


Until a few years ago few visitors to London would have made it to the parts of the city that collectively form the postcode area known as NW (an abbreviation of North West). Places like Willesden and Kilburn were simply names on the map but not anywhere you’d want to visit.  They’re still not in the top 10 places to see in the city but time has given some parts a more trendy and even gentrified feel.The rennovated houses and newly-built homes do however sit uncomfortably with down at heel council estates and crack-addicts just a few streets away. This idea of a divided city forms the basis of NW by Zadie Smith. This is her home turf as it were, an area she ‘escaped’ just as the upwardly-mobile Caribbean Keisha and the half-Irish Leah attempt to do in the novel with varying access.

Keisha makes her escape by changing her name to the more ‘acceptable’ Nathalie and making a name for herself as a commercial barrister tipped to be one of the youngest admitted as Queen’s Counsel. Her marriage to rich and stylish Italian-Trinidadian Franco, is accompanied by two kids and a plush home in the desirable Queen’s Park area – all signals to outsiders that that she’s made the leap from her respectable black working class origins in Kilburn. But it’s an illusion for Nathalie harbours a misery and tries to overcome it through some high-risk adventures.

Her school friend Leah also took the educational route away from her upbringing though her degree in philosophy hasn’t given her the financial success or the feeling of smug satisfaction she sees emanating from Nathalie. Leah is doing Ok, she’s married to a hairdresser who wants to be an online investor whizz kid, living in a council flat not too far from her childhood home and under pressure to have his child. Her work in an office is marred by the resentment of her fellow African-Caribbean workers who all think Michel, a black man of French origins. rightly belongs to them not to Leah. Whenever Leah visits Nathalie she can’t help ending up irritated by her friend’s patronising attitude.

The paths they take to  escape from destiny are shadowed by two men from their schooldays: Nathan Bogle who was once the shining boy in school, the flame around whom Leah built an obsessive love. Now he is a crack-smoking addict who hangs around the bus station . Then there is Felix, a boy neither of the others really knew but who descended into drugs before reforming and now appears to be on the cusp of a new beginning to his life.

The interactions with these men propel some of the story forward and force the girls to re-evaluate their lives. But these men – just like the two husbands – are figures in the background  whose personalities are not as fully developed as the women and who existed for me simply to move the story along and give us a different perspective.

So what is the story? The details I’ve given above are about as coherent as I can describe it since this is a novel that doesn’t have a plot in the traditional sense. It’s more a kaleidoscope of closely observed scenes of city life and inward reflections about individual struggles.

It’s told episodically in four sections which begin with Leah’s story  in a section called Visitation as she goes about her life. At the end she hears of a fatal stabbing in a street in a local street. We then switch to Guest which takes place on the day of the murder and is told through the point of view of the dead man (I wont give the name to avoid spoiling the story). Section 3 Host is about Nathalie which takes us back to their childhood and teenage years and reveals her unhappiness with life. In the final section she meets unexpectedly with Nathan and they go on a wander around their old neighbourhood which acts as a catharsis in her relationship with Leah and her husband.

At times intense, at others rather chaotic and jumbled, this is a novel where the personality of one segment of a city and its population come to life. It’s closely observed from street level as it were with finely judged dialogue. In one scene, where Leah and Michel go for dinner at Nathalie’s home, the conversation is rendered as a meld of banal comments about food fetishes amidst diatribes about the state of the health service, immigration, Islam, birthing strategies, water shortages and so on.

The conversational baton passes to others who tell their anecdotes with more panache, linking them to matters of the wider culture, debates in the newspapers. Leah tries to explain what she does for a living to someone who doesn’t care. The spinach is farm to table. Everyone comes together for a moment to complain about the evils of technology, what a disaster, especially for teenagers, yet most people have their phones laid next to their dinner plates. Pass the buttered carrots. … Pass the heirloom tomato salad. … Pass the green beans with shaved almonds

Much of the narrative is stream of consciousness which at times is delivered with such pace it’s hard to keep up with. Fresh and original as this novel is in style and fun for that reason to read, overall I was left with the feeling that I was missing whatever it was Zadie Smith was trying to say. Was she trying to show that you cannot entirely escape your past? That there is questionable value about getting on in the world since it doesn’t always make you happy. NW felt like a book that meandered rather than coming to any conclusion.



Author: NW by Zadie Smith

Published: 2013 by Penguin

Length: 294 pages

My copy: I acquired this as a spur of the moment purchase in Birmingham airport as a way of relieving the boredom of a delayed flight to Brussels. The forgot I had it until the 20booksofsummer challenge prompted me to delve deep into the bookshelves.

Favourite Book Audio Programmes

toptentuesdayThis week’s Top Tuesday topic looks at the world of audio. We’ve moved a long way forward in delivering books and other materials in formats other than print or digital. Remember when if you wanted to listen to music or a book on audio you had just the one option of cassette tapes? They were light so easily portable but guaranteed to jam at the most inappropriate moment. To reduce this involved getting a pencil, sticking it into the one wheel while  and trying to unravel the crinkled tape while simultaneously holding the other  wheel stationery. jIt also includes podcasts. CDs have no such issues except they do skip and to listen to a whole book requires multiple changes of discs that are not that convenient to carry around in the gym or on a walk. Podcasts have been my saviour on many a long journey so here’s a  very short list of ones I listen to regularly or find useful resources.

  1. The Readers – a book based banter podcast with Simon and Thomas. Most of you already know this and follow it. It’s a good blend of recommendations on what’s about to be published or just published, general reading topics like how to find more time to read or what to take on your holidays plus you get insight in the reading habits of the two hosts. Plenty of good humoured banter and misunderstandings between the British and American way of life to keep you amused. Be warned though you are likely to end up with an even longer wish list after listening to their recommendations.
  2. Guardian podcast: A Good Read. This is a regular program where two guests and the host select a book that they they rate highly and argue why other people should read it. Each guest describe they book, why they enjoy it and then they have a discussion about its merits. It was through one of these episodes that I was encouraged to read Cannery Row by Steinbeck which I had somehow thought would be rather dreary but proved hilarious at times.
  3. Backlisted podcast: This is a relatively new find for me but I’m enjoying what I’ve heard so far. It’s issued every two weeks and is based on the idea that the simple two hosts choose an old book they think everyone should read. One of the hosts is Andy Miller who wrote The Year of Reading Dangerously in which he talks about how he re-ignited his passion for reading. Expect to hear a fair amount of blokish chit chat – the podcast seems to be recorded around a kitchen table where the hosts do a general catch up with their invited guest for the episode. In one of the first episodes I heard which was about The Riddle of the Sands, a good 30 minutes was taken up with discussions about gin and what each person in the room was reading (and why). When it gets into the meat of the broadcast though, which is the book in question, expect to hear some good quality insight. The podcast is available via SoundCloud or ITunes.
  4. ITunes: A wealth of material here including recordings of entire books. Librivox is one of the main contributors here – these are recorded by volunteers so the quality is extremely variable. I’ve had to give up on a few because I really didn’t like the narrator’s voice but that’s just my taste. My favourites have been some old time radio programs with Adventures of Inspector Maigret by George Simenon and Agatha Christie. It takes a bit of searching to get to them but the reward is worth it.
  5. ITunes University: many leading universities around the world make some of their lecture programmes available via ITunes – to find them go to ITunes and then select ITunes U. The quality can vary enormously – bear in mind that sometimes the lecture itself is recorded as it’s delivered in the lecture room so you may find you can’t pick up the discussion or questions from students. But that’s a minor inconvenience for the value of often feeling you are in the room at some of these prestigious academic centres. A few interesting ones I’ve come across that are good quality are
    1. Oxford University: George Eliot – an introduction to her major works and her intellectual interests.
    2. Open University: good introduction short podcasts on some of their modules. Explore Wordsworth or European Romanticism or creative writing.
    3. Cambridge University: Literary criticism key terms. A great resource for people who want to know what the ‘sublime’ or the ‘pastoral’ means in literature for example.
    4. My current listening is from La Trobe university in Australia which has two courses on children’s literature – one on genres looks at the history of picture books and fairy tales and another takes a post colonial approach. You’ll get used to the accent after a while.

As a bonus here (just to make it up to a list of 10!) is a non book audio program which is a must listen for me:  The Archers podcast. For those of you in the UK this will be a familiar program. But for non UK residents it will come as a bit of a surprise that this is a  5 day a week, 13 minute BBC radio soap opera set in a fictional farming community in the heart of England. Most of the characters are farmers or connected to the land in some way but we also have the village pub, the tea room, a stately home and a grand country hotel to give variety. It’s long evolved from its roots in the 1950s when it was created as a way to give farmers tips on how to increase production to help a country still dealing with food rationing. Today it’s billed as a “Contemporary drama in a rural setting’ which means yes you still get farming issues but there’s also adultery, teenage angst, crime,  road building and currently, the hottest topic of all, marital abuse.

Topping up my library

Some of the smaller libraries in my area are being converted to ‘community libraries’ which means that local people have to fund them. It’s a trend that’s happening all over the UK sadly. It’s meant to be a way of helping the local authorities to meet their budget targets but in effect it means that I, as a local contributor to their funds, end up paying twice. Once through what in the UK we call council tax (a yearly payment to fund local services, the level of which is determined by the size of your home) and then through local fundraising. The library in my village is one of those targeted to be a community library and despite significant opposition from local residents and two court cases, it’s likely to be in place within a month.

It’s going to be a big challenge to get the money needed for even basic things like heating and lighting of the libraries. In the interests of seeing what other community libraries are doing to raise funds, I toddled off to a book sale run by one of them yesterday. All in the interests of market research you understand – I had no intention of buying anything🙂

Well of course you all know what happens in these events. It was inevitable I came away with something. It was all in a good cause anyway – the new library gets a much needed boost to its coffers and I get to enrich my private library. A win-win…  Here’s what I bought.


I’ve never read anything by George Meredith so this rather pristine copy of The Egoist called to me as a way of enhancing my knowledge of Victorian writers.  Looking at the back cover I see it’s considered “the most dazzlingly intellectual of all his novels” in which he turns the spotlight on the pretentiousness of a powerful social class. Virginia Woolf rated him highly apparently.  Maybe the fact that this copy looks as if its hardly been opened tells me that the previous owner was not of a mind with dear Virginia.

Elizabeth von Arnim is someone whose name has cropped up recently as a result of HeavenAli’s review of her novel Love which triggered many comments recommending another of her works – The Enchanted April. The copy I snaffled is a Virago modern classic, number 222, though sadly not in the green livery of other Viragos I have on my shelf. I guess I have to live with the fact that this new purchase spoils the colour scheme of my bookshelf.

Molly Keane is a newish discovery for me though not for people who are avid Virago readers. This summer I read Devoted Ladies which she wrote under her other pen name of M.J. Farrell and while not wowed by it, I enjoyed it enough to want to try her again. Good Behaviour is the first novel published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1981.

What can I say about Michael Cunningham’s The Hours other than I don’t know why its taken me so long to get a copy. The film adaptation starring Meryl Streep is superb but I’m told by those who know such things, that the book itself is even better.

How could I resist anything by Anita Brookner, especially a hardback in such good condition as A Private View. Its focus is George Bland, a 65-year-old bachelor who has just retired from a worthy job in a dull office. Into his rather lacklustre life storms Katy, a young squatter who takes up residence in a flat opposite. She’s abrasive, self-assured and into crystal therapy and other New Agey kinds of things. She awakens some strange sensations in George.

And finally, one I needed to buy to help me reach the finishing line in my Booker Prize project. Vernon God Little by D. C Pierre caused a hoopla when it won the Booker in 2003 because it contains a high proportion of profanities and because the author is a former drug addict. Neither of those are showstoppers for me – if the profanities are an integral part of the story and how it needs to be told I can live with that, its the gratuitous use by authors who think they are being ‘hip’ that irritates me. As for the author’s background, I don’t see how that has a bearing on whether he is a good writer.  Will Vernon Good Little be worth reading? Only time will tell..

Given the low prices I think I was remarkably restrained with this little collection. Have you read any of these or plan to in the future?

All That Man Is by David Szalay: #ManBooker 2016 shortlisted

DavidSzalayNine men. Separated by time, place and attitude but all at a critical turning point in their lives. Decisions they make now – or in some cases fail to make – will have long lasting consequences. Such is the premise of All That Man Is by David Szalay where each of the nine sections of the book focuses on a different individual and a different stage of their lives.

It begins with 17-year-old Simon who is on holiday, criss-crossing Europe with his friend and ticking off places of culture before beginning his university course. Being rather earnest he has no idea how to interact with girls and no clue that the married woman who offers them a room is also offering to initiate him into the mysteries of sex.  Off he goes to bed (alone) with his copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors leaving his friend to take advantage of the opportunity.

Simon’s 73-year-old great grandfather is the final character in the book. He’s a retired government mandarin holed up in his holiday home in Italy to aid his recovery from an operation. Alone he contemplates  “the nightmarish fact of ageing and dying.” and that the “only purpose in life now, it seems, is to stave off physical decay and death for as long as possible”  Not surprisingly he feels depressed at the diminishment of his abilities and a recognition that he and his wife are as strangers with separate lives.

In between these two portraits we encounter a Danish tabloid journalist faced with an ethical dilemma when he learns of a story that could mean the end of his friend’s political ambitions. There’s also a lonely Russian oligarch who contemplates suicide when his fortune disappears because of an ill-judged court case; a bodyguard who falls for the woman he is meant to protect on her nightly visits to hotels to entertain rich men; a lazy Belgian whose holiday in Cyrprus is enlivened by a convivial daughter and mother and a mediaeval academic dismayed when his Cypriot girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, While the stories all relate to England in some way, none of them are actually in the place of their birth when we meet them. All appear to be in transit of some kind.

The emotional pull of these stories is varied with according to the detail with with Szalay portrays the  internal lives of his men. The character of the Russian billionaire Aleksandr is particularly well done – this is a man who went from an existence as a modest figure in the Soviet machine to the world’s number one iron-ore magnate. Now he can’t even afford to pay for dinner for his financial advisor and when asked what hobbies he will pursue now the bubble of his business empire has burst, all he can recall is that his Who’s Who entry lists his interests as ‘wealth’ and ‘power’. For all this man’s wealth and influence in the past we can’t help feeling just a tad sorry for him when, in search of company, he resorts to muscling in on his bodyguard’s microwaved rogan josh.

Over and over we witness these men questioning the purpose of their lives and what happens to them next. The answer often seems to be a bleak one. Billionaire Aleksandr is miserable because he thinks he has lost the meaning of life, James, a property developer hoping to make his next deal the big one, feels he can already see all the way to the end of his life; ‘he already knows everything that is going to happen, that it is all now entirely predictable.” For the medievalist the ideal scenario would be that everything just stays the same; one in which he continues to present and publish his research on the finer points of spoken dialect in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and enjoys weekends with his girlfriend in some of Europe’s finest cities. Ideally he would prefer to be in a distant time, immersing himself in the world of Chaucer’s contemporaries and maybe even a cloistered life. What he doesn’t bargain on is finding that his girlfriend is pregnant and reluctant to fall in line with his preference for an abortion. The tense relationship between this two played out over the course of a few days in quiet country hostelries and cathedral naves is finely tuned and multilayered.

For all the glittering highspots however, this is a book that never really came together for me. The stories felt disparate and there was no overarching cohesive theme. At the end of it I still wasnt clear what point  Szalay was trying to make and what view of the world he wanted to convey other than life is miserable. I think we could have got to that conclusion without having to read 400 pages.

Minus a strong theme that glues these stories into an insightful view of the state of man in the 21st century,  they remained just that – stories. Not a novel. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that a number of them were had been published in Granta magazine – at some point  Szalay must have decided to wrap these into a book. The Man Booker prize judges may have been convinced that the result constituted ‘a novel’ otherwise they wouldn’t have shortlisted it for the 2016 award but I’m not.


Author: All That Man Is by David Szalay

Published: 2016 by Jonathan Cape

Length:448 pages

My copy: I received an electronic copy of this from the publishers via Net Galley in return for an honest review

Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know

The Readers’ Room

Mookes and Gripes


#6Degrees: From a locked room to the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity

flowersWe begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain #6Degrees with a 1979 novel that was a best-seller:  Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews, a chilling story of four children who, on the death of their father, are hidden in an attic room for years so their mother can get her hands on a legacy. Five further novels were published that feature the same group of children though none had the same level of commercial success as Flowers in the Attic. I remember reading this in the period between finishing my finals exams in university and the results. “Everyone” was reading it that summer. Though it was an antidote to all the heavy literary works I’d had to read for the past three years, I didn’t rate it much. I wasn’t at that stage in my reading life where I was comfortable with abandoning books that were just not hitting the mark but this novel definitely falls into the category of Books That Wasted my Time. They were time wasters because they distracted me from far more interesting reading,

devilEqually time wasting was a series of novels by Dennis Wheatley which I devoured during my mid teens. Quite why I was so enthralled by these stories of black magic written in the 1930s I have no idea. Maybe it was just part of the typical teenage rite of passage where everything dark seems appealing (I recall dressing in black a lot at that stage). The one I recall most was The Devil Rides Out which I think was the first in the series. I won’t bore you with the plot – every book in the series had pretty much the same formula which involved a group of people who are called upon to fight  against the forces of supernatural powers. There was a lot of stuff about the protective power of pentangles as far as I recall.

catcher-1From around the same period comes another book I wish I hadn’t bothered to read: Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger. It was required reading amongst my contemporaries in school and probably its themes of teenage angst and alienation resonated with many of them but it left me cold. I realise in saying this that I am bucking accepted wisdom that this is ‘a great novel’ – it does after all feature on many lists of ‘novels you must read.’  But I couldnt get excited about the disjointed form of the narrative and really couldn’t have cared two hoots about Holden Caulfield and his antics in New York hotels.

gatsbyNor did I care about another ‘classic’: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m treading on even more dangerous ground by classing this as a ‘time-wasted’ novel; it is after all considered one of the greatest American novels of all time. I did try to like it, reading it more than once. But though I enjoyed the period detail – all those lavish Long Island parties – I found Daisy Buchanan rather foolish and Jay Gatsby pathetic.  I’ve heard several times how ironic this book is in its critique of the American Dream but that was lost on my because I found the novels so SLOW….


labyrinth-1At least The Great Gatsby was well written which is more than can be said for the next time waster on my list: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Yet another ‘popular’ novel which friends kept pressing me to read. Published in 2005 this is an archaeological mystery English-language novel set both in the Middle Ages and present-day France. It was published in 2005. It divides into two main storylines that follow two protagonists from different time periods who we later discover are related. Ultimately this is a story about the quest for the Holy Grail. I enjoyed some of the historical detail especially the sections set in Carcassonne which I have visited, but this was the novel that demonstrated to me that a) I have too high a level of scepticism to enjoy books which involve secret symbols and codes and b) my friends reading interests do not coincide with mine.

There are not as many time wasting novels these days because I have weened myself off the feeling that once I’ve started reading something I need to finish it, even if I don’t like the book. But now and again a time waster creeps through.  Top of the list was one of the first novels I was sent for review. Today I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages but as a new blogger I felt honour bound to review books I got sent for free. Will the Real William Shakespeare please Step Forward was one such book. It is a book so poorly conceived and badly written that should never have seen the light of day. To say any more would be to waste yet more time however and there are better ways I can think of to spend the next few minutes than telling you about a book that should be avoided.

So there you have it; a chain that takes us from a locked room mystery in the USA to a literary quest set in the heart of England.

Man Booker 2016 shortlist announced

Man Booker 2016-LogoThe Man Booker judges have just announced their 2016 shortlist. Reading the announcement is a good sign for me that I should give up on this prediction lark. I’m clearly useless at it. About as useless as I am deciding what is a prize winning novel. I thought North Water could make it (got that wrong) and was rooting for The Many (also wrong). But they went for His Bloody Project which I didn’t think they would given the genre -the publishing house of Contraband must be dancing all through the streets of Scotland at this. They are a minuscule company -I’m not sure how accurate this is but I heard at one point they have one employee! The judges also selected a book that I would hesitate to call a novel – All That a Man Is. Mercifully they spared us Hystopia though it’s a surprise given the judges said they chose writers that  “take[s] risks with language and form”

Out went the twice-previous winner J.M. Coetzee with The Schooldays of Jesus (I’m reading this at the moment and agree with the judges). Out also is The Many by Wyl Menmuir that I reviewed yesterday. Maybe the judges were not comfortable with a novel that generated so many unanswered questions? Out also is the Pullitzer prize winner Elizabeth Strout – I’m not too surprised at that. It was a really good read but not particularly innovative in its form.

The shortlist is: 

  • Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America. My thoughts: Not read this even as a sample. Early reviews which indicated it was ‘funnyish’ in a heavy- handed, obvious way, were an indication this wouldn’t appeal to me. 
  • Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters My thoughts: I read the first chapter but there was nothing in it that captured my interest. Rather surprised to see it on the shortlist – it must have developed in a more interesting way than the first chapter indicated. 
  • Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869. My thoughts: This is next on my list to read. 
  • Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter. My thoughts: The first chapter had me hooked by its depiction of a plain daughter who has no life outside looking after her alcoholic father and her work at a correctional institution. On my list to read. 
  • David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): My thoughts: Some of the character portrayals of nine different men at different stages of their lives worked better than others. But I still don’t understand what the overarching idea was and I’m surprised to see it on the shortlist.
  • Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): My thoughts: although I read only the first chapter it was enough to indicate that this story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution is one I want to read. Now my challenge is to get hold of  a copy at reasonable cost.

It’s a good list in terms of mix of styles and themes and interesting in that it contains only one biggish name in the form of Deborah Levy (previously shortlisted for Swimming Home) Moshfegh at 35 years old is the youngest author.

The novels that didn’t make it from the longlist:

  • Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines. My thoughts: I didn’t like the sound of this so didn’t read it 
  • J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this is an allegorical novel which is a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus. My thoughts: I’m 75% of the way through this and still baffled by the point of it 
  • A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.My thoughts: I’ve read only the first two chapters and wasnt wowed. 
  • Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. My thoughts: Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here 
  • Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. My thoughts: Although perplexing because the significance of some episodes and characters is unclear, this is a totally engrossing read. 
  • Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic. My thoughts: a brilliant novel, harsh and brutal at times but with superb imagery and  a high class page-turner
  • David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped. My thoughts: I read only the prologue and was already baffled by the idea of using multiple editor notes to try and explain the premise of the novel. Why not just tell the story? 

The Many by Wyl Menmuir #ManBookerlonglist2016

the-many-compositeIs it possible to enjoy a book and appreciate the skill that went into creation and yet finish it not being entirely convinced I understood everything that was contained within its pages? That was my experience with The Many by Wyl Menmuir, long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. It’s a slim novel but one that contains such a multiplicity of symbols and ideas that makes a second reading a necessity.

For a novel that has Gothic overtones, the beginning is appropriately an omen in the form of smoke seen rising from an abandoned clifftop dwelling. The house which overlooks the harbour of a small, unnamed fishing village in Cornwall has been empty for 10 years following the death of its owner, Perran, a man who it appears still casts a powerful influence over the village. Now the house has been bought by an outsider (an ’emmet’ in local parlance) and the villagers doubt he will last long. They’re not exactly welcoming to the stranger, perhaps seeing him as yet another city dweller buying homes along the coast as weekend cottages to the detriment of locals who can’t afford those prices.

The newcomer is Timothy Buchanan, a Londoner,  who bought the derelict property sight unseen and now plans to make it habitable so his wife can join him. It’s a bizarre choice because the house is clearly in a very bad way, with stained curtains, peeling paint, no heating and the smell of dampness. Timothy doesn’t seem to have the means to pay workmen to get the house in order but he doesn’t have the skill or inclination to the do the work himself either. It’s not even as though this is an idyllic spot – an early morning swim on his first day in residence finds him fighting for breath at the unexpected icy temperature and the force of the waves. The following day he learns there is something even more sinister in the water. “If the tide doesn’t get you, the chems will. You want to stay healthy past forty, alive past fifty, you’ll remember to stay well out of the water, ” advises Ethan, one of the local fishermen.

The relationship between Ethan and Timothy develops over time though its not one that is easily fathomed. Ethan is still grieving for Perran, and suffering over what he could have done to prevent his death. Though he steadfastly refuses to answer Timothy’s pushy questions about what happened to the Perran, he thaws enough to invite the visitor onto his boat for a fishing trip and to break the cordon. The ‘chems’ are every present though in the form of heavy pollution by “biological agents and contaminants” that has impacted the fishing grounds and the villagers’ livelihoods. Instead of healthy specimens the nets catch malformed creatures:

The dogfish look burned, as though with acid, their eye sockets elongated and deep, showing through to the bone at the ends and there are white lesions down the side of each body. Their rough black skin is dull and flaked away in patches, the fins thin and ragged where there should be muscle …

A later expedition brings in fish that are:

… colourless and long, and their scales …. are translucent… Beneath the skin, the outlines of organs are visible, shadows in the pale flesh…. in some of them bunches of roe shine through the distended skin of their underbellies.

This is a community that is trapped, isolated and it seems on the verge of disaster. Large container ships loom on the horizon, forming a cordon beyond which the fishermen are ordered by the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture not to sail. Nor can they sell their catches on the open market. Instead men in suits carrying large wads of cash are there to great them and take the stock every time the fleet arrives back in the harbour. Overseeing their transaction is a woman in a grey coat.

The woman in grey is just one of the unsettling and unexplained elements of this book. She never utters a word, she simply stands on the cliff like some spectral figure. Timothy initially thinks of her like a lighthouse beam that periodically illuminates the sea on a dark night. Later he comes to wonder if she is some kind of guardian angel watching over the village. The mystery woman becomes even more mysterious towards the end of the book when Timothy discovers her on her knees as if in prayer, tracing patterns on a road with her fingertips.

But by then Menmuir has built such a web of hallucinatory experiences that it’s not clear whether there really is a woman in grey or she is a figment of Timothy’s imagination, fuelled by a fever that bests him? Is it the aftermath of a traumatic event in his past or a traumatic event that might happen in the future? Does Ethan really see cracks appear suddenly in the protective harbour wall and run down the beach,  early warning signs of a disaster to come that will wipe out not only the houses, but the villagers across whose faces and bodies he sees scars appear?

Questions abound within this novel. Reading it feels like being constantly on the edge of things, being allowed to peek in but denied access to the core of its meaning.  One thing I was certain of, this is not a novel that has a happily resolved ending. Throughout the atmosphere is of impending doom not simply for this one village but for all communities dependent on natural resources for their living. Is Mynmuir giving us a taste of the future or of the present? Yet another of the unresolved questions buzzing around my head long after I got to the final page.


Author: The Many by Wyn Mynmuir

Published: 2016 by Salt

Length:141 pages

My copy: I tried to buy this shortly after it was announced as a long listed title for the ManBooker prize 2016 but such was the low level of copies printed, that the publishers ran out of stock and need an emergency second print run. It was worth the wait however….

Other reviews: A number of bloggers have reviewed this in the run up to the announcement of the Booker Prize. Check out the following. If I missed anyone do let me know

The Readers’ Room

Dolce Bellezza

Lonesome Reader

Information Overload


Top 10 book-to-tv series

This is the time of year where, in the Northern Hemisphere, the TV companies decide to emerge from their summer hibernation and role out their new series. This year the BBC has gone for nostalgia with a remake of some of the most successful comedy programmes of past decades. So we’ve had reprisals of, for example, Hancock’s Half Hour and Till Death Us Do Part. The new versions are dire – no reflection on the actors bit more a comment on the direction which has robbed those programmes of the very freshness that made them so successful. These new versions are simply trying too hard to be funny.

They a reminder that some things are best left alone. They were great as they were and don’t improve with tampering. In honour of the past here are some of my favourite book related programmes of past decades

  1. I Claudius. This BBC series broadcast in 1976 starred Derek Jacobi as the club-footed stammering historian who unwillingly became Emperor. It’s an adaptation of the novels  I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves which trace the history of Rome from the time of the Emperor Augustus and his scheming wife Livia (played with great aplomb  by Sian Phillips). That might sound like a dry and dusty history programme but its really a saga of a family who would make the Mafia come across as a basket of poodles. Incest, plots, murder amd war abound. Yes the sets seem a little cardboard at times but such is the power of the story and the strength of the actors ( which include John Hurst as a wonderfully over the top Caligula that you tend to ignore them.
  2. Jewel in the Crown. A 1984 series about the final days of the British Raj in India during World War II, based upon the Raj Quartet novels (1965–75) by Paul Scott. Those novels are among my favourites and the TV series does them full justice via some stellar performances by Geraldine James as Sarah Layton, the daughter of a British colonel  who comes to question Britain’s role in India,  and Tim Pigott-Smith as the police superintendent turned Major, Ronald Merrick who desperately wants to be accepted by the higher echelons of society.
  3. Pride and Prejudice. You knew there had to be an Austen on the list right? The 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth is the one I rate the most. But it’s not because of that scene where Darcy emerges in clinging garments from his impromptu swim in a lake to confront Lizzie. The scenes that stick more in my mind are the ones where the sycophantic vicar Mr Collins tries to claim acquaintance with the high and mighty Mr Darcy only to be snubbed and another later scene where Miss Elizabeth Bennett tells the status-conscious, interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh to stick her nose in someone else’s business. All other versions of Austen’s novel pale into insignificance against this one.
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit: the 1994 BBC adaptation mercifully eliminates the rather boring sequence from Dickens’ novel where the eponymous hero takes off for the USA to make his fortune only to land in a swampy disease-filled settlement where he succumbs to malaria and almost dies. It’s a fast paced novel which clearly shows how greed and selfishness affect the actions of the main characters. It has some memorable cameo performances from Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff and Pete Postlethwaite as the magnificently named Tigg Montague
  5. A set of novels about a twelfth century Benedictine monk  who has the forensic powers to root out crime and wrongdoing, might sound like an odd premise for a best seller. But in Brother Cadfael, the linguist Edith Pargeter (using the pseudonym of  Ellis Peters) created a memorable figure and a set of novels well respected for their historical authenticity. The TV adaptations starring Derek Jacobi, broadcast between 1994 and 1998 generated a new swathe of fans who began making a pilgrimage to the town of Shrewsbury, on the border of England and Wales, where Brother Cadfael was based. They were not to know that the programs were actually filmed in Hungary… and starring Derek Jacobi as the monk in Shrewsbury. Otherwise most of the 13 episodes were reasonably faithful to the books – the relationship between Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury Hugh Berringer is more cordial on the screen than in Peters’ novels however.
  6. Agatha Christie created two memorable detective figures, of whom Miss Marple is my favourite. Many actresses have played the role over the years but forjoan_hickson me there is one whose portrayal stands head and shoulders above all others and that is  Joan  Hickson. She played the title role in the tv series  Miss Marple that aired in the UK from the end of 1984 to the end of 1992. The 12 episodes were all beautifully filmed mainly in Norfolk, Devon and Oxfordshire though in one Miss M gets to go to Barbados. It’s Joan Hickson’s performance that makes these ‘must view’ programs – behind  those faded blue eyes and the chatter about village life lies a sharp mind that gets to the essence of the case faster than any policeman.
  7. Middlemarch. It would take a brave script writer to try to take this hugely complex novel and render it meaningful for a tv audience. But Andrew Davies, who has since made his name as the go to scriptwriter for adaptations of the classics, pulled off a critical success in 1994. He had to make choices of course, the chief of which was to give special weight to George Eliot’s theme of thwarted ambition and unfulfilled dreams. He was greatly aided by the performances of Juliet Aubrey who delivers the right mix of earnestness and naievity as Dorothea and Patrick Malahide as the disappointed academic cleric Casaubon who is afraid his wife will discover how his life’s work has been all for nothing. Simply brilliant.
  8. If you’ve ever read the classic spy novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre you’ll know how complex this is. The novel follows the endeaguinessvors of a taciturn, ageing spymaster called George Smiley to uncover a Soviet mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service. It’s a complex novel that deals the intricacies of who within the intelligence service knew what. The 1979 TV adaptation was still tough going – I’ve seen this series at least three times and though I can remember who the mole is, I still have no clue how we got to that conclusion.We did however get to see Alec Guinness turn in a beautifully understated performance as Smiley, the guy brought back to save the British government from embarrassment.
  9. To Serve Them all My Days: This was a rather lovely novel by R F Delderfeld in which he takes a coal miner’s son from South Wales who returns from the trenches of World War 1 injured and shell-shocked. He gets a job as a history teacher at a public school in Devon and, after several false starts and mishaps, becomes a much loved master , he is employed to teach history at Bamfylde School, a fictional public school in North Devon, in the south-west of England. The tv adaptation, script written by Andrew Davies, was broadcast between 1980 and 1981, and is as cosily watchable as the novel is cosily readable.
  10. Inspector Morse The novels by Colin Dexter which feature Chief Inspector Morse were not brilliant I have to say – sometimes rather thin on description and character development – but the television series is one of my go-to favourites on a cold, winter’s night. Just the sight of those cuppolas and ivy-clad facades of warm Cotswold stone and I’m hooked.  John Thaw  memorably showed the character’s irascibility and frustration with bureaucracy, his aversion to blood and his love of music (especially Wager).There were 33 episodes in all — 20 more than there are novels  in fact – which aired between 1987 and 2000. Dexter made uncredited cameo appearances in all but three of the episodes.
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