Time for another episode of WWWWednesday in which I talk about the books that are on my radar.
What I’m reading now
The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny is book number 5 on my 15booksofsummer list which is a virtual ‘holiday’ around the world. So far I’ve visited Wales (well that wasn’t hard!); Austria, Croatia and the United States.
Penny’s novel gives me a reason to visit Canada.
The Cruelest Month is number three in the series of novels featuring Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sûreté du Québec. There are 14 novels in the series; the 15th – A Better Man – is due to be published in August 2019. I’ve read seven of these but not in publication order.
The Cruelest Month is set in spring in the tiny, picture-postcard village of Three Pines. Buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. For some bizarre reason, some of the villagers decide this is a good time to hold a séance at the Old Hadley House, a dilapidated property where nasty things happened years earlier. They are hoping their actions will rid the village its dark past. Of course it all goes wrong and one of the group dies. Was she murdered or did she die of fright. It’s up to Gamache to find the truth.
WWWWednesday is also about…..
What I just finished reading
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote was another from my summer reading list. It’s also on my ClassicsClub reading list.
It’s one of those books that I’d been intending to read for a long, long time. It’s a delightfully atmospheric novella with an unforgettable character whose name Holly Golightly is forever synonymous with Audrey Hepburn who played the starring role in the film version.
I made a temporary deviation from my 15booksofsummer itinerary when my library request came through for Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Big Sky.
It was worth the change of plan as you can see from my very enthusiastic review.
Of course, now I have been re-introduced to her private eye Jackson Brodie, I ‘m getting an itch to re-read all the earlier books in this series.
What I’ll read next
This is always the hardest question for me because I really dislike planning my reading.
If I continue on the summer reading list, I’m due to visit Jamaica via The Long Song by Andrea Levy.
Levy takes us to her native country in the nineteenth century, a time of slavery and sugar plantations. Her tale relates the experiences of a young slave girl, July, who lives through through the 1831 Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, and the beginning of freedom. The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010.
The reason I’m hesitant is that there are some new acquisitions which are calling to me, including the book that arrived today.
Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
Big Sky by Kate Atkinson
I’ve fallen in love again.
My admiration for Kate Atkinson collapsed in the last few years when she began to experiment with time-shifting novels like Life after Life. Her latest novel, Transcription, was also a huge disappointment.
Where was the energetic prose, the intricate plots and witty characterisations that had made reading her work such a pleasure in the past? I feared she’d gone completely off the boil.
But my fears were unfounded.
For “my” beloved Kate Atkinson is back. And with a vengeance.
Brodie is older (of course) and still rather world-weary. But he hasn’t lost his natural inclination to help or rescue other people. If he can prevent them suffering, as he did in his own life, he will, even if that means diving into the sea or jumping off a cliff.
Big Sky sees him living in Yorkshire in the occasional company of an ageing Labrador and a taciturn teenage son (both on loan from his ex-partner Julia.
Evil lurks in seaside towns
It’s a picturesque location but one that has a sinister side.
The seaside towns of Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington were once the hunting grounds for a paedophile ring. Though the organisers were jailed, two young female detectives have started to investigate other suspected participants, including high profile members of the establishment.
What police don’t realise is that the area’s sordid past lives on through three men who’ve made a lucrative business from human trafficking.
There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.
Their prey are young women from Eastern Europe who are duped into believing hotel jobs and a better life await them in England. Instead they become sex slaves.
Tightly woven web of plot lines
Past and present come together in an artfully constructed plot with multiple strands that initially appear unconnected. Slowly the threads are drawn together with the help of a few coincidences and red herrings. By the end, everything is explained clearly for those readers who had a hard time keeping up.
Big Sky is a novel that begins slowly. Atkinson is clearly in playful mode, introducing one set of characters only to abandon them for many pages while she brings another cast to the stage. We get to know three golfing buddies; their wives; a pair of super-organised, keen as mustard female detectives, and – fleetingly– some of the trafficked girls. Figures from previous novels flit in and out like Tatiana, the Russian girl Brodie knew from “another lifetime when she had been a dominatrix and he had been fancy-free.”
Having set all the balls in motion, Atkinson cranks up the pace in the final quarter with chapters chock full of kidnapped children, suspicious vehicles, rescued girls and shootings.
Blue Sky is a fabulously entertaining book that is a significantly superior beast to most crime novels.
Humour amid the darkness
That’s because of its beautifully drawn characters and a waspishly witty element of humour. Just take a look at Vince, a “middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, middle-class man” who’s been kicked out of his job and his marital bed.
He was grinding towards fifty and for the last three months had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli – he’d been on a short-lived health kick – and said, ‘Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?’ leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry.
It’s that detail of the Tesco brand cereal that makes all the difference in this sentence. There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate Kate Atkinson’s knack of nailing a character in just a phrase or a few sentences.
One wife gets put down like this:
She shopped from the Boden catalogue and was proud of having grown a horrible stunted little tree.
Another woman (one of the most complex in the book) is every inch the trophy wife:
Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.
But having framed her as the archetypal arm candy blond, ex model, and manicurist; Atkinson then proceeds to confound our expectations. Crystal turns out to be a shrewd and determined woman who refuses to allow the evils of her past get in her way. Women, in this novel, do ultimately get their revenge on those who treat them as disposable goods.
Do you need to have read all previous Jackson Brodie novels to enjoy this one?
I’d never want to dissuade someone from reading all of this series but you don’t have to in order to appreciate Big Sky. Atkinson provides enough of the back story about Brodie and his tangled love life that you can read this as a stand alone novel.
I’m certain once you’ve read this one however, you’ll be ultra keen to start right at the beginning of the series. Yes, Big Sky really is that good.
- Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh.
- Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museumwon the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
- She won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 with Life after Life (see my review here) and again in 2015 with A God in Ruins.
- Her first novel to feature Jackson Brodie was Case Histories, published in 2005. Stephen King called it “The best mystery of the decade.”
- Big Sky was published in June 2019 by Doubleday
Want to know more?
The Penguin website has an extract from Big Sky which is taken from the first scene involving Jackson Brodie.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Kate Atkinson talks about the impetus to write Big Sky.
Is this a familiar picture?
Every shelf in every bookcase in your home is stuffed with unread books.
There are books on tables and on the floor.
Every conceivable space is occupied by books you have not yet read. They’re becoming a source of much grumbling by your nearest and dearest.
And yet each week you end up buying more. That TBR list is becoming a monster.
You’ve tried hiding the books, pretending that if you can’t see them, that they don’t exist. But when you trip over them at every turn, you know no can no longer stay in denial.
You occasionally talk about tackling this ogre. But you don’t really know how.
If this does sound familiar, then you are certainly not alone. Virtually every book blogger I follow has – at some point- grumbled about the overwhelming size of their TBR.
The good news? You can do something about this.
9 strategies to help you slay that TBR monster
1 Reframe the issue
My TBR currently stands at 314. I occasionally moan about this on the blog. But if I’m being completely honest with myself – and with you – that’s just for show.
Because deep down I count that stack as a blessing not a curse. It means I have a personalised library at my fingertips, always open 24/7, 365 days a year.
Only thing I don’t like? Tripping over the piles around the house ….
So, as much as I love my library, I do want to scale it back to a more manageable number. I’m not going to get stressed out about it. I’m just going to be more pragmatic.
To reframe the issue, challenge yourself to answer this question:
Is your TBR is a source of tribulation or a source of delight?
Switching to a more positive mindset could help you approach the next steps with more optimism.
2. Measure the beast
You can’t tackle the TBR issue until you know exactly the scale of your task.
That means you have to do a count of every unread book you have in your house/apartment/caravan/yurt. You’ll be using this number later.
Pull out every unread book in your home. Pile them all up on the floor or the table.
Count them all.
You might be surprised the total isn’t higher. (I doubt it since books seem to have a habit of lurking in dark corners, hiding down the back of the sofa. ) But you might also be horrified because never in your wildest dreams did you realise you had THAT many.
It doesn’t matter what your total is; what does matter is that you’ve done the tally.
Before you put them all back in their original homes you must:
A. Make a note of this number and the date you did the count. This is now your baseline
B. Take a photo of this stack. It’s a physical reminder of the scale of your challenge
3 Time to stocktake
Think of yourself as the owner of a bookshop. As a good business person you know it’s important to have a realistic view of four elements.
- What items are in your shop.
- What is ‘selling’ well.
- Which items are slow moving.
- What items are unsuitable for sale because they’re damaged goods.
When you have a clear picture of what you have in your TBR ‘library’ you’ll be in a stronger position to:
- discover over-stocking ( ie duplicate or triplicate copies of the same book) and
- find ‘lost’ items: books you thought had disappeared entirely and
- unearth damaged books; those with loose pages or broken spines and
- avoid waste (how many times in the past have you bought a book only to discover you already had a copy at home).
Stocktaking your TBR library means you need to make a record all of your books. As a minimum you should document:
- book title and
- author name and
- date purchased/acquired.
You can use a spreadsheet or use a platform like Goodreads or Library Thing. The choice is yours.
I prefer to have my list in spreadsheet format because I want to record more than just the basics.
These are my additional columns.
- Date of publication.
- Nationality of the author.
- Date I read the book.
- Whether I finished it
- Category (for example crime, classic, book in translation).
- Notes about how I obtained this book (for example, was it a book club choice, a birthday gift, a review copy).
4. Set a goal
If you want to be successful at reducing your TBR, you need to set a goal. Without a goal you lack focus and direction. Goal setting not only allows you to take control of the project, it also gives you a way to determine if you are actually succeeding.
Your goal must be clear and well defined. Vague or generalised goals are unhelpful because they don’t provide sufficient direction. So include precise amounts, dates, and so on in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. If your goal is stated only as “Reduce my TBR” how will you know when you have been successful?
The actual goal is your choice. Only you know what you can realistically achieve.
How do you decide on a realistic goal?
Think about it this way:
How many books do you read on average each year?
If your answer is 50 and you have 500 + plus books in your TBR that means you have 10 year’s worth of reading sitting in your home. And that’s without buying or acquiring a single new book. Maybe you’d be more comfortable with 5 year’s worth of books – so your goal is a 50% reduction.
Your goal could be framed as a percentage or as an absolute number reduction from the total you identified earlier.
Reduce my TBR by 10% by end of [year]
Reduce my TBR to [xx] books by end [year]
If you have a very ambitious target, you might find it more satisfying to think of your goal in multiple stages.
Reduce my TBR by 20% by [end 2022] – reach 5% reduction by [end 2021]
How do you achieve your goal?
By taking one step at a time.
individually, these strategies are not designed to get you to your ultimate goal. But collectively they will ensure you can make significant progress.
5. Remove your ‘slow moving goods’
Slow moving goods is how I describe books that you’ve had for a very long time. You keep promising yourself you will read them. But you never get around to it – there’s always something new catching your eye.
Now is the time to get real. If you haven’t read it in the last five years are you realistically going to read it within the next five years? I doubt it.
Here’s what you do.
Make a pile of all the unread books you’ve owned for longer than 5 years.
Examine them one by one. For each book, challenge yourself whether you will really read it in the next 5 years. You have be firm here. Try not to sit on the fence.
If the answer is clearly “NO”, then put the book in an OUT pile. You’re going to give these away to friends, relatives, charity shops, hospitals etc. Anyone who will take them. You could try to sell them (for example via eBay, or services like ziffit.com)
If the answer is “MAYBE” set the book aside for now. If you find you have a tower of books in the “maybe” category then I’d question whether you’re being rigorous enough. You probably the exercise again…..
You could easily adapt this to a different time frame. If you have a particularly large target you may need to be more ruthless and choose books older than 3 years for example.
6. Get off the fence
You’ve ended up with a pile of books you ‘maybe’ want to read. Tackling this pile should be your next step.
First pick a book. Read about 30 pages. Then decide whether it’s interested you enough to want to continue reading.
If no, then add it to your OUT pile
If YES then you can put it back on your sheIf.
Make a note of when you last assessed this book. If it’s still unread one year after that date, then it’s clearly not for you. Out it should go.
7. Dealing with new stock
You love reading. But you also love buying books. Unless you control the number of new items coming into your library you’re never going to slay the TBR monster.
Some bloggers take the drastic step of implementing a purchasing ban. No new books until their TBR is down to a manageable level.
I know that would never work for me. Maybe it won’t for you either.
But you could use a variation on that theme. As an example: for every five books you read from your TBR you allow yourself to buy one new book..
For those of a nervous disposition, yes you’re allowed a few treats to mark birthdays and other special occasions.
Remember though, that every new book that comes in needs to be added to your TBR spreadsheet or Goodreads list, noting the date purchased etc.
8. Read the books
Yes it really is that simple.
Books are meant to be read. They’re not ornaments. But then you knew that didn’t you?
So all you have to do is read the ones you haven’t read until now.
If you find it difficult to decide what to read next, there are multiple challenges in the blogosphere that can help you overcome indecision:
You’ll find a few of them here:
The start of a new year is always heralded by announcements of new challenges, so keep your eyes peeled. But of course you don’t have to wait for a new year before you start tackling that TBR monster.
If you’re not into challenges, you might enjoy using a TBR jar to select your next read. This is where you can unleash your creativity if that’s what rocks your boat. For an explanation of this take a look at the post on The Chic Site.
9. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Congratulations on working your way through all these strategies, But this is no time to rest on your laurels. You need to exercise constant vigilance if you don’t want to end up in the same mess again.
Set a date to do at least an annual ‘stocktake’
Keep challenging yourself with those books you labelled as ‘maybe’s’
What are you waiting for?
Time to get started
These are strategies I’m intending to use to reduce my TBR mountain.
What strategies have you used that you found successful?
We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect.
A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:
- kept up with your challenges and projects?
- nailed that TBR stack?
- found any knock out, truly brilliant books?
I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners. And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.
Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs and two literary fiction titles.
Milkman by Anna Burns
After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.
The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage
Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants. This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members. But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. A more detailed review will follow but for now, I’ll just say that if you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.
Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.
What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review
If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:
- Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
- Clinic appointments running hours behind schedule
- Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.
It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.
Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.
Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.
This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor on the frontline of the NHS. Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.
I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.
Undermined by bureaucracy
What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.
Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.
Yet scandalously ….
….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital. And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);
… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and
… they are not allowed to sleep on a spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.
I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors. The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.
It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.
He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.
On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”
What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.
Comedy amid the tragedy
Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.
When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen. It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.
Adam Kay has plenty of stories.
There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.
Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…
As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).
Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.
Lack of investment
This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.
My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.
Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:
So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.
This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.
Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.
This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes
This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.
It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor. The diaries were intended as a “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.
He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.
Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.