Category Archives: Book Genres

What I’m Reading: Episode 27, May 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

Given I have zero tolerance for heights, you might be surprised to learn that I’m reading a book about climbing. It won’t be my first either – many years ago I was fascinated by Regions of the Heart, an autobiography of the British climber, Alison Jane Hargreaves.  She reached the summit of Everest alone, without oxygen or Sherpas in May 1995. Later that year she died in a storm while descending K2.

I suspect what interests me in this kind of book is that they reveal levels of endurance and courage I don’t have myself.

My current read takes place closer to home; among the slate quarries of North Wales. Many of them were abandoned when the industry declined leaving behind enormous craters; just the kind of terrain to attract climbers.

In  Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene, Peter Goulding talks about his love affair with slate and the motley gang who join him in scaling the heights of oddly named landmarks like Orangutan Overhang. I’m on the blog tour for this book which is published by New Welsh Rarebyte on June 4.

I’m also making my way through Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope, number four in his Chronicles of Barsetshire series. It took a time to get going but the drama has now kicked up a gear with the bailiffs about to come knocking on the door of a vicar caught up in the financial schemes of a so-called friend. Some of the well known and well-loved characters from previous books make an appearance including the quite awful bishop’s wife Mrs Proudie.  

What I just finished reading

I managed to get to the library the day before all branches in our county were closed indefinitely because of Covid-19. By good fortune it meant I could pick up Actress by Anne Enright. What a delight that turned out to be; a book so good that I didn’t want it to end.

It’s a character study in which a daughter tells the story of her actress mother Katherine O’Dell in an attempt to answer the question she is most often asked “What was she like?” There is another question in the narrative: why did Katherine go mad?

The book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 but strangely never made the shortlist. Maybe she will be more successful with the Booker Prize when that longlist is announced in July – Actress is definitely on a par with The Gathering, the novel that won her the prize in 2007.

What I’ll read next

I’ve resisted the temptation to join in 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746books.com again this year. I love the event even though I have never managed to complete my list but at the beginning of the year I made a decision to avoid any challenges which involve reading from a list. That won’t stop me feeling envious when I see all the other participants blogging about their reading plans

I do have a few books lined up already, the result of getting carried away with review copies. Plus I’ve been trying to support independent bookshops and publishers during these extraordinary times so my book buying has gone through the roof.

First for me to read will be The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith. It’s a debut novel taking place amid a health crisis in the world – a theme we have become all too familiar with in recent month. Smith’s novel is about one woman’s hunt for her birth mother at a point in the future when an antibiotic crisis has decimated the population. The ebook came out in April with the paperback version published by Orenda out on July 9.

There are some new books coming out I have my eye on. One is by the Welsh author Alis Hawkins. Those Who Know is the third in her Teifi Valley Coroner series. It’s out in ebook format but publication of the paperback (the format I’d prefer to read) is postponed until September. I’m waiting for my order of her novel set during the time of the Black Death – The Black and the White  – to arrive through my letterbox.

And I’ve just taken delivery of Nia by another Welsh author, Robert Minhinnick, published by Seren Books. It’s about a new mother who joins forces with two friends to explore an unmapped cave system. As events unfold, the strands of her life come into focus – her dysfunctional parents, the daughter she must raise differently, the friends with whom she shared childhood.


Those are my plans. I’ve only now realised that a number of the books I’ve mentioned have a Welsh connection. 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.

What I’m Reading: Episode 26, March 2020

Time to share with you all what I’m currently reading, what I recently read and what I plan to read next. 

What I’m reading now

For the first time ever I purchased a book in advance of publication. I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so much, I just had to have the final instalment in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. I wasn’t expecting The Mirror & The Light to be so big. Huge in fact and because it’s in hardback, it’s heavy. Which makes it very difficult to read in bed….

Hilary Mantel

But that’s only part of the reason why my progress through this book is at glacial speed. The main factor is that this is a book which takes a good amount of concentration. Mantel’s narration is slippery. You have to keep on your toes to be certain who is speaking. Plus there are a lot of characters (the list at the front of the book is five pages long).

But I’m not complaining. This is a book of sheer brilliance. It is absolutely meant to be savoured. I suspect I’m still going to be reading it when it’s time to do my April edition of “What I’m Reading”.  

What I just finished reading

WalesReadingMonth (otherwise known as Dewithon 2020) has been running throughout March. As you’d expect I’ve been participating in the event hosted by Paula at Book Jotter by reading a few books by Welsh authors that were on my TBR shelves.

I posted my review of one of these – Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans – a few days ago. It wasn’t great. Far more to my taste was One Moonlit Night by Caradog Pritchard. It was written in the Welsh language in 1961 as a portrayal of life in a small slate quarrying town in North Wales. The narrator recalls his childhood in this community, a life in which joy, sadness and tragedy are seldom apart.

Caradog Pritchard

Pritchard’s novel is written in a poetic style but also uses the local dialect. Once you’ve tuned into this, and got accustomed to the oddities of character names (Will Starch Collar is my favourite), the book is tremendous. I’ll post a more considered response in the next few days.

Incidentally the photo was taken on what turned out to be my very last trip to a coffee shop for some considerable time. No prizes for guessing why coffee shops are no go areas right now.

I also just finished The Silent Treatment by Abbie Greaves, a debut novel which comes out in April. It has an interesting twist on the theme of relationships because it focuses on a married couple who have not spoken to each other for six months. I’m on the blog tour for this mid April so will share my thoughts in a few weeks.

Abbie Greaves

What I’ll read next

I said at the beginning of the year that I was pulling back from reading challenges that involved making lists of books to read or goals for the number of books to read. But I am joining in short reading events where I can and where I have a suitable book/s on my TBR.

There are two coming up fairly soon. One is ZolaAddictionMonth hosted by Fanda and the other is the 1920club hosted by Karen and Simon.

I have one book lined up for each.

For Zola Addiction month I have His Excellency Eugene Rougon/Son Excellence Eugène Rougon which is book number two in Zola’s Rougon-Macquet cycle. I’ve been reading them out of order but am now trying to fill in the gaps.

For the 1920 reading club I have Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. This will be the final book on my Classics Club project (woo hoo….)

I turned to Twitter to help me decide which to read first. But it didn’t help. Because it was a draw… So I shall have to rely on my instinct instead.

In the meantime there is the (not so small) matter of the Mantel to finish, and The Binding which is the next book club choice. And a library loan of Actress by Anne Enright (not that it needs to be finished soon because libraries have gone the way of coffee shops). And more than 200 other books on my shelves.

I shall be busy.


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.

In Death There is Still Joy: Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

Dear Life by Rachel Clarke

We live in an age when people share the most deeply personal aspects of their life with complete strangers.

Magazines are plastered with articles detailing celebrities’ experiences of eating disorders/sexuality/mental health/abuse just to mention a few. And I’m not sure how daytime television would survive if it didn’t have a steady stream of guests willing to open up on issues that a few generations ago would have been considered taboo.

But there’s one topic about which we are strangely reticent even though it affects every one of us. Death. 

t’s a form of denial, a basic human instinct to avoid what is uncomfortable. We even avoid using the actual word. Instead we turn to euphemisms which sound less direct, less harsh, less final in a sense. We don’t say a friend/relative died, they “passed away” or “passed over” or simply “passed”. 

The Fear Factor

Our own death is more difficult to contemplate than that of our loved ones. So we don’t prepare for it. We treat it a bit like those tax return demands, a task we know we have to deal with – but at heart we’re afraid. So the longer we can delay the task, the happier we are.

Few of us would, out of choice, spend our days surrounded by people whose time on this earth can be measured in weeks or days. 

But that’s exactly the world Rachel Clarke decided to embrace. After more than a decade as a doctor who fought to save lives, using every drug and machine at her disposal, she changed direction. Now as a consultant in palliative medicine she cares for people whose battle for life is over. A specialism that’s little understood or valued.

If neurosurgeons are the rock stars of the medical hierarchy – its sexy, alpha, heart-throb heroes – then palliative care doctors are the dowdy support act. A low-rank medical speciality, we lurk in the shadows, too close to death for comfort …. No one in the hospital is quite sure what we get up to, and usually does not wish to know either. Death is taboo for many reasons, not least the fear that it might just be catching.

Dear Life begins as an autobiography, charting Rachel Clarke’s life as the daughter of a hard-working dedicated GP. She considered following in his footsteps but instead followed the path of literature and the arts, becoming a television documentary maker. 

Rachel Clarke, author of Dear Life

In her late 20s she re-assessed her life, abandoned the broadcasting world and retrained as a doctor. What she witnessed in the emergency unit, convinced her to make palliative care her specialism. 

Despite my love of acute and emergency medicine, I found myself drawn to patients with life-limiting illness precisely, in part, because some other doctors ran a mile.

Learned Detachment

Clarke is critical of doctors she heard curtly despatching their patients to the “palliative dustbin” as if they felt that once in a terminal phase of illness, human lives were no longer worth engaging with. But she tempers her censure; acknowledging that from detachment is an essential requirement in the medical profession. It’s a lesson that begins the day that an aspiring doctor begins their medical training.

We might have chosen medicine because we wanted to help people, but doctors could not and should not allow their compassion free rein. … The challenge then for every doctor was to acquire sufficient detachment to be useful while maintaining one’s essential humanity.

That need for detachment is put severely to the test when death comes right to the door of Rachel Clarke’s own life. In his 70s her father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Clarke was ever the professional as they discussed at length his diagnosis and his treatments. But as his health deteriorated and it was clear he was close to death, it was the daughter who took over, who bathed him just as he had once bathed her in childhood.

Candid and Sensitive

Dear Life is candid yet overwhelmingly sensitive and moving account of what it’s like to work in the world of the dying. A uncomfortable book to read you might think, one that would be far too depressing; too emotional, too heartbreaking. 

Of course it’s emotional. Of course it tugs at the heart. How could it not? But Rachel Clarke shows that even when people are at their lowest ebb, they have the capacity to love and embrace moments of unadulterated joy.  Dear Life gives us a wedding, a fiercely independent woman coiffured and dressed in pearls for her final bridge session and an elderly woman who had lovingly frozen portions of fruit and fish so her husband would be able to survive without her.

These anecdotes were the ones that brought the tears to my eyes. Because they’re not about death, but about life and how people like Rachel Clarke help us prepare to say goodbye in a way that truly means we can rest in peace.

Dear Life is quite simply a stunning book. I urge you to cast aside any fears it will touch on too many nerves and get yourself a copy. I guarantee you will not regret it.

Macabre Origins of a World-Renowned Woman: Little by Edward Carey

Little by Edward Carey

If you like novels that deliver down and dirty versions of history, you’ll love Little by Edward Carey. Heads are severed, rats run amok in the corridors of a palace and fleas breed in muck-strewn streets. Add to which are blood-dripping severed heads and decomposing bodies.

This isn’t some nightmare location of a horror novel. It’s how Paris is seen by Marie Grosholtz, an orphaned girl apprenticed to a maker of wax heads and bodies during the time of the French Revolution.

Never heard of Marie Grosholtz? I’m not surprised. As a child she was one of life’s nobodies; a plain, uneducated servant girl who lived in a tumbledown house in Paris that was once a monkey museum. You’ll know her better by the name she adopted after her marriage: Madame Tussaud. Yes that Madam Tussaud. The one who created one of the world’s most successful entertainment empires.

An Extraordinary Life Re-imagined

Little is Edward Carey’s imaginative version of Madam Tussaud’s early life. To describe it as an extraordinary life would be an understatement.

Orphaned at six, Marie became apprentice-cum servant to Doctor Curtius, an eccentric doctor in Switzerland, learning first how to draw the human body and then to make wax versions of diseased body parts. Moving to Paris she progressed to making wax human heads for display and was engaged as art tutor to the King’s sister.

Heroes and villains of the Revolution put their heads in her hands (some more willingly than others of course). Jean-Paul Marat; Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre and King Louis XVI to name just a few. .

An Unusual Narrator

She’s a brilliant narrator. This short-sighted, hook-nosed tiny figure has strong emotions and isn’t afraid to express them or to act upon them. She is not an evident supporter of the Revolution but her views about egalitarianism and equality would have found support in many quarters.

View a person without clothes, and that person could be anyone from any time, great or insignificant. The human body has changed very little over hundreds of years; no matter what you put over it, underneath it still looks the same. Clothe that person, however and you pin him down.

She even has the temerity to insist that her royal pupil looks beyond the clothes and accept that she and her servants have the exact same internal bodily organs and mechanisms.

Looking Beyond The Obvious

Marie has learned herself how to see beyond the obvious; to look beneath the skin as it were. And she puts this to good use to bring to life the people who inhabit the macabre world of revolutionary France. Marie doesn’t just write her own story, she draws it – her pencil sketches of people, some of their body parts, and occasional objects, appear throughout the book.

Together they provide some of the most entertaining elements of Little. King Louis XVI for example becomes a man with ” a fleshy underchin and womanly breasts all of which he stroked from time to time with his pudgy, knuckless hands.” Dr Curtius looks to the young Marie like a skeleton when she first sees him lurking in the shadows:

…. a very thin, long man. So long his head nearly touched the ceiling. A pale ghostly face; the meagre candlelight in the room trembled about it, showing hollows in place of cheeks, showing moist eyes, showing small wisps of dark, greasy hair.

She’s an equally acute observer when she turns her eyes upon the streets of Paris. She’d been told to expect a city full of culture and great minds. But what she sees is a city crowded with desperation and poverty.

One day as I was coming back from the market, I saw a mound in a ditch, some heap of rubbish, but when I came closer I saw hair upon one end. A head, a female human head, grey and fallen in, a body lying dead in the street and all the people walking by i and paying it no heed. A person all stopped, collapsed and ignored; a person of indeterminate age that had once dressed itself and been among us. This is Paris, I thought. Dead people punctuating the streets and no one to care for them.

Carey tells his tale with relish. I don’t mean that he wallows in the guts and gore but that he gives Marie a personality that is hard to resist. Little is a fabulous book, ingenious, unforgettable and unputdownable.

Little by Edward Carey: End Notes

Edward Carey was inspired to write Little because of his experience working at the museum. Entertainment Weekly has an interesting interview in which he talks about his research and why it took him 15 years to write Little.

Little is published by Aardvark Bureau, part of the Gallic Books Collective

The novel was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2019

Poison pens: When writers’ friendships turn sour

When writers’ friendships fall apart there is often acrimony and – being writers – details of their differences and bitterness are sometimes committed to print. How voraciously we gobble up these traded insults, verbal dust-ups and flurries of bitchiness!

It’s been going on for ages. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were great pals until the former insisted on getting solo billing on the collaboration that resulted in Lyrical Ballads.

Ernest Hemingway was notoriously unkind to former buddy F Scott Fitzgerald. After a toxic combination of jealousy, alcohol and money parted the pair, Hemingway spoke openly of Fitzgerald’s marital difficulties and artistic struggles – and publicly called Fitzgerald a “moaner and a sissy”. 

Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson feuded publicly after Wilson described the former’s translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin as “uneven and banal.” Nabokov fired back that Wilson was a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say, 600 basic words.”

Sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble have never really been friends. They haven’t seen eye to eye since childhood, the latter once saying: “It’s sad, but our feud is beyond repair.” Sad indeed – the sisters are both in their 80s.

Paul Theroux’s long-term friendship with his mentor Vidia Naipaul ended with the American author being snubbed by Naipaul as they passed in a London street. Theroux paused to chat with his old buddy, Naipaul coldly mumbled a grudging response and moved on without stopping. This was in 1997, some 31 years after the pair met at an academic outpost in Uganda when Theroux was 26 and the Trinidad-born writer 34.

In the London street Theroux had asked the recently remarried Naipaul why he hadn’t responded to his last note to him. “Take it on the chin and move on,” said the departing Naipaul.

But Theroux didn’t follow that advice. He nursed the insult, brooded over it and, eventually, wrote a book because of it. Is ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ an account of true friendship won and lost? Or is it a literary exercise in revenge – an attempt to erase the humiliation he felt at Naipaul’s treatment of him?

shadow cover

In days of friendship – Paul Theroux, left, with his mentor V S Naipaul.

As San Diego Reader critic Judith Moore wrote: “I can’t help but believe that the Naipaul whom we meet in ‘Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ is a creature born from Theroux’s wounded feelings.”

For the most part Theroux’s account casts his pal in a favourable light, only occasionally – and subtly – alluding to Naipaul’s legendary and undisputed nastiness. It is only towards the end of this fascinating account of an intense and complex relationship that mud-slinging, however disguised it might be, is evident.

Theroux admired Naipaul immensely, feeling gratitude for the encouragement he had given him in his early writing days. He recognised Naipaul as a brilliant writer who could also be an enthralling companion. Because of this, it seems he attempted to make himself blind to Naipaul’s many flaws – misogyny, racism, meanness and countless forms of rudeness, from the blatant to the subtle.

To put up with all that and, when in Naipaul’s company, to remain an uncomplaining, uncritical friend through three decades creepingly paints a picture of a rather pathetic and needy old dog who keeps coming back wagging his tail no matter what beating or scolding it has suffered.

Theroux is at pains to disguise this, but the evidence builds throughout the memoir. The American elevated Naipaul onto pedestal, took the kicks and was rewarded with a cold rebuff on a London pavement.

Apart from Naipaul’s parting words on that day there is nothing from him here to explain the reasons for that brush off or as to why he turned against his protege. It is clear that Theroux believes Naipaul’s haughty new wife bears much of the responsibility. He finds very little that is favourable to say about her.

The book, by design not accident, builds a picture of Naipaul as a deeply flawed individual notwithstanding his literary brilliance. But what of the book’s author? I’m a long-standing fan of Theroux’s work, greatly enjoying his reportorial travel writing and occasional brilliant novel (The Mosquito Coast for example).

But these days, the term ‘unreliable narrator’ has begun to creep into my assessment of Theroux, fuelled by observations of his behaviour in his travelogues: remaining wisely silent while others prattle out gauche comments; being non-judgemental while those around point fingers; not grumbling like the whining tourists he encounters, and so on. Can anyone be this benign and uncomplaining? Well, they can in print – it’s a kind of artistic licence I suppose. Few, after all, would paint themselves in a bad light.

All of which brings the reader to the question of balance in ’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’. It is, after all, written entirely from Theroux’s point of view; Naipaul is tantalisingly mute.

“He [Naipaul] was always the one who said you have to tell the truth [in writing],” Theroux once remarked. Later, after Naipaul’s death in 2018, he said that he believed his book to be “an unsparing and accurate portrait of the man, minus the instances of racism and physical abuse that I was forbidden by lawyers to publish.”

Responding to a critic’s referring to Naipaul’s “great modesty”, Theroux said: “In 30 years of knowing the man I was never privileged to observe this. I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed, and his uncontrollable anger. But I never saw Naipaul attack anyone stronger than himself; he talked big and insultingly but when he lashed out it was always against the weak: people who couldn’t hit back, the true mark of the coward.”

The critic, Ian Buruma, countered: “If Naipaul was quite the monster he describes, why did Mr Theroux spend decades of his life fawning over him? But then the demolition of an idol by a disillusioned worshipper is never an edifying sight, and in the case of an ageing writer a trifle undignified too.”

theroux copy

Paul Theroux: Unreliable narrator or truth-teller?

’Sir Vidia’s Shadow’ divided opinions but sold in great numbers nevertheless. The British writer Lynn Barber summed-up the to-ing and fro-ing in 2000: “I’ve never known a book to divide people so strongly, between the Naipaul-is-a-shit and the Theroux-is-a-shit camps. The American critics uniformly took the latter view and Theroux’s name in the States is now mud. Theroux believes there was an orchestrated campaign against him, but that’s probably his paranoia. Naipaul stoutly maintains he has never read the book. Anyway, it’s a wonderful book, a modern true version of the sorcerer’s apprentice.”

Just over a decade after this was written there was, it appears, some kind of reconciliation between the two writers. In 2011 the novelist Ian McEwan nudged Theroux and Naipaul, after 14 years of frostiness, to shake hands at the Hay literature festival. A partial thaw ensued and the pair appeared to be were reconciled in 2015 when they met at a literary festival in Jaipur. Theroux’s admiring speech about Naipaul’s ‘A House for Mr Biswas’ (comparing the author to Dickens) brought tears to the eyes of his former nemesis.

Tense And Absorbing: Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

Wicked Game by Matt Johnson

If you enjoy taut, high octane thrillers with good characterisation, Wicked Game by Matt Johnson is the perfect fit.

Johnson takes us into the covert world of national security and intelligence services through the figure of Robert Finlay. He’s an ex SAS operative who thought he had left those days behind him, his past cloaked with the secrecy of a role in the Royalty Protection Service. Even his wife doesn’t know about his involvement in surveillance of IRA suspects or hostage negotiations.

But his first day in a new job, as a police inspector in one of the London suburbs, is marked by a wave of attacks on police officers in the capital. Finlay learns there is a real and present danger that his cover has been blown and he could be the next target. What he doesn’t know is the identity of the assassin/s. He made enemies during his time in Northern Ireland. Could this be an IRA revenge attack for his activities in Northern Ireland. Or is there a connection to his previous involvement in ending a siege at the Iranian embassy?

Finlay’s quest to find the answers and kill the assassin/s before they get to him, makes Wicked Game a tremendous page turner.

It has a complex plot and, since this is the murky world of intelligence and counter intelligence, more than one character we’re not sure we can trust.

Finlay is a well crafted character. He’s intelligent,; thinks fast on his feet and is a good marksman. But he’s also vulnerable; caught between his love for his wife and young child and his desire to hunt down his attackers.

What lifts Wicked Game far above many other thrillers, is its strong sense of authenticity. The book is packed with fascinating details about surveillance techniques. Who knew for example that during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the army officers’s cars were regularly repainted so they wouldn’t get tracked by IRA shooters.

This is a world that Matt Johnson writes about with authority. And that’s because this was his world for 25 years. He was a soldier and then a serving officer with the Metropolitan Police, a witness to acts of terrorism and attrocity.

In 1999 he was officially diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and discharged from the police so that he could receive treatment. He turned to writing at the encouragement of his counsellor.

Wicked Game was the result. The book was a word of mouth success when it was self published in 2012. Matt was then spotted by Orenda Books who published it under their imprint in 2015 and have also published his next two titles. Deadly Game and End Game, both featuring Robert Finlay.

I’m keen to read these next two books in the series. But first I have to catch up on all the sleep I missed because I kept reading Wicked Game way into the early hours.

Although I’m not a big fan of thrillers, this was a gripping read. I am however left with a puzzle. This is a novel that has garnered praise from many quarters – my copy of the book has testimonials and praise from some highly respected authors like David Young (author of Stasi Child) and Peter James (Chief Inspector Roy Grace series). With that kind of commendation i’m baffled why Matt Johnson hasn’t received a lot more attention.

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