Category Archives: Memes

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.

6 Degrees From The Road to The Arctic

We start this month’s Six Degrees Of Separation with a novel that’s a cult classic.  

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a disturbingly  dark post-apocalyptic novel in which a father and son walk alone through a landscape ravaged by a catastrophe. It’s a novel I read but didn’t enjoy at all – I found it repetitive and jerky. 

The unnamed duo were heading south on their journey but for my first link I’m heading in the opposite direction.

Richard Flanagan won the Booker Prize in 2014 with The Narrow Road To The Deep North. It’s one of my absolute favourite Booker winners 

The “road’ in the title is actually a railroad – the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway of World War 2. The novel shows how the lives of the prisoners forced to work on the railroad and the Japanese soldiers who guard them, are impacted long after the end of the war. In the novel Flanagan  asks questions about reconciliation and atonement. 

The experience of Japanese prisoners of war feature prominently in a Town Like Alice by Neville Shute. He was inspired to write the novel after meeting a woman who was part of a group of women and children captured by Japanese forces. In Shute’s version, the group is forced to march from camp to camp for two and a half years. 

After the war, Shute’s protagonist travels to Australia to track down a soldier who had stolen food and medicines for the women on their march. Eventually she finds him in the Queensland outback. 

An author very familiar with Australia’s isolated bush regions was Miles Franklin. It’s the setting for her first novel, My Brilliant Career, a coming of age tale of a headstrong girl in whom ambition blazes. Franklin gives her heroine Sybylla Melvyna belief that she is destined for a life more fulfilling than rearing cattle and sheep or being “shackled” in marriage. 

Sybylla reminds me so much of the eponymous character in  My Ántonia by Willa Cather. That too is set in a wild landscape (Nebraska) among farmers  and settlers who battle against nature to make a living. Appropriately for this month’s chain, it opens with a train journey during which two passengers reminisce about Antonia – a spirited girl they once knew. Cather’s novel celebrates the beauty of the Nebraskan plains yet it doesn’t sentimentalise the harshness of the climate. 

There is no hint of sentimentality either in my fifth novel, A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale. Set in the remote plains of Saskatchewan, Canada, Gale shows his central character, Harry Cane, arrive as a homesteader with barely an idea of what to expect. He’s never farmed, never done any manual work and in his first winter, has no shelter except a tent in which to ride out sub zero temperatures. 

Harry is an exile, escaping from a comfortable life in England to avoid discovery of a homosexual relationship that would, if made public,  have ruined him.  

Let’s continue with this idea of travel as a form of escape and pick a novel in which the character goes even further north to evade capture. 

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan sees a young slave boy travel take flight from a cotton plantation in 19th-century Barbados, ending up in the Arctic circle. He does travel by road and rail occasionally but the most remarkable journey in the novel is the one he takes by hot air balloon.  As a plot device that takes some beating! 

So that’s my #6Degrees; moving from a dystopian novel to stories set in harsh landscapes and ending with a journey to the end of the earth. We’ve travelled by foot, train and balloon (doesn’t quite have the same ring as planes, trains and automobiles but I tried my best)…

Next month we start with a book that it seems impossible to escape right now – Normal People by Sally Rooney.

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

6 Degrees From Stasiland to Larkin

It’s time for Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. 

We start this month with Stasilandby Anna Funder, a book I’ve not heard of nor read but which I think I would enjoy. It’s a set of personal accounts about individuals who resisted the East German regime. Other accounts are from people who worked for its secret police, the Stasi.

From here I can make a very obvious link to a book I read last year: Stasi Child by David Young. It’s the first title in his crime series set in East Germany during the era of the Cold War. Young conveys the bleakness of life in East Germany where anyone can be “persuaded” into helping the Stasi by informing on their friends, neighbours and relatives.

Part of the plot of David Young’s novel involves the disappearance of children, a theme which links me to my next novel.

A Child In Time by Ian McEwan was one of the first books I read by this author. It was published in 1987 and concerns a couple whose three-year-old daughter was kidnapped. The book concerns itself with the aftermath of that event, from the point of view of the father, an author of children’s books. It also focuses on the idea of time as being relative, fluid and unstructured. For that reason it is sometimes considered to be a time travelling story.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Remember the fuss about this novel when it was published in 2003? It was one of those books that “everyone” seemed to be reading. It wasn’t one I enjoyed. I just couldn’t buy into the premise about time travel.

It’s a love story about a man with a genetic disorder that causes him to time travel unpredictably, and about his wife who has to cope with his frequent absences and dangerous experiences. Henry DeTamble mostly travels to places related to his own history, places with which he is familiar like the library where he works.

For my next link I’m continuing on the theme of libraries.

The Librarian by Salley Vickers was not a great hit with me. It was chosen for the book club to which I belong. It concerns a new children’s librarian who arrives in a small town, determined to improve the lives of local children by giving them the right books. Then she begins an affair with a married doctor, much to the outrage of the town’s inhabitants (the book is set in the 1950s so reflects the moral indignation of the times)

But this book failed to live up to the promise of its blurb. I gave up around page 80 because I couldn’t take any more of the trite nature of the narrative.

Much more enjoyable was another novel set in the 1950s about a librarian who has just been appointed to a new post.

Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch

Book number five in my chain is set in the city of Hull, a place of Teddy Boys, trolley buses, travelling salesmen, fish and chips and spartan rented rooms. Into this bleak, mundane world steps Arthur Merryweather, newly recruited as head librarian at the city’s university.

Part mystery, part love story, Larkinland is a novel loosely based on a period in the life of the poet Philip Larkin. Larkin moved to Hull in 1955 as Librarian at the University of Hull (a post he held until his death). He disliked the place intensely, describing it as “a dump” whose sole redeeming feature was that it was flat, so making it good for cycling.

I can’t leave this chain without turning to the words of the poet himself.

High Windows was Philip Larkin’s final full poetry collection. Published in 1974 it contains two of his most famous poems: The Whitsun Weddings and An Arundel Tomb. As a special treat, click here to experience Larkin reading the latter poem.

Larkin’s poems provide solace for the soul, particularly in these times of turbulence and uncertainty. So I shall end on his most often quoted (often misunderstood) line.

What will survive of us is love.

This month’s chain has taken us from the inhumanity of life in East Germany, to a poem that for many people speaks of hope. It’s always surprising where these 6 Degrees chains take us.

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.

6 Degrees From Wolfe Island to Climate Change

This month we begin with Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar a novel I know little about except that the island in question is being destroyed by rising rising sea levels. 

I’m picking up that eco theme for my first book. We’re heading south in search of warmer climes. Our destination is the Caribbean. In Archipelago by Monique Roffey, a father and daughter flee their home on the island of Trinidad when heavy rains are forecast. They are still scarred by the family tragedy that occurred only a year earlier when a torrent of muddy water destroyed their home. As they sail via archipelegos along the Venezuelan and Colombian coast towards the Galapagos Islands, they see the damaging effect of tourism on  fragile natural environments.

My next link is to another novel which reflects on the issues of climate change. Riverflow by Alison Layland takes us to a small riverside community that rises up in protest at the threat their fields and woods will be destroyed by a fracking operation. Tensions mount as the rain beats down relentlessly and the river rises to an ominously high level.

Floods have sadly become a very topical issue here in Wales in recent weeks. Storm Dennis brought chaos when river levels rose to unprecedented levels, leaving thousands of homes and businesses under water. Environmentalist experts have warned we can expect these “once in a generation” events to happen more frequently as the climate warms up.

For days local newspapers, television and radio stations talked about little else other than the floods. But that topic has now been pushed down the news agenda by the prospect of a Coronovirus pandemic.

Which gives me my third link.

In Station 11 by Emily St John Mandel, the world is gripped by a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. (talk of antibacterial hand washes, toilet paper and Happy Birthday to You on repeat cycle are long past).

I wish I could offer you something less depressing but it doesn’t get any better because my next book gives us something else to worry about: nuclear war.

The Last by Hanna Jameson opens shortly after a nuclear war destroys much of the Western world. Twenty guests at a hotel deep in the Swiss countryside learn the truth in text messages sent hurriedly by their loved ones in the destroyed cities. Cut off from the outside world and fearful whether help will arrive, when they discover the body of a young girl they are confronted with another fear: that one of them is a killer.

The Last is a locked room/dystopian fiction mash up. Unfortunately the mix of genres doesn’t work that well. The mystery of who killed the girl fizzles out and the dystopian element lacks true menace. The guests seem more concerned about food supplies than they are about the risk of radiation spreading to their part of the world.

Nevil Shute did a far better job of conveying the imminent threat of radiation fallout. On the Beach details the experiences of a mixed group of people in Australia, one of the few habitable places left on earth after a nuclear war.

As monitoring reports indicate the steady southward progression of the deadly radiation, the Australian government provides citizens with free suicide pills and injections so they can avoid prolonged suffering. They also despatch a submarine to track down the source of a mysterious and incomprehensible radio signal originating from Seattle, Washington.

Early editions of the book includes the most famous lines from T S Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Whether the future comes via a bang or a whimper, unless you’re a climate change denier, you’ll know the signs are not good. Fires; floods; melting ice caps; threatened species give us a general idea of the problems we face..

But the author of my final book in this chain argues that we don’t know the half of it yet. The situation is “worse, much worse, than you think.” says David Wallace-Wells,  in The Uninhabitable Earth. In short chapters he covers the brutal reality of problems like “Dying Oceans”; “Unbreathable Air” and “Plagues of Warming”. He deliberately sets out to shock – and he succeeded. Though short, it’s an intense read. By the time I got to the end I was in a panic.

And on that sobering note I think it’s time I brought this chain to an end. We started on one small island but ended up thinking about the future of the whole planet. I’ll try to be more up beat in next month’s Six Degrees chain.

10 One Word Book Titles

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is Books With Single-Word Titles.

I’m giving my list an international flavour because this week marks the start of two reading months celebrating the literature of Celtic nations. Wales Reading Month 2020 (otherwise known as Dewithon2020) and Irish Reading Month are highlights of the year. We’re also in the midst of the Japanese Literature Challenge.

So I’m going to build my list entirely from books by Welsh and Irish authors. that I’ve either read or have on my “to read” shelves.

Books

From Wales

Pigeon by Alys Conran: A debut novel from an author who is a talent to watch. Alys swept the boards at the  Literature Wales Book of the Year Awards 2017 with this tale of a prank by two children from broken homes. It goes disastrously wrong, with consequences for the rest of their lives.

Cove by Cynan Jones: A stunningly atmospheric novella about a man who is incapacitated while kayaking in the midst of a storm. All he hopes is to make it back to land, to the woman and unborn child who need him.

Resistance by Owen Sheers: a highly regarded novel which imagines what might have unfolded if wartime German troops had occupied a remote Welsh community.

Blacklands by Belinda Bauer: I had to include Belinda because she lives very close to my home! This is her award-winning debut work that is part one of a crime trilogy set on and around Exmoor national park in South West England. 

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin : Lovekin’s novel draws on Welsh folklore, in particular the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. 

From Ireland

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin: a quietly understated but no less effective novel set partly in a provincial Irish town in the early 1950s. The central character has to make a choice between remaining in the town with its limited opportunities or seeking a new life in New York.

Troubles by J G Farrell. This is the first title in Farrell’s Empire Trilogy. The plot concerns the dilapidation of a once grand Irish hotel (symbolic of the declining British Empire), in the midst of the political upheaval during the Irish War of Independence. Though it’s a commentary on the state of Ireland, the novel is very funny at time because the set is is rather bizarre with the frayed-around=the edges guests forced to share their accommodation with a large number of feral cats.

Milkman by Anna Burns: one of the most well-deserved winners of the Booker Prize in recent years. It takes patience to tune into the digressive, stream of consciousness narration where no character is given a name. But this novel set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1970s Troubles is incredibly powerful.

Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue. This is one I bought several years ago (but have not yet read) after I read her hugely successful novel Room. Slammerkin is also a story of survival, this time set in the 1760s. It focuses on Mary Saunders, a teenage girl forced to make her own way in the world after being put out on to the streets by her callous mother.

Girl by Edna O’Brien: At the age of 88, Edna O’Brien, is showing no sign of losing her capacity to write thought-provoking novels that tackle contemporary issues. Girl is a story set in an unnamed country but is recognisably Nigeria and imagines the lives of the girls abducted by Boko Haram. This is high on my “to read’ list.

Do any of these appeal to you? What would you have put on your own version of this Top 10?

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