January reading

I read eight – eight! – books this month. As a result, I didn’t write much this month. Ah time. But this has been a rich reading month and a pleasure. Here’s what I thought. (The eighth review is the previous blog post)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

I’d not read any Gaiman before and on a whim last year following a social media post he made that I loved, I decided it was time to try his books. I was nervous as I’m not a big fantasy reader but this was excellent. I put it in the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence style of story, just scary enough even as an adult but with some big themes and memorable characters. I loved it.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest – J. Ryan Stradal

This is a bit fluffy and more interesting to look at the narrative style than the story itself. It features Eva and tells her life from the point of view of several other characters. Eva is interested in food, a geek and an outcast. Her story, from her birth and abandonment by her mother, all the way through school and early relationships, to her starting a unique business is covered. She features as the PoV only once, so we learn about her and a whole cast of characters, all of whom interweave in and out of each other’s stories too. The planning behind this structure must have been impressive and so I was intrigued by this. The ending was, perhaps a little disappointing but more realistic for that.

The House by the Lake – Thomas Harding

Every year I vow to read more non-fiction. This is this year’s first attempt and I was so keen to read it I bought two copies by mistake. A social history of one house and its owners, the book tells the story of twentieth-century Germany as well. The house’s owners were once wealthy and sold off parts of their estate. The author’s grandmother, whose Jewish family bought the house before the Second World War, had fond memories of her childhood there and always regarded it as her home. Her family fled and left it behind, and it fell to be shared by others, including, later, a Stasi informant. Harding’s quest to renovate the house, now in disrepair, and have it listed as something of historical importance is the story that frames the book and it is a great way of covering such a rich and varied but traumatic history. A really enjoyable read.

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

This is a timeless book. The only clue to the timing was the references to soldiers in Afghanistan, other than that, this could have been any time in the last 50 years.
It’s lovely prose, mature and poetic, full of beauty and violence. The book starts strongly, with a boating accident that shapes the whole story, and then steps back as the characters survey the wreckage.

So many books with male characters stay away from full on emotional scenes that this felt very different, almost daring in the breadth of subject matter and how it was handled. The only thing that spoiled it was a number of typos scattered through the book. Some of them the kind of thing you miss when you do a spellcheck – quite instead of quiet and so on, but there were enough of them to notice and it’s a real shame. With a such a beautiful cover, and the look and feel of the book being such quality – to match the writing, I do feel the publishers did Melrose a disservice with their lack of attention to detail.

March – Geraldine Brooks

This was my reading group’s choice this month, following from our reading of Little Women last month. I have read other Civil War books and felt this was lacking and a little cliched. But it was the characters that let it down the most. Brooks wisely does very little with the things we know from Little Women, but tries to tell us about why Mr March went to war and what he learned while he was there. She also tries to fill in a bit about Marmee’s background. In the notes following the book, she admits to not really liking Marmee very much and this clearly comes through. By focusing on Marmee’s one known flaw, her quick temper, she has tried to make a spirited girl who is tamed by a good man, but in reality she writes Marmee as rude half the time, which I think is wrong. And Mr March! Good lord, need he have been so boring? I am often wary of sequels or related books to classics in case they spoil the original for me but in this case I felt she was so far off the mark it didn’t matter. A pity.

Everybody’s Fool – Richard Russo

My love for Richard Russo knows no bounds and this sequel to my favourite Nobody’s Fool was a slow burning treat. Perhaps less obviously funny than its predecessor, it starts slowly with the main focus not on Sully, the anti-hero of Nobody’s Fool, but on his nemesis Officer Raymer who is now Police Chief of Bath. Ten years have passed since the first book and two of the best characters have died. Their absence is felt, both by the characters and by the reader. But as Russo gets into his swing, and Sully pops up more and more, the old chaos comes to the fore. This is as good a book as Russo has written in some time, having gone a bit off the boil with the last couple of novels. A perfect read for these crappy times and crappy weather to match. Snuggle down and enjoy.

The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla (ed)

The Good Immigrant was crowdfunded after an idea by Nikesh Shukla following a comment on a website (don’t read below the line folks!) A collection of 21 essays by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic writers in Britain, this simply tells their stories. While there is anger in the book, there is no obvious finger pointing and instead the writers let their experiences make their point. What a bloody mess of a country we are. Being a quinoa-eating, Guardian-reading bleeding heart liberal, I was immediately struck with horror at such tales though of course, not all of it was news to me. But I learned a lot, thought about a lot more and resolved to try and make sure I can do whatever I can to make us all kinder to each other. It’s more important than ever now that we make time to read stories of those people we share this little island with. Start with this. It’s a really good book.

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