January: a round up of books and assorted nonsense

Is this it now? The passing of each month no longer feels like a mere date change but some kind of endurance test where we stand, licking our wounds and looking uncertainly at the future. How have you got on through this, the longest month? Well, I hope.

What has got me through January? What’s been on the reading pile? I started the month badly with books, had to put a couple down that weren’t working for me and immediately felt bad about it. Here’s what did work:

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May

I reviewed this as part of the reading for wellbeing series and you can read the review here.

Agent Running in the Field – John Le Carre

Le Carre’s death last month (last month? recently) made me wish to read one of his, and he was a reliable writer, which is what I needed after the bad start to the reading year. I needed someone I knew would give me a good story. This is a modern tale, post-Brexit and the usual slightly confusing spy story where the writer is always one step beyond. A solid assured novel.

The Blue Castle – LM Montgomery

I reviewed this earlier this month too and I’m still marvelling at the memory of reading it. It’s really delightful. I may press it on everyone I know.

The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line – Ruth Thomas

I think this has been on Radio 4 recently. I read this in one afternoon, it’s a nice light hearted tale of head injuries, museum workers and love rivalry. Yes really. Deftly written with light characterisation and a sense of fun, while the story is perhaps predictable, it was nevertheless a good way to spend an afternoon.

There There – Tommy Orange

A strange one this. I read the first half on one chunk and enjoyed it, and then put it down for a few days so that when I came to finish reading, I had forgotten who everyone was. And then it ended. So there were some problems but on the other hand, I don’t think I know of many other books written by or about Native Americans in a modern context,and the anger in the book is palpable, and with good reason. It is a very bleak book but I think I wanted a little more detail about fewer characters.

The Littlest Library – Poppy Alexander

After a very bleak book I downloaded this off Netgalley which is the very opposite. A highly improbable ‘chick lit’ style story about a recently unemployed woman who ups sticks and moves following her grandmother’s death, and finds herself in a village in the West Country. As soon as her male neighbour stormed in complaining about her parking i knew he would be the love interest and the rest of the book was as easily predictable, and full of fun eccentric country dwellers that bear no resemblance to anyone I’ve ever met in the countryside. Books like this are dangerous myth making nonsense, they really are. As an urban dweller I find the fetishisation of the countryside to be absolute bollocks. Anyway, she builds a library in the phone box and changes everyone’s life. If you like this kind of thing, it’s alright.

A Wood of One’s Own – Ruth Pavey

A real life version of the above (kind of, not really). Ruth Pavey decides to buy a wood, as you do, and this is her story of how she developed it and planted more trees and encouraged wildlife and chatted to local farmers and so on. I started off liking it very much but Pavey is an odd person and occasionally make casual remarks or observations that do strain your liking of her. And it could have perhaps been a little more focused or structured. But despite hating the countryside, I like the idea of a wood of my own and will give this book a cautious thumbs up.

Mrs Death Misses Death – Salena Godden

A poetic jam-packed book about Death, a black woman, who visits the narrator Wolf after his mother dies in Grenfell Tower. There is a lot to take in here, observations about modern society and our casual relationship with the deaths of other people which is terrifyingly accurate in these pandemic-ridden times. It is written in a poetic, grand sweeping style, as fitting Godden’s day job as a poet, and can be hard to get into, but it’s an original and striking book, and a fascinating look at death.

The Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot – Marianne Cronin

This is published next month and there is a LOT of buzz on book Twitter about it. I was lucky to get a review copy via Netgalley and it really is a lovely book. Lenni is a 17-year old who has an unnamed fatal condition and is living out the last of her time in hospital. She is bolshy and sparky and, as one character says, “so alive”. She makes demands on the hospital chaplain, and on the nurses, and then chances on an art project set up by an intern. Here she meets Margot, an 83-year old woman who is being treated for another unknown condition. The two of them make friends, both of them being inclined to rebel, and embark on an art project to tell their stories to each other. We learn about their lives, their loves and their losses. This debut novel is absolutely right for our dark times, being full of honesty and pain and laughter and questions. I loved it.

Moments of pleasure

What else has got us through this month of home schooling and bad weather? Tapas delivery from a local restaurant made my husband’s birthday special; and I spent an enjoyable Sunday filling the house with orangey smells as I made marmalade and orange curd from a bag of Seville oranges. Sharp, tangy, lovely. A snow afternoon rolling snowmen in the park and enjoying the curious effect a heavy snowfall has on the sounds and light of the city.

Spiral. The final series, series 8, of Engrenages just aired on BBC4. Always a brilliant hour of TV, I’m really going to miss it. Fortunately BBC have all series on iplayer so I may have to re-indulge.

Clemency Burton-Hill’s book Year of Wonders, taking the layperson through a piece of classical music each day. I started playing pieces to my daughter for her Brownie’s New Year Resolution and we’ve stuck with it so far. The book is good but this month I am particularly glad for its introduction to Hildegard von Bingen and Morten Lauristen’s Dirait-On. Both beautiful.

Bedtime reading

We have alternative nights reading to E at bedtime, each reading different books. This month we’ve read Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper (the first of the brilliant Dark is Rising series), and are now halfway through the third in Katherine Woodfine’s crime series set in Sinclair’s department store: The Painted Dragon. E and S are reading a book by a local children’s author, The Ship of Shadows by Maria Kuzniar. A special mention this month also for Lindsay Galvin’s beautiful new book Darwin’s Dragons which E whizzed through in about two days after delivery.

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