May reading round up

Somehow I’ve only read six full books this month, though I read a bit of an advance copy of another and am making my way slowly through two large non-fiction books as well. And it was my daughter’s birthday (more to think about and organise, even without a party) and I also did three writing courses online so it’s not been all wasted time. But on the whole, my reading this month has been a pleasure – some cracking books this month.

A Wild and Precious Life (ed: Lily Dunn and Zoe Gilbert)

This is an anthology of recovery stories – crowd funded and published by Unbound. It was begun as a writing project in a centre that supported addicts in London, and the editors above who ran the sessions put a call out for recovery pieces from the public as well as featuring pieces by some of the addicts they were working with. The pieces within are not just about addiction but cover a lot of other kinds of recovery as well, however, this also has some of the best writing I have found on addiction. I tend to regard addiction stories with caution, as so many can be repetitive and dull. These are not. They don’t preach or boast, they simply tell it as it is and they do so with great power. It deserves to be widely read, there is much of human nature laid bare here.

In the End It Was All About Love – Musa Okwonga

This is terrific. A very short 98 pages, and I pre-ordered the limited edition cover (number 26) so each one had a different stripe pattern on it. This is a part novel, part auto-biography, part love letter, part examination of race and identity and father-son relationships and love. It’s written in the second person, which is both unusual and hard to pull off. And finally, it is part poem. If I read this description I would think, “Dear God, no,” but honestly, it’s a wonderful book. I had to read it slowly, putting it down after each section to digest and think about before I could go on. Okwonga is a black British writer who lives in Berlin, and is the author of the book about being a black pupil at Eton which you may have heard about recently. He also hosts a football podcast and has a wonderful full laugh. This is the story of an unnamed protagonist (with many similarities to the author) and his exploration of himself, of how others see him, of how he thinks and grieves for his father. It’s hard to get across what it is about, and how many pages I marked because the writing or the insight was astonishing and I wanted to retain it – only please do read it and see for yourself how amazing it is. I loved it.

The Stranding – Kate Sawyer

This is due to be published next month and is Sawyer’s debut novel. I got an advance copy on Netgalley and was surprised when it was not what I expected from the description. Fortunately, I thought it was better than the description – it had more depth and nuance of feeling and covered much more time that I was expecting also.

The Stranding opens with Ruth, travelling in New Zealand, finding a beached whale dying on the sand. At its side she meets Nik, and they both climb inside the whale to escape what we can only assume is a nuclear explosion. We soon find that the majority of the world has been wiped out (we never know the details and the book is the stronger for it) and that Ruth and Nik are likely some of the only people left. Their story, of survival and resilience, is told along with the parallel story of Ruth’s life back in London and how she made the decision to go travelling in the first place. The relationship between the two is real and subtly drawn, and in direct contrast to the toxicity of Ruth’s relationship with her awful boyfriend in London. I thought this was a strong debut, with real insight into human character and will look forward to reading more.

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

This was a reread for my reading group. I read it last year, just after I got my reading mojo back after the early days of the pandemic took it away completely and I wasn’t sure if I’d taken it all in then, but I did love it. So a reread was in order and I loved it this time too. O’Farrell is one of my favourite living authors and this is so powerful and personal and insightful. I loved the historical perspective she offers and how she approached the book, forcing us to think twice about what we’ve been told about England’s greatest poet. Worth all the accolades, I think.

Should We Fall Behind – Sharon Duggal

This was recently featured on the BBC2 book programme Between the Covers which I wanted to like but found rather fluffy and with too many guests not saying enough about each book. I managed to read Duggal’s book in time for the programme and was glad that I had done so because they swept quite briefly over it, when really it deserves more. Should We Fall Behind is published by indie publisher Bluemoose Books, and is the story of homeless man Jimmy Noone (no one), living on the streets where he makes friends with Betwa. When Betwa goes missing Jimmy looks for her and winds up on Shifnal Road, with its range of residents, each with their own problems. The lives intertwine as Jimmy becomes the means for them all to come entangled – it’s a compelling ensemble piece that gives life and depth to the stories you see everyday around you. You know the saying about being kind to people because you don’t know what they’re going through? This is essentially it in book form but without sounding so trite. It’s an excellent portrayal of ordinary people and the hidden richness of their lives. Buy it.

Getting Colder – Amanda Coe

This had been sitting on the shelf for ages and I’m not going to say much about it as I didn’t really rate it much. It wasn’t badly written, it just did nothing for me.

Moments of Pleasure

I hugged my mum this month – the first time for 8 months that I’ve seen her and my sister in the flesh. There was a lot of cake, hysterical laughter, cricket in the park and a general catch up. If travelling could only be made easier – I really feel that science could have sorted teleportation by now.

I really enjoyed Nomadland (available to stream on Disney+) though I love Frances McDormand in practically everything so I was always going to enjoy this. Such a bleak shot of the system chewing people up and spitting them out, but them still finding some kind of connection where they could. People can be brilliant, resilient, with such depths.

I know the fuss has been about going back to pubs and bars, but my goodness isn’t it great to sit and work in a coffee shop again? To hear the clanking as the barista gets to work, and to smell the croissants baking out the back. Such a joy. I have not yet been to a pub or bar but caffeine indoors, oh yes.

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