April reading round up

Spring is here! I am always conflicted by the coming of spring – on the one hand, as a cold person I love to see the spring flowers and every year remember anew how much joy they give, and it is great to anticipate shucking off layers of woollens and being free of heavy winter coats. And yet, perversely I usually get a bit sad that I have to leave my warm cosiness behind and can no longer justify warming soup, hot chocolate, candles and blankets. Not quite yet though, because it’s still nippy.

I have officially finished my Lent experiment of not buying books and on one hand, it has not made any space on my shelves at all. Partly, as I explained last month, I got a load of books from the library instead of looking at the bookshelf, and also because I brought some books back from my mum that I’d lent her. On the other hand, if I’d bought books during Lent, there’d be books spilling onto the floor right now. It was harder to give up buying books for the six weeks of Lent than it was to not drink alcohol, which I’ve barely done since January, so there’s my priorities for you.

And so to the reading this month. I still have three books on the go which will have to wait until next month. But here is everything else:

Under the Same Stars – Alexandra Heminsley

A strong debut novel from Heminsley that I shall review here when it’s published later in the year.

Dog Days – Ericka Waller

How do dogs enrich our lives? It isn’t immediately clear from this book which very much has the dogs as companions of the three main characters. Dog Days is about making sense of your past, and being brave, and about mistakes and love. It features miserable git George whose wife has died, leaving him utterly incapable of looking after himself. His wife has left him notes from beyond the grave, encouraging him to get out and she has also left him a Daschund called Poppy and an interfering neighbour. Dan is a therapist, a loner (apart from his dog Fitz) who is gay and terrified of falling in love. And then of course he does fall in love. Finally there is Lizzie, who is staying at a women’s shelter with her son. What has happened to them, and how can they try to move on? Lizzie doesn’t open up until after she is made to walk the shelter’s dog Maud, and meets Dan’s best friend Luke (and his dog). How these lives intermingle with each other is the point of the book. It’s a good enough read.

Giving Up the Ghost – Hilary Mantel

A memoir from one of our best writers, and ostensibly about how she sold a house with a ghost in it. Of all people, it makes sense that Mantel can see ghosts, and in this she covers all the houses of her childhood, her recurring illnesses and her family. It is a rich memoir, full of characters and detail, childish logic and indignation captured so well, with a strong nod to the past people and places that made her.

Mr Wilder and Me – Jonathan Coe

I love Jonathan Coe’s writing but many of his books are so very depressing, being sharp satire of the political times we live in. I imagine that if we ever do manage to break free of the insanity currently governing the country, we can read his books and laugh but they are difficult to read when you’re living through it all. Anyway, this is a departure from his usual fare and I enjoyed it very much. The tale of later life Billy Wilder as he made a lesser known film Fedora, as told by Calista, a Greek girl he met in passing in Hollywood and who is employed by the film set. Later in hr life, while facing family changes, Calista is looking back on the time she spent with Wilder’s film team as she deals with changes in her later life, and she reflects on how this chance meeting did change her life.

South – Ernest Shackleton

My Mother’s Day present, in recognition of how excited I was that they had found the wreck of The Endurance. This is the tale of the trip from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and Shackleton combines his narration with the journal entries of his men at the time. He encouraged them to keep the diaries throughout the whole mission and thank goodness he did. There is much detail here, and although at times it is repetitive – there are only so many times you can really read about floating on ice and eating penguins – you do get a sense of just how awful and perilous the whole enterprise was. And of course, they all made their way out of this ordeal and promptly signed up to fight, and in some cases die or get wounded, in the First World War, which somehow makes the whole thing even stranger.

Footnotes – Peter Fiennes

More travel writing around Britain. Fiennes chooses to go in the company of writers in order to explore how we have changed as a country, how we live now and what this says about us. Instead of choosing to go to places where writers have lived, he chooses to go in the company of writers who also took journeys and wrote about them. This makes a much smaller list of people and often writers who we don’t hear about as often – Wilkie Collins, Gerald of Wales, Beryl Bainbridge, JB Priestley, Boswell and Johnson etc. This is a good read, informative and at times very funny. Luckily, Mr B was sleeping on his good hearing side when I was laughing a lot at the bit where Fiennes (who is terrified of heights) was terrified of slipping at Tintagel, before then seeing a statue of who he thought was Death coming to get him. (It was a statue of Merlin). I’d happily travel further places in the company of Peter Fiennes.

Piranesi – Susannah Clarke

There is nothing I hate more than critics who go off to see/ read something and start their review by saying that it is in a genre they dislike and lo and behold! They also hate this thing. You wonder why they have gone in the first place. So I will fess up and say that this was the reading group choice and otherwise I wouldn’t have read it. I hated it but I hate fantasy fiction so I imagine this is more to do with me than the book, which did after all win The Women’s Prize.

Other People Manage – Ellen Hawley

This is a quiet book, an examination in detail of an ordinary life and how it was affected by love. It is told by Marge, who meets and falls in love with Peg in the 1970s, and tells us of their life together. Peg has some initial trouble with a stalker who does not take to her new relationship well (something of an understatement but I don’t want to spoil the plot) but then they go about their lives together quietly and with the usual moments that can come with a long term relationship until an incident with Peg’s family places the women in a new scenario they hadn’t considered: supporting the parenting of Peg’s nieces when their mother leaves. This is a really well written examination of found families, everyday devotion and the devastating impact of grief. I thought it was excellent.

His Other Woman – Sarah Edghill

I did a giveaway a few months ago of Sarah Edghill’s accomplished first novel A Thousand Tiny _ and she kindly sent me the advance copy of her new book to review. It’s out next month so look out for my review which I will post here but in short, this is very good.

Moments of Pleasure

I watched CODA at The Broadway in Nottingham – a couple of weeks after it won Best Film Oscar. The small screening was packed and I’m pretty certain most of us shed a tear or so by the end – a combination of poignant scenes and Joni Mitchell soundtrack. I really enjoyed the film; for those of you unaware of it, CODA stands for Child of Deaf Adults and features Ruby, who is the only hearing person in her family (mum, dad, brother). Ruby loves singing and is encouraged to apply for a college scholarship which will mean leaving her family at a time when they need help with their fishing business. The film explores the social model of disability in a fabulous way, showing how much Ruby is excluded from her family by her family as much as they in turn feel excluded by wider society. But the love and care and bravery needed by every member of the family is really great to watch (it’s also got some really funny bits), and as I said, you can’t go wrong with Joni.

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