The worst month. So dark. Not yet Christmas. No firework display this year. But at least the books are here to help brighten the gloom.
Notes to Self – Emilie Pine
This is a book of essays that someone somewhere raved about and I bought on idle curiosity. But it’s quite marvellous. I have no idea who Emilie Pine is but these are deeply personal essays, and while a lot of them involve family members, the essays on the whole talk about things that modern women might encounter and her experience of them. Things like caring for an alcoholic father, failed IVF attempts and miscarriages, the death of her sister’s baby girl, sexist treatment at work and sexual assault. I know what you’re thinking, ah nice cheerful stuff, but this is an absorbing read and full of insights about human beings at their worst, sometimes, but mostly their best. I thought this was excellently written.
We Don’t Die of Love – Stephen May
I bought this during one of those increasingly frequent calls by indie publishers to buy a book to keep them afloat and since this was Sandstone Press, who once requested a full manuscript from me, which is the furthest I’ve ever got with a publisher (obvs they then rejected it but tiny steps and all that) I obliged and bought this. I was in the mood for something written by a man, simply as I’d read a lot of women recently and it was all a bit emotional. Straight talking, masculine humour was called for. That’s not to say the narrator of this take is a philistine boar – he isn’t. It’s the style I was after. This is a comic novel about a man whose wife has left him, his children are off at uni and his business is being targeted by gangsters. There is emotion, there’s some diatribes about how awful men are when they’re out on the town (all true) and there’s humour, love, a dog, and some violence. It was just what I was looking for.
Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay
Our reading group choice this month and another of the Jubilee Reads is a biography by Scottish poet and national treasure Jackie Kay. It’s the story of how she traced her birth parents and found family, and although I found the structure of it odd at times, it’s a fascinating book. Jackie’s birth mother was Scottish while her father was a Nigerian student visiting Aberdeen. Jackie was raised by two lovely Scottish people – Helen and John – they feature heavily in the book and help her to feel grounded and loved throughout her life. She seeks out her birth parents when she’s an adult and has some alarming encounters with them both. But while it feels like both her birth parents are always stymied by their decision to give her away, the wider family members that she meets on both sides are ready to welcome her and include her so you do wonder in a way if they had stuck it out somehow, perhaps it wouldn’t have been as bad as either of them may have imagined. Kay, having come from loving adoptive parents and being able to find a wider family net as a late addition, despite the instances of shocking racism that she encounters in her life, does come across as the person who has benefited the most.
The Hermit – Louise Walters
I do like a novella. Better than a short story, and able to convey as much as a novel in less time, there is a definite skill in writing a good one. This was rejected by several publishers who didn’t think they could publish it despite it being well written and so Louise Walters, who runs an indie press and has published several fabulous books through it, decided to do it herself. It’s the story of a broken mother-daughter relationship and the ramifications of that on other people. Set in a valley with three holiday homes and the ramshackle hut that the hermit lives in, this had the feel of a Rosamunde Pilcher book for me. Worth seeking out from Louise herself.
Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting (ed Anne Hood)
Knitting books, when not pattern books, have tendency to be twee and irritating. Novels that feature knitting groups are not really my thing despite the obvious narrative structure they provide. This though, is a series of essays, by American writers who knit (mostly – some have tried and given up) all talking about the importance of knitting to them and the joy/ help/ solace it has provided. Knitting is useful for writers, it gives you something to do while thinking, you see. There are some top names in here: Barbara Kingsolver, Anita Shreve, Ann Patchett and so on, and all of them provide a cheerful essay on the highs and lows of knitting projects. It’s a nice bedtime read – plus it comes with a few patterns inside too.
Mrs Harris Goes to Paris and Mrs Harris Goes to New York by Paul Gallico
I do love a book from the 1950s featuring British women being a bit eccentric. It’s a lovely mini-genre – think Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Pym, Cold Comfort Farm, anything by Elizabeth von Arnim and the recently rereleased series by Furrowed Middlebrow books for Elizabeth Fair’s books. Mrs Harris has just been made into a film (which I’ve not seen) and, despite occasionally being a smidge patronising towards the working woman, it a very funny tale of British determination and eccentricities – all with the best intent. It’s light hearted stuff, full of handy plot coincidences but it’s a splendid genre. The British Museum Women Writers series are republishing a number of books from this genre and I think it’s high time I checked out more of them.
Ghost Signs – Stu Hennigan
In a month where yet more cuts to public services were announced while newspapers reported on the shortage of champagne faced by the rich as they were drinking so much of it, this book is a massively important but harrowing piece of reportage. Subtitled Poverty and the Pandemic, Ghost Signs is the diary of Stu Hennigan, a librarian in Leeds who, during the pandemic, was redeployed to deliver food parcels across Leeds to people who were self-isolating. It is soon clear that the people Stu serves are facing much bigger problems than the pandemic, and the impact of the last decade of austerity is described here as Hennigan encounters many people who have been left well behind. The impact of delivering to so many desperately poor people is documented too and Hennigan’s mental health certainly suffers. If you do know people who have worked in the public sector at any stage in the last five years, please do give them as much support as you can, I guarantee they’re exhausted. Hennigan documents what is happening nationally at the beginning of each chapter and if you weren’t already aware of how badly governed we are before, you will be by the end. A very important book.
Braver by Deborah Jenkins
I picked this up in a local indie bookshop and it’s published by indie publisher Fairlight Books who are pretty reliable for good stories. Braver is the story of Hazel, who has a number of mental health issues, and what happens to her after she is hit by a schoolboy on a bicycle in an accident. She encounters Harry, the schoolboy and the local minister Virginia, and a whole host of local people who work their way through a number of local issues. It feels rare to read books about church these days, without there being some terrible secret to uncover and Jenkins has managed to convey the best of the role of the church in modern life and about communities picking each other up.
How to Belong – Sarah Franklin
Picked this up on an idle browse and once it gets going, it’s an absorbing enough read. It features Jo, who has returned to the Forest of Dean town where she grew up to try taking over her parents’ butchers shop as they retire. She has three months to turn the shop’s fortunes around on a trial period but as she is incredibly squeamish about meat, the butcher she employs appears to hate her and facing competition from a local Aldi, it doesn’t look good. Jo is Tessa’s lodger and Tessa is the local farrier, but she’s an oddball and we can see she’s battling with a mysterious illness and a broken heart. These two lives intertwine (as does everyone’s lives, it seems – small town living, innit?) and all sorts of things sort themselves out. (Side note, everyone in this book appears to have weird parents. Is this a thing now?)
Moments of Pleasure
If you’ve not caught Bill Nighy’s performance in Living, I absolutely recommend it. I mentioned above how I love books set in the 1950s from the women’s point of view, it’s worth noting here just how awful Living makes the 1950s look. Living, if you’re not aware, is the latest version of a short story by Tolstoy, which was made into a Japanese film and has now been remade as a British film with screenplay by British-Japanese legend Kazuo Ishiguro, writer of many masterful novels about repressed people. Living is very much one of his books in film form and Nighy is splendid in it. I’ve reviewed it for Left Lion’s Films of the Year article so keep an eye out for that!
Next month will feature my annual books round up and some Christmassy joy on Instagram. Until then, take care.