2013 reading stats

The mulled wine is keeping warm and the box of chocolate biscuits is open, so all that’s left to do before bringing in the New Year is to round up my 2013 reading.

Seek the truth

This year I continued keeping stats on what I’ve read, as I had begun to in 2012. I have read 75 books, which is the exact number I aimed for in the Goodreads 2013 Reading Challenge (yay!) and just three fewer than last year. Of those, 18 were translated from other languages, which is a fair bit better than last year, though clearly there’s still room for improvement. And only 18 books were written by authors not from the UK or North America (strictly not quite the same 18 books as there was one written in French by a British author and one written in English by an Indian author). My best success is that I read 37 books by women and 38 by men, which is about as even a split as it could be!

As I thought I would find, I’ve only read 5 books that could be classed as science fiction this year, so I’m definitely going to try to read one SF book per month in 2014. And only 9 were non-fiction (not counting the Little House books because they are fictionalised memoir) so my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge will definitely be a bit of a change for me.

My favourite reads this year were The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, Dan Yack by Blaise Cendrars, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Black Vodka by Deborah Levy and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. What were yours?

Overall I’d say it’s been a good reading year. I have greatly enjoyed most of what I’ve read (lots of 4 stars on Goodreads) and only abandoned one book that I can remember. As I mentioned last month, my 2013 challenges have been a bit hit and miss, but I’m happy with what I have lined up for 2014.

Now I’m going to refill my mug of mulled wine and pick out a book to begin 2014 with. So many to choose between!

I hope you have a fantastic New Year, and here’s to a wonderful 2014!

December reading round-up

Christmas bokeh

Well I hope you’ve all had a few days off work and eaten far too much and maybe even found some time to escape into a quiet corner and read. I didn’t get much reading done over Christmas because, as predicted, meeting my newest niece was quite the distraction! Plus it was good to spend some time with my family and old friends, as well as just enjoying being back in the beautiful Forest of Dean for a week.

Having a cuddle with my niece.
Having a cuddle with my niece.

Tomorrow I’ll write a round-up of my year in reading, but for now here’s what I read in December. You’ll notice it’s significantly less than the number of books I was given for Christmas 🙂

Christmas bookses

All is Fair by Emma Newman (review here)

Other Colours by Orhan Pamuk (review here)

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

And as I’m writing this a day early, I’m hoping I will have finished Paradises by Iosi Havilio by midnight tomorrow!

Short stories
“Xingu” by Edith Wharton (Selected Shorts podcast)

“How to relax while broadcasting” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The topaz cufflinks mystery” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“A ride with Olympy” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Macbeth murder mystery” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The secret life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The babysitter” by Jane Yolen (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The wood duck” by James Thurber (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Here we are” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Just a little one” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The waltz” by Dorothy Parker (Selected Shorts podcast)

There’s a bit of a pattern to my short stories this month, I notice! This was a particularly good bunch, I thought.


Happy New Year, all.

Merry Christmas everyone!

I’ve wrapped the presents, picked out my Christmas Day outfit and had too many Christmas drinks already. I thought I’d share a favourite Christmas tune with you to keep the blog ticking over while I’m busy with family. I do love a good Christmas song.

I have no idea if I’ll find time for reading (I have a new niece to play with and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for board games this year…) but I do (of course) have a stack of books lined up that I’m hoping to snatch a few hours with at some point in the next week and a half off work.

Happy holidays!

The world is bathed in the colour of heat

Other ColoursOther Colours: Writings on Life, Art, Books and Cities
by Orhan Pamuk
translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely

I completely fell in love with Pamuk’s novel Snow when it came out so when I saw he had a new book out I snapped it up before realising that it was a collection of his essays. And then it sat on the shelf unread for five or six years. Ahem.

Pamuk’s writings as collected here are…varied, from a light-hearted series written as a regular newspaper column to serious literary analysis and his Nobel Prize speech. And my enjoyment of them was pretty varied too. The short pieces from the newspaper column were sweet, brief pithy observations about life but the longer essays tended to get a bit bogged down with either name-dropping all the classic authors he’s read or talking at length about being a bestselling author – which I couldn’t help but find big-headed. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

“We see things and we don’t. The world is bathed in the colour of heat, and in our minds we can see this too.”

Pamuk is an interesting man with an interesting life, but perhaps a little repetitive even when I spread my reading of this book out over three or four months. There was lots of theorising about East versus West and Turkish politics, which I liked, plus backgrounds to most of his books, e.g. months spent in Kars while writing Snow, which is naturally interesting to any fan.

“To those viewing them from the outside, one city can seem much like the next, but a city’s collective memory is its soul, and its ruins are its most eloquent testimony.”

One of my problems with this book is that Pamuk does that thing when talking of being a writer: he generalises that all writers must be this way or feel this way. Why? Are there not many thousands of writers producing very different work from very different backgrounds? Can they maybe not have very different personalities and motivations too?

“The stones we writers use are words. As we hold them in our hands, sensing the ways in which each of them is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes almost caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around.”

(I should note that the above quote is not one I consider over-generalised. I quite like this phrasing. It’s more the stuff about working methods and personality type that wound me up.)

On the other hand Pamuk is a gifted writer, with great skill at bringing scenes, real or imagined, to life, and I still intend to read more of his fiction. (In fact, this book did include one short story, which was very good.) But I might give any future essay collections of his a miss.

Published 2007 by Faber & Faber.

Source: I honestly don’t remember.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

It’s a queer thing, people always moving west

These Happy Golden YearsThese Happy Golden Years
by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Here I am already, at the end of the Little House series. I guess that’s how you can tell they’re strictly children’s books, the way I got through seven of them so quickly! Despite a rocky start, I enjoyed the series overall and am a little sad to have reached the end.

The previous book, Little Town on the Prairie, ended with Laura being offered a three-month teaching job, aged just 15. She knew she had to accept it because she desperately wants to help with the fees to keep Mary at the college for the blind, but this teaching post is in midwinter at a town 12 miles away from her home in De Smet, so she will have to live with strangers. And she’s so young still, she doesn’t even know how to teach.

This book picks up just a few days later, with Laura being driven by Pa to her new job. I would be fascinated to know how accurately this reflects the author’s real-life experience because this first job is not a happy one. Laura must teach children who are her own age or older and who don’t recognise her authority. But even worse than that, she must stay with a couple who argue constantly, the wife of whom makes it clear she resents having Laura there. It is an intensely uncomfortable situation.

The light in the darkness is that every Friday afternoon, Almanzo Wilder turns up with his sleigh to take her home to her family for the weekend. No-one has asked him to do this, and Laura is so grateful to be able to see her family, albeit briefly, that for the first few weekends she doesn’t question it, though she feels awkward not knowing what to talk about for the long journey each way. Eventually, she figures out that Almanzo likes her like that and has an interesting reaction.

This book really is all about watching Laura grow up, from 15 to 18, from that first teaching post to accepting any job she is offered to help Mary out, from being nervous of Almanzo’s interest in her to requiting it. After those first few months, there isn’t much that’s negative, but I still found this book deeply touching. I was caught up emotionally in Laura’s story and related to her in many ways, as she worries about being quieter than other girls, and therefore less interesting. But of course Almanzo likes her for her wild spirit and sense of adventure, which he shares. It seems the name “Wilder” was a bit of nominative determinism!

I really do feel like the Little House characters have become friends and I’m sure I will come back to them in the future. It’s also made me want to go back to the series that I loved when I was young – Anne of Green Gables. But maybe I should make a dent in the TBR before I embark on that!

“‘It’s a queer thing,’ said Pa. ‘People always moving west. Out here it is like the edge of a wave, when a river’s rising. They come and they go, back and forth, but all the time the bulk of them keep moving on west.'”

Published 1943 by Harper & Brothers.

Source: Google Books

Life had once been normal but it was so hard to recall

I thoroughly enjoyed the Split Worlds trilogy by Emma Newman and heartily recommend it to absolutely everyone, but I feel there’s a limited amount I can say about books 2 and 3 without spoiling the plot of the first in the series, so here are my very brief reviews.

Any Other Name

Any Other Name
The Split Worlds book 2
by Emma Newman

The series continues with another excellent adventure featuring Cathy, the reluctant member of fae-touched society, and Max, the investigator whose soul is trapped in a gargoyle. I worried this would be the toughest of the trilogy – to set up the final part the characters most likely have to both start and end in a bad place. But of course I needn’t have worried. There were just enough new twists and reveals while continuing and building on the set-up of book 1 (Between Two Thorns). I still love both the lead characters and I really appreciate the wonderful plot contrivance that allows Cathy (and others) to be aware of the essentially historical setting they live in and the inequalities of their society. It’s tough to say much about the plot without giving away what happened in book 1, so suffice to say that both Max and Cathy find themselves embroiled in much bigger problems than they thought they were getting into. So much fun, and thoroughly absorbing.

“I would like it if once, just once, a man would not decide what’s best for me without seeing how I feel about it first.”

Published 2013 by Angry Robot.

Source: Forbidden Planet Bristol.

All is Fair
The Split Worlds book 3
by Emma Newman

Ooh, it’s all kicking off now! That was pretty much my feeling throughout this final(?) instalment. It had become clear in book 2 that the problems in the Split Worlds ran deep and involved all sorts of deep corruptions that it seemed impossible would be fully cleared up by the end of this book. In fact I worried a few times that too much was happening at once and it would be too neat to resolve it all so quickly. I hope it’s not giving too much away to say that, while some threads were wrapped up, others are left loose so there is certainly potential for the story of the Split Worlds to continue, though whether future books would centre on Cathy and Max I am not sure of. I’ll admit there were moments where the story went in a direction I didn’t want it to, but I always ended up persuaded that that was the right decision. Because no-one’s perfect, and no solution is neat and tidy for everyone. I loved the new character Rupert, the Sorcerer of Mercia; he was brilliantly eccentric in a completely different way from Ekstrand, the Sorcerer of Wessex (who you may remember is completely useless on certain days of the week). Also, big thumbs up for the appearance of the excellent Bath bookshop Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights (which I realise now may have had some influence on the naming of the magic shop that plays a major role in the trilogy, The Emporium of Things in Between and Besides). I really did love this book and hope that Newman does have some more Split Worlds tales up her sleeves!

“He knew, intellectually, that his life had once been normal but it was so hard to recall. The bereavement was like the camphor in his grandmother’s clothes; it perfused everything and the smell just lingered on and on after the mothballs were gone.”

Published 2013 by Angry Robot Books.

Source: Forbidden Planet Bristol.

Kate Adie on women in World War I

Kate Adie
(CC-BY Joanna Penn)

A Topping & Co author event
Christ Church, Bath, 10 December

As I mentioned a while back, one of my heroes in life is Kate Adie, so when Topping Bookshop sent me its list of upcoming events I got very excited about this one. Adie is a proper serious broadcast journalist. She was a rare female face on TV news outside of the studio back in my childhood and when I aspired to be a journalist she was a natural role model. But my failure to become a journalist hasn’t stopped me from admiring her, so I willingly braved the cold, dark and steep hills of Bath last night to see her in the flesh.

Unlike the other author events I’ve been to this year, Adie wasn’t interviewed for the crowd, she simply stood at the front of the big old church and spoke to us. She was lively, engaging and full of enthusiasm for her subject. Essentially her talk was background to and highlights from her new book Fighting on the Home Front: the Legacy of Women in World War One.

Adie held forth knowledgeably about the legal status of women 100 years ago and how World War I changed everything. She consummately related the points she was making to Bath and Bristol, as well as dropping in some related anecdotes from her own life. But most of all she exuded passion for her subject and admiration for the women who stepped up, not only those who filled the gaps left behind by men who had gone to war, but also the women who went to war themselves and those women who had to fight hard for the right to fill those gaps, even as Britain was creaking desperately with need of them.

Adie also spoke a little about her own career, about how her school teacher was so eager to get at least one pupil into university that Adie found herself “shunted into university via the catflap”, and how a reporter has to have an ordinary life to go back to between assignments: “You have to live an ordinary life in order to understand disorder.” She also had a lot to say about the strength and resilience of human beings.

I enjoyed Adie’s autobiography The Kindness of Strangers back when it came out and greatly look forward to reading my autographed copy of her new book.

The 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge

2014-pop-sci-reading-challengeAs I briefly mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I have set myself the goal of reading more popular science in 2014. It’s a genre I have enjoyed on the very few occasions I have dipped into it, so I’m not really sure what has been holding me back. To spur me on, I thought I’d make into a challenge, so here we go.

I think the aim will be to read one popular-science book per month (though I’ll still count it as a success if I manage to read 10 in a year). I’ve put together a list of titles recommended to me by people I trust (below), but this is just a starting point (and also a much longer list than I’ll get through in a year). Any popular science (including biographies or other forms of science history) will count.

I’ll create a page to keep track of how I’m doing in this challenge shortly. Does anyone fancy joining me? If so, feel free to use the button I have created (with huge thanks to Doublecompile for making the line drawing available through Creative Commons) and let me know how you get on!

Without further ado, here’s the list I’ll be starting from:

A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: the Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher by Joel Achenbach
The Edge of Physics: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Cosmology by Anil Ananthaswamy
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Why Does e=mc2? by Brian Cox
Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich
Measure of the Earth: the Enlightenment Expedition that Reshaped the World by Laurie Ferreiro
How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture and the Quantum Revival by David Kaiser
The 4% Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality by Richard Panek
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
Stiff by Mary Roach
Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford
The Double Helix by James Watson

I’ll add to this list any further recommendations that take my fancy. So who’s with me?

Dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning

The Most Remarkable Woman in England

The Most Remarkable Woman in England:
Poison, celebrity and the trials of Beatrice Pace

by John Carter Wood

I think I first heard about this book in the Guardian, which goes to show that I do still occasionally read newspaper review pages and like something I see there. Now, I mostly liked the sound of this book because it’s about a historical event (okay, a death that may or may not have been murder) in the Forest of Dean, but it’s about so much more than that, tapping into issues around celebrity, poverty, gender equality, domestic violence and depression.

The history being recounted here is that of Harry Pace, a quarryman and sheep farmer who died in 1928 slowly and painfully, aged just 36, and his wife Beatrice Pace who was accused of murdering her husband by poisoning him. The long-drawn-out inquest and subsequent trial were the sensational news story of their day, not just locally in the Forest of Dean but also nationally, with details both revealed and (amazingly) kept hidden about infidelities, domestic violence and other dark secrets.

“[Harry Pace’s death might have] remained as obscure as that of any other working-class person. But investigations by the local police were soon accompanied by dark suggestions of extramarital affairs, hidden wealth and poisoning. The local coroner’s decision to postpone the funeral and order an urgent post-mortem suddenly made Harry’s demise newsworthy, especially when it was later proven that he had died from a large dose of arsenic. Precisely how it had gotten into his body was anything but clear, but there were only three obvious possibilities – accident, suicide or murder – and, at first, no way of deciding among them.”

You might think that a book about a mysterious death in (or very near to) my hometown back in the 1920s sounds a bit gruesome and/or specialised. But while the setting was certainly the reason for my initial interest, it was the way the story was told that kept me hooked.

Because this is a really well written book. Wood, a historian, acknowledges himself on his blog that he was trying to write for both a general audience and an academic one, and I think that shows, but not at all in a bad way. I have tried to read a few historical books written for a popular audience and generally I’ve struggled. Even the super successful The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, which it’s hard not to compare this to, didn’t entirely get it right in my view.

The way in which Wood does get it right is, to begin with, his identifying what it was about the case that made its players instantly famous. He has some very smart things to say about celebrity culture being tied to social and political changes, such as women’s liberation or distrust of the police force. Wood quotes extensively from original sources, which serves two purposes: you are left in no doubt as to where each fact/opinions comes from, and you get a real flavour of the time and place. Papers quoted Beatrice and other key witnesses extensively (and indeed both Beatrice and her oldest daughter had their stories serialised in the national press) so there’s lots of material to be drawn from and Wood has done an admirable job picking out the right lines to tell his story.

“The ‘seemingly interminable’ inquest stretched through April and May, attracting ever more attention. By mid-May, the World’s Pictorial News observed: ‘Throughout all these months of inquiries, throughout all the ten hearings before the Coroner, the widow has been called upon to face the gaze of curious eyes. Crowds flocked into Coleford from villages for miles around to see the woman who had become such a figure of public interest.'”

Because this is after all Wood’s story above all. He works at the Institute of European History in Germany, specialising in the history of crime, policing, violence and media; and those interests are very much at the fore. Which is in many ways what makes this book interesting – it doesn’t just lay out the facts and then have a stab at “solving the case”, instead it uses the case as a detailed case study. And they’re all fascinating subjects that are still relevant now.

I know that this book worked in a narrative sense because for most of the time I was reading it I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that I only get from a good crime book, whether true or fictional. It really is a very readable book, despite its extensive references. I’ll keep an eye out with interest for the next research interest Wood decides to expand into a whole book. I’d also like to thank Wood for e-mailing me with the genuinely interesting fact that the journalist most involved in covering the Pace case, Bernard O’Donnell, was the father of Peter O’Donnell, who created (and wrote the many many stories about) the character Modesty Blaise, who I really like. That’s a good fact.

Published 2012 by Manchester University Press.

Source: Christmas present from my Mum.

If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still

Stone in a Landslide

Stone in a Landslide
by Maria Barbal
translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

This book takes a whole life and tells it in less than 120 pages, which is both its strength and its weakness. There is some beautiful writing, but there’s also a lot of speeding past things that another writer might have taken a whole novel to explore. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

The life told is that of Conxa, a poor Catalan woman whose story begins when she is a child in the early 20th century. There are three major things that happen in her life that each could have been central to a chunky novel but here are dealt with in 10 or 15 pages. First, she is from a large rural family that can’t easily support all the children, while her aunt and uncle are childless and need help to manage their house and land, so at 13 Conxa is sent on a day’s journey, the furthest she has ever travelled, to begin a new life at her aunt’s house. She has gone from countryside to small town, from familiar to unfamiliar and it takes years for her to settle in.

“My mother was a woman who knew only two things: how to work and how to save…She was always the last to go to bed and sometimes she’d say a rosary. But for all her devotion, I’m sure she didn’t even get to half a mystery. Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Perhaps the biggest thing, from Conxa’s perspective, is her falling in love with Jaume. He’s a builder and carpenter who travels a lot for his work, and consequently is much more worldly and politically aware then Conxa, who shies away from such things. I found it difficult to sympathise with Conxa’s lack of interest in the wider world, even though the story is narrated by her voice, so we hear her reasons first hand. It keeps the story very narrow, telling just her life rather than the history of the world or Spain or even just Catalonia at that time, which I can see has its advantages, but it’s not the perspective I would prefer to read.

The final major event for Conxa is the Spanish Civil War. While the First World War appears to have happened without even a hint of it in Conxa’s narrative, the Spanish Civil War is unavoidable. Jaume’s interest in politics makes his absences from home suspicious and it’s little surprise when terror comes to their doorstep. But still Conxa never offers explanation or her own opinion, only fear.

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days.”

Weaving between and around these three is the everyday life of sustenance farming and village gossip. And none of these are things that lack interest, or told badly, only too briefly to really make me feel involved. I usually like spare prose but I think this was too much of an extreme and I just wanted there to be more to it.

Pedra de Tartera published 1985 by Columna Edicions.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.