The Book Oscars 2016

Seeing as the Oscars are almost upon us it seems like the perfect time to conduct my own little awards ceremony.  Sadly I’ll have to make do without the extravagant dresses and tearful acceptance speeches, but what it lacks in drama it will more than make up for with amazing books!  By happy accident, it’s almost exactly a year since I launched Girl, Reading, so in true awards tradition I had a year’s worth of contenders to look back on.  It was difficult but I’ve finally whittled them down to a selection of worthy winners – see if you agree with my choices!

Best Leading Male – Dr. Finlay Logan (Devotion by Ros Barber)

You’ll be hard pushed to find a more finely wrought study of grief than this: Finlay Logan is so completely real that he could be any one of us if our lives happened to take a wrong turn.  The level of emotional depth captured here is so utterly authentic you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that he’s actually fictional.

Best Leading Female – Grace (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon)

One of this novel’s strokes of genius is the use of a child narrator; like all children, Grace can be devious and occasionally unkind, but she possesses a perspicacity that eludes most of her adult counterparts.  By the end of the book I absolutely adored her, and I feel she’s going to stick long in my mind.

Best Supporting Character – Ganesha the elephant (The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan)

This is quite probably the first (and last) time a literary award has been bestowed on an animal, but I couldn’t resist!  I have a massive soft spot for elephants anyway, but little Ganesha goes above and beyond elephantine expectations, proving to be not just an adorable companion for the titular Inspector but a formidable sidekick in the fight against crime.

Best Cover Design – Devotion


There was no competition in this category for me – this cover is arresting and memorable, sinister yet beautiful, and captures perfectly the novel’s themes of grief, torment and the fragility of the human mind.  I love it.

Best Debut Novel – Belonging by Umi Sinha

If you read the review of this book I posted a few weeks ago you’ll know how this unassuming, un-hyped novel caught me off guard.  The quality of the writing is sublime, the themes universally relevant and the emotional insights piercing – I really, really wish this book had received more of a fanfare because it deserves every plaudit it gets.  Read it now and discover a new author that (I hope) everyone will be talking about in the not too distant future.

Best Novel – A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

This was the hardest winner to choose by far as I’ve read so many phenomenal books in the last year, but in the end I kept coming back to this.  What gives the book its impact is the extraordinarily delicate balance of genuine pathos ad deliciously black humour.  It takes real skill to make a reader laugh and cry – literally – at the same time, but this novel managed it.  It’s been almost a year now since I read it and I’m still moved when I think about it; there are many vignettes that are as clear in my mind as if I read them yesterday, proof surely that the author has worked her magic well.

As always, I’d love to hear what you think – who would your winners be?



The list of shame

We all have one: our own personal list of reading shame.  It might be books we’ve never read that we think we should have, or maybe universally acclaimed books that we’re a bit ashamed to admit we actually hated.  For me, my list of shame comprises those books that have been sitting on my shelves literally for years, the initial rush of enthusiasm I doubtless felt at the moment of purchase having long since evaporated.  I will read them – indeed I must read them as I’ve never yet got rid of a book without at least trying it.  Plus most of them are novels I’m pretty sure I will enjoy once I’ve started them.  So what are they?  And why exactly have they ended up in the pitiful position of being on my list of shame?  Time for a bit of soul-searching and self-analysis of the booky kind…

“The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver                        Date purchased: 2010

I vaguely remember there being quite a bit of chatter surrounding this when it came out and I decided to give the author a try.  Yet whenever I go to pick it up I end up putting it back and I’m not sure why.  It’s possibly because I, like most people I expect, choose my next read according to my mood and since I have absolutely no clue what to expect from this novel I also have no clue as to whether it’s going to appeal to my current mind-set, whatever that may be.  Also, and this is going to sound dreadful, but the more I look at it the more I get the feeling it looks a bit….dull.  Barbara Kingsolver fans, I stand ready to be contradicted!

“Fall of Giants” by Ken Follett                                   Date purchased: 2011

Until I started writing this blog post I had no idea this novel had been out so long!  (Even more shameful than I thought then.)  However, I do have a very valid excuse for putting this one off: it’s huge!  I adored the equally epic “Pillars of the Earth” and “World without End” but both of those took me months to get through, and quite honestly I haven’t been able to face any book since that I know is going to take up so much of my time…

“Care of Wooden Floors” by Will Wiles                  Date purchased: 2012

Picking this up and looking at it again for blog inspiration purposes has actually awakened a strong desire to read it, so maybe it can be crossed off the list of shame before too long.  I remember when this novel was released I got the sense it was going to be a slightly surreal escapade, possibly in the vein of Paul Auster or Magnus Mills.  The only problem was I’d read a lot of that kind of novel and I think I felt I’d reached saturation point.  But it’s been a while since I first ventured into that genre so maybe it’s time to revisit.

“Winter in Madrid” by C J Sansom                          Date purchased: 2009 (approximately!)

This poor book has been untouched for so many years I feel quite sorry for it!  Unfortunately in between buying it and the point when I may in normal circumstances have started reading it, someone lent me “Dissolution” by the same author – and the rest is history.  Any regular visitors to my blog will know how much I LOVE the Shardlake series, and I have been constantly afraid that his other books just won’t measure up; as a consequence I’ve never dared try them in case of disappointment.

There are more I could share with you but I don’t want to tarnish my reputation completely!  I would love to know which books would appear on your list; or maybe you’re extremely diligent with your reading and don’t leave books languishing as I do!  If you’ve read any of the novels on my list and enjoyed them, why not share the love and tell me why I need to read them right now.  Until next time…

November is here!

It’s with a slight sense of shame that I look back on the autumn reading ambitions I wrote about on the blog a couple of months ago.  Out of what seemed at the time a pretty exciting list I’ve managed to read…  The problem is that I suffer from something I can only describe as book-magpie syndrome: if something bright and shiny and exciting comes along, then my carefully constructed “to be read” list goes out the window.  That said, those bright and shiny distractions have given me a really enjoyable few weeks of reading so I can’t have too many regrets!

It’s with some trepidation, then, that I’m sharing with you today the next tranche of novels I’m hoping to get through before too long.  There may be reviews popping up on Girl, Reading sometime soon – or not, depending on how many other bright and shiny and exciting books come along between now and then…

“Katherine” by Anya Seton – now this one I can guarantee I‘ll be blogging about, as I’ve actually started it!  At the moment I’m pretty close to thinking it’s the best historical novel I’ve ever read; food for an interesting blog discussion if ever there was one.

“The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins – abysmally late with this one really, since if I’d had any foresight at all it would have made the perfect Halloween blog post!  I love Wilkie Collins but didn’t know this book existed until couple of weeks ago; looks like one to read with the lights on!

“Astray” by Emma Donoghue – this collection of short stories looks intriguing.  I’ve heard so many positive things about her other novels, “Room” in particular, so I can’t wait to get started on this.

“The Skull and the Nightingale” by Michal Irwin – I got a signed copy of this as a present last week, which I’m well and truly chuffed with.  A historical setting (hooray!) but it’s the 18th century, a period about which I know far less than some others, so it’s something a bit different to look forward to.  Awesome cover too.

I also have a little pile of Christmas books at the ready, but something tells me it’s a bit too early to start on these just yet!  Keep an eye on the blog over the next few weeks and I’ll let you know how November’s reading is shaping up…

“The Lake House” by Kate Morton – review

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about Kate Morton and why I’m a fan of her books.  After reading her latest offering, those reasons are just as true as ever.  With “The Lake House” she doesn’t break the mould but carries on doing what she does best: a dual-narrative novel with one strand set in the past and one in the present, both of which are connected.  This time the main setting is a country house in Cornwall.  We first visit it in the 1930s when the family’s youngest child has just gone missing, and again in 2003 when disgraced police detective Sadie Sparrow becomes intrigued by the unsolved case whilst on enforced leave from the Met.

This is Kate Morton’s fifth novel and I think it’s my favourite so far.  I put this down to the fact that I was just as engaged with the modern story as I was with the historical one, something that doesn’t always happen with this type of book.  In fact I felt Sadie was the most interesting and well-rounded of all the contemporary characters the author has created to date.  The mystery of the missing child is the puzzle on which the novel hangs to be sure, but there is another disturbing case in the present day that needs resolving too.  The link between past and present is the formidable Alice Edevane, who in her adult life has made a living as a successful crime novelist, but whose carefree childhood was scarred by the loss of her baby brother Theo during a midsummer garden party at their Cornwall home.  Before that dreadful day, life on the Loeanneth country estate had been an almost fairytale-like existence of endless sunny days, picnics and boating on the lake.  What appears at first to be an unsullied idyll, however, is gradually exposed as a rose-tinted picture of life as seen through the eyes of a child.  The reality is that Loeanneth is a claustrophobic world of illicit affairs, deep-rooted jealousies and psychological trauma.  Not long before Theo vanished without trace, Alice was beginning to stumble across her family’s secrets; in 2003 when Sadie meets her, she may just be the only person left alive who knows the truth about what happened to her brother.

It’s a complex plot, and by the end I was taking my hat off to Kate Morton for managing to come up with a mystery whose solution had so many strands to it.  I didn’t guess exactly how Theo disappeared; there are clues and red herrings placed carefully throughout the book but I failed to knit all the evidence together correctly, which I think is as is should be.  My one criticism may sound bizarre, but it’s that I felt everything was in fact wound up a little too perfectly.  I’ve never liked completely open or mystifying endings to books, but in this case I thought that a few of the small side-plots didn’t actually need to be resolved.  (I’d better put in a spoiler alert at this point!) The Loeanneth mystery was solved and that was enough; I didn’t feel the need to be reassured quickly in the final chapter that all the main character’s personal issues had been solved as well.  That small gripe aside it was a really enjoyable read, similar in structure to her others but then if it isn’t broken, why fix it?!

“The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson – review

It’s a short and sweet review on the blog today, simply because the book in question is so cheerful, chirpy and big-hearted that it doesn’t need any lingering analysis from me.  I’ve read Bill Bryson’s previous travel books so I was pretty hopeful of loving this one just as much, but still, when there’s such a sense of anticipation surrounding a new title by a favourite author there’s always the niggling fear that it’s going to turn out to be a disappointment.  It wasn’t of course – in fact it was as if he’d never been away.

Bryson has written a few intriguing history books over the past few years, plus his autobiography, but for me, like many readers I expect, it’s his travel writing that’s his real calling card.  To spend a couple of hundred pages in his company as he reassesses his adopted country some twenty years after “Notes from a Small Island” is to fall in love with Great Britain all over again.  For “The Road to Little Dribbling” the author takes as his starting point a route he dubs “The Bryson Line”, the furthest you can travel across the country in a straight line without having to cross the sea at any point.  After some initial experiments with a map and ruler, he discovers that this imaginary line would run from Bognor Regis on the south coast to Cape Wrath at the northern tip of Scotland.  So, with his start and finish points determined, Bill sets out on a journey along the full length of the British Isles, meandering quite substantially as it turns out from the line itself, but always striving towards the moment when he can stand with no land left between him and the polar regions.  On the way he takes in every imaginable terrain, from the narrow streets of Cornish fishing villages to the expansive landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales, and of course, this being Bill Bryson, he finds plenty to make us laugh along the way.

I can vouch for the fact that this book is laugh-out-loud funny.  If you’re feeling a bit low reading this will certainly bring a smile back to your face.  Yet what this author can do so deftly is intersperse moments of hilarity with some truly poignant insights into how our landscape, heritage and communities are being eroded and in some cases obliterated by the demands and catastrophic misjudgements of modern life.  Many times during his journey, Bryson tells us how lucky we are to enjoy the wealth of history and nature that we do.  Being American born and raised he is able to describe our country through the eyes of someone who has seen first-hand the differences between Britain and other places with a far lower concentration of historical and natural diversity, and for me it makes the eulogy so much more powerful.  Yes, it made me laugh, but it also made me want to hop on a train and really explore some of those precious places that are so close by and yet forgotten through mere familiarity.  I think that’s what all good travel writing should make you do – and Bill Bryson is one of the best.

My top 5…. novels of the Second World War

When you consider all the novelists who’ve been inspired to write about the Second World War, the numbers are huge.  The events of those few momentous years have provided – and are providing still – the subject matter for a vast swathe of the contemporary literary canon.  I don’t read military history and I don’t seek out documentaries on the period, and yet when it comes to fiction I find myself drawn time and again to stories set during that time.  It was such as enormous and multi-faceted conflict, affecting people from all continents and all walks of life, that the human experiences to be explored are almost endless.  All the books in my top five take a very different angle on the war and what it meant for those caught up in it, so I really hope that something here will catch your eye.  So here are…

…my top 5 novels of the Second World War

  1. “All the Light we cannot see” by Anthony Doerr – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog you may have read the glowing review I wrote for this book a few months ago. The juxtaposed stories of a blind girl stranded in France during the Nazi occupation and a gentle German boy forced into a life of violence that he really doesn’t want provide some of the most moving moments in fiction that I’ve ever come across.  The ideas here of the survival of the human spirit against all the odds will stay lodged in your heart for a long time.
  2. “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky – I haven’t seen the recent film adaptation and am determined not to because I enjoyed the book so much. It’s superb in its own right but is rendered all the more poignant by the knowledge that the author, a Russian Jew, died in Auschwitz in 1942.  The book is made up of two stories – she had planned to write more – that describe daily life in France as it was under the German occupation.  The microcosms depicted would have, you feel, been played out countless times across the beleaguered country.  It flits between the mundane and the desperately harrowing in a way that you sense is a very authentic representation of the time.
  3. “Obedience” by Jacqueline Yallop – this novel was nowhere near as prominently reviewed or talked about as the previous two, but it’s still an absolute gem. It concerns the developing relationship between a French nun and one of the occupying German soldiers that could best be described as unfortunate!  The consequences for Sister Bernard don’t stop with the end of the war; we see in tragic detail how the decisions she made then play out during the rest of her life.  It was quite an unusual story, I thought, and one worth discovering if you haven’t already.
  4. “HHhH” by Laurent Binet – now this is something very different. It’s based on the true story of an Allied mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi secret service, while he is visiting what was then Czechoslovakia.  It’s an unbearably tense adventure novel, but it’s something more besides, which sets it apart from most other novels of its kind.  The striking element is the very audible presence of the narrator who, as well as telling the tale, tells us of his struggles in trying to present a factual account without succumbing to the temptation of artistic licence.  It sounds a bit of a weird idea, but honestly it really works – and it certainly makes you think about how many of our notions regarding historical events might be skewed by unreliable narrators.
  5. “Maus” by Art Spiegelman – I’m sure you’ll forgive me for including a graphic novel on my list since it is arguably one of the most famous fictional depictions of the Holocaust ever created. It’s certainly the most powerful I’ve ever read.  In this version, the Nazis become cats and the Jews mice; other than that, events play out as they really happened.  I’ve never been able to get my head around exactly why replacing humans with animals makes this book so heart-wrenching.  Maybe we can envisage the fragility of a mouse more easily than that of a human?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is a masterpiece that needs to be experienced by everyone.  I saved the best until last with this list, so if you read no others, please try this.

I hope you enjoyed my top five today; as ever, I would love to hear your favourites!

A different kind of heroine

One of the most popular book-related questions has got to be that old favourite, “which literary character do you most identify with?”  So far, in all my conversations and virtual travels around the blogosphere, I haven’t come across a single person who’s given the answer I would give.  Not for me the determined Elizabeth Bennet, the boozing Bridget Jones or the charismatic Madame Bovary.  My fictional counterpart is the epitome of the shrinking violet, who doesn’t so much make an entrance as creep reluctantly into her own story.  She has, her creator describes, “no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty” and although gentle in demeanour there is nothing especially appealing about her character; at first glance, and in comparison to the strong personalities that surround her, she is almost invisible.  This girl is Fanny Price from “Mansfield Park”, arguably the least popular of Jane Austen’s leading ladies.

But hang on, why exactly do some people take against her or simply forget her in the way that they do?  I’ve heard her dismissed in very unkind terms, from “boring” to “pathetic” to “stuck-up”.  Yet Austen, whose authority on her characters could never be doubted, tells us quite clearly that the diminutive Miss Price has “an affectionate heart and a strong desire of doing right”.  What more could you want in a heroine, in the character for whom we’re meant to root?  Well, quite a lot it seems – and it’s at this point that I start, in spite of my best efforts, to get a little rankled.

The language of book reviews and dust jacket blurbs reinforces time and again what we have come to expect of our female leads.  So often the word heroine is preceded by a description such as gutsy, ballsy or feisty, so much so that the woman herself has become synonymous with an outspoken, forceful, even brash personality type.  Outside of literature little is different: our media, popular culture and even our workplaces are a continuous celebration of the loud and bullish.  To me, describing someone as “in your face” would be an insult – for many, it would be considered almost a compliment.  Do I want all my literary heroines to follow this model, with their level of worth as a character symbolized by their level of feistiness?  I think you can probably guess my answer to that question.

But just maybe, before I go off on a rant about how things were so much better in the good old days when Jane Austen was bringing Fanny Price to life on the page, I should stop and consider whether ideas as regards the ideal personality type were really all that different.  Strangely, I think that “Mansfield Park” explores some of the same frustrations I’ve just been talking about.  Fanny is, in the end, undoubtedly the heroine of the book, but not before she’s encountered her polar opposite, Mary Crawford.  Mary is everything Fanny isn’t: vivacious, fun-loving, daring and always the centre of attention.  For much of the novel Mary is the character who excites our interest.  Eventually though, she is revealed as being completely bereft of a sense of propriety or shame, and ignorant of other people’s feelings; she has the wit, the spirit and the confidence, but not the moral or emotional depth.  I think the author knew very well how the fearless and yes, feisty, people of the world can easily end up holding sway, in real life but also in fiction.  From the books I’ve read I would say this is definitely still true.  So I’m flying the flag today for more heroines like Fanny Price, the ones who win the day through emotional intelligence, quiet resilience and astute judgement.  Let’s find some new adjectives to put on our book jackets; let’s celebrate a different kind of heroine.

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters – review

People are usually a bit surprised when I tell them I’ve never tried Sarah Waters, understandable I suppose given my love of stories set in the past.  I think I’ve always been deterred by the knowledge that a number of her novels have a fairly substantial supernatural element, a theme that doesn’t appeal to me at all.  “The Paying Guests”, however, is rooted very firmly in the physical world with all its lies, disappointments and sordidness, and has a sense of unvarnished realism that I found very refreshing.  It’s a love story, a crime thriller and a perceptive snapshot of a time when social expectations – particularly for women – were starting to change.

The year is 1922.  Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances are the only surviving members of the Wray family, having lost both sons in the Great War and the father soon after.  Their large London home is proving too expensive to run, and mother and daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet.  Those lodgers are Lillian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple whose modern sensibilities at first seem out of kilter with the subdued, formal atmosphere of a house still in mourning.  Gradually, however, the naturally rebellious Frances is drawn into their enticing world – and life in the house on Champion Hill will never be the same again.

I absolutely loved Frances as a central character.  She was headstrong and opinionated, yet also had an obvious vulnerability that prevented her from slipping into the dull and patronising cliché of the “feisty” heroine.  We learn that she has been involved with the Suffragette movement and taken part in anti-authority activities to the consternation of her parents, and her mother still admonishes her for wanting to talk politics over the tea table; yet I didn’t see this as the familiar story of a woman ahead of her time trying to break through society’s conventions.  In those kind of novels, the lead female character is often the only woman portrayed as being forward-thinking in any way and is surrounded by others whose desire to stick with convention is as strong as the heroine’s desire to break from it.  “The Paying Guests” is not a book about one renegade woman: it is a novel of women, normal women who are simply in search of a life that will make them happy.  If some of society’s mores are overturned in the process then it’s a by-product of an individual’s pursuit of personal fulfilment.  It is without doubt the female characters who take centre stage and determine the novel’s course of events.  The only male character we get to know in any detail is Leonard, whose enigmatic and unsettling demeanour becomes more and more troubling to Frances.  This weighting towards the feminine is an interesting reflection of the state of Britain at that time, where thousands upon thousands of men have been killed in a war still fresh in everyone’s memory.  Frances has lost all the male members of her immediate family, and throughout the novel peripheral characters make reference to male friends or relatives who lost their lives in the conflict.  As events take a more sinister turn, those involved remark on how the war not only took so many innocent lives but hardened and corrupted the outlook of many of those men who survived, this collective shift towards self-serving cynicism being to the detriment of society and community.  Little wonder then that women, their desires and ambitions are suddenly coming to the fore.

I can’t bring this review to a close without mentioning just how exciting this novel is in terms of its plot and action.  Almost from the first page there is a tingling sense that something untoward is going to happen, and happen it does.  The first major event is pretty easy to anticipate; after that, however, I was taken completely by surprise and consumed the last half of the book with a real stomach-knotting desperation to see how the story would conclude.  I’ve read a lot of novels recently that I’ve enjoyed for their linguistic prowess, perceptive character studies or emotional impact, but it’s been a while since I read anything that has that real “what’s going to happen next” verve about it.  I’m really pleased I’ve finally discovered what a brilliant writer Sarah Waters is and can guarantee I’ll be returning to her before too long.

In celebration of a booky day!

It seems like ages since I’ve had a day off work with any spare time to actually sit and read.  Other unfortunate life events (broken boilers, the necessity to start Christmas shopping while I still have some money left) have taken over and cruelly robbed me of my book time.  Not today – today was well and truly a booky day, the first in a long time and one I’ve savoured.

It started off with a wander into town to get rid of some of my more ridiculous stilettos into an obliging charity shop….and once there it would have been rude not to browse the book section.  I do love a bit of charity shop browsing, and sure enough I came away with a couple of classics I’ve not read before: “Lady Audley’s Secret”, which caught my eye as I remembered it was a firm favourite of an old colleague of mine, and “The Bertams” by Anthony Trollope, an author I’ve enjoyed before but not a book I’d heard of.  Having got home with my bargainous purchases I realised that these additions would undoubtedly mean rearranging two of my bookcases, so of course that had to happen without further ado…

The afternoon was pretty much the perfect reading afternoon: rain pouring down relentlessly and no demands on my time other than trotting periodically to the kitchen to replenish my mug of tea.  I finally made a start on “Devotion” – I don’t want to say too much at this point other than it could be shaping up to be my book of the year so far.  Then, because I was just so excited to have literally hours of free reading time, I moved on to “The Paying Guests”, because what could round off a booky day better than a gloriously written, erotically charged period drama?

My booky day, of course, ends with this blog!  I couldn’t not celebrate the joy of a simple day spent reading…hope you enjoy your next book day too.

Past Masters – my favourite historical fiction authors

I adore historical fiction – from the Middle Ages to the Victorians, I’ll read it all.  So to trumpet my passion just that little bit more, I’m launching my Past Masters series of blog posts, the aim being to celebrate some of the amazing historical fiction writers out there and hopefully to inspire you to try someone you haven’t yet read.  Without further ado then, first up this week is…

Suzannah Dunn

Which historical period does she write about?

The Tudors; her books are focussed primarily on the Tudor court.

Why should I read her?

Most of her novels feature real historical figures, so if like me you see historical fiction partly as a springboard into learning some historical facts then you’ll enjoy these.  What Suzannah Dunn does particularly well, though, is to use some less well-known, or almost entirely fictional, characters to provide a unique perspective on what is quite a familiar and frequently explored period in British history.  In “The Queen of Subtleties” for example, she takes a single name and job title from the actual historical records relating to Henry VIII’s court, and from that starting point creates the character of King’s Confectioner, who tells us the famous story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall as seen through the eyes of a servant – a class of people whose experience of their times all too often died with them.  When it comes to finding a convincing narrative voice this author is a real class act; her books are incredibly well written and she clearly has a real love for the period.

Which authors are most similar?

The obvious comparison is Philippa Gregory, but Alison Weir’s fictional books aren’t a million miles away.  I have to say I do prefer Suzannah Dunn to Alison Weir though.

Which book should I start with?

My favourite was the one I mentioned above, “The Queen of Subtleties”, primarily because I loved the idea of exploring the world of the people behind all the Tudor splendour and gastronomic extravagance.

I hope your interest is piqued enough to give this fantastic author a try!  See you soon on the blog for another of my favourite writers.