My week in books – wrapped up

It’s been a busy week in books this week. Here’s a round up of what’s been happening in the book room….

*Books finished*

My habit of having multiple books on the go at once means it takes me longer than most people to finish them; however, it also means the completions tend to come in spurts!

  • The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry – a timely look at toxic masculinity and the damage it’s doing to people of all genders, written by, in my humble opinion, one of the most awesome people alive on the planet today.
  • The Truants by Kate Weinberg – a book that turned out to be a pleasant surprise, setting off on what I thought was going to be a predictable path but then turning into something else entirely. In case you missed it, my review went up last night!
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – I’m working up to writing my review for this one; it was such an outstanding book I’m struggling to get myself into the headspace to do it justice!

*Book journaling*

I’ve kept a log of all the books I’ve read for the last couple of years but, after becoming slightly worried about the integrity of the notebook used for this purpose (the glue has already been out once) I’ve decided it’s time for something more robust. So I bought this GORGEOUS notebook by Esmie and am a little bit in love with it. I’m currently deliberating over whether I transfer everything that was in the old book log to the new one so it’s “complete”; the perfectionist in me feels I probably should…..

*Books purchased*

Just the one this week but something a bit different from my usual fare. During the pandemic I’ve become more and more fascinated by all the statistics presented to us and the questions around their usefulness, their accuracy and the alarming ways that different organisations or groups of people can come up with wildly varying conclusions while supposedly using the same data. This book by David Levitin caught my eye and I hope it’s as illuminating as the synopsis suggests.

*Currently Reading*

Lastly, here are the books I’ve got my nose buried in this week:

  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley – I’ve had this on the go for a few weeks now, not because I’m not enjoying it but because its episodic nature lends itself to being read at a leisurely pace. The page turning drama of The Truants and The Vanishing Half lured me away this week, but having done with those I can go back to immersing myself in Nick Bradley’s hypnotic vision of Tokyo once more.
  • Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid – I’m not going to say too much about this as I want to save as much of my enthusiasm as possible for a blistering review, but, wow. Already totally obsessed with this novel and its colourful cast of characters.

It’s been a great week in my little book world – I hope next week is as exciting! Thanks for reading and see you back on the blog soon.

My week in books – wrapped up

*I’m a bookseller again!*

The bookshop where I work opened its doors to the public on Monday after many long weeks of lockdown. It’s been an incredible and surreal experience; on the one hand I’m now talking to my regulars through a Perspex screen, which takes some getting used to, but on the other, the beautiful comments we’ve had from customers who are over the moon to have their local bookshop back have been overwhelming. It’s easy to forget how much of an impact books can have on people’s lives, and this week I’ve felt honoured to play a small part in that.

All this has meant it’s been an unusually lean week for reading and writing – after over two months of being furloughed returning to a full-time job has proved to be quite draining, and my evenings have mostly been about cobbling together some dinner, pulling on my pyjamas and being dead to the world before it’s even completely dark. However, there have been a couple of bookish highlights!

*Book purchases*

I’ve limited myself to just two this week:

  • Bone China by Laura Purcell – I’ve never read any of her novels before, but she’s a name that keeps popping up across a number of book blogs I follow, and I decided it was time to give her a try. I’ve been in the mood for a bit of creepiness lately (see my recent posts on M R James and Melmoth) and this continues the theme.
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – honestly, I’ve seen sooooo many good reviews of this one! I loved the synopsis and whereas it usually takes a lot to tempt me into splurging on a hardback, this was one temptation I couldn’t resist.

*Mission accomplished (otherwise known as books finished this week)*

Just the one book finished this week, but it’s a good ‘un: The Last Protector by the always fabulous Andrew Taylor. If you’re a fan of C J Sansom, S J Parris or similar historical crime authors then this is one series you have to try. Review will be up on the blog shortly!

I promise I will try my best to up the blogging again next week, but in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you back on This Girl’s Book Room soon!

My week in books – wrapped up

It’s been quite a hectic week in the world of This Girl’s Book Room, and one packed to the rafters with books as usual.

*Back in the bookshop*

After more than two long months of lockdown I was finally back in my beloved bookshop this week, prepping for our opening on Monday. I’m not going to lie, it was very surreal getting the place kitted out with till screens, sanitiser stations and one way signage but with it all in place I now feel strangely calm, happy we’ve done all we can to make the place safe. It’s going to be a very different type of bookselling environment we’re all going back into and I have very mixed feelings about it if I’m honest; but one thing I can say with certainty is I know huge numbers of our customers are going to be delighted to have their book haven back, albeit in a somewhat different form.

*Bookpost*

You’d be hard pushed to find many things more exciting than coming home to find a parcel of books on your doorstep and I had two this week – yay! The latest books to join the Book Room collection are:

  • Little by Edward Carey – I’ve had my eye on this for months and never got round to it, but after a friend’s recommendation (during a socially-distanced iced latte) I decided to pull my finger out and order a copy.
  • Cutting it Short by Bohumil Hrabal – I stumbled across a review of this book on the brilliant Vishy’s Blog and there was just something about his description of it that caught my imagination; I’m really looking forward to giving it a try.
  • The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley – almost every time I’ve been on Twitter over the past fortnight I’ve seen someone raving about this book. If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know I’ve been reading a fair amount of Japanese fiction lately, so the idea of a cat wandering around Tokyo linking the stories of its diverse inhabitants sounded purrrrr-fect (sorry.)

*Currently Reading*

I’ve just started a book I purchased a few weeks ago: The Descent of Man by the awesome human being that is Grayson Perry. I’ve not got far yet, but already his perspective on male privilege and the social damage caused by centuries-old conventions of masculinity is a real breath of fresh air.

Hope you’ve had as many great books in your life this week as I have! Happy reading.

Six Degrees of Separation – this month’s journey in 6 books

The Six Degrees of Separation challenge has got to be one of the most fun things I’ve discovered while running my book blog. It’s hosted by Books are my favourite and best and it’s really easy to join in. Each month, the hosts choose a different book as a starting point and you simply have to create a chain of six books, with each one connected in some way to the one before. The link could be a shared theme or setting, or something more personal, such as another book recommended by the same friend. It’s fascinating to see how different each person’s chain looks; if you want to check out some other bloggers’ connections, have a look at the 6 Degrees page on the host’s blog, or follow the #6Degrees hashtag on Twitter. Even better, have a go yourself, post the link to your blog on the 6 Degrees comments section and join the conversation!

This month’s starting book is Normal People by Sally Rooney. Now, I’m fully expecting there to be universal outrage at what I’m going to say next, but I tried this and absolutely hated it, giving up on it pretty quickly and remaining to this day completely mystified as to why so many people loved it so much! Safest then to brush that one under the carpet and move rapidly on to my 6 degrees…..

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I moved on to this book via a very simple connection: the fact that Sally Rooney and Maggie O’Farrell both hail from Ireland (ok, one from the Republic of Ireland and one from Northern Ireland but I hope you’ll allow me that as I was struggling to get off the ground!) I loooooove Maggie O’Farrell and it was a tough choice between this and This Must be the Place; having plumped for this one though, I next moved on to

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

I only finished reading The Makioka Sisters a few weeks ago, and adored it. Like The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the relationship between sisters is fundamental to the plot and forms the heart of the novel. From here it’s a very small hop to another Japanese novel:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicleby Haruki Murakami

Out of all the Japanese novels I could have chosen to form my next connection, I picked this one because it’s another book that’s recently been reissued by Vintage in the same series as The Makioka Sisters. This series comprises 5 Japanese classics, all with gorgeous new cover illustrations – if you haven’t seen them yet, do have a look next time you’re in your local bookshop. I have to confess (again) I didn’t particularly enjoy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; however, when I started working as a bookseller in the early 2000s, it was on a list of recommendations given to me by my new colleagues of contemporary fiction every bookseller should read! Up to that point I was very much a classics girl, but it was some of the books from this list that got me into the hitherto alien world of modern fiction. I’ve never looked back. Another one from that list – but one that blew my socks off – was

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I don’t know many people who haven’t read this, but if you’re one of them – make it your next read! It’s a sinister story of death, betrayal and fracturing friendships among a clique of elite students at an American university. A very similar set of characters is to be found in…..

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

….only this time the action is set in England, at Cambridge University. Again, it features a privileged group of young intellectuals, over whom the precocious – and increasingly erratic – Eden Bellwether holds sway. It’s uncomfortable, unsettling and also really enjoyable. And it brings me to my final link in this month’s 6 degrees of separation:

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

It’s an award that links these final two books: both were nominated for the EU Prize for Literature. Benjamin Wood didn’t win, but All Among the Barley was the UK winner last year. It’s been on my TBR pile for quite a while; someone told me in passing that it was a really heartbreaking read, and quite honestly I don’t feel up for that right now!

I really hope you enjoyed my 6 degrees! You’ve got a whole month to join in if you’d like to; I for one would love to see what you come up with.

Thanks for reading.

Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review

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It has to be said that Sophie Tobin writes really cracking stories.  I’ve read all her previous novels, and every single one is a proper stay up late, just-one-more-chapter kind of book; this one possibly even more so than any of the others.  In A Map of the Damage we get a double-whammy of excitement and intrigue with a dual narrative tale of love, loss and obsession, the two stories linked by the elegant yet imposing Mirrormakers’ Club in London, which we visit during its design and construction in the nineteenth century and again as it weathers the incendiary bombs of the Second World War.

In 1940, Livy makes her way to the club after she is caught up in a bomb blast.  Quite what draws her there she can’t say; the blast has left her with no memory of who she is or where she belongs, and the only thing she has to go on is a sense that this is somehow a place of safety.  Not long after, the Mirrormakers building also exerts its mysterious pull on two men for whom it holds a very different significance – for one, it may provide clues to the whereabouts of a missing family heirloom, and for the other, a glimmer of hope and the chance to reclaim something – or someone – long since lost.

In 1838, a freak accident leads to a chance encounter between an architect and the wife of the man overseeing his commission – to design and build the Mirrormakers’ Club.  It’s the start of an attraction that will lead both of them down an increasingly tortuous path towards the tantalising possibility of happiness and freedom; but are the obstacles too great to be overcome?

Both stories were perfectly balanced; I sometimes get the sense with multiple narratives that the author is more engaged in one than the other, or perhaps one of them doesn’t flow as naturally, but not here.  I was equally committed to both sets of characters and storylines, albeit for different reasons.  The wartime story I found surprisingly affecting (it brought a tear to my eye a couple of times!), in particular the idea of an amnesiac being oblivious to the past they shared with people who cared for them, and who are now forced into maintaining an emotional distance that’s heartbreaking to watch.  The nineteenth century storyline brought with it the almost unbearable tension of a passionate love story carried out almost entirely within the constraints of formal dinners and drawing room visits; the more you witness the way in which controlling husband Ashton Kinsburg manipulates how others perceive his wife by moulding her into an image of his own perfectionist ideals, the angrier you become and the more you’re willing her on to leaving her him for the lovestruck architect.  Of course, the times being what they are, that isn’t as simple as a reader might wish it to be.

Manipulation and exploitation of women for social or sexual gain rears its head in both eras, but I still felt that ultimately this book belongs to its women.  Charlotte Kinsburg, who falls in love with her husband’s architect, could be said to have the last laugh, even as her grasping descendants hunt high and low for the diamond that one belonged to her; she gazes down implacably from a painting in the Mirrormakers’ Club, almost daring anyone to try and pry her secrets from her.  Livy’s past may have been taken from her, but she attacks the future with a determination to make her own plans and regain control of the life she has left.  And watching over them all is the club itself, which, with its mirrors, domes and glass that play tricks on the eye and the mind, seems to be almost alive, organic and fluid.  It becomes as many different things as there are characters: a safe haven, a symbol of power and wealth, a love letter in stone.  I think I will remember the staircases, dim basement rooms and vast halls of the edifice almost more than I will the human faces that roam through it.

Thank you for reading as ever!  If you’ve read this or any other of Sophia Tobin’s books, do comment and let me know what you think.

Related posts:  The Silversmith’s Wife review                                                                                                              The Widow’s Confession review

 

Weekend Book Haul!

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Happy Saturday everyone!  Very much hope you’re managing to find some reading time this weekend.  I’m massively excited about my latest book haul (I think this is now the 6th book delivery since the start of lockdown but I’m losing track!) – expect to hear me talking about these beauties over the coming weeks….

Isabella – Alison Weir

I caught up with a really interesting BBC4 documentary on iPlayer a few days ago exploring the nature of power and hierarchy in the Middle Ages.  Queen Isabella got a very brief mention, but it was enough to make me keen to find out more about her.  I love Alison Weir’s history books so this was the obvious choice; she crams in a huge amount of detail and analysis, but in such a readable way it’s easily accessible even if you have no prior knowledge of the period or people in question.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Earlier this week I was chatting to Princess and Pages about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the same author, and I mentioned that I’d deliberately not read Flights because of a couple of fellow booksellers saying they’d been disappointed by it in comparison.  Following our conversation I’ve been converted (this is why I love book bloggers so much!) and am really looking forward to giving it a try; I think it’s going to be very different in tone and format from Drive Your Plow, but I’m going in with an optimistic frame of mind.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

This one’s been on my radar for absolutely ages, but it took the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art School on Channel 4 (is anyone else loving this as much as I am?) to remind me to finally buy it.  I’ve read a number of books looking at gender and society from a female perspective, and I can’t think of anyone better than Perry to provide a thoughtful balance.

Thanks for reading as ever, stay well and stay smiling.

Related posts: My Top 5 Reads of 2020

My May Reading List

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I know from reading the blogs and tweets of my book-loving friends that I’m not the only one struggling to concentrate on reading (or anything much) at the moment.  It’s not that the tempting titles aren’t there, but there’s simply so much chaos, stress and confusion going on in what’s become an almost unrecognisable world that it can’t help but filter its way into everyone’s minds and hearts, whether we’ve been personally touched by the current tragedy or not.  On the days when I do feel inclined to pick up a book, however, they’ve come to my rescue as they always do and taken me to a far more manageable place, if only for a while.  So although May has got off to a bit of a slow start, over the next few weeks I’m going to make a concerted effort to take time away from the news and social media, and just relax with my paperback friends.  If you’re in need of some inspiration yourself, here are my picks for this month.

A Map of the Damage – Sophia Tobin

I’ve been a fan of this author since I read her first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, so I was crazily excited when I saw that her latest was about to be released in paperback.  I started reading it a few days ago and it’s already made me cry, made me angry and got me utterly hooked – so a good start then!

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

Another bookseller recommended this to me, calling it “the Japanese Little Women” and my word it’s lived up to the comparison so far!  Told almost entirely from a female perspective, it’s a real cultural eye-opener, shedding light on the expectations, conventions and disappointments of marriage among the more privileged elements of pre-war Japanese society.  I’m loving it so much, at the moment it looks set to be a contender for one of my books of the year so far.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I read Reality is Not What it Seems last year and was surprised how much I enjoyed it (and also, I’m not going to lie, a little bit chuffed how much I managed to grasp) so decided to give this one a go.  To be fair, any understanding I gleaned from the aforementioned title was entirely down to the author’s skill at conveying complex concepts in an accessible way rather than any innate scientific instinct on my part, so I’m very much hoping he pulls off the same trick with this one.

Collected Ghost Stories – M R James

I’m utterly useless when it comes to ghost stories, horror films or anything remotely spooky, and I usually avoid them like the plague, knowing if I don’t I’ll be sleeping with the light on for at least a week afterwards.  My sister gave me her spare copy of the book this week (with a warning that at least two of the stories are guaranteed to freak me out completely), and I very bravely started tackling it this afternoon.  I have to say, sitting under a tree in the sunshine it didn’t seem that bad, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel about it when darkness falls…..

What’s on your TBR pile this May?  Anything you’ve started reading that you’re particularly enjoying?  As always, please do share your comments!

 

Why we will always need bookshops….

Picture1I was beyond excited last week when the first of three book parcels arrived on my doorstep.  Working in a bookshop, I’m lucky enough never to have any need to order my books online, but I have to admit there was an undeniable sense of anticipation knowing what longed-for items lay within.  I’ve watched a few unboxing videos now and then, and as an enthusiastic proponent of hands-on high street shopping I confess they’ve always left me a little bit underwhelmed; but having experienced the warm, fuzzy glow of seeing the big black W on my post office delivery, I feel a bit more like I get it.  Will this be anywhere near the happiness of stepping back into a bookshop again when these dreadful times are over, however?  I somehow doubt it.

Since we closed our doors my fellow booksellers and I have been struck, and quite moved, by the affection that’s come our way from the local community.  There have been posts and messages online telling us how much we are missed.  A couple of my colleagues have been stopped (at a safe distance let me reassure you) while out walking by customers who want to tell us how much they loved coming into our shop and how they long to be able to return.  I’ve even seen an amazing piece of artwork posted online that was done by someone sitting in our café prior to the lockdown and which depicts various groups of people relaxing with a coffee or browsing the shelves in the background.

All this is proof, if any were needed, of the genuine emotional connection that exists between a community and its bookshop.  It’s so much more than a convenient place in which money is handed over in exchange for goods; it’s an ark of knowledge, artistry and ideas, and a space in which any book lover can wax lyrical to like-minded individuals about a shared passion.  It’s a cornucopia of reading pleasure in which you can get a recommendation from a person, not an algorithm.  It can be a safe haven for the anxious or the lonely, or a place that inspires children to embark on a lifetime of reading.  It’s an outing to look forward to when you unwrap those book vouchers on your birthday, and a place to make and meet friends – or even, if you’re lucky, come face to face with your favourite author.

No cardboard box on the doorstep can ever compete with all that.  I very much hope that there are enough people out there in agreement with me to ensure those bookshops that survive these difficult months will be there for many years to come.

The Planets by Andrew Cohen and Brian Cox – review

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Being a bookseller certainly has its perks.  A few years ago I was lucky enough to go and help run the bookstall for one of Brian Cox’s lectures on his national tour; there were unfortunately a couple of complete fangirling moments when it’s fair to say I didn’t cover myself in glory (I could feel my IQ slipping away before my eyes in the presence of the Great Man), but his talk was absolutely mesmerising, and his ability to captivate an audience incredible.  This latest book ties in with the TV series on the planets that he presented not long ago.  Although he’s listed prominently on the cover (understandably), in fact he only wrote the introduction and one of the chapters, but I found it didn’t matter at all as the entire book is very engaging in style and completely readable for the space science layman such as myself.

Out of all Brian Cox’s TV series, I actually found The Planets my least favourite, I think because mind-blowing though the special effects were, I found they distracted me from the scientific content, and it seemed as though most of the emphasis was on the visual impact rather than how thoroughly the science was explained.  The book totally redresses that balance, giving as it does a detailed, but completely comprehensible, explanation to go alongside the images that are still, it has to be said, very vivid in my mind.  As someone with no science background beyond a very general interest, it’s always a bit disappointing to pick up a book on a subject you’re keen to find out more about, only to find it way beyond your capability or stuffed full of equations only comprehensible to someone with an advanced degree.  Happily, this book is extremely informative but also accessible to just about everybody, both describing the wondrous and utterly alien worlds that make up our solar system, and also doing a fantastic job of drilling down into why and how they have evolved over billions of years to be so different to our home planet.  As well as the physics and chemistry, it also covers many of the exploratory missions that have been launched over the decades to further our understanding of these mysterious worlds; the human ingenuity these represent is almost as fascinating as the planets themselves.

You can tell that both Cohen and Cox are supremely passionate about their area of interest, and their desire to share this enthusiasm really brings the science to life.  For anyone who has even a passing interest in space science, or found the TV series left them wanting to know more, then this great introduction to the subject comes highly recommended.