books

I may need to start reading full-time

I mentioned last month when I did a quick summary of what I was planning to read next, at the end of my 2022 round-up, that the few books pictured there (2 fiction, 5 non-fiction) would probably take me till March to read. As I noted here three years ago, I only read 479 books in the decade 2010-19, so say 48 books a year. Obviously it depends what else is going on, and how thick the books are, but go with 48 for now. That’s 4 complete books per month. Let’s gloss over the fact that I only completed one book in January and pretend I’m on course to 48 this year. Now where have I seen that number recently?

I keep a handy list on my phone, of books I’d like to read. Whenever I see an interesting review or a recommendation on Twitter, or someone suggests a book they think I might like, it goes on the list. The idea being that if I’m in a shop or library, or OneMonkey asks what I want for Christmas, these are the books that get bought or borrowed. In fact, thirteen of them I now own, but obviously haven’t got round to reading. The trouble is, there are 48 books on that list at the time of writing – a year’s worth of reading – and I add to it faster than I remove entries from it. And there are at least 16 books that I own and intend to read soon, that weren’t on the list in the first place.

When I finish a book and I’m looking for the next to read, I’m not always in the mood for one of the physical books sitting on the To Read shelf in my study. So I pick up the kobo and while it’s charging up I have a quick look on the library’s BorrowBox app to see if any of the books on my list are available. Typically they won’t be, but after fifteen minutes’ browsing I’ll add two more books to the list and start reading the one I’ve borrowed that I hadn’t heard of before then. The kobo goes back on the shelf till next time.

I used to commute to work. While I disliked it intensely, it did give me an hour a day on a train, when reading was the obvious and best way of filling the time. I’d often fit in a chapter or two at lunchtime too. I haven’t had a daily commute since mid-March 2020, which is fantastic in almost every way, but means I don’t have a habitual reading time. Books are always competing with cat-entertaining, housework, Twitter, online articles, the daily walk, podcasts, and writing.

I had a conversation last weekend with my two oldest friends (most long-standing, I mean. Or possibly long-suffering is more appropriate), about books we were reading now and next. Their To Read piles are sizeable but, I felt, manageable. Mine is out of control. Friend T is reading a book I like the sound of, she says she’ll pass it on when I’ve made progress on my To Read pile. I fear it will never come my way.

If you want to encourage me to sit down and read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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My reading list for 2022 was eclectic

I read more books in 2022 than I had in a few years, which is good. I also read or re-read huge chunks of books as background for my Hexham book festival commission, but they don’t count in my list because it’s only complete books.

A few of the books I read in 2022

I read a lot of ebooks, and some I borrowed from the Library of Mum & Dad, and some I’ve given to charity shops since, so the picture’s a bit sparse but I think you’ll agree it’s wide-ranging. If we add in the fact that I read a couple of Celia Imrie novels, some local history and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it becomes even more so. I wrote about Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (good for dipping a toe into nature topics) and The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (excellent slice of noir, borrowed from my dad) in January but nothing since, leaving it looking like I was only planning to review authors named Macdonald and ran out of steam. I had computer problems that stopped the blog for a few months and then I was too busy getting back into reading after a patchy couple of years to stop and write reviews of anything. I did mention The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola and GM Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History in a post about historical echoes. I’ll try and rattle through a few recommendations now.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler was interesting and I enjoyed it but I was left wanting more (despite it being a hefty book). Rather than chronological, the book is arranged by topic. What you get therefore is effectively an article about a meal or foodstuff, which is loosely related to the other articles in that section, with little room for depth or cross-referencing. I learnt lots of fascinating things, but I think I’ll have to delve into the extensive bibliography to answer all the follow-up questions I was left with.

Farmer’s Glory by AG Street must have been mentioned by Cumbrian farmer-author James Rebanks at some point (in fact he wrote the introduction to the edition I’ve got). The author worked on his father’s farm somewhere in the south of England in the early years of the twentieth century, then went to work on a Canadian farm in 1911. If you’re interested in man’s changing relationship with nature, or the history of farming itself, it’s a sad but enjoyable comparison of two very different farms, and also the pre- and post-war farm in England.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian I highly recommend if you’ve dipped a toe with Helen Macdonald and you’re eager for more of the nature stuff. He writes some of the Country Diary for the Guardian, and judging by both the humour and the use of footnotes in this book, is probably a reader of Douglas Adams and/or Terry Pratchett. He has a Bill Bryson-ish air of being interested but not an expert (even though he knows an awful lot about birds) and his enthusiasm is contagious – he’s also worth following on twitter. It is a book about nature, but also about how the average Briton (whoever that may be) experiences nature, so there are urban street/park/garden excursions as well as the grounds of museums, and nature reserves and the like. From memory, there is nowhere he visits that isn’t accessible to the general public, though that does include an isolated holiday destination on an island of birds.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is extremely long but quite readable and it didn’t take me that long to get through. To be honest I think a massive chunk of it is graphs (which take up a lot of space) and end-notes (which I didn’t read because the BorrowBox app didn’t seem to allow easy return to where you were reading). I found it really interesting but a) I’m pretty left-wing so I’m predisposed to e.g. recommendations of wealth tax, and b) though I’m not really up on economics, I do enjoy reading economic histories full of coal production graphs. For reference, I have never read Das Kapital which sounded incredibly dull. I think if you’re interested in how we got in this mess (2008 financial crisis etc) and how tax and wealth have been handled in a few of the major economies in the last couple of centuries, it’s worth a try. I think it’s designed to be dippable, or at least skippable if you don’t want the detail.

I can’t remember the detail of most novels I read last year, like Hestia by CJ Cherryh or Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope but The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley has stuck with me. It’s a wonderful blend of nineteenth-century adventure story and fantasy novel, set in (from memory) the 1860s and following a chap from Cornwall to Peru in the footsteps of his grandfather. Thinking about it, there’s another connection to my nature-reading here – the core of it is about collecting specimens of exotic trees, but there’s a lot about the properties of trees, and rock, and landscape, and it’s richly described (I can still picture various locations or scenes, months after reading it). I reviewed her novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street a few years ago and a character from that book also makes a cameo appearance, as it were.

Even more nature-related was The Woodcock by Richard Smyth, which I recommended on Twitter after reading, as follows: If you like novels set in Yorkshire and/or the 1920s and would like to be deeply immersed in a fictional coastal town such that you feel you could become a visitor guide I recommend The Woodcock by @RSmythFreelance. Lots of bird & rockpool action, plus love, philosophy & sadness. Not to mention a theatrical American with a vision of Coney Island adjacent to the North Sea.

When I was really struggling to read anything and I just wanted something to immerse myself in, I turned to the library app on my phone and flicked through any available novels that weren’t crime or thriller. It didn’t leave a lot of choice and I ended up with Not Quite Nice, and Sail Away, both by Celia Imrie. I’m not going to claim they were literary triumphs, and yes they probably wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t already famous, but the name helped me choose from the list and they made me laugh and they were easy to follow. And they obviously sparked something because they did get me back on a reading track, and I continued with a couple more random library ebooks before I went back to my To Read shelf.

One of them was Bunny by Mona Awad which was about friendship, belonging and loneliness, at its heart. It involved a small group of young women studying creative writing at a prestigious American university, and the cliques and bitchiness and rivalry. But, it also had a weird layer of gothic fairytale (and some gory bits so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish like me). I loved it, and I’d never have read it if I’d read a review or run across it in a bookshop. Sometimes a bit of randomness is just what your reading list needs.

I also read a Guardian article about non-Eurocentric fantasy novels, which added a few books to my To Read list, two of which I read towards the end of 2022. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard mainly involves fallen angels in an alternative Paris; they live in rival Houses and there are long-running intrigues and complex goings-on, lots of celestial politics behind the scenes. However, one of the characters caught up in the events of the novel is originally from Vietnam and has a whole different framework of magic and religion to draw on, which brings a different perspective. The other one I read was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin and good grief it’s good. It’s about the end of the world, but beyond that there’s not much to say without spoilers. I loved the conversational narrative voice, the fact that one strand is written in second person, the way the world feels whole and different (like Dune or similar). Just read it if you like epic fantasy, you’ll thank me later.

Books I’m reading now and next

In a break from tradition I’ll end with a look ahead. I suspect 2023 is going to be an equally weird mix. I’m reading The Obelisk Gate (the sequel to The Fifth Season) at the moment, and then there’s book 3 The Stone Sky. However I’m also reading Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, about British sheep breeds and their impact on history, and I was given Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm (Diddly Squat) for Christmas. I must say I’m intrigued to know how a man like Clarkson got along with farming, I think James Rebanks said he had at least got a conversation going among people who wouldn’t normally care about agriculture. My dad has pressed Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook on me – it’s two inches thick in this paperback edition and covers a seven-year period so I think it might take me a bit of a run-up. Northerners by Brian Groom and Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman were my post-Christmas treats. That lot will probably take me till March and that’s without adding any new books into the mix (or the Vaseem Khan novel that’s waiting on my kobo).

Feel free to tell me what you’ve been reading or are looking forward to reading, either in the comments or on Twitter @JYSaville.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Echoes of history

I read a lot of history and historical fiction, and I also read novels that were right up to the minute at the time but were written long ago. Sometimes the whole thing seems wonderfully alien or exotic (the past is a foreign country, etc) but now and then there are such chimes with the present that it makes you glad you read the thing now and not, say, fifteen years ago.

Cover of Illustrated English Social History 2 by GM Trevelyan

I had two such moments in the last few weeks, reading a fabulous social history and also a nineteenth-century French novel.

GM Trevelyan’s illustrated English Social History is well worth digging out, incidentally, if you like Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides and could stand a more formal and detailed version. Originally from the early 1940s, I believe, the illustrated edition was put together a few years later (I’ve got the 1960s paperbacks in 4 volumes). It is crammed with maps, paintings, woodcuts and manuscripts from the time in question, plus photographs of surviving artefacts and architecture that might help to make the point. Unfortunately the pictures are all black and white except on the cover, but they do help you imagine the period.

Anyway, the point in question in Trevelyan volume 2 was about what you might call levelling up, and the disproportionate amount of land used for raising livestock for meat. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) passed laws dictating Fish Days – days when you couldn’t eat meat and were encouraged to eat fish instead. It sounds superficially Catholic but Elizabeth was very much anti-Catholic and it was in fact to give a boost to fishermen, revive ‘decayed coast towns’ and ‘prevent the too great consumption of beef and mutton which resulted in the conversion of arable into pasture’. She was particularly reliant on the Royal Navy which her father had set up, and the sailors usually came from fishing communities so it makes sense that she wanted a ready supply, which she wouldn’t get if everyone gave up on fishing. It was the revival of coastal towns and the limiting of meat livestock that struck me though.

We actually have a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the UK government at the moment, and as well as the north-south divide one of the problems I think it’s supposed to be addressing is coastal towns, which have tended to be left out and left behind. I’m not clear on why they were decaying in the last Elizabethan period but back then it can’t have been anything to do with cheap package holidays luring holiday-makers abroad. Likewise the limiting of meat wasn’t related to the present-day concerns of climate change and deforestation but the realisation that you could feed more people using the land for growing crops than grazing animals does echo modern thinking (George Monbiot wrote an article decrying beef and lamb only last week). Recent campaigns to reduce the consumption of red meat would be familiar to Elizabethans even if the idea of veganism wouldn’t. I’m not suggesting the government starts decreeing Fish Days but it’s interesting to note that there’s a Golden Age they could hark back to when state intervention to prop up a faltering but necessary industry or address a problem with national implications was acceptable.

The other book I’ve been reading was The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola (Au Bonheur des Dames was the title in the original French), first published in 1883 but set in the 1870s as far as I’m aware. I’d written it on my To Read list a few months ago after reading about it somewhere, but by the time I came to read it I couldn’t remember why. Once I got going I wondered if it had come up online in a discussion about Amazon, and other giants of retail.

The novel itself has a romantic tale at its core that sometimes seems a bit of an afterthought (it was apparently adapted for TV by the BBC about 10 years ago, as The Paradise). However, the main business of the book is the owner, the staff, and the running of the Parisian department store The Ladies Paradise, and the effect it has on the shops and shop-owners in the neighbourhood. As the business grows, it stops specialising in dress fabric and broadens its interest into lace, haberdashery, hosiery, even umbrellas and gloves – anything a woman of fashion (or her children) might want. Consequently the local shops, each with its own niche that has been replaced by a department in The Ladies Paradise, are closing down and leaving an impoverished neighbourhood and less choice.

There are arguments in the book about progress and modernisation, about the convenience and cheap prices for customers, about no small shop ‘deserving’ to stay – they need to adapt or die. All of this is so familiar, particularly in the realm of bookshops but also any small shops that have been struggling in the past couple of years as people speed up their move to online buying or stick to the big superstores rather than use several local shops. It was fascinating in its detail of the day to day running of the department store, but when you read about the 35 clerks employed to work out sales commission (replaced by a spreadsheet or small database now?), the 350 messengers (replaced by phones and then email), the stable hands for the 145 horses for the delivery vans (done away with entirely), you realise that every phase of progress is the future until it isn’t. Books from today will no doubt be just as familiar-but-different to readers in 150 years, living through an era we can’t imagine.

If I’ve helped you find a good book to read, or made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

I’ve read a fair few of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels over the past 10 years courtesy of the Library of Mum and Dad but I think I’ve only reviewed one (The Barbarous Coast) so it felt like it was about time I recommended another. The Way Some People Die is an excellent slice of hard-boiled noir from 1951 featuring juvenile delinquents, drugs and exploited women, with the bodies piling up as Archer drives up and down the Californian coast getting confused and misled. It starts, as many do, with a missing girl…

As with Philip Marlowe, there is a chivalry at the core of Lew Archer that gets him into trouble. Also like Marlowe, I would say Archer is a cynical optimist – while he’s painfully aware that many people would sell their own grandmother for half an hour’s excitement, he believes that most (definitely not all) people are worth saving, if he can. It’s that blend of gunning for the truly bad guys while trying to save the others from themselves that makes Archer worth spending time with. There’s double-crossing aplenty, the odd wisecrack, and some lovely description.

I’ve written before about the sense of place in detective novels, and this is no exception. The landscape, weather, and particularly the sea play a large part in the atmosphere of the book. He doesn’t have Raymond Chandler’s terse style but he can conjure a nice image nevertheless, from driving ‘under the smothering gray sky’ to meeting someone with grey hair ‘like iron filings tempted by a magnet’ to this description of Pacific Point: ‘It rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory’. When Archer mentions how recently some small town was bare desert it hit me how fast-changing that whole area was, and I wondered if some of it would seem as exotic to a local now as it does to me 5,000 miles away.

If you’re looking for happy endings this isn’t the place to find them, but if you like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett I can heartily recommend both this novel and Ross Macdonald in general. I believe he wrote a couple of dozen novels between the 1940s and 1970s though not all of them are Lew Archer cases.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Reading my way through 2021, slowly

After the hellish plague-year that was 2020 I was struggling with reading, particularly fiction. I couldn’t quite muster the necessary concentration to parse words on a page, and there were certainly times when it felt like I had too much going on in my own life to start ferretting around for empathy I could spend on imaginary people. To make my reading year seem less overwhelming, and to allow for the fact I was still doing a big clearout of books with the vague intention of moving house sometime later in the year (which I haven’t done but plans are afoot), I decided to look at it quarterly.

Books I finished in the first quarter of 2021

Up to the end of March I’d only read 4 physical books (pictured above) and 3 ebooks but I reviewed most of them at the time. You can find out what I thought of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Ben Aaronovitch story collection Tales From the Folly in my first review of 2021 (short version: they were ok but didn’t make my heart sing). I wrote at length about Ur of the Chaldees in February, popular archaeology from the 1920s and one for the Time Team fans. In March I shared my enthusiasm for The Bone Ships by RJ Barker, the first volume in a nautical other-world fantasy trilogy. Since then I’ve read volume 2, Call of the Bone Ships (even better) but not dared embark on the final volume as everyone who mentions it on Twitter talks about how much they cried! I reviewed the novella-in-flash Straw Gods for TSS, and you can read that review here.

I re-read Down With Skool! after listening to an episode of the Backlisted podcast about the collected Willans and Searle Molesworth books and it was comforting in its way but I gave up partway through the follow-up Whizz for Atoms as 1950s prep school boys began to seem too far removed from my life to bother with. When I last read the Molesworth books it was the 1980s and my staple reading included The Beano, Just William, Billy Bunter and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. How times have changed.

Physical books read in the 2nd quarter of 2021

The re-reading continued with Reaper Man in the second quarter (Terry Pratchett at his best was sublime), when I read 3 physical books and 5 ebooks, 4 of which I reviewed here on the blog. They were the Teesside-set Ironopolis by Glen James Brown (“Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales”); Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty whose title is self-explanatory; The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton set in 17th century Amsterdam and relating to the Dutch East India Company; and spy thriller Slow Horses by Mick Herron. I also reviewed the short story collection Everyone Worth Knowing for TSS.

As usual I read a few history books this year. Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades is a three-volume set which OneMonkey bought (and part-read) twenty years ago when he had a daily train commute. I enjoyed Volume 1 which, despite being from the 1950s, seemed remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the various parties and he comes across as rightly disgusted by the behaviour of some of the supposedly Christian crusaders. It covers a lot of background and context, whereas Volume 2 (where I stalled about a third of the way through) felt more like a blow by blow account of pitched battles and sieges undertaken by people with frustratingly similar names – way too many people called Baldwin or Ralph. See also The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, which I read in the autumn. I did read that one all the way to the end but I kept getting bogged down in battle detail and similarly-named leaders and generals. It was a fascinating (and horrifying) account of the East India Company’s takeover of a huge chunk of India, which I had only a passing acquaintance with but ought to be taught in British schools.

Books read in the third quarter of 2021

In the third quarter I read 5 physical books and 3 ebooks. Airedale is a sci-fi police procedural set in Yorkshire, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it – I even bought a copy for The Nephew for Christmas. I also gave rom com a go and ended up reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which turned out not to be my cup of tea and The Split by Laura Kay which was most enjoyable and quite funny (no coincidence that it’s set in Yorkshire). The Economic Development of France and Germany was dry, old-fashioned history (written between the wars) full of tables of wheat production and steam engines per head of population. When I’m in the right mood I love that stuff, and I learnt so much about the textile industries of France and Germany as compared to Yorkshire (and he does indeed compare them to Yorkshire and sometimes specifically Bradford), and agricultural methods compared to the small amount I know about England. If you like that kind of detail I recommend it.

Books read in the final quarter of 2021

Interestingly I read 5 physical books and 3 ebooks in the last quarter of the year as well, including a couple of Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, and Christopher Eccleston’s raw memoir I Love the Bones of You which wasn’t an easy read.

As well as Maigret I’ve been comfort-reading in the form of children’s books and more Jodi Taylor. Jodi Taylor writes deceptively simple fantasy novels that you can reliably turn to. In The Chronicles of St Mary’s we follow Max (Dr Maxwell) as she does historical research in contemporary time – don’t call her a time-traveller. Someone will probably die, others will be in deadly peril, they’ll visit some famous moments in history, and Max will be inappropriately flippant. It’s usually an enjoyable romp with heart-wrenching moments. This year I read book 5, I’ve got books 6 and 7 on the To Read shelf, there are short stories available too, and she writes other related strands (like Torchwood or the Sarah Jane Adventures are to Doctor Who).

David Almond came to one of the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshops during the summer to talk about his new YA novel Bone Music. Set in the north-east of England (Kielder I think) it’s about a city girl who goes on climate marches but is used to all mod cons. She spends a short time in the tiny village where her mum was born and deepens her connection to nature, helped by a lad of her age who plays an ancient bone flute. It has a great sense of place, some lovely description and plenty to think about.

I was disappointed with both The Nanny State Made Me, and The Northern Question, in part because I had unreasonably high expectations. I’m not a professional historian, but neither are Maconie or Hazeldine and I’ve probably read the same books and articles as they have, for the most part. Other than the anecdotes from interviews, I learnt nothing new from Stuart Maconie’s book, and the history in the Northern Question up to about the 1970s was largely familiar to me as well. I like Stuart Maconie’s affectionately irreverent style but it was not on show in Nanny State, I think the subject matter meant too much to him to step back and treat it even-handedly and it verged on hagiography at times. Consequently, I’m not sure who the book is aimed at; fans of the welfare state will learn little they didn’t already know, and those he’s seeking to persuade will spot the rose-tinted view of the flaws and wonder if he’s also over-egged the upside. Hazeldine’s book was good on the subtle machinations of post-war politics (I mean, it was good at summarising the centuries before that too, but I knew most of that stuff) and made me properly angry at a selection of ministers, not just Mrs Thatcher. I did get annoyed at his use of the term ‘rustbelt’ to refer to the post-industrial north (with friends like these, etc…) but I’d recommend it particularly to left-wingers who are under thirty-five or not from the north of England and don’t quite understand the context for Brexit and the ‘crumbling of the red wall’.

As usual, about two-thirds of my reading this year was fiction but unusually, less than half of that was SFF. I finished fewer books than usual: 31, my lowest annual total since 2006 which was the year I parachuted out of my PhD with my sanity barely intact. However, what doesn’t usually get mentioned in the end-of-year round-up are the books I started but gave up on. As well as the couple I’ve referred to above, I abandoned a book on the geology of England and Wales after about 50 pages; gave up on a book of SJ Parris novellas which I wrote about anyway; I tried a few Maxim Gorki novels inherited from my great-uncle and decided I didn’t like his writing style; there were a couple of Doctor Who novels I just couldn’t get into; a couple of dry old-fashioned history books that somehow didn’t grab me like The Economic Development of France and Germany did. And those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I’ve also been darting about this year, instead of only having one book on the go at once (or one fiction and one non-fiction, occasionally) I’m currently partway through two local history books, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, and Mordew by Alex Pheby, and I fully intend to finish them all. Just not yet.

Here’s to the new year, may it be kinder to all of us. I hope you find some enjoyable books to read, and if I’ve helped you along in that respect you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville

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Rediscovering Maigret

The only Maigret paperback I have ever owned

This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.

I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.

I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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I Love The Bones Of You by Christopher Eccleston

Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.

Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.

There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.

Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.

I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Split by Laura Kay

Lesbian rom-com, mostly set in Yorkshire and includes a cat. What’s not to love? I mentioned in September that I’d bought The Split after seeing Laura Kay at a Stay-at-Home litfest session on romantic comedy novels but hadn’t read it yet. Well, now I have and it was great.

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Unemployed teacher Ally’s been ditched by the love of her life in London, so she packs a change of clothes and the cat and crawls home to her dad in Sheffield. Much as she’d love to wallow while she waits for Emily to realise how much she misses the cat (and hopefully Ally), her dad’s not about to let that happen. It seems her childhood friend Jeremy’s crawled back home after heartbreak too and their respective parents figure they might cheer each other up as well as get each other out of the house. Reluctant at first, they soon fall back into their old groove and of course Ally’s going to sign up for the half-marathon in solidarity when Jeremy decides that’s the way to get his boyfriend back. Happily, though the training might well kill her, Ally’s at least found an attractive young running coach but she’s probably straight. Isn’t she?

The tagline was, ‘The laugh-out-loud read we all need right now’. I don’t normally trust ‘laugh out loud…’ quotes, in fact it’s often enough to put me off, but I genuinely did laugh out loud a fair few times. This was the easy-to-read rom com I was looking for all those weeks ago. It was much more me than The Cornish Cream Tea Bus and not only because I’m bisexual and not very feminine. It was full of normal people who work in shops, schools, a call centre, and go to old man pubs and chip shops. They regularly travel by bus, and when Ally leaves London she does so by train not car, in fact it’s mentioned later that she can’t drive. Training for a half-marathon doesn’t magically make them fit, slim, healthy and happy. And of course it’s set in Yorkshire.

The one downside is that Ally turns out to be an irresponsible cat-owner, which has put OneMonkey off reading it. On the whole though I zipped through and really enjoyed it. More than anything, it was a real affirmation of friendship.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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B is for books

As you can imagine, I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I had a shelf of my mum’s hardbacks from the forties and fifties, with titles like Amelia Goes to the Seaside, or Doris Of Buttercup Farm. I got my older cousins’ Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton boarding school books. I borrowed books from the local library and the school library. There were family trips to library sales, charity shops and secondhand bookshops on Saturdays to stock up, and for a few years my dad worked near a secondhand bookshop and would regularly come home bearing his lunchtime haul and dish them out among us. I won books as school prizes and I had fond relatives (and the family friends known as auntie and uncle) who gave me books or book tokens for Christmas and birthday.

I can still remember the thrill of a five pound book token, stuck like a hinged stamp on the inside of a greetings card. So much more exciting than its modern credit-card-alike equivalent. I would clutch it tightly as I prowled the children’s room of the New Bookshop in Cockermouth, terrified that it would somehow come adrift and be rendered void before I found the perfect reading material. Then as now I had an unvoiced fear of wasting it on a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I don’t remember ever doing so, but I wonder if that’s down to my dad’s guidance. I was often steered by him towards books or authors I might enjoy (who am I kidding? I still am), and I remember him reading the blurbs on books I’d picked up because of their attractive covers to check they were my sort of thing.

I vividly remember picking this for its cover

What with the paternal steering, hand-me-downs and secondhand purchases I ended up with an odd mix, some of them still (or still in the 1980s) considered children’s classics and others plain old-fashioned. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, BB’s Little Grey Men and the Pat Smythe books beloved of my horse-mad mum (Pat Smythe was a famous showjumper in the 1950s). Most of them my contemporaries hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, but at least that prepared me for being completely out of step with them musically later on, when I bypassed Take That for The Clash thanks to Big Brother’s record collection.

Not common reading matter among my peers

B could also easily have been for baking, bacon butties, bread. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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In search of written rom com

Despite being a curmudgeonly cynic I have in recent years come to appreciate the rom com film genre. OneMonkey is an unrepentant romantic and through my existing love of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant films he’s gradually introduced me to such cinematic delights as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Notting Hill, and Music and Lyrics. Lockdown, and the subsequent self-imposed lockdown-light, hit my reading hard: lack of concentration, lack of enthusiasm, lack of empathy. I’d caught part of a session on the romantic comedy novel, at the Stay-at-Home litfest and I wondered if that might be part of the answer. Perhaps a novel of light-hearted fluff would let me zip through, enjoying the ride, without having to conjure up strong emotions for fictional characters when I felt wrung-out due to too many strong emotions at home.

I had the remnants of a kobo voucher to spend so I bought a couple of e-books: The Split by Laura Kay which was one of the books featured at that Stay-at-Home litfest session, and The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which OneMonkey picked for me.

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus (The Cornish Cream Tea series, Book 1) ebook by Cressida McLaughlin

The Cornish Cream Tea Bus is the first of a series set in the fictional village of Porthgolow in North Cornwall, each featuring different main characters, though I believe Charlie Quilter is in all of them somewhere. Charlie’s beloved uncle Hal has died and left her his vintage Routemaster bus, on which he used to do guided tours of the Cotswolds. Although Charlie can drive the bus, she’s a baker by trade and neither wants to give up the work she loves nor neglect her inheritance. Maybe if she can just take some time out to think, away from the messy split with her cheating partner Stuart, she can figure out how to combine the two. Luckily, her best friend has moved to Cornwall and has a spare room and endless patience. Certainly more patience than me.

Naturally, Charlie has love interests, that’s kind of what you expect with this genre, but a lot of it left me baffled. I don’t see the attraction of wide-shouldered, heavily-muscled arrogant men who wear suits and run their own business. I don’t really see my life reflected in designer dog-owning emotional women who wear high heels (and find said buff, arrogant men attractive), whose best friends are in marketing or ex-boyfriends are investment bankers. Perhaps it’s easier to be detached when it’s on screen or maybe it’s as simple as I literally can’t imagine these people, and when I’m reading about them that’s what I have to do.

Having said that, most of the fiction I read probably presents me with main characters whose backgrounds and motivations are different from my own, but I rarely have this problem. I wonder if certain types of realist fiction (by which I mean set now, in our world, portraying lives and events that could happen and are in some sense common) assume a certain viewpoint and feel they don’t have to go into details, so I’m never invited in. If the novel was about a serial killer, motivation would need to be set out and explored, if it was historical there would have to be context, but presumably everyone reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus should understand exactly why some particular conversation calls for a bottle of wine, or why an otherwise capable person would go to pieces because a man had muscles visible beneath his shirt.

For plot reasons, Charlie jumped to a couple of conclusions no sane person would jump to. She also entirely failed to put two and two together and solve a mystery that was blindingly obvious (mind you, nobody else in the village did either). However, I read the whole novel so on some level it even worked its magic on me. I suspect that if you’re more comfortable with the wine, the buff men, the thirty-something professionals, this will be an excellent example of its type. It was surprisingly chaste, definitely no sex scenes and even the smouldering kisses were few and far between. The scenery was beautifully evoked and was very much part of the book, it almost made me want to visit Cornwall. There were some lovely moments involving pods of dolphins, and tense moments of both the romantic and plain old dramatic variety. There are many imaginative cakes, pastries, and decorated biscuits described, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it before a trip to the supermarket unless you want to come home with half the cream cake aisle.

I haven’t read The Split yet, having been lured away by epic fantasy, but when I do I’ll let you know what I thought.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Airedale by Dylan Byford

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Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.

If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.

Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?

Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).

I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.

If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Slow Horses by Mick Herron

Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.

About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).

“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”

Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021

As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…

Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Miniaturiste - Jessie Burton - Babelio

This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).

Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.

The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.

Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.

If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

Although I’ve been struggling through fiction this year I have been able to read non-fiction at a reasonable pace so I took the opportunity to dip into this book everyone’s been talking about and awarding prizes to. Dara McAnulty is an autistic teenage nature enthusiast and climate change activist from Northern Ireland that I follow on Twitter. The book covers the year he was 14, from Spring to the following first day of Spring. It’s in the form of a diary as you might expect from the title, though not every day has an entry.

Some of his descriptions are amazingly vivid, and I don’t just mean ‘for a kid’. There were passages in the book that were completely immersive, a joy to read – his focus and intensity really draw you into the scene and his enthusiasm is infectious. Because I grew up in the 1980s, the first thing that springs to mind for me when I hear ‘Northern Ireland’ is unfortunately sectarian violence. This short book (150 pages in the ebook I borrowed from the library) has introduced me to a part of the UK countryside I knew nothing about, and portrayed it as a place of wonder. It obviously has its problems, and he mentions the dwindling of bird species and problems with the reintroduction of red kites for instance, but there is a lot of hope and positivity here.

There is, however, also a fair amount of teenage angst. This is a diary first and foremost, and happens to be mostly about nature because of his interests. I have to say that reading about a child being bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts, in the child’s own words, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. That said, there is far more natural wonder than anything else, and his passion and drive are inspiring. If you want to rekindle a sense of childlike awe for the world around you, dip into this book and then spend some time outdoors watching birds in a tree or insects on a wall.

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.

It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.

Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.

Why lie about reading?

I listened recently to a Backlisted episode from 2018, where they discussed How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Having never heard of either book or author, I assumed it was going to be satire about the kind of pompous windbag that always has to have been there or done that, no matter where the conversation turns. Weirdly, it didn’t seem to be.

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Bayard is a French literature professor, I believe, and seems to subscribe to the peculiar idea that it’s somehow embarrassing or shameful to admit to not having read a particular book. I guess if you’re teaching a course on it or writing a review of it, it might be – though I would say there are bigger problems there than saving face. I can’t think of any other circumstance where you would want to say you’d read a book when you hadn’t. Even in a book club, surely there’s a more interesting conversation to be had about why you couldn’t get past page six, than in trying to bluff your way through a discussion of major themes.

In the podcast a couple of them talked about working as booksellers and deceiving the customers. Who expects someone who works in their local bookshop to have read all the stock? I wouldn’t even expect the sci-fi specialist in Waterstones to have read everything on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. What’s wrong with saying ‘no I haven’t read it but my friend raves about it’ or ‘I don’t really do cyberpunk but it got 5 stars in The Guardian’?

There was also mention of shady dealings with visiting authors. I think it’s much less rude to tell an author you haven’t (as yet) read their book than to pretend you have. I’ve been to many litfest events where I haven’t read the book and on the occasions I’ve ended up speaking to the author afterwards, I’ve truthfully told them the reason. That may have been because I had only heard of it due to the event (which is at least part of the reason they’re doing the event), or was on the library waiting list for a copy, or just hadn’t worked that far down the To Read pile yet. As a writer, I’d rather someone said they were keeping their friend company or had picked an event at random than pretend they’d read my work.

Cathy Rentzenbrink mentioned on the podcast her work with literacy charities, and how it can be intimidating to people starting to read when ‘everyone’ has read this massive list of books, so actually it’s good to admit you haven’t, and take the pressure off . I think my dad said something to me when I was in my late teens and still in my ‘ought to’ phase with books, about the ever-growing list of classics and not reading anything new till you’re thirty. The idea being that there was this nineteenth century list of classics that the educated man ought to have read, compiled when literacy was becoming a mass achievement in England, and nobody knocked Dickens off when they added Orwell, or replaced George Eliot with Virginia Woolf. Every generation added more books, more authors, so it got to the point where you’d have to read nothing but books on that list for several years once you move on to adult fiction, before you could start reading new releases and developing your own taste. And if you feel like you ‘ought to’ read all the Sunday Times bestsellers and the Booker prize shortlist to keep up with the cultural conversation, then maybe you never do develop your own taste.

I could slip into a meditation on class, here, and who defines cultural norms and expectations (harking back to my last post on gatekeepers) but I’ll restrain myself. However, I will say that if you don’t have to read it for an exam, never read a book you don’t have reasonably high expectations of. Some will disappoint you, but honestly if you think an incredibly long nineteenth century book about whale-hunting sounds dull don’t feel obliged to waste whole days of your life on it just because Moby Dick’s a famous title. If anyone asks if you’ve read it, tell them it didn’t sound like your kind of thing. If they insist you must and you don’t want to argue (it is guaranteed to be someone’s favourite ever book, after all) tell them you’ll give it a go when your To Read pile is empty, confident in the knowledge it will never happen. I’m not saying you can’t ask them what they love about it, or let it lead to a pleasant conversation about books set at sea, just don’t try and convince them you read it thirty years ago and can’t quite recall the details. Own your unique blend of tastes and preferences.

Coincidentally, a couple of months before that podcast episode initially went out, I wrote the following here on my blog:

At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.

Now I wonder if it was truly synchronicity or if some of them had been taking tips from Prof Bayard.

If I’ve got you out of learning pertinent facts about books you don’t care about, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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Why own books?

I don’t mean why buy books, rather why bother hanging onto them once you’ve read them? Spending lockdown staring at our bookshelves and wondering why we had so many books, and how many we’d actually read, OneMonkey and I had a cull recently.

About a quarter of the books waiting to go

There are piles of books lying around our flat now, waiting for the charity shops to reopen so we can pass them on. They are mainly mine. Books that were my undergraduate set texts more than twenty years ago, second-hand books I haven’t read and can now admit I never will, books I have read but won’t read again. As we went through each shelf deciding which books to keep and which to jettison, it made me think about where I got them and why I kept them in the first place.

When I was a teenager, in fact probably into my early twenties, I stocked up on the books I thought I ‘ought’ to read. The ones I thought might be impressive (to whom?) on the bookshelves in my student digs. With the aid of the new Wordsworth cheap editions and the clearance shelf in Thornes and/or Dillons in Newcastle I got Tolstoy and Turgenev, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. Birthday book tokens got me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (single volume abridged) and some of the optional reading for my philosophy of science modules. I even read most of them. Then I hung on to them for years, no intention of re-reading the ones I’d read, never getting round to the ones I hadn’t. They had become part of the furniture, being packed up and redeployed every time OneMonkey and I moved house (which we did six times in the eleven years after graduation).

Books, as you might expect, are a bit of a Proust’s madeleine for me. With most of my books, I pick it off the shelf and recall its acquisition. Often I get a flash of when or where I read it, if indeed I have. For most of those ‘ought’ books, I got nothing. I hadn’t read them because I got a flash of excitement when I read the blurb in the bookshop, I’d read them because I recognised the title or the author from a list somewhere. With a few honourable exceptions (Tolstoy, for one), I never connected with them. Now I’m in my forties, my hair shot with silver threads that match my glam metal scarves, I don’t care about having Plato or Hume on my shelves. I don’t even care that I haven’t read them (I did try Hume, but his punctuation and phraseology were impenetrable).

Those books joined the popular science books I’d left too long after graduation and didn’t understand, the history books on topics I was no longer interested in or that were written in a dull old-fashioned way. It was easier to ditch the second-hand books, the dog-eared ones I’d rescued from the bin at an Oxfam bookshop I volunteered at many years ago or the ones I’d bought at charity shops or library book-sales. The ones I’d bought new were harder (I paid good money for that!) and the ones that were gifts, harder still.

I find it hard to get rid of books that were gifts, even when they were wide of the mark. I can sometimes pass them on to someone else I know, but to hand them over to a charity shop, not knowing what kind of care they’ll subsequently receive, is too much. Of course, when you’re known to be a book-lover and your nearest and dearest give you books at every available opportunity but you live in a flat, there comes a time when even some of the presents have to go. The books friend T gave me for my 18th and 40th birthdays remain beside each other on the popular science and rock ‘n’ roll shelf (the shelving system only really makes sense to me), as do scattered others, but there are books from friends and family on the To Go piles. The cringing this is causing made me realise that part of the reason for keeping the gift books is so I can hope said friend or relative notices it on a visit and thinks better of me. Even though most of my friends and relatives rarely, if ever, get close to my bookshelves and probably wouldn’t recognise half the books they’d given me.

So we’re back to bookshelves as a means to impress. It made me think of the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility, which popped up at the start of lockdown in 2020 to offer tongue in cheek analysis of the shelves used as background by experts and politicians appearing on the news from their homes. I had a job interview by video call in February and I admit I agonised over which angle to have my chair at. In the end I realised that the books I’d be happiest about having on show (sci-fi and fantasy novels, northern and/or working-class history) were on the higher shelves and I could either do the interview standing up or just not mind. I ended up with Muppet DVDs on one side and a random collection of fiction on the other, most legible among which was probably the Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus (and yet, I did get the job).

How I ended up presenting my shelves

Why own books, then? I reckon they fall into four categories:

  • I (realistically) intend to read them but haven’t yet
  • reference volumes or say, a history book that I’ve read but might want to revisit for a fact or date
  • fiction or poetry that’s likely to be re-read, e.g. a seasonal collection or favourite Terry Pratchett
  • fiction I’m pretty sure I won’t re-read but holds fond memories that flood me when I pluck it from the shelf, possibly because it was a gift

Oh yes, and of course the ones I’d prefer to have as my public-facing background on a video call or author photo, but I’m pretty sure I’m hanging on to them for one of the four reasons above, anyway.

Oddly this is how I’d prefer to be seen. Many of you will be puzzled, I’m sure.

Why do you keep books, if you do? I’d love to know, so feel free to tell me in the comments (or on Twitter @JYSaville)

If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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The Bone Ships by RJ Barker

The Bone Ships took me weeks to read despite being magnificent, so I’m hazy on early detail now – blame lockdown fatigue. However, the simple message is: read this book. If you like epic fantasy, or if you like adventurous tales of the high seas, and especially if you like both, you will love this novel. I happened to start reading it the same week OneMonkey and I started watching Hornblower (late ’90s adaptation of some CS Forester books, set in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century) on Britbox, and I realised how nicely they went together.

The Hundred Isles have been at war forever, it’s what they do. The war ships are built from dragon bones but nobody’s seen an actual dragon for generations. Until now. Whoever gets hold of that dragon will have a prize indeed.

That’s the rough gist of the blurb and it was enough to grab me, having never read any of RJ Barker’s work before. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to the inventiveness of this world, however: the myths, rituals and religion; the vegetation, geography and animals. The characters. Oh, the characters: Joron Twiner, Meas Gilbryn, and the gullaime for starters. But it’s so hard to say anything further without spoiling one of the many revelatory moments.

I could talk about the themes of bravery and loyalty, propaganda and political truth, environmental exploitation and unexpected allies. I could mention the fact that RJ Barker is, like me, from West Yorkshire (about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England), though I didn’t find that out until after I’d started the book – an added bonus, if you will. I will note in passing that subtle shifts in language like calling all ships he instead of she, talking about wings instead of sails, and flying the sea rather than sailing, were effective in shifting this firmly into another world. And I will say again, if either ships or dragons are your thing you will love this book.

I had just finished reading the penultimate chapter of The Bone Ships when it won Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2020 and I thought yes, that makes perfect sense. Book 2 of the Tide Child Trilogy is Call of the Bone Ships, which came out in paperback at the end of 2020, and I will be getting it for the Kobo forthwith.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…

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