My reading year

My reading year

It’s my favourite time of the year. It’s not the Christmas festivities that thrill me although I do love catching up with family and friends and of course I love eating left-over Christmas pudding with lots of custard AND ice-cream.

No, what I really hang out for is reading about people’s favourite books. I love finding out what everyone else has been reading – there’s always a chance that there’s a little gem that I’ve missed.

A lot of people think that I read all the time but that’s not true. Like most people, I’ve got other responsibilities but to be honest, reading is probably my favourite activity.

This year I read about 28 books, mostly fiction and mainly written by women. I think this is more than last year but perhaps I just kept better records this year. So here are my top picks for 2019.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

I was a bit reluctant to read this book because the review said that it was a reworking of the play Antigone by Sophocles. Not having a classical education, I had no idea what this meant so I thought it might be too sophisticated for me. Apparently the play is about a teenage girl who is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land and religious laws but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t matter one whit if you aren’t familiar with the storyline, it’s a great book. Lots to think about and beautifully written. It’s written by a Pakistani writer and covers many themes around family, loyalty and love.

Ask again, yes by Mary Beth Keane.

This book gets my award for the weirdest title. It’s very hard to recommend a book with a weird title, don’t you think? Having said that, this was a great multi-generational read about love, redemption and messy families. If you like Celeste Ng you will probably enjoy this book which is set in New York. This review describes it as a gripping and compassionate family drama and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.

The Children's House by Alice Nelson
The Children’s House by Alice Nelson

The Children’s House was recommended to me by one my sisters. Both are keen readers and a great source of reading recommendations. Lots of people in my family read a lot, so I’m lucky there. It’s written by an Australian author and tells the story of a woman in New York who befriends a refugee with a small child. It’s a beautifully written book that would be a great choice for book groups. Lots of themes around belonging, motherhood and what it means to be part of a community.

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves
The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

I finished reading this one about 10 minutes ago. Couldn’t put it down, so it’s just as well I’m on holiday! Well plotted, fast-moving and an all round great read. Really enjoyed the descriptions of Devon and can’t wait for the next book in the series. This is a new series for Ann Cleeves, famous for the Shetland and Vera books (which I haven’t actually read although I’ve watched and enjoyed both of these as TV shows). She introduces a new detective called Matthew Venn who is both slightly troubled but principled in the time-worn tradition.

If you’re after something for a holiday or a plane trip and you enjoy mysteries, I really don’t think you can go past this one. It’s a satisfying read.

So there’s my round up of top picks for the year. I also enjoyed the much lauded “Where the Crawdad Sings” which didn’t disappoint.

I would love to know what you read during the year and what you would recommend? Do share…

The perfect book

The perfect book

I’m lucky enough to be going to on trip to New York with my daughter in a week’s time and it goes without saying that I can’t wait. The list of things to see and do is already quite long and new things get added every day.

Any trip away requires planning, although in my case it’s not really what to wear that takes up most of my attention, but rather what book to take on the plane. The decisions about what clothes to take are relatively easy as I don’t really have that many clothes, but the decision about what book to take is more difficult because there are just so many choices.

It’s important to get your book choices just right when you are flying long distances.

I remember going on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago. It’s only a three and a half hour flight from Sydney but it seemed endless because I’d chosen the wrong book. I really hated the book I’d taken and spent the whole trip trying to read Harry Potter over the shoulder of the woman sitting next to me. I’m sure she thought I was a bit weird.

I know you are probably thinking that I should just take a whole bunch of different books on my iPad but sometimes your eyes get quite irritated on a long flight and I find an actual books to be more soothing.

This leads me to the first thing on the list of plane reading requirements (after being interesting and engaging) which is that that the print can’t be tiny. I can no longer read really tiny print at the best of times, and certainly not when I’ve been awake for more than 20 hours.

Secondly, the book needs to be not too heavy both in terms of storyline and physical weight. No gut-wrenching memoirs for me thank you. But on the other hand I don’t like reading anything dry (no biographies) and I don’t really reading like out and out rubbish, but I’m sure there is a sweet spot of books that are page turners but also well written. I quite like hopeful books and I like psychological thrillers but I’m not a fan of too many gruesome details.

A couple of books on my list of possibilities are Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. This book sounds interesting, if a little confronting, so perhaps not the thing for a long plane trip. My sister has also recommended The Seal Woman’s Gift which sounds interesting and extraordinary. If it doesn’t make it on the plane, it’s definitely on my TBR.

Some other books on the list are How to be Happy by Eva Woods and Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson, which sounds pretty thrilling.

If you have any suggestions I would love to hear them. If they don’t make it onto the plane, I’ll definitely check them out so please share your favourite recent reads.

Good writing

Good writing

I’ve been a member of the same book group for more than twenty years. We’re a small group of women who enjoy reading and we have quite different tastes which is a good thing.

I often tell people that although we like very different kinds of books, we all appreciate good writing. But recently someone asked me what I mean when I say that something is ‘well written’.  Isn’t this purely subjective? A matter of opinion?

Well, yes and no.

A book can be well written, but boring. It can be well written, but too slow or the characters can be really unlikeable. (See my previous post for my thoughts on unlikeable characters).

Here’s a few things that I think contribute to good writing.

Well crafted sentences are always appreciated. I like it when I don’t have to read a sentence more than once to figure out what it means. If I do read a sentence twice, it’s usually because I’ve enjoyed it so much that I want to read it again.

I like writing that is honest but graceful. I like lyrical writing, but I dislike long descriptive passages and tend to skip over them if they are too long. I like the story to move along at a fairly brisk pace.

I like the characters to be complex and multi-dimensional (just like in real life). It’s great when characters have a range of emotions, or mixed feelings. I like to understand their motivations, their fears, their secret desires.

A couple of years ago my book group read an excellent book by Stephanie Bishop, a West Australian author called “The Other Side of the World”.  Set in England, Australia and India in the early 1960s, it was described by the New York times Book Review as an exquisite meditation on motherhood, marriage, and the meaning of home. For me, this is the kind of book that encapsulates what I like best in books. Strong themes, strong characters and lots of thought provoking questions that we couldn’t really answer in our book group, but we enjoyed discussing.

And yes, we thought it was well-written, whatever that means.

My best reads in 2018

person holding book from shelf
Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

I love this time of the year. Not only do I get to have a holiday, but I also get to read all of the “best books of 2018” posts to see what great books I might have missed. I love to read what the various book sellers,  reviewers  and other bloggers have chosen as their favourites for the year and what they think will be worth reading in the coming year. As a regular library goer I like to make a note of the most anticipated books and then wait until they hit the library shelves. (Call me a cheapskate, but it works for me).

Last year I mentioned that I had only read a couple of dozen books when other readers seemed to have read 80+, so this year I decided to keep a list. There are about 24 books on the list again this year, which equates to two per month. The list doesn’t include books I abandoned, either because they were boring or because the main character was totally unlikeable. I like my protagonists to be flawed but generally decent people, otherwise I tend not to care what happens to them.

Top picks for 2018 (all with flawed characters)

Behold the dreamers by Imbolo Mbue. This book is about two Cameroonian migrants, Jenda and Neni,  who are trying to live the American Dream. Whilst waiting for the results of their application for asylum, Jenda gets a job as a driver for a Wall St banker (Clarke), while his wife Neni works as domestic for Clarke’s wife. Their lives are compared, but neither family is painted as perfect. Set in 2008, just prior to the Lehmann Bros debacle, this is a complex book about money, privilege and happiness. Highly recommended. If I had a star system, this would get lots of stars!

Little fires everywhere by Celeste Ng. I loved this book about a dysfunctional family living in Shaker Heights, Ohio. This is a book about motherhood, secrets, art and identity and caused a lot of discussion at my book group. What I especially liked about this book was that each of the characters had their own view of the world and their own reasons for taking the actions that they did. It’s a very even-handed book, you could really understand where everyone was coming from.

Still life with bread crumbs by Anna Quindlen. This is a highly enjoyable read, reminiscent of an upmarket Elizabeth Berg novel. This review describes this book as “comfort food” and I think that’s fair comment. It’s an easy read about a middle-aged photographer trying to re-invent herself after a downturn in her economic situation.

This is how it always is by Laurie Frankel was the book on everyone’s “must read” list this time last year. It’s about a family who’s little boy Claude decides that he wants to be a girl. I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy this book, as I thought it might be too confronting, but it’s an excellent read. The book is about a regular family facing a difficult situation. I especially liked the fact that they make mistakes (just like in real life) but they essentially love their child and just want him/her to be happy.

These are my favourites. What was your best read in 2018?

Don’t judge me

Don’t judge me

Do you ever worry about people judging you because of your reading choices? I’m ashamed to say I do.

Last week I was in the middle of a pretty intense workshop when we decided to take a short lunch break. The workshop facilitator wanted to pop out and get a coffee so I thought I’d take the chance to get a bit of fresh air and pick up some books from the library. I’d reserved them during the holidays but forgotten what they were, so when I arrived I was a bit surprised to find that they were definitely holiday reads (very light thrillers) and I wondered briefly if I should take them back to my desk and chuck them in a drawer or take them back into the workshop and have the inevitable conversation which starts with “so what are you reading?”.

I decided to take them with me but somewhat embarrassingly, I found myself mumbling about this not being indicative of my usual reading fare (as if anyone cares). The facilitator, lovely woman that she is, said kindly, “I’m not judging you” but this made me wonder how much we judge people by their reading choices and more importantly how much we judge ourselves.

I never try to make people think that I’m a literary kind of person, but I do read a lot and people often ask me what I’m reading. At any one time that could range from thrillers to literary fiction to memoirs to self-help books. I read most genres except perhaps horror and fantasy books. I’m a pretty fussy reader unless I’m stuck in an airport in which case I’ll probably read anything, or if it’s the holidays and then I’m allowed to read whatever I like. It’s part of the holiday splurge and something I rather enjoy. Good food, lots of nice wine and some unchallenging books. Lovely!

I’ll get back to something more nourishing soon.

Not enough books!

Not enough books!

I haven’t read enough books this year! I know this because I read this post by an author who said she had read a whopping 81 books as well as finishing her second novel and having a baby. I was impressed but also pretty sure that I hadn’t read anywhere near that many, so I must have been either very lazy or very busy. Let’s go with very busy…

This set me to the task of trying to work out how many books I HAVE actually read this year and I can tell you truthfully that it’s closer to two dozen than 81. I was feeling a bit like an under-achiever until I worked out that this is two books a month, which is not too shabby and also doesn’t take into account the many books that I started but didn’t finish because they were boring, too long-winded or just didn’t grab my attention for some reason. It also doesn’t include books I’ve read but forgotten about already, but in my view, if you can’t remember the plot line of a book then it probably isn’t worth counting.

I realise that it’s not important how many books you’ve read, but how much enjoyment they’ve given you. So instead of impressing you with my amazing reading prowess, I thought I would just pass on a few recommendations about books I actually finished and enjoyed as well.

Top of my list would be The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood. This book tells the story of a 100 year old Lithuanian woman who meets an 11 year old boy obsessed with the Guinness Book of Records. I didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did as I’m not always keen on books about old people, but this really is a charming book. It’s message is that it’s never too late to strive for something.

Other books I enjoyed were:

Before we visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This is a cross generational and cross cultural book about mothers and daughters facing obstacles and making wise and sometimes foolish choices.

Station Eleven by Hilary St John Mandel. This is a science fiction book that I made my book group read despite their reservations. This post- apocalyptic novel tells the story of a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity. I really enjoyed this book and so did my book group!

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson. Another book about old people! What’s going on here?  I read this book mainly because it won the Miles Franklin Literary Award and also because it was written by a West Australian which is where I’m from. And although it’s about old people, it’s also above love, secrets and coming to terms with your past. It also features the work of some iconic designers and it made me happy to think that I actually knew who these people were.

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald. This is a book for people who like reading books about people who like reading books. It’s not especially profound and is based on a very unlikely premise, but it’s also as comforting as a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winters day.

I could go on and on, but I’m really interested in your recommendations for books I should read in 2018. I already have a TBR list but I’m happy to add more books. There’s never enough time to read all the books on my list so a few extra won’t hurt.

Typecast

Typecast

I’ve been wanting to write about personality tests for quite some time but I’ve been a little hesitant in case people thought I was a bit flakey.

It all started with me doing a Myers Briggs personality test at work as part of a team development exercise. This test helps you decide if you are an introvert (I) or an extrovert (E), whether you are drawn to facts (S) or intuition (N), whether you are more concerned with thinking (T) or feeling (F), and whether you prefer structure (J) or like to go with the flow (P).

I have done this test quite a few times (actually they don’t like you to call it a test as there are no right or wrong answers, it’s really called a type indicator quiz) but this time around I was very unhappy with the results. Apparently I’m tactless and not a team player. Alternatively I could have interpreted the results as ‘honest to a fault’ and ‘makes a great leader’ but I chose to think the worst of myself. Why is that? Is that a personality thing?

Then my sister wrote to say that she was doing a course called ‘understanding yourself and others’ and that she was finding it helpful in explaining why she and her partner disagreed about a range of tiny (but important) issues. The course helped her to make sense of their differences and gave her some insight into understanding herself and her husband. It also gave her valuable tips on how to improve their communication which can’t be a bad thing. You can take the test here if you are interested.

Like many people, I secretly love personality tests. I love the moment when you read the “results” that tell you that you are just who you thought you were. The detailed profile that confirms that you are sensitive/creative/practical or whatever it is that you want to be. It very much appeals to our vanity by proclaiming that yes, we are capable of writing that great novel or making some kind of difference in the world.

But in her new book “Reading People”, Anne Bogel says that the trouble with doing personality quizzes is that we always answer the questions based on who we want to be, rather than answering them as who we really are. When we describe our traits we are aspirational, rather than realistic. This leads to us make wild claims about our capacity to be organised and efficient when in reality we spend a lot of time dithering about or worrying if people are going to be upset or hurt by our actions. (By the way, I don’t think of myself as cold and distant. In fact I’ve often think that I’m over-sensitive to other people’s moods.)

So is there value in knowing more about yourself and your significant others, and what makes them tick?

Yes, I think so. If you know that as an introvert you really need some time alone after a big day talking to people, then you can share this with your partner so that they are less likely to be offended when you go to your room to recover by reading 100 pages of your book in peaceful silence. Hopefully they’ll understand that it’s not that you don’t want to spend time with them, it’s just that you need time alone to rest and recover your good humour. More than anything else, introverts need some peace and quiet every day.

Your strategy might be walking or listening to music, but for me the ultimate respite from overstimulation (usually caused by too many people and too much noise) is swimming. I find it relieves stress and tension better than any other activity. It doesn’t stop me from thinking (quite the opposite) but there’s something about being in the water that just works for me.

What about you? Do you like doing personality quizzes and have they helped improve your relationships or have you got a tip for recovering your equanimity without offending people. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Who can you trust to recommend a good book?

Who can you trust to recommend a good book?

I’m an avid reader and I’m always keen to talk about books and swap recommendations. After you’ve read a few books that someone recommends, you get a pretty good idea of whether or not you have the same tastes. It can be quite tricky when a friend tells you that a certain book is fabulous and you hate it.

In my book group we don’t always agree on the books we read, and we certainly have different tastes, but since we’ve been meeting for about 20 years we have a very good understanding of the sort of books that each member enjoys reading. One of my friends is a huge fan of Louise Penny and Nordic noir, and another really likes historical fiction and British murder mysteries. We often recommend books to one another, rather than suggesting that the whole group read them.

I tend to like books that move along quickly, but are well written. I often read contemporary fiction, for example Paula Hawkins’ book The Girl on the Trainbut to be honest these type of books don’t really stay with me after I’ve read them and I often can’t really remember the plot line or what happened in the end. I don’t particularly like books with long descriptive passages and I tend to like books with likable (but flawed) characters. I like books that make me feel and think.

I was overjoyed when I discovered the podcast What Should I Read Next? Each week the host (Anne Bogel) talks to a different guest about what books they like (and dislike) and then recommends what they should read next. If your reading tastes align with the guest, then its worthwhile tracking down their recommendations and giving these a whirl.

On top of this Anne Bogel has an online book group and every year she releases a list of recommended reading for summer. She also releases a list of her top five books and I’ve come to really trust her judgement. One book that she recommended during the year was The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I really enjoyed this book which is set in a contemporary black community in Southern California. Brit is currently in Sydney appearing at the Sydney Writer’s Festival which is on this week, so I’ll be looking out for a chance to hear her interviewed around the town.

I’m planning to read all of her top five books over the next six months. I’m already reading The Dry, by Jane Harper and I’m looking forward to reading the next one on the list. If you borrow most of your books from the local library, you might like to work your way through last year’s shortlist as these are likely to have hit the shelves of you library.

So do let me know if you have read any good books lately. I’m always keen to swap ideas.