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

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

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.