The Annual Readfest

In between chapters!

Not waving – but drowning. In between chapters!

Two weeks in Greece. Two weeks without TV, internet and phone. Two weeks without work or cleaning or gymming or anything. Two weeks of pure books, and I made the most of it.

This year’s holiday reading was a real mixed bag (and a very heavy one – I love my Kindle, but I daren’t trust my entire book collection to it…. what if it broke? Or the battery died? Or … something?). So I took a load of proper books out as well.  Bookmail’s website is down, so if a title catches your eye, why not visit your library… that’s where I got most of mine from!

First off was The Dust that Falls From Dreams by Louis de Bernieres. This is a sweetly written story which doesn’t run from baring the teeth of war. The story of families and lovers pulled apart by the horrors of WW1 has been frequently used as a plot but it doesn’t lose its power. Nonetheless, the book itself is a little dusty and dreamlike. I felt that the author wasn’t really engaged with his subject, almost as if he was watching it through smoke. As a result, I did not feel particularly attached to the characters nor caring about what happened to them, although the twist in the story was most unexpected and wrenched me (no spoilers but those who have read it will know what I mean). There is also a huge continuity clanger (a letter is written by someone who in the following chapter has no knowledge of events until several years after he was supposed to have written a letter) which jarred me. Despite the meticulous historical research unfortunately I would not recommend this book for anyone who likes to finish a book and feel like they’ve finished a very good meal.

 Oxcrimes – an excellent collection of crime stories sold in aid of Oxfam – was much better, with an introduction from Ian Rankin. There were some beautifully nasty little tales in here.

The Cellar by Minette Walters – a warning, perhaps, not to keep anyone as a slave. (Should a warning be necessary.)

The Girls by Lisa Jewell – Lisa’s back on form, telling the tale of a communal garden where the residents, of course, all have their secrets. She’s like Judy Blume without the massive party every time a girl gets her period – she really gets into the heart of her younger characters without patronising them, but doesn’t lose insight into her adult characters either.

Shire Hell by Rachel Johnson. Pah. This was trying to be Jilly Cooper and failing miserably. I ditched it after about 2 chapters.

Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman – this is an excellent a new take on the life of Elizabeth I and the women around her, as well as those who shaped her. It’s a historical factual book but also a really well-written one.

The Ties that Bind by Erin Kelly – another fiercely original and most enjoyable read. Luke escapes to Brighton to chase an interesting gangland story and escape a messy break up but winds up – of course – getting into a whole heap of trouble. Erin Kelly is one of those authors I’ve got on my ‘watchlist’ – I gulp down her books, which are taut and sinister without her losing passion for her characters.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hoschild told me a dark story I very little knowledge of.  I had no idea what had happened in the Congo under King Leopold I and how the revered explorer Henry Stanley Morton had a lot to do with it. The way people were treated in search of rubber and riches is sickening – but I think it’s important to read it and learn so that their suffering and our (the West’s) greed isn’t forgotten and swept under the carpet because the more I read, the more I realise this happens a lot.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by by Philip Goureyevich.

This is a book I’ve had on my reading list for a long time, but I haven’t stumbled across a copy until now. I know the story of Rwanda well – too well, as a Christmas several years ago saw me read everything I could get my hands on – but this book really clarified for me what we didn’t do when we were desperately needed and how the West, yet again, let down those it was supposed to protect. I felt angry, disturbed, heartbroken and sickened by the story, yet I had to read it. At the very end of it though there was a ray of sunshine – pale and weak maybe, but still with some warmth – in a very black sky. Read it and find out for yourself.

I am probably the last person in the world, ever, to read I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh which I really enjoyed. I didn’t spot how it would pan out at all, and it kept me on my toes. Mackintosh’s book was like Elizabeth Heynes’s first, which she has yet to improve on. Spooky, nerve-wracking and beautifully descriptive.

The Merry Devils by Edward Marsten was a medieval mystery and tremendous fun. He seems to have written a series of them and I will start looking them out. It wasn’t hugely taxing but very well observed and reminded me of the Hangman’s Daughter series by Oliver Potszch which I’ve written about before on here: vivid, human characters and enjoyable tales set in the very distant past.

Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler – This just annoyed me that I’d spent so much time reading a book in which nothing much happened. I’m not going to waste any more time writing anything more about it.

At the end of this I grasped my Kindle and I read the first 3 Game of Thrones books. Within the first few pages I was hooked and devoured them one after another. I made myself stay up late and wake up early to finish them off. I didn’t put them down to brush my teeth and even when I was washing up it was one eye on the suds and one eye on the page. I know I am absolutely the last person in the world to read the books and I don’t need to recommend them at all but I can hardly miss them off my reading diary.

Back home I read The Story of Alice – The History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. It was a bit long but very interesting although I found him getting a bit over-involved with his subject to the point where one couldn’t have sneezed without him relating it to Carroll and his books somehow – “You only did it to annoy because you know it teases!” I also felt he skirted around Carroll’s interest in children (particularly girls) without really looking at it or making any comments on it. I felt like he was loathe to comment on this, when he wrote on everything else at such great length. Still having finished the book I’ve looked back at my copy and found at least a dozen pages turned down (sorry to people who hate that!) where there are mentions of paintings I want to look at or books I want to reference. I like using a book like a springboard to propel me into different directions and this has certainly done that.

Now, back in the real world, I have less time to do the things I want to do and need more time to do the things I have to do. Reading must as always be the thing that I have to do even if I force myself to go to bed half an hour earlier to switch off my whirring brain and switch on my imagination. I hope at least one or two of these titles have made you feel likewise.