Thursday, 2 August 2018

Holiday Reading

Holiday Reading

As promised here's the (short for me) list of books I read on holiday, and some brief thoughts about them.  Six were great, one was 'meh' and the last one I wish I'd not bothered with...

Love and Ruin by Paula McClain - this is a companion piece to The Paris Wife which I read a couple of years ago. This book is the story of Martha Gellhorn and her relationship with Hemingway and it made me want to read more books by both of these authors and to find a good book on the Spanish Civil War.

Tempest and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce - I've been a fan of Tamora Pierce's books for nearly 30 years but the past few books haven't really been my cup of tea so I was really pleased that this one was set back in Tortall and is the first of a new series.

Warlike by Michael Ondjaate - This book has since been long-listed for the Booker Prize and I am really pleased about this as I thought the book was brilliant. It has two distinct halves but they weave together wonderfully and the just post-war setting was intriguing.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron - This book had been book of the month in several places and I was really excited to read this one. Sadly I found it dated and banal.

Mythos by Stephen Fry - This retelling of the Greek Myths won't be for everyone, it is very 'Fry' but the light hearted turn of phrase was just what I needed.

A Very English Scandal by John Preston - I missed the recent adaptation of this but had heard so much about it I thought I'd try the book. I wasn't disappointed and found the whole story enthralling, and at the same time a little sad because I feel that despite the decriminalization of homosexuality it would still be far too easy to blackmail someone over the topic.

What Kitty Did Next by Carrie Kablean - This is an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice and I enjoyed it very much. It doesn't have quite the pizazz of the original but like Longbourn certainly adds to the Bennett sisters' stories.

Early Riser by Jasper Fforde - I always start Fforde's books with enthusiasm and enjoyment but by the end I start to find them, and their humour tedious. The basic ideas are always good but I find them too convoluted and contrived to fully enjoy. I'm pleased he is over his writer's block but this one just didn't quite do it for me - although the cold setting was great at cooling me down in the Greek heat!

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Radio Silence

Ooops - a month has passed very quickly, I really didn't intend for that much time to go past without a blog post.

Mr Norfolkbookworm and I just had two wonderful weeks in Greece - yes I know the biggest heatwave in years hit the UK at the same time, but what can I say? I have stunning timing!

We had a lovely time and for the first time since the brain hemorrhage in December I managed to read for longer periods of time and even better than that it was more complicated narrative fiction. While it was a great improvement on the past few months and 8 books in two weeks is a 2018 triumph it was a far call from the last time we had two weeks away when I got through 23...

I'll share my books and thoughts soon but for now I'll leave you with the place I did most of my reading...

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

100 and counting

The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop

1918 was a momentous year in so many ways - the end of World War One, the partial granting of the vote to women and the murder of the Russian royal family to name but a few. It was also the year my nan was born.

Because of this last fact I was fascinated to read Dunlop's Century Girls. Not all of these remarkable women were born in 1918 but they are all around the same age. They come from all walks of life and have lived fascinating, normal lives.

While obviously none of them lived the same life as my nan there were little tidbits in each narrative that I knew could have been applied to her. It was a good mix of rural and city tales plus remembered those who were originally born in Empire countries. The women also span all economic classes which brings in very different view points too.

The book is mostly told in a chronological fashion, taking bits from each remarkable lady to make a rounded, female, history of the last 100 years. The book is wonderfully chatty in style but never overly sentimental. I loved it.

My nan - 26th June 1918- 14th April 2008
(picture from my sister)

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A companion not a sequel

Auggie and Me by R.J. Palacio

Back in November I read Wonder by R.J. Palacio and loved it, even though it made me cry lots. I still haven't had the emotional energy to watch the film!

I had hoped that Palacio had written lots of books before this and so had a great back list for me to explore. Events stopped this happening for a while but while I was browsing the Norfolk Library ebook catalogue looking for some short stories to read I came across Auggie and Me and I remembered how much I loved the original.

Palacio is clear to stress that this isn't a sequel to Wonder but rather a companion piece, in fact in many ways Auggie barely features in these three stories - he is an incidental character allowing us to learn more about his friends and classmates.

I loved all three stories, and once more I was reduced to tears by the characters and events. Palacio really manages to make her characters alive, and even when you think you know how a story arc is going to flow she manages to surprise. These stories could be terribly moralistic and didactic but the humour and writing lift them above this and any morals are absorbed without realising.

Sadly apart from books connected to Wonder Palacio hasn't written anything else (yet) but I really hope she does soon.

Friday, 8 June 2018

30 Days Wild and beyond

The Wildlife Trusts have an initiative every June called 30 Days Wild - this encourages people to get out and about connecting with the natural world.

I have certainly found that on the days I get out and about in the fresh air I really do feel better, I'm calling it the nature cure which isn't terribly original but who cares.

While walking for the sake of walking is great I do prefer to mix a walk with some nature watching and living in Norfolk we have no shortage of places to go. I also like to take the camera with me and I've been pretty pleased with a lot of the pictures I've snapped this spring/early summer.

I post a lot of my pictures on Flickr, you can find me at but below are a few of my favourites.

There is one downside to all this fresh air...I'm generally too tired to read  so I'm not sure how my reading stamina is progressing as I'm either outside or just too sleepy!

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Challenging My Brain

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux

Little Women (and the three follow up novels) have long been some of my favourite reads - I've lost count of how many times I've read them! However I've also spent a lot of time in the past few years debating with friends (who's opinions I really value) about if these books are pro- or anti-feminist works.

Warning - there are some spoilers below...

I've always maintained that they are positive reads for young readers - Jo makes a living from her writing and later her teaching. Meg may marry young but the struggle of being a homemaker and mother is stressed, Amy becomes a successful artist before marrying.

My more critical friends however see the books less positively - that only marriage and family can make women happy, or if they are truly good then they die.

When I saw advance copies of Boyd Rioux's book up for review on Netgalley I got really excited. Then a little nervous that perhaps a serious lit-crit book would be beyond my broken brain. It nearly has. I can only read the work in small chunks, and I have had to reread chapters/pages multiple times. I've also been reading this book for nearly a fortnight and I'm still not  at the end - something that those who know me will find incredible.

My feelings for this book are absolute love. It covers the way that Little Women mirrors Alcott's life, and a potted biography of all four March/Alcott women. It then talks about how the books have been represented on screen (and how this has influenced the pro/anti feminist debate) and I am just up to the part where Boyd Rioux is making the case for both viewpoints.

I can now appreciate my friends' views more but unless in the last portion of the book there are significant twists/revelations I am proud to stand by my opinion that this is a book that promotes female independence!

The book will be published in August and I know that I will be buying at least one copy for my Little Women critical friends!

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Gifting books you'd like to read

I've always been a great believer in the idea that if you are surprising someone with a gift then it should be something you'd like to receive yourself.

After a friend was talking about her reading block at the end of last year, and knowing her quirky tastes, I decided to surprise her with a copy of The Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. When it arrived I had a look through it and instantly wanted to keep it and not pass it on.

Reading slumps are a real pain, that longing to read something but not being able to find a suitable book can drive you mad. Even with my limited reading stamina at present I still find this a problem - if you've got limited ability to read it has to be a good book after all!

This book includes details of 99  authors who were once popular but have slipped from collective memory overtime plus some extra essays about things like translation and pulp fiction.  I consider myself a prolific and knowledgeable reader but I only recognised 16 of the writers included...

The sections that the book is split into are clever and humorous - being a perverse person my favourite was "The Justly Forgotten Authors" - why do they deserve this epithet? My reservation for this book just came in at the library and I am looking forward to the essays and the new authors to discover. I'm sure that my list of books to read is going to grow hugely!

Friday, 11 May 2018

Graphic history

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary M Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of (a limited number of) women being given the vote and while my book of the year last year was the wonderful Things A Bright Girl Can Do about the suffrage campaign I wanted to read more.

Around the February anniversary there were a lot of new non fiction books about the suffragettes and I have added them to my reading list to investigate when my reading stamina is improved, but in a lot of recommended lists I saw mention of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette. On looking the book up I found it was a graphic novel (a genre I always intend to read more of) and so reserved it from the library in the hope that my brain would cope with the format.

It took a while for it to be my turn to borrow the book (hurrah - it is popular!) and this did mean I am further along in recovery and after a few pages struggling with the different format I was drawn in.

Sally is a fictional character but is obviously based on detailed research into the suffrage campaign, and we follow her contacts with the movement from its early days in Manchester, through the split between the militant and peaceful branches, on to the real violence of the years before the First World War and then the war itself and the culmination of the campaign.

This little splashes of colour, especially for Sally's hair, help to keep the story straight in all of the scenes and I did become involved in her story, the little flash forwards were especially effective. I also very much liked how the tale did poke holes in the mythology that surrounds the Pankhursts, they were a complicated family and this is highlighted in the book.  I've always been uncomfortable with Emmeline and Christabel's total volte face on the outbreak of war and this is reflected very well here.

To make the narrative work Sally is obviously repeatedly in the right place at the right time which does sometimes seem a little improbable but it is the only way the authors/illustrator can give a complete overview of the movement, the book definitely follows the 'show not tell' school of story telling.

Without spoilers the last few pages of the story pack a real punch.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but I think that it should be taken as a version of the history of the Suffragettes and read in conjunction with other books on the subject. It is also not clear from a quick glance at the book that Sally is an amalgamation of characters and the book fiction not biography.

Friday, 4 May 2018

War and Agony (aunts)

Book Review: Dear Mrs Bird

(review copy provided by Net Galley)

This was a book I read quite a while ago, before I fell ill in fact, but I was looking back through my list of books read and realised I'd never talked about it.

This was a book that at first I didn't think I was going to enjoy, it seemed so light, and to a great extent predictable but I persevered and found that my first opinions were deceptive.

Emmeline is a typical literary WW2 heroine in many ways, she comes from a privileged background but is 'slumming it' in London. She is doing her bit for the war effort as she is a phone dispatcher for the Auxiliary Fire Service just as the Blitz is increasing in intensity.  Her dream it to be a war correspondent and she is overjoyed to get a job with the London Evening Chronicle, it isn't quite her dream job however - she ends up being part of the agony aunt team for one of the other publications from the Chronicle's stable.

It is at this point that the book becomes both the most predictable and the most unpredictable and I got fully swept up into the lives of the protagonists and by the end I'd cried more than once!

This is a book very much in the vein of Their Finest by Lissa Evans - mostly fun, frothy and light but with the occasional emotional wallop. It takes familiar events of the war and weaves them into the narrative in a way that is believable as well as being just one coincidence too far.

This review doesn't seem as positive as the feeling the book left me with last autumn which seems slightly unfair - so many of the details of the book, and the emotional impact it had on me are very strong and sometime you do just want a little bit of light-hearted reading.  That I can still recall so much of the book is also a point in its favour - there are some books I read at the end of November last year that I can't recall at all...

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Too impatient to wait any long to talk about a book

Book Review Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

(many thanks to Netgalley for the advance copy of this title)

It feels like I've been waiting to talk about this book forever and although it isn't officially published until mid-May that is less than a month away so now is the time to pre-order with your favourite bookshop or to get an early reservation in at your local library.

Anyhow back at the start of the year when I was still really quite unwell and despondent because I hadn't managed to read any fiction for over a month I saw people talking about this book on Twitter and then in lists of 'books to watch out for in 2018.' It sounded just my thing and I was approved for an advanced copy on Netgalley and then tentatively opened it up.

The joy - this book was written in an epistolary style and while the letters crossing to and fro the North Sea did link to each other as the tale unfolded they weren't forming a long, continuous narrative. The letters themselves were also reasonably short and so I could really stop and start with  as I needed while thanks to the format the story was almost recapped in each new letter so I was always able to pick the plot up.

This is a very gentle novel and is primarily about Tina, a Suffolk farmer's wife, and Anders, a Danish museum curator. Slowly we learn about them - their lives, families, thoughts and sorrows - nothing is off limits however hard the topic may be. Letters allow both characters to share their inner most thoughts and a real, believable, friendship grows between the writers, and I was so immersed in their worlds that I almost felt guilty for reading their private letters.

There are twists and turns, I didn't spot most of them coming but they all felt convincing - I hope that this is true for all readers and not just because I was ill when I read the book. Reviews are comparing this to another of my favourite books, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and I can definitely see why - and not just because the book is made up of letters. It is a gentle story but with a realistic edge that stops it becoming saccharine sweet, it also doesn't take the easy or obvious route which was a nice touch.

The final selling point for me was that while most of Tina's story takes place in Suffolk, around Bury St Edmunds, there is also a trip to a couple of archaeological sites in north Norfolk. I was aware of the Warham Iron Age Fort (and indeed have visited it) but I didn't know that there was also an Iron Age Barrow in the area and I plan on luring Mr Norfolkbookworm to visit it soon with the promise of a pub lunch...

Even a few months on from reading this book I am still not managing to read long or complicated fiction books but this one will always be special to me as it did show that I could still read and enjoy fiction and that mood boost was incredibly important.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Writing back to books

Book Review

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

I am still struggling with reading narrative fiction, I think it is getting better but retaining a complicated plot with multiple characters is still too hard. Books of letters however are ideal and I was very excited to come across this mentioned in a catalogue and then to discover that it was a book I could borrow from the library.

Annie Spence has written letters to books that have had an effect on her - whether positive or negative and all these notes are wonderful and often hilarious. Not only are they heartfelt but often they are written in a pastiche of the original which just adds an extra dimension.

Spence talks about many books that I am familiar with, which makes me think we are of a similar age (or have at least worked in the book world for a similar time) and there are many books I have added to my must read or reread lists. Her asides about working in libraries also give an insight into some of the other things we do as well as stamping books!

The end of the book is comprised of amusing articles full of book recommendations, the one called I'd rather be reading: Excuses to tell you friends so you can stay home with your books made me laugh a lot. I also like the article about how books lead to other books, taking The Virgin Suicides as a starting point Spence then takes us on a journey through 10 books that lead on from each other.

I do enjoy books about books and this one is a real treat, now to keep building my reading stamina so I can enjoy all the new titles I've added to lists!

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Two Steps Forward (in my reading recovery)

Two Steps Forward by Graeme Stimison & Anne Buist.

Book provided by Bookbridgr.

This book caught my eye as soon as I saw it advertised on the Bookbridgr website - it is a book told in two viewpoints by two authors, in this case with each chapter being told by the alternating protagonist. It is also a book that could easily be a non fiction, travel writing book and I love them.

Zoe and Martin both end up walking the Camino de Santiago from Cluny in France all the way to Santiago de compostela in Spain - well over 1000km. They have very different reasons for undertaking the walk, Zoe is recently bereaved, and Martin recently divorced and from the start you know that their paths will cross and there will be sparks of all sorts.

Despite the mental place that both lead characters start from, this isn't a book that focuses entirely on the spiritual journey the pair take, nor does it read like a diary of the journey taken by the two authors in real life. All aspects of the journey are covered. It is a fulfilling read, but it is always believable - perhaps because Zoe and Martin have time to tell their stories as the walk progresses.

All of the incidental characters we meet on the way have their own reasons for walking and are well rounded if used slightly in deus ex machina roles. While the ending could be seen as a little predicable and trite the authors have the confidence to extend the story on a little beyond the pilgrimage and tie up loose ends in a satisfying, but believable, conclusion.

This was a brilliant book to continue my reading recovery with, again the short alternating narratives were great for my concentration but unlike previous books I had to follow the plot from one chapter to the next. I did find myself having to reread chapters as my concentration slipped but the story was so good I didn't give up - I had to find out how it ended!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Book Post

Book Review

All Day at the Movies by Fiona Kidman

I recently received an advance copy of this book from Belgravia Books and once more the format of the novel again worked in my favour.

Kidman's novel The Infinite Air made my top fiction reads of 2016 and I was r keen to read more from this New Zealand author. While being very different indeed to The Infinite Air I really enjoyed this novel.

It follows the life of four (half) siblings over more than 50 years:
When war widow Irene Sandle goes to work in New Zealand’s tobacco fields in 1952, she hopes to start a new, independent life for herself and her daughter – but the tragic repercussions of her decision will resonate long after Irene has gone.
Each of Irene’s children carries the events of their childhood throughout their lives, played out against a backdrop of great change – new opportunities emerge for women, but social problems continue to hold many back. Headstrong Belinda becomes a successful filmmaker, but struggles to deal with her own family drama as her younger siblings are haunted by the past.
A sweeping saga covering half a century, this is a powerful exploration of family ties and heartbreaks, and of learning to live with the past.

What made this book ideal for me currently is that it is told in short, 'snapshot' chapters. We start in 1952 with the Irene's story and then chapter by chapter we follow what happens to the four siblings throughout their lives. Each chapter is self contained and as we jumped through time with each one I found the experience to be more like reading a series of connected short stories featuring the same characters.

The writing style was easy to follow and I really did get the feel that this book could only have taken place in New Zealand - in an indefinable way the location and feel of the country came through. The story details about politics added to this with the detail that absolutely grounded this feel.

The book was very different from the first Kidman I read, much darker and grittier but I still loved it and will be looking out for more of her books as they are published in the UK.

Many thanks to Belgravia Books for sending me the book. 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Quick Reads whilst reading slowly

The kindness of Twitter

Happily my reading stamina is still increasing following my recent illness (although it has slowed/gone a little backwards as I am tired out by a limited return to work) but while I was really struggling the kind people from ED Public Relations ( on twitter) sent me a surprise parcel comprising three of the 2018 Quick Reads titles.

From my work in the library I was aware of the Quick Reads promotion which
 "was founded by Baroness Gail Rebuck DBE in 2006 to provide shorter, easier to read, accessible fiction for less confident adult readers. Now in its 12th year, the programme has distributed over 4.8 million books since it was launched and introduced hundreds of thousands of new readers each year to the joys and benefits of reading."
It took me a while to read them but I did enjoy them greatly but the biggest discovery for me was the Inspector Chopra book.  This is a mystery set in the back streets of Mumbai and featured a private detective and his pet baby elephant solving a the mystery of a missing car.

On many levels this book wasn't an instant fit: how was I going to follow the plot of a crime/mystery novel at a time when I had real concentration and memory problems? Also how was I going to be able to break an already short book up into chunks that I could physically manage to read? Oh, and the biggie, as a rule the crime genre really isn't my cup of tea!

The wise people from @edpr obviously knew what they were doing for the format of the book was just right, the chapters were complete vignettes and easy to start and stop. The mystery was just complicated enough so that I didn't guess 'whodunnit' but not so complicated I couldn't follow the reasoning. The addition of a baby elephant sidekick is a genius idea. The book may also be considered easier to read but for me it perfectly conjured Mumbai and I felt like I was watching a movie as I was reading, fewer words creating a full picture regardless.

Now I am more recovered I will look out for the full length novels by Vaseem Kahn but I am a little nervous that they won't be as good as this short book. I know that the short story format is considered both hard to write and hard to sell but it worked splendidly here and I'd love to read more short stories in this world.

Again many thanks to those at ED Public Relations who sent the books to me as a gift and with no expectations that I'd review them.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

The dangers of visiting book related locations

Anne Frank  House, Amsterdam

The Diary of Anne Frank has long been an important book to me, I first read it as a young teenager, then went on to read it in German for that A Level and finally studied it in some depth during my MA in Children's Literature. The last time we visited Amsterdam we didn't realise how far in advance you had to book tickets to tour the Secret Annexe and so it was top of my wish list on a recent visit to the city.

I don't know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn't entirely what we got.  I've seen the touring Anne Frank exhibition in a couple of forms and always been impressed at the balance this presents. While Anne's diary and story are special the exhibition always managed to put her life into a greater historical context.

I found this to be missing in the tour of the Prinsengracht building. The whole thing felt a little like a shrine to Anne, there was so little information about her immediate family - let alone the other four people who shared the annexe with the Franks. I have studied the Holocaust/Shoah and so have a greater understanding of this part of twentieth century history, but if I was coming to the Anne Frank House with little or no context I would have come away feeling that it was sad Anne (and most of her family) died but with no idea of the scale of the Holocaust, that Anne was one of millions from across Europe...

It wasn't all bad however. The audio tour was brilliant. It was clear and easy to use and if you missed something then it was easy to re-listen and not be forced on a route march through the building. You also got a real feel for how small and dark the hiding place was - I really did imagine it being both bigger and lighter. The fear of discovery thanks to noise was also clear to see as the wooden floors in Dutch building are not built for quietness.  It was also nice to see some of the photos that Anne stuck to the walls and also excerpt from the original diary.

I may be being unfair on the museum as it is currently undergoing some renovations but the final straw for me was that the tour ended in a cafe/restaurant, not even the ubiquitous gift shop! When I did look in the museum shop however that was also a disappointment for again it only contained copies of the Diary (admittedly in dozens of languages) and gifts relating to Anne and the building - there were still no items putting Anne's story into context.

I'm pleased to have finally seen the Secret Annexe so on my next reread of the Diary I will be able to visualise the location more but right now I am not at all impressed with the museum's interpretation of the two plus years the family spent in hiding.

Friday, 9 March 2018

At last a book review!

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin.

This is actually the second new work of fiction I've managed to finish so far this year (I will talk about the 1st closer to when it is published in late spring) and I really liked the book a lot. Here's the blurb from NetGalley that 'sold' the book to me:

It's 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York's Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they're about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.
Such prophecies could be dismissed as trickery and nonsense, yet the Golds bury theirs deep. Over the years that follow they attempt to ignore, embrace, cheat and defy the 'knowledge' given to them that day - but it will shape the course of their lives forever.
 I think that what helped me finish this book over others was the format of the book. Although the siblings' lives do intertwine each of the four has a definite section and so it was like reading four novellas rather than one long novel.

I found this book to be very clever - it covered vasts sweeps of American history and also remained very intimate.  All of the responses given by the siblings to being given a death date seemed very real and how this knowledge affected their behaviour seemed totally plausible - do you burn brightly for a short time or do you do everything you can to live a long life? Does the knowledge overwhelm you?

I've read books before where protagonists have known their death dates but these have tended to be either dystopian fiction or pure sci-fi/fantasy and I've often found them a bit far fetched. This more literary, family focused novel was just a great read and the style just perfect for me right now.

Thanks to Net Galley for providing the eProof.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Hopefully on the mend

Unlike the weather here in Norfolk at the moment I am definitely starting to feel better. Reading and computer use still aren't the easiest things sadly but I have managed to read a full novel  which feels a huge leap forward. I can also manage some time on a laptop now.

What has been interesting for me throughout this whole process is that I've not lost the ability to read. After the cerebral hemorrhage and blood clot I just lost the concentration and stamina to manage novels. Not being able to remember what has happened from one chapter to the next has been incredibly frustrating, and even now I am on the mend it is definitely lighter novels that I am managing and enjoying without frustration.

During the past couple of months short stories and essays have been my life line and here's where I want to really praise the eBook catalogue from Norfolk Libraries.  I've been able to try dozens of new things, all for free, and as they are electronic I have been able to change the font size/background colour as needed on a daily basis. 

As for physical books I have become far more aware than ever before about the fonts and sizes chosen by publishers - and so many interesting books have been rejected (for now) just because I physically couldn't read them due to these factors.
The subject of ePublishing hit the news a few weeks ago with this story from a leading publisher, however after all my experiences all I can do is sing their praises, as this rebuttal also did. There is also the weight issue of a physical book compared to an eReader or tablet, especially when you aren't feeling your best.

Here's hoping that the next few weeks will see me almost back to usual and back to full reading strength - my list of books I want to read is now taller than me!

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Back Soon

Apologies for the lack of updates into 2018 - I haven't given up on blogging, however the health issues I mentioned in passing at the end of last year have continued in to 2018 and I am still finding reading a bit of a struggle and using laptop also nearly impossible.

I will be back when I can!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Books of the Year 2017

As is my tradition I've not even looked back at my 2017 reading journal until 2018 has started.

2017 ended up on a bit of low reading note as for a good two weeks in December I wasn't able to read more than about a page at a time due to being ill. This was a new experience for me as my usual default when poorly is to turn to books as comfort.

It wasn't all bad news however as when everything was counted up I discovered that I had read 254 books in 2017. Unlike the past few years I have tried to review more books here on the blog, and the monthly reading round-ups have helped with this, as did taking part in the Reading Agency /Baileys Women's Prize shadowing and also reading for the Radio 2 fiction and non fiction book selection panels,

Now without further ado here are my top Childrens/YA reads, adult fiction and non fiction selection. Some of these have featured on the blog before but others are ones that jumped out at me as I re-read my book journal.

Children and YA
Piglettes written (and translated from the French) by Clementine Beauvais.
Smell of Other People's Houses - Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
A Galaxy of her Own - Libby Jackson
A Change is Gonna Come - short stories by various BAME authors
Things A Bright Girl Can Do - Sally Nicholls

Adult Fiction
Stay With Me - Adabayo Ayobami
White Chrysanthemums - Mary Lynn Bracht
Circe - Madeline Miller (read in July 2017 but not published until spring 2018)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien
These Dividing Walls - Fran Cooper

Adult Non-Fiction
Balancing Acts - Nicholas Hytner
Reading Aloud - Chris Paling
Ask an Astronaut - Tim Peake
From Source to Sea - Tom Chesshyre
Take Courage - Samantha Ellis

Picking my overall book of the year has been a nightmare but I think that once more a book aimed at the younger audience wins and Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls wins out as my top book of the year.

I did fail completely with the challenges I set myself back in March which doesn't hugely surprise me, but the projects with the Reading Agency more than made up for this.

I'm already reading lots of articles and blog posts about books to look out for in 2018 and to be honest thanks to Net Galley(and other projects) I've read quite a few of these already but there is a new book from Kate Atkinson coming in 2018 and also the sequel to last year's book of the year (The Apprentice Witch) by James Nicol is due out on 1st March.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Theatre of the Year

2017 At the Theatre

I was hoping to be trying to pick my favourite shows from a list of 36, but due to unexpected illness I had to miss the last three plays I had booked for the year. Annoyingly one of these has already finished and the other will come to an end before I am recovered enough to go. Oh well, health is more important.

So this year the Norfolkbookworm has written 33 reviews and also seen another 4 comedy shows which are just too hard to review, the improvised one for sure was something you had to be there for to find it all funny.

Right my top 8 plays for the year, and these are just the top plays - they are in no other order than the dates in which I saw them:
Even in a year where I was really disappointed with the Globe's offering two of their productions are still in my top 8 but it has to be said that I am looking forward to seeing where the new AD takes the theatre.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Book vs. Film

Call Me By Your Name - Andre Aciman

Rebecca introduced me to this book a few years ago and it has become a favourite of mine too. We've both been waiting for this film with some nervousness - how often have you heard me ask are adaptations ever as good as the original?

In this case I think my answer is a qualified yes. For the most part it stayed very close to the source material - although the film is set away from the coast and along a river, where as the book has a wonderful seaside setting. Surprisingly this didn't bother me too much, it just made me want to go to Italy!

The book is, for the most part, better. It is easier to overlook the harsh behaviour of Elio and Oliver on the page but I did prefer the ending to the film rather than that of the book. It came to an end rather than drifting on and on. This will become a film I'll watch again and it was a nice adaptation of a loved book.

It has been a while since I saw this, and I've been unwell in the meantime, so my thoughts are a bit foggy now.  In staying faithful to the book this is a film that is quite explicit so it won't be for everyone but it was good.

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Quick thoughts on a new book

Artemis - Andy Weir

I was late to the party with Weir's The Martian but I loved it when I did get there. It was a gripping romp set in space with science that (mostly) worked, and it was in the 'hard' sci-fi camp rather than soft/fantasy end of the genre.

I was really excited when I got an advance copy of Artemis and, unlike so many of the reviews I've seen, I really liked the book. Yes the prose is clunky and there is a little too much 'Basil Exposition' in the plot but the story races ahead and I was swept away with it.  I'm not a fan of crime capers and this was the bit of the story that I enjoyed least but there was so much to enjoy...

  • A female lead
  • A female lead who is competent and tech savvy
  • A female lead who enjoys life, all of life - including sex and drinking without guilt.
  • Wonderful descriptions of what a moon base could look like.
So many of the reviews are calling Jazz things like "a middle aged man's fantasy", but I liked her. To me she seemed believable - she knew what she wanted and went for it without asking permission/feeling bad afterwards - oh that's right she behaved like a man whilst being resolutely female...hmmm I wonder if this is actually what many people dislike?

This book won't win prizes for prose (or possibly plot) but I found it a great read where the whole space set up worked and Jazz didn't fail because she was female but rather because she was too gung-ho and dangerous.  She definitely owed a lot more to the early American astronauts with her slightly reckless attitude rather than the much more cautious (and sensible) modern was of exploring.

Artemis was 'just' a romping good read, and in a week when the scary figures surrounding how few literary books are bought each year I think that it is a great that there are still some non chick lit/crime romping reads written.
I also liked the little jokes/word plays/assumptions that Weir led you towards - I'd never have thought that KSC stood for that.

My thoughts have got muddled as I write this - I know what I want to say... I liked the book a lot, and I hope that a base like Artemis is built on the moon eventually. I also liked a strong female character who was quite happy in her life choices. It might have been a bit stretched in terms of plot, and the language not outstanding but to be honest as long as people are enjoying the book then that's the most important thing. Enthusing, inspiring and entertaining - what more do you need from a book?

Friday, 8 December 2017

November Reading Round Up

For a variety of reasons in November I did a lot of rereading, one was to compare book and film (Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name) and others were Girls' Own type stories.

There were some new reads however mixed in and I enjoyed four of these enough to mention here.

Princess and the Suffragette by Holly Webb.
Back in 2015 I was very excited by Webb's updated sequel to A Secret Garden and I'm really pleased to say that she's done it again! This is a follow on to another Hodgson Burnett story (A Little Princess) and follows the lives of the girls left at Miss Minchin's seminary after Sara left. As stated in the title it is about the women's suffrage movement and I found it gripping - one that really should get lots and lots of attention next year as we mark 100 years of women getting the (limited) vote.

Wonder by R. J. Palaccio
I'm not sure how I've missed this book for so long, I know that colleagues have loved it and recommended it to me but somehow it just never rose to the top of the pile.  However Mr Norfolkbookworm went to a preview of the film adaptation and was really impressed so I read the book.  It is powerful and moving, as being a good tale. It borders on being didactic, saccharine and predictable but through beautiful writing and clever narration it stays just the right side of these line (for me) and was just a wonderful book that did make me cry.

Why Mummy Drinks by Gill Simms
I love reading Simms posts on Facebook where she chronicles her chaotic life in the form of spoof Peter and Jane tales.  I expected that this book was going to be just a collection of these social media posts but instead it was a full novel, told in diary form, using the same style as the posts. I laughed a lot.

White Chrysanthemum - Mary Lynn Bracht
This book was a proof thanks to Net Galley and is set in Korea starting in the Second World War. It deals with the Japanese occupation and atrocities, then the internal problems caused by the politics post war which ultimately led to the Korean War, the ramifications of these two conflicts then echo down the generations to the modern day.  I knew a little of the history here, especially regarding the Japanese history but what came next horrified me. 

In following the lives of two sisters we get up close and personal to this history and it isn't easy reading at all, at times it is horrific. However I feel that this is an important part of history all too often glossed over in the name of reconciliation and rehabilitation - there are a lot of lost stories in this part of the world that need to be told, whether in history books or in fantastic fiction like this. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Thirty-three: Young Marx

Young Marx, The Bridge Theatre, London. November 2017.

After a busy week away for me, and a nightmare journey for Rebecca, we were both hoping for a huge amount from Young Marx. We'd also convinced Mr. Norfolkbookworm that this was going to be good and worth a trip to London...

The Bridge Theatre is brand new and it felt lovely walking through the doors on a cold and wet November afternoon. It was bright, warm and spacious with friendly staff.

Due to booking at different times we weren't all sat together, Rebecca and I were in the side of the gallery and Mr. Bookworm was in the back row of the same gallery, square on to the stage.  The side seats were very clever as they were angled to face the stage - no awkward leaning needed.  Our seats did seem a little hemmed in as there was a low black ceiling almost in our eye line - it looked like a plane's bulkhead - but once the play started we didn't notice it at all.  Mr. Bookworm said he found the sound muffled from his seats but as he has some hearing problems (and we didn't test the seats) we can't say if that was him or the acoustics.

Now for the play, well for me it was just the tonic I needed. It explained a lot of Marx and Engels' ideas in a way that I finally understood but it had me smiling and laughing from the very beginning. At times it bordered on descending in to farce, which would have snapped me out of the mood, but it always stayed just the right side of that comedy line.

The play was full of killer lines, which I am still chuckling over. I also loved the scene in the library, some might think that it is over the top and could never happen in such and august place but I know better.  The character sketches of patrons behaviour was spot on throughout, the end of this scene did have me doing a double take and wondering if the interval gin and tonic had gone to my head more than I anticipated!

There was some darkness to the play, and it did have some pertinent points to make but they weren't rammed home and I just thoroughly enjoyed this lighthearted comedy and can't wait to make a return visit to the theatre.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Thirty-three - Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard, Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham. November 2017.

During some recent time in Birmingham (more on this soon) I discovered that the new touring version of Sunset Boulevard was playing during my stay. I was most surprised that there were good, cheap, seats still available so it seemed fate that I should go!

I knew a couple of the songs from this show but I had no real idea what it was about - as seems to be the way when I go to the theatre at present.  This was a lavish affair with a huge cast, live orchestra and a lavish set. In fact the set could almost be called fussy, it needed changing so often that I'm sure a lot of the run time of the show was due to scene changes!

The show itself took a long time to grow on me, by the interval I admired the voices but wasn't fully involved with the story at all, however the second half was better. The sub plots were far more interesting to me in all honestly and some of the reveals really did move me.  Oh and the ending itself - I didn't expect that!

Now for the confession - I was so convinced by the projections used as back drop I assumed that Norma Desmond was a real person and that this was a biopic, I think Mr Norfolkbookworm has stopped laughing at me now...! 

I have now watched the film that the show is based on and I'm glad that I saw it afterwards, it is darker and some of the reveals are shown earlier. You like the main two characters even less in the film too, where as the musical did give them some warmth. I was struck with how much dialogue in the show came directly from the film too.  My advice - if you are planning on seeing this and haven't seen the film then see the show first; if you've seen the film then the show doesn't really add anything to the story (but has some amazing singing). Always nice to see a new show, in a new theatre but this one won't be making my top of the year lists.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Thirty-two - Hedda Gabbler

Hedda Gabbler, Theatre Royal, Norwich. November 2017.

I'd missed this in London at the National Theatre and so was very happy to find out that the tour was coming to Norwich but even after all of this time I still went in 'blind' to the play as I didn't know the story at all.

I think that this was a great way to see the play as it kept me on the edge of my seat as I couldn't work out how the plot was going to play out at all.
I could sense that it wasn't going to be a happy play, and the focus of the guns at the start made me think of Chekhov's rule. This roughly states that if there is a gun shown in act one it has to be used by the end of the play...

While all of the cast were very good, none of their characters were and the slow growing air of menace and madness really drew me in and left me with shivers running up and down my spine. There were moments of levity (and sometimes I seemed to find things funny when others didn't - oops?) but this was an oppressively dark play, despite the light set!

This version was an adaptation by Patrick Marber and as I'm not familiar with the original I don't know how purists see it, I will be hunting down an earlier version to compare very soon. This is only the 2nd Ibsen play I've seen - the first Emperor and Galilean back in 2011 put me off a little but I think that I will be trying more in the future.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Astronaut Untethered

Bruce McCandless, Space Lecture event. November 2017.

Apologies for the lack of detail in this write up - the event was as excellent as usual, with an incredible guest, but it fell in the middle of an incredibly busy couple of weeks for me and already the details are hazy.

While my memory is shot to pieces the same cannot be said of McCandless as his hour long lecture was interesting - and like so many events lately covered all sorts of topics, including quidditch!

From my point of view I was a little sad that there wasn't more of McCandless's memories and personal history - this is the area that I am most interested in - but I quickly became enthralled with his detailed analyses of why we need to keep exploring and the pros and cons of manned missions v. robotic missions.  At a time when I'd just finished Scott Kelly's autobiography which definitely talked about the downsides of space travel this seemed very apposite!

More detailed write ups of this event can be found if you read back through @Space_Lectures tweets and also on Collect Space. The talk, and the chance to briefly meet McCandless were brilliant and the deficiencies here are all mine.  Perhaps I was just overcome by winning in the raffle this time and then getting a wonderful piece of art signed (as shown in the image!)

I can't wait for the next event in March!

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

October Reading Round Up

I didn't think that I'd read that much in October but when I counted up it was a respectable 20 books again.

There was a lot of non fiction in this mix, and a lot to do with farming in Norfolk during, and just after, World War One all ready for a project next year.

My three top reads for the month in no particular order are:

Endurance by Scott Kelly

No surprises that a space book features in a top read, and having met Scott Kelly last year I was looking forward to this book a lot. Kelly is wonderfully open about his experiences, good and bad, and also pretty indiscreet with some of his memories which made this a fun read. My only (slight) niggle with the book is that it opens with an account of the health issues Kelly experienced following his year in space but he doesn't really come back to this and I would like to have learned a little more about the long term effects, especially as he did touch in this at the talk last year.

On the Bright Side by Hendrik Groen

I was so excited when an email from Net Galley dropped into my inbox offering me the chance to read this second book from Hendrik Groen and although it isn't actually published until January 2018 I think it may well be one of my top books of 2017, just as the first book was last year. Hendrik is back and he's as grumpy as ever despite mellowing in other ways.  This book has real depth and a powerful emotional punch. I just hope I am as brave and bold when I am 84!

Ask an Astronaut by Tim Peake

Oops another astronaut biography in my top reads. I was sceptical about this book when I heard it being announced, it seemed a little but like Peake was milking his fame for a book that wouldn't be very personal at all. However he was very clever and instead of it just being a book full questions about space sent in via Twitter Peake has produced a simple autobiography of his astronaut career using the questions provided by the public as the starting off point. The book can be read by his young fans but has enough technical detail to make it a great addition to my space shelf.

Apologies for the lateness of this October post - computer problems delayed publication.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Meeting a space legend in Norwich

Helen Sharman at the Norwich Science Festival, Norwich Cathedral. October 2017.

Having had a hint of what a great speaker Helen Sharman is at the recent New Scientist Live event I was very excited about this event, and it was heart warming to see that the people of Norwich, Norfolk and far beyond also felt the same.  Norwich Cathedral's main space was full the on the afternoon of Dr Sharman's talk.

Dr Sharman spoke for 45 minutes about her career as a scientist and her time as an astronaut, and this was a brilliant talk taking a different tack than many of the other space talks that I've heard - this one was very much about the science involved.

This wasn't just about the science Dr Sharman undertook in space (more of this later) but about the importance of science in getting to space, in surviving in space and also how science will let us explore further in space.  Linking everything back in this was really inspiring and gave a real insight into how earth based science really does have implications for space.

The parts I found most interesting however was when Dr Sharman talked about the experiments she undertook on MIR regarding plants and seeds. Although she was only there for 8 days it was enough time to see how roots grow and seeds germinate. All well and good and at this point it looked like growing food in space would be possible. Indeed I thought that this was the case as we've seen astronauts on ISS grow lettuce and flowers.  I didn't know that as yet it hasn't proved possibly to actually grow fruit or vegetables, and that as yet no one is actually sure why, although there are theories.  This inability to produce food has great implications for long duration missions to other planets where regular resupply deliveries won't be possible.

After a great question and answer session, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I were lucky enough to have the chance to meet Dr Sharman and talk with her for a few minutes.  I had another question about the science she undertook on MIR as I was interested if she'd seen practical applications of any of her experiments back here on earth. I wasn't aware that due to the nature of her mission (and the lack of money) she wasn't able to take her 'own' experiments and was just helping the Russians with theirs.

This was a wonderful afternoon, and although the cathedral was packed and we were very much in the middle of the audience the great PA system and large screens relaying the talk meant that we didn't miss a thing. Here's hoping Norwich starts to get the same reputation as Pontefract for welcoming astronauts and we become a regular stopping off place for space travellers!

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Theatre 2017: Review Thirty-one - Fantasia Live

Fantasia Live in Concert, The Royal Albert Hall, London. October 2017.

Delayed gratification appears to be a thing in our family as this was actually my nephew's birthday present and he's waited patiently since June for this to come around!

My sister and I saw a previous version of this back in 2012 and so knew we were in for a treat and it didn't disappoint.  Wonderful music and scenes from these beautiful films - what more can you ask for.

Once more the responses from the audience added to the magic and I think pretty much the whole Albert Hall jumped at the volcano in the scene set to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite.  It wasn't until afterwards that we realised how different to before this show was - with over half the programme coming from the newer Fantasia 2000 film.

My personal favourites were all included and so I was very happy, and from the applause I think that my nephew, sister & husband felt the same!  For me there really is something special about live music and live music in the splendour of the Royal Albert Hall is even more special!

Our only small quibble with the experience is that there was no programme and we do all really like one of these as a souvenir.