Hello dear friends,
I love my bookshelf so much. Floor to ceiling, books lined two deep on the shelves and piled up on top of the neat rows when I ran out of space. Full to bursting. My whole childhood and teen years are ensconced on that shelf, before social media and youtube and TV to quickly and easily distract me like fast food. And it’s not just books on there – the top shelf is home to a little print of Istanbul, and the next shelf to some of my own paintings, and below that photos of my niece, and below that a few knick-knacks – a Matilda mug, a mug with bees on it, a little doll’s house piano – they’re all mementos of my life, little things that make me happy, and it’s me.
This year (2019) I made a conscious effort – particularly in the second half – to read more. Reading makes me really happy. Scrolling through facebook is quick, easy, junk entertainment, but it doesn’t leave me feeling fulfilled or sated. I must read thousands of articles, blog posts, opinion pieces, but how much do I retain? I feel so trapped by my own habits.
Two years ago I went abroad and left the phone, internet, even electricity and water, behind. But there was a bookshelf. I read 34 books in six months despite a crazy job and no light at night.
Old habits – or rather, intermediary habits – have since crept back in, but I’m trying to keep the magic of reading. 2019 brought me 24 books and I’m going to review them now, see if you find any ideas. In the order that I read them:
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris. 7/10
This book told a heartrending, desperate and emotional love story in the most sanitised, prosaic way possible. 11/10 for the story. 3/10 for the writing. Worth it.
The White Queen, Philippa Gregory. 6/10
Not one of Gregory’s best, I feel. I was pretty invested at the start but got decreasingly so through the book to the point that I can’t remember the end because I was just trying to get done. But I love history and mostly it’s told really well. Basically there’s just a lot of it.
How Did We Get Into This Mess, George Monbiot. 10/10 and more
If you’re interested in the climate, the environment, science, politics, history, economics, society, nature writing, issues like vegetarianism or population or plastics (any single one of the above, and especially how they interact), you will love this. I felt a true passion and awakening from this book. I need the whole world to read it.
The Serial Killers, Colin Wilson & Donald Seaman. 6.5/10
Creepiest damn book I ever read and it’s all true. There are some fucknuts in the world. It’s a psychological sort of profile of things serial killers have in common, reasoning (or lack of), and worst of all, case studies. it’s terrifying. But it’s written pretty dryly.
Lamentations, Katherine Wright. 8/10
I’m very lucky to count this on my list being as it’s unpublished, but I’ve no doubt it will be one day. A rollercoaster into a pit of religion and warped psychology, searing the dark underbelly of motive and reward, and how you sanction what is ordained by God. Think the Kardashians meets religious fervour. Possibly. I’ve never seen the Kardashians. But that’s the idea.
The New Moon With The Old, Dodie Smith. 4/10
Disappointing. I Capture The Castle is possibly my favourite book ever; I found other works of Smith’s online and treated myself (I will just insert a note here; most books are bought for me as presents or lent to me, or I buy them in charity shops. Some places online you can get books for a penny plus postage. Fresh reading is an expensive and usually unnecessary habit). This one did not live up to expectations and I wouldn’t recommend it. A bunch of nice but spoiled kids live in a house, their criminal dad disappears, and through a series of unlikely and ridiculous events they all find rich benefactors, everything is fine, and no lessons are learnt. The end.
This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein. 10/10
And more again probably. Also one of the best books I’ve ever read, and shows you how we came to create a society which relies on the destruction of itself. All the twisted little interdependent avenues of filthy rich political elite and the death of the world. Read.
Last Chance To See, Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine. 10/10
I had the honour of meeting Mark Cawardine this year. Legend. Lovely guy. I also re-read this book on a plane next to my mate Katherine (of Lamentations) and couldn’t stop giggling. She said ‘Watching you read it is the best advert this book could have.’ I love it – a serious, sad subject told with all the hilarity of fieldwork, unpreparedness and cultural misunderstandings.
Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, author unknown. 8/10
I enjoyed this children’s book a surprising amount and even being from Robin’s neck of the woods, knew surprisingly few of the stories. It was a very old version, very cute.
Bloody Jack, L.A. Meyer. 8/10
A YA fiction, and a re-read. I love a re-read. This is the first of, I think, twelve books. I love them all. It follows a super-smart, kick-ass girl in 1803 (ish). She dresses as a boy and joins the Navy. She has amazing depth of character and overcomes a lot of adversity on the way, but there’s no straight happy ending… hence the many other books. Love it. She had quite an impact on me growing up, and I enjoyed it just as much as an adult.
Living Dangerously, Ranulph Fiennes. 8/10
It takes something for a man to come across as a prick in his own autobiography, but Fiennes achieves this. I wouldn’t want to be his friend and I feel very sorry for his wife. However, you can’t fault his fucking incredible and absolutely insane adventures, or his retelling of them. A good read.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway. 4/10
I give books a score as I note the title and author. This is good because although I only read it three months ago, I remember very little about it. It’s a book of short stories but I felt they were stilted. I certainly wasn’t invested in any of them and I get the impression Hemingway wasn’t particularly, either.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie. 10/10
Can’t go wrong with an Agatha Christie. I never guess ’em. Very much enjoyed. No spoilers.
Fundamentals of Soil Ecology, Coleman and Crossley. 7/10*
*As far as scientific writing goes. If you’re after entertainment, look elsewhere, but this book managed to hold my interest. Soil is some good shit. Literally.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, Stuart Turton. 8.5/10
Hm. A puzzler. I started this book and got bored. It was all mystery and I felt like it was purposeless, not intriguing. It was too much to be bothered with and after several chapters of the same character I couldn’t see where it was going and it was annoying me. I put it down and left it for months. Then I picked it up again and it suddenly got into gear, heading off in some interesting directions, and what really struck me was the excellent writing, completely new and unique metaphors and similes, and I felt like I was standing in each of those bodies when he first awoke. And then when the circle closed I found I had actually really enjoyed it. So give it a chance, and you will be rewarded.
The Witches, Roald Dahl. 9/10
When I come home (to my parents’ house) I often pick up a children’s book for old times’ sake. I picked this one up because I’d read an article the day before on scary characters in children’s books and that illustration of the Grand High Witch came back to me. I opened the book to see if it was as scary as I remembered and holy shit yes it is close your eyes. So I re-read the book and again, enjoyed it just as much as a grown-up. You find new corners as a grown-up.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. 8/10
You absolutely see where it’s going but somehow it doesn’t spoil it. The characters are all rounded and you care about all of them. And it’s real (ish) history and opens a door most British people have never noticed.
Chocolat, Joanne Harris. 10/10
Oh dear, another re-read, but I swear they are just as valuable; you take new angles in a re-read, notice new things, delve a bit deeper into the flavour than you can when you’re ripping through the first time just desperate to know what happens. You can savour it… like chocolat. This is a beautiful book with the classic good vs evil reframed in a modern but old scene, battles of wills, scrying in smoke and steam. Mother/daughter, crime and punishment, friendships, sex, God, sin, good and evil, magic and sense. It also has a splendid sequel called The Lollipop Shoes that no-one seems to have heard of but which is brilliant.
Soil Processes, Brian Knapp. 5/10*
*Very dull even for science writing, but useful. On this list mainly because a) I did read it and b) that’s an achievement in itself. Not recommended unless you’re doing soil biology in which case, knock yourself out.
Soil Carbon Dynamics: An Integrated Methodology, Kutsch, Bahn and Heinemeyer. 4/10*
*Once more, I ain’t here to recommend this. But I bloody read it (I only included proper books, not papers). Drier than sub-Saharan soil, but useful (to me. I’ve had it out the library and no-one else has requested it in four months, put it that way).
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchel. 9/10
Thankfully back on stable ground (haha). Again, took a while to be sure of this one. And at the end of the first part I was like NO!! – a feeling which headbutted me at every damn interruption/switch – but the boomerang returns. Thoroughly enjoyed. The creative design is astonishing. I’ve never seen the film but it’d be interesting if only to see how the hell you can translate that to screen.
This Is Going To Hurt, Adam Kay. 9/10
This is a hilarious cry for help. Every British person needs to read this. Our beloved institution is creaking and the people who are holding it together are like frayed rope, overworked, overstretched, and giving huge personal sacrifice. Also: people are idiots.
And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie. 9/10
ARGH Agatha, dear Agatha, so aggravating and such GENIUS. I once more didn’t see the bloody opening!! But that’s the key to her brilliance. When the curtain falls you’re like DAMMIT how did I not see it?!
Face It, Debbie Harry. 7.5/10
Gosh, this. Halfway through it, I had such a vivid dream about living in the steamy punk underground of 1970s semi-slum New York. It’s so recent and so ingrained in culture and yet now a fairy tale, killed off by gentrification, living history erased. She takes you back there to the filthy alleys and bedsits and drug dens and underground clubs and the heady rush of creativity and frustration and anger and this upwelling of freshness and dirt and rebellion. She lived an absolutely crazy life. I feel I probably didn’t get the full impact as much as someone who lived through the seventies because she drops so many famous names who are just not in my lexicon. But I want to know all about them now, too. And I want Chris Stein’s book Negative. (I am a massive Blondie fan, btw; if you’re not, you might not like this as much, although I’m pretty sure everyone could get something from this book). I was left a bit frustrated with what seemed to me huge omissions – why did she and Chris break up? She skips over that with alarming speed! Literally the end of a very intense 13-year relationship comes with the line (approximately), talking about the death of a friend, ‘It was even worse because that morning Chris and I had broken up’ and THAT’S IT. She also talks about her drug addictions openly over the early years – but never talks about giving them up, and I imagined that would be a pretty huge thing to write about. Is 75-year-old Debbie still a smackhead? Who knows. But I did love it. Vivid.
That’s it, that’s all my book reviews for 2019. I think I’ll make this an end-of-year tradition.
Enjoy some good books!
In Other News: Mum
I must have funnier things than this but it happened yesterday so it’s fresh.
I was thrashing my mum at Scrabble (we’re cool) and I played ‘chi’ and she was all ‘Hey that’s not a word’, I said yes it is, it’s life force or summat.
She then tried to play ‘ugg’ and I was like Whoa whoa whoa there. She’s like “You played bloody ‘chi’!” So I pulled up a dictionary on my phone, and ‘chi’ was there (letter of the Greek alphabet or Chinese life energy, you’re welcome for next time you’re playing) and she huffed and then I searched ‘ugg’ and obviously, no results because it’s bollocks.
I was like TAKE IT OFF hehehehe.
And she says to me in a really small voice, “You’re so meeean. I gave you everything.”
I started laughing and she continued petulantly, “I gave you life.”
Honestly it was the funniest thing, and eventually she laughed at herself too. I beat her 340-260 thereabouts.