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The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is one of my favourite literary awards. Not just because it highlights books written by women (although, for the record, I think that is both awesome and still very much needed), but because I’ve always found that the books chosen most closely mirror my own reading tastes. Strong plots and characterisation, literary without being too abstract, books grounded in the everyday experience. The release of the longlist is like getting a selection on twelve books picked for me by a friend.
The 2017 list is, for me, the strongest in a while. I can genuinely say there wasn’t a book on the longlist that didn’t intrigue me. Although I’ll admit Annie Proulx’s doorstop ‘Barkskins‘ gave me pause for thought – a book has to be really good for me to make room in my TBR for over 700 pages! And I did struggle with Eimear McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing‘, due to the stream of consciousness narrative – although that’s probably because when I read it, I wasn’t in a position to give the book the attention it deserved. Maybe I’ll give her another try with ‘The Lesser Bohemians‘. I also worry that ‘First Love‘ might be little on the literary side for me so I’d be interested to know what anyone who has read it thinks.

Do Not Say We Have NothingBefore the list was announced I had already read (and reviewed) the brilliant ‘The Essex Serpent‘ and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hag-Seed‘ (also reviewed) and enjoyed both of them immensely. Neither made the shortlist in the end which I felt was a shame – although I like to think maybe this is because the shortlisted books are just that good!

The Gustav Sonata‘ has been on my TBR shelf for a while and ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing‘ was a book I purchased following its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist last year, so that definitely needs to get read soon. The others were, for the most part, completely new to me – which is one of my favourite things about the prize.

My awesome local library had a copy of ‘The Sport of Kings‘ – another doorstop (545 pages) – which is about a horse-racing dynasty. Not my usual fare but if a novel is capable of getting Simon Savidge (who famously does not enjoy books about horses) to enjoy a horse-racing book, I’m game! Simon also got me excited about ‘The Lonely Hearts Hotel‘ after raving about it on Twitter and Booktube. I’ve also seen lots of buzz surrounding Emma Flint’s ‘Little Deaths‘, based on the true story of a woman accused of murdering her children and subsequently tried on the basis of her life choices. It’s been compared to Sarah Waters and Megan Abbot on Goodreads, which has me sold.

MidwinterAnd out of the rest of the runners and riders, ‘Stay With Me‘ probably appeals to me the most with its whispers of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie style tale set in 1980s Nigeria. And ‘Midwinter‘ gets kudos for having a fox on the cover. Because foxes. Seriously though, novels about father and son relationships are relatively few and far between so that sounds interesting. I wonder if ‘The Mare‘ has probably lost out on a bit of publicity to ‘The Sport of Kings’? Two books ostensibly about horse riding on one prize list and all that – but I think the clash of cultures premise sounds really interesting as long as its done with delicacy. ‘The Woman Next Door‘ seems to have been similarly overlooked in the press – I’ve heard less ‘buzz’ about it than some of the other titles – maybe because it sounds quite comic? Again, if anyone has read either of these, I’d be interested to know your thoughts. 

The Dark CircleSince the longlist was announced I have borrowed and read Linda Grant’s ‘The Dark Circle‘, my first encounter with this author. I really enjoyed the book, which is about twins who are send to a sanatorium after being diagnosed with TB. Like many of my favourite novels, it combines strong characters with some interesting history (in this instance about the founding years of the NHS) that, despite not being heavy on plot, managed to captivate me entirely. Finishing it resulted in my first book hangover for a while. I was really pleased to see its inclusion on the shortlist. It’s the only one of the six that I’ve finished so far, so I can’t say whether I feel it will win – only that it would be a worthy winner if it does. 

The PowerI’m now reading Naomi Alderman’s ‘The Power‘, another shortlisted title, although I’m having a few issues with it. The concept – young women suddenly acquire the ability to emit an electrical charge from their bodies – is certainly interesting. But I’m struggling to connect with any of the narrators (there’s four of them) and, whilst I’m getting all those ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ vibes from the premise, the book just isn’t quite getting there for me at the moment. I’m only a third of the way through though so it’s early days – I’m certainly intrigued enough to persevere.

All in all however, The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction certainly promises to have my reading life wrapped up for a good few weeks! and I’ll be really excited to discover the eventual winner for 2017. I’d love to know if any of you follow the prize and have picked up a book as a result – or maybe you prefer The Man Booker, the Costa Book Awards or a specialist prize such as The Wainwright Prize? As always, please have a chat in the comments below or say hi over on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links in the sidebar). And, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x 

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REVIEW: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingIt is, in my humble opinion, extremely rare to come across a novel that is too short. So it’s a pleasant surprise to come across a novel that, if anything, I could have spent considerably more time with.

Homegoing‘ by Yaa Gyasi is an ambitious literary debut that has, quite rightly, received plenty of praise and a good deal of hype both here in the UK and over the pond in the US. Set in both the US and Ghana, the novel traces seven generations of a family, starting in the eighteenth-century and moving through the years to the present day.  It’s a mammoth subject – three hundred years across two continents – a little too large, I think, the be contained within a relatively slender three hundred pages. Which is not to say that ‘Homegoing’ is not an extremely impressive and accomplished debut, because it most certainly is. It’s just that, having finished it, I was left wanting more depth in some areas. 

The novel opens with half-sisters Esi and Effia. Born into different villages by different mothers in eighteenth-century Ghana, Effia is married to an English slave-trader and lives in comfort in Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to her, Esi is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, ready to be shipped from the Gold Coast to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised as slaves on the cotton plantations of the South. From these opening chapters, rich with description of Ghanaian life and the complex relationships between the Asante and Fante tribespeople, we follow the two threads as Effia’s descendants face civil war and British colonisation whilst Esi’s children become embroiled in tumultuous founding of the USA. These opening chapters are a joy to read, brimming with visceral historical detail and a sense of place:

“On her fourteenth birthday, she was in the heart of Asanteland, in her father’s. Big Man’s. compound/ He was the best warrior in the village, so everyone had come to pay their respects to the daughter who grew more beautiful with each passing day. Kwasi Nnuro bought sixty yams. More yams than any other suitor had bought before. Esi would have married him in the summer, when the sun stretched long and high, when the palm trees could be tapped for wine, climbed by the spriest children, with their arms holding the trunk in a hug as they shinnied to the top to pluck the fruits that waited there.”

After a couple of generations however, the chapters seem to speed up and the second half of the book occasionally felt like a sprint to the finish and with less of the lyricism that, for me, gave the first half it’s immediacy. This seemed especially true of the chapters dealing with Effia’s descendants in Ghana, which was a great shame as I was eager to learn more about the relationship between the Asante and Fante tribes, and the history of slavery on the Gold Coast. 

Whilst I appreciate that Yaa Gyasi is giving us a snapshot of each character’s life and, in doing so, painting a larger portrait about history, race and identity, some of the later characters felt a little thin as a result. This was, for me, especially true of the final chapters in which Gyasi is bringing together the many threads she has woven into her narrative and, in characters Marjorie and Marcus’ struggles with identity and heritage, I think she wanted the reader to see the forces that had shaped their respective family destinies and, as such, their places within both America and Ghana. 

“Instinctively, Marjorie raised her hand to the necklace […] It had belonged to Old Lady and to Abena before her, and to James, and Quey and Effia the Beauty before that. It had begun with Maame, the woman who had set the great fire. Her father had told her that the necklace was part of their family history and she was never to take it off, never give it away. Now it reflected the ocean water before them, gold waves shimmering in the black stone.”

Because of the brevity of their narratives and some of those proceeding them however, I felt as if Marjorie and Marcus were touchstones for these themes rather than characters in their own right. In a book that is otherwise so accomplished and nuanced, the ending felt rushed and a little convenient. In a story of this scope there are always going to be gaps but, at the end, I felt that the characters slipped between these, forever just out of the reach of the reader. 

In the grand scheme of the whole novel however, this is a minor criticism and certainly not one worth dismissing such a wonderful reading experience for. Overall, ‘Homegoing’ is a fabulous read, breathtaking in scope and brimming with emotional force and exquisite language. As a debut novel it is extremely impressive, balancing intimate portrayals of individual lives against the epic struggles of nationhood and identity. As I said at the beginning of this review, I could have spent a lot more time with this book – and that is a rarity indeed! 

Homegoing‘ by Yaa Gyasi is published by Viking and is available now in hardback, e-book and audio from all good bookstores. 

If you’re thinking of buying a copy, why not support your local high street or indie bookstore, which you can find at http://www.booksellers.org.uk/bookshopsearch, or over at http://indiebookshopweek.org.uk/Find-Your-Indie/Find-Local-Bookshop. Go on, show your local bookshop some love! x
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REVIEW: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

When I picked up Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End‘, which has since gone on to be the overall winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2017, I wasn’t sure what I would be getting. Praised as a historical novel, the book had also received a lot of press for its portrayal of a gay relationship and Barry is an author know for his lyrical prose style. Having never read Barry before, I didn’t know his writing – overly lyrical ‘literary’ titles sometimes fail to make my wheelhouse – but I’ve always found books set in the early days of the American West fascinating and I was interested to see how the author would introduce a realistic LGBT element within this setting.  

I have to say that, having now finished the book, I was completely blown away by it. The novel is extremely well-written with lush prose, fully-realised characters, a real sense of time and place and – to top it all off – a gentle, tender portrayal of love and family amidst the tumultuous Civil War period.

The novel introduces us to Thomas McNulty, an Irish emigrant orphaned young who has travelled to America for a fresh start. Here he meets John Cole, another young drifter, and they begin a short-lived career as ‘young ladies’, dressing up in a saloon so that miners may dance with them and forget their lonely lives. As they enter adulthood and their true gender becomes more evident, the two sign up for the US Army and, aged barely seventeen are thrust into first the Indian Wars and, eventually, the blood and fire of the American Civil War. When Winona, a young Indian girl, crosses their path, Thomas and John find their lives both enriched and imperilled.
 
The novel is more bloody and yet more beautiful than I was anticipating. Barry does not shy away from the realities of war and our ‘heroes’ take part in more than their fair share of killing. More than one outright massacre of Native American villagers takes place during the course of the book and it does not make for easy reading. What holds the book together in these sections is the power and integrity of Barry’s voice – or rather the clear-headed, surprisingly perceptive narrative of the uneducated Thomas: 

“Indians look very puzzled, surprised and offended to be shot but they go to the wall with noble mien I must allow. You can’t have nothing good in war without you punishing the guilty, the sergeant says with a savage air and no one says nothing against that. John Cole whispers to me that most times that sergeant he just wrong but just now and then he’s right and he’s right this time. 
I guess I’m thinking this is true.”

Thomas’ voice, which has a unique blend of naivete and wisdom, was the key to this novel for me. If it hadn’t been for the sheer power of the voice – the sense of reading someone’s memoirs as opposed to reading a narrative – then I think I might have found the violence too bloody, too senseless and without any sense of redemption. And yes, I know that war is bloody, senseless and often without redemption in actuality but I don’t necessarily want to read that in my downtime. So the fact that Barry uses the voice to confront the savage nature of war without losing the book to brutality was, for me, on of the strongest points of the novel.

Thomas’ voice also kept me going when the plot veered towards the implausible, namely the numerous interludes when Thomas and John resume their entertainment career, with Thomas acting the lady to John’s ‘beau’. I may be wrong but I can’t quite believe that mid-Western society was quite as au fait with the bending of gender norms as this novel at times makes out. And I fail to believe that even the most short-sighted of priests wouldn’t spot a thirty-year old man in a wedding dress, however effeminate his facial features and clean-shaven he happened to be.

That said, I thought the love story very well handled. Thomas and John have a gentle, understated love for each other that just is. It was so refreshing to read a novel that doesn’t make a big deal of a same-sex romance – there’s no dramatic moment when the two realise they’re in love, no staggering guilt about what happens. They are friends, then they are comrades, then they are lovers, then they are family. Just like that. It was beautifully done and the sense of family and unity that Barry creates between Thomas, John, Winona and their friends stays on just the right side of sweet without veering into saccharine

Overall, I loved this book. The plot is a little loose and meandering at times and it does have one or two implausible moments, but that failed to break the spell when I was reading it and I remained drawn in by the power of the voice and the sense of place and time that Barry has crafted. Some may argue that Thomas’ voice itself if implausible – would an uneducated Irish orphan be capable of such poetry? I guess that one has to assume that education has nothing to do with the soul and, if nothing else, you get a real sense that this narrative comes from the soul’s very depths. 

“Things go on. A lot of life is like that. I look back over 50 years of life and I wonder where the years went. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands.Can’t do much about that. 
We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.
I ain’t got no argument with it, just saying it is so.”

Days Without End‘ by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber and is now available in paperback, ebook and audiobook from all good retailers
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Catch-Up Time!

The Good ImmigrantGosh, time seems to have run away from me again. One moment it was #Diverseathon and the next, that week and another have flown by and I’ve not updated my blog! I also don’t seem to have read many books in the intervening period, although this is because I’m currently in a bit of butterfly mood so am in the middle of about six. As such, I thought that it might be best to have a bit of a catch-up post rather than a review or a wrap-up and to tell you a little about what I’m currently reading and my thoughts on them so far. So go grab yourself a cuppa and let’s settle down for a chat!

During #Diverseathon I did start ‘The Good Immigrant‘, the essay collection by twenty-one BAME authors writing about life in Britain today, which is edited by Nikesh Shukla. I prefer to dip into and out of essay collections because I like time to reflect on each essay before starting the next. So far I’ve read about six or seven in this collection and have found each one to be thought-provoking and challenging. The topics covered so far have ranged from the misappropriation of language through to the narrow populist definition of ‘Asian’ culture. Whilst I haven’t agreed with everything said by the respective writers, each essay has been well-argued and really conveys the feelings of the writer about their role as a person of colour within modern Britain and the challenges that they face as a result. Definitely a very timely book, this is one that I am going to continue dipping into as the months go on. 

I’ve also pledged to assist in the crowd-funding of a new essay collection, co-edited by Nikesh Shukla, called ‘Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youth‘, which will feature contributions from twenty writers under twenty-five. It sounds really interesting – I might no longer be under twenty-five myself but I remember twenty-year-old student me being astounded that the ‘young, up and coming’ writers referred to on my courses were very often in their thirties and forties! And given that so many newspaper articles talk about the struggles facing ‘the youth of today’ but very few seem to feature comment from the ‘youth’ in question, I think this sounds like another much needed collection. 

Books For LivingAlso on the non-fiction front, I’ve been dipping into Will Schwalbe’s ‘Books for Living‘. Subtitled ‘A Reader’s Guide to Life’, this literary memoir is an affectionate look at the books that have helped to shape Will Schwalbe’s life and the lessons they’ve taught him along the way. I found Will’s first book, ‘The End of Your Life Book Club‘, about the books that Will shared with his mother whilst she was undergoing cancer treatment, to be both gently inspiring and sensitively emotional and I really engage with his writing. I’m enjoying ‘Books for Living’ so far but have had to put it down for a few days to crack on with two fiction books that I really need to get finished. 

The Ashes of LondonThe first of these is ‘The Ashes of London‘ by Andrew Taylor, a historical novel set during the aftermath of (you guessed it!) The Great Fire of London, which is my real-life book club’s pick for this month. Alternating between the viewpoint of a young clerk investigating a series of grisly murders and that of a runaway girl determined to find her father, this has got me gripped after a somewhat slow start. I’ve not made enough progress to make the connections in the plot just yet (chances of me finishing before book club later this week? Zero to none…) but I’m intrigued enough to keep reading as, 100 pages in, the pace has really quickened and the characters are coming into their own.

Days Without EndI’m also right at the end of ‘Days Without End‘ by Sebastian Barry, which I picked up during #Diverseathon and have been slowly savouring each night before bed. I won’t say too much about the book here because I’m going to do a full review when I’ve finished – suffice to say however that I’ve absolutely adored it. I was about halfway through when it was announced that the novel had won the Costa Book Award 2017, a well-deserved accolade but one that does mean my library copy is now very much in demand, hence the race to finish it before the due date!
Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery, and Arsenic
Last, but by no means least, I’m also listening to a book on audio – Kate Colquhoun’s ‘Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Arsenic and Adultery‘. I generally prefer to listen to non-fiction on audio and very much enjoyed Colquhoun’s ‘Mr Brigg’s Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder‘ when I borrowed the CDs from the library back in the days before Audible became a thing. Narrative non-fiction, especially combined with another of my favourite genres – crime, is a particular favourite and Maggie Mash does a great job of narrating this tale of Southern belle Florence Maybrick, trapped in an increasingly suffocating marriage, who stands trial for the apparent poisoning of her husband James. I’ve only got a couple of hours left to listen to and I still can’t say for certain whether I think Florence is innocent, or if I can guess how the jury will decide. Thanks go to +SavidgeReads for this particular recommendation as I saw the book during one of his recent unboxing videos – I wouldn’t have even know it existed otherwise. 

So that’s my ‘Currently Reading’ pile as it stands at the moment. If you’ve read any of them – or are in the process of doing so – please do let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter/Litsy/Goodreads. As always, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading recently and if you have any recommendations for me. And, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x
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#Diverseathon 2017!

DiverseAThonToday I am embarking on my second ‘proper’ readathon. Emboldened by the success of my participation in Deweys 24-hour Readathon last year (read all about it here), which I felt was not only very enjoyable but also really focused my reading over the 24 hours I took part, I wanted to take part in something longer and have a go at a week-long readathon. 

#Diverseathon, which runs from today (Jan 22) until Sunday (Jan 29) was started in the autumn of 2016 as a response to a video which claimed that diversity in books didn’t matter. It is, therefore, a week long readathon that celebrates diversity and representation in books, be that BAME representation, disability and deformity representation or LGBTQ++ representation. I heard about #Diverseathon via blogger and Booktuber Simon Savidge, one of the hosts of this month’s readathon, who put up great video about #Diverseathon 2.0 along with his planned TBR for the week. Blogger Sophia Khan has also done a brilliant guest post over at Book Riot that explains more about #Diverseathon’s history and aims, as well as reasons you might want to consider participating yourself.  

The concept of #Diverseathon appeals to me because, if I’m being honest, my reading can be really narrow at times. As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual woman living in the UK I have very little experience of being in the minority. And whilst I consider myself to be a supporter of equality in all its forms, I’m ashamed of how much my reading life reflects only my own lived experience. Looking at my shelves, there’s a lot of white, European centred literature on there. This wasn’t a conscious choice by any means but I find it telling and I want to do something about it. #Diverseathon is an opportunity to do this and to do it alongside others who I can share with and learn from. Plus I hopefully get to read a lot of great books too!

The Wangs vs The WorldSo, what tomes am I planning to topple during #Diverseathon? As luck would have it, I already have Jade Chang’s ‘The Wangs vs The World‘, a portrayal of a Chinese-American family in post-Lehman Brothers America; out from the library so this coming week seems like the perfect excuse to get that read. Billed as epic road-trip novel with a healthy smattering of humour, this also seems to be a book that examines the concept of the American dream as well as the differences between the first and second generation immigrant experience.

AmericanahSimilarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed ‘Americanah‘ has been on my TBR list for an absolute age. The novel, which examines the lives of teenage sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze as they leave Nigeria to forge their lives in America and London respectively, is meant to be an unflinching exploration of race and identity. Adichie is an author whose fiction I’ve long been meaning to read so I really hope to get round to this one during the next week.

HomegoingAnother TBR book I’ve been itching to read but not yet got around to is Yaa Gyasi’s debut ‘Homegoing‘. Released amid a good deal of  buzz this month in the UK, the novel has already garnered critical and reader acclaim in the USA. The story of two half-sisters, Efia and Esi, born in eighteenth century Ghana, one of whom is married off to an Englishman and the other who is sold into slavery in the New World, the novel follows their descendants in both Ghana and America through to the present day. I freely admit to knowing very little about the key moments in the history of the civil rights movement in the US and nothing at all about the history of Ghana so I’m hoping this novel will enlighten me on both points.
My Name is Leon
Moving across the Atlantic to English shores, Kit De Waal’s ‘My Name is Leon‘ has been recommended to me by a number of friends. Set in  the early eighties, the book tells the story of two brothers, 9 year old Leon and baby Jake, who are placed into foster care and threatened with separation because Jake is white and Leon is not. Beyond that, I don’t know very much about the book but it’s rare to find a book that examines the foster care system, let alone the tricky issues surrounding race and identity within this. In an era where blended families of many types are becoming increasingly common, this seems like an important and timely novel.  

The Good ImmigrantLast, but by no means least, some non-fiction in the form of ‘The Good Immigrant‘, edited by Nikesh Shulka. Subtitled ’21 Writers Explore What It Means To Be Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic In Britain Today’, this is a collection of essays by modern British writers that examines the charged issue of immigration in the UK and invites discussion around societal attitudes towards immigration and race. How does it feel the be constantly regarded as a terror threat? How does it feel to be told to ‘go home’ to India when you live in London? How does it always feel to tick the box on the form marked ‘Other’? Can you only be a ‘good’ immigrant if you win a national baking contest or an Olympic medal? Challenging times need people to ask questions such as these so I’m looking forward to dipping into this selection during the course of the week.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that I’m going to read 4 novels and an entire essay collection in the space of 7 short days (especially as one of those days is already nearly over with nary a page yet read!) but I feel this list gives me some really good options for the week ahead and I’d like to try and finish at least one of the novels, as well as making a good dent into the essays. I’ll be posting updates on Twitter throughout the week @amyinstaffs and am hoping to take part in some of the Twitter chats being hosted by @diverseathon also. If you’re planning to join me, please do say hi – leave me a comment down below or come find me on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links in the sidebar). And, until the next time…

Happy Reading x
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REVIEW: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentIf the first book that one reads in a year is an indication of what’s to come, then 2017 should be a corker. Sarah Perry’s ‘The Essex Serpent‘, which I had the pleasure of finishing earlier this week, is a beautifully written, skillfully paced novel that contains all facets of life within it’s pages. 

Set in the 1890s and moving between the oppressive streets of Victorian London and the desolate marshes of the Essex village of Aldwinter ‘The Essex Serpent’ is, at its heart, a novel about the meeting of two minds and a shared kinship too complex to define merely as love. For Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist, recently widowed and relishing freedom from an oppressive marriage; news that the mythical Essex Serpent may once again be abroad provide her with chance to test her skills in the pursuit of a new species. For William Ransome, vicar of Aldwinter, rumours of the beast bring only moral panic and uncertainty and a deviation from the certainties of faith. As Cora and her band of faithful followers descend on Aldwinter, she and Will discover a connection unlike any other as they are inexorably drawn together and torn apart. 

It is safe to say I adored this novel, although I have to admit to not being initially convinced as to its merits. For the first 50 pages or so, I felt there were too many characters, all apparently with only the flimsiest connection between them, and that the novel lacked a driving force behind the plot. The sheer quality of the writing kept me reading, with Perry’s luscious prose bringing Victorian England vividly to life, painting pictures with words that allowed me to imagine the grimy slums of the London slums, the stifling atmosphere of a house in mourning and the clear, sparse beauty of the Essex salt marshes. Before I knew it, Perry had drawn me into her world so skillfully and allowed her characters to live so vividly that the slightness of the plot itself was incidental. 

For this is not, I feel, a plot heavy novel. Which could, in less skilled hands, make reading over 400 pages a chore. What Perry does so masterfully however is to invest her effort into character and human connection. The novel lives as real lives are lived – in the small details of human interaction and the many facets of emotion that make up the lived experience of every day life. Cora, Will and those around them are bought to life with a vivacity that is to be applauded. By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew these people, even if I did not quite always understand them. From their many fine qualities to their flaws, each character lived and breathed on the page from Cora and Will themselves to more minor characters such as the gentle, charming Charles Ambrose or confused teenager Naomi Banks. 400 pages flew by when I was reading and I had to make sure I only picked up the book when I had time to devour it in gulps, so involved did I become when reading it! I even picked it up in the mornings to read for half an hour before work, a rarity for me as I usually prefer to settle down with the morning news and indulge in a second cup of tea. 

I usually like to provide some comparisons within my review to guide those readers who might still be uncertain as to whether they might enjoy it. This is difficult with ‘The Essex Serpent’ however as it is rather unlike anything else I have read. Although a historical novel, to say only fans of historical novels would enjoy it is to deny it readers because the human interactions within its pages feel modern and relevant to today. There is, I think, a blending of fable and reality that reminds me a little of Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful ‘The Snow Child‘, and something in the vividly sharp prose that reminds me of Cecilia Ekbäck‘s ‘Wolf Winter‘, which I read and reviewed last year and was one of my Books of the Year 2016. There’s also a level of introspection and reflection of character that reminded me of Ian McGuire’s ‘The North Water‘, another one of my favourite books of 2016. 

The Essex SerpentInstead of trying to draw comparisons, maybe all I can say in summary of ‘The Essex Serpent’ is that from friendship to desire, faith to scepticism via love in all its many complicated forms, this is a novel whose characters feel real and that will make the reader feel deeply and therefore I urge you to read it. Until next time….

Happy Reading!

x

The Essex Serpent‘ is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available now from all good booksellers. 

NB: The novel has recently been awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year for (2016) – and has been reissued with a gorgeous blue cover for the occasion (see above) and was also  nominee for the Costa Book Award (2016).  

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Reading Resolutions 2017

Yes, it’s that time of year again. A new year brings with it new challenges but, alongside the vow to eat more greens and get to the gym three times a week(always made, rarely achieved!), I’ve been re-evaluating my reading life and working out what I want to get from my reading in 2017 and how this blog will fit into that. 

I spent a lot of 2016 feeling like I ‘had’ to read certain things. In an effort to grow and develop this blog, I took every opportunity that I could to obtain proofs, review to deadline and be as good a little book blogger as possible. And whilst I am very grateful to have read some great stuff as a result, it has led to me becoming bogged down in reading ‘to order’. And when you have a day job, there’s nothing worse than the thing you do for fun becoming a second job. It takes all the fun out of not only blogging but also reading. I feel it really affected me in 2016 and I intend to make sure it doesn’t happen this year. 

So whilst I’m not going to go completely cold-turkey on proof requests and reviews in 2017, I do need to accept my limitations on how much I can read at any one time. Going forwards, I’m not going to be making promises about when I’ll review a specific book. All I can say is, if I request a book; it’s because I intend to read it at some point. Which might not be immediately. This will probably result in me receiving less proofs but all I can say is that I’d rather read a book in a positive, ‘want to’ frame of mind than feeling like it’s a chore. I didn’t start this blog to turn it into a second job – I have one of those already – I started it to have fun and share my love of good books and the best way I feel I can do that is to read what I want, when I want. 

My other reading goals this year are a little more targeted. As always, I’ve set myself a Goodreads challenge and am aiming to read 60 books in 2017. This is deliberately lower than last year’s target (75 books) because, as per the above, I want to cut myself some slack and stop feeling like I have to read if I’m not in the mood. So I’ve selected a figure that feels challenging but do-able.

I also want to continue to read more diversely. To this end, I’m going to attempt the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge, which has 24 reading challenges designed to encourage you to stretch outside your comfort zone. Categories range from ‘read a book about sports’ through to ‘read a superhero comic with a female lead’ so I’m looking forward to giving it a go. 

And last, but by no means least, I want to try and read more books that I already own this year. In 2016, I bought A LOT of books. Far more than I could possibly read. Instead of helping me reduce The Shelf of Unread Books, 2016 expanded the shelf to shelves plus a pile under the bed and a fully-stocked bedside cabinet. Meaning I own a lot of books that I want to – and fully intend to – read. So whilst I’m not going on a complete book-buying ban (because life has to have some fun), I do want to reduce the amount I buy and read more of the books I already own. A ‘one in, one out’ rule of sorts. 

So those are my reading resolutions for 2017 – let’s see what the year brings! As always, I’d love to hear from you about any bookish resolutions you’ve made for the upcoming year so please do come and say hi on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links on the right hand sidebar).Wishing you all a very happy and joyous 2017 filled with lots of amazing books and, as always…

Happy Reading! 

x


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Books Of The Year 2016

First things first, apologies for the lack of posts this month. I’ve been an extremely bad blogger and, to be completely honest, a pretty rubbish reader to. I’ve been in a real slump throughout December which has, I think, been partly to do with Christmas craziness. I’ve also been in a gaming mood more recently so have been spending most of my free time on my PS4 (it’s all Final Fantasy 15’s fault…) as opposed to with my nose stuck in a book. I was beating myself up about it a bit but then I thought, hey, you don’t have to read if you don’t want to so give yourself a break. And you know what? Once I stopped fretting about not reading, I suddenly wanted to pick up books again. Funny how things work like that sometimes.  

I have similar feelings when I review my year in reading. Over on Goodreads, I set myself the challenge of reading 75 books in 2016. As things stand today, I’ve read 66 and I think I’ll finish another one, possibly two, before December 31. So I’m a few books behind my goal. But again, I’m going to cut myself some slack on that one – reading isn’t about challenges (although they can be a great deal of fun sometimes), its about the enjoyment and relaxation you get from the words on the page. I read some really great books this year so, instead of reflecting on what I didn’t read, I wanted to write a little about the books that have stayed with me to become my Books of the Year 2016. 

Wolf WinterOne of the books that really surprised me earlier this year was Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, which I read back in January. It was a book I’d purchased on a whim and had been sitting on my shelf for a while when I picked it up but I found myself quickly gripped by this winter tale of murder and supernatural forces within a remote mountain settlement. Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the sense of place within this novel was extraordinary – you really feel the chill of the wind and the eerie loneliness of the remote homesteads. An under-rated read, especially if you’re looking for a book to curl up with in the dark months of the year. 

The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the CalifornianAnother unexpected gem was David Dyer’s The Midnight Watchwhich I was sent for review back in April. Although I will admit to having a slightly grim fascination with the tragedy of the Titanic, I’ve found many novels set around the event to be overly dramatic, often taking the form of doomed romances or high octane thrillers. So this quietly considered novel, which focuses on the crew of the ‘Californian; the ship that saw Titanic’s distress rockets and inexplicably failed to go and help the sinking liner, was a real surprise. A moving and very human tale of personal weakness and how a moment of failure can result in a lifetime of regret. 

The North WaterContinuing on a maritime theme, Ian McGuire’s The North Water was a revelation to me. When I had first had the book pressed on me by a friend, I was very much intending to let it gather dust for a couple of weeks before thanking them politely and handing it back – a novel set on a 19th century whaling ship that opens with a foul-mouthed, drunk harpooner raping a rent boy before killing a man didn’t exactly appeal. Get past the brutality and the ripe language however and there’s a complicated and brilliantly woven tale about the darkness that lives within men’s hearts played out against the stunning backdrop of an Arctic winter. Not a book for the faint-hearted and definitely one that comes with trigger warnings for pretty much everything – but still the best novel I’ve read this year. 

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global PoliticsOn the non-fiction front, a standout book for me was Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. Subtitled ‘Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics’, this lively book did exactly that. Ever wondered why no one wants to tango with the situation on the Korean Peninsula? This book will tell you. Why is Russia so determined to have a hold on the Ukraine? Look no further than here! Whilst I recognise that global politics cannot be solely explained by one thing, I really hadn’t appreciated how much physical and geographical constraints play. When you consider that all things eventually boil down on one level or another to access to resources however, a lot of what this books says makes a lot of sense. Informative, interesting and with a good dash of humour, this taught me a lot without me even realising. 

A History of Britain in 21 WomenAnother book that taught without being preachy was Jenni Murray’s A History of Britain in 21 Women, which I’ve read in the last couple of weeks. A library borrow, this was a book I was expecting to find mildly entertaining but firmly in the realms of ‘history lite’.  So I was very surprised – and rather ashamed of myself – when I started to read and discovered a passionately written, thoroughly researched and extremely interesting look at the lives of 21 women who, for better or worse, impacted the history of our island nation. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of some of Murray’s chosen ladies (Caroline Hershel, Gwen John) and knew astonishingly little about others (Fanny Burney, Constance Markievicz). Murray freely admits to a bias in her selection but, as an introduction to a more feminist view of traditional history, it was a real eye-opener and a definite encouragement to go and find out more about some of these fascinating women. 

So those were some of my favourites of 2016. They were, by no means, the only books that I have read and enjoyed this year but they are the ones that have stayed with me and that I feel haven’t necessarily had a great deal of recognition elsewhere. All of them deserve to be widely read so I’d love for you to let me know if you decide to pick any of them up. As always, you can leave me a comment here on the blog, find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Goodreads or on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. I’d love to hear about your personal favourites of 2016 so please do come say hello. 

I’ll be back soon (I promise!) with my Reading Resolutions for 2017, as well as some books I’m looking forward to tacking in the near future. Until then, have a wonderful rest of the festive period, a fabulous New Year and, as always….

Happy Reading x

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Christmas Reads

Image result for two types of people christmas memeChristmas is coming. Which means, to borrow a now much-used meme, you’ll be one of two types of people. Personally, I start out as a bit of a Theoden as I have a November birthday and no one is allowed to mention the C-word until that’s all done and dusted. Get past that and into December however, and I’m one jingle bell away from being an elf and a current away from becoming a mince pie all the way to the New Year. 

So it’s a bit surprising that I’ve never much been into Christmas reading. I mean, I read at Christmas but I’ve never gone in for Christmas-themed books in the way that I like to read a ghost story at Halloween or something set in a far-away (preferably sunny) land in the summertime. In the last couple of years this has all changed however and I’ve definitely noticed that my reading has become more ‘themed’ to the seasons, including Christmas. So, as the season of joy and goodwill to all men is nearly upon us, I thought I would share some of the books making my December/Christmas reading list this year.

Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas MysteryI do like to snuggle up with a good crime novel during the winter months – although I’m more of a classic and cosy fan than anything involving alcoholic detectives and dismembered body parts. Last year I very much enjoyed Jill McGown’s Murder at the Old Vicarage which is set during a snowy Christmas and provides a Christie-like mystery with some thoroughly un-cosy twists and turns. The novel is a bit of a forgotten gem for crime fans but has recently been re-issued by Pan Macmillan with a very pretty Christmas-themed cover and a seasonal subtitle. It’s the second book in McGown’s series of novels about Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill – although I had no trouble in picking it up without having read the first in the series.  
Mistletoe and Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, #5)
This year, Pan Macmillan are continuing the trend with Murder in Advent by David Williams, another re-issue (this time from 1985) complete with pretty snow-scene cover, which sees some sinister skulduggery going on in the cathedral town of Litchester when their proposed sale of a 1225 copy of the Magna Carta results in the murder of the verger and the burning of the ecclesiastical library. All of which sounds right up my street! I’m also going to be picking up the latest in the Wells & Wong series of YA mysteries by Robyn Young, which is entitled Mistletoe and Murder and promises to continue the series traits of sleuthing schoolgirls, ingenious plot twists and festive delights. To round off the Christmas crime, I’ve also set aside one of the British Library Crime Classics series, Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, which features a Christmas Eve train journey halted by heavy snow, a mysteriously deserted country house and a murderer in the midst. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the book, originally published in 1937, so Christmas seems a good excuse to finally indulge. 

Skipping ChristmasFor a more light-hearted read, I have been lent John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas, a slim volume that has since been turned into a film ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ and sees the erstwhile Luther and Nora Krank decide to skip Christmas and set off on a luxurious Caribbean cruise over the festive season. As they soon realise however, skipping Christmas has unintended consequences and isn’t half as easy as they’d imagined. This sounds like a lot of fun and may be a much-needed respite when the hectic frenzy of eating, drinking and making merry starts to get a little much!

His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials, #1-3)Christmas 2016 will also hopefully find me finally finishing Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy by reading The Amber Spyglass, the last in the series of epic novels that relate the universe-traversing adventures of Lyra Belaqua and her friend Will Parry. This isn’t exactly a Christmas book per-se but there’s something about the setting (much of the first book takes place in the Arctic Circle) and the magic of it all that makes it a book that’s perfect for snuggling up with at this time of year. 

Lastly, but by no means least, the festive season is a good time for old-favourites. I do like to commence my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings at this time of year but, for a slight change, have opted this year to listen to the excellent unabridged audiobooks read by Rob Inglis. He has a lovely, calming voice that really brings out the charm of Tolkien’s writing and his Gandalf is absolutely spot on. And continuing with classics, my mum bought me a gorgeous illustrated edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol some years ago which I always re-read in the days before Christmas. I find Dickens a difficult writer to get on with sometimes but there’s something so timeless about the story of Scrooge – it practically invented Christmas as we know it and never fails to get me in the mood for the holidays. I combine it with watching A Muppet Christmas Carol which I will always maintain to be the ultimate in Christmas films. 

And that, folks, is what I plan to be doing on my holidays! Or at least, reading when I get the change in between the hectic round of writing cards, wrapping and delivering presents, preparing food and ensuring everyone’s glasses remain full of their chosen festive tipple. What will you be reading this holiday season? Do you read seasonal books or just treat the Christmas holidays as an opportunity to catch up on your usual TBR? As always, let me know in the comments down below or find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs or over on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x


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Books To Escape & Engage

Sooooo….tough week huh? Whatever you think of the election results from across the pond, the resulting global uncertainty means rough times for a lot of people. 2016 has seen a lot of tension in the world and there has, undoubtedly, been a shift to the political right both here in the UK and now across the waves in the US also. And as a result a lot of us are feeling, well, a bit scared. So I wanted to write a post that, in some small way, might help to combat that and to share some books that can help you escape from the bad stuff, even if that’s just for a little while. 

That said, I know there are a lot of people out there (me included) who want to take recent events as a wake up call – an opportunity to become more politically engaged with and active within the world – so I’ve also included a couple of books that I feel challenge attitudes and help us to better engage with each other as empathetic human beings. So whether you’re looking for a comfort read to escape into or something to get you all fired up and ready for action, read on!

Comfort Reads

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)When the going gets tough, the tough hit the bookshelves. Okay, so I’m paraphrasing but there’s a lot to be said for cutting yourself some slack and curling up with a cosy read when the bad stuff is really getting to you. After all, if you don’t look after yourself and let yourself indulge in a bit of cosiness every now and then, your body and mind will be in no fit state to get out there and fight the good fight the rest of the time. 

There’s a few places I turn to when the chips are down, the first being to old favourites. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is my very favourite book.  From the moment my beloved, much-missed Grandad read me the opening pages about Mr Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday plans, I was hooked. At it’s most basic, LOTR is a good old-fashioned adventure story with classic good versus evil narrative. Scratch beneath the surface however and it’s so much more than that. Tolkien himself saw both the best and the worst that humanity had to offer, fighting in the trenches of the First World War, and he put it all into this book. There’s friendship, romance (and bromance), messages about tolerance and understanding and oh so much more. It never fails to comfort me in a crisis and now more than ever I think we need to remember that there’s some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for. Honourable mention here to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which needs no introduction and is another go-to feel-good fantasy for snuggling up with.

Pride and PrejudiceFor non-fantasy fans, I find a Jane Austen never fails to cheer me up. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, perfection itself but I would also suggest Northanger Abbey, an earlier work that often gets overlooked but has a great deal of Austen’s trademark wit as well as a lively satire of the gothic novel and the risks of believing everything you read – a moral that could still be learnt by many in the social media age. Another honourable mention here for Georgette Heyer, whose rollicking regency romances provide drama and humour in equal measure. 

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Or how about a bit of classic crime? Queen of the golden age, Agatha Christie never fails to divert me with her ingenious plotting and quintessentially English settings. For true cosiness, I recommend the sharp-eyed Miss Marple, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage. The British Library Crime Classics series also has some true gems, with re-issues of a number of over-looked golden age authors. I’ve recently discovered John Bude’s Superintendent Meredith series, starting with The Lake District Murder, which provide gently taxing mysteries that revel in the intricacies of solid, dogged police work. Another cosy favourite is Simon Brett, with both his Mrs Pargeter novels and his later series of Fethering Mysteries featuring fussy ex-civil servant Carol and her hippy neighbour Jude.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)If humour is more your thing, very little bits a dose of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series. Pratchett had that magical ability to be extremely funny whilst also being extremely relevant and his skewering of many modern mores within the Discworld framework never fails to make me laugh. My personal favourites are the Guards series, which begins with Guards! Guards!

Finally, for a non-fiction recommendation, I give you Matt Haig’s wonderful Reasons to Stay Alive. This isn’t exactly comfort reading – it’s a fairly direct confrontation with the darkest days of mental illness – but Matt is so unfailingly positive in his approach and has written with such heart and passion that it’s a real boost for anyone feeling that life has just kicked them down. And, as it says in the title, it provides many, many reasons to keep hoping, to keep engaging and to keep living. Which leads me nicely to… 

Engaging Reads

For those whose feelings tend towards action, reading has a lot to offer. Books have always enabled us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and to engage with cultures and people that we might otherwise misinterpret or even ignore. Publishing has become much more aware of minority voices in the last few years which is a real boon for readers who can now more easily access stories from diverse voices. To be an engaged reader is to be an engaged person in the world, to struggle with ideas that are not your own and, ultimately, one of the first steps to challenging concepts and ideas in a mature and responsible way.


The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaWomen’s rights have come a long way but I  feel like 2016 has seen some bumps in the road. For me that makes books like The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerence Guide to the Mediaby Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, even more important. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the role of the media in the political and social events of 2016 so a book that examines how women are portrayed in newspapers, in magazines and online is more timely now than ever. More kick-ass feminist writing comes courtesy of the indomitable Caitlin Moran whose How to Be a Woman should be required reading for all – and who expands into politics with her Moranifesto. And whilst it’s guaranteed to make you feel very angry indeed, Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism is a reminder of what we’re all fighting for. 

With a more political bent, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala is a resonating memoir about both the dangers and the importance of standing up for what you believe in – and is evidence that one voice really can change the world. And Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable story about the liberating power of literature in the face of repression. 

In the Orchard, the SwallowsFor those who prefer fiction, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale issues a powerful warning about how easily the world can turn with just a few steps in the wrong direction. Peter Hobbs’ achingly moving novella In the Orchard, the Swallows reminds us of the enduring power of love and tenderness in the face of a corrupt and terrible enemy. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, whilst brutally unforgiving, is a novel about the virtues of compassion and a reminder that even the most successful person could well be putting on a brave face. And, more recently published, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad provides a timely reminder about how far civil rights have progressed alongside a harrowing narrative that really brings the horrors of slavery to life. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was EvilStephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is a brilliant graphic novel that examines the nature of other and what it means to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – stylishly drawn in black and white with little dialogue, Collins’ modern fable has a powerful message hidden within its seemingly simple tale. 

And for those who find that poetry quiets the soul but feeds the mind, the Bloodaxe series of anthologies edited by Neil Astley, starting with Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Timesprovide a series of challenging poems on various topics from a diverse range of contemporary poets. 

The Good ImmigrantFinally, a recommendation for a book that I haven’t yet read but very much intend to, which is The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla which is a series of essays by 21 writers examining what it means to be black, asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. 

Whatever your feelings about the year so far, I hope you’ll find these recommendations useful – we all need a little comfort now and again and we also need occasionally reminding about the power of literature to do good in the world. Hopefully this selection of books will do a little bit of both. As always, I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read any of them – and I’d be delighted to receive recommendations for any titles you would choose as comfort reads or engaging reads. You can find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Litsy @shelfofunreadbooks and over on Goodreads as Shelf of Unread Books – or drop a comment down below. Stay safe my lovelies and never give up what you believe in – and, as always….

Happy Reading x