This month I have visited New York, Ireland, Antigua, Paris, New Caledonia and Robin Hood Bay, all without leaving my sofa. Because that’s the brilliant thing about reading, isn’t it? It can take you anywhere.
Although this year our lives may have shrunk in many ways and in reality, I have travelled no further than Dorset (to visit family), I have been reading more than ever. It comes in ebbs and flows and at the start of the Covid-19 crisis I must admit I struggled to read. The news and my feelings of anxiety were so all-consuming that it was hard to focus on a book. Every time I settled down to read the words scrambled as though each page was made of Scrabble letters and someone was shaking them about. But there have been other spells where I have read voraciously, grateful for the comfort and escape of books. I’m thankful to be in one of those spells right now.
It’s hard to pick favourites from the books I’ve read recently because there have been so many that have moved or affected me in different ways. I think I have to start with The Offing by Benjamin Myers – a dreamily gentle tale of a sixteen-year-old boy living in the North of England post Second World War, who turns his back on the coal mines to set off on a walking adventure the summer he finishes school. It reminded me a bit of Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for the beautiful descriptions of the English countryside. Young Robert’s journey is side-tracked when he meets Dulcie, an eccentric older woman living in a tumbling down cottage facing the sea. She feeds him with lobster, nettle tea and stories, and an unlikely friendship begins. If books were medicine this would be Calpol – comforting, soothing and sweet.
If The Offing was something of a gentle stroll, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne was more of a mountain hike, epic and full of highs and lows. Oh, I loved this book. It tells the story of Cyril, a gay man growing up in 1950s Ireland and charts his story from birth, when he was put up for adoption and taken in by rather unusual adoptive parents, to his teen years and on through his entire life. Including spells in Ireland, Amsterdam and New York, this book covers not just a great span of place and time, but a broad emotional spectrum too. At parts heart-wrenchingly tragic, at others laugh-out-loud funny, this is a book I will remember for a long time.
Last year I loved Bernadine Evaristo’s Man-Booker winning Girl, Woman, Other and have been wanting to read more of her books ever since, so picked up Mr Loverman in a local bookshop. Barrington Jedidiah Walker is such a memorable protagonist: a seventy-four-year old Antiguan man living in North London, a dapper dresser and a witty narrator. He lives with his wife Carmel in Stoke Newington (incidentally this is where I live too so it was nice to read mentions of so many places that are familiar to me) but has been having a secret affair with his childhood friend Morris since both men were teenagers. I raced through this – I particularly enjoyed the complexities of the characters and how your sympathies are tugged in different directions throughout the book.
One of the places I get my book recommendations is a WhatsApp group I’m part of; most of the women I’ve never actually met in person but when my friend invited me to join I was delighted. We all share books we’ve been loving and it’s a brilliant resource, plus nice to feel part of a community of book-lovers even if we don’t all know each other. One of the books that’s come up many times this year in that group is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. It’s on my list but I decided I wanted to start with Brit’s first book, The Mothers. It had me hooked from the first page – the writing is just so beautiful. The narration style is unusual but totally gripping. It tells the story of a group of teenagers, an unplanned pregnancy and the fallout from the choices that are made as result. It deals with friendship, loss and the power secrets can hold over us, even years later. I can’t wait to read The Vanishing Half next.
My most recent read was The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a glittering, gripping book set in 1930s New York and with a fantastic female protagonist who reminded me a bit of the main character in The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy which I also enjoyed (set in 1950s Paris). Both women have what I’d describe as ‘moxie’ and both books were great escapist reads.
Next on my list is Summerwater by Sarah Moss – I’m only at the start but have already fallen in love with the lyrical descriptions of a rainy Scottish summer and the varied characters brought together by the chalet park where they’re all staying. The writing is rich and wonderful like a hot chocolate made with proper chocolate – to be sipped and savoured.
Other books I’ve enjoyed recently
Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – I love all of Rachel Joyce’s books and her latest was no exception. A great adventure story with two loveable female leads.
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler – Dare I admit this was my first Anne Tyler? I loved it. And the great thing about coming to an author late is having a whole back catalogue of books to go back and discover – what a treat.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls – This book about first love really brought back memories of being a teenager. I was particularly moved by the descriptions of depression and a young person dealing with a troubled homelife – there were some real catch-you-off-guard weepy moments in this one.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré – I have heard wonderful things.
How I choose what to read
Often when I get into slumps with reading it’s because I can’t decide what to read next. One of life’s greatest joys, in my view, is that you will never run out of books to read, but it can make it overwhelming at times too. Now, I have a word doc on my computer where I save book recommendations so that I can print it out whenever I visit a bookshop. I love being pulled organically towards books that aren’t on the list too, but it helps guide me when I’m feeling stuck. Here’s where the books on that list come from:
- Personal recommendations: like so many people, most of the books I read come from recommendations from friends and family. I love being part of the WhatsApp group I mentioned already, and I have a couple of friends who share similar taste in books to me and whose recommendations I always act on. I also try to reciprocate this by sharing books I love with friends – often posting my copy to them when I’m finished if I can bare to part with it.
- Social media recommendations: I follow a lot of bookish Twitter and instagram accounts and love seeing what everyone’s reading. I love how passionate the book community is on social media and am so thankful to the work that bloggers do, both as a writer but perhaps more importantly as a reader too!
- Independent bookshops: Indie bookshops are brilliant for book recommendations – it’s part of the service that makes them so special. At the start of lockdown back in March my local bookshop were brilliant at recommending a stack of books that saw me through those difficult weeks. Next time you pop into your local bookshop, why not ask a member of staff for some advice?
What are you reading this month? And how do you choose the books you read? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
P.S You can shop my reading recommendations and support independent bookshops by visiting my page at uk.bookshop.org.