Thursday, 3 April 2014

What have we been reading recently?

We are never happier than when we're reading a book. We'd happily ignore the rest of the world for a couple of hours whole week while we're reading something brilliant. Here's what we've been reading recently.

Frances: Eric Newby is best known for his comedic travel writing. But I’ve also recently enjoyed his Something Wholesale, a memoir based around his adventures in his family’s clothing business following the end of the Second World War. It conjures up and makes delicious lightness of a now thankfully gone damp and dreary Britain. Refreshingly, despite Newby eventually leaving the fashion industry behind, he manages to never sneer or look down on it or the people who work in it.

It’s an entirely different world to that conjured up in Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge. Woodhead has a knack of picking amazing subjects for biographies and Harry Gordon Selfridge encompasses it all: charm, ambition, fashion, foolishness and showgirls. I’ve not watched the TV series but I’ve told it’s disappointing. This book definitely isn’t.

Having devoured both Prep and American Wife, I’ve lined up Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland to read next. If the other two are anything to go by, this should keep me happily occupied for a long time.

Sian: Apparently this is the year that I read incredibly long books. I started the year with The Goldfinch and I spent most of March with my nose in Dominion. I was initially reading it as research but it turned out to be one of the most gripping books I've read. It poses an alternative history where Churchill didn't become prime minister. A fascinating insight into 50s Britain, the characters are brilliantly drawn and it is, in a strange way, a love story. I've jumped from that to the Booker Prize winner The Luminaries (finally available in paperback). I'm enjoying it so far but can't help feeling that it's 848 pages because it rambles quite a bit. I don't know how into it I am yet, it's taking a while to get to the point.

Next on the list? Something very, very short. Maybe a copy of Take a Break.

Laura H: I recently discovered Malcolm Lowry, and have embarked upon Under the Volcano. By all accounts, Lowry was a fascinating character, an immensely talented writer debilitated by alcoholism; Under the Volcano reflects this, as an ex-consul wanders the streets of a Mexican town below a rumbling volcano, wrestling with demons and drink in the purgatorial atmosphere of the Day of the Dead. So far it's a Heathcliffe of books: wonderfully brooding, dark and a little bit difficult.

Gemma: Ahead of a big trip to Asia, I’ve been reading a lot of travel books, most recently The Wrong Way Home by Peter Moore. It’s the story of his overground journey home from London to Sydney in the early ‘90s, taking in war torn Bosnia, an ill-advised detour into Afghanistan and an illegal journey to Tibet amongst others. As someone who plans every trip with military precision and prefers boutique hotels to £5-a-night hostels, I found myself aghast at Moore’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to travel, and I’m pretty sure a lot of what he got up to back then would land you dead and cut up into tiny pieces now. But the Aussie writer has a particular knack for describing the people he meets on his travels, and as someone who was only a child when this journey happened, it offered an insight into backpacking before gap years became the norm.

Nick: I've been roped into being the photographer at my brothers wedding this year (along with the best man and bartender - don't ask) cue mild panic and a decision to fill in the blanks of my photographic knowledge to make sure I don't mess it all up horrendously. Jason Youn's Mastering Digital Photography fitted that bill perfectly and better still its part of Amazon's Kindle Library which means it can be borrowed for free. Engagingly written, it's really helped clarify a number aspects of the art and science of photography that I had an instinct for but didn't necessarily fully understand. It's structurally also a great 'chapter with a cup of coffee book', thoroughly recommended.

Sara: After I saw (and loved) the Scarlett Johansson film Under The Skin, a friend told me the director had "used 0.0000001% of the book, like a homeopath". And she's right - from what I've read so far, the Michel Faber book is a deeper, darker and more satisfying read. Without giving too much away, it's about a woman called Isserley who spends most of her time driving, picking up hitchhikers who must be male, well-built and alone. It's not a spoiler to say she isn't taking them home for sex, nor that she's literally other worldly. We come to slowly understand her in the same way she slowly makes sense of the desolate Scottish landscape she now inhabits. There is something insidious about the way the increasing sense that this can't end well gets under your skin (I'm sorry) (I'm not).

Caleigh: I've been reading My Vietnamese Kitchen, by Uyen Luu. To say I've been reading it isn't completely true, I'm so captivated by the gorgeous food photography that I get through a few pages before realising that I haven't actually read them! Uyen's introduction drew me in straight away, she was born in Saigon but came to London after the war. Her love for Vietnamese food is obvious and each recipe is designed with that passion. I'm already a convert to pho and her recipe is one I'll make time and time again. I want to try the hot and sour fish soup and beef stew with star anise soon. I'm not sure if I'll be brave enough to make the deep-fried frogs' legs, though!


  1. I've not yet seen the film of Under The Skin, but when I was reading the book I thought it ended very abruptly: really abruptly because apparently the last 64 pages were missing out of my copy! Maybe the director had a similar issue?

  2. People still looking to see Under the Skin, it might be worth waiting for this as its being screened with a live soundtrack by the amazing Micachu who I mentioned in this post

  3. Sian: If you liked Dominion, you might also enjoy Jo Walton's Small Change Trilogy, a similar idea - Britain having surrendered to Nazi Germany each book is seen from the point of view of a woman in the thick of the story and a Scotland Yard Detective (who links all three).

    1. Oh that sounds really good. I thought it sounded familiar but I'm mixing it up with a wartime trilogy about three women by Jeannie Johnson:

  4. Sian, if you do fancy another long book, I have to recommend Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. The pace of writing is incredible, I actually felt as though I was living in the Wild West (for want of a better description) in the 1800s. It's a Western, but unusually also portrays the POV of the women of the time. The friendships and other relationships described in the book have stayed with me several weeks afer I've finished. Absolutely heart-wrenching.

    I've just started reading The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. Set in 1066, it's the story of the resistance movement which followed the invasion by William the Bastard. It's essentially written in Anglo-Saxon and took me a few pages to get into it (there is a brief glossary), but when I did I completely understood what the writer was going for - I felt myself being submerged into the world as it was then. Absolutely extraordinary and, in my opinion, magical book (so far!).

    As you might be able to tell, my book theme this year is being taken into other worlds!

    I love books.

    1. No more long books! I love them (and Lonesome Dove sounds brilliant) but I am crying out for something super speedy that I can get lost in for a day.

    2. Have you read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the end of the Lane? It's amazing and readable in a couple of days.

    3. I haven't! These posts make my to read list ENORMOUS and it really didn't need any help.

  5. I loved, nay adored, both Prep and American Wife, but I was sorely disappointed by Sisterland. I found it dull in some places and melodramatic in others, but a friend of mine (who, like the narrator, is a stay at home mother while I am gleefully childless) loved it, so I guess different strokes for different folks.

    1. American Wife was one of the best books I read last year, but I was disappointed by Prep. I think if you're interested in the topic of her books, Curtis is captivating, but she hasn't (yet) drawn me into a world that I don't much care about.

    2. Oh I loved Prep, but I read it before American Wife - which is undeniably better - so perhaps that's why.

      So interesting you say that about Sisterland jbistheinitial - my friend told me exactly the same (she hasn't got kids either).


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