One month, nine books.
Greatly aided by a decent amount of alone time in the first few weeks, a stinky cold that kept me away from the computer for a few days mid-month and some restless nights of reading on the Kindle app on my phone for hour after hour after hour, January has confirmed that 100 books in a year is going to be hard. But the act itself, that of reading brilliant stories written by brilliant authors. That is not hard. That is my kind of heaven and it continues to benefit my little life as both a reader and a writer.
In no particular order, these are the books I read and enjoyed in January 2015.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
The hype surrounding this collection of short fiction (very short it has to be said) is unavoidable and yet I'd managed to avoid actually reading the book. Not anymore. Delightful, delicate, original and also sort of ordinary in many ways, I can see why so much is made of Raymond Carver and his stories about the American Northwest. Of course, this is not for everyone. Many of the stories contain virtually no drama, no action and often not much of a plot, but they are raw and real to their core. My favourites were The Bath and Tell The Women We're Going.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
I fully expected to give up on this. I didn't quite know what was going on, well, throughout the book, but I was intrigued by it and eventually enthralled by this indulgent and romantic take on time travel. Incredibly easy to read and with some brilliant characters on the periphery and if this book did nothing else it offered a very indepth insight into what it was like as a volunteer ARP warden in the Second World War; what a harrowing and haunting experience that must have been for so many ordinary men and women.
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
If any book this month was a disappointment, it was this one, and yet I feverishly turned - okay, swiped - pages over as the plot developed. As I'm also writing a London-based detective mystery I probably over analysed the plot's twists and turns and so didn't just let the story carry me as easily as it may have with others. Also I didn't like the way Galbraith - okay, Rowling - only mentioned skin colour when it came to non-white characters. That really gets my back up! If you like mystery stories and a good private detective with plenty of drama in his own life, it's worth a read, but don't expect anything too Marlowe-esque as you'll be disappointed as the surrounding characters lacked a lot of the same class and personality.
Tracks in the Smoke by Tom Savage
Speaking of Philip Marlowe, new author Tom Savage claims that his private detective Nick Dante is Camden's answer to Raymond Chandler's creation and I could definitely see this - just think more craft ales in London pubs than dry martinis in LA bars. A slick and fast-paced plot that centres on Dante's investigation into the leaking of a pop star's album prior to its release date, there was plenty of action and plenty of sharp one-liners - albeit sometimes only in Dante's head - in this novel.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Finally jumped on this bandwagon and maybe it was already a bit too full to leave room for me. While there's no denying Strayed can write a good story and can pull you into the pain she has felt during her life, I found myself wanting to like this book more than I actually did. It wasn't her self-pity - guys, this is a memoir, it is going to be all about her - it was the fact she didn't actually walk the whole of the Pacific Crest Trail. Now far be it for me to throw rocks at glasshouses - I am never going to embark on that kind of a solo physical feat - but she did only walk part of it (from southern California to half way up Oregon). But pushing aside my pedantic finger pointing at her - it's still a really, really long way - I did enjoy this book and it prompted me to immediately download and start on her other book...
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
If you choose any out of the books in this list, make it this one. A compilation of letters written to a one-time anonymous agony aunt in a literary publication The Rumpus (you can find the original column here) the responses were composed by Cheryl Strayed. They are incredibly well thought out. They are violently insightful. They are moving in a way that literally moves you. As in physically and emotionally. One reply to a letter moved me to put my book down and take a deep breath, and another made me close my eyes and count to ten because it was as if Cheryl's words were written to me. I picked the ebook version of Tiny Beautiful Things up for just £1.00 but I've already ordered it in paperback. That, my friends, is the sign of a book you love.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My mother bought me this book - found in a charity shop, like all good books my mum buys me are - and it's been on my To Read list since I read and enjoyed The End of the Affair a few years ago. It was my "breakfast book" during much of January - the book I read while I eat my cereal and drink my tea and try to relax into whatever it is I've got to do that day. However, relaxing reading it is not. Part mystery, part love story, part historic account of war torn Vietnam, The Quiet American is heavy-going in places but as a writer left me utterly fascinated and impressed. Greene approaches a done before dynamic - two men fighting over one woman - from angles I'm not sure I would ever have come up with and the twists and turns take you right up to the end. It may not have been my favourite book this month, but it certainly has confirmed that I need to read more Graham Greene and soon.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
The Year of Magical Thinking was the third of three non-fiction books I read this month and was perhaps the one I had highest hopes for. This famous memoir by author Didion looks at the year following the sudden-ish death of her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. I say "ish" because although his passing was indeed sudden and violent and horrid, he had suffered from heart troubles in the past. Indeed medical problems are a main talking point of the book as a huge part of it is the illness of their adopted daughter Quintana who is seriously ill on more than one occasion during those harrowing twelve months of grief felt by Didion. There is no doubt that the year she documents is horrific and gruelling and although I've been fortunate enough to not endure anything remotely similar I related to many of her observations and emotions. And yes, the book is beautifully written with some fascinating chunks of research weaved into Didion's own heart-thumping turn of phrase. I guess it was because of how well she writes that I felt I wanted a bit more; a bit more depth to how she felt, rather than what she did to deal with her feelings. But maybe in saying that I'm just showing how far removed I am from this level of grief as perhaps to relive those feelings is the last thing you want to do...
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
This was another novel that I started reading, unsure if I would enjoy it enough to see it through. However, I got caught up in it and not just because the setting - 17th century Amsterdam - obviously appealed immediately. The Miniaturist gives new meaning to the term "thoroughly researched" and the story itself - that of a young woman arriving in Amsterdam to join the home of her new husband and his sister, man servant and housekeeper - is a highly original one. While historical fiction is not my usual cup of tea, I do love reading stories set in Amsterdam and while a series of awards and nominations have honoured Burton's debut much more than I can, I do indeed recommend this book if you like a story that is set in a time long gone but with people who you can relate to instantly.
What books have you read recently and enjoyed? I'd love to hear your recommendations!
Frances M. Thompson
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