Chin chin!

by frankieleon via Flickr
by frankieleon via Flickr

A very Happy New Year to all of you lovely bookish folk! I’m not at all one for NYE, which, without sounding like too much of a miserable cow, I think is grossly overrated. A curry, a few g & ts and the local pub is enough for me thanks very much (I actually almost stayed awake to see it in this year!)

What I do love however is a brand new reading year, with all its delicious possibilities. Rather than making me panic, cataloging my physical TBR pile is actually making me super excited for the months ahead and, with a more modest goal of 50 books for next year, I am all set and raring to go.

Before I do that though, I’m going to allow a little self-indulgence and reveal my stats for last year. Because I LOVE stats!

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Check out my corny corny face. Cockier than it should be since, as mentioned the other day, I only managed 43 out of my goal of 60 books to read this year. I blame David Copperfield and Gone with the WindI haven’t even finished GWTW yet, having to break off to read other things, but I just don’t care as both novels have simply been an absolute pleasure and privilege to read.

Just 43 books has, however, amounted to 13,670 pages. Immense.

With me still slogging in23301818to 2016 with Margaret Mitchell’s classic, David Copperfield was, unsurprisingly, my longest book of the year, the shortest being We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Although my other half was, I think, expecting a little more from this slender little number, I felt more than affected and inspired by her essay; based on 2013 TEDx Talk (kindly lent to me by one of my book club folk).

The most universally popular book I read was, again unsurprisingly, The Girl on the Train by Paula HawkinsI’m a bit perplexed reading my review back, I did carry on with myself a bit but I did only give this 2 stars on Goodreads and I’m sticking with it. Entertaining certainly, but nothing special.

Overall my average score was 3.3 out of 5 for the books I read in 2015. Hardly sensational but you can’t always have a stellar year. My current read is making up for it in droves and, with my newly organised system in place, 2016 is going to be simply fantabulous.

Although I’ve been devouring blog posts and plans all day, I’d like to hear your thoughts for 2016 reading. Are you making a concrete plan or just going with the flow? 

The bottomless joys of the TBR pile…

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Merry Christmas folks! Hope you are all having a restful holiday period, whether working or not this time of year never fails to feel just a little bit special. In the Relish household it always ample time for a refresh and recap and this always inevitably means a frightening look at a) the painfully few books I have managed to read this year (answer: 43, of my intended, though challenging, 60. Painfully embarrassing) and b) the sheer size of my TBR pile.

On the positive side, this year has brought with it some wonderful connections with bookish folk and, luckiest of all, the opportunity to meet some of them; namely the lovely Rebecca Foster, aka ‘Bookish Beck‘, and her other half on their trip to Manchester back in August. She has thoughtfully tagged me into this very here meme to set me on the right track for 2016…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

Largely not at all well due to previous, unorganised behaviour. I recently decided however that that had to change. At the moment, they sit on my Goodreads ‘to-read’ list, a tool I find invaluable and which I will soon be adding all my physical books to. A mammoth task for the Christmas holidays!

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

Although I appreciate the advantages ebookof eBooks, it’s simply not a format for me. Strangely enough, apart from the simple delight of the smell and texture of a print copy, I actually struggle to engage with some books when they’re an eBook copy. A psychological block me thinks…

How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?

Apart from books I read for book club or to follow along with Penguin’s Happy Reader quarterly , I mainly let my Goodreads ‘to-read’ list guide me, and my mood, of course.

12640991A book that has been on my TBR the longest

Apart from the obvious classics that I have wanted to read forever? The oldest book on my Goodreads TBR is Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell. Clearly I haven’t been on there very long!

A book I recently added to my TBR

One of the most recent was The King is Dead by the fabulous Suzannah Lipscomb which I received for Christmas. Despite having them pushed upon me twice at school, I still have a bit of a love affair with the Tudors. This gorgeous book explores Henry VIII’s last will and testament and its myriad of implications.

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Although I’m an absolute sod for a pretty cover, I never stick anything on the TBR that I really don’t want to read so – all of Essie Fox’s books please 🙂

A book on my TBR that I never plan on reading

A few of the classics on there are pretty ridiculous (e.g. Ulysses, ha ha). I also accept the fact that many of them are on there just to remind me they exist, rather than me ever planning on getting around to them at any point, ever.

downloadAn unpublished book on my TBR that I’m excited for

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel; third and final piece of her spectacular Cromwell trilogy. Will this ever come out!? There are also, as always, a few others I’m particularly looking forward to; The Girls by Emma Cline and The Ballroom by Anna Hope to name just two.

A book on my TBR that everyone recommends

Almost too many to count but, that immediately springs to mind; In Cold Blood by Trumane Capote. I’m pretty disgusted that I haven’t read it yet.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (I know.)

A book on my TBR that I’m dying to read

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. It’s supposed to be amazing and the cover is just gorgeous.

How many books are on your TBR shelf?

Hundreds – including books I own….well over 600. With that thought, I better go and find a reading nook somewhere…. Eeeek!

Scarthin Books (take two)

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With a sleuth of much-needed time-off at home coming up this Christmas, it’s time yet again to recoup, relax and recap on all the marvellous moments of 2015; particularly the bookish stuff.

Following one amazing morning hot air ballooning (a previous Christmas gift) over the jewel-coloured hills of Derbyshire, the other half and I decided to take advantage of the gorgeous weather and go on the hunt for intriguing nooks and crannies. Scarthin Books (whose inspiring Crowdfunding campaign I featured here back in April) was one such nook I was determined to get to. Nestled in the hills in the village of Cromford, following a scrummy chippy dinner we were ready and raring to go on the hunt for books.

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Scarthin is not only a bookish labyrinth in the truest sense of the word but what became very clear after hiding in the stacks for a while is that it is very much a heart of this small community. A community of avid readers by the looks of things, who contentedly popped in and out to browse and gossip the whole time we were there. Awesome.

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Although the second-hand fiction section wasn’t quite big enough for true Lucy perfection (I need the challenge!) the overall selection, all divided up into their individual shelves/rooms over a gorgeous three floors, was mind boggling. The children’s room was particularly gorgeous, laid out beautifully with an arty collage of book plates and paper trees up on the ceiling. Magical. I just need more children to buy for!

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Having contributed my own little bit of cash to Scarthin’s bid to take care of their creeky old building and ensure that it can continue to bring joy to the community and its visitors for many more years to come, it was so nice to see how cared for this place really is. I’m a big believer of book shops that encourage its shoppers to stay and browse all day and these comfy chairs and cosy clock create just the environment in which to do so.

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Don’t be fooled however. This place isn’t just a haven for hardened readers but also, reassuringly, a savvy business, making those bestsellers and latest crazes (e.g. adult colouring books) easy to find for the casual peruser. Decent book shops that actually manage to keep themselves ticking over in these Kindle-laden times are few and far between and it’s heartening to see somewhere where some serious book/market knowledge is abound. (e.g. a beautifully curated selection of books on the British countryside on the stands next to the till – Lewis-Stempel’s Meadowland, Macdonald’s H is for Hawk … it was all there…)

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And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, lurking in a quiet corner was a little room full to the brim (and pasted to the ceiling) with sheet music of all varieties. My baby brother would just DIE.

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It’s hard to imagine the UK was so dry and gloriously sunny this year. Eating our chippy on the banks of the river and glancing out of the stacks at the geraniums was just delicious and, feeling the pub garden beckoning, I, with much self-control, left with just two volumes; an original copy of East Lynne by Ellen Wood (a largely overlooked classic I’ve been meaning to read for years) and The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. The other half, in his usual esoteric fashion, snapped up Ghond the Hunter by Dhan Mukerji. Which, incidentally, has a pretty shite Goodreads rating.

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If you’re in the South Derbyshire region some time soon please please do pay this wonderful bookshop a visit and keep the festive feeling going by buying a little something bookish for a loved one this new year…

Asylum

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You know those books you add to your Goodreads ‘want to read’ list, click clicking away months ago and then forget where on earth you got your inspiration from? Asylum by Patrick McGrath, published in 1996, was one such book and one that I was determined to like, the third contestant of a so-far appalling book club record by yours truly (the group have hated my previous choices, as have I). Stumbling upon a review in last season’s gorgeous Slightly Foxed – sure-fired assurance of a good read – I knew things were finally looking up.

This promisingly disturbing novel seemed just the ticket for Halloween. Set in a Broadmoor-style psychiatric hospital on the outskirts of London, we are told a tragic tale of love and obsession between Stella Raphael; the deputy superintendent’s elegant wife and Edgar Stark; a deeply disturbed murderer. As a long-standing inmate on his best behaviour, Edgar is allowed to use his artistic skills restoring the Stella’s garden and conservatory to its former glory, putting her right in his line of sight.

Stuck in a staid, passionless marriage, Stella is ripe for adventure. Embarking on a dangerous, lusting affair that quickly escalates out of control, she is a Thérèse Raquin for the modern era; a bored 50s housewife with a screw loose. Abandoning her lush, middle class existence and young family for one of uncertainty and squalor, the story hurtles in impossible directions, keeping us on tenterhooks until the very end. Narrated by Edgar’s personal doctor and Stella’s good friend Peter Cleave, these are unreliable narrators stacked within unreliable narrators, like Russian dolls, making for a deliciously mysterious narrative.


887506 (1)Cruel though it might seem, I am basing my success with this choice on the basis that it made one book grouper burst into tears. Now, surely that’s the ultimate compliment?

Riveted from the start, I had a very clear idea in my mind of where this car crash of human relationships would go, only to be surprised at every turn. Rather than delving into Edgar Stark’s psyche and gruesome past this became, satisfyingly, Stella’s story. A refreshing decision by McGrath that led in a brilliant, unexpected direction.

There are some seriously bleak, introspective periods in this book that, although I found so very effective and mood-enhancing at the time, I could have found exhausting had I been reading at a trickier period in my life. Characters are cleverly, elusively drawn; from the psychiatrists who seem to almost read their subjects minds ‘Derren Brown’ style, to Stella herself; a frustrating, complicated woman who is often, in true 1950s style, plonked in a pigeonhole with the other ‘hysterical women’:

 

Being out there, beyond the law, she told me, was always the most intense experience , this was why it intoxicated her. Romantic women, I reflected: they never think of the damage they do in their blind pursuit of intense experience. Their infatuation with freedom.

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The group overwhelmingly enjoyed this thought-provoking novel, all the more for the wide range of topics to talk about. Most importantly of all; the importance of understanding mental health problems and how they can affect the most seemingly ordinary of people. This striking tale of all-consuming addiction is an addiction in and of itself.

Because of the Lockwoods

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Persephone books have been luring me with their siren song for some time. Their plush, classy, anonymous grey covers and beautiful individual endpapers (with matching bookmarks!) are startlingly enticing, even for a shameless judge of covers like myself. With various titles floating on my periphery for many years, the promise of cosy, quality writing from lesser known female authors has finally proved too tempting to resist. Enter Dorothy Whipple’s heartrending Because of the Lockwoods (big thanks go to Rachel at Book Snob and Thomas at Hogglestock for their ever-valuable recommendations).

BOTL explores the lives of two families; the Lockwoods and the Hunters, growing up alongside each other in a gritty Northern industrial town. Following the death of Mr Hunter, his wife and three children are forced to leave their comfortable family home for a less salubrious part of town. Ousted out of the cosseted social circles of her former neighbours, young Thea Hunter seethes with anger towards her pompous young Lockwood peers. Coupled with her mothers’ deference in all things important towards the devious Mr Lockwood, Thea’s frustration pushes her to escape her narrow existence, expanding her horizons to terrific effect. Will the pompous patronising Lockwoods ever get their comeuppance? Only Whipple can tell.


This human story of the almost overwhelmingly ‘ordinary’ injustices in life 16177438and how people strive to overcome such obstacles struck me more than I expected. Thea, our unwitting heroine, is very much a ‘real’ woman, so very flawed in her jealousies, passions, fatalism and untimely outbursts; a character to be frustrated by but who is all the more charming for her imperfections. The injustice of the unattractive, devious Lockwoods publicly lording it over a family less fortunate and, in the case of Mrs Hunter, far weaker than themselves, was almost too much to bear at times, making it all the easier to fly through this wonderful novel to its dramatic conclusion.

Choosing a bit of Whipple for my first Persephone read turned out to be a wise move. Not only is she their most published author (i.e. a safe bet) but her masterful management of her characters and cosy, gently progressing narrative made this an easy one to sink into. Thea’s flight to France gives us a welcome change of mood and scenery and allows, in her absence, peripheral characters such as neighbour and admirer Oliver Reade to transform himself from grade-a sleazeball to working-class hero. Mrs Hunter, on the other hand, I would have been quite glad to slap at times and I did find this novel, overall, difficult to place in time, something my hungry mind can’t help but find frustrating.

Perhaps the compelling characters drew me in, maybe it was the pleasing humdrum nature of the Hunters’ lives, or perhaps Whipple’s Northern setting spoke to my Mancunian soul. Whatever it was, I loved it, devouring this novel slowly in several sittings. More Whipple to warm me up please!