A blog about my growing obsession with reading, with a few personal recommendations.
I didn’t care much for books as a child. I was too impatient to know the plot before I’d established who the characters were. Same with musical instruments. My piano teacher dared to insist I master my scales, whereas I wanted to skip straight to Billy Joel’s greatest hits.
Taking an A level in English Literature didn’t inspire me to read. It actively discouraged me. I mean who reads Coriolanus or The Mayor of Casterbridge for pleasure? Dull, dull, dull.
I finally discovered the joy of reading during my first proper job, or rather my first proper commute. There’s nothing like immersing yourself in someone else’s story during a long, boring bus journey. I remember arriving at the office, sobbing, almost breathless with despair, having finished the final pages of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, just as the bus pulled into my stop.
Until a few years ago, my reading material was limited to trashy, easy to read bestsellers. You know the type: you want to be able to say you’ve read it, without being seen reading it in public. That’s what Kindles are for, right?
The book club
Then, encouraged by my friend and neighbour, I joined a book club. Once every four to six weeks our little gang of school mums would get together at one of our houses, chat about anything and everything, eat our own body weight in salty snacks and drink wine until it got late. Too late to start discussing the book.
It was a crisps and wine club.
Before I joined, I was averaging one book every six months. Not having to commute every day since I moved to self-employment, meant my reading time was significantly reduced. As a member of the book club, I had to up my game, both in terms of quantity and quality. The first title I read as a book club member was Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts), an immersive, uncomfortable read, weighing in at over 900 pages.
It brought me back to more challenging literature and for that I’m grateful, but I’ve now left. There were too many books I was only reading out of obligation, rather than pleasure. I stockpile books, immediately buying anything recommended by friends and family (from our local Oxfam book shop if possible). I can’t wait to get started. The book club books created a separate pile I was less excited about reading. It felt like homework.
Read the good books first
Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel) was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Do you know that expression ‘lost in a book’? Well, I was bewildered. I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. There were so many Thomases! I admitted defeat after reading that Thomas’s wife had died. The fact that any of the Thomases had been married had gone totally over my head.
I hate not finishing a book, but knowing you’ve got another 300 pages of unrewarding effort ahead of you is depressing.
I concluded that life’s too short to read books you don’t enjoy. Read the good books first. You won’t have a chance to read them all.
The healthiest addiction
Reading has become a huge part of my life, now that I have the freedom to choose for myself again. My bookcase is groaning with books ready to dive into, as soon as I turn the last page on my latest one. It’s one addiction I’m not worried about.
I asked my Instagram friends to send me a comment with their favourite book of all time. The responses were as varied as you’d expect, and most of the titles were unknown to me (but have been added to my reading wish list). One friend quite rightly said it’s impossible to choose just one book: “who’s your favourite child?”, she countered. No one wants to go there.
My favourite books of the year
I’ve read 38 books – all novels – over the last 18 months. Some are more memorable than others. I’m no book critic. I don’t read book reviews, favouring instead to get personal recommendations. Here are the novels which stand out for me, for different reasons. I always wait for the paperback so most of these titles are a couple of years old.
Hardest to part with
A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles): I was bereft when I finished this book. Count Alexander Rostov is ordered by a Bolshevik court to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. His home is the attic room of a luxury hotel in Moscow. The novel is a study of the characters and their comings and goings over several years. Count Alexander is gentle, wise, charming and totally believable. I still miss him.
Educated (Tara Westover): This memoir about a violent Mormon family and the writer’s ultimate escape made uncomfortable reading. A story of triumph over adversity, and one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever come across. An honest, unapologetic and brave autobiography.
French Exit (Patrick deWitt): An odd tragicomedy with a cast of eccentric characters, including a high society widow, her feckless middle-aged son and her cat – who is the reincarnation of her dead husband. The dialogue is sharp and full of acerbic humour. This one is a bit marmite – I loved it, but I recommended it to a couple of people who hated it.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood): No one writes a dystopian novel as well as Atwood. I read this in my 20s and again recently, having seen the TV series. Set in a patriarchal, totalitarian state, the handmaids live a hellish, silent existence. They are needed for only one thing – reproducing with their masters. In this era of Trump, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like a warning.
A Man Called Ove (Fredrik Backman): The story of a grumpy old man who just wants to be left in peace long enough to commit suicide, so he can join his dead wife. So far, so depressing right? But this is an incredibly uplifting book about friendship, purpose, and the kindness of strangers.
Most rock and roll
How to be Famous (Caitlin Moran): Dolly Wilde is a music journalist living in Camden and living the Brit Pop dream, hanging out with the coolest up and coming stars. This is a sex (tape), drugs and rock and roll love story, as seen through the eyes of a sassy yet vulnerable narrator. I wish I could write like this.
Melmoth (Sarah Perry): Is Helen being followed by a ghost, or is her dark past catching up with her? This is a spine-tingling, confessional ghost story, set in atmospheric Prague. Melmoth was another book that split opinions – highly recommended by some, hated by others. The last page made me laugh out loud (and look behind me).
I’ve read dozens of average books this year which haven’t made the cut. My current assignment is The Stand (Stephen King). It’s over 1300 pages long, so I may be some time!
If you enjoy these recommendations, perhaps I’ll write a regular book column. I love this quote by Pam Allyn who said, “Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out.” It’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders getting all these books onto the page.
Now it’s your turn
Let me know if you would like to read more blogs like this. And I would LOVE to know what you’re reading at the moment, and what books you have enjoyed this year. Please leave me a comment below.
Much love, Vx[Disclosure: nothing to declare, no payments received, no freebies. I use affiliate links where possible.]