Talking about books

 ~ at home


So here I am reading The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel, and as Hil took this picture while I was engrossed, I thought I’d use it to demonstrate “how to” read a book of this size and weight! Firstly, don’t try reading it in bed: if you fall asleep you could do yourself very serious damage.  If you sit unsupported in a chair you are likely to get shoulder problems or an RSI. This book deserves to be read in utmost comfort – with head and neck; back; arms and knees all supported.

You’re welcome!


Anna, We Need to Talk about Books, Much Wenlock & Craven Arms

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Loved this – you all know what it’s about, so all I can say is: Read it! Wonderfully written and brilliant production values (sorry, I’m a bookseller!)

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel: If this doesn’t win the Booker then I don’t know what could. The best yet! 800+ pages of brilliance. Sheer poetry. Such compassion, insight and wit, all perfectly (yes, really!) put together.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver: Well, what do you follow Hilary Mantel with? It had to be something I already knew and trusted. It had to be completely and brilliantly different. Hilary suggested this and as soon as she said it, I knew it was the right thing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read this book – and I find something new in it (and cry) every time.

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver: This follows on from the book above, and I could never read one without the other. They are about love and struggle – the politics of difference and ‘other’ – and are chock full of wisdom, humour and compassion. These are the books that turned me onto Barbara Kingsolver back in 1987. She remains the author I would always turn to.  And she has a book of poetry (her second) coming out in the autumn.

Meg, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

This is a fabulous read!  The setting is 1850s, following the journey of a Manx smuggling ship to Tasmania, with all the inevitable drama, disaster and feats of derring-do that such an adventure would have involved.  

The chapters are written as if they were each taken from the journals of different key characters in the plot.  This very effectively  strengthens the story telling by describing each situation from many different perspectives.  

The writing is impressively rich and imaginative, making the book a real page-turner from cover to cover.

One thing…although the book’s reviews refer to it as ‘often hilarious’…I didn’t find it so, disturbing and brilliant maybe.  
I strongly recommend it to all!

My most recent read has been The Machine Stops by EM Forster. This was written in 1909 and eerily describes a planet where people communicate through images of each other on a round plate, music of choice is piped into your room, people don’t make physical contact with each other and humans are no longer living on the surface of the earth, no life remains there…. chillingly accurate in places and unsurprisingly well written.

I’m pretty sure I read this in Sixth Form, and I remember thinking ‘well that would never happen!’


I have also been boosting my mood by immersing myself in Evelyn Waugh: Scoop and Decline and Fall are definitely two of my go-to preferences for a cracking good tale of bygone style, flawless narrative and wonderfully amusing descriptions of life’s twists and turns, that lose none of the joy in the re-reading!

Donald, We Need to Talk About Books, Craven Arms

The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall – published 1945 pp 491
I stumbled upon this novel in Hay and as usual read the first page. I was sufficiently impressed with the style to buy it.  It has a reputation of course as it had been banned as potentially corrupting  and subject to obscenity trials in the UK and US. The actual read is so very far from that though that is hard to appreciate those concerns today as there is nothing salacious about it and I can’t say I noticed the obscenity. It is set at the beginning of the 20th century and the central character is Stephen Gordon. Born to very rich parents, they had hoped for a son and heir but still stuck with the intended name even when they had a daughter. Talk about nominative determinism! We then follow her through her challenging life and many adventures. I felt entirely captivated by her search for happiness. She was a very engaging character although she did not help her cause in many circumstances. I enjoy period pieces and this book is definitely one with which to spend some time in the early 1900s.

A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson – published  2014 pp 255
I enjoyed a talk of his at Hay and had already read a subsequent book of his: Bee Quest. This one was written a few years earlier and espouses some of my interests, bees and a country cottage in France, but I don’t think you need that bias to enjoy this book. It recalls how he bought a very run-down small farm (ruin?) in 2003 with 10 acres, north of Limoges. Well neglected by the ancient farmer who owned it, it was already a veritable nature wonderland. His meadows were awash with flowers, insects, reptiles and birds, and various mammals including dormice. This reflects that it is more of a natural history and environmental book than anything else. The French seem to present a general insouciance towards nature but still their romanticism is there; for example did you know the logically named Orange Tip butterfly is in French poetically called l’aurore (the dawn). This is their holiday home but the author develops the area further to ensure the bees (that are his real love) can thrive.  He knows his flowers too as he works as a professor of biological sciences in Stirling. As time passes he brings his students too for practical visits to this paradise. Such an evocative book – there is a lot to enjoy.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd – published 1977 pp 108
This was actually written in the mid 1940s but remained untouched until it was published shortly before her death. My edition has a substantial and helpful introduction from Robert Macfarlane, but he never met her. The book, with intensity, describes and assesses her experience of walks around the Cairn Gorm area but it is certainly not a mountaineering book. She only concerns herself with the pleasures and environment of walks in that area. This can be an extremely harsh place at times but often incredibly beautiful. Her descriptive prose makes this clear. Although there is some scene setting at the start, later on she uses magnificent descriptive passages of this beguiling area to explain the area’s non-climbing attractions albeit set within the mountainous region. She considers the varied climatic experiences familiar in the high uplands and then we are privy to her feelings and emotional involvement with the landscape and its inhabitants, its stormy foes and benign forces. A magnificent book in many respects. Worryingly there was a glossary of 6 pages of vernacular words. However I don’t think I spotted more than 4 of them. In fact there were a couple that weren’t even included. You too may not know what a spicule or a glaister are, but you are carried there comprehendingly.

The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell published 2009 pp164  This was recommended by Susan at our last meeting. It is a very unusual book and certainly not ‘a read’. But it is definitely intriguing as it fulfils its title by only asking questions. And they are predominantly non sequiturs. Nonetheless it is a stimulating book to dip into and to ponder the propositions you are being asked to consider, such as: “Do you regard yourself a responsible person or an irresponsible person, and would you elect to be the other if you could?” immediately followed by “Does life insurance strike you as practical or as absurd, if not dishonest?”. Or perhaps “Do you understand what is meant by cavitation?” There are no answers but maybe you would be stimulated for example to look up what cavitation actually means – (my dictionary was only partially illuminating !). The main gripe would be that is is still reflects its American authorship and some questions left me adrift (so who is R Crumb, the cartoonist?) but some did illuminate: “Do you know anything at all about the circumstances by which Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico City, happened to be assassinated with an ice axe?”. Have it to hand anywhere convenient and you can pass even a brief moment easily contemplating your responses (or maybe your life).

For my guilty pleasure (referred to last month by Anna) I am reading my way sequentially through the Asterix the Gaul books. Even though these are cartoons and fundamentally historically dubious they are brilliantly drawn, inherently funny (especially if you like puns) and, in a literary way, clever in how the characters are named (although the English names differ from the original French ones to suit our comprehension). They do also tax my school Latin rather heavily too. What’s not to enjoy?

Hilary, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney.
I read this before Normal People was screened on TV and I had not read any of her work before. I did not like Conversations with Friends. I disliked all the characters, really a bunch of self obsessed, selfish, irresponsible adults for whom I had no sympathy and I generally like difficult characters. I read to the end because I don’t like giving up on a book but my reaction when I finished the last page was ‘Oh for goodness sake!’

I couldn’t read this either (I don’t stick with books I’m not enjoying) nor did I finish Normal People, but I loved the TV series, so might go back to that one.


The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
I thoroughly enjoyed this travel book of Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan, two weeks after the Taliban lost control in 2002. It sometimes felt as if he had a death wish when he encountered hostile local militia suspicious of anyone daft enough to undertake such a trip or when he walked over high mountain passes covered in snow but he writes with great compassion and humour about Afghan people and their everyday lives which he really did experience first hand for months and months. The final chapters where he reflects on the international response to the country is thought provoking to say the least.

This was also recommended by Lorna at our last Craven Arms meeting.

From Philip, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

Reading has been desultory this month but here’s a pair of delightful anthologies, perfect for the bedside. With extracts long and short from hundreds of writers there are sections on everything about books, from reading, buying, browsing, reviewers, bookish vices, bookish behaviour, borrowing, libraries, to horror of horrors: having nothing to read! Lots of acute observations – ‘other people’s bookshelves’ will ring many a chord!

In the same vein as the previous two bedside books, can I also recommend Ex Libris (photo attached) by Anne Fadiman? Subtitled Confessions of a Common Reader, it is a collection of eighteen essays first published in 1998 ranging from ‘Marrying Libraries’ between couples, to how to treat a book, the sonnet, what to write on a flyleaf, the literary glutton, the Ms problem, and True Womanhood! Another delight. Anne Fadiman is an American essayist and reporter, now writer in residence at Yale.

Judith, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

My marvellous read of May is Hamnet. Maggie O’Farrell writes such limpid prose, I raced through it aware non the less that I was getting a complex picture of the life of the household, the feeling of being there and in sympathy with their lives. The other book of hers I loved was The Disappearance of Esme Lennox, but I thought this one even better.

I loved this too! I ordered it after watching Maggie O’Farrell at the Hay Digital Festival and read it on the day it arrived! I too felt that I read it too quickly, but I’ll just make up for that by reading it again … wonderful.


My second ‘best read’ is Wilding by Isabella Tree. So many books about the environment are worthy without being gripping, but this is so exciting. I now understand that it’s possible, even in a small over-populated island, to regenerate dead landscapes and even make enough money to live on.The account of rewilding at Knepp tells of the wisdom of letting nature take its course, which we experienced here this spring in a very small way. We’ve had an invasion of rabbits since our cat died. They were eating everything and there seemed nothing we could do about it, so we left them to it. One day, gazing out of the kitchen window, I glimpsed a weasel hunting, and lo and behold the rabbits melted away. Now, the balance of nature restored, we can look forward to a vegetable crop!

Tim, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

The Casual Vacancy, J.K.Rowling.

I know there are those who look down on the Harry Potter phenomenon, but you won’t find me among them. I think she’s a very skilled writer in all sorts of ways, one of which is as a story-teller, and another is her observation of details which convey in a few words a great deal about a scene, or a character, or even a relationship. She’s also witty, and good at farce and caricature. All these are here from the start, but even so it takes a good while to move from a rather tedious cast-list of objectionables into a story about which you want to know the next twist. By the time she’s given full rein to her acid touch there’s no-one left to empathise with (apart from the dead guy, whose death at the start creates the eponymous Vacancy on the Parish Council and whose irrelevant reputation grows and glows…); but the plot does hot up notably until by the end it’s galloping in full page-turner mode. Would I recommend it? Probably not, it’s clever and in many ways entertaining but it’s over-written and too much effort for what you get out of it.

The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry.

It’s a sort of instruction manual on how to write poetry, or at least explaining the tools and ingredients you should need. I now know a lot more about metre and rhyme and poetic form, which is all helpful for reading poetry, never mind writing it. He’s clever and witty, of course, and he explains a lot of stuff very well; but you do have to put up with him, well, sort of demonstrating just how clever and witty. Anyway I also now know what a villanelle is, if I want to, (or where to go to remind myself).

Sue, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

I borrowed Days Without End by Sebastian Barry from Hilary and enjoyed it enormously. It shifted my perspective from Lockdown Britain to the wide-open spaces of America – exactly what I needed.

My next read was also set in the USA. A return to a much-loved author: Anne Tyler. I don’t think that Clock Dance is one of her very best, but still a really engaging story.

The main character, Willa, receives a phone call from a woman she has never met, who tells her that her granddaughter needs looking after because her mother has been shot.
She doesn’t have a granddaughter, but she makes the plane journey across the country anyway. We discover her background and watch as she learns how to stand up for herself and make some life-changing decisions.

Having meant to read it for years, I have finally read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It took me a while to get into the story but having read about forty pages I was gripped. The tension increases so gradually but by the last few chapters was unbearable. It’s such a moving story, dealing with the prejudices of the caste system and the state of women in India but at its heart I think it’s a story about love and how dangerous and destructive it can be, but also how life affirming.

Fiona, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese)
This is the first book by Murakami that I have read. I found it an odd book, combining a fairly straightforward story about an artist trying to recover from being abandoned by his wife with a supernatural story element. The “Commendatore” of the title is a character in a painting he discovers in the loft who comes to life. There was quite a lot of repetition of various facts about the story in different places which slightly irritated me. Could he not trust his readers to remember from the first telling? I certainly wanted to finish the book to know what happened but I was disappointed in the ending. I have since read some reviews on-line and many readers seem to think that it is one of Murakami’s poorer books. I think I will try another one to see if I like it better before deciding that Murakami is not for me.

Secret by Philippe Grimbert (translated from French)
This is a short book about a young Jewish boy growing up in Paris just after the Second World War. He is a rather sickly only child whose parents are both very athletic and he feels they must be disappointed in his poor physique and health. He imagines having an older brother who does everything better than he can. Gradually as he gets older and talks to a family friend he finds out the family history, what happened to his parents during the war years and what led to his birth. It is well written and easy to read. It is also very short; I read it in one sitting. I would definitely recommend this one.

Marian, We Need to Talk About Books, Much Wenlock

All this has happened before, and will happen again.

But this time it happened in London, to the most ordinary of mortals. It happened to a man lost and damned in a tangle of wet North London streets, a man who appeared to be running for his life.

But I wasn’t running for my life; I was running for someone else’s.

Christopher Fowler

Okay, I’ll lower the tone. Prompted (I think) by someone mentioning re-reading, I’ve been reading the Christopher Fowlers that have been sitting on my keepers shelf since the 1990s (I may let them go now). I’ve finished the novels and have a few volumes of short stories to go (he’s written more but I stopped reading when he focused on detective stories).

The first one I read originally was Psychoville, picked up on the strength of a lively cover design, and my favourite then and now is Spanky. Fowler seemed to be classed as a horror writer but I find his books imaginative and funny more than horrific. His view of human psychology is rather dark, but then so is mine. Anyway, good to read just for fun in these strange times.

Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Fowler’s writing is his intimate knowledge of London, particularly prominent in Disturbia. I worked in and around London for a decade or so around the time I first read these books and that was probably a factor in my enjoyment. It gave them great immediacy, which I hope the opening paragraphs of Spanky (see left) may convey.

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