52 Weeks:52 Books – August & September

Months 8 and 9 of the 52 books challenge are getting rolled together, which frankly is going to make September look a lot better than it actually was. In reality I’ve read one book during September and, at the time of writing I haven’t technically quite finished that one, but I very nearly almost have so I’m counting it, which means that the books I can now tick off the To Read list are:

Book 22: Alan Cumming – Not My Father’s Son

Book 23: Emily Barr – The First Wife

Book 24: Danny Wallace – Who is Tom Ditto?

Book 25: Jo Thomas – The Oyster Catcher

Which means that I’m only one book off the halfway point, and it’s only 3/4 of the way through the year. Hmmm. Ah well, maybe 52 weeks: 33 Books would have been more realistic but not such a good title, so what can you do? I guess at this stage the best thing is to just embrace inevitable failure, keep reading and then try the whole endeavour again in 2016.

As for the books I’ve read recently, they were a good bunch. Alan Cumming’s memoir was probably the standout. It’s not a standard celebrity autobiography. It’s a memoir of an abusive childhood, interwoven with the story of his grandfather which came to light when Cumming went on ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and the story of a personal shock he was dealing with in the here and now while filming the episode. It’s incredibly well-written, with real warmth and self-awareness.

As for the others, The Oyster Catcher has a great hero – great enough that I can just about forgive it for beating Sweet Nothing to the Joan Hessayon Award in 2014. Emily Barr is always awesome, and The First Wife is probably one of my favourites of hers that I’ve read so far. And I also enjoyed Who Is Tom Ditto? I wasn’t 100% sold on Danny Wallace’s first novel, Charlotte Street; the premise felt a bit contrived and a bit thin to support the weight of the story, but Who Is Tom Ditto? is richer and more intriguing.

The idea of throwing myself headlong into reading this year was originally all about the idea that reading makes writers better. I have no doubt that that’s true, but what is even more true, for me at least, is that writing makes readers worse. I still suffer from seeing the technique over and above the story. So how do any other writers out there fare? Does writing affect how or what you read?

52 Weeks: 52 Books – July

Last month’s 52 Weeks: 52 Books update ended with the realisation that I needed to  read 11 books in July to get back on track. In reality I managed to read… 2. So that went well. The two I read were:

Book 20: Jane Wenham-Jones – 100 Ways To Fight The Flab and still have wine and chocolate

Book 21: Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to read and never quite got around to. I’m glad I did, and I particularly enjoyed the second half of the story, but I did struggle to get into it. That seems to be a bit of a pattern. I race through the second half of books but it takes me a long time to get fully involved in the story. I’m wondering if that’s a side effect of being a writer – it just takes longer to get engaged with a story because of the amount of your brain that’s already full of the story that you’re working on yourself.

100 Ways to Fight the Flab was an interesting read. I don’t generally do diet books (and yes – I know that this isn’t technically a ‘diet book’ but, as the author acknowledges, all diet books say that!) I don’t really buy into anything at all to do with weight loss as an industry – the very notion makes me shudder, but Jane gave me a copy of her book at the RNA Conference this year, so I set out to read with an open mind. And I did read it. And it didn’t make me shudder. Jane’s basic premise is that joyless self-denial is not a workable long-term strategy, but there’s no one size fits all approach to weight loss or maintenance, so she offers a vast array of pick and mix (mmmm… pick and mix) tips and suggestions ranging from big lifestyle change stuff to tiny tweaks and tricks. Reading it definitely made me refocus on losing weight, and some of the tips – dark chocolate, 5:2, fanatical adherence to the pedometer – have filtered into my life or been reinforced where I was already doing them. Will reading this book make you thin if you have a lifelong problem with obesity? On its own, no, but if you’re already in the right frame of mind it could make the whole endeavour feel more manageable. Could it be helpful if you’re a healthy weight and need to maintain it, or need to lose 5-10lbs before the fatness situation gets out of hand? Yes. I think it probably could.

So those were July’s books. I’m now another two books behind schedule, so only need to get through 18 in August to catch up. Gulp!

In unrelated news, my own first novel, Sweet Nothing, is out in paperback this week. Those of you who are twitter peoples, keep an eye on @MsAlisonMay tomorrow for a chance to win a signed copy.

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – June

I’ve reached the halfway point in the 52 Weeks:52 books challenge in terms of time, but I’m still well short of halfway in terms of books read. July and August really need to be months of Awesome Readingness to get me back on track. During June I read

Book 18: Sarah Rayner – The Two Week Wait

Book 19: Clare Mackintosh – I Let You Go

I also strongly feel that I read something else, but I can’t remember what it was so I can’t get the points for it. Given that I’m seven books behind schedule this is deeply frustrating, but I’ve rifled through the book shelves and bedside table and scrolled through my kindle and I can’t work out what it might have been. Clearly, I’ve either made the whole experience up, or it was a seriously unmemorable read.

Both the books I do remember reading covered big emotive subjects. The Two Week Wait is about infertility and IVF and looks at egg and sperm donors. I Let You Go looks at the aftermath of the death of a child in a hit and run incident. As a writer I firmly believe that emotion is everything. You can have all the whizzy bangy plot in the world going on, and all the amusing japes you can think of, if the main characters’ emotional stories aren’t right the whole thing ends up feeling a little bit flat.

For me that was exactly what Clare Mackintosh gets right in I Let You Go. A lot of the reviews I’ve seen have focused on the twisty-turny plotting, but to be honest that wasn’t the thing that I fell in love with in this book. It’s beautifully done and works very well, but the thing that drew me in was the emotional story, and the way in which all the major characters are nuanced and flawed. Nobody is 100% good or 100% bad. With the most repellent character in the story Mackintosh uses a first person narrative voice to put you inside the character’s view of the world. It’s chilling, but makes him three-dimensional in a way that viewing him from the outside might not. I Let You Go is already a massive bestseller, and deservedly so – if you haven’t read it already I heartily recommend it, with only a small hint of insane depression about how this is Clare Mackintosh’s debut. First books really shouldn’t be this good; it’s terribly discouraging for the rest of us.

Even though I only read (or at least only remember) two books this month, I think the books I have read have reignited my enthusiasm for the 52 Weeks: 52 Books project. Part of the idea, in addition to rediscovering the reading joy, was that good writers need to read, and this month I’ve definitely felt as though the reading was feeding into my writing brain, rather than distracting from writing, which is excellent. So now I just need to read 11 books in July to get back on schedule. Eeeek.

Feel free to tell us what you’re reading in the comments, and if you’re stuck for a book then this is a jolly good place to start.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – May

So I’ve made it to the end of month 5 in my 52 Weeks: 52 Books challenge. By now I should be up to 21 or 22 books. Hmmm… During May I read

Book 16: Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man

Book 17: Adele Parks – The State We’re In

So I think we can say that I am now very definitely behind schedule. What I seem to have proved, as if I didn’t know it already, is that writing a lot and reading a lot are mutually exclusive. During May I did the final edit of my new book, Midsummer Dreams, and wrote about 30k on my next book. Reading fiction just seems to be too much story to hold in my head when I deep in working on a book, or in the case two books. Maybe this is the sort of period where I’d be better off trying some non-fiction.

Anyway, looking at the books I actually read, I don’t have very much to say, which is a problem given the whole nature of blogging – I really am supposed to have stuff to say, but I talked about The Autograph Man quite a lot in my April review, and the only bit of the Adele Parks’ novel I have proper thoughts about is the ending. Unfortunately the book comes with a note from the publisher begging readers not to discuss the ending, so that’s a tad awkward. What I can say about The State We’re In is that the story, characterisation and atmosphere are excellent, especially once the hero and heroine meet up and are together on the page. And the ending – which I’m going to be good about and not give away – gave me rage. Proper, how very dare she, rage. A quick squizz through the online reviews suggests that it’s a love or hate ending. It definitely packs an emotional punch, but whether that’s from the story or from exasperation with the writer seems to divide opinion. Putting aside the ending – which I really can’t talk about anymore for fear of crack agents from the publisher storming the building – the rest of the book is very well done indeed.

All of which is fine and dandy, but doesn’t really make me feel like I’m getting any closer to cracking the conundrum of how you make time and brainspace to read a lot when you also need or want to write a lot. Still seven months to go though… onward!

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – April

It’s election day, so after three days of politically oriented blogging (one, two, three), I shall stop wittering on about political nerdery issues and refocus on the important stuff in life: Books. Please stick around and read on. Assuming you’ve already voted. If not, go do that first. I’m now four months into my 52 Weeks: 52 Books challenge, and here’s what I read during April.

Book 13: CJ Samson – Lamentation

Book 14: Alexander McCall Smith – The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Book 15: Alice Peterson – By My Side

And I’m currently stalled on Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, which is bad, because to stay on target I really should have finished another book by now. All of this month’s books had strengths and weaknesses for me. My favourite was Lamentation. I’m a big CJ Sansom fan, and I particularly like the Shardlake series, to which this is the most recent addition. My only qualm here was that it’s a bit overlong. It’s still a very good book, but a slightly more aggressive edit in the first two thirds wouldn’t have done it any harm at all.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency books until this month. I’m not really sure how I managed that. There are at least 78000 of them, so I’m not at all clear how they managed to pass me by. This one, the first in the series, was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. Gentle, soothing, beautifully written, the book equivalent of slipping into a nice warm bath. Jolly good.

My main reflection for this month though, comes not from the books I read, but from the book I’m stalled on. Again, I’m realising just how much I like story. The Autograph Man is beautifully written, but I’m just gasping for something to happen that propels things forward. I suspect it’s going to be one of those books about how ultimately nothing and nobody ever changes, which is perfectly fine as a philosophical viewpoint, but just a little bit dull as a reader. I don’t think that’s always the case. I think you can go lighter on plot if you have amazing characters – I think some of Zadie Smith’s other work probably demonstrates that – but in this one I’m not finding the main character particularly engaging, so I’m really missing having a riveting plot to drag me along. I suspect that’s partly to do with where my brain is in writing terms. I’m in the first third of writing my next book, so my brain is holding all the potential characters and stories for that book, and I’ve also read my next book for editing again, and read a complete manuscript for a critique client this month. With all of that in my brain I think I do need to books I’m reading to really grab me by the scruff of the neck. So my current quandary is whether to ditch The Autograph Man or whether to plough on. Normally I only ditch a book if I get to page 100 and I’m not feeling it. I’m past page 100 with this one, but it’s slow going. Is it better to read on or to admit defeat? I’m undecided.

52 Weeks: 52 Books – March

We’re three months through the 52 Weeks: 52 Books reading extravaganza now, and after February’s glut of reading, the pace slowed a little during March, and I only read two books this month, and half of CJ Sansom’s Lamentation. In my defense, Lamentation is really long, and I’ve got it in hardback so it’s also really heavy, which means I can only hold it up to read for relatively short periods. Seriously it’s a massive great brick of a thing. I’m living in terror of dropping it on my face and breaking my nose.

Anyway, the books that I have read were:

Book 11: Katy Regan – The Story of You

Book 12: Terry Pratchett – Guards! Guards!

The Story of You is a women’s fiction/chick lit (nope – I still haven’t settled on a better term) novel about a community psychiatric nurse. It’s a proper page-turner. I absolutely whipped through it despite there being elements of the heroine’s behaviour that gave me severe range (seriously – patient confidentiality anyone??). It was a really interesting read in that I could write chapter and verse about the things that I didn’t think worked, but at no point did I ever think of putting the book down and walking away. There’s a lesson for writers there – if the story is utterly engrossing, you can basically do anything you like with the rest of the novel.

My second book for the month was an impulse read that I picked up the day after Terry Pratchett went for his walk with Death. I’ve loved Terry Pratchett since I was a teenager and am still in love with his work right through to today. He used an entirely imagined place to say very serious things about the real world, but without ever slipping into preaching or lecturing. Everything he wanted to say, was said through story. Guards! Guards! is the eighth Discworld novel, and the first to focus on Sam Vimes and the City Watch. The Watch are probably my favourite set of Discworld characters, although I do like Death, and the Witches, and well, the point is Discworld books are awesome. When Terry P’s death was announced via Twitter I was sad to a level that seemed kind of unbecoming over a man I’d never met. If you’ve never read any of his work, then you’ve got lots of be happy about – there are forty-one Discworld books, and further children’s books, and stand alone novels written alone and in collaboration with others. (Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman is particularly brilliant.) Read one today.

So far as 52 Weeks: 52 Books goes, it has been a slow month. This partly because of the massiveness of Lamentation, but also because I’ve been doing edits on my soon-to-be-released novel for Choc Lit, which means that I’ve read that book three times during March, and I’ve probably got at least one more read through to go. I think editing and revising a manuscript probably puts the brakes on reading even more than actual writing does. Revising is all about holding the intricacies and the structure of a story in your head and mentally tweaking and adding and taking away until you feel like the whole thing hangs together. I find it incredibly difficult to do that whilst also giving attention to other stories.

So that was March. Come back in a month and we’ll find out how April goes – specifically whether I manage to finish Lamentation without doing myself an injury.

 

52 Weeks: 52 Books – February

The 52 Weeks: 52 Books project continues. I read four books in January and seem to have picked up the pace a bit in February, so here’s the rundown of my month in books:

Book 5: Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison

Book 6: Marian Keyes – The Woman Who Stole My Life

Book 7: Malcolm Gladwell – David & Goliath

Book 8: Stella Newman – Pear Shaped

Book 9: Sophie Ranald – It Would Be Wrong To Steal My Sister’s Boyfriend (wouldn’t it?)

Book 10: Dorothy Koomson – The Flavours of Love

So that’s a very impressive six books in four weeks – well 5 and a half books really as I started Strong Poison in January, but I’m still ahead of the curve and the whole 52 books in 52 weeks is looking entirely achievable at this point. However, although I’ve read A Lot during February, I’ve written very little, so  it looks like my old concern that when I write more I read less, might also be true in reverse as well. Hmmm…

Anyway, onto the specific books, I said at the outset that this wasn’t going to be a book review project, and it’s not, but I have quite a lot of thoughts about this month’s reading. I shall endeavour not to let those thoughts become too rambling. In fact, I shall actively organise them into a numbered list. (Readers of the rest of my blog will know how much I like a numbered list. A lot. That’s how much.)

Thought 1: Reading too close to what you’re writing is tricksy

This month’s reading included books by Stella Newman and Sophie Ranald – both up and coming writers on the less cutesy end of chick lit, and both are decent books with lots and lots of positive reviews. I liked a lot about both books and read them both quite quickly, but found myself completely unable to switch off my inner editor. I was reading with two levels of thought going on. Level one was my brain taking in what was actually happening in the book. Level two was a constant narrative of… ‘Oooh, she’s used present perfect continuous there… why’s she done that? Would it be better in past perfect? How would that work?…. Oh, I see, she’s using the food as a motif for… does that work? Is it a bit heavy handed? Maybe not. It needs to be clear, but… Interesting – this heroine isn’t that sympathetic. My heroine-in-progress might be a bit unsympathetic. Is that a problem? How’s she dealt with it here?…’ All of which is a little bit distracting from just reading the sodding book.

I’ve blogged before about the ways in which writing can break the enjoyment of reading, and part of the aim of 52 Weeks: 52 Books is to try to work through that problem. I think that – at least for books in my own genre – I’ve still got a bit of a way to go.

 

Thought 2: Reading books you don’t expect to like can be awesome

My first book this month was Strong Poison by Dorothy L Sayers, first published in 1930. This is the fifth book in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and was recommended to me by my crime-fiction obsessed sister because it’s the first where Harriet Vane, Wimsey’s ongoing love interest, appears. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this half as much as I did. I was expecting it to be old-fashioned and just not my sort of thing at all, but actually it was really fun. Some of the language is a bit antiquated, but I suspect there was a bit of an element of pastiche going on there even when it was written, and it’s very clever and, in places, very funny. Harriet particularly, generally believed to have been based on Sayers herself, is a fantastically modern character.

I’m going to mark Strong Poison as a big success for the whole 52 Weeks: 52 Books concept. It’s a book I wouldn’t normally read, but I really enjoyed it, and would definitely read more Lord Peter Wimsey books in the future. Hurrah.

 

Thought 3: Non-fiction rocks

There are readers out there who religiously only read fiction, or only read non-fiction. These people are wrong-headed. I’m absolutely a fiction girl at heart, but a bit of well-written non-fiction thrown into the mix is always good, and snobbery against either form is stupid.

So, if you’re looking for some well-written non-fiction then Malcolm Gladwell is a pretty good place to start. David & Goliath is all about underdogs and situations in which an apparent underdog actually has a substantial advantage. It touches on the American civil rights movement, guerrilla warfare, basketball tactics, and medical research. Properly interesting stuff.

 

I have lots of other thoughts (including ‘Marian Keyes rocks’ which is a general background sort of thought I have most of the time, and ‘Oooh, Dorothy Koomson has sort of switched genres a couple of times – it can be done…’) but I think that’s probably enough rambling about reading for one blog post.  So feel free to join in in the commenting area. What have you been reading during February? Have you read any of the books listed- what were your thoughts? And anything else vaguely reading related… off you go.

 

And if you’d like to add the odd Alison May tome to your own To Read pile you can do that here.