Not reading about Alexander Hamilton

It’s that time of year when your mind turns to all of your failed new year’s resolutions from January.

Earlier this week, I looked back at my list of resolutions and actually, I’ve done okay on some of these. But today I wanted to re-visit number 3 in particular which was: read more non-fiction. I noted at the start of this year that the only non-fiction I ever seemed to read is ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’.

Let’s cast an appraising eye over 2017 and see how this is going. Fortunately for me, and you all, I have succeeded in my resolution of keeping a list of all the books I’ve read this year, and so here is how the non-fiction tally looks so far:

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

And that’s it. Apart from business books read for work, this is the entire non-fiction list in all its glory. All of these books were excellent in their different ways and well worth reading. I would recommend them to you were it not for the fact that 5,000 other people have already done so because they are indeed ‘the non-fiction books that everyone has read’. They are the non-fiction books that people who basically prefer to read fiction have read. They are to 2017 non-fiction publishing what Despacito is to 2017 summer holiday tunes.

I realised this some time around mid-October, but in just the same way that in mid-October, it still feels entirely possible that you can lose a stone by Christmas, I decided in mid-October that it was still entirely possible that I could read an 832-page biography of Alexander Hamilton by 9 December, the much-anticipated date on which I was going to see the show.

hamilton

The eagle-eyed among you will note that 9 December is now just two days away. So let me share how this is going so far. I have read about 80% of the free Kindle sample of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It is very good! I know almost everything that happened to Alexander Hamilton before he got to age 15! Plus quite a bit of stuff about his parents! And in my defence, because the book is so long, the Kindle free sample is also long.

Around mid-November, realising I had three books to edit before 9 December, and with my goal of the whole 832 pages looking increasingly unlikely, I scaled down my expectations and decided that maybe reading a novel about Alexander Hamilton was more achievable. So I downloaded this one. Which I still haven’t started.

So. I now have less than 48 hours to go (I’m going to the matinee) and know virtually nothing about Hamilton apart from what I can dimly remember from my history degree 20 years ago and what he got up to as a young child – which I’m guessing probably isn’t the focus of the musical. Even reading Hamilton’s whole Wikipedia page at this point is starting to feel ambitious. So if anyone wants to sum up the key points of his life in a tweet or a brief email, that would be great. And any recommendations for shorter and more surprising non-fiction that I could polish off in the next three weeks would also be much appreciated.

 

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On young boys and ‘proper books’

A few weeks ago, an adult who should have known better made the mistake of saying to my eight-year-old son: ‘If you want to go to a good school and do well in your education, you need to read proper books, not stuff like Wimpy Kid.’ She then helpfully went on to give some examples of some ‘proper books’ that he should instead be reading: Treasure Island was one, The Wind in the Willows was another. It’s all about the language used, you see.

wimpy kid

Sadly I wasn’t present for this conversation or I would have responded with a (probably shorter and less politely-worded) version of what I’m about to say now. It’s unlikely, but perhaps she’s reading this post, in which I will explain why I found her comment so ill-judged. 

An eight-year-old boy’s enthusiasm for reading is a fragile thing. Perhaps it always has been, but it is doubly so now given the range of other entertainment options on offer. When I was eight, I could play with my 1980s toys, I could go to Fog Lane Park, or I could read a book. That was pretty much it. I guess there was also Blue Peter. How different from the life of a child in 2017 and all its digital temptations. Until this time last year my son would read reasonably willingly, but always prompted by me, and always with me, to me, or listening to me. 

And then last autumn, everything changed. The catalyst for this change was, as I suspect it often is, J.K. Rowling. I never read the Harry Potter books myself, and so J.K.’s ascension to the figure of deity happened for me much later than it did for many others. In my case, it was prompted by my son’s newly discovered passion for reading fiction coinciding with Rowling’s characteristically courageous and principled stand on the current dire state of the Labour Party.

Once my son started to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, he didn’t look back. I stopped reading to him, and he finished it alone, followed by the other six books in the series. And then the Cursed Child, and the Beedle the Bard one and the one about Quidditch. What those of us who love reading fiction already know is that it’s like a drug. So once he’d finished reading Rowling’s entire children’s oeuvre, he moved on, in search of the same type of entertainment offered by Harry Potter, now that he knew he could do it alone. And he moved on to the other things that eight-year-old boys read, including the Wimpy Kid series. Am I confident that this reading enthusiasm will last throughout his teenage years, withstanding all modern distractions of games, phones, Youtube, Netflix and so on? No I am not. And this is the reason why a grown-up telling him that the sort of books he enjoys reading are the wrong sort to read is such a terrible idea. 

Until my child was on the receiving end of this comment, I hadn’t read any of the Wimpy Kid books. I’d asked him for a brief synopsis, but he seemed weirdly unable to summarise the plot. Since nothing gets me crosser than an accusation of a book not being a ‘proper book’, I dipped in, and I immediately saw why he found it so difficult to pitch them to me, as we say in the biz. The Wimpy Kid books are books about a normal boy, in normal situations. From the short section I read, they seem quite funny. In this particular bit, Greg’s mum had decided to go to an evening class to improve her career prospects and the boys in the family were all left to fend for themselves. They thought it would be great, and they’d all get to eat unhealthy dinners and have loads of unsupervised fun. Of course it went wrong and they couldn’t cope without her. It wasn’t Anna Karenina, but I could see why a boy of his age would enjoy it. It was wittily told and illustrated and it taught an important lesson: don’t undervalue the contribution of your bossy yet excellently organised mother.

I will confess, I have never read Treasure Island and I have never read The Wind in the Willows. Yet here I am struggling on, with my state school education and my lack of knowledge of Ratty, Moley and whatever the other two are called; despite these disadvantages, I managed to scrape together a first class degree and a good job in publishing. I suspect the reason why I never read either of those books in the first place is the same reason why the Wimpy Kid books are so popular. It’s all about what you can relate to. I’m not interested in pirates, and I’m not interested in woodland animals. I’m sure that they are both brilliant books with much more to offer and more universal themes at their heart, but unfortunately the fact that they appeared, on the surface, to be about pirates and woodland animals meant that I never read them. For the same reason, I never read The Life of Pi as an adult. Friends tell me it is excellent, but I am just never going to read a book about someone stuck on a boat with a tiger. 

Books that draw scorn from literary snobs tend have three things in common: 1. Massive sales 2. Accessibility and 3. Relate-ability, for want of a better word. The final point is so important. It is what fuelled the so-called ‘chick-lit boom’ of the late nineties and early noughties. These were books about everyday women’s problems, that everyday women could empathise with, and read with ease and pleasure. They were seen as not being sufficiently ‘deep’ and some of their covers were pink and so derision was heaped upon them by people who never actually bothered to read them. The same factor is at play in the current popularity of domestic psychological suspense. Of course, not all of us have lying murdering psychopaths for husbands, but the set ups in these novels are close enough to our world, our relationships, our families, that emotionally, we get it. With one small twist of fate, this could be you, these books are saying – and that is what makes the psychological thriller so compelling. 

There are some people who will always believe that a book needs to be difficult to read in order to be good. Plus ca change etc… these people are wrong, as I have written about in different contexts and at length elsewhere. But if you’re going to start telling people what they should and shouldn’t be reading, start with a 40-year-old woman who can argue her case on the internet, and leave a young boy, who has only just discovered a love of reading that needs to be nurtured, alone. 

Holiday reading: the books

So here it is. The final selection, and I must say I’m feeling pretty confident about them all. The eagle-eyed among you may notice that I have broken one of my own rules. Yes there are a couple of over-hyped debuts in this list, but they have been so wholeheartedly recommended to me by everyone I trust that I believe they will prove to be not over-hyped, but rather justly hyped. 

Only one of these books is an actual print book, so in the absence of the ‘towering pile of holiday books’ photo, here is a collage of my holiday books on a variety of devices, most of which I still have to locate and pack chargers for in the next 48 hours.

Holiday 7holiday 6holiday 3holiday 2

holiday 1holiday 5holiday 8

The other fairly crucial rule I’ve broken is that I’ve actually read one and a half of these ‘holiday’ books already. I’ve read the Lisa Jewell in its entirety and I started the Julie Cohen last night, a full three days before my plane takes off. I’m confident that with small children taken into account, the remainder of this lot will still last me a fortnight. 

I’ll report back on my hit rate in due course. 

How to make your holiday reading work for you!

How’s that for a clickbaity title?

There are many topics on which I can be bossy and dogmatic, but people who have been on holiday with me will confirm that there are few topics on which I’m more dogmatic than the importance of getting your holiday reading right. This may be annoying, but there is a good reason for my dogma and the reason is this: I (virtually) always get my holiday reading right – I take books that I know I will love reading, and I am proved correct. Other people I’m on holiday with often get their reading wrong, and spend a week or two pretending to enjoy their books, whilst putting them down every few minutes to go and look at a lizard next to the swimming pool. I can tell they are not enjoying their holiday books, but they are often too embarrassed or stubborn to admit this.

There was an early phase in my relationship with my husband during which he took a book called Democracy in Europe on holiday with him every year, and failed to finish reading it every year. He eventually did finish reading it, and confirmed that it was a good book. But this did not invalidate my original point: that he should never have taken it on holiday.

So, it’s not rocket science is it? What this conclusively proves is that I am right and you should all listen to me. I can’t imagine how this might be interpreted as bossy; it is simply a matter of the application of science. And in return, I will be happy to take your advice in other areas of life about which I know less than you do, whatever those areas may be.

Ah, I hear you say, but what if I don’t like the same sorts of books that you, Jenny, do? That does not matter, because as you will see, these are general all-encompassing rules that can be applied to you differently, whatever your tastes.

Here be the rules:

1. RISK.  How much of a risk you are willing to take on your holiday reading should be flexed according to two factors:

a. Are you going on holiday to Britain, Ireland, the USA or another country where you read the local language and will be staying close to a bookshop?

b. Do you have an e-reader and reliable wifi at your holiday destination?

If the answer to either or both of those questions is yes, then there’s good news: you can feel free to take more risks with your holiday books. It doesn’t really matter too much if some or all of your holiday reading choices turn out to be disappointing, because you can just buy some new and different books while you’re there. However, there is still an opportunity cost and a financial cost attached to taking bad books on holiday so, to be honest, you’re probably still best off following all the rules below anyway.

2. SELF-KNOWLEDGE. Be honest with yourself about who you are and what you like to read. Because I don’t know you, I don’t know what you like to read. But I do know that my husband spent many years thinking he was the sort of person who liked to read Democracy in Europe on holiday, when actually I knew all along that he was the sort of person who liked to read Robert Harris on holiday. Stop caring about everything other than your holiday reading pleasure. Don’t care about looking clever around the pool (you are clever), don’t care about ‘having time to read books that I’ll never get around to in my normal life’ (because, guess what, the reason you never got to those books in normal life is not because you don’t have time, it’s because you’ve never made time because you don’t care enough about reading them.) Sitting in 32 degree heat with people splashing around in a swimming pool in front of you is not the time to concentrate on that 800-page experimental novel you never got round to reading on your commute.

3. GRIP. You may think from the above that what I’m getting at is that you should read just ‘easy light reading’ books on holiday or just read commercial fiction rather than literary fiction. But you would be wrong. I have read some great intelligent non-fiction on holiday, I have read some great literary novels. The key factor is grip. Think about the books that have gripped you most throughout your life – one of these books may have been Democracy in Europe. That’s fine, in which case you should definitely pack more books by Larry Siedentop for your next holiday. The thing is to identify what are the factors that make a book gripping, for you. And then once you’ve identified these things, try as hard as you can to find them in similar books. If you have no idea what these other books are, ask a well-informed literary friend, your local bookseller, or use the Amazon ‘also bought’ function for ideas.

4. BEWARE THE OVER-HYPED DEBUT. And I say this with great self-knowledge. I work in publishing and therefore I love an over-hyped debut more than the next person. At any other time of the year, I will fall on an over-hyped debut with glee and anticipation. But on holiday, the over-hyped debut is the biggest risk of all. The fact that 9 desperate editors offered six-figure sums for a book in the week before Frankfurt is not a sign that you will enjoy reading it on your holiday.

Authors you already know that you love are the safest of all and should be first in your suitcase, authors you know that other people have loved and bought in their hundreds of thousands reduce the risk somewhat (although not entirely – see point below). An over-hyped debut is highly untested and therefore high risk. You may get lucky, but if you don’t, then don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5. BE CAREFUL WITH RECOMMENDATIONS. Recommendations can be great. A recommendation from the right person, thrusting a book into your hands – or emailing a link to your iPad – can be a delight. But how do you know who to trust? Beware recommendations from: people you don’t know on twitter, literary prize committees and beware most of all the recommendations in broadsheet ‘summer reading’ round-ups. All of the above have agendas themselves and therefore cannot be trusted to deliver a truly fun holiday read. I would suggest that you can trust one sort of person only – a person who likes the same sorts of books as you, and who says, with unreserved enthusiasm ‘this book is brilliant and I know that you will love it’. Watching out for the exact wording is vital because even usually trustworthy deliverers of good holiday reads – like my sister – sometimes say things like ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so that we can discuss it’, which invariably means ‘I’m desperate for you to read this so we can discuss how massively disappointing the twist turns out to be’. Interrogate your recommender at great length.

6. VARIETY MATTERS. This may seem contradictory with some of the above but I’ll put it out there anyway. Ensure that your holiday reading contains sufficient variety. Even if you have identified yourself as the sort of person who loves reading psychological thrillers on holiday, I’d still be careful about taking 8 of them away with you. I went on a 2-week holiday to Corsica in the year 2000, when the comic women’s fiction market was still at its peak. And having read several very good but somewhat similar books in this genre, I was delighted to find an old copy of Jose Saramago’s Blindness in the holiday villa. I would normally consider literary fiction in translation the highest of holiday risks. But it a brilliant and unputdownable book, and I was in need of a break from Mr Right hilarity.

7. THE SLOWER YOU READ, THE MORE IMPORTANT THESE RULES ARE. This is the rule of rules. In the days when I got through five books in a week on holiday, one or two dodgy books mattered less. Post children, I can usually manage three average-length novels in a week, or five in a fortnight. If you are a slower reader, or you’re going on a holiday where you won’t have a chance to read much, you may read even fewer than this so it makes it even more necessary that each one holds its own.

You only get a small amount of holiday a year and you only get one chance to pick your books. As Jack says to Rose in Titanic: make it count.

SOME IDEAS

If anyone’s interested in some actual book tips, here are some books that I remember reading on holiday with great fondness:

THE WOMAN IN WHITE BY WILKIE COLLINS – This book for me is the absolute apex of holiday reading joy. It is a literary classic, and it is also a properly gripping thriller. I read it on a holiday which was in every other way disappointing: crap house in the Dordogne, no beach (obvs I could have predicted that, it being the Dordogne, but I didn’t fully think it through), crap weather, I got hayfever for the first time ever and I was at that point vegetarian and so couldn’t find anything to eat in a local restaurant that wasn’t a cheese omelette. But this book made my holiday, and I recommend it to all.

THE BIGGEST GAME IN TOWN BY AL ALVAREZ – I’m not someone who believes that just because you’re going to Kefalonia, you have to take Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. But I read this book in Las Vegas, and if you have any interest at all in poker, Vegas or reading about one or both, this is ace (geddit?).

EMILY GIFFIN or JENNIFER WEINER I’ve read too many by both on too many holidays to list here but it’s very hard to go wrong. People who think commercial women’s fiction isn’t also clever should be beaten over the head with a copy of one of Giffin’s or Weiner’s novels until they see the light. Here is a photo of my most joyous flight ever, when the baby fell asleep on me and let me read Jennifer Weiner’s Who Do You Love? all the way home from Mallorca.

nath on a plane

AFTER THE PARTY BY LISA JEWELL This book has a special place in my holiday reading heart, because it is about previously carefree and childless people coping with the changes wrought by having children. And I read it on my first holiday post-children which was… somewhat different to what I was used to. This book made me feel that I wasn’t the only one, and that’s what all the very best books should do.

BLINDNESS BY JOSE SARAMAGO See above. Seriously, it’s outstanding. If you think my taste is too commercial for you, then you can ignore the other suggestions and just pick this. It’s a political parable, but with the plot and pace of a dystopian thriller.

Happy holidays! I will report back from my own in late August with any new and unmissable tips.

 

On Option B and leaning in

I’ve just finished reading Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. It’s all over the place at the moment, so I’m probably telling you what you already know, which is that it is part memoir, part self help, part study of the psychological impact of death and bereavement, inspired by the death of Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg, at the tragic age of 47. I thought it was very good indeed.

option b

I was a qualified fan of Lean In. Like many others, I had issues with it – yes, it was overwhelmingly focused on the privileged; yes, it wasn’t focused enough on how you can lean in all you like, and some combination of bad circumstances, bad employers, the inequalities of the parental leave system (or, in the case of the US, no proper parental leave system at all) and societal prejudice can still keep pushing you right back; and yes it hugely underplayed the family sacrifices that are required from anyone – female or male – who chooses to get to the top of their chosen field.

But for all of that, it contained a lot of excellent advice and was an overwhelmingly positive contribution to a conversation in which there are still, every day, so many overwhelmingly negative ones. And one of the strongest sections of all to my mind was the one that I immediately thought of when I heard that Dave Goldberg had died – the chapter ‘Make Your Partner a Real Partner’ in which Sandberg says that one’s choice of life partner is hugely important to any woman who is serious about pursuing her career post-children.

Interestingly, this seems to be one bit of Lean In that Sandberg now regrets: ‘When I wrote Lean In, some people argued that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they don’t have a partner. They were right. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. I wrote … about the importance of couples splitting child care and housework 50/50. Now I see how insensitive and unhelpful this was to so many single moms who live with 100/0’.

Sandberg’s loss has given her a new, undesired, radical change of perspective. She is being somewhat unfair to herself and her earlier book here, because the fact that a married parent has no conception of how hard it is to be a single parent does not change the essential rightness of her advice: for those who are in a relationship and have a career, the division of labour is of vital importance. But her disarming honesty about her own experience in Option B, coupled with the research in the book, and the genuinely ‘practical’ approach of steps one can take to deal with and move beyond loss (Sandberg and Grant are careful to distinguish ‘moving beyond’ from ‘getting over’), make the book very powerful.

My father died in 2013, and when he died, all the usual good people in my life did all the usual good things. But one of the best things that bookish people do in virtually any situation, however serious, is recommend books that you might want to read, and that they think might help you. And so during this period (much like all those other life periods) I read a lot. The majority of the books I read were memoirs, and the highlight among them was the brilliant Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I’m sure needs no introduction. I have since seen the film, scripted by Nick Hornby, which I loved almost as much as the book. But as much as I loved Wild, it is generally inspirational, rather than specifically useful.  ‘I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother knew I could be’ says Strayed in the film. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that? In the months following my dad’s death, I was mainly spending 10 hours a day in the office whilst looking after a small child and suffering from debilitating morning sickness. It felt almost possible that if I could somehow get myself into a position where I was hiking the Pacific Coast Trail like Strayed (something which, I should add, I would be utterly incapable of doing at even the healthiest and happiest time of my life) then perhaps I would discover some important life lessons that could help me through this difficult phase. But that clearly wasn’t an option for me – A, B, or C.

But the book that I felt I was lacking – or at least the book that I didn’t come across at the time – was a book like Option B. It has a strong combination of personal experience, efficient how-to-ness and reassuring statistical findings, that one can’t help but speculate appeals to someone of Sandberg’s get-it-done mindset, not to mention someone with her phenomenal workload. Unlike Lean In, it goes to great lengths (arguably too obviously so) to ensure that all types of suffering and loss are covered – as well as Sandberg’s personal story, she and Grant talk about the experiences of children who have lost parents, people who have lived through natural disasters, refugees who have fled persecution in their home countries and even Holocaust survivors. But my sense, without being able to speak for anyone else, is that there are things here that a lot of people recovering from a lot of different types of loss would find valuable.

And if I can end a post about such a serious book on a completely trivial note, Option B reveals that Sandberg is often in bed earlier than I am, a fact that I find almost as inspirational as anything in Lean In. I always suspected that my career might one day be limited by my need to be in bed by 10pm on a week night – but Sandberg is a shining example that this needn’t be the case. So I can now hold my head up in pride, lean in and admit that I haven’t watched Newsnight since early 2009.

On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

gruffalo

The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.

How much is Miller’s Valley worth?

This is the book blog equivalent of that game where you have to guess how many sweets are in the big jar. Although in this case, you win nothing except the opportunity to discuss Anna Quindlen with me. What a prize.

Background: I rarely read print books anymore, I even more rarely read hardbacks, and I even more rarely than that read hardbacks from the library. So it was a perfect storm of circumstances, involving me having a brief period off work in December and seeing this book (which I’ve wanted to read for a while) in the library whilst there with a child, and mistakenly believing that I would have time to read it, that made me get it out, on my child’s library card:

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I am a big fan of Anna Quindlen’s already and have heard good things about this one. It also has this quote on the back, which would have pretty much sold it to me alone, were I not already sold:

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However, despite best new year’s resolutions to the contrary, I have read nothing so far in January that is not work-related, and so I have not yet read Miller’s Valley, which was due back to the library in late December. And since I got it out of the library two things have happened:

  1. The library has closed for refurbishment until 11 February, and
  2. The library has introduced a new policy that even books taken out on a child’s card incur fines.

So, if anyone can use those two pieces of information to calculate how much it is going to eventually end up costing me to read Miller’s Valley (assuming I ever have time), I will record your answers and announce the winner at some future date. I’m guessing that whatever the answer is, it’s more than the book’s Kindle price of £7.99. Money I will happily give to my local library to protect its future, but given that this could end up being one of my most expensive reads ever, I am intrigued to know from those who have read Miller’s Valley whether they consider it worth this high price?

A literary history of the radiator

Those of you who know me in real life know that, family and friends aside, there’s nothing I love more than a radiator. Between the months of October and March I’m often found standing next to one in my house whilst having a conversation. I once went on holiday (a British holiday in December, I hasten to add) with two portable radiators in the boot of our car. I was mocked on arrival, but the enormous old house we were staying in turned out to be freezing with no central heating (I was young, it’s not a mistake I would ever make now) and we all ended up fighting over those two radiators like hungry animals with a scrap of meat.

I am wary of attempts to undermine and belittle the radiator. These come in many forms. ‘Don’t you just love a real fireplace?’ No, it makes one room unbearably hot, it makes my cheeks go red and scratchy, and then when you leave the room where the fireplace is, you’re freezing again. ‘Central heating dries out your skin.’ A necessary price. ‘Doesn’t the Aga create a lovely warmth in the room?’ Sadly, not as much warmth as a radiator, although I will settle for standing next to an Aga in a serious lack-of-radiators situation.

I am going to shoehorn something about books into this post soon don’t worry, it’s coming up…

Where is your favourite place to read? In bed, on the sofa, in the bath, on the train, on a sun lounger? I will read in all of these places, though if you’ve got your holiday booking right, you should really be on a holiday that is so hot, you can’t bear to read sitting on a sun lounger, and you will need to read like this, my favourite holiday reading position. Here I am reading I Am Pilgrim in Greece with my feet in a swimming pool.

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But my first ‘place to read’ love was on the floor next to the radiator. It’s where I always used to read books as a child. I had a beanbag when I was younger. I can remember many specific books I read on this beanbag, from Flowers in the Attic to Zola’s Germinal (#range). And then when I was a teenager, my parents bought me a lovely second hand green rocking chair, and I abandoned my beanbag. I’m fairly confident I didn’t read sitting next to the radiator again until my children were babies, and when they had a night of bad sleep, I used to sit outside their rooms waiting to make sure they were properly asleep before I went back to bed. I read The Help during the night sat next to a radiator like this with my older child, and I read Beautiful Ruins during the night sat next to a radiator with my younger child. Happy days!

But in this freezing cold week when everyone else is talking about the magic of snow, and I’m complaining about how bloody freezing it is, it occurred to me that reading next to the radiator need not just be an emergency scenario for lack of furniture or awkward children, it could be a planned location. And it’s still pretty good. It’s been my first week in my new job at Bookouture this week, and this is where I plan to do my Bookouture weekend reading:

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I have a significant birthday coming up later this year, and I’m hoping someone might take pity on me and buy me a beanbag whilst I’m still young enough to stand up easily from the floor.

 

What I did in my holidays

Tomorrow ends my extended holiday, my hiatus between jobs at Arrow and Bookouture, and I’m very much looking forward to rejoining the working world, remembering how to publish books and use my oyster card, and eating lunch and dinner later than noon and 6pm.

In the interests of keeping my 2017 reading-record resolution, I thought I’d end my time off with a list of everything I read during it, so here it is:

1. Lots of Bookouture reading, too much to list here, and I’m trying my best to keep the blog extra-curricular. But if you’re in search of something good to pre-order on ebook for the next few months, you can’t go wrong with this, this or this. (And you surely can’t have failed to spot this – still riding high at number 1, where it’s been throughout most of the festive season.)

2. Miss Jane by Brad Watson. An utterly beautiful book, both inside and out.

3. The Breakdown by B. A. Paris, which I’ve written about at more length here.

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. More here. And as well as reading the book, I spent much of my holiday not bothering to do a load of the things that the book had convinced me were a waste of my time.

4. Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx. I’m a longtime fan of Docx’s, and have been eagerly awaiting this one. It’s about three brothers who are taking their father to (possibly) end his life at Dignitas. It is funny and moving and sad about family relationships and life and death, but when I finished it, I tweeted this highlight about camping, which entirely chimes in with my own holiday world view:

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5. Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. More here.

6.  The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson. More here.

7. Some reading on digital publishing, and most recently The Everything Store by Brad Stone, about Jeff Bezos and Amazon. This is great story for all the reasons you already know, about the ways in which Bezos fulfilled his ambition for Amazon to be ‘the everything store’ and the perfect customer experience. But in addition to all of this, you get some fabulous stories of Bezos’ childhood which may help to reassure you about the oddities of your own children. Apparently when he was three he dismantled his cot with a screwdriver, because he wanted to sleep in a bed. So if your toddler does this, you no longer have to think ‘how extremely annoying’ but can instead think ‘excellent, perhaps this shows the dedication and drive that means s/he will grow up to be one of the world’s most successful business people. Hooray’.

I have also, with my 7-year-old, read parts of/watched parts of/ discussed at *great* length all things Harry Potter. I have never previously done the Harry Potter thing, magic and stuff being of zero interest to me personally. But despite my own muggleish reading tendencies, my exposure over the last few months has forced me to acknowledge what I already knew about J.K. Rowling from her adult books, i.e. that she is a fantastic storyteller. I may not know my wizards, but I do know my first chapters, and the one we have just read, The Riddle House from Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire is everything that a first chapter should be.

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2017 reading resolutions

I’ve seen a lot of people writing and heard a lot of people talking in the last few days about how they are not making any new year’s resolutions this year. Well, I am making loads, possibly more than any year in living memory. I was given a lovely engraved notebook at the end of last year:

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… and so have even gone to the effort of writing them all down in it, and they add up to an impressive nine. Ten would obviously be rounder, and I’ve tried hard to think of a realistic tenth one, but I can’t and I don’t want to overreach.

But now, time for some reading-specific ones. In the interests of this post not seeming too ‘me, me, me’, I’m also going to selflessly include some books that *you* should all read during 2017.

But first, the resolutions:

1. More non-work reading. This is every editor’s equivalent of ‘lose weight’ as resolutions go, i.e. we resolve to do it each year, and the whole enterprise has collapsed by halfway through January. Nonetheless, it’s an important goal. We all know how lucky we are to read for a living, but it’s hard (yet important) to read beyond the books we are publishing and considering for publication.

2. Keep a list of all the books I read this year. Those who know me will be astonished to know that I don’t already keep such a list, but I don’t, and it makes things tricky when people ask for recommendations (as they usually do around holidays and Christmas) and all you can think of are the books that you yourself have published. I used to keep a list as a youngster, complete with a 5-star rating system, and am planning to start again for the coming year.

3. Read more non-fiction. Fiction is what I love to read most, so with the limited time I have for extra-curricular reading, it’s what tends to get read. But whenever I do read some non-fiction I think: oh this is good, I should do it more often. The list of non-fiction I’ve read in the last few years is random and faintly ridiculous, tending to be made up of things I’m interested in (a bit of history and biography, a few books about if, how and when women can ‘have it all’, latterly some stuff about digital publishing) combined with ‘those non-fiction books that literally everyone has read’ – Being Mortal, Do No Harm and so on. So, if you have any surprising yet essential suggestions, do send them my way.

4. Bit more of a niche one, this: seek out more legal thrillers. A friend kindly sent me The Plea by Steve Cavanagh just before Christmas and told me I had to read him, so I shall. But beyond this, why aren’t there more legal thrillers being published and why aren’t more people talking about when and how they are going to make a serious comeback? I know of two excellent ones due for publication in 2018, but beyond this: I must hunt them down. Three of my favourites here, here, and of course here, for anyone else who may be looking.

5. Read The Goldfinch. Why haven’t I done this yet? I have no idea. I know I would love it, so think I have just been being contrary. Also it’s very long of course, which relates back to the point about non-work reading. It may have to be done in August or December, but it shall be done.

So there are my five, and five being a rounder number than nine, I will stop there and move on to what you should be reading in the early months of 2017:

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Little Deaths by Emma Flint. I have banged on about this relentlessly on twitter, so here is my final shout-out as it publishes next week. What everyone raving about it says is that it is ‘more than a thriller’, which is undoubtedly true, although at the same time vaguely insulting to books that are ‘just’ good thrillers. However, what everyone means is that it is simultaneously a mystery with a strong one-line pitch – you wake up one morning and your children are gone, and you are accused of their murder – and a brilliant literary novel about much more than just its mystery.

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The Breakdown by B. A. Paris. I have mentioned briefly already, but this is a must-read for everyone who loved her Behind Closed Doors last year. Someone on a blog somewhere said (sorry, blogger who I have forgotten – if you can identify yourself I will link to you!) that it reminded them of those old black and white ‘woman in peril’ Hollywood movies, which is exactly what I thought too, and it very specifically reminded me of Sorry, Wrong Number, one of my faves in that genre. It is gripping and great.

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Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner. Not out until June but my final read of 2016 was Missing, Presumed, which again, is ‘more than a thriller’ but also introduces DC Manon Bradshaw, possibly my favourite new fictional detective since I met Jackson Brodie. I thoroughly recommend the first to anyone who hasn’t yet read it, and Persons Unknown is thankfully going to be published in time for my summer holiday.