A long story about why I love my Kindle

It’s finally summer. The days of semi-decent English weather, inevitable penalty shoot-out disappointment, and people photographing stacks of holiday reading and putting the pictures on social media. In recent years, I’ve felt two things about these photos: 1. Envy at the number of books people without small children can read on holiday and 2. Surprise at their choice of format. So last week on Twitter, I asked the following question:

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I expected two responses to this tweet: 1. “You’re right of course” and 2. “I simply prefer reading physical books and consider that worth the extra suitcase space”. I did get some responses of both types, and both are perfectly sensible responses (the first one especially!) But I also got others that I found more puzzling and worthy of discussion.

All the things that could go wrong

I’ll deal with this one quickly – coincidentally, it is the title of the novel that my older child is reading on his Kindle right now…

Quite a few responses to my tweet focused on the potential pitfalls of taking a Kindle on holiday. Main dire scenarios predicted were: 1. Kindle breaking 2. Kindle getting lost 3. Kindle falling in the pool 4. Kindle overheating and 5. Foreign WiFi failure.

These are all valid concerns which make the fundamental error of assuming that I am the sort of person who would put all my holiday reading eggs into one device basket. In our household, we have two Kindle Paperwhites, one third generation Kindle, one Fire, two iPads and three phones with the Kindle app on them. I love the idea of carefree Jenny, who confidently slings one device into her hand luggage in a relaxed fashion, assuming it’s bound to be fine; I am so far from being that person that it is laughable.

Whilst I don’t have any hard data to back this up, I would bet that the risk of a Kindle breaking on holiday, even if you only have one, is statistically smaller than the risk of the few print books you take on holiday turning out to be disappointing and your being trapped on a small island with no means of buying something better. A fate too terrible to contemplate.

Guilt by association

A predominant response from publishing industry people to the question in my tweet was: ‘I associate my Kindle with work, print books are for pleasure’. This used to be my own position on e-readers (particularly in Sony e-reader days of yore) and so I do understand it. I tended to use an e-reader for reading manuscripts on submission, and obviously a significantly higher percentage of submissions read by editors are disappointing than are brilliant, and therefore I came to associate my Kindle with disappointing submissions. When I was relaxing, I wanted to read a paper book.

Two things changed this for me:

1. I started reading the books I loved on my Kindle too, and the more of these I read, the more the association shifted.

2. In terms of submissions, I became better at recognising publishable from unpublishable books more quickly and therefore even the work reading I was doing on my Kindle became heavily weighted towards good and exciting submissions over bad and disappointing ones. So even the work reading shifted positively.

Now that I have broken the ‘print books = pleasure” association, I find it hard to go back in the other direction. Because I now associate my Kindle with reading enjoyment, and because it is the main object I associate with relaxation, I find the practical inconveniences of a print book, and a hardback especially, pointless.

My theory on this is that it doesn’t and wouldn’t take much to shift any keen reader in either direction. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai – a book which I loved and have written about at greater length here – I read in hardback because a friend sent it to me in hardback. I spent the first few chapters thinking ‘how annoying – a hardback. It hurts my hands reading it in bed and makes my handbag heavy’. After that point, I became so absorbed in the book itself that I stopped even thinking of it as a hardback and when I saw it I didn’t think ‘a hardback, how annoying’, I thought ‘brilliant book, want to pick it up again’.

I prefer not to read on my phone, unless I have no other option. This is because I associate my phone with email, whatsapp, social media and various other ways in which people can ask me to do stuff. But when I asked a friend who reads novels on his phone what he likes about it, he gave all the same answers I would give about my Kindle: ease, convenience and most crucially of all for me, he said: ‘I guess I’ve come to like my phone library in the way others like books arranged on shelves around the room’. This is how I feel about my Kindle library, and whilst I can fully understand why readers love a room full of print books – because I still love one too – print readers conversely seem to find it harder to understand why I love an e-reader library full of books, or why someone might love a phone library full of books.

What is a book?

Genuine question. What do you consider to be a book? The responses to my tweet which intrigued and surprised me most of all were those which, in making the case for print over e, used the words ‘real books’ (‘real’ in this context being synonymous with print) or in some cases even just said ‘I don’t read ebooks because I love books’. As though what I am reading and enjoying on an e-reader is… an opera. Or a fish.

The ‘book’ in the form so many people consider to be ‘real’ and their favoured format (i.e. the current mass market paperback) is something that has existed for less than a century – a mere speck of human experience when placed alongside the whole history of words and storytelling. Is The Iliad not a proper book because it wasn’t originally printed at Clays in B-format paperback and purchased at Athens Waterstones? Are the books memorised by the characters in Ray Bradbury’s dystopia Fahrenheit 451 ‘real books’ or – devoid of their paper form – do they cease to have value?

Without wanting to minimise the packaging and printing achievements of my own brilliant industry, arguments which place format over words in the consideration of what is ‘real’ devalue the most important thing of all: the author and what that author has to say. It is reminiscent of the original vinyl vs CDs debate from back in the day. Yes, you can sit there endlessly debating whether a slightly crackly version of Abbey Road is better than a cleaner but less ‘rounded’ sound; ultimately you will realise that the whole conversation is mad, and that the only thing that matters is the songs.

Some responses to my tweet extended the ‘real books’ point to ‘real bookshops’ and ‘real businesses’. I love bookshops, I love spending time in them, I still use them a lot (admittedly more for buying gifts now than for myself). But to pretend that online retailers are not ‘real bookshops’ or ‘real businesses’, or indeed that they don’t present a different kind of joyful consumer experience, is nothing but head-in-the-sand denial. It assumes that your own form of reading that you like and happen to have got used to right now is the only way forever, and knowing what we know about human progress: how likely is that really?

I love my Kindle. Does that mean I won’t, thanks to some technological or other development in ten years’ time, move to reading on some other device that hasn’t even yet been invented? No, it doesn’t. All that is solid melts into air, as Karl Marx once wrote after someone accidentally dropped his book onto the holiday barbecue.

10 reasons why (I love my Kindle)

Finally, for what it’s worth, here are my own reasons why I love reading on a Kindle. For clarity I should say that my love of digital reading long preceded my professional move to digital publishing, so these are my reader thoughts, not my publisher thoughts.

1. Instant access. If I had to rank my reasons for loving ebooks, this would rank at number one. I can buy any book at the precise moment I want it, and start reading it immediately. Even Amazon Prime cannot compete with that for print books (though I’m sure it won’t be long before a drone can fling a paperback through your window within an hour of your placing an order…)

2. Reading in the dark. And this is number two. I cannot go to sleep without reading in bed first. Therefore if I go out and come home and my husband is already in bed with the light out, I can read in bed without disturbing him.

3. Ergonomics. I reckon this one is indisputable. E-readers are lighter, easier on your hands, easier to read in bed, easier on your neck, easier on your back in your handbag, easier to read on a sun lounger on holiday. You don’t even need to be holding the book to be reading it.

4. It’s not a screen! ‘I can’t bear to look at another screen’ is a common reason for preferring print books. An e-reader screen is not like a computer screen or a tablet screen or a phone screen, and nor does it have the potential for interruptions those other devices have because it doesn’t contain your email/whatsapp/social media/Spotify/news/other online distraction of choice.

5. Feeding a baby. A bit of a niche one, this, but it transformed my second maternity leave. The ability to read a book whilst feeding a baby – and, referring back to my earlier point, the ability to feed a baby in the night without turning the light on, should you be Gina-Fordishly inclined – is revolutionary. Amongst all the lies women are told about what will happen to them when they have a baby, the fact that they will never read a book again is up there at the top. But e-readers make it that little bit easier to do so more quickly.

6. Browsing and sampling. I love browsing in bookshops, but I also, in a different way, love shopping for books online. In a bookshop, all I have to go on is the blurb on the back of a book plus anything I might have heard about it. As I am a publisher, I AM WISE TO YOUR BLURB WRITING TRICKS, OTHER PUBLISHERS – and sadly, a good blurb and some artfully-chosen quotes alone are not going to be sufficient to sell to me. I want reader reviews, I want press reviews, I want to read a sample chapter at my leisure and I’m very specifically addicted to checking a book’s 3-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, as I have a firm belief that these give you the best idea of a book’s relative strengths and weaknesses. This is the topic for a whole other post, so I won’t elaborate for now…

7. Moving house. This could be the single strongest argument for digital publishing. Last time I moved house, I thought that digital publishers were missing a trick by not advertising on the side of Pickfords vans. Nothing makes you think ‘why do I have 300 dusty books I’m never going to read again?’ like having to move, unpack and dust them all.

8. A digital book can be in more than one place at once. I now find it irritating, when I am reading a paper book, that it is only in the place it is in. If I am downstairs and want to read it, I have to go upstairs and actually get the thing, rather than just picking up whichever device is closest to hand and syncing it. Who has time for that? It eats into vital reading time, I tell you.

9. Stats. Of course, you can work out what percentage of a printed book you have read using a quick bit of mental maths, and you can work out how long it takes you to read a book by timing yourself, but again – who has the time? I like to know that I have exactly 45 minutes left in my book so I can finish it on my way to work. Because I am geeky and sad.

10. Suitcase space, handbag space, house space. Which brings me back to my original tweet that kicked this all off. Whatever you need or want to take on holiday – shoes, clothes, nappies, toys, ski gear, water sports equipment – there is just no need to fill half a suitcase with books when you can fit a thousand books on a device smaller than just one of them.

But the gods of hubris will almost certainly punish me for writing this post by breaking my Kindle on holiday, so I hope you enjoyed reading it.

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Don’t Give Up

… Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush implored us in 1986. Or Winston Churchill did in 1941. They weren’t talking about books but had they been, I would have ignored all three of them.

Recently, a colleague said ‘You’re ruthless’. She was referring, I think and hope, not to my professional behaviour and general manner in the office, but to the number of books it struck her that I give up reading. So I have been thinking a bit more about this.

I do give up reading, and have in my life given up reading, an awful lot of books. Before I started writing this, I googled ‘giving up books’ and the top result was this piece here, the headline of which is ‘It’s Okay to Give Up on Mediocre Books Because We’re All Going to Die’. I would recommend a bigger and more all-encompassing rule which says: it’s okay to give up on good books too, and not just because we’re all going to die.

I don’t have hard data on how many books I have stopped reading in my life, but my sense is that it’s quite a lot, and it’s definitely more than most other people I know. I would argue, though, that because most people I know spend so long ploughing through the books they are clearly finding quite dull but still aren’t giving up, my method still equals more books read overall. I have kept a list of all the (non-work) books I’ve read in 2018 so far, and there are 20 of them. Just looking through this year on my Kindle, I can count a further 13 books that I have started reading and not finished – some of these after reading the Kindle free sample, and others after buying the actual book and reading a bit further. I can think of a further two hard copy printed books I started reading and gave up, so assuming that is the total it would mean I’ve given up 15 books for the 20 I’ve completed.

Is that a lot? Maybe. I’ve given up classics, literary prize winners and shortlistees and I’ve given up massive commercial bestsellers. I’ve given up books that trusted friends have told me I would love, books by authors I have previously loved, books that ‘everyone’ is talking about, and books for which 7 or 9 or 13 publishers offered six figure sums in hotly-contested auctions. In one case, I gave up a thriller because I guessed the twist on page 3. I gave up two books last weekend alone.

This may be a lot and it may show that I am ruthless and intolerant reader. But I have a proposition I like more, and it is this: I have (as Lola might say) a really very extremely incredibly strong sense of the sort of book I will like and I am able recognise it very quickly. What this means is that nearly all the books I finish I enjoy very much indeed. If you’re interested, here is the list of the lucky 20 that have been completed in 2018 and I would recommend almost all of them in one way or another.

2018 reads

And the book I am reading right now is this, The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. It is brilliant, I will most certainly finish it, I knew this within a few pages, and the friend who recommended it to me did so saying ‘it’s OSOT’. This means ‘our sort of thing’, which it undoubtedly is, and that’s a neat summary of what the 15 books I gave up were not, great though they may have been in other ways. They were not OSOT. Or at least (not wanting to speak for her) they were not MSOT. I would suggest that being able to recognise your own sort of thing within a book’s opening pages is a vital life skill that will save you many potentially wasted hours. You’re welcome!

(Footnote: if anyone is curious, it’s a total coincidence – admittedly quite an odd one – that I read The Wonder by Emma Donoghue just after Wonder by R.J. Palacio.)

Books of the year – all of them

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I’m doing it slightly differently this year. This is in no way a lazy cop-out because I can’t face choosing the best ones. But I went to all the effort this year of writing down every single (non-work) book I read, and so I thought I might as well write them all down here, along with some brief notes and hints about which would have been my books of the year, had I done them properly. This means more recommendations, which is always a good thing, and it relieves some of the pressure of having to pick favourites.

To be clear, this list does not include: books I’ve edited, published, or that Bookouture have published, or that I read on submission. That’s quite a lot of books, but here is the list of all the others:

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon – Brad Stone. The story of how Amazon went from being one guy with a good idea to the people who now deliver twelve items a day to my house.

Homecoming – Susie Steiner. Author of the more famous Manon Bradshaw thrillers. I loved this novel about a farming family.

Hillbilly Elegy – J. D. Vance. I feel like I should have a controversial view about what this says about Trump’s America. I don’t, but I liked it a lot.

The Girl Before – J. P. Delaney. First one to get a special award. There were several thousand massively hyped domestic psychological thrillers published in January/February 2017. This was, in my opinion, the best, and coincidentally (or not) it was also the most successful. So this wins my ‘best psychological thriller of early 2017’ award.

Silent Child – Sarah A. Denzil. Hugely gripping and hugely successful ebook bestseller. Kept one of my authors off the number 1 Kindle spot for several weeks so I wanted to hate it, but didn’t. Minor quibble: I guessed the ending early on.

Into the Water – Paula Hawkins. You all know what this one is or where have you been?

My Not-So-Perfect Life – Sophie Kinsella. This is Kinsella on top form. Properly hilarious, particularly on the topic of urban people going to the country, which is what I was/where I was when I read it.

The Fact of a Body – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. As the subtitle says, this is both a ‘true crime story’ of a murder and a memoir of the author’s family life. My one criticism was that the two strands didn’t fuse together/connect in a clear enough way for me, but each one separately was fascinating.

City of Friends – Joanna Trollope. Embarrassing admission that this was the first JT I ever read. I knew this was ridiculous beforehand, and reading it confirmed how ridiculous it was. Very much liked the book.

How Google Works – Eric Schmidt. What it sounds like – an interesting and inspirational book about how Google works. (The company, that is, not the actual search engine.)

Option B – Sheryl Sandberg. Have written about this one in detail here.

Daughters-in-Law – Joanna Trollope. See above – second Joanna Trollope I read!

The Night Visitor – Lucy Atkins. Brilliantly creepy thriller about female friendship, careers, jealousy and beetles.

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini. Honestly, this was my book of the year. You could argue that I’ve done this whole ‘listing all the books’ exercise to disguise the fact that my book of the year, shamefully, is a book that literally everyone else read nearly a decade ago. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. This is my perfect ‘type’ of book, and it is pretty close to being a perfect book. I didn’t read it for years because I was underwhelmed by The Kite Runner, but this was far better.

Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell. I always drop everything for the new Lisa Jewell, and this is a very good one. Both a gripping thriller and a heartbreaking family drama.

Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane. My first Dennis Lehane. An unusual book and tricky to pitch in a line. Loved the first half, didn’t think the second half worked, but still found it gripping and engaging.

The Seven Days of Us – Francesca Hornak. This is the book you want to read this week, as it’s all about being trapped in a house with difficult family members over the festive season. Great fun and also set in North Norfolk – always a plus.

His Bloody Project – Graeme MacRae Burnet. I was seriously put off reading this book for a long time by the title, which tries as hard as it can to sound like something I don’t want to read. But I loved it. So let that be a lesson to you, publishers. Make your book sound like something that doesn’t turn off the people who will want to read it.

Together – Julie Cohen. This one gets a special mention. Would probably make my ‘of the year’ list if I was doing a proper one. It has a mega twist that you either feel works, or ruins the whole thing, but I thought it *just* pulled it off.

The Party – Elizabeth Day. Very much liked this, but liked it less than Day’s Paradise City, which I read later on in the year. See below.

The Couple Next Door – Shari Lapena. Read this on my summer hols. Incredibly gripping but flawed. Undoubtedly the book of my summer holiday house however. Another person in our holiday party read it too and there were two copies already in the holiday villa. That’s how you know you’ve made it big.

Mrs Fletcher – Tom Perrotta. Not his best, but even not his best is better than most other people’s best. He is ace.

Persons Unknown – Susie Steiner. Manon number 2. Love her, and loved this.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman. I had the same view on this as I had on Tin Man below. I liked both of them a lot, but I still liked them a bit less than most other people you’ve spoken to.

Tin Man – Sarah Winman. See above! As an editor I often read books and think they’re too long and need cutting. I thought this book was too short and needed lengthening. There was so much in it that was excellent and moving – but it felt to me like there wasn’t quite enough of it.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar. This will undoubtedly be one of the big books of 2018. It was an incredibly impressive debut and *almost* brilliant. It gets a few points unfairly deducted because I wanted it to be The Crimson Petal and the White and it wasn’t. But still a good read.

Where Love Lies – Julie Cohen. Second Julie Cohen, following my enthusiasm for Together. Liked this one too, but not as much.

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Another book I read loads of years after everyone else. I was scared that it wouldn’t be as good as Half of a Yellow Sun and it wasn’t, but it was still very good.

This is Going to Hurt – Adam Kay. Nothing to add to what the world has said on this. Hilarious, important etc. Very glad I read it after I was done having kids.

Paradise City – Elizabeth Day. See above. This is the sort of book I love, and I preferred it to The Party. London lives, intersecting characters you really care about. Humane and believable. That sort of thing!

The Power – Naomi Alderman. Again, you all know what this is. A clever idea indeed and the exciting thing about this one is that after 40 years of life, and almost as many years of being a reader, I finally this year became part of a book club and in it we read this. It is also notable for being sort-of science fiction, and yet I read it anyway. An unusual event.

I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell. I always love Maggie O’Farrell and some of these were extremely moving and/or frightening – the very first chapter was the one that has most stayed in my mind.

Black Widow – Chris Brookmyre*Award klaxon*. This is without a doubt the best thriller I read this year. If you know me, I have most likely either recommended it to you or bought it for you already. If you don’t, then I have now.

Need to Know – Karen Cleveland. Out next year, and much hyped. This is psychological suspense meets espionage thriller. i.e. ‘What if you can’t trust your husband… and he’s also a spy?’ You never know – it could be the case.

Surprise Me – Sophie Kinsella. This is next year’s Kinsella. Not quite as good as this year’s, in my view, but I still tore through it.

Pachinko – Min Jin LeeFinal award winner. It gets a special mention not only for being very good but also because, when a friend recommended it to me, I hadn’t heard of it. This happens so rarely (that someone recommends a book I’ve literally never heard of at all) that I read it out of curiosity. But, as luck would have it, it is an outstanding novel about a Korean family living in Japan during the twentieth century. Highly recommended.

Force of Nature – Jane Harper. Second thriller by the author of The Dry which I liked just as much. It combines many of my interests in one place – it is a thriller which is also about workplace politics and also about why going camping is a terrible idea. Or going on any sort of trip where people take your phone away from you and/or you can’t get a decent phone signal. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

And my final – as yet unfinished – book of 2017 is Close to Home by Cara HunterRecommended to me by someone whose recommendations are almost always correct, and now also selected by Richard and Judy.

So it’s been a very good year. But, looking back to my last year’s resolutions, I still haven’t read The Goldfinch. One for next year…

 

 

 

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.

 

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?