April Books

After spending much of March reading more than ever, April was a much more conservative month for books – normal life having been eclipsed by the arrival of our new little daughter at the beginning of the month (and down-time as a result in short supply!), but I really enjoyed the books I did read this month.

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

A beautiful re-read of a classic I hadn’t read since childhood, I really loved rediscovering The Secret Garden this month. I read parts of it sometimes when I could from a cloth-bound Puffin-in-bloom copy I had acquired a few years ago, just for the sheer beauty of it; but mostly from the e-book, swiping one-handed either at my phone or my Kindle in the wee small hours on night feeds and watches with the littlest one. It was perfect both as a magical story to keep me awake and also lent itself beautifully to some whispered sections read aloud as little eyes slowly closed, something I know I’ll always remember when I look back on the same chapters again in the future.

I had forgotten so much of The Secret Garden and loved discovering as though for the first time its charm and humour, and getting to know first Mary, then Martha and Dickon, then Colin, each of them full of spark, character and determination. The descriptions of the garden, the ever-present robin and the moor are poetic and beautiful, and the tangled story unraveling throughout of resilience and perseverance – and the burning quest simply to live – is captivating and warming. Really loved the chance to become lost in this mesmerising and all-encompassing world, to settle to the Yorkshire dialect, the grey of the moors and the colours bursting in the garden – a wonderful and inspiring classic. ❤️

Bloody Scotland – published by Historic Environment Scotland

Bloody Scotland, born out of the annual Scottish crime fiction festival, brings together twelve of Scotland’s most prominent crime fiction authors in an anthology of stories all focused on different well-known places in Scotland – from an utterly rural historic site in Orkney, through castles and ruins around the country to the busy tourist throng of modern-day Edinburgh Castle. There were some stories in this collection I definitely liked more than others but there’s something very special overall about reading places so well-known. My very own Forth Bridge, having provided the towering backdrop to my home for all of my life, was drawn so impressively in Doug Johnstone’s Painting the Forth Bridge, and Val McDermid’s Ancient and Modern, set on the North West Coast – in the old stomping ground of our childhood family holidays – so effortlessly captivated all those rugged landscapes, passing places and winding roads I remember so well. I could just read Val McDermid’s writing all day and enjoyed her story as much as I expected. Chris Brookmyre’s trademark style and humour did not disappoint either in The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle, and Stuart MacBride and Sara Sheridan were both new to me but I really enjoyed the stories set in Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and Kinneil House respectively.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Bloody Scotland festival in Stirling in the past, and to hear Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Quentin Jardine and others come together to celebrate and reflect on the inimitable genre of tartan noir and the unique crime writing scene in our country.

Bloody Scotland, Stirling, Torchlight Procession

This anthology provides a welcome glimpse into the writers’ styles and their interpretations of many aspects of Scotland; and I really enjoyed sinking into the familiarity of the settings and the thrill, build-up and resolution to each of these dark and thrilling tales.

Everything I Know About Love – Dolly Alderton

Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love was the book chosen for this month in our little book club – which I’m very glad to still have going on at the moment in an online capacity – and I have now read this and enjoyed an afternoon’s WhatsApp chat on it from all our homes in place of our usual gathering in the library.

I didn’t know of Dolly beforehand so came to her completely new in this book, but found myself warming quickly to her engaging, open and confidential tone. The cultural references throughout her teenage days, brought to life with a vibrant humour, took me back completely as we are exactly the same age and the world of MSN messenger, the music of the early noughties and the growing role of technology as our studies played out were such familiar landmarks of adolescence – and so very nostalgic to look back on. Dolly’s school days of course at a private all-girls’ school in England and her uni party scene in London as she moved on were more than a little different from mine – but despite her experiences sometimes being a world away from my own, there is a heart running through her telling that’s universal; and the all-in banding together with flatmates to weather the early twenties was something I related to so much.

Dolly’s story was full of ups and downs and searching, recalling some very out-of-control years in particular battling the pressures of life, a borderline reliance on drink and drugs, the pain of loss and the usual dogged attempts to figure out the transition into adulthood in a way that was strikingly real. Ultimately, though, this book was full of love, and I particularly loved its unreserved championing of friendships, and of their enduring value in a world sometimes focused on romantic relationships. I found this memoir easy to read, engaging and uplifting and was glad to have come across it.

Hope you are all having a good week x

January Reading ❤️

Decided to try to use this little space to keep up with my reading among the other bits and pieces I scribble – I’ve enjoyed writing book reviews on here in the past and always love reflecting on those stories I love best, but thought it would be good to keep track of my reading month by month as the year goes on.

The first of my books this year was a beautiful present for Christmas from my lovely sister that I couldn’t wait to read, opening its pages for the first time on Christmas night in the peaceful lull that settled when the busyness of a boisterous extended-family day was over and the little one was tucked in bed; and going on to read slowly, chapter by chapter, over the next few weeks.

Last Christmas – curated and introduced by Greg Wise & Emma Thompson

Sometimes a book is so special, a collection-type like this especially (I remember being exactly the same with Tom Hanks’ beautiful short story collection Uncommon Type), that I keep putting off reading it until I’ve got the time to really enjoy it, never wanting to miss a word, and ending up taking forever to finish but loving it nonetheless. Made up of over 50 different pieces on the subject of a Christmas from such a wide variety of contributors – including many from those who’ve spent time as refugees – and written in aid of Crisis and The Refugee Council; it is a unique and poignant gathering of essays and memoirs, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. It provides a valued insight into the memories and values of many well-loved figures – Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Graham Norton, Victoria Coren Mitchell included (the latter moving me to tears in the last lines of her piece and, as it happened, of the book); balanced with some sometimes harrowing, raw and always moving documentations of Christmases in the Calais jungle, in war-torn countries, or in more peaceful ones – safe at last but heart-achingly far from home. This is a book that cuts to the very heart of Christmas, my favourite time of the year, and provides so much food for thought on the simplicity of what really matters during a festival that can be so huge and so anything-but-simple for many of us. I really loved reading it and know I will return to it next year as the season approaches again.

The Good, The Bad and The Furry – Tom Cox

Re-reads will definitely feature heavily in my reading lists and always have. Despite all the wonderful books there are in the world still to discover, I just can’t seem to help myself picking up old favourites over and over again and comfort reading those “old friends” books is one of my favourite ways to unwind. For years now I’ve enjoyed Tom Cox’s gentle humour and observations about many aspects of life in his varied books and blogs, but it’s his “cat books” I’ve loved most, particularly this one and the next, Close Encounters of the Furred Kind. Warm, fond memoirs on life with his cats, he captures perfectly for me what it is to love the pets we share our lives with, the vital role they play in our homes and the deep bond we form with them. This was the book I found myself picking back up from the shelf to head away for the night on Hogmanay, and so it was the one I was enjoying reading as we saw in the new year, making the most of the slow pace of life in the holidays and the comfort of favourite characters and stories.

The Gentle Discipline Book – Sarah Ockwell-Smith

I wasn’t sure whether to include this in my monthly round-up, being more of a reference book than anything else, but it’s one I really enjoyed reading and good to have a record of alongside the rest. The idea of a book about discipline sounds on paper a very dry one at best and a difficult read, but this was a book I was looking forward to getting into as our little girl hit the age of two and entered a whole new phase of her childhood and therefore us of our parenting journey too. I really enjoy all Sarah Ockwell-Smith’s writing, her perspective on child development and her focus on “gentle parenting”; and this book, like her others I’ve read, is thoughtfully and accessibly written and a common-sense approach to the psychology of a young child and the strengthening of the bond between parent and child. Far from focusing on any kind of authoritarianism, this is a refreshing and empowering study of discipline in the sense of teaching and guiding, and is a handbook that feels as though it arms any parent with a deeper understanding of just what their children are going through at the various stages of their growing-up and how best to help them through all its ups and downs.

Old Baggage – Lissa Evans

The main novel I read in January was Old Baggage, our book for the month at my book club – a lovely one in our local library designed for parents, where we gather of an afternoon to chat about our most recent book over a drink and cake while the little ones play. Over the last year and a half I’ve found being a member has been a much-appreciated anchor to the world of books and has kept me reading during some times I could’ve otherwise let months slip by without finishing a single one. One of the things I really enjoy about the concept of a book club is reading the types of books I wouldn’t normally and being opened up to different genres. Very occasionally, however, it leads me to exactly the type of book I love most, and Old Baggage was an example of that rare gift – I knew even as I began that I was holding a future favourite in my hands.

We are first introduced to Mattie Simpkin as she strides across the Heath in what very quickly establishes itself as her usual no-nonsense way, keeping everyone she comes across right as she goes. Her appeal is evident from the very first sentences of the book, a character I knew I would find myself smiling at throughout. Reminiscent of Three Things About Elsie‘s Florence and Elizabeth is Missing‘s Maud, two other all-time favourites of mine, she has a quality – a wisdom, a sense of humour and a strength of character – that I loved from the off.

It is 1928, and Mattie lives with her friend Florrie in the “Mousehole”, a house named for its role as a base during the Cat and Mouse Act some fifteen years before – both are former Suffragettes, now in their late fifties, and both for their own reasons feel a stirring still to be fighting, and making their voices heard where needed.

I read this almost in its entirety without being aware that it was in fact a prequel, and that the inimitable Mattie had featured already in Lissa Evans’ previous novel Crooked Heart, set even further down the line looking back from elderly years – by then struggling with the onset of dementia – at the days gone by. I definitely plan to get hold of a copy and can’t wait to add it to the reading list very soon, but as a book in its own right, Old Baggage was a wonderful read, and I loved its vibrant characters and unfolding tale of perseverance, strength and hope for a better future.

Happy Friday and Happy Valentines’ Day all, have a lovely weekend. X