Book No 4 (2021): The Binding

Emmett Farmer hasn’t been feeling too well. What he doesn’t know is that he has been suffering from bookbinder’s fever. When Seredith, an elderly bookbinder who lives alone out on the marshes, chooses Emmett to be her apprentice, the truth about his calling is revealed.

If you want to forget, the binder will take your memory and encase it forever in the pages of a book. Seredith’s shelves are full of carefully stored volumes, beautifully crafted books which bind the memories of those who seek her help. Emmett is settling down to his new life when Seredith dies unexpectedly and his term of apprenticeship has to continue with her son, Mr de Havilland. Emmett hasn’t been at de Havilland’s workshop for long before he is sent to bind his first customer, a maid at the house of a Mr Darnay. The young apprentice is reluctant, as Mr Darnay’s son, Lucian, had once been a visitor at Seredith’s bindery, an encounter which left Emmett feeling inexplicably afraid.

This brings the reader to the end of the first of three parts of the book. Slowly, slowly, the book begins to turn on its axis, so that the fulcrum of the story becomes something totally different. The focus changes from the process of the binding, to the memories it captures. About how the process can be abused, the effects it might have. I was totally enthralled. This was one of those books which I inhabited until it ended. The characters are carefully drawn, the author has a captivating sense of place. She also has an authentic way of describing an often chaotic and distressed state of mind.

Sometimes the pain of grief and despair can feel too much to bear. So what if there was a way to make it all disappear, so you had no recollection of what happened, or of the pain? It sounds very tempting. But a binding isn’t selective, you can’t choose to keep just the happy memories, the good times – you lose the good along with the bad. Would I rather keep the pain and all the memories, or lose the whole lot? And what if someone else could read my binding, or I could read theirs?

I know ‘The Binding‘ is a story, but ever since I read the book, this whole concept has sparked many an internal debate and several real-time conversations. Any book which provokes that kind of reaction has to be worth a read, surely?! I don’t think you will be disappointed.

Book No 3 (2021) : The Diary of a Bookseller

Like most people, I didn’t have a good year in 2020. Although I didn’t feel up to blogging and reviewing books, I found a great deal of comfort in the distraction of reading. I was extremely grateful to everyone who recommended, lent and bought me books. As we start a New Year I’ve decided to clear my backlog of reviews and so count from where I left off in 2020.

First up, a chance find when I went on a bit of a spree in Waterstones, Brighton and was trawling for non-fiction especially. The diarist in question is Shaun Bythell, owner and manager of the Book Shop in Wigtown, Dumfries and Galloway. Wigtown is to Scotland what Sedbergh is to England and Hay-on-Wye to Wales i.e. the National Book Town.

Through his daily diary entries over the course of a year in 2014, the author brings to life a colourful and varied cast of bookshop staff and customers, as well as the atmosphere of the famous annual Book Festival. From the rude to the slightly batty, the bewildering to the belligerent, the intriguing to the indignant (which sometimes includes Mr Bythell himself), the diary paints a picture of the bookseller’s lot. With a dry, sardonic wit, Shaun bemoans the rise of Amazon, despairs at the antics of his staff (‘Nicky’ in particular) and tells us about the visitors to his home and the Festival. This is all set against the backdrop of a planned wind farm and a leaky shop.

I know it is really annoying when someone you love keeps reading random clips out of a book because it made them laugh, but I couldn’t help myself! It really is very, very funny – laugh out loud funny. The combination of the diarist’s observations, together with some slightly absurd situations just made me smile. I also learned quite a lot about how second-hand books are bought and sold, both online and over the counter.

Shaun Bythell has a partner throughout the book, known by the pseudonym ‘Anna’ but who is actually Jessica Fox, an author who recounts her side of the Wigtown Book Shop experience in Three Things You Should Know About Rockets (Shaun is ‘Ewan’ in her book). I will be reading that soon, along with the sequels to the original diary, Confessions of a Bookseller and Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops.

I’m not sure I’ll ever dare to visit The Book Shop in case I behave appallingly and end up immortalised in the next diary. Nevertheless, I’m excited to have discovered these books. Mainly because I’ve just got myself a new job. In a secondhand bookshop! Mr Bythell has certainly taught me a thing or two about what to expect. There was a strange guy in the shop last week……

Book No 2 (2020) : Ordinary Thunderstorms

Until I started work at Jesus College, Oxford, I’d never actually heard of William Boyd. But it turns out he’s an alumnus of the College; I’ve read quite a few of his novels to date and enjoyed them all, especially ‘Restless’. ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’ was our Book Club choice for March 2020.

Adam Kindred’s life turns on a sixpence. Having been for a job interview, he meets a businessman and strikes up a conversation. When the businessman leaves a file of information behind in  restaurant, Adam tries to return it. The simple act of kindness results in life as he knows it unravelling. He’s forced to live rough, skulking in the shadows of London trying to avoid detection. Meanwhile, the reader learns the back story of the forgetful businessman, and his role in the development of a ground-breaking cure for asthma. As the novel develops, we meet a two contrasting casts of characters, ranging from hit-men and prostitutes in London’s underclasses, to a titled Board member and top pharmaceutical executives.

This book cracks on at a pace, with plenty of twists and turns. It is cleverly crafted, weaving together the major threads of the story in a page-turning thriller. As well as being exciting, I found myself really questioning who were the good guys and who were the baddies, and how easy it is to make assumptions about people based on their place in society. Adam is faced with some tough choices and makes some decisions which I’m sure he would have abhorred in his previous life. It really made me think about what lengths I might be prepared to go to in order to survive.

If you haven’t read any Boyd before, this is as good a place as any to start. However if it isn’t quite to your liking, I wouldn’t give up on him without trying another book – one of the things we agreed upon in our Book Club chat is that Boyd’s novels are very different from one another. So much so, that if you didn’t know, it might not be that easy to tell they were all by the same author.

Book No 1 (2020) : The Lightkeeper’s Daughters

Here’s the thing, though. I may not have been blogging and my Insta feed is looking a bit neglected, but I have been reading!

First up this year was ‘The Lightkeeper’s Daughters‘ by Jean E. Pendziwol. As we know, I’m a sucker for books about lighthouses, seascapes, windswept coastlines and the like so from the blurb this seemed to hit the spot.

This novel has two story-lines, one contemporary and the other historical. Morgan is a troubled teenager who is given community service after she is caught spray painting. She’s put to work at a local care home for the elderly, where she makes the acquaintance of one of the residents, Elizabeth. The pair strike up an awkward friendship, each initially mistrustful of the other, although Elizabeth is always aware of the younger woman’s vulnerability. As Elizabeth’s sight is failing, Morgan takes on the job of reading aloud a set of journals, detailing Elizabeth and her twin sister Emily’s lives on Porphyry Island where their father was the lighthouse keeper. As the story of the twin’s background emerges, it becomes clear that Elizabeth and Morgan have a closer link than they realise.

I really wanted to love this book, as I usually do when there’s a pharological* aspect, but this failed to captivate me. I felt as if the dynamic between Elizabeth and Morgan was clichéd, and the plot twists piled in towards the end like a Springboks’ scrum in the dying minutes of a match – I got a bit confused about who was who. A bit of mystery is good, but the premise is based upon a huge coincidence. HUGE.

And to top it all, I discover Lake Superior isn’t even the actual sea. I tell you, there is no end to my disappointment.

(* disclaimer: this may not be a word, but a pharologist studies lighthouses and signal lights, so it seemed logical!)

Book No 15 (2018) : Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew

Let me tell youI don’t think this is a book you would pick out of a line-up as something you had seen before, as the name of the author doesn’t seem especially memorable. But this author has been on my radar for a while, as she wrote ‘Witch Light‘, a book published in 2011 and one which I often recommend to other people.  I read it before I started this blog, but it is one of those rare reads which lingers in the imagination, scenes sometimes come back to me. (Note to self – read ‘Witch Light‘ again and review it here!)

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew‘ is a fictionalised account of the time the troubled painter Vincent Van Gogh spent at the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy in 1889/90. He admitted himself after a period of anguished mental illness which culminated in the artist cutting off his own ear. Local townspeople petitioned for him to be removed as they believed him to be insane.

The novel is written from the viewpoint of Jeanne, the wife of the warden at Saint-Paul. With her adult sons now grown and left home, Jeanne feels increasingly isolated from her husband. Clearly concerned for her safety, Charles forbids Jeanne to associate with the new patient. But she is drawn to the red-headed artist, whom she sees painting in the grounds of the asylum. At first Vincent is dismissive of her, but he gradually begins to tolerate her presence as he paints.

Jeanne’s defiance of her husband precipitates a change in their marriage, and Jeanne, weary and unfilled, thinks often of her friend Laure who walked away from an unhappy union. The tenderness with which Charles and Jeanne seek to re-define their ways of being together, is beautifully portrayed, without sentimentality.

This novel breathed new life into Van Gogh’s paintings for me; he painted many works whilst at Saint-Paul, probably most famously ‘The Starry Night‘, but others detailed the asylum buildings, wildlife and people. Many of them, and especially the colours chosen by the painter, are woven into the text of the novel. I realised that Fletcher’s writing is the same as Vincent’s work – textured, reflective and meaningful. Look out for this and her other work – my edition of  ‘Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew’ has sunflowers on the cover!

Book No 14 (2018) : Thornfield Hall

thornfield hallSusan Hill and Sally Beauman have both tackled Rebecca from new angles and Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea is a well-imagined prequel to Jane Eyre. Jo Baker’s Longbourn retells Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the below stairs staff. Thornfield Hall adopts the same device, as it is Jane Eyre’s tale told by Mrs Alice Fairfax, Mr Rochester’s housekeeper.

Jane Stubbs’ re-telling of Jane Eyre is accomplished in that all of the details dovetail accurately with those in the original. Most readers who pick up Thornfield Hall will at least have read the Brontë, and I imagine most will know it extremely well. If major plot events like Bertha’s identity, the arrivals of Jane and Adèle, the fire in Rochester’s room, and the master’s courtship of Blanche Ingram were not faithfully portrayed, Stubbs would lose all her readers at the first turn. She is careful not to let that happen and the synchronicity is very satisfying.

The plot is sufficiently intriguing to keep the reader turning the pages and Alice Fairfax is a reliable narrator, who admits her own mistakes and shows compassion to her charges, especially Bertha. Mrs Fairfax comes out of this novel fairly well, as someone who seems to have others’ best interests at heart, at the same time as wanting to secure her own position. She perpetually seeks a happy ending!

It’s difficult to tell whether ‘Thornfield Hall’ works well as a stand-alone book, as I’m so familiar with its inspiration. However, I think it would.  But at less than half the length of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Jane Stubb’s exploration of Jane’s story is far less complex. Jane Eyre is written in the first person;  Mrs Fairfax actually knows very little of the governess’ inner turmoil or strength, and so draws her conclusions about Jane from her observations. For me, it is Jane’s inner voice which provides one of the most satisfying elements of the original novel and this is missing from Stubb’s story.

Of course there are miles of bookshelves dedicated to commentaries and analyses of Jane Eyre, all of  which enhance our understanding and don’t detract from the source in any way. For me though, just as Tetley is to tea bags, so Charlotte Brontë’s novel is always the Original and the Best!


Book No 13 (2018) : Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphantEleanor Oliphant is, by all accounts, a bit of a misfit. She doesn’t conform to the social norms her colleagues expect, often speaking her mind seemingly without considering the effect her unbridled honesty might have. Eleanor doesn’t really join in, spending every weekend alone, comforted only by a couple of bottles of vodka which she buys from her local corner shop. Sometimes when she speaks, her voice is croaky because it is so long since she last had a conversation with anyone. If her phone rings, it makes her jump.

But she’s certainly not daft. Eleanor has a university degree in Classics, can finish the crossword in the ‘Telegraph’, has held down a job for 9 years, watches BBC4 documentaries and reads books.

Life is plodding along uneventfully for Eleanor until a series of events come together to make her start to question, well, whether she is completely fine. The reader of course, knows this dysfunctional young woman is far from fine. Very early on we sense the undercurrents in Eleanor’s life – her tense relationship with ‘Mummy’ to whom she only speaks once a week by phone, the involvement of social care professionals, scars on her face. A traumatic past is hinted at. Eleanor has secrets to hide.

To start with I was intrigued and amused by this book, as Eleanor’s odd naivety provides an ideal opportunity for comedy. But I began to feel more and more uncomfortable when I realised that very often Eleanor was the butt of the jokes; I wasn’t laughing near her, I was laughing at her.

My unease began to grow as the inconsistencies in Eleanor’s character and behaviour began to emerge: even though she is widely in touch with the world via papers, magazines and TV, she speaks in an oddly stilted way which is totally at odds with someone highly educated. Eleanor orders a Magners and continues to refer to it as ‘Magners drink’, despite the fact that the label clearly says ‘Irish Cider’. She doesn’t know what a laptop is called and refers to dancing as ‘freeform jigging’. Eleanor just didn’t make sense, I couldn’t reconcile these inconsistencies in the author’s development of her character, and I got crosser and crosser. Although I finished the book, I felt it was over-long, contrived and based upon a highly improbable central character.

Eleanor Oliphant is due to appear as a film, produced by Reese Witherspoon. Maybe a cinematic interpretation of the book will be less reliant upon the finer details, and so more forgiving of its failings. But as far is the book is concerned, I am at odds (again) with the Sunday Times, Costa Book Awards, BBC R4’s ‘Book at Bedtime’ and a whole host of other enthusiastic admirers. ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine‘ feels like a lost opportunity to examine the plight of the lonely in our society.



Book No 12 (2018) : The South in Winter

south in winterOne of the lovely things about being an amateur book blogger is that people often lend me things to read, which they’ve enjoyed, and/or think that I might like. In this way, I get to find out about authors I may not have heard of. So it was with a friend who lent me ‘The South in Winter‘ by Peter Benson.

Tread Lightly‘ is a travel guide with an ethical stance, and Matthew Baxter is one of their contributors. Packed off to Italy in winter, he is tasked with writing about the places from the perspective of an off-season visitor, not just a high season tourist. Back in London, the offices of ‘Tread Lightly‘ are undergoing some changes, one of which turns out to be bad news for Matt.

Written in the first person, a device which gives an immediacy to the narrative, the novel also portrays Matthew’s relationship with Cora. Their love affair seems to have been an on-off relationship, which is currently off. But there is sufficient tension in the to make the reader hope it might one day be on. Even though Matthew seems like a bit of a twit, and Cora is really not all that likeable. Maybe I had a sense that they deserved one another.

A fair bit of the plot is moved on via dialogue, some of which is very true to life. The problem being, that a real-life conversation is often not very interesting, with its pauses, broken sentences, non sequiturs and misunderstandings. All of these things are intensified because Matt and Cora are communicating via phone and text message, but I felt like a voyeur, a slightly uncomfortable eavesdropper.

Because Matt is writing for a travelogue, there are descriptive paragraphs intended for the ‘Tread Lightly‘ guide and I enjoyed these, even consulting Google maps a few times to see what places like Ravello and the Amalfi coast actually look like. (I went to the Amalfi coast for my honeymoon. If the internet is to be trusted, Sorrento has changed a bit in 28 years!). Certainly food for thought for future trips and a clever plot device.

I thought this was a very realistic book, with credible characters and a plausible setting, but in some ways it lacked dynamism as a result. I like my fiction to be a bit less true-to-life. If it’s introspection I crave, my navel is as interesting as the next person’s!


Book No 11 (2018) : This is Going to Hurt

this is going to hurtHaving worked for the NHS many years ago, I have had first-hand experience of the stress involved in working for the UK’s largest employer. I did long hours, juggled many conflicting priorities and dealt with people in genuine need of care. All from the relative comfort of my desk. I was a manager, a tiny cog in a huge machine. I lasted a year.

This is Going to Hurt‘ is an autobiographical account of what it is like to be on the real front line of the NHS, as a junior doctor. Tough doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Adam Kay kept a diary from his early days as a House Officer, the lowest rung of the hospital hierarchy, right through to when he became a Senior Registrar some 6 years later. He is a very, very funny writer, describing his daily encounters with the exasperated tone of someone who can’t help but marvel at the oddities (and sometimes stupidity) of his patients. There is no sugar-coating; some of the anecdotes are graphic, messy and often smelly. But funny nevertheless, in a peek-through-your-fingers way.

About half way through the book, Kay’s anecdotes gradually stop being so amusing. Kay specialises in Obs & Gynae and struggles on, poorly supported by senior colleagues, swimming against an endless tide of mothers and babies, caesareans, ventouse and forceps. Yes, the journal entries are still comical, but the writing is shot through with a permanent sense of panic, exhaustion, always feeling on the back foot, being hopelessly ill-prepared and inexperienced. Kay’s relationships with his partner and friends begin to founder, he has no life other than work.

I suffered an obstetric emergency when my son was born (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice to say there was a lot of blood) and I will be forever indebted to the team of doctors and nurses who worked around the clock to save my life. Engulfed by the trauma of my own experience, I thanked the staff profusely, but didn’t give a second thought as to how those medics may have been affected by my suffering. They were just doing their jobs. Adam Kay’s book put me right on that score. The diary ends shockingly abruptly.

This is Going to Hurt‘ does hurt. It is a painful indictment of a system which is broken from the inside, and which exploits those amongst us who are willing to take on the responsibility of  studying and practising medicine, for the common good.

Read this book. It will make you want to hug your doctor. Although probably not just after she has performed your colonoscopy.

Book No 10 (2018) : The Island

the islandHaving read and not particularly enjoyed Victoria Hislop’s most recent offering ‘Cartes Postales from Greece‘, I decided to remind myself how good she actually is, by re-visiting ‘The Island’. The fact that we were going to Crete, where the novel is set, made the idea more appealing.

Spinalonga is a leper colony, an island off the north-east coast of Crete. Those diagnosed with leprosy are exiled from their communities, linked only by regular visits from the boatman and two doctors. Eleni is a teacher in the village of Plaka, which overlooks Spinalonga. When she and a young pupil, Dimitri, are diagnosed with the dreaded disease, they both know they will have to say goodbye to their homes and families. Leaving behind her young daughters, Anna and Maria, Eleni is rowed across the water to Spinalonga by Georgiou.

The novel follows the fate of Eleni, Anna and Maria and the residents of Spinalonga. Their story comes to light when Alexa, Eleni’s great-granddaughter, is drawn back to Crete to unravel her mother’s past.

The first time I read ‘The Island’ I cried a lot. When we read, I don’t think we can help internalising the experiences of the characters and relating them to our own lives. So I imagined having to leave my daughter while I was carted off to an island. Heartbreaking. Leprosy doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs, either. Then a war comes along and one of your kids marries the wrong guy and ends up sleeping with his cousin. It was all very moving.

But on this re-read, presumably because I knew the story,  I was able to concentrate more on the style and the plot devices, the latter being almost identical to that of ‘Cartes Postales‘. And the book lost a lot of its appeal. The prose is sentimental and not  that clever, the plot becomes more unbelievable the further in you get, especially the [SPOILER ALERT] body count at the end. It just didn’t grab me in the same way as it had the first time.

‘The Island’ is a hugely successful novel which was published in 2006 and there are probably not that many bookworms who haven’t already read it. I do recommend it, if you like an absorbing family saga with a Mediterranean setting, rooted in history. But once is probably enough!