absolutely ridiculous: a proof/library TBR


On the left: the next six proofs for me to read, all of which (I try to read proofs in order of release date and in the month before they’re published) are out on the 6th of February. On the right: my stack of library borrows, all of which are due back on 26th January. The top three are part of my children’s literature project; the next two are a combination of my Guardian Top 1000 novels project and a half-conceived notion to borrow all the Penguin or Vintage classics off the shelf in order; Celestial Bodies just sort of… fell into my hand, and the final two are Guardian Top 1000 choices from the list’s crime segment, which is statistically the one in which I’m least well read.


The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually finished this between the time I took the photo and the time I started writing this post. It’s very reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but uses its sfnal/magical realist conceit in a different, more concentrated manner. I think it will be extremely successful, although I’m still constantly unsure of how I feel about using non-realist conceits in novels that purport to show the pains of slavery. And then I feel unsure of whether I have a right to feel unsure, since Coates has done the thinking and possesses the heritage that gives him the right to tell the story however he likes.

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts: One of my relatively rare non-fiction choices. From the press release: “Siberia’s story is traditionally one of exiles, penal colonies and unmarked graves. Yet there is another tale to tell. Dotted throughout this remote land are pianos – grand instruments created during the boom years of the nineteenth century, and humble, Soviet-made uprights that found their way into equally modest homes[…] That stately instruments might still exist in such a hostile landscape is remarkable. That they are still capable of making music in far-flung villages is nothing less than a miracle.”

The Good Hawk, by Joseph Elliott: A YA adventure set in an alt-ancient Britain where one of the children tasked with guarding a sea wall has Down’s syndrome. She teams up with an un-self-confident boy to journey into a mysterious country of magic and secrets. This sounds amazing, has had terrific reviews, and the last YA title I read published by Walker Books knocked it out of the park (Rules For Vanishing; review here).

Swimmers in the Dark, by Tomasz Jedrowski: This is giving off serious Aciman/Greenwell vibes. Two boys meet in Poland and, over the course of the summer, swim in some beautiful lakes and fall in love. Aahhh. Yes.

A Small Revolution in Germany, by Philip Hensher: I’m still not quite sure what this is about, but I think it is about a group of friends who, radical in their youth, make compromises with the boring adult world as they age, except for one of them—Spike—who does not, and the effect his refusal to compromise has on his life. I have never actually read a Hensher novel, but a new one seems like the place to start.

And, from the library:

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read Gaiman’s writing for children, though I liked American Gods a lot (and Neverwhere slightly less), so this will be a new experience. The story of a small boy called Bod who is raised by the spectral inhabitants of a graveyard when his entire family is murdered, I’ve heard rumours that it’s somewhat uneven, and am keen to find out for myself. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Skylarks’ War, by Hilary McKay: As a child I tended to gravitate towards fantasy, but warm/familial fiction set a little in the past (a la The Railway Children) was another great love. This seems like that sort of thing, only written by a contemporary author, and was the Costa Children’s Book Award winner in 2018; other than that I don’t know a lot about it but am optimistic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

The Girl of Ink and Stars, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave: Another children’s fantasy, but this time taking in the art and science of cartography, as Isabella has to leave her island to save her friend. Millwood Hargrave was only twenty-six when this was published and it’s already become a modern children’s classic. [C21 children’s lit challenge]

A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe: A short sharp shock of a novel about an unnamed African country’s Minister for Culture, his corrupt and opportunistic ways, and the initially idealistic young student who first challenges, then succumbs to (I think), that life. Of Achebe’s work, I’ve only ever read Things Fall Apart and found it a bit too schematic to genuinely enjoy, but then it’s a general rule that an author’s worst book is the one taught to high schoolers, so maybe this’ll be better. [Penguin Modern Classic]

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: I fell in love with Baldwin’s writing through reading Giovanni’s Room last year. Go Tell It…is the semi-autobiographical story of a young man’s disillusionment with the church in which he’s raised, and I can’t wait. [Guardian Top 1000 + Penguin Modern Classic]

Celestial Bodies, by Jokha Alharthi: Winner of the Man Booker International Prize, and the first such to be a translation from Arabic. I finished it this morning; it tells the stories of three Omani sisters – Mayya, Asma, and Khawla – their marriages, and their parents’ marriages; the collision of old and new in a country where slavery was only outlawed in the early 1960s (and persisted in essence for years after it was officially illegal); the collisions of love, honour, poetry and money that make up any good family saga. A worthy winner, I think, and most surprising in its somewhat experimental form, particularly the half-dreaming narration of every other chapter, told by Mayya’s husband Abdallah. Heartily recommended.

Live Flesh, by Ruth Rendell: A man commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, and recommences the obsession that led him to commit the crime, all over again. A common enough story, but my last Rendell (technically a Barbara Vine) was incredible because of the way the story was told, so I’m hopeful this one will be too. [Guardian Top 1000]

Sidetracked, by Henning Mankell: The only Mankell on the Guardian list and I plucked it off the shelf because, well, he’s solid, right? I’ve been under the impression I’ve read at least one Mankell novel for some time, but I think I’ve just watched enough of the Wallander series (both English and Swedish) to have given me the gist. Anyway, I imagine it’ll be good competent distraction. [Guardian Top 1000]

How should I prioritize these?! I almost certainly won’t get through all the library books before they’re due back, which is fine, and I like being able to do full, in-depth reviews of each book I finish for the children’s lit challenge before moving on to the next one, which tends to slow me down. But I also want to keep a steady pace with the proofs, unless a title is dull or frustrating enough to DNF. Thoughts?

Library Checkout!

I’ve started using my local public library a lot more recently, thanks in large part to this rather magnificent Twitter thread from Secret Library Gorgon. It reminded me that I do, in fact, possess an Islington Libraries card, and that until two weeks ago, I had only used it once in the course of nine or ten months. So I went down to the library a fortnight ago, borrowed five books (most of which were mentioned in my last reading roundup post), and had a whale of a time.

They were all due back today (one of the most embarrassing things about my relative virginity as a public libraries user is that I was genuinely unsure whether that meant I could return them at any time today, or whether I had to return them by the time it became today, e.g. yesterday. For anyone else similarly struggling: it is the former.) Duly, I returned them and immediately borrowed seven more:

One of the very nicest things about a public library is its free-ness. This should be obvious, but it allows for all sorts of experimentation in one’s reading that would be harder to defend if spending of actual cash were required. My job does provide me with a lot of free books, but these come from publisher’s reps and, as proof copies, are in the nature of “previews” of the things they’re going to be releasing this season. If I happen to want to read something published longer ago than, say, six to eight months, the reps are unlikely to have proof copies (though sometimes miracles do occur—reprint editions, how I love thee), and I will have to spend money on it in order to possess it. My staff discount from Heywood Hill is extremely good—we can buy books at cost price, more or less, which in practice generally means at least 45% discount and sometimes as much as 55%—but it’s still, you know, money.

I am, as you can probably see from the above pile, trying to expand my knowledge of iconic crime and science fiction, and it is much easier to do that when I don’t have to spend money on a book whose quality I can’t predict, precisely because my knowledge base in that genre is currently limited. I’m also trying to fill some of my classic literature gaps; these are probably smaller than most people’s, by the nature of the degree that I did, but with the best will in the world, even after three years of reading the Anglophone canon, one is going to have missed some things. And I’m being guided, in a vague sort of way, by the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list (although the more I examine it, the more I realize that it is noticeably biased, though the nature of that bias has yet to clarify itself. It contains, for instance, five novels by Michael Dibdin and three by Ian Fleming in the “crime” subcategory, which is itself composed of 146 titles. Even his champions will probably balk at the notion that Ian Fleming, neither the world’s greatest stylist nor its greatest plotsmith, wrote three—three!—entirely indispensable books. I have read two of the listed, Goldfinger and Casino Royale. Only the latter has a claim to that kind of significance, and its claim is mainly historic. The former is not even particularly good.)

Tangents aside, this is what I’ve come away with this time:

  • The Drowned World, by JG Ballard [on the Guardian list]
  • Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss [on the Guardian list]
  • Sorcerer To the Crown, by Zen Cho [on my personal to-read list for years]
  • The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke [on the Guardian list]
  • Blood Shot, also published as Toxic Shock, by Sara Paretsky [on the Guardian list]
  • Shirley, by Charlotte Brontë [on the Guardian list]
  • How Do You Like Me Now?, by Holly Bourke [recommended by my trustworthy colleague Faye]

Anyone read any of these, or want to? What should I read first? I’ve never read any of these authors before, except for Brontë, obviously.

Rebecca at Bookish Beck runs a regular Library Checkout feature, from which I’ve snitched this post title; the most recent one is here.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

Having fun isn’t hard

library checkout

I got a library card, y’all! Because, obviously, I don’t have sufficient access to books in every other area of my life.

That’s actually sort of true. It’s easy enough to get hold of new releases from publishers’ reps, and relatively easy (if you’re patient) to acquire titles that are a year to 18 months old (if you wait long enough, there will be a damaged copy somewhere along the line), but backlist stuff is impossible to request, and if the shop doesn’t stock it regularly, there’s not much point ordering one copy and hoping it gets bashed on the way in. So my only way of accessing books that are much older than a decade or so is either to order and purchase my own copy (which I haven’t got the spare income to do for every title that takes my fancy), or to rent them.

Plus, why not support my local library? They’re pretty great: late fines are 17p per book per day (seventeen pence!! Can you get anything in the world for seventeen pence these days?) You can rent a DVD overnight for £2 and a box set for a week for £1.50. They stock CDs (there’s a whole Proms-themed display), and – much to my delight – a totally separate area for kids’ books, a little secret lair for them away from the prying eyes of parents. And they’re a fifteen-minute walk from my flat.

I restrained myself on my first visit, although these titles are due back the day before I go on holiday and there’ll probably be a bit of a binge then. My choices were guided by two things: length (I wanted short books to start with), and the Guardian’s list of the top 1000 novels ever published (I love a list and have been idly crossing titles off this one for ages.)

  • The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark. I’ve already finished this. It’s under “comedy” on the Guardian list, which is an…interesting classification. Very brief, very twisted, rather marvelously constructed. Like much of Spark’s work, it leaves me a little cold; I have such a hard time subscribing to the artificiality of her world. Certainly a kick in the head, though.
  • A Dark-Adapted Eye, by Barbara Vine. Vine was one of Ruth Rendell’s pen names. She gets recommended a lot for fans of Tana French. Really excellent crime novels are worth their weight in gold.
  • Angel, by Elizabeth Taylor. This’ll be my first Taylor (as indeed the above will be my first Vine), and the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who writes a romantic novel and baffles her publishers sounds, actually, vaguely Spark-ian.

This means I can start participating in Rebecca’s Library Checkout posts!

Do you use your local library? Were you, like me, initially resistant? How do you deal with wanting to read things that the branch has to order in specially? Patience is not my forte. Tips and tricks much appreciated.

On owning books

When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.
When I moved, the unpacking of books was prioritized above the unpacking of clothes. Or bedsheets.

In every book I buy, I write my name and street address. This is relatively new for me; I only started doing it as an undergraduate, when I was living close to a lot of other people who also had books–but it really had very little to do with the fear that our libraries would get confused. I have lost many things (including, once and in a manner no one has ever understood, a clarinet), but never a book. More likely, the reason lies in the fact that I also no longer lived in one stable and narrowly-defined place. Bouncing from a room in college to a house on the Cowley Road, and then St Clements, by way of various relatives’ houses scattered through the south of England, I started writing my name and new addresses in my books as a way of anchoring both myself and them. In space and time, this is where you were and when, the inscriptions on the inside of the front covers say. This is where you bought us (Hebden Bridge for Our Mutual Friend, One Tree Books in Petersfield for To the Lighthouse), this is who gave us to you (‘from Mum and Dad after Finals’, in David Sedaris’s new essay collection; ‘from N.’ in the Vintage copy of Grimm’s Tales), this is where and who you were when you picked us up to begin with (Zadie Smith’s NW for this summer’s choir tour to Italy, for instance, or a strong memory of reading Cloud Atlas on the train away from Oxford at the end of my first term.) My name and address and sometimes a detail or two on the inside front cover provide a kind of map. In future years, my children (or the children of my friends to whom I function as a beloved mad auntie–there are worse fates) will see in those inscriptions the record of my life before I knew them.

This does, however, require a certain premise, which is that those books are mine. You cannot, after all, make an heirloom of something that doesn’t belong to you. My love of books has a corollary, which not everyone shares. I love to read them–that is the main thing and the important thing–but I also love to own them.

By this I do not mean that I love to collect them. People who like rare or shiny or pretty or valuable or otherwise aesthetically distinguished copies of books have their own preferences, which I respect but don’t share. I like a battered paperback. I like a book you can take on the train, in a handbag, to the doctor’s. Beautiful books, for me, obscure the real purpose of the written word, which is to be everywhere in your life, even–no, especially–the places where beauty doesn’t last, or at least not unless backed up by some serious substance.

By “I love to own books”, I mean that I love to own books. Buying them, possessing them, knowing that they’re mine and I don’t have to give them back to anyone. I can write in them if I like (and I do–mimsy puritanism about not annotating is simply misguided); I can bend the spines if I like. I can take them with me or give them away. They’re my books.

This is partly, I think, because I’m used to owning books, and I’m used to owning books because my parents used to give me a book a week–one every Friday–from the age of two until I left home. Believe me, I am thoroughly aware of the privilege that I’ve just revealed. Buying books is expensive. My family isn’t penurious, but we’re not well-to-do either, and frankly, I think at times there were some half-secret councils about the wisdom of continuing the book purchases. Luckily for me, my parents clearly concluded that it was worth it. I know that a lot of people cannot afford to buy their books, or at least not from first-hand retailers. I’m now one of those people. My disposable income is limited and I can’t justify £8 on a book when that sum could also be put towards two or three days’ worth of dinner.

Solutions: 1) Libraries. I will come right out and say that my personal experience of public libraries has never been good. In Charlottesville they function as impromptu homeless shelters, since they’re the only public space you can legitimately occupy without having to pay for something. This makes them valuable community centers, but nevertheless a bit weird, especially when you are a thirteen-year-old girl and have just been surprised by a large snoring man in camouflage jacket sitting in the young adult section. Public libraries are chronically underfunded, their staff are generally pinch-lipped and irritable, and the chairs rarely, if ever, invite you to make yourself comfortable. This could be remedied by pouring more money into them, and I think that needs to happen–especially as people like Caitlin Moran give us an excellent idea of what a lifeline public libraries can be in communities full of intelligent, bored, understimulated, economically disadvantaged kids.

I’ve joined the Oxfordshire county library system. It’s infuriating–most of the books I want are on loan across the county, if they’re stocked at all–but worth persisting with.

2) Secondhand shops. I’m actually going to stop myself from buying anything else until I’ve read through at least 3/4 of the books I’ve already bought. But if I really need a fix, I hit an Oxfam or the book stall at Gloucester Green market on Wednesdays. The books are £2 or £3, which, problematically, means I can get a lot more of them at once, but which also means that individually speaking, they’re less of a drain on the wallet.

3) Borrowing from friends. This gives the comforting illusion that the book is yours, while still enabling you not to buy anything. Also, book-sharing is actually intensely enjoyable, even though I disparaged it a little at the beginning of this post. There’s almost nothing that produces a sense of happy companionship, that wonderful this-is-why-we’re-friends feeling, better than enthusiasm for a shared book. Book-sharing may be the best bet for continuing to read books without actually acquiring them.

4) Reading surreptitiously in bookshops. Oh, don’t tell me you haven’t. When your favorite author releases a new book in hardback and you know you have got to read it, do you a) sell your soul to the devil to raise the cash, b) steal it and inevitably get in serious trouble, or c) find a comfy place in the bookshop and read the whole thing through in a few sittings? Duh. I did this with Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Best. Decision.

Currently reading