My Reading Year 2018

I contemplated whether or not to make a video about this, but actually, this morning I thought, this lends itself far better to a blog post than a video, so here we go.

2018 has been a fantastic reading year for me. I discovered a couple of authors that have become instant favourites (I am looking at you Kate Atkinson in particular) and with regards to historical fiction in particular, I just found so many gems.

I also kept a reading spreadsheet (and almost entered all the books as well, go me) and it revealed…. not that many surprises.

About 80% of the books I read have been written by women. Historical Fiction (including both historical mysteries and histories) is by far the genre I read the most and well over 50% of my reading. I increased my reading of books authored by writers of colours significantly and this is now almost 25% of all the books I read last year, room for improvement, but still, I am pleased as the year before it was only 8 books (which roughly accounted to about 4% of my reading).

I have read well over 200 books again and before anyone says “how do you read so much”, let me just tell you that reading is (and has been) my prior form of entertainment and when people normally would spend hours watching Netflix box sets, you will find me in the corner of the sofa reading. Or in bed, I do like to read in bed.

So here are some of my favourites.

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Barbara Pym has been a favourite of mine since I discovered her through a real life (I hate that expression) bookclub. She is in my mind along with Elizabeth Taylor one of the best character writers of the 20th century. Unlike Taylor though, Pym is very funny. Her characters normally attend a local church and her exploration of High Church vs. Low Church is so English, it is hard to put it in words. She makes me laugh, she also makes me think. And her characters are wonderful, that’s after all what matters.

Paperback, 277 pages
Published 2013 by Virago Press (UK) (first published 1958)

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One of the best things I did in 2018, was my Harder Conversations project where I read books about what it means to be a person of colour in the UK and the publishing industry obviously found out about this and published some great books. Ok, well, maybe, they did not do it just for me, actually everyone could benefit from reading some of these books. All the books were great, but Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) overall was the best one for me. I read it right at the beginning of the year and I followed the journey of the book and author along ever since.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging
by Afua Hirsch
Kindle Edition, 384 pages
Published February 1st 2018 by Vintage Digital

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This year, also saw the publication of more installments in some of my favourite books series and I know that Tombland will feature heavily on all the historical mysteries lists, I though I highlight this one again, because I think if you like C.J. Sansom, you would also love S.G. MacLean. MacLean is a Scottish writere and she is a historian, which you can easily tell by the wonderfully researched books. The Seeker series (this book is the third in the series and the fourth is coming out in 2019) is set during Cromwell’s Commenwealth and the Seeker is an Officer in the New Model Army.  The mysteries are clever, the depiction of the era are engaging and the Seeker is a character that I have become deeply attached too, similar to MacLean’s other series, the Alexander Seaton series set in Scotland with Charles I on the throne.

Destroying Angel (Damian Seeker #3) by
S.G. MacLean (Goodreads Author)
Kindle Edition, 416 pages
Published July 12th 2018 by Quercus

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One of the Classics I read this year and will remember for a long time is Susan Ferrier’s Marriage. Dubbed as the Scottish Jane Austen, I expected the same level of plotting and story as in Austen book, but as so often the similarity is simply that of two women writing books at roughly the same time in history. Ferrier’s book is very different from Austen, but still wonderful. And naturally, I adored the fact that this was looking at the differences between Scottish and English folk. Not much has changed.

Marriage by 
Susan FerrierVal McDermid (introduction)
Paperback, 544 pages
Published December 28th 2017 by Little, Brown Book Group (first published 1818)

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My favourite debut has been without a doubt, Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight. I am still annoyed that a certain Mermaid book overshadowed this gem of a historical fiction novel, due no doubt to deeper marketing pockets. Having read both of them, I have to say that Crowhurst’s book is in my opinion the more rounded and inventive novel. Set in Restoration England, we follow Ursula from her birth into her adult years and experience England and what it was like to be a woman in that fragile period of Restoration. I really hope this book makes it on the Walter Scott longlist and shortlist next year. Either way though, Ursula and Crowhurst have a place in my heart and I shall read anything that author writes in future.

The Illumination of Ursula Flight
by Anna-Marie Crowhurst
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published May 3rd 2018 by Allen & Unwin

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I adore nature writing and there is always a few each year that I pick up, but I am picky with regards to nature writing. I want it poetic, but not too poetic. I don’t mind a tangent, but if there is more tangents than anything else, then I get bored. I like the personal story, but it has to be done just right. Yes, I am very picky, but this book by Neil Ansell, the Last Wilderness ticked all the boxes. I could identify with so many of his thoughts and in particular what stuck with me was the author’s admission that for him it is no longer about walking to hit certain milestones or even covering certain miles, no, it is just about being out there. In nature, rather than clocking up the miles, just so you can say that you walked 15 miles.  I listened to this on audio via audible.co.uk and the audiobook is wonderful.

The Last Wilderness, A Journey into Silence by 
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published February 8th 2018 by Tinder Press

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Nora Krug’s Heimat has been a very personal read. We are off the same generation of Germans, as in that our parents were born either during the war or at the end of the war and that we felt the collective guilt over the war and the holocaust, but never really knew or found out what it was that our family had done during that time. Were they guilty and if so, to what degree. You may think that this is a book just for Germans, but it is not, this is a book for anyone who wants to understand the concept of collective guilt and lots of tidbits in this book, you probably had no idea about.

Heimat: A Memoir of History and Home
by
Hardcover
Published October 4th 2018 by Particular Books (first published October 2nd 2018)

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A series discovery for me, naturally historical as this is what I like best, has been the Sir Robert Cary Mystery series. Originally published in the 1990ies, Head of Zeus has been re-issuing them with more modern covers. Again, if you like C.J. Sansom then this may be for you. Based on the very real Sir Robert Carey, it follows his life events but the mysteries are “made up” or rather, the author used events she come across in her research and used them. So the books do feel very real. I adored them and am planning on continuing with the series in 2019.

A Famine of Horses (Sir Robert Carey #1)
by
P.F. ChisholmPatricia Finney (Goodreads Author)
Kindle Edition, 296 pages
Published September 1st 2016 by Head of Zeus (first published 1994)

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It’s not all just historical fiction, I also adore fantasy and especially weird fiction and my favourite this year has been Borne by Jeff Vandermeer. I love the exploration of what it means to be a mother and mothering, the need we have to care for someone against an “end of the world” kind of scenario. Loved this book, still thinking about it although I read right at the start of the year. That’s how good it was.

Borne
by Jeff VanderMeer (Goodreads Author)
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published April 25th 2017 by MCD / Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I re-read The Poisonwood Bible this year with a group of fellow booktubers and was very excited for Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered. Both the re-read and the new release were wonderful. I can honestly say that I have loved all her books (and yes, I have read them all over the years since I first discovered her in the 90ies). There is some joy in re-reading a favourite and then being able to discuss it with others, even – and in a way in particular if – they don’t quite love it as much as you do. And Unsheltered just had my head nodding in agreement, it’s like she gets me.

Unsheltered
by  Barbara Kingsolver
Hardcover, 463 pages
Published October 18th 2018 by Faber Faber (first published October 16th 2018)

Thanks for reading and joining me on this reflection. For more bookish content, check out my youtube channel.

 

 

Autumnal Reading

I thought I share some books with you that I will be reading over the autumn. Now, I am a reader all year round, no matter the season, but there is something about reading in autumn that is just so wonderful. You go out for a walk and return, in my case light the fire, and then settle down with a good book. Extra points for wind and rain howling outside while you are snuggled up inside.

Treacherous Is the Night

(Verity Kent #2) by Anna Lee Huber

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I read the first one in the series last year (and I am also making my way through Anna Lee Huber’s other series set in 19th century Scotland) and I am just about to pick this one up. Set just after the 1st world war, the first book saw Verity suffering from the loss of her husband and so many others in the war, she gets invited to a mysterious party on an island and events unfold from there. Now, I cannot get into the plot of the second one at all as it would be super spoiler heavy…

I expect from this a perfect escapist type mystery novel, that I can read when I am tired from a full day of translating or writing. Sometimes, you just want some glamour and mystery and this one will do nicely, I have read enough Anna Lee Huber to know that I like her.

Thanks to netgalley for the arc

The Corset

by Laura Purcell
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Super excited about this one. I read Silent Companions last year and I loved it. It spooked me and I don’t normally read spooky stuff. There was that night when I read it, when my husband had to go to bed early so I was not alone reading it. This promises to be another spooky read. Maybe I read this by daylight though.

A Discovery of Witches

(All Souls Trilogy #1) by Deborah Harkness

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I am probably the only person in the world, who has not read this. I tried once, but I don’t think I was in the mood back then, so willing to give this another shot. I just have to read books with witches in autumn. It’s the law.

The Magick of Master Lilly

by Tobsha Learner
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Another books I am super excited about, set in 1641 and it says that it deals with role of magic in the English Civil War. I have a slight obsession with that era at the moment, so I am looking forward to that, it does not come out until October, but thankfully, I have an arc via netgalley, so I don’t have to wait, I can just go ahead and read it.

5 books for different readers on Mary, Queen of Scots

I have watched this trailer about 5 times today.

I am so excited about the upcoming movie about Mary Queen of Scots. She is one of the most wonderful characters in history, wild, vilified, dangerous, naive…. the opinions on her and her person differ wildly and her life and how it ended makes for the most thrilling stories.

I have chosen 5 different books that feature her – some where is she the main character, others where she is in the background. The books vary in their tone and style, too: From beach read to serious study.

Mary Stuart by Stefan Zweig

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This is a non-fiction account or exploration rather of Mary Stuart’s life. Zweig had read an account of her execution in the British Library but he could not really find any text that explored her whole life and so he began to write one himself. It was first published in 1935 and is a classic and wonderfully done. You cannot go much wrong with beginning here.

Best suited: You like your non-fiction literary and as if being told a story. This is part biography, part thriller. 

The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

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Gregory has made it her career almost entirely around the exploration of the women surrounding the Plantagenets and Tudors and although not all of her books work for me, I did enjoy this one. I find her take on Mary interesting and she actually focusses on the years of Mary’s house arrest in England before her execution.

Best suited: Perfect beach read. Will keep you gripped without taxing you too much. 

Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary, Queen of Scots by Reay Tannahill

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Tannahill was the historical saga Queen of the 80ies and 90ies and is now sadly quite forgotten, her books are a bit slow but wonderfully researched and this is in my opinion one of her best. She really focuses on all the players around Mary, the intrigue, the politics, the spies, the betrayals.

Best suited: If you don’t mind a slower pace in a historical fiction novel. 

Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett

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The Lymond Chronicles feature Francis Crawford of Lymond and his exploits when Mary is just a baby up to when she is a child. The books are all about the political intrigue surrounding the problematic status in which Mary of Guise finds herself after the death of her husband, the Scottish King and the lengths she has to go to protect the throne for her daughter, Mary. These books are literary historical fiction at its best in my personal opinion. Mary is mostly a background figure there, but the books are wonderful to understanding the greater historical context of Europe at that time.

Best suited: If you like your historical fiction with a lot of brain and quick humour. 

In My End is My Beginning: A Life of Mary Queen of Scots by James A. MacKay

Another non-fiction history book about Mary. This one more recent than the one by Zweig, published in 1999. MacKay looks at Mary within the context of tense Anglo-Scots relations due to the question of religion. An unlucky person, who for a while managed to reign with hardly no resources and actually was quite good at it. Most definitely one of the greatest characters in Scottish history.

Best suited: When you want bare facts!

Have you got any Mary books to add to my TBR?

Why do we read seasonal?

Molly Flatt wrote a piece for the Guardian many, many years ago (I found it: Do you have a seasonal reading pattern?) and it was the first time that I wondered whether the weather influenced my reading. Depending on my mood, when you catch me, my answer can be one of the following

  • No, never
  • Yes, I read sad books in winter and want happy books in summer
  • The reverse of the statement above
  • What seasons, I live in Britain.

Sarcasm aside, my TBR is stuffed full with books that I sort of keep aside for reading during hot summery weather and since that is normally in short supply, I only ever get to one or two of them before I head back to my dark Historical Fiction, the mysteries, the Fantasy tomes etc.

In comes summer 2018: I think it’s well over a month now that is has been sunny and wonderful and I find I started to pick up books that have summery themes, often of an oppressive nature or set in hot places or about people who come from cool climates and then find themselves in unspeakable heat. So, I select these off my bookshelves and place them on the bedside table (which is like being longlisted for a book award in my house, seriously, once you are on the bedside table, your chances are pretty high to reach the “read” status).

So a few things that I have promoted to my bedside table:

 

The Mosquito Coast

Adventure story set in the Honduran Jungle. It sounds dark, it sounds oppressive and has been lingering on my TBR for nearly two years. This might be the summer I am reading it. I feel in the mood for it, so it might just happen.

Illyrian Spring

A 1930s novel by a woman writer? Well, that has been my cup of tea for a while now. Set on the Dalmatian coast, which is one of my favourite places. Apparently, it was scandalous when it first came out. I don’t read gossip magazines, but I do like a good bit of literary scandal.

Mr Lynch’s Holiday

A Midlands bus driver visits his son in a Spanish expat colony and the drama ensues from there. I quite like these enclosed settings and I live in the Midlands, so Brummies on holiday: Sign me up! I always wanted to read something by Catherine O’Flynn anyway.

Villa America

I have already started this one and am by now nearly half way through and I am hooked, this is the second book I am reading set on the Riviera, historical fiction centering around the very real Murphys who basically turned the French Riviera into what it became: a pilgrimage for sun seekers from all over the world. They also apparently inspired one of Fitzgeralds book and I am a smitten kitten and absolutely adore every single minute of this so far.

Fatal Inheritance

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I actually requested this as an arc from the publisher, because I adored the premise and I really enjoyed it. A mysterious inheritance, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who then travels down to the South of France to claim it and gets swept up in the drama and glitz of the French Riviera. Danger and plenty of mystery ensues. Historical fiction, with a hint of Mary Stewart, a touch of Highsmith, perfect for reclining on a deckchair, sipping a cocktail and enjoying this summer. Will be published on the 28th of July.
So, in summary (or should I say: summery): I am a cliche and the weather does clearly dictate what I want to read, eat and drink.
Does the weather influence your reading?

 

Seven Dead by J. Jefferson Farjeon

I have read quite a few of Farjeon’s books over the years and some of them were quite good, but there is always something that does not quite work for me and with Seven Dead I finally figured out what it is: He is trying to appeal to too many audiences at once. You know some people like the murder mystery, the puzzle figuring out how a murder was committed, others like the adventure stories chasing an “unknown” villain, hunting them down, others love the suspense type books, that keep you on the edge of the seat whilst another group does love a bit of romance in their books, some like a policeman doing the investigation, others love a bystander becoming the sleuth. In this book you have all of that and more. Whilst for the most part it is enjoyable in a way, the conclusion of the book is just silly and so random that if you lived in my neighbourhood, you would have heard a frustrated sigh. A loud one. Still, these days, I adore these books and these re-issues since the Golden Age has become almost of academic interest to me. It’s like a personal research topic for me. So on that note, this one was interesting. 34862888


Paperback, British Library Crime Classics, 288 pages
Published September 4th 2017 by The British Library (first published 1939)
Thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.

 

Tar Baby – Toni Morrison… or how women become what men see in them.

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Didi at Brown Girl Reading is hosting #readsoullit this month, a month long reading challenge to accompany Black History Month in the US. For this purpose, she set a photo challenge, a whole month of booktube videos by various booktubers and she also set up the read along for Tar Baby by Toni Morrison.

I have read a lot by Toni Morrison over the years, all the books are very different in tone and story, but they share a couple of characteristics too: Difficult to read due to style and content, strong characters that drive the book making the plot often secondary. Yet, to me the books have always a compelling quality.

As a white European woman, I am fully aware that I don’t get all the socio-cultural references within Morrison’s work. Or in other words: I don’t know what it means to be black in America, I don’t even know what it means to be white in America. So, quite often if I don’t understand parts of the book, I will either have to do some research or I will have to let it go. Despite this, however, I often get a lot out of her books, they make me think, they make me look within myself and wonder what aspects of the characters can be found within me.

Tar Baby is the story of a series of couples, there is Valerian and his wife Margaret, who loath each other, living mostly on this Caribbean island being served hand on foot by Sydney and his wife Ondine. Therese and Gideon look after the tasks that are too menial for the house servants,  and then there is Jardine, niece to the houseservants, but elevated within the household as a protege and Son, the stranger appearing in their midst.

There are many themes in the book, but the one that struck most of a chord with me, was the one on how the way the men perceive the women is how the women end up seeing themselves. It takes Jardine almost the entire book to consider that she is not that person that she is told by the men in her life that is she is. The men are quite vile to the women at times out in the open at times more subtle in how the woman has to shift and maneuver to accommodate the man. It often made me feel uncomfortable, particularly, when one woman who is assaulted by a man, later finds herself in a relationship with that same man.

An interesting read and I am sure it will echo with me for a long time. You cannot say about such book that you loved it, I did not love this book, but it made me think, I adore her characters, so imperfect, so flawed, so unlikeable, but so, so real.

“I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl? And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside– not American– not black– just me?”

By the way, according to the dictionary, a tar baby is “a difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.” – I had never heard of it.


Paperback, 320 pages
Published June 8th 2004 by Vintage (first published 1981)

Revisiting a school book

Over the past few days, some fellow Booktubers and I read Heinrich Boell’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum).

The book, set in the early parts of 1970ies, deals with Katharina, a woman in her twenties, who lives a quiet life filled with work as a housekeeper and occasional work helping out at functions.

 

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During Karneval, she attends a party and meets a man, that she takes home and the next morning after he left, the police takes her to be interrogated because said man is suspected to be a bank robber and an alleged terrorist. Katharina and her friends and family are now hounded by the ZEITUNG (clearly meant to be the BILD, Germany’s notorious slanderous rag of a paper) and quickly every aspect of Katharina’s life is examined and deemed to be unworthy. The ZEITUNG tries and sentences her, before the police even determines if there is enough to charge her with anything.

“… she said she would not sign any deposition containing the word “amorous” instead of “advances”. For her the difference was of crucial significance, and one of the reasons she had separated from her husband was that he had never been amorous but had consistently made advances.”

It was interesting reading this again, even more so, because I read my old school copy including all the notes from the time. Passages underlined and “Idiot” written next to it. Comments from the teacher added on the sides. Doodles. It is funny how these little things can take you back to that time when you read the book for the first time.

It was also fascinating to go back to that time of that ultra conservative Germany during the 1970ies/80ies. How it felt, the constant threat of terrorism. I could almost smell that Germany back then. And the longer I think, the more I think about how brilliant Boell was to set this story during Karneval.

It was great re-reading this, and I shall pick up more of my German books this year.

“The characters and action in this story are purely fictitious. Should the description of certain journalistic practices result in a resemblance to the practices of Bild-Zeitung, such resemblance is neither intentional, nor fortuitous, but unavoidable.”


Published April 1976 by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
Paperback, 152 pages
English Edition: 
Published September 29th 2009 by Penguin Classics
Paperback, 103 pages