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Pigeon English

15 Feb

This is a piece of Peckham’s peace wall. It was created on a boarded shop window after the riots in London in August 2011. It’s beautiful and meaningful, and I hope made a difference. 
In Pigeon English Harri responds to the murder of a school colleague by trying to hunt for clues so he can identify the killer. Harri is an innocent, a boy about to become a man. But what kind of a man can he hope to be, brought up in this violent, aggressive, unkind environment?
Harri would have loved the Peckham peace wall. 

Resistance by Owen Sheers

2 Feb
Cover of "Resistance"

I loved this book.

When I started it I knew nothing about it, nothing at all. A friend recommended it to me at our last book group gathering – in fact she suggested that we have a book group outing to see the movie of the book when it comes to the Cameo in Edinburgh later this month.  I like this plan.

And when a couple of days later I finished the current book, Resistance felt like the right next book to start. I’m slightly picky about what order I read books in, and never really decide which book will be my next book until I’ve actually finished the one I’m on.  (OK sometimes I read more than one at a time, but that doesn’t count). I downloaded Resistance onto my kindle on the train down to London – what a blissful piece of technology a kindle is! But more on that another time.  And possibly on another place. I need to tell you about our new blog.  I say ‘our’. The fabulous patothecity has set up edinburghbookgroup.  It’s a place for people to chatter about books. It’s in its infancy, so who knows where it might go, but I have visions of a virtual book group – a resource for people wanting to discuss what they’ve read, whether it is online or in their own local book group. Go have a look, join in by commenting if you feel like it…

But back to Resistance.

You’d expect Resistance to be beautifully written, given that the author is a poet, but I don’t think I was prepared for such an evocative book.  It’s set in the last months of the second world war, but it is a different second world war: Germany has invaded Britain and is winning. So,although there is a very strong sense of time, it’s not the time as we’ve seen it before, it is distorted by a dramatic change of circumstances.

The whole story is set in an isolated Welsh valley, opening one morning with the womenfolk of the valley who all wake up to discover that their menfolk have upped and left them in the middle of the night. The sense of loss is almost physical, with a recurring description of the imprint from his body on the mattress. But the women choose to go on as though nothing has happened; or perhaps there was little choice. Country life is hard, and life in the country during the dying days of a war are unbearably hard. Owen Sheers depicts that hardship beautifully.

If you want to see what else I’ve read this year, see my list.  If you have any recommendations for me, leave a comment.  Preferably not chick lit though.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

15 Jan

I started Jeanette Winterson’s latest book before Christmas, it was a paperback proof copy. I don’t usually like proofs, but this one is pretty much like an ordinary paperback, so it was fine and passed my criteria for readability.

But then I got a Kindle for Christmas.  Well, initially I got a Kinder Surprise!  The hints had been dropped, and clearly picked up, but through the Chinese whispers the desirable object had transformed itself into a wee plastic toy inside a small chocolate egg. Not a bad egg, but still a chocolate egg, and I don’t eat chocolate any more. Well, not much. But it certainly was a Surprise! It was also not the real present, and the Kindle-Not-Such-A-Surprise-Afterall came close behind the disappointing chocolate egg.

So, I had to try out my new gift straight away didn’t I? And that meant that the half-read Why Be Happy… lay forlorn for a few weeks until I had read the last book in the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy, and then also Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie which we will be discussing at book group this week.

But today I picked up Why Be Happy… again, and curled up on the sofa to read it. And I didn’t get up again until I’d finished.

What a book. For those that don’t know, this is a story of her life, the ‘true’ story behind Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I read Oranges.. when it was first published all those years ago – last year was the 20th anniversary of its publication.

I remember reading it vividly. I had recently become a Samaritan volunteer, and discovered the fiction of both Jeanette Winterson and Jenny Diski – I voraciously read everything they published, loving their fictionalised worlds. As a Samaritan I was in a new world, of peoples’ emotions and feelings, of loss and despair, of love and rejection, but most of all a world full of expression. People were expressing their feelings to me, and it was rarely easy for them.  It was my role to help them, to hold them as they dug deep within themselves and talked about themselves in terms of their feelings. It felt absolutely right for me, this listening to others, being a vessel to hold their fears while they discovered what they’d been hiding for so long. I don’t know why it felt right, but it did. And an enormous privilege.

So, now coming full circle and reading Why Be Happy… I am reminded of those conversations, of the nameless, anonymous, faceless people who told me their secrets. I know how hard it was for them to open themselves to one single anonymous faceless individual. And I am blown away at how Jeanette Winterson has expressed so much emotion in a book, laying her emotions bare for all to read. It is a brave book. It is a glorious book, full of anger, and hurt, and longing. Deep, deep longing. It is about love, and the search for love. And about loss, and the loss of loss.

Read it.

But have a hankie ready.

Any suggestions for what to read next?

What I’ve read this year – 2012

14 Jan

So, let’s see how I do against my targets for this year… Let the reading commence!

Oh, and in case you care, my links to buy the books are all for If you don’t like amazon, other booksellers are available, just google.  


Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  The final book in his Millennium series, and yet again a book that could have done with a good edit. Having said that it was yet again a good thriller and a compulsive read, finished in about a week.

Carol Birch‘s Jamrach’s Menagerie.  Our book group’s first book of 2012, and a worthy book to discuss.  What started as a kids’ adventure story became a true horror story, full of gore, slime and grime. It will generate interesting discussion, of that there is no doubt.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson. A powerfully emotional book, the ‘true’ story behind her debut Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson only came to my attention because it is in the Richard and Judy book group, and I saw Judy absolutely raving about it on telly one evening. It’s a quick read, and kept me guessing. The narrator of the book is a woman close to my age who wakes up each morning with no memory, but with a sense of horror that she’s in bed with a middle aged man – her initial thought is that she got wrecked the night before at a party and can’t remember who she came home with. It’s not a Groundhog Day book, and it’s not a love story – more a psychological thriller. And, as I said, a quick read.

I loved Resistance by Owen Sheers. And it brought my total for January to five books finished. Yay!


In Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman Harri searches for clues after the murder of a boy from his school. He hopes the clues will lead to the killer. Harri has an innocence, he is a boy about to become a man. But what sort of man can he possibly be, brought up in this violent, unkind environment? His mother has brought him from Ghana, in the hope of giving him a better future. Harri’s voice felt ‘true’ although I did find it vaguely annoying after a while.

I read What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe as a book group book. And unusually I read it all the way through (not enjoying much of it at all) and then refused to go to book group to discuss it. I just felt I had nothing I wanted to say about it. And I found that after I’d finished I couldn’t even distinguish between the different hideous family members. Various friends have told me how much they loved this book. I didn’t. And I’m not sure it was helped by reading it in e-book form, so I couldn’t flip back easily and see who was who.

I read about The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicolson in the Sunday Times one weekend. It wasn’t a review, but was in someone’s column, and I honestly can’t remember whose. I kinda wish I could, as I really enjoyed the book, which absolutely is described in the title. It focuses on a few days one early summer in a small village in commuter distance from London. The characters are well drawn, the situations perfectly described. It’s not a rip-roaring read, but thoroughly enjoyable.




My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell had been on my shelf for years (I got it as a bookcrossing random act of book crossing kindness years ago, and really must pass it on now that I’ve actually read it). It had elements of Rebecca about it, and inspired me to re-read Rebecca and Rebecca’s Tale.

After my Maggie O’Farrell feast I turned to an author new to me, recommended by my good friend Salidatious: Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz. Sal had read it quickly and loved it, and wanted someone else to read it so she could talk about it. I love that about her. And was so glad she’d recommended, and loaned, this book to me. A worthy shortlisted book for the Orange, a tale of an adulterous affair in Ireland. The backdrop to the tale is the arc of the Irish economy, from roaring tiger in the boom years, to the depression of the recession.

And so it seemed sensible to read another Orange shortlisted book immediately after I’d finished the Anne Enright. And as I’d bought Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder a couple of months earlier, now seemed like the time to start reading it. Some books nourish you, and stay with you long after you finished them. This is one such book.

Ewan Morrison’s Tales from the Mall has been in my subconscious for a few months, mainly on social media, but also in bookshops, and newspaper book reviews. It’s a fascinating read, especially for someone who doesn’t like either shopping malls, or short stories. It’s made up of perfect bitesized chunks of reading goodness, a mixture of fact and fiction, but all related in some way to shopping malls. You’ll learn all manner of things, like why cross dressers like malls, and why walking round a mall is considered a terrorist threat. Unsettling and fascinating (but not necessarily in that order).

After I’d whet my appetite with TFTM I chose Swung, also by Ewan Morrison. There’s a lot of media coverage of 50 Shades of Grey just now, but I suspect it isn’t nearly as interesting as Swung, the story of a Glasgow couple trying to make their relationship work.

Books 2012

2 Jan

Hmmm.. I had some rather grand plans last year about my reading.  Some achieved, some nowhere near… but perhaps that is the way with reading, sometimes you see something and you want to read it there and then, and you pick it up and off you go. Other books you see or you hear about, and you decide to read them, but you don’t start them for a while.  I have so many books on my shelves that aren’t yet read, but most of them will be one day – and in 2011 I made inroads into the pile.  I do worry that having a kindle may reduce the speed at which I get through the To Be Read pile though – they make it just too easy to buy something there and then.

Anyway, what am I going to read this year?

I’ve already finished my first book: the last in Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium series.  Not the best.  And I think they all could have done with some serious editing, this one particularly.  And I wonder if anyone came to this book first,would they ever understand it and be bothered to wade through the bits that make little sense? Who knows?

I’ve also got a book half way through: Jeanette Winterson‘s utterly brilliant Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal.  I’ll try to finish it in the next few days, and then start my Book Group book for January: Jamrach’s Menagerie.  I’ve got it loaded onto my kindle already, so that’s a good start.

What else, what else this year?

  1. I still want to attempt Ulysses.  And read a Margaret Atwood.
  2. And I still want to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  3. I’ll finish Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography
  4. The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life by William Nicholson.  I read a good piece about it the other day which inspired me to put it on my wishlist.
  5. Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.  Is it Stephen?  I think so. I heard about this when it was first published and meant to buy/read it then.  I forgot.
  6. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I have a beautiful hardback illustrated edition of this, bought at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years ago. I started it this year, but I just hate carrying big books around with me.  Perhaps I have to download it onto my kindle too.. would that be too extravagant?
  7. I’ll read Book Group books, even if I don’t always make it to book group.
  8. I’ll aim for 30 books this year.  I think I can do that, although I’m also hoping to increase the number of things I make this year, and not just foodie stuff – I’ve been doing a lot of knitting recently, and have started sewing again, so who knows what homemade goodies will appear from the Valley in 2012?



World Book Night

2 Feb

On World Book Night, 1 million books will be given away free of charge.  And I have been chosen to give away 48 of them.  The book I’m giving away is Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters.

I first read Stuart in the summer of 2006.  I don’t know precisely when I read every book I’ve read, but I can place this one exactly – I had read it shortly before I joined the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2006.  In that first year working for the Book Fest I managed to get to 4 or 5 events, and the most memorable was one with Alexanders Masters talking about Stuart.  Even having read the book beforehand, I was quite blown away with the force of the emotion of that first chapter.  And hearing Alexander Masters talk about Stuart, about the man, about writing about him, about his relationship with him, and about his all too real sense of loss and grief was utterly heart-breaking.

Find out more about Stuart here

I now have the opportunity to share Stuart with the rest of the world.  Well, not quite the whole world, but I’m hoping to distribute my 48 copies widely. So far it’ll be travelling to Australia, Ireland and Cornwall through me.  I’m sure I can do better than that, and also get it to South Africa, and maybe America.  And hey, surely I can do Germany/Switzerland too.  And maybe India.

Anyway – World Book Night is worth supporting. Some great publishers are promoting reading by giving away 1 million books.  I’m proud to be helping them.

click here to find out more about World Book Night

Books 2011 – the results

27 Jan


Here are the books I’ve read this year:


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

One Day by David Nicholls

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards


Nourishment by Gerard Woodward

The Great Lover by Jill Dawson

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald – our book club book for March


Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason

Room by Emma Donoghue


Ascent by Jed Mercurio


Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

Purge by Sofi Oksanen


Toast by Nigel Slater

Snowdrops by AD Miller


Sin by Josephine Hart

The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts (novel based on the life of Egon Schiele)


Weight by Jeanette Winterson


When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

The House of Rajani by Alon Hilu


Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson

What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller


The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (not finished by end of year)

So.. the grand total is 26 books, and a half.  Not bad going for this year I think.

Books 2011

4 Jan

Following the lead of a couple of friends, I’m going to set myself a slightly different reading challenge this year.  In previous years I’ve just set myself a target of a number of books (and a couple of years ago I set an overly ambitious target and ended up judging books by how quick they would be to read, not how satisfying they might be).

So, this year, I’ll draft a list of books I want to read plus an overall target.  The list will only be a small proportion of the books I want to read, and will only include books I already own.  That’s my rules.

And here’s the list – I’ll come back to it and embolden things as they are read.  I may even do the odd book review, although I suspect they will be very odd (and rarer still).

  1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  My first book group book of the year, and also my first book of the year.  Half read at the time of first writing this.
  2. One Day by David Nicholls. Bought at a charity shop the other day.  Oxfam in Hamilton if you want to know.
  3. Room by Emma Donohue – it was one of the favourite books of staff at the Book Fest in 2010.
  4. One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson.  I own both of these, and loved the first in the series: Case Histories.
  5. The Siege by Helen Dunmore, recommended by my friend and fellow bibliophile Louise K.
  6. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.  I bought this ages ago, as it had been on my wish list for a while.  But I never read it, and it’s still sitting on my shelf, occasionally winking at me.
  7. An Elizabeth David book – not sure which one yet, but I feel I should read one of them.
  8. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney.  I bought this as soon as it came out in paperback, before it won the Costa.  But again, never got round to reading it yet.
  9. Away by Amy Bloom – received from my sis-in-law for Christmas 2010 and looks good (and relatively short).
  10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.  I think I got this last year for Christmas as part of a Not So Secret Santa Surprise from a bookcrossing buddy.  I feel I should read it and pass it on, especially as I’ve never read anything by La Atwood.
  11. Ulysses by James Joyce – received with The Blind Assassin as part of the same Surprise.  I suspect that I may only start this in 2011, and take some years before I manage to read it through from cover to cover.

I suspect I’ll also read the new Niccolo Amanitti book and the latest Gerard Woodward (Nourishment).

I’ll strike through books as I read them.

24 January 2011

I have now read One Day. It was an engaging enough read, but I spent the whole of the book feeling as though I’d read it before, or seen the movie.  I know I haven’t, but it all seemed so familiar (or perhaps predictable).

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