About me
Bookshop

Get new posts by email.

About me

What I’ve been reading this month

Here’s what I’ve been reading in April.


Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“You two are in something. I don’t know what it is, but you guys are in something. Some people call it a relationship, some call it a friendship, some call it love, but you two, you two are in something.”

It’s rare to find a book that grabs hold of you from the first page and just doesn’t let go. Yet the exquisite, intense, poetic writing of Caleb Azumah Nelson’s first novel, published only a few weeks ago, does exactly that. It’s hard to believe that it is only 145 pages long.

The plot, narrated in the second person, centres on two young Black British artists, one a photographer and one a dancer, trying to find their way through London and through life, while falling in love: real love, strong and fragile, comforting and tormenting, easy and hard.

This was stunning, in every sense of that word.


Writers & Lovers by Lily King

I can’t remember what made me pick up this 2020 novel by Lily King, and I initially found it slightly hard to get into. But I ended up enjoying it.

Set in the US in 1997, the protagonist is a woman, Casey, in her early thirties who works at a restaurant while trying to find her way as a novelist. She is also dealing with the grief associated with her mother’s recent death. She begins to date two men, both also writers, and tries to decide which she wishes to enter a longer term relationship with.

I enjoyed this for its light discussion of the process of writing, and also enjoyed the development of the protagonist over the course of the novel. The relationships were well-written and closely observed.

The ending of the book felt tonally different to the rest of the novel, and it left me feeling a little disappointed. I suppose this means this is a rare example of a book where I enjoyed the middle but didn’t especially enjoy the beginning or the end!


Concretopia by John Grindrod

Published in 2013, and on my to-read list for some considerable time, this is John Grindrod’s tour of post-modern British architecture. Grindrod’s evidently abundant enthusiasm for the topic shines through, and carries interesting but detailed discussions of topics that might seem superficially rather dry—approaches to town planning and battles with Local Authorities, for example!

I was slow to read this book as it often had me hurrying off to search the web for some of the developments discussed. That was partly because Grindrod’s introductions interested me, but also partly because in the paperback edition I have the pictures are a little small and sometimes hard to make out.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this, learning more about developments that I’m somewhat familiar with, and plenty that were new to me.


Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

Published last year, this is Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book which reflects on the effect books have had on her own life, as a reader, bookseller and writer. It includes a great many recommendations of books she has enjoyed.

This was short enough to read through in a day. I found it surprisingly heartwarming: the premise seemed a little off-putting—I often find that people who define themselves as “readers” are not particularly good or engaging writer—but the book came on recommendation, and I enjoyed it. The insights into bookselling were particularly fun.


The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

My read-through of all the Sherlock Holmes stories has reached The Hound of the Baskervilles, first serialised in 1901-2–and I was fortunate enough to read this 1902 edition courtesy of The London Library. This is the third novel in the series, coming after two volumes of short stories.

I note that in my review a year ago of the previous book in the series (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) I commented that I was looking forward to getting engrossed in a proper full-length novel again, but I’m afraid this left me disappointed. The plot seemed absurdly far-fetched and there seemed to me to be very little new characterisation.

I know many people love this book, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Given that none of the volumes so far have bowled me over, I think perhaps that my plan to read all the volumes might have been a little hasty.


Pandemic 2 by Slavoj Žižek

I picked this up because I enjoyed the first volume a few weeks ago. Like that, this book consists of Žižek writing angry philosophical reflections on the pandemic.

Despite the similar premise, I enjoyed this volume much less than the first. This volume is much longer than the first, and doesn’t have the same sense of capturing a moment: the first was published just as the pandemic was taking hold and the first lockdowns in Europe were being implemented. This second volume tries to take a longer view about “time lost” but isn’t very successful as it was published last autumn, which we now know to really have been in the ‘middle’ of the pandemic rather than at the end. It isn’t helped by large passages on why Trump will win re-election.

Žižek also goes much deeper into pop culture references in this volume: I know that’s his usual style, but my pop culture knowledge is a little lacking, so much of it went over my head. I preferred the lighter touch of the first volume.

I still think that the first short volume was fun and worth reading, but I’d advise skipping this second one.


The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle

This is the last book I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s 2020 FUTURES series, and for good reason: I didn’t think I’d be very interest in comedian Frankie Boyle’s view of The Future of British Politics. I wouldn’t have bought this had it not been part of the five-piece set.

It turned out to be a book which wasn’t really about the future of British politics at all, but a 59-page comedic essay about British politics as it currently is. Clearly, the Goodreads average score shows that this has brought a lot of joy to a lot of people, but this style of offence-as-humour just isn’t my cup of tea, and I took nothing from it.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

As the daylight has begun to stretch into the evening, I’ve read seven books this month.


Klara and The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is Ishiguro’s recently published novel set in the near future (or perhaps an alternative present). It is narrated by an “AF” called Klara, a solar powered artificially intelligent robot of sorts who is bought to be a companion for an unwell child, Josie.

Like all of the Ishiguro novels I’ve read, I absolutely loved this. As in Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro makes deft use of science fiction themes to explore universal experiences and emotions, and avoids getting drawn into the “science” bit (we don’t really know what sort of technology powers AFs, for example). This novel explores all sorts of questions: the universal aspects of the life course; the nature of religion; the meaning of service; the lifelong impact of childhood inequality; the fundamentals of the human condition; the meaning of friendship and love. As with his other novels, Ishiguro explores all of this gently rather than forcefully.

Honestly, to me Ishiguro is one of those authors who could spin a thoughtful and spellbinding novel out of a telephone directory. 

This was brilliant.


A Promised Land by Barack Obama

This first part of Obama’s Presidential memoir covers his political life up to the point of election to the Presidency, and his first term through to May 2011. For me, it was a Christmas present from mum and dad.

It is nothing short of exceptional. Obama has a rare talent for prose that is both readable and elegant: quite apart from his extraordinary experience, he is a truly gifted writer. He deftly combines everything from personal anecdote to political theory and from introspective reflection to lessons on statecraft to essentially spin a really gripping yarn, which also provides deep insight into what it is like to be a President of the United States.

Obama’s much-expressed and clearly deeply-felt frustration with the Republican Party and the early ascendency in the political sphere of Trump portends a rather darker second volume. As I will definitely be reading it, I’ll be interested to see whether that can be as inspiring and hopeful as this volume, despite the different circumstances.


Pandemic! by Slavoj Žižek

Published in April last year (which we now know to be fairly early on in our collective experience of COVID-19), this is Žižek’s short (146 pages) philosophical reflection on the pandemic.

It was clearly written quickly, and include things that would usually be very irritating (some long quotes from Wikipedia, for example). However, I really enjoyed looking at something which has consumed my work and personal life for more than a year from a different perspective.

I found it fun and refreshing.


On Connection by Kae Tempest

Published last year, this is an extended reflection (144 pages) by poet Kae Tempest on the importance of “connection” which is defined as “the feeling of landing in the present tense. Fully immersed in whatever occupies you, paying close attention to the details of experience.” This sounds similar to “mindfulness” yet Tempest’s discussion seems to have an added element of human connection to it, and recognises the importance of creativity in bringing people together and finding common ground.

I came across this through some Faber Members marketing, and I found it insightful, perceptive and timely. I hadn’t come across Tempest’s work previously, but will seek it out having read this. It was well worth the small time commitment given its short length, particularly to gain a new perspective on the impact of covid-19.


The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin

This is the fourth I’ve read in Tortoise Media’s five-book FUTURES series published last year, which is a modern day attempt to follow in the footsteps of the 1920s series of To-Day and To-Morrow essays.

Levitin’s 60-page essay concerns the future of seduction, though is really mostly about dating in the modern world. As Wendy and I have been together for the better part of 17 years, the world of dating apps has really passed both of us by. I remember learning the hard way that it had passed into the mainstream after making a comment to a colleague about it being “geeky” about a decade ago, only to hear that she had met her husband online.

All of which is to say… this book was an education. Whoever knew the difference between Bumble and Tinder? Who knew that most people just chat on these services? Who knew that “progressing to WhatsApp” was a stage of a relationship?

I’m not sure I really needed to know any of this, but it was eye-opening!


Fatherhood by Caleb Klaces

This is Caleb Klaces’s 2019 ‘experimental’ novel combining prose and poetry. It concerns a young couple moving to the countryside following the birth of their first child, with the father taking on much of the childcare responsibility.

To me, the experimental form (shifting between history, biography, poetry, stream of consciousness, memory, and probably other things too) was a bit beyond me, and a bit of a barrier. This is probably in part because this isn’t the sort of thing I usually read. There were bits of observation and philosophy that made me think in this novel, but the whole just wasn’t up my street.


The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers

I picked up Justin Myers’s novel as it was recommended somewhere or other as a good option for those who enjoyed Exciting Times, which I read and recommended last summer. From my perspective, this was a bad recommendation as I felt the two books had very little in common.

Exciting Times is a literary love story filled with warmth and wit, whose central character happens to be bisexual. The Magnificent Sons is a modern melodramatic Bildungsroman focussed on a bisexual man coming to terms with his sexuality. The very positive reviews for The Magnificent Sons speak to the fact that it is an accomplished work, but it’s really just not up my street.

I was a little distracted by poor editing (the relocation of the Canadian National Tower to Seattle was one of the less forgivable errors) and some of the idioms were a little too wild for me (emotional pain that “hurts harder than Lego underfoot” or a character “retreating to their mental holodeck”). I had also expected more reflection on and development of the fraternal relationship given the title. But the real point is that I probably noticed these “flaws” because this book just wasn’t my kind of thing, rather than them being major issues. This sort of dialogue-driven sentimental story contained mostly within a small friendship group just doesn’t do it for me.

But, by all accounts, if this is the sort of thing you like, you’ll probably like it a lot, so please don’t let this put you off.

This post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , .




The content of this site is copyright protected by a Creative Commons License, with some rights reserved. All trademarks, images and logos remain the property of their respective owners. The accuracy of information on this site is in no way guaranteed. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author. No responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage caused by reliance on the information provided by this site. Information about cookies and the handling of emails submitted for the 'new posts by email' service can be found in the privacy policy. This site uses affiliate links: if you buy something via a link on this site, I might get a small percentage in commission. Here's hoping.