books

my favourite reads of 2018

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

Books should always be accompanied by tea and homemade cake where possible.

In true Phil tradition, I wait until it is quite embarrassing to have a blog post with “2018” in the title to divulge my favourite reads of the last year. Also in my usual style, some of the best books were discovered and read in the final days of December, hence the long mulling over. But now I have decided and I hope you will enjoy hearing about my choices and maybe even be inspired to read them yourself. As always, I’d love to hear what your favourite reads of last year were too.

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Full disclosure, Holly is a friend and I had been eagerly anticipating this book for years but I bought my own copy (which is the best way to support a friend who publishes a book! Buy it! Buy two! I speak from experience here) and was under no obligation to say nice things about it in public. But that is neither here nor there because I have nothing but nice things to say about it!

Lost Flowers is a read you won't forget in a hurry. Exquisitely written, this is a compelling story of grief, heartbreak, love, magic, wonder and redemption, with Australia's beautiful landscapes (bush, sea and desert) as the backdrop. Despite very dark subject matter, Holly has crafted a truly beautiful story that reads almost like a fairytale and brings it alive with luscious detail, particularly when it comes to Australia's native flowers, the vehicle through which young Alice Hart learns to communicate again after a violent family tragedy. 

But flowers can only say so much and the book's ultimate, powerful message is that, no matter how hard you try, you cannot run away from grief, from pain and from your past because it will always find you. There are some very dark times for Alice as she ignores danger signals time and time again - which is so unsettling as a reader, because you end up caring so much about her! - but Alice's story is, in the end, a hopeful one as she realises that facing pain and owning your story is the only way to move forward and claim your rightful place in the world. 

Books don't often move me in the way this one did. The storytelling is truly spectacular and the character of Alice Hart is the lost, frightened child seeking love and belonging that I think speaks to that part of all of us. Holly is a magical writer and I'd say this book is destined to become something of an Australian classic.

Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I mentioned this book in my post about my love affair with Persephone Books which was well and truly rekindled in 2018. Someone At A Distance has probably been my favourite Persephone so far, and that is saying something, because they are yet to publish something I don’t enjoy!

Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature. Dorothy Whipple was an extraordinary writer and I now want to read everything she ever wrote.

The Tuscan Cookbook by Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer

Stephanie’s Journal is one of my favourite books (it’s one of my mate Veggie Mama’s too!) - it is the diary Stephanie Alexander kept in the year 1997, which turned out to be a momentous one for her. She closed her famous restaurant in Melbourne, opened the Richmond Hill Cafe and Larder, and held three residential cooking schools in Tuscany with her friend Maggie Beer. I have read the journal countless times - at least once a year since I bought it off the sale table in Fullers Bookshop in 2001 sometime - but I had never read the cookbook that Stephanie and Maggie put out the year after the cooking schools, which naturally were full! Of course, it was published 20 years ago and it wasn’t easy to get a copy in the UK - but an Amazon secondhand seller came to rescue and I managed to get a copy that was signed by Stephanie herself! (I shall have to hope I run into Maggie sometime now that I’m back in Oz so she can sign it too!) It was such a treat to read this book after many years of imagining the cooking school, in the magical Tuscan countryside, and all the mouthwatering food they cooked. It has not only added to my enjoyment of one of my favourite books but it was a sumptuous read in its own right, with so many delicious recipes and ideas. So many recipes for cavolo nero, my favourite vegetable!

Home Cook by Thomasina Miers

I could not leave this book out of my favourites of the year, primarily because I cooked so much from it in 2018. Every recipe from this book that I’ve tried is an absolute winner. My favourite was the marmalade breakfast muffins, which I must have made every week for a couple of months, I just couldn’t get enough! When you’re an experienced cook it’s very rare when a book comes along that gives you new ideas and fresh energy to get into the kitchen and try some different things. Highly recommended!

The entire works of Diana Henry but particularly How To Eat A Peach and Food from Plenty

Diana Henry is fast becoming my favourite food writer. Her words are so evocative and poetic, you can practically smell what she’s cooking. This is a woman who loves food and has lived it. So many of the milestones in her life have a food story linked to it somehow, and I find this so interesting to read. Stories behind food and dishes, when they are told well, add greatly to my enjoyment of a recipe. I made quite a few dishes from How To Eat A Peach (which Tom got me for my birthday) over the long, hot summer we enjoyed in the UK last year and they were all excellent. It’s a lovely summery book, evidenced in the great variety of recipes for ice creams and sorbets (and such inventive combinations!). Perfect to sit with a cold glass of something indulgent and plan a dinner party with. Towards the end of the year, I noticed that nearly all Diana Henry’s books were 99p on Kindle for a few weeks, so I bought all of them (apart from the one entirely devoted to chicken, seeing I don’t eat it!). As with Thomasina Miers, it is rare for me to encounter a food writer that makes me want to actually cook their recipes as opposed to just soak up their exquisite prose.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson

Also mentioned in my Persephone post and one of my favourites of theirs. Written in 1934 and hence reflecting the concerns of women at the time, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Barbara Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

84 Charing Cross Road / The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff

“I used to go to English movies just to look at the streets. I remember years ago a guy I knew told me that people going to England find exactly what they go looking for. I said I'd go looking for the England of English Literature, and he nodded and said: ‘It's there.’” Oh, this glorious book. What a treat. I’d wanted to read it for years - and on one sunny Sunday in September last year I read it, the whole thing (my edition included the sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street), and adored it. Do you ever read a book and as you’re reading it you know you’ve found a new favourite you’ll read again and again? That was this book for me. If you love London and books, I highly recommend it. It’s as charming and delightful as everyone says.

The Fortnight in September by R.C Sheriff

Also a Persephone book and an unusual one in that it was written by a man! But this was one of the most accomplished, most finely observed novels I have ever read. The premise is so simple - we follow the Stevens family on their annual two week holiday to the seaside in Bognor Regis. They are a typical middle-class 1930s family and have been going to the same B&B run by the same people for a very long time. Their holiday is as well-planned and thought out as their daily lives in South London, Mr Stevens has thought of everything down to the packing of the suitcases, the timings of the trains and which beach hut to hire for the best perspective. The B&B isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be - slightly shabby, the landlady a little older and dottier - but the Stevens family do what they’ve always done and make the best of things. It’s an absolutely fascinating novel and so finely and accurately observed. Like I said, such a simple premise but the novel manages to capture all the big concerns of life within it - love, hope, disappointment, home, family, the passing of the years. I also loved how the very feeling of being on holiday is captured in this book - how the arrival at one’s destination is so anticipated and exciting, and then the days begin to roll by faster and faster and before you know it, the holiday is over and it’s time to go back home, to normal life. Wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

I had been meaning to read this book for years and it felt poetic that I read it in November, during my last autumn in London. I seem to be enjoying novels that are more character studies, perhaps reflective of the direction my own writing is taking. In Quartet in Autumn, we meet four people who are colleagues sharing the same office - two men, two women, all of whom are nearing retirement age. The setting is London in the late 1970s and it’s an interesting study of loneliness and friendship, and how people’s inner and outer lives can be poles apart. Pym’s ability to write about the humdrum existences of these people without losing the reader at any point is quite incredible. I am studying her techniques intently! A writer of great tenderness and humour. I loved it.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Instagram friends raving about this book + 99p on Kindle + 23 hours of flying from London to Melbourne = done deal! I wanted an absorbing, fun read for the London to Singapore leg of our journey home to Australia in December (ha!) and I got that and more with One Day in December. Wow. Good thing I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting because it is such a sweet, compelling and emotional story that I would have found it hard to put down otherwise.  I won't say anything about the plot - all I will say is that is it very, very rare for me to be moved to tears by a book. I cried a few times during the reading, but by the end I was a sobbing mess! Maybe it's because I was sleep deprived and emotional about returning home, who knows! But if you want a romantic and unputdownable holiday read that will really make you think about love, friendship, life and fate, I couldn't recommend this more highly.

The Empress of Australia: A Post War Memoir by Harry Leslie Smith

Harry Leslie Smith sadly passed away just as I was discovering his work late last year. I would highly recommend watching his speech at the Labour Party Conference in 2014. A man who lived through the depression of the 1930s, the Second World War and enormous social change throughout his lifetime, in his eighties and nineties Harry became a passionate political voice, speaking out about NHS cutbacks, benefits policy, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education – and how the world his generation helped to build out of the rubble of depression, social inequality and the terror of war is slowly eroding. “Don’t let my past be your future,” he warned. This particular memoir was about life in Britain after he was demobbed from service in 1948 and attempted to make a life back in his hometown with his German wife. The attitude towards her was quite shocking (but I was also shocked to realise that it’s not dissimilar to attitudes towards immigrants and foreigners in modern day Britain! Very little has actually changed. Even the scene that takes place at peak hour in Paddington station when Harry and Friede are trying to get home from Gatwick was hauntingly similar to my experiences! But that’s a post for another day) and Harry’s valiant attempts to make a home for her are so noble and heartbreaking, but sadly it all unravels as Friede simply can’t adjust to the culture shock of post-war austerity Britain and Harry’s hopes of making a good life in working class Halifax fade rapidly. Eventually the story has a happy ending as they decide to emigrate to Canada on the ship from which this memoir derives its title. I read this as part of research for my novel, also set in 1948, and will refer to it often. What a brave, extraordinary man he was. I’m so glad he wrote his stories down.

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

One of the first books I borrowed from the library on landing in Hobart! In this book, journalist Leigh Sales interviews several people who have suffered or been involved in high-profile tragedies such as the Thredbo landslide and Port Arthur (I found that one the hardest to read) and how they coped with the trauma and attention that followed. After all, the days that these tragedies took place were just another ordinary day, to begin with. They woke up that morning having no idea by evening their lives would be forever altered. The interviews are powerful and honest. And alongside these very courageous testimonies is Leigh exploring the idea that none of us know when something will happen that changes everything. We have no ability to control these kinds of events happening to us, or our loved ones. We are all vulnerable. And if the worst does happen, what do you do then? Any Ordinary Day is such a compelling book about human capacity for resilience, courage, kindness and endurance. I wouldn’t recommend reading it before bed (!) but any other time you need to feel reminded of the resilience of human beings, the ability of communities to rally round and support each other, or just to feel nothing but unbridled gratitude for your life’s many blessings, this is a great read.

What books did you most enjoy reading in 2018?

PS: As I mention every year, any links to Amazon are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and end up making a purchase, I get a small commission. Many thanks for your support xx

my favourite persephone books

persephone-books-and-pansy-jug

I've had a bit of a love affair with Persephone Books since I arrived in London. Their charming shop in Bloomsbury's Lamb Conduit Street is one of my favourite places to go when I feel like a treat. 

Persephone reprints "neglected fiction and non-fiction" by 20th century writers, mainly women, and the shop itself is an absolute haven for writers and book lovers. Not only are the books beautiful but there's always fresh handpicked flowers dotted about, vintage posters, bookmarks and other enchanting paraphernalia to get your imagination going. I never fail to feel inspired after visiting.

persephone-books-london-1
persephone-books-london-2

And, needless to say, I also never fail to leave the shop without a few books!

One of my favourite podcasts, Tea and Tattle, devoted an entire episode to discussing their favourite Persephone reads last year so I'd highly recommend you check out that episode if you're new to Persephone books and are wondering where to start, because it's quite an impressive catalogue. Many of Miranda and Sophie's recommendations are my favourites too, but they also mention some that I hadn’t thought to check out before - and as they both have great taste in books I’ll certainly be doing so.

The books themselves are also beautiful - as you can see in my main photograph, they are the most elegant shade of grey and look really lovely arranged together. Each book has its own individual endpaper and bookmark, usually a pattern related to the content of the book or the time of publication. Everything has been thought about with Persephone books, and it really shows. 

So I thought I'd share the Persephone books I've most enjoyed since I discovered them - and since my love affair was revived after listening to the Tea and Tattle episode! - but this is a mere drop in the ocean as I am nowhere near through the range. I have many more Persephones than the ones I’ve mentioned below, but I’ve enjoyed every book from them that I’ve read and we’ll be here all day if I list them all! So these are the ones that I think are great ones to start with, in my opinion. If you want some absorbing, well-written books to curl up with on a rainy day with a warm mug of something delicious, you can't go wrong with any of these.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (Persephone no. 28)

This was the first book of Marghanita Laski's I've read and it's made me want to read everything she's ever written. I read it in one weekend and it was absolutely breathtaking. It was desperately sad at times, even depressing, as it follows a father's journey to try and find his missing five-year-old- son after the Second World War, but all in all, it is a stunning novel about loss and hope. I'd even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece. I would also highly recommend To Bed With Grand Music and Tory Heaven: or Thunder on the Right, also by Laski and published by Persephone, and they’re both brilliant. The latter feels particularly pertinent in a post-EU referendum Britain!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple (Persephone no. 3)

This is probably my most favourite Persephone book (so far). Described as "a fairly ordinary tale about the destruction of a happy marriage", I was quite unprepared for how compelling and absorbing this tale would be. It's a novel all about relationships, how they form and also how they fall apart. Sometimes all it can take is 'someone at a distance' for that to happen. The novel follows what happens to this family when the husband/father is unfaithful, and the emotional devastation that has on everyone - there’s no great twist, per se, but the book’s genius and charm lies in how it explores the emotional lives of the characters, and how compassionately Whipple manages to do this. And I think Louise (the other woman) is by far the most repugnant character I’ve ever come across in literature, and that is saying something! I absolutely loved this book and have all of Dorothy Whipple’s other books on my Persephone wish list!

Mariana by Monica Dickens (Persephone no. 2)

This book is a real delight - Persephone refer to it as a “hot water bottle novel” and that’s exactly what it is. A book you can curl up with on the sofa and escape into. Mostly set in England between the world wars, it’s the coming-of-age story of Mary, whom we follow from childhood right through to the early years of the second world war where she is desperately waiting to hear whether her husband has survived the bombing of his ship. We see Mary’s idyllic childhood summers at her grandparents’ country home, her school days and life at home in a London flat with her widowed bohemian dressmaker mother and actor uncle, her hilarious adventures at drama school and eventually travels to Paris, and all the misguided decisions, in love and all else, she makes along the way. It is a very funny and heartwarming book all at once, for Mary realises, looking back at her younger years, that perhaps they weren’t as perfect as they seemed, and that the grownups did a good job of hiding harsher aspects of reality from her. For most of the book, Mary is less concerned about making her own way in the world and more about filling in time before she meets Mr Right (who will of course be able to provide her with everything, hence not really needing skills or a career of her own as such). And yet by the time the book is nearly over, Mary has realised something else - that her husband is potentially now dead and she will have to carry on, independently. That she will only ever really have herself, and that she doesn’t need anyone else to complete her. Quite a revolutionary thought for 1940! '‘When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. It was precious. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You became a person. Nothing that ever happens in life can take away the fact that I am me. So I have to go on being me.”

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson (Persephone no. 21)

I read somewhere that this book is the closest thing to a Fred Astaire film in print, and I think that’s very accurate. Every time you think it can’t get any crazier, it does. It’s a rollicking romp of a book that is so much fun to read. On an ordinary day, the nearly destitute governess Miss Pettigrew, who has never really known a day of fun in her whole life, is sent by an employment agency to interview for a post….to the wrong address. She somehow gets drawn in to the highly dramatic, hilarious and scandalous antics of her would-be employer, Miss La Fosse, and finds herself doing, saying and experiencing things she never thought she would. There’s cocaine, nightclubs, a woman with a few men on the go…racy stuff! The dialogue is so witty and well-written, I read a lot of it out loud to myself (at home!) and plan to ask my grandmother if she’d like me to read it aloud to her when I’m next at home, because I think she’ll love it. Another ‘hot water bottle’ novel, for sure. It’s just fantastic, and proof that just one day is all you need for your life to completely change!

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E Stevenson (Persephone no. 81)

I loved this one too! A bit like Miss Pettigrew, without the financial security of marriage, Miss Buncle finds herself needing to supplement her already meagre income. She does what many people think will bring certain fame and fortune - write and publish a book! She writes a novel based on her village and all the people who live in it, thinking that changing names and writing it under a pseudonym will be sufficient to hide their true identities. To her huge surprise, her book (or John Smith’s book!) is a huge bestseller and her publisher wants a sequel, but lo and behold, all the villagers have read it, recognise themselves and their village immediately (which says it all, as some of it isn’t flattering!), are outraged and determined to find out who ‘John Smith’ is and make ‘him’ pay. No one suspects the dowdy and quiet Miss Buncle for a second, which is where all the hilarity ensues - but also makes an interesting observation that people often do have hidden lives and assumptions we make about others can so very often be wrong. It’s absorbing, intelligent and very charming.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll (Persephone no.30)

If you love cookbooks and social history, you will love this. I was quite surprised to learn that ingredients like camembert and parmesan were available in England in 1921 - I guess one needed to know where to go! I don’t know what it is about food writing, but the best of it recalls a time and place just perfectly. And this book does this beautifully, every essay and recipe evokes a bygone era of gracious living where, if you could afford to (most of the recipes assume the reader has a cook and hired help of some kind!), every meal could be quite indulgent. And Jekyll’s turn of phrase is quite exquisite - instructions for baking biscuits, for example, "they should be of a deep cream colour, merging along their edges into the delicate brown of faded magnolias" had me in raptures. 

**

So I hope these suggestions might inspire you to give Persephone Books a try, if you haven’t already. I must say when it comes to fiction these days, I am finding myself drawn more and more to the past, to women writers of the nineteenth and early to mid twentieth century. It might be a reflection of where my head is at in terms of writing my own novel (set in 1948) or perhaps because I find them comforting and a much-needed escape. Reading about the world I currently inhabit (modern day London) isn’t all that relaxing! There’s another blog post in that, for sure….

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

The Persephone Bookshop in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London.

But back to the topic at hand, I have to say I have never been disappointed with a Persephone book. Hand on heart, I have enjoyed every single one I have read. I’m sure if you’re tempted to check out the catalogue, there’ll be something there for you!

On my next visit, I plan to add The Fortnight in September, The Home-Maker and High Wages to my collection. What about you?

Are you a fan of Persephone Books too? What are your favourites?

 

my favourite books of 2017

books of 2017

 

I can't be the only person rubbing their eyes and thinking "Oh God, how is it the end of February already?!"...but here I am. I've never really managed to do my best books post of the year in a timely fashion - but I'm determined to never let it get to August like I did several years ago. In my defence, I had spent all of that year writing my own book! 

This time, instead of doing a measly Top 10 which is always difficult to whittle down, I'm just going to pick my favourites and tell you why, in the hope that you'll be moved to check them out too.

So here goes, of the 83 books I read in 2017, these were the ones that stood out. And as always, because I read and savour them like novels, cookbooks are included. 

My favourite book of the year - After by Nikki Gemmell

I am still reeling from this gaping wound of a book. Written in the aftermath of her mother's suicide, Nikki's words made me think long and hard about the relationship between a mother and daughter, how it can be so brutal and beautiful. After was absorbing, heartbreaking, thoughtful, tender, anguished and, as always, beautifully written. 

Fresh India by Meera Sodha

Absolutely stunning, and the first cookbook to make me feel hungry again after having the worst flu of my life over Christmas (sob!). I made the temple tomato rasam as a gentle reintroduction to solid food and it was exquisite. The smell of the garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin and curry leaves frying together was so restorative I almost wept. Every recipe of Meera Sodha's I've made - whether from this book or from her Guardian column - has been sensational so I'd highly recommend you check her out if you like to cook. 

The Dry by Jane Harper

I'd heard great things about this book and wasn't disappointed. Even though I'm not normally a crime fiction person, I've been reading more and more of them lately! The Dry was riveting and well-written, brilliantly paced and intricately plotted. I didn't see the twist coming, which is always a good sign. I found the portrait of the claustrophobic, drought-ridden country town very authentic too. 

When It Happens To You by Molly Ringwald

Yes, *that* Molly Ringwald - who is as compelling a storyteller with the written word as she is on screen and stage. I wasn't sure what to expect, but this "novel in stories" had me intrigued from the first page. Over the course of the book, through these stories where the lives of various characters (convincingly) intersect, Ringwald creates a world where these flawed but ultimately good people find their lives punctured by betrayal, in its various forms. It's realistic and compelling reading, and her writing has a lovely lyrical quality in places. The characters are brought to life beautifully, I particularly enjoyed Betty the neighbour, and how the philandering Phillip was welcomed back into his estranged family. It's a book that makes you think, not just about life and family and relationships, but how might you feel, as the title suggests, when it happens to you.

My Life in France by Julia Child (a re-read)

I re-read this last summer in preparation for my first trip to Paris in over seven years. This is one of my favourite books and this read of it reminded me why. It is just pure joy, from start to finish. Julia finds herself in a foreign country, not speaking the language, knowing very few people and wanting to discover her purpose in life. "At age thirty-seven, I was still discovering who I was," she writes. I feel very similarly! Her delight in discovering the pleasures of food and cooking, and her incredible work ethic and refusal to give up on a project she believed in wholeheartedly, is a balm for the soul for anyone feeling a little cynical or dejected. Never give up! 

Island in the East by Jenny Ashcroft

A luscious historical novel that has a bit of everything - love, war, betrayal, heartbreak, tragedy, redemption and hope - resulting in a sumptuous, evocative read with characters that will linger in your mind long after you've finished reading. And, at time of writing, it's only £1.99 on Kindle! 

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

I heard about this book on the Tea and Tattle podcast special Persephone Books episode, where Miranda and Sophie discussed their favourites. I read it in one weekend. It was absolutely breathtaking. It was desperately sad at times, even depressing, as it follows a father's journey to try and find his missing five-year-old- son after the Second World War, but all in all, it is a stunning novel about loss and hope. I'd even go so far as to say it's a masterpiece. 

The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater

I think Nigel Slater could write a book about paint drying and it would still be a bestseller. This book is magnificently evocative and poetic in true Nigel style as he shares with us a celebration of his favourite time of year - Christmas, and winter in general. A cold Christmas is something I've wholeheartedly embraced living in the UK and for the very first time ever, I looked forward to winter after reading this book. All of his ideas - like enjoying a white port and tonic, in the same way you'd enjoy gin - are delicious and inspiring. A must-read for the colder months.

Between A Wolf And A Dog by Georgia Blain

Sometimes I think the best novels are those that are set over the course of just one day. Let's face it, a lot can happen. Between A Wolf And A Dog explores the goings on of one rainy day (and a little bit into the next) in Sydney, in the lives of several characters in one family, by blood and by marriage. Blain explores the pain and heartbreak of separation and betrayal, how life as we know it can be over in an instant, and captures the minutiae of life, from the sound of the rain falling to the colour of an enamel ring on a character's hand, with a poet's touch. The plight of one character's fate is all the more poignant knowing that Blain herself passed away not long after the novel was published. It's a wonderful book and hammers home all the more that the Australian literary community lost someone very special indeed with her passing.

Anything You Do Say by Gillian McAllister

A completely gripping and engrossing novel with two parallel narratives. In the style of Sliding Doors, you see two storylines playing out if the protagonist, Joanna, had made a different decision. That decision is whether to leave the scene of a crime, or to dial 999 and hand herself in. I was completely engrossed in this novel as the story played out and Joanna grappled with the aftermath of this incident in both scenarios. The anxiety, guilt and fear that she feels - in both storylines - is palpable and will have you turning the pages! It's the sort of story that certainly makes you wonder how you would react if you were ever in the same situation. At the time of writing, it's only 99p on Kindle which is an absolute bargain!

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle

Having written a book about self-discovery after a marriage breakdown myself, I knew I'd enjoy this (and undoubtedly think "oh, she put that so much better than I did!"). I found it relatable on so many levels, not just the marriage breakdown side of things because ultimately this is a book about learning to save yourself, rather than a marriage, or anyone else. It's courageous and candid, and I'd highly recommend it if you've found yourself at a crossroads in life and need to see that it is possible to find your way through to the other side. 

Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham

A fabulous read - what a warm, witty writer Lauren Graham is. I especially liked the sections of the book that reflected on her own writing practice. It revolutionised my own writing practice last year and reacquainted me with the idea of good old fashioned discipline! Funny and inspiring.

Upstream by Mary Oliver

Normally I gulp books down in a day or two, sometimes hours, but occasionally one comes along that demands careful savouring. This was one of them. One of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver turns her exquisite touch to essays in this collection which covers everything from the creative life, meditations on the work of her own favourite writers like Poe and Whitman, or observing nature, such as a spider making a web in the stairwell of a rented house at 5am each day.  I love her boundless curiosity, and how she lives so thoughtfully and intelligently.

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg

One of the best books on grieving, trauma and healing that I've ever come across. Within just a few pages I was trying not to cry as Sheryl shared the terrible story of her husband's sudden death and the painful aftermath of it. It's a very readable and relatable book with lots of personal insight, research and practical advice - even, believe it or not, humour (she uses sarcasm to great effect in places!) - which anyone navigating a loss I'm sure will find helpful and of comfort.  It's a real tribute to human resilience. 

So, not a bad reading year....and my favourites only had one bloke (and a fabulous bloke at that) among them! In 2018 I'd like to read more British women writers and more women in translation. 

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What were your favourite reads of last year? Do you have any goals for your reading this year? Do let me know!

The links to the books in this post are Amazon Affiliate links. 

if you want eternity you must be fearless: my favourite reads of 2016

Let's get something out in the open straight away - 2016 was a sucky old year in many, many respects and I for one was not sorry to see the back of it. This year, 2017, already feels lighter, like the heavy energy of the last twelve months has lifted. That said, there are still a few loose ends to be tied up and one of them was deciding on my favourite reads of the year and sharing them on the old blog, as has become a Phil Tradition.

I thought it would be hard to narrow down, as always, but for a change there was a clear winner....the book I was most excited about in 2016 and most enjoyed reading, in fact I enjoyed it so much I read it twice in two months, was The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin, 2016).  It hasn't been released in physical form in the UK, so last September when one of my best friends was visiting, she brought me a copy over, mere weeks after release! 

The Museum of Modern Love  by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Heather is one of my heroes. She has been publishing wonderful, exquisitely written fiction, for adults and children, for the best part of two decades now. Whenever someone has asked me in the past to name my favourite writers, and I listed Heather among them, nine times out of ten they wouldn't have heard of her. But this novel is getting her some much deserved and long overdue attention in Australian literary circles - in fact, it's been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize.  (UPDATE: it won!!)

"I think art saves people all the time."

The Museum of Modern Love seems like such a simple story on the surface, but Heather Rose is in fact threading together many, multi-layered, complex themes and ideas, highlighting that simplicity is often a guise for the most complicated things, art most of all.

Intertwined with a unique exploration of art - what it is, what it isn't, how do you get it to mean something, how does the public's reaction to it influence its meaning and power - is a story about love, loss, grief, heartbreak, betrayal and, most of all, courage. 

The novel takes place against the backdrop of a real life event - the three-month performance of 'The Artist is Present' by Marina Abramovic in New York City in 2010. For those who don't know, the piece involved the artist sitting still for 7 hours a day and inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. There was no interaction in the traditional sense - no touching, no speaking - but artist and audience member sat opposite each other and held eye contact, for however short or long a time as the audience member wanted, or could bear. Many found it a very moving experience and came back again, to sit opposite the artist, and to be seen by her. 

"She watched as the final hours of The Artist is Present passed by, sitter after sitter in a gaze with the woman across the table. Jane felt she had witnessed a thing of inexplicable beauty among humans who had been drawn to this art and had found the reflection of a great mystery. What are we? How should we live?"

In The Museum of Modern Love, a fictional tale unravels about several people who find themselves witnessing, or participating, in Abramovic's performance and how it affects their lives. The central character is Arky Levin, a celebrated composer of film scores, who is grieving for his terminally-ill wife who hasn't physically died yet but, out of supposedly wanting to spare him grief, moved herself into a care facility and cut off all contact with him.  His 22 year old daughter also seems to want little to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Arky finds inspiration is eluding him. Arky somehow ends up at "The Artist is Present" and, over the course of the next three months, watches the performance unfold and various aspects of his life untangle in response. 

I loved the insight into the creative process from perspectives other than writing and acting - the visual arts, architecture, music composition. For a novel, it is a remarkable manual for artists. It even opens with Marina Abramovic's "Seven Steps" (which I now have pinned on the wall above my writing desk).

Therefore, for me, The Museum of Modern Love is almost a manifesto. Heather Rose is asking us, as we read, to think about art and how we connect with it. Connection, after all, as shown through the interweaving stories of all the novel's characters, is what matters, and art is one of the most powerful ways we can connect with each other. But it takes courage to connect, because in reaching out, in asking to be seen, we make ourselves vulnerable. That is art too. Making art is an act of courage. Therefore, live (and create art) with courage. That is the key ingredient.

This is an original, beautiful and utterly compelling novel. I never tire of Heather's writing - to me, her words are like fine wine, only improving with time.

"Art will wake you up. Art will break your heart. There will be glorious days. If you want eternity you must be fearless."

But wait, there's more

There were so many other books I read in 2016 that I loved, that gave me great comfort, that made me laugh and think, that have been consigned to shelves all within easy reach so I can refer to them again. Here are a few of them!

A Notable Woman  by Jean Lucey Pratt

A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

 

I did a lot of research for my current work in progress, which involved reading a lot of war diaries, biographies and history texts about 1940s London. The best of these were A Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt (Canongate, 2015) and Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson (Penguin, 2012). 

Jean Lucey Pratt was a lifelong diarist who also contributed to the Mass Observation project. Her collected diaries - A Notable Woman - cover nearly her whole life, from her first diary as a child in the 1920s to her old age in the 1980s. She was my age during the second world war and her diaries of course focus on those events but also her daily life and concerns, her dreams, anxieties and longings which for the most part remained unchanged by the war and all its dramas and hardships. She was still a woman who was figuring out who she was and what she wanted, and often pondered about all the what ifs, missed chances and the might-have-beens. It made me realise that the only thing that distinguishes each decade in history is technology - the human heart, with all its wants and needs, remains the same. I enjoyed her later years as much as I did the war years. She was funny, brave and inspiring. This book was a joy to read.

Millions Like Us is also a fascinating read, following the lives of a dozen women of various ages and backgrounds and the changes inn their lives over the course of the second world war.....and, most interestingly for me, what happened once peace came. The seeds of the feminist revolution that came a few decades later were sown, but many were keen for life to resume as it was, which made things very complicated. It was absolutely enthralling to read and an impressive piece of work, I highly recommend it.

Nobody Told Me  by Hollie McNish

Nobody Told Me by Hollie McNish

Another of my favourite reads of last year was Nobody Told Me (Blackfriars, 2016), a poetry collection by Hollie McNish, which has since won the 2016 Ted Hughes Award. It is a collection of stories, taken from diaries the poet kept during her pregnancy and the early days and years of her daughter's life, of being a young parent in modern Britain. To put it simply - everyone should read Nobody Told Me. Parents, people who want to be parents, and people who don't want to be parents. Those who are and do will feel some solidarity and understanding, those who don't will have their ignorance smashed to smithereens. After reading this book you'll never think 'why would you bring a child on a train at peak hour?' ever again. Hollie's voice is mesmerising, raw, vulnerable, honest, and full of joy. I applaud her and her bravery.

The Course of Love  by Alain de Botton

The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

I was also blown away by The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (Simon & Schuster, 2016). Known for his wonderful works of non-fiction, this time de Botton has written a novel that follows the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten over, as the title suggests, the course of their love.

This isn't your typical novel, that's for sure. It reads like a case history in parts, like philosophy in others, and there are other sections where  the writing is very lyrical indeed. Whichever genre you think it might fit best, it is a stunning exploration of what it takes to have a successful long term relationship. I think we all know that falling in love is easy. It is the maintaining of that love over the long term, over the course of our lives, that is the real challenge. 

Basically, the Romantic notion of love is what sets so many of us up for a fall. Romance is only part of the story. We are ready for marriage, de Botton writes, when we are prepared to love rather than be loved and compatibility, he explains, is an achievement of love - it shouldn't be a precondition. 

The exploration of this particular marriage between Rabih and Kirsten covers pretty much everything - disillusionment, loss of desire, adultery, "immature rages, late-night threats of divorce, sullen silences, slammed doors and everyday acts of thoughtlessness and cruelty", as well as the loneliness and fear of being vulnerable that can be felt in long term relationships. Alain de Botton has a voyeur's eye as he zooms in on Rabih and Kirsten, going beyond their physical bodies and into their hearts and minds, where he can see everything and how their past experiences, childhood traumas, their earliest experiences of love and what it meant and how you were supposed to show it, are now playing out in their marriage.  

There are many truths in The Course of Love, some of which (having been through a divorce and now having been repartnered for nearly a decade) I knew very intimately. Some of de Botton's observations were so accurate they made me squirm a little. I highlighted a lot of passages on my Kindle version!

Ultimately, I came away from reading this wonderful, wise book feeling reassured and comforted. Human beings are complicated and no relationship is perfect. Love can be quite messy, entailing a lot of compromise, and de Botton's stance is that you can only ever really love and make a success out of a long term relationship if you are prepared to accept that your partner isn't perfect and inevitably they will disappoint you. So much of our disillusionment in life comes from expecting people (not just our lovers, our friends and families too) to be mind readers and meet our needs without our ever having to articulate them, so we need to take a bit more responsibility for ourselves and our own happiness, rather than pour all our hopes into one person.  Also, the occasional blips that you might worry about are actually far more common than you think (well, that, or Alain de Botton must have had my house bugged at some point!).

I think this book should be compulsory reading for anyone thinking about getting married. Having got divorced at 26, when I remarried at 29 I think I definitely went into it with my eyes wide open and with realistic expectations - spare yourself what I went through in my first marriage to get to that point, however, and read The Course of Love instead! 

I could go on about all the books I read and enjoyed last year - if you want to see them, and what I'm reading on a more regular basis than once a year, I am on Goodreads and you are welcome to add me as a friend! 

The best book of 2017 so far? For me, it would have to be Between A Wolf and A Dog by Georgia Blain. I read it in the first few days of January and the poetic and moving experience of reading it I hope bodes well for the rest of my reading year (it has so far). 

What was the best book you read in 2016? 

 

 

 

the third, wherein I discuss best books of 2015

Goodness, another blog post from me already? Could this be what they refer to as being on a roll? 

Today I’m going to do something I’ve never done. 

I’m doing my best books of last year post…in JANUARY. I know! This is a first!

If I’m not writing or running or eating something, I tend to be reading. And yet I read a surprisingly little amount, compared to previous years, in 2015. A big reason for that was that the writing of my own book took over my entire life. When I did have free time, I wanted to spend it with my husband and friends, preferring to go for long walks or out to see live music, away from a screen or a page.

But what I did manage to read was magnificent.

Two of my top reads of the year I’ve actually not yet finished but I want to mention them in my 2015 reads regardless. 

The first is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is embarrassing for someone who did honours in English at university to admit, but I’d never finished reading it. The length was enough to put me off for a start. Austen was always a little more manageable, and her satire and wit so sharp, she was my preference for a long while.

But in 2015 I found myself being drawn back to George Eliot. Her satire and observations of society of the day are just as sharp as Austen’s, but there is a real wisdom there, an appeal to our sense of humanity to take pity on people like Fred Vincy, Featherstone, even that complete knob Casaubon. Eliot is very witty, for sure, but she is never cruel. She paints these people as flawed human beings as opposed to caricatures, doing their best with what they know, and in many cases, they are merely products of their society, their environment, the norms of the day. I am finding reading Middlemarch fascinating and hugely enjoyable, and Eliot's writing is exquisite in places. There was even a quote about marriage that rang so true for me I ended up using it in The Latte Years. For those reasons I am savouring it and didn’t manage to finish it before New Year’s Eve. But I shall continue. 

The second is Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. This title was familiar to me, I’d heard many women I know and admire sing its praises for years, but when I first tried to read it myself, I think around 2012, I just couldn’t get into it. But sometimes books appear again in our lives when we’re ready for them. Over the summer of 2015, my friend Holly announced she was off to Colorado to attend a conference about this book. An entire conference?! I was intrigued. There had to be something in this book after all. 

Well, it’s safe to say I’m now hooked. It’s like reading about my own life. I never really appreciated how many of us, as women, silence our true selves and compromise our true natures. The book examines traditional folktales and myths to illustrate how repression of feminine power has been the norm for centuries, and how we can overcome it. But in a culture where a woman being brave with her life and being unapologetic about getting her needs met still makes some people uncomfortable as hell (something I’ve written about in The Latte Years too), it’s not easy and we’ve still got a long way to go. 

And now for the books I managed to completely finish reading, and loved. 

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard (five books in total, this is the first)
This series was one of my most joyful reading discoveries of the year. I started seeing these appear on several Instagram feeds I follow, being read in cosy English cottages, hand-knitted blankets and mugs of hot chocolate alongside. They looked like wonderful cold weather reading. I snapped up the first in the series at the local charity bookshop, and the next day I bought all the rest!  The series follows the fortunes of an upper middle-class family, the Cazalets, before and after the Second World War, with five books in all. It’s utterly enthralling, like ‘Enid Blyton for grownups’ as one of my friends put it. If you want a series to get lost in, I highly recommend them. 

One More Thing…stories and other stories by B.J Novak
This book caught my eye while I was waiting at JFK airport after our wonderful trip to NYC in May and I'm so glad I got it. It’s a collection of such surreal, clever and funny writing, where the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa. Not only very funny, but every story makes you think. As Oscar Wilde said, "if you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh" and BJ Novak does this brilliantly. I liked the playfulness of the writing too, something you don't see nearly enough of. Some stories are only a few lines long. It's a book full of surprises.

Something Special, Something Rare: Outstanding Stories by Australian Women
A wonderful friend bought me this as a present, as it was a collection put out at the start of the year by my own publisher! It’s a simply magnificent collection of fiction from Australian women writers, with the themes, settings and characters as diverse as they are engaging. Many well known names in here, as well as some new to me. Contemporary and compelling, I had many favourites in this collection and couldn’t pick just one - but I always enjoy Karen Hitchcock’s writing (her book of short stories was one of my favourite reads of the year a few years back). 

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Oh wow, where do I begin with this book. I don’t know if anything I write can do it justice, only that if you are a creative type, please read it. Amanda shares her journey through music, creativity, expression and connection - and the vulnerability that comes with it -  with so much honesty and heart. I identified with so much of her story and her experiences. I think every creative person has experienced 'Imposter Syndrome' or a raid from the 'Fraud Police' at some point. We've all thought 'who am I to want this, to ask for this?'. Amanda shows that you can indeed ask for it. There will also be seasons where it will be you being asked, as that is the cycle, of giving and receiving. But life has a way of rewarding you for having the courage to ask, to reach out.  I tried to explore this a little in The Latte Years too.

Springtime by Michelle de Kretser
This novella showed up in my local bookstore quite unexpectedly. Whenever I see a book by an Australian author in this part of London, I snap it up! This is a beautiful little book, with finely tuned observations - less a ghost story in the obvious sense and more about the other ghosts in life - an ex partner, a parent we didn't get on with, a beloved pet, places we've loved living in but had to leave. Quite exquisite. 

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another ‘oh wow, I have so little to say that would do this book justice, just read it’ kind of sum up, really! This book was a god-send and a game changer for me. It came along at exactly the right time for me, exactly when I needed to hear its messages.  

My biggest takeaway was about how you have to let your creative work be what it is, whatever it needs to be. Because, after all, you are just the messenger. If the work feels safe and supported, with no pressure to be a bestseller, to make you heaps of money, or give you any kind of external validation, then it will show up and do its thing. It made me think about my own process - how I fought and fought for so long for The Latte Years to be the book I wanted it to be, the book I thought would reflect best on me, or protect me. In the end I had to let it be what it is. Fascinating stuff. 

The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss
Part memoir, part social commentary but 100 per cent compelling, this book opened my eyes so much.  You only have to glance at the book’s cover to see how many ‘fictional’ labels are put on women, labels that have nothing to do with who we are, labels that are stereotypical and dismissive at best, and downright dangerous at their worst.

Tara Moss, working as a model as well as being a highly accomplished writer, has had to take a polygraph test to prove she writes her own books. This mind-boggling story opens the book and the rest barely pulls any punches. There are experiences Tara relates here, with so much honesty and courage, that reminded me of things I and other women I know have been through and my eyes pricked with tears as I read it. It makes you notice the sexism and prejudice still so prevalent in our society, especially in the media. This message was hammered home one morning on the train when I noticed the reading material of the man next to me:

I think The Fictional Woman is essential reading for everyone - men and women. It is a brave, intelligent and beautifully written book.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
I was already a fan of Alison’s excellent short fiction - and was lucky enough to meet her when I visited Singapore many years ago - so when I heard she had published her first novel, I was all over it. Lillian on Life is the story of a woman reflecting on her choices, taking stock on the cusp of turning 60, wondering what else she might have to look forward to.

Each chapter is a little vignette from her past, or in some cases her present, flitting from the 1930s through to 1990s, where the glamorous, energetic yet thoughtful Lillian ponders the road she took, and the roads she didn’t. As she recalls the stories, lessons and memories, she speaks a lot about how vital it is to be the author of your own life, rather than standing by “like a teenager next to her mother at a cocktail party.” In fact, Lillian advises, if you really want to get to know someone, don’t ask them what they’ve done with their lives, ask them what they wanted to do. “What they want to do is who they are.”

It’s a thoughtful, elegant, quirky and very wise book, and very funny. But equally, in places, heartbreaking. You forget it’s a novel, as the voice is so strong and some of the experiences so painfully real. I loved it.

Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith
A recommendation from Brain Pickings, I found myself reading this over the summer.  Every chapter is a letter from Deavere Smith, an actor and writer, to an imaginary young artist she calls BZ, sharing insight and wisdom about the creative life - everything from confidence and discipline, to the fear of failure, to paying it forward. Every letter has some kind of gem in it and I found myself reading with a pencil in hand, underlining many things I wanted to take in and remember.

One part particularly spoke to me - the need to be heard is not enough. To develop a voice, you need to develop an ear. To develop a vision, you need to develop an eye. To develop your mark as an artist, you need to see the marks of others - especially the marks of those who are unrecognised.” Over the past two years, my own creative practice has shifted to what Deavere Smith describes - developing an eye, a voice, a vision. Before then, it was all about trying to “find” something. These days I’m trying to use my art to start conversations and be of service. I’m trying to be more fearless and less apologetic about who I am and what I want to say, to dig a bit deeper and notice what others are doing as well. 

Having spent the past ten years testing my physical limits with triathlons and marathons, I have realised that creative endeavours require just as much fortitude, discipline and pushing yourself. Books like this are a real tonic to pep you up when you’re flagging. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The great Tina Fey needs no introduction. 2015 was also the year I discovered 30 Rock (I know, I must have been living under one) and so reading her memoir, which was as funny, observant and well-crafted as her television show, was a real treat.

Tina Fey and this book inspired me a great deal in the writing of my own. Early on in the drafting process, I was trying to write that all-important but ultimately laborious second chapter, the one that sets the scene, and getting nowhere fast. Everything I wrote didn’t work, or felt too heavy. Eventually, after a whole weekend of writing nothing I was happy with, I took a break and sat with a cup of tea and turned to where I was up to in Bossypants. I had a revelation as I read. I thought, why not try to make it funny instead? Tina even manages to write about a physical attack on her as a child with a detached kind of humour. So, feeling fresh and inspired, I rewrote my second chapter from scratch, trying to tease the funny side out of it instead, and I think it worked.

Bossypants also has some wonderful wisdom about dealing with internet trolls (Tina’s responses are hilarious), sexism in the workplace, and about the creative process. I learned a lot about letting go in 2015, particularly in regard to my work. Letting The Latte Years go was a sticky and involved process but, as Tina writes, “you can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.” 

Bossypants is as brilliant as the woman who wrote it and telling you about it has made me want to read it again. 

And so there you have it, friends, my 2015 in books. What gems they were, how much they taught me, how they made me laugh and think and see the world in a new way - as all good books do. 

What were your favourite books in 2015? 

PS: Full disclosure and all that, most of the links in this post are Amazon Affiliate, you know the score! xx