On a daily reading habit

In January 2021 I gave myself a challenge to read for thirty minutes a day, every day for a month.

Prior to lockdown in March last year I read on weekdays on my commute. I had two and half hours a day on trains and tubes and at least some of that time was for reading. Then we shifted to working from home. So many upsides to that; and one significant downside. I stopped reading.

It has always felt self-indulgent to read at home. I guess it feels self-indulgent to read at all, but when I’m on train there’s not much else I can do so the two things have become closely connected in my mind. As I wasn’t on a train on an almost daily basis, I wasn’t reading.

Naturally, that didn’t mean I stopped buying books. I just stopped reading them. Or, slowed is more accurate. It’s not like I didn’t read anything between March 2020 and January 2021, I just didn’t do it very often.

Some things I know. Watching TV too much isn’t great for my mental health. My mood slips gradually the more TV I watch and sometimes it takes a while to catch it. At the end of the working day I am tired and it seems like watching TV is a low energy activity and picking up a book will be too much effort for my eyes and brain. I love reading and making time for it makes me feel better, yet somehow it’s hard to do when I’m not on a train.

With the change of routine and the uncertainty of 2020, unusually I felt the need for new year’s resolutions. I needed some small goals and structures for my non-working life, so I decided to give myself twelve monthly challenges, starting in January with reading for thirty minutes a day, every day.

In January, I cracked through about twelve books, plus finished off a few I’d started reading but not quite completed. There was one I started but didn’t like, so discarded it. I’ve grown out of reading books I’m not enjoying for the sake of completeness. I found that if I started the day with thirty minutes reading, I’d often spend another few hours in the afternoons and evenings reading too. I’m not going to tell you that reading consistently made me a better person in some way, because that’s not what it’s about. I can’t say I was more productive or more creative or more informed. It just made me happier.

The twelve monthly challenges thing lasted until March. Then I lost interest. The daily reading habit has stuck. It’s nice to wake up in the morning knowing the first thing I’m going to do is read my book for half an hour. My days are better because of it.

The Gifts of Reading

I was at a book reading (of The Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj) at David’s Bookshop in Letchworth recently, and because I have poor impulse control in book shops, I bought more books. One of them was an essay on giving gifts, specifically giving books as gifts, by Robert Macfarlane, called The Gifts of Reading.

In it, Macfarlane reflects on the impact on his life that books given as gifts have had on his life and on his relationships. He speaks about gift giving more widely and the power of giving with no expectation of return. The corollary of that is the ability to receive gifts with love. Indeed the book is more about gifting than it is about reading. It’s lovely. Reading it feels a bit like meditation.

The proceeds from the sale go to Migrant Offshore Aid Station which is reason enough to buy it, I think.


A little while agomoney I decided I didn’t want to write any more reviews of books I didn’t enjoy. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t like doing it, the posts are hard to write, I don’t want to be negative, and I believe that if you can’t say something nice don’t say anything at all. Secondly, the purpose of this blog isn’t to provide a buyer’s guide to books; I started it as part of learning to write myself and to capture what I learn from reading.

I was a bit conflicted about whether I should review Money by Martin Amis because, in the end, I didn’t like it, but, I read it for reasons that have to do with learning to write. In May I went on an Arvon Foundation course. Throughout the course the tutors referred to books and writers that they felt we could learn from, and they stressed the importance of reading for writers. I came away with quite a list. Several of Martin Amis’ books were mentioned and, given I’m not a fan of literary fiction, this one had a subject that I thought I’d find interesting. So, here we go.

Money is an exercise in voice. John Self, the first person narrator, is a wild, chaotic character who consumes too much of everything at breakneck speed in order to avoid confronting the soullessness of his life. The voice is full of slang and is witty and entertaining. I enjoyed it a lot. The worldbuilding experience is similar to that you get with science fiction and fantasy where you’re not quite sure what all the words mean but the cumulative effect creates a fantastical world. Amis very cleverly conveys that there is much more going on than John Self realises. The characters are well-drawn and believable, even the most outrageous depictions of the celebrities. But the pace and wit of the start of the book aren’t maintained. I suspect that is done deliberately, but as the voice became more sober I became less engaged.

There is a character in the story called Martin Amis, a writer, and I found those sections jarring. It’s not just the name. The dialogue of that character and his relationship with John Self don’t feel as true as the rest of the book. It’s self-conscious and pompous. I found it bounced me out of the storyworld.

The plot is that John Self is an ad director who has been offered backing for a film. There is apparently a lot of money flying about, big stars, lots of investment, and the producer, Fielding Goodney, encourages John to live the high life. There’s some blackouts – John Self is a convincing alcoholic – some events he doesn’t remember, some clues that all is not right but John is not capable of recognising them. It’s a scam. I won’t reveal the twist, such as it is, but you’ll see it coming in plenty of time. The Martin Amis character is used as a mouthpiece for explaining the plot at the end. Normally, I don’t like that, but I was left with a feeling of ‘is that it?’ so I was reading on in case there was more to it than I’d realised. There wasn’t.

The ending of the book was disappointing. On the course one of the tutors said that story is about change in the protagonist’s feeling. That does happen, but the change is small and the book is long, and it’s not very satisfying. I felt cheated. There was a lot I liked about Money and I enjoyed at least the first half of the book. The characterization and voice were excellent, I loved the language, it was witty, and I liked the pace. It is skillfully done. On the other hand, the ending was a let down, I felt nothing had really happened (although there’s more plot than that suggests), and it became less engaging in the second half. The irritation of the Amis character contributed to this. And this book will end up in the pile of ‘reasons I don’t like literary fiction’.


Thoughts on reading: Wolf Hall

I’ve been putting this one off since the end of September. It felt a bit like hard work. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was the Book Club book for September but this time I can’t blame the Book Club for making me read something I wouldn’t have touched otherwise because there was already a copy on book mountain when it was suggested.

It was winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize and I don’t often read those, but sometimes they pique my interest. Reading this was a strange experience and I think the reason is that there are a lot of things that I like about this book but in the whole, I didn’t enjoy it.

I loved the character of Cromwell. Mantel made him really sympathetic without compromising the hardness of his character. The description was lush and vivid, full of sound, smell, touch and movement, and using metaphor to work every ounce of worldbuilding out of it. It was loaded with symbolism – and I did like that because I felt I understood what was being conveyed. Sometimes I read books that are heavily symbolical and I feel like I speak a different language to the author because, although I recognise that an object is a symbol, I’m clueless as to what it’s a symbol of. Not in this case and I found it quite instructive in how symbolism can be used in a way that supports description and setting. Rather than being wanky.

The viewpoint in Wolf Hall is quite experimental. It is in limited third person and is so tightly held to Cromwell that it is almost first person. It’s also in the present tense which is hard to sustain over 160,000 words. That was impressive but I wondered if this was the reason I found this book very hard to read. It was so slow. It took me a good couple of weeks and I spend at least two hours a day reading and I’m a fast reader. But I recently read another book in the present tense, of about 140,000 words, and that was a very quick read. Both would also be considered literary fiction, so it’s not the genre. The length of it was off-putting to some members of the book club, but what’s 160,000 words in epic fantasy? Nothing! Anyhow,  it was hard work. So much so that I had to stop in the middle and read a Charlaine Harris. I think what Mantel did with the viewpoint and tense was really interesting but it spoilt the enjoyment of the story for me.

I liked the title, but in the end I felt that that was misleading. We don’t get to Wolf Hall until the end of the book and although in the author interview at the back of the book, Mantel says that Wolf Hall is a metaphor for Henry’s court, I didn’t get that. And given that her use of metaphor was so effective throughout I don’t believe that she meant that. I think she just liked it as a title and used it even though it wasn’t quite right for the book.

There was a lot I liked about this book and I wanted to enjoy it. Because it was so slow and such hard work to get anywhere with, I didn’t enjoy it. In spite of all the things I liked about it. In spite of a great character, brilliant dialogue and gorgeous writing. I was frustrated and disappointed.

Thoughts on reading: A House for Mr Biswas

You know there are some books that you’re really supposed to like, or at least pretend to like. A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul is one of those. All the world appears to think it’s great.

This was the December read for my book club and I don’t think I would have ever read it otherwise. I’m going to start with the good. The prose was gorgeous; it was incredibly well-written. I’ve never given much thought to life in Trinidad between the two world wars and the setting is vividly drawn. The social relations and culture described were new to me and I liked that. The characters were equally well realised. In technical terms it was clearly brilliant.

And I just didn’t like it. Which I suppose answers the question of what matters more, the writing or the story, because all that beautiful writing couldn’t make this story interesting to me. It is a fictional biography of a horrible man who has horrible relationships with other horrible people. It’s supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t get it. It was a struggle to finish it and I only did because I have a rule about finishing books I start. Unless you’re already a fan, give this one a miss.

Thoughts on reading: Matter

This is not one of 2011’s 100 books. I read this last year and I’m a little behind in my thoughts on reading posts.

I’m a huge fan of Iain M. Banks. I think his science fiction is way better than his mainstream stuff (which I do still enjoy). Matter simply confirmed that for me. I loved it. It is a Culture novel that starts of in a world in another civilization’s sphere of influence that has not developed space technology of it’s own. This part of the story is more of a mediaeval fantasy. One of the main characters has left this world to join the Culture and decides to return on hearing of her father’s assasination, where she discovers interference by other civilizations and her trip turns into a Special Circumstances mission.

The scope and detail of the novel are vast and intricate. I don’t know how I would be able to keep hold of all that information while writing. Banks is pretty much good at all the elements of writing. The characters are great with fantastic names. The dialogue is excellent. Story structure is good. The mystery at the centre of the novel was handled really well; it was clear that things were not as they seemed, would not work out the way the characters believed they would, but it was not obvious what would happen. Happily, I didn’t get the surprise but when it was revealed I was ‘oh yes, of course’, which is how I like it.

The ending was amazing. It was Shakespearean in it’s death-toll and I was gripped. It was completely absorbing. This is one of my favourite books of 2010 and you must read it!

Thoughts on reading: Selling Out

I have a huge stack of books I’ve read waiting for blog posts. Some seem like much harder work than others. Selling Out by Justina Robson is one of the easy ones.

This is book two in the Quantum Gravity series, and this time I’ve actually read the first one. What I love about this is the blend of science fiction and fantasy. It’s set in the near-future after a world-changing event, the nature of which is not clear at this point. The protagonist is an experimental cyborg spy who is sent on missions to the new worlds (elf, fairy, demon, etc) that were revealed by the event. I’m all for a bit of genre-bending and Robson is a great writer so it all comes together seamlessly.

When I read the first book I thought it was fun and well-written but lacking the depth and complexity of Living Next Door to the God of Love, which was the first of Robson’s novels that I read. After reading Selling Out I think I might be wrong. It’s still great fun, and still has a light feel to it, but the character development and foreshadowing in this book make me suspect that by the time I get to the end of the series a grand vision will have been realised.

In this book, I noticed how the dialogue stood out. It worked hard to move the plot along and reveal character. It’s snappy, witty and highly engaging.

Justina Robson is one of my favourite authors and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. And everything else she’s written.

Thoughts on reading: Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle

There are some books that have been on Book Mountain for a very long time and Boudica, Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott is one of them.

I’m not sure why it has taken me so long to get around to reading this, other than the fact that the copy I have is in hardback. Dreaming the Eagle has got Celts, Ancient Britons, Romans and Druids, its got sword fights, pitched battles and shamanic journeys, all stuff I love. On top of that, it’s got strong female characters, sensitive male characters, lots of variation in sexual and intimate relationships and rites of passage.

It’s competently told. The characterisation is good for both main and supporting characters. The relationships between them are strong and I could really connect to them. The world of the Druids and the early Roman empire is convincingly brought to life. Dialogue is good, pacing is good. And the story is good. Scott’s use of foreshadowing is excellent. Through shamanic journeying and visions a couple of pivotal events are foreshadowed early on and it is not at all obvious how they will play out. I found myself thinking I knew how it would go and finding myself wrong. Yet the final reveal felt natural and unforced. Great stuff.

This is the first in a series of five and I will certainly be reading the rest. I liked this a lot.

Thoughts on reading: Corum

I’m working my way through Michael Moorcock’s The Eternal Champion series and recently I read Corum. Elric is one of my favourite characters in literature and I enjoy the self-conscious/aware nature of the multiple worlds cycle that is the Eternal Champion. Although one might argue that Moorcock is simply telling the same story over and over again. Of course, there is an art in that. Multiple interpretations of the same story layer up into a deeper understanding of the themes that are explored.

Corum comprises The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords and The King of the Swords. The language is amazing; the descriptions are lush and full of depth. Characterisation is not so deep, because the characters are ciphers. They perform the function of metaphor. What is happening here is myth not story.

Moorcock is the literary end of science fiction and I think you either like it or you don’t. Or at least, that’s true for me. I usually don’t have much time for literary fiction because it turns out I’m all about the story. However, Moorcock’s worlds are so fantastic and the description so beautiful that I am completely engaged. I find Moorcock much easier to read than most literary fiction.

I also enjoy the links with the other works and in the last volume of Corum, Elric makes an appearance, so that’s good. I enjoy the layer where the story is inviting the reader to compare it with its other versions in the Eternal Champion multiverse.

I enjoyed it. Corum’s not as good as Elric though.

Thoughts on reading: Royal Flash

Royal Flash by George MacDonald Fraser is the second in a series of books following Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays (which I never read). Naturally, I haven’t read the first in the series.

Well, this is a pretty entertaining romp that doesn’t take itself seriously at any point. Actual history is tweaked to give Flashman a role in world changing events. The characterisation of Flashman is excellent and it’s told in first person from his viewpoint. Characterisation of supporting characters is quite shallow, but this rather suits Flashman’s character so it works.

It’s competently written, dialogue is good, pacing is great, and the story is just fun. It was written in the 1970s and the language does reflect that, but that was the only thing that niggled.