Reading Roundup

Knight, Harold (1874-1961) Reading

It’s the school holidays, and this means I’ve actually got time to a) read b) blog about what I’m reading. I’ve been flying through books like nobody’s business and I’ve picked the good, the bad and the brilliant to tell you about!

Firstly, the good:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of late I have been making a concerted effort to read more books from outside of my cultural comfort zone (i.e. not British, and not pre 1950) and a new colleague is a huge fan of Adichie, so I duly borrowed Americanah from the library for some holiday reading. It’s the story of Ifemelu, an ambitious young Nigerian woman, her high school boyfriend Obinze, and their contrasting young adulthoods as they both attempt to escape Lagos for the promised land of America. Ifemelu goes to study in America, and finds herself suddenly exposed to her race and how it identifies and defines her in the eyes of others in a way she never experienced in Nigeria. While she struggles to find work and to make ends meet, she also struggles to assimilate to a new culture where she is, perplexingly, considered lesser than everyone else around her. The shock of this is enough to send her into a deep depression, during which she shuts Obinze out completely. Once recovered, she starts a successful, controversial blog, about race in America, dates American men, and finds herself moving far away from her Nigerian self. Obinze, meanwhile, never makes it to America, and finds himself sleeping on a friend’s sofa in London instead, working in menial, low paid jobs under a false name, unable to get the visa he needs to be there legitimately. He is forced to return to Lagos, where he becomes highly successful, but at the heart of his sanitised existence in a luxurious suburban compound, there is something essential missing. When Ifemelu returns to Lagos after years in America, will she be able to readjust after so long in another culture? And can she and Obinze ever reconnect, after so many years living completely different lives?

I loved the structure of the novel – it goes forward and backwards in time, and in and out of different characters’ experiences, allowing for a gradual unfolding of their lives and how they end up where they do. The characters were wonderfully realised; I felt like I knew Ifemelu and Obinze intimately, and was so invested in them and their fate. Adichie’s observations on the cultural behaviours and expectations in all three countries were incredibly thought provoking and I particularly enjoyed the extracts from Ifemelu’s blog, which raised points about race I’d never thought about before, and made me feel incredibly ignorant. I was utterly immersed in the story, and emerged from it feeling emotionally moved while also being incredibly challenged. I am now very much wanting to read more by Adichie and other contemporary African writers; recommendations would be welcome.

Now for the bad:

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

I was sent this by Penguin to take part in a promotional blog tour, and was very excited at the prospect of a neo-Georgian murder mystery featuring a former slave who had been brought to London to work for a wealthy white couple. It sounded very intriguing in the blurb – great marketing! However, I couldn’t make it past the first few chapters, and had to pull out of the blog tour, because unfortunately I could find nothing positive to say about it. The story itself is certainly interesting enough to keep reading – if it weren’t for the writing. Dear God, the writing! Every sentence has at least two similes, most of which are nonsensical and serve no purpose in terms of aiding description or telling the story – they’re just needless decoration. As an English teacher, nothing irritates me more than the current trend in literature for this very MA Creative Writing style of prose that seems to be pushing the excessive use of figurative language to the point where sentences actually become meaningless. This technique is nothing short of abuse of the English language and I cannot abide it. I’ll give you a few examples:

‘For a time, there was only the scratching of brushes against stone, like mice in a cupboard.’

The use of the onomatopoeic ‘scratching’ here is already sufficient to produce an auditory response in the reader; we can imagine the bristles of the brush making the harsh sound the word creates for us as we say the word in our heads. The random addition of ‘like mice in a cupboard’ adds nothing to this impression that has already been created, and instead just functions as a pointless and distracting addition to the sentence. One minute I’m imagining the scene the author is actually trying to depict – someone cleaning the floor – the next, I’m suddenly asked to imagine mice running in a cupboard. Why? These sounds and images bear no relation to one another. Why is this considered to be good writing? If one of my students had written this, I would have crossed out the entire simile and given them a good talking-to.

‘The wooden hulls clacked against each other like oyster shells in a bucket’…’I was black as a fly in butter’…’I felt watched as a clock’….’London air, wet as a kiss’…’his new black coat stretched tight as a cheek’…all of these examples are within the same two hundred word section. Utterly pointless simile after simile. I could go on and on.

I’m sure for some people this kind of writing is very atmospheric and wonderful but because I am a shameless pedant, I’m afraid I just can’t get on with it. All the Amazon reviewers seem to disagree with me, however, so I am clearly in a grumpy minority!

Finally, the brilliant:

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

I’m sure everyone apart from me has already read this, but it was a new discovery for me after spotting it on a recommendation table in Waterstones, and in my desire to read outside of my cultural comfort zone (as explained above), I snapped it up. The fictionalised true story of a middle aged couple’s resistance to the Nazi regime in wartime Berlin, this is a truly remarkable novel about the human cost of hatred and paranoia. This is both a damning indictment of the Nazis and of those who used their regime to fulfil their own pathetic desires to wield power over and cause suffering to others – and a wonderful affirmation of the essential goodness of the majority of humanity, and the lasting ability to love, to help, to protect and to fight against injustice, even in the face of fear and horror and hatred. I have never read a novel set in Berlin during WWII, and it was fascinating and horrifying for me in equal measure to understand more about what it was actually like for people living there at the time. I was moved to tears by the bravery of many of the characters, and by the needless suffering so many of them had to endure. I am so grateful that Michael Hofmann, the translator, made it possible for me to read this beautiful book. If you haven’t read it, you must.


A Tour of My Bookshelves


Simon of StuckinaBook fame came to London for a conference last week and stayed over for the night – which meant we could record an impromptu podcast! Breaking away from our usual structure, Simon and I looked through my bookshelves and talked about the books we have in common, the books Simon was surprised I have (largely my geek shelf of railway books), the books Simon wanted to steal from me, and the reasons why I buy the books I do. You can have a listen here, and if you want to be able to visualise the bookshelves, you can do so here, where I have some photos of my flat. Oh, and if you’re interested in knowing the book Simon most wanted to read from my collection – you can find it here! Enjoy!

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber



My quest to read the huge books I’ve had sitting around for years on my shelves continues, and I am delighted to finally be able to look at the large space The Crimson Petal and the White takes up without feeling guilty. People have been telling me for years that I should read it, and I quite agreed with them – it really is right up my street. Set in Victorian London, and telling the tale of an intelligent and ambitious prostitute who longs for a better life and hates the fact that she has to use a man to do so, it’s a rich, dense slice of Victoriana that I knew I would enjoy every moment of – when I could spare the time to fully enjoy its hundreds and hundreds and so many hundreds of pages. Thank goodness for half term, and thank goodness for my Kindle ipad app, because I own the hardcover and taking that anywhere further from the sofa is an impossibility! It took me a good two weeks of solid reading, but I got there in the end!

Sugar is a high class prostitute – much sought after, and even mentioned in a saucy guide to London as one of the best women to be had for the discerning man about town. Still a teenager, she was forced into prostitution from a young age by her brothel owning mother, and is determined to one day leave and make a better life for herself, where she can be appreciated for her personality and intelligence rather than just her sexual prowess. She reads Shakespeare and is secretly writing a feminist novel based on her experiences of menfolk, while using her considerable wit and wiles to secure herself the reputation of being one of the best prostitutes in London. One night this reputation brings William Rackham to her door. A middle class gentleman in his early thirties, William is a failed intellectual with an insane wife and a father who is refusing to financially support him. His life a mire of disappointment and disillusionment, William finds in Sugar the answer to all his prayers. Soon she becomes indispensable to him, and she inspires him to improve his life. No longer content to be an impoverished layabout, William takes over the reins of his father’s perfumery company, and with Sugar’s help and advice, makes it into an enormous success. Money comes flooding in, and enables him to set Sugar up in a separate household all of her own. Freed from her mother’s clutches, Sugar finally has the escape she always wanted, but she soon finds out that being a kept woman is not the dream existence she hoped it would be.

For while William’s beautiful young wife, Agnes, has lost her mind – so much so that she doesn’t even realise she has a child, little Sophie, who has to be kept locked away in case her presence should disturb her mother – William still loves her and desires to please her above all else. Sugar will never be central to William’s life – she will always be kept hidden, waiting, on the periphery, a shadow. At any moment the world he has created for her could be taken away, and the uncertainty of it begins to eat away at Sugar like a cancer. How can she secure her position, how can she ensure that she never has to go back to the brothel? Sugar’s plan will have dangerous and devastating consequences, and bring together the myriad of worlds coexisting in the teeming streets of nineteenth century London, where destitution is always just a corner away…

This is such a rich, multi-layered novel that a short review can’t hope to do it justice, and there are many more characters than I’ve mentioned, which helps to explain why it is so many hundreds of pages long (more than 800!). What I loved the most about it is its characterisation; I felt, by the end of the novel, that I knew each of the characters intimately. They could have been sitting in the room with me, they had become so alive in my imagination. Each character – from the fascinating, desperately tragic Agnes, to William’s hilariously vile university friends – is finely drawn with such attention to detail to the vagaries of human nature. While both Sugar and William do unforgiveable things to one another, their behaviour is perfectly justifiable within the context of their life experiences, and the reader is pulled in all sorts of moral and emotional directions, especially towards the end of the novel as the story builds to its shocking conclusion. It is a marvellously imagined tale that brings the grimy, reeking, cacophonous streets of Victorian London to life, alongside the quiet, ordered, plush-lined and candlelit parlours of the Victorian domestic interior. The lives of women – sequestered, marginalised, abused, controlled – in various ways, for various reasons, for various purposes – are sensitively, powerfully and sympathetically drawn. I loved every minute of it, and had a period of mourning once I had finished, so sad was I to leave its world behind. Yes, it’s ridiculously long, but it really is worth every page. I was only sorry to have left it languishing on my shelf for so long! If you haven’t given it a try yet, I encourage you to give it a go!

London Culture


There’s so much to see and do in London at the moment that it feels like a bit of a race to get to everything before it closes. I’ve enjoyed some marvellous exhibitions and some very good theatre recently, and am looking forward to even more over the coming weeks. Probably my favourite exhibition I’ve seen in the past month is the Russia, Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, which brings together a  magnificent collection of paintings, jewellery, objets d’art, clothing, furniture, letters and photographs to chart the relationship between the Romanov dynasty and the British royal family from the 17th to the 20th century. I have had an obsession with Russian history ever since I learned about the fate of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, when I was in secondary school, and so this exhibition was an absolute treat for me. The objects on display and the stories they tell offer so much more than just the opportunity to marvel at colossally expensive, exquisitely beautiful things; they allow a glimpse into how Russia wished to be perceived by the Western world, and how the Western world perceived Russia. As the families became closely linked through marriage in the nineteenth century, a very personal story emerges. In family photographs, the Russian Royal family, exoticised in official portraits with their elaborate traditional state court dress, become transformed into perfectly ordinary looking Victorians in bustles and tweeds when sat side-by-side with their English and German relatives in front of various country houses. Laughing and joking, arm-in-arm with cousins, aunts, uncles, and in-laws, they are heartbreakingly unaware of the tragedy that was about to fall down upon them, ripping apart these family ties forever. This lack of awareness is also demonstrated, from an entirely different perspective, in the extravagant gifts and jewellery commissioned by the families as gifts for one another; as the Russian Empire crumbled and its people starved, the Emperor was commissioning exquisite diamond encrusted Fabergé Easter eggs as whimsical trinkets for his wife. And just days before his abdication, in his last ever letter to his cousin ‘Georgie’, Nicholas II showed no awareness of his own impossible position, and every confidence that things would soon turn a corner. How unforgiving the evidence of history can be. I’m not sure, however, if I were they, that I would have forgiven Queen Mary, who, despite being devastated by the deaths of the Russian royal family, seemed to feel no guilt whatsoever in hoovering up the possessions of the impoverished survivors for a knock-down price, improving her own jewel collection considerably…


The Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London has a rather dull permanent collection of largely pre 19th century art, but their exhibitions are always a delight, and offer something a little off the beaten path, featuring artists or subjects that larger galleries often seem to think aren’t worth taking a punt on. In the past few years they’ve had brilliant exhibitions of Ravilious, Bawden and other early 20th century artists, and they’ve currently got a fantastic display of paintings by the Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg. I saw some of his paintings in the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo when I travelled there a few years ago, and found them mesmerising; seeing many more all together, mostly from private collections, to enable the viewer to chart his development as an artist, was an absolute treat. His use of light is extraordinary, and his depiction of the wild beauty of the Norwegian countryside has made me desperate to go back to see more of the landscape. It’s well worth the trip outside of Central London; it’s a short 15 minute train ride from London Bridge, and is situated in the delightfully picturesque Dulwich Village, which is essentially the Hampstead of South London and provides plenty of beautiful architecture, charming local boutiques and pavement cafés to while away a pleasant afternoon. You won’t regret a visit!


Theatre-wise, I very much enjoyed The American Clock at The Old Vic last week. Arthur Miller is my favourite modern playwright, and I try to watch everything of his that gets staged in London. I don’t think anything will beat Ivo Van Hove’s incredible production of A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic a few years ago now, but I have tickets for All My Sons with Bill Pullman and Sally Field next month, also at The Old Vic, so we’ll see! Anyway, The American Clock is one of Miller’s later plays and is not one that has entered the canon of his works – it’s easy to see why when you watch it, as it’s not character-focused and is rather heavy-handed in its message – but while I wasn’t overly impressed by the brilliance of the script, I found the staging to be incredibly inventive. Music is at its heart, and is performed live, and the use of a mixture of theatrical techniques, from the Greek chorus to Brechtian symbolism, made it fascinating to watch even though the story itself wasn’t necessarily the most compelling. If you can get a cheapish ticket, I’d recommend it. It’s certainly given me a taste for Miller – David Suchet is currently starring in The Price, another lesser known Miller – and I’m going to treat myself to a ticket before it closes.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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I’ve been meaning to try Kate Atkinson for years, ever since her first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, came out, and everyone was talking about it. But all her books are quite long, and I never felt sufficiently compelled to make the effort to pick one up. However, with my new not-buying-any-books policy firmly in place as a New Year’s Resolution, I am determined to work my way through my fiction shelves and finally read all the books that have been languishing there unread – in some cases for more than a decade! Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life just so happened to be the first unread book on my alphabetically organised shelves, so down it came last week to have its long-awaited moment in the sun. And am I glad it did, because I found it so addictive that the almost 500 pages just flew by. I feel rather bereft now that I’m finished!

The book is centred around Ursula Todd, who is born on a snowy February evening in 1910. In one version of her life, she is born dead, the cord wrapped around her neck. In another, she lives. The baby who lives goes on to grow up in an affluent, middle class home in the idyllic countryside of the Home Counties. A summer holiday one year ends in disaster; Ursula drowns when at the beach. But then the narrative simply returns to 1910, and in this new version of Ursula’s life, someone rescues her on the beach, and her life continues, albeit down a slightly different path. The novel begins with a scene of Ursula in Germany in 1930, shooting Hitler dead; this version of her life doesn’t appear again until the middle of the book, and is dependent on her having chosen to study foreign languages at university. Another version of her life sees her making a different decision, trapping her in a nightmarish marriage in a depressing suburb that completely robs her of her identity.  In another existence, she moves to London and lives through World War Two there, in another, she lives through the war in Germany,  in another she works until retirement, in another she marries, in another she remains single – and all of these threads remain interconnected, the possibilities of one life becoming another simply a hair’s breadth apart – the choice between buying a new dress or not, going to the shops one evening or not – the most minor, insignificant choices we make on a daily basis shown to be as significant, in some ways, as the major ones, in forming the eventual paths our lives follow.

Ursula is a marvellous, vivid character, whose rich inner life and complex relationships with her family members make her various existences endlessly fascinating to read about. It is heart stopping at times to see her walk into disaster, and such a relief to see the darkness fall and know that she will simply begin again, that this doesn’t have to be her life, her ending – there can be a different path. Atkinson is superb at bringing her historical settings to life, and I particularly loved her atmospheric evocation of London in the Blitz, as well as the halcyon, sun-splashed days of Ursula’s Edwardian childhood in the flower strewn meadows of the English countryside. The whole conceit of the novel is incredibly inventive and a constant reminder to us that we are reading a work of fiction – in many ways one can see Life After Life as an experiment in writing a character, in seeing what stories can be made from one persona, and which are worth pursuing and which not – but what makes this truly impressive is that despite the artificiality of its structure, it still gives us characters we can fall in love with, and care for with the kind of unreasonable affection that sees you choking back tears at their fate (I’m hoping that wasn’t just me!). I found it a revelation, and now I can’t wait to read more. Thank goodness for the library, because I’m not waiting a year to be able to dive back into Kate Atkinson’s world!