A Reading Malady, a Book Haul, a Book Launch, and a TBR Challenge

A bit of a miscellany today, as a placeholder until I finally have some more reviews to share.

Stuck in the Middle

I’ve been reading up a storm in 2021, of course, but I’m having an unusual problem: I can’t seem to finish anything. Okay, I’ve finished three books so far – Intensive Care, my first read and only proper review so far of the year; In These Days of Prohibition by Caroline Bird, a surprising and funny poetry collection about mental illness and the crutches people turn to, including drugs and sex; and one more poetry book, a recent release I’ll round up later in the month – but compare that to January 2020, when I’d finished 11 books within the first 11 days. Half a month gone and I’m way behind on my Goodreads challenge already.

Most of you know that I take multi-reading to an extreme: I currently have nearly 30 books on the go, plus piles of set-aside and occasional-reading titles that I try to reintroduce a few at a time. All in all, that’s nearly 60 books I’m partway through, whether by a mere 10 pages or over 200. These stacks represent thousands of pages read, but no finished books. By the end of this month, I will at least have finished and reviewed the five more January releases, but it’s still an awfully slow start to the year for me. Maybe I’ve spread myself too thin.

Current Stars

I often stretch the definition of “currently reading” in that most days I don’t sit with every book on my stack; instead, I end up spending time with a changing subset of 10‒15. Some books I have barely touched since Christmas. But there are others that consistently hold my attention and that I look forward to reading 20 or more pages in each day. Here are some of the highlights on the pile:

Spinster by Kate Bolick: Written as she was approaching 40, this is a cross between a memoir, a social history of unmarried women (mostly in the USA), and a group biography of five real-life heroines who convinced her it was alright to not want marriage and motherhood. First was Maeve Brennan; now I’m reading about Neith Boyce. The writing is top-notch.

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo: Set in the 1990s in the Philippines and in the Filipino immigrant neighborhoods of California, this novel throws you into an unfamiliar culture and history right at the deep end. The characters shine and the story is complex and confident – I’m reminded especially of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work.

Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley: Finally pregnant after a grueling IVF process, Heminsley thought her family was perfect. But then her husband began transitioning. This is not just a memoir of queer family-making, but, as the title hints, a story of getting back in touch with her body after an assault and Instagram’s obsession with exercise perfection.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard: We’re reading the first volume of The Cazalet Chronicles for a supplementary book club meeting. I can hardly believe it was published in 1990; it’s such a detailed, convincing picture of 1937‒8 for a large, wealthy family in London and Sussex as war approaches. It’s so Downton Abbey; I love it and will continue the series.

Outlawed by Anna North: After Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club, there’s no chance you haven’t heard about this one. I requested it because I’m a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, but I’m also enjoying this alternative history/speculative take on the Western. It’s very Handmaid’s, with a fun medical slant.

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud: It was already on my TBR after the Faber Live Fiction Showcase in November, but my interest was redoubled by this recently winning the Costa First Novel Award. Set in Trinidad, it’s narrated, delightfully, in turn by Betty, a young widow; Solo, her teenage son; and Mr. Chetan, their lodger. Perfect for fans of Mr Loverman.

Acquiring More

Last week I ordered 21 books in one day. (In my defense, only 18 of them were for me.) It started like this: “Ah, must find a clearance 2021 calendar. Waterstones had a good selection last year…” And indeed, I found the perfect calendar, for half price. But then I continued browsing the online sale items and before I knew it there were also seven books in my basket. While I was at it, I went onto Awesomebooks.com and put together an order of secondhand books by authors I’ve been wanting to try or read more by. Add to that a couple more review books coming through the door and a couple of giveaways from neighbors (the Nicolson in the first photo, and Stoner for me to reread) and it’s been a big week for book acquisitions.

Attending a Book Launch

My fifth book launch since March 2020; my first to take place on Instagram. Hosted by Damian Barr, who runs a literary salon, it was for one I’ve already mentioned, Some Body to Love by Alexandra Heminsley, which came out on the 14th. (Barr and his husband are the book’s dedicatees.) “I am not ashamed of what happened,” she said about how her family has changed, adding that writing about such recent events has been a way of solidifying how she felt about them. Her ex has not read the book but wrote to Chatto & Windus saying she completely trusted Heminsley and consented to the publication. Some of her offers were for a more mass-market memoir about the marriage, whereas the book ended up being more diffuse, including other medical experiences and challenges to self-belief. It was amusing to hear that after the BLM movement her manuscript went through a “Karen edit” to make sure she hadn’t taken her privilege for granted.

A New TBR Challenge

“Hands. Face. Space.” is a current UK public health campaign slogan. It inspired me to trawl through my TBR shelves for appropriate covers and titles. I don’t know if I’m actually serious about reading these particular books I selected (I could have chosen any of dozens for the Face covers), but it was fun to put together the photo shoot. I had two replies from people on Twitter who came up with their own trio of titles.

And to cap off this miscellany, something non-book-related…

Top 5 albums from 2020

I originally wrote this little note for Facebook.

Banana Skin Shoes, Badly Drawn Boy – His best since his annus mirabilis of 2002. Funky pop gems we’ve been caught dancing to by people walking past the living room window … oops! A track to try: “Is This a Dream?” (psychedelic music video)!

Where the World Is Thin, Kris Drever – You may know him from Lau. Top musicianship and the most distinctive voice in folk. Nine folk-pop winners, including a lockdown anthem. A track to try: “I’ll Always Leave the Light On.”

Henry Martin, Edgelarks – Mention traditional folk and I’ll usually run a mile. But the musical skill and new arrangements, along with Hannah Martin’s rich alto, hit the spot. A track to try: “Bird in a Cage.”

Blindsided, Mark Erelli – We saw him perform the whole of his new folk-Americana album live in lockdown. Love the Motown and Elvis influences; his voice is at a peak. A track to try: “Rose-Colored Rearview.”

American Foursquare, Denison Witmer – A gorgeous ode to family life in small-town Pennsylvania from a singer-songwriter whose career we’ve been following for upwards of 15 years. A track to try: “Birds of Virginia.”

How is your 2021 reading going?

32 responses

  1. I do think you take multi-reading to an extreme! But it works for you. I struggle with 2 or 3, so I prefer 1 at a time 😀 I hope more people join in the ‘Hands: Face: Space’ – I immediately remembered The Discomfort of Evening with the girl’s mouth and nose covered when I tweeted you my go (I was pleased with that).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marcie (Buried in Print) is my multi-reading buddy but is cutting down this year. I don’t know what her target is. Under 20 would probably be a more sensible goal for me!

      I loved your three picks. One other follower I don’t know came up with a nice set from e-books he has.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s just 1 at a time for me too! I really need to set aside some time to seriously cull my TBR mountain but I’m finding every reason I can to avoid doing this. Not really sure why!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is that physical books or just a Goodreads list? We have a community Facebook page with a new subgroup just for book swapping! I’ve already acquired a couple of books that way.


  3. I can just about cope with two books at a time – but they have to be different genres (say one fiction, one non fiction). How you can keep track of 30 at a time I have no idea, I would just completely forget what was happening.

    I discovered this week that I have the first title in the Elizabeth Jane Howard Cazalet series and was wondering whether it would be one I’d really like. So will be keen to get your reaction

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read in lots of different nonfiction genres as well as poetry and fiction, so the books are all fairly different from each other. Anything I’ll be reviewing I keep notes on.

      I’m loving this first Cazalet book. If you like family sagas and/or Downton Abbey, I’d say it should be right up your street.


      1. I have a strong aversion to Downton Abbey!


    2. Hmm, it reminds me a lot of that but maybe you would find differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. LOVE the Cazalets. The Light Years is the lightest but also the most joyful of the bunch – have a wonderful time! I’m also quite interested in Outlawed, but I’m trying not to push myself too much re proofs this year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remembered that you’d read them all a few years ago. I am enjoying this one enough to read all the rest this year, I think, even though I usually shy away from series.

      The ‘Handmaid’s Tale meets True Grit’ description seems pretty accurate for Outlawed! I like the fact that there’s a place in this fictional world for childless women.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The comp really sells it, doesn’t it?! And a big yes to more childless women, especially in historical fiction.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. The big critics’ complaint seems to be that, though there are are black, queer, and nonbinary characters and otherwise nonconforming women, there is no mention of the indigenous people the land was seized from.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I loved the Cazalet series then found that she had written a fifth “All Change” to the series so naturally I had to have this. It didn’t appeal to me as much as the earlier books which I re-read before beginning All Change. As an aside I have just read The Long View her story of a marriage and I found this just wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder if that’s the same as what happened with Edward St Aubyn and the Patrick Melrose books. There was a fifth book that followed quite a while after the first four. I have heard that The Long View is good — Claire Fuller recommended it on Goodreads.


  6. I’ve never heard of the Cazalet series but it sounds like something I’d like, and I added that and Some Body to Love to my TBR list.

    I read 2-3 books at a time, all different genres – your ability to keep up with so many is extraordinary. I hope you get back into your normal groove soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d love the Cazalet books. I know they’ve been released in the States, but they might be more difficult to find.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. 60 books is mind-boggling… I usually have three or four books on the go (and that’s only because they’re in different formats i.e. hard copy, ebook, audio). I’ve started the year strongly but that’s because I’ve been away and don’t have the distraction of work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I commuted to London it was always one book at a time, or maybe two (one fiction, one nonfiction). The longer I’ve been working from home the more I’ve extended the multi-reading habit, and the worse I’ve gotten with set-aside piles.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I always have about 6 or 7 books on the go, but 60 would confuse me terribly. If it works though, that’s all that matters! Love your music choices and am off to listen to some more of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. By the end of February I’ll hope to get it down to a much more sensible number!


  9. Wow! I would really struggle to have that many books on the go at one time – maybe you have stretched yourself a bit there! Nowadays I tend to be a one book at a time woman! ;D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think about 1/3 to 1/2 of my blogging friends stick to one book at a time, and the rest read multiple (though usually 6 or under!).

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I keep hearing about Love After Love and think I need to get it. I have only acquired ONE book this year so far and am feeling smug about that (and it was the second Raynor Winn, sent to me by the friend who sent me the first one so almost doesn’t count). I have read four, am reading two, DNF’d one and done one Shiny Review so feel OK about that although my physical shelves are not subsiding which definitely needs to happen, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds like very good progress indeed! I think I will finally finish another two books tomorrow. I think you’ll enjoy Love After Love; the voices and some of the subject matter remind me a lot of Mr Loverman, and I know you loved that. Plus it won the Costa Award.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great, newsie post. You’ve reminded me to put Stoner on my TBR.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stoner has a great comeback story and is worth the hype.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. After I’m caught up here, I’ll go and count the stragglers. I was planning to keep a tidier stack this year, and I am, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever tracked the number I have underway in various states properly, because they are almost never all in the same room. From here, I can see 13 in three different places in just this room. Until this week, I’d only finished a single book (and poetry, at that! LOL) so I understand how you’re feeling. America is Not the Heart is on my list for 2021; i think I saw it/heard it recommended in The Guardian at some point. (I thought the Cazelet Chronicles were published earlier too; I’ve got a great aunt’s copy of one and I thought it had an earlier date…maybe it’s not part of the sequence.) I’ve added Kris Drever’s albums to my list; I’m trying to sample new music this year but it takes a certain focus to add that in, what with all the book stuff. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Stragglers,” that’s a good description! I feel bad for some of these books I’ve strung along for so long. Trying to remind myself instead of Damian Barr’s mantra, “books are patient.”

      I’m up to 7 finished now, but of course Goodreads helpfully tells me I’m 11 behind schedule already!

      America Is Not the Heart definitely feels like a book for you. So much energy and sophistication to the writing. The way she slips in so many unfamiliar places, languages (and snippets of those languages), foodstuffs, and history without condescending to explain; she just expects you to go along with her and I am happy to do so.

      I wondered if you knew of the Cazalet Chronicles, as those also seem like ones for you. Howard wrote a number of books before embarking on the series (and was married to Kingsley Amis for a time).

      Do you listen to music while writing? That’s when I do most of my listening. For the most part I can’t listen while reading, though I’ll make an exception for wordless music (classical, instrumental, Sigur Ros because it’s not English words!).


      1. I think I’ve already mentioned this to you in the backchannel but I had about ten, in this year’s “tidier stack”.

        It’s the multiplicity of our stacks that interferes with the “challenge” count, I believe. I think I’m still a couple of books behind on GR, even now, more than halfway through Februrary, although I’ve definitely felt like I’m reading at my usual rate.

        Yes, I’d like to read them, but they’re consistently in demand at the library (like the Dorothy Dunnetts) and I wouldn’t want to have to rush through the first.

        Not anymore. I get a headache from wearing my noise-cancelling headphones. And there is usually noise from the other apartments in the house, and sometimes noise in our own space too, or construction from a lot across the street, so that PLUS the music makes it hard for me to actually concentrate on any reading. It’s super handy though, that one can find so much wordless music online-that’s helpful for some kinds of editing work (when there isn’t any other noise to deal with). I wonder if there’s a way for us to share our playlists of wordless music: do you listen via streaming services?


    2. Nope, I’m an old-fashioned listener: CDs when downstairs; my Windows Media Player library when upstairs.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. […] this even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (For a bit more information, see my short write-up of the virtual book […]


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