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Christmas Reading Reviews

Over my Christmas holiday (14 blissful days off although a while ago now!) I read quite a few books and I thought I’d share my thoughts on them with you now in a big collective review.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

As you may already know, I’m a bit fan of Gilbert’s style in books like Committed and The First American Man, but this was the first novel of hers that I had read. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was immaculately researched. I can’t say botanics and mosses in particular is something that particular interests me, but Gilbert manages to enthuse me almost against my will! I particularly admired two things about this books; the descriptions of the dinner table discussions and the exploration of the tragic misunderstandings and miscommunications between the heroine, Alma and her sister. The ending is also brilliant, but I won’t say anymore about that in case I spoil it! This is not a perfect book. Aspects of it made me cringe slightly, such as the relationship between Alma and her husband; it felt flawed and false somehow. However, it is an interesting and enjoyable read. It is also one of the most original novels of 2013 because of the research, the spotlight on a female scientist and the many themes it explores. I would definitely recommend you give it a go!

The Emily of New Moon trilogy by L.M Montgomery

The Anne of Green Gables series was one of my favourite childhood books. I’m not quite sure how the Emily of New Moon series passed me by when I was smaller, but it did. I put that right this Christmas as I read all three books back to back. It was charming, but it didn’t quite hold the same magic Anne did for me. I’m not quite sure why, because in some ways this series is more accomplished and was the author’s favourite. Perhaps it was just because some of the characters felt like pale copies of my favourites, Marilla, Matthew, Diana and Anne herself.  I also found Emily’s involvement with the much older ‘Jarback’ Priest uncomfortable and some of the attitudes to women felt less progressive than in Anne somehow. All that said though, it was still lovely and no fan of Anne should miss it.

Mary Berry, The Autobiography: Recipe for Life

Mary Berry, Recipe for Life

Mary Berry, Recipe for Life

Oh how I love Mary Berry! Elegant, kind, successful, inspiring and her recipes never fail! This is her autobiography, but it also peppered with her favourite recipes which is perfect. I don’t read autobiographies that much but when I do, I usually really enjoy the insight into someone else’s life. Mary has led a fascinating one. This was a joy to read and I enjoyed getting to know her better. This was probably my favourite book I read over Christmas.

Stoner by John Williams

This book intrigued me. Quite slight and forgotten in the author’s life time, it is now enjoying a renaissance thanks to Ian McEwan’s patronage. It is exceedingly well-written and an accomplished meditation on a disappointed life. In some ways, it was a sad read, but I took hope from the fact that Stoner, despite his failed marriage and career, did once experience true love and intellectual inspiration. I am glad I have read Stoner; it certainly makes you think, but whether I would recommend it to friends?…I am unsure.


Christmas Reading List

I am looking forward to a glorious two whole weeks off over Christmas this year, the first half near London with my in-laws and the second half with my family in Yorkshire. One of the things I’ve been enjoying recently is the building of, and the anticipation of, my Christmas reading list. I fully intend on spending as many hours as I can get away with cuddled up with my books!

Here is what I’m taking with me:

1. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt and the Goldfinch book cover

Courtesy of

A current sensation. I loved The Secret History, am currently reading The Little Friend and so it seemed rude not to take this with me for Christmas.

2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of all things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I was going to wait for this to come out in paperback, but I cracked!

3. Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

I saw this in Covent Garden Waterstone’s this afternoon whilst browsing on my lunch break and was intrigued. I haven’t heard much about it, but on returning to my desk, I googled it and much praise appeared…I’m even more intrigued!  (Here is one of the articles I read)

4. The Emily of New Moon series by L.M Montgomery

Emily of New Moon

Continuing my recent trip down memory lane, I’m taking a children’s series with me. Somehow, I missed Emily of New Moon whilst I was growing up, but I’m very excited to get acquainted with her soon.

What are you reading this Christmas?

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The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Whilst I wait for Gilbert’s new The Signature of all Things to land on my door-mat (see Cornflower’s brilliant review), I thought I’d catch up with her previous books. I’ve already read Eat Pray Love and Committed. In both, I loved her style and turn of phrase. I read Committed just before I got married in late 2009 and found it thought-provoking, challenging and eye-opening. In a way, it helped me order my own rather confused thoughts and opinions about marriage and for that reason, it holds a special place on my bookshelves.

I was slightly more ambivalent about Eat Pray Love . People from Yorkshire usually take pride in being blessed with a highly developed strain of what we call ‘common-sense’. My mother would probably disagree that I have this trait myself, but I beg to differ (sorry Mum!), because it certainly kicked in as I read Eat, Pray, Love. Running away to East Asia to ‘find yourself’ is something that I think is a little self-indulgent and my Yorkshire common sense was more than a little uncomfortable with it. However, I put that aside and found a well-written, thoughtful and fascinating book.

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

In the last week or so, I’ve hoovered up The Last American Man. This was written before either Eat, Pray, Love and Committed and so I was unsure what to expect, but was hopeful that I would find Gilbert’s trademark clear-eyed warmth…which I did, in buckets. The Last American Man is the story of Eustace Conway and his chosen life. He opted out of twentieth and twenty-first American society to go back to ‘the frontier’. From early childhood, he studied Native American crafts and lore and left home to live in the forest when still a teenager. Gilbert then chronicles his life, views and activities across thirty or forty years.

The thought uppermost in my mind as I read The Last American Man was, ‘would I be brave enough to open up my life to a writer as Eustace Conway did to Elizabeth Gilbert?’ The answer, I suspect, is no. This is because I do not live an extreme life that merits writing about, but also because the honest scrutiny would be unbearable to me. Eustace’s character is stripped bare, a complete dissection, with each layer of skin and muscle carefully peeled back and pinned. All his bad decisions, irrationality and, at times, un-likeability, are honestly recorded alongside his admirable achievement and strengths. Eustace Conway has nowhere to hide – it feels like Gilbert caught his entire being and pressed into the pages of this book, with the prism of her prose guiding the eye. This book, about a flawed but fascinating man, is in its own way a masterpiece, but not without fault, just like its subject. Gilbert is also quick to draw comparisons between Conway’s life and the development of America, the cult of the individual and the continuing importance of ‘the frontier’ to the American psyche. I found that fascinating as I looked at a similar topic for my Masters dissertation, but those points are perhaps not for everyone!

I won’t say much more, as this book should be one you approach without knowing too much about what will happen I think. What I will say  though is that if you are interested in Gilbert’s development as a writer and interested in searingly good character studies, you can’t afford to miss this early book.

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4th of July Reads

Sketch of the American Flag

Happy Independence Day to my friends and readers in the US! To tie into the spirit of the day, I thought I’d share some of my favourite American books, both by Americans and about America.

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

I love a bit of Bill Bryson. His corresponding book Notes from a Small Island had me in stitches as the community he was writing about in the main was close to where I grew up. It was so refreshing to read about quirks and behaviours I recognised in myself and my community from the perspective of a sympathetic American. I read Notes from a Big Country for the first time after a short trip to San Francisco and found that it helped me understand this fascinating, bewildering and diverse country a little more than I did before.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I probably don’t need to say too much about this after my recent rave reviews. I love this book.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I read this book several years ago and am considering rereading it before I get Curtis Sittenfeld’s most recent release. I thought this was an elegant and absorbing tale about a fictional first lady’s journey to the White House. Controversially, it is thought that Alice Blackwell in the novel is a thinly veiled Laura Bush. As someone who finds the Republican party’s views baffling at best most of the time, I was prepared to find this book angered me, but quite the opposite. I found it thought-provoking and very well-written. I’m looking forward to reading more of Sittenfeld’s work.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I chose to write about this for my Master’s dissertation I loved it so much. A classic.

Eat Love Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert

I discovered Elizabeth Gilbert through her famous TED talk and I knew I had to read her books.

Eat Love Pray was the first and I found it so much more than I ever thought a ‘finding yourself’ book could ever be (my Yorkshire common sense showing through!). It was well written, thoughtful and funny. I do still think running off around the world to escape your problems is a little self-indulgent to be honest, although if you have the money and time why not I suppose, but Gilbert is a writer I warmed to and I found this book wise. I read her Committed just before I got married and I found that was also really interesting. It helped frame and order my own thoughts about marriage before I jumped in at the tender age of 25!

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I have a feeling this book may be a future classic. It so perfectly captures a time, attitude and place that when I think about the 80’s, this book is irrevocably linked in my mind. I think it is a funny, clear-eyed and honest look at greed, arrogance and excess in late 80’s New York.

And two plays… I like reading plays. I like seeing them more, but I do like reading them as well and these two are masterpieces in my opinion.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

A wonderful double. On the surface a play exploring the Salem Witch trails in New England and the hysteria that ensued. Below, a commentary on the Communist Witch Hunts of the McCarthy era.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

I think Tennessee Williams is my favourite playwright after Shakespeare. His explorations of disappointment, faded dreams and hope are heart-breaking. I could have chosen any of his plays but went for A Streetcar Named Desire because I walked out of a theatre about four years ago after seeing this play and the world looked a little different. One of the most powerful, moving stories in the world in my opinion, but perhaps not one for happy days!

Do you have favourite Independence Day reads?