2015 Reading Highlights and 2016 Reading Resolutions

Well I had planned to post this follow up to my reading by numbers post around New Year, but between one thing and another I ran out of time! So it’s a bit late and 2015 already feels a very long time ago, but anyway, here’s my reading highlights from the past year.

1. Best Book of 2015: For entirely subjective reasons, I’m going to go with The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett as my favourite overall.

2. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2015The Girl with All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey. I read this for book club, and to be honest probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise as I’d assumed it was another fairly bog-standard teen dystopia. I was very, very wrong about that – it’s a fresh, literary and extremely well-written take on the zombie survival genre.

3. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2015The Wicked and The Divine, by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. This is the best comic book/graphic novel series I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve been pressing them on everyone I know. Volume 3 of the trade paperback is out next month, hurrah!

4. Favourite New (to me) Authors Discovered in 2015: Kieron Gillen (The Wicked and the Divine), Clare North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch), Marlon James (A Brief History of Seven Killings)

5. Most Hilarious Read of 2015How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran – had me crying with laughter throughout!

6. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2015The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Clare North. I almost raced through the entire thing in one sitting, and enjoyed it so much I immediately went out and bought Clare North’s second book, Touch.

7. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2015: Very difficult to judge this one – I’ve read some books with some very beautiful cover art this year! I’m actually going to go with On Liberty, by Shami Chakrabarti, as I like the boldness and simplicity of it. (I also have a massive fangirl crush on Chakrabarti after seeing her speak at a conference this year!)

8. Most Memorable Character of 2015: Tough call, but probably Holly Sykes from The Bone Clocks.

9. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2015: Another tough one! I’m gonna go with The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart. I just love her writing.

10. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2015H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald (this was also in the running for “most beautifully written”, above!). This is a truly extraordinary meditation on bereavement and grief, wrapped up in a fascinating exploration of hawking. I’d recommend it for anyone who’s ever been bereaved and struggled to explain how it felt and what it does to your life.

11. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2015 to Read: I haven’t really read any “classic” literature this year! I’d probably go with Fragile Things, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman published in 2007, just because it’s been on my wishlist for several years but I hadn’t got hold of a copy until this year.

Reading Resolutions

Before I set some reading goals for this year, I’m going to have a look back at my 2015 resolutions and see how I did…

  1. Finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list… Um, no! I managed to finish 2015 with 129 books on my TBR list, more than the 104 I started the year with!
  2. Explore books by more diverse authors… Last year I read 7 books written by people of colour, and and one translated book. That’s pretty poor if I’m honest, but at least I’ve started to pay attention to it now. The same thing happened when I started making an effort to read more books by women – I didn’t realise how badly skewed my reading was in favour of male authors until I started counting them!
  3. Read at least five books that are 600 pages plus… Almost! I read 3 books that were longer than 600 pages (the longest being A Feast for Crows, George RR Martin, at a whopping 976 pages), and the next two longest were 592 (so close!) and 576 pages. I’m going to give myself a pass for this one, as taking my five longest books together, the average page count is 732 pages.

So out of three resolutions, I’ve… almost managed one. Ah. Ok, let’s see if I can set some more realistic goals for 2016!

  1. Seriously, stop buying so many goddamn books. I need to be more realistic about the books I pick up and when I will actually have time to read them! I’m going to set myself the same goal as last year: try to end the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list. Let’s see if I actually manage it this time!
  2. Read at least 10 books by people of colour, and/or in translation.
  3. Review more books!

Re no.3: I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard writers work to get an audience, and how difficult it is to compete for attention and book sales in an increasingly crowded market. I have a few friends who are writers, and I follow a lot of writers on Twitter, so I’m aware of how hard they work. The most consistent advice I’ve seen for writers on promoting their books is to rely on readers to do it for you – nothing sells like word of mouth!

I didn’t actually post any book reviews here in 2015 (although I did a couple on the Leeds Book Club blog), and I kinda miss reviewing books. I also know how helpful a good review is, particularly for less well-known writers, and especially somewhere like Amazon where most people will look for book reviews! I’m therefore going to make more of an effort to blog book reviews here, and post reviews of books I enjoyed on Amazon. This is partly for selfish reasons – I enjoy reviewing, and I also want writers I like to do well so they’ll continue to write books – but also I do love recommending books to people, and reviewing is really an extension of that!

I’m actually going to start my third resolution right now, as I read some great books over the Christmas holiday that I’d love to shout about! So look out for my next blog post, I promise it won’t be a three-week gap this time…

2015 Reading by Numbers

Well it’s been a quiet year on the blog, but a busy one on the reading front! As is traditional, I’ve run some numbers, made some pretty charts and tried to quantify my reading for the year. Look out for my second post (probably tomorrow) on my favourite reads of the year if qualitative is more your thing…

01-totals

I read a grand total of 93 books this year, beating my previous record of 91 books in 2013! I had a quick look comparing total number of pages for the past few years, to see if I genuinely did read more this year and in 2013 than in 2014, or if I just read fewer but longer books in 2014…

02-pages

As the chart shows, going by page numbers I still read significantly less last year than I did this year or in 2013! Interestingly, although I read 2 more books this year than in 2013, in 2013 I read more than 1,200 more pages than this year – so I must have read some significantly longer books in 2013!

03-pages-month

Month by month, the number of pages read each month correlates pretty well with number of books read, as a percentage of the totals. As in previous years I seem to read a lot more in the Autumn months – probably due to my reading the Booker Prize shortlist and trying to fit in other things I want to read at the same time! There was a pretty big dip in July this year, I think that’s because it was such a busy month – my twin got married on 1st August, so July I was mostly busy with first the hen weekend, then helping out with wedding prep!

04-gender

I’m happy to report that I’ve managed to maintain a pretty even split of identified genders in the books I’ve read this year, with a slight favouring (52%) of female-identified authors. I have worked to get to this point – in previous years, despite always assuming I read mostly books by women, in fact I had either a 60-40 or even 70-30 split in favour of male-identified authors! So this is something I’ve continued to bear in mind, to try to redress this balance.

This year, I also tried to keep track of how many books I read were written by people of colour. I haven’t done this in previous years so I can’t track any progress here, so no pretty chart, but looking at my LibraryThing, this year I’ve noted down 7 books I’ve read as being by people of colour (the rest are either by white authors or I didn’t know) – just 7.5% of the total. That seems pretty poor to me, so I’ll try to improve the diversity of what I read over the coming year.

05-sources

I didn’t do so well at the whole “stop spending all your money in bookshops” thing this year… I bought nearly half of the books I read this year! That being said, I did make good use of the library this year – 29% of the books I read this year were library books, as opposed to just 19% last year.

06-year

Probably as a consequence of buying so many books (!!), three-quarters of the books I read this year were ones that I picked up this year, rather than ones that had been languishing on my shelves from previous years! I must work harder to clear my backlog this year…

One of my reading resolutions last year was to finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my to-read (TBR) pile. I’ve utterly failed at this – at time of writing, LibraryThing tells me that I have 129 books in my possession that I have not yet read! That’s even more than this time last year – I managed to end 2014 with just 104 on my TBR list. That means I must have bought, borrowed, been given, or otherwise acquired 118 books this year!! This is getting out of hand…

Let’s be honest though, it’s never going to change. I love reading and I love books. And although I know full well that I’ll never have enough time to read all the books I already have, somehow I convince myself every time I pick up a new book that of course, I’ll have time for this one!

Next up, I’ll be posting some thoughts on what I’ve read this year, and some reading resolutions for 2016.

Goodbye, Sir Terry

This afternoon I heard the sad news that Sir Terry Pratchett had died. There’s not much I can say about this that isn’t already pouring out over Twitter, and I’m sure we’ll see plenty of thoughtful articles and obituaries in the coming days from those lucky enough to actually know him.

I didn’t know him of course, but I still had a small cry at the news this afternoon (only a small one as was still at work, and didn’t want to have to explain why I was crying over the death of someone I didn’t know). I started reading the Discworld books aged about 13, and haven’t missed a new one since. I’ve also read a number of his other books, most recently the Long Earth series, which I’ve been hugely impressed by. I learned so much from Pratchett’s take on the world – the voice of my conscience always sounds something like Granny Weatherwax…

I have also never found a writer better for encouraging reluctant readers. My brother hadn’t picked up a book since being forced to at school, and had long declared himself a committed non-reader, until in his late 20s he finally let the teenage me persuade him to read one of these great comic fantasy books I wouldn’t stop talking about. He was hooked after The Colour of Magic, and still has a couple of my Discworld books in his possession (I know exactly where they are…). He is far from the only person I’ve seen convinced that there might be something to this reading lark, after all, thanks to Sir Terry. For Christmas last year, I bought my brother’s 8-year-old son – a similarly reluctant reader – Pratchett’s latest children’s book, Dragons at Crumbling Castle. My brother said nothing when he saw it, just gave me a massive hug.

I may not have known Terry Pratchett, but I will miss him. Rest in peace.

2014 Reading Highlights and 2015 Reading Resolutions

Following on from yesterday’s reading by numbers, here’s what caught my attention in 2014…

1. Best Book of 2014: A tough call! I’ve read some excellent books in the past year. I think it’s got to be either The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon, or How to be both, by Ali Smith (the latter completely robbed of the Booker prize this year!). If I had to pick one… probably Kavalier and Clay, just because I found it so immersive.

2. Least Favourite Book of 2014: Mad About the Boy, by Helen Fielding. I loved the previous Bridget Jones books (and refuse to describe them as a “guilty pleasure” – I don’t feel guilty about it, and don’t think anyone should feel guilty about enjoying any books), but this felt like a real let-down. It had its moments, but didn’t have the sharpness of the previous books.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2014: Divergent, by Veronica Roth. I’d been really looking forward to reading this, as I love a bit of YA dystopia, but I just couldn’t get into it.

4. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2014: Augustus, by John Williams. When this was picked for book club I thought it’d be very dry and I’d struggle to get through it, but quite the opposite was true – I couldn’t put it down, and devoured it in a few days. Very highly recommended – most of the book club raved about it too, it was one of our best discussions!

5. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2014: We are all completely beside ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. Loved this, bought it for a couple of people for Christmas too.

6. Favourite New (to me) Authors Discovered in 2014: Junot Diaz, Michael Chabon, Alice Munro. Also Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling, who I’m including here because I finally read her adult fiction this year, having grown up on Harry Potter, and loved it!

7. Most Hilarious Read of 2014: Looking at my list, I don’t really seem to have read anything particularly funny in the past year, or at least not anything that’s stuck in my mind as a funny read. I shall have to address that in 2015!

8. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2014: The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

bernadette9. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2014: Where’d you go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple. I picked this one up purely because of the cover, and happily the contents were a good match!

11. Most Memorable Character of 2014: Definitely Scarlett O’Hara, from Gone With the Wind. Although a lot of this book was incredibly racist, which made parts very difficult to read, I did love Scarlett’s unrepentant selfishness and toughness. She’s not at all likeable, which surprised me – I didn’t really know much about the book before I read it, so I’d assumed Scarlett as the heroine would be one of these impossibly perfect and gentle ladies you find in Victorian fiction. She’s not of course – she’s a cast-iron bitch (which I absolutely mean as a compliment), and I loved her for it. After I’d finished it I filled my Tumblr with choice quotes from Scarlett, like this one:

I’m tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I’m tired of acting like I don’t eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and never get tired. I’m tired of saying ‘How wonderful you are!’ to fool men who haven’t got one-half the sense I’ve got, and I’m tired of pretending I don’t know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they’re doing it.

Marvellous.

12. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2014: How to be both. I just adore Ali Smith’s writing.

13. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2014: We are all completely beside ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. It hit me right in the feelings.

14. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2014 to Read: I didn’t read too many older books this year, so I’ll have to go for Gone With the Wind – which I mostly enjoyed, despite the unbelievable racism (seriously, I cannot stress enough just how racist this book is, even allowing for the time when it was written), and I do think Scarlett O’Hara is a fabulous creation.

2014 Reading Resolutions

I thought I’d look back and see how I did on last year’s reading resolutions, before setting more:

  1. Read more books by women – succeeded!
  2. Finish 2014 with fewer books on my TBR pile than at the start of the year – succeeded! At the end of 2013 I had 116 books in my TBR pile; at the end of 2014, that was down to 104.
  3. Write more reviews and other blog posts here – failed. I only managed 9 posts on this blog in 2014, compared to 12 in 2013. That’s pretty poor to be honest! I would definitely like to boost my blogging again in 2015, both here and on my other blog.

2015 Reading Resolutions

This year, I will…

  1. Finish the year with fewer than 100 books on my TBR list. I think that should be achievable, providing I don’t go mad and acquire so many more books this year!
  2. Explore books by authors of various nationalities. This is a difficult one to measure as I haven’t to date kept track of the nationalities of the writers I read, but I have a pretty strong hunch that I read mostly books by UK and US/Canadian writers, and they are probably mostly white. Which is no bad thing, but #readwomen made me think about broadening my horizons further. I would like to read more books by writers from around the world, more translations, and more books by people of colour.
  3. Read longer books. I’ve got a few hefty books on my TBR list which I just never seem to pick up. A quick look at my LibraryThing data shows the average length of a book I read in 2014 was 333 pages; most (65%) were in the 200-450 page range. I think that’s partly because if I take too long reading one book, I start to worry about all the other books I won’t have time to read in the meantime. Which is silly really – it should be quality not quantity! I think I just need to relax and accept that I am never going to read all the books, so I should really stop trying. In 2015 I would like to read at least five books that are 600 pages plus.

2014 Reading by Numbers

I realise I’m a little late with my annual round-up of my reading stats from the past year – I’ve just moved house and haven’t had a computer or laptop available to make my pretty charts on until now! Hopefully this has been worth the wait…

This year I’ve decided to split my usual long post in half. This first part will feature all the pretty charts and number-crunching on my reading, and my next post (coming soon, I promise!) will give my reading highlights of 2014 and reading resolutions for 2015.

So, on with the numbers…

Total books read per year

I read fewer books in 2014 than in 2013, but still more than each year 2010-2012, managing a grand total of 81 books. I did read an unusually high number of books in 2013, so I doubt I’ll manage the giddy heights of 91 again any time soon! I’ve thought about setting myself a goal of how many books to try and read in a year, as I’ve seen many people doing on Twitter, but I’ve decided against – I think I’d rather just read what I fancy, rather than pushing myself to pick up books I might not really enjoy just to boost my total.

02-2014-monthly

This year my LibraryThing exported data gave me the page numbers for each book I read, which I don’t think it did in previous years, so I thought it’d be interesting to compare number of books read each month, with total number of pages read each month. I was wondering if, in months when I read lots of books (such as November, when I read 11 books), I’d just read lots of shorter books! Going by the graph above though, percentage-wise it looks like book count and page count are actually pretty close. The only really big gaps are in January (8 books read, but all quite short), and March (only four books read, but one of them was Gone With the Wind, at a whopping 960 pages).

I’m not really sure why I apparently read so much more in November than in every other month!

Gender of authorNow this, I am really proud of. I wanted to take part in the Year of Reading Women this year, for reasons I’ve gone into before. I decided that rather than only reading women (I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Patrick Ness for an entire year!), I would aim for a 50/50 split in my reading, to make up for the gender imbalance in previous years. Happily, I’ve succeeded – in fact, I have tipped the balance slightly the other way – I read 40 books by women and 36 by men this year! (Yes, I know that doesn’t add up to my total of 81 – the remaining 5 are books with multiple authors of mixed genders).

I really enjoyed this experiment this year, but I was surprised at how much conscious effort it took. It’s made me actually think about who wrote the next book I pick up, rather than just grabbing whatever I fancy, which I’m inclined to see as a good thing – I think it’s worthwhile questioning our unconscious biases in these areas. Before starting to make these annual number-crunching posts, and before #readwomen, I would have confidently stated that I mostly read female authors – but the numbers show that just wasn’t true. I’d like to continue to do something similar for 2015 – I’ll come back to that in my “reading resolutions” post!

Fiction vs non-fiction

I didn’t read much non-fiction this year – less than last year in fact, which surprised me a little. I felt like I’d read more non-fiction this year. Maybe it’s because I read it so seldom, when I do it tends to stick in my mind!

Sources of booksPleased to see that I managed not to spend too much on books this year – I only bought 49% of my reading in 2014, down very slightly from 50% in 2013! Library use is still looking a bit low (19%, same as 2013, and down from 29% in 2012), although I think that’s because I’ve been focusing on trying to get through my ridiculously huge TBR pile! Speaking of which…

06-2014-acquired

I didn’t do so well on stopping myself buying new books in 2014, although the proportion I read in 2014 that I acquired that year was slightly lower than in 2013 (62%, down from 68% in 2013). I am slowly reducing my TBR pile though! At the end of 2013 I had 116 books in my TBR pile; by the end of 2014 that was down to 104. So, that’s progress, right?? A quick check of my LibraryThing also shows that I only added 81 new books in 2014, compared to 124 (!!) in 2013. I also culled a few books from my TBR list that, realistically, I was never going to read. So I should be able to get my TBR list to a more manageable level, I just need to learn to walk past bookshops, charity shops, libraries, and book exchanges… Although, I did buy two new books earlier today, so perhaps I’m just a lost cause!

That’s it for my reading round-up! The second part of this post, with my reading highlights and resolutions for 2014, is coming soon…

 

 

Thoughts on #ReadWomen2014

As mentioned in my 2013 reading review, I’ve been fairly surprised and not a little disappointed to discover how (comparatively) few books by women I actually read. Had you asked me to guess, off the top of my head, I’d have confidently asserted that at least half the books I read were by women, probably more. Most of my favourite authors are women, and I feel like my reading list is dominated by women authors. However, looking at the actual numbers, that’s nowhere near true. Last year only 30% of the books I read were written by women. Over the past four years, the closest I’ve got is in 2012, when the female/male split was 60/40.

I recently backed a great project on Kickstarter: Women destroy science fiction, a project to produce an all-female issue of Lightspeed Magazine (and since they absolutely smashed their funding goals, they’re now also producing “Women destroy horror” and “Women destroy fantasy” issues!). The success of this project (having initially aimed for $5,000, they’ve raised more than 10 times that amount!) makes it abundantly clear that there is a real appetite for fresh voices in science fiction, and genre publishing generally – an area all too often dominated by men.

One of the great things about backing this campaign has been the daily updates featuring short personal essays about women’s experiences in science fiction publishing. A recent essay, We are the fifty percent, really struck a chord with me. I’d urge you all to click through and read the whole thing, but here’s a few choice quotes:

Sometimes I catch myself feeling like I only read writing by women. “Ugh,” I think. “That is so skewed.” Then I crunch the numbers.

They are almost always fifty percent.

Sociological research suggests that when women and men speak equally in a conversation, both men and women perceive the women as dominating the conversation.

At the same time as I entered my editorial position and was criticized for running work “dominated” by fifty percent women, the podcast’s male-edited science fiction counterpart hadn’t run a story authored by a woman in weeks. No one said a thing.

That hit home with me, because I can see from my own experience how easy it is to perceive anything more than a handful of women writers as being a majority. Perhaps that’s because, in a patriarchal society, male is the assumed default – anything that deviates from this draws attention, and appears to be demanding more space than it actually is. Conversely, an all-male reading list or collection will not raise many eyebrows, if any, because that’s just the natural state of things.

Before I crunched the numbers from last year’s reading, I genuinely believed I’d read more books by women than by men in 2013. At the very least, I was certain it was at least a 50/50 split. I never would have guessed the actual split was only 30/70. And I’m a self-identified feminist, and very conscious of these issues. How much easier is it for people who don’t actually think about the bias against female authors, who don’t think it’s a big deal, to just assume everything’s fine and this is all just humourless feminists trying to force sub-par female authors on unwilling readers in order to maintain some kind of gender quota?

Joanna Walsh's beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

Joanna Walsh’s beautiful #ReadWomen2014 bookmarks

This is why I’m hugely in favour of the Year of Reading Women. There are so many extraordinarily talented women out there – if my reading list is skewed towards male authors, how much fantastic writing am I missing out on? I’ve decided against only reading women this year, simply because there are other books by men that I want to read that I don’t want to miss out on for a year – it’ll just make my TBR pile even bigger! However, I’m keeping note of the author’s gender for every book I read, on an ongoing basis rather than totting it up at the end of the year as I’ve done previously, and I’ve pledged to read at least one book by a woman for every book by a man I read this year. That should ensure that, at the very least, I’ll have an even 50/50 split for 2014. I might even tip the balance the other way, which would make up for the awesome female-authored books I must have missed out on over the past couple of years! So far in 2014, I’ve read 5 books by women and 6 by men. I’m currently reading Zadie Smith’s NW (which is wonderful), so that brings it to an even 6-all so far this year. A good start!

A final quote from the Kickstarter essay, for anyone still looking for inspiration to #readwomen2014:

Women aren’t supposed to talk as much as men. We aren’t supposed to take up as much space as men do. So when we talk, we must be SHOUTING. When we take up space, we must be EVERYWHERE.

If our presence will always be perceived as a taint, then let science fiction be tainted. If our speaking voices will always be perceived as shouts, then let us shout.

We’re here. We’re fifty percent of you.

And we deserve some room to bellow.

Books I read and rather enjoyed in January

I’ve decided to do a monthly round-up of my favourites from the books I read in the previous month. For what’s been keeping me quiet in January, read on…

11 Doctors, 11 stories11 Doctors, 11 stories, by various authors

This short story collection was published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. As the title suggests, each story concerns a different incarnation of the Doctor. I was really excited to read this – both as a lifelong Doctor Who fan, and as a massive fan of several of the authors in the collection – including Patrick Ness, Eoin Colfer, Malorie Blackman, and the ever-marvellous Neil Gaiman.

I was not disappointed – I can’t imagine any Whovian would be! It’s a lovely collection, and the stories are all written with such glee – you can really tell how much fun all the contributing authors had in writing their stories. They’ve all captured their individual Doctors delightfully well. The stories are all excellent, but the ones that stood out for me were Philip Reeve’s 4th Doctor story, ‘The Roots of Evil’, featuring a sort of space station made from a living tree; Patrick Ness’ 5th Doctor story ‘The Tip of the Tongue’, featuring odd little parasites that make everyone tell the truth; and Neil Gaiman’s intensely unnerving 11th Doctor tale, ‘Nothing O’Clock’.

My only small complaint about this book is that of 11 contributing authors, only two are women. Given the wealth of great female sci-fi writers out there, and how many undoubtedly grew up, like me, hiding behind the sofa from Doctor Who baddies (even in the Classic Who era when they were clearly made out of tin foil and bubble wrap – in fact, especially then! Amiright??), I’m disappointed that they couldn’t find a more even balance of writers for this collection.

This is how you lose herThis Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz

This was given to me by my SantaThing – that’s Secret Santa for LibraryThing members, which was tremendous fun! This Is How You Lose Her is a collection of short stories (some loosely linked around the same character)  all featuring working-class, Latino (predominantly Dominican) Americans. All the stories centre around relationships and infidelity, usually from the man’s point of view. It’s the sort of matter I usually find pretty tedious – if you’ve read one account of a male protagonist basically whining about how women are bitches and monogamy sucks, you’ve read them all – but Diaz’s flawless prose and pitch-perfect characterisation lifts these stories above what could just be tired cliche. I was warned by my SantaThing to keep a Spanish dictionary handy while reading it (I actually used Google Translate, but hey!) and that was good advice – Spanish phrases and slang terms are liberally scattered throughout. Some I could work out in context, but some I did have to do some Googling to work out what was being said or implied.

This wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally have picked up, but I’m delighted to have done so. I’m hugely impressed by Diaz’s writing, and although his female characters left a little to be desired I will be seeking out more of his work.

The Crooked SpireThe Crooked Spire, by Chris Nickson

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m a bit of a fan of Chris Nickson’s series of historical crime novels set in Leeds. The Crooked Spire is a bit of a departure from this – set in 14th century Chesterfield, rather than a historical almost-police procedural like the Richard Nottingham series, The Crooked Spire put me in mind most of all of a sort of dark-ages noir. It follows the story of a wandering carpenter, John, orphaned by the Black Death that has so recently ravaged the country, and seeking work on the ambitious new spire on the church in Chesterfield. The title is a reference both to the (now) famously wonky spire in Chesterfield, and to the web of corruption John stumbles into. It’s a vivid picture of greed, murder and the worthlessness of human life to those in power – at least, of a certain class of human life.

As always with Chris Nickson’s books, he has evoked a vibrant sense of place. I’ve often wondered if I’d enjoy the Richard Nottingham series so much if I didn’t know Leeds so well. I think The Crooked Spire has answered my question: I have only visited Chesterfield once (it was for a funeral, so I wasn’t really in the mood for sightseeing!) and don’t know it at all, but the evocative descriptions made me feel like I was wandering the streets myself.

Fun HomeFun Home: a family tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel

Ok, technically I read this one back in December, but I read it in that dead period between Christmas and New Year, which as far as I’m concerned exists outside of time itself, so I’ve made a decision to count it as a January read. Because I can, and this is my blog, so there! Ahem.

And yes, I know I’m about a million years behind the entire world in finally reading this. I have no idea what took me so long to get around to it, but I’m glad I finally did! It’s wonderful. Just flat-out wonderful. For those not in the know, Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s (she of the Bechdel test) graphic novel memoir of growing up in a funeral home (the ‘Fun Home’ of the title) and her complicated relationship with her emotionally distant, closeted father. Intertwined with this narrative is her own coming of age and discovery of her sexuality.

It’s a really beautiful read, honest and unsentimental without being cynical. The artwork is gorgeous – the final panel, showing Alison as a little girl diving into her father’s arms at the swimming pool, had me in tears. I really can’t recommend this highly enough, and will be seeking out a copy of the sequel, Are you my mother?, as soon as possible!

Why give blood?

I started giving blood just over a year ago. I’ve since gone back for regular appointments, and in December I made my fourth donation (women can donate every four months, men every three).

I was prompted to start giving blood when my mum was going through chemotherapy for oesophageal cancer. She caught what may have been a very bad cold, or may have been flu – either way, her chemo-ravaged immune system couldn’t cope with it and she became very ill, very quickly. She went into hospital and was given a blood transfusion. Without the blood, she would almost certainly have died.

As it was, she died about four months later – it was an aggressive cancer, we knew there was nothing that could save her at that point. But the generosity of unknown people who had turned up to blood donation centres, sat for 10 minutes with a needle in their arm and given a small amount of blood, saved her life that day and gave our family a few precious extra months with her. I can’t express just what that meant to us. I became a blood donor so I could pay that forward, and potentially protect other families from the pain of losing someone they love.

I was prompted to write this blog post today because the @givebloodNHS Twitter account started a hashtag called #bloodreasons, asking for people’s reasons for starting to donate blood. I would urge everyone to click through and have a read, just for the sheer number of different stories and scenarios that led people to become donors.

The thing that struck me is just how many people have a family member or loved one who has been saved by a blood transfusion. Giving blood is something that almost anyone can do, and it has such a huge, life-saving impact. I spoke to my twin about this recently: she’s a nurse in an Accident and Emergency department, and she was emphatic about how often donated blood is used to save lives. In her words, they get through “buckets of the stuff” on a standard shift! It’s such an everyday thing that I think we almost take it for granted – but it wouldn’t be possible at all without blood donors.

My main reason for writing this post is to give a bit of a nudge to anyone out there who’s thought vaguely about donating blood but just hasn’t got around to it yet, or anyone who wants to but is nervous about it. For the former camp, it’s simple: just visit the NHS blood donation website, type in your postcode to find a session near you, and book an appointment online (or, find a walk-in centre where you don’t need an appointment). Done!

If you’re nervous about it, I sympathise. I left it more than a year between my deciding to become a blood donor and actually doing it, just because I was very scared of needles! For those who want to donate but are nervous about it, I thought it might be helpful to write a bit here about my experiences of donating blood, to hopefully provide a bit of reassurance.

First things first: does it hurt? Well, obviously – I could write something here like “oh no, you’ll never feel a thing! In fact, it’s just like being nuzzled by kittens!” but that would be a lie and you’d all know it. We’re talking about sticking a needle into your skin, of course it’s going to hurt a bit. However, it really doesn’t hurt very much – nothing at all like I was expecting. Before you give blood they prick your finger with a pin and squeeze out a drop of blood to test your iron levels. That stings for a second – it feels a bit like if you catch yourself on an unexpected sticky-out staple in a pile of printouts – but that’s it. It stings for a bit longer when they actually put the needle in your arm to draw your blood, but once the needle is in it doesn’t really hurt any more. I can usually feel the needle there while the blood is being taken, and sometimes it’s a bit uncomfortable, but it doesn’t really hurt as such. I’m told that I can probably feel it more than others would because I’ve got skinny arms and narrow veins – so if you’ve got thicker arms you probably wouldn’t feel much at all.

Afterwards, my arm usually aches a bit, but that’s always stopped by the following morning (and is a convenient excuse not to have to carry shopping, do the washing up, or any other housework-type stuff that requires the use of both arms! Hehehe 🙂 ). Probably the most painful bit of the whole process is removing the plaster afterwards – they use these hardcore medical plasters that must contain some industrial adhesive. I do feel sorry for men who donate blood – removing that plaster is hard enough if you don’t have hairy arms! I recommend having a good soak in the shower or bath before attempting plaster removal – that moves it from “OH MY GOD IT’S TEARING OFF MY SKIN” to “Hmm, that was slightly unpleasant”!

So, that’s it in terms of pain. Pretty minimal really, and much, much less than I had ever expected! Whatever minimal pain/discomfort there is, it is more than outweighed by the good feeling you get from giving blood. I was actually taken a bit aback my this the first time I donated, but I did feel really, genuinely good about myself for quite some time afterwards. It puts me in a really good mood for days. I think it’s the knowledge that you have done a completely, unambiguously good thing. Also, all the medical staff at donation centres are completely lovely – particularly if you tell them you’re nervous! – so I don’t think you could leave in a bad mood. Plus, they give you free tea and biscuits after you’ve donated. Wins all round!

I know lots of people who can’t donate for various reasons, so it feels even more important that those of us who can, do. If you can give blood (check here if you’re not sure if you can or not) but you don’t currently do so, please consider registering as a donor. Giving blood is one of the simplest, easiest ways to save a life. The blood you donate could mean the world to another person or family.

2013 Reading by Numbers

As is becoming an annual tradition, I have totted up the books I read in 2013 and made some pretty charts to illustrate my reading habits. I’ve also listed my 2013 reading highlights at the bottom of the post, so feel free to scroll straight down to there!

2013_totalsMy amount read by year has been steadily increasing, although I’m not really sure why. I read a whopping 91 books this year! Maybe I’m just reading faster in a desperate attempt to keep up with all the many, many books I want to read? My TBR pile is rapidly getting out of control again, I may have to ban myself from buying new books until I’ve got it to a more manageable level!

2013_monthlyI kept track again of how many books I read each month, so I could try and compare to last year and see if I’ve got any usual patterns. Nothing’s really leaping out at me here, except that both this year and last I didn’t read much in August. That surprises me actually, as I’d always thought I read more in the summer!

2013_genderLooks like I still read significantly more male than female authors. Again, that surprises me as I did feel like I’d read more books by women this year! I would like to do something about this, actually, as I don’t think it’s great to have such an imbalance. There’s some fantastic women writers out there, and I don’t want to feel like I’m missing out! I found this article by a person who decided to only read women writers for an entire year, and thought that was pretty inspiring. I don’t think I’ll go quite that far, but I would like to prioritise the female writers on my TBR pile. In fact, I think I’ll make that one of my reading resolutions for 2014!

2013_fictionLooks like my proportion of fiction vs non-fiction read has stayed about the same. I still read far more fiction than non-fiction, and I don’t think that’s likely to change. Although I have read some great non-fiction this year, I do tend to find it more of a chore than fiction! Maybe I’ll try to read a bit more factual stuff this year, but I doubt it to be honest.

2013_sourceI’m pleased to see that my reading this year shouldn’t have made too much of a dent in my bank balance! I only bought half of the books I read, and I think most of those will have been discounted (for example, I only really buy ebooks when they’re on sale, as I resent paying full price for something I don’t really own!). Looks like I used the library a bit less this year than last year (library books made up 29% of my reading material in 2012), not really sure why. I’ll have to try and make that up again in 2014!

2013_acquiredAlthough I didn’t do a Mount TBR challenge again this year, I did try to read at least some of the books I already had on my shelf rather than ones I bought, borrowed or received this year. As you can see above, I didn’t do too well at this! I might have to try a TBR challenge again for 2014, as at the moment my TBR list stands at 116 books, and I’d like to try and make a dent in those before getting more books!

ETA: I just did a quick count of the 116 unread books in my LibraryThing, and the totals from each year are as follows:

  • Added in 2009 – 3 books
  • Added in 2010 – 10 books
  • Added in 2011 – 12 books
  • Added in 2012 – 34 books
  • Added in 2013 – 57 books

So I am slowly working through the older books in my collection! I just need to slow down my rate of acquisition of new books. But new books are so pretty, so tempting… *strokes the books*

2013 Reading Highlights

1. Best Book of 2013: This is always such a hard question to answer – it’s like being asked to choose your favourite child! (Or so I imagine, not actually having any children…) I think it’s a toss-up between The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. On balance, I think I’ll go with A Monster Calls, just because I found it so incredibly moving, painful and life-affirming all at once.

2. Worst Book of 2013: I haven’t read any really awful books this year, I’m happy to say! There’s been nothing this year that I couldn’t finish, and looking at my LibraryThing ratings I haven’t given anything less than two stars. If I had to pick one, I’d say probably Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow. I feel a bit bad naming this here as it really isn’t that bad, just not my cup of tea! I admire Cory Doctorow for his stance on information rights, but his fiction writing just doesn’t grab me.

3. Most Disappointing Book of 2013: Probably The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. Again, it’s not a bad book, it just didn’t really live up to my expectations – the premise sounded fantastic, but I found the story and characters a little flat.

4. Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2013: Where the Bodies are Buried, by Christopher Brookmyre. A few people had said they felt really let down by this book, as it doesn’t have the humour of Brookmyre’s previous books (which I am a huge fan of), but I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a good, solid crime thriller.

5. Book You Recommended the Most to People in 2013: The Hunger Games! I lost count of the number of people I spoke to about the films, and urged to read the books immediately!

6. Favourite New Authors Discovered in 2013: Naomi Klein (can’t believe I’d never read any of her books before!), Alison Bechdel (ditto), Eleanor Catton, John Scalzi, Naomi Alderman

7. Most Hilarious Read of 2013: Definitely How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran – had me crying with laughter on the train!

8. Most Thrilling Unputdownable Read of 2013: A Storm of Swords (parts 1 and 2) by George RR Martin. One of those books that makes you resent having to do things like go to work, eat, sleep, etc when you could be reading instead.

9. Favourite Cover of a Book You Read in 2013: More than This, by Patrick Ness. I like the stark graphic, it works well with the book’s subject matter (without wanting to give too much away!)

11. Most Memorable Character of 2013: Don Tilman, from The Rosie Project

12. Most Beautifully Written Book of 2013: Tough choice, but probably The Testament of Mary

13. Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2013: The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein. Made me so incredibly angry when I was reading it. Also made me want to run up to random strangers on the street, thrust the book at them and yell: “Have you read this? Read it immediately! And give it to all of your friends to read too! And then REVOLUTION!” For some reason, I did not actually do this.

14. Book You Can’t Believe You Waited Until 2013 to Read: I’m going to cheat and pick two here: The Shock Doctrine (see above), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

2014 Reading Resolutions

I have three reading resolutions for the coming year…

1. Read more books by women

2. Finish 2014 with fewer books on my TBR pile than at the start of the year

3. Write more reviews and blog more book-related stuff – I’ve managed a pitiful 12 blog posts this year! If I commit to two blog posts per month, I can easily double that for 2014.

Anyone else have any reading resolutions for 2014? What were your reading highlights of 2013? If there’s anything I really MUST read in 2014 then leave a comment and let me know below!

Monday Cheer

airtime - jumping for joyAs regular readers of this blog and those of you that know me in real life will be well aware, the last couple of years have been pretty overwhelmingly shit for me, in many shitty ways. One of the things I really value social media for is the way it means there are always people around to provide (virtual) tea and sympathy when things are crappy. If I’m having a particularly bad day, a quick tweet about it usually means plenty of messages from kind friends, which is beyond lovely. A friend once described these kinds of sympathy-seeking tweets as “sending up a distress flare”, which I thought was very apt!

However, I realised towards the end of last year that I was really sending a lot of these miserable tweets, and not very many happy ones. And while I do find Twitter-sympathy genuinely very beneficial (seriously, I can’t tell you how many nights the only thing that’s stopped me crying was scrolling through lovely tweets from lovely people – so thank you to everyone who’s ever responded to any of my distress flares!), I keep thinking of my ever-wise mum’s advice: if you’re feeling down, count your blessings. By all means take time to be sad, but also make time to think about all the things that make you happy.

This takes effort, believe me I know! If you’re down in the dumps, for whatever reason, it’s easy to dwell on that. It’s very hard to drag your brain in a positive direction. But it is precisely because it is difficult that it is so important. Generally, happiness isn’t something that just happens. Listing all the things you have to be glad about is like a training exercise for your brain, teaching you the habit of looking beyond your immediate sadness.

So, in mid-November, I decided that every Monday, I would tweet five things that were cheering me up that day/week. Sometimes they’re personal things:

Sometimes they’re universal things:

Sometimes they’re random things:

And sometimes, they’re just silly cute things:

But they are always cheery things! I’ve found doing this has made a huge difference to my emotional outlook. It’s not always easy: some Mondays I can barely think of anything at all, which is when you’ll see a bias towards lots of abstract concepts and cute animal pics in my #mondaycheer tweets! But just the act of making myself think of cheerful things, plus the incredibly lovely reaction from the rest of Twitter, puts me in a good mood to start the week.

I find this incredibly beneficial to do, and I’ve had lots of tweets suggesting that my followers also enjoy it! I’m also starting to see more and more people post their own #mondaycheer tweets too, which is wonderful. Because lets face it, Mondays are generally not fun-days (see what I did there?? I’m here all week…). Starting the day and week off with a few reminders of what you have to be happy about can make whatever else is coming up feel just that little bit brighter. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know my Mondays can always use more cheer 🙂

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