Since the lockdown began (how many weeks has it been now?), I have found it extraordinarily difficult to concentrate on a book. In an effort to reignite the habit of reading, I decided to ‘shop my shelves’ and re-read books I already own.
“It’s when times are hardest that we need the transformative magic of books and creativity the most.” – Cressida Cowell
Well, my first read of May was an indulgence, I must confess. I spent the afternoon in the sun, lazily swinging in the hammock, surrounded by birdsong and the noise of the wind in the trees and utterly guzzled my way through Riders and then Rivals by Jilly Cooper. What an enjoyable romp, and just perfect for a lazy sunny afternoon.
Once eased back into reading, I went on to race through two well-loved PG Wodehouse titles. Thank You, Jeeves (wherein Bertie parts company with the long suffering Jeeves due to his unrepentant playing of the banjolele), and Much Obliged, Jeeves, (wherein skulduggery and political turmoil threaten in Market Snodsbury).
These never cease to delight regardless of how many times I return to them. If you haven’t read PG Wodehouse before, I envy you the many hours of delight that lie ahead.
‘I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once’ – C. S. Lewis
My next book of May was a change in tack from the preceding romps. I returned to Layla and Majnun by Nizami. Translated from the 12th century Persian classic, this is an exquisite story of forbidden love that can be read as an allegory of the soul’s longing for the divine.
Whenever I read in translation, I regret only being able to speak in English, and in the case of Layla and Majnun I feel that however much I love it I’ll only be seeing a simulacrum of the original.
For a drop of non-fiction I read The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves by Stephen Grosz. I felt almost nervous to re-read this because I loved this and gifted it many times after reading it first time round.
Stephen Grosz is a psychoanalyst, drawing on his years of experience and insight in these stories of everyday life. I found this so engrossing and thought provoking that I’d have to take it slowly, chapter by chapter, to properly engage with all the insights it provokes.
I think that after my month of shopping the shelves I am ready to move on to pastures new. I am so excited about bookshops re-opening in June and I have been compiling my wish list for when we can finally go and browse again.
Until then, have a look at what the rest of the Willoughby team have been reading in May…
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
‘I finally read one of my most anticipated reads: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. It is based on real events that took place on the Norwegian island of Vardø in the 17th century. On Christmas Eve, 1617, a sudden and violent storm claimed the lives of almost all the men of Vardø, leaving the women to fend for themselves. Rumours that the storm was caused by witchcraft, along with the inexcusable offense of women engaging in ‘men’s work’, leads to the summoning of Scottish witch hunter Absalom Cornet, to bring the ungodly women of Vardø to heel.
It’s told through the perspectives of two young women – Maren, a lifelong resident of Vardø and Ursa, a city girl quickly married to Cornet before he settled on the island. I found this kept momentum of the story going making it a real page turner. This beautifully written book is impeccably researched and briefly touches upon racism, depicting the persecution of the indigenous Sami community, as well as exploring the oppression of women through the church and witch trials.
The cast of characters is fantastic. The protagonists are likeable and sympathetic and it was a joy to watch their relationship unfold throughout the novel. Cornet was a Grade A villain but the internalised sexism and overt racism of the Vardø women who turned on their community had my blood boiling just as much.
I think I would have enjoyed further exploration of the Sami community but overall this was a well-paced, atmospheric and educational read, spotlighting a lesser known element of the famed witch trials of the era. I’ll look forward to Kiran’s next foray into adult fiction!’
If Morning Ever Comes/A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
‘Turns out that in uncertain times my comfort reads involve the day to day lives of Baltimore families, who knew! Her characters are so well drawn that she pulls you into their lives from the first pages, and although there are no dramatic events that take place, I feel immersed nonetheless!’
Anne Tyler is a master of closely examining the everyday eccentricities of family life, and is beautifully perceptive about ‘ordinary’ families and the relationships within.’
Not Really Indian by Subhashini Prasad
‘This is a collection of short stories about 10 different women, who are all Indian. This is another book I really enjoyed, all the stories and women were really interesting to me, and I wished they were longer. Another reason this is a standout read for me, is that I can relate to many things that have been said in this book about being Indian and how that can make you feel in other countries, especially growing up.’
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
‘This book, set in Japan and on an island off British Columbia, has two narrators, who you love instantly and want to know more about.
I really enjoyed this book and its definitely one of my favourites reads this year so far. It’s just so immersive and you can’t help but hope for the best for these two characters. I remember finishing it and wishing it could just go on, I want to know more!’
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
‘Told from three different but inter-connected women’s perspectives, from the 16th Century to the present day, Wyld explores ideas of otherness and female rage in the shadow of the enigmatic Bass Rock off the coast of North Berwick, Scotland.
As with her previous novel, ‘All The Birds Singing’, Wyld is great at building deep, psychological tension and lingering, subtle menace. It sounds heavy, but her plotting and character development, along with a real ‘witchiness’ and dark sense of humour, zips the story along at a satisfying pace.’
Escape to the French Farmhouse by Jo Thomas
This is a gorgeous, feelgood read from Jo Thomas, vividly evoking the warmth of the summer sun as the main character gradually gains the strength and determination to build a life on her own.
‘I like the easiness of these and the descriptions of the settings abroad. It does make me sad that I can’t be on holiday right now though!’
Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
This sweeping historical romance spans two timelines: Havana in the late 1950s, during the period of political unrest, and Havana in the modern day, exploring what life is like following the death of Fidel Castro.
The story centres around Elisa Perez, the daughter of a wealthy sugar baron who, because of her family’s status, are well connected and protected from the country’s chaos. However, she falls in love with a revolutionary called Pablo, who is working against her father’s political views.
In the present day, we meet Marisol, the granddaughter of Elisa and who lives in Florida but returns to Havana to spread her grandmother’s ashes. Following the death of Elisa, Marisol sets out on a journey to discover her grandmother’s heritage in modern-day Cuba and soon discovers some deep buried family secrets.
Cleeton’s writing is beautiful and fluid and you feel you are in Cuba with the vibrant descriptions of the buildings, food and locations. The novel is steeped in history and we gain a huge insight into the politics and turmoil of the time. I feel it is well researched and very informative.
There is also a sequel out now about Elisa’s sister Beatriz, who you will learn is a very interesting character!
What titles did you enjoy in May, and what are you looking forward to getting stuck into in June? We’re all wishing you a happy month of reading, whatever you fancy trying.