Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

I’m planning on reading the Bailey’s Prize shortlist this year (I refuse to attempt the longlist, who has the time?), so when I woke up on March 8th to see that Do Not Say We Have Nothing was on the longlist, I thought I would try to get a head start and read it before the shortlist comes out. I bought it around the time of the Man Booker last year, for which it was nominated, but it’s been sitting on a shelf since then. Honestly, I prefer this to The Sellout, although that was a more interesting winner than this would have been and I’m very glad to have read it. I couldn’t say which was the “better” book, but personally I connected to this more.

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This is about several generations living through the latter half of the twentieth century in Communist China. It centres around one family, although various other people have significant role. It’s a sweeping novel, covering decades of time but without feeling like it’s dragging. I’m very impressed by Thien’s ability to build history into her story without having to pause and write an essay on five years of history every now and then so that the reader knows where we are. I don’t know all that much about Chinese history, beyond what I picked up from Wild Swans by Jung Chang and Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin (both of which I highly recommend), but I never found myself struggling to understand where the familial events fitted into national events. A detail that I really appreciated was the constant presence of the state radio station, whether it’s in the flat or out on the streets from the loudspeakers. It’s referred to  often, sometimes in depth or sometimes just briefly, which really contributed to an impression of living with that level of propaganda, compounded by the descriptions of settings, which almost always involve posters, frequently hand lettered denunciations.

Much of the book focuses on three characters: Sparrow, a composer, his cousin Zhuli, a talented violinist, and their friend Kai, a pianist. It was Sparrow who I really fell in love with. Zhuli is young and slightly frustrating, and Kai is too fearful of the regime, but Sparrow is a subtle, heartbreaking character. He feels very deeply but represses it, and yet he is so, so moving. I also adored his mother, Big Mother Knife.

I felt that there were a lot of borderline fairytale elements in the book. Some of the characters names, like Big Mother Knife, Wen the Dreamer, even Sparrow, feel like they’re out of some childhood tale. This is compounded by the way the book within the book which brings many of the characters together is woven into the novel itself, this heroic story of survival. I loved that side of it.

It is set in Shanghai, where they are all involved in the Conservatory. I would note that I think its being set in Shanghai is almost irrelevant, other than it being a major city – I didn’t come away with a particularly strong impression of what Shanghai is like. That’s not remotely a criticism, but the latter part of the story takes place in Beijing and there was a much stronger sense of that city.

The way music is written about in this novel floored me. My knowledge of classical music is definitely not good, but Thien writes about pieces that I’m not familiar in a way that made them so vivid to me without having heard them. I’ve actually listened to a few of the pieces mentioned since I finished the book, and as someone who doesn’t really understand music in any particular depth, Thien’s descriptions really helped me to understand what the pieces were about. I’ve read a number of books recently in which music plays a significant part, and this is definitely the one in which I have had the strongest idea of the music and the characters’ relationship to it.

I did find a couple of faults in the novel. Firstly, the framing device, the story of Marie and Ai-ming, the daughters of the protagonists, meeting and losing each other, and Marie’s subsequent search for Ai-ming, felt kind of superfluous to me. When Marie’s story came in and encroached on the other timeline, I found it kind of irritating. The other thing is that while there is a large cast of protagonists who are vividly characters, the secondary characters are kind of vague, nothingy figures. This means that when the protagonists think of them in emotional terms, it falls a little flat. For example, Ai-ming takes an enormous risk to see her mother when she falls ill, but her mother is given so little to do and their relationship seems so weak that I had no idea why she does that. Again, with Sparrow’s brothers, he thinks of them with affection and great concern at times, when we haven’t even seen him hold a conversation with them.

I came away from this novel with a lot of different ideas, a variety of impressions which form a surprisingly cohesive piece of writing. This makes it slightly difficult for me to talk about, and I can only really say that I absolutely love it.


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain is a new author to me, although hers is a name that I have been vaguely aware of for a while. When I picked up The Gustav Sonata after Simon of Savidge Reads recommended it, I couldn’t place where I had heard her name. As it turns out, my mum is a huge fan of her books. For some reason, I don’t tend to read my mum’s favourites very often, but when I do, they tend to be pretty exceptional. She’s the person who got me to read Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong, which is a near perfect book. I do love finding an author when they have already published a whole load of novels, because it gives me so much to look forward to (although I’ll probably end up doing my weird not-reading-other-works-by-an-author-I’ve-loved-in-case-they-aren’t-as-good thing).

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It is set in post-World War II Switzerland, and looks at what neutrality means and whether it is truly possible. The wider ideas of neutrality in the nation are also applied to the individuals in Gustav’s family, where maintaining face and behaving as one should are paramount, but this ultimately proves to be impossible.

The novel is split into three sections: Gustav’s childhood, his parents’ relationship before and during the war, and Gustav’s later life. When we meet him, he is a solitary child, who worships his mother despite her coldness. His father is gone, we don’t know why. A little life comes into Gustav’s pretty bleak life with the arrival of Anton, a young Jewish boy who suffers stage fright despite being prodigiously talented on the piano.

For me, this is a novel about not getting what you want, frustrated ambitions and the risk that comes with actually achieving your dreams, be they professional, as they are for Anton, romantic, as they are for Gustav’s father Erich, or familial, as they are for Emilie, his mother. These are all pretty unhappy individuals, who come close to happiness, even attaining in some cases the thing they most want but still are unsatisfied. It broke my heart in a lot of ways.

There is an enormous amount of emotion in these pages, but many of the characters don’t really let their feelings show. This isn’t to say that they are cold, or to put it another way, that they succeed in maintaining neutrality, and perhaps their ongoing insistence on keeping a stuff upper lip is the reason that they all seem to live such frustrated, melancholy lives.

This is an incredibly subtle novel, and although I finished it a few weeks ago I am very much still mulling it over. It’s totally deserving of all the praise it has received, and I really hope to see it make the Bailey’s shortlist.

Published by Vintage, 320 pages, 9781784700201

Shelf by Shelf: Contemporary Novels

This shelf is primarily contemporary fiction, with some of my mini books stacked up at the end, also featuring a Duplo race car driver that I’ve had since I was tiny. It used to be entirely arranged in height order, which was immensely pleasing to me, but unfortunately Ali Smith’s Autumn has ruined that. I like to keep books by the same author together, so I had to make the choice as to whether that or the height order thing was more significant in my shelf-logic.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A slavery narrative in which the Underground Railroad is made literal, this is a really striking, vivid account of Cora’s escape from her master and flight from a terrifying slave catcher. It’s hard not to compare this to Homegoing (which would be on this shelf but I’ve lent it to my boyfriend), given how close together I read them and the thematic elements they share: I definitely thought this was a better book.


The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest
This is a really vivid portrait of the people of South London, and stunningly written. It’s nowhere near perfect, but I’ll be excited to read any future novels she writes. (My rule about keeping books by the same author together goes to shit if they write different types of book, so Kate Tempest’s novel is seperate from her poetry.)

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This isn’t out until May, so this rubbish proof cover is not what it will look like in the final version. It’s a really stressful story about mental illness and loneliness, and much, much better than I thought it was going to be based on the blurb.


Spaceman of Bohemia by Jarolslav Kalfar
It’s really tough to summarise this book because there’s so much going on. The titular spaceman is Jakub, on a solo mission to investigate a cloud of cosmic dust and the pride of the Czech Republic. It’s been compared a fair bit to The Martian, but it is a considerably better, more interesting novel. As Jakub moves through space, he thinks back over his family history, and by extension that of the Czech Republic, and his struggling marriage. It’s a very, very weird book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Man Booker winners don’t tend to be the most readable works, but this is surprisingly fun. It’s also clever and funny and will mess with your head.

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
This illegible gold spine is the proof of Laurie Frankel’s third novel. I absolutely tore through this, there’s a certain messiness to the prose which I adored. It’s about the experience of being a parent to a transgender child, which is of course a super important topic, but it’s not worthy and serious about it. It has moments of being ever so slightly preachy and sickly sweet, but it doesn’t shy away from the difficulties the entire family faces.


Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Now we enter into my mini collection of this year’s Bailey’s Prize nominees. One of those books that you race through, while simultaneously never wanting it to end. Stunning prose is combined with a sweeping portrayal of several generations of a family in Communist China, with a bit of a fairytale feel.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
Oh this book is just so GOOD. An intense, plotty look at a world in which women have the physical advantage, this was one of the best books I read last year.


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
I don’t quite know how to talk about this book, it’s kind of heartbreaking and uplifting all in one. It’s about friendship and love and frustrated ambitions, in the apparent peace of post-World War II Switzerland.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I assume that you all know that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a genius. This is a study of immigration and race, as well as a love story.


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I reviewed this a little while ago, suffice to say I was disappointed.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I bloody love this book. It’s about a group of wealthy students at an East Coast liberal arts college who commit a murder right at the beginning of the novel. The book then takes us back to show us how that happened, and what happens in the aftermath. It looks like a terrifying beast of a book but it’s so plotty you don’t even notice the hundreds of pages going by.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
It’s a long time since I read this book, but it’s about gender fluidity and sexuality, based on a Greek myth (I won’t pretend to remember which because I know literally nothing about Classical literature). I do remember loving it.


Autumn by Ali Smith
Ali Smith’s latest is an interesting idea – the first in a quartet of novels inspired by what is happening in the real world as she writes. It’s set just after the EU referendum and Smith weaves that in brilliantly, but it’s more about ageing and time. I will say, I found myself with a lot of unanswered questions at the end, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism.

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, volumes 1, 2 & 3
These are put out by Joseph Gordon Levitt’s production company hitRECord, and are beautiful collections of stories no longer than a page, with little illustrations. I want more of these to come out, they are absolutely lovely.


Next up I have a stack of the Penguin Little Black Classics, which I’m not going to go into any detail. I love these, and they’re really handy for carrying around if I’m reading a beast of a hardback which won’t fit in my handbag.
Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands by Ivan Turgenev
A Pair of Silk Stockings by Kate Chopin
The Beautifull Cassandra by Jane Austen
Well you are gone, and here must I remain by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Woman Much Missed by Thomas Hardy
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde
Come Close by Sappho
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti 

The Reading Habits Tag

1. Do you have a certain place at home for reading?
I have a reading chair in the corner of my bedroom  where I do a lot of my reading and blogging. It’s an old armchair that my parents didn’t want in the living room anymore, and I’ve covered it with a blanket to make it a little cosier. To be honest though, I’ve only been living back at home for a week, and prior to that I did most of my reading sitting on my bed.

2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?
There’s an unwritten third option here: dog earing the pages. Recently, I’ve been using bookmarks and I’ll often use train tickets, but honestly, I just fold over the corner a lot of the time. Sacrilege, I know.

3. Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain amount of pages?
I generally stop at the end of a chapter, or at least when there’s a break in the text, but I’m not that bothered by stopping at the end of any old paragraph if I get tired or my lunch break ends.

4. Do you eat or drink while reading?
I’ll generally have a cup of tea, yeah, and I’m not fussy about snacking while I read. When I was little, I would always try to read at the breakfast table, which would result in milk and cereal getting spilled all over the place because I was looking at the page instead of where my spoon was going.

5. Multitasking: do you listen to music or watch TV while reading?
I’m quite good at shutting out background noise, so I can sit in the room with my parents while they’re watching TV or my boyfriend while he’s playing a video game and read, but I wouldn’t choose to have background noise if I have the option. I can only really listen to music that doesn’t have any words, and mostly I prefer to read in silence.

6. One book at a time or several at once?
One at a time. If I try to read multiple books at the same time, I’ll just abandon them and focus on one, and if I stop reading a book, I find it very hard to start again. Every now and then I might read a bit of poetry while I’m officially reading something else, but I can only really focus on one piece of fiction at a time.

7. Reading at home or everywhere?
Everywhere. I carry a book with me pretty much wherever I go, which is part of why I prefer short books and paperbacks. I will read any chance I get, and I like to go to coffee shops for the sole purpose of sitting and reading.

8. Reading out lout or silently in your head?
Silently in my head, in general. I sometimes read poetry aloud, but generally I read silently. As I said, I read in public a lot, and I think reading Austen out loud while I’m waiting for my appointment at the hairdresser would look a little strange.

9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?
No, absolutely not.

10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?
I literally don’t know how anyone can read without breaking the spine on a paperback, unless it’s one of those floppy American ones. I don’t think there’s a single paperback that’s been read in this room which doesn’t have a broken spine.

11. Do you write in your books?
I underline and highlight a lot, but I don’t tend to write a lot. I’m more likely to write in the margins of a book I don’t think is good, because I’ll scribble on the parts I think are bad and write snarky comments.

The unexpected theme of this post is I don’t take good care of my books.

Nina Is Not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi

I’ve always liked Shappi Khorsandi’s comedy, but to be honest I’m often a little sceptical on comedians/actors/youtubers writing fiction books. I’m not necessarily opposed to them being published, I just always have my doubts about their literary merit. You can’t help but wonder, would they have got a book deal if it weren’t for the brand recognition that comes with their names.

That said, I’ve heard enough good things about this particular comedian’s book that I was interested in reading it, and when Banging Book Club announced that this would be their February read, it prompted me to pick it up. This was somewhat encouraged by the fact that the paperback was coming out. I generally do prefer to read paperbacks, due to my habit of carrying books everywhere I go, and this particular paperback is just so much nicer than the hardback cover. It’s sort of retro and striking, I feel like it has a sort of Norah Ephron vibe which is lovely. It also doesn’t have the “not” as a handwritten insert, as if the title were Nina Is Okay and someone’s scribbled it – which is a design trope I particularly loathe. Anyway, I’m rambling.

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Nina is 17 and likes a drink. Her dad died when she was little as a result of his alcoholism, and her mum is remarried with a new kid. Meanwhile, Nina’s boyfriend has just dumped her for a girl he’s met on his gap year. The book is basically the story of her spiralling out of control and then going through AA.

It’s a much, much tougher book than I expected it to be. I knew it was about alcoholism, but I was totally unprepared for how unflinching it is in its portrayal of Nina’s addiction. There’s a scene where she’s quite literally vomiting while having sex with a middle aged man in a park. There’s also a plotline which I was completely unaware of when I started the book about Nina being a victim of rape, at the hands of a man who becomes the boyfriend of one of her best mates. It is grim, grim reading at times, as funny as Shappi Khorsandi is.

It’s worth the struggle though. I feel like I’ve come out of it with a far better understanding of addiction, and also of how the recovery process works. I would absolutely say don’t read it if any of the subjects involved are triggering for you, it was unpleasant enough to read as someone who is not triggered by them.

The thing I would really praise about this novel is the characters. There are some really, really awful ones in there, notably Alex, the rapist/abusive boyfriend. He is absolutely, utterly loathsome, but completely accurate to a certain type of charming-but-actually-completely-nightmarish guy. I’ve met Alex in bars, I think he’s a character who will, sadly, be recognisable to a lot of women.

On the other hand, there are a lot of characters I love, particularly Alan, Nina’s stepdad. Alan makes my heart melt. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but I’ll just say that it’s a really great nuanced portrayal of an uncomfortable stepfather-stepdaughter relationship. There’s a discomfort there, because Alan is not Nina’s dad, and represents everything that her dad wasn’t, but you gradually become aware of how good of a parent he actually is to her.

There’s also just an enormous amount going on around the central story, there are so many characters who are secondary in Nina’s story who have backstories which could be novels in their own right. Nina’s best friend Beth, the feminist voice in the book, and her dad Max, who have lost Beth’s mum. The girls on Banging Book Club observed that Max is a man who has clearly experienced a lot of therapy, which is so true. He’s so emotionally intelligent it scares me. Zoe, Nina’s other mate, who gets into an abusive relationship with Alex and develops an eating disorder and turns on Nina in a really dramatic, hideous way. Nina’s auntie, who is a hoarder. The people we meet while Nina is in rehab. All of these people are fleshed out characters who are given real lives and motivations, for better or worse. As I said, this is tough reading.

I started by saying that I’m sceptical about celebrities writing fiction, but actually, I will read anything else Shappi Khorsandi publishes. This book is clever and funny and deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

Shelf by Shelf: Light reads

So I thought I’d do a sort of bookshelf tour, having recently got my bookshelves something close to sorted for the first time in a couple of years. It’s worth noting that my books are organised according to my own internal logic, which I’m not convinced will make sense to anyone else. I group them into loose categories, and then fit them onto the shelves based on how tall the shelf is.

That said, this first shelf is pretty logical. It’s my easy reads shelf, so it contains YA and romcoms (not that all of them are particularly easy but they fit into the loose category). My Austens are also here, but to be entirely honest they’re filling out a space which will be filled by more YA and romcoms as I get through my TBR, at which point Jane will have to find a new home. This is a little bit of a theme through my shelves: I am very willing to break from my organisational system in order to make it look tidy.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
It doesn’t make an enormous amount of sense to talk about this before I talk about Fangirl, but such is the order of the shelf (the order is mostly dictated by putting books which are the same height together, so that I can pile more things on top of them). This is a kind of spin off from Fangirl, about gay teenage wizards fighting an evil warlock and discovering their sexuality. It sounds Potter-esque, and it kind of is, but I absolutely fell in love with the characters.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell 
I bloody love this book, this is YA at its best. I’ve read all of Rainbow Rowell’s books, and these two are the best. This is about a girl going to college along with her identical twin, and learning to be independent and come out of her shell. I particularly love the roommate character, who is gobby and outspoken and brilliant.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini 
A surprisingly uplifting novel which takes place on the psych ward of a New York hospital, following a suicide attempt by the teenage protagonist. It was made into a film a few years ago, which is also great, I’d recommend both.


A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
This is the illustrated edition, with illustrations from Jim Kay (who also does the illustrated Harry Potters). It’s about grief and loss and family, with an element of fantasy, or I guess you could call it magical realism. To be honest I’ve found it fairly forgettable, but I love the illustrations.

Looking for Alaska by John Green
I’m not necessarily the biggest John Green fan, but I have read all of his books. I do like the representation of teenage friendship in this, even though I’m not mad on the love story side.

Paper Towns by John Green 
This is, in my opinion, John Green’s strongest novel. It’s deconstructs the idea of  a manic pixie dream girl, and it’s funny and affectionate and considerably more uplifting than anything else he’s written.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I don’t want to admit to how compelling I find this book. I know it’s cheesy and overwrought and just generally a bit much, but I absolutely race through it, and I cry every single time.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
I totally, unashamedly love this book, and the film which is based on it. It’s about two teenagers who meet and spend a mad night together in New York City, and it made me love music again after I went through a weird phase of not really liking music when I was a teenager.


Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Honestly I don’t think anything they’ve written together matches up to Nick and Norah, but this is good fun. It’s about a pair of teenagers, a gay boy and a straight girl, whose friendship is maybe not as strong as they thought it was. There’s a film of this too which is kind of fun, if cheesy. Honestly when I read this I thought it was their weakest, but I kind of want to go back to it.

Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
This is about yet another pair of teenagers, this time ones who meet by passing a notebook with messages back and forth between them. It’s cute and fun and festive. There’s also a follow up, which is called The Twelve Days of Dash and Lily, but I’ve lent it to a friend and I doubt I’ll ever get it back.

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
I find David Levithan kind of inconsistent (I fucking hated Every Day), but this is a sweet little LGBT love story. I have Two Boys Kissing waiting to be read, and it looks to be similarly cute. I would also highly recommend The Lover’s Dictionary.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
This is the story of a wealthy family who spend their summers on a private island, and all the difficulties which are going on under the surface. There’s a HUGE twist, so I’d quite like to reread it knowing what happens, to see how that’s set up in the rest of the novel.

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman
Daniel Handler is better known as Lemony Snicket, and this is a YA novel looking at a relationship after it has ended, through the various gifts he gave her while they were together. Each chapter starts with a beautiful illustration of the object, and it’s worth reading just for those. It’s also a non-linear narrative, which is one of the things that is guaranteed to make me interested in a book.


How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
This was marketed as adult fiction when it came out, but I’m inclined to categorise it as YA. It’s a look at class and sex and coming of age, and it’s very, very funny. I love it.

Nina Is Not Okay by Shappi Khorsandi
This is distinctly not a light read, but I think it’s kind of comparable to How to Build a Girl, so it makes sense to me to put them together. This is a book about a teenage alcoholic and rape. It’s very good, but it’s tough going and I’d definitely consider whether the content is going to be triggering to you before you pick it up.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I’m sure everyone knows what this is about: the love lives of the Dashwood sisters, who have been cut off by their half brother following the death of their father. Highly recommend both the TV adaptation and the film, but I wouldn’t start here if you’re not already an Austen fan.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
This remains one of my favourite books of all time, I reread it frequently. I would also really recommend the audiobook as performed by Rosamund Pike, who does a wonderful job.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
You can tell in this photo that this is the least worn of my Austens, because, to be frank, it’s my least favourite. It’s the story of Fanny Price, ward of her wealthy aunt and uncle, and hopelessly in love with her cousin Edmund. Fanny is pretty bland, and I find that the characters you’re supposed to dislike actually seem way more fun than her.

Emma by Jane Austen
I love this story about a young, wealthy woman who cannot stop meddling. Emma is pretty annoying, but she’s also a lot of fun.


Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
This is supposedly the worst Austen, but I think it’s wonderfully snarky. It’s about an incredibly gullible girl called Catherine Morland, who goes to Bath and falls for a young man who invites her to stay at his family home. Catherine constantly thinks something sinister is going on, but (spoiler) it literally never is.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
This is the Austen I’d recommend to people who don’t like Austen. It’s more mature and more cynical than the others, and is about the ways love can go wrong.

You Had Me At Hello by Mhairi McFarlane
This is about a woman who reconnects with an old university friend who she had secretly been in love with. The two stories of them at uni and in the present day run parallel, and it’s about two people whose lives have gotten away from them. I love Mhairi McFarlane, and I totally recommend all her books.

Here’s Looking At You by Mhairi McFarlane
A woman in her thirties on a string of terrible dates is a bit of a trope, but Mhairi McFarlane is talented enough that this is funny and compelling and fresh. Anna is a successful academic, who is forced to work with her former bully. Suddenly, her old insecurities are back and she’s filled with doubt. Honestly, just summarising it is making me want to read it again.

It’s Not Me It’s You by Mhairi McFarlane
This is about Delia, who’s just found out her partner has cheated on her, so turns her life upside down to move to London and work for a slightly dodgy PR agency. This was the first of her books I read and, given I read the rest of her books within six months, you can probably guess that I loved it.


Who’s That Girl? by Mhairi McFarlane

Edie’s just been caught kissing the groom at a colleague’s wedding, so she’s gone home to Nottingham to hide out/ghostwrite a celebrity autobiography. This is my favourite of her books so far, not least because it’s set in one of my favourite cities. It packs an emotional punch in a way that none of her previous three did for me.

So, there we have my “light reads” shelf, the one I turn to when I need a bit of  a jump start with my reading. Any recommendations on how I can fill the romcom shaped hole until Mhairi McFarlane writes another book would be very welcome!

Managing my Book Collection

I’ll hold my hands up: I’m a little bit of a hoarder. I own WAY too much stuff. Clothes, particularly, but honestly it’s everything. So when I recently moved back to my parents house after four and a half years of independence (I quit my job: long story), I found myself with two fairly cluttered rooms worth of stuff and just the one bedroom to fit it all in, and had to have a fairly significant clear out.

I also have pretty minimal shelving space in this room, and as I really hate not being able to look at my books, I’ve had to get rid of a fair few. Which is a wrench for me. But I have done it: I have bags on bags of books to take to the charity shop, some of which I’ve read and liked but won’t ever read again, some of which I just didn’t like, and some of which I bought with good intentions and have now accepted I’ll never read.

As far as books that I have read go, I have two basic questions. Do I like it and will I read it again? The two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

I’ve realised that there are books I love which I probably won’t reread, but I do still want to own. Jaroslav Kalfar’s Spaceman of Bohemia is an example of this. I think it’s a great book, and I’ll definitely read anything he has published in the future, but I won’t be reading this particular one. Mostly because the spider creature makes my skin crawl. However, I do still want to have it on my shelf, because it was a book which really made me think, and seeing the spine reminds me of all the moral questions it contains, and also that I want to recommend it to various people.

On the other hand, I have books which I don’t necessarily think are great works, but that I probably will go back to and reread. I have two examples here. First, John Green. I have read all of John Green’s books, and honestly, I don’t think they’re great. But I also know that they’re compelling, quick reads which I will probably come back to when I’m in a reading slump. Except An Abundance of Katherines. That’s going straight to Oxfam. The other is the Divide trilogy by Elizabeth Kay, which I read as a kid and LOVED. I don’t think it has much literary merit to speak of, but I loved it so much that I’ll reread it anyway.

The other thing I’m doing to try to keep my book collection under control is to keep my unread books separate from my read books. (Mostly – for the sake of tidy looking bookshelves, a few of my unread books have made it onto the shelves to stop the others from all falling over.) The plan is that I’ll decide whether or not to keep a book once I’ve finished it. So last week I read Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star and I’m honestly pretty meh about it, so it’s probably going to the charity shop immediately.

There are three reasons for doing this. One, not putting things on the shelf until I’ve decided that I like them should mean my shelves don’t become just a pile of higgledy piggledy madness, which stresses me out. And two, being able to see at a glance just how many books I haven’t read will hopefully (and this is a vague, potentially delusional hope) stop me from continually buying books at a rate which has literally no relation to how many books I’m actually reading. Finally, it gives me a kind of visual TBR and reminds me of all the things I want to read, particularly as I have a separate stack of books I’m really keen to get to immediately.

At the end of the day, I love owning books and buying books only a little less than I love actually reading books, but culling has to be a part of that. It’s about “curating” a collection of books that brings me happiness every time I look at my shelves.