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Who reads the most anyway?

Are you someone who tracks your reading? At the end of every month Bookstagram is full of people posting pictures of the books they have read that month. For me it seems a very nice way of capturing books read and invites discussion with others. Recently, however, there has been a little bit of a stir in the social media world about the performative nature of people posting how many books they're getting through. Alice and Bethany consider it in this episode of their What Page podcast, while author Andy Miller has written an enjoyable response to the bitterness his seemingly innocuous monthly book stack posts seem to provoke – apparently he once stated how many books he'd read in a year at a literary festival and some audience members boo'd (yes, you read that right, at a literary festival). As for me, what with invisible kindle reads (and talking about TBR problems, you should see my kindle – the amount of things I've got on there that I'm meaning to read 'someday' is ridiculous) and library books coming and going, as well as the physical books I buy, I have no idea how many books I read a year. Not a clue, and I can't imagine ever being organised enough to keep count. This week I managed to lock myself out of our house and had to spend half an hour waiting before someone came to let me in. Happily, of course, I had a book in my bag (leave the house without my keys? Likely. Leave the house without a book? Never) and got to spend that time reading The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, which has had me gripped this week. Otherwise I've read a bit less than usual and for that I blame Shadow & Bone, Netflix's watchable adaptation of Leigh Bardugo's fantasy novels, of which more below. 
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

Evie Wyld was brought up in Australia and the UK – she now lives and works here in London. Her work is highly regarded here and she has been nominated for numerous literary prizes. In 2013 Granta included her in their Best of Young British Novelists list. In Australia, though, her reputation is huge. Her previous novel All The Birds, Singing won Australia's prestigious Miles Franklin prize, and last week The Bass Rock won the $50,000 Stella Prize (which exists to champion and celebrate women's writing). They sum it up as 'a novel that weaves together the lives of three women across four centuries. It explores the legacy of male violence and the ways in which these traumas ripple and reverberate across time and place for three central female characters. Each woman’s choices are circumscribed, in ways big and small, by the men in their lives. But in sisterhood there is the hope of survival and new life.'

In some ways it's quite a demanding book. You realise you are reading about three women connected through the generations, but it's not obvious exactly how, and the author doesn't spell it out. Gradually as you get to know the characters and a sense of their stories you work out the links. It's also a book with a strong focus on violence against women that makes for unsettling reading – for a while I wasn't exactly relishing picking it up.

But I'm increasingly drawn into the story of the middle character, Ruth, stepmother to two boys and living in a grand but isolated house on the Scottish coast. You quickly learn to loathe husband Peter who has effectively acquired a babysitter with his new bride and shows little in the way of love and affection towards her. The local villagers, meanwhile, led by the parish priest are incredibly sinister in a Wicker Man type way. I'm hooked, now, just to find out what happens. Meanwhile in the present day Viviane is grieving the loss of her father and trying to make some sense of her chaotic life, and I currently have no idea where that thread is going.

I love the way Wyld's sentences seem to contain worlds within themselves sometimes. The characters are vivid and leap off the page, and the setting brilliantly evoked. You could be walking on the cold beach, looking at the rock, but you can never relax – you might stumble over a dead shark or worse, a corpse. That sense of needing to be wary embodies the underlying threat, ever-present, to these women from male control and potential violence.

Often an ending can really make or break a book. I'm hoping Wyld is going to deliver something that makes the mild trauma of reading the first half of the book worthwhile – I'll let you know. In the meantime, if you're looking for beautifully written, unsettling, immersive fiction, I think this is just the ticket.

Buy The Bass Rock from

In addition to writing novels Evie Wyld also part-owns and works in a bookshop in Peckham called Review. Here's a list of novels she recommends over on their page.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Restless for new fantasy a while back I downloaded Six of Crows on kindle without knowing very much about author Leigh Bardugo or her Grishaverse. Grisha is the term for magical beings that have a variety of specific powers from being able to control another's heart to being able to manipulate the elements. Six of Crows is set in a settlement called Ketterdam, and features a character called Kaz Brekker, daring leader of a criminal gang who rule a docklands territory known as The Barrel. There is a heist plot that means Kaz and his friends must break into an Ice Fortress and retrieve a scientist who has come up with a magic-enhancing drug. Kaz is charismatic but you can't quite decide if you're on his side or not. The plot is enjoyably full of crosses and double-crosses that reminded me a bit of the film Now You See Me.

Well, reader, I read it and enjoyed it very much, although not enough to race on to the second book in the duology. I particularly loved the careful detail that vividly recreates the Dutch-style town of Ketterdam, and while I would have liked more character development I was still happy enough in the company of Kaz and his cohorts. 

Now Bardugo's novels have been adapted into a Netflix series, Shadow & Bone, combining the book I read with another trilogy. In this, a shadow rift, The Fold, divides a kingdom and only one girl, a Grisha, has the power to break the spell. There's a sexy general in black who's the kind of bad guy you can't help falling for and meanwhile Kaz Brekker and his gang have been worked into this plot, the two stories intertwining. Leigh Bardugo was heavily involved in the production and it shows. The films feel faithful to the books and the actors are giving the characters the depth and interest that for me was a tiny bit lacking in the novel that I read. There are only 8 episodes, treat yourself and give them a go.

If you do give Leigh Bardugo a try the book of hers I really loved was The Ninth House, set in the world of Yale societies and compulsively brilliant (you might not think so at first but stick with it). Note, however, that it ends on a huge cliffhanger and the author hasn't written the sequel yet, you have been warned.

Buy Six of Crows from

Furious Hours by Casey Cep
It was Harper Lee's birthday this week. I was interested to read this small piece in the New Yorker by writer Casey Cep, who wonders at the end whether the author famous for her failure to produce a folllow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird might have fared better as a journalist. It's an interesting article in and of itself, but it reminded me of how much I loved Cep's book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. In part true-crime writing, in part biography of Lee, Cep manages to deliver brilliant insight into this famously reclusive and elusive author and goes a long way to resolving the mystery of why Lee never wrote another book (Go Set A Watchman, yes, but it was an early draft of Mockingbird and Lee herself didn't think all that much of it). Lee did try though, inspired by her friend Truman Capote, whose book In Cold Blood, covering the investigation into the brutal murder of a family in Holcomb, Kansas, became a bestseller. The book's success was in no small part thanks to the work of Lee who was Capote's research partner on the project, tirelessly befriending and interviewing people in the town who were reluctant to talk to the famous author from the city. Years later, Lee became interested in the case of Reverend Maxwell, a charismatic preacher suspected of a series of murders, who was finally shot down by a vengeful relation. Lee documented the investigation and covered the trial of the shooter. But after many years and a mountain of material she let the subject drop. In a way what you're left with is not so much surprise that she never published a follow-up to Mockingbird, as an understanding of the very particular set of circumstances that allowed Lee to overcome self-doubt and write that book, and why they were never replicated. It's a fascinating story and I was slightly awed by the brilliant way Cep wove everything together, managing to tell three stories, that of Maxwell, his defence lawyer and the trial that followed, and Lee herself, her life and work in a way that was as immersive as any work of fiction. A brilliant book that would be a fab book club read, and an all too relatable story about someone who never quite realised her own potential.

For more, this NY Times review sums it up beautifully.

What to listen to:

Our latest episode is on Mrs Death Misses Death by Salena Godden, a book that has seemingly been designed to provoke a reaction out of its readers thereby making for excellent book club discussion. Our guest Gary Wigglesworth, author of The Book Lover's Quiz Book (see episode 84 for more on that) described reading it as like 'being slapped in the face'. But for him it was a joyful experience, and he felt exhilarated by Godden's mixture of prose, poetry and play script. I took more convincing, but I have to say the book did work its magic on me, and by the end I felt deeply moved and grateful to have had the experience of reading it. It's a book you could always read again, but I don't think you'd ever have the same experience as you do the first time, when you don't know where Godden's words will take you. Why read a book about death, a subject we might all very much prefer to avoid at the moment? Listen in to find out. No spoilers if you haven't read it – although I'm afraid I do spoil the ending of Watership Down – a book which, if you think about it, is also thematically preoccupied with death. Or is it a dream? 

What to watch

It's the London Library Literary literary festival this weekend. £25 gets you a ticket to all events, which you can watch on catch-up anytime up until 13 June. I'm looking forward to Around The World in 10 Books, in which writers Judith Robinson and Scott Pack travel the globe in search of great, but largely unsung, works of world literature. Also Philippe Sands, George Prochnik and Daria Santini on Stefan’s Zweig’s time in London, woven through with readings of his letters, and Friends in Times of Trouble with Simon Schama, who discusses some of the most famous and fascinating friendships to have been forged amongst writers throughout history: from Boccaccio and Petrarch to Montaigne and La Boétie and plenty of others since.

What Kate is reading:

You catch me almost between books as I'm just finishing off The Bass Rock and I haven't actually got anything directly lined up. I might start Parisian Lives by Deidre Bair, her 'deliciously indiscreet' memoir of writing biographies of Beckett and Simone De Beauvoir. Or a novel called Greenwood that Laura's dad sent me ages ago, saying it was brilliant. Or In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova which I dipped into last week (and which has just been shortlisted for the Booker International Prize) and want to go back to. I'm also finishing What White People Can Do Next by Emma Dabiri which I recommend highly.

What Laura is reading:

I've been delighting in the cool pace of Miss Iceland by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir a short, surprising novel about Hekla, a young women writer in 1960s Iceland. In a land of 175,000 people, poets are revered – but poets are always men. But Hekla writes anyway, every hour that she can, between her shifts as as a waitress harassed by the men she serves. One in particular insists she must enter the Miss Iceland contest: it will be her ticket out into the world. But Hekla has a vision of her own, and, despite the hostilities of her culture, she can draw strength from the support of her struggling best friends: a young gay man and a young mother, both as isolated in their own way as Hekla. A wonderful read, my favourite of the year so far, I'm looking forward to discussing it on our next Bookshelf episode.

Thanks so much for subscribing and we hope you've enjoyed these bookish ramblings. Do get in touch at or via our website. Let us know what you're reading – we always love to hear from you.

Anytime you're in the mood for a books podcast do check out our archive of almost 100 (we're nearly there) episodes from book club discussions to our bookshelf round-ups and interviews with book clubs far and wide and people from inside the book world.

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