Last July, I wrote about a few books I’d read over the previous 12 months. And I heard from a couple of people that as a result they’d read their first English book since leaving school – and actually enjoyed it! So I thought I’d do the same again this year.

(By the way, this blog post from 2017 looks at the benefits of reading for your English in general, what to bear in mind when choosing a book and how to deal with unknown vocabulary.)

 

Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

In last year’s reading tips, I wrote that I’d just discovered Elisabeth Strout. After really enjoying Anything is possible and My name is Lucy Barton, I was on the look out for more by this wonderful author. And I found this collection of short stories which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2009 and has since been filmed. All of which passed me by completely.

The short stories set in a small town in Maine are interlinked and each feature the retired teacher, Olive Kitteridge. But it’s not a straightforward account of Olive’s life, she doesn’t actually play the central role you might expect from the title in many of the stories. And she’s certainly not a typical heroine. Olive is a complex character, who I didn’t like at all at the beginning. But I came to understand her and actually grew fond of her in the course of the book.

If you don’t have much time for reading or if you’re a bit daunted by the idea of reading a whole book in English, I think this would be ideal. Each of the stories stands alone, but the characters appear again and again creating a very satisfying whole. 

 

Margaret Drabble: The dark flood rises

I was quite shocked to realise that I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble for over 30 years! And that fits in well with the theme of the book: growing older. How do different people approach it? How do they live in later life?

The main character is Francesca Stubbs. She’s in her seventies and an expert on old-age housing. Still active professionally, she travels around England inspecting care homes and attending conferences. Fran is fiercely independent and unsentimental: She’s indignant about her own old age, but she faces it with courage and pragmatism. We get to know her friends, who have found different ways of living in later years. One, for example, who is still in good health and teaching adult education classes, has already moved into sheltered housing in anticipation of more difficult times to come. Another lives an – at first glance – idyllic life as an expat on Lanzarote.

The stories of Fran, her friends and family are set against the backdrop of threat of environmental disasters – rising flood tides and volcanic activity.

These topics could make for a depressing book. It really isn’t! I did find it sad, but also funny and, thanks to the wonderful Fran, encouraging. 

 

A.L. Kennedy: Serious Sweet

This is a love story set on a single day in London. It’s the story of Jon Sigurdsson, 59, a civil servant whose job is to “save the arses of arses” in the Ministry of Justice, and Meg Williams, a 45-year-old former accountant and recovering alcoholic who works part-time at an animal shelter. What do they have in common? They are both isolated and full of anxieties. They are both afraid of intimacy and believe themselves to be unlovable, yet embark on this tentative, moving relationship.

This isn’t always an easy book to read. It’s long and alternates between Jon and Meg. Their thoughts and inner monologues are revealed (sometimes at great length) in italics. As throughout the book things get in the way to prevent them actually meeting, I did get rather impatient at times. But it was definitely worth sticking with it – I was sad when I came to the end and really missed the characters for a while. 

 

Kate Davies: Handywoman

I love knitting and was delighted to discover the designer Kate Davies a few years ago. Both her designs and the wonderful photographs of her modelling them against the backdrop of breath-taking Scottish landscapes really resonated with me. And I enjoyed reading her blog on a wide range of topics, including her path to becoming an award-winning knitwear designer. After suffering a stroke at the age of 36 she left her university career behind her and set up her own company. Inspiring stuff! So I was really pleased when this book came out. There are chapters on her creative working-class childhood, teaching her paralysed leg to move again, the support she has received from the knitting community, companies with innovative design for the disabled and many other topics.

What I particularly like: Kate makes it very clear that the book is not about her triumph over adversity or overcoming her disability, but about ordinary activities and objects that her stroke and disability have made her see differently.

 

Harlan Coben: Don’t let go

We read this book in the Crime Fiction group. The story centres around 30-something Detective Nap Dumas and the still unexplained events of a night 15 years earlier. That night, Nap’s twin brother Leo and Leo’s girlfriend Diana were found dead on the train tracks in their suburban town. And at the same time Nap’s girlfriend Maura left him and disappeared. Since then Nap has been trying to find out what led to Leo and Diana’s deaths – did they take their own lives, was it an accident, or something more sinister. And he’s been searching for Maura too. Now her fingerprints have been found at a crime scene …

This exciting thriller is set in New Jersey and I recognised the whole atmosphere and the descriptions of life in this small town from Bruce Springsteen songs like The River

 

Barbara Vine: A fatal inversion

This is another novel which went down well in the Crime Fiction group. Published way back in 1987, it tells the story of Adam, who inherits a beautiful country house, Wyvis Hall, from his uncle at the age of only 18. Adam, his friend Rufus and assorted other young people spend the long hot summer of 1976 mainly lying around on a pile of duvets and cushions on the terrace of the house, drinking and smoking. Ten years later the remains of a woman and child are found in the pet cemetery at the hall. The story switches between these two years: 1976 and 1986. There’s a very sharp contrast between the carefree young people and the adults they have become. And the reader is left guessing about what happened to bring about this change and who the bodies in the cemetery are. 

 

Other crime stories I can really recommend are the books in the Shetland Series by Ann Cleeves. They’re exciting, very atmospheric and I think they give you a feeling for life in this remote part of Scotland. (They’ve been adapted for TV, but the novels are much better.) And I also liked The Seagull by the same author which is set near Newcastle and features DCI Vera Stanhope.

 

 

Porträt Nicola Bartlett
Nicola Bartlett
I’ve been an English trainer for over 25 years, helping adults to get their message across in English – clearly and appropriately. Successful communication in English requires more than just a good knowledge of the language. An understanding of different mentalities and a feeling for the best approach are vital, too.