December Blogging Break and Rereading Month

November has been an incredibly busy and productive reading and reviewing month. I read all but two of the 12 books in my November Reading Plans (one, Learwife, I abandoned; and I’m still waiting in the library queue for Open Water). Then I managed to read another 7 books on top of that, for a total of 17! Even though a lot of these were novellas, this is still a pretty good month for me.

After that marathon, I’m feeling a bit burnt out. Part of it is that, sadly, very few of those 17 books were books that I unequivocally enjoyed. I loved two essay collections: Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days and Dan Coxon and Richard V. Hirst eds. Writing The Uncanny. I also thought Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees was hugely impressive.

But as for the rest… there were a few with moments of brilliance, like Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, which I thought was overwritten but still had some genuinely interesting things to say, or Charles Yu’s Sorry Please Thank Youwhich had a couple of wonderful stories, or Touring the Land of the Dead in Maki Kashimada’s eponymous collection, or the essay on emojis in Namwali Serpell’s Stranger Faces. Apart from these, though, I feel a general sense of underwhelm about the rest of my month’s reading, much of which is already expressed in my reviews this month (The Fell, NetGalley Reads, The Haunting Season, SF Month, SF Novellas, More Novellas), but which I also felt about books I read and haven’t reviewed, like Tanya Byrne’s Afterlove and Emily Bernard’s Black Is The Body. At this point, I think that part of this problem is me as well as the books.

Therefore, I’m declaring December a blogging break and a rereading month. I’m reading three new-to-me books at the moment – Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper and The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai – but after I finish those, I’m going to only reread books I have already read until the Christmas presents come in! I’d like to take a break from reviewing, too, but hopefully will write something up about this rereading experience after I’d finished it. And of course I’ll be back to review my 2021 reading and make 2022 reading plans at the end of December!

Do you have any particular reading plans for December?

Does a rereading challenge appeal to you?

If you’ve been doing #NovellasInNovember and/or #SciFiMonth, have you discovered any gems?

The Recommendations Book Tag

[Normal blogging service might still take a while to resume, but I forgot I’d written this post a while back and not posted it, so enjoy…]

The rules are:

  • Tag Ally @ Ally Writes Things so she can see your recommendations!
  • Give at least one recommendation for each of the prompts below
  • If you don’t have a recommendation, talk about a book you want to read
  • Tag some friends! [I think everyone I know has already been tagged.]

And now for the books! (NB. I’m deliberately focusing mostly on books I didn’t read in the last few years to introduce some new recommendations to the blog). Thanks to Emily @ Literary Elephant for tagging me in this.

A Book About Friendship

Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty (2004), about her friendship with the poet and writer Lucy Grealy, is the best book about friendship I’ve ever read, and it also takes in artistic struggle, depression and disability at the same time.

A Translated Book

One of my favourite books when I was an older teenager was Jostein Gaarder’s The Ringmaster’s Daughter (2002), translated from the Norwegian. Gaarder is best-known for his earlier novel Sophie’s World, still pitched to teenagers as a ‘Western philosophy 101’, but I think this strange novel about an intensely obsessive storyteller is actually his masterpiece. It’s also very much an adult rather than a YA book.

A Diverse Romance

I don’t read a lot of romance but I thought the YA novel When Dimple Met Rishi (2017) by Sandhya Menon was cute, fun, and challenged a lot of assumptions about arranged marriages. Also, I adore the cover. It apparently has all sorts of sequels now!

A Fast-Paced Book

The Sterkarm Handshake (1998) by Susan Price (plus its sequel A Sterkarm Kiss (2003)) is an incredibly gripping time-travel story set in the sixteenth-century Scottish Borders and deserves to be much, much more famous than it is.

A Nonfiction Other Than a Memoir

I loved Manjit Kumar’s Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality (2007); there are quite a few books now that aim to be follow-ups to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but I think Kumar offers something different. Rather than simply explaining some of the key scientific concepts that underlie quantum physics, he shows us how they were worked out, with both Einstein and Bohr offering each other baffling thought experiments to try to prove that their own instincts were right.

An Underrated Memoir

I’m not sure exactly how to define ‘underrated’, but Alys Fowler’s Hidden Nature (2017) never seems to have got the attention it deserves. I think it’s one of the very few memoirs I’ve read that manages to successfully fuse nature-writing with a voyage of personal discovery (bigger hitters, like Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, didn’t quite work for me). Fowler cleverly intertwines her experience of coming to terms with her lesbianism with her exploration of Birmingham’s canals in an inflatable kayak.

A Book With Fewer Than 10,000 Ratings on Goodreads

Well, After Such Kindness (2012) by Gaynor Arnold only has 174 ratings on Goodreads at the time of writing, which is such a shame, because it’s an incredible, devastating book that might actually have been published a little too soon (I can see it having real resonance now that sexual assault and abuse are much more in the forefront of fiction). It considers the relationship between Charles Dodgson – better known as Lewis Carroll – and Alice Liddell, whom he infamously photographed as a child in various states of undress – although the characters take fictional aliases to remove them from the real historical figures. The story does not develop in the way one might expect, but it’s deeply thoughtful about the ways that society, both now and in the nineteenth century, enables abuse. My review (with spoilers) is here.

A Book With An LGBTQ+ Protagonist

I’ve written about this one more recently but I still think that Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil (2018) has been very unfairly overlooked. It follows a teenage boy from a Nigerian family growing up in DC who realises he’s gay, and is written in an energetically literary style that verges on the experimental in the most brilliant way. 

A Book By A Trans or Non-Binary Author

This is technically a book with a non-binary editor rather than a book by a non-binary author, but I loved the science fiction anthology New Suns (2019), edited by Nisi Shawl, who identifies as non-binary.

 A Book With More Than 500 Pages

I am getting a bit tired of finding books so I’m going to be lazy and say that if you haven’t read George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1872) already then just get on it.

A Short Story Collection

Ted Chiang is my favourite short story writer, and I think Exhalation (2019) is his best collection; it contains the best time travel short story I’ve ever read, plus brilliant reflections on all sorts of familiar science fiction themes such as sentient AI and parallel selves, always taking these tropes in completely different directions. His ‘Story Notes’ are a thing of beauty in themselves.

A Book You Want Everyone to Read

I would love fantasy writer Robin McKinley’s work to be better known in the UK, and it’s hard for me to choose a favourite of her novels. I also don’t think that any single one of her novels would appeal to everyone, but you’ll probably find something you like given how wide-ranging her fiction is. Some of my favourites are: Sunshine (2003); The Hero and the Crown (1984); Deerskin (1993); and Rose Daughter (1997).

Last 10 Books Book Tag

Thanks to Emily at Literary Elephant for tagging me in this!

Last Book I Gave Up On:

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Symona’s Still Single by Lisa Bent. I feel bad about this, because I love everything about the idea of this book – there needs to be more romantic fiction by and about black women, the cover is beautiful and I very much support Jacaranda Books’ TwentyIn2020 project which published twenty books by black writers last year. Unfortunately, this was rambly and not very well-written, and it relied too much on info-dumps from the characters telling us what they feel about everything from self-actualisation to spirituality. I made it about two-thirds of the way through.

Last Book I Re-Read:

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Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave. This Second World War novel was one of my top ten books of 2015, and this was an enjoyable re-read, but I wasn’t quite as blown away as I was when I first read it. The wit felt a little more artificial than it did the first time around, the situations more contrived, and regardless of concerns about historical accuracy, I think it overuses racist slurs and incidents given the relatively small part that black characters play in the story.

Last Book I Bought:


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I was enticed into purchase by a 99p Kindle deal, but I’ve had my eye on Babita Sharma’s The Corner Shop for a while. According to the Observer, this memoir promises: ‘a gentle, charming and at times poignant look at our nation of shopkeepers . . . a nuanced exploration of a part of British Asian life that has long been stereotyped’.

Last Book I Said I Read But Didn’t:

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I really don’t tend to do this (I am much more likely to say I haven’t read books that I actually have read) so I’m struggling a bit with this one. Hopefully no-one from my book group is reading this, because it was probably when I pretended to have read  Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night a couple of years ago when I actually couldn’t get through it.

Last Book I Wrote In The Margins Of:

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I do this with all the books I own and have to read for work. I think the last victim was John and Elizabeth Newson’s Childhood Into Adolescence: Growing Up In The 1970s which is the reconstitution of some unpublished work by these two psychologists who famously conducted a longitudinal study of c.700 children born in Nottingham around 1958.

Last Book That I Had Signed:

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I am not remotely bothered about getting books signed, so only end up with signed books by accident. Most recently, I was lucky enough to win a copy of Kate Mascarenhas’s latest novel The Thief on the Winged Horse in a Twitter giveaway, and Kate signed the beautiful hardback for me. I loved her debut The Psychology of Time Travelso I’m excited to read this tale of magical dolls.

Last Book I Lost:

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I don’t lose books that often, so the last incident that springs to mind was probably seven or eight years ago, but I am still very unhappy that I lost my copy of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword.  I really want the same edition so haven’t got round to researching and rebuying it.

Last Book I Had To Replace:

I’m sure my physical copies of James Smythe’s The Explorer and The Echo are somewhere, but my dad wasn’t able to find them in the boxes of books I have at his, so I rebought both books on Kindle so I could re-read them before tackling the third in the Anomaly Quartet, The Edge.

Last Book I Argued Over:

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I am not allowed to talk about Anna Hope’s Expectation any more after arguing about it with at least two of my friends, but it made me very cross because it was meant to be about three women taking different paths but actually it was about three women taking the same path (even the one who remains childless wonders regretfully if she should have had children), and it was also meant to be about female friendship, but was actually about how women don’t have each others’ backs. I note in passing that my mini rant on the book continues to attract likes on Goodreads, so clearly I am NOT THE ONLY ONE.

Last Book You Couldn’t Find:

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The universe does not want me to read Caite-Dolan Leach’s We Went To The Woods, because not only has it not been published in this country, my attempt to order a second-hand hard copy online turned into a saga when it never arrived and I had to argue with the seller for a refund. I haven’t got round to trying a second time yet.

I don’t tend to tag people, but would love to hear your answers if you haven’t tried this tag yet!

 

My Life In Books, 2020

I did a version of this in 2011, 2012 and 2015 as well as this same list in 2017 and 2019, because it always amuses me. This time I’m borrowing Annabel’s additional Covid question! (Although I’ve altered it slightly to emphasise that I only felt this way in full lockdown, not during the long periods of horrible partial lockdowns we’ve had).

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Me during the first lockdown, about to attend a Zoom cocktail party.

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was Finding My Voice (Nadiya Hussain)

People might be surprised by Feminism (Deborah Cameron)

 I will never be Straight Expectations (Julie Bindel)

My life in (full) lockdown was like Escape Pod (ed. Mur Lafferty)

My fantasy job is The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (Garth Nix)

At the end of a long day I need Home Remedies (Xuan Juliana Wang)

I hate Real Life (Brandon Taylor)

Wish I had Property (Valerie Martin)

My family reunions are Kindred (Octavia E. Butler)

At a party you’d find me with Outsiders (ed. Alice Slater)

I’ve never been to Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal)

A happy day includes Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter)

Motto I live by [We get] The Monsters We Deserve (Marcus Sedgwick)

On my bucket list is Bright and Dangerous Objects (Anneliese Mackintosh)

In my next life, I want to have The Most Fun We Ever Had (Claire Lombardo)

Tagging everyone else who wants to join in!

The End of the Year Book Tag, 2020

Resurrecting this from last year!

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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NO, because I just finished it: Hild by Nicola Griffith. I’ve been reading it since September and had tried and failed to read it before in 2017 and 2018. Set in Britain in the seventh century and following the early life of Hilda of Whitby, it’s a massive undertaking akin to Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy (although I found its thicket of names and references even harder to navigate). Eventually, I tackled it in the same way I tackled The Mirror and the Light: reading a set number of pages a day and not caring if it took me months to finish. In this way, I found myself completely sinking into Hild’s world, which although led by men has an emphasis on the bonds between women that reminded me of Griffith’s earlier SF novel Ammonite. So expansive and beautiful.

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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British nature-writing always feels autumnal to me, as it tends to run the full range of the seasons, and so I’m looking forward to Whitney Brown’s memoir of her time as a female dry stone-waller, Between Stone and Sky. Thanks to Rebecca for passing on her proof copy!

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

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I’m excited to read Ernest Cline’s sequel to his SF smash hit Ready Player One – of course, it’s called Ready Player Two – which is out on the 24th November. I loved the first book but never took it seriously, so my expectations are both very high and very low. From the blurb, it sounds like Kline has essentially written Ready Player One redux, which is exactly what I want.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Going back to my mid-year freakout tag, I’m still keen to read New Suns, a collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour edited by Nisi Shawl. I received Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman for my birthday, and I’m looking forward to diving into this story of an elderly British-Antiguan man who has hidden his homosexuality for his entire life. Finally, I picked up a proof of Buki Papillon’s An Ordinary Wonder, a debut that focuses on an intersex protagonist growing up in Nigeria.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

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If I ever get round to reading it, I feel like I’m going to either love or hate Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, which is about a young woman who gets kicked off a reality TV show and ends up on a 1960s-style commune.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2021?

Yes! I have a stack of 2021 releases to read. Of those, I’m most excited about James Smythe’s The Edge, the long-awaited third installment in his Anomaly Quartet; Natasha Pulley’s new speculative historical novel The Kingdoms, which sounds like it’s about time travel; and Megha Majumdar’s A Burning, which is about three characters who get caught up in the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Kolkata.

Tagging everyone who wants to join in with this tag!

Getting Away

Last weekend, my mum and I went on a wild swimming and yoga retreat in Anglesey, in North Wales, which was hosted at Plas Cadnant, an estate that has the most amazing ‘hidden gardens’. We had actually booked this retreat back in January, but were extremely doubtful it was going to go ahead until the last minute given the new lockdown restrictions, which made it a lovely surprise (I have been living temporarily with a friend in Northampton for the past few weeks, and intend to continue doing so for some time, so fortunately am not subject to the local lockdown in the north-east of England!) Even more serendipitously, the weather was absolutely gorgeous.

We had yoga classes every morning and evening, and went on two wild swimming expeditions: to Llyn Padarn, which hosts a rare population of Arctic charr, isolated in the lake since the last Ice Age, and to Llanddwyn beach.

It was brilliant, given everything that’s been going on in the world, to be able to sit in the gardens or curl up by the fire in the evening and read Tana French’s newest crime novel, The Searcher, and Nicola Griffith’s sixth-century historical novel Hild, which I’ve been wanting to get to for a very long time.

Have you managed to get away at all in September? And did you read anything especially suitable if so?

Blog Stats and Random Search Hits

I loved Rebecca’s and Annabel’s posts on their blog stats, and so have written a short one of my own!

My most popular posts, sadly, have nothing to do with the main purpose of this blog but are all related to the academic job market. My best-performing post of all time is Interviews, Part One: Junior Research Fellowships (JRFs) with a whopping 6559 views to date. I know that this post has been linked on a number of other blogs and academic careers resources.

If we exclude everything on academic careers, my top three posts of all time are:

  1. Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’. (1041 views) This post unpicks the romantic relationships in L.M. Montgomery’s classic Emily of New Moon trilogy and argues that both of Emily’s principal romantic entanglements, with Dean Priest and Teddy Kent, can be seen as dangerously obsessive. A LOT of people find my blog by searching things like ‘teddy kent vs dean priest’ so this is obviously still a live issue!
  2. ‘Because they could’. (925 views) My review of Naomi Alderman’s The Power sparked a lot of debate. It remains my only review that has received a comment from the author and I just discovered that it has been cited in an academic paper!
  3. Unravelling. (491 views) I was really proud of this review of Alys Fowler’s memoir Hidden Nature, which meant a great deal to me personally, so I’m pleased to see that it has had a decent number of hits.

I also had a look at the search terms people use to find my blog and have compiled some favourites:

Most recent search term: why is fiction important

Most bizarre search term: dr log splitter

Most satisfying search term: childhood newcastle university laura tisdall

Most frequent search terms: junior research fellowship interview questions; not getting shortlisted for lectureships; #100daysofwriting

Search terms where the searcher was most likely to be disappointed: uplifting pix for my families; nightwaking sex.com; why I dont like the handmaids tale

If you look at the books people are interested in, there are a few that come up again and again:

  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (usually people hunting for spoilers!)
  • Brixton Hill by Lottie Moggach
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
  • Katy by Jacqueline Wilson
  • The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross (including fab search terms such as ‘could the demon headmaster hypnotise a psychopath’)

What are your most popular blog posts? And has anyone used weird or brilliant search terms to find your blog?

 

The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag, 2020

  1. Best book you’ve read so far in 2020. This has to be Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light.
  2. Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2020. Technically, this could ALSO be The Mirror and The Light, but I don’t want to be repetitive, so this goes to Natasha Pulley’s The Lost Future of Pepperharrowa totally bewitching sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that is, in my view, better than the first book.
  3. New release you haven’t read yet, but want to. I’m desperate to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, so desperate in fact that I pre-ordered the hardback. This was my undoing, as I subsequently discovered that, in the UK, it’s available much earlier on Kindle, so now I have to pointlessly wait!
  4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. I’ve pre-ordered Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which isn’t out in the UK until late August. I love the premise and it’s also received glowing reviews from bloggers I trust.
  5. Biggest disappointment. Carys Davies’s WestTechnically, I didn’t have super high expectations for this novella, which I picked up on a whim on a Kindle 99p deal, but I still can’t get over how BAD it was. I think it must be one of the worst examples of literary fiction I’ve ever read.
  6. Biggest surprise. James S.A. Corey’s Persepolis Rising. For some reason I’ve been dutifully slogging through the Expanse series, a SF epic, despite only really enjoying the first three books. However, this seventh entry instigates a kind of soft reboot of the series and takes it back to what I enjoyed in the first place. I was unexpectedly gripped!
  7. Favourite new author (debut or new to you) Mary Robinette Kowal. I loved her alternative-history women astronaut book The Calculating Stars so much that I immediately went out and bought the sequel, The Fated Sky, then read all the free short stories she has online 🙂
  8. Newest fictional crush. I have thought about this but I don’t think I’ve had any fictional crushes since I was a teenager!
  9. Newest favourite character. I loved the three female protagonists of Naomi Novik’s enchanting Spinning SilverMiryem, Wanda and Irina. Novik does such a fantastic job of giving them such distinctive first-person voices and showing how their different strengths complement each other, while allowing them all to mess up and not assuming that they’ll automatically show solidarity.
  10. Book that made you cry. I can’t remember if I actually cried, but I was devastated by the ending of Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
  11. Book that made you happy. I loved how Elisabeth Thomas’s Catherine House channelled all the spooky ESP young adult novels I read as a teenager!
  12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought so far this year (or received). Ken Liu’s edited collection of Chinese science fiction in translation, Broken Stars. The British edition is so stunning [see it here, though the picture doesn’t do justice to the gold foil!] I spent a lot of time just looking at it, and the stories are stellar as well.
  13. What books do you need to read by the end of the year? I still have 14 of my 20 Books of Summer to go, plus around another 18 books from the list I made at the beginning of the year, but I find this question works best (in terms of me actually reading the books) if I stick to a few titles. So I’ll go for: Paulina Flores’s Humiliation, Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went To The Woods, and Nisi Shawl’s edited collection of speculative fiction by writers of colour, New Suns.

I’ve loved reading other responses to this tag, so tagging everyone else to give it a go if you haven’t already!

Book Spine Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. I have never made any book spine poetry before, but, inspired by brilliant posts from Rebecca, Cathy and Naomi, I decided to give it a go! The first book in each stack is the title.

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Tell The Machine Goodnight

This must be the place –

The library at night.

Quiet, deep –

An equal stillness.

Let go my hand,

dear girl.

I’m not scared.

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The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales

10:04,

tenth of December

when the girls come out to play,

inventing imaginary worlds.

Out of the doll’s house,

living dolls.

Nineteen minutes

after you’d gone,

Eve Green,

the girl with all the gifts,

a traveller in time.

 

My friend also wanted to have a go, and sent me this political piece:

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The Condition of the Working Class in England

Red seas under red skies;

Leviathan, bring up the bodies.

Children and youth uprooted.

Small great things,

Never let me go.

 

Does anyone else fancy writing any book spine poetry?

My Favourite Posts By Me From The Last Decade (Ish)

An unabashed post of self-congratulation marking the fact that I’ve now been blogging since 2011, starting on my old site Laura Reading Books and moving here in 2015. One favourite post per year!

Thomas Hardy backwards: escaping one’s fate [a range of Thomas Hardy novels], August 2011. ‘I can’t think of almost all the remaining cast drowning in the weir at the end of The Return of the Native without smiling’.

A Game of Thrones: Catelyn and Arya Stark [A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin], April 2012. ‘Martin shows us how a desire for justice can be distorted into a desire for vengeance, when life becomes too cruel for mercy’. (If you want to read more of my thoughts on A Song of Ice and Fire, my other essays on Cat, Arya and Sansa are linked here. These essays also drew the most traffic to my blog ever!).

Laura Rereading: Theories about fear [The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull by John Bellairs], February 2013. ‘what I think Bellairs did teach me – and what he still does exceptionally well – is how to scare’.

All this buttoning and unbuttoning [Her by Harriet Lane], April 2014. “if Frances… was, as she put it, ‘making pastry’ as she inveigled her way into Alys’s old life, Nina is making choux buns to Frances’s shortcrust, so lightly and imperceptibly does she trouble Emma.”

Laura Rereading: ‘I belong to him’ [the Emily of New Moon series by L.M Montgomery], June 2015. ‘Emily’s Quest is not a novel about an obsessive lover getting in the way of true, pure love. It’s a novel about obsessive love, full stop’.

‘My child and my child’s child’ [The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers and The Ship by Antonia Honeywell], January 2016. “[Jessie’s] father tries to talk her out of her decision: ‘The future is an abstract concept, Jess’. But Jessie can’t believe this: ‘No, it’s my child and my child’s child’.”

Rewatching ‘San Junipero’: the black mirror [Black Mirror TV series], January 2017. ‘because of San Junipero, [Kelly] can have a second life as a young woman, in love with another young woman. She can be ‘normal’ and ‘transgressive’ at the same time. She can have it all, but only after she’s dead’.

Bookworm, Or I Wish I’d Written This [Bookworm by Lucy Mangan], May 2018. ‘I knew that Betsy was made up, so why was she mentioned in another book? HOW HAD THIS HAPPENED?’

Sex, the sea and academia: Night Waking (Sarah Moss) & The Pisces (Melissa Broder)May 2019. “If Lucy’s Tinder profile says ‘Let’s make out in a dark alley’, Anna’s would probably say ‘Please leave me alone in a dark bedroom’.”

Have any of you written lists of your own favourite posts by yourself, or have favourite posts of your own to recommend?