This month I joined the library. It's taken me far too long to do so - I've lived in this city over 3 years - and I'd almost forgotten the joy of them. My local library is a dream, housed in the old Police Station and stocked with ancient shelves that look just how a library should. Being able to read books totally for free is an absolute privilege and it makes me sad that there are library cuts across the country - not least because it means that the chances of me getting my hands on Leeds' copy of The Hunger Games is a little thin on the ground. It makes me miss my University library - a true Beauty-and-the-Beast, Hogwarts-style library with racks and racks of ancient wooden shelves and every book you could imagine (apart from that one about Aristotle that I really needed that one time...). Either way, I am grateful that libraries exist - and even then, I am probably less grateful than the elderly gentleman who was learning to use a computer from the librarian whilst I was there. What an absolute joy that libraries exist.
The Lollipop Shoes, Joanne Harris
2014 is officially the year that I discovered the work of Joanne Harris - and I am so pleased that I did. The Lollipop Shoes is the sequel to her bestseller, Chocolat, and is equally as wonderful. It has a slightly darker edge than Chocolat, with a much nastier antagonist - Zozie de L'Alba, a glamorous woman who barrels into the lives of Vianne, Anouk and Rosette and befriends them but with a sinister ulterior motive. I spent a lot of this novel frustrated at Vianne, who has lost a lot of her sparkle and confidence - I just wanted her to stand up and do what she really wanted, to tell the truth and sort herself out. That was the point, of course, and the tension was built beautifully to the showdown at the end - you're not entirely sure whether there will be a happy, or satisfying, ending. I absolutely loved this book, and have picked up the final novel in the trilogy to enjoy over the Christmas break - I can't get enough of Vianne Rocher and her chocolaterie.
In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan is one of my favourite novelists and has written some of my favourite books of all time - Sweet Tooth and Atonement are both on the list - but I've not really explored much of his earlier work. This book of short stories is, as you'd expect from McEwan, dark, disturbing and unsettling. I struggled to get through some, not sure on the point that he was trying to make, and it's clear that he's developed so much as a writer since these stories. I read a review that calls these stories 'B-sides' and I think that description is apt, but perhaps 'literary experiments' would be a kinder way to describe them. If you're a McEwan fan then they are worth a read but otherwise I would pass by and try something else (such as Alan Bennett's 'Smut', which are also short stories about sexuality but are infinitely better and a lot less disturbing).
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Yet another of my many re-reads this year, I was not sold on this book the first time around. I don't think I was sold on it the second time around, either. Look away now if you don't want a spoiler - but the 'twist' that they are clones to be harvested for human organs feels a little clunky the whole way through. There is so much that goes unexplained until right at the end when - bam - their ex-headmistress tells all in a spiel that's supposed to be thought-provoking about human nature but feels a little too convenient. Kathy is also an annoying narrator - don't tell me what you're going to tell me next, just tell me! That said, I did enjoy the parts set at school in the beginning of the novel, and the relationship between Kathy, Ruth & Tommy. Ruth in particular was a fascinating character and I kind of wish that she'd been telling the story. I feel like I'm being overly critical of this novel - so many laud it as a great work, and I can see what they're getting at but I just didn't warm to it at all. I'd like to read Ishiguro's 'Remains of the Day', which is supposed to be excellent but I think this one is going to the charity shop.
The Woman Who Went to Bed For a Year, Sue Townsend
I have loved Sue Townsend's work for a long time, and I was very sad when she passed away earlier in the year. This is the only book of hers that I haven't read, so when I spotted it in the aforementioned library I immediately squirrelled it home with me. I'm a little sorry that I did so - although only a little. This book is unmistakably Sue Townsend - the sharp observations, the wit, the slight absurdity - but it has a melancholy note to it that is absent from a lot of her other work (except, perhaps the final Adrian Mole book which did not end the way I wanted it to...). This book does what it says on the tin - it's about a woman who goes to bed for a year. Whether it's a nervous breakdown, depression or just a refusal to conform to society's rules, Eva goes to bed on the day her children go to University and doesn't get up for a year. When you find out more about her life, it feels understandable, but as time goes on and she misses out on so much, slowly boarding herself up in her room, it feels very bleak. Not one to read if you're in a fragile emotional state.