Ruth Jones on her Top Rated Reads
Like many of us, the multi-talented actor, writer and producer Ruth Jones gets infuriated by forgetting the details of books she has read (and loved) months before. But, unlike many of us, she decided to do something about it. In this exclusive piece, Ruth delivers her verdict on her favourite reads of recent months - with all details scrupulously recorded.
Keeping a record . . .
When I was seven years old, I was given this gorgeous little handmade notebook, with a drawing of Japanese cherry blossom on its parchment cover. It was only the quarter size of A5, with a few blank pages inside, held together with twine. And the sole purpose of this tiny journal was to keep a record of the books I’d read. I wish I could find it. I did hope, during a particularly industrious week in Lockdown, when, like many others in the country I tackled the attic, that I would find this little notebook. Maybe even start using it again. Because, I don’t know if you’re like me, but I can read a book, really enjoy it, and then within months, forget what it was about. So annoying! How come I can get totally absorbed by a novel, lost in its world, befriend the characters, loathe the villains and love the heroes (or sometimes vice versa!), only to forget their names and their stories within a matter of months? Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so I’ve started a new notebook entitled Books I’ve Read, and am using it to keep a record. As soon as I turn the last page of the book I’ve been reading, I jot down a few notes – basic story outline, characters I loved or hated, even the odd quote. Oh yes, and I give it marks out of ten!
So here is a selection of the high scorers – my current favourites from Books I’ve Read. And they are all books available right now from Waterstones.com, where you can also buy your own little journal if you haven’t already got one. I’ve picked a variety as you can see. What I love is trying a book I wouldn’t normally think of reading which is why, along with the title, I’ve given the reason for my choice.
If I Can’t Have You by Charlotte Levin
This debut novel was sent to me as a preview copy and it is definitely one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a devastatingly compelling tale of a woman’s loneliness and obsession, and it is so beautifully written. Charlotte Levin makes us understand the behaviour of each of her characters – there are no black-and-white explanations. It is cathartic and delicate and fragile, depicting human beings at their worst and best with laser sharp observation – and it’s funny at times too! Easily up there with The Girl On The Train and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, only with much more heart.
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Petina Gappah
I heard Petina Gappah discussing this with Mariella Frostrup one Sunday afternoon on Radio 4’s Open Book. There is something so intimate and inclusive about hearing an author talk about their novel – and this one was twenty years in the making which intrigued me even more. It’s the fictionalized story, inspired by real events, of the expedition team who carried back the body of David Livingstone from Central Africa to the coast and on to England in 1873. It is told by two of the all-African party – Halima and Jacob. The characters are so well delineated – I felt like I climbed right inside their heads and the dialogue is superb. The story will grip you and break your heart, as well as make you laugh. It is enlightening and beautiful, an absolute treasure of a novel. I thoroughly recommend this.
We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
I was sent this as a preview copy with a personal note from the author – and you can see during a bit of behind-the-scenes filming of the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special that it’s my choice of on-set book. Vincent King is home from prison after serving thirty years for committing a murder. Did the crime, did the time. Seems straightforward. But it’s not. His return home inadvertently sets off a chain of events that rocks the whole town. The story grabs you from the very first moment to the very final beat. Yes, it’s a compelling thriller and a police mystery, but it’s also about love and relationships, and you will just fall in love with this world and its characters. You just feel like you know these people. Extraordinary and exquisitely written, Chris Whitaker’s use of language is captivating and lyrical. Once you start reading, you’ll struggle to put this book down.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
My friend recommended this to me, and I do love a recommendation from someone who knows you and knows what you like reading. Set in the London suburbs in 1957, this is the story of Jean Swinney, a local newspaper journalist who becomes personally embroiled in the subject of one of her news reports to such an extent that her whole life is dramatically affected. Clare Chambers recreates 1950s suburbia so artfully and with such deft observation – its ordinariness is transformed into the extraordinary. It is a beautifully and most tenderly crafted tale – with an ending that will have you gasping. I’ll say no more!
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
I’ve picked one of my all-time favourites for my final choice. I re-read it recently for Radio 4’s A Good Read and it reminded me of the surprising joys of returning to a much loved book. Published in the mid-90s, this is the story of Ruby Lennox and her often precarious, frequently hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking journey through life, beginning as the New Year of 1951 is chimed in and she is conceived – ‘I exist!’ Even as a pregnancy bump we are drawn to her enthusiasm for what the world has in store – an enthusiasm which, after she’s born, is both sadly and comically tested. She stumbles her way through childhood and teen-hood, navigating the pitfalls and politics of family life en route, dealing with an unpredictable, permanently cross and obsessive mother, a father with a wandering eye and sisters whose daily mantra appears to be ‘shutup Ruby’. The realness of the characters is a delight, the family dynamics so truthfully observed and there are so many moments when I defy you not to laugh out loud or silently weep at the brilliance of Kate Atkinson’s tragi-comic writing. There’s also a mystery running through the book which will catch your breath when it’s solved. An absolute gem, this one.
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