Books and me: on my shelves

Volunteers’ Week, which runs this year from 1-7 June, is a time to say thank you for the contribution millions of people make across the UK.

Clive Grewcock, a volunteer for Hampshire Libraries’ Home Library Service, talks about delivering books to readers who can’t get to the library, the importance of a sense of place in books and what he considers as the quintessential Dickens novel

I started volunteering for the Home Library Service just before Christmas when my wife who works at Lymington Library said they needed people to help. At the moment library staff choose the books for those who can’t come to the library and I do the deliveries and collect the returns. I’ve got four regulars who seem to appreciate the service and they all enjoy the books too so the library staff seem to be picking the right sort of books for them. One of my regulars reads a phenomenal number of books and she thinks the service is the bees’ knees. It makes a real difference and I’ll carry on with my volunteer role once my other volunteer activities start up again. 

Book habits
I read anywhere, everywhere and any time. As soon as I could read – I suppose since I was six or seven – I’ve always had a book on the go and I usually know what the next book is going to be too. I enjoyed adventure stories as a kid: like everyone I read all the Enid Blyton books. There was a series I loved called the Doctor Syn novels by Russell Thorndike (brother of actress Sybil) about a vicar who doubled as a smuggler on Romney Marsh. We used to go to the Romney Marshes as children so I loved that sense of place. 

I tend to read one book at a time although if I’m reading something a bit heavy, I might have a lighter book in between but generally it’s one book, start to finish, and then on to the next one. And since I’ve retired my books are 100% from the library.

What are you reading right now?
The book I’m reading at the moment isn’t necessarily typical of what I usually read – it’s a book that one of my Home Library Service users returned last week which caught my eye: The Manner of Men by Stuart Tootal. It’s about a unit of British paratroopers and the mission they were given ahead of D Day to take out one of the guns that swept down the main invasion beaches. Although I like history, I’m not a big reader of war books unless they are written from the standpoint of people involved. This book pieces together the story from diaries and letters from those who were in the regiment and also some letters and reference material from some of the Germans on the beaches. Another war book which has a different perspective is The Dead Man in the Bunker by Martin Pollack which follows the author as he discovers his father’s past in the Gestapo. It’s the best narrative I’ve read of how Hitler’s message was able to resonate with many Germans.

Reading patterns
I’m a regular reader of crime and detective novels especially the Scottish ones. One I particularly like is Glasgow-based writer Denise Mina who’s written two trilogies about people investigating criminals who aren’t necessarily police detectives: the Paddy Meehan series about a journalist which starts with The Field of Blood and the Garnethill trilogy about Maureen O’Donnell, a former psychiatric patient. She often interweaves real life crimes into her books.

Other authors I read in this genre include Ian Rankin, who everyone loves of course, Val McDermid, and Ann Cleeve’s Shetland series. I’m not sure what draws me to Scottish crime novels: perhaps it’s that they use a sense of place very well. I probably prefer Tartan Noir it to Scandi Noir although I’ve read a fair new Jo Nesbos. The Dublin Murder Squad by Tana French is another excellent series – the first one, In The Woods was really very good indeed.

Despite the fact I don’t usually like books with magic, I love the Peter Grant/Rivers of London novels by Ben Aaronovitch which are about a young officer in the Metropolitan Police who is recruited into a branch of the Met that deals with magic and the supernatural.  Again, the sense of place is probably what draws me to it as these novels reference London in so much detail.

All time favourites
Graham Greene is a big favourite of mine but I got to a point where I’d read every single one at least twice, although I have just reserved Brighton Rock from the library as I feel I could read that again quite happily. I usually try to read a Dickens at Christmas. Great Expectations would be my top choice possibly because I did it for O levels but also because it’s got all the classic Dickens elements: you can tell it was written as a serial as virtually every chapter is a cliff-hanger, and a character that disappears early on in the book suddenly reappears ‘Eastenders-style’ at the end. It’s Dickens to a T.

Recent recommendations
One book that’s stood out for me recently is The History of Loneliness by John Boyne. It’s about a devote Catholic priest whose his life unravels around him when revelations about child abuse in the church come to light. It’s a hugely moving book. I don’t set out looking for great writing but when I stumble across it, it really holds me.

Clive was talking to Kate Price McCarthy

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