I didn’t quite reach my Goodreads reading challenge to get through 30 books last year. This was largely because I didn’t read at all during the month of my trip to Australia. This year I set it at 25 so I wouldn’t become idiotically feel under pressure in the run-up to 31st December. Guess what? I reached 25 books in August.
I felt pretty anxious all month and my reading choices reflect this: humorous, adventurous romps to take my mind off things, self-help books to try and find solutions, and a couple of novels that I hoped would calming my nerves.
Hope for the Best (Chronicles of St Mary’s Book 10) by Jodi Taylor
‘Let us all think carefully. Who here has the least value? Who has annoyed me the most?’ He turned to face me. ‘Who is in need of a much-deserved lesson?’
‘No idea,’ I said.
‘Oh, I think you do.’
‘Well, yes, I do, but I thought it would be rude to point out it’s you. Not in front of your men. Although it would be good to stop you talking before everyone dies of boredom.’
This, the 10th book in the series, came out in April but I’ve been saving it. So when I didn’t know what I wanted to read next and felt a bit low, it was there waiting for me. St. Mary’s is my literary happy place however much of this book is spent with the Time Police who are soon to have their own spin-off series. In any case, the action is still led by our indomitable hero Max and as per usual, misfortune abounds as she travels back to the Cretaceous period to try and finish her nemesis once and for all. But first she must fix an anomaly in the Time Map and make sure Mary Tudor fulfils her destiny in the 16th century. (I have already pre-ordered Book 11 which will be released in April next year.) 5/5
Happy: Why Just About Everything Is Absolutely Fine by Derren Brown
“We do not have the control over events that we like to imagine would allow us to succeed through self-belief. In truth, we aim in one direction, events pull us in the other, and the line of our life is drawn along the middle.”
I’ve long been a fan of illusionist Derren Brown. I’ve watched the TV shows and seen his stage show a couple of times. It was always clear that he was an extremely clever guy but now he’s written a self-help book based on Stoic philosophy: a must-read for me then. People in the field of personal development are always talking about goal-setting but this has long been a source of anxiety for me. It was incredibly reassuring and a huge relief to have Derren acknowledge this in the first fifth of the book. Latter sections show you how you can apply Stoic philosophy to everyday life. I lost interest during a couple of chapters covering anger and fame but those covering death were as well thought-out as they were thought-provoking. 4/5
The Summer Book by Tove Jannsen
“Smell is important. It reminds a person of all the things he’s been through; it is a sheath of memories and security.”
Unfortunately, I read this book for adults by the author of the Moomntroll series at the wrong time. It needs patience and a calm mind so you can settle into its gentle pace. With my anxiety in full swing it was a bad fit. It’s not a novel where you can get lost in the narrative (which I needed) but a series of vignettes mainly set in the summer but not necessarily in the same year. They revolve around a grandmother and her granddaughter Sophia who spend their summers on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. The father is there too but he’s a shadowy figure in the background. I enjoyed some of the stories a lot but grew distracted with those where very little happens. Sophia is precocious and volatile and the fact that her mother has died coloured everything for me. Her interactions with her grandmother are often humorous and charming but sometimes felt a little surreal. I did have to laugh when she stuck a note under the door saying something like ‘I hate you, With warmest personal wishes, Sophia’. The passages about the island’s flora, landscape and weather were beautiful and I found the atmosphere unique. It’s clearly a special book, I just wasn’t in the right mindset to fully appreciate it. 3/5
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
“My heart started racing, not the bad kind of heart racing, like I’m going to die. But the good kind of heart racing, like, Hello, can I help you with something? If not, please step aside because I’m about to kick the shit out of life.”
I struggled with this book a little at first because I found Bernadette hard to like. She is somtimes ignorant, always judgemental and usually ranting about everything from Seattle’s road system to Canadians and homeless people. That made it hard to care that she went missing but as the story evolves we find out more about Bernadette’s past and that made it easier to empathise. Her main redeeming features however, is her relationship with her bright and engaging teenage daughter, Bee. Events unfold via various letters, emails and documents as Bee tries to piece together what happened in the run up to her disappearance. This format was highly enjoyable and worked really well. It’s touted as a satire of Microsoft (where Bee’s hapless father works) and private school parents, and while it’s often very funny, it also has heart. It was pretty outlandish but a great distraction. 4/5 (Now a film starring Cate Blanchett)
Anxiety Rebalance by Carl Vernon
It’s a terrible admission but in my weaker moments I envy people who have high anxiety and don’t have a clue about what they should be doing in order to manage it. Those people, like the many testimonials in the latest edition of Anxiety Rebalance, can read a book like this and totally transform their lives in 3 months as it suggests. They can implement the ’10 actions’ to create a healthy lifestyle with a supportive daily routine and experience a dramatic turnaround. It’s as if they have been reborn and their past life is like a bad dream. This book is perfect for those people. However, if you’ve long been aware you suffer from anxiety and gradually worked out how to function with it on a daily basis, reading this book isn’t going to make a difference. One day I’ll realise no one has all the answers. 2/5
Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa
All experience adds up to a life lived as only you could. I feel sure the day will come when you can say: this is my life.
In my very limited experience, I’ve found contemporary Japanese fiction can be very soothing. I was picking up and putting down book after book until I started this and read over a quarter in one sitting. There’s a spaciousness about the writing style that calms me. The plots may seem simplistic but there is usually an existential theme just beneath the surface. They also tend to include pleasing descriptions of Japanese food. Sweet Bean Paste is set in a confectionery shop in Tokyo that sells dorayaki (sweet pancakes). Sentaro wants to be a writer but is running the shop to pay off a debt her owes the owner. He has no passion for the job and buys in the sweet bean paste. Then he agrees to let an elderly woman, Tokue, work in the kitchen making her exceptional sweet bean paste, despite his reservations over her deformed fingers. A friendship slowly develops which is put to the test when Tokue’s secret is revealed. It’s a touching quietly gorgeous book. 5/5
How was your August, reading or otherwise?