Category Archives: Book Review

Reading Diary – August 2019

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.’

 

hope for the best

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.”

 

happy

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.”

summer-book

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.”

Whered-You-Go-Bernadette

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

anxiety rebalance

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

Sweet-Bean-Paste-by-Durian-Sukegawa

 

How was your August, reading or otherwise?

 

 

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Reading Diary June/July 2019

I read a fair amount of books and so I try to do what I can to keep the cost down. I only read via my Kindle and there are a lot of ebook offers on Amazon if you can spend the time to trawl through them. I’m constantly buying books for 99p through the Kindle Daily Deal promotion but there are various other offers whether these are monthly, seasonal or ‘Kindle Firsts’. The problem is, I buy them so regularly they tend to pile up.

I decided to try  to read only books I’d bought for 99p for a couple of months. I managed it with all of the books in this blog post. What’s surprising is that a couple were recent releases I thought I’d have to wait to come down in price before I could justify the purchase.

 

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

“I had absolutely no interest in being somebody else’s muse. I am not a muse.
I am the somebody. End of fucking story.”

Reid had a huge hit with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo a couple of years ago. This 2019 release is based on a Fleetwood Mac type band in the Seventies and again, it has received rave reviews.  It’s told in the form of interview transcripts with the band members and associates looking at back at the past and I know some have seen this as a drawback. I wondered at first if it would prevent me becoming absorbed in the story: it didn’t but it did keep it rather surface level so I didn’t fall for it the ways others have. It was a light, quick read with several strong female characters and all the complicated inter-band relationships you’d expect, along with the mandatory sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.  I’m sure it would make a good beach read, particularly as an audiobook given the format. It’s extremely filmic so expect it to be a film or TV show in the not too distant future. 3.5/5

daisy jones

 

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

“To be kin to a dragon, you must not only have a soul of water. You must have the blood of the sea, and the sea is not always pure. It is not any one thing. There is darkness in it, and danger, and cruelty….To be a Miduchi is not to be pure, Tané. It is to be the living sea. That is why I chose you. You have a dragon’s heart.”

I was apprehensive about starting this chunker of an adult epic fantasy.  It was incredibly hyped before its release earlier this year and now a minor backlash has occurred. For 99p I was able to make up my own mind.  This is a Game of Thrones type-universe (with a feminist twist) where the East and West have been at a stand-off for a thousand years. Much misunderstanding and suspicion has grown in the intervening centuries but when the ultimate threat of the return of The Nameless One arises, things need to change. There’s a lot of political intrigue and adventure and I enjoyed the way we change perspectives across the world.  I don’t have the dragon fetish that a lot of fantasy readers possess but these can talk which makes them much more interesting. What really stood out for me was that the story revolves largely around three very driven women and the diversity of characters in terms of both sexuality and ethnicity is excellent.  Not everyone’s cup of tea but it was mine. I just have to knock off a star because, like most books, it doesn’t need to be over 800 pages long.  4/5

priory of

 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Well, child, you may do whatever you like with your suffering,” Hanneke said mildly. “It belongs to you. But I shall tell you what I do with mine. I grasp it by the small hairs, I cast it to the ground, and I grind it under the heel of my boot. I suggest you learn to do the same.”

I loved Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic  but have been reticent about her fiction which appears to be rather hit or miss. I took a small 99p chance on The Signature of All Things because it sounded like it could be my kind of thing. It’s a 600 page historical fiction spanning the late 1700s to the late 1800s. It traverses the globe from England to Tahiti, the Americas, Amsterdam – and back again. It starts out with impoverished yet enterprising Englishman Henry Whittaker, who secures a place on Captain Cook’s final expedition as an assistant to a botanist. He makes his fortune through a plant cure for malaria and takes his new Dutch wife to America where he becomes the richest man in Phillidelphia. For the most part however, the novel follows his fiercely clever, if blinkered, daughter Alma, who follows in his naturalist footsteps, eventually quite literally. I think to enjoy this sprawling book you have to like spending time in the 19th century (a passing interest in plants also helps). It’s not about a riveting plot but about watching this well-intentioned woman try to find her way through life despite crushing disappointments and devastating mistakes. 3.75/5

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken against their will.”

This novel made quite the splash when it was released and was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. Despite that (haha) it’s a highly engaging read which I raced through. Our narrator Rosemary is quirky and humorous with a great love of words (keep a dictionary handy). The story revolves around her unconventional upbringing in Indiana and the consequences It has on the rest of her life. The timeline jumps around so the mystery surrounding the disappearance of her sister Fern isn’t revealed until almost around a quarter of the way in. Strangely, it seems the publishers encourage people to disclose the twist when recommending the book to others. I disagree. It would spoil the reveal which is really something. Unfortunately, I can’t say any more without spoiling it but the cover quote ‘Hilarious and heartbreaking’ sums it up nicely.  4.5/5

 

we are all

 

How To Be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax

It’s this sense of unrest, this nagging feeling we should be finding some meaning (especially existentialists) that makes us very, very unhappy. Baboons are still going round having the time of their lives while we’re tearing out what little hair we have (compared to the baboons) trying to suss out why we don’t feel good enough.

I read and thought a lot of Frazzled and Sane New World so I snatched it up How to Be Human when it came up for a song. All three books have mindfulness at their core but take different approaches. It’s good to keep hearing the message because it encourages me in my own practice. This book focuses on the fact that our lives have changed radically over millennia have but our brains haven’t. There is input in each chapter from her friends, the neuroscientist and the Buddhist monk which makes for an entertaining and insightful read. There is also a host of mindfulness exercises for tackling a whole range of issues.  Ruby’s experience tracing her family’s roots in Austria towards the end of the book was particularly moving. 4/5

How-to-be-Human-The-Manual-by-Ruby-Wax

 

Do you have any summer reading recommendations?

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Reading Diary May/June 2019

I used to regularly read literary fiction, often reading books that had won prizes or were lauded by The Literary Review. My success rate wasn’t great. I DNFed The Line of Beauty and The Corrections. I was baffled as to the fuss over The Life of Pi and Captain Correlli’s Mandolin. The end of Atonement ended me. Then it dawned on me that these books are often written by – and to impress – literary types. They sometimes mess around with the form, can be snobby and tend to favour a depressing ending. It felt like they were more concerned with showing off than providing people (like me) with a good read. So I more or less gave up on them and retreated into genre fiction. I’m trying not to rule them out  anymore and gradually dipping my toe back in does make me appreciate the quality of their writing.

 

Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters Trilogy Book One) by Juliet Marillier

“We draw our strength from the great oaks of the forest. As they take their nourishment from the soil, and from the rains that feed the soil, so we find our courage in the pattern of living things around us. They stand through storm and tempest. They grow and renew themselves. Like a grove of young oaks, we remain strong.”

daughter of the forest

When I told my friend about Daughter of the Forest she said she immediately knew it was my kind of book. The funny thing is that as I read it I kept thinking of Liz Moore of Papillon Perfumes to the point where I had to tell her about it. This was because the story is set 10th Century Ireland when many people still revered the nature spirits and honoured their festivals. The descritpions of the forest are lush and there re many references to flora and fauna. basically if Dryad were a book, it would Daugher of the Froest. As to the plot, it releved about young Sorcha who has a deep mystic connection to the forest. When her six brothers are cursed by a wicked stepmother the Fair Folk tell her what she must do to free them. This sets on her path that is more arduous than she could possible imainge but she is also finds kindess along the way. My only issue was it dragged a little towards the end of its 500+ pages and this put me off going straight on to Book Two in the trilogy but hopefully I’ll come to back it.  4/5 (Contains scenes of serious sexual assault.)

 

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt

“Some of us are fated to live in a box from which there is only temporary release. We of the damned-up spirits, of the thwarted feelings, of the blocked hearts, and the pent-up thoughts, we who long to blast out, flood forth in a torrent of rage or joy or even madness, but there is nowhere for us to go, nowhere in the world because no one will have us as we are, and there is nothing to do except to embrace the secret pleasures of our sublimations…”

A couple of reading Diaries ago there was a lot of enthusiasm in the comments fo the nvels of Siri Hustvedt. I looked at her back catalogue and while not the highest rated, this was the one that appealed to me. It’s about a poet in her mid-fities who has an episode of psychosis after her husband puts there marriage on pause to pursue a relationship with a co-worker. We meet Mia after she’s left the hospital and retreated to her small home town for the summer. Here she takes on a summer poetry class for adolesecent girls at the local school and visits her mother daily at her retirement complex.  We follow the interactions between her mother’s friends “The Swans” and the group of girls who indulge in the all too familiar prepubescent pastime of singling out the most ‘different’ for subtle and not-so-subtle ridicule. It’s a study in female relationships (and to a lesser extent, relationships between men and women) but it’s also about the varied ways women are constrained. Hustvedt is clearly a fiercely intelligent woman and though I’m not keen on narrators who drop in phrases in a foreign languages and talk directly to the reader, it was an accessible literary read overall. The small town setting and limited time span kept it intimate. I warmed to Mia immediately and eventually managed to get in sync with the slow pace and just enjoy it for what it was.  3/5

the summer without men.jpg

 

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

“When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck. Sometimes I even wanted to hit them with a shovel to shut them up, like I did that time in elementary school. But I recalled how upset my sister had been when I’d casually mentioned this to her before and kept my mouth shut.”

There has been quite a buzz around this book with some even calling it the Japanese Eleanor Oliphant. Keiko like Eleanor, is socially inept but to a much greater degree. She has so little empathy, she appears to be sociopathic. At school she learns the best way to get by in life is to keep quiet. From there she gets a job at a convenience store and finds her true north. The store provides reassuring predictably and a role to perform. In fact she mimics the other employees in voice and dress to appear like ‘a normal person’. Keiko stays at the store for 18 years at which point she feels the pressure from those around her to make some kind of change in her life. Unlike Eleanor, there is no trauma beneath it all to make sense of her strangeness and allow the reader to empathise with her, but that’s kind of the point. No one is comfortable with her living an unconventional life even though she is perfectly content with it. A quick, quirky and engaging read. 4/5

convenience

 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

“The negation of severe suffering was the nearest approach to happiness I expected to know. Besides, I seemed to hold two lives – the life of thought, and that of reality.”

villette

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite classics and so it makes me sad that Millenials often dislike it because they focus on the ‘problematic’ relationship with Mr Rochester rather than Jane’s incredible strength of character. When looking to get back into reading classics, I chose this much lesser known work which was Charlotte’s final novel. There are echoes of Jane Eyre with Lucy Snowe being a friendless introvert who is trying to survive in the world after a history of tragedy. Jane Eyre isn’t especially likeable but Miss Snowe is hard to warm to. I grew to understand and empathise with her however. She is the way she is as the result of her past and her circumstances. She is fearful that the rug could be pulled from under her at any point and is constantly steeling herself for disappointment. It’s a bleak book but that was Charlotte’s experience of life and I feel a kind of kinship with her. It isn’t an easy read, not least because I don’t speak French and there is untranslated dialogue throughout. 3/5

 

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

“Your parents warn you about the monsters you might encounter in dark alleyways, but they never warn you about the monsters you might find in your own mind, the ones that taunt and trouble you, and make you question yourself to your very core.”

Bryony Gordon is a journalist who wrote a best-selling memoir The Wrong Knickers about her wild twenties . What she never mentioned in that book and what she explores here, is her longstanding mental health issues.  She battles an eating disorder, depression and OCD – not the ‘tidy sock drawer’ type of OCD but the kind which makes her believe she is a serial killing paedophile.  While it’s hard going through the world feeling you are not enough, it’s equally hard feeling you’re too much: too loud, too open, too greedy, too sexual, too much. Her story is sometimes heart-breaking but often hilarious. She can appreciate the absurdity and selfishness of her younger self and acknowledges that she was often simultaneously having a great time as a columnist for The Telegraph. 3/5

 

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How has your reading been this last month or two?

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Reading Diary Spring 19

Most days I watch BookTube, which is shorthand for the world of book review channels on YouTube.  Regular features usually include monthly wrap-ups, TBRs (books To Be Read) and reading vlogs. These people read in excess of 100 a books a year but once you let go of any inadequacy this may bring up, it’s an entertaining way to get recommendations.  This is YouTube so there are a lot of young people on there only reading YA so you may need to hunt a bit to find someone that clicks wit you. If you’re interested, try putting one of your favourite books into the Search box to find channels that may suit your tastes.

Like our own fumiverse, it’s generally a very warm and welcoming community.

Now, here is my own meagre selection of books read over the last month and a half or so…

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

I knew very little about Norse mythology so felt rather intimidated by this book. I needn’t have been. Neil Gaiman makes it extremely accessible by telling these tales in the form of short stories with a fair amount of humour. He was fascinated by these myths as a boy and I can see why because they mostly revolve around the adventures of the Gods Odin, Thor and Loki. I would have liked to know more about the Goddesses but they are mostly bit players who are usually treated as bargaining chips (not that I’m blaming that on Gaiman of course). The story I was really taken with was the final one concerning Ragnarok – the Norse version of Armageddon – which was gripping. Overall though, Norse Mythology didn’t capture my heart and make me want to seek out more, like the Greek myths, but it was an enjoyable read and I was very happy to expand my knowledge of them. 3.5/5

 

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The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

Why couldn’t everything smell of warm fur and saltwater and fresh seaweed popping in the fire? Then the world would be perfect.

I tore through this book. Probably because it contains a lot of my favourite things in literature: lyrical writing, interesting female protagonists,  a circus, queerness, a fairytale-like world and heaps of atmosphere. In The Gracekeepers the planet has become mostly submerged by water which, over time, has caused a divide between ‘damplings’ who live on the sea and ‘landlockers’ who live on the few remaining archipelagoes. North lives and works on a circus ship while Callanish is a gracekeeper; someone who performs burials at sea. Both young women are isolated (one physically but both emotionally) and they both have something they want to keep secret. I was totally absorbed by the story which was inspired in part by Scottish myths and folklore. 5/5

 

gracekeepers

 

The Nakano Thrift Store by Hiromi Kawakami

“There are plenty of people in the world I don’t dislike, some of whom I almost like; on the other hand, I almost hate some of those whom I don’t dislike, too. But how many people did I truly love?”

I wanted to read more Japanese fiction after loving Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. This has a touch of the melancholy of that book but there are many amusing moments throughout. Hiromi is a young woman working in The Nakano Thrift Store in Tokyo. The story follows her interactions with the eccentric owner, colleagues and customers. It’s not a page-turner but I was captivated by Hiromi’s endearingly awkward relationship with co-worker, Takeo. After a violent childhood incident, Takeo finds it hard to connect with people while Hiromi struggles to navigate her own emotions. There is no grand plot and it was a bit too slow-moving for me at times, but the quirkiness and insights into Japanese daily life and culture kept me interested. A solid 3/5

 

nakano

 

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach

“Believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering,”

I came to this book through other personal growth books I’ve been reading of late from Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff to Frazzled by Ruby Wax. It seemed complementary because its concept combines self-compassion with mindfulness. It also has a grounding in Buddhism. Tara Brach is a clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, so the book includes many client case studies (a few too many for me) and guided mediations. While this didn’t have the impact on me that Neff’s book did, it was soothing and reinforced the need for me not berate myself for not being able to push myself as hard as others in areas where I struggle. The introduction to lovingkindness meditation was also beneficial as I incorporated it into my own practice.  3.5/5

 

radical

 

What have you been reading this spring? Any recommendations?

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Reading Diary – February/March 2019

Book people tend to categorise themselves as either a ‘character-based reader’ or a ‘plot-based reader’. Character studies with little plot aren’t enough to keep me interested in a book but at the same time, I’m happy with slow-paced books if I like the overall mood of the world in which they’re set. I have therefore decided that I am an ‘atmosphere-based reader’.

Equal Rites (Discwolrd 3) by Terry Pratchett

“Hilta laughed like someone who had thought hard about Life and had seen the joke.”

This is the first Discworld book I’ve read. I’ve been put off it up to this point because I’m not generally a fan of zany humour and was concerned this wouldn’t be to my taste (as much as I’m a fan of fantasy). I decided to give Equal Rites a try because it’s the first in the Witches series and I liked the premise of a young girl accidentally inheriting a wizard’s powers.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself from start to finish. The world is fascinating and the characters are excellent with the relationship between young Esk and Granny Weatherwax being a complete joy. It’s funny and often silly, but not absurd to the point of being annoying. The writing is pleasingly clever and there is a strong plot.

Generally, I just loved hanging out in the Discworld. There is something warm and comforting about it that soothed my frazzled nerves – perfect light-hearted escapism. I decided to carry on with the next book. 5/5

 

Equal_Rites

 

Mort (Discworld 4) by Terry Pratchett

I bought Mort as it’s the next book in the Discworld and I’d heard good things about it. Unfortunately, I would have been better off continuing with the Witches series. I liked Mort as a character and there was good comic value in Death but the rest of the cast left me cold. This meant I wasn’t engaged with the quest to rescue one of them. There were still some nice ideas, funny moments and clever writing as you’d expect from Terry Pratchett but I never really got on board with it and just wanted to finish the book so I could get back to the witches. 2.5/5

 

The Colour of Magic (Discworld 1) by Terry Pratchett

Portia is a big fan of the Discworld series and told me that I should never have bothered with Mort and to go back to the first book, so I did. It made sense because this book gives you a fair amount of background to the world. Unfortunately, The Colour of Magic was everything I was concerned this series would be – convoluted and all over the place. I didn’t care for the craven wizard, Rinsewind or the irritatingly naïve tourist, Twoflower. Some lines were amusing but it was more like a collection of a stories than a cohesive narrative, with the pair being involved in one surreal episode after another. I did learn more about the world but I barely got through it. Although I still want to read Wyrd Sisters, this has sadly put me off for now. 1.5/5

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“The beauty of this world where almost everyone was gone. If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?”

You can’t get much further away from the Discworld than a post-apocalyptic thriller – not a genre I normally read. I’d heard a lot about Station Eleven but what got me to try it is the fact it was often described as atmospheric and elegiac.

The book starts off with Day Zero of the flu pandemic that will wipe out 99% of the globe’s inhabitants in a matter of days.  The story is set around the Great Lakes where we follow the stories of a number of interconnected characters in different time periods before, during and after the collapse of civilisation. Twenty years hence, we follow a travelling band of musicians and actors performing Shakespeare to the disparate settlements.

This isn’t just a tale of survival. it’s about what really sustains us when everything is stripped away, how our lives touch those of others, how we can sleepwalk through our lives and what matters when all is said and done.

It’s a thought-provoking, gripping read. 5/5

 

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Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through The Storm by Thich Nhat Hanh

“To meditate with mindful breathing is to bring body and mind back to the present moment so that you do not miss your appointment with life.”

I’ve wanted to read the teachings of Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, for ages. My recent determination to give mindfulness a proper go gave me the impetus I needed to pick this up. It covers fear in a whole range of circumstances from death and personal relationships to terrorism. There are then exercises for incorporating mindfulness into your daily life. I’m a dreamer, so mindfulness will always be a struggle for me but I know it’s practice, rather than something you master. 3.5/5

 

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What are you reading this spring?

 

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Reading Diary – Jan/Feb 2019

 

I’ve set myself a much more manageable target of 25 books to read this year and I’m off to a good start. I finished two trilogies which was satisfying and only gave up on Little Women because I wasn’t really in the mood for it.

Frazzled by Ruby Wax

I don’t believe personal development books should be reserved for the New Year but they are particularly helpfully in dealing with the dreaded January Blues. I’ve always liked Ruby Wax and followed her through her different incarnations as a comic actress, interviewer and now mental health warrior. After her TV career ended she studied mindfulness at Oxford University and this book includes a six-week starter course. It made me realise that yoga is actually moving mindfulness (duh) and has changed the way I practise it. Ruby’s personal stories of dealing with depression and anxiety which are interspersed throughout, were often as hilarious as they were heart-wrenching. 4/5

 

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The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

“Magic is forgetting the world was ever other than as you willed it.”

This was the final book in the Winternight trilogy: a historical fantasy incorporating  folklore and fairy tales in medieval Russia. I loved our outcast heroine Vasya and always adore stories about women coming into their power. I also discovered that I relish books set in a magical, frost-bitten environment. I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful descriptions of snowy forests and icy winds. I imagine some people might find the writing a bit too flowery and the plot a little slow to take off, but not me. 5/5

winter of the witch

 

Tipping The Velvet by Sarah Waters

“I have been being careful since the first minute I saw you. I am the Queen of Carefulness. I shall go on being careful for ever, if you like – so long as I might be a bit reckless, sometimes, when we are quite alone”

I wanted to read more historical fiction this year and one of the great writers in this genre is Sarah Waters. Tipping The Velvet is set in one of my favourite eras, late 19th Century England. It follows the fortunes of Nancy, who is working in her family’s oyster restaurant when she becomes infatuated with Kitty, who performs as a male impersonator at the music hall. This takes her life off in a very different direction and around the mid-point of the book it starts to get very grim (as well as explicit) and Nancy seemed to act out of character. I was worried it would all spiral downhill from here but the final section set in London’s East End was excellent.  The author’s other books look rather bleak though so I’m mulling them over. 4/5

 

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The Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

The Mistborn fantasy trilogy is much hyped and while about the first fifth of this final instalment was a little slow, it did meet my expectations as events unfolded towards the end and everything was tied up. Sanderson is a master at creating complex worlds, magic systems and plots. In The Final Empire ash falls constantly from the sky and the nightly mists cause fear. There are mysterious creatures and a selection of the populace gain powers from ingesting metals. The way the revelations in The Hero of Ages doubled back to events in the first book was particularly clever. (I still prefer the Shades of Magic trilogy by V.E. Scwab though). 4.75/5

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The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

“Asking is, in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship.”

Indie rock musician Amanda Palmer is a badass in about a thousand different ways. One of those ways is that – unlike me – she is unafraid to ask strangers for whatever she needs, including funding an album. She was the first artist to raise a million dollars through Kickstarter. Her TED Talk about this experience and the ensuing backlash spawned this book.  Ultimately, for Palmer, it’s all about human connection and trust. However this is as much a memoir as it is a treatise about why artists shouldn’t feel shame about asking for support. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about her early life as street statue in Boston and her burgeoning relationship with one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman. 4/5

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I’d love to hear if you’ve read any of these or if there’s another book you’d like to recommend. Let me know in the comments.

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2018 Reading Wrap Up

I hope it’s not too late to wish you a Happy New Year.

I moved home on the 17th December and then was ill all of Christmas week. The two things are probably connected but it didn’t spoil the holidays too much. I’m gradually settling in and I know it’s just a matter of time before I completely adjust.

I’m designating this month ‘Slow January’. I will be putting zero pressure on myself and doing little more than curling up with a good book.

With one thing and another, I missed my Reading Challenge goal for 2018 by 2 books. I managed 33 in all which is still perfectly fine with me.

Of these 33 books, I gave 18 a rating of five stars on Goodreads, which shows it was a good reading year overall.

The ten books that impacted me the most for various reasons were:

Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier

I finally found out what all the fuss was about. What a stunning novel. I want to read her other books now and will try Jamaica Inn next.

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

This book taught me that regularly practicing self-compassion can change your life. I will re-read it at some point.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I was worried I wouldn’t get on with this Japanese modern classic, but I was captivated by it. I felt so much affection and empathy for the main character and his angst.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I couldn’t get enough of the chilly, fantastical atmosphere of this novel set in medieval Russia. I read the second book and have pre-ordered the final instalment of the trilogy which is released on 10th January.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

I know some literary types look down their noses at this one but I found it to be a great tragi-comic read.

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12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

I don’t go along with all his views by any means but this book was what I needed at the time to push me into action.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Right up there with Song of Achilles, another wonderful Greek myth re-telling from Madeline Miller.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

This personal memoir of severe depression coupled with crippling anxiety made me feel less isolated when I was going through issues of my own. Matt Haig comes across as hugely likeable. I’d like to read his fiction at some point.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This beautiful book set in coastal Essex in the late 19th century made me want to read more historical fiction. I loved the relationship between widow, Cora and vicar, Will, not to mention the mystery of the Essex serpent.

The Chimp Paradox by Dr. Steve Peters

The metaphors get a bit convoluted but the basic premise that our emotional brain is stronger than our rational brain – and how to deal with – will stay with me.

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My most read genres were fantasy, self-improvement and classics, which is reflected above. I’m particularly glad I set the target of reading a classic a month because it led me to some amazing books I might not have got round to otherwise.

This year I want to continue reading classics I might have missed as well as more historical fiction. How about you?

Any literary highlights from 2018?

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2018 From the Cookie Kitchen

 

“House is haunted, I just wanna go for a ride, Out and on, before I set this room alight, Left alone, Forever, and for crimes unclear, With my patience gone, Someone take me far from here.”  Gasoline by Audioslave

April, 2018.  Tara invited me to guest post for the time that APJ was out-of-action.  Little did I imagine that I would still be writing here at the end of the year.  I returned to APJ in the summer and after talking with Tara, remained here to start my monthly Strange Tales From the Cookie Kitchen.

Today I’m sharing some of my 2018 highlights from the spheres of film, literature and music.

MOVIES

 

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BLACKKKLANSMAN Spike Lee’s true story of the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, early 19070’s.  And how he sets out to infiltrate and expose the KKK.

The Dawn Wall  The story of free climber Tommy Caldwell, and his climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson and their climbing of The Dawn Wall, a 3,000 foot rock face in Yosemite. Six years of meticulously plotting and practicing their route.  It had never been done.

 

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Widows  Anyone remember the ITV series?  It is based upon that.  The basic plot follows four women, whose criminal husbands are killed on a botch job, planning a heist to pay back a crime boss.  Directed by Steve McQueen, (12 Years A Slave) who has the ability to allow you to see into a character with just a single frame.  Superb.  Go see it.

 

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Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson’s stop-motion-animated science-fiction comedy-drama film.  It is set in a dystopian Japan, and it is the story of  young boy looking for his dog.   All dogs have been banished to Trash Island, to prevent a flu virus they have crossing over to humans.  It is a wonderful as every other Wes Anderson film.

 

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Taken Yes, the movie with Liam Neeson.  I knoooow is is from 2009 and not 2018, but I only just watched it.  No, I have no idea what took me so long.  Cult.

 

BOOKS

 

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood

Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections by Johann Hari 

The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah – The Autobiography

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine

 

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GYM TUNES

Gasoline x 1000, Audioslave.  Top Tune.

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Lose Yourself and Venom, Eminem


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 Wake Up, Brass Against

 London Calling, The Clash – the whole album.  Not one bad track.

 

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I can’t finish 2018 without thanking my amazing, kind, patient, seriously batshit crazy trainer, Eric.  He has changed my life.  And the incredible Crikey/Slowlight who has cyber-motivated me to push myself to the limits, as she pushes beyond hers.  Big love to both of you gorgeous things.

And eternal thanks for the enduring friendship with Tara and Vanessa;  who keep me sane.

CQ of APJ

Hop over to APJ if my top perfumes of the year are of any interest!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reading Diary – Autumn/Winter 2018

2018 is the first year I’ve set a reading goal to be achieved by 31st December. I’ve done it on Goodreads and it’s currently telling me that at 30 books read so far, I’m two books behind schedule. I’m aiming for a total of 35 but at this rate I’m not going to make it.

I like having the incentive to read and I’m trying to catch up. I know a lot of people switch to short books if they’re falling behind at the end of year. I might resort to that.

 

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A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The BBC’s modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes is one of my favourite TV programmes. I felt I should therefore get round to reading the stories and started at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet. I enjoyed seeing Watson and Holmes meet for the first time and the latter’s deductions were as brilliant as I’d expect. Reading about Victorian London was also a joy. However, when we went back in time to America, I felt a bit thrown and the characterisation of the Morman community was nothing short of horrific. On top of this, the way the name of the culprit was discovered was less than thrilling so it finished on a flat note for me. I don’t feel compelled to read the next in the series but if you think I should, please let me know in the comments. 3/5

 

12 Rules for Life by Dr Jordan Peterson

Dr Peterson must be the most controversial intellectual in the world today. His views relating to women frequently make me absolutely livid. However his knowledge and research in the field of clinical psychology is formidable. This book does largely stick to the personal development theme and once I got past the long section about lobsters (yes, really) I found much of value. Its message of the importance of personal responsibility and meaning are both concepts that resonated with me and what I’m going through right now. I even found myself in the pages at one point and it was a stark reminder of why I continue to push myself outside of my comfort zone despite the anxiety it causes. 4/5

 

The Mistborn Trilogy – Books 1 & 2 by Brandon Sanderson

This epic fantasy series has been majorly hyped so it was always going to struggle to live up to expectations. It’s set in a world where some people can consume one of a number of metals which will give them a corresponding power. Then there are the Mistborns who can consume all the metals and therefore have all of the powers. It’s the most well thought out magic system I’ve come across and the plotting is great. I could have really done without YET ANOTHER female assassin, but that’s just me. I have to say though, I preferred the world created in the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by V.E. Schwab and liked the characters more. All the same, this is top quality high fantasy. I will finish the trilogy and probably continue with series at some point now more books have been released. 4/5

 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I’ve never read this classic and decided to rectify that for Halloween. I had no idea about the personal anguish the protagonist, Viktor Frankenstein, goes through. Or for that matter, his monster. It’s a highly emotionally charged book as well as a horror story. The depiction of despair and torment experienced by both the man characters was intense to the point of melodrama. I had a tough time suspending my disbelief at times even though it’s a fantastical story. How did the monster manage to follow Victor from Switzerland to the Orkney Islands unaided and unobserved?!  I was hooked all the same. 3.5/5

 

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl

I’ve been putting off reading this classic in the field of psychology for over 20 years. I’ve  always avoided anything connected to The Holocaust, however it’s time to ditch this naïvety and read what people had to endure in the Nazi death camps. The first half of this slim book details Frankl’s experience in Auschwitz in relation to the way he and others reacted and coped psychologically with the terror and daily deprivations of life in the camps. The second half is a meditation on how his experiences informed his professional practice of “logotherapy”. He was a remarkable individual and it’s hard to feel you can’t find meaning in your own suffering when Frankl and (a few) others managed to achieve this in the harshest of circumstances imaginable. 4/5

 

Circe by Madeline Miller

I loved Miller’s Song of Achilles and I ate up Circe with a spoon. What a treat. I love the Greek Myths and Circe interacts with many of the well known gods and heroes. It was particularly enjoyable to observe her relationship with the ever-fascinating Odysseus. She starts out a timid youth, craving the attention of her father (Helios) but her character transforms once she’s exiled. It’s an archetypal hero’s journey but with a woman as the protagonist. The exquisite writing is a beautiful bonus. 5/5

 

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Have you read any of these? Do you set an annual reading goal? How are you getting on?

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Reading Diary – Summer 2018

 

I never thought I liked Science Fiction but then I found out last month that my favourite book series The Chronicles of St. Mary’s is classed as Sci-Fi. Hilarious. You live and learn.

 

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I’ve just started getting back into historical fiction and this was a great example of the genre. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about life in Victorian London/Essex and especially how it portrayed a more informal version than what we’re used to. The mythical Essex Serpent seemingly returned to the Blackwater estuary made for a compelling thread of intrigue. The characters were wonderful and I loved the relationship between Cora and the vicar, Will. The tension between the two regarding how they viewed the serpent – and each other – drew me in more and more. Sarah Perry’s writing was superb and never too slow or heavy on detail. I especially enjoyed the various letters between characters. 4.8

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An Argumentation of Historians by Jodi Taylor

This is the ninth book in The Chronicles of St. Mary’s about my beloved bunch of haphazard historians. We visit Persepolis as it’s about to go up in flames and rural 14th Century England. It seemed like it would be a rather relaxing read after the harrowing rollercoaster of book eight. However, towards the end there’s a twist and things rapidly ramp up, leaving us on a bit of a cliff-hanger. I guess it will have to happen one day if Jodi Taylor keeps writing this series but I find it hard to believe any of them will every be less than five stars for me. 5/5

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I always steered away from reading this clssic because it sounded like a gloomy ghost story. However, recently I kept hearing people compare it to Jane Eyre, so I finally picked it up. I find it really amusing that for a good portion of the book I was wondering what all the fuss was about. It all seemed very transparent and I was lulled into a sense of complacency. Then the rug was pulled from under me so brilliantly I gasped. Very quickly, I could see why people adore this book and why Daphne du Maurier was such a clever writer.  It’s such an evocative book and Rebecca is such a shocking and vivid character. I didn’t see much of a resemblance to Jane Eyre (who is still my favourite female literary character of all-time despite Millennials apparent dislike of the book).  5/5

 

Rebecca

 

Lost Connections by Johann Hari

This investigation into the causes of depression and the effectiveness of antidepressants was pretty confusing for me. I know my life changed when I started taking SSRI medication but I also had to try several different types before I found one that worked. This makes me conclude that it wasn’t a placebo effect and there was a chemical component. They don’t help everyone but even if they don’t help most people they can be life-changing (indeed life-saving) for some people. I also know there are people with great lives who get hit with depression out of a clear blue sky. The book did however make me want to check I still need them.  Consequently I’ve weened myself off and will see where I go from there. Please consult your doctor if you are considering coming off medication yourself.

 

Have you read any of these books or have another to recommend?

 

 

 

 

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