Category Archives: Book Review

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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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

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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.

Eleanor-Oliphant-is-Completely-Fine-by-Gail-Honeyman

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

 

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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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Reading Diary

 

When I occasionally read Young Adult fiction, I stick with fantasy or LBGTQ+. I read one of each last month. Unfortunately there is a lot of dross in YA so I try and be picky. One thing I’ll say about the genre though, is that the books are well paced and usually fun to read. They can be a good choice if you’re in a reading slump.

 

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Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

I really loved the main character of the first instalment of this YA fantasy duology. Lazlo Strange is a librarian who spends all his spare time researching the lost city of Weep. He’s a dreamer with a big heart and we follow him as his life takes a huge twist. It’s a well written tale with fantastic characters, great world-building and a well-paced plot. Looking forward to the release of The Muse of Nightmares in October. 4/5

 

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

I felt like I was cheating a bit by reading a children’s book for my monthly classic. Even though I already knew the story, it was lovely to read it for myself and enjoy the little details, such as how Lucy loves the smell and feel of fur; rubbing her face in it when alone in the wardrobe. The concept is as good as it gets and beautifully realised. 5/5

 

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The Name of the Rose by Emberto Eco

I put this down after only about 60 pages. The writing was so dense I couldn’t get into the flow.  This book is extremely highly rated so clearly the issue is with me. If you think I should persevere please let me know in the comments.  I did like the idea of a Medieval murder mystery set in a monastery.

 

The Girl in the Tower (Winternight Trilogy 2) by Katherine Arden

I loved the immersive, magical experience of The Bear and the Nightingale and was happy to find that atmosphere continued in the second instalment of the trilogy. The focus of the story moves from the Russian wilderness to the city, but continues to revolve around Vasya, who has been branded a witch by her village. I had loved the rural setting of the first book but there is still a fair amount of that to start with and I was intrigued to read about Medieval Moscow. My only mild criticism of the first instalment was that it was rather slow paced. The Girl in the Tower moves along nicely and the last fifth or so is positively action packed. I’m not quite sure how I will wait until January 2019 for the final part of the story but I’ve already got it on pre-order. 5/5

 

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Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

This YA book has been recently turned into a film re-named Love, Simon. The story follows a 17 year-old boy in Georgia who hasn’t told anyone he’s gay and charts his anonymous online relationship with another closeted boy at his high school, known only as Blue. I wondered if I’d find Simon irritating at the start of the book but I grew to love him. He’s funny and his email exchanges with Blue are as endearing as they are entertaining. I stayed up much later than I should have one night because I was genuinely dying to find out the identity of Blue. I’m rubbish at working out any kind of mystery and true to form, I guessed wrong. I also enjoyed his interactions with his friends and family, who are all great. It doesn’t topple my favourite book in this sub-genre (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe) but it comes close. 4/5

 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This was my first novel by Murakami and it proved a good place to start (thanks for the tip Ana-Maria). It’s set in Tokyo in 1969 and while I see it described as a love story, it’s MUCH deeper than that.  While the subject matter is tragic, the narrator – 19 year-old Toru Watanabe – is wonderful and the writing is beautiful. It had a spare, melancholy feel and kept reminding me of Catcher in the Rye. I felt validated when one of the characters asks Toru if he’s trying to talk like Holden Caulfield. Ah, Toru. He is such a sensitive, kind soul who wears his heart on his sleeve. This makes him painfully vulnerable but incredibly empathetic. I’m concerned about how I will get on with the magical realism of Murakami’s other novels but I definitely going to give them a try. 5/5

 

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Should I read the rest of The Chronicles of Narnia? Can you recommend which Murakami novel I should try next?

 

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Books I’ve Been Reading Lately

I decided to set some reading goals after all. I’m aiming for a total of 40 books this year which will be a real stretch. I’m also going to try and read one classic a month. I’m currently 2 books ahead of schedule and some great books over the last couple of months has certainly helped.

 

This Savage Song by V.E. Schwab

Victoria Schwab is a masterful fantasy writer and one of my favourites. She creates great worlds, characters and plots. This Savage Song is set in a dystopian America where people’s violent deeds have taken shape and formed monsters.  Most are the stuff of nightmares but August is a rare ‘Sunai’ who looks like a teenage boy and only feeds on the souls of sinners.  He becomes an unlikely ally of Kate, a girl who is trying very hard to be something she’s not in order to gain the approval of her Kingpin father. I enjoyed This Savage Song despite usually find dystopians too distressing. However, I’m reticient about reading the second part of the duology, His Dark Duet because I hear it’s absolutely heart-breaking. We’ll see if I can brave it at some point soon. 4/5

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted won a number of awards when it came out in 2014 but I was mainly drawn to it because it has a dark fairy-tale theme.  The plot revolves around a valley where a seventeen year-old girl is taken by the Dragon every ten years. It’s not a spoiler to reveal that the Dragon is actually a wizard. He is tasked with the duty of holding back the evil wood which threatens to swallow every village in the valley and beyond. The latest girl he has taken to his tower, Agnieszka, turns out to have gifts of her own and might just remind the Dragon of his humanity after centuries of detachment. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t the 5 star read I thought It’d be. The Dragon annoyed me immensely at the start and his character wasn’t really developed. Beautifully written and a gorgeous setting though. 3.75/5

 

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

This a strange and beguiling little book at just 173 pages. Eleanor West (whose perfume incidentally smells of dandelions and ginger snaps) runs a home for teenagers who’ve stumbled through doorways to other worlds but aren’t believed by their families. These places can be anywhere from Fairyland to the Underworld, but none of the children want to return, so when they do, they long to find a way back “home”.  It sounds dark and creepy – which it is – but it’s also quirky, humorous in parts and nicely written. Most of all though, I loved the idea of these doors appearing for the children out of need and sympathy. 4/5

 

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The writing here is stunning to the point of hypnotic. It’s a gently moving plot but whenever I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down again. I’ve rarely come across such beautiful, lyrical prose that is pitched just right, never overdone. The Bear and the Nightingale is the tale of a girl in medieval Rus’ with “second sight” who can see the old spirits living in the house and forest, but which the new Priest has made the rest of the villagers turn their backs on, with potentially disastrous consequences.

I adored the setting at the edge of the wilderness where the winters are all encompassing. The atmosphere Arden conjures is so vivid and yet dream-like. I also loved the main character, Vasya, for her openness, free-spirit and kind heart. This is the perfect book to read wrapped up on a cold, dark night and I’ve just started the sequel, The Girl in the Tower. 4.6/5

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This 2017 novel is a complete gem. It’s tragicomic in the best way. I would go from smiling broadly to being troubled as we get more and more dark glimpses into Eleanor’s past. Overall though it’s a life-affirming read with lots of little references to everyday life in Britain. Eleanor lives alone in Glasgow and although she works in an office, she avoids talking to anyone. She tells herself she likes it this way because most people are inane idiots. However, it soon becomes apparent that Eleanor is very far from fine. Then a chance event throws her regularly into the path of the affable IT guy, Raymond.  I have so much love for Eleanor and this book, I can’t do anything but give it 5/5.

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was no doubt a genius and it’s terrible that he was born into an era which essentially condemned him to death because of his sexuality. His cleverness radiates from the page.  I knew it was the story of man whose portrait ages while he stays youthful, but I didn’t realise the painting also reflects the state of his soul. The beautiful Dorian’s “friend” Lord Henry irritated me immensely with the way he constantly shows off his intellect and I started to think Wilde must have been the same. I enjoyed the book a lot more when I read that in his autobiography, Wilde said Lord Henry was what the world thought he was like, while in reality, he was akin to the much more reticent painter, Basil Hallward. The Picture of Dorian Gray is essentially a morality tale and watching an innocent become so thoroughly corrupted isn’t to my taste. Although I can appreciate it’s a great work, in terms of personal enjoyment I’m giving it 3.75/5

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Have you read a book you’d give five stars to this year? Can you recommend another book set in Russia?

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Books I’ve Been Reading Lately – October 17 to January 18

Do you set reading goals in the New Year? I thought about doing it but decided against it. I don’t think finally finishing Sapiens counts. I’m going to continue to make an effort to read consistently and fairly broadly and try not feel guilty about indulging my love of fantasy.

Here’s what I got through over the last few months.

 

All the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling

Encouraged by a couple of friends, I finally read the seven Harry Potter books. I had thought it was pointless as I didn’t get to read them as a child (being too old) and disliked the first film. However, hardly a week goes by without some reference to Harry Potter.  I enjoyed the first few books but got properly hooked about midway through the third. From there on in, they just got better and better as the kids grow up and the plots get darker and more complex.

The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is nothing short of brilliant. If you’re a fan but haven’t checked it out already, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore website is well worth a look. You can get sorted into your Hogwarts House and find out your Patronus. I dearly wanted the Sorting Hat to place me in Ravenclaw with the other dreamers – and it did!

 

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Christmas Past by Jodi Taylor

Another Christmas short story from the St. Mary’s Chronicles. What a treat. I especially enjoyed this one because it continues on from the last book in the series about a lovable bunch of time-travelling historians, rather than being a complete standalone. It amazes me how Jodi Taylor manages to mix humour in with dark themes so effortlessly. This quick read involves a journey back to Dickensian London to brighten the wretched lives of two young chimney sweeps on Christmas Eve.

 

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

This book has recently been made into a film by Steven Spielberg. It’s set in a dystopian near-future where people spend most of their time plugged into a virtual reality programme called the OASIS. In his Will, its creator states his multi-billion fortune will go to the first person who completes a quest within that virtual universe. He was obsessed with the books, comics, films and most of all, videogames, that he grew up with in the 1980s and the “Easter Egg hunt” is based on knowledge of the pop culture of the time. Therefore if you don’t remember the 80s, the constant references are likely to become tedious. The nostalgia the writer obviously feels for that era is half the pleasure of the book.  Being a child of the 80s myself and a fan of fantasy novels, I loved it.

 

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Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Well this was a big mistake for the beginning of January. What a wretched tale of the cruel mistreatment of children and the horrors of the workhouse. Thank goodness Dickens brought awareness to this issue in the 19th Century but I did not need to read about it during a depressing start to the year. I picked it because after Ready Player One I wanted to swing back into the past. I have a weird tendency after finishing a book to want to read something that’s the polar opposite. I’d only read A Christmas Carol so wanted to try more Dickens and thought this one would be accessible. It wasn’t a difficult read and there was some justice and salvation, but overall the grimness didn’t make it worth my while.

 

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff

I found this via self-improvement writer, Mark Manson’s recommendations of the 5 Best Books for Anxiety and Depression.

For those of us worrying we are not “winning at life”, self-compassion is the answer. You read a lot about self-care but fostering a kind, compassionate attitude to yourself is what really makes the difference. It can interupt the habit of regretting the past, beating yourself up in the present and fearing the future. People tend to pour scorn on self-help books but I have come across a handful that have totally shifted my perspective and changed my life for the better: this is one of them.

 

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Please share what you’ve been reading lately in the comments!

 

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