Category Archives: Book Review

Reading Diary – June 2020

May was the month I gave in and signed up to Audible. I have a strange reltaiotnship with audiobooks. I don’t feel like I absorb them so well because \I am such a daydreamer. However I’ve found they work well for non-ficton. I’ll try a novel this month and see how I get on.

 

Hope for the Best by Jodi Taylor

This is the 11th book in the Chronicles of St. Mary’s and for most of it I thought maybe the series was finally starting to dip. Stories about time-travelling historians are never going to be logical but sometimes characters’ actions didn’t make a lot of sense and there were threads that weren’t tied-up. There is a jump to ancient Crete during the Minoan empire and one to 15th Century London to observe the two Princes at the Tower of London just before their disappearance. What saves it is a revelation about a favourite character in the last 50 pages that left me (as a long-time reader) absolutely gob-smacked, it was so good. That upped it considerably. 4/5

Resistance by Tori Amos

“The sense of loss is such a tricky one, because we always feel like our worth is tied up into stuff that we have, not that our worth can grow with things we are willing to lose.”

I’ve been a Tori fan for, oh Lord, nearly 30 years now. ‘Piece by Piece’ was a memoir but this book looks at her songs and career through a political lens. I always knew that she had a few songs  which dealt with issues but didn’t realise there were quite so many. Tori goes through the songs and talks about the events that inspired them. She covers everything from sexual assault and FGM to 9/11 and racism. Although perhaps incongruous, the section of the book I found most affecting was that exploring her grief after her recent death of her mother. There is also a lot of valuable advice for creative people of all types. One for fans and those embarking on an artistic vocation. A highly biased 4/5

resistance

 

Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams

“Is this what growing into an adult woman is—having to predict and accordingly arrange for the avoidance of sexual harassment?”

queenie

I raced through this book in a day and a half but it was really hard to read a lot of the time. Queenie is a young Londoner whose self-esteem is in the gutter thanks to her abusive childhood. After her boyfriend says they should take a break, she simply can’t cope. She uses casual sex to try and fill the void but it’s with vile men who fetishise her Blackness. She works at a magazine where her boss constantly turns down her ideas about articles covering the Black Lives Matter movement. The gentrification of Brixton is also a theme of the book.

It was published last year but feels acutely relevant to right now. It sounds heavy but the author manages to write in an incredibly light, readable way and infuses the narrative with humour. Queenie is hugely likeable and I kept rooting for her to deal with her issues and ditch the self-destructive behaviour. I was very pleased it recently made Carty-Williams the first Black author to win Book of the Year at the British Book Awards (if not before time). I only marked it down because I found it personally painful to witness her allowing men to treat so appallingly.  4/5

 

Love Is Not Enough by Mark Manson

I was a member of Mark’s website years before ‘The Sublte Art...’ blew up and he becaome a megastar in the field of no-nonsense personal development. It couldn’t have happened to  a better person. He is free of any kind of magical thinking or easy answers. This exclusive audiobook for Audible goes back to his roots as a dating expert. He has separate dialogues with five men and women who have issues with relationships and coaches them over a period of time. We hear those interviews and the results of the homework and advice Mark gives them. Basically they are all suffering from some kind of issues around boundaries and vulnerability but in very different ways. It would be hard not to identify with at least one of them. As a nosy curious person, I found it fascinating. 4/5

 

Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

“Popular self-help teaches you to ask for help, accept help, set boundaries, say no. So you ask for help and the person you ask politely refuses. Because he or she has learned to set boundaries and say no.”

gravity

This was a quirky read which could have gone either way. Reviewers on Amazon seemed to really like or really dislike this debut novel for adults by the sister of author Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies). It’s contemporary fiction set in Sydney which was a bonus for me having friends in the city. Abigail has been recieving chapters from ‘The Guidebook’, a mysterious self-help book, since she was fifteen; the same time her brother went missing. She is now in her thirties and running a Happiness Café (despite being far from happy herself) when she gets an invitation to attend a retreat where all will be revealed about The Guidebook. We follow her as she attends the retreat and the new course this sets her on.  There are a lot of references to self-help and it’s a slow-paced read but I liked Abi a lot and was up for the weirdness of ‘the truth’ of The Guidebook. I enjoyed seeing where the relationships formed at the retreat would go, not to mention the possible resolution of her brother’s disappearance. 3.5/6

 

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

This is the first book that has made me cry in a very long time (I can’t remember the last one). It was everywhere last year and finally reading it during a mini heatwave was perfect. It tells the story of a Kya who was abandoned as a child in the 1960s by her family and has to fend for herself in a shack nestled deep in the North Carolina marshlands. She is ostracised by the people in the nearest village with a couple of notable exceptions. When there is a murder, all eyes turn to the ‘Marsh Girl’. Delia Owens is an award-winning nature writer and it really shows in this, her first novel. Her lush descriptions of the flora and fauna of the marsh were wonderful and made it hugely atmospheric. I could picture everything, as wall as feel Kya’s intense connection with her home – and her equally intense loneliness. 5/5

 

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How has your last reading month gone?

 

 

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C-19 Reading Diary

The book I enjoyed reading the most last year (Station Eleven) was about a global pandemic. Turned out when I actually experienced a global pandemic, reading suddenly became less enjoyable.

I found it near impossible to read when things got serious in the U.K. The difference between the world in the book and the real world feel too jarring. For a full two and a bit weeks I didn’t read at all, which was very strange for someone who reads for several hours a day. I couldn’t work it out. I’d gone through anxiety as severe as I’d ever had not so long ago and reading was a blessed escape. So why not now?

I gradually realised that this was a different kind of anxiety which had triggered a state of hyper-vigilance. I was on red alert, as if constantly scanning the horizon for signs of danger. This meant I couldn’t focus on a book because my sympathetic nervous system didn’t feel it was safe to switch off.

I’ve managed to adjust enough to the ongoing situation to start reading again. However, I’ve had to experiment with what kind of books work for me at this time.

One Word Kill, Dispel Illusion and Limited Wish (Impossible Times Trilogy) by Mark Lawrence

If you’re a fan of Good Omens or Ready Player One, you’re likely to enjoy this fast and fun sci fi trilogy.  Author Mark Lawrence on GoodReads a long time. He’s an ex research scientist currently living in Bristol. I wondered how having grown up in America, he’d conjure up life as a teenager in suburban London in the late 1980s (which was my life). Aside from a couple of Americanisms, he did a great job. Teenager Nick is dealing with a cancer diagnosis when an unnervingly familiar looking stranger explains that there is a lot more at stake.  It was a rip roaring story of 4 nerdy boys and 1 cool girl trying to save the world. I was reading it as lockdown happened so maybe that’s why I didn’t love the way I might have done otherwise. 3/5

11.22.63 by Stephen King

“Yeah, but what if you went back and killed your own grandfather?”

He stared at me, baffled. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

stephen king

Nothing on my Kindle felt right. Maybe now would be a good time to immerse myself in the Stephen King universe for the first time. I’m not up for his horror novels but was intrigued by the premise of this book: a guy time-travelling back (yes, again) to prevent the assination of JFK. One of the things that has put me off King is that his books are like door-stops. This isn’t as long as some but it did drag. We have to wait for over 300 pages before our protagonist even catches sight of Oswald. I have kept hearing how he’s a great writer but not very good at endings which made me nervous after investing so much time. A bad ending can ruin a book for me. Happily this was tied-up extraordinarily well so I did smile when in the Afterword he mentions that his writer son, Joe Hill, actually gave him a much better ending than the original one he had written. A friend has recommend I read Lisey’s Story by King next so I’l do that. 3.25/5

Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry

“Gaia visited her daughter Mnemosyne, who was busy being unpronounceable.”

mythos

The world of the Greek mythology populated with larger than life gods and monsters has proved a good place to get lost in.  Some books manage to make these stories full of sex, violence, humour and revenge decidedly dry and academic. It’s no surprise that Stephen Fry completely avoids this. I especially appreciated how he adds various examples of how many of the words we use today are derived from the myths (my favourite being the eternal punishment of Tantalus is where we get the word ‘tantalise’ from). Zeus and Hera are the ultimate dysfunctional couple and their endless dramas involving both mortals and gods, never fail to enthrall to me.  4/5

Grownups by Marian Keyes

“Her outline kept slipping, like a wonky contact lens that wouldn’t sit on the iris…  Intense feelings would surge through her, both good and not-so-good, then her outline would detach again. She was living her life a short distance from herself.”

 

grown ups

Story aside, this novel was fantastically easy to read which was a relief. I’m normally turned off by family dramas but my love of Marian’s combination of humour and darker themes made me give it a go. To be fair, the first three quarters was a 3 star read for me as breezy as it was. We are following three brothers and their wives, not to mention 7 kids, living in Dublin. We get to know the characters and their various issues (including overspendng and more seriously, bullimia) as they congregate for a number of family trips. I think I prefer to follow one main protagonist in this kind of book so that I feel more invested. Not a lot seems to develop until the 75% mark when it all starts kicking off. I was then riveted by the final quarter which was 5 stars. 3.75/5 overall.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

“…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”

Now we’re talking. This was a fizzy cocktail of a historical fiction and it went down easy. I can’t think of much Id rather read about right now than wonderfully shameless showgirls in 1940s New York City. Nineteen year-old Vivian Morris moves into her aunt’s rundown theatre in Midtown. In very short order, she loses her naivete and is kicking up her heels at The Stork Club by night and sewing costumes by day.  We follow her misadventures with a fabulous cast of colourful characters which are all vividly rendered and hugely enjoyable. Despite making a near catastrophic mistake Vivian learns that learns you can be a good person even if society doesn’t deem you ‘a good girl’.  Fairly short chapters helped to prevent me feeling overwhelmed (which ihas been my main issue). Its structure of a single 450+ page letter rather bugged me but not enough to spoil it for me. 4.25/5

city of girls

Have you struggled to concentrate on reading during this time or have books become a valued distraction? Do you have any light novels to recommend?

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Romantic Reading Diary – February 2020

I thought I’d try reading romance novels for the ‘month of love’. Afterall, it is the most popular genre of fiction, so I looked up a list of the top romance books on Goodreads. Oh dear, I couldn’t get past the covers. They either looked like bodice-rippers (so many Dukes…), 50 Shades knock-offs (featuring topless men) or fluffy rom-coms (showing cartoon couples). Maybe if someone can recommend a good one I’d give it go but instead I decided to pick books in genres I already read but that featured a prominent love story as part of the plot.

Son of the Shadows (Sevenwaters #2) by Juliet Marillier

“You bound him to you with your courage and your tales. You hold him to you now. You captured a wild creature when you had no place you could keep him.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Daughter of the Forest, the first instalment in this series. Like that book, Son of the Shadows features a romance, but aside from that there is political intrigue, the Fair Folk and the dramas of the next generation of the family.  Liadan, has ‘the Sight’ and her path as a home-loving healer takes a turn when she is abducted.  The setting is one of the best things about these historical fantasy books. The ancient forest in Medieval Ireland is brought vividly and beautifully to life brimming with Irish folklore.  This was very much up to the standard of the first book and I will read on because I love this world and those that dwell at Sevenwaters. 4.75/5

This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

“Red rarely sleeps, but when she does, she lies still, eyes closed in the dark, and lets herself see lapis, taste iris petals and ice, hear a blue jay’s shriek. She collects blues and keeps them.”

time war

This one is out there guys. It’s a sci-fi novella where two female agents (codenamed Red and Blue) battle on opposing sides of a war over the future, travelling up and down the time-line trying to make changes that thwart each other and give their side an advantage. This can be anything from a swift assassination to being deep undercover for decades in order to subtly nudge events in a certain direction. They start exchanging missives first as a taunt but these letters become increasingly elaborate and heartfelt as they fall for one another. The messages come in the form of anything from a bee-sting to the rings of a tree. The imagination on display is immense and the writing often dense and poetic as you can see from the above quote. You are thrown in at the deep-end and need to concentrate on every word: there is no ‘info dumping’ here but roll with it and you’ll be rewarded by the end. It would be a good one to re-read once you have the full picture. 4/5

Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness

“War is such a waste of women’s time.”

times converty
I thoroughly enjoyed the All Souls Trilogy which is a fantasy romance between a vampire and a witch. It was written by historian Deboarh Harkness and had a great section where they time travelled to Elizabethan London in order to escape the danger they were in. Time’s Convert comes after the events of those books and I was led to believe it centred around the relationship between two side characters, vampire Marcus and Sotherby’s art expert, Phoebe. However, the couple are apart for the vast majority of the book as Phoebe is not allowed to see Marcus for several months after becoming reborn as a vampire. We spend a far bit of the story following Marcus during the American and French Revolutions. I love historical fiction but these sections felt like they were taking me away from the current day plot (such as it was) and didn’t have a lot of relevance. It was nice to spend time with Matthew and Diana again and see their children but unlike the original trilogy, there were no stakes, no peril. It just felt like not much was really happening and sadly, I just wanted to be done with it towards the end. 2.75/5

 

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

“If he knew, if he only knew that I was giving him every chance to put two and two together and come up with a number bigger than infinity.”

call me

The narrator of this book is Elio, a man looking back on a summer romance he had when he was seventeen with twenty-four year old college lecturer Oliver, who comes to stay at Elio’s family holiday home on the Italian Riveria. I say romance, while he eventually finds his feelings are reciprocated, this is very much a study in infatuation. Elio is idolising Oliver and the introspective detail did grate on me at the start. We come to see that Oliver is almost equally taken with the idea of Elio. While Elio covets Oliver’s self-assuredness and popularity, Oliver covets Elio’s youth and musical/intellectual accomplishments. That’s why it’s less a love affair and more about wanting to possess the other person in order to get close to the experience of being them. Hence why they call each other by their own name. It works on that level but I didn’t see it as the great love story others seem to connect with so intensely. Perhaps it’s best read when you’re closer to Elio’s age.  3/5

Do you have any romantic books to recommend?

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January Reading Diary

I’ve decided to read more sci-fi in 2020 – hopefully about one a month. I know little about the genre and want to learn more about the various sub-genres and what I like and dislike. You can only find this out by reading a range of different books. It makes sense for me considering some of the most memorable books I’ve read come under sci-fi, including Never Let Me Go, Station Eleven, Flowers for Algernon and The Chronicles of St. Mary’s. But do I prefer soft sci-fi, first contact with aliens, space operas (what even are space operas?) or dystopians? I hope to find out.

 

Where The Forest Meets The Stars by Glendy Vanderah

“Sometimes bad things happen to make good things happen.”

where the forest

At the start of January, I picked up and put down maybe 5 or 6 books. It turned out what I needed was something I rarely read: light contemporary fiction with a bit of romance. This story is about a little girl who brings together two neighbours who have become fearful of a relationship for different reasons. The child turns up at night in rural Illonois showing signs of abuse. Ursa claims her home is in the stars and will go back once she has seen five miracles. She’s a bright kid and worms her way into the affections of Phd student Joanna and gruff, Gabe. It’s a sweet, hopeful tale which stops short of cutesy. Joanna is a field biologist and I especially liked the sections out in nature. I was In the mood for something undemanding and heart-warming and this fit the bill perfectly. 4/5

 

Recovery by Russell Brand

“The instinct that drives compulsion is universal. It is an attempt to solve the problem of disconnection, alienation, tepid despair… the problem is ultimately ‘being human’ in an environment that is curiously ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that entails.”

This book explains the 12-step recovery programme used in AA, NA etc. You’ll get the most out of it you have an addiction or any kind of compulsive behaviour from overeating to excessive retail therapy.  I have more generalised issues but I still found the book interesting and benefited from doing steps 4 and 5 which involve facing and releasing your past resentments. 4/5

 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Eight different scents and eau-de-cologne were laid on in little taps over the washbasin. She turned on the third from the left and dabbed herself with chypre and, carrying her shoes and stockings in her hand, went out to see if one of the vibro-vacuum machines were free.

brave new world

 

I’ve heard that if you really like either 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale you are likely to struggle with the other two. This certainly rings true for me. I loved 1984 but found the writing in the other two dry with a plodding pace. In Brave New World, babies are born in hatcheries so no one has a family. Children are conditioned to consume and not to form emotional attachments.

The ideas are extremely interesting but I had trouble getting invested in the characters. Bernard sees the system’s flaws and is aware of the effects of the conditioning but is full of his own self-importance. ‘John the Savage’ acts as a contrast but this white man brought up on a Native American reservation never feels quite right. The final quarter where we learn more about rationalisation behind this brave new world is riveting but it’s all told by one of the World Controllers rather than shown.  I know it’s a monumental work of sci-fi literature but I base my ratings purely on my level of enjoyment so it’s a 3.5/5

 

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

“But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief. There are very few in health, disaster, famine, atrocity, splendour or normality that interest me (interest ME!) but the motherless children do. Motherless children are pure crow. For a sentimental bird it is ripe, rich and delicious to raid such a nest.”

grief is the

I loved Lanny so much I thought I’d give this author’s debut book a try. It’s a novella dealing with grief as the title suggests.  We hear the different points of view of a bereaved family who have lost their wife and mother: ‘Dad’ and ‘The Boys’.

Dad is a Ted Hughes scholar and the third character we hear from is Crow (the title of a Ted Hughes book). He tells them he is there until they no longer need him and his parts are more in a form of prose poetry. Crow is a trickster and the most raw, brutal caregiver they could have. But then, what is more raw and brutal than grief?

They all react in both expected and unexpected ways, trying to deal with that which they have lost. The portrayal of a grieving family is touching and visceral. However, Crow is a pretty scary persona and it didn’t capture my heart in the way Lanny did.  3.75/5

 

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

dark matter

“I’ve always known, on a purely intellectual level, that our separateness and isolation are an illusion. We’re all made of the same thing—the blown-out pieces of matter formed in the fires of dead stars.”

Dark Matter has glowing reviews almost across the board. I’d classify it as a sci-fi thriller. Jason, a college lecturer with a wife and child, is abducted and drugged. When he wakes up, nearly everything has changed. People tell him he is a genius physicist but he’s also a single man without a family. It’s pretty obvious to the reader what has happens but it takes a while for him to catch up with us. I was inpatient for him to start solving the mystery and take action. When he does, the plot speeds up and it becomes gripping. I had questions about the logic of the science which meant I found it a bit frustrating. It’s a mind-binding read about identity and the turns we take and don’t take in life. 3.5/5

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

 

spinning silver

“Of course I was afraid. But I had learned to fear other things more: being despised, whittled down one small piece of myself at a time, smirked at and taken advantage of. I put my chin up and said, as cold as I could be in answer, “And what will you give me in return?”

Last year I read Naomi Novik’s novel Uprooted which had rave reviews but I rated 2/5. I loved the writing and setting but hated the way the male protagonist treated the female protagonist and their twisted relationship ruined it for me. I had the chance of reading Spinning Silver for 99p so thought I’d give Novik another try. Lucky I did, because this was just my cup of fairy-tale tea. There’s nothing I like more in January than an atmospheric, wintry read and this book is set in an imaginary realm called Lithvas (very like Russia) where the winters are getting longer and malevolent mythical creatures, the Staryk, are encroaching on the villagers more and more. One of the things I liked about the book the most is that the central family in the story are Jewish and it explores themes of anti-Semitism – not something I’ve seen in fantasy before. It revolves around three young women and the narrator switches many times without warning but it’s not difficult to work out who’s talking. I thought the way one of the women’s storylines was tied up was unnecessary but still had a great time with it. 4.75/5

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds?”

Vanessa mentioned in a post on Bonkers About Perfume that I had read 50 books last year and a commenter said that it’s more about quality than quantity, citing two Dostoyevskys being worth more than 50 Mister Men books. My reading level is a little above Mister Men but I took his point and decided to give Dostoyevsky’s most famous tome a try. I think my first error was choosing a book with a theme I have little to no interest in. I don’t care for crime fiction or the motivations of criminals and this book is a philosophical examination of crime and its consequences on the psyche of the criminal. Raskolnikov is an impoverished ex-law student who kills and robs an elderly woman he pawned some valuables to. He kills more out of a feeling of superiority and an intellectual test of character than financial need. Though he suffers a spiritual crisis as a result, he never feels remorse for the woman he murdered. He’s deeply unlikeable as are most of the male characters in the book. The ‘romance’ came from nowhere and the police investigator was ludicrous. But what makes it arduous are the interminable internal and external dialogues that are either like lectures or delirious ramblings.  I will say however, that it’s easy to read, the female characters are a saving grace and learning about Petersburg in the 1860s was interesting. I was much more engaged by the final quarter but this Russian classic just wasn’t for me. I tried, Roger, really I did.  Next time, I’ll take a run at Tolstoy instead. 2.5/5

crime and punish

 

Do you feel that you should make an effort to read books that are challenging or is okay just to read what appeals to you?

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Reading Diary – November/December 2019

Happy New Year!

May 2020 bring you many wonderful books as well as the time to read them.

2019 was a good reading year for me. I just missed my target of 30 books in 2018 so I downgraded last year’s goal to 25. In the end I managed 50, which I was extremely happy with but probably won’t be repeated. My favourite book of the year (though released in 2014) was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The best 2019 release I read was Lanny by Max Porter, see below.

 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

“- ‘I bet you are not afraid of anything’, I said.
‘Of course I am,’ she said, and she pulled at a loose thread in her apron. ‘I am afraid of lies.’-”

familars

This book had a lot of promise and not just that gorgeous cover. It’s historical fiction based on the true events of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612. I’m interested in the trials and  this period of history and it makes a change to the Victoria era I usually read about. The narrator is 17 year-old wealthy gentlewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, whose midwife is accused of being a witch and we follow her galloping around the Lancashire and Yorkshire countryside trying to prove her innocence.  I felt dissatisfied because I wanted to hear the story from the point of view of the supposed witch, not a rather dull teen. Then we find out (spoiler) Fleetwood’s husband has got another woman pregnant but it all ends happily because he was only trying to protect his wife from a further miscarriage. That’s okay then. It has an average rating of 3.9 on GoodReads so I’m in the minority.  2/5

Overcoming Anxiety by Helen Kennerley

My CBT therapist recommended the ‘Overcoming…’ series of books and I started with this one. It’s a lot better than many books on the subject and has practical tools to help you cope, including breathing and relaxation techniques as well as written CBT exercises. I also liked its compassionate and down to earth tone. However, I would say it’s better for those whose anxiety causes phobias than those with generalised anxiety disorder. 3.5/5

Lanny by Max Porter

“We are but pitiful narrative creatures… obsessing over the agony of not knowing. Sisyphus, Atlas, Echo, all those poor souls, now us. It is the oldest story of them all; never-ending pain.”

lanny.jpg

Oh Lanny, how I love you. This novel was shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and while it has an unconventional format, I found it to be a page-turner. I almost read it in a single sitting but knew I had to get up for work the next morning. Lanny is one of those exceptional, magical boys who seems connected to the natural world in a way the rest of us can’t imagine. Sadly not everyone in the tiny village where he lives understands him. His mother is consumed with writing a crime novel and still sees him as her baby while his London banker father is constantly freaked out by him. The person who relates to Lanny the best is a once famous artist dubbed by the locals as ‘Mad Pete’. Running beneath all this is the ramblings of mythical bogeyman Dead Papa Toothwort who we follow as he listens to the conversations of the various villagers. He grows in power from their words and eventually reflects them back in a strange and unsettling way.

The narrator switches from character to character and to start with each is labelled: Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad etc but as events escalate so the narrative becomes more free-flowing. We see people’s prejudices amplified by quiet village life: some reassess them when Lanny is in danger but most are reinforced. It’s a call for tolerance of difference and not to rush to judgement. It’s a warning that the stories we tell ourselves and each other matter more than we realise. Most of all, it’s a very special little book and totally captured my heart. (Owing to the format, it’s best read as a paperback or audiobook). 5/5

Becoming by Michelle Obama

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

I tend not to read memoirs because they are real life and that’s what I’m trying to escape through reading. However, this book has gained so much praise and was picked by Val the Cookie Queen as one of of her 2019 favourites and so I decided to try it on audiobook.  Well, believe the hype. I thought I’d be more interested in her time as First Lady and of course, the details of life inside the White House were juicy (it was gratifying that she didn’t pull any punches with Trump). But hearing about her upbringing and seeing how she made the absolute most of the opportunities her parents worked so hard to give her was what stayed with me. We learn how generations of black men were unable to progress economically because they were kept out of the unions. How her father with MS practically dragged himself to work at the filtration plant as his disease progressed. Michelle herself is a model of what dedication and drive can do for anyone given half a chance (being someone with almost zero ambition, I found it fascinating). That coupled with immense empathy and a strong belief in social justice, is a compelling combination. You just hope it gets to all those young girls who need to read it because it has the power to change the course of their lives. 5/5

Autumn (Seasonal Quartet Book 1) by Ali Smith

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country, people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing. All across the country, people looked up Google: what is EU? All across the country, people looked up Google: move to Scotland.”

autumn ali.jpg

Autumn is the first book in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet with the fourth book, Summer, expected next year. The books are fictional but reflect the political landscape in Britian at the time. Autumn was written around the time of the referendum and while the story revolves around the relationship between a young woman named Elisabeth and an elderly man, named Daniel, the vote is directly referenced. In fact I found myself reading Brexit into a lot of the scenes in the book. You can see nearly everything as a metaphor. Despite the age difference Elisabeth and Daniel are clearly soul mates. Daniel is now seeing out his final days in a care home where Elisabeth visits him. We go back in time to see how their friendship developed.

The main narrative takes detours into the Profumo Affair and the life and work of little known Pop Artist, Pauline Boty. I was fine with these but can understand why some find the other elaborate flights of fancy pretentious. I just let them go over my head and rolled on through until it made sense again. Overall it was really interesting to read something based on such a turbulent and divisive time and one we are still going through. I also really liked Elisabeth and Daniel and hope they’ll turn up again later in the Quartet. I decided to continue with the others books in the series. 4/5

Winter (Seasonal Quartet Book 2) by Ali Smith

“The people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote, she said, and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one, and a very dangerous game to play. And what’s happening in the United States is directly related, and probably financially related.”

winter ali

The core narrative of Winter is nature blogger Art’s trip to spend Christmas with his fragile mother in Cornwall. He pays a girl – Lux – he meets on the street £1,000 to pretend to be the girlfriend he has recently split from. After realising that his mother Sophia is suffering from delusions, he calls her estranged sister Iris who arrives to help out. Happily there is a connection with a character from Autumn which becomes clear at the end of the  book. Brexit is still rolling on with fearful Sophia being a Leaver and bohemian Iris, a Remainer. Sophia has become a recluse, wrapped up in her own psychosis and scared that food is poisoned. Iris meanwhile has been living in Greece helping the many Syrian refugees arriving on boats.

As with Autumn we zip back and sometimtes forth in time to learn more about the characters. We see that Art has suppressed his sensitivities to the point where he doesn’t really know how to be himself anymore. His ex has commandeered his Twitter account in an attempt to show him up. Lux is there to illuminate them all and we later learn that she can’t get permanent employment because she might not be able to stay after Brexit. There are mentions of Trump’s election and Grenfell and we go back to when Iris protested at Greenham Common. It’s an incredibly layered book and I fear I only scratched the surface.

The books definitely bear repeated reading to get the most out them. Each one in the quartet references a different Shakespeare play and Dickens novel. Not getting these nuances didn’t bother me although some of the obtuse (to me) imagery did irritate. I have no idea why Sophia sees a disembodied head or Art, a piece of coastline floating above him. All the same, the characters and the story are captivating.  I don’t whether to continue with Spring now or read it just before Summer is released. 3.75/5

 

What was your favourite book of 2019? Do you have any reading goals for 2020?

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Reading Diary – Dark/Atmospheric Books

I normally steer clear of any books or television/films that might be even remotely upsetting. However, I’m currently receiving CBT and therefore trying not to avoid anxiety as much. I’ve been reading darker novels that I’d never have considered previously. I have to say that it’s been surprisingly entertaining. Creeping yourself out can be weirdly thrilling when you’re safe at home.

Around Halloween I read some of the short stories by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe which I plan on making a yearly event. Below are the complete novels I read.

 

The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey

“When your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the person who had the dreams, so it feels more like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.”

the girl with

The blurb for this post-apocalyptic horror novel doesn’t tell you what’s it really about but I’m going to talk about it below because it’s pretty obvious early on and I think if you go into it expecting somehting else you may be disappointed. The book starts with ten-year old Melanie being strapped into a wheelchair at gunpoint and taken from her cell to a classroom with other children in a similar condition. Melanie has a genius level IQ and adores her only kind teacher, Miss Justineau. They are all confined to an underground army bunker in rural England. Soon, we learn that a pandemic swept through the world twenty years previously and the only civilisation left in the UK is a place called Beacon on the South Coast.

SPOILER REVIEW

The virus turned people into ‘hungries’ (read zombies) who attack and feed on other humans, passing on the virus. We gradually find out what is really happening in the bunker and why.

This book had great reviews and there was a film adaptation starring Glenn Close in 2016. It is certainly action-packed but it is also very character focused which I imagine sets it apart from a lot of other zombie books. I didn’t find it frightening but it is rather gory. It didn’t have the literary merit and atmosphere of Station Eleven but it was hard to put down at times. 3.75/5

 

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

“As is well-known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, and the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen.”

once

I’m smiled inwardly after reading the first page of Once Upon A River because I knew it was going to be just my kind of book. Darkly atmospheric, historical and gorgeously written. The book is set in Victorian England along the River Thames in Oxfordshire. One winter solstice, an injured man stumbles into the Swan Inn carrying a drowned girl. Before the night is out, the little girl comes back to life. The next day, several people arrive claiming she belongs to them, including a couple whose daughter was kidnapped two years ago.

The young girl is mute and the mystery surrounding who she really is deepens as we learn more about the various characters and their secrets. It unfolds at a gentle pace but I read the final quarter in one sitting as we start to get some answers. However, there is always a fine line between reality and myth and that’s what I love about it. It’s part historical fiction, part fairy-tale. Some aspects could be explained rationally or could be put down to the magical. That’s for the reader to decide. I look forward to reading the author’s debut, The Thirteenth Tale. 5/5

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

 

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“For a while I was looking for a person but I didn’t find them and after that I was looking for myself. Now that I’ve found me I’m back to exploring, which is what I was doing in the first place before I was doing anything else and I think I was supposed to be exploring all along.”

I usually 99p for my ebooks but when I heard that the author of The Night Circus was finally releasing a new book on 5th November, I pre-ordered it for £9.99. The Night Circus is not a perfect book by any means but it’s the most memorably atmospheric I’ve ever read and I’m all about the atmosphere. Fans like me have waited 8 years for a follow up. It seems to have been greeted with a raft of gushing reviews and 5 star ratings. I was ready to give it 5 stars myself until I got into it…

The Starless Sea is an ode to storytelling and indeed, their are stories within stories as well as a number of mentions of other books and authors including The Shadow of the Wind, The Little Stranger, Donna Tartt and Raymond Chandler. A short way in, our main character Zachary, who is a video games grad student in New England, not only finds a story from his own life within the pages of a book but also the fairy-tale like chapters we have just read.  Zachary finds his way through a portal to the home of these stories. It’s a magical underground library called The Harbor and his time there alternates with tales that read like fables.

On the face of it, this book ticks a lot of my boxes, it has a magical setting, good diversity, poetic writing and a clever structure. I kept wondering why I wasn’t really enjoying it After some thought, I feel it’s the lack of a cohesive plot, a nice but bland central character and a setting that didn’t captivate me. Zachary bumbles around library with no clear motivation following one vague ‘clue’ after another. There was a suggestion of a threat but this doesn’t amount to anything. Where I was desperate to visit The Night Circus I had zero desire to go to The Harbor/The Starless Sea. It didn’t possess an ounce of the previous setting’s magic. It says that its heyday is now over and boy, did I feel it. Zachary’s meanderings become more and more convoluted (I have a high threshold for weirdness but Alice in Wonderland-style bizarreness is not for me). I just didn’t care enough about him or the meaning of it all. It got to the point where I just wanted to be done with it. Very sad. 2.5/5

 

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“God has had His chance to free me, and for reasons known to Him alone, He has pinned me to ill fortune, and although I have struggled, I am run through and through with disaster; I am knifed to the hilt with fate.”

burial rites

Burial Rites is historical fiction based on the events surrounding the last person to be executed in Iceland in 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir. Agnes was convicted along with two others of the murder of two men. While awaiting her sentence to be carried out, she was placed in the custody of a family on their farm. One of the amazing things about this novel is how the Aussie author manages to make you feel like you’re there in this poverty-stricken, almost claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone sleeps in the same room – family, farmhands and convicted murderer.

Agnes is entitled to religious counsel to help her prepare for her death and she requests a young assistant priest. He is naive and woefully out of his depth but over time he and Agnes form a bond.  After being initially horrified, even the family begin to empathise with her position and we gradually learn what happened to Agnes and the murders. At the end of the book, Hannah Kent tells us how the book came about. Apparently this was a notorious case in Iceland and people still know of it today. The novel is based on local histories and various records with meticulous research. Agnes was cast as an instigator, an inhuman witch, but here Kent restores her humanity and teaches us all a lesson in empathy. It’s slow paced and not an easy read, but a worthwhile one. 4/5

 

I’m not about to start reading crime novels about female victims but if you have any darker reads to recommend, please let me know in the comments.

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Reading Diary – September/October 2019

I never really feel guilty about staying indoors reading but it’s as if I have more of an excuse when the summer is over and the weather takes a turn for the worse. Autumn officially feels like the start of reading season.

I’m also excited about creepy reads for Halloween which will include H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

Here’s what I’ve read over the last two months.

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too.”

Little-Fires-Everywhere-by-Celeste-Ng

I’ve heard about this book time and time again and was in the rare mood for contemporary fiction. It’s about two families who live in the coveted Shaker Heights neighbourhood in Ohio. The privileged Richardsons have rented out an apartment to artist Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Peart makes friends with three of the Richardson children and the families become increasingly intertwined. Relations become tense for a number of reasons and then the whole situation and pace of the novel is ramped up by divisions over the adoption of an abandoned Chinese baby by a wealthy white couple. It’s not a spoiler to say this culminates in the black sheep of the Richardson family burning their house down (not a spoiler). It’s a book about mothers and daughters, coming-of-age and how the choices we make in life as a result of society’s values can lead to resentment later in life. 4/5

 

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Toikein

“For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

I enjoyed reading The Hobbit last year but had a false start with The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve finally managed to get through all three books. I didn’t leave gaps in between once I heard that The Lord of the Rings is actually one book split into three volumes.

I liked the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring because it’s set in The Shire and I’m fond of the Hobbits and their Hobbit holes. Like them, I love my creature comforts. The problem came when they set off and it was an awful lot of describing their route traipsing across the countryside. I mean pages and pages. I found much of the first half of the book tedious and would have put it at 2 stars. I also admit to skipping through the verses of song unless it seemed they were integral to the plot (usually not). The second half picked up considerably though as they met new characters and visited more interesting places. By the end I was hooked to the point where I looked up a map of Middle Earth.   3.5/5.

The Two Towers (5/5) and The Return of the King (5/5) were both excellent with the adventure really taking off. I was totally taken with the love between Frodo and Sam. I didn’t know before starting, that it is, in part, a treatise against industrialisation but it’s very evident in the final section the novel which didn’t quit sit right. In any case that only dropped it down from a 6/5 to a 5/5.

From the first book I could see its huge influence on modern day fantasy writers like J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin. Very happy I’ve finally read it.

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La Belle Sauvage, The Book of Dust Volume One by Philip Pullman

“He was liked when noticed, but not noticed much, and that did him no harm either.”

la belle sauvage

I was dying to return to the world of my favourite trilogy His Dark Materials when the first volume of the second trilogy in the series was released in 2017. Sadly, La Belle Sauvage was slow to get going and I ended up putting it down only a little way in. Lyra is such a compelling character that having her present only as baby leaves a huge hole. What pushed me to pick it up again and finish it was the imminent release of Volume 2. Once I got into it, I enjoyed La Belle Sauvage but it felt more like a spin-off or a prequel to the rest of the series, which it is considering its set ten years before the start of His Dark Materials. It didn’t have quite the same feel of the original trilogy or the overarching mystery. It’s essentially a chase story as endearing eleven year-old Malcolm seeks to protect Lyra from the pursuers after a biblical-style flood. 3.75/5

 

The Secret Commonwealth, The Book of Dust Volume Two by Philip Pullman

“Has reason ever created a poem, or a symphony, or a painting? If rationality can’t see things like the secret commonwealth, it’s because rationality’s vision is limited … We need to imagine as well as measure …”

Lyra is now twenty years-old and man, is it good to catch up with her again. I wouldn’t say you absolutely must read La Belle Sauvage first (although it does fill in the background of a few characters, adding to the reading experience) but I would definitely recommend reading at least the last two chapters of The Amber Spyglass. We are plunged into a new intrigue but this one revolves around, guess what? Rose oil! Heartbreakingly, Lyra and Pan are estranged – showing the consequences of becoming a stranger to yourself. Other interesting themes of the book concern the demeaning of imagination and the manipulation of facts to serve an agenda (which feels very relevant in this ‘post-truth’ age). What did feel rather heavy-handed and jarring was the inclusion of a Syrian refugee crisis.  Another small criticism is that it was a tad too long and sprawling in scope. All the same, what am I going to do if I have to wait 2 YEARS for the conclusion? 4.75/5

On a side note, what frustrate me is that all these books are often categorised as ‘Children/Young Adult’ because they have a young protagonist. This might put adults off reading them. As I suspected, in an interview Philip Pullman said that he wrote them all with adults in mind. In both these recent books, aside from the ‘F-bomb’ being dropped a number of times, there are scenes of murder and sexual assault. In the first there is a character who is a paedophile and in the second there is a graphic suicide. Definitely not for younger readers.

 

secret 2

 

My Sister The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“There is music blasting from Ayoola’s room, she’s listening to Whitney Housten’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It would be more appropriate to play Brymo or Lorde, something solemn or yearning, rather than the musical equivalent of a pack of M&Ms”

This book set in Lagos, Nigeria, has been everywhere lately and so when it came up for a pound, I bought it despite rarely, if ever, reading thrillers. That stunning cover art also helped tip the balance (the reflection in the lenses!). As you can tell from the title, this book is about two sisters. Korede, a nurse, is the older sister and narrator while Ayoola is as beautiful as she is self-obsessed not to mention psychopathic. After an abusive childhood Korede has taken on the role of her sister’s protector to heart. This extends to cleaning up and disposing of the bodies of the three boyfriends Ayoola has killed by the time the book opens. The situation escalates when the latest man to become enthralled by her is the kind-hearted doctor who is the object of Korede’s affection.

I was nervous going in because some have said this book has horror elements but there is very little gore and it’s not frightening. I’ve also seen it referred to as darkly comic but while I found it entertaining I only really found it funny at one point – but that’s a personal thing. It’s a fast-paced page-turner that you can devour in a day. I did. 4/5

My-Sister-the-Serial-Killer

 

Have you read one of these or any other book you’d like to share? Do you find you read more in the autumn/fall?

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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

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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.”

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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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