Category Archives: Book Review

Reading Diary

Apologies for absence. It was a rough summer because of family health issues and I didn’t feel like writing or reading much. However autumn is my favourite time of year for curling up with (mostly moody) historical fiction and this reignited my love of getting lost in a good book.

The Daevabad Trilogy by S.A. Chakroborty

I felt like escaping into some epic fantasy during the summer. After reading the wonderful The Golem and The Jinni I wanted to know more about djinn mythology and this very popular trilogy seemed just the ticket. Nahri is a street con-artist in 18th Century Cairo with a mysterious healing ability. One day she accidently summons a djinn and is transported to the mystical city of Daevabad. Here she finds out her true identity and is quickly caught up in local politics. She meets Ali, the prince who is trying to make life better for the downtrodden Shafit, who are part-human, part-djinn.

It was good to read a non-white, non-male fantasy author but sadly I didn’t think the djinn mythology was explained terribly well and it was waaaaay too long, with the final book unnecessarily nudging 800 pages. I only got through all three books because I wanted something un-taxing and I’d already paid for the set. It was fine but no more than that. 3/5

The Mercies by Kiran Millwoord Hargrave

“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.”

This bleak historical fiction is set on an isolated island on the edge of the Arctic Circle and is grounded in real life events. On Christmas Eve, 1617, practically the entire male population of Vardo was killed in a freak storm while fishing. In this fictionalised account, we focus on Maren, whose brother and father as well as her betrothed are all lost at sea. Beset by grief, the women of the village try to carry on with life on this barren island where not even a single tree grows. Reports that the women have started to become threateningly independent and are fishing for themselves causes a noted Scottish witch hunter, Absalom Cornet, to be sent to the island to investigate. He takes a young wife, Ursa, from Norway who has no idea what kind of man he truly is. Ursa is ill-equipped to run a home, let alone one in such a harsh environment, so she employs Maren to help her. As Absalom’s investigations into the local women’s adherence to the Church esclates, the pair become dangerously close.

It’s hard to convey just how much I hated Absalom which shows just how well crafted this book was. After feeling lacklustre about reading, I sped through this in a week. It is both captivating and heart-wrenching. If you’ve read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, this has a very similar feel. 4.5/5

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

“Words define us, they explain us, and, on occasion, they serve to control or isolate us.”

While I normally change genres with each book, I dove straight into another historical fiction, albeit one with a more gentle tone. Like The Mercies, this story is too based on fact.

Esme spends most of her childhood underneath the sorting table where her father works at The Scriptorium, which is essentially a garden shed in Oxford. This was a real place where the first Oxford English Dictionary was pieced together in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Esme is as intrigued by words as her widowed lexicographer father and one day finds a slip with the word ‘bondmaid’ written on under the table and decides to keep it for herself. As she gets older she realises that there are many words used by women, particularly lower class women, that will never make it into the Dictionary.

This is a perfect book for anyone who loves words for their own sake, like Esme. It’s beautifully written and nicely evokes the Oxford of the time with its all too apparent class divisions. Esme and her Da are enormously likeable characters as is her godmother Ditte who is treading her own academic path through life. A wonderful feminist take on the origins of the OED. 4.75/5

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

“I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence once lost, is lost forever.”

This gothic tale from 1983 has been a stage play in the West End for many years (my Dad fell asleep in it).

The novella was rather spoilt for me by a review on Goodreads, not because the writer divulged any twists but because they said it was a horror novel that caused them to sleep with the light on. I read it constantly expecting to be terrified – wimp that I am – but this never happened. The Woman in Black is NOT a horror but a classic ghost story.

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to sort through the estate of a deceased recluse, Alice Drablow. During the funeral he sees a woman in black with ‘a wasted face’ and again at the Drablow house where he has several disturbing experiences. Whenever he mentions this woman or the Drablow house to the local villagers, they clam up.

This was an extremely readable and atmospheric creepy story and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d approached it as such. I did guess the mystery before the reveal as well as the ending, but it was good read for Halloween weekend. 3.75/5

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

“And, though there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same.

I felt a little nervous about this one because it sounded so dark. Set in the early 19th century, a young woman, Mary Yellan, goes to live with her Aunt Patience at Jamaica Inn after her mother dies. Her Aunt’s husband turns out to be a vile, abusive bully and no one but his cronies visit the Inn. Mary is isolated with her Aunt who is living in such fear of her husband’s moods, she is no company at all. Mary soon suspects her Uncle is involved with smuggling and probably dealings far more nefarious than that.

I really liked Mary as our heroine. She is strong and speaks her mind, even when confronted with her Uncle telling her he will break every bone in her body if she questions him. Oh man, Joss Merlyn is a truly awful and brilliantly written character.

Du Maurier creates a fantastic brooding air with an ideal setting on the treacherous moors during the autumn/winter. She really ramps up the suspense when Mary is put at risk and events unravel. However, I did not like the romance in the slightest and I wished it hadn’t ended the way it did. Enthralling but not as stunning as Rebecca. 4.25/5

How have you been? Which Daphne du Maurier novel should I read next?

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June/July Reading Diary

I read about half the amount I normally do over the last couple of months with one thing and another my mind just felt too restless. Far easier to zone out in front of YouTube. However, I did read three non-fiction books which surprised no one more than me.

Breath by James Nestor

“The fix is easy: breathe less. But that’s harder than it sounds. We’ve become conditioned to breathe too much, just as we’ve been conditioned to eat too much. With some effort and training, however, breathing less can become an unconscious habit.”

I had an Audible credit to use up and had heard this book mentioned so much, I took a chance. Journalist Nestor spends ten years investigating the power of the breath after having a transformative experience at a community breathwork class recommended by his doctor. He discovers how the breath affects a multitude of physical and mental issues from asthma and anxiety to dental deformities and erectile dysfunction. He undergoes an arduous experiment to demonstrate the benefits of nasal breathing and meets people from around the world who work with the breath. He discovers that the optimal length of inward and outward breaths is a substantial 5.5 seconds each and that most of us are over-breathing. The great thing about the audiobook version is the breathing methods section at the end. It’s much easier to have someone talk you through the techniques as you do them rather than read them. I will be particularly focusing on the yogic alternate nostril breathing to reduce anxiety. 4/5

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers 3) by Becky Chambers

In the first two books, the Exodan Fleet (32 spaceships that left a collapsing Earth for good) is mentioned regularly but we never got any real details. Therefore I was happy to find book 3 is set aboard the Fleet and we get the background to how and why it functions as it does. We learn how the ‘homesteader’ ships were designed to be places where generations of Humans would live and die in the hope of making alien contact. This happened eventually and now although many humans have left the Fleet to live ‘planetside’, many still remain.

It’s easy to think of Sci-fi books as being rather cold and inhuman but the amount of warmth and humanity Becky Chambers has infused into this series is quite extraordinary. In book 3 we follow a range of characters aboard the Fleet: Isabel, an elderly Archivist, Kip, a boy desperate for an exciting life away from the Fleet, Sawyer, a ‘grounder’ who wonders if the Fleet will provide the home he’s been missing, Eyas, a ‘caretaker’ who recycles bodies into compost and Tessa, sister of Ashby from the first book.

Like the first two books, there isn’t not much of an over-arching plot-line. We get to know these characters and their, hopes and dreams. We follow as most try and decide whether their futures lie with the Fleet. I wish I could convey how in Chambers’ hands, that is more than enough. She grew up in a scientific household so the background is there but these stories are all about people. I was certain I wouldn’t tear up as with the previous books but guess what? I was wrong. 4.5/5

The Barbizon by Paulina Bren

The Barbizon, through much of the twentieth century, had been a place where women felt safe, where they had a room of their own to plot and plan the rest of their lives. The hotel set them free. It freed up their ambition, tapping into their desires deemed off limits elsewhere, but imaginable, realizable, doable, in the City of Dreams.

I don’t often read non-fiction unless it’s personal development, but my friend bought me this e-book which is a slice of social history. It follows the inhabitants of the The Barbizon Residential Hotel for Women from its construction in the 1920s through to its closure in 2001. It was seen as a safe place to stay for middle/upper class young women moving to New York to pursue careers in the Arts. First came the New Women striking out in the workplace after being allowed to do as result of the First World War. We often think that women’s rights follow a linear progression but there was a definite step backwards in the 1950s as woman’s main goal seems to be marriage and children and at a young age at that.

The winners of the Guest Editors competition run by Madomoiselle magazine stayed at The Barbizon and these bright young things included Sylvia Plath, Joan Didion and Ali McGraw. Plath based her book The Bell Jar on her time at The Barbizon which she renamed The Amazon. Many models stayed there as well as actresses – Grace Kelly lived there for three years. While it did allow women to live independently in New York it was not without its restrictions. Men were not allowed past the lobby and there was not an African American resident until Barbara Chase in 1956. Of just as much interest to me were the ‘Lone Women’ who were the ones without dates on Saturday nights and who never made it in their chosen career. Some of these morphed into ‘The Women’ , elderly ladies who had lived there since the 30s and 40s and who could not be evicted thanks for rent control laws. They were still tucked away behind secret doorways in the corridors as it was turned into luxury condos and the likes of Ricky Gervais and P Diddy moved in during the 2000s. 4/5

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

“There’s more at stake here than just slavery, my brother. It’s a question of who will own the land, the people, the power. You cannot stick a knife in a goat and then say, Now I will remove my knife slowly, so let things be easy and clean, let there be no mess. There will always be blood.”

This book has a huge scope but manages to cover around three hundred years of history in around 300 pages. It starts with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, in Ghana, Africa in the 1700s. Effia is married off to a British slave trader while Esi is sold by him to an American plantation owner. We then follow their descendants down the generations in Africa and America up to the early 21st century. It personalises the history of the slave trade and shows how the effects reverberate through the centuries. It shows the sickening treatment of slaves but lets the facts speak for themselves. With so much time to cover, it moves on at a swift rate with a time jump accompanying the introduction of each new descendent. However I really engaged with each of the characters and was entirely caught up in their lives. It didn’t read like a history lesson although I learnt a lot. Above all, it’s a well written, absorbing story. 4.25/5

Stillness is the Key by Ryan Holiday

“We are restless because deep in our hearts we know now that our happiness is found elsewhere, and our work, no matter how valuable it is to us or to others, cannot take its place. But we hurry on anyway, and attend to our business because we need to matter, and we don’t always realize we already do.”

This non-fiction book is a series of short essays focusing on the benefits of stillness. I recently learnt Transcendental Meditation and thought it would help cement the practice but it’s broader than that, covering the varied ways we can find a sense of stillness. That might be through exercise, getting enough sleep or putting boundaries around work. Holiday uses a wide range of stories about various people throughout history, some as examples of what to do and some of what not to do. He has a strong interest in Stoic philosophy so Seneca and his ilk are here but so are Bill Gates, Leonardo di Vinci, Tiger Woods and artist Marina Abramovic who for her performance piece ‘The Artist is Present’, sat in a chair and locked eyes with visitors to MoMA for nearly three months. The benefits of stillness range from making better decisions to simply not missing out on your own life. 4/5

How has your reading been over the summer months? Any book you’d like to share?

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April/May Reading Diary

What is the novel that made the biggest impact on you? I was reminded of mine by one of the books I read this month.

I read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro well over a decade ago but it has stayed with me and I have thought about it on and off ever since. It revolves around three characters that grow up in an unusual boarding school together and explores what it means to be human. It’s best not to know more about than that going in. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it but know that you may never fully recover from it. Well, I didn’t.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

“We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

I’ve been trying to read more sci-fi since the pandemic derailed that resolution last year. I just wasn’t in the mood for it. Now I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Portia inspired me to pick up this particular classic of the genre. It’s amazing to me that it was written in 1953 although I always smile when these old sci-fi books are set well into the future but still use names of the time they were written, for example, here the main character’s wife is called Mildred.

Anyway, this has such a brilliant central concept. In this America of the future, fireman are used to start fires rather than put them out and their job is specifically to burn books. No one is allowed to own them and you may get your entire house burnt down if you do. People are kept compliant by mind numbing leisure activities such as the huge TV-like screens taking up whole walls of their homes. When away from them, they can plug ‘seashells’ into their ears for constant distraction. Not a million miles from us today. Our protagonist, Guy, is a fireman who starts to question his life after meeting a young woman who has not succumbed to the brainwashing.

Not as good as 1984 but much better than Brave New World. 4/5

Revelation by Russell Brand

“There is no end or separation, merely new notes played in the ongoing symphony of existence in which we all play our part.”

This is an Audible Original audiobook that Russell wrote during lockdown. The pandemic does crop up throughout the book but it is concerned with spirituality. Russell has been heading this way for a while now but here he goes Full God. This was a bit of a surprise as it’s quite a risk for a public figure to talk so explicitly on this topic, purely because it so polarising. I was up for it but was more interested in his personal revelation than the esoteric. For someone to change their life as dramatically as he has is quite something and I’d like to hear about that in detail but maybe he felt he covered that in his book Recovery. In Revelation we get a lot of meandering around Jungian psychology, Indian mysticism, the 12-steps programme and – yawn – politics. It just felt a bit muddled for the most part although he’s always engaging. Its best bits were towards the end where he shares his experiences at shelters for addicts and homeless families. 3/5

A Close and Common Circuit (Wayfarers 2) by Becky Chambers

“Owl had been good to her. She stayed on the screen by the bed all day, and she taught Jane about something called music, which was a weird bunch of sounds that had no point but made things feel a little better.”

This is the second book in the sci-fi Wayfarers series. I did miss the main characters from the The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but I knew they wouldn’t feature in it before I began which stopped me from being disappointed. The first book wasn’t plot filled but this is an even slower burn, focusing on just two main characters as they both try and navigate new environments and come to terms with who they are. About a third of the way in I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere but I connected with the characters and their struggle with being displaced. It also helped that I find the ethical issues around advanced Artificial Intelligence interesting (anyone else captivated by the series Westworld?). I was completely invested by the last quarter of the book when the plot speeds up and it was emotional towards the end. It’s an added bonus that Val the Cookie Queen is hooked by the series too. I will be reading the last two books in the series before long. 4.25/5

Six of Crows (Book 1) by Leigh Bardugo

Well this was a mistake: I really should have known as I’d previously DNFed it. However I’d enjoyed the fantasy fun that was the Netflix show Shadow and Bone and thought this connected novel would be a light read after a bit of a stressful time when I didn’t read for almost 2 weeks. It’s a YA fantasy with good characters and an Amsterdam-style setting, but it based around a heist plot which I could care less about. The characters are all around 17 years old (as seems to be the law with YA) however they act at least 10 years older. Everyone fancies someone else but no one talks about it which got tiresome. To be fair I am 30+ years older than the target audience. Needless to say, I won’t be continuing with the second part of the duology. 2.5/5

Child of the Prophecy (Sevenwaters Book 3) by Juliet Marillier

“Good and bad; shade and sunlight, there’s but a hair’s breath between them. It’s all one in the end.”

Try not to judge this book by its cover

I took another stab at a comfort read and this one hit home. Returning to a fantastical medieval Ireland with familiar places and characters was soothing. This third book (and end of the first plot arc) follows the granddaughter of the heroine of the first book. Fainne is interesting because she is also the granddaughter of the evil sorceress of the Daughter of the Forest. Therefore she is torn between dark and light as she is coerced into bringing down not just the inhabitants of Sevenwaters but the Fair Folk themselves. At times it got frustrating when she was about the tell someone the truth and ask for their help but then didn’t, several times over. She’s also not the most likeable protagonist and this instalment features much less of the Fae and forest than the previous books. However, I loved the writing, enjoyed seeing familiar characters again, and it became gripping as events drew to a conclusion. 4.25/5

Please share the book or books that have stayed with you in the comments as well as any other recent finds you’d like to recommend.

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February Reading Diary

I am a big proponent of qutting books you’re not enjoying because I think it’s an important factor in having a good reading life. However I know people find this hard (hey Portia). Maybe it’s a throwback from school or the way books are intellectualised that makes it feel like a failure if you ‘give up’ on a book. We don’t feel this way about turning off a TV show though and you wouldn’t force yourself to finish a film you were finding a chore so why do it with a book? Nothing kills the joy of reading faster. I DNF (Did Not Finish) quickly and often and I encourage you to do the same.

Obviously it helps that many of my ebooks are bought for 99p (as were 3 of the 5 below). Buying Kindle offers, secondhand paperbacks or borrowing via the Libby app is a good idea.

The only exception is ‘hate reading’. I hate read The Starless Star and that brought its own perverse pleasure.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

“Here she is a puppet, a vessel for others to pour their speech. And it is not a man she has married, but a world.”

I read this book at the same time as Vanessa and Undina. I read the ebook, Vanesssa the paperback and Undina the audibook.

It was very much my style being an atmospheric, slightly eerie, historical fiction set in Amsterdam in the 1600s. Eighteen year-old Nella marries the nearly forty year-old merchant, Johannes Brandt, and moves to the city. Marriage is far from what she expected as she rarely sees Joanne’s, while his haughty sister, Marin, runs the house as if Nella doesn’t exist. Her only solace is the replica house Johannes buys her as a wedding present. She contacts a mysterious miniaturist to make items for the house but soon finds the striking little models of items and people turn out to be prophetic.

I read the first half at a leisurely pace but raced through the second half as we are hit with one revelation after another. It was nearly a five star book except that the mystery of the fortune-telling miniatures is never resolved plus it made no sense to me to have the epilogue at the start of the book instead of the end. Still a very good read. 4/5

The Four Agreements by MIguel Ruis

“Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally… Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

This is a modern self-help classic based on ancient Mexican Toltec wisdom. It’s a quick read and pretty simple in concept. The Four Agreements we are encouraged to make with ourselves are: Be Impeccable with your Word, Don’t Take Anything Personally, Don’t Make Assumptions and Do Your Best. All admirable and will make a real difference if you can implement them but you need to challenge your existing limiting beliefs first and that’s not so easy (probably more achievable with CBT). It did remind me of the Carlos Castenda books I read in my youth about the Toltec shaman Don Juan which was nice and I hope to remember not to take things personally more. 3.75/5

The Ten Thousands Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

“How fitting, that the most terrifying time in my life should require me to do what I do best: escape into a book.”

This book ticked so many of my boxes. It’s a portal fantasy with a historical setting and the most gorgeous writing. January, a girl with copper coloured skin, lives with her benefactor, Mr Locke, in Vermont during the early 1900s. Her father travels the world sending back rare artefacts for Mr Locke’s collection. At age 7, January writes in her notebook and a door opens up to another world that smells of salt and cedar. At the age of 17 she finds a book called The Ten Thousand Doors and her story is then interwoven with that of Adelaide Larson who sees a door open in a field and a strange boy walk through it. The two of them spend the following decade looking for one another again. Meanwhile, January learns that Mr Locke’s archaeological society is not as harmless as it seems and she is in fact, in grave danger.

The story is beautifully told and it was great to have a mixed race heroine in a fantasy book for once. There was also a strong olfactory element which I always enjoy. Just my thing. 5/5

A Cry in the Dark (Carly Moore #1) by Denise Grover Swank

Towards the end of February I found out shielding was extended to 31st March, so I only felt like reading something pulpy and undemanding. Years ago, I read the Rose Gardner Mysteries by this author and they were humorous with a good slug of romance, all set in the Deep South (which I love). Cry in the Dark is similar being a spin-off featuring a side character from the original series. By this point, I had zero recollection of her or her storyline but it didn’t matter. Carly is escaping a dangerous and powerful ex, with a new identity, when her car breaks down and she has to make a stop in a backwoods Smoky Mountain town. She gets a temporary job at Max Drummond’s tavern but is attracted to his seemingly hostile brother, Wyatt. On her first night in the town she witnesses the murder of a teenage boy by a drugs gang and the police are out to nail it on her.

It was not in the least bit scary/stressful because the baddies are more like comic book characters. Truth be told, the plot was a load of twaddle and the writing is sub par. I did consider DNFing it, but sometimes it’s good to read something daft if you’re feeling fragile. 2.75/5

Eat, Drink, Run by Bryony Gordon

“I learn how to do something called a burpee, which seems to involve squatting down, throwing your legs back, and then jumping back up again. Burpees look simple, fun even, but do not be fooled. They have actually been sent from the third circle of hell to punish those of us who have committed the cardinal sin of gluttony.”

I’d previously read journalist Bryony Gordon’s mental health memoir, Mad Girl. I bought the audio book about running to listen to on my 30 minute trots around the local streets because I thought it might be motivating. Actually it’s less a book about how to run and more about how exercise can help your mental health. At age 36, 16 stone, a smoker and binge drinker, Bryony agrees to run the London Marathon for the Royals’ Heads Together charity. She goes to one of those ‘body camps’ in Ibiza that rich people go to train for the marathon and is told she has a biological age of 51. However, during one of my 30 minute stints, with some ups and downs, she goes from jogging to running 10km. Sadly I found this rather demotivating as after 2 months, I still feel like I’m about to collapse running 3.7km. Why can’t I improve?!

This is a very short, humorous book though and not intended as a guide for runners. The inclusion of the podcast she did with Prince Harry in which he opened up about his own struggles for the first time was a nice bonus. 3/5

How do you feel about giving up on books you’re not getting on with?

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January Reading Diary

I eased myself into January with several short books, most of which had a self-help slant and gave me a lot of comfort in a tough month.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy

 

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said? asked the boy.
‘Help,’ said the horse.
‘Asking for help isn’t giving up,’ said the horse. ‘It’s refusing to give up.”

I’ve been waiting for this picture book to be released as an audiobook and it finally was at the end of last year. I decided to wait to listen to it on New Year’s Day and it was just perfect. It has been called ‘A book of hope for uncertain times.’ It’s hard to think of more uncertain times than now.  Last year I bought copies for my niece and a friend.

Charlie Mackesy has a lovely warm voice tinged with humour and fragility and the subtle musical touches are gorgeous. We follow the characters as they spend time wandering the countryside, playing, talking and saving each other literally and metaphorically.

This is a beautiful, comforting and touching tale about acceptance, kindness and hope. It’s full of gentle lessons for life. I’m happy I have it on hand to listen to whenever I need it.  5/5

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

“Suddenly I saw in front of me the Statue of the Faun, the Statue that I love above all others. There was his calm, faintly smiling face; there was his forefinger gently pressed to his lips. […] Hush! he told me. Be comforted!”

Unlike the rest of the world, I was underwhelmed by Clarke’s 2004 debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I found it chronically over-long and dry. I picked up her latest novel, Piranesi because of the effusive praise – The Times called it ‘Spectacular’ – and the fact that is less than 300 pages.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d be able to continue it considering I was shielding and the main character, Piranesi, is alone in an endless labyrinthine building consisting of massive halls lined by classical marble statues. Seas wash across the lower halls and the upper halls are draped in clouds. Piranesi spends his days appreciating the statues, leaving offerings for the 13 skeletons and collecting fresh water and seaweed for broth. He records everything in his journals which form the structure of the book. Apart from birds, the only other life Piranesi sees is a person he calls ‘The Other’ who he meets twice a week to discuss his research. The Other is determined to uncover the Great and Secret Knowledge he believes ‘the House’ possesses.

Unlike The Other, Piranesi is an endearing character, being guileless, trusting and grateful for everything within his world. The writing is atmospheric and the descriptions of the House are extraordinarily vivid. It’s one of those singular books that once read, you will never forget. The House will stay with you long after the plot has faded.

Piranesi’s isolation and the way The Other is so uncharitable towards him is unsettling. If I couldn’t have finished it in two sittings I might have put it aside. At around the halfway point, what is happening – and why -gradually starts to be revealed.

This is a multi-layered book with a myriad of grand themes including the solace found in religion and art and the corrupting nature of the pursuit of power. I imagine different people will see different things in it and no doubt some of the allegory went over my head.

For me, it was about trauma and the benefits and risks of finding ways to cope and escape from it. Sometimes you need to escape to survive but ultimately you risk living a life in unreality. No matter how scary the world is, it is at least real and there is beauty there if we can tune ourselves into it. It’s all about balance.

Objectively I can see why most people rate this is a 5 stars. It’s mysterious, gripping and evocative but I rate based on my enjoyment and because of it’s disquieting effect on me it’s 4.25/5

What I Know For Sure by Oprah Winfrey

“Whether you flounder or flourish is always in your hands—you are the single biggest influence in your life. Your journey begins with a choice to get up, step out, and live fully.”

I loved watching The Oprah Winfrey Show during my teens. As it evolved it fueled my interest in personal development and I read many books featured on the show.

What I Know For Sure is a collection of the short monthly articles Oprah wrote for her O Magazine. They are divided into several topics: Joy, Resilience, Connection, Gratitude etc. 

It’s a speedy, inspiring and comforting read. 4/5

Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Tines by Katherine May

“We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.”

 

I came to this little non-fiction book via Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s about wintering both literally and metaphorically.  Katherine is a British writer who lives down on the Kent coast. A few years ago she went through her own personal winter and talks about how she got through it. We hear from various people about their own experiences and how they survived their tough times. These are interspersed with interviews with people in cold climates to learn how they cope with extreme winters. She covers her own trips to Iceland and Finland and cold water swimming. It’s an easy, personal read that focuses on how you may not be the same after your own winter but you can benefit from it and come out renewed. I also liked it’s focus on rest and retreat as I have a tendency to feel I need to be moving forward all the time. 4/5

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”

 

Apparently this 1922 novel was popular in the late 1960s with the Flower Power generation. It’s a short tale about the spiritual journey of a young man in India – named Siddhartha – at the time of the Buddha. He goes against his father to become samana (an ascetic seeker) living in the forest. He then meets a courtesan named Kamala (apparently a common name in India meaning ‘lotus’) and falls into a life of lust, business and gambling for many years before finally coming to a point of despair. This drives him back to a simple life working as a ferryman and returning to the spiritual path.  It’s an uncomplicated story with beautiful writing and a gorgeous sense of place but that was about it. 3/5

 

What kind of start did your new reading year get off to?

 

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December Reading Diary

I have an intense fondness for fairytale-esque books with deep winter settings. For some reason I love reading about snowy landscapes and feeling the chill run through me. Examples include Northern Lights, The Bear and The Nightingale and Spinning Silver. In December I found out that there is a sub genre for these books called ‘polar fantasy’. I was happy about this because it makes them easier to find. The last three books in this list come under this category.

The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon

“Be careful what you fear, Ivo replied, grave. We draw the attention of the fates when our fear grows too loud. The fates are cruel, and they will reward you with what you fear most.”

From reading fantasy novels over the last few years I’ve discovered that I prefer those that have some grounding in folklore or mythology. The First Girl Child is set on an island in the North Sea with a clan culture following a mix of Norse gods and Christianity

The story begins with Keeper (priest) Dagmar taking in his sister’s son, Bayr, after she dies in childbirth. As she’s dying she curses the islanders to never again produce a girl child and ensures that Bayr will be their only salvation. The relationship between Dagmar and Bayr is an endearing, loving one and Bayr grows up with inhuman strength. He is tasked with protecting the first – and only – girl child who is claimed to be born to the King. However, Alba’s true parentage is hidden and as a decade passes without any more female children, the situation on the island becomes more and more fraught.

The romance in the last quarter was verging on purple prose but I understand Harmon is more known for her romance. Aside from that, I liked the dynamic between the King, the clans and the Keepers and the relationships between the various characters. 4/5

Blackberry & Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

“But there are no secrets in London. Even the houses lean across the narrow alleys towards each other and offer up their scandals in the blink of an open curtain.”

Perhaps my favourite spot in London is Dennis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. The artist spent years recreating the home of a Huguenot silk weaving family from the 1700s through the 1800s. The fact you have to walk through it in silence allows you to soak up its distinctive atmosphere. My love for the house drew me to this book which is set in a similar household in Spitalfields Square during the 1700s.

Esther is married to a silk weaver and offers to take in a woman from a local brothel as a maid. For the first half of the novel they have an uneasy relationship simmering with resentment. However in the second half, a revolt by the journeymen weavers throws them together during a court case. Back then you could hang for maliciously damaging silk, it was that precious. I stayed up till midnight to find out the outcome of the trial and I haven’t done that in a long while 4.25/5

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher

“Do you have a name?” asked Gerta. “I do,” said the raven. Gerta waited. The raven fluffed its beard. “I am the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God.”

This is a very modern retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. Greta sees her childhood love stolen away by the Snow Queen and sets out for the Far North to rescue him. This irked me in as much as he never did anything to deserve her devotion but there is a nice twist to this. Along the way, she is kidnapped by a witch – and then a bandit – and helped by a raven and reindeer. It was a nice pre-Christmas read. 3.75/5

The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol

“What the . . . Look, Panas, the moon’s gone.” “So it is,” Kum agreed phlegmatically. “Right, and you just accept it, like that’s the way it should be?” “Well, what else can I do about it?” “What devil has done this to the moon, I want to know? May he never have a shot of vodka in the morning,”

Apparently this fairytale written in 1831 is still sometimes told to Ukrainian and Russian children on Christmas Eve. I wonder what they make of it. It tells the story of the night before Christmas when the devil steals the moon to wreak havoc on a village’s residents. It only gets more bizarre from there. A local witch hides her lovers in sacks to prevent them discovering each other while a blacksmith is set a seemingly impossible task to win the heart of the incredibly vain and unpleasant village beauty. By the end I was more baffled than anything else. I guess I’m used to fairytales with a moral or neat storyline. I do think I was reading a pretty poor translation though. If you know the story, please let me know your thoughts in the comments. 2.75/5

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

“In my old age, I see that life itself is often more fantastic and terrible than the stories we believed as children, and that perhaps there is no harm in finding magic among the trees.”

This is a reworking of a Russian fairytale about a childless old couple who build a girl from snow which then comes to life.

Set in the 1920s, ageing Mabel and Jack move to the wilds of Alaska to escape the prying eyes of others after a stillbirth. They buy a homestead out by the mountains but their isolation only magnifies their loss as they struggle to survive through the winter. Mabel is suicidal at the start of the book.

On the first day of snowfall they make a snowman that they shape into a child. The next morning they see footprints leading away from the snow child and spot a little girl in the forest wearing its scarf and mittens. This child fills the hole and gives them a new reason to keep going.

The setting and nature writing were beautiful and I truly loved the stoic yet warm-hearted Jack and Mabel. However as much as I love fairytales and fantasy I seem to struggle when books are 95% gritty realism and then 5% magic mixed in, like here.

As a result the magical element felt inexplicable and a little jarring. We find out the child has human parentage but she appears to be able to control the snow. We never really get an explanation, which left me rather unsatisfied. I think this is peculiar to me though, going by other reviews. I like clear answers! 4/5

How was your reading in December? Does polar fantasy appeal to you at all?

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November Reading Diary

In honour of Halloween I spent October reading gothic novels. In November I was back to my usual mixed bag which comprised magical realism, fantasy, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and a quirky translated Japanese novel.

 

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

“She was so Southern that she cried tears that came straight from the Mississippi, and she always smelled faintly of cottonwood and peaches.”

After a month of dark books I wanted something light and fluffy. I picked this because it was mentioned in a list of books that feel like my comfort TV show, Gilmore Girls. It does have that cosy vibe but the plot is actually similar to that of the film Practical Magic (I haven’t read the Alice Hoffman book). Reclusive Claire Waverley lives in a big Queen Anne house in a small Southern town. The apple tree in the back garden wants people to eat its fruit so they can see the biggest event in their future and her aunt Evanelle is compelled to give things to people that it then turns out they will need. Claire is a caterer and uses the edible flowers and herbs she grows to create the effects her clients ask for: love, prosperity etc. She has a settled life until a new neighbour moves in next door and her rebellious sister Sydney turns up after 10 years away, fleeing an abusive relationship. It’s a nice, easy read with romance and a touch of magic. I read ii in a day and a half. 3.5/5

 

Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicles Book 1) by Patrick Rothffuss

“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

i just don’t get it. This is one of the most loved – and most talked about- series in the fantasy world. A whopping 68% of the ratings on Goodreads are 5 stars. Name of the Wind was released in 2007 and is the first instalment in a trilogy, the last book of which still hasn’t been released. I read the first book to see what all the fuss is about. The tale involves our protagonist, Kvothe, telling the story of his life to The Chronicler. He runs an inn under an assumed name but he was once a famous hero that people still tell tall tales about. Name of the Wind covers his childhood up to the age of around 16. I liked the initial set up: Kvothe grows up in a travelling performing company however his parents and the rest of the troupe are murdered by what were believed to be mythical figures, The Chandrian. From this point, he is determined to track them down and gain revenge. To do this he decides to learn Arcanism at The University. However, we spend many years and many pages following his survival on the city streets. This was readable but I just wanted it to hurry up and get to The University where he’d start learning magic. Even when he got there, it was still slow paced and only mildly interesting. Much is said of the beautiful writing and while it is well written, it wasn’t particularly lyrical and not very atmospheric. I don’t mind a slow paced novel but this just felt meandering. I could have coped better with that if I loved the world but it didn’t grab me either. 3.25/5

 

Before The Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

“She wanted to do things without having to worry what others thought.
She simply lived for her freedom.”

This is a fairly short Japanese novel set entirely in a cafe in Tokyo. If you sit in a certain seat, you can return to a time in the past, and you can come back, as long as you come back before the coffee gets cold. The other catch is that while you can see and speak to people in the past, it doesn’t change anything in the future. We follow four people as they sit in the chair including a woman who goes back to the day her boyfriend broke up with her and another woman who relives the very last time she would get to speak to her sister. It’s a simple, whimsical stale rather than time-travelling sci-fi. It’s an allegory for how changing your perspective on the past can improve things immeasurably in the present. 3.25/5

 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

“She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

There was a buzz about this novel when it was released earlier in the year. In the 1950s, twins Desiree and Stella are growing up in Mallard, Louisiana, a small town where everyone is classed as ‘black’ but have such light skin they could be mistaken for white. Sick of feeling trapped and cleaning for a rich white family outside town, at the age of 16 the twins run away to New Orleans. After about a year, Stella leaves her sister behind for good to start a new, privileged life ‘passing’ as a white woman. At age 30, Desiree returns to Mallard with her dark skinned daughter Jude, who is bullied by the light skinned children and looked down upon by the adults. Like her mother and the aunt she’s never met, she can’t wait to leave and never come back. Stella also has a daughter, Kennedy, who has no idea of her mother’s secret and her own heritage. We then follow Desiree, Stella, Jude and Kennedy through their lives to the 1990s. It’s a book about racism and colouirsm but it’s also a well written story about two generations of women: trying to fulfill their hopes and dreams. It has an average rating on Goodreads of 4.29 but I struggle with books based around extended family relationships. I admired the prose and I was drawn in by the ‘passing’ plot, but it didn’t grip me in the way it did others. I felt like we skimmed over all four lives in a series of snapshots. I would have liked it to go deeper and concentrate on one or two all the way through, particularly Stella and the passing plot. Do investigate further if you like the sound of it though. It’s much lauded. 3.5/5

 

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

“People don’t like to be corrected about things like that. That was one of things Mr Peterson always told me. He said that correcting people’s grammar in the middle of a conversation made me sound like a Major Prick.”

 

 

 

 

I have a fondness for stories about misfit young men and fell hard for Alex. At age 11 he is hit by a meteorite which leaves him with epilepsy. Aside from this, he is a geeky boy with an eccentric mother who runs a New Age shop in their little village near Glastonbury, Somerset. He’s bullied at school and has no friends until he meets elderly American local resident, Mr Peterson. The ex-Vietnam Vet introduces Alex to Kurt Vonnegut who starts up a book club devoted to the author. All is well until Mr Peterson is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not a spoiler because the book opens with Alex, age 17, being arrested returning to England from Switzerland with Mr Peterson’s ashes and a large bag of pot. There are books that makes me smile inwardly but this book made me laugh out loud several times and cry once. It’s also very British in the way it depicts daily life on a micro level, which I enjoyed a lot. 4/5

 

How was your reading in November? 

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Gothic Reading Diary – October 2020

In which I read all the Gothic historical fiction while drinking lapsang souchong with M&S dark chocolate ginger biscuits beside a flickering Fornasetti candle.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower


“Later she will whisper that she will never want any other man again. Such is the drug which, dewed on the eyelids, makes yesterday inconsequential, and tomorrow certain, and today golden”


This 18th century historical fiction isn’t Gothic but it does have a dark, fantastical element. Mr Hancock, a  middle aged merchant with a good heart, suddenly becomes the owner of a mermaid. This causes a sensation in London society and sees him come into contact with  infamous Madam, Mrs Chappell. One of her ex ‘protégés’, Angelica Neal, makes quite an impression on Hancock and their fates become entwined.

One of the major factors of an engrossing historical novel is the attention to detail and there is so much here it brings the era vividly to life.
The contrast between Hancock’s modest home in Deptford with the debauchery that goes on in Mrs Chappell’s mansion in St. James, is striking.

Angelica Neal is a frivolous and vain young  woman who faces penury after recently losing her protector. Half way through the book I feared she’d made the steady Hancock become as foolish as her but the change she undergoes thanks to him is a quite something and I warmed to her immensely. The mermaid of the title is only really featured at the start and the end of the book but I liked the fact it was malevolent rather than romanticised. 4.5/5

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

“A fast didn’t go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.”



Emma Donoghue is the author of the bestseller Room which was adapted for the big screen. This is a Gothic story set in rural Ireland in the 1850s. At the beginning it reminded me of the fabulous Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. Both centre on a mystery surrounding young girls who villagers believe to be miraculous in some way. In The Wonder young Anna is said to have not eaten for four months. An English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale is hired to watch over to her to prove the veracity or otherwise of the family’s claim.
For about the first two thirds it’s pretty slow paced with Lib, the Nurse, determined to uncover a fraud and expressing to the reader deep prejudices held against the Irish which were prevalent in England at the time. She’s also appalled at what she sees as the superstitious nature of Catholicism, as it is clear devout Anna’s condition is somehow linked to religion. Lib is severe but we learn more of her backstory as time goes on. I thought it might be a gentle, possibly magical, tale but in the latter section of the book it gets very dark indeed as more and more disturbing  revelations are made. The ending had me gripped as I had guessed some of what was going on but had no idea of the final twists and turns. 4/5

 

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

“Once upon a time there was a fairy godmother, but the rest of the time there was none. This story is about one of those other times.”
 
I’ve been saving this to read in October and fully expected it to be a nailed on 5 star read. It is a 2006 bestselling novel inspired by eighteenth century Gothic fiction: Jane Eyre in particular is referenced throughout. An extremely bookish young women (who is carrying her own pain) is invited to write the biography of the reknowned reclusive author Vida Winter. Her history – which spans the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is a tale of twisted familial relationships and dark secrets with a mystery at its heart.

This is a love letter to storytelling and the solace of books. There are unlikely occurrences/situations throughout but I appreciate this is in keeping with the Gothic classics. Still, it was a tad over the top for me at times. 4.25/5

 

More Than A Woman by Caitlin Moran

And besides, when you lose skin elasticity, you also lose the amount of fucks you give. Perhaps that’s why the skin is so loose now – from all my fucks leaving.

 

I had a couple of credits to use up on Audible and thought this would give me a break from all the historical drama. I read Moran’s first memoir How To Be A Woman about ten years ago. This follow- up deals with middle-age. The first half made me think it wasn’t for me as it deals with day-to-day family life. Then the second half hits you with her daughter’s eating disorder. My eyes welled up as I heard about how her 13 year-old girl stopped eating and tried to kill herself. The worry and helplessness of it must have been unbearabe. She also talks about how she uses yoga to deal with her anxiety instead of drink, how she now has botox despite decrying it as anti-feminist in the first book and why the ‘hag life’ of the older woman is a joy. 3.5.5

 

 

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

“The world might indeed be a cursed circle; the snake swallowed its tail and there could be no end, only an eternal ruination and endless devouring.”

 

I was excited to read a Gothic tale set in the 1950s somewhere other than Europe. Not to mention that cover!
Strong-willed Noemi is sent to rural Mexico to check on her recently married cousin Catalina, after her father receives a worrying letter from her. She arrives to find the Doyles house, High Place, more of a decaying relic than a home and her cousin seems to be losing her mind. Catalina says the family are poisoning her and there are ghosts in the walls.

The house seems to have a life of its own and it’s clear something is behind the strange rules and behaviour of the household. There must be silence at meals, windows are to remain closed and she’s not allowed to leave without a chaperone. Noemi soon starts to have vivid nightmares and begins sleep-walking.

Three quarters of the way in, what’s really happening in the house and family is revealed. At this point it becomes a supernatural horror which really isn’t my thing. The family are all English so I didn’t get the Mexican folklore I was hoping for either. On top of that, the writing is a step down from the other novels. A disappointment overall. (Note: scenes of sexual assault) 2.75/5

 

The Witch of Willow Hall by Hestor Fox

“Yet at the same time I want to untether my heart, toss it up into the sky and let it take wing. There’s a wildness here that, if nothing else, holds promise, possibility. Who needs society? What has it ever done for us?”

I really wanted a less stressful Gothic read and thought this would be one. Happily it started out like a spooky Sense and Sensibility. A family with three daughters move to the New England countryside leaving behind a scandal in Boston. Here they they called upon by two charming and handsome young men who form attachments with the two older girls. Catherine is beautiful but calculating while Lydia is introverted and possesses a sensitivity shared by the youngest daughter, Emmeline. In their new home, Lydia sees a pale woman gliding across the garden at night and words of warning appear on her fogged up mirror. Then something horrible happens and a sickening secret is revealed. So much for Gothic-lite! However, from there enters Lydia’s cad of an ex-fiance and the tension is ratcheted up. It continues to read like a Gothic novel penned by Jane Austen and I really enjoyed this style. While I didn’t care for the romances in the other books, I did become invested in the one here. 4.25/5

 

This was an enlightening reading month. I found that I prefer classic-style Gothic fiction – from Jane Eyre to Rebecca – as opposed to the modern versions which seem to lean more towards horror. I want spooky, atmospheric reads rather than incest and ‘body horror’.

What is your taste in creepy fiction? 

 

 

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August/September Reading Diary

When the calendar ticked over to September I had to restrain myself from binging all the atmospheric dark/magical books I’d been saving for autumn. I’ve read one (which is featured below) but the rest I’m keeping for when it’s a bit colder. As with perfume, it turns out my book choices are seasonal. 

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

“Kneeling before me, he lays his head on my lap and says, ‘I’m going to ruin you.”

I bought this book for Our Bonkers Vanessa when it was first released with quite a stir at the start of lockdown. Its narrator is Vanessa, who is thirty-two at the height of the Me Too movement. Her old schoolteacher has been accused of sexual abuse and the present day plot is interspersed with the story of how, at fifteen, she was groomed by the same teacher. Back then she was an extremely promising student who had gained a scholarship to a private boarding school In the present, she’s working as a hotel concierge and getting through the days in a haze of drink and drugs. She is desperately clinging on to the idea that the ‘relationship’ she had with fortysomething Strane was a romance and not what we see in the re-telling – serious abuse.

I had thought the book would show Vanessa coming to terms with the truth. However this is more of an exploration of the dynamics between the predator and the victim. It shows the extreme manipulation that leads to the victim feeling responsible and protective towards their abuser, no matter what it costs them. This was handled incredibly well and I’ve never felt anger towards a character the way I did towards Strane. If you are very plot-driven or not interested in the subject, you may find it slow. 4.25/5

SPOILER

I didn’t get the satisfaction of Vanessa accepting the reality of what he did to her and speaking out. It ends pretty abruptly, as she is just beginning to face what really happened. However, I still found it compelling and didn’t feel cheated in any way. 

The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer

“Each of us actually believes that things should be the way we want them, instead of being the natural result of all the forces of creation.”

I read Singer’s The Untethered Soul at a tough time in my life and it really helped. The Surrender Experiment is more of a memoir exemplifying what living by the principles in that book can look like. Singer has a spiritual awakening in 1972 at the age of 22 and lives the rest of his life surrendering to whatever life brings him. We watch as events flow in such a way that the perfect people and opportunities arise at exactly the right time for the next forty years. This involves him inadvertently becoming a tech multimillionaire (though he ploughs the money back into his spiritual  organisation). It is an amazing testament to his dedication to his spiritual path but it is also near impossible to relate to. It’s hard not to feel that he was at least in part, unbelievably lucky and highly predisposed to be able to access a transcendental meditative state. For decades everything falls into place perfectly just by him accepting whatever comes along and not acting on his personal preferences or fears. It’s not until the 2000s that he is tested and even then he never really struggles. Maybe I’m just jealous.  3/5

The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world”

This gentle Japanese novel is about a housekeeper who goes to care for an elderly Maths genius whose short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes. He has notes all over his suit which act as reminders and numbers soothe his anxiety. At first the two of them don’t gel but when her young son starts to come to the house after school, a bond begins to form between the three of them. There was more Maths than I could follow – or wanted to – and a fair bit about baseball. However, overall it’s a short, sweet book about a chosen family. 3/5

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

‘Through the lens of hair texture, Dabiri leads us on a historical and cultural investigation of the global history of racism.’

Emma Dabiri is an academic who writes for The Guardian.  This is her first book which focuses on the personal and political aspects  of Black hair. Dabiri is the daughter of a white Irish mother and a Nigerian father. She grew up in Ireland in a time and place with few other Black people. She was implicitly and explicitly made aware that she was unlucky to be mixed race yet not born with the ‘good hair’ that normally comes with. Her mother first took her to England to get her hair relaxed at the age of  12. The harsh chemicals would cause her scalp to burn and scab over but this made her happy because it meant the process had worked. She now embraces her type 4 coils but this book is much more than a memoir. It goes back into the history of hair-styling in Africa, the effect slavery had on hair grooming, the emergence of relaxing in America and modern day cultural appropriation. 

I’ve decided not rate my enjoyment of anti-racism works as it just doesn’t sit right. 

The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker

“On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.”

This book had my name written all over it: mythical creatures, a historical setting and lyrical writing. A golem – a woman made of clay using Kabbalistic magic – is adrift in the Jewish quarter of New York City, 1899. At the same time, a djinni made of fire is released from a flask in the Little Syria district across the city. The golem, Chava, is taken in by an understanding rabbi while Ahmad is given a job by a local tinsmith. When their paths cross they recognise that the other is also different from the people around them. They strike up an unlikely friendship, with Ahmad being angry at his confinement to human form while Chava has a strong sense of responsibility towards others (whose needs she can sense).

The characters are beautifully rendered and the atmosphere of NYC at the turn of the 19th century is wonderful. If I had to criticise it, it is slow-paced and the two main characters don’t meet until over a third of the way into the book. However, I was in no rush. It won’t be for everyone but it was just my kind of novel. 4.5/5

Are there any books you’re looking forward to reading this autumn?

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Reading Diary – July 2020

A typically broad selection in this reading diary, from skincare and sci-fi to anti-racism and mythology. Please let me know what you’ve been reading in the comments.

Skincare by Caroline Hirons

Avoid anything ‘mattifying’ — a promise often made on products for oily skin. Skin is not designed to be ‘matte’. Your skin has plenty of time to be matte when you’re dead.

I’ve followed Caroline’s blog for around 7 years and in that time she’s become ‘The most powerful woman in beauty’. She is a brand consultant and skincare expert and has finally put all that knowledge into book form. Aside from her expertise, it’s full of her personality which is a huge plus. Expect straight-talking and swearing along with myth busting and a breakdown of the routine you need to follow at all ages. As a skincare junkie there wasn’t much I didn’t already know in terms of my own skin but it was a lot of fun and I love the subject. There is a fair amount of repetition but that’s important for newbies in order to get the mass of information across. It’s essentially a training manual for your skin. 4/5

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Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad

“Remember, white supremacy is not just about individual acts of racism, but rather it is a system of oppression that seeps into and often forms the foundation of many of the regular spaces where you spend your time—school, work, spiritual spaces, health and wellness spaces, and so on.”

9781529405101

Boy, did I learn a lot from this. If you want to be an anti-racist you have to do the work and IT IS work. You have to dig deep and confront the fact that growing up in Western society today means you will have absorbed unconscious beliefs that perpetuate racism. Me and White Supremacy is a 28 day programme that tackles a different topic each day – White Silence, White Exceptionalism, Anti-Blackness etc.

You are given journal prompts to reflect on your own experiences and complicity at the end of each chapter. It is only by doing this that we will build up the resilience that counteracts White Fragility (extreme defensiveness in discussions around racism) and enables us to be true allies to Black people. I may be mixed-race but still benefit from white privilege and I appreciated the author had notes specifically aimed at non-Black people of colour. I did crave more depth, history and context but I can fill those gaps for myself elsewhere.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

“If this isn’t hell, the devil is surely taking notes.”

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This is a sci-fi take on an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered at 11pm at a party held at the family’s dilapidated country pile, Blackheath. Our protagonist relives the day eight times, waking up each time in the body of a different guest at the party. It is his job to work out who killed Evelyn by the end of the day in order to escape his memories being wiped and the process starting over.

This is a hugely popular book and has won a couple of awards. Unfortunately it just wasn’t for me. I have no interest in murder mysteries and I’ve come to realise I strongly dislike the sci-fi ‘Groundhog Day’ trope of the same day/life being lived over and over again. I find it convoluted and dull. By the time the big twist is revealed I was long over it. I admire Turton for writing it though; the complexity is mind-boggling. 2.5/5

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker UK

I now felt like some reliable epic fantasy and Sanderson is arguably the best in the business right now. This is one of his earlier – at that time -standalone novels. It revolves around the rival kingdoms of Idris and Hallandran. For twenty years, the eldest princess of Idris has been promised to the much-feared God King of Hallandran. At the last minute, the Idris King changes the plan and sends his youngest – and much more naive -daughter instead. As usual with Sanderson the magic is a well thought out system involving colour and the awakening of objects, to put it briefly.

The most interesting characters of the book however were The Returned who are worshipped as Gods. Only one of The Returned, by the name of Lightsong, doesn’t actually believe in the religion that idolises him and this makes for some comic moments. The intrigue picks up pace as war is on the cards but it’s hard not to compare it to the later series he is most known for. Compared to the Mistborn trilogy the ending fell a bit flat but it was an enjoyable enough time and it seems it’s been left open for a sequel eventually. 3.5/5

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

“This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.”

I don’t seem to tire of Greek myth retellings and this one published in 2018 had been on my radar for a while. It centres on the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis, a young queen who is given to Achilles as a prize of honour when her city is sacked and all the men killed. The surviving women are taken as slaves to the Greeks compound on the beach from which they have laid siege to Troy for nine years. Seeing the well known story through the eyes of Briseis gives us a much more intimate idea of what the women were subjected to in this tale which makes it more interesting but also more brutal. Where the lines are blurred for some of the women, Briseis keeps her boundaries strong, if only in her mind. I really liked her and I can never get enough about the relationship between Achilles and Petroclus, although this novel is in part a rebuttal of the romanticisation of a ruthless warrior. It’s extremely readable but for me, it’s not on the same level as The Song of Achilles or Circe, but well worth a read if you fancy a fresh female take on the Trojan War myth. 3.75/5

silence of the girls

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