Category Archives: Book Review

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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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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