“Under the Blue” by Oana Aristide – review

The year is 2020. A deadly virus has swept across the world with alarming speed, killing almost everyone in its path. A tiny group of survivors must set out on a race across the globe to outrun both the disease and the environmental catastrophe that threatens to follow in its wake.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but please, stay with me for a moment!!

Firstly, it’s both interesting and important to read the author’s note that accompanies the novel, in which she explains it was actually written well before the horrendous events of last year began, so any anxieties about this being a tasteless cash-in novel can be dispelled straight away. Secondly, you may be asking yourself, do I really want to read a novel about a global pandemic in the current circumstances? Well, I wouldn’t have said so either before I read this, but although on the surface it appears painfully close to reality, it actually takes a vastly different road very quickly. Likewise the themes it tackles are a world away from the ones that raise their heads on our news reports day in day out; this isn’t a debate on government action or inaction, healthcare inequalities or vaccine nationalism. Instead, it zooms in on two opposite ends of perhaps the most fundamental spectrum there is: the individual’s moral choices and the ethics of the species that is humankind.

There are only a tiny number of characters in the novel, something which, despite the worldwide nature of the events that are unfolding, gives it an intensely intimate feel. The protagonist is Harry, a loner and an artist who, apart from a few casual interactions with the neighbours, lives in his own little world without family or real friends. We know from the opening pages he is carrying a burden of guilt and sadness relating to his recently deceased nephew, but exactly why is at this point something of a mystery. When the virus hits the London he is forced, like so many millions of others, to run – the start of a harrowing and desperate journey that we will take with him throughout the course of the book. The second strand of the novel took me completely by surprise, coming as it does in complete contrast to Harry’s quest for survival. It begins in 2017, three years before the pandemic, and focuses on a pair of scientists and their attempt to develop an artificial intelligence that will ultimately, it is hoped, be able to anticipate and identify large scale threats to humanity before they happen. The training regime for the AI – named Talos – seems laborious at first, as it works through history from the earliest human times, learning about everything from the fall of the Roman Empire to the great plague of the fourteenth century in order to accumulate information that will help it predict future scenarios. However, things move on, more quickly and in a more complex direction than scientists Paul and Lisa had predicted, as they attempt to give Talos an understanding of the concept of using ethical judgement in decision making. As the AI begins to grow a mind of its own outside of the initial parameters his creators believed they had set, he (the scientists refer to Talos as having a male identity) raises increasingly challenging questions about exactly why humans hold the beliefs they do in relation to the fundamentals of right and wrong. As the time of the pandemic approaches, there seems to be more and more doubt as to whether Talos is actually prepared to be the saviour of humanity, or whether his actions will ultimately be governed by his own internal “belief” system that may in fact run counter to human interests.

I’m always very conscious not to give away spoilers if I can help it when I write a review, and because this novel is such a tense ride from beginning to end I’m going to pull up even shorter than I would normally when discussing plot and characters! I’m not going to tell you anything about what happens to Harry on his journey, or what finally becomes of Lisa and Paul’s uber-intelligent robot creation Talos. I don’t need to dangle tantalising eipsodes from the novel in front of you to get you hooked; Oana Aristide has been exceptionally clever in the way she pulls you into the story from the word go, so if you’ve got as far as picking up the book in the first place, then your investment in its characters and climax is pretty much a given. It must be tempting when you’ve created a fictional, scientific event such as the catastrophe of Under the Blue to indulge yourself by presenting the reader with all the details you’ve worked out lovingly in your head prior to writing, but the author refrains from any premature exposition – one of the novel’s great strengths. Harry, for days, even weeks, doesn’t have the full picture of what’s going on; and why would he? He’s had to pack a bag and run, with no time to go online or watch hours of rolling news bulletins, so it makes perfect sense that to start with we know very little either. The author doesn’t allow us access to any information before it comes onto the radar of her characters, and it’s that uncertainty, unease and desperation to get our heads round just what is going on that gives the story such a compelling edge. Yet Harry’s struggle isn’t just about coming to terms with the reality of current events, harrowing enough though that would be in its own right, but the realities that lie semi-buried in his own psyche: his guilt, his failings, his unfulfilled desires and the deep-seated isolation that goes beyond even being one of the last people left alive on earth. I thought he was a wonderful character – completely real, likeable in his own slightly sad way, and free from any post-apocalyptic survivor cliche.

The tension, strangely, doesn’t come (for the most part) from big, bombshell moments of high drama, but rather from the bizarre and unexpected sense of inertia surrounding Harry’s attempt to make it to safety. We get the sense that somehow, whatever decisions he makes and however many miles he travels, he is no closer to the relief of a secure and happy end. The mixture of hope, necessity of action but also futility is emotionally exhausting, for both us and the characters, mirrored and intensified by the unremitting, stifling heat of a parched and unforgiving summer. The second strand of the novel, the story of Talos the AI, is vastly different in style and provides a break from the uncomfortable, sweat-drenched narrative of Harry’s physically and mentally arduous escape attempt. Written entirely in script-like dialogue, it’s pacey and immediate, yet still manages to take its time unpacking the disquieting questions that arise when humanity is assessed objectively by something that has been created without any of the moral assumptions we take for granted. As Talos learns more about the species that built him, he puts across a new perspective on humankind’s supposed moral mastery of the world: are we actually anywhere near as inherently “good” as we believe we are? Do we really possess any innate superiority that would justify our position as judge, jury and executioner on this planet? And perhaps most importantly, what grievous damage have we done to this world that we call home while blinkered to the level of our destructive capabilities? Lisa and Paul intend their robot to be unshakably on the side of humanity, but as the story unfolds it becomes less and less clear whether or not he ultimately is. The fact that I started very quickly to think of the AI as simply another character with his own “personality” is a testament to how cleverly his dialogue is written; if this part of the novel had failed to hit the right note of authenticity it would have undermined the whole thing, but it’s entirely convincing.

We can guess, given Talos’s proposed purpose as a predictor of catastrophe, that the scientists’ story will at some point tie in with the pandemic narrative, but it is almost the end of the novel before we find out exactly how. When the two strands finally come together, it’s with an emotional heft that I can still feel weighing on me some time after reading; it’s one of those conclusions that you need to go away and think about quietly for a while afterwards. The author leaves us with a whole world of ideas still to ruminate over even after the book has ended, and there’s a real satisfaction to that as you know the novel has done its job. The events of the past year have certainly made me re-examine how I look at certain things, and in many ways I feel I was somehow emotionally primed and ready to read a novel like this and get the most out of it. As ever, I’d very much love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading x

  • Under the Blue is out in March, and I won my advance reading copy in a Twitter giveaway competition.

January wrap-up 2021!

I don’t know about everyone else, but this January has felt sooooooo loooooong. It’s not been a bad start to the year for reading though, with a couple of real gems popping up already. I’m just sorry I haven’t got round to reviewing them all, but in lieu of that, here’s a run down of January’s book discoveries – I’d love to know if you’ve read and enjoyed any of these too!

  • The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory – I come back to this series periodically after first getting into it in 2018, and this is number ten. If you’re a fan of historical crime that’s not too dark or heavy-going I’d highly recommend them; the first is A Plague on Both Your Houses. Perfect escapism from the trials and tribulations of the modern world!
  • Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers – Do you ever come across a book that you love and want to produce a glowing review for…… and then find that somehow you just can’t write about it?! Unfortunately this was one such book, but I want to put a word in for it here because it was excellent, and if you’re interested in retellings of ancient myths then it will fascinate you. It’s the story of Oedipus as told to a dying Sigmund Freud by a mysterious figure who visits him in his final weeks – a figure who it transpires was a participant in the story itself! I thought Salley Vickers’ novel was an exceptionally clever twist on the idea of how we retell old tales, and it’s definitely worth a look.
  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession – I wrote a review of this only a few days ago (which you can check out here) so I won’t say too much more other than, put it on your tbr pile now!
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – I’m aware that I’m very late to the party as regards Stacey Halls, and having LOVED this book I’m sorry I didn’t read her sooner. It was one of those novels that kept you up until the small hours, desperate to find out what was going to happen; her previous book, The Familiars, has just arrived in a parcel this morning, and I’m currently debating whether to leap into it straight away or save it for a time when I need a guaranteed page-turner.
  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – and this was a guaranteed page-turner that I’d been saving! I thought The Guest List by the same author was enormous fun (read my review here); to be perfectly honest, this was pretty much an identikit format with an incredibly similar cast of characters, but actually, I found I didn’t care as what was also identical was the level of enjoyment I got out of it!
  • Little by Edward Carey – Before I started on this wrap-up post I was debating whether to pick a January Book of the Month and decided I couldn’t because the choice was too hard. If I had to though, this would be a definite contender. My full review is here, but in summary it was a thoroughly original, striking, macabre and imaginative piece of historical fiction: highly recommended.
  • Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer – This was the final installment of the Southern Reach trilogy, which I started reading not long before Christmas, and I can honestly say I can’t remember a series that disturbed me as much as these. It’s not outright horror by any means, yet the ideas at play here are so terrifying when you really start thinking about them, that it’s difficult to get them out of your head. I am SO lucky to have just received a proof of his latest novel, Hummingbird Salamander (out this Spring), and it’s next on my list to read.

As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read any of these, as well as any must-reads I need to add to February’s list! Until next time, happy reading x

“Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Ronan Hession – review

There are some books that announce their presence with fireworks and fanfare, and there are some that slip quietly in by the side door and wait for you to notice them. Leonard and Hungry Paul is understated in almost every way, yet manages to blossom into something pretty special. There’s little to summarise in the way of plot; although the novel is loosely framed by the run-up to the wedding of Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, that’s not where the real depth of the novel lies. It’s as much of a character exploration as it is a story, focusing its lens on a brief period in the lives of two best friends whose personal circumstances and life trajectories don’t quite fit the expectations of those around them – and perhaps those reading about them too. Both are single, neither are pursuing an all-consuming quest for romance. Both have spent their whole lives (they are now in their 30s) living with parents, although when the novel begins Leonard’s mother has just died, and with it the world he knows. Neither do they have high-flying careers as some sort of acceptable “substitute” for relationships: Leonard writes entries for children’s encyclopedias and Hungry Paul works a couple of days a week as a postman, standing in when the regulars are off duty. Through the course of the book, the author explores the big-hearted friendship that has kept the complications of the outside world at bay. They talk, they play board games and simply enjoy each other’s company, kindred spirits who understand each other perfectly, even if not everyone else understands them. Yet even Leonard and Hungry Paul’s tranquil existence isn’t immune from twists of fate, and little by little a trickle of small surprises and unpredictable turns of events conspire to raise the possibility that their lives might be about to change.

My overriding emotion when reading this novel was actually one of relief: finally, a contemporary novel brave enough to feature as its lead characters the type of people who are all too often sidelined in fiction of all kinds, whether it’s in book form, or on TV or film. What made the book particularly clever, I thought, was the way it went one step further, and flipped the conventions of what we expect from a novel about relationships. Paul’s sister Grace fits the “main character” bill perfectly: she has a successful career, a wedding on the horizon and just enough doubt about why she doesn’t feel as excited about it as she should to fuel a whole story of romantic angst and self-analysis. Paul and Leonard would normally be the sideshow, two single men in their thirties brought into the story ever now and then for a bit of comic relief or to provide a shoulder to cry on, before receding quietly to allow Grace, star of the show, her happy-ever-after moment. But in this novel the author gives them their own story. We care about Grace, and follow her with some interest, but the hope we have for a happy ending is well and truly on behalf of Leonard and Hungry Paul.

What was refreshing as well was the fact that you might assume at the start of the novel that these two men are somehow to be pitied, falling as they do outside the normal parameters of what society regards as a success. Yet the only thing that saddened me during the course of the novel was not the nature of Leonard and Paul themselves, but the way they were sometimes misinterpreted or misjudged by others. When Leonard makes a misstep in a potential romance he has absolutely no idea he has done so; since everything he does comes from a place of kindness, he is taken aback to find out that some people aren’t used to being on the receiving end of something he sees as so fundamental that it doesn’t even warrant thought or analysis. Grace badgers her brother Paul constantly, seeing him as a drain on her parents and completely lacking in drive or ambition, yet failing to realise that his situation isn’t borne of laziness or selfishness, but rather a certain zen-like simplicity of worldview. If your life is going smoothly, and you and those who surround you are content (and to be fair his parents have never told him outright that they aren’t) then why would you want to change things for the sake of it?

However, throughout the course of the novel, opportunities present themselves to the two friends that could mean change is on the horizon, but they come in very different forms. Leonard’s encounter with a co-worker sparks the courage to pursue a romantic relationship in a way he’s never done before, but perhaps more importantly provides him with the inspiration to unleash the creativity that’s been smouldering inside him with no outlet. For Hungry Paul, it’s his entry for a very banal local competition (leading to some laugh-out-loud funny moments) that has unexpected consequences. Yet in keeping with the tone of the novel, any changes that come aren’t cataclysmic. There are no epiphanies, no earth-shattering events that result in either of the friends suddenly shaking off their past selves and becoming different people. Indeed, what the author seems to care about more than anything is the idea that personal growth should be about embracing rather than abandoning who you are; it’s not about trying to mould yourself to someone else’s idea of achievement, but tapping into the unique abilities you possess just by being you. It sounds a bit trite when written here but believe me, in Ronan Hession’s hands it’s very powerful – and moving.

There were a few sections of the book that for me didn’t quite work as well as the bulk of it. The author clearly knows his characters inside out – their thoughts, motivations, worries and priorities – and is keen to share them with the reader in as much detail as possible. However, there were times when the desire to go inside a character’s head in such depth started to read a bit more like a psychological description than a novel. The most striking example is a chapter that describes every relationship Grace has had since her teenage years, in an attempt to provide context for why her current relationship with her fiance has so far worked out well. I’m all for building three-dimensional characters, but this felt like a slightly odd way to do it and was a little off-kilter to read.

That niggle aside, Leonard and Hungry Paul was a real pleasure, and it was a joy to spend time in the company of two men whose warmth, gentleness and complete lack of artifice is a ray of light in an angry, noisy and frenetic world. The novel, although as benign as its characters, is at the same time a quiet call-to-arms to re-evaluate the way we regard our fellow humans, and to really consider what it is that gives a person their true value. It’s all too easy, the author suggests, to overlook those who aren’t shouting the loudest, pushing themselves to the fore or meeting preconceived notions of social attainment. He knows, however, how precious and special his characters are, and shows them the care and attention they truly deserve. If you feel like you need a glimmer of hope – don’t we all – then I would tell you to pick up this book, go into a quiet corner and allow yourself to absorb all the love contained in these tender pages.

Thank you for reading x

My week in books – wrapped up!

It’s Sunday night so that means it’s weekly wrap-up time! I’ve been in a bit of a weird reading limbo over the last couple of days, principally because I know I have some AMAZING proof copies and online orders on their way and I’m reluctant to start anything too involved or lengthy as I want to get onto them as soon as they hit the doorstep. More about those later in the wrap-up, but first a run down of the books I’ve finished this week:

*Books finished*

  • Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession – this is one of those books for which I have to thank the book twitter universe; if it hadn’t been for the reviews and general enthusiasm that I kept coming across on there it would have passed me by completely. It definitely wasn’t without its flaws but nonetheless there was a real charm and warmth about it, and most important of all a willingness to grant its central roles to the kind of characters that wouldn’t normally get much of a look in. Review to follow this week!
  • Little by Edward Carey – if you’re a regular visitor to This Girl’s Book Room you’ll know how much I love a novel based on real life figures from history (if you’re interested, you can read about some of my all time faves here). This one is haunting, macabre and features one of the best female leads I’ve come across for some time: she is Marie Grosholtz, the woman who later became known to the world as Madame Tussaud. It comes highly recommended by yours truly, and you can read my full review here.
  • The Foundling by Stacey Halls – I was reading this thinking, how on earth has this fabulous author gone undiscovered by me for such a long time??? It’s a gripping story of a mother’s attempts to find the child she gave away only hours after it was born and it’s WONDERFUL – I was up reading well into the night, totally unable to put it down until the small hours, desperate to find out how the story was going to unfold.

*Books purchased*

Luckily I still have some Christmas gift vouchers to burn (although they’re diminishing fast!) so another hefty book parcel was definitely on the cards. I’m currently waiting for all these beauties to pop through the letterbox – I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these already and what you thought.

  • Unfollow by Megan Phelps Roper – I don’t read a whole lot of biographies but I do find the world of these kind of closed religious communities (and the damage they can do) absolutely fascinating so looking forward to this.
  • The Familiars by Stacey Halls – because after loving The Foundling so much I just had to get her back catalogue ordered asap!
  • Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami – I’ve seen quite a few bloggers and bookstagrammers taking part in the January in Japan hashtag, and while I don’t quite have the time to commit to that on top of all my other reading, I’ve picked up on some intriguing-sounding titles from their reviews, and this one in particular caught my eye.
  • We are all Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan – I tend to save my hardback purchases for books that look REALLY amazing, and this certainly does! Again, I’ve seen lots of bookish peeps talking about it so very excited to get going.

*Currently reading*

Lastly, onto my current reads; as I mentioned earlier I’m kind of treading water until my proofs and new book purchases arrive, so in the meantime I’ve gone for a thriller that I know I can race through and simply have fun reading. I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley last year and loved its page-turning pace and multiple-character narrative, so I’ve gone for The Hunting Party, which to be honest is more of exactly the same but I’m more than happy with that!

That concludes the wrap-up for this week! Next week will be the last one of January already (which I can’t quite believe) but until then, happy reading.

“Little” by Edward Carey – review

Today we know her as Madame Tussaud, but for much of her life she was plain Marie Grosholtz – “Little”. This wonderfully imaginative novel gives a backstory to the diminutive girl who grew up to become the hugely successful businesswoman whose name is now familiar the world over. Her start in life was far from auspicious: orphaned at a tragically young age, she found herself in the care of the eccentric – and although not unkind, far from warm – medical model-maker Dr. Curtius. It marked the start of an extremely bizarre childhood, learning how to make lifelike wax models of internal organs and other parts of the human body in all their biologically accurate detail. Then one day Dr. Curtius gets a strange request: to cast the head of a medical colleague in wax. From that moment on, Marie’s life will never be the same again. The great and the good all want their likeness cast in wax, a new kind of status symbol, and Dr. Curtius has found his niche in business. The peculiar but touching partnership of Marie and the doctor, however, is not to last; circumstances drive the pair to Paris, where they lodge in the home of widowed Mme Picot and her son Edmond. The widow seems to have one aim from the offset, namely to exploit Dr. Curtius’s commercial success for her own gain and to drive a wedge between him and the little girl who’s worked so faithfully alongside him. Marie endures years of cruelty, neglect, exploitation and violence at the hands of this most horrendous of characters, until fate intervenes once again and she experiences a reversal of fortune that no-one from a poverty-stricken background such as hers could ever have imagined was possible.

In the decades that follow, Marie bears witness to some of the most famous events in French history, from royal machinations at the Palace of Versailles to the grim horrors of the French Revolution and its aftermath. During this volatile and dangerous era, it is wax that saves her again and again, her talent being both a release from fear and loneliness, and a literal life-saver in the darkest throes of The Terror. You can well imagine, then, how this pairing of the brutal time period and the naturally unsettling nature of wax heads that look like they’re about to spring to life, combines to create a novel that doesn’t just flirt with the macabre so much as jump into bed with it. The casting of wax heads is an uncomfortable business at the best of times, but one that turns into a truly gruesome practice when used on the freshly severed heads brought to the doctor and his apprentice by revolutionaries in the heat of their bloodlust. Yet even years before the anarchy in the French capital explodes in its bloody climax, the entire world is troubled by a sense of unease, whether it’s the wax replicas of notorious murderers in the exhibition hallway, the ghosts that Marie is sure she can hear stalking the Paris house or the chilling feeling that society itself is about to fall over a precipice from which there can be no return.

Little is also a deeply sad novel. Over the course of her life Marie experiences loss after devastating loss, the ones she suffers in later years proving to be the most soul-destroying of them all. She is not alone; many, if not most, of the people with whom she crosses paths are carrying the weight of their own grief, suffering and what we would today call post-traumatic stress with them as well. This is a world where people disappear, taken either by fate or by others intent on causing pain and hurt. Yet Marie somehow carries on, bearing her burdens with a resolute steadfastness and strength of character that never feels contrived or unrealistic, but rather keeps you rooting for her right to the end. The story is told in her voice, and I loved the way the tone gradually shifted from a childlike view of the world around her to the more mature outlook of a grown woman. Even as an adult, however, Marie never loses the sense of imagination and wonder that has been with her since the beginning; there is a hint of something magical, undefinable and unknowable in the air even in those times when the grim earthliness of events cannot be ignored.

I enjoyed Little from beginning to end, and Marie Grosholtz is one of the most beautifully drawn lead characters I can remember reading about for some time. Her life is strange, unconventional and pervaded by the sinister, and all the more memorable for it. If like me you love novels reimagining the lives of real figures from history then you’ll be a fan of this for sure; if you’ve read it already, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Thank you for reading x

Reading in tough times: the books that got me through 2020

It’s been a recurring theme on my blog over the last 9 months: how reading has been a genuine lifeline for getting through sad, worrying and uncertain times. When things are at their worst, sometimes it’s a question of simply getting through a day, an afternoon, an hour – never mind coping for the long haul. We all know 2021 hasn’t got off to the most joyful of starts, so I thought I’d bring a little ray of reading sunshine with a rundown of some of the books that got me through 2020. To be fair, there wasn’t a single book I read that didn’t contribute to my sense of wellbeing, but I’ve gone through my reading log and picked out some titles that have, in my eyes, a particular uplifting quality to them. If you’re after something to raise your spirits on a cold, dark winter’s day then maybe you’d like to try one of these!

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

It might seem a bit of a strange inclusion this one as it’s not an easy read by any means, addressing as it does themes of forced marriage, domestic abuse, violence and oppression. However, while reading it I was taken aback at what could, bizarrely, be described as the almost fairytale-like quality of the story; Adunni, the girl of the title, fights to overcome the most horrendous of circumstances with a fortitude that is both inspiring and almost unimaginable given the extreme nature of the obstacles she faces. If you want a tale of triumph over adversity this will not disappoint.

This is Happiness by Niall Williams

Like the previous choice, there is certainly an element of sadness to this novel, albeit of a more gentle variety; lost love, uncertainty around your place in the world and deep regret for the things we leave undone and unsaid as the years catch up with us. Yet the overwhelming sensation here is one of calmness and a quiet optimism that things will turn out as they’re meant to. It almost feels like a novel-length meditation, with prose so beautiful it catches your breath, and you’ll close the last page with a feeling of having been very deeply moved.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

I started this back in February last year and finally finished it around Christmas, which has got to be some sort of record! My excuse (and I’m sticking to it!) is that it’s the kind of book that lends itself to being read in small chunks due to its episodic format, and I actually really enjoyed reading it in that way, coming back to it a couple of chapters at a time when I was in need of a burst of humour without needing to get embroiled in a must-read-on-and-see-what-happens kind of linear storyline. Despite its age, the comedy is as fresh as ever and it’s simply a huge amount of fun.

Murder at the Grand Raj Palace by Vaseem Khan

I absolutely adore this series of detective novels (if you’ve never tried them, you can read my review of the first in the series here). The Indian setting is alive with sound, smell and colour, and transports you to a world very far away from this one, which is what we all need sometimes. But the ace in the pack is without doubt the addition of Detective Chopra’s unorthodox sidekick, domesticated baby elephant Ganesha – and if you can read a novel featuring a baby elephant without feeling completely cheered then I don’t know what else to suggest!

A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer

I going with a non-fiction title to finish off my list of uplifting books, and it’s the kind of history book I love: quirky social history written by an author who clearly has a life-affirming passion for his unusual subject. I do happen to be an enormous fan of cheese in all its forms, but if you’re thinking this is too niche for you and only of interest to the extreme cheese-nerds out there then think again. The beauty of the book is that it encompasses yes, the history of cheesemaking of course, but also works as a more general social history, autobiography and travelogue. It was Ned Palmer’s infectious enthusiasm however that really earned the book its place on my list; you feel like you’re being gently ushered into a fan club you didn’t know you wanted to join.

I really hope you enjoyed my list of reading for tough times, and of course if you have any of your own suggestions I’d love to hear them! Thanks for reading x

The Outstanding Blogger Award #2

First off, a huge thank you to Isha from the lovely Paperback Tomes for nominating me for this award. Do take a minute to go and check out her blog; she writes really thoughtful, detailed reviews and her page is well worth a visit. It’s ages since I’ve taken part in a blogger award, but before I get down to answering Isha’s questions here are the rules for this particular one.

  • Answer the questions provided
  • Create 7 unique questions of your own
  • Nominate 10 bloggers to take part
  • Include the link to the creator’s original post – now I should say here, that according to the initial rules when this award was set up, everyone who pinged back to the original blog by the end of 2020 would be eligible for an overall award. Clearly I’m too late to be part of this aspect of the blogger award tag, so I’m doing this just for fun!

The main reason I love taking part in these awards and similar book tags is that I really enjoy getting to know other bloggers by reading the answers to their questions; so let’s get down to Isha’s 7 questions for me….

What are your thoughts so far on blogging?

It’s difficult to give a definite answer to this one actually, as I swing between days that are more positive and days when I get a bit grumpy about the blog! I really love writing and chatting about books and having a book blog is the perfect outlet for that. However, it’s hard not to get disheartened when you put a lot of effort into creating something and the number of views just don’t seem enough to make your work worthwhile. I’m not rigid in any way when it comes to writing as I’d rather keep it as something I do when I feel like it, rather than being tied to a blogging schedule.

List 3 of your favourite fantasy books

I’m not a big fantasy reader at all, so I’m going to have to broaden the category a little to include books that fall somewhere a bit more generally on the magical spectrum! My top one without a doubt would be The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko – the whole series is excellent but this first installment blew my mind. Close second is a book that’s probably more sci-fi than fantasy strictly speaking: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Again, this is part of a series that taken as a whole is immensely powerful, but you could treat the first book as a standalone if you wanted to dip your toe in the water. Lastly, I have to give a shout out to A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, a book I loved because the world it depicts is close enough to our own for it to seem completely real and relatable – except there are dragons!

One bookish hobby you want to cultivate

A few years ago I had a go at making 3D creations out of book pages (there’s a really good book called Playing with Books that has loads of inspiring craft ideas) so I’d love to have a proper go at this at some point.

What is your favourite go-to TV show/series?

Being someone of very limited concentration span or patience, I’ve never been one for immersing myself in those epic TV shows that run for season after season with 24 episodes in each series! The best I’ve managed on this front is The West Wing, which I loved to start with but then ground to a halt mid-way through season 5. I prefer comedy series where you can dip in and out and watch a half hour episode here and there as you feel like it; I can’t say I have one all-time favourite but some of the ones I go back to again and again are Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Friends and Flight of the Conchords.

There must be at least one book that shattered your world. Which book would this be?

After some consideration I think I’d have to say A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell. It definitely won’t be for everyone due to the fact it has suicide as its main driving theme; however, the skill of the author to create something so bleak, devastating and yet shot through with black humour that makes you laugh out loud even in the midst of tragedy blew me away. And it did also break my heart into little pieces.

What is your favourite trope in books?

I don’t think I really have a favourite – the only ones that spring to mind are the ones that absolutely drive me mad! My least favourite: romantic novels in which the two leading characters “fall in love” after a ridiculously short time or after a cringeworthy contrived meeting that makes them inexplicably obsessed with each other.

Name one self-care tip that you follow every day.

Eat what you like and don’t stress too much about it. If you want another biscuit, for goodness sake have another biscuit!

Now for my seven questions…..

  • If you had to live out the rest of your life in a book or fictional world, which one would it be?
  • What was the last book that took you by surprise?
  • Have you ever come across a movie that was better than the book and if so, which one?
  • Reading is, of course, your favourite pastime – but what’s your second favourite?
  • What are your top tips for getting out of a reading slump?
  • Do you keep a record of the books you’ve read and if so, where and how?
  • Which book due to be published in 2021 are you most excited about?

I always find it really difficult to choose who to tag for these blogger awards, so I’m going to make the decision to keep it open. I want anyone who would like to join in to be able to do so, so if you’d like to answer my questions and then create some of your own, please jump in!

My week in books – wrapped up!

Like most of us I’m spending a lot of time looking at the same four walls at the moment; a grim sense of groundhog day on one hand, but on the other hand immensely grateful that I’m in the enormously lucky position of getting to stay safe at home, and also incredibly thankful for the books that surround me and that are going some way to keeping me sane. I don’t do reading or blogging resolutions for the new year, other than read what I want, when I want and write about it when the mood takes me. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t even a little bit pleased with the bookish start I’ve made to 2021 so far!

*Books finished*

  • Where Three Roads Meet by Salley Vickers – a book I picked up in a charity shop ages ago, this is one of the Canongate myths series, and is a highly imaginative take on the Oedipus story. A dying Freud receives a mysterious, otherworldly visitor, who it transpires played a key role in Oedipus’s sorry tale, and who shines a new light on the psychology of a story that we – and Freud – thought we knew so well. There have been loads of ancient myth retellings recently, and if you’re a fan of the genre this gives it a fascinating spin.
  • The Hand of Justice by Susanna Gregory – when things are getting me down I always reach for a Susanna Gregory book; easy, escapist reading that takes you to a safe place many centuries ago and a world away from everything that’s going on right now.
  • Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer – this is the conclusion to the Southern Reach trilogy, which I started just before Christmas, and I can honestly say I haven’t been this haunted by a story for a very long time. There was something about the psychological ideas at play here that really got under my skin and disturbed me; notions about what it means to lose your identity, to face a long and drawn out contemplation of your own death….. it’s chilling stuff. But SOOO amazing to read, and I highly recommend.

*Books purchased*

It wouldn’t be lockdown without a Waterstones parcel arriving on the doorstep, and these are the first arrivals of 2021:

I’m really looking forward to all of these, particularly The Foundling as I’ve been meaning to try a Stacey Halls novel for ever. Leonard and Hungry Paul seems to be the book of 2020 that I somehow completely missed, and from what I hear it’s a really uplifting read, which is just what’s needed right now. But first, I need to finish my current pile:

*Currently reading*

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau – this was one I read at uni but raced through before I’d really had a chance to appreciate it, so I’m revisiting it now when I can really take my time with it.
  • Little by Edward Carey – a friend recommended this novel to me a while back but it’s only just made its way on to my currently reading pile, and I’m sorry I waited so long because I’m absolutely loving it!

Having been away from the blog for a little while, I haven’t quite got back into the swing of writing regular reviews yet, but I hope to have some up here for you before too long. In the meantime, happy new year and happy reading!

A New Year’s Treat!

I get a bit grumpy sometimes about having a December birthday but it does have its upsides: a combination of Waterstones vouchers for both birthday and Christmas (yay!) means I’ve got a proper stash to go on a spree with in 2021! Of course, sadly bookshops are now closed for the foreseeable, but I managed to get in there just before the shutdown and grab myself these beauties.

Loads of my book-loving friends have multiple editions of their favourite books, but I’ve never done that; no matter how much I love a book (or how hard I fall in love with a special edition) I just can’t bring myself to double up. All these beautiful things, therefore, are classics I don’t already have in my collection. How I’ve missed out on owning Persuasion all this time I’m not sure as it’s probably my favourite Austen, but that hideous error is now rectified by this glorious Chiltern edition. I only came across this publisher for the first time a few months ago and their books are GORGEOUS – if you’ve not seen one in the flesh before I thoroughly recommend checking out their website. As for the other two purchases, well, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions – classy cover art, gold-edged pages and small enough to fit in your pocket; what’s not to love? I have vague memories of reading Walden at university some years ago, but as anyone who’s ever studied English Literature will confirm, you have to get through soooooo many books so quickly that even some of the most enjoyable ones end up going in one side of your brain and out the other at some speed. Time then, I thought, to revisit it when, let’s face it, I have A LOT more time on my hands….

If any of you were lucky enough to get book tokens this Christmas, what was in your new year book haul?

Thanks for reading, see you next time x

Six Degrees of Separation – January’s journey in 6 books

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books are my Favourite and Best. Every month she chooses a different book as a starting point, and from then on it’s up to everyone to create their own chain of 6 books that follow on from it. The last book doesn’t have to be connected to the first in any way; all that matters is that each book links somehow to the one before. Hop over to the 6 Degrees page to learn more or see previous connections, or follow the hashtag #6Degrees on Twitter – I’m a bit tardy taking part this month but it’s not too late if you want to join in!

The jumping-off point for January is a book I haven’t read yet, but is high on the list for 2021: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. So where to go next…..?

The Tutor by Andrea Chapin

Hamnet is a re-imagining of an episode in the life of Shakespeare and his family, so I’m taking the 6 degrees chain straight on to another book featuring a fictional version of The Bard. I’m a sucker for novels featuring real figures from history, and this one in particular is a lot of fun.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

This gripping novel, like the previous one, explores the relationship between student and teacher – the mood, however, is very different! I started off thinking it was going to be just another campus drama, but in fact the author ended up taking it somewhere quite unexpected. It was one of several debut novels I read in 2020, so this seems like a good opportunity to mention another favourite first novel from last year:

The Cat and the City by Nick Bradley

This dreamlike and – I’m going to say it – slightly weird novel lodged itself in my head long after reading, and I was completely taken by surprise in terms of how much it moved me. It’s a seemingly fragmented tour of Tokyo that starts to link together in more and more intricate ways as the book progresses: all overseen by the enigmatic cat of the title as it stalks the streets. Which leads me to another book featuring a fantastic feline (or two)…..

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T S Eliot

This is actually the first poetry book I remember coming across as a child, although I’m pretty sure I didn’t appreciate it to its full extent, Michael Rosen’s comic verse being much more to my taste! In fact, my abiding memory is of thinking it was pretty odd and not entirely fathomable. What I did appreciate, however, were the much more accessible versions of the stage musical – which leads me to the inevitable, and very non-literary (sorry, but I am going to do it!) connection:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

From singing cats to singing revolutionaries, this is – as you will well know – another book made famous to millions by the all singing all dancing musical version. Apparently it’s also much more entertaining than the book, which I’m told is a bit of a slog. It does, however, lead me nicely to my last book in the 6 degrees chain:

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

As I was writing this I inevitably got sidetracked by Google and starting reading about the genesis of Hugo’s masterpiece. Apparently – pub quiz fact for you – it’s the longest novel ever written in terms of word count (in the original French), so in celebration I decided to finish today’s literary linkage by scouring my shelves for the longest novel I own. Hands down winner is Vikram Seth’s doorstop, a mighty book that reads so much more easily than its intimidating page count would suggest.

If you’ve taken part in 6 Degrees this month do let me know below: I’d love to see your connections!