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Thursday, 16 November 2017

Review: The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was at first a little put off reading this book because I realised that a cheesy 90s horror film* I watched years ago - The Haunting - was based on this book.

Thankfully, I quickly realised that the book is nothing like the film; it is far more disturbing. One passage was so spine chilling that I felt grateful that my flatmate was at home and I wasn't alone in the flat. If you live by yourself in an old house, perhaps don't read this book...

* = Semi re-watching it on YouTube as I write this; it's absolutely dreadful but Catherine Zeta Jones hamming it up like there's no tomorrow is pretty entertaining.




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Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation

Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation Anxiety for Beginners: A Personal Investigation by Eleanor Morgan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book doesn't offer any firm answers about anxiety (for either its causes or its treatments), but it does provide insight into what it's like to live with anxiety. As I do have anxiety, I found this very refreshing. Sometimes, you just want to read something by someone who understands what it's like to have consistently fretful thoughts.

As a result, knowing that Morgan has been there and bought the proverbial T-shirt, I'm much more willing to try some of things she suggests (and it is only suggestions) than perhaps I would be if a psychologist had suggested them. Yes a psychologist probably would be better informed about anxiety but, unless they had it themselves, they perhaps wouldn't "get it" in quite the same way that Morgan does.

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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Hypermobility: The "gift" that keeps on giving

                                                      My bendy legs

I have joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS), which - according to NHS Choices  - means I have "an unusually large range of movement" in some or all of my joints (see pic). Or in the more succinct words of my doctor, I'm "somewhat bendy". 

Lots of people are bendy and for many of them, it's not an issue. In fact, being hypermobile can be an advantage for people like dancers or gymnasts. But for me and for other people with the condition, JHS can cause a host of problems. That's why I sarcastically call it the "the gift that keeps on giving". 

Pain
I frequently have - as do many people with JHS - pain and stiffness in my affected joints. In particular, I can feel extremely stiff after standing or sitting in the same position for a long period of time; my daily one-hour commute on the Tube can be torturous if I'm not able to get a seat. Sometimes, I become so stiff that I hobble around as though I'm a woman in 80s not her in 30s. 
To be honest, I don't help myself - I'm meant to do exercises to help strengthen my joints and lessen the pain, but I just can't motivate myself to do them. For the few weeks that I did try to do them, it felt like all pain and no gain. I've also been prescribed amitriptyline, which I only took one pill of. After reading about some of the potential side-effects (which apparently include confusion, constipation, and numbness), I decided I'd rather put up with the pain.  

As far I understand it, there's not a definite causal link between JHS and PoTS but people with PoTs are often found to be on the bendy side. I, to be clear, don't have PoTs, but I do have a fair few of the symptoms - including fainting, extreme fatigue, and memory fog (when you literally lose the ability to think straight). I also have exercise intolerance, which basically means I pass out after doing anything remotely strenuous. The absolute kicker is that exercise is meant to help the symptoms of PoTs (as well as those of JHS). So I'm in a vicious circle. I don't do exercise because it makes my symptoms worse but my symptoms don't get any better because I don't do exercise! The key is apparently do gentle exercises rather than going nuts at the gym but, again, I suffer from a tragic lack of motivation. 
If you want to know more about PoTs, click on the link above

Without wishing to sound too indelicate, I can feel quite "uncomfortable" because of not being able to, er, powder my nose when I feel the need to. This apparently is to do with having a hypermobile gut and not processing certain foods the right away or something. After faffing about with the low FODMAP diet (very complicated, so click the link for a proper explanation), I eventually decided to cut out both gluten and dairy from my diet. It's a been a complete palaver cutting them out (and still is), but it's been worth it (sort of). 

I only discovered that I had this little gem last year. With a hiatus hernia, part of your stomach moves up into your chest (hypermobility at work again) and causes lovely symptoms such as acid reflux and pain when swallowing. As a beautiful bonus, you're diagnosed by having a tube shoved down your throat (gastroscopy). This Is Not Pleasant. 

Other joys of JHS include (but are not limited to) joint dislocation, clumsiness, and thin/stretchy skin. I've never dislocated a joint (yet but one does like to have goals), but I'm renowned for my lack of spatial awareness (I failed my driving test six times) and my legs are covered in scars (from daredevil activities such as shaving my legs) thanks to my fragile skin. 

I should acknowledge that I've got off quite lightly by comparison to what others with JHS have to deal with. But, I do wish if that I was going to have a syndrome that it didn't come with quite so many extras. 

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Glamour: My part in its downfall


When I read the news that Glamour magazine (the UK version) was going to go "digital first" and only have two print issues per year, I felt a tad guilty. I, a once loyal reader, had recently decided to stop buying the magazine. 

Since the magazine's launch in 2001, until earlier this year, I religiously bought every issue. I was so dedicated to the magazine I would make a point of going to a newsagents (or any shop that happened to sell magazines) for the sole purpose of buying Glamour on the day of the month that I knew it was likely to come out. But, over the past few months, I've increasingly felt too old for the magazine (I'm 37). Its cover featured stars I didn't recognise, its real-life articles were about women who were at least 10 years younger than me, and I generally struggled to find articles that were relevant to my life.

The nail in the coffin for me was last month's issue (October). It was labelled as the "insta issue" or something - the whole thing was apparently dedicated to Instagram. Not having an Instagram account and only the vaguest of notions of how the social media app works, I was not remotely interested in picking up the magazine. I realised that I was no longer part of the demographic Glamour was trying to attract (i.e. women in their 20s)

While I was a bit sad to say goodbye to something I used to look forward to reading every month, I did see it as "one of those things". I don't think you can expect a magazine you used to devour from cover to cover in your 20s to speak to you in the quite same way when you're in your mid to late 30s.

However that I now felt too old for Glamour was not the only reason I've stopped buying it. To be honest, I felt it was trying to hard too be something it's not - another version of Cosmopolitan. According to an article in the Press Gazette, Glamour was being "murdered on the newsstands" by Cosmo. After the latter dropped its cover price to a quid and started giving away free copies, the Press Gazette claims, Glamour (then priced £2) couldn't compete and subsequently also dropped its price to £1. I guessing the threat from Cosmo is also what led Glamour to switch its famous "handbag" format to a standard format.

In addition to the price and format changes, I also noticed a change in editorial tone - causing, I believe, Glamour to lose everything that made it unique. Its original selling point (I think) was that it was a mix of the fun and the serious - alongside one-page articles that you could read in a couple of minutes, there were more in-depth features that covered important issues that affected women's lives.

But, now it seems to be all fluff. I bought the latest issue (November) for the purposes of this blog post and I could only find one article that dealt with a serious issue - looking at miscarriage and how it's not talked about. Actually, to be frank, I found it somewhat hypocritical of Glamour to have a coverline that said "this must end" (referring to the silence surrounding miscarriage) but not to use the word "miscarriage" itself. Everything else, aside from a short piece by Miranda Hart about the death of her friend, seemed to be lightweight or focus on beauty/fashion. The reason I have never bought Cosmo is because I found it so unsubstantial (not exactly my area of expertise, but how many articles do women need on the perfect orgasm anyway?).

Given that it used to be the biggest selling women's magazine. Glamour's demise (the print version at least) could be seen as another blow for print. But, I am hopeful that print does still have a future (particularly, as I edit a print newspaper - albeit in an entirely different field from that of Glamour). There's an enjoyment I get from reading a print magazine that I just don't get when reading an article online (ironic for someone whose blog is called ebookadventures, I know). Ultimately, whether digital or print, a magazine has to offer something its rivals aren't - and I think, for me, Glamour stopped doing that a while ago.



Thursday, 12 October 2017

Review: It

It It by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely compelling book - despite being a whopping 1,000 plus pages, it never loses your interest.

What I enjoyed most about it was the story of how the "losers club" came together. Hopefully, everyone at some point in their life (either as children or as adults), experiences the type of friendship they have - supporting and accepting each other for who they are.

I can't go into too much detail about "IT" except, for the most part, I didn't find this character nearly as terrifying as some of the human baddies in the book. The scenes involving school bullies were all too unnervingly realistic.

The only book of King's I had previously read was 11.23.63. I found that book so full of waffle (it would be have been a much better book if it was half the size) that I wasn't sure about picking up another of King's long books. But, I'm so glad I did and I was surprised by how quickly I got through it (about three weeks).


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Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Review: Unclouded by Longing: Meditations on Autism and Being Present in an Overwhelming World

Unclouded by Longing: Meditations on Autism and Being Present in an Overwhelming World Unclouded by Longing: Meditations on Autism and Being Present in an Overwhelming World by Christopher Goodchild
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I deliberately took my time reading this series of meditations - restricting myself to one chapter per night.

Goodchild constantly addresses "you" in the chapters but, as he states from the beginning, he is actually talking to himself about his own thoughts and feelings. Some chapters really resonated with me - to the extent I was a little freaked out that someone had written down exactly what I was thinking - others less so. However even with the chapters that didn't speak to me, I appreciated the opportunity to gain insight into a different perspective.

I think the best way to read this book is definitely to dip in and out when you feel the need for a bit of reflection rather than read it cover to cover. I am keeping the book on my bedside table so that I can pick it up when I want to press pause on my thoughts and take stock

Disclaimer - I know Chris, so I am a bit biased. But that just means I wouldn't have written a review had I not liked the book!

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Monday, 25 September 2017

Favourite books of all time (apart from Jane Eyre)



Having mentioned - once or perhaps one hundred times - before that Jane Eyre is my favourite book OF ALL TIME, I decided to review which books apart that hallowed tome were my favourites.  After excluding books I've read this year or last because I felt it was too soon to tell if they will be all-time favourites, I eventually came up a list of five books that I still think about years after first reading them. 

1. Wild Swans by Jung Chang
This epic memoir reviews the lives of three generations of women in Chang's family - Chang's grandmother, Chang's mother, and Chang herself. A beautiful, absorbing tale of these women's lives and the major challenges they faced under Mao's communist regime.

2. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Mantel was so convincing in her account of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power under Henry VIII that I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a fictional account of his life - that these weren't actually Cromwell's thoughts and feelings. The downside is that it completely ruined historical fiction for me. After reading Wolf Hall, I've struggled to enjoyed reading a historical fiction book (which I often did before) because it is never as good as this.

3. Overcoming low self-esteem by Melanie Fennell
To say that this book changed my life would be an overstatement - to even call it a favourite is an exaggeration. But, it really helped me overcome some "issues" shall we say. While I don't exactly have an abundance of self-esteem these days, I'm a lot more confidence because of this book.

4. 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
A simply lovely book that charts the correspondence between a somewhat grumpy US writer and a UK bookseller. Read it to remind yourself that being yourself - even if you're grumpy and not that successful - is a perfectly fine thing to be.

5. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood 
This book within a book (click on the link as Goodreads will be able to describe it better than I can) has long stopped being a favourite for me; other books have pushed it from my memory. So much so that I wasn't going to include it in this list (which is why it's not included in the photo). However, I decided to add it in because I think it was one of the first literary fiction books that I ever read. Retrospectively, the book opened my mind to what writing could be; how stories - that weren't classics - didn't have to follow a set formula but could challenge your expectations. Given that I primarily read literary fiction these days, it seems only fair that I include it in this list.


Saturday, 23 September 2017

Review: The Square Emerald

The Square Emerald The Square Emerald by Edgar Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fabulous detective romp with a "girl" detective - who is one step ahead of everyone (including the reader) and generally has jolly good fun solving the case.

There are several passages that are either sexist, racist, or classist (for want of a better word), but I don't think that's surprising given the book was written in 1926. I do think that a book should be judged by the standards of when it was written rather than today's standards. Therefore, given that it was written two years before women got equal voting rights, it's actually pretty enlightened. In fact, Leslie Maughan is a much more well-rounded character than some of the drippy heroines you see in some of today's films and books.

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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Review: Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absorbing account of Galileo's life, covering his scientific discoveries and (of course) his heresy conviction. I was vaguely aware that he had to spend the last years of his life under house arrest because he had temerity to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way round (well, write a book that suggested Copernicus, who first came up that view, may have had a point), but I never realised quite how harshly he was punished. He wasn't allowed to publish books or even teach after his heresy conviction (though he didn't exactly obey the spirit of this law - such an approach had got him into trouble in the first place). The worse thing he was, according to Sobel, basically persecuted because the the Pope at the time needed to prove a point rather than actually believing Galileo went against scripture.

However, this book is also about his daughter Virginia (or Suor Maria Celeste when she became a nun). Galileo packed both of his daughters off to a nunnery when they were young teenagers, which seems an awful thing to do by today's standards. But, actually, it was their best option - as they were illegitimate, they had flip all chance of marrying well. Virginia probably had opportunities she never would have done otherwise - she was essentially the convent's doctor (technically, apothecary). Judging by the letters she sent to her father, she was a bright and capable woman. One can only imagine what she could have achieved had lived in enlightened enough times to allow it.




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Sunday, 3 September 2017

Review: World of Strangers

World of Strangers World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before reading this book, I'd never heard of it or its author Nadine Gordimer. I came across it through the Bookishly Tea and Book club - a subscription service that, each month, provides you with a vintage paperback, some teabags, and some stationery.

To be honest, at first glance, I wasn't impressed; it looked dull and worthy. But, I quickly became hooked within the few first pages. This compelling story raises important questions about what we do when we see injustice but are not directly affected by it (i.e. such as being, as is the protagonist of this book, a white Englishman in Apartheid South Africa) - Do you accept it? Do you try to fight it (and risk isolation?)? Or do you sit on the fence?

Gordimer doesn't provide any answers - though, shortly after this book was published, she did become actively involved in the anti-Apartheid movement - but she does highlight the need to recognise your privilege (in this case, white privilege). A message that's still important today.



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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Review: Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not a biography, nor does it pretend to be, of Anne Bronte; it's a passionate, well-written defence of the oft-neglected third Bronte sister. Ellis argues that this Bronte was not the patient, sweet-natured mouse that she is often portrayed to be, but instead was a radical - daring to focus on reality where her sisters retreated into their respective fantasies.

Given that there's actually very little known facts about Anne's life, Ellis has to resort to lots of "perhaps" and "maybes" and infers a significant amount from Anne's works (including her letters) - meaning there's a lot of guess work. But, I think this makes for a far more interesting book that would otherwise be a slim volume that added nothing new to the much-told Bronte story.

What I didn't like is that she paints Charlotte Bronte to be the villain of Anne's life, who she accuses of dismissing her little sister as a wallflower and rubbishing her second book. I just don't think that's fair (I am biased; Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time) because while Charlotte was highly critical of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, she was also trying to defend her sisters from various critics and, as Ellis herself notes, was in a constant state of self-denial (ie. she had serious issues). . Plus, ultimately, Charlotte - however close she may or may not have been to her youngest sister - knew Anne far better than Ellis can possible do from letters and diaries etc.

Ultimately, this call to arms puts the spotlight firmly on a woman who had the misfortune to be a sister to not just one but two icons of 19th century literature. Undoubtedly, were if not for Emily and Charlotte, Anne would be recognised as an icon herself (even she hadn't died of TB aged 29). With this book, Ellis lets Anne stand on her own two feet rather than in the reflected glory of her better-known siblings.



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Friday, 18 August 2017

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall years ago, but decided to re-read it in preparation for reading Samantha Ellis' biographer of the somewhat neglected third Bronte sister Anne.

This powerful novel was ground-breaking in its time (a bit too ground-breaking - no-one liked it) charts the story of a woman forced to make difficult choices to protect her son. The dilemmas she faces make you realise how restricted women's lives were back in the 19th century. (Your job was basically to marry and produce offspring. If your marriage was horrific, you had very little choice but to make the best of it).

It does suffer by comparison with the novels of the better known Brontes as it lacks the passion of those works. That said, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a much more realistic account of what would happens if a Byronic hero looks your way and, certainly, the main character (and thus, Anne) would argue that passion is over rated.




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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Review: Star Struck

Star Struck Star Struck by Val McDermid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another easy read featuring the Private Eye Kate Brannigan. It really doesn't matter what the crime is about - you know that Kate will solve it without too much difficulty (particularly as she always seems able to rely on a crew of mates with various talents to help her).

There are only six books in this series (this being the last), which I think is probably a good thing. I struggled with the previous novel, Blue Genes (artistic license gone too far), and there's only so many times you read about a character's desire for vodka and pink grapefruit juice without getting a little fed up of it!

While I suspect McDermid's Tony & Carol series will be too grisly for me (they are significantly more violent than this series), I do want try some of her other series.

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Saturday, 29 July 2017

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having loved The long way to a small, angry planet, I was reluctant to read this "sequel" - though it directly follows the events of the first book, it concentrates on different characters - because I was worried it wouldn't be as good and, therefore, spoil the memory of the first. I needn't have worried.

It doesn't quite have the same magic of The long way, but nothing does the second time around. I still thought it was a well put together novel with good characters. Yes, you could accuse it - just as you could The long way - of being sentimental. Both have the core theme, after all, that family comes in all shapes and forms and is about who you connect to rather than you who you are genetically related to. But, it's no bad thing to focus on what life could be like if we just tried - particularly given the awful things that have been going on in the world of late.

There's apparently a third Wayfarers novel in the work and, this time, there'll be no reluctance on my part. I will be reading it as soon as it is published.

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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A disturbing view of what humans become should society break down - basically, they do whatever is needed to survive. I think what Wyndham does really well is not to be too judgmental about how people try to carry on after a catastrophe, weighing up the pros and cons of every approach.

Given that it's written in the 1950s, I expected the book to be a bit sexist (men in charge, rescuing women etc) but I was surprised at how well-rounded and competent the main female characters were portrayed to be. There's even a great speech, from a man obviously, about the need for women to step up to the plate and learn how to do the traditional male jobs (these days it would very much come under the category of mansplaining, but it's better than nothing).

What I really disliked is the notion that the majority of the population going blind (not a spoiler) would be a society-ending event. Yes, there would be panic and chaos initially but I think people would learn to adapt eventually and things would get vaguely back to normal. In fariness, as is pointed out later in the book, the whole killer plant thing doesn't help matters. But, ultimately it's suggesting that disability equals helplessness - which is a problematic view to say the least.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is apparently now out of print (I had to buy my copy from an online second-hand bookshop; I was reading it for my book group) and it quickly becomes apparent why - it's really racist. Black people are referred to as "negroes" and are generally portrayed to be ignorant and childlike (with questionable morals). There's even one use of the "n" word. I know that this was written in less enlightened times (1929), but it makes for uncomfortable reading.

I am not sure if this is meant to be a children's book or an adult book that just happens to have children as the protagonists, but it certainly has dark themes. I'd certainly agree with the view that it's a precursor to Lord of the Flies (ie, what happens when usual social conventions are not enforced).

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: Bedlam: London and Its Mad

Bedlam: London and Its Mad Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting review of how people with mental health problems have been managed over the centuries, with a focus on London's most infamous asylum - Bedlam. Depressingly (no pun intended), how well the "insane" were treated seemed to completely depend on who was in charge of the asylum at at the time. For every enlightened practitioner, an arrogant one seemed to follow. Today - I didn't actually realise it was still going - Bedlam (now Bethlem Royal Hospital) offers the best available care for people with mental health problems. But unfortunately, as is well documented, society's approach to mental health still leaves a lot to be desired.

I do feel a bit guilty about giving the book only three stars - I would give three and a half if I could. The writing falters at times (it occasionally reads like a lightweight newspaper feature rather than a history book) and there's certainly some waffle here and there. But, overall, I thought it was a good read.

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Review: Blue Genes

Blue Genes Blue Genes by Val McDermid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Predictable and cheesy, but very well written. McDermid's skill is to keep you engaged despite the blatantly obvious plot twists and (in fairness, often acknowledged) bad jokes. Plus, Kate Brannigan, her boyfriend Richard, and her motley crew of friends are such a likeable bunch of characters that you're willing to forgive a lot.

However, there was one bit of the story that was so implausible that I genuinely thought it would turn out to be revealed to the bunkum that it was (it wasn't). I won't go into detail because that would spoil the plot but suffice to say that should you Google this particular plot point, you'll find that it still just seen as something that might happen in the distant future - a good 20 years after the book was written.

A series focused on female wisecracking PI who solves crimes that the entire Manchester police force can't seem to crack was never going to be that centred in reality, but I thought this stretched artistic license too far.

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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Favourite books of the year so far..

Given that we are now halfway through the year, I (like pretty much every other book blogger/vlogger) decided to compile a list of the best books I've read during the last six months. Of the 28 books I've read since January, to be honest, there have been many that I didn't enjoy or can't even remember reading (see my earlier post A frustrating reading year). But, I have managed to come up with five that I actually rated five stars on Goodreads - so, in alphabetical order (according to the author's surname), they are as follows:  

MauriceMaurice by E.M. Forster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful and courageous (given that it was written in 1914) novel. There were definitely some moments of implausibility, but you could say that about many a book that features a heterosexual love story.

What is painfully realistic is the torture that Maurice goes through realising he is "different" and the loneliness he feels because of that difference. His attempts to overcome his difference (i.e. his sexuality) are utterly heartbreaking.

There's a line in the book that England would never legalise homosexuality because the English have an inclination to ignore human nature. It's comforting to know that Forster was wrong on that score (he did actually live long enough to see homosexuality be decriminalised). While things are far from perfect in terms of accepting that some people are gay (or bi or don't otherwise fit into the heterosexual bracket), we have certainly come a long way.

 The Emancipation of BThe Emancipation of B by Jennifer Kavanagh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this because I know and like the author, Jennifer, so wanted to support her work. My plan was that I would be nice about it on Goodreads if liked it but keep quiet about it if I thought it was rubbish. What was I not expecting was to love it but I did.

This book is amazing. I was genuinely hooked from the first page. Most authors if their plot, as this book does, revolved around a modern-day hermit, would make the said hermit mad or bad - or probably both. But Jennifer's B is neither; he's someone who is fulfilling a lifelong desire for complete solitude. The story focuses on how solitude enables him to truly know himself and to truly understand his life. However, it is also reassuringly realistic. B struggles with the lack of contact with others and, as you might expect, with the sheer boredom of it all.

As an introvert, I've often want to shut the world out - in fact, today, I opted for staying at home by myself to read this book rather than go to a social event where, gasp, I might have to speak to people. Therefore, it was fascinating to read something that explores the idea of total solitude and, more importantly, how it wasn't necessarily a terrible thing.

I am know I biased because I consider Jennifer a friend (with a lowercase f; she'll get the reference), but I think this book probably would have been nominated for award had she'd been more of a "name". She's known as author in Quaker circles and is known for work as a literary agent, but it's a shame she's not better known as a novelist in more general circles. Her work is really interesting and deserves more recognition.


Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family SecretAnnie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely fascinating story of how Luxenburg tries to find out what happened to his mother's "secret" sister Annie - only finding out about her existence a few month's before his mother's death. More than that it explores why his mother kept her sister hidden and how a woman, as Annie was, could be committed to a mental asylum and essentially forgotten about.

I think the book also taps into a fear that you have when someone you love dies - did you really known them? Will some secret come out that changes how you view them? How Luxenberg comes to terms with the fact that his beloved mother kept a major secret from him and his siblings (and possibly his father) is another intriguing element of the book.

The only downside of this book is that it's difficult to get hold of in the UK (I had to order it via Amazon)


My Own Story: Inspiration for the major motion picture SuffragetteMy Own Story: Inspiration for the major motion picture Suffragette by Emmeline Pankhurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emmeline Pankhurst, these days, has a reputation for being stern and deeply unforgiving of those who have the temerity to disagree with her - a reputation that's probably deserved given that she cut off all ties with two of her daughters (even packing one off to Australia).

But, what this book shows is that she was undeniably a great leader who galvanised women into action. While her militancy tactics may or may not have done more harm than good in getting woman the vote, she certainly was instrumental in raising the issue in public consciousness.

I can't help but feel that, like the double standards she so often refers to in this book. history would have treated her differently had been male. There's been many a male leader with just as many personality flaws as Pankhurst but who are remembered for their achievements rather than the fact they were difficult customers.

 The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His SisterThe Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister by Cathy Rentzenbrink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was totally engrossed with this heartbreaking account of a sister dealing with her brother's accident and the aftermath from the moment I read the first chapter. So much so that I sacked off doing usual Saturday morning chores and spent time reading this instead.

Anyone was ever lost anyone they love will relate to this book - whether their loved one died suddenly or died after a long illness (or in the brother's case, died after being in a permanent vegetative state). The decisions that Cathy and her parents have to make are torturous: if they need to accept all hope is gone and their son/brother will never recover, if they should believe that he is "there" in some form (even if he can't communicate the fact), and what they action they should take if he really is gone. Does make you realise that just because you can keep someone "alive" with modern medicine, you sometimes perhaps shouldn't (note I am not talking about someone who has been left severely disabled; I am talking about someone who has no signs of conscious thought).

What Rentzenbrink does so poignantly is to showcase hard the grief process is, particularly when you're grieving for someone who is technically still alive. The recriminations about what you did and did not do, that you should be coping better, or that you should be living your life a certain way. She doesn't really provide any answers to these questions (because there are none); just that you need to be kind to yourself and learn to accept you'll never be "over it".

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Review: The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister

The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister by Cathy Rentzenbrink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was totally engrossed with this heartbreaking account of a sister dealing with her brother's accident and the aftermath from the moment I read the first chapter. So much so that I sacked off doing usual Saturday morning chores and spent time reading this instead.

Anyone was ever lost anyone they love will relate to this book - whether their loved one died suddenly or died after a long illness (or in the brother's case, died after being in a permanent vegetative state). The decisions that Cathy and her parents have to make are torturous: if they need to accept all hope is gone and their son/brother will never recover, if they should believe that he is "there" in some form (even if he can't communicate the fact), and what they action they should take if he really is gone. Does make you realise that just because you can keep someone "alive" with modern medicine, you sometimes perhaps shouldn't (note I am not talking about someone who has been left severely disabled; I am talking about someone who has no signs of conscious thought).

What Rentzenbrink does so poignantly is to showcase hard the grief process is, particularly when you're grieving for someone who is technically still alive. The recriminations about what you did and did not do, that you should be coping better, or that you should be living your life a certain way. She doesn't really provide any answers to these questions; just that you need to be kind to yourself and learn to accept you'll never be "over it".

View all my reviews

Friday, 23 June 2017

Review: Howards End

Howards End Howards End by E.M. Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having never read anything by Forster before this year, this is the second book I've read of his in as many months.

What Forster does so brilliantly is create utterly believable characters. The Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and the Blasts could so easily have been caricatures of the classes that they are meant to represent - upper, middle, and lower middle - but they're all well rounded. I loved that they were all flawed in their own ways but equally had redeem ming features.

Obviously this is a book about class and I don't really have the literary know-how to analyse exactly what Forester is trying to say. But, to my mind anyway, its core message is that we are all a product of the society we're brought up in. Something that is still true today.

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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Reading is bad for you...


Reading gives me solace when I'm upset and adds to my joy when I'm happy but there are times when I must admit that reading probably does more harm than good. Well it's not reading itself that's the problem; it's what I am reading.

I suffer from anxiety, which most of the time is like having a very mild case of tinnitus - I am aware of anxious thoughts and feelings, but I am usually able to ignore them. However, sometimes, my anxiety dominates and I find it very difficult to focus on anything else. On these occasions, my instinct is to Google "answers" to whatever it is I am fretting about. This I've learnt is absolutely the worse thing I can do. If there was a definite answer to the thing I was anxious about, I wouldn't be anxious about it. For example, I may not be happy about the fact that tomorrow's Monday (obvs, I am writing this on a Sunday) and may even be anxious about what may happen tomorrow but I am not anxious that it may be Monday tomorrow because I know it is Monday tomorrow. The point is I am not going to find a solution via Google (assuming I haven't searched for "how to deal with anxious thoughts" etc.).

In fact, rather than finding answers, I find more reasons to be anxious - I typically manage to come across all of the blog posts/articles that have been written by people who have similar anxious thoughts to me (humbling in a way; our irrational thoughts are rarely unique to us). Even if I come across something factual, I still tend to interpret it as "confirmation" of my worse fears. Anxiety is very manipulative in that way; your thinking is skewed, so you're not capable of logically reviewing information. Therefore, I am slowly learning to stay away from Google when I am having an attack of anxiety; I also, if my anxiety is related to national or international events, avoid reading the news.

As well as avoiding the news when I am anxious, I try to limit my exposure to the news to prevent myself from becoming anxious. The news, particularly of late, always seems to be filled with stories of horrific events. Therefore, for the sake of my sanity, I try to avoid reading/watching the news in the evenings or on the weekends. If something terrible has happened, me knowing or not knowing about it will make no difference - it will still have happened when I do decide to engage with the news again. Keeping up to date with the news is obviously important but sometimes it's equally important to switch off.

Another benefit to "switching off" is that when you do decide to look at the news, you're more likely to get the full facts. On the night of the awful London Bridge/Borough Market attack, I made the decision to turn off my phone and go to bed rather than, as I had done with the Paris attacks, read about things in real time on Twitter. No good, I thought, could come of me reading people's speculations about what was happening. And as I live in East London, miles away from London Bridge, I wasn't able to offer any assistance to those caught up in the attack. The next day, I made an effort to find out what had happened (when by that time, the basic facts had been established) and make sure my London friends were safe (they were). Me waiting a while to learn about the attack didn't, of course,  make it any less horrific but I was at least more able to deal with the news.

OK, so the title of this post really should have been "some reading" is bad for you. But, that wouldn't be as clickbaity would it? Reading, like a lot of things, is neither good nor bad. It's what you read and what you're feeling at the time that's important. Sometimes, it's better to take a break from the world outside,



Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Review: The Keeper of Lost Things

The Keeper of Lost Things The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely, charming read.

My inner cynic did feel that it was all a bit twee, but I told her to shut up and stop being such a miserable so and so. There's so many "worthy" books out there that seem to want to drum it home just how awful the world is that it's really good to read a book that essentially suggests people are lovely and that even the non lovely ones probably have issues.

A perfect book for anyone needing cheering up.

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Monday, 1 May 2017

A frustrating reading year


2017, so far, has been a hit and miss reading experience - with the emphasis on the miss. While I've read a couple of books that have been five-star reads (such as Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg), I have read several that have been a bit, for wont of a better word, meh. 

I think the problem has been that I have changed how I choose which books to read. My usual approach is to read books on ad hoc basis - in other words, I pick up books that I fancy reading at that particular time. However, this year, I've adopted a more prescriptive approach; I've read books because they were part of a project I was doing or because they were on my "to read" list. For example, I read Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair because it was part of my All things Jane Eyre project. To be fair, I found the book entertaining but it didn't exactly set my world on fire (as evidence by my review). Had I not decided to attempt the aforementioned project, I don't think I would have read the book at all (well, I certainty wouldn't have bought it; I might have got it from the library if I had happened to see it there).

Equally, the only reason I read The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak was because it had been on my to read list for a good year. Admittedly, I did give the book four stars but, as I explain in my review, I found completing the book a chore if I'm honest. That brings me to another reason for thinking that 2017 is not shaping up to be a good reading year - I have spent too long reading books that I should have accepted that I wasn't enjoying sooner.

Having built up a rather large "DNF" - aka didn't finish - pile over the years, I was determined to DNF fewer books this year (see My New Year Reading Resolution). This has resulted in me continuing to read books that I wasn't enjoying or trying to finish books I had DNF'ed on numerous occasions beforehand. I've been trying to read The Emperor of All Maladies: A biography of cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee for years now and was determined to get to the end of it this year; alas, although I managed to get roughly halfway this time, I gave up again. I am just going to have to accept that while I do find the topic interesting, I am not so interested in cancer that I want to read 571 pages (it's certainly a lengthy tome) about it. Plus, as a medical editor, reading the book did smack a little of a busman's holiday.

Going forward, I am will be reverting to my usual approach of choosing books to read based on my mood at the time. Also, I am going to be quicker to abandon a book. I do think it's a waste - having spent money on it  - to DNF a book but I think it's equally a waste to read a book that you're not enjoying (that time could be spent reading a book you do enjoy!).

Ultimately, I thinking reading is an element of luck - some years, it's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to good books; others seems like the Sahara desert. Therefore while I hope that I have a few more "hits" in the next eight months, I'll be alright if I don't. You gotta take the rough with the smooth as they say (who's they? Any why are they such an authority of life?)












Sunday, 9 April 2017

How I read (not that much)

This year, so far, I've read 19 books


Having watched several "How I read" - a tag that's currently doing the rounds - vlogs. I've realised that I really don't read that much for someone who claims to be an avid reader. Obviously, I probably read a lot more than someone who doesn't claim to be into reading but, compared with other "avid readers", the amount of books I get through seems somewhat paltry. For example, in her March Wrap Up video, the vlogger Lauren  ("from Lauren and the Books" as she tends to introduce herself) says she read 15 books "in the month of March". That's only four fewer books than I've read (19) since January (and I thought I was doing pretty well to read that much)!

I could claim lack of time as a reason for reading so comparatively little, but that's a bit of a cop out. Yes, I have a full-time job and several commitments outside of work, but I am guessing those who read 100 books plus a year have various commitments that they have to juggle as well. The reality is - like with anything in life - if you truly want to do something, you try to find ways of doing it. Therefore if I wanted to read more books, I would find ways of reading more. In fact, there are plenty of times when I could be reading but I choose not to.

For example, unless I am particularly engrossed in a book, I tend to watch telly than read in the evenings. After a long day, I just want to disengage my brain and watch something a bit mindless. I find the prospect of attempting to understand a plot or characters too taxing. That said, I do always read a few pages of whatever book I'm reading before going to sleep; I just rarely - if ever - spend a whole evening reading.

My daily commute to work - one hour each way (the joys of living in London, hey) - probably provides the greatest opportunity for reading, but actually I tend not to get that much done. Well, it is probably more accurate to say I don't get much book reading done as I tend to read other things when travelling to and from work. I read a newspaper in the mornings - unless the news is too scary and likely to trigger my anxiety (which, funnily enough, has been happening quite a bit of late) - and often read a magazine on the way home. Mind you, during rush hour, reading anything at all can be physically impossible at times. When you've squeezed yourself onto a Tube train, reading a book/paper with one hand while you cling onto a pole with the other is a bit of an art form - particularly if you're rammed up against other commuters and can barely move.

Another opportunity to read more would be to listen to audiobooks. I used to be quite snobby about the idea that audiobooks counted as reading, but I am now beginning to realise that they provide just a different way of "reading". For some people of course, such as those with visual impairments, audiobooks are the only form of reading available to them. Therefore to say that listening to audiobooks is not reading is to be dismissive of how whole sections of society experience books. I have, in fairness, considered listening to audiobooks but I find the price prohibitive. On Audible, they can be as much as £20 each and I don't think I would use the service often enough to warrant paying for a monthly subscription (about £8 per month). So for the time being, at least, I am content to download the odd narrated book off the BBC iPlayer Radio app (wouldn't be accurate to call them audiobooks given that they're often abridged).

Sometimes I not only ignore opportunities to read more books, I also wonder if I should read fewer books (which surely must amount to sacrilege for a book blogger!). I've read 19 books this year and, to be honest, I'd struggle to remember what they all were without checking my Goodreads list. I don't think this is a reflection of a quality of the books (though some, admittedly, were quite forgettable) but more that, as a human, I can only recall seven thing at any one time. Does seems a tad pointless to read more books if I am only to forget that I've read them afterwards! (Ignoring the whole counter argument that you don't need to remember a book for it have a lasting impression, obviously.)

Ultimately, of course, reading is not a competition and there are no rules about how many books you should read in a month. The amount of books you get through in a month is entirely down to you.





Sunday, 26 March 2017

My Mum's love of reading

Mum and me & a much sought-after book

Mother's Day always smarts a little for me because it reminds me of what I no longer have: a Mum. My Mum died several years ago, so a day that celebrates mothers is naturally somewhat painful for me. But rather than focus on the sadness of her loss, which I can do any day of the year, I've decided there's no reason why I can't celebrate her even though she's not here anymore. Fittingly given that this is a book blog, I want to honour my Mum's love of reading.

I think anyone who knew my Mum even vaguely would know she liked to read. So frequent were her visits to the library, that the librarians knew her by sight if not by name. Admittedly, Malvern  - my hometown - isn't exactly a sprawling metropolis, so people do tend to know each other but, still, Mum must definitively have been on the top 10 must frequent users list (should such a thing exist). In fact, much to her amusement, I once observed she used library cards as other women used credit cards. Having taken as many as books as she was allowed on her own card, she took out yet more books with my Dad's, my sisters' and my cards. In fairness, having moved away to various locations, my sisters and I had no need for our cards and she did use Dad's card to take out books that he might like.

She not only went to the library for her reading fix, she also regularly raided the shelves of the local supermarkets for books; if you have go through the tedium of picking up broad beans each week (my Dad's favourites), you may as well use it as an opportunity to indulge in your favourite pastime. Whenever I went to the supermarket with her, her first question as soon as we were through the doors was "shall we look at the magazines/books?". This question was always rhetorical given, without waiting for me to answer, she immediately headed in the direction of the mag/book aisle. Should I grumble too much about this, she'd shut me up by offering to buy me a mag as well (she did this even when I was in my 20s).

Our house, therefore not surprisingly, had books in pretty much every room; some parents turn their children's bedrooms into gyms once they've flown the next, she turned ours into mini libraries. My Dad (fair enough really) had limited tolerance for having books (and magazines) everywhere, so Mum would occasionally palm off some of her extensive collection to her friends to quieten his mutterings.

Mum not only loved to read, she also enjoyed writing about the books she'd read. Flicking through these observations, it seems she finds a fair few books "OTT" (if you will read romantic sagas, what do you expect?) and wonders if Shopaholic and Baby will be the next book to follow Shopaholic and Sister in Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series - an accurate prediction it turns out. I think she'd have loved Goodreads  - assuming I was able to teach her how to use the site (teaching her how to send an email was a hit and miss affair) - and would have enjoyed reading book blogs. In fact, one of the saddest things about her being no longer around, for me, is that she'll never read this blog or follow my bookish musings on Twitter. Mum and I had many things in common, but our shared loved of reading certainly created a strong bond between us.

One of my most lovely reading memories of Mum is that, shortly before she died, she found a copy of Chronicle of The Royal Family in the local Oxfam. She'd apparently wanted it for years but could never bring herself to fork out the £20 or so quid it would cost to buy it new, so she was absolutely delighted to pick it up secondhand (muggins here was less pleased as I was the one who had to lug the huge tome back to the car). She never got chance to read it, but I am happy that she achieved one of her book ambitions before she died. I own the book now and I'll never part with it. She, of course, would think it was a total hoot that her die-hard republican daughter now treasures a book on the royal family (she'd find it even funnier that I am actually much more of a monarchist these days).

Appropriately enough, there's a now bench in her memory in the grounds of the library that she loved so much. It's in the perfect location - anyone who sits on it can read their library books while looking at all the people coming and going from the library. I can't think of anything my Mum would enjoy more than combining reading with people watching.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Anne's Ghosts - A review


Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family SecretAnnie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely fascinating story of how Luxenburg tries to find out what happened to his mother's "secret" sister Annie - only finding out about her existence a few month's before his mother's death. More than that it explores why his mother kept her sister hidden and how a woman, as Annie was, could be committed to a mental asylum and essentially forgotten about.

I think the book also taps into a fear that you have when someone you love dies - did you really know them? Will some secret come out that changes how you view them? How Luxenberg comes to terms with the fact that his beloved mother kept a major secret from him and his siblings (and possibly his father) is another intriguing element of the book.

The only downside of this book is that it's difficult to get hold of in the UK (I had to order it via Amazon)

View all my reviews

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A reading list for International Women's Day



To mark International Women Day's* , which "celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women", I've decided to highlight five books that I think provide positive messages for women (and men!). Some of these books are intentionally feminist while others are not, but all - I think anyway - have the underlying message that being yourself is a perfectly OK thing to be. 

1. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
This part memoir, part feminist manifesto (no, I don't think it should be "womanifesto") was a revelation when I read it at the tender age of 32. I'd always been a bit ashamed of the fact that I am not really into clothes or make-up  - sort of felt like I'd failed some test of womanhood - but, in this book, Moran says you don't have to be that fussed about make-up just because you're a woman. In other words, women don't have to be a particular way.

2. 84, Charing Cross Road By Helene Hanff
This account of Hanff's correspondence with a bookseller (at 84 Charing Cross Road, funnily enough) for me was so much more than an endearing tale of friendship; it was an insight into how to be OK with yourself. Yes, Hanff  probably did suffer from the odd bout of self doubt (as most humans do!), but she comes across as someone who is comfortable in her own skin. She doesn't fret about the fact she's single or anything else women are "supposed" to get upset about; she just gets peeved because Frank (the bookseller) has sent her the "wrong" version of Samuel Pepys' Diary.

3. Girls will be Girls by Emer O'Toole
An interesting read in which O'Toole argues that concepts such as "femininity" and "masculinity" are learned traits rather than anything to do with biological sex. Therefore, according to her, don't beat yourself up if you're not a very "feminine" female because it's all a performance anyway.

4. South Riding by Winifred Holtby
To be honest, it's so long ago that I read this book (at least seven years) that I don't remember much about it. But, what I do remember is how much I liked the protagonist Sarah Burton. It is always refreshing to have such an independently-minded female in a novel, but particularly so given that this book was first published in 1936.

5. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
What I loved most about Strayed's memoir of her hike across the Pacific Crest Trail is that she doesn't "find herself" or any other tedious cliche during her time on trail - she just gains a sense of accomplishment and tries to come to terms with the mistakes she's made in her life. Wild, though, is making this list because walking 1,100 mile solo with flip all experience of hiking is a pretty kick ass thing to do.

* = If you're wondering when the equivalent International Men's Day is, please see the other 364 days of the year

Sunday, 5 March 2017

March TBR



I am not normally one for monthly "TBR" - aka To Be Read - lists because I prefer to choose books on a more ad hoc basis. Choosing from a set list of books per month seems too much like homework to me. However, thanks to a couple of bouts of online book shopping when I should have been going to bed, I have found myself with a glut of books to read. Therefore before I damage my bank account any further with more book purchases, these are the books I am planning to read in March:

1: Annie's Ghosts by Steven Luxenberg
This non-fiction book charts the efforts of Luxenberg to discover what happened to his mother's sister Annie - who Luxenberg and his siblings didn't know existed until a few months before their mother's death. Annie, they discover after their mother's death, was committed to the local psychiatric unit at the age of 23 and never released. Luxenberg doesn't only explore Annie's life but also tries to understand why his mother was so keen to deny she had a sister.
N.B: This book is pretty difficult to get hold of - it's not available as an ebook and I had to order from it from the Book Depository, via Amazon, because even Foyles didn't stock it. 

2. The Gustav Sontata by Rose Tremain
I've got no idea what this book is about (something to do with lifelong male friendship according to the description on Amazon), but I am reading it because it's my book group's book for March. Having read barely any of the group's books last year (at least, that's what it felt like), I am determined to read more of their books this year. Here's hoping I get further with The Gustav Sontata than I did with Tremain's The Road Home, which I failed to get past the first chapter on at least two occasions.

3: Two books from Moth Box
Moth Box is a postal book service run by book vlogger Mercedes (MercysBookishMusings). Each box contains two independently published books that are individually wrapped by (presumably) Mercedes and come with fancy bookmarks (I think). The idea of the box is to encourage people to read more independently published books with the added novelty that you're buying "blind" (you won't know what the books are until you unwrap them). I haven't received my box yet but I am already suffering from buyer's remorse (or perhaps understanding why online shopping at midnight is never a good plan). Considering each box costs £20, not including post & packaging, I am not convinced it's value for money given your average book costs about £9 (ie. you are probably spending more than you would do if you purchased the books from a shop etc.). Still, I do want to read more independently published stuff rather than just going for what has won the latest literary prize etc. and this seems as good as any way of doing it.
A new Moth Box is available for sale on the first of every month. For more information, click here

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Worst book sins tag


Given that lent is starting today—though I should point out that I am not a Christian in the traditional sense (it’s complicated coz I am a Quaker) and have no intention of giving up anything for lent (really don’t have the will power for that kind of malarkey)—I decided to start my own tag about what I considered to be the “worst” book sins. I can only apologise if someone’s already done this type of tag (I haven’t read that many tags, but someone undoubtedly has already come up with this idea).

How many books do you own that, if you’re being truly honest, you know that you will never read/finish reading?
Two technically, but it was at least 50 (and that’s a conservative estimate) before I had a mass delete of books on my Kindle cloud late last year (I’ve only just figured out how to do this).

Have you ever borrowed a book from a friend and never given it back?
Yes but in my defence, I don’t think the friend expected it back.

Have you ever pretended to have read a book that you actually haven’t read?
Not so much pretended as genuinely mistakenly thought I’ve read something that I haven’t. I can’t remember whether I’ve read both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility or just the latter—I suspect with the former, I’ve just watched multiple adaptions.

Have you ever preferred the TV/film adaption to the book?
Yes. I much preferred the 2000 film of Chocolat (staring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp) to Joanne Harris’s source novel. I think this is because I saw the film before I read the book (the ending is completely different!)—I do wonder how I would I have felt if I watched the film after reading the book. I can’t think of an example where I thought the film/TV adaption was better than the book when I read the book first. On several occasions, however, I’ve liked the film/TV adaption as much as I liked the book.

Have you ever judged a book by its cover?
All the time—no bad thing actually. You can tell a lot about a book by its cover in my opinion, which is why I tend to ignore anything with “girly” fonts or “cutesy” designs on it because it’s blatantly “chick lit”. Not that there’s anything wrong with chick lit; it’s just that having read an awful lot of it when I was in my early 20s, I don’t really want to read any more of it (I will always make an exception for Marian Keyes though). Mind you, far too often, a book is categorised as being stereotypical chick lit just because it's been written by a woman and is about women. 

Have you read a book that you later realised was “problematic”?
“Problematic”, for the uninitiated, basically means something that promotes stereotypes or prejudices. This for me was Me Before You by JoJo Moyles, which—SPOILERS AHEAD—is about a relationship between a suicidal quadriplegic man and his able-bodied carer (or personal assistant to be more accurate). At the time, I felt it showed the realities of being severely disabled: that everything requires planning and that even taking a bath can be like a military operation. However, after reading about the furor surrounding the film version, I realised that it is “ableist” (that is discriminates against people with disabilities). While I don’t believe Moyles meant to promote the view that people with disabilities can’t live fulfilling lives, she doesn’t exactly dispel this particular myth by having the aforementioned man end his life at Dignitas. Plus, it doesn’t help matters that the book is never from his viewpoint—just the carer and (I think) his physiotherapist.

Have you ever written/underlined text in a book?
No! Like my Mother, I can't even bring myself to write a gift note in a book when giving a book as a present. That's what Post-Its are for! 

And finally, I am presuming that all your books were bought in independent bookshops and not from the very devil that is Amazon?
Erm well, here’s the thing, I own a Kindle and only Kindle ebooks work on it, so I have to buy from Amazon. (This does bother me; just not enough to download software to convert standard ebooks to Kindle ebooks.) I do smugly pride myself on buying (online) physical books from Foyles rather than from Amazon. Well, apart from the book that I just bought because Foyles didn’t sell it and I couldn’t be faffed with searching for a non-evil online retailer that did.  

Like in the previous tag I did, I tag anyone who reading this who wants to give this a go. Do you agree that these are the worst “book sins” you can commit or do you think there are much more heinous crimes readers can commit?

Saturday, 25 February 2017

This book was “an act of letting go”


Emancipation of B, published by Roundfire books, is the story of the mysterious B. According to the book’s elusive description, “B is not a child of his time. As an outsider, he hides his secrets well. Freedom is all he dreams of. But when it comes at last, it is in the most unexpected way—and at a considerable cost”. Author Jennifer Kavanagh explains that the description is deliberately vague because “the book reveals itself slowly; it’s important not to give too much away to the reader”. She talks to me about what led her to write this intriguing novel, which is her first work of fiction. 

What inspired you to write this book and, in particular, create “B”—who, given he’s a single, childless man in his mid-30s—is very different from yourself (at least, on a surface level)?
Writing this book was not so much a willed act but an act of letting go and allowing things to unfold. The book first came to me as an image and this image turned to out to be the ending—I had no idea what it was about. At first, “B” was a woman but that didn’t work and eventually “she” turned out to be a “he” and this particular he. I found that, as I knew theoretically, characters take over. B was on my shoulder for a long time, accompanying me through life. It became clear what he would and wouldn’t feel, think and do.

B’s “emancipation” relates to his decision to cut himself off from society. It comes across that for him, this is a logical decision (ie. not because of mental illness). Do you think that modern-day hermitage could be a rational act?
I do believe that choosing to live a hermitage lifestyle can be a rational act. In fact during a nomadic phase some 15 years ago, I advertised for a “hermitage” and, for quite a few years, sought out hermit huts to stay in for a few days. My life in the early days of my faith [Jennifer is a Quaker] were like a pendulum between social action and withdrawal. Now, although my flat is a bit like B’s space in the book, my life is a bit more of an equilibrium.

What were the key challenges of creating an environment in which a character could realistically be completely cut off from society? (ie. so that the reader could believe that a person could go for months without seeing anyone or being seen)?
It was fascinating to work out the practicalities. How he could remain hidden and how he could get food etc. So I talked to people with experience of squatting and I also have talked, in the past, to asylum seekers (for my non-fiction book Journey Home).

In the book, B doesn't have access to any form of media (such as TV or the internet) and only really has his thoughts to occupy himself. What, for him, are the advantages and disadvantages of this complete solitude?
Advantages: not having demands made on him; being allowed to be himself—something he has struggled with in the past; greater awareness of the natural world; and being present to every moment. Disadvantages: loneliness, of course, and worry that he might go mad.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for you when you experience solitude?
For short periods, I have actively sought solitude. I don’t take any form of media with me, except a phone to use in an emergency only. The advantages have been allowing myself to enter a more contemplative space and to be more present to the natural world and what is present in my own life, moment by moment. There have not been any disadvantages since it’s been of my own choosing and short-lived. Though, yes, there is loneliness and I have to go through a boredom threshold in order to get to a different place.

If someone wanted to experience complete solitude (assuming that they didn’t want to become a hermit!), what would you recommend that they do to achieve that?
Go on a solitary retreat. I know a few places! But with a safety net in case it doesn’t work. Solitude may be possible without going away—just generally have times in silence; away from media.

Emancipation of B is available to buy from AmazonUK and other online providers, QuakerBookshop, and WatkinsBookshop