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".

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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

Sunday, 19 February 2017

How I read reviews

Before I start reading a new book, I only want to know two things about it: its basic plot and its average Goodreads score - a book that has an average score of 1 star doesn't exactly sound promising. What I don't want to know is the specifics* of why a person did or did not like a book, which is why I tend to only read a review of a book until after I finished reading it. 

I am particularly averse to reading the lengthy (and frankly, long-winded) reviews you see in broadsheet newspapers and supplements. I've never understood the appeal of reading someone else's in-depth interpretation of a book when I could be coming up with my own interpretation by reading the book myself. For the same reason, I don't read introductions to well-known books - particularly as they often contain spoilers. I know that there are some people out there who prefer to read these types of reviews rather than read the book itself, but that seems a pretty pointless exercise to me. If they can't be bothered to read the book, why go to the trouble of reading a review of it? (If it's so that they can pretend that they've read the book, that's really quite pathetic)

That said, I do read reviews (but on Goodreads or blogs rather than in newspapers) when I am not sure whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Sometimes, a book really only gets going after the first few chapters; therefore, when struggling to get into a book, I read a review of the said book to see if it will get better if I persist with it.

Reviews in this context can also help you to know when you definitely don't want to keep reading. Recently, I was reading a book that I wasn't finding as compelling as I thought I would. Given that it had an average 4.76-star rating on Goodreads, I decided to read what other people thought of it. While most people gave glowing reviews, one person noted that how uncomfortable they were that, essentially, one character RAPES another character and then these two characters, after much remorse on the part of the rapist and forgiveness on the part of the victim, fall in love. Also, according to another review I read, the rape victim never gets to have a voice. OK, so the story is based on folklore and the victim is a nymph-like creature rather than an actual woman but I really don't understand how that makes that type of story acceptable. If the author wanted to raise the issue of redemption and forgiveness after rape, why didn't they tell the story from the rape victim's point of view? Obviously, the huge caveat is that I haven't read the book and I am basing my views on those of someone else rather than my own interpretation of book. But, nope, sorry, not prepared to give such a book a chance.

Back to the point in hand,  as mentioned, I mainly read reviews after finishing a book. This is basically to see if someone agrees with my view of a book. I once went to an event where The Guardian columnist Tim Dowling was giving a talk. He said that most people only read columns that share or support their views - which pretty sums up my approach to reading reviews. That's not to say I don't read reviews that disagree with my view of a book; I just tend to keep reading reviews until I find one that does agree with me. (I might be shallow and egoistical in this respect, but at least I'm honest). I'd be very interested to find out how other people read reviews - so if you're reading this, let me know!

* = I hope my sister doesn't read this; she always takes the mick out of me for my inability to pronounce the word "specific"

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Book Blogger Confessions Tag

Having read Read By Jess's take on The Book Blogger Confessions Tag, I thought I would give it a go.  A tag, FYI, is (as far as I understand) set a questions that you have to answer on your blog/vlog when someone "tags" you  - so basically, a game of tag without the running about and gleeful shouts of "you're it". You can of course, as I am doing, do the tag without actually being tagged. With thanks to whoever came up with this tag in the first place (wasn't able to discern who did), these are my answers.

1. What was the last book that you didn't finish?
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier. I picked this up during a cold-induced library haul, so thankfully didn't spend any money on it. Didn't like the main character, didn't like that anyone working class was subservient to their "masters", and didn't care enough to find out whether or not Rachel was a baddie (the key mystery of the book).

2. Which book is your guilty pleasure?  
It's more books than book to be honest and these are Doctor Who spin-off novels. I detail exactly why I love them in this post

3. Which book do you love to hate?
Again, it's a type rather than a particular book. I have no time for "copycat" novels - books that quite clearly are trying to ride the coattails of another author's success. For example, I once saw a book that was an erotic retelling of Jane Eyre that incorporated Bronte's text. This seemed to be cashing in both on the (then current) trend for erotica (thanks to 50 Shades of Grey) and the success of Seth Grahame-Smith's parody novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Mark Twain once wrote that there's no such thing as a new idea - well a five-minute Google search says that he did anyway - but you should at least try to make a bit of an effort to do something original. Granted it's more than a tad ironic for me to write that given that this post is copying someone else's idea but at least I am acknowledging that I didn't come up with these questions (plus, the whole point of a tag is for lots of people to give their take on it). 

4. Which book would throw into the sea?
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Still haven't got over the fact that I got to 25% (based on what my Kindle said) and no-one had left dry land. Therefore, throwing it into the sea might help to move the plot along a bit!

5. Which book have you read the most?
If you know me in "real life" or have just read previous posts, that answer is obvious - Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 

6. Which book would you hate to receive as a present?
A celebrity "autobiography" of anyone from a reality TV programme. If I received such a book, I would assume that the giver didn't know me at all (in which case, why are they giving me a present?) or were deliberately trying to pee me off (don't get any ideas certain work colleague - you know  who you are). 

7. Which book could you not live without?
All books! My life would be poorer without books (including the bad ones).

8. Which book made you the angriest?
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I've never read a book before or since that was so blatantly racist. I get that it was written in the 1930s - a time not exactly renown for its championing of equal rights - but Mitchell acts like black people are sub-intelligent beings who like being slaves; that's an attitude that was outdated in the 19th century, let alone the 20th. 

9. Which book made you cry the most?
I don't really cry at books or films, so I am going to say "moved me the most". The one that stands out, of the books I've read in the last few years, is The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I find all of his books moving and this fantasy tale is no exception. Its message that we'd perhaps all be happier if we forgot what others had done to us and what we had done to them (ie. don't let the past ruin the present) is a poignant one 

10. Which book cover do you hate the most?
The film tie-in cover for Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. I do most of my reading on Kindle, which automatically uses cover of the latest edition of a book. Therefore because I read this at the same time that the film came out, I got a picture of Idris Elba as Mandela on the front rather than Mandela himself. Now I get that Elba is fairly easy on the eye but, fussy of me I know, I'd have preferred to have a picture of the person I was reading about on the cover. 

I hereby tag anyone else who wants to give these questions a go!

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Cold-induced library haul

Feeling sorry for myself because I was - again - suffering from a grotty cold, I decided to visit my local library. I figured that as I had to venture to the shops anyway to buy yet more tissues (at this point, I had already gone through one box's worth and at least one bog roll), I might as well as do something pleasant while I was out of my sick bed. I ended up only borrowing three books because, to be honest, I couldn't face lugging back a load of books in my plaguey state. Mind you, considering that this was my second cold in as many weeks, grabbing one or two books from my library's display of "optimal health" books - rather than just giving them a cursory glance - would not have gone amiss. Ah well, these are the books I did get,

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler - Goodreads description
I've been wanting to give this retelling of Taming of The Shrew (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project) a go ever since it came out last year. I was interested to see how Tyler would tackle the really rather sexist plot of the original  - gobby woman gets put in her place by bloke (though I have read Shakespeare was being ironic or something). Plus I really liked Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread, so I wasn't averse to reading more of her work.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier - Goodreads description
Having failed to re-read Rebecca for my Jane Eyre project because I couldn't face reading about someone else's anxieties (I have enough of my own), I felt I owed it to Du Maurier (not quite sure why to be honest) to try to read another one of her books. As My Cousin Rachel (boy meets girl he suspects of doing in his cousin; falls in love with said girl) has been made into a (soon-to-be-released) film, it seemed the obvious choice. 

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe - Goodreads description
I absolutely loved Stibbe's memoir Love, Nina - to the extent I once foisted it upon an unsuspecting member of my bookgroup as a secret Santa gift - but I was sceptical that I'd like this work of fiction about two girls trying to find a husband for their mum. Funny, insightful non-fiction writers aren't necessarily gifted fiction writers (and vice versa) as fiction and non-fiction are two very different mediums. Therefore, I decided to pick up this library edition  - the great thing being that I could try it without fear of adding to my "bought but won't read" pile. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Diversathon 2017: My TBR

Diversathon, which starts today (22nd January) and runs until next Sunday, is a readathon that aims to encourage people to broaden their horizons by reading about communities/cultures that are different from their own. Specifically, the aim is to read books that are about people who are not typically represented in books or other media. Hosted by the YouTubers (or rather BookTubers) ChrstinaMarie, SheMightBeMonica, SquibblesReads, and SavideReads, the emphasis this year is on "own voices" - which means authors who have direct first-hand experience of what they are writing about. 

For example, The Diving and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby is an own voice book because it's a book about disability by someone who themselves is disabled (admittedly, it's an autobiography but it would still be an "own voice" book if it was fictional). By contrast, Jo Jo Moyles' Me Before You - which is a novel about a love affair between a woman and a quadriplegic man - is not an own voice book because Moyles is not a quadriplegic and (as far as I am aware) doesn't have close relatives who are.

I was a bit unsure about taking part in Diversathon, aside from the fact I am at least 10 years older than most of the hosts, because I couldn't see what the benefit would be to marginalised communities. Me reading about someone who was trans, for instance, is not by itself going to stop transphobia etc - for that, I have to confront transphobia when I come across it etc.

Also while Diversathon will hopefully show publishers that there is an audience for books about marginalised communities, I am doubtful about the value of my role in this. Say, for argument's sake, publishers bring out more diverse books because I buy diverse books (so they see there's a need). They would be publishing diverse books based on what a white, middle-class, cisgendered (and any other "normal" category you could think of) woman wants to read. Surely, they should publish diverse books on the basis of what marginalised communities themselves want to read? Not that I shouldn't read diverse books; more that I shouldn't be the one dictating what diverse books are published.

Anyway, I figured that taking part wouldn't do any harm and would certainly be of benefit to me (reading interesting books while learning about other people's experiences etc.). Therefore, given all that's happened with Brexit, I decided to focus on reading about the immigrant experience in Britain. I have chosen to read The Boy with the Topnot by Sathnam Sanghera, which is a memoir about Sanghera's experience of growing up in Wolverhampton in a Punjabi family. It also deals with him coming to terms with the realisation that both his father and his older sister have a severe mental illness.

If time, I will also try to read Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. In the past, I have been guilty of being a horrific snob (to my shame, I frequently used to use the word "chav" as an insult). Therefore, I do need confront certain prejudices of mine. I don't think it counts as an "own voice" as Jones probably can't be classed as "working class" (his mum is an IT lecturer). However, Jones undoubtedly did extensive research for the book and is dedicated to addressing social injustices. Therefore, I think it's fair to say he does have some authority on the issue.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

All things Jane Eyre: The verdict

In my last post, I wrote about my project of reading books related to Jane Eyre. To recap, I was going to read a prequel, the actual, a retelling, a sequel, and a spin off. Having now completed the project  - lest anyone thinks I've read all these books in a week, I should point out what I read most before my post last week - these are my GoodReads reviews of the books I read. Note: I was going re-read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier but decided against it as realised I have enough paranoid thoughts of my own without reading about someone else's. 

Wide Sargasso SeaWide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane Eyre is my favourite book of all time but, without a doubt, it's a fantasy - plain governess finds love with her Byronic hero of an employer, who turns out to have a mad wife living in the attic? That's a ridiculous plot even if you ignore the amazing coincidence of Jane bumping into her long-lost cousins and discovering she's inherited a fortune.

Wide Sargasso Sea is very much the reality. Rochester and Antoinette (aka Bertha) come from very difficult cultures and barely know each other when they are persuaded to marry each other, so of course their relationship fails - particularly as Rochester, being a 19th Century English man, is incapable of grasping that he ought to try to understand Antoinette rather than try to change her. Given her awful marriage and a difficult upbringing, it's no wonder Antoinette loses her mind.

I did really like this compelling novel but I was frustrated by how little I knew Antoinette by the end. A lot of the book focuses on Rochester's perspective or Antoinette's reaction to things - but there doesn't seem to be much about her wants and needs (perhaps because no-one really lets her have any).

Jane EyreJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's fair to say I am more than a little obsessed with Jane Eyre. But I did wonder if I had built it up to be better than it was - so I decided to re-read it (not the for the first time mind; this must be at least the third time I've read it).

Looking at it objectively, there are some deep flaws it - the implausibility of Jane finding love with her employer despite being famously "poor, plain, and little" and the somewhat miraculously coincidence that the kindly trio of siblings that come to her aid when she's destitute turn out to be her long-lost cousins. Not to mention Bronte's problematic treatment of people with mental health issues, particularly the implication that Bertha's Creole heritage is partly to blame for her madness (she was writing in much less enlightened times to be fair).

But, even with these flaws, Jane Eyre is still a wonderful, powerful call to arms for anyone who has ever felt that they have been unfairly overlooked because they lacked the necessary charm or looks. Jane never lets the rejection of others affect her sense of self. In fact, so strong is her sense of self that she spurns Rochester because even though she knows she will never love anyone like that again, she cannot compromise her principles to be with him (read it to find out exactly why).

Astonishingly for a book that was first published 170 years ago, Jane and Rochester are portrayed as equals. Rochester loves Jane not just because of her "pure heart" but also because she's fiercely intelligent and can match him in conversation. There's many a book or film these days that fail to show a woman's intelligence being an attractive quality (alas, many even show it to be an unattractive quality).

Reader, I Married HimReader, I Married Him by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was initially disappointed to discover that most of the stories within this anthology were "inspired by" Jane's famous declaration rather than different takes on "what happened next" (which is what I thought the book would contain).

However, I found I didn't actually enjoy that the few "what happened next" stories that the book did contain - they either questioned the love between Jane and Rochester or questioned Jane’s motives. I love Jane Eyre because it’s about finding love against the odds, so I don’t want read anything that undermines that! Mind you, Audrey Niffenegger’s (she of Time Traveller’s Wife fame) The Orphan Exchange was one of my favourite stories of the whole book. While that completely changes the plot of Jane Eyre, Jane is still the steely “poor, plain, and little” woman with a strong moral compass that made the Bronte’s book so great.

I much preferred the “inspired by” stories, so more so than others. I particularly enjoyed “Since I first saw your face” by Emma Donoghue and "Migrating Bird" by Elif Shafak.

Overall, I think this a lovely book to read if you’re a fan of Jane Eyre (not sure why you would read it if you’re not a fan). It does remind me why I don’t usually read short story collections – they can be hit and miss and the “hits” are never long enough – but I am glad I read it.

The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next, #1)The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The idea of a detective specialising in crimes involving literary fiction was a fun concept to begin with but the book did run out of steam a bit by the end I think. Plus, like a lot female characters written by a male author, Thursday did come across as a man's perception of a strong woman - straightforward and a little lacking in emotional depth (ie, not that complex).

Still, it was an enjoyable read and an intriguing mix of sci-fi/crime/magical realism