Book review: If I Could Say Goodbye

As always, many thanks to Net Galley and Hachette UK for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. If I Could Say Goodbye is available for pre order via Waterstones and Amazon.

Synopsis from Goodreads

A heart-warming and uplifting story about love, loss and finding the strength to say goodbye, from the author of The First Time I Saw You.

Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more.

Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.

When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of Kerry, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family.

Jen was never able to say goodbye to her sister. But what if she could?

Would you risk everything if you had the chance to say goodbye?

Publication date: September 17, 2020

Genres: Fiction, modern/contemporary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jennifer Jones was always a faithful, older sister to Kerry. However, when Kerry dies in a sudden accident, her whole world turns upside down. Despite having the support of her devoted husband, Edward, and her two children, Jennifer struggles to come to terms with the sudden loss of her sister. She turns her grief inwards, blaming herself for Kerry’s death and wishing the accident had taken her life, instead of her sister’s.

If I Could Say Goodbye, is an honest portrayal of the many facets of grief and it’s reverberating impact on one family. It explores grief openly and honestly, and for that alone it deserves praise. Jennifer becomes so consumed by the memories of her sister, that her mind convinces her she is still there. Kerry is reborn in her imagination and experience of grief as she loses herself in memories of the past.

Grief is something we all experience at some points in our lives, but obviously in many different ways. Emma Cooper manages to explore how Kerry’s death takes a drastic toll on Jennifer’s mental health, from her feelings of guilt, responsibility and regret that follow in the wake of Kerry’s death. Jen finds herself talking to her sister more than her own family. This experience of Kerry being somewhat alive in her imagination, serves as a comfort to Jen in some ways, but ultimately, she realises the need to say goodbye is what will set her free.

“I turn my back on the sea and the cliff, on the grief and guilt that I’ve been drowning in, and break into a run: my life is about to begin again.”

This is a refreshing and realistic portrayal of grief told through Jennifer and her husband, Edward. In having this alternative perspective, Cooper conveys how grief can have a snowballing affect on the ones we love. Ed has to pick up the pieces of their life together, as he struggles to maintain their relationship and family. Jennifer’s family and her children become more distant as her experience of grief consumes her in more ways than one. Intertwined within this exploration of grief is a tale of love, friendship, relationships and family.

Although I thought this was an excellent representation of experiencing the loss of a loved one, I found the book itself hard to read. There was no real structure, which I guess could be part of the point, in being like grief itself, however, it made the reading experience more difficult than it needed to be. Although I engaged with the leading characters, Jen and Ed, I felt it didn’t have a ‘hook’ to keep me reading.

The writing is beautiful and very well structured, which allows for the impact of grief to be explored through many angles, however, the lack of structure and plot is what let it down for me.

For someone who has recently gone through the death of a loved one, this book was harrowing and hard to read in places, but nonetheless essential for its honest depiction of grief and loss. It was comforting in this respect and something I would recommend to others.

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How Lockdown changed my reading habits

Are you leaving lockdown wishing you had read more? The experience of lockdown across the world lead to a kind of ‘reading revolution’ as we all had more time on our hands, but will this continue?

Our reading habits may have changed for better or for worse during this period, but in this post I am going to share with you how lockdown altered my habits, with the hope that it may encourage you to reflect on yours.

1. Treating reading like a job

This could be interpreted as positive or negative, but lockdown meant that I have not been at work and I had to take up something to fill the empty days with.

I started reaching out to people, became a member of NetGalley and all of a sudden had more opportunities to review books for people and companies. Working to deadlines and reading less of what I wanted has made it feel like more of a job, but definitely not a chore.

Reading has therefore, become more like a job, but one I have come to love.

Image: Violet Daniels

2. Abandoning TBRs

I love making lists of any kinds and I have always had some form of TBR going.

Having more review requests has meant I have strayed away from my personal TBR list, which I have come to realise isn’t a bad thing.

Reading habits change all the time and so do the books we want to read, sometimes it feels counterproductive to have a list to stick to. Sticking to this wholeheartedly could close down books we expose ourselves to. Everyday we learn about new books and it becomes easy to stray away from our reading plans. But so what?

I still have my TBR but I am definitely not following it strictly.

3. Realising less is more

Lockdown has played havoc for my concentration. I have found that I can only read for 15-20 minutes at a time before I start to lose focus. But on the other hand, I find myself actually picking up books more times in the day – so they probably balance each other out.

Previously, I used to try and read as much as I could in one session, as I probably only had one opportunity every day to read whilst working. But now with my time being more flexible I can read less but more frequently, which I like.

Image: Violet Daniels

4. Diversifying my reading choices

The exposure of the Black Lives Matter movement has made me realise how white my reading choices are.

I am now making a conscious effort to read more by authors of colour, especially women of colour who are majorly underrepresented in the literary industry. I am aiming to read at least one book written by a BAME author per month in an effort to diversify my reading habits.

Last month I read My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and this month I aim to read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. These are small actions but a step in the right direction, which I would encourage everyone to take.

5. Using a Kindle more

As I am receiving more books to review, these are usually in the form of e-ARCs which means I am using my Kindle a lot. I’ve also been reading outside more and Kindle’s are perfect for this.

They are lighter and easier to hold whilst being out and about and I have been enjoying using it. Obviously, it’s no replacement for the physical book, but definitely a game changer for being able to carry so much reading material on the go.

6. Books are my perfect form of escapism

Some people watch TV, films or play video games to switch off, but I read. I think I have always known this, but lockdown has really shown I do turn to alternative worlds to escape the present.

Whether it’s fiction or non fiction, I have found reading takes me away from the present and the unrelenting news cycle that can cause havoc for anxious people like me. It is perfect one to one time, a form of self care, and a break from everything that is going on.

So those were reflections on how my reading habits have fluctuated during this period. I think it’s important to remember that habits will always shift during our lives. We should never beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our own standards or stray away from our goals, but acknowledge it when it’s necessary and go from there. Have your reading habits changed, if so, how?

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PMQs ~ “The Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives”

This weeks PMQs saw the return of Boris Johnson refusing to co-operate by avoiding difficult questions. Just days before the grand reopening it is worrying that the PM cannot even give the public an ounce of clarity.

This week in politics (so far)

It’s been a bit of a rough week for Keir Starmer. The lingering impact of the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the former shadow Education secretary, is still sparking fury from members of the party and MPs. Long-Bailey was sacked for re-tweeting an article containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. In The Guardian, she issued an apology and explained her actions amidst a plea for re-admission to the shadow cabinet.

Starmer has also been criticised for comments made about the Black Lives Matter Movement, stating that de-funding the police was, “nonsense“. De-funding the police is one of the main agendas of the movement, as activists are campaigning for investment in the police force to be redistributed to social care provision and rehabilitation schemes. Starmer has been criticised by writer and activist, Reni Eddo-Lodge and MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy for dismissing a main element of the BLM movement which seeks to disentangle systemic racism still prevalent in our institutions – most notably, the police.

This week Johnson announced a ‘New Deal‘ to prepare for the economic fallout caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Focus is on building homes and investing in employment training with a new national skills fund. The government plans to spend £5b on infrastructure in England.

The first local lockdown was announced in Leicester before England is due to experience the biggest lifting of restrictions since the full lockdown. Residents in Leicester were told that shops, pubs and non-essential retail would not be re-opening with the rest of the country at the weekend. Restrictions will last until at least July 18. William Bach, Leicester’s leading Police and Crime Commissioner has critiqued the government for a lack of guidance and pre-warning.

PMQs summary

  • Starmer opened the session with exposing the weaknesses in the government’s Test, Track and Isolate system, as two thirds of those testing positive are not being reached.
  • Johnson claimed TTI was successful and Starmer should support the government in channeling its use to quell the spread of the virus.
  • Starmer responded by asking the PM again what is happening to those who haven’t been reached, but his question wasn’t answered.
  • Johnson claimed Starmer’s questions were “misleading” and that he needs to start supporting the government.
  • Starmer stated the, “Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives”
  • Starmer pushed the PM on the lack of clarity over local lockdowns, following ongoing criticism about Leicester. Johnson claimed the government were engaging in a, “cluster busting operation” to keep future potential outbreaks under control. No detail was given to how this is going to be implemented.
  • Starmer also pressed the PM on the failures of the NHS app which the PM promised would be ready by 1 June, the government having spent £12m on it.
  • Johnson claimed the app had minor significance in beating the virus, despite the amount of spending and time that has gone into it. He argues that no country in the world has an efficient app.
  • Starmer pointed to Germany whose tracing app has already hit 12 million downloads.

Analysis

All in all, not many answers were gained from this session. Starmer posed difficult but essential questions in front of the PM who simply dismissed them or refused to answer. As the country is due to come out of lockdown, it is worrying that he can’t give the public any answers. Issues over TTI and the app are significant, as we’ve been told throughout that this is imperative for preventing the spread of the virus.

Starmer himself was able to adequately summarise the problems with the session, stating the PM should “welcome challenge” instead of avoiding it. It seems a genuine discussion of government inadequacies simply cannot happen when the PM refuses to engage.

Johnson recycled the rebuttal of Labour’s confusing position on children returning to school, amidst Starmer’s demand for the PM to correct his out of date figures on child poverty, stated a few weeks before. Johnson’s use of false figures and denial has not gone unnoticed by the leader of the opposition, as it’s set to be a theme dominating the future of PMQs.

As England is set to be unleashed by the weekend, one would think an active dialogue between leaders of opposing parties would take place. With the daily press conferences no longer on the cards, the public have been largely left in the dark. The provision of a coherent, active debate between leaders would do the world of wonders. One can only hope that things will get better, and that Johnson will soon abandon his rhetoric of denial and avoidance – for all our sakes.

What I read in June (2020)

Another month in lockdown has passed and we are also half way through the year! As usual, I will be sharing what I read this month and what I am currently reading. What have you read this month? Has anything stood out for you? Let me know!

Half a World Away, Mike Gayle

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This one was a real dark horse. It follows the lives of two siblings that have never met before, Kerry, who lives in a council estate and works as a cleaner and Noah, who lives in Primrose Hill and works as a barrister. They are two worlds apart but life suddenly brings them together. The novel explores the difficulties of an upbringing in care, forging new lost relationships and the pains of lost time. It was well written, heart-felt and incredibly readable.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had started reading this at the beginning of lockdown, alongside all the other books I was reading, hence why it took me so long. This is a work of political fiction that explores the livelihoods of a group of white, working class men at the turn of the twentieth century in Britain. It explores workplace exploitation, poverty and class in a way which is still so shockingly relevant to today. It resonated with me in more ways than one and I am very glad I have read it, although it is far from a light read.

The Shelf, Helly Acton (e-ARC)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Refreshing and uplifting, this book made me laugh as well as cringe. Loosely based on the concept of the reality TV show, Love Island, Amy suddenly finds herself dumped on live TV. She is thrown together with a group of singles, as they each take part in a series of challenges to see who is crowned ‘The Keeper.’ I enjoyed reading this but found it quite cliche – but it had an element of feminism laced throughout that I liked.

All Men Want to Know Nina Bouraoui (e-Arc)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This book was beautiful and unlike anything I had read before. Following the author’s life, this novel explores the pains of coming of age and being torn between identities from living in opposing continents: Europe and Africa. It is a work exploring identity, self reflection and sexuality, told in a lyrical and poetic fashion. It was strangely addictive to read and one that will always linger with me.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was really looking forward to reading this. It certainly had a uniqueness that I’ve never experienced before. It was a mix between dark humor and crime, told through the perspective of a Korede, who acts as an accomplice to her Sister, a ‘Serial Killer.’ It was gripping in places but really lacked a certain amount of depth it could have benefited from. I enjoyed the dark feel of the novel but ultimately feel that it lost its initial momentum.

The Truants, Kate Weinberg (e-ARC)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I read this during a week in my life when I was experiencing insomnia, so who knows whether I truly made sense of it! However, I really enjoyed this and got stuck into the element of mystery at the heart of the novel. It’s a coming of age story with a unique twist. The characters were weird and wonderful which was what drew me to it. It had so much pace and suspense that I felt compelled to carry on reading. Jess’ strangely close relationship to her university tutor, is always weird, but it gets even weirder as the novel progresses…

The Sacrifice Indrajit Garai (Free e-book)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A well written collection of short stories, focusing on the experience of human sacrifice and what it can mean for different relationships. This collection features the stories of Guillaume, a dairy farmer struggling to make ends meet, Matthew, a young boy who has a close attachment to a tree and Francois, an older man trying to make it as a writer whilst looking after his Grandson. The collection is harrowing and dark in places, but always countered with a sense of hope.

What I’m currently reading

If I Could Say Goodbye, Emma Cooper (e-Arc)

Due to be published in September, this is a book exploring the psychology of grief. The narration is told through Jen and her partner, Ed, as this experience impacts their relationship. I’m about half way through this and must admit, it has been a bit of a struggle so far. There’s no real plot and is a bit too heavy on the stream of consciousness for me, but I appreciate the attempt to portray the mental health implications of losing someone. As this has recently happened to me, I resonate with the elements of guilt the author is trying to portray through the characterisation of Jen. I’ll definitely read to the end but I’m not sure it will be one of my higher ratings!

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

A novel centuries apart from the one above. This is a novel which explores the element of social upheaval wrought by the French Revolution in 1789, swinging between London and Paris. Dickens is full of his characteristic humor, portrays great characters and has a use of language which is lyrical, poetic, and informative. I love the feeling of change and upheaval that is being conveyed. I’m about 3/4 of the way through and very much enjoying it – I’ve always been fascinated by that part of history which helps!

What’s on my July radar?

I think I’m going to abandon having a TBR list as I feel so much pressure and disappointment when I look at it and realise I haven’t ticked off many. Instead I think I’ll be referring to it as a ‘radar’ as this feels more achievable. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to read anything from my list, and often discover new titles I want to read more.

So what’s on my radar for July? Definitely We Need to Talk About Race as I have very much been enjoying listening to the podcast and feel it will be a good introduction into exploring the racial history of Britain. Also An American Marriage, a novel I have wanted to read for a long time, and one I know has had great reviews. I’ve got a few e-ARC books to review as I’m trying to get my NetGalley feedback rating to 80%. Apart from that, I’m not going to list any more as I don’t want to pressure myself! Reading habits are so changeable so I don’t think it’s all that necessary to stick to TBR’s.

I hope you are all staying well and had a good reading month!

Violet xxx

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Book review: The Sacrifice

I have been pretty quiet this week due to multiple reasons. However, I’m back with another book review! Please note, The Sacrifice was kindly sent to me in an exchange for an honest review. I’ve never done a review of a short story collection so we’ll see how it goes!

Genres: Short story, fiction

Source: Free e-book

My rating: ★★★

Synopsis

The Sacrifice is a collection of short stories, written by Indrajit Garai, author of The Bridge of Little Jeremy. There are three stories in the collection, which all feature the exploration of human sacrifice and the strong bonds that hold family relationships together.

The Move, the first story in the collection, is about a dairy farmer in rural France who struggles to keep his business alive. Guillaume faces the real prospect of financial ruin as he tries to protect his son, eventually giving up everything to keep him safe.

The Listener, is a story told through the perspective of a young boy, Matthew, who tries to save his favourite tree from being chopped down. The tree is a source of comfort for the boy, in a time in his life where his home life is unstable, as his Mother begins a relationship with a new partner,

The final story is The Sacrifice, the tale of a struggling author who lives with his Grandson, Arthur. Francois has been struggling to make it as an author his whole life. As he begins a battle with rival publishers, he faces the real prospect of financial ruin. Often starving himself so that his Grandson can eat, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep Arthur safe.

The Review

The shining element in this collection was the sense of unity created between the three stories. Each story was very different in its feel and plot, however, they were all connected by a common theme – which is essential (in my opinion) for any short story collection.

All stories were united by the idea of human sacrifice, explored through various complex family relationships. Despite the suffering and darkness that is at the heart of all stories, there is always a sense of hope. I was left with the same feeling I got when I finished The Bridge of Little Jeremy and it is what Garai does best; despite everything, the darkness is always countered with a sense of hope, even against the worst circumstances.

“He saw, no matter how harsh his struggle for survival had become, there were still rewards of living on this earth.”

The Sacrifice, 148.

The exploration of human suffering and relationships across all stories makes the collection feel incredibly raw and real. It strikes at the most difficult elements that life can bring, but also maintains a sense of hope. As always by Garai, the writing is beautiful and I can quite easily get lost in the prose.

From reading The Bridge of Little Jeremy, I gather Garai likes to write about troubled characters, which features heavily in all these stories. Each character is facing some kind of hardship and strives to put it right. Garai also likes to explore the child persona which features in The Listener, as Matthew tries to do everything in his power to save a tree from being chopped down. But it isn’t just any tree, as it becomes his source of comfort in a time where he is experiencing anxiety and upheaval.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Sacrifice. Francois strive to make it as a writer and do everything to try and keep his Grandson thriving, and his story pays homage to the extent of human perseverance and struggle. For me, it was the most gripping as it had a sense of pace that the others lacked. I desperately wanted Francois to make it as a published author and receive the life he and his Grandson deserved, one free of the anxieties of financial hardship.

Despite the beauty of the writing, I struggled with The Move and The Listener, the first two stories in the collection. They both lacked a hook and reading them was a bit slow-going, as there was little drive and suspense to keep me reading. The Move redeemed itself slightly in the dramatic ending, however this was the only part that intrigued me. In this respect, I feel the first two stories were weaker than the last. They felt heavy and dense, with a definitive lack of direction.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection and really felt that all stories connected to each other. The language is beautiful and a joy to read but I felt the first two stories were a bit draining. However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sacrifice, the last story, and think this is where the collection really excels. Definitely worth a read!

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Isolation day 95: heatwave, ‘independence’ day and insomnia

Just thought I would write a quick update, I’ve been incredibly quiet on here this week, only publishing one blog post. We are experiencing a heat wave here in the UK and while I like the sun, it also makes me feel very lethargic.

The heat and accumulating tiredness from nights of lost sleep has sucked away my motivation to write. The previous few weeks I was writing several things in one day and I felt full of motivation. In reality I did see the ‘crash’ coming, I thought I would reach a point where I couldn’t bring myself to punch the keys or pick up a book. It’s strange how some weeks go.

My sleeping habits are all over the place from experiencing bouts of insomnia. One night I will oversleep, getting between 9-10 hours, and the next I will under-sleep and get 4-5. I can’t seem to strike the balance. I guess the key thing is to keep to the same wake up time, but that’s not always easy. This morning I had to force my eyes open to prevent myself drifting off and over sleeping again. Strangely, the heat doesn’t seem to influence my sleep, it all seems to be in my mind.

The lockdown announcement last week has been playing on my mind. Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister, has effectively called July 4th our ‘independence day’ despite the rate of infection still at a level rate, not actually declining fully and still higher than our European counterparts. The news has been showing us scenes of overcrowding on beaches and endless queues for Primark. The vast majority of the public seem to believe the pandemic is over. Partly, I don’t blame them as the government is reinforcing this message. It doesn’t help that our PM has told people he wants to see the return of ‘bustle’ in our cities and towns and denies the possibility of a second wave. It’s all very worrying.

I couldn’t bring myself to do a PMQ’s review this week as I’ve found the political situation too draining – I will try again next week. I don’t want to pressure myself to do it religiously, but I do want to get better at writing short, snappy political analysis.

Although I keep telling myself that it is pointless for me to worry about everything – as these political decisions are out of my control, I can’t help but sometimes loose sleep over it.

I have woken up a bit more motivated and with more energy today so I am hoping that over the weekend I will get some more blog posts out. I have a review of The Sacrifice that should be going up tomorrow and a few other things in the pipeline.

Also, I have now made a Medium account if anyone would like to follow. I might be publishing original content on there or just re-publishing posts, I haven’t quite decided what to do with it yet!

I hope you are all doing well and continuing to stay safe.

Violet x

Book Review: The Truants

The Truants is a coming of age story with a twist, telling the experience of Jess Walker’s first year as a student at the fictionalized University of East Anglia. Jess studies English Literature and enrolls herself on an Agatha Christie course, immediately finding herself enthralled by the subject, as well as the expert in the field, Professor Lorna Clay. Jess becomes friends with a group of uninitiated, carefree students, including falling for Alec, an ex student and current journalist.

Genres: Mystery, Suspense, Coming of Age, Literary Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

This book echoes the reverberated student scene of carefree days drinking in pub gardens and ignoring academic responsibilities. As the closeness of Jess’ relationship with Lorna unfolds, the mystery involving Alec starts to appear before the readers’ eyes.

Jess cannot help but be pulled in by the perplexing Alec. He is good looking, intelligent, but little does she know about his deeply troubled past. As a character, he is laced with toxicity, regret and past betrayal and takes it out on those who fall for him – a classic maverick disguised as a heart throb. Jess gets caught up in several disturbing love triangles, which serve to explore the realities of betrayal on a relationship and friendship basis. The lure of new love becomes her achilles’ heel as she is placed in the middle of a dark mystery of her own.

Something rather dark lurks beneath the seemingly picturesque portrayal of student life, which is discovered as the book progresses. Despite drawing so heavily on the works of Agatha Christie and her novels, this book is essentially its own mystery and a play on the psychology of relationships, seduction and betrayal. It combines a lot of different genres which I think is one of its selling points, it has elements of literary fiction, mystery and thriller, whilst being told within the coming of age paradigm. The feeling of suspense is naturally created early on in the book, which produces an unavoidable hook for the reader. The whole time I was reading I had a feeling of unease; but couldn’t help but read on. I was fascinated by the characters and wanted to see how everything would unfold.

I think the highlight of this book is in the complexity of the characters. The story only centers around a handful of individuals, but each are fundamentally flawed. This allows for the difficulties of coming of age to be realistically conveyed, with the exploration of problematic friendships and relationships. Jess, the protagonist, was particularly complex, and I was drawn to her insight. It is essentially a major portrayal of character development and exploring the dark incidents that lay within her experience at university.

That said, I did think the play on the mystery was to a certain extent cliche. Not being familiar with Agatha Christie’s writing, I can’t comment on the full exploration of this – and there may be things I missed. Critique’s and readers alike have drawn similarities between this and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, being an avid fan of that novel, I fail to see the comparison aside from the theme of ‘dark academia.’ I found the language in this underdeveloped and simplistic at times, whereas Tartt’s writing is wonderfully crafted, with layers of intricacy. In some ways, I think this book tries too hard. I got the sense it was trying to aestheticize student suffering within the framework of academic life. There are many troubling scenes and dark elements to the book, some are explored well, but others rather flippantly.

However, I very much enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to anyone. It combines so many genres, is full of complex characters and a sense of unrelenting intrigue. It grabbed me from the start and left me hooked, for that alone I would say it is very commendable.

A big thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for giving me an e-arc copy to review. Please note however, this does not influence my review in any way.

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Notes from an insomniac

I stare blankly at the ceiling in the dark room for the fourth time that week. I thought this night would be different, I felt so calm and relaxed when I went to bed and wasn’t expecting to have a difficult night. After hours staring at the same four walls I hesitantly look at my watch, seeing it’s 3:30am. The light is already beginning to pour through the cracks in the curtains, and the world is slowly rising, already.

It seems quite apt that I am writing about my long night not being able to sleep, on the longest day of the year. For me, it will feel like the longest day, in more ways than one.

I have struggled with bouts of insomnia for most of my adult life. At 18, I first experienced the frustration that comes with not being able to sleep. Something that seems so instinctive, so natural, started then to become difficult. It was the summer of my final A-Level exams, I hadn’t slept a wink before stepping into the exam hall. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the exam, let alone perform to the capacity I needed to, to get into university. Somehow I did. To this day I don’t know whether that lack of sleep influenced my grades, but it still feels remarkable to me, what the brain and body could cope with on such a severe lack of sleep.

I’ve always been a “difficult sleeper,” one of those people that wake up in the night from even the softest noises. My mum always remembers the inconvenience on Christmas eve when I was younger, me always stirring in my sleep as she came to deliver my stocking. Since my first experience of insomnia it has come in waves. Throughout lockdown (over twelve weeks now) I have been reading with curiosity about peoples’ struggle with sleep during isolation. However, until now, I’ve never recently had a problem. In fact, my sleep was probably the best it has been in a long time, I was regularly clocking between 8-9 hours a night, usually falling asleep instantly. A few nights ago, I began to experience the racing mind, throwing my months of beautiful sleep out of whack.

I have effectively been awake since 3:30am (it’s 7:30am when I’m writing this) but I don’t feel tired. My eyes feel sore and itchy and my body slightly heavier but my mind is working as it usually does. In the hours before now, I managed to finish a book, write in my journal and now I’m writing this. In my experience, the crash will come soon enough during the day. However, I have never been someone that finds napping easy, nor beneficial. I hope to wait it out, to try and tire myself out as much as I can.

Me at 18 would get incredibly panicky at the prospect of not sleeping. You can’t blame me really, as this was happening against the backdrop of my final exams. It had never happened to me before and I didn’t know how my body and mind would react. Ever since, throughout my experiences of bouts of insomnia, I tend to look to this moment when the same creeping concern arises. I managed to do my A-Levels off the back of no sleep, I can get through today…

The funny thing is – last night my mind was completely at ease. I felt clam from an evening of unwinding, and when I closed my eyes for the night, nothing was on my mind. It was dark and quiet. The perfect conditions for a good nights sleep. But sleep just never came. I was simply laying there, my mind empty, with nothing happening. How can you explain that? I don’t let myself ponder on it too much. I find if I occupy myself with it, I will worry all the more when the time comes to go to bed. Nowadays, after several years, I have come to accept the situation and try and get on with the day as best I can.

Image: Pixabay

I haven’t ever spoken to anyone who has experienced insomnia or sleeping difficulties. Explaining it to someone who has never experienced it is hard. Going to sleep should feel like the easiest thing in the world. A treat, even, in this modern world of overload. I feel like it’s one of those problems that you can only understand fully when you’ve been through it yourself.

Even after days of not getting enough sleep, it seems crazy that my body still won’t naturally succumb to rest. Even when my mind feels at ease.

I’m writing this in the hope that it may enlighten some people and shed light on the struggle. But also, because I need to do something to fill the spare hours! I hope that it may be insightful or comforting to people in some way.

Have you ever experienced insomnia? If so, what are your tips for a good nights sleep? I’d love to know. Although I think I’ve tried most things at this point...

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Currently reading ~ June 18, 2020

Just a mid month update from me (well actually more than midway through…) thought I would do a quick post detailing my current reads. I’m actually pretty surprised at myself, usually I’d be reading 3-5 books at once but I have been very self controlled lately.

I set myself the goal of reading 50 books this year, which now doesn’t feel ambitious enough but then again, in January I had no idea that lockdown would happen or that I would get so into blogging! I’ve already read 35 books this year, and have a feeling I’ll be at the 100 mark by December.

Currently reading

  1. The Sacrifice by Indrajit Garai <- I am around 70% of the way through this and enjoying it so far. I was kindly sent it in exchange for a review, so many thanks to Books by Indrajit Garai @ Estelle for letting me have a copy! I reviewed (and loved) The Little Bridge of Jeremy a while ago and am excited to read the rest of this. Reading a short story collection is a nice change from what I usually read.
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens <- I am around 10-15% of the way through. After writing my post about classics, I managed to inspire myself to pick this up. It’s been one of those books I’ve wanted to read for ages so I thought now would be a good time. I’m finding the plot quite confusing but I love the writing, despite it being hard to understand. I find myself having to re-read sentences to get the gist of things. Definitely not a quick fire read, but very worthwhile. In a time of uncertainty and change I thought it was quite an apt choice.
  3. The Truants by Kate Weinberg <- About 15% of the way through, I started this last night before I went to bed and immediately fell in love with the writing. It feels so comforting and nostalgic. Also, it’s set not too far from me so that helps too. I think this is going to be a winner for me!
Follow my instagram ~ @_vdaniels_

And that’s it at the moment! I’ve almost surprised myself, at the beginning of lockdown I had about 4-5 books on the go at one time but I’ve managed to tone it down a bit since.

My June TBR as it stands:

  1. The Shelf Helly Action
  2. The Sacrifice Indrajit Garai
  3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge
  4. An American Marriage Tayari Jones
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. If I Could Say Goodbye Emma Cooper
  7. The Truants Kate Weinberg

It’s safe to say I usually get distracted and don’t stick to my TBR (anyone else?) but there’s still a good number of days left in June!

Reading recommendations are always welcome. 🙂

Happy reading!

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PMQs ~ poverty, schools, and the “wibble wobble” opposition

I thought I would trial a new series. For someone who has “politics” in the tag line of their blog, I don’t nearly write enough related to this topic. That said, I am passionate about politics and want to practice my political commentary, so I thought I would start a weekly (where possible) response to Prime Minister’s Questions.

If you’re not from the UK, every week we have a question and answer session in the House of Commons between the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Some are arguably more insightful than others, but importantly, it allows the elected government to be scrutinized.

I always enjoy watching PMQs even if they make me frustrated. If politics is not your thing and you only come to my blog for reviews – I totally understand, you don’t have to read any of this! The book reviews are still here to stay!

Anyway, I thought I would try something new, so this is my response to this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions (17/06/20). Obviously, it goes without saying, I am no expert, but these are just my thoughts and attempt to analyse what’s going on.

The week in politics (so far)

In the lead up to this week’s PMQs, the Prime Minister faced scrutiny due to his drastic U-turn for free school meals. This new policy, will provide some of the poorest families with weekly food vouchers over the summer holidays. Just 24 hours before the U-turn, the government had rejected the proposal. The PM has now announced a, “covid summer food fund” in response to the campaign led by footballer, Marcus Rashford.

This is the government’s second biggest U-turn during the crisis, just weeks before it revoked the NHS surcharge for migrant workers, amidst mounting pressure from the opposition and some Conservative MPs.

Announced yesterday by the Health Secretary, Matt Handcock, was a new steroid drug for treating Covid-19. The drug, dexamethasone, is said to be able to reduce inflammation for seriously ill patients. Handcock has stated this discovery is, “one of the best pieces of news we’ve had through this whole crisis.”

Returning to Brexit, Johnson announced that he sees no reason why the UK could not guarantee a EU trade deal by the end of July.

PMQs summarized 17.06.20

  • Topics covered this week include: the government’s stance on the vandalizing of monuments, rising levels of child poverty, children returning to schools, lack of local council funding and social security for poorer families.
  • Starmer geared the debate towards the issue of rising poverty, directly quoting from the government led commission which stated that child poverty could increase to 5.2 million by 2022.
  • Johnson stated the government had reduced poverty and critiqued Starmer’s questioning on the basis it was only an “anticipated” report.
  • Starmer pointed out to Johnson that his facts were from a government led commission, to which the PM seemed to know nothing about.
  • Johnson claimed there were 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than in 2010. This statement has been fact checked, with no proof of credibility.
  • The Social Mobility Commission report stated that, “600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012” despite Johnson’s claim it was only a “projection.”
  • Johnson argued (five times to be precise) that it was important to get children back to school to help eradicate the threat of child poverty.
  • Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP, asked the PM if he would consider raising the amount of social security to an extra £20 per family, to cope with added economic pressures. He accused the PM of wanting to spend more on his own “vanity” project.
  • Johnson claimed the government will always “do more where we can” to help families, but did not agree to raise the amount by £20.

Analysis

PMQs felt quite fraught this week, amidst the background of the latest government U-turn, it’s no surprise that the PM seemed more flustered than usual. These were hard questions he evidently didn’t know the answer to. There was no holding back in terms of the personal attacks against the opposition, as the PM was keen to emphasize Labour’s mixed position on pupils returning to school.

On being questioned by Starmer about the levels of poverty exposed in the commission, the PM failed to offer a legitimate line of defense, even using out of date figures. Instead, he used the political tactic of bluster to deflect attention away from the issues at heart. At one point, Starmer even offered to change places with the PM as he was complaining about the difficult questions.

The more I watch PMQs between these two, the more it seems obvious that Johnson simply cannot handle difficult questions. He re-uses the same argument and seems to adopt a stance of confusion that allows himself to escape from providing a response. Starmer throughout this pandemic has offered a clear and concise rebuttal to Johnson’s absurdity- even beginning to turn the tide in YouGov’s polls.

This PMQs saw very little in the way of beneficial debate, Johnson’s continuous deployment of the “bluster” tactic eradicated any real opportunity for discussion and scrutiny. But I’m inclined to think this is the point. The government have blatantly failed on reducing poverty, and I wish we could have seen a proper response from the PM. His out of date statistics on social mobility rendered the discussion of an imperative issue null and void, and revealed how out of touch he is.

The experience of Covid-19 in Britain has already exposed the faults within our society. As a deep recession looms ahead, this government has to be continually challenged on its policy to “do more where we can.” But particularity, on reducing the inherent poverty and inequality of opportunity that lies within, and has been smoldering for over a decade.

That’s it for this week, let me know what you think of this format!

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The “classic” debate: to read or not to read?

Classic literature has been the talk of the town since lockdown began, as people turn to those dense, un-read books cluttering up their bookshelves. I have seen arguments floating around that claim classics are not relevant in today’s world – which is a premise I find interesting. I agree that no one should read classics just for the sake of it, but would hate to think we shouldn’t read them, just because they don’t reflect the society we live in.

The “yes” argument

Firstly, the most basic one – there is a reason classics are classics. It usually means they’re good, right? Attaining the classic status isn’t easy and there’s usually a reason that a book has one. As readers, we may disagree with its status, however, they are usually deserving in some respect.

Personally, I like reading classics because of the historical element. When writing a book, the author either consciously or unconsciously is writing in response to their specific social and cultural climate. Reading classics take you to that author’s past and you are able to see the world through their eyes.

I’ve said it before, but I have always felt like classics offer us a unique window of opportunity into another time or place . Take James Joyce, for example, I haven’t read anything by him myself, but I’m aware that his writing has been credited for this ability. As well as Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac and many others.

No one should read a classic because they feel they ‘have’ to or that to be a reader you need to read classics – this isn’t true at all. You should read what you want, as simple as that. However, I do find that when finishing classics I get a different sense of accomplishment. Classic literature can be hard to read with the language often being very different to our own, some works can be heavy and dense and these are all things that the modern reader isn’t trained for. Not because of the kind of literature being written now – but because of our tuning into social media, which encourages us to read things in the quickest time possible. I don’t know about you, but my attention span during lockdown has definitely gotten worse…

I truly believe that reading a classic once in a while does a very good job of working your brain and making you understand the world in a way you hadn’t viewed it before. Of course, there are good and bad classics but there’s nothing like the sense of achievement when you realise you connected with a book written decades ago.

The “no” argument

The term “classic” is very vague, and one we have created ourselves because of popularity or to what extent books have influenced the literary genre. Additionally, just because a book is popular, doesn’t mean it is going to be good. I still don’t understand the current obsession with Normal People… It is easy to obsess over status and how well a book has supposedly changed the world; when sometimes readers just won’t connect with the story. You are allowed to dislike a classic! Some examples of mine include The Graduate by Charles Webb and Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger.

Image: Medium

Essentially, what I’m saying is that “classics” are man made and pre-loaded with expectations because of their status. This can give us a false sense of hope and already influence our opinion on what the book will be like.

I sometimes think the categorisation of books into “classics” and “non-classics” creates some kind of hierarchy which we sub consciously take note of when choosing books to read. It also breeds this notion that somehow if you read classics, your’re more intelligent which is obviously ludicrous. However, when I was younger I definitely thought this was the case – I even had a list of the 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die printed out, and tried to make may way through them. I don’t do that now but this is an example of the kind of reading mindset that “classics” can influence.

Additionally, books given a “classic” status many years ago, were more often, the best on offer in an age dominated by white, male authors. Obviously society has changed a huge amount and we have a more diverse range of authors to choose from, but this argument does have some significance. We should always be viewing classics in perspective – as they are a product of the time in which they were written.

Or you could just say when categorizing books we are simply thinking too deeply. Maybe I even am in writing this post – but I think it’s an interesting discussion to have.

Image: Pixabay

My experience with classics

As I said, I used to be one of those people who obsessed over classics, as a result I have made my way through a fair amount. It barely even crosses my mind now, as I pick a book to read based on if I like the sound of it, or other peoples’ recommendations and what I know about the author. That said, I do still have an ongoing appreciation and respect for classics, but more the “modern classic” variety such as George Orwell, John Steinbeck, John Fowles and Ian McEwan (oh dear they are all men…)

If you’re interested, you can still access this same list I had printed out as a young teenager. I have now read 42 out of the 100, not that it matters but I thought some of you might be interested!

On a lighter note, some of my favourite classics include: The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Jane Eyre, 1984, On The Road and To Kill a Mockingbird,

What do you think about classics? Do you read them? I’d be curious to know your thoughts!

Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

I was looking forward to reading this after constantly eyeing it up on the shelves back when the bookshops were still open. The physical cover itself is striking but so is the title itself. What could be more ominous than knowing your sister is a serial killer?

Synopsis from Goodreads

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water…

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

Image: Amazon

Review ~ ★★★.5/★★★★★ 

Genres: Novel, satire, thriller, crime-fiction

This book caught my attention right from the offset. Even before starting to read it the premise seemed odd and strangely appealing.

The protagonist, Korede is fully aware of her sister, Ayoola’s tendencies to murder boyfriends. One night she’s called up and has to help dispose the body of her latest victim. The way she accepts it as part of daily life, is both comical and alluring. It makes you want to read the book to find out how Korede comes to terms with this herself and how it has become so normalised between them. No one else in the family knows about these events. Throughout the novel Korede becomes more worried about her sister and the potential next victim. The horrific events of Ayoola’s actions are told in such a matter of fact, down to earth way that I have never encountered before. I guess it’s meant to be a kind of dark humor, it definitely gets points for originality – I’ve never read a book like it and was taken aback (in a good way) by its approach.

The crime genre scene is usually dominated by British and American parameters, so it was refreshing to see an entirely different setting. The novel is set in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, and is deeply embedded within its culture. Both sisters have also had a troubled upbringing, due to abuse from their father, however, this isn’t really explored until the final pages. I liked the main two characters but felt the novel doesn’t give you the chance to get to know them.

The chapters themselves are short and snappy and this gives a level of pace to the book which I really liked. Although it is a short book anyway, I ended up flying through the chapters. I liked the way it seemed to mirror the nature of Ayoola’s personality and the flip decisions she seemed to make.

The initial grab for this book is definitely there – it has an intriguing and original feel, which offers the potential for a truly gripping story, however, I found my attention dwindling about three quarters of the way through. I no longer felt the compulsion to read on, in the way I had done in the beginning.

Being a short novel it is naturally restricted by the amount of depth it can convey, but in this case, I think extending the novel would have turned it into something excellent. This book lost me in the lack of character development and background information. There are fleeting references to how life was with their father around, despite it having an evident influence on their lives. We are only really given an insight into this at the end, having it at the beginning in more depth, could have added far more weight to the characters and the story as a whole.

I felt as if things just happened tentatively, without any real depth or connection to a bigger picture. The novel starts with a bang and hooks the reader straight away, however, it allowed itself to trail off into nothingness. Nothing major happens, there are no turning points or dramatic events, it just kind of finishes. Therefore, I found it lost its initial suspense and appeal quite suddenly, which resulted in a disappointing reading experience.

Overall, I liked the premise of this book and its originality, and certainly enjoyed its feel, which was what kept me reading. I liked the protagonist, Korede and her sister, Ayoola, but just wish I could have known more about them. The novel lacked depth and lost momentum, allowing little room for the darkly comical and complex story it could have been. It’s definitely worth a read, but don’t expect it to blow you away.

Cover image: Kristian Hammerstad for New Statesman

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Isolation day 87: retail, furlough, brain fog, and podcasts

England is taking its first tentative steps forward, nearly three months on from an unprecedented, national lockdown. Tomorrow will see the opening of “non-essential” shops, as the great British people prepare to flood the high streets during a pandemic which is yet to disappear.

As I sit here writing this, I do wonder what will be going through those peoples’ minds as they make trips into local towns and cities across the country, acting as if the pandemic has magically gone away. It’s safe to say I will not be in a rush to visit shops any time soon.

Many major high street retailers will be adopting the “quarantine items” approach and storing things for 72 hours to kill off the virus. Many shops will not be allowing customers to try items on, and instead encouraging them to take them back to their own homes and bring back if need be. This all seems so comical to me. If the queues for McDonald’s reopening are anything to go by I think the turn out for retail will be just as crazy…

Meanwhile, my furlough has been extended for the time being, I have no definitive date for going back to work but expect it may be between July-August. It feels so strange to realise I have not been to work since the end of March. The world feels so different to the last time I got on that commuter train and made my last latte. I’m pretty sure I won’t even know how to operate the coffee machine when I return… (sorry to my boss if you happen to see this!)

These past few weeks have been pretty rough. I almost feel as if I’ve had this cloud of fog over my brain. Any time I have go to do something, I have found a million excuses why I shouldn’t or just put it off for as long as possible. I feel like my attention span is now worse than ever and I find it hard to concentrate on anything that makes me think. I still feel like there’s a thousand things I could be doing that I’m not. I actually plucked up the courage to send pitches in for national news outlets but have heard nothing back which is disheartening. However, I know that I can’t give up and I need to keep trying. It’s annoying though because the piece was quite “time-sensitive” and I can’t re pitch it as it just wouldn’t be relevant now. I find that half the battle is getting the article idea in the first place.

Sitting in the park

I’ve been lax with exercise too. At the beginning of lockdown I was taking the daily exercise allowance quite seriously and would go for walks most days, however, since it has gotten busier outside with the loosening of the lockdown, I now feel more worried about going outside. I do generally feel like most people are acting like the pandemic is over and the virus has just disappeared. It worries me because you can never predict how anyone is going to behave, I actually wrote a piece for empoword journalism about this. But I am managing to at least get in one run a week – this week I actually managed two so I guess that’s pretty good going.

Day by day, the political response gets worse. What worries me more than anything is the sheer lack of integrity and accountability that Boris Johnson shows. When he even bothers to turn up for the daily conferences (which now seems to be like a weekly thing) he doesn’t answer the questions, he silences the scientists and offers no valid information for the public. His treatment of the Black Lives Matter movement has been diabolical, it took a prompting from the leader of the opposition at PMQ’s for him to even address it, and even when he did it was shoddy and half hearted. I can never agree with Conservatives politically, but at least some in the past haven’t been so full of hypocrisy. It really worries me.

I’ve recently re-discovered the value of podcasts and how great they are to listen to whilst you are doing other things. I love cooking but sometimes I just get a bit bored chopping and waiting for things, but now I tend to pop something on to keep me entertained. I also listen to them in the bath a lot – which I am still having loads of. They make me happy and content which is what I really need right now.

For some unforeseen miracle, we managed to get our hands on some flour – the first time in about three months. I have since made two batches of Irish soda bread – as we’ve got the flour but still no yeast – and have been enjoying the taste of fresh bread. Although maybe a little too much, because on the second bake I basically ate the whole loaf to myself which resulted in a carb induced coma for the rest of the day. I wouldn’t recommend.

My bread, not perfect but something

I am actually really proud of my blog at the moment and how far it has come since the start of the year. In January when I properly started I could count the amount of followers I had on two hands, and now I am fast approaching one hundred. I know that isn’t much in the grand scheme of things but I think it’s mad that so people want to hear what I have to say. And I am so pleased that I managed to save up enough to get myself a new laptop – my old one was so clunky, heavy and slow and now I have a really fast laptop which feels lovely to type on. Getting it at this time was definitely a good idea.

Anyway, I’ll stop rambling. That was my isolation update. I thought I would be doing more of these but I guess I didn’t realise how “samey” the days would be.

Hope you are all keeping safe and well 🙂

Podcasts getting me through lockdown

Since lockdown started nearly three months ago, I’ve been really into podcasts. I’ve been having more baths so that means more podcasts and I have now gotten into the habit of listening to them whilst running – which has changed my life! But I’ll leave discussing that for another day…

I actually find it quite hard to find podcasts I like and want to stick to. What I listen to largely depends on my mood. Sometimes I like to listen to historical/political podcasts which are more educational and then other times (like this week) I just want to chill out and listen to something lighthearted and entertaining.

I’ve compiled a list of the ones I’ve been listening to and thought I would share them with you. If you have any you’ve been enjoying please comment them down below! I’m always in the mood for listening to more podcasts.

1619

In an attempt to educate myself and understand the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing, systemic racial inequality in America and all over the world, I have been listening to 1619. It is a podcast by the New York Times, hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Each episode takes a thematic approach, for example, looking at democracy, the economy or music, but places these within the historical framework, starting from 1619. 1619 was the year in which the first African slaves were brought to North America on an English ship into Virginia.

I have listened to two episodes so far and have found them to be so informative – but not too heavy. Each includes individual experiences and voices alongside the history, in an attempt to place the origins of racial injustice in its modern day context. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the host, also has a very nice voice to listen to, so that’s a plus!

Each episode looks primarily at the history of slavery, the black struggle and tries to answer how this has shaped modern America. It is eye opening and incredibly informative. I would highly recommend this!

Football, Feminism & Everything in Between

This re-ignited my podcast obsession and I have not been able to stop listening! Hosted by Grace Campbell, comedian and feminist activist and her Dad, Alastair Campbell, journalist and former advisor to Tony Blair, each episode (bar the lockdown ones) features a special guest and an informal, comedic chat.

Each interviews combine, you guessed it, a bit of football, feminism and everything in between. The ‘everything in between’ part usually centers on politics but it is usually influenced by the type of guest they have on the show or the events going on in the world at the time. Guests range from Julia Gillard, Kay Burley, Sean Dyche to Ed Miliband. There’s been a few people they had on that I didn’t even know but still enjoyed, which just shows you what a good repertoire the two have to keep me engaged!

The duo have also done a series of lockdown podcasts where they both reflect on the political goings on in number 10 and what they’ve each been doing to fill the days. Every podcast has me at least laughing and rolling my eyes and all most all of them get me thinking. I think the fact these two are Father and Daughter really makes the podcast. They have a very natural relationship which shows in each podcast.

It combines a bit of everything that I like – politics, dislike for the Tories, feminism, mental health, books and journalism so in my opinion, it could never go wrong!

About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge

Image: Spotify

I have really enjoyed this one too. Hosted by the bestselling author and journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race), this podcast looks at the history of race in Britain and ties it into contemporary politics. Unlike 1619, each episode is shorter, and hence why I have gotten through them a bit more.

Episodes often feature outspoken political activists, like Owen Jones and Billy Bragg, and center around a specific issue. Like the rise of far right politics in the UK and the lead up to the EU referendum. Reni Eddo-Lodge methodically picks apart each issue and places them in context to fully explain the ongoing racial inequalities in British society today. The BLM movement has evidently been huge in America, but it is important to be aware that it has so much significance in Britain, as we are still far from perfect.

The episodes also have great music with them – which makes the listening experience even better. I have found the analysis of the history of racial inequality, alongside the explanation of the rise of far right politics in he UK incredibly insightful and interesting. These feel very light and easy to listen to, despite dealing with heavy topics.

I have been learning a lot from this podcast and think it is very well put together.

My Favourite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Image: Exactly Right

I recently discovered this one when having a bad week and I just wanted to listen to something lighthearted, without having to think too much about what I was listening to. At first (I admit) I did have to get over the overwhelming American ascents, but after that I was fine.

Each episode (and there are so many!) looks at a variety of different things; from historical crimes, more recent crimes, to weird stories and personal experiences sent in by listeners. Each episode is introduced by a long, informal and funny chat by the two women, which almost always has me grinning. They are two very down to earth and funny people which are great to listen to when you are feeling a bit down. I’ve also learnt a lot about some horrific crimes in America. Like the Kent state massacre in 1970, and the Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771, which crashed along the West coast in 1987, as a result of an airliner pilot being shot by a passenger.

I just love these podcasts because I can just have them on in the background whilst I’m cooking or washing up, as I’m getting ready in the morning or just chilling in the evening before I get into bed. They are funny, chatty, and entertaining – with a dash of education. Love them!

If you have any recommendations, don’t forget to pop them down below.

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Book review: All Men Want to Know (ARC)

Firstly, many thanks to Penguin UK and NetGalley for letting me review this book in advance, as always, this does not influence my review in any way. Just to let you know, All Men Want to Know is due to be published 6 August, 2020. You can pre order copies from the usual places!

All Men Want to Know

Author: Nina Bouraoui

Genres: Women’s literary fiction, auto-fiction, lesbian literature

Publication date: 6 August, 2020

My rating: ★★★★

This is a deeply moving work of “auto-fiction” told through the life experiences of its author, Nina Bouraoui. It combines the authors real life experiences growing up, but is a work of literary fiction in style and scope. Nina has lived a torn life, and one situated between two continents; Africa and Europe. She spent most of her childhood in Algeria where her Father was from before her Mother chose to move to Paris, because of the outbreak of Civil War.  This toing and froing between two cultures, means that Nina struggles to come to terms with her identity, “France is an outfit I wear: Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.” 

The entire novel is told through vivid, first person narration. This may put some readers off, as there’s no typical story structure. However, I loved the sense of depth this created. The prose often reads as part poetry, part inner monologue of Nina’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I found it a harrowing read, as Nina never shies away from the honesty of her experience and the pain she has endured. In this day and age, we are so used to seeing peoples’ ‘real life’ experience through a filtered lens which often bears no reality, however, this novel strips it back to the bare bones. Thus, making it a moving depiction of the difficulties of coming of age, accepting oneself and learning how to live. It is a powerful portrayal of inner tournaments and the pain people go through during the process of accepting themselves.

Despite the novel lacking a traditional structure – it is divided loosely into four sections of memory which are used to account for the different periods in Nina’s life. These are: knowing, remembering, becoming and being. Each comment on her life at its different stages – from living in Algeria and witnessing its turbulence as a country, to beginning her new, independent life in Paris at the age of eighteen and toying with her sexuality. Due to this dual upbringing across continents – Nina grapples with her sexuality –  she has been attracted to women for most of her life, however, accepting this has been her biggest struggle, “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for…” 

Image: Algeria skyline via Pixabay

Homosexuality is still illegal in Algeria today, which relates to the difficulties of not just Nina’s own acceptance of herself, but the society in which she grew up. In Paris, she feels freer to explore this, due to living in a more accepting, Western culture. She acknowledges this cultural and personal struggle vividly, “I’m a victim of my own homophobia” in which the reader is a witness, as Nina documents her first difficult experiences with love and the initial anxieties these bring. 

Knowing, draws on Nina’s past experience in Algeria, as she accounts traumatic experiences of witnessing her Mother being sexually assaulted, and depicts the variable climate of Algeria which was going through civil unrest. I couldn’t help but feel this exposure must have impacted Nina’s conception of herself, which then impacted her attitudes towards her sexuality and ability to form relationships with women. She had to get over her own boundaries before those imposed on her from others. 

Remembering, documents visions of her past which are mainly in Algeria. Despite the country’s beauty she remembers that, “violence is etched into the land, unending violence” and this struggle is symbolic in her own boundaries to self acceptance. Becoming, is the most ‘present’ aspect of this autobiography, as it follows Nina’s life as a young adult, living in Paris. She frequents a local, lesbian nightclub in the hope of finding love with other women. This is the most interesting part of the book, as it shows how her past struggles and different cultural upbringings shape her identity and coming to terms with herself. She goes up and down like a yo-yo between being proud of her sexuality and path in life, to feeling disgusted, “I’m nothing but a faggot” which demonstrates the tumultuous rage often experienced with coming of age sexuality. But, with an added distressing aspect – her home country of Algeria, would imprison her for displaying her love for women. 

Image: Paris nightlife via Pixabay

Being looks back on her life. This element shows herself starting to accept her identity and letting go of the past. She appears to have found happiness and self love, as a relationship with another woman blooms, “I am the same but I’ve changed, I’ve let go, I’m floating free on this waking dream….” The kind of self acceptance Nina finds, was relieving to read, after Nina’s continuous periods of self doubt. Finally, she appears to be content. 

A stunning, autobiographical portrayal of the inner, psychological battle. Torn between two cultures and two ways of living, this documents Nina’s transition between hiding from the world and herself, and embracing it. Harrowing and dark at times, but also uplifting and beautiful.

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Book Review: The Shelf (ARC)

First of all, a huge thank you to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for sending me an advanced copy of this book – but please note, this doesn’t influence my review. The Shelf is due to be published on 9th July, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order via Amazon and Waterstones.

Synopsis

Amy suddenly has to prepare herself for a surprise holiday with her boyfriend. He’s even ordered a limo to pick them up. Blindfolded, Amy can barely contain herself for what she thinks is going to be a proposal. However, a dreamy vision of a proposal holiday is soon turned into a nightmare – as Amy realises she has been left alone on a TV set.  Jamie has taken her here to dump her. As if a break up isn’t hard enough, Jamie makes sure Amy is as publicly embarrassed as he can. 

Amy and five other dumped women soon discover they are on a new reality TV show called ‘The Shelf.’ The goal is to win the program through a series of challenges that prove their compatibility and motherly instincts. By a public vote, one of them will be crowned The Keeper. An inherently sexist premise of course, but I gathered this was the point.

Review

Image: via Helly Acton

Title: The Shelf

Author: Helly Acton

Genre: Women’s Fiction

My rating: ★★★☆☆

With many parallels to Love Island – The Shelf puts its female contestants through a hard time, with constant rolling social media coverage featuring the public’s opinion of each candidate. Winning the public vote is harder than it seems. Will the women realise they are better off without their exes who had the nerve to dump them on a reality TV show? Each candidate is put through a series of challenges designed to test them – from plastic babies to hosting the perfect tea party.

This is a compelling, re-interpretation of the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Unlike the standard women’s romance novel that results in the leading female character happily in love with her dream man, this novel illustrates the importance of a happy ending that doesn’t have to depend on finding love – but loving yourself.

Amy, the protagonist, has put herself through two years of slog in her relationship with Jamie, endlessly hoping that he would pop the question. She had grown used to his taunts about her body, her neediness and other ‘faults,’ but had placed them to one side in the hope they would get married and have a happy future. Throughout this time, she had lost parts of herself – it takes the entire duration of the novel for her to realise this.

Single over thirty is like an illness that’s too awkward and depressing to talk about.”

Instead of aiming to become the male ideal embodied by ‘The Keeper,’ she decides to portray an important message to women. That you are always enough on your own, and you don’t need anyone else (but especially a man) to complete you. For me, this is where the important, feminist message comes across. In having a character like Amy as the protagonist, the novel really thrusts to the forefront the significance of women being their own person and not succumbing to societal pressures.

Amy is the modern day Bridget Jones with an essential twist, she ditches the yo-yo diets, marriage expectations, and the fairytale Mr Darcy, replacing these with a new appreciation of herself and living life the way she wants to. I found this feminist take incredibley refreshing and much needed in this social media driven age, where everything is about women comparing themselves to others. It is so easy to get sucked into the highlight reels of others, that we forget to be ourselves. And this is exactly what the novel is commenting on.

Image: alison rachel via Pinterest

Life on a reality TV show is peppered with the glare of social media all over the contestants, each are judged 24/7 by the timelines fuelled by the public. The setting is incredibly similar to Love Island. If I’m honest I found some of the similarities, such as the baby challenge, very cliche, which detracted from the novel’s more poignant message. Although I enjoyed the read, even laughing out loud from some of Amy’s comical one liners, I did find the plot predictable from the start. I think basing it on the parameters of Love Island, meant it was bound to be predictable in some ways.

The show is dominated by old fashioned, male chauvinists who believe women should still be a 1950s housewife, much to most of the contestants dismay.

“Selfish Jackie! Distant Gemma! Bitter Kathy! Desperate Amy! Boring Hattie! And last but not least, Easy Lauren!”

However, having a lead character like Amy is central to this book as it goes against the very grain that the TV show setting creates. Amy does not let herself be lured into society’s pressures on women – but uses the experience to go against this, and against what she previously thought her life should value. This is a part of the book that I really liked. Amy’s strength of character and likeability really drives the novel and reveals its best parts and the central message to women.

“I am my own keeper…Be your own keeper. Each and every one of you.”

Above all, I admire this book because it’s message is an imperative one that puts contemporary feminism at the forefront of the social media, digital age. Amy goes through a journey of self discovery and realises she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The societal pressures on getting married and having children is a false one, which can distract women from being their best selves. This ideal is often glamorized in the romance genre – I am very thankful this book did the opposite.

This book is different to anything I usually read but it certainly ticked a lot of boxes. It made me laugh out loud, I loved the main character, and appreciated the important message it conveys to women about self love. However, it didn’t blow me away, because I found the plot quite predictable and cliche. The ending was also disappointing and I was left wanting to know more. That said, I definitely enjoyed reading this book and was drawn in by the initial strange events when Amy realises she is not, in fact, going on a dreamy romantic holiday.

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Book Review: Half a World Away

I have been a bit absent with book reviews – they seem a bit trivial at the moment with everything going on. But I guess people still want to read! But I’m back with another good one! I had high expectations for this and wasn’t disappointed.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Strangers living worlds apart.
Strangers with nothing in common.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Kerry Hayes is single mum, living on a tough south London estate. She provides for her son by cleaning houses she could never hope to afford. Taken into care as a child, Kerry cannot ever forget her past.

Noah Martineau is a successful barrister with a beautiful wife, daughter and home in fashionable Primrose Hill. Adopted as a child, Noah always looks forward, never back.

When Kerry reaches out to the sibling she lost on the day they were torn apart as children, she sets in motion a chain of events that will have life-changing consequences for them both.”

Review

Title: Half a World Away

Author: Mike Gayle

Genres: Fiction, urban fiction, domestic fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Half a World Away is narrated between two protagonists – Kerry, who lives in a tower block in south London, and Noah who has a large house in Primrose Hill. I think this dual narration really serves to reinforce the dividing lines between them.

Kerry and her son, Kian, live their day to day lives struggling to make ends meet. Kerry works long hours cleaning wealthy houses in London, and is a full time, single Mum. The reader soon finds out that Kerry spent a significant amount of time in care, after her Mother struggled with parenting and various forms of addiction.

As a young child, Kerry spent most of her childhood caring for her younger brother, Noah. However, they were separated when Noah was adopted, whilst Kerry grew up in a care home. Ever since, Kerry has been longing for the day when they can reunite. From the age of eighteen, the age where legally you are allowed to request contact with your birth family, she writes Noah letters in the hope he will make contact with her. These letters are scattered throughout the book and add a certain rawness to Kerry’s emotions, by illustrating her life long hope of having her brother in her life again.

Noah’s life is very different. Although he’s adopted, he never really faces up to his former past. There is a lot he doesn’t know about his previous circumstances, and spends a lot of time shying away from it. He is adopted into a middle-class, privileged family and reaps the benefits of this lifestyle. As a barrister his life has gone in the opposite direction in comparison to his sister, Kerry. One day a letter from Kerry manages to reach him directly, which turns his world upside down. He never knew he had a sister and now he has to decide whether to recover his past life. Torn between a relationship breakdown with his wife, fraught conversations with his parents about his birth family, and his own personal struggles, Noah has to make a decision about the direction of the next stage in his life.

Image: Forbes. Street in Primrose Hill, London.

I thought this book was incredibly clever as it embodies the dilemma’s adopted, and care leavers face when deciding whether they want to contact their birth family. I particularly resonated with the feelings of both characters as I was adopted myself. I definitely empathized with both Kerry and Noah, as each character swung back and forth between wanting to know about their past, and worrying they’ll find out something they don’t want to hear.

Additionally, it explores the concept of “family” and what it really means. For Noah, family is definitely not as much about blood relations but who raises you – nonetheless, this doesn’t completely stifle his curiosity. For Kerry, she had always longed for that contact with her brother which suggests she felt that connection to a blood relative. It’s different for everybody, but the book raises the questions a person has to go through when wanting to find out about their birth family. It can put adoptive parents in an awkward place – luckily, Noah’s parents are very understanding and encourage him to learn more about his past.

Above all, class and difference in opportunity is at the heart of this book which highlights how time in care can influence your future outcomes. For most care leavers, Kerry’s situation is more of the norm. Care leavers are more likely to develop mental health issues, turn to addictive substances, live in poverty and are less likely to attend university. Having characters which are two polar opposites – really symbolizes this divide in opportunity that care leavers face. With the dual narration, the reader really gets an in depth insight into how different each siblings lives really are.

They also contrast as they had different fathers but shared the same, white mother. Kerry is a white woman, whilst Noah’s father was a black man. When the narration is told through Noah, we get an insight into his experience of this and difficult conversations he has had, having grown up with a white adopted family. People often had their queries over the family situation and wanted to know more. However, the way Gayle intertwines issues of class, race and disruption in early life – really reinforces the idea that society is naturally unequal. This is an ongoing, brutal reality of the modern world and symbolized so eloquently by paralleling two characters from such different backgrounds.

Image: Joe Newman for the Daily Mail. South London tower block.

Kerry’s perspective is an interesting one – she worries about meeting up with her brother because she lives in a council estate, doesn’t have much money and has ‘scruffy clothes.’ Kian is exposed to bullying at school because unlike his peers, he doesn’t have the latest trainers or PlayStation game. Her flat is tiny, but Kerry has put her heart and soul into is over the years to make it as nice as possible. Differences between the two siblings become eroded over the course of the book as they discover how similar they really are as people.

This book is laced with sadness (which I can’t go into for giving the plot away) but its execution highlights the value of time and how precious it is. Nearly twenty years have passed between Noah and Kerry, and the reader really hopes they can rekindle their relationship. But like all care and adoption situations, it’s awkward at first, messy and complicated. This is demonstrated so honestly in this book and I really take my hat off to Gayle, as it is hard to portray the realities of these feelings in a novel.

I loved this book, as it was easy to read but was a poignant story told with honesty and a huge amount of relatability. I think this is the first adult novel I’ve read that looks at the impact of being in care, and I really appreciate it just for doing that alone. The characters are crafted so well, each narration is told in such a down to earth and chatty style, that as a reader, I really felt I knew them.

However, it’s not a ‘beautiful’ novel as such, there’s no messing about. As someone who loves a bit of literary fiction and use of flowery language – there is none of this here. The language and prose is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, maybe the rawness of the language is the entire point. Emotions are highly charged, and it would be wrong to cover these in littered metaphors and incomprehensible symbolism. Gayle gets to the point, and rightly so.

An honest, down to earth, and heartfelt story which illustrates the variability of outcomes that result from time spent in care, and having a disturbed upbringing. This book is littered with warmth and uplift but simultaneously, endless sadness and regret. It will definitely move you and re-asses your value of time, loved ones and family relationships.

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Black Lives Matter

I am writing this from the perspective of a white woman, who in recent days has become even more aware of this privilege, due to the horrific death of George Floyd – a black man who was murdered by a white police officer. Although this incident is far from an isolated one, but part of a sad, ongoing injustice that has been rife in America since their history began, the graphic footage of police brutality has caused many more people to speak up.

Granted, we should have all been speaking up and being proactively anti-racist all along, and it shouldn’t have taken the death of another black man for us to do so. Evidently, this is wrong, but it would be worse to dwell on this and not do anything. It is easy to have an excuse for not speaking out – I have had many over the years. Partly, I have been silent because I have felt I didn’t have the correct language to speak about these issues, that I don’t know enough, but also because I’m white and have previously felt that I don’t have a right to speak about racial issues. These are all ones that come from self ignorance, I can now admit. But I am trying to be better and that’s what counts. Recognizing your ignorance (and excuses) is the first step forward.

Image: LA Times

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on everything to do with race; how I understand it, how I act upon it and how I can become better at being actively anti-racist. I’m not writing this post and claiming I am perfect (I’m far from it) but I am working on it in the best way that I can. I accept that it isn’t just these few weeks that matter, but it is a lifelong effort that everyone, but particularly white people must take.

I don’t have a huge platform, but I do have one and this is enough. Something you share or post could influence just one person to think differently – but that is enough. Thus, I feel it is necessary to write this post. I deplore everybody to do everything in their capacity to be actively anti-racist; in their communities, online, in work places and in every day life. Being against racism is simply not enough – we have to do more.

Image: Gal-dem

Britain is far from perfect. Our Prime Minister has been silent on events in Minneapolis and refuses to condemn the actions taken that ended George Floyd’s life. It was only when he was criticised by the leader of the opposition, more than a week on, that he bumbled his way through addressing it. During his previous career as a journalist, he blatantly used racist, inflammatory language. This is just one example, “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” And lest not forget our monarchy has been built on systematic exploitation of other races, and the current Duke of Edinburgh (Price Philip, the Queen’s husband) has been outwardly racist his whole life.

Growing up in an almost exclusively white town

I went to schools that barely had any black, or people of colour in the classrooms – students were almost completely white as well as my teachers. During my whole compulsory education, from the age of 5-18, I was never taught about black history and the realities of British led imperialism and slavery, it was never on the curriculum. It was only when I went to university and studied history that I began to understand it. It shouldn’t have taken until this age for me to wake up to the white bias of our classroom curriculum’s, and society’s ongoing, sheer denial of British imperialism. But I fear if I hadn’t have gone to university to study history specifically, I would be far more naive. In part, there is a degree of personal responsibility here, but also, a fundamental national one.

Black history and the horror of British imperialism should be at the forefront of the history we are taught from a young age. Most fundamentally, because black history is British history. We are taught the unblemished version of events, and grow up believing it until we are challenged by it, or realise we need to challenge it ourselves. For some, this process never comes to light. Instead of memorializing the great British war efforts, achievements and sense of national pride that history curriculum’s celebrate – we should be taught the realities of Britain’s past and role in harboring racial inequality.

At university, I studied the history of America, the origins of racial discrimination, the growth of white supremacy, and how inequalities still plague the country of “freedom”. In my final year, my special subject was in “Development” which focused on how Western powers – particularly America and Britain, had exploited African countries from the nineteenth century all the way up to present day. In a way, since being at university I am far more knowledgeable from a historical point of view – however, regrettably I have failed to speak out about it. But I am recognising that. I want to be better and to educate myself even further, and I encourage everybody to do the same, if you are not already doing so.

Social media and #blm

Although I think the blackout trend on social media had good intentions, I believe it ended up silencing black voices and the important educational content that had been circulating. I noticed it was primarily being used by white people, who had not spoken out before. I feared it was being used as some form of social media bandwagon that white people could jump on to claim they had done something and been anti-racist. When many of them had perhaps not done the bare minimum which has a greater impact – like signing the George Floyd petition and donating to good causes.

Image: Variety

Social media is a good tool to spread educational content and have your voice heard – but the simple posting of a black square is not enough nor effective in my opinion. I didn’t engage in this – but instead, shared important educational resources and the links to the Minnesota Freedom Fund.

Changing reading habits to elevate black voices, authors and POC

As someone who reads a lot and whose online presence is geared towards writing book reviews, I am going to make a real effort to diversify what I review.

I naturally float more towards fiction and in the past have read The Colour Purple, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help and The Underground Railroad. But I admit this isn’t enough and is not good enough. I want to read more non-fiction about race, including Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Layla F Saad’s Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. I acknowledge these are mere starting points and won’t be enough to simply diversify my reading habits, as this is a lifelong process – and one that I am going to be getting on board with starting. If anyone has any specific recommendations for books I should read, please let me know!

I have also made an effort to educate myself more with podcasts. I would recommend 1619, The New York Times podcast hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones and About Race with Reni Eddo-Lodge. I have also donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund and signed the George Floyd petition – but I acknowledge that these actions are not a quick fix, the struggle is life long and I will always be doing what I can to speak out and educate myself. I haven’t documented this here to gloat about what I’ve done, but to encourage my readers to do the same and point them in the right direction.

Below I’m going to post a list of resources I have found helpful over the past weeks.

Useful resources

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ELEVATING BLACK VOICES✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 I have been following the situation in the US following the tragic murder of George Floyd. It disgusts me how someone can go to the shop to pick up a few things and never return home because of prejudiced actions against the colour of their skin. I don’t want to live in a world where people lose basic empathy based on physical difference. This is a crucial time to elevate black voices speaking out about their plight. As white allies we need to LISTEN and TAKE ACTION where we can and use our privilege to shield those who aren’t as privileged. That includes donating to charities and signing petitions like the ones I’ve shown here. ➖ Another thing that we should always be doing is reading the stories of black people that come from black authors. One of my university modules was African Literature and it showed me so many amazing novels that have had a profound impact on my reading. ➖ By casually incorporating black written novels, tv shows and films into our daily media consumption we become more empathetic and create space for more people to share their stories. We should support those who already have! This also goes for movies and tv shows which I have recommended too. ➖ I also wanted to include some stories that aren’t related to black struggles by black authors because there are so many that don’t get the same attention on here. ➖ We need to read up on the injustices created by white supremacy while they are so fresh on the news, and let black people know that their lives matter to us and we won’t idly stand by while they are killed by the people who are paid to defend them . #blacklivesmatter

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I am by no means perfect. Feel free to call me out if I’ve said anything wrong, or could have phrased things differently. I am very much still learning, but as always, I am open to starting conversations and helping each other. If you have any other good resources please comment them below!

I hope this honest insight from me may have helped at least one person re-assess their actions and words. Together we must always be fighting for black voices to be given the respect they deserve. This fight is ongoing and long term, and it goes beyond the realm of posting on social media. Education is lifelong but I’m sure you’ll all be joining me in this process. Thank you for reading.

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

Angela Davis, author of Women, Race, and Class.

Book Review: Airhead ~ The Imperfect Art of Making News

Image: Deadline

Emily Maitlis is rather topical in the UK at the moment because of her framing of the Dominic Cummings debate on Newsnight. Maitlis opened the current affairs program with,

“…He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to assume the can now flout them.

The Prime Minister knows all this but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his back benchers, the dramatic early warning from the polls and a deep national disquiet – Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it…    

(You can see the full opening statement here.) In my opinion, her statement did not break “impartiality” regulations but there we go, some are always bound to think otherwise.

However, funnily enough I was actually reading her book before this started. I’ve always admired Emily Maitlis for her approach to broadcasting and this was largely inspired by her brilliant interview with Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal last year. As someone who wants to go into journalism, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Review

Title: Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Author: Emily Maitlis, British journalist and presenter of Newsnight

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Maitlis’ Airhead is premised as an autobiography of her experience as one of the UK’s leading British broadcasters. In hosting the current affairs program, Newsnight, she is often at the forefront of breaking news. This book documents a range of interviews she has conducted, from President Donald Trump, to the Dalai Lama. Each chapter is structured as a specific interview, or peppered with a particular experience in her career – such as when the BBC got arrested in Cuba, or when she took her twelve year old son to see the Chippendale’s in a Las Vegas strip show.

Although the interviews were interesting to read, I found they were largely driven by pure narrative, and each chapter had the same structure and format. In a sense, it was quite repetitive and lacked substance. Some chapters were better than others, and I did enjoy reading her experience as the interviewer – one that stands out is the interview with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, days after the Grenfell tower tragedy. Her writing reveals to the reader that indeed, no interview is ever perfect and a lot of the time, due to constraints they are haphazardly glued together in the moment, for the purpose of fulfilling the “breaking news” agenda.

Before reading this I thought it would focus more on the ins and outs of news making and the philosophies of journalism itself. By this, I mean who does news making aim to please, the morals and ethics of breaking news reporting, and how instant reporting via social media has undergone a revolution in recent years. Also, the impact that breaking news has on history making and our conception of events. These are all things Maitlis has been in the thick of over the years, and I was therefore, surprised they weren’t really discussed. Perhaps I expected too much?

Maitlis integrates some of this ever so slightly, but only in the final chapter,

“A huge amount of thought goes into what we do. Interpreting moments of history whilst they are still unfolding is both deeply rewarding and endlessly challenging. Television news is messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – and sometimes you just nail it.”

Emily Maitlis, Airhead

I felt that she had saved the best until last – this reflection on the art of making news should have framed the entire book, and she could have gone deeper into this and been more selective with the amount of interviews included.

The book is marketed as an “autobiography” but it certainly doesn’t read like one, we don’t receive details of her early life, childhood, or how she got into journalism, just snapshots of favourite moments in her career that when reading, feels more like a diary entry. Don’t get me wrong, the interviews were interesting and funny at times, but I found the book lacked depth she could easily convey, considering her remarkable career.

There’s a lot to be said about news making and the ethics of broadcasting, and Maitlis is one of the best people to discuss it, but it’s a shame she didn’t make this more of a feature, perhaps she is saving it for another title!

All in all, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone that is interested in broadcast journalism and wants to read about it from her perspective. But don’t expect too much from the sub title, “the imperfect art of making news” as this isn’t given the attention it deserves.

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What I read in May (2020)

Another month in isolation brings another months worth of reading to an end! I have read a variety of things and pretty much loved everything. I’m starting to think maybe I need to be more critical…!? I found myself feeling drawn to non-fiction which isn’t the norm for me, but nonetheless, the month was still dominated by fiction.

The Library of the Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick ★★★★

It feels like a life time ago that I read this but it was only at the start of the month! A lovely, heart warming story about a librarian who attempts to discover the truth about her family’s past. Uplifting and reviving in a time of need! And if you like books about books, stories and words, you’ll love this.

Re read: Normal People, Sally Rooney ★★★☆☆

The beginning (and most of May it seems) has been dominated by the hype around Normal People. I decided to re-read this in the hope of liking it more, again, I was left with the same feeling I got the first time round. Average story documenting a strange kind of relationship – something about it doesn’t sit with me well. A nice little coming of age novel, but one that doesn’t deserve the hype, nor the literary credibility.

The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll ★★★★

I enjoyed this very much. To coincide with my increasing habit of journalling during isolation, I decided to read the definitive bullet journal guide. I found it very informative, motivating and easy to read and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to learn more about the benefits of journalling to manage anxiety. It also contains useful diagrams and examples of how to lay out your journal.

The Bridge of Little Jeremy, Indrajit Garai ★★★★

I was kindly sent a copy of this and really feel in love with the story. It is one of the most beautifully written stories I have read and I feel in love with the language. It’s told through the perspective of a twelve year old boy living in Paris, trying to save his Mother from going into financial ruin. It really tugs at your heart strings, but in all the best places. Above all, it is a story about the love and appreciation for art and seeing the beauty in the everyday.

Frozen Butterflies, Simona Grossi ★★★★

This was weird story, it had such a lingering weirdness that I couldn’t bring myself to write a review about it on my blog. The characters were directionless, possessive and obsessive and I found the relationships that Susan (the protagonist) perused worrying and strange. However, I found myself addicted to the book and couldn’t stop reading it. The discovery of a stranger’s journal starts the whole thing off and gives the reader the hook they need to read the novel. Intriguing is one word to describe it for sure.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy ★★★★★ 

Arguably the best book I have read this year, I loved everything about it – from the story, the protagonist, Sofia, and the general ‘feeling’ the book left me with. It’s descriptive prose made me notice even the small things in my day to day life, and I felt I could immediately read it again. Set in Spain, the story follows the journey of post-graduate, restless Sofia, as she takes her mother to Spain in the hope of curing her various ailments. It is essentially a coming of age novel, but told with such sincerity and depth that it kind of blew me away.

In the Dark, Soft Earth, Frank Watson (ARC, due to be published July 2020) ★★★★

I was kindly sent this from the Plum White Press. This collection of poems explores many elements, from love, relationships, desire, to an appreciation of nature and our place in the world, but essentially draws upon the idea that everything we experience has an ancient history. The language is simple, but charged with pivotal imagery and sentiment. The images created are beautiful, and a hypnotic ode to the human experience.

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, Emily Maitlis ★★★☆☆

I found this book enjoyable, interesting and funny at times. As someone who is interested in journalism and admires Emily Maitlis for her wit and manner when interviewing, I was excited to read it. However, I felt it lacked depth. It reads as a snapshot diary documenting various interviews, but offering little in depth insight into the philosophies behind news-making and journalism. Maybe I expected to much from it, but I felt she could have gone deeper as she certainly has the capabilities to do so. However, still an interesting read.

Reading stats

Average rating – 3.8

Books read – 8

Pages read – 2, 276

What I’m currently reading

I’m currently still reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists but I’m so close to finishing! I’ve been reading it in-between the sixteen or so other books I have read for the past couple of months, hence why it seems like I’ve been a bit slow. I have to read it in small chunks as I’m trying to really take it in. I am actually writing a piece on it for another publication so I want to read thoroughly. I must admit, there were a few sections in the middle that dragged somewhat, but I’m currently on a bit that’s really good! I think it will be a book that ends up having a significant impact on me and the way I think.

Final thoughts

I’m actually feeling very happy with myself in terms of reading. For three years whilst I was at university, I just didn’t find the time to read for pleasure and I am so pleased that this is something I am able to do. COVID has helped obviously, but I think I would be reading just as much anyway. This month I reached 30 books read so far this year which is crazy! I sent myself a target of 50 at the start of the year and thought that was ambitious!

I’ve had a couple of really great comments and feedback recently on my reviews – saying they are really in depth and thought out which is wonderful to hear. However, it has got me thinking, am I perhaps writing reviews which are too in depth? Would it be better to adopt more of a chatty, informal style or still stick to the ‘rigorous’ type approach. I’ve tried doing the short and snappy style which I enjoy, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right for certain books. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know!

Happy reading and best wishes as always,

Violet xxx

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Poetry Review: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Firstly, I am very grateful to Plum White Press for sending me an advanced copy of this collection, however, this does not influence my review in any way. 


Frank Watson is an American poet who has written collections including; The Dollhouse Mirror, Seas to Mulberries and One Hundred Leaves. In the Dark, Soft Earth, is his latest work, due to be published in July 2020, it describes itself as the, “poetry of love, nature, spirituality, and dreams.” You can pre-order the collection on Amazon.

The Review

Title: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Poet: Frank Watson

My rating: ★★★★

In the Dark, Soft Earth captivates the essence of human experience with the forces of nature, intense romantic relationships and draws on a sense of shared history. The prose is beautifully captivating, honest, and full of images which will light up your soul. In a way, it takes the reader on a journey of what it is to be human, through the surges of different emotional experiences tied in with nature. 

I found the collection had a significant element of flow in the way each poem bleed into the next. Some poems were more short and snappy and at first appeared to be more devoid of meaning, but viewed collectively, they had a shared meaning. This gives the collection an element of motion which I really loved, as there was something so hypnotic and dreamy about it. 

For me, despite each poem having a different feel, the collection is united by a common theme that explores the idea that our human experience and emotions are universal. Poems such as ‘shores of millennia’ illustrate this, in pointing to the idea that our feelings and thoughts have been lived before, and in this, this is how we are connected to our past,

“these rocks

of a million years

and all the fleeting life

that’s graced their shores…”

shores of millennia

The idea that love is a timeless human emotion is explored captivatingly in this collection, with drawing upon images of the history of the earth. When we walk, when we love and when we explore the earth – we are doing something with an ancient history. I loved this image and feeling that Watson conveys and its sense of grounding of the human experience is unique and wonderfully demonstrated.

Photo by Kenneth Carpina on Pexels.com

In ‘continents’ we really get the exploration of this theme and how nature, love and history are all tied together. The feeling of love is likened to a, “sensual sea” which has the ability to carry, “across the continents” and, “into centuries, / of cracked earth / with stories told..”. I love the beauty of this image and the sense of timelessness from it – it again, points to the idea that human experience is historic.

The theme of nature is as persistent as love itself, as a reader you really get the sense that Watson is enthralled by it. Nature is the driving force behind his portrayal of love and the ‘soft’ element of earth. In making such a connection between love, nature and human experience, it feels like Watson implies that nature itself can be a carrier of emotions – and this is such a lovely sentiment. I think partly, nature is so heavily drawn upon as it makes readers re-consider their perceptions and connections to the world.

Aside from the interconnectedness of themes drawn upon in this collection, the writing itself pays homage to the sense of effortlessness in which we can all feel and have the capacity for love. The flow is beautiful, crafted with a simplicity of language and littered with complex images. Some poems are almost lyrical and roll of the tongue which makes the collection entirely digestible. Watson uses little punctuation in many of his poems which creates a kind of breathlessness  – perhaps mirroring the intensity of human emotions.

I found the reading experience itself to be incredibly addictive, soothing in parts, but also cutting in places – especially towards the end which features the darker elements of human experience. It feels as though the collection is meant to get increasingly darker as you read on, to demonstrate the cycle of life and renew an appreciation of the ‘soft’ parts of the earth. 

I really enjoyed the collection as a whole and felt touched by the portrayal of love being intertwined with the forces of nature. However, I struggled with the end in getting to grips with some of the images about death and religion – I understand it had to end on this to convey ‘the life cycle’ theme, but I felt this part was disconnected to the rest. The heavy, religious images didn’t seem to match up with the delicacy of imagery used for the majority of the collection. 

Image: Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel, 1563

Also, this part increasingly uses historic works of art and religious pieces including the “Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel and “The World” by Bonifacio Bembo. Although these point to the element of shared, historical experience, I didn’t think they added to the collection. For me, reading poetry is an individual experience about creating your own images from interpreting the language. In providing images, I found it took away from this. However, this said, perhaps this is more of a personal preference. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection. I found the way Watson captured the human experience enlightening and beautiful, and the images of nature really resonated with me. The language is simple, but the images are complex and enduring. It is a celebration of life itself and everything in between. The simplicity of language and limited use of punctuation enabled a certain rawness to be conveyed – which I liked. For me, this is important, as poetry has to be honest and accessible, so it can reach people and touch them in various ways. 

In a time of great turbulence, anxiety, and concern, this collection restored my faith in humanity and our capacity to appreciate the world. It will soothe your soul and carry you to other places. Its breathless sense of urgency will charge your present with the instinctive human necessity to love, be grounded to the past, and have an abundant appreciation for nature. 

Beautiful to read: a timeless assessment of what it means to be a human in a world with an ancient past, charged with an undercurrent of urgency.

My favourite poem in the collection,

“in the garden of dreams

a little orchid bathes

unseen in the rain

violets

in the midnight scent –

stars in her eyes

a wall within

a wall where all

the secrets grow

in a world of fragments

we piece it together

in the walls we make

gardens

Thanks again to Plum White Press for sending me a copy!

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The actions of Dominic Cummings symbolise the wider government failures during this crisis

In the early hours of last night, we were greeted with the breaking news story that Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had broken lockdown rules by leaving London to travel to his family’s farm in Durham

Here reportedly, his wife was unwell with Covid symptoms. Cummings’ motives and further explanation, was that this was an essential journey as he had to help with childcare. There is confusion over whether at the time of travel, Cummings had symptoms or not but even so, he ignored his own public guidance to stay put and “protect the NHS and save lives.”

It doesn’t serve the public message and only adds to further confusion. Additionally, his sister and nieces (who hadn’t developed symptoms) had already offered to help look after the children. In the wake of the findings, the Tory party seem to be divided over whether these actions are forgivable or not. Michael Gove, in a Tweet, proclaimed, “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime” – it seems politicians are exempt from their own rules.

If we put the actions of Cummings aside for one moment, we can see how this lack of responsibility has been a prominent feature at the heart of the UK government during the COVID-19 crisis. As an individual, isolated issue, it does partly feel like the media are dragging it out a bit, when we should be focusing on more prominent issues. I think it’s wrong what he did, and he does deserve to be sacked, but I think it’s significance is in the bigger picture it points to.

Image: SkyNews

There are many instances of this, “do as I say, not as I do” attitude from senior government officials, which points to further failures of dealing with this crisis. Most notably, this includes Neil Ferguson, who’s epidemiology model on the virus was used to shape lockdown regulations in the UK. Ferguson broke lockdown rules to receive frequent visits from a lover (who wasn’t a part of the same household). Although I am not a fan of the “name, shame and blame” culture, it does point to some wider issues that surround this crisis. Failures from individuals, and the government as a whole, illustrates the aversion of responsibility and denial culture that Boris Johnson’s Tory party embodies.

Image: Yorkshire Post

Take the return of Prime Minister’s Questions. In his second performance as new Labour Leader, Keir Starmer pressed the PM on when exactly the Test, Track and Trace facility will be available ahead of the plan to reopen primary schools in England from June 1st.

It took time and time again before Johnson eventually blurted out that he “promised” that by next month this system would be in place. The week before, Johnson claimed the meticulous Starmer was “ignorant” and didn’t know the facts. Besides from reading out the advice from the government papers themselves, this mere slither of Johnson’s performance feels to me like a blueprint for what’s to come over the next four years. In professing the “ignorance” of the opposition, Johnson uses rhetoric to avert attention from his own scrutiny, and avoids delivering a response to the criticism at hand.

Johnson also told the House of Commons he wished the Leader of the Opposition wouldn’t be so, “negative”. This is a dangerous line of defense, which allows Johnson to appear to have the upper hand. The very point of facing the opposition is so the government can be scrutinized, the PM is evidently aware of this, however, he uses it to his advantage to avert any responsibility. Starmer’s criticisms over the government matter more than ever in the light of their appalling handling of this crisis. 

In deliberation, Johnson uses this unique characterization that he has managed to perfect over the years. He plays the idiot to avoid responsibility and always fails to directly answer a line of questioning. It’s this ignorance and sheer lack of accountability that is a sign of the deterioration of the Conservative Party. They may be ahead in the polls and be the shining beacon in many minds of the public, but in reality, they lack imperative accountability and the humanity to admit mistakes. If Cummings, Matt Handcock, (the Health Secretary) and Johnson were simply able to apologize for their mistakes and move on – they would at least have a portion of respectability, even if it were to be short lived. 

Keir Starmer was never the ideal Leader of the Opposition in my eyes, but I have to admit, his performance at PMQs has taken me by surprise. He is definitive, meticulous and has an unwavering sense of dominion over Johnson who appears to be crumbling at the seams as the weeks go on. Without the support of his backbenchers, Johnson is revealed for what he really is. He’s not a leader, he doesn’t have the accountability that politicians need, for he was always a mere campaigner even back in his Mayor of London days. Faced with criticism, Johnson never accepts responsibility. Will he ever accept failure over the horrific PPE shortage that NHS workers have had to deal with? 

Johnson told the public to practice, “Good, solid, British common sense” with the loosening of the lockdown. The switch from, “Stay at Home” to, “Stay Alert” is irrefutably vague. However, it seems that even before this subtle change, his own senior advisors couldn’t cope with following the simplest of instructions. And when faced with criticism (rightly so) senior Tory’s practice their public school boy tradition of worming their way out of accountability – it’s what they do best. 

Johnson and his clapping for the NHS whilst stripping them of adequate PPE, and formally making immigrated NHS workers pay a £400 surcharge for using the NHS, shows himself for what he really is. He’s hypocritical and all about proclaiming a false image of national unity in a time of crisis. It’s the illusion of display at its finest – however, it doesn’t take much for the cracks to be revealed.

In the weeks since recovery and addition of another heir to the great Johnson bloodline, the PM has taken a back seat in the workings of his government. Barely appearing in daily Press Conferences, it does beg the question over whether this figure of fun is more of a part-time Prime Minister who simply lacks the skills of tackling scrutiny. Where is he today to defend the actions of his senior advisor? It would certainly fit in with the theme of avoiding accountability that has protruded during the worst health crisis of a generation.

Have an opinion? Join in with the debate in the comments 🙂

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Isolation: day 62

Image: Pixabay via StockSnap

It’s hard to believe the last time I wrote one of these, we were only a couple of weeks into lockdown. We are now two months in and things are very different, but also the same.

On that routine I always wanted to get into – well guess what, I never did. And I stopped beating myself up over it because the allure of productivity and the pressures to be busy all the time is so mentally draining, that whilst being swept up by it you can lose the reason why you wanted to be productive in the first place. I’m done with the concept and discourse surrounding it, especially during these times, when to just get through it should be seen as productive enough.

So what have I been doing? I’ve still been reading and writing, albeit not doing the kind of writing I want to do as I’m struggling to find the motivation to write about anything more ‘serious’ than book reviews – but that’s okay. I have been able to use this time to focus on my blog and regularly posting – I hit 60 followers yesterday which is somewhat of a milestone for me, as I started off with about twelve at the start of the year! Thank you to everyone who has followed me and given me kind words of advice and encouragement 🙂

I’ve lost the will to exercise. I seem to go through weeks where I am really motivated – for example, one week I went running twice and did other workouts too, but the past couple of weeks I haven’t been doing much apart from long walks. We are going through a hot spell in the UK and it really doesn’t make me want to go out and exercise, and it gets so stuffy in the flat that I don’t feel like doing it inside either. These may sounds like excuses (lets face it they probably are) but hopefully I’ll be able to get back into it soon.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

I’ve been trying to be more mindful of what I am eating – I was previously just eating the amount I would usually eat, but then I realised I wasn’t nearly doing the amount of daily exercise I used to. As a Barista I tend to spend eight hours of the day on my feet but now I tend to spend them on the sofa… I’ve been doing intermittent fasting a couple of times a week just to become more conscious about what I’m eating and I think it has helped. I don’t weigh myself or anything because I find that mentally exhausting. But I’ve come to be more accepting that gaining weight over this period is completely normal and I’m not going to beat myself up over it (and neither should you!)

The government guidelines have gotten even more confusing. We have now been advised to, “stay alert” rather than, “stay at home” however, I am finding myself staying at home more than ever because there are so many people out that still don’t take social distancing seriously. I get anxious even at the thought of going to my local park so that’s a write off. As we are now allowed to drive out of where we live to exercise, we have been going on long walks in the countryside – which I have loved as there’s very little people and when we do bump into them, they are kind and move out of the way.

There’s still no real clarity about when retail and hospitality will go back to “normal” – the government have proposed June or July as a guideline but that’s subject to changes in the data. As I use public transport for work I’m pretty sure I’ll be one of the last people to go back but who knows what will happen.

I still find it crazy how we are seeing 300-500 deaths a day, nearly two months on and people are still not taking the virus seriously. I get that we have to learn to live with the virus but at the same time, it’s so easy to just be respectful of others and simply step out of the way when you’re out and about – it seems to have become a thing of the past where I live.

I’ve been thinking more about what I want to do with my life, I haven’t had any “revelations” as such but I think more than ever I do want to pursue my MA in Journalism. I’ve been listening to podcasts about freelancing and writing in general and it has made me realise just how many aspects of journalism there are out there. I’ve deferred my place for a year, partly because I don’t know what’s going to happen with the course this year – as so many UK university’s have decided to teach online until 2021 already. I’ve decided to use this year to try and get as much writing experience as I can and read about the industry more generally.

I guess that’s my little update on still being in isolation in the UK. Expect some more reviews soon, I now have a speedy new laptop so it doesn’t take half the time to do something on my blog now!

Anyway, if you’re reading this I hope this chatty post finds you safe and well, wherever you are, Violet xxx

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Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)

Midnight Sun and reminiscing over Twilight

It honestly seems like a lifetime ago that I had my head and heart buried deep in the Twilight franchise. All those ‘twi-hard’ feelings have since come back to me since the announcement of Midnight Sun.

I can remember walking to school whilst reading the book, tripping over stones and bumps in the pavement whilst my head was implanted in a different world, wishing I never had to put it down and go to lessons. I was just obsessed with it – and I also attended my then best friends Twilight themed birthday party as Rosaline. No kidding, the love and commitment was real.

I was always Team Edward, but most of my friends were Team Jacob. My rationale was yeah, Jacob was good looking and all but Edward had far more personality and history about him. Looking back, this seemed to be the dividing line in high school friendships for quite some years.

Image: Seventeen Magazine

I remember the anticipation waiting for the new films to come out and I even attended a midnight screening of Eclipse, the third book in the series. I remember the room being full of screaming, excited girls and their Mums. Those were the days! Arguably though, I’ve always thought Eclipse was the best book and Twilight the best film – those misty, rainy shots of high up tree tops were all the range weren’t they?

But I’m not fourteen anymore, actually going on twenty three, but I am thoroughly excited for the newly announced Midnight Sun. I figure it will be a chance to relive some of those nostalgic teenage years…

Rumors about a new Twilight book have been thick and fast since the series ended with the last film, Breaking Dawn Part 2. Additionally, in 2008, a manuscript of Midnight Sun was leaked on the internet, it seems it has been on Meyer’s pipeline for quite some time. At the beginning of May, Stephenie Meyer finally let us all in on the truth we had been waiting for, with her exciting lockdown announcement that Midnight Sun would be released on August 4 – this year!

Importantly, Midnight Sun isn’t just a continuation of the series, but a re-telling of events through Edward Cullen’s perspective. Now, there’s been a lot of criticism about this from now ultra feminist fans who claim that Edward Cullen was manipulative, obsessive and created a lot of red flags in their relationship. Admittedly, there are some dodgy elements but I think it will actually be fascinating to see things from his perspective. I found Bella as a protagonist a bit pathetic if I’m honest, so I am excited to see the story through Edward’s telling.

I was always fascinated by Edward’s past and the amount of lives he had lived and hope this book will go into more detail about this. Then perhaps we will be able to understand more about how he approached his relationship with Bella, and his rationale for the way he is. Or will it just be a gimmicky addition to a series which was wrapped up years ago? I hope not, but somehow I think it will be more than another money spinner, after all, it has been in the works for a long time.

I’ve seen lots of people who have been shamed for being excited about a new Twilight book, as if liking the series is some kind of step backwards in their literary habits. I wish this wasn’t a thing but it is. I am unashamedly admitting that I am excited about the book and will definitely be reading it when it comes out. Although I might have to trace my mind back to the story again so I can compare the perspectives.

Is anyone else excited, slash rolling their eyes at this announcement? Let me know!

Bring on the vamps 🙂

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is a multifaceted, charming, literary fiction must read. I was drawn in by the setting of beautiful Paris, and the love of art the novel immediately conveys through its lyrical descriptions of life in the city. It is a story told through the unique insight of a twelve year old boy and his relationship with his best friend, Leon – a German shepherd. Intertwined with everyday musings about the city of Paris, is a story about a boy who tries to save his mother from financial ruin. It’s endearing, poignant, beautiful and will break your heart.

Please note – I was sent a copy of this book, but have not been paid to say any of the following. Everything is my own opinion.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Jeremy’s mother is about to go to prison for their debt to the State. He is trying everything within his means to save her, but his options are running out fast.

Then Jeremy discovers a treasure under Paris.

This discovery may save his mother, but it doesn’t come for free. And he has to ride over several obstacles for his plan to work.

Meanwhile, something else is limiting his time…”

Review

Title: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

Author: Indrajit Garai

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating: ★★★★

What I loved the most about this book was that it took me by surprise.  I was so invested in the story and the main character Jeremy, navigating his days through Paris with his best friend, Leon. The story is completely told through the perspective of Jeremy, who lives with a severe heart condition. As readers, we learn more about his condition as the story goes on.

The book is told through first person narration, so the reader sees everything through the eyes and ears of Jeremy. I haven’t read many books which are narrated by such young protagonists, before reading this book I was hesitant, as in the past I haven’t enjoyed these perspectives, however this really surprised me. Jeremy is wise beyond his years, has an eye for the most beautiful things in life and thinks about things deeply. Naturally, I got along with his persona. His personality inevitably leaves the reader fully wishing for him to get a happy ending – as he is kind, resilient, talented, hardworking and has an eye for seeing and capturing the beauty around him. 

Jeremy wants to do all that he can to help his Mum out of financial ruin so they do not get their flat taken away from them. When he discovers an ancient painting in the cellar of their flat, he takes it upon himself to find out the history of the painting and restore it himself, so that he can make money for his Mum. During this journey, Jeremy provides us with beautiful descriptions of Paris during his daily walks with Leon. He truly sees the world in brushstrokes, colour, depth and shape, which mirrors his talent for painting. I frequently forgot Jeremy was only twelve – it was such a unique perspective for me to read and I really enjoyed viewing life through his eyes. The reader, like Jeremy himself, often forgets that his life is a very fragile one, Jeremy fears having the next heart operation, but tries to live every day the best he can.

Additionally, I enjoyed the prose in this book. Jeremy’s observations about life and scenes in Paris are told through dreamy, lyrical and descriptive language that has the ability to take you away from the present. It is a story about art and the power of beauty, that is utterly mirrored by its own use of language. As a result of this, I found myself finding the reading process incredibly relaxing and soothing to read. I’ve never really experienced this from reading a book before, but there was something about Jeremy’s daily walks with Leon, exploring the same scenes and documenting it so visually, that calmed me in a time where I’ve been feeling so much unease.

The story itself is a work of art as it has so many layers. It may be a story fundamentally, about saving a piece of art to save a family, but it contains so many other facets. There is an element of suspense throughout, as the reader cannot predict whether Jeremy will be successful in restoring the painting and whether his health will improve. The financial situation for his Mother seems to worsen day by day, despite her working so much overtime. But will the two of them get to keep the family home they so know and love? Can a painting save their future? 

There are other themes explored such as the importance of family, friends and a prevailing sense of achieving social justice which runs through the book. Jeremy is motivated to help his Mum on a personal level but also because he thinks it’s wrong that she could have her home taken away from her, even through it was inherited through the family. For a twelve year old, Jeremy certainly has an awareness of social justice in the adult world. Above all, it is a story that values a love and appreciation of art, how it can transcend decades and take us to other places. It stresses the importance of imagination and our ability to see the beauty in the everyday, before it’s too late. The novel is complex, engaging and full of suspense – I loved reading it to see how it would unfold. 

However, the ending was not what I had hoped for. I found it slightly abrupt and unfulfilling. Considering the rest of the story is so complex and well told, I found the ending to lack the closure it deserved. It is the only part of the story I felt was underdeveloped but maybe I am just being selfish in my criticisms as it wasn’t the ending I would have written. . Nevertheless, these are merely my personal, petty criticisms. We can’t always get the ending we want… Perhaps that’s the point here?

All in all, this is a beautiful story and reading experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. I thoroughly appreciated the perspective of a twelve year old boy telling the story and the experience of becoming his eyes and ears, as he navigates Paris and attempts to bring an ancient painting back to life.

There are so many elements of sadness in the story, but these are always combined with plentiful beauty, as to remind us that there is always light, even when we may be surrounded by darkness.

“Yet life never comes in pure black and white. On the contrary, life always comes in patches of ambiguities, as on an impressionist painting; but, among its lights and shadows, you can add details from your imagination then interpret the result the way you like.”

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is available via Amazon.

Productivity pressures during COVID-19

If you’d have told me 2 months ago that I was going to get 8 weeks and possibly more of free time to write and do whatever I want, I would have jumped at the challenge to bash out the next King Lear. I’m only talking about King Lear above all the other plays because everyone keeps banging on about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine…

But now, 7 weeks in, I find myself feeling disappointed. Not because I haven’t written, but because I haven’t pushed myself to write about other subjects I care about. This whole COVID-19 crisis has made me so angry, mainly due to the government’s poor response here in the UK. Everyday I think about writing something about it – my drafts folder on my blog is full of unpublished things I’ve written in the heat of the moment. But for some reason I’ve found that writing about politics and COVID-19 is so hard, I lack clarity when I write, and the ability to form a coherent argument. This is something I did over and over again whilst studying history at university, and because of this – I feel I should be able to do it with more ease.

I’ve been loving writing book reviews – but anything beyond this has been impossible. And I’m annoyed as I could have used this time more wisely – but the words just won’t flow. There are so many things I feel I want to say about COVID-19 but don’t know how to say them. With pushing back my MA for another year, I feel I ought to be ceasing every moment to write and expand my horizons but I lack the confidence to pitch to other media organisations and websites. Why would they want to hear from me? Why is my opinion or outlook any different? But at the same time, I know I could be using this time to work on it. And I know what I have to say does matter too. Self doubt is a real thing, isn’t it?

I keep telling myself it is ultimately fine, as I am still writing and thinking about what I want to write, even if I’m not always getting pen to paper. Or fingertips to keys, however you want to look at it. Being unproductive, and lacking the will to write is ultimately okay – the pressure we put on ourselves can outweigh the energy and creativity that we initially have. The pressure can manifest itself in self doubt, anxiety and lack of motivation – and that’s definitely what I’ve been feeling at the moment. I know I need to be less hard on myself, but it is easier said than done. And I know I don’t need to write the next King Lear(it’s not even the best Shakespeare, lets be honest…)

Image: Pixabay

COVID is here to stay, I don’t think we’ll be only living with it for the remainder of the year, but far beyond. It will become the, “new normal” as they keep saying, thus, I’ve got to get over this writing barrier. Maybe it’s my distance spent from the mental challenge that academia used to bring. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because we are in the middle of a global pandemic not seen on the same scale since 1918, and it is really really hard to motivate yourself to do anything meaningful.

There’s so much pressure in the media and online to make something of yourself during this time, to lose weight, to get fit, to write a book, to bake – and it’s hard when your outcomes do not live up to these false expectations. Because it is not just “free time” it’s a hard time – where everything we have been used to have been taken away from us. Where we cannot access those small comforts we once had, and where our days lack the routine that working life usually brings.

On a serious note – the pressure to make something of this time is real and felt by many. It’s something that I need to shift to the back of my mind and not let cloud my passion for writing. But at times like these, which are very unique and surreal, it is hard to do, and this should be spoken about more. If anyone says to me, “what did you do whilst in quarantine?” and scoffs at my lack of achievements, then they must be the biggest superhero in the world, as this is one of the hardest times – and we shouldn’t treat it as a pathway to guaranteed productivity. And guess what? It’s actually okay to not be doing anything. Especially if that means we take that pressure off ourselves.

What we do with out time isn’t some kind of productivity competition over who can achieve the most – and it is easy to see it as this, when we are all spending more time on social media, which portrays life through a golden haze. But it is a time where we should banish the ideas and pressures behind “productivity” all together. It’s a word that is constantly bashed around in media and academic discourse, but once we free ourselves from its reigns, we may actually find ourselves better off.

Book Review: The Bullet Journal Method

I’ve dabbled with the bullet journal over the years, only to abandon it in the past as I’ve ended up finding it too time consuming. However, upon reading this book, I have realised that is exactly the opposite of what bullet journaling should be. With more time on my hands, and spending more time journaling in general, I decided to read the official guide to learn more about it.

What is the Bullet Journal method?

The Bullet Journal method was conceived by designer, Ryder Carroll, when he was searching for a more productive means to manage his life. It is a type of journaling which aims in the most simplest forms, to give space for your tasks, thoughts, and anything else in-between. In being a “bullet” journal, it provides a fast means to note down everything in your head. Using a specific set of symbols the user can have all their to-dos, thoughts, events and ideas in one place. In using an Index system, the user can easily find information from any month of the year.

It describes itself as a type of “mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system” and stresses the importance of the physical act of writing in our digital age, to achieve a sense of mental clarity. It is not meant to be complicated, time consuming or “pretty” (despite what you find on a quick social media search using “#bulletjournal” or “#bujo”) but a practical accompaniment to dealing with the strains of modern day life.

This book, “The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future” is the official guide, written by its founder, Ryder Carroll. In true bujo style, I will conduct the review in brief bullet points so you can get a sense of what it contains.

Title: The Bullet Journal Method

Author: Ryder Carroll

Genre: Non-fiction, guide

My rating: ★★★★

The Review

  • This book is a ‘how to’ guide for setting up a bullet journal. It covers the origins of the method, why it’s different from other productivity methods, and gives step by step instructions on how to create your own.
  • Within the step by step instructions are snippets of commentary on the philosophies of life and the importance of mindfulness. Carroll believes this type of journaling and the act of writing things down is a type of mindfulness in itself.
  • The book stresses the importance of practicing mindfulness throughout – in framing it as a necessity for coping with the modern world and detoxing from social media.
  • It contains diagrams and illustrations on setting up a bullet journal and examples of monthly, weekly and daily “spreads” (a.k.a the pages of your journal).
  • These are incredibly useful as sometimes the text is quite bogged down in detail, it is handy to have pictures to see what the pages are supposed to be set up like.
  • It is very informative and takes you through step by step. For anyone thinking wanting to start a bullet journal, I would definitely suggest reading this cover to cover.
  • I left feeling a tad overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in the book, but I think its a guide you can flip back to again and again as you go along. I will definitely be re-reading certain sections.
  • I really appreciated the background on the creation of the bullet journal, as it made me understand its purpose.
  • As for the method itself – I have always seen the value in writing things down as it makes my mind feel more at ease – but this method is important as it stresses journaling in its most minimalist form. (where it can be most useful to de-clutter your mind)
  • A very good guide to understanding and learning about the practice of bullet journaling, the history of its conception and why it is important in the digital age.
  • It is a tad pricey in physical form, if you have a Kindle I’d suggest buying a digital edition, which will only cost you £3.99 in the UK!

Putting the ideas into practice

Now, I’ve been awkward with this and only started half way through the year but I thought it might be interesting for you to see a few of the pages I’ve done since reading the book. I haven’t followed the symbols strictly, but I will when I start a new notebook. I really recommend the practice if you’re like me and get very overwhelmed with your emotions and thoughts – it can act as a quick form method of writing a diary, as well as increasing your productivity.

I mainly use it to track books that I read and books that I want to read. Although I use the weekly spread quite a lot too. As always, thank you for reading! 🙂

My top reads for the year so far

Lying in bed trying to sleep the other night, it suddenly dawned on me that we are nearly half way through the year. 2020 has been a strange one so far, and it will probably be strange for a long time, but one things for sure, I’ve definitely rediscovered my love of reading now that I’m not a full-time student. In this post I thought I would share with you three of my favourite books I have read this year. What have been your best reads so far? Let me know!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I have definitely been late to the party with the Hilary Mantel craze, I think I’ve always been put off reading the series as being a history graduate, I’m naturally wary about historical fiction and the way it can distort the truth and change people’s perception on history for the worse. However I was so surprised with how good this was, and in fact, it probably changes our historical perspective for the better.

Reading this was honestly an experience of pure joy, Mantel manages to capture all the tiny details of the drama that unfolds during the court of Henry VIII, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. I love how the protagonist is Cromwell, who is commonly thought of as the historical underdog. The reader becomes his eyes and ears and is fully immersed in the trials and tribulations of what it is like to serve the tumultuous monarch that was Henry VIII.

This was the first book I read in lockdown and I don’t think I could have picked a better one – it provided me with pure escapism and living in another world. The writing is beautiful and really captures your imagination. It really went beyond my expectations and I can’t wait to read the others!

“You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child sometimes a master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move. If he had been called to a lower station in life, he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell

I’ve always been a fan of George Orwell. I can still remember the exact moment and feelings I experienced when I first read 1984. Since then, I’ve been trying to read more widely and getting beyond the texts he is prominently known for, I’m truly surprised that this novel is not one that more people have read.

I loved it from start to finish and was naturally drawn to the story and protagonist, as Gordon Comstock leaves his unfulfilling job to work in a bookshop. Sounds pretty perfect, right? Except it isn’t so easy. Gordon struggles with a lack of money and cannot resuscitate his writing ambitions, he feels lost and directionless but also angry that he has to come to terms with depending on the vast forces of capitalism (that he despises), to make a success of himself.

It contains some classic Orwell elements – the portrayal of inner city poverty, wealth inequality, critique of capitalism and the rich, but with a rather nuanced and different type of story from Orwell’s other writings. I loved the protagonist and his ambitious nature, expressed in voluntarily leaving his well paid job to pursue something he loved, even if this meant his quality of life would be near to living below the poverty line.

“He had blasphemed against money, rebelled against money, tried to live like an anchorite outside the money-world; and it had brought him not only misery, but also a frightful emptiness; an inescapable sense of futility. To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

I devoured this book from start to finish. I downloaded it onto my Kindle because it was on offer and didn’t expect much from it, however, I ended up loving it. Initial impressions of this book are that it’s going to be a somewhat light read, but as the story goes on, we find out more about Eleanor Oliphant, and for one, realise, she is not completely fine, and she has a rather dark past and struggles with managing her current life.

I was attracted to the main character – as I enjoyed her frequent musings on defying social expectations and norms and found her to be very funny, and despite her own appearances she holds up, very likeable.

However, under the surface she is incredibly lonely and endures a silent life of alcoholism every weekend to escape from the repetitiveness of work and her tiresome phone-calls from her mother, who frankly bullies her. Everyday, the people around her take her for granted. From narration of her life, her habits and routines, you can really see how this kind of life can be easily slipped into – the book has a kind of realistic, relatable factor which I enjoyed, it seemed very real.

One event spirals into another and Eleanor Oliphant is finally able to work on herself, as a reader, you want her to have a happy ending. I loved this book and would read it again and again!

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allowed span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

Book Review: The Past Is Present (Reedsy)

This is a book review I wrote for the platform, Reedsy Discovery. Reedsy is a platform for readers and writers where you can get access to the latest ‘Indie’ books from a range of genres. I recently became a Reedsy reviewer, and you can see my review initially published with Reedsy here.

Please note – this book is available from 8th May, 2020 and you’ll be able to access it via Reedsy. Enjoy!

Title: The Past Is Present

Author: John Markowski

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Awaiting Publication (May 8, 2020)

Rating: ★★★★

The impact of one day can last forever – Ben struggles to maintain a normal life and is soon confronted by the nightmare that remains.

Ben has never led an ordinary life. He is haunted by a tragic event involving his high school friends, which all began with an out of control football bet. Fast forward to the present, and he is still being confronted by a blackmailer. Ben keeps his wife and children in the dark about his past. But how long can he keep this secret? And at what cost? Soon, he will be forced to confront reality.

What strikes me about this novel is the character development. Although it features a variety of perspectives, the leading character, Ben, is particularly insightful. Through Ben’s internal monologues, the reader experiences the psychology of living with endless regret and inner torments.

Ben struggles to sustain a normal life, feeling crippled by his past. I resonated with Ben completely, and desperately wanted him to put things straight. The variety of narrators with Ben at the center, contributed to the complexity of the story and conveyed a central message: actions always have consequences.

I really felt the pull of this story and was fascinated to see it unravel. The plot is fast paced but also contains essential background. The climax is dramatic, packed with action, and almost excruciating to read. The pace of the story never gets bogged down by the background detail. Many thriller novels often cannot pull off both at once – but this certainly does.

It deals with important, psychological elements, not just Ben’s, but with Ryan, who was the main victim of a horrific crime. Ryan blames himself for what happened and would rather think about ending his life than carrying on with the present. Ben too, is unavoidably confronted by his past – and eventually, so are all the friends involved. Things unfold in the ways he most fears. Who knows what lies ahead? Will they all make it out alive?  

I would recommend this to anyone who loves a dramatic, fast paced, page turner. But also, those who appreciate a story that flicks between the past and present, with an incredible amount of immersive detail. The build-up was full of action and deployed with expert narration and multiple character perspectives.

Reading this reminded me of Fredrick Backman’s writing – which often features extensive character insight from different narrators, but all of which are connected to a particular event in time, that has the potential to change things forever.

Normal People: Book Vs TV Series

Image: BT

I first encountered Sally Rooney’s Normal People last year when I received it for my birthday. Like many, I had heard of its success and was excited to read it.

The first time round, I enjoyed the story but felt dumbfounded as to why it had such success. To me, it was your average love story with a fair amount of teenage, first love dramas. When the TV series aired on the BBC, I decided to give the book another go. This post will be reviewing the book and TV adaptation.

About the book

Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second book, published in 2018. It immediately received international acclaim, with selling 64,000 copies in the first four months in the US alone. It went on to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, won the 2018 Costa Novel Award and became the Waterstones Book of the Year. So it’s pretty fair to say in the literary world it has done well.

Reviewing the Book My rating: ★★★☆☆

My first reaction when finishing this was a resounding, “meh.” It’s possible that because I was super aware of all the hype (which has only gotten worse) I had high expectations. I genuinely liked the story and got enjoyment out of reading it, however, I failed to see why every person under the sun was raving about it.

I re-read this earlier on in this month and this time round I hoped I would get more out of it. Spoiler alert – I didn’t really.

I found the relationship between Marianne and Connell problematic from the start, not because they are so different from one another, but purely how they react to their relationship. The way they both feel the need to cover up the relationship is beyond me. Yeah I get it, maybe if you are about thirteen years old it might be awkward, and you might worry about what your friends think, but they’re meant to be far more mature at this point as they’re applying for university. So what if your friends make fun of you?

And in later years at university, their lack of communication astounds me. If they are each others soulmates, why do they constantly do things that stand in the way of their relationship – like agreeing to see other people for instance. ??? They never sit down and have this conversation and it’s so frustrating and boring to see their relationship go up and down like a yo-yo.

I appreciate the attempt at creating complex characters, I still don’t know what to make of Marianne, and Connell in a sense, was far more likable. He was more down to earth and in touch with his emotions. But they both frustrated me and so did their relationship. I find the premise of them being “normal people” nonsensical. Firstly, because they both attend the top University in Ireland and they are more intelligent and well read than your average student.

Secondly, because of their situation. Connell’s Mum is employed as a cleaner in Marianne’s mansion and for most people, this isn’t really how you meet the love of your life. They are far from normal – and this portrayal of the type of love they have, the relationship they share, and their situation is not the average scenario. If Connell was so in love with her – why didn’t he say so with more force? Why did he poodle around with Helen for so long? And Marianne, with people who were no good for her.

The book is told in third person perspective which uses no dialogue and little punctuation. The narration switches between Marianne and Connell during their up and down relationship. This perspective did little for me and if anything, gave me a sense of greater detachment from the characters. The absence of dialogue is pretty unnecessary. If anything, it comes across as a bit pretentious, almost as if Rooney is trying to make up for the very average plot. However, I liked the switching between narrators as I think the reader gets a fuller picture of the relationship.

The story is far from nuance. As the book has won such prestige, I expected it to blow me away. But it’s your classic love story with a peppering of some more poignant themes, most prominently, Rooney’s treatment of the “social class performance” of university.

Touching on the experience of class at university was crafted through Connell, who is the token working class character. He comes from a single parent family and constantly feels like his isn’t good enough for middle class Marianne. University for Connell at Trinity, is disappointing and lacking substance. He documents himself sitting in seminars where people, because of their privileged former education, are able to ramble about texts they haven’t read with confidence. Seminars lack meaning as privileged students fire off phrases and literary analysis they’ve been exposed to since their lives began. Importantly, Marianne flourishes at University when she struggled at school. She can use her cultured background to her advantage as she mesmerizes everyone in all social settings. This portrayal of university culture was largely similar to my own, and I felt it added a poignant element to the novel – though it was far from perfect. (I won’t go on about this as it will make the post even longer, but I could do a separate post on this if anyone would find that interesting…)

On the whole – for me it was average and underwhelming. It was enjoying enough to read, but I don’t think it deserves the “future classic” status it has been given.

Reviewing the BBC Adaptation

Image: Entertainment Weekly

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Was the TV series any better? To be honest, I don’t think it could be as it was so close to the book, even word for word in many scenes. I found the format a bit strange and wonder why they chose to do it in 12 half an hour episodes, when you could have done 6 one hour episodes, it seemed to allude to the same sense of detachment I got from the third person point of view in the book.

It was nicely shot and put together with very good casting however – comparing a book to a TV adaptation is always a bit pointless, as it is a completely different way of telling a story. However, I did find the TV series more enjoyable – I guess you could say it was more gripping. I think this was aided by how short the episodes were – I found myself saying, oh go on then, just another episode, and before I knew it I had binged them all.

The sex scenes were prolific, I think there were three occasions this happened in the second episode. Despite the quantity of it, I was impressed by how natural the sex was conveyed, it wasn’t perfect, but real. Marianne’s sexuality wasn’t portrayed as any more or less than Connell’s – in one aspect at least, they were equal.

In the TV series I felt like there was more of a focus on Marianne’s troubled home life, featuring the constant abuse from her brother, Alan. It allowed her to be seen for what she really was, and what she tries to cover up with her insolence in the beginning. Her past abusive father and her now brother, played a role in making her tell herself she was unlovable or didn’t deserve to love. As a young woman, she is withdrawn at school, but at university she tries to challenge this model and break beyond it. She is a complex character, but the more I read, the more confused I was by her.

I guess I would say I got more enjoyment from watching the TV series, it was cast well and the acting was spot on. However, I find it interesting to see what was emphasized compared to the book. Naturally, the program focused on sex scenes and the dramatic elements of the book, including a fight with her abusive brother Alan, where he nearly breaks her nose. Although there was a scene when Marianne was invited to spend Christmas at Loraine’s (Connell’s Mother) and they were doing the pre-Christmas shop and bumped into Marianne’s mother. Her mother didn’t say a word to her, just stared blankly into the distance as if Marianne was invisible. This was one of the more bleak and poignant scenes – which perhaps wasn’t conveyed in the same way as the book.

Final thoughts

As I stated at the beginning, I still feel that Normal People is overrated. It follows the traditional parameters of a love story, with adding in some nuance aspects such as class, family abuse, and the realities of university life, but fundamentally, I found it underwhelming. Sure it’s a good story and it grips you, but does it deserve all the critical acclaim? I found the form lazy and the plot typical of young adult, coming-of-age, romance genres. The characters were interesting but frustrating. The TV series was more appealing, but nonetheless, it can’t be rated any higher than the book. Is it worth a read and watch, but should it be called the next classic of our generation? No.

I’ve barely seen any critical pieces about this but would love to know your thoughts on the book/TV series, let me know what you liked about it (or disliked).

These are some interesting mainstream reviews I found whilst writing this:

Book Review: The Library of Lost and Found

Title: The Library of Lost and Found

Author: Phaedra Patrick

Genre: Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Synopsis

One day Martha, a librarian, discovers a mystery package on her door step which changes her life forever. In the package is a book of short stories, featuring a dedication from her Grandmother, Zelda, who died years earlier. This becomes a puzzle to Martha and she sets out to get to the bottom of it.

Martha is always helping other people and spends her life putting people before herself, however, with the arrival of this package, she is forced to face past family secrets that have entrapped her forever. Join her, as she goes on her own journey of self discovery.

This is a heartwarming and uplifting story set in a small, English seaside town, that will take you on Martha’s journey as she discovers more about her family. It is fundamentally, a story about the joy of storytelling and the power of the written word and imagination, but also the value of family, friendships and love.

Review

  • I immediately loved the feel of this book as it is a book about books! The main protagonist, Martha, is a librarian who appreciates the joy of books and used to write stories when she was a young girl, naturally I was invested in the book and Martha as a character.
  • Martha is instantly likable as she leads a life helping others and the reader is left wanting to know if she herself, gets a happy ending. All her life she has put her needs last and it is starting to take its toll on her. The arrival of this mystery package comes at the right time.
  • The element of mystery introduced by the package and the can of worms it opens within Martha’s family, is intriguing and made me want to read on. I wanted to find out what had happened within the family many years ago. I wanted to know where the book came from and why etc.
  • The book flips between different narrators, events and time periods, to give background on the family setting and what happened between Martha’s parents and her Grandmother, Zelda. I thought this was clever in the way it related to the present and connected the dots.
  • The story on the whole was very well told, intriguing and gripping, but for a story about stories, I was left feeling slightly unfulfilled by the plot and its ending. I felt there were more avenues it could have explored to give it more depth, however, maybe it’s being left for a sequel…?
  • The story ends with Martha just starting to gain more control over her life and putting her happiness first, however, we never know exactly how this ends which is disappointing.
  • I loved the setting of this book, as I have always been attracted to small, English coastal towns. I like the idea of Martha’s family living in the same place for generations and the amount of history and sentiment the place holds for her.
  • It definitely has elements of sadness which I kind of expected – but these were explored with a great amount of poignancy which makes you realise the importance of family, and how we are all constrained by time.
  • Martha as a character frustrated me at times but I guess that was the point – as readers we feel invested as we want her to have the good ending that she deserves.

Final thoughts

I would recommend this to anyone who likes stories about stories, books and writing. And also anyone who loves a slight mystery tinged with romance and intrigue. This book covers all of these elements and is told in such a heartfelt, uplifting way, that I would’t hesitate to suggest it to anyone.

It was a joy to read and I devoured it over the course of a few days. But I was left feeling slightly unsatisfied by the ending, hence, I haven’t given it a five star rating. Nonetheless, it is a story full of great characters that oozes warmth and the value of family and friends – which we could all take a dose of in this difficult time.

The past was in the past, and she had to accept it and lay it to rest, so she could look to the future.”

April Wrap Up

Hello! Hope you all had a good month, despite everything that has been going on in the world. It was a month of up and downs for me but one thing is for sure, I definitely was able to enjoy reading.

I’m glad that this month I seem to have re-discovered my love for non-fiction, as well as reading some classics which have been on my TBR for ages. There were a few books I was disappointed with, but on the whole I had some great reads!

What I read this month

Hiroshima John Hersey ★★★★

John Hersey provides a harrowing account of the tragedies of Hiroshima, told through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it. Not one for a light read, but nonetheless an essential one for understanding the past and how it influenced our present world.

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan ★★★☆☆

I had been eagerly awaiting for this to be released in paperback but was left incredibly disappointed. It raises some interesting themes about humanity and the future of AI but it’s delivery was somewhat lacking, and I didn’t think the alternate history added anything to the novel. Interesting, but not the best McEwan out there.

The Flatshare Beth O’Leary ★★★★

This was exactly what I needed to read during lockdown. It is a lighthearted, uplifting and funny story about a woman who opts in to share a flat with a man she never plans to meet. It left me feeling warm and bubbly inside and is a read I’d recommend to anyone!

Call Me By Your Name Andre Aciman ★★★★

A hot and steamy love story I wasn’t quite prepared for, but one I enjoyed all the same. I loved Aciman’s prose and his ability to take you away to endless summer days in the Italian Rivera. I questioned his portrayal of love but nonetheless, think it is a great read and an important one.

The Past Is Present John Markowski ★★★★

This is the first book I read for Reedsy Discovery and I was incredibly impressed. The book was fast paced and driven by excellent character narratives which alternated between the turn of events. A classic page turner. Due to be released on 8th May, you can see my review here.

Why I Write George Orwell ★★★★★

Orwell makes the ongoing case for socialism crystal clear, in this short collection of essays written against the background of rising Fascism across Europe in World War Two. Essential then, but all the more now. An enduring message written with conviction and coherency.

Lonesome Traveler Jack Kerouac ★★★★

Travel writing at its finest – I really needed this bit of escapism. Follow one man as he travels across America, Europe, Morocco and a desolate mountain top. Hard to follow in places but nonetheless, a classic Kerouac featuring beautiful, poetic prose.

The Graduate Charles Webb ★★☆☆☆

Disappointing from start to finish, the characters were inauthentic and the story lacked any depth or coherency. This could have been an interesting novel about post-graduation life, but I felt that the way the novel was written limited its impact. Film is probably better.

What I’m currently reading

The Library of Lost and Found Phaedra Patrick

I picked this up as a bit of light relief from some heavy books I have been reading recently. I’ve seen it around a lot and thought I would give it a go. It is mainly told through the perspective of one woman, Martha, who one day, receives a parcel on the doorstep of a library she works in. The parcel is a book inscribed by her grandmother, who died years before the date it was written in. Martha attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this book and in the process, rediscovers herself and what it means to really live.

I’m really enjoying this book so far and am close to finishing it. A review will certainly be up soon!

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Robert Tressell

This book has been on my to read pile for as long as I can remember, and now in isolation I’ve finally had the chance to read it. Deemed as the favourite book of both George Orwell and Jeremy Corbyn alike, I felt like I had to read it to further broaden my horizons on the necessities of socialism and its origins.

The book is told through a variety of perspectives of men who are overworked and exploited – but who cannot face up to the extent of their own poverty. The main narrator, Owen, is the only one who can see the reality of their poor working conditions and the wider problems. He tries to explain socialism, inequality, wealth redistribution and poverty to his peers – but with little luck. I’ve read around 300 pages so far and am very much enjoying it, I am learning a lot. A review is definitely on the horizon.

What’s on my May TBR?

I’m bound to change my mind if I commit to reading certain titles next but again, there’s so much I want to read! But I have a few ideas, for non- fiction I’d like to have a go at:

  • Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload by Julia Hobsbawn. This book looks at the way human society and interactivity has changed with the arrival of the internet, 24/7 media coverage and social media.
  • Airhead by Emily Maitlis. After her stunning interrogation of Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal, I have become a fan of Emily Maitlis. She is a brilliant broadcaster and journalist and I can’t wait to read this autobiography.

For fiction, I’d like to read:

  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I have read The Secret History and absolutely devoured The Goldfinch and loved every word, so I am holding out high hopes for this one too. I have no idea what it is about but as always with Tartt, I do feel a little intimidated by this book due to its size, but then I remember how much I devoured The Goldfinch
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Have seen and read great things about this novel, including great praise by Barack Obama so I can’t wait to get stuck into this too!

My reading stats

  • Total pages read: 1,819
  • Total books finished: 8
  • Average rating: 3.75

Final thoughts

April has definitely been a strange month and probably one that I will remember for the rest of my life. In the UK, we have been in lockdown for over a month and life still isn’t due to return to normality for a while. I experienced highs and lows throughout the month, but nonetheless I am so happy I have found the time to read and write again.

What did you read in April? And what are you looking forward to reading next month? Please let me know in the comments! And wherever you are in the world, how is the virus affecting you?

Hope you are all well and in good spirits 🙂


Book review: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate

Author: Charles Webb

Genre: Fiction, Romance

First published: 1963

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Synopsis

Benjamin Braddock returns back to his family home from college with a brilliant degree, a teaching prize and a bright future ahead of him. However, for the next year, he lazes around in his parents’ middle class suburban, American household, dwindling away the hours floating around the pool and drinking into the early hours.

He is plagued by the feeling one gets after graduation. Where shall I go from here, what shall I do with the rest of my life? The age old question which has tramped many from generations gone by. He returns from college, not revived by the prospect of education – but drowned by it.

Things soon take a turn, as Ben is seduced by the wife of one of his fathers business partners on the evening of his graduation party. This soon turns into a shady affair, led by Mrs Robinson. In the middle of this, Ben is then encouraged by his fathers business partner, Mr Robinson to take their daughter, Elaine out on a date.

After this date, Ben is suddenly in love with Elaine – the daughter of the woman he was having an affair with. Ben soon fleas to Berkeley to pursue the apparent love of his life.

Review

I had been looking forward to reading this for ages. The promised feel of the book appealed to me, having only graduated at the beginning of this year. However, almost everything in this book disappointed me. This is the lowest rating I’ve given to a book this year but I just can’t justify it being any higher.

Lets start with the protagonist – Benjamin Braddock. He comes from a wealthy family and has just finished his college degree with securing a possible teaching placement at Harvard university. On returning home, he begins to find the prospect of further education draining and a waste of time, but he has no idea what else to do. Faced with endless pressure from his snobbish parents – he feels he ought to do something noble and good. I can relate to him on this level – but that’s where it ends. If there is one word to describe Ben – it’s flippant. And not flippant in a good, Gatsby-esque way, but in an annoying and incomprehensible way, that never leads to anything.

Ben thinks the whole world revolves around him and thinks he is too good for the world – and that really gets to me. He is male, white, college educated and has prospects. Why does he constantly fail to acknowledge his own privilege and the potential power this could bring? I guess this is in the dating of the novel.

The novel is mostly told through repetitive, argumentative dialogue between Ben and his parents, Ben and Mrs Robinson (the woman he was having an affair with) and Ben and Elaine. It’s tiresome to read and sheds little light on the protagonist himself. It is almost impossible to understand him and to connect with him in any way. He jumps from hoop to hoop and seems to fall in love with Elaine overnight, despite only ever going on a date with her to please Mr Robinson. He’s winy, but not in an endearing way, and seems hell bent on wasting away his future with an endeavor that lacks true authenticity.

There was no way I could be invested in Ben and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the book. I found him to be tiresome and irritating, and wanted to give him a good shake. The premise of his situation could have been a poignant way in which Charles Webb explored the restlessness of coming out of university and the trials that post-graduate life brings. However, the dialogue driven prose lacked depth, authenticity, and intrigue, and does not allow for connections to be formed between the reader and the protagonist.

It took me less than a day to read, as reading through dialogue is a fairly fast process. Especially when the dialogues between different characters just repeat themselves. The prose offers nothing remarkable, no eye catching sentiments or images, but mere conversations and arguments between characters who never actually seem to like each other.

The story goes round and round and at times I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness. I find it hard to believe it has achieved the status of a “modern classic” but I suspect the 1968 adaptation into a film, staring Dustin Hoffman had a large role to play in it.

All in all, Ben was not an authentic character I could get behind and neither were his relationships. The story jumped about from start to finish and lacked any depth and coherency that could enable meaning. The themes were at first, plausible and interesting and were what drew me to the book. However, the protagonist, Ben, and the limited prose, made it impossible to render the promise of an American masterpiece possible.

Disappointing and probably not worth your time reading – although it only took me a day to finish from cover to cover. If you have read this and enjoyed it, do let me know. I may be missing something!

Would You Rather Book Tag

This looks like great fun and I love reading and writing these so thank you to the lovely Gil for tagging me – her blog is amazing so please go and check it out (https://gilreadsbooks.wordpress.com/) here goes!

Would you rather only read mass market paperbacks or only read stiff, non-floppy paperbacks?

It has to be mass market paperbacks, it really bothers me when books are stiff and hard to read. I don’t like bending back the covers because then they permanently don’t close by themselves. So mass market paperbacks all the way! And plus, they are usually always in the buy one get one half price at Waterstones. 🙂

Would you rather have your favourite character be a terrible person in real life or your favourite author be a horrible in real life?

Hmm that’s a difficult one. I’d have to say my favourite author be a terrible person – and I think this is somewhat true in a lot of cases! (sadly). I know George Orwell wasn’t meant to be particularly nice as a person…

Would you rather meet your favourite booktubers or meet your favourite book blogger?

I don’t actually follow any booktubers – I’m not sure why, I just haven’t got into that yet. If anyone can recommend some please let me know in the comments! So it would have to be my favourite book bloggers.

Would you rather have to dog-ear your pages or have to write on them?

I write on my pages anyway… and I like it that way so I’d rather be able to keep doing that. I actually think it looks quite nice to have little penciled in comments in books. I’d never write in pen though.

Would you rather have a damaged book delivered to you every time or the wrong book to be delivered to you every time (the second or third time you may get the right one)?

Damaged – I often think used books give them more character but it depends on how damaged it would be… If it’s still readable I really wouldn’t mind. I took home a book from work (I work in a bookshop) which had been flooded on, all the pages were crinkly but I put it on my radiator to dry off when I got home and it was fine!

Would you rather be a librarian or a bookseller?

I have volunteerd in a library in the past and worked as a bookseller more recently. Have got to say a bookseller – there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to recommend books to customers and later hear that they loved them. And the discount is pretty good too!

Would you rather have your favourite character die in the end or have your favourite character not complete their mission/life goal?

Sorry for being depressing but I’d rather see them die than have endless suffering and a boring life, never moving forward…

Would you rather live in a library in space or a live in a library under the sea

Space scares me and I’d be very far away from earth – so I’d rather live in a library under the sea. Also, I love the sea so it wouldn’t be too bad. But just hope the books wouldn’t get wet.

Would you rather not be able to read any books from your favourite author or have them not publish anything again?

I think I’d rather them not be able to publish anything again… as at least I could then try and catch up with everything they’ve written. Also, I’m a great re-reader, so reading the same book again wouldn’t bother me. (I’ve read One Day about eight times I think)

Would you rather read everything ever published (even the worst books) or read only one book a year?

This is a no brainier for me – I’d rather have endless books to read than only one a year. There’s something weirdly satisfying about reading bad books, sometimes.

Thank you for the tag, Gil 🙂 I now nominate the following… These are all great blogs and some of my favourites so check them out if you can!

No pressure to do the tag! Just a bit of fun 🙂

Book Review: Lonesome Traveler

Title: Lonesome Traveler

Author: Jack Kerouac

Genre: Short story, travelouge, fiction

Published: 1960/1990

Rating: ★★★★

Long time no see! If I’m honest I’ve been experiencing a bit of a reading slump, maybe I’ve been going too heavy during isolation… I also haven’t felt like writing much, so apologies for the lack of posts.

Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”

I don’t usually write anything on an author’s background, but I feel it is useful for appreciating this book and Kerouac’s writing more generally. I read On The Road (1957) in my teens and fell in love with the dreamy writing, but never delved deeper into the context surrounding Kerouac’s work.

Kerouac is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the, “Beat Generation,” a group of American writers in the post war period who were exploring American culture and politics in a form that rejected the ‘traditional’ literary narrative. These novels cover aspects of religion, exploration and rejection of materialism. Additionally, the experience of being human are placed at the forefront, with documentation of drugs, alcohol, sexual liberation and ideas of self fulfillment. Other well known authors of the Beat Generation include William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac’s writing style outwardly rejects traditional literary devices, what he called, “simply poetry or natural description” deployed in Lonesome Traveler. The entirety of the novel is told through a spontaneous prose which jumps about between topics, people and places. Importantly, there is no coherency or structure – this was precisely what Kerouac was rejecting. Kerouac lived by, “first thought, best thought” and wasn’t a fan of revising his work, as he believed this was a form of “literary lying”.

The Beat Generation influenced the Counter cultural movements of the 1960s, due to its featuring of sexual liberation, prominent drug use and experimentation. However, the movement was made up of a pool of distinctly white, male authors. Women were incredibly absent. There were some female Beat authors including, Carolyn Cassady and Edie Parker, however, they never attained the same kind of success as male counterparts. In an interesting article, Lynette Lounsbury infers that female Beat authors were the “wives” to the male, literary greats of the period – never being appreciated on their own account.

It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this writing was – when we are now exposed to so much variation. An out right rejection of the literary form had never been fully attempted in the 1960s, and Kerouac was one of its pioneers. Today, we have the joys of postmodernism behind us, and authors such as Lucy Ellmann and Ali Smith – who abandon the constraints of the novel.

Overview

It is unclear (from what I’ve read) whether this is based on Keroauc’s own experience entirely, or meant as a more fictional account. Nevertheless, the story follows the journey of one man as he travels through America, Mexico, Morocco, Paris, London, and a desolate mountaintop. It contains the protagonists inner philosophy on life, and is a tale of human experience told through the documentation one man’s travels.

These travels are restless, filled with drug and alcohol abuse and women, but other times, a true insight into the human condition and our relationship with our surroundings. It’s poetic, pays homage to the beauty of nature and embodies the kind of free, liberation rhetoric which was beginning to emerge in 1960s.

Review

I love this book primarily because it is so against the grain of ‘typical’ literary fiction and challenges what we traditionally think of as a successful book – that being, having a coherent structure of a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, Lonesome Traveler rejects these constrains and does its own thing. Today, it might not seem so original as we are readily exposed to so many different narrative forms, but considering the context, this really was one of a kind.

I love Kerouac’s prose style – he is rambling , descriptive and incoherent but occasionally, you stumble across something completely beautiful which makes you pause in amazement. I can appreciate his writing isn’t for everybody, as it is hard to follow, and I found this far harder to follow than On The Road. I had to concentrate hard to try and appreciate what was being said, but loved it all the same. The type of sensory prose Kerouac deploys enables the text to become so livable – at times, it is almost like you are experiencing what he is describing.

My favourite chapter or ‘short story’ was Alone on a Mountaintop. Before getting to this point, I admit, I was feeling somewhat disappointed with the book, but when I read this section I felt revived.

In this journey, he is alone for months on the top of a mountain, Desolation Peak, overlooking the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Canada-US border. He only has a basic cabin and nature to keep him company. Through this experience of truly being alone, the narrator documents beautifully the human relationship with nature, the experience of complete solitude and what it means to be human. It takes the reader on a kind of self fulfillment and exploratory journey that is like no other,

“Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything, the sound of Holy Emptiness, the sound of extinction and bliss, that graveyard silence which is the silence of an infant’s smile, the sound of eternity, of the blessedness surely to be believed…”

It regularly features ideas about God, religion, self fulfillment and self acceptance. Now, I’m not religious, but the way Kerouac speaks about religion makes me want to listen, as it feels beautiful and insightful,

“For when you realize that God is Everything you know that you’ve got to love everything no matter how bad it is, in the ultimate sense it was neither good nor bad (consider the dust), it was just what was, that is, what was made to appear…”

In a sense, the religious elements (apart from his thinking on Buddhism) do not come across as overly religious, but more, dwellings on the human condition and a kind of philosophy to live by.

All in all, I loved the prose and the subjects the narrator managed to breach. I like the element of simplicity it puts at the forefront of the travel experience – in a way, telling us to try and appreciate the forces of nature and our surroundings. The sex and drugs didn’t do much for me, but this is never the focus. The images created make me envious as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in that way, but I nonetheless reveled in their ability to take me to another time and place.

However – it is hard to follow and reading Kerouac is never easy. I can’t give it five stars as I did feel drained by it in some places, and it was only towards the end that I felt any kind of connection to the text. Importantly, I just liked the ‘feel’ of the book, it made me want to pack up a rucksack and run (when COVID-19 is over of course) to see the world for what it really is. To strip back the complications and appreciate life for how it is meant to be lived.

Currently reading: a tag

I came across this neat little tag from Blair’s blog, you can see the post here. Looked like fun so I thought I’d join in… Here goes.

How many books do you usually read at once?

Now, when I was younger I used to be so bad at this and find myself reading five or six books at once. I’ve learned to reign this in a bit and now usually read between 2-3. Most of the time I read one fiction or one non-fiction or will be breading one physical book, mixed between an eBook on my Kindle.

Do you ever switch bookmarks partway through a book?

Nope – to be honest I struggle to use a bookmark most of the time I read.. Usually it’s a random piece of paper or a sticky note! Or worse.. a folded down page (:o)

Where do you keep the book(s) you’re currently reading?

They usually end up all over the place to be honest! But I tend to place them on the arm of the sofa where I like to curl up and read, or my Kindle will be on my bedside table.

What time of day do you read most?

It tends to be in the morning – during isolation I’ve been reading first thing when I get up as my brain feels freshest, I usually use this time to read non-fiction. I tend to read more fiction in the evening or before bed as it requires less concentration…

How long do you typically read in one session?

If it’s a short snippet, anywhere between 30-50 pages. If I read for an hour or so it will be more than that, but it depends on the book (and if I’m enjoying it or not haha)

Do you read hardbacks with the dust jacket off?

Always try and avoid hardbacks at all cost but YES the jacket has to be removed so it doesn’t get scuffed and flap about, can’t deal with that.

What position do you mainly use to read?

Usually curled up on the sofa or in my bed with my knees up, resting the book on a pillow. But I can read on my Kindle in any position as it’s so lightweight.

Do you take your current read with you everywhere you go?

Usually – yes. When I’m working I like to read my book on the commute and on lunch breaks. But alas, I am not working at the moment due to COVID-19.

How often do you update your Goodreads reading progress?

Usually only at the end, but the other day I did a mini review in the middle of a read, which was interesting. Sometimes it can be nice to know what people think mid way through a read I think.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

  1. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
  2. Green and Pleasant Land by Stephen Shahbazian (a Reedsy book, still awaiting publication)
  3. Lonesome Traveler by Jack Kerouac

I tag… (and anyone else who wants to do it too!)

Book Review: Why I Write

Title: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1946/2004

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview

Why I Write is an extended essay by George Orwell, that discusses a range of topics. Orwell begins the essay with outlining his motivations for writing. Famously, Orwell wanted “to make political writing into an art”. (Hence Animal Farm and 1984…)

Orwell gives the historical and political background to England, writing during the context of World War Two, with the rise of Fascism across Europe. He discusses the ‘Nation’ and why it fails as a concept in England – mostly, he argues, because England has forever been a country of equal wealth, thus we can never be regarded as a common entity.

Orwell also discusses socialism in the practical and ideological sense. In simple terms, economic socialism believes all commodities and ownership should be regulated by the state, rather than private companies and individuals. In theory, this should reduce the inequality that capitalism naturally produces, when wealth is in the hands of a few. Socialism also promotes equality, freedom, and opportunity for all.

Additionally, Orwell focuses on the influence of the media in shaping political opinion and includes the construction of language in this. The use of language is deliberate and its connection to politics is undeniable – it influences political understanding through the construction of events. Orwell argues, it has a strict purpose, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” – any of this starting to sound very relevant?…

Orwell ends the essay with a set of writing rules to avoid creating false meaning, which is often fostered by political rhetoric.

Orwell’s writing rules
Source: Rough House Media

Above all, this essay makes the imperative case for socialism, set in the context of World War Two. Although miles apart from today, the sad endurance of his argument reigns true.

Review and analysis

I’ll say it straight away – I loved this essay and wanted to commit every sentence to memory. Orwell has the capacity to say everything with such coherency that I always almost think about giving up on the ambition to be a writer… Will there ever be a greater communicator than Orwell?

It was the relevance of this essay that made me enjoy reading it so much. Although it was written a long time ago, and in an incredibly different context, the message for political change is something that transcends time. Orwell argues for the necessity of socialism, something I also believe in, but he does so in such an eloquent and damning way, that I think even the most staunch Conservative could get behind him… (possibly!)

Orwell outlines the reasons for why the general public are against socialism and identifies this as its failing point, if socialism can never be mainstream, then how is it ever going to achieve change? I found myself making stark similarities to today’s political climate in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the most ardent champion of socialism in the Labour party for a generation, was unable to win a General election (twice) – but the party’s membership was the largest its ever been.

Labour Party Rally
Source: Labour List

In the last election (2019) Labour had a massive defeat and was criticized for failing to get the masses on its side, as the election was overshadowed by Brexit. This and voters’ opposition to socialism resulted in another Tory majority. Orwell argues that people are opposed to socialism as they perceive of it as taking away from their livelihood (in the form of paying more taxes). People think in terms of individualistic economics, rather than the greater good. And what has changed there?

Orwell also includes a four point program for political change, which has striking similarities to Corbyn’s Labour manifesto’s.

On his agenda is nationalization, limitations of income and a minimum wage, educational reform and the dismantling of private education, and an alliance of equality with India. The last point is an anomaly, given that Orwell is writing before de-colonization, this was the only thing I had a problem with. He isn’t radical enough about India and destabilizing the Empire – as he disagrees that India should have free reign from Britain. But again, context is key. This kind of paternalism enforced on other nations, was still in mainstream thought at this time.

As well as outlining the merits of socialism, Orwell describes the failures of capitalism in its creation of unequal wealth, which is unable to allow the progression of the masses. This results in vast, historic, class inequality in Britain, and negates the idea that Britain is a, ‘nation’ of solidarity, but in fact, a country hugely divided by wealth and opportunity.

Orwell goes on to outline the problems with achieving political change and the inherent obstacles that are in the way – most notably, privilege. This is embodied within the origins of mainstream politicians, journalists and lawyers that run the country. Thus, it appears, we are still raging the same battle, which is depressing, but just goes to show how Orwell’s ideas transcend generations.

Furthermore, the failures of socialism are also discussed, the main one being the lack of mass appeal. Which I have always thought is ironic, as socialism is about the masses. However, Orwell makes a valid point in that unless socialism becomes the political mainstream, change will never happen. Centrist Labour policies are essentially a continuation, and thus, socialism needs to be at the centre of any Labour agenda (RIP Corbynism…)

Finally, I found the link Orwell makes between language and politics fascinating. He argues that, “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language…” in the sense that language can distort truth, and influence the political consensus. He brings to light how the language of nonsense and “fluff” can be used by politicians to distort reality and detract from blame.

Lack of understanding is therefore deliberately constructed to deliver false meaning. (*Coughs* Boris Johnson… *Coughs* Matt Handcock…) Which becomes pertinent when thinking about our mainstream, Conservative politicians we have the pleasure of sharing evenings with in the UK, for our daily COVID-19 briefings….Just listen to one of these, and Orwell’s argument about language and politics will be demonstrated.

Too often politicians use the language of buffoonery which alienates their responsibility of answering the question and facing up their reality of failure. Therefore, the public are left in the dark and truth is obscured.

This is a classic Orwell essay, with a message that reigns true. Which is both worrying on the one hand, but on the other, pays homage to the efficiency, clarity, and enduring message of Orwell’s thought. It transcends historical and political contexts and puts forward the type of change we still need today.

“it is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free.”

An Introduction to Reedsy Discovery

Image: Reedsy Discovery

I was recently contacted by Reedsy Discovery, I had vaguely heard of the company before getting involved, as I had seen them floating about online. They approached me after seeing this blog, and asked if I wanted to become a reviewer – I did of course! But don’t worry, I won’t be abandoning this blog any time soon! 🙂

Please note – I am not being paid to write this, or promote them as a company, I simply think it is a really good platform for readers and writers and would like to share it with you.

What is Reedsy Discovery?

Think of it as Goodreads – but more aesthetically pleasing and easier to operate. Unlike traditional book platforms and media outlets, Reedsy specifically features ‘indie’ books and up and coming writers. Traditional publishing outlets typically ignore over 1 million self published titles a year, therefore, I really think this is an important platform.

Authors can pay $50 for Reedsy to self publish their work which involves having a reviewer read the book and write an accompanying review. As a reader or subscriber to the Reedsy feed, you can receive tailored recommendations for what books to read, based on genres you select and have enjoyed reading in the past. As a reviewer, you can be verified from the company after completing an application and samples of your work, and go onto select as many books to review as you like.

Upon becoming a reviewer, I have already been able to select a book I want to read and have now downloaded it onto my Kindle – it’s that simple. I think it’s a great thing to do, not only because you are directly supporting and helping up and coming authors, but it is also a great opportunity to develop your own writing and reviewing portfolio. And there is the free books element too…

Do we need another book platform?

It is so easy to be exposed to the latest works of successful authors, but it also can be overwhelming when you are trying to find something new to read.

What is great about Reedsy, as a reader, is that you can select genres you enjoy and it will give you a daily curated feed of books as recommendations. Goodreads doesn’t do this to the same extent – and anyway, it doesn’t feature ‘indie’ titles or lesser known authors, but focuses on the bestsellers. (Which aren’t always the best anyway, lets face it…)

The interesting thing about this platform is that readers can also participate and shape the author’s output by reading sample chapters before books are officially published. Every Reedsy user can therefore, have an involvement in shaping new books.

Review of my experience

I hope this doesn’t sound like a sponsored post, because importantly, it isn’t, I really think this is a wonderful website for readers and writers alike. You don’t get paid as a reviewer, but there is an opportunity for readers and authors to tip you – which is an easy process to set up. Moreover, I think the real reward comes in the experience it gives, and the exposure to new authors.

Reedsy gives you a selection of books from new authors which go beyond the overly exposed bestselling titles that we see and hear about everyday. As a reviewer, I feel a certain amount of responsibility in being given the task of reading the writer’s book and then writing one of its first reviews. But I am so glad for the opportunity to get involved in this process.

I have just been verified as a reviewer after previously submitting an application with examples of my writing, and am due to write my first review in the next month. The application process was smooth and I have found the website easy to use. Selecting a title to review was a very uncomplicated process – as a reviewer, you can select up to three books to review at one time and the range of genres to choose from is impressive.

Readers of Reedsy and authors can follow your profile and reviews and there is plenty of space to start a conversation about books. I haven’t used it much yet, but it already feels like a tight knit reader and writer community. The opportunity to talk to authors is something no other platform does yet and I really like this element.

I also opted in to have a Skype call with the Editorial Manager before I started, who explained the website and whole process, as well as answered my questions – it was a very informative chat!

You can follow my Reedsy page here. You can use the site as a reader or apply to become a reviewer!

A very useful article by The Bookseller written about Reedsy Discovery: https://www.thebookseller.com/futurebook/inside-story-behind-reedsys-new-discovery-platform-968531

Happy reading (and discovering…) 🙂

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Title: Call Me By Your Name

Author: Andre Aciman

Genre: Literary fiction, LGBT, Romance

My rating: ★★★★

This book has been recommended to me more than once, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Granted, it is a bit out of my comfort zone, however I felt myself pulled into the dreamy prose and the featuring of a timeless, hot summer in Italy.

Synopsis

Seventeen year old Oliver lives in the Italian Riviera. In one hot and heavy summer, he falls in love with one of his parents’ guests. His father hosts people every year and Oliver is used to the ritual, but nothing prepared him for this.

In the initial stages, Oliver tries to keep his attraction below the surface. He experiences all the emotions in the space of a few weeks, and battles with the inner fears of first love, lust and rejection.

However – passion is always hard to subdue. Oliver eventually makes his feelings known and what is to follow is a steamy romance, laced with endless intimacy. Oliver is constantly battling between what he fears is right or wrong. Their relationship is kept from all that know them and they sneak around to express their deepest love for one another.

The romance only lasts six weeks, but the impact lasts a life time. Wrought with narration about the human condition, this novel tackles the intricacies of passion and what it takes to feel.

Review

  • I was inherently drawn to the prose in this book, it is written entirely through the perspective of Oliver in monologue style. The writing is dense, descriptive and beautiful and I felt myself escape in it. Although I can see this won’t be for everyone.
  • It deals with some important issues – such as discovering sexuality, how to express this and what goes on in the mind of someone as they experience love for the first time. But this isn’t the usual perspective featured in mainstream literature – as it features a relationship blossoming between men.
  • Sadly, Oliver feels like he has to hide his sexuality and often feels trapped in a cycle of guilt about his feelings.
  • I had a slight problem with the portrayal of love – it seems to conjure up something that overrides self appreciation. Oliver almost loses his self worth when falling in love as he places all value in another person. I understand this is meant to portray the feeling of falling in love for the first time, but I thought it was somewhat over the top in some instances. (e.g the peach scene, which I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers)
  • I think there’s a lot about this novel I don’t understand and that’s why I had some problems with fully appreciating it. (I didn’t really get the ‘Call Me By Your Name’ part and the nicknames, but maybe I missed something important…) ?
  • However – I felt that this novel has an utterly trans-formative capacity. For me, it got more poignant with the pace of time and as Oliver grew older. It illustrates the human impact of lost time, chances and lost love.
  • When I finished the book, I felt touched in some way – and that Andre Aciman had a reached a part of me that has never been felt before. But at the same time, I was left not knowing what exactly.
  • For me, the book’s success is in its poignant ending, revealing an enduring type of love that lasts a life time of waiting.

Book Review: The Flatshare

This is going to be a quick review, not because I think it deserves a shorter one, I am just trying out a new format! Let me know what you think of this style, as opposed to the longer, more detailed form my reviews tend to have.

Author: Beth O’Leary

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: 4/5

Quick synopsis

Tiffy is working in publishing in London, on a minimum wage, barely able to make ends meet. After a relationship break down and desire to move out into her own space, she conveniently sees an advert for a flat share with a low rate. The catch – the flat only has one bed!

The conditions of the flat share are that Tiffy is out of the flat between 9am-5pm, whilst she’s at work and Leon, the existing tenant, is out of the flat when she gets back, as he works night shifts. Although it takes months for them to meet in person (when they do it’s incredibly funny) they get to know each other via post it notes left around the flat.

Featuring a psycho ex boyfriend, a great group of friends, the frolics of the publishing world and falling in love most unexpectedly, this book is uplifting and warming in a time of unease.

Review

  • The people in this book made it for me. The main characters (and alternate protagonists) Tiffy and Leon are complete opposites. Tiffy is untidy, extravagant and an extrovert, whereas Leon is tidy, quiet and introverted. Tiffy is endlessly likable with her wit and style and equally, Leon is both warm and thoughtful. For me, Tiffy is like an alternative Bridget Jones – whose humor and resolve make her perspective an entertaining read.
  • The situation is funny and relatable (given the housing climate in London.) The reader is left wondering how an earth this set up is going to work. Remarkably, it all runs very smoothly until a certain point.
  • The communication between Tiffy and Leon via post it notes is a unique and charming element of the novel which I really enjoyed.
  • The sub plot between Tiffy and her ex boyfriend, Justin, is revealing and adds a twist to the story. I thought Beth O’Leary dealt with the issue of gas-lighting and emotional abuse very well – but still obtained a sense of lightheartedness and humor due to Tiffy’s nature as a character.
  • BUT boy is it cheezy, however it is a rom-com so why wouldn’t it be? As soon as I started reading the book I kind of knew how it would unfold but this didn’t stop me, as I enjoyed every word and was captivated by it for two days.
  • It didn’t change my life but then again, it didn’t need to. (But this is the rationale behind my 4/5)
  • Reading this book itself is a warming and uplifting experience and I felt it was very much needed at this time!

As always, keep safe and happy reading 🙂

Book Review: Machines Like Me

Title: Machines Like Me And People Like You (2019)

Author: Ian McEwan

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

Charlie lives in a rather dingy flat in London, it is some time in the alternative universe of the 1980s. After landing himself with a stack of inheritance money, he buys one of the first synthetic humans, a robot called Adam.

Charlie is in love with the resident living in the flat above his, a student called Miranda. After their love begins to blossom, together, they adopt Adam and play a hand in forming his design.

These first synthetic humans are designed by Alan Turing, as a result of his ongoing research into artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this novel is set in an ‘alternative 1980s’ meaning Turing is still alive – when in fact, he died in 1954. Additionally, Britain has just lost the Falklands war (which was won in 1982) and Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister under the Labour party. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who was in power from 1979.

Among the narrative of Charlie’s everyday life, adjusting to this new relationship with Adam and Miranda, we see snippets of political commentary based on this alternative Britain. Ian McEwan, although presenting an alternative history, still manages to convey the sense of change and upheaval that was the 1980s.

However, when Miranda opens up to Charlie about the events of her past, it throws their relationship and Adam’s involvement up in the air. The use of an artificial human, who appears perfectly likable, and morally aware, makes the reader question humanity’s assumed superiority of being.

Are we really superior, if machines too, are capable of love and compassion. What makes them a machine and us humans?

Review

I desperately wanted to like this book. However, I was left feeling endlessly disappointed.

I picked up this up, as I was fascinated by the theme which the novel aims to discuss. The novel centers on the extent to which artificial humans have the same capacity to feel, understand, and form relationships. McEwan poses the question with the interweaving of two sub plots, can artificial beings tell the difference between right and wrong? Can they feel quintessentially human emotions such as desire, compassion, and sadness?

In the featuring of a being so like us, it raises the question as to whether humanity is the superior being it often imagines itself to be. With the exploration of Miranda’s crimes and Adam’s want to put things right, McEwan infers firstly, that we are always flawed as human beings even if we essentially pursue a positive morality, but that artificial beings could also have a moral compass.

Image: NB Magazine, featuring Adam.

At first, Charlie is hesitant of Adam’s capacity to feel. When Adam reveals his feelings for Miranda, Charlie dismisses his capacity for love as a machine, but this is overshadowed by his anger and jealously. It is only at the very end, that Charlie admits that he thinks machines can feel like us. Turing himself, the fictitious creator of these synthetic humans, also believes his machines are capable of all the feelings and functions of an average human.

All in all, I loved the themes this book prompted and like many of McEwan’s novels, this one certainly caused me to think; about humanity, the function of artificial intelligence and science more generally. However, the way this theme was executed in certain events (which I won’t reveal due to spoilers) I thought was trivial, when it could have been done poignantly.

The complex theme and parameters of the novel were spoiled by the dystopian, alternative history setting, as this sets up an element of the ‘make believe’ which destroys the ability for readers to engage in the possibility of synthetic humans and their capacity – which I thought was the ultimate point being made by the novel.

The love triangle between Charlie, Miranda and Adam was made trivial by the events McEwan crafted between Adam and Miranda. It was, I believe, an unnecessary addition to the novel. Through the mere existence of their cohabitation and Adam’s display of friendship, the theme could have been explored in a more delicate way. However, it was erased by the acts that took place between Adam and Miranda. (You’ll have to read it to find out…)

Miranda and Charlie are likable enough characters and it is interesting to see how their relationship develops alongside an artificial human. However, the novel is completely told through Charlie. Although this creates an in depth, detailed insight into the mind of Charlie, I feel it could have been valuable to include alternative perspectives. Charlie is naturally hesitant about Adam’s capacity for humanity, whereas Miranda is more supportive. It would have added more depth to the novel to include her insight, and the insight of Adam himself. Adam could have shed a light on the nature of humanity from a non human perspective. This could have forced the reader to ask more questions about themselves, and the wider nature of humanity.

There is a few sub plots to the story, one which I thought was rather useless and poorly executed. One day Charlie stumbles across a young child, Mark, whom has been abandoned by his biological parents and eventually gets put into local authority care. Miranda takes a shine to him and convinces Charlie that they should adopt him. Adopting at 22 is strange enough, but Miranda knows she is about to gain a criminal record for her past offences. Additionally, she is cleared of all charges by social services and allowed to adopt Mark, despite spending time in prison. As someone who was adopted myself, I know this would never have happened. Nonetheless, I don’t think this subplot added to the novel at all.

As mentioned – I don’t believe the alternative history added to the story. We are currently living through rising artificial intelligence and the plausibility of synthetic human beings, so why set the story now? The element of dystopia makes the ideas and themes seem alien to the reader, due to the divergence from history. Thus, already, the reader is exposed to inconceivability, which is the opposite of what McEwan is trying to raise.

In portraying Adam as more human than Miranda and Charlie ever sought imaginable, McEwan infers that synthetic humans could be more like ourselves, and thus, more believable. However, in crafting an alternate history, miles from our own, he renders his inference implausible, and ridicules his own suggestion. Creating an inherent weakness in the execution of an initially enthralling theme.

Naturally, the writing is technically beautiful, and nothing far from what I expect from McEwan. It contains large sections of inner monologue from the protagonist, Charlie, with interweaving of political commentary from the alternative world. These parts do not add to the novel, although are sometimes interesting to ponder on.

I was lured into the novel as the writing is beautiful, but I was left feeling utterly disappointed. Nonetheless, this was an interesting novel which is well worth a read. Just not the best McEwan out there.

Isolation: day 17

Taken during an isolation evening walk

In the UK, we are over two weeks into isolation. The weather has been nicer than ever and the temptation to go outside even greater.

I have found myself feeling increasingly anxious at the prospect of even going outside for my daily exercise as the virus takes more and more lives. Every time I come back from my daily walk, or run, I get paranoid and find myself washing my hands more than once and detol spraying my watch, phone and glasses. It’s strange, as I’ve only just started to feel like this and I think it is because of the sheer volume of deaths in the UK, and the fact there’s no routine testing for ordinary people.

I thought by now I would be in some kind of routine, but I’m not. I thought I would be filling the hours with all the things I usually don’t have time to do. I rarely find the motivation to do much in a day, but sometimes I have extremely productive days where I do so much. I have been reading a lot and have recently become accepted as a Reedsy reviewer – you can follow my page here.

I am suffering from what I think is hay-fever or the end of a sinus infection (which I am still on antibiotics for) and every sneeze or slight cough and I worry I’ve got the dreaded COVID-19…

I took a whole day off my phone this week and enjoyed it. I now feel even more pressure to be on my phone, replying to messages and reaching out to people and I just find it too much sometimes. It made me feel more relaxed and calm when I didn’t have my phone buzzing in my pocket. I found the lack of Instagram scrolling invigorating and generally just felt refreshed. I have very much been sucked into my phone during isolation and it can’t become a habit.

I’ve been enjoying long and ridiculous baths, where I lay in the warm water for over half an hour reading my book. I’ve been making myself proper coffee in the mornings using the blend we have at work – I took a whole bag of beans home when we closed to save the waste. Enjoying that first coffee in the morning is my favourite thing. If isolation has taught me one thing, it is to slow down and be more mindful of myself and activities that I am doing.

There’s some more stressful things going on in my personal life which I can’t get into. But it’s all very complicated and I feel very out of my depth with what I am dealing with but I keep having to remind myself that it doesn’t need to all be done immediately…

I’ve been writing in my journal nearly every day, usually in the morning but sometimes at the end of the day. I write about how I feel, the news and anything that comes to mind. I love the physicality of actually writing and putting pen to paper, but also like the slow release of mental tension it brings when I write down my thoughts. I even did a sketch the other day!

So, just a round up of things I have been enjoying during this isolation period (that you might too) :

  • Long baths with lots of bubbles and a book
  • Reading (anything and everything) BUT reading the news once a day, if that
  • Proper coffee and slow mornings
  • Writing in my journal
  • Social media breaks
  • Herbal tea in the evening (pukka vanilla chai is my favoutite at the moment)

I hope you are all okay and maintaining a positive outlook, and are also physically well. Stay safe!

My next book review will be, Machines Like Me.

Violet xxx

Book Review: Hiroshima

Title: Hiroshima (1946)

Author: John Hersey

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and history

As one of the first Western Journalists to arrive in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, John Hersey was soon commissioned to write a feature. As a war correspondent, Hersey already wrote for Life magazine and The New Yorker. His masterpiece, initially published in a long essay format, became an instant success, whereby changing the American perspective of the tragedy.

…”they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short-wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, it’s willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.”

This was one of the first works to embody the ‘New Journalism’ emerging in the mid-twentieth century, as Hersey combines non-fiction with storytelling type prose. Following the experience of six survivors and how their lives intertwined with each other, Hersey demonstrates how techniques of fiction writing can be adapted to suit non-fiction purposes. It is told as a story, but the content is so poignant and revealingly told, there is no escaping the reality.

During the end of the Second World War, the US released nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Estimates for the death toll vary but are in the region of 129,000-226,000. Many died instantly, but many would suffer in the years after from emerging cancers, infertility problems, cataracts, and the impact of keloid scaring.

A pacific war had been going on between Japan and its allies and the US decided to release the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to force Japan into surrender. The dropping of the first ever nuclear weapon, instantly killed 70,000 and the city was destroyed. The impact would go on for decades to come.

The book focuses on the experiences of six people who lived through Hiroshima. It features two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a female factory worker and a German Catholic priest. The structure of the book is chronological and follows the unfolding of the events, each told through a different perspective. Hersey constantly jumps back and forth between characters, but demonstrates how their lives were connected in the final section. Each section, containing a different perspective on the experience, adds another dimension to the horrific imapct of the bomb.

Review

It is hard to coherently review a book like this, as I feel like no number of words or thoughts could process this reading experience.

I remember first learning about Hiroshima when I was in secondary school, I was in an R.E (religious education) lesson, and we were exploring the morality behind humans having the powers of destruction. I remember my teacher telling us, humans are often the creators of their own destruction, he wasn’t wrong. As someone who didn’t live through this, it can be hard to understand the fear, anxiety and astonishment behind these events. But this book offers a valuable insight into the lived experience of survivors and I now feel more educated.

The use of different narrators who all experienced the same event was interesting. At first I found this confusing and slightly hard to follow, but then reading on, I realised that it all connected, as the people featured all knew each other in different ways. I think having a multitude of different perspectives is essential when re-telling an experience like this. As after all, historical events are experienced differently by the individuals that lived through them, it would be reductive to write a book documenting the event through the eyes of just one or two survivors.

Hersey importantly doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer brutality of the impacts of the bomb on the people that lived in the city. He describes the health implications gruesomely, but this is essential, in order to fully comprehend the impact. Some descriptions were enough to make my stomach churn, but then reality kicks in when you remember this actually happened to people, through no fault of their own. Hiroshima impacted the ordinary civilians, and it is so important that their experience is put to the forefront.

Hersey also doesn’t completely focus on just the experience of the bomb, he details the immediate aftermath and then the long term impacts. This allows the long term impact to be protruded into the reader’s understanding and reveals the complete picture of this tragedy.

Despite its very immediate impact, the after affects were something individuals had to live with for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but mentally. Each survivor featured, had to try and re-build their lives after such a horrific experience. What is shown, is that although they were lucky enough to survive, they could not escape the health implications nor the mental strain of living through such a bleak moment in history. Life went on, but they could never forget.

I was hesitant to read this book, as I like to read to escape reality. But nonetheless, I am very glad I read this. Like most people, I only ever comprehended Hiroshima in terms of the figures and facts, and as a historical event, but this book and the perspectives it provides, really hones in on the humanness of tragedy.

It is not a book to take lightly, but nonetheless an essential one. It is easy to read, once you get the hang of the alternative perspectives, and very enlightening. It is a hard read, but one that everyone should have a go at if they want to be more informed of the lived experiences that were the sheer horrors of Hiroshima.

My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.

What I read in March

March was a difficult month for me, for many reasons. But that’s why reading became even more important than usual, in providing perfect escapism.

We’re all probably finding we are reading more, or want to, due to isolation. It’s the perfect time to escape in a book! For me, there’s nothing better than sharing reading habits and recommendations, so give this a read if you are looking for some inspiration.

In just a few lines each, I am wrapping up what I read in March. What did you read in March? Let me know in the comments 🙂

Supermarket, Bobby Hall (4/5)

Gripping, weird, and fast paced. The reader lives behind the mind of a protagonist who is a mentally unstable, aspiring writer. It explores themes of mental health and life as a young adult in a psychological thriller style. Ending with a shocking twist – I found this book brilliant, and subsequently, so underrated.

The Girl Who Reads on the Metro, Christine Féret-Fleury (5/5)

A glorious book about spreading the love of books. Follow Juliette, as she explores Paris and uncovers a unique, hidden bookshop in the city. She becomes a passeur, spending her time delivering books to people in the city who need them. Simple, but lovely.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (5/5)

Gordon is working in an advertising industry he despises, whilst trying to make it as a writer. He gives up this job to work in a bookshop and have more time to write. Will he make it? Orwell at his best – revealing, insightful and uplifting.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (4/5)

Told through Thomas Cromwell, this is the Tudor story through a different perspective. Henry VIII is desperate to get an annulment for his marriage so he can pursue Anne Boleyn and provide a male heir to continue the Tudor line. Change and religious tension is on the rise and Cromwell is at the forefront. Fantastic!

How to Stop Time, Matt Haig (3/5)

Tom Hazard is over 400 years old. He has lived many lives but made endless sacrifices. Now, he just wants to settle down with those he loves. But can you, after 400 years? Cheezy and a bit cliche, but ends with a heart warming message. One way to stop time, is to simply stop thinking about it – and live.

Summary and thoughts

So my average rating for books I read in March was 4.2, I’m always a bit on the generous side anyway, but I did really enjoy all the books I read this month. I especially loved the Orwell and was pleasantly surprised by Wolf Hall, in not being a regular historical-fiction reader. How to Stop Time disappointed me somewhat, as I usually love Matt Haig’s writing and due to the good reviews, feel I should have liked it more. Nonetheless, it was a great reading month.

I’m starting off my reading for April with Hiroshima by John Hersey, in an attempt to read more non-fiction. As ever, I’m sure reading for the next month will be providing me with escapism and comfort in these weird and difficult times.

Happy reading! 🙂 And let me know if you end up reading any of these.

Monthly stats

Total pages read: 1,718

Total books: 5

Average rating: 4.2/5

Book Review: Wolf Hall

There is always something purely magical about historical-fiction and its ability to provide us with a world so different from our own.

As a history graduate; I have always had my qualms about it, in the sense that it can often obscure historical reality. A lot of what people know about history can often come from fictional adaptations like this, which is on the one hand worrying, when it is done badly, but reassuring when it is executed well. Wolf Hall, unreservedly belongs to the later.

Since it’s publication in 2010, it has opened up debate by creating discussions about the significance of Thomas Cromwell’s role. History, more often than not, is told by the victors and the Tudor story often features unrivaled focus and praise for Henry VIII alone. However, Mantel’s Wolf Hall, has posed the suggestion that Henry VIII was a mere figurehead for the plethora of minds that were running the country. It is through using the protagonist of Thomas Cromwell, that the reader realises there were many minds and characters behind Henry’s successes (and failures…).

Thomas Cromwell has been given a harsh judgement by many historians, however, this account is an incredible dive into the mind and life of one of history’s most notable statesmen, who came from humble origins.

Title: Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel

Publisher: Fourth Estate (2010)

Genre/topics: Historical Fiction, The Tudors, Henry VIII

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and the historical background

Mantel’s novel begins in 1500, when Thomas Cromwell was a mere boy, free from the responsibilities of being the mind that ran the country. Cromwell had a rough start in life which is often missed out from the history books. Son of a blacksmith, Cromwell was repeatedly physically abused by his father and had a rocky upbringing. However, this upbringing made him humble, and an extremely valuable negotiator who could empathize with every cause. These skills would soon be put to good use in later life.

The book documents Cromwell’s beginnings but then lurches forward to 1527. Henry VIII was comfortably sitting on the throne, alongside his wife, Catherine of Aragon. This is an England where Thomas More was the speaker of the House of Commons, where Cardinal Wolesy establishes Cardinal College in Oxford, and England are desperately struggling to establish peace with France. In 1525, peace between the two nations is agreed and the end of the year marks the beginning of the English Reformation, the de-tangling of the Church of England from the overbearing influence of Rome and the Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the book, before his death, Wolsey remained the King’s Chief adviser, and Cromwell was merely his assistant. However, after failed attempts to get Rome to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he falls out of favour and is stripped of his titles. This, and Wolsey’s unexpected death, becomes the perfect breeding ground for Cromwell rise to powerful prominence.

Thomas Cromwell’s family become decimated from the sweating sickness as it reaps through London, taking his wife and both his two children. However, this marks the beginning of Cromwell’s success as he becomes more recognized at the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell manages to help secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who promptly gives birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth is not the desirable heir to the throne (being female), but history tells us this doesn’t get in her way.

This first installment documents the Act of Supremacy, whereby Henry VIII is recognised as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus breaking from Rome. There appears to be an element of calm in the final pages, perhaps signalling the calm before the inevitable storm that is to come. That storm, being the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and everything that entails.

Review

BBC Adaptation of Wolf Hall. Image: Amazon.

This book had been sitting on my to read pile for a long time, ever since my Grandad had told me to read it many years ago. If you’re reading this Grandad, thank you for the recommendation, I’ve finally gotten round to reading it! I can see why you told me to read it.

Although it took me a while to get used to Hilary Mantel’s third person perspective, I really found myself enjoying this unique way of storytelling. The reader’s experience is completely told through the eyes and ears of Thomas Cromwell; every conversation, act, and event is told through his perspective. It is unforgiving, relentless but at the same time, fully immersive. The reader is trapped inside his mind, and his mind only, throughout the entire novel. For a long time, there is little mention of Henry VIII which I found quite amusing as he is traditionally at the center of most books! Henry would hate the fact that he isn’t the center of this story – but that’s partly why I loved it so much.

The use of this protagonist offers an unrivaled account, and an account of Tudor history that has never been told in this way in historical fiction. It is eye opening in its challenge of the way we view the traditional Tudor story and the components of the regime. In the crafting of this protagonist, Mantel strips Henry of his traditional prominence and gives the wheel to the man who was the real pioneer of his success – Thomas Cromwell.

Various historical dramas have put forward Henry VIII as the central character with his outlandish religious and foreign policy agendas. His women and countless affairs have been the focus of dramas such as The Tudors (2007), but Mantel’s version with the use of Cromwell, makes the reader think outside the box of prescribed history we are given. It puts forward the agenda that the underdogs of history were in fact the real makers of the Tudor story. For once, the Tudors are not told through endless monarchical sex and scandal, but intelligence, intrigue and dedication, shown through the experience of Cromwell himself. I appreciate this book just for this element alone, as it is so refreshing to see an author take on a new perspective that gives a voice to an individual who has been overlooked.

As well as this, the prose and writing is beautiful. It evokes an age so different from our own, but yet full of similarities. Throughout the novel are frequent bouts of sweating sickness and the plague, as well as political debates, religious changes and discussions about cultural upheaval. Every age has its own version of these debates, but featuring these so fully allows the reader to be transformed into this period. It is hard to read this work of fiction and not escape to an entirely different world. I felt deeply immersed, fully informed and endlessly fascinated by what was going on in the pages in front of me. I loved the experience of reading this book, as much I valued its unique perspective and beautiful prose.

I am not someone who often reads historical fiction, but this is exceptional. It is a work of perfection in every way. Granted, it took me a while to get the hang of the prose style, as it is something I have rarely ever come across, but it was nonetheless an essential component to the novel’s success. It was a little slow and unnecessarily ‘fluffy’ in some parts, considering the momentous period in history it covers, but never did I feel like it was a slog. It has made me re-assess my reading habits and think about reading more historical fiction in the future.

A great opener to the rest of the series. I can’t wait to read the others!

Isolation: Day 6

The sun is setting on another beautiful day here in the UK. Ever since Boris Johnson announced a full lockdown there has been nothing but clear blue skies and endless sunshine. Is nature trying to tempt us?

So I have spent the past 48 hours inside, the longest consecutive time that I have spent inside for a very long time. Even at University, I always made time to be outside, whether that was walking to the library or taking time outside for lunch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the virus. It’s strange that something utterly invisible is the biggest threat to the world right now. It’s strange how it is impacting every part of our lives, even if we personally aren’t affected by it. It’s there but it isn’t. It’s in the air that we could possibly breathe and on the surfaces we touch unconsciously.

I’m not finding the isolation too tough but it is only the sixth day. Luckily I am not alone and live with my partner, although we have our tiffs through being together 24/7, if I was on my own I think I would find this a lot harder. I would be completely trapped with my own thoughts, with little in the way of distraction.

I think a lot about the people who are on their own and who don’t have people to talk to. I hope they are okay and not suffering. When this is all over, I think we will have other epidemics to deal with, not a disease, but loneliness, anxiety, depression, OCD and the rest. I worry that this virus will shatter our NHS even more, so that when the time comes when it is all over, we won’t have anything left to treat other problems.

On the other hand – I think this experience will give room to fixing a lot of pre existing failures in our social and welfare system here in the UK. Those in higher powers will hopefully realise that sick pay should be on the agenda for everyone regardless of employment type, that our health service is not fit for purpose and needs massive reinvestment, but that access to healthcare is a universal right that should not be disputed. We should not have to pay for our own suffering.

As we spend more time inside, the environment is exposed to less pollutants. There have been many reports across the UK of clearer skies at night, due to less noise pollution. Nature is having a break from being constantly suffocated. In the coming weeks I think we’ll see even more results. This is something that needs to be taken seriously once this is all over. Do we really need to use our cars for journeys which are perfectly walk-able?

So what have I been doing for the past six days?

Not a lot actually. I have found it hard to get myself to do things due to lack of routine. I am enjoying the lazy mornings and slow starts but have found these are inhibiting my productivity. I don’t often get round to doing anything until after lunch and then I have little motivation. But, I have been reading a lot and writing in my journal. If there is ever a time to keep a diary, surely it’s now? I have been out for a few walks in the sun (my daily exercise allowance) and me and my partner have even managed to do a few home workouts together – my legs are still recovering! Next week I hope to kick myself into gear a bit more and make the most of the free time.

Hoping that everyone around the world is okay and those who have taken the time to read this post are well. Look after yourselves. 🙂

Violet.

My top 3 Classics to get you through isolation

As our lives suddenly become filled with more empty hours it is the perfect time to read! Reading the classics can seem long and arduous compared to a quick page turner, however, now is the time. These are my top three classics I think are well worth reading! Let me know if you end up trying them.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane was never plain! Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a determined young woman who has had all the odds thrust against her. Published in 1847, the book immediately portrayed a new type of heroine. One that rose beyond her ranks and respectability, to try and pursue the man she loved..

Jane grows up in an orphanage and is exposed to endless childhood cruelty. However, she doesn’t let this shatter her pride or spirit. As a young adult she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester’s residence. Jane spends her time looking after the children there, all the while gradually falling in love with the mysterious Mr Rochester – she knows this is a type of forbidden love, due to her social standing. However, Jane naturally has an air of independent spirit thanks to her upbringing – this soon leads her into uncharted territory.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…”

Secrets start to haunt Thornfield Hall and all the while Jane is torn between staying there to be close to Mr Rochester, or leaving to pursue her own safety. Will she get to be with the man she loves?

A remarkable novel for its times, and one I loved reading very much. It is on the one hand, your classic, Victorian Gothic novel, but on the other hand, a complete re-working of its traditions. It’s a tale of an ordinary woman’s search for love and companionship and attempt to break down those traditional barriers. Never take for granted Charlotte Bronte’s use of a strong, female protagonist, it was way ahead of its times, and her execution is breathtaking.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

This may well be the ultimate American novel. Set during the disastrous American dust bowl phenomena, this novel follows the Joad family, in their struggle to make a living and stay afloat in troubled times.

The Dust Bowl refers to a series of storms that severely damaged the ecology of the Great American plains in the 1930s. Happening during the aftermath of The Great Depression (1929), it had long-lasting disastrous economic and social affects. Most importantly, it was not just an environmental disaster, but one that impacted the lives of many Americans who lost their agricultural lands and livelihood. Many Americans had to leave their homes in the search of a better life – and this was a promise that was more often than not, never fulfilled.

Told in blisteringly beautiful prose, Steinbeck outlines the many implications of the Dust Bowl and its influence on your average American family. The Joad family are forced from their homes to travel West in search of jobs and an income to feed themselves. Taking it day by day, the Joad family struggle to find enough to eat and make ends meet. The prose unreservedly describes the obliterated landscape as the family travels West, making it a reading joy, despite the troubled circumstances.

What becomes obvious throughout, is the falsehood of the American Dream and that great promise that if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. Steinbeck critiques this very ideal and thrusts to the forefront the very real struggles experienced by many American families during the 1930s, as they made their journey West in the hope of a promised future.

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Beautiful and harrowing, this is a must read and one that will stay with me forever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

A timeless classic which I’m sure is on many people’s favourite lists. Again, this novel does not shy away from critiquing the false promises of the American dream and that importance of wealth that has been emphasized throughout American history and culture. Wealth has often been heralded as the one marker of success and ultimate happiness, but this novel exposes the human realities of pursuing this dream with a blind capacity. Endless wealth for Jay Gatsby, can never equate to a lifetime of pure happiness.

Told in myriads of beautiful prose containing metaphors, genius symbolism and expert crafting of character, this is the one novel that made me fall in love with literature. Its timeless message is one that makes it so significant and enduring, but it is in the crafting of the novel whereby it is so special.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Gatsby appears to have it all. He lives in the biggest mansion known to man, right next to Nick Carraway, who has arrived to New York in search of his own American Dream. Nick meets Gatsby and is naturally entranced by his persuasive and endearing persona. Through Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy, Nick soon gets involved within the millionaire lifestyle that thrived in the 1920s. Lavish parties, fast cars, and an abundance of alcohol soon appears to be the norm.

But Nick knows this is never sustainable. Known as the unreliable narrator to Gatsby’s pursuits, Carraway uncovers the falsehood of the American Dream to readers, in his subtle critique of this lifestyle and the events he experienced with Gatsby.

In the end, Gatsby realises it too. But too late. It is a tale of impossible dreams, love, and an unsustainable lifestyle that is more corrupting than it is fulfilling. It is a novel I unashamedly go back to again and again, each time finding something new I love and admire.