Tuesday 31 December 2019

2019 in review

Another year draws to a close, and another challenging one for the planet. In a world gone mad it can feel as though the book blogging community is a little bubble of calm and positivity that I’m happy to be a part of. Thanks to the Two Amy’s Bookclub in the first half of the year (it’s sadly now been disbanded), I read a few more current books and some I wouldn’t have come cross otherwise – Bear Town I’m looking at you. Some other highlights were Normal People and The Binding. All very different books but ones that caught me up in their world, make me think, and dealt with serious issues in interesting and unique ways.

It’s been a year of some fantastic fiction including Autumn by Ali Smith, a humourous and thoughtful examination of the world we live in and the importance of relationships in making sense of it. The Blind Assassin although long, swept me along and I was left wanting more. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is a powerful start to a quartet, the rest of which are on my to be read pile for 2020.

I started the year with the intention of alternating between fiction and non-fiction and although I didn’t quite manage a 50/50 split, I did read some amazing, interesting, and challenging books such as James Bloodworth’s Hired: Undercover in Low-Wage Britain and Why Grow Up? by Susan Neiman, both books that sparked a lot of discussions and that I continue to refer back to.

I was lucky to spend some time this year working in a public library and it was a great reminder of what a precious resource they are. Yes, it’s wonderful that they give access to all to a huge array of books for free but they are also so much more. I was surprised by the amount of regulars who came in to read the papers, use the computers, do their homework, or simply to interact with others. I’ve always felt joy when visiting libraries but have a new appreciation for the myriad of services they provide and a deep sadness at their dwindling numbers.

Sticking to the theme of free public resources, I came across this syllabus for a DIY MA in Creative Writing which I have begun working my way through. I admit however that I’ve made more progress with Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k podcast as each episode is only around twenty minutes and this feels a manageable chunk of time to commit almost every day. Spurred on by the thought of being able to study on your own terms I’ve undertaken to do similarly with Victorian Studies, a subject I’ve been longing to study further for the past decade. Accepting that it’s unlikely to ever be practical to go back to University, I am contenting myself with self-study and although I will of course miss out on lectures and seminars, I will enjoy having the luxury of time to spend as long as I want on each topic, reading widely.

Theatre visits have been few and far between but I was lucky enough to catch Notre Dame de Paris when it was in London at the start of the year and Rosmersholm in summer. 2020 is already looking promising with a number of tickets already organised, including a trip to Leeds for Northern Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala and English National Ballet’s 70th anniversary gala in London in the same month. What a treat of groundbreaking dance they will undoubtedly be. I’ll also being seeing out this year with the Royal Ballet performing Coppelia, a pretty, lighthearted production.

There have been some brilliant exhibition and museum visits this year including a trip to the William Morris Gallery and the Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Galley (which there’s still time to see). They made me appreciate the pleasure of seeing famous paintings in real life, for example, Millais’ Ophelia which has never been a favourite, is utterly luminous in reality. The new galleries at Westminster Abbey are stunningly beautiful and designed sympathetically to their surroundings. Further afield it was a joy to be able to visit Hill Top, one of Beatrix Potter’s houses in the Lake District. At her request it has been preserved as she left it. The Villa Medici in Rome is a trip I’d definitely recommend and the Vatican, for all that it is undoubtedly impressive, made me appreciate smaller, more manageable galleries where you have the time and space to really appreciate the art.

I’m looking forward to another year full of books, theatre, art and travel and hope that yours is filled with all the things that make your heart happy.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

The Great Christmas Knit Off, Alexandra Brown

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It’s been seven months since Sybil’s husband-to-be ran off with her twin sister, leaving her humiliated and heartbroken at the altar of their Star Wars themed wedding. Life since has been a struggle and when it seems she’s made a monumental mistake at work she realises she needs a break. Her best friend has just moved to the picturesque village of Tindledale and before she has time to think twice she’s on the next train out of London. Here she’ll find a close-knit community who rally around in times of need but aren’t too keen on outsiders. It soon becomes clear that not only can she heal her own broken heart but make a real difference to the locals too.

This book is every bit as cosy and predictable as it sounds, although Brown does add in a few mysteries to keep you turning the pages and to round out some of the supporting characters. Unfortunately, I had trouble getting into the story, partly because of the frequent poor quality of writing and annoying habit of using phrases such as ‘does a laugh/snort/smile’ rather than simply saying a character smiled. The dialogue is at times stilted and unnatural and occasionally leaves you feeling lost. The over the top comparisons with London rely on exaggerated stereotypes and quickly began to grate.

However, once you’ve got used to the writing and are far enough in that it becomes unnecessary to continue to add background information, often wedged in awkwardly, it becomes quite enjoyable. Sybil befriends the elderly owner of the local haberdashery shop and takes great pleasure in helping to spruce things up, having a long held dream of making a living from her craft. She soon finds herself settling in, making a big impression over one long weekend.

Predictably, there’s also a new love interest but this is a subtle thread and doesn’t dominate. The focus is on the friends she makes and the knitting project that brings them all together. It’s great to see the mental health benefits of activities such as knitting portrayed so enthusiastically.

Sybil is both narrator and protagonist and although she does naturally dwell on her disastrous wedding, a lot of events are passed over quickly. It is mentioned that a number of other characters have experienced trauma but they put a brave face on and very little is made of their stories – some threads feel superfluous as they have no impact on the story itself and nothing is made of them after the initial mention. As the first in a series set in Tindledale however, it’s very possible they are developed further in other books. Despite its flaws, you do find yourself being swept along and ultimately rooting for things to turn out well. The chatty writing style makes you feel as though a friend is recounting a series of events to you, making for an easy read for when you’re looking for some feel-good entertainment.

Pick up a copy at:

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Books of the Decade

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As 2019 draws to a close thoughts turn not just to reflecting on the year that’s passed but to the decade we’re leaving behind. ‘Books of the decade’ lists are of course hugely subjective but here are a few that stood out for me. Looking forward to delving in to everyone else’s lists and bringing my reading a bit more into the modern world.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
This book is definitely a love it or hate it read. Some dismiss it as being unrelentingly bleak, others feel deeply the suffering it depicts, not enjoying it but being moved by the emotion. I’m definitely in the latter camp. It broke my heart several times over but the characters linger years after reading. It follows the lives of four college friends as they try to find a place in the world for themselves, each dealing with their own challenges, none more so than Jude who takes centre stage, his traumatic story unfolding in front of us, flashbacks revealing the horrors of his youth.

Pick up a copy here.

The book that launched Haig into fame. A funny yet touching tale that raises some big questions and offers advice for those who feel lost in the dark. When an alien takes over the body of a pre-eminent mathematician who has just had a major breakthrough we get to see the human race from the point of view of a visitor to our planet. Although to start with he treats humanity with disdain he comes to see the bravery and beauty in our fleeting lives and the art we create to make it all worthwhile.

Pick up a copy here.

Harry Potter (Illustrated Editions) by J.K. Rowling, illustrated by Jim Kay
Fans of Rowling’s bestselling series have been delighted by the illustrated editions over the past few years. The tales of ‘the boy who lived’ are given a new lease of life with the gorgeous new illustrations by Jim Kay.

Pick up a copy here.

A breathtaking debut, with a protagonist who will stay with you long after turning the last page. Matthew Homes suffers from schizophrenia and he narrates his own story - the trauma of his childhood in losing his brother, his relationship with his parents, and his opinions on those looking after him. It is unsettling, moving, and humorous in parts.

Pick up a copy here.

Non-fiction at its absolute best. Incredibly readable although the subject can be difficult to sit with. Bloodworth worked in low-wage jobs around Britain for six months – in an Amazon warehouse, as a carer, in a call centre, and as an uber driver. He admits that his experience is different because he’s there out of choice and knows at the end of it he can go back to a more comfortable way of life but this is nonetheless an incredibly important read and one I would encourage everyone to pick up.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

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Dickens’ most famous Christmas tale is a warning against greed and a reminder that money doesn’t buy happiness. In his characteristic style, he brings Victorian Britain to life skilfully, with some dark humour running underneath. In such a short story he succeeds in creating believable characters and drawing out the traits them make them so memorable.

Scrooge is a miserly figure, universally disliked (although some do try) for his lack of generosity and dismissal of those closest to him. He finds no comfort in his wealth, keeping himself in discomfort to save money. He is the epitome of the futility of hoarding wealth for the sake of it. Through the visits of the three ghosts we learn more about his behaviour and some hint at what turned him into the cold, unloving figure that we know him as.

The Cratchits on the other hand are full of life and love despite their meagre income and the health problems that haunt them. Dickens’ character sketches are such that we feel for them almost instantly. The juxtaposition of Scrooge’s solitary, cold life and the affection and joy shared in the company of loved ones in the Cratchits is stark.

A cautionary tale for those in a position of privilege, it encourages a softer, more gentle approach. Scrooge realises how callous his own attitude to the poor is and comes to regret it. Dickens was originally planning to write a pamphlet in response to the horrifying facts revealed in the Children’s Employment Commission report. His choice of fiction instead has meant that his words and message have endured through the ages and remain relevant and heartfelt into the twenty-first century.

A short yet powerful book, and a great one to pick up if you want to give the classics a go.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

A Girl Behind Dark Glasses, Jessica Taylor-Bearman

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A Girl Behind Dark Glasses is one young woman’s story of life with a chronic illness that is largely misunderstood and desperately under researched. She is fifteen when Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) comes into her life. Up until then she had been active and fun loving, enjoying spending time with her family and sharing the dream of becoming an author with her grandmother. It seems as though her dreams are shattered when she becomes hospitalized, unable to move or speak. She comments on the humiliations of the early months and how eventually they fade, although the feeling of being treated like an exhibit rather than a human remains.

She finds solace in her audio diary, Bug, and offers an honest portrayal of her experiences. Readers will be shocked by the lack of compassion shown to her by medical professionals and their actions and treatments that make her condition deteriorate. She suffers cruelty, her family only being allowed to visit briefly once a week, essentially condemning her to solitary confinement with carers who do not take the time to learn the codes that she’d built with her family to allow communication.

There are terrifying accounts of traumatic procedures without any support in place. During one period she suffers abuse at the hands of a member of staff who is meant to be caring for her. It is shocking to read that even when the truth came out he was let off and it was Jessica who suffered as other staff began to treat her differently.

It is overwhelming to see all that she went through and the diary style format makes it feel both very real and honest. This isn’t a book with a fairytale ending but the shining star is Jessica and the amazing positivity and determination she possesses, along with the love and support of her closest friends and family. Since being diagnosed she has created paintings that were first exhibited at the Canterbury Art Festival. She also founded a charity, Share a Star, to support other children and young people who are suffering from serious illness.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Autumn, Ali Smith

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It’s 2016 and the Brexit referendum has left Britain divided, all across the country people are feeling variously outraged, smug, and tired. The political tensions provide a backdrop to the humorously written mundanity of life as Elisabeth struggles with an unstable career and bureaucracy. The trials of post office queues and over zealous passport checks will feel familiar, amusingly retold. Her job as a junior lecturer at a London university leads her mother to believe she’s living the dream ‘and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago’. Her situation will ring true for many readers. Despite this, the book is bright with the friendship she has shared with a former neighbour, Daniel Gluck , now 101 and dying in a care home.

Her mother didn’t encourage their friendship in her youth but they nonetheless managed to form a strong bond that profoundly impacted Elisabeth. We see snippets of conversations they’ve had through the years as he encouraged her to see the world differently, to think more creatively, and engage with under-appreciated art such as that of Pauline Boty, a female artist who was integral to the British Pop Art movement yet largely passed over since.

Smith uses events of the past such as the Profumo scandal to remind readers that turmoil is cyclical. The opening line ‘It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again.’ points to the fact it can often feel like things are the worst they’ve ever been, that the media may encourage hysteria, but that it will pass, and doubtless come again. There is something reassuring in placing current political woes into a broader historical context.

The setting may put some readers off, looking instead for escapism in their fiction, but ultimately this feels like a hopeful book. It points to the benefits of intergenerational friendship at a time when generations are pitted against each other. This is a book that will teach you not only about events of the past but also make you think about the different ways we see the world. The idea of being in love with the way someone sees is profoundly moving. Autumn jumps around in time and alternates between cuttingly realistic vignettes of every day life with passages that will make you think more deeply.

The first in Smith’s Seasonal Quartet, this is an addictive read. I’m looking forward to picking up Winter but only wish we could have more time with Daniel and Elisabeth.

Pick up a copy:
Book Depository

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Non-Fiction November – Favourites

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This week’s non-fiction November theme, picked by Katie at Doing Dewey, is favourites. I’ve been reading more non-fiction this year and it’s been a great addition to my reading life. Currently working my way through Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, my first ever ‘true crime’ book and it’s fascinating and horrifying. Here are some other brilliant non-fiction reads from over the years. I’d love to hear what you’d recommend.

Reason to Stay Alive by Matt Haig:
This is a book that doesn’t really need any more publicity but it’s popular for a reason. It details Haig’s battle with depression and offers insights into what has helped him, without ever claiming to have universal solutions to the illness. Whether you’re looking to find out more about mental health issues or just want to know you’re not alone, this is a great place to start.

Pick up a copy here.

Bryson brings his characteristic wit to his exploration of Australia, with funny anecdotes and informative snippets, it will leave you feeling like you’ve learned a lot as well as possibly more than you’d like to about all the potentially dangerous wildlife you might encounter out there. I’ve never read a Bill Bryson book that I haven’t enjoyed and he writes on such a broad range of topics that there’s bound to be one you can get stuck in to.

Pick up a copy here.

The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer by Ian Mortimer
This book had me hooked from the start. Medieval history doesn’t get all that much attention in general but I was shocked I’d never heard of a man that deposed the king and ruled England, albeit fairly briefly. This is history at its most dramatic – escape from the Tower of London, affairs that have extreme consequences, and a murder mystery that historians are still debating to this day.

Pick up a copy here.

The Brontës seem to be the object of insatiable public interest and although you may think we don’t need another biography, this is a brilliant addition. Well researched and thoughtfully portrayed, it is an enlightening read and one that makes you feel the heartache and difficulties that the family and specifically Charlotte faced.

Pick up a copy here.

This book should be required reading for all those politicians who tell us how wonderful employment rates are at the moment. Eye-opening and horrifying, this book gives you an insight into what it’s like to be stuck in the gig economy, working for companies that pretend to give you flexibility and freedom while trapping you in an endless cycle of being overworked and underpaid.

Pick up a copy here.

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, Mary Beard

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In this easy to read history Beard cuts through the myths surrounding Pompeii and looks at life in this ancient town. Discussion of the eruption is confined to the opening chapter, a moving introduction that dispells many commonly held misconceptions. Tour guides and popular imagination like to perpetuate the idea that it is a city frozen in time, unexpectedly interrupted by disaster. The truth is that there would have been earthquakes and other warning signs leading up to the eruption and many had already evacuated. This explains both the sparsity of items in the houses and also the amount of renovations that seem to have been taking place. Beard also lays bare the claim that what we see now is as it was discovered, in reality early excavations damaged remains and the site was bombed during World War Two. Renovations have taken place to create a less damaged appearance. Nonetheless, it is a unique and intriguing site, although one that throws up as many questions as it answers. Some objects and frescoes have sadly been lost to time but we can be grateful to artists of the past who created detailed images of what was there when it was originally discovered.

Beard discusses the split in opinion of historians – some are happy that an unexceptional town has survived, giving us a glimpse into the normal life of a Roman town that would otherwise have been forgotten whereas others lament that it wasn’t a more important place, believing we could have been privy to far more. She discusses the role of Pompeii, seemingly a town of little consequence yet evidence suggest its port was busy and that it facilitated foreign trade.

The importance of where historic evidence is found in its interpretation is also highlighted. For example, graffiti about gladiators has been used to suggest they were the heart throbs of the day, yet when you consider the graffiti was found in the barracks of gladiators it seems more of a brag than an indication of public perception. The discussions of how history is pieced together are an interesting addition and important for an excavation that elicits so much interest and to which so much has happened in the intervening millennia.

Beard’s style makes this an accessible history and one I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Pompeii. It adds context to much of what you’ll see there including an explanation for the roads that needed stepping stones to cross and that the phallic imagery present around the town doesn’t indicate a city over-run with brothels as many would have you believe. For a town best known for its demise this book helps to bring the life of the town back to the fore.

Pick up a copy here.