Sunday 31 December 2023

2023 Wrap-Up

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

Here we are again, at the close of another year. How has 2023 treated you? Well, I hope.

It’s been a good reading year for me. My numbers may be nothing exceptional (23 as I write, likely to tick over to 25 by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve), but the content has been strong. I’ve managed an almost exactly even split between fiction and non-fiction, and both categories have included gems. Early in the year I finally picked up Invisible Women, an important read which opened my eyes to the manifold ways the world is designed for men. The Science of Storytelling was also an excellent read as someone interested both in psychology and writing, and I’d urge any budding writers to pick up a copy. I borrowed it from the library but might need to add it to my own collection. Finally, one that hasn’t made it on to this blog yet, but was one of the most gripping non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time - Lost Connections by Johann Hari was an enlightening look at depression and anxiety. It made me reconsider what I’ve been told about causes and treatment, and think more deeply on the way shifts in society impact our mental health. I couldn’t stop talking about it while I was reading it.

For fiction, some highlights were the second in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (I’ll get to book three soon..) which absolutely left me desperate for more, I’m just not one to binge series. Recently I enjoyed The Winter Garden for a bit of magic and wonder, and The Confessions of Frannie Langton which was intense and dark and absolutely gripping. My favourite fiction read of the year has to be Demon Copperhead (many thanks to the fabulous readalong leader who got me to read it). It is by no means an easy read, it deals with difficult topics, but you feel so much empathy for the characters, and learn a lot about real life in Appalachia as a result. Any Kingsolver fans reading this, please offer tips on what to read of hers next.

I’m not one for planning my upcoming reads much, but I’m likely to be reading Unwell Women and The Moonstone soon, both of which have been sitting patiently on my shelves for too long. I also have excellent recommendations from my bookish friends to see me through the next twelve months. Have you read any of them?

My theatre consumption this year has been varied - from the brilliant Hamilton to the sweet Winnie the Pooh Musical and the bonkers The Great British Bake Off Musical. Many an enjoyable night out has been had. My exhibition game has been lacking somewhat, but the highlight was likely The Rossettis at the Tate Britain, one I would gladly have spent more time in. The Maria Bartusov√° at Tate Modern was also fascinating and thought-provoking. In the new year I’m looking forward to heading to the Royal Academy for Impressionists on Paper.

I’ve not travelled as much this year, but was lucky to have an incredible trip to Germany in December. Highlights include visiting Neuschwanstein Castle. Yes, it’s an unoriginal day trip, but there’s a reason it’s popular. Perched on a crag in the mountains, the views from it are utterly breathtaking. The interiors are incredible, inspired by the Middle Ages, they are lavish and beautifully crafted. You can only visit by guided tour, and it moves you through at quite a pace, but it is absolutely worth it. (If you’re thinking of going, I’d recommend taking a Flixbus from Munich for around €14 rather than the organised tours that cost four times that and don’t offer much more than transport). Going up Zugspitze was also a highlight. Having had heavy snow a few weeks before we visited, it was a frozen winter wonderland. The Alps stretch for as far as the eye can see, and the views take in five countries. It’s expensive but absolutely worth it, and is a full day activity. A day trip to Innsbruck from Garmisch-Partenkirchen was a lovely unexpected addition to our time there. The bus ride was so beautiful as it winds through the mountains, it was worth the €6.99 for the views alone. Innsbruck itself is a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains, and dressed in its finest for Christmas. 

The view from Neuschwanstein

I was also able to spend a few days camping in Scotland earlier in the year. It rained a lot and I came back with nigh-on 70 midge bites, but it was a refreshing trip. We based ourselves in Luss, on the western shores of Loch Lomond, which proved an excellent base for exploring the area. A ferry across from Tarbet to Inversnaid led to excellent walking routes, and on return, the walk from Tarbet to Arrochar via the Three Lochs Way was a treat. My highlight, though, was kayaking to one of the small islands. It was a day with storm clouds threatening, but the beauty and peace of the island, draped in purple rhododendrons, was something my heart longs to return to. We’re hoping to spend more time in Scotland in 2024, walking the West Highland Way. I hope that you’re able to take a break in the coming year and enjoy the rejuvenating benefits of whatever type of holiday you prefer.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

The Haunting Scent of Poppies, Victoria Williamson

This review is part of the blog tour for the novella. Thank you to The WriteReads and Little Thorn Books for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

A few days before Christmas 1918 and Charlie Briggs arrives in the sleepy town of Petersfield, away from the hustle and bustle of London, and more importantly, safely hidden from those who want to find him. The Great War has not long ended and there are reminders of the fallen everywhere. Charlie, however, has no feelings of sorrow or respect, believing that everybody would rather forget but feels obliged to act out remorse. He avoided the action by having a friend write him a medical note excusing him from battle, but he frequently pretends he was at the Front. Always on the lookout for opportunities to make a quick buck, he is delighted when he discovers an incredibly rare book in the local bookshop. It’s not for sale, meaning a great deal to the owner, but it soon ends up in Charlie’s pocket. He should be long gone by the time they re-open in the New Year, living it up on the proceeds, which would set him up, if only it weren’t for his gambling habit that so often means his money goes just as soon as he gets it. Before long, it becomes apparent that this isn’t your average book. He has a physical reaction when he touches it, and in the days that follow he experiences vivid hallucinations of gas attacks which somehow seep into reality and leave his body covered in painful blisters. He believes himself to be followed by something dark lurking around every corner, and his dreams are haunted by the sad end of the book’s previous owner. 

Charlie is not a likeable character. When he ends up staying with a woman connected to the tragic story that accompanies the book, he cares nothing for her suffering but only in finding out more about the provenance of the book, hoping that it will help raise its price. He is constantly looking for victims to pickpocket, and has no real remorse for what he’s done, his only concern is with stopping the nightmares and making his money as quickly as possible. There is a sense that his experiences are giving him a taste of what so many suffered through, events that he piggybacks on to ingratiate himself with his victims. You can’t help but wonder how he’ll ever escape the horror that’s following him. It is a hard-hitting reminder of the horrors of war, this is after all, a haunting based in reality not fantasy.

A well written book that sets the scene neatly. The characters are well drawn and the side characters, who are more sympathetic, will elicit more compassion in the reader. In a short space of time you understand Charlie’s motivations and outlook, and can picture Petersfield clearly. The premise for the story is interesting, and the images truly horrifying. An interesting, evocative read that you can easily get through in one sitting.