It’s only a few more days until winter is officially over here, and I am so, so ready to say goodbye to it. Readier than I have ever been. I’ve tried to embrace the last few months, tried to get on board with the constant tingle of cold gnawing at my bones. I’ve tried to appreciate sludgy snow, biting winds, silver grey skies, short sharp days, and spattering rain; tried to embrace my inner ice queen. I have so, so tried. Really and truly.
But my heart wants spring now, right this very minute, more than it has ever wanted spring before.
I want blooming flowers and zesty bright greens. I want long, long days and I want evenings spent laughing in slowly, gently, softly dying light. I want to lounge in warm, golden sunshine with a book, blossom tumbling from the trees, bees humming through the air. I want strawberries that are fresh and juicy and sweet. I want floaty dresses and flip flops. I even want SPF 50 sunscreen.
There’s just the matter of those tricksy few more days to get through.
I’ll be spending them how I’ve tried to spend the rest of winter: walking off the cold, walking off the grey, walking off the cabin fever.
And, of course, there’ll be the odd bit of reading thrown in too.
I love spoilers. With an embarrassingly large amount of my heart.
Maybe (probably) I’m some sort of deranged control freak who can’t handle surprises. Maybe I’m sabotaging a good, much needed workout for my little grey cells. Maybe I don’t have any little grey cells.
All I know is that spoilers – for books, films, tv dramas (and can somebody give me a few for real life, pretty please, I beg of you) – make me happy but seem to make other people sad, annoyed, and/or makes them stick their fingers in their ears whilst singing desperate lalala songs.
I can only marvel at the self control spoiler-haters have.
Because I have none.
Or, at least, that’s what I’d always thought.
Rewind to last Saturday.
4am saw me attempting to pack a backpack, drink a cup of tea, eat toast, and put on makeup all at the same time. The first three activities went relatively well, but the fourth really, really did not – as became apparent when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the afternoon (to be fair, there was never going to be much hope for my face with a 4am start to the day). 4.45am saw me driving painfully slowly through thick, soupy fog to Bournemouth station, praying not only for x-ray vision but that I’d actually make it to the station before the coach left. 5.15am saw me out of breath but tucked up successfully on a seat. 8am saw me blinking up, dazed and confused, into the bright blue sky outside Victoria coach station in London.
9.50am saw me on sunwashed steps outside the Faber Academy, legs a little shaky, heart a little fast.
I was there for their ‘Start To Write’ course and although I’ve been chipping away at writing a novel for years and years and yet more (painful) years, I had never written in a very structured way, in an educational setting, or with other people before. Hence the shaky legs and achy heart.
I felt very scruffy and under prepared – just my default setting for all of life really.
For the course, everyone in the group had brought along a copy of their favourite novel (I’d taken The Hobbit). The lady next to me had brought a copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and from the moment she started describing the story I was fascinated.
‘Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable, that is, until the police turn up on their doorstep with a demure young woman. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window. But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up.’
Cue a round of oohs and aahs from my brain.
After the course, I strolled in golden sunshine to Covent Garden for a mooch around the shops. Of course, I ended up in a bookshop. Of course, I found and bought a copy of The Franchise Affair.
And then I broke a habit of a life time.
I didn’t research the book. I didn’t go on a plot synopsis search like some sort of spoiler possessed hunter tracking its story prey. I didn’t skip to the last few pages. I just opened the book and went in blind.
And it was fine.
Infuriating – oh so infuriating; three days of pain, of little angry roars from the bottom of my lungs, of opened then closed Google tabs – but totally fine. Totally. (I could have cried.)
Although the conclusion of the story was 99% certain from the outset, the hows and whys and nitty gritty details were enjoyable to see unfold throughout the book rather than in the paragraphs of its wikipedia page. Who even knew?
I’m not a born again spoiler-free convert, but I think I might just be able to restrain myself for one or two more books in the weeks ahead. Just one or two.
So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.
It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.
‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’
This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.
Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.
‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’
A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.
I was sat in Costa with a cup of tea clamped between my shaky hands, staring out at 6am darkness, and one word flooding my sleep deprived brain.
I had never done it before. Never travelled solo, never left the UK without family or friends. Without safety in numbers. Without backup. Without someone to talk to, to confide in, to hold my hand during turbulence, to take the piss out of my imminent-death-fearing tears. (Defying gravity is just asking for trouble, right?)
But there I was. All alone.
And I was about to learn some things.
My first lesson: I can fly without crying. There and back my stomach was filled with butterflies, but my eyes were empty of death-fearing tears. Which is a positive development. (Side note: I did almost have a panic attack in the toilets after arriving at Dublin Airport, but I managed to rein it in. Which I guess is positive?)
Second lesson: the Irish are super friendly. I was never far from a conversation, whether it was about rugby, the right way to make a cup of tea, books, Irish history, Dorset, doughnut unicorns, the new Mary Poppins film, Brexit *sobs*, or even just the weather. It was very rare that I actually felt alone alone.
Third lesson: if in doubt, go on a guided walking tour. There was a part of me that really didn’t want to look like a tourist – despite absolutely, definitely, completely-and-utterly being a tourist – but the walking tour was one of the best things I did. Not only did I learn a lot about Dublin, I also met another solo traveller and we spent the afternoon charity shopping, chatting, and photographing our way around the city. I went on this tour and can highly recommend it if you’re ever in Dublin.
Fourth lesson: I don’t like Guinness. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t, but I just wanted to make sure. (I did finish the whole pint though.)
Fifth lesson: things are expensive in Dublin. A teeny tiny hot chocolate will set you back over €3; a packet of Cadbury mini eggs is €1.99 *throws hands into the air in disgusted disbelief*; or you can buy two creme eggs for the bargain price of €1.70. (All the important things, obviously.) I suffered severe Dairy Milk withdrawal symptoms over the three days I was there.
Sixth lesson: the middle of a superking bed is the bestest, cosiest, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-ruggliest place ever to read a book. It’s just a shame I ended up hating the book I read (The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadin. I was more than happy to leave it behind at the hotel).
Seventh lesson: keeping track of key cards/passports/tickets/money is stressful. I can’t even count the number of times I thought I’d lost my bus pass and all the mini heart attacks that followed that thought.
Eighth lesson: when you’re travelling alone, there’s no-one to judge your questionable dietary choices. My breakfast on Thursday was a hazelnut praline doughnut and my breakfast on Friday was a massive chocolate muffin, just because I could. You can judge me all you want, but I’ve eaten them now. So there. *sticks out tongue*
Ninth lesson: (seeing as we’re on the subject of unhealthy food) ice cream in February is totally a good idea. A friend recommended a visit to Murphys Ice Cream, so I stopped off there on Friday afternoon, even though my core body temperature was roughly -40°C. The ice cream was amazing and all the staff were so lovely (see lesson number two).
Tenth and most important lesson: 99.99% of people are inherently kind and awesome. My flight home got cancelled because of Storm Erik. After having a little cry at the Flybe desk and trying to figure out where the hell Southend was in relation to Dorset (I used to think I was good at geography, but I officially take that thought back), I joined a painfully long and completely stationary queue to rearrange my flight and ended up chatting to a few of my fellow flight cancellees. It turned out that one of them – an amazing lady/guardian angel called Sue – lived near my home town, and after figuring out we could catch a flight to Exeter, she offered me a lift home with her. I know the general consensus is that you should never get in a car with strangers, but not only was I 100% sure Sue wouldn’t kidnap me, I’d reached a point of tiredness where I was 100% willing to be kidnapped so long as I was vaguely near my house. Sue didn’t kidnap me, and I will always be grateful to her for keeping me calm and looking after me (and the non-kidnapping). Thank you, Sue!
I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the city, and more of Ireland too.
Just maybe when there’s less stormy flying weather.
Okay, so this is going to be harder to write than I thought when I first started reading the book.
The Winter of the Witch is the final novel in the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The trilogy follows Vasya as she grows from a headstrong and away-with-the-fairies girl into a powerful young woman. You can read about my love for The Bear and the Nightingale here and my love for The Girl in the Tower here. There’s a lotta lot of love there.
There is slightly – emphasis is really important on the slightly – less love here.
*closes eyes, scrunches up face, and waits for boos and hisses*
Most of my lack of love is for the first half of the book, which I found (and I will go ahead and use this word, because I am apparently a hundred and fifty years old) befuddling. I’m perfectly happy to accept that my beffudlement might be due to a combination of January brain, juggling five books (not a good move), a cold, and my aforementioned a hundred and fifty year oldedness*, but I felt like there was a lotta lot of story stuff going on and it seemed *scrunches up face again* more melodramatic than dramatic to me.
The book came into its own, though, in the second half and things began to make more sense to my old and withered January brain.
Here are just a few of my favourite things:
The Bear – is it bad that I was actually a little bit in love with Medved by the end? Well, if it is then all I can do is apologise. Obvsiously, I wasn’t a fan of the whole raising the dead thing (because that’s really not a very nice thing to inflict on the living or the dead) but I was a fan of all the mischief. He was endearing, if twisted. All I’m saying is that I think he would make for interesting company at a dinner party. Don’t judge me.
Sasha – he’s a legend and I think we can all agree that this time my love needs no apology.
It’s a twin thing – as one half of a set of twins (not sure if that’s the best way to put it, but it’s what I’m going with), my attention is always grabbed by a twin story-line. I love (or am amused by) all the clichés associated with us and I love the almost mystical qualities people who happen to have shared a womb at the same time are sometimes given by people who got a womb all to themselves for nine months. We’re not that interesting, I promise. In this case, though, the mystical qualities were obviously more than fair enough. Yin and yang, good and evil, light and dark, life and death, love and hate, summer and winter. The balancing act was nice to watch unfold.
The writing – Katherine Arden’s writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are rich but never heavy handed, and the world she’s made is mesmerising.
The ending – it’s bittersweet because the trilogy is over, but it’s also goldilocks-right.
The last seventy five or so pages disappeared in a blur and flurry of paper for me. Everything converged into a perfect story-storm, and I was actually left shaking and holding back tears by a certain… goodbye.
It’s hard not to write about it, but I won’t.
*breaks down again*
I really do wish I’d loved the first half of the book more.
But I loved The Winter of the Witch by the end and that’s more than good enough for me.
*note to self – must stop ruining the English language.
So, Halloween last year was an interesting one for me and my family.
It wasn’t spooky and it wasn’t ghostly, but it was scary.
This post explains why.
I started it as a submission idea for a magazine and decided I didn’t want to let it go. So here it is in all its messy glory. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness letter to my Mum, right from the bottom of my topsy-turvy heart and brain. It may also shine a bit more light on my Moomin Medicine post from November.
And I’m happy to report that, although there are ups and downs, she is very much on the mend.
It’s not right. You. Here.
I sit on the bed and stare at my purple-blue feet that are too cold and too hot all at the same time.
I want to look at you, but you scare me with your smallness and your illness. I want to look at you, but I don’t want you to know that I’m afraid. You know my face too well for it to lie to you. It’s half your face, after all.
I lean back on the hard mattress and scrunch the thin blue sheets between my fingers. In my head a nurse comes over – a Miss Trunchbull style nurse – all stern and angry. The imaginary nurse tells me to get off the bed, tells me to leave the hospital, tells me never to come back.
But outside my head, nothing happens. No-one tells me off, no-one asks me to leave.
I stay on the bed that’s yours but not yours.
The side of the not-yours bed cuts deep into the backs of my thighs and it cuts deep into my heart. I shuffle, wriggle, squirm from both pains.
I talk about work and how it’s been busy. I look at Dad. I talk about the kittens, how they miss you. I look at Dad. I talk about the chickens, about breakfasts and dinners, about the Great British Bake Off and how Rahul has won, about the weather and how it’s cold today. I look at Dad.
I do steal glances at you with my half-yours eyes. I try to make them lie to you, but the look on your face lets me know I’ve failed. You’re not fooled – never have been – by my lying, half-yours eyes.
Dad talks. He’s so much better at this than I am. He knows what to say, knows how to be. I drum my fingers against the sparkly white edge of your bed and I stare at the clipboard hanging from the end of it. Note after note after note.
I wish I had my notebook.
You know the one – it’s the one filled with all the inane and absurd worries that my brain spits out and clings to so desperately, so hopelessly. The one my therapist has told me to keep. The one I chitter-chattered to you about for weeks and weeks, joking – hurting – about all the ridiculous and horrible scenarios my mind invents, all the while not knowing the ridiculous, horrible scenario real life had invented for you. I could fill all the pages of that notebook now. But where do I even start, Mum?
I’m worried about everything.
Why did your surgery take so much longer than expected? What happened? I’m worried that the surgeons might have left something in you – a scalpel, a glove, a piece of cotton wool. It happens sometimes, so why not this time? And I’m worried – so, so worried – about what they might not have taken out. What happens if they didn’t get some of the cancer? What if they couldn’t reach it all? Or, worse, what if they just forgot a bit? I haven’t read about that happening, but I’m sure it’s something that could happen – and if it can happen maybe it has happened.
I’m worried about germs hiding everywhere and I’m worried about all the germs on me. I’m worried that I kissed you on the cheek with all my germs; that I’m sitting on your bed with all my germs; that I should never have come here with all my germs.
Most of all – and this one eats me up alive – I’m worried that I won’t be able to look after you, that I won’t be able to repay all your years of looking after me. How can I be strong like you? How can I cope like you would when it feels like all my insides are going to bubble up and burn out of my chest?
The list goes on and on and on.
Dad’s still talking but now he’s talking to me, looking at me. I come around.
It’s time to leave.
Mum, why don’t you to come with us too? You shouldn’t be here and none of this should be happening, so why don’t we just pretend that it’s not? That will work, won’t it? That will make it go away.
I stand. I lie badly with my eyes. I kiss you with my germs. I’m desperate to go and I’m desperate to stay. This not-yours bed has stolen all of earth’s gravity and I don’t want to go back to falling through the empty space of home without you.
Time. To. Leave.
Dad and I walk away. A thousand gravity-cords stretch and pop and snap at my all-yours heart, ready to pull me back, ready to stop my hot-cold feet in their tracks. But away we carry on walking.
*sighs a long sigh and looks to the sky for help from the universe*
I’m really not sure where to start with The Revenant by Michael Punke.
For anyone who doesn’t know *scans the horizon with binoculars, waves at the stragglers in the distance*, The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass, an American frontiersman, and his quest for revenge on the men who robbed and abandoned him after he was attacked by a big, angry, and extremely bitey bear.
Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?
Famously, it was adapted – adapted being the very, very key word – into a film, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Hugh Glass and a big, angry, extremely bitey CGI bear starring as the actual-bitey bear. (I watched it for the first time a few days ago on BBC iPlayer – the book is better, although it tragically lacks Leonardo DiCaprio.)
I’ll admit, I knew before I started reading that The Revenant wasn’t going to be a favourite – I just wanted to try it.
It was certainly an experience. At times, an ordeal. It took me over a month to finish it.
But there were positives.
The writing – it was excellent and evocative, even if it strayed into survival manual territory on occasion.
The characterisation (well, the characterisation of the men in the book) – I had no trouble picturing, liking, admiring, or loathing any of the main characters. They were a rich tapestry of lives-lived-so-far, motives, and emotions. But I wanted to throw the book out of the nearest window anytime a woman happened to appear in the story. Hysteric who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Prostitute who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. OId, haggard lady who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Wife who has nothing to do with the plot? Check. Dreamy, lovely, pure fiancé who’s been dead for years and has nothing to do with the plot? Check. I get that The Revenant is a raw egg drinkin’, 72oz steak eatin’, manly man adventure book, but c’mon. (Side note – if you find yourself getting annoyed and angry at the stereotypes in the last sentence, then please, please, please imagine how annoying a whole books worth of them would be.)
The things I learned – I genuinely think I could trap a rabbit after reading this book. I mean, I wouldn’t because I’m a vegetarian and think they’re adorable, but it’s nice to know I could if I needed to.
So, as you might have guessed, I’m not a super-fan. I do have a weird, grudging respect for it, but I’m looking forward to reading something a bit less rugged and grim.
I think I’m in need of some January book-sunshine.
It all started with a piece of golden glitter card and the magpie in my soul.
I was supposed to be tidying. I was supposed to be bringing order to the chaos inside the boxes under my bed. I was supposed to be letting go of things I hadn’t used in years. But then a twinkle caught my eye and all hope of tidiness and orderliness was lost.
I knew exactly what I was going to do.
I was going to make a moon. (I have to admit this is one of my more avant-garde reasons for not tidying, but any excuse will do.)
Leaving the boxes to their messy fate, I left my bedroom clutching the glitter card reverantly in one hand and pva glue, a pencil, and a pair of scissors in the other.
Some serious, serious crafting was about to happen.
What actually happened was this: I drew a moon, I cut out a moon, I glued the back of the moon to the back of some more glitter card, and then I left it to dry on a radiator for two. whole. weeks. Woops.
I did finally get back round to it – and the boxes, which is a minor miracle – and by the time I was eventually finished I had myself a not-too-shabby (even if I do say so myself) glitter moon bookmark.
Then, a few weeks after finishing my bookmark moon and completely by chance, I came across the eye-wateringly beautiful book Paper to Petalby Rebecca Thuss and Patrick Farrell. I love flowers and – surprise, surprise – I love bookmarks, so their tutorial for a paper flower bookmark made me super happy.
And I managed to finish it in well under two weeks, so that’s some crafty-progress for you right there.
It was so nice to get back into making things after a long, long break from the world of crafting, and it’s been so nice using them – especially as I’ve got five books on the go at the moment (which is very unusual for me). I’ve certainly needed them to keep me sane.
It’s amazing where (half-hearted) tidying can lead.
The story follows Abner Marsh – a struggling, no nonsense, honest through-and-through steamboat businessman who receives an offer he can’t refuse from the mysterious, nocturnal Joshua York – and charts his adventures along the vampire-flooded banks of the Mississippi.
The first half of the story had me firmly under its toothy spell. I loved to love/hate all of the characters in their own special way and the Victorian South bled straight from the page into my brain. But somewhere in the middle of the book the story fell flat for me. Not completely flat, not flat-as-a-pancake flat, but flat like a cake that doesn’t rise as much as you were expecting. I can’t really explain why or how – helpful, I know – all I can say is it left me feeling like a passenger pacing the deck, waiting impatiently for my stop so I could get off. Which was a surprise.
At least I got my Christmas vampire fix.
I hope you’ve had a good Christmas, however you’ve celebrated it. Do you have any weird and wonderful Christmas reading habits? I’d love to know I’m not the only one if you do!
I’ve spent most of this month eating dangerous levels of junk food (thank you for the excuse, Christmas), avoiding tinsel like the sparkly plague, and resisting – but only just – sabotaging the sound system at work.
My brain. It hurts from the music. *cries glitter-tainted tears*
Aaaanyway. When I’ve not been thinking about the weather outside being frightful or how I want a hippotamus for Christmas (I’m not even sorry if that song gets stuck in your head too), I’ve been thinking about some of my favourite books from the last twelve months.
So, in no particular order, these are they.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I really did. The writing is exquisite, the story is glitzy and sumptuous and fabulous, and it’s beautifully bittersweet.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – this was another unexpected love. It was so heartwarming and funny, and I got completely lost (the good kind of lost) in Eleanor’s story.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden – I wrote about it very enthusiastically at the time (here), so I guess it’s really not a surprise that it made the list! I was expecting to love this book, and I wasn’t disappointed. My heart gets all fluttery and woozy knowing the final book is only a few weeks away from publication – I cannot wait to read it.
The Invisible Child by Tove Jansson – the Moomins just make me happy, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt more than anything this year it’s that happiness and fluffiness and goodness are things worth cherishing when you can. I don’t care that the Moomins are technically for children, their stories are perfect for everybody, everyday.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman – body image worries are my horrible obssession, and 2018 has seen me really, truly scraping the bottom of that particular barrel. But rock bottom means the only way is up, and although it’s messy and painful I feel less in thrall with the Gollum in my brain everyday. Books like this – toe-curlingly honest, laugh out loud funny, super duper gross – are so important for normalising these strange fleshy things we call home. Really, I needed a book like this ten years ago but c’est la vie. Bodies are 100% weird and 100% wonderful. We should look after them.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – I ummed and ahhed about having this one on the list, but it was such a memorable and absorbing read, even if it did wind itself in knots that it couldn’t entirely escape from. It kept me hooked and it still pops into my head every now and again – which is always a sign a story has done its job.
Moondustby Andrew Smith – this exploration of the lives of the astronauts behind the moonlandings was fascinating and had me daydreaming about space travel for weeks (though not daydreaming about all the hard work and science and maths behind it).
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge – I can’t really say anything other than I think everyone should read this book. This isn’t a book about guilt, it’s about being aware of the things that have happened – and the things that are still happening – in Britain and not letting these issues get swept under the carpet. There’s still so much work to do.
Mort by Terry Pratchett – I don’t remember the last quarter of the book being as good as the first three-quarters, but I do remember laughing a lot a lot a lot.
I could probably go on and on and on, and just end up listing all of the books I’ve read this year, but these particular books just stood out for me – both at the time and after the time.
And you never know… seeing as there’s still a week and a bit left of 2018, there’s still technically time to add to that list (although technical time does seem to be completely different to my actual experience of time).