Reads – Fevre Dream

FevreDreamCover

Christmas time is a time for traditions – conventional plus the weird, wacky, and wonderful.

My weird Christmas tradition (that is a grand total of, ahem, four years old) is to read about vampires. Nothing says twinkly, tinselly, merry Christmas like a big ol’ vampire novel.

This year I chose Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin because George R. R. Martin plus vampires sounded like too good a combination to resist.

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!

My Favourite Reads of 2018

Ah, December. We meet again.

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.

Did you know that you should never do a tango with an eskimo? I didn’t until a few weeks ago.

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.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.
The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson.
  • 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.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman.
Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman
  • 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.
  • Moondust by 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.
  • The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang – a short, sad, and sweet story that was weird but wonderful all at the same time.
  • 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).

Happy Christmas and happy reading!

Reads – The Haunted Coast

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray, published by the Caedman Storytellers.

Ghosts and the sea.

The only four words in the whole wide world that can guarantee I will read a book – no other information needed, no questions asked.

The Haunted Coast by Michael Wray was the perfect November-Sunday read for me, curled up by the woodburner, snuggled inside a big woolly jumper, toasty warm but full of a horrible cold that just won’t go away and leave me alone to breathe like a normal human being. The book was forty-six pages of spooks and Yorkshire legends that whisked me away from my runny nose and aching sinuses into a world of ghosts and ghouls, mermaids and monsters, and a howling, churning, wild North Sea.

The perfect getaway.

Camera Shy

Like a lot of people, I’m not a huge fan of having my photo taken.

The sight of a camera lens pointing in my direction is enough to send a juggernaut of hyper self-conscious panic right through my heart. The words “say cheeeeeeese” are enough to make me want to sink into the ground and be eaten by worms. And opening the camera on my phone only to find my confused, freckly, selfie-unready face blinking back at me? Well, that’s enough to make me want to throw my phone into the sea pour les poissons*.

I’m both fascinated and completely repulsed by myself in photos. (Me, me, me, I, I, I, self, self, self. Sorry.)

For about ten years I barely let anyone take a photo of me. Photographic evidence of my existence in that time is minimal. As minimal as I could get away with. And the evidence that does exist is pained and reluctant, through gritted teenage teeth. I think everyone goes through a stage like this, long or short. (I’m kind of curious whether people felt like this way back in the day, sitting for a family painting? If someone could pleeeease invent time travel, because I’d like to go back and ask. Pretty please.) My stage just happened to be a very very very long stage.

So imagine my surprise when I found a photo from that time, taken a few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, where I looked… relaxed. At peace with the lens. Zen with the flash. Okay with the camera.

Granted, that’s probably because I thought the photo had already been taken and that the danger had passed.

But I’m taking it as a small victory anyway.

For me, the best things about the photo are the memories that come with it. Memories so so clear and sparkly. Devon. July. Running. Laughing. Brothers, sister, mother. Twinkling lights and a shushing, shiny sea.

I can walk right back into the blue and feel it all the way through my veins.

But there is one thing about the photo that I would change, even if that wish to change it is futile.

I would stick two fingers right-royally up at the voice hiding behind my forehead that told me I was all wrong, the voice that told me (tells me) I was (that I am) hideous, disgusting, fat, ugly, gross.

I wasn’t. I’m not.

Nobody is.

And none of that stuff matters anyway.

We are all so so so much more than our bodies and our faces, no matter what those bodies or faces happen to look like.

We are all so so so worthy of having our pictures taken and not giving a flying fuck of how we appear in that split second.

So please. If you’re out there and camera shy like me, stick up those metaphorical fingers and tell that voice to piss the fuck off. Smile and grin and laugh and don’t care. Be at peace with the flash. Stare right down the barrel of the lens. Challenge that camera to a duel.

And in the wise, wise words of Moominpappa (I’m sorry, I just can’t help myself):

‘The world is full of great and wonderful things for those who are ready for them.’

Don’t let that voice make you think you aren’t worthy, whether it’s worthy of a photo or worthy of a life well lived.

Be ready.

Because life is alway saying cheeeeeeese.

blurry

*there’s a story behind “pour les poissons” involving a ten euro note, a gust of wind, and a sweet but matter-of-fact elderly French man in Collioure. I promise I’m not just being pretentious à la Fawlty Towers.

Reads – This Is Going To Hurt

Book review of This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay.

I was not expecting to love this book.

I was not expecting it to make me feel angry, and upset, and like I needed to paint a placard and find a protest march.

I was not expecting to laugh and chuckle and wonder at the weirdness of humanity.

But I should have believed the title, because This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay made me feel all of those things.

It’s a brilliant, funny, and poignant insight into his six years as a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology that will make you hurt. It’ll make you hurt with sadness and amusement and fury. And – though maybe this is just because I’m a woman – it’ll make you hurt with horror.

I mean, jeez. Childbirth sounds like an absolute warzone.

All I can really say is: do not read this book if you’re pregnant. Seriously, truly. I genuinely found myself halfway through reading it trying to understand how we’ve survived long enough as a species to invent modern medicine.

If, however, you’re not pregnant, have easy access to placard-making craft materials and a protest march, and want to marvel at the strange ideas people get into their heads (and their… erm, I’m just going to leave that bit blank)?

Well, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Moomin Medicine

Last night, five minutes after turning out the light, I started to cry.

Not a delicate, ethereal, movie-style cry, but a full on ugly and snotty cry that made me feel like all the water in my body was cascading out of my eyes and nose.

The cry started for a lot a lot of reasons – and I came up with more and more reasons as I went along (thank you, brain!) – but somewhere down the melodramatic, tear sodden line I actually managed to have a good idea.

Read the Moomins.

So, in between disgustingly hideous sobs, I hauled myself back out of bed, switched back on the light, and found some Moomin medicine*.

It came in the form of Moominpappa at Sea, and in one chapter I was cured.

Moominpappa at Sea by Tove Jansson.

First, I laughed.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Moominpappa. “I shall stand guard over it. I’ll stay here all night if necessary.”

“Do you really think,” Moominmamma began. Then she just said, “Yes. That’s very good of you. One never knows what will happen with moss.”

No. One never really does. Moss is tricky like that.

Then I nodded like a congregation at church.

“It can take a terrible long time before things sort themselves out.”

Hallelujah, praise be.

And then I found myself wondering if Tove Jansson had broken directly into my brain.

“…only nice thoughts came into his head, thoughts of islands in the sea, and great changes taking place in all their lives.”

It’s good to cry sometimes. All of us need a good old fashioned tear-fest every now and then. And maybe, seeing as last night was Halloween, I was simply exorcising a few emotional ghosts.

But I was certainly grateful for my Moomin medicine.

*side effects may include: laughing, smiling, marvelling, a warm happy feeling in your heart, and forgetting all your woes.

October Scares: Four

Ghost in the Great War, vintage Daily News book from 1927.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I just thought you should know that it’s almost – very very nearly, so-close-you-could-touch-it – November.

November.

*flings hands into the air disbelievingly*

I don’t know how it happened either.

On the plus side, almost November equals almost Halloween, which equals time for another spooky read.

I found Ghosts in the Great War at a flea market a few years ago and it was love at first sight of the title. It was published in 1927, and is a collection of stories (or, ahem, “thrilling experiences”) sent in to the Daily News by its readers, detailing strange occurrences during the First World War. I did make the mistake on first reading of a). choosing a dark and stormy night to read it on, and b). being all alone in the house. It spooked me a lot more than it really should have. Rereading it threw the hyperbole and melodrama of some of the tales into much more stark light, although there were certainly a few stories that were quite moving and/or disturbing.

There’s a family woken by the sound of chains hauling across the ceilings and floors of their house on the night the Aboukir sank, taking with it their son-in-law. There’s an injured soldier who follows the vision of his wife to safety. And there are countless “goodbye” visits from the fallen.

It’s not the scariest book in the world, but it’s certainly choc-a-bloc full of ghosts and apparitions and things that go bump in the night.

Perfect for almost-November.

Comfort Book Food

Not only is autumn the perfect excuse to curl up with a book, it’s the perfect excuse for indulging in a cheeky bit of comfort food. So with autumn in full golden, leafy swing and with the final of  The Great British Bake Off this Tuesday *sobs dramatically* all the stars felt aligned for me to get out the mixing bowl, raid the cupboard, and make something yummy.

I headed over to The Little Library Café – a brilliant website full of recipes inspired by the food in books – for ideas. Sure enough, I found a recipe that I not only had the ingredients for, but was inspired by a book (well, series) I had read (well, listened to) as a child.

My sister and I used to borrow cassette tapes of Milly Molly Mandy from the library and listen to them before bed, and just the mention of those three ‘m’s is enough to bring back a flood of guilt at the late fines my mum had to pay when I lost one of the tape sets. She actually ended up having to buy them off the library in the end. Oops.

Sorry mum.

Library fines and childhood guilt aside, Milly Molly Mandy also brings back happy memories of being tucked up in bed, snug as a bug in a rug, listening and laughing and wondering at all her little adventures in the quaint English countryside.

Now it brings back yummy memories.

Chocolate? Love it. Ginger? Love it. Chocolate and ginger all smooshed together in a cake? That right there is a recipe for true and everlasting love.

The recipe itself was really easy to follow (although I did manage to mess up the tin size because I always have to do something at least a bit wrong. It meant I ended up with a slightly flat cake, but it also meant there was extra room for a thick layer of icing. Every cloud). I added chocolate chips to the batter* and I made a mascarpone and chocolate icing rather than butter icing, because the cake mix was quite sugary and I thought the creaminess of the mascarpone would balance out the treaclyness of the sponge (it did).

It’s safe to say that I’ll be staying away from the bathroom scales for the next few weeks, but the deliciousness was worth it.

Now I just have to emotionally prepare myself for Tuesday.

The cake will probably help.

Homemade chocolate and ginger cake, baked using a recipe from The Little Library Cafe.

*the more I write about chocolate, the more I realise I should probably go on some sort of detox. This makes my soul hurt.

20/10/18

The morning is darkness and mist and my bleary-eyed reflection in the kitchen window. It’s desperate sips of tea and wet hair against my neck. It’s toast and make-up, butterflies and tickets, more butterflies and a backpack filled with things I may or may not need. It’s Bournemouth station in a navy dawn and goosebumps, breaths that steam and smiles all round as the coach doors open. It’s a sunrise over the New Forest and fog puddles between orangey trees. It’s reading a book and trying to sleep, nibbling chocolate and pins and needles.

Oxford is bright and bustling and grand under a big blue sky. It’s Dr Martens and markets and bicycles that ring-a-ling. It’s pigeons that fly right at me, pigeons that stare at me, pigeons that hobble and hop and look unwell and that break my messy heart. Note to self: they don’t let unwell, or even completely well, pigeons on coaches. Note to self, note to self, note to self. No pigeons.

The Ashmolean is stone running up, up, up into the sky and banners that sway in an autumn breeze. It is Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft. It’s glass and steps and museum maps, echoing voices, crumpled tickets and a big big door that leads into a magical dark.

Behind the big big door, I fumble for my notebook and struggle for my pen. I read and scribble, shuffle from cabinet to cabinet, ooh and aah inside my head. Backpacks bump, coats rustle, boots tap tap tap.

Witch in a bottle. Zodiac man. Nativity horoscope. Moon blood. Devil through the ears. Demon Astaroth. Love locks. Certificate of innocence. Lent doll. Poppet curse. Skeleton carriage.

A thousand lightbulbs flicker and pop in my head.

I exit through the gift shop.

The afternoon is wandering and wondering, lost. It’s dreaming spires and falling leaves, crowds and cameras. It’s the Oxford Botanic Gardens and a strange peace burning in my chest. It’s warm conservatories and brick walls with pretty gates, dying petals and glittering trees, skittering squirrels and a man falling from a punt. It’s splashes, laughs, and smiles. It’s a pot of tea and a slice of cake and buying stationery I don’t need. More Dr Martens, more pigeons.

Dreaming spires of Oxford. Autumn view from the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Fairytale view from the Oxford Botanic Gardens.
Gateway in the Oxford Botanic Garden.
Gate goals.

Leaves, wall and path in the Oxford Botanic Gardens. Autumn in Oxford.

IMG_20181022_192647_408

The evening is Google Maps and eyes glued to my phone. It’s relief as things look familiar and tired legs grateful for a seat. It’s fortune telling fish that predict I will fall in love and it’s confusion because that doesn’t sound like me. It’s my head pressed against a window and a bright three-quarters moon, eyes closed and music. It’s messages, ping ping ping, and deciding to go out and get drunk with friends even though it’s late. It’s realising I’m not a proper grown-up.

The night is rum and giggles and stars.

20/10/18

It’s a date I won’t forget.

Unfrequently Asked Questions

Did you know that random question generators totally exist?

Because I didn’t until last week.

But it turns out that they totally – like actually totally – do and they’re quite a lot of fun, even if it’s purely for the novelty factor. I discovered their actual and total existence via the lovely blog Chrikaru Reads, and thought it would be nice to do a slightly less bookish post for what feels like the first time in a while.

There’s still a picture of a book along the way, though. Of course there is.

Here goes.

What is the first thing you notice when meeting someone new? Their eyes. I’m one of those creepy lock n’ stare types, don’t know why, just am (and I’d like to take this moment to apologise to anyone I might have freaked out with my eyeball-centric focus upon meeting them). Clichéd though it is, I really do believe that eyes are teeny-tiny windows to the soul that just happen to also come in a lovely array of colours. And what’s not to like about multicoloured teeny-tiny soul windows?

What is your favourite thing about winter? The moments when your hands are so cold you just have to put them on a loved ones face to let them experience the temperature for themselves. Don’t worry, I get as well as I give (equal and opposite reaction and all that universe karma jazz).

What is something that makes you smile? Maybe it’s childish, but drawing hearts in condensation makes me smile. No mirror/window/cardoor/condensation-coated-surface is safe.

heart drawn in condensation with hand shadow

How did you get your name? Do you know the meaning behind it? Pippin is the nickname given to me by my mum – it’s after the blossom of an apple tree, not the hobbit (although I would be more than happy to be named after a hobbit). I have very fair and freckly skin, so in spring and summer I was mostly found in the shade under the trees in our garden.

LittlePippin

What was the last book you read? Ah, there had to be a book. I recently finished Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon. It’s such a scarily, refreshingly, and brutally honest book about a subject that I think is closer to a lot of people’s hearts than many realise. It’s certainly close to my heart (and head) and I wish I wish I wish I could have read it years ago. Currently, I’m reading and loving How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon

What drink do you usually order with your food? You’ve probably realised by now that I’m not a very sophisticated and grown-up lady, so it’s more likely to be a vodka and cola than wine, or a gin and tonic if I’m feeling a bit more fancy.

What is the last dream you remember? I’m not great with dreams. They escape from me, spill out of my ears and nose and eyes and mouth as soon as I wake and leave me to fend for myself in cold, stark reality. I don’t remember them, don’t remember their colours, the people that filled them, or the feelings they invoked. All I tend to remember come morning is the back of my eyelids and the certainty that my alarm has gone off way way way too soon. So the last dream I remember with any clarity is from back in January. I dreamed there was a new room in my house – a very brightly lit bathroom with book-lined walls (of course) and a freshly run, steaming bath. I just stood at the doorway trying to understand how it had got there, afraid and sure something bad was going to happen. I walked round to the old room that the new room should have encroached on, but it was the same shape inside (because obviously dream-rooms don’t have to obey the annoying and kinda cumbersome laws of physics). I went and sat where the new room should have been and listened as someone – who, for some reason, I knew was my mum’s dad (he died twenty-two years before I was born) – climbed the stairs. And then I woke up, scared and sweaty (nice, I know), as the door to the room opened. WEIRD.

It still spooks me and it’s been ten months.

Do you like to sing out loud when no-one else is around? (operatically): YE-ES! *clears throat* Excuse me, sorry. But yes, yes I do. So much. It’s an awful, strange, and kind of alarming noise, but at least it’s only my ears that get hurt.

Do you believe in love at first sight? No, I believe in attraction at first sight.

What is your favourite candy? This is the one question in the universe I can answer with absolute certainty, and it’s also the most boring and predictable answer in the universe. Chocolate. I love it. Dairy Milk is my favourite, but pretty much anything goes (I am aware of how sad and hopeless this makes me sound) so long as it doesn’t have orange in it. Who would be so evil as to put orange in chocolate?

Phew. So there you have it. Random answers to random questions the internet asked me. God, I love the internet.

I used this generator if you want to have a go.

Happy questioning!