Frightfully Good Reads – Two

‘True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses – not destroyed – not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in heaven and earth. I heard many things in hell.’

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan-Poe is the perfect bitesized Halloween read.

Short and sharp and not-so sweet.

‘He had the eye of a vulture – a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees – very gradually – I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.’

An unidentified, unstable, and wholly unreliable, narrator details their rationale behind the murdering of an elderly gentleman, their method of killing him, and how their plan ultimately falls apart.

‘I admit the deed! – Tear up the planks! here! here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’

It’s atmospheric, gruesome, claustrophobic, unnerving, and strange – gothic literature at its spooky best. It will keep you on the lookout for slithers of lantern light at your bedroom door for days (or nights, I guess).

You can read the story online here, although, if you’re like me and prefer physical copies of books, I can definitely recommend the Penguin Little Black Classic edition, which also includes The Fall of the House of Usher and The Cask of Amontillado for only £1 – helpfully modelled here by Poppy the cat…

Poppy&TTTH2 (2)

PoppyAndTTTH2 (2)

Poppy&TTTH (2)

Frightfully Good Reads – One

Ah, October.

The month of not knowing how many layers to wear. Of feeling boiling hot then freezing cold then Goldilocks warm, and back again. Of crunchy leaves under raggedy boots. Of apples, apples everywhere. The month of silver clouds, torrential rain, and sometimes-golden sun. Of wood-smoky fires. Of nights drawing in and of Halloween creeping its way closer and closer on a pair of spider-webbed tippy toes.

So in honour of all things Halloween, I’ve turned my reading focus to the dark side.

And where better to start than a graveyard?

TheGraveyardBook
The Graveyard Book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell

Neil Gaiman and Halloween are a match made in heaven.

Well. Maybe more like a match made in hell.

The Graveyard Book is everything you would hope for and expect from a YA story set in a cemetery by Neil Gaiman (with illustrations by Chris Riddell). There are ghosts and ghouls and witches, angels of death, vampires and werewolves, a sprinkling of cut-throat baddies, plus a goodhearted but sometimes misguided hero.

Nobody “Bod” Owens is the sole member of his family to survive a hit by a supernatural assassin known simply as ‘the man Jack’. Only a helpless toddler at the time of the murders, Bod is taken in by the ghosts of a nearby graveyard and is raised as one of their own. But as he grows up and ventures more into the world beyond the graveyard’s gates, the threat from ‘the man Jack’ – still on the hunt for his missed kill – becomes ever more dangerous.

I loved this book. It’s simple but fun; a gloriously ghoulish adventure.

And although it’s most definitely aimed at the children’s/YA market, its themes are ageless, timeless, and oh so wise. I was constantly scrabbling around for a notebook and pen as I read, trying to keep track of all its life lessons.

“If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained.” page 217.

“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” page 165.

“Things bloom in their time. They bud and bloom, blossom and fade. Everything in its time.” page 136.

*raises hands in reverie towards book heaven/hell*

The Graveyard Book is a seamless blend of light and deathly dark.

The best stories always are.

Reads – Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney. Book review of Normal People. Irish literature.

It feels like a long, long time since I’ve set foot in a bookshop that didn’t have copies of Normal People by Sally Rooney on prominent, in-yer-face, no chance you’ll miss it display.

I have never seen so many sardine cans, so frequently in my life.

And in all that long, long time of in-yer-face displays, I was curious, if sceptical, about Normal People. I lost count of the number of times I picked it up, put it down, picked it back up, placed it back down again, added to cart, deleted from cart – unsure if a book that hyped could live up to its impressive reputation.

And you know what? I actually think it can.

‘Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in the west of Ireland, but the similarities end there. In school, Connell is popular and well-liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation – awkward but electrifying -something life-changing begins. Normal People is a story of mutual fascination, friendship and love. It takes us from that first conversation to the years beyond, in the company of two people who try to stay apart but find they can’t.’

Most of the commentary around the book seems polarised. You either get it or you don’t. You either love it or you hate it. It’s a seering insight into millenial relationships or over-hyped millenial angst stretched to nearly 300 pages. Marmite.

In all honesty? I didn’t love it. But I certainly didn’t hate it.

I liked it a lot. I enjoyed its emotional roller-coaster and was kinda hypnotized by Connell and Marianne’s angsty ways.

Sally Rooney delicately captures the push and pull, the fascinations and repulsions, desire, love, confusion, pride, shame, misunderstandings, and vulnerabilities that plague their relationship. They’re strangely spellbound by one another, but they’re also never quite on the same page and never quite singing from the same hymn sheet. They’re riddled with misgivings and shame, constantly conveying/perceiving the wrong message, always sure of their unsureness.

It’s painful to read, as well as weirdly comforting.

The book does feel like it misses the mark at times, though. Marianne’s character arc is ultimately unsatisfying; a let down, almost. There are things that jar and things that don’t sit quite right. The ending, also, is frustrating – even if it has a degree of inevitability.

But I liked it. Really liked it.

So, if you see that infamous sardine can and find yourself wondering: should I?

I would say: yes, yes you should.

Some Summer Reads So Far

Days, weeks, and months feel like they’re blurring into one right now. I probably (definitely) say that all the time, but it feels especially true at the moment.

Books, too, seem to be blurring into one big mushy whirlpool of letters, pages, and covers. Not that I’ve been reading a superhuman number of them – far from it! – but I have definitely been struggling to capture my thoughts and feelings on most of them.

Book thoughts and feelings can be slippery, slimy, and hard to keep hold of creatures.

C’est la vie.

Although it would kind of be helpful if it wasn’t la vie.

So, over the last few days, I’ve been on the hunt – decked out in full book safari gear – for a few thoughts and feelings creatures.

Luckily, I managed to track a few down.

*

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: this book, people. This book. *clutches copy to chest* It’s utterly, utterly, utterly incredible. It’s mindbendingly weird and spellbindingly surreal. It’s magnificent and enchanting and effervescent; bitingly funny and shockingly horrific. It’s completely mesmerising.

It is, quite simply, all. the. feels.

All. The. Feels.

And seeing as I’ve run out of interesting adjectives and melodramatic uses for full stops, all I have left to recommend it is the blurb:

‘The devil comes to Moscow wearing a fancy suit. With his disorderly band of accomplices – including a demonic, gun-toting tomcat – he immediately begins to create havoc. Disappearances, destruction and death spread through the city like wildfire and Margarita discovers that her lover has vanished in the chaos. Making a bargain with the devil, she decides to try a little black magic of her own to save the man she loves…’

If you like weird and wild and anarchic, you NEED to read The Master and Margarita.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom: it’s typical, isn’t it? As soon as I write a blog post about being a slow reader, I start and finish a book in a day. I read this on a blazing hot June afternoon*, curled up on a blanket** in the garden, surrounded by buzzing bees and bumbling butterflies. It was a really, really relaxing afternoon, made even better by this endearing book. Originally published in the nineties, it’s a real-life tale following journalist Mitch Albom as he catches up with his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who is slowly dying from ALS. The book flows seamlessly; it has a punchy, hook-filled, journalistic style, but somehow pulls it off in a relaxed, easy-going way. And its core message is head-over-heels heartwarming.

*June afternoon is weirdly fun to say. Or is that just me?

**which I had to adjust every fifteen minutes to keep up with the shadows cast by towels drying on the washing line because I was too lazy to go back inside and get some suncream.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi: this book left me crying like an absolute baby, and left me crying like an absolute baby” is probably one of the highest forms of recommendation I can give a book. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon who, in May 2013, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He died in March 2015. He wrote When Breath Becomes Air during the last twenty-two months of his life, as he grappled with the illness and the prospect of his imminent death. The book will break your heart. But it will also put it back together again.

‘What happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.’ from the book’s epilogue, by Lucy Kalanithi.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen: I’m on a quest to learn more about the weird and wonderful world of minds at the moment, and learning a little more about empathy seemed like a good place to start. Zero Degrees of Empathy provides a fascinating and easy to digest insight into the evidence and ideas surrounding empathy; how it works, its origins, its usefulness, and the problems that arise when it malfunctions within individuals and societies. I particularly enjoyed chapter two – learning about psychopaths and narcissists was fun and worrying all at the same time.

Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen

And where better to end a blog post than on the subject of psychopaths and narcissists?

I certainly can’t think of anywhere.

♦ Have you read any of these? ♦ What did you think of them, if you have? ♦ How do you keep track of your book thoughts and feelings? ♦ Are you chaotic like me or organised like a sensible person? ♦

Reads – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

*emerges from reading cave dazed and confused*

It’s been five weeks.

Five whole weeks.

But, yesterday, I finally finished my story turtle quest to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It’s been an adventure.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book review.

I feel like I have a hangover from it.

I’ve been drinking a lot of intoxicating words over the last five weeks.

Book hangovers make processing thoughts and writing reviews tricky. Which, considering this is a book review, is perhaps awkward.

But the black-out blinds are down, there’s a plate full of carbs by my side, plenty of book drugs to numb the pain, and copious cups of tea to keep me going. Plus, I have my trusty old bullet points to fall back on.

I’m definitely going to fall back on them.

There’s no other way with this level of hangover.

Overall, I loved it. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It’s an extraordinary story and an incredible piece of writing. There were things I really liked about the book and, inevitably, some things that I liked a lot less. These are the things that I can currently remember…

Likes:

  • The footnotes. Each one was a teeny tiny magical story within a humungous magical story, and they were so cleverly done.
  • The fantasticalness. Ugh, man. This book is beyond magical and fantastical and wonderful. It’s everything you could ask for in an alternative-history fantasy book. Everything and more.
  • The writing. It’s whimsical and witty and charming and it just made my reader’s heart all warm and happy. Susanna Clarke has skillz. (That’s the only way I can think to describe it – probably because of my lack of aforementioned* skillz.)
  • The characters. There are pantomime villains; blundering but good hearted heroes; loyal friends; secretive masters; chattering servants; a missing, ancient faerie king; magical vagabonds; plus many, many more besides. They’re all richly drawn and brim with life.
  • Regency. Regency England made magical is as good as it sounds. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to read Pride and Prejudice again without being disppointed there’s no witchcraft going on.

Dislikes:

  • The footnotes. I know, I know. How can I like them and dislike them at the same time? I just can, that’s why. *sticks out tongue* Mostly, they were brilliant. One or two, though, felt overbearing and unnecessary and made me do eye-rolls worthy of a teenager.
  • Mr Norrell. Eeek. I’m certain Susanna Clarke didn’t intend for him to be a likeable character, which is fair enough and normally doesn’t bother me, but my lack-of-like for Mr Norrell stretches to pretty intense levels. He’s proud, arrogant, pernicious, dismissive, selfish, and one of his (many) ill-judged actions – I think bibliophiles everywhere will know which one  – pushed him over into becoming an unforgivable character for me.
  • Move to Italy – the section set in Italy just felt heavy to read. Most of the novel kind of bounces along happily/unhappily from one thing to the next, but this part felt more like it was dragging its feet.
  • Length. Okay, I know. This is totally unfair and completely irrelevant. A story takes as many pages as it takes to tell it. I knoooow. My dislike is just a personal bias against longer books because I’m a slow reader. Aaaand it’s also because I’m pretty sure my wrists have developed arthritis from trying to figure out a comfortable way to hold it.

All those dislikes, though, are more than outweighed by the book’s general brilliance. It’s like a force of nature. You just have to give in to it and let yourself be swept away in all the pages, footnotes, and storylines.

It’s worth it.

Right. I think it’s time for that plate of carbs.

*aforementioned is my new favourite word even though it makes me sound like I’m 100 years old. What can I say?

Adventures of a Story Turtle

I recently wrote about a blog post about a few books in my TBR list that intimidate me.

The common theme with them?

Bigness.

The common theme with me?

Fear of commitment and laziness. *pulls guilty face*

I’m not a quick reader. I used to wish that I was, but I’ve grown to accept my tendency to meander through the pages of a book – and I’ve grown to be happy with my meanderings too. It takes me time to process a story. It takes me time to switch off from the outside world/the worry-filled world of my head.* It takes me time to decide how I feel about characters and it takes me time to settle into an author’s voice.

In other words: I’m a story turtle. Slow and steady.

Unlikely to win any races, though.

No matter how much I like the blurb, no matter how many rave reviews I read, my slowness means a big book always makes me nervous. A big book is a big commitment for me. Weeks – possibly even months – worth of a commitment.

And turtles are renowned by scientists for their fickle nature and total lack of commitment.

Okay, that’s not true.

It could be true.

I don’t know.

Anyway.

This story turtle is throwing caution to the wind.

This story turtle won’t let commitment nerves get the better of her any more.

I’m diving into the deep, Mariana Trench-esque waters of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It sounds too good and too wonderfully magicky to keep on avoiding. Who cares if it’s one thousand and six pages? *hyperventilates*

One thousand. And six. Pages. *hyperventilates more*

Wish me luck.

Send tea and chocolate.

You’ll probably hear what I think about it in October. Maybe November. Perhaps December. What even is time anyway? *tries to look philosophical and clever*

This turtle is making no promises.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

*this has historically been the single biggest problem for me with reading (and pretty much everything else in my life). The chatter of worries flying around my brain was relentless, exhausting, infuriating, and maddeningly distracting. Literally maddening. Thankfully, it’s got a lot better in the last year. One day, I’ll write about it. Even if no-one wants to read about it. *sticks out tongue*

Break & Mend

The last few weeks have been interesting.

I don’t know how to write about them. My brain and fingertips can’t articulate the horrible weirdness of them. Each time I try, I’m just left with sentences of gobbledygook and paragraphs I can’t find my way back out of.

So…

*takes a deep breath*

… a book.

A book.

Always the answer to any of life’s problems.

I found a copy of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico in a charity shop on a rainy day last week. I was meant to be out buying lunch, but secondhand retail therapy called to all the corners of my soul and I’m very glad it did, even if my empty stomach was less happy about the distraction.

It’s a beautiful short story. Haunting in a magical, heart-breaky kinda way. Weird, strange, and unusual in the same heart-breaky way.

But as much as it might break your heart a little bit, it will mend it more.

It did mine.

PoppyAndTheSnowGoose
Spot the upside down Poppy…

Reads – The Magic Toyshop

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I knew this would happen.

Ever since watching a BBC documentary in August last year, ever since reading but not loving Nights at the Circus in September (review here), I’ve known.

I knew, deep down in my bones, that one day I would fall in love with an Angela Carter book.

All I had to do was find the one.

And I found it, second time lucky.

The Magic Toyshop follows the story of fifteen year old Melanie and her younger siblings as they try to come to terms with their new lives under the tyrannical guardianship of their eccentric Uncle Philip. It’s strange and bizarre, eery, grotesque, macabre, and uncanny – but I loved it. Truly, madly, and deeply.

And I can’t even explain why. I get halfway through reasoned, rational arguments for why I think it’s such a good book and then my brain short circuits until the only words left inside it are I JUST LOVED IT WITH MY WHOLE HEART and little puffs of smoke appear out of my ears.

So, I think the only way forward for this 100% biased and love blind review is for me to get out some trusty old bullet points.

  • The writing – it’s beautiful, lush, and completely hypnotic.
  • The sixties – the story was set in the present day at the time of its publication, so say hello to sixties England. In a way, the story itself is kind of timeless, but subtle details that ground the book in its era – corduroy trousers, p.v.c. jackets, a fleeting Mini – are there if you keep your eyes peeled. Initially, the sixties felt like an unnatural setting for this kind of story, but by the end I wouldn’t have wanted it set in any other decade. It turns out that magical realism and corduroy trousers go surprisingly well together.
  • The world building – although it’s set in sixties London, the toyshop itself feels like a separate universe. It’s creepy and unsettling and you’re never really sure if real-world rules apply.
  • Melanie – she’s not the easiest character to understand and errs on the side of self absorption (is there any other way to err at fifteen?), but you can tell she has a good heart by the way she looks after her siblings and helps her aunt. She goes from riches to orphaned rags and learns to take it in her stride.
  • Finn – again, not the easiest character to understand, but he has an impish spirit and strange fieriness that not even the monstrous Uncle Philip can keep down.
  • The relationships – there’s attraction and intrigue, revulsion and indifference, sweet affection and twisted obsession, hatred, love, and fear. In other words, there are feelings floating about all over the place and it’s hard not to get caught up in Carter’s emotional sorcery, even if it is all a bit (a lot) weird.

I could go on and on, but I think it’s for the best if I stop before the whole short-circuiting-smoke-from-ears thing starts.

Basically, I just loved it with my whole heart.

Reads – Good Omens

GoodOmensBookB&W

Eleven years before the scheduled Armageddon, two world-loving other-worldly creatures – one a demon, the other an angel – accidentally misplace the antichrist with a little help/hindrance from a scatter-brained satanic nun. Chaos ensues – with all the forces of heaven, hell, and a village in Oxfordshire trying to keep up as the appointed dayeth and hour draws near.

*

I love Terry Pratchett books. I love Neil Gaiman books.

So a book written by both of them about the end of the world?

Well, it sounded pretty perfect to me.

Plus, with a TV adaptation of Good Omens set to be released later this month – trailer here – now felt like the ideal time to dip my toe into this epic co-authoring waters.

And it was pretty perfect.

Once I got into its absurdly wonderful flow it was hard not to fall head over heels in love with how ridiculous it all was.

Clearly, Gaiman and Pratchett had a lot of fun writing the book. Ninety-nine percent of the time that translated as fun to read. One percent of the time, though, and I feel like killjoy R.P. Tyler* for saying this, it translated as slightly irritating because the storyline seemed to lose out to a two/three/four paragraphs long (plus a detailed footnote) gag. Hence** the pretty before the perfect.

Good Omens is definitely a Marmite kind of book – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it depending on your sense of humour. It’s very British, very Monty Pythonesque, very weird and wacky, very over the top, and very unapologetic for it.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

*my favourite secondary (maybe thirdondary, possibly even fourthondary) character. There are loads of these brilliant minor characters throughout the book.

**yes, I used the word hence. Yes, I am a hundred years old.

And finally, can we all just take a moment to appreciate Poppy, my wonderful photography assistant…

GoodOmens&PoppyBW

PoppyAndGoodOmens

PoppyAndGO

Three Books I’m Scared To Read

Ok, so maybe scared isn’t exactly the right word – intimidated by is probably a more accurate description for how I feel about these books.

Maybe I shouldn’t admit to being scared by the thought of reading certain books on a bookish blog – words are just words, stories are just stories, a book is a book is a book – but here I am, book-heart on sleeve, confessing that I do actually get nervous of reading sometimes.

Don’t judge me.

These are my top three intimidated-by reads:

It by Stephen King – one word: clowns. I am petrified of clowns – to the point where it actually makes me uncomfortable simply having a copy of the book in my house. Just those eyes peeping through the drain on the front cover scare me. *shudders* And I also worry, in the middle of the night when my brain has nothing better to do but try and freak me out, that the clowns might get out of the pages and cause evil clown mayhem (although I do accept that this is very unlikely to happen). There’s part of me that thinks reading It could be like exposure therapy and cure me of the fear, but there’s a bigger part of me that thinks it might scar me for life. Why oh why oh why did I buy a copy?

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin – I read A Game of Thrones a few years ago and really enjoyed it. But there’s something about A Clash of Kings that means no matter how many times I take it off the shelf I always end up putting it back again. I just don’t think my attention span is long enough at the moment to keep track of all the deaths, all the scheming, all the characters (new and old), figuring out who’s on whose side and whether that’s even the side they’re really on, and figuring out whose side I’m even on. Basically, whenever it comes to picking what book to read next, there’s always something shorter and less complicated waiting in the wings.

Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell. To be read book list.

Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarkeone thousand and six pages. One. Thousand. And six. Pages. It’s abso-bloody-lutely humongous and the font is the teeniest tiniest font ever used in the history of the whole entire universe. I don’t really think I need to say any more as to why I’m scared to read this. I’m not a quick reader at the best of times, so this is going to take me ages when I’m finally brave enough to delve in.

I haven’t given up on my hopes of reading these three one day – it’s just that, so far, they’ve failed to win me over when the “what to read next?” monster comes to town.

One day, though, I’m sure they’ll conquer my scared book heart.

Do you have any books that sit on your TBR shelf like this? Or have you read any of these three? What were they like if you have? Will I die of a clown related panic attack if I read It?