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.

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*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.

Reads – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine book review.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but I certainly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did. I’d heard so many good things about it and I wasn’t sure if it could live up ot the hype.

It could. It really, really could.

It’s got all the feels – happy, sad, funny, painful, heart-warming – and Eleanor is by far and away one of the best protagonists I’ve read for a while. I felt geuinely attached to her life and was rooting for her all the way.

The writing is brilliant. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at points, tender at times, pretty savage at others, and always insightful.

I’m pretty sure a lot of people will relate to a number of issues raised by the book, even if they haven’t experienced them to the same extent that Eleanor goes through them. I certainly did.

‘My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right… I could not solve the puzzle of me.’

And I think, perhaps most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a good reminder of how a little kindness and understanding has the potential to go a long, long way.

Reads – A Darker Shade of Magic

A darker shade of magic by V E Schwab. Book review.

You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?

Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.

That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.

Because it’s brilliant.

I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*

But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.

I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.

And, you know what made it even better?

Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.

*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*

If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.

Reads – Hydra

I can safely say I have never read a book quite like Hydra by Matt Wesolowski.

Which is a shame, because it’s mesmerisingly and disorientatingly brilliant.

It’s a standalone sequel to Wesolowski’s Six Stories (which I haven’t read – though I definitely want to now), told in the style of six podcasts by investigative journalist Scott King as he tries to unpick the story behind a family massacre. He first interviews the disturbed Arla Macleod, who bludgeoned to death her family one winter night, and then five people connected to Arla.

The identity of the murderer is never ever in doubt, so this isn’t a whodunnit. Well, it’s not quite a whodunnit. The skill of the book lies in the unveiling of increasingly spooky and unsettling events in the build up to the murders, and a growing sense of danger to Scott King as he uncovers new information about Arla’s past.

It’s cleverly and compellingly done.

For anyone thinking of reading it, I have one major piece of advice: don’t read the first podcast at midnight after a long day at work, with rain lashing down outside and ivy tapping on the window pane. That is one sure fire way of leaving you terrified, wide awake, eyes peeping out from the top of the duvet, desperately hoping no-one comes a-knocking at the door.

I did not sleep well.

But I learnt my lesson and made sure I read the rest of the book well before my bedtime.

Hydra is a creepy and addictive story told in a fresh way. It’s absolutely worth a read.

Perhaps, though, in daylight hours only.

Book review of Hydra.
Hydra by Matt Wesolowski

Reads – Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (translated from French by Sam Taylor) starts and ends with two murders and one attempted suicide. In between, the story tracks the slow unravelling of the bourgeoisie Parisian family and their nanny at the centre of that crime.

It’s not normally a genre I read, and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t set a goal to read more translated books this year (trying to beat my score of one from last year – looking likely at this point). But I’m so so so glad I did read it.

The book grew more and more claustrophic, more sinister, more claggy against my heart with every page. It pulled me under and dragged my wimpish soul kicking and screaming, strangely hypnotised, to its ugly conclusion. The writing and translation are dream-like and smooth, a lullaby. Just a lullaby that drifts towards a nightmare.

‘Her heart has grown hard. The years have covered it in a thick, cold rind and she can barely hear it beating.’

Obviously, there’s no happy ending or salvation. But the journey. Ugh, the journey. It’s not perfect, but it is really, really, really good.

Lullaby book cover, by Leila Slimani. Instax mini 9 photograph.
Lullaby by Leila Slimani

Reads – Let the Right One In

I always seem to end up reading vampire stories in the run up to Christmas.* Last year, it was Dracula (which I ended up hating). The year before, it was The Quick (which I ended up liking). This year it was Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist (which I ended up loving).

For the first fifty pages or so, though, I cannot stress how much I really did not like it. It just felt miserable and horrible and bleak and disturbing and really gross, and the cosy/happy/rainbows-and-unicorns part of my brain couldn’t handle how gloomy it was. But the curious/you-need-to-know-how-all-the-horribleness-turns-out part of my brain manhandled the reins out of the cosy/happy part’s grip, and I’m very grateful it did.

What is written about is horrible. It’s bleak and it’s gruesome. But the story is compelling and the characters (most of them anyway) glimmer with a small sense of hope or goodness that keeps you crossing your fingers that things might turn out better for them. Just don’t get too attached to the hospital janitor, because things really don’t work out too well for him. And to think I was already afraid of lifts. *shudders*

It’s certainly not a festive-cheer-inducing, feel-good book. But it is a very good book.

And it’s already got me wondering which vampire story I should read for Christmas next year. Any recommendations are very welcome!

*I’m not 100% sure why this weird tradition has started – maybe it’s a subconscious rebellion against tinsel and carols? – but it has and I’m more than happy to keep the tradition going.

What I’m Reading – Slade House

‘A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.’

Every 9 years, a mysterious and mind-bending house appears along a dark alleyway – ‘too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies’ – and a victim is lured inside, never to be seen again. In Slade House by David Mitchell we follow a handful of characters as they are led – disorientatingly, bewilderingly, mind-bogglingly – to their deaths.

Slade House by David Mitchell book review.

The book is entertaining if not engrossing, bouncing along from one character’s messy demise to another. The individual stories are claustrophobic and macabre; drawing you in, chewing you up and spitting you out of the other side (much like the house). I enjoyed the little details that intertwined cleverly across each narrative (and if you’ve read The Bone Clocks there are plenty of details weaved in from there too), and the ending is satisfying whilst leaving the potential for more.

I wouldn’t jump up and down and insist people read it, but it is a fun book full of vivid characters and saturated descriptions that kept me wanting to know what was around the corner, through the doorway that surely wasn’t there before, and up the ominous flight of stairs.

What I’m Reading: The Buried Giant

I read The Buried Giant without having read any of Kazuo Ishiguro’s other books, which – from looking through some of the reactions to its release last year – I feel might have been a blessing. I had no particular expectations or ideas as to what I would find.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. Photograph of The Buried Giant book cover. Thoughts, book review, opinion.

I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not my favourite book in the whole wide world, but it is engaging and interesting, and I feel like it might be one of those stories that stays simmering away quietly in the back of my head for a while.

The story follows Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who set off to a nearby village in search of their son. Their relationship is intriguing – close, but with a sense of underlying trouble. On their journey, they meet a Saxon warrior, a boy bitten by a dragon, and an elderly Sir Gawain (King Arthur’s nephew).

I was interested that so many complaints I saw for The Buried Giant centred around it being fantasy. It certainly is – you know straight away that you’re in a land of mist, ogres, dragons and pixies – but I found it to be uncomplicated and matter-of-fact. A sort of gentle otherworldliness. There just are ogres and pixies and a strange mist that affects everybody’s memory. But the genre a book belongs to does not determine how good or bad a story is.

My only real complaint would be the dialogue, which I thought was quite dull and strangely formal. There were a few times when it actually became quite irritating. But that could just be me!

I’d be really interested to know what others thought of The Buried Giant. Did anyone else find the dialogue frustrating? Or does having read Ishiguro’s other books make this one harder to like?