Reads – Room

Picador 40 edition of Room by Emma Donoghue. Room book cover.

I know, I know.

I’m very late to this particular reading party.

I put off reading Room by Emma Donoghue for a long, long time because, in all honesty, I was a scaredy cat. Good review after good review, recommendation after recommendation, newspaper articles, magazine features, literary awards, a film adaptation, more awards, an oscar – and still my brain said no. nope. absolutely not.

One teeny tiny room.

Why escape to confinement when there are whole wide worlds to explore instead?

But eventually I was convinced to give it a go by my friend laurenabbeybooks and I’m so glad she persuaded me (it took a good few months of whispered book chat between questions at the pub quiz). Room isn’t an easy book about a happy subject and it’s certainly claustrophobic at points, but the way you get to watch the world unfold in front of Jack’s unbelieving 5-year-old eyes is pretty special. He’s such an endearing character – infuriating and wonderful all at the same time – you can’t help but root for him and his Ma all the way, right from the bottom of your heart.

‘I see a big stack of suitcases all colours like pink and green and blue, then an escalator. I just step on for a second but I can’t step back up, it zooms me down down down and it’s the coolest thing and scary as well, coolary, that’s a word sandwich, Ma would like it.’

I thought Room would be a confinement. Instead, it made the real world seem even wider, even bigger, and even better. It made it coolary.

And a book that makes the real world feel more coolary is always the best sort of book.

Walking Off Winter

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.

*sighs forlornly*

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.

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Reads – A Fortune-Teller Told Me

AFortuneTellerToldMecover
A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani

Fortune-tellers and travelling. Not much can go wrong with that combination, can it?

I was sold on A Fortune-Teller Told Me in roughly half a second, convinced by the title alone. Sometimes you just know.

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.

And I wonder what Terzani would make of it?

Reads – The Winter of the Witch

Right. I think I can do this.

I can totally do this.

*breaks down*

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The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

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 Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden, UK hardback cover. Winternight trilogy, book review.
Poppy thinks you should read this book

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.

Reads – The Revenant

*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.

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The Revenant by Michael Punke

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