piranesi to the rescue

Can you tell from the recent radio silence here that I may have suffered from a bit of a reading slump?

May have meaning 100%, absolutely, definitely.

*looks sheepish*

I was in one of those moods that made it impossible to settle on a genre/author/subject/book length; one of those moods where my mind fluttered from thing to thing, worry to worry, upsetting news story to upsetting news story, chore to chore, sparkly idea to sparkly idea – all without really getting anywhere.

But respite from this brain fog came – not a moment too soon – in the form of a wonderful, mysterious, and labyrinthine hardback from Susanna Clarke (author of the equally wonderful, mysterious, and labyrinthine Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell).

‘I almost forgot to breathe. For a moment I had an inkling of what it might be like if instead of two people in the world there were thousands.’

Piranesi – our peculiar, fastidious, and naïve, but utterly charming, protagonist – inhabits a world of strange and deadly tides, avant-garde statues, warped time, confusing omens, complex corridor mazes, and mindboggling rooms. He lives alone in this bizarre world, with only weekly(ish) meetings from an elusive man known simply as “The Other” to keep him company. He is uneasily content with his fragmented universe – but everything Piranesi thinks he knows about life, everything he religiously catalogues in his journals, everything he thinks keeps him safe, is thrown into disarray by the arrival of “16”.

I thought it was a beautiful book. Every page was infused with a quiet melancholy and delicately twisted mystery that haunted me not only as I was reading it, but inbetween readings too. And emotions that follow you around and play on your mind between reads are always a good sign with a book.

If you loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, you’ll love Piranesi. I think too, even though they’re very different, Piranesi would make a great gateway book for anyone who is intrigued by Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell but is daunted by the prospect of committing to 1000 pages (god knows, I was).

And if you’re just a little ol’ book blogger in the middle of a two month long reading slump? Well, it’s the sort of book that’ll fix that too.

story time

My mum found this old photo of my brothers and I the other day and I can’t get it out of my head. It makes me smile. It makes me full of memories. It makes me miss dungarees, even though I’m not the one wearing them in the pic. It makes me embarrassed (I mean, who thought a pudding bowl hair cut on an already super round face was a good idea? How could you, Mum?!). It makes me wonder what dramatic events were unfolding in the story to provoke such an anxious expression from me (clearly it was a nail-biter). It makes me wonder what dramatic events were unfolding in real life that resulted in all the family (minus Dad) gathered around a book for a photo. It makes me grateful that I grew up with parents who took the time to read to, and make up stories on the spot for, me and my siblings. It makes me realise books have been my world, forever. And it makes me realise that I wouldn’t want it any other way, forever.

Reads – Breaking & Mending

breaking&mending

Breaking & Mending by Joanna Cannon caught me completely off guard.

This little book was meant to be a kind of filler read, an inbetween, a papery breather before a deeper dive into the book sea – but it became so much more.

I know that I overuse this word when it comes to books, but this one deserves it…

It was b.e.a.utiful.

It’s 158 pages of gut-wrenching honesty that spans life and death and all the messiness between. It’s about so much more than the author’s journey to become a doctor (although that would be more than enough) – it’s about love, loss, learning, what it feels like to realise a dream, what it feels like to sleepwalk into a waking nightmare, unsustainable pressures, broken working environments, the NHS, burnout, and the process of building yourself back up again.

‘Breaking is accumulative. We collect small episodes of despair and unhappiness, our own Kodak moments, and we carry them with us until their weight becomes too much to bear and we fracture under the burden. Mending is the same. The more often we witness small moments of compassion, the more humanity we see; and the more likely we are to be able to mend ourselves and the quicker we are to heal.’

It’s filled with pain and exhaustion and despair, but it’s filled with happiness and hope and wonder too.

B.e.a.utiful.

I’ve Started, So I’ll Finish

… but that’s not usually my attitude to books.

BookEdges_edited

Normally, I’m a pretty picky reader. If a book hasn’t hooked me by about the fifty page mark (and that’s if I’m feeling really generous, yikes), it’ll be out on its ear and unlikely to be given a second chance to redeem itself.

Recently, though, something weird seems to have happened to me and I’m not 100% sure how I feel about the development.

I’ve ploughed on through two books (who shall remain nameless) that I wasn’t partlicularly enjoying. I refused to give up on them until I made it to their very ends. I stubbornly kept turning their pages. I kept telling myself that things would get better and fall into place. I kept feeling FOMO (of what I don’t actually know) flood my veins each time I considered DNFing them.

One book felt worth the struggle, but only just. The other really, really didn’t.

Boooored_edited
my reading face recently…

And these reading experiences have left my reader’s heart and my bookish insticts confused and shaken. I’m not used to feeling unsure about whether to stick books out. Reading decisions are one of the only things in my life I don’t tend to overthink and it’s weirdly unsettling to have that confidence disrupted.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it’ll shake up my entrenched reading habits and force me to grow and change in unexpected ways. Maybe it means I need to challenge myself.

Maybe it’s just overthinking.

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

• How do you decide when to stop reading a book? • Have you ever regretted sticking with a book? • Have you ever been thankful you didn’t give up on one? • Do you find changes to your reading habits disruptive in unexpected ways? •

Reads – The Mermaid of Black Conch

*looks to the heavens for help*

I’ve been trying for a whole week to think how I can review The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey in a way that will do it justice.

But I don’t think I can.

Put simply, this book is utterly, utterly beautiful.

‘The flat dark sea broke open. The mermaid rose up and out of the water, her hair flying like a nest of cables, her arms flung backwards in the jump, her body glistening with scales and her tail flailing, huge and muscular, like that of a creature from the deepest part of the ocean.’

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey.

The Caribbean, 1976. David Baptiste, a fisherman, is out in his boat one morning – not fishing, but smoking, singing, and playing his guitar. His music lures an ancient mermaid – the legendary Aycayia, a young woman cursed to live as a mermaid centuries before. Over time, David and Aycayia form a tentative bond. He, a hopeful performer; she, an intrigued spectator. But the arrival of two American fishermen in the town spells trouble for the star-crossed pair, and the effects of those troubles ripple through the whole community.

‘David was strumming his guitar and singing to himself when she first raised her barnacled, seaweed-clotted head from the flat, grey sea…’

This is the sort of book that’ll leave you bereft when you finish it – it’ll leave your emotions all at sea, your heart achy, and your soul spellbound. It’s the sort of book that’ll make you look at your TBR pile and sigh forlornly, knowing your reader’s heart is spoken for. It’s the sort of story that’ll sink down into your skin and weld itself to your bones; the sort of story that’ll leave you listening for cackles of laughter in the wind and have you double checking for silvery scales on your legs.

‘What had happened?… Had she done her time in exile?… Men had pulled her from the sea, where she’d been safe but lonely. Now she was contending with another life, one with reggae music, peacocks, cake and people who wore clothes.’

People who wear clothes, cake, peacocks, and reggae music – plus love, trust, curses, pride, jealousy, and a mermaid.

Together, they make one magical book.

a tale of one bookshelf

Yesterday, I built a little bookcase using scraps of wood from the garden and a lot of blind hope (mixed with only a small amount of blood loss).

I was more than happy with the end result…

HomemadeBookcase
it actually works!

HandmadeBookcase
it’s not wonky, it’s rustic…

BookcaseCloseUp
pretty patterns

Despite having a bit of an incident involving a saw and my right thigh; despite kneeling in chicken poop (fyi: I was much more upset about the chicken poop); despite deafening myself and my neighbours with a lot of sanding, nailing, and swearing; despite forgetting to wear sun cream and ending up with burnt shoulders; despite winging most of the measurements; despite having pretty much no idea what I was doing (my brain: “straight pieces of wood + nails = bookcase.”); despite spending an embarrassing amount of time trying to find pencils/bradawls/rulers/nails I’d only JUST THAT ACTUAL SECOND put down… despite all of those things, I feel that the whole DIY experience was a positive one.

And the shelf hasn’t fallen apart yet, so that’s another plus. #winning

All of this is good news, because I’m going to need to build another one VERY soon.

Note to self: must. stop. buying. books.

Right Book, Right Time

Some books* are like roses – they need just the right conditions to grow on you, and you need to catch them at just the right time otherwise you’ll just see a mess of bleak branches and threatening thorns rather than a wonderland of beauty and colour.

*maybe all books are really – but I think this a whole other (and probably very long) blog post.

I recently finished One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and it felt like a rose-book to me.

OneHundredYearsOfSolitude
one hundred years of solitude

‘… experience had taught her that the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions, a turning wheel that would have gone on spinning into eternity were it not for the progressive and irremediable wearing of the axle.’

There’s so much I could say about One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not much I can add to the already extensive debate surrounding it. It’s a mindbogglingly successful book that has had a massive cultural impact, that helped to spark the fires of magical realism as a genre, and that has baffled/bewitched millions of readers around the world for over fifty years.

Personally, I ended up loving it – despite a lot of intitial confusion/frustration/bewilderment and thinking that there was no way I would be able to muddle through to the end.

It turns out the conditions and times were right, though, for this rose-book to grow on me.

‘It rained for four years, eleven months, and two days.’

I have a few take aways from it for anyone thinking of giving this epic and surreal family saga a try…

  • it’s a whirlwind. Wars are begun and ended in a single sentence. Characters suddenly ascend to heaven whilst hanging out the laundry. Flowers rain from the sky and have to be shovelled off the streets. The book is a tornado of weird emotions, disturbing relationships, mini dramas, mega dramas, magical happenings, and dizzyingly complicated politics.
  • there are A LOT of characters with the same name. Get used to seeing Aureliano and Arcadio written on the page and good luck trying to distinguish between those characters based on the names alone. I could only differentiate between them by their behaviour and the characters around them, and even then I slipped up.
  • the imagery is insanely good. The book is a kaleidoscope of magic and wonder – I had to keep taking little moments just to absorb all the incredible mind pictures Márquez was painting on the page.
  • reading it feels a lot like fighting your way through a tangle of roots. But – after a while, hopefully, if you still like it and want to stick with it – those roots unfurl into a jungle of lush green leaves and colourful flowers. It’s still chaotic and wild, but it’s an interesting and hypnotic world to be in all the same.
  • it needs devotion. It’s not a book you can dip in and out of – it’s too mad for that.
  • it’s uncomfortable. There are creepy, icky relationships and creepy, outdated attitudes and neither of those things makes for a comfortable reading experience.
  • it will make you appreciate how normal your family is. If you’re beginning to find lockdown family life a bit tedious and samey, just be thankful you’re not in lockdown with the Buenidas.
  • it’s funny. There’s a lot of absurd humour to sink your teeth into.
  • it’s really, really weird. This is just worth reiterating.
  • it’s captivating. Despite everything – and there’s a lot of everything, I know – the story has a gravitational pull that’s hard to resist. It’s wacky and strange and disorientating, but magical in its bizarreness.

‘… both continued living on their own, cleaning their respective rooms while the cobwebs fell like snow on the rose bushes, carpeted the beams, cushioned the walls. It was around that time that Fernanda got the impression that the house was filling up with elves.’

To be honest, I’m really not sure that I would have grown to love One Hundred Years of Solitude if I hadn’t had a couple of days free to lounge around in the sunshine and get completely lost in it. I can easily see how in different circumstances I would have slammed it shut and vowed never to open it again.

A holiday week in lockdown had some unexpected reading benefits, at least.

Right book, right time.

read it all away

I think it’s fair to say most of us have a bit more spare time on our hands at the moment thanks to life under lockdown.

And if, like me, you want to bury your head in the book-sand to make all the world scariness and heart loneliness go away, I have a few – eclectic and pretty random – recommendations that have all swept me away from my little corner of the world at some point in the last few years.

mudlarking by Lara Maiklem. This book is utterly de. light. ful. And wonderful in the truest sense of the word. Lara Maiklem shines a light onto the mysterious world of mudlarks on the Thames. It’s full of unexpected treasures, pearls of obscure history, and interesting insights into London life through the ages. Perfect for anyone who was brought up on a diet of Channel 4’s Time Team. Get lost in the mud from the safety of your sofa.

the lesser bohemians by Eimar McBride. This certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. It’s a messy and mesmerising (and pretty x-rated) ride through nineties London, following eighteen-year-old Eily as she navigates life as a drama school – plus, ahem, a school-of-life – student. I’ve never read anything like it before and doubt I’ll read anything quite like it ever again. If you can get into the strange rhythm of the writing (the first twenty pages will honestly feel like gibberish, but it clicks into place I promise), you’ll be rewarded with a story that’ll torture but ultimately spellbind your heart.

‘Girl I’ve been, woman I’ll be.’

TheLesserBohemians

moondust: in search of the men who fell to earth by Andrew Smith. Delve into the lives of the men behind the moonlandings as they recall their experiences before, during, and after their time in space. The book is filled with fascinating stories that don’t traditionally make the space race narrative. It’ll take you out of this lockdown world.

the invisible child by Tove Jansson. Tbh, anything by Tove Jansson will do the trick in tricky life times, but this little book of two short stories will capture your heart and soul hook, line, and absolute sinker. Moomin stories are always the answer, whatever the problem. Moomin up your life!

The Invisible Child and The Fir Tree by Tove Jansson, special Oxfam edition. Moomin short stories.

the great gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay people, this book. *waves hands in reverie towards the heavens* It’s glitzy, glamorous, and glorious. Obsession, pride, greed, delusion, selfishness, and jealousy twist together against a background of jazz age opulence and the effect is painfully intoxicating.

a fortune-teller told me by Tiziano Terzani. Would you live a year of your life bound by the reading of a fortune-teller? In 1993, Terzani did just that after being warned a decade before that he should avoid all air travel in that year. This intriguing book chronicles his earthbound adventures over those twelve months throughout south-east Asia and beyond, as he continued in his role as a journalist for Der Spiegel. It might make your feet itchy to get travelling again – #sorry – but it’ll also make you savour a slower pace of life too.

‘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 by Tiziano Terzani

me by Elton John. This is an outrageously good memoir that’s choc-a-bloc full of amazing and jaw dropping stories, featuring names both big and small. It’s loud, bold, and colourful. The perfect antidote to low-key lockdown life.

‘Where would I be now? Who would I be now? You can send yourself crazy wondering. But it all happened, and here I am. There’s really no point in asking what if? The only question worth asking is: what’s next?’

the bear and the nightingale by Katherine Arden. Be transported to the fairytale wilds of medieval Russia in this first installment of the Winternight Trilogy. You’ll be so enchanted by the beautiful make believe world Arden has created, you’ll forget all about missing the real one.

when breath becomes air by Paul Kalanathi. Written in the last years of Kalanathi’s life after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, this is the kind of book that will make you sad – but in the best way possible, I swear. Most importantly, it will make you cherish life in all its weirdness and wonderfulness. Be prepared to cry, though.

jonathan strange & mr. norrell by Susanna Clarke. Basically, it’s regency-era England made magical for one thousand and six pages. And if that’s a sentence that floats your boat, you should definitely read it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book review.

the power of now by Eckhart Tolle. We might all be looking forward to the end of lockdown – and boy oh boy do I know I am *cries* – but there’s something to be said for making the most of the here and now, no matter what the here and now happens to be. I don’t agree with everything Tolle says, but the book’s basic premise makes so much sense. All we ever really have any control over is what we do with (or how we respond to) things now. Right now. Not ten minutes ago or in ten minutes time. Noooooow.

the hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Take a magical and mystical and really rather delightful tour through the world of Middle Earth with a grumpy hobbit, a mischievous wizard, and a band of merry dwarves. It’s less intense than the Lord of the Rings series, but still has plenty of fantastical things for you to get your bookish teeth into. The ultimate lockdown read, in other words.

If you have any recommendations for lockdown reading, let me know!

my favourite reads of 2019

That was the year that was.

I don’t understand how we’ve got to the end of it so quickly (every year I never understand), but here we all are – dazed and confused and full of mince pies (or is that just me?) – about to welcome another year and a whole new decade into our lives.

2019 has been a good reading year for me. I’ve liked or loved pretty much all of the books I’ve picked up – with only a few unfortunate exceptions (let’s never speak of them) – and been kept on my bookish tippy-toes by mindbending genres, colourful characters, and intriguing/challenging subjects. The books below are my favourites from the last twelve months for all sorts of reasons.

I’ve been brutal with my picks and kept them to a skeletal eight. These are the books that I absolutely definitely wouldn’t have wanted to be without this year. The crème de la crème. The absolute crackers. The crunchiest and fluffiest of the roast potatoes. (Still thinking about Christmas dinner, sorry.)

And so, in no particular order, these are my favourite reads of 2019…

a fortune-teller told me by Tiziano Terzani. The title alone had me hooked from the start and the fascinating adventures of Terzani kept me hooked until the very end. A fortune-teller in Hong Kong told him to avoid flying for the whole of 1993 – he did just that, and this is the story of how he continued as a journalist for Der Spiegel, reporting on stories from all across South East Asia, with his feet planted firmly on the ground and less firmly on the sea.

a fortune teller told me by Tiziano Terzani

the power of now by Eckhart Tolle. This was recommended to me last autumn* by my oldest brother. Our mum had just started treatment for cancer and I’d just started CBT for an anxiety disorder. I wanted and needed all the life guidance I could get, in whatever form I could get it. Tolle’s basic premise – accepting and focussing on the here and now rather than obsessing about the past and possible future – makes a lot of sense. And, to be honest, it actually fits in quite well with a lot of the CBT techniques I was taught. Some bits of it felt a bit too new-agey for me (maybe I was just being overly cynical?), but I think it’s core message is insightful and helpful.

*I read it in blocks every few weeks and finished it in January, which is why it made this year’s list and not last year’s.

the power of now by Eckhart Tolle

pure by Rose Cartwright. This book is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of a mental illness. It was adapted by Channel 4 earlier this year and received a lot of press coverage when it aired, which is how it got onto my radar. Rose Cartwright suffered from a type of OCD that manifested itself as intrusive thoughts about sex (which I understand sounds funny, but if you read this book/watch the TV series you’ll see very quickly that it isn’t). OCD is such a misunderstood illness, and this book really brings to light how distressing, disorientating, isolating, and tormenting suffering from intrusive thoughts can be. It’s honesty is heartbreaking but also heartwarming. I can’t recommend it enough.

jonathan strange & mr. norrell by Susanna Clarke. I ❤ this book, forever. It’s a mind-bogglingly magical and fantastical story following two magicians in Regency-era England – and if that sounds like your kinda thing then you should definitely, definitely, definitely read it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book review.

the magic toyshop by Angela Carter. More magic, because you can never really have enough. I fell head over heels for this book. It’s beautifully bittersweet, kind of melancholic, very strange, and completely hypnotic. Angela Carter’s weird emotional sorcery is second to none here.

the master and margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Yes, even more magic. This was a real rollercoaster of a book, filled with wacky, off the rails, and surreal events. The devil arrives in Moscow and all sorts of shenanigans ensue…

daisy jones & the six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Ah holy moly good mother of god, what a book. I wasn’t entirely convinced I would enjoy it, wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea – but, not only did I enjoy it, I abso-freakin-lutely LOVED it. California + the seventies + a rockband = a whole lot of drama, of the best kind.

DJ&TSBook

reflections on body dysmorphic disorder by Nicole Schnackenburg. A niche one, I know – but an important one for me. And a weird one to include too, because I didn’t actually like reading it. It was painful to read. It left me feeling broken. It made me cry every day. It brought up horrible memories. It picked and picked and picked at a wound that is definitely not fully healed, and it opened up wide the ugliest, most entrenched, most infected hole in my heart. But it also left me feeling less alone, more capable of fixing the thought processes that had taken over my brain, more at peace with my body, and more hopeful for the future. And for all of that, it makes the list.

And that there makes eight.

Here’s to another year filled with books and happy memories. *raises a glass*

Happy New Year!

Reads – The Golden

A few years ago, I read a vampire book at Christmas. The year after I – totally coincidentally – read another one. The year after that I – totally deliberately – read another.

And thus my yuletide vampire book tradition was born.

So far, my Christmas vampire reads have been: The Quick by Lauren Owen, Dracula by Bram Stoker, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist, and Fevre Dream by George RR Martin. This year’s was The Golden by Lucius Shepard (which I read about here while I was researching what book to pick).

‘The gathering at Castle Banat on the evening of Friday, October 16th, 1860, had been more than three centuries in the planning…’

The Golden by Lucius Shepard. Book review. Vampire novel.

For centuries, the old vampire families of Europe have been breeding humans in an attempt to distill the most delectable blood into one line, known as ‘the Golden’. So far, so creepy. At a gathering organised to sample the blood belonging to one of the finest Golden – hosted by the formidable Patriarch of all the vampire families – the chosen Golden is found brutally murdered and drained of all her blood. The Patriarch charges newbie vampire, and former Parisian police detective, Michel Beheim with uncovering the murderer.

The book has a lot of things going for it. The writing is lush and sprawling. The whodunnit aspect is compelling and interesting. The setting is extraordinary. The characters are devious. The twists and turns of the plot are dark, psychedelic, grotesque, avant garde, bizarre, pretty darn meta, as well as charmingly gothic. It certainly didn’t feel like a standard or formulaic vampire story.

But there was one thing that I really disliked about the book, one thing that hung over it like a dark cloud.

The female characters.

Where to start? *grimaces*

In all honesty, I felt uncomfortable with the portrayal of the women throughout the book – particularly their lack of agency and Michel’s treatment of them. Michel is a bit of an arsehole. He knows he’s an arsehole and he wrestles with the fact that he’s an arsehole – with added vampire complications – throughout the entire story. I don’t know if his internal struggle makes it better or worse. It certainly makes it something. Mostly it was simply embarrassing and cringeworthy (for the character and the author) to watch unfold and, to be honest, its obviousness/standardness/unimaginativeness was almost boring, but it also felt a little bit sinister. It’s extent is debatable (I don’t actually want to debate it though because it’s Christmas and I work in retail so I’m grumpy and tired, just an fyi), but, personally, something felt icky and disappointing. Not overwhelmingly icky and disappointing, but still.

It’s very dated.

And I’m just gonna leave that very big can of worms there.

*backs away slowly*

I still liked it, still thought it was intriguing, still enjoyed the world building, etc., I just know I would have liked it more if my eyes had had less rolling to do.

My quest for the perfect vampire novel continues…