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? ♦

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?

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.

Four Quotes For March

So that was the March that was.

The last few weeks have rushed passed in a blur and they’ve involved a lot less reading than I would have liked, but I’ve been making my way through a few slowly, slowly.

I’ve been trying to keep track of little snippets from each one – too often I read books without stopping to make a note of the pearls of wisdom in them, pearls that I know I’ll want to refer back to but always, inexplicably, think I’ll be able to remember. (The only reason I think I’ll be able to remember them is because I forget that I have a terrible, terrible memory.)

But I actually managed to take notes this month. And I didn’t even lose the notes.

Miracles can happen.

I narrowed the quotes down to these fabulous, and kind of random, four. They just spoke to my messy old soul for some reason. I hope you like them too.

‘I remain a curious cosmonaut through my own tiny mind.’ – page 229, Pure by Rose Cartwright. I loved this book and can’t recommend it highly enough. It made me cry, made me laugh proper belly laughs, and made me marvel at just how much unnecessary pain our brains are able to put us through. We should all stay curious cosmonauts – through our minds and through every day of our lives.

Celestial night sky paper collage, made from recycled magazine pages.
Can you tell the crazy glitter-glue lady piece of my soul took over while I made this?

‘Never leave a void where something may be written.’ – page 289, The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell. This sentence stopped me in my tracks. It sparked something in my brain and felt like a call to arms. A call to create.

‘More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your own head.’ – page 42, A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett. Ah, Sir Terry. He just knew how to sum things up perfectly, because that is exactly what writing feels like – whether it’s writing a book or, although maybe this is just me, a blog post. There is some super weird magic/curse stuff going on and I’m not sure I will ever understand it. I just wish I could trick words out of my head more often.

And randomly, on the subject of stretch marks, from How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran‘Puberty is like a lion that has raked me with its claws as I try to outrun it.’ I’m pretty sure most women will remember the moment they noticed their first stretch marks as a teenager. Personally, I was horrified. It absolutely felt like being attacked by the claws of a horrible life/time lion, and I was totally, 100%, definitely not okay with it. Random jaggedy red lines appearing all of a sudden across my hips and the tops of my thighs? No thank you, life. But apparently – and annoyingly – the lion of life doesn’t take into consideration what you want or don’t want. Which I still don’t really think is fair, but oh well. *sighs*

Hopefully I’ll keep on keeping track of quotes and keep on keeping track of where the notebook for them is, so I have some wisdom-pearls to share for April too.

*says a little prayer asking for another miracle*

Spoilers

I love spoilers. With an embarrassingly large amount of my heart.

Maybe (probably) I’m some sort of deranged control freak who can’t handle surprises. Maybe I’m sabotaging a good, much needed workout for my little grey cells. Maybe I don’t have any little grey cells.

All I know is that spoilers – for books, films, tv dramas (and can somebody give me a few for real life, pretty please, I beg of you) – make me happy but seem to make other people sad, annoyed, and/or makes them stick their fingers in their ears whilst singing desperate lalala songs.

I can only marvel at the self control spoiler-haters have.

Because I have none.

Or, at least, that’s what I’d always thought.

*

Rewind to last Saturday.

4am saw me attempting to pack a backpack, drink a cup of tea, eat toast, and put on makeup all at the same time. The first three activities went relatively well, but the fourth really, really did not – as became apparent when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the afternoon (to be fair, there was never going to be much hope for my face with a 4am start to the day). 4.45am saw me driving painfully slowly through thick, soupy fog to Bournemouth station, praying not only for x-ray vision but that I’d actually make it to the station before the coach left. 5.15am saw me out of breath but tucked up successfully on a seat. 8am saw me blinking up, dazed and confused, into the bright blue sky outside Victoria coach station in London.

9.50am saw me on sunwashed steps outside the Faber Academy, legs a little shaky, heart a little fast.

I was there for their ‘Start To Write’ course and although I’ve been chipping away at writing a novel for years and years and yet more (painful) years, I had never written in a very structured way, in an educational setting, or with other people before. Hence the shaky legs and achy heart.

I felt very scruffy and under prepared – just my default setting for all of life really.

For the course, everyone in the group had brought along a copy of their favourite novel (I’d taken The Hobbit). The lady next to me had brought a copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey and from the moment she started describing the story I was fascinated.

‘Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable, that is, until the police turn up on their doorstep with a demure young woman. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window. But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up.’

Cue a round of oohs and aahs from my brain.

After the course, I strolled in golden sunshine to Covent Garden for a mooch around the shops. Of course, I ended up in a bookshop. Of course, I found and bought a copy of The Franchise Affair.

Poppy the cat and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey.
Poppy wanted to read it too

And then I broke a habit of a life time.

I didn’t research the book. I didn’t go on a plot synopsis search like some sort of spoiler possessed hunter tracking its story prey. I didn’t skip to the last few pages. I just opened the book and went in blind.

And it was fine.

Infuriating – oh so infuriating; three days of pain, of little angry roars from the bottom of my lungs, of opened then closed Google tabs – but totally fine. Totally. (I could have cried.)

Although the conclusion of the story was 99% certain from the outset, the hows and whys and nitty gritty details were enjoyable to see unfold throughout the book rather than in the paragraphs of its wikipedia page. Who even knew?

I’m not a born again spoiler-free convert, but I think I might just be able to restrain myself for one or two more books in the weeks ahead. Just one or two.

Maybe.

So if anybody needs me over the next few days, I’ll be the one in the corner practising my lalala song.

Reads – The Winter of the Witch

Right. I think I can do this.

I can totally do this.

*breaks down*

img_20190111_092450_705
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.