star wars, little women, and me

A galaxy far, far away + a rock star + four sisters in 1860’s Massachusetts.

It’s an eclectic mix, I’ll grant you – but they’re some of my entertainment highlights from the last couple of weeks and have been helping me recover from some pretty intense tinsel, tubs of chocolate, mulled wine, and miniature dachshund withdrawal symptoms.

me by Elton John.

‘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?’

Phew. There is A LOT to take in in this book. Elton John has had an extraordinary life and career, and he lays it all – everything – on the table here. It’s fascinating, jaw-dropping, funny, maddening, and utterly compelling. I picked it up on a whim at work – his sunglasses had been staring down from the shelves at me for weeks and I couldn’t take it anymore – and found, completely to my surprise, that I couldn’t stop turning those pages.

He pulls no punches (definitely throws some, though) and he goes into graphic detail regarding all, I repeat all, aspects of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. His honesty is shocking but also endearing – be prepared for an interesting, colourful, and ridiculously outrageous ride if you pick up a copy.

MeByEltonJohn

little women directed by Greta Gerwig

Oh, I loved this film. *sighs*

It was the perfect pick-me-up between Christmas and New Year – that weird, otherworldly time when days don’t seem to happen in the right order and it’s still vaguely accpetable to eat chocolate for breakfast. It’s visually STUNNING – I wanted all the clothes, all the quilts, all the beautiful houses, all the food, and all the March’s Christmas decorations. Each member of the cast felt perfect for their roles. I loved Saoirse Ronan as Jo and thought Florence Pugh gave a depth to Amy’s character that was missing in the 1994 version, plus Meryl Streep is wonderful as always. It was nostalgic, but didn’t feel trapped by the earlier film’s pedigree.

It also made me want to reread the book, so watch this space.

star wars: rogue one directed by Gareth Edwards

Yep, that’s right. The one from three years ago as opposed to the one from three weeks ago.

I hadn’t seen it, despite it being recommended a gazillion times to me by my twin brother as “one of the best Star Wars films made”. But I’ve watched it now, and guess what? I loved it. I would recommend it a gazillion times to you.

It’s a stand-alone prequel to episode IV with lots of nods and tie-ins to the original movies – and there’s some pretty mindbending CGI in it that’ll mess with your heart and head.

The ending is bittersweet, but perfect.

And as for star wars: the rise of skywalker? *shrugs* It’s okay. It’s got great, sad, scary, exciting, funny, heart-warming moments, and it’s got some moments that aren’t so great too. It felt rushed, but it was probably always going to – there’s no way you can tie up all the loose ends of a galaxy far, far away in one film. I liked it, but I wanted to love it.

Have you seen/read any of these?If you have, what did you think of them?Do you have any book or film recommendations?

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…

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?

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 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.

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.

October Scares: Two

The Landlady short story by Roald Dahl.

The Landlady by Roald Dahl has haunted me for over half my life.

I first read these thirteen pages of creepiness way back in 2004 for year 8 English, and I still remember the double whammy of horror it hit me with. First wham: crazy taxidermist lady poisons attractive young men so she can keep them forever in her home. Second wham: Roald Dahl writes stuff for grown ups?

I wasn’t sure if between now and year 8 English I’d augmented the gruesomeness of it in my head, distorted it out of all proportion, made it darker, made it grosser, but I can safely say I hadn’t.

The Landlady is still terrfiying.

And the more I think about it, the more I realise most of Roald Dahl’s stories are – at least a little bit.

Third wham.

Reads – Nights at the Circus

Nights at the circus by Angela Carter book review

Back in August there was an brilliant documentary on the BBC about the author Angela Carter, called Of Wolves and Women (sadly not available on iPlayer anymore). I’d had a few of her books on my radar for a little while, but this fascinating film just sealed the reading deal. Nights at the Circus seemed like a good place to start.

I really loved how avant garde and strange it was – it brimmed and bubbled with a weirdness that was hard to grapple with but that was completely charming all the same. And I loved how angry it is – you can sense Carter’s indignation at injustice, sexism, class issues, etc., on almost every page. I’m guessing that’s what all her books are like.

But I didn’t love the book. My main annoyance with it was that – apart from the spellings of Fevvers’, Lizzie’s, and the Colonel’s actual literal voices – none of the characters seemed to have a unique voice beyond Carter’s and I struggled to connect with them individually (although I really did love Lizzie for all her old lady mischief). I went through long waves of feeling like I was barely hanging on in there with the narrative, followed by shorter waves of feeling completely entranced, and then back to the long, struggling waves again.

And Buffo the clown was honestly the stuff of my nightmares. *shudders*

Roller. Coaster.

I’m looking forward to trying out another of Carter’s books soon* – I’m sure there will be one where I love both the setting and the characters, and where I don’t end up having nightmares about Buffo. I have a feeling it will be a favourite when I find it.

But for now, seeing as it’s October, I think it’s only right to get my teeth into a ghost story or two.

*recommendations very very welcome!