Friday, 27 February 2015

This Week in Books and Browsing

I've been having one of those weeks where reading just is not happening. In actual fact, I'm having one of those months. February has so far been a bust in terms of reading. I've finished the grand total of one book and that was only a hundred or so pages long. But, as ever when I've been struggling to read, the internet has come to my rescue.

Matt Haig, who is swiftly becoming one of my favourite authors from his twitter presence alone, was interviewed on the Guardian this week about his struggles with depression. It's a wonderful interview and is really putting me in the mood for his upcoming release, Reasons to Stay Alive.

I've been considering audiobooks recently as a possible solution to my current reading woes and this list from Bustle of audiobooks to listen to whilst exercising has some great options.

On The Millions they talked about the Art of the Final Sentence and made me reconsider the importance of those last few words in a novel.

And finally, in another effort to counter my lack of reading, I've been turning a lot to TED. I've shared two lists of my favourite TED Talks before (here and here), and I've already got enough new favourites for a third. This talk by Guy Winch arguing the case for emotional hygiene was fascinating and quite topical for me at this point.

When I have been managing to read I've been delving into The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan. Her writing is compared to Kate Mosse and Kate Morton who's novels I have read and enjoyed in the past. I am enjoying it, though it isn't quite grasping me as I hoped it would. It has all my favourite elements - dual narrative, female narrator, set in late Victorian and inter-war periods - so I am hoping it'll all come together in the end. It does have hints of Rebecca which is either a good or a bad thing depending which way you look at it. Perhaps I should just re-read Rebecca.

What are you currently reading?


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #15

Spring is coming and I got photobombed by a beaut.

1// Short History of Diaries by Alexandra Johnson I dipped my toe into the non-fiction pool this week with this book. At only 100 pages it packs a lot in and I found it fascinating to learn just how important diaries and journals are in the lives of so many people.

2// Running in the rain There's something so refreshing about it.

3// Lighter evenings Now it's lighter in the evenings I can go back to my pre-winter running routes through the local parks. I don't mind running around the roads because there's always something new to see, but sometimes dodging people gets a little much.

4// Teacakes At the end of a bad day a teacake can do wonders.

5// Live music On Friday my sister and I went to The Forum in Kentish Town to see the Kerrang Tour. We had a great night seeing some amazing bands (Don Broco and Young Guns are two of my faves) and it reminded me of just how much I love to hear live music. Even if I don't know the band/singer/group, that feeling of the bass vibrating up through my feet is unbeatable.

What has made you happy this week?


Saturday, 21 February 2015

5 Ways the London Tube Will Affect You as a Reader

london tube reader
A rare moment
I've been living in London now for almost two years and in that time I've learnt a few things about what it's like to be a book lover in the big city. Aside from during the evenings and in my lunch breaks I get the majority of reading done on the tubes - the northern line from Kennington to Warren Street has been my reading space twice daily for the last two years. I can tell you now that it's not always tube delays that have me sobbing in the end carriage.

For my fellow London dwellers these five points will be more than a little familiar and for everyone else, here is a little taste of the ways the tube will affect you as a reader.

1. You will be continually disappointed by people obscuring the covers of their books. Nosey Nellies be warned.

2. When this doesn't happen, you will fall in love with people purely based on their reading material. If you're reading Wilkie on the tube and I'm nearby, prepare for enthusiastic smiles, staring and maybe, if you're really lucky, even a wink or two.

3. You will become adept at reading in the loudest and most uncomfortable situations, even when there's an armpit less than an inch from your face.

4. Walking around the tube network will make you want to read all the books thanks to various strategically placed adverts for the latest gripping read (FYI it's the Penguin Little Black Classics adverts that are getting me at the moment with their monochrome and spine-tingling quotes).

5. You will inevitably be struck down by alogotransiphobia - the fear of having nothing to read on public transport. It's a modern pandemic.


Friday, 20 February 2015

Friday Reads

Last weekend I made the decision to give up on The Hourglass Factory. I'd been reading it for two weeks and still not made it to the half way point. It's hard to say what I disliked about it, in fact I'm not even sure if I did dislike it or if it was more a failure to connect with the characters or story. I wonder if part of it is because I have studied the suffrage movement in such detail that reading it in a novel and plowing through a couple of chapters which give a really dumbed down history is actually quite irritating. I'd love to know if anyone else has the same reaction when reading about subjects in fiction that you know a lot about it?

This week I've been focusing on War and Peace as I can't seem to keep up with the schedule for the readalong. I think it needs more than a couple of chapters before I fall asleep so I've been toying with the idea of downloading it on my kindle and going for a two-pronged approach.

Whilst I've been considering the pros and cons of reading War and Peace in psychical and ebook format (who knew it could be such a tricky decision?!), I've also been reading A Brief History of Diaries by Alexandra Johnson that I picked up in Oxford. It's a really fascinating read and one I'd recommend for anyone who has ever kept a diary.

I've been reading quite widely around the internet this week (thank you, sneaky downtime at work) and this article from The Millions on cover art reimagined certainly perked up a rubbish afternoon. This infographic detailing the opposing habits of famous writers made that same afternoon even better again.

An article and an interview on the Guardian caught my eye this week, both about Nazism/WW2. Judith Kerr was interviewed and her novel When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was probably one of the first introductions I had as a kid to the war. Following on from that, Richard J Evans asks why we are obsessed with the Nazis.

Although I didn't like Alys, Always and I don't feel any urge to read Her, this article by Harriet Lane is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Finally, as Lent is upon us again I could hardly resist this reading list for lent from The Millions. I'm not planning on making my way through the list, but I'm looking forward to popping by every few days and seeing what's in store.

What are you currently reading?

Background image source


Thursday, 19 February 2015

Review: Shell Shocked Britain by Suzie Grogan

Shell Shocked Britain
Suzie Grogan
Pen and Sword

I mentioned that I was reading this book a while ago and a number of you were (rightly) very interested so I thought I'd share the review I published on Centenary News. It really is a great book and one I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in mental health and/or WW1.

'By the time of the armistice, the British Army hard identified and treated approximately 80,000 young men for shell shock.' That figure is not unknown to us and shell shock is a common image of World War One - the mute, shivering soldier unable to vocalise the horrors he has seen - but Suzie Grogan in Shell Shocked Britain examines shell shock on a much deeper, long term level and argues that war trauma extended past the front lines to the home front and affected not only soldiers, but men, women and children at home.

Before getting to the crux of the argument Grogan dedicates a chapter to the history of shell shock before, during and after the war. Links are made between the treatment of women before the war and the treatment of shell shock sufferers and the changing attitudes towards soldiers and trauma are succinctly tracked from the first use of the term by Charles Myers in The Lancet in 1915 to the 1922 War Office Committee.  Throughout this brief history Grogan is sensitive to the issues of class and gender that made shell shock such a complicated issue.

Much of the initial information will be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in the subject. It is later in the book when Grogan begins to examine trauma on the home front that the strength of the over-arching argument becomes clear. 

Children experienced loss on a huge scale. They faced their own bereavements and were often surrounded by bereaved relatives or friends. One individual remembers crying not because her father had been killed, but for her mother. Loss at such a young age and the restructuring of families had an impact on children at the time and later into adulthood.

The rise of the eugenics movement was surely fuelled in part by the significant increase in mental illness in wartime Britain and the worry that all the 'fit' men had been lost to the conflict.

The disillusionment of the Twenties was compounded by survivor's guilt, difficulties adapting to civilian life and an increase in suicide rates. 

Each of these individual factors is given significant space in the book as Grogan weaves her argument, ultimately concluding with a quote from Victor E. Frankl that 'an abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour'. Although Grogan is keen to point out that she does not believe war trauma left its legacy on all those involved or on all aspects of society, this book demonstrates that the trope of the shell shocked solider so prevalent in today's society is not representative of the wider traumas faced by soldiers and civilians alike.

Grogan's argument is well-researched, well-evidenced and encourages a deeper understanding of the reach of war trauma. Written in a detailed yet lively and accessible style, Shell Shocked Britain is both the perfect introduction to the subject and an interesting examination of some of the more long term repercussions of shell shock.

This review first appeared on Centenary News.


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Day in Oxford

oxford lit nerd

On Saturday my sister and I hopped on a train from Paddington to Oxford for a day of culture and exploring. I'd wanted to visit Oxford for the longest time and it was the Blake exhibition currently showing at the Ashmolean that finally got me there.

When we arrived we headed straight to the museum. The exhibition (William Blake: Apprentice and Master), was really interesting. The walls were covered with Blake's work and display cases held some truly stunning illuminated books. They had original copies of the Songs of Innocence and Experience which I could have looked at for hours. As much as the content of the exhibition was intriguing and enlightening (I'd never quite realised the depth of Blake's connection to religion), the general experience was pretty rubbish. It was absolutely packed which meant it was difficult to get close enough to pictures to actually see and I was a bit disappointment by the manners of people in the rooms. I shouldn't be surprised because it always seems to be the same in high profile exhibitions, but people were pushing and shoving and leaning right over and on the display cases, completely barring them from view. Aside from those frustrations it was thoroughly enjoyable - I definitely bought a postcard!

After the museum we stopped in a tiny cafe on Ship Street before heading off for a wander around the university buildings and the sights of Oxford. It really is a beautiful city and definitely one to be explored without the help of a map - provided you are happy to get lost.

oxford lit nerd

oxford lit nerd

oxford lit nerd

I haven't bought myself any books this year (except War and Peace), so I decided that there could be no better place for book buying than Oxford. We googled bookshops in the city and made our way to a select few including the enormous Blackwells (also known as heaven on earth), the Oxfam Bookshop, Waterstones and The Last Bookshop (where everything was £3!). It's safe to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time perusing the shelves and I came away with a good number of gems.

oxford lit nerd

Oxford marked the fourth new city/town I have visited in the UK for my 25 before 25 list and, although it doesn't have a lighthouse or the sea, it has been my favourite so far. As it's only an hour on the train I can see myself heading down again in the summer to explore again in less rainy conditions.

Have you ever been to Oxford?


Sunday, 15 February 2015

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #14

1// Spotify A couple of weeks ago I signed up to a free trial of Spotify. I'd heard good things from a number of people and, given that you can subscribe for the same price (almost) of downloading one album from iTunes and have the world of music at your finger tips, I couldn't resist. On Monday night  in a browsing session I came across all my favourite tracks from when I was 13/14. It was the perfect Monday pick me up.

2// Sick days on the sofa with War and Peace I keep getting ill at the moment and on Wednesday I decided that powering through wasn't an option so I called in to work and spent the day snoozing and reading War and Peace. Aside from the feeling crappy part, it was a lovely and relaxing day.

3// A day with my bestie On Friday my best friend came to London for a day of shopping, gossip and giggling. It was such a lovely day, although it's always hard to say goodbye.

4// Spending Valentine's Day with the one I love (yes, my sister) Yesterday we took a trip to Oxford to visit the Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean. The exhibition wasn't great - well, the exhibition was interesting, but the experience was ruined by the rudeness of our fellow museum-goers. Other than that, we spent the day walking around and visiting bookshops so it was pretty blissful. I'll be sharing my purchases shortly!

5// Furniture changes I moved my room around a couple of weeks ago and I've been really loving it the last few days. I can lie in bed and watch the plane lights go past just as I'm falling asleep and I find that really, oddly relaxing.

What has made you happy this week?


Saturday, 14 February 2015

5 Classics to Read This Valentine's Day

classics valentines day

This time last year I talked about how reading has given me unrealistic expectations of men. Many of you were similarly afflicted, so much so that there probably should be a support group somewhere. As you all know my secret fictional crushes, this Valentine's I thought I'd recommend what I think are five of the most romantic classics.

Persuasion by Jane Austen/North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Both of these novels featured in my post last year and I couldn't not include them this year. These two are my ultimate romantic classics.

The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham
This is probably an interesting choice given the relationship between Kitty and Walter, but I would definitely argue for its romantic elements. I think the way their relationship changes, evolves and eventually teaches them both things about themselves and the world, makes this a very subtle and powerful romance. The film version makes more of it and suggests a certain degree of passion between the pair towards the end.

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
Oh Benedict! This my favourite Shakespeare play and I love how it reminds us that sometimes we can be blind to the most obvious things in our lives.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The two key romantic relationships in this novel - Anna and Vronksy and Kitty and Levin - are so different, but equally as readable. One is a mature love, the other immature. No matter your romantic predilections, Anna Karenina is a perfect classic for Valentine's day.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Did you think I could make a list and not include my love, Wilkie? Although this is a mystery novel, the romance between Walter and Laura cannot be ignored. He goes to some startling lengths for them to be together in the face of seriously adversity (and Percival Glyde).

Ok, that was actually six. Can you blame me? Ever since my first reading of Jane Eyre when I was somewhere around 14, it has the been the classics that have made me fall head over heels in love with fictional characters. A couple of contemporary novels have come close, but none have had me swooning over Captains, painters or bacteriologists as much as the classics.

Which classics would you recommend for Valentine's Day?


Friday, 13 February 2015

Friday Reads

I realised this week that there are a huge amount of books, articles, magazines and blogs that I'm reading and (shamefully) not sharing with you. From now on Fridays will be a day for spreading a little bit of reading cheer and maybe giving you some inspiration for the weekend.

On the novel front this week I've had two books on the go. I'm reading War and Peace as a read along although that sucker is just too hefty to lug into central London everyday for work so I've been saving that for chilly evenings curled up in my bed with a hot water bottle. It does not get better than that.

My handbag/back friendly choice is Lucy Ribchester's The HourglassFactory. Now y'all know I love a suffragette, so I couldn't resist when I heard about this new release on twitter and then saw it in all its glory on the shelf in Tesco (of all places). I'm actually struggling to get into it a little and I think that's due purely to outside forces distracting me. It has promise and I can feel it warming up to something big at the moment so I'm sure it'll pick up soon.

Otherwise around the web I have enjoyed this article about alternative histories and these tips from F Scott Fitzgerald for budgeting on the Guardian.

Bustle do such good lists and I particularly loved 12 Literary Heroines' Takes on Valentine's Day. Also on Bustle is this review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James which contains fewer Shrek references than mine, but really hits the nail on the head.

As ever I've been enjoying Tolstoy Therapy this week, even more so now I'm actually reading the novel that started it all for Lucy (War and Peace). I've also spent a lot of time perusing The Book Journal and being blown away by such beautiful photographs. 

Lately I've been really interested by minimalism and Into Mind has such a lot of useable tips and tricks for a more minimal life and wardrobe.

What are you currently reading?

Background image source

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Escape Land, London

Imagine yourself locked in a room with a couple of friends, working against the clock and using all your brain power to get out of the room before the timer hits zero.

Have I piqued your interest?

That is the basic premise behind the escape games which at the moment are taking London by storm. If you mention escape games to anyone, you can bet that they know of a friend who knows someone who has a boyfriend who has played one.

My old flat mate introduced me to the concept and after a brief explanation I surmised that they must be like a paired down version of The Crystal Maze. Does anyone remember that awesome TV programme from way back? If you do and you loved it (who didn't?!) then you will love escape games.

This past weekend I took myself off to Bethnal Green with my sister, my friend and her boyfriend to get locked in a room together. Sounds terribly dodgy, doesn't it? We were kindly invited to Escape Land, a short walk from Bethnal Green underground, to give one of these games a go. After quelling my sister's (and my own) anxieties about our lack of puzzle-solving abilities and the fear that we may never get out of the room, we strolled into the very nondescript building and got ourselves locked in.

The moment of truth.

Basically it was amazing. It tested our brains, our logic, and our creativity in fun and imaginative ways. We weren't just looking for keys, we had to find combinations and crack all sorts of codes. Just when we thought we'd made it through in record time, it turned out that the door we thought was the exit, was actually just another part of the room with more, and more difficult, tasks.

It was pitched at just the right level of complexity and I think there is something in there for all skill sets. I'm not so good with riddles and such like, but I can tear a room apart looking for clues with the best of them. One of the tasks we all gave our hand to and failed, but eventually it was my sister who figured it out - she clearly has the eye for puzzles. There was one task in there which we agreed was perhaps harder than it should be and relied more on dexterity and a steady hand than any sort of logic (I think it took a significant chunk of time). Thankfully we had the perfect person - not me unfortunately, I'm a shaky mcshakerson in pressure situations - and we cracked it in time.

Finished with time to spare!

We all agreed that we would highly recommend Escape Land. We loved the Steampunk theme, and the buzz you get from fighting the clock was incomparable to my usual Sunday afternoon activities.

Have you played an escape game? Would you?

We were invited to try Escape Land free of charge (thank you!), but this has not influenced my review. For more information and to book a game, please visit their website: Escape Land


Sunday, 8 February 2015

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #13

1// Scandal It's been a while since I've been properly obsessed with a TV series, but I am seriously loving Scandal at the moment. It is, as the title suggests, wonderfully scandalous.

2// War and Peace This week marked the start of Hanna's War and Peace readalong and, I think I'm right in saying, we've all been shocked to find that it's good. Actually good! Not scary or intimidating or full of dusty Russian politics or confusingly long names. None of that (well, some of that). It's good, it's amusing and I'm pretty sure I'm going to love it.

3// Loving David Almond's adult fiction When I was younger my two favourite authors were Celia Rees and David Almond so when I heard that Almond also writes adult fiction, I approached it carefully. What if it was terrible and tarnished my fond memories? Thankfully, I was not disappointed and the novel was just as lyrically beautiful as I remember Heaven Eyes and Kit's Wilderness to be.

4// Trying a new chili recipe I treated myself to a new recipe book this week (Deliciously, Ella) with the goal of trying new, clean, healthy recipes. I made the Black Bean and Kidney Bean Chili and it was yummy, easy and perfectly freezable.

5// Dinner with my Dad Italian food, Italian wine and my Dad - doesn't get much better than that.

What has made you happy this week?


Saturday, 7 February 2015

Ten More Ted Talks

A little while ago I shared my ten favourite Ted Talks, and since then my obsession has grown (and grown) and here is another ten I think you will love.

Brian Dettmer Old Books Reborn as Intricate Art

Elizabeth Gilbert Your Elusive Creative Genius

Morgana Bailey The Danger of Hiding Who You Are

Julian Treasure How To Speak So That People Want To Listen

Amy Cuddy Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are

Andrew Solomon Depression, the Secret We Share

Carol Dweck The Power of Believing That You Can Improve

Debra Jarvis Yes, I Survived Cancer. But That Doesn't Define Me

Eve Ensler Happiness in Body and Soul

Parul Sehgal An Ode To Envy

Love Ted Talks too? Share your favourite in the comments!


Thursday, 5 February 2015


January, you turned out to be such a special month. My hands have been chapped, my lips blue, and I've seriously considered buying a third hot water bottle, but you've been beautiful. Your sky at 7.30 in the morning has forced me to pause and catch my breath. Those tiny, snaking veins of ice on half-frozen puddles and the thick blankets of frost on windscreens remind me that beauty - and happiness - can be found in the smallest things and the most unassuming places.

As with all months you've brought me good days and bad days, but the bad days haven't felt as bad as they were. I've been working hard to lift my head, to smile, to see the world in a different light and it's working. It's progress at little more than a snail's pace, but I'm learning to not baulk at baby steps. I'm going for the tortoise, not the hare.

You've brought me revelations and clarity. I've been nervous, terrified, elated and gobsmacked all at the same time. I've discovered, I've experimented, I've made changes and I've made plans. There are still changes to be made and plans to be thought about, but I'm excited for February.

I finally feel like I'm moving forward, no longer fused to the spot.

Happy February, lovely people!


Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Falling in love with Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Emma Hooper
January 2015

Now, before you think from the headline that I'm heading for a life of promiscuity, this post is actually a review of Emma Hooper's stunning debut Etta and Otto and Russell and James. I fell seriously hard for this book, particularly the characters. Oh, and the writing.

I'm not sure how I'm meant to begin reviewing a book that made me experience the full spectrum of human emotions, including a few that I'm pretty certain I'd not come across before. You know that bit in Shrek where Donkey is talking about being an onion and how people have layers? Well, this novel is like that. Each passing page is a new layer which reveals tiny morsels of the story and the lives of its inhabitants. Every one of those morsels catches you and sucks you right in until you reach the end - the core - and you've just got to give in to the inevitability of tears (it's an onion, remember). I think what I'm trying to say in a shockingly roundabout way is that this is a novel to succumb to. Don't think, just read and fall in love.

One morning eighty-odd year old Etta wakes up and decides to walk the 2,000 miles from her home to the sea. She writes her husband a note, packs her rifle, best walking boots and some food, and leaves.

'I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.'

Meanwhile Etta's husband Otto waits patiently at home making animals out of paper and twine and writing letters he's not certain Etta will ever be able to read. Then there is Russell who lives on the farm next door, waiting to set eyes on a deer and harbouring his own memories and feelings for Etta. Considering that this is a novel about a journey, there is a huge focus on waiting. I think the contrast between moving forward (and simultaneously backward) and waiting patiently is what makes the novel so emotionally raw - we're balancing on a knife edge with each and every character, even those with a fleeting role.

The novel is episodic and sometimes jumpy, but I think that perfectly reflects Etta's state of mind and her struggle to hold on to her identity as her memory fails her. It's a novel about the power of memory and about how our relationships can influence how we think or feel, and even how, and what, we remember. 

'Bryony, said Etta, who was I this morning?
You were you, of course, Etta.
But was I?
I'm not sure.
I'm not sure either.'

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a lovely novel with moments of pure lyricism. It has one of the most ambiguous endings that I've read in a while which enables each individual reader to make their own interpretations. I know how I interpret it, but I would never share my thoughts because I think it is something you have to discover yourself. As with all good novels there is a surface and a subtext - I think it is important here not to miss the subtext because that is where its power lies (remember what I said about onions?).

Did I mention that it is beautiful?

You will like this novel if you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Buy Etta and Otto and Russell and James from the Book Depository here.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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