Monday, 29 February 2016

February in Books

First Bite by Bee Wilson
Fear by Gabriel Chevallier
The Woman Who Ran by Sam Baker

This month has been a very odd one for reading. It's felt like I've spent a lot of time reading, but not actually made any progress with any books. For the first time in a long time I've read less than a book a week and only finished three books in February. Oddly, I'm also quite upset about that.

I started the month very excitedly with First Bite by Bee Wilson. It's a wonderful book and gave me so much to think about but, as with all non-fiction, I read it slowly to make sure I was taking it all in, occasionally going back and rereading sections or applying Wilson's argument to my own eating experiences.

I put First Bite aside after a week to read Fear which I needed to review for Centenary News (on a self-imposed review schedule). Although Fear was an absorbing novel, it was also pretty hard going. It's one of the most candid war novels I have read in quite some time and much of it was hugely emotive. Chevallier's writing style is also quite dense and layered so I had to dedicate more time and considerably more brain power than I expected.

I turned to The Woman Who Ran, which I picked up second hand on the bookshop crawl, as a lighter and quicker option after Fear. A palette cleanser, of sorts. I hoped it would change the trajectory of my reading and avoid the inevitable hurtle towards a slump that follows a period of dense reading. In part it did because I whizzed through it and thoroughly enjoyed it (a review should be up this week), but I then made the mistake of again returning to the war, to non-fiction and to a dense narrative, this time in the form of a front line nurse's diary.

Dorothea's War is brilliant, revealing, and insightful. It focuses on daily life in a frontline hospital and the comings and goings associated with that. I'm comparing her experiences with those of Beatrice Hopkinson, who's diary I read in January, and it feels like I'm learning so much about how similar and yet varied nursing roles were in the First World War. Nevertheless delving into the minutiae of life and thinking critically about historical context etc has become quite taxing for my brain, probably as a result of being so busy generally this month. I feel like a need a speedy crime novel or thriller - true escapism - to relax and reset my cogs.

Last night I set Dorothea's War aside and instead picked up another bookshop crawl purchase, Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. I've heard nothing but good things about Harriet so I'm hoping it will stop the oncoming slump in its tracks and let normal reading habits resume.

What did you read in February?


Sunday, 28 February 2016

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #50

1// Literature Festivals this week has been a busy one in terms of festivals. It's been Jewish Book Week and LSE's Space for Thought festival and I've made the most of both. Going to talks for LSE's festival felt very much like going back to uni as they were held in the university's lecture theatres - I loved it and the two talks I went to were absolutely brilliant.

2// Sushi On Tuesday my sister and I met up with a friend we've not seen in a while and went to our favourite sushi place in soho. It was super tasty and so good to have a catch up and a proper chinwag.

3// 29 Things Tomorrow is the last day of February which means it's also the last day of my 29 things mini challenge. I've really enjoyed taking more time for myself, even if it's only five minutes a day, and doing things I wouldn't necessarily prioritise. I'll be reflecting on the month properly soon.

4// Crime Museum Uncovered Yesterday Mike and I got up extra early (for a Saturday) and went to the Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London. It's a brilliant exhibition - very insightful - and I'd really recommend it.

5// Crisp mornings I've absolutely adored how chilly it's been this week. I love wrapping up so I'm nice and toasty, going outside and seeing my breath float away in front of me. On the slightly more negative side of it, I have been kept awake at night by the cold. Once I'm cold, I'm cold and even three blankets and a hot water bottle doesn't make a difference.

6// It's very rare I post pictures of me, particularly not of my face (my hands feature frequently on instagram), but this week I wanted to share how I was feeling about a decision I'd made. Basically, I'm feeling better and more energised than I have a long long time as a result of this decision, this leap, and even if it comes to nothing I hope I'll still feel happy in the knowledge that I was brave and did something for me.

What made you happy this week?

Friday, 26 February 2016


Recently I've been getting into listening to audiobooks. Well, I say recently but it was actually towards the end of last year that I signed up for Audible and downloaded my first book. It's taken me a while to get into them properly, but now I think I can finally say that they've become a part of my reading routine.

Having listened to a hand full of genres I'm finally becoming more aware of the sorts of books that I'm able to listen to without switching off or losing track. Basically, thrillers and ghost stories. It seems that anything that's too long, too dense, or too focused on discussions around a theme rather than plot, are not for me.

The first book I downloaded was Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I loved listening to Wild as I walked home from work, but it took me months to finish. Unlike Disclaimer, which I listened to at all possible moments - walking, driving, as I got ready in the morning, whilst I cleaned - I only felt like listening to Wild whilst I was walking (apt, given the subject). I did enjoy Wild but I think something a bit snappier is the way forward.

After several weeks of listening I still have six hours left of Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and I have no intention of continuing. Now I'm not sure whether there is a single reason for this, I think it's actually a number of factors that keep putting me off. Firstly, the narrator's voice grates on me so badly. Secondly, the two central characters are frustrating, annoying and lacking in anything that enables me to engage with them. Finally I've not actually enjoyed any of Sebastian Faulk's work since Charlotte Gray. I adored his early novels, but anything I've tried since Charlotte Gray (Engleby in particular - yawn), has failed to grab me.

I think my experience listening to Faulk's novel is also an indication of the things that I can listen to and stay engaged with throughout: not literary fiction. Reading this novel may have been completely different, as much of it is long discussions between two central characters and long single narrator flashbacks. Whilst this is something I usually enjoy in novels, it's not the easiest thing to listen to. Disclaimer and Carmilla on the other hand were gripping in every sense of the word and the continuously forward moving plot made it a much more compelling listening experience.

I'd love to know what you think of audiobooks and whether there is a genre of books that you struggle to listen to or not. I've just downloaded Hold the Dark by William Giraldi for my next book, but if you have any recommendations feel free to chuck them my way!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

On the Stack #2

February has been a bit of a whirlwind so far. Lots of exciting bookish events have been happening around London and some other bits and bobs have been going on in the old personal life. It's refreshing to be so busy, but I'm also pretty shattered and it's having an impact on my reading.

Last weekend I had a conversation with Mike about finding the time to read, which was sparked by the anxiety I felt looking at my shelves. I have so many amazing books that I want to read and so many other books that I have planned to review either here or on Centenary News. The problem is that I have much less time to read these days. Most of my reading happens in snatched moments - ten minutes on the tube, a few distracted minutes on my lunch break or half an hour (if I'm lucky and don't fall asleep earlier) before bed - and that's not enough to make the slightest of dents in my TBR pile.

My attempts to be more social and to stay active whilst I'm effectively out of action (yes, another moan about the hips, sorry), are also having a significant impact. Time spent reading is time I could be moving. Audiobooks are an obvious solution to this and I'm slowly figuring out the sorts of books I can happily listen to - any suggestions for gripping thrillers that aren't too long would be greatly appreciated!

All in all I think I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed and the fact that I'm so ridiculously excited to read every book currently on my shelves is exacerbating that. Perhaps I'll talk about this more in another post.

Anyway I'm not here to be a moaning minnie about all the lovely books I own, I actually wanted to pop by and talk about what's coming up next.

Yesterday I finished Sam Baker's brilliant novel The Woman Who Ran (thoughts to follow shortly), so this morning I cracked on with a book that I bought probably more than a year ago: Dorothea's War by Dorothea Crewdson. This is the true diary of a VAD written in France during the First World War and it's bound to make me cry. I have a slight obsession with diaries/journals from the First World War, as you may know, particularly if they're written by nurses/hospital staff.

After Dorothea's War and continuing with the WW1 theme I'm going to dive into Matthew Leonard's Poppyganda which explores the cultural history of the poppy. Aside from the fact that I love the play on words in the title, I've been really intrigued by the significance of the poppy since visiting Ypres and learning that Belgian's use a different flower as a symbol of memorial.

I think once I've finished those two I'll be in need of some light relief so I've got a Margery Allingham novel lined up next. I adore Golden Age fiction and it's something I intend to read a lot more of.

Finally, perched by my bed is a collection of Mary Oliver's poetry which I am slowly working my way through. I have Instagram to thank for introducing me to Oliver and encouraging the start of a blossoming new relationship with poetry.


What are you currently reading?


Sunday, 21 February 2016

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #49

1// Going solo On Wednesday before watching David Mitchell and Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation at the Southbank (read more about that here), I had a bit of time to kill and decided to go for dinner. I had intended to stick with one of my 'safe' cafes and just go to Eat, but being half term the place was rammed. Instead I ventured into Nandos just off Waterloo and managed to sit through a meal on my table for one. It's not the first time I've eaten out alone and I do still have quite strict boundaries (restaurants where you order yourself and get left alone tend to be the best), but it's always a boost to do something that scares you.

2// Action Most of you will have heard me moan about my messed up hips countless times, but for those who haven't I injured myself running a half marathon two years ago and have not recovered since. After over a year trying to sort it through exercises and acupuncture my physio has finally decided it's time for an MRI and a referral to orthopaedics. It's not exactly a happy thing really, but the thought of actually getting to the bottom of what's going on makes me feel so much better.

3// Daffodils and Roses nothing beats having fresh flowers around the house.

4// War and Peace I finally finished watching the BBC's War and Peace series this week. After my tears had subsided I went to my bookshelf and fished out my huge Anthony Briggs translation. I'll be re-reading it at some point, but I'm thinking of trying a different translation next time.

5// Light over the past week or so the mornings and evenings have started getting lighter. Even though I usually adore the winter, I've really struggled this year so the thought of more light in my life has really put a fire under me.

What has made you happy this week?


Friday, 12 February 2016

The Anti-Valentine Book List

For the last couple of years on Valentine's I've shared a topical bookish post. In 2014 I talked about my unrealistic expectations of men formed by years of romantic reading, and in 2015 I shared five classics to read on Valentine's Day. This year I'm turning the tables and going for an anti-Valentines's book list. Featuring eight classics and more than enough doomed relationships, this is the perfect list to work through if you're more in the mood for misery than romance.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
From the very start of this novel we just know that Anna is doomed - by the society she lives in and her own insecurities and jealousy. Not sure the train was the answer, but who knows.

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
When I wrote about Madame Bovary ages ago here, I said that 'I had a sudden urge to delve into the lives of other suicidal, over-sexed and under-appreciated women' after finishing Anna Karenina. I think that covers it. This is a hopeless novel and the hopelessness lingers well beyond the final page.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Out of this whole list I think Nick and Amy Dunne are the two people I would least like to meet. Murderous, manipulative and just downright mean, these two are just as bad as each other and thoroughly deserve what's coming.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Daisy and Gatsby's relationship is proof that being in love with the idea of someone, rather than who that person really is, will never work out. Plus greed, jealously etc. etc.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
As much as I disliked Estella I did hope that her and Pip would be able to make a go of it the whole way through the novel. I'm still mad at Miss Havisham for manipulating Estella's personality and her friendship with Pip.

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
Alabama and David Knight's relationship and marriage in this novel is thought to be a thinly veiled version of Zelda's own marriage to F. Scott. As turbulent a relationship as you can imagine.

1984 by George Orwell
It was just never going to end well for Winston and Julia whose every move is dogged by Big Brother and the threat of Room 101 looms menacingly in the background.

The Phantom of the Opera
Ah the dangers of obsession. Although I have a soft spot for the Phantom in the movie version, he is slightly more sinister in the book. Definitely best avoided IRL.

What are you in the mood for this Valentine's weekend - misery or romance?


Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Ballroom || Anna Hope

'The future was coming. Even here. Even here in this island ship of souls, cast away on the green-brown seas of the moor, even here it would find its way through.'

Before I even started Anna Hope's second novel I know I would be in love. Firstly because her debut, Wake, was and still is one of the best books I've read in recent years; secondly, because it's set in 1911, based in an asylum on the Yorkshire moors and concerns eugenics. Tick, tick, tick and, you guessed it, tick.

There's a lot in this novel - it's part romance, part social commentary that touches on mental health, sexuality, eugenics, gender and class. With a different author this would have all gone horribly wrong, but Hope deals with each issue with such a lightness of touch that they blend into the narrative rather than tearing it apart. The Edwardian era is as much my jam as WW1 and I think this novel captures the anxieties of the period really well, to the point that ignoring the myriad social issues would have lessened its impact.

The Ballroom is written from three perspectives: the asylum inmates John and Ella, and Dr Charles Fuller. I'm a sucker for a multi-narrative novel anyway and I loved how Hope narrates a select few incidents from two or three perspectives. It feels more immersive that way and it prevented the characters from hiding behind their own narratives. If they didn't reveal something in their own, you can guarantee one of the others noticed it. This was particularly powerful in regards to Charles Fuller who initially pulled my sympathies in all directions.

The relationship between John and Ella is fascinating to read. It is so very human, very real, and yet has a mystic quality about it. As characters they're both quite enigmatic and although we're privy to their intimacy, it's still like we're kept at a distance. This felt really powerful and had me rooting for them both throughout.

Basically: this novel is all kinds of stunning and Anna Hope is a fantastic writer, crafter of tales and creator of character. Read it.

In three words: lyrical, beautiful, real

FYI this was my first book of the year and already has its spot firmly reserved in my top ten novels of 2016.

The Ballroom comes out on February 11th from Doubleday.

I received an ARC via Netgalley - thank you.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Things That Made Me Happy This Week #48

1// Rooftop Book Club On Tuesday I took myself of to Carmelite House on Victoria Embankment for Headline's Rooftop Book Club featuring Maggie O'Farrell (squeeee) and Monica Wood. I had such a brilliant evening and am completely in awe of both authors. If you fancy reading more about the event, I wrote something about it here.

2// First Bite by Bee Wilson I've been loving this book this week. It's taking me a while to get through, but I think that's lack of time rather than anything else. Wilson's writing is great and she has found the perfect balance between fact and anecdote.

3// Sister time Although we live together, my sister and I struggle to actually find time to spend together. On Thursday we took ourselves out to dinner and had a good old chin-wag and catch up.

4// Delayed gratification and The Book of Mormon On Friday it was time for Mike to cash in on his Christmas present - tickets to see The Book of Mormon. I didn't think I'd be that keen on it - sometimes that humour is just crude - but actually I loved it and we had such a good night.

5// #LondonBookshopCrawl....well, what can I say about this fantastic day?! I was slightly nervous about finally meeting so many amazing bookish folk yesterday, but that soon disappeared when I arrived at Foyles and found everyone in the cafe. After a coffee and a pastry I quickly bought my first book of the day (poems by Mary Oliver) and so began the most bookish fun I think I've ever had. A huge thank you to Bex for organising it and to everyone for being wonderful.

All in all it's been a busy and tiring, but absolutely wonderful week! I'm also very glad to finally have the internet back at home.

What made you happy this week?

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

A Study in Scarlet || Arthur Conan Doyle

In December when I found out that A Study in Scarlet was to be my Classics Club Spin book, I was a little disappointed. I'm over my Sherlock Holmes phase and although I still love the stories, I feel less of a need to read them all. Regardless of my apathy towards the book I nevertheless sat down to read it with some interest.

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story, originally published in 1887. Although they're all very much standalone stories (I think so, anyway), this novel really sets the scene and introduces key characters. I particularly liked finding out how Dr Watson and Holmes actually ending up lodging together in the first place. I've read that there a some inconsistencies between this novel and the rest of the canon - for example, Dr Watson's war wound moves from his shoulder to his leg - but these do not feel obvious and they're generally pretty trifling.

I do wish I'd started with this novel before delving into the Holmes catalogue, It feels like a great place to start and get to know the characters and their quirks. Plus I think I would have recognised and appreciated the evolution of Holmes and his relationship with Dr Watson a little more if I'd started from the beginning.

I'm a big fan of the Robert Downey Jnr movies and the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch, and I realised whilst reading this that my impressions of Holmes and the image of him in my mind has been very much influenced by these adaptations. Mostly I just see Benedict Cumberbatch and his particular Sherlock. I don't see that as a bad thing, but I am also not sure whether this impacted on my enjoyment of the book as I almost pre-empted his actions and was disappointed if he did something different.

Generally the plot was pretty interested and kept me hooked. The oddly tangential middle section cuts the story in two and almost feels like two stories have been pinned together. Although this is wrapped up quite neatly at the end, it was quite strange to be reading about Victorian London and then suddenly zipping over to Utah and the Mormon community.

As with all Holmes stories, this was a quick read and I found myself racing through in my excitement to find out whodunit. To me, Holmes himself is moving at a hundred miles an hour (mentally, if not always physically) so it feels apt to read it quickly.

Ultimately I'm glad the spin finally put this book in my hands. There's still a few stories that I've not read, but I'm sure my flirtation with Sherlock is now over. Not because of this book or any others, but purely because my tastes have changed. It was lovely to have a final foray into his world and it's one I definitely enjoyed.

Are you a Sherlock Holmes fan? Did you finish your Classics Club Spin book?

Monday, 1 February 2016

February || 29 Things

Every month I make a list of goals. Some I stick to and some I don't, but it's something I enjoy doing as it focuses my mind for the weeks ahead. This month I've decided to do something a little different in celebration of the leap year. I've written a list of 29 things to do in February - some are small things, some are bigger, some will be difficult and others will be easy - with the 29th thing being to take a leap.

It's time to shake things up a bit and make this year the year I want it to be.

1// Read a magazine
2// Bake a cake
3// Try a new recipe
4// Let go of the routine for one day
5// Go to a yoga class
6// Read some poetry
7// Write a poem
8// Doodle
9// Practice lettering
10// Have a makeup free day
11// Treat yo'self
12// Get a massage
13// Have a bubble bath with music and candles
14// Treat someone else
15// Do something kind
16// Get a haircut
17// Meet someone new
18// Try a new food
19// Try a new drink
20// Cook a three course meal
21// Read something obscure
22// Deep clean
23// Go to a museum
24// Go to an art gallery
25// Try a new restaurant
26// Book a short break
27// Write something experimental
28// Have a pj day
29// Leap - grab life, change something, make a decision

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