My April reading pile

I got a bit optimistic the other day and decided that since the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky then it must be warm enough to sit and read outside.  Not quite unfortunately; more a case of April doing that sneaky thing it does where it lures you into believing it’s summer a few weeks prematurely.  Whether I end up indoors or out though, there are some interesting books on the reading pile this month.  I realised (again) how much I love my job a week or so ago when I got given a proof copy of “Into the Water”, which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you is the next novel by “The Girl on the Train” author Paula Hawkins.  By rights it shouldn’t be featuring in a blog post about April TBRs as I’ve actually finished it already – but I couldn’t not mention it as it will surely be one of the biggest novels of this year.  I’ll save my thoughts for the review, which I’ll probably post nearer to publication time, but if you manage to get anywhere near a copy then grab it and don’t let go.  I’m super-excited about “In the Name of the Family” by Sarah Dunant, the next in her series of novels about the Borgias (I say series but I have no idea whether there will at some point be a third!) as I thought the first, Blood and Beauty, was pretty much everything you could want from a work of historical fiction.  I’ve also just started “4 3 2 1”, the Paul Auster doorstop, and I have to confess, although I very much enjoyed the opening chapters I haven’t as yet got much further.  This isn’t a reflection on the book I don’t think, more the fact that it’s quite a hefty thing that I suspect is going to require a reasonable amount of concentration and I haven’t really been in the headspace for something like that for a while.  Last up, because I always like to have some non-fiction on the go as well, is an intriguing book I came across completely by chance in a local bookshop.  “Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed: Sixteen writers on the decision not to have kids” is a collection of essays on, well, exactly what the title says.  I’ve always found it interesting that conversations around childlessness are still something of a taboo, even in our increasingly open society.  Well, that’s not quite true: potentially hurtful comments directed towards a woman without children about her lack of mother-status don’t seem to be taboo at all, but for a woman to respond and discuss the reasons for it is still, in my experience, looked upon with surprise, lack of comprehension and often, sadly, unfair judgement.  I was interested to see that this book existed at all, and am very much looking forward to reading a variety of opinions on the issue.

As ever there will be more reviews up on Girl, Reading soon, but in the meantime enjoy the sunshine and enjoy whatever you’re reading!

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Diary of a Bad Blogger

Sunday

A much needed day off after a tough week of work, during which I’ve had no time, energy or quite honestly inclination for blogging.  A trip to the supermarket to replenish my empty kitchen is essential but resolve to do some writing in the afternoon.  The effort of all this proves too much, however, and succumb to a nap – well, not insignificant sleep – that leaves me in a mental fug for the rest of the day.  TV accompanied by my earlier supermarket spoils it is then.

Monday

Back at work and quite frankly want to weep at the speed with which all the enthusiasm and positivity restored by my day off has been beaten out of me.  Can’t bring myself anywhere near putting pen to paper tonight.

Tuesday

Slightly more productive evening in that I at least find time to do some reading if not actual blogging.  Until 9.00pm when Tattoo Fixers comes on….getting a bit tired of it now actually as it’s reached the point where almost every tattoo horror story starts with the words, “So I was on a lads’ holiday in Magaluf…” but I still find myself wasting an hour on it before I decide to go to bed.

Wednesday

To my delight I have a genuinely acceptable reason for not producing any writing this evening, and that’s because I am treated to dinner at the house of a friend whose culinary talents outstrip mine a hundred fold.  In all honesty though, that’s not hard.  Return home extremely contented, and half a stone heavier – but once more blogless.

Thursday

Try SO HARD to write something for the blog this evening as am determined to get a post up by the end of the week.  Music off, TV off, total concentration – but nothing comes.  Manage to grind out a few uninspiring lines that I promptly cross through viciously, enraged at my own incompetence.  Back where I started at the beginning of the day, and there’s not even any wine in the house with which to console myself.  How did this happen?

Friday

Go for a run today.  No other achievements – physical, creative or intellectual – are required.

Saturday

Decide that the only way forward is to wholeheartedly embrace my lack of blogging success.  So many people out there are writing about how they manage to maintain a consistent, well-written and engaging blog, so why shouldn’t I write about how I’m managing to fail in spectacular fashion?  Ironically this turns out to be the easiest blog post I’ve written in a very long time…  

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Books about Books: “The Literary Detective”

You know you’re a true bibliophile when your love affair with books extends beyond merely reading them to embrace the whole world that’s built around them.  I love a cracking novel, but I’m also endlessly fascinated by our literary history, the place of the book in our cultural landscape, book art and design…. you name it – if it’s in any way related to reading, I’m going to want to discover more about it.  So it’s for people like me that I’m embarking on a new series of articles for my blog, simply entitled “Books about Books”.  Over the coming months I’ll be highlighting some recommended reads for everyone who delights in bookish facts, trivia and history; first up is “The Literary Detective” by John Sutherland.

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The author originally wrote a series of books in which he attempted to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of classic novels, and this is a compilation of all of them in one volume.  What I love is that fact that the enigmas he explores are ones you may well have missed on reading the novels in question, and it’s only when he draws attention to them that you suddenly start to think about their significance to the story.  More often than not, there’s a real element of fun to his contemplations (“Why is the Monster Yellow” in Frankenstein and “How do the Cratchits cook Scrooge’s turkey” in A Christmas Carol) yet he always manages to blend wit and entertainment with genuinely enlightening vignettes of literary criticism.  In his essay on Dracula entitled “Why isn’t everyone a Vampire” he does some deft and amusing (but undeniably correct) mathematical calculations to prove that, by Bram Stoker’s own theory of vampirism, as outlined by the voice of exposition, Van Helsing, the entire world population should have been turned into a vampire within about 15 years of the first person becoming infected.  Once we’ve laughed at the gaping plot hole and the author’s unsatisfactory attempts to get round it, though, Sutherland leads us on to a really interesting parallel between the Dracula story and the Victorian struggle to understand disease and how epidemics flourish and then die out.  Entertainment, but with a fascinating splash of literary and social theory thrown in.

The author delves into the detail of all the great classic novelists, from Austen to Hardy, Woolf to Dickens; but even if you haven’t read all the books in question it doesn’t matter, as Sutherland is careful to make his essays accessible to everyone.  If you’re at all interested in classic literature, there are hours of fun to be had here, and because the essays are all fairly short you can dip in for ten minutes here and there.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post – there are definitely more books for book lovers out there that I’d love to share with you, so do come back to Girl, Reading soon.

Autumn reads

One thing I know for sure is that I’ve got an awful lot of reading to get through over the next couple of months.  I’ve never been much of a one for celebrating Hallowe’en, but so many people are getting excited about their spooky reads this year I really feel I should join in the fun.  Then before you know it you’re onto the question of when is too soon to start on the Christmas fiction…I waited until December last year and found I’d left it far too late to get through all the snowy, sparkle-encrusted books I’d bought the month before.   I also have an immense dislike of anything Christmassy once Christmas is over, with the result that I’m still waiting to find out whodunit in British Library Classic “The Santa Klaus Murder” as I failed to finish it last festive season and my slight obsessive streak wouldn’t allow me to carry on with it in January…

Before any of that, though, there are a few enticing books on my radar right now.  I’ve just finished “Painter of Silence”, an understated but quietly striking novel – the review will be up on Girl, Reading soon.  In progress at the moment is “Passion” by the criminally under-read Jude Morgan, a big beast of a novel featuring some of the greatest literary love affairs of all time, and next up is the much talked-about “His Bloody Project”.  I have to say that the Man Booker shortlist has almost no appeal for me this year; this is the only one I’m tempted to try, but I keep hearing good things about it so am hopeful of an enjoyable read.  For non-fiction I have “Weatherland”, which is shaping up to be an absolutely fascinating look at how writers and artists since ancient times have responded to the British weather in their work.   With any luck I will have finished it in time to start Antonia Fraser’s history of the Gunpowder Plot by the time November 5th comes round, but that may too much of an ask!

All being well there will be some more reviews for you all soon, but in the meantime, happy reading!

A post in belated celebration of World Mental Health Awareness Day!

The evidence may only be anecdotal, but it really seems to me that with every year that goes by there are more and more people putting themselves out there on social media and in the public eye talking candidly about mental health.  The old adage that it’s good to talk has been, and still is, the cornerstone of many campaigns promoting awareness of the mind-centred problems that besiege so many millions of us.  As an avid reader, I find it interesting to think about the part that books have to play in stimulating the mental health conversation, and I want to share with you a few that have not only helped me, but whose wider influence I have witnessed first-hand.

Alongside an increase in online and media discussion has come a noticeable growth in the publishing of books – some factual, some not – that explore mental health issues.  Often our instinct is to seek out others whose experiences are similar to our own, and it’s a source of great comfort to me that whatever you’re struggling with, there will in all likelihood be someone somewhere who’s written about it.  It was for that reason I was drawn to “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” by David Adam, an unflinchingly honest and illuminating book charting the author’s experience of OCD.  I’m fortunate enough not to suffer with that condition myself, but spending many years close to someone who does has raised many questions that I haven’t always felt able to ask.  Now here was someone who could explain to me in black and white something of what it’s like to live with these compulsions, without my feeling that I was being intrusive or inappropriate by wanting to know.  Matt Haig, in his book “Reasons to Stay Alive”, did a similarly excellent job of explaining depression from the point of view of someone who has himself been to places most of us cannot imagine.  The book was incredibly successful commercially, partly I think because so many of us have either experienced some level of depression ourselves or know someone who has; but also because he managed to put his feelings into the most perfect of words again and again.  Finding the most effective language with which to convey the sense of any mental health disorder can seem almost impossible, but this was a book I was ardently pressing into people’s hands telling them that, finally, here were the words that would make them begin to understand.

Responsibly researched fiction can also have a part to play, I believe, in helping to break down the taboos and the mystery surrounding many mental health conditions.  We’ve come a long way, mercifully, from the lunatic in the asylum motif of the gothic horror and into an era where there is in many instances a genuine desire to understand the suffering of others.  Nathan Filer’s remarkable novel “The Shock of the Fall” is one such example: a portrait of a man in excruciating mental anguish that has stayed with me for the past couple of years.  The author actually had experience in the nursing of mental health patients, and I think knowing that before I started reading gave me confidence that the book wasn’t going to be sensationalist, inaccurate or exploitative in any way.

Events such as World Mental Health Day are ideal opportunities to bring the issue back to the forefront of our minds, but the conversation has to continue every single day for it to have an ongoing effect.  The fact that there are so many books out there to help make this a reality is definitely something to be celebrated.

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Some Wednesday night facts about me!

I’m in between book reviews at the moment and thought a fun way to fill the blogging gap would be to share a few utterly random things about myself.  I love getting to know the people behind the blogs, and I’ve not yet shared that much about the girl who’s doing all the reading…

Favourite food – chicken and sausage casserole…however, there has to be sage and onion stuffing in there as well or it’s just not complete!  Otherwise, cake.  Literally any cake will do.

Biggest fear – spiders (very boring, I know).  Or my somewhat more abstract but no less real fear of getting to the end of my life and having regrets about things I haven’t done.

Most amazing place I’ve been – so far, Rome, without a doubt.  I didn’t think it was possible to have so much awe-inspiring history crammed into such a small radius, and I’d love to go back and fill in all the gaps I missed first time round.

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Place I’d most like to go – there are so many, but I think top of my list would be a trip to see the Northern Lights.

When I’m not reading I’m… usually at work unfortunately, although it does involve books so it’s not all bad!  Or I’m finding an excuse to eat more cake.

Cats or dogs?  – having owned both I’m afraid I’m going to alienate my cat-loving readers now by coming down on the side of dogs (sorry!)  Don’t get me wrong, I adore cats too but let’s face it, you can’t take a cat for a run along the beach or down the pub with you!

Guilty pleasure – I spend – sorry, waste – far too much time watching episodes of The Big Bang Theory on E4 that I’ve seen a million times before.

Book I’m reading right now – there’s never just one!  In fact, I’m doing quite well at the moment by only having two on the go: “Sacrilege” by the ever-reliable S J Parris, and “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street”, which is completely wonderful!

I’ll be back on the blog soon with more reviews for you, but in the meantime, happy reading!

“The Virgin Blue” by Tracy Chevalier – review

I read “Remarkable Creatures” by the same author a few years ago and absolutely loved it, yet somehow had never got round to reading any of her other books until now.  “The Virgin Blue” is one of those novels that have a historical and a modern day storyline running side by side, but it was – as it usually is for me – the historical element that drew me to it.  This strand of the novel tells the story of Isabelle du Moulin, a young woman living in rural France in the last decades of the sixteenth century.  Times are changing: Calvinist beliefs are starting to spread through France and other parts of Europe, overturning the Catholicism that has until now been the foundation of mainstream society.  When the new religion, “The Truth”, arrives in her village, Isabelle finds herself regarded with suspicion – nicknamed La Rousse as a child because of her likeness to the painting of the Virgin Mary above the door of the parish church, her association with the Madonna suddenly becomes a potentially dangerous one.  Calvinist doctrine sees the Catholic devotion to Mary as an impediment to the worship of God, and Isabelle is now a tainted woman in the midst of the reformist frenzy surrounding her.  The Catholic forces, however, are not far away, and Isabelle eventually flees with her husband’s family, followers of the new religion themselves, to a place they hope will bring them shelter from persecution at the hands of those who would enforce the old religious ways.  Unfortunately for Isabelle, her troubles are only just beginning.

In the present day, American Ella has just moved to France with her husband Rick, a move that was meant to see them attaining the idyllic French country lifestyle that so many crave.  However, Ella soon starts to be plagued by a mysterious recurring nightmare that haunts her waking hours as well as her sleep.  She is at a loss to interpret its meaning, and is only able to articulate the overwhelming sense of oppression and anxiety with which it leaves her.  Most inexplicable of all is the vivid colour she sees again and again: a rich, multi-layered shade of blue.  Life in the small French town is not quite what she hoped for either, with a community suspicious of outsiders and days that seem increasingly lonely as her husband immerses himself in a new job.  To distract herself from her unhappiness, Ella starts to research her family history, spurred on by the knowledge that she has cousins in nearby Switzerland, and before long she finds herself engrossed not only in her family’s turbulent past but also Jean-Paul, the town librarian.

Out of the two stories, I have to admit I preferred the historical one, but that’s personal taste rather than any shortcoming of storytelling.  I’ve always found Europe’s religious reformation to be a fascinating time in history, and I felt the author really captured a sense of what an immense upheaval the emergence of Calvinism would have been to a society and individuals.  On the one hand, the saying that there’s no-one as zealot as a convert holds true; and yet there are elements of the old religion that are still so ingrained in people’s hearts and minds that it’s almost impossible for them to be erased completely.  Isabelle may be living as the dutiful wife with her fiercely pro-reform in-laws, but secretly she finds comfort in the old, familiar rituals and in particular the reassuring image of the Virgin that she finds in her place of exile in the local church, but dares not be caught looking at.  Hers is an incredibly sad story, persecuted as she is from all sides – though it must be said the distant threat of Catholic forces bearing down on her pales in comparison to the abuse of her thuggish husband – and at times I found her tale quite difficult to read.  In the twenty-first century Ella has her own troubles to be sure, but sad though some of them are I never feared for her happy ending the way I feared for Isabelle’s.  What I did really enjoy was the subtle sense of mysticism linking the past and present.  It was never overblown, but there’s something enticing and magical about the idea that we are all somehow connected across the centuries to those who have gone before us.  It’s not giving too much away to say that many of Ella’s unexplained feelings and visions are a reflection of those of the woman who walked in her footsteps four hundred years before; I found a warming sense of reassurance that whatever befell Isabelle, her life, her loves and her tragedies would not become insignificant casualties of the passage of time, but would live on in the hopes and dreams of another woman many centuries later.

I already have another Tracy Chevalier book on my shelf waiting to go; if the two I’ve now read are anything to go by it will be a very enjoyable read.  If you’re a fan of dual timeline novels – or any novel with an historical element come to that – do try “The Virgin Blue”.  I can’t promise there won’t be some heartbreak but I will guarantee a good read.

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