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Perfect Books to Escape

Posted in Books, Round Ups
on April 15, 2020
Perfect Books to Escape

I think there’s quite a lot of us that need something to occupy our minds from the never-ending anxiety-enducing doom and gloom from the news. There’s also going to be a lot of us stuck at home for quite a long time, without anything to do. I’ve been trying to think of something productive to do, or share, and as it would turn out, I seem to have very few useful skills. 

However, there is one thing I know lots about, and I’m more than happy to chat about constantly… books. 

In order to try and stop myself from checking Twitter, the News, Facebook, and other even less reliable sources for constant coronavirus updates, I have pulled together my list of books which help me escape a little, when the world seems terribly dreary. 

I don’t know if anyone else is struggling a bit with concentration, but I know I certainly am, so I’ve chosen books that I find ‘easy’ to read. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy books – but more that they’re easy to absorb yourself into. Some are, of course, cosy comfort reads.).

I’m babbling, so, with no further ado, and trying not to repeat myself too much… here goes!

Alternative Worlds

A fairly broad category. I keep saying that I’m not particularly into fantasy, but then seem to read quite a lot of it. 

Philip Pullman: His Dark Materials

I’ve blogged before about how much I love the His Dark Materials Trilogy, so I’ll try to keep this relatively brief. For me, the world that Pullman has created is the most vivid and cleverly constructed that I’ve ever read. I was completely absorbed in it, and if you’ve never read it before, you’re in for a treat.

There’s an excellent audiobook dramatisation too, which I’d thoroughly recommend. The books can be more challenging – I quite like to alternative between the audiobook and the novel. 

Patrick Ness: Chaos Walking Trilogy

In this dystopian world, everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. When Todd is forced to flee Prentisstown, his world is turned completely upside down…

I came across Patrick Ness’ work when I was doing some work experience with his publisher. I was gripped – I  read The Knife of Never Letting Go on the train on my commute, and on at least one occasion started sobbing. It’s brilliant, gritty, and captivating. (Though possibly not the best to read if you’re actually feeling very anxious).

Terry Pratchett: Discworld 

I’d recommend anything from Terry Pratchet’s Discworld. They’re just so deliciously silly. Mort, Thief of Time, The Truth and Moving Pictures are some of my favourites, but I don’t think I’ve yet been disappointed by anything from Pratchett that I’ve read. 

The abridged versions read by Tony Robinson are an excellent option, if audio is more your thing. 

Good Omens: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

In Good Omens, an angel and a demon team up to try and save the world from the apocalypse. Great, fantastic. Except… they’ve lost the Antichrist.  Well, he’s bound to turn up eventually, isn’t he?

I enjoyed the TV series with David Tennant and Michael Sheen, but you really can’t beat the book. Some of the word play gets lost a little when it’s put on screen. So, if you’re starting to feel like the world really might be ending – this’ll cheer you right up.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 

It starts with Earth being blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and gets increasingly more mad from then on – via Vogon poetry, two headed aliens and the restaurant at the end of the universe, to name but a few. Reassuringly, the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy comes with the words ‘Don’t Panic’ in large, friendly letters on the front cover. Something all of us could do with at the moment. 

The novel format of Hitchhikers, I believe, came after the BBC Radio Play. Both are excellent, but if, like me, you’ve got a shortened coronavirus-induced attention span, I’d recommend getting a hold of the radio version first. It’s technically Sci-Fi, but it’s definitely comedy first. 

The Comic Novel

Comic novels are my absolute favourite type of novel and they make up about 90% of what I read at any given moment. They are also absolutely perfect for if you’re stuck inside and what to be cheered up. Luckily for us bookworms, there are an awful lot of good ones about.

P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters

Bertie Wooster is a well-to-do English…well, idiot, who is constantly getting into scrapes that his man, Jeeves, has to extract him from. Whether it’s being henpicked by his fearsome aunts (Agatha, the one who eats broken bottles for breakfast, or Dahlia, a slightly less frightening proposition); finding himself engaged to females against his will; or trying to outwit Steggles to win big on the Great Sermon Handicap, Jeeves never lets his man down. It’s hard to capture the brilliance and madness of the PG Wodehouse novels in a few lines, so I’d simply say read them! They’re not long and the characters are great. 

I’d actually recommend any of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, I did name my cats after their main characters after all. (Bertie and Jeeves say hello, and are wondering why they’re not the main focus of this blog. It’s only a matter of time, if I’m honest). I think Right Ho, Jeeves is a fantastic introduction if you’ve not read any of PG Wodehouse’s books before, but The Code of the Woosters is probably my absolute favourite. The Wodehousian metaphor is a thing of beauty. Do read.

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim

One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Lucky Jim follows the hapless Jim Dixon, a lecturer who has not made a good first impression on his faculty. His career is at the mercy of the officious Professor Welch, and the more he tries to impress., the worse the situation he gets himself in. It’s a farce in novel form. 

Lucky Jim has been known to make me howl with laughter on more than one occasion. In particular, the description of a hangover (we’ve all been there), and a passage about a bus journey. Pure silliness. Best enjoyed with a warm cup of tea. 

Evelyn Waugh: Scoop

If you want to be reminded of a time when you could leave your house and travel – Scoop might be just the ticket! After a case of mistaken identity, William Boot, a completely inexperienced journalist, is sent to be the foreign correspondent at the Ishmaelia Civil War. Chaos ensues. 

Sharp, biting, funny. It’s a great read – To a point, Lord Cooper.

Nancy Mitford: Wigs on the Green

Anything by Nancy Mitford is worth reading – Wigs on the Green is the one I know best because I wrote a chunk of dissertation on it. It was also out of print for a number of years due to its content (Nancy’s sisters, Unity and Diana were furious at the way she poked fun at Diana’s husband, Oswald Mosley) – which to my mind is a blooming good reason to read it.

Eugenia Malmains is one of the richest gals in England, mad as a box of frogs and an ardent supporter of Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts. Noel and Jasper are in search of a rich heiress to save them the bother of working. 

When they meet – the scene is set for farce…

Romance Novels

My absolute weakness. I love a good romance story. Preferably one which is funny too. I won’t hear anyone tell me that they’re not good enough to be included on lists. I am thoroughly convinced that there is not much that a nice romance novel can’t solve (temporarily at least).

Sarah Mason

I’m going to recommend three books by Sarah Mason, because she is brilliant. They are all witty, have characters you actually care about, and are really well written. There are lines in all of them which have had me laughing out loud.

The Party Season: When Isabel Serranti, party planner extraordinaire, is asked to help plan a charity ball at the Monkwell country estate, she has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she grew up near there, and loves most of the members of the eccentric Monkwell family. On the other, Simon Monkwell, the oldest son, is her best friend turned bully and she never wants to see or hear of him again. But, determined to put the past behind her, Izzy decides to go for it, and it’s not long before she remembers why she loved the Monkwell estate so much.

Playing James: Holly Colshannon’s career as a journalist hasn’t exactly, er, hit its peak yet. So, when she is made the Crime Correspondent – the poisoned chalice of the Bristol Gazette, she’s determined to make the best of it. A fortunately timed conversation with the new Police PR officer, leads to Holly shadowing a detective for a new diary column. There are only a couple of downsides. For starters, Holly is exceptionally accident prone, and then there’s Detective James Sabine’s immense displeasure at having to take her around with him.

High Society: Clemmie Colshannon (sister to Holly), doesn’t really know where her life is going, when she ends up back at the family home. Luckily, there’s never a dull moment at the Colshannon residence – which can be the only explanation for how she gets embroiled in helping/hindering Holly solve the mystery of the disappearance of her fellow journalist, Emma. All is not as it seems…

Liz Young: Asking for Trouble

When Sophy dreams up an imaginary boyfriend to get her mother off her back, she thinks she’ll have plenty of time to dump him before he is summoned to meet the family. That is until she receives an invite to her sister’s wedding, and a firm insistence that he also attends.  She does what any rational woman would do in her situation – and hires an escort. What harm could it possibly do?

Don’t be put off by the terrible film they made, vaguely based on this, called The Wedding Date. Asking for trouble is funny, emotional, and just plain brilliant. 

Melissa Nathan: Persuading Annie; The Waitress; The Learning Curve; Acting Up; The Nanny.

I’ve really enjoyed anything I’ve read by Melissa Nathan. Smart, contemporary books – yes they’re romantic, but they also have enough plot that it doesn’t feel like the women protagonists are helpless until they find a man to sort them out. Another author I discovered thanks to my love of charity bookshops, but I’m about to place orders to fill up the gaps because these are just so good!

For real cosy country feels, I’d recommend anything by Jill Mansell, or the earlier books by Katie Fforde. (I don’t know why, but I’m just not enjoying her more recent ones half so much). My rule of thumb -prior to coronavirus – was that if the copy you found in the charity shop was well thumbed, it was probably a good bet. It’s served me well so far. 

Children’s Books

Kaye Umansky: Pongwiffy

Pongwiffy – a witch of very dirty habits – always seems to be getting into scraps that her beloved familiar (Hugo, the hamster) has to dig her out of. And there’s normally some goblins lurking about to cause trouble, and some meddling wizards who think they’re better than everyone else…

I may be approaching 30, but I will not make any excuses for the fact that I still have a soft spot for the books I loved as a child. I still find Pongwiffy hilarious, so if you want something that slips down as easily and as comfortingly as a warm cup of tea, I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Diana Wynne Jones: The Chrestomanci Series

This is another series which is fantastic on Audiobook (and is indeed where I first discovered it!). A Charmed Life is book one, and a fantastic introduction to the Chrestomanci world of sorcerers, witches and other magical beings. They’re both gently written and exciting at the same time. There’s a lovely wit about them – and absolute hardingers of characters too. 

Roald Dahl: To be quite honest anything

I don’t think I need to explain this one, do I?

Babysitters Club 

I know they’re dreadful, but I also love them. Sue me. I really wanted to be in this club when I was younger. They all had cool names, like Claudia, Stacey, Kristy and Mary Anne. I think these were the first books that I read where I was aware it wasn’t set in England and America just seemed fantastically exotic. Those were the days.

Add a pinch of Jacqueline Wilson, Enid Blyton and, well JK Rowling, and you’ll have a lot of my childhood covered. 

That should be enough to keep you occupied for a while! Luckily for us, lots of independent bookstores are still delivering – so I’d definitely recommend seeing if you can get your next book from there. Failing that, e-books are a blessing for when you have a sudden insatiable need to re-read a book from your past RIGHT NOW. 

I’ve still got plenty more I can say about books so … I may follow up this with more recommendations or witterings. It’s hard to tell what this actually comes under. Hey ho. 

If anyone has any recommendations for me, any cosy classics you love – do let me know! Also recommendations for independent book stores – please send me any links you have and I’ll gladly add them here.

In the meantime – stay safe, and at home. We’ll get through this, eventually. 

What To Read Next?

Posted in Books
on June 8, 2019
my-reading-list

It’s been a funny old time of late. There’s been a lot going on recently – it’s been the sort of time where a lesser person (okay, me) might curl up into a ball and stop functioning. But, for once, this time I haven’t.

And I think a large part of that is down to the fact I’ve been reading way more than I have for a long time.

I’m behind on reviews (I need to sit down and just blitz them all out, I have the notes all ready to go, I promise!), but recently I’ve enjoyed Invisible Women, Graham Norton’s A Keeper, the To All The Boys I Loved Before trilogy (honestly, judge away, they’re fantastic and I devoured them), countless articles and ahem, fanfiction, as well as some other books that are firmly in the ‘I gave them a go, but I won’t be rereading’ category.

And, in amongst this topsy turvey world, which seemed, at times, pretty dark, these have been what’s carried me through. (Alongside my friends and my endlessly patient fiance* and family).

Now things are a lot calmer – and should stay that way, I’m starting to think about what I want to read next.

There was a time that I wanted to set myself the challenge of the BBC’s Big Read. These days, however,  it’s a little outdated – there’s a lot of popular books very of its time and there’s at least one Jeffrey Archer book on there which I don’t think I could bring myself to read. So, I did a bit of googling and found the Penguin list of 100 Must Read Classics. You can find the list here.

To flatter my ego, I’ve gone through and counted all the ones that I’ve read and can actually remember reading/the bulk of the plot.  And frankly, considering I did an English Literature degree, and then Master’s degree, I really should have read more than, um, 34.

There are some (Catch22 and Catcher in the Rye, I’m looking at you) that I am pretty sure I’ve read, but I’ve not given myself the benefit of the doubt, so I plan on re-reading.

I’m not setting myself the challenge of reading the whole list, that’s a touch overambitious, plus there’s a few things on there I have no desire to touch with a barge pole. (I just don’t get Victorian literature…mmkay?). But I will give it a good stab and I’m going to make myself attack some of the books that I’m not so keen of the sound of.

I’ll also keep reading all the non-classics that I can lay my hands on. This list should, at the very least, save me scrolling through page after page on the Amazon kindle store trying to find something that sounds like it might be okay. (I specifically call out Amazon’s Kindle store because I still have not forgiven it for the amount of times I’ve been caught out and accidentally bought self-published books, thinking they’re normal ones. Editors exist for a reason, people.)

I’ve also really enjoyed some non-fiction recently – a phrase I never really thought I’d say – except maybe about history books. But there’s not a scrap of history on this list, no… I mentioned Invisible Women above – I’ve just bought Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office, started Bella Mackie’s Jog On, been recommended Love is Not Enough: A Smart Woman’s Guide To Money and then have How Brands Grow and Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete to get through on the recommendation of an exceptionally good Brand Marketing course I attended for work. It’s a lot of reading – and I’m back to my good/bad habit of being a book tart (picking up different books at different times, flitting between them and generally being a flirt).

Reading is my utter joy – It’s the reason that I set up this blog and it’s why I love writing reviews. It’s also the thing that I’ve got a bad habit of abandoning when everything is going tits up. (Please tell me I’m not the only one that’s such an nonce?). But recently, by putting reading back as my priority, I feel hundreds of times better. And it’s only taken me twenty-odd years to work this out.

Now, I’ll have to leave you here because I’m just about to receive a job lot of 42 vintage penguin books to work my way through, which Nick believes I have solely ordered for the purposes of table decorations at the wedding. Ahem. Poor, poor, naive, Nicholas.

*Wahay, he’s been upgraded. At, well, his request. You just wait until I start telling you all about the book themed wedding I’m planning.

How Do You Like Me Now? – Holly Bourne

Posted in Books, Five Star, Reviews
on August 16, 2018

Guys, I think I’ve finally cracked it.

I’ve finally found a hyped book that I actually like!

I know, nobody is more surprised than I am. And I went in full sceptical, only to find myself hooked by about page five.

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

How Do You Like Me Now? By Holly Bourne is a fast-paced, contemporary novel, in equal parts funny and heartbreaking.

In her twenties, Tori Bailey wrote a memoir come self-help book entitled ‘Who the fuck am I?’ , which propelled her to social media stardom, as a lifestyle guru and all round envy of all. She seems to have it all. Now in her thirties, she’s struggling to write her follow up book, as the happily ever after she wrote about is unravelling day by day.

It goes without saying that between your twenties and your thirties, things change. Your friends change, their priorities change, and the things you once thought were wonderful don’t seem that way anymore – and sometimes the things you once thought were awful don’t seem so bad. Holly Bourne really captures this feeling of change and uncertainty in a very neat way – and a way which feels particularly visceral and real. This novel is, in many ways, the story of Tori Bailey realising that the world does not necessarily move at her pace, and things change whether you want them to or not.

There is a sort of hubris at play. Tori is not an unlikeable character, not by a long way, but because of the life she’s led, she does assume that most people envy her and want her lifestyle. She is somewhat shocked when faced with the realisation that people don’t. When her best friend (who, though she never says it in quite so many words, Tori clearly regards as less cool, less pretty, less thin, and therefore unable to be as happy as her) chooses a settled relationship and a family over going out and getting drunk, Tori sees it as a betrayal. There is a lack of empathy for the fact that people might want a baby, a husband, a job which is secure but not necessarily exciting, and that’ll be enough to be content. From this point on it’s a steep learning curve for the woman who is still cashing in on the belief that her life is just a slightly more glamorous version of what it was when she was in her twenties.

Tori’s problem is that she always seems to be chasing the next big dream – aka the way of capturing her fan’s attention, and Instagram likes. And it is quite clearly apparent why quite early in the book. Her relationship with Tom – ‘Rock Man’ from her book – is at its best neglectful and at its worst abusive. There is one particular passage which is hard to read, and is very powerful – you’ll know if when you read it – where Tom’s behaviour moves from disinterest and into abuse of trust. It’s heartbreaking to see how desperate Tori is for him to love her or show her any affection – or really just have a good time with him. As a reader you’re screaming at her to just leave him, but of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. Tori is crippled by the idea of letting her fans down, of losing her dream and fairytale ending. She blames herself for Tom’s behaviour – believing that if she was just a little bit prettier, or more exciting, Tom would come back to her. Tom, in turn, gaslights her and throws her a bone every time she’s about ready to end with him, and generally treats her appallingly. Real life, for Tori, is a vicious circle that is a world away from the fiction she portrays on her social media.

There are times when this novel reminds me of the Black Mirror episode where your social media rating affects everything – your life, your job, where you live… Only it’s as if Tori is the only person who knows she’s in this bubble. She is so afraid of facing the truth because she’s made such a public display of how wonderful everything is. Social media penetrates every moment of her life; if she’s not posting on it, she’s reading it. All her friends are posting their life events on there (babies, weddings, engagements etc etc), as if they’re living a second life on the platform. And for Tori, social media is very much a competition. She’s bet her livelihood on it. She’s consciously made her life public on a scale that none of her friends has, so when it starts to unravel, she feels forced to keep up the appearances.  It’s not quite as narcissistic as I’m making it sound (well, it sort of is), but it’s also desperately sad. Tori is trapped by the walls she has built herself, and though deep down she knows what she needs to do, she is paralysed against doing it. So instead it manifests through her acting out in different ways.

I think it is this which makes Tori so relatable, even though she is a social media celebrity. She’s flawed and she’s sad. Everyone has been in a situation which doesn’t quite feel right – be it a job, a relationship, a lifestyle, a place – and making a decision to change is not an easy one. We’ve all had moments where our lives seem to be switching upside down, our friends are moving on without us, we’re running out of time to achieve everything we want to. Holly Bourne does a very good job of capturing the emotions related to this.  We’ve all said things we don’t mean to our friends. Tori’s feeling of betrayal as her friends move on and she’s forced to look at her life in a new, harsh, life is very visceral. Her feelings are so raw and well written that it made me pause as I was reading.

I was in places moved to tears, in others frustrated and annoyed with the characters. And if that doesn’t capture the feeling of being in your late twenties and early thirties, I don’t know what does. So yes, Tori does occasionally grate on you, she is self obsessed, she is a little vacuous occasionally, but she’s meant to. Bourne manages to write a book about, essentially, “finding yourself” for the second time, without it being twee and preachy. That’s impressive. The ending is open, and I do hope there will be more from Tori. I would love to see her what happens next – and how she recovers her sense of self.

I completely recommend this book, 5 stars (and a couple of tears). 

How to Keep a Secret – Sarah Morgan

Posted in Books, Reviews, Three Star
on June 14, 2018
How To Keep A Secret

 

I received an ARC copy in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve read a couple of Sarah Morgan’s books over the years. How to Keep A Secret is a departure from her previous style – and a welcome one.

The story is based around three generations of women from the Stewart family. Grandmother Nancy has always seemed a little distant to her daughters. Lauren appears to have the perfect family life in London, but her daughter Mack, is starting to act out. Jenna married the perfect man, and seems to have it all. But when tragedy hits, and Lauren finds herself back in her old family home in Martha’s Vineyard, the secrets that have pulled them apart start to unravel.

Each chapter starts from a different perspective, so we know what the characters are hiding before they reveal it to their family. And boy, are there a lot of secrets going on with the Stewarts. You do sometimes wonder if they have ever spoken frankly to one another! It’s devastating at times to see their carefully crafted lives crumbling apart. It takes time, but eventually they all manage to channel their anger, hurt, frustrations, betrayal – I could go on – into something much more positive.

Although positioned as a romance book – and there are romances in it – this is much more a book about family, friendships and moving on from things that seem too big to ever get over (be it a past, a betrayal, or a future plan that seems out of grasp). How one event can shake you to your core and effect your future forever. And mosty, how keeping a secret can harm you, instead of helping.

There is a lot going on in How To Keep A Secret but Martha’s friendship with Alice is one of the elements I wanted to highlight because it has been clearly thought about. In a book like this, if one friend wrongs the other in the way Alice wrongs Martha, she would be unforgivable – unredeemable – from thenceforth stricken from the narrative except to be spoken about in unflattering tones. However, here, Martha tries to rebuild the friendship in quite a positive way. I think that’s a lot more realistic, and a lot more powerful. It showed greater character development and strength from Martha than casting her lifelong friend out would have. It was very enjoyable to read.

A couple of minor points are undeveloped. Lauren’s love interests are a little unbelievable, for different reasons which will become apparent when you read it. The relationship with Scott in particular is altogether rather too convenient. It was a little predictable in parts, and I felt the ending was lacking a little energy compared to the beginning – but that was only a very slight niggle.

I enjoyed that not everything is quite wrapped up in the end, but there is an acceptance that it’s okay for things not to be. So much of the characters’ struggles have been brought about because they desired so much to appear outwardly perfect. Jenna, Lauren, Martha and Mack have been through too much to really have a ‘happy’ ending, but in its place they have found female solidarity, a closer family unit, and found that sharing is better than concealing.

Overall, an enjoyable book, and one I will doubtless re-read, with a couple of limitations. I’d give it three and a half stars if I could, but I can’t so it’ll have to be 3.