Category Archives: book reviews

Book Review – Quiet by Susan Cain

quietI’ve just finished reading Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I’ve been reading it for a month which I know is a long time to be reading one book but it made me think so much I kept having to stop and reflect. It’s so interesting!

I was drawn to the book as I’ve long classified myself as an introvert. I’m someone who needs time alone to re-charge my batteries, who prefers socialising one-on-one or in small groups (rather than big parties), who can feel overwhelmed if there is too much stimulus – too many loud noises, different demands on my attention, or a new or changing environment. I like reading and writing and drawing and thinking. I need time to reflect. I want to really get to know people and am utterly frustrated by (and useless at) small talk. These are all classic introvert traits.

Despite being aware of all this upfront, I still found the book eye-opening. Cain has done so much research and explores the extent to which western society has promoted the ‘extrovert ideal’ and has, over the last century, set itself up in a way that often undervalues the many different strengths that introverts have, making it more difficult for them to thrive. It sets out to redress the balance proving what this group – one third to one half of people – have historically done for society and looking at ways in which we can support rather than undermine them now and with our next generation.

Having read the blurb on the back I thought it was going to be a rather one-sided book and yes, as an introvert, you do read it thinking ‘blimey, we’re awesome, hooray for us!’ but nevertheless, the author makes a case for the necessity for both introverts and extroverts in society. Extroverts bring us boldness, risk-taking, the ability to bring people together, to socialise on a large scale, to inspire, to enthuse and excite. They love being surrounded by others and thrive on the energy of groups. Who hasn’t been drawn to an extrovert’s warmth, charisma and social ease?! I know I have!

But introverts, ah, introverts, they bring so much to the table – quiet courage, fortitude, resolve, creativity, reflective intelligence and an ability to form deep bonds with others, to inspire and guide through connection and understanding. Introverts populate the arts and have been responsible for amazing scientific break-throughs. Who hasn’t been drawn to an introvert’s passion, dedication, or desire to forge a meaningful relationship? I really, really have!

Cain is American and it sounds like the ‘extrovert ideal’ is even stronger there than it is here in the UK, with extroversion as the desirable expectation, introverted qualities often frowned upon and with schools and businesses set up in ways which benefit the former at the expense of the latter. But still, a lot rang true for this country too. Open plan offices? No good for introverts who need time on their own to think, reflect and plan. Lots of group work in schools and an expectation of speaking out in front of the class? Exhausting and overwhelming for introverted kids who function much better on their own or with one or two others, and for many of whom, speaking out is terrifying.

The book looks at ways to bring out the best in introverted children and how to understand ourselves as introverted adults. It shows how understanding yourself can help you deal with all sorts of situations. It explores solutions for possible stumbling blocks in introvert/extrovert relationships and also makes clear that there are various different aspects to personality and that shyness and introversion, though they often go together, do not have to. Oh, and the myth that introverts are ‘antisocial’ is kicked to the curb. Yes, introverts don’t require lots of social interaction the way extroverts do but human connection is another thing entirely. Introverts love to talk meaningfully and really get to know people.

I didn’t identify with all the points Cain makes about introversion (to the extent that I’m honestly wondering if I’m actually an ambivert – yes, really, it’s a thing). I think I’m rather emotionally upfront and feisty and not enough of a ‘delicate orchid’ (yes, that term is really used.. hmmm) to truly fit the bill. I also think I have more need for social contact than the classic introvert Cain describes – one of my groups of friends refers to me as their ‘social secretary’ because I’m so keen to get us all together (I love them, so who can blame me?!) and I’m forever texting and emailing friends, arranging to see people and making time for my besties. There was also a bit in the book about conflict within romantic relationships which was all about introverts avoiding arguments and not really saying what they felt and I was like, ‘difficulty expressing emotion?! Er, haha, no that’s not me at all!’ Let’s just say I burn hot!

But then again, as Cain states, you’re highly unlikely have all the traits of a specific category. We all differ and there’s no need place ourselves in a category and let it define all our actions and expectations forevermore. I think like many things in life, it’s a spectrum and you can have some attributes and not others. Also, we all have to be free to feel and react differently in different situations. Cain discusses the possibility of adopting an ‘extroverted persona’ to get through certain tasks and I can well imagine this persona becoming a familiar part of yourself if well used enough. For me at least, the book is less about ultimate classification and more about gaining a better understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.

There’s so much in this book, I’m just skimming the surface here and all I can really do is recommend you read it for yourself. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert there’s lots to learn. If you’ve never understood certain aspects of your personality or your relationships with others it could be massively eye-opening – life changing, even – and it’s very interesting to read as a parent too.

I’ll finish with a quote from the book:

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.”

Quiet might just help you find your light… and let yourself shine.

bedside books

As much as I love my Kindle (it’s revolutionised my reading!), I don’t think anything can really replace having actual, real books to look at, hold and and lose yourself in. I love the sight of bookcases in houses and our sitting room bookcase, which is loaded with wedding presents (we asked for books that meant something to the giver :) ), makes me really happy. I also love having a pile of books on my bedside table and, given it’s about to be the summer holidays and you might be looking for book suggestions, I thought I’d share what’s currently sitting there with you. Maybe you can share what you’re reading with me too?

book pile

Nice looking stack, hey? Here we go – top to bottom:

The Space Between – Poems by Jonathan Barnes

This is a book of my Dad’s poetry. He’s a talented poet and I’m not at all biased in saying that! Oh, ok, I’m biased but I am also right. He has a gentle but powerful way with words. He gets to the truth of things the way all good poets do – his words always speak to me. Last night one of the poems in this collection made me cry. It’s a funny feeling reading the poetry of someone you know so well – you see more of their heart, mind and soul than you otherwise would, but at the same time it’s very much recognisably them too. Anyway, I love having poetry on my bedside table.

Moonfleet – by J Meade Falkner

This is an adventure story for kids (about pirates and smuggling), first published in 1898. It used to be hugely popular and has been made into a film and been adapted for TV and radio several times over the last sixty-odd years. My mum gave it to me recently for my eldest son (who’s just turned nine) to read. She said it was fantastic, that I should read it too and that it has in it the best chapter of any book she’s ever read. I’m hoping to read it soon!

Yes Please – by Amy Poehler

As a huge fan of the hilarious Parks and Recreation (in which she stars), I’ve been really enjoying reading Amy Poehler’s autobiography. She’s a really smart, funny and inspirational woman and it’s the sort of book where you’re constantly thinking ‘oh that’s a great quote!’ (check out this list for examples). I loved the preface where she describes her experience of writing the book (I know – the preface – you could say she had me at ‘hello’) and how hard it was, and not to believe that writing is anything but hard:

“Even I have lied about writing. I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.”

Yes, I know that hacking feeling! She’s very straightforward about it, saying that you just have to write, despite the other draws on your time and attention, and despite the voice of self doubt, because “Writing the book is about writing the book”.

The War of Art – by Steven Pressfield

My brother gave me this book for Christmas. It’s all about breaking through blocks and getting your work created. I read the first sections at the start of the year and was all, “Yes! I ‘m going to do this thing! Come on!” and I had a real creative surge for a good few months. Then I stopped reading the book – it was starting to get a bit religious and I couldn’t connect with it as much… even though the publishers pre-empted this possible reaction with a foreword written by an atheist. I haven’t gone back to it, but I will because there was so much in there that made sense.

How to Be a Husband – by Tim Dowling

I was lucky enough to meet Tim Dowling at a blogging conference last November. I can reveal that he is every bit as funny, honest and down-to-earth as his Guardian columns show him to be… and also a lot more handsome in person. I really was thrilled to meet him (could my excitement be any more obvious in this photo OF HIM WITH HIS ARM ROUND ME – I doubt it.) Anyway, sorry sidetracked there… the book… the book is also very funny. As with all non-fiction I tend to dip in and out of it (with a novel I always carry or I’d just forget the storyline) so I haven’t finished it yet, but so far I’m finding it honest, witty and wise.

Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times – edited by Neil Astley

This collection is absolutely what it claims to be: “500 life-affirming poems fired by belief in the human and the spiritual at a time when much in the world feels unreal, inhuman and hollow.” My husband gave me the book last year and, frankly, this year the world has felt more ‘inhuman and hollow’ than ever (is anyone else wishing they could press the ‘reset button’ on 2016?). So this collection feels even more important now. I dip into it when I need to.

Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft – by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

This is a graphic novel that my husband recommended to me. I’ve never read a graphic novel in my life and it’s about time I started. I think as a writer and wannabe illustrator it makes a whole heap of sense to explore a new area of writing (as a reader). I haven’t started this yet *feels guilty* but I will, I will, I will!

You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes – by Chris Hadfield

Astronaut commander Chris Hadfield spent five months in 2013 aboard the international space station, where he used social media to capture the interest and imagination of millions of people world wide (I’m sure he was doing important astronaut work too… ). This is a book brim full of incredible pictures he took of earth from his vantage point in space, punctuated with his thoughts and observations – it’s amazing. My husband took our eldest son to meet Commander Hadfield last November so this is a special signed copy – a fact which makes me very happy!

So that’s my ‘dip in, dip out’ reading stack! What’s on your bedside book list? I’d love to hear any recommendations!

***

Oh, and before I go – I think I’m going to step back a bit from my blog over the summer. I’m already down to just one post a week but time is going to be tight to even get that written, what with having three kids around the place, a diary that is fast (and happily) filling up with meet-ups with friends, and the fact that I want to draw where I can. I’m not saying I won’t post at all, I’m just saying it will be completely ad hoc. I’m going to pause #WhatImWriting over the summer too – I’ll write more about that in the linky post.

Have a great summer!

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Book review – Baby X by Rebecca Ann Smith

BabyX

 

“Alex Mansfield, the doctor leading a groundbreaking project to grow a human foetus in an artificial uterus, has gone on the run and taken the newborn baby with her. While the child’s parents wait anxiously for news, and the world’s media clamour for answers, Alex’s colleagues are shocked by her actions. Has Alex stolen the baby, or is there another motive behind her disappearance?

Baby X weaves science and medical ethics into an intimate thriller; asking questions without offering easy answers.”

 

I’ve been longing to get my hands on this book for a while, having met its author, Rebecca Ann Smith, last October when Baby X was being edited. Becky described her book as “a psychological thriller about motherhood, technology and medical ethics”, which had me intrigued from the start! Many months, edits and a publication date later, having finally devoured my copy, I’m pleased to say that the book (much like Becky herself) had me thoroughly engaged and captivated.

The novel’s eponymous baby is the first human being to be grown in a medical laboratory, inside an artificial uterus. Apart from that though, he is just an average baby who has grown and developed normally. Because, although an artificial uterus might sound odd, it’s totally safe – a controlled environment designed to provide for the foetus in much the way a mother’s womb does. So there’s no reason to believe that his development would have been affected or altered in anyway by outside forces… is there?

So why has the doctor devoted to his conception and care, run away with him? What does she know (or suspect) that may have led her to such drastic action? Is In Vitro Gestation (IVG) really as safe as it purports to be, or are sinister forces at work?

As we try to unravel the mystery, the story is told from three points of view – that of Alex, the doctor who has taken Baby X, Karen, the baby’s mother and Dolly, the research assistant. All three voices are strong and distinctive and I found myself torn particularly between Alex, whose bond with Baby X grows ever more profound, and Karen who just wants her much-longed-for child in her arms. Dolly’s voice introduces a lighter touch and the backdrop of media scrutiny adds to the tension of the unfolding tale.

A great strength of the story was that the science in Baby X felt totally real. I’m aware that Becky did plenty of research in this area and I thought that it was evident – all the ‘science bits’ felt natural and realistic and integrated seamlessly with the rest of the action. Although the idea of IVG feels, in some ways, a million miles from where we are now, within the book it felt like simply an extension of the medical science we already have – we already conceive life outside of the womb so why not grow it there too if we could? In this way, the novel had a contemporary rather than futuristic feel. I could really imagine the issues the novel explores arising in our society, the consequences they might have and the further questions they might raise. It made the book thought-provoking in a way that has lodged with me and lingered.

Of equal importance was the human side of the story which I thought Becky handled with an extremely deft touch. As a mother myself, many of the scenes with Baby X rang profoundly true and were very moving. The attachment of mother and child, the odd, otherworldliness of the newborn, the trials of breastfeeding, the mind-altering, crushing tiredness… all of this was portrayed so accurately, I couldn’t help but empathise with the central characters. It gave the thriller-aspect of the story an added emotional punch.

Overall, this is a hugely impressive debut, one which wound its way to a satisfying conclusion while leaving me with ethical questions to consider beyond its pages. I very much hope you will read it and please let me know if you do as I love nothing more than a good old chat about books!

Baby X is Published by Mothers Milk Books (a lovely independent press which publishes some wonderful books!) and is available to buy here. I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Book review: The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2

the forgotten and the fantastical 2Remember how you felt as a child, snuggled up under the covers while someone read you fairy tales… lights down low, voices hushed, an air of both the mysterious and familiar surrounding you? Magical wasn’t it? Well, this book of fairy tales for adults allows you to relive some of those feelings right now, with dark forests, evil queens, witches, beasts and fairies all dancing through its pages.

But not in a twee way, oh no! All the stories in this collection offer something a bit different. Some are twists on well know tales – Rumplestiltskin in a modern metropolis (where an iPhone 4 is offered in exchange for the man’s magical skills!), a sleeping beauty who survives major European war, and a Hansel who grows up scarred by his childhood capture – all familiar, yet new.

Other stories take a fairy tale theme and make it their own, so Icarus takes an inaugural flight from a prisoner of war camp in one memorable tale, while a fairy is rescued from certain freezing death in – of all places – Elephant and Castle, in another. And there are The Northern Lights (real-live magic I’ve always thought, despite the scientific explanation), seasons that alter with the life and death of characters, and forests that thrive with their inhabitants and thrum with the beat of elemental passion.

And of course there are mirrors – there are magic mirrors in any fairy tale anthology aren’t there? The ones in this book take on all sorts of powers though, from the classic, evil ‘mirror, mirror on the wall’, to those which show us possible futures and those which help establish female identity in a patriarchal society (mirrors are nothing if not symbolic after all).

As I’d expect from Mother’s Milk Books, motherhood, femininity and empathy also run throughout many of the stories, and breastfeeding makes a number of appearances in a natural way that, for me, adds a gentle realism to the tales. Not that women have the monopoly on love and nurture – one story bursting with love (‘The Worm’ by Sarah Hindmarsh) has a horrible, devouring beast with a soft, devotional side and a master with a true sense of loyalty and love… the ending brought tears to my eyes!

The anthology has seventeen stories which vary in style. Some I enjoyed more than others, and of course I had my favourites. I hope I’ve given you a flavour of some of these but just to highlight some particular standouts – I enjoyed the sci-fi edge to Marija Smitts’ ‘Little Lost Soul’ –the writing drew me in from the very first line and I loved its contemplation of what it is to be human. I also thought ‘Hansel’s Trouble’ by Lindsey Watkins was wonderful – really tightly written and with such an interesting premise – I mean, what child loses its mother to illness, gets abandoned in a wood by its father, is captured by an evil witch, narrowly escapes the cooking pot and then lives ‘happily ever after’? Surely such life events would cause psychological scarring? Well, quite – the author was on to that!

My absolute, overall favourite though was ‘Seal Woman’ by Rachel Rivett. This was a very short tale that had a lovely, lilting poetic feel to it. Told in the first person, the emotion built throughout the story towards a standout last line that gave me goosebumps. Delicious.

So there you have it – an anthology well worth reading. I really enjoyed it and was pulled into the stories, even as I sat in the sunshine sipping a beer, about as far from being a princess lost in a dark forest as I could be!

And do you know what? I’m not even particularly into fairy tales or magic or anything like that, so if you’re not either, don’t let that put you off giving this book a try. You’ll be off into the magical forest of imagination before you know it – and what better place is there to explore?

***

The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 is edited by Teika Bellamy and published by Mother’s Milk Books. It is available to buy here. I was sent a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Pursuit of Happiness (and why it’s making us anxious) – Ruth Whippman

the pursuit of happiness cover

“As your average cynical Brit, when Ruth Whippman moves to California, it seems to her that the American obsession with finding happiness is driving everyone crazy.

But soon she gets sucked in. The meditates and tries ‘mindful dishwashing’. She attends a self-help course that promises total transformation (and learns that all her problems are her own fault). She visits a strange Nevada happiness dystopia (with one of the highest suicide rates in America), delves deeper into the darker truths behind the influential ‘science of happiness’, and even ventures to Utah, where she learns God’s personal secret to eternal bliss…”

 

Oh, this was such an interesting book! I felt this way as I was reading it and, since then, the variety and strength of opinion I’ve seen in other reviews has only confirmed my belief. It seems it’s not really one of those ‘meh – it was alright books': some people have really taken exception to its tone while others have loved it, and even those who have disliked elements have still said it’s fascinating in places. It just is.

Personally, I loved the style, the authors observations and her description of her experiences and discoveries. Her dry, British take on things had me chuckling, often.

At the start of the book, Whippman has recently moved to America with her husband and two-year-old son. I’ve not been through such a huge geographical shift myself, but I could still relate to her struggles to find her feet (and happiness) as a mother amidst the advice and conflicting parenting styles of those around her. Parenting can feel like a strange new world wherever you are. Admittedly, I did find myself thinking “Really? is this truly what it’s like in America?!” at times and according to other reviews, I think she’s possibly describing the extreme. I also found her views on attachment parenting a bit off-putting… but a bit of disagreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing – everyone sees the world through their own lens and being aware of where my views differed from the author’s made me contemplate her experiences more than I otherwise would have done, I think.

And those experiences are well worth the extra contemplation – the book details what is basically her voyage of discovery into what makes us happy (and what doesn’t), with the (chunky) chapters exploring the different areas she looks into.

I found the section on self-help courses quite worrying: there is so much money to be made in this particular industry and the ethics, in places, are massively dubious. There’s one scene in which a sobbing audience member in a seminar has her traumatic childhood experience labelled as ‘NEVER HAPPENED’, on the basis that many of our experiences are altered by our own perception of them. While I agree that some of our history is open to interpretation, and I’m all for taking responsibility where responsibility is due, the idea that horrible life events are all down to how we see things is horrendously victim-blaming. It made my skin crawl.

The chapter on positive psychology lead me down similar paths. I understand the desire to believe that our happiness is something entirely under our own control – that if we just have the right mindset anything can be achieved. A belief like that can be empowering and there’s a lot to be said for positivity. But you can’t overlook the hardships that life throws some people, and the idea that it’s somehow just a matter of how you perceive things seems to dismiss the genuine problems people have, and puts the onus on them to ‘get over it’ rather than on us as a community to support those who need it. How the positive psychology movement (another area where there’s plenty of money to be made… ) backs up its claims also troubles me. Whippman follows the ‘scientific evidence’, does her own research and discovers a pattern of deceit I found genuinely shocking.

the pursuit of happiness

Happiness for me: reading while my son whittles a stick.

But it wasn’t all self-help exposés – the book looks at many different methods of achieving happiness and notes that religious people in the US are generally happier than non religious people, with Mormons topping the (self-attributed) happiness charts. This fact sends the author on a weekend stay with a Mormon family where she learns about their community and beliefs. I found this section enlightening and thought Whippman explored the positives and negatives well, with interviews that were both eye-opening and touching. The important role that a supportive community can play in individual happiness came through clearly in this area and made a lot of sense to me, as did the fact that talking about difficulties rather than suppressing them is vital.

As luck would have it, I was on a blogging break when I read the chapter on social media. If you’ve read my post about my week you’ll be able to understand how the author’s observations about how social media can undermine happiness really resonated with me. As a blogger and (usually… ) avid FaceBook and Twitter user, it definitely gave me cause to reflect.

Overall, I thought the message that came through the book was that – despite the focus on the idea that ‘happiness comes from within’ (which seems to form a fundamental tenet of the happiness industry) – happiness is really found in our interactions with other people. Inner resilience is important too of course, but if we can create and nurture good relationships with family and friends it will go a long way to making us happier people. Similarly, the path to a happier society is through acting as a supportive community. (I’m desperately trying not to put politics into this but goddammit David Cameron, you are getting it so wrong.)

I know this isn’t a brief review but I could have written even more! I just urge you to read the book – whether you agree or disagree with everything Whippman writes, it’ll make you think. Can’t say fairer than that.

*I was sent this book to review as part of the BritMums book club. All opinions are my own.*

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Book review: Runaway Girl by Emily Organ

Runaway-Girl-cover“London, 1352. A girl is missing and someone doesn’t want her found.

After the death of her family, Alice has chosen a quiet life of seclusion in a monastery. But she is hit by a personal tragedy which forces her to confront the dangers of medieval London.

When her 14 year old friend, Constance, vanishes, Alice’s life is turned upside down. Is Constance’s disappearance linked to a dead girl pulled from the Thames? And another girl is on the run – but who is she running from?

Alice’s desperate search stirs up something sinister and soon her own life is in danger. Powerful forces are at work to ensure the truth will never be uncovered.”

Having enjoyed Emily’s first two books, The Last Day and The Outsider, I jumped at the chance to read and review an advanced copy of her latest novel, Runaway Girl. And I’m glad I did. This was a gripping read – part mystery, part adventure, part historical novel and with more than a whiff of romance too!

The central premise of the story – that of missing and runaway girls – was a compelling one which had me rooting for the characters against the horribly patriarchal society in which they lived. I rarely read historical novels (I’m more of a modern day, psychological thriller kind of girl) so I was initially unsure how I’d feel about a book where no one could so much as pick up a phone let alone be constantly socially-connected the way most of us are these days.

However, the two central female protagonists, despite being firmly rooted in their medieval setting, had a modern enough flavour for me to identify with them. Indeed, the fact that Alice can’t set up a FB page or #FindConstance hashtag for her missing friend but has to rely almost entirely on her own instincts and abilities out on the filthy, dangerous London streets, only upped the ante for me. In a society where ‘covering things up’ and putting the blame on women was widespread, who couldn’t root for these strong female characters who had so much to fight against?

Especially – and I’m giving him his own paragraph here to emphasise his monstrousness – the hideous Sir Walter! I do love a novel with a villain to truly loathe and this character was certainly one of those. I can’t over-emphasise how much I yearned for him to get his comeuppance and I also can’t give away whether I got what I hoped for!

Although it works as a standalone novel, Runaway Girl is the first in a trilogy and I can’t wait to find out what happens next for Alice. Her story is clearly not over yet!

Runaway Girl is OUT NOW .

To read my mini reviews of Emily’s previous novels along with an interview please click here.

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five MORE great books I read in 2015

Just before New Year I shared five of my favourite books from 2015 (that is, books I read in that year – I can’t promise you it was their year of publication – I read to my own, random schedule). I promised to share another five in the new year so, here we go!

open books in a pile

1. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins

I read these over Christmas and New Year 2014/2015. I was late enough to the party reading them then (they were published in 2008 – 2010) and I’m even later writing about them now but I just HAVE to include them in this list because they were unputdownable. I even walked into a wall once while reading the second book. On the off-chance you don’t know the story, it’s set in a dystopian future in a nation called Panem. This is divided into twelve districts who are forced, each year, to send two of their teenagers to take part in the ‘Hunger Games’ – a televised fight-to-the-death in a huge computer-generated landscape. For seventy-three years this forced massacre has occurred, but now it’s the seventy-forth Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen is about to enter the arena…

These books are brilliant but I won’t lie, I found parts of them hard to read – I’m a bit of a softy, many of the deaths really are grizzly and I almost couldn’t bear it. But the characters felt so real and the world they inhabited so vibrant that I got totally pulled in. It’s a Young Adult series so, of course, there was romance thrown into the mix and I found I really cared about this too (I was ‘team Peeta’ in case you’re wondering)! The third book didn’t reach the dizzy heights of the first two but overall it was totally gripping. I remain a little bit in love with Finnick to this day.

2. The Love Song of Miss Quennie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

Oh, this book, this book! It is a sequel (of sorts) to the award-winning ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ which was a best seller back in 2013. It’s told from the point of view of Queenie who, in her hospice, discovers that her old friend Harold is walking the length of England to reach her. Unsure if she will still be alive when he gets there, she decides to write to him. Her letter is “the truth, the whole truth” and she hopes that in revealing her secrets she will atone for her sins.

I’ve written before about how highly I rate Rachel Joyce as an author and this book is another example of how she weaves magic into the every day, and beauty into the mundane. The book is, in many  – perhaps most – ways, a heart-breaking tale but it’s also overflowing with warmth. The characters in the hospice are beautifully described and there is a lot of humour in their interactions. It is their story too and, as such, a story of the strengths and frailties of the human spirit. A book to be treasured. It goes without saying that I cried like a baby at the end.

3. Stranger Child – Rachel Abbott

This is Rachel Abbott’s fourth book and, while I’ve read and enjoyed two of the previous three, this was a stand out for me. It’s about Emma whose husband David is still haunted by the death of his previous wife in a car crash and disappearance of his six-year-old daughter at the scene of the accident. It’s now six years later and Emma and David have a good life together and a baby son… until a stranger walks into their lives and everything starts to unravel.

This is a gripping psychological thriller – I raced through the pages wanting to solve the mystery and find out how it ended for all of the characters. Although it is a stand-alone story I also enjoyed being reacquainted with Tom Douglas, the detective who’d starred in Rachel Abbott’s earlier books – a character who I think can ably carry a series. I’m planning on reading her next book soon!

4. The Good Girl – Mary Kubica

This is a debut novel and one that I was thoroughly impressed by! When twenty-something Mia Dennett goes missing the police are called and the search begins. But where has she gone? Why? And will she be found in time?

The story alternates between the point of view of Mia’s mother, that of the Detective in charge of the case and, most interestingly, Mia’s kidnapper. What I enjoyed about the book was not only trying to solving the case but all the emotions that surfaced along the way. The book takes the reader on an interesting journey. I’ll say no more (apart from, I’ve just realised Mary Kubica’s next novel is out so I’ll be purchasing it shortly)!

5. A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

The blurb says: “You are about to read the true story of Father Christmas. It is a story that proves that nothing is impossible. A Boy Called Christmas is a tale of adventure, snow, kidnapping, elves, more snow, and a boy called Nikolas, who isn’t afraid to believe in magic.”

Ok, I admit it, I haven’t actually read this book but both my older two sons did so last month and they LOVED it. My eldest (who’s eight) said it’s the best book he’s ever read apart from Harry Potter. As he’s obsessed with Harry Potter and is a real book worm who reads masses of books, that’s really high praise. My six-year-old also loved it and, for us, the whole thing was made all the more exciting by the fact that we actually got to meet Matt Haig and have the books personally signed at an event run by our local book shop! All in all, I couldn’t miss it off the list.

I fully intend to read the book for myself next Christmas as its reviews suggest it captures the hearts of grownups too. Oh, and if you fancy a book for adults by the same author, I can thoroughly recommend The Humans – brilliant, funny and thought-provoking.

***

I’m planning on reading lots more books this year so I’ll no doubt be recommending more soon!

MamaMummyMum

five great books I read in 2015

It’s nearly the end of the year and I’ve just been looking back at all the books I’ve read in 2015 (I do the vast majority of my reading on a kindle so it’s easy to keep track). I’ve had my reading ups and downs, both in terms of how many books I’ve read (some months I devour them, others I barely finish one) and how much I’ve enjoyed them, but there are certainly some gems within the pile.reading books

I’m going to share my ten favourites, but I’m too tired and full of mince pies to write them all up now. That would also make a hugely long post so I’ll stick with five now, and five more in a follow up post next week. Right, here goes:

Five great books I read in 2015

1. Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty

A funny, sad, frothy yet deep thriller-of-sorts set around the school gates. There’s been a death at a trivia night (I loved that premise – tragic yet ridiculous) and over the course of the novel we gradually learn the back story until finally finding out who died, how and why.

I totally loved this book – It made me laugh and cry. I thought the author tackled a serious issue with a very light touch making the book hugely readable and relatable while also being thought-provoking. You can read my review to find out more, but read it, go on, do!

2. The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

A factual book which sees its author go in search of what means to be a psychopath, the idea being that they’re not all homicidal maniacs but people we may well meet in our daily lives.  Jon Ronson explores the particular attributes they have – many of which make them more likely to succeed in business and achieve positions of authority. Psychopaths may, in fact, rule the world.

This was a really fascinating book and the author makes a funny and engaging guide. Be warned though – after reading you’ll start seeing psychopaths everywhere… you might even be sitting next to one right now!

 3. The Pact – Jodi Picoult

A devastating love story which begins one terrible night when two families – who are neighbours and best friends – are told their teenage children (Chris and Emily) have been rushed to hospital after engaging in an apparent suicide pact. Only Chris has survived. But was it really suicide?

This was the first Jodi Picoult book I’ve ever read and I found it utterly compelling. The book follows survivor Chris through a court case while observing the impact Emily’s death has on both families. It also looks at the past where we see Chris and Emily as childhood friends who grow up to become lovers with good and bad things happening along the way. Gripping from start to finish.

4. The Quality of Silence – Rosamund Lupton

A chilling psychological thriller about a young deaf girl and her mother who, upon hearing that their dad/husband has gone missing in Alaska, set out to find him. The ice road they follow is dangerous, death could be around any corner, and someone is following them in the dark…

I love a good psychological thriller and this ticked all the boxes because despite the building air of dread, the central characters warm the heart. This book managed to be gripping and touching. To find out more, read this blog post.

5. Touch – Claire North

Kepler is a being who, with no body of his/her own, moves between the bodies of others, sometimes occupying them for years, other times for merely seconds. When someone tries to kill Kepler it triggers a decision to seek out who and why, and along the way a much bigger plot is revealed.

I read Claire North’s debut (under that pseudonym anyway) novel – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – last year and it blew me away. This follow up thriller didn’t hit quite the heights of that book (basically an impossible task) but was nevertheless a compelling read. It was epic yet personal in just the way the first book was. If you’ve not read Harry August, do, and if you have, then read this too!

That’s it for now – I’m going to put my feet up and watch CSI. Another five recommendations to follow soon!

Happy (nearly) New year!

mysterious thrills

I’ve always loved that feeling of really getting drawn into a book – I love to be gripped by them and pulled along and emotionally entangled. When that happens to me, I usually read another book by the same author and if I like that too, I can end up quite a fan of theirs!

reading, fireplace

I feel this way about Rosamund Lupton. I read her second novel – Afterwards – in 2013 and absolutely LOVED it. It’s a mystery/thriller told from the point of view of a woman in a coma whose disembodied spirit moves around the hospital, unobserved, trying to figure out who caused the fire that nearly killed her and her daughter. But WAIT, if I lost you at ‘disembodied spirit’, don’t decide this book isn’t for you because, honestly, I think that notion sounds a bit ridiculous too. There was just something about this book though that was really engaging and emotive. I wanted to solve the mystery but was also drawn in by the fact it had love at its core. It’s well worth reading.

Having loved her second novel I then launched into her first – Sister. This is another mystery/thriller about a woman whose world is turned upside down when she is informed her younger sister has gone missing. When she sets out to try to find her, she uncovers potentially sinister goings-on and discovers she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought she did. I didn’t love this as much as Afterwards but it  was still pacey and gripping. I was particularly impressed by the fact it’s Lupton’s first novel.

the quality of silenceThis summer, her third novel The Quality of Silence came out so obviously I snapped it up! It’s a thriller set in the frozen wilderness of Alaska where a little deaf girl Ruby and her mother travel the lonely (and horrendously treacherous) highways in search of Ruby’s father. The dark is suffocating, the cold outside the truck would kill them in minutes and all the time someone is watching them… but who? And why? This book was haunting and creepy and compelling and beautiful all rolled up in one quirky package and confirmed to me the talent of the author.

What I like so much about Rosamund Lupton’s books is that they’re not quite what you expect – even Sister which feels the most conventional of the three has… well I don’t want to give the game away! The author definitely has skill with both mystery and emotion. She has the ability to engage my mind and my heart which all my favourite books do. Go on, give one – or all three – a go!

What have you been reading? I’m always looking for recommendations!

Nikki Young Writes
Linking with Friday Fiction and The Prompt – this week the theme is ‘slumber’ and this post (kind of) fits because I always read books before I go to sleep…
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MamaMummyMum

Oy Yew – an interview with Ana Salote

Oy Yew front cover 300dpi scaled

I was recently given the opportunity to read and review Oy Yew and interview its author Ana Salote. Yes, a free book and an opportunity to find out more about an author’s writing process – naturally, I jumped at the chance!

Oy Yew is a fantasy book (the first in a trilogy) with a classic feel, aimed at children from ‘8 +’. As the back cover tells us:

‘Lay low and grow,’ is the motto of the waifs of Duldred Hall. The only way to escape their life of drudgery is to reach the magical height of 5 thighs 10 oggits. But Master Jeopardine is determined to feed them little and keep them small. When the master’s methods grow more sinister the waifs must face their doubts. What is kept in the Bone Room? Why is Rook’s parlour locked? A new waif arrives and the fight for survival begins. But this child brings another mystery: who is Oy?

A realisation I had early on in the book is that the ‘+’ part of the ‘8+’ readership aim is very true. While I can well imagine younger readers being entranced by it, this is not a book that ‘babies’ the reader and is certainly one that an adult can enjoy. Jeopardine (with his bone obsession – eek!) is a genuinely creepy character and from the first page the reader is firmly on the side of Oy and the other waifs and desperate for them to escape.

As the story progresses and the waifs explore the mystery behind a series of – rather grisly – ‘accidents’ that have befallen their friends, the sense of peril kept me gripped while the sweet, tough, familiar, unusual characters of the waifs drew me in and had me genuinely caring about them. Despite the danger and the darkness in the book, the love and warmth in their relationships and the dashes of humour that run through the story ensure it is neither to heavy nor too scary for its young readership. Ana Salote has created a fantasy world with a dash of magic, a slosh of danger and a bucket-load of hope. I’ll be giving it to my 8 year old son to read soon!

Oy Yew was published  in June 2015 by Mothers Milk Books and is available to buy here. The kindle version is also available here.

And so to the interview!

Hi Ana, congratulations on the publication of Oy Yew!

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

My background is a bit of a mix. My father was a heavyweight boxer from Tonga, my mother was a Derbyshire miner’s daughter. I grew up among strong characters with constant drama. It was a mine of material. I went to a comprehensive school where the teachers were much to be pitied. I left at 16 and went to the university of life as they say, and all the time I was reading, reading, reading. Now I live in Somerset. It’s a beautiful, magical place. I’m drawn to the dusky, the fey and the nether. I’m allergic to jargon, corporations and the ubiquitous ‘should of’.

I think we all go on a bit of a journey to becoming writers – whether we leap out of the womb with pen in hand, or discover our dormant writing gene in middle age while deep-sea diving. What’s your journey been?

I was born at home otherwise I might have scribed my own name tag. When I was too small to hold a broadsheet I used to spread it on the floor to read. I read whatever I could get: oldBrer Rabbits, my grandad’s JT Edsons, my mother’s Catherine Cooksons. I ate most of Bolsover library like a caterpillar on speed. I kept journals from my late teens onwards and wrote stories and poems. I wrote my first novel in my 30s. It was a middle grade timeslip. My daughter loved it. Then came Tree Talk, an environmental parable written from the viewpoint of a tree. I self-pubbed before e-books. My teenage son photo-shopped the cover (yes, I know it shows) but I stand by the writing. Oy Yew is my third novel and the first to be traditionally published.

I loved Oy Yew and thought you created an intricate magical world – what inspired you to write it? How long did it take you to get from the idea to a finished book?

I think some things are intrinsically magical. Acorns, seahorses, teapots and owls are magical. Carrots, house flies, coffee pots and pigeons are not. Chimneys are on my magical list. Chimneys seeded the central mystery of Oy Yew. My sweep, Alas Ringworm, quickly introduced himself. I knew that he was scared of something. I began writing to find out what it was. The character of Oy is based on a real person: a shy, sensitive character with a voice you strain to hear. It’s difficult to get to know someone like that. Others force their worlds down your throat. I’m more interested in the inner worlds of the shy. What qualities are they hiding?

Another thing that fascinates me is nature and nurture. At the start of the book Oy is all nature. He recalls no human interactions. His only connection with the people he observes has been through empathy. I took the unformed Oy and dropped him into the middle of a life-threatening mystery. I waited to see what inner qualities would emerge to help him deal with it.

The first draft took 2 years. The submissions round ran into years mainly because each positive response put things on hold while they considered and asked for rewrites etc. From first words to publisher’s acceptance was more than 5 years.

I was glad to find out that it’s the first book in a trilogy – how are you getting on with the next books in the ‘Waifs of Duldred’ series?

Things have speeded up greatly with the next two books set for release at yearly intervals. Book two needs final edits. Book 3 is at second draft stage so I’m on track to deliver in December.

What’s your writing process? Do your characters evolve and surprise you? (was the marvellous Jeopardine always that horrid?)

I’m a pantster. I kick off with a trigger then I run with the scenes that excite me, the delicious ones, the ones I long to put words to. I end up with a lot of islets formed in play. Plot ideas form as I write. Characters deepen. I begin to drag and drop into sequence. A shape emerges.

The characters evolve quickly once I know what drives them. Jeopardine started with a name and a strong visual. His parents formed him in a Larkinesque way, so he wishes for success in the manner of a predatory, bone-fixated hawk. It doesn’t make him less horrid; it does make him more interesting. My publisher sees him as a young Daniel Day-Lewis; she’s a little bit in love with him.

What’s your editing process? How many drafts did you write?

    • Draft 1 – Jumbled pools of inspiration with varying degrees of polish, loosely linked.
    • Draft 2 –  Big cut and paste job.
    • Draft 3 – Interrogation. Is it necessary? Authentic? Rhythmic? Varied in pace and mood?
    • Draft 4 – How does it read? Does it flow? Does the brain catch on anything? Does it satisfy?
    • Draft 5 – Disengaged continuity check and proof reading.

One of the things I liked about Oy Yew was its ‘classic’ feel – did this make it easier or harder to find a publisher?

Harder. Commercial is the mantra. The big publishers are looking for mass appeal hence the slew of celebrity names attached to books. The voice of Oy Yew is unlike the current high-selling titles. The big presses were complimentary but unwilling to take a risk. There are some fantastic small presses out there who tend to be more adventurous. Thank you Mother’s Milk Books.

How have things been going since publication? Have you been doing a lot of promotional work?

We launched at Lowdham book festival near Nottingham. I have other events lined up for August and September in Lincoln, Nottingham and the wonderful Melton Bookshop. Promotion is hard and time-consuming. Scattergun promotion isn’t very productive. There are readers of all ages out there who enjoy crossover fiction, who immersed themselves in Harry Potter, His Dark Materials and Titus Groan, and are looking for their next read. All I want to do is wave to them and say ‘try this’.

Do you have any advice for those of us at an earlier stage of the writing process?

Beliefs are a placebo effect that shapes reality. If you want to be really creative stop taking the pills.

What hopes and plans do you have for your future as a writer?

I’ve been marinating an adult novel for a long time. I want to celebrate the Northern matriarchs I grew up with. I know the title of the book, the characters and the setting. I’m not yet sure of the arc. I wanted to serve my apprenticeship as a writer before attempting this as it means so much to me. I want to do justice to their lives.

Thanks Ana! I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy and your adult novel (when the time comes) too. Good luck with all your writing and marketing.

Thanks to Teika Bellamy at Mothers Milk Books for my copy of Oy Yew and the interview opportunity.

Linking up with #The prompt at Mumturnedmom – this week it’s “to read… ”

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