The Book Geek

Despite dedicating all of my spare time to literary pursuits, my day job actually involves fighting crime. I will admit it isn’t quite as glamorous as I have just made that sound: I don’t wear lycra, have never taken part in a high speed car chase and have yet to develop a uniquely awesome super power (unless you count my ability to ingest large amounts of biscuits in very short periods of time). My contribution to keeping the local community that little bit safer centres simply on crunching numbers – a genuinely fascinating and fulfilling job despite how dull it may sound – but the glazed faces of new acquaintances over the years have convinced me that I need to package my career in a slightly more exciting way. I have always kept my personal and professional passions quite separate, but for some reason this week I have been thinking about merging the two and viewing my reading habits through a data lens, so that’s what I decided to do. (Stick with me kids – I nearly fell asleep just writing that sentence, but it’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise).

Initially prompted by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, my first thought was to consider my literary explorations from a feminist perspective. I rarely consider the author’s gender when choosing a prospective book – consciously, at least – and was interested to find that 56% of the tomes devoured this year so far have been written by females. I remember feeling quite shocked earlier this year (back in February before the world went mental and we lost the capacity to feel stunned by anything) when I heard that Marian Keyes only reads women, because she feels the lives of men are too limited. Like RBG, my own brand of feminism focuses on the empowerment of all genders across the board and I am pleased that in contrast my reading reflects fair intake of both sexes. However, when it comes to non-fiction that balance becomes more skewed, with only 40% of these written by females and none by other, more marginalised groups. Whether this is a reflection on my own choices or on the types of books that are marketed more heavily I couldn’t say, but I definitely want to explore more female and trans voices moving forward.

Once I started this analysis, I couldn’t stop. 75% of my books this year have been by authors I have never read before and I found it gratifying to know I am still open to new experiences even at the grand old age of 41. (Conversely I am also not immune to the comfort of a familiar style, having read more than one publication from 11 writers since January). Shockingly, 45% of my total thus far comes from my Kindle, a finding that surprised me greatly. I genuinely believed I only ever accessed electronic tomes when I was away from home, but given the-virus-that-shall-not-be-named ruined all of my holiday plans this year, I have clearly been kidding myself. (I am going to blame the lack of opportunities to bookshop browse instead. And Brexit – I am definitely blaming Brexit). But as I flicked back and forth through the beautifully bound notebook where I record every book I read, one stark conclusion leapt out more strongly than any other – this has been a bonanza year for books. Since December 2004 when I inaugurated said inventory (that sounds pretentious, but I can remember wishing there were trumpets playing) the most I have read in any 12 month period is 86 texts and I have already surpassed this in 2020. Part of me hopes I never have a year so housebound ever again; part of me is secretly planning how I can better that total in 2021…

We can learn a lot about ourselves through our literary choices, whether they are conscious are not. That being said, all this talk of numbers has just fuelled the fire of my fixation with devouring as many books as I can – after all, life is short and my notebook only a quarter full. So I am putting down the calculator and heading back into textual hibernation. Keep the recommendations coming, Bookaholics. I can’t afford to run out of books!

Textual Frustration

My singing career peaked around 14 years ago when I reached the final of the local X factor competition. Up to that point my performances had all been rather low key: there was a charity concert at my parents’ church, the gigs I played for the Women’s Institute, and the old folks’ Christmas party, where I measured my success by how many of the audience fell asleep. (Three, if you are interested). With the stage set up in the middle of the shopping centre, this was going to be my biggest show to date and the adrenalin was pounding as the presenter called my name. Oozing confidence like a professional, I climbed onto the platform to greet the crowd – and promptly fell over. On stage. In front of a hundred people. Everything went into slow motion as I got back to my feet, plastered a smile on my face and bowed in a way that suggested it was no big deal, but inside I was dying and I have never quite thrown off the psychological scarring. I tell you this not so you can tease me relentlessly (I have 3am demons to do that for me) but as an example of how something you love can also become something you loathe. So brace yourselves, Bookaholics: I hereby present the 5 things I hate about books.

1) Can someone please explain to me the point of hard backs? As far as I can see, releasing a novel in this format is simply a ruse for publishers to make as much money as possible. Yes they might look pretty on a bookshelf, but they are unwieldy to carry around, painful on the wrist when reading and capable of delivering a pretty nasty black eye if you try to devour them whilst lying in bed. I don’t even use my Complete Works of Shakespeare as a footrest when I play guitar in public any more, which was its only saving grace. Mainly because I don’t perform in public any more. See above.

2) Nothing irritates me more than thinking I have 15% of a text left to go on my Kindle only to find it ends abruptly, leaving me with pages of appendices or – even more annoying – the first chapter of the author’s next release. If Amazon can deliver groceries by drone, would it be so hard to just calculate my reading time to the end of the actual story? This frustrates me even more when I intend to read a physical text next and I don’t have it with me. It forces me to do things that I end up regretting, like interacting with other human beings instead. This is not acceptable.

3) Typos. Seriously. I understand if an author is on a budget and is self-publishing (not everyone is blessed with someone as pedantic as me in their life) but recently I seem to have found all sorts of errors in texts from established publishers – issues with spelling, grammar and even words missing from sentences. It genuinely undermines my enjoyment of the book and makes me question if I can keep reading. I am painfully aware that this level of literary snobbery means you will now be watching eagle-eyed for any mistake I might make in future and would like to assure you that, if I do, it will be an ironic reference to the post-modern world of half-arsed proof-reading. Or something. Honest.

4) I find it insanely annoying when a novel is compared with the work of a more famous author as a marketing ploy. The amount of times I see “fans of <insert title of last year’s bestseller> will love this!” only to find the book is totally different in style and content to the tome it has been aligned with. I understand that the world is saturated with authors trying to make their mark but this is surely the root of all disappointment. Expectation management is key.

5) Finally, I have an inherent dislike for books that are reissued with the tv or film stars emblazoned across the cover. Firstly, most adaptations change some key element of the story, enough that it doesn’t seem fair to link the two so fervently. Secondly – and I cannot stress this enough – THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER. It can also lead to some serious confusion from readers who believe that a classic from the 19th century is actually a brand new publication. Whilst the suggestion that an American bookseller tried to contact Jane Austen for a book tour in 1995 after the film Sense and Sensibility was released is probably an urban myth, I can almost understand the confusion. I mean, it’s not like Jane was already an internationally renowned author or anything.

Truth is none of these issues would ever be enough to make me turn my back on books and most of these things I can avoid through choice – I just needed to rant. I feel much better, so thanks for listening. Now, back to my parent’s house to destroy the incriminating video of me falling over before it hits YouTube…

The Diva Demon

I am always at my most vulnerable around 3am. Roused from my slumber by an urgent call of nature, I often scurry back to the warmth of my duvet to find a queue of demons jostling for position by my bedside. They push and shove around me, berating me for all those insecurities I banish during daylight, poking persistently with their bony fingers, demanding attention and denying me rest. Why am I not prettier / slimmer / more intelligent? Why am I still doing the same job after 17 years? Why did I tell my entire Year 9 French class that I liked to play with my feet? (This valiant attempt to express my love of walking was lost on my teenage compatriots, who proceeded to tease me relentlessly all the way into Year 13). But there is one visitor more aggressive and destructive than all of his obstinate brothers combined – the headline act, if you like, or the diva demon – the one who wants to know what the actual point of my life is. I often find consolation in the books that I read, seeking solace in others also searching for those big, existential answers, and have recently read two brilliant examples of this genre.

Mr Doubler Begins Again by Seni Glaister initially seems just a simple, charming tale about a potato farmer. (Stick with me, it’s better than it sounds). Having lost his wife – and with children who have flown the nest – Doubler lives a solitary existence, choosing never to leave his property and interacting only with his cleaner, Mrs Millwood. When she is unexpectedly taken into hospital, our protagonist is teased out into the wider world and we follow his exploits as he begins to build other relationships. But the true heart of this story has much greater depth. Doubler’s daily phone calls with Mrs Millwood debate some of the big issues facing us all as we grow older: What does a legacy really look like? Should parents be considered responsible for their children’s success and failures? Do we have to succumb to the roles other people think we should play? This is an incredibly moving book (I literally sat and stared tearfully into space for a good 15 minutes when I finished it) and it truly lifted my soul. In a world that reveres youth above all else, it is refreshing to read something that teaches us it is never too late to begin again and that moving outside of your comfort zone can paradoxically bring great comfort.

Ostensibly, Ordinary People by Diana Evans could not be more different. Two young couples have reached a crucial point in their relationships, both drifting apart for different reasons. With 2 small children to care for and a flagging career as a fashion journalist, Melissa feels trapped by her maternal responsibilities and her partner Michael can’t reach through the wall of resentment around her. Conversely, the death of Damian’s father has forced him to question everything and his wife, Stephanie, finds herself pushed further and further away. Despite tackling a myriad of hard-hitting themes from race to parenthood and the far-reaching implications of grief, Ordinary People is a beautiful ode to existence, written in language so captivating it effortlessly encapsulates the challenge of human connection. Set against a bold backdrop of current affairs (Obama’s presidential victory; Michael Jackson’s death; growing gang violence in London), this is an adept exploration of our battle to understand who we are and how we relate to others. Many writers over the centuries have tried to capture the inner workings of the human heart; this is one of the best examples I have come across and I highly recommend it.

Having learnt from years of experience how draining it can be to face the 3am demons head on, I now simply admit defeat, lifting up the covers to let them cuddle up next to me in the warm – after all, truth is they don’t have the answers either. If these 2 books taught me anything, they show that we are all in this existential mess together, so we may as well get cosy. Could someone just hit the light for me?

The Bridge of Little Jeremy

Despite a day of torrential downpours and ominous sounding thunder, I spent last Thursday evening sat in a field. Nothing encapsulates the spirit of “British summertime” better than forging ahead with outdoor plans regardless of the weather. Admittedly I was decked out in full-on waterproof gear (by which I mean I had a black bin-liner wrapped around my legs) but as I sat there munching on my pre-packed picnic in the dreary drizzle, I did start to question my sanity. My motivation was simple: my first theatrical excursion since February, watching West End and Broadway star Alistair Brammer perform songs from the musicals. (In a field. In the rain. I give you 2020, ladies and gentlemen). I have been pining for the theatre so much that even a deluge could not deter me. Art is so important: it provides escapism, catharsis and that all-important sense of connection that underpins our collective human consciousness. It seems fitting, therefore, that this week I have been reading The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai, a novel that beautifully portrays the power of art to shape our lives.

I knew nothing about this book when I was first asked to review it and it proved a truly pleasant surprise. This is the story of Jeremy, a 12 year old boy and aspiring artist who lives with his mother and dog Leon in Paris. We learn two very important facts early on: that they are in significant debt thanks to inheritance tax and that Jeremy has recently recovered from an operation on his heart. After stumbling across a valuable painting in his cellar, Jeremy decides to restore it, to try and solve their financial woes. The adventures that follow are both entertaining and touching, as our protagonist discovers more about his ancestry and learns some significant lessons about life.

From the very opening chapter, Jeremy is an enchanting narrator and Paris is brought to life through his eyes in vivid detail – I genuinely felt like I was there. Whilst the sentence structure is a little jarring at times and occasional words seem to be missing, this actually enhances the sense that a young French boy is speaking to the reader directly. Beneath the surface of this ostensibly simple tale are an array of far more meaningful messages, not least about art. The painting represents a treasure far greater than its monetary value as it leads Jeremy to a string of personal revelations, including those facilitated by his mentor Paulo. Robert the gardener also provides some poignant observations, observing the striking beauty of a single rose growing in compost comes from its solidarity, whilst an entire bed of roses saturates our ability for appreciation and we are not so moved. Even social media (arguably the modern version of the dark arts) are treated to philosophical musings on their impact on human outlook. The morals behind this tale remind us that whilst art may imitate life, it can also teach us a great deal about the world by reflecting it back to us.

This book concluded far too soon for me and nothing had prepared me for its final pages – I was left feeling there was way too much unfinished business. But (much like the rain on Thursday evening) that did not detract too much from my overall enjoyment and it certainly made a lasting impression. I would definitely recommend this book.

American Dirt – Jeanine Cummins

2020 is a year we are all going to remember. Between a global pandemic, widespread civil unrest and the discontinuation of the Argos catalogue, you can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of apocalypse. Yet when I pause to take stock of my own experiences over the last 6 months, there are glimmers of light flickering through the cracks of corona-craziness. Not only have I had space to reflect on the things that really matter to me (family; friendship; chocolate), I have also devoured more books by the end of August than I usually read in a whole year. Most importantly of all, lockdown has made me appreciate just how privileged I am in so many different ways: I have a house, with food and water; I have an income that allows me to indulge my literary excesses; I can walk down the street without fearing for my life. Whilst this growing gratitude for my place in the world can still be dwarfed some days by the frustrations of every day existence, reading American Dirt was a timely and harrowing reminder of how little I truly have to complain about.

Following the brutal massacre of her entire extended family by one of the cartels, Lydia and her young son Luca are forced to flee northwards through Mexico towards the United States. Their previously comfortable, middle class existence in Acapulco was one that most of us could relate to – Lydia owned a bookstore, her husband was a journalist and Luca attended the local infant school – yet suddenly they are on the run with only the most basic of possessions, limited funds and the additional baggage of unimaginable grief. The journey that follows is tougher and more harrowing than I could have ever imagined, as they risk their lives to reach the border and comparable safety of Arizona. Cummins vividly portrays the intense claustrophobia of Lydia’s entrapment, pressed forward by certain death towards a border that feels impenetrable. The constant adrenalin of impending danger drives both our protagonist and the narrative onwards with relentless pace. I could not put it down.

I deliberately avoided much of the controversy surrounding this novel until I had finished it, wanting to form my own opinion before reading more. Accusations have been made that Cummins has no right to tell this story as a white, non-immigrant American; that it’s an example of cultural appropriation and is riddled with stereotypes. I don’t pretend to understand how it must feel to have your story told by someone who has no first hand experience of those horrors and am painfully aware of my white privilege as I type these words. However, I have one simple defence of American Dirt: I believe it has the power to change people’s perspectives. Despite already being sympathetic to the migrant cause, this book shook me to the core, as I had never truly considered the physical and emotional horror of being forced from your home towards a place that will do all it can to prevent you from reaching safety. If it can change the opinion or evoke empathy in even a handful of those who hold less liberal views on immigration, this story deserves positive aknowledgement for its impact on an increasingly divided cultural landscape.

The events of 2020 have changed all of our lives in ways we cannot control. This is an incredibly powerful and moving reminder of just how lucky so many of us are, wrapped up in a beautifully written and addictive tale that will stay with me for years to come. I could write at length about the various themes it tackles unflinchingly – motherhood, trauma, violence – but fundamentally I just want you to read it. I cannot recommend it enough.

Book Buddies

One of my favourite things about having a blog is meeting new people who share my love of lit. But how can we get to know these virtual book-mates a little bit better? I decided to interview a follower at random – here is what happened when I connected with the lovely Lucinda…

Hi Lucinda and welcome to the Bookaholic Bex community! Let’s start with you telling us 3 things we need to know about our new best book buddy.

Hi Bex!

Okay, 3 facts about me…
1. I volunteer and work at my local community library. Perks include having my own set of keys so I can browse the shelves on my own and getting to meet lots of amazing authors who have appeared at one of our events.
2. I own two tortoises called Tabitha and Voldetort. They’re surprisingly fast and enjoy destroying things.
3. I have been blogging for years but I’m terrible at being consistent! Life has really got in the way recently but I got some new graphics and I’m trying to relaunch my site and build some new followers

What inspired you to start writing a book blog?

I had been made redundant and was spending all day in my house on my own. I thought that starting a blog would help me to reach likeminded bookish people and would teach me some new skills. I didn’t dream for one second that there would be this whole community of book bloggers out there who I would come to think of as friends (or how much work it would be!)

There are so many books in the world and so little time – how do you choose the books you read?

I do go a lot off other blogger’s recommendations. I know people who live in entirely different countries with very different lifestyles, ages etc. but if they recommend a book I know I’m going to love it!

Also, I can’t resist a bit of hype. There are some books like Six of Crows that I don’t think would have ever appealed to me but they get referenced so often that I feel like I need to read them just to see what everyone else is on about!

If you were a character in a novel, who would you be and why?
I think I’d quite like to be Daisy Jones in her heyday – I’ve always wanted to be a rock star!

Your house is on fire and you can only save 3 books. What would they be?
Does my kindle count? I’d try to save my grandparent’s encyclopedias that were published in the 1940’s, my Virago Modern Classics Designer Edition of Valley of the Dolls and my boyfriend’s PhD thesis, because he’d go mad at me if I was in my library (spare bedroom) and I left it behind!

And finally, can you share with us your best lockdown read and tell us why we should read it too?
I’ve just finished The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary which was such a lovely, funny, feelgood novel and a brilliant bit of light relief from the horror of what’s going on right now. Or Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams which was almost painfully relatable but brilliantly written.

You can find out more about what Lucinda is reading at

https://lucindaisreading.wordpress.com/

You Are What You Tweet

Despite masquerading as a fully paid-up participant of this club we call adulthood, there are times when I seem to mislay my membership card. The simplest things can prompt my regression: I spend a day with my family and revert to the role of truculent teenager; catch a glimpse of Take That from the 90’s and am reduced to tears as I mourn my relationship with Gary Barlow. (If only he realised how perfect we could have been together). I can now proudly add into this mix my latest retrogressive cue – Twitter. Having joined 9 months ago in the name of promoting the Bookaholic brand (if that doesn’t sound smugly adult, I don’t know what does) I find myself now exceptionally torn by my conflicting experiences so far. Does tweeting enhance my literary life? I really can’t decide.

There is something exceptionally cliquey about this particular form of social media that smacks just a little too much of being back at school. Having decided to follow swathes of other book bloggers to fill my feed with recommendations and reviews, I find myself isolated on the edge of a well-established group who all interact on what appears to be an hourly basis. I may seem like someone who is outgoing and even extroverted but having made brief attempts to infiltrate, I quickly gave up when I realised I am unable to commit to the constant communication. I was never one of the cool kids at school (ok, that’s a massive understatement) and I find myself once again watching from the sidelines feeling distinctly left out. Whilst I have drawn the line at stomping up to my bedroom to burn scented candles and listen to A Million Love Songs on repeat, I can’t help feeling it’s only a matter of time.

On the other hand, there have also been some incredible positives to joining the Twitter community, not least that I now get approached to review books in return for a free copy of the novel in question. (“Free books” may literally be my definition of “living the dream”). Then there are the connections with authors I admire which I would never have made in the real world, where “following” them would have more likely led to a restraining order. Nothing beats the excitement of engaging in electronic conversation with a writer whose work you truly adore and it’s an addictive Bookaholic buzz. One individual even sent me a copy of a limited signed edition as a random act of kindness that has honestly made my year. Moments like these truly lift my heart and make me think it isn’t so bad after all.

For now I will probably continue falling in and out of love with Twitter on a daily basis, making and breaking connections until I find the right community where I feel at home. (I’m sure there is a support group somewhere for those whose hearts Gary broke). In the meantime if anyone needs me I’ll be locked in my bedroom writing angst-ridden poetry. It’s what teenage Becky would want, after all.

Magic by Mike Russell


At the grand old age of 41 (I know, I don’t look a day over 40) I have had ample opportunity to work out what I truly believe in.  My political views are resolutely liberal, my feminism inherently inclusive, and my monogamous relationship with Pepsi firmly set in stone despite the torrid temptations of other fizzy drinks. (I did briefly flirt with Mountain Dew but it was just short-lived, caffeine-induced lust).  Whilst my opinions are not entirely immovable, it takes a convincing line of argument to change my perspective and I don’t often find myself thus challenged.  So it is with no small fanfare I announce that, despite my traditional scepticism for both mysticism and magicians, last weekend I decided I believe in magic.  Let me tell you why.
 
I was fortunate enough to be given a free copy of Magic by Mike Russell to review, but admit to some initial reservations: despite having really enjoyed Nothing is Strange by the same author, I usually avoid literary offerings that relate to anything supernatural or mystical in nature.  Yet I found myself gripped from the very first page, thanks almost entirely to the endearing enthusiasm of Charlie, our narrator.  Following the death of his abusive parents, Charlie has been cared for by Manzini the Marvellous (spoiler alert: his name may give away his profession), but when we we join him, he is living alone with an army of white rabbits, a child-like enthusiasm for life and a fervid fascination with magic.  Little does he know that this latter passion is about to be shaken to its very core (by an evil nemesis appropriately called Barry) and it is Charlie’s battle to retain his faith that drives this narrative along. 
 
From the outset this novel really made me think. The opening pages offer up an alternative creation story that expertly merges Darwin’s evolutionary theory with elements of Biblical story-telling, then mixes it all up with a mystical twist that truly exemplifies how clever Russell’s writing is. (Let’s be honest, if you heard the opening chapters of Genesis for the first time, it would all seem very strange – why should this be any less likely?)  Like many fairy tales that have gone before, you can read this entire novel as a simple and uplifting tale of a young man’s journey to find his moral purpose, or you can choose to see greater meaning beneath the surface. For example, a recurring motif is the terrifying hole that runs through through the earth from Arctic to Antarctic, exerting a magnetic pull on people seeking to commit suicide.  This chilling void is a vivid and powerful analogy for the abyss of depression, as anyone who has experienced mental health issues can testify.  Ultimately it is only believing in magic that keeps people alive.
 
There are a number of persistent themes that resonated strongly with me: the way we tell stories to cope with adversity (my favourite being the hankie-bearing magician who arrives invisibly each time we cry to take our sadness away); the terrible consequences of trying to understand and thereby control magic (the worst being Mr Todd, who cuts things in half to see how they work – including his ex wife).  But the ultimate message is that magic is everywhere and everything is magic – we just take it for granted.  The way we breathe oxygen to feed our bodies is magic; the way the sun rises and sets each day is magic; the sheer fact I can read a book and my mind turns words into pictures is – you guessed it – magic.  Russell provides a truly refreshing view of the world, powerfully reframing the things we take for granted each and every day.  This book made me laugh, it made me cry and most of all it made me grateful for just being alive – and right now, I can’t ask for more than that.

A Day In The Life of a Bookaholic

7.30am – Despite the arctic gusts and slashing sleet relentlessly assaulting my body, I am determined to keep pace with my companion, Simon Reeve. He has been entertaining me for hours with tales of his global explorations and I am hanging on his every word – this guy is amazing. Just as we reach the pinacle of the mountain we are scaling, pausing breathlessly to survey the undeniable beauty of this wind-swept landscape, my alarm goes off and I slam back down into reality. Making a mental note to read Step by Step, Reeve’s most recent book, I blearily drag myself away from dream world and into the shower.

8.30am – Slightly more awake now (thanks to a cheeky 10 minute read whilst I brushed my teeth / dried my hair) I log into my work laptop and start to sort through today’s priorities. I am currently using my Kindle for literary purposes and it nestles beside me on the dining table as motivation to make it through to lunchtime. I like to keep whatever I am reading close by and I have been known to stroke the cover of physical books and even rub the page edges against my thumb whilst engaged in lengthy conference calls – somehow this grounds me and keeps me focussed. Just don’t tell any of my colleagues, they will think I am crazy. (They may have a point).

12.30pm – I break for lunch, grabbing my book and retreating to the sofa. I am briefly distracted by my Twitter feed and feel my anxiety rise as I realise other bloggers post a lot more than I do. It is ironic that my current read is The Bright Side of Going Dark by Kelly Harms, a book all about the negative impact social media usage has on our lives. Immersing myself in its electronic pages for a few minutes reminds me that being a Bookaholic is not a competition and Twitter likes do not equal love. (Apparently chocolate doesn’t either, but I am not ready to accept that one yet).

5pm – Work is finally over for the day. I give my parents a quick call and we discuss my blog – it seems my best intentions backfired and they are both now extremely keen to read 50 Shades of Grey. I am equally keen not to be responsible for the level of psychological scarring this will entail (for me as much as them) so change the subject in the best and most English way I know – isn’t the weather stunning today?

5.30pm – I head out for a walk on the abandoned golf course near my house. (That sounds like the start of a Stephen King thriller, but it’s prettier and less spooky than it sounds). I spend the time thinking about the novel I finished yesterday, The Motion of the Body Through Space by Lionel Shriver. It’s about the cult of exercise and how people become obsessed to the point of making themselves seriously ill. Whilst I very much doubt my 60 minute stroll puts me in that category, I make a mental note to bring my water bottle next time and keep myself hydrated. I consider blogging about the book and rifle through my mental library of sport-related anecdotes, quickly coming to the conclusion that “then I bunked off PE again” is not a particularly fascinating opener.

9pm – Dinner done, I retire to the living room to watch some tv. If I am watching a drama, I persistently tell anyone who will listen that “the book was definitely better” but tonight I am catching up on a documentary series about elephants. This reminds me of a book club pick we recently chose at work, Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult. It taught me a huge amount about how intelligent and sensitive these creatures are and this programme confirms those views. I decide I want a pet elephant and spend 15 minutes Googling this as a possibility.

10.30pm – I am off to bed to wind down by reading a couple more chapters. I am feeling pretty shattered and really need an early night so it won’t be long before I call it a day. I love the way Harms writes and this book is really engaging. Social media is most definitely evil. I pause briefly – and ironically – to check Facebook.

11.30pm – Not entirely sure where the last hour went, but my eyelids are drooping and I finally accept defeat. Putting Kelly to one side, I wonder if Simon is waiting for me to return at the top of that mountain? It’s time to find out…

Great Expectations

Having begrudgingly surrendered all social activity over the past few months in the name of staying safe, a parcel being delivered is now officially the highlight of my week. Starved of face to face contact with friends and family, I leap to my feet whenever the door bell rings and race to meet the postman with an enthusiasm more frequently observed in our canine companions. (I do try to draw the line at humping the man’s leg). Such has been my passion for online ordering that frequently I have no idea which of my precious packages may be arriving and I revel in the glorious anticipation. It is the ultimate lockdown thrill – or at least it was until this week, when my exuberance was violently crushed as I realised that the delivery in question was actually for my neighbours and not for me at all. To have our expectations raised so high only to be cruelly dashed is one of life’s tougher lessons and something I have learnt to be wary of in particular when it comes to literary marketing. Just as we judge a blog by its title (I was just messing with your minds, this isn’t actually about Dickens at all) we often judge books by their covers – and this can be incredibly misleading.

One of my biggest prejudices when it comes to book-buying relates to the reviews the publisher chooses to promote. If the cover does not provide a recommendation from a reputable source, I dismiss it entirely, even if the story sounds intriguing and something I would like to read. I do recognise that this gut instinct is ridiculous, not least because one of my most recent online purchases proved this theory to be rash. When the postman delivered What It Seems by Emily Bleeker (and I had finished yapping excitedly at his ankles) I was wary of the absence of quotes adorning the cover, yet this was a gripping and unique tale that held my attention throughout. Tara was adopted at a young age by a foster mother who controls every element of her existence, narrowing her world to the confines of her locked bedroom and occasional forays to local malls to shoplift. Our protagonist longs for another life and secretly yearns to be part of a vlogger family on YouTube called the Feelys. When she is chosen to spend a summer working with them as an intern, Tara has some tough decisions to make, not least how she can escape from her current circumstances. Bleeker writes with pace and creativity, bringing to life these 2 conflicting worlds with vivid clarity. I enjoyed this book a great deal, despite the fact I would have never chosen it had I seen the cover first. I was pleasantly surprised.

Conversely, there are also occasions when too many glowing recommendations can also be misleading, raising the anticipation much higher than a text can reach. My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent has a plethora of dependable envoys proclaiming its value, from Stephen King who refers to it as “a masterpiece” to Celeste Ng who told me the book would “shock, then shake then inspire” me. This story centres on Turtle, a young teenage girl living with her father in the Northern Californian wilderness. She has been brought up with a keen knowledge of the natural world she inhabits, an ability to shoot a gun with startling precision and a strong sense that she is different from the other children she meets. Tallent tackles physical and sexual abuse by contrasting a bluntness of description with a real sensitivity of emotion that is powerful in its linguistic depths and there are certainly scenes that had me entirely gripped in the horror of what was happening. But something didn’t quite make the grade for me. There is no doubt this is a well-written and moving tale, but my expectations were so much higher after reading those quotes on the cover and this wouldn’t feature in my top 10 books of the year so far.

The main conclusion I have drawn is that positive or negative anticipation can be dangerous and I should try harder to keep all pre-judgements in check. Someone wise once said “expectation is the root of all heartache” and I can certainly see their point, dramatic as it sounds. So next time there is a knock at the front door, I shall take a deep breath, roll my tongue back into my mouth and remind myself it’s probably just some tediously dull delivery someone else has ordered. At least that way I might just get a nice surprise.