The Shelf – Helly Acton

I was dumped by my boyfriend on my 21st birthday, Bookaholics. I tell you this not to evoke sympathy some 20 years later (although a collective “aww” wouldn’t go amiss) but to provide context for my next confession: I have a thing for reality tv shows. Whilst these two statements sound entirely unconnected, there is an important link – I found myself heartbroken and newly single the very summer Big Brother launched in the UK for the first time. Having just graduated with a degree most employers instantly dismissed as meaningless (quite why my in-depth knowledge of topography in the work of Jane Austen wasn’t deemed relevant to the workplace, I have no idea), I literally had nothing to do except binge-watch daytime television and wallow in self-pity. I was the perfect captive audience for what seemed in that moment such a ground-breaking, innovative offering and it kick-started my ongoing fascination with cheap programming designed for mass consumption. (I have never watched Love Island, however. I have some standards). So it was no real surprise that I was immediately drawn to The Shelf by Helly Acton, a novel centred on a fictional show designed to teach women how to be more attractive to men. (I know, I KNOW. Bear with me, this gets better!)

Our protagonist, Amy, has been dating Jamie for 2 years and is frustrated the relationship isn’t moving forward. Blinded by societal pressure to settle down and have children like many of her friends, she overlooks the signs that he may not be long-term material and focuses instead on trying to be the woman he wants. Thinking he is taking her on an exotic holiday, Amy is lured to a west London studio where Jamie proceeds to dump her in front of a live tv audience and then learns he has registered her as a contestant on The Shelf, a show where newly liberated women can learn all about where they may be going wrong when it comes to men. Our heroine is understandably horrified but chooses to take part as the money she is offered will allow her to travel when the nightmare is over.

Don’t be fooled by either this description or the book’s chick-lit exterior: this is the most fiercely feminist story I have read in years. Along with her fellow contestants, Amy embarks on a journey of rebellion against the misogynistic challenges set by the programme’s producers (tasks include looking after a new-born baby for several days to test their maternal instincts and organising the perfect tea party, where they lose points for crossing their legs in an un-ladylike way) and finds true female camaraderie with a group of disparate women she would otherwise never have met. Freed from the binds of her oppressive relationship, she gradually finds confidence in her own voice and realises just how restrictive gender roles can be. I don’t want to say too much else for fear of giving away spoilers, but the key theme of this text is the importance of respecting individual choice if that choice has been made freely, without subjugation to cultural pressure. It also vividly portrays just how far reality tv has gone to gain viewing figures, with the tasks becoming more ridiculous as time goes on. This book made me want to rant and rage at the patriarchy – to scream at the sexist values that still drive so much of the world around us – but it also made me laugh and cry and realise how empowered we all are when we learn to be true to ourselves. (Yes that’s a cliché, but it’s also true).

I never did find a job where my in-depth knowledge of all things Austen served a purpose but fortunately I no longer spend all day on the sofa watching rubbish (I save that for the evenings instead). But I still know a good book when I read it and can adamantly state The Shelf is an absolute page-turner, difficult to put down, incredibly engaging and a powerful vehicle to deliver some really important messages: if only I had read this when I was 21, I may just have got in first, finished the relationship and saved myself some heartache. Do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of this. You won’t regret it.

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2020 in Books


What better way to kick off another year of reading and book blogging than with a brand new book tag, especially one that gives us the opportunity to reminisce over all the books we read last year. I love the fact this gave me a chance to think back over all of the different titles I devoured, some of which I had almost forgotten completely. (Blame my age. Or Covid. Or something).

Part One: the beginning of the year!

Name a book that you were really excited for.

It sounds wrong to say I was excited to read the harrowing account of a mother and child fleeing the Mexican cartels – and making the terrifying journey to the US border – but there had been so much controversy over American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins that I had high expectations. My anticipation was not disappointed and this book made it into my top 3 of the year.

Name a book that started out really well.

The Book of Strange New Things began with a fascinating concept – an English pastor sent to a new planet to teach the inhabitants all about Christianity whilst life back on earth slowly disintegrates – but from around halfway through it seemed to lose its way. The ending in particular was disappointing. Much like 2020.

Part Two: the world goes on hold!

Name a book that had an unexpected plot twist.

I may be cheating by choosing The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish because it didn’t have just one unexpected turn – it had so many plot twists I couldn’t put it down! This is an excellent thriller and I did not predict the ending at all.

Name a book where you felt like nothing happened.

I think the fact very little ever seemed to happen in Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
was a very astute narrative device, reflecting the monotony and repetition of owning a bookshop. So many people I know harbour dreams of running such a place but truth is it’s hard work, requires an innate ability to do the same tasks over and over with great patience, and deal with members of the public who can be… challenging. I loved this book and the fact nothing really happens did not detract from my enjoyment at all.

Name a book where two main characters were separated.

The whole concept of Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld is “what if Hillary and Bill Clinton never got married” so this definitely qualifies as the two main characters being separated. It charts the rise and fall of both individuals with such immense clarity that I kept having to remind myself it wasn’t an autobiography. I also felt pretty bereft when I finished and realised it wasn’t true.

Part Three: the world tries to reopen (and begins a second wave of the pandemic)!

Name a book in which the characters made a bad decision.

For an example of this on an extreme scale, I finally read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton last year and really liked it. I reckon deciding to bring dinosaurs back from the dead is up there with one of the worst character decisions ever made, no!?

Name a book with an impatient/overly eager character.

This is probably a little unfair given it’s a non-fiction book, but I found the author of Pushed (JR Elias) a little unsettling. In telling the tale of Amber Hilberling – a woman sentenced to life in prison for pushing her husband out the window of their high rise apartment – he came across as more than a little obsessed with his subject and over eager in her defence. It felt a little creepy to be honest and despite my ongoing belief in her innocence, it made the whole account feel uncomfortable.

Part Four: the world adjusts (not sure if this ever really happened but ok)!

Name a book where a character’s goals change midway.

At the beginning of Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, our newly-divorced protagonist’s goal is simply to bed as many women as he possibly can. However as the story evolves he realises this isn’t as satisfying as it might first seem, and his ex-wife’s disappearance adds a whole new angle to his goals in life.

Part Five: the end and looking forwards!

Name a book whose sequel you really anticipated/are anticipating.

I have been waiting patiently (ok, not so patiently) for the sequel to A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth for years now and I know I am not alone. Publishing deadlines seem to come and go every few years and I am beginning to wonder if we will ever see A Suitable Girl in print. I hope so. The first book was one of my favourites of all time and the recent BBC adaptation just reignited my passion for his writing. Please
hurry up!

Name a book whose sequel was better than the original.

I didn’t read many sequels in 2020 but the best by far was Us Against You by Frederik Backman. The follow up to Beartown was every bit as good as the original story (and believe me, I have no interest in ice hockey outside of these books) but I would be hard pushed to say it was better. You will just have to read both and decide for yourself.

Name a book that you read just to finish it.

Without doubt Ana from 50 Shades of Grey is one of the most irritating heroines I have ever encountered. (Don’t judge me – I read it for a dare and still haven’t recovered from the trauma). She is totally insipid, unable to have any conversation that doesn’t centre on men and made me cringe so many times I finished this book only so that I could critique it from an informed viewpoint. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the rest of the trilogy.

So how about you? I would love to know your answers too!

Rules:

  • Link back to the original creator, Phoenix @ Books
    With Wings
  • Thank the person who tagged you!
  • Answer all the questions.
  • Tag at least 4 people.

My Life On the Road – Gloria Steinem

There are lots of things I miss from my pre-Covid life. Some of them are pretty significant (spending time with my family), some a little less important (getting all dolled up in my party gear to celebrate somebody’s birthday) and some so obscure that I can’t believe I am even confessing them out loud (striking up casual conversations with strangers about where they bought their shoes or the time they met Bonnie Langford in 1987). But of all the activities 2020 rudely stole from my calendar, travel has been one of the hardest to adjust to. Whilst as a youngster even a night away from familiar surroundings would prompt a panic attack the size of Chicago (I may have to copyright using American cities as a measure of anxiety, I reckon it’s pretty accurate) the older I have grown, the more I have relied on those trips to broaden my horizons, build my confidence and remind me first hand just how incredible the people of this world can be. I always return with a fresh perspective and a renewed love of life. Without this alternate lens through which to view my own existence, I feel indescribably lost and no amount of reading or watching documentaries can yield the same humanistic harvest. Because of this context, I was always going to feel a connection with My Life On the Road, Gloria Steinem’s incredibly moving autobiographical account of her life, shared as it is through the incredible places she has visited and the unforgettable people she has met. My admiration of her achievements is just the icing on the proverbial cake.

I don’t often wander into the world of autobiography, egotistical and self-aggrandising as the genre can be. (I haven’t recovered yet from reading Piers Morgan’s some years ago). As one of the most well known names of the feminist movement, it would be easy for Steinem to have fully absorbed that fame and grabbed the opportunity to brag at length about her glorious career. But this is not your average memoir and Steinem is not your average author. When your life’s work has been dedicated to listening to the stories of others, responding to their experience and giving them a voice when no-one else can hear them, why would you subvert those values for the sake of self-promotion? The answer is – you wouldn’t. True to the principles that have shaped her life, instead Steinem shares her story through interaction with the myriad of individuals she has met as she has travelled the length and breadth of America campaigning for social justice. As a result this is fascinating, compulsive and almost impossible to put down.

From her nomadic childhood – with a father who insisted they spend most of the time on the road – to adult years spent organising and attending events in support of causes and people across the nation, Steinem has never lost her passion for learning or her commitment to listen. She is honest and transparent about the tough decisions she has faced (when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton went head to head for the Democratic nomination, the party was gifted a choice between 2 minorities and a tough decision about which candidate to back) and the painful fall-out when a few wrongly interpreted words in the media have led to her condemnation. Without doubt my favourite part was her recounting of conversations she has had with taxi drivers across the nation, recognising these voices “on the ground” as one of the most accurate ways to take the local political temperature. But ultimately one of the greatest compliments I can give this book was my urge to write down quotes from almost every single page: Steinem has the ability to evoke complex philosophical concepts in a way that makes them fizz off the paper and into my mind in a fantastic feat of linguistic acrobatics. As such this is a book I know I will dip into again and again to revisit the inspirational words of every chapter.

As a fledgling feminist, I have strong views on equality and feel a powerful debt of thanks to those who have dedicated their lives to campaigning for human rights across the world. Whilst the movement is at times threatened by schism and an unsettling sense of conflict from opposing camps, I am clear that my own principles are based on those this book represent: we all deserve to be treated with respect and have our voices heard, regardless of gender, race or cultural heritage. Gloria Steinem has forged an important path through painful patriarchal assumptions and carved out a platform for those most in need of a voice, with grace, dignity and a willingness to keep learning that we can all aspire to. I already know this will be one of my top reads of 2021.

Hive

Whilst we may only be a few days into 2021, it is already tempting to look back on its action-packed predecessor with rose-tinted glasses. That first lockdown ten months ago seems like a halcyon holiday in comparison with the dark frozen days and social unrest of the last week; a time when people took the rules seriously, didn’t use the flimsiest justification to hang out with their mates and we all pulled together so it would be over by summer. (Ironically Johnson claims it will still be over by summer. He just hasn’t stated which year). But however depressing this year turns out to be, I am determined to stick to my reading resolutions, one of which is to devour more books outside of my normal comfort zone, and I have already started as I mean to go on. Jeremiah Ukponrefe offered me a free copy of his science fiction novel Hive in return for a review and I jumped at the chance. I rarely read anything of this genre (although I used to enjoy apocalyptic movies before the apocalypse became real) and I was excited to explore something different.

This is the story of Alexander King who is a soldier with The Collective, a group of individuals who have spent years trying to destroy an alien force called The Hive. The planet has been decimated as a result of this battle and mankind left divided into disparate groups who distrust each other enormously. By chance Alex stumbles across evidence that The Hive is far stronger than The Collective thought and he sets about bringing together these warring factions to face that danger head on. We follow our hero on his adventures as he seeks to understand and extinguish the enemy through whatever means he can.

So let’s start with the good stuff. This book has some of the key ingredients that make a great novel, not least Ukponrefe’s ability to paint vivid battle scenes with his powerful use of words. The opening scene felt like a film and I could picture clearly in my mind exactly what took place with a clarity many writers struggle to produce. The author also introduces us early on to a ragtag group of fighters who each have their own clear personality: there is Alex (strong, brave, always follows the rules), Takeo (his loyal sidekick and a fearless warrior), David (the intelligent scientist, older and little experience of combat) and Reese (heralded as a hero despite being a lazy chancer who follows the way the wind blows). There are glimpses of brilliance in the dialogue between these 4 and I was hopeful it would continue to develop throughout.

Unfortunately, however, Hive fails to deliver on that early promise. The spark of this interaction is shut down far too soon and instead the text is saturated with explosive action at the cost of any character development, without any quieter passages to allow those battles to shine. With the action so non-stop there is no time for the author to give us any back-story, either on the historical conflict between The Collective and The Hive (which meant I was left pretty confused by what had actually happened) or for individual characters. Alex is at times quite cold and emotionless in his responses and I would have liked to have known why – what happened in his childhood? What was his upbringing like? (It’s possible I should have been a social worker). As a result, when key characters die (not naming names) it is difficult to mourn their loss: as a reader I had little or no emotional investment in any of them.

I think that Ukponrefe has signs of potential and if this was the first draft of Hive, I would be excited to see the end result. As additional books are promised, I hope the author explores more of the backstory behind each of his key players and allows his readers greater connection with the world he has clearly spent considerable time creating. If you are a fan of action movies or video games with lots of shooting, this might be the book for you. Otherwise, maybe wait to see if the series progresses before committing.

Reading Resolutions

Whilst it may be a cherished tradition for many of you, I don’t tend to set myself New Year’s resolutions. This is partly because the project manager in me refuses to set targets that will inevitably fail (nothing like a positive attitude, eh?) and partly because I know I will never again have the immense willpower of 2002 (I lost 5 stone and still don’t know how). However, this year I have decided to set myself some very specific objectives, all of which ostensibly relate to books but are actually more deeply related to the quality of my life. So without further ado, I present to you my top 3 bookaholic resolutions for 2021:

1) I want to read less. Yes, you read that correctly: I want to reduce my bibliophilic consumption. Whilst I am immensely proud of the 139 texts consumed during 2020, this upsurge in literary indulgence was a direct result of a life-changing global pandemic. Quite frankly I want my life back. Less books means I am doing more travelling, eating more meals out, enjoying more theatre trips and spending more time sat in pubs pondering vital existential questions like what is the point of humankind, and do I really want the chocolate fudge cake? (Spoiler alert: the answer is always yes). Books are amazing but so are people and I miss my social world like crazy.

2) I plan to read more books by new authors. I am often approached by writers asking me to review their work and this has led to me enjoying texts I would never normally have chosen. I am going to be more open-minded and say yes to anything and everything. (Well. Almost everything. I draw the line at reading the rest of the 50 Shades franchise. That would just be pointless self flagellation).

3) I am going to watch more TV and film adaptations of books I have loved. I have always snobbishly avoided these like the plague, believing they will never do the original justice, but having recently seen the BBC version of A Suitable Boy I have realised how limiting this approach is. I absolutely adored it, which given Seth’s epic is one of my all time favourite novels, is quite an accolade. So I shall be taking a few more risks. (Although I still draw the line at watching the 50 Shades films. That might lead to a whole other type of self flagellation).

I have a good feeling about these reading resolutions and my ability to keep them this year. So what are your goals, Bookaholics? I’d love to hear all about them, maybe over a slice of chocolate fudge cake?

Top 3 Books of the Year

Nothing says “I am officially middle-aged” more than listening to Radio 4. Gone are the days when I would blast out the coolest tunes as I cruised through da hood in my pimped up ride (by which I mean the cheap patching job on my exhaust inadvertently made me sound like a boy-racer) and instead I now find myself spell-bound by treats such as auricular biopics of obscure African military leaders or the far-reaching financial implications of Brexit. (Dear God, I am old). Last weekend I was transfixed by an episode of Desert Island Discs, which made me think long and hard about how I would survive stranded somewhere remote without a regular Amazon delivery or an internet connection for my Kindle. (Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t). During 2020 I have read 139 books – more than I have read in any other year to date – and literary escapism has truly kept me going through all kinds of trauma. Choosing my top 3 has been a really tough process as a result but after much cogitation and deliberation, I can officially announce the Bookaholic Bex Top 3 Reads of 2020. Drumroll please:

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Despite the controversy surrounding this novel, I stand by the fact that it is an incredible read. Following the brutal massacre of her entire extended family by one of the drug 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. 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 acknowledgement for impacting on an increasingly divided cultural landscape. The constant adrenalin of impending danger drives both the protagonist and the narrative onwards with relentless pace and I could not put it down.

Beartown – Fredrik Backman

Of everything I have read this year, this book evoked the greatest emotional response. To say the residents of Beartown take hockey seriously would be an overwhelming understatement: the game shapes every aspect of their rural existence in the Swedish wilderness. After years of mediocrity, the junior team are finally on the brink of greatness, reaching the finals of the national league, and a victory would have implications far beyond just the group of boys on the ice, bringing investment to a town that has long struggled to retain economic viability. Over the course of the first half of the book, Backman introduces us to a surprisingly diverse range of characters, all linked in some way to the hopes and dreams the ice rink represents. Then a catastrophic incident takes place and the reverberations touch every single person in that small town, testing their friendships, their values and ultimately what they will sacrifice for success. It addresses issues that have great pertinence to all of our lives in the modern western world: the complex dynamic between loyalty and truth; the difference between right and wrong vs good and evil; the toxicity of male gender expectations and the power of female suppression. Usually a story with so many different viewpoints leaves me confused and eventually disengaged, but not once did I lose the thread of this tale. The ending is so gripping and powerful that I felt truly bereft as I finished the final paragraph. Not only has this book made my top 3 for this year, it is most probably up there in my top 10 reads of all time.

The Scent Keeper – Erica Bauermeister

I devour so many books that I inevitably forget some almost instantly, so when a story is still replaying in my mind months later, you know it is pretty special. This is the beautifully written and haunting tale of Emmeline, brought up as a child on a remote island with only her father for company, where she learns to live in idyllic harmony with the natural world around her. But when tragedy suddenly changes her life irrevocably, our heroine is thrown head first into a sphere that is utterly alien to her formative experiences and we travel with her on a physical and spiritual journey of understanding that captivated me completely. So many themes are explored with such heart-breaking poignancy, not least the complexity of family and what it means to be abandoned and the power of scent to mould and even change behaviour. This story is a slow burner that has power in the way it has grown on me more and more in the time since reading it – I sense this is an author to definitely watch out for moving forward.

So what about you, Bookaholics? What were your best reads of 2020? My fingers are flexing over the screen of my phone, ready to order your recommendations. I can’t wait to hear them!

One Hit Wonder – Lisa Jewell

I have never been a fan of Christmas.  Whether it’s the crass over-commercialisation of a religious celebration half the country doesn’t even believe in, or maybe the immense peer pressure to project the perfect picture of festivities on social media, it just doesn’t float my boat.  (And let’s be honest, I don’t need the excuse to stuff my face with booze and food, I do that all year anyway).  I had feared this year would be a particular challenge given the somewhat delicate state of my mental health but in some ways Covid has done me a favour – there has been so much else going on that I have reached the 21st of December without having really even thought about the upcoming revelries (which Boris has pretty much cancelled now anyway).  2020 has been challenging for so many people and without a doubt my saving grace has been books.  Struggling with significant changes in my life, not having seen my sister for over 2 years (yes, 2 years) and the annual impact of the dark winter nights, I have found myself on many an occasion lost in a whirlpool of exhausting mental meltdown.  Time and time again I have halted that gruelling negativity by turning my thoughts to the novel I am currently reading and the characters that have captured my imagination.  It’s an incredibly effective tonic to an overwhelming world and I thought I would share with you one book that captured me totally and let me escape reality for just a little while.
 
Having been introduced to Lisa Jewell just over a year ago by a friend, she has fast become one of my guilty pleasures (Lisa that is, not my friend) and One Hit Wonder was no exception.  Ana has been estranged from her glamorous older sister Bee for years, so the news of her untimely death comes as a shocking surprise.  With her mother suffering agoraphobia and unable to travel to London to gather her eldest daughter’s belongings, Ana is forced from the safe cocoon of her Devonshire home and into the bright lights of the big city.  Once there she meets Bee’s closest friends and together they begin to unpick the hidden truth behind her demise. 
 
As this description suggests, One Hit Wonder is an emotionally charged story and I was engaged from the very first page.  I find anything that relates to sisters always draws me in very quickly as my own relationship with my sibling is so important and I couldn’t bear to lose her.  I saw a great deal of myself in the protagonist and I sense many women will – so many of us experience significant insecurity about ourselves and settle for less than we deserve as Ana so clearly has – and watching her blossom as the story progressed was both empowering and uplifting.  However my favourite thing about this book is the author’s depiction of such realistic characters.  They are all flawed (aren’t we all) but as the story progresses the context behind their behaviour is gradually revealed until even the most abhorrent of characters (Ana and Bee’s mother, for example) evoke some sympathy.  But conversely this book also raises some difficult questions about human interaction and how well we ever truly know the people around us: Bee had a whole secret life that even her closest compatriots were unaware of, despite believing they knew everything about her.  Do we ever fully know anyone? It certainly makes you question what people choose to share and withhold.
 
Pre-2020 Becky would probably have dismissed this type of book as light-hearted fluff but I have changed this year almost as much as the world has (although in my case I would like to think it’s for the better).  If you are struggling to process everything that has happened over the last 12 months, this is perfect escapism – touching, inspiring and utterly engaging.  I fully recommend.
 

Crossing the Thin Blue Line – Chris Bailey-Green

Picture the scene, Bookaholics: it’s 1998. Tony Blair is the nation’s hero, Joey is climbing through Dawson’s window for the very first time and the world-wide obsession with Titanic is as yet untainted by the realisation that Rose’s make-up has remained intact despite her survival from a sinking ship. (Maybelline really need to up their game in comparison). Our heroine, 19 year old Becky, is in her second year of university, has a part-time job in a lingerie department measuring little old ladies for new bras and particularly enjoys pontificating on various literary theories she has adopted as if they were her own brain-child. One of these is “the death of the author”, a concept put forward by Roland Barthes debunking the focus on the author’s intentions and putting far greater emphasis on the interaction between reader and text. Becky is obsessed with this ground-breaking idea and will spend the next 20 years decrying those who concentrate obsessively on what the writer was intending within any given book. After all, why should that matter? Without the reader, the text is meaningless. The reader’s interpretation is key. Yet reality is, Becky will turn out to be an almighty hypocrite. Whilst this theory is all well and good for those famous writers long dead and inaccessible, once she has access to a living author and can ask any question she wants, everything is turned on its head.

Having known Chris now for around 18 years, I am always excited when a new book of his is published and this one particularly interested me given its focus on criminal justice. Crossing the Thin Blue Line is the story of Simon, who decides he needs a vocational change and joins the police. We follow him through the lengthy recruitment and training process and into the brutal realities of front line policing, where he finds himself making some unusual career choices. I was a mere 30 pages in when the temptation to ask Chris questions became overwhelming: given his own experiences of being a police officer, how much of this is autobiographical? Were Simon’s personal circumstances based on his own history? Was the Chief Inspector based on anyone he knew? (Roland who???)

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that Simon is a hero with very little back story and at first I found this really uncomfortable. I wanted to know about his childhood, his family, how he met his wife Amanda and it felt frustrating to have so little detail. (Yes, apparently I am that nosey). But as the novel progressed I realised this was actually an astute editorial decision, with the protagonist becoming an everyman figure that the reader can easily identify with, whilst simultaneously portraying the way a career like this becomes all-consuming. Simon is in many ways simply a vehicle for a cutting and insightful deconstruction of modern policing and the controversial politics surrounding it. Some of Chris’ best writing comes from dismantling the kind of bureaucratic insanity that at times we have all been caught up in, with one of the highlights of the book a budget meeting run by a consultant who is paid to make decisions about a world he is entirely ignorant of. Other key components include the ingenious characterisation of the Chief Inspector – who is both abhorrent and yet highly entertaining – and the brief glimpses we are given into the personal lives of others, like his partner George, which are all the more powerful for being so fleeting.

I found myself fascinated by the omniscient narrator and quite what that voice represented: was it an older, wiser Simon looking back with cynicism on his earlier life decisions? Was it the author himself unable to desist from sharing his own views? Fortunately for Chris, I managed to stop asking questions at this point and drew my own conclusions, deciding the narrative voice was designed, like the hero, to have an everyman appeal, drawing in the reader regardless of who they are. Whatever the authorial decisions, conscious or not, the delivery style works well for this type of text. This is a book written with humour, intelligence and an emotional detachment that only serves to emphasise the hypocrisies that permeate the world of public service.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone with more than a passing interest in criminal justice – unlike many fictional accounts of the policing world, Chris’s personal experience brings a level of insider detail that truly brings the world to life. (Not that the author matters obviously – sorry Roland). I now eagerly await his next publication. Only a year to go.

Kindle Karma

Like many people I know, I am addicted to social media. Whilst this is not unusual in these technologically-entangled times, my fixation is awkwardly coupled with a mis-placed belief that the rest of the world wants to know my opinion on everything. (I blame you for following my blog and giving me false allusions of grandeur). Over the years I have posted on a frighteningly frequent basis, so Facebook likes to provide a vivid recap of exactly what I was thinking each day for the last 12 years or so. It’s both a cringeworthy reminder of how much I have grown up (I am genuinely considering paying damages to anyone I ever hit on) and powerful evidence of how even the most resolute of views can evolve with time. For example, ten years ago I was adamant that I would never, ever own an e-reader, yet in 2020 approximately half of the books I have read have been on my Kindle. Rather than berating myself for blatant hypocrisy, I prefer to commend myself on my ability to evolve. (At least that’s my excuse). That said, I have a deeply complicated relationship with said electronic device and I thought I would share with you some of the idiosyncrasies of that love/hate relationship.

1) For a bookaholic, nothing beats the excitement of choosing your next read and it just isn’t as satisfying when the decision can’t be based on the weight of the book in your hand, the feel of the cover, the texture of the pages and the blurb on the back. My selections tend to be driven by a gut feeling of what feels right at that moment and I struggle to do that electronically. This means that I often end up reading something entirely inappropriate, like a love story whilst nursing a broken heart or a book about a plane crash whilst half way across the Atlantic. It’s an enormous risk.

2) This may just be down to middle age, but I keep forgetting I have downloaded a particular volume and then buy a hard copy by mistake. This is entirely my own fault for being seduced by those “cheap book” emails each day and stock piling around 20 unread Kindle items at any one time. When this happens I try and read it electronically first, so I can then gift the second copy to someone else if it is any good. (I would have bought you a present anyway. Honest).

3) I get really annoyed when there is a huge amount of content at the start before you even reach the first page (content lists / family trees / every bit of feedback the writer has ever received since their Year 7 school report) so by the time you hit the prologue you are already 6 or 7% in. For some reason my brain revolts and has to keep subtracting that exact amount off the percentage shown on each screen, so I accurately know how much I have actually read. It’s exhausting and pretty much pointless. (I might steal that sentence if I ever write a personal ad).

4) I was going to add “I miss being able to strike up conversations with random strangers based on the book they are reading” but that wouldn’t be entirely honest. That statement is really code for “I miss judging people by the book they are reading” especially when by the pool on holiday. I have yet to perfect the “hover behind someone’s sun lounger innocently whilst spying over their shoulder” routine, not just because my eyesight is deteriorating but because I also have the grace of a baby elephant – doubtlessly I would trip over and impale myself on their parasol. Instead I am left to make utterly baseless assumptions about who might be reading the latest Dan Brown novel (shudder) and it just isn’t as much fun.

5) Never mind papercuts – my Kindle case is slowly disintegrating and has deadly sharp corners where the plastic has come away. Problem is I love the cover so much and can’t bear to part with it. I even ordered the same cover again, but decided to keep that one pristine in the packet so it doesn’t suffer the same fate. Because obviously that makes total sense. I think I may have issues.

Whilst there is no denying the ease and usability of e-readers, truth is I will always struggle not to proclaim “it wasn’t like this in my day” whenever I use it, as final confirmation of my middle-aged decline. Nothing will ever beat having a physical book in your hands – and this is one statement I am confident I will still be saying that in 10 years time. Now, who would like to apply for that compensation?

Meet Me at the Museum – Anne Youngson

I have a confession to make, Bookaholics: as a teenager I was addicted to strangers. I don’t mean in some sordid, one night stand kinda way (I was far too innocent for that and anyway my mum would have killed me) but I had an ongoing obsession with writing lengthy letters to random folk all over the world. I had penfriends everywhere: there was Vera in St Petersburg, Angie and Stephanie in America, Danny in Ireland and even a boy in Nigeria whose name I’ve forgotten, which is particularly poor form given he asked me to marry him in his second ever message. (My all-time favourite was the guy serving time in Arizona State Prison, who cited smoking meth as his best-loved hobby. I was a guileless 16 year old and didn’t even know what meth was). Because of this predisposition for courting unfamiliar contacts, the concept of Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson appealed to me from the moment I read the synopsis. It did not disappoint.

As a school girl, Tina and her best friend Bella dreamed of visiting a museum in Denmark where “the bog man” resided, an archaeological discovery that fast became the object of their fixation. Now a farmer’s wife in her 60s – and mourning Bella, who has recently passed away – Tina finds herself saddened that they never made that trip despite discussing it frequently throughout their lives. Writing to the professor they contacted as children, she falls into an epistolary relationship with Anders, the curator of the museum. This book charts their letters back and forth as an unlikely friendship begins to develop. Whilst the worlds they reside in are very different – Tina lives a cluttered existence on an East Anglian farm with her husband and grown up family, whilst Anders is a minimalistic widow with his children living some distance away – our two protagonists quickly build an emotional bond, sharing as they do an interest in the minutiae of each other’s reality. As a reader you cannot help feeling deeply touched by their growing affection, portrayed with a gentleness of language that had me hooked on its beauty, and the emotional release they find in sharing intimate detail with a stranger.

The ultimate joy of this novel is that at its heart it is a tale of deep human connection. Both characters increasingly report the impact the other is having on their every day life – reflected beautifully in the way Tina both literally and metaphorically helps Anders change his outlook by encouraging him to move his desk to face a window – and their connection reverberates across the ocean. But most importantly this is a book about stories: the power of framing our experiences in words to shape our own thoughts; the freedom that comes with that expression; and the need for someone to witness our inner struggles and delights to give them validation. I don’t want to give anything away about the ending other than to say I was deeply moved and it will stay with me for some time to come. Youngson has created characters so vivid I feel they are also my friends.

This book warmed my heart and lifted my emotions at a time when the world feels very disconnected. It has also inspired me to explore whether there is still such a thing as penpal programmes – I would love once more to bond with those whose lives may seem so different but with whom I may just share some element in common. Who knows – it could broaden my horizons considerably. I might draw the line at smoking meth though. Now I actually know what it means.