Fifty Shades of Grey

On a cold winter’s night some 6 months ago, I spent a relaxing evening back home with my parents. As I reveled in the sumptious comforts of calorific cooking and a heating bill I don’t have to pay for (Mum always turns it up for me, despite Dad’s protests), conversation turned to my blog and my frustration that follower numbers had stagnated. We debated for some time how I could address this, until Mum suddenly put down her fork, looked me in the eye and announced with great finality, “There’s only one thing for it, Becky. Sex sells. Your blog needs more sex”. Unsurprisingly those were the last words on the topic that night, primarily because I was rendered utterly speechless and had to go and recover in the downstairs loo. Having subsequently spent most of the intervening 6 months trying to assimilate this comment with the individual delivering it (she’s my MUM, for God’s sake, I’m pretty sure she shouldn’t even know what sex is) I seem to be finally taking her advice, by writing a review of a novel that proves her theory beyond irrefutable doubt. So weird as this is to say – and even odder to type – Mum, this one is for you.

Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last 10 years, you will know the basic premise of 50 Shades of Grey: innocent, virginal girl meets rich, controlling man who proceeds to introduce her to a world of kink beyond her wildest dreams. Our “hero” (I use the term loosely) is suave, sophisticated and supposedly oozes sexuality, although one too many references to “his customary white linen shirt and black jeans” was a bit too Simon Cowell for my liking (the visual equivalent of a cold shower if ever there was one). Ana is our bland and insipid “heroine” who, despite brief moments of spunk (snigger) is frustratingly submissive, and not just in the sexual sense – she capitulates to her best friend Kate almost as often as she yields to Christian’s mind control. In the frankest terms, this book is unlikely to win any feminism awards and is a spectacular example of how to fail the Bechdel test: at no point do these girls manage any sort of conversation without defaulting to the topic of men. By automatically defining themselves through their relationship with males, the story becomes stomach-churningly patriarchal.

Don’t get me wrong, I can of course see the appeal if you are excited by domination and have repressed those feelings in a society that vehemently judges any sexual activity outside the “norm”. No doubt Lady Chatterley’s Lover had same effect on publication back in the day. But truth is the author perpetuates the constant and cliched cycle of fear / arousal / submission so many times as the pages progress, it becomes surprisingly mundane really quite quickly. I genuinely found myself longing for a few pages without sex, pushed to my own brink (of boredom) by yet another instance of Ana’s breath hitching or her muscles clenching deep inside (yawn). Most disturbing of all, however, is the darker subtext at play in this relationship. Forget the bondage and spanking (Ana is a consenting adult despite her innocence), this is a textbook portrayal of emotional abuse and it pained me to see the protagonist ignore the warnings of friends and family. Somehow I don’t think I will be reaching for the other books in the trilogy.

As one of my most supportive followers, my Mum quite often asks to borrow the books I have reviewed so we can discuss them in greater detail. Whilst in the past we have debated the popularity of this tome (laughing at Dad for thinking it was called 57 Shades of Grey – he worked for Heinz and obviously thinks there is nothing sexier than baked beans) I don’t think I could cope with her reading this one. So, whilst this blog is dedicated to her undeniable wisdom, I’m just going to have to insist she doesn’t go anywhere near the actual book. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when she is a little bit older. We will see.

Inspiration and Perspiration

As I type, Bookaholics, I am sat in my local hospital. It’s the hottest, sweatiest day of the year so far – at 9am people are already visibly wilting – and the mandatory mask makes it feel ten times more claustrophobic. On days like this a challenging environment becomes ten times harder to work in. There are no fans to circulate the air (a nurse tells me they have been banned due to Covid 19 restrictions) and no let up from the relentless stream of individuals requiring medical attention. Yet every single member of staff I have encountered has been warm in their welcome (no weather joke intended), positive in their outlook (no forecast jokes intended either) and quite frankly incredible given the immense pressure the NHS has been under in recent months. At a time when politicians repeatedly break their promises and let us all down, I find myself increasingly craving the company of those with life-affirming values and seeing this first hand has truly brought home to me how inspirational our health professionals are. When times are tough, inspiration is a key driver for elevating ourselves from potential emotional stagnation and, unsurprisingly, one of the best places to find this is in the books we read.

Novels that illuminate the breadth of human suffering are incredibly effective in helping me develop empathy with those outside my own social sphere. I recently devoured The Leavers by Lisa Ko over just 2 days, captivated as I was by this moving tale of bereavement, belonging and identity. When 11 year old Deming’s Chinese immigrant mother fails to return from work one day, his whole existence is thrown upside down. Eventually adopted by 2 well-meaning white college professors, Deming becomes Daniel, home becomes a small town as opposed to the bustling city and his life becomes unrecognisable. This is an expert exploration of the bluntness of racial prejudice, the subtleties of cultural bigotry and how far-reaching the consequences can be when individual identity is subverted. Ko addresses the emotive topic of immigration with sensitivity and compassion and in such an illuminating way that I found my own already liberal values challenged to their core. I was inspired by both the tenacity of human beings to do what it takes to survive and by the way it made me question my own privilege in a whole new way.

Survival is a also a key theme of The Lives Before Us by Juliet Conlin, a novel that explores the experiences of two Jewish women fleeing from Europe to Shanghai on the eve of the Second World War. Kitty and Esther are two very different characters spurred on by very diverse motivations – Kitty is on her way to a life of luxury with her new fiance; Esther needs to find a safe place to bring up her daughter – but they are thrown together by chance when assigned to the same cabin onboard the ship. I have to confess I am fascinated by history but not so much by text books (I blame the boredom of History A level) and I am a big fan of books that enlighten my ignorance through the eyes of empathetic protagonists. Conlin once again proves to be a master of characterisation and Shanghai comes alive through her vivid depiction. I was inspired by each tale of individual survival, of people who put their values ahead of personal interest time and again, and by the way this books explores the power and pitfalls of being a woman. This is definitely one to read.

Despite being deemed a key worker, I have been fortunate enough not to be on the front line during this period so have not had the chance to prove my own resilience under that kind of pressure. I would like to think I would take on each and every challenge with the good grace and positivity of those NHS heroes I have encountered today but we never truly know how we would respond until we hit crisis head on. For now I will take inspiration from my literary adventures – learning I will take with me as I continue to evolve.

If I Was…

Despite being a strong, confident woman, there are times I still succumb to my childhood fears. Not far beneath the fragile façade of this supposedly mature and independent individual you will find my inner 5 year old, building imaginary towers of Lego, sucking her metaphorical thumb and dancing around the figurative rooms of her mind to Karma Chameleon in her gold cat suit. It’s her voice that tells me to run and hide in the bathroom whenever I hear the disembodied jingle of the ice cream van (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang taught me at a young age not to trust strange men offering sugary treats) and it’s her who tells me I am going to die unless I dive under the duvet during a thunderstorm (which poses a particular challenge during the working day). It was during one such meteorological tempest earlier this week that I found myself in need of urgent distraction, to divert me from impending death by lightening. This blog is the result of the subsequent terror-induced creative surge: based on a childhood game of “let’s pretend”, I found myself wondering “what if…”

If I was a book, I would be… David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I accept that this is a confusing choice – I am not a boy, have never had an evil step-father and (contrary to what some of you may think) was not born in Victorian England. My choice is based purely on the parallels I see in my own personal growth and journey from naivety to maturity. Plus like much of Dicken’s work, it is beautifully articulated, quite dark in places but overall pretty funny and entertaining. Just like me. (Humour me on this one, Bookaholics).

If I was an author, I would be… Caitlin Moran (at least I would in my dreams). I am in awe of the way her work balances the delivery of strong feminist themes with a brilliant sense of humour, something I would love to be able to achieve one day. She also made it onto the BBC Woman’s Hour Power List in 2014. If that isn’t living the dream, I don’t know what is.

If I was a fictional character, I would be… Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy is feisty, articulate and knows how to rock a bodice and bonnet –we are practically doppelgangers. She also values family and female friendship far above the fripperies of society, reflected in me through the way I have always chosen a quiet drink with one of my girls over an over-priced night out at an over-rated club. I have a feeling she can dance better than me, mind.

If I was a genre, I would be… biography. Biography is about giving shape to the stories of people’s lives and I often hear a narrative voice in my head that attempts to give meaning to my experiences. Sometimes it can be light-hearted and bring much-needed comedy to embarrassing situations; other times it adopts a more ominous tone, usually when walking alone in the dark. (Imagine a Crimewatch-type voiceover explaining that “despite using this same path every day for years, this November night was the last time anyone ever saw Becky”). What can I say? It’s a gift and a curse.

If I was a bookshop, I would be… Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street in London. Literally one of my favourite places on earth, this beautiful Edwardian building is elegance personified – just like me. (Why are you laughing?) With stained glass windows, oak galleries and the classiest of interior decoration, its various rooms offer a multitude of different personalities to suit diverse book browsers – in the same way I present differing dispositions depending on the company I am keeping. It has something to offer everyone – a trait I like to pride myself on possessing.

What about you, Bookaholics? What would you be? If you are struggling for creative inspiration, I highly recommend cowering under the duvet…

Born to Read

I had an epiphany last week, Bookaholics. Whilst not quite on the scale of Sir Isaac Newton (I don’t have an apple tree in my garden) or even Archimedes (I was in public so shouting “Eureka!” may have got me some funny looks), it was still a life-defining realisation: I was born to read. Tempted as I am to pretend this came from some grandiose vision of baby Becky bursting forth from the womb with a book clutched in her tiny little paws, truth is this insight was based more on my physical inability to complete any other activity without hurting myself. In the space of a week, I went for a walk and was bitten so badly that my leg blew up to monstrous proportions (such a sexy look), I developed a problem with my back that meant I couldn’t walk without dragging my right leg behind me (even sexier) and then developed some sort of allergy whilst out shopping so my hands swelled up like big red balloons (did I mention how sexy I am?). Reading is clearly the only activity I can safely partake in and to celebrate this new-found knowledge, I thought I would share with you a whistle-stop tour of my favourite recent reads.

Despite being published some 20 years ago, Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson seemed an oddly appropriate choice at a time when conspiracy theories are headline news once again. This book charts encounters with a range of individuals who represent “extreme” views, from Islamic Fundamentalists and the Ku Klux Klan to David Icke (some years before he started inspiring criminal damage to 5G masts) and explores the concept of the “elite” who allegedly orchestrate our world from behind the scenes. Ronson writes with humour, humanity and most importantly an open-mind, encouraging us as the reader to draw our own conclusions. I couldn’t put this down and am busy ordering his back catalogue of books – the ultimate compliment I can give to any author.

In a total change of pace, Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams defied all my expectations. The bright pink cover and slightly Bridget Jones-esque synopsis had led me to assume this was simply chick lit, but in fact this is a marvellous melting pot of genre, with themes ranging from relationships to race, gender to mental health and identity. Our protagonist is having a truly tough time – on a reluctant “break” from her boyfriend, struggling with work, battling financial woes – and our lovable yet exasperating heroine proves to be both exceptionally real and consistently empathetic. I found myself laughing and crying in equal measure as I shared Queenie’s journey. Unlike your average pink-covered book (yes, I am being judgemental) I felt empowered and inspired by the ending (not a chick lit cliché in sight) and really recommend this as a very engaging read.

Anything is Possible was my second foray into the work of Elizabeth Strout and I will most definitely be devouring more. Ostensibly a novel, the text feels more like a series of short stories, each one about a different inhabitant of a small town in Illinois. The tales are seamlessly intertwined both in terms of how the characters relate to each other and thematically, with regret and reconciliation featuring strongly. Strout is a master of astute observation and the way she depicts the inner life of these individuals is astonishingly powerful. Her work deftly captures both the pain and joy of existence and I was left saddened and uplifted. For anyone fascinated by the complex mechanics that whirr under the hood of human nature, Strout is the author for you.

Given current events, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race seemed like a timely choice and this should be compulsory reading for everyone. From recounting the black history I was never taught at school (despite taking History right through to A-level, it was conspicuously absent) to exploring the intersectionality between race, gender and class, Reni Eddo-Lodge delivers an accessible and thought-provoking thesis that will challenge most people’s views on race relations. As someone who is more aware of their white privilege every day, this book has helped me grasp how my passive anti-racist stance is no longer enough – I need to be proactive in speaking out and challenging the systemic values that underpin our heavily discriminatory world.

Anyway, gotta run, Bookaholics – if you need me, my head will be buried in a book. What can I say? It’s my true calling. As long as I don’t drop the book and injure myself…

It’s A Man’s World

At the age of 30, Bookaholics, I was adamant I was in control. Everything had slotted into place: I knew exactly what I believed in, understood precisely what made me happy and would look on smugly as others floundered with their life choices, safe in the knowledge that I was the finished product. Becky’s life was sorted – a view made even more exasperating by my persistent habit of referring to myself in the third person. Now I have reached the grand old age of 40, I recognise just how naive and immature that life view was. I have without doubt evolved more in the last decade than I ever have before and 2020 Becky is incomparable to the 2010 version (although apparently I still refer to myself in the third person). One of the greatest changes is my new-found passion for all things feminism. I cannot lay claim to a dramatic, old-school “light bulb” moment where suddenly I could see exactly how trapped we are by our gender roles, as in reality it was more of a soft, gradual illumination, a little like turning on one of those slow-to-respond energy saving bulbs instead. Nowhere has this been more apparent for me than in my literary explorations.

Many of the books I loved when I was younger now make me uneasy with their overt endorsement of the submissive female role. My tweenage obsession with the Sweet Valley franchise taught me early on that my value as a girl came primarily from how I looked (and let’s be honest, I was always going to be inferior to those blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauties) and that whenever I was in trouble, only a boy could save the day (a pretty demoralising lesson for someone who didn’t date anyone until she was 20.). I can also clearly remember smuggling teen romance books home from the library which continued my education in the vital art of making myself attractive to the opposite sex. Memoirs of a Geisha was my favourite novel for many years after that, yet it not only endorses offensive negative stereotypes of Japanese culture, but also reiterates the message that a woman is nothing without a man. No wonder I was programmed to desperately crave a relationship – these books taught me that until I did, I had no identity.

Now I see everything I read through a gender lens. My book club will tell you I can find feminist themes in anything. (I never claimed 2020 Becky was less annoying). But feminism is a broad school of thought and I don’t always agree with others. When we recently chose The Other Half of Augusta Hope (an excellent read, fully recommended) I was surprised to see some reviews criticise a protagonist whose happy ending came from conforming to narrow female stereotypes. I hadn’t even considered this interpretation and on balance don’t agree. Conversely many people think that segregating “women’s fiction” actually promotes the feminist cause, yet I find it insulting to suggest one half of the human race are so limited in their creativity that it can be pigeon-holed so simply. I also have issues with the way these books are marketed – I had avoided reading Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams for a while, given its bright pink cover and chick-lit connotations – yet it has turned out to be a sensitive and complexly constructed novel. Why do publishers feel the need to market books based on gender? All it does is embed the very stereotypes we need so desperately to shake off.

Having recognised how much my views on life have shifted in the past ten years, I am quite excited to see who I will be by the time I turn 50 – maybe I will have denounced all of my current views and embraced the patriarchy; maybe I will be living in a commune dedicated to denouncing establishment rules. Whatever happens, I will never again assume I am the finished product. Viva la evolution.

An Interview with Juliet Conlin

It’s the simple things in life that make me happy, Bookaholics.  Whether it be the languidity of a lazy summer’s day, a meandering walk through stunning scenery – or a wine delivery finally arriving two weeks after it was ordered (I resisted the temptation to crack it open immediately, given it was only 10am) I really do appreciate things that others may take for granted.  Something that excites me immensely is discovering a new author whose work I love, so that the enormous sadness of finishing one amazing book is instantly offset by the joy of knowing there are other stories just waiting for you to read.  When a friend recommended The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days by Juliet Conlin, little did I know he was introducing me to a writer who has never since failed to utterly capture my imagination.  Juliet kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions, sharing with me the inspiration behind her creativity.
·       You have a knack for creating really vivid characters who often stay with me long after I finish reading.  Where do you find inspiration for these?
Thank you, I’m so pleased to hear that! My characters often start off quite vague and fuzzy (in visual terms much like a pixilated photo), and they grow and develop as the story unfolds during the writing process. Occasionally, I might have a fixed idea of a character, and the story will develop according to the character (if that makes sense!). I draw on characteristics of people I know or observe, but I’ve never based an entire fictional character on someone I know.

·       Which authors inspired you as a child?
Unsurprisingly, I loved to read as a child! My favourite stories were those that transported me into completely new worlds, in particular The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I vividly remember the moment, when I was about 6 years old, that I realised that being an author is an actual job! From that moment onwards, all I’ve ever wanted to be was a writer – and I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to live this dream.

·       Your books always have a strong sense of historical context.  How do you carry out your research? 
The research is one of my favourite aspects about writing a novel, though I often find myself disappearing into rabbit holes – there is always more to learn! – and then I have to rein myself in and focus on creating a story around what I’ve learned. I had the most fun doing the research for my novel The Lives Before Us, which is set in 1940’s Shanghai. This involved not only reading lots of history books, diaries and testimonials, but also a research trip to Shanghai, a crash course in Mandarin, and an interview with a survivor of the Jewish Shanghai ghetto, who was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I find history fascinating, in particular in how it relates to the world today. If you look closely, the human issues confronting us today are the same our ancestors faced –grief, love, survival, loss – and they dealt with these issues in remarkably similar ways.

·       I have always found languages challenging to learn and find myself fascinated by people who are fluent in more than one.  When you have an idea for a story, how do you decide whether it will be in German or English?  Does the creative process differ dependent on the language you use to tell the tale? 
I love this question! Language and thinking and culture are so tightly intertwined, that it really does matter which language I write in. I was lucky enough to move to Germany at an age where I picked up the language fairly easily (age 12), and have written in both English and German since I was a teenager. When I sit down to start a new project, the idea for the story, where I want the story to go, how I want the story to sound, very much drives my decision as to which language I use. Interestingly (to me at least!), my narrative voice is completely different in German – it’s almost as though it’s written by a different writer entirely! The creative process differs to the extent that although I am highly proficient and fluent in German, it is still not my native language. As such, I know what I can and cannot do with my German writing, and I experience this as quite liberating. I certainly write much quicker in German (around 2,000 words a day on average) compared to English (500 words on a good day!).

·       This may be a little unfair and like asking you to choose a favourite child, but do you have a particular work you prefer to the others you have written?  Which one is this and why?
My favourite book is *whispers* The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days. I’m not entirely sure why, but I remember having so much fun writing it! I’d had the idea for the book for ages, and for one reason or another just didn’t have the time to sit down and tell Alfred’s story. When I did, it all came pouring out. Actually, there is the seed of another story – a BIG story – germinating in my brain right now, and I’m hoping this story will be just as rewarding write. And hopefully the readers who have loved Alfred Warner will enjoy reading it, when the time comes …

·       And finally… if you could recommend my readers one book to read during lockdown, what would it be? 
For the first time in my life, I have found myself struggling to read during the lockdown. I have started and abandoned numerous novels, not because they are not good books, but because I’ve been lacking the imaginative headspace during this Coronavirus pandemic (this is the only way I can describe it!). Fortunately, I came across Magpie Lane (by Lucy Atkins), and found it immediately captivating, beautifully written and compellingly narrated. It is an accessible but sophisticated read, which I would highly recommend to anyone else struggling to read during lockdown!

Novel Ideas

Despite the fact that many of you think I am perfect (why are you laughing?!) I have lots of personality flaws. I am lazy (8 weeks of lockdown and I still haven’t sorted that bloody wardrobe), greedy (never leave me alone with a box of biscuits) and can be exceptionally high maintenance when I’m feeling low. (Remind me never to use this blog as a personal ad). However, there is one controversial characteristic I have never been guilty of and that is arrogance – my lack of true confidence means I have always struggled to see the good in who I am. Yet in my frenzy of lockdown reading over the past few weeks, I have found myself thinking more and more often “I could write as well as this”. That inner voice has become increasingly persistent as time has passed and I can’t decide whether to be proud of my new found self belief or horrified by my conceit. (There is also the chance this “voice” means I have finally lost the plot… which would surely bode badly for any story).

I have no evidence to suggest I could create a novel. I do write frequently, whether it be these blogs, random ramblings penned purely to clear my chaotic mind, or the lengthy Facebook statuses I post with alarming frequency. (The latter are probably the most entertaining). But my following is small and inspiration can be fleeting. I love words with a passion most people reserve for their pets (with the additional bonus that they don’t defecate on the carpet) yet have never had that one great idea that would bring a unique and refreshing insight into a world so saturated with texts. Maybe I have read too many books to be able to find a subject that hasn’t been touched on before. Maybe my fear of failure is forcing me to find excuses.

I also wonder what my motive would be if I did stumble across a creative concept begging to be brought to life. It must be pretty awesome to grandiosely introduce yourself at a party with the statement “oh yes, I am an author” (whilst wearing tweed and smoking a pipe, obviously) but that sense of pride must soon slip away if you have to follow up with the confession you have yet to be published. On the other hand, I don’t have children, and a full length text of any description would at least mean I had a legacy, leaving behind something to be remembered by. I think that is my greatest driver, a common biological imperative that has challenged humankind since the dawn of time.

Ultimately no matter what my motive, I will need an idea before I can put pen to paper and there are so many other distractions (books and biscuits to name but two). That being said some of the greatest authors didn’t begin their careers until they were older than me, so there is hope. If I come up with something, you will be the first to know, Bookaholics. Thank you as ever for your ongoing support.

Ravenous Reading

I believe that we are all super heroes, Bookaholics. I know that sounds like the random ramblings of corona-craziness, but I promise this isn’t some conspiracy theory about 5G mutating our genes so we can leap tall buildings in a single bound (although quite frankly that would be amazing). I truly think we all have at least one specific skill or talent that marks us out as special: maybe you can sing with the voice of an angel; maybe you can accurately predict the weather just by looking at the clouds; maybe you can bake the most amazing cakes without ever needing a recipe AND telepathically know where I live so you can leave them on my doorstep as a surprise. (Just a thought). My super power is definitely reading and I consume vast quantities of texts on a regular basis. In the last week or so I have devoured 3 fairly lengthy books, all excellent in their own way, and I wanted to share with you my thoughts on each one.

I have always had a weakness for historical novels and The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal did not disappoint me. Set against the evocative backdrop of Victorian London, this is the story of Iris, an aspiring artist trapped in a job she hates and struggling within the confines of her role as sister, daughter and working class woman. Given the chance to become a model in return for art lessons, Iris jumps at the opportunity, unaware that a chance meeting with a dark and dangerous collector called Silas will lead to an obsession that will threaten her life. This is a gothic masterpiece and a meticulous masterclass in how to hold the reader’s attention to the very last page. Macneal tackles some serious issues head on – class, gender, social inequality – but the novel never loses pace as it progresses. I particularly liked the way it addressed the cultural acceptance of different art forms and the way people rewrite their memories to create their own sense of truth. I loved this book and thoroughly recommend it.

For a total change of pace, I then moved on to a thriller called The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. I rarely read novels of this genre but it had been highly lauded by a close contact and I found it an exciting and engaging read. When Anne and Marco’s babysitter pulls out at the last minute, they take the life-changing decision to leave their 6 month old baby alone whilst at a dinner party next door, only to find she has gone when they arrive back home in the early hours. As the police struggle to work with the few leads they have, the couple’s marriage begins to disintegrate, with secrets they both thought were buried coming back to haunt them. You can’t help but hear echoes of Madeline McCann in this heart-stopping story and it intimately explores the emotional pitfalls of family relationships. It’s a quick, easy read and great escapism.

Despite never usually buying science fiction, my most recent read was the third such book I have devoured this year. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber focuses on Peter, a Christian pastor sent as a missionary to a planet called Oasis to convert the inhabitants. Having left behind a wife he loves dearly, he initially struggles to adapt to life such a distance from home, but finds comfort in unexpected places as his mission progresses. This novel expertly explores the way we define “normal” and “alien”, with the plot gently pivoting as Oasis becomes ordinary and Earth becomes much stranger in contrast. It’s difficult to say more without providing spoilers but I will admit the end frustrated me – it stopped too soon. However this is a well written and cleverly composed text and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

I have yet to decide on my super hero costume – lycra has never been a good look for me – but I certainly have plenty of time at the moment to consider the details. If nothing else I need some of my favourite book quotes embroidered in prominent places. I’ll start working on that whilst you whip up that cake you were going to deliver me. Deal?

Lockdown Lit

I have a confession to make, Bookaholics: there was a time I was quite excited about lockdown. Behind my outgoing, extrovert exterior, I can be surprisingly anti-social (just ask anyone who has ever talked to me before 10am) and count sleeping, slumping and sluggary as 3 of my favourite hobbies. 3 weeks of hardly leaving the house sounded like heaven and I had visions of being refreshingly relaxed, having time to finally clear my chaotic closet and (most importantly) bathing in bookaholic bliss on a daily basis. Truth is it hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Not only do I seem to be permanently exhausted, I am too scared to open my wardrobe in case I am buried beneath an avalanche of outfits and I don’t seem to be reading much more than normal. But rather than beating myself up for my wanton waste of time, I want to share with you my top tips for keeping your reading varied and exciting over the next few weeks, in the hope it also inspires me to up my game. So here goes:

1) Ask your loved ones what their favourite books are and give them a go. In addition to the fact you may just discover a new author you enjoy, you will also gain a fascinating insight into what makes that person tick. Admittedly my own attempts at this have thus far been abortive: I ordered A Tale of Two Cities because my mum loves it, only to realise I had already read it (I really am getting old) and when I tried to source Moonfleet (pretty much the only book my dad read in his first 60 years on the planet) the cheapest copy I could find was £14. I love you dad, but I could buy at least 4 other books for that amount of money. It’s just not happening.

2) Take inspiration from programmes you watch on television. Following a moving documentary on the Holocaust, I ordered Necropolis by Boris Pahor, a deeply disturbing and incredibly moving memoir of his time in the concentration camps. Of course your own choices may not be quite so bleak – lots of tv shows are based on books or have tomes accompanying them. Even some of the TOWIE cast have apparently produced their own riveting reads based on that most infamous of home counties. Purchasing these is, however, only acceptable if you narrate the entire book in your best Essex accent – in the same way I read the whole of Trainspotting in Ewan McGregor’s voice. (In fairness, it was the only way I could make any sense of it whatsoever).

3) Join an online book club. For Christmas my sister gave me a subscription to the Rare Birds Book Club, which I highly recommend. Each month they send me a brief description of 2 books without giving the titles and I choose which I want to read. So far every single pick has been brilliant (the highlights being Where the Crawdads Sing and Girl, Woman, Other) and this month’s choice is also proving un-put-downable. You can then discuss your thoughts online with other members. It’s a great way to broaden your literary horizons and chat to like-minded strangers whilst simultanouesly escaping from corona-craziness.

4) Create a blog and set yourself up as a book reviewer. I prevaricated for ages about publishing my ramblings but am so glad I did – 2 years in and my only regret is not having started sooner. In the last few weeks I have been lucky enough to receive 2 books from authors keen for me to publish my views on their novels. Whilst the primary benefit of this is free books (yes, I said free books!) I am also hoping this will open me up to new genres I would never usually choose to read. Then I can truly wear the “bookaholic” badge with pride. (I might even make a literal badge. You know. After I have cleared my wardrobe).

Given the trouble I am having sleeping at the moment, I should be able to fit in more book time and this is my primary goal for the next 7 days. My own “to read” pile is alamingly high and is crying out for attention. And I will start – immediately. Or at least as soon as I have had a quick nap…

Nothing is Strange – Mike Russell

Life is very weird right now. Since the advent of the corona-crisis, pretty much everything has changed: I no longer know what day of the week it is, I haven’t worn proper clothes for over a month and every single night I have ridiculously disturbing dreams. (Last night I broke into a school so I could steal all the orange crayons. Because that is completely normal, obviously). So when I was offered a copy of Nothing is Strange by Mike Russell in return for a review, the title appealed to me enormously. Maybe this text would provide a pathway back to normality; a much-needed reminder of how life was before the pervasive fear of breaching anyone’s 2 metre exclusion zone. Turns out I could not have been more wrong (never judge a book by its title, folks) but what this did deliver was a unique and truly original style of writing that captivated me completely from page one.

From the very beginning it is clear that these are not your average short stories. Each vignette provides a fairly normal opening context – a traditional English tea shop or a seaside pier, for example – then turns this on its head and descends into the surreal. The imagery alone is quite beautiful, but there is so much more below the surface. These are fairytales for our modern times and skilfully address some of the big issues that tax our modern lives, like love, identity, sex and religious doubt. In deconstructing normality, normal becomes abnormal and the abnormal normal. (I promise that will make much more sense once you read it). The book in its entirety is actually quite short but it would be a tragedy to devour this too quickly – usually a fast reader, I found myself slowing right down to luxuriate in the strangely hypnotic linguistic world that Russell conjures.

Some of these tales will undoubtedly stay with me for some time. The Meeting was my unrefuted favourite, reminding us how love makes us question things in ways we have never considered before. Extraordinary Elsie was simultaneously both chilling and charming (something I didn’t even think narratively possible) with its emphasis on the inherent human need to believe in something. I will also struggle to forget Dunce, where one of the characters likes to have sex to the sound of ice cream van music. I had a childhood terror of the disembodied melodies that haunted our neighbourhood during summer and still find myself now fighting the urge to run and hide at the sound, so I found this plot point particularly unnerving.

This is a strange book for sure, but then Hansel and Gretel or even Goldilocks must have sounded exceptionally odd the first time they were told. Nothing is Strange requires the reader to suspend their expectations of normal and surrender to the flow. It is written beautifully, awakened parts of my imagination that have long been dormant and will be on my mind for some time to come. I definitely recommend this for anyone looking to push their literary boundaries.