When Reading Goes Wrong

It will come as no surprise to any of you that my main hobby is reading. Superficially this would seem to be the most perfect of pastimes: it’s portable (you can do it pretty much anywhere); it’s not something you need a lot of money to access (hurrah for libraries); and there is so much choice, you could read a different tome every day for the rest of your life and still barely scratch the surface of the world’s literary outpourings. But sometimes, just sometimes, being a voracious reader can feel like a curse, and never has this been more apparent to me than over the last 2 weeks.

Due to circumstances beyond my control (translation: adulting sucks) I have been working longer hours than normal and expending the sort of intensely challenging brain power I haven’t truly utilised for some time. As a result I’ve had less time to read and less focus whenever I’ve tried picking up my latest novel. I’ve gone from consuming 3 books a week to 3 pages a day if I’m lucky and the impact on my mental health has been immense. The less I read, the more anxious I become, so I end up sacrificing sleeping time to read and then end up more anxious through tiredness. It’s a big old vicious circle.

One of the best cures for anxiety for me has always been book buying, but this now comes with its own set of problems. Purchasing multiple novels isn’t an issue when you’re consuming so many per week, but as soon as that pace slows, the “to be read” pile starts to grow. Mine currently resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa (both in terms of height and stability) and this too raises my blood pressure. Today I went in 4 charity shops and Waterstones without buying anything through fear of compounding my stress. This may actually be the dictionary definition of torture.

My other challenge this week has been explaining to an author who kindly sent me a copy of their book that it just wasn’t for me and that I wasn’t in a position to review it. I know full well the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the work of any writer and a negative review did not feel fair when the text is no doubt something a different reader would love. I feel terrible it didn’t do it for me and really wish them every success, but it has left me feeling like I’ve failed.

I know these are absolutely first world problems and I am grateful my life is so privileged that such simple things cause so much angst. I know I am blessed. But losing my reading rhythm has felt a bit like finding out my bestie has been bitching about me behind my back: I feel a bit betrayed. This weekend I will be seeking to make amends to this most important of all relationships in my life and am determined to get back my mojo.  Watch this space, Bookaholics.

Recent Reading Recommendations

I think I speak for most of us here in Britain when I say it’s been a funny old week. A new Prime Minister (elected by a very small proportion of the population), a new King (not elected by anyone) and to top it all off, insanely inconsistent weather that can only be attributed to climactic armageddon (which ironically we have elected by ignoring the plight of our planet for so long).  Never has there been a better time to disappear inside a good book so I thought I would share with you my most recent reading recommendations.

Any woman reading this will know all too well the societal pressure to conform to our gender role and no-one is experiencing this more than the protagonist of Yinka Where is Your Huzband? by Lizzie Damilola Blackburn. In her early 30s and very much single, it feels like the whole Nigerian community in London is focused solely on her love life and who she can marry. Caving in to expectations, this is the story of Yinka’s desperate search for a suitable man whilst also facing redundancy and the collapse of her closest female friendships. Funny, touching and surprisingly feminist at its core, this is an addictive and uplifting read that is relatable on many different levels. A timely reminder we should always be true to ourselves.

Every book I’ve ever read by Elizabeth Strout is a masterclass in human emotion and The Burgess Boys is no exception. When their nephew is embroiled in the aftermath of a racist hate crime (he throws a pigs head into a packed mosque during a service) lawyers Jim and Bob head back to their small town childhood home to support their sister. As this complex sibling relationship plays out against the backdrop of criminal proceedings, it soon becomes clear just how the past has shaped each of them into the person they are as adults. I adore the way Strout writes and this book did not disappoint.

Finally, What We Want by Charlotte Fox Weber is an expert exploration of the desires that make us human. From freedom to belonging to connecting with others, each chapter unfolds the longings that shape our existence, using fascinating case studies to illustrate how they can manifest. If you avoid psychology because it seems too intense, this is absolutely the one for you: accessible, illuminating and meaningful, I cannot recommend this enough. I feel seen in the best possible of ways and have so much to think about even some time after finishing it.

As I sit here watching the torrential rain pour past my window, I can’t help but think this is the perfect weather for curling up on the sofa and reading. Question is, where will my literary adventures take me next? Watch this space…

Bookish Dreams

Last week was possibly the high point of my life thus far and I couldn’t let the moment pass without sharing what happened with you, Bookaholics.  Now I know there are certain rites of passage that supposedly symbolize the most significant points in any female life (getting married; having babies; developing an innate urge to overthrow the patriarchy) but this fell somewhat outside of the standard cultural expectations. So brace yourself boys and girls for the defining announcement of my lifetime: after years of planning, saving and prevaricating, I FINALLY HAVE A LIBRARY.  I don’t mean I have wrestled control of my local book repository from the council (tempting as that sounds), I mean I finally have a bedroom dedicated entirely to books, with bespoke wall to wall book-shelving to house my most prized possessions.  You have no idea how happy this has made me after 43 years of dreaming (possibly 42 but I am willing to bet I came out of the womb reaching for the nearest novel) and also how much I have learnt about myself in the process of filling said shelves.  So I thought I would share with you the top 5 things this rite of passage has taught me:

  1. I cannot always remember what happens in books I have read, but I always remember how they made me feel.  My collection includes texts that go back as far as my teenage years and whilst I could not tell you the plotline of Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, just looking at the cover brings back surprisingly happy memories of A level English and brings a warm glow to my heart.  On that feeling alone, I will never part with that book.  (Plus I’m pretty sure some of the notes I made in the margins are beyond embarrassing and not suitable for anyone else’s eyes).
  1. I have an obsession with keeping books in height order.  When folk on social media questioned how I would sort my texts, I merrily told them I was embracing the chaos approach, as I have never been one to order novels by genre, author or colour.  Turns out I do have one quirk – an inability to have tall books anywhere other than at the end of a shelf.  It’s been a week since everything was put in place and I am still fiddling to get the height order perfect.  Someone may need to call the men in white coats.
  1. I am strangely reluctant to part with some tomes but don’t want them on my shelves either. My kitchen currently holds an entire crate of Sweet Valley High books from my parents’ loft (thanks Dad) that I cannot bring myself to give to charity – they meant so much to me as a child.  But I also don’t want them in my adult library and can’t bear the thought of Shakespeare rubbing shoulders with Francine Pascal.  The most likely outcome is that said crate will become a feature in the kitchen and stay there forever.  I am, after all, incredibly lazy and once something sits in a particular spot for more than a few hours, that becomes its new home.
  1. Books make my heart sing.  Stroking them, smelling them, feasting on them (with my eyes – I don’t actually eat them) are all activities that bring me a sense of peace and I revelled in all of them as I transferred each one to its new home.  It isn’t just the process of reading that I enjoy – being a Bookaholic is so much more than that. Books are for life, not just for the few days you spend glued to their pages.
  1. I will never have enough bookshelves.  Don’t get me wrong, these new ones aren’t even full yet, but I have a longing to fill every room with that calming karma my library now provides.   Then I can invite my bookish friends over for cake and literary chat whilst we surround ourselves with all our favourite novels in every single room of the house (and yes that includes the downstairs loo).  It may take another 43 years to get there, but this is my master plan.

For some the idea of this being such a defining moment will seem a little crazy; others of you I know will fully understand.  I am sure there is some deep psychology behind my obsession with literature, but I don’t have time to explore that right now – I am off to sit in my library and dream. What time are you coming over?

How to Kill Your Family

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book receiving significant hype on social media does not always live up to its publicity.  From “the latest TikTok sensation” to “the novel that took bookstagram by storm”, I have learnt to treat these euphoric exclamations of superiority with just a pinch of salt.  I usually delay reading such texts (if I bother at all) until the hype has died down, in the hope that I can manage my own expectations without the external noise. However, just occasionally a story will turn out to be as amazing as the seemingly hyperbolic reviews led me to believe and this is exactly how I feel about How to Kill Your Family by Bella Mackie.  I admit, Bookaholics, that I had erroneously judged it: the frivolous pink front cover; the simple back page description; the fact that every man and his dog seemed to love it meant I assumed the worst.  I could not be happier to admit I was wrong.

 

This is the story of Grace, brought up in poverty by her loving mother thanks to a multi-millionaire father who refuses to acknowledge her existence.  Following the untimely death of said mum, our anti-heroine finds herself hell bent on revenge and starts to plot the demise of her father’s family, seeking justice for all the wrongs she has experienced.  From the ingenuous planning of each individual murder (note to self: never wire up your house to be fully “smart”) to the moment she is accused of a death she is not even responsible for, this narrative had me utterly gripped as I found myself in the unlikely position of rooting for a serial killer.  With echoes of Villanelle from Killing Eve, Grace is a surprisingly empathetic and likeable protagonist -despite her propensity for murder – and that certainly gave the experience of reading this book a twist I hadn’t expected.

 

But there are many other narrative elements that make this such addictive reading.  Mackie has an exceptional  eye for detail when building individual characters, leaving me with such a clear mental picture of each person that at times I felt like I was watching a film (and FYI this would make an incredible movie).  Grace has a sarcastic wit that had me laughing out loud at times, along with a real sense of the contemporary in the way she references the world that makes this a novel “of our time”.  I also loved / hated / nearly threw the book across the room when I reached the major twist in the last 50 pages and am desperate for a sequel to know what happened next.  This is clever writing at its very best.

 

Whilst the temptation initially was to buy this book just to freak out my family (and they certainly edged away when they saw the title), truth is it offered me significantly more than just an opportunity to keep them on their toes – this novel is unique, entertaining and utterly addictive.   Chances are most people have already read it given I am so late to the party, but if you haven’t, bump this to the top of your list.  You won’t regret it.

This Beating Heart

Being a woman is hard, Bookaholics. From the moment we are born we have so many societal expectations thrust upon us: we should be clever, but not too clever; articulate but not outspoken; passive but proactive; sexy but not slutty – it’s fundamentally impossible to win. But by far the worst of all gender assumptions is that your life is meaningless without following the expected patriarchal path: marriage, babies and home-making. We must not confess we do not want children, must not disclose infertility or miscarriage – and woe betide anyone who dares mention the menopause. Suffering in silence is not something any of us – male or female – should passively accept and books like This Beating Heart by Laura Barnett play a crucial role in bringing difficult subjects into the collective consciousness. This is an exceptionally well-written book that tackles some truly tough topics with grace and warmth. I highly recommend it.

At the age of 43, Christina finds herself at a major crossroads. Having channelled their life savings unsuccessfully into 5 rounds of IVF, she and her husband have separated, leaving her alone to grieve for what might have been. Whilst her two best friends, Emma and Jen, are encouraging her to move on, she can’t stop thinking about that one last frozen embryo, her last shot at motherhood and fulfilling her dreams. When her ex husband drops a bombshell about his own future, Christina is left picking up the pieces of her life, trying to find new meaning. In a world where we are only given one template for fulfilment, how do we adapt when those life plans implode?

I was already a big fan of Laura Barnett before reading this, adept as is she at creating characters you feel so much empathy for, but this book has cemented my admiration for her writing skills. She explores some really difficult topics with such sensitivity, as we accompany Christina on arguably the hardest journey any woman can make. Grief is a recurrent theme throughout but this is balanced beautifully with the underlying sense of redemption as our characters gradually move on – not just from the finality of infertility but also loss in its wider sense. But fundamentally this is a novel about the truth of female experience, which doesn’t fit nicely into that patriarchal path we identified earlier. The perfect summation comes near the end of the book when someone says “Not everyone’s in tidy little boxes, Christina, living their rigid little nuclear lives”. If only we all realised this a little sooner.

Clearly a novel like this comes with a myriad of trigger warnings for those who’ve experienced any type of fertility trauma, but this is ultimately a life-affirming tale, a reminder of how much we all have to live for and the importance of human connection. It will tug on your heartstrings but it will also make you smile and I defy you not to devour this in one sitting. Definitely one to buy.

The Movement

Words have always been my super-power, Bookaholics, and I admit I have used that to my advantage in so many ways.  From a very young age I was skilled in the manipulation of language to achieve my goals, whether that be convincing my parents I needed a new bike, persuading them I definitely needed another ice cream or simply getting myself out of trouble. (It was always my sister’s fault anyway.  Honest.) I once attended a course on Negotiating and Influencing People that involved a significant amount of role play – by the end of day one, no one would pair up with me because I was so consistent in winning each and every debate.  But even with my love of language, I recognise that today’s world is more oppressively vocal than it has ever been, with every one of us having something to say about every single thing.  Every man and his dog (literally) has a social media account; so many of us hold the inherently narcissistic belief that others must hear exactly what we are thinking all the time.  So the concept of The Movement by Ayisha Malik absolutely fascinated me – is it possible that in this cacophony of voices, silence becomes the greatest power?  This novel is thought-provoking, emotionally engaging and will leave you questioning exactly what words truly bring us.

Sick to death of noise and the very verbosity of modern life, an up and coming author decides to embrace silence, dramatically rejecting a book prize she has worked hard to be nominated for. Whilst Sara’s actions cause only small ripples through the literary world, it draws the attention of a social media influencer who brings the concept of being non-verbal to the masses.  As more and more people see the benefits of adopting this new way of life, society divides between those who don’t speak, those who do speak but support people’s right to have a choice and those who believe being verbal should be mandatory.  Two other women find themselves embroiled at the heart of this humanitarian debate and through their eyes the story gains pace.  Grace is a single mother with a son who has never spoken, taken to court by the absent father for adopting silence herself, and accused of damaging their child’s chance of speech.  Zainab is a Pakistani woman trapped in a loveless marriage in Glasgow, with a husband who abuses her.  Silenced by society, rather than through choice, she too faces difficult decisions when faced with the reality of cultural expectation.

Interspersed with news articles, extracts from a documentary on the building crisis and the poignant perspectives of all 3 women, this story illustrates just how intertwined the personal and political can be.  Sara becomes an unwilling figurehead for those who believe silence is their right, despite being clear that her decision was purely personal and not intended to drive any sort of movement. One of the things I loved best about Malik’s story is the parallels with the way Brexit divided Britain into camps of polarised opinion  and had so many unseen consequences that few had predicted.  Some are incensed by the way people can so easily give up a voice that minorities have fought so long and hard to gain; others cannot understand why their own choices should be policed.  In choosing 3 women from ethnically diverse backgrounds to drive this narrative, Malik expertly highlights the way women (and particularly females from ethnic minorities)  can be silenced in so many different ways and I couldn’t help admiring those choosing to wrestle back their sense of self through silence.  In a world where words can see you “cancelled” without a moment’s notice, there is also safety in withholding language.

This is a superbly written and unique novel that works on so many levels: as a political commentary on how easily division can build between humans in our modern world; as a feminist narrative exploring the way the female voice is judged and controlled; and most of all as a truly brilliantly written and engaging story. Whilst I am not yet ready to give up my own verbosity, this has given me pause to reflect on the role silence plays in my own life and will be staying with me for some time to come.  I highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Movement – you wont regret it.

Shake it Up, Beverley

Like so many teenagers, I used to be obsessed with certain famous folk who stoked my hormonal fire. From the age of 9 when I decided I was going to marry Nathan Moore (lead singer of Brother Beyond – what do you MEAN you’ve never heard of them?) to my tween years when it was all about Ian Walker (he was a Tottenham goalie – what is WRONG with you people!?) and my subsequent infatuation with Gary Barlow (seriously, if you don’t know him, just leave now) it was a rollercoaster ride of unrequited romantic rapture. But as I progressed towards adulthood my interests shifted towards actual, real-life boys and those obsessions slowly faded, leaving me somewhat saddened at the loss of more innocent times (and no doubt leaving all 3 men heartbroken too I’m sure).  The same can’t be said for Beverley Wilson, the heroine of my latest read, who remains consumed by her adolescent adoration even though she is a 50-something mum of 3.  Beatles Bev is one of the most brilliantly likeable protagonists I have come across for some time and I cannot wait for you to meet her.

As the pseudonym may already have given away, Beverley is a huge fan of the Fab Four and has an impressive memorabilia collection to prove it, from a leather jacket once worn by Ringo to even living in a house where Paul resided as a child.  This hasn’t stopped her living a fulfilling life however, with a husband she adored, 2 children and a part-time job as an estate agent.  But having been sadly widowed some time before we join her story, she is beginning to feel like her world might need shaking up a little and her best friend Jools has just the idea: internet dating.  Following a whole host of bizarre and frankly demoralising dates, our Bev meets Scott who seems to be the perfect man – he even loves The Beatles. Can her new boyfriend really be as perfect as he seems or is he literally too good to be true?

Without doubt the best thing about this book is Bev.  She is a fabulous heroine, so honest and down to earth that you can’t help but want to be her best friend and I was rooting for her from the very start.  There is a thread of humour that runs throughout the story that sets it aside from so many of the more predictable, clichéd romantic comedies out there on the market and I definitely laughed out loud on several occasions.  I have to confess I have never been to Liverpool and the descriptions of the city shine so brightly throughout the text that it has just been catapulted to the top of my “to visit in England” list and I know full well I will be saying “oh so that’s where Bev was” when I do. 

If you are anything like me you may be finding life a bit overwhelming at the moment and this book is the perfect tonic – funny, touching and ultimately very readable, it is undoubtedly escapism at its best.  It also provides a timely reminder that there can be humour even in the toughest of life crises and that laughter is what holds us together.  I highly recommend this as a light-hearted, fun read perfect for your summer holiday.

Snap

I spent large parts of my childhood playing on the M5, Bookaholics.  Now before you all rush to the phone to call Social Services in horror at this devastating disclosure of juvenile neglect, let me clarify: I was always inside a vehicle – even if it was at times hardly moving – and I was always supervised.  Endless hours were spent playing mindless games like I-Spy, creating random dance moves to the latest pop songs and, if all else had been exhausted, waving coquettishly at lorry drivers whilst my mum dished out chocolate eclairs (of the suckable kind) in the hope it would keep my sister and I from chanting “are we there yet?” in that immensely charming habit that all young children seem to develop early on.  So despite the fact I generally don’t choose to read thrillers, the premise of Snap by Belinda Bauer grabbed my attention immediately, with its link to that most familiar of motorways.  This is a fast-paced and engrossing novel that had me on the edge of my seat, thinking “what if?” about my own childhood experiences.

 

When a heavily pregnant woman and her 3 small children break down on the M5 one hot summer’s day, she insists they stay in the car whilst she walks to the nearest emergency phone seeking help.  Little do they know they will never see her again.  Abandoned and alone, Jack takes control, spending the next few years trying to keep his 2 younger sisters safe from harm.  Made old beyond his years by the trauma of loss, he takes to burglary and other criminal activity in an attempt to keep the family together but things are close to falling apart.  Then during a robbery he stumbles across the weapon he believes was used to harm his mother and, by proxy, the person who hurt her.  Is he losing his mind? Could he really be about to solve a mystery that the authorities failed to crack? And exactly how much danger is he putting both himself and others in by going to the police?

 

Having recently read Exit by the same author, I already knew I liked Bauer’s writing style and this is a narrative that is punchy and easy to devour.  Jack, his sisters and the policemen on the periphery of the investigation are so individually developed that I felt like I knew them and whilst DCI Marvel is a little cliched in the role as maverick detective, he provides enough humour and entertainment for me to forgive this.  I definitely didn’t guess most of the twists and turns as the story progressed and found myself constantly wanting to know what would happen next, the mark of a unique and intriguing plot line.  From her vivid opening description of that sultry summer motorway, Bauer had me hooked right through to the end, creating an atmospheric and absorbing world that I could barely bring myself to leave.

 

This was the perfect easy read for our own sultry summer and I definitely recommend as an engaging holiday choice.  Maybe even take it with you down the M5.  Just pray to God you don’t breakdown…

Textual Torment

It was clear I was prone to addiction from a young age, Bookaholics.  From my friend’s Gameboy which I borrowed for a week and ended up giving back 10 years later (true story) to my lifetime compulsion for sugar (anyone for cake?), it takes me a huge amount of willpower to break away from anything I am drawn in by.  In adulthood my 2 greatest addictions are without doubt the calorific temptations of biscuits or chocolate and my voracious appetite for reading.  On the surface it would seem that one of these is of far greater concern than the other – after all, books won’t give me diabetes – but this week I have finally come to accept that my love of lit may be seriously damaging my health.  Is reading actually making me ill?

On the one hand, there are so many arguments in favour of my literary pursuits – books give me escapism, relaxation and a world far away from the worries in my head. My bookish buddies are categorically those in my life with the greatest empathy and the biggest hearts, thanks in part to their textual consumption of such disparate human experience. Yet on the flip side, I can’t ignore the physical symptoms.  When I spend all day sat at a computer for work, I really should be more physically active in my spare time, yet I dedicate every spare moment to reading.  I have neck pain, shoulder pain, experience headaches when I sit for too long and have even had the occasional ocular migraine where the words have blurred and refused proper focus.  It is fair to say that I am far too sedentary and my love of lit isn’t helping. Something has to change.

Of course there are solutions and I will explore them – what choice do I have?  I could listen to audiobooks whilst walking or partaking of other outdoor exercise; I could get a frame to hold my latest read whilst I stand or stretch; I could seek to simply reduce the amount of time I spend with a book in my hand (I actually shuddered typing that one).    But truth is it’s going to be really hard to change habits that are so ingrained and are such a big part of who I am. Maybe the easier answer is to have a full on mid-life crisis and change career path for something more active. I can’t quite see me as a farmer getting up at 5am to milk the cows, but if needs must, I would rather don my wellies and wade through muck than lose such a huge part of my identity.

I would love to know if anyone else has ever experienced something similar and how you have addressed your problems – maybe one of you has the magic wand I have been looking for.  In the interim I will be busy experimenting with balancing my kindle on my bookcase at the perfect reading height whilst balancing hardbacks on my head.  That has to help my posture right!? Wish me luck…

Girls They Write Songs About

I will never know if it was sheer chance that led me to pick up Girls They Write Songs About just days before events in America took such a sinister turn: in some ways I like to think the fickle fingers of fate were driving my reading choices.  At a time when being a woman feels increasingly like you are born to fight a battle you can never win, Carlene Bauer’s novel connected to my inner feminist in ways that had been lying dormant for far too long.  This novel is a powerful, poignant and ultimately heart-breaking love song to what it means to be female in a world that tells us we can live our dreams then judges us for believing we can. 

Charlotte and Rose meet in 1990’s New York as ambitious young writers both working for the same music magazine.  Despite being very different people on paper, they soon discover they share a similar outlook on life and long to achieve what generations of women before them have been denied.  Both of them crave being published and for their words to have the value they deserve; both want to milk city-life for every exciting and exhilarating experience they can; both know they can trust the other not to judge their choices by the misogynistic standards of a hypocritical world.  Railing against the patriarchal expectations of marriage, children and being a house wife – believing life can, and will, offer them more – they carry each other through love, loss, success and failure until one day Charlotte realises they are no longer in sync. What happens when the values you built your friendship on are no longer the same? How do you cope when those who swore never to condemn you now stand in judgement of your very existence?

I have no greater compliment to give this book other than to say I felt thoroughly seen.  As a woman I have known intense female friendship born from the desire for a space safe away from the inherent criticism of the male gaze; I too have known those relationships break down and the pain of knowing someone who shared your inner most feelings is no longer your safety net.  Despite their longing to be strong, independent women, both Charlotte and Rose find themselves seeking male approval time and again in a world where even those of their own gender are trained to impose patriarchal expectation.  The journey from absolute, unquestioning confidence in your dreams to the compromise that comes with age is also far too familiar as a woman and one that resonated powerfully, with the book clearly showing that in confining one sex to out-dated roles, men suffer the consequences too.  We are all trapped in this game we call gender.

This is a beautifully written and pertinent book that is being published at a time when women need to know they are not alone and that is just one of the myriad of reasons to grab a copy.  We need to recreate that safe space on a global scale and support the oppressed no matter where they are or what they look like – otherwise who knows when they will come for us? 

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