Uncategorized

Catch-Up Time!

The Good ImmigrantGosh, time seems to have run away from me again. One moment it was #Diverseathon and the next, that week and another have flown by and I’ve not updated my blog! I also don’t seem to have read many books in the intervening period, although this is because I’m currently in a bit of butterfly mood so am in the middle of about six. As such, I thought that it might be best to have a bit of a catch-up post rather than a review or a wrap-up and to tell you a little about what I’m currently reading and my thoughts on them so far. So go grab yourself a cuppa and let’s settle down for a chat!

During #Diverseathon I did start ‘The Good Immigrant‘, the essay collection by twenty-one BAME authors writing about life in Britain today, which is edited by Nikesh Shukla. I prefer to dip into and out of essay collections because I like time to reflect on each essay before starting the next. So far I’ve read about six or seven in this collection and have found each one to be thought-provoking and challenging. The topics covered so far have ranged from the misappropriation of language through to the narrow populist definition of ‘Asian’ culture. Whilst I haven’t agreed with everything said by the respective writers, each essay has been well-argued and really conveys the feelings of the writer about their role as a person of colour within modern Britain and the challenges that they face as a result. Definitely a very timely book, this is one that I am going to continue dipping into as the months go on. 

I’ve also pledged to assist in the crowd-funding of a new essay collection, co-edited by Nikesh Shukla, called ‘Rife: Twenty Stories from Britain’s Youth‘, which will feature contributions from twenty writers under twenty-five. It sounds really interesting – I might no longer be under twenty-five myself but I remember twenty-year-old student me being astounded that the ‘young, up and coming’ writers referred to on my courses were very often in their thirties and forties! And given that so many newspaper articles talk about the struggles facing ‘the youth of today’ but very few seem to feature comment from the ‘youth’ in question, I think this sounds like another much needed collection. 

Books For LivingAlso on the non-fiction front, I’ve been dipping into Will Schwalbe’s ‘Books for Living‘. Subtitled ‘A Reader’s Guide to Life’, this literary memoir is an affectionate look at the books that have helped to shape Will Schwalbe’s life and the lessons they’ve taught him along the way. I found Will’s first book, ‘The End of Your Life Book Club‘, about the books that Will shared with his mother whilst she was undergoing cancer treatment, to be both gently inspiring and sensitively emotional and I really engage with his writing. I’m enjoying ‘Books for Living’ so far but have had to put it down for a few days to crack on with two fiction books that I really need to get finished. 

The Ashes of LondonThe first of these is ‘The Ashes of London‘ by Andrew Taylor, a historical novel set during the aftermath of (you guessed it!) The Great Fire of London, which is my real-life book club’s pick for this month. Alternating between the viewpoint of a young clerk investigating a series of grisly murders and that of a runaway girl determined to find her father, this has got me gripped after a somewhat slow start. I’ve not made enough progress to make the connections in the plot just yet (chances of me finishing before book club later this week? Zero to none…) but I’m intrigued enough to keep reading as, 100 pages in, the pace has really quickened and the characters are coming into their own.

Days Without EndI’m also right at the end of ‘Days Without End‘ by Sebastian Barry, which I picked up during #Diverseathon and have been slowly savouring each night before bed. I won’t say too much about the book here because I’m going to do a full review when I’ve finished – suffice to say however that I’ve absolutely adored it. I was about halfway through when it was announced that the novel had won the Costa Book Award 2017, a well-deserved accolade but one that does mean my library copy is now very much in demand, hence the race to finish it before the due date!
Did She Kill Him?: A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery, and Arsenic
Last, but by no means least, I’m also listening to a book on audio – Kate Colquhoun’s ‘Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Arsenic and Adultery‘. I generally prefer to listen to non-fiction on audio and very much enjoyed Colquhoun’s ‘Mr Brigg’s Hat: A Sensational Account of Britain’s First Railway Murder‘ when I borrowed the CDs from the library back in the days before Audible became a thing. Narrative non-fiction, especially combined with another of my favourite genres – crime, is a particular favourite and Maggie Mash does a great job of narrating this tale of Southern belle Florence Maybrick, trapped in an increasingly suffocating marriage, who stands trial for the apparent poisoning of her husband James. I’ve only got a couple of hours left to listen to and I still can’t say for certain whether I think Florence is innocent, or if I can guess how the jury will decide. Thanks go to +SavidgeReads for this particular recommendation as I saw the book during one of his recent unboxing videos – I wouldn’t have even know it existed otherwise. 

So that’s my ‘Currently Reading’ pile as it stands at the moment. If you’ve read any of them – or are in the process of doing so – please do let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter/Litsy/Goodreads. As always, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading recently and if you have any recommendations for me. And, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x
Uncategorized

#Diverseathon 2017!

DiverseAThonToday I am embarking on my second ‘proper’ readathon. Emboldened by the success of my participation in Deweys 24-hour Readathon last year (read all about it here), which I felt was not only very enjoyable but also really focused my reading over the 24 hours I took part, I wanted to take part in something longer and have a go at a week-long readathon. 

#Diverseathon, which runs from today (Jan 22) until Sunday (Jan 29) was started in the autumn of 2016 as a response to a video which claimed that diversity in books didn’t matter. It is, therefore, a week long readathon that celebrates diversity and representation in books, be that BAME representation, disability and deformity representation or LGBTQ++ representation. I heard about #Diverseathon via blogger and Booktuber Simon Savidge, one of the hosts of this month’s readathon, who put up great video about #Diverseathon 2.0 along with his planned TBR for the week. Blogger Sophia Khan has also done a brilliant guest post over at Book Riot that explains more about #Diverseathon’s history and aims, as well as reasons you might want to consider participating yourself.  

The concept of #Diverseathon appeals to me because, if I’m being honest, my reading can be really narrow at times. As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual woman living in the UK I have very little experience of being in the minority. And whilst I consider myself to be a supporter of equality in all its forms, I’m ashamed of how much my reading life reflects only my own lived experience. Looking at my shelves, there’s a lot of white, European centred literature on there. This wasn’t a conscious choice by any means but I find it telling and I want to do something about it. #Diverseathon is an opportunity to do this and to do it alongside others who I can share with and learn from. Plus I hopefully get to read a lot of great books too!

The Wangs vs The WorldSo, what tomes am I planning to topple during #Diverseathon? As luck would have it, I already have Jade Chang’s ‘The Wangs vs The World‘, a portrayal of a Chinese-American family in post-Lehman Brothers America; out from the library so this coming week seems like the perfect excuse to get that read. Billed as epic road-trip novel with a healthy smattering of humour, this also seems to be a book that examines the concept of the American dream as well as the differences between the first and second generation immigrant experience.

AmericanahSimilarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed ‘Americanah‘ has been on my TBR list for an absolute age. The novel, which examines the lives of teenage sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze as they leave Nigeria to forge their lives in America and London respectively, is meant to be an unflinching exploration of race and identity. Adichie is an author whose fiction I’ve long been meaning to read so I really hope to get round to this one during the next week.

HomegoingAnother TBR book I’ve been itching to read but not yet got around to is Yaa Gyasi’s debut ‘Homegoing‘. Released amid a good deal of  buzz this month in the UK, the novel has already garnered critical and reader acclaim in the USA. The story of two half-sisters, Efia and Esi, born in eighteenth century Ghana, one of whom is married off to an Englishman and the other who is sold into slavery in the New World, the novel follows their descendants in both Ghana and America through to the present day. I freely admit to knowing very little about the key moments in the history of the civil rights movement in the US and nothing at all about the history of Ghana so I’m hoping this novel will enlighten me on both points.
My Name is Leon
Moving across the Atlantic to English shores, Kit De Waal’s ‘My Name is Leon‘ has been recommended to me by a number of friends. Set in  the early eighties, the book tells the story of two brothers, 9 year old Leon and baby Jake, who are placed into foster care and threatened with separation because Jake is white and Leon is not. Beyond that, I don’t know very much about the book but it’s rare to find a book that examines the foster care system, let alone the tricky issues surrounding race and identity within this. In an era where blended families of many types are becoming increasingly common, this seems like an important and timely novel.  

The Good ImmigrantLast, but by no means least, some non-fiction in the form of ‘The Good Immigrant‘, edited by Nikesh Shulka. Subtitled ’21 Writers Explore What It Means To Be Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic In Britain Today’, this is a collection of essays by modern British writers that examines the charged issue of immigration in the UK and invites discussion around societal attitudes towards immigration and race. How does it feel the be constantly regarded as a terror threat? How does it feel to be told to ‘go home’ to India when you live in London? How does it always feel to tick the box on the form marked ‘Other’? Can you only be a ‘good’ immigrant if you win a national baking contest or an Olympic medal? Challenging times need people to ask questions such as these so I’m looking forward to dipping into this selection during the course of the week.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that I’m going to read 4 novels and an entire essay collection in the space of 7 short days (especially as one of those days is already nearly over with nary a page yet read!) but I feel this list gives me some really good options for the week ahead and I’d like to try and finish at least one of the novels, as well as making a good dent into the essays. I’ll be posting updates on Twitter throughout the week @amyinstaffs and am hoping to take part in some of the Twitter chats being hosted by @diverseathon also. If you’re planning to join me, please do say hi – leave me a comment down below or come find me on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links in the sidebar). And, until the next time…

Happy Reading x
Uncategorized

REVIEW: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentIf the first book that one reads in a year is an indication of what’s to come, then 2017 should be a corker. Sarah Perry’s ‘The Essex Serpent‘, which I had the pleasure of finishing earlier this week, is a beautifully written, skillfully paced novel that contains all facets of life within it’s pages. 

Set in the 1890s and moving between the oppressive streets of Victorian London and the desolate marshes of the Essex village of Aldwinter ‘The Essex Serpent’ is, at its heart, a novel about the meeting of two minds and a shared kinship too complex to define merely as love. For Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist, recently widowed and relishing freedom from an oppressive marriage; news that the mythical Essex Serpent may once again be abroad provide her with chance to test her skills in the pursuit of a new species. For William Ransome, vicar of Aldwinter, rumours of the beast bring only moral panic and uncertainty and a deviation from the certainties of faith. As Cora and her band of faithful followers descend on Aldwinter, she and Will discover a connection unlike any other as they are inexorably drawn together and torn apart. 

It is safe to say I adored this novel, although I have to admit to not being initially convinced as to its merits. For the first 50 pages or so, I felt there were too many characters, all apparently with only the flimsiest connection between them, and that the novel lacked a driving force behind the plot. The sheer quality of the writing kept me reading, with Perry’s luscious prose bringing Victorian England vividly to life, painting pictures with words that allowed me to imagine the grimy slums of the London slums, the stifling atmosphere of a house in mourning and the clear, sparse beauty of the Essex salt marshes. Before I knew it, Perry had drawn me into her world so skillfully and allowed her characters to live so vividly that the slightness of the plot itself was incidental. 

For this is not, I feel, a plot heavy novel. Which could, in less skilled hands, make reading over 400 pages a chore. What Perry does so masterfully however is to invest her effort into character and human connection. The novel lives as real lives are lived – in the small details of human interaction and the many facets of emotion that make up the lived experience of every day life. Cora, Will and those around them are bought to life with a vivacity that is to be applauded. By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew these people, even if I did not quite always understand them. From their many fine qualities to their flaws, each character lived and breathed on the page from Cora and Will themselves to more minor characters such as the gentle, charming Charles Ambrose or confused teenager Naomi Banks. 400 pages flew by when I was reading and I had to make sure I only picked up the book when I had time to devour it in gulps, so involved did I become when reading it! I even picked it up in the mornings to read for half an hour before work, a rarity for me as I usually prefer to settle down with the morning news and indulge in a second cup of tea. 

I usually like to provide some comparisons within my review to guide those readers who might still be uncertain as to whether they might enjoy it. This is difficult with ‘The Essex Serpent’ however as it is rather unlike anything else I have read. Although a historical novel, to say only fans of historical novels would enjoy it is to deny it readers because the human interactions within its pages feel modern and relevant to today. There is, I think, a blending of fable and reality that reminds me a little of Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful ‘The Snow Child‘, and something in the vividly sharp prose that reminds me of Cecilia Ekbäck‘s ‘Wolf Winter‘, which I read and reviewed last year and was one of my Books of the Year 2016. There’s also a level of introspection and reflection of character that reminded me of Ian McGuire’s ‘The North Water‘, another one of my favourite books of 2016. 

The Essex SerpentInstead of trying to draw comparisons, maybe all I can say in summary of ‘The Essex Serpent’ is that from friendship to desire, faith to scepticism via love in all its many complicated forms, this is a novel whose characters feel real and that will make the reader feel deeply and therefore I urge you to read it. Until next time….

Happy Reading!

x

The Essex Serpent‘ is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available now from all good booksellers. 

NB: The novel has recently been awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year for (2016) – and has been reissued with a gorgeous blue cover for the occasion (see above) and was also  nominee for the Costa Book Award (2016).  

Uncategorized

Reading Resolutions 2017

Yes, it’s that time of year again. A new year brings with it new challenges but, alongside the vow to eat more greens and get to the gym three times a week(always made, rarely achieved!), I’ve been re-evaluating my reading life and working out what I want to get from my reading in 2017 and how this blog will fit into that. 

I spent a lot of 2016 feeling like I ‘had’ to read certain things. In an effort to grow and develop this blog, I took every opportunity that I could to obtain proofs, review to deadline and be as good a little book blogger as possible. And whilst I am very grateful to have read some great stuff as a result, it has led to me becoming bogged down in reading ‘to order’. And when you have a day job, there’s nothing worse than the thing you do for fun becoming a second job. It takes all the fun out of not only blogging but also reading. I feel it really affected me in 2016 and I intend to make sure it doesn’t happen this year. 

So whilst I’m not going to go completely cold-turkey on proof requests and reviews in 2017, I do need to accept my limitations on how much I can read at any one time. Going forwards, I’m not going to be making promises about when I’ll review a specific book. All I can say is, if I request a book; it’s because I intend to read it at some point. Which might not be immediately. This will probably result in me receiving less proofs but all I can say is that I’d rather read a book in a positive, ‘want to’ frame of mind than feeling like it’s a chore. I didn’t start this blog to turn it into a second job – I have one of those already – I started it to have fun and share my love of good books and the best way I feel I can do that is to read what I want, when I want. 

My other reading goals this year are a little more targeted. As always, I’ve set myself a Goodreads challenge and am aiming to read 60 books in 2017. This is deliberately lower than last year’s target (75 books) because, as per the above, I want to cut myself some slack and stop feeling like I have to read if I’m not in the mood. So I’ve selected a figure that feels challenging but do-able.

I also want to continue to read more diversely. To this end, I’m going to attempt the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge, which has 24 reading challenges designed to encourage you to stretch outside your comfort zone. Categories range from ‘read a book about sports’ through to ‘read a superhero comic with a female lead’ so I’m looking forward to giving it a go. 

And last, but by no means least, I want to try and read more books that I already own this year. In 2016, I bought A LOT of books. Far more than I could possibly read. Instead of helping me reduce The Shelf of Unread Books, 2016 expanded the shelf to shelves plus a pile under the bed and a fully-stocked bedside cabinet. Meaning I own a lot of books that I want to – and fully intend to – read. So whilst I’m not going on a complete book-buying ban (because life has to have some fun), I do want to reduce the amount I buy and read more of the books I already own. A ‘one in, one out’ rule of sorts. 

So those are my reading resolutions for 2017 – let’s see what the year brings! As always, I’d love to hear from you about any bookish resolutions you’ve made for the upcoming year so please do come and say hi on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links on the right hand sidebar).Wishing you all a very happy and joyous 2017 filled with lots of amazing books and, as always…

Happy Reading! 

x


Uncategorized

Books Of The Year 2016

First things first, apologies for the lack of posts this month. I’ve been an extremely bad blogger and, to be completely honest, a pretty rubbish reader to. I’ve been in a real slump throughout December which has, I think, been partly to do with Christmas craziness. I’ve also been in a gaming mood more recently so have been spending most of my free time on my PS4 (it’s all Final Fantasy 15’s fault…) as opposed to with my nose stuck in a book. I was beating myself up about it a bit but then I thought, hey, you don’t have to read if you don’t want to so give yourself a break. And you know what? Once I stopped fretting about not reading, I suddenly wanted to pick up books again. Funny how things work like that sometimes.  

I have similar feelings when I review my year in reading. Over on Goodreads, I set myself the challenge of reading 75 books in 2016. As things stand today, I’ve read 66 and I think I’ll finish another one, possibly two, before December 31. So I’m a few books behind my goal. But again, I’m going to cut myself some slack on that one – reading isn’t about challenges (although they can be a great deal of fun sometimes), its about the enjoyment and relaxation you get from the words on the page. I read some really great books this year so, instead of reflecting on what I didn’t read, I wanted to write a little about the books that have stayed with me to become my Books of the Year 2016. 

Wolf WinterOne of the books that really surprised me earlier this year was Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck, which I read back in January. It was a book I’d purchased on a whim and had been sitting on my shelf for a while when I picked it up but I found myself quickly gripped by this winter tale of murder and supernatural forces within a remote mountain settlement. Set in Swedish Lapland in 1717, the sense of place within this novel was extraordinary – you really feel the chill of the wind and the eerie loneliness of the remote homesteads. An under-rated read, especially if you’re looking for a book to curl up with in the dark months of the year. 

The Midnight Watch: A Novel of the Titanic and the CalifornianAnother unexpected gem was David Dyer’s The Midnight Watchwhich I was sent for review back in April. Although I will admit to having a slightly grim fascination with the tragedy of the Titanic, I’ve found many novels set around the event to be overly dramatic, often taking the form of doomed romances or high octane thrillers. So this quietly considered novel, which focuses on the crew of the ‘Californian; the ship that saw Titanic’s distress rockets and inexplicably failed to go and help the sinking liner, was a real surprise. A moving and very human tale of personal weakness and how a moment of failure can result in a lifetime of regret. 

The North WaterContinuing on a maritime theme, Ian McGuire’s The North Water was a revelation to me. When I had first had the book pressed on me by a friend, I was very much intending to let it gather dust for a couple of weeks before thanking them politely and handing it back – a novel set on a 19th century whaling ship that opens with a foul-mouthed, drunk harpooner raping a rent boy before killing a man didn’t exactly appeal. Get past the brutality and the ripe language however and there’s a complicated and brilliantly woven tale about the darkness that lives within men’s hearts played out against the stunning backdrop of an Arctic winter. Not a book for the faint-hearted and definitely one that comes with trigger warnings for pretty much everything – but still the best novel I’ve read this year. 

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global PoliticsOn the non-fiction front, a standout book for me was Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. Subtitled ‘Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need To Know About Global Politics’, this lively book did exactly that. Ever wondered why no one wants to tango with the situation on the Korean Peninsula? This book will tell you. Why is Russia so determined to have a hold on the Ukraine? Look no further than here! Whilst I recognise that global politics cannot be solely explained by one thing, I really hadn’t appreciated how much physical and geographical constraints play. When you consider that all things eventually boil down on one level or another to access to resources however, a lot of what this books says makes a lot of sense. Informative, interesting and with a good dash of humour, this taught me a lot without me even realising. 

A History of Britain in 21 WomenAnother book that taught without being preachy was Jenni Murray’s A History of Britain in 21 Women, which I’ve read in the last couple of weeks. A library borrow, this was a book I was expecting to find mildly entertaining but firmly in the realms of ‘history lite’.  So I was very surprised – and rather ashamed of myself – when I started to read and discovered a passionately written, thoroughly researched and extremely interesting look at the lives of 21 women who, for better or worse, impacted the history of our island nation. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never even heard of some of Murray’s chosen ladies (Caroline Hershel, Gwen John) and knew astonishingly little about others (Fanny Burney, Constance Markievicz). Murray freely admits to a bias in her selection but, as an introduction to a more feminist view of traditional history, it was a real eye-opener and a definite encouragement to go and find out more about some of these fascinating women. 

So those were some of my favourites of 2016. They were, by no means, the only books that I have read and enjoyed this year but they are the ones that have stayed with me and that I feel haven’t necessarily had a great deal of recognition elsewhere. All of them deserve to be widely read so I’d love for you to let me know if you decide to pick any of them up. As always, you can leave me a comment here on the blog, find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Goodreads or on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. I’d love to hear about your personal favourites of 2016 so please do come say hello. 

I’ll be back soon (I promise!) with my Reading Resolutions for 2017, as well as some books I’m looking forward to tacking in the near future. Until then, have a wonderful rest of the festive period, a fabulous New Year and, as always….

Happy Reading x

Uncategorized

Christmas Reads

Image result for two types of people christmas memeChristmas is coming. Which means, to borrow a now much-used meme, you’ll be one of two types of people. Personally, I start out as a bit of a Theoden as I have a November birthday and no one is allowed to mention the C-word until that’s all done and dusted. Get past that and into December however, and I’m one jingle bell away from being an elf and a current away from becoming a mince pie all the way to the New Year. 

So it’s a bit surprising that I’ve never much been into Christmas reading. I mean, I read at Christmas but I’ve never gone in for Christmas-themed books in the way that I like to read a ghost story at Halloween or something set in a far-away (preferably sunny) land in the summertime. In the last couple of years this has all changed however and I’ve definitely noticed that my reading has become more ‘themed’ to the seasons, including Christmas. So, as the season of joy and goodwill to all men is nearly upon us, I thought I would share some of the books making my December/Christmas reading list this year.

Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas MysteryI do like to snuggle up with a good crime novel during the winter months – although I’m more of a classic and cosy fan than anything involving alcoholic detectives and dismembered body parts. Last year I very much enjoyed Jill McGown’s Murder at the Old Vicarage which is set during a snowy Christmas and provides a Christie-like mystery with some thoroughly un-cosy twists and turns. The novel is a bit of a forgotten gem for crime fans but has recently been re-issued by Pan Macmillan with a very pretty Christmas-themed cover and a seasonal subtitle. It’s the second book in McGown’s series of novels about Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill – although I had no trouble in picking it up without having read the first in the series.  
Mistletoe and Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, #5)
This year, Pan Macmillan are continuing the trend with Murder in Advent by David Williams, another re-issue (this time from 1985) complete with pretty snow-scene cover, which sees some sinister skulduggery going on in the cathedral town of Litchester when their proposed sale of a 1225 copy of the Magna Carta results in the murder of the verger and the burning of the ecclesiastical library. All of which sounds right up my street! I’m also going to be picking up the latest in the Wells & Wong series of YA mysteries by Robyn Young, which is entitled Mistletoe and Murder and promises to continue the series traits of sleuthing schoolgirls, ingenious plot twists and festive delights. To round off the Christmas crime, I’ve also set aside one of the British Library Crime Classics series, Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, which features a Christmas Eve train journey halted by heavy snow, a mysteriously deserted country house and a murderer in the midst. I’ve heard nothing but good things about the book, originally published in 1937, so Christmas seems a good excuse to finally indulge. 

Skipping ChristmasFor a more light-hearted read, I have been lent John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas, a slim volume that has since been turned into a film ‘Christmas with the Kranks’ and sees the erstwhile Luther and Nora Krank decide to skip Christmas and set off on a luxurious Caribbean cruise over the festive season. As they soon realise however, skipping Christmas has unintended consequences and isn’t half as easy as they’d imagined. This sounds like a lot of fun and may be a much-needed respite when the hectic frenzy of eating, drinking and making merry starts to get a little much!

His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials, #1-3)Christmas 2016 will also hopefully find me finally finishing Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials‘ trilogy by reading The Amber Spyglass, the last in the series of epic novels that relate the universe-traversing adventures of Lyra Belaqua and her friend Will Parry. This isn’t exactly a Christmas book per-se but there’s something about the setting (much of the first book takes place in the Arctic Circle) and the magic of it all that makes it a book that’s perfect for snuggling up with at this time of year. 

Lastly, but by no means least, the festive season is a good time for old-favourites. I do like to commence my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings at this time of year but, for a slight change, have opted this year to listen to the excellent unabridged audiobooks read by Rob Inglis. He has a lovely, calming voice that really brings out the charm of Tolkien’s writing and his Gandalf is absolutely spot on. And continuing with classics, my mum bought me a gorgeous illustrated edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol some years ago which I always re-read in the days before Christmas. I find Dickens a difficult writer to get on with sometimes but there’s something so timeless about the story of Scrooge – it practically invented Christmas as we know it and never fails to get me in the mood for the holidays. I combine it with watching A Muppet Christmas Carol which I will always maintain to be the ultimate in Christmas films. 

And that, folks, is what I plan to be doing on my holidays! Or at least, reading when I get the change in between the hectic round of writing cards, wrapping and delivering presents, preparing food and ensuring everyone’s glasses remain full of their chosen festive tipple. What will you be reading this holiday season? Do you read seasonal books or just treat the Christmas holidays as an opportunity to catch up on your usual TBR? As always, let me know in the comments down below or find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs or over on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, until the next time….

Happy Reading! x


Uncategorized

Books To Escape & Engage

Sooooo….tough week huh? Whatever you think of the election results from across the pond, the resulting global uncertainty means rough times for a lot of people. 2016 has seen a lot of tension in the world and there has, undoubtedly, been a shift to the political right both here in the UK and now across the waves in the US also. And as a result a lot of us are feeling, well, a bit scared. So I wanted to write a post that, in some small way, might help to combat that and to share some books that can help you escape from the bad stuff, even if that’s just for a little while. 

That said, I know there are a lot of people out there (me included) who want to take recent events as a wake up call – an opportunity to become more politically engaged with and active within the world – so I’ve also included a couple of books that I feel challenge attitudes and help us to better engage with each other as empathetic human beings. So whether you’re looking for a comfort read to escape into or something to get you all fired up and ready for action, read on!

Comfort Reads

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)When the going gets tough, the tough hit the bookshelves. Okay, so I’m paraphrasing but there’s a lot to be said for cutting yourself some slack and curling up with a cosy read when the bad stuff is really getting to you. After all, if you don’t look after yourself and let yourself indulge in a bit of cosiness every now and then, your body and mind will be in no fit state to get out there and fight the good fight the rest of the time. 

There’s a few places I turn to when the chips are down, the first being to old favourites. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is my very favourite book.  From the moment my beloved, much-missed Grandad read me the opening pages about Mr Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday plans, I was hooked. At it’s most basic, LOTR is a good old-fashioned adventure story with classic good versus evil narrative. Scratch beneath the surface however and it’s so much more than that. Tolkien himself saw both the best and the worst that humanity had to offer, fighting in the trenches of the First World War, and he put it all into this book. There’s friendship, romance (and bromance), messages about tolerance and understanding and oh so much more. It never fails to comfort me in a crisis and now more than ever I think we need to remember that there’s some good in the world and it’s worth fighting for. Honourable mention here to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which needs no introduction and is another go-to feel-good fantasy for snuggling up with.

Pride and PrejudiceFor non-fantasy fans, I find a Jane Austen never fails to cheer me up. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, perfection itself but I would also suggest Northanger Abbey, an earlier work that often gets overlooked but has a great deal of Austen’s trademark wit as well as a lively satire of the gothic novel and the risks of believing everything you read – a moral that could still be learnt by many in the social media age. Another honourable mention here for Georgette Heyer, whose rollicking regency romances provide drama and humour in equal measure. 

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Or how about a bit of classic crime? Queen of the golden age, Agatha Christie never fails to divert me with her ingenious plotting and quintessentially English settings. For true cosiness, I recommend the sharp-eyed Miss Marple, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage. The British Library Crime Classics series also has some true gems, with re-issues of a number of over-looked golden age authors. I’ve recently discovered John Bude’s Superintendent Meredith series, starting with The Lake District Murder, which provide gently taxing mysteries that revel in the intricacies of solid, dogged police work. Another cosy favourite is Simon Brett, with both his Mrs Pargeter novels and his later series of Fethering Mysteries featuring fussy ex-civil servant Carol and her hippy neighbour Jude.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)If humour is more your thing, very little bits a dose of Terry Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series. Pratchett had that magical ability to be extremely funny whilst also being extremely relevant and his skewering of many modern mores within the Discworld framework never fails to make me laugh. My personal favourites are the Guards series, which begins with Guards! Guards!

Finally, for a non-fiction recommendation, I give you Matt Haig’s wonderful Reasons to Stay Alive. This isn’t exactly comfort reading – it’s a fairly direct confrontation with the darkest days of mental illness – but Matt is so unfailingly positive in his approach and has written with such heart and passion that it’s a real boost for anyone feeling that life has just kicked them down. And, as it says in the title, it provides many, many reasons to keep hoping, to keep engaging and to keep living. Which leads me nicely to… 

Engaging Reads

For those whose feelings tend towards action, reading has a lot to offer. Books have always enabled us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and to engage with cultures and people that we might otherwise misinterpret or even ignore. Publishing has become much more aware of minority voices in the last few years which is a real boon for readers who can now more easily access stories from diverse voices. To be an engaged reader is to be an engaged person in the world, to struggle with ideas that are not your own and, ultimately, one of the first steps to challenging concepts and ideas in a mature and responsible way.


The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaWomen’s rights have come a long way but I  feel like 2016 has seen some bumps in the road. For me that makes books like The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerence Guide to the Mediaby Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, even more important. There’s been a good deal of discussion about the role of the media in the political and social events of 2016 so a book that examines how women are portrayed in newspapers, in magazines and online is more timely now than ever. More kick-ass feminist writing comes courtesy of the indomitable Caitlin Moran whose How to Be a Woman should be required reading for all – and who expands into politics with her Moranifesto. And whilst it’s guaranteed to make you feel very angry indeed, Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism is a reminder of what we’re all fighting for. 

With a more political bent, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala is a resonating memoir about both the dangers and the importance of standing up for what you believe in – and is evidence that one voice really can change the world. And Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable story about the liberating power of literature in the face of repression. 

In the Orchard, the SwallowsFor those who prefer fiction, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale issues a powerful warning about how easily the world can turn with just a few steps in the wrong direction. Peter Hobbs’ achingly moving novella In the Orchard, the Swallows reminds us of the enduring power of love and tenderness in the face of a corrupt and terrible enemy. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, whilst brutally unforgiving, is a novel about the virtues of compassion and a reminder that even the most successful person could well be putting on a brave face. And, more recently published, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad provides a timely reminder about how far civil rights have progressed alongside a harrowing narrative that really brings the horrors of slavery to life. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was EvilStephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is a brilliant graphic novel that examines the nature of other and what it means to distinguish between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – stylishly drawn in black and white with little dialogue, Collins’ modern fable has a powerful message hidden within its seemingly simple tale. 

And for those who find that poetry quiets the soul but feeds the mind, the Bloodaxe series of anthologies edited by Neil Astley, starting with Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Timesprovide a series of challenging poems on various topics from a diverse range of contemporary poets. 

The Good ImmigrantFinally, a recommendation for a book that I haven’t yet read but very much intend to, which is The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla which is a series of essays by 21 writers examining what it means to be black, asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. 

Whatever your feelings about the year so far, I hope you’ll find these recommendations useful – we all need a little comfort now and again and we also need occasionally reminding about the power of literature to do good in the world. Hopefully this selection of books will do a little bit of both. As always, I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read any of them – and I’d be delighted to receive recommendations for any titles you would choose as comfort reads or engaging reads. You can find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Litsy @shelfofunreadbooks and over on Goodreads as Shelf of Unread Books – or drop a comment down below. Stay safe my lovelies and never give up what you believe in – and, as always….

Happy Reading x
Uncategorized

Deweys 24 Hour Readathon

readathon1_lg

It’s a wrap! My first proper attempt at a readathon is done and I have to say it’s been a blast. Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon is, as the name suggests, a readathon that takes place over 24 hours. It has a set start time world-wide meaning that everyone participating is, in theory, reading together and can cheer each other along when the going gets tough. Some participants do try and read for the whole 24 hours but I become a very bad person with lack of sleep so I opted for a slightly less hardcore approach and chose instead to dedicate my waking hours to reading during the 24 hour period. So, how did I get on?


Well, I am proud of how much I managed to read. During the readathon period, I read a total of three books and started on a fourth, a total of 704 pages. I also listened to 60 minutes of my current audiobook during a short gym break. The books I read and finished during the readathon were:


  • ‘Hag-Seed’ by Margaret Atwood
  • ‘Bodies of Water’ by V.H. Leslie
  • ‘Today Will Be Different’ by Maria Semple


I also started Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Haunted Hotel’ and progressed the audio of my current book club pick ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga (read by Bindya Solanki).

Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare)My favourite read of the readathon was definitely Margaret Atwood’s ‘Hag-Seed’. This is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare re-tellings of Shakespeare’s plays in novel form (although the only one to date that I have read) and I have to say that I think Atwood has pulled it off brilliantly.

Atwood’s Prospero is Felix, a prominent theatre director who has been unceremoniously ousted by his right-hand man, Tony. Twelve years later, Felix has landed a job as the director of a prison theatre program when fate intervenes to place Tony directly in his path. As the possibility of revenge presents itself, Felix dreams us a theatrical, illusion-ridden version of ‘The Tempest’ that will change his life, and that of his cast, forever.

Capturing the revelry and mystery of Shakespeare’s original (along with a great deal of Shakespeare’s swearing!), Atwood adds plenty of her own magic to this re-telling, ending up with a novel that has warmth, humour and darkness in equal measure. I love Atwood’s writing and her sly observances of human nature and there’s plenty of wit and spark in this – it really was a joy to read and a great choice to kick the readathon off.

Bodies of Water‘Bodies of Water’ was my next choice, begun as daylight was fading and the evening drawing in. A slim volume, coming in at 130 pages, it’s a ghost story with a neat psychological twist that slips between the modern day and 1871.

After ministering to fallen women in Victorian London, Evelyn has suffered a nervous breakdown and has been sent to the imposing Wakewater House, a hydrotherapy establishment on the banks of the Thames, to undergo the fashionable Water Cure. Years later, Kirsten moves into Wakewater – now transformed into modern apartments – fresh from a break-up and eager for the restorative calm of the river. But who is the solitary woman with the long black hair that Kristen keeps seeing by the riverbank? What is her connection to Wakewater? And what does she want from Kirsten?

At its heart a ghost story in the classic mould, filled with a creeping sense of unease and trepidation, this slim volume also examines issues surrounding women’s rights, including female sexuality and mental illness. Whilst to slender a volume to fully examine the fascinating topic of the Victorian treatment of women’s illness, it’s surprising how much ‘Bodies of Water’ manages to touch upon. It’s almost a shame that Leslie didn’t make this longer and turn it into a full novel as my only criticism would be that some of the characters felt a little slight and the ending, whilst sufficiently sinister, did feel rather rushed. That said, this is a novella chock full of atmosphere and made a great mid-readathon book to finish off before heading to bed.

Today Will Be DifferentFinally, I read Maria Semple’s latest novel ‘Today Will Be Different’, a contemporary novel with comic elements about a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown who, over the course of one day, revaluates her life and her place within it.

Eleanor Flood is a talented, middle-aged illustrator who has lost her mojo following a move from New York to suburban Seattle. Nobody remembers her cult TV animation, her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue, her precocious son Timby is faking illnesses at school and, to top it all off, her marriage to husband Joe has hit the rocks. Taking place over the course of one day, Eleanor resolves that today will be different – she will get up, get dressed and get her life back on track. But, as is the way with life, that doesn’t exactly go to plan.

I really enjoyed Semple’s ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’ with which this novel shares many similarities. But what made quirky heroine Bernadette – another woman on the brink of a mid-life crisis with more baggage than an airport and enough neuroses to keep an entire hospital full of shrinks busy – so engaging was that, underneath all that, she was a likeable person. Crazy, neurotic and a little bit selfish but still with a great deal of warmth, humour and heart. Sadly, Eleanor Flood has none of that. She’s crazy but not in a kooky way, self-absorbed as opposed to neurotic and sarcastic to the point of acidic, instead of waspishly witty. All in all, she’s not that nice a person to spend an entire book with.

In addition, I failed to see the point of the plot. Throughout the course of Eleanor’s day, a series of anarchic incidents and mad-cap escapades sets her off course, including a lunch-date with a bitter former colleague, an unexpected run-in with a frustrated poet and a head-injury caused by a contemporary art installation. All of which are kind of funny in themselves but, collectively, just felt a little insane. And none of which really added anything to Eleanor’s character or to her sense of herself, which is bought out more in remembrances and flashbacks to her childhood with her drunken father, the death of her actress mother and the causes behind her strained relationship with her sister Ivy.

I really wanted to like this book because Semple has such a gift for turning a phrase and a really excellent sense of the absurd. She’s brilliant at black humour and capable of writing real wit and warmth into her characters. Sadly though, I just didn’t get that feeling with ‘Today Will Be Different’, which lacked the warm and gentle humour of ‘Where’d You Go Bernadette’ and, sadly, felt like a bit of a mess. I finished it more out of sheer stubbornness that anything else.

The Haunted HotelOh well, onwards and upwards as they say. With an hour of two left of the readathon, I started on Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Haunted Hotel’, another ghost story in the classic mould. I only managed 50 pages by the time the readathon came to a close but I’m really enjoying it so far as it’s nicely combining good-old fashioned Victorian gothic with a pleasant mystery and an easy writing style.

I also mentioned my current audiobook, Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’, which is my book group pick for November. Set in Bangladesh, the book seems to be the life story of Balram Halwai – also known as ‘The White Tiger’ – told via emails that the adult Balram is sending to the Chinese Prime Minister. It’s engaging so far, although I’m still in the early parts of the book, and the audio narration by Bindya Solanki is wonderful. I think audiobooks are a great choice for book group picks as they allow me to free up physical reading time for books on my personal TBR but still read my book club pick in time for group when I’m driving to/from work or doing chores.

All in all, a really excellent weekend of reading! I really enjoyed being part of an international community of readers, all cheering each other on. I also picked up some great book recommendations over the course of the weekend, took part in a couple of the mini-challenges being hosted and had some Twitter and Litsy chats with fellow readathoners. Plus it really revitalised my reading and put a nice dent into my TBR pile, as well as adding to my Goodreads Reading Challenge target (where I’ve been flagging behind a little).

I’d definitely readathon again in future and would like to thank all the hosts, cheerleaders and readers for making this such a fun event to be a part of. I’d love to know if any of you have ever taken part in a readathon and what you thought of it, or if you’d like to take part having read about my experience over the weekend. As always, drop me a comment down below, tweet me @amyinstaffs, or find me over on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks, on Instagram @amyinstaffs and over on Goodreads.

Happy Reading! x
Uncategorized

REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad

Opening a book that has arrived with serious fanfare is always, for me at least, a combination of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I do love reading exciting new fiction. And trepidation as I worry that the book itself may not live up to the hype, especially when that hype train has been set in motion by the mother of all book promos, The Oprah Book Club. Fortunately, I need not have worried because ‘The Underground Railroad’ is an amazing novel. Difficult, brutal, complex and meditative but amazing through and through.

The novel follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who is an outcast even amongst her fellow slaves. Reduced to sharing space in Hob with fellow outcast women, Cora is struggling with her emerging womanhood and the implications of her own mother’s abandonment when she is approached by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, who tells her about the Underground Railroad and his daring plan for escape. As she follows Caesar into the unknown, Cora knows she is escaping from a life of punishing labour but she cannot prepare for the hardships that await her as she makes her towards her new life.

It’s very hard to summarise this book in a few paragraphs because Cora’s journey encompasses so much. From the brutal hardships of plantation life to the temporary respite of a southern farmstead, her journey encompasses many versions of the American south and provides a real picture of the complexity of opinion regarding people of colour in the pre-civil war era. When civil rights are taught at school (especially in British schools), the American Civil War is  often made out to be a cut off point – the moment at which civil rights and the struggle for freedom took flight. ‘The Underground Railroad’ presents a much more varied portrait of the nation, moving through the terrifying brutality of the slave-owning states to the insidious schemes hiding behind some so-called ‘progressive’ movements and the genuine wish for change within other corners of society. It’s quite an eye-opener and, at times, very difficult to read but also extremely rewarding.

Another strength of the novel is the characters. Cora is tough – she’s had to be all her life – so she’s not an instantly likeable lead. Instead she is a rounded human being, who struggles with her heart and her head and who you really become attached to as the novel progresses. Likewise, Ridgeway – the slave catcher who doggedly pursues Cora and Caesar – is a reprehensible human being in many aspects but he is, throughout, a human being. The passages of conversation between Ridgeway and Cora were, for me, some of the most accomplished in the novel as they really drew on richness of both characters and made the entwining of their fates even more compelling.

One of the defining features of the hype surrounding this novel has been the fact that Whitehead has envisaged the underground railroad as an actual railroad – with stations and conducters, tracks and carriages. This is, indeed, ingenious but, for me, it was almost incidental. Cora’s story seems so true that the fact that the railroad is semi-fantastical almost doesn’t register – it feels as real and as truthful to reality as the rest of the narrative. And that, for me, was the defining sense of this novel – a reality that has been encapsulated for the reader wholly. Whilst you’re reading this book, you are living Cora’s story and following each step on her journey for better or for worse. It is a real accomplishment and an excellent novel that I would highly recommend.

‘The Underground Railroad’ by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (Little Brown) and is available in hardback and ebook formats now from all good bookstores and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.


Uncategorized

REVIEW: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Another Day in the Death of AmericaWhat do you say about a book that leaves you in pieces within a few pages of starting it? Given the subject matter, is very difficult to enjoy  Gary Younge’s ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ even though I raced through it in a matter of days. And to say that it was a valuable reading experience sounds a bit worthy even though it taught me more about American gun culture than any number of newspaper reports ever has. But I’m getting ahead of myself – firstly I should tell you exactly what ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ is about.

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013. Another day like any other. And a 24 hour period in which ten American children and teens were killed by gunfire. The youngest was nine, the oldest nineteen. White, Black and Latino, they lived and died in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news and there was no public outcry as a result of their deaths. It was, quite simply, just another day in America where – on average – seven children and teens are killed by guns every single day. Gary Younge has picked this day at random and searched for the families and friends of the dead, examining their lives and their circumstances as well as the curious and often inexplicable mix of personal choice and social situation that resulted in their deaths. Through ten chapters – one for each child – he explores their young lives and, in doing so, explores America’s relationship with guns and paints a portrait of life for young people in contemporary America.

As you can probably imagine, this is not an easy book to read. It opens with the life of Jaiden Dixon, who opened the door to his mother’s ex-boyfriend and was shot in the head on the spot. Jaiden was nine years old. It ends with Gustin Hinnant, eighteen years old and hanging out with the wrong kind of friends, who gets caught in the crossfire of a gang war that he was barely aware he was part of. Not all of the young people profiled by Younge are entirely innocent but none of them deserved to be gunned down, their lives extinguished before they’d even really begun. I spent most of this book hovering somewhere between sadness for the promise of young lives lost and anger that a specific set of societal conditions and expectations often contributed to these deaths. Because there is one thing that Younge makes very clear in this book and that is that simply removing guns from American society would not necessarily result in these kids being alive today.

It would be very easy to write a book about gun violence and point the figure at the gun itself as being 100% the cause of the problem – especially given that Younge is a Brit in America and therefore didn’t grow up amidst US gun culture. To Younge’s credit however, he doesn’t jump to simple conclusions. The problem, he says, is far more nuanced. Yes, the easy availability of guns and the fact that young people can often access them readily (there’s a twelve year old with a hunting permit in this book, something that I would imagine sounds insane to most UK readers) certainly plays it’s part but, as Younge says, none of the relatives or friends of the children profiled consider gun culture a reason for their loved one’s death. Instead they point to a combination of poverty, social stigma, lack of jobs and opportunities and peer group pressures and to the day to day struggle of being from poor, often marginalised communities who have been left by the wayside of the American Dream.

And that’s where the other emotion that this book generates comes in. As well as deep sadness, there is anger. Anger that there is an expectation that a young black man growing up in South Chicago will become a gang member because that’s the only ’employment’ open to them. Anger that there is a resignation that being young, black and male will mean you’ll probably be dead before you reach thirty. Anger that a twelve year old child can be left in a house full of unlocked, loaded weaponry and, when he shoots a playmate, that child’s father is charged on the level of a misdemeanour. Yes, there is a great deal to be angry about in this book.

I think, overall, that’s what Younge is driving at. It’s easy to read about a mass shooting and sat “That’s terrible” before moving on with your life. What Younge does so successfully in this book is to show that it’s not just about the mass shootings – gun violence is a societal issue that is driven by other societal issues and it affects millions of Americans every single day. And he wants us to be distressed about that. He wants us to be angry. Most of all, he wants us to be engaged. Books like ‘Another Day in the Death of America’ are important because they spark debate, they engage us on a personal level and they don’t offer simplistic solutions. There is no quick fix to the situations that led to the deaths of these ten young people. However, if more people – especially young people – read Gary Younge’s book, there might just be a jumping off point for debate and engagement that could spark a revolution in thinking and action and change the course of society for the better.
‘Another Day in the Death of America’ by Gary Younge is available in hardcover and ebook now and is published by Guardian Faber. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advanced copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.