Literature · Uncategorized

My 2016 in books

2016 was a particularly bookish year for me. I started a Booktube channel in autumn 2015, and while I wasn’t that consistent in uploading content throughout 2016 (in fact, I’ve all but disappeared into the ether now, but I don’t have any serious regrets about that – I’m spending my time doing other things that nourish me and make me happy. Maybe I’ll return when inspiration strikes. Maybe not. Either way, I feel I express myself better in writing so it’s probably for the best that I give a bit of love to this blog instead. Anyway, I digress…), being a part of the community motivated me to read often and read widely. Then in June, I became a full-time bookseller. While some might expect that full-time work would detract from my reading time, being surrounded by amazing books and even more amazing people who love books as much as I do has had a tremendous impact on my reading pace. As a result,the number of books I read in 2016 soared.

I read 84 books in 2016, and while I was initially going to condense this down into a top 10, scrolling through my shelves on Goodreads has made me realise that I read way more than ten books worthy of a mention. So, I’ve decided to organise these smashing reads by category in order to simplify a little bit: novels, novellas and short story collections, poetry, children’s and YA, and non-fiction. All books were bought by myself, unless otherwise stated.

Without further ado, here’s my list.

Novels

  1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I think its accolade as the winner Man Booker Prize 2016 speaks volumes about the literary merit of this book, but it really is just so damn good. From the blurb, you know that this is going to address the issue of racial tension in the USA in a satirical way and Beatty executes this theme brilliantly and with so much compassion underlying an important political message. You might think that any character who tries to reintroduce segregation and slavery is going to be painted as a villain, but instead, we have a sympathetic, somewhat hapless protagonist fuelled by Malcolm X-esque idealism who just so happens to find himself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ending had me punching the air while sat on a Vienna U-bahn platform. (Sent for review by Oneworld Publications)
  2. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another Man Booker shortlisted book on my list, this completely defied my perceptions of crime fiction and historical fiction. I rarely read either genre, but picked this one up in an attempt to read all shortlisted books before the results were announced (I managed all of them except Do Not Say We Have Nothing) and also because Graeme is a Glaswegian author with whom I have many mutual connections. His Bloody Project, which explores the motivations and aftermath of a brutal triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish highlands, had me hooked and I devoured it within a matter of days. There were so many fascinating, multi-faceted characters, embroiled in a dark plot with many a twist and turn. I’m still talking about this one – it really is bloody brilliant (pun intended). (Sent for review by Saraband)
  3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I completely underestimated this book. The story is nothing groundbreaking – family saga that spans generations, but the unique selling point in this case is the addition of a pesky author who gets far too involved with this family’s life. However, I really loved it. Patchett has the most gorgeous turn of phrase, making even the most everyday moments sound like poetry. I also really enjoyed how this book jumped about in a non-linear fashion with minimal signposting. As I don’t like being spoonfed when I read, this really worked well for me. All in all, understated and sublime. I reckon it’ll be nominated for this year’s Bailey’s Prize. (Sent for review by Bloomsbury)
  4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. Where do I even begin when describing this book? It’s lyrical, yet gritty. It’s political, but encourages the reader to think for themselves. It’s surreal, yet more grounded in reality than many of us will ever realise. It’s the most dazzling blend of contrasts I’ve read all year. In summary, it’s about a family whose teenage daughter suffers from a rare form of anaphylactic shock that causes her to pass out and her heart to stop beating when over-exerted. As her family come to terms with having a chronically ill child, plenty of other relationship tensions bubble up to the surface. I love this book not only for Moss’ stunning prose, but also for its characterisation – Miriam is a badass fifteen-year-old sharp-tongued feminist, her little sister’s behaviours and conversational quirks are spot on for a child of that age, and their father (the narrator of the book) is a stay-at-home dad who relentlessly supports his doctor wife. A big thumbs up from me.
  5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. My number one favourite book of this year, and definitely in my top five books ever. This one is just heartbreaking. Warm, funny, beautifully written, but totally devastating. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that its protagonist is a nine-year-old dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death in 9/11, but the way that he grows throughout the novel, uncovering a rich family history and battling his inner demons, is amazing. What starts as the voice of a child matures into a young man who understands that life isn’t always simple, that sometimes deception is necessary to protect the ones you love, that some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved, and that ultimately, life goes on. It’s a sentimental subject, but Foer doesn’t go down the often-tread path of mawkish sentimentality to gain sympathy from his readers – instead, he embroils these messages in a web of varying, often quirky, narratives that all paint a complete picture of human empathy without dictating how the reader should feel. This book is just utterly perfect. I’m still thinking about it half a year after turning the final page.

Novellas and short story collections

  1. Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson. Cosy, perfect, magical, wonderful. I don’t know how much more I can say. All these stories were absolutely enchanting. My favourite was ‘The Snowmama’, which I read aloud to my family on Christmas Eve, but I also really enjoyed the ghost stories as well. Between each story is an essay about and recipe (“ressaypes”, you could say) for a festive food cooked by either Winterson herself or, more often, someone important in her life. It’s one of the purest, loveliest collections I’ve ever read and I’ll be returning to it annually.
  2. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This has been on my radar for some time now, but it wasn’t until it was Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month in September that I decided to pick it up. Oh man, some ugly crying was involved with this one. As it is heavily influenced by Ted Hughes’ Crow, I decided to read that first in order to gain a deeper insight into the themes of this gut-wrenching novella – for those not in the know, Crow is a figure in trickster mythology that is present at the scene of all devastation, and in GitTwF, he visits a Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons in mourning of their wife/mother. I’m really glad I did read both books, although I know plenty of people who read GitTwF without reading Crow and still understood the book in a powerful – albeit slightly different – way. I’d love to do more research into Crow throughout literature and come back to this one, as I really think it could be interpreted in so many different ways.
  3. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. In this short but sweet collection, Eagleman (also a renowned neuroscientist) posits what the afterlife may be like. In fact, he asks this question a total of forty times, resulting in this wonderfully surreal vignettes that raise the question, “would I want there to be an afterlife if it was like this? What about if it was like this instead?”. One of my favourites was the opening story, in which the afterlife involves repeating every single activity you did in life, but grouped together by category. So you’ll spend weeks waiting for the bus, before years of sobbing over a lost love, or days of looking for missing socks. The other tales in this collection are all equally surreal yet brilliant. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes to ponder life’s big questions and has a penchant for the bizarre.
  4. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I love Japanese literature, but occasionally it can all feel a bit too similar. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection – Ogawa’s dark, magical realist writing was not unfamiliar, but was original and elegant enough to refresh my interest in the genre. Some of these stories I would even go as far to categorise as horror (bodies in the vegetable patch, anyone?). Ogawa uses the classic Japanese poetic tradition of using recurring motifs to bind these stories together and I really felt that it worked well – I especially enjoyed seeing characters pop up outside their own stories, merely a fleeting backdrop to other people’s stories. I’m really keen to read some more of Ogawa’s writing, as this collection really crept under my skin in the best possible way.

Poetry

  1. When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard by Megan Beech. In 2016 I decided I would like to read more poetry, so when exploring the vast poetry section at Waterstones Sauchiehall St in Glasgow in January, I picked up a few collections from poets I hadn’t heard of before. I was drawn to this one as Megan Beech is a fiery, feminist performance poet, and that’s the kind of thing I go out for. I’m so glad I took a chance. It was completely bloody awesome. I could relate so strongly to Beech’s poems, given that she is around the same age as me and faces the same patriarchal, millennial problems that women in their early 20s (and of any age, I suppose) deal with every day. I recommended this one to a few people and it seems to have really snowballed in popularity since, and now it’s popping up all over Booktube – it definitely pays to take chances and champion a fresh poetic voice!
  2. milk and honey by Rupi Kaur. I bought this on a whim to see what the hype was about. I was definitely not disappointed; it exceeded all my expectations. Every time I thought I’d found my favourite poem, another one would come along. Long story short, my phone is now chock-full of photos of these heart-achingly illustrated poems. I don’t know to describe it really, but I honestly think every young woman should read this collection. Its depictions of hurting and healing and love are so utterly perfect and cathartic to boot. Go go go.

Children’s and YA

  1. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I feel like I’m cheating slightly with this one, given that’s part of a series that I started in December 2015, but The Subtle Knife is definitely my favourite book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I can’t remember what it was that made me love this one so much, but I hazard it was probably the introduction of a multiverse extending beyond that experienced by Lyra in Northern Lights. Everything felt that much richer, and I completely fell in love with all the new characters. Mary Malone meeting the Mulefa has to be in list of my top literary moments ever.
  2. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book restored my faith in YA literature and I gobbled it up in a couple of days. Never have I read a YA novel with a protagonist so similar to my teenage self; I really wish this book had ben about when I was a teenager, as I think it would have been a source of immense comfort. Frances is perceived as being quiet, studious, and – dare I say it – somewhat boring at school. She is still well-liked and has a small core of friends with whom she goes out on a semi-regular basis, but none of them know the “real Frances”. The real Frances is a punky, CONFIDENTLY BISEXUAL (!) nerd who loves nothing more than drawing fan art for her favourite podcast and wears leggings with cartoon characters all over them. So when she discovers that she has actually known the creator of this podcast in real life all along, her life changes drastically for the better. Finally, she has someone with whom she can act like “real Frances”. But, all is not well…A hilarious, poignant debut novel with well-rounded characters and realistic relationships and dialogue, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who needs a new perspective on YA literature. And Welcome to Night Vale fans. Would 100% recommend to Welcome to Night Vale fans.
  3. Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. A bit like Grief is the Thing with Feathers for 10- to 12-year-olds, Maybe a Fox is a lovely little magical realist novel about grief and how finding the spirit of our loved ones in nature can soothe  heartache. Set in a frozen American landscape, Jules is devastated when her older sister – and best friend – Sylvie disappears into the woods behind their house one day and never returns. But is Sylvie really gone? Her friend’s brother has recently returned from the war, having lost his best friend as well, and their respective grief combines to weave a really moving, compelling tale in which even adults will find deeper meaning. Just a truly lovely book. (Sent for review by Walker Books)

Non-fiction

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. You know you’ve hit upon something special when a book climbs its way into your “top books of the year” list on 30th December. A few people had recommended When Breath Becomes Air to me, but I had kind of pushed it to the back of mind – I wanted to read it, but it wasn’t a high priority. That was until I was sent a reading copy of the new paperback edition, and one evening, when I was in the mood for some non-fiction, picked it up on a whim. I regret NOTHING. Telling the story of a nearly-graduated neurosurgeon and aspiring writer diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties, this isn’t one for the faint of heart. It’s heartbreaking, but it has given me so much to think about. What makes life worth living, especially when you know the end is near? Is death a better option than living a life without self-expression? I know some people have shirked this one off as mainstream misery porn, but it’s really not. I implore anyone to read this and not consider their own life choices and mortality. Definitely one to read with tissues, especially while reading the afterword written by Kalanithi’s wife after his untimely passing. (Sent for review by Vintage)
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. Like many, I am not a self-help book person. Without having read any, I have always assumed them to be a bit too preachy and overly simplistic. That’s one of the reasons I picked this one up: it’s almost an anti-self-help book in its irreverence. It doesn’t pander, it doesn’t pussyfoot. Instead, its core philosophy is blunt but effective: if you can’t be bothered, or if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it. Become unapologetic about this. Build yourself a “fuck budget” of things to which you can realistically dedicate your time, money and enthusiasm. I honestly do thing this has improved my mindset in many ways. I’m super excited to read Sarah Knight’s new book, Get Your Shit Together. Now go forth, and be fuckless.

Aaaaaaaand thus concludes my mega-list of favourite books of 2016 – congratulations if you read this far. I did say it was a good reading year for me, didn’t I?

I hope 2017 will be another epically brilliant reading year, and that maybe I’ve helped you discover some new books you might like to pick up soon – let me know!

Literature

Bumper book news: what I read in March and April

So I totally forgot do one of these posts to wrap up what I read in March, so I thought it would be wise to combine it with my April reads. Besides, I didn’t read that many books in each month separately. Let’s just pretend that’s the reason I didn’t do one last month, and not my sheer absent-mindedness, okay?

It’s been a busy few months, what with our community opera, concerts, deadlines and unfortunate happenstances I won’t bore you with, so I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to read, but now that I’ve submitted all my third year coursework, I am free to read to my heart’s content in May – hooray for doing a degree that has basically no Honours exams!

Without further ado, here’s what I managed to cross off my TBR over the past two months.

MARCH

1. Coraline and Other Stories by Neil Gaiman – ★★★★

After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Ocean at the End of the Lane in December, I was keen to get my teeth into some more of Neil Gaiman’s work. He’s a writer that has been on my TBR for a few years, and I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to finally read some of his books; they’re just so me. I decided to pick up Coraline for a few reasons: it’s one of his most well-known works, it can be read by all ages so wouldn’t be too confusing or put me off Gaiman’s writing, I like the film adaptation by Henry Selick, it seemed like it would be similar in tone to TOatEotL, and I can’t resist a good short story collection. All in all, I really really enjoyed it. The titular story is, of course, excellent, but other stand outs include Chivalry and The Witch’s Headstone. The latter became part of The Graveyard Book, which I picked up in Oxfam a few days after finishing Coraline and am excited to read soon!

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson – ★★★★★

This was another book that had been on my TBR for absolutely years and years, but I was just waiting for the right moment to pick up. In the past few months, I’ve really had something of a breakthrough with opening up about my sexuality, which is something I’ve always questioned and as a result is a form of happiness I’ve denied myself out of fear. Because of it, I’ve been surrounding myself with as much LGBT+ fiction (books, TV shows, films etc.) as possible, since it make me feel safe; Oranges is one of those books that I picked up at this crucial moment and I’m so glad I did. It honestly moved me to tears. I read Sexing the Cherry last year and wasn’t a fan, but Winterson has well and truly won me back with this one.

3. Bird Box by Josh Malerman – ★★★★

I’d heard lots of good things about Bird Box on BookTube, so being the psychological horror fan that I am, I picked it up as it looked like it would be an easy read. It was, to some extent, but I started it at such a busy point in the month that it actually took me a couple of weeks to finish. In retrospect, I would maybe give this three stars – I’m still on the fence, because while I liked it and gave it four stars at the time, it hasn’t made that much a lasting impression. Still, I thought the premise was fascinating, there was the perfect amount of suspense, and to top it off, there was a bonus short story at the end called Ghastle and Yule that I think I enjoyed even more than the novel itself. I’m intrigued to see what Malerman does next.

APRIL

1. Plumdog by Emma Chichester Clark – ★★★★★

This cute lil graphic novel made me squeal with affection. I don’t know, maybe it’s a dog owner thing, but I absolutely love love LOVED this book. It was such good light relief and I read it over two sittings; it would also make a good coffee table book, as it’s made up of vignettes that you can dip in and out of at leisure. The illustrations are beautiful, all the characters have such clear, individual voices and it just gave me a case of warm fuzzies that I’m still recovering from, frankly. I highly recommend to anyone with a heart!

2. Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates – ★★★★

As a staunch feminist, I was bound to read this at some point, but as certain chapters came in handy for the music psychology presentation I gave at the start of the month, I just decided to read the whole thing while I had it on loan for research. It wasn’t an easy read by any means – this isn’t fluffy Moran-esque feminism that seeks to entertain as it educates – but it was so worth it. There was a really good balance between statistics, quotes and case studies, and it just hammered home so many important messages. I honestly think that this should be required reading for everyone!

3. The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan – ★★★★★

Okay, not to be melodramatic in any way, but I think this might be the best book I’ve read all year. I ADORED it. It’s funny, because I hadn’t heard of Kirsty Logan until I spotted this in Blackwell’s and decided to buy it on the premise that I like fairy tales and I wanted to support local talent. I mean, I was expecting to enjoy it, but I was completely blown away by the perfect blend of magic realism, queer relationships and idyllic Scottish settings. Like, those are my three favourite things and I’ve been planning a novel including all those elements for the past year! To make it even better, I struck up a conversation with Kirsty over Twitter and she is absolutely lovely. I am buzzing like a second-hand fridge to read her new book, The Gracekeepers.

4. The Girl with All the Gifts by ML Carey – ★★★★

I borrowed this from my mum a few months ago but only just got around to reading it in the Easter holidays. I love a good dystopian novel, so naturally this really appealed to me – it reminded me a bit of Matilda, but set in the future and with zombies and crazed scientists and much more adult content. The central relationship between Melanie and Miss Justineau really moved me, so naturally I was rooting for them throughout the novel, and I’m actually really pleased with how it panned out. Many people, including my mum, didn’t like the ending, but I quite liked the ambiguity of it all and its weird blend of bleakness and hope. It only loses a star because I found myself skimming at some points, especially when it was from the two soldiers’ POVs.

5. Antichrista by Amélie Nothomb – ★★★

Now, there is an awesome story behind how I acquired this book. As you might have noticed, I’m a keen BookTube viewer and my personal BT heroine, Jen Campbell, made a video singing the praises of Amélie Nothomb a few months ago, but noted that her books are quite difficult to find in your average bookshop. However, I added Antichrista and The Book of Proper Names to my Goodreads TBR in the hope that I might find them one day. A few weeks ago, I went to Alnwick and, naturally, had to visit Barter Books. On the bus there, I said to Giulia, “I wonder if they’ll have anything by Amélie Nothomb – I haven’t been able to find her books anywhere”. Lo and behold, they not only had Amélie Nothomb’s books, but the exact two, and ONLY the exact two, that I had on my TBR! I read Antichrista the day after I bought it, and while I enjoyed it, I felt it could have been longer – there was a lot of potential for a longer plot, so it seemed to all be over really quickly.

6. Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters – ★★★★

Giulia lent me this because it’s been on my TBR for a while, and as previously mentioned, I’m binging on everything LGBT+ at the moment. This was so nearly a five-star book, but to get five stars, I not only need to love it, but it needs to have a kind of profound effect on me. I did really really enjoy Tipping the Velvet, but it wasn’t quite in the same spiritual way as the likes of Oranges, so four stars it is. I’m also not generally a fan of historical fiction, but I really liked how gritty this book was – I’d like to read more historical fiction that deals with taboo themes in such a headstrong, exciting way. The start was perhaps a bit slow, but once I got past this, I couldn’t put it down – I really felt like I was on a journey with Nancy and I couldn’t wait to see where she ended up next. It definitely ended with the best possible outcome though…I shall say no more!

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I’ve got a few books I really want to read soon, but now that I’m free until September, I’m really looking forward to just seeing where my moods and whims take me with regards to book selection. However, if you have any suggestions for me based on these wrap-up posts, do let me know!

Literature

What I read in February

Hello everybody! Apologies for the lack of posts in February. I hope you all had a good month. It’s time for my monthly wrap-up of the books that I read in February. It wasn’t as good a month quantity-wise as January, but I’m still well ahead of schedule on my reading challenge for the year so I’m not too worried. Life is too short to beat yourself up over something as trivial as not reading as much as you’d have liked! Without further ado, here are my February reads.

1. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh – ★★★★

I’ve wanted to read Trainspotting for a while now, but only just got around to picking it up from the library. I felt a little bit intimidated by the prospect of reading it, because while I’m Scottish, I thought I would find the written dialect really difficult to decipher. However, I was pleasantly surprised; it actually flowed really well and after a couple of pages I was completely used to the writing style and could understand everything being said. As a case in point, I even went home the weekend after I finished reading this and my parents asked me why I was talking like I was from Leith…But yes, this is actually a really heartwarming book and I loved how well-developed and distinct each character was, and how their stories overlapped and twisted together in sometimes unexpected ways. So don’t be put off by the dialect, if you’re not used to the Scots language – it’s well worth persevering!

2. An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender – ★★★

Sadly, I was really disappointed by this book. I bought it on a whim because I had seen some rave reviews on BookTube, and based on its Goodreads blurb, it sounded like my kind of book. I even read a few pages in Waterstones before buying it and was really taken in, but unfortunately, it all fell a bit flat for me. Don’t get me wrong, Bender writes some really beautiful prose (and that’s what bumped it up to three stars for me), but there were so many points in the plot that made me want to bash my head against a brick wall. This book is widely considered to be magical realism, which I like and I’m generally good as suspending disbelief, but it didn’t seem particularly magical or whimsical – just irresponsible. Writing about a teacher my own age, who has zero teaching qualifications but quite a lot of deep-seated emotional issues, displaying an ax in her primary school classroom isn’t the kind of thing for which I’m able to suspend disbelief. It just made me go, “BUT WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT AND NOT FORSEE THAT SOMETHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN, YOU SILLY PERSON.” I rest my case.

3. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – ★★★

This was so nearly a four-star book, but occasionally I found myself zoning out when reading it (maybe I was tired, who knows) so for that reason it lost a star. I did really enjoy it; I thought the subject (erotomania) was fascinating, and it really made me question a lot – mainly whether the narrator was reliable or whether it was literally in his mind. Something I found interesting was the appendix at the end, which is a journal article detailing case studies of erotomania; it discusses the plot and the characters in such accurate detail that to be honest, I still don’t know whether the article itself was real or made up by McEwan. Does anyone know?

4. Yes Please by Amy Poehler – ★★★

I feel really sad that I could only give this three stars, as I am a huuuuuuge Amy Poehler fan, but it just didn’t win me over. I expected something different from what I got, which is almost definitely the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would; I expected it be a fun, sometimes serious, collection of essays, aphorisms and general life advice. I don’t know why I got that in my head because while it’s got odd chapters like that, for the most part, this is an autobiography. And a slightly self-conscious one at that. Poehler talks a lot about how she doesn’t actually want to be writing a book, and how difficult it is, and how she’s only doing it because her agent told her to. I kind of wish she’d have just gotten on with it, to be honest. Sorry Amy. I love you dearly but wasn’t completely won over by your literary offering.

5. The Humans by Matt Haig – ★★★★★

And from a book that I had high expectations for, to one I wasn’t really too fussed about picking up…but which turned out to be my favourite book of the year so far! Much like An Invisible Sign of My Own, I picked up The Humans because I had seen a lot of BookTubers absolutely rave about it and thought “why not?” Admittedly, I was very confused for the first few chapters because I had misconstrued the blurb and thought the main character had been turned into a dog, and wondered why he was being treated like an outcast for not wearing clothes or being able to speak. I’m an idiot, basically. Needless to say, this book is NOT about a man who has turned into a dog, but rather an alien who has been sent to take over the body of a Cambridge mathematician whose work on the Riemann hypothesis is considered a threat to humanity, as the human species are supposedly not mature enough to be able to cope with the advances it will bring. It sounds weird, but IT WORKS. IT SO WORKS. I almost cried multiple times because it’s just so, so moving seeing how he becomes more and more attached to humans, discovers how to love and feel empathy, and wishes to become one of them. I borrowed it from the library but will definitely be buying my own copy soon, if only to copy down the chapters of “lessons about being human” that he leaves for his (sort of, but not really) son. It made me realise how miraculous life can actually be and affected me on such a profound level.

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So, that’s my wrap up for February done and I hope I’ll be able to find a bit more time to read this month despite my crazy hectic schedule. Shameless plug time… I’m running my first ever 5k on Sunday (March 8th) to raise money for Health in Mind, a local mental health charity, and would absolutely love your support because I am so nervous and it’s such an important cause! You can donate HERE.

Then from the 18th-21st March, I will be performing in the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh as part of my Music in the Community course. We’re doing an opera for children with local primary school children called Watching, which is all about sleep and a little girl who just can’t get any. If you’re in or around Edinburgh, please come along, but if not, it would still be nice for you to check out our WEBSITE! (I’m the project blogger – not to shamelessly self-promote…)

Literature

What I read in January

Hallelujah, it’s February at last. I like February, because it means Spring is getting nearer and nearer. I used to always hate on Spring for being a boring season, but I’ve realised recently it’s actually my favourite – the days get longer, the crocuses spring up (pun unintended…) on every available patch of grass, there’s crisp sunshine and a legitimate reason to spend days with the family eating chocolate. I helped combat the January blues by reading lots and lots of books. My Goodreads challenge is 60 books this year, and I managed 11 in January – yay! Here’s a run down of what I read…

1. Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi – ★★★

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I would have liked. I adore Scandinavian literature, the more rural the better (Tove Jansson being one of my favourite authors of this style), and I liked hearing about Matti and his friends’ adventures in northern Sweden in the 1960s. There’s rock and roll, there’s masculinity contests involving saunas (not in that way), there’s hooch, there’s funeral pyres of mice in the woods. But I often found myself tiring when reading this, especially in the more family-centric stories.

2. We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver – ★★★★

This has been on my TBR for a looooong time, but my mum owns it and I don’t, I waited until I was home for a decent amount of time to read it. There was a shooting at my primary school a few years before I started, so school massacres are often a sensitive subject for me, but thankfully I didn’t find WNTTAK too upsetting. There were lots of reasons why I really liked this book: the characters were compelling and well-developed, the POV of the mother made for an interesting, potentially unreliable narrative, and there was a wonderful sense of fridge logic when the ends arrives and suddenly you realise you’ve missed all these clues scattered throughout the book.

3. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey – ★★★★

This was an impulse buy while I was waiting for a train – my mum had mentioned wanting the paperback edition of The Miniaturist, so when I saw it in the “buy one, get one half price” section of WHSmith at Glasgow Queen Street, I decided to treat her and get Elizabeth is Missing for myself as part of the offer. I really liked this book; more contemporary novels need elderly protagonists. However, it was heartbreaking to see Maud’s dementia progress throughout the book, and the ending left me in pieces. I went in thinking it would be a sort of “octogenarian detective” story, and what I got was something a lot more poignant, but in retrospect, I don’t think any other approach would have worked for this lovely, tender novel.

4. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson – ★★★★

If there’s one thing you should know about my book tastes, it’s that I love Kate Atkinson. I’ve read all but two (Human Croquet and Life After Life, although I’ve owned the latter for a year) of her books. They’re never particularly heavy-going, but she spins some amazing webs of intertwining characters and plots that you can’t help but get absorbed by. If I ever need a comfort book, Kate has my back. SE,TMD is the fourth and final installment in her Jackson Brodie detective series, and while I would say it’s my least favourite of the series (When Will There Be Good News? is probably my favourite), it still made for an enjoyable read.

5. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened by Allie Brosh – ★★★★★

Hooray, my first 5★ book of the year! I’ve been a huge fan of Hyperbole and a Half for a couple of years now, and I’ve been meaning to buy the book for a while. I finally got around to it a few weeks ago and ended up devouring the whole thing in an afternoon. Allie’s stories are just so fun and moving, and I could relate a lot to some of her experiences. The whole thing is a colourful, endearing delight. You can read Allie’s Hyperbole and a Half blog HERE.

6. Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland – ★★

I had high hopes for this one, as I read Hey, Nostradamus! a few years ago and seemed to remember liking Coupland’s writing style. Imagine my disappointment when I realised that, well, I really disliked this book. The first half was…okay, as it focussed more on the characters, their relationships and their responses to tragedy. Sure, the tragedy in question was totally unbelievable, but I read magic realism, so suspending disbelief is something I regularly manage. But then, BAM, it turned into an OTT, ridiculously preachy, apocalyptic sci-fi story. I was so angry at how stupid it was that I wanted to throw this book against a wall. The first half was the only reason it scored a second star.

7. Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell – ★★★★

Jen and I used to talk a lot online (we were part of the same Holby City/Casualty forum mentioned in my previous post), and while we’re not in regular contact anymore, I’m still an avid follower of every bookish thing she does, whether it’s writing them or talking about them over on her BookTube channel. I’ve been meaning to read her books ever since they were announced, but due to lack of money, I never got around to buying them. It was only recently that the very obvious idea of the library popped into my head. Weird Things made me laugh a lot, hence why the next book I read was…

8. More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops by Jen Campbell – ★★★★

MORE Weird Things?! YAY!

9. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – ★★★★

I’m not a massive fan of YA, but Wintergirls sounded so intriguing and had such good reviews on Goodreads that I decided to give it a go. I really loved Anderson’s writing style, with words and phrases crossed out to show Lia’s real voice battling against her illness’ voice. It was a very real, gritty portrayal of how mental illness can destroy a family, and my heart ached for each and every one of the characters – Lia for struggling with an illness as horrible as anorexia, her sister for being so innocent and well-meaning, her parents for seeing their daughter become sicker and sicker before their eyes and knowing that it was outwith their control. One thing that made me really sad about this book was not actually the story itself, but the way that I found the book in the library: there was a note slipped inside, with pencil drawings of girls’ faces and the title “autobiography” before summarising a stay in a local CAMHS ward, detailing everything from her friends’ names to the constant self-harm and suicide attempts. The book itself had passages underlined, presumably by the same person as a source of comfort. I hope this reader is okay and being looked after, wherever she is.

10. Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – ★★★

I can’t resist some Murakami, and our local library has a great selection, so I picked up his recent Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki. I did enjoy it, as it was a really interesting premise and the characters all fitted in well (apart from poor Haida, who I liked but seemed to disappear and never be mentioned again), but I felt it was lacking…something. I don’t know what. I think, for me, the titular protagonist felt too similar to many other Murakami protagonists so I couldn’t really get on board with him as a living, breathing character. Th ending was also a little disappointing, but I’ve become used to Murakami leaving his endings quite open, so it wasn’t a major issue for me. I wanted to love this book, but it just didn’t seem different enough to me.

11. The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell – ★★★★

Following on from 7. and 8., I decided I might as well devour Jen’s entire oeuvre in one big gobble! I’ve always had a dream of opening a bookshop and café (a childhood dream shared with my mum, with whom I spent countless hours drawing out felt-tip plans for this magical place), so The Bookshop Book was really inspirational to me. I loved hearing all the booksellers’ stories and learning about how they’re reeling in business in this digital age – I particularly loved how many bookshops offer a “book consultation” service, where the booksellers will put together a tailor-made reading list for you! People may gripe about how eBooks are going to take over soon, but if The Bookshop Book proved anything, it’s that the spirit and community of bookselling will ensure that paper and print lives on forever. Basically, I now want to go on a bookshop tour of the world. Someday…when I have money…

Literature

My Top 10 Books of the Past Year

Yes, I know, it’s another of those “looking back on 2014” posts and I should really just move on (ironically, I don’t really celebrate New Year or anything), but as I plan on discussing the books I’ve read each month, I thought that recapping on my top ten books of 2014 would be a nice way to kick off proceedings. I set myself the challenge of reading 60 books in a year, and I just missed and finished up with 56 books, but I discovered some real gems along the way. So, in chronological order of when I read them, because rankings would be waaaay too difficult, here are my top ten books of the past year.

1. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

January saw my first adventure into the moving, often surreal, world of Murakami, and it was incredible. Norwegian Wood is different from many of his other books as it isn’t magic realism (the next Murakami I read was Sputnik Sweetheart, which is much the same, so it wasn’t until I picked up After the Quake in July that I discovered how weird and wonderful his stories can be). It tells the story of young Toru Watanabe starting University in 1960s Tokyo, where he finds his passions being torn between Naoko, his troubled friend from adolescence, and the brazen Midori. It may sound like your typical love triangle, but I can assure you that it is full of very real emotion and is an incredibly poignant tale of growing up and seeing the world without rose-tinted glasses.

2. Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven a good few years ago now, but Tuesdays with Morrie is different in that it’s not fiction, but rather an account of how Albom used to go and visit the home of his ex-professor every Tuesday, providing companionship in exchange for valuable wisdom and life advice in his final days as he lies dying from ALS. However, it is presented as a novel, rather than some sort of self-help book, and the prose is often beautiful in itself. I’m not one for books that go all-out on the “life is amazing and inspirational and you should live every day to the max!” front, but Morrie really moved me. I found great comfort in his astute words, and they provided me with great comfort at a time when I really needed it.

3. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Here’s something you might not know about me: I love fairy tales. Not necessarily the saccharine ones often found in children’s books and Disney films (not to knock Disney – I love Disney, but it is fluff, really), but the ones where things are not at all what they seem and there’s danger lurking behind every tree. That’s why I enjoyed The Book of Lost Things so much. It’s about a young boy named David who, after narrowly escaping a plane crashing into his back garden during the war, escapes into a magical world he has only read about in books. However, it’s not quite the storybook fantasy he has imagined, but rather a world filled with ferocious half-wolf men, witches with Frankenstein complexes and a terrifying Crooked Man who wants nothing more than to capture and steal the soul of David’s younger brother. I’d like to imagine it as Labyrinth rewritten by the Brothers Grimm on a hefty dose of absinthe.

4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

There’s a particularly cute story about how I came across this book. When I was together with my ex-boyfriend, we would often visit bookshops together, and one day, when trying to decide on a third book for my “3 for 2” offer at Blackwell’s, I said “go and choose me a book that you’ve read and think I’d like. Any book at all, as long as it’s in the offer. You choose it and I must buy it, no questions asked.” Turns out he had very good taste, as he chose A Tale for the Time Being (in return, I chose The Secret History for him, which he loved, so it was a win-win situation, but I digress). This book was so good that I even braved my awful motion sickness to read it on a two-hour bus journey, sans paracetamol. It is about a writer, Ruth, who discovers the diary of a Japanese schoolgirl, Nao, washed ashore near her home, all the way across the Pacific. The POV alternates as we learn more about Ruth’s journey to track down the diary’s owner alongside Nao’s difficult family life, endearing and inspirational Buddhist nun grandmother, and how she has resorted to keeping this diary as a way of dealing with the tragedy that surrounds her. It was so perfect and to be honest, only lost one star on Goodreads for the gratuitous suicide talk, which I found difficult at that point in time. Otherwise, a five-star novel.

5. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Can you tell that I like contemporary magic realism yet? I had been planning to read this for a while, but didn’t get the chance until an old friend said “I love this book so much that I have two copies, so you can keep one of them” (thanks Alethea, you babe). I love weird and wonderful circuses. I love mystery and things that appear different on the surface. I love magic. I love old-time-y settings and the taboos that surround them. So all in all, this book was a real winner for me. I can’t really explain the whole book, as there are so many intertwining plots, but the overarching theme is that there are two rival young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been raised to duel each other once they come of age by taking part in an ominous “competition” at a mysterious circus that is only open at night, is gone the next morning and travels the world at lightning speed. But surprise surprise, poor Celia and Marco fall in love and it all gets a bit complicated. It’s so much more than that though. I promise.

6. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Warning: the book made me cry real, big, messy tears. Books hardly ever move me to tears. Films, yes, but I can usually maintain composure with books. So take heed. Having said that, this was definitely my favourite book I read all year and I devoured it in a day. It tells the story of the teenage June and how her life changes in 1987 when her beloved Uncle Finn dies of a “mysterious illness” (spoiler alert: despite the blurb’s best attempts to keep it a secret, you can tell right from the start that it’s AIDS). It seems her family, especially her sister, are putting up barriers and trying their best to get on with life, but June finds the grieving process much harder. She tentatively forms a beautiful friendship with Finn’s boyfriend, in whom she finds great solace. What I loved about this book was how real all the characters were; I felt like I was grieving with them. I loved their complexity and seeing how each of the characters dealt with Finn’s death, as it felt very realistic – I liked the fact that they weren’t too soppy about it, but instead pretended to be okay with it while bottling up their real emotions, in an attempt to “put on a brave face.” BECAUSE THAT’S REAL GRIEF TOO, PEOPLE. Gah, I feel emotional just thinking about poor June and Toby and Finn and Greta and all the other wonderful characters that I just want to cuddle. All the feels.

7. Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Now, I realise this is quite a departure from the other books I’ve listed, but I really do enjoy horror, especially when it’s as suspenseful as this. I have always liked Chuck Palahniuk (who, incidentally, wrote the introduction to my edition of Rosemary’s Baby), but after reading Ira Levin, I don’t think I will ever be able to enjoy Palahniuk in the same way again, because this guy is just the king of suspense. I haven’t seen the film, so I didn’t know what the ending held in store, and I was left guessing throughout the book. Rosemary was a total badass (despite his gender, Levin seems to be really good at writing really awesome lady characters – I read The Stepford Wives shortly after this, and its protagonist Joanna was equally cool) and the ending left me with the same kind of good chills that a good American Horror Story finale (i.e. not Coven) leaves me with. Aaaaaah.

8. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I had been meaning to read this for absolutely ages, so I leapt at the chance when I saw it in the library. I don’t think there was much point in me borrowing it in all honesty, as it can be read in half an hour, but it was amazing all the same. I could hear the unnamed protagonist’s voice so clearly that her descent into full-on madness as she becomes convinced that there are women trapped beneath the yellow wallpaper in her bedroom was truly chilling. Combined with shrewd comment on mental illness and the challenging relationships between men and women (Perkins Gilman was a staunch feminist and generally fierce), it really stayed with me long after I turned the final page. It’s so short that I will no doubt re-read it sometime, as I’d really like to look at the allegorical content even more closely, especially now that I’ve read up on Perkins Gilman’s life.

9. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

I don’t quite know what it is, but there was just something about The Virgin Suicides that made me go “yes.” Ironically, I found it both amazingly enjoyable and triggering – the mind is a funny thing, isn’t it? After the first suicide in the novel, I could really feel myself getting sucked into the Lisbon family’s grief and could clearly picture their decaying, dusty house with windows full of candles. I liked learning about all the sisters and their varying responses to the first death in the family, although I kind of wish Eugenides had focussed slightly less on Lux. The narrative itself was also really interesting, as it was plural first-person, but you never really learn more about this mysterious “we”, other than the fact that they’re a group of boys who congregate to watch the Lisbon home from their vigil across the street, out of sympathy for their isolation. However, the fact that the boys were unnamed, combined with how the Lisbon family eventually faded away from the scene, gave a real sense of impermanence and reminded me of how life can pass by us so easily.

10. The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

And finally, yet another mental illness book to round off my list! This is the only book I’ve read about schizophrenia so far, but I found it so so moving and would love to read more fiction on the subject (especially since I wrote my research methods essay on it and am considering it as a theme for my dissertation). After witnessing the death of his older brother Simon, who has Down’s Syndrome, as a child, Matthew grows to blame himself for the tragedy as he feels he should have protected him. He develops schizophrenia in his teenage years and begins to see and hear Simon everywhere, and after recalling a science lesson from his first year of secondary school, makes it his mission to rearrange atoms to bring him back to life. Of course, this can’t be done and he is hospitalised. His account of being in hospital was reminiscent of The Bell Jar (one of my favourite books of all time) and I loved how Filer used different fonts and layouts to convey Matt’s troubled mindset. There were quite a few moments when I shed a tear (refer back to point made in 6…), and like Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I also read this in a day. I don’t know – maybe I’m just a book-masochist?

So there you go, after two hours of typing, I am finished with my top ten. What books did you really enjoy in 2014? Do you have any reading goals for this year?