Five star book report 2017

I post the majority of my book reviews to my Goodreads profile, but occasionally like to hand-pick those that have earned five stars to share here. I haven’t been as voracious in my reading appetite this year, and have indulged in some books that I’ve read before, but still there were some great highlights along the way.

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

I love Anna Kendrick a lot, so it was no surprise that her memoir was right up my street. Having said that, I was a bit taken aback by the book because it was basically like reading inside my mind – some of the anxieties, some of the anti-social tendancies, some of the obsessive compulsive stuff, you mean Hollywood stars feel like that too?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I thought it was really well written, and easy to follow despite the difficult timelines throughout. I also liked that some time periods were jumped quickly, whereas other times we got stuck in the one spot – Bridget’s flu or getting out of the Blitz alive.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

At first, I thought this was just going to be another book about a taciturn Scandinavian man – an older gentleman, grumpy at the world but with a strong moral fibre and deep down a good heart. It was that, of course, but it was so much more. The way the story is structured, gradually filling in the back story of Ove’s life, whilst also gradually giving him reasons to keep going in the future, was perfect.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

It’s a tragic piece, terribly sad in places, but equally full of hope – cancer is such a common disease now that these sort of stories and feelings will affect many people in their lifetime. Knowing that life can go on, however painful it may be, is a good thing, a strong feeling.

The Dispatcher by John Scalzi

The crux of a shorter work like this is getting straight to the heart of the ethical problems that arise. In this case, we’re talking about a world where if you are murdered, you get a second chance at living, so an entire industry is created around dispatching people. Plenty to discuss thereafter.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Love some of the concepts in here, such as the Queen treating all of her books the same as she does her subjects, with an equal attitude. Or that once the public get wind of her reading, they are suddenly presenting her with books as presents or their own works for a royal opinion.

Ten Birthdays by Kerry Wilkinson

Intially, the story is gentle – growing up is hard and Poppy isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life. But gradually, real life gets in the way, relationships change, and stuff happens. I really enjoyed the way the characters changed and grew but ultimately kept a big part of what was special about them from the beginning.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson by Chesley B. Sullenberger, Jeffrey Zaslow

I found it inspirational to read about how he doesn’t consider himself a hero, but that working hard and diligently preparing for every eventually allowed him to land the plane successfully. It’s not always about being the brave hero, but sometimes being the one squirrelling away in the background doing the job well can also make a difference.

The Calling: A John Luther Novel by Neil Cross

It’s short, sharp, bristling with tension and anger, confusion, betrayal and generally a sense of foreboding and doom. It casts Luther as the bad guy – the one at the end of the horror film, calmly walking after victims knowing that he’ll get his way in the end. And yet, as we all know, flawed as Luther may be, he’s also brilliant.

Where Rainbows End by Cecilia Ahern

A story told in the form of communications between Rosie and her friends and extended family, this chronicles almost fifty years of love, loss, drama, tears and tantrums. It draws you in from the very beginning, and even though some of the letters or emails are a bit clunky (they have to be to get the story across in a less than natural form), it’s all very believable and readable.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

I love it for the simplicity – there’s advice and guidance, even a touch or two about grammar, but for the most part it is about writing for the sake of writing. The joy of it, the craft, the determination and will, and of course, the pride in the end result. Inspirational for many reasons, this book.

Blind date with a book

This is such a great idea. I don’t read many physical books anymore, but the concept of picking up a random book whilst browsing, truly random, wrapped in brown paper packaging and literally tied up with string, is inspiring.

From the website:

A Blind Date with a Book is a hand wrapped book, carefully curated from a wide range of popular genres that is tagged with intriguing clues alluding to the book inside. This curated collection includes everything from mystery, romance, classics, horror, adventure, science fiction to young adult.

You can order online, and it would be a great gift for Christmas too.

Bite-sized reading

I can’t remember where I heard of the Serial reading app, but I downloaded it a while back and left it sitting on my phone for a while before I had time to play around with it. After finally investigating what it has to offer, I can’t now decide how I feel about it.

As with all the best apps, Serial Reader offers up a simple solution to a problem you didn’t know you had. Classic works, from esteemed authors such as Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells or Philip K. Dick, are broken down into manageable bite-size chunks and delivered to your device in “issues” – twenty minute blocks to help you work through the task of reading.

At first glance, I was thinking ‘oh great, something else that is pandering to the attention-lacking youth’ but on the other hand, I can see the appeal. Some of the most classic literature works are incredibly daunting and to have some kind of structure to not only help you start working through it but also to keep going when you might ordinarily have given up is not to be frowned upon.

One of my Life List goals was to get through a book challenge that included Moby Dick, War and Peace and far too many Charles Dickens’ books. Some of these were harder going than others, and as language continues to change and evolve, I can only see that becoming a bigger issue. These works are still very important, and so the way we consume culture has to adapt to keep up. We need guides to help break down Shakespeare’s genius and make it accessible, and it’s surely only a matter of time before more of the classics are treated in a similar manner.

It’s also something that classic fiction did a lot more than us – breaking stories down into serial chunks. Charles Dickens is one of the most notable writers of serialised fiction, so why not enjoy his works as they were meant to be read?

The app isn’t just about making texts more accessible, though, it’s also making a bit of a game out of the reading process. You can subscribe to a book and select your required options, then you’ll get one issue every day to begin your journey. The app gives you statistics about how far you are through the book and how much you’ve been reading recently, and who doesn’t love a good badge?

Some of the press clippings on the site suggest it’s the “reading mode of the future” but I would hesitate to go that far. What it could be useful for is those who need to get through a book for education purposes, or those that are studiously working through a list. It would have been really useful for me, and although I don’t want all reading to go this way, I am sad I didn’t get to try it out on one of those titles I was muscling my way through. It won’t change how you read books but it could help with specific titles, and I think that makes it worth a look.

Michael Palin’s town-planning dreams

Working my way through Michael Palin’s first collection of diaries, and stumbled across this paragraph – a dream of utopia that is still relevant today, even though we’re further away than ever.

I’m glad that there are cars and planes and television and washing machines, and I think we cannot suddenly pretend that they have not been invented – but I feel we must control their use, and that they should be used not to dictate but to stimulate.

Any urban planning should include an open play area at least twice the size of the car park, instead of the opposite; there should be severe restrictions on cars in central London – but above all, in every area there should be greater encouragements for people to meet and talk – not in official meetings or on two nights a week, but all the time.

There should be space indoors and outdoors, where people would want to stop and gather. At the base of every block of flats there should be a big, well-furnished well-equipped coffee shop or restaurant, a big foyer with papers, magazines, books on sale – and even a few fairground attractions.

It would mean a radical redirection of funds available for housing, but one quarter of the vast wealth in the hands of private property developers would, I think, help to equalise a system which at present is doomed – the colossal difference in living conditions which is being widened every day as new council estates are built on the cheap – and with them is built boredom, jealousy, repression, anger…

Michael Palin, 1972

The doing is the thing

I’ve just started reading Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please, and I only got as far as the introduction before I wanted to share some of the incredible wisdom. That’s the sign of a good book, I think.

So what do I do? What do we do? How do we move forward when we are tired and afraid?

What do we do when the voice in our head is yelling that WE ARE NEVER GONNA MAKE IT?

How do we drag ourselves through the muck when our brain is telling us youaredumbandyouwillneverfinishandnoonecaresanditistimeyoustop?

Well, the first thing we do is take our brain out and put it in a drawer. Stick it somewhere and let it tantrum until it wears itself out. You may still hear the brain and all the shitty things it is saying to you, but it will be muffled, and just the fact that it is not in your head anymore will make things seem clearer.

And then you just do it.

You just dig in and write it. You use your body. You lean over the computer and stretch and pace. You write and then cook something and write some more. You put your hand on your heart and feel it beating and decide if what you wrote feels true.

You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing. That is what I know.

Writing the book is about writing the book.

I do so miss long-form stressful but oh-so-rewarding book writing.

Five star book report

I’ve managed to read quite a few books this year, dipping in and out whenever I get a spare five minutes. I post my reviews over on Goodreads, but thought I would share those books I’ve enjoyed in 2016 for which I’ve given five out of five stars.

Lucky Man by Michael J Fox

I was hooked from the beginning, revelling in this calm and rational way of looking at and dealing with the world. It can be a difficult place, but Fox has such a humour and humility about it all, that it was inspiring to read. I liked how it dipped back and forth a bit, but was generally chronological, from his childhood through to his recent advocacy work with his Parkinson’s Disease foundation. Inspiring and insightful, I highly recommend this whether you’re a fan or not.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Even though it’s only short, there’s plenty of time to get to know the characters. I particularly enjoyed Chloe, the demanding daughter who gets her own way far too often but is the reason everything all works out okay in the end. You get a sense of these two people and their entire lives without having to read endless streams of detail. It’s wonderful.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

The research that must have gone into this is huge, and it was fun to have real historical characters making an appearance here and there. Ultimately, really enjoyed it and can’t wait to read the second book of the trilogy.

The Killing of Polly Carter by Robert Thorogood

I did think, quite smugly, that I had guessed who the murderer was, but of course I was wrong. It always feels a little silly, the way the suspects are gathered together at the end of the book/episode, but equally, it’s a wonder to watch brilliant detectives at work, whether it’s on the page or on screen.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

The way it’s written, in stark and brutal fashion makes this feel like a true story rather than a work of fiction, and the characters are so believable, flawed and real that it’s impossible not to empathise with the tragic situation.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What’s great about the book is that it’s dealing with such horrible subjects, such traumatic events, but with the subtlety and humour of a child being brought up in a really good household. You can’t control the era that you are brought up in, but you can control how you react to the prejudices of the time, and it’s fascinating to read this from a nine year old’s point of view.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling

I’m wary of writing spoilers, but think it’s fair to admit that adding more emphasis on the time and place of events made it a hugely interesting story to me. That old characters pop up, even when it seems unlikely they should, is wonderful, and revisiting what happened at past events to make sense of the situation now is what makes a rich world like Potter’s even more wonderful.

Until It’s Over by Nicci French

A proper page turner, you spend much of the first half wondering what on earth is going to happen, and then the second half wondering why on earth it all happened how it did. And it’s great to read about someone that isn’t a master serial killer but instead of a series of events that just got out of control.

Whiteout by Ken Follett

I really enjoyed it just as much second time round as I did the first, following the story of an attempted robbery at a high tech bio-facility, where deadly viruses are stored. It’s also the story of how a family can fall apart but also pull together in the most dire of circumstance.

Spectacles by Sue Perkins

The best part, though, is the heart of the book, Sue’s family. Her mother always on the outlook for a disaster, and her father counting the data along the way. I particularly enjoyed the trip to Wales, and the story about the travelling cheeses. Really, top notch stuff, heartily recommended.

What is beauty anyway?

That’s the key, you know, confidence. I know for a fact that if you can genuinely like your body, so can others. It doesn’t really matter if it’s short, tall, fat or thin, it just matters that you can find some things to like about it. Even if that means having a good laugh at the bits of it that wobble independently, occasionally, that’s all right.

It might take you a while to believe me on this one, lots of people don’t because they seem to suffer from a self-hatred that precludes them from imagining that a big woman could ever love herself because they don’t.

But I do.

I know what I’ve got is a bit strange and difficult to love but those are the very aspects I love the most!

It’s a bit like people. I’ve never been particularly attracted to the uniform of conventional beauty. I’m always a bit suspicious of people who feel compelled to conform. I personally like the adventure of difference.

And what’s beauty, anyway?

Dawn French – Dear Fatty