Book Club

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What kind of chump writes an entire emotional blog post about leaving London and then err… stays in London? This one! So here I go, embarking on London living the sequel. I think a big part of why we became fixated on moving to Brighton was that we didn’t want to feel like we’d just come back from 7 months of life-altering travel just to return to the same old same old. It felt like London would just suck us back in and somehow dissolve all the perspective we’d gained through seeing so many developing countries and shiny new cultures. Obviously this was quite an extreme reaction, and I think it was mostly due to the fact that as we were counting down to leave London we were at the ends of our tethers with manic jobs, crazy commutes and no money to enjoy any of the sparklier city offerings. Living off crumbs and working all hours is bound to get you glum, wherever you are living, but we started to completely associate that feeling with London specifically. Once we had put a few thousand miles between us and the big smoke, the things we loved and missed started to trickle back in. I explained in my last blog how our flat hunt in Brighton had failed pretty spectacularly, and also at that point how I had been for a first interview at a place I have always dreamt of working. Well, another interview and a gruelling presentation later and I got the job! What a birthday present! I’m now the Digital Marketing Manager at Penguin Books. More about my return to the ratrace later, but once I knew I bagged this role and Nick had also lucked out with a job at a production company he likes, all signs were pointing to a return to London. Both of us commuting to Brighton would have cost £4.5k EACH a year. So heck forget the signs, with a wedding to save for there was no way on earth we could justify that outgoing and both suspected the fresh sea air might not quite be enough to balance out the grate of a 2 hour+ daily commute and having no pennies.

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So, it was time to find a flat. After living out of backpacks and a different bed every night for the best part of a year, just having somewhere to call our own was a glorious concept. We got stuck into the black hole of house hunting, which in London at the moment is a whole new breed of cut throat, and one sunny evening we turned up to view a property in Kentish Town. We weren’t expecting much as we sat swinging our feet on the wall and squinting curiously up at the flat. The only thing in its favour is that it’s about 5 minutes away from Camden Town Brewery Bar aka our favourite London watering hole. We were joking as we walked up the stairs that however dank and dumpy it was, we’d take it anyway, and just spend all our time drinking beer down the road. Then we walked in and… fell in love! It’s a dinky little flat but perfectly formed, with lots of lovely little luxuries such as space in the kitchen for a table & chairs, a bath huge enough to fit the BFG in it and tons of nooks & crannies for storage. We moved in over the bank holiday, with the help of Craig and Phil. It was a soggy affair, and slightly hindered by the fact we kept celebrating and getting accidentally drunk, which doesn’t aid the tedious task of unpacking your whole life. After 3 days of slogging away, it’s now almost finished with just the fun stuff left like what to hang on the walls and how to categorise our book shelf (Nick votes genre, I vote in rainbow colour order).

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It’s been so amazing waking up in my own bed, surrounded by my own stuff and having a base. It helps that I am absolutely ADORING my new job too. My new colleagues are brilliant (their interests include: ukulele, hula hooping, knitting, mac & cheese AND Katy Perry) which makes such a huge difference, as any job can be dreamtime on paper but when you spend so many hours in close proximity to people then it’s massively beneficial if you have shared interests and can be real-life chum too. My role is super exciting, and involves reading books for overtime, which obviously is not an issue. Oh and the canteen does a jacket spud & beans for a quid! Which is almost as exciting and life-changing as everything else. So all in all, London life: Part 2 is feeling really exciting so far. Obviously I will still get disgruntled when I find myself on the tube during signal failure and other London-specials, but mainly I feel like this is a completely different chapter in my life (and I’m 30 now don’t cha know!) and has just as much to offer me as if I had upped sticks to the seaside or decided to stay living on an island in the Caribbean sea forever.

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Although I want to lodge a formal complaint about what has happened to the cats at the Art Deco beaut Carreras Cigarette Factory (/Greater London House) in my absence. Does anyone know why they have been blobbified?

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Gosh I feel like my blog lately is just getting bogged down with life-updates. Hopefully now that I am planning to quit doing anything life-changing for a while, I can get back to talking about cheeseburgers and Yorkshire tea and new frocks. Bear with me! Something I think it’s fitting to quickly shoehorn in, given my new job, is a few of my best recent reads, that I am itching to get more people to read so that I can compare notes:

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan. I can’t actually remember where I first heard about this collection of short stories; I think perhaps it was recommended on Amazon or Goodreads because The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter is one of my favourite books. For once, that’s a very fitting comparison and an accurate if you like that you’ll probably like this pick. The twenty stories of lust, longing, fantasy and magic intertwine recognisable elements and characters from traditional fairytales twisted with a refreshing take on the morals, locations and endings. Other stories are entirely new, modern fairytales I suppose, which get under your skin and creep back into your mind as you drift off to sleep; in the same way you might have been haunted by Red Riding hood’s wolf or Hansel and Gretel’s captor. Something I admired most about this book was Kirsty’s approach to gender and sexuality. Relationships between men, women, witches, coin-operated boys, stags… are dealt with depth, intimacy and heart. I’d love to see a shift in mainstream fiction to approaching similar issues in this way. I’d highly recommend this collection of stories, even if you aren’t usually a short story fan. I found myself absolutely captivated from the first line of delicate, descriptive prose and am already looking forward to curling up with it for a re-read.

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Hawthorn & Child – Keith Ridgway. Hawthorn and Child are policemen in the Met, dealing with the daily despair of London’s murky underworld. From the description, I had expected a cookie cutter police thriller, but I was SO wrong. For a start, this book has the most ambitious narrative structure I think I have ever experienced. It can be wildly frustrating, as each chapter is almost a stand alone short story in itself. After starting the book and desperately trying to log details, story archs and characters in my brain, only for each chapter to go off on another tangent, I stopped and started over again treating each chapter as it’s own independent snap shot. In fact the only link to each chapter is that it features Hawthorn or Child, although by the end you have learnt so much about them both throughout these individual scenarios. The book takes commitment and attention, due to the discord method of writing, but as a reader who tires of being spoon-fed obvious information; I really enjoyed the challenge. My only regret is that it’s sat on to-read shelf so long, as it was released to co-incide with the London 2012 Olympics (and with a story thread that ties directly in to them) and I think it would have been fantastic to read it whilst wrapped up in the sporting frenzy at the time.

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The Broken – Tamar Cohen. This up & coming author had somehow passed me by (maybe because I was out of the country!) until I read a brilliant interview over on Steph’s blog The Musings of a Human Magpie. The Broken introduces two couples whose lives are intertwined to the point of regular holidays, their daughters being best friends and doing pretty much everything together. That is until one of the couples, Sasha and Dan, break up. It’s a scenario that most people can relate to, having been friends with a couple and then being forced to take sides or attempt the impossible task of staying neutral. The still-together couple Hannah and Josh find themselves getting far too involved in the increasingly sinister dramatics of the separation, to the point that it starts to drive a wedge into their previously blissful marriage. This is a real can’t-put-down, reading-under-the-duvet-with-a-torch (or kindle light, but that doesn’t sound so exciting!) novel, which I devoured in a single day and night. The dynamics and intricacies of both happy and imploding relationships are written so accurately that you feel like you’ve experienced both during the course of the book. I have immediately downloaded another of Tamar’s back catalogue and am looking forward to working my through the previous 3 releases.

 

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This is the final bit of looking back over my 2012 shoulder and is a run-down of one of my favourite things: books. I’m sure tons of people, like me, got amazon vouchers or spending money (or a kindle/e-reader) for Christmas so hopefully a few book recommendations will be useful to someone. I wrote about my top 5 reads in 2010 and all of these still stand as recommendations too! For the past seven years my new years resolution has been “read 50 books this year” and the closest I have ever stacked up is 38. It’s a lot harder than you expect to plow through so many hunks of fiction, especially as I am very strict and still read the books I would pick even if I wasn’t doing a reading challenge (so I can’t just pick 50 thin-massive-printed choices!) and I never, ever give up on a book which is why this year I read 50 Shades of Grey despite it being horror of horrors awful.

I’m so proud to have finally read 50 books in a year, although wish there had been some type of Gladiators style paper-burst to jump through upon completing my last one as it felt like a bit of an anticlimax to just start my next book (51 books to read in 2013..!) Anyway, here are the 50 books I consumed in 2012 and my top 7 recommendations. Please note these aren’t all necessarily books that were published in 2012, I just happened upon them for the first time this year. Also, all of the books below are well worth a read, E L James aside. I couldn’t write about them all as this post would have taken a year in itself to read! But of the 50 below, none are below 3-star efforts so it was a great year for my book-worming.

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1. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

This was the first book I read this year and an instant 5-star smash that left me worried that I might have peaked too early.  I have no idea how, but the existence of this book had entirely passed me by until Nick recommended it to me. This is a massively ambitious work of fiction covering a plethora of genres; fantasy, magic, fairy tale, history, war, romance… but over and above any standard pigeon-hole this book could fall into, it’s basically a whole new genre of its own. It’s certainly one of the best books I have ever read. This isn’t a book to be rushed.

You need to set aside quality time and a nice pot of tea for this type of master piece, as the vast ensemble of characters are all so layered, the world you immerse yourself in so intricate and that isn’t even mentioning the footnotes… most of which contain incredibly detailed tales and add-ons that last page upon page in themself. I have since bought this book for my mum and two friends, and can’t wait to be the one to introduce it to new people. If you read ONE book this year, make it this one. There is a BBC TV series rumoured for later this year, so one to get in before that.

 

2. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver

My 50 reads weight heavily into my favourite genre of spooky (old houses, haunted boats, creepy dolls etc. I’m just a sucker for it all!) and this was another 5* read that kept me in the sweaty scared limbo between desperation to continue reading as the writing is so AMAZING but absolute terror at what will happen next. The story itself is set around a group of four young men taking part in a polar expedition. The narrative is told via their journal that slowly reveals the unravelling of their expedition, and their minds, as the isolation sets in…  I recommend this book even for those who aren’t strictly ‘horror fans’ as it is quite simply a master piece and sublime story telling. In fact, just writing this review has made me tempted to re-read it less than 6 months after finishing it!

 

3. Tell The Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt

Unbelievably this is a debut novel, which makes me extremely excited for anything Carol Rifka Brunt might write in the future. Tell the Wolves I’m Home takes place in a heart-tuggingly realistic 80s setting. Complex and poignant, it tells the story of June and her unusual friendship with Finn. I wouldn’t want to detail anymore about what makes their dynamic so precious and readable, as it really has to be read to be believed. This isn’t a ‘fun’ read, but it is a story and a world that will stick with you for weeks afterward. I always find the sign of a truly phenomenal reading experience when it evokes real emotions (there were tears, lots of tears) and when it makes you re-aseess your own life and family relationships, which this definitely did.

 

4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay – Michael Chabon

I LOVE comics and comic book heroes and the world of inky thumbs and storyboarding. Joe Kavalier, is a young Jewish artist who smuggles himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague to seek refuge with his cousin Sammy Clay in New York. Working together, Kavalier and Clay create a comic book featuring the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth (inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who attracts both the cousins attentions in different ways). Kavalier and Clay definitely took me a good three chapters to get my head round and really absorb into their world, but as soon as I did it quickly became one of those books that you cannot bear to think will eventually be over. My heart ACHED when I finished it, as I was so desperate to back amongst the characters that I had fallen in love with and felt were almost my friends.

 

5. When Nights Were Cold – Susanna Jones

Grace Farringdon is a young woman fighting against her family and her Edwardian destiny to marry or stay at home caring for her strict parents. Grace harbours an obsession with the prospect of becoming a female mountaineer and so alongside 3 unlikely friends from university, she sets up the Arctic Exploration Society. We learn from the outset of the book that Grace is the only ‘surviving’ member of the society and what follows is an incredibly well written and believable account of single-white-level level female relationships, competitiveness and a chilling lesson in the lengths women had to go to in order to break social barriers we take so much for granted these days. This read started a Susanne Jones flurry with me (I read three more instantly afterwards) but sadly although they were enjoyable enough, I didn’t  find they compared anywhere near to this incredible work.

 

6. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

The writing style make jar when you first pick up The Book Thief. It’s unique and swirling and very enigmatic which can mean you struggle to retain the characters and information (it’s probably best read in one sitting!). However this is another absolutely 5* read and a book that I instantly wanted everyone I know to devour so I could discuss it with them. Like Kavalier & Clay it’s set in a historical period so sensitive and loaded with emotion that it’s an incredible feat to still set realistic fictional characters in this world and for them to appear so genuine. The dynamics between everyone in the book are so tender and like with K & C, you find yourself slowly becoming part of the world and having to wrench yourself out of it at the end.

 

7. The Colony – F G Cottam

Since discovering this author in 2007, my yearly dose of the highest quality spook/paranormal writing, is always a massive bookworm highlight. If there was an Olympic record for Amazon one-click purchasing, I would have definitely bagged gold for the miliseconds passing between my reading the phrase “available to kindle users now…” and reading the first line of “The Colony”. All other books and social activities fell by the wayside for the past week, as F G Cottam’s writing is reliably addictive, all-consuming and gripping. The Colony tells the legend of New Hope; a remote Scottish Island that housed a colony in the 19th century who then appeared to vanish into this air. A ‘Mary Celeste’ style unsolved mystery, it is later investigated by a 21st century media mogul. He packs off a team of experts in various fields (paranormal, virology, little green men…) in an attempt solve the mystery once and for all, and in turn lift flailing circulation figures of his newspaper.

The most striking aspect of this ambitious novel, is the epic ensemble cast. With no single protagonist, the story is told through various characters. All of whom, however fleetingly involved, are rounded and realistic. Cottam has a phenomenal talent at drilling straight down to relatable, recognisable traits meaning that, particularly in The Colony, I regularly found myself rolling my eyes and thinking ‘they remind me SO much of x…’ (particularly the less likeable males!). As with all of Cottam’s novels, this book has creep, spook and sinister in bucketloads. I’m talking endless physical reactions; real life goosebump, spine tingle, hair on the back of the neck moments that barely any other author manages to weedle out of me. I found myself in cold sweats on a packed tube and breathless with fear in a busy cafe (during the great coal mine expedition particularly!) I enjoyed the very necessary moments of light relief provided by the complex dynamics between the cast of characters and experts, moments you cling to before the next fright hits. There were also a large dose of twists I wouldn’t have predicted, and in such a saturated genre I really respect an author who can truly still shock and surprise.

 

8. Honourable Mentions:

  • Gone Girl  – Gillian Flynn : I spent the MOST time talking to people about this book (including a feverish live-whatsapp conversation with my best friend Lol as we both reached various stages!) and in fact despite claiming not to like the (shocker) of an ending, it has stayed buried in my head for the rest of the year and definitely needs to be read for WTF moments alone.
  • Lamb – Bonnie Nadzam : An extremely skin crawling, uncomfortable read but fantastically written
  • The Believers – Zoe Heller : It’s no ‘Notes on a Scandal’ but was an enjoyable plane-journey read charting the dynamics of a larger New York family
  • Snowdrops – A. D. Miller : Perfect for a quick, satisyfing immersion into the Russain culture and a modern murder mystery.
  • The Snow Child – Eowen Ivey : A captivating, haunting modern fairy tale.
  • Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – Richard Yates : One of my all-time favourite authors
  • Beginners – Raymond Carver : Short stories that leave you gasping for breath

If, even after this, you want more bookworm suggestions – I eagerly await every GoodReads review and book pick by Blair. Here is her 2012 run-down with surprisingly few cross-overs given I instantly snap up anything she rates highly!

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Back in November, I got my knickers in a twist about the kindle, and posted a blog about my disdain. I felt like my happy wormy world of musty libraries and beautiful books was being elbowed out the way in favour of something sanitised and anonymous. However, at the time, I was talking from the position of someone who not only never seen a kindle in real life (!) but also hadn’t really spoken with anyone with one, about the merits. The lovely KrisAtomic commented with some really interesting arguements against some of my concerns but I still thought I remained the last person in the world who’d add a kindle to their owned items list.

Until, I got one for Christmas.

I felt a sort of proud love and affection for my kindle from the moment I opened it, which I hadn’t expected! In the same way I am fond of my favourite books, I felt really excited and protective of my kindle. And instantly I think the main feature that I’d felt icky about, was not there… Which was that I expected the kindle to be backlit. Like an iphone or ipad, I thought the screen would be glaring and artificial looking. I feel like I spend enough with my square eyes fixed to my PC at work/Laptop/Phone that I didn’t want reading to become another eye-straining experience. But the kindle screen looks so close to paper, you can barely believe it isn’t! It looks like you could just peel the paper layer off. But it’s just a very clever form of screen which reflects printed paper as authentically as possible. This means that the experience on your eyes is just the same as reading a real book, and also it is just as readable in bright sunshine on holiday etc.

Now I have had my kindle for almost a month I thought I’d just do a bit of a run-down of the Pros (and Cons, yes there are still a few! I’m not an absolute convert)

Pros

+The kindle is SO light. It’s probably not much heavier than my iPhone! And very thin and streamlined. This is fantastic for two reasons; first being that I am no longer suffering shoulder strain from carrying round a stack of heavy paper backs. And second, reading a thick book can get mega uncomfortable. How many times do you have to shift position, move around and lie down/sit up/stretch out just to comfortabley be able to hold the book still enough to read?! Reading is meant to be relaxing… but it’s hard to relax when your arm is throbbing under the weight of a book and the pages won’t stay back when the weight of pages is massively on one side or the other. The kindle obviously does not have this problem and it makes the reading experience so pleasurable!

+The battery life is phenomenal. I think we are use to machines that do everything (camera, email, phone, games etc) and so of course the battery juice get sucked down to nothing in a matter of hours. Because the kindle is black & white, and simply has one function, the battery life is unbelievable. I charged the kindle for 3 hours when I first got it. It then lasted over a WEEK and that was with me reading 30-60 minutes a day on it. Wow!

+The navigation is very simple. Click a button for forward, click a button for back. Also other features which I love about ‘real’ books include knowing how far you are through the book; well the kindle displays this in percentage so you can always tell. Although it does make me become a bit compulsive and addicted to reaching ‘just 10 more percent’ leading to me missing my tube stop and staying up far too late!

+It’s really easy to download books. Perhaps it’s easier because I have the amazon kindle, and it’s literally just one click to get on the kindle store, and since your bank details are already saved if you have an amazon account (LETHAL!!) you can search for your book and in another click you’ve bought it. Through the power of freakish technology, by the time you’ve gone back to your kindle homepage…. the title has been delivered.

+Cost. There are absolutely loads of free books on the kindle, in particularly classics and older novels. This will help the calibre of my reading habits no end!

+It has really cute ‘screen savers’ for when your kindle is sleeping in between uses. See the fish at the top and the birds below. It makes me smile everytime I turn it on or off. Although some of the more literary themed author portraits are down right creepy and I’m looking at you Emily Dickinson !

+There are lots of nice cases out there to a) stop your kindle getting scratched or smudged and b) maybe make it look a bit less hi-I’m-a-shiney-piece-of-stealable-technology when using it in public! Mine is a hot pink (of course) leather number from amazon.

Cons

-I know it’s gross, but like most leisure activities, whilst reading I like to eat whilst doing it! Pretty much all my books have crumbs embedded in the spine, mucky finger prints on the corners and the odd splash of coffee and stuck together pages. There is no way I am getting food or greasy fingers anywhere near my kindle… which does cut out rather alot of time when I’d like to be reading, such as munching cereal in the morning. This probably isn’t a problem for less-messy kindle owners who actually have brain/hand co-ordination!

-Bath reading. Again, I’m a BIG fan. But trying to read my kindle in the bath turns into some sort of Olympic acrobatics routine as I stretch to hold the kindle out of the bath but keep my body in there. Not relaxing! I know Kris mentioned you can put the kindle in zip lock, but I’m still very unsure! I have found these more jazzy creations which might do a better job and also mean I can spill food on it to my hearts content.

-Cost. Although the cost of a lot of books seems to be half the price of a paperback, for new-er titles you can be paying in excess of £10 which still feels mighty steep.

-Comics look rubbish on them! I mean they are readable, but very pixelated. Maybe this will improve with time as I’ve noticed there aren’t many titles available at the moment anyway.

-Beautiful covers! I love book covers (yes yes I know, but asif everyone doesn’t judge by them + blurb anyway!) and with the kindle you don’t really see the books artwork. Also, I love having a right sticky beak when I’m on the train/bus/tube at what everyone is reading. If everyone becomes a robotic kindle-head like me… then this will be eradicated. And that would make commuting a less fun place.

So there we have it. As you can see the pros outweigh the cons and I am some what besotted. However I would say I am still reading 2 ‘real’ life books for ever 1 kindle book. That’s because I still love the reading experience of your average book and won’t be quitting that anytime soon, so for now they work in happy unison together and I can see now it doesn’t have to be a case of either or.

Did any of you get a kindle for Christmas? What are your thoughts?

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