Top Ten Books I’ve Read in 2017

My half-year reflections can begin with this week’s Top Ten Tuesday – the best books I’ve read in 2017 so far.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This was the first book I read this year, and it was an excellent choice! I reviewed it here.

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

This is an epic, heartbreaking story of love and loss in the war and after. I wouldn’t have usually picked this up as the cover doesn’t particularly stand out, but I am so glad I did; it was stunning. I really wish my gran could have read it, as I think she would have loved this.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is one of my top five favourite books, so I am always excited to find out there’s something new to read from Rachel Joyce. The Music Shop is another beautiful novel. ‘And of course the silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end … Because if you listen, the world changes. It’s like falling in love. Only no one gets hurt.’

After the Fire by Will Hill

When a massive fire destroys the compound that housed a cult, there are few survivors. Moonbeam is one of them. Her sessions with a therapist are interspersed with flashbacks that reveal her story piece by piece. I feel like it’s incredibly relevant in the times we live in to see how people could become brainwashed by a manipulative leader. This was a compelling narrative.

Broken Sky trilogy by L. A. Weatherly

Speaking of authoritarian leaders… the Broken Sky trilogy is set in a world many, many years in the future, where our civilisation destroyed itself in a nuclear war, and disputes between countries are settled with dogfights between pilots from each nation. When Amity, a Peacefighter, discovers corruption in the system, it unravels everything her world stands for. This trilogy was truly harrowing at times, drawing on the Second World War, but it is well worth reading.

The Hate U Give by A. C. Thomas

When Starr is the sole witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer, she faces not only the pain of losing him, but also danger, whether she tells the truth or keeps quiet. This is an eye-opening, important book that I think everyone should read.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

I have read a lot of YA this year! This is the story of Libby, once dubbed ‘America’s Fattest Teen’, returning to school after years spent near housebound. Jack seems to be the high school teen who has it all, but he has a secret – he can’t recognise faces. When they’re brought together by a cruel prank, they strike up an unlikely friendship.

A Court of Thorns and Roses trilogy by Sarah J. Maas

I don’t think there is anything Sarah J. Maas could write that I wouldn’t read. I am obsessed with the Throne of Glass series, and I raced through this trilogy in a matter of days. I am so glad I waited to read them until they were all published, as I don’t know how I would have waited to discover what happened. Rather than me try to summarise, if you have any interest in YA fantasy, read this.

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers examines issues like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering in this fantastic follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

A completely different type of book for this list: When Breath Becomes Air was written by neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, following the discovery he had terminal lung cancer. It couldn’t be anything but poignant, but it is also philosophical, intelligent and beautiful, as he considers life’s meaning.

I would highly recommend every single one of these. What are the best books you’ve read so far this year?

Harry Potter 20

I have a confession to make.

Around twenty years ago, my sister’s friend lent her a book. My sister was about to give it back when the friend asked if I would like to read it. I opened it to the first page and read:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

I said, ‘No, thanks.’

What. An. Idiot.

Luckily Harry Potter was more persistent than that. Our teacher started reading it to us in school, and I still wasn’t going to read any more myself, but fortunately my friend did. She became so obsessed that the next time I was at her house, she suggested reading Harry Potter, as she was almost finished the third book and needed to find out what happened. She handed me Chamber of Secrets, and somewhere around the moment when Harry stares absent-mindedly into the hedge – and the hedge stares back – I got hooked. My friend, and probably Dobby, can share credit for getting me into the series.

 

I tracked down books one and four, then finally book three, reading them in entirely the wrong order. It didn’t matter; I loved them all and read them again. (And again.) Funnily enough, the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone is now one of my absolute favourites, from that deceptively mundane first line to the final paragraph, which makes me emotional every time.

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of books, and Harry Potter is the proof. It’s a phenomenon. This has so much to do with the readers, the mega fans, who wrote hundreds of theories to keep us thinking between books; who have Harry Potter tattoos, like the friend who got me into the books; who get the references when you quote your favourite lines; who populated midnight launches, then cinemas, the studio tour, Florida, the theatre, and now – gulp! – 20th anniversary parties.

However, it was the stories and characters we all fell in love with – the trio who feel like friends, the wonderful Weasleys, the incredibly wise Dumbledore, not to mention the Marauders, McGonagall, Hagrid, Luna, Dobby, Peeves and the Half-Blood Prince…

For these memorable characters, for the suspense and laughter, and hours of enjoyment spent reading – for the magic, thank you, J. K. Rowling. I am grateful to have been one of the Harry Potter generation. (For twenty years, and always.)

Hogwarts castle, HP studio tour

Review: The Futures by Anna Pitoniak

The Futures cover

The Futures by Anna Pitoniak (Michael Joseph, 2017)

On the surface, everything about this appealed to me: the beautiful cover, the blurb, the themes. I still love of all of these, and the setting was brilliant, but unfortunately I didn’t find the novel quite as compelling as I’d hoped.

Part of the blurb reminded me of 500 Days of Summer, one of my favourite films:

This is Evan and Julia’s story.

This is a love story.

But no one says it ends happily.

This is a good start as far as I’m concerned. Most of my favourite novels have broken my heart!

Evan and Julia meet at Yale and fall in love. The couple move to New York City after graduating, where Evan has lined up a top job at a hedge fund. However, the financial crisis is beginning, Julia isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life, and as Evan dedicates more and more time to his career, we see the strain it puts on their relationship.

The temporal setting really appealed to me, since I also graduated during the recession. It was the first novel I’d read that dealt with the crisis from the perspective of a new graduate. The author did a great job of capturing the feeling of being completely lost after finishing university – at least for those of us who get to the end of however many years of study without knowing what we’d like to do.

There was a blend of the familiar and the fascinating, because although I could relate to this part of the novel, the world of hedge funds and bankers in New York City is a million miles away from what I know. I found this interesting, despite the detrimental affect on the characters. The series of events – and even the everyday niggles – that upset their relationship are carefully orchestrated by the author, so that we understand how the characters are led to the choices they make.

The main problem was that I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I needed to in order to really feel sorry for them when their relationship started to fall apart. There needed to be more build-up of their relationship during university, more evidence that it had once been good, in order to feel the loss when things went wrong.

Another aspect of the structure that added to the feeling of disconnect was that for the first half of the book, it didn’t feel like there was a main narrative holding the story together. It read like a series of vignettes, rather than interspersing flashbacks and anecdotes to illuminate aspects of the present storyline. I would also have been tempted to delete the prologue entirely: although parts of it are beautifully written, it made me question why they ever move in in the first place.

I am sure that there are fans of character-driven fiction that will enjoy The Futures, but, for me, the pacing meant that it didn’t quite have the emotional impact I had expected.

Thank you to NetGalley and Michael Joseph for the proof in exchange for a review.

Writing about not writing

I’ve been getting genuinely quite concerned about my brain recently. It doesn’t seem to produce any thought, it just receives information (and a barrage of negativity) from the Internet. Sometimes I can practically feel it frying.

I really want to get back into writing again, but the truth is I have written nothing creative – not one single line – since moving to London over two and a half years ago. For a person who always considered writing part of who I was, this has left me floundering a little. The one goal I’ve had since I was a child was to write a book; now, I can barely write a blog post.

Of course, the six-year-old me just went and did it – fourteen pages, handwritten and illustrated by yours truly, stapled together. As a kid I could sit down and rattle off a poem every time I sat down to write. And sure, 99% of what I wrote was absolute rubbish, but I certainly miss the freedom that simply being a child afforded me when expressing myself creatively. Becoming self-conscious about writing as an adult is exactly what will make sure it never improves.

Maybe creativity really can disappear, but I know that if someone said this to me I’d tell them that’s daft, and they just have to find it again. If a good way to help ourselves is to imagine we’re helping someone else, then what would I say to someone who wanted to write more?

Read a lot. To quote Stephen King: ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.’ (This is one I can check off quite confidently at least…)

Allocate regular time to writing. We more readily associate creativity with spontaneous bursts of inspiration, but we can also encourage it. Whether it’s twenty minutes per day or an hour twice a week, I need to make time for it. Blog posts won’t appear from thin air if I’ve decided to catch up on Pretty Little Liars.

See it as a peaceful or meditative exercise. I don’t have much energy left when I come home from work, but it’s hardly aerobic exercise. And rather than turn it into a mental workout, I could just jot down some thoughts about the day that could spark ideas later.

Carry a notebook. I already do this, I’ve just never had the guts to write in it on a commuter train yet.

Don’t delete. Write first, edit later. And maybe don’t re-read too often. (If I didn’t re-read so much, this would have been posted weeks ago, and it really doesn’t look much different than the first draft.)

Talk to people. Or, more importantly, listen. I think other people’s stories are really interesting, often simply because they aren’t mine. A different perspective could be the beginnings of a character; a throwaway remark from someone could become a novel.

Go out and do something else. OK, I do an awful lot of this already, but as long as you are going out, seeing new places, trying new things AND also making time to write about them, then it can be good material.

What do you like (or want) to read? Try writing it.

That great first line that’s been stuck in your mind for the past few months? What happens next? Try writing it.

And if at first you don’t succeed? Try, try again!

London Bridge

In the past fortnight, I’ve cried for hundreds of strangers who have lost children and loved ones, including in a despicable attack at a funeral.

Last night, things were closer to home. This time meant checking that friends were OK. It meant a sleepless night waiting for my boyfriend, working for the emergency services, to come home. My heart breaks for the people whose loved ones did not.

I’m running out of words in response to these attacks that keep happening all over the world. I have read a lot of other people’s words since last night – lovely words about our emergency services, even funny words, as Brits react with the dark humour that is part of how we deal with difficult situations.

There have also been comments that have made me want to keep away from social media for the rest of the day, as some people don’t realise that they are creating divisions among those who actually want the same things. There is no simple solution, no matter how much people wish that there were, or how much I would like to be wrong on this.

It is scary. There are moments when I think that if I thought about it too much, I might never leave the house. Yet if this fear stops you from living as you want to, isn’t this another life lost?

I wish this didn’t have to be said, but I hope you have a safe week. I hope you see kindness, and show it. And I hope you spend time with your loved ones, and don’t take it for granted.

Excuses for Not Blogging

I don’t have time. (Because I just spent an hour going from one form of social media to the other. Not even interacting, just seeing posts other people have liked and comments that make me despair.)

I don’t have the energy. (OK, this is often true, but some people seem to manage to hold down full-time jobs, look after kids and elderly relatives, keep a – presumably – clean house, maintain some semblance of a social life, read all the newest releases, see all the TV shows everyone is talking AND blog weekly.)

The flat is too messy and I must tidy it. (Or at least I should sit and think about how much it needs tidied without getting distracted by blogging.)

I accidentally started watching another show on Netflix and I need to know what happens. Only 107 episodes to go.

I’ll listen to three songs from Beauty of the Beast, then I’ll be in a good mood for blogging. (The entire soundtrack later: I am torn between my good mood and guilt for not blogging.)

I need to bake! I still haven’t mastered the chocolate chip cookie yet. And that will provide some material for a post, so it still counts. (90 minutes later: Well, these cookies suck, so…)

I’ll finish this book and review it. (I will never review it.)

My words aren’t working. (Maybe some practice will help?)

My nails need filed/my fringe is in my eyes/it’s too sunny/it’s not bright enough/I’m hungry, etc.

I have no ideas! (All those things I’ve done and places I’ve been? How about a list of excuses instead?)

Holiday at Home: Photo Diary

I got home from my trip home over a week ago, but at the moment it seems like if I manage to check something off my to-do list within a month then it’s good going.

I always take lots of photos and never post half of them, so I decided to record my trip with a photo diary:

Outside Copper Blossom

Thursday: After a dinner out on Wednesday evening, and coffee and a cake with a friend on Thursday morning, I met another friend at Copper Blossom just off George Street in Edinburgh. It was so lovely it is going to have its own post soon.

Edinburgh Castle and blossom

Edinburgh Castle and blossom

I had some time before my night out, so I had a wander around Princes Street, the Gardens and up to the Castle.

St Giles cloud and sun

St Giles’ Cathedral in the sun and cloud.

Home photo diary 4

From the Castle Esplanade, looking down the Royal Mile. Camera Obscura is the building on the left and the Hub is the tall building on the right.

Friday: On Friday I got my hair done – finally! I tried a new hairdresser for the first time in about 20 years in January, and it was definitely a mistake. Luckily my old hairdresser put it right! I then went for cream tea with my mum:

Scones with cream and jam

Scones! Mannerstons, Linlithgow

Saturday: I met another two friends for lunch at The Printing Press in Edinburgh. I hadn’t been in before because the food menu is quite pricey, but the bar was brilliant.

Printing Press cocktails

They have a great drinks option called Bespoke Bubbles, where you get a bottle of Prosecco along with various fruit purées to create Bellinis, as well as Crème de Cassis and Aperol to mix. I would definitely recommend this – it means you can create a couple of different drinks in one order.

Printing Press Bespoke Bubbles 2

Sunday: My dad drove us up to Loch Earn for a wee change from London! It was a good drive past Gleneagles and with a stop in Comrie for coffee. This is either the best or worst street sign ever:

Home photo diary 15

Is that Comic Sans?!

Loch Earn was lovely! I could post several photos, but I’ve narrowed it down:

Loch Earn

Home photo diary 20

From where I stand

On Sunday evening we had an amazing dinner at an Italian restaurant (where else?) with my parents, sister and her boyfriend, then on the Monday we spent some time with my boyfriend’s family, as he has an auntie and uncle in Scotland. (She made a brilliant lasagne.) Then it was all over already! Just enough time for a quick breakfast in Glasgow before getting the train back.

Home photo diary 23

His horse was not to be left out this time.

I think I managed to see almost everyone I know on one trip home, so it was busy, but a brilliant week. Now to plan another trip back for the Edinburgh Festival…