Ah, what a joy this book was to read. I absorbed it slowly, savouring every word and getting to know the sweet characters within.
Still Life is the story of Ulysses, a soldier turned globe maker, and Evelyn, a delightfully witty art historian and lecturer. They are generations apart in age, but their respect for one another is one of the key themes in this book.
Set mostly in Florence, I enjoyed every single one of the hours I spent on an Italian terrace as I made my way through the story. We stay mainly with Ulysses, but also grow to know and love his rag tag group of friends who make the move from London to Italy with him.
The book begins in the Second World War, and spans decades. I eventually adored every character, with all their nuances – there was not one I disliked, and I grieved for them when I closed the last page.
There is great depth to Still Life, with many layers of meaning, but the one that struck me most of all was the fleeting nature of life. Of the snapshots that you remember as time follows its unrelenting path, and the memories and people you treasure along the way. Of the fact that, at the same time, you are tiny and insignificant in this universe and enormous and vital in someone else’s world.
Pick up this book, and fall in love.
You can get a copy here – it’s out on June 10th. Thank you to 4th Estate for sending me an advance review copy.
One good thing does come from lockdown; reading more books. I thought I’d share with you the books I read in January and what I thought of them. A slight caveat to begin – I have been researching cults for some writing, and this dictated most of my choices! However, if you’re interested in cults then this could well be the reading month for you.
I finished 4 books which I was happy with; I generally try to get through one a week.
Book 1 – In Order to Live – Yeonmi Park
What a great way to start a new year’s reading journey. This book was simply astonishing. It documents the true story of Yeonmi Park’s escape from North Korea, and what happened to her afterwards. This book will stay with me for a very, very long time. The chapters sharing her life as a child in North Korea were awful, but unsurprising- full of hunger, illness and an impossible political system. It was what occurred after she escaped over the border with her mother that truly shocked me. I think, like many, I had heard of North Korean defectors and assumed that, once they were free, they were safe. I was wrong on both counts. Yeonmi Park and her mother were neither free nor safe as undocumented refugees in China. I won’t share what happened to them here, but I urge you to pick up this book and read her harrowing, inspirational journey yourself.
My second book of the month was Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk. Keeping in with the cult theme, this is a fast-paced and wild yarn about the last survivor of a suicide cult. As you would expect from Palahniuk, this story investigates the darkest corners of the human condition whilst remaining completely character-focused and utterly readable. I enjoyed it, it had some seriously quotable phrases, but I already find it slipping from my memory. It’s not a book that hit me, you know?
Sometimes you need some pure escapism. I’ve watched the series multiple times and enjoy it. My husband gave me the full box set of the books for Christmas and I thought I’d get stuck in. The series follows this first book very faithfully, so it was an easy read. It was lovely (if that is the correct word to describe a book like this…) to revisit these characters and I spent several happy hours in Westeros. I won’t explain what it’s about because, well, I’m sure you already know.
Ok, I was very divided by this one. The book is a series of interviews conducted by Murakami with survivors of the Tokyo underground terrorist attacks in 1995. The interviews themselves were fascinating. The layout, with different people who experienced the same attack and their contradictory memories, was great. Murakami’s input, however, was jarring. In the introduction, he laid out his efforts to contact survivors. He noted that many women declined, and said that this was probably because the men in their families wouldn’t want them to be interviewed. Of course, I found that angering. Then, prior to an interview with a woman, he described (in great detail) her attractiveness, how men would like her and how she was young enough to be his daughter. The men he clearly admired were described in terms of being controlling, in charge of their families. I understand that a lot of time has passed since this book was written, but I found his attitude towards women to be awful, and it completely distracted from the content of the book.
If you still somehow want a copy, you can get one here!
There you are – my January reads! Have you read any of these? Did you enjoy them?
Looking ahead to February, I have a few exciting books on my radar, but I may well read less (due to the very exciting fact that my debut novel The Hellion is being released in a few short weeks…!)
“Her body refused to turn around; something was holding her there in the bedroom doorway. But she wasn’t dreaming. You don’t feel pain in dreams.“
It is no secret that I am a fan of weird and wonderful short stories (and occasionally enjoy getting my quill out to write some of my own), and the joy of stumbling across a collection which is as good as this one is almost indescribable.
Things We Lost In The Fire is…there’s no other word for it, it’s terrifying. These are modern day, gothic horror stories set in the slums of Buenos Aires. Each is fast-paced, twisting and turning with terror building with each line.
I tend to judge the success of horror stories by the weirdness of my dreams after reading – and based on the disturbed sleep I had, this collection is a winner.
One of my favourites was The Neighbor’s Courtyard, a terrifically creepy yarn which reminded me, with its obsession, of The Yellow Wallpaper. But all of the stories are very good, and all very different.
You know that excitement when you read a book you love, will remember forever, and that you know you won’t stop recommending to people, probably ever? Yep. This is one of them. I’m sad that I can’t experience the joy of reading it for the first time again.
You can find Things We Lost In The Fire here and the book tracker bookmarks here.
Oh, how I love a fairy tale retelling. They are so deeply immersive and, when well-written, pick you up and spirit you away to another world.
Orfeia is a retelling of the Orpheus myth (a quick recap – Orpheus’ wife Eurydice died and Orpheus went to the underworld to beg for her life. The gods allowed her release as long as Orpheus did not look back at her as they travelled back to the land of the living. Unable to do so, Orpheus looked back and Eurydice was gone forever). Orfeia draws on the themes of death and grief, but focuses instead on a mother and her daughter.
As with all of Harris’ work, the story is beautifully told. Magic weaves through it and you question dreams and reality. I rushed through the book in a few sittings, swept away by the enchanting tale, and it would be perfect for a chilly autumn evening- by the fire with a glass of wine.
The book is illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins (who also illustrated A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road) and the beautiful drawings bring Harris’ words to life.
You can find Orfeia here and the book tracker bookmarks here.
Last winter, the publishers Thomas Nelson released the Winter Seasons Editions, a set of four books with glorious laser cut cover designs. They are limited edition, with just 10,000 copies of each book available to buy. You can see in the picture above that I managed to get my hands on three of the collection – Pride & Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities. I missed out on the fourth! Little Women sold out very quickly and, although I have alerts everywhere for a copy, I haven’t been able to find a second hand one for under £200. That’s how special they are.
So when I received the news that the Summer Seasons Editions were on their way, I was determined not to make the same mistake again. Thomas Nelson were kind enough to send me this copy of Jane Eyre to feature on my Instagram, and let me tell you that the Summer Editions are even better than the winter ones, so I think they will sell out quickly. They have listened to feedback from their first set and these ones have a thicker protective wrap. They also each come with a laser cut bookmark. As with the winter books, they’re all individually numbered too.
The Summer Seasons Editions are being released on 30th June, so you can preorder the set now and make sure you don’t miss out. Although I’ve preordered the rest of the set from Amazon, and they won’t be delivering to here in the UK until 23rd July. Still, the wait will make the anticipation even greater!
“But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all.”
There are good retellings of Greek myths and legends – The Song of Achilles, for example. There are good feminist retellings – Circe and The Penelopiad. And there are (I’m sorry to say it) not so good feminist retellings, such as The Silence of the Girls. With A Thousand Ships, we thankfully have a feminist retelling which falls into good – if not excellent- category.
The book follows a mostly chronological story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ (and other ‘heroes’) various meanderings afterwards, told solely through the eyes of the women involved. Some are well known to fans of the immensely popular recent novels, others were new to me.
A Thousand Ships flits between many of the women involved in and affected by the war, and I have read several views that suggest the book was the worse because of this. I found the opposite- perhaps it’s down to my lack of focus at the moment but I loved gaining a wider perspective through multiple viewpoints.
I gave this book 9/10. Will it win the Women’s Prize? Probably not. It may not be as in-depth and focused as some people would prefer, but it was the perfect read for me at this time. If you want to escape into the world of Greek myths and legends, this is the book for you. And on that note, if you have any other recommendations for myths and legends retellings, pop them in the comments!
Blood appears black in the moonlight. Don’t ask me how I know that. There are many things I’ve done and many things I’ve seen that I’d prefer not to tell you. But I suppose, now I’m here, that I should share.
It is freeing, in a way, to be able to tell you anything. To feel like I can tell you anything. I trust you. I haven’t trusted many people in my life, but you – I feel like we have a connection. Don’t you?
So, where to begin? I suppose you want to know everything, don’t you? Perhaps I should start with my childhood. How little there is to tell about that though. I was a loner – I imagine you guessed that already, from how I am now. An only child, distant parents. I can’t pretend that my difficulties, the trials and tribulations I’ve felt during my life, haven’t stemmed from then. In fact, until I found you, I was drifting. I had no anchor, despite my wealth. Oh, how I do now!
No, don’t worry, my parents weren’t cruel. But I can’t say that they showed me love either. They were busy, I felt like an afterthought. I found my own ways to entertain myself. I won’t bore you with them, ordinary childhood things that they were. Games.
I went to University a year early. I always was bright, but numbers come naturally to me. I was confused by how others struggled in those lessons, perhaps that goes some way to explain my lack of friends. I hoped things would be different at Oxford University. Surely there, there would be people like me?
As you know, I was disappointed. They had all of the benefits of a socialised childhood and they gathered in groups that I couldn’t infiltrate. I just didn’t know how – they weren’t like me. Instead, I went from lecture to lecture, head down, books in hand, talking to no one. I was invisible. I kept my eyes on the ground and studied in my room. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me and that was that.
This may sound like I want your pity. I don’t. You know that since then, my life has become an apparent success. I have friends, fans even. My money. Status. But I’ve always wanted more. I’ve always been hungry for more. Now that we’re together, I’m content. You have changed that side of me, at least.
Yes, I know why we are here, having this conversation. Yes, I can tell what that expression on your face means. You want more. Well. I don’t know whether delving any deeper would be helpful. You already seem disappointed in me. What can I do? It is more difficult than it seems, peeling back the layers. As painful as removing a layer of skin. I’ll try. I’m flattered that you want to learn more about me. I feel there is something I’m missing though, something urgent that you want. You are tense. But you feel as though you can’t ask. Ok, that’s fine. I want you to believe in me.
A heart is like an apple, you know. When it’s healthy and happy it is fresh and juicy and red – filled to bursting. Have you ever bitten into an apple and left it on the side? Straight away it starts to wilt, brown, rot. There’s no healing it. That’s my experience, anyway. Give it an hour or two and there’s nothing you can do to save it, you may as well just toss it in the bin.
You could say that’s been my life’s work.
You don’t get the connection? You look confused, but trust me, it is a good metaphor. I can see your micro expressions now, flitting across your face, you are struggling to understand. It will become clear. I want what you want – I want the two of us to be happy and I want you to know me. I know that’s important for us to move forward.
Shall we move on to your reservations about me? I can see that you have them. People have had reservations about since I was a child. Perhaps it’s something about the way I hold myself. I’m so used to being alone that others sense that they are unnecessary around me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I need you as much as you need me. I’m sorry that I can’t be different.
Perhaps talking about my career will help. You know that I’m successful and – well, you’ve seen my office. You perhaps don’t know quite how hard I had to work to build my company. From the ground up. Starting with nothing – no loans, just a computer in my bedroom. Am I proud of what I’ve achieved? Yes, of course I am. Wouldn’t you be? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to undermine your own career. I know you work hard. But yes, to get to the bottom of what you want to know, I did trample on people on my way up. To be a success, you have to. Kind people don’t get anywhere in this life. Oh, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but you understand – to make millions, to become a someone, you have to stand on top of a pile of bodies. Excuse my crude phrasing. It was harder for me than those Eton boys with their connections readymade. I had to rely on pure talent and guts. You think I’m cold, and I don’t deny it. But you can see why I would be, with a life like mine.
Now I’m confused because you still seem to want more from me. There are no more relevant things that I can share about my life. I said it was freeing to be able to tell you anything and I stand by that, but your reaction is frankly quite disappointing. You have a strange look on your face. What is that look? If you came closer to me, maybe I would be able to decipher it. As it is, I am drawn to your glinting eyes in this gloomy room.
I see what you want. I understand now. You want to know about my past relationships. Are you alright? I noticed a subtle change in you. This is what you were waiting for. Well, I’m afraid there’s really nothing to tell you. I have never been much of a one for long relationships. They don’t tend to work for me.
I know that’s not the answer you wanted to hear.
Interview adjourned at 13.49. The accused remains unwilling to disclose the locations of the other bodies.
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Late spring is perhaps my favourite time of year. The anticipation of summer and long, warm days ahead, bright flowers bursting onto the scene and chirruping birds. Throw in some glorious sunshine and I don’t think you can beat it.
This is the mood I was trying to convey with this image. Here are the links to the books that I featured (starting from the bottom):
Ah, this is one of my favourite photos that I’ve taken in a long time. I love the colours, they remind me of spring. Here’s where you can find the books to brighten up your bookcase. They’re a variety of publishers and editions, and I’ve done my best to locate them all for you. Here they are, from bottom up:
The rain started in February. I remember well because it was my birthday. We had enjoyed a week of those crisp, bright days with beaming clean sunshine and, with the forecast claiming it was set to continue, I arranged a walk up a mountain with my friends to celebrate. I anticipated snow at the top, but how could anyone have guessed what would really happen?
The day started gloriously, with those snaking rays of dancing light illuminating frost. The ground crunched underfoot- it was cold, oh yes it was cold. The sky was a haze, cushioning its glowing orb. Not a breath of wind. The perfect day for walking.
We set off early in a caravan of cars, parked up and readied ourselves for our stroll. We joked about the smell of egg and cress sandwiches and Maisie discovered that her flask was leaking. After the shortest of delays, we began. My remaining memories of that first part of the walk are the sun glittering on water dripping from the trees, a dog barking, my friends laughing. It was when we got through the initial woods and high enough to see the horizon that our light mood gradually began to change.
The packed ice and snow was clearly visible, despite the distance we still had to go, but that was not the issue. No, what made us on edge was the heavy black cloud coming in from the west. It was many miles away, but something about its density weighed on our minds. We made some jokes, zipped up our coats and carried on, but the cloud was there. I looked at it so often that I could not have said whether it was getting closer or further away, until we had reached the point of no return and the cloud was upon us.
Snow was under our feet now, no one was around and the cloud above blocked out the sun so abruptly it was as though someone had switched off the lights. We all stopped and looked up. There were eight of us, at that point. Of course I am used to it now, but back then I had never seen a cloud like it before. It was – there is no other word for it – evil. We just didn’t know what to do, and there wasn’t enough time to make a decision.
When it began, we stopped being a group and started being individuals. Survival was the only thing that mattered. The thunder was first, the mountain actually shook. I crouched, hands over my head. It was instinct – I didn’t know what I expected. I stayed like that when the thunder ceased and the rain came. Torrential is too weak a word. I was drowning, gasping, clinging to the ground in despair as a newly formed river churned around me.
I had to move, I half-walked half-swam to the left, towards a shadow I hoped was a clump of bushes or rocks. I could barely see, the rain poured into my eyes, mixed with my tears. How I made it, I don’t know, but I was there, hunched behind rocks, protected a little from the deluge.
Gradually, after who knows how long, the rain eased – it didn’t stop, not even close, but the air cleared slightly and I could breathe. Looking around, I could see no one. I shouted to no avail, finally decided that they had descended the mountain without me. With that in mind, and with the rain lighter, I decided to climb down myself.
It was a journey I would rather forget. I have never been more fearful. Had, I should say. I cried when I got back to the car park. What happened next shames me, but I wonder if you would have done the same. You see, my friends’ cars were still there, beginning to flood. I ignored them. Blind to them, as the rain got heavier and I imagined roads blocked with rushing water, I got in my car and backed away.
The crash is how I got here. The rain was so violent that my wipers did nothing, but in my desperation I kept going, unseeingly, down the country roads. It didn’t last long. I blacked out in the crash, woke up in a comfortable bed with two concerned faces peering down at me. I was in a wooden room; it was dark and had a pleasurable musky smell.
‘He’s awake!’ A hand was on my forehead. I looked closely at the two faces. A man and a woman of indeterminate age, both wearing bright raincoats – his red, hers yellow. Their faces were weather worn and friendly.
‘Where am I?’ I raised myself onto my elbows to look around more easily.
They exchanged a glance. I noticed that I was swaying, lay back down and put a hand to my head.
‘You were in a crash. With us.’ The woman said quickly. She glanced at the man. ‘Do you remember the rain?’
I nodded. How could one forget?
‘We were travelling…the thing is…’ the woman trailed off. The man shrugged.
‘What is it? Where am I?’ I was alert now.
The man sighed. ‘Can you stand?’ He offered a hand. I took it, stood, stumbled and noticed a throbbing pain in my head. The man took my arm and led me out of the low-ceilinged, wood-walled room. Through a narrow door and down a dark hallway with many doors to each side and strange noises coming from the rooms behind them. I shivered, swayed again.
At the final door at the end of the corridor, the man stopped and turned to me. His face was serious. ‘Are you ready?’ He asked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he grimly eased the door open outwards against howling wind and battering rain. It hadn’t, stopped then. He took hold of a chain from the wall and motioned that I should do the same, then followed the chain outside, hand after hand. Curiosity piqued, I followed him. The storm was just as violent as before and although I struggled to see, it was obvious. We were at sea. We were on an enormous wooden boat on a tempestuous body of water. Why had they brought me here? I turned and fled indoors, the man close on my tail. He shut the door behind him.
‘What are you doing with me?’ I took the man’s shoulders and shook him. He looked afraid. As he should. I was taller, stronger and he couldn’t hurt me.
‘Please, come and sit.’ The woman spoke from behind me. I turned and she gestured to a room to my left which hosted a table and chairs. Seeing no other option, I followed her into the room and sat in one of the rickety chairs.
‘My name is Niamh. This is Neil.’ Neil smiled and held out his hand for me to shake. I ignored it.
‘Tell me why I’m here.’
Neil sighed. ‘We saved you. Just remember that.’ He exchanged a glance with Niamh before he carried on. ‘When we crashed, we were on our way to safety. We had this boat, you see. We own a small petting zoo, and we had to shelter the animals from the rain, so we put them on the boat and we were driving to somewhere safer. In the crash, both of our cars were ruined and you were unconscious. We decided we would get you onto the boat, out of the rain for a while. You were unconscious for a long time…’
‘More than a day!’ Niamh interjected.
‘…and in that time, the boat broke free from the trailer. We didn’t know what was happening at first, it’s so hard to see out there, but eventually we realised. The flooding was so severe that we had begun to float. And you see, the rain hasn’t stopped. We’re still floating. The thing is…’ another of those irritating glances between them.
‘The thing is what?’ I snapped.
‘We haven’t seen dry land since. We’ve floated for miles and…’
I broke him off with a harsh laugh. ‘Are you seriously trying to trick me into thinking that you rescued me from some biblical flood? Do you really expect me to believe that? Listen, I don’t know why you’ve brought me here but you need to dock this boat and let me off, now.’
Neil sighed and shrugged. ‘Listen, we saved you. You don’t have to thank us, but we did. You’re welcome to share our food for as long as it lasts. But we can’t dock this boat. Radios are down, internet, everything. Niamh and I think…we don’t think there are any docks left.’
I was fed up with talking to them, sick of the lies. I didn’t answer, instead strode back to the room I had woken up in. I stayed there for many days. Niamh and Neil did not bother me, but they left me food and water outside the door each morning. It was bland food – porridge and water, and some fruit to start with though this dwindled to nothing. I was in a rage, and the longer we remained at sea the more my rage grew. Where were they taking me? America? And why?
There was a small, circular window high up in my room. I spent hours, days, staring through it at the relentless rain, impossible to separate from the splashes from waves. I ate my pitiful porridge when I was starving and dreamed of fat steaks and juicy chicken.
Oh, I can’t describe the hunger. I pray that you are never in this position. But until, and unless, you are, you cannot judge. What would a person do for survival? What would you do?
The sound of the animals taunted me. I held out for weeks. Four or five or six, who knows. But the hunger got to me in the end. No more tasteless porridge. I stepped out of my room for the first time in so many days and peered around. No sign of Niamh and Neil. I crept down the corridor and tried each door. The first one to open contained chickens. Ah, chickens! I was beside myself. The hunger, you see. When Niamh and Neil arrived, presumably drawn by the squawking of the birds, I expect it did look bad – a blood bath perhaps. But the hunger! You wouldn’t understand it with your privilege.
They stood aghast in the doorway. The chickens were all dead at this point. Their faces were ashen, Niamh even began crying, cradling one of the birds.
‘What have you done?’ Neil asked, the words dropping like stones. He leaned against the doorway, propping himself up. ‘Forty days, we’ve been sailing, and now…now the chickens too…’
‘Too?’ I asked, wiping blood from my lips. Neil frowned at me, as though trying to work something out. My captors looked disgusted.
‘We would prefer it if you went back to your room.’ Niamh said, wiping away her tears.
‘Fine.’ I sighed, and stood. ‘But they’re only chickens. What do you expect me to do? You can’t let me starve.’
‘You said that last time.’ Neil said, that frown still on his face. He must be going quite mad. I let him escort me back to my room, expected to hear a key turn in a lock, but it didn’t happen.
You don’t understand how difficult it is to be aboard a boat with two maniacs. They kidnapped me and took me to sea against my will. We all have a survival instinct. We are animals, deep down. And when you are in a position like this, perhaps you will act the same. But then – and only then – will you be able to judge me.
Later that day, I was staring out of my window when I got quite a shock. Blue! A glimpse of blue, rather than endless grey! I ran from my room, down the corridor and onto the deck. It was true! The rain had stopped! A glimmer of sunshine through the gap in the clouds bathed my face and I shouted in joy. There, what was that? A bird! A dove, carrying a branch. The first time I had seen a bird since this all started. And there – in the distance- was that land? I shouted again, got no response. Of course I didn’t. You have to understand, they were my captors and they had starved me. And that was why I slit their throats.
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