Review: With the End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix

023 - With the End in Mind

023 - With the End in Mind

Rating – 5*

Hands down this book is one of the best I have read this year – possibly ever. It was by no means an easy read, but it was incredible and trying to put in to words the profound affect this book has already had on me is difficult.

Dr Kathryn Mannix is a palliative care consultant – she has seen a lot of people dying and, in this book, is trying to relieve the stigma that modern society has around death and the process of dying. It is something as natural as birth and waits for us all but it’s something we don’t really talk about, least of all with those people in our lives who it really matters to talk about it with!

She explores the pattern of dying – what most people experience at any rate. But rather than doing it in medical jargon she tells stories – the patients who lives (and deaths) touched her in some way. The care she and her teams over the years have for patients in their final minutes is the care we all wish we could experience, but fear among loved ones means that often that gentle, understanding death doesn’t happen. She takes time to explain to loved ones the patterns, what they can expect and honestly, it is the frank and honest conversation that so many more people should have when keeping vigils at someones bedside. I know I’d have benefited from this woman – or even this book – 3 and a half years ago when I said goodbye to my grandmother.

This book had me sobbing. Fat, ugly tears. Each chapter is someones story, their life, their death, and what she as a clinician learnt from them. She does justice to each one of the lives she tells in this book, she handles them all with grace and dignity. Equally, parts of this book had me laughing. That is something I was definitely not expecting in a book about death! At some points I was somehow doing both simultaneously.

Mannix does also tell some personal stories – how sitting on the other side of the fence (so to speak) with her own grandmother was something which only made her a better doctor, it was something she learnt from. And also how she had the conversation with her son when their cat had been injured and wasn’t going to survive. I’m not going to lie, I cried when the cat died too.

I cannot praise this book enough. So far it’s a head and shoulders above the rest on the long list and, honestly, if this doesn’t get short listed I may well kick off! As I said at the start, it is by no means an easy read but I think it’s a necessary read for so many people. Death shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it and this book is absolutely hammering this point home.

I put on twitter that I’d like this to be on prescription – and I really thing it ought to be. Maybe not prescription, but it should definitely be handed out to people facing an imminent death of a loved one.

My only criticism is that in parts it was repetitive, but honestly every time I felt that it affected me just as much. It was an absolutely beautiful book, and so far it’s my front runner.

I would also like to say that I listened to this as an audiobook in parts, I found that a really good way to take it in. Elizabeth Carling was a fantastic narrator for this, her tone was just right and it really had a positive impact on my overall feelings about this book. If you’re a little unsure about it, definitely give the audiobook a go because it was marvellous.

Review: Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

020 - Written on the Body

020 - Written on the Body

Rating – 5*

After saying not so long ago that I was going to forgo Winterson for a little while, I caved. This more than made up for the issues I had with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It was beautiful. It’s a work of art. It absolutely blew me away.

This book is, essentially, a book about worshipping a lovers body. It’s sensual, it’s captivating, and it’s intricate. It’s the first time with one of Winterson’s books that I’ve felt a full connection with the narrator – and I think this might be the book that I fall in love with her.

The main character remains not only nameless, but genderless. At the beginning I felt so sure that they were female, then in the middle I questioned it (and promptly changed my mind again), but by the end I was absolutely certain that they were female. It remains unsaid, it remains unnecessary to the story, and it also makes you as a reader question why you need to know in the first place – what does it matter? They have had female and male lovers, but focuses primarily on the love they had for one woman – Louise – and the fall out of their relationship.

The first section of the book focuses on the narrators love life, past lovers, sexual experiences, pitfalls of romance, and love. We see them in a stagnating relationship with a woman, which is comfortable but not passionate. Then they meet Louise, and things change. But Louise is married, and we get an insight in to her marriage and all the faults with it. Then something happens, which changes how our narrator looks at their relationship – and they follow their head not their heart, leaving Louise behind.

I want to say more, but I also want others to experience the beauty of this book first hand. I was blown away by it. I always felt that Jeanette Winterson was going to be just not in my grasp and then I go and read this. For me, it’s a slightly sexed up, more modern version of Orlando and I think that having read Orlando recently really helped with my enjoyment of this. There were a lot of similar themes across the two, so maybe if you like Orlando as much as me, you’ll love this too.

Oh, and the ending isn’t all sad, I promise.

Review: Orlando – Virginia Woolf

018 - Orlando

018 - Orlando

Rating – 5*

He – for there could be no doubt of his sex” is how this book opens, and it is one of my favourite opening lines in literature. Anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows how I feel about Virginia Woolf, and in particular this book. Orlando. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading the book, and this time I took more away than I ever have before.

Orlando is a book written long before its time and it is no spoiler to say that the character of Orlando starts as a boy of 16 in an Elizabethan court and one day, some years later, wakes up as a woman. This book astounded me this time because Woolf was essentially pointing out that sex and gender are two different things in this book. Gender is a social construct which is built around stereotypes of what society expects from people of a particular sex. It explores things like Male Privilege in a time where that wasn’t even a talking point, illustrated by Orlando (as a woman) needing to marry in order to claim her estate.

I don’t think I will ever be able to coherently express my feelings for this book. I absolutely adore it. Parts of this book I just read over and over again. There are so many beautiful passages in these pages, I wish I could share them all but I’d basically just be typing the book out. I think though, the passage below sums up this book quite well:-

“And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.”

I also feel it important to mention that this book was a love letter from Woolf to her female lover, Vita Sackville-West, on whom Orlando was based. They definitely don’t write love letters like this any more! This book is, ultimately, about freedom to be yourself, and to love who you want to love, and to be happy with whoever makes you happy.

I said when I first read this book 3 years ago that every time I reread it I would find something new to love, and this time around I took it more slowly and enjoyed the prose – because Woolf writes the most beautiful prose. I don’t regret it.

Honestly, I urge anyone to read this book, and when you do take it slowly. It may be a 220 page book but it’s a book that needs time taken on it to fully appreciate!

Review: The Gloaming – Kirsty Logan

015 - The Gloaming

015 - The Gloaming

Rating – 5*

I am so, so excited that I was able to receive an ARC of this from NetGalley in exchange for a review. The Gloaming will be published by Harvill Secker on April 19th – and I’m going to urge anyone reading this to pick it up because it is gorgeous. Much like with all Kirsty’s previous books it focuses on Scottish folklore and queer themes – lesbian mermaids. Need I say any more? But it has been one of my most anticipated books of 2018, it didn’t let me down, it didn’t suffer with Second Novel Syndrome – if anything I may love this just a little bit more than The Gracekeepers.

I had very high hopes for this book ever since I saw Kirsty talking about it on Twitter and it didn’t disappoint. It focuses around the Scottish myth of Selkies and deals with it in a much more tasteful way than my last encounter with a book which revolved around the myth. I’ve loved everything about it, and while it wasn’t what I was expecting it was still absolutely gorgeous.

The book follows the story of Mara Ross and her family. They live on a small, unnamed island off the coast of Scotland and it’s a magical, but dark place. Her family are haunted by many things, in a house that’s not quite right on an island which just seems to be filled with ghosts. It felt a lot more grown up, a lot more rounded than her previous novel – the characters were more real and the relationships between them also felt very believable. The relationships between parents and children, sisters, lovers; all of them felt real.

Something else I loved about this book is the nod to her short stories. I loved how she wove things like The Rental Heart in to this so seamlessly, and how that in this slightly fantastical reality it was believable. It also made me want to go back and reread her entire back catalogue – so keep an eye out for reviews of me rereading her books!

Honestly, I cannot praise this book enough. It was absolutely gorgeous and I cannot wait to get my hands on a physical copy in April. If you have a chance to get your hands on this, do, and let it wash over you because it’s beautiful. I read it in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and come the end I wanted to read it all over again. I feel so lucky that I was able to read this 2 months before release, and it’s genuinely one of the books I have been most excited for this year. I can’t wait to share it with my friends.

Review: Wild Embers – Nikita Gill

012 - Wild Embers

012 - Wild Embers

Rating – 5*

What can I say about this collection other than, quite simply, wow. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a poetry collection as much as I did this. I picked it up knowing nothing about it. I judged it entirely on it’s cover and I genuinely cannot put in to words just how incredible it is. I was hooked from the first poem, and by the 4th I was well and truly in love with it.

I hate reviewing poetry in that I struggle to find words to convey just how I connected with it, there isn’t a plot or characters to talk about, it’s a lot more abstract. This collection had several running themes – feminism, self love, trauma. For me it would be the ultimate medicine to ease any emotional ailment.

Not only are there beautiful ‘traditional’ poems, there is also a section of prose poetry which retells well known fairy tales, and gives stories of ancient goddesses from their perspectives – empowering these women, giving them voices and turning them on their heads.

I loved it. All of it. For me there wasn’t one bad page over the 160 this book is made up of. I went at it with post it notes and a pen, annotating nearly every poem in here. I don’t often feel a need to do that, but with this collection I found myself having thoughts on every page, and making connections that usually go above my head! I could read this book 10 times over in the next week and I would still be finding new things and not be bored of it.

This is truly one of the most beautiful poetry collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and I have already purchased an ebook of her previous collection (as I can’t seem to find it in print, sadly). If you’re not 100% sold on poetry, then this is for you, and what’s better you can have a preview of her work as she posts on Instagram regularly (her account is here if you’re interested, I urge you to check her out!)

I have a feeling this is going to be a book I am reading for a number of years to come, that the pages are going to become battered and bashed, that I’m going to give it to others as a gift. Needless to say I already know it’s going to be one of my favourite books – if not my favourite book – of 2018, and it’s only the second week of February.

Please. Read this collection, it’s wonderful.

The Girl in the Tower – Katherine Arden

007 - The Girl in the Tower

007 - The Girl in the TowerAfter reading The Bear and the Nightingale in December and being completely swept away, learning it was going to be a series made me very excited! I was even more excited when I learnt that I didn’t have all that long to wait. This is the first ‘open’ series I’ve picked up in a very long time, and already I can’t wait for the 3rd and final book.

We pick up nearly immediately after the events of The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya has fled her hometown after being accused of witchcraft and is travelling across the country to her remaining family in Moscow. When she gets there we learn a lot more of the life of a Medieval Russian court, we get an insight in to things like the politics all while still having a fantastic fairy tale playing out.

As you can expect, the story is a lot more complex than the one in the first book. Vasya herself is a lot more complex; she’s more confident, she’s older and wiser, and more importantly she’s absolutely kickass and refuses to conform to societal norms. I absolutely adore Vasya as a character. Who doesn’t love a book where a girl doesn’t want to fit in to gender-norms, isn’t afraid to be herself, knows that bravery and intelligence aren’t just traits for men to boast, and knows that being a woman does not make her a lesser person? Vasya loves freedom, loves exploration, wants to see the world; not get married and have children which is what everyone expects of a young woman, whether she likes it or not.

Ah, I just love Vasya as a character. I could easily talk about her all day.

Vasya isn’t the only character in this book though, in going to Moscow we get reintroduced to her remaining family, her monastic brother Sasha and her older sister, Olga, who has 2 children and one on the way when we first meet her again. I was quite surprised at how rounded they were as characters in this book, I’m not sure I was expecting such rounded ‘background’ characters. Come the end of the book, both of them were in my good books again (Sasha rarely left them, but Olga did). One thing I am looking forward to is how the story with Vasya’s niece is going to progress because we learn a few things about that little girl, Masha, and I’m excited already as to what will happen!

This was my first 5* read of 2018. I adored this book. absolutely loved it. I would recommend this series to so many people – it’s an absolutely beautiful read. The third, and final, book in this series is expected to be released Autumn 2018 – needless to say it’s already on my pre-order list.

Highly, highly recommend this to anyone who is interested in a little bit of fairytale, Russian folklore and history… anyone who loves a bloody good read, actually.

Review: Mythos – Stephen Fry

054 - Mythos

Rating – 5*

When I saw this book on Audible I knew I had to get it – it’s one of the few audiobooks I’ve actually preordered this year. My thoughts were it is Greek mythology and Stephen Fry; sounds like a perfect combination. I wasn’t far wrong.

Greek Myths have an awful habit of being very dull reads – this however was not dull. The familiar tales were told in a much more modern, approachable way than the starchy collections I’ve read in the past. What I love most about this collection is how seamlessly he wove modern culture, and what we have obtained thanks to classical myth, in with the story – literature and music are referenced in abundance, but then there is also origins of elements and compounds in science which I had absolutely zero idea about prior to reading this! It’s both fiction and non fiction simultaneously because, actually, I feel I learnt a lot about what shaped humans (given that modern civilisation has a lot to owe to the ancient Greeks!)

The collection is told in a round-about chronological way, starting with the creation myth of Chaos, on to the Titans and the Olympians. The way the stories are put across is like a multi-generational saga, it makes it so much more modern than other collections I’ve read which are essentially the same stories. We get those familiar stories of Pandora and her box (or vase, as it was a mistranslation), Midas, Echo and Narcissus… so many of the stories which I adored as a child (and on reading this, love again).

Not only is it more modern, it’s so much more fun and I can’t help but think that’s entirely down to Stephen Fry as an author putting a bit off lightness in all the characters and having a bit of fun – and I loved it. I listened to this in the space of 2 evenings and it was a joy to listen to as he narrates it himself, making it twice as much fun as it would have been otherwise. I can only hope that he does more like this because, damn, it was so much fun!

I’d highly recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen Fry, classical myth, audiobooks, or is generally curious because actually while this is fiction I feel I learnt a lot of (useless) information from it which I can now use to impress my friends!

Review: Winter – Ali Smith

052 - Winter

Rating – 5*

I love Ali Smith (I absolutely adore her actually) and I have been looking forward to this book as soon as I finished reading Autumn. Winter is the second offering in the Season quartet and is as equally as powerful as its predecessor.

Essentially, this follows the story of two sisters – Iris and Sophia – but we also follow Sophia’s son Art (Arthur) and Lux, a young woman who has come in to their lives by chance. It’s a very dysfunctional family coming together at Christmastime. It reminded me a lot of The Accidental – Lux is similar in character to Amber in that she’s an outsider who brings a family together. It’s in some ways it is also reminiscent of A Christmas Carol – very subtly but oh so slightly there and I definitely found the connection with the season a lot easier in this book than in Autumn.

As she did in Autumn, the events of the past are mirrored with current events showing that history does repeat itself (to quote Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and will happen again”) and that we don’t often learn from it. History moves in cycles of events, and in Iris we have a character that bridges a generation gap and links events of the 1970s to those of the present day – nuclear war, racial tensions, so many other factors – and enables us to have a tangible link between the two periods of history which I found a very clever technique to make the entire book feel present not as if it were leapfrogging through time.

I actually decided to listen to part of this as an audiobook and I would highly recommend it. There are not many of Ali Smith’s books available as audiobooks but if you find your main issue with her writing to be the lack of punctuation (something which took me a long time to overcome) then definitely consider the audiobook as it takes that issue out of the equation completely! The narrator for it – Melody Grove – is fantastic and captured Lux as a character perfectly.

Much like with Autumn (and pretty much every Ali Smith book) I have so much trouble finding the words to review and describe this book as I genuinely believe Ali Smith is an author whose books have to be experienced, I find her work so immersive that when I come out of the other side I do then find it hard to review it without spoiling. Therefore, I will always tell you go just go and read (or listen) to it because in my eyes, this is even better than Autumn and that was shortlisted for the Man Booker.

I know Ali Smith isn’t for everyone, but honestly I love her writing and cannot wait to read her next book.



Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

049 - Dracula

Rating – 5*

Dracula has long been among books I class as my favourites. I first read it 10 years ago, when I was but a girl of 14 (reading that review back was horrifying, let me tell you) and I remember loving it. I’ve not read it since then, but it’s always been a book that has stuck with me, and when asked to name some of my favourite books I always say “Dracula” without hesitation. I read it because of all the Twilight hype, I hated that book so decided to read the ‘original’ vampire novel and I remember being swept away in the dark, mysterious lore that Stoker created – and the same happened all over again on this reread.

While I seem to have remembered a lot of the novel in the 10 year gap since my last reading, on reading it this time around I think a lot of it did go over my head. I did say in my review that I would have to read it back to fully appreciate it, it seems that 14 year old me actually knew I was in over my depth because I definitely enjoyed it more this time around.

One major change in my opinion in 10 years is the fact I absolutely loved the fact this novel was epistolary this time around. The fact it was told through letters and journal entries, it builds such a better picture and you see each character through different sets of eyes. The story has so many layers in being told this way, because there is overlapping between the characters narratives. I’ve never been one for an epistolary novel, but Dracula certainly nails it. The story really works told in the way it was, and I honestly don’t think that a traditional narrative would have given the story such a profound impact, or even the longevity.

I can say without any hesitation this is one of my favourite books, and I feel I can say it with more confidence as I have read it both as a teenager and an adult without any change in my feelings towards it. I can see it becoming a book I reread quite a lot in my future, as it is a perfect, Autumn read when enjoyed with a cozy blanket, pyjamas and a cup of coffee.

Review: You Sad Feminist – Megan Beech

050 - You Sad Feminist

Rating – 5*

Last year, when I read When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard I thought I had found my perfect poetry collection, the one I’d keep coming back to again and again, that was until I read this. Megan Beech surpassed herself in this second collection, and I don’t even know how to put in to words what I am feeling after reading You Sad Feminist because it was amazing, and I feel amazing after reading it.

In You Sad Feminist there is not only hard hitting feminist poetry (what isn’t to like in that sales pitch?) but also it explores her personal experience, and feelings, about mental illness. That was a theme in her previous collection, but it was more pronounced in this second helping of her work. This last year I’ve really struggled with my mental health, and I am so proud of myself for where I’ve got to in just a year, and in this collection I found myself identifying even more with what she was saying. This is the sort of poetry I wish I could write, because every word of this collection was incredible and resonated with me. It put in to words my feelings about myself, my mental health, and even the world in general in the most eloquent way and I found myself reading, and rereading poems in this book throughout a day. I probably read it in it’s entirety about 3 times over the course of a Sunday, and I’ve dipped in and out of it since just revisiting favourite lines.

In my review of her previous collection, I touched on the fact she was a performance poet and how that doesn’t always translate well to the written word – once again she nails it. Since reading this I’ve looked on youtube, found a few clips of her performing poems form this collection and while the words are a lot more hard hitting when read aloud, the meaning isn’t lost when just reading to yourself.

One of the bits that hit me most was in the last poem The Workshop. This wasn’t only because I’m the biggest Wizard of Oz fan, but also because it put in to a few short lines the last year of my life:-

This greyness, this staleness will not last.
You do not have to suffer.
Like Dorothy in Oz, your life that was can wash from greyscale to technicolour.
From this, your spirits can lift and your body can recover.
There is another road, a life of yellow brick gold in which you can find health and heart and home.

I sincerely urge people to look this woman up because she’s incredible. There are plenty of clips of her performing on YouTube – and I hope one day to be lucky enough to see her perform in person. In the mean time, please read or watch her work.

Naturally, this is a 5/5 read and one I have left copious amounts of post-it notes in so I can revisit as and when I wish to.