Reading Wrap-up: June 2019

June was an absolute stonker of a reading month! We were on holiday in Italy for 10 days in June so between time travelling and many a lazy afternoon reading in the sun, I read 9 books with a total of 2,900 pages. Because of my delight of a reading spreadsheet, I happen to know that June’s reading makes up 23% of my total reading for the year so far. Not too shabby!

Not only that, I absolutely smashed my June TBR and I bagged a five star read.

First up was one of my four star reads – Haverscroft by S. A. Harrison. I am an absolute sucker for a gothic ghost story and this one did not disappoint! Part of me wishes I’d had the patience to save it for autumn/winter but at the same time I’m delighted that I got to read Haverscroft as soon as possible. Not only is it a corker of a creepy ghost story, it has a fascinating family dynamic at the heart and (one of my other favourite things) an unreliable narrator. I’m hoping to write a full review soon but in the meantime, know that you need this!

I also finished up Unwind by Neal Shusterman. I’ve heard such good things about Neal Shusterman and had somehow managed to end up owning 7 of his books without actually having read any. For my first, Unwind was really something. It’s the start of a four book dystopian series, set in a world where abortion has become illegal so that all children are given the opportunity to prove themselves. Parents can subsequently change their mind and have their child “unwound”, with their bodies being donated to medicine. It’s a dark premise but it’s so well plotted! The start of this one is a little slow but when it gets going, it’s so, so good. There’s a scene towards the end that completely shook me. Thinking about it now gives me chills. I’m so glad I have the rest of the series waiting for me on my Kindle! Definitely recommended.

I then started on my June TBR. Sadly, my first pick was a real bust – The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. I loved the beginning and was so sure I’d give it five stars. It’s set in the 15th century and follows Father Reve in the four days following the accidental death/suicide/murder of a member of his parish, starting on the fourth day and winding back to the night of the death. I love me a twisty timeline but this just didn’t work for me. The narrative dawdles along through Reve hearing confession of various members of his congregation and often spirals off into random religion-focussed tangents. I didn’t mind that per se but when I’d read the ending, I really did. It’s obvious why Harvey couldn’t reveal the ‘twists’ earlier on but once I knew them, it really cut across everything I’d read before. And not in an “oh that makes so much more sense now” way. Just a way that was irritating…2 stars.

Fortunately the next two from my June TBR were much better! I’ve owned The Night Watch by Sarah Waters since 2011 and I have been missing out by neglecting it. Yet another narrative told backwards but in much chunkier sections, following four characters in 1947, 1944 and 1941. It’s absolutely beautiful. Set against the backdrop of post-war/wartime, it’s an unusually quiet story. I’m usually one for a solid plot but this character study wormed its way into my heart and then broke it. The characters were so well drawn that I could have sworn that I really knew them. The slow reveal of how they have ended up where they have is perfection. I also have Tipping the Velvet on my shelves and I can’t wait for there to be more Sarah Waters in my future.

And now. My first five star read since April: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s a short book but my goodness is it powerful. It’s the story of Nadia and Saeed, starting off in an unnamed, war-torn country. As Nadia and Saeed meet, their country is being subjected to air strikes and an increasingly strict religious military regime. The writing is just stunning. Sparse and simple but absolutely flooring. I know that people say this a lot but I really do feel like Exit West is such an important book. It recounts Nadia and Saeed’s decision to leave their home, their reluctance and the pain it causes them, following them as they struggle to find a new country to call home. The challenges they face in their potential new communities were disappointingly familiar but what really struck me was how well Hamid relays the small struggles that his characters face. The simple pleasure of a hot shower in a private room with a soft towel. The grief of thinking you’ve found a home only to be forced to move on again. The power of the smell of familiar cooking when you’re far from what you know. It’s beautiful and crushing and should be required reading.

After the gut punch of Exit West, I went for something a little more light-hearted – The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman. If you want something fun and quirky that will keep you turning the pages, you could do a lot worse than this series. It follows a group of librarians who are tasked with travelling to alternative versions of our world to retrieve books and return them to the Invisible Library. It’s a bit silly but the dialogue is sharp and funny, the characters are awesome and reading it just brought a smile to my face. If you’re a book lover and you like a good riot of a plot, get your hands on this one.

When we finally arrived home after a day of travelling, my brain was a bit frazzled and I sought refuge in one of my favourite comic book series, Fables, picking up Volume 3: Storybook Love. If you haven’t heard of this series (which is probably super unlikely if you’re into comics), it’s the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty and a whole host of other fairytale characters as they live in modern day New York in exile from their own world. This one was a bit more brutal than earlier instalments but still had the wit and charm. If you’re a comic fan and you like fairytales, go and pick up the first volume. If you’ve already done that, you don’t need me telling you to carry on!

And last but more or less not least, The Hallowed Ones by Laura Bickle. Something about this vampire story set in an Amish community appealed to me for years before I bought it. I picked it up just over a year ago but finally decided I fancied it. It was…not what I’d hoped. There’s a lot of religious chat and it’s all a bit heavy handed. Teenage girl wants to rebel against the strict rules of her religion and does so by acting out and skulking around but never actually talking to anyone. It’s interesting enough and I didn’t struggle to finish it but in the end it was all a bit superficial. Everybody broods, nobody communicates properly and romantic relationships are almost exclusively riddled with teenage angst. It’s fine and I’d recommend it if you’re a die-hard vampire fan but otherwise, maybe just walk on by.

How were your reading months? Share your favourites in the comments!

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘The Ballroom’ by Anna Hope

Flashback to a Favourite is a regular feature where I look back at books I’ve previously given 5 stars and chat about whether the love has wained or lives on.

Where love is your only escape…
 
1911: Inside an asylum at the edge of the Yorkshire moors, where men and women are kept apart by high walls and barred windows, there is a ballroom vast and beautiful. For one bright evening every week they come together and dance. When John and Ella meet it is a dance that will change two lives forever. Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, the end of the Edwardian era, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Thoughts in 2019: Remembering the beauty that is The Ballroom makes my heart hurt a bit. Anna Hope writes stunning historical fiction. Character focused historical fiction that worms its way into your heart until you genuinely believe that you know how it felt to be a disadvantaged woman stuck in an asylum in the early 20th century or a woman grieving over her son in post-WWII England. It’s been three years since I read The Ballroom and I can still remember the characters vividly and just how much I wept over the ending. It’s a real corker and it’s clear that my love for this book has absolutely stood the test of time. While pulling this post together, I found out that Hope has another novel out in July this year. I will absolutely be picking that up and I would whole-heartedly recommend that you read both The Ballroom and Wake in the meantime. Both are incredible and deserving of a lot more love.

Thoughts in 2016: Wake by Anna Hope was one of my favourite books of 2014.  I remember being amazed at how a story that was so quiet could be so impactive; how Hope could tell a story of the lives of three women over the course of five days and manage to say so much about post-war Britain.  The Ballroom manages to do just the same thing.  Through Ella and John’s story, Hope manages to weave a commentary on the treatment (or lack of treatment) of mental health in the early 20th century without it weighing too heavily on the plot or leaving it feeling laboured.

The novel follows Ella, a young woman incarcerated in Sharston Asylum after breaking a window at the factory where she worked out of frustration and a desire to see daylight for a change, and John, locked up after losing his family, his job and becoming homeless and destitute.  There are other ‘residents’ who have what would still be regarded as mental health problems by today’s standards (Ella’s friend, Clem, for example, whose experiences are particularly harrowing) but Ella and John are just two young people who have fallen on hard times and are regarded by society as unstable or inferior.  Every week, the better behaved inmates are treated to a dance.  A bright spot in their routines where they get to socialise with members of the opposite sex and dance.  Ella and John’s meeting is adorable and the progress of their relationship from that moment on made my heart hurt.  Their story isn’t melodramatic.  It’s gentle and achingly realistic and I was entirely taken in by it.

I just love the way that Anna Hope writes characters.  The way that they grow and change subtly until they’re someone entirely different from who you thought they were.  Alongside Ella and John’s narrative is one of a young doctor, Charles Farrer.  Dr Farrer starts as a young idealistic doctor, determined to prove to the medical community that sterilisation isn’t the way to prevent the “spread” of mental health problems, that those who fall under the rather flaky 1911 idea of what constitutes mental ‘deficiency’ are quite capable of productivity.  Events then tease out his vulnerabilities and frustrations and twist them (and him), really shining a light on the hypocrisy and imbalance perpetuating asylums of that era.  Gradual and utterly believable.

The combination of the oppression of Sharston Asylum itself and of the soaring temperature creates an increasingly frazzled atmosphere. There’s an ever-increasing sense of urgency and the characters become progressively more fraught and almost desperate.  Towards the end of the novel, I was gripping my book so hard it hurt and I was just willing both the characters I loved and the characters I hated to get the endings they deserved.  I closed the novel in tears.  Admittedly, that’s not necessarily something new for me but the ending of The Ballroom was a real sucker punch.

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Date finished: 18 December 2015
Format: Paperback (Advanced Reader’s Copy)
Source: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review – thanks, Doubleday!
Pictured Edition Published: on 11 February 2016 by Doubleday

My Latest Obsession: Roasting Stuff

I love cooking and I love having freshly cooked meals every evening but if I’m pressed for time (which I mostly am during the week because work) I often end up falling back on a fairly small list of dishes that I know I can whip up quickly. Stir fries, pasta dishes and one pot quick stews abound. All fine but it was getting a bit boring. We recently made a change from being full on carnivores to only eating meat on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening. That slimmed an already fairly strained repertoire down even further and I starting hunting for inspiration.

Enter Rukmini Iyer.

You’ve probably heard of her recipe books by now but, if you haven’t, she now has three books out: The Roasting Tin, The Green Roasting Tin and, as of last week, The Quick Roasting Tin.

I’m in love. The concept is super simple – all three books are full of dishes that you can roast in the oven in one tin. You chop up a few ingredients or (at the most) roll out a bit of pre-made pastry, bung all your ingredients into a tin, pop said tin into the oven and then move on about your life for however long it takes for your magical tin of goodness to be done. GENIUS.

The original The Roasting Tin includes a range of meat, fish and veggie dishes with some fruit and pudding dishes in there for good measure. There are quick roasts for mid-week treats and slower dishes for when you have more time at the weekend but maybe want to spend time with guests instead of stirring or just want to catch up on Netflix or a book while your dinner quietly cooks in the background. The real revelation for me in this one was orzo! Teeny tiny rice-shaped pasta that you can cook in the oven? The dream. The orzo with chilli and garlic roasted broccoli, lemon, parmesan and walnuts is delicious. On my ‘to cook SOON’ list is filipino-style garlic pork pot roast because it sounds divine and takes like 10 minutes to get into the oven and I bet would give killer leftovers.

When we shifted to being more-vegetarian-than-not, The Green Roasting Tin was a no-brainer. It has not disappointed. Half is vegan and half is vegetarian and each section is then split into quick, medium and slow cook recipes. There are all different kinds of curries in this one, which I’m a huge fan of. And oh my goodness the gratins! The leek and Puy lentil gratin with crunchy feta topping is out of this world. For a super quick mid-week treat (20 minutes from start to plate), there’s also an amazing lime and coriander mushrooms with pak choi and asparagus.

Now I may be speaking too soon given that I’ve only had it a few days but I think the latest arrival, The Quick Roasting Tin, might be my favourite one. All of the dishes take 10 minutes or less to prep and 30 minutes or less to roast. Perfect! The sections could have been written just for me: work night dinners, family favourites, make ahead lunchboxes, date night, feed a crowd, weekend cooking and sweets. I haven’t had chance to make anything from this one yet but I’m dying to try out the oven-baked nigella-spiced whole tomato dhal and the sesame crusted tuna with soy and ginger, courgettes and pak choi.

All of the ingredients lists are easy to find in even quite small supermarkets and the instructions are (as you might expect) really straight-forward. I’m obsessed. I can’t think of anyone who I wouldn’t recommend one of these to. I’ve already sent copies to members of my family.

Get yourself some roasting in your life!

Monthly TBR: June 2019

I had loads of goals for this year of reading. I wanted to read more diversely and to complete the PopSugar reading challenge. I’m not doing a great job of either so far this year. Of the 32 books I’ve read this year, 18 have been written by American authors and 10 have been written by British ones. A tragic 4 books by authors from other countries. 3 books have been written by non-white authors.

I also wanted to read some of the older books on my shelves. Of the books I’ve read, they’ve been on my shelves for an average of 21 months. Not appalling but I’ve had some books about 8 years so it could be better.

To try and tackle some of that, I’m going to give monthly TBRs a try! Picking one diverse read, one book I’ve had for longer than 5 years and one random choice. I only read about 5-6 books a month so I’m saving a bit of space for free choices.

First up:

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – This is my more diverse read for June. It has the added bonus of having been recommended by Michelle Obama in an article I read, which also means it meets the ‘Book recommended by  a celebrity who you admire’ prompt for the PopSugar challenge.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters – I’ve had this since January 2011. I couldn’t even tell you why I haven’t read it yet because it sounds right up my street. Historical fiction told in reverse chronological order. Lauren from Lauren and the Books also read it recently and loved it, which is another kick up the bum.

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey – I wanted to get to this so badly that I bought the hardback not long after this was released. Then I forgot about it. No more! Another topsy turvy timeline but this time with a crime at the centre. It seemed to get rave reviews when it was released so I’m excited to give it a try.

And that’s it for this month! What do you have planned? Any favourites on this pile?

Reading Wrap-Up: May 2019

May was a bit of a funny reading month. I’d remembered it as all quite positive (not least because I did a lot of reading while we were on holiday in Italy) but then looking at my reading spreadsheet (yes, I know), I only read 5 books and the quality was a bit hit and miss!

First up was The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer, which I only gave 2 stars out of 5. I picked it up because I’m trying to make a real effort to read the books that I’ve had for years this year. It’s about a young child, Carmel, who is kidnapped while at a storytelling festival with her mum but believes her kidnapper when he tells her that her mother is dead and that he is her grandfather and so has no idea that she ought to be trying to get home. It’s all quite tense early on and I was flying through it. As the story went on though, I started struggling. Carmel gets dragged into a world of religious healings and the novel becomes less about Carmel being missing and more about her exploitation by her ‘grandfather’. It was frustrating to read, repetitive and only really skimmed the surface of what was going on. The ending came out of nowhere and wasn’t the ‘pay off’ I wanted. All a bit meh.

While I was on holiday, I moved onto The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I love a bit of time travel, this was short and another that I’ve had on my Kindle since 2014. It was fine. 3 star fine. The version I read was only 124 pages so it was a bit bish-bash-bosh light touch for me. A man makes a time machine, nips thousands of years into the future, finds some friendly inhabitants and some not-so-friendly inhabitants and some peril and then zips home again. Boom. Job done. Worth a try but not amazing.

After those two, I was desperate for something strong and turned to a favourite author – Brandon Sanderson. I read the first book in his Mistborn trilogy way back in 2015 so reading The Well of Ascension was long overdue. I had to read a catch-up online because we get straight back into the action in this second instalment but I easily settled back into the world and the characters. I love the magic systems that Sanderson creates and the one in this trilogy is no exception. It’s all based around consuming metals, with different metals giving those who can consume them different powers. The scope of the trilogy is…well, epic. This middle book was wonderful and I loved the ending. I only gave it 4 stars because there were times it was dawdling along. There’s a lot of politics and manoeuvring and it could easily have been 100 pages shorter but I really enjoyed it and I will absolutely be finishing the trilogy. Hopefully soon but who can say?

While trucking through the 781 page Sanderson there was an afternoon where I wanted a bit of a quick fix so I picked up Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol. I really, really enjoyed it. Also a solid 4 stars. It’s a fairly short graphic novel about a teenage girl, Anya, who falls into a hole one day and encounters the ghost of a girl who had previously fallen in and died. Let’s ignore the fact that someone died falling into a hole and nobody thought to cover it up and move on! Anya’s relationship with the ghost moves into dark territory and that’s all appropriately creepy and brilliant. What’s more impressive though is how the novel also manages to capture so well what it’s like being a teenage girl. The insecurities about your weight and how you look, trying to work out who you are and tackling idiot adolescent boys. Add in the fact that Anya is a Russian immigrant and struggles with being from a different culture and there’s a whole lot packed into the relatively few pages. Definitely recommended.

Last up was The Devil’s Dice by Roz Watkins. I loved this one too! Not quite 5 stars but a very high 4 stars. I got this in a Books and Beer subscription box earlier this year. Sadly the accompanying beers are long since gone but the book was worth the wait I inflicted on it. I love a good crime novel anyway and this one just felt so British and comforting to read (you know, for a book about murder). It had so much personality and the writing was fantastic. The novel is written in the first person from the perspective of DI Meg Dalton and the tone is wry and darkly funny. When the novel opens, a local patent attorney is found dead in a cave. A centuries old carving of the grim reaper and the victim’s own initials is found on the wall behind him. There are century old mysteries alongside the present danger and there are plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing until the end. If you like a contemporary crime novel, you could do a lot worse!

And that was my May! A mixed bag but picked up at the end. What have you been reading recently?

Magical Readathon: O.W.L.s Wrap Up

Better two weeks late than never? I really enjoyed the O.W.L.s Readathon so even if it is super late, I wanted to wrap up so that I could pick back up with the N.E.W.T.s in August!

In the end, I passed 8 O.W.L.s, which I’m super pleased with! Exceeded Expectations isn’t too shabby 🙂 I had to change up my TBR mid-month as my original pile proved a little ambitious but even so I’m happy with what I read, not least because there were books I picked up that I really enjoyed that I’d had on my shelves for years.

Potions – Read a sequel – Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

I flipping loved this one. I read the first book in the trilogy, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, last year and liked it but was a bit lukewarm about the romance thread. The series features some pretty kick-ass angels and a war between them and the chimaera (the ‘demons’ of the world).  I really like that Taylor is playing around with good and evil and all of the grey areas in between and her world building is just incredible. Surprisingly for a middle book in a trilogy, this was actually stronger than the first and I can’t wait to see how the series wraps up soon.

Defence Against the Dark Arts – Read a book with a title beginning with ‘R’ – Reckless by Cornelia Funke

This was a bit of an odd one. I’ve had it on my shelves for about 4 years without realising that it’s translated fiction, fitting this read neatly into my goal to read more translated fiction this year. In some ways, this was beautiful – it has a whimsical fairytale feel to it, set in a world reached through a mirror that is full of fairies and other magical creatures. The plot was a little bit too runaway for me in the end though. It follows Jacob trying to find a cure for his cursed brother and it barrels wildly through encounters with man-eating creatures, jealous fairies, dragons and cottages belonging to carnivorous witches. It’s easy reading and fun in a way but just a bit off the wall.

History of Magic – Read a book published at least 10 years ago – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Another one that I really enjoyed! I actually wrote a full review of this one so won’t say too much here. It made me cry and I can absolutely see why it’s generally regarded as a sci-fi classic.

Charms – Read an adult novel – The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson

This was where I went off script. I’m not usually a short story fan but I am a Shirley Jackson fan so thought it was worth a shot. There are three short stories in this Penguin Modern mini and I kind of liked two and think I was missing something on the other.  At less than 60 pages, it’s probably handy if you want to try out Jackson’s style but I wasn’t blown away.

Divination – Read a book set in the future – Red Clocks by  Leni Zumas

I was expecting more from this than I ended up getting, unfortunately. It’s set in a future where abortions have become illegal and women are arrested for either having one, performing one or even attempting to have or perform one. The novel follows a few different characters – a pregnant teenager, a miserable wife, a woman who is desperate to have a baby and a woman who performs abortions (among other things). I liked some narratives more than others, which meant that there were whole sections that I eventually just stopped enjoying. The wife in particular drove me bonkers. It makes some fascinating points about what it is to be a woman and what defines what a woman is but it’s a little bit off as a novel.

Herbology – Read a book with a plant on the cover – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This was a huge book in 2016 and everybody seemed to love it. Now I really liked it a lot but I didn’t quite love it. The writing is gorgeous and the characters are excellently developed and balanced but (and I do hate to say this) it was a bit dry in places. It felt just a bit too long to me. Cara, a newly widowed young woman, moves to the country and meets William, a pastor in a small village congregation. The story of their relationship is charming and I’m always there for a story of women in Victorian England trying to live independently. It’s not one for you if you’re all about pace and action but it’s absolutely worth a read.

Transfiguration – Read a book with sprayed edges or a red cover – Feminists Don’t Wear Pink: Essays by various women collated by Scarlett Curtis

The older I get, the more I find myself identifying as a feminist. This book (with delightfully pink end sprayed edges) is a collection of essays, poems and other writings from a whole host of women about what being a feminist means to them. There are some that are hilarious, some that are so inspiring and others that are moving. I read it throughout the month, picking it up for half an hour here or there, and every time I picked it up, I found myself feeling uplifted and really positive. It’s a great collection and one I think should be required reading for young girls and women.

Muggle Studies – Contemporary – Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

This wasn’t on my original TBR but I borrowed it from the library and it fits into this prompt so bonus! I haven’t read a poetry collection since I was about 17 but I heard a lot about this one last year and I was curious to give one a try. I wasn’t prepared for how genuinely emotional I’d find reading it. Danez Smith is a gay black man who is HIV positive and his writing is unflinchingly direct, raw and hugely impactive. It’s absolutely for adult readers but I’d really recommend it if you’re not usually a poetry reader but fancy giving some a try.

What have you been reading recently? Let’s chat in the comments!

Flashback to a Favourite: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

Before starting She Reads, She Runs, I had another book blog. I loved that book blog but I felt like it had got a bit stale, too narrowly focussed and, to be honest, glitchy in a way that I lacked the technical ability to fix. While I’m still really happy with that decision, I do miss having all of the reviews of my favourites, those elusive 5 star reads, in my current blogging space.  And so I’ve decided to carry them over in Flashback to a Favourite! Each will be my original review, with a few thoughts on whether or not I still think of them as a favourite.

First up: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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It’s the year 2044, and the real world has become an ugly place. We’re out of oil. We’ve wrecked the climate. Famine, poverty, and disease are widespread. Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes this depressing reality by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia where you can be anything you want to be, where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. And like most of humanity, Wade is obsessed by the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this alternate reality: OASIS founder James Halliday, who dies with no heir, has promised that control of the OASIS – and his massive fortune – will go to the person who can solve the riddles he has left scattered throughout his creation. 
 
For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that the riddles are based in the culture of the late twentieth century. And then Wade stumbles onto the key to the first puzzle. Suddenly, he finds himself pitted against thousands of competitors in a desperate race to claim the ultimate prize, a chase that soon takes on terrifying real-world dimensions – and that will leave both Wade and his world profoundly changed. 

A world at stake. 

A quest for the ultimate prize. 

Are you ready?

Thoughts in 2019: I still remember this so clearly that I was genuinely surprised to see that I first read it in January 2015! I almost never reread books but this is one that I could see myself picking back up at some point – I haven’t found anything like it in the years since I picked it up so it seems like if I want that heady mix of 80s pop culture, computer game madness and RPG-like adventure, I’m going to have to go back to the best. If you’re in the market for something that’s an unabashedly fun read, this would still be at the top of my list. I actually haven’t seen the film adaptation (or even read Ernest Cline’s subsequent novel) because I didn’t want it to “ruin” the book for me. If you have seen it, I’d definitely be interested to hear what you thought and whether I should brave it!

Thoughts in 2015:

I don’t even know where to start with this.  Maybe with the reason I even picked up Ready Player One?  I’d heard of it maybe a couple of years ago when everybody started reading it, mentally noted it as something to pick up one day if I happened across it and then forgot all about it.  I was reminded every now and then when I saw it on the occasional list of favourites but it was never something I felt like I had to go out and buy.  Until a friend texted me in January at nearly midnight on a Sunday with much upper case enthusiasm and said that I HAD TO READ READY PLAYER ONE.  So I did.  Because I am nothing if not easily led by enthusiastic reader friends into reading pretty much anything.

I was promised that it would be amazing.  And it is.  Absolutely, unrelentingly, unputdownably amazing.  Reading it was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in years and I didn’t ever want it to stop.  It manages to be both completely niche in its unashamed geekiness but also completely accessible.  I was born in the late 80s (ok, fine, 1986 is probably “mid-80s” but whatever) so I’m really more au fait with 90s popular culture and missed a few of the computer game references but I knew enough about the music and films of the time that I could still feel connected.  Even if I hadn’t got those references, I honestly believe that I would still have loved it because Cline just writes with such an obvious love for all things “nerdy” that it’s infectious.The text is quite small and there’s a lot on a page so when I opened it on the 10th of January, I thought it would maybe take a couple of weeks.  I finished it on the 12th.  I was travelling quite a lot in that couple of days, sure, but I was obsessed with it.  And not in a general “oh, this is a good book” way.  The kind of all-encompassing obsession with a book that means that you eat reading it, read it when you’re stood waiting for anything that will take any longer than 2 minutes and just generally ignore everybody else in your life until you’ve finished and can look to them for consolation over the gaping hole the book has left.

Ready Player One may well be an homage to 80s pop culture but it’s also a gripping science fiction adventure story that’s grounded just well enough in reality that it doesn’t take long to lose yourself in.  I don’t read a lot of science fiction because I don’t like reading long descriptions of technological advance or political background or, heaven forbid, actual science.  Cline has managed to write something that is both undeniably science fiction but without the tedium.  Somehow, you completely understand both the real and virtual world that Wade lives in without having to suffer through any dry explanations.  It’s impeccable and not really all that much of a stretch of imagination.  I remember when Second Life was launched about 10 years ago and the media was filled with tales of women leaving their husbands for men they’d met while building their perfect life.  You don’t have to read the news for too long to see endless stories about bankruptcy, environmental disaster and how badly we’re damaging the world.  Is it really that much of a stretch to imagine a world where everybody is crowded into small spaces without any money or natural resources, seeking refuge online?  Add in an adventure story and you’ve got something golden.

The online contest and the bedlam that ensues when Wade happens across the first clue is so, so much fun.  Like everything else about this book.  The pace is pretty hectic but not so much that it seem rushed or overwhelming.  When I could feel that the story was starting to wrap up, I was genuinely sad.  I could still be reading about Wade and about his friends two months later and I’m pretty sure I’d still be happy.

The story is amazing.  The characters are amazing.  The writing is amazing.  The whole damn thing from start to finish is AMAZING.  Consider this your midnight text.

Overall:  My biggest problem with Ready Player One is that finishing it and knowing that I’d read one of the best books I was going to read all year.  Nothing since has even been close to being as good.  Just read it, already.

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Date finished: 12 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre: Science fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in June 2012 by Broadway Books

Marathon Update: On knowing when to change goals

When I first started this blog, it was with the intention that I’d keep track of my marathon training and chat about what I was reading while I was at it.  The blogging hasn’t panned out how I’d hoped. Nor, sadly, has the marathon training.

I knew going into it that marathon training was a huge undertaking. I knew that it would take commitment and time. I knew it, and yet somehow I still really didn’t. I started well. I racked up the miles and I enjoyed the vaguely therapeutic feeling of ticking training runs off a plan. I ate well and I was focussed. Then I got really busy at work. As in start-work-before-breakfast-work-through-lunch-stay-late busy. For weeks. As those weeks ticked by and the training run ticking-off slowed, I started feeling guilty. Running had gone from being something that I loved to being just another thing that I had to feel badly about not doing properly, like seeing my friends and family.

By the time I had some spare time again, I was miles behind. Literally. I should have been up to about 35 miles a week and I was just about getting back to 15 miles. I was running but every time I did run, I felt like it wasn’t far enough, wasn’t fast enough, wasn’t enough. The one thing that was usually my outlet had become another thing on my ‘to do’ list. I struggled on for a few weeks, berating myself for long work evenings during the week and for resting too much at the weekends. I struggled with the idea of ‘quitting’ and telling people that actually no, I wasn’t going to run a marathon in May. Eventually I realised that I was being ridiculous.

And so I stopped.

Not running necessarily but training. I resigned myself to 2019 not being the year that of the Liverpool Marathon for me. Or indeed any marathon. I switched off my training plan on MapMyRun and stopped the relentless Sunday emails telling me just how many miles I was supposed to be covering that week. I’ve since spent a few weeks just doing a whole range of gym classes again. I’ve been spinning, I’ve been to circuits classes and I’ve been to bootcamp classes. And it’s been wonderful. It’s been fun again!

I finally went for a run this week and it was glorious! I ran without caring about distance or speed or when I’d be able to fit in another run. I just ran.

I do definitely want to run a marathon one day when I have more time to dedicate to those mid-week 10km runs and the weekend long runs. Maybe that will be next year and maybe it won’t be for ten years. I don’t know. But until then, I’m just going to run.

How do you know when a goal you’ve set yourself isn’t working for you anymore? When is ‘quitting’ really just ‘resetting’? Let me know I’m not alone!

Book Chat: ‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes

Like any self-respecting science fiction fan, I’ve seen Flowers for Algernon on countless ‘best of…’ lists. I’ve owned the Gollancz SF Masterworks version for a good couple of years and have passed over it so many times. And so begins another review that kicks off with me chastising myself for allowing such a great book to languish on my shelves for so long.

I loved Flowers for Algernon. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who sweeps the floors and makes deliveries at a local bakery. He is chosen as the first human research subject by doctors trialling a new operation that will turn even those with limited intelligence into geniuses, following in the footsteps of a white mouse, the eponymous Algernon. The novel charts Charlie’s journey from his selection, his “rise” to genius and beyond. As with all the best science fiction, that story is only part of why the book is so ruddy good; the rest is in the questions that it raises and forces you to think about. In this case, it’s whether ignorance really is bliss and whether we should ever really meddle with our nature (which is a question that I expect is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1966, if it isn’t actually more relevant).

And even with all of that, what really makes Flowers for Algernon that little bit more special is the writing. Charlie’s story is relayed in his own words through progress reports that he writes and submits to the doctors supervising him. The spelling and grammar in the early entries is dreadful and reading it is jarring but as Charlie’s intellect develops, so does his writing. In the early chapters, as a reader you can see Charlie being the butt of his colleagues’ jokes even where Charlie doesn’t. The painful dawning of realisation was wonderfully written, as is the confusion that Charlie experiences as his intelligence outstrips his emotional maturity. It’s clever and sensitive and outstanding.

The only reason I didn’t give it five stars was that there was a middle portion of the novel that I found a little bit repetitive. Perhaps only 30-40 pages or so but enough that there was a noticeable slow down and I got that slightly fidgety feeling I get when I’m reading something that is going a little rogue. It picked back up relatively quickly but it made what would otherwise have been perfect just really bloody great.

The ending broke my heart and I cried quietly into my paperback through the final few pages and for a good few minutes after. You know what’s coming for a while and I thought that I was prepared but no. Even with the build up, it still somehow manages to sneak up on you. I’d defy you to read the last few chapters without at least a few tears in your eyes. Thinking about it now nearly a week later still makes my heart clench.

Overall: I’m so glad that I finally picked this up. Flowers for Algernon is a showcase of masterful writing and very moving. I’m not surprised Gollancz included the novel in its Masterworks series and I can’t wait to pick up some more of the novels chosen to sit alongside it.

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Date finished: 09 April 2019

Pictured edition published: by Gollancz in 2000

Source: Bought

Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: N/A

Magical Readathon: O.W.L.s TBR

I remember hearing about the Magical Readathon last year but by the time I did, it was too late for me to take part. This year, I’ve managed to spot the sign-up prompts in time to actually pull together a pile of books to read and I am EXCITED.

love the idea for this readathon – it’s Harry Potter inspired and you get to choose a career and then read books to pass your O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s. I don’t even know why you’d want to know anything else. There’s an amazing introductory video with all of the prompts you could want at Book Roast HERE.

It took me far, far too long to pick a career. I considered Auror, Librarian and Ministry Worker (because honestly the Ministry of Mysteries sounds awesome) but in the end I’ve gone for HOGWARTS PROFESSOR. Living at Hogwarts and getting to swish around in robes and eat in the Great Hall every day? Yes please. Also, in the real world sense, it means there’s a little bit more flexibility over which O.W.L.s are needed and ultimately the books that I’ll be reading during March…

So what do exams do you have to pass if you want to be a Hogwarts Professor? You need 7 O.W.L.s, which means I’ll need to read 7 books. That’s 1-2 books more than I would usually read in a month so it seems like a decent stretch and challenge for a month in which I’m doing a readathon. You need one in the subject you want to teach, five additional subjects and Defence Against the Dark Arts. I love to cook so I feel like I’d also love potion making and am going for being a Potions professor.

All of that means that my TBR looks like this:

Potions – Read a sequel – Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor

Defence Against the Dark Arts – Read a book with a title beginning with ‘R’ – Reckless by Cornelia Funke

History of Magic – Read a book published at least 10 years ago – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Charms – Read an adult novel – The Photographer by Meike Ziervogel

Divination – Read a book set in the future – Scythe by Neal Shusterman

Herbology – Read a book with a plant on the cover – The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Transfiguration – Read a book with sprayed edges or a red cover – Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge and might do a half time wrap up if I get time! I’m super excited about this readathon. Let me know if you’re joining in too and if you are, what career you’ve gone for and what books that means you’ll be picking up!