The Comfort Book – by Matt Haig

23 04 2022

Matt Haig has written some stupendously good books including Reasons to Stay Alive, Notes on a Nervous Planet, The Humans, and The Truth Pixie; so my expectations were extremely high!

He describes this book as a collection of thoughts that have kept him afloat; have comforted him. It’s a mixture of mostly his own stuff, but also some quotes from others at times.

It’s good, it’s certainly what I needed after the misery of The Bell Jar last week, but something felt lacking. I wonder if this is just because I was expecting too much, or was in a different place to when I’ve read other ones, but to me some bits felt a bit repetitive, and there was a greater focus on some certain philosophies and religions than there has been in his other books, which I guess just shows where he’s at at the moment.

But I don’t want to be too negative, ‘cos if I hadn’t read his other stuff I imagine I’d have loved this! Of course, I have some favourite quotes:

  • “No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for.”
  • “You don’t stop the rain by telling it to stop. Sometimes you just have to let it pour, let it soak you to the skin. It never rains for ever.”
  • “I hope this email finds you well but, you know what, it is okay if it doesn’t because we all have bad days.”
  • “Forgiving other people is great practice for forgiving yourself when the time comes.”
  • “Introversion is not something you fix via extroversion. You fix it by seeing it as something not to be fixed.”
  • “When a dog lies in the sun I imagine it does it without guilt, because as far as I can tell dogs seem more in tune with their own needs.”
  • “Maybe we aren’t meant to know everything about our lives. And maybe that’s perfectly okay.”

The Bell Jar – by Sylvia Plath

15 04 2022

One of those books that you buy ‘cos you know you should read it at some point. I knew it had something to do with depression, but didn’t know much else about it…

It’s the 1950s, and Esther is a promising college student on a summer internship at a magazine in New York with a group of other girls. This fills roughly the first half of the book; after this she is rejected from a writing class which she was hoping to fill the rest of her summer break with, and so goes home to her mum’s, which is when the severity of her depression becomes evident and rapidly spirals.

This book needs to come with a whole load of trigger warnings; the second half contains several varied suicide attempts, some described in fair detail. Esther is eventually sent off to an asylum and begins her recovery, but this is NOT an uplifting book! This whole second half is a really miserable and difficult read, understandably, and while yes this is a very well written book and had me picking it up it a lot, it was a relief to be finished and get to read something more positive.

The title threw me for a long time. It wasn’t until page 178 of this 234 page edition that the phrase was used! Once it was, it made sense, but I didn’t get the link until then, might just have been my ignorance!

The story was left on a cliff-hanger as she entered an interview with the doctors to determine whether she would be allowed back to college. While it was left hanging more artistically than expecting a sequel, we would never find out Esther’s fate as sadly, Plath committed suicide herself just a month after the book was published in 1963.

Fishbowl – by Bradley Somer

3 04 2022

I tried to read this a couple of years ago, but got so bored with the first chapter that I gave up and put it back on the shelf. But before it went into the charity shop box, I decided to give it one more go.

It seems that if you can get through the first chapter, which is an extended, metaphorical description of an apartment building, then a story actually begins and it’s readable!

The entire book takes place over a half hour period, during which we follow the stories of several people in the building (some of which overlap a little – a la Love Actually style). At the end of the half hour, Ian the goldfish falls from the top to the bottom of the building, and sees little snippets of all the stories, though his fall is weirdly spread throughout the book, so you have to keep an eye on the order of events occasionally.

Once I got into it I did get invested in some of the stories (though not all), and did enjoy it, but gosh, just scrap that first chapter. There were also some random bits in the middle where the author takes about a page to tell you the entire future life story of someone in one of the apartments who has no links to anyone else and isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the entire book, and to be blunt, I don’t care about at all!

There was a quote near the end: “It’s said that everything happens for a reason, but it’s never said that reason is always a good one.”, which I thought was worth sharing.

My favourite thing about the book, and probably the reason I tried again, is that down the side is a flick-book of a goldfish falling from the top to the bottom. I’ve found a video on YouTube of someone doing it, albeit incredibly slowly, enjoy!

Funny You Should Ask… – by The QI Elves

6 03 2022

The QI Elves are the wonderful people who write the questions for the TV show QI [Quite Interesting], and more recently they’ve also been doing a weekly segment on the Radio 2 breakfast show where people call in with questions for them to answer. This book is based on some of those questions, as well as some tangents from those, and some brand new questions. Most are just a page long, some are a couple of pages and there are a couple of occasionally three page answers, but most of those are ones with a lot of pictures in them! It means that it’s all very bitesize and easy to read.

The questions themselves are brilliant, they include things like:

  • Who alphabetised the alphabet?
  • Which fruit came first, the grape or the grapefruit?
  • Why does red mean ‘stop’ and green mean ‘go’?
  • What happens if you try to use superglue on a non-stick pan?
  • Why do Olympic racers run anticlockwise?

A lot of the answers finish with some random related fact, where I learnt wonderful things like

  • A group of ducks on water is called a paddling.
  • Four of the characters from Frozen – Hans, Kristoff, Anna and Sven – are named after Hans Christian Andersen, the author of the film’s main inspiration, ‘The Snow Queen’.
  • Sodium citrate is used in the production of nacho cheese and has the chemical formula Na3C6H5O7.

Some of the answers left me with follow-up questions, but that’s part of the joy of it I think, finding more things to learn!

One Of Us Is Lying – by Karen M McManus

23 02 2022

I’ve been describing this book as The Breakfast Club meets Agatha Christie: five kids from five different American high school stereotypes, all in detention together, one of them dies, whodunnit?

The book is narrated by the four other kids in turn as they try to work out what happened, who did it, and why. Is it one of them, or someone else? The boy who dies had a gossip blog which has a reputation for always being accurate, and had been about to post stories that would ruin each of the other four teenagers lives, so there’s a lot to dig through.

I did guess the solution, but not with all the detail that was revealed, so still enjoyed it as it worked its way through. And now that I’ve finished it, there’s a series of it that has just arrived on Netflix, so I’m ready to see what they’ve done with it!

And it has the added bonus of putting an Abba song in your head every time you look at the cover, even if it’s not exactly the same words!

We Need To Talk About Race – by Ben Lindsay

8 02 2022

This was definitely a challenging read, but it felt important to read it.

The book is aimed at all Christians, black and white, congregation member and leader. Each chapter has a question for reflection for each perspective, which helps process what you’ve just read.

It also has two interludes, one of which was women of colour sharing their stories of what they’ve experienced in church, the real-life examples were pretty hard hitting.

As he acknowledges in the book, a lot of white people, myself included, are scared of talking about race for fear of saying the wrong thing, so really what I’ve put below is just a few bits from pages where I turned the corner down, it doesn’t flow, but I think that reflects that I’m still processing what I’ve read. Even now, I’m scared I’ve said something wrong somewhere in this post, my sincere apologies if this is the case.

  • The black majority church has been growing, partly because people of colour have not felt included in white churches, and so we’ve become a much more segregated church overall, which is not how it was meant to be.
  • Early on he listed a load of privileges white people have that they don’t even realise, which was helpful to give something practical to think about.
  • He talks about the differences between churches being diverse, and churches being inclusive – so often the focus is diversity, but this reminded us that this isn’t the ultimate aim.
  • The importance of acknowledging the churches part in the start of the slave trade, and not just the abolitionists.
  • Is the churches approach to social action more about pulling people from the river than seeing why they’re falling in in the first place?
  • Distinguishing between Social Welfare – serving practical needs of the community, and Social Justice – campaigning and advocacy, addressing what left the community in that state to start with.

And then a line that just stood out to me as something to apply far more widely in life: “Forgiveness without progress is hard. This is not to say we should not forgive.”

I definitely feel this book increased my awareness, and I’ll be recommending it to my Pastor. I want to dig out an article it recommends called “100 ways white people can make life less frustrating for people of colour” by Kesiena Boom, as I’m a person who works well off specific examples. As a Christian in a very white church, and has always attended very white churches, I would recommend this to other white Christians too.

The King’s Curse – by Philippa Gregory

17 01 2022

A few years ago I read The Constant Princess, and have finally gotten around to reading the next book in the series! This book runs from 1499-1541, covering quite an expanse of time, but following the story of Margaret Pole. She was a Plantagenet, niece of both Edward IV and Richard III, and cousin of Elizabeth of York who was wife of Henry VII, and so while from a family that had been defeated by the Tudors, was highly involved in the family.

Near the start of this book she takes guardianship of Prince Arthur and his wife Katherine of Aragon, and as time goes on, Arthur passes away and Katherine becomes Henry VIII’s first wife, she becomes one of Katherine’s closest ladies in waiting.

Throughout the book are scattered updated pictures of her family tree so you can keep track of what’s going on as time passes – I always appreciate a book with diagrams!

Life is not easy for Margaret Pole; when life is good it’s very good, but when Henry throws her out of court things become much more frightening.

Henry as a child seems to be fairly delightful, but as he gains power, and time passes without him successfully producing an heir, he becomes much more unbearable. The book covers his first four marriages, and as things go on he seems to become more and more delusional, refusing to acknowledge anything bad that happens, it felt a little pertinent to our current leaders, but with a lot more hangings and beheadings, this situation was clearly much worse!

The other part of the book that felt oh so familiar was when The Sweat spread round the country, and people had to shut themselves away to stop the spread….

It was strange to read about things that were seen as awful at the time they happened, but for us are now perfectly normal: Henry declaring himself head of the church, requiring himself to be referred to as Your Majesty instead of Your Grace, and requiring churches to have the Bible in English instead of Latin.

I didn’t read this for ages because I didn’t know who Margaret Pole was, and so didn’t care much to read it, but I found it so interesting! Yes you take it all with a pinch of salt as it’s fiction at the end of the day, but these are supposedly well researched, there’s a long bibliography in the back, and so there’s definitely some things to learn from it! Looking forward to the next one now!

The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus – by Dr Hannah Fry & Dr Thomas Oléron Evans

29 12 2021

Maths & Christmas, what more could you want?!

From predicting the Queen’s Speech using Markov Chains, to how to wrap presents using the least wrapping paper, it covers all elements of the festive season! It’s nice and accessible too, with lots of notes for further reading for those who want to fully geek out (the number of articles that seem to have been written on cooking a turkey seems to be insane!)

It’s not a heavy book, lots of chatter and humour makes it easy to read, and lots of diagrams too, so you really fly through the 150 pages!

Letters from Father Christmas – by J.R.R. Tolkien

29 12 2021

From 1920 ’til 1943, Tolkien wrote letters to his four children (over an age range of 12 years), as from Father Christmas; with shaky writing from the cold, suitable North Pole stamps and postmarks, and hand-drawn illustrations to accompany them.

In the 1976, three years after he died, his daughter-in-law compiled these into a book for people to enjoy, and last year, to mark the centenary of the first letter, this edition was published.

He shares stories of things going on in the North Pole, with his companion the Polar Bear, problems every few years from goblin attacks, and these are also covered in the illustrations. He uses these some years to explain why they might not get what they expect, but always acknowledges the letters they’ve written too.

It’s a lovely warm hug to read over the Christmas period, I saw that someone said they read one letter to their kids every night over advent as a build up to Christmas Day, which I thought was quite sweet!

Death on the Nile – by Agatha Christie

31 10 2021

My third Agatha Christie and my second Poirot!

I’m starting to notice a pattern now (unless it’s just coincidence with the ones I’ve read so far), which is why I’ve struggled to get into each one, and that’s that she opens the book by introducing an absolute shedload of characters with maybe a couple of pages each, and then the story properly starts, at which point my head is spinning, trying to work out who’s who.

That said, it then doesn’t seem to take long after that, and always gets better once a diagram is thrown in. This time it was a plan of the cabins on the boat with all the names of the occupants, though it didn’t appear until about halfway through the book.

The early character confusion aside, I really enjoyed the book, the further I got in, the faster I read, and the less I was able to put it down! Obviously, it’s a murder mystery, so I’m not going to give much away as that’s the fun of the book (if you can call books about murder “fun”, but given Christie’s insane success, I think it’s ok to enjoy it!), but it’s got all the twists and turns and red herrings you’d hope for, and Poirot’s brilliant lines, as well as a couple from Christie herself!

As I was borrowing my mum’s copy I didn’t turn down pages to remember the quotes I really liked, but it turns out that this was time wasted since I fell asleep on the book last weekend and totally creased the cover – what a fail!

Anyway, there’s a Kenneth Branagh film of this coming out next year, the cast includes Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Russell Brand and Adam Garcia, so naturally I’m intrigued and excited to see that! Trailer below: