Sunday 30 December 2018

Reviewing the Costa Novel Shortlist*

This post is a paid collaboration with Costa. All words, images and opinions are entirely my own.

This month I've been working with the Costa Book Awards to review the Novel shortlist ahead of the category winners announcement on the 7th January. I've spent the month reading the four shortlisted novels: The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, Normal People by Sally Rooney and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. I'm here today to give you my reviews and share my own prediction for the category winner.

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
A slow-building character-driven novel with a pacy plot towards the end, The Italian Teacher begins in Rome, 1955, at a party to celebrate Bear Bavinsky. Bear is an artist with a magnetic, larger-than-life personality who seduces everyone he meets. His tendency to burn any work he is not entirely happy with creates an air of mystique and grandeur around the surviving works - making him a cult figure in the art world. But this isn't Bear's story, it's his son's - Charles 'Pinch' Bavinsky. As we read from Pinch's perspective, we begin to see Bear as an egotistical nightmare of man, who doles out rare and limited affection to his many scattered children, which they crave like a drug. The Italian Teacher explores all kinds of toxic relationships, between father and son, man and woman, artist and art.

I really enjoyed Rachman's exploration of the art world. I don't read a lot of books about art and it's something I used to really love. I know a bit about famous twentieth century artists so the references peppered throughout were quite fun for me and it was really interesting to learn a bit about how the art world works. Rachman's reflections on the importance of status and character in the art world were really thought-provoking and I found the consideration of how we leave a mark on the world and others' lives really quite moving.

The main character, Pinch, is kind of unlikeable but that isn't a downfall for me. I don't mind feeling frustrated with a character or questioning their decisions as long as I can still empathise or connect in some way. I found myself growing fond of Pinch, despite his huge flaws, because I could see myself in parts of him. The Italian Teacher is a portrait of vulnerability, loneliness and compromise who makes the reader consider what makes a life well lived.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War from the women's perspective. It is historical fiction in a time that we see as so far removed from our own yet the fear and horror running through it unfortunately has such relevance today. The Silence of the Girls is brutal, it is about as far away from the romanticisation of Trojan war retellings as you can get. The women are slaves, prizes for the man who slaughtered their families. Their treatment is appalling and the book doesn't allow the reader to forget this. We read from the perspective of Briseis, whose city was sacked and family murdered by Achilles and the Myrmidons, who is then taken as slave and Achilles 'prize'.

I was a little surprised that Achilles had quite so many of his own chapters in a story that is conceptualised as being focused on the women. Achilles was presented as a complex character and humanised to an extent but his brutality and complicity in the enslavement of women was never shied away from. I did appreciate that Achilles was a fleshed out character with emotions rather than just being a one dimensional villain, this human aspect of him made his brutal actions more despicable. I also appreciated that Achilles' POV was told in third person to Briseis' first person. However, I do wish there was more of Briseis, what we got of her was so raw but her story felt a bit undeveloped. In a book focused on the women it is a little strange to feel like Achilles is the more developed character - but perhaps that's the point.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
Probably the most hyped book on the shortlist, Normal People is quite a stunning read. Sally Rooney's prose is stark, even harsh, in places, yet even as someone who loves lush description, I fell for this book. It's a love story without being a romance and is moving and frustrating in equal parts. It's about how the unsaid things can twist a relationship and the people within it. Rather than hook us in to root for the couple or entertain us with their romance, Normal People presents the raw truth of the youthful experience of a relationship, complete with awkwardness, awe, pain and external pressures. The emotions within are so accurately depicted; it's almost shocking.

An issue I had that I've not heard many speak about is that it felt like modern historical fiction rather than a current portrayal of youth. I think because the characters attended university between 2011 and 2014, the exact years I did, I was subconsciously comparing and their vastly different experience threw me off. This is most likely a fault with me rather than the book but I felt it had quite strong 80s/90s/early 2000s vibes rather than current day eg. they wrote each other lengthy emails, which wasn't really something we did in 2012. It's nitpicky, but it did throw me out of the story a little too often and therefore affected my feelings about the book.

Overall, Normal People is a compelling, emotionally jarring read that cuts to the core of human relationships.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
This was my first time reading Donal Ryan's writing and I was absolutely blown away by it. The expression of emotion in his writing is beautiful and almost lyrical but feels raw and cuts deep. There were times when I was reading this that is almost painful and so real. From A Low and Quiet Sea is told from the perspective of three very different men whose stories crash together at the end in unexpected ways. Donal Ryan's command of structure and interweaving detail is excellent and so much is conveyed in less than 200 pages. Like the others on the shortlist, this is very much a character-driven novel, which I usually prefer anyway. Donal Ryan does weave story and plots together in such interesting ways but the stars of the show are the complex and vivid characters whose inner lives we come to know through exquisitely constructed sentences. From a Low and Quiet Sea reflects on empathy, familial strain and how the past echoes through the present. It was a real joy, and an ache, to read.


So there we have it, my thoughts on all four books in the Novel category. Honestly, I think they are all fantastic in their own right so it's quite difficult to choose a winner. I have a feeling that Normal People may win because it's just been so hyped, but my personal winner is From a Low and Quiet Sea, it moved me the most and it's definitely made me want to pick up more of Donal Ryan's work.

The winners of each of the five categories: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's, will be announced this coming Monday 7th January and the overall winner will be announced at the awards on Tuesday 29th January.


*This post is part of a series of posts that are sponsored by Costa. All words and images are entirely my own and 100% honest.

Sunday 16 December 2018

My December TBR feat. Costa Book Awards 2018*

This post is a paid collaboration with Costa. All words, images and opinions are entirely my own.

We're well on our way into the festive season, expecting some snow flurries this week and the Christmas break is tantalisingly close - so what better time to curl up with a steaming mug of coffee and a good stack of books? This month I've got a very special selection of books picked out because I'm thrilled to once again be working with the lovely folks at Costa on the Costa Book Awards 2018!

The Costa Book Awards have been going since 1971 and the reason why I love these awards in particular is because they celebrate the most enjoyable books with a wide appeal, the books people really *want* to read, instead of feeling like they should read them. These awards are completely unpretentious, they just celebrate having a good time whilst reading - and I'm all about that!

The shortlisted books are all from authors living from in the UK or Ireland and are spread across five fantastic categories: First Novel, Novel, Biography, Poetry and Children's, so there's something for every reader. I'm going to be reading the four shortlisted books in the Novels category before the category winners are announced on the 7th January - and I can't wait to get stuck in!

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman
Beginning in Rome in 1955 we see the great modern painter Bear Bavinsky, surrounded by admirers, but this story is not his. It's his son, Pinch's. We follow Pinch over the course of his life as he attempts to live up to his great name but finds a life marred by twists, compromises and pain. Yet Pinch will enact an unexpected rebellion that will forever leave his mark upon the Bear Bavinsky legacy.

With Bohemian Rhapsody being my favourite film of the year, the 70s and 80s are periods I'm really keen to find out more about and this book starts in the mid-50s and spans the next thirty or so years so I'm really excited about that. I love stories that cover longer periods of time and this seems to be almost a Bildungsroman which is right up my street. Having studied and had a passion for art in the past, I'm also interested to read about the art world of this time period.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
When her city falls to the Greeks, Briseis's old life is shattered. She is transformed from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to the god-like warrior Achilles as a prize of war. And she's not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long and bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters. This novel seeks to break the silence of these forgotten women in history.

We learn about the Trojan War as children, but it is always a man's story. We don't hear of the women whose lives were torn apart. I think this one is going to be quite brutal but I'm definitely ready for it. I want to hear what these women's lives were like and hear them tell their story, even if it's heartbreaking. There's been a bit of a buzz about this one on booktube and Twitter so I'm keen to see if it lives up to the hype.

Normal People by Sally Rooney
Connell and Marianne have grown up in the same small town in Northern Ireland, but have led very different lives. Connell is popular where Marianne is an outcast. Connell's mother works as a cleaner for Marianne's family and when the two strike up a conversation one day, something that will forever change the fabric of their lives begins.

This is the only one of the shortlist which I've already read and I really enjoyed it, whilst also having a lot of complicated thoughts and feelings about it. I'm going to share my full thoughts in my review post but for now let's say that it's a love story without being a romance and it will suck you in completely.

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Farouk’s country has been torn apart by war. Lampy’s heart has been laid waste by Chloe. John’s past torments him as he nears his end. From war-torn Syria to smalltown Ireland, three men, scarred by all they have loved and lost, are searching for some version of home. Each is drawn towards a powerful reckoning, one that will bring them together in the most unexpected of ways.

I've heard such great things about Donal Ryan's writing so I'm going into this with kind of high expectations but I'm sure it'll meet them. I love stories which bring several separate characters together in an interesting way and it seems like this is going to be an emotional story. I feel like I might need the tissues for this one!


So there we have it, the four shortlisted books in the Novel category of the Costa Book Awards 2018. I'll be reading them over the next couple of weeks and putting up a review post with my prediction of the winner just before the announcement on the 7th of January. Keep an eye on my Instagram too for some snippets of reviews as I read them!

Which of these books are you most excited to read? Let me know in the comments!


*This post is part of a series of posts that are sponsored by Costa. All words and images are entirely my own and 100% honest.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Recent Reads #6: China Rich Girlfriend, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, I'll Be Gone in the Dark

May has been another great reading month, I've read six books so far and am hoping to finish my seventh before the month is over. It seems like summer is here and I've been really enjoying sitting out on the balcony with a book and a cold lemonade - long may this continue!

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan | ☆☆☆☆
This is a sequel, so no synopsis to avoid spoilers!

In my last recent reads I reviewed the first in this series, Crazy Rich Asians, which I absolutely loved. I decided to listen to China Rich Girlfriend on audiobook as it's a bit of a chunker and I couldn't bear to put it down so this helped me get through it a lot faster. I really recommend the audiobooks for this series, the narrator is so engaging and nails the humour so well. China Rich Girlfriend was just as hilarious as the first book in the series. Kevin Kwan outdoes himself with the heavy satire, bordering-on-ridiculous drama and stunning descriptive passages. I love this series because each book is a hilarious rollercoaster ride but they also have some truly heartfelt moments. Stay tuned to the next recent reads for the finale: Rich People Problems.

Daydreams and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector | ☆☆☆
Tales of desire and madness from this giant of Brazilian literature.
This is another from the Penguin mini modern classics series, which the lovely folk at Penguin kindly sent me a selection of. Overall, I found this one a little hard to get into. Clarice Lispector's writing is so unique and I definitely see the great skill in the richness and layering of motifs but I just didn't really find it that enjoyable. I found her writing quite jarring and these three little stories kind of felt like an intense fever dream, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I appreciate the artistry of Lispector's writing but it wasn't quite for me. However, this is why these mini collections are brilliant; they allow you just a taste of the author's work so that you can decide whether you want to read more.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle Mcnamara | ☆☆☆☆
A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer - the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade, thirty years ago, - from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

With the recent arrest of the Golden State Killer, this book has had a lot of hype lately. I first heart of it through one of my favourite podcasts: My Favorite Murder. Karen and Georgia talked about how wonderful this book is and after GSK's arrest a few weeks ago, I knew I had to pick it up.

Michelle Mcnamara's writing is what makes this book stand out from other true crime that I've read. In a case so complex (over 50 crimes scenes, over a ten year period) there is a lot to discuss and therefore a risk of a written account becoming quite dry. I'll Be Gone in the Dark completely avoids this through Michelle Mcnamara's incredible skill as a storyteller. The book has a narrative feel with Michelle's descriptive writing not only making the book truly enthralling but incredibly unnerving. There were times when I was reading this in bed at night and had to get up to make sure all the doors and windows were locked.

Michelle does justice to the upsettingly large number of victims through her sensitive but thorough exploration of the case. Michelle's unexpected death in 2016 means that the book went unfinished, but has been patched together by her close collaborators. If you think that true crime non-fiction isn;t for you, then I urge you to red this snippet of Michelle's writing and reconsider:


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Recent Reads #5: A Shiver of Snow and Sky, In Search of Our Mothers Gardens, Penguin Mini Moderns

April was a pretty fantastic reading month for me, I finished off a book I'd been reading for about a month and managed to get seven books read in total! I reduced my massive TBR quite a bit and even got a new bookcase so I can see my TBR more clearly, hopefully it'll shame me into reading my own damn books! Now let's get into the reviews...

In Search of Our Mother's Gardens by Alice Walker | ☆☆☆☆.5
Published in 1983, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose is a collection composed of 36 separate pieces written by Alice Walker. The essays, articles, reviews, statements, and speeches were written between 1966 and 1982.

In Search of Our Mother's Gardens is an essay collection from Alice Walker, who is perhaps best known for writing The Color Purple. I bought it in a charity shop years ago and I don't think this particular edition is actually in print anymore so it feels kind of special.

In this collection Alice writes about a range of topics from black folklore of the south to Martin Luther King, single motherhood, feminism and the creative process. The essays vary in length but each is a little gem. It is not the responsibility of people of colour to educate white people, but I did feel like I learnt so much from these essays. Reading about feminism and civil rights from a black woman's perspective at a time of such political upheaval is absolutely invaluable.

I also loved reading about Alice Walker's creative process and her reflection on writing and the research it involves.  The passion, the drive, the history and the mythology behind The Color Purple leaps out from these essays. Walker was heavily inspired by Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and I really enjoyed reading about Walker's fight to uncover Neale Hurston's fate and bring her brilliance back into public knowledge. Although this book took me a while to read (it's fairly dense), I was never bored as Alice Walker's writing is incredible.

A Shiver of Snow and Sky by Lisa Lueddecke | ☆☆☆
After reading (and loving) The Bear and the Nightingale earlier in the year, I was in the mood for another wintry atmospheric fantasy so I had such high hopes for A Shiver of Snow and Sky but sadly I was left feeling a bit disappointed. I've heard people compare this book's world-building to Leigh Bardugo and I have to say I disagree. The world-building was one of the main elements that let me down. The mythology and fantasy aspects were a little out of the blue and it was hard to feel the supposedly deep history of this isolated island.I found it very hard to connect to the main characters. There was some insta-love without much depth, as most of the relationship building happened pre-book and we were just supposed to accept this deep connection between the two when in fact their chemistry/connection wasn't developed enough on the page. The writing was a little clunky and I didn't understand a lot of the characters' motivations. This book had so much potential which for me it sadly didn't live up to.

The Problem That Has No Name by Betty Friedan |☆☆☆☆
I was absolutely delighted when the lovely folks at penguin sent over a few of their new Penguin Mini Modern Classics. This selection from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is an interesting look at what inspired the 'second wave' of feminism. I quite honestly am rather uninformed on this particular period of feminism and this snippet of Friedan's work made me want to read more. I'm excited to get through a few more from this collection in the coming months.


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Recent Reads #4: The Hate U Give, Crazy Rich Asians, Wilde Like Me

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | ☆☆☆
Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer.

Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

I can't believe it took me so long to read this! I received The Hate U Give all the way back in December 2016 at the Walker Books blogger Christmas party but put it down at the time because I wasn't quite connecting to it. Fast forward to March 2018 and it's probably my favourite book of the year so far! Sometimes it's just about reading a book at the right time, because when I picked it up this time I instantly fell into the story and the world - which is our world, but so far from anything I've experienced - and that's why this book is important.

In a way I'm glad I waited until now to finish it, because books like The Hate U Give aren't just about the hype. We still need to be talking about this book, and the Black Lives Matter movement, a year later, five years later and forever. Because if we stop talking about it, then nothing will change.

Angie Thomas writes Starr with such a strong voice and she's struggling with normal teenage things: a boyfriend, school, friendships and family - but these things are made so much more strained and complex by race issues. Starr struggles with race on a personal level, an institutional level and a societal level and Angie Thomas' handling of that is excellent.

Family is such a huge theme in this book and I loved it so much. Starr's family are so close and so real and amazing. After the book ended I genuinely felt sad because I wanted to spend more time with them. If you haven't already read this then you absolutely must.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan | ☆☆☆
When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn't know is that Nick's family home happens to look like a palace, that she'll ride in more private planes than cars and that she is about to encounter the strangest, craziest group of people in existence.

This book was a hell of a good time, a fun-filled romp through the lifestyles of a certain secretive class of Singaporeans, with some surprisingly emotional moments. Crazy Rich Asians isn't just fun fluff, it's pretty well written and the characterisation is excellent; a tough feat with such a huge ensemble cast. I did find myself having to refer to the family tree at the front of the book quite a bit but it got less confusing as I went on and each PoV chapter had a distinctive voice. I'm so glad that it's being adapted into a film, I can't wait to see how all the characters are portrayed.

Crazy Rich Asians is one of those rare books which felt like I was completely in the world. The characters were so well-realised and their lives so extravagant that I found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading and couldn't wait to pick it up again. Having spent some time in Asia, it made me want to go back, not least for the amazing food that was described so lovingly and in such detail in the book.

Not all books have to be groundbreaking, often it's enough to have a good time and be totally transported whilst reading and Crazy Rich Asians definitely did that for me.

Wilde Like Me by Louise Pentland | ☆☆.5
Robin Wilde is an awesome single mum. She's great at her job. Her best friend Lacey and bonkers Auntie Kath love her and little Lyla Blue to the moon and back. From the outside, everything looks just fine. But behind the mask she carefully applies every day, things sometimes feel . . . grey. And lonely. After 4 years (and 2 months and 24 days!) of single-mum-dom, it's time for Robin Wilde to Change. Her. Life! A little courage, creativity and help from the wonderful women around her go a long way. And Robin is about to embark on quite an adventure . . . 

I listened to Wilde Like Me on audiobook as I'm a fan of Louise's YouTube channel. She's a funny and relatable voice in the vlogging world and I was intrigued to see if that translated onto the page. This was a fun, lighthearted book but ultimately disappointing. It would have benefited from some more careful editing as the plot progression felt quite inconsistent and the writing could've flowed a bit better, there were a lot of phrases that felt awkward and more than a few cases of unnatural dialogue.

Robin was an unlikeable protagonist for me and although I don't always mind these grey-area characters it was obvious that she was supposed to be very relatable and the reader was supposed to feel warm towards her. She felt a tad over-dramatic at times and she was so self absorbed it was kind of painful. Her character didn't progress much throughout the book and I found that disappointing.

The plot was pretty slow and didn't really go anywhere and although I don't always mind this, the characterisation and humour weren't strong enough to make up for it. It was quite a nice, fun book and I didn't mind passing the time with the audiobook on the way to work but ultimately it wasn't for me and I don't think I'll be picking up the sequel when it comes out.


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Friday 23 March 2018

A Book Haul

I've accumulated a fair few books so far this year and I thought I'd share them with you guys in case you fancy getting the book shopping bug too! I'm trying to get my tbr down and buy a bit less but a book here and there can't hurt, can it? It's actually looking like I'm going to need another bookcase soon...

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
When Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and time with the man she might one day marry. What she doesn't know is that Nick's family home happens to look like a palace, that she'll ride in more private planes than cars and that she is about to encounter the strangest, craziest group of people in existence. 

My first book purchase of the year was inspired by Joce over at SquibblesReads, she has raved about this series and I really trust her judgement. Crazy Rich Asians sounds super fun and I'm excited to get into it. From a quick glance it looks like it's quite involved and has a lot of characters so I think it's going to be one that deserves quite a bit of my time so I'm going to take it with me next week when I go away with my parents for Easter. I always get a lot of reading done over the long bank holiday weekend so this is definitely coming with me!

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden*
The sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale: in a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods... 

My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel*
A mix of personal reflections, inspirational quotes, questions for reflection, and breathtaking watercolour visuals, My Friend Fear asserts that having big fear is an opportunity to make big changes, to discover the remarkable potential inside ourselves.

These two were very kindly sent by publishers and I've actually already read and reviewed both of these books. You can see my thoughts on The Girl in the Tower here and My Friend Fear here.

I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan
Fifteen-year-old Muzna Saleem is used to being invisible. So no one is more surprised than her when Arif Malik, the hottest boy in school, takes a sudden interest. But Arif is hiding a terrible secret and, as they begin to follow a dark path, Muzna faces an impossible choice: keep quiet and betray her beliefs, or speak out and betray her heart.

Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard
Eden McKinley knows she can't count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it's a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with a guy Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. And it's the last person she would have expected. Sworn to secrecy and bound by loyalty, only Eden knows Bonnie's location, and that's the way it has to stay. There's no way she's betraying her best friend. Not even when she's faced with police questioning, suspicious parents and her own growing doubts. As the days pass and things begin to unravel, Eden is forced to question everything she thought she knew about the world, her best friend and herself.

I had a little splurge in Waterstones Piccadilly before the Costa Book Awards at the end of January and picked up these two recently released YAs. I'd heard a lot of buzz about I Am Thunder and was excited to read a book with a Muslim protagonist and I love Sara Barnard so Goodbye, Perfect was an automatic buy for me. I've also read and reviewed these two and you can find out what I thought here.

In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
As Rebecca Stott's father lay dying he begged her to help him write the memoir he had been struggling with for years. He wanted to tell the story of their family, who, for generations had all been members of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Rebecca was born into the sect, yet, as an intelligent, inquiring child she was always asking dangerous questions. She would discover that her father, an influential preacher, had been asking them too, and that the fault-line between faith and doubt had almost engulfed him.

The minute I heard the buzzword 'cult' around In the Days of Rain when looking at the Costa Book Awards shortlist, I knew I wanted to read this book. It was the winner in the non-fiction category and I picked it up from Waterstones Piccadilly right before the awards. Hilariously I also happened to get it in my goody bag at the awards that night, so now I have two copies! I'll be doing a giveaway on Twitter for one of them so keep an eye out for that.

Sunflowers in February by Phyllida Shrimpton*
Lily wakes up one crisp Sunday morning on the side of the road. She has no idea how she got there. It is only when the police car, and then the ambulance, arrive and she sees her own body that she realises that she is in fact . . . dead. But what is she supposed do now? Then her twin brother Ben gives her a once in a deathtime opportunity - to use his own body for a while. But will Lily give Ben his body back? She is beginning to have a rather good time . . .

The lovely Hot Key Books offered to send me this for review and it was kind of giving me Vicky Angel vibes so of course I said yes! It's supposed to be funny and sad with relatable characters and some solid YA sounds right up my street at the minute. Hopefully I'll be getting to this one soon.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday*
In New York, Alice, a young editor, begins an affair with Ezra Blazer, a world-famous, much older writer. At Heathrow airport, Amar, an Iraqi-American economist en route to Kurdistan, finds himself detained for the weekend. What draws these characters together, and how do their lives connect, if at all?

When the wonderful folk at Granta contacted me about Asymmetry I just had to accept. It sounds like such a gorgeous literary fiction and I love stories where completely different characters have subtle crossovers. It's also not too long which I *love*, I'm all about concise tightly-written narratives. This is a debut and apparently is slightly autobiographical which is intriguing. It's out now!

White Houses by Amy Bloom*
In 1933, President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt took up residence in the White House. With them went the celebrated journalist Lorena Hickok - Hick to friends - a straight-talking reporter from South Dakota, whose passionate relationship with the idealistic, patrician First Lady would shape the rest of their lives. Told by the indomitable Hick, White Houses is the story of Eleanor and Hick's hidden love, and of Hick's unlikely journey from her dirt-poor childhood to the centre of privilege and power. 

Also from Granta, this historical fiction revolves around the relationship between two fascinating women. I love fictional retellings of historical events (e.g. The Importance of Being Kennedy by Laurie Graham) so this sounds right up my street. I also want to read a lot more LGBT+ fiction this year as I just haven't read enough of it, so this fits in nicely. White Houses is out on the 5th of May.


And that's it! I hope you're just as excited as I am for these books and hopefully you'll be seeing some reviews of them here soon. Let me know in the comments if you've read any of them or if there's a particular one you'd like to hear about first!

Books marked with a * were sent to me by the publisher for review consideration, I have not been paid by the publishers to feature any of these titles.

Friday 9 March 2018

How I'm Getting My Blogging Mojo Back*

I can't be the only one whose start to 2018 has been less than stellar? What with illness abound, post-Christmas blues and bloody Snowmageddon, it's been hard to find the motivation to just sit with my blog and write. Over the last few weeks I've been trying to take steps to rectify this and fall back in love with blogging again. I've come to realise that there are a few essential components to getting back on track with anything, be it blogging, work or any other creative pursuits, so I thought I'd share those with you today, along with a few gadgets that have been helping me out.

This post is a paid collaboration with Venom Communications. All words, images and opinions are entirely my own

Get Into a Routine

This sounds super obvious, but I bet I'm not the only one who just wakes up sometimes feeling a bit lost and not knowing where to start. Balancing a job, freelance projects and blogging along with regular life stuff like cleaning the kitchen (thrilling) can be pretty tricky. So I find that having a routine makes finding those rare free hours just a little bit easier. No matter what day it is or what your plans (or lack of) are: get up, get fed, get dressed. At the weekends I sometimes have to force myself into this routine a bit but once I've done it I feel like anything is a possibility and it feels like there's so much more time in the day. Take care of yourself first, and the rest will come.

Get Organised

If you find that you have even an hour to work on your blog, make sure that you have everything you need for a productive session. I like to keep everything I could possibly need for blogging in one place, my desk holds all my essentials, so I'm ready to just sit down and get on with it if I have a little bit of spare time. I'm a bit old-fashioned and like to go to my notebook first to draft a post, create a schedule or just get some ideas on paper (I planned out this post in my go-to notebook, my bullet journal.)

Although I take pretty much all of my blog photos with my DSLR, I actually really like editing photos on my phone. I use Snapseed and A Color Story, they're super easy to use and I always love how my photos end up looking. Make sure you have plenty of spare cables (preferably with neat little cable tidies like these) nearby to transfer the photos easily back to your computer, there's nothing worse than scrambling around looking for a charging cable.

I make sure that everything I do for my blog (photos, drafts, pitches, invoices) is saved in more than one place. You can use the cloud, or hard drives, but my personal favourite is the good old USB. They're the easiest thing to store and I like knowing that my hard work is stored in a physical thing I can lay my hands on at a moment's notice. Have a stash of these bad boys and you'll never lose your work again. How cute and bright is this Happy Jackson one?

Get Inspired

Last year, I started a job with almost an hours commute each way. For me this means walking. At first, I was unsure what to do with this time - I was terrified of wasting two hours of my already limited blogging time. Then I discovered that these hours can be so useful in so many different ways. Occasionally I go techless and have a quiet commute, it can be great to just walk and let my thoughts wander - you never know when inspiration will hit! But I usually like to have my phone on me (if you're anywhere near as clumsy as me, keep it protected in a cute case), sometimes I use it to take note of any ideas that pop up, but mostly I listen to podcasts. I *always* carry earphones with me, I genuinely panic if I've forgotten them, but since having these ones that come with a carry case (and they're PINK), I've never misplaced them again. Some of my favourite podcasts for blogging inspiration are The Creative Leap, Crtl Alt Delete, Magic Lessons and At Home With.

To make sure I'm ready to make the most of that return commute, whether it's replying to tweets, preparing an instagram or listening to more podcasts I always keep a power bank on me to keep my phone charged. My phone battery is shocking so power banks are a total life saver, this 'girl power' one (which also doubles as a mirror, whaaat?!) holds three charges and I honestly love it so much. I've tried quite a few power banks and I can genuinely say that these are my favourite.


Those are just some little ways I've been falling back in love with blogging again. The routine, organisation and inspiration all fall into place after a little while and have freed up my mind to start writing and creating again. I hope some of these ideas help you too.

If you fancy picking up some of the handy, and frankly gorgeous, little blogging essentials from Happy Jackson then I've got fantastic news. You can get 15% off any of these bad boys, plus the rest of the new 2018 line of goodies by entering code HAPPYSARAH at checkout. Yaaaassss.

Have you got any more tips for getting back into a blogging groove? I'd love to know, tweet me or leave a comment below!


*This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Venom Communications. All words and images are 100% honest and entirely my own. 

Thursday 1 March 2018

Recent Reads #3: I Am Thunder, My Friend Fear, Goodbye Perfect

I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan | ☆☆☆
Fifteen-year-old Muzna Saleem is used to being invisible. So no one is more surprised than her when Arif Malik, the hottest boy in school, takes a sudden interest. But Arif is hiding a terrible secret and, as they begin to follow a dark path, Muzna faces an impossible choice: keep quiet and betray her beliefs, or speak out and betray her heart.

This recent release immediately grabbed my attention so I picked it up when I went to Waterstones Piccadilly before the Costa Book Awards and started reading it on the train home that night. I don't think I've ever read a book with a Muslim main character before, which is pretty strange and sad and because I want to read more diversely this year, I'm on the look out now more than ever for own voices novels. I so, so wanted to love this but I was initially pretty disappointed with the writing. The teenage slang in the dialogue and narrative voice felt a little forced and crowded and the narrative felt quite choppy. This did give it kind of an edge, as if it was a raw teenage voice but I think it could have benefited from some more editing. It just kept throwing me out of the story and made me very aware that this was a novel, about teenagers, written by an adult when I can usually forget that and just get lost in the writing.

However, the writing improved as it went on and the plot really started to gather speed, the last quarter was much better than the first three. I absolutely loved reading about a Muslim main character, especially in a YA novel, this kind of representation is so important. It is a little bit disappointing that a novel about Muslim teenagers has such a focus on extremism, (it's probably not a reality in the lives of a majority of these teenagers, can't we just have a friendship or romance plot like other YA where being Muslim is just part of their character) but I realise that it's topical and honestly I'm just glad for the representation. This is a solid YA about identity, faith and relationships and if you're starting it, don't be put off by the writing because it does get better.

My Friend Fear by Meera Lee Patel | ☆☆☆
A mix of personal reflections, inspirational quotes, questions for reflection, and breathtaking watercolour visuals, My Friend Fear asserts that having big fear is an opportunity to make big changes, to discover the remarkable potential inside ourselves.

A couple of weeks ago the lovely folks at Particular Books sent me a lovely little package that included this beautiful book - check out my instagram stories for more bookish unboxings if you missed this one! My Friend Fear is an exploration of fear and how we can harness it to become our best selves. Now at first I thought that sounded a little airy fairy for me, but here's the thing, it makes total sense. Meera Lee Patel's writing flows nicely but is also very clear.
She relates things to her own experience as well as the science of emotions. Not to mention that it's an absolutely STUNNING book, filled with gorgeous illustrations and watercolour pages, it would make an amazing gift. This book is perfect for creatives especially but also just for anyone who wants to overcome doubt, imposter syndrome or just those niggling fears that stop you from getting what you want.

Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard | ☆☆☆
Eden McKinley knows she can't count on much in this world, but she can depend on Bonnie, her solid, steady, straight-A best friend. So it's a bit of a surprise when Bonnie runs away with a guy Eden knows nothing about five days before the start of their GCSEs. And it's the last person she would have expected. Sworn to secrecy and bound by loyalty, only Eden knows Bonnie's location, and that's the way it has to stay. There's no way she's betraying her best friend. Not even when she's faced with police questioning, suspicious parents and her own growing doubts. As the days pass and things begin to unravel, Eden is forced to question everything she thought she knew about the world, her best friend and herself.

I absolutely adore Sara Barnard's books and I'd been dying to get my hands on this ever since it was announced so when I spotted it in Waterstones a few days before it's release (cheeky), I had to grab a copy. If you're already familiar with Sara Barnard then I suggest you just stop reading this review and go and buy Goodbye, Perfect now because you won't be disappointed. What? You need a little convincing? Oh, go on then.

Sara Barnard can write the hell out of a female friendship; she just *gets* teenage girls. When I read her books it's like travelling back in time to my teenage years, except that would be terrible, so it's much much better. Her protagonists are smart, awesome and incredibly real teenage girls and Eden Mckinley is no exception. Goodbye, Perfect is primarily about female friendship, it's loyalties and it's limits, but it also explores other kinds of relationships brilliantly. The romance is just enough and power dyanmics are explored excellently. I also love how parents are always very present in Sara Barnard's books. The relationships between parents and children aren't always perfect, they can be very strained in fact, but the parents are present and the relationships complex and deep. Goodbye, Perfect didn't completely blow me away like Sara Barnard's previous two books but I still thoroughly enjoyed it and I would definitely recommend it.


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Recent Reads #2: Warcross, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower

I'm back again with the rest of my January reads! 

In my 2018 Reading Goals and Resolutions post I mentioned that I'm now using Sophie's wonderful spreadsheet to track all kinds of statistics about my reading this year. So I thought that at the end of each month I'd share a little breakdown of some of my reading statistics for that particular month so you can keep up with how I'm doing on some of my reading goals for 2018. So here we have the nationalities and race of authors I read, genres and number of books and pages:


Warcross by Marie Lu | ☆☆☆☆
Warcross isn't just a game, it's a way of life. When teenage hacker Emika Chen accidentally glitches herself into the international Warcross Championships, her life changes overnight. She is summoned to Tokyo not only to compete, but to act as spy for the game's secretive creator Hideo Tanaka. Emika is soon in over her head, not only with fame and fortune but a sinister plot that could threaten the entire Warcross empire.

Before I say anything else: if you're not into gaming, you should still read this book! Marie Lu has written an exciting story with incredible world-building and wonderful characters. The world-building in Warcross is what truly blew me away. Games in fiction are hard to do well, as it can be hard to get the reader to feel passionate about a game they've never played without over-describing everything. But Marie Lu does it so brilliantly, the technology of this world is so advanced and seamless yet so believable. It definitely feels more speculative than sci-fi, as I can see advances in technology getting close to this in the not-so-distant future.

Emika Chen is such a great protagonist, she's whip-smart and savvy and like many of us just-grown-ups she fights a constant battle between emotions and practicality. She's extremely analytical, always steps ahead of everyone else but over-analysing every single moment, possibility and interaction, something I can definitely relate to. I was seriously impressed by the diversity in Warcross' cast of characters, there are PoC main and side characters and queer and disabled side characters, all included so naturally, and I can't tell you how happy that made me.

The only reason why I gave Warcross four stars instead of five is because the last quarter of the book did feel a little rushed. I understand that Lu had to move the plot forward towards a sequel but the twists and cliffhangers felt slightly contrived. However I will definitely be picking up the next one when it's out as I'm now fully invested in this world and these characters.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden | 
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery, folklore and the Winter King to the children of the family, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. 

But for the young, wild Vasya these are far more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home, and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods... 

This book has been marketed for fans of The Night Circus and Uprooted so it immediately caught my attention when it was announced because I love those slow-moving, fairytale-inspired, magical historical fiction vibes. But for some reason or another I didn't end up finishing it when I first got hold of it, then the sequel was due to come out and I thought that it was about time I picked it up again. The Bear and the Nightingale definitely lived up to all it's hype for me. I absolutely loved this tale of bravery, family, magic and horror set in the medieval Russian wilderness. It's been described as a 'literary fairytale' and I don't think that could be more accurate. The setting was so atmospheric and beautifully described, it gave me real Burial Rites vibes (which is one of my all-time favourites). I loved the emphasis on folklore and how it was a very real part of everyday life in this isolated rural community. There is a subtle magic woven through the book and I loved reading about fairytales and folklore from a culture that I was previously unfamiliar with. Vasya is an excellent protagonist, she is full of heart and courage and I really rooted for her throughout. The plot moved a little slowly at first, but the excellent writing made up for it and I was soon invested in the story. This is the first in the Winternight trilogy and a new favourite for me.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden | 
This is the second book in the Winternight trilogy and the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale. Even before I'd finished The Bear and the Nightingale I had to request The Girl in the Tower from the lovely folks at Ebury as I couldn't wait to find out what happened next and I just wasn't ready to leave this setting and these characters. The Girl in the Tower follows immediately on from the events of the previous book and what The Bear and the Nightingale lacked slightly in consistent pacing, this second book made up for it in an exciting plot which moved along nicely. Katherine Arden has created complex and original characters and the plot kept me guessing throughout. I absolutely adore this series and can't believe I'm going to have to wait almost a year for the next one. If you like magical realism, historical fiction, fairytale and folklore and strong female characters - definitely pick up this series.


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Monday 12 February 2018

Recent Reads #1: Batman: Nightwalker, short stories and The Land of Stories #6

It's been a while since I've done a monthly reading wrap up, since October to be precise (yikes!) so I thought it was about time to change things up a little. A lot of bloggers I love do this 'recent reads' malarkey so I thought I'd jump on the bandwagon. Every time I finish three books, I'm going to be sharing my thoughts with you here. I'm averaging around six books a month at the moment so you should be seeing these bite-sized reviews every couple of weeks, how does that sound?

I've got a bit of catching up to do so today I'm sharing with you the first three books I read in 2018.

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu | ☆☆☆
Before he was Batman, he was Bruce Wayne. A reckless boy willing to break the rules for a girl who may be his worst enemy.

This is the second book in Penguin's DC icons series (the first being Wonder Woman: Warbringer), which follows our favourite DC heroes as teenagers. I love this idea of alternative origin stories as we never really think about the fact that most of these characters must have been teenagers at one point or another. I also don't think you have to necessarily be a fan of Marvel, or even superheroes, to read this series. There's something about each of them that can appeal to everyone.

Seventeen year old Bruce Wayne is already a bit of a badass, his wealth leaving him feeling like he has something to prove and a keen interest in solving crime. Unfortunately, he takes this interest a little too far and ends up in trouble with the law. This book follows him as he undertakes community service at an infamous asylum - I think you know which one! He soon gets involved in a plot that leaves him in over his head. I didn't love Batman as much as I loved Wonder Woman, I think mainly because the plot felt a little contrived at times and I just couldn't truly connect to Bruce's character. However it was still a fun and exciting read, Marie Lu definitely knows how to write a pacey, thrilling adventure.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell | ☆☆☆☆
Ten short stories set in the ghostly and magical swamps of the Florida Everglades. Here, wolf-like girls are reformed by nuns; a family makes its living wrestling alligators in a theme park; and little girls sail away on crab shells.

I picked this as part of the TBR challenge I'm doing this year, this was the book with the longest title on my TBR and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it. I don't often read short stories but it was lovely to just read one or two per night. This collection is weird and wonderful, and although I liked some more than others they still all worked really well together. The stories were linked to one another in subtle ways through setting and character. Karen Russell has created a strange but beautiful world full of quirky characters and a hint of magical realism. I definitely want to pick up more by her.

The Land of Stories: Worlds Collide by Chris Colfer | ☆☆☆☆☆

My first five star read of the year was the sixth and final book in The Land of Stories series. Focused around twins who accidentally fall into the fairytale world through a portal in the pages of a book, this series is an epic, sweeping adventure with so much heart. It's such a lovely and unique take on faiytales and Colfer has built an incredible world. I absolutely adore this series and I'm so sad that it's come to an end. I feel like it's hugely underrated and although it has been marketed towards children, it's probably best for older children (10+) and definitely has appeal for teenagers and adults.

The complete set looks so gorgeous on my shelves and I know it's going to be one I reread in the future. If you love fairytale retellings, adventure or the cosy feeling of the Harry Potter series - then this is for you. Definitely check these books out.


What have you been reading lately? Let me know in the comments or tweet me!

Wednesday 10 January 2018

2018 Reading Goals and Resolutions

2018 Reading Goals and Resolutions

Read more books
Last year I read 36 books and that's absolutely fine. I've had a bit of a hard time trying to convince myself that reading *any* amount of books at all is brilliant, let alone 36, because my head sees all these booktubers and bloggers reading 100+ books and then I feel a bit sad about 36. But I just have to remind myself that some people would absolutely love to have read 36 books. How many times can I say the number 36?

ANYWAY, although 36 is a perfectly fine number, I'd like to read a few more books this year for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I want to get the number of unread books on my shelves down and I also just feel like there are so many books out there, so I want to read more of them! I'm aiming to read 50 books this year, so we'll see how that goes.

Read my own damn books
As I mentioned, I own way too many unread books. Some have been sitting on my shelves for as long as five years, which is just ridiculous. In 2018 I'll be tracking my reading using Sophie of Portal in the Pages' Reading Spreadsheet. This thing is incredible and not only keeps track of all kinds of amazing data about your reading but also has a section for your TBR. I spent a sick day last week filling it out and it turns out that even after unhauling a crap tonne of books over the past few months, at the start of 2018, I had 115 unread books on my shelves. That's just too many! So a big goal for me in 2018 is to read my own books, rather than buying or accepting too many new ones. I've created a little TBR jar for this that I'll be talking about in an upcoming post, so keep an eye out for that!

Read more diversely
Looking at last year's reading statistics, the majority of the authors I read were from the USA and UK, and not only that but the majority of them were white. My reading is really not very diverse and that's got to change. After recording my entire TBR I've also found out that 87% of the authors on my TBR shelf are white, with only 13% people of colour. That makes me feel a little bit sick. So I'm making reading books by people of colour a priority this year and I've also made a little TBR jar for this which I'll be sharing soon!

Read more classics
At the end of 2016 I said that in 2017 I wanted to read a classic every month. Guess how many classics I read in 2017? Zero. That's just really strange. So I'm going to try and remedy that at least a little by picking out one classic at least every other month to read. I only have 8 on my TBR shelf but I definitely want to get to them sooner rather than later.


So those are some of the reading goals that I'm working towards in 2018. I think it'll be fun to look back next year and see how I did. I highly recommend you download Sophie's Reading Spreadsheet if you haven't already - I can already tell how much easier it's going to be to track my reading. If you have any suggestions for authors of colour that you really love, please leave them down below as that's my biggest priority in 2018!

What are some of your reading goals?

Monday 8 January 2018

Setting up my bullet journal for 2018

Setting up bullet journal for 2018

I've been using the bullet journal system for two years now and can't imagine my life without it. I love its flexibility and the fact that it's basically just a notebook I can put everything in, but it's still really organised and super easy to find everything.

The 'bullet journal' category is the most popular category on my blog and my 'Starting a Bullet Journal' post is my most viewed post ever at a ridiculous 621,801 views. So I thought I'd share my current bullet journal set up as it has changed a lot over the two years that I've been doing this. 

I just want to point out that I use my bullet journal not only as an organisational tool but also a creative outlet. I love hand-lettering, doodling and making things look pretty but I appreciate that most people don't have the time for this. I personally spend some of my down-time, or relaxation time, setting up my bullet journal for the year and month ahead as I truly find it relaxing and satisfying. I like to think that I've got a nice balance between pretty and functional, but the beauty of bullet journalling is that you can make it as simple or as froofy as you want!

2018 bullet journal title pageWhen it got to the end of 2017 I hadn't quite finished up the notebook I was using (the Leuchtturm1917 anniversary edition mentioned in my bullet journal essentials post) I just decided to continue on in this notebook for the first few months of 2018. Some people like to start a brand new bullet journal at the beginning of the year but it's enough for me to just mark the new year with a new title page. My 'hello 2018' page was inspired by Kara of Boho Berry who did a similar thing in 2017, filling the page with potential 'words of the year' - single words that will represent your focus for that year.

On the next page I have my 2018 six-months-at-a-glance, which is something I'm constantly referring back to when I need to check what day a date falls on or get an idea of how the month looks.

Bullet journal goal tracker

I like to use my bullet journal to keep track of goals for the year. I started by using a double page spread for a mind map of areas I want to focus on and broke these down into what I want to achieve and then specific goals for each area. I listed these goals on another page and then created a goal tracker (see above photo). I've been doing this for the past two years and the idea is that each month I track how well I did with the goals in each focus area.

Bullet journal future log

For the past year I've been using the Alastair method instead of the traditional Future Log suggested by bullet journal creator Ryder Carroll. Named after it's creator, Alastair Johnson, the Alastair method is great for logging all kinds of future events in a simple way. You can read his explanation here, but basically you draw out a series of columns for each month on the left of the page, I've done 6 months at a time here. Then you log the event, along with it's date and time, on the right hand side and place a dot underneath the month it belongs to. This way, when setting up for the month ahead, you can just scan down the column for that month and find any events.

On the next page I just have a simple stats tracker for my blog and social media, I don't really pay too much attention to numbers but it is nice to see any growth throughout the year, and it's always handy when updating my media kit.

Bullet journal seasonal goals

I first saw this layout for seasonal goals and intentions on Kara of Boho Berry's channel and I just really like the idea of breaking down my yearly goals into tasks to focus on each season.

The next page is just a quick January title page - this is mainly a chance for me to doodle and get a bit creative.

Bullet journal monthly spread

Next up is a monthly layout, it's kind of like a regular calendar with squares for each day. I just use this for keeping track of events, birthdays and shifts at work. I used to make a list of tasks for the month down the right hand side but found I didn't refer to it very often. I don't actually use this spread too much and might try going without it next month.

Bullet journal weekly spread

This is what I'm currently using for a weekly spread. I put tasks for the week and a mini habit tracker on the left page and dailies on the right. I set this up on a Sunday night and then it's just really quick and easy to refer to during the week. I switched to a weekly habit tracker instead of a monthly because I found I wasn't really *doing* much with the monthly after I'd filled it in. With the weekly one I can just check I'm keeping up with a few key things each week.

So that's what my bullet journal looks like at the moment, I hope you found it at least a little bit useful!

Do you keep a bullet journal? What's your favourite spread?

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