Finding sanctuary in reading

I have the builders in at the moment. If you’ve ever had building work done in your house, I’m sure you will be shuddering as you read this. The guys are very nice and pretty tidy, all things considered, but there is no doubt that it’s disruptive. This work (a loft conversion) has been in the planning for some time and I made sure to manage my own personal expectations about what I would achieve work-wise for the duration of the project. The continuous decision-making, tea-making and the noise and dust, have played havoc with my writing life; I’m currently working on a book, which picked up momentum at the start of the Autumn, but which this last couple of weeks has very much taken a back seat. And I’m struggling to get my book reviews written so I’ve got a couple of books that I’ve read recently which I’m dying to tell you about.

My retreat awaits!

Funnily enough, though, the disruption has not affected my reading life. I set aside at least an  hour each day to read (as you would expect from any self-respecting book reviewer) and I’m actually finding that the amount I am reading is increasing in direct inverse proportion to how stressful the building work is! My reading spot, in the sunniest corner of the living room, seems far away from the chaos and I find I am able to completely switch off. It’s like my own little DIY retreat.

I’m currently reading His Bloody Project the Man Booker-shortlisted novel by Graeme Macrae Burnet. It’s set in a remote rural Scottish Highland community in the mid-19th century, and tells the story of a brutal triple murder carried out by seventeen-year old crofter, Roddy Macrae. The events, the atmosphere and the setting of the book could not be further away from my present daily concerns: have I got enough coffee in, how thick is that layer of dust on the TV and how many electrical sockets do I want? It’s a real page-turner too, and for that I am very grateful.

I’ll finish it in the next couple of days so hopefully I will be able to concentrate long enough at some point in the next week to pen a more thoughtful and helpful review of it!

I’d love to hear about what you’re reading at the moment and whether reading provides a form of escape for you too. 


Cookery books – a literary genre?

cookbook-761588_1280I have a friend with several shelves full of cookbooks and yet I know she rarely gets to use them. She and her partner both have full-time demanding jobs, three children and very busy lives, so why does she buy so many? I’m not quite as bad, my vice tends to be fiction, but we do also have quite a few cookery books, and yet we return to the same few recipes week in, week out.

The answer, of course, is that most families I know, rotate about 15-20 meals for most of the weekday refuelling stops (and in  houses with kids, that is usually what mealtimes are). Only occasionally do we get the time and opportunity to try out something new. My husband is an occasional (very good) cook and selecting a recipe, compiling the list, shopping and preparing the ingredients is a form of relaxation for him. In our household, though, I do the lion’s share of the cooking and all too often it is just another task to be completed. One of my daughters is a keen baker and a good experimenter so she likes recipe books (though vlogs and the internet are also a major source of ideas for her). I tend to go for the tried and tested things because on a midweek evening there is a low tolerance for failure!

So, if we’re not trying out all the recipes why do we buy so many cookbooks? Well, in this age of celebrity, TV chefs and their lives are as interesting to us as other Hollywood A-listers. How else does Gordon Ramsay’s daughter get her own TV cooking show centred around the family’s life in their holiday home in LA? Also, there are many more cookery shows on TV now, not just about techniques, but linked to all those other things we aspire to such as exotic travel; in our house we loved watching Gino’s Italian Escape and Rick Stein’s From Venice to Istanbul and bought both books.

I have two pet theories: firstly, reading cookery books has become the genre of choice for many time-poor adults. They are now incredibly visual, gorgeous to handle and to look at and the quality of the photography is as important as the quality of the recipe. The game-changer, I think, was Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess from 2000. Nigella made cooking sexy! The book is visually stunning and the recipes are written in a very conversational style. Cooking is a narrative journey, not the usual soulless step-by-step instructions. Secondly, evidence shows we cook less than we have ever done but I think many of us aspire to cook more. Some of these cookbooks, like a lot of fiction, provide a form of escapism into a life where we do everything ‘better’, where we have friends over for spontaneous dinner parties every weekend, our kids eat all their veg and someone else does all the washing-up. We all know that real life isn’t quite like that!

So, here are the top cookbooks on our shelves, and note there are two lists – one for the books we use the most and one for the books I like to own!:

Most used:

Dog-eared and falling apart
  1. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, first published in 1978. Still our primary source book for most of the basics.
  2. Fish: the complete guide to buying and cooking, by Mark Bittman, first published in 1994. My husband bought this after our first child was born when we realised that we wouldn’t be going out to eat so often so he’d better up his game! I’d been a lifelong vegetarian up to then, but started eating fish when I became pregnant. It is still the most used cookbook we have and it has only a handful of photographs.
  3. How to be a domestic goddess: baking and the art of comfort cooking by Nigella Lawson. A classic and the main reason my kids love baking.

Like to own:

  1. The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater, published in 2005. I love Nigel, loved his column in The Observer, love his TV shows, love his gentleness. I love the way the book reads and is laid out, like a chronicle of his cooking life. But I’ve tried hardly any of the recipes….
  2. Economy Gastronomy: eat better and spend less by Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merret. I bought this after browsing through it in a friend’s downstairs loo (what does that tell you?!) I like the concept (cook a huge batch and then tweak it and turn it into several different meals) and we’ve tried a few of the suggestions, but not many. It feels like a big effort, but it’s a nice read.
  3. Hugh’s Three Good Things on a Plate by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Love Hugh, love the River Cafe, love the idea of the book, great pictures. Not tried many of the recipes and, browsing through it now, realise I should.


So, what are your favourites, to use and to own? Love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.

A disturbing psychological thriller

Here is my third review from the Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, was announced as the winner last Tuesday, which means I did not predict correctly (in my blog on Monday I hoped it would be Deborah Levy, but thought it would probably be won by Madeleine Thien). My only excuse is that I had not finished reading all six books on the shortlist by the time of the announcement!

As promised, here is my review of Eileen, by American writer Ottessa Moshfegh, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Have a read and see what you think, and if you have read it I’d love to know what you thought.


This is a novel about disorder; set in a seemingly sedate generic town in New England in the 1960s (for the purposes of the novel it’s called X-Ville), we are presented at the outset with a horrifying picture of chaos, in Eileen’s family home, in her messed-up mind, in her lifestyle and in her work. Eileen is a young woman and an administrator in a penal institution for young boys. Eileen, like many of the young males incarcerated at the prison, one imagines, is damaged, but, unlike those boys, the damage has not yet manifested itself in actions that have got her into trouble. Not yet. And that is the suspense of the novel – will the neglect to which she has been subjected burst out at some point?

Eileen has led a troubled life: neglected as a child by an alcoholic mother (now dead after what seems to have been a protracted illness), possibly abused by her father (we are not certain), with whom she now lives alone and who is also an alcoholic. Her father is mentally ill but his public misdemeanours are tolerated by the local police because he himself in an ex-cop. Instead, Eileen is more or less blamed for failing to keep him under control. The house they live in is disgusting – foetid, cluttered and in a state of disrepair. The effect is so visceral that just reading about it made me want to wash my hands! Continue reading “A disturbing psychological thriller”

3.5/6 ain’t bad

The winner of the Man Booker prize 2016 is announced this evening. Here’s a reminder of the shortlist:

About a month ago I set myself the task of reading all six novels by the time of the announcement, but, alas, it seems that was a little ambitious! I have finished three of them though and am working my way through the fourth. I loved Hot Milk but was lukewarm about All That Man Is. I have reviewed both of these here already (see below). I have also completed Eileen, which I really enjoyed, and I’ll post a review of it here soon. I’m now part way through The Sellout, but to be honest I’m still waiting to decide whether I like it.

Based on what I’ve read so far, my favourite is the Deborah Levy. Hot Milk is a stunning literary achievement and I recommend it highly. It’s also thought-provoking to any woman with a mother! However, it’s not the most “Booker-ish” of novels (if you get me) and so I have a hunch that Madeleine Thien’s account of the relationship between a young Canadian girl and a refugee who has fled China following the events in Tianenmen Square, will win. It’s not that the others don’t have big themes (Levy and Szalay deal with questions of globalisation and migration, huge topics of our time, Moshfegh deals with abuse, self-abuse and personality disorders, and Beatty deals with the unresolved question of race in America), but from what I have heard about Do Not Say We Have Nothing it just feels like it may have the scale, the ambition and the gravitas of a winner.

So, just a few hours to find out if I’m right. Look out for my review of Eileen later in the week – it’s a corker of a novel!





Tame your gremlin and banish negative thoughts

lake-1585556_1280Autumn is becoming the new ‘new year’ for many people, lighter, brighter and generally a nicer time of year than January, which I’ve always felt was a really bad time to make resolutions and embark on new activities! On that theme, a lot of people I know are using October to make fresh starts or implement changes. For so many of us, transformation starts on the inside; if we have problems or issues we want to tackle or changes we want to make in our lives, it often means overcoming personal barriers – fears, phobias, addictions and the like – or building confidence in moving forward and realising dreams.

If this resonates with you and you are on your own transformation programme at the moment, I’d like to recommend Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin. 

Managing negative self-talk

I first came across this book a few years ago when I was doing some personal development training. First published in 1983 it remains in print and is widely considered a self-help classic. Its starting point is simple: that when it comes to getting what we want out of life, we are each our own worst enemy. In other words, there is a voice inside of us (which Carson embodies as a hostile gremlin) which talks us down, which questions our worthiness and which fills us with fear. All of this negative self-talk holds us back and stands in the way of us enjoying the life we have been given.

Your gremlin’s goal “is to squelch the natural, vibrant you within”


Carson’s method for dealing with our gremlin is a 3-step process. We begin by “simply noticing” the gremlin. This is linked to the Zen Theory of Change and to what we would now recognise as mindfulness. It’s very much a practical book, so to help you do this there are both physical and written exercises, for example, learning to breathe in a way that keeps you centred.

“I free myself not by trying to be free, but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment I am imprisoning myself”

Step 2 invites us “Choose and play with options” or in other words, to observe our habitual behaviour patterns and write our own script, to change the negative thoughts to positive self-talk. The exercises are quite useful in doing this and the little stories (case histories) throughout the book will be familiar to many of us.

“As long as you operate out of habit you will limit your ability to fully experience, appreciate and enjoy your gift of life.”

 The final step is to “Be in process” to remain alert to the threat the gremlin poses. The future is unknown, your destiny is not mapped out by the events of your past and your gremlin cannot determine the path your life will take.

The book is a very easy and enjoyable read and its very practical. There is also a website accompanying the book.

I need a man!

Truly, I do! I would like any many who has read David Szalay’s All That Man Is to give me their perspective on this book. It has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and I am working my way through that shortlist at the moment. This was my second read, and whilst I found it reasonably engaging, I also found myself saying at the end “And….?”


It is a book of nine parts and focuses on nine men, each at a different stage in life. In that sense, it is a book of nine stories. Each is set in a different part of Europe and each character is away from home, although ‘home’ is a fluid concept in the novel. It is a very international, very European, book.

As the reader progresses through the novel, the characters become older. So, we start with 17-year-old Simon in Part One, inter-railing with a school friend, and end with 73-year-old Tony in Part Nine. In between, there is young Frenchman Bernard, leading an aimless life, not sure what to do with his future, who takes a holiday in Cyprus; Hungarian security guard Balazs, who finds himself in London minding a young woman with whom he is in love, and who is being pimped as a high-end prostitute by her boyfriend; self-obsessed German linguist academic Karel, driving to Krakow with his Polish girlfriend, who tells him en route that she is pregnant; then we start on middle-age with Danish newspaper editor Kristian, bored by middle-class family life, but smug with the trappings of his career success; James a London-based property agent, looking to invest in apartments in ski resorts in Switzerland, preoccupied by how to make  more money; Murray, 52-year-old Scotsman, living in Croatia, conned out of what little he has by his own foolish ego; Aleksandr, suicidal Russian billionaire on the ropes, down to his last few hundred million after losing a court case against a rival; and finally, Tony, 73 year-old former diplomat, alone in his house in Italy in the winter. He has been ill and then has a car accident and is facing into old age with all its travails.

Continue reading “I need a man!”