Review: The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli

Today, I am reviewing The President’s Gardens, by Muhsin Al-Ramli (translated by Luke Leafgren). It’s a stunning and moving portrait of 3 friends and their lives through the Iraqi conflicts of the 1980s to early 2000s.

What’s it about?

Here is the publisher’s blurb for the book:

On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop. One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to his friends as Ibrahim the Fated. How did this good and humble man earn the enmity of so many? What did he do to deserve such a death? 

The answer lies in his lifelong friendship with Abdullah Kafka and Tariq the Befuddled, who each have their own remarkable stories to tell.

It lies on the scarred, irradiated battlefields of the Gulf War and in the ashes of a revolution strangled in its cradle. 

It lies in the steadfast love of his wife and the festering scorn of his daughter. 

And, above all, it lies behind the locked gates of The President’s Gardens, buried alongside the countless victims of a pitiless reign of terror.

The Story                                                                                               

The President’s Gardens follows the lives of three friends from childhood, through conflict and war, up to the Iraq War from 2003. Ibrahim ‘The Fated’, Abdullah ‘Kafka’ and Tariq ‘The Befuddled’ meet as toddlers and become the best of friends, always together; until they are separated by the Iraq-Iran war of 1980. When they are finally all brought together once again, the impact of the years of conflict have changed them forever.

The book opens with an early morning scene in which a shepherd, Isma’il, discovers the heads of 9 of the village men in banana crates in the main street; one of these men being Ibrahim. From that point, the book returns back to the three friends’ childhood, and tracks the story back to that day.

The Review

There is a LOT to love about The President’s Gardens. It is a powerful, powerful book.

Lots of details, characters and events are thrown at the reader over the first few chapters, which are then re-visited and explained over the course of the book. I did find it difficult to keep track for a while – to the point that I wished I had written myself notes on who was who – but after a while the story settles down into an easier to follow narrative.

Al-Ramli’s descriptions and portrayals of Iraqi life are detailed and intricate. The closeness and havoc of village life and relationships are presented in sharp contrast to the opulent, indulgent grandeur of Baghdad and the Presidential palaces of the second half of the book. There is an obvious scorning of the excessive wealth of the President and those in power around him; with a whole pages dedicated to a monologue describing the vast palaces with golden taps and door handles, cars, gardens, swimming pools and portraits.

The overwhelming and all-destroying spectre of war is a constant in this book, and shapes the characters of the 3 protagonists in different ways. Al-Ramli does not shy away from graphic depictions of the treatment of enemy soldiers and prisoners of war, and there were several points where I had to look away from the page for a moment before I could continue reading. However, there are also some truly beautiful moments in the book – Ibrahim’s final day with his wife, for example; is incredibly emotive and reminiscent of a couple in the first throes of love, as opposed to a long-married husband and wife.

The characters of the three protagonists are all very different. The backbone of the story; Ibrahim accepts everything that happens around him – the war, his losses, the turn of events that brings him to his death – as fate, and the way things must be. This is how he gets through his life, and the cruel twists of his fate that it continually throws at him.

Abdullah is given to seeing the worst in every situation, and after his time in the war loses all interest in everyday life, longing only for peace.

Tariq, spared the horrors of battle as a religious leader and teacher, becomes adept at working situations to his own advantage. Although of the three he has the least presence in the book, he is the catalyst for more than one significant event or turning point, which has major implications for his friends.

The book brings itself back to the events of the opening chapter to finish, picking up with Tariq, Abdullah, and Ibrahim’s daughter Quisma; and their actions following Ibrahim’s death. The story ends with a ‘to be continued’ which I was not expecting and not at all ready for – the reader’s investment in the characters becomes absolute, and I was really hoping to know how things ended up for the 2 remaining friends. Here’s hoping that the sequel can follow very very soon.

The President’s Gardens is published on April 20th by Quercus Books, and is available to order on Amazon now.

Many thanks to Quercus Books / MacLehose Press and Net Galley for the ARC.

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About the Author

Muhsin Al-Ramli is an Iraqi writer, poet, academic and translator, born in the village of Sudara in northern Iraq in 1967. He has lived in Madrid since 1995. The President’s Gardens was longlisted for the I.P.A.F. (known as the ‘Arabic Booker’) in 2010. Al-Ramli was a tank commander in the Iraqi army during the Gulf War, a period of life which has greatly informed his writing. His brother, the writer Hassan Mutlak, was hanged in 1990 for an attempted coup d’état.

Review: The Little Breton Bistro by Nina George

The Overview

The Little Breton Bistro (released 2nd March) is the latest offering from Nina George. Having devoured The Little Paris Bookshop on honeymoon last year, I couldn’t not request this ARC when I spotted it on NetGalley, and was pretty chuffed when my approval email came through!

The Little Breton Bistro follows protagonist Marianne on a quest to rediscover life. The book opens in Paris, on the banks of the Seine, as she prepares to take her own life. Stuck in an unhappy and loveless marriage to a dull and controlling man, Lothar; she just can’t see the point of going on living.

Her plan is thwarted by a homeless man who pulls her from the river, and she is whisked off to hospital for treatment. While she is in the hospital, she finds a small tile painted with the image of a beautiful port town, Kerdruc, in Britanny. She decides to escape the hospital, fully intending to complete what she started in Paris in this beautiful little port town.

The journey from the hospital in Paris to Kerdruc is full of quirky coincidences, and when Marianne finally arrives in Kerdruc, she is mistaken for the new chef at Ar Mor bistro. This is the turning point in Marianne’s story; and from this point we see her rediscover the joys in life, and help guide the people around her too.

The Review

Part of what really made the story for me were the descriptions of the landscape that flow throughout – George’s words paint a stunning image of the Breton coast, from sights, smells, to colours, and emotion.

As is her signature style, The Little Breton Bistro flows with an engaging and easy to follow storyline. A host of characters grace the pages, each of them contributing a different theme to the book; and contributing to Marianne’s transformation – we watch her turn from suffocated and timid to powerful and confident in herself. Her husband Lothar, by contrast, does exactly the opposite – although for the vast majority of the book he is only present in Marianne’s guilt; by the end of the story he has been stripped of the control he once had over her. This book is about love – new, enduring, unrequited – as well as birth, death and friendship. As her life changes from everything she once knew, Marianne arrives at a point where she must decide to hold on to the past; or embrace the future.

George’s writing style and stories always remind me of the film Amélie – colourful, full of life, with a sprinkle of the eccentric. French-ness. It is a winning combination.

I was surprised to learn that Nina George has written 26 books, as well as over 100 short stories – a quick Amazon search suggests that The Little Paris Bookshop and The Little Breton Bistro are the only ones to have made it across the continent to our bookshelves. Hopefully there are many more to come!

With thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for the ARC.

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Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me is the debut novel from Ayobami Adebayo.

The story is narrated by Yejide, the protagonist; and Akin, her husband. It opens with Yejide looking back on the past she left behind, the story she does not tell behind the simple statement ‘I was barren and my husband took another wife.’

Yejide and Akin are desperate for a child, as are their families. One day, her stepmother turns up with a new wife for her husband, to ‘help draw Yejide’s baby into the world’. This action kick-starts the unravelling of Yejide and Akin’s relationship. Her longing for a baby; the maliciousness of Funmi, the second wife; and the pressure placed on them by Akin’s mother; and the unearthing of many secrets; pushes them both over the edge in different ways.

Stay With Me is a well-written novel. The rhythm of the language used often reflects the mood of the protagonists; be that anger, sorrow, hope, or the languid acceptance characterising Yejide’s opening chapter. It is a gripping story, frequently emotional and raw. I enjoyed the way that the book changes between one narrator to the other – often Adebayo will use a switch in the narrative voice to break a secret to the reader, or introduce a plot twist. We get an insight into Nigerian culture; which is both interesting and, at times, shocking. Although the book is set against a period of political unrest; I didn’t feel like this played a huge part in the story – it was more a background rumbling, aside from a couple of brief points where it is brought to the fore. This is the only element of the book which I feel could have been explored/involved a little further.

Stay With Me is a tale of how the pressures of family and society can push a person to breaking point; as well as a story of betrayal, and the lies we tell each other – and ourselves.

Although Adebayo has had various short stories published previously; this is her first novel. I look forward to reading many more!

Stay With Me is published on 2nd March by Canongate. Thanks to NetGalley and Canongate for the ARC.

Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I’m going to put it out there, straight up: I have never read any of Jodi Picoult’s books before. I have a small collection of them on the bookshelf, hidden among my TBRs and old favourites, and obviously went along and cried to My Sister’s Keeper when the film was released; but nothing more. So, when a friend, a massive Picoult fan, got in touch to say she was holding a reading from her new book at the Sage Gateshead (and that the tickets included a copy of the book!) I jumped at the chance to go along.

Picoult was at the Sage as part of the tour to promote Small Great Things, her latest book. The evening consisted of a reading from the book followed by a Q&A session with the audience.

I knew from the reading that this was going to be a book quite unlike anything I’ve read before, and so I spent a little time mentally preparing myself before picking up Small Great Things towards the end of January.

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The book tells the story of Ruth Jefferson, an African American Maternity nurse with over 20 years’ experience in looking after new mothers and their babies. One day, at the start of her shift, she takes over the care of a newly-born baby boy, Davis Bauer. His parents, two white supremacists, lodge a complaint with the hospital and insist that no African American personnel are to touch their son. The hospital complies with their request and Ruth is taken off the case. However, as a result of a staff shortage, a colleague asks her to keep watch over the baby while she deals with another delivery – and he dies.

What follows is the story of Ruth’s journey through the American justice system, leading up to her trial. The narrative is split between the views of Ruth; Turk, the white supremacist father; and Ruth’s attorney Kennedy. The ever-changing narrative allows us to see into each of our protagonists’ lives, away from the trial – their history, their beliefs, and how they came to be in the position they are in currently. I found this to be a very effective way of telling the story, and thought it added a great amount of depth. This way, nothing the reader sees is clear cut. You cannot help but feel for Turk, as he mourns the loss of his first child; even while at the same time you are filled with disgust and horror at his behaviour and the way he lives his life. Similarly, while you feel shock and horror at Ruth’s tale and the everyday discrimination she experiences purely as a result of her skin colour; you can’t help but be angry with her when she holds back information from Kennedy. Over the course of the book, we see Kennedy assess the way she approaches and deals with racism, and the way this changes, as a result of her relationship with Ruth.

Whilst I may have gotten a flavour of the book at the reading, I was absolutely not prepared for how completely uncomfortable this book would make me feel. All. The. Time. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book which created such an ambience of anticipative tension. It drags out those elements of society that it’s all too easy to look away from and try to ignore; and sits them right in front of you across 494 pages of unapologetic rawness. Picoult is without doubt an accomplished and skillful storyteller, and the tale is made all the more impactful by the fact that both Turk and Ruth are based on real people, with similar stories, who she met with and spoke to over the course of her research. Small Great Things is great indeed, and I certainly look forward to reading more of Picoult in the near future.

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Review: Blackout by Ragnar Jonasson

Once I finished reading Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson, I immediately started on the second book of his Dark Iceland Series – Blackout.

Blackout picks up in Siglufjordur around 1 ½ years after the events of Snowblind, in which we were first introduced to policeman Ari Thor. Still based in Siglufjordur, we are greeted with a different character to the man who graced the pages in book one: he is no longer a rookie, but a more mature, confident and assured member of the police force.

The book opens with the discovery of a body, beaten and unrecognisable; on a building site near Akureyri. The book follows the developments of the case over the space of around 48 hours. As well as following the ‘real time’ investigation, the story is supplemented with flashbacks to months and years prior to the current events.

As the investigation develops, we are drawn into a much darker and more sinister world than that which was inhabited by the characters of Snowblind; and are given a glimpse of a societal undercurrent which echoes modern day’s threats and crises.

We are introduced to Isrún, a journalist with a back story of her own, who plays a large part in the developments of the book. Hlynur, Ari Thor’s colleague who we saw only from the side lines in Snowblind, has his own tale to tell in this book; and this runs parallel to the main story, telling us more about his past and troubling present.

We also get to pick up with Kristin, Ari Thor’s ex-girlfriend who has moved to Akureyri to take up the doctor’s post she accepted before she and Ari Thor separated. We have a window into her life as she tries to move on from their relationship.

Blackout moves at a fast pace, with Jonasson’s skilled writing pulling the reader through the story with ease. The looming darkness of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, coupled with his trademark descriptions of the wild beauty of Iceland creating the perfect backdrop to this murder mystery.

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Review: Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

I have not come across a huge number of books which can hook you on the first page; even fewer that can do so in the first paragraph. But the rawness of the opening sentence of Snowblind sets the tone for what is a very clever crime story and an outstanding first novel:

The red stain was like a scream in the silence.

The first book in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series, Snowblind follows Ari Thor Arason, a young police recruit about to finish his training. He is offered a job with the police force in Siglufjordur, a small town he doesn’t know much about except that:

…one could hardly travel further north in Iceland; a place probably closer to the Arctic Circle than to Reykjavik.

He accepts, leaving his girlfriend and their apartment behind in Reykjavik and moving to the town where nobody locks their doors and, in the words of his sergeant, nothing ever happens.

Except when it does.

Installed in Siglufjordur, Ari Thor tries to settle into life in a small town surrounded by mountains. He takes piano lessons with Ugla, a young woman who has also recently moved to the town and understands his feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. On Christmas Eve, alone on the evening shift, Ari Thor receives a phone call which marks the beginning of an investigation that will chill the town to its bones. When a young woman is found seriously injured in the snow and an elderly, famous writer meets his death in the local theatre, Ari Thor must battle community secrets, heavy snowfall, and the avalanches which block off the only route in or out of the town.

Snowblind is an excellent novel, and an impressive debut from Jonasson. The characters are skilfully interwoven using a variety of narrative viewpoints, and there is a large enough quantity of these to tax your brain into trying to piece them all together; while not being so overwhelming that it’s impossible to keep up with what’s going on.

Jonasson’s description of the wild, raw beauty of Iceland and its small, isolated towns paints a picture of the country in the reader’s mind which is both impressive and intimidating, at the complete mercy of the elements. His writing evokes the sense of absolute claustrophobia that Ari Thor feels at being surrounded by snow and unable to escape, and the reader feels all of this with our protagonist. The book keeps you guessing until the end, culminating in a twist that I, for one, most definitely did not see coming.

This sophisticated piece of Icelandic Noir is perfect for curling up against a cold, dark evening. I’m looking forward to getting started on book 2 – Nightblind!

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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore Review

Well hello! Long time no speak… Since the time of my last blog post, I’ve gotten married, started a new job and jetted off for the most beautiful 2 weeks in Sri Lanka for our honeymoon. Now, we’re back and fully settled into married life, and I have been able to up my reading once more!

I’ve also had a think about what it is I wanted to focus on in this space. I am no beauty queen, I cannot afford to buy new clothes every week, and I don’t feel like I can (or want to) write faithfully about these subjects any more. What I can do, however – and do frequently – is read. Buy books. Add to an ever-increasing TBR list and a Kindle that’s bursting with un-reads. I have an inability to walk past a bookshop without popping in ‘for a browse’ and coming out with a volume I just couldn’t leave behind. Going forward this blog will focus on books: my reviews of them, the books I want to read, general chatter and reflection. So, brew up a cuppa, get cosy in your reading chair and have a read of the first review of 2017: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan.

Book Blind Dates 

I had been desperate to read this book for SUCH a long time! In November, I was at an event at the Biscuit Factory in Ouseburn and happened to walk past their pop-up Forum Books shop (sheer coincidence…ahem). There was a huge basket of ‘blind date’ books just staring at me, and after much deliberation, I picked up this unassuming brown paper package all tied up with string:

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How could you say no to that description?! Turns out I couldn’t, and I was so pleased when I unwrapped it to find Mr Penumbra looking back at me. (Also, on a side note – get yourself along to the Biscuit Factory. Art and books and a lovely coffee shop!)

The Review 

I have often thought that what I needed in my life was a 24 hour bookshop, so of course this book caught my eye! I also love books about books, and bookshops. Sloan’s writing is free-flowing, easy and very engaging; and it’s easy to lose, say, the best part of a day getting completely absorbed in this book. It’s also a funny read, without trying too hard at it. From the moment Mr Penumbra stepped from the shadows and asked Clay Jannon:

“What do you seek in these shelves?” 

I was hooked.

The book follows our protagonist Clay as he joins Mr Penumbra’s bookstore as the night clerk. A strange and mysterious place, frequented by a host of rather eccentric individuals and not many other visitors, it doesn’t take Clay long to stumble upon the bookshop’s secret and get pulled into a whole other world: a place of old books, e-books, and the battle between, and integration of; old and new. With Google alongside ancient texts and coding alongside catalogues, this book is just fun. It made me want to learn to code and write a book and buy a bookshop all at once. I read it in two sittings.

I enjoyed the characters who grace the pages of MP24HB – (it’s a long title to type out!) – in my mind, Penumbra was an eclectic combination of Dumbledore, Gandalf, Merlin from The Sorcerer’s Stone and my own Grandad. Clay is the unlikely hero alongside a modern-day (Google) wizard Kat; and the bookshop patrons are lovable in their quirkiness.

This book also contains one of my favourite lines in literature:

“Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.”

Festina Lente, friends – enjoy!

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Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

It’s been a long time (a good few months!) since I did a book review, and I’ve read so many good books since then that I’m going to have to start writing!

On a visit to Oxford back in March; my friend took my into Blackwell’s bookshop. It is an AMAZING place. Books sprawl over several floors and the Norrington Room is like the library every book lover wishes they had. I could have spent hours in there.

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As it was, we only had a little while to look around, so after a brief wander I settled on buying ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ by Chris Hadfield. Hadfield shot to worldwide fame in 2013 when his version of ‘Space Oddity’ recorded on the ISS was released on YouTube. His career as an astronaut spanned 21 years and during that time he has become the first Canadian to walk in space and the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. Not a bad career path eh!

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My purchase did not disappoint. Hadfield’s writing flows smoothly and openly, with plenty of humour and sarcasm thrown in for good measure. It’s an easy and engaging read; and I’d encourage you all to read it at once!

Chris’s book roughly follows his life, from 9 year old boy watching the first moon landing on TV to his final space flight in 2013.It is full of tips, techniques and methods of thinking that can, and should, be applied in everyday life on earth. There are lots in there, so I have plucked out my favourite take-aways below.

1) Attitude 

In space; attitude is the orientation of your vehicle relative to the sun. You must keep adjusting your attitude to make sure you don’t stray from your course, lose control and spin out. On earth; the same rule applies. You can’t control all the variables around you in life; but you can control your attitude towards them and the attitude that takes you through your journey. If a variable changes; change your attitude in line with it. Changing your attitude is a much better outcome than being disappointed in your destination.

2) Work the problem

‘Working the problem’ is astronaut speak for working through every possible decision tree for solving your problem, until you reach the one that presents you with a solution. The message here is that rather than stressing out about the issue that’s thrown itself in your way; you should take a breath, step back and calmly work through your options for dealing with it. Did you ever see an astronaut have a me,t down because something went wrong?…….fair enough, they have many many years of training to get them to that point, but the concept still applies 😉

3) The power of negative thinking

I’m sure that most people will at some point have heard of the term ‘visualisation’ – the practise of picturing yourself achieving that goal you’ve been working towards for so long. You see yourself getting that promotion, winning that race, writing the bestselling novel; picture all the positive steps that it is going to take to get you to that goal…..and then you stop. What happens afterwards? What happens if your master plan does not, as is so often the case; go entirely to plan?

Col. Hadfield is a big advocate of the power of negative thinking. What’s the point of not preparing for things going wrong? As part of an astronaut’s training, they will go through countless simulations, or sims, to learn how to prepare for things taking a wrong turn – or as Chris puts it ‘what’s the next thing that could kill me?’ (when you’re hurtling upwards into the atmosphere at however many thousands of miles an hour things are a little more extreme!). His confidence comes from always preparing for the worst, and planning how to avoid it.

4) Aim to be a zero

This particular takeaway was possibly the the piece of advice that resonated with me the most. I’m sure there are many in the corporate world who have watched a new team member or manager join the company and immediately sweep through making changes without a real understanding of the current dynamics or the impact those changes will make. In Hadfield’s opinion; you can either be a zero, a plus one or a minus one.

If you’re a zero; you have no positive or negative impact on a situation. You are neutral. You don’t make life more difficult for the people you’re working with, you don’t excel or have a positive impact either.

A minus one is pretty self explanatory…..you are having a negative impact on the situation. Your actions are perhaps not well thought out and rather than providing solutions, you are creating problems.

A plus one is, obviously, the ultimate goal. Everyone wants to be a plus one, to be actively contributing to your situation in a positive manner. But becoming a plus one takes time, and work, and patience. If you waltz into a situation trying to prove how much of a plus one you are; the likelihood is that people are going to perceive you as a minus one, regardless of the skills or the ability you are bringing to the table.

In a new situation, be it a new job or a volunteering or just helping someone out, always aim to be a zero – you’ll eventually be viewed as a plus one without ever having to tell people that you are.

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There are so many positive pieces of advice in the book that I couldn’t possibly list them all here (though you could easily fill a fair few blog posts with them all) – all I can say is that this book is absolutely, definitely worth a read. And that I hope Chris Hadfield signs up for some talks in the UK sometime soon! In the meantime, I will be watching the below TED talk if you need me 😊

Books on my Hot List for 2015

Following on from my review of my favourite books of 2014; today’s post is a run down of (some of) the books on my reading list for 2015.

I am one of those people that cannot walk past a bookshop without going in ‘just for a browse’ and walking out with at least one book (normally 2 or 3, let’s be honest) to add to the stack of books on the bedside cabinet. It’s already so high that it almost blocks the light from my bedside lamp! So it is probably safe to say that this isn’t a comprehensive list and there will be additions over the year – another 11 books with my book group; for a start!

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On my list currently, in no order of preference, are:

The Bookshop Book – Jen Campbell

How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan (January’s book group read)

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

Late Fragments – Kate Gross

Yes Please – Amy Poehler

The stand-outs for me from the list above are ‘How to be a Woman’, which I’m halfway through now and loving; and ‘Late Fragments’ which I bought after listening to a Woman’s Hour interview with the author’s mother. Kate Gross was a charity CEO, who died on Christmas Day last year after a battle with colon cancer. The interview really caught my attention – her mother spoke so openly about her achievements, her illness and her approach to her terminal illness, and Kate sounded like such a brilliant figure. When I got home from work that day I immediately ordered the book.

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I can think of many others I would like to read as well – Not That Kind Of Girl by Lena Dunham, The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey……so many books, so little time!! I would love to develop a little reading nook in our house this year as well – we’ll see what James will let me get away with 😉

I suppose I had better go and get settled with one of these beauties, then – I have a lot to get through!

Happy reading

Steph x

Top Books of 2014

I am a major bookworm. I always have a big pile of books on my bedside cabinet, and am forever guilty of buying 3 new books when I’m still in the middle of the current one.

I’ve read some good books and some not so good books over the course of 2014 – here is a run down of my favourites!

***Disclaimer*** The following is just a mash up of my opinions on these particular books – I am no expert, nor do I wish to cause offence to anyone who may not agree with me! All interpretation is personal 🙂 Happy reading!

My favourite books of 2014: The Goldfinch, The Secret History, The Shock of the Fall, No and Me, The Fault in our Stars, Eat and Run, Lean In, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul.
My favourite books of 2014: The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, The Secret History, The Goldfinch, The Shock of the Fall, No and Me, The Fault in our Stars, Eat and Run, Lean In.

1) The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul – Deborah Rodriguez (RRP £7.99, Waterstones)

I wouldn’t normally go for a book like this, which I guess you could technically classify as ‘chick lit’ – however; this book is set in a part of the world that I am very unfamiliar with, and that I want to know more about. The book tracks 5 women of various backgrounds whose central connection is a coffee shop in Kabul city. The author lived in Kabul herself and this gives the book a genuine feel – cultural references run throughout the story and, while the book is easy to read; you can never fully relate to the struggles and issues faced by the women in this story. Deborah Rodriguez also wrote ‘Kabul Beauty School‘ which I think will probably be on my list of books to read for 2015!

2) The Secret History – Donna Tartt (RRP £8.99, Waterstones)

This was the first book I read with my book group; and I must say they started me off with a good one! The novel follows an elite group of classics students at a university in Vermont. Narrated by Richard Papen, an outsider who finds himself drawn into the group; the novel tracks their questionable moral behaviour which leads to a shocking conclusion.

I won’t go into details of the plot too much as I don’t want to spoil it. However, what I will say is that the writing is excellent and Tartt does a great job at pulling you in to the story; making you as an outsider feel like you are being given access to a thrilling, secret and exclusive world of the Greek Classics students. It is dark and clever, and will make you question your own morals as well as the story unfolds and you find yourself attached to the characters.

Read it. You won’t regret it.

3) The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt (RRP £8.99, Waterstones)

Once I had finished The Secret History, I immediately went out and bought The Goldfinch. This is Tartt’s second novel and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014. The novel tracks the life of the protagonist, Theo Decker, who having survived a disaster at age 13 clings to a small painting, The Goldfinch, which draws him into a world of crime and deceit.

The Goldfinch is a somewhat thicker tome than The Secret History; but I think it is my favourite of the two. It very quickly draws you in to Theo’s world and the dangerous circles he becomes involved in. It may be long but it is definitely worth the read!

4) The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer (RRP £7.99, Waterstones)

I really loved this book. Written by a qualified mental health nurse, this book follows the descent of the protagonist into mental illness following a tragic accident during his youth. It is simple and open, easy and quick to read, and a little bit heartbreaking.

5) No and Me – Delphine de Vigan (RRP £6.29, Amazon)

A friend gave me this book about 3 years ago, and it sat in my little (well, alright, large) pile of books until this summer. The story is about a young French girl who befriends a homeless girl as part of a school project. After the project is complete, Lou persuades No to come and live with her and her family.

6) The Fault in our Stars – John Green (RRP £7.99, Waterstones)

I guess this one needs little introduction – this book went viral earlier this year and has since spawned a pretty popular film, too. I can’t say I really rated the film that much, but I did enjoy the book – I think I even shed a tear. It’s easy reading and pulls at the heartstrings. It’s a sad and horrible truth that people both young and old the world over are battling cancer; and though the characters may be fictitious it’s awful to think that someone so young could succumb to this awful disease.

7) Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness – Scott Jurek (RRP £8.99, Waterstones)

As you will have heard if you’ve read my blog previously, I am a fan of a bit of running. I bought this book for James for Christmas last year and once he had finished with it I had a sneaky read.

Scott Jurek, for those who do not know, is an American ultramarathon runner; and has won almost all of the elite ultrarunning races around. I have run marathons in the past, and that is tiring enough, so I find it difficult to comprehend how someone can run (and win) a race such as the Western States 100. If you read it, be careful – you might come away vegan (as happened to one of the guys at our running club) or seriously considering running an ultra…..hhmmmm maybe later eh 😉

8) Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead – Sheryl Sandberg (RRP  £8.99, Amazon)

I am very much enjoying the third wave of feminism that is going on at the moment. Sheryl Sandberg is COO of Facebook and presented an extremely popular TED talk in 2010 on ‘Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders’. If you have watched this, you will already be familiar with her messages. Lean In is full of mind boggling statistics regarding equality in the workplace, women’s opinion of themselves and their own abilities to lead, and lead change. I found this book inspiring and extremely relevant to the stage I am currently at in my career. Definitely worth a read for both men and women alike. Pick up a copy…..and remember to sit at the table.

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Next time I’ll be reviewing my top books to read in 2015 – if you have any suggestions, please do let me know!

Thanks for reading 🙂

Steph x