Just Eat It -Laura Thomas

Like most people I have spent the Christmas period enjoying all the food and drink that the season has to offer. In my defence I was working in an incredibly busy city centre book shop (even busier than my usual store as I spent seven weeks working in Leeds rather than rather quieter Bradford) and calories were, on the whole, needed. They possibly shouldn’t have been in the form of Quality Street and crisps but I did eat some carrot batons too. Smothered in full-fat dip. And followed by my own seasonal favourite – shortbread. As I said this is the general eating pattern for many people, particularly in that rather unreal week between Christmas and New Year, and it is the reason why every shop in the country starts in January with both a sale (to get rid of all the mince pies and Christmas puddings before their sell-by dates) and a New Year, New You campaign…I personally don’t want a new me (the old one is pretty darn fabulous in my opinion) but I know that a lot of folk want some guidance, support or just plain kicking up the bottom so I thought I would try one of this year’s offering. I didn’t fancy going on a strict diet or committing to running every day (and we’ve already decided to reduce our alcohol consumption drastically in January) so I decided to read about intuitive eating.

40860689The basic principles of intuitive eating seem to make a lot of sense – reject a mentality which insist you should diet, understand your own body and when it is both hungry and full, understand what shape and size your body is healthy at (rather the size you are told it should be) and to try to deal with the feelings which lead to emotional eating in a non-food-based way. Even better they are things I generally do anyway although I have tried ‘proper’ diets in the past. I suspect these principles could be tricky for some though – as Thomas and many of the experts she quotes point out there is an ever increasing pressure on women, in particular, to be thinner, to conform to certain standards of beauty, to be unsatisfied with who they are. I’m not saying I’m immune to these pressures but I’m not a young girl anymore: I don’t expect to look like a teenager or a model. In fact I would say that this is my only criticism of the book – while every effort is made to address the difference that gender, race, social standing, education and income can make to intuitive eating very little is said about age. One brief mention of the fact that older women may naturally have a slowing metabolic rate. That was about it. I’m a little more concerned about the fact that most women in their fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond have not only been exposed to unrealistic body-image demand for decades and can easily spend as much time on social media as their younger sisters. We don’t want to be fat, we want to look as good as Jane Fonda does in her eighties, we want to pretend we are still young and I don’t feel that this book spoke to us in the same way it will speak to younger women. And that’s a shame as we can be as invested in the diet industry and the ideals of female attractiveness as anyone in their twenties.

That aside this was an interesting read and gave me plenty to think about in terms of how I think about food, the diet industry and my own body. It gives what seems to me to be sensible advice (obviously, since I already seem to do a lot of the things suggested) and is a good alternative to the restrictive, raw food, clean-eating, usual suspects. It may not suit everyone but I would say it is worth a look.

Jane

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2018 – that was an interesting year….

I’m not very good at ’round-up’ posts and I’m the worst at summing up an entire year. I set my Goodreads challenge target at 100 for the year and I’m just starting my 103rd book of the year – I obviously enjoyed some more than others but I’m not sure I can highlight many favourites. Its like they’re all my children and a good parent doesn’t have a favourite….Luckily, I’m not a good book-parent and I’m fairly certain I can find a few to single out for a special mention. I may not be that coherent though – it is New Year’s Eve and I am currently riding a wave of chocolate, lemsip and Christmas bath smellies. It can only get worse when we crack open the actual alcohol so here goes!

Series of the year – Winterwitch Trilogy by Katherine Arden

I began the year by picking up book 2 of the series, realising my mistake, starting at the beginning and then going straight on to the second volume. Too often I read only the first in a trilogy – not because it isn’t good but because I have so many other things I want to read that I’m scared to commit to a series. With these stories I just had to know what happened next to the characters, to the world they inhabited and to the love story which unfolded. A fabulous combination of Russian folklore, magic, romance and thrilling adventure I was thrilled to get hold of a copy of the final book before its publication in early 2019. This is not just my favourite series of the year but, I think, it has become one of my all-time top tips.

Non-history non-fiction – Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

9780224098854Looking through my 102 books so far a large amount of the non-fiction was history. No surprise really, given how much I like history, but there was some science writing, politics and the new Matt Haig all of which would have been contenders for the top spot if it hadn’t been for Lucy Mangan. I’d long been a fan of her Guardian columns (and one of the few things I really miss now I don’t get a physical newspaper at the weekend) and was always particularly fascinated by the tales of her childhood and her, um, unusual family. Bookworm explores that childhood, and her family, through the books that she read as a youngster. It seems we read many of the same books and many of those I hadn’t experienced yet have gone on the to-read list but the true glory of the book is her childhood joy (which continued into her adult life) in how books can help to escape from and cope with reality. And talking of children’s books….

Children’s book – Pages & Co by Anna James

32946432This is the sort of children’s book which, if it had been published a year or so earlier, I suspect would have featured heavily in Mangan’s book. The tale of a lonely young girl who finds an escape in the world of books and stories which then becomes a rollicking adventure (just like the best sort of children’s book does). I loved the fact that it features one of my all-time favourite characters (Alice, of course) but I was particularly pleased to find that she was just as cantankerous and awkward as the Carroll Alice and not Disney sweet. Even better this is the first book in a series and this is one that I will be following with interest.

History – Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd

34594504The history I have read this year has covered the Romans, all of German history from prehistory onwards, Yorkshire and the whole of the British Isles through historic sites but the one that has struck me most is one that covers a few decades in, mostly, one European country. Of course when those are the 1920s, 30s and early 40s in Germany, through the rise of the Nazi party. This book is a fascinating look at how a society of perfectly normal people can begin to accept small wrongs, until we look back and see how far from acceptable behaviour the German people moved in a few short years. Told from the point of view of visitors to the country of all ages and backgrounds it certainly get you thinking about modern politics and where they could be heading.

Forgotten classic – Windyridge by Willy Riley

A book I only discovered when it was referenced in the history of Yorkshire mentioned above, Windyridge is a charming early twentieth century novel of rural Yorkshire life. It is very much like Cranford or Lark Rise to Candelford but with a Bradford accent and it seems surprising that it had virtually disappeared without trace until it was revived by a local publisher nearly ten years ago. It doesn’t gloss over all the problems of small communities but shows that there are still good folk around amongst all the wrong ‘uns and, of course, there is a glorious backdrop!

Fiction – The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes by Ruth Hogan

39860004This was the hardest choice to make. Not just because I read more fiction than any other sort of book but because I read some fabulous stories this year. Honorable mentions need to go to Kit de Waal’s Trick to Time – heartbreaking and moving – and Sal by Mick Kitson, which was the chilling and darkly beautiful story of a young girl rescuing her sister from a potential abuser. Rules of Seeing by Joe Heap was a thrilling debut by a Bradford lad (even if he has decamped to London) and City of Sinners was the next explosive adventure of Harry Virdee. With the added bonus of having scenes set in my place of work. In science fiction I read epic fantasy, the continuation of a favourite series and even proper space opera. But Sally Red Shoes is the one I find myself recommending to anyone who enjoys a story which brings a tear to your eye before restoring your total faith in humanity – who doesn’t want that? Really?

These are just a few of this year’s reading highlight – I’m looking forward to leaping into the 2019 schedules without any delay. Well, maybe a brief pause at midnight for Auld Lang Syne and fireworks…

Happy New Year!

Jane

 

The Night Before The Night Before Christmas – Kes Gray and Claire Powell

Well, the big day is nearly here. All the shopping is done, the mince pies made (eaten and then made again), the gifts are wrapped and the festive music is playing. If you are really lucky this will be the first time in December that you’ve heard Wham’s Last Christmas – if not, well, the halls of Whamhalla are warm and friendly. If you don’t work in retail* or the emergency services you are probably looking at a week or so off work: if you have children you are looking at a week or so of keeping them occupied. The Christmas toys, games and television schedules may keep them busy for a while but a good book can help. A book by Kes Gray (author of Oi Frog! Oi Cat! and other assorted Ois!) will help enormously…

9781444939231The Night Before the Night Before Christmas is a bright, bouncy rhyming tale of Santa’s preparations for the most important night of his year. There are toys to make (ten BILLION of them) and wrap, reindeer to get into shape and a sleigh to get through an air worthiness test. No time to sleep or eat and lots to worry about – but what is it that Santa has forgotten?  Children will love the story, the lovely and detailed illustrations by Claire Powell and the denouement. Adults will certainly identify with Santa’s sense of urgency and never-ending to-do list. The combination of the two should make this a favourite book for December storytimes for years to come…

Jane

*It is hard work but, in that week before Christmas, it is the most enjoyable job in the world!

Inside the Villains – Clotilde Perrin

I do love December in the bookshop. I enjoy how busy we are, helping customers find just the right present and the non-stop chocolates (the only way I keep going through the month…) but it does present me with a few problems. I do still have time to read (there is always time for me to read) and, in fact, this year I have extra time as I have been commuting through to Leeds for a month or so on secondment but finding time to blog has been tricky. I’m always jealous of people who can get around to doing their ‘top 10 books of the year’ or ’20 gifts to suit everyone you know’ – far too much thought involved for me! I may take the chance at the end of the month to round-up the year (or I may be in a post-Christmas food coma, we shall have to see…) but I don’t guarantee it. But I have had time to check out a few books for younger readers (which I may, or may not, have read through before wrapping them up as Christmas gifts) which have caught my eye as I’ve been bookselling to the good people of Leeds. One such book is Inside the Villains by Clotilde Perrin.

9781776571987I don’t know about you but in many books (and films and tv shows) the villain is often the most interesting character. Not the one you like the most but the one you have most questions about: why are they as villainous as they are? what will they do? will they get away with it? This seems particularly true of children’s books – I thought Aslan was interesting but the White Witch was the one who really fascinated me – so a book about some of the greatest baddies of fairy tales sounded like an excellent idea. Three archetypical anti-heroes are featured – the Wolf, the Giant and the Witch – with ingenious paper sculptures (they are way too involved to just be called pop-ups) showing what happens under their surface. Fold-out pages for each of the three also gives you their strong and weak points, a list of the stories they appear in and a telling of one of those tales. You just couldn’t get that kind of detail for Snow White or Tom Thumb! A book to treasure (if the grown-ups can bear to part with it and hand it over to the youngsters…)

Jane

 

Someone Like Me – M R Carey

I really enjoyed M R Carey’s sort-of-zombie novels, Girl With All The Gifts and Boy on the Bridge, but was already aware that he was certainly not a one trick pony. As well as zombies (or sort-of-zombies) he has also written thought-provoking psychological thrillers with a hint of the supernatural. His latest book definitely falls into this category.

9780356509464Liz Kendall is doing okay. Like everyone else these days she sometimes has to make sacrifices to meet unexpected bills but she gets by and enjoys her job working in a cinema, she has a homely little apartment and good friends and two wonderful children (who she would give her life for). Now that she has divorced her abusive, manipulative ex-husband she only has to see him when he drops the kids off after their visits. Everything should be great – but this time, Marc (the ex), decides that Liz deserves to be beaten for daring to complain that he has returned the children much later than agreed. As he is attempting to throttle her – he really does seem to mean to kill her – she seems to find the strength from deep within herself to strike back with a broken bottle. But, it soon becomes clear, this strength may not have come from Liz herself but from some other entity inside her mind.

This is a tense and, at times, terrifying story: not the oddly supernatural slant so much but the domestic violence, the physical and psychological abuse and also the secondary plot featuring a young girl who is still traumatised, ten years on, by her kidnapping at the age of six. Although I called this a psychological thriller it is not what many would expect from the genre. This is far more Sarah Pinborough than Paula Hawkins and goes far beyond the kind of ‘normal’ abnormal psychologies we usually see.  Carey’s flair for looking at established genres from an unusual angle continues.

Jane

Some modern day parables…

I’m not much of a one for the bible but I am familiar with most of the best known stories: Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah’s ark and so on. When it comes to the New Testament, however, the famous parts are all parables – simple stories used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons – involving loaves and fishes, Good Samaritans or lost sheep perhaps. These are often some of the first stories we can recall – it seems that it is one the clearest ways to get a point across is to use a story with a strong moral message – so it is no wonder that this kind of story is still popular. Mostly in the form of children’s books but, sometimes, also in collections of stories for older readers.

Roar – Cecelia Ahern

39218412This is a collection of stories about women in all kinds of situations which seem familiar. They are mothers, daughters, wives and workers – they are us. Although they are all nameless, all being referred to as ‘the woman who…..’, they are all oddly familiar: the woman who slowly disappeared, the woman who thought her mirror was broken, the woman who was pigeonholed. The themes are ones that most modern women will recognise: women who are unhappy with their bodies, women who find that aging has made them less important than before or women who feel that they are least important members of their families. Some of the stories can seem, at first, a little obvious but I did wonder if that was because I’ve been thinking about inequalities between the sexes for over forty years now. In many ways this would make this a good collection for younger women and men – who, although they may be aware of some aspects of inequality, may not know how things change for women when age, ethnicity or class are taken into account.

Don’t think that this means these stories are preachy or dull. They certainly aren’t – they are funny, subversive and, at times, moving. The joy of short stories is that you can dip in and out, skipping ahead to stories you think sound more appealing than others: this was a collection that I read straight through, missing out nothing.

The Little Snake – A.L. Kennedy

38313027When I was thinking about the introductory paragraph to this post I did consider the difference between parables and fables. After extensive research (two whole internet articles……) it appears the difference is animals: parables feature humans, fables have animal protagonists. Which is why it took me a little while to decide which category A.L. Kennedy’s novella, The Little Snake, was in: the main characters are Mary, who we first meet as a young child, and Lanmo, a beautiful golden snake who moves as fast as thought and, it seems, is there to witness death. I decided that death-witnessing snakes were people too (well, Lanmo certain is) so this book is an extended parable.

Mary is a little girl living in an unspecified but not entirely perfect city. The city is lovely – there are flowers and kites flying – but there is great inequality and Mary has just a tiny patch of rooftop garden to play in. It is there she first meets Lanmo, who is golden, beautiful and clever. He is, however, a snake and thinks Mary should be afraid of him: she is young and fearless and has not yet learned to be scared. They become good friends and learn much from each other. The snake, whose role in the world is to present at the time of death, learns love and respect for humanity (well, some of it – he retains the right to notice those who don’t deserve such love or respect…) and Mary has to learn that her world isn’t as safe and wonderful as she thought. But she also learns that Lanmo will always love her (even though he has to share her love with, first, her family and, later, with a boy. When the city becomes too dangerous for Mary to live in Lanmo returns to guide her to safety.

This is a lovely book which reads as if The Little Price had been reimagined for adult readers. Mary is a loving and innocent child who is battered by a cruel world but retains her inner beauty. Lanmo is a wise cracking witness to inevitable death who absorbs some of Mary’s essential humanity. We, hopefully, gain both wisdom and compassion from their story.

Jane

 

 

The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert, Aged 19 Going on 91 – David M Barnett

Every now and then news stories show up in fiction. I’m not talking about the big political stuff, the wars, Brexit and terrorism – they are and always will be part of serious, contemporary novels – but the feel-good stories that come at the end of the bulletin. The animal stories, the charity fund-raisers and lots of nostalgia – they all make for books with an interesting angle. In the last couple of years there have been articles about nurseries being based in retirement homes, and even a tv series on the same theme, but one of the earliest stories concerned students sharing an accommodation block with pensioners. Considering the fact that David Barnett is a journalist it should come as no surprise that he has picked up on these stories.

9781409175100Jennifer Ebert is a student who needs to change universities (no spoilers, but photos from a truly disastrous night out mean she is never going anywhere near her old campus again) and the only accommodation available is in Sunset Promenade, a residential home for the elderly.  The home is being run by two brothers, in memory of their mother, on a shoestring and with hand-picked residents: although when we meet some of them we wonder why they were picked. There are also four students making their home there, as an experiment and in an effort to get some extra funding, Jennifer (who has decided to live her life as if she were in a Film Noir), John-Paul (known to all as Ringo because he is, after all, from Liverpool) and two Chinese students (a very sharp young lady and a rather shambling lad who she keeps calling stupid).

Jennifer makes friends with one of the residents, the rather smart and glamorous Edna Grey, and the unlikely group start to learn to live together. In fact Jennifer starts a film group for the home – showing films made by her grandfather, unseen for years – and all goes well (or as well as it can with only one member of staff, the long-suffering Florin, and a group who are variously needy, rude and downright reactionary) until items start to go missing and the group start to wonder how ell they really know each other. Add in the fact that the home’s owners are in financial difficulties and it becomes apparent that all is not rosy at Sunset Promenade.

If you read Barnett’s last book you’ll be expecting the blend of humour and heartbreak but if you haven’t be prepared for something rather special. Bittersweet and though-provoking – perfect for fans of Eleanor Oliphant, Hendrik Groen et al.

Jane