Posted in Reading Life

A Different Look at Love

This year Valentine’s Day is going to be a little different. I keep hearing it everywhere, especially on adverts trying to sell us goodies for a ‘stay at home’ Valentine’s Day. I have a strange relationship with holidays that expect us to do certain things (I refer to New Years Eve as ‘enforced jollity’) and Valentine’s Day is no different. At the very least I like my loved one to have a card on the day, somewhere I can write how much I love my partner in my own words. Other than that I’d rather we bought each other something we love – a book will be much more appreciated than a cliched gift, or we try and get something that’s more about our relationship and the in-jokes we have. He’s always called me ‘Wonder Woman’ because of what I manage despite my MS, so I have some lovely Wonder Woman Converse trainers and he has a Lego Wonder Woman who sits on his bedside table. Often we wait for a cheaper week to buy flowers and I really don’t do red roses. This year will be stranger than most because it’s the week we’re moving house. This year he has a framed print for the new house – two bumble bees, with tiny suitcases moving into their new home. I’m getting flowers when we’ve moved in so I can really enjoy them.

This year, what’s on my mind is that many people might be spending the day alone. When social media is full of people showing their cards and flowers, how hard must it be for those living alone or those recently separated or bereaved. I think the message of Valentine’s Day-to love each other- needs broadening to include other relationships. Love between friends, family, even the bond we have with our pets, all are very important to appreciate and not just because we’re in lockdown. We should appreciate this love all of the time. It might be nice this year to drop a card in the postbox to an elderly grandparent, a friend whose shielding or an Aunty whose just been divorced – they all need it. My life has been quite motivated by love and I was surprised to find my reading is too. I checked my Goodreads for last year, and I was so surprised to see how many were categorised as romance. Today though, in line with my thinking about Valentine’s Day – I thought I’d feature some books that are a bit unusual and are less of a conventional romance.

This book is the latest from a favourite writer of mine, Elizabeth Haynes. It’s probably the most conventional romance in my list, but it’s not just about two people. A love story between Rachel, who has run away from life, and Fraser who is hiding from his past. Yet, for me, the biggest character -that both people fall in love with-is the rugged landscape of the Isle of Must. At first Rachel wonders if she’s made a huge mistake, the island is bleak and rough. However, as the spring comes, it spreads its magic. Rachel falls in love with the island’s beauty; body and soul. I love that although this is a love story, it’s so much more than that. It’s a woman’s awakening into what her soul needs and who she really is at this point in her life. Fraser is an embodiment of the landscape, rugged and forbidding, until he too starts to reconcile with himself. Simply beautiful.

I absolutely loved this beautiful novel and I was totally wrong footed by it as well, because this is one book that really pushes the philosophy that there are many different types of love. Dannie has a very strict five year plan and goes after what she wants. With this focus she is now in the perfect apartment in the right part of Manhattan. She has secured the job she always wanted, and is engaged to the perfect man. So she’s shocked by a dream she has, that in five years time she is with a different man, in a loft apartment in a more ‘up and coming’ area. She’s also wearing a different engagement ring. She shakes off the dream, but it’s there in the back of her mind. Then, four and a half years later, she goes for a meal with her best friend Bella. Bella is Dannie’s polar opposite, but despite this they’ve been friends for a long time. Bella would never have a life plan. In fact Dannie has sometimes worried that she’s a bit flakey. She’s a bohemian, go with the flow, sort of girl and has been resolutely single for years. Now she’s bringing someone important to meet Dannie, but to Dannie’s horror Bella’s dinner guest is the man from her dream. How can she avoid the destiny that seems to have been planned out for her? I adored this book. It’s a beautiful love story, but was far from the one I was expecting as I read. It made me think about soul mates and how that doesn’t necessarily mean our romantic partner. Love comes from many different places and isn’t necessarily what or who we expect. Heart rending and beautiful.

Don Tillman has decided it’s time for him to find a wife, and being a professor of genetics he decides to take a scientific approach. Surely if he comes up with a questionnaire, designed to eliminate women with the qualities he dislikes, he should find the one? However, one thing he knows for sure. It will definitely not be Rosie. Don believes Rosie is an applicant for his questionnaire, but she would fail on several counts. She smokes and drinks, is a vegetarian and can’t be punctual. Thankfully she’s there to ask for his help in finding her real father. To say Don is a bit socially challenged would be an understatement and this really is a laugh out loud funny book. Watching him struggle through meeting women is brilliant. He hasn’t realised that love has a language all of its own.

I do enjoy a bit of magic realism and that’s exactly what we get here from the incredible storyteller Patrick Ness. George Duncan is an honest, decent and good man. He lives by himself and could be said to have a lonely life. One night, he is disturbed by a noise outside and wakes up. When he looks outside there is a large crane in his garden, shot through the wing by an arrow. George is very moved by the bird’s plight and goes outside to help. When the bird flies away he feels a loss, not knowing that his life is about to be transformed. The next day, while working in his shop, he meets a customer he’s never seen before; mysterious, but kind woman, called Kumiko. A tentative friendship begins, then blossoms as Kumiko takes George on a journey through art and storytelling. They fall in love and together create beautiful pieces of art, stretching George’s ordinary life into something rare and fantastical. However, there’s a part of Kumiko he feels he hasn’t reached and he wonders whether this enigmatic woman has secrets. His need to know the the occasional secret side of her, may be his undoing. Can we love someone, knowing they are never just one set thing? Ness creates a beautiful fable here, but also a deep meditation on life itself.

“Love who you love while you have them. That’s all you can do. Let them go when you must. If you know how to love, you’ll never run out’.

Daniel has ‘the memory’, an ability to recall past lives and loves. It is both a blessing and a curse. Daniel has spent many lifetimes falling in love with Sophia across continents, dynasties and centuries. Each time they find each other, despite different names and appearances, and Daniel remembers every lifetime. Yet it is a love that’s always too short. For every time they come together, they are painfully torn apart again. In the present day, under the guise of Lucy. Sophia is awakening to the lover’s shared past, but just as she understands their strong attraction and familiarity they may be torn apart again. How can they confront what always pulls them apart and finally change their ending?

Douglas Kennedy has a real aptitude for writing about relationships and I’ve been a fan since his debut A Special Relationship. Here we meet Harry Ricks, down on his luck and running away from life. His career is in pieces after his boss slept with Harry’s wife then conspired to ruin him. He has a poor relationship with his daughter, who despises him. He takes a rash decision and flies off to Paris, where he books into a hotel and burns through any savings. He’s close to destitution when he gets a job as a night security guard. He’s guarding warehouses for a bunch of gangsters, but turns a blind eye to what happens inside. Just as life seems at its worst he meets Margit and is immediately enchanted by her. She’s a handsome woman rather than pretty, but incredible sensual and oozes sexual energy. She challenges his morals and the guilt he feels. Margit becomes his muse. He starts writing his novel in earnest – 1000 words a day – and he feels his masculinity being restored. She controls when he sees her, which only makes him want her all the more. People who have been looming over Harry’s life start to have nasty ‘accidents’. However, as with all seemingly perfectly arrangements, perhaps Margit isn’t all she seems to be. Atmospheric, addictive and an exceptional twist at the end.

Emma Donohue’s latest novel is an incredible piece of historical fiction, but is also a love story. Set in Ireland, just after WW1, Nurse Julia Powers works in a maternity unit. On the day in question she has been placed in charge of an isolation ward where expectant mums have ‘Spanish’ Flu. Julia is usually assisting a senior nurse, but today staff are so stretched that she’s in charge, with only volunteer helper Bridie Sweeney. Bridie says she’s had the flu and would be only too happy to help. What follows is a difficult, visceral and heart rending depiction of child birth in Ireland 100 years ago. So many bleak elements make up this story from the details of difficult births, to women from the Magdalene laundries, and exhausted women on their twelfth birth. This isn’t an easy read. Yet there is love: between the women supporting each other, the overwhelming love of a mother for a child (even where the child’s conception has been violent and traumatic) but there’s also romantic love too. The women work together and grow together, their feelings developing throughout the day towards a gloriously tender moment. These book shows us the consequences of love and the sacrifices women are prepared to make in love’s name.

Set in New York, this is a story of people losing and finding each other. Fourteen-year-old Alma Singer is trying to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Believing she might discover it in an old book her mother is lovingly translating, she sets out in search of its author. Across New York an old man called Leo Gursky is trying to survive a little bit longer. He spends his days dreaming of the love lost that sixty years ago in Poland inspired him to write a book. And although he doesn’t know it yet, that book also survived: crossing oceans and generations, and changing lives. . . We have a brilliant depiction of old age in Leo, and his recollections of his boyhood in Poland are wonderful. There are several narrative strands woven together by the author, all based around the book ‘The History of Love’ but it is Leo’s story of his childhood love from the years before the Nazis came that stayed with me. Written beautifully, in such poetic prose, this is as much about the power of stories as it is about the power of love. It seems that it’s those who have lost so much in love, who value it most highly.

This novel is probably my most conventional choice and one of my favourites from last year. It quite literally broke me when I finished it in the middle of the night. Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more. Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of her sister, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family. This is a wonderful depiction of married love, but also of familial love. Jennifer is torn between her love for her sister, her love for Ed and a mother’s love for her children. The way Ed supports Jen, and believes her when she says she can see Kerry, is a wonderful depiction of love and loyalty. I was so lost in this novel that I cried at the end.

Finally I want to give special mention to a book that spoke to me personally when I most needed it. It prompted me to do something that helped me through grief, when I lost the person I most loved in the world. I lost my husband in 2007, after a long illness, and I was utterly lost. Due to my caring role, I’d had no time for me or my own interests for a couple of years. I’d given up work and struggled to see friends. Jez couldn’t eat, drink, or even breathe without someone there 24/7. So after his funeral, I woke up one morning with all this time to fill and nothing to fill it with. I had lots of support but at the end of the day, when the door closed at night I was so alone. It wasn’t just me and Jez, but all the carers, Marie Curie nurses, and hospice staff who were with us all through the day – and four nights a week. I decided after a couple of months to get a dog and I found my cockapoo Rafferty a few weeks later. I collected him on New Years Eve and it was just in time. Suddenly that night I fell into a black pit of despair. I couldn’t bear entering a year where Jez didn’t exist. As the night wore on I felt so black that I had I not had my little bundle of fur next to me I might have taken drastic action. I started to write a memoir a couple of years later and that was when mum gave me this book.

This is powerful memoir which mixes honest, personal revelation with literature, history, and inspirational self-help, Bel Mooney tells the story of her rescue dog, Bonnie, who in turn rescued Bel when her world fell apart with the all-too public break-up of her 35-year marriage. It really is a story of survival, and also one of love. This is an account of six years in Bel’s life, from when she first acquired Bonnie from a rescue home, through Bel’s years of personal heartbreak and disappointment, and on to the happiness which she has now found in a new marriage and a new life, with the Maltese at her side all the way. This is a book about transformation and change, about picking yourself up and attacking life in the way that a small dog will go for the postman’s trousers – and about celebrating life, much as your canine companion will always celebrate your return, even from the shortest trip. This is engaging, entertaining, full of personal anecdotes and deeply It takes you on an inspirational walk with one very small but very remarkable dog – a dog who represents all that is best about dogs, and about we humans too. I know that the love I have for my dog is one of the strongest feelings I’ve had. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching my partner and my stepdaughters fall in love with him over the last couple of years. He’s now a family dog and he’s bonded us in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I hope whatever loving relationships you choose to celebrate tomorrow, you have a lovely day. Valentine’s Day isn’t just for romantic love and we need all the celebrations we can get.

Me and Rafferty
Posted in Uncategorized

Why Do We Blog About Books?

Over the last year on Book Twitter and Bookstagram I’ve seen a lot of questions about being a book blogger and also a lot of assumptions. So I thought I’d write about how I ended up book blogging and why.

Ever since I was small I’ve loved reading and by the age of eight had finished the whole reading scheme at school and had started borrowing books out of the school library – Jane Eyre, Little Women, What Katy Did and Pippi Longstocking. I loved getting my work finished early so I could curl up in the beanbag, with the smell of books all around me, reading my latest find. I was also a pretty active little thing – I loved walking the family dog, playing netball and going on walking holidays with my family. Then, when I was ten, I broke bones in my back during a P.E class when I somersaulted and landed awkwardly. I took a long while to rehabilitate and it was mismanaged, leaving a long term disability that I still struggle with today. I had to adjust to a less active life so reading became even more important to me. When I was diagnosed with MS I had another period of rehabilitation in order to get back some of the function I’d lost in my first relapse – my dexterity and grip, the function of my left leg – and trying to improve my energy levels. I read an enormous amount and started to revive a dream I’d had since I was a little girl. I’d always wanted to write a book of my own.

In 2019 I made a decision to get some professional help with my writing. I’d seen an MA in Creative Writing and Well-being and thought it would force me to work on my own writing whilst also gaining a qualification I could use with my counselling clients. I trained as a counsellor to help others with MS and other long term disabilities and I started running journaling and creative writing courses to help people come to terms with the change in their lives in 2007. But I was scared and very under confident about my writing, so I thought I’d start a blog to build up my confidence and the thing I felt most comfortable writing about was books. I started on blogspot but then moved to WordPress just under a year ago ( blogiversary coming soon) with my blog The Lotus Readers. The name is a play on the Tennyson poem The Lotus Eaters – a group of mariners, who feed on the lotus leaves. The leaves put them into an altered state where nothing matters but the now, consequently they just lounge around and eat all day. It seemed perfect because I do nothing but lounge around and read all day!

One of the most common misunderstandings I come across is people assuming book bloggers get paid. I can’t speak for everyone but me, and the bloggers I know, don’t get paid for reviews or blog tours. I might get sent the book as either a digital ARC ( advanced reader’s copy) or a real proof posted out by the publisher. Quite often, if I’ve really enjoyed a book and would like a copy on my shelves I will buy the final edition when it’s published anyway. I have time to blog a lot because of my disabilities. I only work part-time if at all and I can spend a day here or there working on my blog. I started by reviewing books I’d read and enjoyed, then learned about NetGalley where publishers offer digital copies of upcoming books to generate early reviews. So I chose a couple of books on there and started reviewing those too. I was then introduced to the blog tour. This is where the publishers or a blog tour organiser asks bloggers to read a book then write a review on a specific date and publicise it on social media. This keeps the book visible on social media for anything from a few days (blog blitz) to a month. I was lucky enough to happen upon Anne Cater from Random Things Tours and she took me under her wing. I did a couple of book tours and a bit of networking with publicity editors and blog tour organisers and over the year things really have grown.

Another misunderstanding is about book post – you’ll have seen these photographs of people’s book mail and wondered how a blogger ends up with so many books for free. In truth most of the people you’ll see with piles of book mail have been blogging for ten years plus. It’s rare for a new blogger to be sent that many. I now have a good TBR pile, but it’s the result of a year of networking, doing blog tours, getting to know publishers, publicity assistants and other bloggers. I’m now signed up with a handful of blog tour organisers and I’m on the blogger lists with a few favourite publishers. I check Twitter for publishers offering proofs and competitions. This means I do get book mail most weeks but it can be counted on one hand. I’ve now reviewed over 200 titles on NetGalley too so I’ve got a better chance of being accepted for proofs digitally. Putting all of that together I have more than enough to be getting on with. What I’m trying to say is that, yes sometimes there are free books, but there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes to be known by publishing houses and blog organisers, in order to be sent proofs and then I have to read them and write about them. I always try to keep in mind that there’s no point taking more books than I can physically read. Plus, it’s important to remind myself that these book do get published and then they’re available to everyone. A great way to keep your blog growing and developing, is to make links with other bloggers. In my experience, they are friendly and very knowledgeable so you can make great friends who love books as much as you do and share tips and ideas with each other. I have a little ‘book squad‘ who are great at sharing when proofs are being offered and are a great personal support too. It’s a win win.

Of course there are downsides to blogging, as with any hobby that takes place online. You meet the odd strange person and there’s an element of book envy and friction about blogging versus Booktube or Bookstagram. In some ways detailed reviews are seen as the old age pensioner of the online book world. Personally, I think there’s room for all of us. People will gravitate to whatever suits them best. I hope people will always want detailed and enthusiastic reviews from someone who knows their literature. These downsides are by far outweighed by the positives. These positives are the reason I blog. I know a lot of people wonder why I would bother to spend a couple of hours everyday writing and then a few more hours reading the books I’m sent and the networking on social media. To some people it might seem like a lot of work for the odd free book. Firstly, I do it because I love reading and I love writing. I’m writing memoir in my MA and I do put a lot of myself into my reviews, especially when I’ve felt that special connection with a book or character. So it gives me practice in writing my story, seeing what parts of the story people respond to and gaining confidence in the art of life writing. When an author loves your review it’s the best feeling, and great friendships can come from these connections. Being approached by the publisher to quote your review on publicity material is pretty exciting too. I’ve even had offers of mentoring my creative work from authors which is so kind and shows a faith in me that I wasn’t even sure I had! Book Twitter is a lovely place to be most of the time. Mainly it’s the satisfaction of letting people know how special a certain book is. There’s no better feeling than recommending a book and people loving it. I can’t talk for other bloggers, but that’s why I do this. The joy of reading, the joy of writing and bringing that joy to others.

Posted in Book Haunts

Best Book Haunts – Barter Books Alnwick

Us bibliophiles always have favourite book haunts and I have them in all my favourite places. In fact, it’s rare for me to go on holiday in the U.K. without searching out a bookshop to visit. For me it’s part of the joy of going on holiday. Last weekend, me and my other half had a short stay in the beautiful village of Warkworth, Northumberland. We only had a three night stay so I had to edit what we would do; of course book shopping had to make the cut. As my fellow book lovers know, the best place to go for second hand books in this area is Barter Books in Alnwick.

In Country Living magazine, March 2020, a feature on Barter Books claimed that just as books transport us to another time and place, so can the best bookshops. Housed in the grand Victorian building of Alnwick’s train station, this is a bookshop the size of a warehouse! When I enter a bookshop I want the sense that time has stood still. Nothing going on outside matters in the time I spend browsing for books and whoever goes with me has to accept that we’re going to lose hours. Barter Books makes that easy because it’s such a spectacle inside. From the foyer full of paperback fiction, complete with a reading area by the fire, to the till area decorated with an incredible mural and working train set that whizzes around above your head, there’s so much to look at. The large room at the back houses huge shelves packed with books on every subject from cookery to psychology, and my particular favourite A-Z hardback fiction.

Glass cabinets running the length of the building house collector’s, first editions, and signed books. Here and there, large antique tables with comfy chairs allow you to take a break from browsing and look through your books before purchase. Next door, the station cafe serves brilliant breakfasts, snacks and cakes when you need an energy boost. I have lost whole days in this brilliant bookshop. This time I picked up a mix of paper and hard books that are new to me, a couple of books from the back catalogue of newly discovered authors and hardback copies of books I’ve had as a digital ARC or mobi file, but I’ve enjoyed them so much I need a proper copy. I have to set aside money for when I’m going up to Northumberland, everything else I do in my visit tends to be as simple as walking the dog on the beach and photographing beautiful places. So I can be sure of a little cash for books, even though I have no shelf room left.

This was one of my first trips out of the house since lockdown. We realised I hadn’t been in a shop since February. I have multiple sclerosis and a few breathing problems so I’ve had to be extra careful. This trip was incredibly daunting, I was surprised how anxious it made me feel to be near so many people when we stopped at motorway services. However, this trip to Barter Books was brilliant because customers were very well looked after without it being intrusive or alarming. For now, the coffee machine has gone from the reading area. But there was a hand cleaning station, a limited number of people in the store, everyone wearing masks and keeping their distance. In such a difficult and scary time, what I found most hopeful and reassuring was the queue of people wrapped round the station building waiting to go in. The book seller observed that it was amazing to see people willing to queue to get into a bookshop and I couldn’t agree more. We do use reading to escape, but we also use stories to make sense of our world and what’s happening within it. What a treat it is to have beautiful bookshops like this to enable that vital access to stories. If you’re in Northumberland do try to pay them a visit.

Me and my book haul.

https://www.barterbooks.co.uk/index.php

https://www.pressreader.com/uk/country-living-uk/20200301/281608127399702