My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.

What I read in March ~ 2020

March was a difficult month for me, for many reasons. But that’s why reading became even more important than usual, in providing perfect escapism.

We’re all probably finding we are reading more, or want to, due to isolation. It’s the perfect time to escape in a book! For me, there’s nothing better than sharing reading habits and recommendations, so give this a read if you are looking for some inspiration.

In just a few lines each, I am wrapping up what I read in March. What did you read in March? Let me know in the comments.

Supermarket, Bobby Hall (4/5)

Gripping, weird, and fast paced. The reader lives behind the mind of a protagonist who is a mentally unstable, aspiring writer. It explores themes of mental health and life as a young adult in a psychological thriller style. Ending with a shocking twist – I found this book brilliant, and subsequently, so underrated.

The Girl Who Reads on the Metro, Christine Féret-Fleury (5/5)

A glorious book about spreading the love of books. Follow Juliette, as she explores Paris and uncovers a unique, hidden bookshop in the city. She becomes a passeur, spending her time delivering books to people in the city who need them. Simple, but lovely.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (5/5)

Gordon is working in an advertising industry he despises, whilst trying to make it as a writer. He gives up this job to work in a bookshop and have more time to write. Will he make it? Orwell at his best – revealing, insightful and uplifting.

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (4/5)

Told through Thomas Cromwell, this is the Tudor story through a different perspective. Henry VIII is desperate to get an annulment for his marriage so he can pursue Anne Boleyn and provide a male heir to continue the Tudor line. Change and religious tension is on the rise and Cromwell is at the forefront. Fantastic!

How to Stop Time, Matt Haig (3/5)

Tom Hazard is over 400 years old. He has lived many lives but made endless sacrifices. Now, he just wants to settle down with those he loves. But can you, after 400 years? Cheezy and a bit cliche, but ends with a heart warming message. One way to stop time, is to simply stop thinking about it – and live.

Summary and thoughts

So my average rating for books I read in March was 4.2, I’m always a bit on the generous side anyway, but I did really enjoy all the books I read this month. I especially loved the Orwell and was pleasantly surprised by Wolf Hall, in not being a regular historical-fiction reader. How to Stop Time disappointed me somewhat, as I usually love Matt Haig’s writing and due to the good reviews, feel I should have liked it more. Nonetheless, it was a great reading month.

I’m starting off my reading for April with Hiroshima by John Hersey, in an attempt to read more non-fiction. As ever, I’m sure reading for the next month will be providing me with escapism and comfort in these weird and difficult times.

Happy reading! 🙂 And let me know if you end up reading any of these.

Monthly stats

Total pages read: 1,718

Total books: 5

Average rating: 4.2/5

Book Review: Wolf Hall

There is always something purely magical about historical-fiction and its ability to provide us with a world so different from our own.

As a history graduate; I have always had my qualms about it, in the sense that it can often obscure historical reality. A lot of what people know about history can often come from fictional adaptations like this, which is on the one hand worrying, when it is done badly, but reassuring when it is executed well. Wolf Hall, unreservedly belongs to the later.

Since it’s publication in 2010, it has opened up debate by creating discussions about the significance of Thomas Cromwell’s role. History, more often than not, is told by the victors and the Tudor story often features unrivaled focus and praise for Henry VIII alone. However, Mantel’s Wolf Hall, has posed the suggestion that Henry VIII was a mere figurehead for the plethora of minds that were running the country. It is through using the protagonist of Thomas Cromwell, that the reader realises there were many minds and characters behind Henry’s successes (and failures…).

Thomas Cromwell has been given a harsh judgement by many historians, however, this account is an incredible dive into the mind and life of one of history’s most notable statesmen, who came from humble origins.

Title: Wolf Hall

Author: Hilary Mantel

Publisher: Fourth Estate (2010)

Genre/topics: Historical Fiction, The Tudors, Henry VIII

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and the historical background

Mantel’s novel begins in 1500, when Thomas Cromwell was a mere boy, free from the responsibilities of being the mind that ran the country. Cromwell had a rough start in life which is often missed out from the history books. Son of a blacksmith, Cromwell was repeatedly physically abused by his father and had a rocky upbringing. However, this upbringing made him humble, and an extremely valuable negotiator who could empathize with every cause. These skills would soon be put to good use in later life.

The book documents Cromwell’s beginnings but then lurches forward to 1527. Henry VIII was comfortably sitting on the throne, alongside his wife, Catherine of Aragon. This is an England where Thomas More was the speaker of the House of Commons, where Cardinal Wolesy establishes Cardinal College in Oxford, and England are desperately struggling to establish peace with France. In 1525, peace between the two nations is agreed and the end of the year marks the beginning of the English Reformation, the de-tangling of the Church of England from the overbearing influence of Rome and the Catholic Church.

At the beginning of the book, before his death, Wolsey remained the King’s Chief adviser, and Cromwell was merely his assistant. However, after failed attempts to get Rome to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he falls out of favour and is stripped of his titles. This, and Wolsey’s unexpected death, becomes the perfect breeding ground for Cromwell rise to powerful prominence.

Thomas Cromwell’s family become decimated from the sweating sickness as it reaps through London, taking his wife and both his two children. However, this marks the beginning of Cromwell’s success as he becomes more recognized at the court of Henry VIII. Cromwell manages to help secure the annulment of Henry’s marriage so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who promptly gives birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth is not the desirable heir to the throne (being female), but history tells us this doesn’t get in her way.

This first installment documents the Act of Supremacy, whereby Henry VIII is recognised as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, thus breaking from Rome. There appears to be an element of calm in the final pages, perhaps signalling the calm before the inevitable storm that is to come. That storm, being the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn and everything that entails.

Review

BBC Adaptation of Wolf Hall. Image: Amazon.

This book had been sitting on my to read pile for a long time, ever since my Grandad had told me to read it many years ago. If you’re reading this Grandad, thank you for the recommendation, I’ve finally gotten round to reading it! I can see why you told me to read it.

Although it took me a while to get used to Hilary Mantel’s third person perspective, I really found myself enjoying this unique way of storytelling. The reader’s experience is completely told through the eyes and ears of Thomas Cromwell; every conversation, act, and event is told through his perspective. It is unforgiving, relentless but at the same time, fully immersive. The reader is trapped inside his mind, and his mind only, throughout the entire novel. For a long time, there is little mention of Henry VIII which I found quite amusing as he is traditionally at the center of most books! Henry would hate the fact that he isn’t the center of this story – but that’s partly why I loved it so much.

The use of this protagonist offers an unrivaled account, and an account of Tudor history that has never been told in this way in historical fiction. It is eye opening in its challenge of the way we view the traditional Tudor story and the components of the regime. In the crafting of this protagonist, Mantel strips Henry of his traditional prominence and gives the wheel to the man who was the real pioneer of his success – Thomas Cromwell.

Various historical dramas have put forward Henry VIII as the central character with his outlandish religious and foreign policy agendas. His women and countless affairs have been the focus of dramas such as The Tudors (2007), but Mantel’s version with the use of Cromwell, makes the reader think outside the box of prescribed history we are given. It puts forward the agenda that the underdogs of history were in fact the real makers of the Tudor story. For once, the Tudors are not told through endless monarchical sex and scandal, but intelligence, intrigue and dedication, shown through the experience of Cromwell himself. I appreciate this book just for this element alone, as it is so refreshing to see an author take on a new perspective that gives a voice to an individual who has been overlooked.

As well as this, the prose and writing is beautiful. It evokes an age so different from our own, but yet full of similarities. Throughout the novel are frequent bouts of sweating sickness and the plague, as well as political debates, religious changes and discussions about cultural upheaval. Every age has its own version of these debates, but featuring these so fully allows the reader to be transformed into this period. It is hard to read this work of fiction and not escape to an entirely different world. I felt deeply immersed, fully informed and endlessly fascinated by what was going on in the pages in front of me. I loved the experience of reading this book, as much I valued its unique perspective and beautiful prose.

I am not someone who often reads historical fiction, but this is exceptional. It is a work of perfection in every way. Granted, it took me a while to get the hang of the prose style, as it is something I have rarely ever come across, but it was nonetheless an essential component to the novel’s success. It was a little slow and unnecessarily ‘fluffy’ in some parts, considering the momentous period in history it covers, but never did I feel like it was a slog. It has made me re-assess my reading habits and think about reading more historical fiction in the future.

A great opener to the rest of the series. I can’t wait to read the others!

My top 3 Classics to get you through isolation

As our lives suddenly become filled with more empty hours it is the perfect time to read! Reading the classics can seem long and arduous compared to a quick page turner, however, now is the time. These are my top three classics I think are well worth reading! Let me know if you end up trying them.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane was never plain! Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a determined young woman who has had all the odds thrust against her. Published in 1847, the book immediately portrayed a new type of heroine. One that rose beyond her ranks and respectability, to try and pursue the man she loved..

Jane grows up in an orphanage and is exposed to endless childhood cruelty. However, she doesn’t let this shatter her pride or spirit. As a young adult she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester’s residence. Jane spends her time looking after the children there, all the while gradually falling in love with the mysterious Mr Rochester – she knows this is a type of forbidden love, due to her social standing. However, Jane naturally has an air of independent spirit thanks to her upbringing – this soon leads her into uncharted territory.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…”

Secrets start to haunt Thornfield Hall and all the while Jane is torn between staying there to be close to Mr Rochester, or leaving to pursue her own safety. Will she get to be with the man she loves?

A remarkable novel for its times, and one I loved reading very much. It is on the one hand, your classic, Victorian Gothic novel, but on the other hand, a complete re-working of its traditions. It’s a tale of an ordinary woman’s search for love and companionship and attempt to break down those traditional barriers. Never take for granted Charlotte Bronte’s use of a strong, female protagonist, it was way ahead of its times, and her execution is breathtaking.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

This may well be the ultimate American novel. Set during the disastrous American dust bowl phenomena, this novel follows the Joad family, in their struggle to make a living and stay afloat in troubled times.

The Dust Bowl refers to a series of storms that severely damaged the ecology of the Great American plains in the 1930s. Happening during the aftermath of The Great Depression (1929), it had long-lasting disastrous economic and social affects. Most importantly, it was not just an environmental disaster, but one that impacted the lives of many Americans who lost their agricultural lands and livelihood. Many Americans had to leave their homes in the search of a better life – and this was a promise that was more often than not, never fulfilled.

Told in blisteringly beautiful prose, Steinbeck outlines the many implications of the Dust Bowl and its influence on your average American family. The Joad family are forced from their homes to travel West in search of jobs and an income to feed themselves. Taking it day by day, the Joad family struggle to find enough to eat and make ends meet. The prose unreservedly describes the obliterated landscape as the family travels West, making it a reading joy, despite the troubled circumstances.

What becomes obvious throughout, is the falsehood of the American Dream and that great promise that if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. Steinbeck critiques this very ideal and thrusts to the forefront the very real struggles experienced by many American families during the 1930s, as they made their journey West in the hope of a promised future.

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Beautiful and harrowing, this is a must read and one that will stay with me forever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

A timeless classic which I’m sure is on many people’s favourite lists. Again, this novel does not shy away from critiquing the false promises of the American dream and that importance of wealth that has been emphasized throughout American history and culture. Wealth has often been heralded as the one marker of success and ultimate happiness, but this novel exposes the human realities of pursuing this dream with a blind capacity. Endless wealth for Jay Gatsby, can never equate to a lifetime of pure happiness.

Told in myriads of beautiful prose containing metaphors, genius symbolism and expert crafting of character, this is the one novel that made me fall in love with literature. Its timeless message is one that makes it so significant and enduring, but it is in the crafting of the novel whereby it is so special.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Gatsby appears to have it all. He lives in the biggest mansion known to man, right next to Nick Carraway, who has arrived to New York in search of his own American Dream. Nick meets Gatsby and is naturally entranced by his persuasive and endearing persona. Through Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy, Nick soon gets involved within the millionaire lifestyle that thrived in the 1920s. Lavish parties, fast cars, and an abundance of alcohol soon appears to be the norm.

But Nick knows this is never sustainable. Known as the unreliable narrator to Gatsby’s pursuits, Carraway uncovers the falsehood of the American Dream to readers, in his subtle critique of this lifestyle and the events he experienced with Gatsby.

In the end, Gatsby realises it too. But too late. It is a tale of impossible dreams, love, and an unsustainable lifestyle that is more corrupting than it is fulfilling. It is a novel I unashamedly go back to again and again, each time finding something new I love and admire.

Book Review: The Girl Who Reads on the Metro

Title: The Girl Who Reads on the Metro

Author: Christine Feret-Fleury

Publisher: Mantle (2019)

Rating: 5/5

Synopsis

Juliette has an office job in the beautiful city of Paris. She takes the metro everyday and often dwells on how uninspiring her current job is. Her favourite part of the day are the moments she snatches whilst riding the metro, as she imagines what everyone else in the carriage would be reading.

During one of these journey’s, Juliette travels to an unknown part of the city and discovers a bookshop owned by a man called Soliman. It is the most interesting and wonderful bookshop she has ever come across.

After getting to know one another, Soliman suggests she should become a passeur – a kind of bookseller who takes unwanted books out into the city to give them to people who look like they need it. The task is essentially matching a book to a person and sharing the love of literature just for the sake of it, Juliette is soon in her element.

This story is essentially a book about the love of books and how books can unite us all. We are all in some way, destined to cross paths with a book which will resonate with us completely. However, finding those books can take a lifetime of resilience. Which is why passeurs have such a role to play.

Juliette, after some unforeseen circumstances, takes it on herself to move into the bookshop and run the store. Her previous mundane life is soon turned upside down, in favour of spreading a love of books to the rest of Paris. This book is such a joy to read – it is as warming as it is comforting.

Review

I picked this book up in a time of need, when I was stuck in a reading rut and didn’t know what I wanted to read, but all I knew is that I wanted to read something, you know? I didn’t want to read something heavy or important, but something that would make me fall in love with books again, and this book did just that!

The story may be simple, but the message is enduring and comforting. Juliette, the main character, becomes involved in the running of a bookshop in Paris. Part of her role is to be a passeur; she takes the piles of ‘unwanted’ books from the bookshop and distributes them throughout Paris. She has to match the book to unknown individuals who she thinks will appreciate them. It’s a story which suggests everyone is searching for that one book that just fits them and everything they need – but that it can take a life time to achieve on your own, hence the need for a passeur.

Juliette is a staunch lover of books, and her mission in life combined with this new role, seems to be carrying this onto other people. Like most booksellers and lovers of books, she sees the value in books and how they can help us all. Thus, this appears to be the central message of the book. It is not complex or over-complicated but nonetheless an important one.

Although short and sweet, this book made me feel warm and reconnected with books once again. In these uncertain times, the value of books, stories, and escapism rings too true. A book about books is something every reader would love – and this book is certainly one I loved too.

This book won’t change your life, or how you see the world, but it has the ability to rekindle you with a love of literature – if you have temporarily lost it.

Lovely.