Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is a multifaceted, charming, literary fiction must read. I was drawn in by the setting of beautiful Paris, and the love of art the novel immediately conveys through its lyrical descriptions of life in the city. It is a story told through the unique insight of a twelve year old boy and his relationship with his best friend, Leon – a German shepherd. Intertwined with everyday musings about the city of Paris, is a story about a boy who tries to save his mother from financial ruin. It’s endearing, poignant, beautiful and will break your heart.

Please note – I was sent a copy of this book, but have not been paid to say any of the following. Everything is my own opinion.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Jeremy’s mother is about to go to prison for their debt to the State. He is trying everything within his means to save her, but his options are running out fast.

Then Jeremy discovers a treasure under Paris.

This discovery may save his mother, but it doesn’t come for free. And he has to ride over several obstacles for his plan to work.

Meanwhile, something else is limiting his time…”

Review

Title: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

Author: Indrajit Garai

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating: ★★★★

What I loved the most about this book was that it took me by surprise.  I was so invested in the story and the main character Jeremy, navigating his days through Paris with his best friend, Leon. The story is completely told through the perspective of Jeremy, who lives with a severe heart condition. As readers, we learn more about his condition as the story goes on.

The book is told through first person narration, so the reader sees everything through the eyes and ears of Jeremy. I haven’t read many books which are narrated by such young protagonists, before reading this book I was hesitant, as in the past I haven’t enjoyed these perspectives, however this really surprised me. Jeremy is wise beyond his years, has an eye for the most beautiful things in life and thinks about things deeply. Naturally, I got along with his persona. His personality inevitably leaves the reader fully wishing for him to get a happy ending – as he is kind, resilient, talented, hardworking and has an eye for seeing and capturing the beauty around him. 

Jeremy wants to do all that he can to help his Mum out of financial ruin so they do not get their flat taken away from them. When he discovers an ancient painting in the cellar of their flat, he takes it upon himself to find out the history of the painting and restore it himself, so that he can make money for his Mum. During this journey, Jeremy provides us with beautiful descriptions of Paris during his daily walks with Leon. He truly sees the world in brushstrokes, colour, depth and shape, which mirrors his talent for painting. I frequently forgot Jeremy was only twelve – it was such a unique perspective for me to read and I really enjoyed viewing life through his eyes. The reader, like Jeremy himself, often forgets that his life is a very fragile one, Jeremy fears having the next heart operation, but tries to live every day the best he can.

Additionally, I enjoyed the prose in this book. Jeremy’s observations about life and scenes in Paris are told through dreamy, lyrical and descriptive language that has the ability to take you away from the present. It is a story about art and the power of beauty, that is utterly mirrored by its own use of language. As a result of this, I found myself finding the reading process incredibly relaxing and soothing to read. I’ve never really experienced this from reading a book before, but there was something about Jeremy’s daily walks with Leon, exploring the same scenes and documenting it so visually, that calmed me in a time where I’ve been feeling so much unease.

The story itself is a work of art as it has so many layers. It may be a story fundamentally, about saving a piece of art to save a family, but it contains so many other facets. There is an element of suspense throughout, as the reader cannot predict whether Jeremy will be successful in restoring the painting and whether his health will improve. The financial situation for his Mother seems to worsen day by day, despite her working so much overtime. But will the two of them get to keep the family home they so know and love? Can a painting save their future? 

There are other themes explored such as the importance of family, friends and a prevailing sense of achieving social justice which runs through the book. Jeremy is motivated to help his Mum on a personal level but also because he thinks it’s wrong that she could have her home taken away from her, even through it was inherited through the family. For a twelve year old, Jeremy certainly has an awareness of social justice in the adult world. Above all, it is a story that values a love and appreciation of art, how it can transcend decades and take us to other places. It stresses the importance of imagination and our ability to see the beauty in the everyday, before it’s too late. The novel is complex, engaging and full of suspense – I loved reading it to see how it would unfold. 

However, the ending was not what I had hoped for. I found it slightly abrupt and unfulfilling. Considering the rest of the story is so complex and well told, I found the ending to lack the closure it deserved. It is the only part of the story I felt was underdeveloped but maybe I am just being selfish in my criticisms as it wasn’t the ending I would have written. . Nevertheless, these are merely my personal, petty criticisms. We can’t always get the ending we want… Perhaps that’s the point here?

All in all, this is a beautiful story and reading experience that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone. I thoroughly appreciated the perspective of a twelve year old boy telling the story and the experience of becoming his eyes and ears, as he navigates Paris and attempts to bring an ancient painting back to life.

There are so many elements of sadness in the story, but these are always combined with plentiful beauty, as to remind us that there is always light, even when we may be surrounded by darkness.

“Yet life never comes in pure black and white. On the contrary, life always comes in patches of ambiguities, as on an impressionist painting; but, among its lights and shadows, you can add details from your imagination then interpret the result the way you like.”

The Bridge of Little Jeremy is available via Amazon.

Book Review: The Bullet Journal Method

I’ve dabbled with the bullet journal over the years, only to abandon it in the past as I’ve ended up finding it too time consuming. However, upon reading this book, I have realised that is exactly the opposite of what bullet journaling should be. With more time on my hands, and spending more time journaling in general, I decided to read the official guide to learn more about it.

What is the Bullet Journal method?

The Bullet Journal method was conceived by designer, Ryder Carroll, when he was searching for a more productive means to manage his life. It is a type of journaling which aims in the most simplest forms, to give space for your tasks, thoughts, and anything else in-between. In being a “bullet” journal, it provides a fast means to note down everything in your head. Using a specific set of symbols the user can have all their to-dos, thoughts, events and ideas in one place. In using an Index system, the user can easily find information from any month of the year.

It describes itself as a type of “mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system” and stresses the importance of the physical act of writing in our digital age, to achieve a sense of mental clarity. It is not meant to be complicated, time consuming or “pretty” (despite what you find on a quick social media search using “#bulletjournal” or “#bujo”) but a practical accompaniment to dealing with the strains of modern day life.

This book, “The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future” is the official guide, written by its founder, Ryder Carroll. In true bujo style, I will conduct the review in brief bullet points so you can get a sense of what it contains.

Title: The Bullet Journal Method

Author: Ryder Carroll

Genre: Non-fiction, guide

My rating: ★★★★

The Review

  • This book is a ‘how to’ guide for setting up a bullet journal. It covers the origins of the method, why it’s different from other productivity methods, and gives step by step instructions on how to create your own.
  • Within the step by step instructions are snippets of commentary on the philosophies of life and the importance of mindfulness. Carroll believes this type of journaling and the act of writing things down is a type of mindfulness in itself.
  • The book stresses the importance of practicing mindfulness throughout – in framing it as a necessity for coping with the modern world and detoxing from social media.
  • It contains diagrams and illustrations on setting up a bullet journal and examples of monthly, weekly and daily “spreads” (a.k.a the pages of your journal).
  • These are incredibly useful as sometimes the text is quite bogged down in detail, it is handy to have pictures to see what the pages are supposed to be set up like.
  • It is very informative and takes you through step by step. For anyone thinking wanting to start a bullet journal, I would definitely suggest reading this cover to cover.
  • I left feeling a tad overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in the book, but I think its a guide you can flip back to again and again as you go along. I will definitely be re-reading certain sections.
  • I really appreciated the background on the creation of the bullet journal, as it made me understand its purpose.
  • As for the method itself – I have always seen the value in writing things down as it makes my mind feel more at ease – but this method is important as it stresses journaling in its most minimalist form. (where it can be most useful to de-clutter your mind)
  • A very good guide to understanding and learning about the practice of bullet journaling, the history of its conception and why it is important in the digital age.
  • It is a tad pricey in physical form, if you have a Kindle I’d suggest buying a digital edition, which will only cost you £3.99 in the UK!

Putting the ideas into practice

Now, I’ve been awkward with this and only started half way through the year but I thought it might be interesting for you to see a few of the pages I’ve done since reading the book. I haven’t followed the symbols strictly, but I will when I start a new notebook. I really recommend the practice if you’re like me and get very overwhelmed with your emotions and thoughts – it can act as a quick form method of writing a diary, as well as increasing your productivity.

I mainly use it to track books that I read and books that I want to read. Although I use the weekly spread quite a lot too. As always, thank you for reading! 🙂

My top reads for the year so far

Lying in bed trying to sleep the other night, it suddenly dawned on me that we are nearly half way through the year. 2020 has been a strange one so far, and it will probably be strange for a long time, but one things for sure, I’ve definitely rediscovered my love of reading now that I’m not a full-time student. In this post I thought I would share with you three of my favourite books I have read this year. What have been your best reads so far? Let me know!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I have definitely been late to the party with the Hilary Mantel craze, I think I’ve always been put off reading the series as being a history graduate, I’m naturally wary about historical fiction and the way it can distort the truth and change people’s perception on history for the worse. However I was so surprised with how good this was, and in fact, it probably changes our historical perspective for the better.

Reading this was honestly an experience of pure joy, Mantel manages to capture all the tiny details of the drama that unfolds during the court of Henry VIII, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. I love how the protagonist is Cromwell, who is commonly thought of as the historical underdog. The reader becomes his eyes and ears and is fully immersed in the trials and tribulations of what it is like to serve the tumultuous monarch that was Henry VIII.

This was the first book I read in lockdown and I don’t think I could have picked a better one – it provided me with pure escapism and living in another world. The writing is beautiful and really captures your imagination. It really went beyond my expectations and I can’t wait to read the others!

“You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child sometimes a master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move. If he had been called to a lower station in life, he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell

I’ve always been a fan of George Orwell. I can still remember the exact moment and feelings I experienced when I first read 1984. Since then, I’ve been trying to read more widely and getting beyond the texts he is prominently known for, I’m truly surprised that this novel is not one that more people have read.

I loved it from start to finish and was naturally drawn to the story and protagonist, as Gordon Comstock leaves his unfulfilling job to work in a bookshop. Sounds pretty perfect, right? Except it isn’t so easy. Gordon struggles with a lack of money and cannot resuscitate his writing ambitions, he feels lost and directionless but also angry that he has to come to terms with depending on the vast forces of capitalism (that he despises), to make a success of himself.

It contains some classic Orwell elements – the portrayal of inner city poverty, wealth inequality, critique of capitalism and the rich, but with a rather nuanced and different type of story from Orwell’s other writings. I loved the protagonist and his ambitious nature, expressed in voluntarily leaving his well paid job to pursue something he loved, even if this meant his quality of life would be near to living below the poverty line.

“He had blasphemed against money, rebelled against money, tried to live like an anchorite outside the money-world; and it had brought him not only misery, but also a frightful emptiness; an inescapable sense of futility. To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

I devoured this book from start to finish. I downloaded it onto my Kindle because it was on offer and didn’t expect much from it, however, I ended up loving it. Initial impressions of this book are that it’s going to be a somewhat light read, but as the story goes on, we find out more about Eleanor Oliphant, and for one, realise, she is not completely fine, and she has a rather dark past and struggles with managing her current life.

I was attracted to the main character – as I enjoyed her frequent musings on defying social expectations and norms and found her to be very funny, and despite her own appearances she holds up, very likeable.

However, under the surface she is incredibly lonely and endures a silent life of alcoholism every weekend to escape from the repetitiveness of work and her tiresome phone-calls from her mother, who frankly bullies her. Everyday, the people around her take her for granted. From narration of her life, her habits and routines, you can really see how this kind of life can be easily slipped into – the book has a kind of realistic, relatable factor which I enjoyed, it seemed very real.

One event spirals into another and Eleanor Oliphant is finally able to work on herself, as a reader, you want her to have a happy ending. I loved this book and would read it again and again!

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allowed span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

Book Review: The Past Is Present (Reedsy)

This is a book review I wrote for the platform, Reedsy Discovery. Reedsy is a platform for readers and writers where you can get access to the latest ‘Indie’ books from a range of genres. I recently became a Reedsy reviewer, and you can see my review initially published with Reedsy here.

Please note – this book is available from 8th May, 2020 and you’ll be able to access it via Reedsy. Enjoy!

Title: The Past Is Present

Author: John Markowski

Genre: Thriller/Suspense

Awaiting Publication (May 8, 2020)

Rating: ★★★★

The impact of one day can last forever – Ben struggles to maintain a normal life and is soon confronted by the nightmare that remains.

Ben has never led an ordinary life. He is haunted by a tragic event involving his high school friends, which all began with an out of control football bet. Fast forward to the present, and he is still being confronted by a blackmailer. Ben keeps his wife and children in the dark about his past. But how long can he keep this secret? And at what cost? Soon, he will be forced to confront reality.

What strikes me about this novel is the character development. Although it features a variety of perspectives, the leading character, Ben, is particularly insightful. Through Ben’s internal monologues, the reader experiences the psychology of living with endless regret and inner torments.

Ben struggles to sustain a normal life, feeling crippled by his past. I resonated with Ben completely, and desperately wanted him to put things straight. The variety of narrators with Ben at the center, contributed to the complexity of the story and conveyed a central message: actions always have consequences.

I really felt the pull of this story and was fascinated to see it unravel. The plot is fast paced but also contains essential background. The climax is dramatic, packed with action, and almost excruciating to read. The pace of the story never gets bogged down by the background detail. Many thriller novels often cannot pull off both at once – but this certainly does.

It deals with important, psychological elements, not just Ben’s, but with Ryan, who was the main victim of a horrific crime. Ryan blames himself for what happened and would rather think about ending his life than carrying on with the present. Ben too, is unavoidably confronted by his past – and eventually, so are all the friends involved. Things unfold in the ways he most fears. Who knows what lies ahead? Will they all make it out alive?  

I would recommend this to anyone who loves a dramatic, fast paced, page turner. But also, those who appreciate a story that flicks between the past and present, with an incredible amount of immersive detail. The build-up was full of action and deployed with expert narration and multiple character perspectives.

Reading this reminded me of Fredrick Backman’s writing – which often features extensive character insight from different narrators, but all of which are connected to a particular event in time, that has the potential to change things forever.