Slipping Back into Normality

And as a result, I’m feeling exhausted. Anyone else?


On Monday, just after 7:30 am, I boarded a train for the first time since March 2020. The chilly air wrapped around my face but gave me some welcome relief from the claggyness of wearing a mask. It was a bit of a surreal moment, but an important one for stepping back into normality — whatever that’s supposed to now mean.

Apart from a brief three-week stint in the run-up to Christmas, Monday was my first day back at work in fourteen months. If you had told me at the beginning of March this was what my life would be like for over a year; I would have laughed. It’s funny how small things — like getting a train — have become so abnormal in the last year. Amidst the excitement of something that seemed so ‘new,’ it was nice to be able to sit on a creaky train and rumble into the town where I work.

Despite customers not fully returning until next week, I found the day to be exhausting, to say the least, but it was nice to see colleagues I haven’t seen for the best part of a year. As I ease my way back into what my life used to be like in March 2020, I want to continue the writing habit I formulated during those empty months. It’s given me a great form of release, creativity and an integral coping mechanism to this uncertain year. It might be harder to fit around work and everything else, but I will try.

I hope this week’s newsletter finds you all well and gradually slotting back into ‘normal’ life. Remember, it’s perfectly acceptable to go at your own pace. Only do things you are comfortable with.


Article recommendations 

  • For those of us who tend to have an addictive, obsessive personality, it can be easy to slip into unhealthy patterns of exercise, eating, and restriction. When I used to run regularly, I would beat myself up every time I hadn’t improved my distance or pace. I’ve since been able to have a better relationship with running (on the rarity that I do go!), and Sophie F. writes about this so well — My Experience with Disordered Eating and a Fitness Obsession.
  • A refreshing and uplifting take on why age is predominately a societal construction. For those of us who fear edging slowly but surely towards our 30s, this is a brilliant read by Dan Cadmus — Why I Don’t Fear Turning 30
  • Sometimes I think even I am too old to want to be a writer/journalist and I should have started years ago (I’m 23 for reference), but I know this is silly, as some people start way later in life. This is an inspiring and uplifting article (Are You Waiting To Be Too Old To Start Writing?) about always being prepared to pursue your dreams, even when you think it’s too late. By Vishnu*s Virtues.
  • Everyone has had a different experience of the pandemic. This group article by all the Backbench editor’s (including me!) really shines a light on this difficult year — The Pandemic: Our Personal Perspectives.

Book recommendations 

Image created by the author using Canva

Merging the Drift, Tom Bray

Although this took me a long time to read, this is no reflection on what I thought of the book. I’m reading everything at a snail pace at the moment because that’s all I can do. Also, I read about 3–4 books at once so it’s bound to take me that bit longer with every read. I thought this was a highly original and uplifting book. It’s an intriguing story with lots of twists and turns that all comes together with a satisfying ending. I may be a little biased, as I interviewed Tom for a feature in A Thousand Lives, but I highly enjoyed his first novel. I will be writing a full review soon.

Stoner, John Williams

It’s been a while since I read this (2016, in fact) but I can remember absolutely loving it. It’s a strange, untypical novel that follows the life of William Stoner, born at the end of the nineteenth century. He studies English literature, becomes a professor and falls in love with a student, which is a million words away from his upbringing in a farming family. As a result, he’s estranged from his parents and lives a life of perpetual loneliness. It’s a novel about circumstance, regret, love and the shortness of life.


What I wrote this week



This hefty chunk of reading material should be enough for one week! In all seriousness, I need to up my reading game. Not because I feel pressured to read loads of books this year (quite the opposite) but just because I miss having that quiet time curled up with a book. I hope you all have a great weekend, Violet x

If you enjoyed this newsletter, please consider giving me a tip at paypal.me/Violet977I don’t feel comfortable charging anyone for this newsletter, but I am a graduate who is just starting and trying to make a living. Whether you can donate 5p or £5, I’d be forever grateful. Thank you.



Everything I read in January 2021

The one lesson I took away from this month, was that quality matters more when it comes to reading.


Do you set a reading goal each year for how many books you want to read? When I set a Goodreads reading challenge this year, I realised it felt a bit strange. Setting out the number of books we want to read in a given time slot naturally prioritises quantity rather than quality. 

It made me think. Is it better to read more (and more widely) or to read less, but more deeply? There are benefits to doing both. Although I’ve set myself an arbitrary target for how many books I’d like to read this year — to me — it’s irrelevant if I surpass it or end up reading less. What matters more is what I get out of each book.

In this post — I will be outlining what I read throughout January. Although my Goodreads account tells me I am “behind schedule” to complete my yearly reading goal, I’m not really bothered. 

By reading at a slower pace, I can fully digest each book, pause to reflect on them, and think about what I want to read next. It’s a more leisurely process. So, this is what I read in January 2021. And you’ll notice, there is definitely more quality, rather than quantity.

(Please note that links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you are a UK or US resident, I will receive a small commission if you buy books via these links. All links are included in the book title. Bookshop.org is a website that supports independent bookshops.)


#1 Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction, 4/5 stars 

Photo by Sam Lion from Pexels

I read this during bouts of insomnia that I was having at the beginning of the month. It was easy to read in those bleak and quiet hours when everyone else is fast asleep. 

This novel tells the story of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old British Jamaican who has just decided to go on a “break” from her long term boyfriend, Tom. Whilst she has to live her life without him suddenly, she’s also struggling with motivation at work and with some of her friendships. 

Queenie finds herself attracting (sometimes warranted, sometimes unwarranted) attention from the opposite sex, which she continually strategies and discusses with her group of best friends over WhatsApp. All the while, she hears nothing from Tom and struggles to know where they stand. 

It’s an amusing book — and made me laugh out loud at times. But Queenie, as a narrator, can be frustrating. There’s always a tragedy, always something going wrong. She comes across as a very needy friend — someone I would struggle to deal with, quite frankly. 

But the book also deals with darker issues such as fetishization, black womanhood, and mental health. It’s breezy, chatty and brilliant, but also shines a delicate light on what it’s like to grow up and enter early adulthood as a black woman. This is well worth a read as it strikes a balance between maintaining a sense of contagious humour and talking about real and raw issues.

“Is this what growing into an adult woman is — having to predict and accordingly arrange for the avoidance of sexual harassment?”


#2 The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Fiction, 3/5 stars 

Forever intrigued by those novels that go on to win the Booker prize, I picked this up and had no real idea of what to expect. As the title tells us, even before our eyes grace the first page, it is a bizarre read. 

At times, the strangeness erodes what could have been a more harrowing, poignant novel. The reader can easily end up reading about incest and animal abuse and be taken aback, even put off from the novel, and may even abandon it altogether. I don’t blame people who have. There’s no forewarning for what is outlined in this novel in such a visceral style. I know that’s the point, but all the same, I can’t help but feel it didn’t work. 

The Discomfort of Eveningis the first novel from the award-winning poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Set in the rural Netherlands and featuring a family slowly descending into dysfunction, it paints a harrowing picture of how grief can change people. One day, ten-year-old Jas, the narrator, tells the reader how her brother dies in a tragic incident. She documents how the family dynamic slowly but surely decays. It’s an interesting perspective, which makes the feel of the novel all the more powerful. 

It’s certainly original — even addictive to read — but I thought the levels of discomfort to which it goes to, was unnecessary in parts, and would certainly not engage a general audience. But maybe I’m wrong and missing the point entirely. Who knows? That’s part of the beauty of literature. 

“Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while, but according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.”


#3 Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

Fiction, 5/5 stars 

No novel is ever universally loved. But as a bookseller, I noticed this was one that flew off the shelves, and everyone raved about it. After being recommended it by a handful of people, I decided to try it. This is a type of novel that is hauntingly beautiful. There is so much sorrow, misfortune and sadness, accompanied by a beautiful landscape and message. I couldn’t stop reading it, and neither did I want to. 

After finishing it, I noticed the reception was more divisive than I had initially understood. Some people said they were bored by the book and even gave up halfway through. But for me, I couldn’t put it down. 

Where the Crawlands Sing is set within a small town on the North Carolina coast. It tells the story of, “Marsh girl” abandoned by her mother and the rest of her family, as they fled from her abusive and violent father. Soon, he leaves too, and Kya is left to fend for herself as a child. She learns how to fish, cook and befriends Nate, who teaches her how to read — as she only managed to attend one day at school. 

Kya has spent most of her life in solitude and at one with nature, making it difficult for her to form close relationships with others. However, something soon blooms between her and Nate as she struggles to navigate those first feelings of love. As soon as things start to work out for her, and she opens herself up, something dreadful happens that has the ability to pull her life all apart — again. 

This novel had all the assets that I believe makes a compelling read. The characters were believable and interesting; the plot was thick with what-ifs, questions and interesting thoughts about childhood, community and social expectations. The story was well told and kept the reader on their seat. I enjoyed it from start to finish and would recommend it to anyone. 

“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”


Overview 

In January I read just over 1,000 pages, which is far less than I would usually reach. However, I’m coming away from the month feeling satisfied with what I read and what I’m taking away from each book. 

Each novel I read opened me up to new ideas, experiences and thoughts from different perspectives I would not necessarily encounter in real life. I learnt a lot from each and was reminded of the power of words and how they can make us feel. 


Currently Reading 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I’ve been reading this for a while. Because it covers the course of an entire day in such depth, I find it quite heavy to read and digest. I’ve been reading it in small chunks, hence why it is taking me so long to finish. 

I do love it though — but realise it is not everyone’s taste. There is something so unique and magical about reading Woolf’s words, and I can’t quite put my figure on what exactly that is. Perhaps I’ll know when I finish it. 

The Searcher, Tana French

I love this. I love the feeling of it; it’s so eerie and creepy. It’s definitely a slow burner, which I don’t mind, but I’m intrigued to find out where the story will go. I’m reading this on my Kindle which I use for nighttime reading in bed. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it so far. 


Well, that was my month in reading. Based on my history, I read less this month than I usually do, but I’m not bothered. I’m not trying to race ahead and read as much as possible this year, but take in every read.

I want to value every word on the page and give each story my full attention — rather than always being focused on the next book. 

Thank you for reading


Stuck for what to read? Check out some of my recommendations: 

5 Non-Fiction Books Everyone Should Read

What The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley Teaches us About Friendship

50 Fiction Recommendations for 2021


Please note, this was originally published on Medium in A Thousand Lives.

Book Review: Knight in Paper Armor

“This is a country of immigrants. Hate it all you want, but immigration is America. I’m America, more than you’ll ever be.”


TW — This book and the following review contains topics relating to hate crimes, antisemitism, xenophobia, racism, violence, torture, suicide, sensory deprivation, traumatic injury/disability, the Holocaust, and emotional abuse.

Beth Shalom is the 93rd state of the 179 United States of America, which is the setting of this stunning work of dystopian fiction. In a place called Heaven’s Hole, a boy named Billy Jakobek has grown up in laboratories, at the hands of Caleb, the force behind the megacorporation, Thorne Century. Caleb’s motivation behind subjecting this boy to countless experimentation is that he’ll be able to harness his powers to create a new type of warfare — one that is “clean. Contained. Beautiful.”

In many ways, it is a world far away from our own — but not far enough away that we cannot see the influence of the contemporary world within every detail. Natalia Gonzalez, one of the main protagonists, is a rebellious young artist, and the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, who falls in love with Billy as their paths cross. Living in Heaven’s Hole, Natalia regularly experiences the deprivation ensured by Thorne Century’s regime, as her family and community work within the factories that keep the regime running. Her world is one of poverty, deprivation, and an endless cycle of suffering. With an eye for creativity and a rebellious spirit, she hopes to one day break out of this cycle.

When these two character’s cross paths — their worlds collide. Together, they aim to bring down the megacorporation Thorne Century and strive to create a better world. But it is not that easy, defeating Caleb will be the biggest fight of all. This novel is entirely dystopian in feel, scope, and intent — but it contains elements of fantasy, science fiction and young adult themes — in being narrated by two teenagers who fall in love despite the crumbling world around them. However, it is also rooted in our world. It shines a light on the everyday xenophobia, antisemitism, class inequality and capitalist exploitation which is rife within the US — and the rest of the world.

Please note, a copy of this book was kindly gifted to me by the author, in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author

Nicholas Conley is a full-time writer — who has written for several publications such as Vox, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Reporter, Dictionary.com and others. He is also the author of four books, Knight in Paper Armour being his most recent one.

Nicholas is Jewish and a descendent of Ashkenazic refuges from Russia and Sephardic refugees who fled from the Spanish inquisition. On a personal level, he is a great believer in human rights, social justice, systemic reforms and living in a fairer world — for all.

“… we all share the same world. We’re all in this together. No matter what, we should do the best we can to take care of each other.” — Nicholas Conley 

You can find out more about Nicholas Conley via his website.


My review

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Image courtesy of Nicholas Conley

My first thought upon finishing this book was “wow” — it sounds cliché, but it is entirely accurate. Upon writing up my notes when I finished the book — there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to give this a 5/5, there’s simply nothing that I can fault. I am incredibly grateful to Nicholas for asking if I would like to review his book because it is not the kind of book I would have picked up myself.

So what did I like about this book?

Firstly — I found the ideas woven throughout this book utterly compelling — and could empathize with the struggles of Natalia Gonzalez because of her belief in a fairer society. Despite being a dystopian novel through and through, it draws upon many sentiments that we are currently dealing with globally in social, cultural, and political life. Thorne Century, the megacorporation which controls all the aspects of life for those who live in Heaven’s Hole, is, in a way, a metaphor for capitalism itself.

It crushes people’s ambition, perpetuates inequality just by existing, and fails to bring about a fairer way of life. Caleb, the perpetrator and manipulator of Billy Jakobek, is a power-hungry individual — who rules Heaven’s Hole for his own benefit. This is a vision of society that is divided along the lines of ethnicity, race, economic status and gender — thus, in many ways, it mirrors our world. However, this is a creative, dystopian state which provides enough fantasy to escape from our world.

Therefore — I resonated with this book because it felt current and there is so much to unpack. In many ways, it contains the classic element of good versus evil. Still, it is told with so many complexities that reading it, is enough to make you stop in your tracks and re-evaluate the world around you. 2020 has been dominated by American politics and the continuous systemic racism that lingers — and in this novel — it lays bear this influence within a unique, fast-paced and believable story.

As well as the ideas, I loved the characters and execution of this novel. I empathised with Natalia, who becomes somewhat of a revolutionary figure in the book with her opposition to Thorne Century, and I saw a lot of myself in her. She ardently believes that through a collective effort and vision, we can change the systems of oppression that ensnare us. As a character, she is also good-humoured and utterly likeable.

Billy Jakobek is a complex character who spends most of his time within a tank monitored by Caleb for the harnessing of his psychic abilities. He is subject to countless experiments and deprived of living in the real world — until he meets Natalia. Many themes in this novel also evoke the feeling of a classic coming of age story — but set amongst a dystopian state — it is truly original and enthralling.

The book is fast-paced, full of action and chops and changes between different character perspectives. It keeps you reading with every twist and turn, as you follow Billy and Natalia’s hopes of creating a better world. Crucially it also had a very satisfying ending which is essential for me when giving out five-star ratings. Often, if I give a book a 4-star rating, it will mean that I was left dissatisfied, but this is far from the case here. The ending to this whirlwind of a book was satisfying, heart-warming and convincing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels that distract you from the present, but also make poignant points about the way we live now. And importantly, the systems that dominate our world and perpetuate multiple forms of inequality. This book is endlessly captivating and provides us with an essential insight into our contemporary world.


For fans of dystopian novels and readers of fantasy and sci-fi, this is the perfect book. I went into it not knowing what to expect but came away utterly mesmerised.

Knights in Paper Armor was published in September 2020 and is available to buy in paperback or as an e-book on Amazon.


I regularly accept review requests, if you’re an author and would like me to review your book, please visit my contact page for more information or to get in touch.


Book Review: The Stone in My Pocket

Mysterious goings-on are filtered through this coming of age novel with unique twists and turns.


“Why would I want to read about the paranormal when I was living it?”

Overview

In the dead of night, Nathan Love suddenly hears a strange voice in his garden, accompanied by a shadowed figure watching over him. Immediately, his world is tinted with a sense of strangeness, that he cannot quite work out. 

After a visit to his local bookshop, Nathan soon ends up with a Saturday job there and finds himself apart of a spiritual circle group, led by the owner of the bookshop, Iris.

Nathan hopes that in joining this group, he will be able to uncover the mystery of the shadowed figure he saw in this bedroom. All of this, he keeps from his parents. After all, his mother is a devout Catholic and his father has always turned a nose up to his strange stories. 

Through a mixture of messages, spirits and realisations, Nathan is led to believe that the shadowed figure was a reincarnation of his Grandfather who recently passed away, and Nathan believes that he is trying to convey a message to the family.

Strange goings-on, struggles at school and difficulties with making friends make the experience of adolescence one that is fraught with difficulties. Nathan is not close with his parents and finds solace in his job at the bookshop and the friendships made within the circle group. But sooner rather than later, the strangeness and questions in his life will be uncovered.

Please note, a copy of this book was kindly gifted to me by the author, in exchange for an honest review.


About the Author

Matthew Keeley is the author of two novels, A Stone in My Pocket being the most recent, due to Covid related delays, this is now due to be published in early 2021 by The Conrad Press. His debut novel, Turning the Hourglass, was published in 2019. 

Whilst being a full-time author and writer, Matthew also teaches English to secondary school pupils. He likes to write within the realms of speculative fiction, magic realism and literary fiction.

You can find out more information about Matthew and the expected release of A Stone in My Pocket, via his website.


My Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First and foremost, what I loved about this book was the immediate hook. The mysterious figure seen in Nathan’s garden is enough to keep anyone reading. 

Immediately the reader has all sorts of questions “who is the figure?” “what is it doing here?” “what does this mean for Nathan and his family?” are just a few that crossed my mind in the first few pages. Being gripping from the start is always a good thing, but the result of the story was told in such a fast-paced and well-structured manner, that the remainder of the novel was never a disappointment.

Due to the initial hook — the rest of the story is spent trying to explain the mysterious happenings that occurred in Nathan’s garden and what this could mean. Nathan, the protagonist, aims to finds answers to this by joining a spiritual circle, where he truly immerses himself in the medium world.

Everything about the story contains an element of strangeness, from the eerie small-town setting to the use of a protagonist who never quite fits in -  this is a coming of age novel with unique twists and turns.

Nathan spends a considerable amount of time working in the bookshop where he also attends his circle meetings, which naturally appealed to me, as someone who also loves bookshops. There’s something special about a novel that heavily features all things bookish. 

Image via Uplash

The range of characters presented and how they are woven throughout the story to unravel the mysterious goings-on is impressive. 

Nathan as the protagonist is naturally flawed and a confused adolescent who has never really fit in with his peers or family. He is trying to navigate through his life and struggles with school as his mind is preoccupied with solving the strange goings-on that happened outside his bedroom window. I valued his perspective, and it was nice to delve into the mindset of a quirky adolescent — for once.

Iris, the owner of the bookshop, is also a fabulously crafted character who symbolises the sense of strangeness carried throughout the book. She is presented as almost a mother or grandmother figure to Nathan, who finds himself more and more detached from his parents as he tries to keep his activities within the circle group a secret.

The premise is alluring, and the delivery was very sophisticated with the crafting of interesting characters and a suspenseful plot. It had an explosive ending, which I shall not reveal, but all of Nathan’s secrets are suddenly exposed to his parents and everything unravels before his eyes. 

I found the ending to be quite abrupt, which I was slightly disappointed with, given the suspense carried throughout the story. In this way, the story could have benefited from tying up some loose ends. 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel despite it not being a story I would not normally turn to. I am not a massive lover of the supernatural, especially in fiction, but I was pleasantly surprised by this novel and ended up enjoying it. I liked the characters, premise, setting and sense of unrelenting strangeness that filtered throughout the story.


A coming of age novel with a sense of eerie strangeness. For lovers of the supernatural, magic realism and character-driven stories — this is a brilliant read from start to finish.

Many thanks to the author, Matthew Keeley for providing me with a free copy of this book


Originally published on Medium in Write and Review, [insert date]

When Writing Goes Well It’s Great

It seems rather self explanatory, no?

I had a dry patch earlier on in the month and I couldn’t for the life of me stomach the courage to write. Well – write what I wanted to at least. This came at a time when I got my first batch of copywriting work on a freelance basis, and all my energy was going into that, so I guess it makes sense.

After having a terrible Sunday where I didn’t accomplish anything – today I’m back in the saddle and have written over 2,000 words AND done some more copywriting work. It’s funny how the days go, isn’t it? Sometimes you have a day where all you want to do is work, and then other’s, you don’t want to get out of bed. Well, that’s what I find anyway.

Two article’s I wrote on Medium were accepted into publications today and published too, which makes me happy. One of them is about my journey with reading and where it all started, and the other is about what writers can do when they have a day where they don’t feel like writing. Hey, maybe I should be taking some of my advice…


How I Became a Reader ~ The Personal Essayist

What Can You Do on a Non-writing Day? ~ Writer’s Blokke


Today has been a good day and reminded me of what I can achieve when I put my mind to it. I’ve had some meaningful conversations with other writers, done some exercise and felt positive overall. Additionally, I haven’t been lured in by the false promises of my phone and social media – which is always a plus.

Last week I took a whole week off social media, completely cold turkey, and it caused me to think about a lot of things. In that time away from it, I realised I wasn’t gaining anything from being on Instagram and following the lives of strangers, who I didn’t care about. So I deleted my account altogether, and now only have my writing one where I follow bookstagram accounts and read other reviews.

If social media is making you come away feeling more negative than before you went in, I’d recommend taking some time away to reflect on how it makes you feel when it’s not there. I’ll be writing an article about my experience shortly, so watch this space.

I guess it always feels good to start a new week off on a positive note. I hope everyone has had a good day and achieved all they wanted to. And if they didn’t, then that’s okay too. Tomorrow is a new day.

Goodnight,

Violet ✨


Do tell me if you like these journal style blog posts, I love writing them (and reading other people’s) so let me know what you think.