Review – How to be Happy by David Burton

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Don’t be fooled by the title – this is not a ‘How To…’ guide, nor is it the story of someone who figured out the secret to living a fabulous, meaningful life. It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his own insecurities, sexual confusion, depression and general angst that I’m sure anyone thinking back to their teenage years can relate to on some level. The story Burton tells is interesting, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with periods of pretty severe depression and suicidal thoughts thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the bit about it being a memoir of sex is also misleading – rarely have I read an autobiography where the author is so truthful about how they found pulling someone completely, painfully difficult.

A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of the way that some of my friends seem to be constantly searching for some external thing that will make them happy – whether that’s a hobby, a partner, a successful career etc. when really what they’re doing is projecting their own insecurities. At some points I just wanted to hug David Burton and tell him that it was ok to be sad and confused, and that it would get better. Luckily, Burton comes to this conclusion on his own and How to be Happy has plenty of great examples of how building a support network is soooooo important for anyone who is suffering from depression/anxiety/low self esteem.

Burton is also very honest about his experiences and initial negativity towards therapy. I think it’s incredibly important to discuss this issue because I know that a lot of people still feel that they’re admitting defeat by seeking professional help for their problems. Happily, Burton finds a therapist that he’s comfortable with and the book shows how perseverance with counselling can have life changing results – but only if you’re prepared to really work at it.

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the way that Burton experienced confusion about his sexuality (to the point where he came out as gay to his parents) but then ended up having to rethink this. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a book before and it was really refreshing to see someone being so open about their changing feelings. This is clearly a very emotive topic and I applaud Burton for his honesty in saying ‘this is what happened to me and how I felt at the time’. I guess some people will see it as fuel for the ‘you’re too young to know how you feel…this is just a phase’ argument but I saw it as an example of how nuanced sexuality and sexual attraction can be and how completely confusing and difficult to understand it often is.

I did, however, find How to be Happy a little tedious in places. As a memoir of a fairly ordinary (albeit depressed) teenager/young adult there aren’t any explosions, zombies or natural disasters and the book is set in Australia, not in a post apocalyptic future.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and applaud Burton’s honesty in portraying a very difficult period of his life. I think that anyone suffering from depression could benefit from reading it as it is ultimately an uplifting tale of triumph over
personal demons.

Rating: 7/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #15 Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  

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Review: The Yellow Envelope by Kim Dinan

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Photo credit: http://www.netgalley.com

I hate giving bad reviews when people are obviously trying hard to write a good book. If there’s obvious gramatical errors, or you can tell that parts have been rushed, or lazy stereotyping, or an obvious lack of research, or glaring continuity problems, or no plot then yeah, I’ll call you out on it. But his book is something worse. There’s nothing that was bad about the story or the writing style, or the editing per se. It’s the characters that I found immensely annoying – and as this is a non-fiction account about someone’s world travels with their husband, there’s not a lot you can do about that.

*Deep breath – tries to remain constructive*

If I were to describe this book in one sentence, it would be ‘one miserable woman’s trek around the world’. There are problems with everything. Her marriage seems to fall apart, then magically get better. At no point does she seem to be excited, despite the whole worldwide trip being her idea and nothing really bad happening. This gets a bit tedious after a while. 

I hate to say it, but I really struggled to sympathise with the author, Kim Dinan. She seemed to find the negative in every situation and even criticised others for being too spoilt and self centered (to be fair, she does seem to meet some horrendous tourists) without seeming to recognise that she had also acted pretty ungratefully. I thought it was a bit rich to be acting like a worldly wise hippy who got annoyed with part time travellers when most of the book is about how much she isn’t enjoying herself. At one point she discusses a situation with a friend where a fellow tourist hands out school supplies and takes pictures with local kids – which she criticises him for. Her friend sees it as a man unafraid to get involved, whereas Kim sees it as pushy and self serving. I would guess that the situation was probably a mix of all these things, but again Kim seemed unable to see the positive side for herself. It was this pervasively negative, glass half full approach that really ruined the book for me.  

I also found the title of the book quite misleading. The actual yellow envelope (an envelope of money her friends gave her to donate to others) itself doesn’t make an appearance until nearly half way through the story, and the whole novel seems to be a more introspective account of Kim’s thoughts and feelings about her life and her relationship. I failed to connect with Kim on an emotional level (I didn’t understand her relationship problems AT ALL) so I wasn’t really interested – I really wanted to hear more about the amazing places and cultures that she was experiencing. I simply couldn’t understand why someone would convince their husband to sell everything (house, car, pretty much all of their possessions), quit their job and embark on a worldwide trip (with no plans to ever return home) if they were unhappy in that relationship – especially as her husband wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and she had to spend months trying to get him to agree to it.  

The yellow envelope money is just such an amazing gift but Kim and her husband seem to massively overthink the scheme and don’t really engage with the idea. They do give money away, but they seem to struggle to do so and don’t seem to get much pleasure from it. I thought this was such a shame as the money could obviously make a massive difference to the lives of so many people (many of whom were living in abject poverty) but again there was a negative overtone to the process which turned what could have been such a positive into a negative experience. I also got quite annoyed at a situation where a monastry asked specifically for regular donations not one off gifts – which the couple completely ignored and gave a one off donation. There didn’t seem to be any kind of consideration to setting up small regular payments (even for a defined time period). Having worked as a charity fundraiser myself I know how important regular donations are (imagine trying to budget if you randomly got paid differing amounts every month) and it was this complete lack of awareness that really got to me.

I didn’t like the way that Kim and her husband Brian failed to really engage with the locals. They seemed to keep themselves to themselves and didn’t try to understand what life was like for any of the people that they met. Kim seemed to be so afraid of making a mistake that it really held her back, which for me was understandable, but a real shame. Because the couple seemed to just pass through destinations I failed to get any sense of place from Kim’s writing which to me is the whole point of a book about travel.

Some positives – the writing is well structured and flows easily. Some of the places described (albeit briefly) sound incredible and there are some funny moments. There’s also a happy ending which (I think) shows how far Kim and Brian come as a couple.

However – I just REALLY didn’t enjoy this novel.

Perhaps if I had been more interested in Kim as a person and I could engage with her emotionally then I might have enjoyed the book more. If you’re that type of reader, you may enjoy this more than I did – as I said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself, its the content matter that simply wasn’t for me.

Sorry Kim.

Overall rating: 3/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #8 Read a Travel Memoir.

Review: Toast by Nigel Slater

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I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.

So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.

Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?

All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.

To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.

Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.

Anyway.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.

Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?

Rating: 8/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017

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Hello lovely readers,

Well, it’s that time of year again to start making lists, drawing progress charts and trawling Goodreads threads for suggestions – yes, it’s the new Book Riot #Read Harder 2017 Challenge!

As you’re probably aware, I became slightly obsessed with the 2016 challenge and completed it in a few months. I found some great reads and surprised myself at what I learnt (food memoirs are great, reading out loud sucks). So, I was really  looking forward to the 2017 Read Harder Challenge.

First impressions of the challenge are…they weren’t joking when the called it read harder, were they? Perhaps “categorise harder” would have been more appropriate – some of the themes are pretty obscure (a character of colour going on a spiritual journey anyone?) And exactly what constitutes a micropress?

Thankfully, there’s lots of discussion on Goodreads and Book Riot themselves have published articles to help readers to correctly identify novels which fit within the categories. Personally, I don’t get too hung up on the specifics as I think the overarching aim is just to make you read more widely but for some of the themes I literally have no idea.

I’ve noticed this year that there’s hardly any books on my TBR that I’ve been able to use for the challenge. I guess that’s the whole point but this does have a cost implication. Thankfully Netgalley is a wonderful source of free reading material so I guess I’ll be using them lots. Plus there’s always the library (although it has been threatened with imminent closure).

Unfortunately, some of the categories mentioned in the challenge hold very little appeal for me. I hate re-reading books, I can’t find anything engaging that fits the definition of “a non fiction book about technology” and I have very little interest in sports. If anyone has any suggestions for these categories please let me know!

Despite this, I hope that this year’s challenge is as enjoyable as last year’s and I look forwards to uncovering some hidden gems that would otherwise have passed me by.

Happy reading!

Lucinda x

Review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot 2016 Read Harder Challenge #4 read a book out loud to someone else.

I’ve finally finished Read Harder 2016! Yay! Applause! I’m so happy! But then, you probably knew that because you read my summary post, right??? I’ve just about managed to squeeze this post in before the end of the year, ready for normal blogging service to be resumed in the New Year (as I start Read Harder 2017!)

As previously mentioned, this is the final book that I completed as part of Read Harder 2016. The reason for this is not because I started it last, or because I was savouring it (although I believe all Patricia Highsmith novels should be savoured, she is the mistress of suspense and foreboding) or because it was a particularly long book. No. It is simply because reading out loud TAKES SO FREAKING LONG. I HATED how long it took to get through even a few pages. I thought I would enjoy reading out loud but actually this experience has taught me that I definitely don’t have the patience for it.

In terms of the actual book, the story is about two men who meet on a train (they are strangers funnily enough – the clue is in the title), both of whom were struggling with a significant person in their lives. They realise that no one will know that they’ve ever met and drunkenly plot to commit murder on the others behalf, providing they both go through with it. The novel unfolds as one character descends into alcoholism whilst the other barely holds it together as the weight of their crimes haunt them. As with all of Highsmith’s books Starangers on a Train is a tense melodrama with a sociopathic character at the centre whose side, bizarrely, you end up on.

In saying all that I admit that I found the book quite slow. I’m not sure if it was because I was reading it aloud or because I just didn’t engage immediately with the storyline. I thought that the idea for the plot was really inventive (its very difficult to imagine how to commit not one but two perfect murders) but in places where it was meant to be suspenseful it just dragged. I usually love Patricia Highsmith so I was quite surprised not to really enjoy the story.

The novel itself is very cleverly written and I enjoyed the language that it used – many of the passages are incredibly elegant. I found that the bits where action happened were very engaging and well written but large swathes were just a commentary about the stress the main character was under which after a while became a little tiresome.

Perhaps it would be better if I read the book again normally (i.e. in my head). I may need to read it again to verify this theory *checks reading challenges for a re-read category* hmm, there is one, I’m not sure if I can face it though. I think I’d be better with a book that I read longer ago. We will see.*

*update – since writing the draft form of this review Christmas has happened and guess what I got – a VMC copy of Strangers on a Train! Now I’ll have to read it again! :-/

Overall rating 5/10.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016

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Hurrah! I have completed the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016! Not bad considering I only started it in the summer!

I really enjoyed undertaking this challenge. I would never have read, for example, a food memoir but actually this turned out to be one of my favourites. I thought the challenge was a great way to expand my horizons and I’ve definitely read a wider variety of genres because of it.

The books that I read are:
1. Thinner by Richard Bachman
2. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
3. Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
4. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
5. Spot the Difference by Juno Dawson
6. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
7. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
8. So You Want to be a Wizard by Diane Duane
9. Yes Please! by Amy Poehler
10. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
11. Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell
12. If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo
13. Three Thousand Miles for a Wish by Safiya Hussain
14. The Teracotta Bride by Zen Cho
15. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
16. 1Q84 Book One by Haruki Murakami
17. The Wicked and the Divine – The Faust Act by Gillian McKelvie and Wilson Cowles
18. Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
19. Animal by Sara Pascoe
20. The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz
21. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
22. Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats      Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton
23. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
24. Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas

I found the books in a variety of places. I initially looked at my immediate TBR list and added those into the corresponding categories. Then I looked at my wider book collection and specifically searched for books which would fit into the remaining categories. Finally, there were a few gaps left so I hunted around online for recommendations and ideas and bought a few books in order to satisfy the criteria left. I don’t think I could have completed the challenge if I didn’t have the list laid out in front of me in advance (this doesn’t bode well for the Popsugar reading challenge).

So, according to my rating system the winner is….complicated! Because I gave Confessions of a Sociopath either 6/10 (based on how I thought the average reader would perceive it) or 10/10 (based on the impact that it had on my life) it is technically the best book that I read as part of the challenge. However, if I were to recommend one of the books on the list to a friend it would have to be my second highest rated – Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (I really loved that book). Honourable mentions also go to 1Q84 Book One by Haruki Murakami, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, Animal by Sara Pascoe and Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton.

Books that I would happily avoid in the future/recommend to people I don’t like include Yes Please! by Amy Poehler (boring), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (hated the writing style) and The Holy Woman by Qaisra Shahraz (so predictable). In saying that, none of these books were terrible so I’m pleased that I didn’t waste any time reading something dreadful.

The most surprising book was definitely Confessions of a Sociopath by M. E. Thomas. I didn’t expect to suddenly understand so many of my own personality traits by reading about someone else’s experiences. This book has made a huge impact on my life and has helped me to understand not only myself but my friends and relatives too.

I think that reading Pretty Good Number One – An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster-Burton really opened my eyes to the whole food memoir genre. The way that this book was written was funny and engaging and really helped me to understand Japanese culture (and (weirdly) my own British culture). I thoroughly recommend this book and would definitely read more of his work. I’m also looking forward to hearing more from Ernest Cline and Sara Pascoe, although I doubt she will be writing another book in the near future.

I really wasn’t looking forwards to watching a film of a book that I had just read – almost every film adaptation that I’ve ever seen has been a pale imitation of the novel it was based on. However, Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan seems to be the exception to the rule – I actually enjoyed the film more than the book. I also quite enjoyed comparing the two, which again I didn’t think I would.

As I like to read about five or six different books at once I did sometimes feel under pressure to finish at least one of them to stay on track. However, I found that this did push me to complete the more “challenging” reads in a relatively short timeframe, rather than having them lying around half read for years (and then having to start again from the beginning).

Next time I will be starting the challenge along with everyone else so I’ll be looking more at social media groups for suggestions and support. I think this will add another dimension to the challenge (hopefully positive!).

I will definitely be doing the challenge again – I’m already on the lookout for the 2017 list!

Review: Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – #21 Read a book about politics, in your country or another (fiction or non-fiction).

Fahrenheit 451 is about a dystopian future where books have been banned by the state. People are controlled through a combination of drugs and the mass media. The zombiefied state of the general populace gives the government ultimate control, as without written accounts they can literally make up their own history and present any message that they wish to convey as fact. As such, “firemen” are employed to start fires in homes where books have been found, regardless of the cost to human life. This terrifying world is home to the   main character, a fireman who suddenly starts to view the world differently as he realises the extent to which he is being manipulated.

I thought that this was such an interesting book. It touches on so many themes and gives a really important message about the role of the state and the importance of freedom of speech. I would put it up there with 1984 and Brave New World as a modern day classic.

Despite the chilling tone I actually found this book very easy to read. It’s a relatively short story (especially for science fiction) at 227 pages and keeps up the suspense throughout.  Ultimately the book is uplifting and is a brilliant tale of people power and the tenacity of the human spirit. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8/10