On re-reading, uncertainty and Harry Potter


I have always had a problem, when it comes to reading habits, with two things. The first is that I have to finish any book I start- even if I’m hating everything about it. The second is that I find it very difficult to re-read a book, even if I’m certain it’s the best thing I’ve ever read. I think the first issue stems from optimism in a way, as I keep hoping that something about the book will redeem it, or that it will get better by the end. Inevitably this doesn’t happen, and I just end up disappointed and annoyed. I have resolved this year to just put the book down if I’m not enjoying it after reaching a quarter of the way through. Whether I actually manage this remains to be seen!
The second issue is one I’ve been thinking about a lot more recently. There are so many books I have loved and would rave about over the years, but I’ve never gone back to read them again. Part of this comes from a fear-particularly with things I read as a teenager or child- that they won’t capture my imagination the same way the second time around. That I will have changed so much over the years that I’ll find issues in them that I never noticed before, and they will be ruined for me forever.

At the end of last year, Philip Pullman’s ‘Book of dust’ was released, and even though I loved the ‘Dark materials’ trilogy, I haven’t rushed to pick this book up. I feel like I need to re-read the trilogy first, to immerse myself in that world again and remind myself of all the things I’ve inevitably forgotten since I read them over ten years ago. At the same time, I’m afraid to re-read them! I’m now thinking that if I read the book of dust first (since it isn’t exactly a sequel) it might push me to re-read the rest of the series. I’d be interested to know what order some of you have read these books in, and whether you think that changed your experience of them.

The other issue I have with re-reading is the thought that the time I spend reading something I loved again, could be spent discovering a new, equally brilliant book. There’s only so much time I get to spend reading, and I’m always excited about reading something for the first time. What if I never have enough time to read all the things I want to get to? I know that in a way this is a silly question- even if I lived to be 100 I would probably not get round to reading every book I’m interested in, but still- it’s enough to make me put off re-reading. Or it was, until about a months ago.

A month ago I started commuting. I always keep a book in my bag, but more often than not the train is too crowded to get my book out and turn the pages comfortably. I have an app on my phone for the local library which I mainly used for e-books prior to commuting, but you can also borrow audiobooks on it. The first audiobook I got, mainly since it didn’t have a waiting list, was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, narrated by Stephen Fry.

I can honestly say that the audiobooks brought back all my excitement about the series and then some. I found myself looking forward to commuting, just to have an uninterrupted hour or two to listen to them. I didn’t even notice the time passing, and I often found I was smiling to myself or stifling a laugh even on a packed train where everyone around me looked miserable (yes, I probably seemed a little crazy to everyone else). I’m now about halfway through Order of the Phoenix, and still loving it. Everything I enjoyed about the series when I was younger is still just as interesting to me now, and I think the nostalgia for the first read is making it even more fun to listen to now.

When I was in university, I re-read the final Harry Potter book- The Deathly Hallows, a couple of times. I’ve never felt compelled to re-read the whole series (or any other book!), but that last book was almost like a comfort blanket, familiar and something that was almost restful for my tired brain to process. Listening to the rest of the series now, has made me wonder why I only ever went back to the final book, and why I don’t try reading other favourite series again more often.

I’m thinking I might re-read a few things this year, books I know I love but am starting to forget the details of. Some of those would be Philip Pullman’s ‘His dark materials’, Persuasion by Jane Austen, Terry Pratchett’s City Watch stories and Philip Reeve’s ‘Mortal engines’ (I remember loving this series so much but seldom hear it spoken about!).

What books do you find yourself going back to? Or do you, like me, put off re-reading as much as possible- I’d love to know!

Book Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

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I will say from the outset that I have mixed feelings about this book. It has been the subject of much hype as far as I can tell, and I had heard so many good things about it that I could not wait to pick it up. For most of the story I could understand the hype, the characters had rich personalities and the world itself was beautifully described, vivid and easy to imagine. The story is set in a world that has been flooded almost completely, and follows two girls, Callenish and North.. Callenish is a ‘Gracekeeper’, she tends to the graves of people who have died at sea. North is a circus performer, travelling with a circus boat on which she performs with her bear.

The book is relatively easy going in terms of reading, it’s not a very long book and the writing flows well. I love Kirsty Logan’s style of narration in this- each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character- sort of like Game of Thrones in terms of the layout (though that is where the similarity ends!). It’s also a very visually appealing book- the cover is beautiful, and really fits well with the story and imagery evoked by the writing.

My issue with the story however, was the ending. The ending of this book felt very rushed and incomplete to me- I almost felt as though a few chapters had to be missing. I’m trying to avoid spoilers in this review so will try my best to explain how I felt without giving anything away. A tragic event occurs at the end of the story, and this is not touched upon at all in terms of how the characters felt or reacted to it. We go straight from the event to the epilogue- the event itself is so rushed through that I think it would be easy to completely miss what has happened to certain characters.

There are so many characters who I would have liked to have known more about or at least known the fate of, and they were also brushed aside and barely mentioned at the end. These characters were, at least to me, central to the story, so I felt cheated in a way at being left with a vague idea of what might have happened to them. The relationship between two characters in particular is at the heart of the story, yet the loss of one does not seem to perturb the other.
Although I had a few problems with the ending of this book, it was still an enjoyable read overall. I would say if you plan on reading this, keep in mind that it is a light, lyrical story. There are points and themes touched upon that I would have liked to have looked at in more depth, but in the end this is one to be read more for the style than the substance- and that is not always a bad thing!

Book Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I read the Kindle edition- image from Amazon UK.

I really liked the movie version of this story, and tend to watch it at least once a year with my siblings. It’s one of those family friendly, safe movies that you can watch without it getting awkward with your parents. I always wanted to read the book as I’ve previously read some of Neil Gaiman’s short stories and really enjoyed them, but somehow I kept putting it off. I think that a lot of the time, I don’t like reading a book after watching the movie version because I worry about how the movie will influence my interpretation of the book. I guess that’s why I always prefer reading the book first, to build my own vision of the characters before seeing them on screen. Having just finished reading Good Omens, which was a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and finding it to be very entertaining, I finally decided to pick up Stardust.

The story follows Tristan Thorne, a young man from a village in England called Wall, as he journeys into the land of faerie in search of a fallen star. He’s trying to retrieve the star because he has promised it to a girl in the village who he is in love with. However, when he finds the star, he discovers that it is actually a young woman. On the journey to the village they encounter a host of strange and wonderful characters and situations. I won’t say anymore than that as it would spoil the story.

I realised almost straight away that I needn’t have worried about the movie when thinking about reading this book. There are a few significant differences in the plots of the book and movie, particularly towards the end. Aside from that, Neil Gaiman’s writing style is amazing. I finished this book in a matter of hours, simply because I couldn’t put it down. Neil Gaiman is a natural storyteller in the sense that his use of language and description makes it hard to stop reading. Even though I knew the story and characters already, I found myself enjoying the way the story was being told, and I didn’t need surprise or suspense to keep me hooked- the words were enough in themselves.

The experience of reading this book was just what I needed to start off my reading after months of exam preparation, it was funny, whimsical, entertaining and poetic in style. Anybody who enjoys reading fairy stories or is just getting into fantasy would enjoy this book.

Review: The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel

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I listened to this as an audio book, which isn’t something I do very often but as I was finding myself with little time to read and a lot of time spent washing dishes/folding laundry- things that require both hands but little thought, I thought I would try one out. I ended up really enjoying listening to this book, the narration was funny and engaging and kept my attention.

If you pick this book up expecting to find a step by step guide to learning self-control, you’ll be setting yourself up for dissapointment- a self-help book it is not. The book is more of an overview of research into the psychology of self-control, particularly research with small children. I studied psychology at university, and chose to listen to this because the study of self control and the ‘marshmallow test’ was something I was familiar with and fascinated by. Walter MIschel is the researcher who originally carried out the experiment,  along with many other experiments on self control, and his perspective on the overall conclusions of this body of work  was really interesting to listen to.

The majority of the book focuses on the Marshmallow test experiment, and the subsequent experiments,  where pre – school and primary school children were challenged to hold off on eating one marshmallow or similarly appealing treat, in favour of receiving two marshmallows if they managed to wait until the researcher came back to the room. Their ability to wait in the presence of the one marshmallow was measured, as well as the strategies they used to help them to resist eating it. The participants were tested again when they were adolescents and adults, and it was found that those who had managed to wait for the longest time to receive double the reward all those years ago, seemed to be more high achieving and healthy, amongst other things, than those who had been unable to resist temptation.  The descriptions of the children and their behaviour in trying to distract themselves from the treat in front of them is very entertaining to listen to and I’m glad Mischel took the time to describe some of the specific participants’ experiences.

The final few chapters do outline some strategies Mischel thinks will help adults with mastering self control in certain areas of their life. These strategies are based on the research he talks about for the majority of the book, such as the ‘if-then’ strategy which helps us to identify triggers for loss of control in everyday life. I found myself thinking about the ‘hot ad cold’ system a lot after finishing this book, and noticing the ways in which myself and people close to me struggled with or conquered their hot system in different situations.

To elaborate a little, the hot system is the part of the mind which is impulsive, which focuses on the present consequence of an action rather than the future, whereas the cold system allows us to put things off and wait, to consider the future self. So, for example, if I want to eat a piece of cake which is in front of me, but I’m on a diet, the hot system would lead me to want the cake anyway, thinking of it as tasty and satisfying in the moment. The cold system would have me stepping away from the cake knowing that I’m trying to lose weight for my future health. Strategies suggested for triggering the cold system included distraction, accountability to others and a clearer picture of the future self.

The book isn’t really about how we can master self-control for ourselves, it doesn’t tell you one method is better than any other. It is broad in its discussion of the research and implications, and I actually preferred this to the preachy, dumbed down self-help book style that often comes across in popular science books.

If you enjoy or have an interest in social psychology, I think you’ll enjoy this book. You don’t need to have studied psychology or any other science, as it’s written in an accessible, non – technical way. For this reason, I think this book is a good introduction to popular psychology as a genre.

Matcha & Chocolate Pinwheel Cookies

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I love the taste of Matcha in drinks and baked goods but it can be difficult to get a hold of this ingredient in the UK. Although Matcha tastes savoury and slightly bitter it lends itself well to desserts and milky drinks. I had never tried baking or cooking with Matcha myself but had always wanted to. The bright green colour and smooth taste really appealed to me, so when I received a bag of matcha powder from one of my best friends who lives in Singapore, I couldn’t wait to start baking.

The first thing I tried was these pinwheel cookies, as I thought they would look pretty and the recipe is quite foolproof. They turned out looking better than I had imagined, the vibrant green contrasting beautifully with the chocolate swirl.These cookies are soft centered, slightly crisp at the edges, and the flavours of matcha and chocolate balance well, neither of them overpowering the other. I used the matcha powder as I would use cocoa powder, and found that a little goes a long way. If you dont have matcha powder, you can leave it out- this will give you chocolate and vanilla cookies and a nice white/brown swirl.

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Matcha & chocolate Pinwheel Cookies:

Ingredients:

120g Softened Unsalted Butter

50g Caster Sugar

1tsp Vanilla Extract

1 Egg

150g Plain Flour

1tsp Matcha Powder

1 1/2 tsp Cocoa Powder

Method:

1. Beat together the soft butter and sugar untill well combined and smooth. Add the egg and vanilla extract, beat untill fully combined.

2. Sift the flour into the butter mixture, then mix untill there are no lumps and a soft dough has been created. Split this dough into two halves.

3. Add the matcha powder to one half of the dough and mix well untill there are no lumps. Repeat this process with the cocoa powder and the other half of the dough, so that you have two sets of dough- one green, one brown.

4. Wrap each lot of dough in cling film/ plastic wrap and refrigerate untill firm enough to roll out- this takes about twenty minutes.

5. Place the chocolate dough directly on top of the matcha dough and roll out into a rectangle about a 1/4 inch thick between two sheets of cling film.

6.Remove the top sheet of cling film, and using the bottom sheet to prevent sticking, gently roll the dough into a tight roll. Refrigerate the rolled dough untill firm- this takes about half an hour.

7. Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Cut 1/4 inch sections from the refrigerated dough roll and lay them out on a  greased baking sheet. Bake the cookies for ten minutes, or untill the edges have started to lightly brown.

I hope you enjoy these cookies as much as I did, they really are very simple to make!

Year in review: The best books I read in 2014

Top ten:

  1. We are all completely beside ourselves
  2. The universe verse Alex Woods
  3. The shock of the fall
  4. Elephant Moon
  5. Gone girl
  6. The prisoner of heaven
  7. And the mountains echoed
  8. Starter for ten
  9. The girl with all the gifts
  10. The maze runner

Reading resolutions for 2015:

To read more non-fiction

To read more books I’ve never heard of before

To read a little of something everyday

And of course,

To review more of what I read!

The girl with all the gifts : A book review

(Image from goodreads.com)

This is another book that I picked up not really knowing what I was getting into, but was intrigued when I saw  the blurb, which reads:

NOT EVERY GIFT IS A BLESSING

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class.

When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

Melanie is a very special girl.

I got a few chapters into this book before realising it was set during a zombie apocalypse, which made me debate putting it down, but I’m really glad that I stuck with this till the end. It reminded me of the first couple of seasons of The Walking Dead, where the show was less in your face horror movie material and more of a psychological thriller. I generally can’t watch horror movies without forfeiting sleep for a few days, but I’ve come to find that I do ok with zombies…at least the kind that are to be found in the pages of this book and also in the Walking Dead. So if you’re not sure about reading it due to the scary side of things, I would encourage you to read it regardless- it really isn’t terrifying by any means.

I loved that this book focused on four completely different characters. Melanie, the young girl, is an endearing character despite what we come to know about her, and I feel that the insight we’re given in to her thoughts and feelings throughout the book are important in helping us to accept the ending of the story. (I shall not be giving it away here, you’ll have to read the book to know what I’m talking about!). The three other characters that are central to the plot are Ms Justineu, Melanie’s teacher, Sergeant Parks, who I suppose is best described as her prison guard, and Dr Caldwell, a scientist. All three are adults, and all three have completely different reasons for being where they are, and behaving as they do. I welcomed these stark differences between the characters because they showcased the different decisions and reactions people could make under the circumstances. None of the three adults was over the top or exaggerated in terms of personality, you could understand and relate to all of them on some level. This meant the book managed to make me think about certain serious topics, like would it be ok to sacrifice a few for the sake of the majority, and are there certain actions that would make a person less of a human or no longer human. I appreciated that side of the novel as I didn’t expect a book about zombies to make me think, I thought it would be more of an action packed, entertaining kind of read.

That being said, I did find this book to be fairly fast-paced, and it wasn’t heavy going at all. I think it’s a good one for someone who doesn’t usually read scary or thriller stories but enjoys a good mystery, as well as those who love that kind of book.