Wild & Improbable Tales – Paradise In Flames

Stepping out into the blistering heat, they walked with heads down, oblivious to their fellow travellers. They watched their steps, trying to avoid tripping and falling to the scorching ground below, and so did not see the creature that reared above them, cloaked in the poisonous fumes of their journey.

Heat rippled through the air. Shimmering waves of boiling atmosphere distorting the landscape until it seemed to shift and heave around them: almost alive.

They had dreamed of basking in the sun. After all, they deserved paradise. They deserved that long rest, surrounded by beauty, every need and want met.

Turning up their faces to absorb the warmth of the sun, they didn’t realise that the flames were all around them. They smiled, at first. And then they burned.


“You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleaded. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.”

Strange The Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Inspired by Erin Morgenstern’s Flax-Golden Tales, I have decided to embark on my own creative writing blog series, “Wild & Improbable Tales”, as a way to write more freely and more frequently. At least once a week, I will choose a card at random from The School Of Life‘s ‘Small Pleasures’ box and use the image and/or writing on the back to inspire a short piece of creative writing. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Wild & Improbable Tales – Suit Up

No one saw it for what it really was. When they saw him striding the halls and directing their meetings, they assumed the freshly pressed suit and perfectly knotted tie were simply business dress.

They didn’t know that, when he got home at night and loosened that restrictive strip of fabric, the rest of him unraveled with it. They didn’t know that their confident, assertive leader shed his stoicism with the layers of expensive tailoring. They didn’t know the vulnerability of his true self; that whilst his head may be in the game his heart was in the clouds, yearning for the life of a wandering dreamer.

The daily struggle between expectation and longing was always hidden behind buzz words and neatly ordered spreadsheets. Until he was alone and free to dream, to marvel, to create, or sometimes to simply fall apart, as the world would never allow him to do in sight of his troops. The dreaming and marvelling and creating and falling took him to beautiful and terrible places, where he meandered all the night, until it was time to suit up his armour again. For he went not to work but to war.

If only they had known, they would have unraveled with him.

For The Joy Of It

For a long time I have been saying that I want to write. And for a long time, I haven’t. There are all sorts of reasons for that but mainly I never had the time. Which actually means I never made the time. I never made the time because sitting down to write felt like such an indulgence; there were always other things that I ‘should’ be doing. I never made the time because I was convinced I wasn’t actually any good at writing and so what was the point. I never made the time because I was scared: here was a thing I wanted, badly, to do well at. A thing I would love to make at least part of a career out of. But what if I tried and failed? By never actually doing it I could hold onto the daydream, writing odd snippets here and there, but never risking the possibility of discovering it was never meant to be.

You’d have thought I’d have learnt by now: dreams are worth the risk, and sometimes we should try just for the joy of it.

So I have started writing. Not quite daily at this point but more than ever before. I found the key was to let go a little of my fears and doubts; actually, not to do it in the hope that it would come to anything. Not to do it for anything or anyone. Just to write for me. Because I love it. I love the feeling of creating something that wasn’t in the world before. And when I approached it like that I found that the seeds of things that had been rattling round in my head started to grow. I wrote so many poems I stopped counting. And, even more joyfully, I started to write the story that has been in my mind for more years than I care to count.

I had an outline, written and rewritten over several years, and I had an opening to the story, which I wrote about a year ago, but nothing more. Because I stopped. I even liked what I had written, although it needed some editing, but in spite of my outline I just didn’t feel I knew what the story was, so I abandoned it. It was actually my students, and a couple of lovely friends, who encouraged me to pick it back up.

I run a creative writing class at the secondary school where I work (I know, a writer who doesn’t write teaching other people how to write…the irony is not lost on me) and for some time now my students have been asking to read something I had written. So one day I decided to be brave (and yes, it did take a lot of courage to do this – teens are nothing if not direct and, sometimes, brutal with their feedback) and share that opening chapter with them. I did it as part of a session on how to constructively critique other people’s work.

Firstly, I read some of their pieces and, as I always do, gave them feedback, this time trying to demonstrate my thought process: What did I really like and why? Tell them. What did I think had potential and how could it be developed? Tell them and make suggestions. What didn’t feel right in their narrative, why and what might make it feel better? Tell them but also enquire about their choices (as this might change the reading of it), explain why it didn’t feel quite right for me and work in partnership to see how it could be developed. It’s a lovely, collaborative process and the young writers I work with are so full of enthusiasm for writing, and so want to improve, that they are genuinely open to it and take on board feedback with interest and commitment to developing themselves, and their skills as writers. It’s inspirational to watch.

Next came the part where I had to be brave. Enthusiastic though they were to receive their own constructive criticism, they are often reluctant to give it to each other, usually deferring to me to do that part, purely because their class mates are also their friends and they were afraid of hurting one another’s feelings. Hence why I offered my work up as a guinea pig. I did tell a little white lie and assured them I was very used to receiving feedback of all kinds, positive and negative (not the case because I rarely share my writing other than what I post on here) and told them they should be very honest. I promised them my feelings would not be hurt if they didn’t like it (mostly true) and that their honest opinion was more important to me as a writer than any false praise they might want to give me. That was the truth. With a deep (internal) breath I gave them my opening chapter and pretended not to wait on tenter hooks as they read it.

The first person to finish looked at me and said possibly the best thing I could have been told: “It sounds like you, Miss.”

Now something sounding like me is not necessarily praiseworthy but what that meant to me was that she felt it was authentic. And that IS praiseworthy. Some of my fear fell away. Even if they didn’t like it, whatever I had written was true enough to myself that this student recognised me in it. I hadn’t even known that was important to me until that moment. As others finished reading they said they agreed, one commented that it “read like the colour red” – she couldn’t quite explain what she meant but it felt like a compliment! In fact the compliments came rolling in along with requests for the next chapter, please, and I had to steer them back to our critiquing framework. Flattering though the positive feedback was, I wanted their honest and thought out opinions. I wanted their ideas for improvement. And I got them. Tentatively, at first, but eventually with growing confidence they pointed out turns of phrase that resonated with them and ones that didn’t; they suggested alterations to vocabulary choices; they discussed certain sentence structures and whether they flowed as well as they could; they generally proved themselves to be the perfect first readers of my long locked away opening pages. (Well, not quite the first: my mum read them too.)

I made the alterations they suggested and since then not only have I shown those pages to two other people (both adults this time and one of whom, it turns out, is writing a book of his own – we did a pages swap!) but I also picked the story back up with gusto. I now have nearly ten thousand words of the story that has been tucked away for so long. On top of that, I also got up the courage to submit four of my poems to a publishing house, for consideration for an anthology. I have no idea if anything will come of that but it doesn’t matter, because I did it. I wrote the poems for me and I took the chance to share them. That is enough.

I am under no illusions that I will be the next J.K.Rowling. I have no idea whether any of my work will ever be published. But it turns out that it’s not the publishing that makes you a writer. It’s the writing. Just for the joy of it.

Any writers out there: what’s your work in progress? What stops you writing and how do you get over it?

Poems From The Library

Today is World Poetry Day and I had the pleasure and privilege of accompanying a group of students to our local care home, where they performed poetry they had written for the residents. It was a wonderful and moving experience to see these young people engage with such care, kindness, and interest with the older generation in our community. It was also a true testament to the power of poetry to move and inspire.

The students involved revelled in the opportunity to create poetry, several of them never having attempted anything like it before. The whole experience reinforced my own love of the poetic word and prompted me to reflect on my own experience of writing poetry. Unlike with other forms of writing, I often find that poems materialise inside me in a very natural way. Writing stories, articles, and blog posts usually takes a conscious effort of considered construction, but poetry often seems gifted to me.

I heard a wonderful TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert in which she shares Ruth Stone’s poetic process:

“…when she felt it coming – because it would, like, shake the earth under her feet – she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to – in her words – run like hell. And she would, like, run like hell to the house. And she’d be getting chased by this poem. And the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times, she wouldn’t be fast enough. So she’d be, like, running and running and running and the – she wouldn’t get to the house, and the poem would, like, barrel through her. And she would miss it. And she said it would continue on across the landscape looking, as she put it, for another poet.”

My own experience of being discovered (or chased!) by an emerging poem is not quite so dramatic but I can completely relate to the idea of a poem coming to the poet! Don’t get me wrong, my poems don’t just blink into life fully formed before me. I usually find that they sneak up on me and then just part of it will just appear to my consciousness very suddenly. It is like seeing something glinting in the grass and when I pick it up it becomes a thread for me to follow. I follow the thread and hope I can figure out where it was supposed to lead. I weave it into something new and hopefully capture that moment in time.

Lat summer, I was lucky enough to stay at Gladstone’s Library – something which I HIGHLY recommend to any writer or bookworm – and my time there really rekindled my love of writing poetry. One poem found me whilst I was writing in the library late one night and I thought I would share it with you today:

Night birds sing their sunset tune,

As the eloquence of trees is cloaked in shadow.

The final note rings out the day

And silence envelopes the warm, red brick.

But lights still glow through the leased windows,

And gentle figures sit in quiet reverence,

Breathing deep the ink and parchment dust

Of ages past.

Walked in by layers of words and prayers and panelled oak,

Held close by the carved pillars and balustrades

That guard the ancient knowledge of the library;

They sit

And seek

A knowledge of their own.

Outside the darkness creeps

And chases off the warmth of day

But inside the write by their own cones of light,

Cocooned in the low steady burn of ideas.

And even as the lights dim and blink out,

One

By one

By one,

And heavy heads hit feather pillows, to

Dream

And dream

And dream,

The seemingly slow and silent life of the library,

Carries on it’s endless forays into

History and Destiny and Fantasy,

Because imagination never sleeps.

The Joy of A Moment

Yesterday, I walked in the spring sunshine with snow swirling round me on a wintry wind. I watched my spaniel companion try to catch snowflakes in her mouth and leap amongst the tussocks with sheer joy and abandon. I had taken my kindle with me because I was so engrossed in my current read (A Thousand Perfect Notes by C G Drews), and so I walked through two worlds, alternately losing myself in the music woven into the words of the story and revelling in the beauty of the snowy, sunny, spring world around me. I had the works of some of my favourite composers playing in my ears, the twining melodies and harmonies lifting me from the inside and somehow heightening the many and varied beauties around me. All these little, everyday things, in which I found such delight, came together, as I reached a small rise at the edge of the field, and I felt a profound moment of joy and peace.

In the chaos of everyday life, and particularly through the struggles of coping with mental illness, it is so easy to forget what an exquisitely beautiful place the world is, and just how miraculous it is that we exist at all. As the height of that poignant moment passed, and settled into a quiet contentment, I found myself wishing I had a way to catch that peace and carry it with me, a way to hold it inside me somehow and bring it out when I needed it.

I have a lot of joy in my life. I am exceptionally lucky in my friends and family, my love and livelihood. And yet I sometimes lose myself. I become mired in worry and fear and an unfounded conviction that life is just too difficult and I can’t do it, despite evidence to the contrary. I have come to realise that this is one of the reasons I write – one of the reasons I want to write more: so I can capture those moments of joy and peace, and so hold on to them. So I can capture those moments of panic and fear, and so let them go. Writing has the magical property of allowing me to do both.

I have recently been practising (albeit sporadically) mindful writing, a concept I discovered through the book ‘The Joy of Mindful Writing’ by Joy Kenward. I have found it invaluable in helping me focus on those small moments and recalling past joys. I have found that the exercises help me feel centred – in a way that other mindful practices have not – and have the dual benefit of getting me to write and getting me to engage in some meditative practice. If you’re looking for a way to combine creativity, particularly writing, with mindfulness, I would highly recommend giving this book a read.

I really just wanted to write this today as a reminder, both to myself and to anyone who happens to be reading, that there is joy to be found in the everyday, even when life is hard or the world seems dark or you just feel lost. When you notice it, do what you can to catch it and carry it with you.

Wishing you all a peaceful week.

It’s #TimeToTalk, Now

It’s easy to be too busy

Or say

It’s not the right time

To worry that you’ll make it worse

So you accept their fumbled

“Fine.”

It’s hard to find the moment

For hearing truth

And depth

But really we’re just finding excuses

To keep ourselves

Deaf

To all the pain that gathers

When people can’t speak

Truth

And have to keep it bottled up

For fear of hurting

You

But what happens when you leave it?

When you let the silence

Grow?

What if their pain is your pain too

But not asking means

You’ll never

Know?

So let’s all breathe together

Hold hands and take

A dive

Into conversation

With neighbours

Strangers

Friends

And lovers

Because

Now

Is The Time.

  • JH

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk About The Borderlands

This is a piece of writing I did when I was struggling, torn back and forth between being overwhelmed by negative thoughts and striving to remember the good and hold onto hope. It’s about being in the borderlands between dark and light and finding a way out. I have shared it on here before but thought it was worth sharing again.

***

You think it will never end.

You cower in shadow, fear and doubt, huddled in the corners of your own mind.

Some days you are screaming inside “LET ME OUT” “MAKE IT STOP” “SOMEONE HELP”…

Some days you are numb. Empty. The void itself.

Alternately wracked with pain and removed from all feeling.

You know it’s there. The good. Some happiness. The light. But it is removed from you. Unreachable. Shuttered behind a transparent wall. Taunting you. The happy sounds muffled to your ears.

The creeping cold down your spine.
The boiling fear in your gut.
The loathing and anger and confusion and pain and…emptiness.

You cry.

You sit, dry eyed, and wish you could cry.

You rage.

You wish you could summon the will to rage.

You wish for the feelings to go away.

You wish for the feelings to return.

It all feels so out of control.

You wonder in the darkness “Will it ever end?”…

You wait.

You give up.

You decide to try again.

And repeat…

And repeat…

And repeat…

Until…

A flicker of something in the abyss.

A waif of light.

So insubstantial, like a child’s bubble blown on the wind; you absently wonder if it’s real and how it got there.

It beckons.

Some warmth returns, just to the very tips of your fingers.

It’s enough.

Hope.

It casts enough light for you to see the good again.

“I remember this place.”

A soft smile.

A tug towards the light, and the shadows recede a little further.

Warmth spreading as feeling returns.

Raw, a little fearful, you step into the light and turn your face to it. Eyes closed, basking in the gentle caress of warmth. There’s still a chill in the background, still shadows behind you, but that’s ok. For now you face the sun.

Walk in it. Remember the flowers, the soft breeze, the ground underfoot, the sky overhead. Life flows back and the numbness, the rage, the pain shrinks further. A mere speck.

You fear it will return.

Don’t.

Be present in the warmth and light. Relish being able to see and hear and feel again.

The shadows may try to pull you back. Sometimes they may manage to wrap their ebony tendrils around you again. But that light will never be extinguished.

Look how it found you in the depths of the night.

So even though you’re afraid, even though it still hurts, even though there is still a numbness threatening the edges of your existence, look to the light of your own being and emerge from the shadows.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Creating Opportunities

In order to encourage more open conversations around mental health, and breakdown the stigma surrounding it, we all need to take responsibility for creating opportunities where those conversations can occur. There are so many ways to do that but right now I’m going to share with you one of my favourites that is currently happening over on Instagram.

The lovely Lexi has found a unique and wonderful way to give people the opportunity to speak openly about their experiences of mental health. Every week, she hosts #AirItShareItWednesday, in which people can send her a private direct message with anything they would like to share, and Lexi will then share their experience on her Instagram story whilst protecting the person’s identity. In this way, people have the opportunity to speak openly with the sense of safety afforded by anonymity, and the community can offer support, advice, or just love and recognition to those individuals who choose to share, through Lexi.

Lexi began this initiative in order to “continue the conversation around mental health” and it’s a great example of taking the initiative to do something new and a bit different.

The response to this movement has been wonderfully positive and I love that Lexi has taken the time and care to open up this opportunity for sharing and conversation.

You can find Lexi on Instagram, Twitter, and on her blog. Pop over and say hi.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

A Word For The Year – 2018

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Another year gone. Another twelve months of highs and lows and everything in-between. The years seem to be flying by ever more rapidly and, as always, there is a strange mixture of excitement and melancholy as one year ends and another begins.

As with the last couple of years, I won’t be making any resolutions but instead I have chosen word that reflects my intentions and hopes for how I will choose to live these next twelve months. Last year, I chose ‘Nourish‘ as my word to live by. I wanted to nourish myself and my relationships with others and, whilst I can’t reasonably claim that I was driven by this unswervingly all year, it was definitely something I came back to repeatedly and it helped me to refocus when life became overwhelming.

This year, my chosen word is ‘Serenity’. This word choice was inspired by the well known and loved Serenity Prayer and so encompasses more than just its inherent meaning.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

In choosing ‘Serenity’ to drive my year in 2018 I am actually choosing (or maybe seeking) all the things in the prayer: serenity, acceptance, courage, and wisdom.

Turning 30 in 2017 made me increasingly aware of the many expectations I have, both of myself and others: expectations that are not always reasonable and that can lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety. I feel the need to continue developing my self awareness, to be able to recognise when I am holding onto things that I need to let go of, and to be brave enough to make a change (or stand up an demand one) when it’s needed.

I’m looking forward to whatever excitement 2018 has to offer and ready for whatever challenges it might bring. I wish you all a happy, healthy, prosperous year.

2017’s Top Ten(ish) Books

I did not read as many books in 2017 as I would have liked. In fact, I was a whole 20 books of meeting my Goodreads challenge! In spite of that, 2017 was a really good reading year and I discovered some new favourite authors and some new favourite books. I can never pick ONE favourite book but it takes something special for a book to worm its way onto my favourites list and this year at least TWO of the books I read made the cut…possibly even three. I’m undecided.

Anyway, I thought I would recap my year in books by sharing my top ten reads from 2017…but then I couldn’t quite whittle it down so it’s my top eleven. Who’s even counting?!

I have never really listened to audiobooks. I like to hold the actual book and savour the words in my own time. I’ve also previously struggled to find narrations that don’t annoy me. This year, however, saw the addition of a puppy to our family and with her arrival went a good chunk of my peaceful reading time. So I decided to give audiobooks another try to stave off the story withdrawal, since I can listen to them whilst I walk the pup. And now I’m hooked. It still all depends on the narration, as there have been a couple of books that I haven’t got more than a few minutes into before giving up through sheer annoyance at the narrator’s voice, but here are four audiobooks which not only had excellent narration but were also outstanding stories in and of themselves.

How To Stop Time – Matt Haig

Matt Haig is one of those authors who I have been meaning to read for forever. I’ve followed him on Twitter for a while and have a huge amount of respect and gratitude for his openness about mental illness and the way in which he offers support and encouragement to those who are struggling with their own mental health. I’ve read a few of his books this year and he has quickly become a favourite author.

How To Stop Time is a beautiful, eloquent portrait of what it means to be human: to want, to feel, to fear, to contemplate, to search, to love. Haig weaves and paints prose that reads like poetry until you are so enraptured by the image before that you hardly notice that he also wields words like a sword, until the moment when it pierces right to the heart of something you didn’t even know you were holding inside you. With compelling characters and an intriguing, twisting storyline, this is a tale to get lost in. The story, much like Haig himself, is endlessly quotable and is a veritable treasure trove of wisdom. This was the one downside of listening on audiobook: there were so many points when I wanted to stop and write down or just re-hear a quote (not really achievable when out walking an energetic puppy). With the help of Goodreads I managed to track down some favourites:

“Whenever I see someone reading a book, especially if it is someone I don’t expect, I feel civilisation has become a little safer.”

“Everything is going to be all right. Or, if not, everything is going to be, so let’s not worry.”

“A problem with living in the twenty-first century….. we are made to feel poor on thirty thousand pounds a year. To feel poorly travelled if we have only been to ten other countries. To feel old if we have a wrinkle. To feel ugly if we aren’t photo shopped and filtered.”

“Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

“We have the knowledge to realise we are just a mess of quanta and particles, like everything else is, and yet we keep trying to separate ourselves from the universe we live in, to give ourselves a meaning above that of a tree or a rock or a cat or a turtle.”

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is one of the most discomforting and yet endearing characters I have every come across. From very early on in the book I was intrigued by Eleanor’s unique way of seeing and operating in the world and desperate to understand more about her and her history. Raymond is a wonderfully loveable character and the development of his unlikely friendship with Eleanor is heartwarming – I loved every second of seeing it grow. Eleanor Oliphant is darkly comic in its exploration of the impacts of childhood trauma and the story raised both laughs and tears. I have to give special mention to Cathleen McCarron for her excellent narration of this tale – she really brought the characters to life and I so enjoyed listening to her unspool this story.

Although I have never experienced anything like what Eleanor has been through, I still found a lot to relate to in her character. Honeyman’s writing is amusing and highly relevant to so much human experience, here are just a few of my favourite quotes:

“A philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if a woman who’s wholly alone occasionally talks to a pot plant, is she certifiable? I think that it is perfectly normal to talk to oneself occasionally. It’s not as though I’m expecting a reply. I’m fully aware that Polly is a houseplant.”

“I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.”

“In principle and reality, libraries are life-enhancing palaces of wonder.”

“There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. The threads tighten slightly from Monday to Friday.”

“Sometimes you simply needed someone kind to sit with you while you dealt with things.”

“LOL could go and take a running jump. I wasn’t made for illiteracy; it simply didn’t come naturally.”

“If I’m ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, “What would a ferret do?” or, “How would a salamander respond to this situation?” Invariably, I find the right answer.”

“My phone doesn’t ring often—it makes me jump when it does—and it’s usually people asking if I’ve been mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance. I whisper I know where you live to them, and hang up the phone very, very gently.”

The Keeper Of Lost Things – Ruth Hogan

The Keeper Of Lost Things is a wonderful story of loss, love, finding and letting go. I was captivated by the idea of lost things being carefully collected and catalogued, eventually to be reunited with their owners and the cast of characters had the added charm of being lost on their own ways as well. The alternating narratives across different character’s perspectives and time provides a breadcrumb trail through the story – the connection there the whole time but just out of reach and understanding, until right towards the end. Happiness and heartache in almost equal measure make the story compelling and thoroughly enjoyable.

“Her grandmother had once told her that one could blame ugliness on one’s genes and ignorance on one’s education, but there was absolutely no excuse whatsoever for being dull.”

“Common decency, good manners, kindness and hard work were treated as peculiarities”

“A hush is a dangerous thing. Silence is solid and dependable, but a hush is expectant, like a pregnant pause; it invites mischief, like a loose thread begging to be pulled.”

The Bear And The Nightingale – Katherine Arden

This is one of my absolute favourite books, not just of 2017 but ever. I listened to the audiobook and was so utterly enraptured by the story that I am dying to get hold of a hardcopy so I can reread it and savour every word again. The first in the Winternight trilogy and voted best Sci-Fi and Fantasy book of 2017, The Bear And The Nightingale is one of those rare reads that is so immersive and enchanting that you forget you are reading (or in my case, listening) at all. I could feel the icy breath of the Russian winter with every turn of phrase and the magic seemed so real I felt Morozko himself dogged my footsteps. Here is a world caught in balance between the realities of harsh, arctic winters and the old, fantastical magic woven into centuries old folklore. It made me want to learn Russian and read every folk and fairytale I could get my hands on, and I did not want to leave the realm of the winter-king.

Arden’s prose is so lyrical it weaves a spell all of its own and her characters are so well developed that they step into being with barely the lift of an imaginary finger. The story was exquisitely narrated by Kathleen Gati and her voice only added to the wonder of the story. When I started listening I hadn’t realised it was the first of a trilogy so my excitement was palpable when I noticed The Girl In The Tower will be gracing bookshelves any day now. If I were to recommend any book from 2017, it would be this one.

“Wild birds die in cages.”

“Nay, it is the coming storm. The first sign is fear. The second is always fire. Your people are afraid, and now the fires burn.”

“It is a cruel task, to frighten people in God’s name.”

“But I think you should be careful, Batyushka, that God does not speak in the voice of your own wishing.”

Dear Ijeawele: A Femenist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I discovered Adichie through TED talks when I stumbled across her talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ and read her book of the same title off the back of it. I am yet to read any of her novels but immediately picked up Dear Ijeawele when I saw it and enjoyed it even more that We Should All Be Feminists. Both books should be required reading for everyone but Dear Ijeawele especially spoke to something deep in the heart of me. Direct, perceptive, and wryly amusing, Adichie’s letter to her friend gets to the root of what it is to be a woman in the 21st century.

A quick and compelling read, it’s one to shove into the hands of anyone and everyone. Politely of course.

“Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”

“If she likes makeup, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either, let her be. Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.”

“Because you are a girl” is never a reason for anything. Ever.”

“We teach girls to be likeable, to be nice, to be false. And we do not teach boys the same. This is dangerous. Many sexual predators have capitalized on this. Many girls remain silent when abused because they want to be nice. Many girls spend too much time trying to be “nice” to people who do them harm. Many girls think of the “feelings” of those who are hurting them. This is the catastrophic consequence of likeability. We have a world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likeable.”

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Not ordinarily one to reach for contemporary reads, I was pleasantly surprised by Me Before You. In fact, I loved it. I absolutely adored Louisa Clark and quickly wanted to make friends with her and sit down for a cuppa and a heart to heart. The story itself is also engrossing, being both heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure. I think what I loved most about this book though was that it didn’t succumb to the temptation to make everything all right in the end. There was something viscerally real about the stories understanding that love does not automatically make everything ok and that sometimes a happy ending doesn’t seem all that happy or look at all how you pictured it. I haven’t yet read the sequel to this book but and very much looking forward to it.

“You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible.”

“I will never, ever regret the things I’ve done. Because most days, all you have are places in your memory that you can go to.”

“I hadn’t realized that music could unlock things in you, could transport you to somewhere even the composer hadn’t predicted. It left an imprint in the air around you, as if you carried its remnants with you when you went.”

“You can only actually help someone who wants to be helped.”

The Princess Saves Herself In This One – Amanda Lovelace

I love a good poetry collection and this one really hit the spot. Gritty, unashamedly honest and beautiful, there is something profoundly relatable in Lovelace’s poetry, in spite of the differences in my personal experiences. I don’t really have an awful lot more to say about this one because I find poetry to be a very personal thing. It does deal with some very difficult and potentially triggering issues but I found The Princess Saves Herself In This One to be validating and inspiring.

“ah, life—

the thing

that happens

to us

while we’re off

somewhere else

blowing on

dandelions

& wishing

ourselves into

the pages of

our favorite

fairy tales.”

“repeat after me:

you owe

no one

your forgiveness.

– except maybe yourself.”

“once upon a time, the princess rose from the ashes her dragon lovers made of her & crowned herself the mother-fucking queen of herself.   – how’s that for a happily ever after?”

“fiction:

the ocean

i dive

headfirst

into

when i

can

no longer

breathe

in

reality.

– a mermaid escapist II.”

Blankets – Craig Thompson

Much like audiobooks, I’ve never really got into graphic novels but I’ve had a couple by Craig Thompson on my bookshelves for ages that my husband read and loved. So, over Christmas, I thought I’d give them a go and found I really enjoyed them. Blankets in particular was an excellent read with Thompson’s graphics really bringing the story and the characters’ struggles to life. The tale is both moving and thought provoking on a subject I have always found interesting and challenging: the tensions between the sense of belonging and the expectations present within a religion or religious community. The characters in Thompson’s story are imperfect and therefore very real. Whilst I’m not sure they will ever have the same richness as stories written in prose, I’ll definitely be trying more graphic novels as there they offer something unique.

“How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement – no matter how temporary.”

“Sometimes, upon waking, the residual dream can be more appealing that reality, and one is reluctant to give it up. For a while, you feel like a ghost — Not fully materialized, and unable to manipulate your surroundings. Or else, it is the dream that haunts you. You wait with the promise of the next dream.”

“On my first visit to the public library, I was like a kid at a candy store where all the candy was free.”

“At night, lying on your back and staring at the falling snow, it’s easy to imagine oneself soaring through the stars.”

Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig

Another wonderful book from Matt Haig; very different from the first mentioned in this post but just as profound. Haig’s unflinching account of his experiences of depression, anxiety, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts is raw, moving, and strangely uplifting. He gets right to the heart of what it is to be trapped in your own mind and the horrifying experience of not being able to be fully present in your own life, even when it’s a wonderful one. Reasons To Stay Alive gives you just that; as well as truly nailing the torment of mental illness, Haig’s account also provides a funny, even joyful reminder of what it is to truly love, and why we should strive to stay alive even when it seems the dark is closing in. It is a tale of survival as much as of struggle and reading it felt like being offered a hand to hold and hearing, in the voice of a friend, that we are never truly alone.

Recommended reading for all.

“THE WORLD IS increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn’t very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a new smartphone? By making them feel like they are being left behind. To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.”

“Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.”

“And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.”

“Maybe love is just about finding the person you can be your weird self with.”

“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”

“You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.”

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The Power is one of those books that I started shoving into everyone’s hands the moment I finished reading it. Before I finished reading it in fact. It is undoubtedly one of the most powerful and disturbing books I have ever read and it made me think about our world in a different way. It woke me up to some uncomfortable truths – some of which I had been aware of but somehow seemed to have accepted as just being the reality of things, and some to do with my own thinking which I was saddened to realise existed in my own thought patterns. Graphic, visceral, and haunting, it provides a frightening portrait of society, past, present, and…future? One can only hope not. With themes similar to those in The Handmaids Tale, The Power strikes at the heart of some of the most vivid fears, hopes, and tortures of being female, in any society, in any age. Whilst part of me wanted some of the storylines to be more rounded and developed, the messages of the book were sharp as a blade and I found it interesting to discuss the story with friends, both male and female, and everyone seemed to have taken something different from it. Above all else, it really seemed to highlight the dangers of power: in anybody’s hands.

“This is the trouble with history. You can’t see what’s not there. You can look at an empty space and see that something’s missing, but there’s no way to know what it was.”

“One of them says, ‘Why did they do it?’

And the other answers, ‘Because they could.’

That is the only answer there ever is.”

“Gender is a shell game. What is a man? Whatever a woman isn’t. What is a woman? Whatever a man is not, Tap on it and it’s hollow. Look under the shells: it’s not there.”

“the highest among us aren’t always the wisest…”

“We’re only pretending everything is normal because we don’t know what else to do.”

Strange The Dreamer – Laini Taylor

Strange The Dreamer was one of my most anticipated reads of 2017 and it did not disappoint. Taylor’s writing is rich, magical, and utterly mesmerising and her latest, long awaited, book is wonderful and beautifully strange: a dream in every sense. Uplifting and heartbreaking and utterly fantastic – stepping into this story is to have tour imagination ripped open in the best possible way, to find stars and flowers and terribly beautiful monsters waiting above. I didn’t think that Taylor would be able to beat the magic she wove with her Daughter Of Smoke And Bone trilogy but with Strange The Dreamer she did just that and I did not want to leave Dreamer’s Weep.

“”You’re a storyteller. Dream up something wild and improbable,” she pleaded. “Something beautiful and full of monsters.”

“Beautiful and full of monsters?”

“All the best stories are.””

“It was impossible, of course. But when did that ever stop any dreamer from dreaming.”

“I turned my nightmares into fireflies and caught them in a jar.”

“And that’s how you go on. You lay laughter over the dark parts. The more dark parts, the more you have to laugh. With defiance, with abandon, with hysteria, any way you can.”

“You think good people can’t hate?” she asked. “You think good people don’t kill?”[…]”Good people do all the things bad people do, Lazlo. It’s just that when they do them, they call it justice.”

“Without his books, his room felt like a body with its hearts cut out.”

“There was a man who loved the moon, but whenever he tried to embrace her, she broke into a thousand pieces and left him drenched, with empty arms.”

“The library knows its own mind… When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.”

So there you have it, my top reads of 2017. I highly recommend that you pop off and read every one of them immediately. Just the thing to brighten up the wet, cold start we’re having to 2018.

Happy reading!