Sunday, 27 November 2016

Christmas Reads

Image result for two types of people christmas memeChristmas is coming. Which means, to borrow a now much-used meme, you'll be one of two types of people. Personally, I start out as a bit of a Theoden as I have a November birthday and no one is allowed to mention the C-word until that's all done and dusted. Get past that and into December however, and I'm one jingle bell away from being an elf and a current away from becoming a mince pie all the way to the New Year. 

So it's a bit surprising that I've never much been into Christmas reading. I mean, I read at Christmas but I've never gone in for Christmas-themed books in the way that I like to read a ghost story at Halloween or something set in a far-away (preferably sunny) land in the summertime. In the last couple of years this has all changed however and I've definitely noticed that my reading has become more 'themed' to the seasons, including Christmas. So, as the season of joy and goodwill to all men is nearly upon us, I thought I would share some of the books making my December/Christmas reading list this year.

Murder at the Old Vicarage: A Christmas MysteryI do like to snuggle up with a good crime novel during the winter months - although I'm more of a classic and cosy fan than anything involving alcoholic detectives and dismembered body parts. Last year I very much enjoyed Jill McGown's Murder at the Old Vicarage which is set during a snowy Christmas and provides a Christie-like mystery with some thoroughly un-cosy twists and turns. The novel is a bit of a forgotten gem for crime fans but has recently been re-issued by Pan Macmillan with a very pretty Christmas-themed cover and a seasonal subtitle. It's the second book in McGown's series of novels about Chief Inspector Lloyd and Sergeant Judy Hill - although I had no trouble in picking it up without having read the first in the series.  
Mistletoe and Murder (Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, #5)
This year, Pan Macmillan are continuing the trend with Murder in Advent by David Williams, another re-issue (this time from 1985) complete with pretty snow-scene cover, which sees some sinister skulduggery going on in the cathedral town of Litchester when their proposed sale of a 1225 copy of the Magna Carta results in the murder of the verger and the burning of the ecclesiastical library. All of which sounds right up my street! I'm also going to be picking up the latest in the Wells & Wong series of YA mysteries by Robyn Young, which is entitled Mistletoe and Murder and promises to continue the series traits of sleuthing schoolgirls, ingenious plot twists and festive delights. To round off the Christmas crime, I've also set aside one of the British Library Crime Classics series, Mystery in White by J Jefferson Farjeon, which features a Christmas Eve train journey halted by heavy snow, a mysteriously deserted country house and a murderer in the midst. I've heard nothing but good things about the book, originally published in 1937, so Christmas seems a good excuse to finally indulge. 

Skipping ChristmasFor a more light-hearted read, I have been lent John Grisham's Skipping Christmas, a slim volume that has since been turned into a film 'Christmas with the Kranks' and sees the erstwhile Luther and Nora Krank decide to skip Christmas and set off on a luxurious Caribbean cruise over the festive season. As they soon realise however, skipping Christmas has unintended consequences and isn't half as easy as they'd imagined. This sounds like a lot of fun and may be a much-needed respite when the hectic frenzy of eating, drinking and making merry starts to get a little much!

His Dark Materials (His Dark Materials, #1-3)Christmas 2016 will also hopefully find me finally finishing Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy by reading The Amber Spyglass, the last in the series of epic novels that relate the universe-traversing adventures of Lyra Belaqua and her friend Will Parry. This isn't exactly a Christmas book per-se but there's something about the setting (much of the first book takes place in the Arctic Circle) and the magic of it all that makes it a book that's perfect for snuggling up with at this time of year. 

Lastly, but by no means least, the festive season is a good time for old-favourites. I do like to commence my annual re-read of The Lord of the Rings at this time of year but, for a slight change, have opted this year to listen to the excellent unabridged audiobooks read by Rob Inglis. He has a lovely, calming voice that really brings out the charm of Tolkien's writing and his Gandalf is absolutely spot on. And continuing with classics, my mum bought me a gorgeous illustrated edition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol some years ago which I always re-read in the days before Christmas. I find Dickens a difficult writer to get on with sometimes but there's something so timeless about the story of Scrooge - it practically invented Christmas as we know it and never fails to get me in the mood for the holidays. I combine it with watching A Muppet Christmas Carol which I will always maintain to be the ultimate in Christmas films. 

And that, folks, is what I plan to be doing on my holidays! Or at least, reading when I get the change in between the hectic round of writing cards, wrapping and delivering presents, preparing food and ensuring everyone's glasses remain full of their chosen festive tipple. What will you be reading this holiday season? Do you read seasonal books or just treat the Christmas holidays as an opportunity to catch up on your usual TBR? As always, let me know in the comments down below or find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs or over on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks. And, until the next time....

Happy Reading! x

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Books To Escape & Engage

Sooooo....tough week huh? Whatever you think of the election results from across the pond, the resulting global uncertainty means rough times for a lot of people. 2016 has seen a lot of tension in the world and there has, undoubtedly, been a shift to the political right both here in the UK and now across the waves in the US also. And as a result a lot of us are feeling, well, a bit scared. So I wanted to write a post that, in some small way, might help to combat that and to share some books that can help you escape from the bad stuff, even if that's just for a little while. 

That said, I know there are a lot of people out there (me included) who want to take recent events as a wake up call - an opportunity to become more politically engaged with and active within the world - so I've also included a couple of books that I feel challenge attitudes and help us to better engage with each other as empathetic human beings. So whether you're looking for a comfort read to escape into or something to get you all fired up and ready for action, read on!

Comfort Reads

The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings, #1)When the going gets tough, the tough hit the bookshelves. Okay, so I'm paraphrasing but there's a lot to be said for cutting yourself some slack and curling up with a cosy read when the bad stuff is really getting to you. After all, if you don't look after yourself and let yourself indulge in a bit of cosiness every now and then, your body and mind will be in no fit state to get out there and fight the good fight the rest of the time. 

There's a few places I turn to when the chips are down, the first being to old favourites. The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is my very favourite book.  From the moment my beloved, much-missed Grandad read me the opening pages about Mr Bilbo Baggins and his eleventy-first birthday plans, I was hooked. At it's most basic, LOTR is a good old-fashioned adventure story with classic good versus evil narrative. Scratch beneath the surface however and it's so much more than that. Tolkien himself saw both the best and the worst that humanity had to offer, fighting in the trenches of the First World War, and he put it all into this book. There's friendship, romance (and bromance), messages about tolerance and understanding and oh so much more. It never fails to comfort me in a crisis and now more than ever I think we need to remember that there's some good in the world and it's worth fighting for. Honourable mention here to J K Rowling's Harry Potter series, which needs no introduction and is another go-to feel-good fantasy for snuggling up with.

Pride and PrejudiceFor non-fantasy fans, I find a Jane Austen never fails to cheer me up. Pride and Prejudice is, of course, perfection itself but I would also suggest Northanger Abbey, an earlier work that often gets overlooked but has a great deal of Austen's trademark wit as well as a lively satire of the gothic novel and the risks of believing everything you read - a moral that could still be learnt by many in the social media age. Another honourable mention here for Georgette Heyer, whose rollicking regency romances provide drama and humour in equal measure. 

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1)Or how about a bit of classic crime? Queen of the golden age, Agatha Christie never fails to divert me with her ingenious plotting and quintessentially English settings. For true cosiness, I recommend the sharp-eyed Miss Marple, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage. The British Library Crime Classics series also has some true gems, with re-issues of a number of over-looked golden age authors. I've recently discovered John Bude's Superintendent Meredith series, starting with The Lake District Murder, which provide gently taxing mysteries that revel in the intricacies of solid, dogged police work. Another cosy favourite is Simon Brett, with both his Mrs Pargeter novels and his later series of Fethering Mysteries featuring fussy ex-civil servant Carol and her hippy neighbour Jude.

Guards! Guards! (Discworld, #8; City Watch #1)If humour is more your thing, very little bits a dose of Terry Pratchett's 'Discworld' series. Pratchett had that magical ability to be extremely funny whilst also being extremely relevant and his skewering of many modern mores within the Discworld framework never fails to make me laugh. My personal favourites are the Guards series, which begins with Guards! Guards!

Finally, for a non-fiction recommendation, I give you Matt Haig's wonderful Reasons to Stay Alive. This isn't exactly comfort reading - it's a fairly direct confrontation with the darkest days of mental illness - but Matt is so unfailingly positive in his approach and has written with such heart and passion that it's a real boost for anyone feeling that life has just kicked them down. And, as it says in the title, it provides many, many reasons to keep hoping, to keep engaging and to keep living. Which leads me nicely to... 

Engaging Reads

For those whose feelings tend towards action, reading has a lot to offer. Books have always enabled us to walk a mile in someone else's shoes and to engage with cultures and people that we might otherwise misinterpret or even ignore. Publishing has become much more aware of minority voices in the last few years which is a real boon for readers who can now more easily access stories from diverse voices. To be an engaged reader is to be an engaged person in the world, to struggle with ideas that are not your own and, ultimately, one of the first steps to challenging concepts and ideas in a mature and responsible way.

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaWomen's rights have come a long way but I  feel like 2016 has seen some bumps in the road. For me that makes books like The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerence Guide to the Mediaby Holly Baxter and Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, even more important. There's been a good deal of discussion about the role of the media in the political and social events of 2016 so a book that examines how women are portrayed in newspapers, in magazines and online is more timely now than ever. More kick-ass feminist writing comes courtesy of the indomitable Caitlin Moran whose How to Be a Woman should be required reading for all - and who expands into politics with her Moranifesto. And whilst it's guaranteed to make you feel very angry indeed, Laura Bates' Everyday Sexism is a reminder of what we're all fighting for. 

With a more political bent, Malala Yousafzai's I Am Malala is a resonating memoir about both the dangers and the importance of standing up for what you believe in - and is evidence that one voice really can change the world. And Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran is a remarkable story about the liberating power of literature in the face of repression. 

In the Orchard, the SwallowsFor those who prefer fiction, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale issues a powerful warning about how easily the world can turn with just a few steps in the wrong direction. Peter Hobbs' achingly moving novella In the Orchard, the Swallows reminds us of the enduring power of love and tenderness in the face of a corrupt and terrible enemy. Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, whilst brutally unforgiving, is a novel about the virtues of compassion and a reminder that even the most successful person could well be putting on a brave face. And, more recently published, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad provides a timely reminder about how far civil rights have progressed alongside a harrowing narrative that really brings the horrors of slavery to life. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was EvilStephen Collins' The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is a brilliant graphic novel that examines the nature of other and what it means to distinguish between 'us' and 'them' - stylishly drawn in black and white with little dialogue, Collins' modern fable has a powerful message hidden within its seemingly simple tale. 

And for those who find that poetry quiets the soul but feeds the mind, the Bloodaxe series of anthologies edited by Neil Astley, starting with Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Timesprovide a series of challenging poems on various topics from a diverse range of contemporary poets. 

The Good ImmigrantFinally, a recommendation for a book that I haven't yet read but very much intend to, which is The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla which is a series of essays by 21 writers examining what it means to be black, asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. 

Whatever your feelings about the year so far, I hope you'll find these recommendations useful - we all need a little comfort now and again and we also need occasionally reminding about the power of literature to do good in the world. Hopefully this selection of books will do a little bit of both. As always, I'd love to know your thoughts if you've read any of them - and I'd be delighted to receive recommendations for any titles you would choose as comfort reads or engaging reads. You can find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs, on Litsy @shelfofunreadbooks and over on Goodreads as Shelf of Unread Books - or drop a comment down below. Stay safe my lovelies and never give up what you believe in - and, as always....

Happy Reading x