Lockdown Reads – Pt 1.

Earlier this year I decided I was going to start writing book reviews – lockdown had helped me get out of a huge reading rut and I’ve read (and more importantly enjoyed reading) more this year than I have in a long time. Unfortunately, life and other responsibilities meant that suddenly this intention was relegated to a handful of half finished posts in my drafts – I’m not in the habit of doing anything much other than thinking/feeling about whatever book I’ve just finished in my head, rather than writing about it… With that said I’ve collated a few lil reviews/reflections on some of my lockdown reads below and there’ll (hopefully) be more coming soon…

Lanny by Max Porter – I’d had this on my to read list for a while because it sounded wonderfully strange/intriguing and I loved it even more than I expected to – it was both familiar and otherworldly… and utterly brilliant.

Not far from London, there is a village. This village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago. It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present. It belongs to families dead for generations, and to those who have only recently moved here, such as the boy Lanny, and his mum and dad. But it also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, who has woken from his slumber in the woods. Dead Papa Toothwort, who is listening to them all.

Lanny, Max Porter.

I feel like any attempt at a review couldn’t quite give a sense of this novel – its use of language, its magic, its rhythm and its unpredictability. It really stuck with me and was such a joy to read – I passed it onto my boyfriend afterwords and he loved it too, finishing it just as quickly as I did. Whilst it’s a short read, it’s also one that brims with sensitivity, with the mythical, with the bitterness and the hopefulness of human life and somehow Porter manages to make all this feel effortless. A new favourite that I’m sure read again and again.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People feels too obvious to even talk about, but it was something I finally read early on in lockdown, after the hype for the new BBC series became unavoidable. I fell in love with everything about it – the soft, tender and understated portrayals of emotions that can feel so huge, the settings, the characters themselves (which were portrayed absolutely incredibly by Daisy Edgar Jones, Paul Mescal and the rest of the cast)… So many people have already articulated why far better than I will here, but briefly I’ll say that I loved the way in which Rooney writes dialogue, the way that she explores and expresses those moments that get inside of us and shape who we are as we grow up, and how closely bound that is with where we grew up and the world we thought we knew. Connell’s feelings of being out of place both back home and at University were something that really resonated with me and were probably the moments that made my heart ache the most within it all – that familiar feeling of everything seeming to unravel, leaving you scrambling and rootless is something that will always stick with me.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – Set across three different periods of history, from the 1700s to the modern day, the novel follows Sarah, Ruth and Viv as their lives are shaped by the violence of the men surrounding them. The book is not an easy read, it is filled with brutality and violence and brimming with anger. Men are mostly cruel within its pages, in a relentless way which almost loses impact after a while (though that’s relevant to the ways in which we become desensitised to a constant stream of tragedy in our every day lives). Women aren’t the only ones to suffer at the hands of men in the novel and I really appreciated the explorations of the ramifications of war and of childhood abuse – I actually felt like the characters of Michael and Christopher were the most touching in the book in many ways. The narrative following Sarah did not materialise in the way I anticipated, but there are clever echoes and plays upon history throughout and its impact is there in a subtle way. My favourite thing about the book was the way that Wyld captured the fragmentary nature of the way in which we and our families and our pasts all exist together… Part of me definitely felt frustrated by the ending – though I’m not entirely sure that this is a bad thing… Ultimately, this novel felt like a remembrance, an act of defiance against the way in which suffering is so often erased from society, rather than simply a tale of multiple narratives woven together in a necessarily satisfying and palatable way…

Books For Bad Days

Hello! With grey rainy days and the mixed feelings that come with lockdown easing, I’ve seen lots of people on my timelines feeling a bit down or struggling at the minute. With this in mind, I thought that I’d quickly share a few reads that I’d recommend for those days when you need a pick-me-up, some perspective or an escape from whatever is going on in your head. Whilst they’re three quite different books, they’re all ones you can dip in and out of and (along with a sugary cup of tea) help me to feel a lot calmer on those days when your mind feels like an overwhelming place to be.

First up is Liv Purvis’ The Insecure Girls Handbook. I truly can’t recommend this book enough for those days when you’re feeling a bit shit about yourself, whether it’s to do with your career, body image or the FOMO that comes from too much time scrolling on Instagram. Liv chats with women who are doing amazing things to empower women across the globe and these varied perspectives and insights mean we can all find a bit of ourselves within this book’s pages. With a relaxed and friendly tone that never veers towards preachy, this book is one you’ll be grateful to have on your shelf on those days when you need something other than your inner critic in your head.

Next is Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. You’ve probably seen Charlie’s beautiful illustrations over on Instagram and it’s not surprising at all that this book won Waterstones Book of the Year in 2019. I can’t quite convey how lovely this book is to own – its’ pages are filled with the most beautiful drawings and it’s just so soothing to flick through and to read. The messages inside are hopeful and keep a childlike feeling of curiosity. On a difficult day, it can be just the kind of thing you need to be reminded that there are gentle and wonderful things in the world.

Finally, I’m finishing up with Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy. Emma talks openly about her struggles with her mental health and beautifully conveys the ways in which nature helps to ground her and keep her going on the difficult days. Her drawings and photographs are the perfect antidote to city living, if you’re craving a bit of green space, and the little details of life on her daily walks or drives through the countryside always give me a brief but lovely escape from whatever’s going on in my own world.

If you end up picking up any/all of these books I really hope they make the rough days a little softer for you. And remember to support independent bookshops as much as possible with your purchases, as they need our support now more than ever.

My Dark Vanessa – A Review

Hello! Today I thought I’d give writing a book review a go – this isn’t the kind of post I’m used to writing but I’m mainly doing so to see if it’s something I’d enjoy – reading and writing are my favourite things to do so maybe writing about reading will end up being something I do more of!

I’ve had my eye on ‘My Dark Vanessa’ since peach covered proofs started to hit my Twitter and Instagram feeds months ago. Exploring protagonist Vanessa Wye’s relationship with her English teacher, Jacob Strane, and its ongoing impact on her life as, many years later, accusations of sexual assault towards him and others begin to role in, it’s definitely a jarring read. Part of me was admittedly sceptical about whether the novel would bring anything new to conversations regarding abusive relationships, consent and current movements and I steered away from reading about the author or the novel’s controversies, not wanting anything to influence my initial reading. But ultimately, I found a novel that tackles issues of victimhood, consent and how this all fits into the #MeToo era in a nuanced and incredibly emotive way.

One of the things that struck me most about the novel was Vanessa’s struggle with the idea of victimhood – her painful inability to reconcile her expectations of what a victim should be with her own perceived agency and consent in her relationship with Strane. It’s something I think anyone who has ever been in abusive or toxic relationship might be able to identify with – that uncomfortable feeling that something bad has happened to you but that your own behaviour must surely negate from the validity of any resulting trauma. This, combined with Vanessa’s vulnerability during her years at private school left me feeling, in some ways, more connected with her character than I expected to.

That vulnerability and it’s complete exploitation, which Russell expresses so well, is what makes the novel truly devastating. Vanessa, like so many of us when at high school, struggles with feeling unseen and disconnected from those around her. The cruelty of the novel is that, not only is it this very human feeling that allows Strane to groom her in the first place, but it is his manipulation of this feeling; always creating the illusion that Vanessa is in control, able to consent, possessing agency, that not only results in a feeling of ‘otherness’ throughout Vanessa’s adult life, but leaves her feeling as if she is to blame – as if it is that ‘difference’ that means such a relationship could happen to her. The way this manipulation drips through the novel, happening slowly and becoming increasingly apparent as the relationship progresses, leaves you feeling all the more empathetic for Vanessa. The nervousness, the excitement, the familiarity of having a crush portrayed alongside the sinister and increasing cruel behaviour of Strane makes the situation feel truly heartbreaking.

The #MeToo movement’s involvement in the novel fit well with the overarching plot and I found the portrayals of what the movement means for different women to be really well expressed – the opportunistic journalist using awful experiences as a ticket to some sort of woke success, the victim empowered by identifying and exploring her experience, the woman just trying to get through and build her life up and away from abuse. The awful ramifications that women suffer through when they come forward were something I wish any sceptic of the #MeToo movement could read – because this novel is not just a blanket ‘believe women’, it’s an exploration of the ways in which they are failed by the institutions with a duty of care towards them and the way in which their experiences, and their coming forward, are painful and conflicting and far more complex than whether they are a victim or not, whether they are empowered or vilified.

Part of me often felt a little frustrated with Vanessa’s character, though this is no failing of the book at all – whilst it might have been easy to add in traits that would have made her more endearing or likeable, it would’ve also undermined one of the messages of the novel itself. Vanessa should not need to be a palatable character, one who is always easy to empathise with and pity (though she is often that, too) – she should be a human, just trying to understand herself, her experiences, what they mean for her and how she can go on to live a life she is content with. And the public aren’t to own victims, to lay claim to their lives.

I’ve been wondering if, after finishing My Dark Vanessa, I should re-read Lolita for the first time since high school, and how a second reading might impact my perception of both books. It still feels deeply unsettling to hear the occasional reference to Lolita as a love story, and I’d hope that a copy of My Dark Vanessa falls into the hands of any who perceive it so… Not only is it challenging, but My Dark Vanessa is thoughtful, devastating and nuanced – a brilliant sit down and devour kinda’ read.

Between

I didn’t end up blogging yesterday, but I think that’s ok when it’s because my evening was instead filled with lovely people and pizza and watching one of my favourite films (Pride!!! If you haven’t watched it you must). Today I thought I’d talk a little about ‘Between’, a collection of my poetry published in a zine by The Horsfall Gallery and 42nd Street Mcr. It also features cover art by the lovely Maddie Ismael.

It meant so much to be able to put this collection together, particularly as any money raised from people buying a copy go straight to finding the work that 42nd Street do. They do such amazing work and as an organisation mean so much to me – their support has helped shape the person I am today and I’m not sure where I’d be without them.

Whilst some of the pieces in the collection are also featured in The Trapped Mermaid, they all explore feeling kind of on the edge of things or between people and places and selves. It’s a collection of work written when I was trying to reconcile and figure out so much of myself and how I’ve changed. Pieces explore everything from falling in love with a city to how I feel about class and my relationship with myself and others. Some pieces were written before I’d ever shared any of my writing with anyone (and never quite expected to, as much as I wanted to) and it’s strange to see them end up in print for people to read – more so than when I self-published The Trapped Mermaid.

There’s the critical part of me that feels uncomfortable even briefly talking about creative projects and I think it’s a shame – I don’t know if I’ll ever quite feel like I deserve to take up creative space and I quietly let The Trapped Mermaid go out into the world without making a big deal out of it, despite the fact that it’s a collection that means so much to me. So this is a tentative little acknowledgement that I made a thing and that is something I should celebrate in itself.

If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can either message me or they’re on sale at The Horsfall Gallery in Ancoats.

3 places to visit in London…

London is forever a city of magic to me, whether it’s a sunshine filled South Bank trip or the central line at rush hour. Last week I headed down for a long weekend and, whilst I usually end up sticking to my favourite old haunts (despite my best intentions), this time we visited a handful of new places, and so I thought I’d share a few of them here – a bookshop, a brunch spot and a bar (the three B’s of any decent city-break).

Persephone Books – Holborn.

Persephone Books is somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit for ages – a dream of a shop, stacked with hundreds of beautiful grey-jacketed books, a scattering of pretty flowers and the loveliest staff. They specialise in reprinting/publishing a variety of out-of-print texts, from diaries to short stories, with a focus on women writers. They also have the loveliest tote bags, which seem to be the second weakness of everyone who spends all their money on books… A copy of their first book of short stories seemed like a good place to start my collection and I’m already anticipating a shelf of my bookcase ending up being entirely devoted to grey spines.

Megan’s – Kings Road.

Brunch is my favourite meal (after a Sunday roast…) and I’m constantly trying somewhere new and then declaring it the best brunch I’ve ever had. But Megan’s really was. Really. Aside from being in a dreamy restaurant, filled with pretty lights and flowers (which is admittedly enough to lure me in), the staff were all very friendly and helpful and the food was incredible. We all ordered a full english (with added hash browns, obvs) and everything was just delicious – including a smoothie which left me feeling slightly less guilty about all the unhealthy food I’d eaten all weekend, without tasting like I was drinking a glass of liquid grass…

Bar Elba – Waterloo.

After climbing up a seemingly endless flight of stairs, complete with lots of colourful walls and Napoleon quotes, we arrived at Bar Elba. A rooftop bar on a rainy day – except with lots of heaters and a covered roof to keep us warm. The cocktails were all amazing- and also, especially for London, affordable if you took full advantage of the happy hour deal (which we definitely did). I always imagine London roof bars to be overly busy places where you spend most of your time in an endless wait to be served, but Elba was a lovely place to go for a few drinks and not too busy. The summery cocktails, sheltered roof and view of a rainy London skyline made for a surprisingly cosy afternoon before a tipsy tube journey home…

How to look after your mental health at University.

This week I had my final ever University exam, which feels kind of surreal… I’m not quite sure it’s hit me that it’s all over, but given how much my mental health has impacted my experience of the last three years I thought it’d be good to write a bit of an advice post for navigating university life whilst looking after yourself – it’s been harder than I hoped, but wonderful in entirely unexpected ways and hopefully I’ve got some helpful advice to share!

 

  • Don’t pressure yourself to have ‘the best three years of your life’. University might well be a time that you look back on with nostalgia, filled with incredible memories. But three years is a long time and university is full of changes for a lot of people, especially when you’re first finding your feet. Take the pressure off of yourself and don’t feel bad if you’re not constantly having an amazing time/making memories/finding your ‘friends for life’. It’s normal to feel isolated, anxious and down at times – you’re not failing. And you’re much more likely to find yourself genuinely contented if you don’t expect your experience to be amazing 24/7.
  • Remember that there’s a billion different ways to experience University life. Particularly when you’re scrolling through endless photos of huge groups of people heading out clubbing, it can be easy to wonder if you’re doing university ‘right’. Are you going out enough? Making enough friends? Trying enough new things? But it’s important to remember that your own happiness and enjoyment comes before any preconceived expectations of how you should be spending your time. Push yourself and try things you might not initially think you’d be too keen on, but don’t stamp down your personality and interests in order to have a specific type of university experience.
  • Make sure you’re aware of what resources are on offer to you, if you need them. Whether you’ve experienced problems with your mental health before or not, it’s always a good idea to be aware of what help is available should you end up needing it. Have a quick search for your University’s counselling services and see if there’s other resources in your area to help look after your mental health – creative therapies, mindfulness events etc. If you’re Manchester based, I’ve provided a lil list of some great resources at the bottom of this post.  But this doesn’t just apply to directly mental health related services – find out what financial help/bursaries/loans your University offers; these things can be really useful, particularly if your mental health impacts your ability to work alongside your degree.
  • Try to open up and avoid isolating yourself. Whether it’s giving a friend from home a quick text, admitting you’re having a bit of a ‘down’ day to someone off of your course or forcing yourself to spend a little longer than you would usually socialising in a communal kitchen, try to make sure you don’t go from ‘making time for yourself’ to just isolating yourself – anxieties and emotions are often intensified after a few days avoiding the world in your room. And besides, those around you might appreciate your honesty if they too aren’t feeling great.
  • Find your happy places. This might take a little bit of time, but try and get out and explore your new city/campus. Stumbling across places where you can retreat for a little bit of quiet and calm can be so important when you’re in a University bubble. It might be a green bit of your campus, a coffee shop you really like or a bit of countryside you can get to easily enough – just find somewhere where you can be with your thoughts and relax.
  • Try and get outside of your University bubble. Especially if you’re feeling anxious or trapped, getting out of the bubble of university life can be really important. If going home is both an option and a safe space, try and schedule some trips back. Visit your friends at other universities. Or if you’re unable to do so, for whatever reason, try and find a way to engage with the local community outside of campus – find a volunteering opportunity or an event that you think you’d be interested in and go for it!
  • Be kind to yourself and accept your limitations. University can be full of expectations to excel academically, get work experience/internships and socialise. But if you’re struggling to do any/all of this, your worth does not change. It’s important to accept your limitations (which will fluctuate over time), be kind to yourself and focus on what you need, rather than what you feel you should be doing/what other people expect of you. If you’re not well enough to manage a part time job alongside your studies or you don’t have a huge group of friends that you see 24/7, don’t see this as a reflection on your capabilities/character. Be patient with yourself, ask for help when you need it and celebrate your victories, whether they’re big or small.

 

 

Manchester based resources:

42nd Street & The Horsfall42nd Street offer individual and group therapy as well as groups such as MORR which are great to get involved with. The Horsfall is a gallery/creative space that’s linked with 42nd st and offers lots of wonderful creative stuff – from an art/drawing session every Thursday to exhibitions.

Open Mind Manchester Open Mind are a University based society, with groups operating at both the University of Manchester and MMU. They share helpful resources and run an excellent range of events, from mental-health themed spoken word nights to ‘PositiviTEA’ and ‘Share your Story’.

WeAreAssifCheck out their website/instagram for lots of interesting blog posts/articles and events in Mcr – from a book club to walks in Heaton Park.