Review of Umami by Laia Jufresa

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Umami is a novel set in Mexico City that follows the residents of five houses (named after the flavours sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami) all of whom are experiencing some form of loss or grief. The story has five narrators, there is twelve-year-old Ana trying to make sense of the death of her little sister, Luz; Marina, an artist recovering from anorexia who creates colours to describe emotions; Alfonso, an anthropologist mourning the death of his vivacious wife, Noelia (who was in life grieving her own childlessness); Pina, Ana’s friend and neighbour, trying to understand her mother’s unexplained departure from the family, and finally, Luz, describing the events leading up to her death.

Umami has an unusual and non-linear structure, each chapter focuses on one character during a particular year starting with Ana in 2004, switching to Marina in 2003, then Alfonso in 2002, Luz in 2001 and Pina in 2000, before returning to Ana and working backwards again. The time and character shifts can seem disorientating at first but it allows the story to unfurl gradually and shows how seemingly ordinary interactions between the characters can take on greater meaning and significance once the consequences are fully revealed.

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Umami is a short novel that tackles some big themes such as loss, grief and identity. As Ana and Pina take their first awkward steps towards adolescence, Alfonso is adjusting to his own transition from husband to widower and also describes Noelia’s struggle with her own identity as a wife and respected cardiologist but “only a daughter” because of her childlessness, while Marina attempts to overcome anorexia, an abusive childhood and work out who she is.

The sense of loss that permeates through the novel isn’t the tidal waves of sorrow, anger and shock that wash over us when grief is fresh, but the dull ache of missing someone that never really goes away no matter how many years pass, and of slowly trying to find a new purpose in life.

The slow and thoughtful pace of Umami has been a pleasant contrast to the busy-ness at work and home in my own life over the last few weeks, and Umami is a poignant but hopeful novel that lingers long after the story ends.

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Review of ‘Close Encounters of the Furred Kind’ by Tom Cox

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Close Encounters of the Furred Kind starts not long after where The Good, The Bad and The Furry (reviewed here) left off, with Tom Cox and his partner contemplating moving their lives and their four cats from Norfolk to rural Devon.

Much like his blog and other books about cats, Close Encounters of the Furred Kind is laugh-out-loud funny in places as Tom describes the upheaval and stress of moving across the country with his four beloved felines, his attempts to domesticate and adopt a local feral cat, taking up dog-walking as a hobby, conversations with his parents and interactions between his feline friends. Yet I find Tom is at his most eloquent when contemplating the ageing and mortality of the cats with whom he shares his home and around which his life revolves, it is perhaps the knowledge that most of us will outlive our pets that makes us love them all the more fiercely.

Sadly since this book was published, two of Tom’s cats, The Bear (a soulful philosopher) and Shipley (a cantankerous chatterbox) have passed away, but they will live on through these books in his vividly captured descriptions of their personalities and mannerisms.

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It was about six months ago that we found a mast cell tumour on our own cat’s tail, and although it was removed before it spread, she is still at a higher risk of developing another tumour than other cats and is currently in a period of monitoring. As grateful as I am to all the vets who have treated Mara, I always feel anxious whenever she goes for check-ups and tests (which are not without risks), and about what the results might reveal, but I’ve drawn comfort from reading books like this from other animal lovers who understand just how much our lives are enriched by the affections and companionship of our pets.

After a busy week I’ve enjoyed spending a lazy weekend at home curled up on the couch with my husband, Mara snoozing across our laps and Close Encounters of the Furred Kind to amuse me. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘The Silmarillion’ by J.R.R. Tolkien

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As a child both of my parents took turns to read stories to me, yet my dad was never much of a reader himself. The exceptions, however, were J.R.R. Tolkien’s tales of elves, dwarves and hobbits in Middle-Earth, which captured his imagination as a teenager and have continued to fascinate him over the years. My dad and I have spent countless hours discussing the books and film adaptations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I have always struggled to get into The Silmarillion, which happens to be his favourite book.

I recently learned that my dad, who has suffered from backache all of his adult life, requires surgery as the underlying condition has been steadily deteriorating and has now reached a level of severity where the risks of doing nothing outweigh the risks of operating. After spending some time with him recently, I became determined to attempt The Silmarillion once more.

Published posthumously, The Silmarillion is a compendium of stories starting with the creation of Middle-Earth and ending when the elves depart after the events of The Lord of the Rings.

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What immediately struck me about The Silmarillion was the thought and detail Tolkien put into it, from the geography and genealogy to the languages and mythology, at times the book feels more like a painstakingly researched historical treatise than a work of fantasy fiction. Having said that, the writing is dry in places and I sometimes found it hard to follow without frequently referring to the family trees and maps at the back of the book.

It is an incredibly ambitious collection, yet the quality varies from chapter to chapter: Of Beleriand and Its Realms, for exampleis a tedious geography lesson that could have been cut during edits, but I thought the highlights were the chapters concerning Melkor and Ungoliant’s theft of the coveted elven jewels (the Silmarills), Of Maeglin (a story of betrayal and comeuppance), and the thrilling but bittersweet love story, Of Beren and Luthien. I also enjoyed learning a little more about familiar characters from The Lord of the Rings such as Galadriel, Elrond and Sauron.

I have always delighted in the power of stories to connect people, and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien in particular are beloved by people all over the world, but there is no one that I’m more excited to discuss The Silmarillion with than my dad. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris

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Chocolat had been sitting unread on my bookshelves for more years than I can count, but last weekend on a whim I settled down to read it while nibbling pieces of chocolate Easter eggs, which seemed wholly appropriate as the story takes places between Shrove Tuesday and Easter Sunday.

Chocolat follows Vianne Rocher and her daughter who sweep in on the winds of a carnival bringing flavour and colour to the drab and parochial French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.

The novel is written in the first person, but switches between Vianne and Francis Reynaud, the village priest who takes umbrage when Vianne opens a Chocolaterie on the first day of Lent. The pace of Chocolat is meandering, yet the antagonism between Vianne and Reynaud builds suspense and drives the story on to its inevitable conclusion.

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The village of Lansquenet itself is rife with secrets, gossip and simmering tensions but Vianne finds friends among the other village outcasts and rebels, their kindness and camaraderie in stark contrast with Reynaud and his cronies’ hypocrisy and meddling.

Chocolat is a story that doesn’t reveal its secrets too quickly and kept me wondering right up to the end. I really enjoyed the supernatural elements of the story, there is magic in Chocolat, yet it is always understated and never becomes too fantastical.

The descriptions of Vianne’s chocolate creations are unsurprisingly mouth-watering and Chocolat was a delightful story that left me hungry for more. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘The Little Book of Hygge’ by Meik Wiking

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We are in the midst of fairly significant renovations in our house at the moment, and with tradesmen unblocking the fireplace in the living room and scrambling over the roof to fit a chimney, I’ve retreated upstairs and out of the way with my cat and The Little Book of Hygge for company.

Over the last couple of years, the Danish concept of hygge has taken the world by storm. Yet there has also been something of a backlash against it, with some criticizing it as xenophobic and the latest marketing ploy to sell mugs, rugs, all manner of knitwear and books on the subject.

While hygge is often synonymous with cosiness, especially during the colder and darker months of the year, Meik Wiking defines hygge as a feeling of safety, relaxation and contentment that can be found in any weather or season. For many of us who lead busy lives, part of the appeal of hygge is the chance to slow down, set aside our worries for a while and indulge in simple pleasures.

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The Little Book of Hygge is packed with a mix of research and personal anecdotes, which makes this book better suited to dipping into every now and again than binge-reading. There are whole chapters devoted to candles and lighting, Christmas (the most hygge time of the year), a dictionary to help you work out your hygge from your hyggeligt, a few Danish recipes (though I was a little disappointed there were more recipes for meat than cake), and various other aspects of a hygge lifestyle. The presentation of the book is lovely with beautiful photos and illustrations generously scattered throughout.

With tradesmen thudding and thumping around above and below, it’s been hard to concentrate on reading, but The Little Book of Hygge left me imagining – and looking forward to – lots of hyggeligt moments once the renovations are complete, like sitting in the garden in the sunshine over the summer, huddling around board games with friends on rainy days, and reading in front of the fire on cold, winter nights. Have a lovely week.

Review of ‘The Good, The Bad and The Furry’ by Tom Cox

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I had been vaguely aware of Tom Cox and his cats on twitter, but I only stumbled upon his books recently while looking for A Street Cat Named Bob by James Bowen (reviewed here)The Good, The Bad and The Furry follows roughly a year in the life of Tom Cox and his cats starting at the end of his nine year relationship with his wife and explaining the difficulty of reaching a custody arrangement for the couple’s six cats, his grief following one of his cat’s deaths, a new relationship and eventually a new kitten.

Tom vividly describes his relationships and family, his own beloved cats and other wildlife (including a toad living in his dad’s shoe) he meets along the way. There is considerable anthropomorphism throughout the book as Tom tries to convey his cats’ personalities and quirks, and the animals are every bit as memorable as the people.

I chuckled aloud at so many points during this book, and could relate to Tom’s descriptions of life with cats from the conversations he has with them (“It’s a carrot, you wouldn’t like it”) to his anxiety and sorrow when any of his cats are unwell. I was also moved by his realisation about just how much of his identity and history is tied up with his furry friends.

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It seems somewhat unfair to compare The Good, The Bad and The Furry to A Street Cat Named Bob as they are very different books, one written by a middle class journalist with four cats living in Norfolk and the other by a recovering addict in London who takes in a stray cat, yet they are both aimed at a similar demographic sitting side by side on the bookshop shelf. Both books are autobiographical, but differ in tone and content, yet both writers are equally devoted to their feline companions, and they share similar insights into the comforting sense of purpose and routine that caring for pets provides during all the ups and downs of life.

After a hectic week that included taking my cat to see an oncologist and my husband to A&E along with hosting family and friends at home, The Good, The Bad and The Furry was an easy to read and often amusing book I could dip into during the rare quiet moments I had to myself.

Review of ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

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By the time February arrives, my sense of winter wonder has usually waned and all the optimism and enthusiasm I felt about the new year has faded as I hit the winter doldrums, which makes it seem like the ideal time to read a book about overcoming blocks and kick-starting creativity.

Big Magic is not a how-to-write book, instead Elizabeth Gilbert takes a more holistic view of creativity that stretches from writing to ice-skating and everything in between. Autobiographical in places, Elizabeth is passionate about creativity and eager to share her knowledge and experience to inspire others.

I could relate to many of the anxieties and blocks that inhibit creativity covered in this book, some of which were the same reasons I delayed starting my blog for so long after conceiving the idea in January last year. Big Magic is full of advice and encouragement on how to overcome the self-doubt and fears in your mind, as well as the disparaging voices of everyone else who tries to dissuade you from living creatively.

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I really admire Elizabeth’s dedication to writing and her gritty determination to keep writing no matter what, both as a relatively unknown novelist before the success of Eat Pray Love and afterwards when the weight of public expectation was at its greatest. Elizabeth believes it’s a privilege to be able to earn a living from her creativity, yet it’s clear that she’s not doing it for the money or fame but simply because she loves to write.

Like many before her, she asserts that practice and habit are more faithful companions to creativity than inspiration. She debunks the myth of the tortured, struggling artist as dangerous, and I found her belief that ideas are alive in the air and searching for people to bring them to fruition delightful.

Big Magic is a humorous, honest and inspiring book that I’d recommend to anyone who would like to overcome the blocks holding them back and embrace their creativity, and it’s a book that I’ll reread at times when I need to reignite my own creativity.