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.

Review of ‘Someday Someday Maybe’ by Lauren Graham

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Lauren Graham is an actress arguably best known for her role as fast-talking Lorelai, in the TV show Gilmore Girls, and I couldn’t help but hear Lauren’s voice in my head as I read this. Someday Someday Maybe is a novel written in the first person and narrated by Frances ‘Franny’ Banks, a struggling actress named after a character in a J.D. Salinger story.

Set in New York in 1995, this story begins six months before the date Franny set herself to make it as an actress or give up and go home to marry her high-school sweetheart and get a sensible job. Franny is funny but insecure, and she’s never quite sure if she’s the leading lady in her own story or just the sassy sidekick, but I found myself rooting for her to succeed.

This is a character driven story, and the looming deadline creates a sense of urgency that drives the plot forward. The novel includes excerpts from scripts, transcripts of answer phone messages (mostly from Franny’s supportive but long-suffering father) and scribbled extracts from Franny’s precious Filofax, which records everything from her waitressing shifts, acting classes and auditions to bad hair days and doodles.

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The story offers a somewhat unglamorous glimpse into show-business, from the rivalry between aspiring actors in the same drama class to the awkward auditions, how it feels to be scrutinised by costume, hair and make-up artists and the tedium of repeating the same lines over and over again. It’s hard not to imagine that parts of this novel where drawn from Lauren’s own experiences as an actress trying to make it in the big city.

Someday Someday Maybe is a light-hearted escape into another life, place and time, which reminded me a little of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Sex in the City, but it’s not at all derivative of either of those novels. This is laugh out loud in places and cringe-some in others as Franny recounts her messy romantic encounters, professional mis-steps and everything in between.

Review of ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ by James Bowen

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I saw the film of this at the cinema last year and was so moved by it that I read the book soon after. James Bowen was a busker and recovering heroin addict living in sheltered accommodation in London when he encountered an injured but friendly stray cat (whom he names Bob) that found its way into his block of flats. The two quickly become inseparable companions and the book follows all the highs and lows they share together, it is their loyalty and devotion to each other that drives the book forward.

James is living a hand to mouth existence for most of the book, but spends the little money he earns busking and selling the Big Issue magazine on cat food and vet’s bills. From the offset, James is a responsible pet-owner, taking Bob to the vet, getting him neutered and micro-chipped. Taking care of Bob gives James a purpose, and it seems like the simple routine of caring for the cat keeps him tethered to normality, and he is rewarded with Bob’s affection and trust.

Having adopted a rescue-cat of my own from the Scottish SPCA, I could relate to James’ speculation about Bob’s past, as he tries to understand the quirks and behaviour that might offer clues about Bob’s life before they became companions.

Throughout A Street Cat Named Bob, James shows humbling insight into how society regards homeless people and addicts, drawing attention to the deliberate blindness of passers-by and how it felt to be invisible. He also describes the vulnerability of working on the streets of London, trying to eke out a living from busking and selling the Big Issue, as well as the numerous barriers facing those trying to turn their lives around.

This is a rags-to-riches autobiography in a sense, yet this is a also a tale of recovery, second chances and above all the friendship that develops between a recovering addict and a stray cat.

Review of ‘The Gratitude Diaries’ by Janice Kaplan

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The Gratitude Diaries starts at a party on New Year’s Eve when Janice Kaplan sets herself a resolution to try being more grateful for a year to see if it can improve her life and outlook.

Janice is a journalist, who has an apartment in Manhattan and a house in the country, happily married with kids, she has a lot to be grateful for, yet like many people she compares herself to others who have it better than her, struggles to look beyond the imperfections and takes what she has for granted.

I found it easy to relate to Janice throughout her gratitude experiment because she’s honest about how she had to retrain herself to be grateful instead of complaining, criticising and focusing on the negatives. Above all, Janice demonstrates that while gratitude, optimism and positivity may come more naturally to some people than others, gratitude is a habit that anyone can cultivate.

Janice also recognises that it’s easy to feel grateful when life is good, but gratitude is not a panacea shielding us from all of life’s disappointments, sorrows and frustrations instead gratitude is a way of steadying ourselves in the storms, setbacks and struggles by adjusting what we focus on.

The Gratitude Diaries is split into four parts, corresponding with the seasons of the year, where she concentrates on different areas of her life, including marriage and family, career, money and health, and shows how gratitude improves each aspect of her life. The book is peppered with quotes from philosophers such as Epicurus and Marcus Aurelius whose wisdom is as relevant today as it was in their own lifetimes, as well as research and interviews from more contemporary sources like the psychologist Martin Seligman and actor Matt Damon.

I really enjoyed this book, it’s full of ideas on how to develop an “attitude of gratitude” and I can see myself re-reading it for inspiration and motivation as I try to live gratefully.