The Best Non-Fiction Books for Heritage Lovers


Disclaimer: I received the review copies of these two books from Rupa Publications. However, all opinions expressed are my own and in no way influenced.

Every once in a while, a non-fiction book falls into the hands of a hardcore fiction reader/lover and it changes their perspective. I know this for sure because it happened to me recently, all thanks to the magnetic city of Delhi wherein I have made my new home.

Having moved to the national capital recently for my studies, I was obviously very intrigued to check out the multitude of historical monuments that dot the Delhi skyline. I even have a list of the places I wish to visit and slowly I am making my way through it. 

And so, getting my hands on both of these books has been a boon! They have invoked the sense of history in my mind as well as made me understand the profound diversity in culture that existed even in this very tumultuous history. It has been an exciting journey — reading both these books one after the other.


Delhi, in Thy Name: The Many Legends That Make a City

By Adrija Roychowdhury

Picture provided by the author.

The first book that I picked up from between the two books that I shall share today, was this one. I had first come across this book on bookstagram (the Instagram community for books) and had been totally intrigued! Add to the fact that I was a new resident of this historical city, my interest was piqued. I reached out to the publishers and they were kind enough to send me a copy of the book.

Now, one may ask, as they obviously should, what this book is about. For the best description, I think this synopsis from Goodreads does justice:

To tell us the story of Delhi, journalist Adrija Roychowdhury takes a deep dive into the legends behind the names of its many streets. ‘Delhi, in Thy Name’ is a compelling account of the many emotions, aspirations, desires, identities, histories, and memories that went behind the naming of places in the national capital of India. From the crevices of Chandni Chowk to the arcades of Connaught Place and the quarters of CR Park, the book delves into the little secrets that went behind naming Delhi, as recounted by the people of the city.


Exhaustively researched and passionately told, the book is an attempt to decode what the act of naming and renaming means both to those in power and to those being governed. The book provides a key to Delhi, opening its doors to the readers in the very way that the city likes to think of itself — as alluring, energetic, infuriating, lyrical, nostalgic, frustrating, unforgettable, magical.

I thought that getting to know Delhi via the way the different places are named, and the histories behind the very naming of each, was a unique way of telling the story of this city. Like I have also repeatedly mentioned, I am new here and so I am gobbling up every fascinating fact I can! From Chandni Chowk, and Connaught Place, to Chittaranjan Park and Shaheen Bagh (and many more), this book explores the nitty-gritty of the naming histories of these iconic places. 

While one imagines that non-fictional writes lack the imaginative essence (and I am guilty of it), it was truly not so in this case! Roychowdhury proved me wrong! For, to weave the words as she did, bringing up the image of Mughal Delhi, Delhi under British Era, post-Partition Delhi, and the Delhi of today, require great skill, and the author has certainly delivered. I was taken on a journey both in terms of the temporal, as well as the spatial. I was amazed but I also of course learned a lot.

In school books, Indian history often ends at Partition. What happened after that — to the refugees? How and where were they re-established? Did the places and cities we know now, exist back then too? Or were they newly formed? These questions often arose in my mind (but unfortunately, I did not seek any definite answers), and as I read this book, many of those questions were answered.

The author also has shared the information (or rather, the stories) that were shared with her, by the various inhabitants of these places — and it is always interesting to see how views today can differ. People are often possessive when it comes to their histories, and religion and culture often influence the way a history is claimed by a community. That was definitely an interesting aspect I could make out from the stories that people shared.

I also visited the Jama Masjid finally! It had been on my list of places to explore in Delhi, for the longest time, and this book finally gave me the push. I also tried to recreate the cover and had a ton of fun doing it! I have thoroughly enjoyed (and learned from) this book. And I shall definitely recommend you to pick it up! 


By Rana Safvi

Picture provided by the author.

Another fabulous book I read this month is this glorious compilation of the histories of some lesser-known historical monuments in India. The reason I was initially interested and requested this book from the publishers was because of the author!

In late 2019, I had read another book by Rana Safvi — City of My Heart: Accounts of Love, Loss and Betrayal in Nineteenth-Century Delhi and I had simply fallen in love. It was perhaps the first non-fiction history book (about Delhi and its history, as well as history in general) that had made me realize how much I wanted to move to Delhi and explore it. And perhaps this realization transformed into a subconscious manifestation and fast forward to 2021, here I am in Delhi.

Nevertheless, I had ‘discovered’ Rana Safvi and I knew I would explore more of her works. This year when I saw this book and read its synopsis, I knew it was for me. And I am glad the team at Rupa sent it to me! Before I share more of my reading experience, here is a synopsis:

In ‘A Saint, A Folk Tale and Other Stories’, acclaimed author Rana Safvi takes the reader into secret, hidden parts of India beyond the usual tourist destinations. The often-overlooked monuments of India are rich with history, architecture, and scenery begging to be explored. The book takes you back in time and on a journey to explore the vast architectural heritage of India.

Discover the secrets that Khusrau Bagh hides in its heart, marvel at a Queen’s forgotten resting place, listen to the folk tales and fables embedded in the structures and walk down the poetic path to some of the places where the great poets sleep, with the hope that the book sets the reader off on a journey of their own.

I absolutely loved the diversity that was this collection of monuments! As someone who cannot possibly travel much due to the pandemic (and to be honest, due to my status as a financially broke student), this book provided much-needed solace to my restless heart. I took this book everywhere — I read it on the metro (and almost missed my station), I read it while lounging in the winter sun, and I read it while cozying up under my quilt. Many of the stories shared in this collection were actually of places (and people) that were previously unknown to me. I did not know about the existence of some of these people, but most of the time, I had no knowledge of the historical places associated with them.

Rana Safvi’s writing mesmerized me in 2019 and it has mesmerized me now again! I wanted to visit all of the places she did mention but there was only one place that was accessible to me. And so, one fine day I made my way to Sultan Raziya’s Tomb in Delhi. In the first place, I had never explored this part of Delhi before — the arteries and veins of Old Delhi. But thanks to this book, I did! And I will never forget it!

History as well as historical politics — this book included it all and has a really fascinating intertwining of these two aspects. 


I end today’s review, by reiterating that if you are interested in any of these areas, you will greatly benefit from these two books that ought to be treasured. I certainly will, and perhaps in a year, will go back to re-discovering these places. One day, I will also perhaps visit some of these places (all over India as well as within Delhi) and think of the imagery that had been invoked for me by two talented and such knowledgeable authors (and their magical pens) at the end of 2021.


Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.

‘The Holiday Swap’ is the Hallmark Movie Read-alike You’re Looking For

(Full disclosure: Book links below are Bookshop.org affiliate links. If you’re a US or UK resident, purchasing via these links will earn me a small commission, at no extra cost to you. Bookshop.org supports independent booksellers.)

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like more and more readers are getting into the spirit of reading holiday-themed books this year. December is ripe with a number of festive winter holidays to choose from, but here in the U.S. Christmas does tend to be the primary focus in retail spaces and Bookstagram feeds.

I personally grew up celebrating Christmas, and in our house, that meant a handful of things. But most of all, it meant Hallmark Christmas movies. Mom and I would sit in front of the TV to enjoy the ridiculous, over-the-top holiday magic.

Like many traditions, as I’ve grown up and moved away, this one has shifted a bit. Mainly, it now includes the Hallmark Movie Drinking Game, a hilarious way to have fun noticing the ever-present tropes.

This game was in the back of my mind as I sought a wintery read that would satisfy the same itch as a Hallmark Christmas movie, in book form. While my first holiday read of the season, The Santa Suit, did technically fit the bill, it wasn’t quite my personal brand of magic (more on that here).

The Holiday Swap definitely delivered on this Christmas craving for me. Let’s break down what makes it warm and cozy as your favorite mittens by analyzing the Hallmarky tropes the writing pair known as Maggie Knox bring to the page.

The Trope: City Girl Goes Back to Small Town

Nearly ubiquitous in the Christmas movie genre is the premise that a city girl returns to her small hometown over the holidays and re-discovers the magical spark of Christmas.

We get this trope in Goodwin twin Charlie, who’s been living in L.A. as the star of a baking TV show, Sweet & Salty. When a head injury (we’ll get to this later as it’s my main issue with the book) forces her to slow down, she calls up twin Cass and asks her to take residence in her fast-paced city life to wrap up filming.

What I like about this book is that the twin setup allows us to explore the lesser-examined flipside of this trope — small-town girl gets to spread her wings and get out of said small town.

I enjoyed seeing how both lifestyles and locales had something important to offer to the twins who weren’t currently living them, and that the magic sometimes lies in stepping outside your familiar routines in order to see them from afar.

The Trope: Got a Twin? Better Swap!

For some reason, twins swapping lives has become a popular convention of the Hallmark-style movie (see: Switched for Christmas, The Princess Switch, The Princess Switch 2, etc).

It’s obvious from the title alone that this book plans to deliver on that front, and I enjoyed the silliness of this trope as always. I appreciated how some of the characters figured out the switch, which feels more realistic than even the closest friends and (former) lovers being hoodwinked entirely.

My main issue with the book is, however, related to the swap.

Content warning: I’m about to discuss medical concerns and non-compliance. Skip ahead to the next section of this review if you’d prefer to avoid this content.

The reason Charlie wants to swap lives is that she gets hit on the head and suffers a concussion. A concussion about which she proceeds to immediately lie to medical professionals, leaving out the very symptoms (loss of taste and smell) which cause her to require a work hiatus.

While I understand Charlie felt she couldn’t miss work and that sadly many of us face similar workplace pressures, this is a dangerous message to send. We see Charlie continue to suffer some of the aftereffects of her concussion but she never fesses up to medical professionals or follows the advice she’s been given.

While I understand this is a lighthearted read, I do wonder whether it’s wise to imply that ignoring the symptoms of your head injury will in any way be a good path to happily ever after.

The Trope: Holidays are Better with Hometown Baked Goods

One of the charms inherent in a small town, particularly according to your standard Hallmark Christmas movie vibe, are the local businesses. And what’s any town without a local bakery that goes all-in around the holidays?

As a lover of baked goods I am so there for this trope, and really enjoyed how we got to see Charlie and Cass in and out of their respective baking elements — the hometown bakery and the big-time baking show.

Baked goods distributed at a communal small-town holiday celebration? Also, check.

The Trope: Career Woman Realizes Career Not Everything

As any good Christmas movie does, the end of this book finds our protagonists re-examining their lives after a magical and surprising week around the holidays. Here, too, I liked the balance that seeing both twins’ perspectives gives to the usual message.

Rather than the obvious choice here being that a smaller town and slower pace are inherently better, the swap allows Cass and Charlie to see the places where their lives and careers had become stagnant. This allowed them to grow and change, determining what they really want their lives to look like and how they can get there.

Do both women wind up living in the small town? Well, that’d be spoilers, now wouldn’t it?

As you can tell, I really enjoyed reading The Holiday Swap. It’s definitely light, fluffy, and requires a little holiday suspension of disbelief with how some of it gets tied neatly into a bow by Christmas.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a Christmassy read that brings your favorite Hallmark movie tropes to the page, this is definitely a great pick for you!


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

How Many Books Can I Read Before I Die?

TW: Mentions of disease.

Let’s do the Math

I’m only 56, which is probably too young to be thinking about dying, but nonetheless, here I am.

I’m on my third cancer, skin, with 4th cancer seemingly on the way. (The DR tells me I have an 80% chance of having Thyroid cancer, the tumor needs to grow a little bigger before they treat it.)

Side note:

I try super hard to be positive. Do you think I could be overweight because of the thyroid tumor? There’s always a positive side to everything, right?

Back to the Math

Oh, lest I forget, I also have two chronic conditions. One makes it much more likely for me to get sick, (COVID anyone?) and the other makes it much more likely to have cancer. Surprised?

The way I see it, living to 80 would be a splendid gift indeed.

Now, I also happen to be active on Goodreads. I’m obsessive about tracking my reading.

I’ve read 106 books this year and am currently working on two more.

Part of my job is to read books in my place of employment, the library.

I listened to a lot of audiobooks this past year. I love golf, and it’s a 45-minute trip to the course where I had my membership. Audiobooks make the trip fly by.

Alas, I currently have skin cancer, which means I will need to cut way back on time in the sun, which means less golf, and fewer audiobooks.

But when I retire, I’ll have more time to read!

Crunch the numbers, and I think 100 books a year is doable.

That means I’ll read 2,400 books before I die.

Does that number seem small? A little frightening, perhaps? It sure does to me!

What Should I be Reading?

Could I read fun books?

I found a lovely author, Rhys Bowen . She writes mysteries, and they are good mysteries if not great mysteries. Strong female characters, good plot. I like them. Her books are a perfectly pleasant way to pass a winter afternoon.

However, they are not great. They’re like air-popped popcorn, drizzled with butter and salt, a good snack, but not cream herring with raw onions.

Do you know what I mean?

Could I read the classics?

I read many of them when I was in college because I was a pretentious wanker back then. Nobody gives a shit if you’ve read War and Peace, even if it’s the longest book in the English Language.

I didn’t particularly enjoy them then, and I don’t feel like devoting that much time to them now.

I’ve always loved Fantasy and Science Fiction. I own 49 Conan the Barbarian and 33 Star Trek books.

I like this genre because I like the idea that the world could be a little bit better than it is. My kid is 12, and I worry a lot about what kind of world she will live in when she’s my age.

I could read books about writing books.

I’d love to write the kind of books I love to read. Books with a little bit of magic, a lot of hope and even more heart. Books that show what could be and not what is.

Sarah Addison Allen is one of my favorite writers. I’ve read everything she’s done and enjoyed absolutely all of it!

Guess what?

She took a break from writing when she had breast cancer. She beat breast cancer and is now back to writing!

Coincidence? I think not!

So… In The Final Analysis:

Read whatever the fuck you want. Read what makes you happy. Read books filled with magic, love, and emotions. Live!

Tomorrow will be here soon enough.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

I’m a Middle School Librarian. Here’s What Books Kids Want for Christmas

Books make the perfect present for, well, everyone, but especially for the little ones in your life.

There are three key reasons why that’s the case:

  1. They’re expensive, but not too expensive, making them the ideal indulgence.
  2. The more you read, the better you read, and the better you read, the better you do in school. Simply put, getting your kids to read is a battle well worth fighting.
  3. Books open us to possibilities. They facilitate dreams and teach empathy. Kids in the COVID era need the power of imagination.

Wouldn’t It Be Cool…

If you could buy a kid a book and know it’s a super-duper popular book, they totally want to read? And who wants to be the dorky uncle with the dorky gifts that just get tossed under the bed.

So, don’t be a dork! Read this article and protect your hard-earned status as the cool adult in your family.

I Have Your Back

I work in a school library. My school is for kids aged12 to 14, which is grades 6 to 8 in the States.

I have the perfect job. I interact with the kids checking books in and out all day. It’s my job to be in a good mood. Cool, right? I spend my free time building book displays and dreaming up new ways to get kids to check out more books.

And I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. For instance, everything is on computers, and lucky for you, I’m good at creating reports.

The information I’m about to provide comes straight from the maws of the computer and is hot off the presses.

When I talk about lists, I am talking about the books with the most check-outs over the last 90 days, one year, and two years.

This Is Where I Make Recommendations

The Top Book: ‘Ghosts’ by Raina Telgemeier

This is the top book in the library over the last 90 days, the previous year, and the last two years.

She’s written several other books that are extremely successful: Smile, Guts and Drama.

In fact, Smile has been the second most popular book over the last two years.

Guts deals with anxiety, and my daughter enjoyed it immensely.

You’ve been warned

We have multiple copies of her books, which will skew numbers, but that also means your kids may have read her books already.

Alternatives

These writers are all popular, and all are on the top 50 list of check-outs as measured over the last 90 days. The library owns one copy of most of these works, and my hypothesis is that they would earn circulation numbers comparable to Raina Telgemeier if we had more copies.

  1. Jennifer Holm: # 3

2. Shannon Hale: # 9

3. Victoria Jamieson: # 12

4. Terri Libenson: # 29

5. Hope Larson # 35

Finally

Don’t forget about the Baby-Sitters Club. They are popular year in and year out and have been turned into a Netflix show.

Book # 2: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ by Jeff Kinney

There are a million titles in the series, okay, maybe just 12. Three ranked in the top ten over the last two years, the previous year, and the preceding 90 days.

I’m not going to list the books; use Google. It’s almost 2022. Trust me when I say your littles will like any of the books.

Besides that, our numbers lie, as we can’t keep a complete collection in stock.

Warning

These books are more than super-duper, out of this world, incredibly popular. So make sure you are buying something your kid hasn’t read.

I don’t have hard statistics, but my gut tells me they are more popular with boys than girls.

Alternatives:

  1. Dav Pilkey — Dogman
  2. Lincoln Peirce — Big Nate
  3. Janet Tashjian — My Life as A…. series
  4. Rachel Renee Russell — Dork Diaries series. (This is about a girl and is indeed popular with girls.)
  5. James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein

Book # 3: Anime and Manga

Oh my goodness, these books are so trendy. If I could run reports by category, these would by far be the most popular. They are not higher on the lists because we have so many series with lots of books in each series.

These are the books that you read backward. They are primarily in black and white. These books were first popular in Japan, and you can see that in the artwork.

I’ll be frank — I have yet to try one. I get a headache from trying to understand what’s going on. Maybe that’s why kids love them so much; adults struggle to read them.

The following are all wildly successful and highly sought after.

  1. Naruto
  2. Bleach
  3. Dragon Ball Z — We just added this series this fall. In the span of two days, all 18 books we purchased were checked out. There is also a TV series.
  4. Black Knight

5. Fairy Tails — “Tails” is not a typo.

Warning

Anime and Manga can be like opening the proverbial can of worms. Littles that like it, love it, which leaves you supporting the habit.

Book # 4: Actual Books

I know right, actual books are 4th on the list? What’s that all about? We have a great fiction section in the library, so I’m not sure what’s happening.

All I know is that the computer doesn’t lie.

  1. Stephenie Meyer:

Breaking Dawn # 19

Eclipse # 42

New Moon # 48

I know, I know. Whenever someone checks one of these books, I keep wanting to tell them about how he breaks into her bedroom and watches her sleep and ask if they don’t find that a little creepy. (He and her being main characters.)

It goes without saying that these are aimed at romance fans. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boy check one out.

2. Jason Reynolds:

Any book by Jason Reynolds is a good book, but he has a series of 4 particularly great books. They follow four kids that run for a track team.

Lu

Sunny

Patina

Ghost

3. Kwame Alexander

Crossover checks in at # 26 on our list. We just purchased a graphic novel version of the book. Everyone seems to love this book. We have a teacher using the book in class, making all her kids read it.

4. Rick Riordan

Ever heard of a little series called Percy Jackson and the Olympians? The books did so well that they made a movie and then several other series.

If your kids like Fantasy, they may very well like these books. Only one checked in at #42 — on our top 50 list. I do think that’s because he has several series with several books in each series, all aimed at young teens.

5. Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is the very last book on our list. It’s only been checked out eight times during the previous 90 days, but that’s a whole lot better than a lot of other books. She’s a talented writer, and you will find her work in most libraries.

So…

That’s it. Post if you have questions. Follow me for more book suggestions.

Most importantly, enjoy the Winter Holidays!

Language Lovers Unite: This Book Will Blow Your Mind

Disclaimer: Please note I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

When I spotted Keith Kahn-Harris’s The Babel Message: A Love Letter to Language on the publisher’s website, I must admit I was intrigued.

My own Medium bio reads language nerd, among other things. And it is a genuine way in which I would describe myself. From a young age, I’ve had a blooming love for the beauty and engineering — for lack of a better word — of languages.

I’m now fluent in three languages and know enough to understand another two, I’m learning a sixth and, needless to say, I’m having a blast doing it. In school, I studied Latin and, together with the other language lessons I was taking, I developed a sort of sixth sense for etymology and understanding of foreign languages.

Simply put, I can deduce quite accurately what words mean even in languages I’m not fluent in. If it has a Germanic or Latin, or even a Slavic origin, I’m pretty good at understanding the language in question.

This has always fascinated me: the way my brain perceived language and made these intricate connections between them in order to improve my understanding.

So of course I chose The Babel Message to review for you.


From the Publisher

“A thrilling journey deep into the heart of language, from a rather unexpected starting point.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a man obsessed with something seemingly trivial — the warning message found inside Kinder Surprise eggs:

WARNING, read and keep: Toy not suitable for children under 3 years. Small parts might be swallowed or inhaled.

On a tiny sheet of paper, this message is translated into dozens of languages — the world boiled down to a multilingual essence. Inspired by this, the author asks: what makes ‘a language’? With the help of the international community of language geeks, he shows us what the message looks like in Ancient Sumerian, Zulu, Cornish, Klingon — and many more. Along the way he considers why Hungarian writing looks angry, how to make up your own language, and the meaning of the heavy metal umlaut.

Overturning the Babel myth, he argues that the messy diversity of language shouldn’t be a source of conflict, but of collective wonder. This is a book about hope, a love letter to language.”


My Thoughts

I absolutely loved the premise and execution of this book. It was a great palette cleanser from all the fiction I’ve consumed in the past couple of months.

My favourite part was the one about ‘conlags’ or constructed languages — languages that we can create ourselves. I’ve always been in awe of J. R. R. Tolkien specifically and his incredible ability to create a new language for the Lord of the Rings world.

I’ve also, probably like many others, always wondered how he, and many others after him, did it. Keith Kahn-Harris argues that conlags are among “humanity’s most audacious creations”. Apparently, the appendix of Arika Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, lists over 500 invented languages dating back from the 1100s and ending in the 1970s.

This is what you can expect from The Babel Message: each chapter analyses different elements of languages and how they have changed, evolved, been created and influenced the world, all through the premise and continuous translation of the Kinder Surprise Egg leaflet.

I’ll leave you with the Dothraki translation of the leaflet, provided in the book, cause I know there will be Game of Thrones fans reading this:

ASSIKHO, vitihiri majin vineseri: koholi vo movekkho entaan. Saccheya zoli lazim che ijela che leshita.


Final Thoughts

I didn’t want to give away too much of this book, because the true value of reading it lies in the sheer amount of information and creativity that you’ll discover with every page. It was a solid 4/5 stars for me and I found out so much about language, so it definitely met my expectations above and beyond.


Eliza Lita is a freelance writer based in the UK. She covers books and reading, fitness, lifestyle, and personal development. For more of her stories, please consider signing up for a Medium membership through her referral link.

Have You Read These out-of-the-box Short Story Collections?


It was only in 2021 that I first came across or rather, started reading literature that could be somewhat categorized as horror. As a person who has never read anything of the sort before, it was a startling discovery for me. 

But what was all the more surprising was how quickly I took to it — like perhaps an unfurling of one’s true self, and finding safety and similarity in what had seemed dangerous or alien before.

And so I read and re-read these stories and when I found an anthology of such spooky fantasy/horror stories at my local Sunday bookmarklet for just 100 INR, I scooped it up. Suffice it to say, I am enjoying the tales in the book and will perhaps share my thoughts on it soon!

But today, I want to share those very first three books that opened my eyes to this genre of literature. I had dedicated entire Medium posts to each of them — racking my brain to try to weave words that could justify what I felt for each of them. 

I cannot still completely grasp those feelings — they are out there, floating in the ether and I can only trust, that you (the delightful reader) will successfully grasp my intimations.


The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, by Mariana Enriquez

The first book that introduced me to this glittering yet unnerving world of literature, was Mariana Enrique’s collection that was shortlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. I had come across the synopsis and despite the weirdness, I was intrigued. 

I remember writing in my Medium article for it: At first glance at the synopsis, one might think that the stories are gross and disgusting and that would be reason enough to rate it really low. But on the contrary, I have quite possibly never read anything like this. I loved it, yes, with all its weirdness, its fetishes, and all its horror. I read it and I loved it and I rated it 5 stars.

At first glance at the synopsis, one might think that the stories are gross and disgusting and that would be reason enough to rate it really low. But on the contrary, I have quite possibly never read anything like this. I loved it, yes, with all its weirdness, its fetishes, and all its horror. I read it and I loved it and I rated it 5 stars.

I was simply blown away. Like I mentioned in the beginning, I had never before read anything of this kind and so, I could not really fathom what I was reading. I surely appreciated it — but did I understand the implication of it? This time, when I did a reread of this book, things were more meaningful. Or rather, I understood them better.

You can see my full review here:


Mouthful of Birds, by Samanta Schweblin

Since I loved The Dangers of Smoking in Bed so much, I of course read it from cover to cover. I read the blurbs, the acknowledgements, and all of the fine print. And so I discovered that the translator Megan McDowell had also translated the works of Samanta Schweblin. 

I had by then, collected a vast number of books (some of which I got precisely because of the affordable rates they were tagged at during a sale). Coincidentally, one of those very books was Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds. This book too had been longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Butterflies always give me the heebie-jeebies. People laugh when I tell them I am dead-scared of butterflies (and moths as well). And yet I had bought this book. Perhaps that was a sign in itself. A ‘mouthful’ of birds — how gross! And against that title, the luminescent glow of the fluttering and restless butterflies. I shudder even now. 

And so, like a masochist, I read this collection too. It was another fantastic piece of work that stayed with me. I cannot say enough about it. It was macabre, sobering, but also like the disgusting smell of rot that stays on you, even after you pass by a garbage dump. The stories stayed with me. They live in me.

You can see my full review here:


Things We Lost in the Fire, by Mariana Enriquez

The third book in this genre (but definitely not the last) that I read was a recent November 2021 read that I went to many lengths to get a copy of. This was too was a Mariana Enriquez, and was translated by Megan McDowell. 

My second time reading Mariana Enriquez was a bit more critical. I understood the nuances and found some time to be enthralled by the translation itself — and imagined the loss I would have unknowingly suffered had they not been translated to English.

And then, most importantly, and because I had been given a primer to this book, in the form of my experience with the two previous ones, I did my own research on Argentina’s history. 

I wrote in my article: I learned about Argentina’s tumultuous history and how it affected the collective conscious — which is so very reflective in the stories in this collection… The real horror in this collection, and in general in Mariana Enriquez’s literature, is how we react to the social realism (which is of course, nuanced) in her work — and therefore, our realization of how inhumane we are or can be.

I learned about Argentina’s tumultuous history and how it affected the collective conscious — which is so very reflective in the stories in this collection… The real horror in this collection, and in general in Mariana Enriquez’s literature, is how we react to the social realism (which is of course, nuanced) in her work — and therefore, our realization of how inhumane we are or can be.

You can read my full review here:


My To-Be-Read List

Now that I know of the kind of horror I like, I am planning on reading the following books next. They are of course not exactly similar in theme and writing but I personally found a similarity in the genre and that is why I want to explore them next.

  1. Strange Dreams, by Stephen R. Donaldson (a short story collection)
  2. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (Book 1 of Southern Reach series)
  3. Wilder Girls, by Rory Powers
  4. House of Hollow, by Krystal Sutherland
  5. Tender Is the Flesh, by Agustina Bazterrica
  6. Nothing But Blackened Teeth, by Cassandra Khaw
  7. Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, by Eric LaRocca

So that’s it! If you have read any of these, do let me know what you thought of them!


Nayanika Saikia graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature and was also a Dean’s List student. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree and is also a Booktuber and Bookstagrammer. She can often be found on her Instagram account Pretty Little Bibliophile. You can support me by Buying Me a Coffee.

Anxiety? Books Help

Background

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

Chances are you or someone you know deals with anxiety and depression. The two go hand in hand, and sometimes one leads to the other. 

I suffer from anxiety and depression. I don’t recall a time when I wasn’t on anti-depressants. For most of the past forty years, I’ve been in and out of therapy.

It’s normal for me to rehearse the conversation I’ll have when I order my morning coffee. I’m worried the clerk will judge me if I change my mind or ask a question, so I practice in my head.

If the anxiety is raging, then I end up replaying the conversation as I drive away.

It’s a shitty way to live; count your lucky stars if you haven’t walked that mile.

So, if a lifetime of medication and therapy hasn’t solved the problem for me, what has worked?

Books! Reading helps me understand that I’m not alone and that other people feel the same things I do. It’s taught me empathy not just for others but also for myself.

How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat is a book that rings true. The author understands what it’s like to deal with anxiety. I have the same thoughts her main character has. How cool is that?

The author gets it, and boy can she write. Anyone with a shred of empathy, who has dealt with anxiety, will relate to the main character. You will read to the end. Promise.

Clearly, I like the book. So let’s talk about it.

The Blurb

“Vicky Decker’s social anxiety has helped her to master the art of hiding in plain sight, appearing only to her best friend, Jenna. But when Jenna moves away, Vicky’s isolation becomes unbearable. So she decides to invent a social life by photoshopping herself into other people’s photos and posting them on Instagram under the screen name Vicurious.

And as Vicurious’s online followers multiply, Vicky realizes she can make a whole life for herself without ever leaving her bedroom. But the more followers she finds online, the clearer it becomes that there are a lot of people out there who feel like her — #alone and #ignored in real life.

To help them, and herself, Vicky must find the courage to face her fear of being “seen,” because only then can she stop living vicariously and truly bring the magic of Vicurious to life.

In this beautiful and illuminating narrative, Sharon Huss Roat shines a light on our love of social media and how sometimes being the person you think you want to be isn’t as great as being the person you truly are.”

The Book

The book takes place in a high school. You find the characters you would typically expect. Mean girls, nice girls, popular but misunderstood kids, average kids just trying to make their way in the world.

I work in an upper-level school, and the characters are true to life.

The plot is excellent because we care about Vicki, the main character. I wanted to know what happens to her.

The ending resembles a teen movie a little too much for my taste. But that’s a minor quibble.

Let’s focus on two things the author does a bang-up job on

  1. She shows that change happens as the result of many small choices. Our MC doesn’t suddenly get better; she doesn’t meet the perfect boy or girl who makes life great. There is no moment when the light bulb goes on, and the MC blossoms into a popular girl.

No, it’s many small things. For example, lending a pencil, talking to the person next to her, eating lunch in the yearbook room, and not the bathroom. One small step leads to another and another, and pretty soon, we start to feel better.

That’s exactly how things work for me. The dishes get done every day for this reason alone.

2. She shows that we all have some issue, that very few people judge us because we’re all wrapped up in our heads. Most people are too busy worrying about themselves to worry about others.

There is a popular girl in the book who visits the guidance counselor.

She has a locker next to the MC, who at first can’t understand why the girl who seems to have it all would need to talk with guidance.

This is a theme throughout the book. You, me, and the cleaning lady are all human, and if you are human, you are not perfect.

In the end, Vicki realizes that we all deal with something; some of us are just better at hiding it.

What an incredible life lesson and an important one to remember next time the anxiety kicks into high gear.

The coffee clerk has a million other things on his mind. Let’s end the overthinking.

Trust me, and trust me again by reading How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

Writing Secrets from 5 Best-Selling Authors

This year’s Cambridge Literary Festival, the winter edition, had an incredible line-up, bringing together some of the most well-known authors in the world — and us bookworms on the edge of our seats.

Disclaimer: I received a free pass for the Festival, in exchange for some promotion around the event. This piece is written of my own accord, due to the sheer enthusiasm I had for the Festival and the authors in the line-up.

The Festival ran last week, with us participants having a chance to watch it back a week later, and catch up on all of the events.

I was so excited to spot Carmen Maria Machado and Leïla Slimani, two of my favourite authors, in the line-up, but other notable names like Claudia Rankine and Merlin Sheldrake also piqued my interest straight away.

Aside from their fascinating interview portions presenting their books, the most astonishing takeaways from the Festival were what the authors shared about their writing process and inspiration.

Here’s a selection of some of the most fascinating writing secrets from the line-up of this winter’s Cambridge Literary Festival.


Isabel Waidner: Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize 2021

Book: Sterling Karat Gold

From the publisher:

“Sterling is arrested one morning without having done anything wrong. Plunged into a terrifying and nonsensical world, Sterling — with the help of their three best friends — must defy bullfighters, football players and spaceships in order to exonerate themselves and to hold the powers that be to account.

Sterling Karat Gold is Kafka’s ​The Trial written for the era of gaslighting — a surreal inquiry into the real effects of state violence on gender-nonconforming, working-class and black bodies.”

Writing secrets

“I’m not the sort of writer who has an idea and then sits down and develops the book. I write and then ideas happen. Usually more than one. One aspect of my writing is that a lot is happening in a short space of time. And I don’t plan that and then execute.” 

The most jarring part of Isabel Waidner’s event was by far her description of her writing process and how she gets ideas from random situations. At one point, she said she had been writing her winning book for a while and something wasn’t working. 

It wasn’t until she found a random image of an extravagant outfit, mixing elements of a bull-fighter and a footballer’s outfit, that she became inspired to build her main character.


Carmen Maria Machado: Winner of the Rathbones Folio Prize 2021

Book: In the Dream House

From the publisher

“​In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.


Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. 

The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.”

Writing secrets

“I have always been interested in experimental non-fiction: non-fiction that has all these gestures in it that use speculative elements and genres to unpack something very true at its core. I wanted to push it as far as possible because when I was writing the memoir, at first it wasn’t good. It felt dreadful. 

Once I began thinking about this book in terms of these gestures and speculative elements, suddenly the book unlocked itself in this curious way.”

Carmen Maria Machado uses pop culture, folklore, myths and metaphors to set her memoir in context and tell a wider story, revealing the harrowing lack of “archives” on queer domestic abuse.

For a more detailed review of In the Dream House and the writing lessons it teaches us, check out the articles below.

View at Medium.com



Julian Sancton

Book: Madhouse at the End of the Earth

From the publisher:

“The harrowing, survival story of an early polar expedition that went terribly wrong, with the ship frozen in ice and the crew trapped inside for the entire sunless, Antarctic winter

August 1897: The ​Belgica set sail, eager to become the first scientific expedition to reach the white wilderness of the South Pole. But the ship soon became stuck fast in the ice of the Bellinghausen sea, condemning the ship’s crew to overwintering in Antarctica and months of endless polar night. In the darkness, plagued by a mysterious illness, their minds ravaged by the sound of dozens of rats teeming in the hold, they descended into madness.”

Writing secrets

“I travelled to the Antarctic Peninsula. I wanted to experience it for myself, I didn’t want to simply rely on the diaries.”

Julian Sancton’s writing secret is a straightforward, yet incredibly important one: research. To bring his book to life, he pieced together the entire Belgika expedition, through thorough digging of information and first-hand accounts of the trip. Nothing else of note had been written about it before he stepped in.

He found additional diaries from crew members no one else had discovered before. He talked to the captain’s great-great-grandson, who still had full records of the expedition. And, in an ultimate act of understanding his characters and plot, he traveled to the South Pole to see it for himself.


Leïla Slimani

Book: The Country of Others

From the publisher:

“1944. After the Liberation, Mathilde leaves France to join her husband in Morocco.

But life here is unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman. Her life is now that of a farmer’s wife — with all the sacrifices and vexations that brings. Suffocated by the heat, by her loneliness on the farm and by the mistrust she inspires as a foreigner, Mathilde grows increasingly restless.

As Morocco’s struggle for independence intensifies, Mathilde and her husband find themselves caught in the crossfire.”

Writing secrets

“Literature can bring us more nuance, more complexity, and also, very importantly, it can help us look at the past in a more serene way. Not with the idea of judging, or hating, or revenge, just trying to understand what happened.”

Leïla Slimani takes inspiration from her family and her own struggles with questions of identity, cross-identity, and the place of women in history. The stories of her own grandmothers, and even herself, are transposed in her latest novel, giving us a fresh and candid account of the cross-nationalities that history created through Morocco, France and Germany after the War.


Claudia Rankine

Book: Just Us

From the publisher:

“Taking the study of whiteness and white supremacy as a guiding light, Claudia Rankine explores a series of real encounters with friends and strangers — each disrupting the false comfort of spaces where our public and private lives intersect, like the airport, the theatre, the dinner party and the voting booth — and urges us to enter into the conversations which could offer the only humane pathways through this moment of division.

Just Us is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together, and to breach the silence, guilt and violence that surround whiteness. Brilliantly arranging essays, images and poems along with the voices and rebuttals of others, it counterpoints Rankine’s own text with facing-page notes and commentary, and closes with a bravura study of women confronting the political and cultural implications of dyeing their hair blonde.”

Writing secrets

“Words like ‘diversity’, for example, all those kinds of words that are thrown at people of colour in order to reposition them in the order of things. In Just Us, I am very interested in how any moment can be rerouted by the use of words, by white people, consciously. And those words need to be shown for what they are.”

Claudia Rankine is committed to recreating the language surrounding texts by people of colour and how they are marketed, or promoted. Her creative writing style and the layout of her latest book, alternating between poems and strong imagery, places situations, concepts and, above all, language, under a magnifying glass, making us question everything we associate with race.


Future Events

Susanna Clark is the guest for the Cambridge Literary Festival December online book club. She will be talking about Piranesi. You can purchase a book club pass for £6. Sign up here.

The Spring festival is scheduled for the 21st-24th April 2022 with hopes that it will be a mix of in-person and online events. The line-up will be announced soon. Keep an eye on the Festival’s website to spot when bookings will open.

James Patterson’s Latest Thriller Will Keep You on Your Toes

Disclaimer: Please note I received an Advanced Review Copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

The latest Alex Cross thriller by James Patterson did not disappoint. A well-known best-selling author of fast-paced crime stories, Patterson is back on the stands with another gripping detective story that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

The blurb leaves everything to the imagination, which makes the thriller even more intriguing:

Alex Cross ventures into the rugged Montana wilderness — where he will be the prey.

He’s not on the job, but on a personal mission.

Until he’s attacked by two rival teams of assassins, controlled by the same mastermind who has stalked Alex and his family for years.

Darkness falls. The river churns into rapids. Shots ring out through the forest.

No backup. No way out. Fear no evil.


Summary

Renowned detective Alex Cross is faced with another puzzling case of political murder. Victims keep dropping left, right and centre. All of them are state dignitaries or officers of the highest intelligence. All of them were forced to write their confessions before being killed.

When the families of each murder victim follow, Alex Cross and his partner and best friend, John Sampson, know this is more than hatred towards the state. Someone is trying to annihilate every single person who has ever had anything to do with the Alejandro drug cartel the US forces worked so hard to dismantle.

But when the dangerous assassins turn their guns towards Cross and Sampson, the real hunt begins.


My Thoughts

This is the first thriller I’ve read in a long time and I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a very quick read, drawing you in from the first chapter. The characters are well-rounded, which makes you root for them, experiencing every intense moment even more closely.

I enjoyed the parallel thriller where Bree, Alex Cross’s wife, goes to Paris to investigate and eventually arrest a charming mogul accused of sexual abuse. I must admit I wanted this side-plot to carry on further in the book, whereas it was actually cut short very early on.

I liked that the book didn’t follow the usual who-done-it style, but was written so that the reader was a silent observer to all parties’ actions. Alex Cross’s chapters are written in the first person, while all the other ones are written from a third person, omniscient voice.

So, as you read, you get to experience every key side of the story: Alex’s, Sampson’s, the assassins’, and the drug cartel’s. The book is action-packed and that’s what makes it so gripping.

My biggest complaint (and probably the only one of note) is that, through the multiple perspectives, you sometimes lose track of who’s who and who does what. 

Fear No Evil is a political thriller that reads like a chase, rather than a mystery. If you’re not from the US, that might pose a problem to how you follow the story. There are some political technicalities that I struggled to understand, but they’re not that essential to the story, so it didn’t hinder my reading experience all that much.


Rating: 3.5 stars

Anything I rate above 3 stars is a good book that I would recommend without hesitation. Thrillers very rarely score higher than 4 stars for me, simply because I’m too used to all the shapes and turns the plots can take.

Fear No Evil is definitely an entertaining, fast-paced read you can demolish in a weekend. I enjoyed myself very much while reading it, and, if you’re in the mood for a thriller before the jingle bells start ringing, this is one for you.

The book comes out tomorrow, 25 November, from Century publishing, an imprint of Penguin. Pre-order here.


Stuck for what to read next? Check out our Reading Recs page. And if you’d like to support our work, please consider making a donation via our Donations page. We’re trying to raise money for paid commissions, so any contribution will bring us closer to that goal. Thank you for reading!

We Need to Talk About ‘The Witcher’

I love fantasy. Reading Lord of the Rings was a life-changing event. I’ve had whole discussions comparing and contrasting J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan. (Tolkien is way better — don’t make me come over there.) I’ll read any Fantasy, but Epic is my favorite.

I do my utmost to read current fantasy while still curating my interest in other books. (Fantasy books can be extensive.)

I even have a favorite fantasy publisher — Orbit books. (No — I don’t work for them, and NO — they have never given me a single, solitary free book.)

So…

You can imagine how pumped I was when Netflix made The Witcher into a series. I would imagine most of us make it a firm policy to read the books before seeing the show, and I’m certainly no different.

The first few books are exceptional! Extraordinary, unique, creative, engaging, and well worth your time. Please read them!

The books are set in an immersive world, where humans and non-humans live side by side. But, of course, that causes problems.

We have monsters and people who kill monsters. We have magic users. They have agendas of their own but also advise the Kings and Queens of several small countries.

In fact — let’s throw this out there. Everyone has an agenda.

We have the enormously dangerous empire that tried to conquer the smaller countries and might very well try again.

We have loads of strong women, several of which play critical roles in the book. But we also have several strong women who do nothing.

We even have a love triangle. (Sort of)

In short, the possibilities for dramatic tension are just about endless—what a perfect set-up for a Fantasy novel.

Read the first three books! Please.

The middle of the series:

It meanders, wandering from one plot point to another. There is nothing wrong with the middle. It’s an enjoyable read.

Would I be happier if it went somewhere, leading to, I don’t know, a big climactic battle or maybe just a resolution? Yes, in fact, that would make me happier. (No the battle in the last book doesn’t count.)

But they don’t lead anywhere. In fact, at the end of the middle section, our heroes are basically in the same place they’ve always been: searching for the princess.

The EVIL empire attacks in this section. You would think that could lead to desperate last stands, battles, allies betraying allies, and that sort of thing. But we don’t get a lot of this.

Instead, we follow the heroes while they look for the missing princess, who may or may not be able to save the world.

The Ending

The last book blew my mind, and not in a good way.

We jump forward in time, joining Arthurian legend. The Lady of the Lake takes an apprentice, whom she wants to dream about the princess everyone is searching for.

We follow the story as a dream. Dreams! Not only that, the characters in the dreams, have flashbacks and tell stories to other characters.

So, we have a story taking place at one time, being told by a person dreaming about it in the future. I can live with this, I guess.

I draw the line at characters in dreams, dreaming, and having flashbacks — which are then told to us in the context of a dream.

Yikes!

It gets better. The princess that everyone is searching for flees from an evil king, who wants to get her pregnant with his child.

Okay, this has some drama, some tension; I can see his going somewhere. BUT — She flees from him by jumping through time and space.

Spare me, please.

NONE OF THAT NEEDED TO HAPPEN!

I wanted to know what happened to the world back in the first books. A tremendous amount of depth exists in that world.

It’s a sin to move away from that world.

But it’s not the biggest sin, made in the series.

The Biggest Sin — spoiler ahead.

Google — The Witcher ending. You get 131,000,000 results. Google the Lord of the Rings ending, and you get 39,900,000 results.

Why?

One ending makes sense, and the other does not. In The Witcher, the hero finds his true love. Woot, right? Then they die, or maybe they don’t die. We don’t get a clear answer. Maybe they die, but they are alive in heaven?

It’s all up to you, my dear reader.

This is some serious bull shite right there.

How long does it take to read The Witcher? How much of my life did I spend to get to that lame ending?

102 hours! Over four days of my life, invested, and the writer can’t give us closure?

Let’s give credit where credit is due. What does Sapkowski, the writer, say about the ending?

As to those of you itching to find out what happened to Witcher 2 hero Geralt: you’ll probably be waiting for a great deal longer. “You aren’t supposed to know,” Sapkowski pointed out. “And you will never know. Or at least until I write about it and I’m not sure if I’ll find the will to do so.”

Well, I don’t have the will to read any more of your stuff, thank you very much.