The Descent Of The Lyre – Will Buckingham

“And she thought to herself: one day this child will take to the hillsides with the haiduti. It was a thought in which terror and pride were equally weighed.”

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Blurb: “It is the early nineteenth century, and the Bulgarian village of Gela, the legendary home of Orpheus is suffering under the heavy taxation and arbitrary justice of Ottoman rule. When his bride-to-be is abducted the night before his wedding, Ivan Gelski takes to the hills and turns to banditry to seek revenge. But a chance encounter with a travelling guitarist, and the bloodshed that follows, set him on a musical journey through fame, martyrdom and legend.”

Books are discovered for a great many reasons: recommendations from family or friends, reviews on Goodreads or blogs, positioned perfectly on a shelf in a bookstore or, in my case, they’re your university teacher. I had the privilege of being taught Creative Writing by Will Buckingham for three years and in that time I learnt a great many things from him. He talked passionately about this book and I was able to hear him read from the story a few times.

The story follows a man called Ivan who meets a girl called Stoyanka when he is of “marrying age.” However, the day before the ceremony she is taken by a pasha (an Ottoman official) to marry his son. In a fit of rage, Ivan seeks the help of Bogdan Voyvoda and his group of bandits for help. In addition to this, a man named Solomon gets summoned by the sultan for his musical talent but along the way gets taken hostage by Ivan and his new group of friends.

I expected this to be a simple “revenge story” in which I would follow Ivan on the quest to take back his lover. It is about so much more than that. Through each part of the story (of which there are four) Will introduces different characters and their lives, offering up their perspectives to give new and exciting tastes of the world. Each character holds their own so well and all of them read at the same wonderful level; I had none that I liked the least. They were all just so interesting and the book was a thrill to read based on this alone.

While turning the pages of this book, it brought to the forefront why I love reading so much. I read for a variety reasons (as I am sure you do the same) and while experiencing this book, I was struck by how books have the ability to make readers experience places they have never been to, or long to go to by placing them in those locations through a combination of letters and words. I have never been to Bulgaria and yet, after reading this book I feel like I have.

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Holding Up The Universe – Jennifer Niven

“Too many people in this world think small is the best they can do. Not you, Libby Strout. You weren’t born for small.”

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Blurb: “Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love and for every possibly life has to offer. ‘I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything.’”

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

I first heard about this book when the negativity surrounding the Goodreads description first emerged. It’s safe to say that maybe it wasn’t the best synopsis to put forward for the book and a lot of people were angry. It eventually led to Jennifer Niven addressing the issue and expressing that the topics tackled within the book are close to her heart and that she did not write the Goodreads synopsis. Shortly after it was changed but still wasn’t much better.

Like many others, I was put off by it based on what I saw on Goodreads. However, when I had the opportunity to read an advanced copy of her new book, I took it. I expected to hold the same feelings I had prior to reading it while doing just that. I was wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The story follows two characters (switching through their perspectives throughout) Libby and Jack. After the death of her mother, Libby found comfort in food which lead to an event that was widely reported, earning her the title “America’s fattest teen.” She has since shed some of the weight and is returning to school. Jack’s dad is having an affair and on top of that, Jack is convinced that he has a condition called “prosopagnosia” which is the inability to recognise faces. (Imagine not being able to recognise your own family) Through a series of events, Libby and Jack are brought together in an unexpected way.

I know what you’re thinking: story about a fat girl who happens to become friends with someone who can’t recognise faces? Pretty convenient right? I thought the same. However, these aspects are something that’s more so dealt with separately minus a few things that lead to their eventual friendship. Also, through reading the acknowledgements, Jennifer Niven details her experiences of anxiety and weight issues and how she actually has a family member with prosopagnosia so she had a lot of access to information (and she did extra research too) that would help make the representation of the condition accurate in her story.

Libby was incredibly well written and I felt like she was someone I would be friends with. I was there with her every single word of the way through this story and I yearned to read more once I’d finished the book. Jack on the other hand was lacking. I found myself wondering when I’d get back to Libby’s narratives while reading his ones. It would be really difficult to do this story without him but I just didn’t connect to his character in the same way.

Whatever preconceptions you may have about this book (All The Bright Places is very marmite in terms of reviews), please at least give this story a try.

I only wish I could read more of Libby’s story.

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The Signalman – Charles Dickens

“There is danger overhanging, somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen.”

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Blurb: “When the narrator of Charles Dickens’ masterful ghost story The Signalman climbs down into lonely railway siding on a whim, he finds himself in ‘as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw… it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.’ His misgivings turn out to be justified, for the signalman who lives there has a secret, a ghostly visitor who has twice warned him of impending disaster, and now appears again, foretelling a coming catastrophe that neither man can predict or understand.”

Anyone who know me, will know how much I adore Charles Dickens. When I discovered this short story and that it was the last of his works to be written to completion, how could I resist?

In real life, Charles Dickens had a mistress named Ellen Ternan. One day the duo were on board a train when it derailed, leading to the death of ten people. Dickens was greatly affected by the events and experienced symptoms we would recognise in modern day as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He wrote The Signalman a year after the incident and then went on to write The Mystery Of Edwin Drood but died before its completion.

The Signalman is a ghost story about an unnamed narrator who goes down to the tracks one day to see the lonely man who works by the tunnel. Through their conversation, the signalman reveals the strange happenings at his outpost which he believes are a prelude to a fatal accident.

Dickens had a fantastic way of writing gothic and setting up scenes that can’t help but make you feel uncomfortable. It’s just so well thought out (even with the short length) and just a testament to the wonderfully talented writer I know Dickens to be.
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The Way We Die Now – Seamus O’Mahony

“The notion of a ‘good death’ is endlessly debated as something desirable and achievable.”

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Blurb: “We have lost the ability to deal with death.  Most of our friends and beloved relations will die in a busy hospital in the care of strangers, doctors and nurses they have known at best for a couple of weeks. They may not even know they are dying, victims of the kindly lie that there is still hope. They are unlikely to see even their family doctor in their final hours, robbed of their dignity and fed through a tube after a long series of excessive and hopeless medical interventions. This is the starting point of Seamus O’mahony’s thoughtful, moving and unforgettable book on the western way of death.” 

*This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review*

This week I’m going to be talking about the wonderful, happy topic of… death.
The Way We Die Now is a non-fiction book written by consultant gastro-enterologist Seamus O’Mahony in which he discusses the situations he’s experiences he’s experienced through his work in the medical profession.

What drew me to this book was the idea of how death is perceived in modern day and how some of us choose to face and acknowledge it while others choose to avoid it. He talks about how some family members have forced uncomfortable procedures onto patients in the hopes of prolonging the death of their loved ones, how religion approaches death, and how critics and writers over the years have expressed their thoughts on it.

He offers an insight into the life of someone who sees death almost every day when so many have become “sheltered” from it: which he explores in his discussion of terms such as “passed on” being used to say that someone has died.

However, I struggled to enjoy this book. Not because of the dreary topic, but because it read like a critical essay and the jargon was not something I understood (after finishing the ebook I discovered the glossary at the end so maybe that was fault of my own).

Apart from that, O’Mahony puts across a lot of points that have made me sit back and think about death.
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