re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
December: A life less ordinary

December came and went and I was so busy working ridiculous overtime that I just made my 2015 Goodreads reading challenge by squeezing in a couple of graphic novels and short reads. So here’s the final batch of the 2015 Bookshelf. More dystopia, more Sin City and more cats.


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I love dystopia so of course I picked this one up. Set in the the what-if scenario of Germany and Japan winning the Second World War and splitting up the US between them as occupied territory, this book follows a cast of characters from each side of the fence. There’s the American art dealer living in oppression, the Jewish US citizen just trying to survive, a range of German political leaders locked in a bitter power struggle, a Japanese government official struggling to stomach the doctrine of his Nazi allies, and a few shady characters of dubious allegiance working their various plots to stir up the system. I enjoyed this in much the same way as I enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four, hooked by the story but impatiently skimming through the lengthy political and philosophical ramblings. It’s a good book with a very clever meta level; the eponymous man in the high castle and the outrage he causes with his book speculating on what had happened if America had won the war is endlessly delightful in its irony. Obviously a classic of modern literature.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwoood
Being a massive Atwood fan I almost feel like a traitor saying this, but I’m seriously underwhelmed by her latest novel. It starts out so promising: A young couple living in a post-financial crash landscape of unemployment and poverty gets a chance to improve its desperate circumstances by signing up to a social experiment. The twin city of Positron/Consilience works on the principle that every resident alternates each month between living and working in the community and doing time in the town’s prison. The promise is a life in comfort and security; the price is total commitment for life: the city is sealed off from the rest of the world, and surveillance is everywhere. This highly regulated life soon takes its toll on Charmaine and Stan’s relationship, and as they start breaking the rules they uncover a sinister underworld in their perfect town, where disruption is dealt with silently and absolutely, where life-like robots are created in secret labs and where their friends disappear and come back not quite the same…or quite human. So far, it has all the elements of a breathtaking Atwood dystopia, very much along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. The problem is, you just don’t care. Stan’s a bit of an arse, Charmaine’s a bit of a bitch, there’s not a single character I actually felt for in this book, which meant I really couldn’t care less what happened to them. And all the dystopian elements just feel a little bit sold under value – there are a lot of very good ideas in this book, they just aren’t developed to the point where they become really spectacular. Instead the plot just kind of fizzles out. I wanted it to strike me and leave my head spinning, like when I read Handmaid. Instead I closed the book and went: Meh.
Pens: 3 out of 5 (More like 2.5, and only because there are so many good ideas hidden in there! Argh!)

Sin City, Vol. 4: That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller
This is by far my favourite Sin City story, probably because it features so prominently in the first movie (one of my absolute favourites) and also because John Hartigan is just the most heartbreaking character in the entire series. On the last day of his career in the police department, Hartigan saves Little Nancy Callahan from a deranged killer who operates under police immunity, and spends the rest of his life paying for it. And then, just because he cares for what’s become of her, he ends up paying a little more. So, there’s the heart-wrenching story of those tow and their fragile relationship, plus the artwork in this volume is the absolute highlight of the entire series – especially Nancy’s iconic dance routine. Seriously one of the most gorgeous graphic novels and one I keep coming back to again and again.
Pens: 5 out of 5

Sin City, Vol. 5: Family Values by Frank Miller
A very short volume of much smaller scale than the previous stories, this book basically follows Dwight and Miho on a revenge killing spree. It’s fast paced and full of delightfully choreographed and captured fights – but what else would you expect when Deadly Little Miho goes to battle. More of a snapshot than a story, this volume may lack the depth of the other books, but it’s a quick and entertaining read for when you’ve got an hour to kill and are feeling a bit noir.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
I tried. I really tired! I love Japanese literature and I love cats, but I really struggled through this little book. It’s basically a story of a couple living in a little house and a neighbour’s cat who comes to visit. Now, while this sounds promising to a Japanophile cat lady, sadly the story stops there. Aside from endless, slightly repetitive descriptions of the house and its surroundings, and the progression of the cat from “peeking through the window” to “owning the place” there’s very little here in terms of story or character development, or anything actually happening. (Until the end, which is sad and then a little less sad.) This book is currently being hyped as “poetic” by the booksellers, so maybe it’s poetry and I’m just not getting it. But overall, I feel I would have been better off snoozing for two hours with the cats than spending my time on reading it.
Pens: 1 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
November: A world of wonders

I can’t believe I’d never read His Dark Materials. It’s one of those books that, reading them as an adult, makes you think, ‘If only I’d had that in my childhood; I’d have had a friend for life!’ This trilogy finally came to me by recommendation of a colleague and fellow bookworm, who basically ordered me to read it immediately when she found out I didn’t know anything by Pullman. So I did, and I found a new favourite.


His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman

In a time a little bit like ours and yet very different, young orphan Lyra Belacqua and her reluctant companion Will Parry get tangled up in a great adventure that leads them across a multiverse of different worlds, where they find themselves cast into the central roles in the final fight between good and evil. (That’s the extremely condensed version – to go into any greater detail in the plot would mean spoilers, and you absolutely have to experience for yourself just how magnificently this story evolves!)

Pullman sets his re-imagining of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost in a series of worlds populated with all sorts of wonders, where humans carry their soul on the outside in the shape of a daemon, where animals talk, armoured bears roam the lands and clans of witches rule the skies. While the story in itself is all kinds of wonderful – a breathtaking adventure of two children facing the forces of heaven and earth – it’s the characters who truly create the magic. Lyra, a smart and brave pre-teen with a mind very much of her own, and her daemon Pantalaimon have a bond that makes your heart ache with love, while her budding relationship with Will has all the bittersweet glory of innocent young love. The creatures they meet and the battles they fight on their long journey across the multiverse help to create a rich and utterly credible alternative reality in which you can completely lose yourself. (It’s one of these realities – much like Pratchett’s Discworld – that has been brought to life by the author to the point where, at least in my mind, it really and truly exists.)

Pullan also weaves an astonishing number of philosophical issues into his narrative – from questions surrounding the concepts of God, good and evil and life after death to the struggles between science and religion and the theory of parallel universe and alternative civilisations. And underneath all these big ideas there’s a beautiful story of growing up, going out into the world, discovering love and finding your place in life. I honestly don’t think a children’s book could be more wonderful than this.

Pens: 5 out of 5, and a place on my special shelf of favourite books!

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
August + September: slow progress

The 2015 bookshelf continues to grow slowly. I haven’t really had a lot of time to read over the summer as I spent my time raising six kittens. More on that later. First, it’s time to catch up on some reviewing while I still remember what I’ve read. My summer reading has been quite random so no major themes going on this time…


Carpet Diem: Or…How to Save the World by Accident by Justin Lee Anderson
The first book I ever picked up because the author followed me on Twitter. Good promotion strategy, really. I guess he found me because I tweet about books, fantasy, Pratchett and Gaiman. This book tries to position itself as “a spiritual successor to Good Omens”. Well, let’s start with a reality check: It’s not Good Omens, nor does it play int he league of Gaiman and Pratchett in terms of depth, literary achievement or legacy. And just the fact that it has an angel and a demon bitch-fighting over who wins the apocalypse doesn’t quite make it a successor to the great classic. However, it is a bloody good, funny fantasy novel that sees a cast of absolutely loveable characters going on a mad adventure to save the world. I like that kind of stuff, so I breezed through this thoroughly enjoyable book in a matter of days. And I sincerely hope there will be a sequel. I just don’t agree with the publisher pushing it from the Good Omens angle, but then that’s a sales strategy and has no impact on my rating of the book itself. (And as someone whose life was changed by reading Good Omens, I am really hard to please on that front…)
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I don’t tend to pick up over-hyped books, but a friend recommended this one (and I mean by putting the actual book into my hands) so I gave it a go. Turns out the hype is justified – this is a wonderful, sad but uplifting story about life and death and getting a second chance long after you’ve given up hoping for it. Harold Fry is one of the most loveable characters I’ve ever met in a book and with every step he takes on his impossible walk across the length of England, you feel more empathy with him, until his journey pretty much becomes your own. I laughed and cried and cried some more, and closed the book with a smile and the feeling that people maybe aren’t all as bad as I like to think. What more could you want from a book…
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
The anticipated, the dreaded, the devastating final book of Discworld. I know a lot of people who haven’t been able – for various reasons – to read this yet, so I’ll keep it spoiler free. Whether Pratchett wrote this book knowing it would be his last or not, I don’t know. But I can see him tying up a lot of loose ends, as well as opening new doors – which will now lead to the forever unknown as his daughter has announced the series will not continue. When Pratchett passed away this year and it was revealed that he’d left behind a manuscript for another Tiffany Aching book, I felt immensely comforted, because she was one of the characters who got me hooked on Discworld in the first place and her storyline will always have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. However, when the book arrived, it turned out that the end was bittersweet. While I don’t agree with the direction Pratchett decided to take with the characters in The Shepherd’s Crown, I can also see that it was necessary and how the circle has been closed. But that doesn’t mean I will ever get over it. And neither will I get over the fact that this most gifted of storytellers is no longer among us, because he clearly had so many stories left to tell.
Pens: 4 out of 5

What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor
This book came through as a free review copy from NetGalley at a moment when I needed something light and sweet, and for that kind of mood it is spot-on. It reminded me a lot of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in that it’s mainly told from the perspective of a little boy who tackles the big problems of a grow-up world. Milo is an absolutely adorable little boy who wont’ let his difficult family life and debilitating eye condition prevent him from uncovering a misuse scandal in the local retirement home while helping a Syrian refugee and sorting out his mother’s love life. It’s one of those innocent, feel-good stories for a Sunday afernoon when the world just needs to be put right.
Pens: 3 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
June + July: It’s been a slow summer

Here’s a confession you won’t hear a lot from me: I haven’t been reading a lot lately.

The reasons are plenty – I’ve started some new workout classes, I’ve been busy with my food blog, I took in a pregnant cat that just had kittens…and somehow the books just didn’t pick themselves up. It may also have to do with the fact that I got stuck on Tom Holt’s J.W. Wells series, loving it at first and then getting bored very quickly. I hate to ditch books halfway through so I soldiered on through three volumes, but it took me an absolute age.

So here are the contents of this summer’s very slim (so far at least) bookshelf. I can’t wait for long autumn evenings on the sofa with a book and a tea…


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#werunlondon: Nike’s 10k makes a pretty damn awesome first race!

Last weekend I did my first race, and it was awesome. After almost a year of getting into running, getting to grips with asthma, getting up to 10k and, eventually, getting totally addicted, I can only say there’s nothing better than crossing an official finish line – especially when there are 10,000 other women crossing it with you.

On Sunday 10,000 runners descended on Victoria Park, which had been transformed by Nike into a proper little sports festival. It felt absolutely amazing being part of this event – from spotting the first runner on the way to my local station at 8am, to being on a Tube train full of women in their orange race shirts grinning excitedly at each other, to the cheers from supporters all along the trackside (including a brass band and a classical string quartet) to earning our “wings” in the shape of a beautiful silver finisher’s necklace.

My first post-run selfie. Expect many more.

Nike is brilliant at supporting women’s sports – I’ve already gone on about that at length. But they really are; they offer free training classes for everything from HIIT to yoga and running, they’ve got a ton of brilliant material in their free app, and oh boy do they know how to put on a race!

As a first-time runner who had never been to a race, I felt really well looked after. They provided all the information, a race pack including a shiny running top, and on the day everything was perfectly organised and signposted. I’d been quite nervous about how exactly stuff would work, but once I got there I could just chill, focus and get on with my race.


I did it in 50:04 minutes, which I’m ever so slightly gutted about because I was aiming for a sub-50. But, according to my GPS watch, I also ran 10.2k rather than a precise 10, so I guess I’m there or thereabouts. And instead of being so bloody ambitious all the time, I’m just going to be happy with that result. AND TRAIN HARDER FOR THE NEXT ONE. (Which is in about a month’s time, in case you’re wondering.)

Post-race, somewhat ruffled and knackered.

Another thing that has absolutely inspired me was the level of fitness on display at the race – I have never seen so many fit, strong, kick-ass women in one place. And although I’ve always been a bit of a loner when it comes to training, avoiding running groups and keeping well away from gyms and classes, I’ve decided that it might just be more fun doing some of my workouts in company. So while I’m still high on that post-race buzz, I’ve signed myself up to my first NTC class and a yoga class.

And then I think I need a running club, and a crew and most of all more races!

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
May: Glimpses of the soul

May hasn’t been a very productive reading month – but where quantity was lacking, quality has been amazing. This Bookshelf features two novels from one of my new favourite authors, Emily St. John Mandel, and an autobiography by my favourite contemporary pianist.


Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
A short, intense and mysterious book about a woman who has spent her whole life disappearing, Last Night in Montreal explores how we become who we are, how we construct our existence on the basis of what we know about our origins, and how one missing piece of information from our past can change everything and bring our carefully constructed life crashing down. Filled with intrigue, intensely real characters and a kind of desperate beauty that will have you crying your heart out, this is a total knock-out of a debut novel and the first masterpiece in the career of a very exciting author.
Pens: 5 out of 5

The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
Another stunning work from the author who finally got all the attention she deserves with the publication of her fourth novel Station Eleven at the end of last year. The singer’s Gun follows the story of Anton, a man who has worked hard to leave his shady past behind and build a new, respectable identity, but finds himself dragged into the old and dangerous business again by family obligations. Part coming-of-age story, part tense thriller, this book takes us from the heart of Brooklyn to the darkest north of Canada to the remote shores of a melancholic Italian island while it explores the question of how much we can change the path life has put us on, and what price we’re willing to pay for a fresh start.
Pens: 5 out of 5

Instrumental by James Rhodes
I’ve written about James Rhodes and his brilliant approach to classical music before; I’ve been to many of his concerts; I’ve got every single one of his albums on my iPod and after reading his autobiography I can only possibly love him more. Honestly, what a dude. Instrumental, by the nature of the issues it deals with, should be a devastating, uncomfortable read. And yet this guy, writing about his childhood ordeal of sexual abuse, his ongoing struggle with mental health issues and his past attempts at suicide, manages to somehow lift this whole story up into a declaration of courage and survival. Yes, this book makes you raging angry – and it should. It makes you cry – good. But it also made me giggle stupidly to myself, it demonstrates what it means to be fragile and choose to be strong, and it offers a fresh and beautiful perspective on classical music. Rhodes also has a lot of very true and important things to say about the state of classical music as an industry and what it needs to survive in the future. And reading where he’s coming from and what he wants to do with music, I can only be excited about what he’s got for us next.
Pens: 5 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
April: From Sin City to Russia

Sinners, superheroes and comrades. It’s been another random month for the Bookshelf, filled with the kinds of books I don’t normally read but should definitely pick up more often.


Sin City: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller
I loved the first Sin City adaptation for its stunning visuals and it’s in-your-face-ness and reading the novels has been at the back of my mind for years – and I kept pushing it further to the back because I’ve never been very keen on comics. But my surprisingly enjoyable experience of V for Vendetta last month made me take the plunge into graphic novels and of course this seemed the best place to start. I was thrilled to find that the visuals and story lines from the film were basically taken directly from the books, making this a very familiar reading experience, but adding a level of intensity that – I think – comes from the reading rhythm and that the film can’t match. I loved the film for being gorgeous from the first frame to the last, and loved the book more for allowing me to linger on my favourite frames for as long as I liked. It’s a brutally beautiful graphic novel all around.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Watchmen by Alan Moore
What a blockbuster of a graphic novel! And there I was, thinking that, being a comic book, it’ll be a quick read and put me back on track for this year’s reading challenge. And so, a week of intense reading later, I emerged having learned a new book lesson: that comic books can be just as complex as a normal novel made only from words. This epic story, which chronicles the rise and fall of a group of superheroes in an alternative past, asks important questions about what it means to be human and superhuman, about the moral rights and wrongs of trying to create a perfect world. The story gets very complex in time, especially as the various sub-plots jump back and forth in time to explore each character’s history and the various alliances that form and unravel between them over the decades – so definitely not a quick comic book, but a rich and hugely enjoyable piece of literature that you can really get lost in.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
This is Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life, written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime, according to Goodreads. I enjoyed the bits of satire that I understood, but overall I definitely know too little of Russian culture and history to really get this book. Which means it was a bit of a tough read and I probably missed out on a lot of the enjoyment a more educated person will get out of the book. It does have one of the coolest feline characters I’ve ever come across in literature, though.
Pens: 2 out of 5

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
A bittersweet little satire from Ukraine, Kurkov’s first novel deals with isolation and the pointlessness of life in a political system that doesn’t really give you much in the way of choice. An obituary writer who lives with his pet penguin sleepwalks through life until it dawns on him that his newspaper work is nowhere near as harmless as it seemed, and that he’s been drawn into an elaborately manufactured political trap from which he may not escape with his life. By far the best element to this book is the penguin, a silent and yet strangely expressive character who at the same time lightens the mood and adds a heartbreaking kind of sadness to the story.
Pens: 3 out of 5

re:view – Joy Williams unveils her solo album ‘Venus’ live in London

A few years back alternative folk duo The Civil Wars appeared on my radar (thanks to their stellar performance on Jools Holland) and added a new dimension to the music I have in my life. Needless to say I was gutted when they split up at the beginning of last year, before I ever had a chance to see them live.

Now the stunning Joy William is back on her own, with a solo album and a very different kind of sound – which she premiered in front of a rapt and wonderfully welcoming audience at Islington Assembly Hall in London last night. With her new music Joy ventures into a genre I don’t normally listen to (and I’m in fact struggling to put a label on it, because this really isn’t my area. I guess I’d call it atmospheric, electric-influenced pop for grown-ups.) But her magical vocals and incredible stage presence crashed right through my initial scepticism and drew me into this performance so much that I ended up absolutely loving every note, and leaving the show filled with excitement for the new album.


Visibly overwhelmed by her return to London (the scene of her band’s break-up) and the loving response from the audience, Joy filled the room with a beautifully positive atmosphere, through her music and through the way she talked about it so openly. You can tell this new album is the record of a very personal journey, and the music and the lyrics reflect it. There’s a lot of raw, unapologetic openness here. There’s whispers and screams, outbursts of joy and quiet reflection. And every piece of it feels incredibly genuine – no gimmicks, no pretense, just the real thing.


And that’s the impression you get of Joy as well, as an artist and as a woman. Through her music and her performance runs a constant current of strength, honesty and originality – the confidence of someone who has found her voice and is (oh so totally!) ready to prove it to the world.

It looks like Venus is going to be an exciting new chapter for Joy Williams and I really can’t wait for it to begin.

Pens: 5 out of 5 for the gig and the music from Venus we’ve heard so far


Here’s the firs single, Woman (Oh Mama), complete with a stunning video:

And for old times’ sake, Joy’s version of The Civil Wars’ The One That Got Away from last night:

A re:View special for World Book Day

Happy World Book Day from Zanne and the Scooby!


I was going to tweet a photo of my favourite books, but then realised that most of them aren’t in my bookshelf because they’re circulating among my friends. So I’ll have to write this up instead…

These are just a few picks from the huge pile of wonderful books that have enriched my life over the years, because it’s good to look back and remember what a particular book has given you – especially if you have a habit of speeding through books the way I do. I’m sure there are plenty more that I can’t think of right now, but those can be for next year.

In no particular order – except for number one, which is very special.

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