The Lure of the Ring – Alan James Strachan

lure of the ring cover

“Tom Bombadil is the prevailing mystery in Tolkien’s work.”

This is an odd little book. It’s basically a treatise on spirituality, using The Lord of the Rings as an example. Not entirely what I thought I was getting, and probably not going to find a wide audience – Tolkien fans will be disappointed that it’s not really about LotR, and if you’re looking for the spiritual stuff the fantasy-source might seem flippant.

Still, I started off rather enjoying it – someone talking about LotR can’t be all bad, after all! But, after a while, the tone really started to grate on me. I would have preferred an approach of “I think”, “my translation is”, “to me, this suggests…” rather than the quasi-academic sense of certainty. Writers rarely ‘mean’ what future studies try to pin on their stories; indeed, at the end of this the author even admits that Tolkien’s letters reveal the multi-layers of allegory and meaning didn’t appear until years later.

The lecturing tone can be a little patronising, I found – or, perhaps that’s the increasing density of the subject. From easy-to-grasp concepts – what Galadriel’s refusal of the Ring says about her character, for example – by the end he’s quoting quasi-religious texts, talking about the Self that is no-Self, and at times my head was just spinning!

If this is your cup of tea, by all means give it a go. Personally, I don’t think I was fully expecting the build up to full-on ‘nondual spirituality’ and self-actualisation, and while it might have been interesting getting there I didn’t wholly appreciate the feeling of being preached at, even if the author does back away from that by the end again.

The message, though, is nice enough, and it is interesting seeing ‘just a fantasy story for kids’ (hah!) providing such rich source material.

NetGalley eARC: 87 pages / 18 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 23rd-28th September 2019

My rating: 5/10

Elements of Fiction – Walter Mosley

elements of fiction cover

“This monograph is concerned with the hope of writing a novel that transcends story in such a way as to allow the writer to plumb the depths of meaning while, at the same time, telling a good yarn.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ‘monograph’, but this is a rather lovely, personal meander through the ‘feeling’ of writing a book. It’s not a how-to, it’s not got a set of directives, but it gets into some of the deeper, wider arching thoughts behind writing a book. It’s like a conversation with a subject matter expert, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Walter Mosley previously published This Year You Write Your Novel, so I suppose this is a companion piece. Not having reader the former, I can’t comment. But having read plenty of writing advice (if not taken so much of it ;)) I very much liked the approach here. You are a writer, you are writing, but this is the sort of thing that is/should be/might be going on at a deeper level.

Sections have titles such as ‘Revelation’, ‘The Novel is Bigger than Your Head’, as well as the more obvious Structure, Character, Narrative Voice, etc.

What I particularly liked was the way the author almost starts telling stories, little ‘what if’ beginnings of ideas, that he then picks apart or spins around, or in one case backs off and says ‘or I’d go this completely other way’ – but, he’s learned something about his story and his characters along the way.

“The purpose of this book has been to show by example and intention how deeply you can go into your mind, excavating a world worth the struggle, the man thousands of hours, and just the right words.”

Lovely, thought-provoking little book. Recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 288 pages
First published: 2019
Series: could be seen as a follow up to This Year You Write Your Novel
Read from 2rd-11th September 2019

My rating: 8/10

The Art of Jin Shin – Alexis Brink

art of jin shin cover

“The book you are holding in your hands is meant to provide a basic introduction to the foundation and principles of the Art of Jin Shin.”

Subtitled, ‘The Japanese Practice of Healing with Your Fingertips’, this book gives a brief history of this ‘energy medicine’, followed by several long lists of different holds for different conditions.

The basic premise is something along the lines of: by holding two points on the body, we can ‘release’ the energy flow within ourselves (or others), thus aiding all manner of afflictions, from insomnia to headaches, stress to digestive issues.

I was very impressed with the attitude here: it’s not given as an alternative to seeing your doctor, merely an additional process that may prove helpful. And to be honest, while I’m relatively open to such ideas, my hunch is that the usefulness of Jin Shin is less about which finger you’re holding and more that the breathing and focus is actually meditation. Still, any meditation practice can benefit from a focus, and this is a pretty interesting one.

The other message that I agree with wholeheartedly is that nothing here can hurt you – well, unless you twist something trying to hold on to your ankle, of course 😉 So yes, I was more than up for giving this a go. I’m not sure any of my attempts particularly solved the issue in question, except perhaps holding the back of my neck for an ache – but, the warmth of my hand probably didn’t hurt. As I say, I think the meditation effect was beneficial. Still, I see more likelihood of finding this useful than its more famous cousin, Reiki.

My main complaint here would be that the book in e-format wasn’t the easiest to navigate. If I have a specific problem I’d like to try to address, figuring out where to go is awkward. So, if you fancy giving it a go, the physical book is probably better.

Overall: an interesting concept, and as there’s no harm in trying it out than why not? If nothing else, you’ll benefit from a quiet moment of breathing and relaxation, and a little time spent with your own body is never a bad idea.

NetGalley eARC: 240 pages
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 16th-26th June 2019

My rating: 7/10

Are You Afraid of the Dark Rum? – Sam Slaughter

are you afraid of the dark rum cover

“Nostalgia often evokes good feelings. Cocktails often evoke good feelings. That’s what this book aims to do.”

If there’s one thing better than a good cocktail, it’s a good themed cocktail. And I might be more of an 80s child than 90s, but I was up for some nostalgia and cool drink sipping. I really, really wanted to like this book, in other words – alas, it’s left me a bit meh.

I do like the concept, and I think the drink names and sense of humour that runs through the book are a lot of fun. The obligatory ‘tools and basic instructions’, plus a brief word on different types of spirit and liqueur at the start, and ‘syrups’ at the end, both read clearly and well.

However, the drinks themselves… well, hmm. I think there a half-handful that I could have made now without going and buying a new ingredient or three – and my cocktail cupboard is not sparse, by any means. I had to look up several of the liqueurs mentioned, never having heard of such things before. Cherry heering? Oh, cherry brandy will be fine! Fernet branca, dolin rouge, ancho reyes… oh dear!

I also found the specificity to be annoying, despite the foreword that these were ‘just recommendations’. Nope: give me the basic recipe, and say “And my preference is…”. Otherwise I, the reader, have to do a ton of work to figure out what’s a decent alternative to e.g. “Glen Moray Chardonnay Cask Finish Scotch Whisky.” I mean, really??

Overall, I’m a bit disappointed. I had images of a fun theme party, or at least a few new cocktails to try out. As it is, I’m tempted by a few but largely underawed.

NetGalley eARC: 132 pages
First published: 4th June 2019
Series: none
Read from 19th May – 2nd June 2019

My rating: 5/10

Best Movie Year Ever – Brian Raftery

best movie year ever cover

“It was New Year’s Eve, and on a private beach resort in Mexico, a handful of couples had gathered to celebrate the end of the century.”

It’s weird when you start being old enough to have lived through periods that now attract a great deal of nostalgia, but the turning of a century is a pretty big deal. In this book, the author attempts to convey a sense of what was going on in the world at that time, and how that impacted the movies that were made.

To be honest, I’m not sure he’s convinced me that 1999 was indeed the ‘best movie year ever’, but it was pretty dang impressive. American Beauty won the Oscars (and the afterword does acknowledge the cringe factor of that and other things, in light of recent scandals), Star Wars got a very long-awaited new chapter, and the world was introduced to bullet time and the Matrix.

It’s fair to say 1999, perhaps inspired by the once-in-a-lifetime feel of the date and the world on the brink of change – possible catastrophic, with the Y2K bug fears – produced more than its fair share of ‘weird’ or groundbreaking movies. Or perhaps the real thing is that such films were embraced by audiences and have survived to critical acclaim.

Themes of the year included a resurgence in teen movies (10 Things I hate About You, American Pie, Cruel Intentions, Election), a bit of nostalgia for the past (Talented Mr Ripley, The Mummy, Man on the Moon, etc), and questioning reality, either directly or the ‘is this it’ feeling, with movies such as The Matrix, Fight Club, Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, and the Blair Witch Project. The latter played with reality directly, pushing itself as ‘true events’ and keeping the not-dead actors away from the press to save the secret.

It’s amazing to realise that a ploy like that could work, or that UK audiences managed to see The Matrix without massive spoilers, when it opened several months after the US, or that anyone had the joy of the big reveal in the Sixth Sense. The internet was a different, fledgling beast in those days, obviously.

I loved reading about movies, it turns out, and the snippets of back story here were fantastic to a film geek. Stanley Kubrick took the world’s most famous actor (Tom Cruise) out of circulation for almost 2 years – and that impacted huge tranches of the industry. There’s a lot of revealing info about how much the studios like to meddle, and definitely a sense of how disconnected and damaging poorly devised marketing campaigns can be.

And through all this there’s the reminder of what life was like a scant 20 years ago. That a movie like Boys Don’t Cry was *so* shocking, whereas I’d like to think trans rights have come along a great deal, and today we’re more shocked by Lester drooling over a teenager in American Beauty.

Definitely recommended, then, especially for movie buffs (natch!). Be ready for debates about why some movies get whole chapters, and others brief – if any – mention. Austin Powers was released that year, and Dogma, and I could go on.

Now, can we have a series of these books for every other year, too, please?! 🙂

NetGalley eARC: 416 pages / 17 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 27th April – 9th May 2019

My rating: 8/10

Tiny Leaps Big Changes – Gregg Clunis

tiny leaps big changes cover

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes.”

Reading this straight off the back of Burnout really flagged to me the different approaches self-help books can take. Burnout felt supportive, wanting you to have a happier life, helping you tackle some of life’s obstacles to achieve that. This, on the other hand, felt like it was castigating you for being such a lazy loser, and if you really wanted something you can have it simply by applying yourself enough.

I have serious concerns about the advice in the book. The example given is Dave, a dad who wants to make more money so that his daughter can (eventually) go to college without a big debt hanging over her. So he puts in extra hours and stresses himself out and argues with his family because he’s exhausted. But oh, he’d be a horrible person if he let himself slack – how could he look his daughter in the eye if she had to take out loans for college?

Wow. Just… no. How about enjoying life, not being a shitty parent who’s never there, or finding other ways than becoming a monster?

I think my main issue with this book is that the author is in his mid-20s. I am turning into an old grump, but quite frankly I don’t think Clunis has the life experience needed to write a book like this – at least, not for people outside his own age group. He talks dismissively of people who never take risks, are never willing to lose everything to gain something better, and uses the example of Jim Carey’s father from a talk the actor gave once. Urm, right. ‘Cos a sane, responsible parent can afford to take that kind of gamble o.O

There are snippets of good advice, but that can’t mitigate the awful, smug tone, and quite frankly dreadful suggestions at times. Avoid.

NetGalley eARC: 224 pages / 12 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 3rd-17th April 2019

My rating: 3/10

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle – Emily & Amelia Nagoski

burnout cover

“This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough’.”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say this book has made me a better person (maybe a bit?) but I do think it’s made me a better feminist. I am so guilty of proudly feeling that I can ‘play with the boys’ at their own game, swearing and telling bawdy jokes, that being faced with a book about stressors faced by women, and how we marginalise ourselves, was something of an eye opener.

I shouldn’t feel so happy about someone pointing out how much more stress there is in my life than I knew about, but actually, the sense of relief, the nodding along – yes! Yes, it does stress me that (insert ton of stuff here). And that it isn’t acknowledged, and that I’m ‘delusional’ or hormonal or whatever if I try to point it out. There’s a whole chapter called ‘the Game is Rigged’ which summed up so much of what I feel, but hadn’t articulated. The underlying premise that boys are taught to be human ‘beings’, and girls more often expected to be human ‘givers’ – wow.

That said, the book is not just a long rant. It points out that we’re all holding on to a lot of stress without realising it, and that’s just never going to end well.

On a practical level, the opening chapter talks us through the difference between stressors – like the jerk in the BMW on the drive home, or the late request for a report at work – and stress. Often we deal with or at least move away from the stressor but we’re not actually dealing with the stress. The authors talk about ‘completing the cycle’ – letting our primitive brain acknowledge that we’re now safe. I want to reread this part already: I’m getting ‘dance around the living room’, but think there are other subtleties to pick up on here.

The rest of the book covers a lot of familiar ground with a fresh eye. The ‘Bikini Industrial Complex’, for instance, questions why we allow ourselves to be *so* obsessed with looks (even over health). There is some interesting discussion about the falseness of the fat/unhealthy message – did you know that it’s worse for your health to be slightly underweight than quite a bit overweight? Mind blown.

The only bit I didn’t really like was the whole ‘smash the patriarchy’. Not that I disagree (especially the way it’s described here – definitely not ‘anti man’ in any way, just pointing out how, yup – the game is rigged!) but just that I felt weary even thinking about it. Is life not hard enough without me having to be so proactive on this, too?! o_O

I’m hardly scratching the surface of just how much YES there was for me in this book. I said it’s almost certainly made me a better feminist – for myself and for others. But as it points out, if I’m nodding along with this for me, it’s an excellent way to see how much more the game is rigged if you’re not just female, but of colour, or not CIS/hetero-normative, or ‘able’ in the way that’s taken for granted. I hope I’ll do better for all of these categories now, not just stand up for myself more as a woman.

All of which is fine, but am I less stressed? It did help, really. I’ve spent my life pushing back on the role society seems to want for me – and yes, in little ways that includes ‘smashing the patriarchy’ (it is not, for instance, my role in life to get out of a man’s way on a pavement. I’m not talking politeness, just standing up to that inbred sense of entitlement that no one ever seems to realise they own. I don’t automatically tidy in the office any more, either, even when it’s my default). To get a bit of a ‘yes, that’s right’ was something of a relief. The caveman brain stress stuff makes a lot of sense, too. I have a ways to go, and I do think I’ll be rereading this before too long.

Recommended for women everywhere – and any man who has the balls to accept that the playing field is not, in fact, as level as we’d all like to think.

NetGalley eARC: 304 pages / 8 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 11th-26th March 2019

My rating: 9/10