2020 End of Year Review

Title: 2020

Summary: A bit of a mess.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 1/5

Review: January 1st is the anniversary of when I started this blog. January 1st 2021 marks Marvel at Words’ eighth birthday. It has been tradition on the blog to mark the occasion and start the year with an end of year survey, going over the books I’ve read and bookish accomplishments over the last 12 months. Thing is, 2020 was a bit of a mess, all told—I’m sure everyone reading this can relate—and I just… didn’t read books.

I can’t really articulate why I didn’t read books. I was just not in the mindset for it. I didn’t even manage to finish a book before things really started kicking off with the virus and lockdown, let alone in the midst of it all. I just found it impossible to fully let the real world go and immerse myself into the fictional world on the page. I started several books, but didn’t get very far with them at all before abandoning them.

My one saving grace was Northern Lights and its audiobook. The one, single book I read in 2020. But even that took me an immense amount of time to get through, compared with how long it has taken me to read books in the past. I listened to one or two chapters a week, mostly while also occupied with pages in a sweary colouring book. Although I did finish it, in many ways it still felt like a chore.

I didn’t buy very many books at all in 2020 either, which means there will be no 2020 book buying analysis coming. I bought a staggeringly grand total of five books in 2020. Even with that low number, as I only read one book, my to-read pile has continued—albeit slowly—to grow.

While there is not much bookish-related activity to look back on in 2020, I thought it would be good to set some bookish intentions for 2021. I refuse to continue to not read books. Books are things that have brought me so much joy in the past, and I am determined to reclaim that. While I cannot force the reading mojo upon myself, I will do what I can to encourage it, rather than giving up on it altogether. And so my intentions are simple and few:

Read six books – I set myself what I thought was the low-low goal of 12 books in 2020. One a month, I though. Easy peasy, I thought. Six books in 2021 feels like a mountain compared to the one book I did manage in 2020. But it’s a mountain I am motivated to climb. I am putting no pressure on myself as to what kind of books or the speed at which I should be reading them. I want the focus to be on enjoying the act of reading, rather than the number or variety of books.

Write six stories – This is a complementary goal to the reading. If I’m not feeling in the right mood to read, perhaps I can feel motivated to write. So, six stories. As short and silly and pointless as they want to be. Because as much as I want to read words, I want to be making them as well. And I want to share them here. As with the reading, I’m putting no pressure on myself. These stories can be about anything, as as short or as long as the muse makes them.

That’s it. Those are my intentions. Minimal, low-pressure, and hopefully high-fun. Because that’s my intention for 2021… to find the joy in things again.

Audiobooks: Awesome or Awful?

Audiobooks: Awesome or Awful?I tried an audiobook once, years ago. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the voices the narrator put on for the characters. I didn’t like the emphasis he used in sentences. It was all just wrong. I quickly gave up and never bothered again. Five minutes of one audiobook and I decided I didn’t like any of them.

But then.

This year I haven’t yet been able to finish a book. I’ve started several, but just… can’t… finish them. Turns out 2020 is messing with my mind too much and I haven’t been motivated or focused enough to actually want to read much.

So, I thought about audiobooks again. I thought about the fact I’d dismissed them outright, years ago, after trying and not getting on with one. I thought about the fact the one audiobook I tried was a book I was already very familiar with. I thought, what’s the harm in trying again?

I ended up choosing a book I had tried to read many, many years ago, but hadn’t read more than a chapter. I chose a book I recently watched and enjoyed the television adaptation of. I chose a book I didn’t really have any investment in or strong feelings on.

I’m just over halfway through and I’m actually enjoying it!

While I listen I usually cook, or wash pots, or do some colouring in. It’s actually really therapeutic. I will definitely be finishing this series via audiobook, and am looking forward to finding more audiobooks that work for me in the future!

Now the thing that annoys me about audiobooks is that amazon has the market cornered via audible, with so many books recorded exclusively for them. I am not an amazon fan, and avoid the company as much as possible. Wordery is my favoured alternative, along with local independent book shops.

If anyone has any audiobook recommendations—books you think work well or even better as audiobooks—please let me know.

And more than that, if anyone knows of any decent alternative to audible, I am desperate to hear about them! I’d love for my library to go digital, but alas, currently I am still left putting compact discs on hold.

Finding Time

Time is something most people wish they had more of. The wonderful things we imagine we’d do if only we had more time. But we’re always too busy with work, kids, commitments.

Yet we make time for some things. As a book lover, I make time to read. As a blogger, I make time to write. Sometimes making the time is easier than others, but it’s always time I want to make.

I will go to bed an hour early to lay there reading my book. I’ll read on the bus to work. I’ll read on my lunch break. When all the household chores are done I’ll spend an evening on my laptop, writing a book review. If plans get cancelled or I find myself with a free Sunday afternoon, I’ll sit with my notebook, planning out a blog post.

Sometimes, when I’ve had a busy day or a stressful week, I can’t find the energy. Instead I’ll just want to watch a comedy show or an action film with my partner while eating chocolate and snuggling the cat.

And that’s fine.

But when it’s hard to find the time and energy to read and write I’m often left feeling guilty that I don’t manage to. When I set aside the time, but end up down a youtube hole watching empty house tours and Marvel fan theories instead.

Recently, though, a large chunk of time has opened up for me. I’ve gone from working five days a week down to three. Two whole days a week to embrace and use how I want. And I want to write.

Giving myself the evenings to have guilt-free what-ever-I-feel-like time, I want to make the most of the two seven hours days I’ve suddenly found myself with. I have other hobbies and goals I hope to achieve with some of that time, but a large chunk I want to spend focused on reading and writing and embracing the enjoyment I get from that.

Largely, I’m making this post as a way to hold myself publicly accountable. I can’t waste this time I’ve given myself. I won’t allow it.

It’s time.

Write or Wrong?

A brand new pristine book—it needs to be kept that way, right? No breaking the spine, no dog-earring corners, no staining the pages, and certainly no writing in it!

But… why?

I mean, I get it. I used to feel exactly the same way. Books are precious and should be preserved. We take pride in our books, how they look, and how much we love them.

Thing is, it’s not the books themselves that are important—it’s the words they contain.

I have always been one to read and reread certain lines and passages in books that—for a variety of reasons—stood out to me. Maybe they struck a chord with me, maybe they amused me just so, maybe they were just perfectly constructed, or maybe they were a wonderful bit of character development. Whatever the reason I loved it, I would stop and read it several times over to absorb a little of the magic and just truly appreciate the writing.

This habit has since evolved.

When I started blogging, I also started properly recording the quotes that caught my fancy. I started pausing in my reading to type them up and post them on my tumblr. I love being able to scroll through the quotes I’ve shared and re-read them at my leisure, or search for specific quotes and from particular books.

This did cause problems, though; I didn’t always like having to stop reading in order to type up and share the quotes. I tried various methods to get around this. I’d wait until the end of a chapter to go back and find them… except I’d get caught up in the story and forget. I’d take a photo of the quote to sort out later… except then I’d take dozens of photos of my cat and the quote would get lost amongst the adorableness. I’d dog-ear pages (don’t shoot me!) to go back to… except by that time I’d’ve finished the book and couldn’t remember or find the specific quote on the page.

No. The best method that worked—and continues to work—is writing in my god damn books. Underlining a line or two, or marking the margin of a particular passage. It’s so much easier to flick back to them, they are clearly denoted, and the act of marking them also marks a memory in my mind to go back and type them up.

I did start with pencil, but it only took a single occasion of not having one handy for me to progress to pen. Really, I like the idea of re-reading a book and seeing all the parts that struck me previously—will they still resonate with me? And the idea of sharing the book with someone else—wondering what they will think of the parts I’ve highlighted.

I’m sure as I continue to deface my books I’ll evolve into leaving more little notes and thoughts and doodles. I look forward to that natural progression.

Because for me, a pristine book is an admired object, but a worn, annotated book is a story the reader has truly engaged with, taken from, and left something of themselves behind in.

That’s what reading is for me. Not a perfect ornament on a shelf, but fully absorbing the words and concepts contained within.

Feel free to leave a comment expressing your shock and despair at my graffiti practises, or share with me your own way of annotating books!

Edinburgh Bookshops

Whenever I travel, one of the most important things I do is research and plan a little bookshop itinerary. Earlier this year I wrote about all the bookshops I visited while I was on holiday in Brighton. When I spent a few days in Edinburgh at the end of July, it was only inevitable that i’d do the same thing again.

Edinburgh was lovely, with some (very welcome!) rain and cooler weather, delicious vegan food, great craft beer, and wonderful old buildings and architecture. There were also a boat load of bookshops! So many, that I couldn’t get to them all in the three full days I was there. But here’s a run down of the ones I did get to.

My first stop, and one of the few I really wanted to get to, was Lighthouse Bookshop. This is a radical bookshop selling all sorts including politics, history, fiction, travel, and more. The shop is light, bright, and airy. All the books were fascinating to browse and I could have spent a while there. I left feeling motivated and upbeat—with three new books!

Next door to Lighthouse is Deadhead Comics, which on the day we stopped by didn’t open on time. Talking to the person in Lighthouse, we were told the owner is actually who the character Bernard Black is based on. We decided to photo and run, not waiting for it to open—I didn’t want to meet him and ruin the illusion.

Next up was Till’s Bookshop. This is a one-room secondhand bookshop and it’s just lovely. That perfect old-and-friendly vibe, with so many great books packed into one room. I thought I was done, but managed to swiftly snatch up another book on my way to the till!

I thought I was going to miss Main Point Books, as google has the wrong opening hours, but thankfully I made it. Another single room, this time with piles of books all higgledy piggledy. It felt like a treasure hunt, searching through all the books. I didn’t get anything here, but enjoyed the rummage all the same.

Edinburgh Books (not to be mistaken for The Edinburgh Bookshop) is around the corner from Main Point. I loved this one a lot. There were old and new books, side-by-side on shelves reaching all the way up to the very high ceilings—this shop has step ladders. There were also several beautiful special edition hardbacks that tempted me, but I resisted. If there’d been any of my most favourite books i’d’ve snapped them up without hesitation. There was also the intimidating presence of a large bull’s head…

Across the road and down the street from Edinburgh Books is Armchair Books. This one was, for me, the quintessential bookshop. Narrow aisles, crammed bookshelves, weaving up and down the entire space of the shop. I had to limit myself to only properly looking at the sci-fi section, or I literally would have been there all day. There was a disappointing lack of armchairs, though.

The single bookshop I didn’t want to miss out on was Transreal. (Though I very nearly did; thankfully google was once again wrong on the opening hours.) Transreal specialises in science fiction and fantasy books, and it was wondrous. I looked at every book on every shelf, and then did another lap of the whole shop. I had expected it to be dark and claustrophobic—moody and eerie. Instead, it was as light, airy, and welcoming as Lighthouse. I loved it. I limited myself to a single book, though I was tempted with many!

I find all Oxfam bookshops have a similar vibe, and Edinburgh’s one was no exception. I love a good Oxfam bookshop—they never fail to have something of interest. I left with a couple of books.

I haven’t been in many Amnesty bookshops, but this one was large and well-stocked. Spacious, it was lovely to wander and browse the books lying face up on tables and filed neatly on the large shelves. After turning down a gorgeous copy of Vonnegut’s Siren’s of Titan in Armchair because I already have a copy, I saw the same beautiful edition here—in better condition and at a lower price. I felt it was the universe telling me I should definitely buy it, and who am I to say no to the universe?

Being a cat guardian I couldn’t not poke my head into the Cat’s Protection charity shop, and while not exclusively a bookshop, I did find an interesting-sounding Margaret Atwood book for a measly £2!

There was also a Barnardos bookshop, which i’d never come across before. Of course I popped in, though didn’t find anything to bring home.

There were at least three or four bookshops a little further from the city centre that I didn’t manage to get to, so i’ll definitely have to have a trip back in the future to tick them off my list. But all told, between my partner and I, we came home with 21 books. Not too shabby.

Have you been to any of these bookshops? Do you know of any towns or cities with a great selection of independent bookshops? I need ideas for my next bookish holiday destination!

Brighton Bookshops

I recently had a few days away in Brighton, and while researching places to eat and sights to see of course I looked up where all the local bookshops were. Finding the bookshops is what I always do in new places (what self-respecting bibliophile doesn’t?), but this was the first time I thought of documenting visits and sharing it on my blog.

Brighton was awesome, with so many places for this vegan to eat, loads of little alleyways and streets to explore, and some really amazing graffiti art. But this blog isn’t about food, exploring, or pretty walls. It’s about BOOKS, so let’s get to it!

The first bookshop I went in was Brighton Books, located on a wonderful pedestrianised street along with clothes shops and cafés. Once inside the hustle and bustle of the people outside faded away. I had a blissful half an hour browsing the bookshelves, eventually picking out a book of essays by William Golding i’ve had on my ‘to acquire’ list for a while.

Next on my list of bookshops was Books for Amnesty, which was hard to miss as it’s painted bright pink! I loved this colour choice—it makes the whole shop stand out, but isn’t at all out of place in the colourful arty Brighton vibes. Although I didn’t buy a book here, the feeling inside was welcoming and put me immediately at ease. I could have browsed there all day, had they had enough books!

A bookshop that really caught my interest, and was backed up by a recommendation from a Brightonite bookstagrammer, was Colin Page Antiquarian Books. Immediately I could tell it was one of those wonderful bookshops, rammed full of books to get lost in, and that old book smell. It didn’t disappoint. The books are down a mental spiral staircase, and the space is quite and still, almost library-like. Most of the books are hardback, with only a table out front covered with paperbacks. There were also boxes of literary magazines on the floor, including one full of old pulpy science fiction—if I hadn’t been getting the train back, that entire box would have come home with me!

The last bookshop I went in was City Books, which is a typical independent shop selling new and modern books of all genres. I loved it. I saw many books i’d never heard of, but was enticed to pick up, read the back, and have a flick through. It’s exactly the kind of bookshop where I could easily spend a lot of money. On this occasion I limited myself to a single book—City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer. At over 700 pages, it was the best value for my money!

On my last, very early, morning, on the walk to the train station, I passed another bookshop that I had somehow managed to miss! Raining Books wasn’t open at the ungodly hour I passed by, but it certainly looks interesting and fun—I can’t wait to explore it the next time i’m in Brighton!

Have you been to any of these bookshops? Are there any more awesome Brighton bookshops I missed!? Let me know so I can add them to my visit list!

Stories: Short & Sweet

It’s no secret i’m a lover of short stories. I’m also aware that a lot of other people aren’t. My love of short stories is so easy and natural that it baffles me a little why other people don’t seem to enjoy them as much as I do. I can’t understand what it is about them that’s unappealing. This left me wanting to articulate the reasons I think short stories are brilliant, so I had a go.

Most obviously, there is less commitment in reading a short story, and therefore a much quicker pay off. I can read a short story in minutes. I can experience the wonder, the tragedy, the humour, of a single narrative much more swiftly than with the commitment of reading an entire book. Even if I don’t enjoy the story, I haven’t wasted hours or days of my life reading it. They’re like chapters of a book, but with an entire set up and conclusion in each.

You get to the good stuff quicker because the whole story is the good stuff. Novels can take pages and pages and chapters and chapters to really get your teeth into, but short stories are wham and you’re there. Linked to this is the fact they draw you into the world and the characters so much quicker—you’re made to care and get invested from the get go, which leaves you no time to get bored.

Every word has to count in a short story. They’re not the place to wax lyrical about unimportant side notes or superfluous details. Everything mentioned in a good short story will add something to the narrative. It might be plot, character, mood—whatever the important things are to get across, and whatever it is the author is trying to convey in the small time they have your attention. It all matters.

My very favourite kind of short stories often have some sort of twist or unexpected revelation at the end. Something that makes you view the whole story in a new light, and makes a second read a whole new experience. It’s almost like you get two stories in one, and it can add such depth to such a short narrative. Of course, novels can have twists and turns and revelations, but re-reading short story is a much simpler task. There have been times i’ve finished a short story and gone straight back to the beginning to start it again. As much as i’ve loved any novel, i’ve never wanted re-read it immediately.

I find short stories can often make the reader work harder. The more thought and attention you put into a short story, the more satisfaction you get out of it. Novels can often over explain, or spell things out too much over time, but short stories won’t make it that easy for you. They give you all the pieces, but you might have to ponder on them before they fit together. They might, for example, not answer all the questions the story raises. They might leave the ending ambiguous or open to interpretation. I love endings like that anyway (be it novel, film, TV, whatever), but in a short short it forces you to take stock of the information you have been given and find new and extended meaning in it.

I just really love short stories okay? But don’t just take my rambling, biased word for it. Let these wonderful quotes persuade you to reading more short story collections…

A short story is a different thing altogether – a short story is like a quick kiss in the dark from a stranger.

– Stephen King

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.

– Edgar Allan Poe

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.

– Paolo Bacigalupi

A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion – than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.

– Eudora Welty

A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.

– Neil Gaiman

My advice would be this: Don’t get all up in your head thinking short-short stories have to be poetry without the line breaks. Don’t put on your beret. Just tell a story, an actual story. Quick, while they’re still listening.

– Rebecca Makkai

A short story…can be held in the mind all in one piece. It’s less like a building than a fiendish device. Every bit of it must be cunningly made and crafted to fit together perfectly and without waste so it can perform its task with absolute precision. That purpose might be to move the reader to tears or wonder, to awaken the conscience, to console, to gladden, or to enlighten. But each short story has one chief purpose, and every sentence, phrase, and word is crafted to achieve that end.

– Michael Swanwick