Review: The Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor

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✮✮✮☆☆

 

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back.

Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

CONTENT WARNING: Rape and sexual assault.

 

Why I picked this book up:

I was in the midst of a reading slump when I decided to pick up this book on a whim in Waterstones last week. I tend to find that murder mysteries are great easy reads that I fly through, so I thought this book would be perfect to get myself excited about reading again. This period of British history is also something that I’ve read about and hugely enjoyed before, so I thought that the context I already had for the 17th century would help in getting myself through this a little quicker.

 

The bad: 

First and foremost, I really felt as though this book could have been severely trimmed down, by at least 50 pages. Some scenes gave a huge amount of unnecessary observations on behalf of the characters, and considering one of the two protagonists (James Marwood, possibly the wettest lettuce alive) didn’t ever seem to have anything interesting to say, it really dragged in places for me. I was also expecting something much more fast paced, whereas The Ashes of London ended up relying more on the historical fiction side of things than the murder mystery, which is the part I was most looking forward to. For the majority of the book, there was hardly any mystery at all, and only a small twist at the end seemed to give any excitement. I did enjoy the main female protagonist, Cat, who seemed to have much more personality than her male counterpart, but she still felt a little stilted. Her slightly feminist leanings and opinions seemed a little forced in, and the phrasing of them slightly too modern to be believable, but admittedly it did give her much more depth and motivation.

 

The good:

I think the aspect of the narrative that Taylor handled the best was his depiction of the aftermath of rape. The scene itself was not shown, but the raw emotion and gut reactions to the male touch afterwards were extremely heartfelt. Unlike other historical fiction and even fantasy I’ve read previously, this plot point did not seem throw-away in order to give some ‘edge’. Instead the act was pivotal to the main plot, and was handled delicately enough to be realistic and sympathetic without being too graphic or character defining for the victim. I also enjoyed the obviously excellently well-researched religious exploration that occurred throughout, and Taylor dealt with some complex issues surrounding how the beliefs and actions of parents can affect their children and legacy.

 

Overall rating: 3/5

 

Hygge + Happiness: Books About Denmark

As I’m sure anyone who has wondered into a bookshop recently will know (or reads any lifestyle blogs, for that matter), almost every middle-class Brit is talking about Denmark and hygge – myself included.

Over the last few months publishers have been capitalising on the trend, with literal stacks of titles sporting the buzzword, offering cosiness and happiness and an idillic lifestyle in our very own England. Although I don’t see a few blankets and candles as a fix all for 21st century blues, I wanted to share two books I’ve really enjoyed on the subject, and the lessons that I’ve taken from them.

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The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell

This first book is a memoir-cum-cultural profile, written by a British lifestyle journalist who moves to Denmark with her husband when he is offered a job with Lego. The chapters are split into a month-by-month basis, with each section titled by a uniquely Danish cultural phenomenon. Her chapter on hygge appears fairly early in the book, but the ideas and the word itself appear frequently throughout her first year of living in abroad. She openly talks about what she thinks works culturally (and the things she thinks don’t) and the difficultly she faced as an outsider, but overall the book is a lighthearted and well researched peek into day to day life in Denmark.

What Russell emphasises as being the biggest impact on her personal happiness is the balance between work and home. In Denmark, the day finishes far earlier, and clubs, childcare, and family time seem to be built into everyone’s week. Although things such as family time, and time doing activities like walks, cycling, reading, or cooking all come under the heading of ‘hygge’, the shorter work days and government assistance are something country specific. Russell frequently theorises that it is the combination of personal choice and public policy that results in such reportedly high levels of happiness in Danes, and that short of actually moving to Denmark some aspects of life are not easily replicated elsewhere. However, she does argue that adjusting mindset and priorities are key in happiness at work, home, and with your own happiness, making sure that time is taken to spend time with loved ones, eat good food, and take life a little slower.

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Buy it here.

 

The Little Book of Hygge – Meik Wiking

Although this little book is also non-fiction, it couldn’t be more different in its approach. Written by a Dane, Wiking attempts to give a comprehensive guide on exactly hygge is, why it is important, and how to achieve it in every aspect of life. This volume is chock full of gorgeous photos, recipes, DIY projects, and even clothing tips.

After my first cover-to-cover read through of this book, I’ve so often gone back to it in times where I’ve needed a little pick me up. The tips Wiking gives range from the lifestyle altering to the most basic, so whenever I’m in need of a cosy break from the day to day, there always seems to be something that I can implement immediately.

 

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Buy it here.

What are your thoughts on the hygge trend? Let me know down in the comments!

7 Favourite Books About Art

At the time of writing, I only have three (three!) months left of my undergraduate degree. The last three years have been a haze of essays, sculptures, and library days, with a few great books folded between.

As I can already feel myself feeling nostalgic for pouring over impossibly convoluted texts in the name of Art History, I thought I’d do a round-up of the best books about art (and thinking about art) that I’ve read throughout my degree.

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

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To say that this book is a cornerstone for Art History would be an understatement. As well as being possibly the most useful little book throughout my degree, Ways of Seeing is wonderfully accessible and easy to understand. The reason I love this book so much is simply because Berger opened up History of Art to the masses, showing that it was something interesting, relevant to modern society, and something very much open for anyone to learn about and discuss.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

 

The Story of Art -E.H. Gombrich

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In a similar vein to the previous book, The Story of Art also gives an incredibly comprehensive introduction to the history of art, as well as being easy to understand while still dealing with very complex topics. I read this book cover to cover before starting my degree (admittedly I did look a little strange lugging around my hardback version for ‘holiday reading’) and referred to it during almost every essay and exam season.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

The Improbability of Love – Hannah Rothschild

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As the only work of fiction on the list, The Improbability of Love is something a little different. It’s a satirical take on the art world, involving the auction of a lost painting, Nazi plots, themed cooking, and an ex-rent boy that occasionally dresses as Marie Antoinette. The author is well immersed in the art world herself, so even though the characters are completely over-blown, the book is extremely fun, very well researched, and still somehow very believable.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

 

A Grand Design – Edited by Brenda Richardson and Malcolm Baker

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I will admit, compared to everything else on the list, this is a bit of a wild card. Even before I came to university I was obsessed with the V&A, so much so that by this time last year I had decided to write my dissertation on its entrance. This book has not only been an invaluable research piece, but is an extremely interesting and passionate history of the museum, with reflections on privilege, class, and Britishness, as well as some beautiful illustrations.

Buy it here.

 

 

Artemisia: The Story of a Battle for Greatness – Alexandra Lapierre

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Simply put, this is a biography of one of my heroes. Artemisia was a Baroque painter with a fascinating upbringing as the daughter of another successful artist, who painted common biblical or mythological scenes with a distinctly feminist edge. She painted for the Medici’s, was buddies with Galileo (!) and was an amazing single mother to boot. This book also covers the misattribution of some of her work to her father, as well as her extremely public rape trail, meaning that this book reads almost like a piece of page-turning historical fiction.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

Art Made From Books – Alyson Kuhn

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Books? Check. Art? Check. Gorgeous binding? Definitely! This book is all of my favourite things put together with love, alongside descriptions of sculptures so wonderful that I wish I could see every one of them in real life. A great coffee table book as well as an introduction to some inspiring contemporary artists, Art Made From Books makes a great gift or a treat for your own shelves.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained – Susie Hodge

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I fully admit that, until the second year of my degree, I despised almost all contemporary art. I’d written it off as ugly, pretentious, and unnecessary, but this book (as well as a fabulous second year module) helped to convert me. Using examples of high profile art from the last hundred years, Hodge explains the movement that the piece comes from, its exhibition history, and why it is considered ‘good art’.

Buy it here.

 

 

 

 

Although I could ramble on and on about a huge range of books about art, I thought these showed a great cross-section of books that I’ve loved and thumbed through the most over the past three years. If you have any recommendations for art books, please let me know in the comments!

Note: this post contains affiliate links for The Book Depository. If you buy anything through my link, I’ll earn 5% of the cost of what you bought (without costing you any extra).

 

My Capsule Wardrobe Inspiration

As part of my quest for less, I’ve started with culling my wardrobe with brute force. Three bin bags later and a lot of folding, I’m down to significantly less that 100 items of clothing, most of which are pieces I completely love. I’ve began to notice where I go wrong with shopping – impulse buys, trendy, and ‘not quite perfect but near enough’ pieces being the most discarded ones – so I’ve managed to narrow down exactly what works for me, and more importantly, the difference between what I find aesthetically pleasing and what I will actually wear day to day.

 

Things I’ve Learned:

  1. Most of my favourite items are navy, light blue, black, and grey, which for the longest time I’ve fought against and constantly attempted to add colour to no avail. I think I need to accept that I feel my best in neutrals, and that I feel more confident in mixing pattern and layering with items like these than I ever do in bright colours and prints.
  2. I have a uniform of flats, skinny jeans, and a loose button up shirt, and whenever I deviate from it is when I feel the most self-conscious. Being plus sized means that the oversized shirts hide my least favourite body parts (my breasts and my stomach), whereas the skinny jeans highlight my favourite (legs). I also love the effortless look, which can easily be altered by a blazer or jumper over the shirt, and can easily be dressed up or down.
  3. I love more masculine clothes when it comes to my casual outfits – aside from skinny jeans, most of my wardrobe is tailored items, smart flat shoes, and fitted jackets and plain jumpers.

 

Current Capsule Wishlist:

  1. Some LK Bennett ballet flats in black – my only black flats at the moment are some lovely but rather clumpy tassel loafers
  2. A navy silk shirt – I have my eye on a particular one from work with a delicate floral pattern
  3. A black/ herringbone unstructured blazer – I have a thrifted navy blazer that I live in during spring, but I think something more casual would go with even more in my wardrobe
  4. A white linen t-shirt – despite owning a lot of plain basics, I’m distinctly lacking in a good white t-shirt, and I think linen will be a great fabric to layer with in spring and keep me cool in summer

 

Style Inspiration:

  1. Clemence Poesy – fabulous boyish French chic. I can’t get enough of her outfits and natural make-up look.
  2. This blog – the blogger lives between Paris and Amsterdam, and shares my love for oversized shirts. I’ve read her blog from beginning to end several times.
  3. My own Pinterest board – I’ve finally started collecting all of my wardrobe basics inspiration in one place, and hey, I’m not afraid to say I’m occasionally inspired by myself.

 

If you have a capsule wardrobe, what are your inspirations and motivations? If not, would you ever try one?

January ’17 Wrap-Up

Books Bought:

  • The No Spend Year – Michelle McGagh
  • Unf*ck Your Habitat – Rachel Hoffman
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Books Read:

  • The Wangs vs. The World – Jade Chang
  • The Museum of Me – Emma Lewis
  • The No Spend Year – Michelle McGagh
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here – Patrick Ness
  • The Good Immigrant – Various
  • When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

The year started off strong, with me blasting through three books in as many days at the start of January. But like any reading marathon, it wasn’t set to last – I had a 72 hour open exam at the end of the first week, and with university, societies, and work every weekend kicking back in, I landed right back in a reading slump. I really struggled to get through any other books, having to physically force myself to sit and read (which probably meant I didn’t enjoy very many of the books as much as I would have, either). That being said I’ve definitely found some new favourites already in 2017! May possibly have to re-read them when I’m in a better mood, though.

The Wangs vs. The World is a novel about the fall of Charles Wang, self made cosmetics millionaire turned bankrupt father during the 2008 economic crash. Packing himself, his morally dubious second wife, insta-famous daughter, and wannabe stand-up comic son into a tiny vintage car, they travel across the country to visit the oldest sibling, a failed contemporary artist hiding out in upstate New York, and from there attempt to reclaim forgotten family land from the Chinese communist government. This book was essentially Little Miss Sunshine but amped all the way up – there was a lot more tragedy, introspection, and detestable characters than I was expecting, but Jade Chang’s writing lands you your own place in this crazy, dysfunctional family.

The Museum of Me is actually a children’s picture book, all about the different kinds of museums that you can visit, and how your own belongings and interests create a ‘Museum of Me’. Simple but adorable art style, and a great message about why children should be getting excited about museums, it was a nice quick read to put me in a better mood.

The No Spend Year is a book, following up from a string of Guardian articles, about a woman who spends no money other than on absolute essentials (food, household bills, rent) for 12 months. No meals out, no haircuts, no new clothes, and no transport other than her bike and her own two feet. The book was brutally honest about what worked for her and what didn’t, tips for entertaining yourself for free, and how she (slightly illegally) managed to go on holiday for free – minus the cost of one portion of chips. A great book with practical tips on how to spend less but still live well, and something that I’ve kept thinking about long after I put the book down.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here was my first ever Patrick Ness book, and one that’s been on my TBR for well over a year. I was really excited about the concept – a group of teenagers attempting to live a normal life while the ‘chosen ones’ run around and get the high school blown up – but I felt as though it fell a bit short. It was great having main characters with mental illnesses and a POC love interest, but I didn’t feel as though the characters or personal conflicts were particularly exciting. After reading a few other reviews apparently many people thought the same, and Ness’s other books far outstrip this one, so I’ll be picking up something else by him in the near future.

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays by a range of British BAME writers and comedians about what it means to be a first or second generation immigrant in the UK today. With all of the conversations about race in the current media revolving around America and Black Lives Matter, it was great to get an insight on how minorities feel about my own country, as white Brits tend to have the self-congratulatory habit of saying ‘Well at least we’re not America!’. Insightful and varied, it reminded me about how much further we have left to go, and how as a white ally I must help to raise the voices of minorities, not speak over them with my own interpretation.

When Breath Becomes Air is one you have probably all heard of – a memoir of a neurosurgeon with a masters in literature who is diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. A short but heartbreaking book, the author discusses how his relationship with patients changed, how his priorities were altered, and how literature helped him through such a difficult time. The author died before the publication of this book, and the final chapter is written by his wife.

Which books did you kick off the new year with?