Review: The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith

The Power of Meaning: Crafting a life that matters by [Smith, Emily Esfahani]

Over the last year in particular, I have struggled to find meaning. I haven’t been working and have slowly lost my identity as a mental health service user. Over the last few years, I have been distancing myself from the faith I was brought up with too. The longer this has been my reality, the more I’ve thought: what’s the point? I turned to The Power of Meaning in the hope of finding answers.

This isn’t a practical book. Emily Esfahani Smith has clearly done her research; turning to psychology, sociology, theology, biology and everything in between to set out what past and current generations define “meaning” as being. This will, perhaps unsurprisingly, have elements that will appeal to some people and not others. It is worth persevering through these areas of less interest, as I came across some useful points in the process.

As I’m currently at a crossroads, about to pursue what I hope will be my life’s career, it was the author’s consideration of work that I took the most from. She quotes Frederick Buechner, saying that vocation lies, “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I thought this was a really powerful statement. What Smith really brought home too was that you don’t have to be in an overtly caring position to have a “service mindset,” which then leads to a sense of purpose.

It was the brief look at meaning in difficulty that I found inspirational in The Power of Meaning. Without religion, I’ve struggled to make sense of crises, but Smith talks about making them worth something, having the choice about how we tell our stories and the impact of our mindset. The message that you can have a meaningful life in spite of tough circumstances is vitally important because it speaks to everyone. It means everybody is capable of finding meaning and, therefore, living a life that’s worthwhile.

3 Stars

Many thanks to the publishers for a copy of this book for review. It is available to purchase here.

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Review: The Dry by Jane Harper

With a tagline like, “Who really killed the Hadler family?,” I knew that The Dry would be a who-dunnit, but I wasn’t aware of how quickly I would get swept up into its storyline and the lives of its characters. This is a debut novel of scope that builds drama and intrigue page-after-page.

Set in the rural Australian town of Kiewarra, during the worst drought in decades, tensions are at an all time high. Following the brutal murder of a mother and her seven year old son by husband and father, Luke, who then committed suicide, shock resounds; past conversations are unpicked and old disagreements are reignited, but many people seem surprised that a family man who spent his entire life in the town could so callously take away the lives of his closest family members. On the day of their funeral, Aaron Falk, a childhood friend of Luke, now a policeman, turns up to the town he was driven out of twenty years earlier. Luke’s parents plead with him to find out whether their son was really responsible for the town’s worst crime in history, hoping that they hadn’t overlooked anything and desperate to find an alternative culprit.

The Dry has a claustrophobic tension from the very beginning. The novel’s policeman, himself a victim of Kiewarra’s in-fighting and exclusivity, has the unreliability of being too close to the other characters, but also the distance from not having seen them for up to twenty years. His lack of comfort in his surroundings really rubs off on the reader who want to up and leave the barrenness of the town, but equally want to be certain of the resolution of such a vicious crime.

The novel is clever in its portrayal of two timelines – the present day and twenty years earlier, when another friend of Aaron’s, Ellie, was found dead in suspicious circumstances. It is evident that we are going to find out the perpetrators in both cases, which could be too great an ask for other novels, but The Dry succeeds with ease. The word-count is perfect, for the task asked of the novel is achieved at the most tense points in the narrative. That said, the small town, rural setting leads a slow-paced story, lacking in the technology of most modern crime dramas, but lacking nothing in technique.

This is a debut that reads as the writing of someone with years of literary success. It is tense, atmospheric and full of surprises that always kept me on my toes. Rarely does a book engage me quite so much in its plotting and sense of place. Jane Harper is an exciting new voice and one to be watched.

4 Stars

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book for review. It is available to purchase here.

Review: Little Deaths by Emma Flint

In 1965, Ruth Malone enters her children’s bedroom to find that they have disappeared; an open window the only clue as to their departure. Within hours, her daughter’s body is found, swarming with flies. It is inevitable that the next discovery will be that of Ruth’s son. It’s every parent’s nightmare, but the police and Ruth’s neighbours are all quick to point out that Ruth isn’t like every parent. Her cold facade remains in place, make-up and smart clothes always adorning her, whilst her extra-curricular activities are the attention of everyone. It seems that even the death of two young children can’t come between a mother and her sexual dalliances.

This isn’t a story taken up with forensic intricacies and the whittling down of multiple suspects until we are left with just one. It is clear that there are only a very small number of possible perpetrators. But the year is 1965; a time when society has a clear and immovable view of what a mother should be and what a mother grieving should look like.

Emma Flint has achieved remarkable things in her debut novel. I was engrossed, not only in the character of Ruth, who remained enigmatic throughout, but also in the people who surrounded her and were so certain of her guilt. There is a darkness in this conspiracy, all the more terrifying when you consider all the miscarriages of justice that could have occurred as a result of assumptions about someone’s character. Little Deaths hold a unique place within the crime genre; a sure sign that its author is one to watch.

4 Stars

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book for review. It is available to purchase here.

Review: Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary

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Sonny Knolls, a 16 year old schoolboy from Dublin, lives a hand-to-mouth existence amongst his family. His mother is frazzled trying to keep order, whilst his father works as a labourer and spends his free time wasting his earnings at the betting shop. Sonny, meanwhile, tries to find companionship with Sharon, drinking on the street, stealing bike parts and aspiring to nothing. When Sonny helps his father with small manual tasks, he meets Vera; a resident in the city’s affluent Montpelier Parade.

Vera lives a life in antithesis to Sonny’s. Wealthy and cultured, but carrying a sadness, Vera, sometimes reluctantly, turns to Sonny for comfort. Vera is also old enough to be Sonny’s mother.

Montpelier Parade is a love story that shouldn’t happen, but that captured my heart. There is an older woman and a teenage boy, both of whom are seeking to fill the void left by loneliness, and it is this desperation for belonging and warmth that transcends the abuse of power a reader could otherwise get caught up in. I recognised what it was to look beyond my own circumstances to someone else who could rescue. Sadly for Sonny, Vera is in as much need of rescue as he is.

It is rare for books to employ the second person in its perspective, but this is how Karl Geary has chosen to narrate Montpelier Parade. This immediately caught my attention and its use of “you” meant that I was fully absorbed into Sonny’s role within the story. It is a novel driven by character, from Sonny to Vera, via his mother and father. Geary utilises his knowledge of 1980’s Dublin to fictionalise the gap between the rich and the poor, and the haves and have-nots, with remarkable success.

The prose of Montpelier Parade combines the grit of Sonny’s poverty to the grandeur of Vera’s home with a sense of poetry, lyricism and wistful longing for a better life. I was wowed by this debut novel and wouldn’t be surprised to see it in my Top Ten of 2017!

5 Stars

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book for review. It is available to purchase here.

Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing, the debut novel from Yaa Gyasi, has been making waves in the US since its release last year and, similarly, I knew from its early pages that I was reading a special book. Released today in the UK, its influence is sure to stretch further.

Spanning generations, Homegoing tells the story of two sisters, Effia and Esi, who have two very separate paths in life. One is sold into slavery, whilst the other becomes the wife of an English slave-trader. Whilst those captured as slaves are eventually transported from Ghana to America, those remaining in Ghana are still observers of the impact prejudice has. What begins in the 18th Century stretches into the present, with discrimination looking slightly different but still setting limits on people of colour.

Gyasi begins her storytelling with a chapter each being giving to Effia and Esi, followed by six future generations of each sister being given voice. Little more than 20 pages is given to a chapter and, therefore, to a character, although the links are occasionally eluded to in order to remind the reader of relationships. This approach worked for me more in some chapters than others, mostly determined by how quickly I was drawn into the narrative. However, it was a technique that matched the scope of the story and that is to be commended. Few writers would dare to consider writing a history of Ghana and America, matching the facts with the injustice, and following a family’s course from one generation to the next.

Homegoing is a hard-hitting novel that, whilst fairly modest in length, is immense in depth. It examines prejudice, cruelty and destiny in a story that, sadly, still reflects human experience. It is courageous and profound; a novel as timely as ever.

4 Stars

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book to review. It is available to purchase here.

Blog Tour: Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

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I’m privileged to be today’s stop on the blog tour for Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent. Liz’s first novel, Unravelling Oliver, met with great praise on its publication and so I was very excited to get the chance to read her latest book.

Lying in Wait is a murder mystery unlike any other I have read or am likely to. Nugent packs a punch with her opening line: “My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it.” For a novel based on a murder, surely that equates to case closed? We know the victim. We know the perpetrator. All within a single sentence. But the psychology behind the actions of a murderer and those around them, as guilt swamps them or, conversely, as their lack of remorse seeps into their everyday relationships,  is what this author really manages to unpick.

Lying in Wait uses my favourite narrative style – that of having chapters narrated by various characters – with great skill. I felt fully involved in the thoughts and behaviours of each character, which succeeded in both allowing me to feel great compassion and disgust. In my first book of 2017, I think I may have found the most unlikeable, self-centred and manipulative character that I will come across over the course of a year’s reading. There were times when I wanted to put the book down simply because I couldn’t bear to see Lydia rob those around her of happiness and wanted her to be dealt what she was deserving of; but Nugent’s writing was so compelling and Lydia’s character so thoroughly sculpted that nothing could stop me reading until I reached the story’s end.

This is a novel centred on one event and its implications on multiple lives. Within this, Annie Doyle is the most powerful character of all. Whilst dead for the entirety of the novel (not a spoiler: see first line!), her influence permeates lives over decades, beginning in 1980 and concluding in 2016. Liz Nugent is a real talent. She gets into characters’ psyches and crafts the most dangerous of these into a storyline that kept building momentum until its very last page. I’m so in awe of the horror Nugent managed to outwork through a single person that Lying in Wait will remain in my thoughts for a good while yet.

5 Stars

Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review. Lying in Wait is available to purchase here.

 

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2017 Goals

2017 is a year that I want to be different. It’s a year when I don’t want anxiety and my messy thought processes to determine what I do with my time, who I spend it with and what I achieve. I want 2017 to be about growth; so that, 365 days from now, I can show you what I have gained. 2017 is full of possibilities. Here are some of the goals I would like to reach.

“Be present. Fight to be present.” – Jamie Tworkowski

  1. Watch 50 films at the cinema
  2. Read 75 books in total
  3. Read 20 non-fiction books
  4. Read 15 classics
  5. Read 12 poetry collections
  6. Read 12 short story collections
  7. Go to 6 book events
  8. Complete 20 cross-stitch projects
  9. Get a paid job in mental health
  10. Go on a mindfulness retreat
  11. Reach and maintain a healthy BMI
  12. Save £1 for every book read and £2 for every book bought
  13. Go to a literature festival
  14. Visit 3 countries
  15. Make friends
  16. Reduce clutter
  17. See a play in London
  18. Visit 3 museums
  19. Blog regularly
  20. Listen to a TED talk or a podcast every day
  21. Embrace my personal style
  22. Complete a course
  23. Follow through on anything I commit to