MonsterMind – Alfonso Casas

Translator – Andrea Rosenberg

“This isn’t the triumphant tale of a hero who defeated his monsters … it’s just the story of somebody who’s learning to live with them.”

Most readers will already be well acquainted with at least some of the monsters in this book. Featured monsters include doubt, fear, social anxiety, past trauma and sadness.

The author uses personal examples to introduce readers to his monsters and explore how they interact with him day and night, from doubts that keep him awake to anxiety about the future.

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I could readily identify some of the monsters, like the cute little sowers of doubt, but others weren’t as easy to name. It would have helped me if the monster mugshots had introduced the story instead of being hidden at the end.

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While I had originally hoped the illustrations would be in colour, it felt more and more appropriate for them to be in grayscale. While there is some hope towards the end of the story, I felt like I was walking through molasses sometimes.

I haven’t found the humour yet. Despite that, I really liked the illustrations and found many of the stories very relatable.

Thank you so much to NetGalley, Ablaze and Diamond Book Distributors for the opportunity to read this graphic novel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Alfonso Casas’s MonsterMind is a very personal account of the inner monsters that live inside his head. But, who doesn’t have a monster inside them? Who has never heard that voice inside their head undermining everything they do? You’re not good enough… You just got really lucky… There are people far better and more qualified than you… In a very honest exercise, Alfonso Casas identifies and introduces his own monsters to his readers: Mr. Past Traumas, Mr. Fear, Mr. Social Anxiety, Mr. Impostor Syndrome, Mr. Sadness, Mr. Doubt… The pessimistic, the insecure, the self-demanding, the monster that keeps you from sleeping while you think of what you could have said back in that conversation two years ago, or that keeps you looking over the punctuation of every text message to figure out the tone lurking beneath the surface. All those monsters make up the bestiary of contemporary society. But the anxiety generation is expert in more things: in looking inside themselves and their lives, and – why not? – in laughing at their own neuroses as best they can. In the end, if the monsters won’t leave us, we might as well get to know them and laugh at them! Anxiety is another pandemic, but the monsters dwelling inside us are funny, too (especially as drawn by Alfonso Casas).

Beneath the Trees: The Autumn of Mister Grumpf – Dav

Translator – Mike Kennedy

All Mister Grumpf wants to do is clear his doorstep of leaves. His neighbours keep interrupting him, though. They all want help, either with preparations for winter or when things go wrong.

Mister Grumpf, despite his grumpiness, is there for his neighbours, helping them with their problems while his own continue to pile up.

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There’s minimal text in this picture book but the illustrations clearly tell the story. The animals are all expressive, especially Mister Grumpf. I especially liked the glimpses inside the characters’ homes and the autumn colours.

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This book reminded me of Steve Smallman’s Kind Mr Bear, where an elderly bear is always there to help his neighbours until he becomes ill and needs help himself.

I’m planning on continuing this series through the seasons.

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Thank you so much to NetGalley, Magnetic Press and Andrews McMeel Publishing for the opportunity to read this picture book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Winter is fast approaching and all the animals in the forest are in full preparation: storing food and provisions, dining on the last worms with the neighbors, etc… All the animals but one: grumpy badger Mr Grumpf just can’t finish sweeping the dead leaves off his doorstep with everyone coming by to disturb him! Grumpf!

This new series paints a tender and colourful portrait of everyday Life, showing that behind every flaw or weakness can lie charm and strength. Readers will recognise their own neighbours, friends, and family members in the endearing animal characters within this forest community. In this first volume, we meet a very busy badger, who may admittedly be a little slow, but who never refuses to lend a paw to help his neighbours. In time, his generosity will be rewarded!

The stories in this four-book series take place in the same forest over the course of four seasons. Each can be read independently, exploring the complexity and richness of relationships with family, friends, and loved ones. As both writer and illustrator, the author doesn’t rely on text to convey emotions, oscillating between a clever dose of dialogue and wordless passages to makes these stories accessible to young readers starting as young as 5 years old.

Presenting a graphic universe somewhere between Michel Plessix’s adaptations of The Wind in the Willows and the cartoons of Walt Disney (in particular those created by Don Bluth, such as The Rescuers and Robin Hood), Dav gently conveys each season through a changing palette of colours and rounded designs.

A History of the Universe in 100 Stars – Florian Freistetter

Translator – Gesche Ipsen

Class, today’s lockdown lesson is brought to you by the letter A.

I haven’t studied science since high school but the older I get, the more interesting I find it. I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a kid and you know how much I love fun facts. Whenever I stumble across a book about stars I can’t help myself; I need to find out more.

It never fails to floor me whenever I read about how unfathomably ginormous the universe is.

The Milky Way has a “few hundred billion stars” and it’s only one of up to a quadrillion other galaxies in the universe. Each of those consist of “hundreds of billions of stars”.

61 Cygni is 11.4 light years away from Earth. Only twelve stars are closer than it.

I learned the names of the stars that make up the Southern Cross, the first constellation I was able to identify and a symbol that’s tattooed on so many Australians.

Four of the stars that make up the Southern Cross are pretty boring: Acrux, Becrux, Gacrux and Decrux. They were named because the constellation is called Crux and the Bayer system for naming stars is related to how bright they are; the brightest star is Alpha, the second brightest star Beta, third Gamma, fourth Delta, etc., so Alpha Crucis became Acrux. The fifth star, however, actually has a more appropriate name, Ginan, and I love this so much!

In the stories of the Wardaman people of northern Australia, a ginan is a traditional bag filled with stories and songs and myths about the creation of the world.

Apologies in advance if I’m ruining your childhood here, but did you know that shooting stars aren’t actually stars?

They are miniature lumps of rock only a few millimetres wide, and you can find them as space dust everywhere between the planets of our solar system. When Earth meets one of these grains of interplanetary dirt, we see a shooting star. The speck of dust hits the Earth’s atmosphere with a typical speed of between 30 and 70 kilometres per second. During its high-speed flight through the atmosphere, it rips electrons from the shells of the atoms of which the air consists; and when these now shell-less atoms recapture one of the liberated electrons and reattach it, they emit energy in the form of light, which we then perceive as a shooting star.

The whole thing takes place about a hundred kilometres above us and lasts only a few seconds.

Then there’s the “brightest and most massive” star. This honour goes to R136a1 from the Tarantula Nebula, which is almost 180,000 light years from Earth.

If R136a1 was where the Sun is, it would exceed the Sun’s brightness by as much as the Sun’s exceeds the Moon’s. R136a1 is a whole 265 times heavier than the Sun, and if it really was the centre of the solar system, the massive increase in gravitational force would shorten Earth’s orbit from 365 days to a mere 21.

This book reminded me that not only did The X-Files teach me Latin, it also taught me astronomy. So many years later, I came across the term syzygy in this book and not only did I know what it meant, I also remembered the storyline of the episode that introduced me to the word. Thank you, Chris Carter.

Even without a scientific background, I didn’t have any trouble understanding the author’s explanations. I would have loved for the book to have included photos of some of the stars; Google helped me fill this void.

I haven’t read a lot of astronomy books but I found Lisa Harvey-Smith’s The Secret Life of Stars an easier read. If I lost concentration during this book I’d have to reread at least a paragraph to figure out what I’d missed. There was a small amount of repetition, which I can put down to the fact that the author states in the foreword that you can read the chapters in any order.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Astronomer Florian Freistetter has chosen 100 stars that have almost nothing in common. Some are bright and famous, some shine so feebly you need a huge telescope. There are big stars, small stars, nearby stars and faraway stars. Some died a while ago, others have not even yet come into being. Collectively they tell the story of the whole world, according to Freistetter. There is Algol, for example, the Demon Star, whose strange behaviour has long caused people sleepless nights. And Gamma Draconis, from which we know that the earth rotates around its own axis. There is also the star sequence 61 Cygni, which revealed the size of the cosmos to us.

Then there are certain stars used by astronomers to search for extra-terrestrial life, to explore interstellar space travel, or to explain why the dinosaurs became extinct.

In 100 short, fascinating and entertaining chapters, Freistetter not only reveals the past and future of the cosmos, but also the story of the people who have tried to understand the world in which we live. 

Anxious People – Fredrik Backman

Translator – Neil Smith

‘All interesting people have done something really stupid at least once!’

This is one of those books that gives you hope for humanity. And may make you ugly cry as you comfort eat your way through your leftover chocolate ice cream. Wait, was that too specific?

This is, without doubt, my favourite read of the month. Apologies in advance to all of the other books yet to come.

It was already on my special book radar before I began reading. It was recommended to someone I know by a local bookstore staff member. They loved it and told me enough about it, including the ugly cry, to pique my interest. I then waited, not so patiently, for my library reservation to magically transform into the book that’s barely left my hands since I started it.

The whole thing is a complicated, unlikely story. Perhaps that’s because what we think stories are about often isn’t what they’re about at all. This, for instance, might not actually be the story of a bank robbery, or an apartment viewing or a hostage drama. Perhaps it isn’t even a story about idiots.

Perhaps this is a story about a bridge.

This is a book where what seems to be and what is can be vastly different things, where a bunch of strangers who wouldn’t normally interact discover they have commonalities and where “sometimes Christmas lights are just Christmas lights.”

I loved all of the idiots in this book, even Zara. I may have liked her the most. There’s something about being privileged enough to be able to catch a glimpse at what lies beneath the surface of people who present themselves to the world with their armour firmly affixed, their edges carefully sharpened so only the exceptionally brave or exceedingly stupid will attempt to approach them. I also had a huge soft spot for Estelle.

And then there’s the rabbit. It took me a long time to find this book and I may not have found it yet if not for the person who told me about it, not realising that I’m a bit of a book stalker. You tell me about a book and I’m almost always going to need to read it. I could say it’s because it interests me and most of the time that’s part of it. It is a book, after all. But it’s also because I want to get to know you better and learning what books you love gives me an insight into who you are at your core.

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It would have taken me no time at all to find this book if I had seen this cover before now. How anyone could see this design and then think that this book should be packaged in any other way is beyond me. It’s perfection!

I don’t think I have even been so emotional over a bank robbery and hostage situation. I knew very little about this book going into it and am certain that‘s the best way to approach it.

I want to quote most of the book to you but am going to restrain myself and instead leave you with my three favourites:

The truth, of course, is that if people really were as happy as they look on the Internet, they wouldn’t spend so much damn time on the Internet, because no one who’s having a really good day spends half of it taking pictures of themselves.

They say that a person’s personality is the sum of their experiences. But that isn’t true, at least not entirely, because if our past was all that defined us, we’d never be able to put up with ourselves. We need to be allowed to convince ourselves that we’re more than the mistakes we made yesterday. That we are all of our next choices, too, all of our tomorrows.

‘Worst hostages ever.’

Content warnings include addiction, death by suicide, domestic abuse, mental health and suicidal ideation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In a small town in Sweden it appears to be an ordinary day. But look more closely, and you’ll see a masked figure approaching a bank…

Two hours later, chaos has descended. An attempted robbery has developed into a hostage situation – with the offender refusing to voice their demands.

Fear turns to irritation for the seven strangers trapped inside. If this is to be their last day on earth, shouldn’t it be more dramatic? 

But as the minutes tick by, they begin to suspect that the criminal holding them hostage might be more in need of rescuing than they are… 

Me and the Robbersons – Siri Kolu

Translator – Ruth Urbom

“Robbing’s our thing. That’s what we know how to do.”

Maisie is kidnapped on the way to visiting her Grandma. This might sound like the beginning of a traumatic experience for Maisie but it turns out to be just the adventure she’s been looking for during the summer holidays.

But this is no ordinary kidnapping; Maisie is stolen from the family’s car in front of her parents and older sister. And these are no ordinary kidnappers; the Robbersons are a family of bandits.

Wild Karl is the chief bandit and his wife, Hilda, is a reckless but enthusiastic driver and champion cook. They have two children: nine year old Charlie and twelve year old Hellie. Charlie wants to attend school, whereas Hellie embraces the bandit lifestyle completely. Hellie (my favourite character) is good at everything, although repurposing Barbie dolls is one of her specialties. Golden Pete, a friend of the Robbersons, is loyal to Wild Karl.

As a hijacked person, Maisie quickly learns all about the various ways to get the best loot. She also becomes part of the family, using initiative to come up with new ways of doing things. She knows that she’ll need to return home at some point but she’s not ready yet.

I was their prisoner, the loot from a robbery, and so I tried to look glum. Whenever I remembered.

Sweets are mentioned so much in this book that it’s possible you’ll get a sugar high just from reading. Kids will love the freedoms enjoyed by this family, who eat what they want when they want, can decide to go swimming on the spur of the moment and don’t have to do anything routine or normal, like work or attend school.

I found Maisie’s response to her kidnapping quite implausible. I can’t imagine a ten year old who wouldn’t be traumatised by being taken from their family by a bunch of strangers. The fact that Maisie didn’t even seem to miss her family and treated her kidnapping like a fun adventure added to this unreality. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t supposed to be taking any of this seriously. As a kid I would have simply been along for the ride, no questions asked.

This book, the first in a series, has been translated from Finnish. I want to know how Golden Pete became involved with the Robbersons. I’m assuming this will be mentioned later in the series. I’d like to spend more time with the other bandit clans. I’m interested in reading the next book to see what’s next for Maisie and the Robbersons.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Stripes Publishing, an imprint of Little Tiger Group, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

A madcap adventure starring a bandit family, a LOT of sweets and a girl who is ready for anything… 

Maisie is convinced her summer holiday is going to be as boring as ever – until she’s snatched by the Robbersons, a bunch of bandits with an insatiable appetite for sweets! Soon Maisie realises that life on the open road with the Robbersons is just the adventure she has always longed for. They’ve even started to see her as one of the gang! So when she discovers that the police and her parents are hot on their trail, Maisie decides she isn’t quite ready to be rescued…

A fresh and fun story about what it really means to escape, Me and the Robbersons is perfect for fans of Roald Dahl, Danny Wallace’s Hamish series and The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates.

Consent – Vanessa Springora

Translator – Natasha Lehrer

Every so often I read a blurb and just know a book’s contents are going to make my blood boil. This is one of those books.

In her memoir, Vanessa (V.) tells us about G.

G. is Gabriel Matzneff, a French author who, in his books, never attempts to hide his sexual assaults (he calls it love) of underage girls and his trips to the Philippines to sexually assault even younger boys. G. is someone who has won awards for detailing his crimes.

After they met at a party, G. quickly turned his attention to Vanessa.

I had just turned fourteen. He was almost fifty.

The fury for me came in waves, each time someone who could have (and should have) protected Vanessa failed to do so.

Her father is physically and emotionally absent; he doesn’t act on the outrage he feels when he learns of Vanessa’s ‘relationship’ with G.

Her mother allows it, even casually having dinner with her daughter and her rapist. Sure, her mother “consulted” her friends about him but none of them were “particularly disturbed”. This is the woman who made a deal with the devil:

Whatever the reason, her only intervention was to make a pact with G. He had to swear that he would never make me suffer.

The police are notified on a number of occasions but their efforts can hardly be accused of being an investigation.

Then there’s Emil Cioran, a philosopher and friend of G., who came up with this gem:

“It is an immense honor to have been chosen by him. Your role is to accompany him on the path of creation, and to bow to his impulses.”

I’m so glad that Vanessa has used writing to tell her truth, the very medium that her abuser used to distort her experiences with him.

This was a quick but difficult read. I spent a significant amount of time wanting to throw the book against a wall, mostly because the people who were infuriating me weren’t conveniently standing in front of me.

The fact that so many people essentially gave this man their blessing to continue being a serial predator astounds me. Because books are such an integral part of my life I feel justified in being personally offended that G. was encouraged to continue writing about his sickening behaviour, both by the French publishers who continued to print them and the people who actually paid to read them.

G. was not like other men. He boasted of only having had sexual relations with girls who were virgins or boys who had barely reached puberty, then recounted these stories in his books. This was precisely what he was doing when he took possession of my youth for his sexual and literary ends.

This is a well written book. Just make sure you have a punching bag handy when you read it.

P.S. This NY Times article has given me a glimmer or hope that G. may get to see the inside of a jail cell. Maybe all of his published books will be good for something after all: evidence.

Content warnings include domestic violence, gaslighting, grooming, mental health, paedophilia and sexual assault.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Already an international literary sensation, an intimate and powerful memoir of a young French teenage girl’s relationship with a famous, much older male writer – a universal #MeToo story of power, manipulation, trauma, recovery, and resiliency that exposes the hypocrisy of a culture that has allowed the sexual abuse of minors to occur unchecked.

Sometimes, all it takes is a single voice to shatter the silence of complicity. 

Thirty years ago, Vanessa Springora was the teenage muse of one of the country’s most celebrated writers, a footnote in the narrative of a very influential man in the French literary world.

At the end of 2019, as women around the world began to speak out, Vanessa, now in her forties and the director of one of France’s leading publishing houses, decided to reclaim her own story, offering her perspective of those events sharply known.

Consent is the story of one precocious young girl’s stolen adolescence. Devastating in its honesty, Vanessa’s painstakingly memoir lays bare the cultural attitudes and circumstances that made it possible for a thirteen-year-old girl to become involved with a fifty-year-old man who happened to be a notable writer. As she recalls the events of her childhood and her seduction by one of her country’s most notable writers, Vanessa reflects on the ways in which this disturbing relationship changed and affected her as she grew older. 

Drawing parallels between children’s fairy tales and French history and her personal life, Vanessa offers an intimate and absorbing look at the meaning of love and consent and the toll of trauma and the power of healing in women’s lives. Ultimately, she offers a forceful indictment of a chauvinistic literary world that has for too long accepted and helped perpetuate gender inequality and the exploitation and sexual abuse of children.

Lonely Castle in the Mirror – Mizuki Tsujimura

Translator – Philip Gabriel

‘If you’re told it’ll definitely come true,’ Masamune said, ‘then everyone will have a wish or two.’

Kokoro, a 7th grader who no longer attends school because of “the incident”, has the house to herself during the day while her parents are at work. She spends her time watching TV, hiding from the world outside her home.

One day a light appears from inside her mirror. Before she’s even barely begun investigating this strange occurrence, Kokoro finds herself on the other side of the mirror. There, in a castle that looks like it belongs in a fairytale, she meets others whose mirrors have learned the same new trick:

  • Aki is in the 9th grade and appears to have her act together
  • Fuka wears glasses, has a high pitched voice and is in the 8th grade
  • Masamune is in the 8th grade and is likely to be playing a video game whenever you see him
  • Subaru is in the 9th grade and is described as looking like Ron from Harry Potter
  • Ureshino is already in love with being in love and he’s only in the 7th grade
  • Rion is a handsome 7th grader who plays football.

The seven strangers are met by the Wolf Queen, who tells them the rules of the castle.

‘From now until next March, you will need to search for the key that will unlock the Wishing Room. The person who finds it will have the right to enter and their wish will be granted.’

Over the course of many months, the group slowly get to know one another and discover what they have in common. Despite the fairytale elements and some magical realism, the core of this book addresses some difficult topics, albeit in a sensitive way. I loved the focus on mental health, particularly anxiety, and how it impacts other areas of our functioning, including physical health and social interactions.

I liked the characters, although some were given more detailed backstories than others. I was most intrigued by Aki and wanted to spend more time behind what I saw as her protective wall. I would have loved to have learned what happened to all of the seven after the events of the story. I definitely wanted more page time with the mysterious Wolf Queen, hoarder of the best lines:

‘Can’t you simply be satisfied that you’ve been chosen as heroes in a story?’

Anyone who knows me knows I love portal stories and I found myself bingeing this one. There weren’t as many fantasy elements as I’ve experienced in other portal stories I’ve read. I also got to know the characters and the rules of the castle at a more leisurely pace than I’d expected. Neither were a problem for me, though. The payoff at the end ticked all the boxes for me, confirming some suspicions and answering most of the questions I had. This is definitely a book I want to reread.

How could a portal into a different world not be appealing?

Content warnings include bullying, grief, mental health, sexual assault and mention of death by suicide.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, Penguin Random House UK, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

How can you save your friend’s life if she doesn’t want to be rescued?

In a tranquil neighbourhood of Tokyo, seven teenagers wake to find their bedroom mirrors are shining.

At a single touch, they are pulled from their lonely lives into a wondrous castle filled with winding stairways, watchful portraits and twinkling chandeliers. In this new sanctuary, they are confronted with a set of clues leading to a hidden room where one of them will be granted a wish. But there’s a catch: if they don’t leave by five o’clock, they will die.

As time passes, a devastating truth emerges: only those brave enough to share their stories will be saved.

Tender, playful, gripping, Lonely Castle in the Mirror is a mesmerising tale about the importance of reaching out, confronting anxiety and embracing human connection.

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job – Kikuko Tsumura

Translator – Polly Barton

‘I’d like an easy job.’

I kept asked myself while I was reading whether I was enjoying this book or not and I still don’t have a clear answer. It’s an easy book to summarise: a 36 year old woman is looking for a new job, having experienced burnout in her previous one. Each of the book’s five parts describe one of the jobs she tries out in her quest to find a job that’s not really a job.

I wanted a job that was practically without substance, a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not.

With a blurb that promised humour and made comparisons between this book and Convenience Store Woman, I had my hopes up. The funny bits, if they were there, must have gone straight over my head; no giggles, chuckles, or guffaws accompanied my reading.

I absolutely loved Convenience Store Woman and I can see why you might mention the two books in the same breath. Sort of. Both women are 36 and the focus of both stories is on their jobs but, while I loved the Smile Mart’s Keiko, I never really got a sense of this book’s cushy job seeker’s personality.

Whoever you were, there was a chance that you would end up wanting to run away from a job you had once believed in, that you would stray from the path you were on.

One of the parts seemed to be heading into magical realism territory but the others didn’t so I wasn’t quite sure whether I was seeing something in that part that wasn’t really there. This was a quick read for me but ultimately I don’t think it’s going to be a memorable one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Convenience Store Woman meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation in this strange, compelling, darkly funny tale of one woman’s search for meaning in the modern workplace.

A young woman walks into an employment agency and requests a job that has the following traits: it is close to her home, and it requires no reading, no writing – and ideally, very little thinking.

She is sent to a nondescript office building where she is tasked with watching the hidden-camera feed of an author suspected of storing contraband goods. But observing someone for hours on end can be so inconvenient and tiresome. How will she stay awake? When can she take delivery of her favourite brand of tea? And, perhaps more importantly – how did she find herself in this situation in the first place?

As she moves from job to job, writing bus adverts for shops that mysteriously disappear, and composing advice for rice cracker wrappers that generate thousands of devoted followers, it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not searching for the easiest job at all, but something altogether more meaningful …

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

Translator – Ginny Tapley Takemori

“Irasshaimasé!”

I’m very late for my shift at the Smile Mart but I’m so glad to have finally walked through its doors. There have been eight managers and countless workers serving customers since it first opened eighteen years ago, but Keiko has been there from day one.

I really liked Keiko who, at thirty-six, has never fit into society’s mould. People have wanted to fix her since she was a child. But at the Smile Mart she feels like she fits perfectly.

While I suspect we’re all like this to a certain degree, Keiko’s speech and the way she dresses are an amalgam of the people she spends time with, morphing over time as new people enter her life and others fade away. Keiko doesn’t know how to be normal so it’s a good thing the Smile Mart manual clearly outlines how she is supposed to ‘human’ at work.

When I first started here, there was a detailed manual that taught me how to be a store worker, and I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual.

Over the course of this quick read the rhythm of the convenience store became almost meditative. It got to a point where it almost felt wrong to be reading about any of the hours Keiko wasn’t spending inside the “shining white aquarium” because she was so comfortable there.

I love Keiko’s unfiltered honesty:

When I first saw my nephew through the glass window at the hospital, he looked like an alien creature. But now he’d grown into something more humanlike, complete with hair.

As someone who’s managed to accidentally subvert some of society’s adulting norms, I relate to the relief embodied in the following sentence:

Good, I pulled off being a “person”.

Quite frankly, that’s probably my favourite sentence of the entire book.

And I’m sure I’m not the first reader to think back on an early scene and fantasise about hitting Shiraha with a shovel.

Anyone who’s worked in retail will know Keiko’s coworkers and customers all too well. I worked in retail for seven years and so many of my coworkers and customers came to mind when I met Keiko’s.

Reading Convenience Store Woman actually had me wondering how my four years as Photolab Lady, in the days when negatives still existed and what you’d actually captured on film was one of life’s mysteries until you got it developed, would translate into a story. The stories I could tell about the photos I saw – some funny, some sweet, some heartbreaking, some creepy as hell …

I was really looking forward to this read and it was even better than I’d hoped. I definitely need more books by this author.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Portobello Books, an imprint of Granta Publications, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life.

In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction – many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual – and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Managers come and go, but Keiko stays at the store for eighteen years. It’s almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action …

A brilliant depiction of an unusual psyche and a world hidden from view, Convenience Store Woman is an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.

A Short Philosophy of Birds – Philippe J. Dubois & Élise Rousseau

Translation – Jennifer Higgins

Illustrations – Joanna Lisowiec

If we pay attention, birds have plenty to teach us, whether it’s their adaptability through unpredictable weather or their patience during the time of their ‘eclipse’ plumage, when some species that are moulting are unable to fly and are at their most vulnerable, allowing themselves to grow stronger before soaring once again. They live in the present, they are curious and willing to take risks.

While this book doesn’t reference many specific philosophers or philosophical schools of thought, which I expected a book with ‘philosophy’ in its title would, it does encourage introspection. A reflection of your own life, the way you spend your time and what you place value on. In short chapters this quick read touches on various lessons birds can teach us. Courage, freedom, beauty, romance and death are all mentioned.

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Often when I read books that have been translated it can feel like I’ve missed something vital that would have been captured in the original text. I didn’t experience that feeling here so commend Jennifer Higgins on her translation of the text into English.

I have a number of birds of different species that visit me each day and I love watching their behaviour. I’m in awe of the level of trust they afford me and it delights me when I discover something new about their individual personalities. I didn’t think I could appreciate them any more but some of the facts included in this book astounded me. Take the bar-tailed godwit, for instance:

In spring, the godwit migrates to make its nest in the Arctic. By tracking one of these godwits with a satellite tag, researchers have discovered that they are capable of covering the distance between Alaska and New Zealand – over 7,000 miles – in one go. That equates to flying for a whole week at forty-five miles per hour. Consider, too, that the godwit weighs just 250 grams. What’s more, during this non-stop flight, the godwit rests by allowing only one half of its brain to fall asleep at a time – thereby enabling it to fly continuously through its sleep.

I really enjoyed Joanna Lisowiec’s illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. The flamingoes and duck were two of my favourites.

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If I were to nitpick I’d tell you that when facts were stated I would have liked to have seen these backed up with references, such as when it’s mentioned that crows’ brains have “twice as many synaptic connections as that of any mammal.”

Given the majority of the birds discussed reside in the Northern Hemisphere (unless they’re migrating) I was unfamiliar with the behaviours of some of the specific birds, although I could easily compare these with the birds native to Australia that visit my garden.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and WH Allen, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, Ebury Press, for the opportunity to read this book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

The greatest wisdom comes from the smallest creatures.

There is so much we can learn from birds. Through twenty-two little lessons of wisdom inspired by how birds live, this charming French book will help you spread your wings and soar.

We often need the help from those smaller than us. Having spent a lifetime watching birds, Philippe and Élise – a French ornithologist and a philosopher – draw out the secret lessons that birds can teach us about how to live, and the wisdom of the natural world. Along the way you’ll discover why the robin is braver than the eagle, what the arctic tern can teach us about the joy of travel, and whether the head or the heart is the best route to love (as shown by the mallard and the penguin). By the end you will feel more in touch with the rhythms of nature and have a fresh perspective on how to live the fullest life you can.