12 Bytes (by Jeanette Winterson)

12 Bytes Jeanette Winterson Social

“There’s a new kind of quasi-religious discourse forming, with its own followers, its creed, its orthodoxy, its heretics, its priests, its literature, its eschatological framework. Even its own Singularity. It’s AI.”

Title: 12 Bytes
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Pages:
368
Published by: Grove Press

ChatGPT, everyone’s favourite purveyor of bad poetry, was released in November 2022, with OpenAI’s generative AI tool altering the landscape of work for a number of industries. 

This of course extended to indie authors who, long-acquainted with having the odds stacked against them, found Kindle Unlimited flooded with bookish sewage overnight as a clutch of have-a-go writers and grifters took advantage. Fortunately, Amazon would eventually restrict them from only publishing a mere 3 books a day. That’ll teach them.

This brings us to 12 Bytes, a brilliant piece of non-fiction by witty wordsmith and all-round literary rockstar, Jeanette Winterson. Published as a series of topical essays, she guides the reader through key developments in tech.

And whilst it helps if the reader is familiar with AI, this is by no means mandatory – this is pure Winterson; informative and hilarious in equal measure.

Welcome to the metaverse

From sex robots and metaverse avatars, to transhumanist biotech such as Neuralink, the future is digital, whether you like it or not. 

And 12 Bytes offers a great insight into this from the perspective of a writer. Winterson speaks on the topic with a prescience, having immersed herself in the worlds of big tech, automation, and AI for a number of years.

In fact, her 2019 novel Frankissstein was a retelling of Mary Shelley’s famous gothic novel, with the monster less a physical manifestation and more a discussion on the ethics of AI, transhumanism, and cryonics.

Likewise, as generative AI develops in leaps and bounds, it poses a number of questions for society, including the future of creativity and employment. These are big, emotive topics with rival pro and anti-AI camps emerging in creative circles.

Binary opposition

Because our society thrives on binary opposition, the subject of AI has pitched tech evangelists against artists in public discourse.

Artists and publishers are (understandably) concerned that their work is being used to train AI tools, whilst the tech sector has to make the case that regulation (such as the EU’s AI Act) must be applied in calm and informed moderation rather than in a reactionary manner.

Fortunately, Winterson doesn’t buy into this adversarial discourse – engaging with the topic of artificial intelligence with, well, intelligence and nuance.

It’s worth noting that 12 Bytes was actually published in 2021, over a year prior to us mere mortals gaining access to generative AI tools. 

I asked Winterson at Manchester Lit Fest whether her thoughts had changed since the dawn of publicly available generative AI tools. 

Her answer? 

“Well, I have to be optimistic, because what’s the alternative?”

In 12 Bytes Winterson envisions a world where AI could help transcend human limitations and biases. Is this overly optimistic? Time will tell.

Womens’ erasure from tech - A tale as old as time

We live in a world of ‘tech bros’. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Sam Altman. 

Tech Bro Spirit Halloween Costume - Stuff Tech Bros Like
Source: StuffTechBrosLike

And yet Winterson drops a series of truth bombs throughout 12 Bytes. The forerunners to modern tech innovations such as AI and automation lie in the work done by women. 

12 Bytes analyses the history of tech, bringing the women responsible for our current advancements into the public consciousness. She pores over the work of Ada Lovelace in particular, taking jabs at the notion that tech is predominantly for men (a myth invariably propagated by men).

To be clear, this isn’t a polemical book – it’s just the facts. And because of this, 12 Bytes is important. It’s a chronicle of history that simply isn’t taught or discussed, arriving at a time in which artificial intelligence models are being trained en masse in a sector lacking in diversity.

And from a historical perspective, 12 Bytes is a fantastic chronicle of the erasure of womens’ roles in tech. Even those familiar with the subject will find some of the passages astounding.

Final Thoughts

12 Bytes is an excellent piece of non-fiction that manages to inform and entertain in equal measure. 

At times Winterson, a sharp thinker, falls foul of the ‘looking at screens is inherently bad for us’ trope when discussing technology, which doesn’t hold up under any meaningful scrutiny.

Still, 12 Bytes is a witty and highly competent analysis of the tech sector’s history, and a must-read for anyone curious about the past, present, and future of the industry.

4/5

The Dark Side of the Sky (by Francesco Dmitri)

Dark Side of the Sky Book Review

‘Our whole life — what we believe, what we do — hinges on whatever answer we give. What do we live for?

Since before we are born, there is a whole world deciding for us [...] Making laws for us to follow and inflicting punishments if we dare to differ.’

Title: The Dark Side of the Sky
Author: Francesco Dmitri
Pages:
355
Published by: Titan Books

As the dark of evening gathers and the fire crackles, the Open Feast awaits you and your fellow guests.

You gather around the fire, close your eyes, and hum in unison with your misfits-in-arms. The hubbub builds until it reaches its zenith, and you sense an otherworldly presence as the known world melts away.

This is The Dark Side of the Sky, a marvellous piece of contemporary magic realism from Francesco Dmitri, author of Never the Wind and The Book of Hidden Things.

It’s a thrilling tale of belonging, morality, and a reexamination of the social contract we all unwittingly sign upon birth.

What is The Dark Side of the Sky about?

Dmitri’s latest novel follows The Bastion, a spiritualist collective living in relative isolation on a reserve in Puglia, south Italy.

Once a year, the Bastion extends an exclusive invitation to the ‘Open Feast,’ a secretive cultural retreat for the curious. The Feast’s visitors, all with divergent life experiences, arrive for different reasons.

These include Zoey Lee, CEO of Soul Journey — a mind, body, and spirit festival — who is keen to check out what competitors in the sector are doing. Charlie, a young professional French woman, looks for answers following a recent traumatic event. Meanwhile, Mikka, a roving hippie with a penchant for hard drugs, seeks a fraternal home.

The Dark Side of the Sky follows the lives of Open Feast participants from their humdrum day-to-day lives, through to the more exotic, mind-bending nights by the campfire. Told from multiple perspectives, Dmitri spins a truly brilliant yarn with an equally solid cast of characters.

Nuanced and morally complex

Every generation, the media—invariably right-leaning—selects a group of people it decides to ostracise.

Whether it’s The Catcher in the Rye poisoning the youth of its time, the wealth of moral panics around comic books, or sinister emo bands ‘cults’ corrupting our children, history isn’t short of cultural scapegoats.

But there’s a common thread that binds these incidents. A new or ‘alternative’ form of art emerges, prompting the media to run a handful of shock-jock stories on the alleged effects it has on the younger generation.

On the face of it, The Bastion is an ideal target. They’re young, hostile to social norms, and believe that they’re going to save the world. At best, it appears naive — a target ripe for ridicule — and at worst, a dangerous inculcation of Messianic dogma.

There’s a risk that a novel like this lapses into straightforward binaries of good versus evil, old versus young, and progressive versus regressive, with our outsiders struggling against a system rigged against them.

However, The Dark Side of the Sky is a delightfully nuanced and morally complex novel that blurs the boundary of cult and community in a fascinating way, riffing on this ambiguity to disorientate the reader.

Final Thoughts

The Dark Side of the Sky is peak magic realism, managing to capture that elusive balance of real-world relatability and implied wonder that masters of the genre exhibit.

With beautiful, evocative, (and sometimes brutal) writing, Dmitri’s novel captures the magic of the Open Feast with great success. The writing style is ‘literary’ without being too high-minded, and accessible without being too simplistic.

The setting of Puglia does feel frustratingly underutilised — the Open Feast could, conceivably, have been held anywhere — but it doesn’t detract from an excellent tale and may even help reach a wider audience.

In any case, The Dark Side of the Sky is a genuine page-turner that will generate lots of discussion and debate, both at book clubs and online. I’ll certainly be checking out Dmitri’s back catalogue after this one.

4/5

Luckenbooth (by Jenni Fagan)

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

“There is cheering out on the street. There is dancing. People meet and fall in love. Scuffles break out. They drink far too much. All of life is happening.”

Title: Luckenbooth
Author: Jenni Fagan
Pages:
338
Published by: Windmill Books (Imprint of Penguin, 2021)

In Jenni Fagan’s Luckenbooth, we follow the often squalid, sometimes vivacious lives (and deaths) of its residents.

Decades pass, people come and go, but the curses of dead women remain, echoing through the cold halls and dank stairwells of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

And much like Fagan’s novella Hex, Luckenbooth is a macabre but powerful piece of writing.

A darker shade of Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a magical place, but like all capital cities, there’s a darker underbelly that most are not privy to. 

Fagan’s interpretation of Edinburgh in Luckenbooth is the antithesis to the tourist board presentation. The novel exposes the reader to political corruption, malicious landlords, extreme poverty, and ingrained misogyny. All the things that polite society is aware of but tends to avert its gaze from. 

Luckenbooth is therefore a seething critique of society’s failings. And whilst the novel lacks subtlety at times, with each chapter veering into a different injustice, this feels intentional.

Fagan drags the reader kicking and screaming from the comfort of fiction back into the stark reality of social issues in our own world, only to pull them back in with slick, beautiful prose.

Luckenbooth Close as architectural horror

10 Luckenbooth Close is a place poisoned by the people within and the world without – and throughout the novel, the building morphs and buckles in grotesque ways. 

It’s a dying building, with the spirits of its violent past clinging to the veil between life and death, haunting its residents.

Highly visual, Fagan’s depictions of 10 Luckenbooth Close elicit creation in the mind of the reader. This is especially powerful in latter parts of the novel where the once-packed building stands derelict and (almost) abandoned.

Byam Shaw, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is a power to abandoned places – in the absence of humanity, they take on new forms and natural life takes over, which Cal Flyn’s excellent Islands of Abandonment explores with real-world locations.

A form of architectural horror, Poe-esque in execution, it’s a memorable setting that will haunt the mind of its readers long after the final page is turned.

Final Thoughts

Is Luckenbooth worth reading? Great pieces of literary fiction unlock the reader’s imagination, transporting them to wild and wicked places they’ve never experienced before. And Luckenbooth is one of those books – if you give it time. 

It’s a bleak affair and not all readers will enjoy this relentlessly dark interpretation of Scotland’s capital. However, Jenni Fagan is a wonderful writer with a marvellous way with words – and it’s a compelling tale for those willing to darken the door of 10 Luckenbooth Close.

If you’re in any doubt, try reading Hex first – it’s a shorter book that introduces you to the writer’s style. But, if you’re a socially-conscious reader with a fascination towards the gothic, you’ll absolutely love this one.

4/5

How you can support the future of Tales from Absurdia

How to support Tales from Absurdia
How to support Tales from Absurdia

Since the beginning of Tales from Absurdia, I’ve sworn not to run ads. This will not change. After all, I am but one man in a sea of equally deserving book bloggers

So far, I’ve been privileged enough to be able to self-fund this platform. I’m mindful not everyone has that liberty and I’m thankful to those of you who frequent this relatively small speck of literary criticism on the web.

However, I am making some changes. Here are a few ways you can support the blog and support independent literary criticism.

Buy me a coffee ☕️

Firstly, I have launched a KoFi account. For those unfamiliar with KoFi, it’s basically a tip jar for online creators. There’s less commitment required than with a platform like Patreon, and it’s a nice way to tip a coin for your Witcher / content creator.

You’ll see a ‘support me’ banner in the bottom left-hand corner of the site, where you can donate the equivalent of a coffee, directly from the blog.  

Click affiliate links 🔗

I will be also making more of a converted effort to roll out affiliate links for all my reviews across Absurdia, and the occasional blog.

So, if you’re curious about a book or want to buy it off the back of a review, please do click through one of my affiliate links.

This has zero impact on your experience but it will kick a few pennies my way if you buy a book via that link.

Direct sponsorship 📚

Finally, I will be opening up sponsorship opportunities for my UK Book Festival Calendar

The Book Festival Calendar is a serious driver of traffic for the blog, with thousands of visitors a month. But I’m super proud that it is also sending a good amount of traffic to book festivals too! 

Because of this, I’ve since had requests from event managers asking if I allow sponsored posts – and Oxford Literary Fest kindly offered me a press ticket!

Given the page’s popularity, I would now like to open up the opportunity for festivals and indie publishers to promote themselves with greater visibility.

I’m working on a press kit as we speak, so watch this space.

Why now?

Well, it’s for a few reasons.

When I first started Tales from Absurdia, I had zero dependents and an okay amount of disposable income. 

It began as a COVID project designed to help improve my digital marketing skills whilst furloughed. Between that and my writing reviews over at Goodreads and sometimes in a journal, a book blog seemed the natural fit. I’d long been an admirer of bloggers like Amy’s Bookshelf and others who have since left the blogosphere.

Fast-forward four years (FOUR!) and I’m still here, writing long-form book reviews and loving it. But it’s starting to add up.

For transparency, hosting alone now costs me over £200 a year up front. I could keep switching providers and benefiting from the introductory deals, but having to re-do my hosting every year is both a hassle and highly time-consuming. It’s also a risk to the SEO value I’ve built up over the years. As a parent who works full-time, finding time to blog is challenging enough. 

But as my traffic increases, so do costs. And frankly, I just need to pull my finger out and monetise some elements of the blog.

How can I help?

All I’d ask is that if you’ve ever enjoyed reading my content here, please consider donating the cost of a coffee into my KoFi. 

(Just a one-off btw – I’m not crowdfunding my writing).

Still, shares, likes, comments, and backlinks make the biggest impact to the visibility of Tales from Absurdia online. Many thanks to those who have engaged so far – you’re the best.

And if you’re an event manager or an indie publisher seeking to sponsor the blog, please do reach out to me at hello@talesfromabsurdia.com.

All the best,

John
Tales from Absurdia

Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival
Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Five things I learned at Oxford Literary Festival

Oxford is revered globally – and for good reason. The architecture is stunning, from college spires to the iconic Sheldonian Theatre.

And with famous alumni from J.R.R. Tolkien and CS Lewis, to Monica Ali and Jeanette Winterson, Oxford University has a history of producing impressive writers.

Suffice to say, Oxford Literary Festival is a must-visit event in the book festival calendar for bookish audiences.

So, it was a privilege to be invited to the 2024 edition of the festival. It’s especially great to see bloggers and alternative media being treated as equals with the more established print journalism.

In any case, here are my thoughts and experiences of a bookish day in Oxford.

Think Oxford Literature Festival is just a sit-down affair, being talked at by speakers and panels? Think again.

Sure, there are a bunch of talks from writers, politicians, journalists promoting their latest book — many of which are hugely insightful. But you can also attend workshops, library tours, creative writing courses, debates, and much more!

I particularly appreciate that they’ve invited footballer turned pundit Nedum Onuoha to talk about racism in football, and life on and off the pitch.

Nedum is a really intelligent, charismatic guy, with experience up and down the UK’s football leagues, and his appearance at Oxford Literary Festival is a great way to appeal to the cross-section of football fans.

I have a theory — one I can’t quite substantiate — but a theory nonetheless, that the phrase ‘literary festival’ puts some people off, including bookish people.

Literary, especially in the context of the reductive debates around ‘literary’ fiction vs ‘genre’ fiction, carries a certain connotation. And there are a whole generation of readers who create bookish content online, whether it’s fellow bloggers, bookstagrammers, booktubers, or booktokers — but so few of them create content around literary festivals.

My own early experiences of attending book events are tinctured with anxiety around belonging. Was I literary enough? Would everyone there know each other? Was there a certain etiquette I wasn’t clued into?

All of it was unfounded — and this was true of the Oxford Literary Festival too.

If you’re interested, or even mildly curious, literary festivals are for you. You’re actually the intended audience! And as I’ve previously mentioned, it’s not all ‘literary’. There’s plenty of room for book readers of all preferences.

I spoke to the organisers of Oxford Literary Festival whilst I was there, who explained that the event is always scheduled to coincide when the students aren’t in term time.

This is likely for a number of reasons, from allowing them the space to study to logistical reasons around getting round the city.

I’m bringing this up because when I arrived, on a cool Sunday morning out of term time, I wasn’t strictly sure how busy it would be. I was pleasantly surprised that Oxford was packed full of visitors, with people spilling out of cafés.

Whether it’s Knoops, right next to Blackwells and Exeter College, or espresso bar Jericho Coffee Traders, Oxford has some seriously great options for a brew.

Online book events are great — especially if it’s an author you love but can’t make it in person (let’s face it, UK travel is expensive and Zoom is convenient).

But they’re not the real thing. Not even close. In person book events engage the senses — especially in a place like Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre. The sights and sounds, from murals and paintings to echoes of footsteps on flagstone and the din of audience chatter, it’s just… real.

And post-lockdown, these things many of us took for granted just seem more valuable now.

Another perk of in-person events is direct access to the speakers you’re going to see.

Want to ask them a question? There’s invariably a microphone that goes round, and you can look your favourite writer in the whites of their eyes as you ask them something truly meaningful. That’s priceless.

Plus, after the event, speakers tend to hang around for a combination of chatter and book signings.

Unlike bookshop book signing events, where you’re ushered through a queue like it’s a production line, Oxford Literature Festival just feels more laid back, more accessible. The event organisers have done a great job with this.

If you’re reading this before 24th March, 2024 – there are still loads of events left to attend, so do check out the calendar and see what’s on at Oxford Literature Festival.

But even if you’re reading after the event has finished, it’s still worth checking out who attended this year, as it may provide some indicators on  2025’s attendees.

Is Oxford Literature Festival worth visiting? Absolutely. I’ll definitely be going again next year! 📚

Christ on a Bike (by Orla Owen)

Christ on a Bike Book Review
Christ on a Bike Book Review Pin

"Cerys receives an unexpected inheritance but there are rules attached. Three simple rules that must be followed..."

Title: Christ on a Bike
Author: Orla Owen
Pages:
260
Published by: Bluemoose Books (2024)

What would you do if you inherited a significant fortune from a total stranger? How about if you were legally unable to share it with anyone else?

These are the questions that Cerys, the meek and humble protagonist of Christ on a Bike, must wrangle with.

Routinely unnerving, each chapter becomes progressively more uncomfortable as the source of the inheritance comes into question. In fact, Orla Owen’s third novel goes to some startlingly dark places.

It’s a compelling setup, and Christ on a Bike duly delivers dollops of payoffs. This is a brilliant novel – and one that would make for an equally brilliant TV drama.

The perils of greed

Speaking of television, the BBC once ran a TV drama called The Syndicate. This was about friends and families winning big on the lottery and how extreme changes in personal wealth can alter people in unexpected ways.

Owen takes this a step further, with the wealth possessing a uniquely selfish legal agreement.

There are rules attached, one of which is that Cerys cannot share her wealth with another soul under any circumstances. Her finances are audited by a specially-selected financial adviser, and the keepers of the estate have an uncanny ability to sniff out non-compliance.

It’s particularly pertinent that Christ on a Bike is set to release in the midst of an international cost of living crisis. From a readerly point of view, this context has a huge impact on how the novel is read. 

As Cerys’ lifestyle becomes increasingly lavish, with decadent details around the gorging of luxury truffles, and frivolous purchases of expensive branded soap and silky bed sheets, it makes for a physically nauseating read. 

This isn’t a criticism. To the contrary, it’s a remarkable achievement, eliciting a physical sensation of revulsion towards glutton via the medium of print. 

Meanwhile, Cerys’s sister Seren struggles to run a family home and cannot even dream of the excess wealth her sister has inherited by chance. 

And whilst Cerys is a more empathetic individual, Seren is more volatile. The money amplifies these character traits, and the disparity between the two creates an uncomfortable cocktail of guilt and envy.

Narrative & characters

As a writer, Owen positions herself as one who “focuses on the dark and macabre side of family life, the parts that go on behind closed doors.” And never is this more true than in Christ on a Bike, with tension around Cerys’s inheritance poisoning the relationships with her sister.

But the joy with this book is the incongruity between the subject matter and Owen’s own writing style. Her prose possesses a welcoming, approachable whimsy that captures the everyday in a genuinely satisfying manner; not unlike another Bluemoose author, Rónán Hession.

Between a mysterious recurring figure in Cerys’s new life and the feeling she’s being watched, Christ on a Bike retains a tense discomfort throughout. After all, what are the consequences of breaking this agreement? Can she back out of it? What would happen if she tried?

And it’s this dissonance between Owen’s affable style and the macabre narrative that unsettles the reader.

Owen’s novel broaches these questions – plus a number of moral quandaries befitting the biblical theme. And it’s a lot of fun.

Conclusion

Christ on a Bike is another feather in the proverbial cap of Bluemoose Books, and of Owen herself.

Each chapter has been crafted with a finesse that characterises the type of novel that Bluemoose Books publishes.

It’s clean, lean writing that never prevaricates or wastes the reader’s time. As I noted in my review of Heidi James’s The Sound Mirror, it’s clear that the team at Bluemoose have some remarkable editors on staff.

Owen is a fantastic writer too, which makes it easy to recommend Christ on a Bike to almost anyone. This is a novel that’s well paced and contains a darkly compelling narrative, with a divine writing style.

5/5

Top Book Bloggers to Follow in 2024

Top Book Bloggers and Influencers to follow in 2024
Top Book Bloggers and Influencers to follow in 2024

Blogging is still a hugely popular medium in 2023, with 77% of internet users reading blog posts on a regular basis. And book blogging is no exception.

Social media communities such as BookTok, Bookstagram, and BookTube have given the publishing industry a much-needed shot in the arm.

And whilst some see this success as a threat to conventional book blogging, I’d argue that it’s actually revitalised the bookish content creation landscape – including blogging.

So, to celebrate all aspects of bookish culture, I’d featured some of the best bookish content creators you should be following in 2023.

Book Bloggers

Pages Unbound is easily one of the best book blogs on the internet, with a diverse mix of classical literature and YA fiction.

Briana & Krysta are amazing at creating (and promoting) their bookish content – if I’m ever half as successful as them, I’d be thrilled.

Rebbie Reviews is an absolute star. Again, a really fine book blogger. She takes part in The Write Reads book tour circuit fairly frequently, so you can guarantee you’ll find some interesting independently published books on her blog.

She also brought my attention to a really interesting used book scheme that is promoting literacy in the UK, whilst reducing waste.

Alex @ Spells & Spaceships has cornered the SFF book blogging game like an absolute pro.

His interviews with authors are always interesting, and his famed #Norsevember month of Norse-based content is really impressive.

Little Bird Book Blog has captured a really neat aesthetic; it’s approachable and captures what Rosie, the blogger, is all about.

She has a very conversational writing style, which brings you closer to the writing itself. I really enjoy that aspect of her blogging.

Cozy with Books once posted 100 blog posts in 100 days. That’s how seriously she takes blogging. Her dedication is matched equally by her quality of content.

Plus, Esther’s just a really flipping nice person.

We don’t typically read the same books, but that’s partly why I enjoy her blog so much – it exposes me to other types of writing.

Mackenzie @ Lit Lemon Books is brilliant. She posts regular, diverse book-related content – as well as some fun ‘beyond bookish’ posts including her favourite scary movies

Interestingly, she also challenged herself to ‘read for free’ back in 2022, by supporting local libraries. For many of us, the idea of not buying new books for an entire year is virtually impossible, so do check in and see how she’s doing!

As you can perhaps take away from the name, Out of This World SFF is a blog geared towards fantasy and science fiction novels.

However, this is a blog that focuses on new and upcoming books from less-known presses and independently published fiction. Nick, who runs the blog, also publishes a variety of content outside of reviews, including book tour stops, cover reveals, and author interviews.

Because of this approach to blogging, readers of Out of This World SFF should expect to find fresh, exciting new writing in the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Celeste is a fine book blogger who runs A Literary Escape –  a book blog that focuses primarily on fantasy fiction. However, she also publishes the occasional science fiction and non-fiction review (including high-profile release, Spare).

Reviews on A Literary Escape adopt a more conversational tone, which is super approachable, digestible, and actually feels very personal to the reader. Reviews provoke conversation, which is why Celeste has a healthy community of regular commenters.

Definitely worth checking out.

Jennie @ The Redhead Notes positions herself as a blogger who empowers authors by giving them a platform online.

As such, she features a lot of guest posts on a variety of topics. from spotlighting  indie publishers to the more quirky articles such as a guide to tea-drinking

It’s a unique corner of the internet, and the sheer variety of content on offer makes The Redhead Notes a book blog that comes highly recommended.

Bex is one of the funniest, most authentic people on Twitter – and a super passionate blogger. After all, she’s focused on ‘books, more books, and nothing but the books’!

If you’re not following Bex, you’re missing out big time.

BookTubers

Beth of BooksNest has been blogging at booksnest.co.uk for a few years now, but really found a voice and presence on YouTube.

Recently she’s pivoted towards travel-based vlogs, but high-quality bookish content remains at the heart of her channel.

 

Ashleigh at A Frolic Through Fiction is pretty prolific bookish content creator across both Bookstagram and BookTube.

And with a cozy cottagecore vibe and aesthetic, A Frolic Through Fiction videos always come with exceptional production value.

From witchy books recommendations for your TBR, through to bullet journal planning, and even immersive ASMR videos – A Frolic Through Fiction is a BookTube channel with some incredible content.

Chelsea, aka The Not So Secret Bookaholic, is a BookTuber who focuses primarily on TBR recommendations, book hauls, and weekly reading vlogs.

Using less stylisation and filters than other BookTubers, she keeps her content lean, clean, and super authentic. 

It’s this authenticity and approachable screen presence that makes The Not So Secret Bookaholic channel such a great channel to tune into on a weekly basis!

Got any bloggers you want to give a shout out to? Post a link to their site below!

The Best Books I Read in 2023

So, as regular readers know, I typically announce a Book of the Year towards the end of each calendar year. However, this year, I’m doing things a little differently.

I’ve very much been on Team #BeatTheBacklog throughout 2023, buying very few new books, and so I decided that this wouldn’t be representative of the brilliant work that has actually been published this year.

Regardless, I have read some remarkably good books and I really want to share them with you! So, please consider these my top 3 book recommendations based on what I read this year!

Best Books I Read in 2023

“It’s engaging in the act of writing that makes you a writer, and you don’t need to wait until you’ve produced a certain kind of officially recognized output. If you write, you are a writer.”

Write it all Down is the best book I read in 2023, and arguably one of the best writing books I’ve ever read.

In fact, Cathy Rentzenbrink’s book is easily up there with On Writing by Stephen King, often considered the mainstay of required reading for any writer.

Aimed predominantly at newer writers, Write it all Down focuses on helping writers get past that need for perfectionism versus just getting words written down on the page. Through a four-part structure – Preparation, Excavation, Crafting and Editing, and Getting Work Done – Rentzenbrink guides the writer through the various difficulties (and joys) of writing.

Written through the lens of memoir writing, Write it all Down is a concise book at under 250 pages, with Rentzenbrink acting as a wonderfully supportive figure for aspiring writers.

But do not let this put you off if you are already an experienced writer. There are reams of observations on writing, delivered free of judgement or prescription, which any writer can enjoy and/or benefit from.

Meanwhile, Rentzenbrink also includes a number of fantastic writing prompts throughout, which I’ve experimented with and found success with every one. Phenomenal book for anyone interested in writing and the craft of memoir writing.

“Pandemics don’t approach like wars, with the distant thud of artillery growing louder every day and flashes of bombs on the horizon. The arrive in retrospect, essentially. It’s disorienting.”

Sea of Tranquility is a triumph of artistic brevity. 

In under 300 pages, Mandel’s sci-fi novel manages to feature time travel, interplanetary exploration, a pandemic, and a richness of characters most writers can only dream of – all without feeling imbalanced.

And in a subgenre where writers have a tendency to prevaricate and infodump lore, this is really impressive.

This is a compelling mystery about a time traveller, told through multiple perspectives, that culminates in a thrilling ending.

And the best part? It’s a complete story, told in a single book, instead of the painfully tiring trend of trilogies.

“Sometimes we don’t need advice. Sometimes we just need to hear we’re not the only one.”

A celebrity memoir? Hear me out. Greenlights is well worth your time.

A memoir lives or dies on its central philosophy. Rather than an abridged autobiography, memoir is a skilled art form with a specific theme or topic that (ideally) resonates with the reader. Author and YouTuber Jerry B. Jenkins puts it best when he says that “memoirs are reader-oriented”.

Enter McConaughey’s ‘greenlight’ philosophy.

In short, he poses the notion that life experiences throw up signs. Green lights that open up opportunities, and red or yellow lights indicate obstacles or major life challenges. McConaughey suggests that with resilience and  learning from experience, even red and yellow lights can eventually turn green. Ultimately, it’s all about perspective.

Now, coming from the wrong person, this might all sound a little trite. After all, someone struggling does not require a ‘wellness guru’ to tell them that life will get better at an indefinite time in the future.

Thankfully, McConaughey does not come across like this. Rather, coming from a famous actor who had an underprivileged upbringing, Greenlights is all about empowering the reader in all facets of their daily lives. 

Packed with charm, fun anecdotes, and a compelling underlying message, McConaughey’s Greenlights is box office stuff (pun intended) and truly worth your time. Especially the audiobook version – what a voice!

Special Mentions

The following books are a little different; one is out of print and the other is due to release in January 2024.

But both are well worth your time as and when you can get hold of a copy!

Christ on a Bike, by Orla Owen

Available from 24th January, 2024, Christ on a Bike is another phenomenal piece of fiction from indie outfit Bluemoose Books. 

Orla Owen, perhaps best known for PAH, has written an absolute corker here. In brief, a young woman named Cerys inherits a fortune from a total stranger, for the simple action of signing his condolence book. 

Christ on a Bike, by Orla Owen

But because we’ve got a novel to read, there’s a catch. Naturally. 

Cerys cannot share it with anyone, nor can she make any material changes to the property she must now live in, per a legal contract. It’s a great setup with an equally solid pay-off to a reader who sees this 250ish page gem of a novel to its conclusion.

I’ll be publishing a full review shortly, so keep an eye out for that!

The Art of Escapology, by Nicola Ashbrook

Nicola Ashbrook’s The Art of Escapology is a brilliant anthology of flash fiction tales. From a couple of lines to a couple of pages, each story is remarkably precise and packs a lot of depth into such a small space.

I reviewed The Art of Escapology earlier this year, commenting: 

“Small but mighty, it’s an 88-page anthology of highly impactful writing.”

If you’ve never read flash fiction before, this is a great place to start.

However…

Unfortunately with the publisher on hiatus, The Art of Escapology is currently out of print, so I can’t include it in my top 3 in good faith, if you can’t actually purchase it.

However, there’s talk of a return in 2024 for Bearded Badger Books, so here’s a link to the publisher’s listing in case it gets another print run!

What were your favourite books of the year? I’d love to read your recommendations, so please do leave them in the comments below!

The Chimp Paradox Book Review (by Professor Steve Peters)

The Chimp Paradox Book Review

‘It's not good or bad. It's a chimp’

Title: The Chimp Paradox
Author: Professor Steve Peters
Pages:
368
Published by: Ebury Publishing

The Chimp Paradox is a bestselling self-help book based on the Chimp Mind Management programme that has transformed the lives of many of its readers – notably in the field of sport psychology.

Steve Peters has worked with a number of sporting icons including Ronnie O’Sullivan and Chris Hoy (amongst others), before going on to work with Liverpool Football Club and the England national football team.

Self-help books tend to raise an eyebrow from this reader, but The Chimp Paradox presents a genuinely interesting psychological framework that is highly applicable to all readers.

What is The Chimp Mind Management Programme?

The Chimp Paradox posits a highly simplified metaphor for psychological theory. 

Essentially, our minds are divided into three categories: Chimp, Human, and Computer.

The Chimp

The emotion-led, primal part of our brain. The Chimp is about evolutionary instinct, self-preservation, and winning at all costs. It’s the ‘gut feeling’ one gets (which may or may not be accurate).

The Chimp's reaction speed is five times faster than the Human. Whilst The Chimp can be highly inappropriate in certain settings, it’s also important for survival.

After all, “It’s not good or bad. It’s a chimp”.

The Human

The Human is the rational part of our brain.

It’s highly logical, processes information as things are (rather than as we would like them to be) and ultimately wants a positive resolution for all parties.

The Human is the mediator, the social animal, and the ideal state for social situations.

The Computer

This is our pre-programmed behaviour. Essentially, it’s how our brain responds to things, without having to even think. For example, learned behaviour such as riding a bike, or unwritten social rules that we don’t think about - we just do.

The Computer allows us to act before the Chimp, which is preferable due to the Chimp's destructive tendencies. However, when adverse experiences are introduced to the computer, they can be harmful and difficult to remove.

The Chimp Paradox presents a number of means and methods to calm the chimp whilst ensuring its needs are represented. It also discusses how to keep the computer in healthy balance, removing unhelpful ‘gremlins’ and fostering socially beneficial ‘autopilots’.

Interestingly, it has a lot in common with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and also touches lightly upon trauma therapy, as covered in Bessel van der Kolk’s excellent book The Body Keeps the Score.

Is The Chimp Paradox a Difficult Book to Read?

Professor Steve Peters does an excellent job of making an incredibly complex field of psychology easy to follow.

The book also includes summaries of each section throughout, as well as practical ways to implement the theory. Its universal simplicity is brilliant – anyone can apply this logic to their own lives.

Some have criticised the book for its simplistic approach to psychology, but this is a fairly superficial point. Peters acknowledges this in the introduction and that The Chimp Paradox is a surface-level introduction to a much deeper topic.

Where the book can be criticised is its occasional lapsing into esoteric thinking. For example, Peters builds upon the Chimp / Human / Computer analogy by situating it within a cosmic universe. The ‘divided planet’ is where the human and chimp wrestle for control, whilst the ‘guiding moon’ is the computer that pulls the divided planet in the right direction.

It just about works, but it stretches the metaphor further than necessary, when the Chimp / Human / Computer explanation itself is fine.

Still, The Chimp Paradox is essential reading for those interested in personal development. If you’re an anxious person, quick to confront people, or feel like life is passing you by, this is a genuinely enlightening read.

Conclusion

There’s a reason that The Chimp Paradox remains a bestseller, many years after publication. It’s a compelling theory that anyone can use to improve their lives.

Whilst those with a qualification in psychology may find shortcomings in the theory, this is a book review – and as a book, it’s a very good read. 

Unlike some other self-help books, which border on smoke & mirrors, The Chimp Paradox is the real deal.

4/5