Favourite Fiction vol. 1

Books don’t always need to be learning, sometimes the best thing they do is let you escape for a little while into another world and into another person’s story. Here are some of my favourite fiction books that I haven’t been able to put down (sometimes a few times).

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

This is now pretty common on lists of favourite fiction, and so it should be. Historical fiction, in particular, is something that is so incredible when it’s done well, making you believe the story taking place within the realms of something you already know to be true. This story is told from the perspective of death as the narrator during the holocaust and can only be described as hauntingly beautiful. It’s a personal favourite of mine, as we studied it in the 10th grade and our teacher had us write questions to the author. Little did we know, she sent the questions off and a few months later I got a personal response with a signed copy of the book which now sits proudly on my bookshelf as one of my favourite possessions.

“One was a book thief. The other stole the sky.”
― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

In doing this list I started to notice an obvious pattern that I tend to really enjoy WWII historical fiction a lot. This particular book was one of the first I read in a single sitting since I was a teenager. The story about the German invasion of France and the aftermath from the perspective of a blind French girl and a very clever German boy delves into the stories we don’t necessarily hear when we study history. The way it’s written just constantly leaves you wanting more and makes it impossible to put down once you’ve started.

“But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
― Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

The Martian – Andy Weir

It’s an awfully old trope that the film is never as good as the movie. The film adaptation is very much worth a watch but, as so many adaptations do, it misses out the best of the detail. Perhaps it’s because I’m an engineer and by proxy, very nerdy, but the book describes the way the character solves problems so cleverly, with parts of actual laugh out loud humour (especially dark in some places) to create a character that of course could only be portrayed by Matt Damon who needs to be saved once again.

“Yes, of course, duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshipped.”
― Andy Weir, The Martian

Middle England – Jonathan Coe

Although fiction, this story tells the tale of how Brexit came to be in the UK through the lens of many of the main types of protagonists that changed the outcome of the vote. It doesn’t sugarcoat and dives right into the microscopic consequences of one of the biggest referendums in history. Exploring how people’s day to day relationships with friends, families and other people we interact with can be so drastically affected by the divisive politics that engulfed the UK and the rest of the world while reminding us of the human element behind it all.

“You know she wanted you to vote the other way. It’s her future, you know. She’s the one who’s going to be around the longest.”
― Jonathan Coe, Middle England

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks

Like his films often do, Tom Hanks writes a collection of short stories that looks at the normal world but with a not so normal view. A great book for when you don’t have time to read a whole novel as each story is pretty easily read in one sitting. Nothing earth-shattering or “woke” that makes you question existence really, but some great stories and well-developed characters that make a perfect book for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

“Kirk, as his defensive stance, pulled out book after book, reading like he was a chain-smoker with a carton of menthols.”
― Tom Hanks, Uncommon Type

What are some of your favourite fiction books?

Books about mental health vol. 1

Two things have helped me manage my anxiety and depression above all else. Being honest about it with other people, and learning more about it. I’ve found certain books to help with that more than anything. Here’s five that I think might just help you too:

Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

This book will make you uncomfortable. The title itself brings forward the realities of struggling with suicide and mental health and throws it right in your face. Many people probably already know of it, and for those of you who haven’t yet read it, I strongly suggest you do. Matt gives a truly honest account of his struggles with mental health. The back and forth nature of him speaking to his past self brings optimism to even the darkest situations. It opens the doors into the depths of what the people’s darkest days might look like, without the glorification that fiction and films often give depression. The world needs more of this as it gives people with mental illness hope, and people without it understanding.

“To other people, it sometimes seems like nothing at all. You are walking around with your head on fire and no one can see the flames.”
― Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

The Brain: A User’s Manual – Marco Magrini

Ever since I started to understand mental health, the human brain has become more fascinating (and scary). While not specifically focused on mental health, this book gives a fairly technical yet humorous guide to the complexity contained within our craniums. Written in the guise of a user manual for a new product, it dives into the things we do and don’t know about how the brain works, why we react the way we do and the underlying reasons for it’s “malfunctions”. If you can get over the fact that reading this book is essentially your brain trying to learn more about itself, it makes for an excellent deep dive.

“Your brain is delivered to you pre-installed, so there is no need for complex connections or settings selections to make it work.”
― Marco Magrini, The Brain: A User’s Guide

Robin – Dave Itzkoff

There aren’t many celebrities that I can remember where I was when I found out they passed away. Gord Downie is one, David Bowie another, but Robin Williams will always stick out in my mind. Aladdin was one of the first films I saw as a young child, so Genie will forever be synonymous with Robin Williams for me. His ability to bring such joy to people through his work was superhuman. Reading this book and understanding the depth of what he was tormented by brings him back to earth a little while making all he achieved seem even more impressive. He wasn’t a perfect man but was driven by a want to bring happiness to others, not just on stage or on film. It’s a stark reminder to us all, that you never know what someone might be hiding beneath the surface.

“I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.”
― Robin Williams

The Little Book of Calm – Lucy Lane

This book may not have the depth of the ones above. It was gifted to me by another friend who struggles with mental health. I’ve found that while it certainly doesn’t offer answers, it serves as a really good anchor to bring you back from spiralling. For a while, during a particularly stressful and overwhelming part of my life, it was an anchor. I carried it in my backpack every day and used it as a means of settling back down. I would find somewhere quiet and read it from the beginning until I could feel my breathing return to normal. Even if that meant the toilet stall at work. Eventually, even just knowing it was there became helpful and although I don’t carry it everywhere anymore. It does, however, still have a spot on my bookshelf.

“After a storm, comes the calm”
― Proverb, the little book of calm

All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

I wouldn’t normally reach to fiction for anything mental health-related. It can often portray mental illnesses in a dangerous and glorified light. This book, however, is a short yet brilliant read. I’ve included it here not just because of the entirety of the book being great, but specifically for chapter five “the anxiety monster”. The author’s depiction of anxiety in a new situation, even a hopeful one, is so relatable. Even if you are just a lover of good fiction and beautifully descriptive writing, this book is worth a read.

“There are two ways to get rid of an anxiety monster, my friend – you either have a bath or a nap”
― Andrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes

An adventure in songwriting; take one

As Keith Richards put it, songwriting is a weird game. Coming from someone who has been a rockstar through the ’60s and ’70s, I’m sure he could write a book on weird games and with this one, he’s certainly right.

I’ve played the guitar for nearly fifteen years and I have a pretty substantial repertoire of songs I can confidently cover. What always eluded me was an original song that I was proud of. I’m not exactly musically gifted, and only know the basics of music theory from a few brief stints with a clarinet in grade school. Early attempts in my teenage years mostly yielded lame love songs, nearly all ended up crumpled up in the trash bin thankfully sparing the world from having their ears made bloody.

I’d largely given up on it for a long time and just continued on learning other people’s songs. That is, until one Sunday sometime last year when I was wandering through the Waterstone’s in Greenwich. A book by Frank Turner called Try This at Home caught my eye. I’d never really been into his music, but he often toured with one of my favourite bands, the Arkells, so I gave it a shot.

Not only did the book get me into his music, it sort of simplified the songwriting process for me. The book is a collection of anecdotes and stories as to how Frank wrote 30+ of his songs. I strongly recommend having a read for anyone attempting to write their first song, it taught me not to overthink the lyric writing process and to start with what I know.

Finding the lyrics

Around the time I found the book, I was in the middle of a bit of a rough patch. I was in the midst of job hunting as my job at the time was causing me a lot of stress, and several of my best friends had just recently moved overseas or otherwise abroad and a lot of that was on my mind. So I started writing it down. Some of it wasn’t rhyming or lyrical at all to start, just sentences on a page, but I found it got me started. Rather than having to write a verse, bridge, chorus or whatever, I pieced together a story one or two lines at a time and continuously re-arranged and re-wrote until it told the story the way I wanted it to.

What I got out of it was an honest biographical set of lyrics, much in Frank Turner’s style. Lyrics don’t need to be hopelessly cryptic or nuanced for people to relate, they just need to be real. This is what I came up with:

We were young and living in Brixton,
Nights spent out at Happy Dumplings,
Smoking joints in Brockwell park,
and cheap cigars when it got dark.

Life chats with the Killers,
Cause she’s just another girl,
Drinking ciders until dawn,
Or until the whole case was gone.

One day we’ll be grey and old,
And spread all across the world,
Thinking of those memories made,
In our South London days.

We’d stumble all the way,
Going to the bar and back,
But we’d never even leave,
The front door of our flat

Not exactly poetry in motion there, however, it gave me enough to start with. Even the more cryptic sounding things are really specific references to stuff we used to do when we lived in Brixton. For example, in the last verse, going to the bar and back without leaving the flat was in reference to a card game/drinking game my housemate and I used to play called Bar and Back and often resulted in us getting too drunk to make it out to the bar.

Finding the sound

Right, so now I had lyrics. Trying to add chords and the vocal melody was a BAD start. When I sent the first rough version to my dad, bless him, he came back with something along the lines of, “Great start, vocals could use some work though”. My advice here is definitely to keep it simple, stupid. Ultimately what ended up working was this:

  1. Make a list of all the songs you know how to cover.
  2. Write down what Key each of those songs is written in (you can usually find out just by googling the songs).
  3. Highlight which ones you find easiest to sing.
  4. Pick one of those keys. I picked the key of G.
  5. Identify the chords which sit in that key. For G, this was G(i), Am(ii), Bm (iii), C (iv), D(v), Em(vi).
  6. Start experimenting with common chord progressions and singing the lyrics over top. I originally started with I-V-VI-IV (G, D, Em, C) but found that the Am sounded better and ended up with G, D, Am, C

Once I came up with the chord progression, I essentially just kept playing and singing the song all the way through adding little flourishes and changes in volume and vocal pitch until I liked the way it sounded. It can be hard to separate the chords from vocals and create a melody at first but over time I found a natural place to separate them.

Don’t be afraid to fail

My last piece of advice, probably the most important one, is don’t be too hard on yourself. I think that was my biggest barrier for years, if a song wasn’t great right off the bat I’d drop it and get discouraged. You’re not setting out to be the Beatles, you’re writing a song because you want to learn how. In Macklemore’s song 10,000 Hours, the lyric goes
“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint
The greats were great because they paint a lot”

Even now, the “final product” of my first song is not something spectacular but I’m proud of it because I wrote it. It’ll never be more than something I play when I’m messing about or playing with my uncle, but it’s still something I did.

One piece of this I didn’t touch on, and will in a future post is how to begin recording vocals/guitar so you can play it back to yourself and hear in good quality how it is done.

Songwriting is indeed a weird game and we can’t all be Keith Richards, but hey, gotta start somewhere.

“Final” recording of the song “London Days”.

Books Every Traveller Should Read vol.1

Volume one of my favourite travel books.

Reading has always been a way to take yourself on a journey. For periods of otherwise boring days, you can be transported to magical lands, far off galaxies, or in the case of travel novels, all over this beautiful planet of ours. The best travel writers are the ones who can take you on the journey with them and ignite a fire to get back out there and visit somewhere new. Over the years I’ve read my fair share of books, especially travel-related, both the obscure and the must-reads. Scholars of travel writing will know these to be classics, however, they are classics for a reason and therefore I feel they are an essential place to start.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

There is something so elegant and civilized about train travel, especially in this day and age. Stunning rail stations conveniently located in city centres, lacking the aeroplane style boarding and with no need to wait for baggage at the other end, rail travel is the epitome of ease. Paul Theroux’s travel diary published in 1975 tells the story of train travel from the UK to south-east Asia and back again. Some of the world’s most famous rail lines, some of which don’t even exist anymore, are described in a compelling story that evokes the imagination of readers and makes you want to get on a train headed anywhere. My copy of this book is often a fixture of my weekend pack, often read on a train journey headed somewhere new, with anticipation for the next adventure on my mind and the view of the countryside speeding by.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.” 

– Paul Theroux

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The original American travel novel, first published in 1957, evokes a tale of self-discovery and carefree adventure across the US. Many travel quotes you find scrawled across hostels, maps and journals worldwide originated from this book, many of them prophecies to what today’s world of travelling has become. This story is not one of the conventional aeroplanes, hotels and restaurants, but one of the experiences of the true adventure of setting out on the road without even a destination in mind.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”

– Jack Kerouac

What Kind of Life by Jon Thum

This one is less of a widely considered classic but is my favourite of all. Jon captures perfectly the feeling of restlessness that encaptures a traveller as they return from home, pouring every effort they have into getting to the next adventure. His transparent storytelling conveys an honesty and an openness that even the best travel writing occasionally will omit. The book carries you through the early travels of his youth and into middle age as he struggles to leave the nomadic life behind, an all too relatable and emotionally conflicting experience.

“What great fortune it is to have such times in your life to reflect and take stock! How important it is to make way for it! 

Yet how few people, when burdened with the day to day or hand to mouth, can say with all honesty that this is something they possess? How many of us will keep marching onwards with no real grasp of the where or the why?”

– Jon Thum

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

In truth, nearly any one of Bryson’s books could be on this list. From A Walk in the Woods which details his hike along the Appalachian Trail in the eastern US to his all too honest Down Under which details his (mis)adventures and observations throughout Australia. Neither Here nor There is a travelogue story that interweaves his first experience travelling through Europe after college, and his attempt to recreate it twenty years later. All of Bryson’s stories are told with brilliant observations and witty humour with a sense of adventure in-between.

“Bulgaria, I reflected as I walked back to the hotel, isn’t a country; it’s a near-death experience.”

– Bill Bryson

Anyone of these reads will inspire you to set off on your next adventure and are only just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel writing that is essential reading. I will be making these a regular post as I come across more books, articles and stories that I think every traveller would enjoy. If you have a suggestion for writing you think is a must-read, comment and I will happily check it out!

– Ryan