Podcasts to Change Your Life

Taking time for yourself with self-help can be just what your week needs

Podcasts have been my faithful companion for about a decade now. As I try and make life more organised and develop my productivity, I have inevitably come across a lot of self-help podcasts along the way. Here are the staples of my weekly podcast diet that can help you whatever you need!

YOU NEED A PEP TALK

Mel Robbins has a series on Audible Here’s Exactly What to Do about everything from stop worrying to having fun. She has this commanding voice and directive style that can really get you ready for action. Since they are standalone, you can relisten whenever you want to improve in certain areas.

YOU NEED PRACTICAL STEPS

No list of my favourite podcasts could be complete without Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast. The weekly actionable steps towards a happier life as well as problem solving nature really is helpful and fun to follow along with. Each week it comes up with helpful advice but also many of her books are invaluable. I always recommend her book The Happiness Project as a way of constantly reviewing life and making incremental changes each month.

YOU NEED A SENSIBLE STOIC

If you need something less practical and more philosophical, you can’t go wrong with some stoicism in your life. I recently become obsessed with the Daily Stoic, Ryan Holliday has a series of books based on his research on Marcus Aurelius. The ideas really gives us a way to live our lives. It links too with Essentialism that I have been working on recently as a way to see our time for those things that we value most.

Derren Brown, the master illusionist, psychologist, who always blows my mind, has an incredible podcast called Brain Camp for the Brain. Both explaining why we do things and what we can do to hack. I recommend him as a stoic because his amazing book Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Fine is also a must read for fans of stoicism. He covers both the history and how we can apply it to our lives.

YOU NEED TO THINK CRITICALLY

I love self help up and to the point where it can help and apply to my life but I also remain sceptical. Often the advice does not apply to real life: work a four-hour week, have a miracle morning or live in a magically tidied house are wonderful ideas but maybe they do not suit the economy you live in, the circumstances you are born into or the fact that you have children who need your attention.

So my favourite podcasts that take a critical and comedic slant are Go Help Yourself. Misty and Lisa review the book and give you insight and homework each week but also help us understand the biases that are often at play in these books.

I always devour By the Book episodes. Kristen and Jolenta live by different self-help books for two weeks and apply them to thei lives. Often their work exposes the unreality of these books and gives us also interviews which explain why the self-help industry is such an important part of history, particularly in the United States. Their book How to Be Fine: What We Learned from Living by the Rules of 50 Self- Help Books is a great place to get all the sensible advice.

Have you listened to any great self-help podcasts recently? I’m always looking for new ones!

REVIEW: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I loved this dark, postcolonial horror story.

After her family receives an odd letter, Noemi goes to rescue her cousin Catalina from whatever is disturbing her mind at High Place. From the book description…

Noemi’s chic gowns and perfect lipstick are more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she immediately heads to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is affecting her cousin.”

The gothic details of High Place caught me from the beginning. The old English family, the Doyles, use candles and oil lamps and only sparringly. The effect of the light and the details of the dusty mansion added to the creepy setting. As she describes the chapter three, the very house feels suffocating from the moment we see it in the lamp light that “… painted the velvet curtains green. In one or other of her stories Catalina had told her the Kublai Khan executed his enemies by smothering them with velvet pillows so there would be no blood. She thought this house, with all its fabrics and rugs and tassels, could smother a whole army.”

The setting informs us of the postcolonial tensions of this usurping English family, coming and infecting the land. Their wealth reliant on silver mines which have closed: the faded grandeur reminding me of Derek Walcott’s Ruins of a Great House. But it also serves the central mystery of the story as Noemi and Catalina both become more haunted by this house. It’s a clever setting that is both exactly what you might expect in a gothic tale but also highly unexpected as we get the final horror-filled reveal in the third act.

The descriptions in this novel are so brilliant. We, like Noemi, luxuriate in her clothes and feel the tensions between the family members whose stiff Victorian manners seem so out of step with this thoroughly modern Mexican woman.

I don’t enjoy books with sexual violence and the tensions between her and her cousins husband, Virgil, as well as his snake-like father Howard, are extremely uncomfortable. However I will say that the way these men try and exert their power serves the story so though it is uncomfortable, it becomes important. It is also part of Noemi finding her own agency as she fights back from the force taking over her mind and body.

Even more uncomfortable perhaps, though again really important to the story, is the racial profiling that Virgil and Howard use to talk about Noemi in particular. At dinner on her second night, Howard Doyle leers over her, just touching her hair as if to appraise her. His books too show her his fascination with what he calls “aesthetics” but what is really eugenics. The true-to-life white supremacist position the family seems to take, combines so well with the fantasy elements of the novel. We can both be horrified both by the colonial history and the dark twists of the novel.

I was so pleased to discover that Moreno-Garcia has written many other books: is there any other pleasure than finding a new author that you love! This book will be great for fans of Du Maurier’s Rebecca but also have a horror twist which reminded me of another book I reviewed, Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.

Do let me know if you have any other recommendations of great gothic reads!

REVIEW: Bunny by Mona Awad

The perfect (cotton) tale for anyone who has taken a writing class

Bunny by Mona Awad was one of those books I started thinking it was about University. A book for anyone who has ever braved a writing class and in a sense relatable, funny. I didn’t realise it was about to go to such a weird and dark place. The book it most reminds me of is The Secret History. Fans of Donna Tartt’s tour de force will definitely enjoy the fantastical elements of this novel and I do still feel like it will be a great read for anyone who is fan of this book but this turns out to be something quite different. As the synopsis says…

“Samantha Heather Mackey couldn’t be more of an outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. A scholarship student who prefers the company of her dark imagination to that of most people, she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort–a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other “Bunny,” and seem to move and speak as one.

But everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled “Smut Salon,” and finds herself inexplicably drawn to their front door–ditching her only friend, Ava, in the process…”

The small exclusive college is something I can relate to, having spend a wonderful year abroad at the beautiful Mount Holyoke. This sort of book suckers me in like my previous review of The Borrower, the New England connection always gets me interested! But really book doesn’t twist to interesting until after Samantha has attended her first Salon. She is scathing as she enters into their exclusive set. ” Their cheeks are plump and pink and shining like they’ve been eating too much sugar, but actually it’s Gossip Glow, the flushed look that comes from throwing another woman under the bus.”

It seems like a the book will turn into Mean Girls as she dumps her edgy friend Ava for the women who simper at each other, calling each other bunnies. In fact, Samantha’s perspective on all the women has this misogynistic tilt: categorising each into their type very rarely naming them . One woman so personifies a cupcake that she is consistently described as edible. But again the gothic girl, the preppy girl: these stereotypes seem as recognisable as the teen movies which apparently insists everyone only has one identity.

If you do find these tropes a bit frustrating, it’s worth sticking with the novel as it gets a lot more sci-fi in act two. As the group works towards their final projects for their MFA, they join forces to create the perfect work. The witchcraft or science fiction takes over at this point as they develop their stories (without giving away spoilers). Their experiments are horrific and we are so angry with this unlikeable group of women trying to craft their work that we are cheering for Samantha to return to her true friends.

Trying not to be scared, image on Flickr

But as we swoop into the final act, the shocks speed up as we try and figure the truth of Samantha’s role. We want to see her succeed, create her amazing work that is going to beat the entitled, unbearable women. Particularly as we see them gang up on her more and more. In the end they are her conscience who tries to bring her back to reality, The Duchess reminding her: “But it’s one thing to go to the edge. It’s another thing to fall off entirely, isn’t it?”

I’m going to say what I have seen a lot of reviews I read have said: I could not fully follow these final twists and turns. I had to re-read the final twenty pages of the denouement after I had raced to the finish. But unlike others who have either called this book “weird” or hated the sexism in the book, I’m going to say this is the book I have read this year that has made me think. I need to revisit it to fully understand it, to get into how Samantha’s warped perspective skews our understanding. Just like The Secret History, the central mysteries that drive the novel, mean you have to re-read this book.

To me this beautifully written novel is clever and cunning. It tries to teach us about writing while also subverting tropes we know so well. I read the book in February and I am still thinking about it which is a mark of how haunting it is. I would recommend this book if you have been to writing class not just because it’s a fun pastiche of attending an intense writing programme but because there are lessons to be learnt.

If nothing else it teaches us all the power of editing:, “I mean, you have to kill your Darlings, remember?”

In defence of audiobooks

As an English grad, I am horrified that I hardly read a physical book this year but audiobooks have been an essential in my life this year

Earlier this year, I shared how I have started to count audiobooks as reading. It still seems wrong to say but despite the fatigue and brain fog of long covid, I have read just shy of 50 books this year. Most of them are listens rather than read and some are also re-reads. But I have now fully convinced this is the best way to really appreciate a text and I am sad I have waited so long to consume books in this way.

The main reason I want to defend the audiobook is this is the year I finally “read” Anna Karenina. Now, I have battled through most of War and Peace and knew that I liked Tolstoy’s knowing narration, grand settings but until this year, I never made it through Anna Karenina. And I must admit I had missed out. The first modern novel, obsessed with it’s own modernity, attempting to understand the psychology of it’s tragic heroes as well of of course the new age dawning with trains and the death of feudal farming, I find this a deeply fascinating novel. I did know the ending, but I was deeply shocked when I got there. The depth of my investment in the relationships and the complexity are so rewarding for the reader. When I am reading a novel twenty minutes at a time, holding all the characters in my head, switching between the town and countryside is confusing to follow, particularly when my brain is fogged. Having a voice actor peform the audiobook, we gain so much in their characterisation and can more easily follow the changes in voice and place in the novel.

Finally read Anna Karenina

It has also been an amazing way to reread books. I’ve listed before books that I think it is worth rereading. I have enjoyed the comfort of revisiting Jane Austen and the Northern Lights series by Phillip Pullman. Though I know these books so well, you pick up extra elements on each reread and this was very much part of my enjoyment of revisiting these books on audio. The performance is adding to the nuances that you pick up on as you revisit favourite places like Pemberley or characters like the villainous Mrs Coulter

A friend recently asked me how I concentrate on audiobooks as she tends to realise she has drifted off. Well this is a danger and with the relistens is matters less because you know the story but as I have managed brand new books this year too, I think I must be able to concentrate. My secret if anything is that listening to the book is the activity rather than have it on in the background. With my fatigue condition I have been bone tired enough to rest for great parts of the day. Not always thankfully but I lot of the time I have needed to give my brain a break and as I wrote before, audiobooks have formed an important part of my active resting.

So as I go forward with a bit more energy and a lot of hope, it may be that audiobooks were just the thing that got me through 2021 and ill-health. But even if I don’t get this time again to rest and “read” I will forever now advocate for audiobooks as a great way to tackle books, particularly ones that you have put off for years.

Are you an audiobook fan?

Having a Reading Holiday

School’s out so it’s time for me to take a little break from the blog to rest and read

Wishing everyone a very happy holiday season. I’ll be back in the New Year which always gives me a new season of writing motivation. If you want some reading inspiration, I have shared my Winter reads and favourite Gothic fiction.

In the meantime, I am taking what time to read that I can and have picked up a fun mystery to complete my Goodreads challenge.

Shh! I’m reading!

Hope you get some reading time in too. I’ll be back in January to share more about my journey to explore creativity, hone my craft and write NOW!