Read a Book and Put Your Brain to Bed.

reading-helps-you-sleep

Did you know that six minutes of reading before bed can help you sleep, dream and live better?

No? Well, neither did I but that’s not the reason why I read-before-my-bedtime routine anyway. I read because it helps me to relax and eases the day’s stress off my mind. But if you ask me, though, six minutes of reading is not enough. If I could, I would go for a whole day’s worth of thumbing through the pages instead!

Ever since my husband and I moved to a place of our own, for many months now we’ve fallen asleep to the sound of traffic zooming back and forth along the highway. It is rather unfortunate that our master bedroom window faces the highway. I’ve gotten quite used to falling asleep and waking to the noise; the growl of the motorcycles zipping by lull me to sleep, while the blaring honks of the trailers jolt me awake. It is quite a dilemma, really. But I’ve been having a problem that’s been occurring for quite some time now. I always feel tired when I’m out or getting ready to leave work and go home. But when I’m home, the sleepiness eludes me. I end up sleeping too late and waking up early, having to live out the rest of the day with less than the recommended 8 hours of sleep. I take naps, exercise regularly and keep myself hydrated at all times, yet I’m still tired.

That’s when I decided to make a resolution to leave the electronics for weekends and spend at least an hour reading before bedtime. And you know what? I realised that it works! How is that possible? Can reading really help you sleep better? I didn’t know that.

What I do know is that a decent night’s sleep will be a great boost for my skin, mood, brain function and health. Applying magical lavender-scented sprays on our pillows and downloading meditation apps may be wonderful ideas, but the trick of reading before bedtime is both easy to pull off AND requires little to no effort on my part. All I need is 6 minutes of reading to ease the tension of stress in my body. It is the quickest method to calm my nerves down compared to listening to music and/or brewing a pot of chamomile tea. Even psychologists believe the distraction of entering another fictional world can ease the pressure in our muscles which, in turn, helps to slow our heart rates down.

Of course, the sooner I de-stress, the faster my body can go to sleep. It makes sense then, I suppose, that reading Little Women results in better sleep and sweeter dreams than the stomach-churning plot twists of Sherlock Holmes. Instead of carrying around all the stress of the day, pick up a book before crawling into bed. It will assist you in letting go of the things hindering our minds and bodies from relaxing and sleeping well. It’s a way to forget about the stress of the day without completely zoning out of existence (athough reading does that to me anyway). You even get to kill two birds with one stone with reading. You get to relax and calm down while still getting an intellectual workout for your brain! So the more you read, the better your cognitive skills become and the more likely you are to retain information and have longer-lasting memories.

A research carried out by P. Matthijs Bal and M. Veltkamp titled How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy also found that reading fiction helps us to empathise with other people better, thus improving our social interactions. Reading forces us to put ourselves in the minds of others so we can understand their actions, sufferings and feelings better. Stories have a way of stimulating the same social interactions we have in reality, and they help to develop our interactive skills as well. Not bad for a simple activity like reading, eh?

So if you want to sleep, dream and live better, put down that TV remote, switch off your laptop, leave your smartphone on silent outside the confines of your bedroom and take a spot of fiction to bed with you.

Book Review: The Ice Cream Girls by Dorothy Koomson.

Synopsis by Goodreads:

As teenagers Poppy Carlisle and Serena Gorringe were the only witnesses to a tragic event. Amid heated public debate, the two seemingly glamorous teens were dubbed ‘The Ice Cream Girls’ by the press and were dealt with by the courts.

Years later, having led very different lives, Poppy is keen to set the record straight about what really happened, while married mother-of-two Serena wants no one in her present to find out about her past. But some secrets will not stay buried – and if theirs is revealed, everything will become a living hell all over again…

the-ice-cream-girls-by-dorothy-koomson-goodreads

No. of pages: 452 pages

Publisher: Sphere

Year: 2010

Setting: Brighton

Scanning through the book spines in the two bags that my friend prepared for me, I stumbled upon this also by Dorothy Koomson. I thought, “Wow, what a pretty book! Look at all the pastel colours on the front cover!” Well, I’d tell you not to be fooled by it. Because it is NOT what you think it’s about. It is NOT a sweet story. The story gets under your skin and makes you shiver in disgust at the idea of how much the two poor girls were manhandled by a man whom they looked up to and who should have been looking after them instead of taking advantage of them. There, I’ve said it.

Now let me tell you what it’s really all about.

About The Book

I’ll give you a fair warning. Remember when I said up there not to judge a book by its cover? Yes, really, don’t. Just because it looks pretty on the outside doesn’t mean it’s sweet and lovely on the inside. Don’t get me wrong, though. Whatever the case the book may be, it still is a rather captivating and inducing read.

The story of The Ice Cream Girls was told in two voices: 15-year old teenagers, Poppy Carlisle and Serena Gorringe with each name on each chapter, intertwining one another. Both girls had fallen in love with their teacher Marcus Halnsley, who was a handsome and charming man. Little did the girls know that Marcus had a much darker and more sadistic side which he’d revealed to the girls once they were both smitten with him. One thing to remember though. Poppy and Serena were never friends. In fact, they hadn’t known either of them existed until he decided to introduce them to each other for his own devilish reasons. They had only been mere 15-year olds when they found themselves completely and utterly head over heels in love with Marcus, who had used his position and seniority to control, bully and manipulate them to do his bidding. He literally controlled their behaviours, thoughts and actions. He manipulated their feelings and emotions. He bullied and beat them up if he thought they were misbehaving. Despite the torture and the abuse, the two girls found it difficult to turn and walk away.

Until one night, they had enough and fought back. The consequences that followed were devastating. Being the only two witnesses to the tragic event, Poppy and Serena were arrested, charged and tried in court, and were vilified and scrutinised by the press and the public. A photograph of the girls were found, which had been taken and staged by Marcus before he died. The photograph showed them wearing tiny bikinis and eating ice cream, which led to society branding them as ‘The Ice Cream Girls’. A court session later and their lives took vastly different paths. Poppy Carlisle had been convicted of murder and sent to prison. Serena, however, had been found ‘not guilty’ and released to live her life. 20 years later, Poppy emerges from prison on parole and decides to set the record straight. She still believes that she’s innocent while Serena was the one with the murder charge on her head and was determined to make her confess. Serena, on the other hand, is not willing to set foot anywhere near her past and wants to let the past remain firmly that way, in the past.

Dorothy Koomson did a great job with the book. Having intertwined the chapters with each alternate one bearing Poppy’s or Serena’s name. It was a little challenging for me because I had to make sure I know what I was reading or I’d get confused over who’s done what. The book threw up some questions, thought, about their innocence and defence. I thought it was hard to believe that either girl had been a murderer although what they went through would be questionable to their actions. Perhaps the author hadn’t wanted to focus too much on the court and trial process; her direction was to tell a story on domestic violence, child abuse and emotional manipulation.

What I Thought

Despite all that, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. The plot draws you in from the very beginning and leaves you desperate to know what happened that fateful night and whether the killer would be revealed. It was a beautifully-written novel; part crime, part thriller, part romance (although the last bit is questionable – how could it be romance if the person whom you’re in love with turns out to be a sadistic monster who preys on the young and innocent for the sake of his pleasure?). The author was spot-on with her chilling tale of lost childhood, manipulation, brutality and betrayal. The story itself had been laden with tension right from the start and you fall for it, hook line and sinker!

The book got under my skin from the first chapter itself and I usually don’t stay up late trying to finish reading a book, but when I do, I make sure the following day is a public holiday. I finished it early this morning at 5:00am so I can be here to tell you all about it. It is, as I said, a painful story on domestic violence, child abuse and emotional manipulation at its best. Imagine you’re a teenager only to have your life torn apart and changed forever when you meet a man like Marcus Halnsley. Although in reality, relationships between teachers and students aren’t something new. But they do occur and when they do, they’re not a pretty sight. Imagine being physically, emotionally and mentally abused by someone whom you thought was supposed to protect you and take care of you! Instead, he grooms you to be what he wants to see and love; he takes advantage of your innocence; he forbids you to have a social life outside of your relationship with him. And when you decide to end the relationship, you know it won’t be easy. That was how it was for Poppy and Serena.

Things got tense and took a turn for the worse. When they realised what they have done, it was too late to take it back. If they had stayed, he would have survived. Yet, neither of them could bear to let him live for fear that he would then turn around and destroy their lives. But they wouldn’t have known that he would die under the hand of someone else. Someone near and dear to him. Someone much closer to him than the two girls ever were. For that, Poppy was misjudged, accused and wrongfully jailed for 20 years in prison while Serena never overcame the fear and anxiety caused unto her over the years.

What would YOU have done, if you were in either of the girl’s shoes?

Paragraphs of Decadence from ‘The Chocolate Run’ by Dorothy Koomson.

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It’s been quite awhile now, probably more than two weeks that I last finished reading The Chocolate Run by Dorothy Koomson. It was truly an interesting and unique book. I loved it despite the endless drama by the quartet of friends (Matt and Jenna, Amber and Greg). What I loved especially about the book is the author’s ability in describing a character by attributing them to different kinds of chocolate. Then again, it could have been research but man, she must have done some pretty good research to know what chocolate suits which character!

These were what I unearthed while I was reading the book (and yes, I took snapshots of the chocolatey paragraphs that stuck out with me the longest). These were the confectionery descriptions that Amber Salpone doled out on some of the people she met (I’m only missing the one she :

When describing Jenna Hartman, Amber’s then-best-friend:

She wasn’t like any chocolate or sweet I’d ever encountered. She was one of those new chocolate bars that you settled on as you walked into a shop. Its wrapping was so effortlessly classy that it made everything around it seemed so gaudy and cheap. This chocolate was unique. It was real white chocolate. Not the creamy colour most white chocolates are but snow white. It had lots of cream and milk and white sugar but minimal cocoa. It was soft around the edges, very quick and easy to melt so you had to be careful how you handled it. And because of that, because of the element of risk involved, most people would ignore it, going instead for what they knew. Grabbing their Mars or Twix or Dairy Milk because when it came down to it, most people tended to stick to what was familiar. And under that white chocolate bubbled real champagne. Fun, refreshing champagne, an experience you wanted to last and last.

When describing Martha, Amber’s co-worker at the WYIFF:

I knew instantly that she was a fruit and nut. Something reliable, an old favourite you liked having around. She’d always be your favourite piece of confectionery, you’d always think of her if you were having a party or needed someone to talk to. She was unpretentious like the chocolate and sweet like the raisins in a fruit and nut. But Martha had an excess of nuts. The hard bits you weren’t expecting to encounter when you were chilling. The nut you could break your tooth on if you pushed it. You found that out very quickly because with Martha, what you saw was what you got.

When describing Matt, Jen’s boyfriend and fiance:

With Matt, it was toffee. He was in no way chocolate and all the sensuous delights it brought. Inside him, at the very core of his being was a lump of toffee. Something that had no depth. Under each layer was nothing but more toffee. Try as you might you’d find nothing but hard, unchanging, unadventurous toffee. Alright, it was made with the best ingredients: hand-spun butter, thick and gloopy cream from an organically-raised cow, top quality sun-grown sugarcane sugar, but it was still toffee. It was still unchanging. I liked toffee but there was only so much of it you can take.

When describing Renee, Amber’s manager at the WYIFF:

Renee was a brandy liqueur truffle, made with genuine French brandy. Classy inside and out. Smooth, pure, dark chocolate. Bitter on the outside and covered in cocoa powder. Once you bit into it, though, the brandy startled you. It was smooth, warming. It gently heated your throat, then your oesophagus, then your stomach. Once it got to know you, this brandy liqueur truffle had no kick. It might threaten it by being brandy, but in reality, it was smooth and loveable. You never forgot a real brandy truffle – its unusualness was always there at the back of your mind. And you never forgot Renee, no matter how hard you tried. 

When describing Greg Walterson, Matt’s best friend:

Greg had been created by someone who didn’t know when to stop; someone who when presented with top-quality ingredients, chose to endow one man with them rather than dishing them out fairly amongst the rest of the male populace. Greg’s eyes, for example, were like Minstrels, were like shiny discs of hard, dark chocolate. His hair was so black it was blue-black and hung like long curls of liquorice around his face. His slightly olive skin was lovingly moulded onto his strong bone structure. And his lips… his lips were as succulent as pink Jelly Babies.

I don’t know about you guys but anyone who uses chocolates to describe another person is my favourite kind of person! It goes to show that you really have to know your chocolates before slapping on a name or type of chocolate onto whoever you were describing! Simply and truly amazing. And now, it’s making me feel like raiding my refrigerator for a piece of chocolate.

Book Review: The Chocolate Run by Dorothy Koomson.

the-chocolate-run-by-dorothy-koomson-goodreadsNo. of Pages: 419 pages

Date Published: February 7, 2008 (first published March 25, 2004)

Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group

Author’s Website: Dorothy Koomson

So here’s the other book from the same friend who loaned me The Stepmothers’ Support Group by Sam Baker. Actually, that’s the same friend who loaned me two bags full of books to make up for my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge (since I only have 15 with me now). This one is called The Chocolate Run by Dorothy Koomson and you know what? After I finished the book, I realised how much it mirrored my life especially during my college years when I used to have a friend who was as bitchy and manipulative as Amber Salpone’s friend, Jenna Leigh Hartman.

Amber Salpone is not a chocoholic. She doesn’t gorge on chocolates nor does she bury her sorrows in packs of chocolates either. Amber is a chocolate sniffer; an individual who gets her kicks from sniffing chocolate, kind of like a glue sniffer, but she needs to her chocolate fix to think and make decisions. Amber compares everyone she meets to chocolate, from her boss Renee to Matt, her then best friend, Jenna’s boyfriend and fiance. Chocolate is a constant in her life, what we’d call her safety net. But she eventually learns that running to chocolate all the time is not always going to help her. As a reult of her commitment-phobic self, she has not been in a relationship for 18 months and she loves every moment of it. Yet, she cannot fathom why she is falling in love with Greg, her male best friend and epic womaniser! Curious, she decides to pursue this relationship with Greg, despite the barriers and personal issues. As she does so, she also realises that her best friend is slowly turning into a skinny, selfish and horrid person whom Amber doesn’t know anymore nor does she want to know either. There are some pretty dark secrets that Amber and her four friends harbour; secrets that threaten to tear apart what seemed like a great friendship. She will have to confront them one day and make her choices about who is her true friend and lover.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Amber Salpone doesn’t keen to keep ending up in bed with her friend Greg Walterson, but she can’t help herself. And every time it “just happens” their secret affair moves closer to being a real relationship, which is a big problem when he’s a womanizer and she’s a commitment-phone. While Amber struggles to accept her new feelings for Greg, she also realizes that her closeness to Jen, her best friend, is slipping away and the two of them are becoming virtual strangers. Slowly but surely, as the stark truths of all their lives are revealed, Amber has to confront the fact that chocolate can’t cure everything and sometimes running away isn’t an option… The Chocolate Run is a delectable tale of lust, love and chocolate.

About The Story

I liked the book to an extent, though like I said, it could probably be because it mirrored a lot of my life during my college years. This is my first book that I’m reading by this author and so far, it was a rather exciting and gripping tale. Each character had his or her story to tell and room to grow. The author wove the story in such a way that you would feel how the main character felt — when Amber was sad, you were sad too; and when her heart broke, so did yours. Renee and Martha, her work colleagues, were amazing supporting characters who added a dash of laughter, sarcasm and wit to the mix but were generally good people and probably better friends than Matt and Jenna.

Amber would have made a wonderful friend to Jenna had their relationship continued to go strong. However, beneath every greatness lies a deep, dark secret. Amber was damaged as an individual. Having survived her parents’ divorce, she was always running away from things that often looked like they had a capacity to hurt her and she couldn’t bear to think about the future. All she wanted was the ‘right here, right now’. She had what I had, a fight-or-flight response built into her and like yours truly, we both chose ‘flight’ as our response to when things got too tough for us. Eventually, however, it became frustrating to know that Amber was running away from some of the greatest things in her life but as a reader, I knew there was always a reason for her flaws.

But she did have someone else whom she could turn to when she was having an issue. That someone was Eric, her stepbrother whose dad fell in love and moved in with her mother. It was really interesting to read the many ways that Amber tried as she worked through her issues. Not just for Greg or with Greg but more so for herself. Despite being seen as strong on the outside, she was usually vulnerable and frightened on the inside. This book gave Amber more than enough space to grow from a meek individual into a strong and capable woman by the end of the novel.

As with every book, there was always someone setting himself or herself up to be hated and despised. In The Chocolate Run, it was Amber’s so-called best friend, Jenna. In fact, the more I read about her, the more she made me remember the friend whom I used to hang out with in college and hated every thing she did, the more I despised her! That’s what attracted me to the book in the first place. I’ve been in Amber’s situation before and I used to have a friend who started off being nice to me but eventually ended up as the most hypocritical person ever. Yet, no one could see this but me. That’s because she was great with others but when it came to me, oh boy, she could be downright critical and judgmental. I felt like a proud mother hen though when Amber realised what was really going on and how she dealt with the situation. She had more balls than me to end the friendship whereas I could not bring myself to tell the person that it was over between us. It felt extremely satisfying since I always hate it when a “bad” character in a book gets off with a caution or a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

What I Thought…

Personally, I thought that this was a very chocolatey story! It wasn’t too sweet and cliched for my liking. It just made me want to dive into a pot full of hot, smooth and silky melted chocolate. At first, when I learnt of how Greg Walterson was throwing himself at Amber, I thought, ‘Oh how lovely it must be to have a man throwing himself at you.‘ And not just any man, mind you, but a man who is a hit with the women yet he only wants to be with you.

Although, I believe alarm bells would go off in my head if I knew what sort of man he is: A serious womaniser. Would I still want to be with him? Would I trust him if he said he gave me his little black book and deleted all the women’s numbers in his mobile phone? Like I mentioned above, the book reminded me a lot about how I was always picking up after a friend who was too busy hooking up and getting hurt to realise how much of our friendship had been unravelled because of that. It was painful then and it is still painful now just thinking about it. The first question would be: Who comes first? Your best friend or your boyfriend? Assuming you knew both of them for around the same period of time. Then, the next question would be: What happens if your boyfriend thinks your best friend is taking you for granted but you don’t see it? What happens if your best friend thinks you’re abandoning her for your boyfriend? I know right?

Amber Salpone is a lot like me (and a lot of other girls or boys in this situation). We tend to overthink a lot and then get nauseous or headachey when things we thought so hard about began as trivial matters and ended up becoming big and complicated. But this is what reality is all about: Friendship torn apart by the drama and lust of love and relationships. It also reminds me of how much we value friendships to the point of being unable to choose between your significant other and your best friend. What we should have is a healthy balance of both, although more often than not, that’s easier said than done. But if I had a friend like Amber Salpone does in the book, I’d be more than ready to dump her and drop the friendship because with toxic friends like Jenna Hartman, you don’t need enemies.

Book Review: The Stepmothers’ Support Group by Sam Baker.

the-stepmothers-support-group-by-sam-baker-goodreadsNo. of Pages: 408 pages

Date Published: January 1, 2010 (first published August 20, 2009)

Publisher: HarperTorch

Setting: Present-day London

Alternative Title: The Other Mothers’ Club

Sorry for the long hiatus, guys. It has been a rather bumpy rollercoaster ride at the office and what with all the deadlines at work, I just couldn’t bring myself to do more writing at home. Also, because Chinese New Year is here and I just came back from a very eventful festive celebration and reunion at my dad’s hometown, I hadn’t been around to update my blog that much. But I do owe you all some book reviews now that I’ve finished two more books over the entire month of January.

The first of two books that I finished was The Stepmothers’ Support Group by Samantha ‘Sam’ Baker. To be honest, I never thought I’d actually read a book on parental guidance and children considering that I myself do not want any children (at the moment) nor do I feel ready to have any. But since this was loaned to me by a friend and recommended I guess, so I figured alright, why not I just give it a go?

And well, it wasn’t so bad after all.

Synopsis from Goodreads:

You can’t choose your family – but you can choose your friends! A heartfelt, warm and truthful novel about female friendship.

Eve has never imagined herself as a stepmother. But when she falls in love with Ian, he comes with a ready-made family of three children. And, to make matters worse, he’s a widower. The ghost of his glamorous and well known wife haunts them.

Clare, a teacher and single mother, is Eve’s best friend. She is the only person Eve can talk to about how on earth a journalist in her thirties can win round three wary children. But despite Clare’s years of practice with her own teenage daughter, it’s Lily, her younger sister, who provides the truly sympathetic ear.

Mel is sent along to Eve’s so-called ‘support group’ by a colleague. With a fledgling relationship and a new business to get off the ground, she has a very different set of pressures to the other women.

And Mandy is the stay-at-home mum, whose relationship comes with stepchildren, and who wants more than anything to stitch together a happy family life for herself, her kids and her new step-kids.

As a cup of coffee turns to a bottle of wine and the get-togethers become a regular fixture, conversations about new families evolve into ones about relationships, life and each woman’s deepest hopes and dreams. But the friendship is tested and feelings about lovers, husbands and step-children challenged when the five women are forced to confront new futures as well as unwelcome figures from the past…

About The Story

Personally, I’m in no position to talk about what it feels like to have a stepmother or about stepmothers in general since I come from a complete family. But from the way Hollywood portrays them and sometimes the media as well, it sounds as if stepmothers are a very bad lot and a wicked bunch of women hellbent on tearing apart the bonds between fathers and their children. But where Eve, Clare, Mandy, Melanie and Lily are concerned, there is no such thing as a wicked stepmother. And they are no wicked stepmonsters either. They are what you and me are in present time — different women from different backgrounds but with one thing in common: a stepmother link. They are either a stepmother already (Mandy), or want to be a stepmother (Melanie), or going to be a stepmother (Eve), or even had a stepmother in the past (Clare and Lily). Whatever it is, the stepmother persona had lingered over their heads.

The Stepmothers’ Support Group is an entertaining and poignant novel on what it means to form a family, become a parental figure, create new friendships and form attachments where you didn’t think was possible. The title of the book itself gives readers a clear idea on what they will read about in the novel. A chick-lit romance with kids thrown into the mix. The only difference is that the kids don’t often belong to both parents at once. I’m amazed that with so many families having step-parents and stepchildren, I’m surprised that it’s my first time coming across a book like this. Or perhaps there are others in the market but I never came across them.

What I Thought…

You don’t need to be a stepmother to enjoy a book like this and you don’t need to have children to understand the difficulties of being a parent. Just look around you; you are surrounded by strangers who are parents and your friends who have recently become parents. You just need to be a reader with the right set of emotions to enjoy this story of friendship, change and love.

The only thing I found ironic was like I mentioned above: I’m in no rush to have children nor do I feel like I want any (kudos to those who have and yes, I’m happy for you) but yet, here I am, reading this. And I did wonder if I’ll ever be ready to have one of my own. It’s on my mind but then again, so are many other things in life. Being a mother is a tough job but what happens if you’re a stepmother to someone else’s children? What if you had your own children from a previous marriage but you fall in love with someone else who also has his or her own children and all of you had to live under one roof? Oh boy. I also noticed one common theme in the book; that whenever there was a meeting, everyone would go to the nearest Starbucks, order coffees and exchange horror stepmother stories. Is Starbucks really that good?

So I thought the book kicked off a little slow at first but it wasn’t too bad once the action got in the way. I thought it was going to be another tearjerker novel with emergency alcohol and secrets on the forefront. But eventually the pace picked up a bit and things started falling into place, it started to look positive for the book too. And I guess when you think about it, stepmothers can be stepmonsters. Some of them though. Not everyone.